Another Cassandra Edit

Dreeme went on slowly and carefully with his work, after my closing remark of the last chapter. I continued to observe him for some moments in silence. His palette and brushes were kept with extreme neatness. The colors on the palette were arranged methodically, with an eye to artistic gradation; so that the darker of the smooth, oily drops squeezed from his paint-tubes made, as it were, a horizon of shadow on the outer rim of the palette. Within this little amphitheatre of hillocks, black, indigo, and brown, the dashes of brighter hue were disposed in concentric arcs, shading toward pure white at the focus. All his utensils and materials betokened the same orderliness and refinement; nothing was out of place, nothing daubed or soiled. So careful too was his handling, that he needed no over-sleeve to protect his own. The delicate hand and the flexible wrist seemed incapable of an awkward or a blundering motion. He could no more do a slovenly thing, than he could dance a break-down or smoke a pipe. This personal neatness was specially beautiful to me. In my laboratory, at my task of splitting atoms and unbraiding gases, I learnt from the exquisite order and proportion that Nature never forgets in her combinations to require the same of men. I found it in Dreeme. His genius in art was not of the ill-regulated, splashy, blotchy, boisterous class. Nothing coarse could come from those fine fingers.

“You elaborate your work with great care,” said I, after some moments’ silence, while the painter had been touching in dots of light, and then pausing, studying, and touching again, here a point and there a line.

“I must be careful and elaborate. It is partly the timidity of a novice. I feel that my hand lacks the precision of practice, — the rapid, unerring touch of a master. But besides, now, as my work approaches completion, I perceive a failure in creative power. I work feebly and painfully.”

“Creative power of course is temporarily exhausted by a complete consistent creation. Jove felt empty-headed enough when he had thought Minerva into being. Lie fallow for a season, and your brain will teem again with images!”

“Yes, that is the law; but you must remember that my case is solitary. My picture is a spasm. It came to me prematurely, as a purpose and a power come in the paroxysms of a fever. I have spent all my large force in it.”

“Your picture is older, subject and handling, than you, as I have said before. But music, painting, and poetry are gifts of the gods to the young.”

“Older than my years? Ah yes!” he said, drearily. “I was in the immortal misery when I poured out my soul there. It was sore, sore, sore work. I pray that I may never need to create tragedy again. I pray that no new or ancient experience may compel me to confess and confide it to the impersonal world. No, I have wreaked my anguish, my pity, my shame for the guilty, on that canvas, and the virtue is gone out of me.”

“Essay another vein! You have worked off bitterness. Open your heart to sweetness! In brighter mood, you will do fairer things without the tragic element.”

“Since you and Locksley compelled me to accept the sweet gift of a life more hopeful, I have made some sketches in a less severe manner than my Lear. That was cruel tragedy. These are only anecdotes.”

“Pray exhibit!”

“To so gentle a critic, I venture. Do not expect passion, — that I wished to spare myself. The sentiment is simple and commonplace enough.”

He placed before me three sketchy pictures, able and rapid.

“You see,” said he, “I play upon one idea or its reverse.”

The first sketch depicted a young girl, caught in a snow-storm, and sunk, a mere shapeless thing, among the drifts in a dreary pine-wood. A gentleman, in the costume of a Puritan soldier, stooped over her. Beside him stood a sturdy yeoman with a cloak and a basket. A few sunbeams cleft the pines, glinted on the hero’s corslet, and warmed the group. It was a scene full of the pathos of doubtful hope.

“Thank you for my immortality,” said I, “ It was a pretty thought to put Locksley and myself in this, scene of rescue, — me too in the steel and buff of that plucky old pioneer, the first Byng, with whose exploits I have bored you so often. I hope we were in time, before the maiden perished.”

“The sunbeam seems to promise that,” said he smiling, and handed me the next.

Second picture. Scene, the splendid salon of a French chateau. Through the window, a mad mob of sans culottes were visible, forcing the grand entrance. Within, myself — costume, purple velvet, lace, and rapier — and Locksley, in blouse and sabots, were bearing off a fainted lady, dark-haired, and robed in yellow.

“Twice immortal!” said I. “But why avert the heroine’s face?”

“Good female models are hard to find. My heroine should be worthy of my hero. Have you one of your own, whose features I might insert?”

“Have I found my heroine? Not yet, — that is, not certainly.”

Dreeme handed me the third picture. “My Incognita,” said he, “is willing to encounter bad company out of gratitude to her benefactors. Please appreciate the compliment!”

Third picture. Scene, the same splendid salon of the same chateau. Without, instead of the sans culottes, a group of soldiers of the Republic stood on guard. Within, the same dark-haired lady, — costume, yellow satin (it reminded me of that coverlet of Louis Philippe’s which had served Dreeme for wrapper), — the same heroine as in the second picture, sat with her back to the spectator. At a table beside her was an official personage, signing a passport. He was dressed with careful coxcombry in Robespierre’s favorite color, and resembled that demon slightly, but enough to recall him. Behind him, I — yes, I myself again — could be seen through a half-opened closet-door, sullenly sheathing my sword in obedience to a sign from the lady. Locksley also was there, in blouse and stealthy bare feet, playing prudence to valor and holding me back.

“Ah!” said I, “another person with us in the pillory of your picture. Strange! Your Robespierre might almost be a portrait of Densdeth.”

“Indeed! It is a typical bad face, and may resemble several bad men.”

“Singularly like Densdeth!” I repeated. “The same cold-blooded resolve, the same latent sneer, the same suppressed triumph, even the coxcombry you have given to your gentle butcher of ’93, — all are Densdeth’s. May you not have seen and remembered his marked face?”

“Possibly.” He evaded my inquiring look, as he replied.

“Perhaps he has stared at you for an instant in a crowd. Perhaps you have caught a look of his from the window of a railroad-car. He may at some moment, without your conscious notice, have stamped himself ineffaceably upon your mind.”

“It may be. An artist’s brain receives and stores images often without distinct volition. But you may lend my villain a likeness from your own memory.”

“Yes; our talk about Densdeth, and your warnings against an exaggerated danger are fresh in my mind. Certainly, as I see the face, it is Densdeth’s very self.”

“Now,” said Dreeme, “take your choice of my three sketches. Three simple stories, — which will you have? I painted them for your selection, and have taken much grateful pleasure in the work. One is for you, one for Locksley, one for myself, — a souvenir for each of us in happier days.”

“Mine will be precious as a souvenir, apart from its great value as Art. And, let me tell you, Dreeme, in their manner, these studies are as able as your Lear. The anecdotes hold their own with the tragedy. I believe you are the man we have been waiting for.”

“Your praise thrills me.”

“Do not let it spoil you,” said I, willing in my turn to act the Mentor.

“Mr. Byng,” said he gravely, “my life has been so deepened and solemnized by earnest trial and bitter experience, that vanity is, I trust, annihilated. I shall do my work faithfully, because my nature commands me to it; but I can never have the exultant feeling of personal pride in it as mine.”

“That too is a legitimate joy. You will have it when the world gives you its verdict, ‘Well done.’“

Dreeme sighed, and seemed to shrink away.

“To face the world!” said he, — “how dare I? And yet I must. My scanty means will not last me many weeks longer.”

“My dear Dreeme,” said I, “my purse is not insolent with fulness; but it holds enough to keep two spiritual beings, like ourselves, in oysters and ale, slaw and ‘Wing’s pethy,’ — crackers being thrown in.”

“Thank you,” said he, smiling; “but I suppose I must go out into daylight, brave my fate, and take my risk.”

“There is no risk. You must succeed.”

“Ah!” said he, and tears stood in his great sad eyes; “I speak of another risk. Of another danger, which I shudder at. Here I am safe, unharming and unharmed. How can I take up my life’s responsibilities again?”

“Dreeme,” said I, “in any other but you, I should almost say that these fancies were unmanly.”

He evaded my eye, as I said this, but did not seem insulted.

“But,” I continued, “there is a certain kind of courage in your working here alone, — enough to establish your character. If you want a rough pugilistic ally against this mysterious peril of yours, take me into your confidence. Here are my fists! they are yours. What ogre shall I hit? What dragon shall I choke?”

“You are neglecting my poor gift,” said he, resolutely changing the subject; “make your choice of the three pictures, and I will show you my portfolio of drawings. You shall see what my fingers do when they obey the dictates of my careless fancy.”

“I choose the third of the series. Neither of those where I or my semblance is the chief figure, — neither where I am doing, but where I am receiving the favor. My only regret is that I cannot look through the back of her head and see the features of the lady, whose gesture tells me, ‘Sheathe sword and swallow ire!’ Robespierre — Densdeth too, that adds to its value. I must hang it up where he can see it. I am curious to know whether he will recognize himself.”

“O no! Promise me that you will not show it at present. No, not to any one!”

“What, not identify myself with the début of the coming man? May I not be your herald?”

“Wait, at least, till I am ready to follow up the announcement of my coming. No premature pæans, if you please!”

“I obey, of course. But I should vastly like to show it to Towers, Sion, and Pensal. You know I have a growing intimacy with that trio of great artists. They would heartily welcome your advent.”

“Spare me the dread of their condemnation! Keep my little gift to yourself, at present! Here is my heap of drawings. Look at them, and judge with your usual kindness!”

“So these were the thoughts too hot for your brain to hold. These represent what you must say, not what you chose to say. I perceive that the bent of your mind is not toward tragedy.”

Very masterly sketches they were! A fine fancy, a subtle imagination, a large heart, had conceived them, an accurate and severe artistic sense had controlled and developed the thought, and an unerring hand had executed it. Dreeme was a youth, certainly not more than twenty-one; and yet here was the maturity of complete manhood. Whether he had had opportunities for studying classic art, or whether his genius had seized in common life that fine quality which we name “classic,” these drawings of his would have stood the test with the purest of the Italian masters, in the days before Italian art had suffered blight, — that blight which befell it when progress ceased in the land, and a tyrannical Church bade the nation pause and let the world go by.

Dreeme’s female figures were not drawn with the liberal and almost riotous fancy of youth, which loves floating and flaunting draperies and a bold display of the nude. A chaster feeling had presided over the studies of this fine genius. There was a severe simplicity in his drawings of women. He seemed to have approached the purer sex with a loving reverence, never with that coarse freedom which debases the work of many able men, nullifying all spiritual beauty One would say that the artist of these drawings had taken his mother and his sisters as models for the elevated and saintly beings, whom he had placed in scenes of calm beauty, and engaged in tender offices of mercy, pity, and pardon. I could safely name him Raphael-Angelico, — the title saves me longer criticism.

Strangely enough, — and here I recognized either a wound in Dreeme’s life or a want in his character, — there was not one scene of love — that is, the love Cupid manages — in the collection. Not one scene where lovers, happy or hapless, figured. No pretty picture of consent and fondness. Not one of passion and fervor.

Now, a young man or a young maiden, in the early twenties, in whose mind love is not the primal thought, is a monstrosity, and must be studied and analyzed with a view to cure.

Either Dreeme’s nature was still in the crude, green state, unripened by passion, or he had suffered so bitterly from some treachery in love that he could not reawaken the memory. Either he was ignorant of love’s sweet torture, or he had felt the agony, without the healing touch.

I suspected the latter.

Often, recently, as my relations with Dreeme grew closer, I had been conscious of a peculiar jealous curiosity. I was now his nearest friend. But had he not had a nearer? If not in my sex, in the other? It was under the influence of this jealousy, that I said, —

“It seems almost an impertinence, Dreeme, to suggest a negative fault in this collection of admirable drawings; but I perceive a want. The subject of love, — the love that presses hands and kisses lips, the tender passion, — had you nothing to say of it?”

“No,” said he, “I am too young.”

“Bah! you are past twenty.”

“Twenty-one — the very day of your coming.”

“Too young! why, as for me, I was in love while my upper lip was only downy. The passion increased as that feature began to be districted off with hairs, stalwart, but sporadic. And ever since I have grown up to a real moustache, with ends that can be twirled, I have been in love, or just out and waiting to jump or tumble in again, the whole time.”

“How is it now?”

“I hardly know. In love? or almost in? Which? In, I believe. I am tempted to offer you a confidence.”

“I would rather not,” said Dreeme, uneasily.

“O yes; you shall interpret my feelings. I admire a woman, whom it seems to me that I should love devotedly, if she were a little other than she is, — herself touched with a diviner delicacy, — her own sister self, a little angelized.”

Dreeme evaded my questioning look, and made no reply. I paused a moment, while he painted a jewel, flashing on the white neck of his Goneril.

“Come” said I, “my Mentor, do not dodge responsibility! Your reply may affect my destiny.”

He met my glance now, and replied, without hesitation, “Love that admits questions is no love.”

“Perhaps I am suffering the penalty for the inconstant mood I have permitted myself heretofore. Perhaps I only want a steady and sincere purpose to love and trust, and I shall do so.”

“Beware such perilous doubts!” said he earnestly. “With a generous character like yours, they lead to illusions. You will presently, out of self-reproach for at all doubting the woman you fancy, pass into a blind confidence, and so win some miserable shock, perhaps too late.”

“Cassandra again! Cassandra in the other sex.”

“Do not say Cassandra! that proves you intend to disdain my warning.”

“Dear me! what solemn business we are making of my little flirtation! — a flirtation all on my side, by the way. In fact, I really believe I have cleared my head of my vague doubts of the unknown lady in question. They only needed to be put into words, in presence of a third party, to seem, as you say, utterly ungenerous.”

“I am sorry that you forced the confidence upon me, — very sorry! But you would have it so.”

“You talk as if you knew the lady, and considered her unfitted for me.”

“Believe that I have discernment enough, knowing you, to know the class of woman who in this phase of your life will necessarily attract you. I can divine whom, — that is, what manner of person you will choose for a love, since you have characterized the man you are fascinated by as an intimate.”

“Oh! you mean Densdeth.”

“Yes; while you allow him to dominate you, — and mind, I take my impression from yourself, — you will naturally seek a counterpart of his in the other sex.”

I grew ill at ease under this penetrating analysis of my secret feelings.

It was, of course, of Emma Denman that I had spoken.

Emma Denman was the woman I deemed myself on the verge of loving.

It was she whom I felt that I did not love, and yet ought to love. It was she whom I should have loved, without any shadow of hesitation, if she had been herself touched with a diviner feminineness, her own sister self, a thought more angelic.

I had sometimes had a painful lurking consciousness that if I were nobler than I was, — if my mind were more resolutely made up and unwavering on the side of virtue, — I should have applied the test of a higher and purer nature on my side to Emma Denman, and found her in some way fatally wanting. But whenever this injurious fancy stirred within me, I quelled it, saying, “If I were nobler, I should not have morbid notions about others. How can you learn to trust women while you allow yourself daily to listen, and only carelessly to protest, when Densdeth urges his doctrine, that women and men only wait opportunity to be base?”

In fact, in violation of an instinct, I was going through the process of resolving to love Emma Denman, because I distrusted her, and such vague distrust seemed an unchivalric disloyalty, a cruel wrong to a friend.

The strange coincidence of Dreeme’s warning determined me to banish my superstitions. No more of this weakness! I would cultivate, or, as I persuaded myself, frankly yield to my passion for my childish flame, love her, and do my best to win her. I saw now how baseless were my doubts, when they came to be stated in words. Indeed, there was no name for one of these misty beings of the mind.

All this flashed across my mind as I continued mechanically turning over Dreeme’s drawings. With the thought came the resolve. I would no more begrudge my faith. I would love Emma Denman, and by love make myself worthy of it.

“The fleeting purpose never is o’ertook
Unless the deed go with it,”

I half murmured to myself, and so, taking my leave of Dreeme for the morning, I passed to Denman’s house.

From that time, I was the undeclared lover of Emma Denman, as I shall presently describe.

And you, Cecil Dreeme, — it was your warning that urged me so perversely to do violence to an unerring instinct.

How strangely and fatally we interfere, unconsciously, for one another’s bliss or bale!

Churm away;
Densdeth my intimate;
Cecil Dreeme my friend of friends;
Emma Denman almost my love.

So matters stood with me and the other characters of this drama, two months from the day of my instalment in Chrysalis.

But let it not be understood that I had nothing to do except to study these few persons. My days were full, and often my nights, with hard and absorbing work I had undertaken in my profession. I touched the world on many sides. I came into collision with various characters. I had my daily life, like other men, — my real life, if you will, that handled substances, and did not deal in mysteries. This I am not describing. I am at pains to eliminate every fact and thought of mine which did not bear immediately upon the development of the story I here compel myself to write.