The Palace and Its Neighbors Edit
Stillfleet and I passed out into the chilly marble-paved corridor.
The young Chrysalids in the class-room seemed to be in high revolt. They were mobbing their lank professor. We could see the confusion through the open door.
“He takes it meekly, you see,” said Stillfleet. “He knows that the hullabaloo isn’t half punishment enough for his share in the fiction of calling the place a college.”
We descended the main stairway. The white-washed fan-tracery snowed its little souvenir on us as we passed. On the ground floor, a few steps along the damp corridor, was the door marked “Janitor.”
Stillfleet pulled the bell. A cheerful, handsome, housewifely woman opened.
“Can we come in, Mrs. Locksley?” said my friend.
“You are always welcome, Mr. Stillfleet.”
We entered a compact little snuggery. There was something infinitely honest and trusty in the effect and atmosphere of the place.
Three junior Locksleys caught sight of Stillfleet. They rushed at him, with shouts and gambols enough for a dozen.
I love to see children kitten it securely about a young man. They know friends and foes without paying battles and wounds for the knowledge. They seem to divine a sour heart, a stale heart, or a rotten heart, by unerring instinct. If a man is base metal, he may pass current with the old counterfeits like himself; children will not touch him.
“The world has smoked and salted me,” said Stillfleet, “and tried to cure me hard as an old ham. But there is a fresh spot inside me, Byng, and juveniles always find it. I’ve come to say good-bye, children,” he continued; “but here’s Mr. Bob Byng, he’ll take my place. His head is full of fairy stories for Dora. His fingers make windmills and pop-guns almost without knowing it. Think of that, Hall!”
Dora, a pretty damsel of twelve, and Hall, a ten-year-old male and sturdy, inspected me critically. Was I bogus? Their looks said, they thought not.
“As for Key Locksley here,” said Harry, “all he wants is romp and sugar-plums. This is Mr. Byng, Key. ‘Some in his pocket and some in his sleeve, he’s made of sugar-plums I do believe.’”
So Master Key, a toddler, accepted me as his Lord Chief Confectioner.
“Now, children,” said Stillfleet, with mock gravity, “be Mr. Byng’s monitors. Require him to set you a good example. Tell him young men generally go to the bad without children to watch over them.”
“Many a true word is spoken in jest,” said Mrs. Locksley.
“But where is your husband?” my friend asked. “I must exhibit his new tenant to him.”
“Coming, sir!” said a voice from the bedroom adjoining.
I had heard a rustling and crackling there, as if some one was splitting his way into a starchy clean shirt.
At the word, out came Locksley, a bristly little man. His hair and beard were so stiff that I fancied at once he could discharge a volley of hairs, as a porcupine shoots quills at a foe. This bristliness and a pair of keen black eyes gave him a sharp, alert, and warlike look, as if he were quick to take alarm, but not likely to be frightened. No danger of the hobbledehoys of Chrysalis, the College, riding roughshod over such a janitor.
I detected him as a man who had seen better days, and hoped to see them again, by his shirt-collars. They were stiff as Calvinism and white as Spitzbergen. Such collars are the badge of men who, though low in the pocket, are not down in the mouth. So long as there is starch in the shirt, no matter how little nap the coat wears; but limp linen betokens a desponding spirit, and presently there will be no linen and despair.
“Locksley,” said Stillfleet, in his rattling, Frenchy way, “here’s my friend Byng, Robert Byng, Esquire, of Everywhere and Nowhere. I pop out and he pops in to Rubbish Palace. He’s been a half-century in Europe and knows no more of America than the babe unborn. Protect his innocence in this strange city. Save him from Peter Funk. Don’t let him stay out after curfew. He must not make any low acquaintances in Chrysalis. He has a pet animal, the Orgie, picked up in Paris, very noisy and bites; don’t allow him to bring it into these quiet cloisters. Well, I trust him to you and Mrs. Locksley. I’m off for Washington. Good-by, all!”
He shook hands with janitor and janitress, kissed Dora, tweaked the boys, and fled riotously.
I saw him and his traps into a carriage and off, — off and out of the era of my life which I describe in these pages. With him I fear the merry element disappears from a sombre story.
I perceived what a lonely fellow I was, as soon as I lost sight of Stillfleet.
“Every man has his friends, if he can only find them,” I said to myself. “But here I am, a returned absentee, and not a soul knows me, except Densdeth. Exit Harry Stillfleet; manet Densdeth. I believe I will look him up. Why should I make a bête noir of such an agreeable fellow? He won’t bite. He’s no worse than half the men I’ve known. But first I must transfer myself bag and baggage to Chrysalis.”
The Chuzzlewit unwillingly disgorged me and my traps, after so short a period of feeding upon us. The waiter, specially detailed to keep me waiting if my bell rang, handled his clothes-broom, when he saw me depart, as if he would like to knock me down, lock me up, and make me pay a princely ransom for my liberty.
I escaped, however, without a skirmish or the aid of a policeman, and presently made my formal entry into Rubbish Palace.
“Great luck!” thought I, beginning to unpack and arrange, “to find myself at home the first day.”
“Dreadful bore, to beat through this great city on a house-hunt!”
I picked up a newspaper on Stillfleet’s table, and read the advertisements.
“Lodgings for a single gentleman of pious habits.”
“Fine suite of apartments to let. N. B. Dodsley’s Band practises next door, and can be heard free of expense, at all hours of day or night.”
“Parlor and bedroom over Dr. Toothaker’s office in Bond Street. Murderers, Coroners, Banjoists, and District Attorneys need not apply.”
I was glad to have escaped inquiring into such places, and to tumble into luxury at once.
And comfort? I asked myself. How as to comfort?
My new quarters were almost too grandiose for comfort. That simple emotion was hardly sufficiently ambitious for an apartment big enough to swing a tiger, fifteen feet from tip to tip, in. There was no chimney, and therefore none of the domestic cheerfulness of an open fire. But an open fire would have interfered with the Italian aspect of the chamber. To keep the temperature up to Italy, I had a mighty stove, a great architectural pile of cast-iron, elaborate as if Prometheus had been a mediæval saint, and this were his shrine.
I looked about my great room, and it seemed to me more and more as if I were tenanting the museum of some old virtuoso Tuscan marquis, the last habitable chamber of his palazzo, the treasury where he had huddled all the heirlooms of the race since they were Counts of Etruria, long before Romulus cubbed it with wolves and Remus scorned earth-works.
It is idle to say that the scenery about a man’s life does not affect his character. It does so just in proportion to his sensitiveness. A clown, of course, might inhabit the Palace of Art, with the Garden of Eve in front and the Garden of Armida behind, and still never have any but clownish thoughts in his clown’s noddle.
Whatever else I was, I was certainly not a clown. My being was susceptible to every touch and every breath of influence. My new home and its scenery took me at once in hand, and began to string me to harmony with itself. I fell into a spiritual mood befitting the place.
A romantic place.
And Stillfleet’s collection heightened the romantic effect. Stillfleet was a fellow of the practical and artistic natures well combined, with a bizarre slash, a bend dexter of oddity running through him. Fact, beauty, and fun were all represented in his museum.
He had, as he said, sampled all the ages. The ages when beings were brutes, and did nothing but feed and drink and fight and frisk and die, leaving no sign but an unwieldy skeleton, were represented in this Congress by a great thigh-bone, which a shambling mammoth had spent his days in exaggerating.
The fossil stood to symbolize the first kick of animal life against chaos. From that beginning the series went on rapidly. The times when Art put its fancies into amorphous, into grotesque, into clumsy forms, had all contributed some typical object.
Then of things of beauty, joys forever, there was abundance. There were models of the most mythological temples, and the most Christian spires and towers. There were prints and pictures, old and young. There were curiosities in iron and steel, in enamel and ivory, in glass and gem, in armor and weapons.
I will not attempt at present to catalogue this museum, or give any distinct impression of it. On that first afternoon I did not pause to analyze. I should have plenty of time in future, and now I had my own traps to arrange. That must be done systematically, so that I should be a settled man from the start.
I felt, however, as I proceeded with my unpacking and bestowing, a fine sense of order in the apparent whimsical disorder of the objects about me. The pictures had not alighted on the walls merely at the first convenient perch. There was method in all the contrasts and confusions of the place.
That modern French picture, for example, of masquers — a painting all vigor, all abandon, all unterrified and riotous color — had not without spiritual, as well as artistic significance, ranged itself beside a scene of a meagre Franciscan in a cavern, contemplating a scourge, a cup, and a crust. There was propriety in setting a cast of the Venus of Milo in a corner with the armor of a knight and the pike of a Puritan.
As I went on putting my chattels to rights and making myself at home in a methodic way, the atmosphere of the spot more and more affected me. I am careful in stating this dreamy influence. A certain romantic feeling of expectation took possession of me. I had no definite life before me. I was passive, and awaiting events. A man at work resists emanations and miasms; a man at rest is infected.
I looked about the room. Everything in it seemed watching me. I fancied that the ancient objects were weary of being regarded as dead curiosities, as fossils. They seemed to reclaim their former semi-animation, to desire to be the properties of an actual drama, to long to sympathize with joy and sorrow, as they had dumbly sympathized long ago.
I felt myself becoming a dramatic personage, but with no rôle yet assigned.
“Here is the stage,” I thought. “Here is the scenery. Here is such a hall as conspirators, when there were conspirators, would have held tryst in. But the vindictive centuries are dead and gone. There is no Vehm to sit here in sombre judgment. And if there were a Vehm, the age of crime is over. I dare say I shall lead a commonplace life enough here, — study, smoke, sleep, just as if the room were not thirty feet square, dimly lighted with mullioned windows, and hung with pictures grim with three centuries of silent monitorship.
“Lucky that I’m not superstitious!” my thought continued. “I never shall peer behind the bed for ghosts, or for fiends into the coal-bin. A superstitious man might well be uneasy here. If I wanted to give a timid fellow the horrors, I would shut him up in this very room for a single night without light and without cigars. I don’t believe a guilty man could stand it at all. If one had fathered villain purposes, those bastards of the soul’s begetting would be sure to return and plague their parent in these lodgings. No, a guilty man could never live here a day.
“Densdeth, now, — how would he like to be quartered in Rubbish Palace? I forget that he does occupy the next room. By the way, I will see whether the door to his dark room is fast on my side.”
I crowded between the piles of packing-cases in Stillfleet’s lumber-closet to examine. Unless Densdeth were a spirit, and could squeeze through a keyhole, I was safe from a visit by that entrance. Stillfleet had screwed on this door a grand piece of ancient ironmongery, a bolt big enough to hold the gate of a condemned cell.
As I stooped to admire the workmanship of the old bolt, I was aware of the faint fragrance of a subtle and luxurious perfume. Stillfleet’s boxes were musty enough. The scent was only perceptible at the door. It must come from the other side.
“Odor of boudoir, not store-room,” I thought. “But perhaps he keeps a box of some precious nard stored here, and it has sprung a leak. Never mind, Mr. Byng; keep your nose for your own Cologne-bottle. Boudoir or magazine, remember it is Densdeth’s, a man you mistrust.”
I shut the closet-door, left the coffins of Stillfleet’s Old Masters in their dark vault, and returned to my work.
In another half-hour all my traps had found their places. Everything, from boots to Bible, was where it would come to hand at need. I laid my matches so that I need not grope about in the formidable dimness of my chamber when I entered at night.
It was five o’clock. I felt a great want of society, and an imperative appetite for dinner.
“Why not venture,” I asked myself, “to knock at Mr. Churm’s door up-stairs? Perhaps he will dine with me at the Chuzzlewit, or show me a better place. He will not think me impertinent, I am sure, in making myself known anew to him.”
I took the nearest staircase for the floor above, expecting to find there another corridor running the whole length of the building, as below. A locked door, however, at the left of the landing obstructed my passage towards Churm’s side of Chrysalis. At the right also was a door, cutting off that portion of the corridor. It stood ajar.
As I was turning to descend, and find my way by the other staircase to Churm’s lodgings, the question occurred to me, “Have I a neighbor overhead? Densdeth beside me, — who is above? By what name shall I chide him, if in dancing his breakdowns he comes crashing through the centre-piece of my ceiling? I should be glad to have a fine fellow close at hand to serve me as a counterblast to Densdeth. I must have friends, and if I can find one in my neighbor, so much the better.”
I pushed open the door, and entered the little hall; it was lighted, as below, by a narrow mullioned window, — only half-lighted at that hour of a winter’s afternoon.
A lonely, dismal place. The ceiling, instead of showing a tidy baldness under recent combings by a housemaid’s broom, was all hairy with cobwebs. I was surprised that no spider had slung himself across the doorway, making the lobby a cave of Adullam.
There were two doors on the right. Each was labelled “To Let.” The light was so faint by this time that I was obliged to approach close to satisfy myself that “To Let” was not the name of a tenant.
On the left the same unprofitable nonentity occupied the room over Densdeth’s. The fourth door, corresponding to my own, remained. I inspected that in turn.
An ordinary visiting-card was tacked to the door. It bore a name neatly printed by hand.
I deciphered it with difficulty by the twilight through the grimy window: —
- CECIL DREEME,
A modest little door-plate. Its shyness interested me at once. Some men force their name and business on the world’s eye, as the vulgar and pushing announce their presence by a loud voice and large manner. A person of conscious power will let his works speak for him. Take care of the work, and the name will take care of itself.
“Mr. Cecil Dreeme,” I said to myself, “is some confident genius, willing to have his name remain in diminutive letters on a visiting-card until the world writes it in big capitals in Valhalla. Here he lurks and works, ‘like some poet hidden in the realm of thought.’ By and by a great picture will walk out through this cobwebby corridor.
“Cecil Dreeme,” I repeated. “My neighbor overhead has a most musical, most artistic name. Dreeme, — yes; the sound, if not the spelling, fits perfectly. A painter’s life, if common theories be true, should be all a dream. Visions of Paradises and Peris should always be with him. No vulgar, harsh, or cruel realities should shatter his placid repose. Cecil, too, — how fortunate that those liquid syllables were sprinkled upon him by the surplice at the font. Tom or Sam or Peter would have been an unpardonable discord.”
Cecil Dreeme! The melodious vagueness of the name gently attracted me. It was to mine what the note of a flute is to the crack of a rifle.
Cecil Dreeme — Robert Byng.
“There is a contrast to begin with,” I thought. “Our professions, too, are antagonistic. Chemistry — Art. Formulas — Inspirations. Analysis — Combination. I work with matter; he with spirit. I unmake; he makes. I split atoms, unravel gases; he grafts lovely image upon lovely image, and weaves a thousand gossamers of beauty into one transcendent fabric.”
As these fancies ran through my brain, I began to develop a lively curiosity in my neighbor overhead.
Remember that I was a ten years’ absentee, without relatives, without sure friends, wanting society, and just now a thought romanticized by the air and scenery of Rubbish Palace.
I began to long to be acquainted with this gentleman above me, this possible counterblast to Densdeth, this possible apparition through my ceiling at the heel of a breakdown.
“Does he, then, dance breakdowns?” I thought. “Is he perhaps a painter of the frowzy class, with a velvet coat, mop of hair and mile of beard, pendulous pipe and a figurante on the bowl, and with a Düsseldorf, not to say Bohemian, demeanor. Is he a man whose art is a trade, who paints a picture as he would daub the side of a house? Or is he the true Artist, a refined and spiritualized being, Raphael in look, Fra Angelico in life, a man in force, but with the feminine insight, — one whose labor is love, one whose every work is a poem and a prayer? Which? Shall I knock and discover? An artist generally opens his doors hospitably to an amateur.
“No,” I decided, “I will not knock. We shall meet, if Destiny has no objection. Two in the same Chrysalis, we cannot dodge each other without some trouble. If I am lonely by and by, and yearn for a friend, and he does not dance through my centre-piece, I will fire a pistol-ball through his floor. Then apology, laugh, confession, and sworn friendship, — that is, of course, if he is Raphael-Angelico, not Bohemian-Düsseldorf.”
These fancies, so long in the telling, flashed rapidly through my mind.
I turned away from the door, with its quiet announcement of the name and business of a tenant, not precisely evading, but certainly not inviting notice.
I made my way down, and up again by the other staircase to the same floor. Here I found the same arrangement of rooms, but more population and fewer cobwebs. The southern exposure was preferred to the northern, in that chilly structure.
I knocked at Mr. John Churm’s door in the southwest corner of the building.
No “Come in.” I must dine alone at the Chuzzlewit.
As I stepped from Chrysalis, I gave a look to Ailanthus Square in front.
“This will never do!” I exclaimed.
It was a wretched place, stiffly laid out, shabbily kept, planted with mean, twigless trees, and in the middle the basin of an extinct fountain filled with foul snow, through which the dead cats and dogs were beginning to sprout at the solicitation of the winter’s sunshine.
A dreary place, and drearily surrounded by red brick houses, with marble steps monstrous white, and blinds monstrous green, — all destined to be boarding-houses in a decade.
“This will never do!” I exclaimed again. “Outdoor life offers no temptation. I am forced inward to indoor duties and pleasures. Objects in America are not attractive. I must content myself with people. And what people? My first day wanes, Stillfleet is off, and I have made no acquaintance but a musical name on a door in a dusty corner of Chrysalis.’’