Edith Wharton.

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"Perhaps her very reserve, the fierceness of her implicit rejection of
sympathy, exposed her the more to - well, to what happened when we met.
She said afterward that it was like having been shut up for months in
the hold of a ship, and coming suddenly on deck on a day that was all
flying blue and silver....

"I won't try to tell you what she was. It's easier to tell you what her
friendship made of me; and I can do that best by adopting her metaphor
of the ship. Haven't you, sometimes, at the moment of starting on a
journey, some glorious plunge into the unknown, been tripped up by the
thought: 'If only one hadn't to come back'? Well, with her one had the
sense that one would never have to come back; that the magic ship, would
always carry one farther. And what an air one breathed on it! And, oh,
the wind, and the islands, and the sunsets!

"I said just now 'her friendship'; and I used the word advisedly. Love
is deeper than friendship, but friendship is a good deal wider. The
beauty of our relation was that it included both dimensions. Our
thoughts met as naturally as our eyes: it was almost as if we loved each
other because we liked each other. The quality of a love may be tested
by the amount of friendship it contains, and in our case there was no
dividing line between loving and liking, no disproportion between them,
no barrier against which desire beat in vain or from which thought fell
back unsatisfied. Ours was a robust passion that could give an open-eyed
account of itself, and not a beautiful madness shrinking away from the
proof....

"For the first months friendship sufficed us, or rather gave us so much
by the way that we were in no hurry to reach what we knew it was
leading to. But we were moving there nevertheless, and one day we found
ourselves on the borders. It came about through a sudden decision of
Trant's to start on a long tour with his wife. We had never foreseen
that: he seemed rooted in his New York habits and convinced that the
whole social and financial machinery of the metropolis would cease to
function if he did not keep an eye on it through the columns of his
morning paper, and pronounce judgment on it in the afternoon at his
club. But something new had happened to him: he caught a cold, which was
followed by a touch of pleurisy, and instantly he perceived the intense
interest and importance which ill-health may add to life. He took the
fullest advantage of it. A discerning doctor recommended travel in a
warm climate; and suddenly, the morning paper, the afternoon club, Fifth
Avenue, Wall Street, all the complex phenomena of the metropolis, faded
into insignificance, and the rest of the terrestrial globe, from being
a mere geographical hypothesis, useful in enabling one to determine the
latitude of New York, acquired reality and magnitude as a factor in the
convalescence of Mr. Philip Trant.

"His wife was absorbed in preparations for the journey. To move him
was like mobilizing an army, and weeks before the date set for their
departure it was almost as if she were already gone.

"This foretaste of separation showed us what we were to each other. Yet
I was letting her go - and there was no help for it, no way of preventing
it. Resistance was as useless as the vain struggles in a nightmare. She
was Trant's and not mine: part of his luggage when he travelled as she
was part of his household furniture when he stayed at home....

"The day she told me that their passages were taken - it was on a
November afternoon, in her drawing-room in town - I turned away from her
and, going to the window, stood looking out at the torrent of traffic
interminably pouring down Fifth Avenue. I watched the senseless
machinery of life revolving in the rain and mud, and tried to picture
myself performing my small function in it after she had gone from me.

"'It can't be - it can't be!' I exclaimed.

"'What can't be?'

"I came back into the room and sat down by her. 'This - this - ' I hadn't
any words. 'Two weeks!' I said. 'What's two weeks?"

"She answered, vaguely, something about their thinking of Spain for the
spring -

"'Two weeks - two weeks!' I repeated. 'And the months we've lost - the
days that belonged to us!'

"'Yes,' she said, 'I'm thankful it's settled.'

"Our words seemed irrelevant, haphazard. It was as if each were
answering a secret voice, and not what the other was saying.

"'Don't you _feel_ anything at all?' I remember bursting out at her.
As I asked it the tears were streaming down her face. I felt angry with
her, and was almost glad to note that her lids were red and that she
didn't cry becomingly. I can't express my sensation to you except
by saying that she seemed part of life's huge league against me. And
suddenly I thought of an afternoon we had spent together in the country,
on a ferny hill-side, when we had sat under a beech-tree, and her hand
had lain palm upward in the moss, close to mine, and I had watched a
little black-and-red beetle creeping over it....

"The bell rang, and we heard the voice of a visitor and the click of an
umbrella in the umbrella-stand.

"She rose to go into the inner drawing-room, and I caught her suddenly
by the wrist. 'You understand,' I said, 'that we can't go on like this?'

"'I understand,' she answered, and moved away to meet her visitor. As I
went out I heard her saying in the other room: 'Yes, we're really off on
the twelfth.'"




IV

"I wrote her a long letter that night, and waited two days for a reply.

"On the third day I had a brief line saying that she was going to spend
Sunday with some friends who had a place near Riverdale, and that she
would arrange to see me while she was there. That was all.

"It was on a Saturday that I received the note and I came out here the
same night. The next morning was rainy, and I was in despair, for I had
counted on her asking me to take her for a drive or a long walk. It was
hopeless to try to say what I had to say to her in the drawing-room of a
crowded country-house. And only eleven days were left!

"I stayed indoors all the morning, fearing to go out lest she should
telephone me. But no sign came, and I grew more and more restless and
anxious. She was too free and frank for coquetry, but her silence and
evasiveness made me feel that, for some reason, she did not wish to hear
what she knew I meant to say. Could it be that she was, after all, more
conventional, less genuine, than I had thought? I went again and again
over the whole maddening round of conjecture; but the only conclusion I
could rest in was that, if she loved me as I loved her, she would be as
determined as I was to let no obstacle come between us during the days
that were left.

"The luncheon-hour came and passed, and there was no word from her. I
had ordered my trap to be ready, so that I might drive over as soon as
she summoned me; but the hours dragged on, the early twilight came, and
I sat here in this very chair, or measured up and down, up and down, the
length of this very rug - and still there was no message and no letter.

"It had grown quite dark, and I had ordered away, impatiently, the
servant who came in with the lamps: I couldn't _bear_ any definite sign
that the day was over! And I was standing there on the rug, staring at
the door, and noticing a bad crack in its panel, when I heard the
sound of wheels on the gravel. A word at last, no doubt - a line to
explain.... I didn't seem to care much for her reasons, and I stood
where I was and continued to stare at the door. And suddenly it opened
and she came in.

"The servant followed her with a light, and then went out and closed the
door. Her face looked pale in the lamplight, but her voice was as clear
as a bell.

"'Well,' she said, 'you see I've come.'

"I started toward her with hands outstretched. 'You've come - you've
come!' I stammered.

"Yes; it was like her to come in that way - without dissimulation or
explanation or excuse. It was like her, if she gave at all, to give not
furtively or in haste, but openly, deliberately, without stinting
the measure or counting the cost. But her quietness and serenity
disconcerted me. She did not look like a woman who has yielded
impetuously to an uncontrollable impulse. There was something almost
solemn in her face.

"The effect of it stole over me as I looked at her, suddenly subduing
the huge flush of gratified longing.

"'You're here, here, here!' I kept repeating, like a child singing over
a happy word.

"'You said,' she continued, in her grave clear voice, 'that we couldn't
go on as we were - '

"'Ah, it's divine of you!' I held out my arms to her.

"She didn't draw back from them, but her faint smile said, 'Wait,' and
lifting her hands she took the pins from her hat, and laid the hat on
the table.

"As I saw her dear head bare in the lamp-light, with the thick hair
waving away from the parting, I forgot everything but the bliss and
wonder of her being here - here, in my house, on my hearth - that
fourth rose from the corner of the rug is the exact spot where she was
standing....

"I drew her to the fire, and made her sit down in the chair you're in,
and knelt down by her, and hid my face on her knees. She put her hand on
my head, and I was happy to the depths of my soul.

"'Oh, I forgot - ' she exclaimed suddenly. I lifted my head and our eyes
met. Hers were smiling.

"She reached out her hand, opened the little bag she had tossed down
with her hat, and drew a small object from it. 'I left my trunk at the
station. Here's the check. Can you send for it?' she asked.

"Her trunk - she wanted me to send for her trunk! Oh, yes - I see your
smile, your 'lucky man!' Only, you see, I didn't love her in that way.
I knew she couldn't come to my house without running a big risk of
discovery, and my tenderness for her, my impulse to shield her, was
stronger, even then, than vanity or desire. Judged from the point of
view of those emotions I fell terribly short of my part. I hadn't any
of the proper feelings. Such an act of romantic folly was so unlike her
that it almost irritated me, and I found myself desperately wondering
how I could get her to reconsider her plan without - well, without
seeming to want her to.

"It's not the way a novel hero feels; it's probably not the way a man in
real life ought to have felt. But it's the way I felt - and she saw it.

"She put her hands on my shoulders and looked at me with deep, deep
eyes. 'Then you didn't expect me to stay?' she asked.

"I caught her hands and pressed them to me, stammering out that I hadn't
dared to dream....

"'You thought I'd come - just for an hour?'

"'How could I dare think more? I adore you, you know, for what
you've done! But it would be known if you - if you stayed on. My
servants - everybody about here knows you. I've no right to expose you to
the risk.' She made no answer, and I went on tenderly: 'Give me, if you
will, the next few hours: there's a train that will get you to town by
midnight. And then we'll arrange something - in town - where it's safer
for you - more easily managed.... It's beautiful, it's heavenly of you
to have come; but I love you too much - I must take care of you and think
for you - '

"I don't suppose it ever took me so long to say so few words, and
though they were profoundly sincere they sounded unutterably shallow,
irrelevant and grotesque. She made no effort to help me out, but sat
silent, listening, with her meditative smile. 'It's my duty, dearest, as
a man,' I rambled on. The more I love you the more I'm bound - '

"'Yes; but you don't understand,' she interrupted.

"She rose as she spoke, and I got up also, and we stood and looked at
each other.

"'I haven't come for a night; if you want me I've come for always,' she
said.

"Here again, if I give you an honest account of my feelings I shall
write myself down as the poor-spirited creature I suppose I am. There
wasn't, I swear, at the moment, a grain of selfishness, of personal
reluctance, in my feeling. I worshipped every hair of her head - when we
were together I was happy, when I was away from her something was gone
from every good thing; but I had always looked on our love for each
other, our possible relation to each other, as such situations are
looked on in what is called society. I had supposed her, for all her
freedom and originality, to be just as tacitly subservient to that view
as I was: ready to take what she wanted on the terms on which society
concedes such taking, and to pay for it by the usual restrictions,
concealments and hypocrisies. In short, I supposed that she would 'play
the game' - look out for her own safety, and expect me to look out for
it. It sounds cheap enough, put that way - but it's the rule we live
under, all of us. And the amazement of finding her suddenly outside of
it, oblivious of it, unconscious of it, left me, for an awful minute,
stammering at her like a graceless dolt.... Perhaps it wasn't even a
minute; but in it she had gone the whole round of my thoughts.

"'It's raining,' she said, very low. 'I suppose you can telephone for a
trap?'

"There was no irony or resentment in her voice. She walked slowly across
the room and paused before the Brangwyn etching over there. 'That's a
good impression. _Will_ you telephone, please?' she repeated.

"I found my voice again, and with it the power of movement. I followed
her and dropped at her feet. 'You can't go like this!' I cried.

"She looked down on me from heights and heights. 'I can't stay like
this,' she answered.

"I stood up and we faced each other like antagonists. 'You don't know,'
I accused her passionately, 'in the least what you're asking me to ask
of you!'

"'Yes, I do: _everything_,' she breathed.

"'And it's got to be that or nothing?'

"'Oh, on both sides,' she reminded me.

"'_Not_ on both sides. It's not fair. That's why - '

"'Why you won't?'

"'Why I cannot - may not!'

"'Why you'll take a night and not a life?'

"The taunt, for a woman usually so sure of her aim, fell so short of
the mark that its only effect was to increase my conviction of her
helplessness. The very intensity of my longing for her made me tremble
where she was fearless. I had to protect her first, and think of my own
attitude afterward.

"She was too discerning not to see this too. Her face softened, grew
inexpressibly appealing, and she dropped again into that chair you're
in, leaned forward, and looked up with her grave smile.

"'You think I'm beside myself - raving? (You're not thinking of yourself,
I know.) I'm not: I never was saner. Since I've known you I've often
thought this might happen. This thing between us isn't an ordinary
thing. If it had been we shouldn't, all these months, have drifted. We
should have wanted to skip to the last page - and then throw down the
book. We shouldn't have felt we could _trust_ the future as we did. We
were in no hurry because we knew we shouldn't get tired; and when two
people feel that about each other they must live together - or part. I
don't see what else they can do. A little trip along the coast won't
answer. It's the high seas - or else being tied up to Lethe wharf. And
I'm for the high seas, my dear!'

"Think of sitting here - here, in this room, in this chair - and listening
to that, and seeing the tight on her hair, and hearing the sound of her
voice! I don't suppose there ever was a scene just like it....

"She was astounding - inexhaustible; through all my anguish of resistance
I found a kind of fierce joy in following her. It was lucidity at white
heat: the last sublimation of passion. She might have been an angel
arguing a point in the empyrean if she hadn't been, so completely, a
woman pleading for her life....

"Her life: that was the thing at stake! She couldn't do with less of it
than she was capable of; and a woman's life is inextricably part of the
man's she cares for.

"That was why, she argued, she couldn't accept the usual solution:
couldn't enter into the only relation that society tolerates between
people situated like ourselves. Yes: she knew all the arguments on
_that_ side: didn't I suppose she'd been over them and over them? She
knew (for hadn't she often said it of others?) what is said of the woman
who, by throwing in her lot with her lover's, binds him to a lifelong
duty which has the irksomeness without the dignity of marriage. Oh,
she could talk on that side with the best of them: only she asked me to
consider the other - the side of the man and woman who love each other
deeply and completely enough to want their lives enlarged, and not
diminished, by their love. What, in such a case - she reasoned - must be
the inevitable effect of concealing, denying, disowning, the central
fact, the motive power of one's existence? She asked me to picture the
course of such a love: first working as a fever in the blood, distorting
and deflecting everything, making all other interests insipid, all other
duties irksome, and then, as the acknowledged claims of life regained
their hold, gradually dying - the poor starved passion! - for want of the
wholesome necessary food of common living and doing, yet leaving life
impoverished by the loss of all it might have been.

"'I'm not talking, dear - ' I see her now, leaning toward me with shining
eyes: 'I'm not talking of the people who haven't enough to fill their
days, and to whom a little mystery, a little manoeuvring, gives an
illusion of importance that they can't afford to miss; I'm talking of
you and me, with all our tastes and curiosities and activities; and I
ask you what our love would become if we had to keep it apart from our
lives, like a pretty useless animal that we went to peep at and feed
with sweetmeats through its cage?'

"I won't, my dear fellow, go into the other side of our strange duel:
the arguments I used were those that most men in my situation would
have felt bound to use, and that most women in Paulina's accept
instinctively, without even formulating them. The exceptionalness, the
significance, of the case lay wholly in the fact that she had formulated
them all and then rejected them....

"There was one point I didn't, of course, touch on; and that was the
popular conviction (which I confess I shared) that when a man and a
woman agree to defy the world together the man really sacrifices much
more than the woman. I was not even conscious of thinking of this at the
time, though it may have lurked somewhere in the shadow of my scruples
for her; but she dragged it out into the daylight and held me face to
face with it.

"'Remember, I'm not attempting to lay down any general rule,' she
insisted; 'I'm not theorizing about Man and Woman, I'm talking about you
and me. How do I know what's best for the woman in the next house? Very
likely she'll bolt when it would have been better for her to stay at
home. And it's the same with the man: he'll probably do the wrong thing.
It's generally the weak heads that commit follies, when it's the strong
ones that ought to: and my point is that you and I are both strong
enough to behave like fools if we want to....

"'Take your own case first - because, in spite of the sentimentalists,
it's the man who stands to lose most. You'll have to give up the Iron
Works: which you don't much care about - because it won't be particularly
agreeable for us to live in New York: which you don't care much about
either. But you won't be sacrificing what is called "a career." You made
up your mind long ago that your best chance of self-development, and
consequently of general usefulness, lay in thinking rather than doing;
and, when we first met, you were already planning to sell out your
business, and travel and write. Well! Those ambitions are of a kind
that won't be harmed by your dropping out of your social setting. On
the contrary, such work as you want to do ought to gain by it,
because you'll be brought nearer to life-as-it-is, in contrast to
life-as-a-visiting-list....'

"She threw back her head with a sudden laugh. 'And the joy of not having
any more visits to make! I wonder if you've ever thought of _that?_ Just
at first, I mean; for society's getting so deplorably lax that, little
by little, it will edge up to us - you'll see! I don't want to idealize
the situation, dearest, and I won't conceal from you that in time we
shall be called on. But, oh, the fun we shall have had in the interval!
And then, for the first time we shall be able to dictate our own terms,
one of which will be that no bores need apply. Think of being cured of
all one's chronic bores! We shall feel as jolly as people do after a
successful operation.'

"I don't know why this nonsense sticks in my mind when some of the
graver things we said are less distinct. Perhaps it's because of a
certain iridescent quality of feeling that made her gaiety seem like
sunshine through a shower....

"'You ask me to think of myself?' she went on. 'But the beauty of our
being together will be that, for the first time, I shall dare to! Now
I have to think of all the tedious trifles I can pack the days with,
because I'm afraid - I'm afraid - to hear the voice of the real me, down
below, in the windowless underground hole where I keep her....

"'Remember again, please, it's not Woman, it's Paulina Trant,
I'm talking of. The woman in the next house may have all sorts of
reasons - honest reasons - for staying there. There may be some one
there who needs her badly: for whom the light would go out if she went.
Whereas to Philip I've been simply - well, what New York was before he
decided to travel: the most important thing in life till he made up his
mind to leave it; and now merely the starting-place of several lines of
steamers. Oh, I didn't have to love you to know that! I only had to live
with _him_.... If he lost his eye-glasses he'd think it was the fault of
the eye-glasses; he'd really feel that the eyeglasses had been careless.
And he'd be convinced that no others would suit him quite as well.
But at the optician's he'd probably be told that he needed something a
little different, and after that he'd feel that the old eye-glasses had
never suited him at all, and that _that_ was their fault too....'

"At one moment - but I don't recall when - I remember she stood up with
one of her quick movements, and came toward me, holding out her arms.
'Oh, my dear, I'm pleading for my life; do you suppose I shall ever want
for arguments?' she cried....

"After that, for a bit, nothing much remains with me except a sense of
darkness and of conflict. The one spot of daylight in my whirling brain
was the conviction that I couldn't - whatever happened - profit by the
sudden impulse she had acted on, and allow her to take, in a moment of
passion, a decision that was to shape her whole life. I couldn't so
much as lift my little finger to keep her with me then, unless I were
prepared to accept for her as well as for myself the full consequences
of the future she had planned for us....

"Well - there's the point: I wasn't. I felt in her - poor fatuous idiot
that I was! - that lack of objective imagination which had always seemed
to me to account, at least in part, for many of the so-called heroic
qualities in women. When their feelings are involved they simply can't
look ahead. Her unfaltering logic notwithstanding, I felt this about
Paulina as I listened. She had a specious air of knowing where she was
going, but she didn't. She seemed the genius of logic and understanding,
but the demon of illusion spoke through her lips....

"I said just now that I hadn't, at the outset, given my own side of the
case a thought. It would have been truer to say that I hadn't given it a
_separate_ thought. But I couldn't think of her without seeing myself as
a factor - the chief factor - in her problem, and without recognizing that
whatever the experiment made of me, that it must fatally, in the end,
make of her. If I couldn't carry the thing through she must break
down with me: we should have to throw our separate selves into
the melting-pot of this mad adventure, and be 'one' in a terrible
indissoluble completeness of which marriage is only an imperfect
counterpart....

"There could be no better proof of her extraordinary power over me, and
of the way she had managed to clear the air of sentimental illusion,
than the fact that I presently found myself putting this before her with
a merciless precision of touch.

"'If we love each other enough to do a thing like this, we must love
each other enough to see just what it is we're going to do.'

"So I invited her to the dissecting-table, and I see now the fearless
eye with which she approached the cadaver. 'For that's what it is, you


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Online LibraryEdith WhartonThe Long Run → online text (page 2 of 3)