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Full Circle

I

GEOFFREY BETTON woke rather late--so late that the winter sunlight
sliding across his warm red carpet struck his eyes as he turned on
the pillow.

Strett, the valet, had been in, drawn the bath in the adjoining
dressing-room, placed the crystal and silver cigarette-box at his
side, put a match to the fire, and thrown open the windows to the
bright morning air. It brought in, on the glitter of sun, all the
shrill crisp morning noises--those piercing notes of the American
thoroughfare that seem to take a sharper vibration from the
clearness of the medium through which they pass.

Betton raised himself languidly. That was the voice of Fifth Avenue
below his windows. He remembered that when he moved into his rooms
eighteen months before, the sound had been like music to him: the
complex orchestration to which the tune of his new life was set. Now
it filled him with horror and weariness, since it had become the
symbol of the hurry and noise of that new life. He had been far less
hurried in the old days when he had to be up by seven, and down at
the office sharp at nine. Now that he got up when he chose, and his
life had no fixed framework of duties, the hours hunted him like a
pack of blood-hounds.

He dropped back on his pillows with a groan. Yes--not a year ago
there had been a positively sensuous joy in getting out of bed,
feeling under his bare feet the softness of the sunlit carpet, and
entering the shining tiled sanctuary where his great porcelain bath
proffered its renovating flood. But then a year ago he could still
call up the horror of the communal plunge at his earlier lodgings:
the listening for other bathers, the dodging of shrouded ladies in
"crimping"-pins, the cold wait on the landing, the reluctant descent
into a blotchy tin bath, and the effort to identify one's soap and
nail-brush among the promiscuous implements of ablution. That memory
had faded now, and Betton saw only the dark hours to which his blue
and white temple of refreshment formed a kind of glittering
antechamber. For after his bath came his breakfast, and on the
breakfast-tray his letters. His letters!

He remembered--and _that_ memory had not faded!--the thrill with
which he had opened the first missive in a strange feminine hand:
the letter beginning: "I wonder if you'll mind an unknown reader's
telling you all that your book has been to her?"

_ Mind?_ Ye gods, he minded now! For more than a year after the
publication of "Diadems and Faggots" the letters, the inane
indiscriminate letters of condemnation, of criticism, of
interrogation, had poured in on him by every post. Hundreds of
unknown readers had told him with unsparing detail all that his book
had been to them. And the wonder of it was, when all was said and
done, that it had really been so little--that when their thick broth
of praise was strained through the author's anxious vanity there
remained to him so small a sediment of definite specific
understanding! No--it was always the same thing, over and over and
over again--the same vague gush of adjectives, the same incorrigible
tendency to estimate his effort according to each writer's personal
preferences, instead of regarding it as a work of art, a thing to be
measured by objective standards!

He smiled to think how little, at first, he had felt the vanity of
it all. He had found a savour even in the grosser evidences of
popularity: the advertisements of his book, the daily shower of
"clippings," the sense that, when he entered a restaurant or a
theatre, people nudged each other and said "That's Betton." Yes, the
publicity had been sweet to him--at first. He had been touched by
the sympathy of his fellow-men: had thought indulgently of the
world, as a better place than the failures and the dyspeptics would
acknowledge. And then his success began to submerge him: he gasped
under the thickening shower of letters. His admirers were really
unappeasable. And they wanted him to do such preposterous things--to
give lectures, to head movements, to be tendered receptions, to
speak at banquets, to address mothers, to plead for orphans, to go
up in balloons, to lead the struggle for sterilized milk. They
wanted his photograph for literary supplements, his autograph for
charity bazaars, his name on committees, literary, educational, and
social; above all, they wanted his opinion on everything: on
Christianity, Buddhism, tight lacing, the drug-habit, democratic
government, female suffrage and love. Perhaps the chief benefit of
this demand was his incidentally learning from it how few opinions
he really had: the only one that remained with him was a rooted
horror of all forms of correspondence. He had been unutterably
thankful when the letters began to fall off.

"Diadems and Faggots" was now two years old, and the moment was at
hand when its author might have counted on regaining the blessed
shelter of oblivion--if only he had not written another book! For it
was the worst part of his plight that his first success had goaded
him to the perpetration of this particular folly--that one of the
incentives (hideous thought!) to his new work had been the desire to
extend and perpetuate his popularity. And this very week the book
was to come out, and the letters, the cursed letters, would begin
again!

Wistfully, almost plaintively, he contemplated the breakfast-tray
with which Strett presently appeared. It bore only two notes and the
morning journals, but he knew that within the week it would groan
under its epistolary burden. The very newspapers flung the fact at
him as he opened them.

READY ON MONDAY.

GEOFFREY BETTON'S NEW NOVEL

ABUNDANCE.

BY THE AUTHOR OF "DIADEMS AND FAGGOTS."

FIRST EDITION OF ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY THOUSAND ALREADY SOLD OUT.

ORDER NOW.

A hundred and fifty thousand volumes! And an average of three
readers to each! Half a million of people would be reading him
within a week, and every one of them would write to him, and their
friends and relations would write too. He laid down the paper with a
shudder.

The two notes looked harmless enough, and the calligraphy of one was
vaguely familiar. He opened the envelope and looked at the
signature: _Duncan Vyse_. He had not seen the name in years--what on
earth could Duncan Vyse have to say? He ran over the page and
dropped it with a wondering exclamation, which the watchful Strett,
re-entering, met by a tentative "Yes, sir?"

"Nothing. Yes--that is--" Betton picked up the note. "There's a
gentleman, a Mr. Vyse, coming to see me at ten."

Strett glanced at the clock. "Yes, sir. You'll remember that ten was
the hour you appointed for the secretaries to call, sir."

Betton nodded. "I'll see Mr. Vyse first. My clothes, please."

As he got into them, in the state of irritable hurry that had become
almost chronic with him, he continued to think about Duncan Vyse.
They had seen a lot of each other for the few years after both had
left Harvard: the hard happy years when Betton had been grinding at
his business and Vyse--poor devil!--trying to write. The novelist
recalled his friend's attempts with a smile; then the memory of one
small volume came back to him. It was a novel: "The Lifted Lamp."
There was stuff in that, certainly. He remembered Vyse's tossing it
down on his table with a gesture of despair when it came back from
the last publisher. Betton, taking it up indifferently, had sat
riveted till daylight. When he ended, the impression was so strong
that he said to himself: "I'll tell Apthorn about it--I'll go and
see him to-morrow." His own secret literary yearnings gave him a
passionate desire to champion Vyse, to see him triumph over the
ignorance and timidity of the publishers. Apthorn was the youngest
of the guild, still capable of opinions and the courage of them, a
personal friend of Betton's, and, as it happened, the man afterward
to become known as the privileged publisher of "Diadems and
Faggots." Unluckily the next day something unexpected turned up, and
Betton forgot about Vyse and his manuscript. He continued to forget
for a month, and then came a note from Vyse, who was ill, and wrote
to ask what his friend had done. Betton did not like to say "I've
done nothing," so he left the note unanswered, and vowed again:
"I'll see Apthorn."

The following day he was called to the West on business, and was
gone a month. When he came back, there was another note from Vyse,
who was still ill, and desperately hard up. "I'll take anything for
the book, if they'll advance me two hundred dollars." Betton, full
of compunction, would gladly have advanced the sum himself; but he
was hard up too, and could only swear inwardly: "I'll write to
Apthorn." Then he glanced again at the manuscript, and reflected:
"No--there are things in it that need explaining. I'd better see
him."

Once he went so far as to telephone Apthorn, but the publisher was
out. Then he finally and completely forgot.

One Sunday he went out of town, and on his return, rummaging among
the papers on his desk, he missed "The Lifted Lamp," which had been
gathering dust there for half a year. What the deuce could have
become of it? Betton spent a feverish hour in vainly increasing the
disorder of his documents, and then bethought himself of calling the
maid-servant, who first indignantly denied having touched anything
("I can see that's true from the dust," Betton scathingly
interjected), and then mentioned with hauteur that a young lady had
called in his absence and asked to be allowed to get a book.

"A lady? Did you let her come up?"

"She said somebody'd sent her."

Vyse, of course--Vyse had sent her for his manuscript! He was always
mixed up with some woman, and it was just like him to send the girl
of the moment to Betton's lodgings, with instructions to force the
door in his absence. Vyse had never been remarkable for delicacy.
Betton, furious, glanced over his table to see if any of his own
effects were missing--one couldn't tell, with the company Vyse
kept!--and then dismissed the matter from his mind, with a vague
sense of magnanimity in doing so. He felt himself exonerated by
Vyse's conduct.

The sense of magnanimity was still uppermost when the valet opened
the door to announce "Mr. Vyse," and Betton, a moment later, crossed
the threshold of his pleasant library.

His first thought was that the man facing him from the hearth-rug
was the very Duncan Vyse of old: small, starved, bleached-looking,
with the same sidelong movements, the same queer air of anaemic
truculence. Only he had grown shabbier, and bald.

Betton held out a hospitable hand.

"This is a good surprise! Glad you looked me up, my dear fellow."

Vyse's palm was damp and bony: he had always had a disagreeable
hand.

"You got my note? You know what I've come for?" he said.

"About the secretaryship? (Sit down.) Is that really serious?"

Betton lowered himself luxuriously into one of his vast Maple
arm-chairs. He had grown stouter in the last year, and the cushion
behind him fitted comfortably into the crease of his nape. As he
leaned back he caught sight of his image in the mirror between the
windows, and reflected uneasily that Vyse would not find _him_
unchanged.

"Serious?" Vyse rejoined. "Why not? Aren't _you?_"

"Oh, perfectly." Betton laughed apologetically. "Only--well, the
fact is, you may not understand what rubbish a secretary of mine
would have to deal with. In advertising for one I never imagined--I
didn't aspire to any one above the ordinary hack."

"I'm the ordinary hack," said Vyse drily.

Betton's affable gesture protested. "My dear fellow--. You see it's
not business--what I'm in now," he continued with a laugh.

Vyse's thin lips seemed to form a noiseless "_ Isn't_ it?" which
they instantly transposed into the audibly reply: "I inferred from
your advertisement that you want some one to relieve you in your
literary work. Dictation, short-hand--that kind of thing?"

"Well, no: not that either. I type my own things. What I'm looking
for is somebody who won't be above tackling my correspondence."

Vyse looked slightly surprised. "I should be glad of the job," he
then said.

Betton began to feel a vague embarrassment. He had supposed that
such a proposal would be instantly rejected. "It would be only for
an hour or two a day--if you're doing any writing of your own?" he
threw out interrogatively.

"No. I've given all that up. I'm in an office now--business. But it
doesn't take all my time, or pay enough to keep me alive."

"In that case, my dear fellow--if you could come every morning; but
it's mostly awful bosh, you know," Betton again broke off, with
growing awkwardness.

Vyse glanced at him humorously. "What you want me to write?"

"Well, that depends--" Betton sketched the obligatory smile. "But I
was thinking of the letters you'll have to answer. Letters about my
books, you know--I've another one appearing next week. And I want to
be beforehand now--dam the flood before it swamps me. Have you any
idea of the deluge of stuff that people write to a successful
novelist?"

As Betton spoke, he saw a tinge of red on Vyse's thin cheek, and his
own reflected it in a richer glow of shame. "I mean--I mean--" he
stammered helplessly.

"No, I haven't," said Vyse; "but it will be awfully jolly finding
out."

There was a pause, groping and desperate on Betton's part,
sardonically calm on his visitor's.

"You--you've given up writing altogether?" Betton continued.

"Yes; we've changed places, as it were." Vyse paused. "But about
these letters--you dictate the answers?"

"Lord, no! That's the reason why I said I wanted somebody--er--well
used to writing. I don't want to have anything to do with them--not
a thing! You'll have to answer them as if they were written to
_you_--" Betton pulled himself up again, and rising in confusion
jerked open one of the drawers of his writing-table.

"Here--this kind of rubbish," he said, tossing a packet of letters
onto Vyse's knee.

"Oh--you keep them, do you?" said Vyse simply.

"I--well--some of them; a few of the funniest only."

Vyse slipped off the band and began to open the letters. While he
was glancing over them Betton again caught his own reflection in the
glass, and asked himself what impression he had made on his visitor.
It occurred to him for the first time that his high-coloured
well-fed person presented the image of commercial rather than of
intellectual achievement. He did not look like his own idea of the
author of "Diadems and Faggots"--and he wondered why.

Vyse laid the letters aside. "I think I can do it--if you'll give me
a notion of the tone I'm to take."

"The tone?"

"Yes--that is, if I'm to sign your name."

"Oh, of course: I expect you to sign for me. As for the tone, say
just what you'd--well, say all you can without encouraging them to
answer."

Vyse rose from his seat. "I could submit a few specimens," he
suggested.

"Oh, as to that--you always wrote better than I do," said Betton
handsomely.

"I've never had this kind of thing to write. When do you wish me to
begin?" Vyse enquired, ignoring the tribute.

"The book's out on Monday. The deluge will begin about three days
after. Will you turn up on Thursday at this hour?" Betton held his
hand out with real heartiness. "It was great luck for me, your
striking that advertisement. Don't be too harsh with my
correspondents--I owe them something for having brought us
together."


II

THE deluge began punctually on the Thursday, and Vyse, arriving as
punctually, had an impressive pile of letters to attack. Betton, on
his way to the Park for a ride, came into the library, smoking the
cigarette of indolence, to look over his secretary's shoulder.

"How many of 'em? Twenty? Good Lord! It's going to be worse than
'Diadems.' I've just had my first quiet breakfast in two years--time
to read the papers and loaf. How I used to dread the sight of my
letter-box! Now I sha'n't know I have one."

He leaned over Vyse's chair, and the secretary handed him a letter.

"Here's rather an exceptional one--lady, evidently. I thought you
might want to answer it yourself--"

"Exceptional?" Betton ran over the mauve pages and tossed them down.
"Why, my dear man, I get hundreds like that. You'll have to be
pretty short with her, or she'll send her photograph."

He clapped Vyse on the shoulder and turned away, humming a tune.
"Stay to luncheon," he called back gaily from the threshold.

After luncheon Vyse insisted on showing a few of his answers to the
first batch of letters. "If I've struck the note I won't bother you
again," he urged; and Betton groaningly consented.

"My dear fellow, they're beautiful--too beautiful. I'll be let in
for a correspondence with every one of these people."

Vyse, at this, meditated for a while above a blank sheet. "All
right--how's this?" he said, after another interval of rapid writing.

Betton glanced over the page. "By George--by George! Won't she _see_
it?" he exulted, between fear and rapture.

"It's wonderful how little people see," said Vyse reassuringly.

The letters continued to pour in for several weeks after the
appearance of "Abundance." For five or six blissful days Betton did
not even have his mail brought to him, trusting to Vyse to single
out his personal correspondence, and to deal with the rest according
to their agreement. During those days he luxuriated in a sense of
wild and lawless freedom; then, gradually, he began to feel the need
of fresh restraints to break, and learned that the zest of liberty
lies in the escape from specific obligations. At first he was
conscious only of a vague hunger, but in time the craving resolved
into a shame-faced desire to see his letters.

"After all, I hated them only because I had to answer them"; and he
told Vyse carelessly that he wished all his letters submitted to him
before the secretary answered them.

At first he pushed aside those beginning: "I have just laid down
'Abundance' after a third reading," or: "Every day for the last
month I have been telephoning my bookseller to know when your novel
would be out." But little by little the freshness of his interest
revived, and even this stereotyped homage began to arrest his eye.
At last a day came when he read all the letters, from the first word
to the last, as he had done when "Diadems and Faggots" appeared. It
was really a pleasure to read them, now that he was relieved of the
burden of replying: his new relation to his correspondents had the
glow of a love-affair unchilled by the contingency of marriage.

One day it struck him that the letters were coming in more slowly
and in smaller numbers. Certainly there had been more of a rush when
"Diadems and Faggots" came out. Betton began to wonder if Vyse were
exercising an unauthorized discrimination, and keeping back the
communications he deemed least important. This sudden conjecture
carried the novelist straight to his library, where he found Vyse
bending over the writing-table with his usual inscrutable pale
smile. But once there, Betton hardly knew how to frame his question,
and blundered into an enquiry for a missing invitation.

"There's a note--a personal note--I ought to have had this morning.
Sure you haven't kept it back by mistake among the others?"

Vyse laid down his pen. "The others? But I never keep back any."

Betton had foreseen the answer. "Not even the worst twaddle about my
book?" he suggested lightly, pushing the papers about.

"Nothing. I understood you wanted to go over them all first."

"Well, perhaps it's safer," Betton conceded, as if the idea were new
to him. With an embarrassed hand he continued to turn over the
letters at Vyse's elbow.

"Those are yesterday's," said the secretary; "here are to-day's," he
added, pointing to a meagre trio.

"H'm--only these?" Betton took them and looked them over
lingeringly. "I don't see what the deuce that chap means about the
first part of 'Abundance' 'certainly justifying the title'--do you?"

Vyse was silent, and the novelist continued irritably: "Damned
cheek, his writing, if he doesn't like the book. Who cares what he
thinks about it, anyhow?"

And his morning ride was embittered by the discovery that it was
unexpectedly disagreeable to have Vyse read any letters which did
not express unqualified praise of his books. He began to fancy there
was a latent rancour, a kind of baffled sneer, under Vyse's manner;
and he decided to return to the practice of having his mail brought
straight to his room. In that way he could edit the letters before
his secretary saw them.

Vyse made no comment on the change, and Betton was reduced to
wondering whether his imperturbable composure were the mask of
complete indifference or of a watchful jealousy. The latter view
being more agreeable to his employer's self-esteem, the next step
was to conclude that Vyse had not forgotten the episode of "The
Lifted Lamp," and would naturally take a vindictive joy in any
unfavourable judgments passed on his rival's work. This did not
simplify the situation, for there was no denying that unfavourable
criticisms preponderated in Betton's correspondence. "Abundance" was
neither meeting with the unrestricted welcome of "Diadems and
Faggots," nor enjoying the alternative of an animated controversy:
it was simply found dull, and its readers said so in language not
too tactfully tempered by regretful comparisons with its
predecessor. To withhold unfavourable comments from Vyse was,
therefore, to make it appear that correspondence about the book had
died out; and its author, mindful of his unguarded predictions,
found this even more embarrassing. The simplest solution would be to
get rid of Vyse; and to this end Betton began to address his
energies.

One evening, finding himself unexpectedly disengaged, he asked Vyse
to dine; it had occurred to him that, in the course of an
after-dinner chat, he might delicately hint his feeling that the
work he had offered his friend was unworthy so accomplished a hand.

Vyse surprised him by a momentary hesitation. "I may not have time
to dress."

Betton stared. "What's the odds? We'll dine here--and as late as you
like."

Vyse thanked him, and appeared, punctually at eight, in all the
shabbiness of his daily wear. He looked paler and more shyly
truculent than usual, and Betton, from the height of his florid
stature, said to himself, with the sudden professional instinct for
"type": "He might be an agent of something--a chap who carries
deadly secrets."

Vyse, it was to appear, did carry a deadly secret; but one less
perilous to society than to himself. He was simply
poor--inexcusably, irremediably poor. Everything failed him, had
always failed him: whatever he put his hand to went to bits.

This was the confession that, reluctantly, yet with a kind of
white-lipped bravado, he flung at Betton in answer to the latter's
tentative suggestion that, really, the letter-answering job wasn't
worth bothering him with--a thing that any type-writer could do.

"If you mean you're paying me more than it's worth, I'll take less,"
Vyse rushed out after a pause.

"Oh, my dear fellow--" Betton protested, flushing.

"What _do_ you mean, then? Don't I answer the letters as you want
them answered?"

Betton anxiously stroked his silken ankle. "You do it beautifully,
too beautifully. I mean what I say: the work's not worthy of you.
I'm ashamed to ask you--"

"Oh, hang shame," Vyse interrupted. "Do you know why I said I
shouldn't have time to dress to-night? Because I haven't any evening
clothes. As a matter of fact, I haven't much but the clothes I stand
in. One thing after another's gone against me; all the infernal
ingenuities of chance. It's been a slow Chinese torture, the kind
where they keep you alive to have more fun killing you." He
straightened himself with a sudden blush. "Oh, I'm all right
now--getting on capitally. But I'm still walking rather a narrow
plank; and if I do your work well enough--if I take your idea--"

Betton stared into the fire without answering. He knew next to
nothing of Vyse's history, of the mischance or mis-management that
had brought him, with his brains and his training, to so unlikely a
pass. But a pang of compunction shot through him as he remembered
the manuscript of "The Lifted Lamp" gathering dust on his table for
half a year.

"Not that it would have made any earthly difference--since he's
evidently never been able to get the thing published." But this
reflection did not wholly console Betton, and he found it
impossible, at the moment, to tell Vyse that his services were not
needed.


III

DURING the ensuing weeks the letters grew fewer and fewer, and
Betton foresaw the approach of the fatal day when his secretary, in
common decency, would have to say: "I can't draw my pay for doing
nothing."

What a triumph for Vyse!

The thought was intolerable, and Betton cursed his weakness in not
having dismissed the fellow before such a possibility arose.

"If I tell him I've no use for him now, he'll see straight through
it, of course;--and then, hang it, he looks so poor!"

This consideration came after the other, but Betton, in rearranging
them, put it first, because he thought it looked better there, and
also because he immediately perceived its value in justifying a plan
of action that was beginning to take shape in his mind.

"Poor devil, I'm damned if I don't do it for him!" said Betton,
sitting down at his desk.

Three or four days later he sent word to Vyse that he didn't care to
go over the letters any longer, and that they would once more be
carried directly to the library.

The next time he lounged in, on his way to his morning ride, he
found his secretary's pen in active motion.

"A lot to-day," Vyse told him cheerfully.

His tone irritated Betton: it had the inane optimism of the
physician reassuring a discouraged patient.

"Oh, Lord--I thought it was almost over," groaned the novelist.

"No: they've just got their second wind. Here's one from a Chicago
publisher--never heard the name--offering you thirty per cent. on
your next novel, with an advance royalty of twenty thousand. And
here's a chap who wants to syndicate it for a bunch of Sunday
papers: big offer, too. That's from Ann Arbor. And this--oh, _this_
one's funny!"

He held up a small scented sheet to Betton, who made no movement to
receive it.

"Funny? Why's it funny?" he growled.

"Well, it's from a girl--a lady--and she thinks she's the only
person who understands 'Abundance'--has the clue to it. Says she's
never seen a book so misrepresented by the critics--"

"Ha, ha! That _is_ good!" Betton agreed with too loud a laugh.

"This one's from a lady, too--married woman. Says she's
misunderstood, and would like to correspond."

"Oh, Lord," said Betton.--"What are you looking at?" he added
sharply, as Vyse continued to bend his blinking gaze on the letters.

"I was only thinking I'd never seen such short letters from women.
Neither one fills the first page."

"Well, what of that?" queried Betton.

Vyse reflected. "I'd like to meet a woman like that," he said
wearily; and Betton laughed again.

The letters continued to pour in, and there could be no farther
question of dispensing with Vyse's services. But one morning, about
three weeks later, the latter asked for a word with his employer,
and Betton, on entering the library, found his secretary with half a
dozen documents spread out before him.

"What's up?" queried Betton, with a touch of impatience.

Vyse was attentively scanning the outspread letters.

"I don't know: can't make out." His voice had a faint note of
embarrassment. "Do you remember a note signed _Hester Macklin_ that
came three or four weeks ago? Married--misunderstood--Western army
post--wanted to correspond?"

Betton seemed to grope among his memories; then he assented vaguely.

"A short note," Vyse went on: "the whole story in half a page. The
shortness struck me so much--and the directness--that I wrote her:
wrote in my own name, I mean."

"In your own name?" Betton stood amazed; then he broke into a groan.

"Good Lord, Vyse--you're incorrigible!"

The secretary pulled his thin moustache with a nervous laugh. "If
you mean I'm an ass, you're right. Look here." He held out an
envelope stamped with the words: "Dead Letter Office." "My effusion
has come back to me marked 'unknown.' There's no such person at the
address she gave you."

Betton seemed for an instant to share his secretary's embarrassment;
then he burst into an uproarious laugh.

"Hoax, was it? That's rough on you, old fellow!"

Vyse shrugged his shoulders. "Yes; but the interesting question
is--why on earth didn't _your_ answer come back, too?"

"My answer?"

"The official one--the one I wrote in your name. If she's unknown,
what's become of _that?_"

Betton stared at him with eyes wrinkled by amusement. "Perhaps she
hadn't disappeared then."

Vyse disregarded the conjecture. "Look here--I believe _all_ these
letters are a hoax," he broke out.

Betton stared at him with a face that turned slowly red and angry.
"What are you talking about? All what letters?"

"These I've spread out here: I've been comparing them. And I believe
they're all written by one man."

Burton's redness turned to a purple that made his ruddy moustache
seem pale. "What the devil are you driving at?" he asked.

"Well, just look at it," Vyse persisted, still bent above the
letters. "I've been studying them carefully--those that have come
within the last two or three weeks--and there's a queer likeness in
the writing of some of them. The _g_'s are all like corkscrews. And
the same phrases keep recurring--the Ann Arbor news-agent uses the
same expressions as the President of the Girls' College at
Euphorbia, Maine."

Betton laughed. "Aren't the critics always groaning over the
shrinkage of the national vocabulary? Of course we all use the same
expressions."

"Yes," said Vyse obstinately. "But how about using the same _g_'s?"

Betton laughed again, but Vyse continued without heeding him: "Look
here, Betton--could Strett have written them?"

"Strett?" Betton roared. "_ Strett?_" He threw himself into his
arm-chair to shake out his mirth at greater ease.

"I'll tell you why. Strett always posts all my answers. He comes in
for them every day before I leave. He posted the letter to the
misunderstood party--the letter from _you_ that the Dead Letter
Office didn't return. _I_ posted my own letter to her; and that came
back."

A measurable silence followed the emission of this ingenious
conjecture; then Betton observed with gentle irony: "Extremely neat.
And of course it's no business of yours to supply any valid motive
for this remarkable attention on my valet's part."

Vyse cast on him a slanting glance.

"If you've found that human conduct's generally based on valid
motives--!"

"Well, outside of mad-houses it's supposed to be not quite
incalculable."

Vyse had an odd smile under his thin moustache. "Every house is a
mad-house at some time or another."

Betton rose with a careless shake of the shoulders. "This one will
be if I talk to you much longer," he said, moving away with a laugh.


IV

BETTON did not for a moment believe that Vyse suspected the valet of
having written the letters.

"Why the devil don't he say out what he thinks? He was always a
tortuous chap," he grumbled inwardly.

The sense of being held under the lens of Vyse's mute scrutiny
became more and more exasperating. Betton, by this time, had squared
his shoulders to the fact that "Abundance" was a failure with the
public: a confessed and glaring failure. The press told him so
openly, and his friends emphasized the fact by their circumlocutions
and evasions. Betton minded it a good deal more than he had
expected, but not nearly as much as he minded Vyse's knowing it.
That remained the central twinge in his diffused discomfort. And the
problem of getting rid of his secretary once more engaged him.

He had set aside all sentimental pretexts for retaining Vyse; but a
practical argument replaced them. "If I ship him now he'll think
it's because I'm ashamed to have him see that I'm not getting any
more letters."

For the letters had ceased again, almost abruptly, since Vyse had
hazarded the conjecture that they were the product of Strett's
devoted pen. Betton had reverted only once to the subject--to ask
ironically, a day or two later: "Is Strett writing to me as much as
ever?"--and, on Vyse's replying with a neutral head-shake, had added
with a laugh: "If you suspect _him_ you might as well think I write
the letters myself!"

"There are very few to-day," said Vyse, with his irritating
evasiveness; and Betton rejoined squarely: "Oh, they'll stop soon.
The book's a failure."

A few mornings later he felt a rush of shame at his own
tergiversations, and stalked into the library with Vyse's sentence
on his tongue.

Vyse started back with one of his anaemic blushes. "I was hoping
you'd be in. I wanted to speak to you. There've been no letters the
last day or two," he explained.

Betton drew a quick breath of relief. The man had some sense of
decency, then! He meant to dismiss himself.

"I told you so, my dear fellow; the book's a flat failure," he said,
almost gaily.

Vyse made a deprecating gesture. "I don't know that I should regard
the absence of letters as the ultimate test. But I wanted to ask you
if there isn't something else I can do on the days when there's no
writing." He turned his glance toward the book-lined walls. "Don't
you want your library catalogued?" he asked insidiously.

"Had it done last year, thanks." Betton glanced away from Vyse's
face. It was piteous, how he needed the job!

"I see. ... Of course this is just a temporary lull in the
letters. They'll begin again--as they did before. The people who
read carefully read slowly--you haven't heard yet what _they_
think."

Betton felt a rush of puerile joy at the suggestion. Actually, he
hadn't thought of that!

"There _was_ a big second crop after 'Diadems and Faggots,'" he
mused aloud.

"Of course. Wait and see," said Vyse confidently.

The letters in fact began again--more gradually and in smaller
numbers. But their quality was different, as Vyse had predicted. And
in two cases Betton's correspondents, not content to compress into
one rapid communication the thoughts inspired by his work, developed
their views in a succession of really remarkable letters. One of the
writers was a professor in a Western college; the other was a girl
in Florida. In their language, their point of view, their reasons
for appreciating "Abundance," they differed almost diametrically;
but this only made the unanimity of their approval the more
striking. The rush of correspondence evoked by Betton's earlier
novel had produced nothing so personal, so exceptional as these
communications. He had gulped the praise of "Diadems and Faggots" as
undiscriminatingly as it was offered; now he knew for the first time
the subtler pleasures of the palate. He tried to feign indifference,
even to himself; and to Vyse he made no sign. But gradually he felt
a desire to know what his secretary thought of the letters, and,
above all, what he was saying in reply to them. And he resented
acutely the possibility of Vyse's starting one of his clandestine
correspondences with the girl in Florida. Vyse's notorious lack of
delicacy had never been more vividly present to Betton's
imagination; and he made up his mind to answer the letters himself.

He would keep Vyse on, of course: there were other communications
that the secretary could attend to. And, if necessary, Betton would
invent an occupation: he cursed his stupidity in having betrayed the
fact that his books were already catalogued.

Vyse showed no surprise when Betton announced his intention of
dealing personally with the two correspondents who showed so
flattering a reluctance to take their leave. But Betton immediately
read a criticism in his lack of comment, and put forth, on a note of
challenge: "After all, one must be decent!"

Vyse looked at him with an evanescent smile. "You'll have to explain
that you didn't write the first answers."

Betton halted. "Well--I--I more or less dictated them, didn't I?"

"Oh, virtually, they're yours, of course."

"You think I can put it that way?"

"Why not?" The secretary absently drew an arabesque on the
blotting-pad. "Of course they'll keep it up longer if you write
yourself," he suggested.

Betton blushed, but faced the issue. "Hang it all, I sha'n't be
sorry. They interest me. They're remarkable letters." And Vyse,
without observation, returned to his writings.

The spring, that year, was delicious to Betton. His college
professor continued to address him tersely but cogently at fixed
intervals, and twice a week eight serried pages came from Florida.
There were other letters, too; he had the solace of feeling that at
last "Abundance" was making its way, was reaching the people who, as
Vyse said, read slowly because they read intelligently. But welcome
as were all these proofs of his restored authority they were but the
background of his happiness. His life revolved for the moment about
the personality of his two chief correspondents. The professor's
letters satisfied his craving for intellectual recognition, and the
satisfaction he felt in them proved how completely he had lost faith
in himself. He blushed to think that his opinion of his work had
been swayed by the shallow judgments of a public whose taste he
despised. Was it possible that he had allowed himself to think less
well of "Abundance" because it was not to the taste of the average
novel-reader? Such false humility was less excusable than the
crudest appetite for praise: it was ridiculous to try to do
conscientious work if one's self-esteem were at the mercy of popular
judgments. All this the professor's letters delicately and
indirectly conveyed to Betton, with the result that the author of
"Abundance" began to recognize in it the ripest flower of his
genius.

But if the professor understood his book, the girl in Florida
understood _him;_ and Betton was fully alive to the superior
qualities of discernment which this process implied. For his lovely
correspondent his novel was but the starting-point, the pretext of
her discourse: he himself was her real object, and he had the
delicious sense, as their exchange of thoughts proceeded, that she
was interested in "Abundance" because of its author, rather than in
the author because of his book. Of course she laid stress on the
fact that his ideas were the object of her contemplation; but
Betton's agreeable person had permitted him some insight into the
incorrigible subjectiveness of female judgments, and he was
pleasantly aware, from the lady's tone, that she guessed him to be
neither old nor ridiculous. And suddenly he wrote to ask if he might
see her. ...

The answer was long in coming. Betton fumed at the delay, watched,
wondered, fretted; then he received the one word "Impossible."

He wrote back more urgently, and awaited the reply with increasing
eagerness. A certain shyness had kept him from once more modifying
the instructions regarding his mail, and Strett still carried the
letters directly to Vyse. The hour when he knew they were passing
under the latter's eyes was now becoming intolerable to Betton, and
it was a profound relief when the secretary, suddenly advised of his
father's illness, asked permission to absent himself for a
fortnight.

Vyse departed just after Betton had despatched to Florida his second
missive of entreaty, and for ten days he tasted the furtive joy of a
first perusal of his letters. The answer from Florida was not among
them; but Betton said to himself "She's thinking it over," and
delay, in that light, seemed favourable. So charming, in fact, was
this phase of sentimental suspense that he felt a start of
resentment when a telegram apprised him one morning that Vyse would
return to his post that day.

Betton had slept later than usual, and, springing out of bed with
the telegram in his hand, he learned from the clock that his
secretary was due in half an hour. He reflected that the morning's
mail must long since be in; and, too impatient to wait for its
appearance with his breakfast-tray, he threw on a dressing-gown and
went to the library. There lay the letters, half a dozen of them:
but his eye flew to one envelope, and as he tore it open a warm wave
rocked his heart.

The letter was dated a few days after its writer must have received
his own: it had all the qualities of grace and insight to which his
unknown friend had accustomed him, but it contained no allusion,
however indirect, to the special purport of his appeal. Even a
vanity less ingenious than Betton's might have read in the lady's
silence one of the most familiar motions of consent; but the smile
provoked by this inference faded as he turned to his other letters.
For the uppermost bore the superscription "Dead Letter Office," and
the document that fell from it was his own last letter from Florida.

Betton studied the ironic "Unknown" for an appreciable space of
time; then he broke into a laugh. He had suddenly recalled Vyse's
similar experience with "Hester Macklin," and the light he was able
to throw on that obscure episode was searching enough to penetrate
all the dark corners of his own adventure. He felt a rush of heat to
the ears; catching sight of himself in the glass, he saw a red
ridiculous congested countenance, and dropped into a chair to hide
it between flushed fists. He was roused by the opening of the door,
and Vyse appeared on the threshold.

"Oh, I beg pardon--you're ill?" said the secretary.

Betton's only answer was an inarticulate murmur of derision; then he
pushed forward the letter with the imprint of the Dead Letter
Office.

"Look at that," he jeered.

Vyse peered at the envelope, and turned it over slowly in his hands.
Betton's eyes, fixed on him, saw his face decompose like a substance
touched by some powerful acid. He clung to the envelope as if to
gain time.

"It's from the young lady you've been writing to at Swazee Springs?"
he asked at length.

"It's from the young lady I've been writing to at Swazee Springs."

"Well--I suppose she's gone away," continued Vyse, rebuilding his
countenance rapidly.

"Yes; and in a community numbering perhaps a hundred and
seventy-five souls, including the dogs and chickens, the local
post-office is so ignorant of her movements that my letter has to be
sent to the Dead Letter Office."

Vyse meditated on this; then he laughed in turn. "After all, the
same thing happened to me--with 'Hester Macklin,' I mean," he
recalled sheepishly.

"Just so," said Betton, bringing down his clenched fist on the
table. "_ Just so_," he repeated, in italics.

He caught his secretary's glance, and held it with his own for a
moment. Then he dropped it as, in pity, one releases something
scared and squirming.

"The very day my letter was returned from Swazee Springs she wrote
me this from there," he said, holding up the last Florida missive.

"Ha! That's funny," said Vyse, with a damp forehead.

"Yes, it's funny; it's funny," said Betton. He leaned back, his
hands in his pockets, staring up at the ceiling, and noticing a
crack in the cornice. Vyse, at the corner of the writing-table,
waited.

"Shall I get to work?" he began, after a silence measurable by
minutes. Betton's gaze descended from the cornice.

"I've got your seat, haven't I?" he said, rising and moving away
from the table.

Vyse, with a quick gleam of relief, slipped into the vacant chair,
and began to stir about vaguely among the papers.

"How's your father?" Betton asked from the hearth.

"Oh, better--better, thank you. He'll pull out of it."

"But you had a sharp scare for a day or two?"

"Yes--it was touch and go when I got there."

Another pause, while Vyse began to classify the letters.

"And I suppose," Betton continued in a steady tone, "your anxiety
made you forget your usual precautions--whatever they were--about
this Florida correspondence, and before you'd had time to prevent it
the Swazee post-office blundered?"

Vyse lifted his head with a quick movement. "What do you mean?" he
asked, pushing his chair back.

"I mean that you saw I couldn't live without flattery, and that
you've been ladling it out to me to earn your keep."

Vyse sat motionless and shrunken, digging the blotting-pad with his
pen. "What on earth are you driving at?" he repeated.

"Though why the deuce," Betton continued in the same steady tone,
"you should need to do this kind of work when you've got such
faculties at your service--those letters were magnificent, my dear
fellow! Why in the world don't you write novels, instead of writing
to other people about them?"

Vyse straightened himself with an effort. "What are you talking
about, Betton? Why the devil do you think _I_ wrote those letters?"

Betton held back his answer, with a brooding face. "Because I wrote
'Hester Macklin's'--to myself!"

Vyse sat stock-still, without the least outcry of wonder. "Well--?"
he finally said, in a low tone.

"And because you found me out (you see, you can't even feign
surprise!)--because you saw through it at a glance, knew at once
that the letters were faked. And when you'd foolishly put me on my
guard by pointing out to me that they were a clumsy forgery, and had
then suddenly guessed that _I_ was the forger, you drew the natural
inference that I had to have popular approval, or at least had to
make _you_ think I had it. You saw that, to me, the worst thing
about the failure of the book was having _you_ know it was a
failure. And so you applied your superior--your immeasurably
superior--abilities to carrying on the humbug, and deceiving me as
I'd tried to deceive you. And you did it so successfully that I
don't see why the devil you haven't made your fortune writing
novels!"

Vyse remained silent, his head slightly bent under the mounting tide
of Betton's denunciation.

"The way you differentiated your people--characterised them--avoided
my stupid mistake of making the women's letters too short and
logical, of letting my different correspondents use the same
expressions: the amount of ingenuity and art you wasted on it! I
swear, Vyse, I'm sorry that damned post-office went back on you,"
Betton went on, piling up the waves of his irony.

But at this height they suddenly paused, drew back on themselves,
and began to recede before the spectacle of Vyse's pale distress.
Something warm and emotional in Betton's nature--a lurking
kindliness, perhaps, for any one who tried to soothe and smooth his
writhing ego--softened his eye as it rested on the drooping figure
of his secretary.

"Look here, Vyse--I'm not sorry--not altogether sorry this has
happened!" He moved slowly across the room, and laid a friendly palm
on Vyse's shoulder. "In a queer illogical way it evens up things, as
it were. I did you a shabby turn once, years ago--oh, out of sheer
carelessness, of course--about that novel of yours I promised to
give to Apthorn. If I _had_ given it, it might not have made any
difference--I'm not sure it wasn't too good for success--but anyhow,
I dare say you thought my personal influence might have helped you,
might at least have got you a quicker hearing. Perhaps you thought
it was because the thing _was_ so good that I kept it back, that I
felt some nasty jealousy of your superiority. I swear to you it
wasn't that--I clean forgot it. And one day when I came home it was
gone: you'd sent and taken it. And I've always thought since you
might have owed me a grudge--and not unjustly; so this ... this
business of the letters ... the sympathy you've shown ... for I
suppose it _is_ sympathy ... ?"

Vyse startled and checked him by a queer crackling laugh.

"It's _not_ sympathy?" broke in Betton, the moisture drying out of
his voice. He withdrew his hand from Vyse's shoulder. "What is it,
then? The joy of uncovering my nakedness? An eye for an eye? Is it
_that?_"

Vyse rose from his seat, and with a mechanical gesture swept into a
heap all the letters he had sorted.

"I'm stone broke, and wanted to keep my job--that's what it is," he
said wearily ...

Edith Wharton


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