Hudson River Bracketed, by Edith Wharton

Book III

XII

Vance turned over slowly, opened his eyes, pushed back his rumpled hair, and did not at first make out where he was.

He thought the bed was a double one, black walnut with carved ornaments and a pink mosquito net, on the wall facing him a large photograph of a fat man with a Knights of Pythias badge and a stiff collar, and a gramophone shrieking out the Volga Boat Song somewhere below.

Then the vision merged into the more familiar one of his neat little room at Euphoria, of college photographs and trophies on the walls, and the sound of early splashing in the white-tiled bathroom at the end of the passage. But this picture also failed to adapt itself to his clearing vision, and gradually he thought: “Why, I’m back at Paul’s Landing,” and the sloping ceiling, the flies banging against the pane, the glimpse, outside, of a patch of currant bushes backed by sultry blue woods, came to him with mingled reassurance and alarm. “What the hell — ” he thought.

Oh — he knew now. That baseball game over in New Jersey had been Upton’s idea. It was a Saturday, the day after Lorry Spear’s visit to the Willows. When Vance got back to the Tracys’ Upton had been waiting at the gate, his eyes bursting out of his head. A fellow had given him tickets: Bunty Hayes, a reporter on the Paul’s Landing paper. They could leave next morning by the first train, take a look round in New York, and reach the field in good time. As it was a Saturday there would be no difficulty in Upton’s getting off. Vance was struck by the change in him: his pale face flushed, his shy evasive eyes burning with excitement, his very way of moving and walking full of a swagger and self-importance which made him seem years older.

Indoors, under Mrs. Tracy’s eyes, he relapsed at once into the shy shambling boy with callous hands and boots covered with mud from the nursery. Mrs. Tracy did not oppose the plan, or did so only on the ground of Vance’s health. They had a long hot day before them, and could not get home till ten or eleven o’clock at night. He must remember that he was just getting over a bad illness. . . . But Vance refused to be regarded as an invalid, or even as a convalescent. He was well again, he declared, and equal to anything. Mrs. Tracy could not but acknowledge how much he had gained during his fortnight at Paul’s Landing; and she finally gave a colourless assent to the expedition, on condition that the two youths should take the earliest possible train home, and keep out of bad company — like that Bunty Hayes, she added. Vance and Upton knew it was not her way to acquiesce joyfully in any suggestion which broke the routine of life, and after giving her the requisite assurances they began their preparations lightheartedly.

In the morning, when they came down to gulp the cold coffee and sandwiches she had laid out overnight, Vance was astonished to find Laura Lou in the kitchen, in her refurbished yellow muslin, with a becoming shade-hat on her silvery-golden head. “You’re going to take me, aren’t you? I’ve warmed the coffee and boiled some eggs for you,” she said to Vance in her childish way; and it caused him a pang when Upton, with a brother’s brutality, reminded her that she knew Bunty’d only given him two tickets. Her lower lip began to tremble, her big helpless gray eyes to fill: Vance asked himself with inward vexation whether he ought to surrender his ticket to this tiresome child. But before he had made up his mind Upton cut short his sister’s entreaties. “We’re going with a lot of fellows: you know Mother wouldn’t hear of it. What’s all the fuss about anyway? You’ve got that school picnic this afternoon. That’s what you were doing up your dress for yesterday. Don’t you take any notice of her, Vance.” She ran from the room, crimson and half crying; and Vance ate his eggs with compunction and relief. He didn’t want any girl on his hands the first day he saw New York . . . .

They were there only a couple of hours, and there was no use trying to hunt up an editor. The most he could achieve was a distant view of the most notable skyscrapers, a gasp at Fifth Avenue and a dip into Broadway, before dashing to the Pennsylvania Station for the Jersey train. From that moment they were caught up in the baseball crowd, a crowd of which he had never seen the like. Life became a perspiring struggle, a struggle for air, for a foothold, for a sight of anything but the hot dripping napes and shoulder blades that hemmed them in. Finally, somehow, they had reached the field, got through the gates, found their places, discovered Bunty Hayes nearby with a crowd of congenial spirits, and settled down to the joys of spectatorship — or such glimpses of it as their seats permitted. It was a comfort to Vance to reflect that he had been right not to give his ticket to Laura Lou; such a frail creature could hardly have come alive out of the battle.

The oddest thing about the adventure was the transformation of Upton. Vance would have imagined Upton to be almost as unfitted as his sister for such a test of nerve and muscle; but the timorous youth of Paul’s Landing developed, with the donning of his Sunday clothes, an unforeseen audacity and composure. The fact that Vance didn’t know the ropes seemed to give Upton a sense of superiority; he said at intervals: “Come right along; stick to me; don’t let ’em put it over on you,” in a tone of almost patronizing reassurance. And when they joined Bunty Hayes, who was one of the free spirits of Paul’s Landing, Vance was struck by the intimacy of his greeting of Upton, and by the “Hullo, Uppy boy” — “Say, that the Tracy kid?” of his companions. It was evident that Upton had already acquired the art of the double life, and that the sheepish boy who went about his job at the Paul’s Landing nursery, and clumped home for supper with mud and manure on his boots, was the pale shade of the real Upton, a dashing blade with his straw hat too far back on his pale blond hair, and a fraternity ribbon suddenly budding in his buttonhole. “Wonder if Laura Lou knows?” Vance speculated, and concluded that she did, and that brother and sister carried on their own lives under Mrs. Tracy’s unsuspecting eye. He was rather sorry now that they hadn’t brought Laura Lou after all; it would have been curious to see her blossom out like her brother. But Vance soon forgot her in the exhilaration of watching the game. It was his first holiday for months; for the dull business of convalescence had nothing to do with holiday~making. The noise and excitement about him were contagious, and he cheered and yelled with the rest, exchanged jokes with Bunty Hayes and his friends, and felt himself saturated with the vigour of all the young and vigorous life about him. But when the game was over, and the crowd began to scatter, the vitality seemed to ebb out of him as the spectators ebbed out of the stadium. It was still very hot; he had shouted himself hoarse; they had ahead of them the struggle at the station, the struggle to get into a train, the stifling journey home — and Vance began to feel that he was still a convalescent, with no reserves of strength. At Euphoria, after a ball game, a dozen people would have been ready to give him a lift home; but here he knew no one, Upton seemed to have no acquaintances but Bunty Hayes and his crowd, and Paul’s Landing, where they all came from, was a long way off.

“See here — you look sick,” said Bunty Hayes, touching him on the shoulder.

Vance flushed up. “Sick? I’m hot and thirsty, that’s all.” He wasn’t going to have any of that lot of Upton’s treating him like a sissy.

“Well, that’s easy. Come round with us and have a cool-off. We’re all going to look in at the Crans’, close by here. This is their car: jump in, sonny.”

Suddenly a motor stood there: Vance remembered piling into it with Upton, Bunty Hayes, and some other fellows; they sat on each other’s laps and on the hood. A girl who laughed very much and had blown-back hair, dyed red, was at the wheel. Where were they going? Who was she? Vance didn’t care. As the motor began to move the wind stirred in his own hair, driving it back like the girl’s, and life flowed through him again. He began to laugh, and tried to light a cigarette, but couldn’t, because there wasn’t enough elbow-room for a sardine. The others laughed at his ineffectual attempt, and another girl, perched somewhere behind him, lit a cigarette and leaned forward to push it between his lips. They were going to the Crans’, and he found out, he didn’t know how, that these two were the Cran girls — Cuty with the dyed hair at the wheel, and the younger, ‘Smeralda they called her, sitting behind him on the hood between two fellows, so that his head rested against her knees, and he felt, through his hair, the warm flesh where her scant skirt had slipped up. Once or twice, after they had left the state highway, the overloaded motor nearly stuck in the deep ruts of the country road, and everybody laughed and cheered and gave college yells till Cuty somehow got them going again.

Ah, how good the cool drinks were when they got to the Crans’! It was at the back of the house, he remembered, under an arbour of scarlet runners that looked out on a long narrow yard where clothes were drying. Some of the clothes were funny little garments with lace edgings and holes for ribbon, and there was a good deal of joking about that, and he remembered Cuty Cran crying out: “No, it ain’t! No, I don’t! Mine are crepp-de-sheen. . . . Well, you come upstairs and see, then . . . .” But Cuty was not the one he fancied; and anyhow, since Floss he’d never . . . and he had young Upton to look after . . . .

As the shadows lengthened it grew quiet and almost cool under the arbour. The girls had the house to themselves, it appeared, Mr. and Mrs. Cran having been called away that morning to the bedside of a grandmother who had been suddenly taken sick somewhere upstate. “Real accommodating of the old lady to develop stomach trouble the day before the game,” Bunty commented to the sisters, who responded with shrieks of appreciation. “Not the first time either,” he continued, winking at his admiring audience, and the sisters shrieked afresh. The redhaired one was the current type of brazen minx — but the younger, ‘Smeralda, with her smouldering eyes and her heavy beauty of chin and throat — ah, the younger, for his undoing, reminded Vance of Floss Delaney. She had the same sultry pallor, the same dark penthouse of hair . . . .

Presently some other girls turned up, and there were more drinks and more jokes about Mr. and Mrs. Cran being away. “Guess some of us fellows ought to stay and act watchdog for you two kiddies,” Bunty humorously suggested. “Ain’t you scared nights, all alone in this great big house?” A general laugh hailed this, for the Cran homestead was of the most modest proportions. But it stood apart in the fields, with a little wood behind it and the girls had to admit that it WAS lonesome at night, particularly since somebody’d poisoned the dog. . . . More laughs, and a burlesque confession from Bunty that he’d poisoned the dog for his own dark ends, which evoked still shriller cries of amusement. . . . Bunty always found something witty and unexpected to say . . . .

There was a young moon, and it glinted through the dusk of the bean leaves and silvered their edges as darkness fell. Bunty and Cuty, and the other girls and fellows, wandered off down into the wood. Vance meant to follow, but he was very tired and sleepy, and a little befuddled with alcohol, and his broken-down rocking chair held him like a cradle.

“You’re dead beat aren’t you?” he heard one of the girls say, and felt a soft hand push back his hair. He opened his eyes and ‘Smeralda’s were burning into his.

“Come right upstairs, and you can lay down on Mother’s bed,” she continued persuasively.

He remembered saying: “Where’s Upton?” with a last clutch at his vanishing sense of responsibility, and she answered: “Oh, he’s down in the woods with Cuty and the others,” and pulled Vance to his feet. He followed her upstairs through the darkening house, and at the top of the landing she slid a burning palm in his . . . .

As his vision readjusted itself and he found that he was in a narrow iron bedstead, instead of a wide one of black walnut, with a portrait of Mr. Cran facing him, he began to wonder how he had got from the one couch to the other, and how much time had elapsed in the transit. . . . But the effort of wondering was too much for him; his aching head dropped back . . . .

The recollection of Upton shot through him rebukingly; but he said to himself that Upton hadn’t needed any advice, and would probably have rejected it if offered. “He ran the show — it was all fixed up beforehand between him and the Hayes fellow. . . . I wonder if his mother knows?” The thought of Mrs. Tracy was less easy to appease. He remembered her warning against Hayes, her adjuration that they should avoid bad company and come home before night; and he would have given the world to be in his own bed at Euphoria, with no difficulties to deal with but such as could be settled between himself and his family. “If I only knew the day of the week it is!” he thought, feeling more and more ashamed of the part he had played, and more and more scared of its probable consequences. “She’ll cry — and I shall hate that,” he reflected squeamishly.

At last he tumbled out of bed, soused his head in cold water, got into his clothes, and shuffled downstairs. The house was quiet, the hour evidently going toward sunset. In the back porch Mrs. Tracy sat shelling peas. There was no sign of emotion on her face, which was sallow and stony. She simply remarked, without meeting his eyes: “You’ll find some fried liver left out on the table,” and bent again to her task.

“Oh, I don’t want anything — I’m not hungry,” he stammered, longing to question her, to find out from her all that remained obscure in his own history, to apologize and to explain — if any explanation should occur to him! But she would not look up, and he found it impossible to pour out his excuses to her bent head, with the tired~looking hair drawn thinly over the skin, like the last strands of cotton round one of his mother’s spools. “Funny women should get to look like that,” he thought with a shiver of repulsion. To cut the situation short, he wandered into the dining room, looked at the fried liver and sodden potatoes, tried in vain to guess of what meal they were the survival, and turned away with the same sense of disgust with which the top of Mrs. Tracy’s head had inspired him.

In the passage he wavered, wondering if he should go up again to his room or wander out in the heat. If Mrs. Tracy had not been in the porch his preference would have been to return there and go to sleep again in the hammock. Then he determined to go back and have it out with her.

“Can’t I help with those peas?” he asked, sitting down beside her. She lifted her head and looked at him with eyes of condemnation. “No, I don’t want any help with the peas. Or any help from you, anyhow. You’d better go upstairs and sleep off your drunk before Miss Spear and Mr. Lorburn come round again — ”

“My drunk?” Vance flushed crimson. “I don’t know what you mean — ”

“The words are English, I guess. And you’ll want all your wits about you when you see Mr. Lorburn.”

“Who’s Mr. Lorburn? Why should he want to see me?”

“He’s the owner of the Willows. He’ll tell you soon enough why he wants to see you.”

Vance felt a sinking of the heart. “I don’t know what Mr. Lorburn’s got to say to me,” he muttered, but he did.

“Well, I presume HE does.” Mrs. Tracy pushed aside the basket of peas and stood up. Her face was a leaden white and her lower lip twitched. “Not as I care,” she continued, in a level voice as blank as her eyes, “what he says to you, or what you feel about it. What’s a few old books, one way or another? I don’t care if you did take his books — ”

“Take his books?” Vance gasped; but she paid no heed.

“ — When what you took from me was my son. I trusted him with you, Vance; I thought you’d had enough kindness in this house to feel some obligation. I said to you: ‘Well, go to that game if you’re a mind to. But swear to me you’ll be back the same night, both of you; and keep away from that Hayes and his rough crowd.’ And you swore to me you would. And here I sat and waited and waited — the first time Upton was ever away from me for a night, and not so much as knowing where he was. And then a second night, and no sign of you. I thought I’d go mad then. I began life grand enough, as your folks’ll tell you; and now everything’s gone from me except my children. And when you crawled in yesterday evening, the two of you, I knew right away where you’d been, and what you’d been doing — and leading Upton into. It’s not the first time you’ve been out all night since you came here, Vance Weston; but I wasn’t going to say anything about the other time, if only you’d have let Upton alone. Now I guess you’d better tell your folks the air here don’t agree with you. And here’s the money your father sent me for your first fortnight. Take it.”

She held out the money in a twitching hand, and Vance took it because at that moment he would not have dared to disobey any injunction she laid on him. And, besides, he could understand her hating that money. There was something much more alarming to him in the wrath of this mild creature than in the explosions of the choleric. When Mr. Weston was angry Vance knew it bucked him up like a cocktail; but Mrs. Tracy’s anger clearly caused her suffering instead of relief, was only one more misery in a life made up of them. “If it hurts her to keep that money I’d better take it,” he thought vaguely.

“You mean I’d better go?” he asked.

“You’d better go,” she flung back with white lips.

“I’m sorry,” was all he could think of saying. It was awfully unjust about Upton, but the boy WAS his junior by two or three years, and of course, if his mother didn’t know . . .

“All right, I’ll go if you say so. Is this Monday or Tuesday?”

“It’s Tuesday, and near suppertime,” said Mrs. Tracy contemptuously. “I trust you’ve enjoyed your sleep.” She gathered up the basket of pods and the bowl of shelled peas, and walked into the kitchen. Vance stood gazing after her with a mind emptied of all willpower. It seemed incredible that three nights should have passed since he and Upton had set out so lightheartedly for the ball game. He had always hated the idea of drunken bouts — had never been in one like this since his freshman year. His self-disgust seemed to cling to every part of him, like a bad taste in the mouth or a smell of stale tobacco in the clothes. He didn’t know what had become of the Vance of the mountain pool and of the library at the Willows . . . .

The Willows! The name suddenly recalled Mrs. Tracy’s menacing allusion. What had she meant by saying that he had taken old Mr. Lorburn’s books? She must have lost her head, worrying over Upton. He HAD left the books in a mess, the evening before the ball game; he remembered that. He had wanted to go back and straighten them out, and Lorry Spear had dissuaded him; said it was too dark, and it wouldn’t do, in that old house, to light a candle. And now it would seem that the absentee owner of the place, who, according to Miss Spear, never came there, had turned up unexpectedly, and found things in disorder. Well, Vance had to own that the fault was his; he would have liked to see Miss Spear, and tell her so, before leaving. But the pale hostility of Mrs. Tracy’s face seemed to thrust him out of her door, out of Paul’s Landing. He thought to himself that the easiest thing would be to pack up and go at once — he did not want to sit at the table again with that face opposite to him. And Upton, the dirty sneak, would be afraid, he felt sure, to say a word in his defence . . . to tell his mother that the Hayes gang, and the Cran girls, were old acquaintances. . . . “No, I’ll go now,” Vance thought.

He went up to his room, packed up his clothes, and jammed his heap of scribbled papers in on top of them; then he leaned for a moment in the window and looked out to the hills. Up there, behind that motionless mask of trees, lived the girl with whom he had wandered in another world. He would have liked to see her again, to be with her just once on those rocks facing the sunrise. . . . Well . . . and how was he going to get his things down to the station? He guessed he was strong enough by this time to lug them down the lane to the trolley . . . He started downstairs with the suitcase and the unwieldy old bag into which his mother, at the last moment, had crammed a lot of useless stuff. The sound of the bags bumping against the stairs brought Mrs. Tracy to the kitchen door. She stared at Vance, surprised: “Where are you going?”

Vance said he was going to New York. She looked a little frightened. “Oh, but you must wait till tomorrow. I didn’t mean — ”

“I’d rather go today,” he answered coldly.

She wiped her hands on her apron. “There’s no one to help you to carry your things to the trolley. I didn’t mean — ”

“I guess I’ll go,” Vance repeated. He walked a little way down the garden path and then turned back to Mrs. Tracy. “I’d like to thank you for your kindness while I’ve been here,” he said; and she stammered again: “But you don’t understand . . . I didn’t mean . . .”

“But I do,” said Vance. He shouldered his bags and walked to the gate. Mrs. Tracy stood crying in the porch, and then hurried in and shut the door behind her. Vance trudged along the rutty lane, measuring his weakness by the way the weight of his bags increased with every step. The perspiration was streaming down his face when he reached the corner of the turnpike, and he sat down under the same thorn tree where, so short a time ago, he had waited in the summer darkness for Halo Spear. Even the memory of that day was obscured for him by what had happened since. He did not even like to think of Miss Spear’s touch on his arm as she turned him toward the sunrise, or of the way she had looked as she sat by the pool leaning her head on her hand and listening while he recited his poems to her. All that seemed to belong to the far-off world of the hills, the world he had voluntarily forsaken, he didn’t know why . . . .

The trolley came, and he scrambled in and was carried to the station. When he got there he found that the next train for New York was not leaving for an hour and a half. He deposited his property in the baggage room and, wandering out again, stood aimlessly in the square, where the same tired horses with discoloured manes were swinging their heads to and fro under the thin shade of the locust boughs. It seemed months since he had first got out of the train, and seen that same square and those old~fashioned vehicles and languid horses. He remembered his shock of disappointment, and was surprised to find that he now felt a choking homesickness at the idea of looking at it all for the last time. Suddenly it occurred to him that he might still be able to walk as far as the Willows and have a last glimpse at its queer bracketed towers and balconies. He could not have told why he wanted to do this: the impulse was involuntary. Perhaps it was because his hours in that shadowy library had lifted him to other pinnacles, higher even than Thundertop.

He walked from the station to the main street, and at the corner was startled by the familiar yelp of the Eaglewood motor. His heart turned over at the thought that it might be Miss Spear. He said to himself: “Perhaps if she sees me she’ll stop and tell me she’s sorry for what’s happened”; and he softened at the memory of her lavish atonements. But when the motor disengaged itself from the traffic he found there was no one in it but Jacob. Vance was about to walk on, but he saw Jacob signalling. The thought started up: “He may have a message — a letter,” and his heart beat in that confused way it had since his illness. Jacob drew up. “See here, I was looking for you. I’ve been round to the Tracys’. You get right in here with me.”

“Get in with you — why?”

“‘Cos the folks’ve sent me to bring you over to the Willows. They’re waiting for you there now. They said I was to go to your place and tell you you was to come right off.”

The blood rushed to Vance’s forehead, and his softened mood gave way to resistance. Who were these people, to order him about in this way? Did they really suppose that he was at their beck and call? “Waiting for me? What for? I’m leaving for New York. Mrs. Tracy has the keys of the Willows. I’ve got nothing to do with it.”

Jacob took off his straw hat and scratched his head perplexedly. “Miss Halo she said you was to come. She said: ‘You’ve got to bring him, dead or alive.’”

Jacob’s face expressed nothing; neither curiosity nor comprehension disfigured its supreme passiveness. His indifference gave Vance time to collect himself. He burst into a laugh. “Dead or alive — ” the phrase was so like her! “Oh, I’m alive enough. And I’ll come along with you if she says so.” In his heart he knew Miss Spear was right: it was his business to see her again, to explain, to excuse himself. He had failed her shamefully . . . he hadn’t done the job she had entrusted him with . . . he had left the books in disorder. “All right — I’ll go,” he repeated. He knew there was a train for New York later in the evening. “Anyhow,” he thought, “I’m done with the Tracys . . . .”

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