The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

Chapter 5

It seemed to Lily, as Mrs. Peniston’s door closed on her, that she was taking a final leave of her old life. The future stretched before her dull and bare as the deserted length of Fifth Avenue, and opportunities showed as meagrely as the few cabs trailing in quest of fares that did not come. The completeness of the analogy was, however, disturbed as she reached the sidewalk by the rapid approach of a hansom which pulled up at sight of her.

From beneath its luggage-laden top, she caught the wave of a signalling hand; and the next moment Mrs. Fisher, springing to the street, had folded her in a demonstrative embrace.

“My dear, you don’t mean to say you’re still in town? When I saw you the other day at Sherry’s I didn’t have time to ask —— ” She broke off, and added with a burst of frankness: “The truth is I was HORRID, Lily, and I’ve wanted to tell you so ever since.”

“Oh —— ” Miss Bart protested, drawing back from her penitent clasp; but Mrs. Fisher went on with her usual directness: “Look here, Lily, don’t let’s beat about the bush: half the trouble in life is caused by pretending there isn’t any. That’s not my way, and I can only say I’m thoroughly ashamed of myself for following the other women’s lead. But we’ll talk of that by and bye — tell me now where you’re staying and what your plans are. I don’t suppose you’re keeping house in there with Grace Stepney, eh? — and it struck me you might be rather at loose ends.”

In Lily’s present mood there was no resisting the honest friendliness of this appeal, and she said with a smile: “I am at loose ends for the moment, but Gerty Farish is still in town, and she’s good enough to let me be with her whenever she can spare the time.”

Mrs. Fisher made a slight grimace. “H’m — that’s a temperate joy. Oh, I know — Gerty’s a trump, and worth all the rest of us put together; but A LA LONGUE you’re used to a little higher seasoning, aren’t you, dear? And besides, I suppose she’ll be off herself before long — the first of August, you say? Well, look here, you can’t spend your summer in town; we’ll talk of that later too. But meanwhile, what do you say to putting a few things in a trunk and coming down with me to the Sam Gormers’ tonight?”

And as Lily stared at the breathless suddenness of the suggestion, she continued with her easy laugh: “You don’t know them and they don’t know you; but that don’t make a rap of difference. They’ve taken the Van Alstyne place at Roslyn, and I’ve got CARTE BLANCHE to bring my friends down there — the more the merrier. They do things awfully well, and there’s to be rather a jolly party there this week —— ” she broke off, checked by an undefinable change in Miss Bart’s expression. “Oh, I don’t mean YOUR particular set, you know: rather a different crowd, but very good fun. The fact is, the Gormers have struck out on a line of their own: what they want is to have a good time, and to have it in their own way. They gave the other thing a few months’ trial, under my distinguished auspices, and they were really doing extremely well — getting on a good deal faster than the Brys, just because they didn’t care as much — but suddenly they decided that the whole business bored them, and that what they wanted was a crowd they could really feel at home with. Rather original of them, don’t you think so? Mattie Gormer HAS got aspirations still; women always have; but she’s awfully easy-going, and Sam won’t be bothered, and they both like to be the most important people in sight, so they’ve started a sort of continuous performance of their own, a kind of social Coney Island, where everybody is welcome who can make noise enough and doesn’t put on airs. I think it’s awfully good fun myself — some of the artistic set, you know, any pretty actress that’s going, and so on. This week, for instance, they have Audrey Anstell, who made such a hit last spring in ‘The Winning of Winny’; and Paul Morpeth — he’s painting Mattie Gormer — and the Dick Bellingers, and Kate Corby — well, every one you can think of who’s jolly and makes a row. Now don’t stand there with your nose in the air, my dear — it will be a good deal better than a broiling Sunday in town, and you’ll find clever people as well as noisy ones — Morpeth, who admires Mattie enormously, always brings one or two of his set.”

Mrs. Fisher drew Lily toward the hansom with friendly authority. “Jump in now, there’s a dear, and we’ll drive round to your hotel and have your things packed, and then we’ll have tea, and the two maids can meet us at the train.”

It was a good deal better than a broiling Sunday in town — of that no doubt remained to Lily as, reclining in the shade of a leafy verandah, she looked seaward across a stretch of greensward picturesquely dotted with groups of ladies in lace raiment and men in tennis flannels. The huge Van Alstyne house and its rambling dependencies were packed to their fullest capacity with the Gormers’ week-end guests, who now, in the radiance of the Sunday forenoon, were dispersing themselves over the grounds in quest of the various distractions the place afforded: distractions ranging from tennis-courts to shooting-galleries, from bridge and whiskey within doors to motors and steam-launches without. Lily had the odd sense of having been caught up into the crowd as carelessly as a passenger is gathered in by an express train. The blonde and genial Mrs. Gormer might, indeed, have figured the conductor, calmly assigning seats to the rush of travellers, while Carry Fisher represented the porter pushing their bags into place, giving them their numbers for the dining-car, and warning them when their station was at hand. The train, meanwhile, had scarcely slackened speed — life whizzed on with a deafening’ rattle and roar, in which one traveller at least found a welcome refuge from the sound of her own thoughts. The Gormer MILIEU represented a social out-skirt which Lily had always fastidiously avoided; but it struck her, now that she was in it, as only a flamboyant copy of her own world, a caricature approximating the real thing as the “society play” approaches the manners of the drawing-room. The people about her were doing the same things as the Trenors, the Van Osburghs and the Dorsets: the difference lay in a hundred shades of aspect and manner, from the pattern of the men’s waistcoats to the inflexion of the women’s voices. Everything was pitched in a higher key, and there was more of each thing: more noise, more colour, more champagne, more familiarity — but also greater good-nature, less rivalry, and a fresher capacity for enjoyment.

Miss Bart’s arrival had been welcomed with an uncritical friendliness that first irritated her pride and then brought her to a sharp sense of her own situation — of the place in life which, for the moment, she must accept and make the best of. These people knew her story — of that her first long talk with Carry Fisher had left no doubt: she was publicly branded as the heroine of a “queer” episode — but instead of shrinking from her as her own friends had done, they received her without question into the easy promiscuity of their lives. They swallowed her past as easily as they did Miss Anstell’s, and with no apparent sense of any difference in the size of the mouthful: all they asked was that she should — in her own way, for they recognized a diversity of gifts — contribute as much to the general amusement as that graceful actress, whose talents, when off the stage, were of the most varied order. Lily felt at once that any tendency to be “stuck-up,” to mark a sense of differences and distinctions, would be fatal to her continuance in the Gormer set. To be taken in on such terms — and into such a world! — was hard enough to the lingering pride in her; but she realized, with a pang of self-contempt, that to be excluded from it would, after all, be harder still. For, almost at once, she had felt the insidious charm of slipping back into a life where every material difficulty was smoothed away. The sudden escape from a stifling hotel in a dusty deserted city to the space and luxury of a great country-house fanned by sea breezes, had produced a state of moral lassitude agreeable enough after the nervous tension and physical discomfort of the past weeks. For the moment she must yield to the refreshment her senses craved — after that she would reconsider her situation, and take counsel with her dignity. Her enjoyment of her surroundings was, indeed, tinged by the unpleasant consideration that she was accepting the hospitality and courting the approval of people she had disdained under other conditions. But she was growing less sensitive on such points: a hard glaze of indifference was fast forming over her delicacies and susceptibilities, and each concession to expediency hardened the surface a little more.

On the Monday, when the party disbanded with uproarious adieux, the return to town threw into stronger relief the charms of the life she was leaving. The other guests were dispersing to take up the same existence in a different setting: some at Newport, some at Bar Harbour, some in the elaborate rusticity of an Adirondack camp. Even Gerty Farish, who welcomed Lily’s return with tender solicitude, would soon be preparing to join the aunt with whom she spent her summers on Lake George: only Lily herself remained without plan or purpose, stranded in a backwater of the great current of pleasure. But Carry Fisher, who had insisted on transporting her to her own house, where she herself was to perch for a day or two on the way to the Brys’ camp, came to the rescue with a new suggestion.

“Look here, Lily — I’ll tell you what it is: I want you to take my place with Mattie Gormer this summer. They’re taking a party out to Alaska next month in their private car, and Mattie, who is the laziest woman alive, wants me to go with them, and relieve her of the bother of arranging things; but the Brys want me too — oh, yes, we’ve made it up: didn’t I tell you? — and, to put it frankly, though I like the Gormers best, there’s more profit for me in the Brys. The fact is, they want to try Newport this summer, and if I can make it a success for them they — well, they’ll make it a success for me.” Mrs. Fisher clasped her hands enthusiastically. “Do you know, Lily, the more I think of my idea the better I like it — quite as much for you as for myself. The Gormers have both taken a tremendous fancy to you, and the trip to Alaska is — well — the very thing I should want for you just at present.”

Miss Bart lifted her eyes with a keen glance. “To take me out of my friends’ way, you mean?” she said quietly; and Mrs. Fisher responded with a deprecating kiss: “To keep you out of their sight till they realize how much they miss you.”

Miss Bart went with the Gormers to Alaska; and the expedition, if it did not produce the effect anticipated by her friend, had at least the negative advantage of removing her from the fiery centre of criticism and discussion. Gerty Farish had opposed the plan with all the energy of her somewhat inarticulate nature. She had even offered to give up her visit to Lake George, and remain in town with Miss Bart, if the latter would renounce her journey; but Lily could disguise her real distaste for this plan under a sufficiently valid reason.

“You dear innocent, don’t you see,” she protested, “that Carry is quite right, and that I must take up my usual life, and go about among people as much as possible? If my old friends choose to believe lies about me I shall have to make new ones, that’s all; and you know beggars mustn’t be choosers. Not that I don’t like Mattie Gormer — I DO like her: she’s kind and honest and unaffected; and don’t you suppose I feel grateful to her for making me welcome at a time when, as you’ve yourself seen, my own family have unanimously washed their hands of me?”

Gerty shook her head, mutely unconvinced. She felt not only that Lily was cheapening herself by making use of an intimacy she would never have cultivated from choice, but that, in drifting back now to her former manner of life, she was forfeiting her last chance of ever escaping from it. Gerty had but an obscure conception of what Lily’s actual experience had been: but its consequences had established a lasting hold on her pity since the memorable night when she had offered up her own secret hope to her friend’s extremity. To characters like Gerty’s such a sacrifice constitutes a moral claim on the part of the person in whose behalf it has been made. Having once helped Lily, she must continue to help her; and helping her, must believe in her, because faith is the main-spring of such natures. But even if Miss Bart, after her renewed taste of the amenities of life, could have returned to the barrenness of a New York August, mitigated only by poor Gerty’s presence, her worldly wisdom would have counselled her against such an act of abnegation. She knew that Carry Fisher was right: that an opportune absence might be the first step toward rehabilitation, and that, at any rate, to linger on in town out of season was a fatal admission of defeat. From the Gormers’ tumultuous progress across their native continent, she returned with an altered view of her situation. The renewed habit of luxury — the daily waking to an assured absence of care and presence of material ease — gradually blunted her appreciation of these values, and left her more conscious of the void they could not fill. Mattie Gormer’s undiscriminating good-nature, and the slap-dash sociability of her friends, who treated Lily precisely as they treated each other — all these characteristic notes of difference began to wear upon her endurance; and the more she saw to criticize in her companions, the less justification she found for making use of them. The longing to get back to her former surroundings hardened to a fixed idea; but with the strengthening of her purpose came the inevitable perception that, to attain it, she must exact fresh concessions from her pride. These, for the moment, took the unpleasant form of continuing to cling to her hosts after their return from Alaska. Little as she was in the key of their MILIEU, her immense social facility, her long habit of adapting herself to others without suffering her own outline to be blurred, the skilled manipulation of all the polished implements of her craft, had won for her an important place in the Gormer group. If their resonant hilarity could never be hers, she contributed a note of easy elegance more valuable to Mattie Gormer than the louder passages of the band. Sam Gormer and his special cronies stood indeed a little in awe of her; but Mattie’s following, headed by Paul Morpeth, made her feel that they prized her for the very qualities they most conspicuously lacked. If Morpeth, whose social indolence was as great as his artistic activity, had abandoned himself to the easy current of the Gormer existence, where the minor exactions of politeness were unknown or ignored, and a man could either break his engagements, or keep them in a painting-jacket and slippers, he still preserved his sense of differences, and his appreciation of graces he had no time to cultivate. During the preparations for the Brys’ TABLEAUX he had been immensely struck by Lily’s plastic possibilities — “not the face: too self-controlled for expression; but the rest of her — gad, what a model she’d make!” — and though his abhorrence of the world in which he had seen her was too great for him to think of seeking her there, he was fully alive to the privilege of having her to look at and listen to while he lounged in Mattie Gormer’s dishevelled drawing-room.

Lily had thus formed, in the tumult of her surroundings, a little nucleus of friendly relations which mitigated the crudeness of her course in lingering with the Gormers after their return. Nor was she without pale glimpses of her own world, especially since the breaking-up of the Newport season had set the social current once more toward Long Island. Kate Corby, whose tastes made her as promiscuous as Carry Fisher was rendered by her necessities, occasionally descended on the Gormers, where, after a first stare of surprise, she took Lily’s presence almost too much as a matter of course. Mrs. Fisher, too, appearing frequently in the neighbourhood, drove over to impart her experiences and give Lily what she called the latest report from the weather-bureau; and the latter, who had never directly invited her confidence, could yet talk with her more freely than with Gerty Farish, in whose presence it was impossible even to admit the existence of much that Mrs. Fisher conveniently took for granted.

Mrs. Fisher, moreover, had no embarrassing curiosity. She did not wish to probe the inwardness of Lily’s situation, but simply to view it from the outside, and draw her conclusions accordingly; and these conclusions, at the end of a confidential talk, she summed up to her friend in the succinct remark: “You must marry as soon as you can.”

Lily uttered a faint laugh — for once Mrs. Fisher lacked originality. “Do you mean, like Gerty Farish, to recommend the unfailing panacea of ‘a good man’s love’?”

“No — I don’t think either of my candidates would answer to that description,” said Mrs. Fisher after a pause of reflection.

“Either? Are there actually two?”

“Well, perhaps I ought to say one and a half — for the moment.”

Miss Bart received this with increasing amusement. “Other things being equal, I think I should prefer a half-husband: who is he?”

“Don’t fly out at me till you hear my reasons — George Dorset.”

“Oh —— ” Lily murmured reproachfully; but Mrs. Fisher pressed on unrebuffed. “Well, why not? They had a few weeks’ honeymoon when they first got back from Europe, but now things are going badly with them again. Bertha has been behaving more than ever like a madwoman, and George’s powers of credulity are very nearly exhausted. They’re at their place here, you know, and I spent last Sunday with them. It was a ghastly party — no one else but poor Neddy Silverton, who looks like a galley-slave (they used to talk of my making that poor boy unhappy!) — and after luncheon George carried me off on a long walk, and told me the end would have to come soon.”

Miss Bart made an incredulous gesture. “As far as that goes, the end will never come — Bertha will always know how to get him back when she wants him.”

Mrs. Fisher continued to observe her tentatively. “Not if he has any one else to turn to! Yes — that’s just what it comes to: the poor creature can’t stand alone. And I remember him such a good fellow, full of life and enthusiasm.” She paused, and went on, dropping her glance from Lily’s: “He wouldn’t stay with her ten minutes if he KNEW—— ”

“Knew ——?” Miss Bart repeated.

“What YOU must, for instance — with the opportunities you’ve had! If he had positive proof, I mean —— ”

Lily interrupted her with a deep blush of displeasure. “Please let us drop the subject, Carry: it’s too odious to me.” And to divert her companion’s attention she added, with an attempt at lightness: “And your second candidate? We must not forget him.”

Mrs. Fisher echoed her laugh. “I wonder if you’ll cry out just as loud if I say — Sim Rosedale?”

Miss Bart did not cry out: she sat silent, gazing thoughtfully at her friend. The suggestion, in truth, gave expression to a possibility which, in the last weeks, had more than once recurred to her; but after a moment she said carelessly: “Mr. Rosedale wants a wife who can establish him in the bosom of the Van Osburghs and Trenors.”

Mrs. Fisher caught her up eagerly. “And so YOU could — with his money! Don’t you see how beautifully it would work out for you both?”

“I don’t see any way of making him see it,” Lily returned, with a laugh intended to dismiss the subject.

But in reality it lingered with her long after Mrs. Fisher had taken leave. She had seen very little of Rosedale since her annexation by the Gormers, for he was still steadily bent on penetrating to the inner Paradise from which she was now excluded; but once or twice, when nothing better offered, he had turned up for a Sunday, and on these occasions he had left her in no doubt as to his view of her situation. That he still admired her was, more than ever, offensively evident; for in the Gormer circle, where he expanded as in his native element, there were no puzzling conventions to check the full expression of his approval. But it was in the quality of his admiration that she read his shrewd estimate of her case. He enjoyed letting the Gormers see that he had known “Miss Lily” — she was “Miss Lily” to him now — before they had had the faintest social existence: enjoyed more especially impressing Paul Morpeth with the distance to which their intimacy dated back. But he let it be felt that that intimacy was a mere ripple on the surface of a rushing social current, the kind of relaxation which a man of large interests and manifold preoccupations permits himself in his hours of ease.

The necessity of accepting this view of their past relation, and of meeting it in the key of pleasantry prevalent among her new friends, was deeply humiliating to Lily. But she dared less than ever to quarrel with Rosedale. She suspected that her rejection rankled among the most unforgettable of his rebuffs, and the fact that he knew something of her wretched transaction with Trenor, and was sure to put the basest construction on it, seemed to place her hopelessly in his power. Yet at Carry Fisher’s suggestion a new hope had stirred in her. Much as she disliked Rosedale, she no longer absolutely despised him. For he was gradually attaining his object in life, and that, to Lily, was always less despicable than to miss it. With the slow unalterable persistency which she had always felt in him, he was making his way through the dense mass of social antagonisms. Already his wealth, and the masterly use he had made of it, were giving him an enviable prominence in the world of affairs, and placing Wall Street under obligations which only Fifth Avenue could repay. In response to these claims, his name began to figure on municipal committees and charitable boards; he appeared at banquets to distinguished strangers, and his candidacy at one of the fashionable clubs was discussed with diminishing opposition. He had figured once or twice at the Trenor dinners, and had learned to speak with just the right note of disdain of the big Van Osburgh crushes; and all he now needed was a wife whose affiliations would shorten the last tedious steps of his ascent. It was with that object that, a year earlier, he had fixed his affections on Miss Bart; but in the interval he had mounted nearer to the goal, while she had lost the power to abbreviate the remaining steps of the way. All this she saw with the clearness of vision that came to her in moments of despondency. It was success that dazzled her — she could distinguish facts plainly enough in the twilight of failure. And the twilight, as she now sought to pierce it, was gradually lighted by a faint spark of reassurance. Under the utilitarian motive of Rosedale’s wooing she had felt, clearly enough, the heat of personal inclination. She would not have detested him so heartily had she not known that he dared to admire her. What, then, if the passion persisted, though the other motive had ceased to sustain it? She had never even tried to please him — he had been drawn to her in spite of her manifest disdain. What if she now chose to exert the power which, even in its passive state, he had felt so strongly? What if she made him marry her for love, now that he had no other reason for marrying her?

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