The Choice, by Edith Wharton

I

Stilling, that night after dinner, had surpassed himself. He always did, Wrayford reflected, when the small fry from Highfield came to dine. He, Cobham Stilling, who had to find his bearings and keep to his level in the big heedless ironic world of New York, dilated and grew vast in the congenial medium of Highfield. The Red House was the biggest house of the Highfield summer colony, and Cobham Stilling was its biggest man. No one else within a radius of a hundred miles (on a conservative estimate) had as many horses, as many greenhouses, as many servants, and assuredly no one else had three motors and a motor-boat for the lake.

The motor-boat was Stilling’s latest hobby, and he rode — or steered — it in and out of the conversation all the evening, to the obvious edification of every one present save his wife and his visitor, Austin Wrayford. The interest of the latter two who, from opposite ends of the drawing-room, exchanged a fleeting glance when Stilling again launched his craft on the thin current of the talk — the interest of Mrs. Stilling and Wrayford had already lost its edge by protracted contact with the subject.

But the dinner-guests — the Rector, Mr. Swordsley, his wife Mrs. Swordsley, Lucy and Agnes Granger, their brother Addison, and young Jack Emmerton from Harvard — were all, for divers reasons, stirred to the proper pitch of feeling. Mr. Swordsley, no doubt, was saying to himself: “If my good parishioner here can afford to buy a motor-boat, in addition to all the other expenditures which an establishment like this must entail, I certainly need not scruple to appeal to him again for a contribution for our Galahad Club.” The Granger girls, meanwhile, were evoking visions of lakeside picnics, not unadorned with the presence of young Mr. Emmerton; while that youth himself speculated as to whether his affable host would let him, when he came back on his next vacation, “learn to run the thing himself”; and Mr. Addison Granger, the elderly bachelor brother of the volatile Lucy and Agnes, mentally formulated the precise phrase in which, in his next letter to his cousin Professor Spildyke of the University of East Latmos, he should allude to “our last delightful trip in my old friend Cobham Stilling’s ten-thousand-dollar motor-launch” — for East Latmos was still in that primitive stage of culture on which five figures impinge.

Isabel Stilling, sitting beside Mrs. Swordsley, her bead slightly bent above the needlework with which on these occasions it was her old-fashioned habit to employ herself — Isabel also had doubtless her reflections to make. As Wrayford leaned back in his corner and looked at her across the wide flower-filled drawing-room he noted, first of all — for the how many hundredth time? — the play of her hands above the embroidery-frame, the shadow of the thick dark hair on her forehead, the lids over her somewhat full grey eyes. He noted all this with a conscious deliberateness of enjoyment, taking in unconsciously, at the same time, the particular quality in her attitude, in the fall of her dress and the turn of her head, which had set her for him, from the first day, in a separate world; then he said to himself: “She is certainly thinking: ‘Where on earth will Cobham get the money to pay for it?’”

Stilling, cigar in mouth and thumbs in his waistcoat pockets, was impressively perorating from his usual dominant position on the hearth-rug.

“I said: ‘If I have the thing at all, I want the best that can be got.’ That’s my way, you know, Swordsley; I suppose I’m what you’d call fastidious. Always was, about everything, from cigars to wom — ” his eye met the apprehensive glance of Mrs. Swordsley, who looked like her husband with his clerical coat cut slightly lower — “so I said: ‘If I have the thing at all, I want the best that can be got.’ Nothing makeshift for me, no second-best. I never cared for the cheap and showy. I always say frankly to a man: ‘If you can’t give me a first-rate cigar, for the Lord’s sake let me smoke my own.’” He paused to do so. “Well, if you have my standards, you can’t buy a thing in a minute. You must look round, compare, select. I found there were lots of motor-boats on the market, just as there’s lots of stuff called champagne. But I said to myself: ‘Ten to one there’s only one fit to buy, just as there’s only one champagne fit for a gentleman to drink.’ Argued like a lawyer, eh, Austin?” He tossed this to Wrayford. “Take me for one of your own trade, wouldn’t you? Well, I’m not such a fool as I look. I suppose you fellows who are tied to the treadmill — excuse me, Swordsley, but work’s work, isn’t it? — I suppose you think a man like me has nothing to do but take it easy: loll through life like a woman. By George, sir, I’d like either of you to see the time it takes — I won’t say the brain — but just the time it takes to pick out a good motor-boat. Why, I went — ”

Mrs. Stilling set her embroidery-frame noiselessly on the table at her side, and turned her head toward Wrayford. “Would you mind ringing for the tray?”

The interruption helped Mrs. Swordsley to waver to her feet. “I’m afraid we ought really to be going; my husband has an early service to-morrow.”

Her host intervened with a genial protest. “Going already? Nothing of the sort! Why, the night’s still young, as the poet says. Long way from here to the rectory? Nonsense! In our little twenty-horse car we do it in five minutes — don’t we, Belle? Ah, you’re walking, to be sure — ” Stilling’s indulgent gesture seemed to concede that, in such a case, allowances must be made, and that he was the last man not to make them. “Well, then, Swordsley — ” He held out a thick red hand that seemed to exude beneficence, and the clergyman, pressing it, ventured to murmur a suggestion.

“What, that Galahad Club again? Why, I thought my wife — Isabel, didn’t we — No? Well, it must have been my mother, then. Of course, you know, anything my good mother gives is — well — virtually — You haven’t asked her? Sure? I could have sworn; I get so many of these appeals. And in these times, you know, we have to go cautiously. I’m sure you recognize that yourself, Swordsley. With my obligations — here now, to show you don’t bear malice, have a brandy and soda before you go. Nonsense, man! This brandy isn’t liquor; it’s liqueur. I picked it up last year in London — last of a famous lot from Lord St. Oswyn’s cellar. Laid down here, it stood me at — Eh?” he broke off as his wife moved toward him. “Ah, yes, of course. Miss Lucy, Miss Agnes — a drop of soda-water? Look here, Addison, you won’t refuse my tipple, I know. Well, take a cigar, at any rate, Swordsley. And, by the way, I’m afraid you’ll have to go round the long way by the avenue to-night. Sorry, Mrs. Swordsley, but I forgot to tell them to leave the gate into the lane unlocked. Well, it’s a jolly night, and I daresay you won’t mind the extra turn along the lake. And, by Jove! if the moon’s out, you’ll have a glimpse of the motorboat. She’s moored just out beyond our boat-house; and it’s a privilege to look at her, I can tell you!”

The dispersal of his guests carried Stilling out into the hall, where his pleasantries reverberated under the oak rafters while the Granger girls were being muffled for the drive and the carriages summoned from the stables.

By a common impulse Mrs. Stilling and Wrayford had moved together toward the fire-place, which was hidden by a tall screen from the door into the hall. Wrayford leaned his elbow against the mantel-piece, and Mrs. Stilling stood beside him, her clasped hands hanging down before her.

“Have you anything more to talk over with him?” she asked.

“No. We wound it all up before dinner. He doesn’t want to talk about it any more than he can help.”

“It’s so bad?”

“No; but this time he’s got to pull up.”

She stood silent, with lowered lids. He listened a moment, catching Stilling’s farewell shout; then he moved a little nearer, and laid his hand on her arm.

“In an hour?”

She made an imperceptible motion of assent.

“I’ll tell you about it then. The key’s as usual?”

She signed another “Yes” and walked away with her long drifting step as her husband came in from the hall.

He went up to the tray and poured himself out a tall glass of brandy and soda.

“The weather is turning queer — black as pitch. I hope the Swordsleys won’t walk into the lake — involuntary immersion, eh? He’d come out a Baptist, I suppose. What’d the Bishop do in such a case? There’s a problem for a lawyer, my boy!”

He clapped his hand on Wrayford’s thin shoulder and then walked over to his wife, who was gathering up her embroidery silks and dropping them into her work-bag. Stilling took her by the arms and swung her playfully about so that she faced the lamplight.

“What’s the matter with you tonight?”

“The matter?” she echoed, colouring a little, and standing very straight in her desire not to appear to shrink from his touch.

“You never opened your lips. Left me the whole job of entertaining those blessed people. Didn’t she, Austin?”

Wrayford laughed and lit a cigarette.

“There! You see even Austin noticed it. What’s the matter, I say? Aren’t they good enough for you? I don’t say they’re particularly exciting; but, hang it! I like to ask them here — I like to give people pleasure.”

“I didn’t mean to be dull,” said Isabel.

“Well, you must learn to make an effort. Don’t treat people as if they weren’t in the room just because they don’t happen to amuse you. Do you know what they’ll think? They’ll think it’s because you’ve got a bigger house and more money than they have. Shall I tell you something? My mother said she’d noticed the same thing in you lately. She said she sometimes felt you looked down on her for living in a small house. Oh, she was half joking, of course; but you see you do give people that impression. I can’t understand treating any one in that way. The more I have myself, the more I want to make other people happy.”

Isabel gently freed herself and laid the work-bag on her embroidery-frame. “I have a headache; perhaps that made me stupid. I’m going to bed.” She turned toward Wrayford and held out her hand. “Good night.”

“Good night,” he answered, opening the door for her.

When he turned back into the room, his host was pouring himself a third glass of brandy and soda.

“Here, have a nip, Austin? Gad, I need it badly, after the shaking up you gave me this afternoon.” Stilling laughed and carried his glass to the hearth, where he took up his usual commanding position. “Why the deuce don’t you drink something? You look as glum as Isabel. One would think you were the chap that had been hit by this business.”

Wrayford threw himself into the chair from which Mrs. Stilling had lately risen. It was the one she usually sat in, and to his fancy a faint scent of her clung to it. He leaned back and looked up at Stilling.

“Want a cigar?” the latter continued. “Shall we go into the den and smoke?”

Wrayford hesitated. “If there’s anything more you want to ask me about — ”

“Gad, no! I had full measure and running over this afternoon. The deuce of it is, I don’t see where the money’s all gone to. Luckily I’ve got plenty of nerve; I’m not the kind of man to sit down and snivel because I’ve been touched in Wall Street.”

Wrayford got to his feet again. “Then, if you don’t want me, I think I’ll go up to my room and put some finishing touches to a brief before I turn in. I must get back to town to-morrow afternoon.”

“All right, then.” Stilling set down his empty glass, and held out his hand with a tinge of alacrity. “Good night, old man.”

They shook hands, and Wrayford moved toward the door.

“I say, Austin — stop a minute!” his host called after him. Wrayford turned, and the two men faced each other across the hearth-rug. Stilling’s eyes shifted uneasily.

“There’s one thing more you can do for me before you leave. Tell Isabel about that loan; explain to her that she’s got to sign a note for it.”

Wrayford, in his turn, flushed slightly. “You want me to tell her?”

“Hang it! I’m soft-hearted — that’s the worst of me.”

Stilling moved toward the tray, and lifted the brandy decanter. “And she’ll take it better from you; she’ll have to take it from you. She’s proud. You can take her out for a row to-morrow morning — look here, take her out in the motor-launch if you like. I meant to have a spin in it myself; but if you’ll tell her — ”

Wrayford hesitated. “All right, I’ll tell her.”

“Thanks a lot, my dear fellow. And you’ll make her see it wasn’t my fault, eh? Women are awfully vague about money, and she’ll think it’s all right if you back me up.”

Wrayford nodded. “As you please.”

“And, Austin — there’s just one more thing. You needn’t say anything to Isabel about the other business — I mean about my mother’s securities.”

“Ah?” said Wrayford, pausing.

Stilling shifted from one foot to the other. “I’d rather put that to the old lady myself. I can make it clear to her. She idolizes me, you know — and, hang it! I’ve got a good record. Up to now, I mean. My mother’s been in clover since I married; I may say she’s been my first thought. And I don’t want her to hear of this beastly business from Isabel. Isabel’s a little harsh at times — and of course this isn’t going to make her any easier to live with.”

“Very well,” said Wrayford.

Stilling, with a look of relief, walked toward the window which opened on the terrace. “Gad! what a queer night! Hot as the kitchen-range. Shouldn’t wonder if we had a squall before morning. I wonder if that infernal skipper took in the launch’s awnings before he went home.”

Wrayford stopped with his hand on the door. “Yes, I saw him do it. She’s shipshape for the night.”

“Good! That saves me a run down to the shore.”

“Good night, then,” said Wrayford.

“Good night, old man. You’ll tell her?”

“I’ll tell her.”

“And mum about my mother!” his host called after him.

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