A Nocturne Edit
Night! Night in the great city!
Night! when the sun, the eye of God, leaves men to their own devices; when the moon is so faint, and the stars so far away in the infinite, that their inspection and record are forgotten; when Light, the lawgiver and orderer of human life, withdraws, and mankind are free to break or obey the commands daylight has taught them.
Night! when the gas-lights, relit, reawaken harmful purposes, that had slept through all the hours of honest sunshine in their lairs; when the tigers and tigresses take their stand where their prey will be sure to come; when the rustic in the peaceful country, with leaves whispering and crickets singing around him, sees a glow on the distant horizon, and wonders if the bad city beneath it be indeed abandoned of its godly men, and burning for its crimes. Night! the day of the base, the guilty, and the desolate!
Every evening, when it was possible, of that late winter and wintry spring, I abandoned club, parlor, and ball-room, and all the attractions of the brilliant world, to wander with Cecil Dreeme about the gas-lit city, and study the side it showed to night. And yet the phenomena of vice and crime, my companion refused to consider fit objects of curiosity. Vice and crime were tacitly avoided by us. Dreeme’s nature repelled even the thought of them. I was happy to know one solitary man whose mind the consciousness of evil could not make less virgin.
It chanced one evening, a fortnight after our conversation when Dreeme gave me the picture, that walking as usual, and quite late, we passed the Opera-House. Some star people were giving an extra performance on an off night. The last act of an heroic opera was just beginning. Dreeme hummed the final air, — a noble burst of triumph over a victory bought by a martyrdom.
“Your song makes me hungry to hear more,” said I.
“I have been almost starving for music,” he rejoined.
“Come in, then. You can take your stand in the lobby, with your mysterious cloak about you, and slouched hat over your eyes. I defy your best friend or worst foe to know you.”
“No, no!” said he, nervously; “in the glare of a theatre I should excite suspicion. I should be seen.”
“And pounced upon and hurried off to durance vile?” said I, lightly enough; for I began at last to fancy that his panic of concealment was the sole disorder of a singularly healthy brain. “Well, I will not urge it. I cannot spare you. I am selfish. I should soon go to the bad without my friend and Mentor.”
“It is strange,” said Dreeme, bitterly, “that I, with a soul white as daylight, should be compelled to lurk about like a guilty thing, — to be as one dead and buried.”
“I thank the mystery that secludes you for my benefit, Dreeme,” I said. “I dread the time when you will find a thousand friends, and many closer than I.”
He dropped his cloak and took my arm. It was the first time he had given me this slight token of intimacy. We had been very distant in our personal intercourse. I am not a man to slap another on the back, shake him by the shoulder, punch him in the ribs, or indulge in any rude play or coarse liberties. Yet there is a certain familiarity among men, by which we, after our roughish and unbeautiful fashion, mean as much tenderness for our friends as women do by their sweet embraces and caresses. Nothing of this kind had ever passed between Dreeme and me. His reserve and self-dependence had made me feel that it would be an impertinence to offer even that kind of bodily protection which a bigger man holds ready for a lesser and slighter.
It surprised me, then, a little, when Dreeme, for the first time, took my arm familiarly.
“You have been a kind friend to me, Mr. Byng,” said he; “there are not many men in the world who would have treated my retirement with such delicate forbearance and good faith.”
“Do not give me too much credit. I have been a selfish friend. I know that I am a facile person, something of the chameleon; I need the fairer colors in contact with me to keep me from becoming an ugly brown reptile. Having this adaptability of character, I have had very close relations with many of the best and noblest; but of all the men I have ever known, your society charms me most penetratingly. All the poetry in my nature being latent, I need precisely you to bring it to the surface. The feminine element is largely developed in you, as a poetic artist. It precisely supplies the want which a sisterless and motherless man, like myself, has always felt. Your influence over me is inexpressibly bland and soothing. You certainly are my good spirit. I like you so much, that I have been quite content with your isolation; I get you all to myself. These walks with you, since that famous oyster supper, the very day of my return home, have been the chief feature of my life. I count my hour with you as the pay for my scuffle with the world. A third party would spoil the whole! What would become of our confidence, our intimate exchange of thought on every possible subject, if there were another fellow by, who might be a vulgarian or a muff? What could we do with a chap to whom we should have to explain our metaphysics, give page and line for our quotations, interpret our puns, translate our allusions, analyze our intuitions, define our God? Such a companion would take the sparkle and the flash of this rapid and unerring sympathy out of our lives. No, Dreeme, this isolation of yours suits me; and since you continue to tolerate my society, I must suit you. We form a capital exclusive pair, close as any of the historic ones, — Orestes and Pylades, for example, — to close my long discourse classically.”
“Do not compare us to those ill-omened two. Orestes was ordained to slay his parent for her sin,” my friend rejoined, in an uneasy tone.
“It was a judicial murder, — the guiltless execution of a decree of fate. And all turned out happily at last, you remember. Orestes became king of Argos, and gave his sister in marriage to his Pylades, the faithful. Who knows but when your tragic duty is over, whatever it be, and you have brought the guilty to justice, you will resume your proper crown, and find a sister for me, your Pylades, the faithful? If my present flame should not smile, that would be admirable. Your sister for me would make our brotherhood actual.”
“My sister for you!” said Dreeme, with an accent almost of horror; and I could feel, by his arm in mine, that a strong shudder ran through him.
We had by this time passed from the side-front of the Opera-House, where this conversation began, had walked along Quatorze Street, and turned up into the Avenue. Quatorze Street, as only a total stranger need be informed, is named in triumphant remembrance of the minikin monarch whom we defeated in the old French war. The crossing of Quatorze Street and the Avenue was, at that time, the very focus of fashion. Within half a mile of that corner, Everybody lived — Everybody who was not Nobody.
It was mid-March. Lent was in full sigh. Balls were over until Easter. Fasting people cannot take violent exercise. One can dance on full, but not on meagre diet, on turkey, not on fish. But in default of balls, Mrs. Bilkes, still a leader of fashion, had her Lent evenings. They were The Thing, so Everybody agreed, and this evening was one of them. I had deserted for my walk with Dreeme.
Mrs. Bilkes’s house was just far enough above Quatorze Street, on the Avenue, to be in the van of the upward march of fashion. Files of carriages announced that all the world was with her that evening. The usual band discoursed the usual music within; but wanting the cadence of dancers’ feet to enliven them, those Lenten strains came dolefully forth.
We were passing this mansion when Dreeme had last spoken. Before I had time to ask him what meant his agitation at the thought of me for possible brother-in-law, the factotum of the Bilkes party, the well-known professional, hailed me from the steps, where he stood in authority; for by the bright light from the house he could easily recognize me.
“What, Mr. Byng! You won’t drop in upon us? They’re packed close as coffins inside, but there’s always room for another like yourself. Better come in, — Mrs. Bilkes will take on tremendous if she finds I let you go by without stopping.”
I paused a moment, half disgusted, half amused by the privileged man’s speech. As I did so, a gentleman coming down the steps addressed me. And it is such trivial pauses as these that bid us halt till Destiny overtakes our unconscious steps.
I turned with a slight start, for I had not observed the new-comer as an acquaintance until he was at my side.
It was Densdeth.
He looked, with his keen, hasty glance, at my companion. He seemed to recognize him as a stranger. He did not bow, but turned to me, and said, —
“What, Byng! Are you not going in? It is very brilliant. All the fair penitents are there, keeping Lent, in their usual severe simplicity of penitential garb. I asked Matilda Mildood if I should give her a bit of partridge and some chicken-salad. ‘I’m quite ashamed of you, Mr. Densdeth,’ says Matilda, with the air of one resolutely mortifying the flesh; ‘don’t you remember it’s Lent. Oysters and lobster-salad, if you please, and a little terrapin, if there is any.’”
While Densdeth made this talk, he glanced again at my companion. Dreeme had withdrawn his arm, and stood a little apart, half turned away from us, avoiding notice, as usual.
“Don’t throw away your cigar, Byng,” continued Densdeth, taking out his case, and stepping toward the lamp-post, to make, as it seemed to me, a very elaborate selection. “Give me a light first. Will you try one of mine?”
“No, thank you. I have had my allowance.”
Densdeth took my cigar to light his. The slight glow was sufficient to illuminate his face darkly. Its expression seemed to me singularly cruel and relentless. It was withal scornful and triumphant. Something evidently had happened which gave Densdeth satisfaction. Whom had he vanquished to-night?
The cigar would not draw.
“Bah!” said Densdeth, tearing it in two, with his white-gloved hands, with a manner of dainty torture, as if he were inflicting an indignity upon a foe. “Bah!” said he, taking out another cigar, with even more elaborate selection, and as he did so glancing, quick and sharp, at my friend, who had retreated from the lamp. “I don’t allow cigars, any more than other creatures, to baffle me. Excuse me, Byng, for detaining you. The second trial must succeed; if not, I’ll try a third time, — that always wins. Thanks!”
He lighted his cigar. Again by the glow I observed the same relentless, triumphant look.
Densdeth turned down the Avenue. I rejoined Dreeme. He took my arm again and clung to it almost weakly.
“What is the matter, Dreeme?” I asked, my tenderness for him all awake.
No answer, but a nervous pressure on my arm.
“You are tired. Shall we turn back?”
“Not the way that man has gone,” said he.
“Why not? What do you fear?”
“I heard him name himself Densdeth. I saw his face — that cruel face of his. Mr. Byng, — my dear friend, Robert Byng, — that man is evil to the core. You call me your Mentor, your good influence; take my warning! Obey me, and shun him, as you would a fiend. You say that I have a fresh nature; believe that my instinct of aversion for a villain is unerring.”
“Is not this prejudice?” said I, somewhat moved by his panic, but still fancying so much alarm idle.
“It might before have been prejudice, derived from your own account of him; but now I have seen him, face to face.”
“A glance merely, and in a dusky light.”
“Yes, but one look at that face of his sears it into the heart.”
“You seem to have been as inquisitive about him as he about you. He studied your back pretty thoroughly. In fact, I believe it was to observe you that he made such parade of breaking up his delinquent cigar. He evidently meant to know for what comrade I was abandoning the charms of the Bilkes soirée.”
“I shudder at the thought of such a man’s observation. What ugly fate brought me here?”
Dreeme turned, and looked back.
I involuntarily did the same.
The Avenue, at that late hour, was nearly deserted of promenaders. As far away as two blocks behind us, I noticed the spark of a cigar, and as the smoker passed a gas-light, I could see him take the cigar from his lips with a white-gloved hand. He even seemed to brandish it triumphantly.
“He is following us!” cried Dreeme.
The painter whirled me about a corner, and dragged me, almost at a run, along several humbler streets. At last we turned into one of the avenues by the North River, far away from the beat of any guest of Mrs. Bilkes.
There Dreeme paused, and spoke.
“Good exercise I have given you by my panic,” said he, with a forced laugh. “How absurd I have been! Pardon me! You are aware how nervous I get, being so much shut up alone. And then, you know, I was only hurrying you away from your devil.”
“Strange fellow you are, Dreeme! I suppose this very strangeness is one element of your control over me. You excite my curiosity in degree, though not in kind, quite as much as Densdeth does. And now that you and he are brought together, I hope these two mysterious personages will explain each other by some flash of hostile electricity. I wait for light from the meeting of the thunder-clouds.”
“It must be very late,” said Dreeme in a weary tone. “What a dismal part of the city! This squalor sickens me. These rows of grog-shops infect me with utter hopelessness. Sin — sin everywhere, and the sorrow that never can be divorced from sin! How can we escape? How can we save others? These nocturnal wanderings of ours have told me of a breadth and a depth of misery that years of a charitable lifetime would never have revealed. If I ever have opportunities for action and influence, I shall know my duty, and how to do it. I see, Mr. Byng, as I have before told you, that you do not thoroughly share my sympathy for poverty and suffering and crime.”
“Perhaps not fully. My heart is not so tender as yours. I cannot seem to make other people’s distress my personal business, as you do. I endure the misfortunes of strangers with reasonable philosophy. Suffering, like pain, I suppose is to be borne heroically, until it passes off. Every man has his hard times.”
“You are not cruel,” said Dreeme, “but you talk cruelly on a subject you hardly understand. Wait until the hours of your own bitterness come, and you will learn the precious lesson of sympathy! You will soften to others, and most to those who suffer for no fault of theirs, — the wronged, driven to despair by wrong-doing in those they love, — the erring, visited with what we name ruin, for some miserable mistake of inexperience. But let us hasten home! I have never felt so sick at heart, so doubtful of the future, so oppressed by the ‘weary weight of all this unintelligible world,’ as I do at this moment.”
“Dreeme, are you never to take your future into your own hands, and live a healthy, natural life, like other men? Think of yourself! Do not be so wretched with other people’s faults! You cannot annihilate the troubles that have made you unhappy; but do not brood over them. Be young, and live young, in sunshine and gayety.”
“Be young!” said he, more drearily than ever.
“Yes; make me your confidant! Face down your difficulties! If you do not trust my experience, and think me too recent in the country to give you practical help, there is my friend, Mr. Churm. He will be here to-morrow from a journey. Churm is true as steel. Trust him! He and I will pull you through.”
“I trust no one but you. Do not press me yet. I am generally contented, as you know, with my art and your society. Only to-night the sight of that bad man has discomposed me.”
“Discomposed is a mild term,” said I, as I unlocked the outer door of Chrysalis.
“Well, I am composed now. But I wish,” said he in a trepidating way, that belied his words, “that you would see me safe to my door.”
I did so, and we parted, closer friends than ever.
Densdeth, Cecil Dreeme, Emma Denman, — these three figures battled strangely in my dreams.