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A Solution


WHEN the door had closed on the last guest, Madame
Verneuil bade George Harley draw his chair nearer the
fire, and while they both looked into its glowing heart
they recalled days that were gone, and tried to return to their
former friendly intimacy. They spoke of many mutual acquaint-
ances, she gaily responding to his often indifferent questionings,
and there were long pauses, each one feeling the presence of
barriers to be surmounted. George Harley’s eyes wandered
round the familiar room, ever familiar, for Madame Verneuil did
not care to change her surroundings or her friends. Curtains or
stuffs that wore or faded were gently replaced by others so closely
recalling them that no one would suspect any change; and old
friends who dropped away were never replaced, but always

    Seven years ago he had met Madame Verneuil at the house
of a mutual friend, and after a little while he had become one of
her constant visitors. She was then emerging from her widow’s
mourning, and also from the rather bourgeois financial circle in
which her marriage with a rich banker had placed her. The
friends of her choice were not brought together by the accidental
resemblance of their social positions or fortunes, but by the accord
of ideas. When an alien to their sympathies came into this circle,
as a caterpillar will sometimes crawl into a beehive, he was not
stung to death and covered with a gravestone of wax, but allowed
to go his way unharmed. He invariably went of his own free will
and never returned.

    It was here that Harley first saw Madeleine Dulac, the
beautiful and brilliant daughter of a scientific man, who had
followed a pet theory by bringing up his daughter precisely as
he would have brought up a son. ae had a gift for music, and
music had always been the joy and pastime of his busy life, so
Madeleine’s talent was cherished and cultivated. When he died,
the young girl, then only twenty-one, inherited his considerable
fortune, which, true to his principles, he left to her absolutely un-
hampered by any restrictions and entirely at her disposal. She
was promptly surrounded by friends and distant relatives—she
had no near ones—offering advice in the choice of a chaperone.

Others proposed their houses for her residence. But she shook
her head, and, firmly declining their assistance, continued her
mode of life with only the inevitable change caused by the death
of her father, her constant companion.

    Her first appearance in society—the period of mourning
over—was at Madame Verneuil’s, and here Harley saw her in the
radiant beauty of her twenty-third year. Here she held a court
of faithful, if not very hopeful, admirers, for she gave them no
encouragement, and Harley rather despised himself for joining the
group. He had been attracted by the then very fashionable
school of analytical writers, and, true to his new principles, he
would carefully diagnose the state of his heart with regard to
Madeleine. as it heart or head? This point he never could
settle to his satisfaction.

    Madame Verneuil was asked by an old friend in the country
to extend a helping hand to a young Hungarian violinist, who had
been teaching in a provincial conservatoire and was anxious to
make a name for himself in Paris. The kind-hearted woman, who
knew how many difficulties he would have to encounter before
success came, asked him to play at one of her evenings, and
invited her friends to hear him. Harley will always remember
that day for several reasons; but chiefly for the seemingly trivial
one that Madeleine was talking to him alone at the moment of the
violinist Svenhi’s entrance. a had brought his violin, but no
accompanist, and she was summoned from her retreat to accom-
pany him. She rose slowly, and, pulling off her long gloves,
listened with an abstracted indifference to the explanations the
violinist was giving her about the music. He was of no possible
interest to her, this unknown man from the provinces. Harley
bitterly resented her departure, and retreated still further behind
the large palm under whose shadow they had been seated, and
wondered whether he dared hope that she would resume the
interrupted conversation. They were only talking about the
Théatre Antoine, then a novelty, but he had felt as Dante did
when Beatrice graciously returned his salutation.

    By force of habit he was already beginning to analyze his
feelings when the music started, and almost at once his attention
was rivetted and his imagination excited. Svenhi’s violin was
murmuring softly, and it seemed to Harley that he was saying

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things to Madeleine that no one but they could understand. He
seemed to be pursuing her, and she, wild and untamable, was
eluding him dexterously, and escaping just as he seemed to reach
her. The violin grew more and more insistent, even authoritative,
while she grew weaker, and finally surrendered, and they floated
along together on a flowing stream of melody. Then the stream
became a torrent, dashing wildly past a rocky shore, till with wild
crashing chords from the piano and a long-drawn note from the
violin, which sounded like love’s triumph, the movement ended.

    Tremendous applause greeted the performers on all sides,
to which Svenhi made somewhat elaborate recognition, and Made-
leine none at all. She seemed entirely engrossed in him. Harley
stood aside, watching them for a few minutes; he saw the lamp-
light on her shining chestnut hair, as she bent towards Svenhi,
who was talking low and volubly. All her previous indifference
had vanished; she listened eagerly to whatever he was saying.
Harley could bear the sight no longer: after the emotion of the
music he felt he must go out into the fresh air, so he silently left
the room and the house. That night he neglected to analyze his

    Henceforth Madeleine and the violinist were never to be
seen apart. Whenever she came to Madame Verneuil’s he ap-
peared shortly afterwards, and this always became the signal for
music to begin. It was very evident that what they performed in
public they had rehearsed in private. Madeleine’s court of ad-
mirers were not at all satisfied with these proceedings, and
although none of them had Harley’s prophetic vision, they were
very indignant at what they considered presumption on the part
of the violinist. There was a great deal of spiteful gossip, but
Madeleine’s engagement to Svenhi fell as a bomb amongst them.
All those among her friends who considered they had a right to
interfere did not fail to do so, and many valiant attempts were
made to rescue her; but she firmly stopped any tentative remarks
made to her on the subject, and as she had no guardians or near
relations, nothing could be done to prevent the marriage from
taking place.

    In France the formalities relating to marriage are very com-
lex and tedious and give a vast amount of work to the notary.
Madeleine’s old and trusted lawyers proceeded as slowly and care-

fully as they could to seek for flaws in Svenhi’s antecedents, but
he produced the necessary papers, and all inquiries only resulted
in the knowledge that he had a humble but respectable origin and
that his life had been a hard-working one. The notaries tried to
protect Madeleine’s interests against one who they felt sure was
an intriguer and an adventurer, and she let them do as they
pleased, knowing that the day she chose to put her fortune into
little paper boats and sail them down the Seine, she was at liberty
to do so.

    At last the final preparations for the wedding were finished
and the day fixed. George Harley felt an insurmountable disgust
at the whole proceeding. He was tired of the perpetual gossip on
the subject and of the spiteful remarks made by the unsuccessful
candidates, and not least he felt a pain at his heart as if it had been
bruised, and he could not endure the thought of the day when the
irremediable would happen. So he left Paris suddenly, bidding
casual farewells and speaking of a speedy return. This was not to
be, however, for back in London he felt strongly that the time had
come when a definite future must be considered. He had decided
for a career of letters, and with this object in view he settled down
to a life of hard study. The bruise at his heart he still felt sorely,
and this was his safeguard, for having, as he fancied, lived his emo-
tional life, there was nothing to prevent him from cultivating his
intellect to the exclusion of all else. And work he did, giving no
time to society or amusement. He was rewarded with success, for
though he never stirred the hearts of the many, he appealed to the
few. But even they never knew that this man of austere ideals
was in truth as emotional and sensitive as a boy who comes in
touch with life for the first time. It was sensitiveness that pre-
vented him from having more communication with his friends in
Paris; he had a cowardly fear of hearing sordid details of Made-
leine’s unhappiness, for unhappiness he felt sure would be her lot.
His correspondents thought he was indifferent, and the letters grew
fewer and more formal. Once he met a young man he had known
in Paris; a chance meeting in a restaurant caused them to dine to-
gether. It was unavoidable that Madeleine’s name should come into
conversation, and Harley winced when the unconscious young man
told him that Svenhi had developed a passion for gambling in every
form, and that her friends were very anxious about her fortune.

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    “Her fortune!” said Harley, irritably; “and what about

    The young man stared; evidently in his mind Madeleine
without her fortune did not exist—and the subject dropped.

    A severe cold, taken one spring and followed by a wet sum-
mer, during which Harley constantly neglected his health, caused
him to receive a very serious warning from his doctor. So serious
was the warning that he resolved to follow advice and escape from
the English winter. Switzerland was decided on, and Harley re-
gretfully left his commodious bachelor rooms to turn with distaste
to the prospect of hotel life for a whole winter. But he had dis-
covered in himself, much to his surprise, a great desire to live, and
everything had to give way to this desire.

    When, after a lapse of seven years, he found himself again
in Paris he was astonished to note how little of a stranger he felt,
and how the memories of his old life were calling him. His first
intention had been merely to break his journey by one night in
Paris, but now he felt a wish to clear away the fog that had
gathered during those years. He no longer felt the selfish dread
of hearing people speak of Madeleine; in fact Paris brought back
the old thraldom, and he longed to see her or hear of her. Acting
on tees he sent a bleu to Madame Verneuil asking permission
to call. Her answer was prompt and cordial. “Come,” she said;
“I have some dull people to dinner, but outstay them, and we will
talk of old times.”

    To talk of old times sounded easy enough, but difficulties
seemed to rise when the actual moment came. He felt surrounded
by ghosts of his former life; some of them were ghosts of his own
moods, his boyish enthusiasms. How old he felt as he stared
moodily at the fire! He knew Madame Verneuil was understand-
ing him as she took up some fancy work and appeared engrossed
in it, dropping a casual remark while she waited until he should
speak what was in his mind. At last he said abruptly:

    “How is Madeleine Dulac?”

    Madame Verneuil raised her eyebrows slightly. “Madeleine
Svenhi—she married, you know.”

    “Yes, I know,” he said, impatiently, “what of her, is
she well?”

    “She is gone,” Madame Verneuil said very seriously, “gone

from Paris out of our lives with her husband, and no one knows
where they went.”

    Then, the ice being broken, she required no more encourage-
ment, and told him the whole pitiful story he had so dreaded to
hear—how Svenhi had so soon begun to lead a useless gambler’s
life. They had none of them ever sounded the depths of Made-
leine’s unhappiness, for she soon avoided her friends and would
stand no interference. They all knew that her fortune was being
squandered, but no one could help it but herself, and she seemed
strangely apathetic.

    At last the crash came when all her possessions were sold,
even her piano; and when her friends sought for her, hoping to
shield her from further indignities, she had gone away with her
husband, it had been ascertained, but no one knew where, and no-
thing further had ever been heard about them. Harley listened in
silence, and in silence he rose to go. Madame Verneuil felt she
was understanding him as she had never understood him before,
and she did not try to detain him. Afterwards, pacing his hotel
bedroom, he thought of numberless questions he would have asked
about Madeleine; but who, he wondered, could ever have pene-
trated into the inner fastness of her mind?

    The next morning he left Paris.


    GEORGE HARLEY’S doctor had happily not judged him sufficiently
ill to be sent to one of those great sanatoriums which are to be
found in the highest altitudes and always seem to be the very
threshold of death. He was on a Sheetal sunny half-way ledge
where there were no serious invalids and no exhibition of thermo-
meters. Enforced idleness had done him good in body and mind,
and the society of young people was a new experience for him,
their lightheartedness a relief after his somewhat solitary life, and
they liked him after they had recovered their first alarm at his
grave appearance and manner. After three months of this life he
forgot he had ever been ill, and was able to take part in the usual
amusements of a winter resort.

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    In February the sunny hours were noticeably longer and the
snow clouds less frequent. The young people, a little tired of to-
bogganing on the nearest hillside, proposed longer excursions
higher up where the crisp snow would be white and untrodden.
Harley agreed to accompany them, stipulating that he was not to
be held responsible for broken bones. The chosen day was gay
with sunshine as they started, a rather riotous party headed by a
villager who was to show them the paths. After several hours of
weary trudging they reached the snow hill which was their goal,
and soon tobogganing was in full swing. Harley soon wearied of
it and stood watching them as they laboriously climbed the hill,
the sledges on their backs, in the pursuit of enjoyment of a few
seconds’ duration.

    So engrossing was this pursuit of pleasure that only the
guide noticed and pointed out to Harley that snow clouds were
gathering ominously. It was no easy matter to collect the revel-
lers. “One more slide” seemed their main object in life, and the
snow began falling before they were ready to start, and the guide
had become impatient at the delay. The snow fell more and more
thickly, and the little paths they had taken on the upward journey
were soon blocked, and they were obliged to forsake the short cuts
for longer ways. They were feeling the cold intensely and tried
to get some comfort out of the guide, who became more and more
taciturn, walking on silently and stopping from time to time to con-
sider a turning to take. At last he gave them a serious fright by
telling them that he had lost his way and he was no longer looking
for the way home but for a châlet le knew of where they would
have to remain until the snowstorm was over. Anxiety, not for
themselves, but for those waiting at home, made them all very
serious in a moment, but the guide shook his head very decisively
when they told him they must return home. He said they might
do as they wished but that he should take shelter, and they followed
him meekly.

    At last he found the châlet; they were upon it, blinded by
the driving snow, before any of them realized its presence. They
were almost paralyzed with cold and fatigue, and thought of no-
thing but the joy of rest and warmth as they gathered before the
door. There was no path swept in the snow, and they stood knee-
deep in the drift. It was a large and imposing châlet with smaller

wooden structures about it, and dark firs, their branches now
weighed down with snow, grew behind. A light in a window
gave them hope, and it was with grateful hearts they saw the
door opened by a peasant woman who looked amazed at their
appearance. Another woman behind the peasant girl was dimly
visible, and, with hardly any attempt at explanation, knocking the
snow off their feet, they trooped into the châlet. Harley was the
last to go in, and when he had shaken the snow from his eyelashes
and looked up, thinking it was time to give some account of them-
selves, he found himself looking into the face of Madeleine Dulac.
He could not speak. The emotion was so great that at first he
thought he was delirious. Never for a moment did he think she
could be any other woman closely resembling her, but he wondered
if she were not a spirit. All this passed through his mind like a
flash, for in an instant she had seen him and held out her hand in
smiling recognition. He could say nothing; dazed, he followed
her into the large cheerful kitchen, where all the frozen travellers
were removing their wraps and rubbing their hands, while Madame
Svenhi and her servant busied themselves with clever devices for
restoring circulation.

    While Madeleine was thus employed, Harley had ample
leisure to obsevre her narrowly and to seek for the changes that
must inevitably come in seven years. His memory was singularly
clear in all that concerned her, but search as he might he could not
find any physical alteration or any traces of the trouble she had
passed through. The figure was as straight and as slim, the chest-
nut hair as glossy and abundant as ever, the grey eyes frank and
clear as before, but here a difference could be felt which made Har-
ley seek for other signs of a maturing mind and deeper knowledge
of lite. The look in her eyes was more steadfast and serene. Seek-
ing further he noticed the same serenity expressed in the sensitive
mouth, now no longer mocking but gentler, and at the same time
firmer. Then all over her face there glowed a new fire: not the
flickering gleam of thoughts passing, as sunlight and shadow succeed
each other on the face of a landscape, but the steady light of a set
purpose, the inward fire of the soul. These thoughts passed rapidly
in Harley’s mind. Later his impressions might not have been so
vivid, but at this moment he was seeing with the eyes of a vision-
ary, for surely never was a vision more amazing or more engross-

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ing than this one, so simple and commonplace in its details to the

    Meanwhile the snow fell unceasingly, and as the daylight
grew steadily less all prospect of returning that evening vanished,
and it was arranged they should spend the night at the châlet.
Harley looked for other inmates, but he saw none except the two
women, and he dared ask no questions about Svenhi. The house
seemed amazingly large for two people, and he wondered after-
wards how he could have been so slow in guessing that it was a
boarding-house. But Madeleine keeping a pension!—it was too
awful to contemplate. Fires were lighted in cheerful bedrooms,
smelling of pine, and there was a cosy sitting-room full of evi-
dences of woman’s occupation; yet, and Harley was amazed at
this, no piano, and this struck him with a deadly chill. How
complete had been the sacrifice of her life!

    A stamping of feet in the porch announced other travellers,
and to Harley it was another development of the vision when he
saw Svenhi accompanied by a man who seemed half-cowherd and
half-huntsman. Madeleine murmured some words to her husband,
who came forward to him with outstretched hand which Harley
took somewhat ungraciously. All the native surliness of the
Englishman was in his manner, but Svenhi did not seem to
notice it, and started telling how the snowstorm had spoilt his
day’s chamois hunting. In spite of his deep-rooted prejudice
Harley could not help noticing that Svenhi had improved in
appearance. He seemed stouter, broader, and his long Hun-
garian moustache looked less inky now that he had a healthy
brown skin instead of the deathly pallor of before. His manner
was frank and unaffected, and Harley saw he was making a good
impression on the visitors.

    During supper Madeleine, who spoke English fluently, gave
all her attention to her guests, and Harley, equally bi-lingual, had
to act as interpreter for Svenhi, who was relating his sporting ex-
periences in French. Harley continued to resent him violently,
and when after supper Svenhi escorted the travellers over the
house to show them his hunting trophies, he contrived to escape
notice and remained in the room where Madeleine, seated under
the lamp, had busied herself with plain sewing, which seemingly
overflowed from a large basket at her side. He stood out of the

radius of the light and looked at her silently while she sewed on,
apparently unconscious of his presence. Stronger and stronger
grew the necessity of hearing from her lips some account of her
life: it was no concern of his, yet he had been thinking and griev-
ing about her for so long that he almost felt she owed it to him.
She sat so peacefully there, her placid face bending over her coarse
needlework, that he could not believe her to be suffering, and yet—
it was impossible she could be happy with the man who had used
her so ill. He drew a chair close to where she was seated, and she
looked up at him and smiled and went on with her work without
speaking. Then he spoke:

    “Tell me, I have no right to ask, but tell me if you are
happy. I heard in Paris that trouble had come into your life.
How have you lived through it, and have you become reconciled
again—with life?” he added, fearing to offend her.

    “I am very happy,” she answered, looking at him with her
frank eyes. “I have chosen my life, and I am far happier than
I was when you knew me full of ambition and pride. That was a
ready-made life, and this is one of my own making. You know of
the sordid anxieties of the past: now I can tell you that they never
touched my inner life, and that is where you feel suffering and joy.”

    She stopped; and Harley said nothing, waiting while his
heart beat with expectancy. He felt himself face to face with a
mystery, the deepest of all: the hidden sources of happiness.
Madeleine was seeking how to tell reasonably a tale in which
reason had no part, and his heart told him he could feel with her
if only she would give him the clue to the enigma. She continued:

    “Soon after our marriage my husband began to gamble.
He was dazzled by the glamour of the gold, he was like a child
—all gamblers are children—and he had always been poor. I was
terribly unhappy, not for the sake of the money but because of the
deterioration I saw coming over him. He was constantly in the
society of men who flattered him; he believed them, and they won
his money from him by fair means or foul, I never knew which.
One night as I lay trying to see my way out of the darkness that
surrounded us it came upon me like a flash. ‘Take him away,’
a voice said, ‘back to the hills and valleys and streams of his
childhood.’ You know, perhaps, that he is the son of small
farmers, and he lived in the wild and desolate country until a

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great musician heard him playing his cheap little violin and took
him away to Vienna to be taught. But how to win him from this
feverish life full of dreams of gold? I could do nothing; I waited,
to all I appeared indifferent and apathetic. Oh, the money soon
went, at last all had to be sold, and then my heart beat with
an excitement I had never known: I was beginning to be happy.
My husband came to me regretfully and tearfully. I held him in
my arms and told him that our life was just beginning, that our
day had dawned. He thought I had gone mad with grief and told
me afterwards that this thought kept him from suicide, feeling
suddenly his responsibility towards me. My faithful notaries had
contrived to place in safety some money that had come to me from
my mother, a very small amount, but it was enough to buy this
house and furniture, some cows and poultry. Oh, you should see
our cows grazing on the pastures high above us, the short, green,
Alpine grass around, vast as the sea, and only bounded by the
precipices sheer down to the infinite. My husband hunts in
winter, in summer there is work for us all. This house becomes
busy as a hive. Strangers come and live here; some of them
return every year, and I have made many friends who only know
me as Madame Svenhi who keeps a pension.”

    She stopped, voices were heard, the conversation would
have to become general.

    “I believe you; I admire and revere you, but I do not
understand you yet,” said Harley, wearily.

    That night he lay wakeful and restless in spite of the
fatiguing day. He turned over in his mind all Madeleine had said
that evening. He was now convinced that she was happy, happy
he thought in a fool’s paradise of her own, and from which some
day there would be a terrible awakening. The awakening would
come when Svenhi tired of the rural life and returned to town and
its temptations. The violin was always there with its luring voice
and would some day call him away to the magic glittering city
of his imagining, and this time it would be the complete shattering
of Madeleine’s dream, a dream which in the cold hard light of
reason was wild and very insecure. Harley had not yet reached
the height when we know that dreams are realities. However, to
do him justice he was only anxious to be allowed to enter into this
one, take part in it and understand it if he could. He judged it hard

that Svenhi the unworthy should be a feature in Madeleine’s rare
dream, and that he should be an outsider, merely allowed to look
through the railings at the enchanted garden. As he thought of
this his resentment towards Svenhi grew stronger; in fact during
one feverish hour he caught himself finding satisfaction in thinking
of the dangers of chamois hunting. Sleep came at last, heavy
dreamless sleep.

    The travellers were awakened by the dazzling light of the
sun shining on the snow and making it sparkle like crystal. Long
before, at the early dawn, the guide had started homewards to re-
assure the anxious friends. This assurance gave the young people
an excuse for more tobogganing, and an hour’s amusement was
decided on before they all started homewards. Svenhi offered to
show them a snow hill, and in a few minutes the voices were heard
growing fainter as they hurried off with their sledges. Harley
remained indoors with Madeleine, hardly daring to hope for a
renewal of the last night’s conversation, and yet anxious to begin
it again should an opportunity present itself. Madeleine did not
seem inclined to begin talking, but remained in the room kneeling
on the window seat and looking out across the valley. Harley
walked impatiently up and down the room, knowing that in an
hour all chances of speaking to her would be gone, yet not know-
ing how to begin. Suddenly as he paced up and down he noticed
a violin case piled up with some fishing rods, dusty and forgotten.
This drew him up suddenly, and he realized that his opportunity
had come.

    “Has your husband ceased to play the violin?” he said,
coming near to the window corner where Madeleine was.
“He has no need of it now,” was her reply. “Music is the
inarticulate speech of one who is seeking to attain—when the ful-
filment is reached the need for speech ceases. Hence the per-
petual restlessness of the artist who tries to express the inex-

    “Then he has attained fulfilment?” said Harley, hardly
conscious of a sneer in his question.

    “He has,” Madeleine answered gravely; “he has found

    He turned away and looked out of the window at the snowy
landscape, asking himself bitterly whether this was all madness or

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whether he was too sophisticated ever to understand elemental
truths. He heard the door close as Madeleine left the room, and
he remained in deep meditation until the house was noisy once
more with the voices, and soon they were prepared for the home-
ward tramp. The farewells were very cordial, and promises were
made to meet again. Harley was very quiet, but he felt less
animosity towards Svenhi as he shook his hand, and his farewell
to Madeleine was a silent one. Gradually her peace was spread-
ing its quiet wings over him. The sun shone brightly on the little
group as they moved down the path towards the bend of the road
which was to hide the châlet completely from view. They waved
their hands and passed on. Harley was the last to look back
before he too passed out of sight. He saw Madeleine leaning on
her husband’s arm, shading her eyes from the dazzling snow with
her hand. Framed in the radiant Alpine landscape they stood, he
a type of manly strength and vigour and she the frail woman
clinging to him. Together they seemed the perfect being, and as
Harley turned his head and passed on, he felt he was leaving them
in perfect harmony with their surroundings, far from disintegrating
influences; and, musing, he knew he was beginning to understand.

                                                              NORA MURRAY ROBERTSON

MLA citation:

Robertson, Nora Murray. “A Solution.” The Venture: an Annual of Art and Literature, vol. 2, 1905, pp. 114-130. Venture Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2019-2022. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2022,