The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

Chapter 10

“Look at those spangles, Miss Bart — every one of ’em sewed on crooked.”

The tall forewoman, a pinched perpendicular figure, dropped the condemned structure of wire and net on the table at Lily’s side, and passed on to the next figure in the line.

There were twenty of them in the work-room, their fagged profiles, under exaggerated hair, bowed in the harsh north light above the utensils of their art; for it was something more than an industry, surely, this creation of ever-varied settings for the face of fortunate womanhood. Their own faces were sallow with the unwholesomeness of hot air and sedentary toil, rather than with any actual signs of want: they were employed in a fashionable millinery establishment, and were fairly well clothed and well paid; but the youngest among them was as dull and colourless as the middle-aged. In the whole work-room there was only one skin beneath which the blood still visibly played; and that now burned with vexation as Miss Bart, under the lash of the forewoman’s comment, began to strip the hat-frame of its over-lapping spangles.

To Gerty Farish’s hopeful spirit a solution appeared to have been reached when she remembered how beautifully Lily could trim hats. Instances of young lady-milliners establishing themselves under fashionable patronage, and imparting to their “creations” that indefinable touch which the professional hand can never give, had flattered Gerty’s visions of the future, and convinced even Lily that her separation from Mrs. Norma Hatch need not reduce her to dependence on her friends.

The parting had occurred a few weeks after Selden’s visit, and would have taken place sooner had it not been for the resistance set up in Lily by his ill-starred offer of advice. The sense of being involved in a transaction she would not have cared to examine too closely had soon afterward defined itself in the light of a hint from Mr. Stancy that, if she “saw them through,” she would have no reason to be sorry. The implication that such loyalty would meet with a direct reward had hastened her flight, and flung her back, ashamed and penitent, on the broad bosom of Gerty’s sympathy. She did not, however, propose to lie there prone, and Gerty’s inspiration about the hats at once revived her hopes of profitable activity. Here was, after all, something that her charming listless hands could really do; she had no doubt of their capacity for knotting a ribbon or placing a flower to advantage. And of course only these finishing touches would be expected of her: subordinate fingers, blunt, grey, needle-pricked fingers, would prepare the shapes and stitch the linings, while she presided over the charming little front shop — a shop all white panels, mirrors, and moss-green hangings — where her finished creations, hats, wreaths, aigrettes and the rest, perched on their stands like birds just poising for flight.

But at the very outset of Gerty’s campaign this vision of the green-and-white shop had been dispelled. Other young ladies of fashion had been thus “set-up,” selling their hats by the mere attraction of a name and the reputed knack of tying a bow; but these privileged beings could command a faith in their powers materially expressed by the readiness to pay their shop-rent and advance a handsome sum for current expenses. Where was Lily to find such support? And even could it have been found, how were the ladies on whose approval she depended to be induced to give her their patronage? Gerty learned that whatever sympathy her friend’s case might have excited a few months since had been imperilled, if not lost, by her association with Mrs. Hatch. Once again, Lily had withdrawn from an ambiguous situation in time to save her self-respect, but too late for public vindication. Freddy Van Osburgh was not to marry Mrs. Hatch; he had been rescued at the eleventh hour — some said by the efforts of Gus Trenor and Rosedale — and despatched to Europe with old Ned Van Alstyne; but the risk he had run would always be ascribed to Miss Bart’s connivance, and would somehow serve as a summing-up and corroboration of the vague general distrust of her. It was a relief to those who had hung back from her to find themselves thus justified, and they were inclined to insist a little on her connection with the Hatch case in order to show that they had been right.

Gerty’s quest, at any rate, brought up against a solid wall of resistance; and even when Carry Fisher, momentarily penitent for her share in the Hatch affair, joined her efforts to Miss Farish’s, they met with no better success. Gerty had tried to veil her failure in tender ambiguities; but Carry, always the soul of candour, put the case squarely to her friend.

“I went straight to Judy Trenor; she has fewer prejudices than the others, and besides she’s always hated Bertha Dorset. But what HAVE you done to her, Lily? At the very first word about giving you a start she flamed out about some money you’d got from Gus; I never knew her so hot before. You know she’ll let him do anything but spend money on his friends: the only reason she’s decent to me now is that she knows I’m not hard up. — He speculated for you, you say? Well, what’s the harm? He had no business to lose. He DIDN’T lose? Then what on earth — but I never COULD understand you, Lily!”

The end of it was that, after anxious enquiry and much deliberation, Mrs. Fisher and Gerty, for once oddly united in their effort to help their friend, decided on placing her in the work-room of Mme. Regina’s renowned millinery establishment. Even this arrangement was not effected without considerable negotiation, for Mme. Regina had a strong prejudice against untrained assistance, and was induced to yield only by the fact that she owed the patronage of Mrs. Bry and Mrs. Gormer to Carry Fisher’s influence. She had been willing from the first to employ Lily in the show-room: as a displayer of hats, a fashionable beauty might be a valuable asset. But to this suggestion Miss Bart opposed a negative which Gerty emphatically supported, while Mrs. Fisher, inwardly unconvinced, but resigned to this latest proof of Lily’s unreason, agreed that perhaps in the end it would be more useful that she should learn the trade. To Regina’s work-room Lily was therefore committed by her friends, and there Mrs. Fisher left her with a sigh of relief, while Gerty’s watchfulness continued to hover over her at a distance.

Lily had taken up her work early in January: it was now two months later, and she was still being rebuked for her inability to sew spangles on a hat-frame. As she returned to her work she heard a titter pass down the tables. She knew she was an object of criticism and amusement to the other work-women. They were, of course, aware of her history — the exact situation of every girl in the room was known and freely discussed by all the others — but the knowledge did not produce in them any awkward sense of class distinction: it merely explained why her untutored fingers were still blundering over the rudiments of the trade. Lily had no desire that they should recognize any social difference in her; but she had hoped to be received as their equal, and perhaps before long to show herself their superior by a special deftness of touch, and it was humiliating to find that, after two months of drudgery, she still betrayed her lack of early training. Remote was the day when she might aspire to exercise the talents she felt confident of possessing; only experienced workers were entrusted with the delicate art of shaping and trimming the hat, and the forewoman still held her inexorably to the routine of preparatory work.

She began to rip the spangles from the frame, listening absently to the buzz of talk which rose and fell with the coming and going of Miss Haines’s active figure. The air was closer than usual, because Miss Haines, who had a cold, had not allowed a window to be opened even during the noon recess; and Lily’s head was so heavy with the weight of a sleepless night that the chatter of her companions had the incoherence of a dream.

“I TOLD her he’d never look at her again; and he didn’t. I wouldn’t have, either — I think she acted real mean to him. He took her to the Arion Ball, and had a hack for her both ways. . . . She’s taken ten bottles, and her headaches don’t seem no better — but she’s written a testimonial to say the first bottle cured her, and she got five dollars and her picture in the paper. . . . Mrs. Trenor’s hat? The one with the green Paradise? Here, Miss Haines — it’ll be ready right off. . . . That was one of the Trenor girls here yesterday with Mrs. George Dorset. How’d I know? Why, Madam sent for me to alter the flower in that Virot hat — the blue tulle: she’s tall and slight, with her hair fuzzed out — a good deal like Mamie Leach, on’y thinner. . . . ”

On and on it flowed, a current of meaningless sound, on which, startlingly enough, a familiar name now and then floated to the surface. It was the strangest part of Lily’s strange experience, the hearing of these names, the seeing the fragmentary and distorted image of the world she had lived in reflected in the mirror of the working-girls’ minds. She had never before suspected the mixture of insatiable curiosity and contemptuous freedom with which she and her kind were discussed in this underworld of toilers who lived on their vanity and self-indulgence. Every girl in Mme. Regina’s work-room knew to whom the headgear in her hands was destined, and had her opinion of its future wearer, and a definite knowledge of the latter’s place in the social system. That Lily was a star fallen from that sky did not, after the first stir of curiosity had subsided, materially add to their interest in her. She had fallen, she had “gone under,” and true to the ideal of their race, they were awed only by success — by the gross tangible image of material achievement. The consciousness of her different point of view merely kept them at a little distance from her, as though she were a foreigner with whom it was an effort to talk.

“Miss Bart, if you can’t sew those spangles on more regular I guess you’d better give the hat to Miss Kilroy.”

Lily looked down ruefully at her handiwork. The forewoman was right: the sewing on of the spangles was inexcusably bad. What made her so much more clumsy than usual? Was it a growing distaste for her task, or actual physical disability? She felt tired and confused: it was an effort to put her thoughts together. She rose and handed the hat to Miss Kilroy, who took it with a suppressed smile.

“I’m sorry; I’m afraid I am not well,” she said to the forewoman.

Miss Haines offered no comment. From the first she had augured ill of Mme. Regina’s consenting to include a fashionable apprentice among her workers. In that temple of art no raw beginners were wanted, and Miss Haines would have been more than human had she not taken a certain pleasure in seeing her forebodings confirmed.

“You’d better go back to binding edges,” she said drily. Lily slipped out last among the band of liberated work-women. She did not care to be mingled in their noisy dispersal: once in the street, she always felt an irresistible return to her old standpoint, an instinctive shrinking from all that was unpolished and promiscuous. In the days — how distant they now seemed! — when she had visited the Girls’ Club with Gerty Farish, she had felt an enlightened interest in the working-classes; but that was because she looked down on them from above, from the happy altitude of her grace and her beneficence. Now that she was on a level with them, the point of view was less interesting.

She felt a touch on her arm, and met the penitent eye of Miss Kilroy. “Miss Bart, I guess you can sew those spangles on as well as I can when you’re feeling right. Miss Haines didn’t act fair to you.”

Lily’s colour rose at the unexpected advance: it was a long time since real kindness had looked at her from any eyes but Gerty’s.

“Oh, thank you: I’m not particularly well, but Miss Haines was right. I AM clumsy.”

“Well, it’s mean work for anybody with a headache.” Miss Kilroy paused irresolutely. “You ought to go right home and lay down. Ever try orangeine?”

“Thank you.” Lily held out her hand. “It’s very kind of you — I mean to go home.”

She looked gratefully at Miss Kilroy, but neither knew what more to say. Lily was aware that the other was on the point of offering to go home with her, but she wanted to be alone and silent — even kindness, the sort of kindness that Miss Kilroy could give, would have jarred on her just then.

“Thank you,” she repeated as she turned away.

She struck westward through the dreary March twilight, toward the street where her boarding-house stood. She had resolutely refused Gerty’s offer of hospitality. Something of her mother’s fierce shrinking from observation and sympathy was beginning to develop in her, and the promiscuity of small quarters and close intimacy seemed, on the whole, less endurable than the solitude of a hall bedroom in a house where she could come and go unremarked among other workers. For a while she had been sustained by this desire for privacy and independence; but now, perhaps from increasing physical weariness, the lassitude brought about by hours of unwonted confinement, she was beginning to feel acutely the ugliness and discomfort of her surroundings. The day’s task done, she dreaded to return to her narrow room, with its blotched wallpaper and shabby paint; and she hated every step of the walk thither, through the degradation of a New York street in the last stages of decline from fashion to commerce.

But what she dreaded most of all was having to pass the chemist’s at the corner of Sixth Avenue. She had meant to take another street: she had usually done so of late. But today her steps were irresistibly drawn toward the flaring plate-glass corner; she tried to take the lower crossing, but a laden dray crowded her back, and she struck across the street obliquely, reaching the sidewalk just opposite the chemist’s door.

Over the counter she caught the eye of the clerk who had waited on her before, and slipped the prescription into his hand. There could be no question about the prescription: it was a copy of one of Mrs. Hatch’s, obligingly furnished by that lady’s chemist. Lily was confident that the clerk would fill it without hesitation; yet the nervous dread of a refusal, or even of an expression of doubt, communicated itself to her restless hands as she affected to examine the bottles of perfume stacked on the glass case before her.

The clerk had read the prescription without comment; but in the act of handing out the bottle he paused.

“You don’t want to increase the dose, you know,” he remarked. Lily’s heart contracted.

What did he mean by looking at her in that way?

“Of course not,” she murmured, holding out her hand.

“That’s all right: it’s a queer-acting drug. A drop or two more, and off you go — the doctors don’t know why.”

The dread lest he should question her, or keep the bottle back, choked the murmur of acquiescence in her throat; and when at length she emerged safely from the shop she was almost dizzy with the intensity of her relief. The mere touch of the packet thrilled her tired nerves with the delicious promise of a night of sleep, and in the reaction from her momentary fear she felt as if the first fumes of drowsiness were already stealing over her.

In her confusion she stumbled against a man who was hurrying down the last steps of the elevated station. He drew back, and she heard her name uttered with surprise. It was Rosedale, fur-coated, glossy and prosperous — but why did she seem to see him so far off, and as if through a mist of splintered crystals? Before she could account for the phenomenon she found herself shaking hands with him. They had parted with scorn on her side and anger upon his; but all trace of these emotions seemed to vanish as their hands met, and she was only aware of a confused wish that she might continue to hold fast to him.

“Why, what’s the matter, Miss Lily? You’re not well!” he exclaimed; and she forced her lips into a pallid smile of reassurance.

“I’m a little tired — it’s nothing. Stay with me a moment, please,” she faltered. That she should be asking this service of Rosedale!

He glanced at the dirty and unpropitious corner on which they stood, with the shriek of the “elevated” and the tumult of trams and waggons contending hideously in their ears.

“We can’t stay here; but let me take you somewhere for a cup of tea. The LONGWORTH is only a few yards off, and there’ll be no one there at this hour.”

A cup of tea in quiet, somewhere out of the noise and ugliness, seemed for the moment the one solace she could bear. A few steps brought them to the ladies’ door of the hotel he had named, and a moment later he was seated opposite to her, and the waiter had placed the tea-tray between them.

“Not a drop of brandy or whiskey first? You look regularly done up, Miss Lily. Well, take your tea strong, then; and, waiter, get a cushion for the lady’s back.”

Lily smiled faintly at the injunction to take her tea strong. It was the temptation she was always struggling to resist. Her craving for the keen stimulant was forever conflicting with that other craving for sleep — the midnight craving which only the little phial in her hand could still. But today, at any rate, the tea could hardly be too strong: she counted on it to pour warmth and resolution into her empty veins.

As she leaned back before him, her lids drooping in utter lassitude, though the first warm draught already tinged her face with returning life, Rosedale was seized afresh by the poignant surprise of her beauty. The dark pencilling of fatigue under her eyes, the morbid blue-veined pallour of the temples, brought out the brightness of her hair and lips, as though all her ebbing vitality were centred there. Against the dull chocolate-coloured background of the restaurant, the purity of her head stood out as it had never done in the most brightly-lit ball-room. He looked at her with a startled uncomfortable feeling, as though her beauty were a forgotten enemy that had lain in ambush and now sprang out on him unawares.

To clear the air he tried to take an easy tone with her. “Why, Miss Lily, I haven’t seen you for an age. I didn’t know what had become of you.”

As he spoke, he was checked by an embarrassing sense of the complications to which this might lead. Though he had not seen her he had heard of her; he knew of her connection with Mrs. Hatch, and of the talk resulting from it. Mrs. Hatch’s MILIEU was one which he had once assiduously frequented, and now as devoutly shunned.

Lily, to whom the tea had restored her usual clearness of mind, saw what was in his thoughts and said with a slight smile: “You would not be likely to know about me. I have joined the working classes.”

He stared in genuine wonder. “You don’t mean —? Why, what on earth are you doing?”

“Learning to be a milliner — at least TRYING to learn,” she hastily qualified the statement.

Rosedale suppressed a low whistle of surprise. “Come off — you ain’t serious, are you?”

“Perfectly serious. I’m obliged to work for my living.”

“But I understood — I thought you were with Norma Hatch.”

“You heard I had gone to her as her secretary?”

“Something of the kind, I believe.” He leaned forward to refill her cup.

Lily guessed the possibilities of embarrassment which the topic held for him, and raising her eyes to his, she said suddenly: “I left her two months ago.”

Rosedale continued to fumble awkwardly with the tea-pot, and she felt sure that he had heard what had been said of her. But what was there that Rosedale did not hear?

“Wasn’t it a soft berth?” he enquired, with an attempt at lightness.

“Too soft — one might have sunk in too deep.” Lily rested one arm on the edge of the table, and sat looking at him more intently than she had ever looked before. An uncontrollable impulse was urging her to put her case to this man, from whose curiosity she had always so fiercely defended herself.

“You know Mrs. Hatch, I think? Well, perhaps you can understand that she might make things too easy for one.”

Rosedale looked faintly puzzled, and she remembered that allusiveness was lost on him.

“It was no place for you, anyhow,” he agreed, so suffused and immersed in the light of her full gaze that he found himself being drawn into strange depths of intimacy. He who had had to subsist on mere fugitive glances, looks winged in flight and swiftly lost under covert, now found her eyes settling on him with a brooding intensity that fairly dazzled him.

“I left,” Lily continued, “lest people should say I was helping Mrs. Hatch to marry Freddy Van Osburgh — who is not in the least too good for her — and as they still continue to say it, I see that I might as well have stayed where I was.”

“Oh, Freddy —— ” Rosedale brushed aside the topic with an air of its unimportance which gave a sense of the immense perspective he had acquired. “Freddy don’t count — but I knew YOU weren’t mixed up in that. It ain’t your style.”

Lily coloured slightly: she could not conceal from herself that the words gave her pleasure. She would have liked to sit there, drinking more tea, and continuing to talk of herself to Rosedale. But the old habit of observing the conventions reminded her that it was time to bring their colloquy to an end, and she made a faint motion to push back her chair.

Rosedale stopped her with a protesting gesture. “Wait a minute — don’t go yet; sit quiet and rest a little longer. You look thoroughly played out. And you haven’t told me —— ” He broke off, conscious of going farther than he had meant. She saw the struggle and understood it; understood also the nature of the spell to which he yielded as, with his eyes on her face, he began again abruptly: “What on earth did you mean by saying just now that you were learning to be a milliner?”

“Just what I said. I am an apprentice at Regina’s.”

“Good Lord — YOU? But what for? I knew your aunt had turned you down: Mrs. Fisher told me about it. But I understood you got a legacy from her —— ”

“I got ten thousand dollars; but the legacy is not to be paid till next summer.”

“Well, but — look here: you could BORROW on it any time you wanted.”

She shook her head gravely. “No; for I owe it already.”

“Owe it? The whole ten thousand?”

“Every penny.” She paused, and then continued abruptly, with her eyes on his face: “I think Gus Trenor spoke to you once about having made some money for me in stocks.”

She waited, and Rosedale, congested with embarrassment, muttered that he remembered something of the kind.

“He made about nine thousand dollars,” Lily pursued, in the same tone of eager communicativeness. “At the time, I understood that he was speculating with my own money: it was incredibly stupid of me, but I knew nothing of business. Afterward I found out that he had NOT used my money — that what he said he had made for me he had really given me. It was meant in kindness, of course; but it was not the sort of obligation one could remain under. Unfortunately I had spent the money before I discovered my mistake; and so my legacy will have to go to pay it back. That is the reason why I am trying to learn a trade.”

She made the statement clearly, deliberately, with pauses between the sentences, so that each should have time to sink deeply into her hearer’s mind. She had a passionate desire that some one should know the truth about this transaction, and also that the rumour of her intention to repay the money should reach Judy Trenor’s ears. And it had suddenly occurred to her that Rosedale, who had surprised Trenor’s confidence, was the fitting person to receive and transmit her version of the facts. She had even felt a momentary exhilaration at the thought of thus relieving herself of her detested secret; but the sensation gradually faded in the telling, and as she ended her pallour was suffused with a deep blush of misery.

Rosedale continued to stare at her in wonder; but the wonder took the turn she had least expected.

“But see here — if that’s the case, it cleans you out altogether?”

He put it to her as if she had not grasped the consequences of her act; as if her incorrigible ignorance of business were about to precipitate her into a fresh act of folly.

“Altogether — yes,” she calmly agreed.

He sat silent, his thick hands clasped on the table, his little puzzled eyes exploring the recesses of the deserted restaurant.

“See here — that’s fine,” he exclaimed abruptly.

Lily rose from her seat with a deprecating laugh. “Oh, no — it’s merely a bore,” she asserted, gathering together the ends of her feather scarf.

Rosedale remained seated, too intent on his thoughts to notice her movement. “Miss Lily, if you want any backing — I like pluck —— ” broke from him disconnectedly.

“Thank you.” She held out her hand. “Your tea has given me a tremendous backing. I feel equal to anything now.”

Her gesture seemed to show a definite intention of dismissal, but her companion had tossed a bill to the waiter, and was slipping his short arms into his expensive overcoat.

“Wait a minute — you’ve got to let me walk home with you,” he said.

Lily uttered no protest, and when he had paused to make sure of his change they emerged from the hotel and crossed Sixth Avenue again. As she led the way westward past a long line of areas which, through the distortion of their paintless rails, revealed with increasing candour the DISJECTA MEMBRA of bygone dinners, Lily felt that Rosedale was taking contemptuous note of the neighbourhood; and before the doorstep at which she finally paused he looked up with an air of incredulous disgust.

“This isn’t the place? Some one told me you were living with Miss Farish.”

“No: I am boarding here. I have lived too long on my friends.”

He continued to scan the blistered brown stone front, the windows draped with discoloured lace, and the Pompeian decoration of the muddy vestibule; then he looked back at her face and said with a visible effort: “You’ll let me come and see you some day?”

She smiled, recognizing the heroism of the offer to the point of being frankly touched by it. “Thank you — I shall be very glad,” she made answer, in the first sincere words she had ever spoken to him.

That evening in her own room Miss Bart — who had fled early from the heavy fumes of the basement dinner-table — sat musing upon the impulse which had led her to unbosom herself to Rosedale. Beneath it she discovered an increasing sense of loneliness — a dread of returning to the solitude of her room, while she could be anywhere else, or in any company but her own. Circumstances, of late, had combined to cut her off more and more from her few remaining friends. On Carry Fisher’s part the withdrawal was perhaps not quite involuntary. Having made her final effort on Lily’s behalf, and landed her safely in Mme. Regina’s work-room, Mrs. Fisher seemed disposed to rest from her labours; and Lily, understanding the reason, could not condemn her. Carry had in fact come dangerously near to being involved in the episode of Mrs. Norma Hatch, and it had taken some verbal ingenuity to extricate herself. She frankly owned to having brought Lily and Mrs. Hatch together, but then she did not know Mrs. Hatch — she had expressly warned Lily that she did not know Mrs. Hatch — and besides, she was not Lily’s keeper, and really the girl was old enough to take care of herself. Carry did not put her own case so brutally, but she allowed it to be thus put for her by her latest bosom friend, Mrs. Jack Stepney: Mrs. Stepney, trembling over the narrowness of her only brother’s escape, but eager to vindicate Mrs. Fisher, at whose house she could count on the “jolly parties” which had become a necessity to her since marriage had emancipated her from the Van Osburgh point of view.

Lily understood the situation and could make allowances for it. Carry had been a good friend to her in difficult days, and perhaps only a friendship like Gerty’s could be proof against such an increasing strain. Gerty’s friendship did indeed hold fast; yet Lily was beginning to avoid her also. For she could not go to Gerty’s without risk of meeting Selden; and to meet him now would be pure pain. It was pain enough even to think of him, whether she considered him in the distinctness of her waking thoughts, or felt the obsession of his presence through the blur of her tormented nights. That was one of the reasons why she had turned again to Mrs. Hatch’s prescription. In the uneasy snatches of her natural dreams he came to her sometimes in the old guise of fellowship and tenderness; and she would rise from the sweet delusion mocked and emptied of her courage. But in the sleep which the phial procured she sank far below such half-waking visitations, sank into depths of dreamless annihilation from which she woke each morning with an obliterated past.

Gradually, to be sure, the stress of the old thoughts would return; but at least they did not importune her waking hour. The drug gave her a momentary illusion of complete renewal, from which she drew strength to take up her daily work. The strength was more and more needed as the perplexities of her future increased. She knew that to Gerty and Mrs. Fisher she was only passing through a temporary period of probation, since they believed that the apprenticeship she was serving at Mme. Regina’s would enable her, when Mrs. Peniston’s legacy was paid, to realize the vision of the green-and-white shop with the fuller competence acquired by her preliminary training. But to Lily herself, aware that the legacy could not be put to such a use, the preliminary training seemed a wasted effort. She understood clearly enough that, even if she could ever learn to compete with hands formed from childhood for their special work, the small pay she received would not be a sufficient addition to her income to compensate her for such drudgery. And the realization of this fact brought her recurringly face to face with the temptation to use the legacy in establishing her business. Once installed, and in command of her own work-women, she believed she had sufficient tact and ability to attract a fashionable CLIENTELE; and if the business succeeded she could gradually lay aside money enough to discharge her debt to Trenor. But the task might take years to accomplish, even if she continued to stint herself to the utmost; and meanwhile her pride would be crushed under the weight of an intolerable obligation.

These were her superficial considerations; but under them lurked the secret dread that the obligation might not always remain intolerable. She knew she could not count on her continuity of purpose, and what really frightened her was the thought that she might gradually accommodate herself to remaining indefinitely in Trenor’s debt, as she had accommodated herself to the part allotted her on the Sabrina, and as she had so nearly drifted into acquiescing with Stancy’s scheme for the advancement of Mrs. Hatch. Her danger lay, as she knew, in her old incurable dread of discomfort and poverty; in the fear of that mounting tide of dinginess against which her mother had so passionately warned her. And now a new vista of peril opened before her. She understood that Rosedale was ready to lend her money; and the longing to take advantage of his offer began to haunt her insidiously. It was of course impossible to accept a loan from Rosedale; but proximate possibilities hovered temptingly before her. She was quite sure that he would come and see her again, and almost sure that, if he did, she could bring him to the point of offering to marry her on the terms she had previously rejected. Would she still reject them if they were offered? More and more, with every fresh mischance befalling her, did the pursuing furies seem to take the shape of Bertha Dorset; and close at hand, safely locked among her papers, lay the means of ending their pursuit. The temptation, which her scorn of Rosedale had once enabled her to reject, now insistently returned upon her; and how much strength was left her to oppose it?

What little there was must at any rate be husbanded to the utmost; she could not trust herself again to the perils of a sleepless night. Through the long hours of silence the dark spirit of fatigue and loneliness crouched upon her breast, leaving her so drained of bodily strength that her morning thoughts swam in a haze of weakness. The only hope of renewal lay in the little bottle at her bed-side; and how much longer that hope would last she dared not conjecture.

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