The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

Chapter 15

When lily woke she had the bed to herself, and the winter light was in the room.

She sat up, bewildered by the strangeness of her surroundings; then memory returned, and she looked about her with a shiver. In the cold slant of light reflected from the back wall of a neighbouring building, she saw her evening dress and opera cloak lying in a tawdry heap on a chair. Finery laid off is as unappetizing as the remains of a feast, and it occurred to Lily that, at home, her maid’s vigilance had always spared her the sight of such incongruities. Her body ached with fatigue, and with the constriction of her attitude in Gerty’s bed. All through her troubled sleep she had been conscious of having no space to toss in, and the long effort to remain motionless made her feel as if she had spent her night in a train.

This sense of physical discomfort was the first to assert itself; then she perceived, beneath it, a corresponding mental prostration, a languor of horror more insufferable than the first rush of her disgust. The thought of having to wake every morning with this weight on her breast roused her tired mind to fresh effort. She must find some way out of the slough into which she had stumbled: it was not so much compunction as the dread of her morning thoughts that pressed on her the need of action. But she was unutterably tired; it was weariness to think connectedly. She lay back, looking about the poor slit of a room with a renewal of physical distaste. The outer air, penned between high buildings, brought no freshness through the window; steam-heat was beginning to sing in a coil of dingy pipes, and a smell of cooking penetrated the crack of the door.

The door opened, and Gerty, dressed and hatted, entered with a cup of tea. Her face looked sallow and swollen in the dreary light, and her dull hair shaded imperceptibly into the tones of her skin.

She glanced shyly at Lily, asking in an embarrassed tone how she felt; Lily answered with the same constraint, and raised herself up to drink the tea.

“I must have been over-tired last night; I think I had a nervous attack in the carriage,” she said, as the drink brought clearness to her sluggish thoughts.

“You were not well; I am so glad you came here,” Gerty returned.

“But how am I to get home? And Aunt Julia —?”

“She knows; I telephoned early, and your maid has brought your things. But won’t you eat something? I scrambled the eggs myself.”

Lily could not eat; but the tea strengthened her to rise and dress under her maid’s searching gaze. It was a relief to her that Gerty was obliged to hasten away: the two kissed silently, but without a trace of the previous night’s emotion.

Lily found Mrs. Peniston in a state of agitation. She had sent for Grace Stepney and was taking digitalis. Lily breasted the storm of enquiries as best she could, explaining that she had had an attack of faintness on her way back from Carry Fisher’s; that, fearing she would not have strength to reach home, she had gone to Miss Farish’s instead; but that a quiet night had restored her, and that she had no need of a doctor.

This was a relief to Mrs. Peniston, who could give herself up to her own symptoms, and Lily was advised to go and lie down, her aunt’s panacea for all physical and moral disorders. In the solitude of her own room she was brought back to a sharp contemplation of facts. Her daylight view of them necessarily differed from the cloudy vision of the night. The winged furies were now prowling gossips who dropped in on each other for tea. But her fears seemed the uglier, thus shorn of their vagueness; and besides, she had to act, not rave. For the first time she forced herself to reckon up the exact amount of her debt to Trenor; and the result of this hateful computation was the discovery that she had, in all, received nine thousand dollars from him. The flimsy pretext on which it had been given and received shrivelled up in the blaze of her shame: she knew that not a penny of it was her own, and that to restore her self-respect she must at once repay the whole amount. The inability thus to solace her outraged feelings gave her a paralyzing sense of insignificance. She was realizing for the first time that a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep up than her carriage; and that the maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents, made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it.

After luncheon, when Grace Stepney’s prying eyes had been removed, Lily asked for a word with her aunt. The two ladies went upstairs to the sitting-room, where Mrs. Peniston seated herself in her black satin arm-chair tufted with yellow buttons, beside a bead-work table bearing a bronze box with a miniature of Beatrice Cenci in the lid. Lily felt for these objects the same distaste which the prisoner may entertain for the fittings of the court-room. It was here that her aunt received her rare confidences, and the pink-eyed smirk of the turbaned Beatrice was associated in her mind with the gradual fading of the smile from Mrs. Peniston’s lips. That lady’s dread of a scene gave her an inexorableness which the greatest strength of character could not have produced, since it was independent of all considerations of right or wrong; and knowing this, Lily seldom ventured to assail it. She had never felt less like making the attempt than on the present occasion; but she had sought in vain for any other means of escape from an intolerable situation.

Mrs. Peniston examined her critically. “You’re a bad colour, Lily: this incessant rushing about is beginning to tell on you,” she said.

Miss Bart saw an opening. “I don’t think it’s that, Aunt Julia; I’ve had worries,” she replied.

“Ah,” said Mrs. Peniston, shutting her lips with the snap of a purse closing against a beggar.

“I’m sorry to bother you with them,” Lily continued, “but I really believe my faintness last night was brought on partly by anxious thoughts — ”

“I should have said Carry Fisher’s cook was enough to account for it. She has a woman who was with Maria Melson in 1891 — the spring of the year we went to Aix — and I remember dining there two days before we sailed, and feeling SURE the coppers hadn’t been scoured.”

“I don’t think I ate much; I can’t eat or sleep.” Lily paused, and then said abruptly: “The fact is, Aunt Julia, I owe some money.”

Mrs. Peniston’s face clouded perceptibly, but did not express the astonishment her niece had expected. She was silent, and Lily was forced to continue: “I have been foolish —— ”

“No doubt you have: extremely foolish,” Mrs. Peniston interposed. “I fail to see how any one with your income, and no expenses — not to mention the handsome presents I’ve always given you —— ”

“Oh, you’ve been most generous, Aunt Julia; I shall never forget your kindness. But perhaps you don’t quite realize the expense a girl is put to nowadays —— ”

“I don’t realize that YOU are put to any expense except for your clothes and your railway fares. I expect you to be handsomely dressed; but I paid Celeste’s bill for you last October.”

Lily hesitated: her aunt’s implacable memory had never been more inconvenient. “You were as kind as possible; but I have had to get a few things since —— ”

“What kind of things? Clothes? How much have you spent? Let me see the bill — I daresay the woman is swindling you.”

“Oh, no, I think not: clothes have grown so frightfully expensive; and one needs so many different kinds, with country visits, and golf and skating, and Aiken and Tuxedo —— ”

“Let me see the bill,” Mrs. Peniston repeated.

Lily hesitated again. In the first place, Mme. Celeste had not yet sent in her account, and secondly, the amount it represented was only a fraction of the sum that Lily needed.

“She hasn’t sent in the bill for my winter things, but I KNOW it’s large; and there are one or two other things; I’ve been careless and imprudent — I’m frightened to think of what I owe —— ”

She raised the troubled loveliness of her face to Mrs. Peniston, vainly hoping that a sight so moving to the other sex might not be without effect upon her own. But the effect produced was that of making Mrs. Peniston shrink back apprehensively.

“Really, Lily, you are old enough to manage your own affairs, and after frightening me to death by your performance of last night you might at least choose a better time to worry me with such matters.” Mrs. Peniston glanced at the clock, and swallowed a tablet of digitalis. “If you owe Celeste another thousand, she may send me her account,” she added, as though to end the discussion at any cost.

“I am very sorry, Aunt Julia; I hate to trouble you at such a time; but I have really no choice — I ought to have spoken sooner — I owe a great deal more than a thousand dollars.”

“A great deal more? Do you owe two? She must have robbed you!”

“I told you it was not only Celeste. I— there are other bills — more pressing — that must be settled.”

“What on earth have you been buying? Jewelry? You must have gone off your head,” said Mrs. Peniston with asperity. “But if you have run into debt, you must suffer the consequences, and put aside your monthly income till your bills are paid. If you stay quietly here until next spring, instead of racing about all over the country, you will have no expenses at all, and surely in four or five months you can settle the rest of your bills if I pay the dress-maker now.”

Lily was again silent. She knew she could not hope to extract even a thousand dollars from Mrs. Peniston on the mere plea of paying Celeste’s bill: Mrs. Peniston would expect to go over the dress-maker’s account, and would make out the cheque to her and not to Lily. And yet the money must be obtained before the day was over!

“The debts I speak of are — different — not like tradesmen’s bills,” she began confusedly; but Mrs. Peniston’s look made her almost afraid to continue. Could it be that her aunt suspected anything? The idea precipitated Lily’s avowal.

“The fact is, I’ve played cards a good deal — bridge; the women all do it; girls too — it’s expected. Sometimes I’ve won — won a good deal — but lately I’ve been unlucky — and of course such debts can’t be paid off gradually —— ”

She paused: Mrs. Peniston’s face seemed to be petrifying as she listened.

“Cards — you’ve played cards for money? It’s true, then: when I was told so I wouldn’t believe it. I won’t ask if the other horrors I was told were true too; I’ve heard enough for the state of my nerves. When I think of the example you’ve had in this house! But I suppose it’s your foreign bringing-up — no one knew where your mother picked up her friends. And her Sundays were a scandal — that I know.”

Mrs. Peniston wheeled round suddenly. “You play cards on Sunday?”

Lily flushed with the recollection of certain rainy Sundays at Bellomont and with the Dorsets.

“You’re hard on me, Aunt Julia: I have never really cared for cards, but a girl hates to be thought priggish and superior, and one drifts into doing what the others do. I’ve had a dreadful lesson, and if you’ll help me out this time I promise you — ”

Mrs. Peniston raised her hand warningly. “You needn’t make any promises: it’s unnecessary. When I offered you a home I didn’t undertake to pay your gambling debts.”

“Aunt Julia! You don’t mean that you won’t help me?”

“I shall certainly not do anything to give the impression that I countenance your behaviour. If you really owe your dress-maker, I will settle with her — beyond that I recognize no obligation to assume your debts.”

Lily had risen, and stood pale and quivering before her aunt. Pride stormed in her, but humiliation forced the cry from her lips: “Aunt Julia, I shall be disgraced — I— ” But she could go no farther. If her aunt turned such a stony ear to the fiction of the gambling debts, in what spirit would she receive the terrible avowal of the truth?

“I consider that you ARE disgraced, Lily: disgraced by your conduct far more than by its results. You say your friends have persuaded you to play cards with them; well, they may as well learn a lesson too. They can probably afford to lose a little money — and at any rate, I am not going to waste any of mine in paying them. And now I must ask you to leave me — this scene has been extremely painful, and I have my own health to consider. Draw down the blinds, please; and tell Jennings I will see no one this afternoon but Grace Stepney.”

Lily went up to her own room and bolted the door. She was trembling with fear and anger — the rush of the furies’ wings was in her ears. She walked up and down the room with blind irregular steps. The last door of escape was closed — she felt herself shut in with her dishonour.

Suddenly her wild pacing brought her before the clock on the chimney-piece. Its hands stood at half-past three, and she remembered that Selden was to come to her at four. She had meant to put him off with a word — but now her heart leaped at the thought of seeing him. Was there not a promise of rescue in his love? As she had lain at Gerty’s side the night before, she had thought of his coming, and of the sweetness of weeping out her pain upon his breast. Of course she had meant to clear herself of its consequences before she met him — she had never really doubted that Mrs. Peniston would come to her aid. And she had felt, even in the full storm of her misery, that Selden’s love could not be her ultimate refuge; only it would be so sweet to take a moment’s shelter there, while she gathered fresh strength to go on.

But now his love was her only hope, and as she sat alone with her wretchedness the thought of confiding in him became as seductive as the river’s flow to the suicide. The first plunge would be terrible — but afterward, what blessedness might come! She remembered Gerty’s words: “I know him — he will help you”; and her mind clung to them as a sick person might cling to a healing relic. Oh, if he really understood — if he would help her to gather up her broken life, and put it together in some new semblance in which no trace of the past should remain! He had always made her feel that she was worthy of better things, and she had never been in greater need of such solace. Once and again she shrank at the thought of imperilling his love by her confession: for love was what she needed — it would take the glow of passion to weld together the shattered fragments of her self-esteem. But she recurred to Gerty’s words and held fast to them. She was sure that Gerty knew Selden’s feeling for her, and it had never dawned upon her blindness that Gerty’s own judgment of him was coloured by emotions far more ardent than her own.

Four o’clock found her in the drawing-room: she was sure that Selden would be punctual. But the hour came and passed — it moved on feverishly, measured by her impatient heart-beats. She had time to take a fresh survey of her wretchedness, and to fluctuate anew between the impulse to confide in Selden and the dread of destroying his illusions. But as the minutes passed the need of throwing herself on his comprehension became more urgent: she could not bear the weight of her misery alone. There would be a perilous moment, perhaps: but could she not trust to her beauty to bridge it over, to land her safe in the shelter of his devotion?

But the hour sped on and Selden did not come. Doubtless he had been detained, or had misread her hurriedly scrawled note, taking the four for a five. The ringing of the door-bell a few minutes after five confirmed this supposition, and made Lily hastily resolve to write more legibly in future. The sound of steps in the hall, and of the butler’s voice preceding them, poured fresh energy into her veins. She felt herself once more the alert and competent moulder of emergencies, and the remembrance of her power over Selden flushed her with sudden confidence. But when the drawing-room door opened it was Rosedale who came in.

The reaction caused her a sharp pang, but after a passing movement of irritation at the clumsiness of fate, and at her own carelessness in not denying the door to all but Selden, she controlled herself and greeted Rosedale amicably. It was annoying that Selden, when he came, should find that particular visitor in possession, but Lily was mistress of the art of ridding herself of superfluous company, and to her present mood Rosedale seemed distinctly negligible.

His own view of the situation forced itself upon her after a few moments’ conversation. She had caught at the Brys’ entertainment as an easy impersonal subject, likely to tide them over the interval till Selden appeared, but Mr. Rosedale, tenaciously planted beside the tea-table, his hands in his pockets, his legs a little too freely extended, at once gave the topic a personal turn.

“Pretty well done — well, yes, I suppose it was: Welly Bry’s got his back up and don’t mean to let go till he’s got the hang of the thing. Of course, there were things here and there — things Mrs. Fisher couldn’t be expected to see to — the champagne wasn’t cold, and the coats got mixed in the coat-room. I would have spent more money on the music. But that’s my character: if I want a thing I’m willing to pay: I don’t go up to the counter, and then wonder if the article’s worth the price. I wouldn’t be satisfied to entertain like the Welly Brys; I’d want something that would look more easy and natural, more as if I took it in my stride. And it takes just two things to do that, Miss Bart: money, and the right woman to spend it.”

He paused, and examined her attentively while she affected to rearrange the tea-cups.

“I’ve got the money,” he continued, clearing his throat, “and what I want is the woman — and I mean to have her too.”

He leaned forward a little, resting his hands on the head of his walking-stick. He had seen men of Ned Van Alstyne’s type bring their hats and sticks into a drawing-room, and he thought it added a touch of elegant familiarity to their appearance.

Lily was silent, smiling faintly, with her eyes absently resting on his face. She was in reality reflecting that a declaration would take some time to make, and that Selden must surely appear before the moment of refusal had been reached. Her brooding look, as of a mind withdrawn yet not averted, seemed to Mr. Rosedale full of a subtle encouragement. He would not have liked any evidence of eagerness.

“I mean to have her too,” he repeated, with a laugh intended to strengthen his self-assurance. “I generally HAVE got what I wanted in life, Miss Bart. I wanted money, and I’ve got more than I know how to invest; and now the money doesn’t seem to be of any account unless I can spend it on the right woman. That’s what I want to do with it: I want my wife to make all the other women feel small. I’d never grudge a dollar that was spent on that. But it isn’t every woman can do it, no matter how much you spend on her. There was a girl in some history book who wanted gold shields, or something, and the fellows threw ’em at her, and she was crushed under ’em: they killed her. Well, that’s true enough: some women looked buried under their jewelry. What I want is a woman who’ll hold her head higher the more diamonds I put on it. And when I looked at you the other night at the Brys’, in that plain white dress, looking as if you had a crown on, I said to myself: ‘By gad, if she had one she’d wear it as if it grew on her.’”

Still Lily did not speak, and he continued, warming with his theme: “Tell you what it is, though, that kind of woman costs more than all the rest of ’em put together. If a woman’s going to ignore her pearls, they want to be better than anybody else’s — and so it is with everything else. You know what I mean — you know it’s only the showy things that are cheap. Well, I should want my wife to be able to take the earth for granted if she wanted to. I know there’s one thing vulgar about money, and that’s the thinking about it; and my wife would never have to demean herself in that way.” He paused, and then added, with an unfortunate lapse to an earlier manner: “I guess you know the lady I’ve got in view, Miss Bart.”

Lily raised her head, brightening a little under the challenge. Even through the dark tumult of her thoughts, the clink of Mr. Rosedale’s millions had a faintly seductive note. Oh, for enough of them to cancel her one miserable debt! But the man behind them grew increasingly repugnant in the light of Selden’s expected coming. The contrast was too grotesque: she could scarcely suppress the smile it provoked. She decided that directness would be best.

“If you mean me, Mr. Rosedale, I am very grateful — very much flattered; but I don’t know what I have ever done to make you think — ”

“Oh, if you mean you’re not dead in love with me, I’ve got sense enough left to see that. And I ain’t talking to you as if you were — I presume I know the kind of talk that’s expected under those circumstances. I’m confoundedly gone on you — that’s about the size of it — and I’m just giving you a plain business statement of the consequences. You’re not very fond of me — YET— but you’re fond of luxury, and style, and amusement, and of not having to worry about cash. You like to have a good time, and not have to settle for it; and what I propose to do is to provide for the good time and do the settling.”

He paused, and she returned with a chilling smile: “You are mistaken in one point, Mr. Rosedale: whatever I enjoy I am prepared to settle for.”

She spoke with the intention of making him see that, if his words implied a tentative allusion to her private affairs, she was prepared to meet and repudiate it. But if he recognized her meaning it failed to abash him, and he went on in the same tone: “I didn’t mean to give offence; excuse me if I’ve spoken too plainly. But why ain’t you straight with me — why do you put up that kind of bluff? You know there’ve been times when you were bothered — damned bothered — and as a girl gets older, and things keep moving along, why, before she knows it, the things she wants are liable to move past her and not come back. I don’t say it’s anywhere near that with you yet; but you’ve had a taste of bothers that a girl like yourself ought never to have known about, and what I’m offering you is the chance to turn your back on them once for all.”

The colour burned in Lily’s face as he ended; there was no mistaking the point he meant to make, and to permit it to pass unheeded was a fatal confession of weakness, while to resent it too openly was to risk offending him at a perilous moment. Indignation quivered on her lip; but it was quelled by the secret voice which warned her that she must not quarrel with him. He knew too much about her, and even at the moment when it was essential that he should show himself at his best, he did not scruple to let her see how much he knew. How then would he use his power when her expression of contempt had dispelled his one motive for restraint? Her whole future might hinge on her way of answering him: she had to stop and consider that, in the stress of her other anxieties, as a breathless fugitive may have to pause at the cross-roads and try to decide coolly which turn to take.

“You are quite right, Mr. Rosedale. I HAVE had bothers; and I am grateful to you for wanting to relieve me of them. It is not always easy to be quite independent and self-respecting when one is poor and lives among rich people; I have been careless about money, and have worried about my bills. But I should be selfish and ungrateful if I made that a reason for accepting all you offer, with no better return to make than the desire to be free from my anxieties. You must give me time — time to think of your kindness — and of what I could give you in return for it —— ”

She held out her hand with a charming gesture in which dismissal was shorn of its rigour. Its hint of future leniency made Rosedale rise in obedience to it, a little flushed with his unhoped-for success, and disciplined by the tradition of his blood to accept what was conceded, without undue haste to press for more. Something in his prompt acquiescence frightened her; she felt behind it the stored force of a patience that might subdue the strongest will. But at least they had parted amicably, and he was out of the house without meeting Selden — Selden, whose continued absence now smote her with a new alarm. Rosedale had remained over an hour, and she understood that it was now too late to hope for Selden. He would write explaining his absence, of course; there would be a note from him by the late post. But her confession would have to be postponed; and the chill of the delay settled heavily on her fagged spirit.

It lay heavier when the postman’s last ring brought no note for her, and she had to go upstairs to a lonely night — a night as grim and sleepless as her tortured fancy had pictured it to Gerty. She had never learned to live with her own thoughts, and to be confronted with them through such hours of lucid misery made the confused wretchedness of her previous vigil seem easily bearable.

Daylight disbanded the phantom crew, and made it clear to her that she would hear from Selden before noon; but the day passed without his writing or coming. Lily remained at home, lunching and dining alone with her aunt, who complained of flutterings of the heart, and talked icily on general topics. Mrs. Peniston went to bed early, and when she had gone Lily sat down and wrote a note to Selden. She was about to ring for a messenger to despatch it when her eye fell on a paragraph in the evening paper which lay at her elbow: “Mr. Lawrence Selden was among the passengers sailing this afternoon for Havana and the West Indies on the Windward Liner Antilles.”

She laid down the paper and sat motionless, staring at her note. She understood now that he was never coming — that he had gone away because he was afraid that he might come. She rose, and walking across the floor stood gazing at herself for a long time in the brightly-lit mirror above the mantel-piece. The lines in her face came out terribly — she looked old; and when a girl looks old to herself, how does she look to other people? She moved away, and began to wander aimlessly about the room, fitting her steps with mechanical precision between the monstrous roses of Mrs. Peniston’s Axminster. Suddenly she noticed that the pen with which she had written to Selden still rested against the uncovered inkstand. She seated herself again, and taking out an envelope, addressed it rapidly to Rosedale. Then she laid out a sheet of paper, and sat over it with suspended pen. It had been easy enough to write the date, and “Dear Mr. Rosedale” — but after that her inspiration flagged. She meant to tell him to come to her, but the words refused to shape themselves. At length she began: “I have been thinking —— ” then she laid the pen down, and sat with her elbows on the table and her face hidden in her hands.

Suddenly she started up at the sound of the door-bell. It was not late — barely ten o’clock — and there might still be a note from Selden, or a message — or he might be there himself, on the other side of the door! The announcement of his sailing might have been a mistake — it might be another Lawrence Selden who had gone to Havana — all these possibilities had time to flash through her mind, and build up the conviction that she was after all to see or hear from him, before the drawing-room door opened to admit a servant carrying a telegram.

Lily tore it open with shaking hands, and read Bertha Dorset’s name below the message: “Sailing unexpectedly tomorrow. Will you join us on a cruise in Mediterranean?”

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