The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

Chapter 14

Gerty Farish, the morning after the Wellington Brys’ entertainment, woke from dreams as happy as Lily’s. If they were less vivid in hue, more subdued to the half-tints of her personality and her experience, they were for that very reason better suited to her mental vision. Such flashes of joy as Lily moved in would have blinded Miss Farish, who was accustomed, in the way of happiness, to such scant light as shone through the cracks of other people’s lives.

Now she was the centre of a little illumination of her own: a mild but unmistakable beam, compounded of Lawrence Selden’s growing kindness to herself and the discovery that he extended his liking to Lily Bart. If these two factors seem incompatible to the student of feminine psychology, it must be remembered that Gerty had always been a parasite in the moral order, living on the crumbs of other tables, and content to look through the window at the banquet spread for her friends. Now that she was enjoying a little private feast of her own, it would have seemed incredibly selfish not to lay a plate for a friend; and there was no one with whom she would rather have shared her enjoyment than Miss Bart.

As to the nature of Selden’s growing kindness, Gerty would no more have dared to define it than she would have tried to learn a butterfly’s colours by knocking the dust from its wings. To seize on the wonder would be to brush off its bloom, and perhaps see it fade and stiffen in her hand: better the sense of beauty palpitating out of reach, while she held her breath and watched where it would alight. Yet Selden’s manner at the Brys’ had brought the flutter of wings so close that they seemed to be beating in her own heart. She had never seen him so alert, so responsive, so attentive to what she had to say. His habitual manner had an absent-minded kindliness which she accepted, and was grateful for, as the liveliest sentiment her presence was likely to inspire; but she was quick to feel in him a change implying that for once she could give pleasure as well as receive it.

And it was so delightful that this higher degree of sympathy should be reached through their interest in Lily Bart!

Gerty’s affection for her friend — a sentiment that had learned to keep itself alive on the scantiest diet — had grown to active adoration since Lily’s restless curiosity had drawn her into the circle of Miss Farish’s work. Lily’s taste of beneficence had wakened in her a momentary appetite for well-doing. Her visit to the Girls’ Club had first brought her in contact with the dramatic contrasts of life. She had always accepted with philosophic calm the fact that such existences as hers were pedestalled on foundations of obscure humanity. The dreary limbo of dinginess lay all around and beneath that little illuminated circle in which life reached its finest efflorescence, as the mud and sleet of a winter night enclose a hot-house filled with tropical flowers. All this was in the natural order of things, and the orchid basking in its artificially created atmosphere could round the delicate curves of its petals undisturbed by the ice on the panes.

But it is one thing to live comfortably with the abstract conception of poverty, another to be brought in contact with its human embodiments. Lily had never conceived of these victims of fate otherwise than in the mass. That the mass was composed of individual lives, innumerable separate centres of sensation, with her own eager reachings for pleasure, her own fierce revulsions from pain — that some of these bundles of feeling were clothed in shapes not so unlike her own, with eyes meant to look on gladness, and young lips shaped for love — this discovery gave Lily one of those sudden shocks of pity that sometimes decentralize a life. Lily’s nature was incapable of such renewal: she could feel other demands only through her own, and no pain was long vivid which did not press on an answering nerve. But for the moment she was drawn out of herself by the interest of her direct relation with a world so unlike her own. She had supplemented her first gift by personal assistance to one or two of Miss Farish’s most appealing subjects, and the admiration and interest her presence excited among the tired workers at the club ministered in a new form to her insatiable desire to please.

Gerty Farish was not a close enough reader of character to disentangle the mixed threads of which Lily’s philanthropy was woven. She supposed her beautiful friend to be actuated by the same motive as herself — that sharpening of the moral vision which makes all human suffering so near and insistent that the other aspects of life fade into remoteness. Gerty lived by such simple formulas that she did not hesitate to class her friend’s state with the emotional “change of heart” to which her dealings with the poor had accustomed her; and she rejoiced in the thought that she had been the humble instrument of this renewal. Now she had an answer to all criticisms of Lily’s conduct: as she had said, she knew “the real Lily,” and the discovery that Selden shared her knowledge raised her placid acceptance of life to a dazzled sense of its possibilities — a sense farther enlarged, in the course of the afternoon, by the receipt of a telegram from Selden asking if he might dine with her that evening.

While Gerty was lost in the happy bustle which this announcement produced in her small household, Selden was at one with her in thinking with intensity of Lily Bart. The case which had called him to Albany was not complicated enough to absorb all his attention, and he had the professional faculty of keeping a part of his mind free when its services were not needed. This part — which at the moment seemed dangerously like the whole — was filled to the brim with the sensations of the previous evening. Selden understood the symptoms: he recognized the fact that he was paying up, as there had always been a chance of his having to pay up, for the voluntary exclusions of his past. He had meant to keep free from permanent ties, not from any poverty of feeling, but because, in a different way, he was, as much as Lily, the victim of his environment. There had been a germ of truth in his declaration to Gerty Farish that he had never wanted to marry a “nice” girl: the adjective connoting, in his cousin’s vocabulary, certain utilitarian qualities which are apt to preclude the luxury of charm. Now it had been Selden’s fate to have a charming mother: her graceful portrait, all smiles and Cashmere, still emitted a faded scent of the undefinable quality. His father was the kind of man who delights in a charming woman: who quotes her, stimulates her, and keeps her perennially charming. Neither one of the couple cared for money, but their disdain of it took the form of always spending a little more than was prudent. If their house was shabby, it was exquisitely kept; if there were good books on the shelves there were also good dishes on the table. Selden senior had an eye for a picture, his wife an understanding of old lace; and both were so conscious of restraint and discrimination in buying that they never quite knew how it was that the bills mounted up.

Though many of Selden’s friends would have called his parents poor, he had grown up in an atmosphere where restricted means were felt only as a check on aimless profusion: where the few possessions were so good that their rarity gave them a merited relief, and abstinence was combined with elegance in a way exemplified by Mrs. Selden’s knack of wearing her old velvet as if it were new. A man has the advantage of being delivered early from the home point of view, and before Selden left college he had learned that there are as many different ways of going without money as of spending it. Unfortunately, he found no way as agreeable as that practised at home; and his views of womankind in especial were tinged by the remembrance of the one woman who had given him his sense of “values.” It was from her that he inherited his detachment from the sumptuary side of life: the stoic’s carelessness of material things, combined with the Epicurean’s pleasure in them. Life shorn of either feeling appeared to him a diminished thing; and nowhere was the blending of the two ingredients so essential as in the character of a pretty woman.

It had always seemed to Selden that experience offered a great deal besides the sentimental adventure, yet he could vividly conceive of a love which should broaden and deepen till it became the central fact of life. What he could not accept, in his own case, was the makeshift alternative of a relation that should be less than this: that should leave some portions of his nature unsatisfied, while it put an undue strain on others. He would not, in other words, yield to the growth of an affection which might appeal to pity yet leave the understanding untouched: sympathy should no more delude him than a trick of the eyes, the grace of helplessness than a curve of the cheek.

But now — that little BUT passed like a sponge over all his vows. His reasoned-out resistances seemed for the moment so much less important than the question as to when Lily would receive his note! He yielded himself to the charm of trivial preoccupations, wondering at what hour her reply would be sent, with what words it would begin. As to its import he had no doubt — he was as sure of her surrender as of his own. And so he had leisure to muse on all its exquisite details, as a hard worker, on a holiday morning, might lie still and watch the beam of light travel gradually across his room. But if the new light dazzled, it did not blind him. He could still discern the outline of facts, though his own relation to them had changed. He was no less conscious than before of what was said of Lily Bart, but he could separate the woman he knew from the vulgar estimate of her. His mind turned to Gerty Farish’s words, and the wisdom of the world seemed a groping thing beside the insight of innocence. BLESSED ARE THE PURE IN HEART, FOR THEY SHALL SEE GOD— even the hidden god in their neighbour’s breast! Selden was in the state of impassioned self-absorption that the first surrender to love produces. His craving was for the companionship of one whose point of view should justify his own, who should confirm, by deliberate observation, the truth to which his intuitions had leaped. He could not wait for the midday recess, but seized a moment’s leisure in court to scribble his telegram to Gerty Farish.

Reaching town, he was driven direct to his club, where he hoped a note from Miss Bart might await him. But his box contained only a line of rapturous assent from Gerty, and he was turning away disappointed when he was hailed by a voice from the smoking room.

“Hallo, Lawrence! Dining here? Take a bite with me — I’ve ordered a canvas-back.”

He discovered Trenor, in his day clothes, sitting, with a tall glass at his elbow, behind the folds of a sporting journal.

Selden thanked him, but pleaded an engagement.

“Hang it, I believe every man in town has an engagement tonight. I shall have the club to myself. You know how I’m living this winter, rattling round in that empty house. My wife meant to come to town today, but she’s put it off again, and how is a fellow to dine alone in a room with the looking-glasses covered, and nothing but a bottle of Harvey sauce on the side-board? I say, Lawrence, chuck your engagement and take pity on me — it gives me the blue devils to dine alone, and there’s nobody but that canting ass Wetherall in the club.”

“Sorry, Gus — I can’t do it.”

As Selden turned away, he noticed the dark flush on Trenor’s face, the unpleasant moisture of his intensely white forehead, the way his jewelled rings were wedged in the creases of his fat red fingers. Certainly the beast was predominating — the beast at the bottom of the glass. And he had heard this man’s name coupled with Lily’s! Bah — the thought sickened him; all the way back to his rooms he was haunted by the sight of Trenor’s fat creased hands ——

On his table lay the note: Lily had sent it to his rooms. He knew what was in it before he broke the seal — a grey seal with BEYOND! beneath a flying ship. Ah, he would take her beyond — beyond the ugliness, the pettiness, the attrition and corrosion of the soul ——

Gerty’s little sitting-room sparkled with welcome when Selden entered it. Its modest “effects,” compact of enamel paint and ingenuity, spoke to him in the language just then sweetest to his ear. It is surprising how little narrow walls and a low ceiling matter, when the roof of the soul has suddenly been raised. Gerty sparkled too; or at least shone with a tempered radiance. He had never before noticed that she had “points” — really, some good fellow might do worse . . . Over the little dinner (and here, again, the effects were wonderful) he told her she ought to marry — he was in a mood to pair off the whole world. She had made the caramel custard with her own hands? It was sinful to keep such gifts to herself. He reflected with a throb of pride that Lily could trim her own hats — she had told him so the day of their walk at Bellomont.

He did not speak of Lily till after dinner. During the little repast he kept the talk on his hostess, who, fluttered at being the centre of observation, shone as rosy as the candle-shades she had manufactured for the occasion. Selden evinced an extraordinary interest in her household arrangements: complimented her on the ingenuity with which she had utilized every inch of her small quarters, asked how her servant managed about afternoons out, learned that one may improvise delicious dinners in a chafing-dish, and uttered thoughtful generalizations on the burden of a large establishment.

When they were in the sitting-room again, where they fitted as snugly as bits in a puzzle, and she had brewed the coffee, and poured it into her grandmother’s egg-shell cups, his eye, as he leaned back, basking in the warm fragrance, lighted on a recent photograph of Miss Bart, and the desired transition was effected without an effort. The photograph was well enough — but to catch her as she had looked last night! Gerty agreed with him — never had she been so radiant. But could photography capture that light? There had been a new look in her face — something different; yes, Selden agreed there had been something different. The coffee was so exquisite that he asked for a second cup: such a contrast to the watery stuff at the club! Ah, your poor bachelor with his impersonal club fare, alternating with the equally impersonal CUISINE of the dinner-party! A man who lived in lodgings missed the best part of life — he pictured the flavourless solitude of Trenor’s repast, and felt a moment’s compassion for the man . . . But to return to Lily — and again and again he returned, questioning, conjecturing, leading Gerty on, draining her inmost thoughts of their stored tenderness for her friend.

At first she poured herself out unstintingly, happy in this perfect communion of their sympathies. His understanding of Lily helped to confirm her own belief in her friend. They dwelt together on the fact that Lily had had no chance. Gerty instanced her generous impulses — her restlessness and discontent. The fact that her life had never satisfied her proved that she was made for better things. She might have married more than once — the conventional rich marriage which she had been taught to consider the sole end of existence — but when the opportunity came she had always shrunk from it. Percy Gryce, for instance, had been in love with her — every one at Bellomont had supposed them to be engaged, and her dismissal of him was thought inexplicable. This view of the Gryce incident chimed too well with Selden’s mood not to be instantly adopted by him, with a flash of retrospective contempt for what had once seemed the obvious solution. If rejection there had been — and he wondered now that he had ever doubted it! — then he held the key to the secret, and the hillsides of Bellomont were lit up, not with sunset, but with dawn. It was he who had wavered and disowned the face of opportunity — and the joy now warming his breast might have been a familiar inmate if he had captured it in its first flight.

It was at this point, perhaps, that a joy just trying its wings in Gerty’s heart dropped to earth and lay still. She sat facing Selden, repeating mechanically: “No, she has never been understood —— ” and all the while she herself seemed to be sitting in the centre of a great glare of comprehension. The little confidential room, where a moment ago their thoughts had touched elbows like their chairs, grew to unfriendly vastness, separating her from Selden by all the length of her new vision of the future — and that future stretched out interminably, with her lonely figure toiling down it, a mere speck on the solitude.

“She is herself with a few people only; and you are one of them,” she heard Selden saying. And again: “Be good to her, Gerty, won’t you?” and: “She has it in her to become whatever she is believed to be — you’ll help her by believing the best of her?”

The words beat on Gerty’s brain like the sound of a language which has seemed familiar at a distance, but on approaching is found to be unintelligible. He had come to talk to her of Lily — that was all! There had been a third at the feast she had spread for him, and that third had taken her own place. She tried to follow what he was saying, to cling to her own part in the talk — but it was all as meaningless as the boom of waves in a drowning head, and she felt, as the drowning may feel, that to sink would be nothing beside the pain of struggling to keep up.

Selden rose, and she drew a deep breath, feeling that soon she could yield to the blessed waves.

“Mrs. Fisher’s? You say she was dining there? There’s music afterward; I believe I had a card from her.” He glanced at the foolish pink-faced clock that was drumming out this hideous hour. “A quarter past ten? I might look in there now; the Fisher evenings are amusing. I haven’t kept you up too late, Gerty? You look tired — I’ve rambled on and bored you.” And in the unwonted overflow of his feelings, he left a cousinly kiss upon her cheek.

At Mrs. Fisher’s, through the cigar-smoke of the studio, a dozen voices greeted Selden. A song was pending as he entered, and he dropped into a seat near his hostess, his eyes roaming in search of Miss Bart. But she was not there, and the discovery gave him a pang out of all proportion to its seriousness; since the note in his breast-pocket assured him that at four the next day they would meet. To his impatience it seemed immeasurably long to wait, and half-ashamed of the impulse, he leaned to Mrs. Fisher to ask, as the music ceased, if Miss Bart had not dined with her.

“Lily? She’s just gone. She had to run off, I forget where. Wasn’t she wonderful last night?”

“Who’s that? Lily?” asked Jack Stepney, from the depths of a neighbouring arm-chair. “Really, you know, I’m no prude, but when it comes to a girl standing there as if she was up at auction — I thought seriously of speaking to cousin Julia.”

“You didn’t know Jack had become our social censor?” Mrs. Fisher said to Selden with a laugh; and Stepney spluttered, amid the general derision: “But she’s a cousin, hang it, and when a man’s married — TOWN TALK was full of her this morning.”

“Yes: lively reading that was,” said Mr. Ned Van Alstyne, stroking his moustache to hide the smile behind it. “Buy the dirty sheet? No, of course not; some fellow showed it to me — but I’d heard the stories before. When a girl’s as good-looking as that she’d better marry; then no questions are asked. In our imperfectly organized society there is no provision as yet for the young woman who claims the privileges of marriage without assuming its obligations.”

“Well, I understand Lily is about to assume them in the shape of Mr. Rosedale,” Mrs. Fisher said with a laugh.

“Rosedale — good heavens!” exclaimed Van Alstyne, dropping his eye-glass. “Stepney, that’s your fault for foisting the brute on us.”

“Oh, confound it, you know, we don’t MARRY Rosedale in our family,” Stepney languidly protested; but his wife, who sat in oppressive bridal finery at the other side of the room, quelled him with the judicial reflection: “In Lily’s circumstances it’s a mistake to have too high a standard.”

“I hear even Rosedale has been scared by the talk lately,” Mrs. Fisher rejoined; “but the sight of her last night sent him off his head. What do you think he said to me after her TABLEAU? ‘My God, Mrs. Fisher, if I could get Paul Morpeth to paint her like that, the picture’d appreciate a hundred per cent in ten years.’”

“By Jove, — but isn’t she about somewhere?” exclaimed Van Alstyne, restoring his glass with an uneasy glance.

“No; she ran off while you were all mixing the punch down stairs. Where was she going, by the way? What’s on tonight? I hadn’t heard of anything.”

“Oh, not a party, I think,” said an inexperienced young Farish who had arrived late. “I put her in her cab as I was coming in, and she gave the driver the Trenors’ address.”

“The Trenors’?” exclaimed Mrs. Jack Stepney. “Why, the house is closed — Judy telephoned me from Bellomont this evening.”

“Did she? That’s queer. I’m sure I’m not mistaken. Well, come now, Trenor’s there, anyhow — I— oh, well — the fact is, I’ve no head for numbers,” he broke off, admonished by the nudge of an adjoining foot, and the smile that circled the room.

In its unpleasant light Selden had risen and was shaking hands with his hostess. The air of the place stifled him, and he wondered why he had stayed in it so long.

On the doorstep he stood still, remembering a phrase of Lily’s: “It seems to me you spend a good deal of time in the element you disapprove of.”

Well — what had brought him there but the quest of her? It was her element, not his. But he would lift her out of it, take her beyond! That BEYOND! on her letter was like a cry for rescue. He knew that Perseus’s task is not done when he has loosed Andromeda’s chains, for her limbs are numb with bondage, and she cannot rise and walk, but clings to him with dragging arms as he beats back to land with his burden. Well, he had strength for both — it was her weakness which had put the strength in him. It was not, alas, a clean rush of waves they had to win through, but a clogging morass of old associations and habits, and for the moment its vapours were in his throat. But he would see clearer, breathe freer in her presence: she was at once the dead weight at his breast and the spar which should float them to safety. He smiled at the whirl of metaphor with which he was trying to build up a defence against the influences of the last hour. It was pitiable that he, who knew the mixed motives on which social judgments depend, should still feel himself so swayed by them. How could he lift Lily to a freer vision of life, if his own view of her was to be coloured by any mind in which he saw her reflected?

The moral oppression had produced a physical craving for air, and he strode on, opening his lungs to the reverberating coldness of the night. At the corner of Fifth Avenue Van Alstyne hailed him with an offer of company.

“Walking? A good thing to blow the smoke out of one’s head. Now that women have taken to tobacco we live in a bath of nicotine. It would be a curious thing to study the effect of cigarettes on the relation of the sexes. Smoke is almost as great a solvent as divorce: both tend to obscure the moral issue.”

Nothing could have been less consonant with Selden’s mood than Van Alstyne’s after-dinner aphorisms, but as long as the latter confined himself to generalities his listener’s nerves were in control. Happily Van Alstyne prided himself on his summing up of social aspects, and with Selden for audience was eager to show the sureness of his touch. Mrs. Fisher lived in an East side street near the Park, and as the two men walked down Fifth Avenue the new architectural developments of that versatile thoroughfare invited Van Alstyne’s comment.

“That Greiner house, now — a typical rung in the social ladder! The man who built it came from a MILIEU where all the dishes are put on the table at once. His facade is a complete architectural meal; if he had omitted a style his friends might have thought the money had given out. Not a bad purchase for Rosedale, though: attracts attention, and awes the Western sight-seer. By and bye he’ll get out of that phase, and want something that the crowd will pass and the few pause before. Especially if he marries my clever cousin —— ”

Selden dashed in with the query: “And the Wellington Brys’? Rather clever of its kind, don’t you think?”

They were just beneath the wide white facade, with its rich restraint of line, which suggested the clever corseting of a redundant figure.

“That’s the next stage: the desire to imply that one has been to Europe, and has a standard. I’m sure Mrs. Bry thinks her house a copy of the TRIANON; in America every marble house with gilt furniture is thought to be a copy of the TRIANON. What a clever chap that architect is, though — how he takes his client’s measure! He has put the whole of Mrs. Bry in his use of the composite order. Now for the Trenors, you remember, he chose the Corinthian: exuberant, but based on the best precedent. The Trenor house is one of his best things — doesn’t look like a banqueting-hall turned inside out. I hear Mrs. Trenor wants to build out a new ball-room, and that divergence from Gus on that point keeps her at Bellomont. The dimensions of the Brys’ ball-room must rankle: you may be sure she knows ’em as well as if she’d been there last night with a yard-measure. Who said she was in town, by the way? That Farish boy? She isn’t, I know; Mrs. Stepney was right; the house is dark, you see: I suppose Gus lives in the back.”

He had halted opposite the Trenors’ corner, and Selden perforce stayed his steps also. The house loomed obscure and uninhabited; only an oblong gleam above the door spoke of provisional occupancy.

“They’ve bought the house at the back: it gives them a hundred and fifty feet in the side street. There’s where the ball-room’s to be, with a gallery connecting it: billiard-room and so on above. I suggested changing the entrance, and carrying the drawing-room across the whole Fifth Avenue front; you see the front door corresponds with the windows —— ”

The walking-stick which Van Alstyne swung in demonstration dropped to a startled “Hallo!” as the door opened and two figures were seen silhouetted against the hall-light. At the same moment a hansom halted at the curb-stone, and one of the figures floated down to it in a haze of evening draperies; while the other, black and bulky, remained persistently projected against the light.

For an immeasurable second the two spectators of the incident were silent; then the house-door closed, the hansom rolled off, and the whole scene slipped by as if with the turn of a stereopticon.

Van Alstyne dropped his eye-glass with a low whistle.

“A— hem — nothing of this, eh, Selden? As one of the family, I know I may count on you — appearances are deceptive — and Fifth Avenue is so imperfectly lighted —— ”

“Goodnight,” said Selden, turning sharply down the side street without seeing the other’s extended hand.

Alone with her cousin’s kiss, Gerty stared upon her thoughts. He had kissed her before — but not with another woman on his lips. If he had spared her that she could have drowned quietly, welcoming the dark flood as it submerged her. But now the flood was shot through with glory, and it was harder to drown at sunrise than in darkness. Gerty hid her face from the light, but it pierced to the crannies of her soul. She had been so contented, life had seemed so simple and sufficient — why had he come to trouble her with new hopes? And Lily — Lily, her best friend! Woman-like, she accused the woman. Perhaps, had it not been for Lily, her fond imagining might have become truth. Selden had always liked her — had understood and sympathized with the modest independence of her life. He, who had the reputation of weighing all things in the nice balance of fastidious perceptions, had been uncritical and simple in his view of her: his cleverness had never overawed her because she had felt at home in his heart. And now she was thrust out, and the door barred against her by Lily’s hand! Lily, for whose admission there she herself had pleaded! The situation was lighted up by a dreary flash of irony. She knew Selden — she saw how the force of her faith in Lily must have helped to dispel his hesitations. She remembered, too, how Lily had talked of him — she saw herself bringing the two together, making them known to each other. On Selden’s part, no doubt, the wound inflicted was inconscient; he had never guessed her foolish secret; but Lily — Lily must have known! When, in such matters, are a woman’s perceptions at fault? And if she knew, then she had deliberately despoiled her friend, and in mere wantonness of power, since, even to Gerty’s suddenly flaming jealousy, it seemed incredible that Lily should wish to be Selden’s wife. Lily might be incapable of marrying for money, but she was equally incapable of living without it, and Selden’s eager investigations into the small economies of house-keeping made him appear to Gerty as tragically duped as herself.

She remained long in her sitting-room, where the embers were crumbling to cold grey, and the lamp paled under its gay shade. Just beneath it stood the photograph of Lily Bart, looking out imperially on the cheap gimcracks, the cramped furniture of the little room. Could Selden picture her in such an interior? Gerty felt the poverty, the insignificance of her surroundings: she beheld her life as it must appear to Lily. And the cruelty of Lily’s judgments smote upon her memory. She saw that she had dressed her idol with attributes of her own making. When had Lily ever really felt, or pitied, or understood? All she wanted was the taste of new experiences: she seemed like some cruel creature experimenting in a laboratory.

The pink-faced clock drummed out another hour, and Gerty rose with a start. She had an appointment early the next morning with a district visitor on the East side. She put out her lamp, covered the fire, and went into her bedroom to undress. In the little glass above her dressing-table she saw her face reflected against the shadows of the room, and tears blotted the reflection. What right had she to dream the dreams of loveliness? A dull face invited a dull fate. She cried quietly as she undressed, laying aside her clothes with her habitual precision, setting everything in order for the next day, when the old life must be taken up as though there had been no break in its routine. Her servant did not come till eight o’clock, and she prepared her own tea-tray and placed it beside the bed. Then she locked the door of the flat, extinguished her light and lay down. But on her bed sleep would not come, and she lay face to face with the fact that she hated Lily Bart. It closed with her in the darkness like some formless evil to be blindly grappled with. Reason, judgment, renunciation, all the sane daylight forces, were beaten back in the sharp struggle for self-preservation. She wanted happiness — wanted it as fiercely and unscrupulously as Lily did, but without Lily’s power of obtaining it. And in her conscious impotence she lay shivering, and hated her friend ——

A ring at the door-bell caught her to her feet. She struck a light and stood startled, listening. For a moment her heart beat incoherently, then she felt the sobering touch of fact, and remembered that such calls were not unknown in her charitable work. She flung on her dressing-gown to answer the summons, and unlocking her door, confronted the shining vision of Lily Bart.

Gerty’s first movement was one of revulsion. She shrank back as though Lily’s presence flashed too sudden a light upon her misery. Then she heard her name in a cry, had a glimpse of her friend’s face, and felt herself caught and clung to.

“Lily — what is it?” she exclaimed.

Miss Bart released her, and stood breathing brokenly, like one who has gained shelter after a long flight.

“I was so cold — I couldn’t go home. Have you a fire?”

Gerty’s compassionate instincts, responding to the swift call of habit, swept aside all her reluctances. Lily was simply some one who needed help — for what reason, there was no time to pause and conjecture: disciplined sympathy checked the wonder on Gerty’s lips, and made her draw her friend silently into the sitting-room and seat her by the darkened hearth.

“There is kindling wood here: the fire will burn in a minute.”

She knelt down, and the flame leapt under her rapid hands. It flashed strangely through the tears which still blurred her eyes, and smote on the white ruin of Lily’s face. The girls looked at each other in silence; then Lily repeated: “I couldn’t go home.”

“No — no — you came here, dear! You’re cold and tired — sit quiet, and I’ll make you some tea.”

Gerty had unconsciously adopted the soothing note of her trade: all personal feeling was merged in the sense of ministry, and experience had taught her that the bleeding must be stayed before the wound is probed.

Lily sat quiet, leaning to the fire: the clatter of cups behind her soothed her as familiar noises hush a child whom silence has kept wakeful. But when Gerty stood at her side with the tea she pushed it away, and turned an estranged eye on the familiar room.

“I came here because I couldn’t bear to be alone,” she said.

Gerty set down the cup and knelt beside her.

“Lily! Something has happened — can’t you tell me?”

“I couldn’t bear to lie awake in my room till morning. I hate my room at Aunt Julia’s — so I came here —— ”

She stirred suddenly, broke from her apathy, and clung to Gerty in a fresh burst of fear.

“Oh, Gerty, the furies . . . you know the noise of their wings — alone, at night, in the dark? But you don’t know — there is nothing to make the dark dreadful to you —— ”

The words, flashing back on Gerty’s last hours, struck from her a faint derisive murmur; but Lily, in the blaze of her own misery, was blinded to everything outside it.

“You’ll let me stay? I shan’t mind when daylight comes — Is it late? Is the night nearly over? It must be awful to be sleepless — everything stands by the bed and stares —— ”

Miss Farish caught her straying hands. “Lily, look at me! Something has happened — an accident? You have been frightened — what has frightened you? Tell me if you can — a word or two — so that I can help you.”

Lily shook her head.

“I am not frightened: that’s not the word. Can you imagine looking into your glass some morning and seeing a disfigurement — some hideous change that has come to you while you slept? Well, I seem to myself like that — I can’t bear to see myself in my own thoughts — I hate ugliness, you know — I’ve always turned from it — but I can’t explain to you — you wouldn’t understand.”

She lifted her head and her eyes fell on the clock.

“How long the night is! And I know I shan’t sleep tomorrow. Some one told me my father used to lie sleepless and think of horrors. And he was not wicked, only unfortunate — and I see now how he must have suffered, lying alone with his thoughts! But I am bad — a bad girl — all my thoughts are bad — I have always had bad people about me. Is that any excuse? I thought I could manage my own life — I was proud — proud! but now I’m on their level —— ”

Sobs shook her, and she bowed to them like a tree in a dry storm.

Gerty knelt beside her, waiting, with the patience born of experience, till this gust of misery should loosen fresh speech. She had first imagined some physical shock, some peril of the crowded streets, since Lily was presumably on her way home from Carry Fisher’s; but she now saw that other nerve-centres were smitten, and her mind trembled back from conjecture.

Lily’s sobs ceased, and she lifted her head.

“There are bad girls in your slums. Tell me — do they ever pick themselves up? Ever forget, and feel as they did before?”

“Lily! you mustn’t speak so — you’re dreaming.”

“Don’t they always go from bad to worse? There’s no turning back — your old self rejects you, and shuts you out.”

She rose, stretching her arms as if in utter physical weariness. “Go to bed, dear! You work hard and get up early. I’ll watch here by the fire, and you’ll leave the light, and your door open. All I want is to feel that you are near me.” She laid both hands on Gerty’s shoulders, with a smile that was like sunrise on a sea strewn with wreckage.

“I can’t leave you, Lily. Come and lie on my bed. Your hands are frozen — you must undress and be made warm.” Gerty paused with sudden compunction. “But Mrs. Peniston — it’s past midnight! What will she think?”

“She goes to bed. I have a latch-key. It doesn’t matter — I can’t go back there.”

“There’s no need to: you shall stay here. But you must tell me where you have been. Listen, Lily — it will help you to speak!” She regained Miss Bart’s hands, and pressed them against her. “Try to tell me — it will clear your poor head. Listen — you were dining at Carry Fisher’s.” Gerty paused and added with a flash of heroism: “Lawrence Selden went from here to find you.”

At the word, Lily’s face melted from locked anguish to the open misery of a child. Her lips trembled and her gaze widened with tears.

“He went to find me? And I missed him! Oh, Gerty, he tried to help me. He told me — he warned me long ago — he foresaw that I should grow hateful to myself!”

The name, as Gerty saw with a clutch at the heart, had loosened the springs of self-pity in her friend’s dry breast, and tear by tear Lily poured out the measure of her anguish. She had dropped sideways in Gerty’s big arm-chair, her head buried where lately Selden’s had leaned, in a beauty of abandonment that drove home to Gerty’s aching senses the inevitableness of her own defeat. Ah, it needed no deliberate purpose on Lily’s part to rob her of her dream! To look on that prone loveliness was to see in it a natural force, to recognize that love and power belong to such as Lily, as renunciation and service are the lot of those they despoil. But if Selden’s infatuation seemed a fatal necessity, the effect that his name produced shook Gerty’s steadfastness with a last pang. Men pass through such superhuman loves and outlive them: they are the probation subduing the heart to human joys. How gladly Gerty would have welcomed the ministry of healing: how willingly have soothed the sufferer back to tolerance of life! But Lily’s self-betrayal took this last hope from her. The mortal maid on the shore is helpless against the siren who loves her prey: such victims are floated back dead from their adventure.

Lily sprang up and caught her with strong hands. “Gerty, you know him — you understand him — tell me; if I went to him, if I told him everything — if I said: ‘I am bad through and through — I want admiration, I want excitement, I want money — ’ yes, MONEY! That’s my shame, Gerty — and it’s known, it’s said of me — it’s what men think of me — If I said it all to him — told him the whole story — said plainly: ‘I’ve sunk lower than the lowest, for I’ve taken what they take, and not paid as they pay’ — oh, Gerty, you know him, you can speak for him: if I told him everything would he loathe me? Or would he pity me, and understand me, and save me from loathing myself?”

Gerty stood cold and passive. She knew the hour of her probation had come, and her poor heart beat wildly against its destiny. As a dark river sweeps by under a lightning flash, she saw her chance of happiness surge past under a flash of temptation. What prevented her from saying: “He is like other men?” She was not so sure of him, after all! But to do so would have been like blaspheming her love. She could not put him before herself in any light but the noblest: she must trust him to the height of her own passion.

“Yes: I know him; he will help you,” she said; and in a moment Lily’s passion was weeping itself out against her breast.

There was but one bed in the little flat, and the two girls lay down on it side by side when Gerty had unlaced Lily’s dress and persuaded her to put her lips to the warm tea. The light extinguished, they lay still in the darkness, Gerty shrinking to the outer edge of the narrow couch to avoid contact with her bed-fellow. Knowing that Lily disliked to be caressed, she had long ago learned to check her demonstrative impulses toward her friend. But tonight every fibre in her body shrank from Lily’s nearness: it was torture to listen to her breathing, and feel the sheet stir with it. As Lily turned, and settled to completer rest, a strand of her hair swept Gerty’s cheek with its fragrance. Everything about her was warm and soft and scented: even the stains of her grief became her as rain-drops do the beaten rose. But as Gerty lay with arms drawn down her side, in the motionless narrowness of an effigy, she felt a stir of sobs from the breathing warmth beside her, and Lily flung out her hand, groped for her friend’s, and held it fast.

“Hold me, Gerty, hold me, or I shall think of things,” she moaned; and Gerty silently slipped an arm under her, pillowing her head in its hollow as a mother makes a nest for a tossing child. In the warm hollow Lily lay still and her breathing grew low and regular. Her hand still clung to Gerty’s as if to ward off evil dreams, but the hold of her fingers relaxed, her head sank deeper into its shelter, and Gerty felt that she slept.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/house_of_mirth/part1.14.html

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