Crucial Instances, by Edith Wharton

The Moving Finger

I

The news of Mrs. Grancy’s death came to me with the shock of an immense blunder — one of fate’s most irretrievable acts of vandalism. It was as though all sorts of renovating forces had been checked by the clogging of that one wheel. Not that Mrs. Grancy contributed any perceptible momentum to the social machine: her unique distinction was that of filling to perfection her special place in the world. So many people are like badly-composed statues, over-lapping their niches at one point and leaving them vacant at another. Mrs. Grancy’s niche was her husband’s life; and if it be argued that the space was not large enough for its vacancy to leave a very big gap, I can only say that, at the last resort, such dimensions must be determined by finer instruments than any ready-made standard of utility. Ralph Grancy’s was in short a kind of disembodied usefulness: one of those constructive influences that, instead of crystallizing into definite forms, remain as it were a medium for the development of clear thinking and fine feeling. He faithfully irrigated his own dusty patch of life, and the fruitful moisture stole far beyond his boundaries. If, to carry on the metaphor, Grancy’s life was a sedulously-cultivated enclosure, his wife was the flower he had planted in its midst — the embowering tree, rather, which gave him rest and shade at its foot and the wind of dreams in its upper branches.

We had all — his small but devoted band of followers — known a moment when it seemed likely that Grancy would fail us. We had watched him pitted against one stupid obstacle after another — ill-health, poverty, misunderstanding and, worst of all for a man of his texture, his first wife’s soft insidious egotism. We had seen him sinking under the leaden embrace of her affection like a swimmer in a drowning clutch; but just as we despaired he had always come to the surface again, blinded, panting, but striking out fiercely for the shore. When at last her death released him it became a question as to how much of the man she had carried with her. Left alone, he revealed numb withered patches, like a tree from which a parasite has been stripped. But gradually he began to put out new leaves; and when he met the lady who was to become his second wife — his one real wife, as his friends reckoned — the whole man burst into flower.

The second Mrs. Grancy was past thirty when he married her, and it was clear that she had harvested that crop of middle joy which is rooted in young despair. But if she had lost the surface of eighteen she had kept its inner light; if her cheek lacked the gloss of immaturity her eyes were young with the stored youth of half a life-time. Grancy had first known her somewhere in the East — I believe she was the sister of one of our consuls out there — and when he brought her home to New York she came among us as a stranger. The idea of Grancy’s remarriage had been a shock to us all. After one such calcining most men would have kept out of the fire; but we agreed that he was predestined to sentimental blunders, and we awaited with resignation the embodiment of his latest mistake. Then Mrs. Grancy came — and we understood. She was the most beautiful and the most complete of explanations. We shuffled our defeated omniscience out of sight and gave it hasty burial under a prodigality of welcome. For the first time in years we had Grancy off our minds. “He’ll do something great now!” the least sanguine of us prophesied; and our sentimentalist emended: “He has done it — in marrying her!”

It was Claydon, the portrait-painter, who risked this hyperbole; and who soon afterward, at the happy husband’s request, prepared to defend it in a portrait of Mrs. Grancy. We were all — even Claydon — ready to concede that Mrs. Grancy’s unwontedness was in some degree a matter of environment. Her graces were complementary and it needed the mate’s call to reveal the flash of color beneath her neutral-tinted wings. But if she needed Grancy to interpret her, how much greater was the service she rendered him! Claydon professionally described her as the right frame for him; but if she defined she also enlarged, if she threw the whole into perspective she also cleared new ground, opened fresh vistas, reclaimed whole areas of activity that had run to waste under the harsh husbandry of privation. This interaction of sympathies was not without its visible expression. Claydon was not alone in maintaining that Grancy’s presence — or indeed the mere mention of his name — had a perceptible effect on his wife’s appearance. It was as though a light were shifted, a curtain drawn back, as though, to borrow another of Claydon’s metaphors, Love the indefatigable artist were perpetually seeking a happier “pose” for his model. In this interpretative light Mrs. Grancy acquired the charm which makes some women’s faces like a book of which the last page is never turned. There was always something new to read in her eyes. What Claydon read there — or at least such scattered hints of the ritual as reached him through the sanctuary doors — his portrait in due course declared to us. When the picture was exhibited it was at once acclaimed as his masterpiece; but the people who knew Mrs. Grancy smiled and said it was flattered. Claydon, however, had not set out to paint their Mrs. Grancy — or ours even — but Ralph’s; and Ralph knew his own at a glance. At the first confrontation he saw that Claydon had understood. As for Mrs. Grancy, when the finished picture was shown to her she turned to the painter and said simply: “Ah, you’ve done me facing the east!”

The picture, then, for all its value, seemed a mere incident in the unfolding of their double destiny, a foot-note to the illuminated text of their lives. It was not till afterward that it acquired the significance of last words spoken on a threshold never to be recrossed. Grancy, a year after his marriage, had given up his town house and carried his bliss an hour’s journey away, to a little place among the hills. His various duties and interests brought him frequently to New York but we necessarily saw him less often than when his house had served as the rallying-point of kindred enthusiasms. It seemed a pity that such an influence should be withdrawn, but we all felt that his long arrears of happiness should be paid in whatever coin he chose. The distance from which the fortunate couple radiated warmth on us was not too great for friendship to traverse; and our conception of a glorified leisure took the form of Sundays spent in the Grancys’ library, with its sedative rural outlook, and the portrait of Mrs. Grancy illuminating its studious walls. The picture was at its best in that setting; and we used to accuse Claydon of visiting Mrs. Grancy in order to see her portrait. He met this by declaring that the portrait was Mrs. Grancy; and there were moments when the statement seemed unanswerable. One of us, indeed — I think it must have been the novelist — said that Clayton had been saved from falling in love with Mrs. Grancy only by falling in love with his picture of her; and it was noticeable that he, to whom his finished work was no more than the shed husk of future effort, showed a perennial tenderness for this one achievement. We smiled afterward to think how often, when Mrs. Grancy was in the room, her presence reflecting itself in our talk like a gleam of sky in a hurrying current, Claydon, averted from the real woman, would sit as it were listening to the picture. His attitude, at the time, seemed only a part of the unusualness of those picturesque afternoons, when the most familiar combinations of life underwent a magical change. Some human happiness is a landlocked lake; but the Grancys’ was an open sea, stretching a buoyant and illimitable surface to the voyaging interests of life. There was room and to spare on those waters for all our separate ventures; and always beyond the sunset, a mirage of the fortunate isles toward which our prows bent.

II

It was in Rome that, three years later, I heard of her death. The notice said “suddenly”; I was glad of that. I was glad too — basely perhaps — to be away from Grancy at a time when silence must have seemed obtuse and speech derisive.

I was still in Rome when, a few months afterward, he suddenly arrived there. He had been appointed secretary of legation at Constantinople and was on the way to his post. He had taken the place, he said frankly, “to get away.” Our relations with the Porte held out a prospect of hard work, and that, he explained, was what he needed. He could never be satisfied to sit down among the ruins. I saw that, like most of us in moments of extreme moral tension, he was playing a part, behaving as he thought it became a man to behave in the eye of disaster. The instinctive posture of grief is a shuffling compromise between defiance and prostration; and pride feels the need of striking a worthier attitude in face of such a foe. Grancy, by nature musing and retrospective, had chosen the rôle of the man of action, who answers blow for blow and opposes a mailed front to the thrusts of destiny; and the completeness of the equipment testified to his inner weakness. We talked only of what we were not thinking of, and parted, after a few days, with a sense of relief that proved the inadequacy of friendship to perform, in such cases, the office assigned to it by tradition.

Soon afterward my own work called me home, but Grancy remained several years in Europe. International diplomacy kept its promise of giving him work to do, and during the year in which he acted as chargé d’affaires he acquitted himself, under trying conditions, with conspicuous zeal and discretion. A political redistribution of matter removed him from office just as he had proved his usefulness to the government; and the following summer I heard that he had come home and was down at his place in the country.

On my return to town I wrote him and his reply came by the next post. He answered as it were in his natural voice, urging me to spend the following Sunday with him, and suggesting that I should bring down any of the old set who could be persuaded to join me. I thought this a good sign, and yet — shall I own it? — I was vaguely disappointed. Perhaps we are apt to feel that our friends’ sorrows should be kept like those historic monuments from which the encroaching ivy is periodically removed.

That very evening at the club I ran across Claydon. I told him of Grancy’s invitation and proposed that we should go down together; but he pleaded an engagement. I was sorry, for I had always felt that he and I stood nearer Ralph than the others, and if the old Sundays were to be renewed I should have preferred that we two should spend the first alone with him. I said as much to Claydon and offered to fit my time to his; but he met this by a general refusal.

“I don’t want to go to Grancy’s,” he said bluntly. I waited a moment, but he appended no qualifying clause.

“You’ve seen him since he came back?” I finally ventured.

Claydon nodded.

“And is he so awfully bad?”

“Bad? No: he’s all right.”

“All right? How can he be, unless he’s changed beyond all recognition?”

“Oh, you’ll recognize him,” said Claydon, with a puzzling deflection of emphasis.

His ambiguity was beginning to exasperate me, and I felt myself shut out from some knowledge to which I had as good a right as he.

“You’ve been down there already, I suppose?”

“Yes; I’ve been down there.”

“And you’ve done with each other — the partnership is dissolved?”

“Done with each other? I wish to God we had!” He rose nervously and tossed aside the review from which my approach had diverted him. “Look here,” he said, standing before me, “Ralph’s the best fellow going and there’s nothing under heaven I wouldn’t do for him — short of going down there again.” And with that he walked out of the room.

Claydon was incalculable enough for me to read a dozen different meanings into his words; but none of my interpretations satisfied me. I determined, at any rate, to seek no farther for a companion; and the next Sunday I travelled down to Grancy’s alone. He met me at the station and I saw at once that he had changed since our last meeting. Then he had been in fighting array, but now if he and grief still housed together it was no longer as enemies. Physically the transformation was as marked but less reassuring. If the spirit triumphed the body showed its scars. At five-and-forty he was gray and stooping, with the tired gait of an old man. His serenity, however, was not the resignation of age. I saw that he did not mean to drop out of the game. Almost immediately he began to speak of our old interests; not with an effort, as at our former meeting, but simply and naturally, in the tone of a man whose life has flowed back into its normal channels. I remembered, with a touch of self-reproach, how I had distrusted his reconstructive powers; but my admiration for his reserved force was now tinged by the sense that, after all, such happiness as his ought to have been paid with his last coin. The feeling grew as we neared the house and I found how inextricably his wife was interwoven with my remembrance of the place: how the whole scene was but an extension of that vivid presence.

Within doors nothing was changed, and my hand would have dropped without surprise into her welcoming clasp. It was luncheon-time, and Grancy led me at once to the dining-room, where the walls, the furniture, the very plate and porcelain, seemed a mirror in which a moment since her face had been reflected. I wondered whether Grancy, under the recovered tranquillity of his smile, concealed the same sense of her nearness, saw perpetually between himself and the actual her bright unappeasable ghost. He spoke of her once or twice, in an easy incidental way, and her name seemed to hang in the air after he had uttered it, like a chord that continues to vibrate. If he felt her presence it was evidently as an enveloping medium, the moral atmosphere in which he breathed. I had never before known how completely the dead may survive.

After luncheon we went for a long walk through the autumnal fields and woods, and dusk was falling when we re-entered the house. Grancy led the way to the library, where, at this hour, his wife had always welcomed us back to a bright fire and a cup of tea. The room faced the west, and held a clear light of its own after the rest of the house had grown dark. I remembered how young she had looked in this pale gold light, which irradiated her eyes and hair, or silhouetted her girlish outline as she passed before the windows. Of all the rooms the library was most peculiarly hers; and here I felt that her nearness might take visible shape. Then, all in a moment, as Grancy opened the door, the feeling vanished and a kind of resistance met me on the threshold. I looked about me. Was the room changed? Had some desecrating hand effaced the traces of her presence? No; here too the setting was undisturbed. My feet sank into the same deep-piled Daghestan; the bookshelves took the firelight on the same rows of rich subdued bindings; her armchair stood in its old place near the tea-table; and from the opposite wall her face confronted me.

Her face — but was it hers? I moved nearer and stood looking up at the portrait. Grancy’s glance had followed mine and I heard him move to my side.

“You see a change in it?” he said.

“What does it mean?” I asked.

“It means — that five years have passed.”

“Over her?”

“Why not? — Look at me!” He pointed to his gray hair and furrowed temples. “What do you think kept her so young? It was happiness! But now — ” he looked up at her with infinite tenderness. “I like her better so,” he said. “It’s what she would have wished.”

“Have wished?”

“That we should grow old together. Do you think she would have wanted to be left behind?”

I stood speechless, my gaze travelling from his worn grief-beaten features to the painted face above. It was not furrowed like his; but a veil of years seemed to have descended on it. The bright hair had lost its elasticity, the cheek its clearness, the brow its light: the whole woman had waned.

Grancy laid his hand on my arm. “You don’t like it?” he said sadly.

“Like it? I— I’ve lost her!” I burst out.

“And I’ve found her,” he answered.

“In that?” I cried with a reproachful gesture.

“Yes; in that.” He swung round on me almost defiantly. “The other had become a sham, a lie! This is the way she would have looked — does look, I mean. Claydon ought to know, oughtn’t he?”

I turned suddenly. “Did Claydon do this for you?”

Grancy nodded.

“Since your return?”

“Yes. I sent for him after I’d been back a week — .” He turned away and gave a thrust to the smouldering fire. I followed, glad to leave the picture behind me. Grancy threw himself into a chair near the hearth, so that the light fell on his sensitive variable face. He leaned his head back, shading his eyes with his hand, and began to speak.

III

“You fellows knew enough of my early history to A guess what my second marriage meant to me. I say guess, because no one could understand — really. I’ve always had a feminine streak in me, I suppose: the need of a pair of eyes that should see with me, of a pulse that should keep time with mine. Life is a big thing, of course; a magnificent spectacle; but I got so tired of looking at it alone! Still, it’s always good to live, and I had plenty of happiness — of the evolved kind. What I’d never had a taste of was the simple inconscient sort that one breathes in like the air. . . .

“Well — I met her. It was like finding the climate in which I was meant to live. You know what she was — how indefinitely she multiplied one’s points of contact with life, how she lit up the caverns and bridged the abysses! Well, I swear to you (though I suppose the sense of all that was latent in me) that what I used to think of on my way home at the end of the day, was simply that when I opened this door she’d be sitting over there, with the lamp-light falling in a particular way on one little curl in her neck. . . . When Claydon painted her he caught just the look she used to lift to mine when I came in — I’ve wondered, sometimes, at his knowing how she looked when she and I were alone. — How I rejoiced in that picture! I used to say to her, ‘You’re my prisoner now — I shall never lose you. If you grew tired of me and left me you’d leave your real self there on the wall!’ It was always one of our jokes that she was going to grow tired of me —

“Three years of it — and then she died. It was so sudden that there was no change, no diminution. It was as if she had suddenly become fixed, immovable, like her own portrait: as if Time had ceased at its happiest hour, just as Claydon had thrown down his brush one day and said, ‘I can’t do better than that.’

“I went away, as you know, and stayed over there five years. I worked as hard as I knew how, and after the first black months a little light stole in on me. From thinking that she would have been interested in what I was doing I came to feel that she was interested — that she was there and that she knew. I’m not talking any psychical jargon — I’m simply trying to express the sense I had that an influence so full, so abounding as hers couldn’t pass like a spring shower. We had so lived into each other’s hearts and minds that the consciousness of what she would have thought and felt illuminated all I did. At first she used to come back shyly, tentatively, as though not sure of finding me; then she stayed longer and longer, till at last she became again the very air I breathed. . . . There were bad moments, of course, when her nearness mocked me with the loss of the real woman; but gradually the distinction between the two was effaced and the mere thought of her grew warm as flesh and blood.

“Then I came home. I landed in the morning and came straight down here. The thought of seeing her portrait possessed me and my heart beat like a lover’s as I opened the library door. It was in the afternoon and the room was full of light. It fell on her picture — the picture of a young and radiant woman. She smiled at me coldly across the distance that divided us. I had the feeling that she didn’t even recognize me. And then I caught sight of myself in the mirror over there — a gray-haired broken man whom she had never known!

“For a week we two lived together — the strange woman and the strange man. I used to sit night after night and question her smiling face; but no answer ever came. What did she know of me, after all? We were irrevocably separated by the five years of life that lay between us. At times, as I sat here, I almost grew to hate her; for her presence had driven away my gentle ghost, the real wife who had wept, aged, struggled with me during those awful years. . . . It was the worst loneliness I’ve ever known. Then, gradually, I began to notice a look of sadness in the picture’s eyes; a look that seemed to say: ‘Don’t you see that I am lonely too?’ And all at once it came over me how she would have hated to be left behind! I remembered her comparing life to a heavy book that could not be read with ease unless two people held it together; and I thought how impatiently her hand would have turned the pages that divided us! — So the idea came to me: ‘It’s the picture that stands between us; the picture that is dead, and not my wife. To sit in this room is to keep watch beside a corpse.’ As this feeling grew on me the portrait became like a beautiful mausoleum in which she had been buried alive: I could hear her beating against the painted walls and crying to me faintly for help. . . .

“One day I found I couldn’t stand it any longer and I sent for Claydon. He came down and I told him what I’d been through and what I wanted him to do. At first he refused point-blank to touch the picture. The next morning I went off for a long tramp, and when I came home I found him sitting here alone. He looked at me sharply for a moment and then he said: ‘I’ve changed my mind; I’ll do it.’ I arranged one of the north rooms as a studio and he shut himself up there for a day; then he sent for me. The picture stood there as you see it now — it was as though she’d met me on the threshold and taken me in her arms! I tried to thank him, to tell him what it meant to me, but he cut me short.

“‘There’s an up train at five, isn’t there?’ he asked. ‘I’m booked for a dinner to-night. I shall just have time to make a bolt for the station and you can send my traps after me.’ I haven’t seen him since.

“I can guess what it cost him to lay hands on his masterpiece; but, after all, to him it was only a picture lost, to me it was my wife regained!”

IV

After that, for ten years or more, I watched the strange spectacle of a life of hopeful and productive effort based on the structure of a dream. There could be no doubt to those who saw Grancy during this period that he drew his strength and courage from the sense of his wife’s mystic participation in his task. When I went back to see him a few months later I found the portrait had been removed from the library and placed in a small study up-stairs, to which he had transferred his desk and a few books. He told me he always sat there when he was alone, keeping the library for his Sunday visitors. Those who missed the portrait of course made no comment on its absence, and the few who were in his secret respected it. Gradually all his old friends had gathered about him and our Sunday afternoons regained something of their former character; but Claydon never reappeared among us.

As I look back now I see that Grancy must have been failing from the time of his return home. His invincible spirit belied and disguised the signs of weakness that afterward asserted themselves in my remembrance of him. He seemed to have an inexhaustible fund of life to draw on, and more than one of us was a pensioner on his superfluity.

Nevertheless, when I came back one summer from my European holiday and heard that he had been at the point of death, I understood at once that we had believed him well only because he wished us to.

I hastened down to the country and found him midway in a slow convalescence. I felt then that he was lost to us and he read my thought at a glance.

“Ah,” he said, “I’m an old man now and no mistake. I suppose we shall have to go half-speed after this; but we shan’t need towing just yet!”

The plural pronoun struck me, and involuntarily I looked up at Mrs. Grancy’s portrait. Line by line I saw my fear reflected in it. It was the face of a woman who knows that her husband is dying. My heart stood still at the thought of what Claydon had done.

Grancy had followed my glance. “Yes, it’s changed her,” he said quietly. “For months, you know, it was touch and go with me — we had a long fight of it, and it was worse for her than for me.” After a pause he added: “Claydon has been very kind; he’s so busy nowadays that I seldom see him, but when I sent for him the other day he came down at once.”

I was silent and we spoke no more of Grancy’s illness; but when I took leave it seemed like shutting him in alone with his death-warrant.

The next time I went down to see him he looked much better. It was a Sunday and he received me in the library, so that I did not see the portrait again. He continued to improve and toward spring we began to feel that, as he had said, he might yet travel a long way without being towed.

One evening, on returning to town after a visit which had confirmed my sense of reassurance, I found Claydon dining alone at the club. He asked me to join him and over the coffee our talk turned to his work.

“If you’re not too busy,” I said at length, “you ought to make time to go down to Grancy’s again.”

He looked up quickly. “Why?” he asked.

“Because he’s quite well again,” I returned with a touch of cruelty. “His wife’s prognostications were mistaken.”

Claydon stared at me a moment. “Oh, she knows,” he affirmed with a smile that chilled me.

“You mean to leave the portrait as it is then?” I persisted.

He shrugged his shoulders. “He hasn’t sent for me yet!”

A waiter came up with the cigars and Claydon rose and joined another group.

It was just a fortnight later that Grancy’s housekeeper telegraphed for me. She met me at the station with the news that he had been “taken bad” and that the doctors were with him. I had to wait for some time in the deserted library before the medical men appeared. They had the baffled manner of empirics who have been superseded by the great Healer; and I lingered only long enough to hear that Grancy was not suffering and that my presence could do him no harm.

I found him seated in his arm-chair in the little study. He held out his hand with a smile.

“You see she was right after all,” he said.

“She?” I repeated, perplexed for the moment.

“My wife.” He indicated the picture. “Of course I knew she had no hope from the first. I saw that” — he lowered his voice — “after Claydon had been here. But I wouldn’t believe it at first!”

I caught his hands in mine. “For God’s sake don’t believe it now!” I adjured him.

He shook his head gently. “It’s too late,” he said. “I might have known that she knew.”

“But, Grancy, listen to me,” I began; and then I stopped. What could I say that would convince him? There was no common ground of argument on which we could meet; and after all it would be easier for him to die feeling that she had known. Strangely enough, I saw that Claydon had missed his mark. . . .

V

Grancy’s will named me as one of his executors; and my associate, having other duties on his hands, begged me to assume the task of carrying out our friend’s wishes. This placed me under the necessity of informing Claydon that the portrait of Mrs. Grancy had been bequeathed to him; and he replied by the next post that he would send for the picture at once. I was staying in the deserted house when the portrait was taken away; and as the door closed on it I felt that Grancy’s presence had vanished too. Was it his turn to follow her now, and could one ghost haunt another?

After that, for a year or two, I heard nothing more of the picture, and though I met Claydon from time to time we had little to say to each other. I had no definable grievance against the man and I tried to remember that he had done a fine thing in sacrificing his best picture to a friend; but my resentment had all the tenacity of unreason.

One day, however, a lady whose portrait he had just finished begged me to go with her to see it. To refuse was impossible, and I went with the less reluctance that I knew I was not the only friend she had invited. The others were all grouped around the easel when I entered, and after contributing my share to the chorus of approval I turned away and began to stroll about the studio. Claydon was something of a collector and his things were generally worth looking at. The studio was a long tapestried room with a curtained archway at one end. The curtains were looped back, showing a smaller apartment, with books and flowers and a few fine bits of bronze and porcelain. The tea-table standing in this inner room proclaimed that it was open to inspection, and I wandered in. A bleu poudré vase first attracted me; then I turned to examine a slender bronze Ganymede, and in so doing found myself face to face with Mrs. Grancy’s portrait. I stared up at her blankly and she smiled back at me in all the recovered radiance of youth. The artist had effaced every trace of his later touches and the original picture had reappeared. It throned alone on the panelled wall, asserting a brilliant supremacy over its carefully-chosen surroundings. I felt in an instant that the whole room was tributary to it: that Claydon had heaped his treasures at the feet of the woman he loved. Yes — it was the woman he had loved and not the picture; and my instinctive resentment was explained.

Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“Ah, how could you?” I cried, turning on him.

“How could I?” he retorted. “How could I not? Doesn’t she belong to me now?”

I moved away impatiently.

“Wait a moment,” he said with a detaining gesture. “The others have gone and I want to say a word to you. — Oh, I know what you’ve thought of me — I can guess! You think I killed Grancy, I suppose?”

I was startled by his sudden vehemence. “I think you tried to do a cruel thing,” I said.

“Ah — what a little way you others see into life!” he murmured. “Sit down a moment — here, where we can look at her — and I’ll tell you.”

He threw himself on the ottoman beside me and sat gazing up at the picture, with his hands clasped about his knee.

“Pygmalion,” he began slowly, “turned his statue into a real woman; I turned my real woman into a picture. Small compensation, you think — but you don’t know how much of a woman belongs to you after you’ve painted her! — Well, I made the best of it, at any rate — I gave her the best I had in me; and she gave me in return what such a woman gives by merely being. And after all she rewarded me enough by making me paint as I shall never paint again! There was one side of her, though, that was mine alone, and that was her beauty; for no one else understood it. To Grancy even it was the mere expression of herself — what language is to thought. Even when he saw the picture he didn’t guess my secret — he was so sure she was all his! As though a man should think he owned the moon because it was reflected in the pool at his door —

“Well — when he came home and sent for me to change the picture it was like asking me to commit murder. He wanted me to make an old woman of her — of her who had been so divinely, unchangeably young! As if any man who really loved a woman would ask her to sacrifice her youth and beauty for his sake! At first I told him I couldn’t do it — but afterward, when he left me alone with the picture, something queer happened. I suppose it was because I was always so confoundedly fond of Grancy that it went against me to refuse what he asked. Anyhow, as I sat looking up at her, she seemed to say, ‘I’m not yours but his, and I want you to make me what he wishes.” And so I did it. I could have cut my hand off when the work was done — I daresay he told you I never would go back and look at it. He thought I was too busy — he never understood. . . .

“Well — and then last year he sent for me again — you remember. It was after his illness, and he told me he’d grown twenty years older and that he wanted her to grow older too — he didn’t want her to be left behind. The doctors all thought he was going to get well at that time, and he thought so too; and so did I when I first looked at him. But when I turned to the picture — ah, now I don’t ask you to believe me; but I swear it was her face that told me he was dying, and that she wanted him to know it! She had a message for him and she made me deliver it.”

He rose abruptly and walked toward the portrait; then he sat down beside me again.

“Cruel? Yes, it seemed so to me at first; and this time, if I resisted, it was for his sake and not for mine. But all the while I felt her eyes drawing me, and gradually she made me understand. If she’d been there in the flesh (she seemed to say) wouldn’t she have seen before any of us that he was dying? Wouldn’t he have read the news first in her face? And wouldn’t it be horrible if now he should discover it instead in strange eyes? — Well — that was what she wanted of me and I did it — I kept them together to the last!” He looked up at the picture again. “But now she belongs to me,” he repeated. . . .

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/crucial_instances/chapter6.html

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