Edith Wharton.

The greater inclination; The touchstone online

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The Muse s Tragedy . . ..... \ r ,

A Journey .......... 27


The Pelican ...... 49


Souls Belated ........ 83

A Coward


The Twilight of the God ....... 159


A Cup of Cold Water ........ 183


The Portrait ....





DANYERS afterwards liked to fancy that he
had recognized Mrs. Anerton at once; but
that, of course, was absurd, since he had
seen no portrait of her she affected a strict anonymity,
refusing even her photograph to the most privileged
and from Mrs. Memorall, whom he revered and cul
tivated as her friend, he had extracted but the one im
pressionist phrase: "Oh, well, she s like one of those
old prints where the lines have the value of color."

He was almost certain, at all events, that he had been
thinking of Mrs. Anerton as he sat over his breakfast
in the empty hotel restaurant, and that, looking up on
the approach of the lady who seated herself at the table
near the window, he had said to himself, " That might be

Ever since his Harvard days he was still young
enough to think of them as immensely remote Dan-
yers had dreamed of Mrs. Anerton, the Silvia of Vin
cent Rendle s immortal sonnet-cycle, the Mrs. A. of the
Life and Letters. Her name was enshrined in some of
the noblest English verse of the nineteenth century
and of all past or future centuries, as Danyers, from the
stand-point of a maturer judgment, still believed. The
first reading of certain poems of the Antinous, the


Pia Tolomei, the Sonnets to Silvia, had been epochs in
Danyers s growth, and the verse seemed to gain in mel
lowness, in amplitude, in meaning as one brought to its
interpretation more experience of life, a finer emotional
sense. Where, in his boyhood, he had felt only the per
fect, the almost austere beauty of form, the subtle in
terplay of vowel-sounds, the rush and fulness of lyric
emotion, he now thrilled to the close-packed signifi
cance of each line, the allusiveness of each word his
imagination lured hither and thither on fresh trails of
thought, and perpetually spurred by the sense that, be
yond what he had already discovered, more marvellous
regions lay waiting to be explored. Danyers had writ
ten, at college, the prize essay on Rendle s poetry
(it chanced to be the moment of the great man s
death); he had fashioned the fugitive verse of his own
storm-and-stress period on the forms which Rendle had
first given to English metre; and when two years later
the Life and Letters appeared, and the Silvia of the
sonnets took substance as Mrs. A., he had included in
his worship of Rendle the woman who had inspired not
only such divine verse but such playful, tender, incom
parable prose.

Danyers never forgot the day when Mrs. Memorall

happened to mention that she knew Mrs. Anerton. He

had known Mrs. Memorall for a year or more, and had

somewhat contemptuously classified her as the kind of



woman who runs cheap excursions to celebrities; when
one afternoon she remarked, as she put a second lump
of sugar in his tea:

"Is it right this time? You re almost as particular
as Mary Anerton."

"Mary Anerton?"

"Yes, I never can remember how she likes her tea.
Either it s lemon with sugar, or lemon without sugar,
or cream without either, and whichever it is must be
put into the cup before the tea is poured in; and if
one hasn t remembered, one must begin all over
again. I suppose it was Vincent Rendle s way of tak
ing his tea and has become a sacred rite."

"Do you know Mrs. Anerton?" cried Danyers, dis
turbed by this careless familiarity with the habits of
his divinity.

" And did I once see Shelley plain? Mercy, yes!
She and I were at school together she s an Ameri
can, you know. We were at a pension near Tours for
nearly a year; then she went back to New York,
and I didn t see her again till after her marriage.
She and Anerton spent a winter in Rome while my
husband was attached to our Legation there, and
she used to be with us a great deal." Mrs. Memorall
smiled reminiscently. "It was the winter."

"The winter they first met ?"

"Precisely but unluckily I left Rome just before


the meeting took place. Wasn t it too bad? I might
have been in the Life and Letters. You know he
mentions that stupid Madame Vodki, at whose house
he first saw her."

"And did you see much of her after that?"

"Not during Rendle s life. You know she has lived
in Europe almost entirely, and though I used to see
her off and on when I went abroad, she was always
so engrossed, so preoccupied, that one felt one wasn t
wanted. The fact is, she cared only about his friends
she separated herself gradually from all her own
people. Now, of course, it s different; she s desper
ately lonely; she s taken to writing to me now and
then; and last year, when she heard I was going
abroad, she asked me to meet her in Venice, and I
spent a week with her there."

"And Rendle?"

Mrs. Memorall smiled and shook her head. "Oh, I
never was allowed a peep at him; none of her old
friends met him, except by accident. Ill-natured peo
ple say that was the reason she kept him so long. If
one happened in while he was there, he was hustled
into Anerton s study, and the husband mounted
guard till the inopportune visitor had departed. An-
erton, you know, was really much more ridiculous
about it than his wife. Mary was too clever to lose
her head, or at least to show she d lost it but



Anerton couldn t conceal his pride in the conquest
I ve seen Mary shiver when he spoke of Rendle as
our poet. Rendle always had to have a certain seat at
the dinner-table, away from the draught and not too
near the fire, and a box of cigars that no one else
was allowed to touch, and a writing-table of his own
in Mary s sitting-room and Anerton was always tell
ing one of the great man s idiosyncrasies: how he
never would cut the ends of his cigars, though An
erton himself had given him a gold cutter set with
a star-sapphire, and how untidy his writing-table was,
and how the house-maid had orders always to bring
the waste-paper basket to her mistress before empty
ing it, lest some immortal verse should be thrown
into the dust-bin."

"The Anertons never separated, did they?"

"Separated? Bless you, no. He never would have
left Rendle ! And besides, he was very fond of his

"And she?"

"Oh, she saw he was the kind of man who was
fated to make himself ridiculous, and she never in
terfered with his natural tendencies."

From Mrs. Memorall, Danyers further learned that

Mrs. Anerton, whose husband had died some years

before her poet, now divided her life between Rome,

where she had a small apartment, and England, where



she occasionally went to stay with those of her friends
who had been Rendle s. She had been engaged, for
some time after his death, in editing some juvenilia
which he had bequeathed to her care; but that task
being accomplished, she had been left without defi
nite occupation, and Mrs. Memorall, on the occasion
of their last meeting, had found her listless and out
of spirits.

"She misses him too much her life is too empty.
I told her so I told her she ought to marry."


"Why not, pray? She s a young woman still what
many people would call young," Mrs. Memorall inter
jected, with a parenthetic glance at the mirror. "Why
not accept the inevitable and begin over again? All
the King s horses and all the King s men won t bring
Rendle to life and besides, she didn t marry him
when she had the chance."

Danyers winced slightly at this rude fingering of
his idol. Was it possible that Mrs. Memorall did not
see what an anti-climax such a marriage would have
been? Fancy Rendle "making an honest woman" of
Silvia; for so society would have viewed it! How such
a reparation would have vulgarized their past it
would have been like "restoring" a masterpiece; and
how exquisite must have been the perceptions of the
woman who, in defiance of appearances, and perhaps of


her own secret inclination, chose to go down to pos
terity as Silvia rather than as Mrs. Vincent Rendle!

Mrs. Memorall, from this day forth, acquired an
interest in Danyers s eyes. She was like a volume of
unindexed and discursive memoirs, through which he
patiently plodded in the hope of finding embedded
amid layers of dusty twaddle some precious allusion
to the subject of his thought. When, some months
later, he brought out his first slim volume, in which
the remodelled college essay on Rendle figured
among a dozen somewhat overstudied "apprecia
tions," he offered a copy to Mrs. Memorall; who
surprised him, the next time they met, with the an
nouncement that she had sent the book to Mrs. An-

Mrs. Anerton in due time wrote to thank her
friend. Danyers was privileged to read the few lines
in which, in terms that suggested the habit of "ac
knowledging" similar tributes, she spoke of the au
thor s " feeling and insight," and was "so glad of the
opportunity," etc. He went away disappointed, with
out clearly knowing what else he had expected.

The following spring, when he went abroad, Mrs.
Memorall oifered him letters to everybody, from the
Archbishop of Canterbury to Louise Michel. She did
not include Mrs. Anerton, however, and Danyers
knew, from a previous conversation, that Silvia ob-



jected to people who " brought letters." He knew
also that she travelled during the summer, and was
unlikely to return to Rome before the term of his
holiday should be reached, and the hope of meeting
her was not included among his anticipations.

The lady whose entrance broke upon his solitary
repast in the restaurant of the Hotel Villa d Este
had seated herself in such a way that her profile
was detached against the window; and thus viewed,
her domed forehead, small arched nose, and fastidi
ous lip suggested a silhouette of Marie Antoinette.
In the lady s dress and movements in the very
turn of her wrist as she poured out her coffee
Danyers thought he detected the same fastidious
ness, the same air of tacitly excluding the obvious
and unexceptional. Here was a woman who had been
much bored and keenly interested. The waiter brought
her a Secolo, and as she bent above it Danyers noticed
that the hair rolled back from her forehead was turn
ing gray; but her figure was straight and slender, and
she had the invaluable gift of a girlish back.

The rush of Anglo-Saxon travel had not set to
ward the lakes, and with the exception of an Italian
family or two, and a hump-backed youth with an
abbe, Danyers and the lady had the marble halls of
the Villa d Este to themselves.

When he returned from his morning ramble among


the hills he saw her sitting at one of the little tables
at the edge of the lake. She was writing, and a heap
of books and newspapers lay on the table at her side.
That evening they met again in the garden. He had
strolled out to smoke a last cigarette before dinner,
and under the black vaulting of ilexes, near the steps
leading down to the boat-landing, he found her lean
ing on the parapet above the lake. At the sound of
his approach she turned and looked at him. She had
thrown a black lace scarf over her head, and in this
sombre setting her face seemed thin and unhappy.
He remembered afterwards that her eyes, as they
met his, expressed not so much sorrow as profound

To his surprise she stepped toward him with a
detaining gesture.

"Mr. Lewis Danyers, I believe?"

He bowed.

"I am Mrs. Anerton. I saw your name on the vis
itors list and wished to thank you for an essay on
Mr. Rendle s poetry or rather to tell you how much
I appreciated it. The book was sent to me last winter
by Mrs. Memorall."

She spoke in even melancholy tones, as though
the habit of perfunctory utterance had robbed her
voice of more spontaneous accents; but her smile
was charming.



They sat down on a stone bench under the ilexes,
and she told him how much pleasure his essay had
given her. She thought it the best in the book she
was sure he had put more of himself into it than
into any other; was she not right in conjecturing that
he had been very deeply influenced by Mr. Rendle s
poetry? Pour comprendre il faut aimer, and it seemed to
her that, in some ways, he had penetrated the poet s
inner meaning more completely than any other critic.
There were certain problems, of course, that he had
left untouched; certain aspects of that many-sided
mind that he had perhaps failed to seize

"But then you are young," she concluded gently,
"and one could not wish you, as yet, the experience
that a fuller understanding would imply."


SHE stayed a month at Villa d Este, and Danyers
was with her daily. She showed an unaffected
pleasure in his society; a pleasure so obviously founded
on their common veneration of Rendle, that the young
man could enjoy it without fear of fatuity. At first he
was merely one more grain of frankincense on the altar
of her insatiable divinity; but gradually a more per
sonal note crept into their intercourse. If she still liked
him only because he appreciated Rendle, she at least


perceptibly distinguished him from the herd of Rendle s

Her attitude toward the great man s memory struck
Danyers as perfect. She neither proclaimed nor dis
avowed her identity. She was frankly Silvia to those
who knew and cared; but there was no trace of the
Egeria in her pose. She spoke often of Rendle s books,
but seldom of himself; there was no posthumous conju
gality, no use of the possessive tense, in her abounding
reminiscences. Of the master s intellectual life, of his
habits of thought and work, she never wearied of talk
ing. She knew the history of each poem ; by what scene
or episode each image had been evoked; how many
times the words in a certain line had been transposed;
how long a certain adjective had been sought, and what
had at last suggested it; she could even explain that
one impenetrable line, the torment of critics, the joy
of detractors, the last line of The Old Odysseus.

Danyers felt that in talking of these things she was
no mere echo of Rendle s thought. If her identity had
appeared to be merged in his it was because they
thought alike, not because he had thought for her. Pos
terity is apt to regard the women w r hom poets have
sung as chance pegs on which they hung their gar
lands; but Mrs. Anerton s mind was like some fertile
garden wherein, inevitably, Rendle s imagination had
rooted itself and flowered. Danyers began to see how



many threads of his complex mental tissue the poet
had owed to the blending of her temperament with
his; in a certain sense Silvia had herself created the
Sonnets to Silvia.

To be the custodian of Rendle s inner self, the door,
as it were, to the sanctuary, had at first seemed to
Danyers so comprehensive a privilege that he had the
sense, as his friendship with Mrs. Anerton advanced,
of forcing his way into a life already crowded. What
room was there, among such towering memories, for
so small an actuality as his ? Quite suddenly, after this,
he discovered that Mrs. Memorall knew better: his
fortunate friend was bored as well as lonely.

"You have had more than any other woman!" he
had exclaimed to her one day; and her smile flashed a
derisive light on his blunder. Fool that he was, not to
have seen that she had not had enough! That she
was young still do years count? tender, human, a
woman ; that the living have need of the living.

After that, when they climbed the alleys of the
hanging park, resting in one of the little ruined tem
ples, or watching, through a ripple of foliage, the re
mote blue flash of the lake, they did not always talk
of Rendle or of literature. She encouraged Danyers to
speak of himself; to confide his ambitions to her; she
asked him the questions which are the wise woman s
substitute for advice.



"You must write/ she said, administering the most
exquisite flattery that human lips could give.

Of course he meant to write why not to do some
thing great in his turn? His best, at least; with the
resolve, at the outset, that his best should be the best.
Nothing less seemed possible with that mandate in
his ears. How she had divined him; lifted and disen
tangled his groping ambitions; laid the awakening
touch on his spirit with her creative Let there be light!

It was his last day with her, and he was feeling very
hopeless and happy.

"You ought to write a book about him" she went
on gently.

Danyers started; he was beginning to dislike Ren-
die s way of walking in unannounced.

"You ought to do it," she insisted. "A complete in
terpretation a summing-up of his style, his purpose,
his theory of life and art. No one else could do it as

He sat looking at her perplexedly. Suddenly dared
he guess?

"I couldn t do it without you," he faltered.

"I could help you I would help you, of course."

They sat silent, both looking at the lake.

It was agreed, when they parted, that he should
rejoin her six weeks later in Venice. There they were
to talk about the book.

[ "1



Lago d lseo, August 14th.

WHEN I said good-by to you yesterday I prom
ised to come back to Venice in a week: I was
to give you your answer then. I was not honest in
saying that; I didn t mean to go back to Venice or to
see you again. I was running away from you and
I mean to keep on running ! If you won t, / must.
Somebody must save you from marrying a disappointed
woman of well, you say years don t count, and why
should they, after all, since you are not to marry me ?

That is what I dare not go back to say. You are
not to marry me. We have had our month together in
Venice (such a good month, was it not?) and now
you are to go home and write a book any book
but the one we didn t talk of! and I am to stay
here, attitudinizing among my memories like a sort
of female Tithonus. The dreariness of this enforced
immortality !

But you shall know the truth. I care for you, or
at least for your love, enough to owe you that.

You thought it was because Vincent Rendle had
loved me that there was so little hope for you. I
had had what I wanted to the full; wasn t that
what you said? It is just when a man begins to
think he understands a woman that he may be sure


he doesn t! It is because Vincent Rendle didn t love me
that there is no hope for you. I never had what I
wanted, and never, never, never will I stoop to want
ing anything else.

Do you begin to understand ? It was all a sham then,
you say ? No, it was all real as far as it went. You are
young you haven t learned, as you will later, the
thousand imperceptible signs by which one gropes
one s way through the labyrinth of human nature; but
didn t it strike you, sometimes, that I never told you
any foolish little anecdotes about him ? His trick, for
instance, of twirling a paper-knife round and round
between his thumb and forefinger while he talked ; his
mania for saving the backs of notes ; his greediness
for wild strawberries, the little pungent Alpine ones ;
his childish delight in acrobats and jugglers; his way
of always calling me you dear you, every letter be
gan I never told you a word of all that, did I ? Do
you suppose I could have helped telling you, if he had
loved me ? These little things would have been mine,
then, a part of my life of our life they would have
slipped out in spite of me (it s only your unhappy
woman who is always reticent and dignified). But there
never was any "our life ;" it was always "our lives" to
the end. . . .

If you knew what a relief it is to tell some one at
last, you would bear with me, you would let me hurt


you ! I shall never be quite so lonely again, now that
some one knows.

Let me begin at the beginning. When I first met
Vincent Rendle I was not twenty-five. That was twenty
years ago. From that time until his death, five years
ago, we were fast friends. He gave me fifteen years,
perhaps the best fifteen years, of his life. The world,
as you know, thinks that his greatest poems were writ
ten during those years ; I am supposed to have "in
spired" them, and in a sense I did. From the first, the
intellectual sympathy between us was almost complete ;
my mind must have been to him (I fancy) like some
perfectly tuned instrument on which he was never
tired of playing. Some one told me of his once saying
of me that I "always understood ;" it is the only praise
I ever heard of his giving me. I don t even know if he
thought me pretty, though I hardly think my appear
ance could have been disagreeable to him, for he hated
to be with ugly people. At all events he fell into the
way of spending more and more of his time with me.
He liked our house; our ways suited him. He was
nervous, irritable ; people bored him and yet he dis
liked solitude. He took sanctuary with us. When we
travelled he went with us ; in the winter he took rooms
near us in Rome. In England or on the continent he
was always with us for a good part of the year. In small
ways I was able to help him in his work ; he grew de-


pendent on me. When we were apart he wrote to me
continually he liked to have me share in all he was
doing or thinking ; he was impatient for my criticism of
every new book that interested him ; I was a part of
his intellectual life. The pity of it was that I wanted
to be something more. I was a young woman and I
was in love with him not because he was Vincent
Rendle, but just because he was himself!

People began to talk, of course I was Vincent Ren-
die s Mrs. Anerton; when the Sonnets to Silvia appeared,
it was whispered that I was Silvia. Wherever he went,
I was invited; people made up to me in the hope of
getting to know him; when I was in London my door
bell never stopped ringing. Elderly peeresses, aspiring
hostesses, love-sick girls and struggling authors over
whelmed me with their assiduities. I hugged my suc
cess, for I knew what it meant they thought that
Rendle was in love with me ! Do you know, at times,
they almost made me think so too ? Oh, there was no
phase of folly I didn t go through. You can t imagine
the excuses a woman will invent for a man s not telling
her that he loves her pitiable arguments that she
would see through at a glance if any other woman used
them! But all the while, deep down, I knew he had
never cared. I should have known it if he had made
love to me every day of his life. I could never guess
whether he knew what people said about us he


listened so little to what people said ; and cared still
less, when he heard. He was always quite honest and
straightforward with me; he treated me as one man
treats another; and yet at times I felt he must see
that with me it was different. If he did see, he made
no sign. Perhaps he never noticed I am sure he never
meant to be cruel. He had never made love to me ; it
was no fault of his if I wanted more than he could give
me. The Sonnets to Silvia, you say ? But what are they ?
A cosmic philosophy, not a love-poem; addressed to
Woman, not to a woman !

But then, the letters? Ah, the letters! Well, I ll
make a clean breast of it. You have noticed the breaks
in the letters here and there, just as they seem to be on
the point of growing a little warmer? The critics, you
may remember, praised the editor for his commendable
delicacy and good taste (so rare in these days !) in omit
ting from the correspondence all personal allusions, all
those details intimes which should be kept sacred from
the public gaze. They referred, of course, to the as
terisks in the letters to Mrs. A. Those letters I myself
prepared for publication; that is to say, I copied them
out for the editor, and eveiy now and then I put in a
line of asterisks to make it appear that something had
been left out. You understand? The asterisks were a
sham there was nothing to leave out.

No one but a woman could understand what I went

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Online LibraryEdith WhartonThe greater inclination; The touchstone → online text (page 1 of 19)