The Cold Embrace
Mary E. Braddon
HE was an artist—such things as happened to him happen sometimes
He was a German—such things as happened to him happen sometimes
He was young, handsome, studious, enthusiastic, metaphysical,
reckless, unbelieving, heartless.
And being young, handsome and eloquent, he was beloved.
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 a
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, asks:
"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
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 absence.
In the meantime, the weeks and months pass. The lover
writes—often at first, then seldom—at last, not at all.
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
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 world.
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
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
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
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 mourners.
It is not a funeral, but a corpse lying on a rude bier, covered
with an old sail, carried between two bearers.
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 says.
"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
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
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
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
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
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 his breast.
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 invisible.
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
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 moaning piteously.
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
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
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
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
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 round.
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 ball.
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
The lights in the chandeliers one by one die out.
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
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
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 his
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 dead.
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
The body of a student, who has died from want of food,
exhaustion, and the breaking of a blood-vessel.