WE had been put in the mood for ghosts, that evening, after an excellent dinner at our old friend Culwin’s, by a tale of Fred Murchard’s — the narrative of a strange personal visitation.
Seen through the haze of our cigars, and by the drowsy gleam of a coal fire, Culwin’s library, with its oak walls and dark old bindings, made a good setting for such evocations; and ghostly experiences at first hand being, after Murchard’s brilliant opening, the only kind acceptable to us, we proceeded to take stock of our group and tax each member for a contribution. There were eight of us, and seven contrived, in a manner more or less adequate, to fulfil the condition imposed. It surprised us all to find that we could muster such a show of supernatural impressions, for none of us, excepting Murchard himself and young Phil Frenham — whose story was the slightest of the lot — had the habit of sending our souls into the invisible. So that, on the whole, we had every reason to be proud of our seven “exhibits,” and none of us would have dreamed of expecting an eighth from our host.
Our old friend, Mr. Andrew Culwin, who had sat back in his arm-chair, listening and blinking through the smoke circles with the cheerful tolerance of a wise old idol, was not the kind of man likely to be favoured with such contacts, though he had imagination enough to enjoy, without envying, the superior privileges of his guests. By age and by education he belonged to the stout Positivist tradition, and his habit of thought had been formed in the days of the epic struggle between physics and metaphysics. But he had been, then and always, essentially a spectator, a humorous detached observer of the immense muddled variety show of life, slipping out of his seat now and then for a brief dip into the convivialities at the back of the house, but never, as far as one knew, showing the least desire to jump on the stage and do a “turn.”
Among his contemporaries there lingered a vague tradition of his having, at a remote period, and in a romantic clime, been wounded in a duel; but this legend no more tallied with what we younger men knew of his character than my mother’s assertion that he had once been “a charming little man with nice eyes” corresponded to any possible reconstitution of his dry thwarted physiognomy.
“He never can have looked like anything but a bundle of sticks,” Murchard had once said of him. “Or a phosphorescent log, rather,” some one else amended; and we recognized the happiness of this description of his small squat trunk, with the red blink of the eyes in a face like mottled bark. He had always been possessed of a leisure which he had nursed and protected, instead of squandering it in vain activities. His carefully guarded hours had been devoted to the cultivation of a fine intelligence and a few judiciously chosen habits; and none of the disturbances common to human experience seemed to have crossed his sky. Nevertheless, his dispassionate survey of the universe had not raised his opinion of that costly experiment, and his study of the human race seemed to have resulted in the conclusion that all men were superfluous, and women necessary only because some one had to do the cooking. On the importance of this point his convictions were absolute, and gastronomy was the only science which he revered as dogma. It must be owned that his little dinners were a strong argument in favour of this view, besides being a reason — though not the main one — for the fidelity of his friends.
Mentally he exercised a hospitality less seductive but no less stimulating. His mind was like a forum, or some open meeting-place for the exchange of ideas: somewhat cold and draughty, but light, spacious and orderly — a kind of academic grove from which all the leaves had fallen. In this privileged area a dozen of us were wont to stretch our muscles and expand our lungs; and, as if to prolong as much as possible the tradition of what we felt to be a vanishing institution, one or two neophytes were now and then added to our band.
Young Phil Frenham was the last, and the most interesting, of these recruits, and a good example of Murchard’s somewhat morbid assertion that our old friend “liked ’em juicy.” It was indeed a fact that Culwin, for all his mental dryness, specially tasted the lyric qualities in youth. As he was far too good an Epicurean to nip the flowers of soul which he gathered for his garden, his friendship was not a disintegrating influence: on the contrary, it forced the young idea to robuster bloom. And in Phil Frenham he had a fine subject for experimentation. The boy was really intelligent, and the soundness of his nature was like the pure paste under a delicate glaze. Culwin had fished him out of a thick fog of family dulness, and pulled him up to a peak in Darien; and the adventure hadn’t hurt him a bit. Indeed, the skill with which Culwin had contrived to stimulate his curiosities without robbing them of their young bloom of awe seemed to me a sufficient answer to Murchard’s ogreish metaphor. There was nothing hectic in Frenham’s efflorescence, and his old friend had not laid even a finger-tip on the sacred stupidities. One wanted no better proof of that than the fact that Frenham still reverenced them in Culwin.
“There’s a side of him you fellows don’t see. I believe that story about the duel!” he declared; and it was of the very essence of this belief that it should impel him — just as our little party was dispersing — to turn back to our host with the absurd demand: “And now you’ve got to tell us about your ghost!”
The outer door had closed on Murchard and the others; only Frenham and I remained; and the vigilant servant who presided over Culwin’s destinies, having brought a fresh supply of soda-water, had been laconically ordered to bed.
Culwin’s sociability was a night-blooming flower, and we knew that he expected the nucleus of his group to tighten around him after midnight. But Frenham’s appeal seemed to disconcert him comically, and he rose from the chair in which he had just reseated himself after his farewells in the hall.
“My ghost? Do you suppose I’m fool enough to go to the expense of keeping one of my own, when there are so many charming ones in my friends’ closets? — Take another cigar,” he said, revolving toward me with a laugh.
Frenham laughed too, pulling up his slender height before the chimney-piece as he turned to face his short bristling friend.
“Oh,” he said, “you’d never be content to share if you met one you really liked.”
Culwin had dropped back into his armchair, his shock head embedded in its habitual hollow, his little eyes glimmering over a fresh cigar.
“Liked—liked? Good Lord!” he growled.
“Ah, you have, then!” Frenham pounced on him in the same instant, with a sidewise glance of victory at me; but Culwin cowered gnomelike among his cushions, dissembling himself in a protective cloud of smoke.
“What’s the use of denying it? You’ve seen everything, so of course you’ve seen a ghost!” his young friend persisted, talking intrepidly into the cloud. “Or, if you haven’t seen one, it’s only because you’ve seen two!”
The form of the challenge seemed to strike our host. He shot his head out of the mist with a queer tortoise-like motion he sometimes had, and blinked approvingly at Frenham.
“Yes,” he suddenly flung at us on a shrill jerk of laughter; “it’s only because I’ve seen two!”
The words were so unexpected that they dropped down and down into a fathomless silence, while we continued to stare at each other over Culwin’s head, and Culwin stared at his ghosts. At length Frenham, without speaking, threw himself into the chair on the other side of the hearth, and leaned forward with his listening smile …
“OH, of course they’re not show ghosts — a collector wouldn’t think anything of them … Don’t let me raise your hopes … their one merit is their numerical strength: the exceptional fact of their being two. But, as against this, I’m bound to admit that at any moment I could probably have exorcised them both by asking my doctor for a prescription, or my oculist for a pair of spectacles. Only, as I never could make up my mind whether to go to the doctor or the oculist — whether I was afflicted by an optical or a digestive delusion — I left them to pursue their interesting double life, though at times they made mine exceedingly comfortable …
“Yes — uncomfortable; and you know how I hate to be uncomfortable! But it was part of my stupid pride, when the thing began, not to admit that I could be disturbed by the trifling matter of seeing two—
“And then I’d no reason, really, to suppose I was ill. As far as I knew I was simply bored — horribly bored. But it was part of my boredom — I remember — that I was feeling so uncommonly well, and didn’t know how on earth to work off my surplus energy. I had come back from a long journey — down in South America and Mexico — and had settled down for the winter near New York, with an old aunt who had known Washington Irving and corresponded with N. P. Willis. She lived, not far from Irvington, in a damp Gothic villa, overhung by Norway spruces, and looking exactly like a memorial emblem done in hair. Her personal appearance was in keeping with this image, and her own hair — of which there was little left — might have been sacrificed to the manufacture of the emblem.
“I had just reached the end of an agitated year, with considerable arrears to make up in money and emotion; and theoretically it seemed as though my aunt’s mild hospitality would be as beneficial to my nerves as to my purse. But the deuce of it was that as soon as I felt myself safe and sheltered my energy began to revive; and how was I to work it off inside of a memorial emblem? I had, at that time, the agreeable illusion that sustained intellectual effort could engage a man’s whole activity; and I decided to write a great book — I forget about what. My aunt, impressed by my plan, gave up to me her Gothic library, filled with classics in black cloth and daguerrotypes of faded celebrities; and I sat down at my desk to make myself a place among their number. And to facilitate my task she lent me a cousin to copy my manuscript.
“The cousin was a nice girl, and I had an idea that a nice girl was just what I needed to restore my faith in human nature, and principally in myself. She was neither beautiful nor intelligent — poor Alice Nowell! — but it interested me to see any woman content to be so uninteresting, and I wanted to find out the secret of her content. In doing this I handled it rather rashly, and put it out of joint — oh, just for a moment! There’s no fatuity in telling you this, for the poor girl had never seen any one but cousins …
“Well, I was sorry for what I’d done, of course, and confoundedly bothered as to how I should put it straight. She was staying in the house, and one evening, after my aunt had gone to bed, she came down to the library to fetch a book she’d mislaid, like any artless heroine on the shelves behind us. She was pink-nosed and flustered, and it suddenly occurred to me that her hair, though it was fairly thick and pretty, would look exactly like my aunt’s when she grew older. I was glad I had noticed this, for it made it easier for me to do what was right; and when I had found the book she hadn’t lost I told her I was leaving for Europe that week.
“Europe was terribly far off in those days, and Alice knew at once what I meant. She didn’t take it in the least as I’d expected — it would have been easier if she had. She held her book very tight, and turned away a moment to wind up the lamp on my desk — it had a ground glass shade with vine leaves, and glass drops around the edge, I remember. Then she came back, held out her hand, and said: ‘Good-bye.’ And as she said it she looked straight at me and kissed me. I had never felt anything as fresh and shy and brave as her kiss. It was worse than any reproach, and it made me ashamed to deserve a reproach from her. I said to myself: ‘I’ll marry her, and when my aunt dies she’ll leave us this house, and I’ll sit here at the desk and go on with my book; and Alice will sit over there with her embroidery and look at me as she’s looking now. And life will go on like that for any number of years.’ The prospect frightened me a little, but at the time it didn’t frighten me as much as doing anything to hurt her; and ten minutes later she had my seal ring on my finger, and my promise that when I went abroad she should go with me.
“You’ll wonder why I’m enlarging on this familiar incident. It’s because the evening on which it took place was the very evening on which I first saw the queer sight I’ve spoken of. Being at that time an ardent believer in a necessary sequence between cause and effect I naturally tried to trace some kind of link between what had just happened to me in my aunt’s library, and what was to happen a few hours later on the same night; and so the coincidence between the two events always remained in my mind.
“I went up to bed with rather a heavy heart, for I was bowed under the weight of the first good action I had ever consciously committed; and young as I was, I saw the gravity of my situation. Don’t imagine from this that I had hitherto been an instrument of destruction. I had been merely a harmless young man, who had followed his bent and declined all collaboration with Providence. Now I had suddenly undertaken to promote the moral order of the world, and I felt a good deal like the trustful spectator who has given his gold watch to the conjurer, and doesn’t know in what shape he’ll get it back when the trick is over … Still, a glow of self-righteousness tempered my fears, and I said to myself as I undressed that when I’d got used to being good it probably wouldn’t make me as nervous as it did at the start. And by the time I was in bed, and had blown out my candle, I felt that I really was getting used to it, and that, as far as I’d got, it was not unlike sinking down into one of my aunt’s very softest wool mattresses.
“I closed my eyes on this image, and when I opened them it must have been a good deal later, for my room had grown cold, and the night was intensely still. I was waked suddenly by the feeling we all know — the feeling that there was something near me that hadn’t been there when I fell asleep. I sat up and strained my eyes into the darkness. The room was pitch black, and at first I saw nothing; but gradually a vague glimmer at the foot of the bed turned into two eyes staring back at me. I couldn’t see the face attached to them — on account of the darkness, I imagined — but as I looked the eyes grew more and more distinct: they gave out a light of their own.
“The sensation of being thus gazed at was far from pleasant, and you might suppose that my first impulse would have been to jump out of bed and hurl myself on the invisible figure attached to the eyes. But it wasn’t — my impulse was simply to lie still … I can’t say whether this was due to an immediate sense of the uncanny nature of the apparition — to the certainty that if I did jump out of bed I should hurl myself on nothing — or merely to the benumbing effect of the eyes themselves. They were the very worst eyes I’ve ever seen: a man’s eyes — but what a man! My first thought was that he must be frightfully old. The orbits were sunk, and the thick red-lined lids hung over the eyeballs like blinds of which the cords are broken. One lid drooped a little lower than the other, with the effect of a crooked leer; and between these pulpy folds of flesh, with their scant bristle of lashes, the eyes themselves, small glassy disks with an agate-like rim about the pupils, looked like sea-pebbles in the grip of a starfish.
“But the age of the eyes was not the most unpleasant thing about them. What turned me sick was their expression of vicious security. I don’t know how else to describe the fact that they seemed to belong to a man who had done a lot of harm in his life, but had always kept just inside the danger lines. They were not the eyes of a coward, but of some one much too clever to take risks; and my gorge rose at their look of base astuteness. Yet even that wasn’t the worst; for as we continued to scan each other I saw in them a tinge of faint derision, and felt myself to be its object.
“At that I was seized by an impulse of rage that jerked me out of bed and pitched me straight on the unseen figure at its foot. But of course there wasn’t any figure there, and my fists struck at emptiness. Ashamed and cold, I groped about for a match and lit the candles. The room looked just as usual — as I had known it would; and I crawled back to bed, and blew out the lights.
“As soon as the room was dark again the eyes reappeared; and I now applied myself to explaining them on scientific principles. At first I thought the illusion might have been caused by the glow of the last embers in the chimney; but the fire-place was on the other side of my bed, and so placed that the fire could not possibly be reflected in my toilet glass, which was the only mirror in the room. Then it occurred to me that I might have been tricked by the reflection of the embers in some polished bit of wood or metal; and though I couldn’t discover any object of the sort in my line of vision, I got up again, groped my way to the hearth, and covered what was left of the fire. But as soon as I was back in bed the eyes were back at its foot.
“They were an hallucination, then: that was plain. But the fact that they were not due to any external dupery didn’t make them a bit pleasanter to see. For if they were a projection of my inner consciousness, what the deuce was the matter with that organ? I had gone deeply enough into the mystery of morbid pathological states to picture the conditions under which an exploring mind might lay itself open to such a midnight admonition; but I couldn’t fit it to my present case. I had never felt more normal, mentally and physically; and the only unusual fact in my situation — that of having assured the happiness of an amiable girl — did not seem of a kind to summon unclean spirits about my pillow. But there were the eyes still looking at me …
“I shut mine, and tried to evoke a vision of Alice Nowell’s. They were not remarkable eyes, but they were as wholesome as fresh water, and if she had had more imagination — or longer lashes — their expression might have been interesting. As it was, they did not prove very efficacious, and in a few moments I perceived that they had mysteriously changed into the eyes at the foot of the bed. It exasperated me more to feel these glaring at me through my shut lids than to see them, and I opened my eyes again and looked straight into their hateful stare …
“And so it went on all night. I can’t tell you what that night was, nor how long it lasted. Have you ever lain in bed, hopelessly wide awake, and tried to keep your eyes shut, knowing that if you opened ’em you’d see something you dreaded and loathed? It sounds easy, but it’s devilish hard. Those eyes hung there and drew me. I had the vertige de l’abime, and their red lids were the edge of my abyss. … I had known nervous hours before: hours when I’d felt the wind of danger in my neck; but never this kind of strain. It wasn’t that the eyes were so awful; they hadn’t the majesty of the powers of darkness. But they had — how shall I say? — a physical effect that was the equivalent of a bad smell: their look left a smear like a snail’s. And I didn’t see what business they had with me, anyhow — and I stared and stared, trying to find out …
“I don’t know what effect they were trying to produce; but the effect they did produce was that of making me pack my portmanteau and bolt to town early the next morning. I left a note for my aunt, explaining that I was ill and had gone to see my doctor; and as a matter of fact I did feel uncommonly ill — the night seemed to have pumped all the blood out of me. But when I reached town I didn’t go to the doctor’s. I went to a friend’s rooms, and threw myself on a bed, and slept for ten heavenly hours. When I woke it was the middle of the night, and I turned cold at the thought of what might be waiting for me. I sat up, shaking, and stared into the darkness; but there wasn’t a break in its blessed surface, and when I saw that the eyes were not there I dropped back into another long sleep.
“I had left no word for Alice when I fled, because I meant to go back the next morning. But the next morning I was too exhausted to stir. As the day went on the exhaustion increased, instead of wearing off like the lassitude left by an ordinary night of insomnia: the effect of the eyes seemed to be cumulative, and the thought of seeing them again grew intolerable. For two days I struggled with my dread; but on the third evening I pulled myself together and decided to go back the next morning. I felt a good deal happier as soon as I’d decided, for I knew that my abrupt disappearance, and the strangeness of my not writing, must have been very painful for poor Alice. That night I went to bed with an easy mind, and fell asleep at once; but in the middle of the night I woke, and there were the eyes …
“Well, I simply couldn’t face them; and instead of going back to my aunt’s I bundled a few things into a trunk and jumped onto the first steamer for England. I was so dead tired when I got on board that I crawled straight into my berth, and slept most of the way over; and I can’t tell you the bliss it was to wake from those long stretches of dreamless sleep and look fearlessly into the darkness, knowing that I shouldn’t see the eyes …
“I stayed abroad for a year, and then I stayed for another; and during that time I never had a glimpse of them. That was enough reason for prolonging my stay if I’d been on a desert island. Another was, of course, that I had perfectly come to see, on the voyage over, the folly, complete impossibility, of my marrying Alice Nowell. The fact that I had been so slow in making this discovery annoyed me, and made me want to avoid explanations. The bliss of escaping at one stroke from the eyes, and from this other embarrassment, gave my freedom an extraordinary zest; and the longer I savoured it the better I liked its taste.
“The eyes had burned such a hole in my consciousness that for a long time I went on puzzling over the nature of the apparition, and wondering nervously if it would ever come back. But as time passed I lost this dread, and retained only the precision of the image. Then that faded in its turn.
“The second year found me settled in Rome, where I was planning, I believe, to write another great book — a definitive work on Etruscan influences in Italian art. At any rate, I’d found some pretext of the kind for taking a sunny apartment in the Piazza di Spagna and dabbling about indefinitely in the Forum; and there, one morning, a charming youth came to me. As he stood there in the warm light, slender and smooth and hyacinthine, he might have stepped from a ruined altar — one to Antinous, say — but he’d come instead from New York, with a letter (of all people) from Alice Nowell. The letter — the first I’d had from her since our break — was simply a line introducing her young cousin, Gilbert Noyes, and appealing to me to befriend him. It appeared, poor lad, that he ‘had talent,’ and ‘wanted to write’; and, an obdurate family having insisted that his calligraphy should take the form of double entry, Alice had intervened to win him six months’ respite, during which he was to travel on a meagre pittance, and somehow prove his ultimate ability to increase it by his pen. The quaint conditions of the test struck me first: it seemed about as conclusive as a mediaeval ‘ordeal.’ Then I was touched by her having sent him to me. I had always wanted to do her some service, to justify myself in my own eyes rather than hers; and here was a beautiful embodiment of my chance.
“Well, I imagine it’s safe to lay down the general principle that predestined geniuses don’t, as a rule, appear before one in the spring sunshine of the Forum looking like one of its banished gods. At any rate, poor Noyes wasn’t a predestined genius. But he was beautiful to see, and charming as a comrade too. It was only when he began to talk literature that my heart failed me. I knew all the symptoms so well — the things he had ‘in him,’ and the things outside him that impinged! There’s the real test, after all. It was always — punctually, inevitably, with the inexorableness of a mechanical law — it was always the wrong thing that struck him. I grew to find a certain grim fascination in deciding in advance exactly which wrong thing he’d select; and I acquired an astonishing skill at the game …
“The worst of it was that his betise wasn’t of the too obvious sort. Ladies who met him at picnics thought him intellectual; and even at dinners he passed for clever. I, who had him under the microscope, fancied now and then that he might develop some kind of a slim talent, something that he could make ‘do’ and be happy on; and wasn’t that, after all, what I was concerned with? He was so charming — he continued to be so charming — that he called forth all my charity in support of this argument; and for the first few months I really believed there was a chance for him …
“Those months were delightful. Noyes was constantly with me, and the more I saw of him the better I liked him. His stupidity was a natural grace — it was as beautiful, really, as his eye-lashes. And he was so gay, so affectionate, and so happy with me, that telling him the truth would have been about as pleasant as slitting the throat of some artless animal. At first I used to wonder what had put into that radiant head the detestable delusion that it held a brain. Then I began to see that it was simply protective mimicry — an instinctive ruse to get away from family life and an office desk. Not that Gilbert didn’t — dear lad! — believe in himself. There wasn’t a trace of hypocrisy in his composition. He was sure that his ‘call’ was irresistible, while to me it was the saving grace of his situation that it wasn’t, and that a little money, a little leisure, a little pleasure would have turned him into an inoffensive idler. Unluckily, however, there was no hope of money, and with the grim alternative of the office desk before him he couldn’t postpone his attempt at literature. The stuff he turned out was deplorable, and I see now that I knew it from the first. Still, the absurdity of deciding a man’s whole future on a first trial seemed to justify me in withholding my verdict, and perhaps even in encouraging him a little, on the ground that the human plant generally needs warmth to flower.
“At any rate, I proceeded on that principle, and carried it to the point of getting his term of probation extended. When I left Rome he went with me, and we idled away a delicious summer between Capri and Venice. I said to myself: ‘If he has anything in him, it will come out now; and it did. He was never more enchanting and enchanted. There were moments of our pilgrimage when beauty born of murmuring sound seemed actually to pass into his face — but only to issue forth in a shallow flood of the palest ink …
“Well the time came to turn off the tap; and I knew there was no hand but mine to do it. We were back in Rome, and I had taken him to stay with me, not wanting him to be alone in his dismal pension when he had to face the necessity of renouncing his ambition. I hadn’t, of course, relied solely on my own judgment in deciding to advise him to drop literature. I had sent his stuff to various people — editors and critics — and they had always sent it back with the same chilling lack of comment. Really there was nothing on earth to say about it—
“I confess I never felt more shabbily than I did on the day when I decided to have it out with Gilbert. It was well enough to tell myself that it was my duty to knock the poor boy’s hopes into splinters — but I’d like to know what act of gratuitous cruelty hasn’t been justified on that plea? I’ve always shrunk from usurping the functions of Providence, and when I have to exercise them I decidedly prefer that it shouldn’t be on an errand of destruction. Besides, in the last issue, who was I to decide, even after a year’s trial, if poor Gilbert had it in him or not?
“The more I looked at the part I’d resolved to play, the less I liked it; and I liked it still less when Gilbert sat opposite me, with his head thrown back in the lamplight, just as Phil’s is now … I’d been going over his last manuscript, and he knew it, and he knew that his future hung on my verdict — we’d tacitly agreed to that. The manuscript lay between us, on my table — a novel, his first novel, if you please! — and he reached over and laid his hand on it, and looked up at me with all his life in the look.
“I stood up and cleared my throat, trying to keep my eyes away from his face and on the manuscript.
“ ‘The fact is, my dear Gilbert,’ I began—
“I saw him turn pale, but he was up and facing me in an instant.
“ ‘Oh, look here, don’t take on so, my dear fellow! I’m not so awfully cut up as all that!’ His hands were on my shoulders, and he was laughing down on me from his full height, with a kind of mortally-stricken gaiety that drove the knife into my side.
“He was too beautifully brave for me to keep up any humbug about my duty. And it came over me suddenly how I should hurt others in hurting him: myself first, since sending him home meant losing him; but more particularly poor Alice Nowell, to whom I had so uneasily longed to prove my good faith and my immense desire to serve her. It really seemed like failing her twice to fail Gilbert—
“But my intuition was like one of those lightning flashes that encircle the whole horizon, and in the same instant I saw what I might be letting myself in for if I didn’t tell the truth. I said to myself: ‘I shall have him for life’ — and I’d never yet seen any one, man or woman, whom I was quite sure of wanting on those terms. Well, this impulse of egotism decided me. I was ashamed of it, and to get away from it I took a leap that landed me straight in Gilbert’s arms.
“ ‘The thing’s all right, and you’re all wrong!’ I shouted up at him; and as he hugged me, and I laughed and shook in his incredulous clutch, I had for a minute the sense of self-complacency that is supposed to attend the footsteps of the just. Hang it all, making people happy has its charms—
“Gilbert, of course, was for celebrating his emancipation in some spectacular manner; but I sent him away alone to explode his emotions, and went to bed to sleep off mine. As I undressed I began to wonder what their after-taste would be — so many of the finest don’t keep! Still, I wasn’t sorry, and I meant to empty the bottle, even if it did turn a trifle flat.
“After I got into bed I lay for a long time smiling at the memory of his eyes — his blissful eyes… Then I fell asleep, and when I woke the room was deathly cold, and I sat up with a jerk — and there were the other eyes …
“It was three years since I’d seen them, but I’d thought of them so often that I fancied they could never take me unawares again. Now, with their red sneer on me, I knew that I had never really believed they would come back, and that I was as defenceless as ever against them … As before, it was the insane irrelevance of their coming that made it so horrible. What the deuce were they after, to leap out at me at such a time? I had lived more or less carelessly in the years since I’d seen them, though my worst indiscretions were not dark enough to invite the searchings of their infernal glare; but at this particular moment I was really in what might have been called a state of grace; and I can’t tell you how the fact added to their horror …
“But it’s not enough to say they were as bad as before: they were worse. Worse by just so much as I’d learned of life in the interval; by all the damnable implications my wider experience read into them. I saw now what I hadn’t seen before: that they were eyes which had grown hideous gradually, which had built up their baseness coral-wise, bit by bit, out of a series of small turpitudes slowly accumulated through the industrious years. Yes — it came to me that what made them so bad was that they’d grown bad so slowly …
“There they hung in the darkness, their swollen lids dropped across the little watery bulbs rolling loose in the orbits, and the puff of fat flesh making a muddy shadow underneath — and as their filmy stare moved with my movements, there came over me a sense of their tacit complicity, of a deep hidden understanding between us that was worse than the first shock of their strangeness. Not that I understood them; but that they made it so clear that some day I should … Yes, that was the worst part of it, decidedly; and it was the feeling that became stronger each time they came back to me …
“For they got into the damnable habit of coming back. They reminded me of vampires with a taste for young flesh, they seemed so to gloat over the taste of a good conscience. Every night for a month they came to claim their morsel of mine: since I’d made Gilbert happy they simply wouldn’t loosen their fangs. The coincidence almost made me hate him, poor lad, fortuitous as I felt it to be. I puzzled over it a good deal, but couldn’t find any hint of an explanation except in the chance of his association with Alice Nowell. But then the eyes had let up on me the moment I had abandoned her, so they could hardly be the emissaries of a woman scorned, even if one could have pictured poor Alice charging such spirits to avenge her. That set me thinking, and I began to wonder if they would let up on me if I abandoned Gilbert. The temptation was insidious, and I had to stiffen myself against it; but really, dear boy! he was too charming to be sacrificed to such demons. And so, after all, I never found out what they wanted …”
THE fire crumbled, sending up a flash which threw into relief the narrator’s gnarled red face under its grey-black stubble. Pressed into the hollow of the dark leather armchair, it stood out an instant like an intaglio of yellowish red-veined stone, with spots of enamel for the eyes; then the fire sank and in the shaded lamp-light it became once more a dim Rembrandtish blur.
Phil Frenham, sitting in a low chair on the opposite side of the hearth, one long arm propped on the table behind him, one hand supporting his thrown-back head, and his eyes steadily fixed on his old friend’s face, had not moved since the tale began. He continued to maintain his silent immobility after Culwin had ceased to speak, and it was I who, with a vague sense of disappointment at the sudden drop of the story, finally asked: “But how long did you keep on seeing them?”
Culwin, so sunk into his chair that he seemed like a heap of his own empty clothes, stirred a little, as if in surprise at my question. He appeared to have half-forgotten what he had been telling us.
“How long? Oh, off and on all that winter. It was infernal. I never got used to them. I grew really ill.”
Frenham shifted his attitude silently, and as he did so his elbow struck against a small mirror in a bronze frame standing on the table behind him. He turned and changed its angle slightly; then he resumed his former attitude, his dark head thrown back on his lifted palm, his eyes intent on Culwin’s face. Something in his stare embarrassed me, and as if to divert attention from it I pressed on with another question:
“And you never tried sacrificing Noyes?”
“Oh, no. The fact is I didn’t have to. He did it for me, poor infatuated boy!”
“Did it for you? How do you mean?”
“He wore me out — wore everybody out. He kept on pouring out his lamentable twaddle, and hawking it up and down the place till he became a thing of terror. I tried to wean him from writing — oh, ever so gently, you understand, by throwing him with agreeable people, giving him a chance to make himself felt, to come to a sense of what he really had to give. I’d foreseen this solution from the beginning — felt sure that, once the first ardour of authorship was quenched, he’d drop into his place as a charming parasitic thing, the kind of chronic Cherubino for whom, in old societies, there’s always a seat at table, and a shelter behind the ladies’ skirts. I saw him take his place as ‘the poet’: the poet who doesn’t write. One knows the type in every drawing-room. Living in that way doesn’t cost much — I’d worked it all out in my mind, and felt sure that, with a little help, he could manage it for the next few years; and meanwhile he’d be sure to marry. I saw him married to a widow, rather older, with a good cook and a well-run house. And I actually had my eye on the widow … Meanwhile I did everything to facilitate the transition — lent him money to ease his conscience, introduced him to pretty women to make him forget his vows. But nothing would do him: he had but one idea in his beautiful obstinate head. He wanted the laurel and not the rose, and he kept on repeating Gautier’s axiom, and battering and filing at his limp prose till he’d spread it out over Lord knows how many thousand sloppy pages. Now and then he would send a pailful to a publisher, and of course it would always come back.
“At first it didn’t matter — he thought he was ‘misunderstood.’ He took the attitudes of genius, and whenever an opus came home he wrote another to keep it company. Then he had a reaction of despair, and accused me of deceiving him, and Lord knows what. I got angry at that, and told him it was he who had deceived himself. He’d come to me determined to write, and I’d done my best to help him. That was the extent of my offence, and I’d done it for his cousin’s sake, not his.
“That seemed to strike home, and he didn’t answer for a minute. Then he said: ‘My time’s up and my money’s up. What do you think I’d better do?’
“ ‘I think you’d better not be an ass,’ I said.
“He turned red, and asked: ‘What do you mean by being an ass?’
“I took a letter from my desk and held it out to him.
“ ‘I mean refusing this offer of Mrs. Ellinger’s: to be her secretary at a salary of five thousand dollars. There may be a lot more in it than that.’
“He flung out his hand with a violence that struck the letter from mine. ‘Oh, I know well enough what’s in it!’ he said, scarlet to the roots of his hair.
“ ‘And what’s your answer, if you know?’ I asked.
“He made none at the minute, but turned away slowly to the door. There, with his hand on the threshold, he stopped to ask, almost under his breath: ‘Then you really think my stuff’s no good?’
“I was tired and exasperated, and I laughed. I don’t defend my laugh — it was in wretched taste. But I must plead in extenuation that the boy was a fool, and that I’d done my best for him — I really had.
“He went out of the room, shutting the door quietly after him. That afternoon I left for Frascati, where I’d promised to spend the Sunday with some friends. I was glad to escape from Gilbert, and by the same token, as I learned that night, I had also escaped from the eyes. I dropped into the same lethargic sleep that had come to me before when their visitations ceased; and when I woke the next morning, in my peaceful painted room above the ilexes, I felt the utter weariness and deep relief that always followed on that repairing slumber. I put in two blessed nights at Frascati, and when I got back to my rooms in Rome I found that Gilbert had gone … Oh, nothing tragic had happened — the episode never rose to that. He’d simply packed his manuscripts and left for America — for his family and the Wall Street desk. He left a decent little note to tell me of his decision, and behaved altogether, in the circumstances, as little like a fool as it’s possible for a fool to behave …”
CULWIN paused again, and again Frenham sat motionless, the dusky contour of his young head reflected in the mirror at his back.
“And what became of Noyes afterward?” I finally asked, still disquieted by a sense of incompleteness, by the need of some connecting thread between the parallel lines of the tale.
Culwin twitched his shoulders. “Oh, nothing became of him — because he became nothing. There could be no question of ‘becoming’ about it. He vegetated in an office, I believe, and finally got a clerkship in a consulate, and married drearily in China. I saw him once in Hong Kong, years afterward. He was fat and hadn’t shaved. I was told he drank. He didn’t recognize me.”
“And the eyes?” I asked, after another pause which Frenham’s continued silence made oppressive.
Culwin, stroking his chin, blinked at me meditatively through the shadows. “I never saw them after my last talk with Gilbert. Put two and two together if you can. For my part, I haven’t found the link.”
He rose stiffly, his hands in his pockets, and walked over to the table on which reviving drinks had been set out.
“You must be parched after this dry tale. Here, help yourself, my dear fellow. Here, Phil — ” He turned back to the hearth.
Frenham still sat in his low chair, making no response to his host’s hospitable summons. But as Culwin advanced toward him, their eyes met in a long look; after which, to my intense surprise, the young man, turning suddenly in his seat, flung his arms across the table, and dropped his face upon them.
Culwin, at the unexpected gesture, stopped short, a flush on his face.
“Phil — what the deuce? Why, have the eyes scared you? My dear boy — my dear fellow — I never had such a tribute to my literary ability, never!”
He broke into a chuckle at the thought, and halted on the hearth-rug, his hands still in his pockets, gazing down in honest perplexity at the youth’s bowed head. Then, as Frenham still made no answer, he moved a step or two nearer.
“Cheer up, my dear Phil! It’s years since I’ve seen them — apparently I’ve done nothing lately bad enough to call them out of chaos. Unless my present evocation of them has made you see them; which would be their worst stroke yet!”
His bantering appeal quivered off into an uneasy laugh, and he moved still nearer, bending over Frenham, and laying his gouty hands on the lad’s shoulders.
“Phil, my dear boy, really — what’s the matter? Why don’t you answer? Have you seen the eyes?”
Frenham’s face was still pressed against his arms, and from where I stood behind Culwin I saw the latter, as if under the rebuff of this unaccountable attitude, draw back slowly from his friend. As he did so, the light of the lamp on the table fell full on his perplexed congested face, and I caught its sudden reflection in the mirror behind Frenham’s head.
Culwin saw the reflection also. He paused, his face level with the mirror, as if scarcely recognizing the countenance in it as his own. But as he looked his expression gradually changed, and for an appreciable space of time he and the image in the glass confronted each other with a glare of slowly gathering hate. Then Culwin let go of Frenham’s shoulders, and drew back a step, covering his eyes with his hands …
Frenham, his face still hidden, did not stir.