Edith Wharton.

Tales of Men and Ghosts online

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Produced by Charles Aldarondo


By Edith Wharton




I _The Bolted Door_
II _His Father's Son_
III _The Daunt Diana_
IV _The Debt_
V _Full Circle_
VI _The Legend_
VII _The Eyes_
VIII _The Blond Beast_
IX _Afterward_
X _The Letters_



HUBERT GRANICE, pacing the length of his pleasant lamp-lit library,
paused to compare his watch with the clock on the chimney-piece.

Three minutes to eight.

In exactly three minutes Mr. Peter Ascham, of the eminent legal firm of
Ascham and Pettilow, would have his punctual hand on the door-bell of
the flat. It was a comfort to reflect that Ascham was so punctual - the
suspense was beginning to make his host nervous. And the sound of the
door-bell would be the beginning of the end - after that there'd be no
going back, by God - no going back!

Granice resumed his pacing. Each time he reached the end of the room
opposite the door he caught his reflection in the Florentine mirror
above the fine old walnut _credence_ he had picked up at Dijon - saw
himself spare, quick-moving, carefully brushed and dressed, but
furrowed, gray about the temples, with a stoop which he corrected by
a spasmodic straightening of the shoulders whenever a glass confronted
him: a tired middle-aged man, baffled, beaten, worn out.

As he summed himself up thus for the third or fourth time the door
opened and he turned with a thrill of relief to greet his guest. But it
was only the man-servant who entered, advancing silently over the mossy
surface of the old Turkey rug.

"Mr. Ascham telephones, sir, to say he's unexpectedly detained and can't
be here till eight-thirty."

Granice made a curt gesture of annoyance. It was becoming harder and
harder for him to control these reflexes. He turned on his heel, tossing
to the servant over his shoulder: "Very good. Put off dinner."

Down his spine he felt the man's injured stare. Mr. Granice had always
been so mild-spoken to his people - no doubt the odd change in his manner
had already been noticed and discussed below stairs. And very likely
they suspected the cause. He stood drumming on the writing-table till he
heard the servant go out; then he threw himself into a chair, propping
his elbows on the table and resting his chin on his locked hands.

Another half hour alone with it!

He wondered irritably what could have detained his guest. Some
professional matter, no doubt - the punctilious lawyer would have allowed
nothing less to interfere with a dinner engagement, more especially
since Granice, in his note, had said: "I shall want a little business
chat afterward."

But what professional matter could have come up at that unprofessional
hour? Perhaps some other soul in misery had called on the lawyer; and,
after all, Granice's note had given no hint of his own need! No doubt
Ascham thought he merely wanted to make another change in his will.
Since he had come into his little property, ten years earlier, Granice
had been perpetually tinkering with his will.

Suddenly another thought pulled him up, sending a flush to his sallow
temples. He remembered a word he had tossed to the lawyer some six weeks
earlier, at the Century Club. "Yes - my play's as good as taken. I shall
be calling on you soon to go over the contract. Those theatrical chaps
are so slippery - I won't trust anybody but you to tie the knot for me!"
That, of course, was what Ascham would think he was wanted for. Granice,
at the idea, broke into an audible laugh - a queer stage-laugh, like
the cackle of a baffled villain in a melodrama. The absurdity, the
unnaturalness of the sound abashed him, and he compressed his lips
angrily. Would he take to soliloquy next?

He lowered his arms and pulled open the upper drawer of the
writing-table. In the right-hand corner lay a thick manuscript, bound
in paper folders, and tied with a string beneath which a letter had been
slipped. Next to the manuscript was a small revolver. Granice stared a
moment at these oddly associated objects; then he took the letter from
under the string and slowly began to open it. He had known he should do
so from the moment his hand touched the drawer. Whenever his eye fell on
that letter some relentless force compelled him to re-read it.

It was dated about four weeks back, under the letter-head of

"The Diversity Theatre."


"I have given the matter my best consideration for the last month,
and it's no use - the play won't do. I have talked it over with Miss
Melrose - and you know there isn't a gamer artist on our stage - and I
regret to tell you she feels just as I do about it. It isn't the poetry
that scares her - or me either. We both want to do all we can to help
along the poetic drama - we believe the public's ready for it, and we're
willing to take a big financial risk in order to be the first to give
them what they want. _But we don't believe they could be made to
want this._ The fact is, there isn't enough drama in your play to the
allowance of poetry - the thing drags all through. You've got a big idea,
but it's not out of swaddling clothes.

"If this was your first play I'd say: _Try again_. But it has been
just the same with all the others you've shown me. And you remember
the result of 'The Lee Shore,' where you carried all the expenses of
production yourself, and we couldn't fill the theatre for a week. Yet
'The Lee Shore' was a modern problem play - much easier to swing than
blank verse. It isn't as if you hadn't tried all kinds - "

Granice folded the letter and put it carefully back into the envelope.
Why on earth was he re-reading it, when he knew every phrase in it by
heart, when for a month past he had seen it, night after night, stand
out in letters of flame against the darkness of his sleepless lids?

"_It has been just the same with all the others you've shown me._"

That was the way they dismissed ten years of passionate unremitting

"_You remember the result of 'The Lee Shore.'_"

Good God - as if he were likely to forget it! He re-lived it all now in a
drowning flash: the persistent rejection of the play, his sudden resolve
to put it on at his own cost, to spend ten thousand dollars of his
inheritance on testing his chance of success - the fever of preparation,
the dry-mouthed agony of the "first night," the flat fall, the stupid
press, his secret rush to Europe to escape the condolence of his

"_It isn't as if you hadn't tried all kinds._"

No - he had tried all kinds: comedy, tragedy, prose and verse, the light
curtain-raiser, the short sharp drama, the bourgeois-realistic and the
lyrical-romantic - finally deciding that he would no longer "prostitute
his talent" to win popularity, but would impose on the public his own
theory of art in the form of five acts of blank verse. Yes, he had
offered them everything - and always with the same result.

Ten years of it - ten years of dogged work and unrelieved failure. The
ten years from forty to fifty - the best ten years of his life! And if
one counted the years before, the silent years of dreams, assimilation,
preparation - then call it half a man's life-time: half a man's life-time
thrown away!

And what was he to do with the remaining half? Well, he had settled
that, thank God! He turned and glanced anxiously at the clock. Ten
minutes past eight - only ten minutes had been consumed in that stormy
rush through his whole past! And he must wait another twenty minutes for
Ascham. It was one of the worst symptoms of his case that, in proportion
as he had grown to shrink from human company, he dreaded more and more
to be alone. ... But why the devil was he waiting for Ascham? Why didn't
he cut the knot himself? Since he was so unutterably sick of the whole
business, why did he have to call in an outsider to rid him of this
nightmare of living?

He opened the drawer again and laid his hand on the revolver. It was a
small slim ivory toy - just the instrument for a tired sufferer to give
himself a "hypodermic" with. Granice raised it slowly in one hand, while
with the other he felt under the thin hair at the back of his head,
between the ear and the nape. He knew just where to place the muzzle: he
had once got a young surgeon to show him. And as he found the spot, and
lifted the revolver to it, the inevitable phenomenon occurred. The hand
that held the weapon began to shake, the tremor communicated itself
to his arm, his heart gave a wild leap which sent up a wave of deadly
nausea to his throat, he smelt the powder, he sickened at the crash of
the bullet through his skull, and a sweat of fear broke out over his
forehead and ran down his quivering face...

He laid away the revolver with an oath and, pulling out a
cologne-scented handkerchief, passed it tremulously over his brow and
temples. It was no use - he knew he could never do it in that way. His
attempts at self-destruction were as futile as his snatches at fame! He
couldn't make himself a real life, and he couldn't get rid of the life
he had. And that was why he had sent for Ascham to help him...

The lawyer, over the Camembert and Burgundy, began to excuse himself for
his delay.

"I didn't like to say anything while your man was about - but the fact
is, I was sent for on a rather unusual matter - "

"Oh, it's all right," said Granice cheerfully. He was beginning to
feel the usual reaction that food and company produced. It was not any
recovered pleasure in life that he felt, but only a deeper withdrawal
into himself. It was easier to go on automatically with the social
gestures than to uncover to any human eye the abyss within him.

"My dear fellow, it's sacrilege to keep a dinner waiting - especially
the production of an artist like yours." Mr. Ascham sipped his Burgundy
luxuriously. "But the fact is, Mrs. Ashgrove sent for me."

Granice raised his head with a quick movement of surprise. For a moment
he was shaken out of his self-absorption.

"_Mrs. Ashgrove?_"

Ascham smiled. "I thought you'd be interested; I know your passion for
_causes celebres_. And this promises to be one. Of course it's out of
our line entirely - we never touch criminal cases. But she wanted to
consult me as a friend. Ashgrove was a distant connection of my wife's.
And, by Jove, it _is_ a queer case!" The servant re-entered, and Ascham
snapped his lips shut.

Would the gentlemen have their coffee in the dining-room?

"No - serve it in the library," said Granice, rising. He led the way back
to the curtained confidential room. He was really curious to hear what
Ascham had to tell him.

While the coffee and cigars were being served he fidgeted about the
library, glancing at his letters - the usual meaningless notes and
bills - and picking up the evening paper. As he unfolded it a headline
caught his eye.



He read on with a thumping heart - found the name of a young author he
had barely heard of, saw the title of a play, a "poetic drama," dance
before his eyes, and dropped the paper, sick, disgusted. It was true,
then - she _was_ "game" - it was not the manner but the matter she

Granice turned to the servant, who seemed to be purposely lingering. "I
shan't need you this evening, Flint. I'll lock up myself."

He fancied the man's acquiescence implied surprise. What was going on,
Flint seemed to wonder, that Mr. Granice should want him out of the
way? Probably he would find a pretext for coming back to see. Granice
suddenly felt himself enveloped in a network of espionage.

As the door closed he threw himself into an armchair and leaned forward
to take a light from Ascham's cigar.

"Tell me about Mrs. Ashgrove," he said, seeming to himself to speak
stiffly, as if his lips were cracked.

"Mrs. Ashgrove? Well, there's not much to _tell_."

"And you couldn't if there were?" Granice smiled.

"Probably not. As a matter of fact, she wanted my advice about her
choice of counsel. There was nothing especially confidential in our

"And what's your impression, now you've seen her?"

"My impression is, very distinctly, _that nothing will ever be known._"

"Ah - ?" Granice murmured, puffing at his cigar.

"I'm more and more convinced that whoever poisoned Ashgrove knew his
business, and will consequently never be found out. That's a capital
cigar you've given me."

"You like it? I get them over from Cuba." Granice examined his own
reflectively. "Then you believe in the theory that the clever criminals
never _are_ caught?"

"Of course I do. Look about you - look back for the last dozen
years - none of the big murder problems are ever solved." The lawyer
ruminated behind his blue cloud. "Why, take the instance in your own
family: I'd forgotten I had an illustration at hand! Take old Joseph
Lenman's murder - do you suppose that will ever be explained?"

As the words dropped from Ascham's lips his host looked slowly about
the library, and every object in it stared back at him with a stale
unescapable familiarity. How sick he was of looking at that room! It was
as dull as the face of a wife one has wearied of. He cleared his throat
slowly; then he turned his head to the lawyer and said: "I could explain
the Lenman murder myself."

Ascham's eye kindled: he shared Granice's interest in criminal cases.

"By Jove! You've had a theory all this time? It's odd you never
mentioned it. Go ahead and tell me. There are certain features in the
Lenman case not unlike this Ashgrove affair, and your idea may be a

Granice paused and his eye reverted instinctively to the table drawer in
which the revolver and the manuscript lay side by side. What if he were
to try another appeal to Rose Melrose? Then he looked at the notes
and bills on the table, and the horror of taking up again the lifeless
routine of life - of performing the same automatic gestures another
day - displaced his fleeting vision.

"I haven't a theory. I _know_ who murdered Joseph Lenman."

Ascham settled himself comfortably in his chair, prepared for enjoyment.

"You _know?_ Well, who did?" he laughed.

"I did," said Granice, rising.

He stood before Ascham, and the lawyer lay back staring up at him. Then
he broke into another laugh.

"Why, this is glorious! You murdered him, did you? To inherit his money,
I suppose? Better and better! Go on, my boy! Unbosom yourself! Tell me
all about it! Confession is good for the soul."

Granice waited till the lawyer had shaken the last peal of laughter from
his throat; then he repeated doggedly: "I murdered him."

The two men looked at each other for a long moment, and this time Ascham
did not laugh.


"I murdered him - to get his money, as you say."

There was another pause, and Granice, with a vague underlying sense of
amusement, saw his guest's look change from pleasantry to apprehension.

"What's the joke, my dear fellow? I fail to see."

"It's not a joke. It's the truth. I murdered him." He had spoken
painfully at first, as if there were a knot in his throat; but each time
he repeated the words he found they were easier to say.

Ascham laid down his extinct cigar.

"What's the matter? Aren't you well? What on earth are you driving at?"

"I'm perfectly well. But I murdered my cousin, Joseph Lenman, and I want
it known that I murdered him."

"_You want it known?_"

"Yes. That's why I sent for you. I'm sick of living, and when I try to
kill myself I funk it." He spoke quite naturally now, as if the knot in
his throat had been untied.

"Good Lord - good Lord," the lawyer gasped.

"But I suppose," Granice continued, "there's no doubt this would be
murder in the first degree? I'm sure of the chair if I own up?"

Ascham drew a long breath; then he said slowly: "Sit down, Granice.
Let's talk."


GRANICE told his story simply, connectedly.

He began by a quick survey of his early years - the years of drudgery and
privation. His father, a charming man who could never say "no," had so
signally failed to say it on certain essential occasions that when he
died he left an illegitimate family and a mortgaged estate. His lawful
kin found themselves hanging over a gulf of debt, and young Granice, to
support his mother and sister, had to leave Harvard and bury himself at
eighteen in a broker's office. He loathed his work, and he was always
poor, always worried and in ill-health. A few years later his mother
died, but his sister, an ineffectual neurasthenic, remained on his
hands. His own health gave out, and he had to go away for six months,
and work harder than ever when he came back. He had no knack for
business, no head for figures, no dimmest insight into the mysteries of
commerce. He wanted to travel and write - those were his inmost longings.
And as the years dragged on, and he neared middle-age without making
any more money, or acquiring any firmer health, a sick despair possessed
him. He tried writing, but he always came home from the office so tired
that his brain could not work. For half the year he did not reach his
dim up-town flat till after dark, and could only "brush up" for dinner,
and afterward lie on the lounge with his pipe, while his sister droned
through the evening paper. Sometimes he spent an evening at the theatre;
or he dined out, or, more rarely, strayed off with an acquaintance or
two in quest of what is known as "pleasure." And in summer, when he
and Kate went to the sea-side for a month, he dozed through the days in
utter weariness. Once he fell in love with a charming girl - but what had
he to offer her, in God's name? She seemed to like him, and in common
decency he had to drop out of the running. Apparently no one
replaced him, for she never married, but grew stoutish, grayish,
philanthropic - yet how sweet she had been when he had first kissed her!
One more wasted life, he reflected...

But the stage had always been his master-passion. He would have sold his
soul for the time and freedom to write plays! It was _in him_ - he could
not remember when it had not been his deepest-seated instinct. As the
years passed it became a morbid, a relentless obsession - yet with every
year the material conditions were more and more against it. He felt
himself growing middle-aged, and he watched the reflection of the
process in his sister's wasted face. At eighteen she had been
pretty, and as full of enthusiasm as he. Now she was sour, trivial,
insignificant - she had missed her chance of life. And she had no
resources, poor creature, was fashioned simply for the primitive
functions she had been denied the chance to fulfil! It exasperated him
to think of it - and to reflect that even now a little travel, a
little health, a little money, might transform her, make her young and
desirable... The chief fruit of his experience was that there is no such
fixed state as age or youth - there is only health as against sickness,
wealth as against poverty; and age or youth as the outcome of the lot
one draws.

At this point in his narrative Granice stood up, and went to lean
against the mantel-piece, looking down at Ascham, who had not moved from
his seat, or changed his attitude of rigid fascinated attention.

"Then came the summer when we went to Wrenfield to be near old
Lenman - my mother's cousin, as you know. Some of the family always
mounted guard over him - generally a niece or so. But that year they were
all scattered, and one of the nieces offered to lend us her cottage if
we'd relieve her of duty for two months. It was a nuisance for me, of
course, for Wrenfield is two hours from town; but my mother, who was a
slave to family observances, had always been good to the old man, so it
was natural we should be called on - and there was the saving of rent and
the good air for Kate. So we went.

"You never knew Joseph Lenman? Well, picture to yourself an amoeba or
some primitive organism of that sort, under a Titan's microscope. He was
large, undifferentiated, inert - since I could remember him he had done
nothing but take his temperature and read the _Churchman_. Oh,
and cultivate melons - that was his hobby. Not vulgar, out-of-door
melons - his were grown under glass. He had miles of it at Wrenfield - his
big kitchen-garden was surrounded by blinking battalions of
green-houses. And in nearly all of them melons were grown - early melons
and late, French, English, domestic - dwarf melons and monsters: every
shape, colour and variety. They were petted and nursed like children - a
staff of trained attendants waited on them. I'm not sure they didn't
have a doctor to take their temperature - at any rate the place was full
of thermometers. And they didn't sprawl on the ground like ordinary
melons; they were trained against the glass like nectarines, and each
melon hung in a net which sustained its weight and left it free on all
sides to the sun and air...

"It used to strike me sometimes that old Lenman was just like one of
his own melons - the pale-fleshed English kind. His life, apathetic
and motionless, hung in a net of gold, in an equable warm ventilated
atmosphere, high above sordid earthly worries. The cardinal rule of
his existence was not to let himself be 'worried.' . . I remember his
advising me to try it myself, one day when I spoke to him about Kate's
bad health, and her need of a change. 'I never let myself worry,' he
said complacently. 'It's the worst thing for the liver - and you look to
me as if you had a liver. Take my advice and be cheerful. You'll make
yourself happier and others too.' And all he had to do was to write a
cheque, and send the poor girl off for a holiday!

"The hardest part of it was that the money half-belonged to us already.
The old skin-flint only had it for life, in trust for us and the others.
But his life was a good deal sounder than mine or Kate's - and one could
picture him taking extra care of it for the joke of keeping us waiting.
I always felt that the sight of our hungry eyes was a tonic to him.

"Well, I tried to see if I couldn't reach him through his vanity. I
flattered him, feigned a passionate interest in his melons. And he was
taken in, and used to discourse on them by the hour. On fine days he was
driven to the green-houses in his pony-chair, and waddled through them,
prodding and leering at the fruit, like a fat Turk in his seraglio.
When he bragged to me of the expense of growing them I was reminded of
a hideous old Lothario bragging of what his pleasures cost. And the
resemblance was completed by the fact that he couldn't eat as much as
a mouthful of his melons - had lived for years on buttermilk and toast.
'But, after all, it's my only hobby - why shouldn't I indulge it?' he
said sentimentally. As if I'd ever been able to indulge any of mine! On
the keep of those melons Kate and I could have lived like gods...

"One day toward the end of the summer, when Kate was too unwell to drag
herself up to the big house, she asked me to go and spend the afternoon
with cousin Joseph. It was a lovely soft September afternoon - a day to
lie under a Roman stone-pine, with one's eyes on the sky, and let the
cosmic harmonies rush through one. Perhaps the vision was suggested
by the fact that, as I entered cousin Joseph's hideous black walnut
library, I passed one of the under-gardeners, a handsome full-throated
Italian, who dashed out in such a hurry that he nearly knocked me down.
I remember thinking it queer that the fellow, whom I had often seen
about the melon-houses, did not bow to me, or even seem to see me.

"Cousin Joseph sat in his usual seat, behind the darkened windows, his
fat hands folded on his protuberant waistcoat, the last number of the
_Churchman_ at his elbow, and near it, on a huge dish, a fat melon - the
fattest melon I'd ever seen. As I looked at it I pictured the ecstasy
of contemplation from which I must have roused him, and congratulated
myself on finding him in such a mood, since I had made up my mind to ask
him a favour. Then I noticed that his face, instead of looking as calm
as an egg-shell, was distorted and whimpering - and without stopping to
greet me he pointed passionately to the melon.

"'Look at it, look at it - did you ever see such a beauty? Such
firmness - roundness - such delicious smoothness to the touch?' It was
as if he had said 'she' instead of 'it,' and when he put out his senile
hand and touched the melon I positively had to look the other way.

"Then he told me what had happened. The Italian under-gardener, who had
been specially recommended for the melon-houses - though it was against

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Online LibraryEdith WhartonTales of Men and Ghosts → online text (page 1 of 22)