Edith Wharton.

Tales of Men and Ghosts online

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friends' closets? - Take another cigar," he said, revolving toward me
with a laugh.

Frenham laughed too, pulling up his slender height before the
chimney-piece as he turned to face his short bristling friend.

"Oh," he said, "you'd never be content to share if you met one you
really liked."

Culwin had dropped back into his armchair, his shock head embedded in
its habitual hollow, his little eyes glimmering over a fresh cigar.

"Liked - _liked?_ Good Lord!" he growled.

"Ah, you _have_, then!" Frenham pounced on him in the same instant, with
a sidewise glance of victory at me; but Culwin cowered gnomelike among
his cushions, dissembling himself in a protective cloud of smoke.

"What's the use of denying it? You've seen everything, so of course
you've seen a ghost!" his young friend persisted, talking intrepidly
into the cloud. "Or, if you haven't seen one, it's only because you've
seen two!"

The form of the challenge seemed to strike our host. He shot his head
out of the mist with a queer tortoise-like motion he sometimes had, and
blinked approvingly at Frenham.

"Yes," he suddenly flung at us on a shrill jerk of laughter; "it's only
because I've seen two!"

The words were so unexpected that they dropped down and down into a
fathomless silence, while we continued to stare at each other over
Culwin's head, and Culwin stared at his ghosts. At length Frenham,
without speaking, threw himself into the chair on the other side of the
hearth, and leaned forward with his listening smile ...



II


"OH, of course they're not show ghosts - a collector wouldn't think
anything of them ... Don't let me raise your hopes ... their one merit
is their numerical strength: the exceptional fact of their being _two_.
But, as against this, I'm bound to admit that at any moment I
could probably have exorcised them both by asking my doctor for a
prescription, or my oculist for a pair of spectacles. Only, as I
never could make up my mind whether to go to the doctor or the
oculist - whether I was afflicted by an optical or a digestive
delusion - I left them to pursue their interesting double life, though at
times they made mine exceedingly comfortable ...

"Yes - uncomfortable; and you know how I hate to be uncomfortable! But it
was part of my stupid pride, when the thing began, not to admit that I
could be disturbed by the trifling matter of seeing two -

"And then I'd no reason, really, to suppose I was ill. As far as I knew
I was simply bored - horribly bored. But it was part of my boredom - I
remember - that I was feeling so uncommonly well, and didn't know how
on earth to work off my surplus energy. I had come back from a long
journey - down in South America and Mexico - and had settled down for the
winter near New York, with an old aunt who had known Washington Irving
and corresponded with N. P. Willis. She lived, not far from Irvington,
in a damp Gothic villa, overhung by Norway spruces, and looking exactly
like a memorial emblem done in hair. Her personal appearance was in
keeping with this image, and her own hair - of which there was little
left - might have been sacrificed to the manufacture of the emblem.

"I had just reached the end of an agitated year, with considerable
arrears to make up in money and emotion; and theoretically it seemed as
though my aunt's mild hospitality would be as beneficial to my nerves as
to my purse. But the deuce of it was that as soon as I felt myself safe
and sheltered my energy began to revive; and how was I to work it off
inside of a memorial emblem? I had, at that time, the agreeable illusion
that sustained intellectual effort could engage a man's whole activity;
and I decided to write a great book - I forget about what. My aunt,
impressed by my plan, gave up to me her Gothic library, filled with
classics in black cloth and daguerrotypes of faded celebrities; and I
sat down at my desk to make myself a place among their number. And to
facilitate my task she lent me a cousin to copy my manuscript.

"The cousin was a nice girl, and I had an idea that a nice girl was just
what I needed to restore my faith in human nature, and principally
in myself. She was neither beautiful nor intelligent - poor Alice
Nowell! - but it interested me to see any woman content to be so
uninteresting, and I wanted to find out the secret of her content. In
doing this I handled it rather rashly, and put it out of joint - oh, just
for a moment! There's no fatuity in telling you this, for the poor girl
had never seen any one but cousins ...

"Well, I was sorry for what I'd done, of course, and confoundedly
bothered as to how I should put it straight. She was staying in the
house, and one evening, after my aunt had gone to bed, she came down to
the library to fetch a book she'd mislaid, like any artless heroine on
the shelves behind us. She was pink-nosed and flustered, and it suddenly
occurred to me that her hair, though it was fairly thick and pretty,
would look exactly like my aunt's when she grew older. I was glad I had
noticed this, for it made it easier for me to do what was right; and
when I had found the book she hadn't lost I told her I was leaving for
Europe that week.

"Europe was terribly far off in those days, and Alice knew at once what
I meant. She didn't take it in the least as I'd expected - it would have
been easier if she had. She held her book very tight, and turned away a
moment to wind up the lamp on my desk - it had a ground glass shade with
vine leaves, and glass drops around the edge, I remember. Then she came
back, held out her hand, and said: 'Good-bye.' And as she said it she
looked straight at me and kissed me. I had never felt anything as fresh
and shy and brave as her kiss. It was worse than any reproach, and it
made me ashamed to deserve a reproach from her. I said to myself: 'I'll
marry her, and when my aunt dies she'll leave us this house, and I'll
sit here at the desk and go on with my book; and Alice will sit over
there with her embroidery and look at me as she's looking now. And life
will go on like that for any number of years.' The prospect frightened
me a little, but at the time it didn't frighten me as much as doing
anything to hurt her; and ten minutes later she had my seal ring on my
finger, and my promise that when I went abroad she should go with me.

"You'll wonder why I'm enlarging on this familiar incident. It's because
the evening on which it took place was the very evening on which I
first saw the queer sight I've spoken of. Being at that time an ardent
believer in a necessary sequence between cause and effect I naturally
tried to trace some kind of link between what had just happened to me in
my aunt's library, and what was to happen a few hours later on the same
night; and so the coincidence between the two events always remained in
my mind.

"I went up to bed with rather a heavy heart, for I was bowed under the
weight of the first good action I had ever consciously committed; and
young as I was, I saw the gravity of my situation. Don't imagine from
this that I had hitherto been an instrument of destruction. I had been
merely a harmless young man, who had followed his bent and declined all
collaboration with Providence. Now I had suddenly undertaken to promote
the moral order of the world, and I felt a good deal like the trustful
spectator who has given his gold watch to the conjurer, and doesn't know
in what shape he'll get it back when the trick is over ... Still, a
glow of self-righteousness tempered my fears, and I said to myself as I
undressed that when I'd got used to being good it probably wouldn't make
me as nervous as it did at the start. And by the time I was in bed, and
had blown out my candle, I felt that I really _was_ getting used to it,
and that, as far as I'd got, it was not unlike sinking down into one of
my aunt's very softest wool mattresses.

"I closed my eyes on this image, and when I opened them it must have
been a good deal later, for my room had grown cold, and the night was
intensely still. I was waked suddenly by the feeling we all know - the
feeling that there was something near me that hadn't been there when I
fell asleep. I sat up and strained my eyes into the darkness. The room
was pitch black, and at first I saw nothing; but gradually a vague
glimmer at the foot of the bed turned into two eyes staring back at me.
I couldn't see the face attached to them - on account of the darkness,
I imagined - but as I looked the eyes grew more and more distinct: they
gave out a light of their own.

"The sensation of being thus gazed at was far from pleasant, and you
might suppose that my first impulse would have been to jump out of bed
and hurl myself on the invisible figure attached to the eyes. But it
wasn't - my impulse was simply to lie still ... I can't say whether
this was due to an immediate sense of the uncanny nature of the
apparition - to the certainty that if I did jump out of bed I should
hurl myself on nothing - or merely to the benumbing effect of the eyes
themselves. They were the very worst eyes I've ever seen: a man's
eyes - but what a man! My first thought was that he must be frightfully
old. The orbits were sunk, and the thick red-lined lids hung over the
eyeballs like blinds of which the cords are broken. One lid drooped
a little lower than the other, with the effect of a crooked leer; and
between these pulpy folds of flesh, with their scant bristle of lashes,
the eyes themselves, small glassy disks with an agate-like rim about the
pupils, looked like sea-pebbles in the grip of a starfish.

"But the age of the eyes was not the most unpleasant thing about them.
What turned me sick was their expression of vicious security. I don't
know how else to describe the fact that they seemed to belong to a man
who had done a lot of harm in his life, but had always kept just inside
the danger lines. They were not the eyes of a coward, but of some one
much too clever to take risks; and my gorge rose at their look of base
astuteness. Yet even that wasn't the worst; for as we continued to scan
each other I saw in them a tinge of faint derision, and felt myself to
be its object.

"At that I was seized by an impulse of rage that jerked me out of bed
and pitched me straight on the unseen figure at its foot. But of course
there wasn't any figure there, and my fists struck at emptiness. Ashamed
and cold, I groped about for a match and lit the candles. The room
looked just as usual - as I had known it would; and I crawled back to
bed, and blew out the lights.

"As soon as the room was dark again the eyes reappeared; and I now
applied myself to explaining them on scientific principles. At first
I thought the illusion might have been caused by the glow of the last
embers in the chimney; but the fire-place was on the other side of my
bed, and so placed that the fire could not possibly be reflected in my
toilet glass, which was the only mirror in the room. Then it occurred
to me that I might have been tricked by the reflection of the embers in
some polished bit of wood or metal; and though I couldn't discover any
object of the sort in my line of vision, I got up again, groped my way
to the hearth, and covered what was left of the fire. But as soon as I
was back in bed the eyes were back at its foot.

"They were an hallucination, then: that was plain. But the fact
that they were not due to any external dupery didn't make them a
bit pleasanter to see. For if they were a projection of my inner
consciousness, what the deuce was the matter with that organ? I had gone
deeply enough into the mystery of morbid pathological states to picture
the conditions under which an exploring mind might lay itself open to
such a midnight admonition; but I couldn't fit it to my present case.
I had never felt more normal, mentally and physically; and the only
unusual fact in my situation - that of having assured the happiness of an
amiable girl - did not seem of a kind to summon unclean spirits about my
pillow. But there were the eyes still looking at me ...

"I shut mine, and tried to evoke a vision of Alice Nowell's. They were
not remarkable eyes, but they were as wholesome as fresh water, and if
she had had more imagination - or longer lashes - their expression might
have been interesting. As it was, they did not prove very efficacious,
and in a few moments I perceived that they had mysteriously changed into
the eyes at the foot of the bed. It exasperated me more to feel these
glaring at me through my shut lids than to see them, and I opened my
eyes again and looked straight into their hateful stare ...

"And so it went on all night. I can't tell you what that night was, nor
how long it lasted. Have you ever lain in bed, hopelessly wide awake,
and tried to keep your eyes shut, knowing that if you opened 'em you'd
see something you dreaded and loathed? It sounds easy, but it's devilish
hard. Those eyes hung there and drew me. I had the _vertige de l'abime_,
and their red lids were the edge of my abyss. ... I had known nervous
hours before: hours when I'd felt the wind of danger in my neck; but
never this kind of strain. It wasn't that the eyes were so awful; they
hadn't the majesty of the powers of darkness. But they had - how shall
I say? - a physical effect that was the equivalent of a bad smell: their
look left a smear like a snail's. And I didn't see what business they
had with me, anyhow - and I stared and stared, trying to find out ...

"I don't know what effect they were trying to produce; but the effect
they _did_ produce was that of making me pack my portmanteau and bolt to
town early the next morning. I left a note for my aunt, explaining that
I was ill and had gone to see my doctor; and as a matter of fact I did
feel uncommonly ill - the night seemed to have pumped all the blood out
of me. But when I reached town I didn't go to the doctor's. I went to
a friend's rooms, and threw myself on a bed, and slept for ten heavenly
hours. When I woke it was the middle of the night, and I turned cold
at the thought of what might be waiting for me. I sat up, shaking,
and stared into the darkness; but there wasn't a break in its blessed
surface, and when I saw that the eyes were not there I dropped back into
another long sleep.

"I had left no word for Alice when I fled, because I meant to go back
the next morning. But the next morning I was too exhausted to stir. As
the day went on the exhaustion increased, instead of wearing off like
the lassitude left by an ordinary night of insomnia: the effect of the
eyes seemed to be cumulative, and the thought of seeing them again grew
intolerable. For two days I struggled with my dread; but on the third
evening I pulled myself together and decided to go back the next
morning. I felt a good deal happier as soon as I'd decided, for I knew
that my abrupt disappearance, and the strangeness of my not writing,
must have been very painful for poor Alice. That night I went to bed
with an easy mind, and fell asleep at once; but in the middle of the
night I woke, and there were the eyes ...

"Well, I simply couldn't face them; and instead of going back to my
aunt's I bundled a few things into a trunk and jumped onto the first
steamer for England. I was so dead tired when I got on board that I
crawled straight into my berth, and slept most of the way over; and I
can't tell you the bliss it was to wake from those long stretches of
dreamless sleep and look fearlessly into the darkness, _knowing_ that I
shouldn't see the eyes ...

"I stayed abroad for a year, and then I stayed for another; and during
that time I never had a glimpse of them. That was enough reason for
prolonging my stay if I'd been on a desert island. Another was, of
course, that I had perfectly come to see, on the voyage over, the folly,
complete impossibility, of my marrying Alice Nowell. The fact that I had
been so slow in making this discovery annoyed me, and made me want to
avoid explanations. The bliss of escaping at one stroke from the eyes,
and from this other embarrassment, gave my freedom an extraordinary
zest; and the longer I savoured it the better I liked its taste.

"The eyes had burned such a hole in my consciousness that for a long
time I went on puzzling over the nature of the apparition, and wondering
nervously if it would ever come back. But as time passed I lost this
dread, and retained only the precision of the image. Then that faded in
its turn.

"The second year found me settled in Rome, where I was planning, I
believe, to write another great book - a definitive work on Etruscan
influences in Italian art. At any rate, I'd found some pretext of the
kind for taking a sunny apartment in the Piazza di Spagna and dabbling
about indefinitely in the Forum; and there, one morning, a charming
youth came to me. As he stood there in the warm light, slender and
smooth and hyacinthine, he might have stepped from a ruined altar - one
to Antinous, say - but he'd come instead from New York, with a letter (of
all people) from Alice Nowell. The letter - the first I'd had from her
since our break - was simply a line introducing her young cousin, Gilbert
Noyes, and appealing to me to befriend him. It appeared, poor lad, that
he 'had talent,' and 'wanted to write'; and, an obdurate family having
insisted that his calligraphy should take the form of double entry,
Alice had intervened to win him six months' respite, during which he was
to travel on a meagre pittance, and somehow prove his ultimate ability
to increase it by his pen. The quaint conditions of the test struck me
first: it seemed about as conclusive as a mediaeval 'ordeal.' Then I was
touched by her having sent him to me. I had always wanted to do her some
service, to justify myself in my own eyes rather than hers; and here was
a beautiful embodiment of my chance.

"Well, I imagine it's safe to lay down the general principle that
predestined geniuses don't, as a rule, appear before one in the spring
sunshine of the Forum looking like one of its banished gods. At any
rate, poor Noyes wasn't a predestined genius. But he _was_ beautiful to
see, and charming as a comrade too. It was only when he began to talk
literature that my heart failed me. I knew all the symptoms so well - the
things he had 'in him,' and the things outside him that impinged!
There's the real test, after all. It was always - punctually, inevitably,
with the inexorableness of a mechanical law - it was _always_ the wrong
thing that struck him. I grew to find a certain grim fascination
in deciding in advance exactly which wrong thing he'd select; and I
acquired an astonishing skill at the game ...

"The worst of it was that his _betise_ wasn't of the too obvious sort.
Ladies who met him at picnics thought him intellectual; and even at
dinners he passed for clever. I, who had him under the microscope,
fancied now and then that he might develop some kind of a slim talent,
something that he could make 'do' and be happy on; and wasn't that,
after all, what I was concerned with? He was so charming - he continued
to be so charming - that he called forth all my charity in support of
this argument; and for the first few months I really believed there was
a chance for him ...

"Those months were delightful. Noyes was constantly with me, and the
more I saw of him the better I liked him. His stupidity was a natural
grace - it was as beautiful, really, as his eye-lashes. And he was so
gay, so affectionate, and so happy with me, that telling him the truth
would have been about as pleasant as slitting the throat of some artless
animal. At first I used to wonder what had put into that radiant head
the detestable delusion that it held a brain. Then I began to see that
it was simply protective mimicry - an instinctive ruse to get away
from family life and an office desk. Not that Gilbert didn't - dear
lad! - believe in himself. There wasn't a trace of hypocrisy in his
composition. He was sure that his 'call' was irresistible, while to me
it was the saving grace of his situation that it _wasn't_, and that a
little money, a little leisure, a little pleasure would have turned
him into an inoffensive idler. Unluckily, however, there was no hope of
money, and with the grim alternative of the office desk before him he
couldn't postpone his attempt at literature. The stuff he turned out
was deplorable, and I see now that I knew it from the first. Still, the
absurdity of deciding a man's whole future on a first trial seemed to
justify me in withholding my verdict, and perhaps even in encouraging
him a little, on the ground that the human plant generally needs warmth
to flower.

"At any rate, I proceeded on that principle, and carried it to the point
of getting his term of probation extended. When I left Rome he went with
me, and we idled away a delicious summer between Capri and Venice. I
said to myself: 'If he has anything in him, it will come out now; and it
_did_. He was never more enchanting and enchanted. There were moments
of our pilgrimage when beauty born of murmuring sound seemed actually
to pass into his face - but only to issue forth in a shallow flood of the
palest ink ...

"Well the time came to turn off the tap; and I knew there was no hand
but mine to do it. We were back in Rome, and I had taken him to stay
with me, not wanting him to be alone in his dismal _pension_ when he had
to face the necessity of renouncing his ambition. I hadn't, of course,
relied solely on my own judgment in deciding to advise him to drop
literature. I had sent his stuff to various people - editors and
critics - and they had always sent it back with the same chilling lack of
comment. Really there was nothing on earth to say about it -

"I confess I never felt more shabbily than I did on the day when I
decided to have it out with Gilbert. It was well enough to tell myself
that it was my duty to knock the poor boy's hopes into splinters - but
I'd like to know what act of gratuitous cruelty hasn't been justified on
that plea? I've always shrunk from usurping the functions of Providence,
and when I have to exercise them I decidedly prefer that it shouldn't
be on an errand of destruction. Besides, in the last issue, who was I to
decide, even after a year's trial, if poor Gilbert had it in him or not?

"The more I looked at the part I'd resolved to play, the less I liked
it; and I liked it still less when Gilbert sat opposite me, with his
head thrown back in the lamplight, just as Phil's is now ... I'd been
going over his last manuscript, and he knew it, and he knew that his
future hung on my verdict - we'd tacitly agreed to that. The manuscript
lay between us, on my table - a novel, his first novel, if you
please! - and he reached over and laid his hand on it, and looked up at
me with all his life in the look.

"I stood up and cleared my throat, trying to keep my eyes away from his
face and on the manuscript.

"'The fact is, my dear Gilbert,' I began -

"I saw him turn pale, but he was up and facing me in an instant.

"'Oh, look here, don't take on so, my dear fellow! I'm not so awfully
cut up as all that!' His hands were on my shoulders, and he was laughing
down on me from his full height, with a kind of mortally-stricken gaiety
that drove the knife into my side.

"He was too beautifully brave for me to keep up any humbug about my
duty. And it came over me suddenly how I should hurt others in hurting
him: myself first, since sending him home meant losing him; but more
particularly poor Alice Nowell, to whom I had so uneasily longed to
prove my good faith and my immense desire to serve her. It really seemed
like failing her twice to fail Gilbert -

"But my intuition was like one of those lightning flashes that encircle
the whole horizon, and in the same instant I saw what I might be letting
myself in for if I didn't tell the truth. I said to myself: 'I shall
have him for life' - and I'd never yet seen any one, man or woman, whom I
was quite sure of wanting on those terms. Well, this impulse of egotism
decided me. I was ashamed of it, and to get away from it I took a leap
that landed me straight in Gilbert's arms.

"'The thing's all right, and you're all wrong!' I shouted up at him; and
as he hugged me, and I laughed and shook in his incredulous clutch,
I had for a minute the sense of self-complacency that is supposed to
attend the footsteps of the just. Hang it all, making people happy _has_
its charms -

"Gilbert, of course, was for celebrating his emancipation in some
spectacular manner; but I sent him away alone to explode his emotions,
and went to bed to sleep off mine. As I undressed I began to wonder what
their after-taste would be - so many of the finest don't keep! Still, I


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Online LibraryEdith WhartonTales of Men and Ghosts → online text (page 13 of 22)