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