Stillfleet and His News Edit
The Arago landed me at midnight in mid-winter. It was a dreary night. I drove forlornly to my hotel. The town looked mean and foul. The first omens seemed unkindly. My spirits sank full fathom five into Despond.
But bed on shore was welcome after my berth on board the steamer. I was glad to be in a room that did not lurch or wallow, and could hold its tongue. I could sleep, undisturbed by moaning and creaking woodwork, forever threatening wreck in dismal refrain.
It was late next morning when a knock awoke me. I did not say, “Entrez,” or “Herein.”
Some fellows adopt those idioms after a week in Paris or a day in Heidelberg, and then apologize, — “We travellers quite lose our mother tongue, you know.”
“Come in,” said I, glad to use the vernacular.
A Patrick entered, brandishing a clothes-broom as if it were a shillalah splintered in a shindy.
“A jontlemin wants to see yer honor,” said he.
A gentleman to see me! Who can it be? I asked myself. Not Densdeth already! No, he is probably also making a late morning of it after our rough voyage. I fear I should think it a little ominous if he appeared at the threshold of my home life, as my first friend in America. Bah! Why should I have superstitions about Densdeth? Our intimacy on board will not continue on shore. What’s Hecuba to me, or I to Hecuba?”
“A jontlemin to see yer honor,” repeated the Pat, with a peremptory flourish of his weapon.
“What name, Patrick?”
“I misremember the name of him, yer honor. He’s a wide-awake jontlemin, with three mustasshes, — two on his lip, and one at the pint of his chin.”
Can it be Harry Stillfleet? I thought. He cannot help being wide-awake. He used to wear his beard à la three-moustache mode. His appearance as my first friend would be a capital omen. “Show him up, Pat!” said I.
“He shows himself up,” said a frank, electric voice. “Here he is, wide-awake, three moustaches, first friend, capital omen. Hail Columbia! beat the drums! Robert Byng, old boy, how are you?”
“Harry Stillfleet, old boy, how are you?”
“I am an old boy, and hope you are so too.”
“I trust so. It is the best thing that can be said of a full-grown man.”
“I saw your name on the hotel book,” Stillfleet resumed. “Rushed in to say, ‘How d’ ye do?’ and ‘Good-bye!’ I’m off to-day. Any friends out in the Arago?”
“No friends. A few acquaintances, — and Densdeth.”
“Name Densdeth friend, and I cut you bing-bang!”
“What! Densdeth, the cleverest man I have ever met?”
“Densdeth, handsome as Alcibiades, or perhaps I should say Absalom, as he is Hebrewish?”
“That very Alcibiades, — Absalom, — Densdeth.”
“Densdeth, the brilliant, the accomplished, — who fascinates old and young, who has been everywhere, who has seen everything, who knows the world de profundis, — a very Midas with the gold touch, but without the ass’s ears? Densdeth, the potent millionnaire?”
“Yes, Byng. And he can carry a great many more adjectives. He has qualities enough to make a regiment of average men. But my friends must be built of other stuff.”
“So must mine, to tell the truth, Harry. But he attracts me strangely. His sardonic humor suits one side of my nature.”
“The cynical side?”
“If I have one. The voyage would have been a bore without him. I had never met and hardly heard of him before; but we became intimate at once. He has shown me much attention.”
“No doubt. He knows men. You have a good name. You are to be somebody on your own account, we hope. Besides, Densdeth was probably aware of your old friendship with the Denmans.”
“He never spoke of them.”
“Naturally. He did not wish to talk tragedy.”
“Tragedy! What do you mean?”
“You have not heard the story of Densdeth and Clara Denman!” cried Stillfleet, in surprise.
“No. Shut up in Leipsic, and crowding my studies to come home, I have not heard a word of New York gossip for six months.”
“This is graver than gossip, Byng. It happened less than three months ago. Densdeth was to have married Clara Denman.”
“The cynical Densdeth marry that strange child!”
“You forget your ten years’ absence. The strange child grew up a noble woman.”
“Not a beauty, — that I cannot conceive.”
“No; but a genius. Once in a century Nature sends such a brave, earnest, tender, indignant soul on this low earth. All the men of genius were in love with her, except myself. But Densdeth, a bad genius, seemed to have won her. The wedding-day was fixed, cards out, great festivities; you know how a showy man like Denman would seize the occasion for splendor. One night she disappeared without sign. Three days afterward she was floated upon the beach down the bay, — drowned, poor thing!”
“What!” cried I, “Clara Denman, my weird little playmate! Dead! Drowned! I did not imagine how tenderly I had remembered her.”
“I was not her lover,” said Harry, “only a friend; but the world has seemed a mean and lonely place since she passed away so cruelly.”
The mercurial fellow was evidently greatly affected.
“She had that fine exaltation of nature,” continued he, “which frightens weak people. They said her wild, passionate moods brought her to the verge of madness.”
“A Sibylline soul.”
“Yes, a Sibyl who must see and know and suffer. Her friends gave out that she had actually gone mad with a fever, and so, while her nurse was asleep, she stole out, erred about the city, fell into the river, and was drowned.”
“Never! with such a healthy soul. Yet some people do not hesitate to say that she drowned herself rather than be forced to marry Densdeth.”
“These are not the days of forced marriages.”
“Moral pressure is more despotic than physical force. I fancy our old friend Churm may think there was tyranny in the business, though he never speaks of it. You know he was a supplementary father and guardian of those ladies. He was absent when it all happened.”
“And the Denmans, — how do they seem to bear it?”
“Mr. Denman was sadly broken at first. I used to meet him, walking about, leaning feebly on Densdeth’s arm, looking like a dead man, or one just off the rack. But he is proud as Lucifer. He soon was himself again, prouder than before.”
“And Emma Denman?”
“I have had but one glimpse of her since the younger sister’s death. Her beauty is signally heightened by mourning.”
“Such a tragedy must terribly blight her life. Will they see me, do you think? I should like to offer my sympathy, for old friendship’s sake.”
“As an old friend, they will see you, of course. In fact, conspicuous people, like the Denmans, cannot long shelter themselves behind a sorrow. But come, old fellow, I have been talking solemnly long enough. Tell me about yourself. Come home ripe? Wild oats sowed? Ready to give us a lift with civilization?”
“Ripe, I hope. Not raw, as I went. Nor rotten, as some fellows return. Wild oats? I keep a few handfuls still in my bag, for home sowing. As to civilization; let me get my pou stô and my handspike set, and I will heave with a will, lift or no.”
“Suppose you state your case in full, as if you were a clown in the ring, or a hero on the stage.”
I had been dressing while he talked. My toilette was nearly done. I struck an attitude and replied, “My name is Robert Byng, ‘as I sailed.’”
“Name short, and with a good crack to it; man long and not whipper-snapper. Name distinguished; bearer capable. State your age, Byng the aforesaid.”
“The prisoner confesses to twenty-six. The judge in the name of the American people demands, ‘Why then haven’t you been five years at the bar, or ten years at the desk? Why are you not in command of a clipper ship, or in Congress, or driving an omnibus, or clearing a farm? Where is your door-plate? Where is your wife? What school does your eldest son go to? Where is your mark on the nineteenth century?’”
“Bah, Harry! Don’t bore me with your Young Americanism! I know it is not sincere. Let me mature, before you expect a man’s work of me!”
“The culprit desires to state,” says Stillfleet, as if he were addressing an audience, “that he was born to a fortune and a life of idleness and imbecility, that he would gladly be imbecile and idle now, like nous autres; but that losing his parents and most of his money at an unsophisticated age, while in Europe, he consulted the Oracle how he should make his living. ‘What is that burn on your thumb?’ asked the Oracle. ‘Phosphorus,’ replied Master Bob. ‘How came that hole in your sleeve?’ Oracle inquires. ‘Nitric acid,’ Byng responds. ‘It was the cat that scratched your face?’ says Oracle. ‘No,’ answers the youth, ‘my retort burst before it was half full of gas.’ ‘Phosphorus on your thumb,’ Oracle sums up, ‘nitric acid on your sleeve, and your face clawed with gas explosions, — there is only one thing for you to do. Be a chemist!’ Which he became. Is that a straight story, Byng?”
“Near enough!” said I, laughing at my friend’s rattling history of my life.
“And here he is, fellow-citizens,” Stillfleet continued. “He has seen the world and had his fling in Paris, where he picked up a little chemistry and this half-cynical manner and half-sceptical method, which you remark. He has also got a small supply of science and an abundance of dreaminess and fatalism in Germany. But he is a fine fellow, with a good complexion, not dishonest blue eyes, not spoilt in any way, and if America punishes him properly, and puts his nose severely to the grind-stone, he may turn out respectable. I’ll offer you three to two, Byng, the Devil don’t get you. Speak quick, or I shall want to bet even.”
“You rascal!” said I. “I would go at you with an analysis after the same fashion, if I were not too hungry. Come down and breakfast.”
“Here is a gentleman from Sybaris!” cried Stillfleet. “‘Come and breakfast!’ says he, lifting himself out of his bed of rose-leaves at mid-day. Why, man! I breakfasted three hours ago. I’ve been up to the Reservoir and down to the Exchange and over to Brooklyn since. That’s the style you have to learn, twenty thousand miles an hour, hurrah boys! go ahead! ‘En avant, marrche!’ ‘Marrrrche!’ Yes; I took breakfast three hours ago, — and a stout one, — to fortify me for the toil of packing to go to Washington. But I’ll sit by and check your come-ashore appetite.”