Autres Temps ..., by Edith Wharton

II

Susy Suffern’s explanation did not end till after ten o’clock, and she had just gone when Franklin Ide, who, complying with an old New York tradition, had caused himself to be preceded by a long white box of roses, was shown into Mrs. Lidcote’s sitting-room.

He came forward with his shy half-humorous smile and, taking her hand, looked at her for a moment without speaking.

“It’s all right,” he then pronounced.

Mrs. Lidcote returned his smile. “It’s extraordinary. Everything’s changed. Even Susy has changed; and you know the extent to which Susy used to represent the old New York. There’s no old New York left, it seems. She talked in the most amazing way. She snaps her fingers at the Pursues. She told me — me, that every woman had a right to happiness and that self-expression was the highest duty. She accused me of misunderstanding Leila; she said my point of view was conventional! She was bursting with pride at having been in the secret, and wearing a brooch that Wilbour Barkley’d given her!” Franklin Ide had seated himself in the arm-chair she had pushed forward for him under the electric chandelier. He threw back his head and laughed. “What did I tell you?”

“Yes; but I can’t believe that Susy’s not mistaken. Poor dear, she has the habit of lost causes; and she may feel that, having stuck to me, she can do no less than stick to Leila.”

“But she didn’t — did she? — openly defy the world for you? She didn’t snap her fingers at the Lidcotes?”

Mrs. Lidcote shook her head, still smiling. “No. It was enough to defy my family. It was doubtful at one time if they would tolerate her seeing me, and she almost had to disinfect herself after each visit. I believe that at first my sister-in-law wouldn’t let the girls come down when Susy dined with her.”

“Well, isn’t your cousin’s present attitude the best possible proof that times have changed?”

“Yes, yes; I know.” She leaned forward from her sofa-corner, fixing her eyes on his thin kindly face, which gleamed on her indistinctly through her tears. “If it’s true, it’s — it’s dazzling. She says Leila’s perfectly happy. It’s as if an angel had gone about lifting gravestones, and the buried people walked again, and the living didn’t shrink from them.”

“That’s about it,” he assented.

She drew a deep breath, and sat looking away from him down the long perspective of lamp-fringed streets over which her windows hung.

“I can understand how happy you must be,” he began at length.

She turned to him impetuously. “Yes, yes; I’m happy. But I’m lonely, too — lonelier than ever. I didn’t take up much room in the world before; but now — where is there a corner for me? Oh. since I’ve begun to confess myself, why shouldn’t I go on? Telling you this lifts a gravestone from me! You see, before this, Leila needed me. She was unhappy, and I knew it, and though we hardly ever talked of it I felt that, in a way, the thought that I’d been through the same thing, and down to the dregs of it, helped her. And her needing me helped me. And when the news of her marriage came my first thought was that now she’d need me more than ever, that she’d have no one but me to turn to. Yes, under all my distress there was a fierce joy in that. It was so new and wonderful to feel again that there was one person who wouldn’t be able to get on without me! And now what you and Susy tell me seems to have taken my child from me; and just at first that’s all I can feel.”

“Of course it’s all you feel.” He looked at her musingly. “Why didn’t Leila come to meet you?”

“That was really my fault. You see, I’d cabled that I was not sure of being able to get off on the Utopia, and apparently my second cable was delayed, and when she received it she’d already asked some people over Sunday — one or two of her old friends, Susy says. I’m so glad they should have wanted to go to her at once; but naturally I’d rather have been alone with her.”

“You still mean to go, then?”

“Oh, I must. Susy wanted to drag me off to Ridgefield with her over Sunday, and Leila sent me word that of course I might go if I wanted to, and that I was not to think of her; but I know how disappointed she would be. Susy said she was afraid I might be upset at her having people to stay, and that, if I minded, she wouldn’t urge me to come. But if they don’t mind, why should I? And of course, if they’re willing to go to Leila it must mean — ”

“Of course. I’m glad you recognize that,” Franklin Ide exclaimed abruptly. He stood up and went over to her, taking her hand with one of his quick gestures. “There’s something I want to say to you,” he began —

The next morning, in the train, through all the other contending thoughts in Mrs. Lidcote’s mind there ran the warm undercurrent of what Franklin Ide had wanted to say to her.

He had wanted, she knew, to say it once before, when, nearly eight years earlier, the hazard of meeting at the end of a rainy autumn in a deserted Swiss hotel had thrown them for a fortnight into unwonted propinquity. They had walked and talked together, borrowed each other’s books and newspapers, spent the long chill evenings over the fire in the dim lamplight of her little pitch-pine sitting-room; and she had been wonderfully comforted by his presence, and hard frozen places in her had melted, and she had known that she would be desperately sorry when he went. And then, just at the end, in his odd indirect way, he had let her see that it rested with her to have him stay. She could still relive the sleepless night she had given to that discovery. It was preposterous, of course, to think of repaying his devotion by accepting such a sacrifice; but how find reasons to convince him? She could not bear to let him think her less touched, less inclined to him than she was: the generosity of his love deserved that she should repay it with the truth. Yet how let him see what she felt, and yet refuse what he offered? How confess to him what had been on her lips when he made the offer: “I’ve seen what it did to one man; and there must never, never be another”? The tacit ignoring of her past had been the element in which their friendship lived, and she could not suddenly, to him of all men, begin to talk of herself like a guilty woman in a play. Somehow, in the end, she had managed it, had averted a direct explanation, had made him understand that her life was over, that she existed only for her daughter, and that a more definite word from him would have been almost a breach of delicacy. She was so used to be having as if her life were over! And, at any rate, he had taken her hint, and she had been able to spare her sensitiveness and his. The next year, when he came to Florence to see her, they met again in the old friendly way; and that till now had continued to be the tenor of their intimacy.

And now, suddenly and unexpectedly, he had brought up the question again, directly this time, and in such a form that she could not evade it: putting the renewal of his plea, after so long an interval, on the ground that, on her own showing, her chief argument against it no longer existed.

“You tell me Leila’s happy. If she’s happy, she doesn’t need you — need you, that is, in the same way as before. You wanted, I know, to be always in reach, always free and available if she should suddenly call you to her or take refuge with you. I understood that — I respected it. I didn’t urge my case because I saw it was useless. You couldn’t, I understood well enough, have felt free to take such happiness as life with me might give you while she was unhappy, and, as you imagined, with no hope of release. Even then I didn’t feel as you did about it; I understood better the trend of things here. But ten years ago the change hadn’t really come; and I had no way of convincing you that it was coming. Still, I always fancied that Leila might not think her case was closed, and so I chose to think that ours wasn’t either. Let me go on thinking so, at any rate, till you’ve seen her, and confirmed with your own eyes what Susy Suffern tells you.”

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