Edith Wharton.

Tales of Men and Ghosts online

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a strange old place in the Trastevere, an ancient crevassed black palace
turned tenement house, and fluttering with pauper clothes-lines. I found
Neave under the leads, in two or three cold rooms that smelt of the
_cuisine_ of all his neighbours: a poor shrunken little figure, seedier
and shabbier than ever, yet more alive than when we had made the tour of
his collection in the Palazzo Neave.

The collection was around him again, not displayed in tall cabinets and
on marble tables, but huddled on shelves, perched on chairs, crammed in
corners, putting the gleam of bronze, the opalescence of old glass, the
pale lustre of marble, into all the angles of his low dim rooms. There
they were, the proud presences that had stared at him down the vistas of
Daunt House, and shone in cold transplanted beauty under his own painted
cornices: there they were, gathered in humble promiscuity about his bent
shabby figure, like superb wild creatures tamed to become the familiars
of some harmless old wizard.

As we went from bit to bit, as he lifted one piece after another, and
held it to the light of his low windows, I saw in his hands the same
tremor of sensation that I had noticed when he first examined the same
objects at Daunt House. All his life was in his finger-tips, and it
seemed to communicate life to the exquisite things he touched. But
you'll think me infected by his mysticism if I tell you they gained new
beauty while he held them...

We went the rounds slowly and reverently; and then, when I supposed our
inspection was over, and was turning to take my leave, he opened a door
I had not noticed, and showed me into a slit of a room beyond. It was
a mere monastic cell, scarcely large enough for his narrow iron bed and
the chest which probably held his few clothes; but there, in a niche of
the bare wall, facing the foot of the bed - there stood the Daunt Diana.

I gasped at the sight and turned to him; and he looked back at me
without speaking.

"In the name of magic, Neave, how did you do it?"

He smiled as if from the depths of some secret rapture. "Call it magic,
if you like; but I ruined myself doing it," he said.

I stared at him in silence, breathless with the madness and the
wonder of it; and suddenly, red to the ears, he flung out his boyish
confession. "I lied to you that day in London - the day I said I didn't
care for her. I always cared - always worshipped - always wanted her. But
she wasn't mine then, and I knew it, and she knew it ... and now at last
we understand each other." He looked at me shyly, and then glanced about
the bare cold cell. "The setting isn't worthy of her, I know; she
was meant for glories I can't give her; but beautiful things, my dear
Finney, like beautiful spirits, live in houses not made with hands..."

His face shone with extraordinary sweetness as he spoke; and I saw he'd
got hold of the secret we're all after. No, the setting isn't worthy of
her, if you like. The rooms are as shabby and mean as those we used
to see him in years ago over the wine shop. I'm not sure they're not
shabbier and meaner. But she rules there at last, she shines and hovers
there above him, and there at night, I doubt not, steals down from her
cloud to give him the Latmian kiss.




THE DEBT


I


YOU remember - it's not so long ago - the talk there was about Dredge's
"Arrival of the Fittest"? The talk has subsided, but the book of
course remains: stands up, in fact, as the tallest thing of its kind
since - well, I'd almost said since "The Origin of Species."

I'm not wrong, at any rate, in calling it the most important
contribution yet made to the development of the Darwinian theory, or
rather to the solution of the awkward problem about which that theory
has had to make such a circuit. Dredge's hypothesis will be contested,
may one day be disproved; but at least it has swept out of the way all
previous conjectures, including of course Lanfear's magnificent attempt;
and for our generation of scientific investigators it will serve as the
first safe bridge across a murderous black whirlpool.

It's all very interesting - there are few things more stirring to the
imagination than that sudden projection of the new hypothesis, light as
a cobweb and strong as steel, across the intellectual abyss; but, for
an idle observer of human motives, the other, the personal, side of
Dredge's case is even more interesting and arresting.

Personal side? You didn't know there was one? Pictured him simply as
a thinking machine, a highly specialized instrument of precision, the
result of a long series of "adaptations," as his own jargon would put
it? Well, I don't wonder - if you've met him. He does give the impression
of being something out of his own laboratory: a delicate scientific
instrument that reveals wonders to the initiated, and is absolutely
useless in an ordinary hand.

In his youth it was just the other way. I knew him twenty years ago, as
an awkward lout whom young Archie Lanfear had picked up at college, and
brought home for a visit. I happened to be staying at the Lanfears' when
the boys arrived, and I shall never forget Dredge's first appearance on
the scene. You know the Lanfears always lived very simply. That summer
they had gone to Buzzard's Bay, in order that Professor Lanfear might be
near the Biological Station at Wood's Holl, and they were picnicking in
a kind of sketchy bungalow without any attempt at elegance. But Galen
Dredge couldn't have been more awe-struck if he'd been suddenly plunged
into a Fifth Avenue ball-room. He nearly knocked his shock head against
the low doorway, and in dodging this peril trod heavily on Mabel
Lanfear's foot, and became hopelessly entangled in her mother's
draperies - though how he managed it I never knew, for Mrs. Lanfear's
dowdy muslins ran to no excess of train.

When the Professor himself came in it was ten times worse, and I saw
then that Dredge's emotion was a tribute to the great man's proximity.
That made the boy interesting, and I began to watch. Archie, always
enthusiastic but vague, had said: "Oh, he's a tremendous chap - you'll
see - " but I hadn't expected to see quite so clearly. Lanfear's vision,
of course, was sharper than mine; and the next morning he had carried
Dredge off to the Biological Station. And that was the way it began.

Dredge is the son of a Baptist minister. He comes from East Lethe, New
York State, and was working his way through college - waiting at White
Mountain hotels in summer - when Archie Lanfear ran across him. There
were eight children in the family, and the mother was an invalid. Dredge
never had a penny from his father after he was fourteen; but his mother
wanted him to be a scholar, and "kept at him," as he put it, in the hope
of his going back to "teach school" at East Lethe. He developed slowly,
as the scientific mind generally does, and was still adrift about
himself and his tendencies when Archie took him down to Buzzard's Bay.
But he had read Lanfear's "Utility and Variation," and had always been
a patient and curious observer of nature. And his first meeting with
Lanfear explained him to himself. It didn't, however, enable him to
explain himself to others, and for a long time he remained, to all but
Lanfear, an object of incredulity and conjecture.

"_ Why_ my husband wants him about - " poor Mrs. Lanfear, the kindest of
women, privately lamented to her friends; for Dredge, at that time - they
kept him all summer at the bungalow - had one of the most encumbering
personalities you can imagine. He was as inexpressive as he is to-day,
and yet oddly obtrusive: one of those uncomfortable presences whose
silence is an interruption.

The poor Lanfears almost died of him that summer, and the pity of it
was that he never suspected it, but continued to lavish on them a
floundering devotion as uncomfortable as the endearments of a dripping
dog - all out of gratitude for the Professor's kindness! He was full,
in those days, of raw enthusiasms, which he forced on any one who
would listen when his first shyness had worn off. You can't picture him
spouting sentimental poetry, can you? Yet I've seen him petrify a whole
group of Mrs. Lanfear's callers by suddenly discharging on them, in the
strident drawl of Western New York, "Barbara Frietchie" or "The Queen of
the May." His taste in literature was uniformly bad, but very definite,
and far more assertive than his views on biological questions. In his
scientific judgments he showed, even then, a remarkable temperance, a
precocious openness to the opposite view; but in literature he was a
furious propagandist, aggressive, disputatious, and extremely sensitive
to adverse opinion.

Lanfear, of course, had been struck from the first by his gift of
accurate observation, and by the fact that his eagerness to learn was
offset by his reluctance to conclude. I remember Lanfear's telling me
that he had never known a lad of Dredge's age who gave such promise of
uniting an aptitude for general ideas with the plodding patience of the
accumulator of facts. Of course when Lanfear talked like that of a young
biologist his fate was sealed. There could be no question of Dredge's
going back to "teach school" at East Lethe. He must take a course in
biology at Columbia, spend his vacations at the Wood's Holl laboratory,
and then, if possible, go to Germany for a year or two.

All this meant his virtual adoption by the Lanfears. Most of Lanfear's
fortune went in helping young students to a start, and he devoted his
heaviest subsidies to Dredge.

"Dredge will be my biggest dividend - you'll see!" he used to say, in the
chrysalis days when poor Galen was known to the world of science only
as a perpetual slouching presence in Mrs. Lanfear's drawing-room. And
Dredge, it must be said, took his obligations simply, with that kind of
personal dignity, and quiet sense of his own worth, which in such cases
saves the beneficiary from abjectness. He seemed to trust himself as
fully as Lanfear trusted him.

The comic part of it was that his only idea of making what is known as
"a return" was to devote himself to the Professor's family. When I hear
pretty women lamenting that they can't coax Professor Dredge out of his
laboratory I remember Mabel Lanfear's cry to me: "If Galen would only
keep away!" When Mabel fell on the ice and broke her leg, Galen walked
seven miles in a blizzard to get a surgeon; but if he did her this
service one day in the year, he bored her by being in the way for the
other three hundred and sixty-four. One would have imagined at that
time that he thought his perpetual presence the greatest gift he could
bestow; for, except on the occasion of his fetching the surgeon, I don't
remember his taking any other way of expressing his gratitude.

In love with Mabel? Not a bit! But the queer thing was that he _did_
have a passion in those days - a blind, hopeless passion for Mrs.
Lanfear! Yes: I know what I'm saying. I mean Mrs. Lanfear, the
Professor's wife, poor Mrs. Lanfear, with her tight hair and her loose
figure, her blameless brow and earnest eye-glasses, and her perpetual
attitude of mild misapprehension. I can see Dredge cowering, long and
many-jointed, in a diminutive drawing-room chair, one square-toed
shoe coiled round an exposed ankle, his knees clasped in a knot of
red knuckles, and his spectacles perpetually seeking Mrs. Lanfear's
eye-glasses. I never knew if the poor lady was aware of the sentiment
she inspired, but her children observed it, and it provoked them to
irreverent mirth. Galen was the predestined butt of Mabel and
Archie; and secure in their mother's virtuous obtuseness, and in her
worshipper's timidity, they allowed themselves a latitude of banter
that sometimes turned their audience cold. Dredge meanwhile was going on
obstinately with his work. Now and then he had queer fits of idleness,
when he lapsed into a state of sulky inertia from which even Lanfear's
admonitions could not rouse him. Once, just before an examination,
he suddenly went off to the Maine woods for two weeks, came back, and
failed to pass. I don't know if his benefactor ever lost hope; but at
times his confidence must have been sorely strained. The queer part of
it was that when Dredge emerged from these eclipses he seemed keener and
more active than ever. His slowly growing intelligence probably needed
its periodical pauses of assimilation; and Lanfear was marvellously
patient.

At last Dredge finished his course and went to Germany; and when he came
back he was a new man - was, in fact, the Dredge we all know. He seemed
to have shed his blundering, encumbering personality, and come to
life as a disembodied intelligence. His fidelity to the Lanfears
was unchanged; but he showed it negatively, by his discretions and
abstentions. I have an idea that Mabel was less disposed to deride him,
might even have been induced to softer sentiments; but I doubt if Dredge
even noticed the change. As for his ex-goddess, he seemed to regard her
as a motherly household divinity, the guardian genius of the darning
needle; but on Professor Lanfear he looked with a deepening reverence.
If the rest of the family had diminished in his eyes, its head had grown
even greater.



II


FROM that day Dredge's progress continued steadily. If not always
perceptible to the untrained eye, in Lanfear's sight it never deviated,
and the great man began to associate Dredge with his work, and to lean
on him more and more. Lanfear's health was already failing, and in my
confidential talks with him I saw how he counted on Galen Dredge to
continue and amplify his doctrine. If he did not describe the young man
as his predestined Huxley, it was because any such comparison between
himself and his great predecessors would have been repugnant to his
taste; but he evidently felt that it would be Dredge's role to reveal
him to posterity. And the young man seemed at that time to take the same
view of his calling. When he was not busy about Lanfear's work he was
recording their conversations with the diligence of a biographer and the
accuracy of a naturalist. Any attempt to question or minimize Lanfear's
theories roused in his disciple the only flashes of wrath I have ever
seen a scientific discussion provoke in him. In defending his master
he became almost as intemperate as in the early period of his literary
passions.

Such filial dedication must have been all the more precious to Lanfear
because, about that time, it became evident that Archie would never
carry on his father's work. He had begun brilliantly, you may remember,
by a little paper on _Limulus Polyphemus_ that attracted a good deal
of notice when it appeared in the _Central Blatt_; but gradually his
zoological ardour yielded to an absorbing passion for the violin,
which was followed by a sudden plunge into physics. At present, after a
side-glance at the drama, I understand he's devoting what is left of his
father's money to archaeological explorations in Asia Minor.

"Archie's got a delightful little mind," Lanfear used to say to me,
rather wistfully, "but it's just a highly polished surface held up to
the show as it passes. Dredge's mind takes in only a bit at a time,
but the bit stays, and other bits are joined to it, in a hard mosaic of
fact, of which imagination weaves the pattern. I saw just how it would
be years ago, when my boy used to take my meaning in a flash, and answer
me with clever objections, while Galen disappeared into one of his
fathomless silences, and then came to the surface like a dripping
retriever, a long way beyond Archie's objections, and with an answer to
them in his mouth."

It was about this time that the crowning satisfaction of Lanfear's
career came to him: I mean, of course, John Weyman's gift to Columbia
of the Lanfear Laboratory, and the founding, in connection with it, of a
chair of Experimental Evolution. Weyman had always taken an interest in
Lanfear's work, but no one had supposed that his interest would express
itself so magnificently. The honour came to Lanfear at a time when he
was fighting an accumulation of troubles: failing health, the
money difficulties resulting from his irrepressible generosity, his
disappointment about Archie's career, and perhaps also the persistent
attacks of the new school of German zoologists.

"If I hadn't Galen I should feel the game was up," he said to me once,
in a fit of half-real, half-mocking despondency. "But he'll do what I
haven't time to do myself, and what my boy can't do for me."

That meant that he would answer the critics, and triumphantly affirm
Lanfear's theory, which had been rudely shaken, but not displaced.

"A scientific hypothesis lasts till there's something else to put in
its place. People who want to get across a river will use the old bridge
till the new one's built. And I don't see any one who's particularly
anxious, in this case, to take a contract for the new one," Lanfear
ended; and I remember answering with a laugh: "Not while Horatius Dredge
holds the other."

It was generally known that Lanfear had not long to live, and the
Laboratory was hardly opened before the question of his successor in
the chair of Experimental Evolution began to be a matter of public
discussion. It was conceded that whoever followed him ought to be a
man of achieved reputation, some one carrying, as the French say, a
considerable "baggage." At the same time, even Lanfear's critics felt
that he should be succeeded by a man who held his views and would
continue his teaching. This was not in itself a difficulty, for German
criticism had so far been mainly negative, and there were plenty of
good men who, while they questioned the permanent validity of Lanfear's
conclusions, were yet ready to accept them for their provisional
usefulness. And then there was the added inducement of the Laboratory!
The Columbia Professor of Experimental Evolution has at his disposal the
most complete instrument of biological research that modern ingenuity
has yet produced; and it's not only in theology or politics _que Paris
vaut bien une messe!_ There was no trouble about finding a candidate;
but the whole thing turned on Lanfear's decision, since it was tacitly
understood that, by Weyman's wish, he was to select his successor. And
what a cry there was when he selected Galen Dredge!

Not in the scientific world, though. The specialists were beginning to
know about Dredge. His remarkable paper on Sexual Dimorphism had been
translated into several languages, and a furious polemic had broken out
over it. When a young fellow can get the big men fighting over him his
future is pretty well assured. But Dredge was only thirty-four, and some
people seemed to feel that there was a kind of deflected nepotism in
Lanfear's choice.

"If he could choose Dredge he might as well have chosen his own son,"
I've heard it said; and the irony was that Archie - will you believe
it? - actually thought so himself! But Lanfear had Weyman behind him,
and when the end came the Faculty at once appointed Galen Dredge to the
chair of Experimental Evolution.

For the first two years things went quietly, along accustomed
lines. Dredge simply continued the course which Lanfear's death had
interrupted. He lectured well even then, with a persuasive simplicity
surprising in the slow, inarticulate creature one knew him for. But
haven't you noticed that certain personalities reveal themselves only
in the more impersonal relations of life? It's as if they woke only
to collective contacts, and the single consciousness were an unmeaning
fragment to them.

If there was anything to criticize in that first part of the course,
it was the avoidance of general ideas, of those brilliant rockets of
conjecture that Lanfear's students were used to seeing him fling
across the darkness. I remember once saying this to Archie, who, having
recovered from his absurd disappointment, had returned to his old
allegiance to Dredge.

"Oh, that's Galen all over. He doesn't want to jump into the ring till
he has a big swishing knock-down argument in his fist. He'll wait twenty
years if he has to. That's his strength: he's never afraid to wait."

I thought this shrewd of Archie, as well as generous; and I saw the
wisdom of Dredge's course. As Lanfear himself had said, his theory was
safe enough till somebody found a more attractive one; and before
that day Dredge would probably have accumulated sufficient proof to
crystallize the fluid hypothesis.



III


THE third winter I was off collecting in Central America, and didn't
get back till Dredge's course had been going for a couple of months.
The very day I turned up in town Archie Lanfear descended on me with a
summons from his mother. I was wanted at once at a family council.

I found the Lanfear ladies in a state of incoherent distress, which
Archie's own indignation hardly made more intelligible. But gradually
I put together their fragmentary charges, and learned that Dredge's
lectures were turning into an organized assault on his master's
doctrine.

"It amounts to just this," Archie said, controlling his women with the
masterful gesture of the weak man. "Galen has simply turned round and
betrayed my father."

"Just for a handful of silver he left us," Mabel sobbed in parenthesis,
while Mrs. Lanfear tearfully cited Hamlet.

Archie silenced them again. "The ugly part of it is that he must have
had this up his sleeve for years. He must have known when he was asked
to succeed my father what use he meant to make of his opportunity. What
he's doing isn't the result of a hasty conclusion: it means years of
work and preparation."

Archie broke off to explain himself. He had returned from Europe the
week before, and had learned on arriving that Dredge's lectures were
stirring the world of science as nothing had stirred it since Lanfear's
"Utility and Variation." And the incredible outrage was that they owed
their sensational effect to the fact of being an attempted refutation of
Lanfear's great work.

I own that I was staggered: the case looked ugly, as Archie said. And
there was a veil of reticence, of secrecy, about Dredge, that always
kept his conduct in a half-light of uncertainty. Of some men one would
have said off-hand: "It's impossible!" But one couldn't affirm it of
him.

Archie hadn't seen him as yet; and Mrs. Lanfear had sent for me because
she wished me to be present at the interview between the two men. The
Lanfear ladies had a touching belief in Archie's violence: they thought
him as terrible as a natural force. My own idea was that if there were
any broken bones they wouldn't be Dredge's; but I was too curious as to
the outcome not to be glad to offer my services as moderator.

First, however, I wanted to hear one of the lectures; and I went the
next afternoon. The hall was jammed, and I saw, as soon as Dredge
appeared, what increased security and ease the interest of his public
had given him. He had been clear the year before, now he was also
eloquent. The lecture was a remarkable effort: you'll find the gist of
it in Chapter VII of "The Arrival of the Fittest." Archie sat at my
side in a white rage; he was too clever not to measure the extent of the
disaster. And I was almost as indignant as he when we went to see Dredge
the next day.

I saw at a glance that the latter suspected nothing; and it was
characteristic of him that he began by questioning me about my finds,
and only afterward turned to reproach Archie for having been back a week
without notifying him.

"You know I'm up to my neck in this job. Why in the world didn't you
hunt me up before this?"

The question was exasperating, and I could understand Archie's stammer
of wrath.

"Hunt you up? Hunt you up? What the deuce are you made of, to ask me
such a question instead of wondering why I'm here now?"

Dredge bent his slow calm scrutiny on his friend's quivering face; then
he turned to me.

"What's the matter?" he said simply.

"The matter?" shrieked Archie, his clenched fist hovering excitedly
above the desk by which he stood; but Dredge, with unwonted quickness,
caught the fist as it descended.

"Careful - I've got a _Kallima_ in that jar there." He pushed a chair
forward, and added quietly: "Sit down."

Archie, ignoring the gesture, towered pale and avenging in his place;
and Dredge, after a moment, took the chair himself.

"The matter?" Archie reiterated with rising passion. "Are you so lost to
all sense of decency and honour that you can put that question in good
faith? Don't you really _know_ what's the matter?"

Dredge smiled slowly. "There are so few things one _really knows_."


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