The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

Chapter 7

It spoke much for the depth of Mrs. Trenor’s friendship that her voice, in admonishing Miss Bart, took the same note of personal despair as if she had been lamenting the collapse of a house-party.

“All I can say is, Lily, that I can’t make you out!” She leaned back, sighing, in the morning abandon of lace and muslin, turning an indifferent shoulder to the heaped-up importunities of her desk, while she considered, with the eye of a physician who has given up the case, the erect exterior of the patient confronting her.

“If you hadn’t told me you were going in for him seriously — but I’m sure you made that plain enough from the beginning! Why else did you ask me to let you off bridge, and to keep away Carry and Kate Corby? I don’t suppose you did it because he amused you; we could none of us imagine your putting up with him for a moment unless you meant to marry him. And I’m sure everybody played fair! They all wanted to help it along. Even Bertha kept her hands off — I will say that — till Lawrence came down and you dragged him away from her. After that she had a right to retaliate — why on earth did you interfere with her? You’ve known Lawrence Selden for years — why did you behave as if you had just discovered him? If you had a grudge against Bertha it was a stupid time to show it — you could have paid her back just as well after you were married! I told you Bertha was dangerous. She was in an odious mood when she came here, but Lawrence’s turning up put her in a good humour, and if you’d only let her think he came for HER it would have never occurred to her to play you this trick. Oh, Lily, you’ll never do anything if you’re not serious!”

Miss Bart accepted this exhortation in a spirit of the purest impartiality. Why should she have been angry? It was the voice of her own conscience which spoke to her through Mrs. Trenor’s reproachful accents. But even to her own conscience she must trump up a semblance of defence. “I only took a day off — I thought he meant to stay on all this week, and I knew Mr. Selden was leaving this morning.”

Mrs. Trenor brushed aside the plea with a gesture which laid bare its weakness.

“He did mean to stay — that’s the worst of it. It shows that he’s run away from you; that Bertha’s done her work and poisoned him thoroughly.”

Lily gave a slight laugh. “Oh, if he’s running I’ll overtake him!”

Her friend threw out an arresting hand. “Whatever you do, Lily, do nothing!”

Miss Bart received the warning with a smile. “I don’t mean, literally, to take the next train. There are ways —— ” But she did not go on to specify them.

Mrs. Trenor sharply corrected the tense. “There WERE ways — plenty of them! I didn’t suppose you needed to have them pointed out. But don’t deceive yourself — he’s thoroughly frightened. He has run straight home to his mother, and she’ll protect him!”

“Oh, to the death,” Lily agreed, dimpling at the vision.

“How you can LAUGH—— ” her friend rebuked her; and she dropped back to a soberer perception of things with the question: “What was it Bertha really told him?”

“Don’t ask me — horrors! She seemed to have raked up everything. Oh, you know what I mean — of course there isn’t anything, REALLY; but I suppose she brought in Prince Varigliano — and Lord Hubert — and there was some story of your having borrowed money of old Ned Van Alstyne: did you ever?”

“He is my father’s cousin,” Miss Bart interposed.

“Well, of course she left THAT out. It seems Ned told Carry Fisher; and she told Bertha, naturally. They’re all alike, you know: they hold their tongues for years, and you think you’re safe, but when their opportunity comes they remember everything.”

Lily had grown pale: her voice had a harsh note in it. “It was some money I lost at bridge at the Van Osburghs’. I repaid it, of course.”

“Ah, well, they wouldn’t remember that; besides, it was the idea of the gambling debt that frightened Percy. Oh, Bertha knew her man — she knew just what to tell him!”

In this strain Mrs. Trenor continued for nearly an hour to admonish her friend. Miss Bart listened with admirable equanimity. Her naturally good temper had been disciplined by years of enforced compliance, since she had almost always had to attain her ends by the circuitous path of other people’s; and, being naturally inclined to face unpleasant facts as soon as they presented themselves, she was not sorry to hear an impartial statement of what her folly was likely to cost, the more so as her own thoughts were still insisting on the other side of the case. Presented in the light of Mrs. Trenor’s vigorous comments, the reckoning was certainly a formidable one, and Lily, as she listened, found herself gradually reverting to her friend’s view of the situation. Mrs. Trenor’s words were moreover emphasized for her hearer by anxieties which she herself could scarcely guess. Affluence, unless stimulated by a keen imagination, forms but the vaguest notion of the practical strain of poverty. Judy knew it must be “horrid” for poor Lily to have to stop to consider whether she could afford real lace on her petticoats, and not to have a motor-car and a steam-yacht at her orders; but the daily friction of unpaid bills, the daily nibble of small temptations to expenditure, were trials as far out of her experience as the domestic problems of the char-woman. Mrs. Trenor’s unconsciousness of the real stress of the situation had the effect of making it more galling to Lily. While her friend reproached her for missing the opportunity to eclipse her rivals, she was once more battling in imagination with the mounting tide of indebtedness from which she had so nearly escaped. What wind of folly had driven her out again on those dark seas?

If anything was needed to put the last touch to her self-abasement it was the sense of the way her old life was opening its ruts again to receive her. Yesterday her fancy had fluttered free pinions above a choice of occupations; now she had to drop to the level of the familiar routine, in which moments of seeming brilliancy and freedom alternated with long hours of subjection.

She laid a deprecating hand on her friend’s. “Dear Judy! I’m sorry to have been such a bore, and you are very good to me. But you must have some letters for me to answer — let me at least be useful.”

She settled herself at the desk, and Mrs. Trenor accepted her resumption of the morning’s task with a sigh which implied that, after all, she had proved herself unfit for higher uses.

The luncheon table showed a depleted circle. All the men but Jack Stepney and Dorset had returned to town (it seemed to Lily a last touch of irony that Selden and Percy Gryce should have gone in the same train), and Lady Cressida and the attendant Wetheralls had been despatched by motor to lunch at a distant country-house. At such moments of diminished interest it was usual for Mrs. Dorset to keep her room till the afternoon; but on this occasion she drifted in when luncheon was half over, hollowed-eyed and drooping, but with an edge of malice under her indifference.

She raised her eyebrows as she looked about the table. “How few of us are left! I do so enjoy the quiet — don’t you, Lily? I wish the men would always stop away — it’s really much nicer without them. Oh, you don’t count, George: one doesn’t have to talk to one’s husband. But I thought Mr. Gryce was to stay for the rest of the week?” she added enquiringly. “Didn’t he intend to, Judy? He’s such a nice boy — I wonder what drove him away? He is rather shy, and I’m afraid we may have shocked him: he has been brought up in such an old-fashioned way. Do you know, Lily, he told me he had never seen a girl play cards for money till he saw you doing it the other night? And he lives on the interest of his income, and always has a lot left over to invest!”

Mrs. Fisher leaned forward eagerly. “I do believe it is some one’s duty to educate that young man. It is shocking that he has never been made to realize his duties as a citizen. Every wealthy man should be compelled to study the laws of his country.”

Mrs. Dorset glanced at her quietly. “I think he HAS studied the divorce laws. He told me he had promised the Bishop to sign some kind of a petition against divorce.”

Mrs. Fisher reddened under her powder, and Stepney said with a laughing glance at Miss Bart: “I suppose he is thinking of marriage, and wants to tinker up the old ship before he goes aboard.”

His betrothed looked shocked at the metaphor, and George Dorset exclaimed with a sardonic growl: “Poor devil! It isn’t the ship that will do for him, it’s the crew.”

“Or the stowaways,” said Miss Corby brightly. “If I contemplated a voyage with him I should try to start with a friend in the hold.”

Miss Van Osburgh’s vague feeling of pique was struggling for appropriate expression. “I’m sure I don’t see why you laugh at him; I think he’s very nice,” she exclaimed; “and, at any rate, a girl who married him would always have enough to be comfortable.”

She looked puzzled at the redoubled laughter which hailed her words, but it might have consoled her to know how deeply they had sunk into the breast of one of her hearers.

Comfortable! At that moment the word was more eloquent to Lily Bart than any other in the language. She could not even pause to smile over the heiress’s view of a colossal fortune as a mere shelter against want: her mind was filled with the vision of what that shelter might have been to her. Mrs. Dorset’s pin-pricks did not smart, for her own irony cut deeper: no one could hurt her as much as she was hurting herself, for no one else — not even Judy Trenor — knew the full magnitude of her folly.

She was roused from these unprofitable considerations by a whispered request from her hostess, who drew her apart as they left the luncheon-table.

“Lily, dear, if you’ve nothing special to do, may I tell Carry Fisher that you intend to drive to the station and fetch Gus? He will be back at four, and I know she has it in her mind to meet him. Of course I’m very glad to have him amused, but I happen to know that she has bled him rather severely since she’s been here, and she is so keen about going to fetch him that I fancy she must have got a lot more bills this morning. It seems to me,” Mrs. Trenor feelingly concluded, “that most of her alimony is paid by other women’s husbands!”

Miss Bart, on her way to the station, had leisure to muse over her friend’s words, and their peculiar application to herself. Why should she have to suffer for having once, for a few hours, borrowed money of an elderly cousin, when a woman like Carry Fisher could make a living unrebuked from the good-nature of her men friends and the tolerance of their wives? It all turned on the tiresome distinction between what a married woman might, and a girl might not, do. Of course it was shocking for a married woman to borrow money — and Lily was expertly aware of the implication involved — but still, it was the mere MALUM PROHIBITUM which the world decries but condones, and which, though it may be punished by private vengeance, does not provoke the collective disapprobation of society. To Miss Bart, in short, no such opportunities were possible. She could of course borrow from her women friends — a hundred here or there, at the utmost — but they were more ready to give a gown or a trinket, and looked a little askance when she hinted her preference for a cheque. Women are not generous lenders, and those among whom her lot was cast were either in the same case as herself, or else too far removed from it to understand its necessities. The result of her meditations was the decision to join her aunt at Richfield. She could not remain at Bellomont without playing bridge, and being involved in other expenses; and to continue her usual series of autumn visits would merely prolong the same difficulties. She had reached a point where abrupt retrenchment was necessary, and the only cheap life was a dull life. She would start the next morning for Richfield.

At the station she thought Gus Trenor seemed surprised, and not wholly unrelieved, to see her. She yielded up the reins of the light runabout in which she had driven over, and as he climbed heavily to her side, crushing her into a scant third of the seat, he said: “Halloo! It isn’t often you honour me. You must have been uncommonly hard up for something to do.”

The afternoon was warm, and propinquity made her more than usually conscious that he was red and massive, and that beads of moisture had caused the dust of the train to adhere unpleasantly to the broad expanse of cheek and neck which he turned to her; but she was aware also, from the look in his small dull eyes, that the contact with her freshness and slenderness was as agreeable to him as the sight of a cooling beverage.

The perception of this fact helped her to answer gaily: “It’s not often I have the chance. There are too many ladies to dispute the privilege with me.”

“The privilege of driving me home? Well, I’m glad you won the race, anyhow. But I know what really happened — my wife sent you. Now didn’t she?”

He had the dull man’s unexpected flashes of astuteness, and Lily could not help joining in the laugh with which he had pounced on the truth.

“You see, Judy thinks I’m the safest person for you to be with; and she’s quite right,” she rejoined.

“Oh, is she, though? If she is, it’s because you wouldn’t waste your time on an old hulk like me. We married men have to put up with what we can get: all the prizes are for the clever chaps who’ve kept a free foot. Let me light a cigar, will you? I’ve had a beastly day of it.”

He drew up in the shade of the village street, and passed the reins to her while he held a match to his cigar. The little flame under his hand cast a deeper crimson on his puffing face, and Lily averted her eyes with a momentary feeling of repugnance. And yet some women thought him handsome!

As she handed back the reins, she said sympathetically: “Did you have such a lot of tiresome things to do?”

“I should say so — rather!” Trenor, who was seldom listened to, either by his wife or her friends, settled down into the rare enjoyment of a confidential talk. “You don’t know how a fellow has to hustle to keep this kind of thing going.” He waved his whip in the direction of the Bellomont acres, which lay outspread before them in opulent undulations. “Judy has no idea of what she spends — not that there isn’t plenty to keep the thing going,” he interrupted himself, “but a man has got to keep his eyes open and pick up all the tips he can. My father and mother used to live like fighting-cocks on their income, and put by a good bit of it too — luckily for me — but at the pace we go now, I don’t know where I should be if it weren’t for taking a flyer now and then. The women all think — I mean Judy thinks — I’ve nothing to do but to go down town once a month and cut off coupons, but the truth is it takes a devilish lot of hard work to keep the machinery running. Not that I ought to complain to-day, though,” he went on after a moment, “for I did a very neat stroke of business, thanks to Stepney’s friend Rosedale: by the way, Miss Lily, I wish you’d try to persuade Judy to be decently civil to that chap. He’s going to be rich enough to buy us all out one of these days, and if she’d only ask him to dine now and then I could get almost anything out of him. The man is mad to know the people who don’t want to know him, and when a fellow’s in that state there is nothing he won’t do for the first woman who takes him up.”

Lily hesitated a moment. The first part of her companion’s discourse had started an interesting train of thought, which was rudely interrupted by the mention of Mr. Rosedale’s name. She uttered a faint protest.

“But you know Jack did try to take him about, and he was impossible.”

“Oh, hang it — because he’s fat and shiny, and has a sloppy manner! Well, all I can say is that the people who are clever enough to be civil to him now will make a mighty good thing of it. A few years from now he’ll be in it whether we want him or not, and then he won’t be giving away a half-a-million tip for a dinner.”

Lily’s mind had reverted from the intrusive personality of Mr. Rosedale to the train of thought set in motion by Trenor’s first words. This vast mysterious Wall Street world of “tips” and “deals” — might she not find in it the means of escape from her dreary predicament? She had often heard of women making money in this way through their friends: she had no more notion than most of her sex of the exact nature of the transaction, and its vagueness seemed to diminish its indelicacy. She could not, indeed, imagine herself, in any extremity, stooping to extract a “tip” from Mr. Rosedale; but at her side was a man in possession of that precious commodity, and who, as the husband of her dearest friend, stood to her in a relation of almost fraternal intimacy.

In her inmost heart Lily knew it was not by appealing to the fraternal instinct that she was likely to move Gus Trenor; but this way of explaining the situation helped to drape its crudity, and she was always scrupulous about keeping up appearances to herself. Her personal fastidiousness had a moral equivalent, and when she made a tour of inspection in her own mind there were certain closed doors she did not open.

As they reached the gates of Bellomont she turned to Trenor with a smile. “The afternoon is so perfect — don’t you want to drive me a little farther? I’ve been rather out of spirits all day, and it’s so restful to be away from people, with some one who won’t mind if I’m a little dull.”

She looked so plaintively lovely as she proffered the request, so trustfully sure of his sympathy and understanding, that Trenor felt himself wishing that his wife could see how other women treated him — not battered wire-pullers like Mrs. Fisher, but a girl that most men would have given their boots to get such a look from.

“Out of spirits? Why on earth should you ever be out of spirits? Is your last box of Doucet dresses a failure, or did Judy rook you out of everything at bridge last night?”

Lily shook her head with a sigh. “I have had to give up Doucet; and bridge too — I can’t afford it. In fact I can’t afford any of the things my friends do, and I am afraid Judy often thinks me a bore because I don’t play cards any longer, and because I am not as smartly dressed as the other women. But you will think me a bore too if I talk to you about my worries, and I only mention them because I want you to do me a favour — the very greatest of favours.”

Her eyes sought his once more, and she smiled inwardly at the tinge of apprehension that she read in them.

“Why, of course — if it’s anything I can manage —— ” He broke off, and she guessed that his enjoyment was disturbed by the remembrance of Mrs. Fisher’s methods.

“The greatest of favours,” she rejoined gently. “The fact is, Judy is angry with me, and I want you to make my peace.”

“Angry with you? Oh, come, nonsense —— ” his relief broke through in a laugh. “Why, you know she’s devoted to you.”

“She is the best friend I have, and that is why I mind having to vex her. But I daresay you know what she has wanted me to do. She has set her heart — poor dear — on my marrying — marrying a great deal of money.”

She paused with a slight falter of embarrassment, and Trenor, turning abruptly, fixed on her a look of growing intelligence.

“A great deal of money? Oh, by Jove — you don’t mean Gryce? What — you do? Oh, no, of course I won’t mention it — you can trust me to keep my mouth shut — but Gryce — good Lord, GRYCE! Did Judy really think you could bring yourself to marry that portentous little ass? But you couldn’t, eh? And so you gave him the sack, and that’s the reason why he lit out by the first train this morning?” He leaned back, spreading himself farther across the seat, as if dilated by the joyful sense of his own discernment. “How on earth could Judy think you would do such a thing? I could have told her you’d never put up with such a little milksop!”

Lily sighed more deeply. “I sometimes think,” she murmured, “that men understand a woman’s motives better than other women do.”

“Some men — I’m certain of it! I could have TOLD Judy,” he repeated, exulting in the implied superiority over his wife.

“I thought you would understand; that’s why I wanted to speak to you,” Miss Bart rejoined. “I can’t make that kind of marriage; it’s impossible. But neither can I go on living as all the women in my set do. I am almost entirely dependent on my aunt, and though she is very kind to me she makes me no regular allowance, and lately I’ve lost money at cards, and I don’t dare tell her about it. I have paid my card debts, of course, but there is hardly anything left for my other expenses, and if I go on with my present life I shall be in horrible difficulties. I have a tiny income of my own, but I’m afraid it’s badly invested, for it seems to bring in less every year, and I am so ignorant of money matters that I don’t know if my aunt’s agent, who looks after it, is a good adviser.” She paused a moment, and added in a lighter tone: “I didn’t mean to bore you with all this, but I want your help in making Judy understand that I can’t, at present, go on living as one must live among you all. I am going away tomorrow to join my aunt at Richfield, and I shall stay there for the rest of the autumn, and dismiss my maid and learn how to mend my own clothes.”

At this picture of loveliness in distress, the pathos of which was heightened by the light touch with which it was drawn, a murmur of indignant sympathy broke from Trenor. Twenty-four hours earlier, if his wife had consulted him on the subject of Miss Bart’s future, he would have said that a girl with extravagant tastes and no money had better marry the first rich man she could get; but with the subject of discussion at his side, turning to him for sympathy, making him feel that he understood her better than her dearest friends, and confirming the assurance by the appeal of her exquisite nearness, he was ready to swear that such a marriage was a desecration, and that, as a man of honour, he was bound to do all he could to protect her from the results of her disinterestedness. This impulse was reinforced by the reflection that if she had married Gryce she would have been surrounded by flattery and approval, whereas, having refused to sacrifice herself to expediency, she was left to bear the whole cost of her resistance. Hang it, if he could find a way out of such difficulties for a professional sponge like Carry Fisher, who was simply a mental habit corresponding to the physical titillations of the cigarette or the cock-tail, he could surely do as much for a girl who appealed to his highest sympathies, and who brought her troubles to him with the trustfulness of a child.

Trenor and Miss Bart prolonged their drive till long after sunset; and before it was over he had tried, with some show of success, to prove to her that, if she would only trust him, he could make a handsome sum of money for her without endangering the small amount she possessed. She was too genuinely ignorant of the manipulations of the stock-market to understand his technical explanations, or even perhaps to perceive that certain points in them were slurred; the haziness enveloping the transaction served as a veil for her embarrassment, and through the general blur her hopes dilated like lamps in a fog. She understood only that her modest investments were to be mysteriously multiplied without risk to herself; and the assurance that this miracle would take place within a short time, that there would be no tedious interval for suspense and reaction, relieved her of her lingering scruples.

Again she felt the lightening of her load, and with it the release of repressed activities. Her immediate worries conjured, it was easy to resolve that she would never again find herself in such straits, and as the need of economy and self-denial receded from her foreground she felt herself ready to meet any other demand which life might make. Even the immediate one of letting Trenor, as they drove homeward, lean a little nearer and rest his hand reassuringly on hers, cost her only a momentary shiver of reluctance. It was part of the game to make him feel that her appeal had been an uncalculated impulse, provoked by the liking he inspired; and the renewed sense of power in handling men, while it consoled her wounded vanity, helped also to obscure the thought of the claim at which his manner hinted. He was a coarse dull man who, under all his show of authority, was a mere supernumerary in the costly show for which his money paid: surely, to a clever girl, it would be easy to hold him by his vanity, and so keep the obligation on his side.

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