I could tell at once that he was a ghost. There was a certain translucency about him: The sallow light of the lamp on my library desk shone out not only behind him but through him, acquiring an emerald tint from the specter of his velvet smoking jacket as it did so. I also, nearly as quickly, recognized whose ghost he was. I knew that fierce gaunt face from the few nineteenth-century photographs that we have of him. It was the latter realization, rather than the former, that caused a gasp of wonder to escape my lips. To meet a ghost has never seemed to me a particularly astonishing eventuality; but to meet one of such eminence, and in my own home . . .
“You must excuse me,” he said after a moment, in a voice that somehow was both perfectly audible and yet, at the same time, seemed to emanate from a very great distance; “It was not my intention to cause you alarm.” He had only the slightest trace of a Parisian accent, I noticed.
I assured him that, to the contrary, he had done me a great honor by dropping by.
He smiled a bleak smile. “Neither was that my intention,” he said, turning his eyes to the shelves nearest him. “Sometimes, when I feel the need to walk about the world again, I find myself drawn to places where copies of my books can be found. I see you own many”he swept a silent finger across the spines of several volumes“and I felt a very palpable pull upon me.”
He looked at me again and drifted a few feet nearer. “I am touched. Still, I should not have intruded had I known you would come in here so late at night. After all, the greatest virtue of the dead is their silence. Having passed beyond the boundaries of the utterable, and having thereby lost the privilege of utterance, they can no longer bore the living with tedious inventories of regrets or, worse, burden them with the fruits of hard-won wisdom. We are supposed to keep our quiet vigils in that inner sanctuary into which the living must not peer and from which not so much as a whisper should escape. So forgive me for stepping through the veil that hides the last and most terrible mystery from view. And, to tell the truth, it always causes some awkwardness in the politer circles of deceased society when one of us cavalierly disregards the cardinal rule of postmortem etiquette.”
I assured him again that I was in fact delighted to have found him in my house. “To meet greatness in the flesh . . . ” I began to say, but then caught myself. He seemed not to notice my embarrassment, but I felt the need to divert the conversation into another channel as quickly as possible. “When you make your visits from . . . from the other side, are you ever surprised by the current state of things?”
With something like a contemptuous laugh, he drifted away again, to look at the books on another shelf. “Things are more or less what I always assumed they would be,” he said after a moment. “Modern man is as he ever was. His chief distinction is his disbelief in original sin and, consequently, his inability to strive against it. And by disbelief I do not mean some sort of brave rejection of the doctrine, some defiant demand flung at heaven for possession of one’s own soul; I mean merely the impotence of an imagination that finds the very notion of sin incomprehensible, the conscience of a man who is sure that, whatever sin might be, it surely lies lightly upon a soul as decent as his own, and can be brushed off with a single casual stroke of a primly gloved hand; I mean an habitual insensibility to the illuminations and chastisements of beauty, a condition of being wholly at home in a world from which mystery and sin and glory have all been banished, and in which spiritual wretchedness has become material contentment. To that man, the bliss that calls to him in the beautiful would seem only an intolerable accusation, its gracious invitations only a perverse condemnation of his well-earned and lavishly vegetal happiness . . . .”
He paused. His voice had begun to grow harsh, and I had the impression that he had surprised himself. He looked at me with a mild expression. “Forgive a phantom his prejudices.”
I said that there was nothing to forgive.
“But really,” he said, his voice almost immediately becoming angry again, “how else should I think of the world into which I was born? How else can I make sense of that complacent love of moral squalor, that luxuriant triteness, that was the single spiritual achievement of that age? Where every bourgeois had been poisoned by the banality of Voltairethat philosopher of the conciergesand where every good citizen heard the voice of progress and enlightenment in the inane prattle of journalists, with all their childish laicism?”
I could see that he was becoming lost in his own reflections. He was no longer talking to me so much as to himself; and, in fact, he turned his back to me as he continued:
“How did they ever come to that place, those desolate multitudes, gathered under Satan’s ashen skies? It was never any use asking them. They remembered only, as in a dream, departing from frozen harbors bathed in twilight, sailing over dark waters lit by a sickly moon, in groaning barks borne on torpid currents past shores where sheer granite cliffs or walls of iron-gray thorns forbade any landing, and at last drawing up into those oleaginous waters, alongside dreary quays wanly gleaming with rime. If they could only have cast their minds further back, perhaps they might have recalled a lost paradise: green and yellow meadows stirred by tender winds, umbrageous forests and emerald groves, glass-blue mountain peaks melting into azure skies, glittering bays whose diamond waters break in jade and turquoise surges on sands like powdered alabasterwhere the rain falls gently, and is transformed by the setting sun into shimmering curtains of goldwhere, beyond verdant valleys and limestone caves, lies a palace filled with every delight the senses can endure, enclosing garden courtyards where crystal fountains splash in porphyry basins, intoxicating perfumes hang upon the breezes, undying flowers of every hue shine out amid the greenery’s blue shadows . . . .
“If only they could have recalled . . . But, of course, they did not wish to do so. Occasionally they might hear a distant dolorous echo, a faint fading rumor of forgotten bliss, carried to them over the purple sea, but they only turned away and thrust their hands into their pockets, anxiously feeling for their purses. Their triumph was their diabolical drabness, their pitiless sobriety. And what is perfect sobriety other than the rejection of love, of communionof the God who is the love that gives itself with the recklessness of a drunkard? They wanted no paradise more opulent than the contentment they had already achieved.”
Now he did turn to me again.
“The moral quantum within my own dissipations . . . which were never so extravagant as I made out in my poems. To play the flâneur, the dandy delicately glistening upon the boulevards, can be an act of rebellion against an age in which dreariness has become the face of sensualism, in which men cosset their appetites precisely by coarsening and deadening them. For what the modern age has taught us is that the kingdom of hell is essentially a respectable place, where the devil is best served by remaining incognito, where sin and remorse and penitence trouble no one with their curbside importunities‘Please, sir, only a sou!’where no one frets about angels or devils, where all good men apply themselves to becoming machines among machines, without sin because without souls.
“What world, after all, could be more respectable than one without sin? Where the only transgression anyone truly deplores is to deny that the highest happiness is prosperous mediocrity? Where the only indecency is to suggest that, among the ashes of the modern heart, there might linger a spark of divinity that, blown upon with but a little breath, could be kindled into flame?”
I said nothing, but merely nodded.
“In such a world,” he continued, “those who uphold public morals and serve the public weal do so only for Satan’s ends. They can rise to no higher god than he. They are guardians of the world of commerce, where everything is valued only as it might be bought or sold, where all giving and receiving are governed by the satanic law that each must try to take more than he gives, where everything is plunged into the abysmal shadow of that insatiable Typhon called Americathat gaslit desert of barbarism, with its infantile, gigantic, exuberant vulgarity, its monstrously guileless delight in affluence, its omnivorous vacuity . . . ” He ceased speaking suddenly, looking all at once abashed. “Have I offended you?” he asked.
“Not in the least.”
He smiled, almost forlornly, then turned back to my books again. “May I borrow a copy of The Wind in the Willows?” he asked after several moments, quite unexpectedly.
“Yes,” I replied, “of course.”