A Laugh and a Look Edit

In the lobby of the Opera-House was the usual throng, — fat dowagers, quite warm enough with their fat, and wretchedly red-hot under a grand exhibition of furs; pretty girls, in the prettiest of opera-cloaks, white and pink and blue, and with downy hoods; anxious papas, indifferent brothers, bored husbands, eager lovers, ineligible young men taking out mamma, while her daughter hung on the arm of the eligible.

Such was the scene within the Quatorze Street lobby. Without, in a raw, drizzly March night, was a huddle of coaches, and on every box a coachman, swearing his worst.

It was some time before, in the confusion, I could find the Denman carriage. At last I discovered it, and went up-stairs for Emma.

As I ran up the stairs, and was just at the top steps, whence I should turn into the corridor where the lady was waiting, I heard the ominous sound of Densdeth’s laugh.

It came from where she stood. I paused.

Instantly, in answer, and in thorough sympathy with that hateful tone, I heard another laugh. It seemed even baser, more cynical and false, than Densdeth’s; for threaded in it, and tarnished by the contact, were silver notes I had often heard in genuine merriment.

“Emma Denman!” I thought, with a shiver. “How dares she let herself respond to his debasing jests? How can she echo him, — and echo that jarring music familiarly, as if she had long been a pupil of the master?”

The pang of this question drove me forward. I turned into the corridor.

Only those two were standing there, — Densdeth and she. His back was turned toward me. The glare of a gas-light overhead fell full upon her.

The languor caused by that enfeebling music was visible in her posture and expression. Her manner, too, to a sensitive observer like myself, betrayed a certain drowsy recklessness.

And then, as I entered the corridor by a side-door, before she was conscious of my presence, she gave Densdeth a look which curdled my blood.

I may live long. I am not without a share of happiness. I am at peace. God has given me much that is good and beautiful. The atmosphere of my existence is healthy. But there is one memory in my heart which I have never ventured to recall until this moment, — which I bear down upon and crowd back whenever it stirs and struggles to burst up into daylight. There is one memory which has power to burn away my earthly bliss with a single touch, and to throw such a ghastly coloring over all the world, that my neighbor seems a traitor and my Creator my foe. That memory is the look I saw Emma Denman give to Densdeth.

It was my revelation of evil in the woman I had honestly and earnestly resolved to love and trust. It showed to me first, by the fiery pang of a personal experience, the curse of sin.

Sin, — I fancied that I knew it well enough.

Sin, — I had been wont to class myself lightly among its foes; to feel a transitory gloom when I heard of its harm; to wonder and protest, nonchalantly, at its existence; to believe that its power was broken, with the other ancient tyrannies, and that it would presently accept a banishment and leave the world to a better day.

Ah no! I had never dreamed a dream of what is sin. But now the revelation came to me.

I am a stalwart man. This blow aged and enfeebled me as might a sorrowful lifetime. The weight of the thousands of ill-doing years, all the accumulated evil of the old bad centuries, rose suddenly, like a mountain, and fell upon me.

I cannot describe this look of hers. I do not wish to. It is enough to say that it told me of a dishonorable secret between the two. It told me that at this moment, however it might be in a mood of stronger self-possession, she felt no compunction, no remorse, no agony, that such a secret existed, — nothing but an indolent acquiescence in the treason.

And this was the interpretation of so much mystery. This justified my instinctive suspicions. This punished my generosity and my resolve to quell the warnings of nature. This explained the inexplicable. In that one instant I learned my capacity for an immortal misery.

They heard my step. Densdeth turned, and bowed to me politely enough, smiling also, as if to himself, behind his black moustache.

It was not the first time that his scornful smile had seemed to me to take a cast of triumph as he regarded me. But such fleeting expression had always disappeared, stealing back like an assassin who has peered out too soon, and may awake his drowsy victim. I too had always had my own covert smile. For I was quite satisfied that Densdeth was never to win any very substantial victory over me. I could seek his society in perfect safety, so I fancied against its debasing influence. He never should wield me as he did Raleigh, nor master me as he did that swinish multitude at the club, or those wolves in Wall Street.

But now his vanishing smile of triumph chilled me. This harm was a more deadly harm than aught I had dreamed of as in any man’s power. If I was so wronged in my faith, what would hinder me henceforth from losing all faiths, and so becoming the hateful foe of my race, and being forced into detested alliance with this unholy spirit — this corruption — Densdeth!

I wrapped the lady’s cloak about her. In this duty I by chance touched her arm. My hands had become icy cold, — so this touch revealed to me, — and I shivered. She felt the shock, and shivered also. Then she took my arm, and moved forward hastily, as if the spot had become hateful to her.

Densdeth bowed, and left us.

We walked down stairs. She clung to my arm wearily.

I pitied her with such deep and sorrowful pity for the seeming discovery of this evening, that I felt that I must speak kindly; I spoke, and my voice sounded to me like the voice of one unknown, so desolate it was.

“Emma, you are tired. Poor child!”

“Emma!” — there was no withdrawing into forms again. Ah, nevermore! Nothing done could be undone.

“You are very kind,” she said, with an altered manner, — sadness instead of languor. “No one has ever been so tender with me. O Robert! why did you not come years ago?”

While my answer to this pleading question lingered, we entered the lobby.

A young lady, standing there alone and forlorn, pounced upon Emma Denman.

“Dear Emma!” cried Miss Matilda Mildood, “I’m so glad you are here. Do take me home. Our coachman is wild with drink, and my brother Pursy is in danger of his life.”

“I shall be most happy,” said Emma.

I put the ladies into the Denman carriage, rescued Pursy from his scuffle, and we drove off together.

Pursy Mildood was a compliment-box, Matilda a rattle-box. Pursy played his little selection of compliments to Miss Denman. Matilda rattled to me. They filled time and space, as it was their business to do. Triflers have their office in this world of racking passions and exhausting purposes.

I needed this moment’s pause. I could not have endured the tête-à-tête with Emma in the carriage. The interval, while Matilda sprinkled me with a drizzle of opera talk and fashionable gossip, gave me time to bethink myself.

What must I do and say?

To-night, nothing.

To-night, if I spoke in my agony, I must accuse. Let me wait for a calmer moment. Let me reflect, and assure myself that my thought was not doing a pure heart a cruel and irreparable wrong.

The Mildoods’ house was opposite the Denmans’. Compliments and prattle came to an end, unconscious of the emotions they had for a time diverted. We dropped brother and sister at their door, and drove across.

I handed Emma out, unlocked the door with her key, and stepped within to say good night.