Edith Wharton.

Tales of Men and Ghosts online

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"Oh, damn your scientific hair-splitting! Don't you know you're
insulting my father's memory?"

Dredge stared again, turning his spectacles thoughtfully from one of us
to the other.

"Oh, that's it, is it? Then you'd better sit down. If you don't see at
once it'll take some time to make you."

Archie burst into an ironic laugh.

"I rather think it will!" he conceded.

"Sit down, Archie," I said, setting the example; and he obeyed, with a
gesture that made his consent a protest.

Dredge seemed to notice nothing beyond the fact that his visitors were
seated. He reached for his pipe, and filled it with the care which the
habit of delicate manipulations gave to all the motions of his long,
knotty hands.

"It's about the lectures?" he said.

Archie's answer was a deep scornful breath.

"You've only been back a week, so you've only heard one, I suppose?"

"It was not necessary to hear even that one. You must know the talk
they're making. If notoriety is what you're after - "

"Well, I'm not sorry to make a noise," said Dredge, putting a match to
his pipe.

Archie bounded in his chair. "There's no easier way of doing it than to
attack a man who can't answer you!"

Dredge raised a sobering hand. "Hold on. Perhaps you and I don't mean
the same thing. Tell me first what's in your mind."

The request steadied Archie, who turned on Dredge a countenance really
eloquent with filial indignation.

"It's an odd question for you to ask; it makes me wonder what's in
yours. Not much thought of my father, at any rate, or you couldn't stand
in his place and use the chance he's given you to push yourself at his

Dredge received this in silence, puffing slowly at his pipe.

"Is that the way it strikes you?" he asked at length.

"God! It's the way it would strike most men."

He turned to me. "You too?"

"I can see how Archie feels," I said.

"That I'm attacking his father's memory to glorify myself?"

"Well, not precisely: I think what he really feels is that, if your
convictions didn't permit you to continue his father's teaching, you
might perhaps have done better to sever your connection with the Lanfear

"Then you and he regard the Lanfear lectureship as having been founded
to perpetuate a dogma, not to try and get at the truth?"

"Certainly not," Archie broke in. "But there's a question of taste,
of delicacy, involved in the case that can't be decided on abstract
principles. We know as well as you that my father meant the laboratory
and the lectureship to serve the ends of science, at whatever cost to
his own special convictions; what we feel - and you don't seem to - is
that you're the last man to put them to that use; and I don't want to
remind you why."

A slight redness rose through Dredge's sallow skin. "You needn't," he
said. "It's because he pulled me out of my hole, woke me up, made me,
shoved me off from the shore. Because he saved me ten or twenty years
of muddled effort, and put me where I am at an age when my best working
years are still ahead of me. Every one knows that's what your father did
for me, but I'm the only person who knows the time and trouble that it

It was well said, and I glanced quickly at Archie, who was never closed
to generous emotions.

"Well, then - ?" he said, flushing also.

"Well, then," Dredge continued, his voice deepening and losing its nasal
edge, "I had to pay him back, didn't I?"

The sudden drop flung Archie back on his prepared attitude of irony. "It
would be the natural inference - with most men."

"Just so. And I'm not so very different. I knew your father wanted a
successor - some one who'd try and tie up the loose ends. And I took the
lectureship with that object."

"And you're using it to tear the whole fabric to pieces!"

Dredge paused to re-light his pipe. "Looks that way," he conceded. "This
year anyhow."

"_ This year_ - ?" Archie gasped at him.

"Yes. When I took up the job I saw it just as your father left it. Or
rather, I didn't see any other way of going on with it. The change came
gradually, as I worked."

"Gradually? So that you had time to look round you, to know where you
were, to see you were fatally committed to undoing the work he had

"Oh, yes - I had time," Dredge conceded.

"And yet you kept the chair and went on with the course?"

Dredge refilled his pipe, and then turned in his seat so that he looked
squarely at Archie.

"What would your father have done in my place?" he asked.

"In your place - ?"

"Yes: supposing he'd found out the things I've found out in the last
year or two. You'll see what they are, and how much they count, if
you'll run over the report of the lectures. If your father'd been alive
he might have come across the same facts just as easily."

There was a silence which Archie at last broke by saying: "But he
didn't, and you did. There's the difference."

"The difference? What difference? Would your father have suppressed the
facts if he'd found them? It's _you_ who insult his memory by implying
it! And if I'd brought them to him, would he have used his hold over me
to get me to suppress them?"

"Certainly not. But can't you see it's his death that makes the
difference? He's not here to defend his case."

Dredge laughed, but not unkindly. "My dear Archie, your father wasn't
one of the kind who bother to defend their case. Men like him are the
masters, not the servants, of their theories. They respect an idea only
as long as it's of use to them; when it's usefulness ends they chuck it
out. And that's what your father would have done."

Archie reddened. "Don't you assume a good deal in taking it for granted
that he would have had to in this particular case?"

Dredge reflected. "Yes: I was going too far. Each of us can only answer
for himself. But to my mind your father's theory is refuted."

"And you don't hesitate to be the man to do it?"

"Should I have been of any use if I had? And did your father ever ask
anything of me but to be of as much use as I could?"

It was Archie's turn to reflect. "No. That was what he always wanted, of

"That's the way I've always felt. The first day he took me away from
East Lethe I knew the debt I was piling up against him, and I never had
any doubt as to how I'd pay it, or how he'd want it paid. He didn't pick
me out and train me for any object but to carry on the light. Do you
suppose he'd have wanted me to snuff it out because it happened to light
up a fact he didn't fancy? I'm using _his_ oil to feed my torch with:
yes, but it isn't really his torch or mine, or his oil or mine: they
belong to each of us till we drop and hand them on."

Archie turned a sobered glance on him. "I see your point. But if the job
had to be done I don't see that you need have done it from his chair."

"There's where we differ. If I did it at all I had to do it in the
best way, and with all the authority his backing gave me. If I owe your
father anything, I owe him that. It would have made him sick to see the
job badly done. And don't you see that the way to honour him, and show
what he's done for science, was to spare no advantage in my attack on
him - that I'm proving the strength of his position by the desperateness
of my assault?" Dredge paused and squared his lounging shoulders. "After
all," he added, "he's not down yet, and if I leave him standing I guess
it'll be some time before anybody else cares to tackle him."

There was a silence between the two men; then Dredge continued in a
lighter tone: "There's one thing, though, that we're both in danger
of forgetting: and that is how little, in the long run, it all counts
either way." He smiled a little at Archie's outraged gesture. "The
most we can any of us do - even by such a magnificent effort as your
father's - is to turn the great marching army a hair's breadth nearer
what seems to us the right direction; if one of us drops out, here and
there, the loss of headway's hardly perceptible. And that's what I'm
coming to now."

He rose from his seat, and walked across to the hearth; then, cautiously
resting his shoulder-blades against the mantel-shelf jammed with
miscellaneous specimens, he bent his musing spectacles on Archie.

"Your father would have understood why I've done, what I'm doing; but
that's no reason why the rest of you should. And I rather think it's
the rest of you who've suffered most from me. He always knew what I was
_there for_, and that must have been some comfort even when I was most
in the way; but I was just an ordinary nuisance to you and your mother
and Mabel. You were all too kind to let me see it at the time, but I've
seen it since, and it makes me feel that, after all, the settling of
this matter lies with you. If it hurts you to have me go on with my
examination of your father's theory, I'm ready to drop the lectures
to-morrow, and trust to the Lanfear Laboratory to breed up a young chap
who'll knock us both out in time. You've only got to say the word."

There was a pause while Dredge turned and laid his extinguished
pipe carefully between a jar of embryo sea-urchins and a colony of
regenerating planarians.

Then Archie rose and held out his hand.

"No," he said simply; "go on."



GEOFFREY BETTON woke rather late - so late that the winter sunlight
sliding across his warm red carpet struck his eyes as he turned on the

Strett, the valet, had been in, drawn the bath in the adjoining
dressing-room, placed the crystal and silver cigarette-box at his side,
put a match to the fire, and thrown open the windows to the bright
morning air. It brought in, on the glitter of sun, all the shrill crisp
morning noises - those piercing notes of the American thoroughfare
that seem to take a sharper vibration from the clearness of the medium
through which they pass.

Betton raised himself languidly. That was the voice of Fifth Avenue
below his windows. He remembered that when he moved into his rooms
eighteen months before, the sound had been like music to him: the
complex orchestration to which the tune of his new life was set. Now it
filled him with horror and weariness, since it had become the symbol of
the hurry and noise of that new life. He had been far less hurried in
the old days when he had to be up by seven, and down at the office sharp
at nine. Now that he got up when he chose, and his life had no fixed
framework of duties, the hours hunted him like a pack of blood-hounds.

He dropped back on his pillows with a groan. Yes - not a year ago there
had been a positively sensuous joy in getting out of bed, feeling
under his bare feet the softness of the sunlit carpet, and entering the
shining tiled sanctuary where his great porcelain bath proffered its
renovating flood. But then a year ago he could still call up the horror
of the communal plunge at his earlier lodgings: the listening for other
bathers, the dodging of shrouded ladies in "crimping"-pins, the cold
wait on the landing, the reluctant descent into a blotchy tin bath, and
the effort to identify one's soap and nail-brush among the promiscuous
implements of ablution. That memory had faded now, and Betton saw only
the dark hours to which his blue and white temple of refreshment formed
a kind of glittering antechamber. For after his bath came his breakfast,
and on the breakfast-tray his letters. His letters!

He remembered - and _that_ memory had not faded! - the thrill with which
he had opened the first missive in a strange feminine hand: the letter
beginning: "I wonder if you'll mind an unknown reader's telling you all
that your book has been to her?"

_ Mind?_ Ye gods, he minded now! For more than a year after
the publication of "Diadems and Faggots" the letters, the inane
indiscriminate letters of condemnation, of criticism, of interrogation,
had poured in on him by every post. Hundreds of unknown readers had told
him with unsparing detail all that his book had been to them. And the
wonder of it was, when all was said and done, that it had really been so
little - that when their thick broth of praise was strained through the
author's anxious vanity there remained to him so small a sediment of
definite specific understanding! No - it was always the same thing, over
and over and over again - the same vague gush of adjectives, the same
incorrigible tendency to estimate his effort according to each writer's
personal preferences, instead of regarding it as a work of art, a thing
to be measured by objective standards!

He smiled to think how little, at first, he had felt the vanity of it
all. He had found a savour even in the grosser evidences of popularity:
the advertisements of his book, the daily shower of "clippings," the
sense that, when he entered a restaurant or a theatre, people nudged
each other and said "That's Betton." Yes, the publicity had been sweet
to him - at first. He had been touched by the sympathy of his fellow-men:
had thought indulgently of the world, as a better place than the
failures and the dyspeptics would acknowledge. And then his success
began to submerge him: he gasped under the thickening shower of letters.
His admirers were really unappeasable. And they wanted him to do such
preposterous things - to give lectures, to head movements, to be tendered
receptions, to speak at banquets, to address mothers, to plead for
orphans, to go up in balloons, to lead the struggle for sterilized milk.
They wanted his photograph for literary supplements, his autograph for
charity bazaars, his name on committees, literary, educational,
and social; above all, they wanted his opinion on everything: on
Christianity, Buddhism, tight lacing, the drug-habit, democratic
government, female suffrage and love. Perhaps the chief benefit of this
demand was his incidentally learning from it how few opinions he really
had: the only one that remained with him was a rooted horror of all
forms of correspondence. He had been unutterably thankful when the
letters began to fall off.

"Diadems and Faggots" was now two years old, and the moment was at hand
when its author might have counted on regaining the blessed shelter of
oblivion - if only he had not written another book! For it was the
worst part of his plight that his first success had goaded him to
the perpetration of this particular folly - that one of the incentives
(hideous thought!) to his new work had been the desire to extend and
perpetuate his popularity. And this very week the book was to come out,
and the letters, the cursed letters, would begin again!

Wistfully, almost plaintively, he contemplated the breakfast-tray with
which Strett presently appeared. It bore only two notes and the morning
journals, but he knew that within the week it would groan under its
epistolary burden. The very newspapers flung the fact at him as he
opened them.







A hundred and fifty thousand volumes! And an average of three readers to
each! Half a million of people would be reading him within a week, and
every one of them would write to him, and their friends and relations
would write too. He laid down the paper with a shudder.

The two notes looked harmless enough, and the calligraphy of one was
vaguely familiar. He opened the envelope and looked at the signature:
_Duncan Vyse_. He had not seen the name in years - what on earth could
Duncan Vyse have to say? He ran over the page and dropped it with a
wondering exclamation, which the watchful Strett, re-entering, met by a
tentative "Yes, sir?"

"Nothing. Yes - that is - " Betton picked up the note. "There's a
gentleman, a Mr. Vyse, coming to see me at ten."

Strett glanced at the clock. "Yes, sir. You'll remember that ten was the
hour you appointed for the secretaries to call, sir."

Betton nodded. "I'll see Mr. Vyse first. My clothes, please."

As he got into them, in the state of irritable hurry that had become
almost chronic with him, he continued to think about Duncan Vyse. They
had seen a lot of each other for the few years after both had left
Harvard: the hard happy years when Betton had been grinding at his
business and Vyse - poor devil! - trying to write. The novelist recalled
his friend's attempts with a smile; then the memory of one small volume
came back to him. It was a novel: "The Lifted Lamp." There was stuff in
that, certainly. He remembered Vyse's tossing it down on his table with
a gesture of despair when it came back from the last publisher. Betton,
taking it up indifferently, had sat riveted till daylight. When he
ended, the impression was so strong that he said to himself: "I'll
tell Apthorn about it - I'll go and see him to-morrow." His own secret
literary yearnings gave him a passionate desire to champion Vyse, to see
him triumph over the ignorance and timidity of the publishers. Apthorn
was the youngest of the guild, still capable of opinions and the courage
of them, a personal friend of Betton's, and, as it happened, the man
afterward to become known as the privileged publisher of "Diadems and
Faggots." Unluckily the next day something unexpected turned up, and
Betton forgot about Vyse and his manuscript. He continued to forget for
a month, and then came a note from Vyse, who was ill, and wrote to
ask what his friend had done. Betton did not like to say "I've done
nothing," so he left the note unanswered, and vowed again: "I'll see

The following day he was called to the West on business, and was gone
a month. When he came back, there was another note from Vyse, who was
still ill, and desperately hard up. "I'll take anything for the book,
if they'll advance me two hundred dollars." Betton, full of compunction,
would gladly have advanced the sum himself; but he was hard up too,
and could only swear inwardly: "I'll write to Apthorn." Then he glanced
again at the manuscript, and reflected: "No - there are things in it that
need explaining. I'd better see him."

Once he went so far as to telephone Apthorn, but the publisher was out.
Then he finally and completely forgot.

One Sunday he went out of town, and on his return, rummaging among
the papers on his desk, he missed "The Lifted Lamp," which had been
gathering dust there for half a year. What the deuce could have become
of it? Betton spent a feverish hour in vainly increasing the disorder of
his documents, and then bethought himself of calling the maid-servant,
who first indignantly denied having touched anything ("I can see that's
true from the dust," Betton scathingly interjected), and then mentioned
with hauteur that a young lady had called in his absence and asked to be
allowed to get a book.

"A lady? Did you let her come up?"

"She said somebody'd sent her."

Vyse, of course - Vyse had sent her for his manuscript! He was always
mixed up with some woman, and it was just like him to send the girl of
the moment to Betton's lodgings, with instructions to force the door
in his absence. Vyse had never been remarkable for delicacy. Betton,
furious, glanced over his table to see if any of his own effects were
missing - one couldn't tell, with the company Vyse kept! - and then
dismissed the matter from his mind, with a vague sense of magnanimity in
doing so. He felt himself exonerated by Vyse's conduct.

The sense of magnanimity was still uppermost when the valet opened the
door to announce "Mr. Vyse," and Betton, a moment later, crossed the
threshold of his pleasant library.

His first thought was that the man facing him from the hearth-rug was
the very Duncan Vyse of old: small, starved, bleached-looking, with the
same sidelong movements, the same queer air of anaemic truculence. Only
he had grown shabbier, and bald.

Betton held out a hospitable hand.

"This is a good surprise! Glad you looked me up, my dear fellow."

Vyse's palm was damp and bony: he had always had a disagreeable hand.

"You got my note? You know what I've come for?" he said.

"About the secretaryship? (Sit down.) Is that really serious?"

Betton lowered himself luxuriously into one of his vast Maple
arm-chairs. He had grown stouter in the last year, and the cushion
behind him fitted comfortably into the crease of his nape. As he leaned
back he caught sight of his image in the mirror between the windows, and
reflected uneasily that Vyse would not find _him_ unchanged.

"Serious?" Vyse rejoined. "Why not? Aren't _you?_"

"Oh, perfectly." Betton laughed apologetically. "Only - well, the fact
is, you may not understand what rubbish a secretary of mine would have
to deal with. In advertising for one I never imagined - I didn't aspire
to any one above the ordinary hack."

"I'm the ordinary hack," said Vyse drily.

Betton's affable gesture protested. "My dear fellow - . You see it's not
business - what I'm in now," he continued with a laugh.

Vyse's thin lips seemed to form a noiseless "_ Isn't_ it?" which they
instantly transposed into the audibly reply: "I inferred from your
advertisement that you want some one to relieve you in your literary
work. Dictation, short-hand - that kind of thing?"

"Well, no: not that either. I type my own things. What I'm looking for
is somebody who won't be above tackling my correspondence."

Vyse looked slightly surprised. "I should be glad of the job," he then

Betton began to feel a vague embarrassment. He had supposed that such a
proposal would be instantly rejected. "It would be only for an hour
or two a day - if you're doing any writing of your own?" he threw out

"No. I've given all that up. I'm in an office now - business. But it
doesn't take all my time, or pay enough to keep me alive."

"In that case, my dear fellow - if you could come every morning; but
it's mostly awful bosh, you know," Betton again broke off, with growing

Vyse glanced at him humorously. "What you want me to write?"

"Well, that depends - " Betton sketched the obligatory smile. "But I was
thinking of the letters you'll have to answer. Letters about my books,
you know - I've another one appearing next week. And I want to be
beforehand now - dam the flood before it swamps me. Have you any idea of
the deluge of stuff that people write to a successful novelist?"

As Betton spoke, he saw a tinge of red on Vyse's thin cheek, and his own
reflected it in a richer glow of shame. "I mean - I mean - " he stammered

"No, I haven't," said Vyse; "but it will be awfully jolly finding out."

There was a pause, groping and desperate on Betton's part, sardonically
calm on his visitor's.

"You - you've given up writing altogether?" Betton continued.

"Yes; we've changed places, as it were." Vyse paused. "But about these
letters - you dictate the answers?"

"Lord, no! That's the reason why I said I wanted somebody - er - well used
to writing. I don't want to have anything to do with them - not a thing!
You'll have to answer them as if they were written to _you_ - " Betton
pulled himself up again, and rising in confusion jerked open one of the
drawers of his writing-table.

"Here - this kind of rubbish," he said, tossing a packet of letters onto
Vyse's knee.

"Oh - you keep them, do you?" said Vyse simply.

"I - well - some of them; a few of the funniest only."

Vyse slipped off the band and began to open the letters. While he was
glancing over them Betton again caught his own reflection in the
glass, and asked himself what impression he had made on his visitor.
It occurred to him for the first time that his high-coloured well-fed
person presented the image of commercial rather than of intellectual
achievement. He did not look like his own idea of the author of "Diadems
and Faggots" - and he wondered why.

Vyse laid the letters aside. "I think I can do it - if you'll give me a
notion of the tone I'm to take."

"The tone?"

"Yes - that is, if I'm to sign your name."

"Oh, of course: I expect you to sign for me. As for the tone, say just
what you'd - well, say all you can without encouraging them to answer."

Vyse rose from his seat. "I could submit a few specimens," he suggested.

"Oh, as to that - you always wrote better than I do," said Betton

"I've never had this kind of thing to write. When do you wish me to
begin?" Vyse enquired, ignoring the tribute.

"The book's out on Monday. The deluge will begin about three days after.
Will you turn up on Thursday at this hour?" Betton held his hand out
with real heartiness. "It was great luck for me, your striking that
advertisement. Don't be too harsh with my correspondents - I owe them

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Online LibraryEdith WhartonTales of Men and Ghosts → online text (page 8 of 22)