A Morning with Densdeth Edit

I slept late after our gentle Orgie, my second night on shore.

A loud rapping awoke me.

I opened. Churm was at the door, stout stick in hand, stout shoes on his feet, stout coat on his back, — the sturdiest man to be seen, search a continent for his fellow! He had the Herculean air of one who has been out giving the world a lift by way of getting an appetite for breakfast.

“Good morning,” said he, marching in. “This will never do, my tallish young Saxon, come home to work!”


“Nine A. M., and your day’s task not begun!”

“I worked too late last night.”

“At the mysteries of your trade? I doubt if you encountered a deeper one than I in my watch.”

“Perhaps, and perhaps not. What was yours?”

“The heart of a wrong-doer.”

“That transcends my trade’s methods of analysis.”

“And in this case, my powers.”

“You are speaking of your protégé, Towner,” said I, going on with my toilette.

“Of him. He has a confession to make to me. He dares not quite confess. He comes up timorously, like a weak-kneed horse to his leap; then he seems to see something on the other side; he flinches and sheers into a Serbonian bog of lies.”

“Afraid of the consequences of confession?”

“Not of the ordinary punishment of guilt, nor of any ordinary revenge from his ancient master in evil.”

“Namely, as you allege, Densdeth.”


“I shall grow perverse enough to take Densdeth’s part, and cast my shell to de-ostracize him from his moral ostracism, if I hear him called The Unjust by all the world.”

“Don’t be Quixotic, Byng. There is more vanity than generosity in that.”

“And what dreadful vengeance does your weakling fear?”

“He thinks that, if he betrays his master, he shall never save himself from that master’s clutch. Densdeth will pursue him and debase his soul through all the eternities, as he has done in this life.”

“Quite a metaphysical distress!”

“Don’t laugh at him! It is a real agony with him; and who knows but the danger is real?”

“You do not get at what the poor devil has done in which you are interested?”

“Not at all. And his moral struggle with himself, and defeat, have plunged him back into such pitiable weakness of body, that we have lost all we had gained. The doctor says that it will kill him to see me again for weeks.”

“So Densdeth is respited. Well, I will study him in the interval, and find out for myself whether he is ‘main de fer, sous patte de velours.’”

“Very well, Byng; I see you are resolved to buy your experience. Densdeth has magnetized you. He does most young men.”

“I don’t know yet whether I shall turn to him my positive or negative pole. He may repel, instead of attracting, as soon as I get within his sphere. I acknowledge that I am drawn to him.”

“Now then, enough of such topics. My vigils have given me an appetite. I want to reverse ‘qui dort dine,’ and read ‘qui déjeune dort.’”

“Where shall we go? Chuzzlewit, Patrick rampant, flannel cakes, and Densdeth?”

“No; a better place. The Minedurt, close by.”

“Unpropitious name!”

“Surnames go by contraries. This is old Knickerbocker. It should read ‘The Grotto of Neatness,’ instead of the ‘Minedurt.’”

An avenue — The Avenue — flows up hill, northward, from the middle of Ailanthus Square. Churm conducted me a few blocks along that channel of wealth. He stopped in front of the Minedurt, a hotel with restaurant attached. Respectable could not have been more distinctly stamped upon a building, if it had been written up in a great label across the front, and in a hundred little labels everywhere, like the big red Ten and the little red tens on a bank-bill.

“Notice that large house across the street,” said Churm, halting before this respectable establishment.

“I do. It is nearer civilization than anything I have seen. A fine house. Happy the owner! if he appreciates architecture.”

“Happy!” said Churm, bitterly. “It is Denman’s house! He had ancestral acres here, and was one of the first to perceive that the cream would settle in his grandfather’s cow-pasture.”

“Stop a moment! The tragedy of my old playmate gives the house a strange sanctity in my eyes.”

“It is cursed,” said Churm. “No happiness to its tenants, — only harm to its friends, until the wrong done my child there has been expiated.”

“Has not her father’s grief atoned for his error?”

“You cannot understand my feelings, Byng. You did not know Clara Denman.”

I paused to inspect the mansion, sanctified to me by death. Death sanctifies, birth consecrates a home.

Sanctified? But the death here was perhaps a suicide. So some alleged. Can a suicide sanctify? Does it not desecrate? Do not some churches deny the corpse, a self-slayer flung away, its hiding-place in holy ground? No suicide near the sleeping saints! A man may strangle himself with good dinners, or poison himself with fine old Madeira or coarse old Monongahela; a bad conscience, gnawing day and night, may eat away his heart; he may have murdered the woman that once loved him, by judicious slow torture; he may have murdered the friend that trusted him, by a peevish No, when it was help or death; no matter! He will be allowed as comfortable a grave as a sexton can dig, six feet by two in soft soil under green sod, and the priest will dust his dust with all the compliments in the burial service. But let him have put a knife to his throat, or a bullet in his brain, because he could not any longer face the woman he had wronged, or the friend he had betrayed, — what shudders then of sexton and priest! No place for him beside the glutton and the drunkard! The cruel husband or the false friend would shiver in his coffin at such propinquity. Out with him! Out with the accursed thing! To the dogs with the carrion!

Not sanctified, — saddened, I could, without any one’s protest, consider Mr. Denman’s house. Hundreds, no doubt, every day envied the happy owner. How grand to possess that stately edifice of contrasted freestones, purple and drab; those well-cut pilasters; that dignified roof, in the old chateau manner, fitly capping the whole; that majestic portal; those great windows, heavily draped, but allowing the inner magnificence to peer through, conscious, but not ostentatious; — how grand to stand and call this mine!

Hundreds, no doubt, envied Mr. Denman every day. First in the morning, journeymen, hurrying by with a poor dinner in a tin canister; next, Tittlebat Titmouse, on his way to the counter; then some clerk of higher degree, seller by the piece instead of the yard, by the cargo instead of the pound, bustling down town to his desk; next the poor book-keeper, with twelve hundred a year, and a mouth to every hundred; then the broken-down merchant, who must show himself on the Street, though the Street noted him no more; and so on in order, the financial dignitary, the club-man lounging to his late breakfast or his morning stroll, the country cousin seeing the lions, the woman of fashion driving up to drop a card; and then at sunset the pretty girl walking up town with her lover; and then at night the night-bird skulking by; — all these envied the tenants of the Denman mansion, or at least fancied them fortunate. And all houses announce as little as that the miseries that may dwell within!

“Come, Byng,” said my friend, “you cannot see into the heart of that house by staring at it.”

We passed in to our breakfast. Over our coffee we glided into cheerful talk. I consulted Churm, and he frankly advised me as to my future.

And so, speaking of my own prospects, we spoke of the hopes and duties of my generation to our country.

“We are the first,” said I, “who understand what an absolute Republic means, and what it can do.”

“The first as a generation. Individuals have always comprehended it,” said Churm.

“And now, acting together, on a larger scale, with a grander co-operation, we will inaugurate the new era for the noblest manhood and the purest womanhood the world has ever known.”

I had spoken ardently.

At once, as if in echo to my words, I heard Densdeth’s cynic laugh behind me.

My enthusiasm perished.

I turned uneasily. Was Densdeth laughing at my silly boyish fervors?

He was sitting two tables off, breakfasting with a well-known man about town. Densdeth’s companion was one of those who have beauty which they debase, talents which they bury, money which they squander. He was a man of fine genius, but genius under a murky cloud, flashing out rarely in a sad or a scornful way. A man sick of himself, sorry for himself. A wasted life, hating itself for its waste, wearing itself out with self-reproach that it was naught. Some evil influence had clutched him after his first success and his first sorrow. Thenceforth his soul was paralyzed. The success had nurtured a lazy pride, instead of an exalting ambition. The sorrow had made him tender to himself and hard to others. What was that evil influence? Could it be in the dark face beside him?

Densdeth nodded to me familiarly, as I turned.

“Don’t forget,” said he, “our appointment at one. You know Raleigh, I believe.”

Mr. Raleigh and I bowed cordially.

We had met in Europe. We had sympathized on art and nature. I had touched only his better side, though I saw the worse. I liked Raleigh, and fancied, as a boy fancies, that I had a certain power over him, and that for good.

We all rose together after our breakfast.

“Are you killing time, or nursing it, Byng?” said Densdeth.

“Killing it for a day or two, until I acclimate to the atmosphere of work.”

“Unless you have something better to do, drop over with us to the club. You must know the men. We will have a game of billiards until one.”

“Yes, come, Byng,” invited Raleigh’s sweet voice.

“Thank you,” I said. “Business, in the form of Mr. Churm, deserts me. Pleasure woos. I yield.”

“Take care!” said Churm to me, as we walked away. “I see you insist upon personal experience.”

“O yes! Nothing vicarious for me! I will nibble at our friend. I’ll try not to bite, for fear of the poison you threaten.”

Churm left us, and walked across Ailanthus Square, on his way down town.

“I must look in at my quarters for a moment,” said I to the others; “will you lounge on, and let me overtake you, or honor me with a visit?”

“Let us drop in, Raleigh,” said Densdeth. “I am curious to see how the old place looks, with Stillfleet’s breezes out and Byng’s calms in.”

I did the honors, and then, establishing my guests with cigars, I excused myself, and ran up-stairs to give good morning to Cecil Dreeme. Churm’s presence and a lively appetite together had delayed this duty. Besides, I had felt that he ought not to be disturbed too early.

I knocked, and spoke my name. The recluse might sport oak to the knock alone.

“Coming,” responded his gentle voice.

Presently the door opened enough to admit me, but not to display the interior of the chamber to any inquisitive passer.

I was struck, even more than last night, by the singular, refined beauty of the youth. And then his body was so worn and thin, that his soul seemed to get very close to me.

His personal magnetism — that is, the touch of his soul on mine — affected me more keenly than before. It was having cumulative influence. The mighty medicines for soul and body always do.

And so do the poisons.

“You are looking quite vigorous and cheerful this morning,” I said, exaggerating a little. “I congratulate you on your leap out of death into full life.”

“It is to you I owe it,” he said, with deep feeling.

He grasped my hand, and then dropped it suddenly again, as if he feared he was taking a liberty.

(How exactly I remember every word and gesture of those first interviews! Ah, Cecil Dreeme! how little I fancied then what salvage you were to pay me for my succor!)

“You are hard at work again, I see.” I pointed to his palette and brushes. “Be cautious! Do not overdo it! You must be under my orders for a while.”

I was conscious of claiming this power a little timidly, such was the quiet dignity of the young man.

“I will try to be wiser now, since I have a friend who is willing to admonish me.”

“Now,” continued he, as if to turn attention from himself, “look at my picture! I want a slashing criticism. You cannot find faults that I do not see myself.”

I stepped back to look at it. A work of power! Crude, indeed; but with force enough to justify any crudity.

Its deep tragedy struck me silent.

“Do not spare me,” said Dreeme. “Silence is severer than blame. Say, at least, that it is pretty well for a novice, — pretty well considering my years and my practice.”

“What has happened to you?” said I, staring at his pale, worn face. “What right have you, in the happy days of youth, to the knowledge that has taught you to paint tragedy thus? What unknown agony have you undergone? Mr. Dreeme, your picture is a revelation. I pity you from my heart.”

“You do not believe,” said he, evasively, “that imagination can supply the want of experience?”

“Imagination must have experience to transfuse into new facts. You, of course, have not had an unjust father, like your Lear, nor a disloyal sister, like your Goneril; nor have you felt a withering curse, as your Cordelia does. But tyranny and treachery must have touched you. They have initiated you into their modes of action and expression. Do not find inquisitiveness implied in my criticism. I pity you too much for the ability and impulse to paint thus, to be curious how it came.”

“Believe, then,” said Dreeme, “and it may help you to make allowances for me, that I know in my own life what tragedy means. That experience commands me to do violence to my love of beauty and happy scenes, and paint agony, as I have done there. And now, pray let us be technical. That white drapery, — how does it fall? Are the lines stiff? Is there too much starch in the linen, or too little?”

“Technicality another time. I am uncivil even in delaying so long. Two gentlemen are waiting for me below.”

“Your friend, Mr. Churm?” he asked, looking away.

“No. Mr. Densdeth and Mr. Raleigh.”

“Densdeth!” said he, with a slight shudder “You see I have the susceptible nerves of an artist. I tremble at the mere sound of such an ill-omened name. Should you not naturally avoid a person called Densdeth?” And as if the sound fascinated him, he repeated, “Densdeth! Densdeth!”

“Name and man are repulsive; but attractive also. Attractive by repulsion.”

“Take my advice, and obey the repulsion. Poisons are not made bitter that we may school ourselves to like them. If this person, with a boding name, repels you, do not taste him, as one tastes opium. Curiosity may make you a slave.”

“Odd, that you, a stranger, should have the usual prejudice against Densdeth!”

“Consider that I am as one raised from the dead, and so perhaps clairvoyant. I use my power to warn you, as you have saved me.”

“Thank you,” said I; “I will see you this evening, and tell you how far I am ruined by a morning with this bête noir. If he spoils me, you must repair the harm.”

I walked to the door. He released me with a cautious glance into the hall. I ran down stairs and apologized for my delay to my guests.

“It is a privilege to wait, my dear fellow,” said Densdeth, “in such a treasure-house. We have been looking at these droll old tapestries of Purgatory and a hotter place. Raleigh insists that the seducing devil, wooing those revellers to hell, is my precise image.”

“No doubt of it,” says Raleigh. “You must be Mephistophiles himself. Those fifteenth-century fellows have got your portrait to the life. It seems you were at the same business then, as now.”

Densdeth laughed. Raleigh and I laughed in answer. Both had caught that mocking tone of his.

“Not only are you the devil of the tapestry,” said Raleigh, “but I see myself among your victims.”

“You flatter me,” said Densdeth, again with his sinister laugh.

“Yes, and Byng too, and certain ladies we know of. I really begin to be lazily superstitious. Don’t make it too hot for me, Densdeth, when you get me below. I’ve only been a negative sinner in this world, — no man’s enemy but my own.”

Raleigh’s jest was half earnest. That and the demonish quality in Densdeth quickened my glance at the old altar-cloth, which hung on the wall, among Stillfleet’s prints and pictures.

Under these impressions, I did indeed identify Densdeth with the cloven-hoofed tempter in this characteristic bit of mediæval art. Raleigh was surely there, in the guise of a languid Bacchanal, crowned with drooping vine-leaves. I myself was also there, — a youth, only half consenting, dragged along by an irresistible attraction. And continuing my observations, I recognized other friends, faintly imaged in the throng on the tapestry. An angel, looking sadly at the evil one’s triumph and my fall, was Cecil Dreeme’s very self. And up among the judges sat Churm, majestic as a prophet of Michael Angelo.

“Come,” said Densdeth, — he was by chance standing in the exact attitude of the Tempter in the tapestry, — “come; we shall have but just time for Byng’s introduction and our game of billiards.”

“Lead on, your majesty!” said Raleigh. “We needs must follow, — to billiards or the bottomless pit.”

We walked to the club. It was the crack club then. Years ago it went to pieces. Its gentlemen have joined better. Its legs and loafers have sunk to bar-rooms.

The loungers there were languid when we entered.

No scandal had yet come up from Wall Street; none down from Murray Hill.

The morning was still virgin of any story of disaster to character, financial or social.

The day had not done its duty, — a mere dies non, and promising only to be dies perdita.

To be sure it was still a young day. It might still ruin somebody, pocket or reputation. Somebody, man or woman, might go to protest, and shame every indorser, before three o’clock.

But everybody at the club had made it seven bells; eight bells would presently strike, and no sign of the day’s ration of scandal. They could not mumble all the afternoon over the stale crusts of yesterday; they could not put bubble into yesterday’s heel-taps. Everybody was bored. Life was a burden at the windows, by the fire, at the billiard-tables, of that rotten institution.

Densdeth’s arrival made a stir.

“See these gobemouches” whispered Raleigh to me.” They think Densdeth, the busy man, would never come here at this hour in the morning, unless some ill had happened, — unless there were some new man to jeer, or woman to flout. Now see how he will treat them.”

The languid loungers lost their air of nonchalance. There was a general move toward our party. The click of balls upon the tables was still. The players came forward, cue in hand. These unknightly knights of the Long Table stood about us, with the blunted lances of a blunted chivalry, waiting to chuckle over the fate of some comrade in the dust, of some damsel soiled with scorn. Remember, that these were only the baser sort of the members. Heroes may sometimes lounge. Real heroes may play billiards, like the Phelan, and be heroes still.

Densdeth’s manner with his auditory was a study.

“Pigs,” he seemed to say, “I suppose I must feed you. Gobble up this and this, ye rabble rout! Take your fare and my mental kicking with it.”

Soon he tired of the herd, and led the way to a billiard-table, apart.

“I wanted to show you, Byng,” said he, with an air of weary disgust, “what kind of men will be your associates among the idlers.”

“The busy men are nobler, I hope,” said I.

“You shall see. I will give you the entrée to the other worlds, — the business world, the literary world, the religious world, all of them. Possibly you may not have quite outlived your illusions. Possibly you may have fancied that men are to be trusted on a new continent. Possibly you may believe in the success of a society and polity based on the assumption that man-kind is not an ass when he is not a villain, and vice versa.”

“I had some such fancy.”

“Better be disenchanted now, than disappointed by and by. Apropos, don’t suppose I often degrade myself to the level of that swinish multitude of scandal-mongers. But when I saw them so greedy, I could not forbear giving them diet, according to their stomachs.”

“What an infernal humbug you are, Densdeth!” said Raleigh, marking a five-shot; “you love to spoil those boys, and keep the men spoilt. If you were out of the world, they would all reform, and go, to sucking honey, instead of poison.”

“We are all humbugs,” rejoined Densdeth; “I want to put Byng on his guard against me and the rest. He might get some unhappy notion, that in America men are brave and women are pure.”

I kept my protest to myself, willing to study Densdeth further.

Densdeth led the conversation, as indeed he never failed to do. He was a keen, hard analyzer of men, utterly sceptical to good motives. There is always just such a proportion of selfishness in every man’s every act; there must be, because there is a man in it. It may be the larger half, the lesser half, a fraction, the mere dust of an atom, that makes the scale descend. Densdeth always discovered the selfish purpose, put it in focus, held up a lens of his own before it. At once it grew, and spread, and seemed the whole.

Densdeth was the Apostle of Disenchantment. No paradisiacal innocence where he entered. He revealed evil everywhere. That was at the core, according to him, however smooth the surface showed. Power over others consisted in finding that out. And that power was the only thing, except sensuality, worth having.

Thus I condense my impressions of him. I did not know him, in and in, out and out, after this first morning at the club, nor after many such meetings. I learnt him slowly.

Yet I think I divined him from the first. I did not state to my own mind, then, why he captivated me, — why he sometimes terrified me, — why I had a hateful love for his society. In fact, the power of deeply analyzing character comes with a maturity that I had not attained. I was to pay price for my knowledge. Densdeth’s shadow was to fall upon me. My danger with evil personified, in such a man as Densdeth, was to sear into me a profound and saving horror of evil. One does not read the moral, until the tale is told.

We played our billiards. One o’clock struck. We left Raleigh to be bored with the world and sick of himself, to knock the balls about, and wish he had been born a blacksmith or a hod-carrier.

Densdeth and I walked to the Denmans.

“You will see a very captivating young lady,” he said, with a sharp and rapid glance at me.

I was aware of a conscious look. He caught it also.

“Aha, Byng! a little tenderness for the old playmate! Well, perhaps she has been waiting for you. She has looked coldly on scores of lovers.”

There was a familiarity in his tone which offended me. It seemed to sneer away the delicacy I felt towards one with whom I had childish passages of admiration ten years ago. I was angry at his disposing of my destiny and hers at once. In turn, I looked sharply at him, and said, in the same careless tone, “How does Miss Denman compare with her sister?”

Not a spark of emotion in his impassive face. There might have been a slight smile, as if to say, “This boy fancies that he is able to probe me, and learn why I courted the less beautiful sister, and what I did to drive her mad and to death.” But the smile vanished, and he said, quietly: “We will not speak of the dead, if you please. Among the living, Miss Denman stands alone. A great prize, Byng! People that pretend to know say that Mr. Denman is a millionnaire. See what a grand house he lives in!”

“Grand houses sometimes make millionnaires paupers,” I remarked, thinking of what Churm had told me.

“I am quite sure no pauper owns this,” Densdeth said, measuring it with a look, as we walked up the steps.

I remembered what Churm had said, and fancied I saw at least mortgagee, if not proprietor, in my companion’s eye. Was he inspecting to see if his house needed a trowelful of mortar, or a gutter repaired?