Edith Wharton.

Tales of Men and Ghosts online

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something for having brought us together."



II


THE deluge began punctually on the Thursday, and Vyse, arriving as
punctually, had an impressive pile of letters to attack. Betton, on his
way to the Park for a ride, came into the library, smoking the cigarette
of indolence, to look over his secretary's shoulder.

"How many of 'em? Twenty? Good Lord! It's going to be worse than
'Diadems.' I've just had my first quiet breakfast in two years - time
to read the papers and loaf. How I used to dread the sight of my
letter-box! Now I sha'n't know I have one."

He leaned over Vyse's chair, and the secretary handed him a letter.

"Here's rather an exceptional one - lady, evidently. I thought you might
want to answer it yourself - "

"Exceptional?" Betton ran over the mauve pages and tossed them down.
"Why, my dear man, I get hundreds like that. You'll have to be pretty
short with her, or she'll send her photograph."

He clapped Vyse on the shoulder and turned away, humming a tune. "Stay
to luncheon," he called back gaily from the threshold.

After luncheon Vyse insisted on showing a few of his answers to the
first batch of letters. "If I've struck the note I won't bother you
again," he urged; and Betton groaningly consented.

"My dear fellow, they're beautiful - too beautiful. I'll be let in for a
correspondence with every one of these people."

Vyse, at this, meditated for a while above a blank sheet. "All
right - how's this?" he said, after another interval of rapid writing.

Betton glanced over the page. "By George - by George! Won't she _see_
it?" he exulted, between fear and rapture.

"It's wonderful how little people see," said Vyse reassuringly.

The letters continued to pour in for several weeks after the appearance
of "Abundance." For five or six blissful days Betton did not even have
his mail brought to him, trusting to Vyse to single out his personal
correspondence, and to deal with the rest according to their agreement.
During those days he luxuriated in a sense of wild and lawless freedom;
then, gradually, he began to feel the need of fresh restraints to break,
and learned that the zest of liberty lies in the escape from specific
obligations. At first he was conscious only of a vague hunger, but in
time the craving resolved into a shame-faced desire to see his letters.

"After all, I hated them only because I had to answer them"; and he told
Vyse carelessly that he wished all his letters submitted to him before
the secretary answered them.

At first he pushed aside those beginning: "I have just laid down
'Abundance' after a third reading," or: "Every day for the last month
I have been telephoning my bookseller to know when your novel would be
out." But little by little the freshness of his interest revived, and
even this stereotyped homage began to arrest his eye. At last a day came
when he read all the letters, from the first word to the last, as he had
done when "Diadems and Faggots" appeared. It was really a pleasure to
read them, now that he was relieved of the burden of replying: his new
relation to his correspondents had the glow of a love-affair unchilled
by the contingency of marriage.

One day it struck him that the letters were coming in more slowly and in
smaller numbers. Certainly there had been more of a rush when "Diadems
and Faggots" came out. Betton began to wonder if Vyse were exercising
an unauthorized discrimination, and keeping back the communications
he deemed least important. This sudden conjecture carried the
novelist straight to his library, where he found Vyse bending over the
writing-table with his usual inscrutable pale smile. But once there,
Betton hardly knew how to frame his question, and blundered into an
enquiry for a missing invitation.

"There's a note - a personal note - I ought to have had this morning. Sure
you haven't kept it back by mistake among the others?"

Vyse laid down his pen. "The others? But I never keep back any."

Betton had foreseen the answer. "Not even the worst twaddle about my
book?" he suggested lightly, pushing the papers about.

"Nothing. I understood you wanted to go over them all first."

"Well, perhaps it's safer," Betton conceded, as if the idea were new to
him. With an embarrassed hand he continued to turn over the letters at
Vyse's elbow.

"Those are yesterday's," said the secretary; "here are to-day's," he
added, pointing to a meagre trio.

"H'm - only these?" Betton took them and looked them over lingeringly.
"I don't see what the deuce that chap means about the first part of
'Abundance' 'certainly justifying the title' - do you?"

Vyse was silent, and the novelist continued irritably: "Damned cheek,
his writing, if he doesn't like the book. Who cares what he thinks about
it, anyhow?"

And his morning ride was embittered by the discovery that it was
unexpectedly disagreeable to have Vyse read any letters which did not
express unqualified praise of his books. He began to fancy there was
a latent rancour, a kind of baffled sneer, under Vyse's manner; and he
decided to return to the practice of having his mail brought straight to
his room. In that way he could edit the letters before his secretary saw
them.

Vyse made no comment on the change, and Betton was reduced to
wondering whether his imperturbable composure were the mask of complete
indifference or of a watchful jealousy. The latter view being more
agreeable to his employer's self-esteem, the next step was to conclude
that Vyse had not forgotten the episode of "The Lifted Lamp," and would
naturally take a vindictive joy in any unfavourable judgments passed on
his rival's work. This did not simplify the situation, for there was
no denying that unfavourable criticisms preponderated in Betton's
correspondence. "Abundance" was neither meeting with the unrestricted
welcome of "Diadems and Faggots," nor enjoying the alternative of an
animated controversy: it was simply found dull, and its readers said so
in language not too tactfully tempered by regretful comparisons with its
predecessor. To withhold unfavourable comments from Vyse was, therefore,
to make it appear that correspondence about the book had died out; and
its author, mindful of his unguarded predictions, found this even more
embarrassing. The simplest solution would be to get rid of Vyse; and to
this end Betton began to address his energies.

One evening, finding himself unexpectedly disengaged, he asked Vyse
to dine; it had occurred to him that, in the course of an after-dinner
chat, he might delicately hint his feeling that the work he had offered
his friend was unworthy so accomplished a hand.

Vyse surprised him by a momentary hesitation. "I may not have time to
dress."

Betton stared. "What's the odds? We'll dine here - and as late as you
like."

Vyse thanked him, and appeared, punctually at eight, in all the
shabbiness of his daily wear. He looked paler and more shyly truculent
than usual, and Betton, from the height of his florid stature, said to
himself, with the sudden professional instinct for "type": "He might be
an agent of something - a chap who carries deadly secrets."

Vyse, it was to appear, did carry a deadly secret; but one less
perilous to society than to himself. He was simply poor - inexcusably,
irremediably poor. Everything failed him, had always failed him:
whatever he put his hand to went to bits.

This was the confession that, reluctantly, yet with a kind of
white-lipped bravado, he flung at Betton in answer to the latter's
tentative suggestion that, really, the letter-answering job wasn't worth
bothering him with - a thing that any type-writer could do.

"If you mean you're paying me more than it's worth, I'll take less,"
Vyse rushed out after a pause.

"Oh, my dear fellow - " Betton protested, flushing.

"What _do_ you mean, then? Don't I answer the letters as you want them
answered?"

Betton anxiously stroked his silken ankle. "You do it beautifully,
too beautifully. I mean what I say: the work's not worthy of you. I'm
ashamed to ask you - "

"Oh, hang shame," Vyse interrupted. "Do you know why I said I shouldn't
have time to dress to-night? Because I haven't any evening clothes. As
a matter of fact, I haven't much but the clothes I stand in. One thing
after another's gone against me; all the infernal ingenuities of chance.
It's been a slow Chinese torture, the kind where they keep you alive to
have more fun killing you." He straightened himself with a sudden blush.
"Oh, I'm all right now - getting on capitally. But I'm still walking
rather a narrow plank; and if I do your work well enough - if I take your
idea - "

Betton stared into the fire without answering. He knew next to nothing
of Vyse's history, of the mischance or mis-management that had brought
him, with his brains and his training, to so unlikely a pass. But a pang
of compunction shot through him as he remembered the manuscript of "The
Lifted Lamp" gathering dust on his table for half a year.

"Not that it would have made any earthly difference - since he's
evidently never been able to get the thing published." But this
reflection did not wholly console Betton, and he found it impossible, at
the moment, to tell Vyse that his services were not needed.



III


DURING the ensuing weeks the letters grew fewer and fewer, and Betton
foresaw the approach of the fatal day when his secretary, in common
decency, would have to say: "I can't draw my pay for doing nothing."

What a triumph for Vyse!

The thought was intolerable, and Betton cursed his weakness in not
having dismissed the fellow before such a possibility arose.

"If I tell him I've no use for him now, he'll see straight through it,
of course; - and then, hang it, he looks so poor!"

This consideration came after the other, but Betton, in rearranging
them, put it first, because he thought it looked better there, and
also because he immediately perceived its value in justifying a plan of
action that was beginning to take shape in his mind.

"Poor devil, I'm damned if I don't do it for him!" said Betton, sitting
down at his desk.

Three or four days later he sent word to Vyse that he didn't care to go
over the letters any longer, and that they would once more be carried
directly to the library.

The next time he lounged in, on his way to his morning ride, he found
his secretary's pen in active motion.

"A lot to-day," Vyse told him cheerfully.

His tone irritated Betton: it had the inane optimism of the physician
reassuring a discouraged patient.

"Oh, Lord - I thought it was almost over," groaned the novelist.

"No: they've just got their second wind. Here's one from a Chicago
publisher - never heard the name - offering you thirty per cent. on your
next novel, with an advance royalty of twenty thousand. And here's a
chap who wants to syndicate it for a bunch of Sunday papers: big offer,
too. That's from Ann Arbor. And this - oh, _this_ one's funny!"

He held up a small scented sheet to Betton, who made no movement to
receive it.

"Funny? Why's it funny?" he growled.

"Well, it's from a girl - a lady - and she thinks she's the only person
who understands 'Abundance' - has the clue to it. Says she's never seen a
book so misrepresented by the critics - "

"Ha, ha! That _is_ good!" Betton agreed with too loud a laugh.

"This one's from a lady, too - married woman. Says she's misunderstood,
and would like to correspond."

"Oh, Lord," said Betton. - "What are you looking at?" he added sharply,
as Vyse continued to bend his blinking gaze on the letters.

"I was only thinking I'd never seen such short letters from women.
Neither one fills the first page."

"Well, what of that?" queried Betton.

Vyse reflected. "I'd like to meet a woman like that," he said wearily;
and Betton laughed again.

The letters continued to pour in, and there could be no farther question
of dispensing with Vyse's services. But one morning, about three weeks
later, the latter asked for a word with his employer, and Betton, on
entering the library, found his secretary with half a dozen documents
spread out before him.

"What's up?" queried Betton, with a touch of impatience.

Vyse was attentively scanning the outspread letters.

"I don't know: can't make out." His voice had a faint note of
embarrassment. "Do you remember a note signed _Hester Macklin_ that
came three or four weeks ago? Married - misunderstood - Western army
post - wanted to correspond?"

Betton seemed to grope among his memories; then he assented vaguely.

"A short note," Vyse went on: "the whole story in half a page. The
shortness struck me so much - and the directness - that I wrote her: wrote
in my own name, I mean."

"In your own name?" Betton stood amazed; then he broke into a groan.

"Good Lord, Vyse - you're incorrigible!"

The secretary pulled his thin moustache with a nervous laugh. "If you
mean I'm an ass, you're right. Look here." He held out an envelope
stamped with the words: "Dead Letter Office." "My effusion has come back
to me marked 'unknown.' There's no such person at the address she gave
you."

Betton seemed for an instant to share his secretary's embarrassment;
then he burst into an uproarious laugh.

"Hoax, was it? That's rough on you, old fellow!"

Vyse shrugged his shoulders. "Yes; but the interesting question is - why
on earth didn't _your_ answer come back, too?"

"My answer?"

"The official one - the one I wrote in your name. If she's unknown,
what's become of _that?_"

Betton stared at him with eyes wrinkled by amusement. "Perhaps she
hadn't disappeared then."

Vyse disregarded the conjecture. "Look here - I believe _all_ these
letters are a hoax," he broke out.

Betton stared at him with a face that turned slowly red and angry. "What
are you talking about? All what letters?"

"These I've spread out here: I've been comparing them. And I believe
they're all written by one man."

Burton's redness turned to a purple that made his ruddy moustache seem
pale. "What the devil are you driving at?" he asked.

"Well, just look at it," Vyse persisted, still bent above the letters.
"I've been studying them carefully - those that have come within the last
two or three weeks - and there's a queer likeness in the writing of some
of them. The _g_'s are all like corkscrews. And the same phrases keep
recurring - the Ann Arbor news-agent uses the same expressions as the
President of the Girls' College at Euphorbia, Maine."

Betton laughed. "Aren't the critics always groaning over the shrinkage
of the national vocabulary? Of course we all use the same expressions."

"Yes," said Vyse obstinately. "But how about using the same _g_'s?"

Betton laughed again, but Vyse continued without heeding him: "Look
here, Betton - could Strett have written them?"

"Strett?" Betton roared. "_ Strett?_" He threw himself into his
arm-chair to shake out his mirth at greater ease.

"I'll tell you why. Strett always posts all my answers. He comes in for
them every day before I leave. He posted the letter to the misunderstood
party - the letter from _you_ that the Dead Letter Office didn't return.
_I_ posted my own letter to her; and that came back."

A measurable silence followed the emission of this ingenious conjecture;
then Betton observed with gentle irony: "Extremely neat. And of course
it's no business of yours to supply any valid motive for this remarkable
attention on my valet's part."

Vyse cast on him a slanting glance.

"If you've found that human conduct's generally based on valid
motives - !"

"Well, outside of mad-houses it's supposed to be not quite
incalculable."

Vyse had an odd smile under his thin moustache. "Every house is a
mad-house at some time or another."

Betton rose with a careless shake of the shoulders. "This one will be if
I talk to you much longer," he said, moving away with a laugh.



IV


BETTON did not for a moment believe that Vyse suspected the valet of
having written the letters.

"Why the devil don't he say out what he thinks? He was always a tortuous
chap," he grumbled inwardly.

The sense of being held under the lens of Vyse's mute scrutiny became
more and more exasperating. Betton, by this time, had squared his
shoulders to the fact that "Abundance" was a failure with the public:
a confessed and glaring failure. The press told him so openly, and
his friends emphasized the fact by their circumlocutions and evasions.
Betton minded it a good deal more than he had expected, but not nearly
as much as he minded Vyse's knowing it. That remained the central
twinge in his diffused discomfort. And the problem of getting rid of his
secretary once more engaged him.

He had set aside all sentimental pretexts for retaining Vyse; but a
practical argument replaced them. "If I ship him now he'll think it's
because I'm ashamed to have him see that I'm not getting any more
letters."

For the letters had ceased again, almost abruptly, since Vyse had
hazarded the conjecture that they were the product of Strett's devoted
pen. Betton had reverted only once to the subject - to ask ironically,
a day or two later: "Is Strett writing to me as much as ever?" - and, on
Vyse's replying with a neutral head-shake, had added with a laugh: "If
you suspect _him_ you might as well think I write the letters myself!"

"There are very few to-day," said Vyse, with his irritating evasiveness;
and Betton rejoined squarely: "Oh, they'll stop soon. The book's a
failure."

A few mornings later he felt a rush of shame at his own tergiversations,
and stalked into the library with Vyse's sentence on his tongue.

Vyse started back with one of his anaemic blushes. "I was hoping you'd
be in. I wanted to speak to you. There've been no letters the last day
or two," he explained.

Betton drew a quick breath of relief. The man had some sense of decency,
then! He meant to dismiss himself.

"I told you so, my dear fellow; the book's a flat failure," he said,
almost gaily.

Vyse made a deprecating gesture. "I don't know that I should regard
the absence of letters as the ultimate test. But I wanted to ask you
if there isn't something else I can do on the days when there's no
writing." He turned his glance toward the book-lined walls. "Don't you
want your library catalogued?" he asked insidiously.

"Had it done last year, thanks." Betton glanced away from Vyse's face.
It was piteous, how he needed the job!

"I see. ... Of course this is just a temporary lull in the letters.
They'll begin again - as they did before. The people who read carefully
read slowly - you haven't heard yet what _they_ think."

Betton felt a rush of puerile joy at the suggestion. Actually, he hadn't
thought of that!

"There _was_ a big second crop after 'Diadems and Faggots,'" he mused
aloud.

"Of course. Wait and see," said Vyse confidently.

The letters in fact began again - more gradually and in smaller numbers.
But their quality was different, as Vyse had predicted. And in two
cases Betton's correspondents, not content to compress into one rapid
communication the thoughts inspired by his work, developed their views
in a succession of really remarkable letters. One of the writers was
a professor in a Western college; the other was a girl in Florida. In
their language, their point of view, their reasons for appreciating
"Abundance," they differed almost diametrically; but this only made
the unanimity of their approval the more striking. The rush of
correspondence evoked by Betton's earlier novel had produced nothing
so personal, so exceptional as these communications. He had gulped the
praise of "Diadems and Faggots" as undiscriminatingly as it was offered;
now he knew for the first time the subtler pleasures of the palate. He
tried to feign indifference, even to himself; and to Vyse he made no
sign. But gradually he felt a desire to know what his secretary thought
of the letters, and, above all, what he was saying in reply to them.
And he resented acutely the possibility of Vyse's starting one of his
clandestine correspondences with the girl in Florida. Vyse's notorious
lack of delicacy had never been more vividly present to Betton's
imagination; and he made up his mind to answer the letters himself.

He would keep Vyse on, of course: there were other communications that
the secretary could attend to. And, if necessary, Betton would invent an
occupation: he cursed his stupidity in having betrayed the fact that his
books were already catalogued.

Vyse showed no surprise when Betton announced his intention of dealing
personally with the two correspondents who showed so flattering a
reluctance to take their leave. But Betton immediately read a criticism
in his lack of comment, and put forth, on a note of challenge: "After
all, one must be decent!"

Vyse looked at him with an evanescent smile. "You'll have to explain
that you didn't write the first answers."

Betton halted. "Well - I - I more or less dictated them, didn't I?"

"Oh, virtually, they're yours, of course."

"You think I can put it that way?"

"Why not?" The secretary absently drew an arabesque on the blotting-pad.
"Of course they'll keep it up longer if you write yourself," he
suggested.

Betton blushed, but faced the issue. "Hang it all, I sha'n't be sorry.
They interest me. They're remarkable letters." And Vyse, without
observation, returned to his writings.

The spring, that year, was delicious to Betton. His college professor
continued to address him tersely but cogently at fixed intervals, and
twice a week eight serried pages came from Florida. There were other
letters, too; he had the solace of feeling that at last "Abundance" was
making its way, was reaching the people who, as Vyse said, read slowly
because they read intelligently. But welcome as were all these proofs
of his restored authority they were but the background of his happiness.
His life revolved for the moment about the personality of his two
chief correspondents. The professor's letters satisfied his craving for
intellectual recognition, and the satisfaction he felt in them proved
how completely he had lost faith in himself. He blushed to think that
his opinion of his work had been swayed by the shallow judgments of
a public whose taste he despised. Was it possible that he had allowed
himself to think less well of "Abundance" because it was not to
the taste of the average novel-reader? Such false humility was less
excusable than the crudest appetite for praise: it was ridiculous to
try to do conscientious work if one's self-esteem were at the mercy
of popular judgments. All this the professor's letters delicately
and indirectly conveyed to Betton, with the result that the author of
"Abundance" began to recognize in it the ripest flower of his genius.

But if the professor understood his book, the girl in Florida understood
_him;_ and Betton was fully alive to the superior qualities of
discernment which this process implied. For his lovely correspondent
his novel was but the starting-point, the pretext of her discourse: he
himself was her real object, and he had the delicious sense, as their
exchange of thoughts proceeded, that she was interested in "Abundance"
because of its author, rather than in the author because of his book. Of
course she laid stress on the fact that his ideas were the object of
her contemplation; but Betton's agreeable person had permitted him some
insight into the incorrigible subjectiveness of female judgments, and he
was pleasantly aware, from the lady's tone, that she guessed him to be
neither old nor ridiculous. And suddenly he wrote to ask if he might see
her. ...

The answer was long in coming. Betton fumed at the delay, watched,
wondered, fretted; then he received the one word "Impossible."

He wrote back more urgently, and awaited the reply with increasing
eagerness. A certain shyness had kept him from once more modifying the
instructions regarding his mail, and Strett still carried the letters
directly to Vyse. The hour when he knew they were passing under the
latter's eyes was now becoming intolerable to Betton, and it was a
profound relief when the secretary, suddenly advised of his father's
illness, asked permission to absent himself for a fortnight.

Vyse departed just after Betton had despatched to Florida his second
missive of entreaty, and for ten days he tasted the furtive joy of a
first perusal of his letters. The answer from Florida was not among
them; but Betton said to himself "She's thinking it over," and delay, in
that light, seemed favourable. So charming, in fact, was this phase of
sentimental suspense that he felt a start of resentment when a telegram
apprised him one morning that Vyse would return to his post that day.


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Online LibraryEdith WhartonTales of Men and Ghosts → online text (page 9 of 22)