Cecil Dreeme/Chapter XXVIII
“The carriage is here,” said Locksley, at the door. What with indignation at Densdeth, the janitor had got far beyond his usual bristly porcupine condition. He presented a spiky aspect. I hope no boy of the Chrysalids tried a tussle with him that day.
“Will you allow me to join your party?” Raleigh asked. “I may make myself of use.”
“Certainly. Well, Towner, we leave you with friend Locksley. But, man!” continued Churm, in surprise, “what have you been doing to yourself?”
Well he might be astonished! Towner had risen, and was standing erect and vigorous. His manner was eager, almost to wildness. His little, unmeaning eyes were open wide, as if he saw something that made him young and unwrinkled again. There was a hot, hectic spot in his cheek, just now mere pale parchment.
“Embers ablaze at last!” thought I. “The man has struck a blow for freedom, and now he begins to hunger for vengeance. He has shaken off Densdeth; he looks as if he could turn and tear him.”
“I should like to go with you, Mr. Churm, if you please,” said Towner. “The drive will do me good. Huffmire knows me. He might open his doors to me, as Densdeth’s friend, when he would exclude you.”
“Very well,” said Churm; “come, if you feel strong enough. But you must let Locksley fit you out with clothes.”
Towner hurried off with the janitor. He had skulked into my room, at the beginning of the interview, like a condemned spy; he moved away like a brave and a victor.
“I take him,” said Churm, “because I doubt his resolution. The old allegiance might prove too strong. He might confess to Densdeth that he had confessed to us. That would baffle us. We must not lose sight of him.”
“Churm,” said I, “I go with you, of course, through thick and thin. But Cecil Dreeme, — I feel that my first duty is to seek and succor him. I long to aid the young lady. But she is a stranger, and has you. Dreeme is part of my heart, and has no one.”
“Patience, Robert! One thing at a time. Let us but run Densdeth to earth, and I dare promise you will find your friend. You for yours, and I for mine, and both against the common foe, we must prevail. If I doubted one moment of my child’s safety, I should not be searching for her now, but chasing him.”
“Not to impose upon him the mild sentence you spoke of long ago? Not to condemn him to bless as many lives as he has cursed?”
“I fear it is too late for such gentle treatment. Do you suppose, Towner, a life so cursed as his will be contented with that indirect application of the lex talionis? No; Densdeth must be stopped and punished.”
The boys of Chrysalis, the College, were swarming in the corridor and upon the staircase under the plaster fan-tracery as we passed. Little enough of the honey of learning had they sucked from their mullein-stalk of a professor that day, and they buzzed indignantly or bumbled surlily about. Far different was the kind of education and discipline I was getting in the same cloisters. The great book of sin and sorrow, that time-worn, tear-marked, blood-stained volume, had been opened to me here, and I was reading it by the light of my own experience. And as I read, I felt that there were pages awaiting my record, — pages that I could already fill, and others that the future would sternly teach me to fill, before my story ended.
At the great western door we found Churm’s drag, with the bays. Towner came out, muffled in an old blue camlet cloak, — a garment that the moths had disdained for a score of years, when in Locksley’s prosperity they had choice pasturage of broadcloth to graze over. This queer figure and the elegant Raleigh took the back seat. Churm and I were on the box.
Churm’s bays are not known to the Racing Calendar; but there are teams of renown that always pull up on the road, when they hear the accurate cadence of their coming hoofs, and recognize Churm’s peculiar whistle as he signals, “More seconds out of that mile!” We drove fast through town to the nearest ferry, crossed, and presently, off the stones across the water, bowled along the Bushley turnpike, as merrily as if we were on our way to a country wedding festival. Little was said. We knew the past, and that was too painful to talk of. We did not know the future, and could not interpret its omens.
From time to time I turned to glance at Towner. He sat erect and alert, with cheeks burning and eyes aflame. The inner fire had kindled up his manhood again. “I would not give much for Densdeth’s life,” thought I, “if his late serf should meet him now. The man is capable of one spasm of vengeance. He looks, with his twitching face and uneasy fingers, as if he could rend the being that has debased him, and then die.”
So we drove on, mile after mile, in the chilly March afternoon, and at last pulled up at a door, in a white stuccoed wall, — a whited wall, edging the road like a bank of stale snow. Within we could see an ugly, dismal house, equally stuccoed white, peering suspiciously at us over the top of the enclosure, from its sinister grated windows of the upper story.
A boy was walking up and down the road at a little distance a fine black horse, all in a lather with hard riding, and cut with the spurs. The animal plunged about furiously, almost dragging the lad off his feet.
“You will see Huffmire, Towner,” said Churm, “and tell him that I want to talk with him.”
“Yes,” cried Towner, eagerly, “let me manage it!”
He shook off his cloak, sprang down with energetic step, and rang the bell. A man looked through a small shutter in the door, and asked his business, gruffly enough.
“Tell Dr. Huffmire that Mr. Towner wishes to see him.”
The porter presently returned, and said that Dr. Huffmire would see the gentleman, alone.
“Huffmire will know my name. Send him out here to me, Towner, if he will come; if not, do you make the necessary inquiries,” said Churm.
Towner passed in. The porter closed the outer door upon him, and then looked through the shutter at us, with a truculent stare, as if he were accustomed to inquisitive visitors, and liked to baffle them. He had but one eye, and his effect, as he grinned through the square port-hole in the gate, was singularly Cyclopean and ogre-ish. He probably regarded men merely as food, sooner or later, for insane asylums, — as morsels to be quietly swallowed or forcibly choked down by the jaws of Retreats.
“What!” whispered Raleigh to me, as the boy led the snorting and curvetting black horse by us. “That fellow at the eye-hole magnetized me at first. I did not notice that horse. Do you know it?”
“No,” said I. “I have never seen him. A splendid fellow! His rider must have been in hot haste to get here. Perhaps some errand like our own!”
“Densdeth,” again whispered Raleigh, “Densdeth told me he had been looking at a new black horse.”
We glanced at each other. All felt that Densdeth’s appearance here, at this moment, might be harmful. Churm’s name brought Huffmire speedily to the door. Churm, the philanthropist, was too powerful a man to offend. Huffmire opened the door, and stood just within, defending the entrance. He was a large man, with a large face, — large in every feature, and exaggerated where for proportion it should have been small. He suffered under a general rush of coarseness to the face. He had a rush of lymphatic puffiness to the cheeks, a rush of blubber to the lips, a rush of gristle to his clumsy nose, a rush of lappel to the ears, a rush of dewlap to the throat. A disgusting person, — the very type of man for a vulgar tyrant. His straight black hair was brushed back and combed behind the ears. He was in the sheep’s clothing of a deacon.
“You have a young lady here, lately arrived?” said Churm, bowing slightly, in return to the other’s cringing reverence.
“I have several, sir. Neither youth nor beauty is exempt, alas! from the dreadful curse of insanity, which I devote myself, in my humble way, to eradicate. To e-rad-i-cate,” he repeated, dwelling on the syllables of his word, as if he were tugging, with brute force, at something that came up hard, — as if madness were a stump, and he were a cogwheel machine extracting it.
“I wish to know,” said Churm, in his briefest and sternest manner, “if a young lady named Denman was brought here yesterday.”
“Denman, sir! No sir. I am happy to be able to state to you, sir, that there is no unfortunate of that name among my patients, — no one of that name, — I rejoice to satisfy you.”
“I suppose you know who I am,” said Churm. I saw his fingers clutch his whip-handle.
A rush of oiliness seemed to suffuse the man’s coarse face. “It is the well-known Mr. Churm,” said he. “The fame of his benevolence is co-extensive with our country, sir. Who does not love him? — the friend of the widow and the orphan! I am proud, sir, to make your acquaintance. This is a privilege, indeed, — indeed, a most in-es-ti-ma-ble pri-vile-age.”
“Do you think me a safe man to lie to?” said Churm, abruptly.
“I confess that I do not take your meaning, sir,” said Huffmire, in the same soft manner, but stepping back a little.
“Do you think it safe to lie to me?”
“I, sir! lie, sir!” stammered Huffmire. The oiliness seemed to coagulate in his muddy skin, and with his alarm his complexion took the texture and color of soggy leather.
“Yes; the lady is here. I wish to see her.”
As Churm was silent, looking sternly at the pretended doctor, there rose suddenly within the building a strange and horrible cry.
A strange and horrible cry! Two voices mingled in its discord. One was a well-known mocking tone, now smitten with despair; and yet the change that gave it its horror was so slight, that I doubted if the old mockery had not all the while been despair, suppressed and disguised. The other voice, mingling with this, rising with it up into silence that grew stiller as they climbed, and then, disentangling itself, over-topping its companion, and beating it slowly down until it had ceased to be, — this other voice was like the exulting cry of one defeated and trampled under foot, who yet has saved a stab for his victor.
They had met — Towner and Densdeth!
We three sprang from the carriage, thrust aside the Doctor, and, following our memories of the dead sound for a clew, ran across the court and through a half-open door into the hall of the Asylum.
All was still within. The air was thick with the curdling horror that had poured into it. We paused an instant to listen.
A little muffled moan crept feebly forth from a room on the left. It hardly reached us, so faint it was. It crept forth, and seemed to perish at our feet, like a hopeless suppliant. We entered the room. It was a shabby parlor, meanly furnished. The stained old paper on the walls was covered with Arcadian groups of youths and maidens, dancing to the sound of a pipe played by a shepherd, who sat upon a broken column under a palm. On the floor was a tawdry carpet, all beflowered and befruited, — such a meretricious blur of colors as a hotel offers for vulgar feet to tread upon. So much I now perceive that I marked in that mean reception-room. But I did not note it then.
For there, among the tawdry flowers of the carpet, lay Densdeth, — dead, or dying of a deadly wound. The long, keen, antique dagger I had noticed lying peacefully on my table was upon the floor. Its office had found it at last, and the signet of a new blood-stain was stamped upon its blade, among tokens of an old habit of murder, latent for ages.
Beside the wounded man sat Towner. His spasm was over. The freed serf had slain his tyrant. All his life had been crowded into that one moment of frenzy. He sat pale and drooping, and there was a desolate sorrow in his face, as if his hate for his master had been as needful to him as a love.
“I could not help it,” said Towner, in a dreary whisper. “He came to me while I was waiting here. He told Huffmire to send you off, and leave me to him. And then he stood over me, and told me, with his old sneer, that I belonged to him, body and soul. He said I must obey him. He said he had work for me now, — just such mean villany as I was made for. I felt that in another instant I should be his again. I only made one spring at him. How came I by that dagger? I never saw it until I found it in my hand, at his heart. Is he dead? No. I am dying. Shall I be safe from him hereafter? I haven’t had a fair chance in this world. What could a man do better — born in a jail?”
Towner drooped slowly down as he spoke. He ended, and his defeated life passed away from that worn-out body, the comrade of its ignominy.
I raised Densdeth’s head. The strange fascination of his face became doubly subtle, as he seemed still to gaze at me with closed eyelids, like a statue’s. I felt that, if those cold feline eyes should open and again turn their inquisition inward upon my soul, devilish passions would quicken there anew. I shuddered to perceive the lurking devil in me, slumbering lightly, and ready to stir whenever he knew a comrade was near.
“Spare me, Densdeth!” I rather thought than spoke; but with the thought an effluence must have passed from me to him.
His eyes opened. The look of treachery and triumph was gone. He murmured something. What we could not hear. But all the mockery of his voice had departed when in that dying scream it avowed itself despair. The tones we caught were sweet and childlike.
With this effort blood gushed again from his murderous wound. He, too, drooped away and died. The soul that had had no other view of brother men than through the eyes of a beast of prey, fled away to find its new tenement. His face settled into marble calm and beauty. I parted the black hair from his forehead.
There was the man whom I should have loved if I had not hated, dead at last, with this vulgar death. Only a single stab from another, and my warfare with him was done. I felt a strange sense of indolence overcome me. Was my business in life over, now that I had no longer to struggle with him daily? Had he strengthened me? Had he weakened me? Should I have prevailed against him, or would he have finally, mastered me, if this chance, this Providence, of death had not come between us?
I looked up, and found Churm studying the dead man.
“Can it be?” said I, “that a soul perilous to all truth and purity, a merciless tempter, a being who to every other man was the personification of that man’s own worst ideal of himself, — can it be that such an unrestful spirit has dwelt within this quiet form? What was he? For what purpose enters such a disturbing force into the orderly world of God?”
“That is the ancient mystery,” said Churm, solemnly.
“Can it never be solved in this world?”
“It is not yet solved to you? Then you must wait for years of deeper thought, or some moment of more fiery trial.”