Crucial Instances, by Edith Wharton

The Recovery

I

To the visiting stranger Hillbridge’s first question was, “Have you seen Keniston’s things?” Keniston took precedence of the colonial State House, the Gilbert Stuart Washington and the Ethnological Museum; nay, he ran neck and neck with the President of the University, a prehistoric relic who had known Emerson, and who was still sent about the country in cotton-wool to open educational institutions with a toothless oration on Brook Farm.

Keniston was sent about the country too: he opened art exhibitions, laid the foundation of academies, and acted in a general sense as the spokesman and apologist of art. Hillbridge was proud of him in his peripatetic character, but his fellow-townsmen let it be understood that to “know” Keniston one must come to Hillbridge. Never was work more dependent for its effect on “atmosphere,” on milieu. Hillbridge was Keniston’s milieu, and there was one lady, a devotee of his art, who went so far as to assert that once, at an exhibition in New York, she had passed a Keniston without recognizing it. “It simply didn’t want to be seen in such surroundings; it was hiding itself under an incognito,” she declared.

It was a source of special pride to Hillbridge that it contained all the artist’s best works. Strangers were told that Hillbridge had discovered him. The discovery had come about in the simplest manner. Professor Driffert, who had a reputation for “collecting,” had one day hung a sketch on his drawing-room wall, and thereafter Mrs. Driffert’s visitors (always a little flurried by the sense that it was the kind of house in which one might be suddenly called upon to distinguish between a dry-point and an etching, or between Raphael Mengs and Raphael Sanzio) were not infrequently subjected to the Professor’s off-hand inquiry, “By-the-way, have you seen my Keniston?” The visitors, perceptibly awed, would retreat to a critical distance and murmur the usual guarded generalities, while they tried to keep the name in mind long enough to look it up in the Encyclopædia. The name was not in the Encyclopædia; but, as a compensating fact, it became known that the man himself was in Hillbridge. Hillbridge, then, owned an artist whose celebrity it was the proper thing to take for granted! Some one else, emboldened by the thought, bought a Keniston; and the next year, on the occasion of the President’s golden jubilee, the Faculty, by unanimous consent, presented him with a Keniston. Two years later there was a Keniston exhibition, to which the art-critics came from New York and Boston; and not long afterward a well-known Chicago collector vainly attempted to buy Professor Driffert’s sketch, which the art journals cited as a rare example of the painter’s first or silvery manner. Thus there gradually grew up a small circle of connoisseurs known in artistic, circles as men who collected Kenistons.

Professor Wildmarsh, of the chair of Fine Arts and Archaeology, was the first critic to publish a detailed analysis of the master’s methods and purpose. The article was illustrated by engravings which (though they had cost the magazine a fortune) were declared by Professor Wildmarsh to give but an imperfect suggestion of the esoteric significance of the originals. The Professor, with a tact that contrived to make each reader feel himself included among the exceptions, went on to say that Keniston’s work would never appeal to any but exceptional natures; and he closed with the usual assertion that to apprehend the full meaning of the master’s “message” it was necessary to see him in the surroundings of his own home at Hillbridge.

Professor Wildmarsh’s article was read one spring afternoon by a young lady just speeding eastward on her first visit to Hillbridge, and already flushed with anticipation of the intellectual opportunities awaiting her. In East Onondaigua, where she lived, Hillbridge was looked on as an Oxford. Magazine writers, with the easy American use of the superlative, designated it as “the venerable Alma Mater,” the “antique seat of learning,” and Claudia Day had been brought up to regard it as the fountain-head of knowledge, and of that mental distinction which is so much rarer than knowledge. An innate passion for all that was thus distinguished and exceptional made her revere Hillbridge as the native soil of those intellectual amenities that were of such difficult growth in the thin air of East Onondaigua. At the first suggestion of a visit to Hillbridge — whither she went at the invitation of a girl friend who (incredible apotheosis!) had married one of the University professors — Claudia’s spirit dilated with the sense of new possibilities. The vision of herself walking under the “historic elms” toward the Memorial Library, standing rapt before the Stuart Washington, or drinking in, from some obscure corner of an academic drawing-room, the President’s reminiscences of the Concord group — this vividness of self-projection into the emotions awaiting her made her glad of any delay that prolonged so exquisite a moment.

It was in this mood that she opened the article on Keniston. She knew about him, of course; she was wonderfully “well up,” even for East Onondaigua. She had read of him in the magazines; she had met, on a visit to New York, a man who collected Kenistons, and a photogravure of a Keniston in an “artistic” frame hung above her writing-table at home. But Professor Wildmarsh’s article made her feel how little she really knew of the master; and she trembled to think of the state of relative ignorance in which, but for the timely purchase of the magazine, she might have entered Hillbridge. She had, for instance, been densely unaware that Keniston had already had three “manners,” and was showing symptoms of a fourth. She was equally ignorant of the fact that he had founded a school and “created a formula”; and she learned with a thrill that no one could hope to understand him who had not seen him in his studio at Hillbridge, surrounded by his own works. “The man and the art interpret each other,” their exponent declared; and Claudia Day, bending a brilliant eye on the future, wondered if she were ever to be admitted to the privilege of that double initiation.

Keniston, to his other claims to distinction, added that of being hard to know. His friends always hastened to announce the fact to strangers — adding after a pause of suspense that they “would see what they could do.” Visitors in whose favor he was induced to make an exception were further warned that he never spoke unless he was interested — so that they mustn’t mind if he remained silent. It was under these reassuring conditions that, some ten days after her arrival at Hillbridge, Miss Day was introduced to the master’s studio. She found him a tall listless-looking man, who appeared middle-aged to her youth, and who stood before his own pictures with a vaguely interrogative gaze, leaving the task of their interpretation to the lady who had courageously contrived the visit. The studio, to Claudia’s surprise, was bare and shabby. It formed a rambling addition to the small cheerless house in which the artist lived with his mother and a widowed sister. For Claudia it added the last touch to his distinction to learn that he was poor, and that what he earned was devoted to the maintenance of the two limp women who formed a neutral-tinted background to his impressive outline. His pictures of course fetched high prices; but he worked slowly — “painfully,” as his devotees preferred to phrase it — with frequent intervals of ill health and inactivity, and the circle of Keniston connoisseurs was still as small as it was distinguished. The girl’s fancy instantly hailed in him that favorite figure of imaginative youth, the artist who would rather starve than paint a pot-boiler. It is known to comparatively few that the production of successful pot-boilers is an art in itself, and that such heroic abstentions as Keniston’s are not always purely voluntary. On the occasion of her first visit the artist said so little that Claudia was able to indulge to the full the harrowing sense of her inadequacy. No wonder she had not been one of the few that he cared to talk to; every word she uttered must so obviously have diminished the inducement! She had been cheap, trivial, conventional; at once gushing and inexpressive, eager and constrained. She could feel him counting the minutes till the visit was over, and as the door finally closed on the scene of her discomfiture she almost shared the hope with which she confidently credited him — that they might never meet again.

II

Mrs. Davant glanced reverentially about the studio. “I have always said,” she murmured, “that they ought to be seen in Europe.”

Mrs. Davant was young, credulous and emotionally extravagant: she reminded Claudia of her earlier self — the self that, ten years before, had first set an awestruck foot on that very threshold.

“Not for his sake,” Mrs. Davant continued, “but for Europe’s.”

Claudia smiled. She was glad that her husband’s pictures were to be exhibited in Paris. She concurred in Mrs. Davant’s view of the importance of the event; but she thought her visitor’s way of putting the case a little overcharged. Ten years spent in an atmosphere of Keniston-worship had insensibly developed in Claudia a preference for moderation of speech. She believed in her husband, of course; to believe in him, with an increasing abandonment and tenacity, had become one of the necessary laws of being; but she did not believe in his admirers. Their faith in him was perhaps as genuine as her own; but it seemed to her less able to give an account of itself. Some few of his appreciators doubtless measured him by their own standards; but it was difficult not to feel that in the Hillbridge circle, where rapture ran the highest, he was accepted on what was at best but an indirect valuation; and now and then she had a frightened doubt as to the independence of her own convictions. That innate sense of relativity which even East Onondaigua had not been able to check in Claudia Day had been fostered in Mrs. Keniston by the artistic absolutism of Hillbridge, and she often wondered that her husband remained so uncritical of the quality of admiration accorded him. Her husband’s uncritical attitude toward himself and his admirers had in fact been one of the surprises of her marriage. That an artist should believe in his potential powers seemed to her at once the incentive and the pledge of excellence: she knew there was no future for a hesitating talent. What perplexed her was Keniston’s satisfaction in his achievement. She had always imagined that the true artist must regard himself as the imperfect vehicle of the cosmic emotion — that beneath every difficulty overcome a new one lurked, the vision widening as the scope enlarged. To be initiated into these creative struggles, to shed on the toiler’s path the consolatory ray of faith and encouragement, had seemed the chief privilege of her marriage. But there is something supererogatory in believing in a man obviously disposed to perform that service for himself; and Claudia’s ardor gradually spent itself against the dense surface of her husband’s complacency. She could smile now at her vision of an intellectual communion which should admit her to the inmost precincts of his inspiration. She had learned that the creative processes are seldom self-explanatory, and Keniston’s inarticulateness no longer discouraged her; but she could not reconcile her sense of the continuity of all high effort to his unperturbed air of finishing each picture as though he had despatched a masterpiece to posterity. In the first recoil from her disillusionment she even allowed herself to perceive that, if he worked slowly, it was not because he mistrusted his powers of expression, but because he had really so little to express.

“It’s for Europe,” Mrs. Davant vaguely repeated; and Claudia noticed that she was blushingly intent on tracing with the tip of her elaborate sunshade the pattern of the shabby carpet.

“It will be a revelation to them,” she went on provisionally, as though Claudia had missed her cue and left an awkward interval to fill.

Claudia had in fact a sudden sense of deficient intuition. She felt that her visitor had something to communicate which required, on her own part, an intelligent co-operation; but what it was her insight failed to suggest. She was, in truth, a little tired of Mrs. Davant, who was Keniston’s latest worshipper, who ordered pictures recklessly, who paid for them regally in advance, and whose gallery was, figuratively speaking, crowded with the artist’s unpainted masterpieces. Claudia’s impatience was perhaps complicated by the uneasy sense that Mrs. Davant was too young, too rich, too inexperienced; that somehow she ought to be warned. — Warned of what? That some of the pictures might never be painted? Scarcely that, since Keniston, who was scrupulous in business transactions, might be trusted not to take any material advantage of such evidence of faith. Claudia’s impulse remained undefined. She merely felt that she would have liked to help Mrs. Davant, and that she did not know how.

“You’ll be there to see them?” she asked, as her visitor lingered.

“In Paris?” Mrs. Davant’s blush deepened. “We must all be there together.”

Claudia smiled. “My husband and I mean to go abroad some day — but I don’t see any chance of it at present.”

“But he ought to go — you ought both to go this summer!” Mrs. Davant persisted. “I know Professor Wildmarsh and Professor Driffert and all the other critics think that Mr. Keniston’s never having been to Europe has given his work much of its wonderful individuality, its peculiar flavor and meaning — but now that his talent is formed, that he has full command of his means of expression,” (Claudia recognized one of Professor Driffert’s favorite formulas) “they all think he ought to see the work of the other great masters — that he ought to visit the home of his ancestors, as Professor Wildmarsh says!” She stretched an impulsive hand to Claudia. “You ought to let him go, Mrs. Keniston!”

Claudia accepted the admonition with the philosophy of the wife who is used to being advised on the management of her husband. “I sha’n’t interfere with him,” she declared; and Mrs. Davant instantly caught her up with a cry of, “Oh, it’s too lovely of you to say that!” With this exclamation she left Claudia to a silent renewal of wonder.

A moment later Keniston entered: to a mind curious in combinations it might have occurred that he had met Mrs. Davant on the door-step. In one sense he might, for all his wife cared, have met fifty Mrs. Davants on the door-step: it was long since Claudia had enjoyed the solace of resenting such coincidences. Her only thought now was that her husband’s first words might not improbably explain Mrs. Davant’s last; and she waited for him to speak.

He paused with his hands in his pockets before an unfinished picture on the easel; then, as his habit was, he began to stroll touristlike from canvas to canvas, standing before each in a musing ecstasy of contemplation that no readjustment of view ever seemed to disturb. Her eye instinctively joined his in its inspection; it was the one point where their natures merged. Thank God, there, was no doubt about the pictures! She was what she had always dreamed of being — the wife of a great artist. Keniston dropped into an armchair and filled his pipe. “How should you like to go to Europe?” he asked.

His wife looked up quickly. “When?”

“Now — this spring, I mean.” He paused to light the pipe. “I should like to be over there while these things are being exhibited.”

Claudia was silent.

“Well?” he repeated after a moment.

“How can we afford it?” she asked.

Keniston had always scrupulously fulfilled his duty to the mother and sister whom his marriage had dislodged; and Claudia, who had the atoning temperament which seeks to pay for every happiness by making it a source of fresh obligations, had from the outset accepted his ties with an exaggerated devotion. Any disregard of such a claim would have vulgarized her most delicate pleasures; and her husband’s sensitiveness to it in great measure extenuated the artistic obtuseness that often seemed to her like a failure of the moral sense. His loyalty to the dull women who depended on him was, after all, compounded of finer tissues than any mere sensibility to ideal demands.

“Oh, I don’t see why we shouldn’t,” he rejoined. “I think we might manage it.”

“At Mrs. Davant’s expense?” leaped from Claudia. She could not tell why she had said it; some inner barrier seemed to have given way under a confused pressure of emotions.

He looked up at her with frank surprise. “Well, she has been very jolly about it — why not? She has a tremendous feeling for art — the keenest I ever knew in a woman.” Claudia imperceptibly smiled. “She wants me to let her pay in advance for the four panels she has ordered for the Memorial Library. That would give us plenty of money for the trip, and my having the panels to do is another reason for my wanting to go abroad just now.”

“Another reason?”

“Yes; I’ve never worked on such a big scale. I want to see how those old chaps did the trick; I want to measure myself with the big fellows over there. An artist ought to, once in his life.”

She gave him a wondering look. For the first time his words implied a sense of possible limitation; but his easy tone seemed to retract what they conceded. What he really wanted was fresh food for his self-satisfaction: he was like an army that moves on after exhausting the resources of the country.

Womanlike, she abandoned the general survey of the case for the consideration of a minor point.

“Are you sure you can do that kind of thing?” she asked.

“What kind of thing?”

“The panels.”

He glanced at her indulgently: his self-confidence was too impenetrable to feel the pin-prick of such a doubt.

“Immensely sure,” he said with a smile.

“And you don’t mind taking so much money from her in advance?”

He stared. “Why should I? She’ll get it back — with interest!” He laughed and drew at his pipe. “It will be an uncommonly interesting experience. I shouldn’t wonder if it freshened me up a bit.”

She looked at him again. This second hint of self-distrust struck her as the sign of a quickened sensibility. What if, after all, he was beginning to be dissatisfied with his work? The thought filled her with a renovating sense of his sufficiency.

III

They stopped in London to see the National Gallery.

It was thus that, in their inexperience, they had narrowly put it; but in reality every stone of the streets, every trick of the atmosphere, had its message of surprise for their virgin sensibilities. The pictures were simply the summing up, the final interpretation, of the cumulative pressure of an unimagined world; and it seemed to Claudia that long before they reached the doors of the gallery she had some intuitive revelation of what awaited them within.

They moved about from room to room without exchanging a word. The vast noiseless spaces seemed full of sound, like the roar of a distant multitude heard only by the inner ear. Had their speech been articulate their language would have been incomprehensible; and even that far-off murmur of meaning pressed intolerably on Claudia’s nerves. Keniston took the onset without outward sign of disturbance. Now and then he paused before a canvas, or prolonged from one of the benches his silent communion with some miracle of line or color; but he neither looked at his wife nor spoke to her. He seemed to have forgotten her presence.

Claudia was conscious of keeping a furtive watch on him; but the sum total of her impressions was negative. She remembered thinking when she first met him that his face was rather expressionless; and he had the habit of self-engrossed silences.

All that evening, at the hotel, they talked about London, and he surprised her by an acuteness of observation that she had sometimes inwardly accused him of lacking. He seemed to have seen everything, to have examined, felt, compared, with nerves as finely adjusted as her own; but he said nothing of the pictures. The next day they returned to the National Gallery, and he began to study the paintings in detail, pointing out differences of technique, analyzing and criticising, but still without summing up his conclusions. He seemed to have a sort of provincial dread of showing himself too much impressed. Claudia’s own sensations were too complex, too overwhelming, to be readily classified. Lacking the craftsman’s instinct to steady her, she felt herself carried off her feet by the rush of incoherent impressions. One point she consciously avoided, and that was the comparison of her husband’s work with what they were daily seeing. Art, she inwardly argued, was too various, too complex, dependent on too many inter-relations of feeling and environment, to allow of its being judged by any provisional standard. Even the subtleties of technique must be modified by the artist’s changing purpose, as this in turn is acted on by influences of which he is himself unconscious. How, then, was an unprepared imagination to distinguish between such varied reflections of the elusive vision? She took refuge in a passionate exaggeration of her own ignorance and insufficiency.

After a week in London they went to Paris. The exhibition of Keniston’s pictures had been opened a few days earlier; and as they drove through the streets on the way to the station an “impressionist” poster here and there invited them to the display of the American artist’s work. Mrs. Davant, who had been in Paris for the opening, had already written rapturously of the impression produced, enclosing commendatory notices from one or two papers. She reported that there had been a great crowd on the first day, and that the critics had been “immensely struck.”

The Kenistons arrived in the evening, and the next morning Claudia, as a matter of course, asked her husband at what time he meant to go and see the pictures.

He looked up absently from his guide-book.

“What pictures?”

“Why — yours,” she said, surprised.

“Oh, they’ll keep,” he answered; adding with a slightly embarrassed laugh, “We’ll give the other chaps a show first.” Presently he laid down his book and proposed that they should go to the Louvre.

They spent the morning there, lunched at a restaurant near by, and returned to the gallery in the afternoon. Keniston had passed from inarticulateness to an eager volubility. It was clear that he was beginning to co-ordinate his impressions, to find his way about in a corner of the great imaginative universe. He seemed extraordinarily ready to impart his discoveries; and Claudia felt that her ignorance served him as a convenient buffer against the terrific impact of new sensations.

On the way home she asked when he meant to see Mrs. Davant.

His answer surprised her. “Does she know we’re here?”

“Not unless you’ve sent her word,” said Claudia, with a touch of harmless irony.

“That’s all right, then,” he returned simply. “I want to wait and look about a day or two longer. She’d want us to go sight-seeing with her; and I’d rather get my impressions alone.”

The next two days were hampered by the necessity of eluding Mrs. Davant. Claudia, under different circumstances, would have scrupled to share in this somewhat shabby conspiracy; but she found herself in a state of suspended judgment, wherein her husband’s treatment of Mrs. Davant became for the moment merely a clue to larger meanings.

They had been four days in Paris when Claudia, returning one afternoon from a parenthetical excursion to the Rue de la Paix, was confronted on her threshold by the reproachful figure of their benefactress. It was not to her, however, that Mrs. Davant’s reproaches were addressed. Keniston, it appeared, had borne the brunt of them; for he stood leaning against the mantelpiece of their modest salon in that attitude of convicted negligence when, if ever, a man is glad to take refuge behind his wife.

Claudia had however no immediate intention of affording him such shelter. She wanted to observe and wait.

“He’s too impossible!” cried Mrs. Davant, sweeping her at once into the central current of her grievance.

Claudia looked from one to the other.

“For not going to see you?”

“For not going to see his pictures!” cried the other nobly.

Claudia colored and Keniston shifted his position uneasily.

“I can’t make her understand,” he said, turning to his wife.

“I don’t care about myself!” Mrs. Davant interjected.

I do, then; it’s the only thing I do care about,” he hurriedly protested. “I meant to go at once — to write — Claudia wanted to go, but I wouldn’t let her.” He looked helplessly about the pleasant red-curtained room, which was rapidly burning itself into Claudia’s consciousness as a visible extension of Mrs. Davant’s claims.

“I can’t explain,” he broke off.

Mrs. Davant in turn addressed herself to Claudia.

“People think it’s so odd,” she complained. “So many of the artists here are anxious to meet him; they’ve all been so charming about the pictures; and several of our American friends have come over from London expressly for the exhibition. I told every one that he would be here for the opening — there was a private view, you know — and they were so disappointed — they wanted to give him an ovation; and I didn’t know what to say. What am I to say?” she abruptly ended.

“There’s nothing to say,” said Keniston slowly.

“But the exhibition closes the day after to-morrow.”

“Well, I sha’n’t close — I shall be here,” he declared with an effort at playfulness. “If they want to see me — all these people you’re kind enough to mention — won’t there be other chances?”

“But I wanted them to see you among your pictures — to hear you talk about them, explain them in that wonderful way. I wanted you to interpret each other, as Professor Wildmarsh says!”

“Oh, hang Professor Wildmarsh!” said Keniston, softening the commination with a smile. “If my pictures are good for anything they oughtn’t to need explaining.”

Mrs. Davant stared. “But I thought that was what made them so interesting!” she exclaimed.

Keniston looked down. “Perhaps it was,” he murmured.

There was an awkward silence, which Claudia broke by saying, with a glance at her husband: “But if the exhibition is to remain open to-morrow, could we not meet you there? And perhaps you could send word to some of our friends.”

Mrs. Davant brightened like a child whose broken toy is glued together. “Oh, do make him!” she implored. “I’ll ask them to come in the afternoon — we’ll make it into a little tea — a five o’clock. I’ll send word at once to everybody!” She gathered up her beruffled boa and sunshade, settling her plumage like a reassured bird. “It will be too lovely!” she ended in a self-consoling murmur.

But in the doorway a new doubt assailed her. “You won’t fail me?” she said, turning plaintively to Keniston. “You’ll make him come, Mrs. Keniston?”

“I’ll bring him!” Claudia promised.

IV

When, the next morning, she appeared equipped for their customary ramble, her husband surprised her by announcing that he meant to stay at home.

“The fact is I’m rather surfeited,” he said, smiling. “I suppose my appetite isn’t equal to such a plethora. I think I’ll write some letters and join you somewhere later.”

She detected the wish to be alone and responded to it with her usual readiness.

“I shall sink to my proper level and buy a bonnet, then,” she said. “I haven’t had time to take the edge off that appetite.”

They agreed to meet at the Hotel Cluny at mid-day, and she set out alone with a vague sense of relief. Neither she nor Keniston had made any direct reference to Mrs. Davant’s visit; but its effect was implicit in their eagerness to avoid each other.

Claudia accomplished some shopping in the spirit of perfunctoriness that robs even new bonnets of their bloom; and this business despatched, she turned aimlessly into the wide inviting brightness of the streets. Never had she felt more isolated amid that ordered beauty which gives a social quality to the very stones and mortar of Paris. All about her were evidences of an artistic sensibility pervading every form of life like the nervous structure of the huge frame — a sensibility so delicate, alert and universal that it seemed to leave no room for obtuseness or error. In such a medium the faculty of plastic expression must develop as unconsciously as any organ in its normal surroundings; to be “artistic” must cease to be an attitude and become a natural function. To Claudia the significance of the whole vast revelation was centred in the light it shed on one tiny spot of consciousness — the value of her husband’s work. There are moments when to the groping soul the world’s accumulated experiences are but stepping-stones across a private difficulty.

She stood hesitating on a street corner. It was barely eleven, and she had an hour to spare before going to the Hotel Cluny. She seemed to be letting her inclination float as it would on the cross-currents of suggestion emanating from the brilliant complex scene before her; but suddenly, in obedience to an impulse that she became aware of only in acting on it, she called a cab and drove to the gallery where her husband’s pictures were exhibited.

A magnificent official in gold braid sold her a ticket and pointed the way up the empty crimson-carpeted stairs. His duplicate, on the upper landing, held out a catalogue with an air of recognizing the futility of the offer; and a moment later she found herself in the long noiseless impressive room full of velvet-covered ottomans and exotic plants. It was clear that the public ardor on which Mrs. Davant had expatiated had spent itself earlier in the week; for Claudia had this luxurious apartment to herself. Something about its air of rich privacy, its diffusion of that sympathetic quality in other countries so conspicuously absent from the public show-room, seemed to emphasize its present emptiness. It was as though the flowers, the carpet, the lounges, surrounded their visitor’s solitary advance with the mute assurance that they had done all they could toward making the thing “go off,” and that if they had failed it was simply for lack of co-operation. She stood still and looked about her. The pictures struck her instantly as odd gaps in the general harmony; it was self-evident that they had not co-operated. They had not been pushing, aggressive, discordant: they had merely effaced themselves. She swept a startled eye from one familiar painting to another. The canvases were all there — and the frames — but the miracle, the mirage of life and meaning, had vanished like some atmospheric illusion. What was it that had happened? And had it happened to her or to the pictures? She tried to rally her frightened thoughts; to push or coax them into a semblance of resistance; but argument was swept off its feet by the huge rush of a single conviction — the conviction that the pictures were bad. There was no standing up against that: she felt herself submerged.

The stealthy fear that had been following her all these days had her by the throat now. The great vision of beauty through which she had been moving as one enchanted was turned to a phantasmagoria of evil mocking shapes. She hated the past; she hated its splendor, its power, its wicked magical vitality. . . . She dropped into a seat and continued to stare at the wall before her. Gradually, as she stared, there stole out to her from the dimmed humbled canvases a reminder of what she had once seen in them, a spectral appeal to her faith to call them back to life. What proof had she that her present estimate of them was less subjective than the other? The confused impressions of the last few days were hardly to be pleaded as a valid theory of art. How, after all, did she know that the pictures were bad? On what suddenly acquired technical standard had she thus decided the case against them? It seemed as though it were a standard outside of herself, as though some unheeded inner sense were gradually making her aware of the presence, in that empty room, of a critical intelligence that was giving out a subtle effluence of disapproval. The fancy was so vivid that, to shake it off, she rose and began to move about again. In the middle of the room stood a monumental divan surmounted by a massif of palms and azaleas. As Claudia’s muffled wanderings carried her around the angle of this seat, she saw that its farther side was occupied by the figure of a man, who sat with his hands resting on his stick and his head bowed upon them. She gave a little cry and her husband rose and faced her.

Instantly the live point of consciousness was shifted, and she became aware that the quality of the pictures no longer mattered. It was what he thought of them that counted: her life hung on that.

They looked at each other a moment in silence; such concussions are not apt to flash into immediate speech. At length he said simply, “I didn’t know you were coming here.”

She colored as though he had charged her with something underhand.

“I didn’t mean to,” she stammered; “but I was too early for our appointment — ”

Her word’s cast a revealing glare on the situation. Neither of them looked at the pictures; but to Claudia those unobtruding presences seemed suddenly to press upon them and force them apart.

Keniston glanced at his watch. “It’s twelve o’clock,” he said. “Shall we go on?”

V

At the door he called a cab and put her in it; then, drawing out his watch again, he said abruptly: “I believe I’ll let you go alone. I’ll join you at the hotel in time for luncheon.” She wondered for a moment if he meant to return to the gallery; but, looking back as she drove off, she saw him walk rapidly away in the opposite direction.

The cabman had carried her half-way to the Hotel Cluny before she realized where she was going, and cried out to him to turn home. There was an acute irony in this mechanical prolongation of the quest of beauty. She had had enough of it, too much of it; her one longing was to escape, to hide herself away from its all-suffusing implacable light.

At the hotel, alone in her room, a few tears came to soften her seared vision; but her mood was too tense to be eased by weeping. Her whole being was centred in the longing to know what her husband thought. Their short exchange of words had, after all, told her nothing. She had guessed a faint resentment at her unexpected appearance; but that might merely imply a dawning sense, on his part, of being furtively watched and criticised. She had sometimes wondered if he was never conscious of her observation; there were moments when it seemed to radiate from her in visible waves. Perhaps, after all, he was aware of it, on his guard against it, as a lurking knife behind the thick curtain of his complacency; and to-day he must have caught the gleam of the blade.

Claudia had not reached the age when pity is the first chord to vibrate in contact with any revelation of failure. Her one hope had been that Keniston should be clear-eyed enough to face the truth. Whatever it turned out to be, she wanted him to measure himself with it. But as his image rose before her she felt a sudden half-maternal longing to thrust herself between him and disaster. Her eagerness to see him tested by circumstances seemed now like a cruel scientific curiosity. She saw in a flash of sympathy that he would need her most if he fell beneath his fate.

He did not, after all, return for luncheon; and when she came up-stairs from her solitary meal their salon was still untenanted. She permitted herself no sensational fears; for she could not, at the height of apprehension, figure Keniston as yielding to any tragic impulse; but the lengthening hours brought an uneasiness that was fuel to her pity. Suddenly she heard the clock strike five. It was the hour at which they had promised to meet Mrs. Davant at the gallery — the hour of the “ovation.” Claudia rose and went to the window, straining for a glimpse of her husband in the crowded street. Could it be that he had forgotten her, had gone to the gallery without her? Or had something happened — that veiled “something” which, for the last hour, had grimly hovered on the outskirts of her mind?

She heard a hand on the door and Keniston entered. As she turned to meet him her whole being was swept forward on a great wave of pity: she was so sure, now, that he must know.

But he confronted her with a glance of preoccupied brightness; her first impression was that she had never seen him so vividly, so expressively pleased. If he needed her, it was not to bind up his wounds.

He gave her a smile which was clearly the lingering reflection of some inner light. “I didn’t mean to be so late,” he said, tossing aside his hat and the little red volume that served as a clue to his explorations. “I turned in to the Louvre for a minute after I left you this morning, and the place fairly swallowed me up — I couldn’t get away from it. I’ve been there ever since.” He threw himself into a chair and glanced about for his pipe.

“It takes time,” he continued musingly, “to get at them, to make out what they’re saying — the big fellows, I mean. They’re not a communicative lot. At first I couldn’t make much out of their lingo — it was too different from mine! But gradually, by picking up a hint here and there, and piecing them together, I’ve begun to understand; and to-day, by Jove, I got one or two of the old chaps by the throat and fairly turned them inside out — made them deliver up their last drop.” He lifted a brilliant eye to her. “Lord, it was tremendous!” he declared.

He had found his pipe and was musingly filling it. Claudia waited in silence.

“At first,” he began again, “I was afraid their language was too hard for me — that I should never quite know what they were driving at; they seemed to cold-shoulder me, to be bent on shutting me out. But I was bound I wouldn’t be beaten, and now, to-day” — he paused a moment to strike a match — “when I went to look at those things of mine it all came over me in a flash. By Jove! it was as if I’d made them all into a big bonfire to light me on my road!”

His wife was trembling with a kind of sacred terror. She had been afraid to pray for light for him, and here he was joyfully casting his whole past upon the pyre!

“Is there nothing left?” she faltered.

“Nothing left? There’s everything!” he exulted. “Why, here I am, not much over forty, and I’ve found out already — already!” He stood up and began to move excitedly about the room. “My God! Suppose I’d never known! Suppose I’d gone on painting things like that forever! Why, I feel like those chaps at revivalist meetings when they get up and say they’re saved! Won’t somebody please start a hymn?”

Claudia, with a tremulous joy, was letting herself go on the strong current of his emotion; but it had not yet carried her beyond her depth, and suddenly she felt hard ground underfoot.

“Mrs. Davant — ” she exclaimed.

He stared, as though suddenly recalled from a long distance. “Mrs. Davant?”

“We were to have met her — this afternoon — now — ”

“At the gallery? Oh, that’s all right. I put a stop to that; I went to see her after I left you; I explained it all to her.”

“All?”

“I told her I was going to begin all over again.”

Claudia’s heart gave a forward bound and then sank back hopelessly.

“But the panels —?”

“That’s all right too. I told her about the panels,” he reassured her.

“You told her —?”

“That I can’t paint them now. She doesn’t understand, of course; but she’s the best little woman and she trusts me.”

She could have wept for joy at his exquisite obtuseness. “But that isn’t all,” she wailed. “It doesn’t matter how much you’ve explained to her. It doesn’t do away with the fact that we’re living on those panels!”

“Living on them?”

“On the money that she paid you to paint them. Isn’t that what brought us here? And — if you mean to do as you say — to begin all over again — how in the world are we ever to pay her back?”

Her husband turned on her an inspired eye. “There’s only one way that I know of,” he imperturbably declared, “and that’s to stay out here till I learn how to paint them.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/crucial_instances/chapter3.html

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