The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XXXVI

He stood at the corner of Wall Street, looking up and down its hot summer perspective. He noticed the swirls of dust in the cracks of the pavement, the rubbish in the gutters, the ceaseless stream of perspiring faces that poured by under tilted hats.

He found himself, next, slipping northward between the glazed walls of the Subway, another languid crowd in the seats about him and the nasal yelp of the stations ringing through the car like some repeated ritual wail. The blindness within him seemed to have intensified his physical perceptions, his sensitiveness to the heat, the noise, the smells of the dishevelled midsummer city; but combined with the acuter perception of these offenses was a complete indifference to them, as though he were some vivisected animal deprived of the power of discrimination.

Now he had turned into Waverly Place, and was walking westward toward Washington Square. At the corner he pulled himself up, saying half-aloud: “The office — I ought to be at the office.” He drew out his watch and stared at it blankly. What the devil had he taken it out for? He had to go through a laborious process of readjustment to find out what it had to say. . . . Twelve o’clock. . . . Should he turn back to the office? It seemed easier to cross the square, go up the steps of the old house and slip his key into the door. . . .

The house was empty. His mother, a few days previously, had departed with Mr. Dagonet for their usual two months on the Maine coast, where Ralph was to join them with his boy. . . . The blinds were all drawn down, and the freshness and silence of the marble-paved hall laid soothing hands on him. . . . He said to himself: “I’ll jump into a cab presently, and go and lunch at the club — ” He laid down his hat and stick and climbed the carpetless stairs to his room. When he entered it he had the shock of feeling himself in a strange place: it did not seem like anything he had ever seen before. Then, one by one, all the old stale usual things in it confronted him, and he longed with a sick intensity to be in a place that was really strange.

“How on earth can I go on living here?” he wondered.

A careless servant had left the outer shutters open, and the sun was beating on the window-panes. Ralph pushed open the windows, shut the shutters, and wandered toward his arm-chair. Beads of perspiration stood on his forehead: the temperature of the room reminded him of the heat under the ilexes of the Sienese villa where he and Undine had sat through a long July afternoon. He saw her before him, leaning against the tree-trunk in her white dress, limpid and inscrutable. . . . “We were made one at Opake, Nebraska. . . . ” Had she been thinking of it that afternoon at Siena, he wondered? Did she ever think of it at all? . . . It was she who had asked Moffatt to dine. She had said: “Father brought him home one day at Apex. . . . I don’t remember ever having seen him since” — and the man she spoke of had had her in his arms . . . and perhaps it was really all she remembered!

She had lied to him — lied to him from the first . . . there hadn’t been a moment when she hadn’t lied to him, deliberately, ingeniously and inventively. As he thought of it, there came to him, for the first time in months, that overwhelming sense of her physical nearness which had once so haunted and tortured him. Her freshness, her fragrance, the luminous haze of her youth, filled the room with a mocking glory; and he dropped his head on his hands to shut it out. . . .

The vision was swept away by another wave of hurrying thoughts. He felt it was intensely important that he should keep the thread of every one of them, that they all represented things to be said or done, or guarded against; and his mind, with the unwondering versatility and tireless haste of the dreamer’s brain, seemed to be pursuing them all simultaneously. Then they became as unreal and meaningless as the red specks dancing behind the lids against which he had pressed his fists clenched, and he had the feeling that if he opened his eyes they would vanish, and the familiar daylight look in on him. . . .

A knock disturbed him. The old parlour-maid who was always left in charge of the house had come up to ask if he wasn’t well, and if there was anything she could do for him. He told her no . . . he was perfectly well . . . or, rather, no, he wasn’t . . . he supposed it must be the heat; and he began to scold her for having forgotten to close the shutters.

It wasn’t her fault, it appeared, but Eliza’s: her tone implied that he knew what one had to expect of Eliza . . . and wouldn’t he go down to the nice cool shady dining-room, and let her make him an iced drink and a few sandwiches?

“I’ve always told Mrs. Marvell I couldn’t turn my back for a second but what Eliza’d find a way to make trouble,” the old woman continued, evidently glad of the chance to air a perennial grievance. “It’s not only the things she FORGETS to do,” she added significantly; and it dawned on Ralph that she was making an appeal to him, expecting him to take sides with her in the chronic conflict between herself and Eliza. He said to himself that perhaps she was right . . . that perhaps there was something he ought to do . . . that his mother was old, and didn’t always see things; and for a while his mind revolved this problem with feverish intensity. . . .

“Then you’ll come down, sir?”

“Yes.”

The door closed, and he heard her heavy heels along the passage.

“But the money — where’s the money to come from?” The question sprang out from some denser fold of the fog in his brain. The money — how on earth was he to pay it back? How could he have wasted his time in thinking of anything else while that central difficulty existed?

“But I can’t . . . I can’t . . . it’s gone . . . and even if it weren’t. . . . ” He dropped back in his chair and took his head between his hands. He had forgotten what he wanted the money for. He made a great effort to regain hold of the idea, but all the whirring, shuttling, flying had abruptly ceased in his brain, and he sat with his eyes shut, staring straight into darkness. . . . The clock struck, and he remembered that he had said he would go down to the dining-room. “If I don’t she’ll come up — ” He raised his head and sat listening for the sound of the old woman’s step: it seemed to him perfectly intolerable that any one should cross the threshold of the room again.

“Why can’t they leave me alone?” he groaned. . . . At length through the silence of the empty house, he fancied he heard a door opening and closing far below; and he said to himself: “She’s coming.”

He got to his feet and went to the door. He didn’t feel anything now except the insane dread of hearing the woman’s steps come nearer. He bolted the door and stood looking about the room. For a moment he was conscious of seeing it in every detail with a distinctness he had never before known; then everything in it vanished but the single narrow panel of a drawer under one of the bookcases. He went up to the drawer, knelt down and slipped his hand into it.

As he raised himself he listened again, and this time he distinctly heard the old servant’s steps on the stairs. He passed his left hand over the side of his head, and down the curve of the skull behind the ear. He said to himself: “My wife . . . this will make it all right for her. . . . ” and a last flash of irony twitched through him. Then he felt again, more deliberately, for the spot he wanted, and put the muzzle of his revolver against it.

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