The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

Chapter 10

The autumn dragged on monotonously. Miss Bart had received one or two notes from Judy Trenor, reproaching her for not returning to Bellomont; but she replied evasively, alleging the obligation to remain with her aunt. In truth, however, she was fast wearying of her solitary existence with Mrs. Peniston, and only the excitement of spending her newly-acquired money lightened the dulness of the days.

All her life Lily had seen money go out as quickly as it came in, and whatever theories she cultivated as to the prudence of setting aside a part of her gains, she had unhappily no saving vision of the risks of the opposite course. It was a keen satisfaction to feel that, for a few months at least, she would be independent of her friends’ bounty, that she could show herself abroad without wondering whether some penetrating eye would detect in her dress the traces of Judy Trenor’s refurbished splendour. The fact that the money freed her temporarily from all minor obligations obscured her sense of the greater one it represented, and having never before known what it was to command so large a sum, she lingered delectably over the amusement of spending it.

It was on one of these occasions that, leaving a shop where she had spent an hour of deliberation over a dressing-case of the most complicated elegance, she ran across Miss Farish, who had entered the same establishment with the modest object of having her watch repaired. Lily was feeling unusually virtuous. She had decided to defer the purchase of the dressing-case till she should receive the bill for her new opera-cloak, and the resolve made her feel much richer than when she had entered the shop. In this mood of self-approval she had a sympathetic eye for others, and she was struck by her friend’s air of dejection.

Miss Farish, it appeared, had just left the committee-meeting of a struggling charity in which she was interested. The object of the association was to provide comfortable lodgings, with a reading-room and other modest distractions, where young women of the class employed in down town offices might find a home when out of work, or in need of rest, and the first year’s financial report showed so deplorably small a balance that Miss Farish, who was convinced of the urgency of the work, felt proportionately discouraged by the small amount of interest it aroused. The other-regarding sentiments had not been cultivated in Lily, and she was often bored by the relation of her friend’s philanthropic efforts, but today her quick dramatizing fancy seized on the contrast between her own situation and that represented by some of Gerty’s “cases.” These were young girls, like herself; some perhaps pretty, some not without a trace of her finer sensibilities. She pictured herself leading such a life as theirs — a life in which achievement seemed as squalid as failure — and the vision made her shudder sympathetically. The price of the dressing-case was still in her pocket; and drawing out her little gold purse she slipped a liberal fraction of the amount into Miss Farish’s hand.

The satisfaction derived from this act was all that the most ardent moralist could have desired. Lily felt a new interest in herself as a person of charitable instincts: she had never before thought of doing good with the wealth she had so often dreamed of possessing, but now her horizon was enlarged by the vision of a prodigal philanthropy. Moreover, by some obscure process of logic, she felt that her momentary burst of generosity had justified all previous extravagances, and excused any in which she might subsequently indulge. Miss Farish’s surprise and gratitude confirmed this feeling, and Lily parted from her with a sense of self-esteem which she naturally mistook for the fruits of altruism.

About this time she was farther cheered by an invitation to spend the Thanksgiving week at a camp in the Adirondacks. The invitation was one which, a year earlier, would have provoked a less ready response, for the party, though organized by Mrs. Fisher, was ostensibly given by a lady of obscure origin and indomitable social ambitions, whose acquaintance Lily had hitherto avoided. Now, however, she was disposed to coincide with Mrs. Fisher’s view, that it didn’t matter who gave the party, as long as things were well done; and doing things well (under competent direction) was Mrs. Wellington Bry’s strong point. The lady (whose consort was known as “Welly” Bry on the Stock Exchange and in sporting circles) had already sacrificed one husband, and sundry minor considerations, to her determination to get on; and, having obtained a hold on Carry Fisher, she was astute enough to perceive the wisdom of committing herself entirely to that lady’s guidance. Everything, accordingly, was well done, for there was no limit to Mrs. Fisher’s prodigality when she was not spending her own money, and as she remarked to her pupil, a good cook was the best introduction to society. If the company was not as select as the CUISINE, the Welly Brys at least had the satisfaction of figuring for the first time in the society columns in company with one or two noticeable names; and foremost among these was of course Miss Bart’s. The young lady was treated by her hosts with corresponding deference; and she was in the mood when such attentions are acceptable, whatever their source. Mrs. Bry’s admiration was a mirror in which Lily’s self-complacency recovered its lost outline. No insect hangs its nest on threads as frail as those which will sustain the weight of human vanity; and the sense of being of importance among the insignificant was enough to restore to Miss Bart the gratifying consciousness of power. If these people paid court to her it proved that she was still conspicuous in the world to which they aspired; and she was not above a certain enjoyment in dazzling them by her fineness, in developing their puzzled perception of her superiorities.

Perhaps, however, her enjoyment proceeded more than she was aware from the physical stimulus of the excursion, the challenge of crisp cold and hard exercise, the responsive thrill of her body to the influences of the winter woods. She returned to town in a glow of rejuvenation, conscious of a clearer colour in her cheeks, a fresh elasticity in her muscles. The future seemed full of a vague promise, and all her apprehensions were swept out of sight on the buoyant current of her mood.

A few days after her return to town she had the unpleasant surprise of a visit from Mr. Rosedale. He came late, at the confidential hour when the tea-table still lingers by the fire in friendly expectancy; and his manner showed a readiness to adapt itself to the intimacy of the occasion.

Lily, who had a vague sense of his being somehow connected with her lucky speculations, tried to give him the welcome he expected; but there was something in the quality of his geniality which chilled her own, and she was conscious of marking each step in their acquaintance by a fresh blunder.

Mr. Rosedale — making himself promptly at home in an adjoining easy-chair, and sipping his tea critically, with the comment: “You ought to go to my man for something really good” — appeared totally unconscious of the repugnance which kept her in frozen erectness behind the urn. It was perhaps her very manner of holding herself aloof that appealed to his collector’s passion for the rare and unattainable. He gave, at any rate, no sign of resenting it and seemed prepared to supply in his own manner all the ease that was lacking in hers.

His object in calling was to ask her to go to the opera in his box on the opening night, and seeing her hesitate he said persuasively: “Mrs. Fisher is coming, and I’ve secured a tremendous admirer of yours, who’ll never forgive me if you don’t accept.”

As Lily’s silence left him with this allusion on his hands, he added with a confidential smile: “Gus Trenor has promised to come to town on purpose. I fancy he’d go a good deal farther for the pleasure of seeing you.”

Miss Bart felt an inward motion of annoyance: it was distasteful enough to hear her name coupled with Trenor’s, and on Rosedale’s lips the allusion was peculiarly unpleasant.

“The Trenors are my best friends — I think we should all go a long way to see each other,” she said, absorbing herself in the preparation of fresh tea.

Her visitor’s smile grew increasingly intimate. “Well, I wasn’t thinking of Mrs. Trenor at the moment — they say Gus doesn’t always, you know.” Then, dimly conscious that he had not struck the right note, he added, with a well-meant effort at diversion: “How’s your luck been going in Wall Street, by the way? I hear Gus pulled off a nice little pile for you last month.”

Lily put down the tea-caddy with an abrupt gesture. She felt that her hands were trembling, and clasped them on her knee to steady them; but her lip trembled too, and for a moment she was afraid the tremor might communicate itself to her voice. When she spoke, however, it was in a tone of perfect lightness.

“Ah, yes — I had a little bit of money to invest, and Mr. Trenor, who helps me about such matters, advised my putting it in stocks instead of a mortgage, as my aunt’s agent wanted me to do; and as it happened, I made a lucky ‘turn’ — is that what you call it? For you make a great many yourself, I believe.”

She was smiling back at him now, relaxing the tension of her attitude, and admitting him, by imperceptible gradations of glance and manner, a step farther toward intimacy. The protective instinct always nerved her to successful dissimulation, and it was not the first time she had used her beauty to divert attention from an inconvenient topic.

When Mr. Rosedale took leave, he carried with him, not only her acceptance of his invitation, but a general sense of having comported himself in a way calculated to advance his cause. He had always believed he had a light touch and a knowing way with women, and the prompt manner in which Miss Bart (as he would have phrased it) had “come into line,” confirmed his confidence in his powers of handling this skittish sex. Her way of glossing over the transaction with Trenor he regarded at once as a tribute to his own acuteness, and a confirmation of his suspicions. The girl was evidently nervous, and Mr. Rosedale, if he saw no other means of advancing his acquaintance with her, was not above taking advantage of her nervousness.

He left Lily to a passion of disgust and fear. It seemed incredible that Gus Trenor should have spoken of her to Rosedale. With all his faults, Trenor had the safeguard of his traditions, and was the less likely to overstep them because they were so purely instinctive. But Lily recalled with a pang that there were convivial moments when, as Judy had confided to her, Gus “talked foolishly”: in one of these, no doubt, the fatal word had slipped from him. As for Rosedale, she did not, after the first shock, greatly care what conclusions he had drawn. Though usually adroit enough where her own interests were concerned, she made the mistake, not uncommon to persons in whom the social habits are instinctive, of supposing that the inability to acquire them quickly implies a general dulness. Because a blue-bottle bangs irrationally against a window-pane, the drawing-room naturalist may forget that under less artificial conditions it is capable of measuring distances and drawing conclusions with all the accuracy needful to its welfare; and the fact that Mr. Rosedale’s drawing-room manner lacked perspective made Lily class him with Trenor and the other dull men she knew, and assume that a little flattery, and the occasional acceptance of his hospitality, would suffice to render him innocuous. However, there could be no doubt of the expediency of showing herself in his box on the opening night of the opera; and after all, since Judy Trenor had promised to take him up that winter, it was as well to reap the advantage of being first in the field.

For a day or two after Rosedale’s visit, Lily’s thoughts were dogged by the consciousness of Trenor’s shadowy claim, and she wished she had a clearer notion of the exact nature of the transaction which seemed to have put her in his power; but her mind shrank from any unusual application, and she was always helplessly puzzled by figures. Moreover she had not seen Trenor since the day of the Van Osburgh wedding, and in his continued absence the trace of Rosedale’s words was soon effaced by other impressions.

When the opening night of the opera came, her apprehensions had so completely vanished that the sight of Trenor’s ruddy countenance in the back of Mr. Rosedale’s box filled her with a sense of pleasant reassurance. Lily had not quite reconciled herself to the necessity of appearing as Rosedale’s guest on so conspicuous an occasion, and it was a relief to find herself supported by any one of her own set — for Mrs. Fisher’s social habits were too promiscuous for her presence to justify Miss Bart’s.

To Lily, always inspirited by the prospect of showing her beauty in public, and conscious tonight of all the added enhancements of dress, the insistency of Trenor’s gaze merged itself in the general stream of admiring looks of which she felt herself the centre. Ah, it was good to be young, to be radiant, to glow with the sense of slenderness, strength and elasticity, of well-poised lines and happy tints, to feel one’s self lifted to a height apart by that incommunicable grace which is the bodily counterpart of genius!

All means seemed justifiable to attain such an end, or rather, by a happy shifting of lights with which practice had familiarized Miss Bart, the cause shrank to a pin-point in the general brightness of the effect. But brilliant young ladies, a little blinded by their own effulgence, are apt to forget that the modest satellite drowned in their light is still performing its own revolutions and generating heat at its own rate. If Lily’s poetic enjoyment of the moment was undisturbed by the base thought that her gown and opera cloak had been indirectly paid for by Gus Trenor, the latter had not sufficient poetry in his composition to lose sight of these prosaic facts. He knew only that he had never seen Lily look smarter in her life, that there wasn’t a woman in the house who showed off good clothes as she did, and that hitherto he, to whom she owed the opportunity of making this display, had reaped no return beyond that of gazing at her in company with several hundred other pairs of eyes.

It came to Lily therefore as a disagreeable surprise when, in the back of the box, where they found themselves alone between two acts, Trenor said, without preamble, and in a tone of sulky authority: “Look here, Lily, how is a fellow ever to see anything of you? I’m in town three or four days in the week, and you know a line to the club will always find me, but you don’t seem to remember my existence nowadays unless you want to get a tip out of me.”

The fact that the remark was in distinctly bad taste did not make it any easier to answer, for Lily was vividly aware that it was not the moment for that drawing up of her slim figure and surprised lifting of the brows by which she usually quelled incipient signs of familiarity.

“I’m very much flattered by your wanting to see me,” she returned, essaying lightness instead, “but, unless you have mislaid my address, it would have been easy to find me any afternoon at my aunt’s — in fact, I rather expected you to look me up there.”

If she hoped to mollify him by this last concession the attempt was a failure, for he only replied, with the familiar lowering of the brows that made him look his dullest when he was angry: “Hang going to your aunt’s, and wasting the afternoon listening to a lot of other chaps talking to you! You know I’m not the kind to sit in a crowd and jaw — I’d always rather clear out when that sort of circus is going on. But why can’t we go off somewhere on a little lark together — a nice quiet little expedition like that drive at Bellomont, the day you met me at the station?”

He leaned unpleasantly close in order to convey this suggestion, and she fancied she caught a significant aroma which explained the dark flush on his face and the glistening dampness of his forehead.

The idea that any rash answer might provoke an unpleasant outburst tempered her disgust with caution, and she answered with a laugh: “I don’t see how one can very well take country drives in town, but I am not always surrounded by an admiring throng, and if you will let me know what afternoon you are coming I will arrange things so that we can have a nice quiet talk.”

“Hang talking! That’s what you always say,” returned Trenor, whose expletives lacked variety. “You put me off with that at the Van Osburgh wedding — but the plain English of it is that, now you’ve got what you wanted out of me, you’d rather have any other fellow about.”

His voice had risen sharply with the last words, and Lily flushed with annoyance, but she kept command of the situation and laid a persuasive hand on his arm.

“Don’t be foolish, Gus; I can’t let you talk to me in that ridiculous way. If you really want to see me, why shouldn’t we take a walk in the Park some afternoon? I agree with you that it’s amusing to be rustic in town, and if you like I’ll meet you there, and we’ll go and feed the squirrels, and you shall take me out on the lake in the steam-gondola.”

She smiled as she spoke, letting her eyes rest on his in a way that took the edge from her banter and made him suddenly malleable to her will.

“All right, then: that’s a go. Will you come tomorrow? Tomorrow at three o’clock, at the end of the Mall. I’ll be there sharp, remember; you won’t go back on me, Lily?”

But to Miss Bart’s relief the repetition of her promise was cut short by the opening of the box door to admit George Dorset.

Trenor sulkily yielded his place, and Lily turned a brilliant smile on the newcomer. She had not talked with Dorset since their visit at Bellomont, but something in his look and manner told her that he recalled the friendly footing on which they had last met. He was not a man to whom the expression of admiration came easily: his long sallow face and distrustful eyes seemed always barricaded against the expansive emotions. But, where her own influence was concerned, Lily’s intuitions sent out thread-like feelers, and as she made room for him on the narrow sofa she was sure he found a dumb pleasure in being near her. Few women took the trouble to make themselves agreeable to Dorset, and Lily had been kind to him at Bellomont, and was now smiling on him with a divine renewal of kindness.

“Well, here we are, in for another six months of caterwauling,” he began complainingly. “Not a shade of difference between this year and last, except that the women have got new clothes and the singers haven’t got new voices. My wife’s musical, you know — puts me through a course of this every winter. It isn’t so bad on Italian nights — then she comes late, and there’s time to digest. But when they give Wagner we have to rush dinner, and I pay up for it. And the draughts are damnable — asphyxia in front and pleurisy in the back. There’s Trenor leaving the box without drawing the curtain! With a hide like that draughts don’t make any difference. Did you ever watch Trenor eat? If you did, you’d wonder why he’s alive; I suppose he’s leather inside too. — But I came to say that my wife wants you to come down to our place next Sunday. Do for heaven’s sake say yes. She’s got a lot of bores coming — intellectual ones, I mean; that’s her new line, you know, and I’m not sure it ain’t worse than the music. Some of ’em have long hair, and they start an argument with the soup, and don’t notice when things are handed to them. The consequence is the dinner gets cold, and I have dyspepsia. That silly ass Silverton brings them to the house — he writes poetry, you know, and Bertha and he are getting tremendously thick. She could write better than any of ’em if she chose, and I don’t blame her for wanting clever fellows about; all I say is: ‘Don’t let me see ’em eat!’”

The gist of this strange communication gave Lily a distinct thrill of pleasure. Under ordinary circumstances, there would have been nothing surprising in an invitation from Bertha Dorset; but since the Bellomont episode an unavowed hostility had kept the two women apart. Now, with a start of inner wonder, Lily felt that her thirst for retaliation had died out. IF YOU WOULD FORGIVE YOUR ENEMY, says the Malay proverb, FIRST INFLICT A HURT ON HIM; and Lily was experiencing the truth of the apothegm. If she had destroyed Mrs. Dorset’s letters, she might have continued to hate her; but the fact that they remained in her possession had fed her resentment to satiety.

She uttered a smiling acceptance, hailing in the renewal of the tie an escape from Trenor’s importunities.

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