Hudson River Bracketed, by Edith Wharton

Book I

I

By the time he was nineteen Vance Weston had graduated from the College of Euphoria, Illinois, where his parents then lived, had spent a week in Chicago, invented a new religion, and edited for a few months a college magazine called Getting There, to which he had contributed several love poems and a series of iconoclastic essays. He had also been engaged for a whole week to the inspirer of the poems, a girl several years older than himself called Floss Delaney, who was the somewhat blown-upon daughter of an unsuccessful real estate man living in a dejected outskirt of the town.

Having soared to these heights, and plumbed these depths, it now remained to young Weston to fix upon the uses to which his varied aptitudes and experiences could most advantageously be put.

Of all the events so far befalling him, none seemed to Vance Weston as important as having invented a new religion. He had been born into a world in which everything had been, or was being, renovated, and it struck him as an anomaly that all the religions he had heard of had been in existence ever since he could remember; that is, at least sixteen years. This seemed to him the more unaccountable because religion, of one sort or another, seemed to play a considerable, if rather spasmodic or intermittent, part in the lives of most of the people he knew, and because, from the first dawn of consciousness, he had heard everybody adjuring everybody else not to get into a rut, but to go ahead with the times, as behoved all good Americans.

The evolution of his own family was in its main lines that of most of the families he had known. Since the time of Mrs. Weston’s marriage, when Grandma was teaching school at Pruneville, Nebraska, and the whole family depended on her earnings, till now, when she and Grandfather took their ease in an eight-room Colonial cottage in a suburb of Euphoria, and people came from as far as Chicago to consult Mr. Weston about real estate matters, the family curve had been continually upward. Lorin Weston, who had wandered out to Pruneville to try and pick up a job on the local newspaper, had immediately seen the real estate possibilities of that lamentable community, had put his last penny into a bit of swampy land near the future railway station, got out at a big rise when the railway came, and again plumped his all on another lot of land near where his mother-in-law had found out that the new high school was to be built. Then there had come a stagnant period in the development of Pruneville, and Mr. Weston had moved his wife and young family to Hallelujah, Mo., where he had repeated the same experiment with increasing profit. While he was there, a real estate man from Advance came over to take a look round, talked to Weston about Advance, and awakened his curiosity. To Advance the family went, compensated by a bigger and better house for the expense of having to leave Hallelujah. At Advance the Weston son and heir was born, and named after his birthplace, which had deserved well of Mr. Weston, since he was able, when Vance was nine or ten, to leave there for Euphoria, buy up nearly the whole of the Pig Lane side of the town, turn it into the Mapledale suburb, and build himself a house with lawn, garage, sleeping porch and sun parlour, which was photographed for the architectural papers, and made Mrs. Weston the envy of the Alsop Avenue church sewing circle. Even Grandma Scrimser, who had never been much of a hand at making or keeping money, and was what the minister of the Alsop Avenue church called “idealistic,” did not question the importance of material prosperity, or the value of Mr. Weston’s business “brightness,” and somewhere in the big lumber room of her mind had found a point where otherworldliness and “pep” lay down together in amity.

This being so — and such phrases as “back number,” “down and out,” “out of the running,” and the like having never been used in young Vance’s hearing save in a pejorative sense — he wondered how it was that the enlightened millions, with whom it was a sign of “pep” and prosperity to go in for almost annual turnovers in real estate, stocks, automobiles, wives and husbands, were content to put up year after year with the same religion, or religions rather, since nearly everybody he knew had a different one.

Vance Weston, in truth, could not dissociate stability from stagnation, any more in religion than in business. All the people he had heard of who hadn’t got a move on at the right minute, in whatever direction, were down and out. Even the most high-minded among the ministers admitted this, and emphasized religion as the greatest known shortcut to Success. (If you’d come and join their Sunday evening classes for young men, and subscribe to Zion’s Spotlight, you’d find out why.) Yet, in spite of this, nobody had managed, in Vance Weston’s lifetime, to evolve a new religion, and they were all still trying to catch a new generation with the old bait.

Thinking about religion ran in Vance’s family — at least on his mother’s side. Grandma Scrimser had always cared about it more than about anything else. At sixty-five she was still a magnificent-looking woman, rather like pictures of a German prima donna made up as a Walkyrie; with stormy black eyebrows, short yellowish-white hair (years before the young ones began to be bobbed), and a broad uncertain frame which reminded Vance (after he had acquired lights on modern art) of a figure by an artist who had genius but didn’t know how to draw.

As a girl Grandma was said to have been gloriously beautiful; and Vance could well believe it. Indeed, she made no secret of it herself — why should she, when she regarded it only as an inconvenient accident, a troublesome singularity, and (she had been known to admit in confidential moments) an obstacle to Grandpa Scrimser’s advance to Perfection? Perfection was Grandma’s passion — ladies were Grandpa’s. While his wife was young her beauty might have served to circumscribe his yearnings if only she had chosen to make use of it. But the idea of beauty as a gift to be used, trained, exercised, and directed was to her not so much immoral as unintelligible. She regarded herself as afflicted with a Greek nose, masses of wavy amber hair, and a richly glowing dusky complexion, as other women might have borne the cross of a birthmark or a crooked spine. She could not understand “what people saw in it,” or in the joys to which it was the golden gateway. As to these joys she professed a contemptuous incredulity. What she wanted was to reform the world; and beauty and passion were but hindrances to her purpose. She wanted to reform everything — it didn’t particularly matter what: cooking, marriage, religion (of course religion), dentistry, saloons, corsets — even Grandpa. Grandpa used to complain that in cooking she had never got very far on the way to Perfection — only just far enough to give him dyspepsia. But since she would not indulge his conjugal sentiments unduly he was grateful that at least the pursuit of Perfection left her little time to investigate his private affairs; so that, on the whole, the marriage was accounted a happy one, and the four children born of it were taught to revere both parents, though for different reasons. Grandma, of course, was revered for being a mother in Israel; Grandpa for having once made a successful real estate deal, and for being the best Fourth of July orator anywhere in Drake County. They were a magnificent~looking couple, too, and when Old Home Weeks began to be inaugurated throughout the land, Mr. and Mrs. Scrimser were in great demand in tableaux representing The Old Folks at Home, Mrs. Scrimser spinning by the kitchen hearth, and Grandpa (with his new set removed, to bring out his likeness to George Washington) leaning on a silver-headed crutch stick, his nutcracker chin reposing on a spotless stock. But Grandma liked better figuring as the Pioneer Wife in a log cabin, with Grandpa (the new set in place again) garbed in a cowpuncher’s rig, aiming his shotgun through a crack in the shutters, and the children doing Indian war whoops behind the scenes. “I couldn’t ever have sat still long enough to spin the house linen, like the woman in that Lady Washington picture; but I guess I’d have been a real good pioneer’s wife,” she explained, not unboastfully.

“You’ve always kept house as if you was one,” Grandpa would grumble, pushing away his tepid coffee and shrivelled bacon; and Mrs. Scrimser would answer: “I’m sorry your breakfast don’t just suit you today, father; but I guess it won’t set you back much on the path to Eternity. I had to let the hired girl go to that camp meeting last night, and they always come back from their meetings as limp as rags, so I had her cook your bacon before she went.”

“Oh, Christ,” Grandpa ejaculated; and his daughter, Mrs. Lorin Weston, shook her head severely at little Vance, as much as to say that he was not to listen when Grandpa talked like that, or, alternatively, that Grandpa hadn’t really said what little Vance thought he had.

Grandma Scrimser was of course more interested than anyone in the idea of Vance’s new religion. In the first place, she agreed with him that a new one was needed, though she still thought the Rock of Ages was the best foundation any religion could have, and hoped Vance wouldn’t make them give up singing old hymns. It took some time to make her understand that perhaps there wouldn’t be any more hymns, or any sort of formal worship, but just a mystical communion between souls to whom the same revelation had been vouchsafed. “You be careful now, Vance, how you’re mystical,” she chid him; “time and again I’ve known that to end in a baby.” But as Vance developed his theory he had the sense that she could not understand what he was talking about. Her education had not prepared her to follow him beyond the simply phase of pious ejaculation and contrition.

Vance’s parents were totally unaffected by old Mrs. Scrimser’s transcendental yearnings. When Grandpa Scrimser’s digestion gave out, or he needed a change, he always packed his grip and moved in from the suburb where he and Grandma now lived to spend a week with the Westons. His other daughter, who had inherited her mother’s neglected beauty, inherited also her scorn of comfort and her zeal for reform, and in the cause of temperance and high thinking dragged after her from one lecture platform to another a dyspeptic husband who was dying of a continual diet of soda biscuits and canned food. But Mrs. Lorin Weston, a small round-faced woman with a resolute mouth, had always stayed at home, looked after her children, fed her husband well, and, whenever he made a “turnover,” bought a picture or a piano cover to embellish one or the other of their successive dwellings. She took a wholesome interest in dress, had herself manicured once a week after they moved to Euphoria, and by the time they had built their new house on Mapledale Avenue had saved up enough to have a sun parlour with palms and a pink gramophone, which was the envy of the neighbourhood.

As for Lorin Weston, a dry smallish man, no taller than his wife, he was like one of the shrivelled Japanese flowers which suddenly expand into bloom when put in water. Mr. Weston’s natural element was buying and selling real estate; and he could not understand how any normal human being could exist in any other, or talk about anything else. If pressed, he would probably have admitted that an organized society necessitated the existence of policemen, professors, lawyers, judges, dentists, and even ministers of religion (to occupy the women: he had read Ingersoll, and his own views were Voltairean). But though he might have conceded as much theoretically, he could not conceive how, in practice, any sane man could be in anything but real estate. As in the case of all geniuses, the exercise of his gift came to him so naturally that he could no more imagine anyone earning money in other ways than he could imagine living without breathing. He did indeed take a subordinate interest in house building, because people who intended to build houses had first to buy land, and also because if you have the nerve to run up a likely-looking little house on an unpromising lot of land, you may be able to sell the house and lot together for a considerably bigger sum than they cost you, and even to start a real estate boom in soil where nothing of the sort has ever grown. Inspired by such considerations, he developed a pretty taste in suburban architecture, and was often consulted by builders and decorators as to some fancy touch in hall or sleeping porch, while Mrs. Weston’s advice was invaluable in regard to kitchen and linen closet. Between them they served their trade like a religion, Mrs. Weston putting into it her mother’s zeal for souls and Mr. Weston making clients come to the suburbs as his mother-in-law made them come to Jesus.

The Mapledale suburb, which was entirely Mr. Weston’s creation, was Euphoria’s chief source of pride, and always the first thing shown to distinguished visitors after the Alsop Building, the Dental College, and the Cedarcrest cemetery; and as success was the only criterion of beauty known to young Vance he took it for granted that whatever his father said was beautiful must be so. Nevertheless, there were moments when he felt the need to escape from the completeness of the Mapledale house, and go out to Crampton where Grandpa and Grandma Scrimser had settled down in a house lent to them rent-free by their son-in-law in the hope that they might help to “open up” Crampton. So far this hope had not been realized, and Crampton remained a bedraggled village, imperfectly joined up with the expanding Euphoria; but Lorin Weston could afford to wait, and was glad to do his parents-in-law a good turn.

Mrs. Weston did not often go to Crampton; especially did she avoid doing so when her sister Saidie Toler was there. The road to Crampton was so bad that it knocked the Chevrolet all to pieces, and besides Mrs. Weston really could not bear to see a good eight~room house, that people might have been so comfortable in, going all to pieces because Grandma would choose her help for their religious convictions and their plainness (she didn’t trust Grandpa), and because she and Saidie were always rushing about to religious meetings, or to lectures on Sanitation (if she’d only looked at her own drains!), or on Diet (when you’d eaten Grandma’s food!), or whatever the newest religious, moral, or medical fad was. Generally, too, there would be some long-haired fanatic there, holding forth about the last “new” something or other in religion or morals, as eloquently as Mrs. Weston herself discoursed on refrigerators and electric cookers. These prophets got on Mrs. Weston’s nerves, and so did Saidie, with her slovenly blonde beauty, already bedraggled as if she left it out overnight, the way careless people do their cars. Mrs. Weston admired her mother, and felt, in a somewhat resentful way, the domination of her powerful presence; but she hated the confusion that Grandma lived in, and preferred to invite the Scrimsers and Saidie to Sunday dinner in Mapledale Avenue, and feel they were being impressed by her orderly establishment, and the authority of Mr. Weston’s conversation.

Vance Weston did not much fancy his grandmother’s house, or her food either; the whole place, compared with his own home, was retrograde and uncomfortable. Yet he had an unaccountable liking for the rutty lanes of Crampton, its broken-down fences, and the maple-shaded meadow by the river. He liked the way the trees overhung the Scrimser yard, the straggling lilacs, and the neglected white rose over the porch. And he was always stimulated, sometimes amused, and sometimes a little awed and excited, by Grandma Scrimser’s soaring talk and Grandpa’s racy commentaries. The prophets did not impress him, and his aunt Saidie he positively disliked; but he loved the old couple, and did not wonder that Euphoria still called on them to figure at national celebrations. The town had nothing else as grand to show.

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