The Touchstone, by Edith Wharton

IV

Glennard, the next afternoon, leaving his office earlier than usual, turned, on his way home, into one of the public libraries.

He had the place to himself at that closing hour, and the librarian was able to give an undivided attention to his tentative request for letters — collections of letters. The librarian suggested Walpole.

“I meant women — women’s letters.”

The librarian proffered Hannah More and Miss Martineau.

Glennard cursed his own inarticulateness. “I mean letters to — to some one person — a man; their husband — or — ”

“Ah,” said the inspired librarian, “Eloise and Abailard.”

“Well — something a little nearer, perhaps,” said Glennard, with lightness. “Didn’t Merimee — ”

“The lady’s letters, in that case, were not published.”

“Of course not,” said Glennard, vexed at his blunder.

“There are George Sand’s letters to Flaubert.”

“Ah!” Glennard hesitated. “Was she — were they —?” He chafed at his own ignorance of the sentimental by-paths of literature.

“If you want love-letters, perhaps some of the French eighteenth century correspondences might suit you better — Mlle. Aisse or Madame de Sabran — ”

But Glennard insisted. “I want something modern — English or American. I want to look something up,” he lamely concluded.

The librarian could only suggest George Eliot.

“Well, give me some of the French things, then — and I’ll have Merimee’s letters. It was the woman who published them, wasn’t it?”

He caught up his armful, transferring it, on the doorstep, to a cab which carried him to his rooms. He dined alone, hurriedly, at a small restaurant near by, and returned at once to his books.

Late that night, as he undressed, he wondered what contemptible impulse had forced from him his last words to Alexa Trent. It was bad enough to interfere with the girl’s chances by hanging about her to the obvious exclusion of other men, but it was worse to seem to justify his weakness by dressing up the future in delusive ambiguities. He saw himself sinking from depth to depth of sentimental cowardice in his reluctance to renounce his hold on her; and it filled him with self-disgust to think that the highest feeling of which he supposed himself capable was blent with such base elements.

His awakening was hardly cheered by the sight of her writing. He tore her note open and took in the few lines — she seldom exceeded the first page — with the lucidity of apprehension that is the forerunner of evil.

“My aunt sails on Saturday and I must give her my answer the day after to-morrow. Please don’t come till then — I want to think the question over by myself. I know I ought to go. Won’t you help me to be reasonable?”

It was settled, then. Well, he would be reasonable; he wouldn’t stand in her way; he would let her go. For two years he had been living some other, luckier man’s life; the time had come when he must drop back into his own. He no longer tried to look ahead, to grope his way through the endless labyrinth of his material difficulties; a sense of dull resignation closed in on him like a fog.

“Hullo, Glennard!” a voice said, as an electric-car, late that afternoon, dropped him at an uptown corner.

He looked up and met the interrogative smile of Barton Flamel, who stood on the curbstone watching the retreating car with the eye of a man philosophic enough to remember that it will be followed by another.

Glennard felt his usual impulse of pleasure at meeting Flamel; but it was not in this case curtailed by the reaction of contempt that habitually succeeded it. Probably even the few men who had known Flamel since his youth could have given no good reason for the vague mistrust that he inspired. Some people are judged by their actions, others by their ideas; and perhaps the shortest way of defining Flamel is to say that his well-known leniency of view was vaguely divined to include himself. Simple minds may have resented the discovery that his opinions were based on his perceptions; but there was certainly no more definite charge against him than that implied in the doubt as to how he would behave in an emergency, and his company was looked upon as one of those mildly unwholesome dissipations to which the prudent may occasionally yield. It now offered itself to Glennard as an easy escape from the obsession of moral problems, which somehow could no more be worn in Flamel’s presence than a surplice in the street.

“Where are you going? To the club?” Flamel asked; adding, as the younger man assented, “Why not come to my studio instead? You’ll see one bore instead of twenty.”

The apartment which Flamel described as his studio showed, as its one claim to the designation, a perennially empty easel; the rest of its space being filled with the evidences of a comprehensive dilettanteism. Against this background, which seemed the visible expression of its owner’s intellectual tolerance, rows of fine books detached themselves with a prominence, showing them to be Flamel’s chief care.

Glennard glanced with the eye of untrained curiosity at the lines of warm-toned morocco, while his host busied himself with the uncorking of Apollinaris.

“You’ve got a splendid lot of books,” he said.

“They’re fairly decent,” the other assented, in the curt tone of the collector who will not talk of his passion for fear of talking of nothing else; then, as Glennard, his hands in his pockets, began to stroll perfunctorily down the long line of bookcases — “Some men,” Flamel irresistibly added, “think of books merely as tools, others as tooling. I’m between the two; there are days when I use them as scenery, other days when I want them as society; so that, as you see, my library represents a makeshift compromise between looks and brains, and the collectors look down on me almost as much as the students.”

Glennard, without answering, was mechanically taking one book after another from the shelves. His hands slipped curiously over the smooth covers and the noiseless subsidence of opening pages. Suddenly he came on a thin volume of faded manuscript.

“What’s this?” he asked, with a listless sense of wonder.

“Ah, you’re at my manuscript shelf. I’ve been going in for that sort of thing lately.” Flamel came up and looked over his shoulders. “That’s a bit of Stendhal — one of the Italian stories — and here are some letters of Balzac to Madame Commanville.”

Glennard took the book with sudden eagerness. “Who was Madame Commanville?”

“His sister.” He was conscious that Flamel was looking at him with the smile that was like an interrogation point. “I didn’t know you cared for this kind of thing.”

“I don’t — at least I’ve never had the chance. Have you many collections of letters?”

“Lord, no — very few. I’m just beginning, and most of the interesting ones are out of my reach. Here’s a queer little collection, though — the rarest thing I’ve got — half a dozen of Shelley’s letters to Harriet Westbrook. I had a devil of a time getting them — a lot of collectors were after them.”

Glennard, taking the volume from his hand, glanced with a kind of repugnance at the interleaving of yellow cris-crossed sheets. “She was the one who drowned herself, wasn’t she?”

Flamel nodded. “I suppose that little episode adds about fifty per cent. to their value,” he said, meditatively.

Glennard laid the book down. He wondered why he had joined Flamel. He was in no humor to be amused by the older man’s talk, and a recrudescence of personal misery rose about him like an icy tide.

“I believe I must take myself off,” he said. “I’d forgotten an engagement.”

He turned to go; but almost at the same moment he was conscious of a duality of intention wherein his apparent wish to leave revealed itself as a last effort of the will against the overmastering desire to stay and unbosom himself to Flamel.

The older man, as though divining the conflict, laid a detaining pressure on his arm.

“Won’t the engagement keep? Sit down and try one of these cigars. I don’t often have the luck of seeing you here.”

“I’m rather driven just now,” said Glennard, vaguely. He found himself seated again, and Flamel had pushed to his side a low stand holding a bottle of Apollinaris and a decanter of cognac.

Flamel, thrown back in his capacious arm-chair, surveyed him through a cloud of smoke with the comfortable tolerance of the man to whom no inconsistencies need be explained. Connivance was implicit in the air. It was the kind of atmosphere in which the outrageous loses its edge. Glennard felt a gradual relaxing of his nerves.

“I suppose one has to pay a lot for letters like that?” he heard himself asking, with a glance in the direction of the volume he had laid aside.

“Oh, so-do — depends on circumstances.” Flamel viewed him thoughtfully. “Are you thinking of collecting?”

Glennard laughed. “Lord, no. The other way round.”

“Selling?”

“Oh, I hardly know. I was thinking of a poor chap — ”

Flamel filled the pause with a nod of interest.

“A poor chap I used to know — who died — he died last year — and who left me a lot of letters, letters he thought a great deal of — he was fond of me and left ’em to me outright, with the idea, I suppose, that they might benefit me somehow — I don’t know — I’m not much up on such things — ” he reached his hand to the tall glass his host had filled.

“A collection of autograph letters, eh? Any big names?”

“Oh, only one name. They’re all letters written to him — by one person, you understand; a woman, in fact — ”

“Oh, a woman,” said Flamel, negligently.

Glennard was nettled by his obvious loss of interest. “I rather think they’d attract a good deal of notice if they were published.”

Flamel still looked uninterested. “Love-letters, I suppose?”

“Oh, just — the letters a woman would write to a man she knew well. They were tremendous friends, he and she.”

“And she wrote a clever letter?”

“Clever? It was Margaret Aubyn.”

A great silence filled the room. It seemed to Glennard that the words had burst from him as blood gushes from a wound.

“Great Scott!” said Flamel, sitting up. “A collection of Margaret Aubyn’s letters? Did you say YOU had them?”

“They were left me — by my friend.”

“I see. Was he — well, no matter. You’re to be congratulated, at any rate. What are you going to do with them?”

Glennard stood up with a sense of weariness in all his bones. “Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t thought much about it. I just happened to see that some fellow was writing her life — ”

“Joslin; yes. You didn’t think of giving them to him?”

Glennard had lounged across the room and stood staring up at a bronze Bacchus who drooped his garlanded head above the pediment of an Italian cabinet. “What ought I to do? You’re just the fellow to advise me.” He felt the blood in his cheek as he spoke.

Flamel sat with meditative eye. “What do you WANT to do with them?” he asked.

“I want to publish them,” said Glennard, swinging round with sudden energy — “If I can — ”

“If you can? They’re yours, you say?”

“They’re mine fast enough. There’s no one to prevent — I mean there are no restrictions — ” he was arrested by the sense that these accumulated proofs of impunity might precisely stand as the strongest check on his action.

“And Mrs. Aubyn had no family, I believe?”

“No.”

“Then I don’t see who’s to interfere,” said Flamel, studying his cigar-tip.

Glennard had turned his unseeing stare on an ecstatic Saint Catherine framed in tarnished gilding.

“It’s just this way,” he began again, with an effort. “When letters are as personal as — as these of my friend’s. . . . Well, I don’t mind telling you that the cash would make a heap of difference to me; such a lot that it rather obscures my judgment — the fact is if I could lay my hand on a few thousands now I could get into a big thing, and without appreciable risk; and I’d like to know whether you think I’d be justified — under the circumstances. . . . ” He paused, with a dry throat. It seemed to him at the moment that it would be impossible for him ever to sink lower in his own estimation. He was in truth less ashamed of weighing the temptation than of submitting his scruples to a man like Flamel, and affecting to appeal to sentiments of delicacy on the absence of which he had consciously reckoned. But he had reached a point where each word seemed to compel another, as each wave in a stream is forced forward by the pressure behind it; and before Flamel could speak he had faltered out — “You don’t think people could say . . . could criticise the man. . . . ”

“But the man’s dead, isn’t he?”

“He’s dead — yes; but can I assume the responsibility without — ”

Flamel hesitated; and almost immediately Glennard’s scruples gave way to irritation. If at this hour Flamel were to affect an inopportune reluctance —!

The older man’s answer reassured him. “Why need you assume any responsibility? Your name won’t appear, of course; and as to your friend’s, I don’t see why his should, either. He wasn’t a celebrity himself, I suppose?”

“No, no.”

“Then the letters can be addressed to Mr. Blank. Doesn’t that make it all right?”

Glennard’s hesitation revived. “For the public, yes. But I don’t see that it alters the case for me. The question is, ought I to publish them at all?”

“Of course you ought to.” Flamel spoke with invigorating emphasis. “I doubt if you’d be justified in keeping them back. Anything of Margaret Aubyn’s is more or less public property by this time. She’s too great for any one of us. I was only wondering how you could use them to the best advantage — to yourself, I mean. How many are there?”

“Oh, a lot; perhaps a hundred — I haven’t counted. There may be more. . . . ”

“Gad! What a haul! When were they written?”

“I don’t know — that is — they corresponded for years. What’s the odds?” He moved toward his hat with a vague impulse of flight.

“It all counts,” said Flamel, imperturbably. “A long correspondence — one, I mean, that covers a great deal of time — is obviously worth more than if the same number of letters had been written within a year. At any rate, you won’t give them to Joslin? They’d fill a book, wouldn’t they?”

“I suppose so. I don’t know how much it takes to fill a book.”

“Not love-letters, you say?”

“Why?” flashed from Glennard.

“Oh, nothing — only the big public is sentimental, and if they WERE— why, you could get any money for Margaret Aubyn’s love-letters.”

Glennard was silent.

“Are the letters interesting in themselves? I mean apart from the association with her name?”

“I’m no judge.” Glennard took up his hat and thrust himself into his overcoat. “I dare say I sha’n’t do anything about it. And, Flamel — you won’t mention this to anyone?”

“Lord, no. Well, I congratulate you. You’ve got a big thing.” Flamel was smiling at him from the hearth.

Glennard, on the threshold, forced a response to the smile, while he questioned with loitering indifference — “Financially, eh?”

“Rather; I should say so.”

Glennard’s hand lingered on the knob. “How much — should you say? You know about such things.”

“Oh, I should have to see the letters; but I should say — well, if you’ve got enough to fill a book and they’re fairly readable, and the book is brought out at the right time — say ten thousand down from the publisher, and possibly one or two more in royalties. If you got the publishers bidding against each other you might do even better; but of course I’m talking in the dark.”

“Of course,” said Glennard, with sudden dizziness. His hand had slipped from the knob and he stood staring down at the exotic spirals of the Persian rug beneath his feet.

“I’d have to see the letters,” Flamel repeated.

“Of course — you’d have to see them. . . . ” Glennard stammered; and, without turning, he flung over his shoulder an inarticulate “Good-by. . . . ”

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