The Cold Embrace
Mary E. Braddon
HE was an artist--such things as happened to him happen
sometimes to artists.
He was a German--such things as happened to
him happen sometimes to Germans.
He was young, handsome, studious,
enthusiastic, metaphysical, reckless, unbelieving,
And being young, handsome and eloquent, he
He was an orphan, under the guardianship of
his dead father's brother, his uncle Wilhelm, in whose house
he had been brought up from a little child; and she who
loved him was his cousin--his cousin Gertrude, whom he swore
he loved in return.
Did he love her? Yes, when he first swore
it. It soon wore out, this passionate love; how threadbare
and wretched a sentiment it became at last in the selfish
heart of the student! But in its golden dawn, when he was
only nineteen, and had just returned from his apprenticeship
to a great painter at Antwerp, and they wandered together in
the most romantic outskirts of the city at rosy sunset, by
holy moonlight, or bright and joyous morning, how beautiful
They keep it a secret from Wilhelm, as he has
the father's ambition of a wealthy suitor for his only
child--a cold and dreary vision beside the lover's dream.
So they are betrothed; and standing side by
side when the dying sun and the pale rising moon divide the
heavens, he puts the betrothal ring upon her finger, the
white and taper finger whose slender shape he knows so well.
This ring is a peculiar one, a massive golden serpent, its
tail in its mouth, the symbol of eternity; it had been his
mother's, and he would know it amongst a thousand. If he
were to become blind tomorrow, he could select it from
amongst a thousand by the touch alone.
He places it on her finger, and they swear to
be true to each other for ever and ever--through trouble and
danger--sorrow and change--in wealth or poverty. Her father
must needs be won to consent to their union by and by, for
they were now betrothed, and death alone could part them.
But the young student, the scoffer at
revelation, yet the enthusiastic adorer of the mystical,
"Can death part us? I would return to you
from the grave, Gertrude. My soul would come back to be
near my love. And you--you, if you died before me--the cold
earth would not hold you from me; if you loved me, you would
return, and again these fair arms would be clasped round my
neck as they are now."
But she told him, with a holier light in her
deep-blue eyes than had ever shone in his--she told him that
the dead who die at peace with God are happy in heaven, and
cannot return to the troubled earth; and that it is only the
suicide--the lost wretch on whom sorrowful angels shut the
door of Paradise--whose unholy spirit haunts the footsteps
of the living.
The first year of their betrothal is passed,
and she is alone, for he has gone to Italy, on a commission
for some rich man, to copy Raphaels, Titians, Guidos, in a
gallery at Florence. He has gone to win fame, perhaps; but
it is not the less bitter--he is gone!
Of course her father misses his young nephew,
who has been as a son to him; and he thinks his daughter's
sadness no more than a cousin should feel for a cousin's
In the meantime, the weeks and months pass.
The lover writes--often at first, then seldom--at last, not
How many excuses she invents for him! How
many times she goes to the distant little post-office, to
which he is to address his letters! How many times she
hopes, only to be disappointed! How many times she
despairs, only to hope again!
But real despair comes at last, and will not
be put off any more. The rich suitor appears on the scene,
and her father is determined. She is to marry at once. The
wedding-day is fixed--the fifteenth of June.
The date seems to burn into her brain.
The date, written in fire, dances for ever
before her eyes.
The date, shrieked by the Furies, sounds
continually in her ears.
But there is time yet--it is the middle of
May--there is time for a letter to reach him at Florence;
there is time for him to come to Brunswick, to take her away
and marry her, in spite of her father--in spite of the whole
But the days and the weeks fly by, and he
does not write--he does not come. This is indeed despair
which usurps her heart, and will not be put away.
It is the fourteenth of June. For the last
time she goes to the little post-office; for the last time
she asked the old question, and they give her for the last
time the dreary answer, "No; no letter."
For the last time--for tomorrow is the day
appointed for the bridal. Her father will hear no
entreaties; her rich suitor will not listen to her prayers.
They will not be put off a day--an hour; to-night alone is
hers--this night, which she may employ as she will.
She takes another path than that which leads
home; she hurries through some by-streets of the city, out
on to a lonely bridge, where he and she had stood so often
in the sunset, watching the rose-coloured light glow, fade,
and die upon the river.
* * *
He returns from Florence. He had received
her letter. That letter, blotted with tears, entreating,
despairing--he had received it, but he loved her no longer.
A young Florentine, who has sat to him for a model, had
bewitched his fancy--that fancy which with him stood in
place of a heart--and Gertrude had been half-forgotten. If
she had a rich suitor, good; let her marry him; better for
her, better far for himself. He had no wish to fetter
himself with a wife. Had he not his art always?--his
eternal bride, his unchanging mistress.
Thus he thought it wiser to delay his journey
to Brunswick, so that he should arrive when the wedding was
over--arrive in time to salute the bride.
And the vows--the mystical fancies--the
belief in his return, even after death, to the embrace of
his beloved? O, gone out of his life; melted away for ever,
those foolish dreams of his boyhood.
So on the fifteenth of June he enters
Brunswick, by that very bridge on which she stood, the stars
looking down on her, the night before. He strolls across
the bridge and down by the water's edge, a great rough dog
at his heels, and the smoke from his short meerschaum-pipe
curling in blue wreaths fantastically in the pure morning
air. He has his sketch-book under his arm, and attracted
now and then by some object that catches his artist's eye,
stops to draw: a few weeds and pebbles on the river's
brink--a crag on the opposite shore--a group of pollard
willows in the distance. When he has done, he admires his
drawing, shuts his sketch-book, empties the ashes from his
pipe, refills from his tobacco-pouch, sings the refrain of a
gay drinking-song, calls to his dog, smokes again, and walks
on. Suddenly he opens his sketch-book again; this time that
which attracts him is a group of figures: but what is it?
It is not a funeral, for there are no
It is not a funeral, but a corpse lying on a
rude bier, covered with an old sail, carried between two
It is not a funeral, for the bearers are
fishermen--fishermen in their everyday garb.
About a hundred yards from him they rest
their burden on a bank--one stands at the head of the bier,
the other throws himself down at the foot of it.
And thus they form the perfect group; he
walks back two or three paces, selects his point of sight,
and begins to sketch a hurried outline. He has finished it
before they move; he hears their voices, though he cannot
hear their words, and wonders what they can be talking of.
Presently he walks on and joins them.
"You have a corpse there, my friends?" he
"Yes; a corpse washed ashore an hour ago."
"Yes, drowned. A young girl, very handsome."
"Suicides are always handsome," says the
painter; and then he stands for a little while idly smoking
and meditating, looking at the sharp outline of the corpse
and the stiff folds of the rough canvas covering.
Life is such a golden holiday for him--young,
ambitious, clever--that it seems as though sorrow and death
could have no part in his destiny.
At last he says that, as this poor suicide is
so handsome, he should like to make a sketch of her.
He gives the fishermen some money, and they
offer to remove the sailcloth that covers her features.
No; he will do it himself. He lifts the
rough, coarse, wet canvas from her face. What face?
The face that shone on the dreams of his
foolish boyhood; the face which once was the light of his
uncle's home. His cousin Gertrude--his betrothed!
He sees, as in one glance, while he draws one
breath, the rigid features--the marble arms--the hands
crossed on the cold bosom; and, on the third finger of the
left hand, the ring which had been his mother's--the golden
serpent; the ring which, if he were to become blind, he
could select from a thousand others by the touch alone.
But he is a genius and a
metaphysician--grief, true grief, is not for such as he.
His first thought is flight--flight anywhere out of that
accursed city--anywhere far from the brink of that hideous
river--anywhere away from remorse--anywhere to forget.
* * *
He is miles on the road that leads away from
Brunswick before he knows that he has walked a step.
It is only when his dog lies down panting at
his feet that he feels how exhausted he is himself, and sits
down upon a bank to rest. How the landscape spins round and
round before his dazzled eyes, while his morning's sketch of
the two fishermen and the canvas-covered bier glares redly
at him out of the twilight.
At last, after sitting a long time by the
roadside, idly playing with his dog, idly smoking, idly
lounging, looking as any idle, light-hearted travelling
student might look, yet all the while acting over that
morning's scene in his burning brain a hundred times a
minute; at last he grows a little more composed, and tries
presently to think of himself as he is, apart from his
cousin's suicide. Apart from that, he was no worse off than
he was yesterday. His genius was not gone; the money he had
earned at Florence still lined his pocket-book; he was his
own master, free to go whither he would.
And while he sits on the roadside, trying to
separate himself from the scene of that morning--trying to
put away the image of the corpse covered with the damp
canvas sail--trying to think of what he should do next,
where he should go, to be farthest away from Brunswick and
remorse, the old diligence coming rumbling and jingling
along. He remembers it; it goes from Brunswick to
He whistles to the dog, shouts to the
postillion to stop, and springs into the coupé.
During the whole evening, through the long
night, though he does not once close his eyes, he never
speaks a word; but when morning dawns, and the other
passengers awake and begin to talk to each other, he joins
in the conversation. He tells them that he is an artist,
that he is going to Cologne and to Antwerp to copy Rubenses,
and the great picture by Quentin Matsys, in the museum. He
remembered afterwards that he talked and laughed
boisterously, and that when he was talking and laughing
loudest, a passenger, older and graver than the rest, opened
the window near him, and told him to put his head out. He
remembered the fresh air blowing in his face, the singing of
the birds in his ears, and the flat fields and roadside
reeling before his eyes. He remembered this, and then
falling in a lifeless heap on the floor of the diligence.
It is a fever that keeps him for six long
weeks on a bed at a hotel in Aix-la-Chapelle.
He gets well, and, accompanied by his dog,
starts on foot for Cologne. By this time he is his former
self once more. Again the blue smoke from his short
meerschaum curls upwards in the morning air--again he sings
some old university drinking song--again stops here and
there, meditating and sketching.
He is happy, and has forgotten his
cousin--and so on to Cologne.
It is by the great cathedral he is standing,
with his dog at his side. It is night, the bells have just
chimed the hour, and the clocks are striking eleven; the
moonlight shines full upon the magnificent pile, over which
the artist's eye wanders, absorbed in the beauty of form.
He is not thinking of his drowned cousin, for
he has forgotten her and is happy.
Suddenly some one, something from behind him,
puts two cold arms round his neck, and clasps its hands on
And yet there is no one behind him, for on
the flags bathed in the broad moonlight there are only two
shadows, his own and his dog's. He turns quickly
round--there is no one--nothing to be seen in the broad
square but himself and his dog; and though he feels, he
cannot see the cold arms clasped round his neck.
It is not ghostly, this embrace, for it is
palpable to the touch--it cannot be real, for it is
He tries to throw off the cold caress. He
clasps the hands in his own to tear them asunder, and to
cast them off his neck. He can feel the long delicate
fingers cold and wet beneath his touch, and on the third
finger of the left hand he can feel the ring which was his
mother's--the golden serpent--the ring which he has always
said he would know among a thousand by the touch alone. He
knows it now!
His dead cousin's cold arms are round his
neck--his dead cousin's wet hands are clasped upon his
breast. He asks himself if he is mad. "Up, Leo!" he
shouts. "Up, up, boy!" and the Newfoundland leaps to his
shoulders--the dog's paws are on the dead hands, and the
animal utters a terrific howl, and springs away from his
The student stands in the moonlight, the dead
arms around his neck, and the dog at a little distance
Presently a watchman, alarmed by the howling
of the dog, comes into the square to see what is wrong.
In a breath the cold arms are gone.
He takes the watchman home to the hotel with
him and gives him money; in his gratitude he could have
given the man half his little fortune.
Will it ever come to him again, this embrace
of the dead?
He tries never to be alone; he makes a
hundred acquaintances, and shares the chamber of another
student. He starts up if he is left by himself in the
public room of the inn where he is staying, and runs into
the street. People notice his strange actions, and begin to
think that he is mad.
But, in spite of all, he is alone once more;
for one night the public room being empty for a moment, when
on some idle pretence he strolls into the street, the street
is empty too, and for the second time he feels the cold arms
round his neck, and for the second time, when he calls his
dog, the animal shrinks away from him with a piteous howl.
After this he leaves Cologne, still
travelling on foot--of necessity now, for his money is
getting low. He joins travelling hawkers, he walks side by
side with labourers, he talks to every foot-passenger he
falls in with, and tries from morning till night to get
company on the road.
At night he sleeps by the fire in the kitchen
of the inn at which he stops; but do what he will, he is
often alone, and it is now a common thing for him to feel
the cold arms around his neck.
Many months have passed since his cousin's
death--autumn, winter, early spring. His money is nearly
gone, his health is utterly broken, he is the shadow of his
former self, and he is getting near to Paris. He will reach
that city at the time of the Carnival. To this he looks
forward. In Paris, in Carnival time, he need never, surely,
be alone, never feel that deadly caress; he may even recover
his lost gaiety, his lost health, once more resume his
profession, once more earn fame and money by his art.
How hard he tries to get over the distance
that divides him from Paris, while day by day he grows
weaker, and his step slower and more heavy!
But there is an end at last; the long dreary
roads are passed. This is Paris, which he enters for the
first time--Paris, of which he has dreamed so much--Paris,
whose million voices are to exorcise his phantom.
To him to-night Paris seems one vast chaos of
lights, music, and confusion--lights which dance before his
eyes and will not be still--music that rings in his ears and
deafens him--confusion which makes his head whirl round and
But, in spite of all, he finds the
opera-house, where there is a masked ball. He has enough
money left to buy a ticket of admission, and to hire a
domino to throw over his shabby dress. It seems only a
moment after his entering the gates of Paris that he is in
the very midst of all the wild gaiety of the opera-house
No more darkness, no more loneliness, but a
mad crowd, shouting and dancing, and a lovely Débardeuse
hanging on his arm.
The boisterous gaiety he feels surely is his
old light-heartedness come back. He hears the people round
him talking of the outrageous conduct of some drunken
student, and it is to him they point when they say this--to
him, who has not moistened his lips since yesterday at noon,
for even now he will not drink; though his lips are parched,
and his throat burning, he cannot drink. His voice is thick
and hoarse, and his utterance indistinct; but still this
must be his old light-heartedness come back that makes him
so wildly gay.
The little Débardeuse is wearied out--her arm
rests on his shoulder heavier than lead--the other dancers
one by one drop off.
The lights in the chandeliers one by one die
The decorations look pale and shadowy in that
dim light which is neither night nor day.
A faint glimmer from the dying lamps, a pale
streak of cold grey light from the new-born day, creeping in
through half-opened shutters.
And by this light the bright-eyed Débardeuse
fades sadly. He looks her in the face. How the brightness
of her eyes dies out! Again he looks her in the face. How
white that face has grown! Again--and now it is the shadow
of a face alone that looks in his.
Again--and they are gone--the bright eyes,
the face, the shadow of the face. He is alone; alone in
that vast saloon.
Alone, and, in the terrible silence, he hears
the echoes of his own footsteps in that dismal dance which
has no music.
No music but the beating of his breast. The
the cold arms are round his neck--they whirl him round, they
will not be flung off, or cast away; he can no more escape
from their icy grasp than he can escape from death. He
looks behind him--there is nothing but himself in the great
empty salle; but he can feel--cold, deathlike, but O, how
palpable!--the long slender fingers, and the ring which was
He tries to shout, but he has no power in his
burning throat. The silence of the place is only broken by
the echoes of his own footsteps in the dance from which he
cannot extricate himself. Who says he has no partner? The
cold hands are clasped on his breast, and now he does not
shun their caress. No! One more polka, if he drops down
The lights are all out, and, half an hour
after, the gendarmes come in with a lantern to see that the
house is empty; they are followed by a great dog that they
have found seated howling on the steps of the theatre. Near
the principal entrance they stumble over--
The body of a student, who has died from want
of food, exhaustion, and the breaking of a blood-vessel.