The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

Chapter 6

As became persons of their rising consequence, the Gormers were engaged in building a country-house on Long Island; and it was a part of Miss Bart’s duty to attend her hostess on frequent visits of inspection to the new estate. There, while Mrs. Gormer plunged into problems of lighting and sanitation, Lily had leisure to wander, in the bright autumn air, along the tree-fringed bay to which the land declined. Little as she was addicted to solitude, there had come to be moments when it seemed a welcome escape from the empty noises of her life. She was weary of being swept passively along a current of pleasure and business in which she had no share; weary of seeing other people pursue amusement and squander money, while she felt herself of no more account among them than an expensive toy in the hands of a spoiled child.

It was in this frame of mind that, striking back from the shore one morning into the windings of an unfamiliar lane, she came suddenly upon the figure of George Dorset. The Dorset place was in the immediate neighbourhood of the Gormers’ newly-acquired estate, and in her motor-flights thither with Mrs. Gormer, Lily had caught one or two passing glimpses of the couple; but they moved in so different an orbit that she had not considered the possibility of a direct encounter.

Dorset, swinging along with bent head, in moody abstraction, did not see Miss Bart till he was close upon her; but the sight, instead of bringing him to a halt, as she had half-expected, sent him toward her with an eagerness which found expression in his opening words.

“Miss Bart! — You’ll shake hands, won’t you? I’ve been hoping to meet you — I should have written to you if I’d dared.” His face, with its tossed red hair and straggling moustache, had a driven uneasy look, as though life had become an unceasing race between himself and the thoughts at his heels.

The look drew a word of compassionate greeting from Lily, and he pressed on, as if encouraged by her tone: “I wanted to apologize — to ask you to forgive me for the miserable part I played —— ”

She checked him with a quick gesture. “Don’t let us speak of it: I was very sorry for you,” she said, with a tinge of disdain which, as she instantly perceived, was not lost on him.

He flushed to his haggard eyes, flushed so cruelly that she repented the thrust. “You might well be; you don’t know — you must let me explain. I was deceived: abominably deceived —— ”

“I am still more sorry for you, then,” she interposed, without irony; “but you must see that I am not exactly the person with whom the subject can be discussed.”

He met this with a look of genuine wonder. “Why not? Isn’t it to you, of all people, that I owe an explanation —— ”

“No explanation is necessary: the situation was perfectly clear to me.”

“Ah —— ” he murmured, his head drooping again, and his irresolute hand switching at the underbrush along the lane. But as Lily made a movement to pass on, he broke out with fresh vehemence: “Miss Bart, for God’s sake don’t turn from me! We used to be good friends — you were always kind to me — and you don’t know how I need a friend now.”

The lamentable weakness of the words roused a motion of pity in Lily’s breast. She too needed friends — she had tasted the pang of loneliness; and her resentment of Bertha Dorset’s cruelty softened her heart to the poor wretch who was after all the chief of Bertha’s victims.

“I still wish to be kind; I feel no ill-will toward you,” she said. “But you must understand that after what has happened we can’t be friends again — we can’t see each other.”

“Ah, you ARE kind — you’re merciful — you always were!” He fixed his miserable gaze on her. “But why can’t we be friends — why not, when I’ve repented in dust and ashes? Isn’t it hard that you should condemn me to suffer for the falseness, the treachery of others? I was punished enough at the time — is there to be no respite for me?”

“I should have thought you had found complete respite in the reconciliation which was effected at my expense,” Lily began, with renewed impatience; but he broke in imploringly: “Don’t put it in that way — when that’s been the worst of my punishment. My God! what could I do — wasn’t I powerless? You were singled out as a sacrifice: any word I might have said would have been turned against you —— ”

“I have told you I don’t blame you; all I ask you to understand is that, after the use Bertha chose to make of me — after all that her behaviour has since implied — it’s impossible that you and I should meet.”

He continued to stand before her, in his dogged weakness. “Is it — need it be? Mightn’t there be circumstances ——?” he checked himself, slashing at the wayside weeds in a wider radius. Then he began again: “Miss Bart, listen — give me a minute. If we’re not to meet again, at least let me have a hearing now. You say we can’t be friends after — after what has happened. But can’t I at least appeal to your pity? Can’t I move you if I ask you to think of me as a prisoner — a prisoner you alone can set free?”

Lily’s inward start betrayed itself in a quick blush: was it possible that this was really the sense of Carry Fisher’s adumbrations?

“I can’t see how I can possibly be of any help to you,” she murmured, drawing back a little from the mounting excitement of his look.

Her tone seemed to sober him, as it had so often done in his stormiest moments. The stubborn lines of his face relaxed, and he said, with an abrupt drop to docility: “You WOULD see, if you’d be as merciful as you used to be: and heaven knows I’ve never needed it more!”

She paused a moment, moved in spite of herself by this reminder of her influence over him. Her fibres had been softened by suffering, and the sudden glimpse into his mocked and broken life disarmed her contempt for his weakness.

“I am very sorry for you — I would help you willingly; but you must have other friends, other advisers.”

“I never had a friend like you,” he answered simply. “And besides — can’t you see? — you’re the only person” — his voice dropped to a whisper — “the only person who knows.”

Again she felt her colour change; again her heart rose in precipitate throbs to meet what she felt was coming. He lifted his eyes to her entreatingly. “You do see, don’t you? You understand? I’m desperate — I’m at the end of my tether. I want to be free, and you can free me. I know you can. You don’t want to keep me bound fast in hell, do you? You can’t want to take such a vengeance as that. You were always kind — your eyes are kind now. You say you’re sorry for me. Well, it rests with you to show it; and heaven knows there’s nothing to keep you back. You understand, of course — there wouldn’t be a hint of publicity — not a sound or a syllable to connect you with the thing. It would never come to that, you know: all I need is to be able to say definitely: ‘I know this — and this — and this’ — and the fight would drop, and the way be cleared, and the whole abominable business swept out of sight in a second.”

He spoke pantingly, like a tired runner, with breaks of exhaustion between his words; and through the breaks she caught, as through the shifting rents of a fog, great golden vistas of peace and safety. For there was no mistaking the definite intention behind his vague appeal; she could have filled up the blanks without the help of Mrs. Fisher’s insinuations. Here was a man who turned to her in the extremity of his loneliness and his humiliation: if she came to him at such a moment he would be hers with all the force of his deluded faith. And the power to make him so lay in her hand — lay there in a completeness he could not even remotely conjecture. Revenge and rehabilitation might be hers at a stroke — there was something dazzling in the completeness of the opportunity.

She stood silent, gazing away from him down the autumnal stretch of the deserted lane. And suddenly fear possessed her — fear of herself, and of the terrible force of the temptation. All her past weaknesses were like so many eager accomplices drawing her toward the path their feet had already smoothed. She turned quickly, and held out her hand to Dorset.

“Goodbye — I’m sorry; there’s nothing in the world that I can do.”

“Nothing? Ah, don’t say that,” he cried; “say what’s true: that you abandon me like the others. You, the only creature who could have saved me!”

“Goodbye — goodbye,” she repeated hurriedly; and as she moved away she heard him cry out on a last note of entreaty: “At least you’ll let me see you once more?”

Lily, on regaining the Gormer grounds, struck rapidly across the lawn toward the unfinished house, where she fancied that her hostess might be speculating, not too resignedly, on the cause of her delay; for, like many unpunctual persons, Mrs. Gormer disliked to be kept waiting.

As Miss Bart reached the avenue, however, she saw a smart phaeton with a high-stepping pair disappear behind the shrubbery in the direction of the gate; and on the doorstep stood Mrs. Gormer, with a glow of retrospective pleasure on her open countenance. At sight of Lily the glow deepened to an embarrassed red, and she said with a slight laugh: “Did you see my visitor? Oh, I thought you came back by the avenue. It was Mrs. George Dorset — she said she’d dropped in to make a neighbourly call.”

Lily met the announcement with her usual composure, though her experience of Bertha’s idiosyncrasies would not have led her to include the neighbourly instinct among them; and Mrs. Gormer, relieved to see that she gave no sign of surprise, went on with a deprecating laugh: “Of course what really brought her was curiosity — she made me take her all over the house. But no one could have been nicer — no airs, you know, and so good-natured: I can quite see why people think her so fascinating.”

This surprising event, coinciding too completely with her meeting with Dorset to be regarded as contingent upon it, had yet immediately struck Lily with a vague sense of foreboding. It was not in Bertha’s habits to be neighbourly, much less to make advances to any one outside the immediate circle of her affinities. She had always consistently ignored the world of outer aspirants, or had recognized its individual members only when prompted by motives of self-interest; and the very capriciousness of her condescensions had, as Lily was aware, given them special value in the eyes of the persons she distinguished. Lily saw this now in Mrs. Gormer’s unconcealable complacency, and in the happy irrelevance with which, for the next day or two, she quoted Bertha’s opinions and speculated on the origin of her gown. All the secret ambitions which Mrs. Gormer’s native indolence, and the attitude of her companions, kept in habitual abeyance, were now germinating afresh in the glow of Bertha’s advances; and whatever the cause of the latter, Lily saw that, if they were followed up, they were likely to have a disturbing effect upon her own future.

She had arranged to break the length of her stay with her new friends by one or two visits to other acquaintances as recent; and on her return from this somewhat depressing excursion she was immediately conscious that Mrs. Dorset’s influence was still in the air. There had been another exchange of visits, a tea at a country-club, an encounter at a hunt ball; there was even a rumour of an approaching dinner, which Mattie Gormer, with an unnatural effort at discretion, tried to smuggle out of the conversation whenever Miss Bart took part in it.

The latter had already planned to return to town after a farewell Sunday with her friends; and, with Gerty Farish’s aid, had discovered a small private hotel where she might establish herself for the winter. The hotel being on the edge of a fashionable neighbourhood, the price of the few square feet she was to occupy was considerably in excess of her means; but she found a justification for her dislike of poorer quarters in the argument that, at this particular juncture, it was of the utmost importance to keep up a show of prosperity. In reality, it was impossible for her, while she had the means to pay her way for a week ahead, to lapse into a form of existence like Gerty Farish’s. She had never been so near the brink of insolvency; but she could at least manage to meet her weekly hotel bill, and having settled the heaviest of her previous debts out of the money she had received from Trenor, she had a still fair margin of credit to go upon. The situation, however, was not agreeable enough to lull her to complete unconsciousness of its insecurity. Her rooms, with their cramped outlook down a sallow vista of brick walls and fire-escapes, her lonely meals in the dark restaurant with its surcharged ceiling and haunting smell of coffee — all these material discomforts, which were yet to be accounted as so many privileges soon to be withdrawn, kept constantly before her the disadvantages of her state; and her mind reverted the more insistently to Mrs. Fisher’s counsels. Beat about the question as she would, she knew the outcome of it was that she must try to marry Rosedale; and in this conviction she was fortified by an unexpected visit from George Dorset.

She found him, on the first Sunday after her return to town, pacing her narrow sitting-room to the imminent peril of the few knick-knacks with which she had tried to disguise its plush exuberances; but the sight of her seemed to quiet him, and he said meekly that he hadn’t come to bother her — that he asked only to be allowed to sit for half an hour and talk of anything she liked. In reality, as she knew, he had but one subject: himself and his wretchedness; and it was the need of her sympathy that had drawn him back. But he began with a pretence of questioning her about herself, and as she replied, she saw that, for the first time, a faint realization of her plight penetrated the dense surface of his self-absorption. Was it possible that her old beast of an aunt had actually cut her off? That she was living alone like this because there was no one else for her to go to, and that she really hadn’t more than enough to keep alive on till the wretched little legacy was paid? The fibres of sympathy were nearly atrophied in him, but he was suffering so intensely that he had a faint glimpse of what other sufferings might mean — and, as she perceived, an almost simultaneous perception of the way in which her particular misfortunes might serve him.

When at length she dismissed him, on the pretext that she must dress for dinner, he lingered entreatingly on the threshold to blurt out: “It’s been such a comfort — do say you’ll let me see you again — ” But to this direct appeal it was impossible to give an assent; and she said with friendly decisiveness: “I’m sorry — but you know why I can’t.”

He coloured to the eyes, pushed the door shut, and stood before her embarrassed but insistent. “I know how you might, if you would — if things were different — and it lies with you to make them so. It’s just a word to say, and you put me out of my misery!”

Their eyes met, and for a second she trembled again with the nearness of the temptation. “You’re mistaken; I know nothing; I saw nothing,” she exclaimed, striving, by sheer force of reiteration, to build a barrier between herself and her peril; and as he turned away, groaning out “You sacrifice us both,” she continued to repeat, as if it were a charm: “I know nothing — absolutely nothing.”

Lily had seen little of Rosedale since her illuminating talk with Mrs. Fisher, but on the two or three occasions when they had met she was conscious of having distinctly advanced in his favour. There could be no doubt that he admired her as much as ever, and she believed it rested with herself to raise his admiration to the point where it should bear down the lingering counsels of expediency. The task was not an easy one; but neither was it easy, in her long sleepless nights, to face the thought of what George Dorset was so clearly ready to offer. Baseness for baseness, she hated the other least: there were even moments when a marriage with Rosedale seemed the only honourable solution of her difficulties. She did not indeed let her imagination range beyond the day of plighting: after that everything faded into a haze of material well-being, in which the personality of her benefactor remained mercifully vague. She had learned, in her long vigils, that there were certain things not good to think of, certain midnight images that must at any cost be exorcised — and one of these was the image of herself as Rosedale’s wife.

Carry Fisher, on the strength, as she frankly owned, of the Brys’ Newport success, had taken for the autumn months a small house at Tuxedo; and thither Lily was bound on the Sunday after Dorset’s visit. Though it was nearly dinner-time when she arrived, her hostess was still out, and the firelit quiet of the small silent house descended on her spirit with a sense of peace and familiarity. It may be doubted if such an emotion had ever before been evoked by Carry Fisher’s surroundings; but, contrasted to the world in which Lily had lately lived, there was an air of repose and stability in the very placing of the furniture, and in the quiet competence of the parlour-maid who led her up to her room. Mrs. Fisher’s unconventionality was, after all, a merely superficial divergence from an inherited social creed, while the manners of the Gormer circle represented their first attempt to formulate such a creed for themselves.

It was the first time since her return from Europe that Lily had found herself in a congenial atmosphere, and the stirring of familiar associations had almost prepared her, as she descended the stairs before dinner, to enter upon a group of her old acquaintances. But this expectation was instantly checked by the reflection that the friends who remained loyal were precisely those who would be least willing to expose her to such encounters; and it was hardly with surprise that she found, instead, Mr. Rosedale kneeling domestically on the drawing-room hearth before his hostess’s little girl.

Rosedale in the paternal role was hardly a figure to soften Lily; yet she could not but notice a quality of homely goodness in his advances to the child. They were not, at any rate, the premeditated and perfunctory endearments of the guest under his hostess’s eye, for he and the little girl had the room to themselves; and something in his attitude made him seem a simple and kindly being compared to the small critical creature who endured his homage. Yes, he would be kind — Lily, from the threshold, had time to feel — kind in his gross, unscrupulous, rapacious way, the way of the predatory creature with his mate. She had but a moment in which to consider whether this glimpse of the fireside man mitigated her repugnance, or gave it, rather, a more concrete and intimate form; for at sight of her he was immediately on his feet again, the florid and dominant Rosedale of Mattie Gormer’s drawing-room.

It was no surprise to Lily to find that he had been selected as her only fellow-guest. Though she and her hostess had not met since the latter’s tentative discussion of her future, Lily knew that the acuteness which enabled Mrs. Fisher to lay a safe and pleasant course through a world of antagonistic forces was not infrequently exercised for the benefit of her friends. It was, in fact, characteristic of Carry that, while she actively gleaned her own stores from the fields of affluence, her real sympathies were on the other side — with the unlucky, the unpopular, the unsuccessful, with all her hungry fellow-toilers in the shorn stubble of success.

Mrs. Fisher’s experience guarded her against the mistake of exposing Lily, for the first evening, to the unmitigated impression of Rosedale’s personality. Kate Corby and two or three men dropped in to dinner, and Lily, alive to every detail of her friend’s method, saw that such opportunities as had been contrived for her were to be deferred till she had, as it were, gained courage to make effectual use of them. She had a sense of acquiescing in this plan with the passiveness of a sufferer resigned to the surgeon’s touch; and this feeling of almost lethargic helplessness continued when, after the departure of the guests, Mrs. Fisher followed her upstairs.

“May I come in and smoke a cigarette over your fire? If we talk in my room we shall disturb the child.” Mrs. Fisher looked about her with the eye of the solicitous hostess. “I hope you’ve managed to make yourself comfortable, dear? Isn’t it a jolly little house? It’s such a blessing to have a few quiet weeks with the baby.”

Carry, in her rare moments of prosperity, became so expansively maternal that Miss Bart sometimes wondered whether, if she could ever get time and money enough, she would not end by devoting them both to her daughter.

“It’s a well-earned rest: I’ll say that for myself,” she continued, sinking down with a sigh of content on the pillowed lounge near the fire. “Louisa Bry is a stern task-master: I often used to wish myself back with the Gormers. Talk of love making people jealous and suspicious — it’s nothing to social ambition! Louisa used to lie awake at night wondering whether the women who called on us called on ME because I was with her, or on HER because she was with me; and she was always laying traps to find out what I thought. Of course I had to disown my oldest friends, rather than let her suspect she owed me the chance of making a single acquaintance — when, all the while, that was what she had me there for, and what she wrote me a handsome cheque for when the season was over!”

Mrs. Fisher was not a woman who talked of herself without cause, and the practice of direct speech, far from precluding in her an occasional resort to circuitous methods, served rather, at crucial moments, the purpose of the juggler’s chatter while he shifts the contents of his sleeves. Through the haze of her cigarette smoke she continued to gaze meditatively at Miss Bart, who, having dismissed her maid, sat before the toilet-table shaking out over her shoulders the loosened undulations of her hair.

“Your hair’s wonderful, Lily. Thinner —? What does that matter, when it’s so light and alive? So many women’s worries seem to go straight to their hair — but yours looks as if there had never been an anxious thought under it. I never saw you look better than you did this evening. Mattie Gormer told me that Morpeth wanted to paint you — why don’t you let him?”

Miss Bart’s immediate answer was to address a critical glance to the reflection of the countenance under discussion. Then she said, with a slight touch of irritation: “I don’t care to accept a portrait from Paul Morpeth.”

Mrs. Fisher mused. “N— no. And just now, especially — well, he can do you after you’re married.” She waited a moment, and then went on: “By the way, I had a visit from Mattie the other day. She turned up here last Sunday — and with Bertha Dorset, of all people in the world!”

She paused again to measure the effect of this announcement on her hearer, but the brush in Miss Bart’s lifted hand maintained its unwavering stroke from brow to nape.

“I never was more astonished,” Mrs. Fisher pursued. “I don’t know two women less predestined to intimacy — from Bertha’s standpoint, that is; for of course poor Mattie thinks it natural enough that she should be singled out — I’ve no doubt the rabbit always thinks it is fascinating the anaconda. Well, you know I’ve always told you that Mattie secretly longed to bore herself with the really fashionable; and now that the chance has come, I see that she’s capable of sacrificing all her old friends to it.”

Lily laid aside her brush and turned a penetrating glance upon her friend. “Including ME?” she suggested.

“Ah, my dear,” murmured Mrs. Fisher, rising to push back a log from the hearth.

“That’s what Bertha means, isn’t it?” Miss Bart went on steadily. “For of course she always means something; and before I left Long Island I saw that she was beginning to lay her toils for Mattie.”

Mrs. Fisher sighed evasively. “She has her fast now, at any rate. To think of that loud independence of Mattie’s being only a subtler form of snobbishness! Bertha can already make her believe anything she pleases — and I’m afraid she’s begun, my poor child, by insinuating horrors about you.”

Lily flushed under the shadow of her drooping hair. “The world is too vile,” she murmured, averting herself from Mrs. Fisher’s anxious scrutiny.

“It’s not a pretty place; and the only way to keep a footing in it is to fight it on its own terms — and above all, my dear, not alone!” Mrs. Fisher gathered up her floating implications in a resolute grasp. “You’ve told me so little that I can only guess what has been happening; but in the rush we all live in there’s no time to keep on hating any one without a cause, and if Bertha is still nasty enough to want to injure you with other people it must be because she’s still afraid of you. From her standpoint there’s only one reason for being afraid of you; and my own idea is that, if you want to punish her, you hold the means in your hand. I believe you can marry George Dorset tomorrow; but if you don’t care for that particular form of retaliation, the only thing to save you from Bertha is to marry somebody else.”

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