A Parting Edit

“Your hands were like ice, when you touched my arm,” said Emma Denman. “You have taken cold. Come in. I will play Hebe, and make you a goblet of hot nectar.”

“No, I must go. Good night.”

“Mr. Byng, Robert! What has happened?”

“Do not ask me?”

“You appall me with your voice of a Rhadamanthus. Have I offended you? Is it fatal?”

The light of a large globe in the hall fell full upon her face as she spoke. All the eager, triumphal look of the early evening had departed. All the languid acquiescence was gone. Gone was even the faintest shadow of the expression that had turned my blood to ice. Pale horror — yes, no less than horror — seemed suddenly to have mastered her. Was she too now first learning the sin and misery of sin?

She stood in the grand hall of the stately house, a slight, elegant figure in mourning, with the abundant drapery of her cloak falling about her. There were no other lights except the tempered brilliancy of the globe overhead. It was after midnight. We were quite alone, except that a white statue, severely robed from head to foot, and just withdrawn in a niche, watched our interview, as it might be the ghostly presence of Clara Denman dead.

As Emma stood awaiting my answer, her look of horror quieted. She seemed to me like one who has heard her death-sentence, and is resigned.

I could not force myself to answer, and she spoke again.

“Robert, if you have fault to find with me, do not tell me so to-night. To-morrow, — come to-morrow! Perhaps we may still be friends. Good night.”

She gave me her hand. It was burning hot. I held it in mine.

There we stood, — the chaste and ghostly statue watching.

We could not separate. I trusted her again. I cursed myself for my doubts.

Should I, for the chance of one brief, passing look, sacrifice the woman whom I had maturely concluded that I loved, who loved me, — for so I was persuaded?

Should I stain a maiden’s image in my heart with this foul suspicion, — a suspicion I dared not state to myself in terms?

Could I there erase from my mind all those pleasant memories of childhood, so sweetly anew revived, and all the riper confidences of our friendship, and believe that this brilliant creature’s life was one monstrous lie, which she must daily, hourly, momently, harden herself to repeat?

Could I convince myself that her fascination was utter treachery, — that she, a grisly witch at heart, had carefully, with fairest-seeming spell, and lulling daily all my doubts away, entranced me until she deemed me wholly hers?

Had I not been for the moment under the sickly influence of that enervating music?

Had not my mind gained a permanent taint in the debasing society I had refused to resolutely shun? Was I not doing her foul injustice, and visiting it unfairly and cruelly upon her, that I had let myself be the comrade of ignoble and sensual people, — of Densdeth, to whom no purity was sacred?

Could she, my only intimate among women, be responsible for the lowering of my moral tone, so that I did not abhor, and had not been for these late months loathing, all contact with vice? It must be that a man who loves a pure and elevating woman will no more palter with evil. He is abashed by her whiteness of soul. He will not carry into her presence the recent taint of staining associates. He will strive to breathe no other but that sweet serenity of atmosphere where she dwells, and so refresh and recreate his holier being.

Ah, these bitter doubts! They did in my sinking heart justify themselves.

And so, as I could not speak the tender, trustful, joyful lover words, nor any words but sad reproaches and questions of distrust, I stood there, silent, holding fast her hand.

Then, in the silence, the terrible thought overcame me, that if by any syllable or gesture, or even by the dismay of an involuntary look, I should convey my suspicions to Emma Denman, there would be another tragedy in that ill-omened house, another despair, another mystery, — no mystery to me, — and all the sickening horror of a death.

“Good-night,” said Emma again.

But still she did not withdraw her hand.

We did not hold each other with the close grasp of earnest, confident friendship, nor with that strong pressure of love which seems to strive to make the two beings one life. It was a nerveless, lifeless clutch. Her burning hand had grown icy cold in mine. She held me feebly, as a drowning woman might wearily, and every weary moment still more wearily, cling to the fainting shoulder of a drowning man, as the great solemn waves fell on him, one by one.

A dreary moment.

It tore something from my earthly life that never can return. My youth faded away from me, as we stood there miserably. My youth shrank and withered, never to revive again and be the same bright youth, whatever warmth of after sunshine came. The blight of sin was upon me. The sense of an unknown horror of sin grew about me, and I became a coward for the moment, — a coward, smitten down by the dread that for me, forever, faith was utterly dead, and so my heart would be imbittered into a vague and fiendish vengeance for its loss.

“Robert,” said she, at last, “you will not speak. You are murdering me with this ominous silence. How have you learned all at once to hate me?”

“Hate you?”

“Worse then! Do you distrust me?”

“Why should I? We will not speak of this now. That music has taken all the manliness out of me, — that, or some power as subtle. I will see you to-morrow. By broad daylight, all the ugly fancies that beset me now will vanish.”

“Yes,” she said, more drearily than ever; “fancies fade with sunshine; facts grow more fatally prominent. Good night.”

She withdrew her hand.

She moved wearily and sadly away, — a slight, graceful figure in mourning, draped with the heavy folds of a cloak.

Half-way up the stairs she paused and turned, grasping the massive dark rail with both her white hands. Light from the floor above threw her face and form into magical relief, hardly less a statue than that marble figure watching us.

“Good-bye,” she said, in a tone mournful as a last adieu.

“Good night,” I answered; and so we parted.

I walked hastily home to Chrysalis. It was a raw March night, with a cold storm threatening, and uttering its threats in melancholy blasts and dashes of sleet.

How chilly, lonely, ghostly it looked in the marble-paved corridors of Chrysalis! I opened the great door in front with my pass-key. The wind banged it after me with a loud clap. But no closed door could repel the urgent chase of that night’s cruel thoughts.

I was wretchedly timorous and superstitious after these excitements. As I passed the padlocked door of Densdeth’s dark room, next to mine, I fancied him lurking within, and leering triumphantly at me through the key-hole. And then in the sound of the storm, sighing along the halls and staircases, and shaking the narrow windows, I seemed to hear that mocking laugh of Densdeth’s, — that hard, exulting laugh of his, — that expressive laugh, — saying, with all the cruelty of scorn, and proclaiming to the scoffing legions who love the fall of noble souls, — “Here, at last! here is another who trusted and is deceived. Now his illusions are over. He will join us frankly, and share our jolly joys. Welcome, Robert Byng, to a new experiment of life! Come; you shall have revenge! You shall spoil the happiness of others, as your own is spoilt. We offer you the delicious honey of revenge. Sweet it is! ah, yes! the sweetest thing! You shall be one of us, — a tempter. Come!”

Such sounds seemed to me to issue from that dark room of Densdeth’s, to clothe themselves with those tones of his, which I had heard to- night echoed by the lips of the woman I longed to love, and to pervade the building, like a bat-winged flight of fiendish presences, claiming me as their comrade, whether I would or no.

I entered my great, dusky chamber. The fire had gone out; it was chilly and dark within. In the faint light from the street lamp, streaming through the narrow mullioned windows, the ancient furniture, carved with odd devices of griffins, looked grotesque and weird. All the pictures, statues, reliefs, and casts in the room stared at me strangely. Was I suddenly another man than the undejected person who had lived so many weeks under their inspection? The portrait of Stillfleet’s mother, a large, dignified woman, gazed kindly and pityingly upon me, with a mother’s look, as I lighted the gas.

On the table Locksley had deposited a parcel addressed to me. I unwrapped it. It was the frame I had ordered for my present, Cecil Dreeme’s sketch.

I put it in the frame, and examined it again. Only a sketch; but very masterly, full of color, full of expression, full of sweet refinement not diminishing its power.

“If it were not for Dreeme,” I said aloud, “I should despair. Him I trust. Him I love with a love passing the love of women. If I should lose him, if he should abandon me, I might be ready to take the world as Densdeth wishes. What can a soul do without one near and comrade soul to love and trust?”

Then the mocking wind through the corridors, and all along the wintry streets without, answered me with new scoffs of the same derisive laughter.

I lifted my eyes from the picture. That ancient tapestry caught my eye, where Raleigh had found Densdeth in the demon. That malignant face — Densdeth’s, and no other — was looking at me with a meaning smile.

I tore down the tapestry, and slunk to bed. The blessing sleep, foreshadower of that larger blessing death, fell upon me. Sleep, the death after the brief cycle of a day, received me tenderly, and restored me, that I might be man enough to bear the keener pangs and sterner griefs of the morrow.