ARTHUR BERNALD could never afterward recall just when the first conjecture flashed on him: oddly enough, there was no record of it in the agitated jottings of his diary. But, as it seemed to him in retrospect, he had always felt that the queer man at the Wades’ must be John Pellerin, if only for the negative reason that he couldn’t imaginably be any one else. It was impossible, in the confused pattern of the century’s intellectual life, to fit the stranger in anywhere, save in the big gap which, some five and twenty years earlier, had been left by Pellerin’s unaccountable disappearance; and conversely, such a man as the Wades’ visitor couldn’t have lived for sixty years without filling, somewhere in space, a nearly equivalent void.
At all events, it was certainly not to Doctor Wade or to his mother that Bernald owed the hint: the good unconscious Wades, one of whose chief charms in the young man’s eyes was that they remained so robustly untainted by Pellerinism, in spite of the fact that Doctor Wade’s younger brother, Howland, was among its most impudently flourishing high-priests.
The incident had begun by Bernald’s running across Doctor Robert Wade one hot summer night at the University Club, and by Wade’s saying, in the tone of unprofessional laxity which the shadowy stillness of the place invited: “I got hold of a queer fish at St. Martin’s the other day — case of heat-prostration picked up in Central Park. When we’d patched him up I found he had nowhere to go, and not a dollar in his pocket, and I sent him down to our place at Portchester to re-build.”
The opening roused his hearer’s attention. Bob Wade had an odd unformulated sense of values that Bernald had learned to trust.
“What sort of chap? Young or old?”
“Oh, every age — full of years, and yet with a lot left. He called himself sixty on the books.”
“Sixty’s a good age for some kinds of living. And age is of course purely subjective. How has he used his sixty years?”
“Well — part of them in educating himself, apparently. He’s a scholar — humanities, languages, and so forth.”
“Oh — decayed gentleman,” Bernald murmured, disappointed.
“Decayed? Not much!” cried the doctor with his accustomed literalness. “I only mentioned that side of Winterman — his name’s Winterman — because it was the side my mother noticed first. I suppose women generally do. But it’s only a part — a small part. The man’s the big thing.”
“Well — there again. . . . When I took him down to the country, looking rather like a tramp from a ‘Shelter,’ with an untrimmed beard, and a suit of reach-me-downs he’d slept round the Park in for a week, I felt sure my mother’d carry the silver up to her room, and send for the gardener’s dog to sleep in the hall the first night. But she didn’t.”
“I see. ‘Women and children love him.’ Oh, Wade!” Bernald groaned.
“Not a bit of it! You’re out again. We don’t love him, either of us. But we feel him — the air’s charged with him. You’ll see.”
And Bernald agreed that he would see, the following Sunday. Wade’s inarticulate attempts to characterize the stranger had struck his friend. The human revelation had for Bernald a poignant and ever-renewed interest, which his trade, as the dramatic critic of a daily paper, had hitherto failed to discourage. And he knew that Bob Wade, simple and undefiled by literature — Bernald’s specific affliction — had a free and personal way of judging men, and the diviner’s knack of reaching their hidden springs. During the days that followed, the young doctor gave Bernald farther details about John Winterman: details not of fact — for in that respect his visitor’s reticence was baffling — but of impression. It appeared that Winterman, while lying insensible in the Park, had been robbed of the few dollars he possessed; and on leaving the hospital, still weak and half-blind, he had quite simply and unprotestingly accepted the Wades’ offer to give him shelter till such time as he should be strong enough to go to work.
“But what’s his work?” Bernald interjected. “Hasn’t he at least told you that?”
“Well, writing. Some kind of writing.” Doctor Bob always became vague and clumsy when he approached the confines of literature. “He means to take it up again as soon as his eyes get right.”
Bernald groaned. “Oh, Lord — that finishes him; and me! He’s looking for a publisher, of course — he wants a ‘favourable notice.’ I won’t come!”
“He hasn’t written a line for twenty years.”
“A line of what? What kind of literature can one keep corked up for twenty years?”
Wade surprised him. “The real kind, I should say. But I don’t know Winterman’s line,” the doctor added. “He speaks of the things he used to write merely as ‘stuff that wouldn’t sell.’ He has a wonderfully confidential way of not telling one things. But he says he’ll have to do something for his living as soon as his eyes are patched up, and that writing is the only trade he knows. The queer thing is that he seems pretty sure of selling now. He even talked of buying the bungalow of us, with an acre or two about it.”
“The bungalow? What’s that?”
“The studio down by the shore that we built for Howland when he thought he meant to paint.” (Howland Wade, as Bernald knew, had experienced various “calls.”) “Since he’s taken to writing nobody’s been near it. I offered it to Winterman, and he camps there — cooks his meals, does his own house-keeping, and never comes up to the house except in the evenings, when he joins us on the verandah, in the dark, and smokes while my mother knits.”
“A discreet visitor, eh?”
“More than he need be. My mother actually wanted him to stay on in the house — in her pink chintz room. Think of it! But he says houses smother him. I take it he’s lived for years in the open.”
“In the open where?”
“I can’t make out, except that it was somewhere in the East. ‘East of everything — beyond the day-spring. In places not on the map.’ That’s the way he put it; and when I said: ‘You’ve been an explorer, then?’ he smiled in his beard, and answered: ‘Yes; that’s it — an explorer.’ Yet he doesn’t strike me as a man of action: hasn’t the hands or the eyes.”
“What sort of hands and eyes has he?”
Wade reflected. His range of observation was not large, but within its limits it was exact and could give an account of itself.
“He’s worked a lot with his hands, but that’s not what they were made for. I should say they were extraordinarily delicate conductors of sensation. And his eye — his eye too. He hasn’t used it to dominate people: he didn’t care to. He simply looks through ’em all like windows. Makes me feel like the fellows who think they’re made of glass. The mitigating circumstance is that he seems to see such a glorious landscape through me.” Wade grinned at the thought of serving such a purpose.
“I see. I’ll come on Sunday and be looked through!” Bernald cried.
BERNALD came on two successive Sundays; and the second time he lingered till the Tuesday.
“Here he comes!” Wade had said, the first evening, as the two young men, with Wade’s mother sat in the sultry dusk, with the Virginian creeper drawing, between the verandah arches, its black arabesques against a moon-lined sky.
In the darkness Bernald heard a step on the gravel, and saw the red flit of a cigar through the shrubs. Then a loosely-moving figure obscured the patch of sky between the creepers, and the red spark became the centre of a dim bearded face, in which Bernald discerned only a broad white gleam of forehead.
It was the young man’s subsequent impression that Winterman had not spoken much that first evening; at any rate, Bernald himself remembered chiefly what the Wades had said. And this was the more curious because he had come for the purpose of studying their visitor, and because there was nothing to divert him from that purpose in Wade’s halting communications or his mother’s artless comments. He reflected afterward that there must have been a mysteriously fertilizing quality in the stranger’s silence: it had brooded over their talk like a large moist cloud above a dry country.
Mrs. Wade, apparently apprehensive lest her son should have given Bernald an exaggerated notion of their visitor’s importance, had hastened to qualify it before the latter appeared.
“He’s not what you or Howland would call intellectual — "(Bernald writhed at the coupling of the names) — “not in the least literary; though he told Bob he used to write. I don’t think, though, it could have been what Howland would call writing.” Mrs. Wade always mentioned her younger son with a reverential drop of the voice. She viewed literature much as she did Providence, as an inscrutably mystery; and she spoke of Howland as a dedicated being, set apart to perform secret rites within the veil of the sanctuary.
“I shouldn’t say he had a quick mind,” she continued, reverting apologetically to Winterman. “Sometimes he hardly seems to follow what we’re saying. But he’s got such sound ideas — when he does speak he’s never silly. And clever people sometimes are, don’t you think so?” Bernald groaned an unqualified assent. “And he’s so capable. The other day something went wrong with the kitchen range, just as I was expecting some friends of Bob’s for dinner; and do you know, when Mr. Winterman heard we were in trouble, he came and took a look, and knew at once what to do? I told him it was a dreadful pity he wasn’t married!”
Close on midnight, when the session on the verandah ended, and the two young men were strolling down to the bungalow at Winterman’s side, Bernald’s mind reverted to the image of the fertilizing cloud. There was something brooding, pregnant, in the silent presence beside him: he had, in place of any circumscribing impression of the individual, a large hovering sense of manifold latent meanings. And he felt a distinct thrill of relief when, half-way down the lawn, Doctor Bob was checked by a voice that called him back to the telephone.
“Now I’ll be with him alone!” thought Bernald, with a throb like a lover’s.
In the low-ceilinged bungalow Winterman had to grope for the lamp on his desk, and as its light struck up into his face Bernald’s sense of the rareness of his opportunity increased. He couldn’t have said why, for the face, with its ridged brows, its shabby greyish beard and blunt Socratic nose, made no direct appeal to the eye. It seemed rather like a stage on which remarkable things might be enacted, like some shaggy moorland landscape dependent for form and expression on the clouds rolling over it, and the bursts of light between; and one of these flashed out in the smile with which Winterman, as if in answer to his companion’s thought, said simply, as he turned to fill his pipe: “Now we’ll talk.”
So he’d known all along that they hadn’t yet — and had guessed that, with Bernald, one might!
The young man’s glow of pleasure was so intense that it left him for a moment unable to meet the challenge; and in that moment he felt the brush of something winged and summoning. His spirit rose to it with a rush; but just as he felt himself poised between the ascending pinions, the door opened and Bob Wade plunged in.
“Too bad! I’m so sorry! It was from Howland, to say he can’t come to-morrow after all.” The doctor panted out his news with honest grief.
“I tried my best to pull it off for you; and my brother wants to come — he’s keen to talk to you and see what he can do. But you see he’s so tremendously in demand. He’ll try for another Sunday later on.”
Winterman nodded with a whimsical gesture. “Oh, he’ll find me here. I shall work my time out slowly.” He pointed to the scattered sheets on the kitchen table which formed his writing desk.
“Not slowly enough to suit us,” Wade answered hospitably. “Only, if Howland could have come he might have given you a tip or two — put you on the right track — shown you how to get in touch with the public.”
Winterman, his hands in his sagging pockets, lounged against the bare pine walls, twisting his pipe under his beard. “Does your brother enjoy the privilege of that contact?” he questioned gravely.
Wade stared a little. “Oh, of course Howland’s not what you’d call a popular writer; he despises that kind of thing. But whatever he says goes with — well, with the chaps that count; and every one tells me he’s written the book on Pellerin. You must read it when you get back your eyes.” He paused, as if to let the name sink in, but Winterman drew at his pipe with a blank face. “You must have heard of Pellerin, I suppose?” the doctor continued. “I’ve never read a word of him myself: he’s too big a proposition for me. But one can’t escape the talk about him. I have him crammed down my throat even in hospital. The internes read him at the clinics. He tumbles out of the nurses’ pockets. The patients keep him under their pillows. Oh, with most of them, of course, it’s just a craze, like the last new game or puzzle: they don’t understand him in the least. Howland says that even now, twenty-five years after his death, and with his books in everybody’s hands, there are not twenty people who really understand Pellerin; and Howland ought to know, if anybody does. He’s — what’s their great word? — interpreted him. You must get Howland to put you through a course of Pellerin.”
And as the young men, having taken leave of Winterman, retraced their way across the lawn, Wade continued to develop the theme of his brother’s accomplishments.
“I wish I could get Howland to take an interest in Winterman: this is the third Sunday he’s chucked us. Of course he does get bored with people consulting him about their writings — but I believe if he could only talk to Winterman he’d see something in him, as we do. And it would be such a god-send to the poor man to have some one to advise him about his work. I’m going to make a desperate effort to get Howland here next Sunday.”
It was then that Bernald vowed to himself that he would return the next Sunday at all costs. He hardly knew whether he was prompted by the impulse to shield Winterman from Howland Wade’s ineptitude, or by the desire to see the latter abandon himself to the full shamelessness of its display; but of one fact he was blissfully assured — and that was of the existence in Winterman of some quality which would provoke Howland to the amplest exercise of his fatuity. “How he’ll draw him — how he’ll draw him!” Bernald chuckled, with a security the more unaccountable that his one glimpse of Winterman had shown the latter only as a passive subject for experimentation; and he felt himself avenged in advance for the injury of Howland Wade’s existence.
THAT this hope was to be frustrated Bernald learned from Howland Wade’s own lips, the day before the two young men were to meet at Portchester.
“I can’t really, my dear fellow,” the Interpreter lisped, passing a polished hand over the faded smoothness of his face. “Oh, an authentic engagement, I assure you: otherwise, to oblige old Bob I’d submit cheerfully to looking over his foundling’s literature. But I’m pledged this week to the Pellerin Society of Kenosha: I had a hand in founding it, and for two years now they’ve been patiently waiting for a word from me — the Fiat Lux, so to speak. You see it’s a ministry, Bernald — I assure you, I look upon my calling quite religiously.”
As Bernald listened, his disappointment gradually changed to relief. Howland, on trial, always turned out to be too insufferable, and the pleasure of watching his antics was invariably lost in the impulse to put a sanguinary end to them.
“If he’d only keep his beastly pink hands off Pellerin,” Bernald groaned, thinking of the thick manuscript condemned to perpetual incarceration in his own desk by the publication of Howland’s “definitive” work on the great man. One couldn’t, after Howland Wade, expose one’s self to the derision of writing about Pellerin: the eagerness with which Wade’s book had been devoured proved, not that the public had enough appetite for another, but simply that, for a stomach so undiscriminating, anything better than Wade had given it would be too good. And Bernald, in the confidence that his own work was open to this objection, had stoically locked it up. Yet if he had resigned his exasperated intelligence to the fact that Wade’s book existed, and was already passing into the immortality of perpetual republication, he could not, after repeated trials, adjust himself to the author’s talk about Pellerin. When Wade wrote of the great dead he was egregious, but in conversation he was familiar and fond. It might have been supposed that one of the beauties of Pellerin’s hidden life and mysterious taking off would have been to guard him from the fingering of anecdote; but biographers like Howland Wade were born to rise above such obstacles. He might be vague or inaccurate in dealing with the few recorded events of his subject’s life; but when he left fact for conjecture no one had a firmer footing. Whole chapters in his volume were constructed in the conditional mood and packed with hypothetical detail; and in talk, by the very law of the process, hypothesis became affirmation, and he was ready to tell you confidentially the exact circumstances of Pellerin’s death, and of the “distressing incident” leading up to it. Bernald himself not only questioned the form under which this incident was shaping itself before posterity, but the mere radical fact of its occurrence: he had never been able to discover any break in the dense cloud enveloping Pellerin’s later life and its mysterious termination. He had gone away — that was all that any of them knew: he who had so little, at any time, been with them or of them; and his going had so slightly stirred the public consciousness that even the subsequent news of his death, laconically imparted from afar, had dropped unheeded into the universal scrap-basket, to be long afterward fished out, with all its details missing, when some enquiring spirit first became aware, by chance encounter with a two-penny volume in a London book-stall, not only that such a man as John Pellerin had died, but that he had ever lived, or written.
It need hardly be noted that Howland Wade had not been the pioneer in question: his had been the wiser part of swelling the chorus when it rose, and gradually drowning the other voices by his own insistent note. He had pitched the note so screamingly, and held it so long, that he was now the accepted authority on Pellerin, not only in the land which had given birth to his genius but in the Europe which had first acclaimed it; and it was the central point of pain in Bernald’s sense of the situation that a man who had so yearned for silence as Pellerin should have his grave piped over by such a voice as Wade’s.
Bernald’s talk with the Interpreter had revived this ache to the momentary exclusion of other sensations; and he was still sore with it when, the next afternoon, he arrived at Portchester for his second Sunday with the Wades.
At the station he had the surprise of seeing Winterman’s face on the platform, and of hearing from him that Doctor Bob had been called away to assist at an operation in a distant town.
“Mrs. Wade wanted to put you off, but I believe the message came too late; so she sent me down to break the news to you,” said Winterman, holding out his hand.
Perhaps because they were the first conventional words that Bernald had heard him speak, the young man was struck by the relief his intonation gave them.
“She wanted to send a carriage,” Winterman added, “but I told her we’d walk back through the woods.” He looked at Bernald with a sudden kindness that flushed the young man with pleasure.
“Are you strong enough? It’s not too far?”
“Oh, no. I’m pulling myself together. Getting back to work is the slowest part of the business: not on account of my eyes — I can use them now, though not for reading; but some of the links between things are missing. It’s a kind of broken spectrum . . . here, that boy will look after your bag.”
The walk through the woods remained in Bernald’s memory as an enchanted hour. He used the word literally, as descriptive of the way in which Winterman’s contact changed the face of things, or perhaps restored them to their primitive meanings. And the scene they traversed — one of those little untended woods that still, in America, fringe the tawdry skirts of civilization — acquired, as a background to Winterman, the hush of a spot aware of transcendent visitings. Did he talk, or did he make Bernald talk? The young man never knew. He recalled only a sense of lightness and liberation, as if the hard walls of individuality had melted, and he were merged in the poet’s deeper interfusion, yet without losing the least sharp edge of self. This general impression resolved itself afterward into the sense of Winterman’s wide elemental range. His thought encircled things like the horizon at sea. He didn’t, as it happened, touch on lofty themes — Bernald was gleefully aware that, to Howland Wade, their talk would hardly have been Talk at all — but Winterman’s mind, applied to lowly topics, was like a powerful lens that brought out microscopic delicacies and differences.
The lack of Sunday trains kept Doctor Bob for two days on the scene of his surgical duties, and during those two days Bernald seized every moment of communion with his friend’s guest. Winterman, as Wade had said, was reticent as to his personal affairs, or rather as to the practical and material conditions to which the term is generally applied. But it was evident that, in Winterman’s case, the usual classification must be reversed, and that the discussion of ideas carried one much farther into his intimacy than any specific acquaintance with the incidents of his life.
“That’s exactly what Howland Wade and his tribe have never understood about Pellerin: that it’s much less important to know how, or even why, he disapp — ”
Bernald pulled himself up with a jerk, and turned to look full at his companion. It was late on the Monday evening, and the two men, after an hour’s chat on the verandah to the tune of Mrs. Wade’s knitting-needles, had bidden their hostess good-night and strolled back to the bungalow together.
“Come and have a pipe before you turn in,” Winterman had said; and they had sat on together till midnight, with the door of the bungalow open on a heaving moonlit bay, and summer insects bumping against the chimney of the lamp. Winterman had just bent down to re-fill his pipe from the jar on the table, and Bernald, jerking about to catch him in the yellow circle of lamplight, sat speechless, staring at a fact that seemed suddenly to have substituted itself for Winterman’s face, or rather to have taken on its features.
“No, they never saw that Pellerin’s ideas were Pellerin. . . . ” He continued to stare at Winterman. “Just as this man’s ideas are — why, are Pellerin!”
The thought uttered itself in a kind of inner shout, and Bernald started upright with the violent impact of his conclusion. Again and again in the last forty-eight hours he had exclaimed to himself: “This is as good as Pellerin.” Why hadn’t he said till now: “This is Pellerin”? . . . Surprising as the answer was, he had no choice but to take it. He hadn’t said so simply because Winterman was better than Pellerin — that there was so much more of him, so to speak. Yes; but — it came to Bernald in a flash — wouldn’t there by this time have been any amount more of Pellerin? . . . The young man felt actually dizzy with the thought. That was it — there was the solution of the haunting problem! This man was Pellerin, and more than Pellerin! It was so fantastic and yet so unanswerable that he burst into a sudden startled laugh.
Winterman, at the same moment, brought his palm down with a sudden crash on the pile of manuscript covering the desk.
“What’s the matter?” Bernald gasped.
“My match wasn’t out. In another minute the destruction of the library of Alexandria would have been a trifle compared to what you’d have seen.” Winterman, with his large deep laugh, shook out the smouldering sheets. “And I should have been a pensioner on Doctor Bob the Lord knows how much longer!”
Bernald pulled himself together. “You’ve really got going again? The thing’s actually getting into shape?”
“This particular thing is in shape. I drove at it hard all last week, thinking our friend’s brother would be down on Sunday, and might look it over.”
Bernald had to repress the tendency to another wild laugh.
“Howland — you meant to show Howland what you’ve done?”
Winterman, looming against the moonlight, slowly turned a dusky shaggy head toward him.
“Isn’t it a good thing to do?”
Bernald wavered, torn between loyalty to his friends and the grotesqueness of answering in the affirmative. After all, it was none of his business to furnish Winterman with an estimate of Howland Wade.
“Well, you see, you’ve never told me what your line is,” he answered, temporizing.
“No, because nobody’s ever told me. It’s exactly what I want to find out,” said the other genially.
“And you expect Wade —?”
“Why, I gathered from our good Doctor that it’s his trade. Doesn’t he explain — interpret?”
“In his own domain — which is Pellerinism.”
Winterman gazed out musingly upon the moon-touched dusk of waters. “And what is Pellerinism?” he asked.
Bernald sprang to his feet with a cry. “Ah, I don’t know — but you’re Pellerin!”
They stood for a minute facing each other, among the uncertain swaying shadows of the room, with the sea breathing through it as something immense and inarticulate breathed through young Bernald’s thoughts; then Winterman threw up his arms with a humorous gesture.
“Don’t shoot!” he said.
DAWN found them there, and the risen sun laid its beams on the rough floor of the bungalow, before either of the men was conscious of the passage of time. Bernald, vaguely trying to define his own state in retrospect, could only phrase it: “I floated . . . floated. . . . ”
The gist of fact at the core of the extraordinary experience was simply that John Pellerin, twenty-five years earlier, had voluntarily disappeared, causing the rumour of his death to be reported to an inattentive world; and that now he had come back to see what that world had made of him.
“You’ll hardly believe it of me; I hardly believe it of myself; but I went away in a rage of disappointment, of wounded pride — no, vanity! I don’t know which cut deepest — the sneers or the silence — but between them, there wasn’t an inch of me that wasn’t raw. I had just the one thing in me: the message, the cry, the revelation. But nobody saw and nobody listened. Nobody wanted what I had to give. I was like a poor devil of a tramp looking for shelter on a bitter night, in a town with every door bolted and all the windows dark. And suddenly I felt that the easiest thing would be to lie down and go to sleep in the snow. Perhaps I’d a vague notion that if they found me there at daylight, frozen stiff, the pathetic spectacle might produce a reaction, a feeling of remorse. . . . So I took care to be found! Well, a good many thousand people die every day on the face of the globe; and I soon discovered that I was simply one of the thousands; and when I made that discovery I really died — and stayed dead a year or two. . . . When I came to life again I was off on the under side of the world, in regions unaware of what we know as ‘the public.’ Have you any notion how it shifts the point of view to wake under new constellations? I advise any who’s been in love with a woman under Cassiopeia to go and think about her under the Southern Cross. . . . It’s the only way to tell the pivotal truths from the others. . . . I didn’t believe in my theory any less — there was my triumph and my vindication! It held out, resisted, measured itself with the stars. But I didn’t care a snap of my finger whether anybody else believed in it, or even knew it had been formulated. It escaped out of my books — my poor still-born books — like Psyche from the chrysalis and soared away into the blue, and lived there. I knew then how it frees an idea to be ignored; how apprehension circumscribes and deforms it. . . . Once I’d learned that, it was easy enough to turn to and shift for myself. I was sure now that my idea would live: the good ones are self-supporting. I had to learn to be so; and I tried my hand at a number of things . . . adventurous, menial, commercial. . . . It’s not a bad thing for a man to have to live his life — and we nearly all manage to dodge it. Our first round with the Sphinx may strike something out of us — a book or a picture or a symphony; and we’re amazed at our feat, and go on letting that first work breed others, as some animal forms reproduce each other without renewed fertilization. So there we are, committed to our first guess at the riddle; and our works look as like as successive impressions of the same plate, each with the lines a little fainter; whereas they ought to be — if we touch earth between times — as different from each other as those other creatures — jellyfish, aren’t they, of a kind? — where successive generations produce new forms, and it takes a zoologist to see the hidden likeness. . . .
“Well, I proved my first guess, off there in the wilds, and it lived, and grew, and took care of itself. And I said ‘Some day it will make itself heard; but by that time my atoms will have waltzed into a new pattern.’ Then, in Cashmere one day, I met a fellow in a caravan, with a dog-eared book in his pocket. He said he never stirred without it — wanted to know where I’d been, never to have heard of it. It was my guess — in its twentieth edition! . . . The globe spun round at that, and all of a sudden I was under the old stars. That’s the way it happens when the ballast of vanity shifts! I’d lived a third of a life out there, unconscious of human opinion — because I supposed it was unconscious of me. But now — now! Oh, it was different. I wanted to know what they said. . . . Not exactly that, either: I wanted to know what I’d made them say. There’s a difference. . . . And here I am,” said John Pellerin, with a pull at his pipe.
So much Bernald retained of his companion’s actual narrative; the rest was swept away under the tide of wonder that rose and submerged him as Pellerin — at some indefinitely later stage of their talk — picked up his manuscript and began to read. Bernald sat opposite, his elbows propped on the table, his eyes fixed on the swaying waters outside, from which the moon gradually faded, leaving them to make a denser blackness in the night. As Pellerin read, this density of blackness — which never for a moment seemed inert or unalive — was attenuated by imperceptible degrees, till a greyish pallour replaced it; then the pallour breathed and brightened, and suddenly dawn was on the sea.
Something of the same nature went on in the young man’s mind while he watched and listened. He was conscious of a gradually withdrawing light, of an interval of obscurity full of the stir of invisible forces, and then of the victorious flush of day. And as the light rose, he saw how far he had travelled and what wonders the night had prepared. Pellerin had been right in saying that his first idea had survived, had borne the test of time; but he had given his hearer no hint of the extent to which it had been enlarged and modified, of the fresh implications it now unfolded. In a brief flash of retrospection Bernald saw the earlier books dwindle and fall into their place as mere precursors of this fuller revelation; then, with a leap of helpless rage, he pictured Howland Wade’s pink hands on the new treasure, and his prophetic feet upon the lecture platform.
“IT won’t do — oh, he let him down as gently as possible; but it appears it simply won’t do.”
Doctor Bob imparted the ineluctable fact to Bernald while the two men, accidentally meeting at their club a few nights later, sat together over the dinner they had immediately agreed to consume in company.
Bernald had left Portchester the morning after his strange discovery, and he and Bob Wade had not seen each other since. And now Bernald, moved by an irresistible instinct of postponement, had waited for his companion to bring up Winterman’s name, and had even executed several conversational diversions in the hope of delaying its mention. For how could one talk of Winterman with the thought of Pellerin swelling one’s breast?
“Yes; the very day Howland got back from Kenosha I brought the manuscript to town, and got him to read it. And yesterday evening I nailed him, and dragged an answer out of him.”
“Then Howland hasn’t seen Winterman yet?”
“No. He said: ‘Before you let him loose on me I’ll go over the stuff, and see if it’s at all worth while.’”
Bernald drew a freer breath. “And he found it wasn’t?”
“Between ourselves, he found it was of no account at all. Queer, isn’t it, when the man . . . but of course literature’s another proposition. Howland says it’s one of the cases where an idea might seem original and striking if one didn’t happen to be able to trace its descent. And this is straight out of bosh — by Pellerin. . . . Yes: Pellerin. It seems that everything in the article that isn’t pure nonsense is just Pellerinism. Howland thinks poor Winterman must have been tremendously struck by Pellerin’s writings, and have lived too much out of the world to know that they’ve become the text-books of modern thought. Otherwise, of course, he’d have taken more trouble to disguise his plagiarisms.”
“I see,” Bernald mused. “Yet you say there is an original element?”
“Yes; but unluckily it’s no good.”
“It’s not — conceivably — in any sense a development of Pellerin’s idea: a logical step farther?”
“Logical? Howland says it’s twaddle at white heat.”
Bernald sat silent, divided between the fierce satisfaction of seeing the Interpreter rush upon his fate, and the despair of knowing that the state of mind he represented was indestructible. Then both emotions were swept away on a wave of pure joy, as he reflected that now, at last, Howland Wade had given him back John Pellerin.
The possession was one he did not mean to part with lightly; and the dread of its being torn from him constrained him to extraordinary precautions.
“You’ve told Winterman, I suppose? How did he take it?”
“Why, unexpectedly, as he does most things. You can never tell which way he’ll jump. I thought he’d take a high tone, or else laugh it off; but he did neither. He seemed awfully cast down. I wished myself well out of the job when I saw how cut up he was.” Bernald thrilled at the words. Pellerin had shared his pang, then — the “old woe of the world” at the perpetuity of human dulness!
“But what did he say to the charge of plagiarism — if you made it?”
“Oh, I told him straight out what Howland said. I thought it fairer. And his answer to that was the rummest part of all.”
“What was it?” Bernald questioned, with a tremor.
“He said: ‘That’s queer, for I’ve never read Pellerin.’”
Bernald drew a deep breath of ecstasy. “Well — and I suppose you believed him?”
“I believed him, because I know him. But the public won’t — the critics won’t. And if it’s a pure coincidence it’s just as bad for him as if it were a straight steal — isn’t it?”
Bernald sighed his acquiescence.
“It bothers me awfully,” Wade continued, knitting his kindly brows, “because I could see what a blow it was to him. He’s got to earn his living, and I don’t suppose he knows how to do anything else. At his age it’s hard to start fresh. I put that to Howland — asked him if there wasn’t a chance he might do better if he only had a little encouragement. I can’t help feeling he’s got the essential thing in him. But of course I’m no judge when it comes to books. And Howland says it would be cruel to give him any hope.” Wade paused, turned his wineglass about under a meditative stare, and then leaned across the table toward Bernald. “Look here — do you know what I’ve proposed to Winterman? That he should come to town with me to-morrow and go in the evening to hear Howland lecture to the Uplift Club. They’re to meet at Mrs. Beecher Bain’s, and Howland is to repeat the lecture that he gave the other day before the Pellerin Society at Kenosha. It will give Winterman a chance to get some notion of what Pellerin was: he’ll get it much straighter from Howland than if he tried to plough through Pellerin’s books. And then afterward — as if accidentally — I thought I might bring him and Howland together. If Howland could only see him and hear him talk, there’s no knowing what might come of it. He couldn’t help feeling the man’s force, as we do; and he might give him a pointer — tell him what line to take. Anyhow, it would please Winterman, and take the edge off his disappointment. I saw that as soon as I proposed it.”
“Some one who’s never heard of Pellerin?”
Mrs. Beecher Bain, large, smiling, diffuse, reached out parenthetically from the incoming throng on her threshold to waylay Bernald with the question as he was about to move past her in the wake of his companion.
“Oh, keep straight on, Mr. Winterman!” she interrupted herself to call after the latter. “Into the back drawing-room, please! And remember, you’re to sit next to me — in the corner on the left, close under the platform.”
She renewed her interrogative clutch on Bernald’s sleeve. “Most curious! Doctor Wade has been telling me all about him — how remarkable you all think him. And it’s actually true that he’s never heard of Pellerin? Of course as soon as Doctor Wade told me that, I said ‘Bring him!’ It will be so extraordinarily interesting to watch the first impression. — Yes, do follow him, dear Mr. Bernald, and be sure that you and he secure the seats next to me. Of course Alice Fosdick insists on being with us. She was wild with excitement when I told her she was to meet some one who’d never heard of Pellerin!”
On the indulgent lips of Mrs. Beecher Bain conjecture speedily passed into affirmation; and as Bernald’s companion, broad and shaggy in his visibly new evening clothes, moved down the length of the crowded rooms, he was already, to the ladies drawing aside their skirts to let him pass, the interesting Huron of the fable.
How far he was aware of the character ascribed to him it was impossible for Bernald to discover. He was as unconscious as a tree or a cloud, and his observer had never known any one so alive to human contacts and yet so secure from them. But the scene was playing such a lively tune on Bernald’s own sensibilities that for the moment he could not adjust himself to the probable effect it produced on his companion. The young man, of late, had made but rare appearances in the group of which Mrs. Beecher Bain was one of the most indefatigable hostesses, and the Uplift Club the chief medium of expression. To a critic, obliged by his trade to cultivate convictions, it was the essence of luxury to leave them at home in his hours of ease; and Bernald gave his preference to circles in which less finality of judgment prevailed, and it was consequently less embarrassing to be caught without an opinion.
But in his fresher days he had known the spell of the Uplift Club and the thrill of moving among the Emancipated; and he felt an odd sense of rejuvenation as he looked at the rows of faces packed about the embowered platform from which Howland Wade was presently to hand down the eternal verities. Many of these countenances belonged to the old days, when the gospel of Pellerin was unknown, and it required considerable intellectual courage to avow one’s acceptance of the very doctrines he had since demolished. The latter moral revolution seemed to have been accepted as submissively as a change in hair-dressing; and it even struck Bernald that, in the case of many of the assembled ladies, their convictions were rather newer than their clothes.
One of the most interesting examples of this facility of adaptation was actually, in the person of Miss Alice Fosdick, brushing his elbow with exotic amulets, and enveloping him in Arabian odours, as she leaned forward to murmur her sympathetic sense of the situation. Miss Fosdick, who was one of the most advanced exponents of Pellerinism, had large eyes and a plaintive mouth, and Bernald had always fancied that she might have been pretty if she had not been perpetually explaining things.
“Yes, I know — Isabella Bain told me all about him. (He can’t hear us, can he?) And I wonder if you realize how remarkably interesting it is that we should have such an opportunity now — I mean the opportunity to see the impression of Pellerinism on a perfectly fresh mind. (You must introduce him as soon as the lecture’s over.) I explained that to Isabella as soon as she showed me Doctor Wade’s note. Of course you see why, don’t you?” Bernald made a faint motion of acquiescence, which she instantly swept aside. “At least I think I can make you see why. (If you’re sure he can’t hear?) Why, it’s just this — Pellerinism is in danger of becoming a truism. Oh, it’s an awful thing to say! But then I’m not afraid of saying awful things! I rather believe it’s my mission. What I mean is, that we’re getting into the way of taking Pellerin for granted — as we do the air we breathe. We don’t sufficiently lead our conscious life in him — we’re gradually letting him become subliminal.” She swayed closer to the young man, and he saw that she was making a graceful attempt to throw her explanatory net over his companion, who, evading Mrs. Bain’s hospitable signal, had cautiously wedged himself into a seat between Bernald and the wall.
“Did you hear what I was saying, Mr. Winterman? (Yes, I know who you are, of course!) Oh, well, I don’t really mind if you did. I was talking about you — about you and Pellerin. I was explaining to Mr. Bernald that what we need at this very minute is a Pellerin revival; and we need some one like you — to whom his message comes as a wonderful new interpretation of life — to lead the revival, and rouse us out of our apathy. . . .
“You see,” she went on winningly, “it’s not only the big public that needs it (of course their Pellerin isn’t ours!) It’s we, his disciples, his interpreters, who discovered him and gave him to the world — we, the Chosen People, the Custodians of the Sacred Books, as Howland Wade calls us — it’s we, who are in perpetual danger of sinking back into the old stagnant ideals, and practising the Seven Deadly Virtues; it’s we who need to count our mercies, and realize anew what he’s done for us, and what we ought to do for him! And it’s for that reason that I urged Mr. Wade to speak here, in the very inner sanctuary of Pellerinism, exactly as he would speak to the uninitiated — to repeat, simply, his Kenosha lecture, ‘What Pellerinism means’; and we ought all, I think, to listen to him with the hearts of little children — just as you will, Mr. Winterman — as if he were telling us new things, and we — ”
“Alice, dear — ” Mrs. Bain murmured with a deprecating gesture; and Howland Wade, emerging between the palms, took the centre of the platform.
A pang of commiseration shot through Bernald as he saw him there, so innocent and so exposed. His plump pulpy body, which made his evening dress fall into intimate and wrapper-like folds, was like a wide surface spread to the shafts of irony; and the mild ripples of his voice seemed to enlarge the vulnerable area as he leaned forward, poised on confidential finger-tips, to say persuasively: “Let me try to tell you what Pellerinism means.”
Bernald moved restlessly in his seat. He had the obscure sense of being a party to something not wholly honourable. He ought not to have come; he ought not to have let his companion come. Yet how could he have done otherwise? John Pellerin’s secret was his own. As long as he chose to remain John Winterman it was no one’s business to gainsay him; and Bernald’s scruples were really justifiable only in respect of his own presence on the scene. But even in this connection he ceased to feel them as soon as Howland Wade began to speak.
IT had been arranged that Pellerin, after the meeting of the Uplift Club, should join Bernald at his rooms and spend the night there, instead of returning to Portchester. The plan had been eagerly elaborated by the young man, but he had been unprepared for the alacrity with which his wonderful friend accepted it. He was beginning to see that it was a part of Pellerin’s wonderfulness to fall in, quite simply and naturally, with any arrangements made for his convenience, or tending to promote the convenience of others. Bernald felt that his extreme docility in such matters was proportioned to the force of resistance which, for nearly half a life-time, had kept him, with his back to the wall, fighting alone against the powers of darkness. In such a scale of values how little the small daily alternatives must weigh!
At the close of Howland Wade’s discourse, Bernald, charged with his prodigious secret, had felt the need to escape for an instant from the liberated rush of talk. The interest of watching Pellerin was so perilously great that the watcher felt it might, at any moment, betray him. He lingered in the crowded drawing-room long enough to see his friend enclosed in a mounting tide, above which Mrs. Beecher Bain and Miss Fosdick actively waved their conversational tridents; then he took refuge, at the back of the house, in a small dim library where, in his younger days, he had discussed personal immortality and the problem of consciousness with beautiful girls whose names he could not remember.
In this retreat he surprised Mr. Beecher Bain, a quiet man with a mild brow, who was smoking a surreptitious cigar over the last number of the Strand. Mr. Bain, at Bernald’s approach, dissembled the Strand under a copy of the Hibbert Journal, but tendered his cigar-case with the remark that stocks were heavy again; and Bernald blissfully abandoned himself to this unexpected contact with reality.
On his return to the drawing-room he found that the tide had set toward the supper-table, and when it finally carried him thither it was to land him in the welcoming arms of Bob Wade.
“Hullo, old man! Where have you been all this time? — Winterman? Oh, he’s talking to Howland: yes, I managed it finally. I believe Mrs. Bain has steered them into the library, so that they shan’t be disturbed. I gave her an idea of the situation, and she was awfully kind. We’d better leave them alone, don’t you think? I’m trying to get a croquette for Miss Fosdick.”
Bernald’s secret leapt in his bosom, and he devoted himself to the task of distributing sandwiches and champagne while his pulses danced to the tune of the cosmic laughter. The vision of Pellerin and his Interpreter, face to face at last, had a Cyclopean grandeur that dwarfed all other comedy. “And I shall hear of it presently; in an hour or two he’ll be telling me about it. And that hour will be all mine — mine and his!” The dizziness of the thought made it difficult for Bernald to preserve the balance of the supper-plates he was distributing. Life had for him at that moment the completeness which seems to defy disintegration.
The throng in the dining-room was thickening, and Bernald’s efforts as purveyor were interrupted by frequent appeals, from ladies who had reached repleteness, that he should sit down a moment and tell them all about his interesting friend. Winterman’s fame, trumpeted abroad by Miss Fosdick, had reached the four corners of the Uplift Club, and Bernald found himself fabricating de toutes pieces a Winterman legend which should in some degree respond to the Club’s demand for the human document. When at length he had acquitted himself of this obligation, and was free to work his way back through the lessening groups into the drawing-room, he was at last rewarded by a glimpse of his friend, who, still densely encompassed, towered in the centre of the room in all his sovran ugliness.
Their eyes met across the crowd; but Bernald gathered only perplexity from the encounter. What were Pellerin’s eyes saying to him? What orders, what confidences, what indefinable apprehension did their long look impart? The young man was still trying to decipher their complex message when he felt a tap on the arm, and turned to encounter the rueful gaze of Bob Wade, whose meaning lay clearly enough on the surface of his good blue stare.
“Well, it won’t work — it won’t work,” the doctor groaned.
“I mean with Howland. Winterman won’t. Howland doesn’t take to him. Says he’s crude — frightfully crude. And you know how Howland hates crudeness.”
“Oh, I know,” Bernald exulted. It was the word he had waited for — he saw it now! Once more he was lost in wonder at Howland’s miraculous faculty for always, as the naturalists said, being true to type.
“So I’m afraid it’s all up with his chance of writing. At least I can do no more,” said Wade, discouraged.
Bernald pressed him for farther details. “Does Winterman seem to mind much? Did you hear his version?”
“I mean what he said to Howland.”
“Why no. What the deuce was there for him to say?”
“What indeed? I think I’ll take him home,” said Bernald gaily.
He turned away to join the circle from which, a few minutes before, Pellerin’s eyes had vainly and enigmatically signalled to him; but the circle had dispersed, and Pellerin himself was not in sight.
Bernald, looking about him, saw that during his brief aside with Wade the party had passed into the final phase of dissolution. People still delayed, in diminishing groups, but the current had set toward the doors, and every moment or two it bore away a few more lingerers. Bernald, from his post, commanded the clearing perspective of the two drawing-rooms, and a rapid survey of their length sufficed to assure him that Pellerin was not in either. Taking leave of Wade, the young man made his way back to the drawing-room, where only a few hardened feasters remained, and then passed on to the library which had been the scene of the late momentous colloquy. But the library too was empty, and drifting back uncertainly to the inner drawing-room Bernald found Mrs. Beecher Bain domestically putting out the wax candles on the mantel-piece.
“Dear Mr. Bernald! Do sit down and have a little chat. What a wonderful privilege it has been! I don’t know when I’ve had such an intense impression.”
She made way for him, hospitably, in a corner of the sofa to which she had sunk; and he echoed her vaguely: “You were impressed, then?”
“I can’t express to you how it affected me! As Alice said, it was a resurrection — it was as if John Pellerin were actually here in the room with us!”
Bernald turned on her with a half-audible gasp. “You felt that, dear Mrs. Bain?”
“We all felt it — every one of us! I don’t wonder the Greeks — it was the Greeks? — regarded eloquence as a supernatural power. As Alice says, when one looked at Howland Wade one understood what they meant by the Afflatus.”
Bernald rose and held out his hand. “Oh, I see — it was Howland who made you feel as if Pellerin were in the room? And he made Miss Fosdick feel so too?”
“Why, of course. But why are you rushing off?”
“Because I must hunt up my friend, who’s not used to such late hours.”
“Your friend?” Mrs. Bain had to collect her thoughts. “Oh, Mr. Winterman, you mean? But he’s gone already.”
“Gone?” Bernald exclaimed, with an odd twinge of foreboding. Remembering Pellerin’s signal across the crowd, he reproached himself for not having answered it more promptly. Yet it was certainly strange that his friend should have left the house without him.
“Are you quite sure?” he asked, with a startled glance at the clock.
“Oh, perfectly. He went half an hour ago. But you needn’t hurry home on his account, for Alice Fosdick carried him off with her. I saw them leave together.”
“Carried him off? She took him home with her, you mean?”
“Yes. You know what strange hours she keeps. She told me she was going to give him a Welsh rabbit, and explain Pellerinism to him.”
“Oh, if she’s going to explain — ” Bernald murmured. But his amazement at the news struggled with a confused impatience to reach his rooms in time to be there for his friend’s arrival. There could be no stranger spectacle beneath the stars than that of John Pellerin carried off by Miss Fosdick, and listening, in the small hours, to her elucidation of his doctrines; but Bernald knew enough of his sex to be aware that such an experiment may present a less humorous side to its subject than to an impartial observer. Even the Uplift Club and its connotations might benefit by the attraction of the unknown; and it was conceivable that to a traveller from Mesopotamia Miss Fosdick might present elements of interest which she had lost for the frequenters of Fifth Avenue. There was, at any rate, no denying that the affair had become unexpectedly complex, and that its farther development promised to be rich in comedy.
In the charmed contemplation of these possibilities Bernald sat over his fire, listening for Pellerin’s ring. He had arranged his modest quarters with the reverent care of a celebrant awaiting the descent of his deity. He guessed Pellerin to be unconscious of visual detail, but sensitive to the happy blending of sensuous impressions: to the intimate spell of lamplight on books, and of a deep chair placed where one could watch the fire. The chair was there, and Bernald, facing it across the hearth, already saw it filled by Pellerin’s lounging figure. The autumn dawn came late, and even now they had before them the promise of some untroubled hours. Bernald, sitting there alone in the warm stillness of his room, and in the profounder hush of his expectancy, was conscious of gathering up all his sensibilities and perceptions into one exquisitely-adjusted instrument of notation. Until now he had tasted Pellerin’s society only in unpremeditated snatches, and had always left him with a sense, on his own part, of waste and shortcoming. Now, in the lull of this dedicated hour, he felt that he should miss nothing, and forget nothing, of the initiation that awaited him. And catching sight of Pellerin’s pipe, he rose and laid it carefully on a table by the arm-chair.
“No. I’ve never had any news of him,” Bernald heard himself repeating. He spoke in a low tone, and with the automatic utterance that alone made it possible to say the words.
They were addressed to Miss Fosdick, into whose neighbourhood chance had thrown him at a dinner, a year or so later than their encounter at the Uplift Club. Hitherto he had successfully, and intentionally, avoided Miss Fosdick, not from any animosity toward that unconscious instrument of fate, but from an intense reluctance to pronounce the words which he knew he should have to speak if they met.
Now, as it turned out, his chief surprise was that she should wait so long to make him speak them. All through the dinner she had swept him along on a rapid current of talk which showed no tendency to linger or turn back upon the past. At first he ascribed her reserve to a sense of delicacy with which he reproached himself for not having previously credited her; then he saw that she had been carried so far beyond the point at which they had last faced each other, that it was by the merest hazard of associated ideas that she was now finally borne back to it. For it appeared that the very next evening, at Mrs. Beecher Bain’s, a Hindu Mahatma was to lecture to the Uplift Club on the Limits of the Subliminal; and it was owing to no less a person than Howland Wade that this exceptional privilege had been obtained.
“Of course Howland’s known all over the world as the interpreter of Pellerinism, and the Aga Gautch, who had absolutely declined to speak anywhere in public, wrote to Isabella that he could not refuse anything that Mr. Wade asked. Did you know that Howland’s lecture, ‘What Pellerinism Means,’ has been translated into twenty-two languages, and gone into a fifth edition in Icelandic? Why, that reminds me,” Miss Fosdick broke off — “I’ve never heard what became of your queer friend — what was his name? — whom you and Bob Wade accused me of spiriting away after that very lecture. And I’ve never seen you since you rushed into the house the next morning, and dragged me out of bed to know what I’d done with him!”
With a sharp effort Bernald gathered himself together to have it out. “Well, what did you do with him?” he retorted.
She laughed her appreciation of his humour. “Just what I told you, of course. I said good-bye to him on Isabella’s door-step.”
Bernald looked at her. “It’s really true, then, that he didn’t go home with you?”
She bantered back: “Have you suspected me, all this time, of hiding his remains in the cellar?” And with a droop of her fine lids she added: “I wish he had come home with me, for he was rather interesting, and there were things I think I could have explained to him.”
Bernald helped himself to a nectarine, and Miss Fosdick continued on a note of amused curiosity: “So you’ve really never had any news of him since that night?”
“No — I’ve never had any news of him.”
“Not the least little message?”
“Not the least little message.”
“Or a rumour or report of any kind?”
“Or a rumour or report of any kind.”
Miss Fosdick’s interest seemed to be revived by the strangeness of the case. “It’s rather creepy, isn’t it? What could have happened? You don’t suppose he could have been waylaid and murdered?” she asked with brightening eyes.
Bernald shook his head serenely. “No. I’m sure he’s safe — quite safe.”
“But if you’re sure, you must know something.”
“No. I know nothing,” he repeated.
She scanned him incredulously. “But what’s your theory — for you must have a theory? What in the world can have become of him?”
Bernald returned her look and hesitated. “Do you happen to remember the last thing he said to you — the very last, on the door-step, when he left you?”
“The last thing?” She poised her fork above the peach on her plate. “I don’t think he said anything. Oh, yes — when I reminded him that he’d solemnly promised to come back with me and have a little talk he said he couldn’t because he was going home.”
“Well, then, I suppose,” said Bernald, “he went home.”
She glanced at him as if suspecting a trap. “Dear me, how flat! I always inclined to a mysterious murder. But of course you know more of him than you say.”
She began to cut her peach, but paused above a lifted bit to ask, with a renewal of animation in her expressive eyes: “By the way, had you heard that Howland Wade has been gradually getting farther and farther away from Pellerinism? It seems he’s begun to feel that there’s a Positivist element in it which is narrowing to any one who has gone at all deeply into the Wisdom of the East. He was intensely interesting about it the other day, and of course I do see what he feels. . . . Oh, it’s too long to tell you now; but if you could manage to come in to tea some afternoon soon — any day but Wednesday — I should so like to explain — ”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15