Autres Temps ..., by Edith Wharton

IV

Leila had come and gone, and they had had their talk. It had not lasted as long as Mrs. Lidcote wished, for in the middle of it Leila had been summoned to the telephone to receive an important message from town, and had sent word to her mother that she couldn’t come back just then, as one of the young ladies had been called away unexpectedly and arrangements had to be made for her departure. But the mother and daughter had had almost an hour together, and Mrs. Lidcote was happy. She had never seen Leila so tender, so solicitous. The only thing that troubled her was the very excess of this solicitude, the exaggerated expression of her daughter’s annoyance that their first moments together should have been marred by the presence of strangers.

“Not strangers to me, darling, since they’re friends of yours,” her mother had assured her.

“Yes; but I know your feeling, you queer wild mother. I know how you’ve always hated people.” (Hated people! Had Leila forgotten why?) “And that’s why I told Susy that if you preferred to go with her to Ridgefield on Sunday I should perfectly understand, and patiently wait for our good hug. But you didn’t really mind them at luncheon, did you, dearest?”

Mrs. Lidcote, at that, had suddenly thrown a startled look at her daughter. “I don’t mind things of that kind any longer,” she had simply answered.

“But that doesn’t console me for having exposed you to the bother of it, for having let you come here when I ought to have ordered you off to Ridgefield with Susy. If Susy hadn’t been stupid she’d have made you go there with her. I hate to think of you up here all alone.”

Again Mrs. Lidcote tried to read something more than a rather obtuse devotion in her daughter’s radiant gaze. “I’m glad to have had a rest this afternoon, dear; and later — ”

“Oh, yes, later, when all this fuss is over, we’ll more than make up for it, sha’n’t we, you precious darling?” And at this point Leila had been summoned to the telephone, leaving Mrs. Lidcote to her conjectures.

These were still floating before her in cloudy uncertainty when Miss Suffern tapped at the door.

“You’ve come to take me down to tea? I’d forgotten how late it was,” Mrs. Lidcote exclaimed.

Miss Suffern, a plump peering little woman, with prim hair and a conciliatory smile, nervously adjusted the pendent bugles of her elaborate black dress. Miss Suffern was always in mourning, and always commemorating the demise of distant relatives by wearing the discarded wardrobe of their next of kin. “It isn’t exactly mourning,” she would say; “but it’s the only stitch of black poor Julia had — and of course George was only my mother’s step-cousin.”

As she came forward Mrs. Lidcote found herself humorously wondering whether she were mourning Horace Pursh’s divorce in one of his mother’s old black satins.

“Oh, did you mean to go down for tea?” Susy Suffern peered at her, a little fluttered. “Leila sent me up to keep you company. She thought it would be cozier for you to stay here. She was afraid you were feeling rather tired.”

“I was; but I’ve had the whole afternoon to rest in. And this wonderful sofa to help me.”

“Leila told me to tell you that she’d rush up for a minute before dinner, after everybody had arrived; but the train is always dreadfully late. She’s in despair at not giving you a sitting-room; she wanted to know if I thought you really minded.”

“Of course I don’t mind. It’s not like Leila to think I should.” Mrs. Lidcote drew aside to make way for the housemaid, who appeared in the doorway bearing a table spread with a bewildering variety of tea-cakes.

“Leila saw to it herself,” Miss Suffern murmured as the door closed. “Her one idea is that you should feel happy here.”

It struck Mrs. Lidcote as one more mark of the subverted state of things that her daughter’s solicitude should find expression in the multiplicity of sandwiches and the piping-hotness of muffins; but then everything that had happened since her arrival seemed to increase her confusion.

The note of a motor-horn down the drive gave another turn to her thoughts. “Are those the new arrivals already?” she asked.

“Oh, dear, no; they won’t be here till after seven.” Miss Suffern craned her head from the window to catch a glimpse of the motor. “It must be Charlotte leaving.”

“Was it the little Wynn girl who was called away in a hurry? I hope it’s not on account of illness.”

“Oh, no; I believe there was some mistake about dates. Her mother telephoned her that she was expected at the Stepleys, at Fishkill, and she had to be rushed over to Albany to catch a train.”

Mrs. Lidcote meditated. “I’m sorry. She’s a charming young thing. I hoped I should have another talk with her this evening after dinner.”

“Yes; it’s too bad.” Miss Suffern’s gaze grew vague.

“You do look tired, you know,” she continued, seating herself at the tea-table and preparing to dispense its delicacies. “You must go straight back to your sofa and let me wait on you. The excitement has told on you more than you think, and you mustn’t fight against it any longer. Just stay quietly up here and let yourself go. You’ll have Leila to yourself on Monday.”

Mrs. Lidcote received the tea-cup which her cousin proffered, but showed no other disposition to obey her injunctions. For a moment she stirred her tea in silence; then she asked: “Is it your idea that I should stay quietly up here till Monday?”

Miss Suffern set down her cup with a gesture so sudden that it endangered an adjacent plate of scones. When she had assured herself of the safety of the scones she looked up with a fluttered laugh. “Perhaps, dear, by to-morrow you’ll be feeling differently. The air here, you know — ”

“Yes, I know.” Mrs. Lidcote bent forward to help herself to a scone. “Who’s arriving this evening?” she asked.

Miss Suffern frowned and peered. “You know my wretched head for names. Leila told me — but there are so many — ”

“So many? She didn’t tell me she expected a big party.”

“Oh, not big: but rather outside of her little group. And of course, as it’s the first time, she’s a little excited at having the older set.”

“The older set? Our contemporaries, you mean?”

“Why — yes.” Miss Suffern paused as if to gather herself up for a leap. “The Ashton Gileses,” she brought out.

“The Ashton Gileses? Really? I shall be glad to see Mary Giles again. It must be eighteen years,” said Mrs. Lidcote steadily.

“Yes,” Miss Suffern gasped, precipitately refilling her cup.

“The Ashton Gileses; and who else?”

“Well, the Sam Fresbies. But the most important person, of course, is Mrs. Lorin Boulger.”

“Mrs. Boulger? Leila didn’t tell me she was coming.”

“Didn’t she? I suppose she forgot everything when she saw you. But the party was got up for Mrs. Boulger. You see, it’s very important that she should — well, take a fancy to Leila and Wilbour; his being appointed to Rome virtually depends on it. And you know Leila insists on Rome in order to be near you. So she asked Mary Giles, who’s intimate with the Boulgers, if the visit couldn’t possibly be arranged; and Mary’s cable caught Mrs. Boulger at Cherbourg. She’s to be only a fortnight in America; and getting her to come directly here was rather a triumph.”

“Yes; I see it was,” said Mrs. Lidcote.

“You know, she’s rather — rather fussy; and Mary was a little doubtful if — ”

“If she would, on account of Leila?” Mrs. Lidcote murmured.

“Well, yes. In her official position. But luckily she’s a friend of the Barkleys. And finding the Gileses and Fresbies here will make it all right. The times have changed!” Susy Suffern indulgently summed up.

Mrs. Lidcote smiled. “Yes; a few years ago it would have seemed improbable that I should ever again be dining with Mary Giles and Harriet Fresbie and Mrs. Lorin Boulger.”

Miss Suffern did not at the moment seem disposed to enlarge upon this theme; and after an interval of silence Mrs. Lidcote suddenly resumed: “Do they know I’m here, by the way?”

The effect of her question was to produce in Miss Suffern an exaggerated access of peering and frowning. She twitched the tea-things about, fingered her bugles, and, looking at the clock, exclaimed amazedly: “Mercy! Is it seven already?”

“Not that it can make any difference, I suppose,” Mrs. Lidcote continued. “But did Leila tell them I was coming?”

Miss Suffern looked at her with pain. “Why, you don’t suppose, dearest, that Leila would do anything — ”

Mrs. Lidcote went on: “For, of course, it’s of the first importance, as you say, that Mrs. Lorin Boulger should be favorably impressed, in order that Wilbour may have the best possible chance of getting Borne.”

“I told Leila you’d feel that, dear. You see, it’s actually on your account — so that they may get a post near you — that Leila invited Mrs. Boulger.”

“Yes, I see that.” Mrs. Lidcote, abruptly rising from her seat, turned her eyes to the clock. “But, as you say, it’s getting late. Oughtn’t we to dress for dinner?”

Miss Suffern, at the suggestion, stood up also, an agitated hand among her bugles. “I do wish I could persuade you to stay up here this evening. I’m sure Leila’d be happier if you would. Really, you’re much too tired to come down.”

“What nonsense, Susy!” Mrs. Lidcote spoke with a sudden sharpness, her hand stretched to the bell. “When do we dine? At half-past eight? Then I must really send you packing. At my age it takes time to dress.”

Miss Suffern, thus projected toward the threshold, lingered there to repeat: “Leila’ll never forgive herself if you make an effort you’re not up to.” But Mrs. Lidcote smiled on her without answering, and the icy lightwave propelled her through the door.

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