The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

Chapter 13

Lily woke from happy dreams to find two notes at her bedside.

One was from Mrs. Trenor, who announced that she was coming to town that afternoon for a flying visit, and hoped Miss Bart would be able to dine with her. The other was from Selden. He wrote briefly that an important case called him to Albany, whence he would be unable to return till the evening, and asked Lily to let him know at what hour on the following day she would see him.

Lily, leaning back among her pillows, gazed musingly at his letter. The scene in the Brys’ conservatory had been like a part of her dreams; she had not expected to wake to such evidence of its reality. Her first movement was one of annoyance: this unforeseen act of Selden’s added another complication to life. It was so unlike him to yield to such an irrational impulse! Did he really mean to ask her to marry him? She had once shown him the impossibility of such a hope, and his subsequent behaviour seemed to prove that he had accepted the situation with a reasonableness somewhat mortifying to her vanity. It was all the more agreeable to find that this reasonableness was maintained only at the cost of not seeing her; but, though nothing in life was as sweet as the sense of her power over him, she saw the danger of allowing the episode of the previous night to have a sequel. Since she could not marry him, it would be kinder to him, as well as easier for herself, to write a line amicably evading his request to see her: he was not the man to mistake such a hint, and when next they met it would be on their usual friendly footing.

Lily sprang out of bed, and went straight to her desk. She wanted to write at once, while she could trust to the strength of her resolve. She was still languid from her brief sleep and the exhilaration of the evening, and the sight of Selden’s writing brought back the culminating moment of her triumph: the moment when she had read in his eyes that no philosophy was proof against her power. It would be pleasant to have that sensation again . . . no one else could give it to her in its fulness; and she could not bear to mar her mood of luxurious retrospection by an act of definite refusal. She took up her pen and wrote hastily: “TOMORROW AT FOUR;” murmuring to herself, as she slipped the sheet into its envelope: “I can easily put him off when tomorrow comes.”

Judy Trenor’s summons was very welcome to Lily. It was the first time she had received a direct communication from Bellomont since the close of her last visit there, and she was still visited by the dread of having incurred Judy’s displeasure. But this characteristic command seemed to reestablish their former relations; and Lily smiled at the thought that her friend had probably summoned her in order to hear about the Brys’ entertainment. Mrs. Trenor had absented herself from the feast, perhaps for the reason so frankly enunciated by her husband, perhaps because, as Mrs. Fisher somewhat differently put it, she “couldn’t bear new people when she hadn’t discovered them herself.” At any rate, though she remained haughtily at Bellomont, Lily suspected in her a devouring eagerness to hear of what she had missed, and to learn exactly in what measure Mrs. Wellington Bry had surpassed all previous competitors for social recognition. Lily was quite ready to gratify this curiosity, but it happened that she was dining out. She determined, however, to see Mrs. Trenor for a few moments, and ringing for her maid she despatched a telegram to say that she would be with her friend that evening at ten.

She was dining with Mrs. Fisher, who had gathered at an informal feast a few of the performers of the previous evening. There was to be plantation music in the studio after dinner — for Mrs. Fisher, despairing of the republic, had taken up modelling, and annexed to her small crowded house a spacious apartment, which, whatever its uses in her hours of plastic inspiration, served at other times for the exercise of an indefatigable hospitality. Lily was reluctant to leave, for the dinner was amusing, and she would have liked to lounge over a cigarette and hear a few songs; but she could not break her engagement with Judy, and shortly after ten she asked her hostess to ring for a hansom, and drove up Fifth Avenue to the Trenors’.

She waited long enough on the doorstep to wonder that Judy’s presence in town was not signalized by a greater promptness in admitting her; and her surprise was increased when, instead of the expected footman, pushing his shoulders into a tardy coat, a shabby care-taking person in calico let her into the shrouded hall. Trenor, however, appeared at once on the threshold of the drawing-room, welcoming her with unusual volubility while he relieved her of her cloak and drew her into the room.

“Come along to the den; it’s the only comfortable place in the house. Doesn’t this room look as if it was waiting for the body to be brought down? Can’t see why Judy keeps the house wrapped up in this awful slippery white stuff — it’s enough to give a fellow pneumonia to walk through these rooms on a cold day. You look a little pinched yourself, by the way: it’s rather a sharp night out. I noticed it walking up from the club. Come along, and I’ll give you a nip of brandy, and you can toast yourself over the fire and try some of my new Egyptians — that little Turkish chap at the Embassy put me on to a brand that I want you to try, and if you like ’em I’ll get out a lot for you: they don’t have ’em here yet, but I’ll cable.”

He led her through the house to the large room at the back, where Mrs. Trenor usually sat, and where, even in her absence, there was an air of occupancy. Here, as usual, were flowers, newspapers, a littered writing-table, and a general aspect of lamp-lit familiarity, so that it was a surprise not to see Judy’s energetic figure start up from the arm-chair near the fire.

It was apparently Trenor himself who had been occupying the seat in question, for it was overhung by a cloud of cigar smoke, and near it stood one of those intricate folding tables which British ingenuity has devised to facilitate the circulation of tobacco and spirits. The sight of such appliances in a drawing-room was not unusual in Lily’s set, where smoking and drinking were unrestricted by considerations of time and place, and her first movement was to help herself to one of the cigarettes recommended by Trenor, while she checked his loquacity by asking, with a surprised glance: “Where’s Judy?”

Trenor, a little heated by his unusual flow of words, and perhaps by prolonged propinquity with the decanters, was bending over the latter to decipher their silver labels.

“Here, now, Lily, just a drop of cognac in a little fizzy water — you do look pinched, you know: I swear the end of your nose is red. I’ll take another glass to keep you company — Judy? — Why, you see, Judy’s got a devil of a head ache — quite knocked out with it, poor thing — she asked me to explain — make it all right, you know — Do come up to the fire, though; you look dead-beat, really. Now do let me make you comfortable, there’s a good girl.”

He had taken her hand, half-banteringly, and was drawing her toward a low seat by the hearth; but she stopped and freed herself quietly.

“Do you mean to say that Judy’s not well enough to see me? Doesn’t she want me to go upstairs?”

Trenor drained the glass he had filled for himself, and paused to set it down before he answered.

“Why, no — the fact is, she’s not up to seeing anybody. It came on suddenly, you know, and she asked me to tell you how awfully sorry she was — if she’d known where you were dining she’d have sent you word.”

“She did know where I was dining; I mentioned it in my telegram. But it doesn’t matter, of course. I suppose if she’s so poorly she won’t go back to Bellomont in the morning, and I can come and see her then.”

“Yes: exactly — that’s capital. I’ll tell her you’ll pop in tomorrow morning. And now do sit down a minute, there’s a dear, and let’s have a nice quiet jaw together. You won’t take a drop, just for sociability? Tell me what you think of that cigarette. Why, don’t you like it? What are you chucking it away for?”

“I am chucking it away because I must go, if you’ll have the goodness to call a cab for me,” Lily returned with a smile.

She did not like Trenor’s unusual excitability, with its too evident explanation, and the thought of being alone with him, with her friend out of reach upstairs, at the other end of the great empty house, did not conduce to a desire to prolong their TETE-A-TETE.

But Trenor, with a promptness which did not escape her, had moved between herself and the door.

“Why must you go, I should like to know? If Judy’d been here you’d have sat gossiping till all hours — and you can’t even give me five minutes! It’s always the same story. Last night I couldn’t get near you — I went to that damned vulgar party just to see you, and there was everybody talking about you, and asking me if I’d ever seen anything so stunning, and when I tried to come up and say a word, you never took any notice, but just went on laughing and joking with a lot of asses who only wanted to be able to swagger about afterward, and look knowing when you were mentioned.”

He paused, flushed by his diatribe, and fixing on her a look in which resentment was the ingredient she least disliked. But she had regained her presence of mind, and stood composedly in the middle of the room, while her slight smile seemed to put an ever increasing distance between herself and Trenor.

Across it she said: “Don’t be absurd, Gus. It’s past eleven, and I must really ask you to ring for a cab.”

He remained immovable, with the lowering forehead she had grown to detest.

“And supposing I won’t ring for one — what’ll you do then?”

“I shall go upstairs to Judy if you force me to disturb her.”

Trenor drew a step nearer and laid his hand on her arm. “Look here, Lily: won’t you give me five minutes of your own accord?”

“Not tonight, Gus: you —— ”

“Very good, then: I’ll take ’em. And as many more as I want.” He had squared himself on the threshold, his hands thrust deep in his pockets. He nodded toward the chair on the hearth.

“Go and sit down there, please: I’ve got a word to say to you.”

Lily’s quick temper was getting the better of her fears. She drew herself up and moved toward the door.

“If you have anything to say to me, you must say it another time. I shall go up to Judy unless you call a cab for me at once.”

He burst into a laugh. “Go upstairs and welcome, my dear; but you won’t find Judy. She ain’t there.”

Lily cast a startled look upon him. “Do you mean that Judy is not in the house — not in town?” she exclaimed.

“That’s just what I do mean,” returned Trenor, his bluster sinking to sullenness under her look.

“Nonsense — I don’t believe you. I am going upstairs,” she said impatiently.

He drew unexpectedly aside, letting her reach the threshold unimpeded.

“Go up and welcome; but my wife is at Bellomont.”

But Lily had a flash of reassurance. “If she hadn’t come she would have sent me word —— ”

“She did; she telephoned me this afternoon to let you know.”

“I received no message.”

“I didn’t send any.”

The two measured each other for a moment, but Lily still saw her opponent through a blur of scorn that made all other considerations indistinct.

“I can’t imagine your object in playing such a stupid trick on me; but if you have fully gratified your peculiar sense of humour I must again ask you to send for a cab.”

It was the wrong note, and she knew it as she spoke. To be stung by irony it is not necessary to understand it, and the angry streaks on Trenor’s face might have been raised by an actual lash.

“Look here, Lily, don’t take that high and mighty tone with me.” He had again moved toward the door, and in her instinctive shrinking from him she let him regain command of the threshold. “I DID play a trick on you; I own up to it; but if you think I’m ashamed you’re mistaken. Lord knows I’ve been patient enough — I’ve hung round and looked like an ass. And all the while you were letting a lot of other fellows make up to you . . . letting ’em make fun of me, I daresay . . . I’m not sharp, and can’t dress my friends up to look funny, as you do . . . but I can tell when it’s being done to me . . . I can tell fast enough when I’m made a fool of . . .”

“Ah, I shouldn’t have thought that!” flashed from Lily; but her laugh dropped to silence under his look.

“No; you wouldn’t have thought it; but you’ll know better now. That’s what you’re here for tonight. I’ve been waiting for a quiet time to talk things over, and now I’ve got it I mean to make you hear me out.”

His first rush of inarticulate resentment had been followed by a steadiness and concentration of tone more disconcerting to Lily than the excitement preceding it. For a moment her presence of mind forsook her. She had more than once been in situations where a quick sword-play of wit had been needful to cover her retreat; but her frightened heart-throbs told her that here such skill would not avail.

To gain time she repeated: “I don’t understand what you want.”

Trenor had pushed a chair between herself and the door. He threw himself in it, and leaned back, looking up at her.

“I’ll tell you what I want: I want to know just where you and I stand. Hang it, the man who pays for the dinner is generally allowed to have a seat at table.”

She flamed with anger and abasement, and the sickening need of having to conciliate where she longed to humble.

“I don’t know what you mean — but you must see, Gus, that I can’t stay here talking to you at this hour —— ”

“Gad, you go to men’s houses fast enough in broad day light — strikes me you’re not always so deuced careful of appearances.”

The brutality of the thrust gave her the sense of dizziness that follows on a physical blow. Rosedale had spoken then — this was the way men talked of her — She felt suddenly weak and defenceless: there was a throb of self-pity in her throat. But all the while another self was sharpening her to vigilance, whispering the terrified warning that every word and gesture must be measured.

“If you have brought me here to say insulting things —— ” she began.

Trenor laughed. “Don’t talk stage-rot. I don’t want to insult you. But a man’s got his feelings — and you’ve played with mine too long. I didn’t begin this business — kept out of the way, and left the track clear for the other chaps, till you rummaged me out and set to work to make an ass of me — and an easy job you had of it, too. That’s the trouble — it was too easy for you — you got reckless — thought you could turn me inside out, and chuck me in the gutter like an empty purse. But, by gad, that ain’t playing fair: that’s dodging the rules of the game. Of course I know now what you wanted — it wasn’t my beautiful eyes you were after — but I tell you what, Miss Lily, you’ve got to pay up for making me think so —— ”

He rose, squaring his shoulders aggressively, and stepped toward her with a reddening brow; but she held her footing, though every nerve tore at her to retreat as he advanced.

“Pay up?” she faltered. “Do you mean that I owe you money?”

He laughed again. “Oh, I’m not asking for payment in kind. But there’s such a thing as fair play — and interest on one’s money — and hang me if I’ve had as much as a look from you —— ”

“Your money? What have I to do with your money? You advised me how to invest mine . . . you must have seen I knew nothing of business . . . you told me it was all right —— ”

“It WAS all right — it is, Lily: you’re welcome to all of it, and ten times more. I’m only asking for a word of thanks from you.” He was closer still, with a hand that grew formidable; and the frightened self in her was dragging the other down.

“I HAVE thanked you; I’ve shown I was grateful. What more have you done than any friend might do, or any one accept from a friend?”

Trenor caught her up with a sneer. “I don’t doubt you’ve accepted as much before — and chucked the other chaps as you’d like to chuck me. I don’t care how you settled your score with them — if you fooled ’em I’m that much to the good. Don’t stare at me like that — I know I’m not talking the way a man is supposed to talk to a girl — but, hang it, if you don’t like it you can stop me quick enough — you know I’m mad about you — damn the money, there’s plenty more of it — if THAT bothers you . . . I was a brute, Lily — Lily! — just look at me —— ”

Over and over her the sea of humiliation broke — wave crashing on wave so close that the moral shame was one with the physical dread. It seemed to her that self-esteem would have made her invulnerable — that it was her own dishonour which put a fearful solitude about her.

His touch was a shock to her drowning consciousness. She drew back from him with a desperate assumption of scorn.

“I’ve told you I don’t understand — but if I owe you money you shall be paid —— ”

Trenor’s face darkened to rage: her recoil of abhorrence had called out the primitive man.

“Ah — you’ll borrow from Selden or Rosedale — and take your chances of fooling them as you’ve fooled me! Unless — unless you’ve settled your other scores already — and I’m the only one left out in the cold!”

She stood silent, frozen to her place. The words — the words were worse than the touch! Her heart was beating all over her body — in her throat, her limbs, her helpless useless hands. Her eyes travelled despairingly about the room — they lit on the bell, and she remembered that help was in call. Yes, but scandal with it — a hideous mustering of tongues. No, she must fight her way out alone. It was enough that the servants knew her to be in the house with Trenor — there must be nothing to excite conjecture in her way of leaving it.

She raised her head, and achieved a last clear look at him.

“I am here alone with you,” she said. “What more have you to say?”

To her surprise, Trenor answered the look with a speechless stare. With his last gust of words the flame had died out, leaving him chill and humbled. It was as though a cold air had dispersed the fumes of his libations, and the situation loomed before him black and naked as the ruins of a fire. Old habits, old restraints, the hand of inherited order, plucked back the bewildered mind which passion had jolted from its ruts. Trenor’s eye had the haggard look of the sleep-walker waked on a deathly ledge.

“Go home! Go away from here” —— he stammered, and turning his back on her walked toward the hearth.

The sharp release from her fears restored Lily to immediate lucidity. The collapse of Trenor’s will left her in control, and she heard herself, in a voice that was her own yet outside herself, bidding him ring for the servant, bidding him give the order for a hansom, directing him to put her in it when it came. Whence the strength came to her she knew not; but an insistent voice warned her that she must leave the house openly, and nerved her, in the hall before the hovering care taker, to exchange light words with Trenor, and charge him with the usual messages for Judy, while all the while she shook with inward loathing. On the doorstep, with the street before her, she felt a mad throb of liberation, intoxicating as the prisoner’s first draught of free air; but the clearness of brain continued, and she noted the mute aspect of Fifth Avenue, guessed at the lateness of the hour, and even observed a man’s figure — was there something half-familiar in its outline? — which, as she entered the hansom, turned from the opposite corner and vanished in the obscurity of the side street.

But with the turn of the wheels reaction came, and shuddering darkness closed on her. “I can’t think — I can’t think,” she moaned, and leaned her head against the rattling side of the cab. She seemed a stranger to herself, or rather there were two selves in her, the one she had always known, and a new abhorrent being to which it found itself chained. She had once picked up, in a house where she was staying, a translation of the EUMENIDES, and her imagination had been seized by the high terror of the scene where Orestes, in the cave of the oracle, finds his implacable huntresses asleep, and snatches an hour’s repose. Yes, the Furies might sometimes sleep, but they were there, always there in the dark corners, and now they were awake and the iron clang of their wings was in her brain . . . She opened her eyes and saw the streets passing — the familiar alien streets. All she looked on was the same and yet changed. There was a great gulf fixed between today and yesterday. Everything in the past seemed simple, natural, full of daylight — and she was alone in a place of darkness and pollution. — Alone! It was the loneliness that frightened her. Her eyes fell on an illuminated clock at a street corner, and she saw that the hands marked the half hour after eleven. Only half-past eleven — there were hours and hours left of the night! And she must spend them alone, shuddering sleepless on her bed. Her soft nature recoiled from this ordeal, which had none of the stimulus of conflict to goad her through it. Oh, the slow cold drip of the minutes on her head! She had a vision of herself lying on the black walnut bed — and the darkness would frighten her, and if she left the light burning the dreary details of the room would brand themselves forever on her brain. She had always hated her room at Mrs. Peniston’s — its ugliness, its impersonality, the fact that nothing in it was really hers. To a torn heart uncomforted by human nearness a room may open almost human arms, and the being to whom no four walls mean more than any others, is, at such hours, expatriate everywhere.

Lily had no heart to lean on. Her relation with her aunt was as superficial as that of chance lodgers who pass on the stairs. But even had the two been in closer contact, it was impossible to think of Mrs. Peniston’s mind as offering shelter or comprehension to such misery as Lily’s. As the pain that can be told is but half a pain, so the pity that questions has little healing in its touch. What Lily craved was the darkness made by enfolding arms, the silence which is not solitude, but compassion holding its breath.

She started up and looked forth on the passing streets. Gerty! — they were nearing Gerty’s corner. If only she could reach there before this labouring anguish burst from her breast to her lips — if only she could feel the hold of Gerty’s arms while she shook in the ague-fit of fear that was coming upon her! She pushed up the door in the roof and called the address to the driver. It was not so late — Gerty might still be waking. And even if she were not, the sound of the bell would penetrate every recess of her tiny apartment, and rouse her to answer her friend’s call.

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