A Morning with Cecil Dreeme Edit
Through Churm’s active friendship, I at once found my place. I have mentioned my profession, chemistry. I was wanted in the world. Better business came to me than a professorship at the Terryhutte University, salary Muddefontaine bonds, or a post at the Nolachucky Polytechnic, salary Cumberland wild lands.
Churm only waited to establish me, and then was off, north, south, east, and west. It was one of those epochs when mankind is in a slough of despond, and must have a lift from Hercules. It was a time when society, that drowsy Diogenes, was beginning to bestir itself after a careless slumber, and, holding up the great lantern of public opinion to find honest men, suddenly revealed a mighty army of rogues. Rogues everywhere; scurvy rogues in mean places, showy rogues in high places; rogues cheating for cents in cheap shops, rogues defrauding for millions in splendid bank parlors; princely rogues, claiming princely salaries for unprofitable services, and puny rogues, corrupted by such example, stealing the last profits to eke out their puny pay and give them their base pleasures; potent rogues, buttoning up a million’s worth of steamships or locomotives in their fob, and rogues, as potent for ill on a smaller scale, keeping back the widow’s mite, and storing the orphan’s portion with the usurer. Rogues everywhere! and the great, stern, steady eye of public opinion, at last fully open and detecting each rogue in the place he had crept or strode into, marking him there in his dastard shame or haughty bravado, and branding him THIEF, so that all mankind could know him.
In this crisis, Society’s great eye of Public Opinion turned itself upon Churm, and demanded him as The Honest Man. Society’s unanimous voice called upon him to put his shoulder to the wheel. Society said, “Be Dictator! dethrone, abolish, raze, redeem, restore, construct! Condemn; forgive! Do what you please, — only oust Roguery and instate Honesty.”
This gigantic task engaged Churm totally. I lost him from my daily life.
It was a busy, practical life, — the life of one who had his way to work; and yet not without strange and unlooked-for excitements, in the region of romance.
My comrades in Europe, countrymen and foreigners, had condoled with me on my departure for home.
“Going back to America!” said they, “to that matter-of-fact country, where everything is in the newspapers.”
“You that have lived in Italy!” deplored my romantic friends, — “in Italy, where skeletons in closets are packed scores deep; where you can scarcely step without treading on a murder-stain; where if a man but sigh in his bedchamber, when he loosens his waistcoat, the old slumbering sighs, which chronicle old wrongs done in that palace, awake and will not sleep until they have whispered to each other and to the affrighted stranger their tale of a misery; where the antique dagger you use for a paper-cutter has rust-marks that any chemist will say mean maiden’s blood; where the old chalice you buy at a bargain gives a mild flavor of poison to your wine; you that have lived in richly historied Italy, where the magnificent past overshadows the present, what will you find to interest you in a country where there is no past, no yesterday, and if no yesterday, no to-day worth having, — but life one indefinitely adjourned to-morrow?”
“Poor Byng! Romantic fellow! Why, unless there should be a raid of Camanches or Pawnees from the Ohio country,” said my European friends, with a refreshing ignorance of geography, — “unless there should come a stampede of the red-skinned gentry to snatch a scalp or a squaw in the Broadway of New York, you will positively pine away for lack of adventures.”
“What a bore to dwell in a land where there are no sbirri to whisk you off to black dungeons! How tame! a life where no tyrannies exist to whisper against always, to growl at on anniversaries, to scream at when they pounce on you, to roar at when you pounce on them. Yes, what stupid business, existence in a city where nobody has more and nobody less than fifteen hundred dollars a year, paid quarterly in advance; where there is such simple, easy, matter-of-fact prosperity that no one is ever tempted to overstep bounds and grasp a bigger share than his neighbors; and so there is never any considerable wrong done to any one; — no wrong, and consequently hearts never break, and there can be no need of mercy, pity, or pardon.”
“Why, Byng! life without shade, life all bald, garish steady sunshine, may do to swell wheat and puff cabbage-heads; but man needs something other than monotony of comfort, something keener than the stolid pleasures of deaconish respectability. Byng,” said my Florentine, Heidelberg, or Parisian comrades, each in their own language and manner, “Byng, you will actually starve for poetry and romance in that detestably new country.”
I confess that I had had some fears on this subject, myself.
I had made up my mind to drop into systematic existence, cut fancy, eschew romance, banish dreams, and occupy my digestion solely on a diet of commonplace facts.
I might have known that man cannot live on corporeal, mundane facts alone, unless he can persuade his immortality to forget him, and leave him to crawl a mere earth-worm, dirt to dirt, until he is dust to dust.
As to romance, I might have known, if I had considered the subject, that wherever youth and maiden are, there is the certainty of romance and the chance of tragedy. I might have known that the important thing in a drama is, what the characters are, and what they do, not the scenes where they stand while they are acting. In the theatre, people are looking at the lover and the lady, not at the balustrade and the tower.
But though I might have known that the story of Life and Love is just as potent to create itself a fitting background when it is acted anew on a new stage, as when it is announced for repetition with the old familiar, musty properties, I had, indeed, been somewhat bullied by the unreflecting talk just quoted. I had fancied that the play could not go on without antiquated stuff to curtain it, dry-rotted boards for it to tread, and a time-worn drop for it to stand out against. I was sceptical as to the possibility of a novel and beautiful development of romance under the elms of a new land, in the streets of its new cities. I had adopted the notion of Europe, and Europe-tainted America, that my country was indeed very big, very busy, very prosperous, but monstrously dull, tame, and prosaic.
Error! Worse, — mere stupid blindness!
My first plunge into life at home proved it. See how my very first day became over-crowded with elements of interest and romance, — nay, of mysterious and tragic excitement!
Even the ancient scenery, whether important or not to the progress of the drama, had packed itself up, and followed my travels. Stillfleet’s chambers were an epitome of the whole Past, — that is to say, of the Past as leading to the Present and interpreting it. Stillfleet had concentrated the essence of all the ages in his informal museum. I had but to glance about, and I had travelled over all terrestrial space, and lived through all human centuries. He had relics from all the famous camps in the great march of mankind. He had examples, typical objects, to show what every age and every race had contributed to the common stock. By art on his walls, by books in the library, by objects of curious antiquity, even by the grotesque fabrics and contrivances of savages and transitory tribes of men, all distributed about in orderly disorder, I could study history at a glance, or rather absorb history with unconscious eyes.
Scenery! I need but to look into the Egyptian corner of my chamber, and, if I took any interest in the life of the Pharaohs, there it was in a pictured slab from the Memnonium; or in the dead Pharaoh, there himself was grinning in a mummy-case, — a very lively corpse, — unpleasantly lively, indeed, when nights were dark, and matches flashed brimstone and refused to burn.
Scenery! Greece and Rome, Dark Ages, Crusades, Middle Ages, Moorish Conquest, ’88 in England, Renaissance, ’89 in France, every old era and the last new era, — all were so thoroughly represented here, by model of temple, cast of statue, vase, picture, tapestry, suit of armor, Moslem scymitar, bundle of pikes, rusty cross-bow or arquebuse, model of guillotine, — by some object that showed what the age had most admired, most used, or most desired, — that there, restored before me, rose and spread the age itself, and called its heroes and its caitiffs forward in review.
If I preferred to live in the Past, I had only to shut myself up at home, and forget that eager Present about me, — that stirring life of America, urged on by the spirit of the Past, and unburdened by its matter.
Romance, too! Romance had come to me, whether I would or no. Without any permission of mine, asked or granted, I was become an actor, with my special part to play, perforce, among mysteries.
My connection with these three characters grew daily closer. I do not love mystery. Ignorance I do not hate; for ignorance is the first condition of knowledge. Mystery I recoil from. It generally implies the concealment of something that should not be concealed, for the sake of delusion or deception; or if not for these, because tragedy will follow its revelation.
Cecil Dreeme continued to me a profound mystery. He kept himself utterly secluded by day, working hard at his art. He knew no one but myself. No one ever saw him except myself and Locksley, or Locksley’s children. Only at night, wrapped in his cloak, did he emerge from his seclusion, and wander over the dim city.
I became his companion in these walks whenever my engagements allowed; but such night wandering seemed unhealthy for him in his delicate state.
“Are you wise, Dreeme,” said I to him, one morning, in his studio, after we had become intimate, “to live this nocturnal life? Sunshine and broad daylight are just as indispensable to man as they are to flower or plant. I might give you good chemical reasons for my statement.”
“There are night-blooming flowers, — the Cereus, and others,” said he, avoiding my question.
“Yes, but they owe their blossom to the day’s accumulation of sunshine. Botany refuses to protect you.”
“Plants grow by night.”
“In night that follows sunny day.”
“I accept the analogy. I have accumulated sunshine enough, I hope, for growth, and perhaps for a pallid kind of bloom, in my past sunny days. My rank growth went on vigorously enough in the daylight. I am conscious of a finer development in the dark.”
“But I do not like this voluntary prison.”
“Few escape a forced imprisonment, longer or shorter, in their lives. Illness or sorrow shut us in away from the world’s glare, that we may see colors as they are, and know gold from pinchbeck. Why should I not go to prison, of my own accord, for such teaching, and other reasons?”
“And other reasons? Tell me, Dreeme, before our friendship goes further, — before 1 utterly and irrecoverably give you my confidence.”
“No! I cannot go on.”
“I understand, and am not insulted. You mean to ask whether I am hiding here because I have picked a pocket, or pillaged a till, or basely broken a heart, or perhaps because I have a blood-stain to wear out.”
“My imagination had not put its suspicion, if any existed, into any such crude charges.”
“So I saw, and stated the question blankly. You could not connect me with vulgar or devilish crime. At the same time, you had a certain uneasiness about me, undefined and misty, but real. You will not deny it,” and he smiled as he spoke.
“No. Since you affront the fact with such cheerful confidence, I will not deny the vague dread.”
“Be at rest, then! There is not a man or a woman in the world, whom I cannot look in the eyes without blenching. You need not be ashamed of me. You may trust me, without any fear of that harshest of all the shocks our life can feel, loss of faith in a friend’s honor.”
“Well, we will never speak of this again. Live by your own laws, in the dark or the light! I demand unquestioned freedom for myself. I am the last man to refuse it to another.”
“Really,” said Dreeme, “since your projection into my orbit, I no longer need personal contact with the outer world.”
“You find me a good enough newsman.”
“The artistic temperament does not love to bustle about in the crowd, to shoulder and hustle for its facts. You give me the cream of what the world says and does. But, by and by, when you tire of the novelty of a tyro-artist’s society, you will drop me.”
“Never! so long as you consent to be my in-door man. I often feel, now, as I stir about among men, collecting my budget of daily facts, that I only get them for the pleasure of hearing your remarks when I unpack in the evening.”
“I must try to be a wiser and wittier critic.”
“You return me far more than I bring. I train my mental muscle with other people. You give me lessons in the gymnastics of finer forces. My worldling nature shrivels, the immortal Me expands under your artistic touch.”
“I am happy to be accused of such a power,” Dreeme said, with his sweet, melancholy smile. “It is the noblest one being can exercise over another, and needed much in this low world of ours.”
“Yes, Dreeme, your fresh, brave, earnest character I begin to regard as my guardian influence. With you I escape from the mean ambitions, the disloyal rivalries, the mercenary friendships of men, — from the coarseness, baseness, and foulness of the world. You neutralize to me all the evil powers.”
“That Mr. Densdeth, of whom you have once or twice spoken, — is he one of them?”
“Are you still intimate with him?”
“Intimate? Hardly. Intimacy implies friendship.”
“Familiar, yes. He seeks my society. We are thrown together by circumstances. He interests me greatly. I know no man of such wide scope of information, such knowledge, such wit, such brilliancy, — no one at all to compare with him, now that my friend Churm is absent.”
“Those two fraternize, I suppose.”
“Churm and Densdeth?”
“Yes; you seem to make one a substitute for the other.”
“‘How happy could I be with either!’ O no! You strangely misapprehend Mr. Churm. The two are as much asunder in heart as in looks.”
“Ah!” said Dreeme.
“You seem incredulous. But let me tell you that Churm’s knowledge of Densdeth gives the same result as these clairvoyant intuitions of yours. I suppose I am a perverse fellow for not obeying everybody’s ‘Fœnum habet in cornu’ of Densdeth; but I have Cato’s feeling for the weaker side, or at least the side assailed. Besides, I have a scientific experiment with this terrible fellow. I let him bite, and clap on an antidote before the brain is benumbed. I play with Densdeth, who really seems to me like an avatar of the wise Old Serpent himself, and then, before he has quite conquered me with his fascination, I snatch myself away, and come to you, to be aroused and healed.”
“I am glad to be an antidote to poison. But have you no fears of such baleful intercourse?”
“None. As a man of the world, I must know the perilous as well as the safe among my race. How am to become as wise as the serpent, unless I study the serpent? I find Densdeth a most valuable preceptor. He has sounded every man’s heart, in life or history, and can state the depth of evil there in fathoms, feet, and inches. I could no more do without him for that side of my education, than I could spare your dove-like teaching to make me harmless as a dove. Pardon my giving you this unmasculine office.”
“You speak lightly, Mr. Byng. I fear you are a man who has not yet fully made up his mind.”
“What? As to the great choice, — Hercules’s choice? Virtue or Vice? yes, I am absolutely committed. Virtue has me fast. In fact, I am deemed quite a Puritan, as men go; I should be so not to shame my ancestors.”
“Forgive me if I ask, Do you know what Evil is?”
“I suppose so; as much as is to be known.”
“O, you cannot! You would not trifle with it, if you dreamed how it soils. You would fly it.”
“Not face it?”
“Never, unless duty commanded you to face and crush it. Those who know Evil best fly farthest, hide deepest, dread its approach, shudder at the thought of its pursuit. It is so terribly subtle. The bravest are not brave before it; the strongest are not strong; the purest are not pure. It makes cowards of the brave, it paralyzes the strong, it taints the pure. No one is safe, — no one, until personal agony has made him hate Evil worse than death. Mr. Byng, you have a noble soul; but no soul can safely palter with a bad man. Palter! I use strong words. I mean to use them. You have spoken lightly and pained me. To a bad man — to some bad men — every pure soul is a perpetual reproach, and must be sullied. You speak plainly of this Densdeth; you understand his bad influence, and yet you deal with him as if he were some inert chemical combination, which you could safely handle and analyze. Such a being is never inert; the less active he seems, the more he is likely to be insidiously at work to ruin. Forgive me, my dear friend, that I warn you so eagerly against this fatal curiosity!”
He had spoken with fervid energy and eloquence. In fact, there was in this strange young genius a passionate ardor, always latent, only waiting to flame forth, when his heart was touched. And when some deeper interest stirred him, — when he had some protest to utter against wrong, — his large, melancholy eyes grew intense, his voice lost its pensive sadness; color came to his thin, sallow cheeks. It was so now. For a moment, he was almost beautiful with this sudden evanescent inspiration.
I paused after his eager outburst, watching him with such admiration as we give to a great actor, and then — for I confess that my conceit was somewhat offended by this good advice, from one in years so much my junior — I said, with a confident smile: “You talk like a Cassandra. What do you foresee so very terrible, as about to befall me? Pray do not be uneasy! I am an old stager. I have managed to make my way thus far in my life without being worse than my fellows. ‘I am indifferent honest.’ I will try to remain so, despite of the seductions of Bugaboo. And then, you know, I cannot go far wrong with you for Mentor.”
My tone seemed to pain him. He painted some moments in silence on his Lear.
While he painted, I observed him, — interested much in the picture of his creation, more in the creator. “Raphael-Angelico,” I thought, “he merits the name fully. What a delicate being! The finest organization I have ever seen in man. How strangely his personality affects me! And every moment fancies drift across my mind that I actually know his secret, and am blind, purposely blind to my knowledge, because I promised him when we first met that I would be so.”