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In Trust

Edith Wharton

  IN the good days, just after we all left college, Ned Halidon and I used to listen, laughing and smoking, while Paul Ambrose set forth his plans.

  They were immense, these plans, involving, as it sometimes seemed, the ultimate aesthetic redemption of the whole human race; and provisionally restoring the sense of beauty to those unhappy millions of our fellow country-men who, as Ambrose movingly pointed out, now live and die in surroundings of unperceived and unmitigated ugliness.

  "I want to bring the poor starved wretches back to their lost inheritance, to the divine past they've thrown away--I want to make 'em hate ugliness so that they'll smash nearly everything in sight," he would passionately exclaim, stretching his arms across the shabby black-walnut writing-table and shaking his thin consumptive fist in the fact of all the accumulated ugliness in the world.

  "You might set the example by smashing that table," I once suggested with youthful brutality; and Paul, pulling himself up, cast a surprised glance at me, and then looked slowly about the parental library, in which we sat.

  His parents were dead, and he had inherited the house in Seventeenth Street, where his grandfather Ambrose had lived in a setting of black walnut and pier glasses, giving Madeira dinners, and saying to his guests, as they rejoined the ladies across a florid waste of Aubusson carpet: "This, sir, is Dabney's first study for the Niagara--the Grecian Slave in the bay window was executed for me in Rome twenty years ago by my old friend Ezra Stimpson--" by token of which he passed for a Maecenas in the New York of the 'forties,' and a poem had once been published in the Keepsake or the Book of Beauty "On a picture in the possession of Jonathan Ambrose, Esqre."

  Since then the house had remained unchanged. Paul's father, a frugal liver and hard-headed manipulator of investments, did not inherit old Jonathan's artistic sensibilities, and was content to live and die in the unmodified black walnut and red rep of his predecessor. It was only in Paul that the grandfather's aesthetic faculty revived, and Mrs. Ambrose used often to say to her husband, as they watched the little pale-browed boy poring over an old number of the Art Journal: "Paul will know how to appreciate your father's treasures."

  In recognition of these transmitted gifts Paul, on leaving Harvard, was sent to Paris with a tutor, and established in a studio in which nothing was ever done. He could not paint, and recognized the fact early enough to save himself much wasted labor and his friends many painful efforts in dissimulation. But he brought back a touching enthusiasm for the forms of beauty which an old civilization had revealed to him and an apostolic ardour in the cause of their dissemination.

  He had paused in his harangue to take in my ill-timed parenthesis, and the color mounted slowly to his thin cheek-bones.

  "It is an ugly room," he owned, as though he had noticed the library for the first time.

  The desk was carved at the angles with the heads of helmeted knights with long black-walnut moustaches. The red cloth top was worn thread-bare, and patterned like a map with islands and peninsulas of ink; and in its centre throned a massive bronze inkstand representing a Syrian maiden slumbering by a well beneath a palm-tree.

  "The fact is," I said, walking home that evening with Ned Halidon, "old Paul will never do anything, for the simple reason that he's too stingy."

  Ned, who was an idealist, shook his handsome head. "It's not that, my dear fellow. He simply doesn't see things when they're too close to him. I'm glad you woke him up to that desk."

  The next time I dined with Paul he said, when we entered the library, and I had gently rejected one of his cheap cigars in favour of a superior article of my own: "Look here, I've been looking round for a decent writing-table. I don't care, as a rule, to turn out old things, especially when they've done good service, but I see now that this is too monstrous--"

  "For an apostle of beauty to write his evangel on," I agreed, "it is a little inappropriate, except as an awful warning."

  Paul colored. "Well, but, my dear fellow, I'd no idea how much a table of this kind costs. I find I can't get anything decent--the plainest mahogany--under a hundred and fifty." He hung his head, and pretended not to notice that I was taking out my own cigar.

  "Well, what's a hundred and fifty to you?" I rejoined. "You talk as if you had to live on a book-keeper's salary, with a large family to support."

  He smiled nervously and twirled the ring on his thin finger. "I know--I know--that's all very well. But for twenty tables that I don't buy I can send some fellow abroad and unseal his eyes."

  "Oh, hang it, do both!" I exclaimed impatiently; but the writing-table was never bought. The library remained as it was, and so did the contention between Halidon and myself, as to whether this inconsistent acceptance of his surroundings was due, on our friend's part, to a congenital inability to put his hand in his pocket, or to a real unconsciousness of the ugliness that happened to fall inside his point of vision.

  "But he owned that the table was ugly," I agreed.

  "Yes, but not till you'd called his attention to the fact; and I'll wager he became unconscious of it again as soon as your back was turned."

  "Not before he'd had time to look at a lot of others, and make up his mind that he couldn't afford to buy one."

  "That was just his excuse. He'd rather be thought mean than insensible to ugliness. But the truth is that he doesn't mind the table and is used to it. He knows his way about the drawers."

  "But he could get another with the same number of drawers."

  "Too much trouble," argued Halidon.

  "Too much money," I persisted.

  "Oh, hang it, now, if he were mean would he have founded three travelling scholarships and be planning this big Academy of Arts?"

  "Well, he's mean to himself, at any rate."

  "Yes; and magnificently, royally generous to all the world besides!" Halidon exclaimed with one of his great flushes of enthusiasm.

  But if, on the whole, the last word remained with Halidon, and Ambrose's personal chariness seemed a trifling foible compared to his altruistic breadth of intention, yet neither of us could help observing, as time went on, that the habit of thrift was beginning to impede the execution of his schemes of art-philanthropy. The three travelling scholarships had been founded in the first blaze of his ardour, and before the personal management of his property had awakened in him the sleeping instincts of parsimony. But as his capital accumulated, and problems of investment and considerations of interest began to encroach upon his visionary hours, we saw a gradual arrest in the practical development of his plan.

  "For every thousand dollars he talks of spending on his work, I believe he knocks off a cigar, or buys one less newspaper," Halidon grumbled affectionately; "but after all," he went on, with one of the quick revivals of optimism that gave a perpetual freshness to his spirit, "after all, it makes one admire him all the more when one sees such a nature condemned to be at war with the petty inherited instinct of greed."

  Still, I could see it was a disappointment to Halidon that the great project of the Academy of Arts should languish on paper long after all its details had been discussed and settled to the satisfaction of the projector, and of the expert advisers he had called in council.

  "He's quite right to do nothing in a hurry--to take advice and compare ideas and points of view--to collect and classify his material in advance," Halidon argued, in answer to a taunt of mine about Paul's perpetually reiterated plea that he was still waiting for So-and-so's report; "but now that the plan's mature--and such a plan! You'll grant it's magnificent?--I should think he'd burn to see it carried out, instead of pottering over it till his enthusiasm cools and the whole business turns stale on his hands."

  That summer Ambrose went to Europe, and spent his holiday in a frugal walking-tour through Brittany. When he came back he seemed refre
shed by his respite from business cares and from the interminable revision of his cherished scheme; while contact with the concrete manifestations of beauty had, as usual, renewed his flagging ardour.

  "By Jove," he cried, "whenever I indulged my unworthy eyes in a long gaze at one of those big things--picture or church or statue--I kept saying to myself: 'You lucky devil, you, to be able to provide such a sight as that for eyes that can make some good use of it! Isn't it better to give fifty fellows a chance to paint or carve or build, than to be able to daub canvas or punch clay in a corner all by yourself?'"

  "Well," I said, when he had worked off his first ebullition, "when is the foundation stone to be laid?"

  His excitement dropped. "The foundation stone--?"

  "When are you going to touch the electric button that sets the thing going?"

  Paul, with his hands in his sagging pockets, began to pace the library hearth-rug--I can see him now, setting his shabby red slippers between its ramified cabbages.

  "My dear fellow, there are one or two points to be considered still--one or two new suggestions I picked up over there--"

  I sat silent, and he paused before me, flushing to the roots of his thin hair. "You think I've had time enough--that I ought to have put the thing through before this? I suppose you're right; I can see that even Ned Halidon thinks so; and he has always understood my difficulties better than you have."

  This insinuation exasperated me. "Ned would have put it through years ago!" I broke out.

  Paul pulled at his straggling moustache. "You mean he has more executive capacity? More--no, it's not that; he's not afraid to spend money, and I am!" he suddenly exclaimed.

  He had never before alluded to this weakness to either of us, and I sat abashed, suffering from his evident distress. But he remained planted before me, his little legs wide apart, his eyes fixed on mine in an agony of voluntary self-exposure.

  "That's my trouble, and I know it. Big sums frighten me--I can't look them in the face. By George, I wish Ned had the carrying out of this scheme--I wish he could spend my money for me!" His face was lit by the reflection of a passing thought. "Do you know, I shouldn't wonder if I dropped out of the running before either of you chaps, and in case I do I've half a mind to leave everything in trust to Halidon, and let him put the job through for me."

  "Much better have your own fun with it," I retorted; but he shook his head, saying with a sigh as he turned away: "It's not fun to me--that's the worst of it."

  Halidon, to whom I could not help repeating our talk, was amused and touched by his friend's thought.

  "Heaven knows what will become of the scheme, if Paul doesn't live to carry it out. There are a lot of hungry Ambrose cousins who will make one gulp of his money, and never give a dollar to the work. Jove, it would be a fine thing to have the carrying out of such a plan--but he'll do it yet, you'll see he'll do it yet!" cried Ned, his old faith in his friend flaming up again through the wet blanket of fact.

  PAUL AMBROSE did not die and leave his fortune to Halidon, but the following summer he did something far more unexpected. He went abroad again, and came back married. Now our busy fancy had never seen Paul married. Even Ned recognized the vague unlikelihood of such a metamorphosis.

  "He'd stick at the parson's fee--not to mention the best man's scarf-pin. And I should hate," Ned added sentimentally, "to see 'the touch of a woman's hand' desecrate the sublime ugliness of the ancestral home. Think of such a house made 'cozy'!"

  But when the news came he would own neither to surprise nor to disappointment.

  "Goodbye, poor Academy!" I exclaimed, tossing over the bridegroom's eight-page rhapsody to Halidon, who had received its duplicate by the same post.

  "Now, why the deuce do you say that?" he growled. "I never saw such a beast as you are for imputing mean motives."

  To defend myself from this accusation I put out my hand and recovered Paul's letter.

  "Here: listen to this. 'Studying art in Paris when I met her--"the vision and the faculty divine, but lacking the accomplishment," etc. . . . A little ethereal profile, like one of Piero della Francesca's angels . . . not rich, thank heaven, but not afraid of money, and already enamored of my project for fertilizing my sterile millions . . .'"

  "Well, why the deuce--?" Ned began again, as though I had convicted myself out of my friend's mouth; and I could only grumble obscurely: "It's all too pat."

  He brushed aside my misgivings. "Thank heaven, she can't paint, any how. And now that I think of it, Paul's just the kind of chap who ought to have a dozen children."

  "Ah, then indeed: goodbye, poor Academy!" I croaked.

  The lady was lovely, of that there could be no doubt; and if Paul now for a time forgot the Academy, his doing so was but a vindication of his sex. Halidon had only a glimpse of the returning couple before he was himself snatched up in one of the chariots of adventure that seemed perpetually waiting at his door. This time he was going to the far East in the train of a "special mission," and his head was humming with new hopes and ardors; but he had time for a last word with me about Ambrose.

  "You'll see--you'll see!" he summed up hopefully as we parted; and what I was to see was, of course, the crowning pinnacle of the Academy lifting itself against the horizon of the immediate future.

  It was in the nature of things that I should, meanwhile, see less than formerly of the projector of that unrealized structure. Paul had a personal dread of society, but he wished to show his wife to the world, and I was not often a spectator on these occasions. Paul indeed, good fellow, tried to maintain the pretense of an unbroken intercourse, and to this end I was asked to dine now and then; but when I went I found guests of a new type, who, after dinner, talked of sport and stocks, while their host blinked at them silently through the smoke of his cheap cigars.

  The first innovation that struck me was a sudden improvement in the quality of the cigars. Was this Daisy's doing? (Mrs. Ambrose was Daisy.) It was hard to tell--she produced her results so noiselessly. With her fair bent head and vague smile, she seemed to watch life flow by without, as yet, trusting anything of her own to its current. But she was watching, at any rate, and anything might come of that. Such modifications as she produced were as yet almost imperceptible to any but the trained observer. I saw that Paul wished her to be well dressed, but also that he suffered her to drive in a hired brougham, and to have her door opened by the raw-boned Celt who had bumped down the dishes on his bachelor table. The drawing-room curtains were renewed, but this change served only to accentuate the enormities of the carpet, and perhaps discouraged Mrs. Ambrose from farther experiments. At any rate, the desecrating touch that Halidon had affected to dread made no other inroads on the serried ugliness of the Ambrose interior.

  In the early summer, when Ned returned, the Ambroses had flown to Europe again--and the Academy was still on paper.

  "Well, what do you make of her?" the traveller asked, as we sat over our first dinner together.

  "Too many things--and they don't hang together. Perhaps she's still in the chrysalis stage."

  "Has Paul chucked the scheme altogether?"

  "No. He sent for me and we had a talk about it just before he sailed."

  "And what impression did you get?"

  "That he had waited to send for me till just before he sailed."

  "Oh, there you go again!" I offered no denial, and after a pause he asked: "Did she ever talk to you about it?"

  "Yes. Once or twice--in snatches."


  "She thinks it all too beautiful. She would like to see beauty put within the reach of everyone."

  "And the practical side--?"

  "She says she doesn't understand business."

  Halidon rose with a shrug. "Very likely you frightened her with your ugly sardonic grin."

  "It's not my fault if my smile doesn't add to the sum-total of beauty."

  "Well," he said, ignoring me, "next winter we shall see."

  But the next winter did not
bring Ambrose back. A brief line, written in November from the Italian lakes, told me that he had "a rotten cough," and that the doctors were packing him off to Egypt. Would I see the architects for him, and explain to the trustees? (The Academy already had trustees, and all the rest of its official hierarchy.) And would they all excuse his not writing more than a word? He was really too groggy--but a little warm weather would set him up again, and he would certainly come home in the spring.

  He came home in the spring--in the hold of the ship, with his widow several decks above. The funeral services were attended by all the officers of the Academy, and by two of the young fellows who had won the travelling scholarships, and who shed tears of genuine grief when their benefactor was committed to the grave.

  After that there was a pause of suspense--and then the newspapers announced that the late Paul Ambrose had left his entire estate to his widow. The board of the Academy dissolved like a summer cloud, and the secretary lighted his pipe for a year with the official paper of the still-born institution.

  After a decent lapse of time I called at the house in Seventeenth Street, and found a man attaching a real-estate agent's sign to the window and a van-load of luggage backing away from the door. The care-taker told me that Mrs. Ambrose was sailing the next morning. Not long afterward I saw the library table with the helmeted knights standing before an auctioneer's door in University Place; and I looked with a pang at the familiar ink-stains, in which I had so often traced the geography of Paul's visionary world.

  Halidon, who had picked up another job in the Orient, wrote me an elegiac letter on Paul's death, ending with--"And what about the Academy?" and for all answer I sent him a newspaper clipping recording the terms of the will, and another announcing the sale of the house and Mrs. Ambrose's departure for Europe.

  Though Ned and I corresponded with tolerable regularity I received no direct answer to this communication till about eighteen months later, when he surprised me by a letter dated from Florence. It began: "Though she tells me you have never understood her--" and when I had reached that point I laid it down and stared out of my office window at the chimney-pots and the dirty snow on the roof.