Autres Temps ..., by Edith Wharton

I

Mrs. Lidcote, as the huge menacing mass of New York defined itself far off across the waters, shrank back into her corner of the deck and sat listening with a kind of unreasoning terror to the steady onward drive of the screws.

She had set out on the voyage quietly enough, — in what she called her “reasonable” mood, — but the week at sea had given her too much time to think of things and had left her too long alone with the past.

When she was alone, it was always the past that occupied her. She couldn’t get away from it, and she didn’t any longer care to. During her long years of exile she had made her terms with it, had learned to accept the fact that it would always be there, huge, obstructing, encumbering, bigger and more dominant than anything the future could ever conjure up. And, at any rate, she was sure of it, she understood it, knew how to reckon with it; she had learned to screen and manage and protect it as one does an afflicted member of one’s family.

There had never been any danger of her being allowed to forget the past. It looked out at her from the face of every acquaintance, it appeared suddenly in the eyes of strangers when a word enlightened them: “Yes, the Mrs. Lidcote, don’t you know?” It had sprung at her the first day out, when, across the dining-room, from the captain’s table, she had seen Mrs. Lorin Boulger’s revolving eye-glass pause and the eye behind it grow as blank as a dropped blind. The next day, of course, the captain had asked: “You know your ambassadress, Mrs. Boulger?” and she had replied that, No, she seldom left Florence, and hadn’t been to Rome for more than a day since the Boulgers had been sent to Italy. She was so used to these phrases that it cost her no effort to repeat them. And the captain had promptly changed the subject.

No, she didn’t, as a rule, mind the past, because she was used to it and understood it. It was a great concrete fact in her path that she had to walk around every time she moved in any direction. But now, in the light of the unhappy event that had summoned her from Italy, — the sudden unanticipated news of her daughter’s divorce from Horace Pursh and remarriage with Wilbour Barkley — the past, her own poor miserable past, started up at her with eyes of accusation, became, to her disordered fancy, like the afflicted relative suddenly breaking away from nurses and keepers and publicly parading the horror and misery she had, all the long years, so patiently screened and secluded.

Yes, there it had stood before her through the agitated weeks since the news had come — during her interminable journey from India, where Leila’s letter had overtaken her, and the feverish halt in her apartment in Florence, where she had had to stop and gather up her possessions for a fresh start — there it had stood grinning at her with a new balefillness which seemed to say: “Oh, but you’ve got to look at me now, because I’m not only your own past but Leila’s present.”

Certainly it was a master-stroke of those arch-ironists of the shears and spindle to duplicate her own story in her daughter’s. Mrs. Lidcote had always somewhat grimly fancied that, having so signally failed to be of use to Leila in other ways, she would at least serve her as a warning. She had even abstained from defending herself, from making the best of her case, had stoically refused to plead extenuating circumstances, lest Leila’s impulsive sympathy should lead to deductions that might react disastrously on her own life. And now that very thing had happened, and Mrs. Lidcote could hear the whole of New York saying with one voice: “Yes, Leila’s done just what her mother did. With such an example what could you expect?”

Yet if she had been an example, poor woman, she had been an awful one; she had been, she would have supposed, of more use as a deterrent than a hundred blameless mothers as incentives. For how could any one who had seen anything of her life in the last eighteen years have had the courage to repeat so disastrous an experiment?

Well, logic in such cases didn’t count, example didn’t count, nothing probably counted but having the same impulses in the blood; and that was the dark inheritance she had bestowed upon her daughter. Leila hadn’t consciously copied her; she had simply “taken after” her, had been a projection of her own long-past rebellion.

Mrs. Lidcote had deplored, when she started, that the Utopia was a slow steamer, and would take eight full days to bring her to her unhappy daughter; but now, as the moment of reunion approached, she would willingly have turned the boat about and fled back to the high seas. It was not only because she felt still so unprepared to face what New York had in store for her, but because she needed more time to dispose of what the Utopia had already given her. The past was bad enough, but the present and future were worse, because they were less comprehensible, and because, as she grew older, surprises and inconsequences troubled her more than the worst certainties.

There was Mrs. Boulger, for instance. In the light, or rather the darkness, of new developments, it might really be that Mrs. Boulger had not meant to cut her, but had simply failed to recognize her. Mrs. Lidcote had arrived at this hypothesis simply by listening to the conversation of the persons sitting next to her on deck — two lively young women with the latest Paris hats on their heads and the latest New York ideas in them. These ladies, as to whom it would have been impossible for a person with Mrs. Lidcote’s old-fashioned categories to determine whether they were married or unmarried, “nice” or “horrid,” or any one or other of the definite things which young women, in her youth and her society, were conveniently assumed to be, had revealed a familiarity with the world of New York that, again according to Mrs. Lidcote’s traditions, should have implied a recognized place in it. But in the present fluid state of manners what did anything imply except what their hats implied — that no one could tell what was coming next?

They seemed, at any rate, to frequent a group of idle and opulent people who executed the same gestures and revolved on the same pivots as Mrs. Lidcote’s daughter and her friends: their Coras, Matties and Mabels seemed at any moment likely to reveal familiar patronymics, and once one of the speakers, summing up a discussion of which Mrs. Lidcote had missed the beginning, had affirmed with headlong confidence: “Leila? Oh, Leila’s all right.”

Could it be her Leila, the mother had wondered, with a sharp thrill of apprehension? If only they would mention surnames! But their talk leaped elliptically from allusion to allusion, their unfinished sentences dangled over bottomless pits of conjecture, and they gave their bewildered hearer the impression not so much of talking only of their intimates, as of being intimate with every one alive.

Her old friend Franklin Ide could have told her, perhaps; but here was the last day of the voyage, and she hadn’t yet found courage to ask him. Great as had been the joy of discovering his name on the passenger-list and seeing his friendly bearded face in the throng against the taffrail at Cherbourg, she had as yet said nothing to him except, when they had met: “Of course I’m going out to Leila.”

She had said nothing to Franklin Ide because she had always instinctively shrunk from taking him into her confidence. She was sure he felt sorry for her, sorrier perhaps than any one had ever felt; but he had always paid her the supreme tribute of not showing it. His attitude allowed her to imagine that compassion was not the basis of his feeling for her, and it was part of her joy in his friendship that it was the one relation seemingly unconditioned by her state, the only one in which she could think and feel and behave like any other woman.

Now, however, as the problem of New York loomed nearer, she began to regret that she had not spoken, had not at least questioned him about the hints she had gathered on the way. He did not know the two ladies next to her, he did not even, as it chanced, know Mrs. Lorin Boulger; but he knew New York, and New York was the sphinx whose riddle she must read or perish.

Almost as the thought passed through her mind his stooping shoulders and grizzled head detached themselves against the blaze of light in the west, and he sauntered down the empty deck and dropped into the chair at her side.

“You’re expecting the Barkleys to meet you, I suppose?” he asked.

It was the first time she had heard any one pronounce her daughter’s new name, and it occurred to her that her friend, who was shy and inarticulate, had been trying to say it all the way over and had at last shot it out at her only because he felt it must be now or never.

“I don’t know. I cabled, of course. But I believe she’s at — they’re at — his place somewhere.”

“Oh, Barkley’s; yes, near Lenox, isn’t it? But she’s sure to come to town to meet you.”

He said it so easily and naturally that her own constraint was relieved, and suddenly, before she knew what she meant to do, she had burst out: “She may dislike the idea of seeing people.”

Ide, whose absent short-sighted gaze had been fixed on the slowly gliding water, turned in his seat to stare at his companion.

“Who? Leila?” he said with an incredulous laugh.

Mrs. Lidcote flushed to her faded hair and grew pale again. “It took me a long time — to get used to it,” she said.

His look grew gently commiserating. “I think you’ll find — ” he paused for a word — “that things are different now — altogether easier.”

“That’s what I’ve been wondering — ever since we started.” She was determined now to speak. She moved nearer, so that their arms touched, and she could drop her voice to a murmur. “You see, it all came on me in a flash. My going off to India and Siam on that long trip kept me away from letters for weeks at a time; and she didn’t want to tell me beforehand — oh, I understand that, poor child! You know how good she’s always been to me; how she’s tried to spare me. And she knew, of course, what a state of horror I’d be in. She knew I’d rush off to her at once and try to stop it. So she never gave me a hint of anything, and she even managed to muzzle Susy Suffern — you know Susy is the one of the family who keeps me informed about things at home. I don’t yet see how she prevented Susy’s telling me; but she did. And her first letter, the one I got up at Bangkok, simply said the thing was over — the divorce, I mean — and that the very next day she’d — well, I suppose there was no use waiting; and he seems to have behaved as well as possible, to have wanted to marry her as much as — ”

“Who? Barkley?” he helped her out. “I should say so! Why what do you suppose — ” He interrupted himself. “He’ll be devoted to her, I assure you.”

“Oh, of course; I’m sure he will. He’s written me — really beautifully. But it’s a terrible strain on a man’s devotion. I’m not sure that Leila realizes — ”

Ide sounded again his little reassuring laugh. “I’m not sure that you realize. They’re all right.”

It was the very phrase that the young lady in the next seat had applied to the unknown “Leila,” and its recurrence on Ide’s lips flushed Mrs. Lidcote with fresh courage.

“I wish I knew just what you mean. The two young women next to me — the ones with the wonderful hats — have been talking in the same way.”

“What? About Leila?”

“About a Leila; I fancied it might be mine. And about society in general. All their friends seem to be divorced; some of them seem to announce their engagements before they get their decree. One of them — her name was Mabel — as far as I could make out, her husband found out that she meant to divorce him by noticing that she wore a new engagement-ring.”

“Well, you see Leila did everything ‘regularly,’ as the French say,” Ide rejoined.

“Yes; but are these people in society? The people my neighbours talk about?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “It would take an arbitration commission a good many sittings to define the boundaries of society nowadays. But at any rate they’re in New York; and I assure you you’re not; you’re farther and farther from it.”

“But I’ve been back there several times to see Leila.” She hesitated and looked away from him. Then she brought out slowly: “And I’ve never noticed — the least change — in — in my own case — ”

“Oh,” he sounded deprecatingly, and she trembled with the fear of having gone too far. But the hour was past when such scruples could restrain her. She must know where she was and where Leila was. “Mrs. Boulger still cuts me,” she brought out with an embarrassed laugh.

“Are you sure? You’ve probably cut her; if not now, at least in the past. And in a cut if you’re not first you’re nowhere. That’s what keeps up so many quarrels.”

The word roused Mrs. Lidcote to a renewed sense of realities. “But the Pursues,” she said — “the Pursues are so strong! There are so many of them, and they all back each other up, just as my husband’s family did. I know what it means to have a clan against one. They’re stronger than any number of separate friends. The Pursues will never forgive Leila for leaving Horace. Why, his mother opposed his marrying her because of — of me. She tried to get Leila to promise that she wouldn’t see me when they went to Europe on their honeymoon. And now she’ll say it was my example.”

Her companion, vaguely stroking his beard, mused a moment upon this; then he asked, with seeming irrelevance, “What did Leila say when you wrote that you were coming?”

“She said it wasn’t the least necessary, but that I’d better come, because it was the only way to convince me that it wasn’t.”

“Well, then, that proves she’s not afraid of the Purshes.”

She breathed a long sigh of remembrance. “Oh, just at first, you know — one never is.”

He laid his hand on hers with a gesture of intelligence and pity. “You’ll see, you’ll see,” he said.

A shadow lengthened down the deck before them, and a steward stood there, proffering a Marconigram.

“Oh, now I shall know!” she exclaimed.

She tore the message open, and then let it fall on her knees, dropping her hands on it in silence.

Ide’s enquiry roused her: “It’s all right?”

“Oh, quite right. Perfectly. She can’t come; but she’s sending Susy Suffern. She says Susy will explain.” After another silence she added, with a sudden gush of bitterness: “As if I needed any explanation!”

She felt Ide’s hesitating glance upon her. “She’s in the country?”

“Yes. ‘Prevented last moment. Longing for you, expecting you. Love from both.’ Don’t you see, the poor darling, that she couldn’t face it?”

“No, I don’t.” He waited. “Do you mean to go to her immediately?”

“It will be too late to catch a train this evening; but I shall take the first to-morrow morning.” She considered a moment. “‘Perhaps it’s better. I need a talk with Susy first. She’s to meet me at the dock, and I’ll take her straight back to the hotel with me.”

As she developed this plan, she had the sense that Ide was still thoughtfully, even gravely, considering her. When she ceased, he remained silent a moment; then he said almost ceremoniously: “If your talk with Miss Suffern doesn’t last too late, may I come and see you when it’s over? I shall be dining at my club, and I’ll call you up at about ten, if I may. I’m off to Chicago on business to-morrow morning, and it would be a satisfaction to know, before I start, that your cousin’s been able to reassure you, as I know she will.”

He spoke with a shy deliberateness that, even to Mrs. Lidcote’s troubled perceptions, sounded a long-silenced note of feeling. Perhaps the breaking down of the barrier of reticence between them had released unsuspected emotions in both. The tone of his appeal moved her curiously and loosened the tight strain of her fears.

“Oh, yes, come — do come,” she said, rising. The huge threat of New York was imminent now, dwarfing, under long reaches of embattled masonry, the great deck she stood on and all the little specks of life it carried. One of them, drifting nearer, took the shape of her maid, followed by luggage-laden stewards, and signing to her that it was time to go below. As they descended to the main deck, the throng swept her against Mrs. Lorin Boulger’s shoulder, and she heard the ambassadress call out to some one, over the vexed sea of hats: “So sorry! I should have been delighted, but I’ve promised to spend Sunday with some friends at Lenox.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30