Edith Wharton.

The Long Run online

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

Produced by David Widger


By Edith Wharton

Copyright, 1916, By Charles Scribner's Sons

_The shade of those our days that had no tongue._


It was last winter, after a twelve years' absence from New York, that
I saw again, at one of the Jim Cumnors' dinners, my old friend Halston

The Cumnors' house is one of the few where, even after such a lapse
of time, one can be sure of finding familiar faces and picking up old
threads; where for a moment one can abandon one's self to the illusion
that New York humanity is a shade less unstable than its bricks and
mortar. And that evening in particular I remember feeling that there
could be no pleasanter way of re-entering the confused and careless
world to which I was returning than through the quiet softly-lit
diningroom in which Mrs. Cumnor, with a characteristic sense of my
needing to be broken in gradually, had contrived to assemble so many
friendly faces.

I was glad to see them all, including the three or four I did not know,
or failed to recognize, but had no difficulty in passing as in the
tradition and of the group; but I was most of all glad - as I rather
wonderingly found - to set eyes again on Halston Merrick.

He and I had been at Harvard together, for one thing, and had shared
there curiosities and ardours a little outside the current tendencies:
had, on the whole, been more critical than our comrades, and less
amenable to the accepted. Then, for the next following years, Merrick
had been a vivid and promising figure in young American life. Handsome,
careless, and free, he had wandered and tasted and compared. After
leaving Harvard he had spent two years at Oxford; then he had accepted
a private secretaryship to our Ambassador in England, and had come back
from this adventure with a fresh curiosity about public affairs at home,
and the conviction that men of his kind should play a larger part in
them. This led, first, to his running for a State Senatorship which he
failed to get, and ultimately to a few months of intelligent activity in
a municipal office. Soon after being deprived of this post by a change
of party he had published a small volume of delicate verse, and, a year
later, an odd uneven brilliant book on Municipal Government. After that
one hardly knew where to look for his next appearance; but chance rather
disappointingly solved the problem by killing off his father and placing
Halston at the head of the Merrick Iron Foundry at Yonkers.

His friends had gathered that, whenever this regrettable contingency
should occur, he meant to dispose of the business and continue his life
of free experiment. As often happens in just such cases, however, it was
not the moment for a sale, and Merrick had to take over the management
of the foundry. Some two years later he had a chance to free himself;
but when it came he did not choose to take it. This tame sequel to an
inspiriting start was disappointing to some of us, and I was among those
disposed to regret Merrick's drop to the level of the prosperous. Then
I went away to a big engineering job in China, and from there to Africa,
and spent the next twelve years out of sight and sound of New York

During that long interval I heard of no new phase in Merrick's
evolution, but this did not surprise me, as I had never expected from
him actions resonant enough to cross the globe. All I knew - and this did
surprise me - was that he had not married, and that he was still in the
iron business. All through those years, however, I never ceased to wish,
in certain situations and at certain turns of thought, that Merrick were
in reach, that I could tell this or that to Merrick. I had never, in the
interval, found any one with just his quickness of perception and just
his sureness of response.

After dinner, therefore, we irresistibly drew together. In Mrs. Cumnor's
big easy drawing-room cigars were allowed, and there was no break in the
communion of the sexes; and, this being the case, I ought to have sought
a seat beside one of the ladies among whom we were allowed to remain.
But, as had generally happened of old when Merrick was in sight, I found
myself steering straight for him past all minor ports of call.

There had been no time, before dinner, for more than the barest
expression of satisfaction at meeting, and our seats had been at
opposite ends of the longish table, so that we got our first real look
at each other in the secluded corner to which Mrs. Cumnor's vigilance
now directed us.

Merrick was still handsome in his stooping tawny way: handsomer perhaps,
with thinnish hair and more lines in his face, than in the young excess
of his good looks. He was very glad to see me and conveyed his gladness
by the same charming smile; but as soon as we began to talk I felt
a change. It was not merely the change that years and experience and
altered values bring. There was something more fundamental the matter
with Merrick, something dreadful, unforeseen, unaccountable: Merrick had
grown conventional and dull.

In the glow of his frank pleasure in seeing me I was ashamed to analyze
the nature of the change; but presently our talk began to flag - fancy a
talk with Merrick flagging! - and self-deception became impossible as I
watched myself handing out platitudes with the gesture of the salesman
offering something to a purchaser "equally good." The worst of it was
that Merrick - Merrick, who had once felt everything! - didn't seem to
feel the lack of spontaneity in my remarks, but hung on' them with a
harrowing faith in the resuscitating power of our past. It was as if he
hugged the empty vessel of our friendship without perceiving that the
last drop of its essence was dry.

But after all, I am exaggerating. Through my surprise and disappointment
I felt a certain sense of well-being in the mere physical presence of my
old friend. I liked looking at the way his dark hair waved away from
the forehead, at the tautness of his dry brown cheek, the thoughtful
backward tilt of his head, the way his brown eyes mused upon the
scene through lowered lids. All the past was in his way of looking and
sitting, and I wanted to stay near him, and felt that he wanted me
to stay; but the devil of it was that neither of us knew what to talk

It was this difficulty which caused me, after a while, since I could not
follow Merrick's talk, to follow his eyes in their roaming circuit of
the room.

At the moment when our glances joined, his had paused on a lady
seated at some distance from our corner. Immersed, at first, in the
satisfaction of finding myself again with Merrick, I had been only half
aware of this lady, as of one of the few persons present whom I did not
know, or had failed to remember. There was nothing in her appearance to
challenge my attention or to excite my curiosity, and I don't suppose I
should have looked at her again if I had not noticed that my friend was
doing so.

She was a woman of about forty-seven, with fair faded hair and a young
figure. Her gray dress was handsome but ineffective, and her pale and
rather serious face wore a small unvarying smile which might have
been pinned on with her ornaments. She was one of the women in whom
increasing years show rather what they have taken than what they have
bestowed, and only on looking closely did one see that what they had
taken must have been good of its kind.

Phil Cumnor and another man were talking to her, and the very intensity
of the attention she bestowed on them betrayed the straining of
rebellious thoughts. She never let her eyes stray or her smile drop; and
at the proper moment I saw she was ready with the proper sentiment.

The party, like most of those that Mrs. Cumnor gathered about her, was
not composed of exceptional beings. The people of the old vanished
New York set were not exceptional: they were mostly cut on the same
convenient and unobtrusive pattern; but they were often exceedingly
"nice." And this obsolete quality marked every look and gesture of the
lady I was scrutinizing.

While these reflections were passing through my mind I was aware that
Merrick's eyes rested still on her. I took a cross-section of his look
and found in it neither surprise nor absorption, but only a certain
sober pleasure just about at the emotional level of the rest of the

If he continued to look at her, his expression seemed to say, it was
only because, all things considered, there were fewer reasons for
looking at anybody else.

This made me wonder what were the reasons for looking at _her_; and as
a first step toward enlightenment I said: - "I'm sure I've seen the lady
over there in gray - "

Merrick detached his eyes and turned them on me with a wondering look.

"Seen her? You know her." He waited. "_Don't_ you know her? It's Mrs.

I wondered that he should wonder, for I could not remember, in
the Cumnor group or elsewhere, having known any one of the name he

"But perhaps," he continued, "you hadn't heard of her marriage? You knew
her as Mrs. Trant."

I gave him back his stare. "Not Mrs. Philip Trant?"

"Yes; Mrs. Philip Trant."

"Not Paulina?"

"Yes - Paulina," he said, with a just perceptible delay before the name.

In my surprise I continued to stare at him. He averted his eyes from
mine after a moment, and I saw that they had strayed back to her. "You
find her so changed?" he asked.

Something in his voice acted as a warning signal, and I tried to reduce
my astonishment to less unbecoming proportions. "I don't find that she
looks much older."

"No. Only different?" he suggested, as if there were nothing new to him
in my perplexity.

"Yes - awfully different."

"I suppose we're all awfully different. To you, I mean - coming from so

"I recognized all the rest of you," I said, hesitating. "And she used to
be the one who stood out most."

There was a flash, a wave, a stir of something deep down in his eyes.
"Yes," he said. "_That's_ the difference."

"I see it is. She - she looks worn down. Soft but blurred, like the
figures in that tapestry behind her."

He glanced at her again, as if to test the exactness of my analogy.

"Life wears everybody down," he said.

"Yes - except those it makes more distinct. They're the rare ones, of
course; but she _was_ rare."

He stood up suddenly, looking old and tired. "I believe I'll be off. I
wish you'd come down to my place for Sunday.... No, don't shake hands - I
want to slide away unawares."

He had backed away to the threshold and was turning the noiseless
door-knob. Even Mrs. Cumnor's doorknobs had tact and didn't tell.

"Of course I'll come," I promised warmly. In the last ten minutes he had
begun to interest me again.

"All right Good-bye." Half through the door he paused to add: - "_She_
remembers you. You ought to speak to her."

"I'm going to. But tell me a little more." I thought I saw a shade
of constraint on his face, and did not add, as I had meant to: "Tell
me - because she interests me - what wore her down?" Instead, I asked:
"How soon after Trant's death did she remarry?"

He seemed to make an effort of memory. "It was seven years ago, I

"And is Reardon here to-night?"

"Yes; over there, talking to Mrs. Cumnor."

I looked across the broken groupings and saw a large glossy man with
straw-coloured hair and a red face, whose shirt and shoes and complexion
seemed all to have received a coat of the same expensive varnish.

As I looked there was a drop in the talk about us, and I heard Mr.
Reardon pronounce in a big booming voice: "What I say is: what's the
good of disturbing things? Thank the Lord, I'm content with what I've

"Is _that_ her husband? What's he like?"

"Oh, the best fellow in the world," said Merrick, going.


Merrick had a little place at Riverdale, where he went occasionally to
be near the Iron Works, and where he hid his week-ends when the world
was too much with him.

Here, on the following Saturday afternoon I found him awaiting me in a
pleasant setting of books and prints and faded parental furniture.

We dined late, and smoked and talked afterward in his book-walled study
till the terrier on the hearth-rug stood up and yawned for bed. When
we took the hint and moved toward the staircase I felt, not that I
had found the old Merrick again, but that I was on his track, had come
across traces of his passage here and there in the thick jungle that had
grown up between us. But I had a feeling that when I finally came on the
man himself he might be dead....

As we started upstairs he turned back with one of his abrupt shy
movements, and walked into the study.

"Wait a bit!" he called to me.

I waited, and he came out in a moment carrying a limp folio.

"It's typewritten. Will you take a look at it? I've been trying to get
to work again," he explained, thrusting the manuscript into my hand.

"What? Poetry, I hope?" I exclaimed.

He shook his head with a gleam of derision. "No - just general
considerations. The fruit of fifty years of inexperience."

He showed me to my room and said good-night.


The following afternoon we took a long walk inland, across the hills,
and I said to Merrick what I could of his book. Unluckily there wasn't
much to say. The essays were judicious, polished and cultivated; but
they lacked the freshness and audacity of his youthful work. I tried
to conceal my opinion behind the usual generalisations, but he broke
through these feints with a quick thrust to the heart of my meaning.

"It's worn down - blurred? Like the figures in the Cumnors' tapestry?"

I hesitated. "It's a little too damned resigned," I said.

"Ah," he exclaimed, "so am I. Resigned." He switched the bare brambles
by the roadside. "A man can't serve two masters."

"You mean business and literature?"

"No; I mean theory and instinct. The gray tree and the green. You've
got to choose which fruit you'll try; and you don't know till afterward
which of the two has the dead core."

"How can anybody be sure that only one of them has?"

"I'm sure," said Merrick sharply.

We turned back to the subject of his essays, and I was astonished at
the detachment with which he criticised and demolished them. Little by
little, as we talked, his old perspective, his old standards came
back to him; but with the difference that they no longer seemed like
functions of his mind but merely like attitudes assumed or dropped at
will. He could still, with an effort, put himself at the angle from
which he had formerly seen things; but it was with the effort of a man
climbing mountains after a sedentary life in the plain.

I tried to cut the talk short, but he kept coming back to it with
nervous insistence, forcing me into the last retrenchments of hypocrisy,
and anticipating the verdict I held back. I perceived that a great
deal - immensely more than I could see a reason for - had hung for him on
my opinion of his book.

Then, as suddenly, his insistence dropped and, as if ashamed of having
forced, himself so long on my attention, he began to talk rapidly and
uninterestingly of other things.

We were alone again that evening, and after dinner, wishing to efface
the impression of the afternoon, and above all to show that I wanted him
to talk about himself, I reverted to his work. "You must need an outlet
of that sort. When a man's once had it in him, as you have - and when
other things begin to dwindle - "

He laughed. "Your theory is that a man ought to be able to return to the
Muse as he comes back to his wife after he's ceased to interest other

"No; as he comes back to his wife after the day's work is done." A new
thought came to me as I looked at him. "You ought to have had one," I

He laughed again. "A wife, you mean? So that there'd have been some one
waiting for me even if the Muse decamped?" He went on after a pause:
"I've a notion that the kind of woman worth coming back to wouldn't
be much more patient than the Muse. But as it happens I never
tried - because, for fear they'd chuck me, I put them both out of doors

He turned his head and looked past me with a queer expression at the low
panelled door at my back. "Out of that very door they went - the two of
'em, on a rainy night like this: and one stopped and looked back, to see
if I wasn't going to call her - and I didn't - and so they both went...."


"The Muse?" (said Merrick, refilling my glass and stooping to pat the
terrier as he went back to his chair) - "well, you've met the Muse in the
little volume of sonnets you used to like; and you've met the woman too,
and you used to like _her_; though you didn't know her when you saw her
the other evening....

"No, I won't ask you how she struck you when you talked to her: I know.
She struck you like that stuff I gave you to read last night She's
conformed - I've conformed - the mills have caught us and ground us:
ground us, oh, exceedingly small!

"But you remember what she was; and that's the reason why I'm telling
you this now....

"You may recall that after my father's death I tried to sell the Works.
I was impatient to free myself from anything that would keep me tied to
New York. I don't dislike my trade, and I've made, in the end, a fairly
good thing of it; but industrialism was not, at that time, in the line
of my tastes, and I know now that it wasn't what I was meant for.
Above all, I wanted to get away, to see new places and rub up against
different ideas. I had reached a time of life - the top of the first
hill, so to speak - where the distance draws one, and everything in the
foreground seems tame and stale. I was sick to death of the particular
set of conformities I had grown up among; sick of being a pleasant
popular young man with a long line of dinners on my list, and the dead
certainty of meeting the same people, or their prototypes, at all of

"Well - I failed to sell the Works, and that increased my discontent.
I went through moods of cold unsociability, alternating with sudden
flushes of curiosity, when I gloated over stray scraps of talk overheard
in railway stations and omnibuses, when strange faces that I passed in
the street tantalized me with fugitive promises. I wanted to be among
things that were unexpected and unknown; and it seemed to me that nobody
about me understood in the least what I felt, but that somewhere just
out of reach there was some one who _did_, and whom I must find or

"It was just then that, one evening, I saw Mrs. Trant for the first

"Yes: I know - you wonder what I mean. I'd known her, of course, as a
girl; I'd met her several times after her marriage; and I'd lately been
thrown with her, quite intimately and continuously, during a succession
of country-house visits. But I had never, as it happened, really _seen_

"It was at a dinner at the Cumnors'; and there she was, in front of the
very tapestry we saw her against the other evening, with people about
her, and her face turned from me, and nothing noticeable or different
in her dress or manner; and suddenly she stood out for me against the
familiar unimportant background, and for the first time I saw a meaning
in the stale phrase of a picture's walking out of its frame. For,
after all, most people _are_ just that to us: pictures, furniture, the
inanimate accessories of our little island-area of sensation. And then
sometimes one of these graven images moves and throws out live filaments
toward us, and the line they make draws us across the world as the
moon-track seems to draw a boat across the water....

"There she stood; and as this queer sensation came over me I felt
that she was looking steadily at me, that her eyes were voluntarily,
consciously resting on me with the weight of the very question I was

"I went over and joined her, and she turned and walked with me into the
music-room. Earlier in the evening some one had been singing, and
there were low lights there, and a few couples still sitting in those
confidential corners of which Mrs. Cumnor has the art; but we were under
no illusion as to the nature of these presences. We knew that they were
just painted in, and that the whole of life was in us two, flowing back
and forward between us. We talked, of course; we had the attitudes, even
the words, of the others: I remember her telling me her plans for the
spring and asking me politely about mine! As if there were the least
sense in plans, now that this thing had happened!

"When we went back into the drawing-room I had said nothing to her that
I might not have said to any other woman of the party; but when we shook
hands I knew we should meet the next day - and the next....

"That's the way, I take it, that Nature has arranged the beginning of
the great enduring loves; and likewise of the little epidermal flurries.
And how is a man to know where he is going?

"From the first my feeling for Paulina Trant seemed to me a grave
business; but then the Enemy is given to producing that illusion. Many
a man - I'm talking of the kind with imagination - has thought he was
seeking a soul when all he wanted was a closer view of its tenement. And
I tried - honestly tried - to make myself think I was in the latter case.
Because, in the first place, I didn't, just then, want a big disturbing
influence in my life; and because I didn't want to be a dupe; and
because Paulina Trant was not, according to hearsay, the kind of woman
for whom it was worth while to bring up the big batteries....

"But my resistance was only half-hearted. What I really felt - _all_ I
really felt - was the flood of joy that comes of heightened emotion. She
had given me that, and I wanted her to give it to me again. That's as
near as I've ever come to analyzing my state in the beginning.

"I knew her story, as no doubt you know it: the current version, I
mean. She had been poor and fond of enjoyment, and she had married that
pompous stick Philip Trant because she needed a home, and perhaps also
because she wanted a little luxury. Queer how we sneer at women for
wanting the thing that gives them half their attraction!

"People shook their heads over the marriage, and divided, prematurely,
into Philip's partisans and hers: for no one thought it would work.
And they were almost disappointed when, after all, it did. She and her
wooden consort seemed to get on well enough. There was a ripple, at one
time, over her friendship with young Jim Dalham, who was always with her
during a summer at Newport and an autumn in Italy; then the talk died
out, and she and Trant were seen together, as before, on terms of
apparent good-fellowship.

"This was the more surprising because, from the first, Paulina had never
made the least attempt to change her tone or subdue her colours. In the
gray Trant atmosphere she flashed with prismatic fires. She smoked, she
talked subversively, she did as she liked and went where she chose, and
danced over the Trant prejudices and the Trant principles as if they'd
been a ball-room floor; and all without apparent offence to her solemn
husband and his cloud of cousins. I believe her frankness and directness
struck them dumb. She moved like a kind of primitive Una through the
virtuous rout, and never got a finger-mark on her freshness.

"One of the finest things about her was the fact that she never, for an
instant, used her situation as a means of enhancing her attraction. With
a husband like Trant it would have been so easy! He was a man who always
saw the small sides of big things. He thought most of life compressible
into a set of by-laws and the rest unmentionable; and with his stiff
frock-coated and tall-hatted mind, instinctively distrustful of
intelligences in another dress, with his arbitrary classification of
whatever he didn't understand into 'the kind of thing I don't approve
of,' 'the kind of thing that isn't done,' and - deepest depth of
all - 'the kind of thing I'd rather not discuss,' he lived in bondage to
a shadowy moral etiquette of which the complex rites and awful penalties
had cast an abiding gloom upon his manner.

"A woman like his wife couldn't have asked a better foil; yet I'm sure
she never consciously used his dullness to relieve her brilliancy. She
may have felt that the case spoke for itself. But I believe her reserve
was rather due to a lively sense of justice, and to the rare habit (you
said she was rare) of looking at facts as they are, without any throwing
of sentimental lime-lights. She knew Trant could no more help being
Trant than she could help being herself - and there was an end of it.
I've never known a woman who 'made up' so little mentally....

1 3

Online LibraryEdith WhartonThe Long Run → online text (page 1 of 3)