The Long Run, by Edith Wharton

II

Merrick had a little place at Riverdale, where he went occasionally to be near the Iron Works, and where he hid his week-ends when the world was too much with him.

Here, on the following Saturday afternoon I found him awaiting me in a pleasant setting of books and prints and faded parental furniture.

We dined late, and smoked and talked afterward in his book-walled study till the terrier on the hearth-rug stood up and yawned for bed. When we took the hint and moved toward the staircase I felt, not that I had found the old Merrick again, but that I was on his track, had come across traces of his passage here and there in the thick jungle that had grown up between us. But I had a feeling that when I finally came on the man himself he might be dead. . . .

As we started upstairs he turned back with one of his abrupt shy movements, and walked into the study.

“Wait a bit!” he called to me.

I waited, and he came out in a moment carrying a limp folio.

“It’s typewritten. Will you take a look at it? I’ve been trying to get to work again,” he explained, thrusting the manuscript into my hand.

“What? Poetry, I hope?” I exclaimed.

He shook his head with a gleam of derision. “No — just general considerations. The fruit of fifty years of inexperience.”

He showed me to my room and said good-night.

The following afternoon we took a long walk inland, across the hills, and I said to Merrick what I could of his book. Unluckily there wasn’t much to say. The essays were judicious, polished and cultivated; but they lacked the freshness and audacity of his youthful work. I tried to conceal my opinion behind the usual generalisations, but he broke through these feints with a quick thrust to the heart of my meaning.

“It’s worn down — blurred? Like the figures in the Cumnors’ tapestry?”

I hesitated. “It’s a little too damned resigned,” I said.

“Ah,” he exclaimed, “so am I. Resigned.” He switched the bare brambles by the roadside. “A man can’t serve two masters.”

“You mean business and literature?”

“No; I mean theory and instinct. The gray tree and the green. You’ve got to choose which fruit you’ll try; and you don’t know till afterward which of the two has the dead core.”

“How can anybody be sure that only one of them has?”

“I’m sure,” said Merrick sharply.

We turned back to the subject of his essays, and I was astonished at the detachment with which he criticised and demolished them. Little by little, as we talked, his old perspective, his old standards came back to him; but with the difference that they no longer seemed like functions of his mind but merely like attitudes assumed or dropped at will. He could still, with an effort, put himself at the angle from which he had formerly seen things; but it was with the effort of a man climbing mountains after a sedentary life in the plain.

I tried to cut the talk short, but he kept coming back to it with nervous insistence, forcing me into the last retrenchments of hypocrisy, and anticipating the verdict I held back. I perceived that a great deal — immensely more than I could see a reason for — had hung for him on my opinion of his book.

Then, as suddenly, his insistence dropped and, as if ashamed of having forced, himself so long on my attention, he began to talk rapidly and uninterestingly of other things.

We were alone again that evening, and after dinner, wishing to efface the impression of the afternoon, and above all to show that I wanted him to talk about himself, I reverted to his work. “You must need an outlet of that sort. When a man’s once had it in him, as you have — and when other things begin to dwindle — ”

He laughed. “Your theory is that a man ought to be able to return to the Muse as he comes back to his wife after he’s ceased to interest other women?”

“No; as he comes back to his wife after the day’s work is done.” A new thought came to me as I looked at him. “You ought to have had one,” I added.

He laughed again. “A wife, you mean? So that there’d have been some one waiting for me even if the Muse decamped?” He went on after a pause: “I’ve a notion that the kind of woman worth coming back to wouldn’t be much more patient than the Muse. But as it happens I never tried — because, for fear they’d chuck me, I put them both out of doors together.”

He turned his head and looked past me with a queer expression at the low panelled door at my back. “Out of that very door they went — the two of ’em, on a rainy night like this: and one stopped and looked back, to see if I wasn’t going to call her — and I didn’t — and so they both went. . . . ”

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