Edith Wharton.

The Early Short Fiction of Edith Wharton — Part 2 online

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Produced by John Hamm


A Ten-Part Collection

Volume Two

Contents of Part Two

AFTERWARD............................January 1910
THE FULNESS OF LIFE..................December 1893
XINGU................................December 1911
THE VERDICT..........................June 1908
THE RECKONING........................August 1902


THE TOMB OF ILARIA GIUNIGI...........February 1891
THE SONNET...........................November 1891
TWO BACKGROUNDS......................November 1892
EXPERIENCE...........................January 1893
CHARTRES.............................September 1893
LIFE.................................June 1894
AN AUTUMN SUNSET.....................October 1894


January 1910


"Oh, there IS one, of course, but you'll never know it."

The assertion, laughingly flung out six months earlier in a bright June
garden, came back to Mary Boyne with a sharp perception of its latent
significance as she stood, in the December dusk, waiting for the lamps
to be brought into the library.

The words had been spoken by their friend Alida Stair, as they sat at
tea on her lawn at Pangbourne, in reference to the very house of which
the library in question was the central, the pivotal "feature." Mary
Boyne and her husband, in quest of a country place in one of the
southern or southwestern counties, had, on their arrival in England,
carried their problem straight to Alida Stair, who had successfully
solved it in her own case; but it was not until they had rejected,
almost capriciously, several practical and judicious suggestions that
she threw it out: "Well, there's Lyng, in Dorsetshire. It belongs to
Hugo's cousins, and you can get it for a song."

The reasons she gave for its being obtainable on these terms - its
remoteness from a station, its lack of electric light, hot-water pipes,
and other vulgar necessities - were exactly those pleading in its
favor with two romantic Americans perversely in search of the economic
drawbacks which were associated, in their tradition, with unusual
architectural felicities.

"I should never believe I was living in an old house unless I was
thoroughly uncomfortable," Ned Boyne, the more extravagant of the two,
had jocosely insisted; "the least hint of 'convenience' would make me
think it had been bought out of an exhibition, with the pieces numbered,
and set up again." And they had proceeded to enumerate, with humorous
precision, their various suspicions and exactions, refusing to believe
that the house their cousin recommended was REALLY Tudor till they
learned it had no heating system, or that the village church was
literally in the grounds till she assured them of the deplorable
uncertainty of the water-supply.

"It's too uncomfortable to be true!" Edward Boyne had continued to exult
as the avowal of each disadvantage was successively wrung from her; but
he had cut short his rhapsody to ask, with a sudden relapse to distrust:
"And the ghost? You've been concealing from us the fact that there is no

Mary, at the moment, had laughed with him, yet almost with her laugh,
being possessed of several sets of independent perceptions, had noted a
sudden flatness of tone in Alida's answering hilarity.

"Oh, Dorsetshire's full of ghosts, you know."

"Yes, yes; but that won't do. I don't want to have to drive ten miles
to see somebody else's ghost. I want one of my own on the premises. IS
there a ghost at Lyng?"

His rejoinder had made Alida laugh again, and it was then that she had
flung back tantalizingly: "Oh, there IS one, of course, but you'll never
know it."

"Never know it?" Boyne pulled her up. "But what in the world constitutes
a ghost except the fact of its being known for one?"

"I can't say. But that's the story."

"That there's a ghost, but that nobody knows it's a ghost?"

"Well - not till afterward, at any rate."

"Till afterward?"

"Not till long, long afterward."

"But if it's once been identified as an unearthly visitant, why hasn't
its signalement been handed down in the family? How has it managed to
preserve its incognito?"

Alida could only shake her head. "Don't ask me. But it has."

"And then suddenly - " Mary spoke up as if from some cavernous depth of
divination - "suddenly, long afterward, one says to one's self, 'THAT WAS

She was oddly startled at the sepulchral sound with which her question
fell on the banter of the other two, and she saw the shadow of the same
surprise flit across Alida's clear pupils. "I suppose so. One just has
to wait."

"Oh, hang waiting!" Ned broke in. "Life's too short for a ghost who can
only be enjoyed in retrospect. Can't we do better than that, Mary?"

But it turned out that in the event they were not destined to, for
within three months of their conversation with Mrs. Stair they were
established at Lyng, and the life they had yearned for to the point of
planning it out in all its daily details had actually begun for them.

It was to sit, in the thick December dusk, by just such a wide-hooded
fireplace, under just such black oak rafters, with the sense that beyond
the mullioned panes the downs were darkening to a deeper solitude: it
was for the ultimate indulgence in such sensations that Mary Boyne had
endured for nearly fourteen years the soul-deadening ugliness of the
Middle West, and that Boyne had ground on doggedly at his engineering
till, with a suddenness that still made her blink, the prodigious
windfall of the Blue Star Mine had put them at a stroke in possession
of life and the leisure to taste it. They had never for a moment meant
their new state to be one of idleness; but they meant to give themselves
only to harmonious activities. She had her vision of painting and
gardening (against a background of gray walls), he dreamed of the
production of his long-planned book on the "Economic Basis of
Culture"; and with such absorbing work ahead no existence could be too
sequestered; they could not get far enough from the world, or plunge
deep enough into the past.

Dorsetshire had attracted them from the first by a semblance of
remoteness out of all proportion to its geographical position. But
to the Boynes it was one of the ever-recurring wonders of the whole
incredibly compressed island - a nest of counties, as they put it - that
for the production of its effects so little of a given quality went
so far: that so few miles made a distance, and so short a distance a

"It's that," Ned had once enthusiastically explained, "that gives such
depth to their effects, such relief to their least contrasts. They've
been able to lay the butter so thick on every exquisite mouthful."

The butter had certainly been laid on thick at Lyng: the old gray house,
hidden under a shoulder of the downs, had almost all the finer marks of
commerce with a protracted past. The mere fact that it was neither large
nor exceptional made it, to the Boynes, abound the more richly in
its special sense - the sense of having been for centuries a deep, dim
reservoir of life. The life had probably not been of the most vivid
order: for long periods, no doubt, it had fallen as noiselessly into
the past as the quiet drizzle of autumn fell, hour after hour, into the
green fish-pond between the yews; but these back-waters of existence
sometimes breed, in their sluggish depths, strange acuities of emotion,
and Mary Boyne had felt from the first the occasional brush of an
intenser memory.

The feeling had never been stronger than on the December afternoon when,
waiting in the library for the belated lamps, she rose from her seat and
stood among the shadows of the hearth. Her husband had gone off, after
luncheon, for one of his long tramps on the downs. She had noticed of
late that he preferred to be unaccompanied on these occasions; and,
in the tried security of their personal relations, had been driven
to conclude that his book was bothering him, and that he needed the
afternoons to turn over in solitude the problems left from the morning's
work. Certainly the book was not going as smoothly as she had imagined
it would, and the lines of perplexity between his eyes had never been
there in his engineering days. Then he had often looked fagged to the
verge of illness, but the native demon of "worry" had never branded his
brow. Yet the few pages he had so far read to her - the introduction, and
a synopsis of the opening chapter - gave evidences of a firm possession
of his subject, and a deepening confidence in his powers.

The fact threw her into deeper perplexity, since, now that he had done
with "business" and its disturbing contingencies, the one other possible
element of anxiety was eliminated. Unless it were his health, then?
But physically he had gained since they had come to Dorsetshire, grown
robuster, ruddier, and fresher-eyed. It was only within a week that she
had felt in him the undefinable change that made her restless in his
absence, and as tongue-tied in his presence as though it were SHE who
had a secret to keep from him!

The thought that there WAS a secret somewhere between them struck her
with a sudden smart rap of wonder, and she looked about her down the
dim, long room.

"Can it be the house?" she mused.

The room itself might have been full of secrets. They seemed to be
piling themselves up, as evening fell, like the layers and layers of
velvet shadow dropping from the low ceiling, the dusky walls of books,
the smoke-blurred sculpture of the hooded hearth.

"Why, of course - the house is haunted!" she reflected.

The ghost - Alida's imperceptible ghost - after figuring largely in the
banter of their first month or two at Lyng, had been gradually discarded
as too ineffectual for imaginative use. Mary had, indeed, as became the
tenant of a haunted house, made the customary inquiries among her few
rural neighbors, but, beyond a vague, "They du say so, Ma'am," the
villagers had nothing to impart. The elusive specter had apparently
never had sufficient identity for a legend to crystallize about it,
and after a time the Boynes had laughingly set the matter down to their
profit-and-loss account, agreeing that Lyng was one of the few houses
good enough in itself to dispense with supernatural enhancements.

"And I suppose, poor, ineffectual demon, that's why it beats its
beautiful wings in vain in the void," Mary had laughingly concluded.

"Or, rather," Ned answered, in the same strain, "why, amid so much
that's ghostly, it can never affirm its separate existence as THE
ghost." And thereupon their invisible housemate had finally dropped out
of their references, which were numerous enough to make them promptly
unaware of the loss.

Now, as she stood on the hearth, the subject of their earlier curiosity
revived in her with a new sense of its meaning - a sense gradually
acquired through close daily contact with the scene of the lurking
mystery. It was the house itself, of course, that possessed the
ghost-seeing faculty, that communed visually but secretly with its own
past; and if one could only get into close enough communion with the
house, one might surprise its secret, and acquire the ghost-sight on
one's own account. Perhaps, in his long solitary hours in this very
room, where she never trespassed till the afternoon, her husband HAD
acquired it already, and was silently carrying the dread weight of
whatever it had revealed to him. Mary was too well-versed in the code of
the spectral world not to know that one could not talk about the ghosts
one saw: to do so was almost as great a breach of good-breeding as to
name a lady in a club. But this explanation did not really satisfy her.
"What, after all, except for the fun of the frisson," she reflected,
"would he really care for any of their old ghosts?" And thence she was
thrown back once more on the fundamental dilemma: the fact that one's
greater or less susceptibility to spectral influences had no particular
bearing on the case, since, when one DID see a ghost at Lyng, one did
not know it.

"Not till long afterward," Alida Stair had said. Well, supposing Ned HAD
seen one when they first came, and had known only within the last week
what had happened to him? More and more under the spell of the hour, she
threw back her searching thoughts to the early days of their tenancy,
but at first only to recall a gay confusion of unpacking, settling,
arranging of books, and calling to each other from remote corners of the
house as treasure after treasure of their habitation revealed itself to
them. It was in this particular connection that she presently recalled
a certain soft afternoon of the previous October, when, passing from the
first rapturous flurry of exploration to a detailed inspection of the
old house, she had pressed (like a novel heroine) a panel that opened at
her touch, on a narrow flight of stairs leading to an unsuspected flat
ledge of the roof - the roof which, from below, seemed to slope away on
all sides too abruptly for any but practised feet to scale.

The view from this hidden coign was enchanting, and she had flown down
to snatch Ned from his papers and give him the freedom of her discovery.
She remembered still how, standing on the narrow ledge, he had passed
his arm about her while their gaze flew to the long, tossed horizon-line
of the downs, and then dropped contentedly back to trace the arabesque
of yew hedges about the fish-pond, and the shadow of the cedar on the

"And now the other way," he had said, gently turning her about within
his arm; and closely pressed to him, she had absorbed, like some long,
satisfying draft, the picture of the gray-walled court, the squat lions
on the gates, and the lime-avenue reaching up to the highroad under the

It was just then, while they gazed and held each other, that she had
felt his arm relax, and heard a sharp "Hullo!" that made her turn to
glance at him.

Distinctly, yes, she now recalled she had seen, as she glanced, a shadow
of anxiety, of perplexity, rather, fall across his face; and, following
his eyes, had beheld the figure of a man - a man in loose, grayish
clothes, as it appeared to her - who was sauntering down the lime-avenue
to the court with the tentative gait of a stranger seeking his way. Her
short-sighted eyes had given her but a blurred impression of slightness
and grayness, with something foreign, or at least unlocal, in the cut of
the figure or its garb; but her husband had apparently seen more - seen
enough to make him push past her with a sharp "Wait!" and dash down the
twisting stairs without pausing to give her a hand for the descent.

A slight tendency to dizziness obliged her, after a provisional clutch
at the chimney against which they had been leaning, to follow him down
more cautiously; and when she had reached the attic landing she paused
again for a less definite reason, leaning over the oak banister to
strain her eyes through the silence of the brown, sun-flecked depths
below. She lingered there till, somewhere in those depths, she heard
the closing of a door; then, mechanically impelled, she went down the
shallow flights of steps till she reached the lower hall.

The front door stood open on the mild sunlight of the court, and
hall and court were empty. The library door was open, too, and after
listening in vain for any sound of voices within, she quickly crossed
the threshold, and found her husband alone, vaguely fingering the papers
on his desk.

He looked up, as if surprised at her precipitate entrance, but the
shadow of anxiety had passed from his face, leaving it even, as she
fancied, a little brighter and clearer than usual.

"What was it? Who was it?" she asked.

"Who?" he repeated, with the surprise still all on his side.

"The man we saw coming toward the house."

He seemed honestly to reflect. "The man? Why, I thought I saw Peters;
I dashed after him to say a word about the stable-drains, but he had
disappeared before I could get down."

"Disappeared? Why, he seemed to be walking so slowly when we saw him."

Boyne shrugged his shoulders. "So I thought; but he must have got up
steam in the interval. What do you say to our trying a scramble up
Meldon Steep before sunset?"

That was all. At the time the occurrence had been less than nothing,
had, indeed, been immediately obliterated by the magic of their first
vision from Meldon Steep, a height which they had dreamed of climbing
ever since they had first seen its bare spine heaving itself above the
low roof of Lyng. Doubtless it was the mere fact of the other incident's
having occurred on the very day of their ascent to Meldon that had kept
it stored away in the unconscious fold of association from which it now
emerged; for in itself it had no mark of the portentous. At the moment
there could have been nothing more natural than that Ned should dash
himself from the roof in the pursuit of dilatory tradesmen. It was the
period when they were always on the watch for one or the other of the
specialists employed about the place; always lying in wait for them,
and dashing out at them with questions, reproaches, or reminders. And
certainly in the distance the gray figure had looked like Peters.

Yet now, as she reviewed the rapid scene, she felt her husband's
explanation of it to have been invalidated by the look of anxiety on his
face. Why had the familiar appearance of Peters made him anxious?
Why, above all, if it was of such prime necessity to confer with that
authority on the subject of the stable-drains, had the failure to find
him produced such a look of relief? Mary could not say that any one
of these considerations had occurred to her at the time, yet, from the
promptness with which they now marshaled themselves at her summons, she
had a sudden sense that they must all along have been there, waiting
their hour.


Weary with her thoughts, she moved toward the window. The library was
now completely dark, and she was surprised to see how much faint light
the outer world still held.

As she peered out into it across the court, a figure shaped itself in
the tapering perspective of bare lines: it looked a mere blot of deeper
gray in the grayness, and for an instant, as it moved toward her, her
heart thumped to the thought, "It's the ghost!"

She had time, in that long instant, to feel suddenly that the man of
whom, two months earlier, she had a brief distant vision from the roof
was now, at his predestined hour, about to reveal himself as NOT
having been Peters; and her spirit sank under the impending fear of the
disclosure. But almost with the next tick of the clock the ambiguous
figure, gaining substance and character, showed itself even to her weak
sight as her husband's; and she turned away to meet him, as he entered,
with the confession of her folly.

"It's really too absurd," she laughed out from the threshold, "but I
never CAN remember!"

"Remember what?" Boyne questioned as they drew together.

"That when one sees the Lyng ghost one never knows it."

Her hand was on his sleeve, and he kept it there, but with no response
in his gesture or in the lines of his fagged, preoccupied face.

"Did you think you'd seen it?" he asked, after an appreciable interval.

"Why, I actually took YOU for it, my dear, in my mad determination to
spot it!"

"Me - just now?" His arm dropped away, and he turned from her with a
faint echo of her laugh. "Really, dearest, you'd better give it up, if
that's the best you can do."

"Yes, I give it up - I give it up. Have YOU?" she asked, turning round on
him abruptly.

The parlor-maid had entered with letters and a lamp, and the light
struck up into Boyne's face as he bent above the tray she presented.

"Have YOU?" Mary perversely insisted, when the servant had disappeared
on her errand of illumination.

"Have I what?" he rejoined absently, the light bringing out the sharp
stamp of worry between his brows as he turned over the letters.

"Given up trying to see the ghost." Her heart beat a little at the
experiment she was making.

Her husband, laying his letters aside, moved away into the shadow of the

"I never tried," he said, tearing open the wrapper of a newspaper.

"Well, of course," Mary persisted, "the exasperating thing is that
there's no use trying, since one can't be sure till so long afterward."

He was unfolding the paper as if he had hardly heard her; but after a
pause, during which the sheets rustled spasmodically between his hands,
he lifted his head to say abruptly, "Have you any idea HOW LONG?"

Mary had sunk into a low chair beside the fireplace. From her seat
she looked up, startled, at her husband's profile, which was darkly
projected against the circle of lamplight.

"No; none. Have YOU?" she retorted, repeating her former phrase with an
added keenness of intention.

Boyne crumpled the paper into a bunch, and then inconsequently turned
back with it toward the lamp.

"Lord, no! I only meant," he explained, with a faint tinge of
impatience, "is there any legend, any tradition, as to that?"

"Not that I know of," she answered; but the impulse to add, "What makes
you ask?" was checked by the reappearance of the parlor-maid with tea
and a second lamp.

With the dispersal of shadows, and the repetition of the daily domestic
office, Mary Boyne felt herself less oppressed by that sense of
something mutely imminent which had darkened her solitary afternoon. For
a few moments she gave herself silently to the details of her task, and
when she looked up from it she was struck to the point of bewilderment
by the change in her husband's face. He had seated himself near the
farther lamp, and was absorbed in the perusal of his letters; but was it
something he had found in them, or merely the shifting of her own point
of view, that had restored his features to their normal aspect? The
longer she looked, the more definitely the change affirmed itself. The
lines of painful tension had vanished, and such traces of fatigue as
lingered were of the kind easily attributable to steady mental effort.
He glanced up, as if drawn by her gaze, and met her eyes with a smile.

"I'm dying for my tea, you know; and here's a letter for you," he said.

She took the letter he held out in exchange for the cup she proffered
him, and, returning to her seat, broke the seal with the languid gesture
of the reader whose interests are all inclosed in the circle of one
cherished presence.

Her next conscious motion was that of starting to her feet, the letter
falling to them as she rose, while she held out to her husband a long
newspaper clipping.

"Ned! What's this? What does it mean?"

He had risen at the same instant, almost as if hearing her cry before
she uttered it; and for a perceptible space of time he and she studied
each other, like adversaries watching for an advantage, across the space
between her chair and his desk.

"What's what? You fairly made me jump!" Boyne said at length, moving
toward her with a sudden, half-exasperated laugh. The shadow of
apprehension was on his face again, not now a look of fixed foreboding,
but a shifting vigilance of lips and eyes that gave her the sense of his
feeling himself invisibly surrounded.

Her hand shook so that she could hardly give him the clipping.

"This article - from the 'Waukesha Sentinel' - that a man named Elwell has
brought suit against you - that there was something wrong about the Blue
Star Mine. I can't understand more than half."

They continued to face each other as she spoke, and to her astonishment,
she saw that her words had the almost immediate effect of dissipating
the strained watchfulness of his look.

"Oh, THAT!" He glanced down the printed slip, and then folded it with
the gesture of one who handles something harmless and familiar. "What's
the matter with you this afternoon, Mary? I thought you'd got bad news."

She stood before him with her undefinable terror subsiding slowly under
the reassuring touch of his composure.

"You knew about this, then - it's all right?"

"Certainly I knew about it; and it's all right."

"But what IS it? I don't understand. What does this man accuse you of?"

"Oh, pretty nearly every crime in the calendar." Boyne had tossed the

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Online LibraryEdith WhartonThe Early Short Fiction of Edith Wharton — Part 2 → online text (page 1 of 11)