Autres Temps ..., by Edith Wharton

III

All through what Susy Suffern told and retold her during their four-hours’ flight to the hills this plea of Ide’s kept coming back to Mrs. Lidcote. She did not yet know what she felt as to its bearing on her own fate, but it was something on which her confused thoughts could stay themselves amid the welter of new impressions, and she was inexpressibly glad that he had said what he had, and said it at that particular moment. It helped her to hold fast to her identity in the rush of strange names and new categories that her cousin’s talk poured out on her.

With the progress of the journey Miss Suffern’s communications grew more and more amazing. She was like a cicerone preparing the mind of an inexperienced traveller for the marvels about to burst on it.

“You won’t know Leila. She’s had her pearls reset. Sargent’s to paint her. Oh, and I was to tell you that she hopes you won’t mind being the least bit squeezed over Sunday. The house was built by Wilbour’s father, you know, and it’s rather old-fashioned — only ten spare bedrooms. Of course that’s small for what they mean to do, and she’ll show you the new plans they’ve had made. Their idea is to keep the present house as a wing. She told me to explain — she’s so dreadfully sorry not to be able to give you a sitting-room just at first. They’re thinking of Egypt for next winter, unless, of course, Wilbour gets his appointment. Oh, didn’t she write you about that? Why, he wants Borne, you know — the second secretaryship. Or, rather, he wanted England; but Leila insisted that if they went abroad she must be near you. And of course what she says is law. Oh, they quite hope they’ll get it. You see Horace’s uncle is in the Cabinet, — one of the assistant secretaries, — and I believe he has a good deal of pull — ”

“Horace’s uncle? You mean Wilbour’s, I suppose,” Mrs. Lidcote interjected, with a gasp of which a fraction was given to Miss Suffern’s flippant use of the language.

“Wilbour’s? No, I don’t. I mean Horace’s. There’s no bad feeling between them, I assure you. Since Horace’s engagement was announced — you didn’t know Horace was engaged? Why, he’s marrying one of Bishop Thorbury’s girls: the red-haired one who wrote the novel that every one’s talking about, ‘This Flesh of Mine.’ They’re to be married in the cathedral. Of course Horace can, because it was Leila who — but, as I say, there’s not the least feeling, and Horace wrote himself to his uncle about Wilbour.”

Mrs. Lidcote’s thoughts fled back to what she had said to Ide the day before on the deck of the Utopia. “I didn’t take up much room before, but now where is there a corner for me?” Where indeed in this crowded, topsy-turvey world, with its headlong changes and helter-skelter readjustments, its new tolerances and indifferences and accommodations, was there room for a character fashioned by slower sterner processes and a life broken under their inexorable pressure? And then, in a flash, she viewed the chaos from a new angle, and order seemed to move upon the void. If the old processes were changed, her case was changed with them; she, too, was a part of the general readjustment, a tiny fragment of the new pattern worked out in bolder freer harmonies. Since her daughter had no penalty to pay, was not she herself released by the same stroke? The rich arrears of youth and joy were gone; but was there not time enough left to accumulate new stores of happiness? That, of course, was what Franklin Ide had felt and had meant her to feel. He had seen at once what the change in her daughter’s situation would make in her view of her own. It was almost — wondrously enough! — as if Leila’s folly had been the means of vindicating hers.

Everything else for the moment faded for Mrs. Lidcote in the glow of her daughter’s embrace. It was unnatural, it was almost terrifying, to find herself standing on a strange threshold, under an unknown roof, in a big hall full of pictures, flowers, firelight, and hurrying servants, and in this spacious unfamiliar confusion to discover Leila, bareheaded, laughing, authoritative, with a strange young man jovially echoing her welcome and transmitting her orders; but once Mrs. Lidcote had her child on her breast, and her child’s “It’s all right, you old darling!” in her ears, every other feeling was lost in the deep sense of well-being that only Leila’s hug could give.

The sense was still with her, warming her veins and pleasantly fluttering her heart, as she went up to her room after luncheon. A little constrained by the presence of visitors, and not altogether sorry to defer for a few hours the “long talk” with her daughter for which she somehow felt herself tremulously unready, she had withdrawn, on the plea of fatigue, to the bright luxurious bedroom into which Leila had again and again apologized for having been obliged to squeeze her. The room was bigger and finer than any in her small apartment in Florence; but it was not the standard of affluence implied in her daughter’s tone about it that chiefly struck her, nor yet the finish and complexity of its appointments. It was the look it shared with the rest of the house, and with the perspective of the gardens beneath its windows, of being part of an “establishment” — of something solid, avowed, founded on sacraments and precedents and principles. There was nothing about the place, or about Leila and Wilbour, that suggested either passion or peril: their relation seemed as comfortable as their furniture and as respectable as their balance at the bank.

This was, in the whole confusing experience, the thing that confused Mrs. Lidcote most, that gave her at once the deepest feeling of security for Leila and the strongest sense of apprehension for herself. Yes, there was something oppressive in the completeness and compactness of Leila’s well-being. Ide had been right: her daughter did not need her. Leila, with her first embrace, had unconsciously attested the fact in the same phrase as Ide himself and as the two young women with the hats. “It’s all right, you old darling!” she had said; and her mother sat alone, trying to fit herself into the new scheme of things which such a certainty betokened.

Her first distinct feeling was one of irrational resentment. If such a change was to come, why had it not come sooner? Here was she, a woman not yet old, who had paid with the best years of her life for the theft of the happiness that her daughter’s contemporaries were taking as their due. There was no sense, no sequence, in it. She had had what she wanted, but she had had to pay too much for it. She had had to pay the last bitterest price of learning that love has a price: that it is worth so much and no more. She had known the anguish of watching the man she loved discover this first, and of reading the discovery in his eyes. It was a part of her history that she had not trusted herself to think of for a long time past: she always took a big turn about that haunted corner. But now, at the sight of the young man downstairs, so openly and jovially Leila’s, she was overwhelmed at the senseless waste of her own adventure, and wrung with the irony of perceiving that the success or failure of the deepest human experiences may hang on a matter of chronology.

Then gradually the thought of Ide returned to her. “I chose to think that our case wasn’t closed,” he had said. She had been deeply touched by that. To every one else her case had been closed so long! Finis was scrawled all over her. But here was one man who had believed and waited, and what if what he believed in and waited for were coming true? If Leila’s “all right” should really foreshadow hers?

As yet, of course, it was impossible to tell. She had fancied, indeed, when she entered the drawing-room before luncheon, that a too-sudden hush had fallen on the assembled group of Leila’s friends, on the slender vociferous young women and the lounging golf-stockinged young men. They had all received her politely, with the kind of petrified politeness that may be either a tribute to age or a protest at laxity; but to them, of course, she must be an old woman because she was Leila’s mother, and in a society so dominated by youth the mere presence of maturity was a constraint.

One of the young girls, however, had presently emerged from the group, and, attaching herself to Mrs. Lidcote, had listened to her with a blue gaze of admiration which gave the older woman a sudden happy consciousness of her long-forgotten social graces. It was agreeable to find herself attracting this young Charlotte Wynn, whose mother had been among her closest friends, and in whom something of the soberness and softness of the earlier manners had survived. But the little colloquy, broken up by the announcement of luncheon, could of course result in nothing more definite than this reminiscent emotion.

No, she could not yet tell how her own case was to be fitted into the new order of things; but there were more people — “older people” Leila had put it — arriving by the afternoon train, and that evening at dinner she would doubtless be able to judge. She began to wonder nervously who the new-comers might be. Probably she would be spared the embarrassment of finding old acquaintances among them; but it was odd that her daughter had mentioned no names.

Leila had proposed that, later in the afternoon, Wilbour should take her mother for a drive: she said she wanted them to have a “nice, quiet talk.” But Mrs. Lidcote wished her talk with Leila to come first, and had, moreover, at luncheon, caught stray allusions to an impending tennis-match in which her son-in-law was engaged. Her fatigue had been a sufficient pretext for declining the drive, and she had begged Leila to think of her as peacefully resting in her room till such time as they could snatch their quiet moment.

“Before tea, then, you duck!” Leila with a last kiss had decided; and presently Mrs. Lidcote, through her open window, had heard the fresh loud voices of her daughter’s visitors chiming across the gardens from the tennis-court.

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