The Hermit and the Wild Woman and other stories, by Edith Wharton

The Pretext

I

MRS. RANSOM, when the front door had closed on her visitor, passed with a spring from the drawing-room to the narrow hall, and thence up the narrow stairs to her bedroom.

Though slender, and still light of foot, she did not always move so quickly: hitherto, in her life, there had not been much to hurry for, save the recurring domestic tasks that compel haste without fostering elasticity; but some impetus of youth revived, communicated to her by her talk with Guy Dawnish, now found expression in her girlish flight upstairs, her girlish impatience to bolt herself into her room with her throbs and her blushes.

Her blushes? Was she really blushing?

She approached the cramped eagle-topped mirror above her plain prim dressing-table: just such a meagre concession to the weakness of the flesh as every old-fashioned house in Wentworth counted among its relics. The face reflected in this unflattering surface — for even the mirrors of Wentworth erred on the side of depreciation — did not seem, at first sight, a suitable theatre for the display of the tenderer emotions, and its owner blushed more deeply as the fact was forced upon her.

Her fair hair had grown too thin — it no longer quite hid the blue veins in her candid forehead — a forehead that one seemed to see turned toward professorial desks, in large bare halls where a snowy winter light fell uncompromisingly on rows of “thoughtful women.” Her mouth was thin, too, and a little strained; her lips were too pale; and there were lines in the corners of her eyes. It was a face which had grown middle-aged while it waited for the joys of youth.

Well — but if she could still blush? Instinctively she drew back a little, so that her scrutiny became less microscopic, and the pretty lingering pink threw a veil over her pallor, the hollows in her temples, the faint wrinkles of inexperience about her lips and eyes. How a little colour helped! It made her eyes so deep and shining. She saw now why bad women rouged. . . . Her redness deepened at the thought.

But suddenly she noticed for the first time that the collar of her dress was cut too low. It showed the shrunken lines of the throat. She rummaged feverishly in a tidy scentless drawer, and snatching out a bit of black velvet, bound it about her neck. Yes — that was better. It gave her the relief she needed. Relief — contrast — that was it! She had never had any, either in her appearance or in her setting. She was as flat as the pattern of the wall-paper — and so was her life. And all the people about her had the same look. Wentworth was the kind of place where husbands and wives gradually grew to resemble each other — one or two of her friends, she remembered, had told her lately that she and Ransom were beginning to look alike. . . .

But why had she always, so tamely, allowed her aspect to conform to her situation? Perhaps a gayer exterior would have provoked a brighter fate. Even now — she turned back to the glass, loosened the tight strands of hair above her brow, ran the fine end of the comb under them with a rapid frizzing motion, and then disposed them, more lightly and amply, above her eager face. Yes — it was really better; it made a difference. She smiled at herself with a timid coquetry, and her lips seemed rosier as she smiled. Then she laid down the comb and the smile faded. It made a difference, certainly — but was it right to try to make one’s hair look thicker and wavier than it really was? Between that and rouging the ethical line seemed almost impalpable, and the spectre of her rigid New England ancestry rose reprovingly before her. She was sure that none of her grandmothers had ever simulated a curl or encouraged a blush. A blush, indeed! What had any of them ever had to blush for in all their frozen lives? And what, in Heaven’s name, had she? She sat down in the stiff mahogany rocking-chair beside her work-table and tried to collect herself. From childhood she had been taught to “collect herself” — but never before had her small sensations and aspirations been so widely scattered, diffused over so vague and uncharted an expanse. Hitherto they had lain in neatly sorted and easily accessible bundles on the high shelves of a perfectly ordered moral consciousness. And now — now that for the first time they needed collecting — now that the little winged and scattered bits of self were dancing madly down the vagrant winds of fancy, she knew no spell to call them to the fold again. The best way, no doubt — if only her bewilderment permitted — was to go back to the beginning — the beginning, at least, of to-day’s visit — to recapitulate, word for word and look for look. . . .

She clasped her hands on the arms of the chair, checked its swaying with a firm thrust of her foot, and fixed her eyes upon the inward vision. . . .

To begin with, what had made to-day’s visit so different from the others? It became suddenly vivid to her that there had been many, almost daily, others, since Guy Dawnish’s coming to Wentworth. Even the previous winter — the winter of his arrival from England — his visits had been numerous enough to make Wentworth aware that — very naturally — Mrs. Ransom was “looking after” the stray young Englishman committed to her husband’s care by an eminent Q. C. whom the Ransoms had known on one of their brief London visits, and with whom Ransom had since maintained professional relations. All this was in the natural order of things, as sanctioned by the social code of Wentworth. Every one was kind to Guy Dawnish — some rather importunately so, as Margaret Ransom had smiled to observe — but it was recognized as fitting that she should be kindest, since he was in a sense her property, since his people in England, by profusely acknowledging her kindness, had given it the domestic sanction without which, to Wentworth, any social relation between the sexes remained unhallowed and to be viewed askance. Yes! And even this second winter, when the visits had become so much more frequent, so admitted a part of the day’s routine, there had not been, from any one, a hint of surprise or of conjecture. . . .

Mrs. Ransom smiled with a faint bitterness. She was protected by her age, no doubt — her age and her past, and the image her mirror gave back to her. . . .

Her door-handle turned suddenly, and the bolt’s resistance was met by an impatient knock.

“Margaret!”

She started up, her brightness fading, and unbolted the door to admit her husband.

“Why are you locked in? Why, you’re not dressed yet!” he exclaimed.

It was possible for Ransom to reach his dressing-room by a slight circuit through the passage; but it was characteristic of the relentless domesticity of their relation that he chose, as a matter of course, the directer way through his wife’s bedroom. She had never before been disturbed by this practice, which she accepted as inevitable, but had merely adapted her own habits to it, delaying her hasty toilet till he was safely in his room, or completing it before she heard his step on the stair; since a scrupulous traditional prudery had miraculously survived this massacre of all the privacies.

“Oh, I shan’t dress this evening — I shall just have some tea in the library after you’ve gone,” she answered absently. “Your things are laid out,” she added, rousing herself.

He looked surprised. “The dinner’s at seven. I suppose the speeches will begin at nine. I thought you were coming to hear them.”

She wavered. “I don’t know. I think not. Mrs. Sperry’s ill, and I’ve no one else to go with.”

He glanced at his watch. “Why not get hold of Dawnish? Wasn’t he here just now? Why didn’t you ask him?”

She turned toward her dressing-table, and straightened the comb and brush with a nervous hand. Her husband had given her, that morning, two tickets for the ladies’ gallery in Hamblin Hall, where the great public dinner of the evening was to take place — a banquet offered by the faculty of Wentworth to visitors of academic eminence — and she had meant to ask Dawnish to go with her: it had seemed the most natural thing to do, till the end of his visit came, and then, after all, she had not spoken. . . .

“It’s too late now,” she murmured, bending over her pin cushion.

“Too late? Not if you telephone him.”

Her husband came toward her, and she turned quickly to face him, lest he should suspect her of trying to avoid his eye. To what duplicity was she already committed!

Ransom laid a friendly hand on her arm: “Come along, Margaret. You know I speak for the bar.” She was aware, in his voice, of a little note of surprise at his having to remind her of this.

“Oh, yes. I meant to go, of course — ”

“Well, then — ” He opened his dressing-room door, and caught a glimpse of the retreating house-maid’s skirt. “Here’s Maria now. Maria! Call up Mr. Dawnish — at Mrs. Creswell’s, you know. Tell him Mrs. Ransom wants him to go with her to hear the speeches this evening — the speeches, you understand? — and he’s to call for her at a quarter before nine.”

Margaret heard the Irish “Yessir” on the stairs, and stood motionless, while her husband added loudly: “And bring me some towels when you come up.” Then he turned back into his wife’s room.

“Why, it would be a thousand pities for Guy to miss this. He’s so interested in the way we do things over here — and I don’t know that he’s ever heard me speak in public.” Again the slight note of fatuity! Was it possible that Ransom was a fatuous man?

He paused in front of her, his short-sighted unobservant glance concentrating itself unexpectedly on her face.

“You’re not going like that, are you?” he asked, with glaring eye-glasses.

“Like what?” she faltered, lifting a conscious hand to the velvet at her throat.

“With your hair in such a fearful mess. Have you been shampooing it? You look like the Brant girl at the end of a tennis-match.”

The Brant girl was their horror — the horror of all right-thinking Wentworth; a laced, whale-boned, frizzle-headed, high-heeled daughter of iniquity, who came — from New York, of course — on long, disturbing, tumultuous visits to a Wentworth aunt, working havoc among the freshmen, and leaving, when she departed, an angry wake of criticism that ruffled the social waters for weeks. She, too, had tried her hand at Guy — with ludicrous unsuccess. And now, to be compared to her — to be accused of looking “New Yorky!” Ah, there are times when husbands are obtuse; and Ransom, as he stood there, thick and yet juiceless, in his dry legal middle age, with his wiry dust-coloured beard, and his perpetual pince-nez, seemed to his wife a sudden embodiment of this traditional attribute. Not that she had ever fancied herself, poor soul, a “femme incomprise.” She had, on the contrary, prided herself on being understood by her husband, almost as much as on her own complete comprehension of him. Wentworth laid a good deal of stress on “motives”; and Margaret Ransom and her husband had dwelt in a complete community of motive. It had been the proudest day of her life when, without consulting her, he had refused an offer of partnership in an eminent New York firm because he preferred the distinction of practising in Wentworth, of being known as the legal representative of the University. Wentworth, in fact, had always been the bond between the two; they were united in their veneration for that estimable seat of learning, and in their modest yet vivid consciousness of possessing its tone. The Wentworth “tone” is unmistakable: it permeates every part of the social economy, from the coiffure of the ladies to the preparation of the food. It has its sumptuary laws as well as its curriculum of learning. It sits in judgment not only on its own townsmen but on the rest of the world — enlightening, criticising, ostracizing a heedless universe — and non-conformity to Wentworth standards involves obliteration from Wentworth’s consciousness.

In a world without traditions, without reverence, without stability, such little expiring centres of prejudice and precedent make an irresistible appeal to those instincts for which a democracy has neglected to provide. Wentworth, with its “tone,” its backward references, its inflexible aversions and condemnations, its hard moral outline preserved intact against a whirling background of experiment, had been all the poetry and history of Margaret Ransom’s life. Yes, what she had really esteemed in her husband was the fact of his being so intense an embodiment of Wentworth; so long and closely identified, for instance, with its legal affairs, that he was almost a part of its university existence, that of course, at a college banquet, he would inevitably speak for the bar!

It was wonderful of how much consequence all this had seemed till now. . . .

II

WHEN, punctually at ten minutes to seven, her husband had emerged from the house, Margaret Ransom remained seated in her bedroom, addressing herself anew to the difficult process of self-collection. As an aid to this endeavour, she bent forward and looked out of the window, following Ransom’s figure as it receded down the elm-shaded street. He moved almost alone between the prim flowerless grass-plots, the white porches, the protrusion of irrelevant shingled gables, which stamped the empty street as part of an American college town. She had always been proud of living in Hill Street, where the university people congregated, proud to associate her husband’s retreating back, as he walked daily to his office, with backs literary and pedagogic, backs of which it was whispered, for the edification of duly-impressed visitors: “Wait till that old boy turns — that’s so-and-so.”

This had been her world, a world destitute of personal experience, but filled with a rich sense of privilege and distinction, of being not as those millions were who, denied the inestimable advantage of living at Wentworth, pursued elsewhere careers foredoomed to futility by that very fact.

And now —!

She rose and turned to her work-table where she had dropped, on entering, the handful of photographs that Guy Dawnish had left with her. While he sat so close, pointing out and explaining, she had hardly taken in the details; but now, on the full tones of his low young voice, they came back with redoubled distinctness. This was Guise Abbey, his uncle’s place in Wiltshire, where, under his grandfather’s rule, Guy’s own boyhood had been spent: a long gabled Jacobean facade, many-chimneyed, ivy-draped, overhung (she felt sure) by the boughs of a venerable rookery. And in this other picture — the walled garden at Guise — that was his uncle, Lord Askern, a hale gouty-looking figure, planted robustly on the terrace, a gun on his shoulder and a couple of setters at his feet. And here was the river below the park, with Guy “punting” a girl in a flapping hat — how Margaret hated the flap that hid the girl’s face! And here was the tennis-court, with Guy among a jolly cross-legged group of youths in flannels, and pretty girls about the tea-table under the big lime: in the centre the curate handing bread and butter, and in the middle distance a footman approaching with more cups.

Margaret raised this picture closer to her eyes, puzzling, in the diminished light, over the face of the girl nearest to Guy Dawnish — bent above him in profile, while he laughingly lifted his head. No hat hid this profile, which stood out clearly against the foliage behind it.

“And who is that handsome girl?” Margaret had said, detaining the photograph as he pushed it aside, and struck by the fact that, of the whole group, he had left only this member unnamed.

“Oh, only Gwendolen Matcher — I’ve always known her — . Look at this: the almshouses at Guise. Aren’t they jolly?”

And then — without her having had the courage to ask if the girl in the punt were also Gwendolen Matcher — they passed on to photographs of his rooms at Oxford, of a cousin’s studio in London — one of Lord Askern’s grandsons was “artistic” — of the rose-hung cottage in Wales to which, on the old Earl’s death, his daughter-in-law, Guy’s mother, had retired.

Every one of the photographs opened a window on the life Margaret had been trying to picture since she had known him — a life so rich, so romantic, so packed — in the mere casual vocabulary of daily life — with historic reference and poetic allusion, that she felt almost oppressed by this distant whiff of its air. The very words he used fascinated and bewildered her. He seemed to have been born into all sorts of connections, political, historical, official, that made the Ransom situation at Wentworth as featureless as the top shelf of a dark closet. Some one in the family had “asked for the Chiltern Hundreds” — one uncle was an Elder Brother of the Trinity House — some one else was the Master of a College — some one was in command at Devonport — the Army, the Navy, the House of Commons, the House of Lords, the most venerable seats of learning, were all woven into the dense background of this young man’s light unconscious talk. For the unconsciousness was unmistakable. Margaret was not without experience of the transatlantic visitor who sounds loud names and evokes reverberating connections. The poetry of Guy Dawnish’s situation lay in the fact that it was so completely a part of early associations and accepted facts. Life was like that in England — in Wentworth of course (where he had been sent, through his uncle’s influence, for two years’ training in the neighbouring electrical works at Smedden) — in Wentworth, though “immensely jolly,” it was different. The fact that he was qualifying to be an electrical engineer — with the hope of a secretaryship at the London end of the great Smedden Company — that, at best, he was returning home to a life of industrial “grind,” this fact, though avowedly a bore, did not disconnect him from that brilliant pinnacled past, that many-faceted life in which the brightest episodes of the whole body of English fiction seemed collectively reflected. Of course he would have to work — younger sons’ sons almost always had to — but his uncle Askern (like Wentworth) was “immensely jolly,” and Guise always open to him, and his other uncle, the Master, a capital old boy too — and in town he could always put up with his clever aunt, Lady Caroline Duckett, who had made a “beastly marriage” and was horribly poor, but who knew everybody jolly and amusing, and had always been particularly kind to him.

It was not — and Margaret had not, even in her own thoughts, to defend herself from the imputation — it was not what Wentworth would have called the “material side” of her friend’s situation that captivated her. She was austerely proof against such appeals: her enthusiasms were all of the imaginative order. What subjugated her was the unexampled prodigality with which he poured for her the same draught of tradition of which Wentworth held out its little teacupful. He besieged her with a million Wentworths in one — saying, as it were: “All these are mine for the asking — and I choose you instead!”

For this, she told herself somewhat dizzily, was what it came to — the summing-up toward which her conscientious efforts at self-collection had been gradually pushing her: with all this in reach, Guy Dawnish was leaving Wentworth reluctantly.

“I was a bit lonely here at first — but now!” And again: “It will be jolly, of course, to see them all again — but there are some things one doesn’t easily give up. . . . ”

If he had known only Wentworth, it would have been wonderful enough that he should have chosen her out of all Wentworth — but to have known that other life, and to set her in the balance against it — poor Margaret Ransom, in whom, at the moment, nothing seemed of weight but her years! Ah, it might well produce, in nerves and brain, and poor unpractised pulses, a flushed tumult of sensation, the rush of a great wave of life, under which memory struggled in vain to reassert itself, to particularize again just what his last words — the very last — had been. . . .

When consciousness emerged, quivering, from this retrospective assault, it pushed Margaret Ransom — feeling herself a mere leaf in the blast — toward the writing-table from which her innocent and voluminous correspondence habitually flowed. She had a letter to write now — much shorter but more difficult than any she had ever been called on to indite.

“Dear Mr. Dawnish,” she began, “since telephoning you just now I have decided not — ”

Maria’s voice, at the door, announced that tea was in the library: “And I s’pose it’s the brown silk you’ll wear to the speaking?”

In the usual order of the Ransom existence, its mistress’s toilet was performed unassisted; and the mere enquiry — at once friendly and deferential — projected, for Margaret, a strong light on the importance of the occasion. That she should answer: “But I am not going,” when the going was so manifestly part of a household solemnity about which the thoughts below stairs fluttered in proud participation; that in face of such participation she should utter a word implying indifference or hesitation — nay, revealing herself the transposed, uprooted thing she had been on the verge of becoming; to do this was — well! infinitely harder than to perform the alternative act of tearing up the sheet of note-paper under her reluctant pen.

Yes, she said, she would wear the brown silk. . . .

III

ALL the heat and glare from the long illuminated table, about which the fumes of many courses still hung in a savoury fog, seemed to surge up to the ladies’ gallery, and concentrate themselves in the burning cheeks of a slender figure withdrawn behind the projection of a pillar.

It never occurred to Margaret Ransom that she was sitting in the shade. She supposed that the full light of the chandeliers was beating on her face — and there were moments when it seemed as though all the heads about the great horse-shoe below, bald, shaggy, sleek, close-thatched, or thinly latticed, were equipped with an additional pair of eyes, set at an angle which enabled them to rake her face as relentlessly as the electric burners.

In the lull after a speech, the gallery was fluttering with the rustle of programmes consulted, and Mrs. Sheff (the Brant girl’s aunt) leaned forward to say enthusiastically: “And now we’re to hear Mr. Ransom!”

A louder buzz rose from the table, and the heads (without relaxing their upward vigilance) seemed to merge, and flow together, like an attentive flood, toward the upper end of the horse-shoe, where all the threads of Margaret Ransom’s consciousness were suddenly drawn into what seemed a small speck, no more — a black speck that rose, hung in air, dissolved into gyrating gestures, became distended, enormous, preponderant — became her husband “speaking.”

“It’s the heat — ” Margaret gasped, pressing her handkerchief to her whitening lips, and finding just strength enough left to push back farther into the shadow.

She felt a touch on her arm. “It is horrible — shall we go?” a voice suggested; and, “Yes, yes, let us go,” she whispered, feeling, with a great throb of relief, that to be the only possible, the only conceivable, solution. To sit and listen to her husband now — how could she ever have thought she could survive it? Luckily, under the lingering hubbub from below, his opening words were inaudible, and she had only to run the gauntlet of sympathetic feminine glances, shot after her between waving fans and programmes, as, guided by Guy Dawnish, she managed to reach the door. It was really so hot that even Mrs. Sheff was not much surprised — till long afterward. . . .

The winding staircase was empty, half dark and blessedly silent. In a committee room below Dawnish found the inevitable water jug, and filled a glass for her, while she leaned back, confronted only by a frowning college President in an emblazoned frame. The academic frown descended on her like an anathema when she rose and followed her companion out of the building.

Hamblin Hall stands at the end of the long green “Campus” with its sextuple line of elms — the boast and the singularity of Wentworth. A pale spring moon, rising above the dome of the University library at the opposite end of the elm-walk, diffused a pearly mildness in the sky, melted to thin haze the shadows of the trees, and turned to golden yellow the lights of the college windows. Against this soft suffusion of light the Library cupola assumed a Bramantesque grace, the white steeple of the congregational church became a campanile topped by a winged spirit, and the scant porticoes of the older halls the colonnades of classic temples.

“This is better — ” Dawnish said, as they passed down the steps and under the shadow of the elms.

They moved on a little way in silence before he began again: “You’re too tired to walk. Let us sit down a few minutes.”

Her feet, in truth, were leaden, and not far off a group of park benches, encircling the pedestal of a patriot in bronze, invited them to rest. But Dawnish was guiding her toward a lateral path which bent, through shrubberies, toward a strip of turf between two of the buildings.

“It will be cooler by the river,” he said, moving on without waiting for a possible protest. None came: it seemed easier, for the moment, to let herself be led without any conventional feint of resistance. And besides, there was nothing wrong about this — the wrong would have been in sitting up there in the glare, pretending to listen to her husband, a dutiful wife among her kind. . . .

The path descended, as both knew, to the chosen, the inimitable spot of Wentworth: that fugitive curve of the river, where, before hurrying on to glut the brutal industries of South Wentworth and Smedden, it simulated for a few hundred yards the leisurely pace of an ancient university stream, with willows on its banks and a stretch of turf extending from the grounds of Hamblin Hall to the boat houses at the farther bend. Here too were benches, beneath the willows, and so close to the river that the voice of its gliding softened and filled out the reverberating silence between Margaret and her companion, and made her feel that she knew why he had brought her there.

“Do you feel better?” he asked gently as he sat down beside her.

“Oh, yes. I only needed a little air.”

“I’m so glad you did. Of course the speeches were tremendously interesting — but I prefer this. What a good night!”

“Yes.”

There was a pause, which now, after all, the soothing accompaniment of the river seemed hardly sufficient to fill.

“I wonder what time it is. I ought to be going home,” Margaret began at length.

“Oh, it’s not late. They’ll be at it for hours in there — yet.”

She made a faint inarticulate sound. She wanted to say: “No — Robert’s speech was to be the last — ” but she could not bring herself to pronounce Ransom’s name, and at the moment no other way of refuting her companion’s statement occurred to her.

The young man leaned back luxuriously, reassured by her silence.

“You see it’s my last chance — and I want to make the most of it.”

“Your last chance?” How stupid of her to repeat his words on that cooing note of interrogation! It was just such a lead as the Brant girl might have given him.

“To be with you — like this. I haven’t had so many. And there’s less than a week left.”

She attempted to laugh. “Perhaps it will sound longer if you call it five days.”

The flatness of that, again! And she knew there were people who called her intelligent. Fortunately he did not seem to notice it; but her laugh continued to sound in her own ears — the coquettish chirp of middle age! She decided that if he spoke again — if he said anything — she would make no farther effort at evasion: she would take it directly, seriously, frankly — she would not be doubly disloyal.

“Besides,” he continued, throwing his arm along the back of the bench, and turning toward her so that his face was like a dusky bas-relief with a silver rim — “besides, there’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you.”

The sound of the river seemed to cease altogether: the whole world became silent.

Margaret had trusted her inspiration farther than it appeared likely to carry her. Again she could think of nothing happier than to repeat, on the same witless note of interrogation: “To tell me?”

“You only.”

The constraint, the difficulty, seemed to be on his side now: she divined it by the renewed shifting of his attitude — he was capable, usually, of such fine intervals of immobility — and by a confusion in his utterance that set her own voice throbbing in her throat.

“You’ve been so perfect to me,” he began again. “It’s not my fault if you’ve made me feel that you would understand everything — make allowances for everything — see just how a man may have held out, and fought against a thing — as long as he had the strength. . . . This may be my only chance; and I can’t go away without telling you.”

He had turned from her now, and was staring at the river, so that his profile was projected against the moonlight in all its beautiful young dejection.

There was a slight pause, as though he waited for her to speak; then she leaned forward and laid her hand on his.

“If I have really been — if I have done for you even the least part of what you say . . . what you imagine . . . will you do for me, now, just one thing in return?”

He sat motionless, as if fearing to frighten away the shy touch on his hand, and she left it there, conscious of her gesture only as part of the high ritual of their farewell.

“What do you want me to do?” he asked in a low tone.

Not to tell me!” she breathed on a deep note of entreaty.

Not to tell you —?”

“Anything — anything — just to leave our . . . our friendship . . . as it has been — as — as a painter, if a friend asked him, might leave a picture — not quite finished, perhaps . . . but all the more exquisite. . . . ”

She felt the hand under hers slip away, recover itself, and seek her own, which had flashed out of reach in the same instant — felt the start that swept him round on her as if he had been caught and turned about by the shoulders.

“You — you —?” he stammered, in a strange voice full of fear and tenderness; but she held fast, so centred in her inexorable resolve that she was hardly conscious of the effect her words might be producing.

“Don’t you see,” she hurried on, “don’t you feel how much safer it is — yes, I’m willing to put it so! — how much safer to leave everything undisturbed . . . just as . . . as it has grown of itself . . . without trying to say: ‘It’s this or that’ . . .? It’s what we each choose to call it to ourselves, after all, isn’t it? Don’t let us try to find a name that . . . that we should both agree upon . . . we probably shouldn’t succeed.” She laughed abruptly. “And ghosts vanish when one names them!” she ended with a break in her voice.

When she ceased her heart was beating so violently that there was a rush in her ears like the noise of the river after rain, and she did not immediately make out what he was answering. But as she recovered her lucidity she said to herself that, whatever he was saying, she must not hear it; and she began to speak again, half playfully, half appealingly, with an eloquence of entreaty, an ingenuity in argument, of which she had never dreamed herself capable. And then, suddenly, strangling hands seemed to reach up from her heart to her throat, and she had to stop.

Her companion remained motionless. He had not tried to regain her hand, and his eyes were away from her, on the river. But his nearness had become something formidable and exquisite — something she had never before imagined. A flush of guilt swept over her — vague reminiscences of French novels and of opera plots. This was what such women felt, then . . . this was “shame.” . . . Phrases of the newspaper and the pulpit danced before her. . . . She dared not speak, and his silence began to frighten her. Had ever a heart beat so wildly before in Wentworth?

He turned at last, and taking her two hands, quite simply, kissed them one after the other.

“I shall never forget — ” he said in a confused voice, unlike his own.

A return of strength enabled her to rise, and even to let her eyes meet his for a moment.

“Thank you,” she said, simply also.

She turned away from the bench, regaining the path that led back to the college buildings, and he walked beside her in silence. When they reached the elm walk it was dotted with dispersing groups. The “speaking” was over, and Hamblin Hall had poured its audience out into the moonlight. Margaret felt a rush of relief, followed by a receding wave of regret. She had the distinct sensation that her hour — her one hour — was over.

One of the groups just ahead broke up as they approached, and projected Ransom’s solid bulk against the moonlight.

“My husband,” she said, hastening forward; and she never afterward forgot the look of his back — heavy, round-shouldered, yet a little pompous — in a badly fitting overcoat that stood out at the neck and hid his collar. She had never before noticed how he dressed.

IV

THEY met again, inevitably, before Dawnish left; but the thing she feared did not happen — he did not try to see her alone.

It even became clear to her, in looking back, that he had deliberately avoided doing so; and this seemed merely an added proof of his “understanding,” of that deep undefinable communion that set them alone in an empty world, as if on a peak above the clouds.

The five days passed in a flash; and when the last one came, it brought to Margaret Ransom an hour of weakness, of profound disorganization, when old barriers fell, old convictions faded — when to be alone with him for a moment became, after all, the one craving of her heart. She knew he was coming that afternoon to say “good-by” — and she knew also that Ransom was to be away at South Wentworth. She waited alone in her pale little drawing-room, with its scant kakemonos, its one or two chilly reproductions from the antique, its slippery Chippendale chairs. At length the bell rang, and her world became a rosy blur — through which she presently discerned the austere form of Mrs. Sperry, wife of the Professor of palaeontology, who had come to talk over with her the next winter’s programme for the Higher Thought Club. They debated the question for an hour, and when Mrs. Sperry departed Margaret had a confused impression that the course was to deal with the influence of the First Crusade on the development of European architecture — but the sentient part of her knew only that Dawnish had not come.

He “bobbed in,” as he would have put it, after dinner — having, it appeared, run across Ransom early in the day, and learned that the latter would be absent till evening. Margaret was in the study with her husband when the door opened and Dawnish stood there. Ransom — who had not had time to dress — was seated at his desk, a pile of shabby law books at his elbow, the light from a hanging lamp falling on his grayish stubble of hair, his sallow forehead and spectacled eyes. Dawnish, towering higher than usual against the shadows of the room, and refined by his unusual pallor, hung a moment on the threshold, then came in, explaining himself profusely — laughing, accepting a cigar, letting Ransom push an arm-chair forward — a Dawnish she had never seen, ill at ease, ejaculatory, yet somehow more mature, more obscurely in command of himself.

Margaret drew back, seating herself in the shade, in such a way that she saw her husband’s head first, and beyond it their visitor’s, relieved against the dusk of the book shelves. Her heart was still — she felt no throbbing in her throat or temples: all her life seemed concentrated in the hand that lay on her knee, the hand he would touch when they said good-by.

Afterward her heart rang all the changes, and there was a mood in which she reproached herself for cowardice — for having deliberately missed her one moment with him, the moment in which she might have sounded the depths of life, for joy or anguish. But that mood was fleeting and infrequent. In quieter hours she blushed for it — she even trembled to think that he might have guessed such a regret in her. It seemed to convict her of a lack of fineness that he should have had, in his youth and his power, a tenderer, surer sense of the peril of a rash touch — should have handled the case so much more delicately.

At first her days were fire and the nights long solemn vigils. Her thoughts were no longer vulgarized and defaced by any notion of “guilt,” of mental disloyalty. She was ashamed now of her shame. What had happened was as much outside the sphere of her marriage as some transaction in a star. It had simply given her a secret life of incommunicable joys, as if all the wasted springs of her youth had been stored in some hidden pool, and she could return there now to bathe in them.

After that there came a phase of loneliness, through which the life about her loomed phantasmal and remote. She thought the dead must feel thus, repeating the vain gestures of the living beside some Stygian shore. She wondered if any other woman had lived to whom nothing had ever happened? And then his first letter came. . . .

It was a charming letter — a perfect letter. The little touch of awkwardness and constraint under its boyish spontaneity told her more than whole pages of eloquence. He spoke of their friendship — of their good days together. . . . Ransom, chancing to come in while she read, noticed the foreign stamps; and she was able to hand him the letter, saying gaily: “There’s a message for you,” and knowing all the while that her message was safe in her heart.

On the days when the letters came the outlines of things grew indistinct, and she could never afterward remember what she had done or how the business of life had been carried on. It was always a surprise when she found dinner on the table as usual, and Ransom seated opposite to her, running over the evening paper.

But though Dawnish continued to write, with all the English loyalty to the outward observances of friendship, his communications came only at intervals of several weeks, and between them she had time to repossess herself, to regain some sort of normal contact with life. And the customary, the recurring, gradually reclaimed her, the net of habit tightened again — her daily life became real, and her one momentary escape from it an exquisite illusion. Not that she ceased to believe in the miracle that had befallen her: she still treasured the reality of her one moment beside the river. What reason was there for doubting it? She could hear the ring of truth in young Dawnish’s voice: “It’s not my fault if you’ve made me feel that you would understand everything. . . . ” No! she believed in her miracle, and the belief sweetened and illumined her life; but she came to see that what was for her the transformation of her whole being might well have been, for her companion, a mere passing explosion of gratitude, of boyish good-fellowship touched with the pang of leave-taking. She even reached the point of telling herself that it was “better so”: this view of the episode so defended it from the alternating extremes of self-reproach and derision, so enshrined it in a pale immortality to which she could make her secret pilgrimages without reproach.

For a long time she had not been able to pass by the bench under the willows — she even avoided the elm walk till autumn had stripped its branches. But every day, now, she noted a step toward recovery; and at last a day came when, walking along the river, she said to herself, as she approached the bench: “I used not to be able to pass here without thinking of him; and now I am not thinking of him at all!

This seemed such convincing proof of her recovery that she began, as spring returned, to permit herself, now and then, a quiet session on the bench — a dedicated hour from which she went back fortified to her task.

She had not heard from her friend for six weeks or more — the intervals between his letters were growing longer. But that was “best” too, and she was not anxious, for she knew he had obtained the post he had been preparing for, and that his active life in London had begun. The thought reminded her, one mild March day, that in leaving the house she had thrust in her reticule a letter from a Wentworth friend who was abroad on a holiday. The envelope bore the London post mark, a fact showing that the lady’s face was turned toward home. Margaret seated herself on her bench, and drawing out the letter began to read it.

The London described was that of shops and museums — as remote as possible from the setting of Guy Dawnish’s existence. But suddenly Margaret’s eye fell on his name, and the page began to tremble in her hands.

“I heard such a funny thing yesterday about your friend Mr. Dawnish. We went to a tea at Professor Bunce’s (I do wish you knew the Bunces — their atmosphere is so uplifting), and there I met that Miss Bruce–Pringle who came out last year to take a course in histology at the Annex. Of course she asked about you and Mr. Ransom, and then she told me she had just seen Mr. Dawnish’s aunt — the clever one he was always talking about, Lady Caroline something — and that they were all in a dreadful state about him. I wonder if you knew he was engaged when he went to America? He never mentioned it to us. She said it was not a positive engagement, but an understanding with a girl he has always been devoted to, who lives near their place in Wiltshire; and both families expected the marriage to take place as soon as he got back. It seems the girl is an heiress (you know how low the English ideals are compared with ours), and Miss Bruce–Pringle said his relations were perfectly delighted at his ‘being provided for,’ as she called it. Well, when he got back he asked the girl to release him; and she and her family were furious, and so were his people; but he holds out, and won’t marry her, and won’t give a reason, except that he has ‘formed an unfortunate attachment.’ Did you ever hear anything so peculiar? His aunt, who is quite wild about it, says it must have happened at Wentworth, because he didn’t go anywhere else in America. Do you suppose it could have been the Brant girl? But why ‘unfortunate’ when everybody knows she would have jumped at him?”

Margaret folded the letter and looked out across the river. It was not the same river, but a mystic current shot with moonlight. The bare willows wove a leafy veil above her head, and beside her she felt the nearness of youth and tempestuous tenderness. It had all happened just here, on this very seat by the river — it had come to her, and passed her by, and she had not held out a hand to detain it. . . .

Well! Was it not, by that very abstention, made more deeply and ineffaceably hers? She could argue thus while she had thought the episode, on his side, a mere transient effect of propinquity; but now that she knew it had altered the whole course of his life, now that it took on substance and reality, asserted a separate existence outside of her own troubled consciousness — now it seemed almost cowardly to have missed her share in it.

She walked home in a dream. Now and then, when she passed an acquaintance, she wondered if the pain and glory were written on her face. But Mrs. Sperry, who stopped her at the corner of Maverick Street to say a word about the next meeting of the Higher Thought Club, seemed to remark no change in her.

When she reached home Ransom had not yet returned from the office, and she went straight to the library to tidy his writing-table. It was part of her daily duty to bring order out of the chaos of his papers, and of late she had fastened on such small recurring tasks as some one falling over a precipice might snatch at the weak bushes in its clefts.

When she had sorted the letters she took up some pamphlets and newspapers, glancing over them to see if they were to be kept. Among the papers was a page torn from a London Times of the previous month. Her eye ran down its columns and suddenly a paragraph flamed out.

“We are requested to state that the marriage arranged between Mr. Guy Dawnish, son of the late Colonel the Hon. Roderick Dawnish, of Malby, Wilts, and Gwendolen, daughter of Samuel Matcher, Esq. of Armingham Towers, Wilts, will not take place.”

Margaret dropped the paper and sat down, hiding her face against the stained baize of the desk. She remembered the photograph of the tennis-court at Guise — she remembered the handsome girl at whom Guy Dawnish looked up, laughing. A gust of tears shook her, loosening the dry surface of conventional feeling, welling up from unsuspected depths. She was sorry — very sorry, yet so glad — so ineffably, impenitently glad.

V

THERE came a reaction in which she decided to write to him. She even sketched out a letter of sisterly, almost motherly, remonstrance, in which she reminded him that he “still had all his life before him.” But she reflected that so, after all, had she; and that seemed to weaken the argument.

In the end she decided not to send the letter. He had never spoken to her of his engagement to Gwendolen Matcher, and his letters had contained no allusion to any sentimental disturbance in his life. She had only his few broken words, that night by the river, on which to build her theory of the case. But illuminated by the phrase “an unfortunate attachment” the theory towered up, distinct and immovable, like some high landmark by which travellers shape their course. She had been loved — extraordinarily loved. But he had chosen that she should know of it by his silence rather than by his speech. He had understood that only on those terms could their transcendant communion continue — that he must lose her to keep her. To break that silence would be like spilling a cup of water in a waste of sand. There would be nothing left for her thirst.

Her life, thenceforward, was bathed in a tranquil beauty. The days flowed by like a river beneath the moon — each ripple caught the brightness and passed it on. She began to take a renewed interest in her familiar round of duties. The tasks which had once seemed colourless and irksome had now a kind of sacrificial sweetness, a symbolic meaning into which she alone was initiated. She had been restless — had longed to travel; now she felt that she should never again care to leave Wentworth. But if her desire to wander had ceased, she travelled in spirit, performing invisible pilgrimages in the footsteps of her friend. She regretted that her one short visit to England had taken her so little out of London — that her acquaintance with the landscape had been formed chiefly through the windows of a railway carriage. She threw herself into the architectural studies of the Higher Thought Club, and distinguished herself, at the spring meetings, by her fluency, her competence, her inexhaustible curiosity on the subject of the growth of English Gothic. She ransacked the shelves of the college library, she borrowed photographs of the cathedrals, she pored over the folio pages of “The Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen.” She was like some banished princess who learns that she has inherited a domain in her own country, who knows that she will never see it, yet feels, wherever she walks, its soil beneath her feet.

May was half over, and the Higher Thought Club was to hold its last meeting, previous to the college festivities which, in early June, agreeably disorganized the social routine of Wentworth. The meeting was to take place in Margaret Ransom’s drawing-room, and on the day before she sat upstairs preparing for her dual duties as hostess and orator — for she had been invited to read the final paper of the course. In order to sum up with precision her conclusions on the subject of English Gothic she had been rereading an analysis of the structural features of the principal English cathedrals; and she was murmuring over to herself the phrase: “The longitudinal arches of Lincoln have an approximately elliptical form,” when there came a knock on the door, and Maria’s voice announced: “There’s a lady down in the parlour.”

Margaret’s soul dropped from the heights of the shadowy vaulting to the dead level of an afternoon call at Wentworth.

“A lady? Did she give no name?”

Maria became confused. “She only said she was a lady — ” and in reply to her mistress’s look of mild surprise: “Well, ma’am, she told me so three or four times over.”

Margaret laid her book down, leaving it open at the description of Lincoln, and slowly descended the stairs. As she did so, she repeated to herself: “The longitudinal arches are elliptical.”

On the threshold below, she had the odd impression that her bare and inanimate drawing-room was brimming with life and noise — an impression produced, as she presently perceived, by the resolute forward dash — it was almost a pounce — of the one small figure restlessly measuring its length.

The dash checked itself within a yard of Margaret, and the lady — a stranger — held back long enough to stamp on her hostess a sharp impression of sallowness, leanness, keenness, before she said, in a voice that might have been addressing an unruly committee meeting: “I am Lady Caroline Duckett — a fact I found it impossible to make clear to the young woman who let me in.”

A warm wave rushed up from Margaret’s heart to her throat and forehead. She held out both hands impulsively. “Oh, I’m so glad — I’d no idea — ”

Her voice sank under her visitor’s impartial scrutiny.

“I don’t wonder,” said the latter drily. “I suppose she didn’t mention, either, that my object in calling here was to see Mrs. Ransom?”

“Oh, yes — won’t you sit down?” Margaret pushed a chair forward. She seated herself at a little distance, brain and heart humming with a confused interchange of signals. This dark sharp woman was his aunt — the “clever aunt” who had had such a hard life, but had always managed to keep her head above water. Margaret remembered that Guy had spoken of her kindness — perhaps she would seem kinder when they had talked together a little. Meanwhile the first impression she produced was of an amplitude out of all proportion to her somewhat scant exterior. With her small flat figure, her shabby heterogeneous dress, she was as dowdy as any Professor’s wife at Wentworth; but her dowdiness (Margaret borrowed a literary analogy to define it), her dowdiness was somehow “of the centre.” Like the insignificant emissary of a great power, she was to be judged rather by her passports than her person.

While Margaret was receiving these impressions, Lady Caroline, with quick bird-like twists of her head, was gathering others from the pale void spaces of the drawing-room. Her eyes, divided by a sharp nose like a bill, seemed to be set far enough apart to see at separate angles; but suddenly she bent both of them on Margaret.

“This is Mrs. Ransom’s house?” she asked, with an emphasis on the verb that gave a distinct hint of unfulfilled expectations.

Margaret assented.

“Because your American houses, especially in the provincial towns, all look so remarkably alike, that I thought I might have been mistaken; and as my time is extremely limited — in fact I’m sailing on Wednesday — ”

She paused long enough to let Margaret say: “I had no idea you were in this country.”

Lady Caroline made no attempt to take this up. “And so much of it,” she carried on her sentence, “has been wasted in talking to people I really hadn’t the slightest desire to see, that you must excuse me if I go straight to the point.”

Margaret felt a sudden tension of the heart. “Of course,” she said while a voice within her cried: “He is dead — he has left me a message.”

There was another pause; then Lady Caroline went on, with increasing asperity: “So that — in short — if I could see Mrs. Ransom at once — ”

Margaret looked up in surprise. “I am Mrs. Ransom,” she said.

The other stared a moment, with much the same look of cautious incredulity that had marked her inspection of the drawing-room. Then light came to her.

“Oh, I beg your pardon. I should have said that I wished to see Mrs. Robert Ransom, not Mrs. Ransom. But I understood that in the States you don’t make those distinctions.” She paused a moment, and then went on, before Margaret could answer: “Perhaps, after all, it’s as well that I should see you instead, since you’re evidently one of the household — your son and his wife live with you, I suppose? Yes, on the whole, then, it’s better — I shall be able to talk so much more frankly.” She spoke as if, as a rule, circumstances prevented her giving rein to this propensity. “And frankness, of course, is the only way out of this — this extremely tiresome complication. You know, I suppose, that my nephew thinks he’s in love with your daughter-in-law?”

Margaret made a slight movement, but her visitor pressed on without heeding it. “Oh, don’t fancy, please, that I’m pretending to take a high moral ground — though his mother does, poor dear! I can perfectly imagine that in a place like this — I’ve just been driving about it for two hours — a young man of Guy’s age would have to provide himself with some sort of distraction, and he’s not the kind to go in for anything objectionable. Oh, we quite allow for that — we should allow for the whole affair, if it hadn’t so preposterously ended in his throwing over the girl he was engaged to, and upsetting an arrangement that affected a number of people besides himself. I understand that in the States it’s different — the young people have only themselves to consider. In England — in our class, I mean — a great deal may depend on a young man’s making a good match; and in Guy’s case I may say that his mother and sisters (I won’t include myself, though I might) have been simply stranded — thrown overboard — by his freak. You can understand how serious it is when I tell you that it’s that and nothing else that has brought me all the way to America. And my first idea was to go straight to your daughter-in-law, since her influence is the only thing we can count on now, and put it to her fairly, as I’m putting it to you. But, on the whole, I dare say it’s better to see you first — you might give me an idea of the line to take with her. I’m prepared to throw myself on her mercy!”

Margaret rose from her chair, outwardly rigid in proportion to her inward tremor.

“You don’t understand — ” she began.

Lady Caroline brushed the interruption aside. “Oh, but I do — completely! I cast no reflection on your daughter-in-law. Guy has made it quite clear to us that his attachment is — has, in short, not been rewarded. But don’t you see that that’s the worst part of it? There’d be much more hope of his recovering if Mrs. Robert Ransom had — had — ”

Margaret’s voice broke from her in a cry. “I am Mrs. Robert Ransom,” she said.

If Lady Caroline Duckett had hitherto given her hostess the impression of a person not easily silenced, this fact added sensibly to the effect produced by the intense stillness which now fell on her.

She sat quite motionless, her large bangled hands clasped about the meagre fur boa she had unwound from her neck on entering, her rusty black veil pushed up to the edge of a “fringe” of doubtful authenticity, her thin lips parted on a gasp that seemed to sharpen itself on the edges of her teeth. So overwhelming and helpless was her silence that Margaret began to feel a motion of pity beneath her indignation — a desire at least to facilitate the excuses which must terminate their disastrous colloquy. But when Lady Caroline found voice she did not use it to excuse herself.

“You can’t be,” she said, quite simply.

“Can’t be?” Margaret stammered, with a flushing cheek.

“I mean, it’s some mistake. Are there two Mrs. Robert Ransoms in the same town? Your family arrangements are so extremely puzzling.” She had a farther rush of enlightenment. “Oh, I see! I ought of course to have asked for Mrs. Robert Ransom ‘Junior’!”

The idea sent her to her feet with a haste which showed her impatience to make up for lost time.

“There is no other Mrs. Robert Ransom at Wentworth,” said Margaret.

“No other — no ‘Junior’? Are you sure?” Lady Caroline fell back into her seat again. “Then I simply don’t see,” she murmured helplessly.

Margaret’s blush had fixed itself on her throbbing forehead. She remained standing, while her strange visitor continued to gaze at her with a perturbation in which the consciousness of indiscretion had evidently as yet no part.

“I simply don’t see,” she repeated.

Suddenly she sprang up, and advancing to Margaret laid an inspired hand on her arm. “But, my dear woman, you can help us out all the same; you can help us to find out who it is — and you will, won’t you? Because, as it’s not you, you can’t in the least mind what I’ve been saying — ”

Margaret, freeing her arm from her visitor’s hold, drew back a step; but Lady Caroline instantly rejoined her.

“Of course, I can see that if it had been, you might have been annoyed: I dare say I put the case stupidly — but I’m so bewildered by this new development — by his using you all this time as a pretext — that I really don’t know where to turn for light on the mystery — ”

She had Margaret in her imperious grasp again, but the latter broke from her with a more resolute gesture.

“I’m afraid I have no light to give you,” she began; but once more Lady Caroline caught her up.

“Oh, but do please understand me! I condemn Guy most strongly for using your name — when we all know you’d been so amazingly kind to him! I haven’t a word to say in his defence — but of course the important thing now is: who is the woman, since you’re not?

The question rang out loudly, as if all the pale puritan corners of the room flung it back with a shudder at the speaker. In the silence that ensued Margaret felt the blood ebbing back to her heart; then she said, in a distinct and level voice: “I know nothing of the history of Mr. Dawnish.”

Lady Caroline gave a stare and a gasp. Her distracted hand groped for her boa and she began to wind it mechanically about her long neck.

“It would really be an enormous help to us — and to poor Gwendolen Matcher,” she persisted pleadingly. “And you’d be doing Guy himself a good turn.”

Margaret remained silent and motionless while her visitor drew on one of the worn gloves she had pulled off to adjust her veil. Lady Caroline gave the veil a final twitch.

“I’ve come a tremendously long way,” she said, “and, since it isn’t you, I can’t think why you won’t help me. . . . ”

When the door had closed on her visitor Margaret Ransom went slowly up the stairs to her room. As she dragged her feet from one step to another, she remembered how she had sprung up the same steep flight after that visit of Guy Dawnish’s when she had looked in the glass and seen on her face the blush of youth.

When she reached her room she bolted the door as she had done that day, and again looked at herself in the narrow mirror above her dressing-table. It was just a year since then — the elms were budding again, the willows hanging their green veil above the bench by the river. But there was no trace of youth left in her face — she saw it now as others had doubtless always seen it. If it seemed as it did to Lady Caroline Duckett, what look must it have worn to the fresh gaze of young Guy Dawnish?

A pretext — she had been a pretext. He had used her name to screen some one else — or perhaps merely to escape from a situation of which he was weary. She did not care to conjecture what his motive had been — everything connected with him had grown so remote and alien. She felt no anger — only an unspeakable sadness, a sadness which she knew would never be appeased.

She looked at herself long and steadily; she wished to clear her eyes of all illusions. Then she turned away and took her usual seat beside her work-table. From where she sat she could look down the empty elm-shaded street, up which, at this hour every day, she was sure to see her husband’s figure advancing. She would see it presently — she would see it for many years to come. She had a sudden aching sense of the length of the years that stretched before her. Strange that one who was not young should still, in all likelihood, have so long to live!

Nothing was changed in the setting of her life, perhaps nothing would ever change in it. She would certainly live and die in Wentworth. And meanwhile the days would go on as usual, bringing the usual obligations. As the word flitted through her brain she remembered that she had still to put the finishing touches to the paper she was to read the next afternoon at the meeting of the Higher Thought Club.

The book she had been reading lay face downward beside her, where she had left it an hour ago. She took it up, and slowly and painfully, like a child laboriously spelling out the syllables, she went on with the rest of the sentence:

— “and they spring from a level not much above that of the springing of the transverse and diagonal ribs, which are so arranged as to give a convex curve to the surface of the vaulting conoid.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/hermit_and_the_wild_woman/chapter4.html

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