Churm Against Densdeth Edit
I had hardly taken my first spoonful of lukewarm mock soup at the long, crowded dinner-table of the Chuzzlewit, when General Blinckers, a fellow-passenger on the Arago, caught sight of me. He bowed, with a burly, pompous, militia-general manner, and sent me his sherry. It was the Chuzzlewit Amontillado, so a gorgeous label announced, and sunshine, so its date alleged, had ripened it a score of years before on an aromatic hill-side of Spain. But the bottle was very young for old wine, the label very pretentious for famous wine, and my draught, as I expected, gnawed me cruelly.
In a moment came a bow from Governor Bluffer, also fellow-passenger, and his bottle of the Chuzzlewit champagne, — label prismatic and glowing, bubbles transitory, wine sugary and vapid.
Bluffer was of Indiana, returning from a trip to Europe as a railroad-bond placer. He had placed his bonds, second mortgages of the Muddefontaine Railroad, with great success. His State would now become first in America, first in Christendom. He was sure of it. And by way of advancing the process, he had proposed to me to become “Professor of Science” in the Terryhutte University, — salary five third mortgages of the Muddefontaine per annum.
Blinckers was of Tennessee, wild-land agent. He had been urgent all the passage that I should take post as Professor in the Nolachucky State Polytechnic School, — salary a thousand acres per annum of wild land in the Cumberland Mountains.
Both of these offers I had declined; but I was obliged to the two gentlemen. I bowed back to their bows, and sipped the liquids they had sent me without mouthing.
Presently, as I glanced up and down the table, I caught sight of Densdeth’s dark, handsome face. He had turned from his companion, and was looking at me. He lifted his black moustache with a slight sneer, and pointed to untasted glasses of Blinckers and Bluffer standing before him.
“See!” his glance seemed to say. “Libations at the shrine of Densdeth, the millionnaire. Those old chaps would kiss my feet, if I hinted it.”
Then he held up his own private glass, as if to say, with Comus, —
- “Behold this cordial julep here,
That flames and dances in his crystal bounds!”
- “Behold this cordial julep here,
A dusty magnum stood beside him, without label, but wearing a conscious look of importance. He carefully filled a goblet with its purple contents, and despatched it to me by his own servant.
Densdeth was a coxcomb, partly by nature, partly for effect. He liked to call attention to himself as the Great Densdeth. He always had special wines, special dainties, and special service.
“It pays to be conspicuous,” he said to me, on board the steamer. “I don’t attempt to humbug fellows like you, Byng,” — and at this I of course felt a little complimented, — “but we must take men as we find them. They are asses. I treat them as such. Ordinary people adore luxury. They love to see it, whether they share it or not. A little quiet show and lavishness on one’s self is a capital thing to get the world’s confidence.
“Besides, Byng,” he continued, “I love luxury for its own sake. I mean to have the best for all my senses. I keep myself in perfect health, you see, for perfect sensitiveness and perfect enjoyment. Why shouldn’t I take the little trouble it requires to have the most delicate wine, and other things the most delicate, always at command? Life is short. Après, le déluge, or worse.”
While I was recalling these remarks, Densdeth’s servant had deposited the wine at my right. He was an Afreet creature, this servant, black, ugly, and brutal as the real Mumbo Jumbo. Yet sometimes, as he stood by his master, I could not avoid perceiving a resemblance, and fancying him a misbegotten repetition of the other. And at the moments when I mistrusted Densdeth, I felt that the Afreet’s repulsive appearance more fitly interpreted his master’s soul than the body by which it acted.
I raised the goblet to my mouth. The aroma was delicious.
“Densdeth,” I thought, “must have had a cask of the happiest vintage of Burgundy’s divinest juice hung in gimbals, and floated over the Atlantic in the June calms.”
I put the fragrant draught to my lips, and bowed my compliments.
Densdeth was studying me, with a covert expression, — so I felt or fancied. I interpreted his look, — “Young man, I saw on the steamer that you were worth buying, worth perverting. I have spent more civility than usual on you already. How much more have I to pay? Are you a cheap commodity? Or must I give time and pains and study to make you mine?”
Do these fancies seem extravagant? They must justify themselves hereafter in this history.
I set down Densdeth’s glass, untasted.
“What does it mean,” thought I, “this man’s strange fascination? When his eyes are upon me, I feel something stir in my heart, saying, ‘Be Densdeth’s! He knows the mystery of life.’ I begin to dread him. Will he master my will? What is this potency of his? How has he got this lodgment in my spirit? Is he one of those fabulous personages who only exist while they are preying upon another soul, who are torpid unless they are busy contriving a damnation? Why has he been trying to turn me inside out all the voyage? Why has he kept touching the raw spots and the rotten spots in my nature? I can be of no use to him. What does he want of me? Not to make me better and nobler, — that I am sure of. No; I will not touch his wine. I will keep clear of his attentions.”
By the way of desperate evasion, I seized and tossed off, first, Governor Bluffer’s mawkish champagne, and then the acrid fabrication with which Blinckers had honored me.
Of course the rash and feeble dodge was futile. I was not to be let off in that way.
There stood Densdeth’s wine, attracting me like some magic philter. It became magnetic with Densdeth’s magnetism. I could almost see an imp in the glass, — not the teetotaller’s bottle-imp, but a special sprite, urging me, “Drink, and let the draught symbolize renewed intimacy with Densdeth! Drink, and accept his proffered alliance. Be wise, and taste!”
The vulgar scenery of the long dining-room faded away from my eyes. The vulgar, dressy women, the ill-dressed, vulgar men, the oleaginous waiters, all became distant shadows. I heard the clatter and bustle and pop about me, as one hears the hum of mosquitos outside a bar at drowsy midnight. I was conscious of nothing but the wine — the philter — and him who had poured it out.
Absurd! Yes; no doubt. But fact. Certainly a Chuzzlewit dining-room is a shrine of the commonplace; but even there such a mood is possible under such an influence. Densdeth was exceptional.
I sat staring at the silly glass of wine, and began to make an unwholesome test of my self-control. I recalled the typical legend of Eve and the apple, and exaggerated the moral importance of my own incident after the same fashion.
“If I resist this symbolic cup,” thought I, “I am my own man; if I yield, I am Densdeth’s.”
When a man is weak enough to put slavery and freedom thus in the balance, it is plain that he will presently be a slave.
“Bah!” I thought. “What harm, after all, can this terrible person do me? Why shouldn’t I accept his alliance? Why shouldn’t I study him, and learn the secret of his power.”
My slight resistance was about to yield to the spiritual enticement of the wine, when suddenly an outer force broke the spell.
A gentleman had just taken a vacant chair at my right. Absorbed in the mêlée of my own morbid fancies, I had merely perceived his presence, without noticing his person.
Suddenly this new-comer took part in the drama. He flirted his napkin, and knocked Densdeth’s wine-glass over into my plate. The purple fluid made an unpleasant mixture with my untouched portion of fish.
“Thank you!” I exclaimed, waking at once from my half-trance, my magnetic stupor, and feeling foolish.
I turned to look at my unexpected ally. Perhaps some clumsy oaf who had never brandished a napkin before, and struck wide, like a raw swordsman.
No. My neighbor was a gentleman. He held out his hand cordially.
“Have I waked you fully, Byng?” he asked.
“Mr. Churm?” said I.
He nodded. We shook hands. The touch dissipated my brief insanity.
“You have been in a state of coma so long over that wine,” said he, “that I thought I would give you a fillip of help.”
I tried to laugh.
“No,” resumed Churm. “Only escaped dangers show their comic side. You are not safe from Densdeth yet. You would have yielded just now if I had not spilled the glass.”
“Yielded!” I rejoined. “Not exactly; I was proposing to test his mysterious influence.”
“Never try that! Don’t dive into temptation to show how stoutly you can swim. Once fairly under water in Acheron, and you never come to the top again.”
“Face Satan, and he flies, is not your motto, then.”
“Face him when you must; fly him when you may.”
“But really, — Devil and Densdeth; is it quite polite to identify them?” I asked.
“If you do not wish to see them melt into one, keep yourself from both.”
“And stay in a pretty paradise of innocence?”
“I cannot jest about this, Byng. I knew a fresh, strong, pure soul, — fresher, stronger, purer than the fairest dreams of perfection. It was the destiny of such a soul to battle with Densdeth and be beaten. Yes; defeated, and driven to madness or despair.”
“You are speaking of Clara Denman.”
As he replied, I looked up and caught Densdeth’s eye. He took my glance and carried it with his to the upper end of the table. A flamboyant demirep was seated there. Densdeth marked that I observed her, and then smiled sinister, as if to say: “Byng, the romantic, there is the type of American women; look at her, and correct your boyish ideal.”
Churm noticed this by-play.
“But better madness and death for my dear child,” said he, sadly, “than Densdeth!”
Then waiving the subject, he continued: “You were surprised to find me at your side.”
“It was an odd chance, certainly.”
“No chance. Locksley told me that you had moved in from the Chuzzlewit, as Stillfleet’s successor. I knocked at Rubbish Palace door. You were out. I thought you might be dining here. I looked in, saw you, and took my seat at your side. I did not hurry recognition. I was curious to see if you would know an old friend.”
“I have called upon you already,” said I. “I am a big boy, but I wanted to put myself under tutelage.”
“Well, we are in the same Chrysalis; we will try to take care of each other till our wing.”
My lively interest in the name Cecil Dreeme recurred to me.
“Are there others worth knowing in Chrysalis?” I asked.
“No. Bright fellows like brighter places. Only an old troglodyte like myself burrows in such a cavern. Nobody but Stillfleet could have kept in jolly health there. Take care it does not make you sombre.”
“It will suit my sober, plodding habits. But tell me, do you know anything of a Mr. Dreeme, a painter, fellow-lodger of ours? I saw his name on a door as I was looking for yours? Is he a rising genius? Must I know him?”
As I asked these questions, it happened that Densdeth laughed in reply to some joke of his guest.
Densdeth’s smile, unless he chose to let it pass into a sneer, was gentlemanly and winning. A little incredulous and inattentive I had found it when I spoke of heroism, charity, or self-sacrifice. It pardoned belief in such whimsies as a juvenility. His laugh, however, expressed a riper cynicism. It was faithless and cruel, — I had sometimes thought brutally so.
Breaking in at this moment, rather loudly for the public place, it seemed to strike at the romantic interest I had felt in the name Cecil Dreeme. What would a man of the world think of such idle fancies as I had indulged apropos of the painter’s door-card? I really hoped Churm would be able to reply, “O, Dreeme! He is a creature with a seedy velvet coat, frowzy hair, big pipe, — rank Düsseldorf. Don’t know him!”
“There is a young fellow of that name in the building,” said Churm. “I have never happened to see him. Locksley says he is a quiet, gentlemanly youth from the country, who lives retired, works hard, and minds his own business.”
Neither my friend nor I ventured upon serious topics for the rest of the dinner.
“I have an errand down town,” said he. “You shall walk with me, and afterwards we will discuss your prospects over a cigar at Chrysalis.”
So we talked Europe — a light subject to Americans — until dessert was over, and the Chuzzlewit guests began to file out, wishing they had not taken so much pie and meringue on top of the salad, and had given to the Tract Society the two dollars now racking their several brains, and rioting in their several stomachs, in the form of sherry or champagne.
Churm and I joined the procession. We were battling for our hats in the lobby with a brace of seedy gents who proposed to appropriate them, when Densdeth came out.
He saluted me cordially and Churm distantly.
No love between these two. Apart from any moral contrast, their temperaments were too opposite to combine. Antagonistic natures do not necessarily make man and woman hostile, even when they are imprisoned for life in matrimony; domestic life stirs and stirs, slow and steady, and at last the two mix, like the oil and mustard in a mayonnaise. But the more contact, the more repulsion, in two men of such different quality as Churm and Densdeth.
Both were quiet and self-possessed, and yet it seemed to me that, if a thin shell of decorum and restraint between them should be broken by any outer force, the two would clash together like explosive gases, and the weaker be utterly consumed away. I had already had hints, as I have stated, that they had causes for dislike. I could not wonder, as I saw them standing side by side. They were as different as men could be and yet be men.
I observed them with a certain premonition that I was to be in some way drawn into the battle they must fight or were fighting. With which captain was I to be ranged?
Densdeth was a man of slight, elegant, active figure, and of clear, colorless, olive complexion. His hair was black and studiously arranged. He was shaved, except a long drooping moustache, — that he could not have spared; it served sometimes to conceal, sometimes to emphasize, a sneer. His nose was a delicate aquiline, and his other fine-cut features corresponded. His eyes were yellow, feline, and restless, — the only restless thing about him. They glanced from your lips to your eyes and back, while you talked with him, as if to catch each winged word, and compare it with the expression perched above. Quick and sidelong looks detect a swarm of Pleiads where the steady gaze sees only six. Densdeth seemed to have learnt this lesson from astronomy; he shot his glance across your face to catch expressions which fancied themselves latent. Keen eyes Densdeth’s to recognize a villain.
Churm was sturdy and vigorous; well built, one would say, not well made; built for use, not made for show. His Saxon coloring of hair and complexion were almost the artistic contrast to Densdeth’s Oriental hues. He wore his hair and thick brown beard cut short. His features were all strongly marked and finished somewhat in the rough, not weakened by chiselling and mending. His eyes were blue, frank, and earnest. He looked his man fair and square in the face, and never swerved until each had had his say. Keen enough, too, Churm’s eyes. They were his lanterns to search for an honest man and friend, not for a rogue and tool.
These men’s voices also proclaimed natures at war.
In wild beasts the cry reveals the character. So it does in man, — a cross between a beast and a soul. If beast is keeping soul under, he lets the world know it in every word his man speaks. The snarl, the yelp, and the howl are all there for him that has ears to hear. If the soul in the man has good hope and good courage, through all his tones sound the song of hope and the pæan of assured victory.
Churm’s voice was bold and sweet, with a sharp edge. He was outspoken and incisive. Any mind, not muffled by moss or thicket, would hear itself echo when he spoke. His laugh, if it made free to leap out for a holiday, was a boy’s laugh, frank, merry, and irrepressible. There was, however, underneath all his cheerful, inspiring, and forgiving tones, a stern Rhadamanthine quality, as of one to whom profound experience has given that rare, costly, and sorrowful right, — the right to judge and condemn.
Densdeth spoke with a delicate lisp, or rather Spanish softness. There was a snarl, however, beneath these mild, measured notes. He soothed you; but you felt that there was a claw curled under the velvet. As to his laugh, it was jackal, — a cruel, traitorous laugh, without sympathy or humor, — a sneer given voice. But this ugly sound it was impossible to be much with Densdeth and not first echo and then adopt.
The same general contrast of nature was visible in the costumes of these gentlemen. Even a coat may be one of the outward signs by which we betray the grace or disgrace that is in us.
Churm was in fatigue dress. He looked water-proof, sun-proof, frost-proof. No tenderness for his clothes would ever check him from wading a gutter or storming a slum, if there were man to be aided or woman to be saved. He dressed as if life were a battle, and he were appointed to the thick of the fight, too well known a generalissimo to need a uniform.
Densdeth was a little too carefully dressed. His clothes had a conscious air. His trousers hung as if they felt his eye on them, and dreaded a beating if they bagged. His costume was generally quiet, so severely quiet that it was evident he desired to be flagrant, and obeyed tact rather than taste. In fact, taste always hung out a protest of a diamond stud, or an elaborate chain or eye-glass. Still these were not glaring errors, and Densdeth’s distinguished air and marked Orientalism of face made a touch of splendor tolerable.
I sketch a few of the external traits of these two. I might continue the contrast at length. Even at that period of my acquaintance they had become representative personages to me. And now, as I look back upon that time, I find that I divined them justly. They in some measure personified to me the two opposing forces that war for every soul.
As they bowed coldly to each other in the hall of the Chuzzlewit, and turned to me, I seemed at once to become conscious of their rival influences. My dual nature felt the dual attraction.
“Glad to see you again, Byng,” said Densdeth, offering his hand. “Will you walk into my parlor? I am quartered here for a day or two. Come; I can give you an honest cigar and a thimbleful of Chartreuse.”
“Thank you,” I replied. “Another time, if you please. Just now I am off with Mr. Churm.”
“Au revoir!” says Densdeth. “But let me not forget to mention that I have seen our friends, Mr. and Miss Denman. They hope for a call from you, for old friendship’s sake. If I had known of your former intimacy there, we should have had another tie on board the steamer.”
His yellow eyes came and went as he spoke, exploring my face to discover, “What has Churm told him of me and Clara Denman? What has he heard of that tragedy? Something, but how much?”
“Miss Denman will be at home to-morrow, at one,” he continued. “I took the liberty to promise that you would accept my guidance, and pay your respects at that hour.”
“You are very kind,” I of course said. “I will go with pleasure.”
“I will call for you, then, at Chrysalis. I heard here at the hotel-office that you had moved into Harry Stillfleet’s grand den. I felicitate you.”
“You have a den adjoining,” said I, my tone no doubt betraying some curiosity.
“O, my lumber-room,” he replied, carelessly. “I find it quite a convenience. A nomad bachelor like myself needs some place to store what traps he cannot carry in his portmanteau.”
“Well, Mr. Churm,” said I, as we walked off together; “you see I cannot evade Densdeth. He is my first acquaintance at home, my next- door neighbor in Chrysalis, and now he takes the superintendence of my re-introduction to old friends. Fate seems determined that I shall clash against him. I am not sure whether my self is elastic enough to throw him off, even if I desire to.”
“No self gets a vigorous repelling power until it is condensed by suffering.”
“Then I would rather stay soft and yielding,” said I, lightly. “But, Mr. Churm, before I call upon the Denmans, you must tell me the whole story of their tragedy, otherwise I may wound them ignorantly.”
“I desire to do so, my dear boy, for many reasons. We will have a session presently at your rooms, and talk that history through.”
He walked on down Broadway, silent and moody.
“Observe where I lead you,” said he, turning to the east through several mean, narrow streets.
“Seems to me,” said I, “you have fouler slums here than Europe tolerates.”
“If you could see the person I am going to visit, you would understand why. If men here must skulk because they are base, or guilty, or imbecile, they strive to get more completely out of sight, and shelter themselves behind more stenches than people do in countries where the social system partially justifies degradation. But here we are, Byng. I have brought you along with a purpose.”
Churm stopped in front of a mean, frowzy row of brick buildings. He led the way through a most unsavory alley into a court, or rather space, serving as a well to light the rear range of a tenement-house. In a guilty-looking entry of this back building Churm left me, while he entered a wretched room.
It is no part of my purpose to describe this dismal place, or to moralize over it. Perhaps at that time in my life I had too little pity for poverty, and only a healthy disgust for filth. I remained outside, smoking and listening to the jackal-voices of the young barbarians crying for supper from cellar to garret of the building.
“You will remember this spot,” said Churm, issuing after a few moments, and leading the way out again.
“My poor victimized nose will have hard work to forget it.”
“And the name Towner,” my friend continued.
“Also Towner,” I rejoined. And probably my tone expressed the query, “Who is he?”
“Towner is the tarnished reverse of that burnished medal Densdeth, — Densdeth without gilding.”
“Did Densdeth fling him away into this hole?”
“He is lying perdu here, hid from Densdeth and the world. He has been a clerk, agent, tool, slave, of the Great Densdeth. The poor wretch has a little shrivelled bit of conscience left. It twinges him sometimes, like a dying nerve in a rotten tooth. He sent for me the other day, by Locksley, saying that he was sick, poor, and penitent for a villany he had done against me, and wanted to confess before he died, and before Densdeth could find him again. This is my third visit. He cannot make up his impotent mind to confession. He must speak soon, or concealment will kill him. I am to come down to-night at eleven and watch with him.”
“Till when you will watch with me in Chrysalis.”
“Yes; and now I suppose you wonder why I brought you here.”
“To teach me that republics are unsavory?”
“Perhaps I want you to take an interest in this poor devil, in case I should be absent; perhaps I wish you to see the result of the Densdeth experiment, when it does not succeed; perhaps — well, Byng, you will promise me to expend a little of your superabundant vitality on my patient, if he needs it?”
“Certainly; but understood, that you pay to have me deodorized and disinfected after each visit.”
I could not give a cheerful turn to the talk. Churm walked on, silent and out of spirits.