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know,' she flashed out at me, at the end of my long demonstration. 'It's
a dead body, like all the instances and examples and hypothetical cases
that ever were! What do you expect to learn from thai? The first great
anatomist was the man who stuck his knife in a heart that was beating;
and the only way to find out what doing a thing will be like is to do
it!'

"She looked away from me suddenly, as if she were fixing her eyes on
some vision on the outer rim of consciousness. 'No: there's one other
way,' she exclaimed; 'and that is, _not_ to do it! To abstain and
refrain; and then see what we become, or what we don't become, in
the long run, and to draw our inferences. That's the game that almost
everybody about us is playing, I suppose; there's hardly one of the dull
people one meets at dinner who hasn't had, just once, the chance of a
berth on a ship that was off for the Happy Isles, and hasn't refused it
for fear of sticking on a sand-bank!

"'I'm doing my best, you know,' she continued, 'to see the sequel as
you see it, as you believe it's your duty to me to see it. I know the
instances you're thinking of: the listless couples wearing out their
lives in shabby watering places, and hanging on the favour of hotel
acquaintances; or the proud quarrelling wretches shut up alone in a fine
house because they're too good for the only society they can get, and
trying to cheat their boredom by squabbling with their tradesmen and
spying on their servants. No doubt there are such cases; but I don't
recognize either of us in those dismal figures. Why, to do it would be
to admit that our life, yours and mine, is in the people about us
and not in ourselves; that we're parasites and not self-sustaining
creatures; and that the lives we're leading now are so brilliant, full
and satisfying that what we should have to give up would surpass even
the blessedness of being together!'

"At that stage, I confess, the solid ground of my resistance began to
give way under me. It was not that my convictions were shaken, but that
she had swept me into a world whose laws were different, where one could
reach out in directions that the slave of gravity hasn't pictured. But
at the same time my opposition hardened from reason into instinct. I
knew it was her voice, and not her logic, that was unsettling me. I knew
that if she'd written out her thesis and sent it me by post I should
have made short work of it; and again the part of me which I called
by all the finest names: my chivalry, my unselfishness, my superior
masculine experience, cried out with one voice: 'You can't let a woman
use her graces to her own undoing - you can't, for her own sake, let her
eyes convince you when her reasons don't!'

"And then, abruptly, and for the first time, a doubt entered me: a
doubt of her perfect moral honesty. I don't know how else to describe
my feeling that she wasn't playing fair, that in coming to my house, in
throwing herself at my head (I called things by their names), she
had perhaps not so much obeyed an irresistible impulse as deeply,
deliberately reckoned on the dissolvent effect of her generosity, her
rashness and her beauty....

"From the moment that this mean doubt raised its head in me I was once
more the creature of all the conventional scruples: I was repeating,
before the looking-glass of my self-consciousness, all the stereotyped
gestures of the 'man of honour.'... Oh, the sorry figure I must have
cut! You'll understand my dropping the curtain on it as quickly as I
can....

"Yet I remember, as I made my point, being struck by its impressiveness.
I was suffering and enjoying my own suffering. I told her that, whatever
step we decided to take, I owed it to her to insist on its being taken
soberly, deliberately -

"('No: it's "advisedly," isn't it? Oh, I was thinking of the Marriage
Service,' she interposed with a faint laugh.)

" - that if I accepted, there, on the spot, her headlong beautiful gift
of herself, I should feel I had taken an unfair advantage of her, an
advantage which she would be justified in reproaching me with afterward;
that I was not afraid to tell her this because she was intelligent
enough to know that my scruples were the surest proof of the quality of
my love; that I refused to owe my happiness to an unconsidered impulse;
that we must see each other again, in her own house, in less agitating
circumstances, when she had had time to reflect on my words, to study
her heart and look into the future....

"The factitious exhilaration produced by uttering these beautiful
sentiments did not last very long, as you may imagine. It fell, little
by little, under her quiet gaze, a gaze in which there was neither
contempt nor irony nor wounded pride, but only a tender wistfulness of
interrogation; and I think the acutest point in my suffering was reached
when she said, as I ended: 'Oh; yes, of course I understand.'

"'If only you hadn't come to me here!' I blurted out in the torture of
my soul.

"She was on the threshold when I said it, and she turned and laid her
hand gently on mine. 'There was no other way,' she said; and at the
moment it seemed to me like some hackneyed phrase in a novel that she
had used without any sense of its meaning.

"I don't remember what I answered or what more we either of us said. At
the end a desperate longing to take her in my arms and keep her with me
swept aside everything else, and I went up to her, pleading, stammering,
urging I don't know what.... But she held me back with a quiet look,
and went. I had ordered the carriage, as she asked me to; and my last
definite recollection is of watching her drive off in the rain....

"I had her promise that she would see me, two days later, at her house
in town, and that we should then have what I called 'a decisive talk';
but I don't think that even at the moment I was the dupe of my phrase. I
knew, and she knew, that the end had come...."




V

"It was about that time (Merrick went on after a long pause) that I
definitely decided not to sell the Works, but to stick to my job and
conform my life to it.

"I can't describe to you the rage of conformity that possessed me.
Poetry, ideas - all the picture-making processes stopped. A kind of dull
self-discipline seemed to me the only exercise worthy of a reflecting
mind. I _had_ to justify my great refusal, and I tried to do it by
plunging myself up to the eyes into the very conditions I had been
instinctively struggling to get away from. The only possible consolation
would have been to find in a life of business routine and social
submission such moral compensations as may reward the citizen if they
fail the man; but to attain to these I should have had to accept the
old delusion that the social and the individual man are two. Now, on
the contrary, I found soon enough that I couldn't get one part of my
machinery to work effectively while another wanted feeding: and that in
rejecting what had seemed to me a negation of action I had made all my
action negative.

"The best solution, of course, would have been to fall in love with
another woman; but it was long before I could bring myself to wish that
this might happen to me.... Then, at length, I suddenly and violently
desired it; and as such impulses are seldom without some kind of
imperfect issue I contrived, a year or two later, to work myself up into
the wished-for state.... She was a woman in society, and with all
the awe of that institution that Paulina lacked. Our relation was
consequently one of those unavowed affairs in which triviality is the
only alternative to tragedy. Luckily we had, on both sides, risked only
as much as prudent people stake in a drawingroom game; and when the
match was over I take it that we came out fairly even.

"My gain, at all events, was of an unexpected kind. The adventure
had served only to make me understand Paulina's abhorrence of such
experiments, and at every turn of the slight intrigue I had felt how
exasperating and belittling such a relation was bound to be between two
people who, had they been free, would have mated openly. And so from a
brief phase of imperfect forgetting I was driven back to a deeper and
more understanding remembrance....

"This second incarnation of Paulina was one of the strangest episodes
of the whole strange experience. Things she had said during our
extraordinary talk, things I had hardly heard at the time, came back to
me with singular vividness and a fuller meaning. I hadn't any longer
the cold consolation of believing in my own perspicacity: I saw that her
insight had been deeper and keener than mine.

"I remember, in particular, starting up in bed one sleepless night as
there flashed into my head the meaning of her last words: 'There was
no other way'; the phrase I had half-smiled at at the time, as a
parrot-like echo of the novel-heroine's stock farewell. I had never, up
to that moment, wholly understood why Paulina had come to my house that
night. I had never been able to make that particular act - which could
hardly, in the light of her subsequent conduct, be dismissed as a blind
surge of passion - square with my conception of her character. She was
at once the most spontaneous and the steadiest-minded woman I had
ever known, and the last to wish to owe any advantage to surprise, to
unpreparedness, to any play on the spring of sex. The better I came,
retrospectively, to know her, the more sure I was of this, and the less
intelligible her act appeared. And then, suddenly, after a night of
hungry restless thinking, the flash of enlightenment came. She had come
to my house, had brought her trunk with her, had thrown herself at my
head with all possible violence and publicity, in order to give me a
pretext, a loophole, an honourable excuse, for doing and saying - why,
precisely what I had said and done!

"As the idea came to me it was as if some ironic hand had touched an
electric button, and all my fatuous phrases had leapt out on me in fire.

"Of course she had known all along just the kind of thing I should
say if I didn't at once open my arms to her; and to save my pride, my
dignity, my conception of the figure I was cutting in her eyes, she had
recklessly and magnificently provided me with the decentest pretext a
man could have for doing a pusillanimous thing....

"With that discovery the whole case took a different aspect. It hurt
less to think of Paulina - and yet it hurt more. The tinge of bitterness,
of doubt, in my thoughts of her had had a tonic quality. It was harder
to go on persuading myself that I had done right as, bit by bit, my
theories crumbled under the test of time. Yet, after all, as she herself
had said, one could judge of results only in the long run....

"The Trants stayed away for two years; and about a year after they got
back, you may remember, Trant was killed in a railway accident. You know
Fate's way of untying a knot after everybody has given up tugging at it!

"Well - there I was, completely justified: all my weaknesses turned into
merits! I had 'saved' a weak woman from herself, I had kept her to the
path of duty, I had spared her the humiliation of scandal and the misery
of self-reproach; and now I had only to put out my hand and take my
reward.

"I had avoided Paulina since her return, and she had made no effort to
see me. But after Trant's death I wrote her a few lines, to which she
sent a friendly answer; and when a decent interval had elapsed, and I
asked if I might call on her, she answered at once that she would see
me.

"I went to her house with the fixed intention of asking her to marry
me - and I left it without having done so. Why? I don't know that I can
tell you. Perhaps you would have had to sit there opposite her, knowing
what I did and feeling as I did, to understand why. She was kind, she
was compassionate - I could see she didn't want to make it hard for me.
Perhaps she even wanted to make it easy. But there, between us, was the
memory of the gesture I hadn't made, forever parodying the one I was
attempting! There wasn't a word I could think of that hadn't an echo in
it of words of hers I had been deaf to; there wasn't an appeal I could
make that didn't mock the appeal I had rejected. I sat there and talked
of her husband's death, of her plans, of my sympathy; and I knew she
understood; and knowing that, in a way, made it harder.... The door-bell
rang and the footman came in to ask if she would receive other visitors.
She looked at me a moment and said 'Yes,' and I got up and shook hands
and went away.

"A few days later she sailed for Europe, and the next time we met she
had married Reardon...."




VI

It was long past midnight, and the terrier's hints became imperious.

Merrick rose from his chair, pushed back a fallen log and put up the
fender. He walked across the room and stared a moment at the Brangwyn
etching before which Paulina Trant had paused at a memorable turn of
their talk. Then he came back and laid his hand on my shoulder.

"She summed it all up, you know, when she said that one way of finding
out whether a risk is worth taking is _not_ to take it, and then to see
what one becomes in the long run, and draw one's inferences. The long
run - well, we've run it, she and I. I know what I've become, but that's
nothing to the misery of knowing what she's become. She had to have some
kind of life, and she married Reardon. Reardon's a very good fellow in
his way; but the worst of it is that it's not her way....

"No: the worst of it is that now she and I meet as friends. We dine at
the same houses, we talk about the same people, we play bridge together,
and I lend her books. And sometimes Reardon slaps me on the back and
says: 'Come in and dine with us, old man! What you want is to be cheered
up!' And I go and dine with them, and he tells me how jolly comfortable
she makes him, and what an ass I am not to marry; and she presses on
me a second helping of _poulet Maryland_, and I smoke one of Reardon's
cigars, and at half-past ten I get into my overcoat, and walk back alone
to my rooms...."







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