Edith Wharton.

Tales of Men and Ghosts online

. (page 10 of 22)
Online LibraryEdith WhartonTales of Men and Ghosts → online text (page 10 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Betton had slept later than usual, and, springing out of bed with the
telegram in his hand, he learned from the clock that his secretary was
due in half an hour. He reflected that the morning's mail must long
since be in; and, too impatient to wait for its appearance with his
breakfast-tray, he threw on a dressing-gown and went to the library.
There lay the letters, half a dozen of them: but his eye flew to one
envelope, and as he tore it open a warm wave rocked his heart.

The letter was dated a few days after its writer must have received his
own: it had all the qualities of grace and insight to which his unknown
friend had accustomed him, but it contained no allusion, however
indirect, to the special purport of his appeal. Even a vanity less
ingenious than Betton's might have read in the lady's silence one of
the most familiar motions of consent; but the smile provoked by this
inference faded as he turned to his other letters. For the uppermost
bore the superscription "Dead Letter Office," and the document that fell
from it was his own last letter from Florida.

Betton studied the ironic "Unknown" for an appreciable space of time;
then he broke into a laugh. He had suddenly recalled Vyse's similar
experience with "Hester Macklin," and the light he was able to throw
on that obscure episode was searching enough to penetrate all the
dark corners of his own adventure. He felt a rush of heat to the
ears; catching sight of himself in the glass, he saw a red ridiculous
congested countenance, and dropped into a chair to hide it between
flushed fists. He was roused by the opening of the door, and Vyse
appeared on the threshold.

"Oh, I beg pardon - you're ill?" said the secretary.

Betton's only answer was an inarticulate murmur of derision; then he
pushed forward the letter with the imprint of the Dead Letter Office.

"Look at that," he jeered.

Vyse peered at the envelope, and turned it over slowly in his hands.
Betton's eyes, fixed on him, saw his face decompose like a substance
touched by some powerful acid. He clung to the envelope as if to gain

"It's from the young lady you've been writing to at Swazee Springs?" he
asked at length.

"It's from the young lady I've been writing to at Swazee Springs."

"Well - I suppose she's gone away," continued Vyse, rebuilding his
countenance rapidly.

"Yes; and in a community numbering perhaps a hundred and seventy-five
souls, including the dogs and chickens, the local post-office is so
ignorant of her movements that my letter has to be sent to the Dead
Letter Office."

Vyse meditated on this; then he laughed in turn. "After all, the same
thing happened to me - with 'Hester Macklin,' I mean," he recalled

"Just so," said Betton, bringing down his clenched fist on the table. "_
Just so_," he repeated, in italics.

He caught his secretary's glance, and held it with his own for a moment.
Then he dropped it as, in pity, one releases something scared and

"The very day my letter was returned from Swazee Springs she wrote me
this from there," he said, holding up the last Florida missive.

"Ha! That's funny," said Vyse, with a damp forehead.

"Yes, it's funny; it's funny," said Betton. He leaned back, his hands
in his pockets, staring up at the ceiling, and noticing a crack in the
cornice. Vyse, at the corner of the writing-table, waited.

"Shall I get to work?" he began, after a silence measurable by minutes.
Betton's gaze descended from the cornice.

"I've got your seat, haven't I?" he said, rising and moving away from
the table.

Vyse, with a quick gleam of relief, slipped into the vacant chair, and
began to stir about vaguely among the papers.

"How's your father?" Betton asked from the hearth.

"Oh, better - better, thank you. He'll pull out of it."

"But you had a sharp scare for a day or two?"

"Yes - it was touch and go when I got there."

Another pause, while Vyse began to classify the letters.

"And I suppose," Betton continued in a steady tone, "your anxiety
made you forget your usual precautions - whatever they were - about this
Florida correspondence, and before you'd had time to prevent it the
Swazee post-office blundered?"

Vyse lifted his head with a quick movement. "What do you mean?" he
asked, pushing his chair back.

"I mean that you saw I couldn't live without flattery, and that you've
been ladling it out to me to earn your keep."

Vyse sat motionless and shrunken, digging the blotting-pad with his pen.
"What on earth are you driving at?" he repeated.

"Though why the deuce," Betton continued in the same steady tone, "you
should need to do this kind of work when you've got such faculties at
your service - those letters were magnificent, my dear fellow! Why in the
world don't you write novels, instead of writing to other people about

Vyse straightened himself with an effort. "What are you talking about,
Betton? Why the devil do you think _I_ wrote those letters?"

Betton held back his answer, with a brooding face. "Because I wrote
'Hester Macklin's' - to myself!"

Vyse sat stock-still, without the least outcry of wonder. "Well - ?" he
finally said, in a low tone.

"And because you found me out (you see, you can't even feign
surprise!) - because you saw through it at a glance, knew at once that
the letters were faked. And when you'd foolishly put me on my guard
by pointing out to me that they were a clumsy forgery, and had then
suddenly guessed that _I_ was the forger, you drew the natural inference
that I had to have popular approval, or at least had to make _you_ think
I had it. You saw that, to me, the worst thing about the failure of the
book was having _you_ know it was a failure. And so you applied your
superior - your immeasurably superior - abilities to carrying on the
humbug, and deceiving me as I'd tried to deceive you. And you did it
so successfully that I don't see why the devil you haven't made your
fortune writing novels!"

Vyse remained silent, his head slightly bent under the mounting tide of
Betton's denunciation.

"The way you differentiated your people - characterised them - avoided my
stupid mistake of making the women's letters too short and logical, of
letting my different correspondents use the same expressions: the amount
of ingenuity and art you wasted on it! I swear, Vyse, I'm sorry that
damned post-office went back on you," Betton went on, piling up the
waves of his irony.

But at this height they suddenly paused, drew back on themselves, and
began to recede before the spectacle of Vyse's pale distress. Something
warm and emotional in Betton's nature - a lurking kindliness, perhaps,
for any one who tried to soothe and smooth his writhing ego - softened
his eye as it rested on the drooping figure of his secretary.

"Look here, Vyse - I'm not sorry - not altogether sorry this has
happened!" He moved slowly across the room, and laid a friendly palm
on Vyse's shoulder. "In a queer illogical way it evens up things, as
it were. I did you a shabby turn once, years ago - oh, out of sheer
carelessness, of course - about that novel of yours I promised to give to
Apthorn. If I _had_ given it, it might not have made any difference - I'm
not sure it wasn't too good for success - but anyhow, I dare say you
thought my personal influence might have helped you, might at least have
got you a quicker hearing. Perhaps you thought it was because the thing
_was_ so good that I kept it back, that I felt some nasty jealousy of
your superiority. I swear to you it wasn't that - I clean forgot it. And
one day when I came home it was gone: you'd sent and taken it. And I've
always thought since you might have owed me a grudge - and not unjustly;
so this ... this business of the letters ... the sympathy you've shown
... for I suppose it _is_ sympathy ... ?"

Vyse startled and checked him by a queer crackling laugh.

"It's _not_ sympathy?" broke in Betton, the moisture drying out of his
voice. He withdrew his hand from Vyse's shoulder. "What is it, then? The
joy of uncovering my nakedness? An eye for an eye? Is it _that?_"

Vyse rose from his seat, and with a mechanical gesture swept into a heap
all the letters he had sorted.

"I'm stone broke, and wanted to keep my job - that's what it is," he said
wearily ...



ARTHUR BERNALD could never afterward recall just when the first
conjecture flashed on him: oddly enough, there was no record of it
in the agitated jottings of his diary. But, as it seemed to him in
retrospect, he had always felt that the queer man at the Wades' must
be John Pellerin, if only for the negative reason that he couldn't
imaginably be any one else. It was impossible, in the confused pattern
of the century's intellectual life, to fit the stranger in anywhere,
save in the big gap which, some five and twenty years earlier, had been
left by Pellerin's unaccountable disappearance; and conversely, such a
man as the Wades' visitor couldn't have lived for sixty years without
filling, somewhere in space, a nearly equivalent void.

At all events, it was certainly not to Doctor Wade or to his mother that
Bernald owed the hint: the good unconscious Wades, one of whose chief
charms in the young man's eyes was that they remained so robustly
untainted by Pellerinism, in spite of the fact that Doctor Wade's
younger brother, Howland, was among its most impudently flourishing

The incident had begun by Bernald's running across Doctor Robert Wade
one hot summer night at the University Club, and by Wade's saying, in
the tone of unprofessional laxity which the shadowy stillness of the
place invited: "I got hold of a queer fish at St. Martin's the other
day - case of heat-prostration picked up in Central Park. When we'd
patched him up I found he had nowhere to go, and not a dollar in his
pocket, and I sent him down to our place at Portchester to re-build."

The opening roused his hearer's attention. Bob Wade had an odd
unformulated sense of values that Bernald had learned to trust.

"What sort of chap? Young or old?"

"Oh, every age - full of years, and yet with a lot left. He called
himself sixty on the books."

"Sixty's a good age for some kinds of living. And age is of course
purely subjective. How has he used his sixty years?"

"Well - part of them in educating himself, apparently. He's a
scholar - humanities, languages, and so forth."

"Oh - decayed gentleman," Bernald murmured, disappointed.

"Decayed? Not much!" cried the doctor with his accustomed literalness.
"I only mentioned that side of Winterman - his name's Winterman - because
it was the side my mother noticed first. I suppose women generally do.
But it's only a part - a small part. The man's the big thing."

"Really big?"

"Well - there again. ... When I took him down to the country, looking
rather like a tramp from a 'Shelter,' with an untrimmed beard, and a
suit of reach-me-downs he'd slept round the Park in for a week, I felt
sure my mother'd carry the silver up to her room, and send for the
gardener's dog to sleep in the hall the first night. But she didn't."

"I see. 'Women and children love him.' Oh, Wade!" Bernald groaned.

"Not a bit of it! You're out again. We don't love him, either of us. But
we _feel_ him - the air's charged with him. You'll see."

And Bernald agreed that he _would_ see, the following Sunday. Wade's
inarticulate attempts to characterize the stranger had struck his
friend. The human revelation had for Bernald a poignant and ever-renewed
interest, which his trade, as the dramatic critic of a daily paper, had
hitherto failed to discourage. And he knew that Bob Wade, simple and
undefiled by literature - Bernald's specific affliction - had a free and
personal way of judging men, and the diviner's knack of reaching their
hidden springs. During the days that followed, the young doctor gave
Bernald farther details about John Winterman: details not of fact - for
in that respect his visitor's reticence was baffling - but of impression.
It appeared that Winterman, while lying insensible in the Park, had been
robbed of the few dollars he possessed; and on leaving the hospital,
still weak and half-blind, he had quite simply and unprotestingly
accepted the Wades' offer to give him shelter till such time as he
should be strong enough to go to work.

"But what's his work?" Bernald interjected. "Hasn't he at least told you

"Well, writing. Some kind of writing." Doctor Bob always became vague
and clumsy when he approached the confines of literature. "He means to
take it up again as soon as his eyes get right."

Bernald groaned. "Oh, Lord - that finishes him; and _me!_ He's looking
for a publisher, of course - he wants a 'favourable notice.' I won't

"He hasn't written a line for twenty years."

"A line of _what?_ What kind of literature can one keep corked up for
twenty years?"

Wade surprised him. "The real kind, I should say. But I don't know
Winterman's line," the doctor added. "He speaks of the things he used
to write merely as 'stuff that wouldn't sell.' He has a wonderfully
confidential way of _not_ telling one things. But he says he'll have to
do something for his living as soon as his eyes are patched up, and that
writing is the only trade he knows. The queer thing is that he seems
pretty sure of selling _now_. He even talked of buying the bungalow of
us, with an acre or two about it."

"The bungalow? What's that?"

"The studio down by the shore that we built for Howland when he thought
he meant to paint." (Howland Wade, as Bernald knew, had experienced
various "calls.") "Since he's taken to writing nobody's been near it. I
offered it to Winterman, and he camps there - cooks his meals, does
his own house-keeping, and never comes up to the house except in the
evenings, when he joins us on the verandah, in the dark, and smokes
while my mother knits."

"A discreet visitor, eh?"

"More than he need be. My mother actually wanted him to stay on in the
house - in her pink chintz room. Think of it! But he says houses smother
him. I take it he's lived for years in the open."

"In the open where?"

"I can't make out, except that it was somewhere in the East. 'East of
everything - beyond the day-spring. In places not on the map.' That's
the way he put it; and when I said: 'You've been an explorer, then?' he
smiled in his beard, and answered: 'Yes; that's it - an explorer.' Yet he
doesn't strike me as a man of action: hasn't the hands or the eyes."

"What sort of hands and eyes has he?"

Wade reflected. His range of observation was not large, but within its
limits it was exact and could give an account of itself.

"He's worked a lot with his hands, but that's not what they were made
for. I should say they were extraordinarily delicate conductors of
sensation. And his eye - his eye too. He hasn't used it to dominate
people: he didn't care to. He simply looks through 'em all like windows.
Makes me feel like the fellows who think they're made of glass.
The mitigating circumstance is that he seems to see such a glorious
landscape through me." Wade grinned at the thought of serving such a

"I see. I'll come on Sunday and be looked through!" Bernald cried.


BERNALD came on two successive Sundays; and the second time he lingered
till the Tuesday.

"Here he comes!" Wade had said, the first evening, as the two young men,
with Wade's mother sat in the sultry dusk, with the Virginian creeper
drawing, between the verandah arches, its black arabesques against a
moon-lined sky.

In the darkness Bernald heard a step on the gravel, and saw the red flit
of a cigar through the shrubs. Then a loosely-moving figure obscured the
patch of sky between the creepers, and the red spark became the centre
of a dim bearded face, in which Bernald discerned only a broad white
gleam of forehead.

It was the young man's subsequent impression that Winterman had not
spoken much that first evening; at any rate, Bernald himself remembered
chiefly what the Wades had said. And this was the more curious because
he had come for the purpose of studying their visitor, and because
there was nothing to divert him from that purpose in Wade's halting
communications or his mother's artless comments. He reflected afterward
that there must have been a mysteriously fertilizing quality in the
stranger's silence: it had brooded over their talk like a large moist
cloud above a dry country.

Mrs. Wade, apparently apprehensive lest her son should have given
Bernald an exaggerated notion of their visitor's importance, had
hastened to qualify it before the latter appeared.

"He's not what you or Howland would call intellectual - "(Bernald writhed
at the coupling of the names) - "not in the least _literary;_ though he
told Bob he used to write. I don't think, though, it could have been
what Howland would call writing." Mrs. Wade always mentioned her younger
son with a reverential drop of the voice. She viewed literature much as
she did Providence, as an inscrutably mystery; and she spoke of Howland
as a dedicated being, set apart to perform secret rites within the veil
of the sanctuary.

"I shouldn't say he had a quick mind," she continued, reverting
apologetically to Winterman. "Sometimes he hardly seems to follow what
we're saying. But he's got such sound ideas - when he does speak he's
never silly. And clever people sometimes _are_, don't you think so?"
Bernald groaned an unqualified assent. "And he's so capable. The other
day something went wrong with the kitchen range, just as I was expecting
some friends of Bob's for dinner; and do you know, when Mr. Winterman
heard we were in trouble, he came and took a look, and knew at once what
to do? I told him it was a dreadful pity he wasn't married!"

Close on midnight, when the session on the verandah ended, and the
two young men were strolling down to the bungalow at Winterman's side,
Bernald's mind reverted to the image of the fertilizing cloud. There was
something brooding, pregnant, in the silent presence beside him: he had,
in place of any circumscribing impression of the individual, a large
hovering sense of manifold latent meanings. And he felt a distinct
thrill of relief when, half-way down the lawn, Doctor Bob was checked by
a voice that called him back to the telephone.

"Now I'll be with him alone!" thought Bernald, with a throb like a

In the low-ceilinged bungalow Winterman had to grope for the lamp on his
desk, and as its light struck up into his face Bernald's sense of the
rareness of his opportunity increased. He couldn't have said why, for
the face, with its ridged brows, its shabby greyish beard and blunt
Socratic nose, made no direct appeal to the eye. It seemed rather like
a stage on which remarkable things might be enacted, like some shaggy
moorland landscape dependent for form and expression on the clouds
rolling over it, and the bursts of light between; and one of these
flashed out in the smile with which Winterman, as if in answer to his
companion's thought, said simply, as he turned to fill his pipe: "Now
we'll talk."

So he'd known all along that they hadn't yet - and had guessed that, with
Bernald, one might!

The young man's glow of pleasure was so intense that it left him for
a moment unable to meet the challenge; and in that moment he felt the
brush of something winged and summoning. His spirit rose to it with a
rush; but just as he felt himself poised between the ascending pinions,
the door opened and Bob Wade plunged in.

"Too bad! I'm so sorry! It was from Howland, to say he can't come
to-morrow after all." The doctor panted out his news with honest grief.

"I tried my best to pull it off for you; and my brother _wants_ to
come - he's keen to talk to you and see what he can do. But you see he's
so tremendously in demand. He'll try for another Sunday later on."

Winterman nodded with a whimsical gesture. "Oh, he'll find me here. I
shall work my time out slowly." He pointed to the scattered sheets on
the kitchen table which formed his writing desk.

"Not slowly enough to suit us," Wade answered hospitably. "Only, if
Howland could have come he might have given you a tip or two - put you on
the right track - shown you how to get in touch with the public."

Winterman, his hands in his sagging pockets, lounged against the bare
pine walls, twisting his pipe under his beard. "Does your brother enjoy
the privilege of that contact?" he questioned gravely.

Wade stared a little. "Oh, of course Howland's not what you'd call a
_popular_ writer; he despises that kind of thing. But whatever he says
goes with - well, with the chaps that count; and every one tells me he's
written _the_ book on Pellerin. You must read it when you get back your
eyes." He paused, as if to let the name sink in, but Winterman drew
at his pipe with a blank face. "You must have heard of Pellerin, I
suppose?" the doctor continued. "I've never read a word of him myself:
he's too big a proposition for _me_. But one can't escape the talk about
him. I have him crammed down my throat even in hospital. The internes
read him at the clinics. He tumbles out of the nurses' pockets. The
patients keep him under their pillows. Oh, with most of them, of
course, it's just a craze, like the last new game or puzzle: they don't
understand him in the least. Howland says that even now, twenty-five
years after his death, and with his books in everybody's hands, there
are not twenty people who really understand Pellerin; and Howland ought
to know, if anybody does. He's - what's their great word? - _interpreted_
him. You must get Howland to put you through a course of Pellerin."

And as the young men, having taken leave of Winterman, retraced
their way across the lawn, Wade continued to develop the theme of his
brother's accomplishments.

"I wish I _could_ get Howland to take an interest in Winterman: this
is the third Sunday he's chucked us. Of course he does get bored with
people consulting him about their writings - but I believe if he could
only talk to Winterman he'd see something in him, as we do. And it would
be such a god-send to the poor man to have some one to advise him about
his work. I'm going to make a desperate effort to get Howland here next

It was then that Bernald vowed to himself that he would return the
next Sunday at all costs. He hardly knew whether he was prompted by the
impulse to shield Winterman from Howland Wade's ineptitude, or by the
desire to see the latter abandon himself to the full shamelessness of
its display; but of one fact he was blissfully assured - and that was of
the existence in Winterman of some quality which would provoke Howland
to the amplest exercise of his fatuity. "How he'll draw him - how he'll
draw him!" Bernald chuckled, with a security the more unaccountable
that his one glimpse of Winterman had shown the latter only as a passive
subject for experimentation; and he felt himself avenged in advance for
the injury of Howland Wade's existence.


THAT this hope was to be frustrated Bernald learned from Howland Wade's
own lips, the day before the two young men were to meet at Portchester.

"I can't really, my dear fellow," the Interpreter lisped, passing a
polished hand over the faded smoothness of his face. "Oh, an authentic
engagement, I assure you: otherwise, to oblige old Bob I'd submit
cheerfully to looking over his foundling's literature. But I'm pledged
this week to the Pellerin Society of Kenosha: I had a hand in founding
it, and for two years now they've been patiently waiting for a word from
me - the _Fiat Lux_, so to speak. You see it's a ministry, Bernald - I
assure you, I look upon my calling quite religiously."

As Bernald listened, his disappointment gradually changed to relief.
Howland, on trial, always turned out to be too insufferable, and the
pleasure of watching his antics was invariably lost in the impulse to
put a sanguinary end to them.

"If he'd only keep his beastly pink hands off Pellerin," Bernald
groaned, thinking of the thick manuscript condemned to perpetual
incarceration in his own desk by the publication of Howland's
"definitive" work on the great man. One couldn't, _after _Howland
Wade, expose one's self to the derision of writing about Pellerin: the
eagerness with which Wade's book had been devoured proved, not that the
public had enough appetite for another, but simply that, for a stomach
so undiscriminating, anything better than Wade had given it would be too
good. And Bernald, in the confidence that his own work was open to
this objection, had stoically locked it up. Yet if he had resigned his
exasperated intelligence to the fact that Wade's book existed, and was

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 10 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryEdith WhartonTales of Men and Ghosts → online text (page 10 of 22)