The invalid peered cautiously into my room, halting on the threshold to inspect.
“Who is there?” said he.
“Nobody but Mr. Churm,” replied Locksley.
“Promise me that on your honor!”
“Certainly. But haven’t you known me long enough to be sure that I’m always upon honor? Come on!”
He entered feebly, shrinking from the sound of his own footsteps.
“Is there nobody in those small rooms?” he asked. Nobody listening?”
“Show him, Locksley, to satisfy him,” said I.
Towner examined my bath-room, my bed-room, and then my lumber-room.
“Where does that door in the lumber-room open?” said he, tremulously. “Into Densdeth’s dark room?”
“Take me down stairs again, Locksley. I can’t stay here.”
“Why, man!” said I, “the door is bolted solid; those heavy boxes are between us and it, and here is another door which we can close and lock. Three of us too to protect you. You are safe from Densdeth.”
“You don’t know him!” and Towner shuddered, and would have fallen. Locksley dropped him into an arm-chair by the stove. He seemed hopelessly prostrated.
I poured him out some brandy. The antique flask and goblet touched his fancy. He examined them with a pleased, childish interest, and glanced about the room, observing the objects, while he sipped his restorative with feeble lips.
“Evidently not a bad man by nature,” I thought. “Only an impressible one, — one who should cry daily and hourly, ‘Lord, deliver me from temptation!’ If his superior being and chosen guide had been a hero, and not a devil like Densdeth, he might never have become the poor dastard he is.”
“You have a pretty place here, Mr. Byng,” said Towner, revived by his brandy, and assuming the air of a welcome guest and patronizing critic. It sat strangely on him after his recent trepidation. The man had the small social vanity of connoisseurship. It was one of Densdeth’s favorite weaknesses; he loved to make confident ignoramuses talk of horses, wines, pictures, subjects on which a little knowledge generally makes a man a fool. Densdeth had no doubt found Towner’s ambition toward the tastes of a gentleman a mighty ally in mastering the man.
“Yes, quite a museum,” replied I, humoring him. Talking a little, I thought, would tranquillize him for business, — the hard task of confessing himself a culprit.
“Very fine paintings!” he continued. “I have a taste for such things. Not a connoisseur! Only an amateur, with a smattering of knowledge! Art refines the character wonderfully. I wish I had been introduced to it younger. You wouldn’t guess now, Mr. Byng, what kind of scenery surrounded my childhood.”
“No,” said I, growing impatient. “What?”
“My father was the county jailer of Highland County. Instead of pictures and statues, my earliest recollections are of thieves pitching pennies in the jail-yard. Bad schooling for a boy, was it not? I remember the first hanging I saw, as if it were yesterday. The man’s name was Benton Dulany. He robbed and killed his father. In his dying speech he said, that he never should have got religion, if it hadn’t been for his errors; but how he was going straight to Abraham’s bosom. And then a man, up in an elm-tree outside the jail-yard, shouted, ‘Say, Benton! tell old Abe to keep some bosom for me!’ Everybody roared, and the drop fell.”
“You know what you came here for, Towner,” said Churm, sternly. “Not to babble about your youth.”
“Yes, yes,” said the invalid, uneasily. “But I don’t want you to be too hard on me. I want you to see that I haven’t had a fair chance. No one ever showed me how to keep straight, and naturally I went crooked.”
“If I had not understood your character long ago, I should not have interfered to protect you,” said Churm. “But come to the point!”
“You will keep me safe from Densdeth?”
“He shall never touch you.”
“His touch on my heart is what I dread, Mr. Churm. The first time he saw me, he laid his finger on the bad spot in my nature, and it itched to spread. I’ve been his slave, soul and body, from that moment. God knows I’ve tried to draw back times enough. He always waited until I was just beginning to regain my self-respect. Then he would come up to me, in his quiet way, and look at me with his yellow eyes, and smile at me with that devilish smile, and say, ‘Come, Towner, don’t be a prig! Here’s something for you to do.’ It was always a villany, and I always did it. It would take me days to tell you the base things I have done to help Densdeth to his million and his power. He has been the malignant curse of my life. I feel him now in my very soul, whispering me not to make confidants of people that will only hate me for my guilt and scorn me for my weakness.”
“Brother-in-law,” said Locksley, “you ought to know better than to think of hate and scorn when you face Mr. Churm.”
“I do know better. I know that those are only devil-whispers. If I had merely been in general a bad man, Mr. Churm, I could endure your just judgment, and if you said mercy and pardon, I could believe that God would approve your sentence. But I have wronged you and yours. Can you forgive that?”
“Try me,” said Churm.
“Mr. Churm,” said the invalid, “I have always lied to you about the death of Clara Denman.”
“So I supposed,” Churm said, quietly; “but do you know anything of her fate.”
“Nothing. You may get some clew from what I tell you.”
“Speak, then,” said Churm; “I listen.”
“I need not go through a long story to tell you how Densdeth mastered Mr. Denman. It is really a short story, and old enough. Denman had an uneasy feeling that, with all his money, he was Nobody. He fancied more money would make him Somebody. That was basis enough for Densdeth. What a child Denman was in his hands! It was Densdeth who suggested, and I who had to stand the odium of, that first scheme of Denman’s, to trample on the rights of the minority, and get the property of his railroad company into his own hands.”
“I remember your share in the business,” said Churm. “I suspected Densdeth’s. Poor Denman!”
“Poor Denman!” repeated Towner, peevishly. “I don’t see why he should have more sympathy than others.”
“No more, but equal pity,” rejoined Churm.
“That transaction was Densdeth’s first victory over Denman. From that time Denman, and whatever he had, was Densdeth’s. If I am not wrong, there is another, still in that house, that he has harmed, if not spoiled.”
I sat by, in agony, listening, — in sorrow first, to find the reconstructed fabric of my respect for my father’s friend and my own on the way to ruin, — in agony, now, at this dark allusion, which my heart interpreted. I sat by, listening, in a crushed mood, for further revelations of guilt and sorrow. Pitiable! and I seemed to detect, even in the remorse and self-reproach of the pitiful object before me, a trace of vulgar triumph that he was not the only sinner in the world, nor the only sufferer from the taint of sin.
“Densdeth led Denman on, step by step,” continued Towner, “deeper and deeper into his gigantic financial schemes. You know how vain Denman is. He began to fancy himself Somebody. ‘Bah!’ said Densdeth to me, ‘the booby will try to walk alone presently. Then he will have to go on his knees to me to keep him up.’ And so it was. Denman devised an operation. A crisis came. Denman delayed ruin — what money-men call ruin — by a monstrous fraud. We had expected it, and we alone discovered it. ‘Now,’ said Densdeth to me, ‘I have got the man.’ ‘What more do you want,’ said I, ‘than you have already gained by him?’ ‘I want his daughter Clara,’ he said. ‘She is the most brilliant woman in the world, — the only fit wife for me. But she will not think so, and I shall have to use force. Force is vulgar. I don’t like it; but no creature shall baffle me.’
“So, to be brief, Densdeth said, ‘Denman, compel your daughter to marry me, or you go to prison!’
“Denman at once began to apply a father’s force to the young lady. As he urged her more and more, she spoke of appealing to you, Mr. Churm.”
“Poor child! and I was absent!” said Churm.
“‘Ah!’ said Densdeth,” continued the sick man, “when Denman told him of this. ‘Here is business for Towner, that accomplished pen-man. Now, Towner! Letter first from Mr. Churm, in London, — “My dear Clara: I have heard with heartfelt satisfaction of your approaching marriage with your father’s friend and mine, Mr. Densdeth,” &c. Letter second, — “My dear Clara: It gives me great pain to know from your father that your mind is not made up as to your marriage. It is impossible to find a more distinguished or worthier gentleman than my friend Densdeth, or one who will make you happier. Do not alienate me by folly in this important matter,” &c. Letter third, — short, sharp, and cruel, — “Clara: Your conduct is unwomanly and immodest. Except you are my friend Densdeth’s wife, I shall never write or speak to you again.”’”
“You wrote such letters!” cried Churm, savagely, rising and tramping the room.
“Cut off my right hand,” said the wretched man, holding out his wasted, trembling fingers. “I wrote and prepared, with all the circumstance of seal and stamp, those base forgeries.”
“That was foul!” said Locksley, shrinking away.
“Don’t leave me, William,” the invalid prayed, feebly. “I was not myself. I was the hand of Densdeth. Who can resist him? All this is idle struggle. He will conquer us again. He will clutch me, body and soul, again, and drag me down, down, down.”
He burst into miserable tears.
Churm strode about the room, with a patient impatient step.
“I have tried you, Mr. Churm,” at last the guilty man was able to gasp. “Can you be merciful?”
Churm’s face was as an angel’s, as he came forward, and laid a benignant hand on Towner’s shoulder. “In the name of God, I forgive you. Yes, and I pity and will befriend you still.”
It was an impressive scene in my antique chamber. Churm spoke “like one having authority.”
The invalid grew calmer, and presently went on with his story again.
“Those letters, I am afraid, broke the young lady’s heart. Her best friend had joined the enemy. Her father pleaded, no doubt, without concealment, his imminent ruin. A daughter will do much to save her father from shame. They forced from her a kind of qualified, protesting consent to think of the marriage as a possibility. Then they treated it as a certainty. My treachery to the young lady soon began to gnaw at my heart. Consign such a woman to Densdeth! to the daily agony of a life with him! Little as I knew her, I felt that she was an exceptional soul, worthy of all tender loyalty from all men. I must do something to repair my wrong to her. I must at least inform her of the forgeries. I was too weak-spirited to do it myself. I called in a woman to help me.
“She was another that Densdeth had spoilt. She hated and dreaded him as much as I did. She naturally resented his marriage to another woman. I sent her to see Clara Denman. Densdeth found it out, and stopped it. He finds out everything, sooner or later. He suspected me of an attempt to revolt from his dominion. He suspected me of instigating the young woman to show herself to his future wife. He made me stand by and listen, while, in his cool, cruel way, he sneered the poor girl into utter despair. She went off and drowned herself.”
“Ah!” cried Churm, “it was she whose body was found, — she, and not my dear child.”
“It was she,” replied Towner. “Nobody cared for her, or missed her. She was not unlike Miss Denman in person. The disappearance of a young lady of fashion had made a noise. A great reward was offered. Scores of people identified the body. It had been greatly injured by the chances of drowning.”
“Did Denman believe it to be his daughter’s?”
“Entirely. It was the easiest solution. And no doubt he felt more at peace to suppose her dead than living, and likely to return and reproach him with his tyranny.”
“He did at first. He did not believe that any woman could have eluded the strict and instant search he instituted and conducted all over the country. I myself cannot believe that she escaped alive.”
“Perhaps Densdeth searched too far away from home,” said Churm, glancing at me.
“He went to Europe for that purpose. When he missed the real drowned woman, he came to me, and charged me with aiding Miss Denman to escape, and substituting the body. He soon discovered that I knew nothing of it. ‘Towner,’ said he, ‘I am convinced that Miss Denman, my future wife, is alive. She fancies she is free from me. Bah! Did you ever know any one baffle my pursuit? She shall not. I want her, and must have her, — beautiful, untamed creature! but silly, and not willing to adore me, as her sex does! In fact, she got idle fancies in her head at last, and was really rude. She talked about abhorrence. Abhorrence of me! She said our marriage would be an infamy, for reasons she would not soil her tongue to give. She actually faced me, and said that. She said it, facing me, looking me straight in the eyes, not sobbing off in a corner, as most women would have done. It was splendid! Fine tragedy! and real too. Nothing ever entertained me so much. I would rather have her point at me, and call me villain, than any other woman fondle me, — that I have had enough of. O yes, she is alive, and I must have her. What a fool I was to fancy for a moment that such a being would drown herself, or be drowned by an accident, — quite unworthy of my intelligence, such a belief! I have a clew now. I have no doubt she has gone off to Europe, disguised as a man. She cannot elude me there. There or here, I will find her. I must have some more scenes with her. I should like to have one every day. Everything bores me now. I hunger to see again the magnificent scorn with which she repelled me when she fancied she had reason to. I want to see that loathing recoil from my touch. Ah! nothing like it! I should like to trample on her moral sense every day. If I could only sully her, and make her hate herself as she does me, and then stand by to watch her convulsions of self-contempt, — that would be worth living for. Perhaps I can manage even that. Who knows? But I must get her in hand first. My cue of course is that she is mad. The simplest methods are the best. Let me once have her in some uninquisitive madhouse, like Huffmire’s here at Bushley, and something can be done. At least I can put her in a straight-jacket, and see her chafe, or sit, too proud to chafe, facing her fate with those great eyes, solemn and passionate. Denman will back me in whatever I do. If it gives you any satisfaction, Towner, to know that there is a wretcheder scrub than you, Denman is the man. I love to joke him about the State’s prison, and make him grovel and implore. He is delightfully base. He will swear his daughter into a madhouse, and keep her there half a century, if I will only let him live in his house, and be pointed at as the great Denman. Pah!’”
Towner sank back in his chair, exhausted. It had cost him a giant effort to be free from his ancient allegiance to his fiend.
We three sat silent a moment, appalled by the depth of evil revealed to us in one human heart.
In this pause all the events and scenes of my life in Chrysalis drifted across my mind, and all my history for the past three months, culminating in last night’s horror and to-day’s agony, passed before me. Again I saw, as in a picture, Emma Denman standing, a slight, elegant figure in mourning, in the dimly lighted hall of the stately house. Again I marked on her pale face the deepening look of despair and pitiless self-abhorrence. Again I felt the blighting touch of her cold hand. Again there smote me the same throb of anguish I had perceived when I entered Cecil Dreeme’s chamber and found him fled.
And Densdeth was in all this. The thought cowed me. I was ready to say, with Towner, “Why struggle vainly any more with this demon?”
Even as I uttered this hopeless cry within my soul, there came a quick step along the corridor, and a knock at my door.