Edith Wharton.

Tales of Men and Ghosts online

. (page 12 of 22)
Online LibraryEdith WhartonTales of Men and Ghosts → online text (page 12 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

instantly swept aside. "At least I think I can _make you see why_.
(If you're sure he can't hear?) Why, it's just this - Pellerinism is in
danger of becoming a truism. Oh, it's an awful thing to say! But then
I'm not afraid of saying awful things! I rather believe it's my mission.
What I mean is, that we're getting into the way of taking Pellerin for
granted - as we do the air we breathe. We don't sufficiently lead our
_conscious life_ in him - we're gradually letting him become subliminal."
She swayed closer to the young man, and he saw that she was making a
graceful attempt to throw her explanatory net over his companion, who,
evading Mrs. Bain's hospitable signal, had cautiously wedged himself
into a seat between Bernald and the wall.

"_Did_ you hear what I was saying, Mr. Winterman? (Yes, I know who you
are, of course!) Oh, well, I don't really mind if you did. I was talking
about you - about you and Pellerin. I was explaining to Mr. Bernald that
what we need at this very minute is a Pellerin revival; and we need
some one like you - to whom his message comes as a wonderful new
interpretation of life - to lead the revival, and rouse us out of our
apathy. ...

"You see," she went on winningly, "it's not only the big public
that needs it (of course _their_ Pellerin isn't ours!) It's we, his
disciples, his interpreters, who discovered him and gave him to the
world - we, the Chosen People, the Custodians of the Sacred Books, as
Howland Wade calls us - it's _we_, who are in perpetual danger of sinking
back into the old stagnant ideals, and practising the Seven Deadly
Virtues; it's _we_ who need to count our mercies, and realize anew what
he's done for us, and what we ought to do for him! And it's for that
reason that I urged Mr. Wade to speak here, in the very inner sanctuary
of Pellerinism, exactly as he would speak to the uninitiated - to repeat,
simply, his Kenosha lecture, 'What Pellerinism means'; and we ought all,
I think, to listen to him with the hearts of little children - just as
_you_ will, Mr. Winterman - as if he were telling us new things, and
we - "

"Alice, _dear_ - " Mrs. Bain murmured with a deprecating gesture;
and Howland Wade, emerging between the palms, took the centre of the

A pang of commiseration shot through Bernald as he saw him there, so
innocent and so exposed. His plump pulpy body, which made his evening
dress fall into intimate and wrapper-like folds, was like a wide surface
spread to the shafts of irony; and the mild ripples of his voice
seemed to enlarge the vulnerable area as he leaned forward, poised on
confidential finger-tips, to say persuasively: "Let me try to tell you
what Pellerinism means."

Bernald moved restlessly in his seat. He had the obscure sense of being
a party to something not wholly honourable. He ought not to have come;
he ought not to have let his companion come. Yet how could he have done
otherwise? John Pellerin's secret was his own. As long as he chose
to remain John Winterman it was no one's business to gainsay him; and
Bernald's scruples were really justifiable only in respect of his own
presence on the scene. But even in this connection he ceased to feel
them as soon as Howland Wade began to speak.


IT had been arranged that Pellerin, after the meeting of the Uplift
Club, should join Bernald at his rooms and spend the night there,
instead of returning to Portchester. The plan had been eagerly
elaborated by the young man, but he had been unprepared for the alacrity
with which his wonderful friend accepted it. He was beginning to see
that it was a part of Pellerin's wonderfulness to fall in, quite simply
and naturally, with any arrangements made for his convenience, or
tending to promote the convenience of others. Bernald felt that his
extreme docility in such matters was proportioned to the force of
resistance which, for nearly half a life-time, had kept him, with his
back to the wall, fighting alone against the powers of darkness. In such
a scale of values how little the small daily alternatives must weigh!

At the close of Howland Wade's discourse, Bernald, charged with his
prodigious secret, had felt the need to escape for an instant from
the liberated rush of talk. The interest of watching Pellerin was so
perilously great that the watcher felt it might, at any moment, betray
him. He lingered in the crowded drawing-room long enough to see his
friend enclosed in a mounting tide, above which Mrs. Beecher Bain and
Miss Fosdick actively waved their conversational tridents; then he took
refuge, at the back of the house, in a small dim library where, in his
younger days, he had discussed personal immortality and the problem of
consciousness with beautiful girls whose names he could not remember.

In this retreat he surprised Mr. Beecher Bain, a quiet man with a mild
brow, who was smoking a surreptitious cigar over the last number of the
_Strand_. Mr. Bain, at Bernald's approach, dissembled the _Strand_ under
a copy of the _Hibbert Journal_, but tendered his cigar-case with the
remark that stocks were heavy again; and Bernald blissfully abandoned
himself to this unexpected contact with reality.

On his return to the drawing-room he found that the tide had set toward
the supper-table, and when it finally carried him thither it was to land
him in the welcoming arms of Bob Wade.

"Hullo, old man! Where have you been all this time? - Winterman? Oh,
_he's_ talking to Howland: yes, I managed it finally. I believe
Mrs. Bain has steered them into the library, so that they shan't be
disturbed. I gave her an idea of the situation, and she was awfully
kind. We'd better leave them alone, don't you think? I'm trying to get a
croquette for Miss Fosdick."

Bernald's secret leapt in his bosom, and he devoted himself to the task
of distributing sandwiches and champagne while his pulses danced to the
tune of the cosmic laughter. The vision of Pellerin and his Interpreter,
face to face at last, had a Cyclopean grandeur that dwarfed all other
comedy. "And I shall hear of it presently; in an hour or two he'll be
telling me about it. And that hour will be all mine - mine and his!" The
dizziness of the thought made it difficult for Bernald to preserve the
balance of the supper-plates he was distributing. Life had for him at
that moment the completeness which seems to defy disintegration.

The throng in the dining-room was thickening, and Bernald's efforts
as purveyor were interrupted by frequent appeals, from ladies who had
reached repleteness, that he should sit down a moment and tell them all
about his interesting friend. Winterman's fame, trumpeted abroad by Miss
Fosdick, had reached the four corners of the Uplift Club, and Bernald
found himself fabricating _de toutes pieces_ a Winterman legend which
should in some degree respond to the Club's demand for the human
document. When at length he had acquitted himself of this obligation,
and was free to work his way back through the lessening groups into the
drawing-room, he was at last rewarded by a glimpse of his friend, who,
still densely encompassed, towered in the centre of the room in all his
sovran ugliness.

Their eyes met across the crowd; but Bernald gathered only perplexity
from the encounter. What were Pellerin's eyes saying to him? What
orders, what confidences, what indefinable apprehension did their long
look impart? The young man was still trying to decipher their complex
message when he felt a tap on the arm, and turned to encounter the
rueful gaze of Bob Wade, whose meaning lay clearly enough on the surface
of his good blue stare.

"Well, it won't work - it won't work," the doctor groaned.

"What won't?"

"I mean with Howland. Winterman won't. Howland doesn't take to him.
Says he's crude - frightfully crude. And you know how Howland hates

"Oh, I know," Bernald exulted. It was the word he had waited for - he saw
it now! Once more he was lost in wonder at Howland's miraculous faculty
for always, as the naturalists said, being true to type.

"So I'm afraid it's all up with his chance of writing. At least _I_ can
do no more," said Wade, discouraged.

Bernald pressed him for farther details. "Does Winterman seem to mind
much? Did you hear his version?"

"His version?"

"I mean what he said to Howland."

"Why no. What the deuce was there for him to say?"

"What indeed? I think I'll take him home," said Bernald gaily.

He turned away to join the circle from which, a few minutes before,
Pellerin's eyes had vainly and enigmatically signalled to him; but the
circle had dispersed, and Pellerin himself was not in sight.

Bernald, looking about him, saw that during his brief aside with Wade
the party had passed into the final phase of dissolution. People still
delayed, in diminishing groups, but the current had set toward the
doors, and every moment or two it bore away a few more lingerers.
Bernald, from his post, commanded the clearing perspective of the two
drawing-rooms, and a rapid survey of their length sufficed to assure
him that Pellerin was not in either. Taking leave of Wade, the young
man made his way back to the drawing-room, where only a few hardened
feasters remained, and then passed on to the library which had been the
scene of the late momentous colloquy. But the library too was empty, and
drifting back uncertainly to the inner drawing-room Bernald found
Mrs. Beecher Bain domestically putting out the wax candles on the

"Dear Mr. Bernald! Do sit down and have a little chat. What a wonderful
privilege it has been! I don't know when I've had such an intense

She made way for him, hospitably, in a corner of the sofa to which she
had sunk; and he echoed her vaguely: "You _were_ impressed, then?"

"I can't express to you how it affected me! As Alice said, it was a
resurrection - it was as if John Pellerin were actually here in the room
with us!"

Bernald turned on her with a half-audible gasp. "You felt that, dear
Mrs. Bain?"

"We all felt it - every one of us! I don't wonder the Greeks - it _was_
the Greeks? - regarded eloquence as a supernatural power. As Alice says,
when one looked at Howland Wade one understood what they meant by the

Bernald rose and held out his hand. "Oh, I see - it was Howland who made
you feel as if Pellerin were in the room? And he made Miss Fosdick feel
so too?"

"Why, of course. But why are you rushing off?"

"Because I must hunt up my friend, who's not used to such late hours."

"Your friend?" Mrs. Bain had to collect her thoughts. "Oh, Mr.
Winterman, you mean? But he's gone already."

"Gone?" Bernald exclaimed, with an odd twinge of foreboding. Remembering
Pellerin's signal across the crowd, he reproached himself for not having
answered it more promptly. Yet it was certainly strange that his friend
should have left the house without him.

"Are you quite sure?" he asked, with a startled glance at the clock.

"Oh, perfectly. He went half an hour ago. But you needn't hurry home
on his account, for Alice Fosdick carried him off with her. I saw them
leave together."

"Carried him off? She took him home with her, you mean?"

"Yes. You know what strange hours she keeps. She told me she was going
to give him a Welsh rabbit, and explain Pellerinism to him."

"Oh, _if_ she's going to explain - " Bernald murmured. But his amazement
at the news struggled with a confused impatience to reach his rooms in
time to be there for his friend's arrival. There could be no stranger
spectacle beneath the stars than that of John Pellerin carried off by
Miss Fosdick, and listening, in the small hours, to her elucidation of
his doctrines; but Bernald knew enough of his sex to be aware that such
an experiment may present a less humorous side to its subject than to
an impartial observer. Even the Uplift Club and its connotations might
benefit by the attraction of the unknown; and it was conceivable that
to a traveller from Mesopotamia Miss Fosdick might present elements of
interest which she had lost for the frequenters of Fifth Avenue. There
was, at any rate, no denying that the affair had become unexpectedly
complex, and that its farther development promised to be rich in comedy.

In the charmed contemplation of these possibilities Bernald sat over his
fire, listening for Pellerin's ring. He had arranged his modest quarters
with the reverent care of a celebrant awaiting the descent of his deity.
He guessed Pellerin to be unconscious of visual detail, but sensitive
to the happy blending of sensuous impressions: to the intimate spell of
lamplight on books, and of a deep chair placed where one could watch
the fire. The chair was there, and Bernald, facing it across the hearth,
already saw it filled by Pellerin's lounging figure. The autumn dawn
came late, and even now they had before them the promise of some
untroubled hours. Bernald, sitting there alone in the warm stillness of
his room, and in the profounder hush of his expectancy, was conscious
of gathering up all his sensibilities and perceptions into one
exquisitely-adjusted instrument of notation. Until now he had tasted
Pellerin's society only in unpremeditated snatches, and had always left
him with a sense, on his own part, of waste and shortcoming. Now, in the
lull of this dedicated hour, he felt that he should miss nothing, and
forget nothing, of the initiation that awaited him. And catching sight
of Pellerin's pipe, he rose and laid it carefully on a table by the

"No. I've never had any news of him," Bernald heard himself repeating.
He spoke in a low tone, and with the automatic utterance that alone made
it possible to say the words.

They were addressed to Miss Fosdick, into whose neighbourhood chance had
thrown him at a dinner, a year or so later than their encounter at the
Uplift Club. Hitherto he had successfully, and intentionally, avoided
Miss Fosdick, not from any animosity toward that unconscious instrument
of fate, but from an intense reluctance to pronounce the words which he
knew he should have to speak if they met.

Now, as it turned out, his chief surprise was that she should wait so
long to make him speak them. All through the dinner she had swept him
along on a rapid current of talk which showed no tendency to linger or
turn back upon the past. At first he ascribed her reserve to a sense
of delicacy with which he reproached himself for not having previously
credited her; then he saw that she had been carried so far beyond the
point at which they had last faced each other, that it was by the merest
hazard of associated ideas that she was now finally borne back to it.
For it appeared that the very next evening, at Mrs. Beecher Bain's, a
Hindu Mahatma was to lecture to the Uplift Club on the Limits of the
Subliminal; and it was owing to no less a person than Howland Wade that
this exceptional privilege had been obtained.

"Of course Howland's known all over the world as the interpreter of
Pellerinism, and the Aga Gautch, who had absolutely declined to speak
anywhere in public, wrote to Isabella that he could not refuse anything
that Mr. Wade asked. Did you know that Howland's lecture, 'What
Pellerinism Means,' has been translated into twenty-two languages, and
gone into a fifth edition in Icelandic? Why, that reminds me,"
Miss Fosdick broke off - "I've never heard what became of your queer
friend - what was his name? - whom you and Bob Wade accused me of
spiriting away after that very lecture. And I've never seen _you_ since
you rushed into the house the next morning, and dragged me out of bed to
know what I'd done with him!"

With a sharp effort Bernald gathered himself together to have it out.
"Well, what _did_ you do with him?" he retorted.

She laughed her appreciation of his humour. "Just what I told you, of
course. I said good-bye to him on Isabella's door-step."

Bernald looked at her. "It's really true, then, that he didn't go home
with you?"

She bantered back: "Have you suspected me, all this time, of hiding his
remains in the cellar?" And with a droop of her fine lids she added:
"I wish he _had_ come home with me, for he was rather interesting, and
there were things I think I could have explained to him."

Bernald helped himself to a nectarine, and Miss Fosdick continued on a
note of amused curiosity: "So you've really never had any news of him
since that night?"

"No - I've never had any news of him."

"Not the least little message?"

"Not the least little message."

"Or a rumour or report of any kind?"

"Or a rumour or report of any kind."

Miss Fosdick's interest seemed to be revived by the strangeness of the
case. "It's rather creepy, isn't it? What _could_ have happened? You
don't suppose he could have been waylaid and murdered?" she asked with
brightening eyes.

Bernald shook his head serenely. "No. I'm sure he's safe - quite safe."

"But if you're sure, you must know something."

"No. I know nothing," he repeated.

She scanned him incredulously. "But what's your theory - for you must
have a theory? What in the world can have become of him?"

Bernald returned her look and hesitated. "Do you happen to remember the
last thing he said to you - the very last, on the door-step, when he left

"The last thing?" She poised her fork above the peach on her plate. "I
don't think he said anything. Oh, yes - when I reminded him that he'd
solemnly promised to come back with me and have a little talk he said he
couldn't because he was going home."

"Well, then, I suppose," said Bernald, "he went home."

She glanced at him as if suspecting a trap. "Dear me, how flat! I always
inclined to a mysterious murder. But of course you know more of him than
you say."

She began to cut her peach, but paused above a lifted bit to ask, with a
renewal of animation in her expressive eyes: "By the way, had you heard
that Howland Wade has been gradually getting farther and farther away
from Pellerinism? It seems he's begun to feel that there's a Positivist
element in it which is narrowing to any one who has gone at all deeply
into the Wisdom of the East. He was intensely interesting about it the
other day, and of course I _do_ see what he feels. ... Oh, it's too
long to tell you now; but if you could manage to come in to tea some
afternoon soon - any day but Wednesday - I should so like to explain - "



WE had been put in the mood for ghosts, that evening, after an excellent
dinner at our old friend Culwin's, by a tale of Fred Murchard's - the
narrative of a strange personal visitation.

Seen through the haze of our cigars, and by the drowsy gleam of a coal
fire, Culwin's library, with its oak walls and dark old bindings, made a
good setting for such evocations; and ghostly experiences at first hand
being, after Murchard's brilliant opening, the only kind acceptable to
us, we proceeded to take stock of our group and tax each member for a
contribution. There were eight of us, and seven contrived, in a manner
more or less adequate, to fulfil the condition imposed. It surprised
us all to find that we could muster such a show of supernatural
impressions, for none of us, excepting Murchard himself and young Phil
Frenham - whose story was the slightest of the lot - had the habit of
sending our souls into the invisible. So that, on the whole, we had
every reason to be proud of our seven "exhibits," and none of us would
have dreamed of expecting an eighth from our host.

Our old friend, Mr. Andrew Culwin, who had sat back in his arm-chair,
listening and blinking through the smoke circles with the cheerful
tolerance of a wise old idol, was not the kind of man likely to be
favoured with such contacts, though he had imagination enough to enjoy,
without envying, the superior privileges of his guests. By age and by
education he belonged to the stout Positivist tradition, and his habit
of thought had been formed in the days of the epic struggle between
physics and metaphysics. But he had been, then and always, essentially
a spectator, a humorous detached observer of the immense muddled variety
show of life, slipping out of his seat now and then for a brief dip into
the convivialities at the back of the house, but never, as far as one
knew, showing the least desire to jump on the stage and do a "turn."

Among his contemporaries there lingered a vague tradition of his having,
at a remote period, and in a romantic clime, been wounded in a duel;
but this legend no more tallied with what we younger men knew of his
character than my mother's assertion that he had once been "a charming
little man with nice eyes" corresponded to any possible reconstitution
of his dry thwarted physiognomy.

"He never can have looked like anything but a bundle of sticks,"
Murchard had once said of him. "Or a phosphorescent log, rather," some
one else amended; and we recognized the happiness of this description
of his small squat trunk, with the red blink of the eyes in a face like
mottled bark. He had always been possessed of a leisure which he had
nursed and protected, instead of squandering it in vain activities. His
carefully guarded hours had been devoted to the cultivation of a fine
intelligence and a few judiciously chosen habits; and none of the
disturbances common to human experience seemed to have crossed his sky.
Nevertheless, his dispassionate survey of the universe had not raised
his opinion of that costly experiment, and his study of the human race
seemed to have resulted in the conclusion that all men were superfluous,
and women necessary only because some one had to do the cooking. On the
importance of this point his convictions were absolute, and gastronomy
was the only science which he revered as dogma. It must be owned that
his little dinners were a strong argument in favour of this view,
besides being a reason - though not the main one - for the fidelity of his

Mentally he exercised a hospitality less seductive but no less
stimulating. His mind was like a forum, or some open meeting-place for
the exchange of ideas: somewhat cold and draughty, but light, spacious
and orderly - a kind of academic grove from which all the leaves had
fallen. In this privileged area a dozen of us were wont to stretch our
muscles and expand our lungs; and, as if to prolong as much as possible
the tradition of what we felt to be a vanishing institution, one or two
neophytes were now and then added to our band.

Young Phil Frenham was the last, and the most interesting, of these
recruits, and a good example of Murchard's somewhat morbid assertion
that our old friend "liked 'em juicy." It was indeed a fact that Culwin,
for all his mental dryness, specially tasted the lyric qualities in
youth. As he was far too good an Epicurean to nip the flowers of
soul which he gathered for his garden, his friendship was not a
disintegrating influence: on the contrary, it forced the young idea
to robuster bloom. And in Phil Frenham he had a fine subject for
experimentation. The boy was really intelligent, and the soundness of
his nature was like the pure paste under a delicate glaze. Culwin had
fished him out of a thick fog of family dulness, and pulled him up to
a peak in Darien; and the adventure hadn't hurt him a bit. Indeed,
the skill with which Culwin had contrived to stimulate his curiosities
without robbing them of their young bloom of awe seemed to me a
sufficient answer to Murchard's ogreish metaphor. There was nothing
hectic in Frenham's efflorescence, and his old friend had not laid even
a finger-tip on the sacred stupidities. One wanted no better proof of
that than the fact that Frenham still reverenced them in Culwin.

"There's a side of him you fellows don't see. _I_ believe that story
about the duel!" he declared; and it was of the very essence of
this belief that it should impel him - just as our little party was
dispersing - to turn back to our host with the absurd demand: "And now
you've got to tell us about _your_ ghost!"

The outer door had closed on Murchard and the others; only Frenham and I
remained; and the vigilant servant who presided over Culwin's destinies,
having brought a fresh supply of soda-water, had been laconically
ordered to bed.

Culwin's sociability was a night-blooming flower, and we knew that he
expected the nucleus of his group to tighten around him after midnight.
But Frenham's appeal seemed to disconcert him comically, and he rose
from the chair in which he had just reseated himself after his farewells
in the hall.

"_My_ ghost? Do you suppose I'm fool enough to go to the expense of
keeping one of my own, when there are so many charming ones in my

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryEdith WhartonTales of Men and Ghosts → online text (page 12 of 22)