Edith Wharton.

The Triumph Of Night online

. (page 2 of 3)
Online LibraryEdith WhartonThe Triumph Of Night → online text (page 2 of 3)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


tall footmen, and it was evident that Mr. Lavington took a certain
satisfaction in the pageant. That, Faxon reflected, was probably
the joint in his armour - that and the flowers. He had changed the
subject - not abruptly but firmly - when the young men entered, but
Faxon perceived that it still possessed the thoughts of the two elderly
visitors, and Mr. Balch presently observed, in a voice that seemed to
come from the last survivor down a mine-shaft: "If it _does_ come, it
will be the biggest crash since '93."

Mr. Lavington looked bored but polite. "Wall Street can stand crashes
better than it could then. It's got a robuster constitution."

"Yes; but - "

"Speaking of constitutions," Mr. Grisben intervened: "Frank, are you
taking care of yourself?"

A flush rose to young Rainer's cheeks.

"Why, of course! Isn't that what I'm here for?"

"You're here about three days in the month, aren't you? And the rest of
the time it's crowded restaurants and hot ballrooms in town. I thought
you were to be shipped off to New Mexico?"

"Oh, I've got a new man who says that's rot."

"Well, you don't look as if your new man were right," said Mr. Grisben
bluntly.

Faxon saw the lad's colour fade, and the rings of shadow deepen under
his gay eyes. At the same moment his uncle turned to him with a renewed
intensity of attention. There was such solicitude in Mr. Lavington's
gaze that it seemed almost to fling a shield between his nephew and Mr.
Grisben's tactless scrutiny.

"We think Frank's a good deal better," he began; "this new doctor - "

The butler, coming up, bent to whisper a word in his ear, and the
communication caused a sudden change in Mr. Lavington's expression. His
face was naturally so colourless that it seemed not so much to pale as
to fade, to dwindle and recede into something blurred and blotted-out. He
half rose, sat down again and sent a rigid smile about the table.

"Will you excuse me? The telephone. Peters, go on with the dinner." With
small precise steps he walked out of the door which one of the footmen
had thrown open.

A momentary silence fell on the group; then Mr. Grisben once more
addressed himself to Rainer. "You ought to have gone, my boy; you ought
to have gone."

The anxious look returned to the youth's eyes. "My uncle doesn't think
so, really."

"You're not a baby, to be always governed by your uncle's opinion. You
came of age to-day, didn't you? Your uncle spoils you.... that's what's
the matter...."

The thrust evidently went home, for Rainer laughed and looked down with
a slight accession of colour.

"But the doctor - "

"Use your common sense, Frank! You had to try twenty doctors to find one
to tell you what you wanted to be told."

A look of apprehension overshadowed Rainer', gaiety. "Oh, come - I
say!... What would _you_ do?" he stammered.

"Pack up and jump on the first train." Mr. Grisben leaned forward and
laid his hand kindly on the young man's arm. "Look here: my nephew Jim
Grisben is out there ranching on a big scale. He'll take you in and be
glad to have you. You say your new doctor thinks it won't do you any
good; but he doesn't pretend to say it will do you harm, does he? Well,
then - give it a trial. It'll take you out of hot theatres and night
restaurants, anyhow.... And all the rest of it.... Eh, Balch?"

"Go!" said Mr. Balch hollowly. "Go _at once_," he added, as if a closer
look at the youth's face had impressed on him the need of backing up his
friend.

Young Rainer had turned ashy-pale. He tried to stiffen his mouth into a
smile. "Do I look as bad as all that?"

Mr. Grisben was helping himself to terrapin. "You look like the day
after an earthquake," he said.

The terrapin had encircled the table, and been deliberately enjoyed by
Mr. Lavington's three visitors (Rainer, Faxon noticed, left his plate
untouched) before the door was thrown open to re-admit their host.
Mr. Lavington advanced with an air of recovered composure. He seated
himself, picked up his napkin and consulted the gold-monogrammed menu.
"No, don't bring back the filet.... Some terrapin; yes...." He looked
affably about the table. "Sorry to have deserted you, but the storm has
played the deuce with the wires, and I had to wait a long time before I
could get a good connection. It must be blowing up for a blizzard."

"Uncle Jack," young Rainer broke out, "Mr. Grisben's been lecturing me."

Mr. Lavington was helping himself to terrapin. "Ah - what about?"

"He thinks I ought to have given New Mexico a show."

"I want him to go straight out to my nephew at Santa Paz and stay there
till his next birthday." Mr. Lavington signed to the butler to hand the
terrapin to Mr. Grisben, who, as he took a second helping, addressed
himself again to Rainer. "Jim's in New York now, and going back the day
after tomorrow in Olyphant's private car. I'll ask Olyphant to squeeze
you in if you'll go. And when you've been out there a week or two, in
the saddle all day and sleeping nine hours a night, I suspect you won't
think much of the doctor who prescribed New York."

Faxon spoke up, he knew not why. "I was out there once: it's a splendid
life. I saw a fellow - oh, a really _bad_ case - who'd been simply made
over by it."

"It _does_ sound jolly," Rainer laughed, a sudden eagerness in his tone.

His uncle looked at him gently. "Perhaps Grisben's right. It's an
opportunity - "

Faxon glanced up with a start: the figure dimly perceived in the study
was now more visibly and tangibly planted behind Mr. Lavington's chair.

"That's right, Frank: you see your uncle approves. And the trip out
there with Olyphant isn't a thing to be missed. So drop a few dozen
dinners and be at the Grand Central the day after tomorrow at five."

Mr. Grisben's pleasant grey eye sought corroboration of his host, and
Faxon, in a cold anguish of suspense, continued to watch him as he
turned his glance on Mr. Lavington. One could not look at Lavington
without seeing the presence at his back, and it was clear that, the next
minute, some change in Mr. Grisben's expression must give his watcher a
clue.

But Mr. Grisben's expression did not change: the gaze he fixed on his
host remained unperturbed, and the clue he gave was the startling one of
not seeming to see the other figure.

Faxon's first impulse was to look away, to look anywhere else, to resort
again to the champagne glass the watchful butler had already brimmed;
but some fatal attraction, at war in him with an overwhelming physical
resistance, held his eyes upon the spot they feared.

The figure was still standing, more distinctly, and therefore more
resemblingly, at Mr. Lavington's back; and while the latter continued
to gaze affectionately at his nephew, his counterpart, as before, fixed
young Rainer with eyes of deadly menace.

Faxon, with what felt like an actual wrench of the muscles, dragged his
own eyes from the sight to scan the other countenances about the table;
but not one revealed the least consciousness of what he saw, and a sense
of mortal isolation sank upon him.

"It's worth considering, certainly - " he heard Mr. Lavington continue;
and as Rainer's face lit up, the face behind his uncle's chair seemed to
gather into its look all the fierce weariness of old unsatisfied hates.
That was the thing that, as the minutes laboured by, Faxon was becoming
most conscious of. The watcher behind the chair was no longer merely
malevolent: he had grown suddenly, unutterably tired. His hatred seemed
to well up out of the very depths of balked effort and thwarted hopes,
and the fact made him more pitiable, and yet more dire.

Faxon's look reverted to Mr. Lavington, as if to surprise in him a
corresponding change. At first none was visible: his pinched smile was
screwed to his blank face like a gas-light to a white-washed wall. Then
the fixity of the smile became ominous: Faxon saw that its wearer was
afraid to let it go. It was evident that Mr. Lavington was unutterably
tired too, and the discovery sent a colder current through Faxon's
veins. Looking down at his untouched plate, he caught the soliciting
twinkle of the champagne glass; but the sight of the wine turned him
sick.

"Well, we'll go into the details presently," he heard Mr. Lavington say,
still on the question of his nephew's future. "Let's have a cigar first.
No - not here, Peters." He turned his smile on Faxon. "When we've had
coffee I want to show you my pictures."

"Oh, by the way, Uncle Jack - Mr. Faxon wants to know if you've got a
double?"

"A double?" Mr. Lavington, still smiling, continued to address himself
to his guest. "Not that I know of. Have you seen one, Mr. Faxon?"

Faxon thought: "My God, if I look up now they'll _both_ be looking at
me!" To avoid raising his eyes he made as though to lift the glass to
his lips; but his hand sank inert, and he looked up. Mr. Lavington's
glance was politely bent on him, but with a loosening of the strain
about his heart he saw that the figure behind the chair still kept its
gaze on Rainer.

"Do you think you've seen my double, Mr. Faxon?"

Would the other face turn if he said yes? Faxon felt a dryness in his
throat. "No," he answered.

"Ah? It's possible I've a dozen. I believe I'm extremely usual-looking,"
Mr. Lavington went on conversationally; and still the other face watched
Rainer.

"It was... a mistake... a confusion of memory...." Faxon heard himself
stammer. Mr. Lavington pushed back his chair, and as he did so Mr.
Grisben suddenly leaned forward.

"Lavington! What have, we been thinking of? We haven't drunk Frank's
health!"

Mr. Lavington reseated himself. "My dear boy!... Peters, another
bottle...." He turned to his nephew. "After such a sin of omission I
don't presume to propose the toast myself... but Frank knows.... Go
ahead, Grisben!"

The boy shone on his uncle. "No, no, Uncle Jack! Mr. Grisben won't mind.
Nobody but _you_ - today!"

The butler was replenishing the glasses. He filled Mr. Lavington's last,
and Mr. Lavington put out his small hand to raise it.... As he did so,
Faxon looked away.

"Well, then - All the good I've wished you in all the past years.... I
put it into the prayer that the coming ones may be healthy and happy and
many... and _many_, dear boy!"

Faxon saw the hands about him reach out for their glasses.
Automatically, he reached for his. His eyes were still on the table, and
he repeated to himself with a trembling vehemence: "I won't look up! I
won't.... I won't...."

His finders clasped the glass and raised it to the level of his lips.
He saw the other hands making the same motion. He heard Mr. Grisben's
genial "Hear! Hear!" and Mr. Batch's hollow echo. He said to himself,
as the rim of the glass touched his lips: "I won't look up! I swear I
won't! - " and he looked.

The glass was so full that it required an extraordinary effort to hold
it there, brimming and suspended, during the awful interval before he
could trust his hand to lower it again, untouched, to the table. It was
this merciful preoccupation which saved him, kept him from crying out,
from losing his hold, from slipping down into the bottomless blackness
that gaped for him. As long as the problem of the glass engaged him he
felt able to keep his seat, manage his muscles, fit unnoticeably into
the group; but as the glass touched the table his last link with safety
snapped. He stood up and dashed out of the room.




IV

In the gallery, the instinct of self-preservation helped him to turn
back and sign to young Rainer not to follow. He stammered out something
about a touch of dizziness, and joining them presently; and the boy
nodded sympathetically and drew back.

At the foot of the stairs Faxon ran against a servant. "I should like to
telephone to Weymore," he said with dry lips.

"Sorry, sir; wires all down. We've been trying the last hour to get New
York again for Mr. Lavington."

Faxon shot on to his room, burst into it, and bolted the door. The
lamplight lay on furniture, flowers, books; in the ashes a log still
glimmered. He dropped down on the sofa and hid his face. The room was
profoundly silent, the whole house was still: nothing about him gave a
hint of what was going on, darkly and dumbly, in the room he had flown
from, and with the covering of his eyes oblivion and reassurance seemed
to fall on him. But they fell for a moment only; then his lids opened
again to the monstrous vision. There it was, stamped on his pupils, a
part of him forever, an indelible horror burnt into his body and brain.
But why into his - just his? Why had he alone been chosen to see what he
had seen? What business was it of _his_, in God's name? Any one of the
others, thus enlightened, might have exposed the horror and defeated
it; but _he_, the one weaponless and defenceless spectator, the one whom
none of the others would believe or understand if he attempted to reveal
what he knew - _he_ alone had been singled out as the victim of this
dreadful initiation!

Suddenly he sat up, listening: he had heard a step on the stairs. Some
one, no doubt, was coming to see how he was - to urge him, if he felt
better, to go down and join the smokers. Cautiously he opened his
door; yes, it was young Rainer's step. Faxon looked down the passage,
remembered the other stairway and darted to it. All he wanted was to get
out of the house. Not another instant would he breathe its abominable
air! What business was it of _his_, in God's name?

He reached the opposite end of the lower gallery, and beyond it saw
the hall by which he had entered. It was empty, and on a long table he
recognized his coat and cap. He got into his coat, unbolted the door,
and plunged into the purifying night.

The darkness was deep, and the cold so intense that for an instant
it stopped his breathing. Then he perceived that only a thin snow was
falling, and resolutely he set his face for flight. The trees along the
avenue marked his way as he hastened with long strides over the beaten
snow. Gradually, while he walked, the tumult in his brain subsided. The
impulse to fly still drove him forward, but he began feel that he was
flying from a terror of his own creating, and that the most urgent
reason for escape was the need of hiding his state, of shunning other
eyes till he should regain his balance.

He had spent the long hours in the train in fruitless broodings on a
discouraging situation, and he remembered how his bitterness had turned
to exasperation when he found that the Weymore sleigh was not awaiting
him. It was absurd, of course; but, though he had joked with Rainer over
Mrs. Culme's forgetfulness, to confess it had cost a pang. That was what
his rootless life had brought him to: for lack of a personal stake in
things his sensibility was at the mercy of such trifles.... Yes; that,
and the cold and fatigue, the absence of hope and the haunting sense of
starved aptitudes, all these had brought him to the perilous verge over
which, once or twice before, his terrified brain had hung.

Why else, in the name of any imaginable logic, human or devilish,
should he, a stranger, be singled out for this experience? What could
it mean to him, how was he related to it, what bearing had it on his
case?... Unless, indeed, it was just because he was a stranger - a
stranger everywhere - because he had no personal life, no warm screen of
private egotisms to shield him from exposure, that he had developed this
abnormal sensitiveness to the vicissitudes of others. The thought pulled
him up with a shudder. No! Such a fate was too abominable; all that
was strong and sound in him rejected it. A thousand times better regard
himself as ill, disorganized, deluded, than as the predestined victim of
such warnings!

He reached the gates and paused before the darkened lodge. The wind had
risen and was sweeping the snow into his race. The cold had him in its
grasp again, and he stood uncertain. Should he put his sanity to the
test and go back? He turned and looked down the dark drive to the house.
A single ray shone through the trees, evoking a picture of the lights,
the flowers, the faces grouped about that fatal room. He turned and
plunged out into the road....

He remembered that, about a mile from Overdale, the coachman had pointed
out the road to Northridge; and he began to walk in that direction.
Once in the road he had the gale in his face, and the wet snow on his
moustache and eye-lashes instantly hardened to ice. The same ice seemed
to be driving a million blades into his throat and lungs, but he pushed
on, the vision of the warm room pursuing him.

The snow in the road was deep and uneven. He stumbled across ruts and
sank into drifts, and the wind drove against him like a granite cliff.
Now and then he stopped, gasping, as if an invisible hand had tightened
an iron band about his body; then he started again, stiffening himself
against the stealthy penetration of the cold. The snow continued to
descend out of a pall of inscrutable darkness, and once or twice he
paused, fearing he had missed the road to Northridge; but, seeing no
sign of a turn, he ploughed on.

At last, feeling sure that he had walked for more than a mile, he halted
and looked back. The act of turning brought immediate relief, first
because it put his back to the wind, and then because, far down the
road, it showed him the gleam of a lantern. A sleigh was coming - a
sleigh that might perhaps give him a lift to the village! Fortified by
the hope, he began to walk back toward the light. It came forward very
slowly, with unaccountable sigsags and waverings; and even when he was
within a few yards of it he could catch no sound of sleigh-bells. Then
it paused and became stationary by the roadside, as though carried by
a pedestrian who had stopped, exhausted by the cold. The thought made
Faxon hasten on, and a moment later he was stooping over a motionless
figure huddled against the snow-bank. The lantern had dropped from its
bearer's hand, and Faxon, fearfully raising it, threw its light into the
face of Frank Rainer.

"Rainer! What on earth are you doing here?"

The boy smiled back through his pallour. "What are _you_, I'd like to
know?" he retorted; and, scrambling to his feet with a clutch oh Faxon's
arm, he added gaily: "Well, I've run you down!"

Faxon stood confounded, his heart sinking. The lad's face was grey.

"What madness - " he began.

"Yes, it _is_. What on earth did you do it for?"

"I? Do what?... Why I.... I was just taking a walk.... I often walk at
night...."

Frank Rainer burst into a laugh. "On such nights? Then you hadn't
bolted?"

"Bolted?"

"Because I'd done something to offend you? My uncle thought you had."

Faxon grasped his arm. "Did your uncle send you after me?"

"Well, he gave me an awful rowing for not going up to your room with
you when you said you were ill. And when we found you'd gone we were
frightened - and he was awfully upset - so I said I'd catch you.... You're
_not_ ill, are you?"

"Ill? No. Never better." Faxon picked up the lantern. "Come; let's go
back. It was awfully hot in that diningroom."

"Yes; I hoped it was only that."

They trudged on in silence for a few minutes; then Faxon questioned:
"You're not too done up?"

"Oh, no. It's a lot easier with the wind behind us."

"All right Don't talk any more."

They pushed ahead, walking, in spite of the light that guided them,
more slowly than Faxon had walked alone into the gale. The fact of his
companion's stumbling against a drift gave Faxon a pretext for saying:
"Take hold of my arm," and Rainer obeying, gasped out: "I'm blown!"

"So am I. Who wouldn't be?"

"What a dance you led me! If it hadn't been for one of the servants
happening to see you - "

"Yes; all right. And now, won't you kindly shut up?"

Rainer laughed and hung on him. "Oh, the cold doesn't hurt me...."

For the first few minutes after Rainer had overtaken him, anxiety
for the lad had been Faxon's only thought. But as each labouring step
carried them nearer to the spot he had been fleeing, the reasons for his
flight grew more ominous and more insistent. No, he was not ill, he was
not distraught and deluded - he was the instrument singled out to warn
and save; and here he was, irresistibly driven, dragging the victim back
to his doom!

The intensity of the conviction had almost checked his steps. But what
could he do or say? At all costs he must get Rainer out of the cold,
into the house and into his bed. After that he would act.

The snow-fall was thickening, and as they reached a stretch of the road
between open fields the wind took them at an angle, lashing their faces
with barbed thongs. Rainer stopped to take breath, and Faxon felt the
heavier pressure of his arm.

"When we get to the lodge, can't we telephone to the stable for a
sleigh?"

"If they're not all asleep at the lodge."

"Oh, I'll manage. Don't talk!" Faxon ordered; and they plodded on....

At length the lantern ray showed ruts that curved away from the road
under tree-darkness.

Faxon's spirits rose. "There's the gate! We'll be there in five
minutes."

As he spoke he caught, above the boundary hedge, the gleam of a light at
the farther end of the dark avenue. It was the same light that had shone
on the scene of which every detail was burnt into his brain; and he felt
again its overpowering reality. No - he couldn't let the boy go back!

They were at the lodge at last, and Faxon was hammering on the door. He
said to himself: "I'll get him inside first, and make them give him a
hot drink. Then I'll see - I'll find an argument...."

There was no answer to his knocking, and after an interval Rainer said:
"Look here - we'd better go on."

"No!"

"I can, perfectly - "

"You sha'n't go to the house, I say!" Faxon redoubled his blows, and
at length steps sounded on the stairs. Rainer was leaning against the
lintel, and as the door opened the light from the hall flashed on his
pale face and fixed eyes. Faxon caught him by the arm and drew him in.

"It _was_ cold out there." he sighed; and then, abruptly, as if
invisible shears at a single stroke had cut every muscle in his body, he
swerved, drooped on Faxon's arm, and seemed to sink into nothing at his
feet.

The lodge-keeper and Faxon bent over him, and somehow, between them,
lifted him into the kitchen and laid him on a sofa by the stove.

The lodge-keeper, stammering: "I'll ring up the house," dashed out of
the room. But Faxon heard the words without heeding them: omens mattered
nothing now, beside this woe fulfilled. He knelt down to undo the fur
collar about Rainer's throat, and as he did so he felt a warm moisture
on his hands. He held them up, and they were red....




V

The palms threaded their endless line along the yellow river. The little
steamer lay at the wharf, and George Faxon, sitting in the verandah of
the wooden hotel, idly watched the coolies carrying the freight across
the gang-plank.

He had been looking at such scenes for two months. Nearly five had
elapsed since he had descended from the train at Northridge and strained
his eyes for the sleigh that was to take him to Weymore: Weymore, which
he was never to behold!... Part of the interval - the first part - was
still a great grey blur. Even now he could not be quite sure how he
had got back to Boston, reached the house of a cousin, and been thence
transferred to a quiet room looking out on snow under bare trees. He
looked out a long time at the same scene, and finally one day a man
he had known at Harvard came to see him and invited him to go out on a
business trip to the Malay Peninsula.

"You've had a bad shake-up, and it'll do you no end of good to get away
from things."

When the doctor came the next day it turned out that he knew of the plan
and approved it. "You ought to be quiet for a year. Just loaf and look
at the landscape," he advised.

Paxon felt the first faint stirrings of curiosity.

"What's been the matter with me, anyway?"

"Well, over-work, I suppose. You must have been bottling up for a bad
breakdown before you started for New Hampshire last December. And the
shock of that poor boy's death did the rest."

Ah, yes - Rainer had died. He remembered....

He started for the East, and gradually, by imperceptible degrees, life
crept back into his weary bones and leaden brain. His friend was patient
and considerate, and they travelled slowly and talked little. At first
Faxon had felt a great shrinking from whatever touched on familiar
things. He seldom looked at a newspaper and he never opened a letter
without a contraction of the heart. It was not that he had any special
cause for apprehension, but merely that a great trail of darkness lay on


2

Online LibraryEdith WhartonThe Triumph Of Night → online text (page 2 of 3)