The Cloven Heart by Mollie Evelyn Moore Davis
IT was morning in the rose-hedged garden. The gardener, a dark-visaged old man, with strangely gleaming, deep-sunken eyes, and quick,
adder-like movements, had just unearthed from among the roots of a
stunted bitter-almond tree a small wooden box. It lay in the hollow of
his hand. The carved lid was fastened with hasps of rusty metal. He was
showing it to his companion.
She was a tall, slender woman, clad in a coarse, loose-sleeved robe,
which aimed to hide but rather emphasized the fine outlines of her
figure. Her blue eyes, beneath heavy, black-fringed lids, were sad—
the eyes of one who had lived through an infinity of suffering or
unsatisfied longing. Her forehead was banded with white linen; a veil,
drawn over her head and under her throat, shaded her face, which was
young, calm, and singularly joyless.
She looked silently on while the old man brushed the mould from the
box with his fingers and pried open the rotting lid. A handful of
ancient gold coins lay within; underneath them were some jewels in
tarnished silver setting, and a ring of clumsy workmanship, on whose
dull-blue signet-stone was cut an odd device—a rosary drawn through a
The woman eyed the gold incuriously. “It may be used in payment for
glass in the oriel,” she said, lifting her eyes to a crumbling tower of
the building which flanked the garden.
The gardener stooped, laying hold of the gnarled almond-tree to set
it in its place—for a heavy wind had overblown it in the night. But
he straightened himself abruptly, arrested by a half-whisper which
dropped from the woman's lips. It was spoken in a strange tongue, with
long, caressing syllables and curious inflections.
The shadow of a crumbling tower fell over the spot where they stood.
At the farther end of the large garden three young girls were walking
to and fro along a sunlighted walk. Their low voices sounded in the
distance like the murmur of bees.
With head averted the gardener listened while the mistress spoke
long and rapidly. Her speech had in it the subtle monotony of the
Eastern juggler's incantation when he causes a seed to swell and burst
and spring into a tree before the eyes of the spectator, waving his
hand the while, and fanning the budding leaves with a branch of faded
When she had concluded the old man replied briefly in the same
tongue. There was a tone of awed entreaty in his voice. A fire shot
into her blue eyes, and her slight form stiffened haughtily. He
crouched to her feet and kissed the hem of her coarse gown. She dropped
the antique coins into his outstretched palm and turned away.
The young girls made a deep obeisance as she passed them. She
entered the high Gothic doorway, and moved slowly towards a dim point
of light which shone in the shadows beyond a fretwork of marble. Her
hands, grasping the jewels, were covered by her long, flowing sleeves.
A carriage stopped before a tall brick mansion fronting on a side
street of the city. A sign above the arched entrance showed the house
to be a hotel; a crowd of well-dressed idlers on the veranda testified
to its importance. These looked down curiously as the carriage drew up
at the steps, and its single occupant—a woman—leaned forward. The
electric light—for it was long past the close of the short winter day
—fell upon her muffled figure and veiled face. The maskers in the
street, excited by the mumming and merriment of the Carnival, pressed
against the carriage wheels. The obsequious attendant who had come out
of the hotel laid his hand on the carriage door. He was thrust aside by
the proprietor, who assisted his guest to alight. His manner indicated
that special orders had been given for her reception. He offered her
his arm with a show of gallantry; she waved him aside without speaking,
and signed him to precede her up the broad steps. She followed him with
an air in which timidity and assurance were strangely blended.
The room into which she was conducted was large, and richly though
quietly furnished. It was faintly illuminated by candles burning in
silver sconces. The polished floor was overlaid with heavy rugs; the
carved furniture was of a quaint, old-fashioned pattern.
On a low couch placed within a curtained alcove was spread a
profusion of women's garments, exquisite in color and texture.
The woman, on entering, closed the door and walked to one of the
gilt-framed mirrors set in the wall. She removed her veil and gazed
long and fixedly at her own image, which looked back at her with
steady, unsmiling eyes. Her bosom heaved. She snatched the veil across
her face and stumbled towards the door; but her eyes caught the gleam
of silk and lace on the couch, and she stopped, trembling, and began to
unloose the clasps of her dark mantle.
A little before midnight the gayly decorated salon hard
by began to fill, and presently a carnival rout was in full swing
there. It differed little in outward appearance from other pre-Lenten
revels. There were few maskers, and these were gravely decorous beneath
their masks and dominoes. The inexperienced observer would have failed
to detect an almost imperceptible undercurrent—the innuendo lurking
beneath the jest, the covert meaning behind a rapid interchange of
glances, the quick signal given and returned in the passing crowd.
A group of young men in faultless evening-dress stood, during an
interval of the dance, near the ball-room door. Most of them had a
blasé expression; nearly all showed signs of recent
dissipation. One only—a clean-shaven, handsome, ruddy-faced young
fellow of twenty-five or so—seemed fresh and unworn. He was
apparently unknown to the others, who looked at him with an amused
contempt not unmixed with envy.
He had been dancing—a little awkwardly, it is true, but with an
abandon and gallantry which made the tired nerves of his dancer thrill
as they had not thrilled for many a long year. He was looking about him
now eagerly, as if making mental choice of a partner for the waltz
whose lazy tones were beginning to pulse upon the air.
At that moment a woman came down the narrow entrance-hall, unwinding
from her head, as she approached the door, a filmy lace scarf. It was
the same woman who had alighted at dusk from her carriage at the door
of the hotel in a neighboring street.
She was extraordinarily and strangely beautiful in her ball-dress.
This was composed of heavy, dull-yellow satin, foamy about the foot
with lace so old as to be nearly the same color. A band of gold was
fastened about the slim waist with an agraffe of diamonds sunk deep in
unpolished silver. Clasps of the same jewels held together the narrow
shoulder-bands of the low corsage, which left her perfect neck and arms
bare. Her black hair was cut close, giving a singularly proud look to
her erect, well-shaped head. Her blue eyes wore a startled,
half-expectant expression, her red lips were parted, her bosom rose and
An open murmur of admiration greeted this dazzling apparition. She
pressed forward as if to taste it to the full, though at the same time
a burning blush suffused her pale face and dyed her neck and bosom. It
was as if the Angel of the Flesh shrank from that which the spirit
within ardently desired. She stopped abruptly, passing her hands along
her arms like one who draws down a long sleeve.
This movement was so constantly and apparently so unconsciously
repeated during the evening that the spectators remarked it and
commented wonderingly upon it.
Several of the young men near the ball-room door sprang forward to
meet her. But it was the clean-shaven young stranger who first reached
her side. He made scant ceremony of invitation, but placing his arm
about her waist, he drew her into the circle of dancers. She quivered
visibly at his touch, and again the red passed like a wave over her
white skin. Then a soft yielding smile dawned into her eyes, and her
slight form swayed to his embrace.
The onlookers followed their movements with cynical, fascinated
eyes. They danced with the charming, untaught grace of children. The
waltz, at first rhythmic and languid, grew hurried. The dancers swept
by in circles, which changed like the figures in a kaleidoscope. The
sound of so many light feet on the smooth floor was like the shoreward
rush of foamy waves. The air throbbed. When the music ceased, with a
shrill clash, the frenzied waltzers reeled in their places, looking
about them with dazed eyes, and laughing foolishly.
The woman in the dull-yellow gown and the clean-shaven stranger were
no longer among them. They had passed, dancing, through one of the
long, open windows, to the veranda outside. There was a tangled close
below, where the shadows of the vines on the walks were heavy in the
A mocking-bird was singing in the Spanish-dagger tree in a corner of
the close. It fell suddenly silent.
In the old garden it was still dark, though a hint of dawn thrilled
There was a whir of wheels on the road outside; a carriage stopped,
and then crawled away, its lights shining like baleful fires in the
Two persons came in at the small wicket cut in the high, enclosing
wall. They were the gardener and the woman. Her forehead was banded
with linen, and her coarse, dark robe trailed on the dew-wet walk.
The old man trembled so that he could hardly dig a place at the foot
of the bitter-almond tree to receive the little carved box. The woman
threw into the box, with a gesture of loathing, the jewels which she
carried in her hands, and the money left from that which the gardener
had obtained in exchange for the antique coins. He heaped the sod upon
the box and pressed it down with his foot. Then he stood still with his
arms hanging at his side, his face turned to hers in the darkness.
The moments passed; the moist leaves rustled to the chill breeze; a
bird in an orange-tree twittered dreamily.
At length she spoke—always in the curious foreign tongue; but the
glow and the heart-beat were gone from it, and the sound of it was dull
and lifeless. She seemed to be relating some story in which there was
shame and anguish for them both; for she twisted her hands wildly as
she spoke, and the old man wept, with his arms hanging at his side.
When she had finished she writhed to his feet and lay prone with her
face on the ground, her dark mantle covering her like a pall.
He lifted her, and sought with soothing whispers to draw her towards
the wicket. But she put him aside, suddenly imperious. A single word of
command came from her ashen lips.
The old gardener put his hand to his bosom and drew forth a small
packet. He laid it in her palm, and, prostrating himself, he placed her
sandalled foot upon his neck. Then he arose, and passed, without a
backward glance, through the gate in the wall. The woman crossed the
garden and entered the Gothic doorway. She felt her way towards the
small point of light which burned steadily in the thick darkness beyond
the fretwork of marble.
The next day—it was Ash-Wednesday—the dim aisles rang with cries
of mourning. For the young Mistress had died during the night in the
great hall. There they had found her kneeling, quite stiff and cold,
with her forehead pressed against the marble fretwork.
The awe-struck young girls gathered about the bier and gazed,
weeping, upon her beautiful, saint-like face.
The bell in the crumbling tower tolled the livelong day.
At sunset of the same day a clean-shaven young man, on the farther
side of the old city, walked up and down a flower-set alleyway. His
dark gown brushed the low hedge; the shadow of lichened walls fell
athwart his path. He was reading from a small book, but ever and anon a
vague smile came into his dark eyes, and he drew a ring from its
hiding-place in his bosom and looked furtively at it.
On its dull-blue signet-stone was graven a string of prayer-beads
drawn through a cloven heart.