Churm’s Story Edit

Churm took refuge with his cigar for a moment.

“Twenty-four years ago,” he began, jerking his short sentences away as if each was an arrow in his heart, — “twenty-four years ago I was a young man about New York. There came a beautiful girl from the country. Poor! She had rich friends in town. They wanted a flower for their parlors. They took her. Emma — Emma Page was her name.”

He repeated the name, as if it was barbed, and would not come from him without an agonized effort.

“She charmed all,” he continued. “She fascinated me. Strangely, strangely. I will not analyze her power. You will see what knowledge it implied. I was a simple, eager fellow. Eager to love, as you are.”

I only said willing” I interjected.

“The wish soon ripens to frenzy. Presently the lady and I were betrothed. I was a passionate lover. You would not think it to look at me now, with this coat and these clodhopper shoes.” He forced a smile.

“Shaggy jackets and thick shoes with an orchestral creak are de rigueur for lovers now,” rejoined I, trying to lighten the growing gloom of Churm’s manner.

We wore smooth black, and paper soles,” said he. “Ah, well! I was a loyal, undoubting heart. I loved and I trusted wholly.”

He paused, and drew his cigar to a fresh light. Then, as he remained silent and grew moodier, I recalled him to the subject, and asked, “You lost her? By death?”

“By death, Byng? Yes, by the death of my love. She stabbed it. Shall I tell you how? Poor child! one single poisoned look of hers, one single phrase that proved a tainted nature, stabbed and poisoned my love dead, dead, dead.”

Again he was silent. Pity would not let me speak.

“This may seem disloyalty,” he by and by resumed. “But she is dead and pardoned long ago. I must be loyal to the living. You may run the risk I ran. I give to you, to you only, to you peculiarly, the warning of my misery. If you are ever harmed as I was, you will owe the same to your son, or your friend.”

I was full of youthful, unshaken self-confidence. I saw no danger, anticipated no wound. I could not make the personal application Churm suggested. I listened, greatly touched and interested, but without foreboding.

“A look and a word,” Churm began again, “seemed to flash upon me the conviction that the woman I loved was sullied. A foul-minded man may do foul wrong by such a fancy. My mind was pure. My first impulse was to rebel against the agonizing doubt, and be truer and tenderer than before. You comprehend the feeling?”

“Thoroughly. Your impulse would be mine.”

“‘Love,’” said I to myself, “‘tests love,’” Churm continued. “‘I mistrust, because I do not love enough. I must beware of being personally base and cruelly unjust to her. My suspicion shall be the evanescent dream of an unwholesome instant, — like Ophelia’s song.’ But still the anguish and the dread stayed in my heart. What could I do? Wait? Watch? Make myself a spy to examine this seeming sully, and find it an indelible stain? Uncover the bad side of my nature, apply it to hers, and study the kind and degree of the electricity evoked by the contact! Should I protect myself by any such baseness? While these thoughts were tangling in my brain, an outer force cut the knot.”

“Some one spilt the philter,” said I, thinking of the scene over Densdeth’s wine.

“Denman was my unconscious ally,” Churm continued, without noticing the interruption. “Denman saved me from the worst, the bitterest fate that can befall a true man, — to marry a woman whose truth and purity he can allow himself to doubt.”

“Bitter indeed! A blight of all the bloom and harvest of a life!” said I; — so fancy had taught me.

“Ah, yes! as the ‘marriage of true minds’ alone gives fragrance and ripeness. I have missed the harvest, I escaped the blight. Denman, rich and handsome, with life clear before him, came back from Europe. Wealth had illusions for Emma Page. She was new to it. I was not poor; but my wealth was only in posse.”

“Few divine a young man’s posse, I fear,” said I, as he paused to whiff.

Posse must be put into a pipe and blown into an illustrious bubble, before the world perceives the esse,” he rejoined. “But inventive power is the best capital. Mine has made me far richer than Denman. Well; he arrived at the moment of my agonizing doubt. Miss Page was The Beauty of our day. He was charmed. His cruder vision admired the rose and did not miss the dew-drop. She presently allowed me to perceive that he was to be my substitute. I will not tire you with the detail of the stranding and wreck of our engagement.”

“No?” said I. “I begin to identify myself strangely with your story.”

“No. No detail! To recall talks and looks and tones would be more tragedy than I could bear, even to make my story sharper. So our engagement ended. That slight perfidy was nothing. My wrong was deeper.”

“Ah, poor Emma!” he continued, “forgiven long ago! That stain of hers, whether it were taint of being, or fault of nurture, or rash or sober sin, killed faith and hope in me for a time.”

He paused again, and the blank seemed to symbolize a blank in his life.

“It was a wide gulf to swim over,” he said. “Dark waters, Robert! Dark and broad! and I have seen many souls of men and women drown, that had not force to buffet through, or patience to drift across. But I escaped, and, having paid the price of suffering without despair, the larger hopes and higher faiths were revealed to me.”

He struck aside the smoke with a strong, swimmer’s gesture of the arm, — a forceful character, as even his motions showed.

“This is sacred confidence, Robert,” he said. “I give it to you, as a father warning a son.”

“And as a son I take and treasure it.”

“Denman,” Churm went on, “did not mind the wrong he might have been doing me, had my love not already perished. Denman never heeds any one between him and his object. He looks at the prospect; what is the fly on the pane to him? He has been walking over others all his life, trampling them if they lifted up their heads. But a selfish man gets himself sent first to Coventry, and then, if he does not mend, to St. Helena. Denman, a great merchant by inheritance, has gained money-power at the cost of moral weight. Our best men look coldly on him. He knows it, and grasps at bigger wealth to crush criticism. It is the old story, — vaulting ambition, the Russian campaign. Denman’s gigantic schemes are the terror, the wonder, and the admiration of Wall Street. But he seems to a cool student a desperate man. It saddens me to meet him now, — aged, worn, anxious, hardly daring to look me in the face, and, as I fear, wholly in the power of Densdeth.”

“Densdeth!” cried I. “Who and what is Densdeth? Does he hold every man’s leading-strings to the Devil?”

“What is Densdeth? My story will give you a fact or two in answer to the question. I go on with it rapidly.

“Emma Page married Denman.

“She tried splendor for a year. She was the beautiful wife of the richest young man in town.

“At the year’s end, her daughter Emma was born.

“A child is a terrible vengeance to a mother who has ever lowered her womanhood, by thought or act. What tortures she would have endured, — so she now too late thinks, — if she could lave purged and made anew the nature she has transmitted to an innocent being! But there it lies before her in the cradle, the embodiment of her inmost thought. There lies the heir, and the waste of his heritage is irreclaimable.”

“Don’t be so cruelly stern,” said I. “You out-Herod Herod, in the converse. You massacre the Innocents because they are guilty. This is the old dead dogma of original sin, redivivus and rampant.”

“No; the dogma is dead, and science handles the facts without the trammels of an impious theory. Life cures, and Death renews. But Life should be a feast, not a medicine.

“Emma’s birth,” he continued, “transformed Mrs. Denman. For a year she was a faithful mother.

“Denman did not like his wife so well in this capacity. They diverged widely. To be handsome for him and showy for the public was his notion of Mrs. Denman’s office. The second year flowed rough.

“At the end of it, Clara was born, the child of a woman chastened and purified.

“A fortnight after her birth, Denman came to me.

“‘My wife is desperately ill,’ said he. ‘She wishes to see you.’

“I went calmly to this farewell interview with my old love. The husband seemed to abdicate in my behalf.

“‘I am to die,’ she said, almost gayly. ‘I have sent for you, because I trust you wholly. Dear friend, here are my daughters! Befriend them for my sake! I feel that you will understand the yearnings of young souls. Make them what you once hoped of me! Will you not be the father of their spiritual life? Forgive me, dear friend, for the old wrong, for the old wrongs! Prove that you have pardoned me by loving mine. Good-bye.’”

Churm was silent awhile.

He lighted a fresh cigar and smoked steadily. The smoke lifted slowly in the still room, and hung in wreaths overhead. He sat looking vaguely into the shifting cloud.