Dreeme His Own Interpreter Edit
We left the dead, dead.
“Where is Huffmire?” Churm asked.
A sound of galloping hoofs answered. We saw him from the window, flying on Densdeth’s horse. Death in his house by violence meant investigation, and that he did not dare encounter. He was off, and so escaped justice for a time.
The villanous-looking porter came cringing up to Churm.
“You was asking about a lady,” said he.
“Yes. What of her?”
“With a pale face, large eyes, and short, crisp black hair, what that dead man brought here at daybreak yesterday?”
“Murdoch’s got her locked up and tied.”
“Murdoch!” cried Raleigh. “That’s the hell-cat I saw in the carriage.”
“Quick,” said Churm, “take us there!”
I picked up my dagger, and wiped off the blood; but the new stain had thickened the ancient rust.
The porter led the way up-stairs, and knocked at a closed door.
“Who is there?” said a voice.
“Me, Patrick, the porter. Open!”
“What do you want?”
“To come in.”
“Go about your business!”
“I will,” said the man, turning to us, with a grin. He felt that we were the persons to be propitiated. He put his knee against the door, and, after a struggle and a thrust, the bolt gave way.
A large, gipsy-like woman stood holding back the door. We pushed her aside, and sprang in.
“Cecil Dreeme!” I cried. God be thanked!”
And there, indeed, was my friend. He was sitting bound in a great chair, — bound and helpless, but still steady and self-possessed. He was covered with some confining drapery.
He gave an eager cry as he saw me.
I leaped forward and cut him free with my dagger. Better business for the blade than murder!
He rose and clung to me, with a womanish gesture, weeping on my shoulder.
“My child!” cried Churm, shaking off the Murdoch creature, and leaving her to claw the porter.
I felt a strange thrill and a new suspicion go tingling through me as I heard these words. How blind I had been!
Cecil Dreeme still clung to me, and murmured, “Save me from them, Robert! Save me from them all!”
“Clara, my daughter,” said Churm, “you need not turn from me. I have been belied to you. Could I change? They forged the letters that made you distrust me.”
“Is it so, Robert?” said the figure by my heart.
“Yes, Cecil, Churm is true as faith.”
There needed no further interpretation. Clara Denman and Cecil Dreeme were one. This strange mystery was clear as day.
She withdrew from me, and as her eyes met mine, a woman’s blush signalled the change in our relations. Yes; this friend closer than a brother was a woman.
“My daughter!” said Churm, embracing her tenderly, like a father.
I perceived that this womanish drapery had been flung upon her by her captors, to restore her to her sex and its responsibilities.
“Densdeth?” she asked, with a shudder.
“Dead! God forgive him!” answered Churm.
“Let us go,” she said. “Another hour in this place with that foul woman would have maddened me.”
She passed from the room with Churm.
Raleigh stepped forward. “You have found a friend,” said he to me; “you will both go with her. Leave me to see to this business of the dead men and this prison-house.”
“Thank you, Raleigh,” said I; “we will go with her, and relieve you as soon as she is safe, after all these terrors.”
“A brave woman!” he said. “I am happy that I have had some slight share in her rescue.”
“The whole, Raleigh.”
“There he lies!” whispered Churm, as we passed the door where the dead men were.
Cecil Dreeme glanced uneasily at me and at the dagger I still carried.
“No,” said I, interpreting the look; “not by me! not by any of us! An old vengeance has overtaken him. Towner killed him, and also lies there dead.”
“Towner!” said Dreeme, “he was another bad spirit of the baser sort to my father. Both dead! Densdeth dead! May he be forgiven for all the cruel harm he has done to me and mine!”
Cecil and I took the back seat of the carriage. I wrapped her up in Towner’s great cloak, and drew the hood over her head.
She smiled as I did these little offices, and shrank away a little.
Covered with the hood and draped with the great cloak, she seemed a very woman. Each of us felt the awkwardness of our position.
“We shall not be friends the less, Mr. Byng,” said she.
I took the hand she offered, and kept it. For a moment I forgot old sorrows and present anxieties in this strange new joy.
Churm had now got his bays into their pace. He turned and looked with his large benignancy of expression upon his daughter. Then tears came into his eyes.
“I have missed you, longed for you, yearned after you, sought you bitterly,” he said.
“Not more bitterly than I sorrowed when I saw in your own hand that you had taken the side of that base man, and abandoned me.”
“My brave child! My poor, forlorn girl!”
“Never forlorn after Mr. Byng found me,” said Cecil. And when I looked at her she flushed again. “He has been a brother, — yes, closer than a brother to me. I should have died, body and soul, starved and worn out for lack of affection and sympathy, unless he had come, sent by God.”
“And I, Cecil, — all my better nature would have perished utterly in the strange temptations of these weeks, except for your sweet influence. You have saved me.”
“We have much to tell each other, my child,” said Churm.
“Much. But I owe it to Mr. Byng to describe at once how I came to be under false colors, unsexed.”
“Never unsexed, Cecil! I could not explain to myself in what your society differed from every other. It was in this. In the guise of man, you were thorough woman still. I talked to you and thought of you, although I was not conscious of it, as man does to woman only. I opened my heart to you as one does to — a sister, a sweet sister.”
“Well,” said Dreeme, “I must tell you my little history briefly, to justify myself. I cannot make it a merry one. Much of it you know; more perhaps you infer. You can understand the struggle in my heart when my father said to me, ‘Marry this man, or I am brought to shame.’ How could I so desecrate my womanhood? Here was one whom for himself I disliked and distrusted, and who was so base, having failed to gain my love, as to use force — moral force — and degrade my father to be the accomplice of his tyranny.”
Dreeme — for so I must call him — spoke with a passionate indignation. I could comprehend the impression these ardent moods had made upon Densdeth’s intellect. It was, indeed, splendid tragedy to hear him speak, — splendid, if the tragedy had not been all too real, and yet unfinished.
“Dislike and distrust, repugnance against him for his plot, — had you no other feeling toward Densdeth?” Churm asked.
“These and the instinctive recoil of a pure being from a foul being. Only these at first. Then came the insurrection of all my woman’s heart against his corruption of my father’s nature and compulsion of me through him. Mr. Densdeth treated me with personal respect. He left the ugly work to my father, his slave. Ah, my poor father!”
“And your sister, — what part did she take?”
“My sister!” said Cecil Dreeme, with burning cheeks, and as she spoke her hand grasped mine convulsively. “My sister kept aloof. She offered me no sympathy. She repelled my confidence, as she had long done. I had no friend to whom I could say, ‘Save me from him who should love me dearest, who should brave whatever pang there is in public shame, rather than degrade his daughter to such ignominy.’ Ah me! that Heaven should have so heaped misery upon me! And the worst to come! — the worst — the worst to come!”“
“And I was across seas!” said Churm, bitterly.
“I had said to my father at the beginning, ‘If Mr. Churm were here, you would not dare sacrifice me.’ ‘Mr. Churm,’ he replied, ‘would have no sympathy for this freak of rejecting a man so distinguished and unexceptionable as Mr. Densdeth.’ And, indeed, there came presently a letter from you to that effect. It was you, — style, hand, everything, even to the most delicate characteristic expressions. How could I suspect my own father of so base a forgery? Then came another, sterner; and then another, in which you disowned and cast me off finally, unless I should consent. That crushed my heart. That almost broke down my power of resistance.”
“My poor child! my dear child!” Churm almost moaned; “and I was not here to help!”
“I might have yielded for pure forlornness and despair,” Dreeme went on, “when there was suddenly revealed to me, by a flash of insight, a crime, a treason, and a sin, which changed my repugnance for that guilty man, now dead, into utter abhorrence and loathing. Do not ask me what!”
We need not ask. All divined. And now, in the presence of these two who had warned me, their neglected cautions rushed back upon my mind. All were silent a moment, while Churm’s bays bowled us merrily over the frost-stiffened road, — merrily as if we were driving from a rural wedding to the city festival in its honor.
“When this sad sin and shame flashed upon me,” said Dreeme, “I did not wait one moment to let the edge of my horror dull. I sent for Densdeth. Was that unwomanly, my father?”
“Unwomanly, my child! It was heroic!”
“I sent for him. I faced him there under my father’s roof, which he had so dishonored. For that moment my fear of him was vanished. I said to him but a few words. God’s angel in my breast spoke for me.”
God’s angel was speaking now in Dreeme’s words. With the remembrance of that terrible interview, — that battle of purity against foulness, — his low deep voice rang like a prophet’s, that curses for God.
“But the man was not touched,” continued the same solemn voice. “Strange power of sin to deaden the soul! He was not touched. No shudder at his sacrilege! No great heart-breaking pang of self-loathing! He answered my giant agony with compliments. ‘A wonderful actress,’ he said, ‘I was. It was sublime,’ he said, ‘to see me so wrought up. The sight of such emotion would be cheaply bought with any villany’; and he bowed and smiled and played with his watch-chain.”
Dreeme’s voice, as he repeated these phrases, had unconsciously adopted the soft, sneering tone of their speaker. It was as if Densdeth were called back, and sitting by our side.
“Forget that man, if man he were, Cecil,” I breathed, with a shiver. “Let his harm to us die with him! Let his memory be an unopened coffin in a ruined and abandoned vault!”
“Ah Robert! his harm is not yet wholly dead; nor are the souls he poisoned cured. The days of all a lifetime cannot heap up forgetfulness enough to bury the thought of him. He must lie in our hearts and breed nightshade.”
“It was after this interview, I suppose,” said Churm, “that the thought of flight came to you.”
“The passion — the frenzy — of those terrible moments flung me into a fever. I went to my room, fell upon my bed, and passed into a half- unconscious state. I was aware of my father’s coming in, and muttering to himself: ‘Illness will do her good. This wicked obstinacy must break down, — yes, must break down.’ I was aware of my sister looking at me from the door, with a pale, hard face, and then turning and leaving me to myself. While I lay there in a half-trance, with old fancies drifting through my mind, I remembered how but yesterday, in passing Chrysalis, I had marked the notice of studios to let, and how I had longed that I were some forgotten orphan, living there, and painting for my bread.”
“They never told me, Cecil,” said I, “that you had been an artist.”
“I had not been, in any ripe sense, an artist. No amateur can be. I was a diligent observer, a conscientious student, a laborious plodder. I had not been baptized by sorrow and necessity. Power, if I have it, came to me with pangs.”
“That is the old story,” said I. “Genius is quickened, if not created, by throes of anguish in the soul.”
“Such is the history of my force. Well, as I said, that fancy of an artist’s life in Chrysalis came back to me. It grew all day, and as my fever heightened, — for they left me alone, except that the family physician came in, and said, ‘Slight fever, — let her sleep it off!’ — as the fever heightened, and I became light-headed, the fancy developed in my mind. It was a mad scheme. In a sane moment I should not have ventured it. But all the while something was whispering me, ‘Fly this house: its air is pollution!’ Night came. I rose cautiously. How well I remember it all! — my tremors at every sound, my groping in the dark, my confidence in my purpose, my throbs of delirious joy at the hope of escape, — how I laughed to myself, when I found I had money enough for many months, — how I dressed myself in a suit of clothes I had worn as the lover in a little domestic drama we played at home in happier days! Do not think me unwomanly for this disguise.”
“Unwomanly, my child!” said Churm. “It was the triumph of womanhood over womanishness!”
“I wrapped myself,” Dreeme continued, “in a cloak, part of that forgotten costume; I stole down the great staircase, half timorous, half bold, all desperate. I looked into the parlors. They were brilliantly lighted. In the distant mirror, at the rear, I could see the image of my sister, sitting alone, and, as I thought, drooping and weary. Ah, how I longed to fling myself into her arms, and pray her to weep with me! But I knew that she would turn away lightly and with scorn. I shrank back for fear of detection. You know that draped statue in the hall?”
“I know it,” replied I, remembering what misery of my heart it had beheld, in its marble calm.
“In my fevered imagination it took ghostly life. It seemed to become the shadow of myself, and I paused an instant to charge it to watch over those who drove me forth, — to be a holy monitor in that ill-doing house. It was marble, and they could not harm it.”
“That statue has seemed to me your presence there,” I said, “and a sorrowful watcher.”
I could not continue, and describe that fatal interview of last night. I was silent, and in a moment Cecil Dreeme went on.
“The rest you mostly know. You know how my rash venture succeeded from its very rashness. I won Locksley. The poor fellow had had troubles of his own, and I felt that I was safe with him, even if he discovered my secret. He gossiped to me innocently of my own disappearance, and how they were searching for me far and wide; but never within a stone’s throw of my home.”
“It was an inspiration,” said I, “your concealment there, — such a plan as only genius devises.”
“A mad scheme!” Dreeme said, musingly. “I hardly deem myself responsible for it. And who can yet say whether it was well and wisely done?”
“Well and wisely!” said Churm. “You are saved, and the tempter is dead.”
“Ah!” Dreeme sighed, “what desolate days I passed in my prison in Chrysalis! I felt like one dead, as the world supposed me, — like one murdered, — one walled up in a living grave; and I gave myself no thought of ever emerging into life again. Why should I love daylight? What was there for me there? Only treachery. Who? Only traitors. I had no one in the world to trust. I dwelt alone with God.”
Dreeme paused. The tears stood in those brave, steady eyes. How utterly desolate indeed had been the fate of this noble soul! How dark in the chill days of winter! How lonely in his bleak den in Chrysalis! Stern lessons befall the strong.
“Painting my Lear kept me alive, with a morbid life. It was my own tragedy, Robert. I am the Cordelia. When you did not recognize my father and sister on that canvas, I felt that myself was safe from your detection.”
“How blind I have been!” I exclaimed; “and now that I recall the picture, I perceive those veiled likenesses, and wonder at my dulness.”
“Not veiled from me,” said Churm. “You saw me recognize them, Byng. Ah, my child! how bitter it is to think of you there pining away alone, and I under the same roof, saddening my heart with sorrow for your loss!”
“Yes, my father; but how much bitterer for me, who had loved and trusted you like a daughter, to believe that you were as cruel a traitor as the rest, — that you too would betray me in a moment. So I lived there alone, putting my agony into my picture. There was a strange relief in so punishing, as it were, the guilty. And when I had punished them, I forgave them. The rancor, if rancor there were, had gone out of me. I was ready for kindlier influences. They did not come. I could not seek them. I was no longer sustained by the vigor of my revolt. My days grew inexpressibly dreary. The life was wearing. And then I was starving for all that my dear Mend and preserver, Mr. Byng, has given me, — starving to death, Robert; and there I should have died alone but for you. I knew you as my old playmate from the first moment.”
I pressed her hand. “ It is a touching history,” I said, “but strange to me still, — strange as a dream.”
“Yes, and my name, when I abandon it, will make the whole seem dreamier. My name was a sudden fancy, in reply to Locksley’s query, what he should call me. Cecil; I did not quite give up my womanhood, as Cecil. And Dreeme, — it occurred to me that, if ever in life I should escape danger and be at peace, my present episode of disguise and concealment would be recalled by me only as a dream. And from such a fancy, half metaphysical, half mere girlishness, I named myself. My danger must excuse the alias.”
A girlish fancy! Every moment it came to me more distinctly that Cecil Dreeme and I could never be Damon and Pythias again. Ignorantly I had loved my friend as one loves a woman only. This was love, — unforced, self-created, undoubting, complete. And now that the friend proved a woman, a great gulf opened between us. And as in my first interview with Emma Denman, I had fancied that form in the mirror the spirit of her sister regarding us, now again I seemed to see, projected against a lurid future, a slight, elegant figure in deep mourning, watching me, now with a baleful, now with a pleading look.
Thinking thus, I let fall Cecil’s hand, and drew apart a little. Meantime Churm’s bays whirled us merrily over the frozen turnpike, through the brisk air of that March evening. We might, for all the passers knew, have left a warm and kindly fireside, and now were speeding back to our own cheerful homes, talking as we went of rural hospitality, and how wealthy with content was life in a calm old country-house.
But thinking of what might start up between Cecil Dreeme and me, and part us, I let fall the hand I held.
“No, Robert!” said Cecil, reaching out that slight hand again, and taking mine. “I cannot let my friend go. You were dear and true to me when I was alone. Do not punish me, that I was acting an unwilling deceit with you. I longed to give you all my confidence. But how could I?”
How could she, indeed? To me, of all other men, how could she? To me, the friend of her father, the comrade of Densdeth, the disciple of Churm, perhaps the lover of her sister, the ally of all whose perfidy had wronged her, — how could she offer to me the confidence that would compel me to choose between her and them? How could she, alone in that solitude of Chrysalis, cover her face with her hands and whisper, — “Robert, I am a woman!”
“Now, my child,” said Churm, “we strike the pavements in a few moments. The bays will give me my hands full in the crowded streets, and across the ferry. Tell us how you came at last into Densdeth’s power.”
“You remember my terror, Robert, when at last I encountered that evil spirit again. He knew me. He must have watched Chrysalis, and seen me enter with you. Last night you did not come. I went out alone, not without some trepidation, to take my walk. By and by I perceived a carriage following me. I turned into a side street. It drove up. Densdeth’s black servant — that Afreet creature — sprang out with another person. They dragged me into the carriage, and smothered my screams.”
“O Cecil,” I cried, “if I could have saved you this!”
No wonder that Densdeth smiled triumphant in the corridor of the opera, — smiled in double triumph over me!
“I had no fears, Robert. I felt that you would miss me. I hoped that you would trace me. At the ferry Densdeth got into the carriage. He treated me simply as an insane person, and was gentle enough. I do not think he had given up the thought that he could master my mind, — that he could weary out my moral force, and triumph over me by dint of sheer devilishness. He left me in peace last night. He had but just entered to-day, and began to address me quietly, as if I were in my father’s parlor, and he were again my allowed suitor, when the woman burst in with the news of a hostile arrival. He ran out, and presently I heard that dreadful scream of exultation and despair. There seemed to me two voices mingled, — the cry of a mocking fiend baffled, and the shout of a rebel slave.”
“It was so,” said Churm. “How calmly you speak of all this, my child!”
“It is the life of Cecil Dreeme, and fast becoming merely historic to me, passing away into my dark ages. These will be scenes never to be forgotten, but never recalled. And now, a word of my father. Will the shame he feared come upon him at last?”
“It may not. Only Densdeth knew the crime. But Densdeth gone, poverty and sudden defeat of all his ambitious schemes must befall him.”
“Better so! Poverty, shame even, are better for the soul than a life that is a lie. Only harsh treatment will teach a nature like my father’s the sin of sin. Poor and ashamed, he will learn to prize my love.”
“You can love him still, Cecil, — so cruel, so base?” I asked.
“Love does not alter for any error of its object.”
“Error? I name it guilt, sacrilege!”
“Justice tells me that he must suffer. To every sin is appointed its own misery. An inevitable penalty announces the broken law. The misery is the atonement for the sin. I sorrow for the sufferer. Not that he suffers, — but that he should have sinned. The fiery pangs will burn away the taint, and leave the soul as white and pure as any most unsullied.”
“Cecil,” said I, after a silence, “you do not ask of your sister.”
“No,” she said, turning from me. She would have withdrawn her hand. I held it closer than before.