The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

Chapter 6

The afternoon was perfect. A deeper stillness possessed the air, and the glitter of the American autumn was tempered by a haze which diffused the brightness without dulling it.

In the woody hollows of the park there was already a faint chill; but as the ground rose the air grew lighter, and ascending the long slopes beyond the high-road, Lily and her companion reached a zone of lingering summer. The path wound across a meadow with scattered trees; then it dipped into a lane plumed with asters and purpling sprays of bramble, whence, through the light quiver of ash-leaves, the country unrolled itself in pastoral distances.

Higher up, the lane showed thickening tufts of fern and of the creeping glossy verdure of shaded slopes; trees began to overhang it, and the shade deepened to the checkered dusk of a beech-grove. The boles of the trees stood well apart, with only a light feathering of undergrowth; the path wound along the edge of the wood, now and then looking out on a sunlit pasture or on an orchard spangled with fruit.

Lily had no real intimacy with nature, but she had a passion for the appropriate and could be keenly sensitive to a scene which was the fitting background of her own sensations. The landscape outspread below her seemed an enlargement of her present mood, and she found something of herself in its calmness, its breadth, its long free reaches. On the nearer slopes the sugar-maples wavered like pyres of light; lower down was a massing of grey orchards, and here and there the lingering green of an oak-grove. Two or three red farm-houses dozed under the apple-trees, and the white wooden spire of a village church showed beyond the shoulder of the hill; while far below, in a haze of dust, the high-road ran between the fields.

“Let us sit here,” Selden suggested, as they reached an open ledge of rock above which the beeches rose steeply between mossy boulders.

Lily dropped down on the rock, glowing with her long climb. She sat quiet, her lips parted by the stress of the ascent, her eyes wandering peacefully over the broken ranges of the landscape. Selden stretched himself on the grass at her feet, tilting his hat against the level sun-rays, and clasping his hands behind his head, which rested against the side of the rock. He had no wish to make her talk; her quick-breathing silence seemed a part of the general hush and harmony of things. In his own mind there was only a lazy sense of pleasure, veiling the sharp edges of sensation as the September haze veiled the scene at their feet. But Lily, though her attitude was as calm as his, was throbbing inwardly with a rush of thoughts. There were in her at the moment two beings, one drawing deep breaths of freedom and exhilaration, the other gasping for air in a little black prison-house of fears. But gradually the captive’s gasps grew fainter, or the other paid less heed to them: the horizon expanded, the air grew stronger, and the free spirit quivered for flight.

She could not herself have explained the sense of buoyancy which seemed to lift and swing her above the sun-suffused world at her feet. Was it love, she wondered, or a mere fortuitous combination of happy thoughts and sensations? How much of it was owing to the spell of the perfect afternoon, the scent of the fading woods, the thought of the dulness she had fled from? Lily had no definite experience by which to test the quality of her feelings. She had several times been in love with fortunes or careers, but only once with a man. That was years ago, when she first came out, and had been smitten with a romantic passion for a young gentleman named Herbert Melson, who had blue eyes and a little wave in his hair. Mr. Melson, who was possessed of no other negotiable securities, had hastened to employ these in capturing the eldest Miss Van Osburgh: since then he had grown stout and wheezy, and was given to telling anecdotes about his children. If Lily recalled this early emotion it was not to compare it with that which now possessed her; the only point of comparison was the sense of lightness, of emancipation, which she remembered feeling, in the whirl of a waltz or the seclusion of a conservatory, during the brief course of her youthful romance. She had not known again till today that lightness, that glow of freedom; but now it was something more than a blind groping of the blood. The peculiar charm of her feeling for Selden was that she understood it; she could put her finger on every link of the chain that was drawing them together. Though his popularity was of the quiet kind, felt rather than actively expressed among his friends, she had never mistaken his inconspicuousness for obscurity. His reputed cultivation was generally regarded as a slight obstacle to easy intercourse, but Lily, who prided herself on her broad-minded recognition of literature, and always carried an Omar Khayam in her travelling-bag, was attracted by this attribute, which she felt would have had its distinction in an older society. It was, moreover, one of his gifts to look his part; to have a height which lifted his head above the crowd, and the keenly-modelled dark features which, in a land of amorphous types, gave him the air of belonging to a more specialized race, of carrying the impress of a concentrated past. Expansive persons found him a little dry, and very young girls thought him sarcastic; but this air of friendly aloofness, as far removed as possible from any assertion of personal advantage, was the quality which piqued Lily’s interest. Everything about him accorded with the fastidious element in her taste, even to the light irony with which he surveyed what seemed to her most sacred. She admired him most of all, perhaps, for being able to convey as distinct a sense of superiority as the richest man she had ever met.

It was the unconscious prolongation of this thought which led her to say presently, with a laugh: “I have broken two engagements for you today. How many have you broken for me?”

“None,” said Selden calmly. “My only engagement at Bellomont was with you.”

She glanced down at him, faintly smiling.

“Did you really come to Bellomont to see me?”

“Of course I did.”

Her look deepened meditatively. “Why?” she murmured, with an accent which took all tinge of coquetry from the question.

“Because you’re such a wonderful spectacle: I always like to see what you are doing.”

“How do you know what I should be doing if you were not here?”

Selden smiled. “I don’t flatter myself that my coming has deflected your course of action by a hair’s breadth.”

“That’s absurd — since, if you were not here, I could obviously not be taking a walk with you.”

“No; but your taking a walk with me is only another way of making use of your material. You are an artist and I happen to be the bit of colour you are using today. It’s a part of your cleverness to be able to produce premeditated effects extemporaneously.”

Lily smiled also: his words were too acute not to strike her sense of humour. It was true that she meant to use the accident of his presence as part of a very definite effect; or that, at least, was the secret pretext she had found for breaking her promise to walk with Mr. Gryce. She had sometimes been accused of being too eager — even Judy Trenor had warned her to go slowly. Well, she would not be too eager in this case; she would give her suitor a longer taste of suspense. Where duty and inclination jumped together, it was not in Lily’s nature to hold them asunder. She had excused herself from the walk on the plea of a headache: the horrid headache which, in the morning, had prevented her venturing to church. Her appearance at luncheon justified the excuse. She looked languid, full of a suffering sweetness; she carried a scent-bottle in her hand. Mr. Gryce was new to such manifestations; he wondered rather nervously if she were delicate, having far-reaching fears about the future of his progeny. But sympathy won the day, and he besought her not to expose herself: he always connected the outer air with ideas of exposure.

Lily had received his sympathy with languid gratitude, urging him, since she should be such poor company, to join the rest of the party who, after luncheon, were starting in automobiles on a visit to the Van Osburghs at Peekskill. Mr. Gryce was touched by her disinterestedness, and, to escape from the threatened vacuity of the afternoon, had taken her advice and departed mournfully, in a dust-hood and goggles: as the motor-car plunged down the avenue she smiled at his resemblance to a baffled beetle. Selden had watched her manoeuvres with lazy amusement. She had made no reply to his suggestion that they should spend the afternoon together, but as her plan unfolded itself he felt fairly confident of being included in it. The house was empty when at length he heard her step on the stair and strolled out of the billiard-room to join her.

She had on a hat and walking-dress, and the dogs were bounding at her feet.

“I thought, after all, the air might do me good,” she explained; and he agreed that so simple a remedy was worth trying.

The excursionists would be gone at least four hours; Lily and Selden had the whole afternoon before them, and the sense of leisure and safety gave the last touch of lightness to her spirit. With so much time to talk, and no definite object to be led up to, she could taste the rare joys of mental vagrancy.

She felt so free from ulterior motives that she took up his charge with a touch of resentment.

“I don’t know,” she said, “why you are always accusing me of premeditation.”

“I thought you confessed to it: you told me the other day that you had to follow a certain line — and if one does a thing at all it is a merit to do it thoroughly.”

“If you mean that a girl who has no one to think for her is obliged to think for herself, I am quite willing to accept the imputation. But you must find me a dismal kind of person if you suppose that I never yield to an impulse.”

“Ah, but I don’t suppose that: haven’t I told you that your genius lies in converting impulses into intentions?”

“My genius?” she echoed with a sudden note of weariness. “Is there any final test of genius but success? And I certainly haven’t succeeded.”

Selden pushed his hat back and took a side-glance at her. “Success — what is success? I shall be interested to have your definition.”

“Success?” She hesitated. “Why, to get as much as one can out of life, I suppose. It’s a relative quality, after all. Isn’t that your idea of it?”

“My idea of it? God forbid!” He sat up with sudden energy, resting his elbows on his knees and staring out upon the mellow fields. “My idea of success,” he said, “is personal freedom.”

“Freedom? Freedom from worries?”

“From everything — from money, from poverty, from ease and anxiety, from all the material accidents. To keep a kind of republic of the spirit — that’s what I call success.”

She leaned forward with a responsive flash. “I know — I know — it’s strange; but that’s just what I’ve been feeling today.”

He met her eyes with the latent sweetness of his. “Is the feeling so rare with you?” he said.

She blushed a little under his gaze. “You think me horribly sordid, don’t you? But perhaps it’s rather that I never had any choice. There was no one, I mean, to tell me about the republic of the spirit.”

“There never is — it’s a country one has to find the way to one’s self.”

“But I should never have found my way there if you hadn’t told me.”

“Ah, there are sign-posts — but one has to know how to read them.”

“Well, I have known, I have known!” she cried with a glow of eagerness. “Whenever I see you, I find myself spelling out a letter of the sign — and yesterday — last evening at dinner — I suddenly saw a little way into your republic.”

Selden was still looking at her, but with a changed eye. Hitherto he had found, in her presence and her talk, the aesthetic amusement which a reflective man is apt to seek in desultory intercourse with pretty women. His attitude had been one of admiring spectatorship, and he would have been almost sorry to detect in her any emotional weakness which should interfere with the fulfilment of her aims. But now the hint of this weakness had become the most interesting thing about her. He had come on her that morning in a moment of disarray; her face had been pale and altered, and the diminution of her beauty had lent her a poignant charm. THAT IS HOW SHE LOOKS WHEN SHE IS ALONE! had been his first thought; and the second was to note in her the change which his coming produced. It was the danger-point of their intercourse that he could not doubt the spontaneity of her liking. From whatever angle he viewed their dawning intimacy, he could not see it as part of her scheme of life; and to be the unforeseen element in a career so accurately planned was stimulating even to a man who had renounced sentimental experiments.

“Well,” he said, “did it make you want to see more? Are you going to become one of us?”

He had drawn out his cigarettes as he spoke, and she reached her hand toward the case.

“Oh, do give me one — I haven’t smoked for days!”

“Why such unnatural abstinence? Everybody smokes at Bellomont.”

“Yes — but it is not considered becoming in a JEUNE FILLE A MARIER; and at the present moment I am a JEUNE FILLE A MARIER.”

“Ah, then I’m afraid we can’t let you into the republic.”

“Why not? Is it a celibate order?”

“Not in the least, though I’m bound to say there are not many married people in it. But you will marry some one very rich, and it’s as hard for rich people to get into as the kingdom of heaven.”

“That’s unjust, I think, because, as I understand it, one of the conditions of citizenship is not to think too much about money, and the only way not to think about money is to have a great deal of it.”

“You might as well say that the only way not to think about air is to have enough to breathe. That is true enough in a sense; but your lungs are thinking about the air, if you are not. And so it is with your rich people — they may not be thinking of money, but they’re breathing it all the while; take them into another element and see how they squirm and gasp!”

Lily sat gazing absently through the blue rings of her cigarette-smoke.

“It seems to me,” she said at length, “that you spend a good deal of your time in the element you disapprove of.”

Selden received this thrust without discomposure. “Yes; but I have tried to remain amphibious: it’s all right as long as one’s lungs can work in another air. The real alchemy consists in being able to turn gold back again into something else; and that’s the secret that most of your friends have lost.”

Lily mused. “Don’t you think,” she rejoined after a moment, “that the people who find fault with society are too apt to regard it as an end and not a means, just as the people who despise money speak as if its only use were to be kept in bags and gloated over? Isn’t it fairer to look at them both as opportunities, which may be used either stupidly or intelligently, according to the capacity of the user?”

“That is certainly the sane view; but the queer thing about society is that the people who regard it as an end are those who are in it, and not the critics on the fence. It’s just the other way with most shows — the audience may be under the illusion, but the actors know that real life is on the other side of the footlights. The people who take society as an escape from work are putting it to its proper use; but when it becomes the thing worked for it distorts all the relations of life.” Selden raised himself on his elbow. “Good heavens!” he went on, “I don’t underrate the decorative side of life. It seems to me the sense of splendour has justified itself by what it has produced. The worst of it is that so much human nature is used up in the process. If we’re all the raw stuff of the cosmic effects, one would rather be the fire that tempers a sword than the fish that dyes a purple cloak. And a society like ours wastes such good material in producing its little patch of purple! Look at a boy like Ned Silverton — he’s really too good to be used to refurbish anybody’s social shabbiness. There’s a lad just setting out to discover the universe: isn’t it a pity he should end by finding it in Mrs. Fisher’s drawing-room?”

“Ned is a dear boy, and I hope he will keep his illusions long enough to write some nice poetry about them; but do you think it is only in society that he is likely to lose them?”

Selden answered her with a shrug. “Why do we call all our generous ideas illusions, and the mean ones truths? Isn’t it a sufficient condemnation of society to find one’s self accepting such phraseology? I very nearly acquired the jargon at Silverton’s age, and I know how names can alter the colour of beliefs.”

She had never heard him speak with such energy of affirmation. His habitual touch was that of the eclectic, who lightly turns over and compares; and she was moved by this sudden glimpse into the laboratory where his faiths were formed.

“Ah, you are as bad as the other sectarians,” she exclaimed; “why do you call your republic a republic? It is a closed corporation, and you create arbitrary objections in order to keep people out.”

“It is not MY republic; if it were, I should have a COUP D’ETAT and seat you on the throne.”

“Whereas, in reality, you think I can never even get my foot across the threshold? Oh, I understand what you mean. You despise my ambitions — you think them unworthy of me!”

Selden smiled, but not ironically. “Well, isn’t that a tribute? I think them quite worthy of most of the people who live by them.”

She had turned to gaze on him gravely. “But isn’t it possible that, if I had the opportunities of these people, I might make a better use of them? Money stands for all kinds of things — its purchasing quality isn’t limited to diamonds and motor-cars.”

“Not in the least: you might expiate your enjoyment of them by founding a hospital.”

“But if you think they are what I should really enjoy, you must think my ambitions are good enough for me.”

Selden met this appeal with a laugh. “Ah, my dear Miss Bart, I am not divine Providence, to guarantee your enjoying the things you are trying to get!”

“Then the best you can say for me is, that after struggling to get them I probably shan’t like them?” She drew a deep breath. “What a miserable future you foresee for me!”

“Well — have you never foreseen it for yourself?” The slow colour rose to her cheek, not a blush of excitement but drawn from the deep wells of feeling; it was as if the effort of her spirit had produced it.

“Often and often,” she said. “But it looks so much darker when you show it to me!”

He made no answer to this exclamation, and for a while they sat silent, while something throbbed between them in the wide quiet of the air.

But suddenly she turned on him with a kind of vehemence. “Why do you do this to me?” she cried. “Why do you make the things I have chosen seem hateful to me, if you have nothing to give me instead?”

The words roused Selden from the musing fit into which he had fallen. He himself did not know why he had led their talk along such lines; it was the last use he would have imagined himself making of an afternoon’s solitude with Miss Bart. But it was one of those moments when neither seemed to speak deliberately, when an indwelling voice in each called to the other across unsounded depths of feeling.

“No, I have nothing to give you instead,” he said, sitting up and turning so that he faced her. “If I had, it should be yours, you know.”

She received this abrupt declaration in a way even stranger than the manner of its making: she dropped her face on her hands and he saw that for a moment she wept.

It was for a moment only, however; for when he leaned nearer and drew down her hands with a gesture less passionate than grave, she turned on him a face softened but not disfigured by emotion, and he said to himself, somewhat cruelly, that even her weeping was an art.

The reflection steadied his voice as he asked, between pity and irony: “Isn’t it natural that I should try to belittle all the things I can’t offer you?”

Her face brightened at this, but she drew her hand away, not with a gesture of coquetry, but as though renouncing something to which she had no claim.

“But you belittle ME, don’t you,” she returned gently, “in being so sure they are the only things I care for?”

Selden felt an inner start; but it was only the last quiver of his egoism. Almost at once he answered quite simply: “But you do care for them, don’t you? And no wishing of mine can alter that.”

He had so completely ceased to consider how far this might carry him, that he had a distinct sense of disappointment when she turned on him a face sparkling with derision.

“Ah,” she cried, “for all your fine phrases you’re really as great a coward as I am, for you wouldn’t have made one of them if you hadn’t been so sure of my answer.”

The shock of this retort had the effect of crystallizing Selden’s wavering intentions.

“I am not so sure of your answer,” he said quietly. “And I do you the justice to believe that you are not either.”

It was her turn to look at him with surprise; and after a moment — “Do you want to marry me?” she asked.

He broke into a laugh. “No, I don’t want to — but perhaps I should if you did!”

“That’s what I told you — you’re so sure of me that you can amuse yourself with experiments.” She drew back the hand he had regained, and sat looking down on him sadly.

“I am not making experiments,” he returned. “Or if I am, it is not on you but on myself. I don’t know what effect they are going to have on me — but if marrying you is one of them, I will take the risk.”

She smiled faintly. “It would be a great risk, certainly — I have never concealed from you how great.”

“Ah, it’s you who are the coward!” he exclaimed.

She had risen, and he stood facing her with his eyes on hers. The soft isolation of the falling day enveloped them: they seemed lifted into a finer air. All the exquisite influences of the hour trembled in their veins, and drew them to each other as the loosened leaves were drawn to the earth.

“It’s you who are the coward,” he repeated, catching her hands in his.

She leaned on him for a moment, as if with a drop of tired wings: he felt as though her heart were beating rather with the stress of a long flight than the thrill of new distances. Then, drawing back with a little smile of warning — “I shall look hideous in dowdy clothes; but I can trim my own hats,” she declared.

They stood silent for a while after this, smiling at each other like adventurous children who have climbed to a forbidden height from which they discover a new world. The actual world at their feet was veiling itself in dimness, and across the valley a clear moon rose in the denser blue.

Suddenly they heard a remote sound, like the hum of a giant insect, and following the high-road, which wound whiter through the surrounding twilight, a black object rushed across their vision.

Lily started from her attitude of absorption; her smile faded and she began to move toward the lane.

“I had no idea it was so late! We shall not be back till after dark,” she said, almost impatiently.

Selden was looking at her with surprise: it took him a moment to regain his usual view of her; then he said, with an uncontrollable note of dryness: “That was not one of our party; the motor was going the other way.”

“I know — I know —— ” She paused, and he saw her redden through the twilight. “But I told them I was not well — that I should not go out. Let us go down!” she murmured.

Selden continued to look at her; then he drew his cigarette-case from his pocket and slowly lit a cigarette. It seemed to him necessary, at that moment, to proclaim, by some habitual gesture of this sort, his recovered hold on the actual: he had an almost puerile wish to let his companion see that, their flight over, he had landed on his feet.

She waited while the spark flickered under his curved palm; then he held out the cigarettes to her.

She took one with an unsteady hand, and putting it to her lips, leaned forward to draw her light from his. In the indistinctness the little red gleam lit up the lower part of her face, and he saw her mouth tremble into a smile.

“Were you serious?” she asked, with an odd thrill of gaiety which she might have caught up, in haste, from a heap of stock inflections, without having time to select the just note. Selden’s voice was under better control. “Why not?” he returned. “You see I took no risks in being so.” And as she continued to stand before him, a little pale under the retort, he added quickly: “Let us go down.”

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