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already passing into the immortality of perpetual republication, he
could not, after repeated trials, adjust himself to the author's talk
about Pellerin. When Wade wrote of the great dead he was egregious, but
in conversation he was familiar and fond. It might have been supposed
that one of the beauties of Pellerin's hidden life and mysterious taking
off would have been to guard him from the fingering of anecdote; but
biographers like Howland Wade were born to rise above such obstacles. He
might be vague or inaccurate in dealing with the few recorded events of
his subject's life; but when he left fact for conjecture no one had a
firmer footing. Whole chapters in his volume were constructed in the
conditional mood and packed with hypothetical detail; and in talk, by
the very law of the process, hypothesis became affirmation, and he was
ready to tell you confidentially the exact circumstances of Pellerin's
death, and of the "distressing incident" leading up to it. Bernald
himself not only questioned the form under which this incident was
shaping itself before posterity, but the mere radical fact of its
occurrence: he had never been able to discover any break in the dense
cloud enveloping Pellerin's later life and its mysterious termination.
He had gone away - that was all that any of them knew: he who had so
little, at any time, been with them or of them; and his going had so
slightly stirred the public consciousness that even the subsequent news
of his death, laconically imparted from afar, had dropped unheeded into
the universal scrap-basket, to be long afterward fished out, with all
its details missing, when some enquiring spirit first became aware, by
chance encounter with a two-penny volume in a London book-stall, not
only that such a man as John Pellerin had died, but that he had ever
lived, or written.

It need hardly be noted that Howland Wade had not been the pioneer in
question: his had been the wiser part of swelling the chorus when it
rose, and gradually drowning the other voices by his own insistent note.
He had pitched the note so screamingly, and held it so long, that he was
now the accepted authority on Pellerin, not only in the land which had
given birth to his genius but in the Europe which had first acclaimed
it; and it was the central point of pain in Bernald's sense of the
situation that a man who had so yearned for silence as Pellerin should
have his grave piped over by such a voice as Wade's.

Bernald's talk with the Interpreter had revived this ache to the
momentary exclusion of other sensations; and he was still sore with
it when, the next afternoon, he arrived at Portchester for his second
Sunday with the Wades.

At the station he had the surprise of seeing Winterman's face on the
platform, and of hearing from him that Doctor Bob had been called away
to assist at an operation in a distant town.

"Mrs. Wade wanted to put you off, but I believe the message came too
late; so she sent me down to break the news to you," said Winterman,
holding out his hand.

Perhaps because they were the first conventional words that Bernald had
heard him speak, the young man was struck by the relief his intonation
gave them.

"She wanted to send a carriage," Winterman added, "but I told her
we'd walk back through the woods." He looked at Bernald with a sudden
kindness that flushed the young man with pleasure.

"Are you strong enough? It's not too far?"

"Oh, no. I'm pulling myself together. Getting back to work is the
slowest part of the business: not on account of my eyes - I can use them
now, though not for reading; but some of the links between things are
missing. It's a kind of broken spectrum ... here, that boy will look
after your bag."

The walk through the woods remained in Bernald's memory as an enchanted
hour. He used the word literally, as descriptive of the way in which
Winterman's contact changed the face of things, or perhaps restored them
to their primitive meanings. And the scene they traversed - one of those
little untended woods that still, in America, fringe the tawdry skirts
of civilization - acquired, as a background to Winterman, the hush of
a spot aware of transcendent visitings. Did he talk, or did he make
Bernald talk? The young man never knew. He recalled only a sense of
lightness and liberation, as if the hard walls of individuality had
melted, and he were merged in the poet's deeper interfusion, yet without
losing the least sharp edge of self. This general impression resolved
itself afterward into the sense of Winterman's wide elemental range.
His thought encircled things like the horizon at sea. He didn't, as it
happened, touch on lofty themes - Bernald was gleefully aware that,
to Howland Wade, their talk would hardly have been Talk at all - but
Winterman's mind, applied to lowly topics, was like a powerful lens that
brought out microscopic delicacies and differences.

The lack of Sunday trains kept Doctor Bob for two days on the scene
of his surgical duties, and during those two days Bernald seized every
moment of communion with his friend's guest. Winterman, as Wade had
said, was reticent as to his personal affairs, or rather as to the
practical and material conditions to which the term is generally
applied. But it was evident that, in Winterman's case, the usual
classification must be reversed, and that the discussion of ideas
carried one much farther into his intimacy than any specific
acquaintance with the incidents of his life.

"That's exactly what Howland Wade and his tribe have never understood
about Pellerin: that it's much less important to know how, or even why,
he disapp - "

Bernald pulled himself up with a jerk, and turned to look full at his
companion. It was late on the Monday evening, and the two men, after an
hour's chat on the verandah to the tune of Mrs. Wade's knitting-needles,
had bidden their hostess good-night and strolled back to the bungalow
together.

"Come and have a pipe before you turn in," Winterman had said; and they
had sat on together till midnight, with the door of the bungalow open on
a heaving moonlit bay, and summer insects bumping against the chimney of
the lamp. Winterman had just bent down to re-fill his pipe from the
jar on the table, and Bernald, jerking about to catch him in the yellow
circle of lamplight, sat speechless, staring at a fact that seemed
suddenly to have substituted itself for Winterman's face, or rather to
have taken on its features.

"No, they never saw that Pellerin's ideas _were_ Pellerin. ..." He
continued to stare at Winterman. "Just as this man's ideas are - why,
_are_ Pellerin!"

The thought uttered itself in a kind of inner shout, and Bernald started
upright with the violent impact of his conclusion. Again and again in
the last forty-eight hours he had exclaimed to himself: "This is as good
as Pellerin." Why hadn't he said till now: "This _is_ Pellerin"? ...
Surprising as the answer was, he had no choice but to take it. He hadn't
said so simply because Winterman was _better than Pellerin_ - that there
was so much more of him, so to speak. Yes; but - it came to Bernald in
a flash - wouldn't there by this time have been any amount more of
Pellerin? ... The young man felt actually dizzy with the thought. That
was it - there was the solution of the haunting problem! This man
was Pellerin, and more than Pellerin! It was so fantastic and yet so
unanswerable that he burst into a sudden startled laugh.

Winterman, at the same moment, brought his palm down with a sudden crash
on the pile of manuscript covering the desk.

"What's the matter?" Bernald gasped.

"My match wasn't out. In another minute the destruction of the library
of Alexandria would have been a trifle compared to what you'd have
seen." Winterman, with his large deep laugh, shook out the smouldering
sheets. "And I should have been a pensioner on Doctor Bob the Lord knows
how much longer!"

Bernald pulled himself together. "You've really got going again? The
thing's actually getting into shape?"

"This particular thing _is_ in shape. I drove at it hard all last week,
thinking our friend's brother would be down on Sunday, and might look it
over."

Bernald had to repress the tendency to another wild laugh.

"Howland - you meant to show _Howland_ what you've done?"

Winterman, looming against the moonlight, slowly turned a dusky shaggy
head toward him.

"Isn't it a good thing to do?"

Bernald wavered, torn between loyalty to his friends and the
grotesqueness of answering in the affirmative. After all, it was none of
his business to furnish Winterman with an estimate of Howland Wade.

"Well, you see, you've never told me what your line _is_," he answered,
temporizing.

"No, because nobody's ever told _me_. It's exactly what I want to find
out," said the other genially.

"And you expect Wade - ?"

"Why, I gathered from our good Doctor that it's his trade. Doesn't he
explain - interpret?"

"In his own domain - which is Pellerinism."

Winterman gazed out musingly upon the moon-touched dusk of waters. "And
what _is_ Pellerinism?" he asked.

Bernald sprang to his feet with a cry. "Ah, I don't know - but you're
Pellerin!"

They stood for a minute facing each other, among the uncertain swaying
shadows of the room, with the sea breathing through it as something
immense and inarticulate breathed through young Bernald's thoughts; then
Winterman threw up his arms with a humorous gesture.

"Don't shoot!" he said.



IV


DAWN found them there, and the risen sun laid its beams on the rough
floor of the bungalow, before either of the men was conscious of the
passage of time. Bernald, vaguely trying to define his own state in
retrospect, could only phrase it: "I floated ... floated. ..."

The gist of fact at the core of the extraordinary experience was
simply that John Pellerin, twenty-five years earlier, had voluntarily
disappeared, causing the rumour of his death to be reported to an
inattentive world; and that now he had come back to see what that world
had made of him.

"You'll hardly believe it of me; I hardly believe it of myself; but I
went away in a rage of disappointment, of wounded pride - no, vanity!
I don't know which cut deepest - the sneers or the silence - but between
them, there wasn't an inch of me that wasn't raw. I had just the one
thing in me: the message, the cry, the revelation. But nobody saw and
nobody listened. Nobody wanted what I had to give. I was like a poor
devil of a tramp looking for shelter on a bitter night, in a town with
every door bolted and all the windows dark. And suddenly I felt that the
easiest thing would be to lie down and go to sleep in the snow. Perhaps
I'd a vague notion that if they found me there at daylight, frozen
stiff, the pathetic spectacle might produce a reaction, a feeling of
remorse. ... So I took care to be found! Well, a good many thousand
people die every day on the face of the globe; and I soon discovered
that I was simply one of the thousands; and when I made that discovery
I really died - and stayed dead a year or two. ... When I came to life
again I was off on the under side of the world, in regions unaware of
what we know as 'the public.' Have you any notion how it shifts the
point of view to wake under new constellations? I advise any who's been
in love with a woman under Cassiopeia to go and think about her under
the Southern Cross. ... It's the only way to tell the pivotal truths
from the others. ... I didn't believe in my theory any less - there was
my triumph and my vindication! It held out, resisted, measured itself
with the stars. But I didn't care a snap of my finger whether anybody
else believed in it, or even knew it had been formulated. It escaped out
of my books - my poor still-born books - like Psyche from the chrysalis
and soared away into the blue, and lived there. I knew then how it frees
an idea to be ignored; how apprehension circumscribes and deforms it.
... Once I'd learned that, it was easy enough to turn to and shift
for myself. I was sure now that my idea would live: the good ones are
self-supporting. I had to learn to be so; and I tried my hand at a
number of things ... adventurous, menial, commercial. ... It's not a bad
thing for a man to have to live his life - and we nearly all manage to
dodge it. Our first round with the Sphinx may strike something out of
us - a book or a picture or a symphony; and we're amazed at our feat,
and go on letting that first work breed others, as some animal forms
reproduce each other without renewed fertilization. So there we are,
committed to our first guess at the riddle; and our works look as like
as successive impressions of the same plate, each with the lines a
little fainter; whereas they ought to be - if we touch earth between
times - as different from each other as those other creatures - jellyfish,
aren't they, of a kind? - where successive generations produce new forms,
and it takes a zoologist to see the hidden likeness. ...

"Well, I proved my first guess, off there in the wilds, and it lived,
and grew, and took care of itself. And I said 'Some day it will make
itself heard; but by that time my atoms will have waltzed into a new
pattern.' Then, in Cashmere one day, I met a fellow in a caravan, with
a dog-eared book in his pocket. He said he never stirred without
it - wanted to know where I'd been, never to have heard of it. It was _my
guess_ - in its twentieth edition! ... The globe spun round at that, and
all of a sudden I was under the old stars. That's the way it happens
when the ballast of vanity shifts! I'd lived a third of a life
out there, unconscious of human opinion - because I supposed it was
unconscious of _me_. But now - now! Oh, it was different. I wanted to
know what they said. ... Not exactly that, either: I wanted to know
_what I'd made them say_. There's a difference. ... And here I am," said
John Pellerin, with a pull at his pipe.

So much Bernald retained of his companion's actual narrative; the rest
was swept away under the tide of wonder that rose and submerged him as
Pellerin - at some indefinitely later stage of their talk - picked up his
manuscript and began to read. Bernald sat opposite, his elbows propped
on the table, his eyes fixed on the swaying waters outside, from which
the moon gradually faded, leaving them to make a denser blackness in the
night. As Pellerin read, this density of blackness - which never for a
moment seemed inert or unalive - was attenuated by imperceptible degrees,
till a greyish pallour replaced it; then the pallour breathed and
brightened, and suddenly dawn was on the sea.

Something of the same nature went on in the young man's mind while he
watched and listened. He was conscious of a gradually withdrawing light,
of an interval of obscurity full of the stir of invisible forces, and
then of the victorious flush of day. And as the light rose, he saw how
far he had travelled and what wonders the night had prepared. Pellerin
had been right in saying that his first idea had survived, had borne the
test of time; but he had given his hearer no hint of the extent to which
it had been enlarged and modified, of the fresh implications it now
unfolded. In a brief flash of retrospection Bernald saw the earlier
books dwindle and fall into their place as mere precursors of this
fuller revelation; then, with a leap of helpless rage, he pictured
Howland Wade's pink hands on the new treasure, and his prophetic feet
upon the lecture platform.



V


"IT won't do - oh, he let him down as gently as possible; but it appears
it simply won't do."

Doctor Bob imparted the ineluctable fact to Bernald while the two men,
accidentally meeting at their club a few nights later, sat together over
the dinner they had immediately agreed to consume in company.

Bernald had left Portchester the morning after his strange discovery,
and he and Bob Wade had not seen each other since. And now Bernald,
moved by an irresistible instinct of postponement, had waited for his
companion to bring up Winterman's name, and had even executed several
conversational diversions in the hope of delaying its mention. For how
could one talk of Winterman with the thought of Pellerin swelling one's
breast?

"Yes; the very day Howland got back from Kenosha I brought the
manuscript to town, and got him to read it. And yesterday evening I
nailed him, and dragged an answer out of him."

"Then Howland hasn't seen Winterman yet?"

"No. He said: 'Before you let him loose on me I'll go over the stuff,
and see if it's at all worth while.'"

Bernald drew a freer breath. "And he found it wasn't?"

"Between ourselves, he found it was of no account at all. Queer, isn't
it, when the _man_ ... but of course literature's another proposition.
Howland says it's one of the cases where an idea might seem original and
striking if one didn't happen to be able to trace its descent. And this
is straight out of bosh - by Pellerin. ... Yes: Pellerin. It seems that
everything in the article that isn't pure nonsense is just Pellerinism.
Howland thinks poor Winterman must have been tremendously struck by
Pellerin's writings, and have lived too much out of the world to know
that they've become the text-books of modern thought. Otherwise, of
course, he'd have taken more trouble to disguise his plagiarisms."

"I see," Bernald mused. "Yet you say there _is_ an original element?"

"Yes; but unluckily it's no good."

"It's not - conceivably - in any sense a development of Pellerin's idea: a
logical step farther?"

"_Logical?_ Howland says it's twaddle at white heat."

Bernald sat silent, divided between the fierce satisfaction of seeing
the Interpreter rush upon his fate, and the despair of knowing that the
state of mind he represented was indestructible. Then both emotions were
swept away on a wave of pure joy, as he reflected that now, at last,
Howland Wade had given him back John Pellerin.

The possession was one he did not mean to part with lightly; and the
dread of its being torn from him constrained him to extraordinary
precautions.

"You've told Winterman, I suppose? How did he take it?"

"Why, unexpectedly, as he does most things. You can never tell which way
he'll jump. I thought he'd take a high tone, or else laugh it off; but
he did neither. He seemed awfully cast down. I wished myself well out
of the job when I saw how cut up he was." Bernald thrilled at the words.
Pellerin had shared his pang, then - the "old woe of the world" at the
perpetuity of human dulness!

"But what did he say to the charge of plagiarism - if you made it?"

"Oh, I told him straight out what Howland said. I thought it fairer. And
his answer to that was the rummest part of all."

"What was it?" Bernald questioned, with a tremor.

"He said: 'That's queer, for I've never read Pellerin.'"

Bernald drew a deep breath of ecstasy. "Well - and I suppose you believed
him?"

"I believed him, because I know him. But the public won't - the critics
won't. And if it's a pure coincidence it's just as bad for him as if it
were a straight steal - isn't it?"

Bernald sighed his acquiescence.

"It bothers me awfully," Wade continued, knitting his kindly brows,
"because I could see what a blow it was to him. He's got to earn his
living, and I don't suppose he knows how to do anything else. At his
age it's hard to start fresh. I put that to Howland - asked him if
there wasn't a chance he might do better if he only had a little
encouragement. I can't help feeling he's got the essential thing in him.
But of course I'm no judge when it comes to books. And Howland says it
would be cruel to give him any hope." Wade paused, turned his wineglass
about under a meditative stare, and then leaned across the table toward
Bernald. "Look here - do you know what I've proposed to Winterman? That
he should come to town with me to-morrow and go in the evening to hear
Howland lecture to the Uplift Club. They're to meet at Mrs. Beecher
Bain's, and Howland is to repeat the lecture that he gave the other day
before the Pellerin Society at Kenosha. It will give Winterman a chance
to get some notion of what Pellerin _was:_ he'll get it much straighter
from Howland than if he tried to plough through Pellerin's books. And
then afterward - as if accidentally - I thought I might bring him and
Howland together. If Howland could only see him and hear him talk,
there's no knowing what might come of it. He couldn't help feeling the
man's force, as we do; and he might give him a pointer - tell him what
line to take. Anyhow, it would please Winterman, and take the edge off
his disappointment. I saw that as soon as I proposed it."

"Some one who's never heard of Pellerin?"

Mrs. Beecher Bain, large, smiling, diffuse, reached out parenthetically
from the incoming throng on her threshold to waylay Bernald with the
question as he was about to move past her in the wake of his companion.

"Oh, keep straight on, Mr. Winterman!" she interrupted herself to call
after the latter. "Into the back drawing-room, please! And remember,
you're to sit next to me - in the corner on the left, close under the
platform."

She renewed her interrogative clutch on Bernald's sleeve. "Most curious!
Doctor Wade has been telling me all about him - how remarkable you all
think him. And it's actually true that he's never heard of Pellerin?
Of course as soon as Doctor Wade told me _that_, I said 'Bring him!'
It will be so extraordinarily interesting to watch the first
impression. - Yes, do follow him, dear Mr. Bernald, and be sure that you
and he secure the seats next to me. Of course Alice Fosdick insists on
being with us. She was wild with excitement when I told her she was to
meet some one who'd never heard of Pellerin!"

On the indulgent lips of Mrs. Beecher Bain conjecture speedily passed
into affirmation; and as Bernald's companion, broad and shaggy in his
visibly new evening clothes, moved down the length of the crowded rooms,
he was already, to the ladies drawing aside their skirts to let him
pass, the interesting Huron of the fable.

How far he was aware of the character ascribed to him it was impossible
for Bernald to discover. He was as unconscious as a tree or a cloud, and
his observer had never known any one so alive to human contacts and yet
so secure from them. But the scene was playing such a lively tune on
Bernald's own sensibilities that for the moment he could not adjust
himself to the probable effect it produced on his companion. The young
man, of late, had made but rare appearances in the group of which Mrs.
Beecher Bain was one of the most indefatigable hostesses, and the Uplift
Club the chief medium of expression. To a critic, obliged by his trade
to cultivate convictions, it was the essence of luxury to leave them at
home in his hours of ease; and Bernald gave his preference to circles in
which less finality of judgment prevailed, and it was consequently less
embarrassing to be caught without an opinion.

But in his fresher days he had known the spell of the Uplift Club and
the thrill of moving among the Emancipated; and he felt an odd sense
of rejuvenation as he looked at the rows of faces packed about the
embowered platform from which Howland Wade was presently to hand down
the eternal verities. Many of these countenances belonged to the
old days, when the gospel of Pellerin was unknown, and it required
considerable intellectual courage to avow one's acceptance of the very
doctrines he had since demolished. The latter moral revolution seemed to
have been accepted as submissively as a change in hair-dressing; and it
even struck Bernald that, in the case of many of the assembled ladies,
their convictions were rather newer than their clothes.

One of the most interesting examples of this facility of adaptation was
actually, in the person of Miss Alice Fosdick, brushing his elbow with
exotic amulets, and enveloping him in Arabian odours, as she leaned
forward to murmur her sympathetic sense of the situation. Miss Fosdick,
who was one of the most advanced exponents of Pellerinism, had large
eyes and a plaintive mouth, and Bernald had always fancied that she
might have been pretty if she had not been perpetually explaining
things.

"Yes, I know - Isabella Bain told me all about him. (He can't hear us,
can he?) And I wonder if you realize how remarkably interesting it is
that we should have such an opportunity _now_ - I mean the opportunity to
see the impression of Pellerinism on a perfectly fresh mind. (You
must introduce him as soon as the lecture's over.) I explained that to
Isabella as soon as she showed me Doctor Wade's note. Of course you see
why, don't you?" Bernald made a faint motion of acquiescence, which she


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Online LibraryEdith WhartonTales of Men and Ghosts → online text (page 11 of 22)