The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

Chapter 9

When Lily woke on the morning after her translation to the Emporium Hotel, her first feeling was one of purely physical satisfaction. The force of contrast gave an added keenness to the luxury of lying once more in a soft-pillowed bed, and looking across a spacious sunlit room at a breakfast-table set invitingly near the fire. Analysis and introspection might come later; but for the moment she was not even troubled by the excesses of the upholstery or the restless convolutions of the furniture. The sense of being once more lapped and folded in ease, as in some dense mild medium impenetrable to discomfort, effectually stilled the faintest note of criticism.

When, the afternoon before, she had presented herself to the lady to whom Carry Fisher had directed her, she had been conscious of entering a new world. Carry’s vague presentment of Mrs. Norma Hatch (whose reversion to her Christian name was explained as the result of her latest divorce), left her under the implication of coming “from the West,” with the not unusual extenuation of having brought a great deal of money with her. She was, in short, rich, helpless, unplaced: the very subject for Lily’s hand. Mrs. Fisher had not specified the line her friend was to take; she owned herself unacquainted with Mrs. Hatch, whom she “knew about” through Melville Stancy, a lawyer in his leisure moments, and the Falstaff of a certain section of festive dub life. Socially, Mr. Stancy might have been said to form a connecting link between the Gormer world and the more dimly-lit region on which Miss Bart now found herself entering. It was, however, only figuratively that the illumination of Mrs. Hatch’s world could be described as dim: in actual fact, Lily found her seated in a blaze of electric light, impartially projected from various ornamental excrescences on a vast concavity of pink damask and gilding, from which she rose like Venus from her shell. The analogy was justified by the appearance of the lady, whose large-eyed prettiness had the fixity of something impaled and shown under glass. This did not preclude the immediate discovery that she was some years younger than her visitor, and that under her showiness, her ease, the aggression of her dress and voice, there persisted that ineradicable innocence which, in ladies of her nationality, so curiously coexists with startling extremes of experience.

The environment in which Lily found herself was as strange to her as its inhabitants. She was unacquainted with the world of the fashionable New York hotel — a world over-heated, over-upholstered, and over-fitted with mechanical appliances for the gratification of fantastic requirements, while the comforts of a civilized life were as unattainable as in a desert. Through this atmosphere of torrid splendour moved wan beings as richly upholstered as the furniture, beings without definite pursuits or permanent relations, who drifted on a languid tide of curiosity from restaurant to concert-hall, from palm-garden to music-room, from “art exhibit” to dress-maker’s opening. High-stepping horses or elaborately equipped motors waited to carry these ladies into vague metropolitan distances, whence they returned, still more wan from the weight of their sables, to be sucked back into the stifling inertia of the hotel routine. Somewhere behind them, in the background of their lives, there was doubtless a real past, peopled by real human activities: they themselves were probably the product of strong ambitions, persistent energies, diversified contacts with the wholesome roughness of life; yet they had no more real existence than the poet’s shades in limbo.

Lily had not been long in this pallid world without discovering that Mrs. Hatch was its most substantial figure. That lady, though still floating in the void, showed faint symptoms of developing an outline; and in this endeavour she was actively seconded by Mr. Melville Stancy. It was Mr. Stancy, a man of large resounding presence, suggestive of convivial occasions and of a chivalry finding expression in “first-night” boxes and thousand dollar bonbonnieres, who had transplanted Mrs. Hatch from the scene of her first development to the higher stage of hotel life in the metropolis. It was he who had selected the horses with which she had taken the blue ribbon at the Show, had introduced her to the photographer whose portraits of her formed the recurring ornament of “Sunday Supplements,” and had got together the group which constituted her social world. It was a small group still, with heterogeneous figures suspended in large unpeopled spaces; but Lily did not take long to learn that its regulation was no longer in Mr. Stancy’s hands. As often happens, the pupil had outstripped the teacher, and Mrs. Hatch was already aware of heights of elegance as well as depths of luxury beyond the world of the Emporium. This discovery at once produced in her a craving for higher guidance, for the adroit feminine hand which should give the right turn to her correspondence, the right “look” to her hats, the right succession to the items of her MENUS. It was, in short, as the regulator of a germinating social life that Miss Bart’s guidance was required; her ostensible duties as secretary being restricted by the fact that Mrs. Hatch, as yet, knew hardly any one to write to.

The daily details of Mrs. Hatch’s existence were as strange to Lily as its general tenor. The lady’s habits were marked by an Oriental indolence and disorder peculiarly trying to her companion. Mrs. Hatch and her friends seemed to float together outside the bounds of time and space. No definite hours were kept; no fixed obligations existed: night and day flowed into one another in a blur of confused and retarded engagements, so that one had the impression of lunching at the tea-hour, while dinner was often merged in the noisy after-theatre supper which prolonged Mrs. Hatch’s vigil till daylight.

Through this jumble of futile activities came and went a strange throng of hangers-on — manicures, beauty-doctors, hair-dressers, teachers of bridge, of French, of “physical development”: figures sometimes indistinguishable, by their appearance, or by Mrs. Hatch’s relation to them, from the visitors constituting her recognized society. But strangest of all to Lily was the encounter, in this latter group, of several of her acquaintances. She had supposed, and not without relief, that she was passing, for the moment, completely out of her own circle; but she found that Mr. Stancy, one side of whose sprawling existence overlapped the edge of Mrs. Fisher’s world, had drawn several of its brightest ornaments into the circle of the Emporium. To find Ned Silverton among the habitual frequenters of Mrs. Hatch’s drawing-room was one of Lily’s first astonishments; but she soon discovered that he was not Mr. Stancy’s most important recruit. It was on little Freddy Van Osburgh, the small slim heir of the Van Osburgh millions, that the attention of Mrs. Hatch’s group was centred. Freddy, barely out of college, had risen above the horizon since Lily’s eclipse, and she now saw with surprise what an effulgence he shed on the outer twilight of Mrs. Hatch’s existence. This, then, was one of the things that young men “went in” for when released from the official social routine; this was the kind of “previous engagement” that so frequently caused them to disappoint the hopes of anxious hostesses. Lily had an odd sense of being behind the social tapestry, on the side where the threads were knotted and the loose ends hung. For a moment she found a certain amusement in the show, and in her own share of it: the situation had an ease and unconventionality distinctly refreshing after her experience of the irony of conventions. But these flashes of amusement were but brief reactions from the long disgust of her days. Compared with the vast gilded void of Mrs. Hatch’s existence, the life of Lily’s former friends seemed packed with ordered activities. Even the most irresponsible pretty woman of her acquaintance had her inherited obligations, her conventional benevolences, her share in the working of the great civic machine; and all hung together in the solidarity of these traditional functions. The performance of specific duties would have simplified Miss Bart’s position; but the vague attendance on Mrs. Hatch was not without its perplexities.

It was not her employer who created these perplexities. Mrs. Hatch showed from the first an almost touching desire for Lily’s approval. Far from asserting the superiority of wealth, her beautiful eyes seemed to urge the plea of inexperience: she wanted to do what was “nice,” to be taught how to be “lovely.” The difficulty was to find any point of contact between her ideals and Lily’s.

Mrs. Hatch swam in a haze of indeterminate enthusiasms, of aspirations culled from the stage, the newspapers, the fashion journals, and a gaudy world of sport still more completely beyond her companion’s ken. To separate from these confused conceptions those most likely to advance the lady on her way, was Lily’s obvious duty; but its performance was hampered by rapidly-growing doubts. Lily was in fact becoming more and more aware of a certain ambiguity in her situation. It was not that she had, in the conventional sense, any doubt of Mrs. Hatch’s irreproachableness. The lady’s offences were always against taste rather than conduct; her divorce record seemed due to geographical rather than ethical conditions; and her worst laxities were likely to proceed from a wandering and extravagant good-nature. But if Lily did not mind her detaining her manicure for luncheon, or offering the “Beauty–Doctor” a seat in Freddy Van Osburgh’s box at the play, she was not equally at ease in regard to some less apparent lapses from convention. Ned Silverton’s relation to Stancy seemed, for instance, closer and less clear than any natural affinities would warrant; and both appeared united in the effort to cultivate Freddy Van Osburgh’s growing taste for Mrs. Hatch. There was as yet nothing definable in the situation, which might well resolve itself into a huge joke on the part of the other two; but Lily had a vague sense that the subject of their experiment was too young, too rich and too credulous. Her embarrassment was increased by the fact that Freddy seemed to regard her as cooperating with himself in the social development of Mrs. Hatch: a view that suggested, on his part, a permanent interest in the lady’s future. There were moments when Lily found an ironic amusement in this aspect of the case. The thought of launching such a missile as Mrs. Hatch at the perfidious bosom of society was not without its charm: Miss Bart had even beguiled her leisure with visions of the fair Norma introduced for the first time to a family banquet at the Van Osburghs’. But the thought of being personally connected with the transaction was less agreeable; and her momentary flashes of amusement were followed by increasing periods of doubt.

The sense of these doubts was uppermost when, late one afternoon, she was surprised by a visit from Lawrence Selden. He found her alone in the wilderness of pink damask, for in Mrs. Hatch’s world the tea-hour was not dedicated to social rites, and the lady was in the hands of her masseuse.

Selden’s entrance had caused Lily an inward start of embarrassment; but his air of constraint had the effect of restoring her self-possession, and she took at once the tone of surprise and pleasure, wondering frankly that he should have traced her to so unlikely a place, and asking what had inspired him to make the search.

Selden met this with an unusual seriousness: she had never seen him so little master of the situation, so plainly at the mercy of any obstructions she might put in his way. “I wanted to see you,” he said; and she could not resist observing in reply that he had kept his wishes under remarkable control. She had in truth felt his long absence as one of the chief bitternesses of the last months: his desertion had wounded sensibilities far below the surface of her pride.

Selden met the challenge with directness. “Why should I have come, unless I thought I could be of use to you? It is my only excuse for imagining you could want me.”

This struck her as a clumsy evasion, and the thought gave a flash of keenness to her answer. “Then you have come now because you think you can be of use to me?”

He hesitated again. “Yes: in the modest capacity of a person to talk things over with.”

For a clever man it was certainly a stupid beginning; and the idea that his awkwardness was due to the fear of her attaching a personal significance to his visit, chilled her pleasure in seeing him. Even under the most adverse conditions, that pleasure always made itself felt: she might hate him, but she had never been able to wish him out of the room. She was very near hating him now; yet the sound of his voice, the way the light fell on his thin dark hair, the way he sat and moved and wore his clothes — she was conscious that even these trivial things were inwoven with her deepest life. In his presence a sudden stillness came upon her, and the turmoil of her spirit ceased; but an impulse of resistance to this stealing influence now prompted her to say: “It’s very good of you to present yourself in that capacity; but what makes you think I have anything particular to talk about?”

Though she kept the even tone of light intercourse, the question was framed in a way to remind him that his good offices were unsought; and for a moment Selden was checked by it. The situation between them was one which could have been cleared up only by a sudden explosion of feeling; and their whole training and habit of mind were against the chances of such an explosion. Selden’s calmness seemed rather to harden into resistance, and Miss Bart’s into a surface of glittering irony, as they faced each other from the opposite corners of one of Mrs. Hatch’s elephantine sofas. The sofa in question, and the apartment peopled by its monstrous mates, served at length to suggest the turn of Selden’s reply.

“Gerty told me that you were acting as Mrs. Hatch’s secretary; and I knew she was anxious to hear how you were getting on.”

Miss Bart received this explanation without perceptible softening. “Why didn’t she look me up herself, then?” she asked.

“Because, as you didn’t send her your address, she was afraid of being importunate.” Selden continued with a smile: “You see no such scruples restrained me; but then I haven’t as much to risk if I incur your displeasure.”

Lily answered his smile. “You haven’t incurred it as yet; but I have an idea that you are going to.”

“That rests with you, doesn’t it? You see my initiative doesn’t go beyond putting myself at your disposal.”

“But in what capacity? What am I to do with you?” she asked in the same light tone.

Selden again glanced about Mrs. Hatch’s drawing-room; then he said, with a decision which he seemed to have gathered from this final inspection: “You are to let me take you away from here.”

Lily flushed at the suddenness of the attack; then she stiffened under it and said coldly: “And may I ask where you mean me to go?”

“Back to Gerty in the first place, if you will; the essential thing is that it should be away from here.”

The unusual harshness of his tone might have shown her how much the words cost him; but she was in no state to measure his feelings while her own were in a flame of revolt. To neglect her, perhaps even to avoid her, at a time when she had most need of her friends, and then suddenly and unwarrantably to break into her life with this strange assumption of authority, was to rouse in her every instinct of pride and self-defence.

“I am very much obliged to you,” she said, “for taking such an interest in my plans; but I am quite contented where I am, and have no intention of leaving.”

Selden had risen, and was standing before her in an attitude of uncontrollable expectancy.

“That simply means that you don’t know where you are!” he exclaimed.

Lily rose also, with a quick flash of anger. “If you have come here to say disagreeable things about Mrs. Hatch —— ”

“It is only with your relation to Mrs. Hatch that I am concerned.”

“My relation to Mrs. Hatch is one I have no reason to be ashamed of. She has helped me to earn a living when my old friends were quite resigned to seeing me starve.”

“Nonsense! Starvation is not the only alternative. You know you can always find a home with Gerty till you are independent again.”

“You show such an intimate acquaintance with my affairs that I suppose you mean — till my aunt’s legacy is paid?”

“I do mean that; Gerty told me of it,” Selden acknowledged without embarrassment. He was too much in earnest now to feel any false constraint in speaking his mind.

“But Gerty does not happen to know,” Miss Bart rejoined, “that I owe every penny of that legacy.”

“Good God!” Selden exclaimed, startled out of his composure by the abruptness of the statement.

“Every penny of it, and more too,” Lily repeated; “and you now perhaps see why I prefer to remain with Mrs. Hatch rather than take advantage of Gerty’s kindness. I have no money left, except my small income, and I must earn something more to keep myself alive.”

Selden hesitated a moment; then he rejoined in a quieter tone: “But with your income and Gerty’s — since you allow me to go so far into the details of the situation — you and she could surely contrive a life together which would put you beyond the need of having to support yourself. Gerty, I know, is eager to make such an arrangement, and would be quite happy in it —— ”

“But I should not,” Miss Bart interposed. “There are many reasons why it would be neither kind to Gerty nor wise for myself.” She paused a moment, and as he seemed to await a farther explanation, added with a quick lift of her head: “You will perhaps excuse me from giving you these reasons.”

“I have no claim to know them,” Selden answered, ignoring her tone; “no claim to offer any comment or suggestion beyond the one I have already made. And my right to make that is simply the universal right of a man to enlighten a woman when he sees her unconsciously placed in a false position.”

Lily smiled. “I suppose,” she rejoined, “that by a false position you mean one outside of what we call society; but you must remember that I had been excluded from those sacred precincts long before I met Mrs. Hatch. As far as I can see, there is very little real difference in being inside or out, and I remember your once telling me that it was only those inside who took the difference seriously.”

She had not been without intention in making this allusion to their memorable talk at Bellomont, and she waited with an odd tremor of the nerves to see what response it would bring; but the result of the experiment was disappointing. Selden did not allow the allusion to deflect him from his point; he merely said with completer fulness of emphasis: “The question of being inside or out is, as you say, a small one, and it happens to have nothing to do with the case, except in so far as Mrs. Hatch’s desire to be inside may put you in the position I call false.”

In spite of the moderation of his tone, each word he spoke had the effect of confirming Lily’s resistance. The very apprehensions he aroused hardened her against him: she had been on the alert for the note of personal sympathy, for any sign of recovered power over him; and his attitude of sober impartiality, the absence of all response to her appeal, turned her hurt pride to blind resentment of his interference. The conviction that he had been sent by Gerty, and that, whatever straits he conceived her to be in, he would never voluntarily have come to her aid, strengthened her resolve not to admit him a hair’s breadth farther into her confidence. However doubtful she might feel her situation to be, she would rather persist in darkness than owe her enlightenment to Selden.

“I don’t know,” she said, when he had ceased to speak, “why you imagine me to be situated as you describe; but as you have always told me that the sole object of a bringing-up like mine was to teach a girl to get what she wants, why not assume that that is precisely what I am doing?”

The smile with which she summed up her case was like a clear barrier raised against farther confidences: its brightness held him at such a distance that he had a sense of being almost out of hearing as he rejoined: “I am not sure that I have ever called you a successful example of that kind of bringing-up.”

Her colour rose a little at the implication, but she steeled herself with a light laugh. “Ah, wait a little longer — give me a little more time before you decide!” And as he wavered before her, still watching for a break in the impenetrable front she presented: “Don’t give me up; I may still do credit to my training!” she affirmed.

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