by Edith Wharton
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 g1eam of a
coal fire, Culwin's library, with its oak walls and dark old bindings,
made a good setting for such avocations; and ghostly experiences at
first hand being, after Murchard's 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 or 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 anyone knew, showing the least desire to jump on the
stage and do a 'turn'.
Amount his contemporaries there lingered a vague tradition of his
having, at a remote period, and in the 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 physiognomy.
'He never can have looked like anything but a bundle of sticks,'
Murchard had once said of him. 'Or a phosphorescent log, rather,'
someone 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 someone 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
a 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 have 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 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 good subject for
experimentation. The boy was really intelligent, and the soundness of
his nature was like the pure paste under a fine glaze. Culwin had
fished him out of a fog of family dullness, 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 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 joking 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 devoted 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
Culwin had dropped back into his arm—chair, his head embedded in
the hollow of worn leather, his little eyes glimmering over a fresh
'Liked — liked! Good Lord!' he growled.
'Ah, you have, then!' Frenham pounced on him in the same instant,
with a side—glance of victory at me; but Culwin cowered gnome—like
among his cushions, dissembling himself in a protective cloud of
'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
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.
"That's it,' he 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 deep 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 no show ghosts — a collector wouldn't think
anything of them . . .Don't let me raise your hopes . . .their merit
is their numerical strength: the exceptional fact of there 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 uncomfortable . . .
'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
illusion that sustained intellectual effort could engage any 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 bound in black cloth and daguerreotypes of faded
celebrities; and I sat down at my desk to win myself a place among
their number. And to facilitate my task she lent me a cousin to copy
'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 anyone 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 decide 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 so 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 her finger, and my promise that
when I went abroad she should go with me.
'You'll wonder why I'm enlarging on this 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 had given his gold watch
go the conjuror, 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
'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 intensely
still. I was waked by the queer feeling we all know — the feeling
that there was something in the room 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 distinguish the features attached to them, 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, yes
— 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 folds of flesh, with their scant bristle of lashes, the
eyes themselves, small glassy discs with an agate—like rim, 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
someone 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 derision, and
felt myself to be its object.
'At that I was seized by an impulse of rage that jerked me to my
feet and pitched me straight at the unseen figure. 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 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 fireplace was on the other side of my bed, and so
placed that the fire could not be reflected in my toilet glass, which
was the only mirror in the room. Then it struck 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. 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 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
like, 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'abîme, 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 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 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 fatigue 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 fought my dread; and 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 distressing to poor Alice. I went to bed with an
easy mind, and I 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 aboard 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
dreamless stretches and look fearlessly into the dark, 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 complete impossibility of 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 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
'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 Italien 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 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 from
(of all people) 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 abroad on a meagre
pittance, and somehow prove his ability to increase it by his pen. The
quaint conditions of the test struck me first: it seemed about as
conclusive as a medieval "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
'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. 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
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 bêtise 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" arid 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 eyelashes. 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
gentle 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 it was simply protective mimicry — an instinctive rise
to get away from family and life and an office desk. Not that Gilbert
didn't — dear lad! — believe in himself. There wasn't a trace of
hypocrisy in him. He was sure that his "call" was irresistible, while
to me it was the saving grace of the 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 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
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 pension when he had
to face the necessity of renouncing his ambition. I hadn't, of course,
relied solely on my own judgement 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 —'I confess
I never felt more shabbily than I did on the day when I decided to
have it out with Gilbert. It was not 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?p
'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 brutally 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 longed to prove my
good faith and my 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 anyone, 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 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 I went to bed to sleep off mine. As I undressed I began
to wonder what their aftertaste 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 in 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 fancied they could never take me unawares again. Now, with
their red sneer on me, I knew that I had really believed they would
come back, and that I was its 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 jut
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 coralwise, 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
flesh making a muddy shadow underneath — and as their 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 .
'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 I 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 that 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 face under its grey—black stubble. Pressed into
the hollow of the chair—back, 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 it became once more a dim Rembrandtish
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 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, 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 silent gaze embarrassed me,
and as if to divert attention from it I.pressed on with another
'And you never tried sacrificing Noyes?'
'Oh, no. The fact is I didn't have to. He did it for me, poor 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 help 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 hundred
pages. Now and then he would send a barrelful 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
"'I think you'd better not be an ass," I said.
"'What do you mean by being an ass?" he asked.
'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
'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, red to the roots
of his hair.
"'And what's the 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 say, 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
'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
I left off seeing them; and when I woke the next morning, in my
peaceful room above the ilexes, I felt the utter weariness and deep
relief that always followed on that sleep. 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
enough 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
. . .'
Culwin paused again, and Frenham still 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
'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, his hands in his pockets, and walked stiffly 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 made no response to his host's hospitable summons. He still
sat in his low chair without moving, but, as Culwin advanced toward
him, their eves met in a long look; after which the young man, turning
suddenly, flung his arms across the table behind him, and dropped his
face upon them.
Culwin, at the unexpected gesture, stopped short, a flush on his
'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,
He broke into a chuckle at the thought, and halted on the
hearthrug, his hands still in his pockets, gazing down at the youth's
bowed head. Then, as Frenham still made no answer, he moved a step or
'Cheer up, my dear Phil! It's been 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 hidden, 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 congested face, and I caught its
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. . .
Frenham, his face still hidden, did not stir.