Tales of Men and Ghosts, by Edith Wharton

His Father’s Son

I

AFTER his wife’s death Mason Grew took the momentous step of selling out his business and moving from Wingfield, Connecticut, to Brooklyn.

For years he had secretly nursed the hope of such a change, but had never dared to suggest it to Mrs. Grew, a woman of immutable habits. Mr. Grew himself was attached to Wingfield, where he had grown up, prospered, and become what the local press described as “prominent.” He was attached to his ugly brick house with sandstone trimmings and a cast-iron area-railing neatly sanded to match; to the similar row of houses across the street, the “trolley” wires forming a kind of aerial pathway between, and the sprawling vista closed by the steeple of the church which he and his wife had always attended, and where their only child had been baptized.

It was hard to snap all these threads of association, visual and sentimental; yet still harder, now that he was alone, to live so far from his boy. Ronald Grew was practising law in New York, and there was no more chance of returning to live at Wingfield than of a river’s flowing inland from the sea. Therefore to be near him his father must move; and it was characteristic of Mr. Grew, and of the situation generally, that the translation, when it took place, was to Brooklyn, and not to New York.

“Why you bury yourself in that hole I can’t think,” had been Ronald’s comment; and Mr. Grew simply replied that rents were lower in Brooklyn, and that he had heard of a house that would suit him. In reality he had said to himself — being the only recipient of his own confidences — that if he went to New York he might be on the boy’s mind; whereas, if he lived in Brooklyn, Ronald would always have a good excuse for not popping over to see him every other day. The sociological isolation of Brooklyn, combined with its geographical nearness, presented in fact the precise conditions for Mr. Grew’s case. He wanted to be near enough to New York to go there often, to feel under his feet the same pavement that Ronald trod, to sit now and then in the same theatres, and find on his breakfast-table the journals which, with increasing frequency, inserted Ronald’s name in the sacred bounds of the society column. It had always been a trial to Mr. Grew to have to wait twenty-four hours to read that “among those present was Mr. Ronald Grew.” Now he had it with his coffee, and left it on the breakfast-table to the perusal of a “hired girl” cosmopolitan enough to do it justice. In such ways Brooklyn attested the advantages of its propinquity to New York, while remaining, as regards Ronald’s duty to his father, as remote and inaccessible as Wingfield.

It was not that Ronald shirked his filial obligations, but rather because of his heavy sense of them, that Mr. Grew so persistently sought to minimize and lighten them. It was he who insisted, to Ronald, on the immense difficulty of getting from New York to Brooklyn.

“Any way you look at it, it makes a big hole in the day; and there’s not much use in the ragged rim left. You say you’re dining out next Sunday? Then I forbid you to come over here for lunch. Do you understand me, sir? You disobey at the risk of your father’s malediction! Where did you say you were dining? With the Waltham Bankshires again? Why, that’s the second time in three weeks, ain’t it? Big blow-out, I suppose? Gold plate and orchids — opera singers in afterward? Well, you’d be in a nice box if there was a fog on the river, and you got hung up half-way over. That’d be a handsome return for the attention Mrs. Bankshire has shown you — singling out a whipper-snapper like you twice in three weeks! (What’s the daughter’s name — Daisy?) No, sir — don’t you come fooling round here next Sunday, or I’ll set the dogs on you. And you wouldn’t find me in anyhow, come to think of it. I’m lunching out myself, as it happens — yes sir, lunching out. Is there anything especially comic in my lunching out? I don’t often do it, you say? Well, that’s no reason why I never should. Who with? Why, with — with old Dr. Bleaker: Dr. Eliphalet Bleaker. No, you wouldn’t know about him — he’s only an old friend of your mother’s and mine.”

Gradually Ronald’s insistence became less difficult to overcome. With his customary sweetness and tact (as Mr. Grew put it) he began to “take the hint,” to give in to “the old gentleman’s” growing desire for solitude.

“I’m set in my ways, Ronny, that’s about the size of it; I like to go tick-ticking along like a clock. I always did. And when you come bouncing in I never feel sure there’s enough for dinner — or that I haven’t sent Maria out for the evening. And I don’t want the neighbors to see me opening my own door to my son. That’s the kind of cringing snob I am. Don’t give me away, will you? I want ’em to think I keep four or five powdered flunkeys in the hall day and night — same as the lobby of one of those Fifth Avenue hotels. And if you pop over when you’re not expected, how am I going to keep up the bluff?”

Ronald yielded after the proper amount of resistance — his intuitive sense, in every social transaction, of the proper amount of force to be expended, was one of the qualities his father most admired in him. Mr. Grew’s perceptions in this line were probably more acute than his son suspected. The souls of short thick-set men, with chubby features, mutton-chop whiskers, and pale eyes peering between folds of fat like almond kernels in half-split shells — souls thus encased do not reveal themselves to the casual scrutiny as delicate emotional instruments. But in spite of the dense disguise in which he walked Mr. Grew vibrated exquisitely in response to every imaginative appeal; and his son Ronald was perpetually stimulating and feeding his imagination.

Ronald in fact constituted his father’s one escape from the impenetrable element of mediocrity which had always hemmed him in. To a man so enamoured of beauty, and so little qualified to add to its sum total, it was a wonderful privilege to have bestowed on the world such a being. Ronald’s resemblance to Mr. Grew’s early conception of what he himself would have liked to look might have put new life into the discredited theory of pre-natal influences. At any rate, if the young man owed his beauty, his distinction and his winning manner to the dreams of one of his parents, it was certainly to those of Mr. Grew, who, while outwardly devoting his life to the manufacture and dissemination of Grew’s Secure Suspender Buckle, moved in an enchanted inward world peopled with all the figures of romance. In this high company Mr. Grew cut as brilliant a figure as any of its noble phantoms; and to see his vision of himself suddenly projected on the outer world in the shape of a brilliant popular conquering son, seemed, in retrospect, to give to that image a belated objective reality. There were even moments when, forgetting his physiognomy, Mr. Grew said to himself that if he’d had “half a chance” he might have done as well as Ronald; but this only fortified his resolve that Ronald should do infinitely better.

Ronald’s ability to do well almost equalled his gift of looking well. Mr. Grew constantly affirmed to himself that the boy was “not a genius”; but, barring this slight deficiency, he was almost everything that a parent could wish. Even at Harvard he had managed to be several desirable things at once — writing poetry in the college magazine, playing delightfully “by ear,” acquitting himself honorably in his studies, and yet holding his own in the fashionable sporting set that formed, as it were, the gateway of the temple of Society. Mr. Grew’s idealism did not preclude the frank desire that his son should pass through that gateway; but the wish was not prompted by material considerations. It was Mr. Grew’s notion that, in the rough and hurrying current of a new civilization, the little pools of leisure and enjoyment must nurture delicate growths, material graces as well as moral refinements, likely to be uprooted and swept away by the rush of the main torrent. He based his theory on the fact that he had liked the few “society” people he had met — had found their manners simpler, their voices more agreeable, their views more consonant with his own, than those of the leading citizens of Wingfield. But then he had met very few.

Ronald’s sympathies needed no urging in the same direction. He took naturally, dauntlessly, to all the high and exceptional things about which his father’s imagination had so long sheepishly and ineffectually hovered — from the start he was what Mr. Grew had dreamed of being. And so precise, so detailed, was Mr. Grew’s vision of his own imaginary career, that as Ronald grew up, and began to travel in a widening orbit, his father had an almost uncanny sense of the extent to which that career was enacting itself before him. At Harvard, Ronald had done exactly what the hypothetical Mason Grew would have done, had not his actual self, at the same age, been working his way up in old Slagden’s button factory — the institution which was later to acquire fame, and even notoriety, as the birthplace of Grew’s Secure Suspender Buckle. Afterward, at a period when the actual Grew had passed from the factory to the bookkeeper’s desk, his invisible double had been reading law at Columbia — precisely again what Ronald did! But it was when the young man left the paths laid out for him by the parental hand, and cast himself boldly on the world, that his adventures began to bear the most astonishing resemblance to those of the unrealized Mason Grew. It was in New York that the scene of this hypothetical being’s first exploits had always been laid; and it was in New York that Ronald was to achieve his first triumph. There was nothing small or timid about Mr. Grew’s imagination; it had never stopped at anything between Wingfield and the metropolis. And the real Ronald had the same cosmic vision as his parent. He brushed aside with a contemptuous laugh his mother’s tearful entreaty that he should stay at Wingfield and continue the dynasty of the Grew Suspender Buckle. Mr. Grew knew that in reality Ronald winced at the Buckle, loathed it, blushed for his connection with it. Yet it was the Buckle that had seen him through Groton, Harvard and the Law School, and had permitted him to enter the office of a distinguished corporation lawyer, instead of being enslaved to some sordid business with quick returns. The Buckle had been Ronald’s fairy godmother — yet his father did not blame him for abhorring and disowning it. Mr. Grew himself often bitterly regretted having bestowed his own name on the instrument of his material success, though, at the time, his doing so had been the natural expression of his romanticism. When he invented the Buckle, and took out his patent, he and his wife both felt that to bestow their name on it was like naming a battle-ship or a peak of the Andes.

Mrs. Grew had never learned to know better; but Mr. Grew had discovered his error before Ronald was out of school. He read it first in a black eye of his boy’s. Ronald’s symmetry had been marred by the insolent fist of a fourth former whom he had chastised for alluding to his father as “Old Buckles;” and when Mr. Grew heard the epithet he understood in a flash that the Buckle was a thing to blush for. It was too late then to dissociate his name from it, or to efface from the hoardings of the entire continent the picture of two gentlemen, one contorting himself in the abject effort to repair a broken brace, while the careless ease of the other’s attitude proclaimed his trust in the Secure Suspender Buckle. These records were indelible, but Ronald could at least be spared all direct connection with them; and from that day Mr. Grew resolved that the boy should not return to Wingfield.

“You’ll see,” he had said to Mrs. Grew, “he’ll take right hold in New York. Ronald’s got my knack for taking hold,” he added, throwing out his chest.

“But the way you took hold was in business,” objected Mrs. Grew, who was large and literal.

Mr. Grew’s chest collapsed, and he became suddenly conscious of his comic face in its rim of sandy whiskers. “That’s not the only way,” he said, with a touch of wistfulness which escaped his wife’s analysis.

“Well, of course you could have written beautifully,” she rejoined with admiring eyes.

“ Written? Me!” Mr. Grew became sardonic.

“Why, those letters — weren’t they beautiful, I’d like to know?”

The couple exchanged a glance, innocently allusive and amused on the wife’s part, and charged with a sudden tragic significance on the husband’s.

“Well, I’ve got to be going along to the office now,” he merely said, dragging himself out of his rocking-chair.

This had happened while Ronald was still at school; and now Mrs. Grew slept in the Wingfield cemetery, under a life-size theo~logical virtue of her own choosing, and Mr. Grew’s prognostications as to Ronald’s ability to “take right hold” in New York were being more and more brilliantly fulfilled.

II

RONALD obeyed his father’s injunction not to come to luncheon on the day of the Bankshires’ dinner; but in the middle of the following week Mr. Grew was surprised by a telegram from his son.

“Want to see you important matter. Expect me to-morrow afternoon.”

Mr. Grew received the telegram after breakfast. To peruse it he had lifted his eye from a paragraph of the morning paper describing a fancy-dress dinner which had taken place the night before at the Hamilton Gliddens’ for the house-warming of their new Fifth Avenue palace.

“Among the couples who afterward danced in the Poets’ Quadrille were Miss Daisy Bankshire, looking more than usually lovely as Laura, and Mr. Ronald Grew as the young Petrarch.”

Petrarch and Laura! Well — if anything meant anything, Mr. Grew supposed he knew what that meant. For weeks past he had noticed how constantly the names of the young people appeared together in the society notes he so insatiably devoured. Even the soulless reporter was getting into the habit of coupling them in his lists. And this Laura and Petrarch business was almost an announcement . . .

Mr. Grew dropped the telegram, wiped his eye-glasses, and re-read the paragraph. “Miss Daisy Bankshire . . . more than usually lovely . . . ” Yes; she was lovely. He had often seen her photograph in the papers — seen her represented in every conceivable attitude of the mundane game: fondling her prize bull-dog, taking a fence on her thoroughbred, dancing a gavotte, all patches and plumes, or fingering a guitar, all tulle and lilies; and once he had caught a glimpse of her at the theatre. Hearing that Ronald was going to a fashionable first-night with the Bankshires, Mr. Grew had for once overcome his repugnance to following his son’s movements, and had secured for himself, under the shadow of the balcony, a stall whence he could observe the Bankshire box without fear of detection. Ronald had never known of his father’s presence at the play; and for three blessed hours Mr. Grew had watched his boy’s handsome dark head bent above the dense fair hair and white averted shoulder that were all he could catch of Miss Bankshire’s beauties.

He recalled the vision now; and with it came, as usual, its ghostly double: the vision of his young self bending above such a white shoulder and such shining hair. Needless to say that the real Mason Grew had never found himself in so enviable a situation. The late Mrs. Grew had no more resembled Miss Daisy Bankshire than he had looked like the happy victorious Ronald. And the mystery was that from their dull faces, their dull endearments, the miracle of Ronald should have sprung. It was almost — fantastically — as if the boy had been a changeling, child of a Latmian night, whom the divine companion of Mr. Grew’s early reveries had secretly laid in the cradle of the Wingfield bedroom while Mr. And Mrs. Grew slept the deep sleep of conjugal indifference.

The young Mason Grew had not at first accepted this astral episode as the complete cancelling of his claims on romance. He too had grasped at the high-hung glory; and, with his fatal tendency to reach too far when he reached at all, had singled out the prettiest girl in Wingfield. When he recalled his stammered confession of love his face still tingled under her cool bright stare. The wonder of his audacity had struck her dumb; and when she recovered her voice it was to fling a taunt at him.

“Don’t be too discouraged, you know — have you ever thought of trying Addie Wicks?”

All Wingfield would have understood the gibe: Addie Wicks was the dullest girl in town. And a year later he had married Addie Wicks . . .

He looked up from the perusal of Ronald’s telegram with this memory in his mind. Now at last his dream was coming true! His boy would taste of the joys that had mocked his thwarted youth and his dull gray middle-age. And it was fitting that they should be realized in Ronald’s destiny. Ronald was made to take happiness boldly by the hand and lead it home like a bridegroom. He had the carriage, the confidence, the high faith in his fortune, that compel the wilful stars. And, thanks to the Buckle, he would have the exceptional setting, the background of material elegance, that became his conquering person. Since Mr. Grew had retired from business his investments had prospered, and he had been saving up his income for just such a contingency. His own wants were few: he had transferred the Wingfield furniture to Brooklyn, and his sitting-room was a replica of that in which the long years of his married life had been spent. Even the florid carpet on which Ronald’s tottering footsteps had been taken was carefully matched when it became too threadbare. And on the marble centre-table, with its chenille-fringed cover and bunch of dyed pampas grass, lay the illustrated Longfellow and the copy of Ingersoll’s lectures which represented literature to Mr. Grew when he had led home his bride. In the light of Ronald’s romance, Mr. Grew found himself re-living, with a strange tremor of mingled pain and tenderness, all the poor prosaic incidents of his own personal history. Curiously enough, with this new splendor on them they began to emit a small faint ray of their own. His wife’s armchair, in its usual place by the fire, recalled her placid unperceiving presence, seated opposite to him during the long drowsy years; and he felt her kindness, her equanimity, where formerly he had only ached at her obtuseness. And from the chair he glanced up at the large discolored photograph on the wall above, with a brittle brown wreath suspended on a corner of the frame. The photograph represented a young man with a poetic necktie and untrammelled hair, leaning negligently against a Gothic chair-back, a roll of music in his hand; and beneath was scrawled a bar of Chopin, with the words: “ Adieu, Adele.”

The portrait was that of the great pianist, Fortune Dolbrowski; and its presence on the wall of Mr. Grew’s sitting-room commemorated the only exquisite hour of his life save that of Ronald’s birth. It was some time before the latter memorable event, a few months only after Mr. Grew’s marriage, that he had taken his wife to New York to hear the great Dolbrowski. Their evening had been magically beautiful, and even Addie, roused from her habitual inexpressiveness, had quivered into a momentary semblance of life. “I never — I never — ” she gasped out helplessly when they had regained their hotel bedroom, and sat staring back entranced at the evening’s evocations. Her large immovable face was pink and tremulous, and she sat with her hands on her knees, forgetting to roll up her bonnet-strings and prepare her curl-papers.

“I’d like to write him just how I felt — I wisht I knew how!” she burst out suddenly in a final effervescence of emotion.

Her husband lifted his head and looked at her.

“Would you? I feel that way too,” he said with a sheepish laugh. And they continued to stare at each other shyly through a transfiguring mist of sound.

Mr. Grew recalled the scene as he gazed up at the pianist’s faded photograph. “Well, I owe her that anyhow — poor Addie!” he said, with a smile at the inconsequences of fate. With Ronald’s telegram in his hand he was in a mood to count his mercies.

III

“A CLEAR twenty-five thousand a year: that’s what you can tell ’em with my compliments,” said Mr. Grew, glancing complacently across the centre-table at his boy’s charming face.

It struck him that Ronald’s gift for looking his part in life had never so romantically expressed itself. Other young men, at such a moment, would have been red, damp, tight about the collar; but Ronald’s cheek was only a shade paler, and the contrast made his dark eyes more expressive.

“A clear twenty-five thousand; yes, sir — that’s what I always meant you to have.”

Mr. Grew leaned back, his hands thrust carelessly in his pockets, as though to divert attention from the agitation of his features. He had often pictured himself rolling out that phrase to Ronald, and now that it was actually on his lips he could not control their tremor.

Ronald listened in silence, lifting a nervous hand to his slight dark moustache, as though he, too, wished to hide some involuntary betrayal of emotion. At first Mr. Grew took his silence for an expression of gratified surprise; but as it prolonged itself it became less easy to interpret.

“I— see here, my boy; did you expect more? Isn’t it enough?” Mr. Grew cleared his throat. “Do they expect more?” he asked nervously. He was hardly able to face the pain of inflicting a disappointment on Ronald at the very moment when he had counted on putting the final touch to his felicity.

Ronald moved uneasily in his chair and his eyes wandered upward to the laurel-wreathed photograph of the pianist above his father’s head.

“ Is it that, Ronald? Speak out, my boy. We’ll see, we’ll look round — I’ll manage somehow.”

“No, no,” the young man interrupted, abruptly raising his hand as though to silence his father.

Mr. Grew recovered his cheerfulness. “Well, what’s the matter than, if she’s willing?”

Ronald shifted his position again, and finally rose from his seat.

“Father — I— there’s something I’ve got to tell you. I can’t take your money.”

Mr. Grew sat speechless a moment, staring blankly at his son; then he emitted a puzzled laugh. “My money? What are you talking about? What’s this about my money? Why, it ain’t mine, Ronny; it’s all yours — every cent of it!” he cried.

The young man met his tender look with a gaze of tragic rejection.

“No, no, it’s not mine — not even in the sense you mean. Not in any sense. Can’t you understand my feeling so?”

“Feeling so? I don’t know how you’re feeling. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Are you too proud to touch any money you haven’t earned? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”

“No. It’s not that. You must know — ”

Mr. Grew flushed to the rim of his bristling whiskers. “Know? Know what? Can’t you speak?”

Ronald hesitated, and the two men faced each other for a long strained moment, during which Mr. Grew’s congested countenance grew gradually pale again.

“What’s the meaning of this? Is it because you’ve done something . . . something you’re ashamed of . . . ashamed to tell me?” he suddenly gasped out; and walking around the table he laid his hand on his son’s shoulder. “There’s nothing you can’t tell me, my boy.”

“It’s not that. Why do you make it so hard for me?” Ronald broke out with passion. “You must have known this was sure to happen sooner or later.”

“Happen? What was sure to hap —?” Mr. Grew’s question wavered on his lip and passed into a tremulous laugh. “Is it something I’ve done that you don’t approve of? Is it — is it the Buckle you’re ashamed of, Ronald Grew?”

Ronald laughed too, impatiently. “The Buckle? No, I’m not ashamed of the Buckle; not any more than you are,” he returned with a sudden bright flush. “But I’m ashamed of all I owe to it — all I owe to you — when — when — ” He broke off and took a few distracted steps across the room. “You might make this easier for me,” he protested, turning back to his father.

“Make what easier? I know less and less what you’re driving at,” Mr. Grew groaned.

Ronald’s walk had once more brought him beneath the photograph on the wall. He lifted his head for a moment and looked at it; then he looked again at Mr. Grew.

“Do you suppose I haven’t always known?”

“Known —?”

“Even before you gave me those letters — after my mother’s death — even before that, I suspected. I don’t know how it began . . . perhaps from little things you let drop . . . you and she . . . and resemblances that I couldn’t help seeing . . . in myself . . . How on earth could you suppose I shouldn’t guess? I always thought you gave me the letters as a way of telling me — ”

Mr. Grew rose slowly from his chair. “The letters? Dolbrowski’s letters?”

Ronald nodded with white lips. “You must remember giving them to me the day after the funeral.”

Mr. Grew nodded back. “Of course. I wanted you to have everything your mother valued.”

“Well — how could I help knowing after that?”

“Knowing what?” Mr. Grew stood staring helplessly at his son. Suddenly his look caught at a clue that seemed to confront it with a deeper bewilderment. “You thought — you thought those letters . . . Dolbrowski’s letters . . . you thought they meant . . . ”

“Oh, it wasn’t only the letters. There were so many other signs. My love of music — my — all my feelings about life . . . and art . . . And when you gave me the letters I thought you must mean me to know.”

Mr. Grew had grown quiet. His lips were firm, and his small eyes looked out steadily from their creased lids.

“To know that you were Fortune Dolbrowski’s son?”

Ronald made a mute sign of assent.

“I see. And what did you mean to do?”

“I meant to wait till I could earn my living, and then repay you . . . as far as I can ever repay you . . . But now that there’s a chance of my marrying . . . and your generosity overwhelms me . . . I’m obliged to speak.”

“I see,” said Mr. Grew again. He let himself down into his chair, looking steadily and not unkindly at the young man. “Sit down, Ronald. Let’s talk.”

Ronald made a protesting movement. “Is anything to be gained by it? You can’t change me — change what I feel. The reading of those letters transformed my whole life — I was a boy till then: they made a man of me. From that moment I understood myself.” He paused, and then looked up at Mr. Grew’s face. “Don’t imagine I don’t appreciate your kindness — your extraordinary generosity. But I can’t go through life in disguise. And I want you to know that I have not won Daisy under false pretences — ”

Mr. Grew started up with the first expletive Ronald had ever heard on his lips.

“You damned young fool, you, you haven’t told her —?”

Ronald raised his head quickly. “Oh, you don’t know her, sir! She thinks no worse of me for knowing my secret. She is above and beyond all such conventional prejudices. She’s proud of my parentage — ” he straightened his slim young shoulders — “as I’m proud of it . . . yes, sir, proud of it . . . ”

Mr. Grew sank back into his seat with a dry laugh. “Well, you ought to be. You come of good stock. And you’re father’s son, every inch of you!” He laughed again, as though the humor of the situation grew on him with its closer contemplation.

“Yes, I’ve always felt that,” Ronald murmured, flushing.

“Your father’s son, and no mistake.” Mr. Grew leaned forward. “You’re the son of as big a fool as yourself. And here he sits, Ronald Grew.”

The young man’s flush deepened to crimson; but Mr. Grew checked his reply with a decisive gesture. “Here he sits, with all your young nonsense still alive in him. Don’t you see the likeness? If you don’t, I’ll tell you the story of those letters.”

Ronald stared. “What do you mean? Don’t they tell their own story?”

“I supposed they did when I gave them to you; but you’ve given it a twist that needs straightening out.” Mr. Grew squared his elbows on the table, and looked at the young man across the gift-books and the dyed pampas grass. “I wrote all the letters that Dolbrowski answered.”

Ronald gave back his look in frowning perplexity. “You wrote them? I don’t understand. His letters are all addressed to my mother.”

“Yes. And he thought he was corresponding with her.”

“But my mother — what did she think?”

Mr. Grew hesitated, puckering his thick lids. “Well, I guess she kinder thought it was a joke. Your mother didn’t think about things much.”

Ronald continued to bend a puzzled frown on the question. “I don’t understand,” he reiterated.

Mr. Grew cleared his throat with a nervous laugh. “Well, I don’t know as you ever will — quite. But this is the way it came about. I had a toughish time of it when I was young. Oh, I don’t mean so much the fight I had to put up to make my way — there was always plenty of fight in me. But inside of myself it was kinder lonesome. And the outside didn’t attract callers.” He laughed again, with an apologetic gesture toward his broad blinking face. “When I went round with the other young fellows I was always the forlorn hope — the one that had to eat the drumsticks and dance with the left-overs. As sure as there was a blighter at a picnic I had to swing her, and feed her, and drive her home. And all the time I was mad after all the things you’ve got — poetry and music and all the joy-forever business. So there were the pair of us — my face and my imagination — chained together, and fighting, and hating each other like poison.

“Then your mother came along and took pity on me. It sets up a gawky fellow to find a girl who ain’t ashamed to be seen walking with him Sundays. And I was grateful to your mother, and we got along first-rate. Only I couldn’t say things to her — and she couldn’t answer. Well — one day, a few months after we were married, Dolbrowski came to New York, and the whole place went wild about him. I’d never heard any good music, but I’d always had an inkling of what it must be like, though I couldn’t tell you to this day how I knew. Well, your mother read about him in the papers too, and she thought it’d be the swagger thing to go to New York and hear him play — so we went . . . I’ll never forget that evening. Your mother wasn’t easily stirred up — she never seemed to need to let off steam. But that night she seemed to understand the way I felt. And when we got back to the hotel she said suddenly: ‘I’d like to tell him how I feel. I’d like to sit right down and write to him.’

“‘Would you?’ I said. ‘So would I.’

“There was paper and pens there before us, and I pulled a sheet toward me, and began to write. ‘Is this what you’d like to say to him?’ I asked her when the letter was done. And she got pink and said: ‘I don’t understand it, but it’s lovely.’ And she copied it out and signed her name to it, and sent it.”

Mr. Grew paused, and Ronald sat silent, with lowered eyes.

“That’s how it began; and that’s where I thought it would end. But it didn’t, because Dolbrowski answered. His first letter was dated January 10, 1872. I guess you’ll find I’m correct. Well, I went back to hear him again, and I wrote him after the performance, and he answered again. And after that we kept it up for six months. Your mother always copied the letters and signed them. She seemed to think it was a kinder joke, and she was proud of his answering my letters. But she never went back to New York to hear him, though I saved up enough to give her the treat again. She was too lazy, and she let me go without her. I heard him three times in New York; and in the spring he came to Wingfield and played once at the Academy. Your mother was sick and couldn’t go; so I went alone. After the performance I meant to get one of the directors to take me in to see him; but when the time came, I just went back home and wrote to him instead. And the month after, before he went back to Europe, he sent your mother a last little note, and that picture hanging up there . . . ”

Mr. Grew paused again, and both men lifted their eyes to the photograph.

“Is that all?” Ronald slowly asked.

“That’s all — every bit of it,” said Mr. Grew.

“And my mother — my mother never even spoke to Dolbrowski?”

“Never. She never even saw him but that once in New York at his concert.”

“The blood crept again to Ronald’s face. “Are you sure of that, sir?” he asked in a trembling voice.

“Sure as I am that I’m sitting here. Why, she was too lazy to look at his letters after the first novelty wore off. She copied the answers just to humor me — but she always said she couldn’t understand what we wrote.”

“But how could you go on with such a correspondence? It’s incredible!”

Mr. Grew looked at his son thoughtfully. “I suppose it is, to you. You’ve only had to put out your hand and get the things I was starving for — music, and good talk, and ideas. Those letters gave me all that. You’ve read them, and you know that Dolbrowski was not only a great musician but a great man. There was nothing beautiful he didn’t see, nothing fine he didn’t feel. For six months I breathed his air, and I’ve lived on it ever since. Do you begin to understand a little now?”

“Yes — a little. But why write in my mother’s name? Why make it a sentimental correspondence?”

Mr. Grew reddened to his bald temples. “Why, I tell you it began that way, as a kinder joke. And when I saw that the first letter pleased and interested him, I was afraid to tell him — I couldn’t tell him. Do you suppose he’d gone on writing if he’d ever seen me, Ronny?”

Ronald suddenly looked at him with new eyes. “But he must have thought your letters very beautiful — to go on as he did,” he broke out.

“Well — I did my best,” said Mr. Grew modestly.

Ronald pursued his idea. “Where are all your letters, I wonder? Weren’t they returned to you at his death?”

Mr. Grew laughed. “Lord, no. I guess he had trunks and trunks full of better ones. I guess Queens and Empresses wrote to him.”

“I should have liked to see your letters,” the young man insisted.

“Well, they weren’t bad,” said Mr. Grew drily. “But I’ll tell you one thing, Ronny,” he added suddenly. Ronald raised his head with a quick glance, and Mr. Grew continued: “I’ll tell you where the best of those letters is — it’s in you. If it hadn’t been for that one look at life I couldn’t have made you what you are. Oh, I know you’ve done a good deal of your own making — but I’ve been there behind you all the time. And you’ll never know the work I’ve spared you and the time I’ve saved you. Fortune Dolbrowski helped me do that. I never saw things in little again after I’d looked at ’em with him. And I tried to give you the big view from the stars . . . So that’s what became of my letters.”

Mr. Grew paused, and for a long time Ronald sat motionless, his elbows on the table, his face dropped on his hands.

Suddenly Mr. Grew’s touch fell on his shoulder.

“Look at here, Ronald Grew — do you want me to tell you how you’re feeling at this minute? Just a mite let down, after all, at the idea that you ain’t the romantic figure you’d got to think yourself . . . Well, that’s natural enough, too; but I’ll tell you what it proves. It proves you’re my son right enough, if any more proof was needed. For it’s just the kind of fool nonsense I used to feel at your age — and if there’s anybody here to laugh at it’s myself, and not you. And you can laugh at me just as much as you like . . . ”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/tales_of_men_and_ghosts/chapter2.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30