Edith Wharton.

Autres Temps... online

. (page 1 of 3)
Online LibraryEdith WhartonAutres Temps... → online text (page 1 of 3)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Produced by David Widger





AUTRES TEMPS...

By Edith Wharton

Copyright, 1916, By Charles Scribner's Sons




I

Mrs. Lidcote, as the huge menacing mass of New York defined itself far
off across the waters, shrank back into her corner of the deck and sat
listening with a kind of unreasoning terror to the steady onward drive
of the screws.

She had set out on the voyage quietly enough, - in what she called her
"reasonable" mood, - but the week at sea had given her too much time to
think of things and had left her too long alone with the past.

When she was alone, it was always the past that occupied her. She
couldn't get away from it, and she didn't any longer care to. During
her long years of exile she had made her terms with it, had learned
to accept the fact that it would always be there, huge, obstructing,
encumbering, bigger and more dominant than anything the future could
ever conjure up. And, at any rate, she was sure of it, she understood
it, knew how to reckon with it; she had learned to screen and manage and
protect it as one does an afflicted member of one's family.

There had never been any danger of her being allowed to forget the past.
It looked out at her from the face of every acquaintance, it appeared
suddenly in the eyes of strangers when a word enlightened them: "Yes,
_the_ Mrs. Lidcote, don't you know?" It had sprung at her the first day
out, when, across the dining-room, from the captain's table, she had
seen Mrs. Lorin Boulger's revolving eye-glass pause and the eye behind
it grow as blank as a dropped blind. The next day, of course, the
captain had asked: "You know your ambassadress, Mrs. Boulger?" and she
had replied that, No, she seldom left Florence, and hadn't been to Rome
for more than a day since the Boulgers had been sent to Italy. She was
so used to these phrases that it cost her no effort to repeat them. And
the captain had promptly changed the subject.

No, she didn't, as a rule, mind the past, because she was used to it and
understood it. It was a great concrete fact in her path that she had to
walk around every time she moved in any direction. But now, in the
light of the unhappy event that had summoned her from Italy, - the sudden
unanticipated news of her daughter's divorce from Horace Pursh and
remarriage with Wilbour Barkley - the past, her own poor miserable past,
started up at her with eyes of accusation, became, to her disordered
fancy, like the afflicted relative suddenly breaking away from nurses
and keepers and publicly parading the horror and misery she had, all the
long years, so patiently screened and secluded.

Yes, there it had stood before her through the agitated weeks since the
news had come - during her interminable journey from India, where Leila's
letter had overtaken her, and the feverish halt in her apartment in
Florence, where she had had to stop and gather up her possessions for a
fresh start - there it had stood grinning at her with a new balefillness
which seemed to say: "Oh, but you've got to look at me _now_, because
I'm not only your own past but Leila's present."

Certainly it was a master-stroke of those arch-ironists of the shears
and spindle to duplicate her own story in her daughter's. Mrs. Lidcote
had always somewhat grimly fancied that, having so signally failed to
be of use to Leila in other ways, she would at least serve her as a
warning. She had even abstained from defending herself, from making
the best of her case, had stoically refused to plead extenuating
circumstances, lest Leila's impulsive sympathy should lead to deductions
that might react disastrously on her own life. And now that very thing
had happened, and Mrs. Lidcote could hear the whole of New York saying
with one voice: "Yes, Leila's done just what her mother did. With such
an example what could you expect?"

Yet if she had been an example, poor woman, she had been an awful one;
she had been, she would have supposed, of more use as a deterrent than
a hundred blameless mothers as incentives. For how could any one who
had seen anything of her life in the last eighteen years have had the
courage to repeat so disastrous an experiment?

Well, logic in such cases didn't count, example didn't count, nothing
probably counted but having the same impulses in the blood; and that was
the dark inheritance she had bestowed upon her daughter. Leila hadn't
consciously copied her; she had simply "taken after" her, had been a
projection of her own long-past rebellion.

Mrs. Lidcote had deplored, when she started, that the _Utopia_ was a
slow steamer, and would take eight full days to bring her to her unhappy
daughter; but now, as the moment of reunion approached, she would
willingly have turned the boat about and fled back to the high seas. It
was not only because she felt still so unprepared to face what New York
had in store for her, but because she needed more time to dispose of
what the _Utopia_ had already given her. The past was bad enough,
but the present and future were worse, because they were less
comprehensible, and because, as she grew older, surprises and
inconsequences troubled her more than the worst certainties.

There was Mrs. Boulger, for instance. In the light, or rather the
darkness, of new developments, it might really be that Mrs. Boulger
had not meant to cut her, but had simply failed to recognize her.
Mrs. Lidcote had arrived at this hypothesis simply by listening to the
conversation of the persons sitting next to her on deck - two lively
young women with the latest Paris hats on their heads and the latest
New York ideas in them. These ladies, as to whom it would have been
impossible for a person with Mrs. Lidcote's old-fashioned categories to
determine whether they were married or unmarried, "nice" or "horrid," or
any one or other of the definite things which young women, in her
youth and her society, were conveniently assumed to be, had revealed
a familiarity with the world of New York that, again according to Mrs.
Lidcote's traditions, should have implied a recognized place in it. But
in the present fluid state of manners what did anything imply except
what their hats implied - that no one could tell what was coming next?

They seemed, at any rate, to frequent a group of idle and opulent people
who executed the same gestures and revolved on the same pivots as Mrs.
Lidcote's daughter and her friends: their Coras, Matties and Mabels
seemed at any moment likely to reveal familiar patronymics, and once
one of the speakers, summing up a discussion of which Mrs. Lidcote had
missed the beginning, had affirmed with headlong confidence: "Leila? Oh,
_Leila's_ all right."

Could it be _her_ Leila, the mother had wondered, with a sharp thrill of
apprehension? If only they would mention surnames! But their talk leaped
elliptically from allusion to allusion, their unfinished sentences
dangled over bottomless pits of conjecture, and they gave their
bewildered hearer the impression not so much of talking only of their
intimates, as of being intimate with every one alive.

Her old friend Franklin Ide could have told her, perhaps; but here was
the last day of the voyage, and she hadn't yet found courage to ask him.
Great as had been the joy of discovering his name on the passenger-list
and seeing his friendly bearded face in the throng against the taffrail
at Cherbourg, she had as yet said nothing to him except, when they had
met: "Of course I'm going out to Leila."

She had said nothing to Franklin Ide because she had always
instinctively shrunk from taking him into her confidence. She was sure
he felt sorry for her, sorrier perhaps than any one had ever felt;
but he had always paid her the supreme tribute of not showing it. His
attitude allowed her to imagine that compassion was not the basis of his
feeling for her, and it was part of her joy in his friendship that it
was the one relation seemingly unconditioned by her state, the only one
in which she could think and feel and behave like any other woman.

Now, however, as the problem of New York loomed nearer, she began to
regret that she had not spoken, had not at least questioned him about
the hints she had gathered on the way. He did not know the two ladies
next to her, he did not even, as it chanced, know Mrs. Lorin Boulger;
but he knew New York, and New York was the sphinx whose riddle she must
read or perish.

Almost as the thought passed through her mind his stooping shoulders
and grizzled head detached themselves against the blaze of light in the
west, and he sauntered down the empty deck and dropped into the chair at
her side.

"You're expecting the Barkleys to meet you, I suppose?" he asked.

It was the first time she had heard any one pronounce her daughter's
new name, and it occurred to her that her friend, who was shy and
inarticulate, had been trying to say it all the way over and had at last
shot it out at her only because he felt it must be now or never.

"I don't know. I cabled, of course. But I believe she's at - they're
at - _his_ place somewhere."

"Oh, Barkley's; yes, near Lenox, isn't it? But she's sure to come to
town to meet you."

He said it so easily and naturally that her own constraint was relieved,
and suddenly, before she knew what she meant to do, she had burst out:
"She may dislike the idea of seeing people."

Ide, whose absent short-sighted gaze had been fixed on the slowly
gliding water, turned in his seat to stare at his companion.

"Who? Leila?" he said with an incredulous laugh.

Mrs. Lidcote flushed to her faded hair and grew pale again. "It took
_me_ a long time - to get used to it," she said.

His look grew gently commiserating. "I think you'll find - " he paused
for a word - "that things are different now - altogether easier."

"That's what I've been wondering - ever since we started." She was
determined now to speak. She moved nearer, so that their arms touched,
and she could drop her voice to a murmur. "You see, it all came on me in
a flash. My going off to India and Siam on that long trip kept me
away from letters for weeks at a time; and she didn't want to tell me
beforehand - oh, I understand _that_, poor child! You know how good she's
always been to me; how she's tried to spare me. And she knew, of course,
what a state of horror I'd be in. She knew I'd rush off to her at once
and try to stop it. So she never gave me a hint of anything, and she
even managed to muzzle Susy Suffern - you know Susy is the one of the
family who keeps me informed about things at home. I don't yet see how
she prevented Susy's telling me; but she did. And her first letter, the
one I got up at Bangkok, simply said the thing was over - the divorce, I
mean - and that the very next day she'd - well, I suppose there was no
use waiting; and _he_ seems to have behaved as well as possible, to have
wanted to marry her as much as - "

"Who? Barkley?" he helped her out. "I should say so! Why what do you
suppose - " He interrupted himself. "He'll be devoted to her, I assure
you."

"Oh, of course; I'm sure he will. He's written me - really beautifully.
But it's a terrible strain on a man's devotion. I'm not sure that Leila
realizes - "

Ide sounded again his little reassuring laugh. "I'm not sure that you
realize. _They're_ all right."

It was the very phrase that the young lady in the next seat had applied
to the unknown "Leila," and its recurrence on Ide's lips flushed Mrs.
Lidcote with fresh courage.

"I wish I knew just what you mean. The two young women next to me - the
ones with the wonderful hats - have been talking in the same way."

"What? About Leila?"

"About _a_ Leila; I fancied it might be mine. And about society in
general. All their friends seem to be divorced; some of them seem
to announce their engagements before they get their decree. One of
them - _her_ name was Mabel - as far as I could make out, her husband
found out that she meant to divorce him by noticing that she wore a new
engagement-ring."

"Well, you see Leila did everything 'regularly,' as the French say," Ide
rejoined.

"Yes; but are these people in society? The people my neighbours talk
about?"

He shrugged his shoulders. "It would take an arbitration commission a
good many sittings to define the boundaries of society nowadays. But
at any rate they're in New York; and I assure you you're _not_; you're
farther and farther from it."

"But I've been back there several times to see Leila." She hesitated
and looked away from him. Then she brought out slowly: "And I've never
noticed - the least change - in - in my own case - "

"Oh," he sounded deprecatingly, and she trembled with the fear of having
gone too far. But the hour was past when such scruples could restrain
her. She must know where she was and where Leila was. "Mrs. Boulger
still cuts me," she brought out with an embarrassed laugh.

"Are you sure? You've probably cut _her_; if not now, at least in the
past. And in a cut if you're not first you're nowhere. That's what keeps
up so many quarrels."

The word roused Mrs. Lidcote to a renewed sense of realities. "But the
Pursues," she said - "the Pursues are so strong! There are so many of
them, and they all back each other up, just as my husband's family did.
I know what it means to have a clan against one. They're stronger than
any number of separate friends. The Pursues will _never_ forgive Leila
for leaving Horace. Why, his mother opposed his marrying her because
of - of me. She tried to get Leila to promise that she wouldn't see me
when they went to Europe on their honeymoon. And now she'll say it was
my example."

Her companion, vaguely stroking his beard, mused a moment upon this;
then he asked, with seeming irrelevance, "What did Leila say when you
wrote that you were coming?"

"She said it wasn't the least necessary, but that I'd better come,
because it was the only way to convince me that it wasn't."

"Well, then, that proves she's not afraid of the Purshes."

She breathed a long sigh of remembrance. "Oh, just at first, you
know - one never is."

He laid his hand on hers with a gesture of intelligence and pity.
"You'll see, you'll see," he said.

A shadow lengthened down the deck before them, and a steward stood
there, proffering a Marconigram.

"Oh, now I shall know!" she exclaimed.

She tore the message open, and then let it fall on her knees, dropping
her hands on it in silence.

Ide's enquiry roused her: "It's all right?"

"Oh, quite right. Perfectly. She can't come; but she's sending Susy
Suffern. She says Susy will explain." After another silence she added,
with a sudden gush of bitterness: "As if I needed any explanation!"

She felt Ide's hesitating glance upon her. "She's in the country?"

"Yes. 'Prevented last moment. Longing for you, expecting you. Love from
both.' Don't you _see_, the poor darling, that she couldn't face it?"

"No, I don't." He waited. "Do you mean to go to her immediately?"

"It will be too late to catch a train this evening; but I shall take
the first to-morrow morning." She considered a moment. "'Perhaps it's
better. I need a talk with Susy first. She's to meet me at the dock, and
I'll take her straight back to the hotel with me."

As she developed this plan, she had the sense that Ide was still
thoughtfully, even gravely, considering her. When she ceased, he
remained silent a moment; then he said almost ceremoniously: "If your
talk with Miss Suffern doesn't last too late, may I come and see you
when it's over? I shall be dining at my club, and I'll call you up at
about ten, if I may. I'm off to Chicago on business to-morrow morning,
and it would be a satisfaction to know, before I start, that your
cousin's been able to reassure you, as I know she will."

He spoke with a shy deliberateness that, even to Mrs. Lidcote's troubled
perceptions, sounded a long-silenced note of feeling. Perhaps the
breaking down of the barrier of reticence between them had released
unsuspected emotions in both. The tone of his appeal moved her curiously
and loosened the tight strain of her fears.

"Oh, yes, come - do come," she said, rising. The huge threat of New York
was imminent now, dwarfing, under long reaches of embattled masonry, the
great deck she stood on and all the little specks of life it carried.
One of them, drifting nearer, took the shape of her maid, followed by
luggage-laden stewards, and signing to her that it was time to go below.
As they descended to the main deck, the throng swept her against Mrs.
Lorin Boulger's shoulder, and she heard the ambassadress call out to
some one, over the vexed sea of hats: "So sorry! I should have been
delighted, but I've promised to spend Sunday with some friends at
Lenox."




II

Susy Suffern's explanation did not end till after ten o'clock, and she
had just gone when Franklin Ide, who, complying with an old New York
tradition, had caused himself to be preceded by a long white box of
roses, was shown into Mrs. Lidcote's sitting-room.

He came forward with his shy half-humorous smile and, taking her hand,
looked at her for a moment without speaking.

"It's all right," he then pronounced.

Mrs. Lidcote returned his smile. "It's extraordinary. Everything's
changed. Even Susy has changed; and you know the extent to which Susy
used to represent the old New York. There's no old New York left, it
seems. She talked in the most amazing way. She snaps her fingers at the
Pursues. She told me - _me_, that every woman had a right to happiness
and that self-expression was the highest duty. She accused me of
misunderstanding Leila; she said my point of view was conventional!
She was bursting with pride at having been in the secret, and wearing
a brooch that Wilbour Barkley'd given her!" Franklin Ide had seated
himself in the arm-chair she had pushed forward for him under the
electric chandelier. He threw back his head and laughed. "What did I
tell you?"

"Yes; but I can't believe that Susy's not mistaken. Poor dear, she has
the habit of lost causes; and she may feel that, having stuck to me, she
can do no less than stick to Leila."

"But she didn't - did she? - openly defy the world for you? She didn't
snap her fingers at the Lidcotes?"

Mrs. Lidcote shook her head, still smiling. "No. It was enough to defy
_my_ family. It was doubtful at one time if they would tolerate her
seeing me, and she almost had to disinfect herself after each visit. I
believe that at first my sister-in-law wouldn't let the girls come down
when Susy dined with her."

"Well, isn't your cousin's present attitude the best possible proof that
times have changed?"

"Yes, yes; I know." She leaned forward from her sofa-corner, fixing her
eyes on his thin kindly face, which gleamed on her indistinctly
through her tears. "If it's true, it's - it's dazzling. She says Leila's
perfectly happy. It's as if an angel had gone about lifting gravestones,
and the buried people walked again, and the living didn't shrink from
them."

"That's about it," he assented.

She drew a deep breath, and sat looking away from him down the long
perspective of lamp-fringed streets over which her windows hung.

"I can understand how happy you must be," he began at length.

She turned to him impetuously. "Yes, yes; I'm happy. But I'm lonely,
too - lonelier than ever. I didn't take up much room in the world before;
but now - where is there a corner for me? Oh. since I've begun to confess
myself, why shouldn't I go on? Telling you this lifts a gravestone from
_me!_ You see, before this, Leila needed me. She was unhappy, and I knew
it, and though we hardly ever talked of it I felt that, in a way, the
thought that I'd been through the same thing, and down to the dregs of
it, helped her. And her needing me helped _me_. And when the news of
her marriage came my first thought was that now she'd need me more
than ever, that she'd have no one but me to turn to. Yes, under all my
distress there was a fierce joy in that. It was so new and wonderful
to feel again that there was one person who wouldn't be able to get on
without me! And now what you and Susy tell me seems to have taken my
child from me; and just at first that's all I can feel."

"Of course it's all you feel." He looked at her musingly. "Why didn't
Leila come to meet you?"

"That was really my fault. You see, I'd cabled that I was not sure of
being able to get off on the _Utopia_, and apparently my second cable
was delayed, and when she received it she'd already asked some people
over Sunday - one or two of her old friends, Susy says. I'm so glad they
should have wanted to go to her at once; but naturally I'd rather have
been alone with her."

"You still mean to go, then?"

"Oh, I must. Susy wanted to drag me off to Ridgefield with her over
Sunday, and Leila sent me word that of course I might go if I wanted
to, and that I was not to think of her; but I know how disappointed she
would be. Susy said she was afraid I might be upset at her having people
to stay, and that, if I minded, she wouldn't urge me to come. But if
_they_ don't mind, why should I? And of course, if they're willing to go
to Leila it must mean - "

"Of course. I'm glad you recognize that," Franklin Ide exclaimed
abruptly. He stood up and went over to her, taking her hand with one of
his quick gestures. "There's something I want to say to you," he began -
*****

The next morning, in the train, through all the other contending
thoughts in Mrs. Lidcote's mind there ran the warm undercurrent of what
Franklin Ide had wanted to say to her.

He had wanted, she knew, to say it once before, when, nearly eight
years earlier, the hazard of meeting at the end of a rainy autumn in
a deserted Swiss hotel had thrown them for a fortnight into unwonted
propinquity. They had walked and talked together, borrowed each other's
books and newspapers, spent the long chill evenings over the fire in the
dim lamplight of her little pitch-pine sitting-room; and she had been
wonderfully comforted by his presence, and hard frozen places in her had
melted, and she had known that she would be desperately sorry when he
went. And then, just at the end, in his odd indirect way, he had let her
see that it rested with her to have him stay. She could still relive the
sleepless night she had given to that discovery. It was preposterous, of
course, to think of repaying his devotion by accepting such a sacrifice;
but how find reasons to convince him? She could not bear to let
him think her less touched, less inclined to him than she was: the
generosity of his love deserved that she should repay it with the truth.
Yet how let him see what she felt, and yet refuse what he offered? How
confess to him what had been on her lips when he made the offer: "I've
seen what it did to one man; and there must never, never be another"?
The tacit ignoring of her past had been the element in which their
friendship lived, and she could not suddenly, to him of all men, begin
to talk of herself like a guilty woman in a play. Somehow, in the end,
she had managed it, had averted a direct explanation, had made him
understand that her life was over, that she existed only for her
daughter, and that a more definite word from him would have been almost
a breach of delicacy. She was so used to be having as if her life were
over! And, at any rate, he had taken her hint, and she had been able to
spare her sensitiveness and his. The next year, when he came to Florence
to see her, they met again in the old friendly way; and that till now
had continued to be the tenor of their intimacy.

And now, suddenly and unexpectedly, he had brought up the question
again, directly this time, and in such a form that she could not evade
it: putting the renewal of his plea, after so long an interval, on the
ground that, on her own showing, her chief argument against it no longer
existed.

"You tell me Leila's happy. If she's happy, she doesn't need you - need
you, that is, in the same way as before. You wanted, I know, to be
always in reach, always free and available if she should suddenly call
you to her or take refuge with you. I understood that - I respected it.
I didn't urge my case because I saw it was useless. You couldn't, I
understood well enough, have felt free to take such happiness as life
with me might give you while she was unhappy, and, as you imagined,
with no hope of release. Even then I didn't feel as you did about it; I
understood better the trend of things here. But ten years ago the change
hadn't really come; and I had no way of convincing you that it was
coming. Still, I always fancied that Leila might not think her case was
closed, and so I chose to think that ours wasn't either. Let me go on


1 3

Online LibraryEdith WhartonAutres Temps... → online text (page 1 of 3)