Edith Wharton.

Tales of Men and Ghosts online

. (page 4 of 22)
Online LibraryEdith WhartonTales of Men and Ghosts → online text (page 4 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

it from his own. And, aside from his insuperable physical reluctance,
another motive restrained him. He was possessed by the dogged desire
to establish the truth of his story. He refused to be swept aside as
an irresponsible dreamer - even if he had to kill himself in the end,
he would not do so before proving to society that he had deserved death
from it.

He began to write long letters to the papers; but after the first had
been published and commented on, public curiosity was quelled by a
brief statement from the District Attorney's office, and the rest of his
communications remained unprinted. Ascham came to see him, and begged
him to travel. Robert Denver dropped in, and tried to joke him out of
his delusion; till Granice, mistrustful of their motives, began to dread
the reappearance of Dr. Stell, and set a guard on his lips. But the
words he kept back engendered others and still others in his brain.
His inner self became a humming factory of arguments, and he spent long
hours reciting and writing down elaborate statements of his crime,
which he constantly retouched and developed. Then gradually his activity
languished under the lack of an audience, the sense of being buried
beneath deepening drifts of indifference. In a passion of resentment he
swore that he would prove himself a murderer, even if he had to commit
another crime to do it; and for a sleepless night or two the thought
flamed red on his darkness. But daylight dispelled it. The determining
impulse was lacking and he hated too promiscuously to choose his
victim... So he was thrown back on the unavailing struggle to impose
the truth of his story. As fast as one channel closed on him he tried to
pierce another through the sliding sands of incredulity. But every issue
seemed blocked, and the whole human race leagued together to cheat one
man of the right to die.

Thus viewed, the situation became so monstrous that he lost his last
shred of self-restraint in contemplating it. What if he were really
the victim of some mocking experiment, the centre of a ring of
holiday-makers jeering at a poor creature in its blind dashes against
the solid walls of consciousness? But, no - men were not so uniformly
cruel: there were flaws in the close surface of their indifference,
cracks of weakness and pity here and there...

Granice began to think that his mistake lay in having appealed to
persons more or less familiar with his past, and to whom the visible
conformities of his life seemed a final disproof of its one fierce
secret deviation. The general tendency was to take for the whole of life
the slit seen between the blinders of habit: and in his walk down that
narrow vista Granice cut a correct enough figure. To a vision free to
follow his whole orbit his story would be more intelligible: it would
be easier to convince a chance idler in the street than the trained
intelligence hampered by a sense of his antecedents. This idea shot up
in him with the tropic luxuriance of each new seed of thought, and he
began to walk the streets, and to frequent out-of-the-way chop-houses
and bars in his search for the impartial stranger to whom he should
disclose himself.

At first every face looked encouragement; but at the crucial moment he
always held back. So much was at stake, and it was so essential that
his first choice should be decisive. He dreaded stupidity, timidity,
intolerance. The imaginative eye, the furrowed brow, were what he
sought. He must reveal himself only to a heart versed in the tortuous
motions of the human will; and he began to hate the dull benevolence
of the average face. Once or twice, obscurely, allusively, he made a
beginning - once sitting down at a man's side in a basement chop-house,
another day approaching a lounger on an east-side wharf. But in both
cases the premonition of failure checked him on the brink of avowal. His
dread of being taken for a man in the clutch of a fixed idea gave him an
unnatural keenness in reading the expression of his interlocutors, and
he had provided himself in advance with a series of verbal alternatives,
trap-doors of evasion from the first dart of ridicule or suspicion.

He passed the greater part of the day in the streets, coming home at
irregular hours, dreading the silence and orderliness of his apartment,
and the critical scrutiny of Flint. His real life was spent in a
world so remote from this familiar setting that he sometimes had the
mysterious sense of a living metempsychosis, a furtive passage from one
identity to another - yet the other as unescapably himself!

One humiliation he was spared: the desire to live never revived in
him. Not for a moment was he tempted to a shabby pact with existing
conditions. He wanted to die, wanted it with the fixed unwavering desire
which alone attains its end. And still the end eluded him! It would not
always, of course - he had full faith in the dark star of his destiny.
And he could prove it best by repeating his story, persistently and
indefatigably, pouring it into indifferent ears, hammering it into dull
brains, till at last it kindled a spark, and some one of the careless
millions paused, listened, believed...

It was a mild March day, and he had been loitering on the west-side
docks, looking at faces. He was becoming an expert in physiognomies: his
eagerness no longer made rash darts and awkward recoils. He knew now the
face he needed, as clearly as if it had come to him in a vision; and
not till he found it would he speak. As he walked eastward through the
shabby reeking streets he had a premonition that he should find it that
morning. Perhaps it was the promise of spring in the air - certainly he
felt calmer than for many days...

He turned into Washington Square, struck across it obliquely, and walked
up University Place. Its heterogeneous passers always allured him - they
were less hurried than in Broadway, less enclosed and classified than in
Fifth Avenue. He walked slowly, watching for his face.

At Union Square he felt a sudden relapse into discouragement, like a
votary who has watched too long for a sign from the altar. Perhaps,
after all, he should never find his face... The air was languid, and
he felt tired. He walked between the bald grass-plots and the twisted
trees, making for an empty seat. Presently he passed a bench on which a
girl sat alone, and something as definite as the twitch of a cord made
him stop before her. He had never dreamed of telling his story to a
girl, had hardly looked at the women's faces as they passed. His case
was man's work: how could a woman help him? But this girl's face was
extraordinary - quiet and wide as a clear evening sky. It suggested a
hundred images of space, distance, mystery, like ships he had seen, as
a boy, quietly berthed by a familiar wharf, but with the breath of far
seas and strange harbours in their shrouds... Certainly this girl would
understand. He went up to her quietly, lifting his hat, observing the
forms - wishing her to see at once that he was "a gentleman."

"I am a stranger to you," he began, sitting down beside her, "but your
face is so extremely intelligent that I feel... I feel it is the face
I've waited for ... looked for everywhere; and I want to tell you - "

The girl's eyes widened: she rose to her feet. She was escaping him!

In his dismay he ran a few steps after her, and caught her roughly by
the arm.

"Here - wait - listen! Oh, don't scream, you fool!" he shouted out.

He felt a hand on his own arm; turned and confronted a policeman.
Instantly he understood that he was being arrested, and something hard
within him was loosened and ran to tears.

"Ah, you know - you _know_ I'm guilty!"

He was conscious that a crowd was forming, and that the girl's
frightened face had disappeared. But what did he care about her face? It
was the policeman who had really understood him. He turned and followed,
the crowd at his heels...


IN the charming place in which he found himself there were so many
sympathetic faces that he felt more than ever convinced of the certainty
of making himself heard.

It was a bad blow, at first, to find that he had not been arrested
for murder; but Ascham, who had come to him at once, explained that he
needed rest, and the time to "review" his statements; it appeared that
reiteration had made them a little confused and contradictory. To
this end he had willingly acquiesced in his removal to a large quiet
establishment, with an open space and trees about it, where he had
found a number of intelligent companions, some, like himself, engaged
in preparing or reviewing statements of their cases, and others ready to
lend an interested ear to his own recital.

For a time he was content to let himself go on the tranquil current of
this existence; but although his auditors gave him for the most part
an encouraging attention, which, in some, went the length of really
brilliant and helpful suggestion, he gradually felt a recurrence of his
old doubts. Either his hearers were not sincere, or else they had
less power to aid him than they boasted. His interminable conferences
resulted in nothing, and as the benefit of the long rest made itself
felt, it produced an increased mental lucidity which rendered inaction
more and more unbearable. At length he discovered that on certain days
visitors from the outer world were admitted to his retreat; and he wrote
out long and logically constructed relations of his crime, and furtively
slipped them into the hands of these messengers of hope.

This occupation gave him a fresh lease of patience, and he now lived
only to watch for the visitors' days, and scan the faces that swept by
him like stars seen and lost in the rifts of a hurrying sky.

Mostly, these faces were strange and less intelligent than those of his
companions. But they represented his last means of access to the world,
a kind of subterranean channel on which he could set his "statements"
afloat, like paper boats which the mysterious current might sweep out
into the open seas of life.

One day, however, his attention was arrested by a familiar contour,
a pair of bright prominent eyes, and a chin insufficiently shaved. He
sprang up and stood in the path of Peter McCarren.

The journalist looked at him doubtfully, then held out his hand with a
startled deprecating, "_Why - ?_"

"You didn't know me? I'm so changed?" Granice faltered, feeling the
rebound of the other's wonder.

"Why, no; but you're looking quieter - smoothed out," McCarren smiled.

"Yes: that's what I'm here for - to rest. And I've taken the opportunity
to write out a clearer statement - "

Granice's hand shook so that he could hardly draw the folded paper from
his pocket. As he did so he noticed that the reporter was accompanied by
a tall man with grave compassionate eyes. It came to Granice in a wild
thrill of conviction that this was the face he had waited for...

"Perhaps your friend - he _is_ your friend? - would glance over it - or
I could put the case in a few words if you have time?" Granice's voice
shook like his hand. If this chance escaped him he felt that his last
hope was gone. McCarren and the stranger looked at each other, and the
former glanced at his watch.

"I'm sorry we can't stay and talk it over now, Mr. Granice; but my
friend has an engagement, and we're rather pressed - "

Granice continued to proffer the paper. "I'm sorry - I think I could have
explained. But you'll take this, at any rate?"

The stranger looked at him gently. "Certainly - I'll take it." He had his
hand out. "Good-bye."

"Good-bye," Granice echoed.

He stood watching the two men move away from him through the long light
hall; and as he watched them a tear ran down his face. But as soon as
they were out of sight he turned and walked hastily toward his room,
beginning to hope again, already planning a new statement.

Outside the building the two men stood still, and the journalist's
companion looked up curiously at the long monotonous rows of barred

"So that was Granice?"

"Yes - that was Granice, poor devil," said McCarren.

"Strange case! I suppose there's never been one just like it? He's still
absolutely convinced that he committed that murder?"

"Absolutely. Yes."

The stranger reflected. "And there was no conceivable ground for the
idea? No one could make out how it started? A quiet conventional sort of
fellow like that - where do you suppose he got such a delusion? Did you
ever get the least clue to it?"

McCarren stood still, his hands in his pockets, his head cocked up in
contemplation of the barred windows. Then he turned his bright hard gaze
on his companion.

"That was the queer part of it. I've never spoken of it - but I _did_ get
a clue."

"By Jove! That's interesting. What was it?"

McCarren formed his red lips into a whistle. "Why - that it wasn't a

He produced his effect - the other turned on him with a pallid stare.

"He murdered the man all right. I tumbled on the truth by the merest
accident, when I'd pretty nearly chucked the whole job."

"He murdered him - murdered his cousin?"

"Sure as you live. Only don't split on me. It's about the queerest
business I ever ran into... _Do about it?_ Why, what was I to do? I
couldn't hang the poor devil, could I? Lord, but I was glad when they
collared him, and had him stowed away safe in there!"

The tall man listened with a grave face, grasping Granice's statement in
his hand.

"Here - take this; it makes me sick," he said abruptly, thrusting the
paper at the reporter; and the two men turned and walked in silence to
the gates.



AFTER his wife's death Mason Grew took the momentous step of selling out
his business and moving from Wingfield, Connecticut, to Brooklyn.

For years he had secretly nursed the hope of such a change, but had
never dared to suggest it to Mrs. Grew, a woman of immutable habits.
Mr. Grew himself was attached to Wingfield, where he had grown up,
prospered, and become what the local press described as "prominent."
He was attached to his ugly brick house with sandstone trimmings and
a cast-iron area-railing neatly sanded to match; to the similar row of
houses across the street, the "trolley" wires forming a kind of aerial
pathway between, and the sprawling vista closed by the steeple of the
church which he and his wife had always attended, and where their only
child had been baptized.

It was hard to snap all these threads of association, visual and
sentimental; yet still harder, now that he was alone, to live so far
from his boy. Ronald Grew was practising law in New York, and there
was no more chance of returning to live at Wingfield than of a river's
flowing inland from the sea. Therefore to be near him his father must
move; and it was characteristic of Mr. Grew, and of the situation
generally, that the translation, when it took place, was to Brooklyn,
and not to New York.

"Why you bury yourself in that hole I can't think," had been Ronald's
comment; and Mr. Grew simply replied that rents were lower in Brooklyn,
and that he had heard of a house that would suit him. In reality he had
said to himself - being the only recipient of his own confidences - that
if he went to New York he might be on the boy's mind; whereas, if
he lived in Brooklyn, Ronald would always have a good excuse for not
popping over to see him every other day. The sociological isolation of
Brooklyn, combined with its geographical nearness, presented in fact the
precise conditions for Mr. Grew's case. He wanted to be near enough to
New York to go there often, to feel under his feet the same pavement
that Ronald trod, to sit now and then in the same theatres, and find
on his breakfast-table the journals which, with increasing frequency,
inserted Ronald's name in the sacred bounds of the society column. It
had always been a trial to Mr. Grew to have to wait twenty-four hours to
read that "among those present was Mr. Ronald Grew." Now he had it
with his coffee, and left it on the breakfast-table to the perusal of a
"hired girl" cosmopolitan enough to do it justice. In such ways Brooklyn
attested the advantages of its propinquity to New York, while remaining,
as regards Ronald's duty to his father, as remote and inaccessible as

It was not that Ronald shirked his filial obligations, but rather
because of his heavy sense of them, that Mr. Grew so persistently sought
to minimize and lighten them. It was he who insisted, to Ronald, on the
immense difficulty of getting from New York to Brooklyn.

"Any way you look at it, it makes a big hole in the day; and there's not
much use in the ragged rim left. You say you're dining out next Sunday?
Then I forbid you to come over here for lunch. Do you understand me,
sir? You disobey at the risk of your father's malediction! Where did you
say you were dining? With the Waltham Bankshires again? Why, that's
the second time in three weeks, ain't it? Big blow-out, I suppose? Gold
plate and orchids - opera singers in afterward? Well, you'd be in a nice
box if there was a fog on the river, and you got hung up half-way over.
That'd be a handsome return for the attention Mrs. Bankshire has shown
you - singling out a whipper-snapper like you twice in three weeks!
(What's the daughter's name - Daisy?) No, _sir_ - don't you come fooling
round here next Sunday, or I'll set the dogs on you. And you wouldn't
find me in anyhow, come to think of it. I'm lunching out myself, as it
happens - yes sir, _lunching out_. Is there anything especially comic in
my lunching out? I don't often do it, you say? Well, that's no reason
why I never should. Who with? Why, with - with old Dr. Bleaker: Dr.
Eliphalet Bleaker. No, you wouldn't know about him - he's only an old
friend of your mother's and mine."

Gradually Ronald's insistence became less difficult to overcome. With
his customary sweetness and tact (as Mr. Grew put it) he began to
"take the hint," to give in to "the old gentleman's" growing desire for

"I'm set in my ways, Ronny, that's about the size of it; I like to
go tick-ticking along like a clock. I always did. And when you come
bouncing in I never feel sure there's enough for dinner - or that I
haven't sent Maria out for the evening. And I don't want the neighbors
to see me opening my own door to my son. That's the kind of cringing
snob I am. Don't give me away, will you? I want 'em to think I keep four
or five powdered flunkeys in the hall day and night - same as the lobby
of one of those Fifth Avenue hotels. And if you pop over when you're not
expected, how am I going to keep up the bluff?"

Ronald yielded after the proper amount of resistance - his intuitive
sense, in every social transaction, of the proper amount of force to be
expended, was one of the qualities his father most admired in him. Mr.
Grew's perceptions in this line were probably more acute than his son
suspected. The souls of short thick-set men, with chubby features,
mutton-chop whiskers, and pale eyes peering between folds of fat like
almond kernels in half-split shells - souls thus encased do not reveal
themselves to the casual scrutiny as delicate emotional instruments.
But in spite of the dense disguise in which he walked Mr. Grew vibrated
exquisitely in response to every imaginative appeal; and his son Ronald
was perpetually stimulating and feeding his imagination.

Ronald in fact constituted his father's one escape from the impenetrable
element of mediocrity which had always hemmed him in. To a man so
enamoured of beauty, and so little qualified to add to its sum total,
it was a wonderful privilege to have bestowed on the world such a being.
Ronald's resemblance to Mr. Grew's early conception of what he himself
would have liked to look might have put new life into the discredited
theory of pre-natal influences. At any rate, if the young man owed his
beauty, his distinction and his winning manner to the dreams of one of
his parents, it was certainly to those of Mr. Grew, who, while outwardly
devoting his life to the manufacture and dissemination of Grew's Secure
Suspender Buckle, moved in an enchanted inward world peopled with all
the figures of romance. In this high company Mr. Grew cut as brilliant
a figure as any of its noble phantoms; and to see his vision of himself
suddenly projected on the outer world in the shape of a brilliant
popular conquering son, seemed, in retrospect, to give to that image a
belated objective reality. There were even moments when, forgetting his
physiognomy, Mr. Grew said to himself that if he'd had "half a chance"
he might have done as well as Ronald; but this only fortified his
resolve that Ronald should do infinitely better.

Ronald's ability to do well almost equalled his gift of looking well.
Mr. Grew constantly affirmed to himself that the boy was "not a genius";
but, barring this slight deficiency, he was almost everything that
a parent could wish. Even at Harvard he had managed to be several
desirable things at once - writing poetry in the college magazine,
playing delightfully "by ear," acquitting himself honorably in his
studies, and yet holding his own in the fashionable sporting set that
formed, as it were, the gateway of the temple of Society. Mr. Grew's
idealism did not preclude the frank desire that his son should pass
through that gateway; but the wish was not prompted by material
considerations. It was Mr. Grew's notion that, in the rough and hurrying
current of a new civilization, the little pools of leisure and enjoyment
must nurture delicate growths, material graces as well as moral
refinements, likely to be uprooted and swept away by the rush of the
main torrent. He based his theory on the fact that he had liked the
few "society" people he had met - had found their manners simpler, their
voices more agreeable, their views more consonant with his own, than
those of the leading citizens of Wingfield. But then he had met very

Ronald's sympathies needed no urging in the same direction. He took
naturally, dauntlessly, to all the high and exceptional things about
which his father's imagination had so long sheepishly and ineffectually
hovered - from the start he _was_ what Mr. Grew had dreamed of being.
And so precise, so detailed, was Mr. Grew's vision of his own imaginary
career, that as Ronald grew up, and began to travel in a widening orbit,
his father had an almost uncanny sense of the extent to which that
career was enacting itself before him. At Harvard, Ronald had done
exactly what the hypothetical Mason Grew would have done, had not his
actual self, at the same age, been working his way up in old Slagden's
button factory - the institution which was later to acquire fame, and
even notoriety, as the birthplace of Grew's Secure Suspender Buckle.
Afterward, at a period when the actual Grew had passed from the factory
to the bookkeeper's desk, his invisible double had been reading law at
Columbia - precisely again what Ronald did! But it was when the young man
left the paths laid out for him by the parental hand, and cast himself
boldly on the world, that his adventures began to bear the most
astonishing resemblance to those of the unrealized Mason Grew. It was in
New York that the scene of this hypothetical being's first exploits had
always been laid; and it was in New York that Ronald was to achieve
his first triumph. There was nothing small or timid about Mr. Grew's
imagination; it had never stopped at anything between Wingfield and
the metropolis. And the real Ronald had the same cosmic vision as his
parent. He brushed aside with a contemptuous laugh his mother's tearful
entreaty that he should stay at Wingfield and continue the dynasty of
the Grew Suspender Buckle. Mr. Grew knew that in reality Ronald winced
at the Buckle, loathed it, blushed for his connection with it. Yet it
was the Buckle that had seen him through Groton, Harvard and the Law
School, and had permitted him to enter the office of a distinguished
corporation lawyer, instead of being enslaved to some sordid business
with quick returns. The Buckle had been Ronald's fairy godmother - yet
his father did not blame him for abhorring and disowning it. Mr. Grew
himself often bitterly regretted having bestowed his own name on the
instrument of his material success, though, at the time, his doing so
had been the natural expression of his romanticism. When he invented
the Buckle, and took out his patent, he and his wife both felt that to
bestow their name on it was like naming a battle-ship or a peak of the

Mrs. Grew had never learned to know better; but Mr. Grew had discovered
his error before Ronald was out of school. He read it first in a black

1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryEdith WhartonTales of Men and Ghosts → online text (page 4 of 22)