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  ― 26 ―

Document Found in a Mirror.

The document is in French. I was first disposed to the idea that the narrative was fictitious. On reflection, however, I rejected this impression since in places the personal note was too poignant, the omission of data relative to the biography of the narrator too significant—even his birthplace is not mentioned, and his surname substituted by asterisks. There was, too, a general air of impulsion, of the story having been written at different times and immediately after the events chronicled; sometimes in long breathless sentences, highly poetic, impeding, and without context with, the progress of the main motif; sometimes with dates and with diary-like brevity; sometimes with curt, critical precision—the writer's jottings down, as it were, of his opinions on current events in Sydney. All these were too much opposed to a novelist's methods to support the belief that the story was invented. Moreover, my inquiries in certain directions elicted substantial evidence against it to be presented later on. If, therefore, the manuscript be a human document, the faithful outpouring of a man's soul, this much relative to his personality can be gleaned and surmised from its pages. The writer was a Frenchman,


  ― 27 ―
and his Christian name was Jean: he was probably a native of Noumea, resided several months in Sydney, was young, emotional, and bitterly contemptuous of the English race generally. Indeed, so highly offensive are some of the criticisms on my countrymen, so deplorable is the lack of continuity of the thread of the story, that I had to subject my first version to severe revision without compunction. The narrative as now told represents only a quarter of the material in the manuscript—is, in fact, the nucleus of the original stripped of all extraneous matter.

Evidences of the writer's eccentric character abound everywhere. His reticence as to his private affairs on the one hand and his lack of it as regards Verona's on the other, are startling. The suggestion to the reader is, of course, that Jean never dreamed any eye but his own would peruse what he had written—that fate should have so worked as to commit his manuscript into the hands of a literary man, is, indeed, ironical.

A word as to how the document came into my possession. I had reason to move into a boarding-house in Darlinghurst, Sydney. My bed-chamber contained, amongst the usual appurtences of a furnished room, a mirror that was a veritable curio. Its framework was fantastically decorated with sea shells of various tint and shape such as are found only on tropic coasts.


  ― 28 ―
Their arrangement was grotesque in their general effect, yet a closer inspection revealed deft workmanship in detail. The mirror gleamed out of a labyrinth of pearl reflecting a subdued sheen of colour in the gaslight. My landlady, noticing how the mirror attracted my attention when she was showing me the room, remarked on its peculiarity, and said that her son, a sailor, had purchased it in a second hand shop in the city—he was such a man for out-of-the-way odds and ends! In his few weeks at home, betwixt voyages lasting over twelve months at a time, he always occupied this bedroom. Examining this curio more intently a few days thereafter I noticed some of the shells were blurred and the wooden framework blistered, that led me to think the mirror had been bought by the second-hand dealer at an auction sale of goods damaged by fire. Probably it was one of the waifs of furniture rescued from some burnt residence. In an unavailing search one night in the darkness for a box of lucifers I thought I had previously deposited on the dressing table I accidentally stumbled with so much force against that piece of furniture as to overtopple the mirror. The next morning I saw much of its shell had broken away, disclosing a layer of fine steel. Curiosity pricked me to investigate further. Between the back of the mirror sheathed in metal and the steel plate was this document in a single


  ― 29 ―
fold. Doubtless the secret receptacle was connected with a spring to open and shut it that had become loosened. I patiently scrutinized and fingered the body of the mirror but could not localise it. Why the document had been deposited in so singular a place and never removed supposing a fire had really threatened its safety, and how the mirror came to be parted from its eccentric owner, I know no more than the reader. Since I wish to print nothing but the facts I shall not hazard even an opinion.

Save for a bronzy tint on its edges the document was unblemished, and its sheets were tastefully connected with pink ribbon. The originality in the shape of its letters particularly struck me. There was a dash and yet artistic neatness about them, especially as regards the capitals. The punctuation was, however, very arbitrary, adding to the difficulty of deciphering the quaint characters. The document was unsigned.

With this preamble I copy out my second revision, asterisks indicating wherever I have omitted extraneous matter that is in the original. I may add the full name and address of Verona are withheld for obvious reasons.

   The Document.

“Is it possible, after years of intense yearning for Love and of despondency that he should pass me by, that he has at last entered into my heart? I have


  ― 30 ―
ever wished to surrender to his omnipotence and yet dreaded lest he should be a tyrant. Is it in this foreign city and under such forbidding circumstances I have met my fate? O radiant shape of woman, divine unknown, in what waste places art thou treading? What tragic shadows investing thee are these I dimly divine?”

“It happened all at once. I had paused on the post office steps to admire the blooms of the flower vendors: innocent radiances—touches of materialised poetry, creating a little Eden all to themselves in the sordid centre of trade. Methought the faded faces of the passers-by turned towards them caught reflections from their own memory of beautiful, far-off scenes connected with blossoms and sweet odour. I was ever a dreamer! I turned—my heart leaped and stood still. I felt a quiver in my spine similar to that I always experience in the presence of great passages of music. She was moving towards me, half-floating as it seemed in a cloud of white raiment. I felt rather than saw she was tall and held herself erect, buoyantly swaying like a sunflower. Passing from the corridor shadow into the sunset light she descended the steps; her large blue eyes fixed as in thought; her face, of the ample proportions of Minerva's yet unlike hers humanised by unfathomable tenderness, expressive of some subduing grief; her head-dress circled as with an aureole


  ― 31 ―
by an escaping tress catching the sunlight gold to its auburn. Women, suddenly aware of their own dinginess, paused to gaze at her as she passed them. Men drew aside involuntarily, their souls' homage in their eyes. I stood spell-bound, dazed, almost befooled by the impression that one of my dreams of the Olympian divinities had been projected into an ocular illusion, that I suffered from a passing mental mirage. In another minute I was wide awake and hurrying to recover sight of her. I saw her entering a tram and reached King-street corner just too late to be her fellow passenger. Hailing a passing hansom I sprang into it, enjoining the driver to keep the tram ahead in view till I bade him stop. I had but one thought: to follow that beautiful being. Now, even as I write to ease my soul of its perilous agitation I cannot analyse myself. I'm only aware of a strange electric quiver from head to foot, a fierce uncontrollable passion to be near her for ever and for ever. I awoke this morning sane, self-contained. To-night every nerve is on a white strain—my heart heaves with some mysterious and voluminous force. And yet this dull deadening agony of doubt, suspicion.”

“I saw her alight from the tram, cross the road, and enter a chemist's shop. Dismissing the hansom I sauntered to and fro on the further pavement, awaiting her appearance. As time passed I grew impatient,


  ― 32 ―
uneasy. The street gradually put up its lights. Dusk deepened for night. What detains her? Is that her home? These questions quickened my perceptions and I glanced about me. This part of the city was unknown to me. An hotel at the corner of a side street was an index of its character. Through its door, passing each the other to and fro, were two trickles of human wrecks. On the pavement about it lounged groups of brute-faced, shabbily-garbed individuals of either sex. Sprinkles of foul language reached me that made me shudder. There was an air of drabness, of squalor, an absence of a law-abiding tone about the locality very distasteful. At last! She moved leisurely towards the hotel and turned into the side street. Slowly crossing the road, I did likewise. I saw her tall figure ahead under the gas jets. With some wonder I noticed the street was degraded in the extreme—seemingly a hot-bed of Chinese. Bloated women ogled and flung invitations from doorways. Shrivelled human shapes peeped out from dark corners. Wherever I gazed Chinese inscriptions over doors, lighted windows with red blinds, squat figures shuffling in loose slippers on the pavement, struck across my vision. A muffled babel of oriental voices pierced by English oaths and exclamations and a faint foetid fog hung over the whole street. A horror seized me that she,


  ― 33 ―
the ineffable one of my soul, should even approach such naked infamy. Suddenly I felt bewildered. A moment ago her white garments had fluttered past a lighted window, and now—I ran forward, retraced my steps, glanced hither and thither; all in vain: she had vanished. I cautiously examined every house up to the spot I had last seen her, and then beyond to the street's end. Not a sign of her. My God! She must have entered one of the houses—all of them tenanted by Chinese. This thought was as a spark to gunpowder. With a shock my unpent emotions swept over me carrying away every atom of propriety. From hammering at doors and not waiting for responses, to interrogating first one and then another of the squalid Chinese loafing about as to who tenanted the houses into one of which she must have entered, I was rudely thrust back to a sense of my folly by a hubbub arising from a heathen crowd jostling about me with distracting gestures and excited faces. With a recoil of revulsion I fled from the street and entering the first hotel hastily drained a tumblerful of brandy, and recovered my self-control in a private parlour. Whilst divided by two desires—one urging me to hang about the street on the chance of again seeing her, the other to prosecute inquiries from a constable regarding the occupants of the houses near which she seemed to have vanished—my reason suddenly reasserted itself


  ― 34 ―
and drove me home. And now with thoughts more collected I am ashamed of my recent unmanly abandonment. I now see it in its true light my officious behaviour. I shudder at what might have happened had a constable been present. What defence could I have raised for creating a disturbance? Heavens! I should have been arrested. And even if I had explained—but how could I have explained? What right had I to interfere with a lady's movements, to demand entrance to the house she had of her own wish passed into, even if I had known the which? But, oh! what does it mean? My heart aches. Why should she enter that den? What mystery is this? But perhaps it is her home. Banish the thought. It is impossible she would reside amid such infamy. What! that radiant shape, whose every movement seemed tuned to music, with the Minerva face and more than human tenderness suffused through its every lineament—my heart thunders against blasphemy! Yea, so long as this frame endures, divine unknown, my soul shall reach towards thee wherever thou art.”

“It is now some months since I eased my soul by writing. What is it an inspiration that guided me or only the remembrance of the crucifix she wore that set me on right deductions?

“Since that eventful night much has taken place. I


  ― 35 ―
speak not of my wanderings about the city seeking for her, of my sleepless nights dedicated to picturing her beautiful personality, of all I have suffered and dreamed till that thought—surely—heaven-inspired—flashed on me. I waited feverishly for the following Sunday and attended Divine service. Verily, some kindly angel is guiding me. Or did my artistic sense of fitness prompt me to the road of fact? For where but in a cathedral could so imperial a form be in harmony? The nobler the edifice the more would she grace it. No sooner had I entered than I knew she was there. I had purposely entered late to select a pew near hers should she be present. I slipped into one commanding full view of her. It was some time ere I dared lift my eyes in her direction. My heart beat so violently that I was surprised my neighbor, an old portly lady, did not hear it. At last I mustered courage during a hymn to let my glance fall on my beloved. The morning sunshine slanted like a shaft of gold under which she stood waiting, as it seemed to me, to be transfigured. She was all in white. An azure flame seemed to play around her temples. Gradually the blue light retired and abashed at such a noble vision of feminine perfection I bent my head. Meanwhile my ears, glutted with melodious voices lifted on waves of harmony, were usurped by one sovereign sound, as though an invisible angel were singing also. I shut my eyes lulled by its ineffable


  ― 36 ―
sweetness. It penetrated every fibre of my frame distilling an inexplicable essence, the sensuous suggestion of something overhead in Heaven. It drew my eyes again towards her, opening to be fed on splendour. Her head was now a little lifted, her eyes entranced as though gazing on Paradise, her lips parted, her bosom heaving tumultuously. She was the embodiment of ecstasy pouring out melody.”

“The hours seemed minutes. As we passed down the aisle our eyes met, something flashed to me and returned. Ere I recovered from its lightning-like quiver she was gone. Instantly I hurried into the street. In the distance her tall figure moved slowly along. Determined to know whither she would go I followed her a little way behind.”

“Returning to my room I pencilled down the name and address: ‘Signorita Verona .… teacher of the mandolin and violin.’

“To-night I'm almost too happy to write. But in narrating all that has happened since I last withdrew these sheets from their hiding-place I shall re-live through a multitude of joys. I will not continue from where I last paused but from where I first spoke to Verona. Little did she think when I seated myself beside her on a chair in the Botanical Garden that for weeks I had been on the watch for an opportunity to be


  ― 37 ―
near her. She lifted her eyes from a book on my approach with a look that at first disconcerted me. They were moist as though touched with tears. When her eyes sank I stole a glance at the book. She was reading Dante in the original. It was then that I knew for certain she was an Italian. Here was another call on my shrewdness. With Italian literature and art I am as familiar as with our own. After many resolutions I at length ventured to speak:”

‘Pardon me for my interruption, Mademoiselle, but you are reading my favorite poet. It's the first time I've seen the Divine Comedy in the hands of a Sydney person. But, perhaps, I am rude; I couldn't resist speaking, however.’

“Her large eyes were lifted to mine like wells of blue light.”

‘Yes,’ she murmured after a pause, her eyes again sinking.

“Now I had begun I was not to be baulked, however.”

‘Had Dante seen this picture he would have embodied it in a sonnet. Is it not beautiful?’ And I indicated with a gesture the spread of blue water, the banks of foliage, the villas perched on the heights and nestling in the crevices of the cliffs, the ferry boats gliding to and fro among the shipping, with the afternoon sunshine


  ― 38 ―
thrown like a sacerdotal vestment of gold over all.”

‘Yes, it is—very beautiful!’ she exclaimed earnestly.

“Overjoyed at having touched her emotions I determined not to let them flag.”

‘And you read Dante in the original?’

‘Yes,’ she replied, as though surprised at the question.

‘What a boon! He cannot be translated. His spiritual light is quenched in the passage. The last of the poets to be meddled with for alien readers.’

‘You are—’ and she hesitated, and then remarked quietly: ‘That is true.’

‘Even in the French language he is shorn of half his beauty.’

‘You are a Frenchman, then?’ she asked quickly.

‘I am; and you an Italian, I think?’

‘Yes,’ and a suffusing sadness went over her face and she added: ‘In spirit, but only partly otherwise.’

“Immediately I responded in Italian, quoting a passage from Petrarch. Oh! the glory of our conversation. We talked the sun down. Then we parted.”

‘Should you be here at the same hour to-morrow, Signorita, I will bring some of Italia's latest singers for your perusal.’

‘To-morrow,’ she murmured, with a touch of sadness in her voice.”




  ― 39 ―

“What tragic mystery envelops my Verona? At all our meetings I am aware of sudden intrusions of languor, sighs, and far-off haunted expressions in her eyes. I feel she is not indifferent to me as a man, yet she always addresses me as though it were some kindred spirit her spirit had met for a season. Only once has she betrayed her hidden depths of sympathy for me. We were standing near the water's edge as the dark came on, watching the lighted ferry boats gliding past like golden butterflies with ruddy eyes, and I remarked:

‘How my poor mother would have admired them!’

‘Your mother!’ There was a sharp cry in her voice. Then with an aching sympathy in a subdued tone:

‘Yes, the dead are far away, yet happy, I trust.’

“I pant to pour out a confession of love to Verona, yet I dare not. The more I see of her the more aloof does she seem above all mundane desires. Her voice can vibrate with tenderness when reading to me one of her favorite poets. In scores of little ways is her sympathy betrayed for all that suffer. I verily believe much of her earnings goes in charity. She perplexes me. Sincerity to the core and evidently considering me a dear friend, yet she never touches on her position. Relative to everything connected with her personal affairs


  ― 40 ―
I'm kept unobtrusively at arm's length. I can see she is poor, and my heart yearns to benefit her. I suppose the lean, swarthy invalid I have seen basking in the sunlight on her verandah is her father. I suspect she is the only child and supports him with her teaching. But what is the cause of this indefinable sorrow that invests her? When shall I have the courage to burst through this atmosphere of awe and declare the passion that is consuming me? O, Verona little dost thou suspect what a sacred part of my life thou hast become! Without thy presence this world to me would be as ashes.”

“The bolt has fallen! The letter from my father bidding me return home was a blow, yet not unexpected. The other terrible stroke has prostrated me. Under this awful revelation my heart's jubilation has sunk into a smothered cry of anguish.”

“I curse the hour that brought her figure under my notice that night, and despise myself for acting on the impulse to follow her. Why should I wish to pry into her secret, her mystery? Am I not convinced of her innocence? But, ah! that scene, that monstrous scene. I almost hesitate to describe it. Perhaps the picture presented in cold writing will suggest some plan of action, will deaden this excruciating doubt, suspicion.”




  ― 41 ―

“I saw she had not seen me as she moved swiftly through the rain. Her black garments under the light of the shops touched me to despondency. I felt something was about to happen full of dire issues for me. Something warned me to turn back, for I rightly guessed whither she was going when she branched into the road that leads to that squalid locality and is its main artery. But my curiosity—no, no! it was my love, my jealous passion for her demanding attention to these clandestine visits to that house of infamy. And yet I was uneasy at my action. Had Verona pledged her troth to me grounds for it might be yielded. But though ever wistful on my behalf, ever considerate of my opinion, gentle and patiently thoughtful, never did she permit my soul a chance of confession.”

“That ill-fated street was deserted. With a tingle of shame at my act I stole silently into view of her as she neared the houses into one of which she had entered that other night. Without a glance aside she opened a door, there was a beam of light on the wet pavement, and the door shut silently behind her. On the spur of the moment I rapidly crossed the street and examined the house. Yes, the scrofulous walls, the sullenness of its sealed-up windows, the oriental pungency of the atmospheric taint that reeked from its crevices, proclaimed the nationality of its tenants. Other than for an edge of light under the door the house was in speechless


  ― 42 ―
gloom. Listening attentively, however, I heard a drone of voices, broken all at once by sharp sibilant sounds, as of someone in a violent rage. There was a shuffle of chairs and what seemed an altercation in an Asiatic tongue. My easily inflamed imagination was at once fired. Heedless of everything but the one impression—my Verona is in danger!—I flung the door open and bounded through. For a moment a leap of light blinded me. Then, oh, God! There was my angel on her knees beside what looked like a bench, on which lay a woman on a mattress, with a face like a corpse's for whiteness shrunken into wrinkles, with big, staring, blue eyes glittering with unearthly brilliancy in the glare of a suspended slush lamp. Through an open door to the left was a vision of a gambling table surrounded by fever-eyed Asiatics, danced over by wild lamp flares. The choked-up air was as a miasma. Squalor was rampant everywhere.”

‘Verona!’

“My cry must have rung through the room, though to me it seemed muffled. A tension snapped within and the scalding tears found vent. I scarce remember what happened. I only know I felt stifled with repressed sobs, my arms outstretched towards her. I heeded not the corpse-like horror sitting suddenly bolt upright, her hair like white ashes, with craning head and eyes blazing as with madness; nor the clatter of chairs and


  ― 43 ―
crunch of feet around me. Even the sinewy arms flung around my waist and bearing me to the floor were scarcely felt. Wild noises and scuffles with villainous faces on a spin, as in a delirium, and then vehemently piercing me to the soul came her cry:

‘Jean!’

“Towering above my captors, slinking aside at her approach, her face awful to look on in its tragic agony, her figure seeming to dilate as with sacred wrath, she advanced to where I lay gasping in the dust. A cloth was dabbed on my face, blotting out everything. I seemed sinking, sinking. A bubble of lights—darkness.”

“The more I think of that frightful scene the more am I convinced Verona must have protected me from dire calamity. Though everything was blurred as in a phantasmal twilight when I emerged from unconsciousness, I knew her guardian arms were around me supporting me to a cab. Though she spoke not I heard her sobs in its darkness. I felt her warm breath on my cheek, saw as in a dream her eyes gazing earnestly into my face in the flitting lamp gleams. Tired unto death, I cared not whither I journeyed for she was with me. I clung to her as she helped me to alight, pleading to her not to desert me. But with averted eyes she gently released herself, whispering, ‘You are safe now,’


  ― 44 ―
turned, and was gone. Too weak, my brain yet too overwrought to apprehend more than that I was alone opposite my boarding house, I crawled to its door, hearing the rattle of the cab fade in the distance.”

“Though I haunt our accustomed meeting-place, patrol nightly before her residence, have written to her daily pouring out my love, yet she gives no sign she desires our relationship to continue. It is now over a week since that fatal night when I last saw her. And yet I feel she loves me. O, Verona, O, Verona!' hast thou such little faith in thy Jean? Beautiful angel, encompassed about by the tribes of hell and treading in dissolute places, thou are pictured in my soul in the hues of Paradise. Unshrinkingly thy steps will I pursue even into the inner circle of the fires.” * * *

“She has written. Though coldly curt the words are a benediction:

‘Please meet me at the tramway terminus, Bondi, next Wednesday afternoon at 2.30.

   ‘V.’

“The day was doleful under a pall of cloud stretched painfully across the sky, with hearse-like plumes in places. Dressed in deep black she was awaiting me on the beach that was otherwise without a soul in sight. A picture of my father's home summoned by the seascape


  ― 45 ―
flashed upon me as I approached her. Though my soul sickened with evil omens, yet the absence in the scene around of gangs of convicts at work on the foreshore was acutely felt.”

“She kept her back towards me till I was within a few feet of her, then turned suddenly, her large eyes fixed on my face almost threateningly, so alarmingly wild was their scrutiny. Her face was as the face of a statue, colourless and emotionless. Only her eyes betrayed her pent-up feelings. Overcome for some moments by a rush of mingled joy and grief at her presence, I gazed at her speechless. Her eyes intensified their scrutiny, searching my very soul.”

‘My Verona!’

“A flush fled across her face, leaving it ghastly white, even to the lips. A strange, hunted, far-off expression slowly gathered to her eyes, subduing their scrutiny. Then abruptly she turned, saying sharply:

‘Let us walk,’ baulking my fierce passionate desire to clasp her in my arms.

‘These are yours,’ she remarked coldly.

“I unfolded the packet she handed me. She watched me slip the jewellery I had missed since that dreadful night into my pocket as though she were thinking deeply. Then, half speaking to herself:

‘However much I deplore your rough treatment in that house, I could not help it. God knows I have suffered.’


  ― 46 ―
Then, with a clear glance into my face: ‘Jean, I am to blame for all this trouble brought on your head, and I ask your forgiveness.’ I would have interrupted her, but she went on speaking, indifferent to my gesture, almost sternly, as though rebuking herself: ‘I allowed myself to forget the cross I bore, to seek forgetfulness of my misfortune in your company. It is too late to undo what I have done. For days and nights I have unflinchingly fought with my selfish desires, and can now calmly see my duty. Jean!’—and her voice lifted to a note of decision—‘everything you may have conceived connected with me and your future is out of the question. Let us sit.’

“We had been moving towards the cliffs, and now seated ourselves on a splinter of rock in a kind of vault fashioned by fallen boulders, from which only a spread of foam like a shroud and the moody sky could be seen. Our withdrawal from the outer beach had reduced the soliloquy of the sea to a listless moaning. Chilled to the very heart by Verona's coldness, and as yet too dazed to apprehend more than that some crushing fatality had fallen on my life, it was some minutes before I was aware she was again speaking:

‘It is just you should know all. Though my reason advises me to be silent, my heart cries to be heard. Besides, I would not willingly be cruel to you; I would not add to my sorrow at having innocently misled you—to


  ― 47 ―
regret when you are gone that I did not remove from your mind a wrong construction regarding me. Perhaps I crave you should remember me kindly; you should have no bitterness towards me for my deficiency of faith in you, that I could not trust you—the only man …’ She paused abruptly and, turning her face away, continued in thick tones of suppressed emotion: ‘That woman you saw is my mother!’ The words had scarce left her lips when she leaned heavily on one side and would have fallen but for the support of her hand on the rock and her extended arm suddenly grown rigid. Tremblingly I clasped her round the waist, heart-broken, and uttered endearing words of consolement. But the outbreak of feeling was only momentary. In accents of contempt for herself she muttered: ‘This is weakness,’ and, slowly straightening her back, sat like a carved image, with eyes fixed intently on that waif of foam now fluttering like a ghostly thing under the lowering leaden sky and slants of rain. I marvel now, as I write, at what resources of strength were at that moment made manifest. Punctured and parcelled out of her soul seemed her next words:

‘I must remain unresponsive to your love, Jean, till my work be done. Return home as your father wishes. Write to me if you desire. Remember, however, I promise nothing further than this: you need fear no


  ― 48 ―
rivals for my affection. You think me cold, impassive, but I am sincere and steadfast. Let us go.’ ”

   End of the Document.

I made inquiries of the residents of the street in which Verona had resided in Sydney. An old woman, a storekeeper, remembered her well, and greatly regretted she had lost sight of her since her father's death. It is not for me to pry into Verona's whereabouts. I like, however, to think she is now with Jean.

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