Locksley’s Scare Edit

Churm’s steps went echoing along the corridor, echoing down the stairs. The front door of Chrysalis clanged to after him. Rumbling echoes of the clang marched to and fro along the halls, and fumbled for quiet nooks in the dark distances of the building. There I could hear them lie down to repose, and whisper, ‘Silence.’

Silence and sleep reigned.

I was little disposed to sleep. I lighted a fresh cigar and fell into a revery.

Why, I first asked myself, had Churm so urged the history of his unhappy love personally upon me? Why was he so earnest and emphatic in his warning? The two tragedies were detached. He might have simply recalled the fact of his guardianship, and then described the fate of his ward. But he had gone back and forced himself to uncover his wound, — why? Not for my sympathy. No; he had outlived the need of sympathy. Besides, no loyal man would betray the error of a woman once loved, for pity’s sake. No; some strong sense of duty had compelled him to take a father’s place, and say to me, “Beware!”

I puzzled myself awhile, inquiring, What did he see in my temperament or my circumstances to make this warning needful? No solution of the question came to me. I dismissed the subject, and thought with a livelier interest over the Denman tragedy.

I began to perceive how much I had unconsciously counted upon the friendship of the Denmans. It was a rough shock to learn that I must doubt of Denman’s thorough worth. He, too, was a friend of my father. His was an important figure in the background of my boyish recollections. A large, handsome man I remembered him, a little conscious in his bearing, but courteous, hospitable, open-handed, using wealth splendidly, — in fact, my ideal of what a rich man should be. It was a grave disappointment to me to be forced to dismiss this personage, and set up instead in my mind the Denman Churm had described. My hero was, in plain words, a rogue, a coward, and a slave.

I perceived, too, that half unconsciously I had kept alive pretty little romantic fancies about Emma and Clara. Living so many years in Italy and France, among women with minds deflowered by the confessional, and among the homely damsels of Germany, I was eager for the society of fresh, frank, graceful, girlish girls at home. The Denmans had often visited my imagination, companions of my sunniest memories of childhood. The earliest pleasure of my return I had looked for in the revival of this intimacy. But now I found one dead mysteriously, the other’s life clouded by a tragedy. My pretty fancies all perished.

I began to dread my interview with Emma Denman to-morrow. Densdeth to be my usher!

What if she, like her father, had deteriorated under Densdeth’s influence?

To cure myself of this sorry thought, I looked up among my treasures the letter which the two girls had written me several years ago, upon my father’s death. It came to me in a friendless, foreign land, one desolate summer, while I was convalescing from an attack of the same fever that orphaned me.

Precious little childish epistle, now yellow with age! I remembered how I read it, slowly and feebly, one sultry Italian day, when the sluggish heat lay clogged and unrippled in the streets of the furnace-like city. I recalled how I read it, pausing between the sentences, and feeling each as sweet as the cool, soothing touch of the hand of love on a throbbing forehead.

I unfolded the letter, and re-read it reverently, and with a certain tragic interest. Clara was the scribe. These were her quaint, careful characters, her timid, stiff, serious, affectionate phrases.

I pictured to myself the two girls signing this sisterly missive, blushing perhaps with a maidenly shyness, smiling with maidenly confidence, sobered by their gentle sympathy for my grief.

Then, with a sudden shifting of the scenes, there came up before me a picture of the sad drama so lately enacted in Mr. Denman’s house. Clara driven to madness or despair, Emma bereaved, Denman lost to self-respect, Churm belied; and in the background a malignant shadow, — Densdeth.

All at once a peremptory knock at my door disturbed me.

A stout knock, thrice repeated. The visitor meant to be heard and answered.

I was fresh from the French theatres, where three great blows behind the curtain announce its lifting.

“What!” thought I, “does the drama march? Is a new act beginning? Am I playing a part in the Denman trilogy? And what new character appears at midnight in the dusky halls of Chrysalis? Who follows Densdeth and Churm? Who precedes Emma Denman?”

I opened the door, wide and abruptly.

Locksley stood there, with fist uplifted to pound again.

The sudden draught put out his candle. The corridor had a sombre, mysterious look,

“Come in,” said I.

“Is Mr. Churm here?” he asked, in an anxious tone.

“No; he left me at eleven, to go to his invalid, down town.”

“I hoped to catch him. I wanted his advice very much.”

He looked at me earnestly, as he spoke, as if studying my face for a solution of some difficulty.

“Come in out of the dark and cold!” said I.

He entered. The bristly man had a worried, doubtful look, quite different from his alert, war-like expression of the morning. He was porcupine still, but porcupine badly badgered. He glanced nervously about the room, with the air of one excited and slightly apprehensive. The suit of armor with the spiked mace, standing sentry at the lumber-room door, gave him a start.

“Empty iron!” said I; “and he can’t strike with that billy he holds.”

“I’ve seen the old machine a hundred times,” Locksley rejoined. “It only jumped me because I’m all on end with worry.”

“Can I help? My advice is at your service, if it’s worth having, and you choose to trust a stranger.”

“O, I know you’re the right sort. We’ve made up our minds about that, big and little, down to the Janitory. But I don’t want to bother you.”

“Never mind! What is the trouble? Burglars? Or slow fire?”

“Why, you see, sir,” said Locksley, “I’m in considerable of a scare about that young painter up-stairs.”

He pointed to the centre-piece of the arabesqued ceiling. I looked up, almost expecting to see a pair of legs dangling through, according to my fancy of the afternoon.

“What?” said I, my interest wide awake. “The one overhead?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Mr. Cecil Dreeme? I saw the name on a card above.”

“Mr. Cecil Dreeme, and I’m afraid something’s come to him.”

“Is he missing?”

“No; he’s there. But I haven’t seen him these two days. Dora went up with his breakfast this morning, and with his dinner. No one answered when she knocked. I’ve just been up, and hammered a dozen thumps on his door. I couldn’t raise a sound inside.”

Locksley’s voice sank to an anxious whisper as he spoke.

“What do you fear?” said I.

“Sickness or starvation, — one of them I’m afraid has come to him. Or perhaps he’s punying away for want of open air and sunshine, and some friend to say ‘Hurrah boys!’ to him.”

“You have a pass-key, of course; why didn’t you push in?”

“I would have shoved straight through, and seen what was the matter, if Mr. Dreeme had been like other young fellows. But he isn’t. He might be there dying alone, and I shouldn’t like to interfere on my own hook, against his particular orders not to be disturbed. What do you say, Mr. Byng? Suppose it’s a case of life and death, — shall I break in?”

“It is a delicate matter to advise upon. A gentleman’s house is his castle. I must have my facts before I become accomplice to a burglary. What do you know of Mr. Dreeme’s health or habits to make you anxious?”

“Not over much. But more than any one else.”

“He is reserved then?” My curiosity about the name was increasing, as the slight mystery seemed to thicken.

“Reserved, sir! I don’t believe a soul in the city knows a word of him, except us Locksleys. He’s one of the owl kind.”

“A friendless stranger,” said I, recalling my fancies of the afternoon, by his door. “A man with the shyness and jealousy of an artist awaiting recognition. He does not wish to be known at all until he is known to fame.”

“That sounds like it, partly,” Locksley returned. “But there must be other reasons for his keeping so uncommon dark.”

“What! Poverty? Creditors? Crime?”

“Crime and Mr. Dreeme! You’d drop that notion, if you saw him. Not that! No; nor poverty exactly. He can pay his omnibus yet, and needn’t go on the steps, and risk a ‘Cut behind.’”

“What then?” I asked, unwilling to pry disloyally, and yet eager to hear more.

“I suspicion that something’s hit him where he lives, and he’s lying by till the wound heals. I know how a man feels when the world’s mean to him. He wants to get out of sight, and hide in a den like old Chrysalis. That was the way with me when I failed, and Mr. Densdeth put up my creditors not to let me take the Stillwell. I was mighty near hiding in Hellgate.”

“How did he happen to shelter in Chrysalis?” I asked.

“I shall have to tell you all the little I know. I’ve halted because we Locksleys promised Mr. Dreeme not to be public about him. We’ve kept it close. But you’re one of the kind, Mr. Byng, that a man naturally wants to open his self to.”

“I’m not leaky; depend upon that!”

“Well,” said Locksley, fairly uncorked at last, and overrunning with his story; “Mr. Dreeme came in, after ten, one night about three months ago, and says he, ‘I’ve just got to town by the late train. The last time I was down, I saw the card out, “Studios to Let.” Will you show me what there is?’ ‘Well’, says I. ‘It’s pretty well along in the night to be hiring a studio!’ ‘Yes,’ says he, mild as you please, but knowing his own mind; ‘but I’ve got to have one. I’m not hard to satisfy, and if I could move in right off, I should save the money they’d take from me at the Chuzzlewit, or some other costly hotel.’ ‘You’re not so flush as you’d like to be, perhaps,’ says I. ‘No,’ says he, ‘if flush means rich, I’m not.’”

“So you got him as a tenant,” said I, trying to hurry the narrator.

“Yes; he was such a pleasant-spoken young man that I took to him. Besides, not being flush made him one of my family, — and a big family it is!”

“We must not forget, Locksley, that while we discuss, he may be suffering.”

“That’s true. I must talk short, and talking short isn’t natural to my trade. Filing iron trains a man to be slow, just as hammering iron practises him to bounce his words like a sledge on an anvil. Well; I took Mr. Dreeme up-stairs, and showed him the studio overhead. It has closets and bath, like this room. He said that would do him. He paid me a quarter in advance, and camped right in, with a small bundle he had.”

“Gritty fellow!”

“Grit as the Quincy quarry! or he’d never have stuck there alone for three months, painting like time, and never stirring out till night.”

“That is enough to kill the man! Never till night! Not to meals, or to buy materials? Not to meet a friend, to see the world?”

“The world and people are what he wants to dodge. I buy him all his materials. He took the last tenant’s furniture just as it stood, — and it’s only about Sing-Sing allowance. He don’t seem to need all sorts of old rubbish to put ideas into him, as the other painters do. I fitted him out, according to list, with sheets and towels, and clothes too. He said he couldn’t knock off work for no such nonsense as clothes. He must paint, or he shouldn’t have money for clothes or victuals.”

“A resolute recluse, concentred upon his art,” said I. “And about his meals?”

“Mother Locksley cooks ’em, and Dora takes ’em up when I’m off. But he don’t eat enough to keep a single-action cockroach on his rounds.”

“Poor fellow! I don’t wonder he has but a hermit’s appetite.” I am ashamed to say that interest in this determined withdrawal from the world made me forget for a moment that the exile might be in urgent need of relief.

“Mrs. Locksley,” continued the janitor, “has never seen him. He has had the children up, and drawn their likenesses, like as they can be. But women he don’t seem to want to have anything to do with.”

“Ah!” cried I. “Here we have a clew! Some woman has wronged him; so he is going through a despair. That is an old story. He edits it with unusual vigor.”

“That’s what my wife and I think,” says Locksley. “He loved some girl, she went crooked, and so things look black to him.”

“What!” thought I. “Is he passing through Churm’s ‘dark waters’? Strange if I should encounter at once another illustration of that sorrow!”

After my dramatic fashion of identifying myself with others, I put myself in Mr. Dreeme’s place, and shrank from so miserable a solution of his exile.

“Perhaps,” I propounded, “some flirt has victimized the poor fellow, and he does not yet realize that we all must take our Bachelor of Arts at a flirt’s school, to become Master of the Arts to know and win a true woman.”

Locksley smiled, then shook his head, and his worried look returned.

“No,” said he; “that kind of a girl makes a man want to be among folks and forget her. Mr. Dreeme has had a worse hurt than that. But whatever wounded him, for the last two weeks he’s been growing paler and punier every day. Some says the smell of paint is poison. I don’t believe there’s any strychnine so bad as moping off alone, and never seeing a laugh, and never playing at give and take, rough and smooth, out in the world.”

“You’re right,” said I; “but let us get through our talk, and see what is to be done.”

“To-night,” continued Locksley, “just as I was wrastling to get off my wet boots, — they stuck like all suction, did them boots, but I couldn’t go to bed in ’em, — just then my wife began talking to me about Mr. Dreeme. ‘What do you suppose has come to him?’ says she. ‘No answer when Dora went up with his breakfast; no answer when she knocked with his dinner. I mistrust he’s sick,’ says she. While she was talking, a scare — the biggest kind of a scare — come to me about him. ‘Wife,’ says I, ‘a scare has come to me about Mr. Dreeme.’ ‘Is it a prickly scare, William?’ says she. ‘Prickly outside and in,’ says I; ‘I feel as if I’d swallowed a peck of teazles, and was rolling in a bin of ’em.’ ‘William,’ says she, ‘scares is sent, and the prickly scares calls for hurries. Just you run up, and lay your fist hard against Mr. Dreeme’s door, and if he don’t speak, and you can’t hear him snore through the keyhole, go to Mr. Churm, and whatever he says do, you do! Mr. Churm always threads the eye the first shove.’ So I went up, and rapped, and the more I knocked, the emptier and deader it sounded. Mr. Churm is gone. What shall we do, Mr. Byng? The young man may be up there on his back with a knife into him, or too weak to call out, and panting for brandy or opodildoc. My scare gets worse and worse.”

“I begin to share it. We will go and break in at once. Light your candle, while I find a bottle of Mr. Stillfleet’s brandy.”