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Produced by David Widger





THE TRIUMPH OF NIGHT

By Edith Wharton

Copyright, 1916, By Charles Scribner's Sons




I

It was clear that the sleigh from Weymore had not come; and the
shivering young traveller from Boston, who had counted on jumping into
it when he left the train at Northridge Junction, found himself standing
alone on the open platform, exposed to the full assault of night-fall
and winter.

The blast that swept him came off New Hampshire snow-fields and ice-hung
forests. It seemed to have traversed interminable leagues of frozen
silence, filling them with the same cold roar and sharpening its edge
against the same bitter black-and-white landscape. Dark, searching
and sword-like, it alternately muffled and harried its victim, like a
bull-fighter now whirling his cloak and now planting his darts. This
analogy brought home to the young man the fact that he himself had
no cloak, and that the overcoat in which he had faced the relatively
temperate air of Boston seemed no thicker than a sheet of paper on the
bleak heights of Northridge. George Faxon said to himself that the place
was uncommonly well-named. It clung to an exposed ledge over the valley
from which the train had lifted him, and the wind combed it with teeth
of steel that he seemed actually to hear scraping against the wooden
sides of the station. Other building there was none: the village lay far
down the road, and thither - since the Weymore sleigh had not come - Faxon
saw himself under the necessity of plodding through several feet of
snow.

He understood well enough what had happened: his hostess had forgotten
that he was coming. Young as Faxon was, this sad lucidity of soul had
been acquired as the result of long experience, and he knew that the
visitors who can least afford to hire a carriage are almost always those
whom their hosts forget to send for. Yet to say that Mrs. Culme had
forgotten him was too crude a way of putting it Similar incidents led
him to think that she had probably told her maid to tell the butler to
telephone the coachman to tell one of the grooms (if no one else needed
him) to drive over to Northridge to fetch the new secretary; but on
a night like this, what groom who respected his rights would fail to
forget the order?

Faxon's obvious course was to struggle through the drifts to the
village, and there rout out a sleigh to convey him to Weymore; but what
if, on his arrival at Mrs. Culme's, no one remembered to ask him
what this devotion to duty had cost? That, again, was one of the
contingencies he had expensively learned to look out for, and the
perspicacity so acquired told him it would be cheaper to spend the night
at the Northridge inn, and advise Mrs. Culme of his presence there by
telephone. He had reached this decision, and was about to entrust his
luggage to a vague man with a lantern, when his hopes were raised by the
sound of bells.

Two sleighs were just dashing up to the station, and from the foremost
there sprang a young man muffled in furs.

"Weymore? - No, these are not the Weymore sleighs."

The voice was that of the youth who had jumped to the platform - a voice
so agreeable that, in spite of the words, it fell consolingly on Faxon's
ears. At the same moment the wandering station-lantern, casting a
transient light on the speaker, showed his features to be in the
pleasantest harmony with his voice. He was very fair and very
young - hardly in the twenties, Faxon thought - but his face, though full
of a morning freshness, was a trifle too thin and fine-drawn, as though
a vivid spirit contended in him with a strain of physical weakness.
Faxon was perhaps the quicker to notice such delicacies of balance
because his own temperament hung on lightly quivering nerves, which yet,
as he believed, would never quite swing him beyond a normal sensibility.

"You expected a sleigh from Weymore?" the newcomer continued, standing
beside Faxon like a slender column of fur.

Mrs. Culme's secretary explained his difficulty, and the other brushed
it aside with a contemptuous "Oh, _Mrs. Culme!_" that carried both
speakers a long way toward reciprocal understanding.

"But then you must be - " The youth broke off with a smile of
interrogation.

"The new secretary? Yes. But apparently there are no notes to be
answered this evening." Faxon's laugh deepened the sense of solidarity
which had so promptly established itself between the two.

His friend laughed also. "Mrs. Culme," he explained, "was lunching at my
uncle's to-day, and she said you were due this evening. But seven hours
is a long time for Mrs. Culme to remember anything."

"Well," said Faxon philosophically, "I suppose that's one of the reasons
why she needs a secretary. And I've always the inn at Northridge," he
concluded.

"Oh, but you haven't, though! It burned down last week."

"The deuce it did!" said Faxon; but the humour of the situation struck
him before its inconvenience. His life, for years past, had been mainly
a succession of resigned adaptations, and he had learned, before dealing
practically with his embarrassments, to extract from most of them a
small tribute of amusement.

"Oh, well, there's sure to be somebody in the place who can put me up."

"No one _you_ could put up with. Besides, Northridge is three miles off,
and our place - in the opposite direction - is a little nearer."
Through the darkness, Faxon saw his friend sketch a gesture of
self-introduction. "My name's Frank Rainer, and I'm staying with my
uncle at Overdale. I've driven over to meet two friends of his, who are
due in a few minutes from New York. If you don't mind waiting till they
arrive I'm sure Overdale can do you better than Northridge. We're only
down from town for a few days, but the house is always ready for a lot
of people."

"But your uncle - ?" Faxon could only object, with the odd sense, through
his embarrassment, that it would be magically dispelled by his invisible
friend's next words.

"Oh, my uncle - you'll see! I answer for _him!_ I daresay you've heard of
him - John Lavington?"

John Lavington! There was a certain irony in asking if one had heard of
John Lavington! Even from a post of observation as obscure as that of
Mrs. Culme's secretary the rumour of John Lavington's money, of his
pictures, his politics, his charities and his hospitality, was as
difficult to escape as the roar of a cataract in a mountain solitude.
It might almost have been said that the one place in which one would
not have expected to come upon him was in just such a solitude as
now surrounded the speakers - at least in this deepest hour of its
desertedness. But it was just like Lavington's brilliant ubiquity to put
one in the wrong even there.

"Oh, yes, I've heard of your uncle."

"Then you _will_ come, won't you? We've only five minutes to wait."
young Rainer urged, in the tone that dispels scruples by ignoring them;
and Faxon found himself accepting the invitation as simply as it was
offered.

A delay in the arrival of the New York train lengthened their five
minutes to fifteen; and as they paced the icy platform Faxon began to
see why it had seemed the most natural thing in the world to accede to
his new acquaintance's suggestion. It was because Frank Rainer was
one of the privileged beings who simplify human intercourse by the
atmosphere of confidence and good humour they diffuse. He produced this
effect, Faxon noted, by the exercise of no gift but his youth, and of no
art but his sincerity; and these qualities were revealed in a smile of
such sweetness that Faxon felt, as never before, what Nature can achieve
when she deigns to match the face with the mind.

He learned that the young man was the ward, and the only nephew, of John
Lavington, with whom he had made his home since the death of his mother,
the great man's sister. Mr. Lavington, Rainer said, had been "a regular
brick" to him - "But then he is to every one, you know" - and the young
fellow's situation seemed in fact to be perfectly in keeping with his
person. Apparently the only shade that had ever rested on him was cast
by the physical weakness which Faxon had already detected. Young Rainer
had been threatened with tuberculosis, and the disease was so far
advanced that, according to the highest authorities, banishment to
Arizona or New Mexico was inevitable. "But luckily my uncle didn't pack
me off, as most people would have done, without getting another opinion.
Whose? Oh, an awfully clever chap, a young doctor with a lot of new
ideas, who simply laughed at my being sent away, and said I'd do
perfectly well in New York if I didn't dine out too much, and if I
dashed off occasionally to Northridge for a little fresh air. So it's
really my uncle's doing that I'm not in exile - and I feel no end better
since the new chap told me I needn't bother." Young Rainer went on to
confess that he was extremely fond of dining out, dancing and similar
distractions; and Faxon, listening to him, was inclined to think that
the physician who had refused to cut him off altogether from these
pleasures was probably a better psychologist than his seniors.

"All the same you ought to be careful, you know." The sense of
elder-brotherly concern that forced the words from Faxon made him, as he
spoke, slip his arm through Frank Rainer 's.

The latter met the movement with a responsive pressure. "Oh, I _am_:
awfully, awfully. And then my uncle has such an eye on me!"

"But if your uncle has such an eye on you, what does he say to your
swallowing knives out here in this Siberian wild?"

Rainer raised his fur collar with a careless gesture. "It's not that
that does it - the cold's good for me."

"And it's not the dinners and dances? What is it, then?" Faxon
good-humouredly insisted; to which his companion answered with a laugh:
"Well, my uncle says it's being bored; and I rather think he's right!"

His laugh ended in a spasm of coughing and a struggle for breath that
made Faxon, still holding his arm, guide him hastily into the shelter of
the fireless waitingroom.

Young Rainer had dropped down on the bench against the wall and pulled
off one of his fur gloves to grope for a handkerchief. He tossed
aside his cap and drew the handkerchief across his forehead, which was
intensely white, and beaded with moisture, though his face retained
a healthy glow. But Faxon's gaze remained fastened to the hand he had
uncovered: it was so long, so colourless, so wasted, so much older than
the brow he passed it over.

"It's queer - a healthy face but dying hands," the secretary mused: he
somehow wished young Rainer had kept on his glove.

The whistle of the express drew the young men to their feet, and the
next moment two heavily-furred gentlemen had descended to the platform
and were breasting the rigour of the night. Frank Rainer introduced them
as Mr. Grisben and Mr. Balch, and Faxon, while their luggage was
being lifted into the second sleigh, discerned them, by the roving
lantern-gleam, to be an elderly greyheaded pair, of the average
prosperous business cut.

They saluted their host's nephew with friendly familiarity, and Mr.
Grisben, who seemed the spokesman of the two, ended his greeting with a
genial - "and many many more of them, dear boy!" which suggested to Faxon
that their arrival coincided with an anniversary. But he could not press
the enquiry, for the seat allotted him was at the coachman's side, while
Frank Rainer joined his uncle's guests inside the sleigh.

A swift flight (behind such horses as one could be sure of John
Lavington's having) brought them to tall gateposts, an illuminated
lodge, and an avenue on which the snow had been levelled to the
smoothness of marble. At the end of the avenue the long house loomed up,
its principal bulk dark, but one wing sending out a ray of welcome; and
the next moment Faxon was receiving a violent impression of warmth and
light, of hot-house plants, hurrying servants, a vast spectacular oak
hall like a stage-setting, and, in its unreal middle distance, a small
figure, correctly dressed, conventionally featured, and utterly unlike
his rather florid conception of the great John Lavington.

The surprise of the contrast remained with him through his hurried
dressing in the large luxurious bedroom to which he had been shown.
"I don't see where he comes in," was the only way he could put it, so
difficult was it to fit the exuberance of Lavington's public personality
into his host's contracted frame and manner. Mr. Laving ton, to whom
Faxon's case had been rapidly explained by young Rainer, had welcomed
him with a sort of dry and stilted cordiality that exactly matched
his narrow face, his stiff hand, and the whiff of scent on his evening
handkerchief. "Make yourself at home - at home!" he had repeated, in a
tone that suggested, on his own part, a complete inability to perform
the feat he urged on his visitor. "Any friend of Frank's... delighted...
make yourself thoroughly at home!"




II

In spite of the balmy temperature and complicated conveniences of
Faxon's bedroom, the injunction was not easy to obey. It was wonderful
luck to have found a night's shelter under the opulent roof of Overdale,
and he tasted the physical satisfaction to the full. But the place,
for all its ingenuities of comfort, was oddly cold and unwelcoming.
He couldn't have said why, and could only suppose that Mr. Lavington's
intense personality - intensely negative, but intense all the same - must,
in some occult way, have penetrated every corner of his dwelling.
Perhaps, though, it was merely that Faxon himself was tired and hungry,
more deeply chilled than he had known till he came in from the cold,
and unutterably sick of all strange houses, and of the prospect of
perpetually treading other people's stairs.

"I hope you're not famished?" Rainer's slim figure was in the doorway.
"My uncle has a little business to attend to with Mr. Grisben, and we
don't dine for half an hour. Shall I fetch you, or can you find your way
down? Come straight to the dining-room - the second door on the left of
the long gallery."

He disappeared, leaving a ray of warmth behind him, and Faxon, relieved,
lit a cigarette and sat down by the fire.

Looking about with less haste, he was struck by a detail that had
escaped him. The room was full of flowers - a mere "bachelor's room," in
the wing of a house opened only for a few days, in the dead middle of
a New Hampshire winter! Flowers were everywhere, not in senseless
profusion, but placed with the same conscious art that he had remarked
in the grouping of the blossoming shrubs in the hall. A vase of arums
stood on the writing-table, a cluster of strange-hued carnations on
the stand at his elbow, and from bowls of glass and porcelain clumps of
freesia-bulbs diffused their melting fragrance. The fact implied acres
of glass - but that was the least interesting part of it. The flowers
themselves, their quality, selection and arrangement, attested on
some one's part - and on whose but John Lavington's? - a solicitous and
sensitive passion for that particular form of beauty. Well, it simply
made the man, as he had appeared to Faxon, all the harder to understand!

The half-hour elapsed, and Faxon, rejoicing at the prospect of food, set
out to make his way to the dining-room. He had not noticed the direction
he had followed in going to his room, and was puzzled, when he left it,
to find that two staircases, of apparently equal importance, invited
him. He chose the one to his right, and reached, at its foot, a long
gallery such as Rainer had described. The gallery was empty, the doors
down its length were closed; but Rainer had said: "The second to the
left," and Faxon, after pausing for some chance enlightenment which did
not come, laid his hand on the second knob to the left.

The room he entered was square, with dusky picture-hung walls. In its
centre, about a table lit by veiled lamps, he fancied Mr. Lavington and
his guests to be already seated at dinner; then he perceived that the
table was covered not with viands but with papers, and that he had
blundered into what seemed to be his host's study. As he paused Frank
Rainer looked up.

"Oh, here's Mr. Faxon. Why not ask him - ?"

Mr. Lavington, from the end of the table, reflected his nephew's smile
in a glance of impartial benevolence.

"Certainly. Come in, Mr. Faxon. If you won't think it a liberty - "

Mr. Grisben, who sat opposite his host, turned his head toward the door.
"Of course Mr. Faxon's an American citizen?"

Frank Rainer laughed. "That's all right!... Oh, no, not one of your
pin-pointed pens, Uncle Jack! Haven't you got a quill somewhere?"

Mr. Balch, who spoke slowly and as if reluctantly, in a muffled voice of
which there seemed to be very little left, raised his hand to say: "One
moment: you acknowledge this to be - ?"

"My last will and testament?" Rainer's laugh redoubled. "Well, I won't
answer for the 'last.' It's the first, anyway."

"It's a mere formula," Mr. Balch explained.

"Well, here goes." Rainer dipped his quill in the inkstand his uncle
had pushed in his direction, and dashed a gallant signature across the
document.

Faxon, understanding what was expected of him, and conjecturing that the
young man was signing his will on the attainment of his majority, had
placed himself behind Mr. Grisben, and stood awaiting his turn to affix
his name to the instrument. Rainer, having signed, was about to push the
paper across the table to Mr. Balch; but the latter, again raising his
hand, said in his sad imprisoned voice: "The seal - ?"

"Oh, does there have to be a seal?"

Faxon, looking over Mr. Grisben at John Lavington, saw a faint frown
between his impassive eyes. "Really, Frank!" He seemed, Faxon thought,
slightly irritated by his nephew's frivolity.

"Who's got a seal?" Frank Rainer continued, glancing about the table.
"There doesn't seem to be one here."

Mr. Grisben interposed. "A wafer will do. Lavington, you have a wafer?"

Mr. Lavington had recovered his serenity. "There must be some in one
of the drawers. But I'm ashamed to say I don't know where my secretary
keeps these things. He ought to have seen to it that a wafer was sent
with the document."

"Oh, hang it - " Frank Rainer pushed the paper aside: "It's the hand of
God - and I'm as hungry as a wolf. Let's dine first, Uncle Jack."

"I think I've a seal upstairs," said Faxon.

Mr. Lavington sent him a barely perceptible smile. "So sorry to give you
the trouble - "

"Oh, I say, don't send him after it now. Let's wait till after dinner!"

Mr. Lavington continued to smile on _his_ guest, and the latter, as
if under the faint coercion of the smile, turned from the room and
ran upstairs. Having taken the seal from his writing-case he came down
again, and once more opened the door of the study. No one was speaking
when he entered - they were evidently awaiting his return with the mute
impatience of hunger, and he put the seal in Rainer's reach, and stood
watching while Mr. Grisben struck a match and held it to one of the
candles flanking the inkstand. As the wax descended on the paper Faxon
remarked again the strange emaciation, the premature physical weariness,
of the hand that held it: he wondered if Mr. Lavington had ever noticed
his nephew's hand, and if it were not poignantly visible to him now.

With this thought in his mind, Faxon raised his eyes to look at
Mr. Lavington. The great man's gaze rested on Frank Rainer with an
expression of untroubled benevolence; and at the same instant Faxon's
attention was attracted by the presence in the room of another person,
who must have joined the group while he was upstairs searching for the
seal. The new-comer was a man of about Mr. Lavington's age and figure,
who stood just behind his chair, and who, at the moment when Faxon
first saw him, was gazing at young Rainer with an equal intensity of
attention. The likeness between the two men - perhaps increased by the
fact that the hooded lamps on the table left the figure behind the
chair in shadow - struck Faxon the more because of the contrast in their
expression. John Lavington, during his nephew's clumsy attempt to
drop the wax and apply the seal, continued to fasten on him a look
of half-amused affection; while the man behind the chair, so oddly
reduplicating the lines of his features and figure, turned on the boy a
face of pale hostility.

The impression was so startling that Faxon forgot what was going on
about him. He was just dimly aware of young Reiner's exclaiming; "Your
turn, Mr. Grisben!" of Mr. Grisben's protesting: "No - no; Mr. Faxon
first," and of the pen's being thereupon transferred to his own hand.
He received it with a deadly sense of being unable to move, or even to
understand what was expected of him, till he became conscious of Mr.
Grisben's paternally pointing out the precise spot on which he was to
leave his autograph. The effort to fix his attention and steady his hand
prolonged the process of signing, and when he stood up - a strange weight
of fatigue on all his limbs - the figure behind Mr. Lavington's chair was
gone.

Faxon felt an immediate sense of relief. It was puzzling that the man's
exit should have been so rapid and noiseless, but the door behind Mr.
Lavington was screened by a tapestry hanging, and Faxon concluded that
the unknown looker-on had merely had to raise it to pass out. At any
rate he was gone, and with his withdrawal the strange weight was lifted.
Young Rainer was lighting a cigarette, Mr. Balch inscribing his name
at the foot of the document, Mr. Lavington - his eyes no longer on his
nephew - examining a strange white-winged orchid in the vase at his
elbow. Every thing suddenly seemed to have grown natural and simple
again, and Faxon found himself responding with a smile to the affable
gesture with which his host declared: "And now, Mr. Faxon, we'll dine."




III

"I wonder how I blundered into the wrong room just now; I thought you
told me to take the second door to the left," Faxon said to Frank Rainer
as they followed the older men down the gallery.

"So I did; but I probably forgot to tell you which staircase to take.
Coming from your bedroom, I ought to have said the fourth door to the
right. It's a puzzling house, because my uncle keeps adding to it from
year to year. He built this room last summer for his modern pictures."

Young Rainer, pausing to open another door, touched an electric button
which sent a circle of light about the walls of a long room hung with
canvases of the French impressionist school.

Faxon advanced, attracted by a shimmering Monet, but Rainer laid a hand
on his arm.

"He bought that last week. But come along - I'll show you all this after
dinner. Or _he_ will, rather - he loves it."

"Does he really love things?"

Rainer stared, clearly perplexed at the question. "Rather! Flowers and
pictures especially! Haven't you noticed the flowers? I suppose you
think his manner's cold; it seems so at first; but he's really awfully
keen about things."

Faxon looked quickly at the speaker. "Has your uncle a brother?"

"Brother? No - never had. He and my mother were the only ones."

"Or any relation who - who looks like him? Who might be mistaken for
him?"

"Not that I ever heard of. Does he remind you of some one?"

"Yes."

"That's queer. We'll ask him if he's got a double. Come on!"

But another picture had arrested Faxon, and some minutes elapsed before
he and his young host reached the dining-room. It was a large room,
with the same conventionally handsome furniture and delicately grouped
flowers; and Faxon's first glance showed him that only three men
were seated about the dining-table. The man who had stood behind Mr.
Lavington's chair was not present, and no seat awaited him.

When the young men entered, Mr. Grisben was speaking, and his host, who
faced the door, sat looking down at his untouched soup-plate and turning
the spoon about in his small dry hand.

"It's pretty late to call them rumours - they were devilish close to
facts when we left town this morning," Mr. Grisben was saying, with an
unexpected incisiveness of tone.

Mr. Lavington laid down his spoon and smiled interrogatively. "Oh,
facts - what _are_ facts? Just the way a thing happens to look at a given
minute...."

"You haven't heard anything from town?" Mr. Grisben persisted.

"Not a syllable. So you see.... Balch, a little more of that _petite
marmite_. Mr. Faxon... between Frank and Mr. Grisben, please."

The dinner progressed through a series of complicated courses,
ceremoniously dispensed by a prelatical butler attended by three


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