The Pelican by Edith Wharton
She was very pretty when I first knew her, with the sweet straight
nose and short upper lip of the cameo-brooch divinity, humanized by a
dimple that flowered in her cheek whenever anything was said possessing
the outward attributes of humor without its intrinsic quality. For the
dear lady was providentially deficient in humor: the least hint of the
real thing clouded her lovely eye like the hovering shadow of an
I don't think nature had meant her to be “intellectual;” but what
can a poor thing do, whose husband has died of drink when her baby is
hardly six months old, and who finds her coral necklace and her
grandfather's edition of the British Dramatists inadequate to the
demands of the creditors?
Her mother, the celebrated Irene Astarte Pratt, had written a poem
in blank verse on “The Fall of Man;” one of her aunts was dean of a
girls' college; another had translated Euripides—with such a family,
the poor child's fate was sealed in advance. The only way of paying her
husband's debts and keeping the baby clothed was to be intellectual;
and, after some hesitation as to the form her mental activity was to
take, it was unanimously decided that she was to give lectures.
They began by being drawing-room lectures. The first time I saw her
she was standing by the piano, against a flippant background of Dresden
china and photographs, telling a roomful of women preoccupied with
their spring bonnets all she thought she knew about Greek art. The
ladies assembled to hear her had given me to understand that she was
“doing it for the baby,” and this fact, together with the shortness of
her upper lip and the bewildering co-operation of her dimple, disposed
me to listen leniently to her dissertation. Happily, at that time Greek
art was still, if I may use the phrase, easily handled: it was as
simple as walking down a museum- gallery lined with pleasant familiar
Venuses and Apollos. All the later complications—the archaic and
archaistic conundrums; the influences of Assyria and Asia Minor; the
conflicting attributions and the wrangles of the erudite—still
slumbered in the bosom of the future “scientific critic.” Greek art in
those days began with Phidias and ended with the Apollo Belvedere; and
a child could travel from one to the other without danger of losing his
Mrs. Amyot had two fatal gifts: a capacious but inaccurate memory,
and an extraordinary fluency of speech. There was nothing she did not
remember— wrongly; but her halting facts were swathed in so many
layers of rhetoric that their infirmities were imperceptible to her
friendly critics. Besides, she had been taught Greek by the aunt who
had translated Euripides; and the mere sound of the [Greek: ais] and
[Greek: ois] that she now and then not unskilfully let slip (correcting
herself, of course, with a start, and indulgently mistranslating the
phrase), struck awe to the hearts of ladies whose only “accomplishment"
was French—if you didn't speak too quickly.
I had then but a momentary glimpse of Mrs. Amyot, but a few months
later I came upon her again in the New England university town where
the celebrated Irene Astarte Pratt lived on the summit of a local
Parnassus, with lesser muses and college professors respectfully
grouped on the lower ledges of the sacred declivity. Mrs. Amyot, who,
after her husband's death, had returned to the maternal roof (even
during her father's lifetime the roof had been distinctively maternal),
Mrs. Amyot, thanks to her upper lip, her dimple and her Greek, was
already esconced in a snug hollow of the Parnassian slope.
After the lecture was over it happened that I walked home with Mrs.
Amyot. From the incensed glances of two or three learned gentlemen who
were hovering on the door-step when we emerged, I inferred that Mrs.
Amyot, at that period, did not often walk home alone; but I doubt
whether any of my discomfited rivals, whatever his claims to favor, was
ever treated to so ravishing a mixture of shyness and self-abandonment,
of sham erudition and real teeth and hair, as it was my privilege to
enjoy. Even at the opening of her public career Mrs. Amyot had a tender
eye for strangers, as possible links with successive centres of culture
to which in due course the torch of Greek art might be handed on.
She began by telling me that she had never been so frightened in her
life. She knew, of course, how dreadfully learned I was, and when, just
as she was going to begin, her hostess had whispered to her that I was
in the room, she had felt ready to sink through the floor. Then (with a
flying dimple) she had remembered Emerson's line—wasn't it
Emerson's?—that beauty is its own excuse for seeing, and that
had made her feel a little more confident, since she was sure that no
one saw beauty more vividly than she—as a child she used to sit
for hours gazing at an Etruscan vase on the bookcase in the library,
while her sisters played with their dolls—and if seeing beauty
was the only excuse one needed for talking about it, why, she was sure
I would make allowances and not be too critical and sarcastic,
especially if, as she thought probable, I had heard of her having lost
her poor husband, and how she had to do it for the baby.
Being abundantly assured of my sympathy on these points, she went on
to say that she had always wanted so much to consult me about her
lectures. Of course, one subject wasn't enough (this view of the
limitations of Greek art as a “subject” gave me a startling idea of the
rate at which a successful lecturer might exhaust the universe); she
must find others; she had not ventured on any as yet, but she had
thought of Tennyson—didn't I love Tennyson? She worshipped
him so that she was sure she could help others to understand him; or
what did I think of a “course” on Raphael or Michelangelo—or on the
heroines of Shakespeare? There were some fine steel-engravings of
Raphael's Madonnas and of the Sistine ceiling in her mother's library,
and she had seen Miss Cushman in several Shakespearian roles, so
that on these subjects also she felt qualified to speak with authority.
When we reached her mother's door she begged me to come in and talk
the matter over; she wanted me to see the baby—she felt as though I
should understand her better if I saw the baby—and the dimple flashed
through a tear.
The fear of encountering the author of “The Fall of Man,” combined
with the opportune recollection of a dinner engagement, made me evade
this appeal with the promise of returning on the morrow. On the morrow,
I left too early to redeem my promise; and for several years afterwards
I saw no more of Mrs. Amyot.
My calling at that time took me at irregular intervals from one to
another of our larger cities, and as Mrs. Amyot was also peripatetic it
was inevitable that sooner or later we should cross each other's path.
It was therefore without surprise that, one snowy afternoon in Boston,
I learned from the lady with whom I chanced to be lunching that, as
soon as the meal was over, I was to be taken to hear Mrs. Amyot
“On Greek art?” I suggested.
“Oh, you've heard her then? No, this is one of the series called
'Homes and Haunts of the Poets.' Last week we had Wordsworth and the
Lake Poets, to-day we are to have Goethe and Weimar. She is a wonderful
creature—all the women of her family are geniuses. You know, of
course, that her mother was Irene Astarte Pratt, who wrote a poem on
'The Fall of Man'; N.P. Willis called her the female Milton of America.
One of Mrs. Amyot's aunts has translated Eurip—”
“And is she as pretty as ever?” I irrelevantly interposed.
My hostess looked shocked. “She is excessively modest and retiring.
She says it is actual suffering for her to speak in public. You know
she only does it for the baby.”
Punctually at the hour appointed, we took our seats in a
lecture-hall full of strenuous females in ulsters. Mrs. Amyot was
evidently a favorite with these austere sisters, for every corner was
crowded, and as we entered a pale usher with an educated
mispronunciation was setting forth to several dejected applicants the
impossibility of supplying them with seats.
Our own were happily so near the front that when the curtains at the
back of the platform parted, and Mrs. Amyot appeared, I was at once
able to establish a comparison between the lady placidly dimpling to
the applause of her public and the shrinking drawing-room orator of my
Mrs. Amyot was as pretty as ever, and there was the same curious
discrepancy between the freshness of her aspect and the stateness of
her theme, but something was gone of the blushing unsteadiness with
which she had fired her first random shots at Greek art. It was not
that the shots were less uncertain, but that she now had an air of
assuming that, for her purpose, the bull's-eye was everywhere, so that
there was no need to be flustered in taking aim. This assurance had so
facilitated the flow of her eloquence that she seemed to be performing
a trick analogous to that of the conjuror who pulls hundreds of yards
of white paper out of his mouth. From a large assortment of stock
adjectives she chose, with unerring deftness and rapidity, the one that
taste and discrimination would most surely have rejected, fitting out
her subject with a whole wardrobe of slop-shop epithets irrelevant in
cut and size. To the invaluable knack of not disturbing the association
of ideas in her audience, she added the gift of what may be called a
confidential manner—so that her fluent generalizations about Goethe
and his place in literature (the lecture was, of course, manufactured
out of Lewes's book) had the flavor of personal experience, of views
sympathetically exchanged with her audience on the best way of knitting
children's socks, or of putting up preserves for the winter. It was, I
am sure, to this personal accent—the moral equivalent of her
dimple—that Mrs. Amyot owed her prodigious, her irrational success. It
was her art of transposing second-hand ideas into first-hand emotions
that so endeared her to her feminine listeners.
To any one not in search of “documents” Mrs. Amyot's success was
hardly of a kind to make her more interesting, and my curiosity flagged
with the growing conviction that the “suffering” entailed on her by
public speaking was at most a retrospective pang. I was sure that she
had reached the point of measuring and enjoying her effects, of
deliberately manipulating her public; and there must indeed have been a
certain exhilaration in attaining results so considerable by means
involving so little conscious effort. Mrs. Amyot's art was simply an
extension of coquetry: she flirted with her audience.
In this mood of enlightened skepticism I responded but languidly to
my hostess's suggestion that I should go with her that evening to see
Mrs. Amyot. The aunt who had translated Euripides was at home on
Saturday evenings, and one met “thoughtful” people there, my hostess
explained: it was one of the intellectual centres of Boston. My mood
remained distinctly resentful of any connection between Mrs. Amyot and
intellectuality, and I declined to go; but the next day I met Mrs.
Amyot in the street.
She stopped me reproachfully. She had heard I was in Boston; why had
I not come last night? She had been told that I was at her lecture, and
it had frightened her—yes, really, almost as much as years ago in
Hillbridge. She never could get over that stupid shyness, and
the whole business was as distasteful to her as ever; but what could
she do? There was the baby— he was a big boy now, and boys were so
expensive! But did I really think she had improved the least little
bit? And why wouldn't I come home with her now, and see the boy, and
tell her frankly what I had thought of the lecture? She had plenty of
flattery—people were so kind, and every one knew that she did
it for the baby—but what she felt the need of was criticism, severe,
discriminating criticism like mine—oh, she knew that I was dreadfully
I went home with her and saw the boy. In the early heat of her
Tennyson- worship Mrs. Amyot had christened him Lancelot, and he looked
it. Perhaps, however, it was his black velvet dress and the
exasperating length of his yellow curls, together with the fact of his
having been taught to recite Browning to visitors, that raised to
fever-heat the itching of my palms in his Infant-Samuel-like presence.
I have since had reason to think that he would have preferred to be
called Billy, and to hunt cats with the other boys in the block: his
curls and his poetry were simply another outlet for Mrs. Amyot's
But if Lancelot was not genuine, his mother's love for him was. It
justified everything—the lectures were for the baby, after all.
I had not been ten minutes in the room before I was pledged to help
Mrs. Amyot carry out her triumphant fraud. If she wanted to lecture on
Plato she should—Plato must take his chance like the rest of us! There
was no use, of course, in being “discriminating.” I preserved
sufficient reason to avoid that pitfall, but I suggested “subjects” and
made lists of books for her with a fatuity that became more obvious as
time attenuated the remembrance of her smile; I even remember thinking
that some men might have cut the knot by marrying her, but I handed
over Plato as a hostage and escaped by the afternoon train.
The next time I saw her was in New York, when she had become so
fashionable that it was a part of the whole duty of woman to be seen at
her lectures. The lady who suggested that of course I ought to go and
hear Mrs. Amyot, was not very clear about anything except that she was
perfectly lovely, and had had a horrid husband, and was doing it to
support her boy. The subject of the discourse (I think it was on
Ruskin) was clearly of minor importance, not only to my friend, but to
the throng of well-dressed and absent-minded ladies who rustled in
late, dropped their muffs and pocket-books, and undisguisedly lost
themselves in the study of each other's apparel. They received Mrs.
Amyot with warmth, but she evidently represented a social obligation
like going to church, rather than any more personal interest; in fact,
I suspect that every one of the ladies would have remained away, had
they been sure that none of the others were coming.
Whether Mrs. Amyot was disheartened by the lack of sympathy between
herself and her hearers, or whether the sport of arousing it had become
a task, she certainly imparted her platitudes with less convincing
warmth than of old. Her voice had the same confidential inflections,
but it was like a voice reproduced by a gramophone: the real woman
seemed far away. She had grown stouter without losing her dewy
freshness, and her smart gown might have been taken to show either the
potentialities of a settled income, or a politic concession to the
taste of her hearers. As I listened I reproached myself for ever having
suspected her of self-deception in saying that she took no pleasure in
her work. I was sure now that she did it only for Lancelot, and judging
from the size of her audience and the price of the tickets I concluded
that Lancelot must be receiving a liberal education.
I was living in New York that winter, and in the rotation of dinners
I found myself one evening at Mrs. Amyot's side. The dimple came out at
my greeting as punctually as a cuckoo in a Swiss clock, and I detected
the same automatic quality in the tone in which she made her usual
pretty demand for advice. She was like a musical-box charged with
popular airs. They succeeded one another with breathless rapidity, but
there was a moment after each when the cylinders scraped and whizzed.
Mrs. Amyot, as I found when I called on her, was living in a sunny
flat, with a sitting-room full of flowers and a tea-table that had the
air of expecting visitors. She owned that she had been ridiculously
successful. It was delightful, of course, on Lancelot's account.
Lancelot had been sent to the best school in the country, and if things
went well and people didn't tire of his silly mother he was to go to
Harvard afterwards. During the next two or three years Mrs. Amyot kept
her flat in New York, and radiated art and literature upon the suburbs.
I saw her now and then, always stouter, better dressed, more successful
and more automatic: she had become a lecturing-machine.
I went abroad for a year or two and when I came back she had
disappeared. I asked several people about her, but life had closed over
her. She had been last heard of as lecturing—still lecturing—but no
one seemed to know when or where.
It was in Boston that I found her at last, forlornly swaying to the
oscillations of an overhead strap in a crowded trolley-car. Her face
had so changed that I lost myself in a startled reckoning of the time
that had elapsed since our parting. She spoke to me shyly, as though
aware of my hurried calculation, and conscious that in five years she
ought not to have altered so much as to upset my notion of time. Then
she seemed to set it down to her dress, for she nervously gathered her
cloak over a gown that asked only to be concealed, and shrank into a
seat behind the line of prehensile bipeds blocking the aisle of the
It was perhaps because she so obviously avoided me that I felt for
the first time that I might be of use to her; and when she left the car
I made no excuse for following her.
She said nothing of needing advice and did not ask me to walk home
with her, concealing, as we talked, her transparent preoccupations
under the guise of a sudden interest in all I had been doing since she
had last seen me. Of what concerned her, I learned only that Lancelot
was well and that for the present she was not lecturing—she was tired
and her doctor had ordered her to rest. On the doorstep of a shabby
house she paused and held out her hand. She had been so glad to see me
and perhaps if I were in Boston again—the tired dimple, as it were,
bowed me out and closed the door on the conclusion of the phrase.
Two or three weeks later, at my club in New York, I found a letter
from her. In it she owned that she was troubled, that of late she had
been unsuccessful, and that, if I chanced to be coming back to Boston,
and could spare her a little of that invaluable advice which—. A few
days later the advice was at her disposal. She told me frankly what had
happened. Her public had grown tired of her. She had seen it coming on
for some time, and was shrewd enough in detecting the causes. She had
more rivals than formerly—younger women, she admitted, with a smile
that could still afford to be generous—and then her audiences had
grown more critical and consequently more exacting. Lecturing—as she
understood it— used to be simple enough. You chose your
topic—Raphael, Shakespeare, Gothic Architecture, or some such big
familiar “subject”—and read up about it for a week or so at the
Athenaeum or the Astor Library, and then told your audience what you
had read. Now, it appeared, that simple process was no longer adequate.
People had tired of familiar “subjects”; it was the fashion to be
interested in things that one hadn't always known about—natural
selection, animal magnetism, sociology and comparative folk-lore;
while, in literature, the demand had become equally difficult to meet,
since Matthew Arnold had introduced the habit of studying the
“influence” of one author on another. She had tried lecturing on
influences, and had done very well as long as the public was satisfied
with the tracing of such obvious influences as that of Turner on
Ruskin, of Schiller on Goethe, of Shakespeare on English literature;
but such investigations had soon lost all charm for her
too-sophisticated audiences, who now demanded either that the influence
or the influenced should be quite unknown, or that there should be no
perceptible connection between the two. The zest of the performance lay
in the measure of ingenuity with which the lecturer established a
relation between two people who had probably never heard of each other,
much less read each other's works. A pretty Miss Williams with red hair
had, for instance, been lecturing with great success on the influence
of the Rosicrucians upon the poetry of Keats, while somebody else had
given a “course” on the influence of St. Thomas Aquinas upon Professor
Mrs. Amyot, warmed by my participation in her distress, went on to
say that the growing demand for evolution was what most troubled her.
Her grandfather had been a pillar of the Presbyterian ministry, and the
idea of her lecturing on Darwin or Herbert Spencer was deeply shocking
to her mother and aunts. In one sense the family had staked its
literary as well as its spiritual hopes on the literal inspiration of
Genesis: what became of “The Fall of Man” in the light of modern
The upshot of it was that she had ceased to lecture because she
could no longer sell tickets enough to pay for the hire of a
lecture-hall; and as for the managers, they wouldn't look at her. She
had tried her luck all through the Eastern States and as far south as
Washington; but it was of no use, and unless she could get hold of some
new subjects—or, better still, of some new audiences—she must simply
go out of the business. That would mean the failure of all she had
worked for, since Lancelot would have to leave Harvard. She paused, and
wept some of the unbecoming tears that spring from real grief.
Lancelot, it appeared, was to be a genius. He had passed his opening
examinations brilliantly; he had “literary gifts”; he had written
beautiful poetry, much of which his mother had copied out, in
reverentially slanting characters, in a velvet-bound volume which she
drew from a locked drawer.
Lancelot's verse struck me as nothing more alarming than
growing-pains; but it was not to learn this that she had summoned me.
What she wanted was to be assured that he was worth working for, an
assurance which I managed to convey by the simple stratagem of
remarking that the poems reminded me of Swinburne—and so they did, as
well as of Browning, Tennyson, Rossetti, and all the other poets who
supply young authors with original inspirations.
This point being established, it remained to be decided by what
means his mother was, in the French phrase, to pay herself the luxury
of a poet. It was clear that this indulgence could be bought only with
counterfeit coin, and that the one way of helping Mrs. Amyot was to
become a party to the circulation of such currency. My fetish of
intellectual integrity went down like a ninepin before the appeal of a
woman no longer young and distinctly foolish, but full of those dear
contradictions and irrelevancies that will always make flesh and blood
prevail against a syllogism. When I took leave of Mrs. Amyot I had
promised her a dozen letters to Western universities and had half
pledged myself to sketch out a lecture on the reconciliation of science
In the West she achieved a success which for a year or more
embittered my perusal of the morning papers. The fascination that lures
the murderer back to the scene of his crime drew my eye to every
paragraph celebrating Mrs. Amyot's last brilliant lecture on the
influence of something upon somebody; and her own letters—she
overwhelmed me with them—spared me no detail of the entertainment
given in her honor by the Palimpsest Club of Omaha or of her reception
at the University of Leadville. The college professors were especially
kind: she assured me that she had never before met with such
discriminating sympathy. I winced at the adjective, which cast a sudden
light on the vast machinery of fraud that I had set in motion. All over
my native land, men of hitherto unblemished integrity were conniving
with me in urging their friends to go and hear Mrs. Amyot lecture on
the reconciliation of science and religion! My only hope was that,
somewhere among the number of my accomplices, Mrs. Amyot might find one
who would marry her in the defense of his convictions.
None, apparently, resorted to such heroic measures; for about two
years later I was startled by the announcement that Mrs. Amyot was
lecturing in Trenton, New Jersey, on modern theosophy in the light of
the Vedas. The following week she was at Newark, discussing
Schopenhauer in the light of recent psychology. The week after that I
was on the deck of an ocean steamer, reconsidering my share in Mrs.
Amyot's triumphs with the impartiality with which one views an episode
that is being left behind at the rate of twenty knots an hour. After
all, I had been helping a mother to educate her son.
The next ten years of my life were spent in Europe, and when I came
home the recollection of Mrs. Amyot had become as inoffensive as one of
those pathetic ghosts who are said to strive in vain to make themselves
visible to the living. I did not even notice the fact that I no longer
heard her spoken of; she had dropped like a dead leaf from the bough of
A year or two after my return I was condemned to one of the worst
punishments a worker can undergo—an enforced holiday. The doctors who
pronounced the inhuman sentence decreed that it should be worked out in
the South, and for a whole winter I carried my cough, my thermometer
and my idleness from one fashionable orange-grove to another. In the
vast and melancholy sea of my disoccupation I clutched like a drowning
man at any human driftwood within reach. I took a critical and
depreciatory interest in the coughs, the thermometers and the idleness
of my fellow-sufferers; but to the healthy, the occupied, the transient
I clung with undiscriminating enthusiasm.
In no other way can I explain, as I look back on it, the importance
I attached to the leisurely confidences of a new arrival with a brown
beard who, tilted back at my side on a hotel veranda hung with roses,
imparted to me one afternoon the simple annals of his past. There was
nothing in the tale to kindle the most inflammable imagination, and
though the man had a pleasant frank face and a voice differing
agreeably from the shrill inflections of our fellow-lodgers, it is
probable that under different conditions his discursive history of
successful business ventures in a Western city would have affected me
somewhat in the manner of a lullaby.
Even at the tune I was not sure I liked his agreeable voice: it had
a self-importance out of keeping with the humdrum nature of his story,
as though a breeze engaged in shaking out a table-cloth should have
fancied itself inflating a banner. But this criticism may have been a
mere mark of my own fastidiousness, for the man seemed a simple fellow,
satisfied with his middling fortunes, and already (he was not much past
thirty) deep-sunk in conjugal content.
He had just started on an anecdote connected with the cutting of his
eldest boy's teeth, when a lady I knew, returning from her late drive,
paused before us for a moment in the twilight, with the smile which is
the feminine equivalent of beads to savages.
“Won't you take a ticket?” she said sweetly.
Of course I would take a ticket—but for what? I ventured to
“Oh, that's so good of you—for the lecture this evening. You
needn't go, you know; we're none of us going; most of us have been
through it already at Aiken and at Saint Augustine and at Palm Beach.
I've given away my tickets to some new people who've just come from the
North, and some of us are going to send our maids, just to fill up the
“And may I ask to whom you are going to pay this delicate
“Oh, I thought you knew—to poor Mrs. Amyot. She's been lecturing
all over the South this winter; she's simply haunted me ever
since I left New York—and we had six weeks of her at Bar Harbor last
summer! One has to take tickets, you know, because she's a widow and
does it for her son—to pay for his education. She's so plucky and nice
about it, and talks about him in such a touching unaffected way, that
everybody is sorry for her, and we all simply ruin ourselves in
tickets. I do hope that boy's nearly educated!”
“Mrs. Amyot? Mrs. Amyot?” I repeated. “Is she still educating
“Oh, do you know about her? Has she been at it long? There's some
comfort in that, for I suppose when the boy's provided for the poor
thing will be able to take a rest—and give us one!”
She laughed and held out her hand.
“Here's your ticket. Did you say tickets—two? Oh, thanks. Of
course you needn't go.”
“But I mean to go. Mrs. Amyot is an old friend of mine.”
“Do you really? That's awfully good of you. Perhaps I'll go too if I
can persuade Charlie and the others to come. And I wonder”—in a
well-directed aside—“if your friend—?”
I telegraphed her under cover of the dusk that my friend was of too
recent standing to be drawn into her charitable toils, and she masked
her mistake under a rattle of friendly adjurations not to be late, and
to be sure to keep a seat for her, as she had quite made up her mind to
go even if Charlie and the others wouldn't.
The flutter of her skirts subsided in the distance, and my neighbor,
who had half turned away to light a cigar, made no effort to reopen the
conversation. At length, fearing he might have overheard the allusion
to himself, I ventured to ask if he were going to the lecture that
“Much obliged—I have a ticket,” he said abruptly.
This struck me as in such bad taste that I made no answer; and it
was he who spoke next.
“Did I understand you to say that you were an old friend of Mrs.
“I think I may claim to be, if it is the same Mrs. Amyot I had the
pleasure of knowing many years ago. My Mrs. Amyot used to lecture
“To pay for her son's education?”
“I believe so.”
“Well—see you later.”
He got up and walked into the house.
In the hotel drawing-room that evening there was but a meagre
sprinkling of guests, among whom I saw my brown-bearded friend sitting
alone on a sofa, with his head against the wall. It could not have been
curiosity to see Mrs. Amyot that had impelled him to attend the
performance, for it would have been impossible for him, without
changing his place, to command the improvised platform at the end of
the room. When I looked at him he seemed lost in contemplation of the
The lady from whom I had bought my tickets fluttered in late,
unattended by Charlie and the others, and assuring me that she would
scream if we had the lecture on Ibsen—she had heard it three times
already that winter. A glance at the programme reassured her: it
informed us (in the lecturer's own slanting hand) that Mrs. Amyot was
to lecture on the Cosmogony.
After a long pause, during which the small audience coughed and
moved its chairs and showed signs of regretting that it had come, the
door opened, and Mrs. Amyot stepped upon the platform. Ah, poor lady!
Some one said “Hush!”, the coughing and chair-shifting subsided, and
It was like looking at one's self early in the morning in a cracked
mirror. I had no idea I had grown so old. As for Lancelot, he must have
a beard. A beard? The word struck me, and without knowing why I glanced
across the room at my bearded friend on the sofa. Oddly enough he was
looking at me, with a half-defiant, half-sullen expression; and as our
glances crossed, and his fell, the conviction came to me that he was
I don't remember a word of the lecture; and yet there were enough of
them to have filled a good-sized dictionary. The stream of Mrs. Amyot's
eloquence had become a flood: one had the despairing sense that she had
sprung a leak, and that until the plumber came there was nothing to be
done about it.
The plumber came at length, in the shape of a clock striking ten; my
companion, with a sigh of relief, drifted away in search of Charlie and
the others; the audience scattered with the precipitation of people who
had discharged a duty; and, without surprise, I found the brown-bearded
stranger at my elbow.
We stood alone in the bare-floored room, under the flaring
“I think you told me this afternoon that you were an old friend of
Mrs. Amyot's?” he began awkwardly.
“Will you come in and see her?”
“Now? I shall be very glad to, if—”
“She's ready; she's expecting you,” he interposed.
He offered no further explanation, and I followed him in silence. He
led me down the long corridor, and pushed open the door of a
“Mother,” he said, closing the door after we had entered, “here's
the gentleman who says he used to know you.”
Mrs. Amyot, who sat in an easy-chair stirring a cup of bouillon,
looked up with a start. She had evidently not seen me in the audience,
and her son's description had failed to convey my identity. I saw a
frightened look in her eyes; then, like a frost flower on a
window-pane, the dimple expanded on her wrinkled cheek, and she held
out her hand.
“I'm so glad,” she said, “so glad!”
She turned to her son, who stood watching us. “You must have told
Lancelot all about me—you've known me so long!”
“I haven't had time to talk to your son—since I knew he was your
son,” I explained.
Her brow cleared. “Then you haven't had time to say anything very
dreadful?” she said with a laugh.
“It is he who has been saying dreadful things,” I returned, trying
to fall in with her tone.
I saw my mistake. “What things?” she faltered.
“Making me feel how old I am by telling me about his children.”
“My grandchildren!” she exclaimed with a blush.
“Well, if you choose to put it so.”
She laughed again, vaguely, and was silent. I hesitated a moment and
then put out my hand.
“I see you are tired. I shouldn't have ventured to come in at this
hour if your son—”
The son stepped between us. “Yes, I asked him to come,” he said to
his mother, in his clear self-assertive voice. “I haven't told
him anything yet; but you've got to—now. That's what I brought him
His mother straightened herself, but I saw her eye waver.
“Lancelot—” she began.
“Mr. Amyot,” I said, turning to the young man, “if your mother will
let me come back to-morrow, I shall be very glad—”
He struck his hand hard against the table on which he was leaning.
“No, sir! It won't take long, but it's got to be said now.”
He moved nearer to his mother, and I saw his lip twitch under his
beard. After all, he was younger and less sure of himself than I had
“See here, mother,” he went on, “there's something here that's got
to be cleared up, and as you say this gentleman is an old friend of
yours it had better be cleared up in his presence. Maybe he can help
explain it—and if he can't, it's got to be explained to him.”
Mrs. Amyot's lips moved, but she made no sound. She glanced at me
helplessly and sat down. My early inclination to thrash Lancelot was
beginning to reassert itself. I took up my hat and moved toward the
“Mrs. Amyot is under no obligation to explain anything whatever to
me,” I said curtly.
“Well! She's under an obligation to me, then—to explain something
in your presence.” He turned to her again. “Do you know what the people
in this hotel are saying? Do you know what he thinks—what they all
think? That you're doing this lecturing to support me—to pay for my
education! They say you go round telling them so. That's what they buy
the tickets for— they do it out of charity. Ask him if it isn't what
they say—ask him if they weren't joking about it on the piazza before
dinner. The others think I'm a little boy, but he's known you for
years, and he must have known how old I was. He must have known
it wasn't to pay for my education!”
He stood before her with his hands clenched, the veins beating in
his temples. She had grown very pale, and her cheeks looked hollow.
When she spoke her voice had an odd click in it.
“If—if these ladies and gentlemen have been coming to my lectures
out of charity, I see nothing to be ashamed of in that—” she faltered.
“If they've been coming out of charity to me,” he retorted,
“don't you see you've been making me a party to a fraud? Isn't there
any shame in that?” His forehead reddened. “Mother! Can't you see the
shame of letting people think I was a d—beat, who sponged on you for
my keep? Let alone making us both the laughing-stock of every place you
“I never did that, Lancelot!”
“Made you a laughing-stock—”
He stepped close to her and caught her wrist.
“Will you look me in the face and swear you never told people you
were doing this lecturing business to support me?”
There was a long silence. He dropped her wrist and she lifted a limp
handkerchief to her frightened eyes. “I did do it—to support you—to
educate you”—she sobbed.
“We're not talking about what you did when I was a boy. Everybody
who knows me knows I've been a grateful son. Have I ever taken a penny
from you since I left college ten years ago?”
“I never said you had! How can you accuse your mother of such
“Have you never told anybody in this hotel—or anywhere else in the
last ten years—that you were lecturing to support me? Answer me that!”
“How can you,” she wept, “before a stranger?”
“Haven't you said such things about me to strangers?” he
“Well—answer me, then. Say you haven't, mother!” His voice broke
unexpectedly and he took her hand with a gentler touch. “I'll believe
anything you tell me,” he said almost humbly.
She mistook his tone and raised her head with a rash clutch at
“I think you'd better ask this gentleman to excuse you first.”
“No, by God, I won't!” he cried. “This gentleman says he knows all
about you and I mean him to know all about me too. I don't mean that he
or anybody else under this roof shall go on thinking for another
twenty-four hours that a cent of their money has ever gone into my
pockets since I was old enough to shift for myself. And he sha'n't
leave this room till you've made that clear to him.”
He stepped back as he spoke and put his shoulders against the door.
“My dear young gentleman,” I said politely, “I shall leave this room
exactly when I see fit to do so—and that is now. I have already told
you that Mrs. Amyot owes me no explanation of her conduct.”
“But I owe you an explanation of mine—you and every one who has
bought a single one of her lecture tickets. Do you suppose a man who's
been through what I went through while that woman was talking to you in
the porch before dinner is going to hold his tongue, and not attempt to
justify himself? No decent man is going to sit down under that sort of
thing. It's enough to ruin his character. If you're my mother's friend,
you owe it to me to hear what I've got to say.”
He pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead.
“Good God, mother!” he burst out suddenly, “what did you do it for?
Haven't you had everything you wanted ever since I was able to pay for
it? Haven't I paid you back every cent you spent on me when I was in
college? Have I ever gone back on you since I was big enough to work?”
He turned to me with a laugh. “I thought she did it to amuse
herself—and because there was such a demand for her lectures. Such
a demand! That's what she always told me. When we asked her to come
out and spend this winter with us in Minneapolis, she wrote back that
she couldn't because she had engagements all through the south, and her
manager wouldn't let her off. That's the reason why I came all the way
on here to see her. We thought she was the most popular lecturer in the
United States, my wife and I did! We were awfully proud of it too, I
can tell you.” He dropped into a chair, still laughing.
“How can you, Lancelot, how can you!” His mother, forgetful of my
presence, was clinging to him with tentative caresses. “When you didn't
need the money any longer I spent it all on the children—you know I
“Yes, on lace christening dresses and life-size rocking-horses with
real manes! The kind of thing children can't do without.”
“Oh, Lancelot, Lancelot—I loved them so! How can you believe such
falsehoods about me?”
“What falsehoods about you?”
“That I ever told anybody such dreadful things?”
He put her back gently, keeping his eyes on hers. “Did you never
tell anybody in this house that you were lecturing to support your
Her hands dropped from his shoulders and she flashed round on me in
“I know what I think of people who call themselves friends and who
come between a mother and her son!”
“Oh, mother, mother!” he groaned.
I went up to him and laid my hand on his shoulder.
“My dear man,” I said, “don't you see the uselessness of prolonging
“Yes, I do,” he answered abruptly; and before I could forestall his
movement he rose and walked out of the room.
There was a long silence, measured by the lessening reverberations
of his footsteps down the wooden floor of the corridor.
When they ceased I approached Mrs. Amyot, who had sunk into her
chair. I held out my hand and she took it without a trace of resentment
on her ravaged face.
“I sent his wife a seal-skin jacket at Christmas!” she said, with
the tears running down her cheeks.