The Shadow by G. Ranger Wormser

He was colossally vain.

He lived with his wife Ellen, in the small house on Peach Tree Road.

There was nothing pretentious about the house; there were any number of similar houses along the line of Peach Tree Road. For that matter the house was the kind planted innumerable times in the numerous suburbs of the large city. Still, it was his house. His own. That meant a lot to him whenever he thought of it; and he thought of it often enough. He liked to feel the thing actually belonged to him. It emphasized his being to himself.

The house was a two-storied affair built of wood and white washed. A green mansard roof came down over the small green shuttered upper windows. On the lower floor the windows were somewhat larger with the same solid wooden green shutters. A gravel path led up to the front door. Two drooping willow trees stood on either side of the wicker gate.

Before the time when his aunt had died and had left him the house he had not been particularly successful. At the age of forty-one he had found himself a hard-working journalist and nothing more. He had had no ambition to ever be anything else. He was at all times so utterly confident that the work he was doing was quite right; chiefly because it was the work that he was doing. No man had a more unbounded faith in himself. At that time he had not been conscious of his lack of success. Now, of course, he looked back on it all as a period of development; something which had prepared him for this that was even then destined to come.

He told himself that in this small house, away from the surrounding clatter and nuisances of the city, he had found time to write; to be himself; to really express what he knew himself to be.

He had become tremendously well known in that space of six years. No one ever doubted the genius of Jasper Wald. He wrote as a man writes who is actually inspired. His books were read with interest and surprisingly favorable comment. There was something different; something singularly appealing in all of Jasper Wald's works.

At that time his conceit was inordinate. It extended to a sort of personal, physical vanity. In itself that was grotesque. There was absolutely nothing attractive in the loosely jointed, stoop-shouldered body of him; or for that matter in the narrow head covered with sparse blond gray hair. The eyes of him were of rather a washed blue and bulged a bit from out their sockets; the nose was a singularly squat affair, at the same time too long. The mouth was unpleasantly small with lips so colorless and thin that the line of it was like some weird mark. Yet he was vain of his appearance. But then his egoism was the keynote of his entire being.

Some people could not forgive it in him; even when they acknowledged him as a writer and praised his work. The man in literature was spoken of as a mystic, a poet, a possessor of subtlety that was close to genius. In actual life, Jasper Wald was an out and out materialist.

As for his wife, Ellen:

She was rather a tall woman; thin but not ungraceful. Her features were good, very regular, still somewhat nondescript. All but her eyes. Her eyes were strange; green in color, and so heavily lidded that one could rarely see the expression of them. Then, too, she had an odd manner of moving. There never seemed to be any effort or any abruptness in whatever she did. Even her walk was sinuous.

He had married her when they both were young. Through his persistent habit of ignoring her she had been dwarfed into a nonentity. To have looked at the woman one would have said that hers was a distinctive personality unbelievably suppressed. It would not have been possible for any one living with Jasper Wald to have asserted himself. Perhaps she had learned that years before. Certainly his was the character which predominated; domineered through the encouragement of his own egoism.

Her attitude toward him was perpetually one of self-effacement. She stood for his conceit in a peculiarly passive way. If it ever irritated her she gave no sign. And he kept right on with his semi-indulgent manner of patronizing her stupidity. That is, when he noticed her at all.

She was essential to him in so far as she supplied all of his physical wants. Those in themselves were of great importance to Jasper Wald. There was no companionship between them. Jasper Wald could never have indulged in companionship of any kind. He had put himself far beyond that. To his way of thinking he was a super being who had no need whatever for the rest of man. He was all self-sufficient.

If there had ever been love between them in those days when they had first come together they had both of them completely lost sight of it. He in his complacent conceit; she in her monotonous negation.

And as time went on, and as his work became greater Jasper Wald grew even further away from the sort of thing he wrote; so that it was more than ever difficult for those who knew him to disassociate him from his writings. There was always the temptation to try to find some of his literary idealism in himself; to find some of his prosaic realism in his works.

On one occasion Delafield, his publisher, came to him; to the house on Peach Tree Road. It was a peculiarity of Jasper Wald's to persistently refuse any request to leave his home. It was the one thing about which he was superstitious. He had never by word or thought attributed his success to anyone or anything outside of himself. He had made his name in this house and he would not leave it.

Delafield's visit came at a time just after Jasper Wald's last book had been published.

Sitting in the square, simply furnished living room, Delafield for all his enthusiasm for the author had felt a certain inexplicable disgust.

"It's great, Wald; there's genius to it. We'll have it run through its second edition a week after we put it on the market."

"I don't doubt that;" Jasper Wald's tone was matter-of-fact in his confidence. "Not for a moment."

Delafield bit off the end of his cigar.

"When will your next one be ready?"

He asked it abruptly.

"Oh, I don't know," Jasper Wald had pulled leisurely at his pipe. "Whenever I make up my mind to it, I suppose. It's going to be the biggest thing I've tackled yet, Delafield."

"Well—" Delafield got up to go. "It can't be too soon. You'll have a barrel of money before you get done. Genius doesn't usually pay that way, either. But—;" he could not help himself. "You've got the knack of the thing. Heaven knows where you get it; but it's the knowledge we all need that comes from—"

He broke off quite suddenly as Ellen Wald came into the room.

"I didn't know;" she said uncertainly. "I thought you were alone."

"My wife, Delafield." Jasper Wald made the introduction impatiently. "Ellen, this is Mr. Delafield, who publishes my books."

She came toward them and held out her hand to Delafield. He could not help but noticing her odd manner of moving.

"Good evening," she said.

Delafield had not known that Jasper Wald was married. It was almost impossible for him to imagine anyone living with this man. He looked at the woman curiously. He had the feeling that her individuality had been stultified. It did not surprise him. Jasper Wald could have accomplished that. It would have been difficult to have matched him with as flagrantly material a person as he himself was. Only that sort of person would have stood a chance with him. Any other would have had to fall flat. She had fallen flat. Delafield knew that the moment he looked at her.

"Why, I didn't know;" Delafield took her hand in his. "You never told me, Wald, that you were married."

"Didn't I? No, of course not.—But, about the new book, Delafield."

Delafield dropped her hand. He had never felt anything quite as inert as that hand. It impressed the nondescript quality of her upon him even more strongly than had her appearance.

"Your husband has promised me another book, Mrs. Wald." He spoke slowly. He felt he had to speak that way or she would not understand him. "Your husband is a great author, Mrs. Wald."

"Yes."

"Why don't you say, genius, Delafield, and be done with it? Why don't you make a clean breast of it with—genius?"

"I've got to be going."

Delafield felt a strange irritation. The man was a fool. For what reason under the sun could this woman with those half closed eyes let herself be dominated by him? The two of them got on his nerves.

"Won't you stay to dinner?"

Jasper Wald was obviously anxious for a chance to speak of himself.

"Sorry, Wald. I've got to be getting on."

Delafield still watched the woman. She stood there quite silent.

"I thought you might have something to say about that book of mine."

"No—There's nothing more." Delafield started for the door. "I've just told you that it's full of the sort of knowledge all of us are in need of. I can't say more, you know. I suppose that knowledge is what constitutes genius; but—" He was staring now full into those bulging blue eyes—"Lord, man, where, where d'you get it from?"

Glancing at the woman, Delafield saw that she was looking straight at him. Her eyes met his in a way which he was completely at a loss to explain. There was something eerie about it.

"Where does he get it?"

She repeated his question stupidly and once again the heavy lids came down over those strange green eyes, hiding all expression.

Jasper Wald drew in his breath.

"I write it," he said.

After that Delafield left them both severely alone. The woman puzzled him. He could not tolerate the man, Jasper Wald, and he could not for worlds have the genius of Jasper Wald hurt or slighted in any way. He knew how big it was. It often left him breathless. But the man; he would have liked to have hit him that day in the living room in the house on Peach Tree Road; to have kicked him into some sort of a realization as to what an utter little rat he was.

And so, because of his physical make-up, people stayed away from Jasper Wald. Not that he avoided people; not that he wanted to live the life of a recluse. He never made any attempt to conceal his living from the general public. He was too much of the egoist to attempt concealment of any kind. So his life was known to any man, woman or child who cared for the knowledge. His life of narrow selfishness, of tranquil complacency; of colossal conceit. And of genius.

He always wrote in the evenings, did Jasper Wald. And often he would keep at his writing well on into the morning.

He liked to sit there in the square, old-fashioned living room with its wide window that gave out upon Peach Tree Road.

When he had first moved into the house as an obscure, hard-working journalist he had placed the desk against the window ledge so that he could look directly out of the window without moving. And he had kept the desk there. He was just a bit insistent about it. Then, too, he liked the blind up so that he could stare out into the evening and at the house opposite.

For all his impossible vanity there must have been imbedded deep down in the small, hard soul of the man some excessive, frantic hunger of self-recognition by others. A potential desire to accomplish an assertion of self that could in no way be denied; a fundamental energy which had in some way made possible the work, but which he could never admit for fear that it might evade the importance of himself.

The house opposite interested him tremendously. Sitting there in an abstract fit of musing, he watched it as one subconsciously watches a place that has one's attention.

To all outward appearances the house across the way was heavily boarded up and closed. It had always been closed since the time that Jasper Wald had come to live in Peach Tree Road. Yet every evening in the window directly facing his he had seen the shadow of a man moving to and fro; to and fro, beyond the drawn blind. He would sit there watching the dark, undefined shadow until he felt that he had to work, and then the whole thing would slip from his mind until the following evening when he would again be at his desk.

Strangely enough he had never mentioned the presence of the shadow to anyone. There was about it a certain mysterious unreality. That much he, Jasper Wald, was capable of knowing. It was the one thing outside of himself that gripped at his intelligence.

During all those six years he had waited at his desk each night for the coming of the shadow. And when it came he had started to work. He never explained the thing to himself. He never thought he had to explain anything to his own understanding. Had he tried, he would have been utterly at a loss for an explanation. So Jasper Wald had come to look upon the shadow as a sign of luck; a superstition-fostered thing that epitomized his genius to himself.

Naturally it had not always been that way. The first time that Jasper Wald had felt the shadow he had experienced an uncanny sense of terror. That had been before he had really seen it.

He had been standing there beside the window just after he and Ellen had moved into their home, looking out at the closed house opposite. He had felt a queer oppression which he readily interpreted as the vibration of his new environment. When the thing had persisted he had become a bit uneasy. The sense of oppression so utterly unknown to him had changed to one which grew upon him; as if he were being forced out of himself in some uncanny manner.

There was about it all a curious sensation of remoteness of self and at the same time a weird consciousness of the haunting permeation of something invisible and dynamic.

He never thought back to that evening without a positive horror. The whole thing was so completely alien to him.

It had been with a great sense of relief that he had, finally, been able to see and to rivet his attention upon the shadow there against the blind of the house opposite. He had clinched his thought onto it. And the other thing had left him; had lessened in its maddening oppression.

That evening he had started to write. He had felt that writing was a thing he had to do. It was entirely because of his first fear that he kept the knowledge of the shadow to himself.

Cock sure as he was of himself, thoroughly certain of his genius, and inordinately vain of his success, there was one thing about it all that Jasper Wald could not quite make out. Not for worlds would he have admitted it. Still there was the one thing. And the one thing was that Jasper Wald could not understand the kind of thought behind what he himself wrote.

It was late one summer evening that Jasper Wald sat at his desk in the square living room; his pen was in his hand; a pile of blank paper made a white patch on the dark wood before him. His blue eyes that bulged a bit looked out into the graying half light. The green of the lawn was matted with dark shadows. A mist of shadows were pressed into the faint lined leaves of the two drooping willow trees on either side of the wicker gate. An unreal light held in the sky.

His eyes were fixed on the one window of the house opposite. With his pen in his hand, Jasper Wald waited.

From somewhere in the house came the chimes of a clock striking the half hour.

Starting from his chair, Jasper Wald went to the side of the desk and leaned far out of the window. A wave of heat came up to him from the earth. His eyes stared intently at the window opposite.

The door behind him was thrown open. He turned to see Ellen's tall, not ungraceful, figure standing in the doorway. Her two hands grasped the bowl of a lighted lamp.

"I don't need that."

Jasper Wald told it to her impatiently.

She came a step into the room.

"It's dark in here, Jasper."

"But I don't need any more light, Ellen. I don't need it, I tell you!"

"It's dark in here, Jasper."

"All right, then; put the thing down. I can't take up my time arguing with you. How can a man write in a place like this, anyway? Have you no consideration? Must I always be disturbed? Have you no respect for genius?"

She came a step further toward the center of the room.

"Genius,—Jasper?"

"My genius, Ellen. Mine."

He watched her cross the room with that odd, sinuous moving of hers and place the lamp in the center of his desk. And then he saw her go to a chair within its light and, sitting down, pick up some sewing which she had left there.

He went back and sat at his desk.

He had made up his mind that this new book of his would be something big; something bigger than he had ever done before. He wanted to write a stupendous thing.

He caught up his pen and dipped it in the ink.

She startled him with a quick cough.

"Can't you be still?" He turned toward her. "You know I can't write if I'm bothered. You don't have to sit in here if you're going to cough your head off. There're plenty of other rooms in the house."

She half rose from her chair.

"D'you want me to go?"

"Oh, sit there," he muttered irritably. "Only, for heaven's sake be still!"

"Yes, Jasper."

All of his books had brought him fame; but this one; this one would bring him fame with something else. This book would be the great work that would show to people the staggering power of one man's mind; his mind.

His eyes that stared at the window of the house opposite came back to be pile of blank paper which made a white patch on the dark wood before him.

Without any definite idea he began to write. A word. A sentence. A paragraph.

He tore the thing up without stopping to read it.

Ellen's dull-toned voice came to him through the stillness of the room.

"Anything wrong, Jasper?"

"Wrong? What should be wrong?"

"I don't know."

He began to write again.

He looked out of his window at the window of the house opposite.

He went on with his writing till he had covered the whole page. Again he tore the paper up and threw it from him.

"I'm going, Jasper."

He turned to see her standing in the center of the room, her heavily lidded eyes fixed on the floor.

"I told you you could stay here!"

"I'd best be going, Jasper."

"Sit down, over there; and do be still."

"I seem to bother you. You haven't started to write. Is it because I'm here, Jasper?"

"You!" He snorted contemptuously. "What've you got to do with it?"

"I don't know," she said quietly, and she went back to her chair.

Again his eyes were fixed on that one window. He leaned forward quickly. His hands gripped the chair's arms on either side of him. His brows drew down together above the bulging blue eyes.

Thrown on the clear blank of the window blind, moving to and fro across it, went the shadow.

With a sharp sigh of relief Jasper Wald began to write.

It was not until he had gotten far down the page that he became suddenly conscious of Ellen standing directly behind him.

He looked over at the window. The shadow was still there.

"What is it? What d'you want?"

The lamplight brought out her features, good and very regular and still somewhat nondescript. The lamplight showed her strange green eyes and beneath the heavy lids the lamplight brought out in a glinting streak the expression of the eyes themselves.

"What made you do that, Jasper?"

"I'm trying to write. You keep interrupting me. What are you talking about? Made me do what?"

"Made you write, Jasper."

"Don't I always write?"

"Yes, Jasper. Always. All of a sudden—; like that."

"Well, what of it?"

"What makes you do it, Jasper?"

"Oh, Lord, can't you leave me alone?"

"D'you know what makes you do it, Jasper?"

"Of course I know."

"Well, what?"

"My—it's my inspiration!"

"That comes"; she spoke slowly. "Every night when you look out of the window. That's how it comes, Jasper."

"Look out of the window? Why shouldn't I look out of the window?"

"What is it you see? Over there; in that house; in that one window?"

He looked across the way at the shadow moving to and fro against the window blind.

He started to his feet so suddenly that his chair crashed to the floor behind him. He faced her angrily.

"What under the sun's the matter with you?"

"Nothing."

"Then why can't you leave me alone?"

"I want to know, Jasper."

"You don't know what you want."

"Yes, Jasper; I—want—to—know—"

"Leave the room," he said furiously. "Leave the room! I've got to write!"

She started for the door.

"You've got to write?" Her words came back to him across the length of the room with a curious insistence. "You've—got—to—write, Jasper?"

He waited until the door closed behind her and then he went back to his desk.

What had she meant by that last question of hers? Didn't she know that he had to write? Didn't she realize that he had to write?

And this book of his; this book that was to be the biggest thing that he had yet done.

"Ellen," he called. "Ellen!"

He heard her feet coming toward him along the passageway.

She came back into the room as though nothing had happened.

"Yes, Jasper?"

"What—what did you mean by that, Ellen? By what you just said?"

She faced him in the center of the room.

"I've been wanting to tell you, Jasper."

"Well?"

Her hands hung quite quietly at her sides.

"I've put up with you for a long time, Jasper. I haven't said very much, you know."

"What?" He stuttered.

"Oh, yes," she went on evenly. "If it weren't for your vanity you'd have realized long ago what a contemptible little man you really are."

He interrupted her.

"Ellen!"

His tone was astonished.

"You're so full of yourself that you can't see anything else. You're so full of that genius—; of—yours—"

"You don't have to speak of that—; you can leave that out of it—; you've nothing to do with it—; with my genius."

"Your genius." She laughed then. "It's your genius, Jasper, that has nothing to do with you!"

"Nothing—to—do—with—me?"

"No, Jasper. I haven't been blind."

"Blind?"

"I've seen, Jasper; sitting here night after night in this room with you; I've seen."

"What?"

"Over there—; in the house opposite."

"You mean—"

"And you can't write without it, Jasper! You couldn't write before and you can't write now without it. It isn't you. It isn't you who writes. It's something—something working through you. And you call it your own. Jasper, you're a fool!"

"Ellen, how dare you!"

"Dare!"

She spoke the word disdainfully. He had never in his whole life seen her this way; he had never thought to see her like this; but then, he had never given Ellen much thought of any kind.

"It's you who're the fool." He was furious. "It's I who've always been the brains; if you could you'd have hampered me with your stupidity. But you couldn't. I shut you quite outside. I nurtured my own genius. If I'd have left things to you, I'd have been down and out by now; and that's all there is to it."

"No!" Her voice rang through the room. "I won't let you say that, Jasper. I'll tell you the truth now. And take it or leave it as you will. You won't be able to get away from it. Not if I tell you the truth, Jasper. There'll be no getting away from it!"

"Truth—; about what?"

"You and your genius. I wouldn't have told you but it's no good going on like this. I thought there was some hope for you; I couldn't think any human being would be as self-satisfied, as disgustingly material as you are. Why, if you have a soul, but you haven't, and I thought—God, how I hoped!"

He started to speak. He could not find his voice.

She went on presently in that quiet, monotonous voice which had been hers for so many years.

"You left me alone; I wouldn't have complained; I wouldn't complain now if you had some excuse for it. It all made me different. There's no use in telling you how; you couldn't understand. But I got to feeling things I'd never felt before; and then I saw things. And after a while I found I could bring those things to me. And that night, the first night we moved in here—"

He interrupted her in spite of himself.

"What of that night? What?"

"That night when you were standing there at the window I got down on my knees and prayed. I brought something to you that night. And you called the genius yours." She broke off and was silent for a second. "I brought it to you because I wanted you to be great. I thought with all that energy of yours for writing that if it could work through you, you'd be big. But you were too small for it! You tried to make it a thing of your own. And I've held on to it. For six years I've kept it here with you; and now it's going. I'm letting it go back again. You're too small; you can't ever be anything but just—you!"

He walked over to his desk, and sank down into the arm chair.

"I don't—know—what—you're—talking—about."

"You do! And if you don't, why do you look out of the window there every night? Why d'you wait for it to come, before you start to write?"

His exclamation was involuntary.

"The shadow!"

"Yes. Its shadow—; from this room where I kept it—casting—over—there—its—shadow."

So that was what she meant. The superstition-fostered thing that epitomized his genius to himself. The shadow that he had come to look upon as a sign of luck. But it was nonsense. It wasn't possible; not such rot as that. It was his mind; the big creative mind of him that wrote.

"Have you said all you're going to say?"

For a second her gaze met his and then the heavy lids came down again over those strange green eyes, hiding all expression.

"Yes, Jasper."

He looked out of the window. His eyes stared through the night beyond the two shadowy, drooping willow trees on either side of the wicker gate and over at the house opposite. He caught his breath. The yellow light from the lamp on his desk played across the clear blank of the window blind across the way. The shadow had gone.

"Ellen—" His voice was hoarse. "Ellen!"

"What is it?"

"It's not there, Ellen—; six years; now—; why, Ellen—"

She went and sat down in the chair beside the desk.

"Yes."

"It isn't there! I tell you—"

"I thought it could make no difference to you!"

"It was—lucky—Ellen."

"Oh, lucky, Jasper?"

He made an effort to pull himself together.

"It won't make any difference to me—not to my writing; not to my genius."

After the silence of a moment her voice came to him in its low even measure.

"Then—; write!"

"Of course." His tone was high pitched, hysterical. "Naturally I'll write."

"Write, Jasper."

He caught up his pen and dipped it in the ink. He drew the white pile of paper nearer to him.

"Jasper—"

"How can I work if you don't stop talking? How can I do anything? How can I write?"

"Are—you—writing—Jasper? Are—you—?"

He did not answer her.

"Because;" she went on very quietly. "It's gone back, Jasper. It's—gone—now—"

His pen went to and fro; to and fro across the page. His figure was bent well over the desk. Every now and again, without moving, his bulging blue eyes would lift themselves to the clear blank blind of the window opposite and then they would come back and fix themselves intently upon the white page of paper which he was so busily covering with stupid, meaningless little drawings.