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once that he seemed surprised at her continued ignorance of the subject.
Was it possible that she really knew as little as she said?

"I know nothing - you must tell me," she faltered out; and her visitor
thereupon proceeded to unfold his story. It threw, even to her confused
perceptions, and imperfectly initiated vision, a lurid glare on the
whole hazy episode of the Blue Star Mine. Her husband had made his money
in that brilliant speculation at the cost of "getting ahead" of some one
less alert to seize the chance; the victim of his ingenuity was young
Robert Elwell, who had "put him on" to the Blue Star scheme.

Parvis, at Mary's first startled cry, had thrown her a sobering glance
through his impartial glasses.

"Bob Elwell wasn't smart enough, that's all; if he had been, he might
have turned round and served Boyne the same way. It's the kind of thing
that happens every day in business. I guess it's what the scientists
call the survival of the fittest," said Mr. Parvis, evidently pleased
with the aptness of his analogy.

Mary felt a physical shrinking from the next question she tried to
frame; it was as though the words on her lips had a taste that nauseated

"But then - you accuse my husband of doing something dishonorable?"

Mr. Parvis surveyed the question dispassionately. "Oh, no, I don't.
I don't even say it wasn't straight." He glanced up and down the long
lines of books, as if one of them might have supplied him with the
definition he sought. "I don't say it _wasn't_ straight, and yet I don't
say it _was_ straight. It was business." After all, no definition in his
category could be more comprehensive than that.

Mary sat staring at him with a look of terror. He seemed to her like the
indifferent, implacable emissary of some dark, formless power.

"But Mr. Elwell's lawyers apparently did not take your view, since I
suppose the suit was withdrawn by their advice."

"Oh, yes, they knew he hadn't a leg to stand on, technically. It was
when they advised him to withdraw the suit that he got desperate. You
see, he'd borrowed most of the money he lost in the Blue Star, and he
was up a tree. That's why he shot himself when they told him he had no

The horror was sweeping over Mary in great, deafening waves.

"He shot himself? He killed himself because of _that?_"

"Well, he didn't kill himself, exactly. He dragged on two months before
he died." Parvis emitted the statement as unemotionally as a gramophone
grinding out its "record."

"You mean that he tried to kill himself, and failed? And tried again?"

"Oh, he didn't have to try again," said Parvis, grimly.

They sat opposite each other in silence, he swinging his eye-glass
thoughtfully about his finger, she, motionless, her arms stretched along
her knees in an attitude of rigid tension.

"But if you knew all this," she began at length, hardly able to force
her voice above a whisper, "how is it that when I wrote you at the
time of my husband's disappearance you said you didn't understand his

Parvis received this without perceptible discomfiture. "Why, I didn't
understand it - strictly speaking. And it wasn't the time to talk
about it, if I had. The Elwell business was settled when the suit was
withdrawn. Nothing I could have told you would have helped you to find
your husband."

Mary continued to scrutinize him. "Then why are you telling me now?"

Still Parvis did not hesitate. "Well, to begin with, I supposed you
knew more than you appear to - I mean about the circumstances of Elwell's
death. And then people are talking of it now; the whole matter's been
raked up again. And I thought, if you didn't know, you ought to."

She remained silent, and he continued: "You see, it's only come out
lately what a bad state Elwell's affairs were in. His wife's a proud
woman, and she fought on as long as she could, going out to work, and
taking sewing at home, when she got too sick - something with the heart,
I believe. But she had his bedridden mother to look after, and the
children, and she broke down under it, and finally had to ask for help.
That attracted attention to the case, and the papers took it up, and a
subscription was started. Everybody out there liked Bob Elwell, and most
of the prominent names in the place are down on the list, and people
began to wonder why - "

Parvis broke off to fumble in an inner pocket. "Here," he continued,
"here's an account of the whole thing from the 'Sentinel' - a little
sensational, of course. But I guess you'd better look it over."

He held out a newspaper to Mary, who unfolded it slowly, remembering,
as she did so, the evening when, in that same room, the perusal of
a clipping from the "Sentinel" had first shaken the depths of her

As she opened the paper, her eyes, shrinking from the glaring
head-lines, "Widow of Boyne's Victim Forced to Appeal for Aid," ran down
the column of text to two portraits inserted in it. The first was
her husband's, taken from a photograph made the year they had come to
England. It was the picture of him that she liked best, the one that
stood on the writing-table up-stairs in her bedroom. As the eyes in the
photograph met hers, she felt it would be impossible to read what was
said of him, and closed her lids with the sharpness of the pain.

"I thought if you felt disposed to put your name down - " she heard
Parvis continue.

She opened her eyes with an effort, and they fell on the other portrait.
It was that of a youngish man, slightly built, in rough clothes, with
features somewhat blurred by the shadow of a projecting hat-brim. Where
had she seen that outline before? She stared at it confusedly, her heart
hammering in her throat and ears. Then she gave a cry.

"This is the man - the man who came for my husband!"

She heard Parvis start to his feet, and was dimly aware that she had
slipped backward into the corner of the sofa, and that he was bending
above her in alarm. With an intense effort she straightened herself, and
reached out for the paper, which she had dropped.

"It's the man! I should know him anywhere!" she cried in a voice that
sounded in her own ears like a scream.

Parvis's voice seemed to come to her from far off, down endless,
fog-muffled windings.

"Mrs. Boyne, you're not very well. Shall I call somebody? Shall I get a
glass of water?"

"No, no, no!" She threw herself toward him, her hand frantically
clenching the newspaper. "I tell you, it's the man! I _know_ him! He
spoke to me in the garden!"

Parvis took the journal from her, directing his glasses to the portrait.
"It can't be, Mrs. Boyne. It's Robert Elwell."

"Robert Elwell?" Her white stare seemed to travel into space. "Then it
was Robert Elwell who came for him."

"Came for Boyne? The day he went away?" Parvis's voice dropped as hers
rose. He bent over, laying a fraternal hand on her, as if to coax her
gently back into her seat. "Why, Elwell was dead! Don't you remember?"

Mary sat with her eyes fixed on the picture, unconscious of what he was

"Don't you remember Boyne's unfinished letter to me - the one you found
on his desk that day? It was written just after he'd heard of Elwell's
death." She noticed an odd shake in Parvis's unemotional voice. "Surely
you remember that!" he urged her.

Yes, she remembered: that was the profoundest horror of it. Elwell had
died the day before her husband's disappearance; and this was Elwell's
portrait; and it was the portrait of the man who had spoken to her in
the garden. She lifted her head and looked slowly about the library. The
library could have borne witness that it was also the portrait of the
man who had come in that day to call Boyne from his unfinished letter.
Through the misty surgings of her brain she heard the faint boom
of half-forgotten words - words spoken by Alida Stair on the lawn at
Pangbourne before Boyne and his wife had ever seen the house at Lyng, or
had imagined that they might one day live there.

"This was the man who spoke to me," she repeated.

She looked again at Parvis. He was trying to conceal his disturbance
under what he imagined to be an expression of indulgent commiseration;
but the edges of his lips were blue. "He thinks me mad; but I'm not
mad," she reflected; and suddenly there flashed upon her a way of
justifying her strange affirmation.

She sat quiet, controlling the quiver of her lips, and waiting till she
could trust her voice to keep its habitual level; then she said, looking
straight at Parvis: "Will you answer me one question, please? When was
it that Robert Elwell tried to kill himself?"

"When - when?" Parvis stammered.

"Yes; the date. Please try to remember."

She saw that he was growing still more afraid of her. "I have a reason,"
she insisted gently.

"Yes, yes. Only I can't remember. About two months before, I should

"I want the date," she repeated.

Parvis picked up the newspaper. "We might see here," he said, still
humoring her. He ran his eyes down the page. "Here it is. Last
October - the - "

She caught the words from him. "The 20th, wasn't it?" With a sharp look
at her, he verified. "Yes, the 20th. Then you _did_ know?"

"I know now." Her white stare continued to travel past him. "Sunday, the
20th - that was the day he came first."

Parvis's voice was almost inaudible. "Came _here_ first?"


"You saw him twice, then?"

"Yes, twice." She breathed it at him with dilated eyes. "He came first
on the 20th of October. I remember the date because it was the day
we went up Meldon Steep for the first time." She felt a faint gasp
of inward laughter at the thought that but for that she might have

Parvis continued to scrutinize her, as if trying to intercept her gaze.

"We saw him from the roof," she went on. "He came down the lime-avenue
toward the house. He was dressed just as he is in that picture. My
husband saw him first. He was frightened, and ran down ahead of me; but
there was no one there. He had vanished."

"Elwell had vanished?" Parvis faltered.

"Yes." Their two whispers seemed to grope for each other. "I couldn't
think what had happened. I see now. He _tried_ to come then; but he
wasn't dead enough - he couldn't reach us. He had to wait for two months;
and then he came back again - and Ned went with him."

She nodded at Parvis with the look of triumph of a child who has
successfully worked out a difficult puzzle. But suddenly she lifted her
hands with a desperate gesture, pressing them to her bursting temples.

"Oh, my God! I sent him to Ned - I told him where to go! I sent him to
this room!" she screamed out.

She felt the walls of the room rush toward her, like inward falling
ruins; and she heard Parvis, a long way off, as if through the ruins,
crying to her, and struggling to get at her. But she was numb to his
touch, she did not know what he was saying. Through the tumult she heard
but one clear note, the voice of Alida Stair, speaking on the lawn at

"You won't know till afterward," it said. "You won't know till long,
long afterward."



UP the long hill from the station at St.-Cloud, Lizzie West climbed in
the cold spring sunshine. As she breasted the incline, she noticed the
first waves of wistaria over courtyard railings and the high lights of
new foliage against the walls of ivy-matted gardens; and she thought
again, as she had thought a hundred times before, that she had never
seen so beautiful a spring.

She was on her way to the Deerings' house, in a street near the hilltop;
and every step was dear and familiar to her. She went there five times
a week to teach little Juliet Deering, the daughter of Mr. Vincent
Deering, the distinguished American artist. Juliet had been her pupil
for two years, and day after day, during that time, Lizzie West had
mounted the hill in all weathers; sometimes with her umbrella bent
against a driving rain, sometimes with her frail cotton parasol unfurled
beneath a fiery sun, sometimes with the snow soaking through her patched
boots or a bitter wind piercing her thin jacket, sometimes with the dust
whirling about her and bleaching the flowers of the poor little hat that
_had_ to "carry her through" till next summer.

At first the ascent had seemed tedious enough, as dull as the trudge to
her other lessons. Lizzie was not a heaven-sent teacher; she had no born
zeal for her calling, and though she dealt kindly and dutifully with her
pupils, she did not fly to them on winged feet. But one day something
had happened to change the face of life, and since then the climb to the
Deering house had seemed like a dream-flight up a heavenly stairway.

Her heart beat faster as she remembered it - no longer in a tumult of
fright and self-reproach, but softly, peacefully, as if brooding over a
possession that none could take from her.

It was on a day of the previous October that she had stopped, after
Juliet's lesson, to ask if she might speak to Juliet's papa. One had
always to apply to Mr. Deering if there was anything to be said about
the lessons. Mrs. Deering lay on her lounge up-stairs, reading greasy
relays of dog-eared novels, the choice of which she left to the cook
and the nurse, who were always fetching them for her from the _cabinet
de lecture;_ and it was understood in the house that she was not to be
"bothered" about Juliet. Mr. Deering's interest in his daughter was
fitful rather than consecutive; but at least he was approachable, and
listened sympathetically, if a little absently, stroking his long, fair
mustache, while Lizzie stated her difficulty or put in her plea for maps
or copy-books.

"Yes, yes - of course - whatever you think right," he would always assent,
sometimes drawing a five-franc piece from his pocket, and laying it
carelessly on the table, or oftener saying, with his charming smile:
"Get what you please, and just put it on your account, you know."

But this time Lizzie had not come to ask for maps or copy-books, or
even to hint, in crimson misery, - as once, poor soul! she had had
to do, - that Mr. Deering had overlooked her last little account had
probably not noticed that she had left it, some two months earlier, on
a corner of his littered writing-table. That hour had been bad enough,
though he had done his best to make it easy to carry it off gallantly
and gaily; but this was infinitely worse. For she had come to complain
of her pupil; to say that, much as she loved little Juliet, it was
useless, unless Mr. Deering could "do something," to go on with the

"It wouldn't be honest - I should be robbing you; I'm not sure that I
haven't already," she half laughed, through mounting tears, as she
put her case. Little Juliet would not work, would not obey. Her poor,
little, drifting existence floated aimlessly between the kitchen and the
_lingerie_, and all the groping tendrils of her curiosity were fastened
about the doings of the backstairs.

It was the same kind of curiosity that Mrs. Deering, overhead in her
drug-scented room, lavished on her dog-eared novels and on the "society
notes" of the morning paper; but since Juliet's horizon was not yet wide
enough to embrace these loftier objects, her interest was centered in
the anecdotes that Celeste and Suzanne brought back from the market
and the library. That these were not always of an edifying nature the
child's artless prattle too often betrayed; but unhappily they occupied
her fancy to the complete exclusion of such nourishing items as dates
and dynasties, and the sources of the principal European rivers.

At length the crisis became so acute that poor Lizzie felt herself bound
to resign her charge or ask Mr. Deering's intervention; and for Juliet's
sake she chose the harder alternative. It _was_ hard to speak to him not
only because one hated still more to ascribe it to such vulgar causes,
but because one blushed to bring them to the notice of a spirit engaged
with higher things. Mr. Deering was very busy at that moment: he had a
new picture "on." And Lizzie entered the studio with the flutter of one
profanely intruding on some sacred rite; she almost heard the rustle of
retreating wings as she approached.

And then - and then - how differently it had all turned out! Perhaps it
wouldn't have, if she hadn't been such a goose - she who so seldom cried,
so prided herself on a stoic control of her little twittering cageful of
"feelings." But if she had cried, it was because he had looked at her so
kindly, so softly, and because she had nevertheless felt him so pained
and shamed by what she said. The pain, of course, lay for both in the
implication behind her words - in the one word they left unspoken.
If little Juliet was as she was, it was because of the mother
up-stairs - the mother who had given her child her futile impulses, and
grudged her the care that might have guided them. The wretched case so
obviously revolved in its own vicious circle that when Mr. Deering had
murmured, "Of course if my wife were not an invalid," they both turned
with a simultaneous spring to the flagrant "bad example" of Celeste and
Suzanne, fastening on that with a mutual insistence that ended in his
crying out, "All the more, then, how can you leave her to them?"

"But if I do her no good?" Lizzie wailed; and it was then that, - when he
took her hand and assured her gently, "But you do, you do!" - it was then
that, in the traditional phrase, she "broke down," and her conventional
protest quivered off into tears.

"You do _me_ good, at any rate - you make the house seem less like a
desert," she heard him say; and the next moment she felt herself drawn
to him, and they kissed each other through her weeping.

They kissed each other - there was the new fact. One does not, if one is
a poor little teacher living in Mme. Clopin's Pension Suisse at Passy,
and if one has pretty brown hair and eyes that reach out trustfully to
other eyes - one does not, under these common but defenseless
conditions, arrive at the age of twenty-five without being now and then
kissed, - waylaid once by a noisy student between two doors, surprised
once by one's gray-bearded professor as one bent over the "theme" he was
correcting, - but these episodes, if they tarnish the surface, do not
reach the heart: it is not the kiss endured, but the kiss returned, that
lives. And Lizzie West's first kiss was for Vincent Deering.

As she drew back from it, something new awoke in her - something deeper
than the fright and the shame, and the penitent thought of Mrs. Deering.
A sleeping germ of life thrilled and unfolded, and started out blindly
to seek the sun.

She might have felt differently, perhaps, - the shame and penitence might
have prevailed, - had she not known him so kind and tender, and guessed
him so baffled, poor, and disappointed. She knew the failure of his
married life, and she divined a corresponding failure in his artistic
career. Lizzie, who had made her own faltering snatch at the same
laurels, brought her thwarted proficiency to bear on the question of his
pictures, which she judged to be extremely brilliant, but suspected of
having somehow failed to affirm their merit publicly. She understood
that he had tasted an earlier moment of success: a mention, a medal,
something official and tangible; then the tide of publicity had somehow
set the other way, and left him stranded in a noble isolation. It was
extraordinary and unbelievable that any one so naturally eminent and
exceptional should have been subject to the same vulgar necessities
that governed her own life, should have known poverty and obscurity and
indifference. But she gathered that this had been the case, and felt
that it formed the miraculous link between them. For through what
medium less revealing than that of shared misfortune would he ever have
perceived so inconspicuous an object as herself? And she recalled now
how gently his eyes had rested on her from the first - the gray eyes that
might have seemed mocking if they had not been so gentle.

She remembered how he had met her the first day, when Mrs. Deering's
inevitable headache had prevented her from receiving the new teacher,
and how his few questions had at once revealed his interest in the
little stranded, compatriot, doomed to earn a precarious living so far
from her native shore. Sweet as the moment of unburdening had been,
she wondered afterward what had determined it: how she, so shy and
sequestered, had found herself letting slip her whole poverty-stricken
story, even to the avowal of the ineffectual "artistic" tendencies that
had drawn her to Paris, and had then left her there to the dry task of
tuition. She wondered at first, but she understood now; she understood
everything after he had kissed her. It was simply because he was as kind
as he was great.

She thought of this now as she mounted the hill in the spring sunshine,
and she thought of all that had happened since. The intervening months,
as she looked back at them, were merged in a vast golden haze, through
which here and there rose the outline of a shining island. The haze was
the general enveloping sense of his love, and the shining islands were
the days they had spent together. They had never kissed again under his
own roof. Lizzie's professional honor had a keen edge, but she had been
spared the vulgar necessity of making him feel it. It was of the essence
of her fatality that he always "understood" when his failing to do so
might have imperiled his hold on her.

But her Thursdays and Sundays were free, and it soon became a habit to
give them to him. She knew, for her peace of mind, only too much about
pictures, and galleries and churches had been the one bright outlet from
the grayness of her personal atmosphere. For poetry, too, and the other
imaginative forms of literature, she had always felt more than she had
hitherto had occasion to betray; and now all these folded sympathies
shot out their tendrils to the light. Mr. Deering knew how to express
with unmatched clearness and competence the thoughts that trembled
in her mind: to talk with him was to soar up into the azure on
the outspread wings of his intelligence, and look down dizzily yet
distinctly, on all the wonders and glories of the world. She was a
little ashamed, sometimes, to find how few definite impressions she
brought back from these flights; but that was doubtless because her
heart beat so fast when he was near, and his smile made his words like
a long quiver of light. Afterward, in quieter hours, fragments of
their talk emerged in her memory with wondrous precision, every syllable
as minutely chiseled as some of the delicate objects in crystal or
ivory that he pointed out in the museums they frequented. It was always
a puzzle to Lizzie that some of their hours should be so blurred and
others so vivid.

On the morning in question she was reliving all these memories with
unusual distinctness, for it was a fortnight since she had seen her
friend. Mrs. Deering, some six weeks previously, had gone to visit a
relation at St.-Raphael; and, after she had been a month absent, her
husband and the little girl had joined her. Lizzie's adieux to Deering
had been made on a rainy afternoon in the damp corridors of the Aquarium
at the Trocadero. She could not receive him at her own _pension_. That a
teacher should be visited by the father of a pupil, especially when that
father was still, as Madame Clopin said, _si bien_, was against that
lady's austere Helvetian code. From Deering's first tentative hint of
another solution Lizzie had recoiled in a wild unreasoned flurry of all
her scruples, he took her "No, no, _no!_" as he took all her twists and
turns of conscience, with eyes half-tender and half-mocking, and an
instant acquiescence which was the finest homage to the "lady" she felt
he divined and honored in her.

So they continued to meet in museums and galleries, or to extend, on
fine days, their explorations to the suburbs, where now and then, in
the solitude of grove or garden, the kiss renewed itself, fleeting,
isolated, or prolonged in a shy, silent pressure of the hand. But on
the day of his leave-taking the rain kept them under cover; and as they
threaded the subterranean windings of the Aquarium, and Lizzie looked
unseeingly at the monstrous faces glaring at her through walls of glass,
she felt like a poor drowned wretch at the bottom of the sea, with all
her glancing, sunlit memories rolling over her like the waves of its

"You'll never see him again - never see him again," the waves boomed in
her ears through his last words; and when she had said good-by to him
at the corner, and had scrambled, wet and shivering, into the Passy

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Online LibraryEdith WhartonTales of Men and Ghosts → online text (page 19 of 22)