Edith Wharton.

Tales of Men and Ghosts online

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warmth of her love as certain secret elements become visible in rare
intensities of temperature. And in the case of the objects before
her, poor shabby witnesses of his days of failure, what they gave out
acquired a special poignancy from its contrast to his present cherished
state. His shirts were all in round dozens now, and washed as carefully
as old lace. As for his socks, she knew the pattern of every pair, and
would have liked to see the washerwoman who dared to mislay one, or
bring it home with the colors "run"! And in these homely tokens of his
well-being she saw the symbol of what her tenderness had brought him.
He was safe in it, encompassed by it, morally and materially, and she
defied the embattled powers of malice to reach him through the armor of
her love. Such feelings, however, were not communicable, even had one
desired to express them: they were no more to be distinguished from the
sense of life itself than bees from the lime-blossoms in which they
murmur.

"Oh, do _look_ at him, Lizzie! He's found out how to open the bag!"

Lizzie lifted her head to smile a moment at her son, who sat throned on
a heap of studio rubbish, with Andora before him on adoring knees.
She thought vaguely, "Poor Andora!" and then resumed the discouraged
inspection of a buttonless white waistcoat. The next sound she was aware
of was a fluttered exclamation from her friend.

"Why, Lizzie, do you know what he used the bag for? To keep your letters
in!"

Lizzie looked up more quickly. She was aware that Andora's pronoun had
changed its object, and was now applied to Deering. And it struck her
as odd, and slightly disagreeable, that a letter of hers should be found
among the rubbish abandoned in her husband's New York lodgings.

"How funny! Give it to me, please."

"Give the bag to Aunt Andora, darling! Here - look inside, and see what
else a big big boy can find there! Yes, here's another! Why, why - "

Lizzie rose with a shade of impatience and crossed the floor to the
romping group beside the other trunk.

"What is it? Give me the letters, please." As she spoke, she suddenly
recalled the day when, in Mme. Clopin's _pension_, she had addressed a
similar behest to Andora Macy.

Andora had lifted a look of startled conjecture. "Why, this one's never
been opened! Do you suppose that awful woman could have kept it from
him?"

Lizzie laughed. Andora's imaginings were really puerile. "What awful
woman? His landlady? Don't be such a goose, Andora. How can it have been
kept back from him, when we've found it here among his things?"

"Yes; but then why was it never opened?"

Andora held out the letter, and Lizzie took it. The writing was hers; the
envelop bore the Passy postmark; and it was unopened. She stood looking
at it with a sudden sharp drop of the heart.

"Why, so are the others - all unopened!" Andora threw out on a rising
note; but Lizzie, stooping over, stretched out her hand.

"Give them to me, please."

"Oh, Lizzie, Lizzie - " Andora, still on her knees, continued to hold
back the packet, her pale face paler with anger and compassion. "Lizzie,
they're the letters I used to post for you - _the letters he never
answered!_ Look!"

"Give them back to me, please."

The two women faced each other, Andora kneeling, Lizzie motionless
before her, the letters in her hand. The blood had rushed to her face,
humming in her ears, and forcing itself into the veins of her temples
like hot lead. Then it ebbed, and she felt cold and weak.

"It must have been some plot - some conspiracy!" Andora cried, so fired
by the ecstasy of invention that for the moment she seemed lost to all
but the esthetic aspect of the case.

Lizzie turned away her eyes with an effort, and they rested on the boy,
who sat at her feet placidly sucking the tassels of the bag. His mother
stooped and extracted them from his rosy mouth, which a cry of wrath
immediately filled. She lifted him in her arms, and for the first time
no current of life ran from his body into hers. He felt heavy and clumsy,
like some one else's child; and his screams annoyed her.

"Take him away, please, Andora."

"Oh, Lizzie, Lizzie!" Andora wailed.

Lizzie held out the child, and Andora, struggling to her feet, received
him.

"I know just how you feel," she gasped out above the baby's head.

Lizzie, in some dark hollow of herself, heard the echo of a laugh.
Andora always thought she knew how people felt!

"Tell Marthe to take him with her when she fetches Juliet home from
school."

"Yes, yes." Andora gloated over her. "If you'd only give way, my
darling!"

The baby, howling, dived over Andora's shoulder for the bag.

"Oh, _take_ him!" his mother ordered.

Andora, from the door, cried out: "I'll be back at once. Remember, love,
you're not alone!"

But Lizzie insisted, "Go with them - I wish you to go with them," in the
tone to which Miss Macy had never learned the answer.

The door closed on her outraged back, and Lizzie stood alone. She looked
about the disordered room, which offered a dreary image of the havoc
of her life. An hour or two ago everything about her had been so
exquisitely ordered, without and within; her thoughts and emotions had
lain outspread before her like delicate jewels laid away symmetrically
in a collector's cabinet. Now they had been tossed down helter-skelter
among the rubbish there on the floor, and had themselves turned to
rubbish like the rest. Yes, there lay her life at her feet, among all
that tarnished trash.

She knelt and picked up her letters, ten in all, and examined the flaps
of the envelops. Not one had been opened - not one. As she looked, every
word she had written fluttered to life, and every feeling prompting it
sent a tremor through her. With vertiginous speed and microscopic vision
she was reliving that whole period of her life, stripping bare again the
black ruin over which the drift of three happy years had fallen.

She laughed at Andora's notion of a conspiracy - of the letters having
been "kept back." She required no extraneous aid in deciphering the
mystery: her three years' experience of Deering shed on it all the
light she needed. And yet a moment before she had believed herself to be
perfectly happy! Now it was the worst part of her anguish that it did not
really surprise her.

She knew so well how it must have happened. The letters had reached him
when he was busy, occupied with something else, and had been put aside
to be read at some future time - a time which never came. Perhaps on his
way to America, on the steamer, even, he had met "some one else" - the
"some one" who lurks, veiled and ominous, in the background of every
woman's thoughts about her lover. Or perhaps he had been merely
forgetful. She had learned from experience that the sensations which he
seemed to feel with the most exquisite intensity left no reverberations
in his mind - that he did not relive either his pleasures or his pains.
She needed no better proof of that than the lightness of his conduct
toward his daughter. He seemed to have taken it for granted that Juliet
would remain indefinitely with the friends who had received her
after her mother's death, and it was at Lizzie's suggestion that the
little girl was brought home and that they had established themselves at
Neuilly to be near her school. But Juliet once with them, he became the
model of a tender father, and Lizzie wondered that he had not felt
the child's absence, since he seemed so affectionately aware of her
presence.

Lizzie had noted all this in Juliet's case, but had taken for granted
that her own was different; that she formed, for Deering, the exception
which every woman secretly supposes herself to form in the experience
of the man she loves. Certainly, she had learned by this time that she
could not modify his habits, but she imagined that she had deepened his
sensibilities, had furnished him with an "ideal" - angelic function!
And she now saw that the fact of her letters - her unanswered
letters - having, on his own assurance, "meant so much" to him, had been
the basis on which this beautiful fabric was reared.

There they lay now, the letters, precisely as when they had left her
hands. He had not had time to read them; and there had been a moment in
her past when that discovery would have been the sharpest pang imaginable
to her heart. She had traveled far beyond that point. She could have
forgiven him now for having forgotten her; but she could never forgive
him for having deceived her.

She sat down, and looked again vaguely about the room. Suddenly she
heard his step overhead, and her heart contracted. She was afraid he was
coming down to her. She sprang up and bolted the door; then she dropped
into the nearest chair, tremulous and exhausted, as if the pushing of
the bolt had required an immense muscular effort. A moment later she
heard him on the stairs, and her tremor broke into a cold fit of shaking.
"I loathe you - I loathe you!" she cried.

She listened apprehensively for his touch on the handle of the door.
He would come in, humming a tune, to ask some idle question and lay
a caress on her hair. But no, the door was bolted; she was safe. She
continued to listen, and the step passed on. He had not been coming
to her, then. He must have gone down-stairs to fetch something - another
newspaper, perhaps. He seemed to read little else, and she sometimes
wondered when he had found time to store the material that used to serve
for their famous "literary" talks. The wonder shot through her again,
barbed with a sneer. At that moment it seemed to her that everything he
had ever done and been was a lie.

She heard the house-door close, and started up. Was he going out? It was
not his habit to leave the house in the morning.

She crossed the room to the window, and saw him walking, with a quick
decided step, between the budding lilacs to the gate. What could have
called him forth at that unwonted hour? It was odd that he should not
have told her. The fact that she thought it odd suddenly showed her how
closely their lives were interwoven. She had become a habit to him, and
he was fond of his habits. But to her it was as if a stranger had opened
the gate and gone out. She wondered what he would feel if he knew that
she felt _that_.

"In an hour he will know," she said to herself, with a kind of fierce
exultation; and immediately she began to dramatize the scene. As soon as
he came in she meant to call him up to her room and hand him the letters
without a word. For a moment she gloated on the picture; then her
imagination recoiled from it. She was humiliated by the thought of
humiliating him. She wanted to keep his image intact; she would not see
him.

He had lied to her about her letters - had lied to her when he found it
to his interest to regain her favor. Yes, there was the point to hold
fast. He had sought her out when he learned that she was rich. Perhaps
he had come back from America on purpose to marry her; no doubt he had
come back on purpose. It was incredible that she had not seen this
at the time. She turned sick at the thought of her fatuity and of
the grossness of his arts. Well, the event proved that they were all
he needed. But why had he gone out at such an hour? She was irritated to
find herself still preoccupied by his comings and goings.

Turning from the window, she sat down again. She wondered what she meant
to do next. No, she would not show him the letters; she would simply
leave them on his table and go away. She would leave the house with her
boy and Andora. It was a relief to feel a definite plan forming itself
in her mind - something that her uprooted thoughts could fasten on. She
would go away, of course; and meanwhile, in order not to see him, she
would feign a headache, and remain in her room till after luncheon. Then
she and Andora would pack a few things, and fly with the child while he
was dawdling about up-stairs in the studio. When one's house fell, one
fled from the ruins: nothing could be simpler, more inevitable.

Her thoughts were checked by the impossibility of picturing what would
happen next. Try as she would, she could not see herself and the child
away from Deering. But that, of course, was because of her nervous
weakness. She had youth, money, energy: all the trumps were on her side.
It was much more difficult to imagine what would become of Deering. He
was so dependent on her, and they had been so happy together! The fact
struck her as illogical, and even immoral, and yet she knew he had been
happy with her. It never happened like that in novels: happiness "built
on a lie" always crumbled, and buried the presumptuous architect beneath
the ruins. According to the laws of every novel she had ever read,
Deering, having deceived her once, would inevitably have gone on
deceiving her. Yet she knew he had not gone on deceiving her.

She tried again to picture her new life. Her friends, of course, would
rally about her. But the prospect left her cold; she did not want them
to rally. She wanted only one thing - the life she had been living before
she had given her baby the embroidered bag to play with. Oh, why had she
given him the bag? She had been so happy, they had all been so
happy! Every nerve in her clamored for her lost happiness, angrily,
unreasonably, as the boy had clamored for his bag! It was horrible to
know too much; there was always blood in the foundations. Parents "kept
things" from children - protected them from all the dark secrets of pain
and evil. And was any life livable unless it were thus protected? Could
any one look in the Medusa's face and live?

But why should she leave the house, since it was hers? Here, with her
boy and Andora, she could still make for herself the semblance of a
life. It was Deering who would have to go; he would understand that as
soon as he saw the letters.

She pictured him in the act of going - leaving the house as he had left
it just now. She saw the gate closing on him for the last time. Now her
vision was acute enough: she saw him as distinctly as if he were in the
room. Ah, he would not like returning to the old life of privations and
expedients! And yet she knew he would not plead with her.

Suddenly a new thought rushed through her mind. What if Andora had
rushed to him with the tale of the discovery of the letters - with the
"Fly, you are discovered!" of romantic fiction? What if he _had_ left
her for good? It would not be unlike him, after all. Under his wonderful
gentleness he was always evasive and inscrutable. He might have said to
himself that he would forestall her action, and place himself at once
on the defensive. It might be that she _had_ seen him go out of the gate
for the last time.

She looked about the room again, as if this thought had given it a new
aspect. Yes, this alone could explain her husband's going out. It was
past twelve o'clock, their usual luncheon hour, and he was scrupulously
punctual at meals, and gently reproachful if she kept him waiting. Only
some unwonted event could have caused him to leave the house at such
an hour and with such marks of haste. Well, perhaps it was better that
Andora should have spoken. She mistrusted her own courage; she almost
hoped the deed had been done for her. Yet her next sensation was one of
confused resentment. She said to herself, "Why has Andora interfered?"
She felt baffled and angry, as though her prey had escaped her. If
Deering had been in the house, she would have gone to him instantly and
overwhelmed him with her scorn. But he had gone out, and she did not
know where he had gone, and oddly mingled with her anger against him was
the latent instinct of vigilance, the solicitude of the woman accustomed
to watch over the man she loves. It would be strange never to feel that
solicitude again, never to hear him say, with his hand on her hair:
"Why, you foolish child, were you worried? Am I late?"

The sense of his touch was so real that she stiffened herself against
it, flinging back her head as if to throw off his hand. The mere thought
of his caress was hateful; yet she felt it in all her traitorous veins.
Yes, she felt it, but with horror and repugnance. It was something she
wanted to escape from, and the fact of struggling against it was what
made its hold so strong. It was as though her mind were sounding her
body to make sure of its allegiance, spying on it for any secret movement
of revolt.

To escape from the sensation, she rose and went again to the window. No
one was in sight. But presently the gate began to swing back, and her
heart gave a leap - she knew not whether up or down. A moment later the
gate opened slowly to admit a perambulator, propelled by the nurse and
flanked by Juliet and Andora. Lizzie's eyes rested on the familiar group
as if she had never seen it before, and she stood motionless, instead of
flying down to meet the children.

Suddenly there was a step on the stairs, and she heard Andora's agitated
knock. She unbolted the door, and was strained to her friend's emaciated
bosom.

"My darling!" Miss Macy cried. "Remember you have your child - and me!"

Lizzie loosened herself gently. She looked at Andora with a feeling of
estrangement which she could not explain.

"Have you spoken to my husband?" she asked, drawing coldly back.

"Spoken to him? No." Andora stared at her in genuine wonder.

"Then you haven't met him since he left me?"

"No, my love. Is he out? I haven't met him."

Lizzie sat down with a confused sense of relief, which welled up to her
throat and made speech difficult.

Suddenly light came to Andora. "I understand, dearest. You don't feel
able to see him yourself. You want me to go to him for you." She looked
about her, scenting the battle. "You're right, darling. As soon as he
comes in I'll go to him. The sooner we get it over the better."

She followed Lizzie, who without answering her had turned mechanically
back to the window. As they stood there, the gate moved again, and
Deering entered the garden.

"There he is now!" Lizzie felt Andora's fervent clutch upon her arm.
"Where are the letters? I will go down at once. You allow me to speak
for you? You trust my woman's heart? Oh, believe me, darling," Miss Macy
panted, "I shall know just what to say to him!"

"What to say to him?" Lizzie absently repeated.

As her husband advanced up the path she had a sudden trembling vision of
their three years together. Those years were her whole life; everything
before them had been colorless and unconscious, like the blind life of
the plant before it reaches the surface of the soil. They had not been
exactly what she dreamed; but if they had taken away certain illusions,
they had left richer realities in their stead. She understood now that
she had gradually adjusted herself to the new image of her husband as he
was, as he would always be. He was not the hero of her dream, but he was
the man she loved, and who had loved her. For she saw now, in this last
wide flash of pity and initiation, that, as a solid marble may be made
out of worthless scraps of mortar, glass and pebbles, so out of mean
mixed substances may be fashioned a love that will bear the stress of
life.

More urgently, she felt the pressure of Miss Macy's hand.

"I shall hand him the letters without a word. You may rely, love, on my
sense of dignity. I know everything you're feeling at this moment!"

Deering had reached the door-step. Lizzie continued to watch him in
silence till he disappeared under the glazed roof of the porch below the
window; then she turned and looked almost compassionately at her friend.

"Oh, poor Andora, you don't know anything - you don't know anything at
all!" she said.


THE END











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