Churm As Cassandra Edit

We turned from Broadway down Cornwallis Place, parallel to Mannering Place, and entered Chrysalis by the side door upon that street.

“I have a word to say to the janitor,” said Churm.

Pretty Dora Locksley admitted us to the snuggery. Lighted up, it was even more cheerful than when I saw it with Stillfleet. The table was set for supper. The bright teapot, the bright plates, the bright knives and forks, had each its own bright reflection of the gas-light to contribute to the general illumination.

Mrs. Locksley, the bright cause of all this brilliancy, was making the first cut into a pumpkin-pie of her own confection, as we entered. It was the ideal pumpkin-pie. Its varnished surface shone with a rich, mellow glow, and all about its marge a ruffle of paste of fairest complexion lifted, like the rim of delighted hills about a happy valley. As Mrs. Locksley’s knife cleft the oil of this sweet vale, fragrant incense steamed up into the air. What nose would not sniff away all remembrance of the mephitic odors it had inhaled, to entertain this fresh, wholesome emanation? Mine did at once. I felt myself deodorized from the sour souvenirs of Towner’s slum. The moral atmosphere, too, of this honest, cheerful, simple home-scene acted as a moral disinfectant. The healthy picture hung itself up in a good light in my mental gallery. It was well it should be there. Chrysalis owed me this, as a contrast to the serious pictures awaiting me along its dusky halls, as a foil to a sombre tableau hid behind the curtain at the vista’s end.

Mrs. Locksley offered a quadrant of her pie to Churm.

“I resign in Mr. Byng’s favor,” said he.

“Hail Columbia!” cried I, accepting the resignation; and as I eat I felt my Americanism revive.

“I’ve just seen Towner again,” Churm says, “and am to sit up with him.”

“Poor fellow!” said Locksley. “Has he any chance?”

“Poor fellow, indeed!” cried Mrs. Locksley, in wrath, evidently sham. “Don’t waste ‘poors’ on him, William. Didn’t he as much as kill my poor sister, and ruin us?”

“You don’t look very ruinous, Molly. No; you’re built up fresh by losing money, and not having an Irish Biddy to feed you on mud-pies. We must not bear malice, wife!”

“We don’t, William. And the proof is this jelly I’ve made for him.”

“Right!” says Locksley. “But, Mr. Churm,” he continued, and here his bristly aspect intensified, as if a foe were at hand, “Mr. Densdeth is back in the steamer. He’s been here to day, asking for Towner. But he got nothing out of me.”

“The sight of Densdeth would kill the man. He shivers at the mere thought of his old master. We must keep him hid until he dies or gets some life into him. Good night.”

“A trusty fellow, the janitor,” said I, as we walked up stairs.

“Trusty as a steel bolt on an oak door.”

“He will keep my secrets, if I have any, as one of his collegians? He won’t stand on the corner and button-hole everybody with the news that I never go to bed, and hardly ever get up? He won’t put my deeds or misdeeds in the news-papers?”

“No. If you should say to him, ‘Locksley, I’ve got a maggot in my head. I am going to lock myself up in Rubbish Palace and train it. I want to hibernate for three months and not see a soul, except you with my meals. Let me be forgotten!’ Locksley would reply, ‘Very well, sir!’ And you would be as secluded as if you had gone to Kamtschatka.”

“You speak as if such things happened in Chrysalis.”

“They might, under Locksley.”

“How refreshing,” said I, “to find such a place and such a person plump in the middle of New York! But tell me, what is Locksley to Towner?”

“Towner married our janitor’s wife’s sister. Locksley is a very clever machinist. He was a prosperous locksmith, manufacturing locks of a patent of his own, until Towner persuaded him to indorse his paper. Towner had some fine scheme by which he meant to make himself independent of Densdeth, and so escape from his service. His old master had become hateful to him. But Densdeth did not propose to let his serf go free. He made it his business, so both the men think, to spoil the speculation, and ruin the two, financially. Locksley lost everything. I got him this place, until he could look about and take a fresh start.”

I opened my door. From the back of the sombre apartment, the great black stove, with its isinglass door, like a red Cyclops eye, stared at the strangers. The gas-light from the street shone faint through the narrow windows.

“Ghostly scenery!” said I, glancing about.

The casts and busts stood white and ghostly in the corners, and by the door of the lumber-room a suit of armor, holding a spiked mace in its fingerless gauntlets, reflected the dull glow of the fire-light.

“Those great carved arm-chairs,” said Churm, “stand as if the shadows of so many black-robed inquisitors had just quitted them.”

“What a chamber this would have been,” I said, “for the sittings of a secret tribunal, a Vehmgericht! Imagine yourself and me enthroned, with crapes over our faces, and Locksley, armed with one of these halberds of Stillfleet’s, leading in the culprit.”

“Have you selected your culprit?”

“Well, Densdeth is convenient. He might be brought in from that dark room of his, next door. The scene becomes real to me. Come, Mr. Churm, you shall pronounce sentence. Put on the black cap, and speak!”

“I condemn him to bless as many lives as he has cursed.”

“A gentle penalty!” said I. “But it may take time. Who knows but you are making a Wandering Jew of our handsome Absalomitish friend? Fiat lux!” I continued, striking a match, and lighting my chandelier. “Vanish the Vehm and the halberd! Appear the nineteenth century and the cigar! Take one!”

Churm smoked for some time in grave silence. At last he began.

“I loved your father, Robert, like a brother. For his sake and your own, I wish to be your friend.”

His benignant manner, even more than the words, touched me. I felt my eyes fill with tears.

“Thank you,” said I, “for my father’s sake and my own. I yearn, as only a fatherless man can, for such a friend as you may be. I hoped I might count upon you.”

“We have met but those few times in Europe since your boyhood. I think I know something of you. Still I may as well have more facts. What do you think of yourself? Person and character, now, in a paragraph.”

“Person you see!” said I, standing up, straight as an exclamation-point. “Harry Stillfleet made me parade this morning, and pronounced me reasonably fit for service, legs, lungs, and looks. Character, — as to my character, it is not yet compacted enough for inspection. My soul grows slow as a century-plant. You can hardly look for blossoms at the end of the first twenty-five years. I am a fellow of good intentions, — that is the top of my claim. But whether I am to be a pavior of hell or a promenader of heaven, is as hell or heaven pleases. It seems to me that my allotted method of forming myself is by passing out of myself into others. I am dramatic. I adopt the natures of my companions, and act as if I were they. When I have become, in my proper person, a long list of dramatis personæ, I shall be ready to live my life, be it tragedy, comedy, or romance. And there you have me, Mr. Churm, in a rather lengthy paragraph!”

“I understand. And now you have come home, a working-man, who wishes ‘se ranger’?”

“I should like to find my place.”

“Your place to live you have found already. Your place to labor will not be hard to find. Capable men of your trade are in demand. I have no doubt I can settle you to-morrow.”

“You are a friend indeed,” said I.

“Home and handicraft disposed of; — and now this young absentee, with his place to live and his place to labor arranged, is beginning to think of the other want, namely, somebody to love. How is that, Byng?”

“‘Hoc erat in votis!’” said I, bashfully.

“It was in mine, when I was, like you, impressible, affectionate, trustful, and in my twenties. My forties have a confidence and a special warning to offer you, Robert, if you will accept it.”

“No mature man has ever given me the benefit of his experience. Yours will be most precious.”

“I strip off the battens, and slide back the hatches, and show you a cell in my heart which I thought never to uncover. But there comes a time, after a man’s grief has become historical to himself, when he owes the lesson of his own tragedy to some other man. You are the man to whom my story belongs.”

“Why am I the one?”

“That you must discover for yourself. I tell you my tale. You must adapt it to your own circumstances. You must put in your own set of characters from the people you meet. I point a moral for you; I have no right to impale others upon it.”

“You might misunderstand and wrong them?”

“I might. This bit of personal history I am about to give you explains my connection with the Denmans.”

“It will lead you then to the mystery of Clara’s death?”