Edith Wharton.

Tales of Men and Ghosts online

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wasn't sorry, and I meant to empty the bottle, even if it _did_ turn a
trifle flat.

"After I got into bed I lay for a long time smiling at the memory of his
eyes - his blissful eyes... Then I fell asleep, and when I woke the room
was deathly cold, and I sat up with a jerk - and there were _the other
eyes_ ...

"It was three years since I'd seen them, but I'd thought of them so
often that I fancied they could never take me unawares again. Now, with
their red sneer on me, I knew that I had never really believed they
would come back, and that I was as defenceless as ever against them ...
As before, it was the insane irrelevance of their coming that made it
so horrible. What the deuce were they after, to leap out at me at such
a time? I had lived more or less carelessly in the years since I'd seen
them, though my worst indiscretions were not dark enough to invite the
searchings of their infernal glare; but at this particular moment I was
really in what might have been called a state of grace; and I can't tell
you how the fact added to their horror ...

"But it's not enough to say they were as bad as before: they were worse.
Worse by just so much as I'd learned of life in the interval; by all the
damnable implications my wider experience read into them. I saw now
what I hadn't seen before: that they were eyes which had grown hideous
gradually, which had built up their baseness coral-wise, bit by bit,
out of a series of small turpitudes slowly accumulated through the
industrious years. Yes - it came to me that what made them so bad was
that they'd grown bad so slowly ...

"There they hung in the darkness, their swollen lids dropped across the
little watery bulbs rolling loose in the orbits, and the puff of fat
flesh making a muddy shadow underneath - and as their filmy stare moved
with my movements, there came over me a sense of their tacit complicity,
of a deep hidden understanding between us that was worse than the first
shock of their strangeness. Not that I understood them; but that they
made it so clear that some day I should ... Yes, that was the worst part
of it, decidedly; and it was the feeling that became stronger each time
they came back to me ...

"For they got into the damnable habit of coming back. They reminded me
of vampires with a taste for young flesh, they seemed so to gloat over
the taste of a good conscience. Every night for a month they came to
claim their morsel of mine: since I'd made Gilbert happy they simply
wouldn't loosen their fangs. The coincidence almost made me hate him,
poor lad, fortuitous as I felt it to be. I puzzled over it a good deal,
but couldn't find any hint of an explanation except in the chance of his
association with Alice Nowell. But then the eyes had let up on me the
moment I had abandoned her, so they could hardly be the emissaries of a
woman scorned, even if one could have pictured poor Alice charging such
spirits to avenge her. That set me thinking, and I began to wonder
if they would let up on me if I abandoned Gilbert. The temptation was
insidious, and I had to stiffen myself against it; but really, dear boy!
he was too charming to be sacrificed to such demons. And so, after all,
I never found out what they wanted ..."


THE fire crumbled, sending up a flash which threw into relief the
narrator's gnarled red face under its grey-black stubble. Pressed into
the hollow of the dark leather armchair, it stood out an instant like
an intaglio of yellowish red-veined stone, with spots of enamel for the
eyes; then the fire sank and in the shaded lamp-light it became once
more a dim Rembrandtish blur.

Phil Frenham, sitting in a low chair on the opposite side of the hearth,
one long arm propped on the table behind him, one hand supporting his
thrown-back head, and his eyes steadily fixed on his old friend's face,
had not moved since the tale began. He continued to maintain his silent
immobility after Culwin had ceased to speak, and it was I who, with a
vague sense of disappointment at the sudden drop of the story, finally
asked: "But how long did you keep on seeing them?"

Culwin, so sunk into his chair that he seemed like a heap of his own
empty clothes, stirred a little, as if in surprise at my question. He
appeared to have half-forgotten what he had been telling us.

"How long? Oh, off and on all that winter. It was infernal. I never got
used to them. I grew really ill."

Frenham shifted his attitude silently, and as he did so his elbow struck
against a small mirror in a bronze frame standing on the table behind
him. He turned and changed its angle slightly; then he resumed his
former attitude, his dark head thrown back on his lifted palm, his eyes
intent on Culwin's face. Something in his stare embarrassed me, and as
if to divert attention from it I pressed on with another question:

"And you never tried sacrificing Noyes?"

"Oh, no. The fact is I didn't have to. He did it for me, poor infatuated

"Did it for you? How do you mean?"

"He wore me out - wore everybody out. He kept on pouring out his
lamentable twaddle, and hawking it up and down the place till he became
a thing of terror. I tried to wean him from writing - oh, ever so gently,
you understand, by throwing him with agreeable people, giving him a
chance to make himself felt, to come to a sense of what he _really_ had
to give. I'd foreseen this solution from the beginning - felt sure that,
once the first ardour of authorship was quenched, he'd drop into his
place as a charming parasitic thing, the kind of chronic Cherubino for
whom, in old societies, there's always a seat at table, and a shelter
behind the ladies' skirts. I saw him take his place as 'the poet': the
poet who doesn't write. One knows the type in every drawing-room. Living
in that way doesn't cost much - I'd worked it all out in my mind, and
felt sure that, with a little help, he could manage it for the next
few years; and meanwhile he'd be sure to marry. I saw him married to
a widow, rather older, with a good cook and a well-run house. And I
actually had my eye on the widow ... Meanwhile I did everything to
facilitate the transition - lent him money to ease his conscience,
introduced him to pretty women to make him forget his vows. But nothing
would do him: he had but one idea in his beautiful obstinate head. He
wanted the laurel and not the rose, and he kept on repeating Gautier's
axiom, and battering and filing at his limp prose till he'd spread it
out over Lord knows how many thousand sloppy pages. Now and then he
would send a pailful to a publisher, and of course it would always come

"At first it didn't matter - he thought he was 'misunderstood.' He took
the attitudes of genius, and whenever an opus came home he wrote another
to keep it company. Then he had a reaction of despair, and accused me of
deceiving him, and Lord knows what. I got angry at that, and told him
it was he who had deceived himself. He'd come to me determined to write,
and I'd done my best to help him. That was the extent of my offence, and
I'd done it for his cousin's sake, not his.

"That seemed to strike home, and he didn't answer for a minute. Then he
said: 'My time's up and my money's up. What do you think I'd better do?'

"'I think you'd better not be an ass,' I said.

"He turned red, and asked: 'What do you mean by being an ass?'

"I took a letter from my desk and held it out to him.

"'I mean refusing this offer of Mrs. Ellinger's: to be her secretary at
a salary of five thousand dollars. There may be a lot more in it than

"He flung out his hand with a violence that struck the letter from mine.
'Oh, I know well enough what's in it!' he said, scarlet to the roots of
his hair.

"'And what's your answer, if you know?' I asked.

"He made none at the minute, but turned away slowly to the door. There,
with his hand on the threshold, he stopped to ask, almost under his
breath: 'Then you really think my stuff's no good?'

"I was tired and exasperated, and I laughed. I don't defend my laugh - it
was in wretched taste. But I must plead in extenuation that the boy was
a fool, and that I'd done my best for him - I really had.

"He went out of the room, shutting the door quietly after him. That
afternoon I left for Frascati, where I'd promised to spend the Sunday
with some friends. I was glad to escape from Gilbert, and by the same
token, as I learned that night, I had also escaped from the eyes. I
dropped into the same lethargic sleep that had come to me before when
their visitations ceased; and when I woke the next morning, in my
peaceful painted room above the ilexes, I felt the utter weariness and
deep relief that always followed on that repairing slumber. I put in two
blessed nights at Frascati, and when I got back to my rooms in Rome I
found that Gilbert had gone ... Oh, nothing tragic had happened - the
episode never rose to _that_. He'd simply packed his manuscripts and
left for America - for his family and the Wall Street desk. He left a
decent little note to tell me of his decision, and behaved altogether,
in the circumstances, as little like a fool as it's possible for a fool
to behave ..."


CULWIN paused again, and again Frenham sat motionless, the dusky contour
of his young head reflected in the mirror at his back.

"And what became of Noyes afterward?" I finally asked, still disquieted
by a sense of incompleteness, by the need of some connecting thread
between the parallel lines of the tale.

Culwin twitched his shoulders. "Oh, nothing became of him - because he
became nothing. There could be no question of 'becoming' about it. He
vegetated in an office, I believe, and finally got a clerkship in a
consulate, and married drearily in China. I saw him once in Hong Kong,
years afterward. He was fat and hadn't shaved. I was told he drank. He
didn't recognize me."

"And the eyes?" I asked, after another pause which Frenham's continued
silence made oppressive.

Culwin, stroking his chin, blinked at me meditatively through the
shadows. "I never saw them after my last talk with Gilbert. Put two and
two together if you can. For my part, I haven't found the link."

He rose stiffly, his hands in his pockets, and walked over to the table
on which reviving drinks had been set out.

"You must be parched after this dry tale. Here, help yourself, my dear
fellow. Here, Phil - " He turned back to the hearth.

Frenham still sat in his low chair, making no response to his host's
hospitable summons. But as Culwin advanced toward him, their eyes met in
a long look; after which, to my intense surprise, the young man, turning
suddenly in his seat, flung his arms across the table, and dropped his
face upon them.

Culwin, at the unexpected gesture, stopped short, a flush on his face.

"Phil - what the deuce? Why, have the eyes scared _you?_ My dear boy - my
dear fellow - I never had such a tribute to my literary ability, never!"

He broke into a chuckle at the thought, and halted on the hearth-rug,
his hands still in his pockets, gazing down in honest perplexity at the
youth's bowed head. Then, as Frenham still made no answer, he moved a
step or two nearer.

"Cheer up, my dear Phil! It's years since I've seen them - apparently
I've done nothing lately bad enough to call them out of chaos. Unless my
present evocation of them has made _you_ see them; which would be their
worst stroke yet!"

His bantering appeal quivered off into an uneasy laugh, and he moved
still nearer, bending over Frenham, and laying his gouty hands on the
lad's shoulders.

"Phil, my dear boy, really - what's the matter? Why don't you answer?
_Have_ you seen the eyes?"

Frenham's face was still pressed against his arms, and from where I
stood behind Culwin I saw the latter, as if under the rebuff of this
unaccountable attitude, draw back slowly from his friend. As he did so,
the light of the lamp on the table fell full on his perplexed congested
face, and I caught its sudden reflection in the mirror behind Frenham's

Culwin saw the reflection also. He paused, his face level with the
mirror, as if scarcely recognizing the countenance in it as his own. But
as he looked his expression gradually changed, and for an appreciable
space of time he and the image in the glass confronted each other with
a glare of slowly gathering hate. Then Culwin let go of Frenham's
shoulders, and drew back a step, covering his eyes with his hands ...

Frenham, his face still hidden, did not stir.



IT had been almost too easy - that was young Millner's first feeling,
as he stood again on the Spence door-step, the great moment of his
interview behind him, and Fifth Avenue rolling its grimy Pactolus at his

Halting there in the winter light, with the clang of the ponderous
vestibule doors in his ears, and his eyes carried down the perspective
of the packed interminable thoroughfare, he even dared to remember
Rastignac's apostrophe to Paris, and to hazard recklessly under his
small fair moustache: "Who knows?"

He, Hugh Millner, at any rate, knew a good deal already: a good deal
more than he had imagined it possible to learn in half an hour's talk
with a man like Orlando G. Spence; and the loud-rumouring city spread
out there before him seemed to grin like an accomplice who knew the

A gust of wind, whirling down from the dizzy height of the building on
the next corner, drove sharply through his overcoat and compelled him
to clutch at his hat. It was a bitter January day, a day of fierce light
and air, when the sunshine cut like icicles and the wind sucked one into
black gulfs at the street corners. But Millner's complacency was like
a warm lining to his shabby coat, and heaving steadied his hat he
continued to stand on the Spence threshold, lost in the vision revealed
to him from the Pisgah of its marble steps. Yes, it was wonderful what
the vision showed him. ... In his absorption he might have frozen
fast to the door-step if the Rhadamanthine portals behind him had not
suddenly opened to let out a slim fur-coated figure, the figure, as he
perceived, of the youth whom he had caught in the act of withdrawal as
he entered Mr. Spence's study, and whom the latter, with a wave of his
affable hand, had detained to introduce as "my son Draper."

It was characteristic of the odd friendliness of the whole scene that
the great man should have thought it worth while to call back and name
his heir to a mere humble applicant like Millner; and that the heir
should shed on him, from a pale high-browed face, a smile of such
deprecating kindness. It was characteristic, equally, of Millner, that
he should at once mark the narrowness of the shoulders sustaining this
ingenuous head; a narrowness, as he now observed, imperfectly concealed
by the wide fur collar of young Spence's expensive and badly cut coat.
But the face took on, as the youth smiled his surprise at their second
meeting, a look of almost plaintive good-will: the kind of look that
Millner scorned and yet could never quite resist.

"Mr. Millner? Are you - er - waiting?" the lad asked, with an intention
of serviceableness that was like a finer echo of his father's resounding

"For my motor? No," Millner jested in his frank free voice. "The fact
is, I was just standing here lost in the contemplation of my luck" - and
as his companion's pale blue eyes seemed to shape a question, "my
extraordinary luck," he explained, "in having been engaged as your
father's secretary."

"Oh," the other rejoined, with a faint colour in his sallow cheek. "I'm
so glad," he murmured: "but I was sure - " He stopped, and the two looked
kindly at each other.

Millner averted his gaze first, almost fearful of its betraying the
added sense of his own strength and dexterity which he drew from the
contrast of the other's frailness.

"Sure? How could any one be sure? I don't believe in it yet!" he laughed
out in the irony of his triumph.

The boy's words did not sound like a mere civility - Millner felt in them
an homage to his power.

"Oh, yes: I was sure," young Draper repeated. "Sure as soon as I saw
you, I mean."

Millner tingled again with this tribute to his physical straightness and
bloom. Yes, he looked his part, hang it - he looked it!

But his companion still lingered, a shy sociability in his eye.

"If you're walking, then, can I go along a little way?" And he nodded
southward down the shabby gaudy avenue.

That, again, was part of the high comedy of the hour - that Millner
should descend the Spence steps at young Spence's side, and stroll down
Fifth Avenue with him at the proudest moment of the afternoon; O. G.
Spence's secretary walking abroad with O. G. Spence's heir! He had the
scientific detachment to pull out his watch and furtively note the hour.
Yes - it was exactly forty minutes since he had rung the Spence door-bell
and handed his card to a gelid footman, who, openly sceptical of his
claim to be received, had left him unceremoniously planted on the cold
tessellations of the vestibule.

"Some day," Miller grinned to himself, "I think I'll take that footman
as furnace-man - or to do the boots." And he pictured his marble palace
rising from the earth to form the mausoleum of a footman's pride.

Only forty minutes ago! And now he had his opportunity fast! And he
never meant to let it go! It was incredible, what had happened in the
interval. He had gone up the Spence steps an unknown young man, out of a
job, and with no substantial hope of getting into one: a needy young
man with a mother and two limp sisters to be helped, and a lengthening
figure of debt that stood by his bed through the anxious nights. And he
went down the steps with his present assured, and his future lit by the
hues of the rainbow above the pot of gold. Certainly a fellow who made
his way at that rate had it "in him," and could afford to trust his

Descending from this joyous flight he stooped his ear to the discourse
of young Spence.

"My father'll work you rather hard, you know: but you look as if you
wouldn't mind that."

Millner pulled up his inches with the self-consciousness of the man who
had none to waste. "Oh, no, I shan't mind that: I don't mind any amount
of work if it leads to something."

"Just so," Draper Spence assented eagerly. "That's what I feel. And
you'll find that whatever my father undertakes leads to such awfully
fine things."

Millner tightened his lips on a grin. He was thinking only of where the
work would lead him, not in the least of where it might land the eminent
Orlando G. Spence. But he looked at his companion sympathetically.

"You're a philanthropist like your father, I see?"

"Oh, I don't know." They had paused at a crossing, and young Draper,
with a dubious air, stood striking his agate-headed stick against the
curb-stone. "I believe in a purpose, don't you?" he asked, lifting his
blue eyes suddenly to Millner's face.

"A purpose? I should rather say so! I believe in nothing else," cried
Millner, feeling as if his were something he could grip in his hand and
swing like a club.

Young Spence seemed relieved. "Yes - I tie up to that. There _is_ a
Purpose. And so, after all, even if I don't agree with my father on
minor points ..." He coloured quickly, and looked again at Millner. "I
should like to talk to you about this some day."

Millner smothered another smile. "We'll have lots of talks, I hope."

"Oh, if you can spare the time - !" said Draper, almost humbly.

"Why, I shall be there on tap!"

"For father, not me." Draper hesitated, with another self-confessing
smile. "Father thinks I talk too much - that I keep going in and out of
things. He doesn't believe in analyzing: he thinks it's destructive.
But it hasn't destroyed my ideals." He looked wistfully up and down the
clanging street. "And that's the main thing, isn't it? I mean, that
one should have an Ideal." He turned back almost gaily to Millner. "I
suspect you're a revolutionist too!"

"Revolutionist? Rather! I belong to the Red Syndicate and the Black
Hand!" Millner joyfully assented.

Young Draper chuckled at the enormity of the joke. "First rate! We'll
have incendiary meetings!" He pulled an elaborately armorial watch from
his enfolding furs. "I'm so sorry, but I must say good-bye - this is my
street," he explained. Millner, with a faint twinge of envy, glanced
across at the colonnaded marble edifice in the farther corner. "Going to
the club?" he said carelessly.

His companion looked surprised. "Oh, no: I never go _there_. It's too
boring." And he brought out, after one of the pauses in which he seemed
rather breathlessly to measure the chances of his listener's indulgence:
"I'm just going over to a little Bible Class I have in Tenth Avenue."

Millner, for a moment or two, stood watching the slim figure wind its
way through the mass of vehicles to the opposite corner; then he pursued
his own course down Fifth Avenue, measuring his steps to the rhythmic
refrain: "It's too easy - it's too easy - it's too easy!"

His own destination being the small shabby flat off University Place
where three tender females awaited the result of his mission, he had
time, on the way home, after abandoning himself to a general sense
of triumph, to dwell specifically on the various aspects of his
achievement. Viewed materially and practically, it was a thing to be
proud of; yet it was chiefly on aesthetic grounds - because he had done
so exactly what he had set out to do - that he glowed with pride at the
afternoon's work. For, after all, any young man with the proper "pull"
might have applied to Orlando G. Spence for the post of secretary, and
even have penetrated as far as the great man's study; but that he, Hugh
Millner, should not only have forced his way to this fastness, but
have established, within a short half hour, his right to remain there
permanently: well, this, if it proved anything, proved that the first
rule of success was to know how to live up to one's principles.

"One must have a plan - one must have a plan," the young man murmured,
looking with pity at the vague faces which the crowd bore past him, and
feeling almost impelled to detain them and expound his doctrine. But the
planlessness of average human nature was of course the measure of his
opportunity; and he smiled to think that every purposeless face he met
was a guarantee of his own advancement, a rung in the ladder he meant to

Yes, the whole secret of success was to know what one wanted to do, and
not to be afraid to do it. His own history was proving that already.
He had not been afraid to give up his small but safe position in
a real-estate office for the precarious adventure of a private
secretaryship; and his first glimpse of his new employer had convinced
him that he had not mistaken his calling. When one has a "way" with
one - as, in all modesty, Millner knew he had - not to utilize it is a
stupid waste of force. And when he had learned that Orlando G. Spence
was in search of a private secretary who should be able to give him
intelligent assistance in the execution of his philanthropic schemes,
the young man felt that his hour had come. It was no part of his plan
to associate himself with one of the masters of finance: he had a notion
that minnows who go to a whale to learn how to grow bigger are likely to
be swallowed in the process. The opportunity of a clever young man
with a cool head and no prejudices (this again was drawn from life) lay
rather in making himself indispensable to one of the beneficent rich,
and in using the timidities and conformities of his patron as the means
of his scruples about formulating these principles to himself. It
was not for nothing that, in his college days, he had hunted the
hypothetical "moral sense" to its lair, and dragged from their
concealment the various self-advancing sentiments dissembled under its
edifying guise. His strength lay in his precocious insight into the
springs of action, and in his refusal to classify them according to the
accepted moral and social sanctions. He had to the full the courage of
his lack of convictions.

To a young man so untrammelled by prejudice it was self-evident that
helpless philanthropists like Orlando G. Spence were just as much the
natural diet of the strong as the lamb is of the wolf. It was pleasanter
to eat than to be eaten, in a world where, as yet, there seemed to be no
third alternative; and any scruples one might feel as to the temporary
discomfort of one's victim were speedily dispelled by that larger
scientific view which took into account the social destructiveness
of the benevolent. Millner was persuaded that every individual woe

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Online LibraryEdith WhartonTales of Men and Ghosts → online text (page 14 of 22)