Churm Before Dreeme’s Picture Edit

Full of hope for my friend, I left the three artists below, and darted up to his studio.

I knocked lightly, thinking a quick ear listened, and a quick voice would respond.

No answer.

I knocked again, distinctly and deliberately, and listened with some faint beginning of anxiety. Yesterday I had not seen him. Was he ill again?

Still no answer.

All the remembrance of the night when Locksley and I first made entrance there rushed back upon me.

I knocked once more, and spoke my name.

Again no answer.

I thundered at the door, striking it hard enough to hurt the dull wood that was baffling me.

Profound silence within.

“Is it possible that he has ventured out into daylight? It would be an unlucky moment for his first absence, now when good-fortune waits to befall him. His Fame is here, holding her breath to trumpet him, and he is away.”

At the same time I doubted much if he could have gone. His terror of exposing himself was still great, and would be more extravagant after his panic-struck flight from Densdeth.

An indefinable dread seized upon me. I resisted, and dashed down stairs to the janitor’s room.

I knocked peremptorily.

Locksley peered out, holding the door ajar.

“Dreeme!” whispered I, panting, “do you know anything of Dreeme?”

“It’s you, sir,” says Locksley. “Come in. It was only strangers I was keeping out.”

“Don’t let any one enter,” said a voice within, — a miserable voice, between a whimper and a moan.

“He won’t hurt you, Towner,” said Locksley. “This is Mr. Byng, a friend of Mr. Churm’s.”

The janitor looked worn and worried. By the stove, in a rocking-chair, sat, slinking, a miserable figure of a man. There sat Towner, a bloodless, unwholesome being, sick of himself, — that most tenacious and incurable of all diseases. There he sat, sick with that chronic malady, himself, — a self all vice, all remorse, and all despair. Himself, — his cowering look said that he knew the fatal evil that was devouring his life, and that he longed to free himself from its bane by one bold act of surgery, such as his evasive eyes would never venture to face, such as his nerveless fingers dared not execute.

My glance identified the man, but I did not pause to study him. I had my own troubles to consider.

“Locksley,” I said, seizing him by the arm, “where is Cecil Dreeme?”

My perturbation communicated itself to the janitor.

“Yes,” said he, “I hadn’t given my mind to it; but he did not answer when Dora went up with his breakfast. Then Towner was brought in, and we’ve been so busy with him that I forgot to send her up again.”

“He is not there. He does not answer my knock.”

“Going out in the daytime is as unlikely for him as the sun’s showing at midnight. I mistrust something’s happened.”

“Do not say so, Locksley. Disaster to him is misery to me. Yes, double misery to-day!”

“Did you have your walk together last night?”

“No. I was at the opera until late.”

“We must try his door again.”

“I can’t be left here alone,” feebly protested Towner.

“Dora will take care of you.”

“But Densdeth might come,” shuddered the invalid.

“He never comes here. He’d better not,” said Locksley, bristling.

“Who keeps the key of his dark room?”

“His servant, I suppose. Come, Mr. Byng.” Locksley led the way up stairs. “Towner isn’t long for this world, you see,” said he. “We thought he’d better die among friends. Mr. Churm will be back this morning to talk to him, and get his facts.”

It was afternoon, and the boys of Chrysalis, the College, were skylarking in the main corridor. Their rumor died away as we climbed the stairs. It was as quiet at Cecil Dreeme’s door as on the night when we first forced entrance, — as quiet without, and, when we knocked, as silent within.

Locksley tried the door. It was unlocked. He opened. We entered, in a tremor of apprehension.

My friend of friends was gone! Gone! and another, some unfriendly and insolent intruder, had been there desecrating the place. The picture of Lear was flung from the easel and lying on the floor. The portfolio was open, and its drawings scattered. Upon one — a sketch of two sisters tending a mild and venerable father — a careless heel had trodden. Even the bedroom the same rude visitor had violated, and articles of the young painter’s limited ward-robe lay about. How different from the order that usually lent elegance to his bare walls and scanty furniture!

Locksley and I looked at each other in indignant consternation.

“My old scare has got hold, and is shaking me hard,” said the janitor. “Some of them he was hiding from must have found him out, and been here rummaging, to pry into what he’s been at all this time. When did you see him, Mr. Byng?”

“Not yesterday. Night before last, — can it be only night before last that we met Densdeth?”

“Densdeth!” said Locksley, bristling more than ever with alarm. “Is he in this business?”

“I dread to think so,” said I, unnerved, and sinking into Dreeme’s arm-chair. And then across my mind flitted my friend’s warnings against Densdeth, the meeting at Mrs. Bilkes’s steps, the covert inspection, Densdeth’s triumphant, cruel look, the panic, the flight, the conversation, — all the mystery of Dreeme.

“What are we going to do?” said Locksley, staring at me, in a maze. “Henry Clay’s ghost couldn’t persuade me that Mr. Dreeme had got himself into a scrape. Something’s happened to the lad. His enemies have taken hold of him. Why did you leave him, Mr. Byng?”

“Why did I leave him? Why? To be taught the bitterest lesson a soul can learn,” said I; and again I seemed to hear that mocking sound of Densdeth’s laugh, echoed from the lips of Emma Denman, in the corridor of the Opera-House; again I seemed to see that hateful look of hers. The blight fell upon me more cruelly. I could not act.

“If Mr. Churm were only here!” said Locksley, forlornly, seeing my prostration.

With the word, there came through the open door the sound of a heavy trunk bumping up the staircase, now dinting the wall, and now cracking the banisters, and presently we heard Churm’s hearty voice hail from below: “Hillo, porter! that’s the wrong way.”

“There comes help,” cried Locksley.

“Call him up,” said I, and the janitor hurried after him.

In came Churm, sturdy, benevolent, wise. His moral force reinvigorated me at a glance. His keen, brave face solved difficulty, and cleared doubt.

“What is it, Byng?” said he. “What has come to this young painter?”

Before I could answer, his eye caught Dreeme’s picture of Lear, resting against the easel, where I had replaced it. His calm manner was gone He sprang forward, kneeled before the easel, stared intently. Then he looked eagerly at me.

“What does this mean?” he exclaimed.

“Mean!” repeated I, astonished at his manner.

“Yes. Who painted this?” He spoke almost frantically.

“Cecil Dreeme,” I replied.

“Cecil Dreeme! Cecil Dreeme! Who is Cecil Dreeme?”

“The young painter who lives here.”

“Where is he? Where?”

“Gone, spirited away, I fear.”

“What are you doing here,” said he, almost fiercely.

“Mr. Churm,” said I, “I do not understand your tone nor your manner. What do you know of this recluse?”

I seemed faintly to remember how Dreeme had shown a slight repugnance, more than once, when I named Churm as a trusty friend.

“You, — what do you know,” he rejoined, staring again at the picture. “Tell me, sir; what do you know?”

“In a word, this,” replied I, resolved not to take offence at his roughness. “The evening I moved into Chrysalis, Locksley called me to go up with him to this chamber. He feared the tenant was dying alone.”

“Poor child! poor child!” interjected Churm.

“We broke in, and found him in a death-trance. Locksley’s thoughtfulness saved him. We soon warmed, fed, and cheered him back to life.”

“God bless you both!” said Churm, fervently.

“Churm,” I asked, “what does this mean? Do you know my friend?”

“Go on! Tell your story!”

“Little to tell of fact, much of feeling. There was a mystery about Mr. Dreeme. I took him, mystery and all, unquestioned, to my heart of hearts. He was utterly alone, and I befriended him. I befriended unawares an angel. He has been blue sky to me.”

“I am sure of it,” said Churm; “but the facts, Byng! the facts of his disappearance!”

“He kept himself absolutely secluded. He never saw out-of-doors by daylight. We walked together constantly in the evening. I made it my duty to force him to a constitutional every day. We were walking as usual night before last, when we met Densdeth.”

“No!” exclaimed Churm, vehemently. “Densdeth! I have been waiting for that name. Has he put his cloven hoof on this trail?”

“Densdeth observed us. I noticed ugly triumph in his face. Dreeme was struck with a panic at this meeting. I thought it instinct. It may have been knowledge. Densdeth, we suspected, followed us. Dreeme dragged me away in flight. But it would be easy for Densdeth, if he pleased, to watch Chrysalis, see me enter, and identify my companion. I am all in the dark, Churm. Can you help me to any light?”

“Let us hope so! Locksley, is Towner here?”

“Yes sir; and ready to make a clean breast of it.”

“Bring him up to Mr. Byng’s quarters. I have no fire, and the poor creature must be coddled. I may take this liberty, Byng? You are interested. It may touch the question of Dreeme. It does so, I believe.”

“Certainly; my room is yours. Pensal was there, drawing Sion; but he will be done by this time. But, my dear friend, do you penetrate this mystery of Cecil Dreeme’s? Tell me at once. He is dearer to me than a brother.”

“Robert,” said Churm, with grave tenderness of manner, “look at that picture, — that tragic protest against a parental infamy. Have you ever seen those faces?”

“Dreeme womanized himself for his Cordelia. I have sometimes had a flitting fancy that I had seen people like his Lear and Goneril. They are types so vigorous that they seem real.”

“They are real.”

“Who? Churm, if you know anything of my friend, do not agonize me by concealment.”

“Be blind until your eyes open!”

We were at my door as he spoke.

Artist, sitter, and critic were moving to depart. I made the apology of “business” for quitting them.

“Keep at such business,” said Pensal, with a keen glance at me, “and you will knock off the other seventy-five years of your new century.”

“Yes,” said Towers (artist’s insight again), “Byng has taken a dip into counter-irritation and mended his paralysis of this morning.”

“A fair stab,” says Sion, “has made him forget the foul one.”

So they took their leave.

“Do you remember,” Churm said, as he seated himself in a great arm-chair of black carved oak, “my fancy, when we first talked here, that this would be a fit chamber for a Vehmgericht?”

“It was prophetic. We are to try the very culprit you hinted then, — Densdeth.”

“Not in person, unless he may be lurking there in his dark room, to listen.”

“Do not speak of it! Now that I begin to know more of Densdeth, the thought of that place sickens me.”

“He has harmed you, then, in my absence.”

“I fear a bitter treachery,” said I; and my cheeks burned as I spoke.

“Is it so?” said Churm, sadly. “I dreaded it, and warned you as clearly as I dared. But we will save Cecil Dreeme. Yes, the ruin is terrible, — but this last must be saved.”

Here Locksley entered, with Towner following, wrapped in a great dressing-gown. It was plain, as Locksley had said, that the invalid was not long for this world. But yet there seemed to glimmer through the man’s weakness a little remnant of force, well-nigh quenched. It might still burn hot for an instant, if a blast touched it; but such a flash would search out all the fuel, and leave only ashes when it expired.