Clara Denman, Dead Edit
I watched Churm, as he smoked.
Love, disloyalty, penitence, death, — were these all unrealities, that he could speak of them in his own history so calmly? Could a man be hurt as he had been, and overlive unscarred? I had heard cool men say, that “the tragedies of this life become the comedies of another, and that we should some time smile to recall our cruellest battles here, as now we smile to watch the jousts of flies in a sunbeam.” Churm’s tragedy was still tragedy to him. He had begun to recite it with evident pain. But the pain of his tone became indifference before he closed; and now he sat there smoking, as if he had related gravely, but without emotion, the mishaps of some stranger.
He looked through the smoke, caught my wondering eye, smiled soberly, and said: “Such an experience as I have described is like a shirt of Nessus, which one wears until the prickles of its poisoned serge have thoroughly toughened his skin. When it ceases to gall, he strips it off and hangs it by the highway for whoever runs to take; or if he finds some sensitive friend, like you, Robert, he lays it upon his shoulders, and says, ‘Wear this! The edge of its torture is gone. It will harden you for the garment the Fates are weaving for you.’”
“Dear me!” said I, shrugging my shoulders. “Have I got to stand haircloth and venom? Well, if that is the common lot, and I cannot escape, I am much obliged to you for trying to make me pachydermatous. But you have not succeeded very well. The story of another’s pain makes my heart softer.”
“Sympathy for others is stout armor for one’s self. But, Byng, you have heard the first tragedy of the series; listen to the second!”
“The second! Is there a third? Is the series a trilogy?”
“The third is unwritten. The march of events has paused while Densdeth was off. And to-day he steps from behind the curtain with you, a new character, half inclined to be his satellite. Perhaps you have a part to play.”
There was a vein of seriousness in this seeming banter.
“Perhaps!” said I, puffing a ring of smoke away. “But pray go on. I am eager to hear the whole.”
“After his wife’s death, Denman said to me, ‘Mr. Churm, Emma told me that you were willing, for old friendship’s sake, to give an eye to my two poor girls’ education. Suppose you take the whole responsibility off my hands. I will make their million apiece for them. You shall teach them how to spend it.’ I gladly accepted this godfatherly post. The girls became to me as my own children.
“I shall say nothing to you,” Churm here interjected, “of Emma.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“You will see her. Judge for yourself! Clara you will never see. Of her I will speak. But first what do you remember of the sisters?”
“They were my pets when I was a school-boy. Emma I recollect as a lovely, fascinating, caressing little thing. Clara was shy and jealous, full of panics that people disliked her for her ugliness. I might have almost forgotten them, except for a sweet, simple, girlish letter they jointly wrote me upon my father’s death. It touched me greatly.”
“I remember,” said Churm. “Clara consulted me as to its propriety. Dear child! sympathy always swept away her reserve. But you speak of her ugliness, Robert?”
“She was original, unexpected; but certainly without beauty. In fact, ugly and awkward, beside Emma.”
“She became beautiful to me by the light that was in her. I could not criticise the medium through which shone so fair a soul. She educated me; not I her. She illuminated for me the new truths, she interpreted the new oracles; and so I have not fallen old and staid among my rudiments, as childless men, with the best intentions, may.”
“You give me,” said I, “a feeling of personal want and personal robbery by her death.”
“Fresh, earnest, unflinching soul!” Churm sadly continued. “How she flashed out of being all the false laws that check the mind’s divine liberty! Not the laws of refinement and high-breeding; they, the elastic by-laws of the fundamental law of love, are easy harness to the freest soul. In another house than Denman’s, among allies, not foes, what a noble poem her life would have been!”
“Foes!” said I. “Was there no love for her at home?”
“Denman admired his daughters. Love remains latent in him. He has not outgrown his passion for the grosser fictions, wealth, power, show.”
“But Emma! The two sisters did not love one another? If not, where was the fault?”
“Nature made them dissonant.”
“Their foster-father could not harmonize them?”
“I did my best, Byng. But young women need a mother. I suppose the mothers in society shrug up their shoulders, when they talk of Clara’s disappearance and death, and say, ‘What could you expect of a young person, whose nurse, governess, and chaperon was that odd Mr. Churm?’”
“You were absent when she disappeared?”
“Away from my post. In England. On some patent business.”
“I curse myself when I think of it. About this misery, Robert, I have not learned to be calm.”
“You did not approve her proposed marriage with Densdeth, — that I am sure.”
“I knew nothing of it.”
“What! your ward, your child, did not write, did not consult you on so grave a matter?”
“Her letters had been constant. They suddenly ceased. Her last had been a pleading cry to me to succor her father against his growing intimacy with Densdeth. I wrote that I would despatch my business, and hasten home. I never heard again. There was foul play.”
“Suppression of letters?”
“Yes; or I was belied to her.”
“Such a woman would not lightly abandon a faith.”
“Only some villanous treason could destroy her faith in me. And such I do not doubt there has been. I make no loose charges. But why was I kept in the dark?”
“No rumor of the marriage reached you?”
“A rumor merely. Do you know Van Beester?”
“That banking snob who tries to be a swell? a fellow who talks pro-slavery and fancies it aristocracy? Yes; I was bored with him once at a dinner in Paris.”
“Van Beester was put in my state-room on board the steamer when I returned. He had been in England, consummating a railroad job. The old story. Eight per cent third mortgage bonds, convertible. Enormous land grant. Road running over Noman’s Land into Nowhere. One of Densdeth’s schemes. Denman also had an interest.”
“A swindle? Something Muddefontaineish?”
“O no! Noman’s Land, the day the road was done, would become Everybody’s Farm. Nowhere would back into the wilderness. Up would sprout the metropolis of Somewhere. Swindle, Robert? Your term is crude.”
“I suppose Van Beester did not offer it to the English gudgeons under that name.”
“It was a mighty pretty bait for them, — two millions in savory portions, a thousand each. I forget whether some large gudgeon’s gills had taken the whole at one gulp; or whether a shoal of small fry had nibbled the worms off the bob. But the whole loan had been stomached in London, and Van Beester was going home in high feather.”
“A blatant nuisance, of course. And you could not abate or escape him.”
“No; unless I shoved him through our port-hole, or slipped through myself. Densdeth was the man’s hero. He could never talk without parading Densdeth. ‘Such talents for finance!’ he would exclaim. ‘Such knowledge of men! Such a versatile genius! Billiards or banking, all one to him! Never loses a bet; never fails in a project! Such a glass of fashion! Such a favorite with the fair sex!’”
“Pah! ‘Fair sex!’ I can fancy the loathsome fellow’s look and tone,” I exclaimed.
“Then, in a pause of his sea-sickness,” Churm continued, “he spoke of the Denmans. ‘Mr. Denman so princely! Daughters so charming! For his part he admired Emma,’ — ‘Emma,’ the scrub called her. ‘But then there was something very attractive, very exciting, about Clara, and he didn’t wonder that Densdeth had selected her, — lucky girl!’ ‘What do you mean?’ cried I, appalled. ‘Don’t you know?’ said the fellow, chuckling over his bit of fashionable intelligence. ‘I have it from the best authority, Densdeth himself. Here is his letter. I got it the morning we sailed. He is to be married the twenty-third. Blow, breezes! and we shall get there in time for the wedding.’”
“You could interpret her pleading cry, now,” said I.
“I seem to hear it repeated in every blast: ‘Help, dear friend, dear father, — for my mother’s sake!’ A maddening voyage that was! Dark waters, Robert! I shall hate the insolent monotony of ocean all my days. I could do nothing but walk the deck and tally the waves, or stand over the engine and count the turns.”
“People would laugh at a fellow of my age,” said I, “for such conduct. It is lover-like.”
“I loved Clara, as if she were spirit of my spirit. When the pilot boarded us, before dawn on the twenty-third, I was up chafing about the ship. He handed me his newspaper. The first thing I saw was Clara Denman’s name among the deaths.”
“Cruel!” exclaimed I.
“I thanked God for it. Better death than that marriage!”
“There is still something incomprehensible to me in your horror of Densdeth. I only half feel it myself; Stillfleet more than half feels it. What is it? What is he?”
“We will talk of him another time,” Churm replied. “Now I must hasten on. I found, as I said, Clara’s name among the deaths, and inside the paper a confused story of her disappearance and drowning.
“I was so eager to hear more, that I smuggled myself ashore in the health-officer’s gig, and took the quarantine ferry-boat to town, for speed. While I was looking for a hack at the South Ferry, the return coaches of a funeral to Greenwood drove off a boat just come into the slip.
“In the foremost coach I saw the Denmans and Densdeth.
“I pulled open the door and sprang in.
“I can never forget Denman’s look when he saw me. He blenched and shrank into his corner of the carriage, cowed.
“There sat Densdeth, colorless and impassive, opposite me. By my side was Emma, weeping under a heavy veil, and Denman, with a mean and guilty look, beside her.
“‘It is not my fault,’ Denman said, feebly stretching out both his hands, as if he expected a blow from me. ‘I acted for the best, as I thought, so help me God!’
“Densdeth interposed. His smooth, cool manner always puts roughness in the wrong.
“‘This is a sad pleasure, Mr. Churm,’ said he. ‘If we had looked for your return, we would have deferred this sorrowful ceremony.’
“‘Denman!’ said I.
He started, and held out his hands in vague terror.
“‘Denman!’ I repeated. ‘Here has been some crime. What have you done with that innocent girl? Who or what murdered her?’
“‘No,’ said he, drearily. ‘She is dead. That is bitter enough. Not murdered! O, not murdered! Do not be so harsh with an old friend!’
“‘Denman,’ said I, ‘an older friend than you committed her daughter into my hands on her death-bed. In her name I accuse you. I say, you have tried to crowd this poor child into a marriage she abhorred. I say you drove her to death. I say you murdered her, — you and Densdeth.’
“He gave me a dull look, — a pitiful look, for that proud, stately man, — and turned appealingly to his supporter.
“‘Mr. Churm,’ said Densdeth, ‘it is not like you to talk in this hasty way. I refuse to be insulted. My own distress shows me how the shock may have unbalanced you. But this heat and these baseless charges are poor sympathy for a parent, a sister, and a betrothed, coming from the funeral of one dear to them. Is it manly, Mr. Churm, to assail us? I appeal to your real generosity not to sharpen our grief by such cruelty.’
“Of course he was right. I was a brute if they were not guilty. I was silenced, not satisfied.
“Densdeth went on, with thorough self-possession. The man’s olive skin is a mask to him.
“‘You have a right, Mr. Churm,’ said he, ‘to hear all the facts of Clara’s death. I will state them. Ten days ago she took a sharp fever from a cold. One afternoon she became a little light-headed. But at evening she was doing well, and in such a healthy, quiet sleep that we thought she needed no watching. Indeed, we believed her recovered from the trifling attack. In the morning she was gone, — gone, and left no clew. We instantly organized search, with all the care that the tenderest affection could suggest.’
“‘Yes, yes! we did our best!’ Denman eagerly interrupted.
“‘Four days ago,’ continued Densdeth without pause, ‘her body was found, floated ashore on Staten Island. It was disfigured by the chances of drowning, but there were no marks of injury before death. She was fully identified. We suppose, and the doctor concurs, that at night her fever and light-headedness returned, that she left the house, strayed toward the river, fell from some dock, and was drowned.’
“Denman shivered as Densdeth concluded his curt, business-like statement.
“‘Yes, yes, Churm!’ said he again. ‘I did my best. Do not say murder, again! Do not be so harsh with an old friend! Tell him, Densdeth, tell him how we spent care and time and money to recover the poor child. Do not let him think anything was neglected.’
“He looked feebly from Densdeth to me. Then he turned to his daughter.
“‘Speak, Emma!’ said he, almost peevishly. ‘Why do you not help justify your father? Tell Mr. Churm that your sister’s death is only a misery, no fault of ours.’
“Emma made no reply, but sobbed uncontrollably behind her veil.”
“Poor girl!” I interjected, as Churm paused to look at his watch. “A dark beginning of life for her! I pity her most tenderly.”
“It is almost eleven,” said Churm. “I must go to my patient, Towner, without delay. And now I can say to you, that I believe he knows something of Clara’s tragedy. When he speaks, I shall learn where the guilt lies.”
“You suspect guilt then?” I asked. “The facts do not satisfy you? Have you a theory on the subject?”
“I have no doubt the final facts are as Densdeth gave them. But what are the precedent facts? What crazed my child? What unbalanced her healthy organization of mind and body? No trifling influenza. No bashful bridal panic of a girl. No, Byng; among them, they had hurt her heart and soul. There is the murder! Her father I believe to be in Densdeth’s power.”
“How?” I asked.
“How I can only divine from parallel cases. Denman has perhaps overstepped honesty to clutch wealth. Densdeth knows it. Densdeth has said, ‘Give me your daughter, or be posted as a rogue!’ Denman has made the common mistake, that, if he could elude the shame of detection, he would escape the remorse of guilt.”
“So they took advantage of your absence to use quasi force with the lady?”
“Yes; and they belied me, or Clara would have awaited my protection. Ah, Robert, I dread some crushing infamy was revealed to her in that house. No common shame, no common sorrow, would have maddened her to wander off and die. And now good night, Robert! Keep this tragedy in mind — in both its parts. One such story, well meditated with the characters in view, may be the one needful lesson and warning of a life. And let the whole be a sacred confidence with you alone!”
“It shall be. Good night.”
He wrung my hand and went out.
Let me recall him as he turns away.
A sturdy, not clumsy, man of middle height; fair skin, ruddy, not too red; nose resolute, not despotic; firm upper lip, gentle lower; glance keen, not astute, nor vulpine; expression calm, not cold; smile humorous and sympathetic; voice and laugh of the heart, hearty; a thoroughly lovable man, — the man of all others to be husband and father.
Besides, a man of vast ability and scope. Nature seemed to have no secrets from him. He handled the mechanic forces, he wielded social forces, with the same masterly grasp. Wherever civilization went, it bore his name as an inventor, an organizer and benefactor to man-kind. He was skill, order, and love.
And yet he lived alone and weary; his life, as he had told me to-night, all desolated by the shadow of a sin.