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The Descent of Man and Other Stories

Edith Wharton

  The Descent of Man and Other Stories

  Edith Wharton

  Project Gutenberg’s The Descent of Man and Other Stories, by Edith Wharton

  This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at

  Title: The Descent of Man and Other Stories

  Author: Edith Wharton

  Posting Date: August 11, 2009 [EBook #4519] Release Date: October, 2003 First Posted: January 29, 2002

  Language: English

  Character set encoding: ASCII


  Produced by Charles Aldarondo. HTML version by Al Haines.






  The Descent of Man

  The Other Two


  The Lady’s Maid’s Bell

  The Mission of Jane

  The Reckoning

  The Letter

  The Dilettante

  The Quicksand

  A Venetian Night’s Entertainment



  When Professor Linyard came back from his holiday in the Maine woods the air of rejuvenation he brought with him was due less to the influences of the climate than to the companionship he had enjoyed on his travels. To Mrs. Linyard’s observant eye he had appeared to set out alone; but an invisible traveller had in fact accompanied him, and if his heart beat high it was simply at the pitch of his adventure: for the Professor had eloped with an idea.

  No one who has not tried the experiment can divine its exhilaration. Professor Linyard would not have changed places with any hero of romance pledged to a flesh-and-blood abduction. The most fascinating female is apt to be encumbered with luggage and scruples: to take up a good deal of room in the present and overlap inconveniently into the future; whereas an idea can accommodate itself to a single molecule of the brain or expand to the circumference of the horizon. The Professor’s companion had to the utmost this quality of adaptability. As the express train whirled him away from the somewhat inelastic circle of Mrs. Linyard’s affections, his idea seemed to be sitting opposite him, and their eyes met every moment or two in a glance of joyous complicity; yet when a friend of the family presently joined him and began to talk about college matters, the idea slipped out of sight in a flash, and the Professor would have had no difficulty in proving that he was alone.

  But if, from the outset, he found his idea the most agreeable of fellow-travellers, it was only in the aromatic solitude of the woods that he tasted the full savour of his adventure. There, during the long cool August days, lying full length on the pine-needles and gazing up into the sky, he would meet the eyes of his companion bending over him like a nearer heaven. And what eyes they were!—clear yet unfathomable, bubbling with inexhaustible laughter, yet drawing their freshness and sparkle from the central depths of thought! To a man who for twenty years had faced an eye reflecting the obvious with perfect accuracy, these escapes into the inscrutable had always been peculiarly inviting; but hitherto the Professor’s mental infidelities had been restricted by an unbroken and relentless domesticity. Now, for the first time since his marriage, chance had given him six weeks to himself, and he was coming home with his lungs full of liberty.

  It must not be inferred that the Professor’s domestic relations were defective: they were in fact so complete that it was almost impossible to get away from them. It is the happy husbands who are really in bondage; the little rift within the lute is often a passage to freedom. Marriage had given the Professor exactly what he had sought in it; a comfortable lining to life. The impossibility of rising to sentimental crises had made him scrupulously careful not to shirk the practical obligations of the bond. He took as it were a sociological view of his case, and modestly regarded himself as a brick in that foundation on which the state is supposed to rest. Perhaps if Mrs. Linyard had cared about entomology, or had taken sides in the war over the transmission of acquired characteristics, he might have had a less impersonal notion of marriage; but he was unconscious of any deficiency in their relation, and if consulted would probably have declared that he didn’t want any woman bothering with his beetles. His real life had always lain in the universe of thought, in that enchanted region which, to those who have lingered there, comes to have so much more colour and substance than the painted curtain hanging before it. The Professor’s particular veil of Maia was a narrow strip of homespun woven in a monotonous pattern; but he had only to lift it to step into an empire.

  This unseen universe was thronged with the most seductive shapes: the Professor moved Sultan-like through a seraglio of ideas. But of all the lovely apparitions that wove their spells about him, none had ever worn quite so persuasive an aspect as this latest favourite. For the others were mostly rather grave companions, serious-minded and elevating enough to have passed muster in a Ladies’ Debating Club; but this new fancy of the Professor’s was simply one embodied laugh. It was, in other words, the smile of relaxation at the end of a long day’s toil: the flash of irony that the laborious mind projects, irresistibly, over labour conscientiously performed. The Professor had always been a hard worker. If he was an indulgent friend to his ideas, he was also a stern taskmaster to them. For, in addition to their other duties, they had to support his family: to pay the butcher and baker, and provide for Jack’s schooling and Millicent’s dresses. The Professor’s household was a modest one, yet it tasked his ideas to keep it up to his wife’s standard. Mrs. Linyard was not an exacting wife, and she took enough pride in her husband’s attainments to pay for her honours by turning Millicent’s dresses and darning Jack’s socks, and going to the College receptions year after year in the same black silk with shiny seams. It consoled her to see an occasional mention of Professor Linyard’s remarkable monograph on the Ethical Reactions of the Infusoria, or an allusion to his investigations into the Unconscious Cerebration of the Amoeba.

  Still there were moments when the healthy indifference of Jack and Millicent reacted on the maternal sympathies; when Mrs. Linyard would have made her husband a railway-director, if by this transformation she might have increased her boy’s allowance and given her daughter a new hat, or a set of furs such as the other girls were wearing. Of such moments of rebellion the Professor himself was not wholly unconscious. He could not indeed understand why any one should want a new hat; and as to an allowance, he had had much less money at college than Jack, and had yet managed to buy a microscope and collect a few “specimens”; while Jack was free from such expensive tastes! But the Professor did not let his want of sympathy interfere with the discharge of his paternal obligations. He worked hard to keep the wants of his family gratified, and it was precisely in the endeavor to attain this end that he at length broke down and had to cease from work altogether.

  To cease from work was not to cease from thought of it; and in the unwonted pause from effort the Professor found himself taking a general survey of the field he had travelled. At last it was possible to lift his nose from the loom, to step a moment in front of the tapestry he had been weaving. From this first inspection of the pattern so long wrought over from behind, it was natural to glance a little farther and seek its reflection in the public eye. It was not indeed of his special task that he thought in this connection. He was but one of the great army of weavers at work among the threads of that cosmic woof; and wh
at he sought was the general impression their labour had produced.

  When Professor Linyard first plied his microscope, the audience of the man of science had been composed of a few fellow-students, sympathetic or hostile as their habits of mind predetermined, but versed in the jargon of the profession and familiar with the point of departure. In the intervening quarter of a century, however, this little group had been swallowed up in a larger public. Every one now read scientific books and expressed an opinion on them. The ladies and the clergy had taken them up first; now they had passed to the school-room and the kindergarten. Daily life was regulated on scientific principles; the daily papers had their “Scientific Jottings”; nurses passed examinations in hygienic science, and babies were fed and dandled according to the new psychology.

  The very fact that scientific investigation still had, to some minds, a flavour of heterodoxy, gave it a perennial interest. The mob had broken down the walls of tradition to batten in the orchard of forbidden knowledge. The inaccessible goddess whom the Professor had served in his youth now offered her charms in the market-place. And yet it was not the same goddess after all, but a pseudo-science masquerading in the garb of the real divinity. This false goddess had her ritual and her literature. She had her sacred books, written by false priests and sold by millions to the faithful. In the most successful of these works, ancient dogma and modern discovery were depicted in a close embrace under the lime-lights of a hazy transcendentalism; and the tableau never failed of its effect. Some of the books designed on this popular model had lately fallen into the Professor’s hands, and they filled him with mingled rage and hilarity. The rage soon died: he came to regard this mass of pseudo-literature as protecting the truth from desecration. But the hilarity remained, and flowed into the form of his idea. And the idea—the divine, incomparable idea—was simply that he should avenge his goddess by satirizing her false interpreters. He would write a skit on the “popular” scientific book; he would so heap platitude on platitude, fallacy on fallacy, false analogy on false analogy, so use his superior knowledge to abound in the sense of the ignorant, that even the gross crowd would join in the laugh against its augurs. And the laugh should be something more than the distension of mental muscles; it should be the trumpet-blast bringing down the walls of ignorance, or at least the little stone striking the giant between the eyes.


  The Professor, on presenting his card, had imagined that it would command prompt access to the publisher’s sanctuary; but the young man who read his name was not moved to immediate action. It was clear that Professor Linyard of Hillbridge University was not a specific figure to the purveyors of popular literature. But the publisher was an old friend; and when the card had finally drifted to his office on the languid tide of routine he came forth at once to greet his visitor.

  The warmth of his welcome convinced the Professor that he had been right in bringing his manuscript to Ned Harviss. He and Harviss had been at Hillbridge together, and the future publisher had been one of the wildest spirits in that band of college outlaws which yearly turns out so many inoffensive citizens and kind husbands and fathers. The Professor knew the taming qualities of life. He was aware that many of his most reckless comrades had been transformed into prudent capitalists or cowed wage-earners; but he was almost sure that he could count on Harviss. So rare a sense of irony, so keen a perception of relative values, could hardly have been blunted even by twenty years’ intercourse with the obvious.

  The publisher’s appearance was a little disconcerting. He looked as if he had been fattened on popular fiction; and his fat was full of optimistic creases. The Professor seemed to see him bowing into his office a long train of spotless heroines laden with the maiden tribute of the hundredth thousand volume.

  Nevertheless, his welcome was reassuring. He did not disown his early enormities, and capped his visitor’s tentative allusions by such flagrant references to the past that the Professor produced his manuscript without a scruple.

  “What—you don’t mean to say you’ve been doing something in our line?”

  The Professor smiled. “You publish scientific books sometimes, don’t you?”

  The publisher’s optimistic creases relaxed a little. “H’m—it all depends—I’m afraid you’re a little too scientific for us. We have a big sale for scientific breakfast foods, but not for the concentrated essences. In your case, of course, I should be delighted to stretch a point; but in your own interest I ought to tell you that perhaps one of the educational houses would do you better.”

  The Professor leaned back, still smiling luxuriously.

  “Well, look it over—I rather think you’ll take it.”

  “Oh, we’ll take it, as I say; but the terms might not—”

  “No matter about the terms—”

  The publisher threw his head back with a laugh. “I had no idea that science was so profitable; we find our popular novelists are the hardest hands at a bargain.”

  “Science is disinterested,” the Professor corrected him. “And I have a fancy to have you publish this thing.”

  “That’s immensely good of you, my dear fellow. Of course your name goes with a certain public—and I rather like the originality of our bringing out a work so out of our line. I daresay it may boom us both.” His creases deepened at the thought, and he shone encouragingly on the Professor’s leave-taking.

  Within a fortnight, a line from Harviss recalled the Professor to town. He had been looking forward with immense zest to this second meeting; Harviss’s college roar was in his tympanum, and he pictured himself following up the protracted chuckle which would follow his friend’s progress through the manuscript. He was proud of the adroitness with which he had kept his secret from Harviss, had maintained to the last the pretense of a serious work, in order to give the keener edge to his reader’s enjoyment. Not since under-graduate days had the Professor tasted such a draught of pure fun as his anticipations now poured for him.

  This time his card brought instant admission. He was bowed into the office like a successful novelist, and Harviss grasped him with both hands.

  “Well—do you mean to take it?” he asked, with a lingering coquetry.

  “Take it? Take it, my dear fellow? It’s in press already—you’ll excuse my not waiting to consult you? There will be no difficulty about terms, I assure you, and we had barely time to catch the autumn market. My dear Linyard, why didn’t you tell me?” His voice sank to a reproachful solemnity, and he pushed forward his own armchair.

  The Professor dropped into it with a chuckle. “And miss the joy of letting you find out?”

  “Well—it was a joy.” Harviss held out a box of his best cigars. “I don’t know when I’ve had a bigger sensation. It was so deucedly unexpected—and, my dear fellow, you’ve brought it so exactly to the right shop.”

  “I’m glad to hear you say so,” said the Professor modestly.

  Harviss laughed in rich appreciation. “I don’t suppose you had a doubt of it; but of course I was quite unprepared. And it’s so extraordinarily out of your line—”

  The Professor took off his glasses and rubbed them with a slow smile.

  “Would you have thought it so—at college?”

  Harviss stared. “At college?—Why, you were the most iconoclastic devil—”

  There was a perceptible pause. The Professor restored his glasses and looked at his friend. “Well—?” he said simply.

  “Well—?” echoed the other, still staring. “Ah—I see; you mean that that’s what explains it. The swing of the pendulum, and so forth. Well, I admit it’s not an uncommon phenomenon. I’ve conformed myself, for example; most of our crowd have, I believe; but somehow I hadn’t expected it of you.”

  The close observer might have detected a faint sadness under the official congratulation of his tone; but the Professor was too amazed to have an ear for such fine shades.

  “Expected it of me? Expected what of me?” he gasped. “What in heaven do you think t
his thing is?” And he struck his fist on the manuscript which lay between them.

  Harviss had recovered his optimistic creases. He rested a benevolent eye on the document.

  “Why, your apologia—your confession of faith, I should call it. You surely must have seen which way you were going? You can’t have written it in your sleep?”

  “Oh, no, I was wide awake enough,” said the Professor faintly.

  “Well, then, why are you staring at me as if I were not?” Harviss leaned forward to lay a reassuring hand on his visitor’s worn coat-sleeve. “Don’t mistake me, my dear Linyard. Don’t fancy there was the least unkindness in my allusion to your change of front. What is growth but the shifting of the standpoint? Why should a man be expected to look at life with the same eyes at twenty and at—our age? It never occurred to me that you could feel the least delicacy in admitting that you have come round a little—have fallen into line, so to speak.”

  But the Professor had sprung up as if to give his lungs more room to expand; and from them there issued a laugh which shook the editorial rafters.

  “Oh, Lord, oh Lord—is it really as good as that?” he gasped.

  Harviss had glanced instinctively toward the electric bell on his desk; it was evident that he was prepared for an emergency.

  “My dear fellow—” he began in a soothing tone.

  “Oh, let me have my laugh out, do,” implored the Professor. “I’ll—I’ll quiet down in a minute; you needn’t ring for the young man.” He dropped into his chair again, and grasped its arms to steady his shaking. “This is the best laugh I’ve had since college,” he brought out between his paroxysms. And then, suddenly, he sat up with a groan. “But if it’s as good as that it’s a failure!” he exclaimed.

  Harviss, stiffening a little, examined the tip of his cigar. “My dear Linyard,” he said at length, “I don’t understand a word you’re saying.”

  The Professor succumbed to a fresh access, from the vortex of which he managed to fling out—“But that’s the very core of the joke!”