“The Debt” by Edith Wharton
YOU remember—it’s not so long ago—the talk there was about Dredge’s “Arrival of the Fittest”? The talk has subsided, but the book of course remains: stands up, in fact, as the tallest thing of its kind since—well, I’d almost said since “The Origin of Species.”
I’m not wrong, at any rate, in calling it the most important contribution yet made to the development of the Darwinian theory, or rather to the solution of the awkward problem about which that theory has had to make such a circuit. Dredge’s hypothesis will be contested, may one day be disproved; but at least it has swept out of the way all previous conjectures, including of course Lanfear’s magnificent attempt; and for our generation of scientific investigators it will serve as the first safe bridge across a murderous black whirlpool.
It’s all very interesting—there are few things more stirring to the imagination than that sudden projection of the new hypothesis, light as a cobweb and strong as steel, across the intellectual abyss; but, for an idle observer of human motives, the other, the personal, side of Dredge’s case is even more interesting and arresting.
Personal side? You didn’t know there was one? Pictured him simply as a thinking machine, a highly specialized instrument of precision, the result of a long series of “adaptations,” as his own jargon would put it? Well, I don’t wonder—if you’ve met him. He does give the impression of being something out of his own laboratory: a delicate scientific instrument that reveals wonders to the initiated, and is absolutely useless in an ordinary hand.
In his youth it was just the other way. I knew him twenty years ago, as an awkward lout whom young Archie Lanfear had picked up at college, and brought home for a visit. I happened to be staying at the Lanfears’ when the boys arrived, and I shall never forget Dredge’s first appearance on the scene. You know the Lanfears always lived very simply. That summer they had gone to Buzzard’s Bay, in order that Professor Lanfear might be near the Biological Station at Wood’s Holl, and they were picnicking in a kind of sketchy bungalow without any attempt at elegance. But Galen Dredge couldn’t have been more awe-struck if he’d been suddenly plunged into a Fifth Avenue ball-room. He nearly knocked his shock head against the low doorway, and in dodging this peril trod heavily on Mabel Lanfear’s foot, and became hopelessly entangled in her mother’s draperies—though how he managed it I never knew, for Mrs. Lanfear’s dowdy muslins ran to no excess of train.
When the Professor himself came in it was ten times worse, and I saw then that Dredge’s emotion was a tribute to the great man’s proximity. That made the boy interesting, and I began to watch. Archie, always enthusiastic but vague, had said: “Oh, he’s a tremendous chap—you’ll see—” but I hadn’t expected to see quite so clearly. Lanfear’s vision, of course, was sharper than mine; and the next morning he had carried Dredge off to the Biological Station. And that was the way it began.
Dredge is the son of a Baptist minister. He comes from East Lethe, New York State, and was working his way through college—waiting at White Mountain hotels in summer—when Archie Lanfear ran across him. There were eight children in the family, and the mother was an invalid. Dredge never had a penny from his father after he was fourteen; but his mother wanted him to be a scholar, and “kept at him,” as he put it, in the hope of his going back to “teach school” at East Lethe. He developed slowly, as the scientific mind generally does, and was still adrift about himself and his tendencies when Archie took him down to Buzzard’s Bay. But he had read Lanfear’s “Utility and Variation,” and had always been a patient and curious observer of nature. And his first meeting with Lanfear explained him to himself. It didn’t, however, enable him to explain himself to others, and for a long time he remained, to all but Lanfear, an object of incredulity and conjecture. Continue reading ““The Debt” — Edith Wharton”