The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

Chapter 7

The light projected on the situation by Mrs. Fisher had the cheerless distinctness of a winter dawn. It outlined the facts with a cold precision unmodified by shade or colour, and refracted, as it were, from the blank walls of the surrounding limitations: she had opened windows from which no sky was ever visible. But the idealist subdued to vulgar necessities must employ vulgar minds to draw the inferences to which he cannot stoop; and it was easier for Lily to let Mrs. Fisher formulate her case than to put it plainly to herself. Once confronted with it, however, she went the full length of its consequences; and these had never been more clearly present to her than when, the next afternoon, she set out for a walk with Rosedale.

It was one of those still November days when the air is haunted with the light of summer, and something in the lines of the landscape, and in the golden haze which bathed them, recalled to Miss Bart the September afternoon when she had climbed the slopes of Bellomont with Selden. The importunate memory was kept before her by its ironic contrast to her present situation, since her walk with Selden had represented an irresistible flight from just such a climax as the present excursion was designed to bring about. But other memories importuned her also; the recollection of similar situations, as skillfully led up to, but through some malice of fortune, or her own unsteadiness of purpose, always failing of the intended result. Well, her purpose was steady enough now. She saw that the whole weary work of rehabilitation must begin again, and against far greater odds, if Bertha Dorset should succeed in breaking up her friendship with the Gormers; and her longing for shelter and security was intensified by the passionate desire to triumph over Bertha, as only wealth and predominance could triumph over her. As the wife of Rosedale — the Rosedale she felt it in her power to create — she would at least present an invulnerable front to her enemy.

She had to draw upon this thought, as upon some fiery stimulant, to keep up her part in the scene toward which Rosedale was too frankly tending. As she walked beside him, shrinking in every nerve from the way in which his look and tone made free of her, yet telling herself that this momentary endurance of his mood was the price she must pay for her ultimate power over him, she tried to calculate the exact point at which concession must turn to resistance, and the price HE would have to pay be made equally clear to him. But his dapper self-confidence seemed impenetrable to such hints, and she had a sense of something hard and self-contained behind the superficial warmth of his manner.

They had been seated for some time in the seclusion of a rocky glen above the lake, when she suddenly cut short the culmination of an impassioned period by turning upon him the grave loveliness of her gaze.

“I DO believe what you say, Mr. Rosedale,” she said quietly; “and I am ready to marry you whenever you wish.”

Rosedale, reddening to the roots of his glossy hair, received this announcement with a recoil which carried him to his feet, where he halted before her in an attitude of almost comic discomfiture.

“For I suppose that is what you do wish,” she continued, in the same quiet tone. “And, though I was unable to consent when you spoke to me in this way before, I am ready, now that I know you so much better, to trust my happiness to your hands.”

She spoke with the noble directness which she could command on such occasions, and which was like a large steady light thrown across the tortuous darkness of the situation. In its inconvenient brightness Rosedale seemed to waver a moment, as though conscious that every avenue of escape was unpleasantly illuminated.

Then he gave a short laugh, and drew out a gold cigarette-case, in which, with plump jewelled fingers, he groped for a gold-tipped cigarette. Selecting one, he paused to contemplate it a moment before saying: “My dear Miss Lily, I’m sorry if there’s been any little misapprehension between us-but you made me feel my suit was so hopeless that I had really no intention of renewing it.”

Lily’s blood tingled with the grossness of the rebuff; but she checked the first leap of her anger, and said in a tone of gentle dignity: “I have no one but myself to blame if I gave you the impression that my decision was final.”

Her word-play was always too quick for him, and this reply held him in puzzled silence while she extended her hand and added, with the faintest inflection of sadness in her voice: “Before we bid each other goodbye, I want at least to thank you for having once thought of me as you did.”

The touch of her hand, the moving softness of her look, thrilled a vulnerable fibre in Rosedale. It was her exquisite inaccessibleness, the sense of distance she could convey without a hint of disdain, that made it most difficult for him to give her up.

“Why do you talk of saying goodbye? Ain’t we going to be good friends all the same?” he urged, without releasing her hand.

She drew it away quietly. “What is your idea of being good friends?” she returned with a slight smile. “Making love to me without asking me to marry you?” Rosedale laughed with a recovered sense of ease.

“Well, that’s about the size of it, I suppose. I can’t help making love to you — I don’t see how any man could; but I don’t mean to ask you to marry me as long as I can keep out of it.”

She continued to smile. “I like your frankness; but I am afraid our friendship can hardly continue on those terms.” She turned away, as though to mark that its final term had in fact been reached, and he followed her for a few steps with a baffled sense of her having after all kept the game in her own hands.

“Miss Lily —— ” he began impulsively; but she walked on without seeming to hear him.

He overtook her in a few quick strides, and laid an entreating hand on her arm. “Miss Lily — don’t hurry away like that. You’re beastly hard on a fellow; but if you don’t mind speaking the truth I don’t see why you shouldn’t allow me to do the same.”

She had paused a moment with raised brows, drawing away instinctively from his touch, though she made no effort to evade his words.

“I was under the impression,” she rejoined, “that you had done so without waiting for my permission.”

“Well — why shouldn’t you hear my reasons for doing it, then? We’re neither of us such new hands that a little plain speaking is going to hurt us. I’m all broken up on you: there’s nothing new in that. I’m more in love with you than I was this time last year; but I’ve got to face the fact that the situation is changed.”

She continued to confront him with the same air of ironic composure. “You mean to say that I’m not as desirable a match as you thought me?”

“Yes; that’s what I do mean,” he answered resolutely. “I won’t go into what’s happened. I don’t believe the stories about you — I don’t WANT to believe them. But they’re there, and my not believing them ain’t going to alter the situation.”

She flushed to her temples, but the extremity of her need checked the retort on her lip and she continued to face him composedly. “If they are not true,” she said, “doesn’t THAT alter the situation?”

He met this with a steady gaze of his small stock-taking eyes, which made her feel herself no more than some superfine human merchandise. “I believe it does in novels; but I’m certain it don’t in real life. You know that as well as I do: if we’re speaking the truth, let’s speak the whole truth. Last year I was wild to marry you, and you wouldn’t look at me: this year — well, you appear to be willing. Now, what has changed in the interval? Your situation, that’s all. Then you thought you could do better; now —— ”

“You think you can?” broke from her ironically.

“Why, yes, I do: in one way, that is.” He stood before her, his hands in his pockets, his chest sturdily expanded under its vivid waistcoat. “It’s this way, you see: I’ve had a pretty steady grind of it these last years, working up my social position. Think it’s funny I should say that? Why should I mind saying I want to get into society? A man ain’t ashamed to say he wants to own a racing stable or a picture gallery. Well, a taste for society’s just another kind of hobby. Perhaps I want to get even with some of the people who cold-shouldered me last year — put it that way if it sounds better. Anyhow, I want to have the run of the best houses; and I’m getting it too, little by little. But I know the quickest way to queer yourself with the right people is to be seen with the wrong ones; and that’s the reason I want to avoid mistakes.”

Miss Bart continued to stand before him in a silence that might have expressed either mockery or a half-reluctant respect for his candour, and after a moment’s pause he went on: “There it is, you see. I’m more in love with you than ever, but if I married you now I’d queer myself for good and all, and everything I’ve worked for all these years would be wasted.”

She received this with a look from which all tinge of resentment had faded. After the tissue of social falsehoods in which she had so long moved it was refreshing to step into the open daylight of an avowed expediency.

“I understand you,” she said. “A year ago I should have been of use to you, and now I should be an encumbrance; and I like you for telling me so quite honestly.” She extended her hand with a smile.

Again the gesture had a disturbing effect upon Mr. Rosedale’s self-command. “By George, you’re a dead game sport, you are!” he exclaimed; and as she began once more to move away, he broke out suddenly — “Miss Lily — stop. You know I don’t believe those stories — I believe they were all got up by a woman who didn’t hesitate to sacrifice you to her own convenience —— ”

Lily drew away with a movement of quick disdain: it was easier to endure his insolence than his commiseration.

“You are very kind; but I don’t think we need discuss the matter farther.”

But Rosedale’s natural imperviousness to hints made it easy for him to brush such resistance aside. “I don’t want to discuss anything; I just want to put a plain case before you,” he persisted.

She paused in spite of herself, held by the note of a new purpose in his look and tone; and he went on, keeping his eyes firmly upon her: “The wonder to me is that you’ve waited so long to get square with that woman, when you’ve had the power in your hands.” She continued silent under the rush of astonishment that his words produced, and he moved a step closer to ask with low-toned directness: “Why don’t you use those letters of hers you bought last year?”

Lily stood speechless under the shock of the interrogation. In the words preceding it she had conjectured, at most, an allusion to her supposed influence over George Dorset; nor did the astonishing indelicacy of the reference diminish the likelihood of Rosedale’s resorting to it. But now she saw how far short of the mark she had fallen; and the surprise of learning that he had discovered the secret of the letters left her, for the moment, unconscious of the special use to which he was in the act of putting his knowledge.

Her temporary loss of self-possession gave him time to press his point; and he went on quickly, as though to secure completer control of the situation: “You see I know where you stand — I know how completely she’s in your power. That sounds like stage-talk, don’t it? — but there’s a lot of truth in some of those old gags; and I don’t suppose you bought those letters simply because you’re collecting autographs.”

She continued to look at him with a deepening bewilderment: her only clear impression resolved itself into a scared sense of his power.

“You’re wondering how I found out about ’em?” he went on, answering her look with a note of conscious pride. “Perhaps you’ve forgotten that I’m the owner of the Benedick-but never mind about that now. Getting on to things is a mighty useful accomplishment in business, and I’ve simply extended it to my private affairs. For this IS partly my affair, you see — at least, it depends on you to make it so. Let’s look the situation straight in the eye. Mrs. Dorset, for reasons we needn’t go into, did you a beastly bad turn last spring. Everybody knows what Mrs. Dorset is, and her best friends wouldn’t believe her on oath where their own interests were concerned; but as long as they’re out of the row it’s much easier to follow her lead than to set themselves against it, and you’ve simply been sacrificed to their laziness and selfishness. Isn’t that a pretty fair statement of the case? — Well, some people say you’ve got the neatest kind of an answer in your hands: that George Dorset would marry you tomorrow, if you’d tell him all you know, and give him the chance to show the lady the door. I daresay he would; but you don’t seem to care for that particular form of getting even, and, taking a purely business view of the question, I think you’re right. In a deal like that, nobody comes out with perfectly clean hands, and the only way for you to start fresh is to get Bertha Dorset to back you up, instead of trying to fight her.”

He paused long enough to draw breath, but not to give her time for the expression of her gathering resistance; and as he pressed on, expounding and elucidating his idea with the directness of the man who has no doubts of his cause, she found the indignation gradually freezing on her lip, found herself held fast in the grasp of his argument by the mere cold strength of its presentation. There was no time now to wonder how he had heard of her obtaining the letters: all her world was dark outside the monstrous glare of his scheme for using them. And it was not, after the first moment, the horror of the idea that held her spell-bound, subdued to his will; it was rather its subtle affinity to her own inmost cravings. He would marry her tomorrow if she could regain Bertha Dorset’s friendship; and to induce the open resumption of that friendship, and the tacit retractation of all that had caused its withdrawal, she had only to put to the lady the latent menace contained in the packet so miraculously delivered into her hands. Lily saw in a flash the advantage of this course over that which poor Dorset had pressed upon her. The other plan depended for its success on the infliction of an open injury, while this reduced the transaction to a private understanding, of which no third person need have the remotest hint. Put by Rosedale in terms of business-like give-and-take, this understanding took on the harmless air of a mutual accommodation, like a transfer of property or a revision of boundary lines. It certainly simplified life to view it as a perpetual adjustment, a play of party politics, in which every concession had its recognized equivalent: Lily’s tired mind was fascinated by this escape from fluctuating ethical estimates into a region of concrete weights and measures.

Rosedale, as she listened, seemed to read in her silence not only a gradual acquiescence in his plan, but a dangerously far-reaching perception of the chances it offered; for as she continued to stand before him without speaking, he broke out, with a quick return upon himself: “You see how simple it is, don’t you? Well, don’t be carried away by the idea that it’s TOO simple. It isn’t exactly as if you’d started in with a clean bill of health. Now we’re talking let’s call things by their right names, and clear the whole business up. You know well enough that Bertha Dorset couldn’t have touched you if there hadn’t been — well — questions asked before — little points of interrogation, eh? Bound to happen to a good-looking girl with stingy relatives, I suppose; anyhow, they DID happen, and she found the ground prepared for her. Do you see where I’m coming out? You don’t want these little questions cropping up again. It’s one thing to get Bertha Dorset into line — but what you want is to keep her there. You can frighten her fast enough — but how are you going to keep her frightened? By showing her that you’re as powerful as she is. All the letters in the world won’t do that for you as you are now; but with a big backing behind you, you’ll keep her just where you want her to be. That’s MY share in the business — that’s what I’m offering you. You can’t put the thing through without me — don’t run away with any idea that you can. In six months you’d be back again among your old worries, or worse ones; and here I am, ready to lift you out of ’em tomorrow if you say so. DO you say so, Miss Lily?” he added, moving suddenly nearer.

The words, and the movement which accompanied them, combined to startle Lily out of the state of tranced subservience into which she had insensibly slipped. Light comes in devious ways to the groping consciousness, and it came to her now through the disgusted perception that her would-be accomplice assumed, as a matter of course, the likelihood of her distrusting him and perhaps trying to cheat him of his share of the spoils. This glimpse of his inner mind seemed to present the whole transaction in a new aspect, and she saw that the essential baseness of the act lay in its freedom from risk.

She drew back with a quick gesture of rejection, saying, in a voice that was a surprise to her own ears: “You are mistaken — quite mistaken — both in the facts and in what you infer from them.”

Rosedale stared a moment, puzzled by her sudden dash in a direction so different from that toward which she had appeared to be letting him guide her.

“Now what on earth does that mean? I thought we understood each other!” he exclaimed; and to her murmur of “Ah, we do NOW,” he retorted with a sudden burst of violence: “I suppose it’s because the letters are to HIM, then? Well, I’ll be damned if I see what thanks you’ve got from him!”

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