Dreeme, Awake Edit

I felt that the pale face of Cecil Dreeme was regarding me with its hollow, sad eyes, as I arrayed him in the splendid spoil of the Tuileries.

Saying to himself, perhaps, I thought, “What does this impertinent intruder want? Am I to be compelled to live against my will? I excluded air, rejected food and fire, — must self-appointed friends thrust themselves upon me, and jar my calm accord with Death?”

I might be in a false position after all. My services and my apparatus might be merely officious.

I evaded Dreeme’s look, and, moving to the table behind him, I occupied myself in pouring out a sip from the flask I had just brought. The purple wine sparkled in the goblet. In such a glass Bassanio might have pledged Portia.

No sooner had I stepped aside, than Dreeme stirred, and there came to me a voice, like the echo of a whisper: “Do not go.”

“No,” said I, “I am here.”

Thus invited, I came forward and looked at him, eye to eye.

Wonderful eyes of his! None ever shone truer, braver, steadier. These large dark orbs, now studying me with such sad earnestness, completed, without defining, my first impressions of the man. Here was finer vision for beauty than the vision of creatures of common clay. Here was keener insight into truth; here were the deeper faith, the larger love, that make Genius. A priceless spirit! so I fully discerned, now that the face had supplied its own illumination. A priceless spirit! and so nearly lost to the world, which has persons enough, but no spirits to waste.

As we regarded each other earnestly, I perceived the question flit across my mind: “Had I not had a glimpse of that inspired face before?”

“Why not?” my thought replied. “I may have seen him copying in the Louvre, sketching in the Oberland, dejected in the Coliseum, elated in St. Peter’s, taking his coffee and violets in the Cafe Bond, whisking by at the Pitti Palace ball. Artists start up everywhere in Europe, like butterflies among flowers. He may have flashed across my sight, and imprinted an image on my brain to which his presence applies the stereoscopic counterpart.

This image, if it existed, was too faint to hold its own with the reality. It vanished, or only remained a slight blur in my mind. I satisfied myself that I was comparing Dreeme with his idealized self in the picture.

“You are better,” said I.

There came a feeble, flutter-like “Yes,” in reply.

He still continued looking at me in a vague, bewildered way, his great, sad eyes staring from his pale face, as if he had not strength to close them.

“I have been giving you brandy,” I said; “let me offer a gentler medicine.”

I held out the cup. Then, as he made no sign of assent, I felt that he might have a reasonable hesitation in taking an unknown draught from a stranger hand. I sipped a little of the wine. It was fragrant Port with plenty of body and a large proportion of soul. Magnificent Mafra at its royalist banquet never poured out richer juices to enlarge a Portuguese king into manhood. It had two flavors. One would say that the grapes which once held it bottled within the dewy transparency of their rind had hung along the terraces beside the sea, drinking two kinds of sunshine all the long afternoons of ripe midsummer. Every grape had felt the round sun gazing straight and steadily at it, and enjoying his countenance within, as a lover loves to see his own image reflected in his lady’s eye. And every grape besides had taken in the broad glow of sunshine shining back from the glassy bay its vineyard overhung, or the shattered lights of innumerable ripples, stirred when the western winds came slinging themselves along the level sunbeams of evening. Harry Stillfleet! why didn’t you have a pipe, instead of a quart, of the stuff? Why not an ocean, instead of a sample?

I sipped a little, like a king’s wine-taster.

“Port, not poison, Mr. Dreeme,” said I. “This Venice glass would shiver with poison, and crack with scorn at any dishonest beverage.”

He seemed to make a feeble attempt at a smile, as I proffered the dose. “Your health!” his lips rather framed than uttered.

I put the glass to his mouth.

An unexpected picture for mid-nineteenth century, and a corner of rusty Chrysalis! a strange picture! — this dark-haired, wasted youth, robed like a sick prince, and taking his posset from a goblet fashioned, perhaps, in a shop that paid rent to Shylock.

Dreeme closed his eyes, and seemed to let the wholesome fever of his draught revivify him. By this time the room was warm and comfortable. The stove might be ugly as a cylindrical fetish of the blackest Africa; but it radiated heat with Phœbus-like benignity.

“How cheerful!” murmured the painter, looking up again, his forlorn expression departed. “Fire! Light! I am a new being!”

“Not a spirit, then!” said I. There was still something remote and ghost-like in the bewildered look of his hollow eyes.

“No spirit! This is real flesh and blood.”

I smiled. “Not much of either.”

“Have I to thank you that I am not indeed a spirit?” asked he slowly, but seeming to gain strength as he spoke.

“Locksley, the janitor, first, and me, second, you may thank, if life is a boon to you.”

“I thank both devoutly. Life is precious, while its work remains undone.”

Here he closed his eyes, as if facing labor and duty again was too much for his feebleness. When he glanced up at me anew, I fancied I saw an evanescent look of recognition drift across his face.

This set me a second time turning over the filmy leaves of the book of portraits in my brain. Was his semblance among those legions of faces packed close and set away in order there? No. I could not identify him. The likeness drifted away from me, and vanished, like a perplexing strain of music, once just trembling at the lips, but now gone with the breath, refusing to be sung.

I thought it not best to worry him with inquiries; so I waited quietly, and in a moment he began.

“Will you tell me what has happened? How came I under your kind care? Yours is a new face in Chrysalis.”

“I must give the face a name,” said I. “Let me present myself. Mr. Robert Byng.”

“In return, know me as Mr. Cecil Dreeme. Will you shake hands with your grateful patient, Mr. Byng.”

He weakly lifted an attenuated hand. Poor fellow! I could hardly keep my vigorous fist from crushing up that meagre, chilly handful, so elated was I at his recovery and his gratitude.

“I owe you an explanation, of course,” said I. “I am a new-comer, arrived from Europe only last night. Mr. Stillfleet, an old comrade, ceded his chambers below to me this afternoon. Locksley came to my door at twelve o’clock, looking for my friend Mr. Churm, who had been sitting with me. Churm had gone. Locksley was in great alarm. I volunteered my advice. He took me into his confidence, so far as this: he said that you were a young painter, living in the closest retirement, for reasons satisfactory to yourself, and that he feared you were dying from overwork, confinement, solitude, and perhaps mental trouble. I said you must be helped at once. We came up, and banged at your door heartily. No answer. We took the liberty to pick your lock and break into your castle. Then we took the greater liberty to put life into you, in the form of air, warmth, and alcohol.”

“Pardonable liberties, surely.”

“Yes; since it seems you did not mean to die.”

“Suicide!” said Dreeme, reproachfully. “No, thank God! You did not accuse me of that, Mr. Byng!”

“When we were knocking at your door, and hearing only a deathly silence, I dreaded that you had let toil and trouble drive you to despair.”

“Overwork and anxiety were killing me, without my knowledge.”

“And solitude?” said I.

“And that solitude of the heart which is the brother of death. Yes, Mr. Byng, I have been extravagant of my life. But innocently. Believe it!”

There was such eager protest in his look and tone, that I hastened to reassure him.

“When I saw your face, Mr. Dreeme, I read there too much mental life and too much moral life for suicide. I see brave patience in your countenance. Besides, you have too much sense to rush out and tap Death on the cold shoulder, and beg to be let out of life into Paradise before you have earned your entrance fee. You know, as well as I do, that Death keeps suicides shivering in Chaos, without even a stick and a knife to notch off the measureless days, until the allotted dying hour they vainly tried to anticipate comes round.”

Dreeme’s attention refused to be averted from his own case by such speculations.

“I have been struggling with dark waters, — dark waters, Mr. Byng,” said he.

“Churm’s very phrase to describe his sorrow,” I thought. “Who knows but Dreeme’s grief is the same?”

“Struggling like a raw swimmer,” he continued. “And when I was drowning, I find you sent to give me a friendly hand. It is written that I shall not die with all my work undone. No, no. I shall live to finish.”

He spoke with strange energy, and turned toward his easel as he closed.

“You refer to your picture,” said I, pleased to see his artist enthusiasm kindle so soon.

“My picture!” he rejoined, a little carelessly, as if it were of graver work he had thought. “How does it promise? I have put my whole heart into it. But hand cannot always speak loud enough or clear enough to interpret heart.”

“Hand has not stammered or mumbled here,” I replied. “My first glance showed me that. But I must have daylight to study it as it deserves. Am I right in recognizing you as the Cordelia of the piece?”

“For lack of a better model, I remodelled myself, and intruded there in womanly guise. My work is unfinished, as you see; but if you had not interposed to-night, I should have painted no more.” He shuddered, and seemed to grow faint again at the thought of that desolate death he had hardly escaped.

“Let me cheer you with a fresh dose of vitality,” said I. “A little more Lusitanian sun in crystal of Venice.”

This time he was strong enough himself to raise the cup to his lips. He sipped, and smiled gratefully; — and really a patient owes some thanks to a doctor who restores him with nectar smooth and fragrant, instead of rasping his throat and flaying his whole interior with the bitters sucked by sour-tempered roots from vixenish soils.

“It was a happy fate, a kind Providence,” said Dreeme, “that sent to me in my extremity a gentleman whose touch to mind and body is fine and gentle as a woman’s.”

“Thank you,” rejoined I. “But remember that I am only acting as Mr. Churm’s substitute. I hope you will let me bring him to you in the morning.”

“No,” said he, almost with rude emphasis.

I looked at him in some surprise. “You seem to have a prejudice against the name,” I remarked.

“Why should I? I merely do not wish to add to my list of friends.”

“But Mr. Churm is the very ideal friend, — stanch as oak, true as steel, warm and cheery as sunshine, eager as fresh air, tender as midsummer rain. Do let me interest him in you. He is just the man to befriend a lonely fellow.”

Dreeme shook his head, resolutely and sadly.

“You seem to mistrust my enthusiasm,” I said.

“It is tragic to me,” he returned, “to hear a generous nature talk so ardently of its friendships. Have you had no disappointments? Has no one you loved changed and become abased?”

“One would almost say you were trying to shake my faith in my friend.”

“Why should I? I speak generally.”

Here the partition-door of the lobby without opened, and we heard footsteps.

“Friend Locksley, with some supper for you,” said I, half annoyed at the interruption of our tête-à-tête.

“How kind! how thoughtful of you both!” and tears started in Dreeme’s eyes as he spoke.