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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889


By Theodore Winthrop (1828–1861)

[Cecil Dreeme. 1861.]

WE drove on, mile after mile, in the chilly March afternoon, and at last pulled up at a door, in a white stuccoed wall,—a whited wall, edging the road like a bank of stale snow. Within we could see an ugly, dismal house, equally stuccoed white, peering suspiciously at us over the top of the enclosure, from its sinister grated windows of the upper story.

A boy was walking up and down the road at a little distance a fine black horse, all in a lather with hard riding, and cut with the spurs. The animal plunged about furiously, almost dragging the lad off his feet.

“You will see Huffmire, Towner,” said Churm, “and tell him that I want to talk with him.”

“Yes,” cried Towner, eagerly, “let me manage it!”

He shook off his cloak, sprang down with energetic step, and rang the bell. A man looked through a small shutter in the door, and asked his business, gruffly enough.

“Tell Dr. Huffmire that Mr. Towner wishes to see him.”

The porter presently returned, and said that Dr. Huffmire would see the gentleman, alone.

“Huffmire will know my name. Send him out here to me, Towner, if he will come; if not, do you make the necessary inquiries,” said Churm.

Towner passed in. The porter closed the outer door upon him, and then looked through the shutter at us, with a truculent stare, as if he were accustomed to inquisitive visitors, and liked to baffle them. He had but one eye, and his effect, as he grinned through the square porthole in the gate, was singularly Cyclopean and ogreish. He properly regarded men merely as food, sooner or later, for insane asylums,—as morsels to be quietly swallowed or forcibly choked down by the jaws of Retreats.

“What!” whispered Raleigh to me, as the boy led the snorting and curvetting black horse by us. “That fellow at the eye-hole magnetized me at first. I did not notice that horse. Do you know it?”

“No,” said I. “I have never seen him. A splendid fellow! His rider must have been in hot haste to get here. Perhaps some errand like our own!”

“Densdeth,” again whispered Raleigh, “Densdeth told me he had been looking at a new black horse.”

We glanced at each other. All felt that Densdeth’s appearance here, at this moment, might be harmful. Churm’s name brought Huffmire speedily to the door. Churm, the philanthropist, was too powerful a man to offend. Huffmire opened the door, and stood just within, defending the entrance. He was a large man, with a large face,—large in every feature, and exaggerated where for proportion it should have been small. He suffered under a general rush of coarseness to the face. He had a rush of lymphatic puffiness to the cheeks, a rush of blubber to the lips, a rush of gristle to his clumsy nose, a rush of lappel to the ears, a rush of dewlap to the throat. A disgusting person,—the very type of man for a vulgar tyrant. His straight black hair was brushed back and combed behind the ears. He was in the sheep’s clothing of a deacon.

“You have a young lady here, lately arrived?” said Churm, bowing slightly, in return to the other’s cringing reverence.

“I have several, sir. Neither youth nor beauty is exempt, alas! from the dreadful curse of insanity, which I devote myself, in my humble way, to eradicate. To e-rad-i-cate,” he repeated, dwelling on the syllables of his word, as if he were tugging, with brute force, at something that came up hard,—as if madness were a stump, and he were a cogwheel machine extracting it.

“I wish to know,” said Churm, in his briefest and sternest manner, “if a young lady named Denman was brought here yesterday.”

“Denman, sir! No, sir. I am happy to be able to state to you, sir, that there is no unfortunate of that name among my patients,—no one of that name,—I rejoice to satisfy you.”

“I suppose you know who I am,” said Churm. I saw his fingers clutch his whip-handle.

A rush of oiliness seemed to suffuse the man’s coarse face. “It is the well-known Mr. Churm,” said he. “The fame of his benevolence is coextensive with our country, sir. Who does not love him?—the friend of the widow and the orphan! I am proud, sir, to make your acquaintance. This is a privilege, indeed,—indeed, a most in-es-ti-ma-ble pri-vile-age.”

“Do you think me a safe man to lie to?” said Churm, abruptly.

“I confess that I do not take your meaning, sir,” said Huffmire, in the same soft manner, but stepping back a little.

“Do you think it safe to lie to me?”

“I, sir! lie, sir!” stammered Huffmire. The oiliness seemed to coagulate in his muddy skin, and with his alarm his complexion took the texture and color of soggy leather.

“Yes; the lady is here. I wish to see her.”

As Churm was silent, looking sternly at the pretended doctor, there rose suddenly within the building a strange and horrible cry.

A strange and horrible cry! Two voices mingled in its discord. One was a well-known mocking tone, now smitten with despair; and yet the change that gave it its horror was so slight, that I doubted if the old mockery had not all the while been despair, suppressed and disguised. The other voice, mingling with this, rising with it up into silence that grew stiller as they climbed, and then disentangling itself, overtopping its companion, and beating it slowly down until it had ceased to be,—this other voice was like the exulting cry of one defeated and trampled under foot, who yet has saved a stab for his victor.

They had met—Towner and Densdeth!

We three sprang from the carriage; thrust aside the doctor, and, following our memories of the dead sound for a clew, ran across the court and through a half-open door into the hall of the asylum.

All was still within. The air was thick with the curdling horror that had poured into it. We paused an instant to listen.

A little muffled moan crept feebly forth from a room on the left. It hardly reached us, so faint it was. It crept forth, and seemed to perish at our feet, like a hopeless suppliant. We entered the room. It was a shabby parlor, meanly furnished. The stained old paper on the walls was covered with Arcadian groups of youths and maidens, dancing to the sound of a pipe played by a shepherd, who sat upon a broken column under a palm. On the floor was a tawdry carpet, all beflowered and befruited,—such a meretricious blur of colors as a hotel offers for vulgar feet to tread upon. So much I now perceive that I marked in that mean reception-room. But I did not note it then.

For there, among the tawdry flowers of the carpet, lay Densdeth,—dead, or dying of a deadly wound. The long, keen, antique dagger I had noticed lying peacefully on my table was upon the floor. Its office had found it at last, and the signet of a new blood-stain was stamped upon its blade, among tokens of an old habit of murder, latent for ages.

Beside the wounded man sat Towner. His spasm was over. The freed serf had slain his tyrant. All his life had been crowded into that one moment of frenzy. He sat pale and drooping, and there was a desolate sorrow in his face, as if his hate for his master had been as needful to him as a love.

“I could not help it,” said Towner, in a dreary whisper. “He came to me while I was waiting here. He told Huffmire to send you off, and leave me to him. And then he stood over me and told me, with his old sneer, that I belonged to him, body and soul. He said I must obey him. He said he had work for me now,—just such mean villainy as I was made for. I felt that in another instant I should be his again. I only made one spring at him. How came I by that dagger? I never saw it until I found it in my hand, at his heart. Is he dead? No. I am dying. Shall I be safe from him hereafter? I haven’t had a fair chance in this world. What could a man do better—born in a jail?”

Towner drooped slowly down as he spoke. He ended, and his defeated life passed away from that worn-out body, the comrade of its ignominy.

I raised Densdeth’s head. The strange fascination of his face became doubly subtle, as he seemed still to gaze at me with closed eyelids, like a statue’s. I felt that if those cold feline eyes should open and again turn their inquisition inward upon my soul, devilish passions would quicken there anew. I shuddered to perceive the lurking devil in me, slumbering lightly, and ready to stir whenever he knew a comrade was near.

“Spare me, Densdeth!” I rather thought than spoke; but with the thought an effluence must have passed from me to him.

His eyes opened. The look of treachery and triumph was gone. He murmured something. What we could not hear. But all the mockery of his voice had departed when in that dying scream it avowed itself despair. The tones we caught were sweet and childlike.

With this effort blood gushed again from his murderous wound. He, too, drooped away and died. The soul that had had no other view of brother men than through the eyes of a beast of prey fled away to find its new tenement. His face settled into marble calm and beauty. I parted the black hair from his forehead.

There was the man whom I should have loved if I had not hated, dead at last, with this vulgar death. Only a single stab from another, and my warfare with him was done. I felt a strange sense of indolence overcome me. Was my business in life over, now that I had no longer to struggle with him daily? Had he strengthened me? Had he weakened me? Should I have prevailed against him, or would he have finally mastered me, if this chance, this Providence, of death had not come between us?

I looked up, and found Churm studying the dead man.

“Can it be?” said I, “that a soul perilous to all truth and purity, a merciless tempter, a being who to every other man was the personification of that man’s own worst ideal of himself,—can it be that such an unrestful spirit has dwelt within this quiet form? What was he? For what purpose enters such a disturbing force into the orderly world of God?”

“That is the ancient mystery,” said Churm, solemnly.

“Can it never be solved in this world?”

“It is not yet solved to you? Then you must wait for years of deeper thought, or some moment of more fiery trial.”

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 villainous-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?”

“The same.”

“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.

“Friends, Cecil!”

I took the hand she offered, and kept it.