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SANCTUARY

By Edith Wharton




PART I


It is not often that youth allows itself to feel undividedly happy: the
sensation is too much the result of selection and elimination to be within
reach of the awakening clutch on life. But Kate Orme, for once, had yielded
herself to happiness; letting it permeate every faculty as a spring rain
soaks into a germinating meadow. There was nothing to account for this
sudden sense of beatitude; but was it not this precisely which made it
so irresistible, so overwhelming? There had been, within the last two
months - since her engagement to Denis Peyton - no distinct addition to
the sum of her happiness, and no possibility, she would have affirmed,
of adding perceptibly to a total already incalculable. Inwardly and
outwardly the conditions of her life were unchanged; but whereas, before,
the air had been full of flitting wings, now they seemed to pause over
her and she could trust herself to their shelter.

Many influences had combined to build up the centre of brooding peace in
which she found herself. Her nature answered to the finest vibrations,
and at first her joy in loving had been too great not to bring with it a
certain confusion, a readjusting of the whole scenery of life. She found
herself in a new country, wherein he who had led her there was least able
to be her guide. There were moments when she felt that the first stranger
in the street could have interpreted her happiness for her more easily
than Denis. Then, as her eye adapted itself, as the lines flowed into each
other, opening deep vistas upon new horizons, she began to enter into
possession of her kingdom, to entertain the actual sense of its belonging
to her. But she had never before felt that she also belonged to it; and
this was the feeling which now came to complete her happiness, to give it
the hallowing sense of permanence.

She rose from the writing-table where, list in hand, she had been going
over the wedding-invitations, and walked toward the drawing-room window.
Everything about her seemed to contribute to that rare harmony of feeling
which levied a tax on every sense. The large coolness of the room, its fine
traditional air of spacious living, its outlook over field and woodland
toward the lake lying under the silver bloom of September; the very scent
of the late violets in a glass on the writing-table; the rosy-mauve masses
of hydrangea in tubs along the terrace; the fall, now and then, of a leaf
through the still air - all, somehow, were mingled in the suffusion of
well-being that yet made them seem but so much dross upon its current.

The girl's smile prolonged itself at the sight of a figure approaching from
the lower slopes above the lake. The path was a short cut from the Peyton
place, and she had known that Denis would appear in it at about that hour.
Her smile, however, was prolonged not so much by his approach as by her
sense of the impossibility of communicating her mood to him. The feeling
did not disturb her. She could not imagine sharing her deepest moods with
any one, and the world in which she lived with Denis was too bright and
spacious to admit of any sense of constraint. Her smile was in truth a
tribute to that clear-eyed directness of his which was so often a refuge
from her own complexities.

Denis Peyton was used to being met with a smile. He might have been
pardoned for thinking smiles the habitual wear of the human countenance;
and his estimate of life and of himself was necessarily tinged by the
cordial terms on which they had always met each other. He had in fact found
life, from the start, an uncommonly agreeable business, culminating fitly
enough in his engagement to the only girl he had ever wished to marry,
and the inheritance, from his unhappy step-brother, of a fortune which
agreeably widened his horizon. Such a combination of circumstances might
well justify a young man in thinking himself of some account in the
universe; and it seemed the final touch of fitness that the mourning which
Denis still wore for poor Arthur should lend a new distinction to his
somewhat florid good looks.

Kate Orme was not without an amused perception of her future husband's
point of view; but she could enter into it with the tolerance which
allows for the inconscient element in all our judgments. There was, for
instance, no one more sentimentally humane than Denis's mother, the
second Mrs. Peyton, a scented silvery person whose lavender silks and
neutral-tinted manner expressed a mind with its blinds drawn down toward
all the unpleasantness of life; yet it was clear that Mrs. Peyton saw a
"dispensation" in the fact that her step-son had never married, and that
his death had enabled Denis, at the right moment, to step gracefully into
affluence. Was it not, after all, a sign of healthy-mindedness to take the
gifts of the gods in this religious spirit, discovering fresh evidence of
"design" in what had once seemed the sad fact of Arthur's inaccessibility
to correction? Mrs. Peyton, beautifully conscious of having done her "best"
for Arthur, would have thought it unchristian to repine at the providential
failure of her efforts. Denis's deductions were, of course, a little less
direct than his mother's. He had, besides, been fond of Arthur, and his
efforts to keep the poor fellow straight had been less didactic and more
spontaneous. Their result read itself, if not in any change in Arthur's
character, at least in the revised wording of his will; and Denis's moral
sense was pleasantly fortified by the discovery that it very substantially
paid to be a good fellow.

The sense of general providentialness on which Mrs. Peyton reposed had in
fact been confirmed by events which reduced Denis's mourning to a mere
tribute of respect - since it would have been a mockery to deplore the
disappearance of any one who had left behind him such an unsavory wake as
poor Arthur. Kate did not quite know what had happened: her father was as
firmly convinced as Mrs. Peyton that young girls should not be admitted to
any open discussion of life. She could only gather, from the silences and
evasions amid which she moved, that a woman had turned up - a woman who was
of course "dreadful," and whose dreadfulness appeared to include a sort
of shadowy claim upon Arthur. But the claim, whatever it was, had been
promptly discredited. The whole question had vanished and the woman with
it. The blinds were drawn again on the ugly side of things, and life was
resumed on the usual assumption that no such side existed. Kate knew only
that a darkness had crossed her sky and left it as unclouded as before.

Was it, perhaps, she now asked herself, the very lifting of the
cloud - remote, unthreatening as it had been - which gave such new serenity
to her heaven? It was horrible to think that one's deepest security was
a mere sense of escape - that happiness was no more than a reprieve. The
perversity of such ideas was emphasized by Peyton's approach. He had the
gift of restoring things to their normal relations, of carrying one over
the chasms of life through the closed tunnel of an incurious cheerfulness.
All that was restless and questioning in the girl subsided in his presence,
and she was content to take her love as a gift of grace, which began just
where the office of reason ended. She was more than ever, to-day, in this
mood of charmed surrender. More than ever he seemed the keynote of the
accord between herself and life, the centre of a delightful complicity in
every surrounding circumstance. One could not look at him without seeing
that there was always a fair wind in his sails.

It was carrying him toward her, as usual, at a quick confident pace,
which nevertheless lagged a little, she noticed, as he emerged from the
beech-grove and struck across the lawn. He walked as though he were tired.
She had meant to wait for him on the terrace, held in check by her usual
inclination to linger on the threshold of her pleasures; but now something
drew her toward him, and she went quickly down the steps and across the
lawn.

"Denis, you look tired. I was afraid something had happened."

She had slipped her hand through his arm, and as they moved forward she
glanced up at him, struck not so much by any new look in his face as by the
fact that her approach had made no change in it.

"I am rather tired. - Is your father in?"

"Papa?" She looked up in surprise. "He went to town yesterday. Don't you
remember?"

"Of course - I'd forgotten. You're alone, then?" She dropped his arm and
stood before him. He was very pale now, with the furrowed look of extreme
physical weariness.

"Denis - are you ill? _Has_ anything happened?"

He forced a smile. "Yes - but you needn't look so frightened."

She drew a deep breath of reassurance. _He_ was safe, after all! And
all else, for a moment, seemed to swing below the rim of her world.

"Your mother - ?" she then said, with a fresh start of fear.

"It's not my mother." They had reached the terrace, and he moved toward the
house. "Let us go indoors. There's such a beastly glare out here."

He seemed to find relief in the cool obscurity of the drawing-room, where,
after the brightness of the afternoon light, their faces were almost
indistinguishable to each other. She sat down, and he moved a few paces
away. Before the writing-table he paused to look at the neatly sorted heaps
of wedding-cards.

"They are to be sent out to-morrow?"

"Yes."

He turned back and stood before her.

"It's about the woman," he began abruptly - "the woman who pretended to be
Arthur's wife."

Kate started as at the clutch of an unacknowledged fear.

"She _was_ his wife, then?"

Peyton made an impatient movement of negation. "If she was, why didn't she
prove it? She hadn't a shred of evidence. The courts rejected her appeal."

"Well, then - ?"

"Well, she's dead." He paused, and the next words came with difficulty.
"She and the child."

"The child? There was a child?"

"Yes."

Kate started up and then sank down. These were not things about which young
girls were told. The confused sense of horror had been nothing to this
first sharp edge of fact.

"And both are dead?"

"Yes."

"How do you know? My father said she had gone away - gone back to the
West - "

"So we thought. But this morning we found her."

"Found her?"

He motioned toward the window. "Out there - in the lake."

"Both?"

"Both."

She drooped before him shudderingly, her eyes hidden, as though to exclude
the vision. "She had drowned herself?"

"Yes."

"Oh, poor thing - poor thing!"

They paused awhile, the minutes delving an abyss between them till he threw
a few irrelevant words across the silence.

"One of the gardeners found them."

"Poor thing!"

"It was sufficiently horrible."

"Horrible - oh!" She had swung round again to her pole. "Poor Denis!
_You_ were not there - _you_ didn't have to - ?"

"I had to see her." She felt the instant relief in his voice. He could talk
now, could distend his nerves in the warm air of her sympathy. "I had to
identify her." He rose nervously and began to pace the room. "It's knocked
the wind out of me. I - my God! I couldn't foresee it, could I?" He halted
before her with outstretched hands of argument. "I did all I could - it's
not _my_ fault, is it?"

"Your fault? Denis!"

"She wouldn't take the money - " He broke off, checked by her awakened
glance.

"The money? What money?" Her face changed, hardening as his relaxed. "Had
you offered her _money_ to give up the case?"

He stared a moment, and then dismissed the implication with a laugh.

"No - no; after the case was decided against her. She seemed hard up, and I
sent Hinton to her with a cheque."

"And she refused it?"

"Yes."

"What did she say?"

"Oh, I don't know - the usual thing. That she'd only wanted to prove she was
his wife - on the child's account. That she'd never wanted his money. Hinton
said she was very quiet - not in the least excited - but she sent back the
cheque."

Kate sat motionless, her head bent, her hands clasped about her knees. She
no longer looked at Peyton.

"Could there have been a mistake?" she asked slowly.

"A mistake?"

She raised her head now, and fixed her eyes on his, with a strange
insistence of observation. "Could they have been married?"

"The courts didn't think so."

"Could the courts have been mistaken?"

He started up again, and threw himself into another chair. "Good God, Kate!
We gave her every chance to prove her case - why didn't she do it? You don't
know what you're talking about - such things are kept from girls. Why,
whenever a man of Arthur's kind dies, such - such women turn up. There are
lawyers who live on such jobs - ask your father about it. Of course, this
woman expected to be bought off - "

"But if she wouldn't take your money?"

"She expected a big sum, I mean, to drop the case. When she found we meant
to fight it, she saw the game was up. I suppose it was her last throw, and
she was desperate; we don't know how many times she may have been through
the same thing before. That kind of woman is always trying to make money
out of the heirs of any man who - who has been about with them."

Kate received this in silence. She had a sense of walking along a narrow
ledge of consciousness above a sheer hallucinating depth into which she
dared not look. But the depth drew her, and she plunged one terrified
glance into it.

"But the child - the child was Arthur's?"

Peyton shrugged his shoulders. "There again - how can we tell? Why, I don't
suppose the woman herself - I wish to heaven your father were here to
explain!"

She rose and crossed over to him, laying her hands on his shoulders with a
gesture almost maternal.

"Don't let us talk of it," she said. "You did all you could. Think what a
comfort you were to poor Arthur."

He let her hands lie where she had placed them, without response or
resistance.

"I tried - I tried hard to keep him straight!"

"We all know that - every one knows it. And we know how grateful he
was - what a difference it made to him in the end. It would have been
dreadful to think of his dying out there alone."

She drew him down on a sofa and seated herself by his side. A deep
lassitude was upon him, and the hand she had possessed herself of lay in
her hold inert.

"It was splendid of you to travel day and night as you did. And then that
dreadful week before he died! But for you he would have died alone among
strangers."

He sat silent, his head dropping forward, his eyes fixed. "Among
strangers," he repeated absently.

She looked up, as if struck by a sudden thought. "That poor woman - did you
ever see her while you were out there?"

He drew his hand away and gathered his brows together as if in an effort of
remembrance.

"I saw her - oh, yes, I saw her." He pushed the tumbled hair from his
forehead and stood up. "Let us go out," he said. "My head is in a fog. I
want to get away from it all."

A wave of compunction drew her to her feet.

"It was my fault! I ought not to have asked so many questions." She turned
and rang the bell. "I'll order the ponies - we shall have time for a drive
before sunset."


II

With the sunset in their faces they swept through the keen-scented autumn
air at the swiftest pace of Kate's ponies. She had given the reins to
Peyton, and he had turned the horses' heads away from the lake, rising by
woody upland lanes to the high pastures which still held the sunlight. The
horses were fresh enough to claim his undivided attention, and he drove in
silence, his smooth fair profile turned to his companion, who sat silent
also.

Kate Orme was engaged in one of those rapid mental excursions which were
forever sweeping her from the straight path of the actual into uncharted
regions of conjecture. Her survey of life had always been marked by the
tendency to seek out ultimate relations, to extend her researches to the
limit of her imaginative experience. But hitherto she had been like some
young captive brought up in a windowless palace whose painted walls she
takes for the actual world. Now the palace had been shaken to its base, and
through a cleft in the walls she looked out upon life. For the first moment
all was indistinguishable blackness; then she began to detect vague shapes
and confused gestures in the depths. There were people below there, men
like Denis, girls like herself - for under the unlikeness she felt the
strange affinity - all struggling in that awful coil of moral darkness, with
agonized hands reaching up for rescue. Her heart shrank from the horror of
it, and then, in a passion of pity, drew back to the edge of the abyss.
Suddenly her eyes turned toward Denis. His face was grave, but less
disturbed. And men knew about these things! They carried this abyss in
their bosoms, and went about smiling, and sat at the feet of innocence.
Could it be that Denis - Denis even - Ah, no! She remembered what he had been
to poor Arthur; she understood, now, the vague allusions to what he had
tried to do for his brother. He had seen Arthur down there, in that coiling
blackness, and had leaned over and tried to drag him out. But Arthur was
too deep down, and his arms were interlocked with other arms - they had
dragged each other deeper, poor souls, like drowning people who fight
together in the waves! Kate's visualizing habit gave a hateful precision
and persistency to the image she had evoked - she could not rid herself of
the vision of anguished shapes striving together in the darkness. The
horror of it took her by the throat - she drew a choking breath, and felt
the tears on her face.

Peyton turned to her. The horses were climbing a hill, and his attention
had strayed from them.

"This has done me good," he began; but as he looked his voice changed.
"Kate! What is it? Why are you crying? Oh, for God's sake, _don't_!"
he ended, his hand closing on her wrist.

She steadied herself and raised her eyes to his.

"I - I couldn't help it," she stammered, struggling in the sudden release of
her pent compassion. "It seems so awful that we should stand so close to
this horror - that it might have been you who - "

"I who - what on earth do you mean?" he broke in stridently.

"Oh, don't you see? I found myself exulting that you and I were so far from
it - above it - safe in ourselves and each other - and then the other feeling
came - the sense of selfishness, of going by on the other side; and I tried
to realize that it might have been you and I who - who were down there in
the night and the flood - "

Peyton let the whip fall on the ponies' flanks. "Upon my soul," he said
with a laugh, "you must have a nice opinion of both of us."

The words fell chillingly on the blaze of her self-immolation. Would
she never learn to remember that Denis was incapable of mounting such
hypothetical pyres? He might be as alive as herself to the direct demands
of duty, but of its imaginative claims he was robustly unconscious. The
thought brought a wholesome reaction of thankfulness.

"Ah, well," she said, the sunset dilating through her tears, "don't you see
that I can bear to think such things only because they're impossibilities?
It's easy to look over into the depths if one has a rampart to lean on.
What I most pity poor Arthur for is that, instead of that woman lying
there, so dreadfully dead, there might have been a girl like me, so
exquisitely alive because of him; but it seems cruel, doesn't it, to let
what he was not add ever so little to the value of what you are? To let him
contribute ever so little to my happiness by the difference there is
between you?"

She was conscious, as she spoke, of straying again beyond his
reach, through intricacies of sensation new even to her exploring
susceptibilities. A happy literalness usually enabled him to strike a short
cut through such labyrinths, and rejoin her smiling on the other side; but
now she became wonderingly aware that he had been caught in the thick of
her hypothesis.

"It's the difference that makes you care for me, then?" he broke out, with
a kind of violence which seemed to renew his clutch on her wrist.

"The difference?"

He lashed the ponies again, so sharply that a murmur escaped her, and he
drew them up, quivering, with an inconsequent "Steady, boys," at which
their back-laid ears protested.

"It's because I'm moral and respectable, and all that, that you're fond of
me," he went on; "you're - you're simply in love with my virtues. You
couldn't imagine caring if I were down there in the ditch, as you say, with
Arthur?"

The question fell on a silence which seemed to deepen suddenly within
herself. Every thought hung bated on the sense that something was coming:
her whole consciousness became a void to receive it.

"Denis!" she cried.

He turned on her almost savagely. "I don't want your pity, you know," he
burst out. "You can keep that for Arthur. I had an idea women loved men for
themselves - through everything, I mean. But I wouldn't steal your love - I
don't want it on false pretenses, you understand. Go and look into other
men's lives, that's all I ask of you. I slipped into it - it was just a case
of holding my tongue when I ought to have spoken - but I - I - for God's sake,
don't sit there staring! I suppose you've seen all along that I knew he was
married to the woman."


III

The housekeeper's reminding her that Mr. Orme would be at home the next day
for dinner, and did she think he would like the venison with claret sauce
or jelly, roused Kate to the first consciousness of her surroundings.
Her father would return on the morrow: he would give to the dressing of
the venison such minute consideration as, in his opinion, every detail
affecting his comfort or convenience quite obviously merited. And if
it were not the venison it would be something else; if it were not the
housekeeper it would be Mr. Orme, charged with the results of a conference
with his agent, a committee-meeting at his club, or any of the other
incidents which, by happening to himself, became events. Kate found herself
caught in the inexorable continuity of life, found herself gazing over a
scene of ruin lit up by the punctual recurrence of habit as nature's calm
stare lights the morrow of a whirlwind.

Life was going on, then, and dragging her at its wheels. She could
neither check its rush nor wrench loose from it and drop out - oh, how
blessedly - into darkness and cessation. She must go bounding on, racked,
broken, but alive in every fibre. The most she could hope was a few hours'
respite, not from her own terrors, but from the pressure of outward claims:
the midday halt, during which the victim is unbound while his torturers
rest from their efforts. Till her father's return she would have the house
to herself, and, the question of the venison despatched, could give herself
to long lonely pacings of the empty rooms, and shuddering subsidences upon
her pillow.

Her first impulse, as the mist cleared from her brain, was the habitual one
of reaching out for ultimate relations. She wanted to know the worst; and
for her, as she saw in a flash, the worst of it was the core of fatality
in what had happened. She shrank from her own way of putting it - nor was
it even figuratively true that she had ever felt, under faith in Denis,
any such doubt as the perception implied. But that was merely because her
imagination had never put him to the test. She was fond of exposing herself
to hypothetical ordeals, but somehow she had never carried Denis with her
on these adventures. What she saw now was that, in a world of strangeness,
he remained the object least strange to her. She was not in the tragic case
of the girl who suddenly sees her lover unmasked. No mask had dropped from
Denis's face: the pink shades had simply been lifted from the lamps, and
she saw him for the first time in an unmitigated glare.

Such exposure does not alter the features, but it lays an ugly emphasis
on the most charming lines, pushing the smile to a grin, the curve of
good-nature to the droop of slackness. And it was precisely into the
flagging lines of extreme weakness that Denis's graceful contour flowed.
In the terrible talk which had followed his avowal, and wherein every word
flashed a light on his moral processes, she had been less startled by what
he had done than by the way in which his conscience had already become a
passive surface for the channelling of consequences. He was like a child
who had put a match to the curtains, and stands agape at the blaze.
It was horribly naughty to put the match - but beyond that the child's


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