The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

Chapter 11

Meanwhile the holidays had gone by and the season was beginning. Fifth Avenue had become a nightly torrent of carriages surging upward to the fashionable quarters about the Park, where illuminated windows and outspread awnings betokened the usual routine of hospitality. Other tributary currents crossed the mainstream, bearing their freight to the theatres, restaurants or opera; and Mrs. Peniston, from the secluded watch-tower of her upper window, could tell to a nicety just when the chronic volume of sound was increased by the sudden influx setting toward a Van Osburgh ball, or when the multiplication of wheels meant merely that the opera was over, or that there was a big supper at Sherry’s.

Mrs. Peniston followed the rise and culmination of the season as keenly as the most active sharer in its gaieties; and, as a looker-on, she enjoyed opportunities of comparison and generalization such as those who take part must proverbially forego. No one could have kept a more accurate record of social fluctuations, or have put a more unerring finger on the distinguishing features of each season: its dulness, its extravagance, its lack of balls or excess of divorces. She had a special memory for the vicissitudes of the “new people” who rose to the surface with each recurring tide, and were either submerged beneath its rush or landed triumphantly beyond the reach of envious breakers; and she was apt to display a remarkable retrospective insight into their ultimate fate, so that, when they had fulfilled their destiny, she was almost always able to say to Grace Stepney — the recipient of her prophecies — that she had known exactly what would happen.

This particular season Mrs. Peniston would have characterized as that in which everybody “felt poor” except the Welly Brys and Mr. Simon Rosedale. It had been a bad autumn in Wall Street, where prices fell in accordance with that peculiar law which proves railway stocks and bales of cotton to be more sensitive to the allotment of executive power than many estimable citizens trained to all the advantages of self-government. Even fortunes supposed to be independent of the market either betrayed a secret dependence on it, or suffered from a sympathetic affection: fashion sulked in its country houses, or came to town incognito, general entertainments were discountenanced, and informality and short dinners became the fashion.

But society, amused for a while at playing Cinderella, soon wearied of the hearthside role, and welcomed the Fairy Godmother in the shape of any magician powerful enough to turn the shrunken pumpkin back again into the golden coach. The mere fact of growing richer at a time when most people’s investments are shrinking, is calculated to attract envious attention; and according to Wall Street rumours, Welly Bry and Rosedale had found the secret of performing this miracle.

Rosedale, in particular, was said to have doubled his fortune, and there was talk of his buying the newly-finished house of one of the victims of the crash, who, in the space of twelve short months, had made the same number of millions, built a house in Fifth Avenue, filled a picture-gallery with old masters, entertained all New York in it, and been smuggled out of the country between a trained nurse and a doctor, while his creditors mounted guard over the old masters, and his guests explained to each other that they had dined with him only because they wanted to see the pictures. Mr. Rosedale meant to have a less meteoric career. He knew he should have to go slowly, and the instincts of his race fitted him to suffer rebuffs and put up with delays. But he was prompt to perceive that the general dulness of the season afforded him an unusual opportunity to shine, and he set about with patient industry to form a background for his growing glory. Mrs. Fisher was of immense service to him at this period. She had set off so many newcomers on the social stage that she was like one of those pieces of stock scenery which tell the experienced spectator exactly what is going to take place. But Mr. Rosedale wanted, in the long run, a more individual environment. He was sensitive to shades of difference which Miss Bart would never have credited him with perceiving, because he had no corresponding variations of manner; and it was becoming more and more clear to him that Miss Bart herself possessed precisely the complementary qualities needed to round off his social personality.

Such details did not fall within the range of Mrs. Peniston’s vision. Like many minds of panoramic sweep, hers was apt to overlook the MINUTIAE of the foreground, and she was much more likely to know where Carry Fisher had found the Welly Brys’ CHEF for them, than what was happening to her own niece. She was not, however, without purveyors of information ready to supplement her deficiencies. Grace Stepney’s mind was like a kind of moral fly-paper, to which the buzzing items of gossip were drawn by a fatal attraction, and where they hung fast in the toils of an inexorable memory. Lily would have been surprised to know how many trivial facts concerning herself were lodged in Miss Stepney’s head. She was quite aware that she was of interest to dingy people, but she assumed that there is only one form of dinginess, and that admiration for brilliancy is the natural expression of its inferior state. She knew that Gerty Farish admired her blindly, and therefore supposed that she inspired the same sentiments in Grace Stepney, whom she classified as a Gerty Farish without the saving traits of youth and enthusiasm.

In reality, the two differed from each other as much as they differed from the object of their mutual contemplation. Miss Farish’s heart was a fountain of tender illusions, Miss Stepney’s a precise register of facts as manifested in their relation to herself. She had sensibilities which, to Lily, would have seemed comic in a person with a freckled nose and red eyelids, who lived in a boarding-house and admired Mrs. Peniston’s drawing-room; but poor Grace’s limitations gave them a more concentrated inner life, as poor soil starves certain plants into intenser efflorescence. She had in truth no abstract propensity to malice: she did not dislike Lily because the latter was brilliant and predominant, but because she thought that Lily disliked her. It is less mortifying to believe one’s self unpopular than insignificant, and vanity prefers to assume that indifference is a latent form of unfriendliness. Even such scant civilities as Lily accorded to Mr. Rosedale would have made Miss Stepney her friend for life; but how could she foresee that such a friend was worth cultivating? How, moreover, can a young woman who has never been ignored measure the pang which this injury inflicts? And, lastly, how could Lily, accustomed to choose between a pressure of engagements, guess that she had mortally offended Miss Stepney by causing her to be excluded from one of Mrs. Peniston’s infrequent dinner-parties?

Mrs. Peniston disliked giving dinners, but she had a high sense of family obligation, and on the Jack Stepneys’ return from their honeymoon she felt it incumbent upon her to light the drawing-room lamps and extract her best silver from the Safe Deposit vaults. Mrs. Peniston’s rare entertainments were preceded by days of heart-rending vacillation as to every detail of the feast, from the seating of the guests to the pattern of the table-cloth, and in the course of one of these preliminary discussions she had imprudently suggested to her cousin Grace that, as the dinner was a family affair, she might be included in it. For a week the prospect had lighted up Miss Stepney’s colourless existence; then she had been given to understand that it would be more convenient to have her another day. Miss Stepney knew exactly what had happened. Lily, to whom family reunions were occasions of unalloyed dulness, had persuaded her aunt that a dinner of “smart” people would be much more to the taste of the young couple, and Mrs. Peniston, who leaned helplessly on her niece in social matters, had been prevailed upon to pronounce Grace’s exile. After all, Grace could come any other day; why should she mind being put off?

It was precisely because Miss Stepney could come any other day — and because she knew her relations were in the secret of her unoccupied evenings — that this incident loomed gigantically on her horizon. She was aware that she had Lily to thank for it; and dull resentment was turned to active animosity.

Mrs. Peniston, on whom she had looked in a day or two after the dinner, laid down her crochet-work and turned abruptly from her oblique survey of Fifth Avenue.

“Gus Trenor? — Lily and Gus Trenor?” she said, growing so suddenly pale that her visitor was almost alarmed.

“Oh, cousin Julia . . . of course I don’t mean . . .”

“I don’t know what you DO mean,” said Mrs. Peniston, with a frightened quiver in her small fretful voice. “Such things were never heard of in my day. And my own niece! I’m not sure I understand you. Do people say he’s in love with her?”

Mrs. Peniston’s horror was genuine. Though she boasted an unequalled familiarity with the secret chronicles of society, she had the innocence of the school-girl who regards wickedness as a part of “history,” and to whom it never occurs that the scandals she reads of in lesson-hours may be repeating themselves in the next street. Mrs. Peniston had kept her imagination shrouded, like the drawing-room furniture. She knew, of course, that society was “very much changed,” and that many women her mother would have thought “peculiar” were now in a position to be critical about their visiting-lists; she had discussed the perils of divorce with her rector, and had felt thankful at times that Lily was still unmarried; but the idea that any scandal could attach to a young girl’s name, above all that it could be lightly coupled with that of a married man, was so new to her that she was as much aghast as if she had been accused of leaving her carpets down all summer, or of violating any of the other cardinal laws of housekeeping.

Miss Stepney, when her first fright had subsided, began to feel the superiority that greater breadth of mind confers. It was really pitiable to be as ignorant of the world as Mrs. Peniston! She smiled at the latter’s question. “People always say unpleasant things — and certainly they’re a great deal together. A friend of mine met them the other afternoon in the Park-quite late, after the lamps were lit. It’s a pity Lily makes herself so conspicuous.”

“CONSPICUOUS!” gasped Mrs. Peniston. She bent forward, lowering her voice to mitigate the horror. “What sort of things do they say? That he means to get a divorce and marry her?”

Grace Stepney laughed outright. “Dear me, no! He would hardly do that. It — it’s a flirtation — nothing more.”

“A flirtation? Between my niece and a married man? Do you mean to tell me that, with Lily’s looks and advantages, she could find no better use for her time than to waste it on a fat stupid man almost old enough to be her father?” This argument had such a convincing ring that it gave Mrs. Peniston sufficient reassurance to pick up her work, while she waited for Grace Stepney to rally her scattered forces.

But Miss Stepney was on the spot in an instant. “That’s the worst of it — people say she isn’t wasting her time! Every one knows, as you say, that Lily is too handsome and-and charming — to devote herself to a man like Gus Trenor unless — ”

“Unless?” echoed Mrs. Peniston. Her visitor drew breath nervously. It was agreeable to shock Mrs. Peniston, but not to shock her to the verge of anger. Miss Stepney was not sufficiently familiar with the classic drama to have recalled in advance how bearers of bad tidings are proverbially received, but she now had a rapid vision of forfeited dinners and a reduced wardrobe as the possible consequence of her disinterestedness. To the honour of her sex, however, hatred of Lily prevailed over more personal considerations. Mrs. Peniston had chosen the wrong moment to boast of her niece’s charms.

“Unless,” said Grace, leaning forward to speak with low-toned emphasis, “unless there are material advantages to be gained by making herself agreeable to him.”

She felt that the moment was tremendous, and remembered suddenly that Mrs. Peniston’s black brocade, with the cut jet fringe, would have been hers at the end of the season.

Mrs. Peniston put down her work again. Another aspect of the same idea had presented itself to her, and she felt that it was beneath her dignity to have her nerves racked by a dependent relative who wore her old clothes.

“If you take pleasure in annoying me by mysterious insinuations,” she said coldly, “you might at least have chosen a more suitable time than just as I am recovering from the strain of giving a large dinner.”

The mention of the dinner dispelled Miss Stepney’s last scruples. “I don’t know why I should be accused of taking pleasure in telling you about Lily. I was sure I shouldn’t get any thanks for it,” she returned with a flare of temper. “But I have some family feeling left, and as you are the only person who has any authority over Lily, I thought you ought to know what is being said of her.”

“Well,” said Mrs. Peniston, “what I complain of is that you haven’t told me yet what IS being said.”

“I didn’t suppose I should have to put it so plainly. People say that Gus Trenor pays her bills.”

“Pays her bills — her bills?” Mrs. Peniston broke into a laugh. “I can’t imagine where you can have picked up such rubbish. Lily has her own income — and I provide for her very handsomely — ”

“Oh, we all know that,” interposed Miss Stepney drily. “But Lily wears a great many smart gowns — ”

“I like her to be well-dressed — it’s only suitable!”

“Certainly; but then there are her gambling debts besides.”

Miss Stepney, in the beginning, had not meant to bring up this point; but Mrs. Peniston had only her own incredulity to blame. She was like the stiff-necked unbelievers of Scripture, who must be annihilated to be convinced.

“Gambling debts? Lily?” Mrs. Peniston’s voice shook with anger and bewilderment. She wondered whether Grace Stepney had gone out of her mind. “What do you mean by her gambling debts?”

“Simply that if one plays bridge for money in Lily’s set one is liable to lose a great deal — and I don’t suppose Lily always wins.”

“Who told you that my niece played cards for money?”

“Mercy, cousin Julia, don’t look at me as if I were trying to turn you against Lily! Everybody knows she is crazy about bridge. Mrs. Gryce told me herself that it was her gambling that frightened Percy Gryce — it seems he was really taken with her at first. But, of course, among Lily’s friends it’s quite the custom for girls to play for money. In fact, people are inclined to excuse her on that account —— ”

“To excuse her for what?”

“For being hard up — and accepting attentions from men like Gus Trenor — and George Dorset —— ”

Mrs. Peniston gave another cry. “George Dorset? Is there any one else? I should like to know the worst, if you please.”

“Don’t put it in that way, cousin Julia. Lately Lily has been a good deal with the Dorsets, and he seems to admire her — but of course that’s only natural. And I’m sure there is no truth in the horrid things people say; but she HAS been spending a great deal of money this winter. Evie Van Osburgh was at Celeste’s ordering her trousseau the other day — yes, the marriage takes place next month — and she told me that Celeste showed her the most exquisite things she was just sending home to Lily. And people say that Judy Trenor has quarrelled with her on account of Gus; but I’m sure I’m sorry I spoke, though I only meant it as a kindness.”

Mrs. Peniston’s genuine incredulity enabled her to dismiss Miss Stepney with a disdain which boded ill for that lady’s prospect of succeeding to the black brocade; but minds impenetrable to reason have generally some crack through which suspicion filters, and her visitor’s insinuations did not glide off as easily as she had expected. Mrs. Peniston disliked scenes, and her determination to avoid them had always led her to hold herself aloof from the details of Lily’s life. In her youth, girls had not been supposed to require close supervision. They were generally assumed to be taken up with the legitimate business of courtship and marriage, and interference in such affairs on the part of their natural guardians was considered as unwarrantable as a spectator’s suddenly joining in a game. There had of course been “fast” girls even in Mrs. Peniston’s early experience; but their fastness, at worst, was understood to be a mere excess of animal spirits, against which there could be no graver charge than that of being “unladylike.” The modern fastness appeared synonymous with immorality, and the mere idea of immorality was as offensive to Mrs. Peniston as a smell of cooking in the drawing-room: it was one of the conceptions her mind refused to admit.

She had no immediate intention of repeating to Lily what she had heard, or even of trying to ascertain its truth by means of discreet interrogation. To do so might be to provoke a scene; and a scene, in the shaken state of Mrs. Peniston’s nerves, with the effects of her dinner not worn off, and her mind still tremulous with new impressions, was a risk she deemed it her duty to avoid. But there remained in her thoughts a settled deposit of resentment against her niece, all the denser because it was not to be cleared by explanation or discussion. It was horrible of a young girl to let herself be talked about; however unfounded the charges against her, she must be to blame for their having been made. Mrs. Peniston felt as if there had been a contagious illness in the house, and she was doomed to sit shivering among her contaminated furniture.

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