Hudson River Bracketed, by Edith Wharton

Book IV

XVI

Halo Spear in a world of shifting standards, had always held fast to her own values. Such and such things were worth so much! a great deal, perhaps; yet no more than so much. It was good, for instance — necessary, indeed — to have a comfortable amount of money; enough to grease the machinery of life, to prevent recurring family wrangles, or worse; but even for that there was a price not worth paying. That price was herself; her personality, as the people about her would have called it; the something which made Halo Spear and no other. Of that something, she often told herself, she would never surrender the least jot.

Looking back now, after three years, she remembered old Tom Lorburn’s perturbed face as she left the Willows with him, the day the loss of the books was discovered. She had said to herself then: “This business about the books is going to make him change his will,” and, immediately afterward: “Well, it won’t make me change my mind about Lewis.” For even if her hopes of an inheritance were gone she was not going to offset the disappointment by marrying Lewis Tarrant. She was sure she would make life unbearable to any man she married for such a reason, and Lewis was too good a fellow to be her victim. It was a pity, of course — for Cousin Tom did die within a few months, and did change his will, leaving the Willows to a distant relative who knew no more what to do with it than he had; and the blow was a bad one for Mr. and Mrs. Spear. Lorry being predestined to ruin them, they had always regarded it as Halo’s rôle to restore their fortunes; they would never have asked her to sacrifice her happiness to do so, but they told her (always in reference to other couples) that when it came to marriage a community of tastes and interests — well, such as there was between herself and Lewis, say — was the only guarantee of happiness, once the first rapture was over. “I know, but I want the first rapture,” Halo would answer them inwardly; and to Lewis she said with a smiling firmness: “If I married you you’d want to murder me in a month.”

Yet she had been his wife for nearly three years now, and they had not only spared each other’s lives, but arrived at some kind of mutual understanding, so that, had she been suddenly called on to leave her husband’s roof and return to the precarious existence at Eaglewood she would have hesitated, and not only on his account. Habit had wound its benumbing web about her, and she was no more the girl she had been than he was the man she had imagined . . . .

“Happy?” she said one day to Frenside, with her quick smile. “No, I’ve never been happy; but I’m content. And being content is so jolly that I sometimes think I couldn’t have stood being happy . . . .”

“Ah, it’s a destructive experience,” Frenside agreed.

Not for a moment would she have admitted to anyone else that her marriage had not brought her happiness, for no one but Frenside would understand, as she did, that life may be “strengthened and fed without the aid of joy.” But the relief of saying it to him was deep; it took her out of a world of suffocating dissimulations into a freer air. She looked at him curiously, at his bumpy tormented forehead above the thick blunt nose and ironic mouth, the eyes barricaded by his eternal glasses, the heavy shabby figure. “Yet he speaks about happiness as if he’d known it — poor old George.” Her impulse was to say: “Oh, Frenny, tell me what it’s like!” But though she had once gone up so boldly to every new riddle she shrank from this one. “I suppose we each of us have our different Sphinx,” she thought. She had grown a coward, no doubt.

“Life’s so full of things anyhow, isn’t it?” she continued evasively. “I’ve often thought I shouldn’t have time to crowd in anything more . . . even happiness . . . .” She laughed a little, and getting up out of her deep armchair by the fire walked across the library and stood looking out at the sweep of the East River glittering far below through the autumn haze in its forest of roofs and spires and chimneys. The Tarrant flat was high up in one of the new buildings overhanging the mighty prospect on which New York had till so lately turned its back. A wide low window filled almost the whole eastern wall of the room; the other three were of a sober grayish-green wherever they were revealed by a break in the bookshelves. Halo Tarrant’s association with the sturdy old house at Eaglewood had saved her from the passing extravagances of fashion. Her room depended for its character on the view from its window, the books on its walls, and the friendly grouping of its lamps and chairs. It seemed neither to exclude experiment nor invite it, but to remain outside the flux of novelty like some calm natural object, tree or field.

Frenside said nothing more, and Halo wandered across the room, pausing absently to straighten a paper cutter on the big table laden with books; then her glance travelled to an oil sketch of her husband which Vuillard had done in Paris, the first year of their marriage: just the head, half averted, with the thin sensitive nose, the dissatisfied mouth — dissatisfied still — and that excessive fairness of hair and complexion which singled Tarrant out in any group, even before the delicacy of his features was perceptible. Halo stood in front of the picture, her hands clasped behind her, retravelling the way that he and she had come.

“Well? — ” Frenside queried.

She turned back to him. “I was thinking how lucky it is that The Hour happened to be for sale, and that I had the nerve to urge Lewis to buy it. It’s going to be exactly the kind of job he likes. I only wish you’d stayed on it, Frenny.”

Frenside shook his head. “Better not. I’m always available as an adviser, if he needs one. But new blood all round was what was wanted. And now we’ll see — ”

Halo looked up at him a little sharply. “See —?”

“What he’s going to make of it.”

Her lips parted, as if on a quick retort; then they closed again, and with a slight shrug she dropped back into her chair. “Of course he’ll make mistakes — ”

“Of course. But that’s sometimes stimulating.”

She interrupted: “The great thing for a man like Lewis, with rather too much money, and decidedly too many talents, is to canalize both — isn’t it? He’s never before been able to make up his mind, to find anything that entirely suited him. I believe this does; I believe it’s going to group his scattered interests, and hold him to his job as no . . . no vague sense of duty would . . . .”

“Bless you, the sense of duty is prehistoric; even that idea of our first duty being to ourselves, which seemed so mad and bad in the ‘nineties, wouldn’t interest a baby nowadays. But I daresay Tarrant’ll take hold — for a while — ”

“Ah, you underrate him!” Halo flashed out, rising again nervously. People were right, after all, when they said Frenside’s way of encouraging you was like a doctor’s saying: “Nothing will make any difference now.”

But she was vexed with herself as soon as the words were spoken. She held no brief for her husband; she didn’t have to. Everyone knew Lewis was brilliantly clever — even those who were put off by his indifference, his lack of enthusiasm, recognized his superiority. “A fellow who’ll make his mark, my son-in-law,” Mr. Spear described him, leaning back comfortably in an armchair of the cosy little flat provided by Lewis for his parents-in-law, and puffing at a Corona of the thousand Lewis had sent him for Christmas. Being able to escape from Eaglewood for the winter months had singularly softened Mr. Spear’s view of human nature, and lent an added lustre to his admiration for Halo’s husband. “Anyone who doesn’t recognize Tarrant’s ability is simply envious of it, that’s all . . . .” Ah, how Halo loved her father for saying that! Poor Frenside’s congenital lack of generosity always prevented his predicting for others the success he himself had missed; but Mr. Spear, now that he and his wife had their own little nook in New York, and could gather about them the dowdy middle-aged conformists whom Mrs. Spear still called revolutionaries — Mr. Spear had become tolerant and even benignant. He still wrote to the papers to denounce what he called crying evils, such as the fact that the consumption of whole wheat bread was not made compulsory (“If I may cite my own humble experience,” that kind of letter always said), or that no method had been devised for automatically disinfecting the tin cups attached to public fountains. (“An instance of this criminal negligence may actually be found within a hundred feet of my own door,” was the formula in such cases — thus revealing to his readers that Mr. Spear HAD a New York door.) But all this was rather by way of a literary exercise than to relieve a burning indignation; now that his life had been reshaped to his satisfaction Mr. Spear was disposed to let others do their own protesting. “After all, there’s something to be said for the constituted authorities,” he had been known to declare, smiling indulgently across his daughter’s dinner table; and if Mrs. Spear’s short-haired satellites (women, Mr. Spear now called them, who had been sexually underfed) had not been forever challenging him to take up his pen in denunciation of one outrage or another — “you really ought to, Mr. Spear, with your marvellous way of putting things” — the ink would have coagulated in his Waterman.

Prosperity had affected Mrs. Spear differently. It had made her more indignant, more agitated, more emaciatedly beautiful; while a rising plumpness rounded Mr. Spear’s waistcoat his wife’s garments hung more slackly from her drooping shoulders and restless arms. While there was so much misery in the world, how was it possible, she asked her daughter, for those in happier circumstances not to strain every nerve . . .?

“But you strained yours to a frazzle long ago, mother; and the world still goes on in its old juggernaut way.”

“Halo! I hate to hear you echo that cheap cynicism of George Frenside’s. As long as I have a voice left to protest with I shall cry out against human savagery in all its forms.” Mrs. Spear had just discovered from a humanitarian leaflet that the truffle~hunting pigs of southwestern France perform their task in muzzles, and are never permitted the least morsel of the delicacies they unearth. (“Well, I should hope not,” murmured Mr. Spear, unfolding his napkin at the approach of a crab-mayonnaise, “and anyhow, in the raw state in which the poor animals would eat them, they’d probably taste like old india-rubber.”) And George Frenside added, with a malicious glint behind his glasses: “What seems to me a good deal worse is the fate of the cormorants in the China seas. . . . You know the Chinese train them to catch fish . . . carry ’em on their wrists like hawks . . . .” “Well?” Mrs. Spear gasped, in anguished anticipation. “No cormorant is ever allowed to taste a fish — much less a mayonnaise of crab,” Frenside grinned, with a side-glance at Halo.

The recollection of the little scene flashed through Halo’s mind as she looked up at Vuillard’s sketch of her husband. It was for the sake of her parents that she had married him; she was too honest to disguise it from herself; and whenever she saw Mr. Spear sipping his champagne critically but complacently, and Mrs. Spear, in black velvet and old lace, bending her beautiful shortsighted eyes above an appetizing dish, or lifting them to heaven in protest at some newly discovered cruelty to pigs or cormorants, Halo said to herself that it had been worthwhile. For Mrs. Spear’s woes had become as purely a luxury as Mr. Spear’s cigars and champagne. They could treat their indignations like pet animals, feeding them on the fat of the land till they became too bloated to be disturbing; and Halo, looking back on the hard rasping years when her parents’ furious concern for the public welfare had been perpetually fed by personal worries and privations, reflected that there could hardly be a pleasnter life than that of retired reformers. “And at least now,” she added, “they’ve stopped borrowing from Lewis; I’m almost sure they have.”

The extent of their borrowings (discovered suddenly, at the precise moment when she had decided to break her engagement) had in fact been the direct cause of Halo’s marriage. Tarrant had stepped into the breach more often than she had guessed; had not only bought back the books so mysteriously lost from the Willows, but had helped Lorry Spear to start as a theatrical decorator, besides filling in the ever-widening gap in the Spear budget. And he had done it all so quietly that when the facts became known to Halo her first movement of exasperation was followed by an unexpected feeling of admiration. If he were like that, she thought, she ought to be able to love him; at any rate, she knew she could never willingly cause him any pain. And on this basis they were married . . . .

The years that followed had represented the interest on her husband’s advances. He was far too much of a gentleman to let her feel that she, or any of hers, was in his debt; but there the fact loomed, the more oppressively because of his studied ignoring of it. She had gradually found out that it had not altered his real nature; but it had imposed on her the obligation to view him always in the light of an accidental magnanimity. It was dreadful, she thought in her rebellious moods, to know exactly what one would have to think of one’s husband till one’s dying day. But these rebellions were rare with her. Every morning she told herself anew that he had been incredibly generous to her people, and that the only return she could make was to throw herself with ardour into every new scheme which attracted, and reject with promptitude any enterprise which ceased to please him. Some day, perhaps, he would find his line — and THEN people would see, then even Frenside would have to confess . . .

Poor Frenside! It was natural, she thought, that his own inability to stick to a job should add venom to his comments on the instability of others. “Everything I touch turns cold on my hands,” he had once confessed; and that had been the fate of The Hour. After a dazzling start it had grown querulous, faddish, and then dull; one could feel the creeping chill of inanition as one turned its pages. Subscribers fell off, and the owners, discouraged, offered the paper for sale. Frenside, understanding his own share in the failure, resigned, and went back to free-lance articles for various newspapers and reviews. It was nonsense, he said, his acting as literary adviser to anybody, when his honest advice would almost always be: “To the wastepaper basket.” The Hour languished along, unread and unbought, for another year; then it occurred to Tarrant to pick it up as a bargain, and once purchased it acquired in his eyes the importance inherent in anything that belonged to him. “Funny — perhaps what I was really meant for was to be an editor,” he said to his wife, with depreciatory smile which disguised such a fervour of self-esteem. “Not a very dazzling career — I suppose I might have looked rather higher; but it may give me the chance to make myself known . . . .”

“Of course, Lewis; it’s what I’ve always wanted for you.”

“It is? You’ve thought —?” he began with his look of carefully suppressed avidity.

“Why, for a man who wants a hearing, and has something new to say, I can’t imagine a better chance than an open arena like The Hour.” She could reel off things like that as long as he wanted them; and besides, she did think, had forced herself to think, after his various unsuccessful experiments, first in architecture, then in painting, that letters might really be his field. Not creative work, probably (though she knew he aspired to be a novelist), but literary criticism, literary history, perhaps — provided he had the patience to pursue any line of investigation far enough. “If only he hadn’t any money!” she sometimes found herself reflecting, confronted with the bewildering discovery that abundance may hamper talent as much as privation does. “But what is talent made of, then?” she wondered. “Is it really like some shoddy material that can’t stand either rain or sun?”

Frenside still mused by the fire. “Yes; I shouldn’t wonder if Tarrant made something out of The Hour, if only he gets the right people for the routine work.” It was unusually generous of Frenside to say that; yet Halo tingled with resentment.

“You mean he’ll never have the perseverance himself?”

“My dear child, don’t make me out worse than I am. I mean exactly what I say. Every business enterprise is built on drudgery — ”

“Yes, and he’s too brilliant. He is brilliant, Frenny.” She stood looking at her old friend with confident insistent eyes; it always fortified her faith in her husband to impress it on others. And really she did believe in The Hour, and in what he and she were going to make of it . . . .

The door opened, and there he was, slender, distinguished, handsomer than ever, she thought, as her eyes challenged the calm face under which she knew such a hunger for approbation burned.

“Hallo, Frenside — ” Lewis Tarrant nodded to his wife and strolled up to the fireplace with his unhurried step. “Cold as the devil outdoors.” He bent over the flame, stretching his nervous transparent hands to it. (“With hands like that,” Halo mused, “why isn’t he a poet?”)

Tarrant dropped into an armchair near the tea-table. “No — a cocktail, please. I’m frozen to the marrow. Cursed climate!”

She handed him the cocktail, and in passing laid her hand on his shoulder. “You’re tired, Lewis — you’ve been overworking.” It did her good to be able, in all sincerity, to rebuke him for that!

“Well, it IS hard work — straightening things out. But I think I begin to see my way.” He spoke with the cold sparkle of voice and face which was his nearest approach to enthusiasm. “By the way, though — it wasn’t all just hacking and hewing. I’ve made a find.” He picked up a bundle of papers he had thrown down, and extracted from them a copy of The Hour.

“What about this, Frenside? I never heard of it before — it must have come out while we were honeymooning, Halo.”

The word startled her, on his lips. Was it all so long ago that he seemed to be speaking a dead language? She shook off the chill and put out her hand for the review — an old number, as Lewis said, battered from long kicking about in the office. “What? Oh — this: ‘One Day’? A story, is it?” She wrinkled her brows over her shortsighted eyes. “Lewis! Why, it’s by that boy: the Tracys’ cousin. The one . . .” She broke off, and felt the colour rising to her temples. Vance Weston — she had not thought of Vance Weston since her marriage. Yet what a score he had against her! She had never been able to acquit herself of that; if ever the chance to do so arose, how gladly she would seize it! She bent above the page, curious, excited, with the little half articulate murmurs of the born reader. “How queer that I never heard of this. . . . Yes, it came out the winter we were in Egypt.” (Her chronology of her married life was more topographic than sentimental.) She looked up at Frenside. “I suppose he sent it to you, Frenny, after that time you met him at Eaglewood?”

Frenside seemed to be groping in a heap of dusty recollections. “Yes — sure enough. It comes back to me. He turned up at the office one day, and unloaded a lot of fool poetry.” (Halo remembered too, and winced.) “Then, when I told him the stuff wouldn’t do, he pulled this out. Let me see: yes, that’s it. I thought it better than most things of the kind; and anyhow the boy looked so starved and scared that I took it. Never saw him but that once, as well as I can remember.”

Halo was no longer listening: she had plunged again into her reading. Yes; Frenside was right — the poetry, though it had possibilities (or seemed to, by that mountain pool at sunrise) was a poor parrotlike effort compared to this blunt prose, almost telegraphic in its harsh directness. She read on, absorbed.

“Well —?” Lewis queried, triumphant.

She came back to him from a long way. “What a strange thing it is — how terrible!”

“Fine, though? That fellow ought to be watched. Don’t you think so, Frenny?”

Frenside rose, throwing his cigar end into the embers. “Well, it’s a toss-up. This is the early morning ‘slice-of-life’; out of the boy’s own experience, most likely. Wait and see what happens when he tackles something outside of himself. That’s where the test comes in.”

Halo asked: “Didn’t he send anything else?” and Frenside, rummaging among more faded memories, thought that, yes, he had — articles and stories, all raw stuff, unusable. That was the general rule; any chap with a knack could usually pull off one good thing at the start . . . .

“This shows more than knack.”

Frenside shrugged, said he hoped so, wished them goodbye, and shuffled out into the hall, getting grumblingly into his overcoat with the help of Tarrant, who came back rubbing his hands and smiling. “Well, my dear, there’s your great critic: couldn’t even remember when and how he’d got hold of a thing like this, or whether the boy had sent him anything else as good! No knowing what we’ve lost — or how to get hold of him now. Not a trace of his address on the books. The way that paper was run —!” He sank down by the fire with a dry wrinkling of lips and nostrils. “I rather flatter myself things will go differently now . . .”

“Oh, Lewis! But of course — with your flair.”

He stroked his slight moustache lingeringly, using his hand, as she knew, to mask a satisfaction that might have appeared too crude. “Well, I suppose one HAS the instinct or one hasn’t . . . .” he murmured.

“I’m so glad, dear, that you have it. You saw at once what this was worth, didn’t you? But we must get at the boy — a young man now, I suppose,” she mused. “How long ago it all seems! I wonder how we can run him down? Why, through the Tracys, of course! I’ll write to Mrs. Tracy now.”

She started up and went to the writing table, pulling out paper and pen with an impatience doubled by her husband’s. “Oh, we’ll wire,” he said in a tone of authority; “I’ll get it off at once. We want something from him for our New York number.” And she thought, deep in herself: “Nothing will be too good for Vance Weston now that he’s Lewis’s own discovery,” and then tingled with shame at her lucidity. She dashed off the telegram at her husband’s dictation, and while Tarrant went out to send it, dropped down again into her armchair.

“If my boy had lived — ” she said to herself, covering under that elliptical sweep of regret all the things she might have judged differently, all the things she might have forborne to judge, if between her and her husband there had been a presence, warm and troublesome and absorbing, to draw them closer yet screen them a little from each other.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/hudson_river_bracketed/book4.1.html

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