"Chapter X: Tessa." by Enid Yandell (1870-), Jean Loughborough, and Laura Hayes
THE day had been cold and raw, with a north wind blowing, and Marjorie and the Duke had just come home and flung themselves into easy chairs, too tired to dress for dinner. The cannel fire crackled and blazed, chasing away the twilight shadows with its widening shafts of ruddy light, and the little parlor was a picture of comfort.
The girls had just settled themselves when the bell rang and the peremptory rap at the door announced that the missing third had arrived.
Gene entered breathlessly, her mouth open in her eagerness to speak, her face aglow with the rush up the stairway and a soft, dark light in her eyes. "Girls!" and off went hat, coat and gloves to the floor as she talked.
"Mr. Richardson came into the office with such a sad story to-day about a young woman who had come to him for work–any work that was honest.
She was young, he said, and beautiful as a dream, though her face was worn and pallid. She seemed both proud and timid, and the supplicating manner in which she asked for employment showed that she was not accustomed to refusal, and that it hurt her to say the words that humbled her before a stranger. He said he was more touched by [Page 114] her manner than by her speech, for she asked him the simple question in a brief and almost forbidding way. He invited her to be seated and encouraged her to talk; and before long, emboldened, I fancy, by his kind, paternal ways and lovely old face, she told him a little of her tragic story.
After the terrible day that had wrecked her life, she had been half crazed with grief, but when her ideas returned she realized that she must make her living, and her thoughts drifted to the distant World's Fair city with its thronging strangers.
Mr. Richardson said that her narrative stopped after that, and though he tried to induce her to continue, she would say no more. Finally he asked her how long she had been in Chicago. 'Four months' she had replied. 'And you have found no work in all that time ? Do you need money ?' At this she broke down and confessed with great sobs that she had not touched food for two days, and that she had spent her last dollar for lodging, so that in less than a week she would be friendless and destitute in a great city. "I imagine," Gene continued, "that Mr. Richardson must have helped her, though he would not acknowledge it; but he said she would be in again the next day, when he had promised to let her know about a place. He said that he had made up this excuse to get her to return, as he did not want to lose her and she had refused to leave her address."
Marjorie was bolt upright in her chair. The Duke was on her feet and in a breath had voiced the sentiment of all, by exclaiming, "We will help her! She must come here for her meals!" Then, after thinking a moment–"My studio will afford a bed, and luckily I need a model just now and will employ her until she can get something else to do." [Page 115]
"But you don't know anything about her," protested Gene, feeling a sense of responsibility for the woman because she had introduced her.
Marjorie answered. "She is a woman and needs help; fate is against her, and she has come to the right place for assistance, for we have known care ourselves and will always help a woman when she is down."
That night at dinner they talked it all over, and when Gene left in the morning it was decided that she was to bring "Tessa"–for so they had named her–home with her.
* * * * * *
It was six o'clock. Gene was late and Marjorie and the Duke stood at the window watching. Down the street came two tall, dark women; one, as they drew nearer, proved to be Gene and–the Princess! Where had she gotten her ?
How proudly she carried her head! The thick veil surrounding it made it seem like a Madonna's; and what a step she had! As of a beautiful wild thing which had been caught and tamed, but was as yet unbroken.
With what an easy grace her arms swayed as she walked! Now and then she bent her head in thought or in answer to Gene.
The bell rang and the Duke opened the door.
"Tessa," said Gene (she did not know her real name), "this is our sculptor."
The woman looked up and the shadow of a smile crossed her face.
"And this is Marjorie !"
By tacit consent Christian names were used by the girls in the flat.
"We are happy to see you. We feared you might not [Page 116] come; we are so glad you did. Let me have your coat and hat."
In a moment Marjorie had taken them–and what a revelation!
A perfect, oval face; black hair which made a soft broken line around her brow, parted and coiled low on her neck, hazel eyes and a sensitive mouth with deep corners. The face was a sad one, with recent lines of care around the mouth and eyes.
Her hands were long, slender and shapely, beautifully cared for–evidently those of a lady and one who had known nothing of hard work.
They chatted gaily and of all sorts of things, taking for granted that Gene had explained everything. How musical her voice was, with its rich cadences! She surely came of some Southern race! Her full white teeth gleamed through dark-red lips. At dinner (and there had been no question of allowing her to dine alone after one glance at that lovely, saddened face) she proved a charming talker. She spoke of well-known books, had met some of the authors and had many tales to tell of them; yet how sad and tragic her face was when quiet.
They had their coffee in the little parlor. She did not seem to want to talk about herself, and the girls were too well bred and had known too much of sorrow to question her. At ten o'clock the Duke arose. "Will you come to the studio, Tessa? I am sorry we cannot have you here to-night, but the flat is very small and we quite fill it. But my studio you will find warm and cozy and my couch will make an excellent bed." She rose and said, "good-night," paused a moment, smiled almost tearfully and added, "you are very good to me." [Page 117]
They went out and down and across the street to the studio, where the light from a yellow lamp threw grotesque shadows on the walls of the plaster casts of famous statues that adorned the room. A white curtain waved gently in the breeze which came from the open door, and incense pervaded the air. All was nicely arranged, for the girls had enjoyed bringing order out of the artistic confusion to honor the guest, and the Duke found no fault as she glanced around. "You won't mind those gray covers? They [Page 118] are my models." With a quick turn she faced Tessa. "Will you pose for me ? You are very beautiful." Tessa raised her hand in protest and a pleading look on her face seemed to ask the Duke to cease, but that young woman only smiled and added: "Just what I have dreamed of to complete my reclining statue of Night. You shall see it in the morning, and then if only I can copy you! Good-night, pleasant dreams." She held out her large, brown hand, and Tessa put her small, white one in it for a moment. "We shall be good friends," she said, "I feel it, good-night. Breakfast at eight," she added as she closed the door, "we shall wait for you." As she descended the steps she heard the bolt slip, and a moment's pause at the outer door was long enough for her to hear a fall on the couch and a heavy sigh.
Breakfast was over; the girls had gone, each to her own work, and the Duke and Tessa were in the studio. The Duke lit a fire in the open grate, put on her soft, heelless shoes and red fez cap. Then catching hold of a long cover she swung it off with a great wave of her strong arms. Then a damp cloth or so came away, and there lay, in its crude state, a fair woman, with beautiful proportions, on a tiger skin. Tessa rose and looked at it, and the yellow clay of the nude body seemed very life-like. "Will you pose for this for me? If you will I shall be famous." The hazel eyes looked at the sculptor; through and through they looked. A moment's thought. Could she do it for art? Would it be lack of modesty? Was she taking advantage [Page 119] of her necessity? The thought died under the Duke's honest gaze. "Yes," she breathed, "if you want me." "One thing more." "You will take your meals with us, sleep here, and I will pay you for posing while I model you."
She bowed; her sensitive nature seemed hurt by the business transaction. She disappeared for a few minutes behind a heavy, red curtain, while the Duke arranged a couch and tiger skin on a platform some three feet above the floor. "I am ready," the musical voice said, and Tessa appeared. The Greek proportions, and the dark hair which descended to her waist made one think of Godiva. She ascended the platform and for a moment looked at the clay model, and then instinctively assumed the pose, her head on her arm. How well her dark hair looked on the tiger's head! The Duke seized clay and modeling tools and worked in a frenzy of inspiration. So the hours flew by. Lunch time came. Tessa had been quiet all the morning and the sculptor too busy to talk. They parted to meet at dinner. The Duke grew interested as she worked to know more of this beautiful creature. Evidently an aristocrat. How she retired into herself and kept out of one's way!
Time rolled on and the model was about complete, and the Duke knew it was her chef-d'oeuvre, though no critic had yet seen it. The day was sunny and she was putting telling touches here and there to complete her work. A straggling ray of sunlight fell athwart Tessa's face and she looked up and smiled as the Duke stepped back to get a better view. "Will you listen to me while I tell you a tale ?" The sculptor laid down a lump of clay she had been using, came over and sat down on the side of the couch. Tessa had rolled herself in a crimson-silk blanket. "You [Page 120] are like that ray of sunlight," she began, "and I am glad I have been of use to you." "You have made my reputation," said the sculptor impulsively. "It is you! I have only copied you!" They had somehow grown to respect and trust each other in these long hours of work.
Tessa continued: "I was born of a noble family in Italy, though I have never lived there since I was a child, for my father moved to Russia when I was but three years of age. My real name is Carmen Felicitas Romero. I do not remember my mother, for she died while I was an infant, but I never missed her care, for my father was so tender and gentle and loving. He simply idolized me and I never knew him to cross a single wish until he objected to the constant attentions of Thaddeus Romanoff.
"Thaddeus was the son of our nearest neighbor, and I think I have always loved him. I remember that before I learned to talk Russian I used to watch with delight the little boy, with mischievous eyes, who sat in church with his nurse on the high-backed bench opposite.
"As a girl I saw him but little, for we lived in the country, and nine miles of forest lay between the estates. When I was fourteen father sent me to Italy to study, and gave up his interests to live with me in Florence, but when I was sixteen, I took the fever, and the physicians ordered me back to Russia.
"It was about this time that young Thaddeus Romanoff came down to his country estate to spend a few weeks. We lived many miles from St. Petersburg, but even into our remote district strange rumors had penetrated concerning the gay and dissipated life he had been leading; while [Page 121] some people even hinted that he was concerned in certain Nihilistic plots that had been filling the countryside with apprehension.
"We met one day in church, and I was conscious that a pair of bright eyes followed my every movement. Father had told me of Thaddeus' expected visit, or I should never have recognized my childish acquaintance in the tall, soldierly man who bowed so reverently as I passed on my way out. The next day we met in the woods, and although I had quite made up my mind not to speak, I could not resist the winning smile with which he offered me his hand. After this we saw each other frequently, and in a few short weeks we made the discovery that we loved each other. It was then that I insisted that he should come to see me openly, for I could not bear the thought of deceiving my father; but from the first he regarded Thaddeus with a coldness and aversion that seemed to me simply unaccountable.
"Matters went on in this way for several weeks, when one day Thaddeus sent me a note asking me to meet him at nine that night. I went, for I felt that there was some vague trouble ahead, and I had scarcely reached our trysting-place when Thaddeus came galloping up on his mad, black horse.
"He looked pale when he took me in his arms, and in a moment he told me all.–He had become implicated in a political conspiracy–he did not have time to give details–but he must fly from Russia at once, and did I have the courage to go with him ? I was horrified, and begged for time to think, but he said no–every moment was precious–he might be arrested and exiled at any time without a hearing. I was young–I loved him–he was in trouble [Page 122] and so I went. I remember that we rode to a distant post town and were married, and not until the ceremony was over did I notice that I still wore my slippers and little evening gown of white, and that the wind had loosened my curls to their full length, for I wore no hat. I never thought of my father until we were safely on the vessel and had started for America, and then such a rush of sorrow and shame came over me that for days I refused to be comforted. I never wrote home." Tessa's eyes grew misty, but she struggled bravely on.
"We came to America, settled in San Francisco, and Thaddeus quickly found a comfortable position. At first it was all sunshine and happiness–what did I care for lost grandeur. And my little baby girl was the pride and joy of my life. But one dreadful day a strange woman came to see me. She was a peasant. How can I tell you?"–and Tessa covered her face. "She claimed to be Thaddeus' wife ! and said she had followed him to this country. I waited until he came home. I asked him–and oh, the agony on his face! 'I thought her dead,' was all he uttered. I never reproached him." (Tessa was crying now.) "I simply left that night–you know the rest–I came direct to Chicago." "And your baby?" the Duke cried. Tessa's face darkened. "I am almost afraid to tell you." "No, no," pleaded the Duke. "Well–my little Carmen is just a block away." "What ! in Chicago! And you never told us! Why Tessa–and you might have had her with you all the time !" "Do you really mean that ?" she cried with a heavenly smile illuminating her face. "Then I must tell you all about her. Every night after you went back to the flat, I locked the studio and rushed over to see my baby. I didn't dare to tell you about her for fear of [Page 123] losing the income that supported us both; but, oh, I am so glad that you know it now," and her eyes were again suffused with tears.
The next day there was a great surprise in the flat, for when Marjorie and Gene entered the dining-room they found, seated at the table, in her high chair and quite alone, the dearest, happiest little mite of humanity they had ever seen. After Tessa and the Duke came out from behind the screen and rescued the baby from being smothered with kisses, they explained her appearance and there was a merry-making all round. Little Carmen proved to be the sweetest-tempered child in existence, and spent her days playing on the floor of the studio, while the girls worked or chatted.
Sometimes the baby herself posed as a model, much to the delight of all concerned, and she soon found her way into all the girls' hearts.
But despite little Carmen's cheering presence, Tessa still continued sad. Sometimes she looked so frail that we worried about her, but we knew of nothing that we could do to relieve her anxiety, though we all tried to find her some permanent occupation.
One afternoon Tessa and the Duke were in the studio (the baby was asleep) and Tessa had been posing for the last time for the statue, which was about finished, when the Duke happened to notice a sudden pallor which overspread her face. "Are you ill, dear ? You look so tired," Great circles had come under Tessa's eyes. "May I get you some wine?" She ran to her little emergency-shelf and poured some into a tumbler, but before she could turn she heard a fall. [Page 124]
There she lay on the floor–the tiger skin on the platform above her, its eyes glaring into her glassy ones like some horrible fate. How beautiful she was. The Duke stooped and touched her breast; it was cold and damp.
With a feeling of awe, and reverence, and horror, she drew the crimson blanket over the lovely form and went for help.
"SOMETIMES THE BABY POSED AS A MODEL."
* * * * * * *
After Tessa's swoon and the Duke's fright we held a consultation as to what we should do, and it was decided that Gene should write to Tessa's father in far-away Russia. Quick as cable could carry it came the reply, and in a few short weeks a grand old man arrived, with snow-white hair and beard, and warm hazel eyes very like Tessa's own. But I shall not attempt to describe the reconciliation! [Page 125]
Many months have passed since then, but the Duke has received happy letters from Tessa, who is improving in health every day. Only last week came a sweet picture of little Carmen–who has almost grown out of our remembrance–but the young mother who holds her so lovingly in her arms will always be to us "Our Tessa."