The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

Chapter 4

The next morning, on her breakfast tray, Miss Bart found a note from her hostess.

“Dearest Lily,” it ran, “if it is not too much of a bore to be down by ten, will you come to my sitting-room to help me with some tiresome things?”

Lily tossed aside the note and subsided on her pillows with a sigh. It WAS a bore to be down by ten — an hour regarded at Bellomont as vaguely synchronous with sunrise — and she knew too well the nature of the tiresome things in question. Miss Pragg, the secretary, had been called away, and there would be notes and dinner-cards to write, lost addresses to hunt up, and other social drudgery to perform. It was understood that Miss Bart should fill the gap in such emergencies, and she usually recognized the obligation without a murmur.

Today, however, it renewed the sense of servitude which the previous night’s review of her cheque-book had produced. Everything in her surroundings ministered to feelings of ease and amenity. The windows stood open to the sparkling freshness of the September morning, and between the yellow boughs she caught a perspective of hedges and parterres leading by degrees of lessening formality to the free undulations of the park. Her maid had kindled a little fire on the hearth, and it contended cheerfully with the sunlight which slanted across the moss-green carpet and caressed the curved sides of an old marquetry desk. Near the bed stood a table holding her breakfast tray, with its harmonious porcelain and silver, a handful of violets in a slender glass, and the morning paper folded beneath her letters. There was nothing new to Lily in these tokens of a studied luxury; but, though they formed a part of her atmosphere, she never lost her sensitiveness to their charm. Mere display left her with a sense of superior distinction; but she felt an affinity to all the subtler manifestations of wealth.

Mrs. Trenor’s summons, however, suddenly recalled her state of dependence, and she rose and dressed in a mood of irritability that she was usually too prudent to indulge. She knew that such emotions leave lines on the face as well as in the character, and she had meant to take warning by the little creases which her midnight survey had revealed.

The matter-of-course tone of Mrs. Trenor’s greeting deepened her irritation. If one did drag one’s self out of bed at such an hour, and come down fresh and radiant to the monotony of note-writing, some special recognition of the sacrifice seemed fitting. But Mrs. Trenor’s tone showed no consciousness of the fact.

“Oh, Lily, that’s nice of you,” she merely sighed across the chaos of letters, bills and other domestic documents which gave an incongruously commercial touch to the slender elegance of her writing-table.

“There are such lots of horrors this morning,” she added, clearing a space in the centre of the confusion and rising to yield her seat to Miss Bart.

Mrs. Trenor was a tall fair woman, whose height just saved her from redundancy. Her rosy blondness had survived some forty years of futile activity without showing much trace of ill-usage except in a diminished play of feature. It was difficult to define her beyond saying that she seemed to exist only as a hostess, not so much from any exaggerated instinct of hospitality as because she could not sustain life except in a crowd. The collective nature of her interests exempted her from the ordinary rivalries of her sex, and she knew no more personal emotion than that of hatred for the woman who presumed to give bigger dinners or have more amusing house-parties than herself. As her social talents, backed by Mr. Trenor’s bank-account, almost always assured her ultimate triumph in such competitions, success had developed in her an unscrupulous good nature toward the rest of her sex, and in Miss Bart’s utilitarian classification of her friends, Mrs. Trenor ranked as the woman who was least likely to “go back” on her.

“It was simply inhuman of Pragg to go off now,” Mrs. Trenor declared, as her friend seated herself at the desk. “She says her sister is going to have a baby — as if that were anything to having a house-party! I’m sure I shall get most horribly mixed up and there will be some awful rows. When I was down at Tuxedo I asked a lot of people for next week, and I’ve mislaid the list and can’t remember who is coming. And this week is going to be a horrid failure too — and Gwen Van Osburgh will go back and tell her mother how bored people were. I did mean to ask the Wetheralls — that was a blunder of Gus’s. They disapprove of Carry Fisher, you know. As if one could help having Carry Fisher! It WAS foolish of her to get that second divorce — Carry always overdoes things — but she said the only way to get a penny out of Fisher was to divorce him and make him pay alimony. And poor Carry has to consider every dollar. It’s really absurd of Alice Wetherall to make such a fuss about meeting her, when one thinks of what society is coming to. Some one said the other day that there was a divorce and a case of appendicitis in every family one knows. Besides, Carry is the only person who can keep Gus in a good humour when we have bores in the house. Have you noticed that ALL the husbands like her? All, I mean, except her own. It’s rather clever of her to have made a specialty of devoting herself to dull people — the field is such a large one, and she has it practically to herself. She finds compensations, no doubt — I know she borrows money of Gus — but then I’d PAY her to keep him in a good humour, so I can’t complain, after all.”

Mrs. Trenor paused to enjoy the spectacle of Miss Bart’s efforts to unravel her tangled correspondence.

“But it is only the Wetheralls and Carry,” she resumed, with a fresh note of lament. “The truth is, I’m awfully disappointed in Lady Cressida Raith.”

“Disappointed? Had you known her before?”

“Mercy, no — never saw her till yesterday. Lady Skiddaw sent her over with letters to the Van Osburghs, and I heard that Maria Van Osburgh was asking a big party to meet her this week, so I thought it would be fun to get her away, and Jack Stepney, who knew her in India, managed it for me. Maria was furious, and actually had the impudence to make Gwen invite herself here, so that they shouldn’t be QUITE out of it — if I’d known what Lady Cressida was like, they could have had her and welcome! But I thought any friend of the Skiddaws’ was sure to be amusing. You remember what fun Lady Skiddaw was? There were times when I simply had to send the girls out of the room. Besides, Lady Cressida is the Duchess of Beltshire’s sister, and I naturally supposed she was the same sort; but you never can tell in those English families. They are so big that there’s room for all kinds, and it turns out that Lady Cressida is the moral one — married a clergy-man and does missionary work in the East End. Think of my taking such a lot of trouble about a clergyman’s wife, who wears Indian jewelry and botanizes! She made Gus take her all through the glass-houses yesterday, and bothered him to death by asking him the names of the plants. Fancy treating Gus as if he were the gardener!”

Mrs. Trenor brought this out in a CRESCENDO of indignation.

“Oh, well, perhaps Lady Cressida will reconcile the Wetheralls to meeting Carry Fisher,” said Miss Bart pacifically.

“I’m sure I hope so! But she is boring all the men horribly, and if she takes to distributing tracts, as I hear she does, it will be too depressing. The worst of it is that she would have been so useful at the right time. You know we have to have the Bishop once a year, and she would have given just the right tone to things. I always have horrid luck about the Bishop’s visits,” added Mrs. Trenor, whose present misery was being fed by a rapidly rising tide of reminiscence; “last year, when he came, Gus forgot all about his being here, and brought home the Ned Wintons and the Farleys — five divorces and six sets of children between them!”

“When is Lady Cressida going?” Lily enquired.

Mrs. Trenor cast up her eyes in despair. “My dear, if one only knew! I was in such a hurry to get her away from Maria that I actually forgot to name a date, and Gus says she told some one she meant to stop here all winter.”

“To stop here? In this house?”

“Don’t be silly — in America. But if no one else asks her — you know they NEVER go to hotels.”

“Perhaps Gus only said it to frighten you.”

“No — I heard her tell Bertha Dorset that she had six months to put in while her husband was taking the cure in the Engadine. You should have seen Bertha look vacant! But it’s no joke, you know — if she stays here all the autumn she’ll spoil everything, and Maria Van Osburgh will simply exult.”

At this affecting vision Mrs. Trenor’s voice trembled with self-pity.

“Oh, Judy — as if any one were ever bored at Bellomont!” Miss Bart tactfully protested. “You know perfectly well that, if Mrs. Van Osburgh were to get all the right people and leave you with all the wrong ones, you’d manage to make things go off, and she wouldn’t.”

Such an assurance would usually have restored Mrs. Trenor’s complacency; but on this occasion it did not chase the cloud from her brow.

“It isn’t only Lady Cressida,” she lamented. “Everything has gone wrong this week. I can see that Bertha Dorset is furious with me.”

“Furious with you? Why?”

“Because I told her that Lawrence Selden was coming; but he wouldn’t, after all, and she’s quite unreasonable enough to think it’s my fault.”

Miss Bart put down her pen and sat absently gazing at the note she had begun.

“I thought that was all over,” she said.

“So it is, on his side. And of course Bertha has been idle since. But I fancy she’s out of a job just at present — and some one gave me a hint that I had better ask Lawrence. Well, I DID ask him — but I couldn’t make him come; and now I suppose she’ll take it out of me by being perfectly nasty to every one else.”

“Oh, she may take it out of HIM by being perfectly charming — to some one else.”

Mrs. Trenor shook her head dolefully. “She knows he wouldn’t mind. And who else is there? Alice Wetherall won’t let Lucius out of her sight. Ned Silverton can’t take his eyes off Carry Fisher — poor boy! Gus is bored by Bertha, Jack Stepney knows her too well — and — well, to be sure, there’s Percy Gryce!”

She sat up smiling at the thought.

Miss Bart’s countenance did not reflect the smile.

“Oh, she and Mr. Gryce would not be likely to hit it off.”

“You mean that she’d shock him and he’d bore her? Well, that’s not such a bad beginning, you know. But I hope she won’t take it into her head to be nice to him, for I asked him here on purpose for you.”

Lily laughed. “MERCI DU COMPLIMENT! I should certainly have no show against Bertha.”

“Do you think I am uncomplimentary? I’m not really, you know. Every one knows you’re a thousand times handsomer and cleverer than Bertha; but then you’re not nasty. And for always getting what she wants in the long run, commend me to a nasty woman.”

Miss Bart stared in affected reproval. “I thought you were so fond of Bertha.”

“Oh, I am — it’s much safer to be fond of dangerous people. But she IS dangerous — and if I ever saw her up to mischief it’s now. I can tell by poor George’s manner. That man is a perfect barometer — he always knows when Bertha is going to —— ”

“To fall?” Miss Bart suggested.

“Don’t be shocking! You know he believes in her still. And of course I don’t say there’s any real harm in Bertha. Only she delights in making people miserable, and especially poor George.”

“Well, he seems cut out for the part — I don’t wonder she likes more cheerful companionship.”

“Oh, George is not as dismal as you think. If Bertha did worry him he would be quite different. Or if she’d leave him alone, and let him arrange his life as he pleases. But she doesn’t dare lose her hold of him on account of the money, and so when HE isn’t jealous she pretends to be.”

Miss Bart went on writing in silence, and her hostess sat following her train of thought with frowning intensity.

“Do you know,” she exclaimed after a long pause, “I believe I’ll call up Lawrence on the telephone and tell him he simply MUST come?”

“Oh, don’t,” said Lily, with a quick suffusion of colour. The blush surprised her almost as much as it did her hostess, who, though not commonly observant of facial changes, sat staring at her with puzzled eyes.

“Good gracious, Lily, how handsome you are! Why? Do you dislike him so much?”

“Not at all; I like him. But if you are actuated by the benevolent intention of protecting me from Bertha — I don’t think I need your protection.”

Mrs. Trenor sat up with an exclamation. “Lily! —— PERCY? Do you mean to say you’ve actually done it?”

Miss Bart smiled. “I only mean to say that Mr. Gryce and I are getting to be very good friends.”

“H’m — I see.” Mrs. Trenor fixed a rapt eye upon her. “You know they say he has eight hundred thousand a year — and spends nothing, except on some rubbishy old books. And his mother has heart-disease and will leave him a lot more. OH, LILY, DO GO SLOWLY,” her friend adjured her.

Miss Bart continued to smile without annoyance. “I shouldn’t, for instance,” she remarked, “be in any haste to tell him that he had a lot of rubbishy old books.”

“No, of course not; I know you’re wonderful about getting up people’s subjects. But he’s horribly shy, and easily shocked, and — and —— ”

“Why don’t you say it, Judy? I have the reputation of being on the hunt for a rich husband?”

“Oh, I don’t mean that; he wouldn’t believe it of you — at first,” said Mrs. Trenor, with candid shrewdness. “But you know things are rather lively here at times — I must give Jack and Gus a hint — and if he thought you were what his mother would call fast — oh, well, you know what I mean. Don’t wear your scarlet CREPE-DE-CHINE for dinner, and don’t smoke if you can help it, Lily dear!”

Lily pushed aside her finished work with a dry smile. “You’re very kind, Judy: I’ll lock up my cigarettes and wear that last year’s dress you sent me this morning. And if you are really interested in my career, perhaps you’ll be kind enough not to ask me to play bridge again this evening.”

“Bridge? Does he mind bridge, too? Oh, Lily, what an awful life you’ll lead! But of course I won’t — why didn’t you give me a hint last night? There’s nothing I wouldn’t do, you poor duck, to see you happy!”

And Mrs. Trenor, glowing with her sex’s eagerness to smooth the course of true love, enveloped Lily in a long embrace.

“You’re quite sure,” she added solicitously, as the latter extricated herself, “that you wouldn’t like me to telephone for Lawrence Selden?”

“Quite sure,” said Lily.

The next three days demonstrated to her own complete satisfaction Miss Bart’s ability to manage her affairs without extraneous aid.

As she sat, on the Saturday afternoon, on the terrace at Bellomont, she smiled at Mrs. Trenor’s fear that she might go too fast. If such a warning had ever been needful, the years had taught her a salutary lesson, and she flattered herself that she now knew how to adapt her pace to the object of pursuit. In the case of Mr. Gryce she had found it well to flutter ahead, losing herself elusively and luring him on from depth to depth of unconscious intimacy. The surrounding atmosphere was propitious to this scheme of courtship. Mrs. Trenor, true to her word, had shown no signs of expecting Lily at the bridge-table, and had even hinted to the other card-players that they were to betray no surprise at her unwonted defection. In consequence of this hint, Lily found herself the centre of that feminine solicitude which envelops a young woman in the mating season. A solitude was tacitly created for her in the crowded existence of Bellomont, and her friends could not have shown a greater readiness for self-effacement had her wooing been adorned with all the attributes of romance. In Lily’s set this conduct implied a sympathetic comprehension of her motives, and Mr. Gryce rose in her esteem as she saw the consideration he inspired.

The terrace at Bellomont on a September afternoon was a spot propitious to sentimental musings, and as Miss Bart stood leaning against the balustrade above the sunken garden, at a little distance from the animated group about the tea-table, she might have been lost in the mazes of an inarticulate happiness. In reality, her thoughts were finding definite utterance in the tranquil recapitulation of the blessings in store for her. From where she stood she could see them embodied in the form of Mr. Gryce, who, in a light overcoat and muffler, sat somewhat nervously on the edge of his chair, while Carry Fisher, with all the energy of eye and gesture with which nature and art had combined to endow her, pressed on him the duty of taking part in the task of municipal reform.

Mrs. Fisher’s latest hobby was municipal reform. It had been preceded by an equal zeal for socialism, which had in turn replaced an energetic advocacy of Christian Science. Mrs. Fisher was small, fiery and dramatic; and her hands and eyes were admirable instruments in the service of whatever causes he happened to espouse. She had, however, the fault common to enthusiasts of ignoring any slackness of response on the part of her hearers, and Lily was amused by her unconsciousness of the resistance displayed in every angle of Mr. Gryce’s attitude. Lily herself knew that his mind was divided between the dread of catching cold if he remained out of doors too long at that hour, and the fear that, if he retreated to the house, Mrs. Fisher might follow him up with a paper to be signed. Mr. Gryce had a constitutional dislike to what he called “committing himself,” and tenderly as he cherished his health, he evidently concluded that it was safer to stay out of reach of pen and ink till chance released him from Mrs. Fisher’s toils. Meanwhile he cast agonized glances in the direction of Miss Bart, whose only response was to sink into an attitude of more graceful abstraction. She had learned the value of contrast in throwing her charms into relief, and was fully aware of the extent to which Mrs. Fisher’s volubility was enhancing her own repose.

She was roused from her musings by the approach of her cousin Jack Stepney who, at Gwen Van Osburgh’s side, was returning across the garden from the tennis court.

The couple in question were engaged in the same kind of romance in which Lily figured, and the latter felt a certain annoyance in contemplating what seemed to her a caricature of her own situation. Miss Van Osburgh was a large girl with flat surfaces and no high lights: Jack Stepney had once said of her that she was as reliable as roast mutton. His own taste was in the line of less solid and more highly-seasoned diet; but hunger makes any fare palatable, and there had been times when Mr. Stepney had been reduced to a crust.

Lily considered with interest the expression of their faces: the girl’s turned toward her companion’s like an empty plate held up to be filled, while the man lounging at her side already betrayed the encroaching boredom which would presently crack the thin veneer of his smile.

“How impatient men are!” Lily reflected. “All Jack has to do to get everything he wants is to keep quiet and let that girl marry him; whereas I have to calculate and contrive, and retreat and advance, as if I were going through an intricate dance, where one misstep would throw me hopelessly out of time.”

As they drew nearer she was whimsically struck by a kind of family likeness between Miss Van Osburgh and Percy Gryce. There was no resemblance of feature. Gryce was handsome in a didactic way — he looked like a clever pupil’s drawing from a plaster-cast — while Gwen’s countenance had no more modelling than a face painted on a toy balloon. But the deeper affinity was unmistakable: the two had the same prejudices and ideals, and the same quality of making other standards non-existent by ignoring them. This attribute was common to most of Lily’s set: they had a force of negation which eliminated everything beyond their own range of perception. Gryce and Miss Van Osburgh were, in short, made for each other by every law of moral and physical correspondence —— “Yet they wouldn’t look at each other,” Lily mused, “they never do. Each of them wants a creature of a different race, of Jack’s race and mine, with all sorts of intuitions, sensations and perceptions that they don’t even guess the existence of. And they always get what they want.”

She stood talking with her cousin and Miss Van Osburgh, till a slight cloud on the latter’s brow advised her that even cousinly amenities were subject to suspicion, and Miss Bart, mindful of the necessity of not exciting enmities at this crucial point of her career, dropped aside while the happy couple proceeded toward the tea-table.

Seating herself on the upper step of the terrace, Lily leaned her head against the honeysuckles wreathing the balustrade. The fragrance of the late blossoms seemed an emanation of the tranquil scene, a landscape tutored to the last degree of rural elegance. In the foreground glowed the warm tints of the gardens. Beyond the lawn, with its pyramidal pale-gold maples and velvety firs, sloped pastures dotted with cattle; and through a long glade the river widened like a lake under the silver light of September. Lily did not want to join the circle about the tea-table. They represented the future she had chosen, and she was content with it, but in no haste to anticipate its joys. The certainty that she could marry Percy Gryce when she pleased had lifted a heavy load from her mind, and her money troubles were too recent for their removal not to leave a sense of relief which a less discerning intelligence might have taken for happiness. Her vulgar cares were at an end. She would be able to arrange her life as she pleased, to soar into that empyrean of security where creditors cannot penetrate. She would have smarter gowns than Judy Trenor, and far, far more jewels than Bertha Dorset. She would be free forever from the shifts, the expedients, the humiliations of the relatively poor. Instead of having to flatter, she would be flattered; instead of being grateful, she would receive thanks. There were old scores she could pay off as well as old benefits she could return. And she had no doubts as to the extent of her power. She knew that Mr. Gryce was of the small chary type most inaccessible to impulses and emotions. He had the kind of character in which prudence is a vice, and good advice the most dangerous nourishment. But Lily had known the species before: she was aware that such a guarded nature must find one huge outlet of egoism, and she determined to be to him what his Americana had hitherto been: the one possession in which he took sufficient pride to spend money on it. She knew that this generosity to self is one of the forms of meanness, and she resolved so to identify herself with her husband’s vanity that to gratify her wishes would be to him the most exquisite form of self-indulgence. The system might at first necessitate a resort to some of the very shifts and expedients from which she intended it should free her; but she felt sure that in a short time she would be able to play the game in her own way. How should she have distrusted her powers? Her beauty itself was not the mere ephemeral possession it might have been in the hands of inexperience: her skill in enhancing it, the care she took of it, the use she made of it, seemed to give it a kind of permanence. She felt she could trust it to carry her through to the end.

And the end, on the whole, was worthwhile. Life was not the mockery she had thought it three days ago. There was room for her, after all, in this crowded selfish world of pleasure whence, so short a time since, her poverty had seemed to exclude her. These people whom she had ridiculed and yet envied were glad to make a place for her in the charmed circle about which all her desires revolved. They were not as brutal and self-engrossed as she had fancied — or rather, since it would no longer be necessary to flatter and humour them, that side of their nature became less conspicuous. Society is a revolving body which is apt to be judged according to its place in each man’s heaven; and at present it was turning its illuminated face to Lily.

In the rosy glow it diffused her companions seemed full of amiable qualities. She liked their elegance, their lightness, their lack of emphasis: even the self-assurance which at times was so like obtuseness now seemed the natural sign of social ascendency. They were lords of the only world she cared for, and they were ready to admit her to their ranks and let her lord it with them. Already she felt within her a stealing allegiance to their standards, an acceptance of their limitations, a disbelief in the things they did not believe in, a contemptuous pity for the people who were not able to live as they lived.

The early sunset was slanting across the park. Through the boughs of the long avenue beyond the gardens she caught the flash of wheels, and divined that more visitors were approaching. There was a movement behind her, a scattering of steps and voices: it was evident that the party about the tea-table was breaking up. Presently she heard a tread behind her on the terrace. She supposed that Mr. Gryce had at last found means to escape from his predicament, and she smiled at the significance of his coming to join her instead of beating an instant retreat to the fire-side.

She turned to give him the welcome which such gallantry deserved; but her greeting wavered into a blush of wonder, for the man who had approached her was Lawrence Selden.

“You see I came after all,” he said; but before she had time to answer, Mrs. Dorset, breaking away from a lifeless colloquy with her host, had stepped between them with a little gesture of appropriation.

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