Edith Wharton.

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and of its vaguely suggesting a seamed sandstone head, the kind of thing
that lies in a corner in the court of a museum, and in which only the
round enamelled eyes have resisted the wear of time. His next feeling
was that he had now reached the moment to which the offer of the cigar
had been a prelude. He had always known that, sooner or later, such a
moment would come; all his life, in a sense, had been a preparation for
it. But in entering Mr. Spence's service he had not foreseen that it
would present itself in this form. He had seen himself consciously
guiding that gentleman up to the moment, rather than being thrust into
it by a stronger hand. And his first act of reflection was the resolve
that, in the end, his hand should prove the stronger of the two. This
was followed, almost immediately, by the idea that to be stronger than
Mr. Spence's it would have to be very strong indeed. It was odd that he
should feel this, since - as far as verbal communication went - it was Mr.
Spence who was asking for his support. In a theoretical statement of the
case the banker would have figured as being at Millner's mercy; but one
of the queerest things about experience was the way it made light
of theory. Millner felt now as though he were being crushed by some
inexorable engine of which he had been playing with the lever. ...

He had always been intensely interested in observing his own reactions,
and had regarded this faculty of self-detachment as of immense advantage
in such a career as he had planned. He felt this still, even in the act
of noting his own bewilderment - felt it the more in contrast to the odd
unconsciousness of Mr. Spence's attitude, of the incredible candour of
his self-abasement and self-abandonment. It was clear that Mr. Spence
was not troubled by the repercussion of his actions in the consciousness
of others; and this looked like a weakness - unless it were, instead, a
great strength. ...

Through the hum of these swarming thoughts Mr. Spence's voice was going
on. "That's the only rag of proof they've got; and they got it by one
of those nasty accidents that nobody can guard against. I don't care
how conscientiously a man attends to business, he can't always protect
himself against meddlesome people. I don't pretend to know how the
letter came into their hands; but they've got it; and they mean to use
it - and they mean to say that you wrote it for me, and that you knew
what it was about when you wrote it. ... They'll probably be after you
tomorrow - "

Mr. Spence, restoring his cigar to his lips, puffed at it slowly. In
the pause that followed there was an instant during which the universe
seemed to Hugh Millner like a sounding-board bent above his single
consciousness. If he spoke, what thunders would be sent back to him from
that intently listening vastness?

"You see?" said Mr. Spence.

The universal ear bent closer, as if to catch the least articulation
of Millner's narrowed lips; but when he opened them it was merely to
re-insert his cigar, and for a short space nothing passed between the
two men but an exchange of smoke-rings.

"What do you mean to do? There's the point," Mr. Spence at length sent
through the rings.

Oh, yes, the point was there, as distinctly before Millner as the tip of
his expensive cigar: he had seen it coming quite as soon as Mr. Spence.
He knew that fate was handing him an ultimatum; but the sense of the
formidable echo which his least answer would rouse kept him doggedly,
and almost helplessly, silent. To let Mr. Spence talk on as long as
possible was no doubt the best way of gaining time; but Millner knew
that his silence was really due to his dread of the echo. Suddenly,
however, in a reaction of impatience at his own indecision, he began to

The sound of his voice cleared his mind and strengthened his resolve.
It was odd how the word seemed to shape the act, though one knew how
ancillary it really was. As he talked, it was as if the globe had
swung around, and he himself were upright on its axis, with Mr. Spence
underneath, on his head. Through the ensuing interchange of concise and
rapid speech there sounded in Millner's ears the refrain to which he had
walked down Fifth Avenue after his first talk with Mr. Spence: "It's too
easy - it's too easy - it's too easy." Yes, it was even easier than he
had expected. His sensation was that of the skilful carver who feels his
good blade sink into a tender joint.

As he went on talking, this surprised sense of mastery was like wine in
his veins. Mr. Spence was at his mercy, after all - that was what it came
to; but this new view of the case did not lessen Millner's sense of Mr.
Spence's strength, it merely revealed to him his own superiority. Mr.
Spence was even stronger than he had suspected. There could be no better
proof of that than his faith in Millner's power to grasp the situation,
and his tacit recognition of the young man's right to make the most of
it. Millner felt that Mr. Spence would have despised him even more for
not using his advantage than for not seeing it; and this homage to
his capacity nerved him to greater alertness, and made the concluding
moments of their talk as physically exhilarating as some hotly contested

When the conclusion was reached, and Millner stood at the goal, the
golden trophy in his grasp, his first conscious thought was one of
regret that the struggle was over. He would have liked to prolong their
talk for the purely aesthetic pleasure of making Mr. Spence lose time,
and, better still, of making him forget that he was losing it. The sense
of advantage that the situation conferred was so great that when Mr.
Spence rose it was as if Millner were dismissing him, and when he
reached his hand toward the cigar-box it seemed to be one of Millner's
cigars that he was taking.


THERE had been only one condition attached to the transaction: Millner
was to speak to Draper about the Bible Class.

The condition was easy to fulfil. Millner was confident of his power to
deflect his young friend's purpose; and he knew the opportunity would be
given him before the day was over. His professional duties despatched,
he had only to go up to his room to wait. Draper nearly always looked
in on him for a moment before dinner: it was the hour most propitious to
their elliptic interchange of words and silences.

Meanwhile, the waiting was an occupation in itself. Millner looked about
his room with new eyes. Since the first thrill of initiation into its
complicated comforts - the shower-bath, the telephone, the many-jointed
reading-lamp and the vast mirrored presses through which he was always
hunting his scant outfit - Millner's room had interested him no more than
a railway-carriage in which he might have been travelling. But now
it had acquired a sort of historic significance as the witness of the
astounding change in his fate. It was Corsica, it was Brienne - it was
the kind of spot that posterity might yet mark with a tablet. Then
he reflected that he should soon be leaving it, and the lustre of its
monumental mahogany was veiled in pathos. Why indeed should he linger on
in bondage? He perceived with a certain surprise that the only thing he
should regret would be leaving Draper. ...

It was odd, it was inconsequent, it was almost exasperating, that such
a regret should obscure his triumph. Why in the world should he suddenly
take to regretting Draper? If there were any logic in human likings,
it should be to Mr. Spence that he inclined. Draper, dear lad, had the
illusion of an "intellectual sympathy" between them; but that, Millner
knew, was an affair of reading and not of character. Draper's temerities
would always be of that kind; whereas his own - well, his own, put to the
proof, had now definitely classed him with Mr. Spence rather than with
Mr. Spence's son. It was a consequence of this new condition - of his
having thus distinctly and irrevocably classed himself - that, when
Draper at length brought upon the scene his shy shamble and his wistful
smile, Millner, for the first time, had to steel himself against them
instead of yielding to their charm.

In the new order upon which he had entered, one principle of the old
survived: the point of honour between allies. And Millner had promised
Mr. Spence to speak to Draper about his Bible Class. ...

Draper, thrown back in his chair, and swinging a loose leg across a
meagre knee, listened with his habitual gravity. His downcast eyes
seemed to pursue the vision which Millner's words evoked; and the words,
to their speaker, took on a new sound as that candid consciousness
refracted them.

"You know, dear boy, I perfectly see your father's point. It's naturally
distressing to him, at this particular time, to have any hint of civil
war leak out - "

Draper sat upright, laying his lank legs knee to knee.

"That's it, then? I thought that was it!"

Millner raised a surprised glance. "_ What's_ it?"

"That it should be at this particular time - "

"Why, naturally, as I say! Just as he's making, as it were, his public
profession of faith. You know, to men like your father convictions are
irreducible elements - they can't be split up, and differently combined.
And your exegetical scruples seem to him to strike at the very root of
his convictions."

Draper pulled himself to his feet and shuffled across the room. Then he
turned about, and stood before his friend.

"Is it that - or is it this?" he said; and with the word he drew a letter
from his pocket and proffered it silently to Millner.

The latter, as he unfolded it, was first aware of an intense surprise at
the young man's abruptness of tone and gesture. Usually Draper fluttered
long about his point before making it; and his sudden movement seemed as
mechanical as the impulsion conveyed by some strong spring. The spring,
of course, was in the letter; and to it Millner turned his startled
glance, feeling the while that, by some curious cleavage of perception,
he was continuing to watch Draper while he read.

"Oh, the beasts!" he cried.

He and Draper were face to face across the sheet which had dropped
between them. The youth's features were tightened by a smile that was
like the ligature of a wound. He looked white and withered.

"Ah - you knew, then?"

Millner sat still, and after a moment Draper turned from him, walked
to the hearth, and leaned against the chimney, propping his chin on his
hands. Millner, his head thrown back, stared up at the ceiling, which
had suddenly become to him the image of the universal sounding-board
hanging over his consciousness.

"You knew, then?" Draper repeated.

Millner remained silent. He had perceived, with the surprise of a
mathematician working out a new problem, that the lie which Mr. Spence
had just bought of him was exactly the one gift he could give of his own
free will to Mr. Spence's son. This discovery gave the world a strange
new topsy-turvyness, and set Millner's theories spinning about his brain
like the cabin furniture of a tossing ship.

"You _knew_," said Draper, in a tone of quiet affirmation.

Millner righted himself, and grasped the arms of his chair as if that
too were reeling. "About this blackguardly charge?"

Draper was studying him intently. "What does it matter if it's

"Matter - ?" Millner stammered.

"It's that, of course, in any case. But the point is whether it's true
or not." Draper bent down, and picking up the crumpled letter, smoothed
it out between his fingers. "The point, is, whether my father, when he
was publicly denouncing the peonage abuses on the San Pablo plantations
over a year ago, had actually sold out his stock, as he announced at the
time; or whether, as they say here - how do they put it? - he had simply
transferred it to a dummy till the scandal should blow over, and has
meanwhile gone on drawing his forty per cent interest on five thousand
shares? There's the point."

Millner had never before heard his young friend put a case with such
unadorned precision. His language was like that of Mr. Spence making
a statement to a committee meeting; and the resemblance to his father
flashed out with ironic incongruity.

"You see why I've brought this letter to you - I couldn't go to _him_
with it!" Draper's voice faltered, and the resemblance vanished as
suddenly as it had appeared.

"No; you couldn't go to him with it," said Millner slowly.

"And since they say here that _you_ know: that they've got your letter
proving it - " The muscles of Draper's face quivered as if a blinding
light had been swept over it. "For God's sake, Millner - it's all right?"

"It's all right," said Millner, rising to his feet.

Draper caught him by the wrist. "You're sure - you're absolutely sure?"

"Sure. They know they've got nothing to go on."

Draper fell back a step and looked almost sternly at his friend. "You
know that's not what I mean. I don't care a straw what they think
they've got to go on. I want to know if my father's all right. If he is,
they can say what they please."

Millner, again, felt himself under the concentrated scrutiny of the
ceiling. "Of course, of course. I understand."

"You understand? Then why don't you answer?"

Millner looked compassionately at the boy's struggling face. Decidedly,
the battle was to the strong, and he was not sorry to be on the side of
the legions. But Draper's pain was as awkward as a material obstacle, as
something that one stumbled over in a race.

"You know what I'm driving at, Millner." Again Mr. Spence's
committee-meeting tone sounded oddly through his son's strained voice.
"If my father's so awfully upset about my giving up my Bible Class, and
letting it be known that I do so on conscientious grounds, is it because
he's afraid it may be considered a criticism on something _he_ has done
which - which won't bear the test of the doctrines he believes in?"

Draper, with the last question, squared himself in front of Millner, as
if suspecting that the latter meant to evade it by flight. But Millner
had never felt more disposed to stand his ground than at that moment.

"No - by Jove, no! It's not _that_." His relief almost escaped him in a
cry, as he lifted his head to give back Draper's look.

"On your honour?" the other passionately pressed him.

"Oh, on anybody's you like - on _yours!_" Millner could hardly restrain
a laugh of relief. It was vertiginous to find himself spared, after all,
the need of an altruistic lie: he perceived that they were the kind he
least liked.

Draper took a deep breath. "You don't - Millner, a lot depends on
this - you don't really think my father has any ulterior motive?"

"I think he has none but his horror of seeing you go straight to

They looked at each other again, and Draper's tension was suddenly
relieved by a free boyish laugh. "It's his convictions - it's just his
funny old convictions?"

"It's that, and nothing else on earth!"

Draper turned back to the arm-chair he had left, and let his narrow
figure sink down into it as into a bath. Then he looked over at Millner
with a smile. "I can see that I've been worrying him horribly. So he
really thinks I'm on the road to perdition? Of course you can fancy what
a sick minute I had when I thought it might be this other reason - the
damnable insinuation in this letter." Draper crumpled the paper in his
hand, and leaned forward to toss it into the coals of the grate. "I
ought to have known better, of course. I ought to have remembered that,
as you say, my father can't conceive how conduct may be independent of
creed. That's where I was stupid - and rather base. But that letter made
me dizzy - I couldn't think. Even now I can't very clearly. I'm not sure
what _my_ convictions require of me: they seem to me so much less to be
considered than his! When I've done half the good to people that he
has, it will be time enough to begin attacking their beliefs.
Meanwhile - meanwhile I can't touch his. ..." Draper leaned forward,
stretching his lank arms along his knees. His face was as clear as a
spring sky. "I _won't_ touch them, Millner - Go and tell him so. ..."


In the study a half hour later Mr. Spence, watch in hand, was doling
out his minutes again. The peril conjured, he had recovered his dominion
over time. He turned his commanding eye-glasses on Millner.

"It's all settled, then? Tell Draper I'm sorry not to see him
again to-night - but I'm to speak at the dinner of the Legal Relief
Association, and I'm due there in five minutes. You and he dine alone
here, I suppose? Tell him I appreciate what he's done. Some day he'll
see that to leave the world better than we find it is the best we can
hope to do. (You've finished the notes for the _Investigator?_ Be sure
you don't forget that phrase.) Well, good evening: that's all, I think."

Smooth and compact in his glossy evening clothes, Mr. Spence advanced
toward the study door; but as he reached it, his secretary stood there
before him.

"It's not quite all, Mr. Spence."

Mr. Spence turned on him a look in which impatience was faintly tinged
with apprehension. "What else is there? It's two and a half minutes to

Millner stood his ground. "It won't take longer than that. I want to
tell you that, if you can conveniently replace me, I'd like - there are
reasons why I shall have to leave you."

Millner was conscious of reddening as he spoke. His redness deepened
under Mr. Spence's dispassionate scrutiny. He saw at once that the
banker was not surprised at his announcement.

"Well, I suppose that's natural enough. You'll want to make a start for
yourself now. Only, of course, for the sake of appearances - "

"Oh, certainly," Millner hastily agreed.

"Well, then: is that all?" Mr. Spence repeated.

"Nearly." Millner paused, as if in search of an appropriate formula.
But after a moment he gave up the search, and pulled from his pocket an
envelope which he held out to his employer. "I merely want to give this

The hand which Mr. Spence had extended dropped to his side, and his
sand-coloured face grew chalky. "Give it back?" His voice was as thick
as Millner's. "What's happened? Is the bargain off?"

"Oh, no. I've given you my word."

"Your word?" Mr. Spence lowered at him. "I'd like to know what that's

Millner continued to hold out the envelope. "You do know, now. It's
worth _that_. It's worth my place."

Mr. Spence, standing motionless before him, hesitated for an appreciable
space of time. His lips parted once or twice under their square-clipped
stubble, and at last emitted: "How much more do you want?"

Millner broke into a laugh. "Oh, I've got all I want - all and more!"

"What - from the others? Are you crazy?"

"No, you are," said Millner with a sudden recovery of composure. "But
you're safe - you're as safe as you'll ever be. Only I don't care to take
this for making you so."

Mr. Spence slowly moistened his lips with his tongue, and removing his
_pince-nez_, took a long hard look at Millner.

"I don't understand. What other guarantee have I got?"

"That I mean what I say?" Millner glanced past the banker's figure at
his rich densely coloured background of Spanish leather and mahogany. He
remembered that it was from this very threshold that he had first seen
Mr. Spence's son.

"What guarantee? You've got Draper!" he said.



"Oh, there _is_ one, of course, but you'll never know it."

The assertion, laughingly flung out six months earlier in a bright June
garden, came back to Mary Boyne with a sharp perception of its latent
significance as she stood, in the December dusk, waiting for the lamps
to be brought into the library.

The words had been spoken by their friend Alida Stair, as they sat at
tea on her lawn at Pangbourne, in reference to the very house of which
the library in question was the central, the pivotal "feature." Mary
Boyne and her husband, in quest of a country place in one of the
southern or southwestern counties, had, on their arrival in England,
carried their problem straight to Alida Stair, who had successfully
solved it in her own case; but it was not until they had rejected,
almost capriciously, several practical and judicious suggestions that
she threw it out: "Well, there's Lyng, in Dorsetshire. It belongs to
Hugo's cousins, and you can get it for a song."

The reasons she gave for its being obtainable on these terms - its
remoteness from a station, its lack of electric light, hot-water pipes,
and other vulgar necessities - were exactly those pleading in its
favor with two romantic Americans perversely in search of the economic
drawbacks which were associated, in their tradition, with unusual
architectural felicities.

"I should never believe I was living in an old house unless I was
thoroughly uncomfortable," Ned Boyne, the more extravagant of the two,
had jocosely insisted; "the least hint of 'convenience' would make me
think it had been bought out of an exhibition, with the pieces numbered,
and set up again." And they had proceeded to enumerate, with humorous
precision, their various suspicions and exactions, refusing to believe
that the house their cousin recommended was _really_ Tudor till they
learned it had no heating system, or that the village church was
literally in the grounds till she assured them of the deplorable
uncertainty of the water-supply.

"It's too uncomfortable to be true!" Edward Boyne had continued to exult
as the avowal of each disadvantage was successively wrung from her; but
he had cut short his rhapsody to ask, with a sudden relapse to distrust:
"And the ghost? You've been concealing from us the fact that there is no

Mary, at the moment, had laughed with him, yet almost with her laugh,
being possessed of several sets of independent perceptions, had noted a
sudden flatness of tone in Alida's answering hilarity.

"Oh, Dorsetshire's full of ghosts, you know."

"Yes, yes; but that won't do. I don't want to have to drive ten miles
to see somebody else's ghost. I want one of my own on the premises. _Is_
there a ghost at Lyng?"

His rejoinder had made Alida laugh again, and it was then that she had
flung back tantalizingly: "Oh, there _is_ one, of course, but you'll
never know it."

"Never know it?" Boyne pulled her up. "But what in the world constitutes
a ghost except the fact of its being known for one?"

"I can't say. But that's the story."

"That there's a ghost, but that nobody knows it's a ghost?"

"Well - not till afterward, at any rate."

"Till afterward?"

"Not till long, long afterward."

"But if it's once been identified as an unearthly visitant, why hasn't
its _signalement_ been handed down in the family? How has it managed to
preserve its incognito?"

Alida could only shake her head. "Don't ask me. But it has."

"And then suddenly - " Mary spoke up as if from some cavernous depth of
divination - "suddenly, long afterward, one says to one's self, _'That
was_ it?'"

She was oddly startled at the sepulchral sound with which her question
fell on the banter of the other two, and she saw the shadow of the same
surprise flit across Alida's clear pupils. "I suppose so. One just has
to wait."

"Oh, hang waiting!" Ned broke in. "Life's too short for a ghost who can
only be enjoyed in retrospect. Can't we do better than that, Mary?"

But it turned out that in the event they were not destined to, for
within three months of their conversation with Mrs. Stair they were
established at Lyng, and the life they had yearned for to the point of
planning it out in all its daily details had actually begun for them.

It was to sit, in the thick December dusk, by just such a wide-hooded
fireplace, under just such black oak rafters, with the sense that beyond
the mullioned panes the downs were darkening to a deeper solitude: it
was for the ultimate indulgence in such sensations that Mary Boyne had
endured for nearly fourteen years the soul-deadening ugliness of the
Middle West, and that Boyne had ground on doggedly at his engineering
till, with a suddenness that still made her blink, the prodigious
windfall of the Blue Star Mine had put them at a stroke in possession
of life and the leisure to taste it. They had never for a moment meant
their new state to be one of idleness; but they meant to give themselves
only to harmonious activities. She had her vision of painting and
gardening (against a background of gray walls), he dreamed of the
production of his long-planned book on the "Economic Basis of
Culture"; and with such absorbing work ahead no existence could be too
sequestered; they could not get far enough from the world, or plunge

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Online LibraryEdith WhartonTales of Men and Ghosts → online text (page 16 of 22)