The Triumph of Night
by Edith Wharton
It was clear that the sleigh from Weymore had not come; and the shivering young traveller from Boston, who had so confidently 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 nightfall 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 bullfighter 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 airs 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 immediate necessity of plodding through several feet of snow.
He understood well enough what had happened at Weymore: 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 Mrs. Culme had forgotten him was perhaps 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 who seemed to have some loose connection with the railway company, when his hopes were raised by the sound of sleigh bells.
Two vehicles were just dashing up to the station, and from the foremost there sprang a young man swathed 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 reassuringly 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 vibrating nerves, which yet, as he believed, would never quite swing him beyond the arc of a normal sensibility.
“You expected a sleigh from Weymore?” the youth continued, standing beside Faxon like a slender column of fur.
Mrs. Culme’s secretary explained his difficulty, and the newcomer 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.
The newcomer laughed also. “Mrs. Culme,” he explained, “was lunching at my uncle’s today, 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.
The youth laughed again. He was at the age when predicaments are food for gaiety.
“Oh, but you haven’t, though! It burned down last week.”
“The deuce it did!” said Faxon; but the humor of the situation struck him also 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 dare say 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 rumor 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 humor they diffuse. He produced this effect, Faxon noted, by the exercise of no gift save his youth, of no art save his sincerity; but these qualities were revealed in a smile of such appealing 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 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 a disease of the lungs which, according to the highest authorities, made banishment to Arizona or New Mexico 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 other urban distractions; and Faxon, listening to him, concluded 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 impulsively 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-humoredly 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 waiting room.
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 colorless, 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 rigor 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 gray-headed pair, apparently 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 inquiry, 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 through trees, 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 hothouse plants, hurrying servants, a vast spectacular oak hall like a stage setting, and, in its unreal middle distance, a small concise figure, correctly dressed, conventionally featured, and utterly unlike his rather florid conception of the great John Lavington.
The shock of the contrast remained with him through his hurried dressing in the large impersonally 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. Lavington, 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, 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!”
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 he had remarked in the grouping of the blossoming shrubs that filled 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 wide 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 embodiment 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 near 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 in the irresolution of embarrassment 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 solid head toward the door. “Of course Mr. Faxon’s an American citizen?”
Frank Rainer laughed. “That 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 one, 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, of course, 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 hungry as a wolf. Let’s dine first, Uncle Jack.”
“I think I’ve a seal upstairs,” said Faxon suddenly.
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 singular 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 directly 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 strange contrast in their expression. John Lavington, during his nephew’s blundering 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 Faxon forgot what was going on about him. He was just dimly aware of young Rainer’s exclaiming: “Your turn, Mr. Grisben!” of Mr. Grisben’s ceremoniously 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 meticulously 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. Everything 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.”
“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 for a thundering price. 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?”
“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 rumors—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 stout butler attended by three tall footmen, and it was evident that Mr. Lavington took a somewhat puerile satisfaction in the pageant. That, Faxon reflected, was probably the joint in his armor—that and the flowers. He had changed the subject—not abruptly but firmly—when the young men entered, but Faxon perceived that it still possessed the thoughts of the two elderly visitors, and Mr. Balch presently observed, in a voice that seemed to come from the last survivor down a mine- shaft: “If it does come, it will be the biggest crash since ’93.”
Mr. Lavington looked bored but polite. “Wall Street can stand crashes better than it could then. It’s got a robuster constitution.”
“Speaking of constitutions,” Mr. Grisben intervened: “Frank, are you taking care of yourself?”
A flush rose to young Rainer’s cheeks.
“Why, of course! Isn’t that what I’m here for?”
“You’re here about three days in the month, aren’t you? And the rest of the time it’s crowded restaurants and hot ballrooms in town. I thought you were to be shipped off to New Mexico?”
“Oh, I’ve got a new man who says that’s rot.”
“Well, you don’t look as if your new man were right,” said Mr. Grisben bluntly. Faxon saw the lad’s color fade, and the rings of shadow deepen under his gay eyes. At the same moment his uncle turned to him with a renewed intensity of attention. There was such solicitude in Mr. Lavington’s gaze that it seemed almost to fling a tangible shield between his nephew and Mr. Grisben’s tactless scrutiny.
“We think Frank’s a good deal better,” he began; “this new doctor—”
The butler, coming up, bent discreetly to whisper a word in his ear, and the communication caused a sudden change in Mr. Lavington’s expression. His face was naturally so colorless that it seemed not so much to pale as to fade, to dwindle and recede into something blurred and blotted-out. He half rose, sat down again and sent a rigid smile about the table.
“Will you excuse me? The telephone. Peters, go on with the dinner.” With small precise steps he walked out of the door which one of the footmen had hastened to throw open.
A momentary silence fell on the group; then Mr. Grisben once more addressed himself to Rainer. “You ought to have gone, my boy; you ought to have gone.”
The anxious look returned to the youth’s eyes. “My uncle doesn’t think so, really.”
“You’re not a baby, to be always governed on your uncle’s opinion. You came of age to-day, didn’t you? Your uncle spoils you … that’s what’s the matter….”
The thrust evidently went home, for Rainer laughed and looked down with a slight accession of color.
“But the doctor——”
“Use your common sense, Frank! You had to try twenty doctors to find one to tell you what you wanted to be told.”
A look of apprehension overshadowed Rainer’s gaiety. “Oh, come—I say! … What would YOU do?” he stammered.
“Pack up and jump on the first train.” Mr. Grisben leaned forward and laid a firm hand on the young man’s arm “Look here: my nephew Jim Grisben is out there ranching on a big scale. He’ll take you in and be glad to have you. You say your new doctor thinks it won’t do you any good; but he doesn’t pretend to say it will do you harm, does he? Well, then—give it a trial. It’ll take you out of hot theatres and night restaurants, anyhow…. And all the rest of it…. Eh, Balch?”
“Go!” said Mr. Balch hollowly. “Go AT ONCE,” he added, as if a closer look at the youth’s face had impressed on him the need of backing up his friend.
Young Rainer had turned ashy-pale. He tried to stiffen his mouth, into a smile. “Do I look as bad as all that?”
Mr. Grisben was helping himself to terrapin. “You look like the day after an earthquake,” he said concisely.
The terrapin had encircled the table, and been deliberately enjoyed by Mr. Lavington’s three visitors (Rainer, Faxon noticed, left his plate untouched) before the door was thrown open to re- admit their host.
Mr. Lavington advanced with an air of recovered composure. He seated himself, picked up his napkin, and consulted the gold- monogrammed menu. “No, don’t bring back the filet…. Some terrapin; yes….” He looked affably about the table. “Sorry to have deserted you, but the storm has played the deuce with the wires, and I had to wait a long time before I could get a good connection. It must be blowing up for a blizzard.”
“Uncle Jack,” young Rainer broke out, “Mr. Grisben’s been lecturing me.”
Mr. Lavington was helping himself to terrapin. “Ah—what about?”
“He thinks I ought to have given New Mexico a show.”
“I want him to go straight out to my nephew at Santa Paz and stay there till his next birthday.” Mr. Lavington signed to the butler to hand the terrapin to Mr. Grisben, who, as he took a second helping, addressed himself again to Rainer. “Jim’s in New York now, and going back the day after to-morrow in Olyphant’s private car. I’ll ask Olyphant to squeeze you in if you’ll go. And when you’ve been out there a week or two, in the saddle all day and sleeping nine hours a night, I suspect you won’t think much of the doctor who prescribed New York.”
Faxon spoke up, he knew not why. “I was out there once: it’s a splendid life. I saw a fellow—oh, a really BAD case—who’d been simply made over by it.”
“It DOES sound jolly,” Rainer laughed, a sudden eagerness of anticipation in his tone.
His uncle looked at him gently. “Perhaps Grisben’s right. It’s an opportunity——”
Faxon looked up with a start: the figure dimly perceived in the study was now more visibly and tangibly planted behind Mr. Lavington’s chair.
“That’s right, Frank: you see your uncle approves. And the trip out there with Olyphant isn’t a thing to be missed. So drop a few dozen dinners and be at the Grand Central the day after to-morrow at five.”
Mr. Grisben’s pleasant gray eye sought corroboration of his host, and Faxon, in a cold anguish of suspense, continued to watch him as he turned his glance on Mr. Lavington. One could not look at Lavington without seeing the presence at his back, and it was clear that, the next minute, some change in Mr. Grisben’s expression must give his watcher a clue.
But Mr. Grisben’s expression did not change: the gaze he fixed on his host remained unperturbed, and the clue he gave was the startling one of not seeming to see the other figure.
Faxon’s first impulse was to look away, to look anywhere else, to resort again to the champagne glass the watchful butler had already brimmed; but some fatal attraction, at war in him with an overwhelming physical resistance, held his eyes upon the spot they feared.
The figure was still standing, more distinctly, and therefore more resemblingly, at Mr. Lavington’s back; and while the latter continued to gaze affectionately at his nephew, his counterpart, as before, fixed young Rainer with eyes of deadly menace.
Faxon, with what felt like an actual wrench of the muscles, dragged his own eyes from the sight to scan the other countenances about the table; but not one revealed the least consciousness of what he saw, and a sense of mortal isolation sank upon him.
“It’s worth considering, certainly——” he heard Mr. Lavington continue; and as Rainer’s face lit up, the face behind his uncle’s chair seemed to gather into its look all the fierce weariness of old unsatisfied hates. That was the thing that, as the minutes labored by, Faxon was becoming most conscious of. The watcher behind the chair was no longer merely malevolent: he had grown suddenly, unutterably tired. His hatred seemed to well up out of the very depths of balked effort and thwarted hopes, and the fact made him more pitiable, and yet more dire.
Faxon’s look reverted to Mr. Lavington, as if to surprise in him a corresponding change. At first none was visible: his pinched smile was screwed to his blank face like a gas-light to a white-washed wall. Then the fixity of the smile became ominous: Faxon saw that its wearer was afraid to let it go. It was evident that Mr. Lavington was unutterably tired too, and the discovery sent a colder current through Faxon’s veins. Looking down at his untouched plate, he caught the soliciting twinkle of the champagne glass; but the sight of the wine turned him sick.
“Well, we’ll go into the details presently,” he heard Mr. Lavington say, still on the question of his nephew’s future. “Let’s have a cigar first. No—not here, Peters.” He turned his smile on Faxon. “When we’ve had coffee I want to show you my pictures.”
“Oh, by the way, Uncle Jack—Mr. Faxon wants to know if you’ve got a double?”
“A double?” Mr. Lavington, still smiling, continued to address himself to his guest. “Not that I know of. Have you seen one, Mr. Faxon?”
Faxon thought: “My God, if I look up now they’ll BOTH be looking at me!” To avoid raising his eyes he made as though to lift the glass to his lips; but his hand sank inert, and he looked up. Mr. Lavington’s glance was politely bent on him, but with a loosening of the strain about his heart he saw that the figure behind the chair still kept its gaze on Rainer.
“Do you think you’ve seen my double, Mr. Faxon?”
Would the other face turn if he said yes? Faxon felt a dryness in his throat. “No,” he answered.
“Ah? It’s possible I’ve a dozen. I believe I’m extremely usual- looking,” Mr. Lavington went on conversationally; and still the other face watched Rainer.
“It was … a mistake … a confusion of memory …” Faxon heard himself stammer. Mr. Lavington pushed back his chair, and as he did so Mr. Grisben suddenly leaned forward. “Lavington! What have we been thinking of? We haven’t drunk Frank’s health!”
Mr. Lavington reseated himself. “My dear boy! … Peters, another bottle. …” He turned to his nephew. “After such a sin of omission I don’t presume to propose the toast myself … but Frank knows. … Go ahead, Grisben!”
The boy shone on his uncle. “No, no, Uncle Jack! Mr. Grisben won’t mind. Nobody but YOU—to-day!”
The butler was replenishing the glasses. He filled Mr. Lavington’s last, and Mr. Lavington put out his small hand to raise it. … As he did so, Faxon looked away.
“Well, then—All the good I’ve wished you in all the past years. … I put it into the prayer that the coming ones may be healthy and happy and many … and MANY, dear boy!”
Faxon saw the hands about him reach out for their glasses. Automatically, he made the same gesture. His eyes were still on the table, and he repeated to himself with a trembling vehemence: “I won’t look up! I won’t …. I won’t ….” His fingers clasped the stem of the glass, and raised it to the level of his lips. He saw the other hands making the same motion. He heard Mr. Grisben’s genial “Hear! Hear!” and Mr. Balch’s hollow echo. He said to himself, as the rim of the glass touched his lips: “I won’t look up! I swear I won’t!—” and he looked.
The glass was so full that it required an extraordinary effort to hold it there, brimming and suspended, during the awful interval before he could trust his hand to lower it again, untouched, to the table. It was this merciful preoccupation which saved him, kept him from crying out, from losing his hold, from slipping down into the bottomless blackness that gaped for him. As long as the problem of the glass engaged him he felt able to keep his seat, manage his muscles, fit unnoticeably into the group; but as the glass touched the table his last link with safety snapped. He stood up and dashed out of the room.
In the gallery, the instinct of self-preservation helped him to turn back and sign to young Rainer not to follow. He stammered out something about a touch of dizziness, and joining them presently; and the boy waved an unsuspecting hand and drew back.
At the foot of the stairs Faxon ran against a servant. “I should like to telephone to Weymore,” he said with dry lips.
“Sorry, sir; wires all down. We’ve been trying the last hour to get New York again for Mr. Lavington.”
Faxon shot on to his room, burst into it, and bolted the door. The mild lamplight lay on furniture, flowers, books, in the ashes a log still glimmered. He dropped down on the sofa and hid his face. The room was utterly silent, the whole house was still: nothing about him gave a hint of what was going on, darkly and dumbly, in the horrible room he had flown from, and with the covering of his eyes oblivion and reassurance seemed to fall on him. But they fell for a moment only; then his lids opened again to the monstrous vision. There it was, stamped on his pupils, a part of him forever, an indelible horror burnt into his body and brain. But why into his—just his? Why had he alone been chosen to see what he had seen? What business was it of HIS, in God’s name! Any one of the others, thus enlightened, might have exposed the horror and defeated it; but HE, the one weaponless and defenceless spectator, the one whom none of the others would believe or understand if he attempted to reveal what he knew—HE alone had been singled out as the victim of this atrocious initiation!
Suddenly he sat up, listening: he had heard a step on the stairs. Some one, no doubt, was coming to see how he was—to urge him, if he felt better, to go down and join the smokers. Cautiously he opened his door; yes, it was young Rainer’s step. Faxon looked down the passage, remembered the other stairway and darted to it. All he wanted was to get out of the house. Not another instant would he breathe its abominable air! What business was it of HIS, in God’s name?
He reached the opposite end of the lower gallery, and beyond it saw the hall by which, he had entered. It was empty, and on a long table he recognized his coat and cap among the furs of the other travellers. He got into his coat, unbolted the door, and plunged into the purifying night.
The darkness was deep, and the cold so intense that for an instant it stopped his breathing. Then he perceived that only a thin snow was falling, and resolutely set his face for flight. The trees along the avenue dimly marked his way as he hastened with long strides over the beaten snow. Gradually, while he walked, the tumult in his brain subsided. The impulse to fly still drove him forward, but he began to feel that he was flying from a terror of his own creating, and that the most urgent reason for escape was the need of hiding his state, of shunning other eyes’ scrutiny till he should regain his balance.
He had spent the long hours in the train in fruitless broodings on a discouraging situation, and he remembered how his bitterness had turned to exasperation when he found that the Weymore sleigh was not awaiting him. It was absurd, of course; but, though he had joked with Rainer over Mrs. Culme’s forgetfulness, to confess it had cost a pang. That was what his rootless life had brought him to: for lack of a personal stake in things his sensibility was at the mercy of such trivial accidents. … Yes; that, and the cold and fatigue, the absence of hope and the haunting sense of starved aptitudes, all these had brought him to the perilous verge over which, once or twice before, his terrified brain had hung.
Why else, in the name of any imaginable logic, human or devilish, should he, a stranger, be singled out for this experience? What could it mean to him, how was he related to it, what bearing had it on his case? … Unless, indeed, it was just because he was a stranger-a stranger everywhere—because he had no personal life, no warm strong screen of private egotisms to shield him from exposure, that he had developed this abnormal sensitiveness to the vicissitudes of others. The thought pulled him up with a shudder. No! Such a fate was too abominable; all that was strong and sound in him rejected it. A thousand times better regard himself as ill, disorganized, deluded, than as the predestined victim of such warnings!
He reached the gates and paused before the darkened lodge. The wind had risen and was sweeping the snow into his face in lacerating streamers. The cold had him in its grasp again, and he stood uncertain. Should he put his sanity to the test and go back? He turned and looked down the dark drive to the house. A single ray shone through the trees, evoking a picture of the lights, the flowers, the faces grouped about that fatal room. He turned and plunged out into the road.
He remembered that, about a mile from Overdale, the coachman had pointed out the road to Northridge; and he began to walk in that direction. Once in the road, he had the gale in his face, and the wet snow on his moustache and eye-lashes instantly hardened to metal. The same metal seemed to be driving a million blades into his throat and lungs, but he pushed on, desperately determined, the vision of the warm room pursuing him.
The snow in the road was deep and uneven. He stumbled across ruts and sank into drifts, and the wind rose before him like a granite cliff. Now and then he stopped, gasping, as if an invisible hand had tightened an iron band about his body; then he started again, stiffening himself against the stealthy penetration of the cold. The snow continued to descend out of a pall of inscrutable darkness, and once or twice he paused, fearing he had missed the road to Northridge; but, seeing no sign of a turn, he ploughed on doggedly.
At last, feeling sure that he had walked for more than a mile, he halted and looked back. The act of turning brought immediate relief, first because it put his back to the wind, and then because, far down the road, it showed him the advancing gleam of a lantern. A sleigh was coming—a sleigh that might perhaps give him a lift to the village! Fortified by the hope, he began to walk back toward the light. It seemed to come forward very slowly, with unaccountable zigzags and waverings; and even when he was within a few yards of it he could catch no sound of sleigh-bells. Then the light paused and became stationary by the roadside, as though carried by a pedestrian who had stopped, exhausted by the cold. The thought made Faxon hasten on, and a moment later he was stooping over a motionless figure huddled against the snow-bank. The lantern had dropped from its bearer’s hand, and Faxon, fearfully raising it, threw its light into the face of Frank Rainer.
“Rainer! What on earth are you doing here!”
The boy smiled back through his pallor. “What are YOU, I’d like to know?” he retorted; and, scrambling to his feet with a clutch on Faxon’s arm, he added gaily: “Well, I’ve run you down, anyhow!”
Faxon stood confounded, his heart sinking. The lad’s face was gray.
“What madness—” he began.
“Yes, it IS. What on earth did you do it for?”
“I? Do what? … Why, I … I was just taking a walk. … I often walk at night. …”
Frank Rainer burst into a laugh. “On such nights? Then you hadn’t bolted!”
“Because I’d done something to offend you? My uncle thought you had.”
Faxon grasped his arm. “Did your uncle send you after me?”
“Well, he gave me an awful rowing for not going up to your room with you when you said you were ill. And when we found you’d gone we were frightened—and he was awfully upset—so I said I’d catch you. … You’re NOT ill, are you?”
“Ill? No. Never better.” Faxon picked up the lantern. “Come; let’s go back. It was awfully hot in that dining-room,” he added.
“Yes; I hoped it was only that.”
They trudged on in silence for a few minutes; then Faxon questioned: “You’re not too done up?”
“Oh, no. It’s a lot easier with the wind behind us.”
“All right. Don’t talk any more.”
They pushed ahead, walking, in spite of the light that guided them, more slowly than Faxon had walked alone into the gale. The fact of his companion’s stumbling against a drift gave him a pretext for saying: “Take hold of my arm,” and Rainer, obeying, gasped out: “I’m blown!”
“So am I. Who wouldn’t be?”
“What a dance you led me! If it hadn’t been for one of the servants’ happening to see you—”
“Yes: all right. And now, won’t you kindly shut up?”
Rainer laughed and hung on him. “Oh, the cold doesn’t hurt me. …”
For the first few minutes after Rainer had overtaken him, anxiety for the lad had been Faxon’s only thought. But as each laboring step carried them nearer to the spot he had been fleeing, the reasons for his flight grew more ominous and more insistent. No, he was not ill; he was not distraught and deluded—he was the instrument singled out to warn and save; and here he was, irresistibly driven, dragging the victim back to his doom!
The intensity of the conviction had almost checked his steps. But what could he do or say? At all costs he must get Rainer out of the cold, into the house and into his bed. After that he would act.
The snow-fall was thickening, and as they reached a stretch of the road between open fields the wind took them at an angle, lashing their faces with barbed thongs. Rainer stopped to take breath, and Faxon felt the heavier pressure of his arm.
“When we get to the lodge, can’t we telephone to the stable for a sleigh?”
“If they’re not all asleep at the lodge.”
“Oh, I’ll manage. Don’t talk!” Faxon ordered; and they plodded on. …
At length the lantern ray showed ruts that curved away from the road under tree-darkness.
Faxon’s spirits rose. “There’s the gate! We’ll be there in five minutes.”
As he spoke he caught, above the boundary hedge, the gleam of a light at the farther end of the dark avenue. It was the same light that had shone on the scene of which every detail was burnt into his brain; and he felt again its overpowering reality. No—he couldn’t let the boy go back!
They were at the lodge at last, and Faxon was hammering on the door. He said to himself: “I’ll get him inside first, and make them give him a hot drink. Then I’ll see—I’ll find an argument. …”
There was no answer to his knocking, and after an interval Rainer said: “Look here—we’d better go on.”
“I can, perfectly—”
“You sha’n’t go to the house, I say!” Faxon furiously redoubled his blows, and at length steps sounded on the stairs. Rainer was leaning against the lintel, and as the door opened the light from the hall flashed on his pale face and fixed eyes. Faxon caught him by the arm and drew him in.
“It WAS cold out there,” he sighed; and then, abruptly, as if invisible shears at a single stroke had cut every muscle in his body, he swerved, drooped on Faxon’s arm, and seemed to sink into nothing at his feet.
The lodge-keeper and Faxon bent over him, and somehow, between them, lifted him into the kitchen and laid him on a sofa by the stove.
The lodge-keeper, stammering: “I’ll ring up the house,” dashed out of the room. But Faxon heard the words without heeding them: omens mattered nothing now, beside this woe fulfilled. He knelt down to undo the fur collar about Rainer’s throat, and as he did so he felt a warm moisture on his hands. He held them up, and they were red. …
The palms threaded their endless line along the yellow river. The little steamer lay at the wharf, and George Faxon, sitting in the veranda of the wooden hotel, idly watched the coolies carrying the freight across the gang-plank.
He had been looking at such scenes for two months. Nearly five had elapsed since he had descended from the train at Northridge and strained his eyes for the sleigh that was to take him to Weymore: Weymore, which he was never to behold! … Part of the interval— the first part—was still a great gray blur. Even now he could not be quite sure how he had got back to Boston, reached the house of a cousin, and been thence transferred to a quiet room looking out on snow under bare trees. He looked out a long time at the same scene, and finally one day a man he had known at Harvard came to see him and invited him to go out on a business trip to the Malay Peninsula.
“You’ve had a bad shake-up, and it’ll do you no end of good to get away from things.”
When the doctor came the next day it turned out that he knew of the plan and approved it. “You ought to be quiet for a year. Just loaf and look at the landscape,” he advised.
Faxon felt the first faint stirrings of curiosity.
“What’s been the matter with me, anyhow?”
“Well, over-work, I suppose. You must have been bottling up for a bad breakdown before you started for New Hampshire last December. And the shock of that poor boy’s death did the rest.”
Ah, yes—Rainer had died. He remembered. …
He started for the East, and gradually, by imperceptible degrees, life crept back into his weary bones and leaden brain. His friend was very considerate and forbearing, and they travelled slowly and talked little. At first Faxon had felt a great shrinking from whatever touched on familiar things. He seldom looked at a newspaper, he never opened a letter without a moment’s contraction of the heart. It was not that he had any special cause for apprehension, but merely that a great trail of darkness lay on everything. He had looked too deep down into the abyss. … But little by little health and energy returned to him, and with them the common promptings of curiosity. He was beginning to wonder how the world was going, and when, presently, the hotel-keeper told him there were no letters for him in the steamer’s mail-bag, he felt a distinct sense of disappointment. His friend had gone into the jungle on a long excursion, and he was lonely, unoccupied, and wholesomely bored. He got up and strolled into the stuffy reading- room.
There he found a game of dominoes, a mutilated picture-puzzle, some copies of Zion’s Herald, and a pile of New York and London newspapers.
He began to glance through the papers, and was disappointed to find that they were less recent than he had hoped. Evidently the last numbers had been carried off by luckier travellers. He continued to turn them over, picking out the American ones first. These, as it happened, were the oldest: they dated back to December and January. To Faxon, however, they had all the flavor of novelty, since they covered the precise period during which he had virtually ceased to exist. It had never before occurred to him to wonder what had happened in the world during that interval of obliteration; but now he felt a sudden desire to know.
To prolong the pleasure, he began by sorting the papers chronologically, and as he found and spread out the earliest number, the date at the top of the page entered into his consciousness like a key slipping into a lock. It was the seventeenth of December: the date of the day after his arrival at Northridge. He glanced at the first page and read in blazing characters: “Reported Failure of Opal Cement Company. Lavington’s Name Involved. Gigantic Exposure of Corruption Shakes Wall Street to Its Foundations.”
He read on, and when he had finished the first paper he turned to the next. There was a gap of three days, but the Opal Cement “Investigation” still held the centre of the stage. From its complex revelations of greed and ruin his eye wandered to the death notices, and he read: “Rainer. Suddenly, at Northridge, New Hampshire, Francis John, only son of the late. …”
His eyes clouded, and he dropped the newspaper and sat for a long time with his face in his hands. When he looked up again he noticed that his gesture had pushed the other papers from the table and scattered them on the floor at his feet. The uppermost lay spread out before him, and heavily his eyes began their search again. “John Lavington comes forward with plan for reconstructing Company. Offers to put in ten millions of his own—The proposal under consideration by the District Attorney.”
Ten millions … ten millions of his own. But if John Lavington was ruined? … Faxon stood up with a cry. That was it, then—that was what the warning meant! And if he had not fled from it, dashed wildly away from it into the night, he might have broken the spell of iniquity, the powers of darkness might not have prevailed! He caught up the pile of newspapers and began to glance through each in turn for the headline: “Wills Admitted to Probate”. In the last of all he found the paragraph he sought, and it stared up at him as if with Rainer’s dying eyes.
That—THAT was what he had done! The powers of pity had singled him out to warn and save, and he had closed his ears to their call, had washed his hands of it, and fled. Washed his hands of it! That was the word. It caught him back to the dreadful moment in the lodge when, raising himself up from Rainer’s side, he had looked at his hands and seen that they were red. …
“This is a mystery plot in which the supernatural furnishes the interest. In dealing with the supernatural Mrs. Wharton does not allow it to become horrible or grotesque. She secures plausibility by having for its leading characters practical business men—not a woman, hysterical or otherwise, really appears—and by placing them in a perfectly conventional setting. The apparition is not accompanied by blood stains, shroud, or uncanny noises. Sometimes the writer of the supernatural feels that he must explain his mystery by material agencies. The effect is to disappoint the reader who has yielded himself to the conditions imposed by the author, and is willing, for the time at least, to believe in ghosts. Mrs. Wharton makes no such mistake. She does not spoil the effect by commonplace explanation.”
— Rosa M. R. Mikels