A Backward Glance, by Edith Wharton

Chapter 4

4.1.

In one of the most famous poems of my first literary protector the Maiden is supposed to arrive with reluctant feet “where the brook and river meet.” I cannot say that my own feet were thus hampered. I was contented enough with swimming and riding, with my dogs, and my reading and dreaming, but I longed to travel and see new places, and, short of that, was by no means averse to seeing new people, and especially to being regarded as “grown up.”

I had not long to wait, for when I was seventeen my parents decided that I spent too much time in reading, and that I was to come out a year before the accepted age. The New York mothers of that day usually gave a series of “coming out” entertainments for debutante daughters, leading off with a huge tea and an expensive ball. My mother thought this absurd. She said her daughter could meet all the people she need know without being advertised by a general entertainment; and as my family kept open house, and as the younger of my two brothers was very popular in society, it was easy enough to launch me in this informal way. I was therefore put into a low-necked bodice of pale green brocade, above a white muslin skirt ruffled with rows and rows of Valenciennes, my hair was piled up on top of my head, some friend of the family sent me a large bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley, and thus adorned I was taken by my parents to a ball at Mrs. Morton’s, in Fifth Avenue. Houses with ball-rooms were still few in New York: almost the only ones were those of the Astors, the Mortons, the Belmonts and my cousins the Schermerhorns. As a rule, hostesses who wished to give a dance hired the ball-room at Delmonico’s restaurant; but my mother would never have consented to my making my first appearance in a public room, so to Mrs. Morton’s we went. To me the evening was a long cold agony of shyness. All my brother’s friends asked me to dance, but I was too much frightened to accept, and cowered beside my mother in speechless misery, unable even to exchange a word with the friendly young men whom I regarded as elder brothers when they lunched and dined at our house.

This shyness, though it long troubled me in general company, soon vanished when I was with my friends. New York society was not at that time divided into water-tight compartments by differences of age. The pleasantest houses were those of a group of young married women who all through the season gave a succession of small dinners, informal Sunday lunches and after-theatre suppers. They were all friendly and welcoming to any young girl “who could talk,” and the great ambition of the debutante was to be invited to their houses and treated on an equal footing by them, and by the “older men” whose attentions were thought so much more flattering than those of callow youths just out of college. This luck befell me, thanks chiefly to my brother Harry’s popularity, and invitations poured in after my first sad evening. Like all agreeable societies, ours was small, and the people composing it met almost every day, and always sought each other out in any larger company. Some of the hostesses had drawing-rooms big enough for informal dances, and to be invited to these was the privilege of a half-dozen of the younger girls. A season of opera at the old Academy of Music was now an established event of the winter, and on Mondays and Fridays we met each other there; Wednesday being, for some obscure tribal reason, the night on which boxes were sent to dull relations and visitors from out of town, while the inner circle disported itself elsewhere. Our society was, in short, a little “set” with its private catch-words, observances and amusements, and its indifference to anything outside of its charmed circle; and no really entertaining social group has ever been anything else. The ages of the people composing it ranged from eighteen to fifty; but all were young in spirit, mostly good-looking, and full of gaiety and humour. The talk was never intellectual and seldom brilliant, but it was always easy and sometimes witty, and a charming informality had replaced the ceremonious dullness of my parents’ day. I doubt if New York society was ever simpler, gayer, or more pleasantly sophisticated, than it was then.

I enjoyed myself thoroughly that winter, and still more so the following summer, when Pencraig was full of merry young people, and the new game of lawn tennis, played on our lawn by young gentlemen in tail coats and young ladies in tight whale-boned dresses, began to supersede the hitherto fashionable archery. Every room in our house was always full in summer, and I remember jolly bathing parties from the floating boat-landing at the foot of the lawn, mackerel-fishing, races in rival cat-boats, and an occasional excursion up the bay, or out to sea when the weather was calm enough, on one of the pretty white steam-yachts which were beginning to be the favourite toys of the rich.

On one of these yachting-parties I made an acquaintance which some unlucky chance kept me from renewing. A thin young man with intelligent eyes was brought up and introduced as Cecil Spring–Rice, then, I think, a secretary at the British Legation in Washington. Spring–Rice was already — or became soon afterward — the friend of several of my most intimate friends, and the affectionate nickname of “Springy” was as familiar to me as that of one of my own intimates. But, to my loss, we were never to meet again; and I record our single encounter only because his delightful talk so illuminated an otherwise dull afternoon that I have never forgotten the meeting. It also left me in possession of two nearly perfect stories — Spring–Rice was a great story-teller — one of which I never heard from any one else, while the other is usually repeated in a far less effective form. Here they are.

A young physician who was also a student of chemistry, and a dabbler in strange experiments, employed a little orphan boy as assistant. One day he ordered the boy to watch over, and stir without stopping, a certain chemical mixture which was to serve for a very delicate experiment. At the appointed time the chemist came back, and found the mixture successfully blent — but beside it lay the little boy, dead of the poisonous fumes.

The young man, who was very fond of his assistant, was horrified at his death, and in despair at having involuntarily caused it. He could understand why the fumes should have proved fatal, and wishing to find out, in the interest of science, he performed an autopsy, and discovered that the boy’s heart had been transformed into a mysterious jewel, the like of which he had never seen before. The young man had a mistress whom he adored, and full of grief, yet excited by this strange discovery, he brought her the tragic jewel, which was very beautiful, and told her how it had been produced. The lady examined it, and agreed that it was beautiful. “But,” she added carelessly, “you must have noticed that I wear no ornaments but earrings. If you want me to wear this jewel, you must get me another one just like it.”

The other story is that of a young man who went to spend a week-end at a big country-house where he had never been before. His train was late, and when he came down the party had already gone in to dinner. He was shown into the dining-room, and his hostess asked him to take the only remaining vacant seat. On one side of him sat a very dull and disagreeable man, on the other one of the most captivating young women he had ever met. Naturally it was to her that he devoted all his attention, and so fascinated was he that he did not even stop to wonder who she was — he simply felt that he and she must always have been friends.

They wandered delightedly from one subject to another, and toward the end of dinner the conversation touched on the supernatural. “Do you believe in ghosts?” the young lady asked. “No,” said he with a laugh; “do you?” “I am one,” she replied — and suddenly the seat she had occupied was empty. After dinner his hostess apologized for putting him next to an empty chair. “We expected my dear friend, Mrs. ——; but just as you arrived we had a telegram announcing her sudden death — and there was not even time to take away her seat.”

The regular afternoon diversion at Newport was a drive. Every day all the elderly ladies, leaning back in victoria or barouche, or the new-fangled vis-a-vis, a four-seated carriage with a rumble for the footman, drove down the whole length of Bellevue Avenue, where the most fashionable villas then stood, and around the newly laid-out “Ocean Drive,” which skirted for several miles the wild rocky region between Narragansett bay and the Atlantic. For this drive it was customary to dress as elegantly as for a race-meeting at Auteuil or Ascot. A brocaded or satin-striped dress, powerfully whale-boned, a small flower-trimmed bonnet tied with a large tulle bow under the chin, a dotted tulle veil and a fringed silk or velvet sunshade, sometimes with a jointed handle of elaborately carved ivory, composed what was thought a suitable toilet for this daily circuit between wilderness and waves.

If these occupations seem to us insufficient to fill a day, it must be remembered that the onerous and endless business of “calling” took up every spare hour. I can hardly picture a lady of my mother’s generation without her card-case in her hand. Calling was then a formidable affair, since many ladies had weekly “days” from which there was no possible escape, and others cultivated an exasperating habit of being at home on the very afternoon when, according to every reasonable calculation, one might have expected them to be at Polo, or at Mrs. Belmont’s archery party, or abroad on their own sempiternal card-leaving. By the time I grew up the younger married women had emancipated themselves, and simply drove from house to house depositing their cards, duly turned down in the upper left-hand corner, to the indignation of stay-a-home hostesses, many of whom made their servants keep a list of the callers who “did not ask,” so that these might be struck off the next season’s invitation list — a punishment borne by the young and gay with perfect equanimity, as it was only the dull hostesses who inflicted it.

In my mother’s day, however, there were no palliatives to calling. The footman had to ask if Mrs. So-and-so was at home, and if she was, there ensued a half hour’s visit in a cool shaded drawing-room, or on a wide verandah overlooking the sea. As this had to be repeated after every lunch, dinner or ball, and even the young men were not exempt (though they usually got a mother or sister to leave their cards for them), it may be imagined how much those daughters of Danaus, the dowagers leaning back in their victorias, needed the refreshment of a “turn” around the Ocean Drive in the intervals of their unending labour.

Still more striking than the dowagers’ parade was the sight of the young ladies, married or single, who, when they were guests at a Newport villa, expected to be taken for an afternoon drive by the master of the house or one of his sons. The vehicles of the fashionable young men were either dog-carts (drawn by a pair driven tandem) or a high four-wheeled conveyance called a T-cart, which, if I am not mistaken, was drawn by one big stepper; while the older men drove handsome phaetons, with a showy pair, and an impressive groom with folded arms in the rumble.

Carriages, horses, harnesses and grooms were all of the latest and most irreproachable cut, and Bellevue Avenue was a pretty scene when the double line of glittering vehicles and showy horse-flesh paraded between green lawns and scarlet geranium-borders. The dress of the young ladies perched on the precarious height of a dog-cart or phaeton was no less elegant than that of the dowagers; and I remember, one hot summer afternoon, seeing one of the damsels who were staying at Pencraig appear for the drive arrayed in a heavy white silk dress with a broad black satin stripe, and a huge hat wreathed with crimson roses and draped with a green veil against the sun. It is only fair to add that my brother, who helped her to the giddy summit of the T-cart, and climbed to her side while a tiny groom in snowy breeches clung to the bridle of the impatient chestnut — my brother, like all the young gentlemen of his day, was arrayed in a frock-coat, a tall hat and pearl-gray trousers. What wonder that an eager-eyed little girl, watching these stately comings and goings from the verandah of Pencraig, still thought that old Mr. Bedlow’s Olympian gods and goddesses must have looked like her brother Harry and his lovely companion when they started off for a turn along some supernal Ocean Drive?

4.2.

Such delights faded before what the next autumn brought. During the long eight years since our return from Europe, how often had I not said to my father: “Papa, when are we going back?” and how sadly had I not listened to his answer: “My dear, whenever we can afford it.” Now, unhappily, his health made it necessary that he should not spend another winter in New York; but the doctors seemed to think that in a warmer climate he might live for years, and, dearly as I loved him, the impending joys of travel were much more vivid to me than any fears for his health.

To my last day I shall never forget how the prospect thrilled me. What were society and dancing and tennis compared to the rapture of seeing again all that, for eight years, my eyes had pined for? A happier pilgrim has never set foot in the November fogs of London; for what I had dimly loved as a child I was now to look on again with grown-up eyes (as I then thought them!).

My governess came with us, and I can still retravel with her every step of our first journey through the National Gallery. It was on that day, the first after our arrival in London, that I discovered my life-long friend, Franciabigio, “Knight of Malta,” with his poignant motto, Tar ublia chi bien eima; that day that I fitted the “Santa Conversatione” of Bellini with the lines which Milton must have meant for it:

There entertain him all the saints above, In solemn troops and sweet societies —

that day that I was first caught in the airy web of Pinturicchio’s weaving Penelope, and swept upward in the serenely circling heavens of Botticini’s Assumption. But it was not only among pictures that I felt the stir of old associations. The streets, the houses, the people of the countries I had lived in as a child, met me with the faces of old friends, and every voice was music. I longed, of course, to travel, above all to go to Italy; but on my father’s account we had to start almost immediately for the Riviera. My parents had meant to spend the winter at Nice, but I could not bear the thought of being pent up in a city when all the countryside was full of roses and jasmine. I was allowed to go with my governess to Cannes, then a small colony of villas in leafy gardens, and there we found a quiet hotel with terraces of flowers, where I persuaded my parents to establish themselves. My mother was cheered by discovering in near-by villas two old friends from Boston, the Countess de Sartiges and the Countess de Banuelos. In both families there were girls a year or two older than myself; and though my mother would not go out herself she was persuaded to put me under the care of the Countess de Banuelos, who took me everywhere with her own daughters. The small and intimate society we frequented was made up of French and English families, mostly connected by old friendship, and some by blood. Our amusements were simple and informal, as social pleasures were in those days, and picnics on the shore, or among the red rocks and pine forests of the Esterel, lawn tennis parties and small dinners, united the same young people day after day, under the guardianship of a pleasant group of their elders. The wooded background of Cannes still descended almost to the shore, and my amusements were diversified by long country walks with my governess, and delightful rides through the cork and pine-woods with Tonita de Banuelos. I was received with extreme friendliness into this little circle, which, allowing for the difference in race and traditions, was so like the one I had left in New York: made up of kindly and rather frivolous people, to whom my secret dreams would have been as unintelligible as to my friends at home. I was very happy among them, however, and twenty-five years later, when my husband and I went to Paris to spend a winter, those who remained of the old group welcomed me as affectionately as though weeks and not years had intervened since our young days in Cannes.

The following summer we spent at Homburg, then a fashionable but quiet little watering-place with gardens full of roses, where my mother had been sent for the cure. My father’s health, to my young eyes at least, seemed neither to improve nor to grow worse; I became accustomed to his patient inactivity, and probably thought of him as old rather than ill. That autumn we went to Venice and Florence, and it must have been then that he gave me “Stones of Venice” and “Walks in Florence,” and gently lent himself to my whim of following step by step Ruskin’s arbitrary itineraries. But probably even this mild sight-seeing was beyond his strength, for I do not recall many walks with him; and by the time we returned to Cannes he had grown distinctly worse, and failed slowly during the winter. He died there in the early spring, suddenly stricken by paralysis; and I am still haunted by the look in his dear blue eyes, which had followed me so tenderly for nineteen years, and now tried to convey the goodbye messages he could not speak. Twice in my life I have been at the death-bed of someone I dearly loved, who has vainly tried to say a last word to me; and I doubt if life holds a subtler anguish.

My mother and I went home to Pencraig. In those days the rules of family mourning were severe, and I went out very little; but in the autumn my mother hired a house in Washington Square, and subsequently bought one in West Twenty–Fifth Street, which she altered and added to. My old friends welcomed me on our return, and there followed two gay but uneventful New York winters. I had never ceased to be a great reader, but had almost forgotten my literary dreams. I could not believe that a girl like myself could ever write anything worth reading, and my friends would certainly have agreed with me. No one in our set had any intellectual interests, though most of the men were better read than the average young American of today. Many of the group, however, were quicker and more amusing than I was, and though I was popular, and enjoyed myself in their company, I never dreamed that I was in any way their superior. Indeed, being much less pretty than many of the girls, and less quick at the up-take than the young men, I might have suffered from an inferiority complex had such ailments been known. But my powers of enjoyment have always been many-sided, and the mere fact of being alive and young and active was so exhilarating that I could seldom spare the time to listen to my inner voices. Yet when they made themselves heard again they had become irresistible.

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