Emma Denman Edit

Densdeth rang. We were admitted at once. The footman introduced us into a parlor fronting on the avenue. The interior of the house was worthy of its stately architecture. I do not describe. People, not things, passions, not objects, are my topics.

Presently, in a mirror at the end of the long suite of rooms, I was aware of the imaged figure of a young lady approaching. Semblance before substance, instead of preparing me for the interview, it almost startled me. I half fancied that shadowy reflection to be the spirit of the dead sister watching. The living sister was coming in the body; the presence of the sister dead tarried in the background, curious to see what would grow from the germ of a childish friendship revived.

In a moment the lady herself stepped forward.

No thought of shadows any more!

She, the substance, took a stand among the foremost figures in my drama.

The effect of the room where I sat was rich and festal, almost to the verge of gorgeousness. Had sorrow dared to intrude among such courtly splendors? Carpets thick with the sunburnt flowers of late summer, — had these felt the trailing step that carries grief on to another moment of grief? Heavy crimson curtains, — must these have uttered muffled echoes when a sigh, outward bound, drifted against their folds? And deep-toned pictures, full of victory and jubilee, — could they not outface the pale countenance of mourning in that luxurious room? It made the power of sorrow and the bitterness of death seem far more giant in their strength, that they had crowded in hither, and hung a dim film of funereal black before all this magnificence.

Crimson was the chief color in carpet, curtains, and walls. This deep, rich background magically heightened the effect of the pale, elegant figure in deep mourning who was approaching.

Emma Denman passed in front of the mirror, erasing her own reflection there. She came forward, and offered her hand to me with shy cordiality. The shyness remembered the old familiar playmate of the days of “little husband and little wife”; the cordiality was for the unforgotten friend.

I found no change, only development, in Emma Denman. Still the same fitful fascination that had been her charm as a child. It seized me at once. I lost my power of quiet discrimination. I can hardly analyze her power even now. These subtle influences refuse to be subject to my chemical methods and my formulas.

It was not the power of beauty, alone. Physical beauty she had, but something higher also. Nor spiritual beauty alone, but something other. The mere flesh-and-blood charms, lilies and roses, the commonplace traits of commonplace women, whose inventory describes the woman, she could afford to disdain. It was a face that forbade all formal criticism. No passport face. Other women one names beautiful for a feature, a smile, or a dimple, — that link between a feature and a smile. Hers was a face suffused with the fine essence of beauty. It seemed to wrong the whole, if one let eyes or mind make any part distinct.

Grace she had, — exquisite grace. Grace is perhaps a more subtle charm than beauty. Beauty is passive; grace is active. Beauty reveals the nature; grace interprets it. Beauty wins; grace woos.

Emma Denman’s coloring did not classify her. Her hair was in the indefinite shades between light and dark. One would not expect from her the steadiness of the fair temperaments, nor the ardor of their warmer counterparts in hue. No dismissing her with the label of a well-known type. I must have a new and composite thought in my mind while I curiously studied her.

Her eyes wanted color. They were not blue and constant, not black and passionate. Indeed, but for their sparkle and vivacity, they would have seemed expressionless. Restless eyes! they might almost have taken a lesson from Densdeth’s, so rapid were they to come and go, so evanescent and elusive was their glance. But Densdeth’s were chasing eyes; hers were flying. Her swift eyes, her transitory smile, her motions, soft as the bend of a branch, light as the spring of a bird, lithe as the turn of a serpent, all were elements in her singular fascination, — it was almost elfin.

She was in deep mourning; and, partly because mourning quickens sympathy, partly because to a person of her doubtful coloring positive contrasts are valuable, it seemed the very dress to heighten her beauty. And yet, as I saw her afterwards, I found that all costume and scenery became thus tributary to her, and all objects and people so disposed themselves, and all lights and shades so fell, as to define and intensify her charm.

Densdeth witnessed our recognition, and then excused himself. “He had business with Mr. Denman in the library, and would join us by and by.” We both breathed freer upon his exit. It was impossible not to feel that he was always reading every act and thought; and that consciousness of a ruthless stare turned in upon one’s little innocencies of heart is abashing to young people.

Miss Denman had seemed uneasy while Densdeth stayed. She changed her seat, and with it her manner, as he departed. The chair she now took brought her again within range of the distant mirror. Her shadow became a third party in our interview. When I observed it, its presence disturbed me. Sometimes, as before, I fancied it the sprite of the sister dead, sometimes the double of the person before me, — her true self, or her false self, which she had dismissed for this occasion, while she made her impression upon me.

Strange fancies! faintly drifting across my mind. But I did not often observe that dim watcher in the mirror. My companion engaged me too closely. Now that Densdeth was gone, we sat in quiet mood, and let our old acquaintance renew itself.

Our talk was hardly worth chronicling. Words cannot convey the gleam of pleasure with which our minds alighted together on the same memory of days gone by, as we used to spring upon a flower in the field, or a golden butterfly by the wayside.

“Ah! those sorrowless days of childhood!” I said. “Not painless, — not quite painless!”

“There are never any painless days,” said she.

“No. Pain is the elder brother of Pleasure. But the days when the sense of injury passed away with the tears it compelled; when the sense of wrong-doing vanished with the light penance of a pang, with the brief penitence of an hour, and left the heart untainted. Those days were sorrowless.”

As I spoke thus, Emma Denman suddenly burst into tears.

I had not suspected her of any such uncontrollable emotion. She had seemed to me one to smile and flash, hardly earnest enough for an agony.

“Pardon me,” she said, quelling her tears, “but since those bright days I have suffered bitter sorrow. As you, my old playmate, speak, all that has passed since we met comes up newly.”

This was all she said, at the moment, of her sister’s death. I respected the recent wound. I had no right to renew her distress even by sympathy. I changed the subject.

“I find myself,” said I, “between two opposites, as guardians for my second childhood at home. Mr. Churm is to launch me upon my work. Mr. Densdeth introduces me at the club. Which shall my boyship obey?”

“Such opposites will neutralize each other. You will be left free for a guardian in my sex. Have you sought one yet?”

“Destiny selects for me. I am thrust into your hands. Will you take me in charge?”

The look she gave as I said this touched me strangely. It seemed as if her double had suddenly glided forward and peered at me through her evasive eyes. A mysterious expression. I could no more comprehend it from my present shallow knowledge of the lady, than a novice perceives why Titian’s surface glows, until he has scraped the surface and knows the undertones.

“Will I take you in charge?” she rejoined, with this strange look, henceforth my controlling memory of her face. “Will you trust me with such grave office? What say the other guardians? Do they recommend me? Does Mr. Churm? Have you consulted him?”

“Churm has rather evaded forming a prejudice in your favor in my mind. He gave me no ideal to alter. I had no counter-charm of the fancy to oppose to your actual charm.”

“Your other choice among mentors, Mr. Densdeth, — has he offered you any light upon my qualifications?”

“Not a word! But he is not my choice. He has chosen me, if our companionship is choice, not chance.”

“You accept him?”

“I have not thought of rejecting a man of such peculiar power.”

“Has he mastered you, too?”

“Mastered? I am my own master. He attracts my curiosity greatly. I cannot resist the desire to know him by heart.”

“To know him by heart!” she repeated, with almost a shudder. “To know Densdeth by heart! Study him, then, for yourself! I will give you no help! No help from me! God forbid!”

I must have looked, as I felt, greatly surprised at this outburst, for she recovered her usual manner, with an effort, and said: “Pardon me, again! Do not let me prejudice you against Mr. Densdeth. He is our friend, our best friend; but sometimes I suddenly have superstitious panics when I think of him and my sister’s death.”

She seemed to struggle now against a flood of sorrowful recollections. The force of the struggle carried her over to the side of gayety.

Smiles create smiles more surely than yawns yawns. I yielded readily to Miss Denman’s gay mood. She threw off the depression of the early moments of our interview. “This should be a merry hour,” her almost reckless manner said, “be the next what it might.”

All the while, as we sat in the crimson dimness of that luxurious room, — she eager, animated, flashing from thought to thought, talking as an old friend who has yearned for friendship and sympathy might talk to an old friend who has both to give, — all the while, as she held me bound by her witchery, her shadow in the distant mirror sat, a ghostly spy.

She was in the midst of a lively sketch of the society I was to know under her auspices, when all at once a blight came upon her spirits. She paused. Her color faded. Her eyes became flighty. Her smile changed to a look of pain. She shivered slightly. These were almost imperceptible tokens, felt rather than perceived.

Steps approached as I was regarding this transformation with a certain vague alarm, such as one feels at a doubtful sound, that may be a cry for help, by night in a forest. In a moment Densdeth entered the room. With him was a large man, of somewhat majestic figure, a marked contrast to the slender grace of Densdeth. This new-comer was following, not leading, as if not he, but Densdeth, were the master in the house.

Mr. Denman! As he came up the suite of parlors, I could observe him, form, mien, and manner.

Without any foreknowledge of him, I might have said, “An over-busy man, — a man over-weighted with social responsibilities. Too many banks choose him director. Too many companies want his administrative power. Too many charities must have him as trustee. One of the Caryatides of society. No wonder that he looks weary and his shoulders stoop. No wonder at his air of uneasy patience, or perhaps impatient endurance and eagerness to be free!”

But Churm had told me of other burdens this proud, self-confident man must bear. I could not be surprised that Mr. Denman looked old beyond his years, and that as he spoke his eyes wandered off, and stared vaguely into his own perplexities.

He received me cordially. His manner had a certain broken stateliness, as of a defeated sovereign, to whom his heart says, “Abdicate and die.” As he welcomed me to his house, he glanced at Densdeth. Did he fear a smile on that dark, cruel face, and a look which said, “O yes! you may keep up the pretence of lordship here a little longer, if you enjoy the lie!”

“You are an old friend, Mr. Byng. Robert, I am happy to see you again,” said Mr. Denman. “You must be at home with us. We dine at six. You will always find a plate. Come to-day, if you have no pleasanter engagement.”

Miss Denman’s look repeated the invitation.

I accepted. The old intimacy was renewed. And renewed with a distincter purpose on my part, because I said to myself, “ Who knows but I may, with my young force, aid this worn and weary man to shake off the burden that oppresses him, and frustrates or perverts his life, — be it the mere dead weight of an old error, — be it the lacerating grapple of a crime?”

And now the tale of my characters is complete. This drama, short and sad, marches, without much delay, to its close. If I have, in any scene thus far, dallied with details that may seem trivial, let me be pardoned! It may be that I have flinched, as I looked down the vista of my story, and discerned an ending of its path within some sombre cavern, like a place of sepulture. It may be that I have purposely halted to pluck the few pale flowers which grew along my road, and to listen a moment to the departing laugh, and the departing echoes of the laugh, of every merry comrade, as he went his way, and left me to fare as I might along my own.