Hudson River Bracketed, by Edith Wharton

Book VII

XLI

The summer light lay so rightly on the lawn and trees of the Willows that Halo Tarrant understood more clearly than ever before the spell the place had cast on Vance Weston.

She had gone there to take a look, for the first time in months. The present owner, the old and infirm Miss Lorburn, sat in her house in Stuyvesant Square and fretted about her inability to keep an eye on the place; she always said what a pity it was that poor Tom hadn’t left it to poor Halo instead of to her. Miss Lorburn’s world was peopled with friends and relatives who seemed to her best described by the epithet “poor”; what with one thing or another, she thought them all objects of pity. It was only of herself, old, heavy, with blurred eyes, joints knotted by rheumatism, legs bloated by varicose veins, and her GOOD ear beginning to go, that she never spoke with compassion. She merely said it was a pity poor Halo would have to wait so long for the Willows . . . not that it would be much use to the poor child when she did get it, if the value of property at Paul’s Landing continued to decline at its present rate.

Since Mrs. Tracy’s departure for California the Willows, for the first time, had been entrusted to hands unconnected with its past, and as Miss Lorburn feared the new caretakers might not treat poor Elinor’s possessions with proper reverence it behoved Halo to see that everything was in order.

As she walked along the drive she was assailed by memories so remote that she felt like an old woman — as old as the Elinor Lorburn of the portrait above the mantel or the purblind cripple in Stuyvesant Square. “I almost wonder I’m not on crutches,” she mused; so heavily did the weight of the past hang on her feet and her mind.

The place wore its old look of having waited there quietly for her, with a sort of brooding certainty of her return — not changing, not impatient, not discouraged, but just standing there, house, turf, and trees, the house yearly losing more of its paint, the wistaria adding more clusters to the thousands mercifully veiling the angles and brackets it had been meant to adorn. As she looked about her she understood for the first time how, in what seemed the grotesqueness of discarded fashion, Vance’s impatient genius had caught the poetry of the past. For him the place had symbolized continuity, that great nutritive element of which no one had ever told him, of which neither Art nor Nature had been able to speak to him, since nothing in his training had prepared him for their teaching. Yet, blind puppy, groping embryo as he was, he had plunged instantly into that underlying deep when the Willows had given him a glimpse of it.

Halo had purposely avoided the new caretakers’ day. She wanted the place to herself; there were ghosts of her own there now. . . . She felt her way in among the familiar obscurities. That looming darkness on her right was the high Venetian cabinet in the hall; this spectral conclave on which a pale starlight twinkled down was the group of shrouded armchairs in confabulation under the prisms of the drawing room chandelier. Capricious rays, slanting through the shutters, seemed to pick out particular objects for her attention, like searchlights groping for landmarks over a night landscape. She fancied the inanimate things assisted in the search, beckoning to the light, and whispering: HERE, HERE! in their wistful striving for reanimation. There was no amount of psychic sensibility one could not read into the walls and furniture of an old empty house . . . .

Her own youth was in it everywhere, hanging in faded shreds like the worn silk of the curtains — her youth, already far-off and faded, though she was now only twenty-eight! As she stood in the library she recalled her first meeting with Vance Weston — how she had strolled in on one of her perfunctory visits and surprised an unknown youth in Elinor Lorburn’s armchair, his hair swept back untidily from a brooding forehead, his eyes bent on a book; and how, at her approach, he had lifted those eyes, without surprise or embarrassment, but with a deep inward look she was always to remember, and had asked eagerly: “Who wrote this?” How like Vance! It was always so with him. No time for preambles — always dashing straight to the vital matter, whether it were the authorship of “Kubla Khan,” or the desperate longing to kiss her. . . . She shut her eyes a moment, and listened to that cry: “You don’t understand — I want to kiss you!” He thought she didn’t understand — so much the better . . . .

In those early days, for all her maternal airs with him, she had been as young, as inexperienced as he was. She knew a good deal about art and literature, but next to nothing about life, though she thought herself a past mistress in its management. Her familiarity with pecuniary makeshifts, with the evasions and plausibilities of people muddling along on insufficient means, bluffing, borrowing, dodging their creditors, entertaining celebrities and neglecting to pay the milkman and the butcher — all these expedients had given her a precocious competence which she mistook for experience. They had also called forth a natural ardour for probity and fair dealing which she must have inherited from one of the straitlaced old Lorburns on the panelled walls at Eaglewood. Side by side with it burned an equally fierce ardour for living — for the beauty of the visible world, its sunrises and moon births, and the glories with which man’s labours have embellished it. Never was a girl more in love with the whole adventure of living, and less equipped to hold her own in it, than the Halo Spear who had come upon Vance Weston that afternoon.

In love in the human way too? Yes, that she had been equally ready for — only it seemed beset with difficulties. Hers was one of the undifferentiated natures which ask that all the faculties shall share in its adventures; she must love with eyes, ears, soul, imagination — must feel every sense and thought impregnated together. And either the young men who pleased her eye chilled her imagination, or else the responsive intelligences were inadequately housed. She wanted a companion on the flaming ramparts; and New York had so far failed to find her one.

Lewis Tarrant came the nearest. He was agreeable to look at; she liked his lounging height, the sharp thinness and delicate bony structure of his face, and she was impressed by the critical aloofness of mind, which unbent only for her. Her wavering impulses sought in him a rectitude on which she could lean. He had a real love of books, a calm cultivated interest in art; his mind was like a chilly moonlit reflection of her own. She nearly loved him — but not quite. And then, just as she had decided that he could never walk the ramparts with her, came the discovery that her family, certain of the marriage, had accepted one or two discreet loans — and the final shock of learning that it was Lewis who had found the missing Americana from the Willows and bought them back in time to avert a scandal . . . .

Well, what of all that? Hadn’t she always known what her family were like — long since suspected the worst of her brother? Why had she not washed her hands of them and gone her own way in the modern manner? She could not; partly from pride, but much more from attachment, from a sort of grateful tenderness. She had been happy, after all, in that muddling happy-go-lucky household. Her parents had a gipsylike charm, and they were always affectionate and responsive. The life of the mind, even the life of the spirit, had been enthusiastically cultivated in spite of minor moral shortcomings. If she loved poetry, if she knew more than most girls about history and art, about all the accumulated wonders peopling her eager intelligence, she owed it to daily intercourse with minds like her own, to the poetry evenings by the fire at Eaglewood, when Mrs. Spear would rush out to placate an aggrieved tradesman, and come back unperturbed to “The Garden of Proserpine” or “The Eve of St. Agnes”; to those thrifty wanderings in Europe, when they vegetated in cheap Italian pensions or lived on sunshine and olives through a long winter at Malaga, but wherever they went, it was always hand in hand with beauty.

Desert such parents in their extremity? It was unthinkable to a girl who loved their romantic responsiveness as much as she raged against their incurable dishonesty. Lewis Tarrant had been immensely generous — was she going to let herself be outdone by him? Some day — if she inherited the Willows, and a little of Cousin Tom’s money — she might be able to pay him back, and start fair again. But meanwhile, what could she do but marry him? And at the thought of his generosity she began to glow with tenderness, and to mistake her tenderness for love. On this tidal wave of delusion — and after the news that her cousin Tom had disinherited her — she was swept into the dull backwater of her marriage . . . .

She had not seen Vance since the destruction of the manuscript. After a sleepless night — a night of dry misery and crazy unreal plans — she had telegraphed him: “Have you gone mad? Is there really no other copy? Come this evening after nine. I must see you.” The day dragged by. She did not see Tarrant again before he departed for the office. She had nothing further to say to him, and was afraid of making another blunder if the subject of Vance came up. If she had not foolishly reproached her husband for destroying a masterpiece he might have been glad to let Vance off his bargain — but now she knew he would exact his pound of flesh. In what form? she wondered. She was not clear about the legal aspects of the case, but she knew Tarrant would move cautiously and make certain of his rights in advance. The meaningless hours crawled on. Her husband was dining at Mrs. Pulsifer’s — a big affair for some foreign critic who had been imported to receive a university degree. She was sure of her evening alone with Vance. But the hours passed, the evening came, and he did not come with it, and he sent no message. She sat waiting for him till after midnight; then she heard the click of her husband’s latchkey and hurried away to her room to avoid meeting him. When she looked at herself in the glass as she undressed she saw a ravaged face and eyes swollen with crying. She had wept unconsciously as she sat there alone and waited.

The next day and the next Vance made no sign; it was not until the third that a note came. “I am going away from New York. My wife is sick, and we are moving out to the country. I couldn’t come the other night. There isn’t any other copy; but then you never cared for it much, and I guess I can do better. Vance.”

Not a word of tenderness or of regret. But the phrases had the desperate ring of the broken words he had jerked out that evening in the library. It was never his way to waste words over the irremediable. And, as far as he and she were concerned, she saw now that the case was irremediable. How could she have asked him to come back to her house? The breach with her husband made that impossible. And now he was going away from New York, he did not even tell her where. It was all useless, hopeless — whatever she might have been to him, or done for him, the time was past, the opportunity missed . . . .

After waiting a day or two she had sent for Frenside, and told him as much of the story as concerned her share in Vance’s work, and the intellectual side of their friendship. When she came to the destruction of the manuscript, and to her husband’s attitude in the matter, Frenside, who had listened musingly over his pipe, gave a short laugh. “Well, my dear, you have made a mess of it!” She was too much humiliated to protest. “But what can I do now?” she merely asked, and was not unprepared for the “Nothing!” he flung back.

“Oh, Frenny, but I MUST— ”

He shrugged her protest away. “And you know,” he went on, “it’s not such a bad thing for a young novelist with a demoralizing success behind him to tear up a manuscript or two. Chances are they wouldn’t have been much good — just the backwash of the other. He’s done the right thing to go off into the country and tackle a new job in new surroundings — without even you to advise him.”

She winced, but Frenside’s sarcasm was always salutary. “But he can’t afford to wait,” she said. “He’s starving — and with that poor little ill wife. How can I persuade Lewis to let him off his bargain? His only hope is to get an advance from Lambart on his unwritten book, so that he can go off and work quietly, without this dreadful anxiety about money. But I can’t make Lewis feel as I do about it . . . .”

Frenside contemplated his pipe in silence. “Tarrant’s writing a novel himself, isn’t he? What about —?”

She felt a little shock of apprehension. “Oh, I don’t know. He’s so secretive. He’s never asked me to look at it, and I don’t dare suggest . . .”

Frenside looked at her shrewdly. “Dare — suggest — insist. Get him to let you see what he’s done; tell him it’s a darned sight better than any of Weston’s stuff. If he can be got to believe that — and you ought to know how to make him — he may stop bothering about Weston.”

She remained silent while Frenside got up to go. “Look here, my child; get him to read his book to you, and try to think it’s a masterpiece. Perhaps it is.” But seek as she would she could find no answering pleasantry. She sat helpless, benumbed, while her old friend emptied his pipe, pushed it into his pocket, and reached out for his stick. But as he got to the door she started up and broke out, with a little sob: “All the help I wanted to give him has turned to harm. Oh, Frenny, how am I going to bear it?” Frenside limped back to her and laid his hand for a moment on her shoulder. Then he took off his glasses to give her one deep look. “Bravely,” he said, and turned to go.

All that had happened three months ago; and she was glad now that she had said what she had to Frenside, and also that he had guessed what she left unsaid. It made her world less lonely to think of that solitary spark of understanding burning in another mind like a little light in an isolated house. But that was the only help he had been able to give. As far as she could bring herself to do so, she followed his advice with respect to Tarrant. But though she refrained from all further reference to Vance, and behaved to her husband as though the bitter scene between them had never happened, she found it impossible to question him about his work. When she tried to do so her throat grew dry, and every phrase she thought of sounded false and hollow. Some premonition told her that his novel would be an amateurish performance, and that if it were she would not be able to conceal her real opinion of it. For days she tried to think of a method of approaching the subject, of flattering his hypersensitive need of praise without running the subsequent risk of wounding it; but she found no way. “I know he can’t write a good novel — and if it’s bad he’ll find out at once that I think it is. . . . What he wants is an audience like Jet Pulsifer . . . .” She smiled a little at the picture of their two ravenous vanities pressing reciprocal praises on each other; yet even now it wounded her to think that the man she had chosen was perhaps really made for Mrs. Pulsifer . . . .

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