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of such situations, and the act of offering a luncheon at Daurent's
to her cousins, the Harvey Mearses of Providence, and their friend Mr.
Jackson Benn, produced in her no emotion beyond the languid glow which
Mr. Benn's presence was beginning to impart to such scenes.

"It's frightful, the way you've got used to it," Andora Macy had wailed
in the first days of her friend's transfigured fortune, when Lizzie
West had waked one morning to find herself among the heirs of an old
and miserly cousin whose testamentary dispositions had formed, since her
earliest childhood, the subject of pleasantry and conjecture in her own
improvident family. Old Hezron Mears had never given any sign of life to
the luckless Wests; had perhaps hardly been conscious of including
them in the carefully drawn will which, following the old American
convention, scrupulously divided his hoarded millions among his kin. It
was by a mere genealogical accident that Lizzie, falling just within
the golden circle, found herself possessed of a pittance sufficient to
release her from the prospect of a long gray future in Mme. Clopin's
pension.

The release had seemed wonderful at first; yet she presently found that
it had destroyed her former world without giving her anew one. On the
ruins of the old pension life bloomed the only flower that had ever
sweetened her path; and beyond the sense of present ease, and the
removal of anxiety for the future, her reconstructed existence
blossomed with no compensating joys. She had hoped great things from the
opportunity to rest, to travel, to look about her, above all, in
various artful feminine ways, to be "nice" to the companions of her less
privileged state; but such widenings of scope left her, as it were, but
the more conscious of the empty margin of personal life beyond them. It
was not till she woke to the leisure of her new days that she had the
full sense of what was gone from them.

Their very emptiness made her strain to pack them with transient
sensations: she was like the possessor of an unfurnished house, with
random furniture and bric-a-brac perpetually pouring in "on approval."
It was in this experimental character that Mr. Jackson Benn had fixed
her attention, and the languid effort of her imagination to adjust him
to her requirements was seconded by the fond complicity of Andora and
the smiling approval of her cousins. Lizzie did not discourage these
demonstrations: she suffered serenely Andora's allusions to Mr. Benn's
infatuation, and Mrs. Mears's casual boast of his business standing.
All the better if they could drape his narrow square-shouldered frame and
round unwinking countenance in the trailing mists of sentiment: Lizzie
looked and listened, not unhopeful of the miracle.

"I never saw anything like the way these Frenchmen stare! Doesn't it
make you nervous, Lizzie?" Mrs. Mears broke out suddenly, ruffling her
feather boa about an outraged bosom. Mrs. Mears was still in that stage
of development when her countrywomen taste to the full the peril of
being exposed to the gaze of the licentious Gaul.

Lizzie roused herself from the contemplation of Mr. Benn's round baby
cheeks and the square blue jaw resting on his perpendicular collar. "Is
some one staring at me?" she asked with a smile.

"Don't turn round, whatever you do! There - just over there, between the
rhododendrons - the tall fair man alone at that table. Really, Harvey,
I think you ought to speak to the head-waiter, or something; though I
suppose in one of these places they'd only laugh at you," Mrs. Mears
shudderingly concluded.

Her husband, as if inclining to this probability, continued the
undisturbed dissection of his chicken wing; but Mr. Benn, perhaps
aware that his situation demanded a more punctilious attitude, sternly
revolved upon the parapet of his high collar in the direction of Mrs.
Mears's glance.

"What, that fellow all alone over there? Why, _he's_ not French; he's an
American," he then proclaimed with a perceptible relaxing of the facial
muscles.

"Oh!" murmured Mrs. Mears, as perceptibly disappointed, and Mr. Benn
continued carelessly: "He came over on the steamer with me. He's some
kind of an artist - a fellow named Deering. He was staring at _me_, I
guess: wondering whether I was going to remember him. Why, how d' 'e do?
How are you? Why, yes, of course; with pleasure - my friends, Mrs. Harvey
Mears - Mr. Mears; my friends Miss Macy and Miss West."

"I have the pleasure of knowing Miss West," said Vincent Deering with a
smile.



VI


EVEN through his smile Lizzie had seen, in the first moment, how changed
he was; and the impression of the change deepened to the point of pain
when, a few days later, in reply to his brief note, she accorded him a
private hour.

That the first sight of his writing - the first answer to
his letters - should have come, after three long years, in the shape of
this impersonal line, too curt to be called humble, yet confessing to a
consciousness of the past by the studied avoidance of its language! As
she read, her mind flashed back over what she had dreamed his letters
would be, over the exquisite answers she had composed above his name.
There was nothing exquisite in the conventional lines before her; but
dormant nerves began to throb again at the mere touch of the paper he
had touched, and she threw the little note into the fire before she
dared to reply to it.

Now that he was actually before her again, he became, as usual, the one
live spot in her consciousness. Once more her tormented throbbing self
sank back passive and numb, but now with all its power of suffering
mysteriously transferred to the presence, so known, yet so unknown, at
the opposite corner of her hearth. She was still Lizzie West, and he was
still Vincent Deering; but the Styx rolled between them, and she saw his
face through its fog. It was his face, really, rather than his words,
that told her, as she furtively studied it, the tale of failure and
slow discouragement which had so blurred its handsome lines. She kept
afterward no precise memory of the actual details of his narrative: the
pain it evidently cost him to impart it was so much the sharpest fact
in her new vision of him. Confusedly, however, she gathered that
on reaching America he had found his wife's small property gravely
impaired; and that, while lingering on to secure what remained of it,
he had contrived to sell a picture or two, and had even known a brief
moment of success, during which he received orders and set up a studio.
But inexplicably the tide had ebbed, his work remained on his hands, and
a tedious illness, with its miserable sequel of debt, soon wiped out his
small advantage. There followed a period of eclipse, still more vaguely
pictured, during which she was allowed to infer that he had tried
his hand at divers means of livelihood, accepting employment from
a fashionable house-decorator, designing wall-papers, illustrating
magazine articles, and acting for a time, she dimly understood, as the
social tout of a new hotel desirous of advertising its restaurant.
These disjointed facts were strung on a slender thread of personal
allusions - references to friends who had been kind (jealously, she
guessed them to be women), and to enemies who had darkly schemed against
him. But, true to his tradition of "correctness," he carefully avoided
the mention of names, and left her trembling conjectures to grope dimly
through an alien crowded world in which there seemed little room for her
small shy presence.

As she listened, her private pang was merged in the intolerable sense of
his unhappiness. Nothing he had said explained or excused his conduct to
her; but he had suffered, he had been lonely, had been humiliated,
and she suddenly felt, with a fierce maternal rage, that there was no
conceivable justification for any scheme of things in which such facts
were possible. She could not have said why: she simply knew that it hurt
too much to see him hurt.

Gradually it came to her that her unconsciousness of any personal
grievance was due to her having so definitely determined her own future.
She was glad she had decided, as she now felt she had, to marry Jackson
Benn, if only for the sense of detachment it gave her in dealing
with the case of Vincent Deering. Her personal safety insured her the
requisite impartiality, and justified her in dwelling as long as
she chose on the last lines of a chapter to which her own act had
deliberately fixed the close. Any lingering hesitations as to the
finality of her decision were dispelled by the imminent need of making
it known to Deering; and when her visitor paused in his reminiscences to
say, with a sigh, "But many things have happened to you too," his words
did not so much evoke the sense of her altered fortunes as the image of
the protector to whom she was about to intrust them.

"Yes, many things; it's three years," she answered.

Deering sat leaning forward, in his sad exiled elegance, his eyes gently
bent on hers; and at his side she saw the solid form of Mr. Jackson
Benn, with shoulders preternaturally squared by the cut of his tight
black coat, and a tall shiny collar sustaining his baby cheeks and hard
blue chin. Then the vision faded as Deering began to speak.

"Three years," he repeated, musingly taking up her words. "I've so often
wondered what they'd brought you."

She lifted her head with a quick blush, and the terrified wish that he
should not, at the cost of all his notions of correctness, lapse into
the blunder of becoming "personal."

"You've wondered?" She smiled back bravely.

"Do you suppose I haven't?" His look dwelt on her. "Yes, I daresay that
_was_ what you thought of me."

She had her answer pat - "Why, frankly, you know, I _didn't_ think of
you." But the mounting tide of her poor dishonored memories swept it
indignantly away. If it was his correctness to ignore, it could never be
hers to disavow.

"_ Was_ that what you thought of me?" she heard him repeat in a tone
of sad insistence; and at that, with a quick lift of her head, she
resolutely answered: "How could I know what to think? I had no word from
you."

If she had expected, and perhaps almost hoped, that this answer would
create a difficulty for him, the gaze of quiet fortitude with which he
met it proved that she had underestimated his resources.

"No, you had no word. I kept my vow," he said.

"Your vow?"

"That you _shouldn't_ have a word - not a syllable. Oh, I kept it through
everything!"

Lizzie's heart was sounding in her ears the old confused rumor of the
sea of life, but through it she desperately tried to distinguish the
still small voice of reason.

"What _was_ your vow? Why shouldn't I have had a syllable from you?"

He sat motionless, still holding her with a look so gentle that it
almost seemed forgiving.

Then abruptly he rose, and crossing the space between them, sat down in
a chair at her side. The deliberation of his movement might have implied
a forgetfulness of changed conditions, and Lizzie, as if thus viewing
it, drew slightly back; but he appeared not to notice her recoil, and
his eyes, at last leaving her face, slowly and approvingly made the
round of the small bright drawing-room. "This is charming. Yes, things
_have_ changed for you," he said.

A moment before she had prayed that he might be spared the error of
a vain return upon the past. It was as if all her retrospective
tenderness, dreading to see him at such a disadvantage, rose up to
protect him from it. But his evasiveness exasperated her, and suddenly
she felt the inconsistent desire to hold him fast, face to face with his
own words.

Before she could reiterate her question, however, he had met her with
another.

"You _did_ think of me, then? Why are you afraid to tell me that you
did?"

The unexpectedness of the challenge wrung an indignant cry from her.

"Didn't my letters tell you so enough?"

"Ah, your letters!" Keeping her gaze on his in a passion of unrelenting
fixity, she could detect in him no confusion, not the least quiver of a
sensitive nerve. He only gazed back at her more sadly.

"They went everywhere with me - your letters," he said.

"Yet you never answered them." At last the accusation trembled to her
lips.

"Yet I never answered them."

"Did you ever so much as read them, I wonder?"

All the demons of self-torture were up in her now, and she loosed them
on him, as if to escape from their rage.

Deering hardly seemed to hear her question. He merely shifted his
attitude, leaning a little nearer to her, but without attempting, by the
least gesture, to remind her of the privileges which such nearness had
once implied.

"There were beautiful, wonderful things in them," he said, smiling.

She felt herself stiffen under his smile.

"You've waited three years to tell me so!"

He looked at her with grave surprise. "And do you resent my telling you
even now?"

His parries were incredible. They left her with a breathless sense of
thrusting at emptiness, and a desperate, almost vindictive desire to
drive him against the wall and pin him there.

"No. Only I wonder you should take the trouble to tell me, when at the
time - "

And now, with a sudden turn, he gave her the final surprise of meeting
her squarely on her own ground.

"When at the time I didn't? But how _could_ I - at the time?"

"Why couldn't you? You've not yet told me?"

He gave her again his look of disarming patience. "Do I need to? Hasn't
my whole wretched story told you?"

"Told me why you never answered my letters?"

"Yes, since I could only answer them in one way - by protesting my love
and my longing."

There was a long pause of resigned expectancy on his part, on hers, of
a wild confused reconstruction of her shattered past. "You mean, then,
that you didn't write because - "

"Because I found, when I reached America, that I was a pauper; that my
wife's money was gone, and that what I could earn - I've so little gift
that way! - was barely enough to keep Juliet clothed and educated. It was
as if an iron door had been suddenly locked and barred between us."

Lizzie felt herself driven back, panting upon the last defenses of her
incredulity. "You might at least have told me - have explained. Do you
think I shouldn't have understood?"

He did not hesitate. "You would have understood. It wasn't that."

"What was it then?" she quavered.

"It's wonderful you shouldn't see! Simply that I couldn't write you
_that_. Anything else - not _that!_"

"And so you preferred to let me suffer?"

There was a shade of reproach in his eyes. "I suffered too," he said.

It was his first direct appeal to her compassion, and for a moment it
nearly unsettled the delicate poise of her sympathies, and sent them
trembling in the direction of scorn and irony. But even as the impulse
rose, it was stayed by another sensation. Once again, as so often in
the past, she became aware of a fact which, in his absence, she always
failed to reckon with - the fact of the deep irreducible difference
between his image in her mind and his actual self, the mysterious
alteration in her judgment produced by the inflections of his voice, the
look of his eyes, the whole complex pressure of his personality. She had
phrased it once self-reproachfully by saying to herself that she "never
could remember him," so completely did the sight of him supersede the
counterfeit about which her fancy wove its perpetual wonders. Bright and
breathing as that counterfeit was, it became a gray figment of the mind
at the touch of his presence; and on this occasion the immediate result
was to cause her to feel his possible unhappiness with an intensity
beside which her private injury paled.

"I suffered horribly," he repeated, "and all the more that I couldn't
make a sign, couldn't cry out my misery. There was only one escape from
it all - to hold my tongue, and pray that you might hate me."

The blood rushed to Lizzie's forehead. "Hate you - you prayed that I
might hate you?"

He rose from his seat, and moving closer, lifted her hand gently in
his. "Yes; because your letters showed me that, if you didn't, you'd be
unhappier still."

Her hand lay motionless, with the warmth of his flowing through it, and
her thoughts, too - her poor fluttering stormy thoughts - felt themselves
suddenly penetrated by the same soft current of communion.

"And I meant to keep my resolve," he went on, slowly releasing his
clasp. "I meant to keep it even after the random stream of things swept
me back here in your way; but when I saw you the other day, I felt that
what had been possible at a distance was impossible now that we were
near each other. How was it possible to see you and want you to hate me?"

He had moved away, but not to resume his seat. He merely paused at
a little distance, his hand resting on a chair-back, in the transient
attitude that precedes departure.

Lizzie's heart contracted. He was going, then, and this was his farewell.
He was going, and she could find no word to detain him but the senseless
stammer "I never hated you."

He considered her with his faint grave smile. "It's not necessary, at
any rate, that you should do so now. Time and circumstances have made me
so harmless - that's exactly why I've dared to venture back. And I wanted
to tell you how I rejoice in your good fortune. It's the only obstacle
between us that I can't bring myself to wish away."

Lizzie sat silent, spellbound, as she listened, by the sudden evocation
of Mr. Jackson Benn. He stood there again, between herself and Deering,
perpendicular and reproachful, but less solid and sharply outlined than
before, with a look in his small hard eyes that desperately wailed for
reembodiment.

Deering was continuing his farewell speech. "You're rich now, you're
free. You will marry." She vaguely saw him holding out his hand.

"It's not true that I'm engaged!" she broke out. They were the last
words she had meant to utter; they were hardly related to her conscious
thoughts; but she felt her whole will suddenly gathered up in the
irrepressible impulse to repudiate and fling away from her forever the
spectral claim of Mr. Jackson Benn.



VII


IT was the firm conviction of Andora Macy that every object in the
Vincent Deerings' charming little house at Neuilly had been expressly
designed for the Deerings' son to play with.

The house was full of pretty things, some not obviously applicable to
the purpose; but Miss Macy's casuistry was equal tothe baby's appetite,
and the baby's mother was no match for them in the art of defending her
possessions. There were moments, in fact, when Lizzie almost fell in
with Andora's summary division of her works of art into articles safe
or unsafe for the baby to lick, or resisted it only to the extent of
occasionally substituting some less precious or less perishable object
for the particular fragility on which her son's desire was fixed. And
it was with this intention that, on a certain fair spring morning - which
wore the added luster of being the baby's second birthday - she had
murmured, with her mouth in his curls, and one hand holding a bit of
Chelsea above his dangerous clutch: "Wouldn't he rather have that
beautiful shiny thing over there in Aunt Andorra's hand?"

The two friends were together in Lizzie's little morning-room - the room
she had chosen, on acquiring the house, because, when she sat there, she
could hear Deering's step as he paced up and down before his easel
in the studio she had built for him. His step had been less regularly
audible than she had hoped, for, after three years of wedded bliss, he
had somehow failed to settle down to the great work which was to result
from that privileged state; but even when she did not hear him she knew
that he was there, above her head, stretched out on the old divan from
Passy, and smoking endless cigarettes while he skimmed the morning
papers; and the sense of his nearness had not yet lost its first keen
edge of bliss.

Lizzie herself, on the day in question, was engaged in a more arduous
task than the study of the morning's news. She had never unlearned the
habit of orderly activity, and the trait she least understood in her
husband's character was his way of letting the loose ends of life hang
as they would. She had been disposed at first to ascribe this to the
chronic incoherence of his first _menage;_ but now she knew that, though
he basked under the rule of her beneficent hand, he would never feel any
active impulse to further its work. He liked to see things fall
into place about him at a wave of her wand; but his enjoyment of her
household magic in no way diminished his smiling irresponsibility, and
it was with one of its least amiable consequences that his wife and her
friend were now dealing.

Before them stood two travel-worn trunks and a distended portmanteau,
which had shed their contents in heterogeneous heaps over Lizzie's rosy
carpet. They represented the hostages left by her husband on his somewhat
precipitate departure from a New York boarding-house, and indignantly
redeemed by her on her learning, in a curt letter from his landlady,
that the latter was not disposed to regard them as an equivalent for the
arrears of Deering's board.

Lizzie had not been shocked by the discovery that her husband had left
America in debt. She had too sad an acquaintance with the economic
strain to see any humiliation in such accidents; but it offended her
sense of order that he should not have liquidated his obligation in
the three years since their marriage. He took her remonstrance with his
usual disarming grace, and left her to forward the liberating draft,
though her delicacy had provided him with a bank-account which assured
his personal independence. Lizzie had discharged the duty without
repugnance, since she knew that his delegating it to her was the result
of his good-humored indolence and not of any design on her exchequer.
Deering was not dazzled by money; his altered fortunes had tempted him
to no excesses: he was simply too lazy to draw the check, as he had been
too lazy to remember the debt it canceled.

"No, dear! No!" Lizzie lifted the Chelsea figure higher. "Can't you find
something for him, Andora, among that rubbish over there? Where's the
beaded bag you had in your hand just now? I don't think it could hurt
him to lick that."

Miss Macy, bag in hand, rose from her knees, and stumbled through the
slough of frayed garments and old studio properties. Before the group of
mother and son she fell into a raptured attitude.

"Do look at him reach for it, the tyrant! Isn't he just like the young
Napoleon?"

Lizzie laughed and swung her son in air. "Dangle it before him, Andora.
If you let him have it too quickly, he won't care for it. He's just like
any man, I think."

Andora slowly lowered the shining bag till the heir of the Deerings
closed his masterful fist upon it. "There - my Chelsea's safe!" Lizzie
smiled, setting her boy on the floor, and watching him stagger away with
his booty.

Andora stood beside her, watching too. "Have you any idea where that bag
came from, Lizzie?"

Mrs. Deering, bent above a pile of dis-collared shirts, shook an
inattentive head. "I never saw such wicked washing! There isn't one
that's fit to mend. The bag? No; I've not the least idea."

Andora surveyed her dramatically. "Doesn't it make you utterly miserable
to think that some woman may have made it for him?"

Lizzie, bowed in anxious scrutiny above the shirts, broke into an
unruffled laugh. "Really, Andora, really - six, seven, nine; no, there
isn't even a dozen. There isn't a whole dozen of _anything_. I don't see
how men live alone!"

Andora broodingly pursued her theme. "Do you mean to tell me it doesn't
make you jealous to handle these things of his that other women may have
given him?"

Lizzie shook her head again, and, straightening herself with a smile,
tossed a bundle in her friend's direction. "No, it doesn't make me the
least bit jealous. Here, count these socks for me, like a darling."

Andora moaned, "Don't you feel _anything at all?_" as the socks landed in
her hollow bosom; but Lizzie, intent upon her task, tranquilly continued
to unfold and sort. She felt a great deal as she did so, but her
feelings were too deep and delicate for the simplifying process of
speech. She only knew that each article she drew from the trunks sent
through her the long tremor of Deering's touch. It was part of her
wonderful new life that everything belonging to him contained an
infinitesimal fraction of himself - a fraction becoming visible in the


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Online LibraryEdith WhartonTales of Men and Ghosts → online text (page 21 of 22)