Hudson River Bracketed, by Edith Wharton

Book V

XXIV

Tarrant, that evening, got home late and out of humor. His lateness ought in reason to have annoyed his wife, for they were off to Eaglewood the next day for Christmas, and many holiday questions were still unsettled; but she met him with her vague short-sighted smile and the air of one whom nothing in the world can annoy.

At dinner she ascribed his sulkiness and taciturnity to strained nerves and the effort not to betray himself before the maid. The first number of the New Hour — they had accepted Frenside’s rechristening — was to appear on the second of January, and the intervening week was a bad time for readjustments. No wonder the editor was on edge.

Over coffee and his cigar he broke out. What did she suppose? That damned protégé of Frenside’s — that Middle–Western yahoo . . . Weston, yes . . . had been turning the office into a beer garden. . . . Yes, this very afternoon. Outrageous . . . Why, a drunken fellow came in and tried to fight him . . . and, well, the fact was Weston funked it . . . luckily, or they might have had the police there . . . and the other man would have made mincemeat of him. . . . Disgusting business . . . he’d told Weston what he thought of it. . . . Over a woman, of course . . .

“A woman?” Halo echoed, startled. “Why, he’s only just married, isn’t he?” Well — there you had it, her husband’s shrug emphasized. He was that sort, was Frenside’s little pet. . . . Messing about with women before his honeymoon was over . . . The cigar drew less well than usual; Tarrant stood up and paced the floor angrily. Disgusting . . . he wouldn’t have it, he repeated. Good mind to sack the fool on the spot . . . a coward too, that was the worst of it. He threw the cigar into the fire, and groped nervously for another . . . .

Halo, leaning back in her deep armchair, looked up at him with indolent curiosity. “Lewis, aren’t you just simply overworked — overwrought?” she suggested.

“Just simply —?”

“I mean haven’t you let your nerves get the better of you? You look dead beat.” She made a friendly gesture toward the opposite armchair. “Sit down and light your cigar. Who told you this preposterous yarn anyhow?”

“Preposterous yarn?” He paled with anger, and she saw her mistake. “No one told me — no one had to. I was there. In the front row — saw the ruffian slap Weston’s face, and Weston turn the other cheek. Precisely.”

Halo mused, perplexed but still unperturbed. “But the fact that the ruffian was drunk — isn’t that the reason?”

“Why Weston wouldn’t fight?”

“Not in your office, at any rate. Put yourself in his place.”

But Tarrant knew of few places worthy to put himself in. “Thank you, my dear. I don’t happen to have lowdown blackguards trying to fight me.”

“I should have thought any man might, accidentally.” She paused and reflected. “Anyhow, it doesn’t seem to have bothered young Weston much,” she let drop with a retrospective smile.

Through Tarrant’s fresh cloud of cigar smoke she saw his suspicious flush. “I don’t know how much it bothered him; but he looked pretty thoroughly ashamed of himself.”

“He got over it quickly then. He’d forgotten all about it when he was here just now.”

Tarrant swung round in surprise, and she continued, in the tone of leisurely narrative: “About an hour ago. He dashed in on his way to the train, staggering under his mother-in-law’s Christmas bundles. He’d called on very particular business. You’ll never guess . . .”

“Why should I?” Tarrant growled.

“Try — ”

He answered by another shrug — this time of indifference.

“Well, he wanted to borrow Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. He’d never heard of them till today. Or of Tchehov or the moderns, of course . . . It appears someone in the office said something about ‘the Russians,’ and as soon as he’d finished his work he rushed to the public library; but it was closed, so he came here. Rather sweet of him, I thought. He didn’t say how d’ye do, or any of the useless things. He just said: ‘Who are the Russians? I want to read them. Have you got them?’ And went off with his arms full.” She sank back in her cushions, and closed her lids on the picture. The fire crackled companionably, and Tarrant’s cigar smoke wove its soothing cloud about their silence. Even with her eyes shut she could guess that something was slowly breaking down the hard crust of his resentment. Expediency . . . uncertainty . . . it didn’t matter. . . . After an interval he said, more to himself than her: “Well, I suppose he WAS right not to let that blackguard raise hell in the office. . . . Only it goes against me when a man seems to show the white feather . . . .”

“Ah, but YOU . . .” his wife murmured; and opened her eyes to meet his gratified smile.

But his face was not the one on which her gaze rested. Her vision was turned inward. There had happened to her, suddenly, what may happen at any stage, however late, in the acquaintance, even the intimacy, between two people: she had seen Vance Weston that afternoon — really, literally seen him — for the first time. Before that, her glance — curious, then interested, then admiring — had merely brushed him with a glowworm spark. She had caught, as it were, glimpses of him in the blur of himself; rifts and gleams; a bit here, a bit there, of the outward accidents of his appearance. Now, all at once, she possessed him as a whole, seemed to discern behind his fluid features the power which had built them. Uneven, untrue to itself, as his face appeared, with its queer mixture of maturity and boyishness, instability and power, she suddenly beheld it in the something which harmonized these contradictions and bound him together like a strong outline. Was that perhaps what genius was? And this boy with the tumbled brown hair, the resolute lines of brow and nose, the brooding impulsive lips and the strident untutored voice — was this the way genius was cut? . . . Her heart missed a beat, as if it had paused with her mind to consider him. “It’s like seeing him dead,” she thought — so entirely had his face been stripped to the essentials. And she reminded herself, with a shiver, that one never forgot a single lineament of a face one had seen dead. . . . “It’s more than I bargained for,” she murmured, and then: “Coward!”

She pulled herself up to the surface of her eyes, and gave her husband back his smile.

The first number of the New Hour made a hit. The New York publishing world rang with the figures of its sale; and the crown of its success was “Unclaimed,” the quiet story by the young author no one had heard of. A war story too — fatal handicap! But everyone agreed that it sounded a new note. The public was fed up with new notes, yet dared not praise anything without applying that epithet to it (so Frenside explained). “But it is a new note; I saw it at once when he brought me the thing,” Tarrant grumbled, adding impatiently: “If it depended on you to give a new author a start —!”

“Where’s my lantern?” Frenside mocked; but the sting of his mockery was submerged in the warm tide of praise which met Tarrant wherever he went. He was acutely proud of his first editorial achievement, and his gratified pride transformed him in his wife’s eyes. “I’ve always known he was cleverer than anybody else — all he needed was a chance to show it,” she thought, her hungry imagination clutching at every substitute for belief in him. Yet in an inner fold of her heart something whispered: “How much I would rather believe in him against everybody!”

Tarrant had said one day, in a burst of satisfaction: “I think you ought to invite that Weston boy here; we ought to have a party for the New Hour’s first birthday. People are beginning to ask about him; they’re already wondering about the Pulsifer Prize — ” and Halo, rousing herself from an indolence she could hardly explain, had echoed: “Oh, if you think so — certainly.” In reality, she had relegated the thought of Vance to the back of her mind. After all, it was her husband who had resuscitated The Hour, not Vance Weston. But that was the way of the world: people fastened on one good thing in a review — a new review especially — and talked as if that were the principal, if not the only, reason for its popularity. Whereas the real credit belonged to the editor, the guiding and selecting mind, in this case to the man who had discovered Vance Weston and made him known, as he would in future discover and make known many others. Halo flamed with impatience at the public’s obtuseness . . . .

“Oh, but of course you must . . . you must let me introduce him. . . . Of course he won’t think anything of the kind . . . .” Mrs. Tarrant, slim and animated in her black dress, with lacy wings floating with the motions of her arms, moved away from the hearth, where she had been standing beside an exaggeratedly tall young woman whose little head drooped sideways from a long throat, and whose lids were cast down in deprecation on the rich glitter of her gold brocade.

“Oh, Halo, no . . . I don’t know . . . Won’t he think . . .? I do want to be so utterly aloof and impartial . . . .”

“Well, but you will, my dear. You don’t suppose every young writer who’s introduced to you in the course of the winter will imagine you’re sampling him for the Pulsifer Prize?”

“How absurd, Halo! When of course it’s ALL in the hands of the committee. . . . But I do so want to preserve my complete serenity, my utter detachment . . . .” Mrs. Pulsifer flung the words after her in a series of staccato cries.

Halo laughed, and moved through the groups of guests scattered about her library to the corner where Vance Weston, his back to the company, stood in absorbed contemplation of the bookshelves. Until he had entered the room a few minutes earlier she had not seen him since he had come to borrow her Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and now, in the noise and sparkle of her first evening party for the New Hour, he had become once more an exterior, episodical figure, not the being whose soul had touched hers that other evening. She even reflected, as she approached him: “He’s shorter than I remembered; his shoulders are too heavy . . . he gets into fights about women . . . .” as if retouching an idealized portrait abruptly confronted with the reality.

“Vance,” she said, and he turned with a start of surprise, as though he had imagined himself alone. Halo smiled: “This isn’t the Willows, you know — I mean,” she hurried on, fearing he might misinterpret the allusion, “you’re at a party, and lots of the people here want to know you; first of all, Mrs. Pulsifer.”

“Mrs. Pulsifer —?” he echoed, his eyes coming back from a long way off and resting on his hostess in slow recognition.

“The prize-giver. Over there, in the gold-coloured dress. Come — poor Jet’s not alarming; she’s alarmed.”

“Alarmed?”

Halo slipped her arm through his. “Frightfully shy, really. Isn’t it funny? She’s in terror lest every author who’s introduced to her should ask for the prize — yet she wants them all introduced!”

“But isn’t the prize given by a committee?”

“Yes. Only she likes to look the candidates over. Come!”

It amused her to introduce Vance to people. It was the first time she had seen him in a worldly setting, and she was interested in watching the effect he produced — especially the effect on Mrs. Pulsifer. On the whole, giving parties for the New Hour might turn out to be great fun. She was only sorry that her young lion, in his evening clothes, looked unexpectedly heavy and common . . . .

Vance hung back. “What’s she like?” he asked, as if his decision depended on that.

“Like? I don’t know . . . .” Halo hesitated. “You see, she’s not an actual person: she’s a symptom. That’s what Frenny and I call the people who are everything in turn. They catch things from another kind that we call germ-carriers, people who get every new literary and artistic disease and hand it on. But come: she’s awfully nice, really.”

Vance still hesitated. “Do you think I’ll like her?” he asked oddly; and Halo laughed and wrinkled her shortsighted eyes. “Does one have to — at parties?”

“I don’t know, I’ve never been to a party before — like this.”

“Well, the important thing is that she should like you.”

“Why?”

She gave a slight shrug, and at that moment the golden lady swayed across the room and came up to them. “He hates the very idea, Halo — I knew he would!” she cried.

“Vance, this is Mrs. Pulsifer. Jet, be good to him — he’s my particular friend. Take her over to that quiet corner under the Buddha, Vance, and tell her how you write your stories.” She swept away to her other guests, and Vance found himself seated on a divan in a dim recess, with this long golden woman, half frightened and half forthcoming, and swaying toward him like a wind-swept branch. For a moment he had been annoyed at his hostess’s request. As soon as he had entered he had gone straight back to the shelves from which, a few weeks earlier, Halo had taken down Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Near them, he remembered noticing, were the Gogols, and there was one, “The Cloak,” which he heard the fellows at the Cocoanut Tree talking about (“All Tolstoy and Tchehov came out of ‘The Cloak,’” the advanced ones said. Well, he must read “The Cloak” then — ) As soon as his eyes lit on that shelf he forgot where he was, and that there were other people about. He stood running his hands along the backs of the volumes in the happy agitation produced by the sight of unexplored bookshelves; and then Mrs. Tarrant came and spoilt it all . . . .

But now a new wave of sensation swept over him. The nearness of this strange Mrs. Pulsifer, her small feverish face, the careless splendour of her dress, the perfume it gave out, had caught his restless imagination. She interested and excited him as part of the unfamiliar setting which he had hardly noticed on his arrival because the books had thrust themselves between, but which now stole on him with the magic of low lights, half tints, easy greetings, allusive phrases, young women made for leisure and luxury, young men moving among them lightly and familiarly. The atmosphere was new to Vance — and this woman, neither young nor old, beautiful nor ugly, but curious, remote, like a picture or a statue come down from some storied palace wall, seemed to embody everything in the scene that was unintelligible and captivating.

“Oh, but I’m sure you oughtn’t,” she murmured, drooping away but leaving her eyes close to his.

“Oughtn’t what?” he stammered, entangled in his confusion.

“To tell me how you write your stories; or anything at all about them. Halo’s so reckless — she doesn’t stop to consider. And of course I’m burning to know. But people might think . . . you see, I simply MUST preserve my aloofness, my entire impartiality . . . or they’d say I was interfering. . . . And I’m sure I shall never like another story as much as yours. Oh, Mr. Weston, it’s a dreadful responsibility,” she wailed.

Vance was watching her curiously. He noticed the way her wandering eyes were set guardedly under a small contracted brow (“as if they were peering out of prison,” he thought, “and reckoning up the chances of escape”). The idea amused him, and he had to rouse himself to answer: “You mean giving the prize is a responsibility? But you don’t, do you? I thought there was a committee?”

“Of course, of course, but that’s the reason. If it should be suspected that I tried to influence them . . . and yet I do so worship what you write!” She swayed nearer, enveloping him in a golden network of smiles and shimmers, imparting in confidential murmurs common-places that might have been published on the housetops, telling him what a burden her money was, how much she needed sympathy, how few people she could talk to as she was talking to him, how the moment she had read the first lines of “Unclaimed” she had felt that THERE was someone who would understand her — and how she envied his heroine for being able, even at the cost of her last penny, to be herself, to proclaim her love openly, to starve herself in order to build a monument to the man who had never known she loved him. “How you do know women!” she murmured, swaying and gazing and retreating. “How in the world did you ever guess . . .? Several of my friends have told me your Tullia was my living portrait. . . . But I mustn’t talk of that now. Won’t you come and see me some day? Yes — that would be better. I’m so alone, Mr. Weston — I do so need advice and encouragement! Sometimes I wish I’d never undertaken this prize business; but wealth has its duties, hasn’t it?”

She had rambled on for a long time, yet not long enough to satisfy his curiosity, when suddenly she started back. “Oh, but I mustn’t keep you any longer. . . . Why, there’s Fynes over there staring at us!” she exclaimed in agitation. “He’s one of our committee, you know. And he never goes to evening parties — not respectable ones, I mean. I daresay he’s come here just to look you over . . . .” She stood up nervously.

“Tristram Fynes? Who wrote The Corner Grocery?”

Vance interrupted with a shock of excitement.

“Yes, over there. That dreary little man by the door. You think him so wonderful?”

“It’s a big book.”

“Oh, I daresay, but the people are so dreadfully unsympathetic. I suppose you’ll call me very old-fashioned; but I don’t think our novelists ought to rob us of all hope, all belief. . . . But come, everybody’s waiting to talk to you. Fynes sees that, and he hates it. Oh, I do hope I haven’t spoilt your chance of the prize!” She held out her hand. “You WILL come to see me, won’t you? Yes — at six some day. Will you come tomorrow?” she insisted, and drew him after her across the room.

Vance, in following, had his eyes on the small dreary man by the door. Of the many recent novels he had devoured very few had struck him as really important; and of these The Corner Grocery was easily first. Among dozens of paltry books pushed into notoriety it was the only one entitled to such distinction. Readers all over the country had felt its evident sincerity, and its title had become the proverbial epithet of the smalltown atmosphere. It did not fully satisfy Vance; he thought the writer left untouched most of the deeper things the theme implied; if he himself had been able to write such a book he would have written it differently. But it was fearless, honest, preternaturally alive; and these qualities, which to Vance seemed the foundation of the rest, were those he most longed to acquire. “First stand your people on their feet,” Frenside had once enjoined him; “there’ll be time enough afterward to tell us where they went.” If only Tristram Fynes should be moved to say that the people in “Unclaimed” stood on their feet!

Vance’s heart thumped furiously as Mrs. Pulsifer paused near the great man. If it should really turn out that Fynes had read “Unclaimed,” and was here because of it!

“Oh, Mr. Fynes — what a surprise! I didn’t know you ever condescended . . . Oh, but you mustn’t say you’re going — not before I’ve introduced Mr. Weston! Vance Weston; yes; who wrote ‘Unclaimed.’ He’s simply dying to talk to you about . . .”

Mr. Fynes’s compressed lips snapped open. “About The Corner Grocery, eh? Well, there’s a good deal to be said about it that hasn’t been said yet,” he rejoined energetically, fixing his eyes on Vance. “You’re one of the new reviewers, aren’t you? Do ‘The Cocoanut Tree’ in the New Hour? Yes — I believe I saw something of yours the other day. Well, see here; this is no place for a serious talk, but I’d be glad if you’d come round some day and just let me tell you exactly what I want said about The Corner Grocery. . . . Much the best way, you know. The book’s a big book; no doubt about that. What I want people told is WHY it’s big. . . . Come round tomorrow, will you? I’m going to cut it now . . . .”

He vanished, and Vance stood dazed. But not for long. Others claimed his attention, people who wanted to talk to him not about themselves but about “Unclaimed.” The room was not crowded; there were probably not more than thirty guests in the library and the dining room beyond, into which they wandered in quest of sandwiches and cocktails, coming back refreshment in hand, or lingering about the dining table. But to Vance the scene was so new that he seemed to be in a dense throng; and the fact of being in it not as an observer, but as the centre of attention and curiosity, filled him with the same heady excitement as when he had tossed off his first shellful of champagne.

These easy affable people wanted to know him and talk to him because he had written “Unclaimed,” because they had even heard (some of them) of his other story, that old thing Tarrant had fished out of a back number and spoke of republishing; they wanted to know what else he had written, what he was doing now, when he was going to start in on a novel, when he would have enough short stories for a volume, whether he had thought up any new subjects lately, whether he found it easier to write in a big city or in his own quiet surroundings at home, whether Nature inspired him or he had to be with people to get a stimulus, what his best working hours were, whether he could force himself to write so many hours a day, whether he didn’t find that regular work led to routine, whether he didn’t think a real artist must always be a law unto himself (this from the two or three of the younger women), and whether he found he could dictate, or had to type out his own things . . . .

Vance had never before been confronted with so many exciting and stimulating questions. At first he tried to answer each in turn, going into the matter as fully as he felt it deserved, and seizing by the way on the new ideas it developed; but by the time he had said, with his slow shy drawl: “Why, I guess I haven’t got far enough yet to have worked out any regular rules, but I seem to find . . .” or: “Well, sometimes I feel as if I had to have a lot of new faces and sights to start me going, and then again other times . . .” he noticed that his questioners either lost interest, or else, obeying some rule of behaviour unknown to him, felt they ought to give way to others with other riddles to propound. The result was that he had soon run the whole gauntlet of introductions, and found himself at a little table in the dining room, voraciously consuming cocktails and foie gras, and surrounded at last by familiar faces — as though he had swum through a bright tossing sea to a shore where old friends awaited him. Frenside was there, gruffly smoking and sipping, Eric Rauch, glossy and vivid in evening clothes, and Mrs. Spear, white-haired and affectionately wistful, murmuring: “How wonderful, Vance! To think the Willows should have led to this . . .” while Halo, flitting by, paused to introduce a new arrival, or to say, with a hand on his shoulder: “How does it feel to be It?”

Best of all was it, when everyone had gone but a few familiars, to draw up to the library fire, replenished with crackling logs, and listen to Tarrant and Rauch discussing the future of the New Hour, Frenside dropping his comments into the rifts of the talk, and Mrs. Spear saying, from the drowsy depths of her armchair: “But you simply mustn’t do what they tell you, Vance — you must just drop EVERYTHING and give yourself up to your novel. What’s it to be called? Loot — ah, there’s a whole panorama in that! Lewis, you must really give him his head; you mustn’t tie him down to dates. Let him have all the time he wants. Remember, the Spirit bloweth where it listeth . . . and genius IS the Spirit, isn’t it, Frenside?”

It was past one in the morning when Vance sprang to his feet in comic anguish. “Oh, say, what about my last train home?” They all laughed, and Tarrant said, glancing at his watch: “No hurry, my boy — it left an hour ago, and there’s no other till six-thirty,” whereat the group about the fire vanished from Vance’s eyes, displaced by Laura Lou’s white face peering through her window into the icy darkness. . . . “What a place to live in, anyhow!” he thought, exasperated at being thus forced back into reality; and when the party finally broke up he accepted Eric Rauch’s invitation to go on with him to “The Loafers’ Club,” an all-night affair where they could talk and drink till the dismal hour when the first train started for Paul’s Landing. After all, it wasn’t Vance’s fault if he had to live in the wilderness, and the minute he’d cleared off that Hayes debt he was going to bring Laura Lou back to New York, where there were people a fellow could talk to, and who understood what he was trying for. It filled him with sudden despair to think that of all he had heard and said that evening not a syllable would mean anything to his wife.

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