Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Descent of Man and Other Stories, Page 2

Edith Wharton

  Harviss looked at him resignedly. “What is?”

  “Why, your not seeing—your not understanding—”

  “Not understanding what?”

  “Why, what the book is meant to be.” His laughter subsided again and he sat gazing thoughtfully at the publisher. “Unless it means,” he wound up, “that I’ve over-shot the mark.”

  “If I am the mark, you certainly have,” said Harviss, with a glance at the clock.

  The Professor caught the glance and interpreted it. “The book is a skit,” he said, rising.

  The other stared. “A skit? It’s not serious, you mean?”

  “Not to me—but it seems you’ve taken it so.”

  “You never told me—” began the publisher in a ruffled tone.

  “No, I never told you,” said the Professor.

  Harviss sat staring at the manuscript between them. “I don’t pretend to be up in such recondite forms of humour,” he said, still stiffly. “Of course you address yourself to a very small class of readers.”

  “Oh, infinitely small,” admitted the Professor, extending his hand toward the manuscript.

  Harviss appeared to be pursuing his own train of thought. “That is,” he continued, “if you insist on an ironical interpretation.”

  “If I insist on it—what do you mean?”

  The publisher smiled faintly. “Well—isn’t the book susceptible of another? If I read it without seeing—”

  “Well?” murmured the other, fascinated.—“why shouldn’t the rest of the world?” declared Harviss boldly. “I represent the Average Reader—that’s my business, that’s what I’ve been training myself to do for the last twenty years. It’s a mission like another—the thing is to do it thoroughly; not to cheat and compromise. I know fellows who are publishers in business hours and dilettantes the rest of the time. Well, they never succeed: convictions are just as necessary in business as in religion. But that’s not the point—I was going to say that if you’ll let me handle this book as a genuine thing I’ll guarantee to make it go.”

  The Professor stood motionless, his hand still on the manuscript.

  “A genuine thing?” he echoed.

  “A serious piece of work—the expression of your convictions. I tell you there’s nothing the public likes as much as convictions—they’ll always follow a man who believes in his own ideas. And this book is just on the line of popular interest. You’ve got hold of a big thing. It’s full of hope and enthusiasm: it’s written in the religious key. There are passages in it that would do splendidly in a Birthday Book—things that popular preachers would quote in their sermons. If you’d wanted to catch a big public you couldn’t have gone about it in a better way. The thing’s perfect for my purpose—I wouldn’t let you alter a word of it. It’ll sell like a popular novel if you’ll let me handle it in the right way.”


  When the Professor left Harviss’s office, the manuscript remained behind. He thought he had been taken by the huge irony of the situation—by the enlarged circumference of the joke. In its original form, as Harviss had said, the book would have addressed itself to a very limited circle: now it would include the world. The elect would understand; the crowd would not; and his work would thus serve a double purpose. And, after all, nothing was changed in the situation; not a word of the book was to be altered. The change was merely in the publisher’s point of view, and in the “tip” he was to give the reviewers. The Professor had only to hold his tongue and look serious.

  These arguments found a strong reinforcement in the large premium which expressed Harviss’s sense of his opportunity. As a satire, the book would have brought its author nothing; in fact, its cost would have come out of his own pocket, since, as Harviss assured him, no publisher would have risked taking it. But as a profession of faith, as the recantation of an eminent biologist, whose leanings had hitherto been supposed to be toward a cold determinism, it would bring in a steady income to author and publisher. The offer found the Professor in a moment of financial perplexity. His illness, his unwonted holiday, the necessity of postponing a course of well-paid lectures, had combined to diminish his resources; and when Harviss offered him an advance of a thousand dollars the esoteric savour of the joke became irresistible. It was still as a joke that he persisted in regarding the transaction; and though he had pledged himself not to betray the real intent of the book, he held in petto the notion of some day being able to take the public into his confidence. As for the initiated, they would know at once: and however long a face he pulled, his colleagues would see the tongue in his cheek. Meanwhile it fortunately happened that, even if the book should achieve the kind of triumph prophesied by Harviss, it would not appreciably injure its author’s professional standing. Professor Linyard was known chiefly as a microscopist. On the structure and habits of a certain class of coleoptera he was the most distinguished living authority; but none save his intimate friends knew what generalizations on the destiny of man he had drawn from these special studies. He might have published a treatise on the Filioque without disturbing the confidence of those on whose approval his reputation rested; and moreover he was sustained by the thought that one glance at his book would let them into its secret. In fact, so sure was he of this that he wondered the astute Harviss had cared to risk such speedy exposure. But Harviss had probably reflected that even in this reverberating age the opinions of the laboratory do not easily reach the street; and the Professor, at any rate, was not bound to offer advice on this point.

  The determining cause of his consent was the fact that the book was already in press. The Professor knew little about the workings of the press, but the phrase gave him a sense of finality, of having been caught himself in the toils of that mysterious engine. If he had had time to think the matter over, his scruples might have dragged him back; but his conscience was eased by the futility of resistance.


  Mrs. Linyard did not often read the papers; and there was therefore a special significance in her approaching her husband one evening after dinner with a copy of the New York Investigator in her hand. Her expression lent solemnity to the act: Mrs. Linyard had a limited but distinctive set of expressions, and she now looked as she did when the President of the University came to dine.

  “You didn’t tell me of this, Samuel,” she said in a slightly tremulous voice.

  “Tell you of what?” returned the Professor, reddening to the margin of his baldness.

  “That you had published a book—I might never have heard of it if Mrs. Pease hadn’t brought me the paper.”

  Her husband rubbed his eye-glasses with a groan. “Oh, you would have heard of it,” he said gloomily.

  Mrs. Linyard stared. “Did you wish to keep it from me, Samuel?” And as he made no answer, she added with irresistible pride: “Perhaps you don’t know what beautiful things have been said about it.”

  He took the paper with a reluctant hand. “Has Pease been saying beautiful things about it?”

  “The Professor? Mrs. Pease didn’t say he had mentioned it.”

  The author heaved a sigh of relief. His book, as Harviss had prophesied, had caught the autumn market: had caught and captured it. The publisher had conducted the campaign like an experienced strategist. He had completely surrounded the enemy. Every newspaper, every periodical, held in ambush an advertisement of “The Vital Thing.” Weeks in advance the great commander had begun to form his lines of attack. Allusions to the remarkable significance of the coming work had appeared first in the scientific and literary reviews, spreading thence to the supplements of the daily journals. Not a moment passed without a quickening touch to the public consciousness: seventy millions of people were forced to remember at least once a day that Professor Linyard’s book was on the verge of appearing. Slips emblazoned with the question: Have you read “The Vital Thing”? fell from the pages of popular novels and whitened the floors of crowded street-cars. The query, in large lettering, assaulted the traveller at the railway book
stall, confronted him on the walls of “elevated” stations, and seemed, in its ascending scale, about to supplant the interrogations as to soap and stove-polish which animate our rural scenery.

  On the day of publication, the Professor had withdrawn to his laboratory. The shriek of the advertisements was in his ears, and his one desire was to avoid all knowledge of the event they heralded. A reaction of self-consciousness had set in, and if Harviss’s cheque had sufficed to buy up the first edition of “The Vital Thing” the Professor would gladly have devoted it to that purpose. But the sense of inevitableness gradually subdued him, and he received his wife’s copy of the Investigator with a kind of impersonal curiosity. The review was a long one, full of extracts: he saw, as he glanced over them, how well they would look in a volume of “Selections.” The reviewer began by thanking his author “for sounding with no uncertain voice that note of ringing optimism, of faith in man’s destiny and the supremacy of good, which has too long been silenced by the whining chorus of a decadent nihilism…. It is well,” the writer continued, “when such reminders come to us not from the moralist but from the man of science—when from the desiccating atmosphere of the laboratory there rises this glorious cry of faith and reconstruction.”

  The review was minute and exhaustive. Thanks no doubt to Harviss’s diplomacy, it had been given to the Investigator’s “best man,” and the Professor was startled by the bold eye with which his emancipated fallacies confronted him. Under the reviewer’s handling they made up admirably as truths, and their author began to understand Harviss’s regret that they should be used for any less profitable purpose.

  The Investigator, as Harviss phrased it, “set the pace,” and the other journals followed, finding it easier to let their critical man-of-all-work play a variation on the first reviewer’s theme than to secure an expert to “do” the book afresh. But it was evident that the Professor had captured his public, for all the resources of the profession could not, as Harviss gleefully pointed out, have carried the book so straight to the heart of the nation. There was something noble in the way in which Harviss belittled his own share in the achievement, and insisted on the inutility of shoving a book which had started with such headway on.

  “All I ask you is to admit that I saw what would happen,” he said with a touch of professional pride. “I knew you’d struck the right note—I knew they’d be quoting you from Maine to San Francisco. Good as fiction? It’s better—it’ll keep going longer.”

  “Will it?” said the Professor with a slight shudder. He was resigned to an ephemeral triumph, but the thought of the book’s persistency frightened him.

  “I should say so! Why, you fit in everywhere—science, theology, natural history—and then the all-for-the-best element which is so popular just now. Why, you come right in with the How-to-Relax series, and they sell way up in the millions. And then the book’s so full of tenderness—there are such lovely things in it about flowers and children. I didn’t know an old Dryasdust like you could have such a lot of sentiment in him. Why, I actually caught myself snivelling over that passage about the snowdrops piercing the frozen earth; and my wife was saying the other day that, since she’s read ‘The Vital Thing,’ she begins to think you must write the ‘What-Cheer Column,’ in the Inglenook.” He threw back his head with a laugh which ended in the inspired cry: “And, by George, sir, when the thing begins to slow off we’ll start somebody writing against it, and that will run us straight into another hundred thousand.”

  And as earnest of this belief he drew the Professor a supplementary cheque.


  Mrs. Linyard’s knock cut short the importunities of the lady who had been trying to persuade the Professor to be taken by flashlight at his study table for the Christmas number of the Inglenook. On this point the Professor had fancied himself impregnable; but the unwonted smile with which he welcomed his wife’s intrusion showed that his defences were weakening.

  The lady from the Inglenook took the hint with professional promptness, but said brightly, as she snapped the elastic around her note-book: “I shan’t let you forget me, Professor.”

  The groan with which he followed her retreat was interrupted by his wife’s question: “Do they pay you for these interviews, Samuel?”

  The Professor looked at her with sudden attention. “Not directly,” he said, wondering at her expression.

  She sank down with a sigh. “Indirectly, then?”

  “What is the matter, my dear? I gave you Harviss’s second cheque the other day—”

  Her tears arrested him. “Don’t be hard on the boy, Samuel! I really believe your success has turned his head.”

  “The boy—what boy? My success—? Explain yourself, Susan!”

  “It’s only that Jack has—has borrowed some money—which he can’t repay. But you mustn’t think him altogether to blame, Samuel. Since the success of your book he has been asked about so much—it’s given the children quite a different position. Millicent says that wherever they go the first question asked is, ‘Are you any relation of the author of “The Vital Thing”?’ Of course we’re all very proud of the book; but it entails obligations which you may not have thought of in writing it.”

  The Professor sat gazing at the letters and newspaper clippings on the study-table which he had just successfully defended from the camera of the Inglenook. He took up an envelope bearing the name of a popular weekly paper.

  “I don’t know that the Inglenook would help much,” he said, “but I suppose this might.”

  Mrs. Linyard’s eyes glowed with maternal avidity.

  “What is it, Samuel?”

  “A series of ‘Scientific Sermons’ for the Round-the-Gas-Log column of The Woman’s World. I believe that journal has a larger circulation than any other weekly, and they pay in proportion.”

  He had not even asked the extent of Jack’s indebtedness. It had been so easy to relieve recent domestic difficulties by the timely production of Harviss’s two cheques, that it now seemed natural to get Mrs. Linyard out of the room by promising further reinforcements. The Professor had indignantly rejected Harviss’s suggestion that he should follow up his success by a second volume on the same lines. He had sworn not to lend more than a passive support to the fraud of “The Vital Thing”; but the temptation to free himself from Mrs. Linyard prevailed over his last scruples, and within an hour he was at work on the Scientific Sermons.

  The Professor was not an unkind man. He really enjoyed making his family happy; and it was his own business if his reward for so doing was that it kept them out of his way. But the success of “The Vital Thing” gave him more than this negative satisfaction. It enlarged his own existence and opened new doors into other lives. The Professor, during fifty virtuous years, had been cognizant of only two types of women: the fond and foolish, whom one married, and the earnest and intellectual, whom one did not. Of the two, he infinitely preferred the former, even for conversational purposes. But as a social instrument woman was unknown to him; and it was not till he was drawn into the world on the tide of his literary success that he discovered the deficiencies in his classification of the sex. Then he learned with astonishment of the existence of a third type: the woman who is fond without foolishness and intellectual without earnestness. Not that the Professor inspired, or sought to inspire, sentimental emotions; but he expanded in the warm atmosphere of personal interest which some of his new acquaintances contrived to create about him. It was delightful to talk of serious things in a setting of frivolity, and to be personal without being domestic.

  Even in this new world, where all subjects were touched on lightly, and emphasis was the only indelicacy, the Professor found himself constrained to endure an occasional reference to his book. It was unpleasant at first; but gradually he slipped into the habit of hearing it talked of, and grew accustomed to telling pretty women just how “it had first come to him.”

  Meanwhile the success of the Scientific Sermons was facilitating his family relations. His
photograph in the Inglenook, to which the lady of the note-book had succeeded in appending a vivid interview, carried his fame to circles inaccessible even to “The Vital Thing”; and the Professor found himself the man of the hour. He soon grew used to the functions of the office, and gave out hundred-dollar interviews on every subject, from labour-strikes to Babism, with a frequency which reacted agreeably on the domestic exchequer. Presently his head began to figure in the advertising pages of the magazines. Admiring readers learned the name of the only breakfast-food in use at his table, of the ink with which “The Vital Thing” had been written, the soap with which the author’s hands were washed, and the tissue-builder which fortified him for further effort. These confidences endeared the Professor to millions of readers, and his head passed in due course from the magazine and the newspaper to the biscuit-tin and the chocolate-box.


  The Professor, all the while, was leading a double life. While the author of “The Vital Thing” reaped the fruits of popular approval, the distinguished microscopist continued his laboratory work unheeded save by the few who were engaged in the same line of investigations. His divided allegiance had not hitherto affected the quality of his work: it seemed to him that he returned to the laboratory with greater zest after an afternoon in a drawing-room where readings from “The Vital Thing” had alternated with plantation melodies and tea. He had long ceased to concern himself with what his colleagues thought of his literary career. Of the few whom he frequented, none had referred to “The Vital Thing”; and he knew enough of their lives to guess that their silence might as fairly be attributed to indifference as to disapproval. They were intensely interested in the Professor’s views on beetles, but they really cared very little what he thought of the Almighty.

  The Professor entirely shared their feelings, and one of his chief reasons for cultivating the success which accident had bestowed on him, was that it enabled him to command a greater range of appliances for his real work. He had known what it was to lack books and instruments; and “The Vital Thing” was the magic wand which summoned them to his aid. For some time he had been feeling his way along the edge of a discovery: balancing himself with professional skill on a plank of hypothesis flung across an abyss of uncertainty. The conjecture was the result of years of patient gathering of facts: its corroboration would take months more of comparison and classification. But at the end of the vista victory loomed. The Professor felt within himself that assurance of ultimate justification which, to the man of science, makes a lifetime seem the mere comma between premiss and deduction. But he had reached the point where his conjectures required formulation. It was only by giving them expression, by exposing them to the comment and criticism of his associates, that he could test their final value; and this inner assurance was confirmed by the only friend whose confidence he invited.