The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

Book Two

Chapter 1

It came vividly to Selden on the Casino steps that Monte Carlo had, more than any other place he knew, the gift of accommodating itself to each man’s humour. His own, at the moment, lent it a festive readiness of welcome that might well, in a disenchanted eye, have turned to paint and facility. So frank an appeal for participation — so outspoken a recognition of the holiday vein in human nature — struck refreshingly on a mind jaded by prolonged hard work in surroundings made for the discipline of the senses. As he surveyed the white square set in an exotic coquetry of architecture, the studied tropicality of the gardens, the groups loitering in the foreground against mauve mountains which suggested a sublime stage-setting forgotten in a hurried shifting of scenes — as he took in the whole outspread effect of light and leisure, he felt a movement of revulsion from the last few months of his life.

The New York winter had presented an interminable perspective of snow-burdened days, reaching toward a spring of raw sunshine and furious air, when the ugliness of things rasped the eye as the gritty wind ground into the skin. Selden, immersed in his work, had told himself that external conditions did not matter to a man in his state, and that cold and ugliness were a good tonic for relaxed sensibilities. When an urgent case summoned him abroad to confer with a client in Paris, he broke reluctantly with the routine of the office; and it was only now that, having despatched his business, and slipped away for a week in the south, he began to feel the renewed zest of spectatorship that is the solace of those who take an objective interest in life.

The multiplicity of its appeals — the perpetual surprise of its contrasts and resemblances! All these tricks and turns of the show were upon him with a spring as he descended the Casino steps and paused on the pavement at its doors. He had not been abroad for seven years — and what changes the renewed contact produced! If the central depths were untouched, hardly a pin-point of surface remained the same. And this was the very place to bring out the completeness of the renewal. The sublimities, the perpetuities, might have left him as he was: but this tent pitched for a day’s revelry spread a roof of oblivion between himself and his fixed sky.

It was mid-April, and one felt that the revelry had reached its climax and that the desultory groups in the square and gardens would soon dissolve and re-form in other scenes. Meanwhile the last moments of the performance seemed to gain an added brightness from the hovering threat of the curtain. The quality of the air, the exuberance of the flowers, the blue intensity of sea and sky, produced the effect of a closing TABLEAU, when all the lights are turned on at once. This impression was presently heightened by the way in which a consciously conspicuous group of people advanced to the middle front, and stood before Selden with the air of the chief performers gathered together by the exigencies of the final effect. Their appearance confirmed the impression that the show had been staged regardless of expense, and emphasized its resemblance to one of those “costume-plays” in which the protagonists walk through the passions without displacing a drapery. The ladies stood in unrelated attitudes calculated to isolate their effects, and the men hung about them as irrelevantly as stage heroes whose tailors are named in the programme. It was Selden himself who unwittingly fused the group by arresting the attention of one of its members.

“Why, Mr. Selden!” Mrs. Fisher exclaimed in surprise; and with a gesture toward Mrs. Jack Stepney and Mrs. Wellington Bry, she added plaintively: “We’re starving to death because we can’t decide where to lunch.”

Welcomed into their group, and made the confidant of their difficulty, Selden learned with amusement that there were several places where one might miss something by not lunching, or forfeit something by lunching; so that eating actually became a minor consideration on the very spot consecrated to its rites.

“Of course one gets the best things at the TERRASSE— but that looks as if one hadn’t any other reason for being there: the Americans who don’t know any one always rush for the best food. And the Duchess of Beltshire has taken up Becassin’s lately,” Mrs. Bry earnestly summed up.

Mrs. Bry, to Mrs. Fisher’s despair, had not progressed beyond the point of weighing her social alternatives in public. She could not acquire the air of doing things because she wanted to, and making her choice the final seal of their fitness.

Mr. Bry, a short pale man, with a business face and leisure clothes, met the dilemma hilariously.

“I guess the Duchess goes where it’s cheapest, unless she can get her meal paid for. If you offered to blow her off at the TERRASSE she’d turn up fast enough.”

But Mrs. Jack Stepney interposed. “The Grand Dukes go to that little place at the Condamine. Lord Hubert says it’s the only restaurant in Europe where they can cook peas.”

Lord Hubert Dacey, a slender shabby-looking man, with a charming worn smile, and the air of having spent his best years in piloting the wealthy to the right restaurant, assented with gentle emphasis: “It’s quite that.”

“PEAS?” said Mr. Bry contemptuously. “Can they cook terrapin? It just shows,” he continued, “what these European markets are, when a fellow can make a reputation cooking peas!”

Jack Stepney intervened with authority. “I don’t know that I quite agree with Dacey: there’s a little hole in Paris, off the Quai Voltaire — but in any case, I can’t advise the Condamine GARGOTE; at least not with ladies.”

Stepney, since his marriage, had thickened and grown prudish, as the Van Osburgh husbands were apt to do; but his wife, to his surprise and discomfiture, had developed an earth-shaking fastness of gait which left him trailing breathlessly in her wake.

“That’s where we’ll go then!” she declared, with a heavy toss of her plumage. “I’m so tired of the TERRASSE: it’s as dull as one of mother’s dinners. And Lord Hubert has promised to tell us who all the awful people are at the other place — hasn’t he, Carry? Now, Jack, don’t look so solemn!”

“Well,” said Mrs. Bry, “all I want to know is who their dress-makers are.”

“No doubt Dacey can tell you that too,” remarked Stepney, with an ironic intention which the other received with the light murmur, “I can at least FIND OUT, my dear fellow”; and Mrs. Bry having declared that she couldn’t walk another step, the party hailed two or three of the light phaetons which hover attentively on the confines of the gardens, and rattled off in procession toward the Condamine.

Their destination was one of the little restaurants overhanging the boulevard which dips steeply down from Monte Carlo to the low intermediate quarter along the quay. From the window in which they presently found themselves installed, they overlooked the intense blue curve of the harbour, set between the verdure of twin promontories: to the right, the cliff of Monaco, topped by the mediaeval silhouette of its church and castle, to the left the terraces and pinnacles of the gambling-house. Between the two, the waters of the bay were furrowed by a light coming and going of pleasure-craft, through which, just at the culminating moment of luncheon, the majestic advance of a great steam-yacht drew the company’s attention from the peas.

“By Jove, I believe that’s the Dorsets back!” Stepney exclaimed; and Lord Hubert, dropping his single eye-glass, corroborated: “It’s the Sabrina — yes.”

“So soon? They were to spend a month in Sicily,” Mrs. Fisher observed.

“I guess they feel as if they had: there’s only one up-to-date hotel in the whole place,” said Mr. Bry disparagingly.

“It was Ned Silverton’s idea — but poor Dorset and Lily Bart must have been horribly bored.” Mrs. Fisher added in an undertone to Selden: “I do hope there hasn’t been a row.”

“It’s most awfully jolly having Miss Bart back,” said Lord Hubert, in his mild deliberate voice; and Mrs. Bry added ingenuously: “I daresay the Duchess will dine with us, now that Lily’s here.”

“The Duchess admires her immensely: I’m sure she’d be charmed to have it arranged,” Lord Hubert agreed, with the professional promptness of the man accustomed to draw his profit from facilitating social contacts: Selden was struck by the businesslike change in his manner.

“Lily has been a tremendous success here,” Mrs. Fisher continued, still addressing herself confidentially to Selden. “She looks ten years younger — I never saw her so handsome. Lady Skiddaw took her everywhere in Cannes, and the Crown Princess of Macedonia had her to stop for a week at Cimiez. People say that was one reason why Bertha whisked the yacht off to Sicily: the Crown Princess didn’t take much notice of her, and she couldn’t bear to look on at Lily’s triumph.”

Selden made no reply. He was vaguely aware that Miss Bart was cruising in the Mediterranean with the Dorsets, but it had not occurred to him that there was any chance of running across her on the Riviera, where the season was virtually at an end. As he leaned back, silently contemplating his filigree cup of Turkish coffee, he was trying to put some order in his thoughts, to tell himself how the news of her nearness was really affecting him. He had a personal detachment enabling him, even in moments of emotional high-pressure, to get a fairly clear view of his feelings, and he was sincerely surprised by the disturbance which the sight of the Sabrina had produced in him. He had reason to think that his three months of engrossing professional work, following on the sharp shock of his disillusionment, had cleared his mind of its sentimental vapours. The feeling he had nourished and given prominence to was one of thankfulness for his escape: he was like a traveller so grateful for rescue from a dangerous accident that at first he is hardly conscious of his bruises. Now he suddenly felt the latent ache, and realized that after all he had not come off unhurt.

An hour later, at Mrs. Fisher’s side in the Casino gardens, he was trying to find fresh reasons for forgetting the injury received in the contemplation of the peril avoided. The party had dispersed with the loitering indecision characteristic of social movements at Monte Carlo, where the whole place, and the long gilded hours of the day, seem to offer an infinity of ways of being idle. Lord Hubert Dacey had finally gone off in quest of the Duchess of Beltshire, charged by Mrs. Bry with the delicate negotiation of securing that lady’s presence at dinner, the Stepneys had left for Nice in their motor-car, and Mr. Bry had departed to take his place in the pigeon shooting match which was at the moment engaging his highest faculties.

Mrs. Bry, who had a tendency to grow red and stertorous after luncheon, had been judiciously prevailed upon by Carry Fisher to withdraw to her hotel for an hour’s repose; and Selden and his companion were thus left to a stroll propitious to confidences. The stroll soon resolved itself into a tranquil session on a bench overhung with laurel and Banksian roses, from which they caught a dazzle of blue sea between marble balusters, and the fiery shafts of cactus-blossoms shooting meteor-like from the rock. The soft shade of their niche, and the adjacent glitter of the air, were conducive to an easy lounging mood, and to the smoking of many cigarettes; and Selden, yielding to these influences, suffered Mrs. Fisher to unfold to him the history of her recent experiences. She had come abroad with the Welly Brys at the moment when fashion flees the inclemency of the New York spring. The Brys, intoxicated by their first success, already thirsted for new kingdoms, and Mrs. Fisher, viewing the Riviera as an easy introduction to London society, had guided their course thither. She had affiliations of her own in every capital, and a facility for picking them up again after long absences; and the carefully disseminated rumour of the Brys’ wealth had at once gathered about them a group of cosmopolitan pleasure-seekers.

“But things are not going as well as I expected,” Mrs. Fisher frankly admitted. “It’s all very well to say that every body with money can get into society; but it would be truer to say that NEARLY everybody can. And the London market is so glutted with new Americans that, to succeed there now, they must be either very clever or awfully queer. The Brys are neither. HE would get on well enough if she’d let him alone; they like his slang and his brag and his blunders. But Louisa spoils it all by trying to repress him and put herself forward. If she’d be natural herself — fat and vulgar and bouncing — it would be all right; but as soon as she meets anybody smart she tries to be slender and queenly. She tried it with the Duchess of Beltshire and Lady Skiddaw, and they fled. I’ve done my best to make her see her mistake — I’ve said to her again and again: ‘Just let yourself go, Louisa’; but she keeps up the humbug even with me — I believe she keeps on being queenly in her own room, with the door shut.

“The worst of it is,” Mrs. Fisher went on, “that she thinks it’s all MY fault. When the Dorsets turned up here six weeks ago, and everybody began to make a fuss about Lily Bart, I could see Louisa thought that if she’d had Lily in tow instead of me she would have been hob-nobbing with all the royalties by this time. She doesn’t realize that it’s Lily’s beauty that does it: Lord Hubert tells me Lily is thought even handsomer than when he knew her at Aix ten years ago. It seems she was tremendously admired there. An Italian Prince, rich and the real thing, wanted to marry her; but just at the critical moment a good-looking step-son turned up, and Lily was silly enough to flirt with him while her marriage-settlements with the step-father were being drawn up. Some people said the young man did it on purpose. You can fancy the scandal: there was an awful row between the men, and people began to look at Lily so queerly that Mrs. Peniston had to pack up and finish her cure elsewhere. Not that SHE ever understood: to this day she thinks that Aix didn’t suit her, and mentions her having been sent there as proof of the incompetence of French doctors. That’s Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself or goes off on a picnic.”

Mrs. Fisher paused and looked reflectively at the deep shimmer of sea between the cactus-flowers. “Sometimes,” she added, “I think it’s just flightiness — and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for. And it’s the difficulty of deciding that makes her such an interesting study.” She glanced tentatively at Selden’s motionless profile, and resumed with a slight sigh: “Well, all I can say is, I wish she’d give ME some of her discarded opportunities. I wish we could change places now, for instance. She could make a very good thing out of the Brys if she managed them properly, and I should know just how to look after George Dorset while Bertha is reading Verlaine with Neddy Silverton.”

She met Selden’s sound of protest with a sharp derisive glance. “Well, what’s the use of mincing matters? We all know that’s what Bertha brought her abroad for. When Bertha wants to have a good time she has to provide occupation for George. At first I thought Lily was going to play her cards well THIS time, but there are rumours that Bertha is jealous of her success here and at Cannes, and I shouldn’t be surprised if there were a break any day. Lily’s only safeguard is that Bertha needs her badly — oh, very badly. The Silverton affair is in the acute stage: it’s necessary that George’s attention should be pretty continuously distracted. And I’m bound to say Lily DOES distract it: I believe he’d marry her tomorrow if he found out there was anything wrong with Bertha. But you know him — he’s as blind as he’s jealous; and of course Lily’s present business is to keep him blind. A clever woman might know just the right moment to tear off the bandage: but Lily isn’t clever in that way, and when George does open his eyes she’ll probably contrive not to be in his line of vision.”

Selden tossed away his cigarette. “By Jove — it’s time for my train,” he exclaimed, with a glance at his watch; adding, in reply to Mrs. Fisher’s surprised comment — “Why, I thought of course you were at Monte!” — a murmured word to the effect that he was making Nice his head-quarters.

“The worst of it is, she snubs the Brys now,” he heard irrelevantly flung after him.

Ten minutes later, in the high-perched bedroom of an hotel overlooking the Casino, he was tossing his effects into a couple of gaping portmanteaux, while the porter waited outside to transport them to the cab at the door. It took but a brief plunge down the steep white road to the station to land him safely in the afternoon express for Nice; and not till he was installed in the corner of an empty carriage, did he exclaim to himself, with a reaction of self-contempt: “What the deuce am I running away from?”

The pertinence of the question checked Selden’s fugitive impulse before the train had started. It was ridiculous to be flying like an emotional coward from an infatuation his reason had conquered. He had instructed his bankers to forward some important business letters to Nice, and at Nice he would quietly await them. He was already annoyed with himself for having left Monte Carlo, where he had intended to pass the week which remained to him before sailing; but it would now be difficult to return on his steps without an appearance of inconsistency from which his pride recoiled. In his inmost heart he was not sorry to put himself beyond the probability of meeting Miss Bart. Completely as he had detached himself from her, he could not yet regard her merely as a social instance; and viewed in a more personal ways she was not likely to be a reassuring object of study. Chance encounters, or even the repeated mention of her name, would send his thoughts back into grooves from which he had resolutely detached them; whereas, if she could be entirely excluded from his life, the pressure of new and varied impressions, with which no thought of her was connected, would soon complete the work of separation. Mrs. Fisher’s conversation had, indeed, operated to that end; but the treatment was too painful to be voluntarily chosen while milder remedies were untried; and Selden thought he could trust himself to return gradually to a reasonable view of Miss Bart, if only he did not see her.

Having reached the station early, he had arrived at this point in his reflections before the increasing throng on the platform warned him that he could not hope to preserve his privacy; the next moment there was a hand on the door, and he turned to confront the very face he was fleeing.

Miss Bart, glowing with the haste of a precipitate descent upon the train, headed a group composed of the Dorsets, young Silverton and Lord Hubert Dacey, who had barely time to spring into the carriage, and envelop Selden in ejaculations of surprise and welcome, before the whistle of departure sounded. The party, it appeared, were hastening to Nice in response to a sudden summons to dine with the Duchess of Beltshire and to see the water-fete in the bay; a plan evidently improvised — in spite of Lord Hubert’s protesting “Oh, I say, you know,” — for the express purpose of defeating Mrs. Bry’s endeavour to capture the Duchess.

During the laughing relation of this manoeuvre, Selden had time for a rapid impression of Miss Bart, who had seated herself opposite to him in the golden afternoon light. Scarcely three months had elapsed since he had parted from her on the threshold of the Brys’ conservatory; but a subtle change had passed over the quality of her beauty. Then it had had a transparency through which the fluctuations of the spirit were sometimes tragically visible; now its impenetrable surface suggested a process of crystallization which had fused her whole being into one hard brilliant substance. The change had struck Mrs. Fisher as a rejuvenation: to Selden it seemed like that moment of pause and arrest when the warm fluidity of youth is chilled into its final shape.

He felt it in the way she smiled on him, and in the readiness and competence with which, flung unexpectedly into his presence, she took up the thread of their intercourse as though that thread had not been snapped with a violence from which he still reeled. Such facility sickened him — but he told himself that it was with the pang which precedes recovery. Now he would really get well — would eject the last drop of poison from his blood. Already he felt himself calmer in her presence than he had learned to be in the thought of her. Her assumptions and elisions, her short-cuts and long DETOURS, the skill with which she contrived to meet him at a point from which no inconvenient glimpses of the past were visible, suggested what opportunities she had had for practising such arts since their last meeting. He felt that she had at last arrived at an understanding with herself: had made a pact with her rebellious impulses, and achieved a uniform system of self-government, under which all vagrant tendencies were either held captive or forced into the service of the state.

And he saw other things too in her manner: saw how it had adjusted itself to the hidden intricacies of a situation in which, even after Mrs. Fisher’s elucidating flashes, he still felt himself agrope. Surely Mrs. Fisher could no longer charge Miss Bart with neglecting her opportunities! To Selden’s exasperated observation she was only too completely alive to them. She was “perfect” to every one: subservient to Bertha’s anxious predominance, good-naturedly watchful of Dorset’s moods, brightly companionable to Silverton and Dacey, the latter of whom met her on an evident footing of old admiration, while young Silverton, portentously self-absorbed, seemed conscious of her only as of something vaguely obstructive. And suddenly, as Selden noted the fine shades of manner by which she harmonized herself with her surroundings, it flashed on him that, to need such adroit handling, the situation must indeed be desperate. She was on the edge of something — that was the impression left with him. He seemed to see her poised on the brink of a chasm, with one graceful foot advanced to assert her unconsciousness that the ground was failing her.

On the Promenade des Anglais, where Ned Silverton hung on him for the half hour before dinner, he received a deeper impression of the general insecurity. Silverton was in a mood of Titanic pessimism. How any one could come to such a damned hole as the Riviera — any one with a grain of imagination — with the whole Mediterranean to choose from: but then, if one’s estimate of a place depended on the way they broiled a spring chicken! Gad! what a study might be made of the tyranny of the stomach — the way a sluggish liver or insufficient gastric juices might affect the whole course of the universe, overshadow everything in reach — chronic dyspepsia ought to be among the “statutory causes”; a woman’s life might be ruined by a man’s inability to digest fresh bread. Grotesque? Yes — and tragic — like most absurdities. There’s nothing grimmer than the tragedy that wears a comic mask. . . . Where was he? Oh — the reason they chucked Sicily and rushed back? Well — partly, no doubt, Miss Bart’s desire to get back to bridge and smartness. Dead as a stone to art and poetry — the light never WAS on sea or land for her! And of course she persuaded Dorset that the Italian food was bad for him. Oh, she could make him believe anything — ANYTHING! Mrs. Dorset was aware of it — oh, perfectly: nothing SHE didn’t see! But she could hold her tongue — she’d had to, often enough. Miss Bart was an intimate friend — she wouldn’t hear a word against her. Only it hurts a woman’s pride — there are some things one doesn’t get used to . . . All this in confidence, of course? Ah — and there were the ladies signalling from the balcony of the hotel. . . . He plunged across the Promenade, leaving Selden to a meditative cigar.

The conclusions it led him to were fortified, later in the evening, by some of those faint corroborative hints that generate a light of their own in the dusk of a doubting mind. Selden, stumbling on a chance acquaintance, had dined with him, and adjourned, still in his company, to the brightly lit Promenade, where a line of crowded stands commanded the glittering darkness of the waters. The night was soft and persuasive. Overhead hung a summer sky furrowed with the rush of rockets; and from the east a late moon, pushing up beyond the lofty bend of the coast, sent across the bay a shaft of brightness which paled to ashes in the red glitter of the illuminated boats. Down the lantern-hung Promenade, snatches of band-music floated above the hum of the crowd and the soft tossing of boughs in dusky gardens; and between these gardens and the backs of the stands there flowed a stream of people in whom the vociferous carnival mood seemed tempered by the growing languor of the season.

Selden and his companion, unable to get seats on one of the stands facing the bay, had wandered for a while with the throng, and then found a point of vantage on a high garden-parapet above the Promenade. Thence they caught but a triangular glimpse of the water, and of the flashing play of boats across its surface; but the crowd in the street was under their immediate view, and seemed to Selden, on the whole, of more interest than the show itself. After a while, however, he wearied of his perch and, dropping alone to the pavement, pushed his way to the first corner and turned into the moonlit silence of a side street. Long garden-walls overhung by trees made a dark boundary to the pavement; an empty cab trailed along the deserted thoroughfare, and presently Selden saw two persons emerge from the opposite shadows, signal to the cab, and drive off in it toward the centre of the town. The moonlight touched them as they paused to enter the carriage, and he recognized Mrs. Dorset and young Silverton.

Beneath the nearest lamp-post he glanced at his watch and saw that the time was close on eleven. He took another cross street, and without breasting the throng on the Promenade, made his way to the fashionable club which overlooks that thoroughfare. Here, amid the blaze of crowded baccarat tables, he caught sight of Lord Hubert Dacey, seated with his habitual worn smile behind a rapidly dwindling heap of gold. The heap being in due course wiped out, Lord Hubert rose with a shrug, and joining Selden, adjourned with him to the deserted terrace of the club. It was now past midnight, and the throng on the stands was dispersing, while the long trails of red-lit boats scattered and faded beneath a sky repossessed by the tranquil splendour of the moon.

Lord Hubert looked at his watch. “By Jove, I promised to join the Duchess for supper at the LONDON HOUSE; but it’s past twelve, and I suppose they’ve all scattered. The fact is, I lost them in the crowd soon after dinner, and took refuge here, for my sins. They had seats on one of the stands, but of course they couldn’t stop quiet: the Duchess never can. She and Miss Bart went off in quest of what they call adventures — gad, it ain’t their fault if they don’t have some queer ones!” He added tentatively, after pausing to grope for a cigarette: “Miss Bart’s an old friend of yours, I believe? So she told me. — Ah, thanks — I don’t seem to have one left.” He lit Selden’s proffered cigarette, and continued, in his high-pitched drawling tone: “None of my business, of course, but I didn’t introduce her to the Duchess. Charming woman, the Duchess, you understand; and a very good friend of mine; but RATHER a liberal education.”

Selden received this in silence, and after a few puffs Lord Hubert broke out again: “Sort of thing one can’t communicate to the young lady — though young ladies nowadays are so competent to judge for themselves; but in this case — I’m an old friend too, you know . . . and there seemed no one else to speak to. The whole situation’s a little mixed, as I see it — but there used to be an aunt somewhere, a diffuse and innocent person, who was great at bridging over chasms she didn’t see . . . Ah, in New York, is she? Pity New York’s such a long way off!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/house_of_mirth/part2.1.html

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