The Long Run, by Edith Wharton

III

“The Muse?” (said Merrick, refilling my glass and stooping to pat the terrier as he went back to his chair) — “well, you’ve met the Muse in the little volume of sonnets you used to like; and you’ve met the woman too, and you used to like her; though you didn’t know her when you saw her the other evening. . . .

“No, I won’t ask you how she struck you when you talked to her: I know. She struck you like that stuff I gave you to read last night She’s conformed — I’ve conformed — the mills have caught us and ground us: ground us, oh, exceedingly small!

“But you remember what she was; and that’s the reason why I’m telling you this now. . . .

“You may recall that after my father’s death I tried to sell the Works. I was impatient to free myself from anything that would keep me tied to New York. I don’t dislike my trade, and I’ve made, in the end, a fairly good thing of it; but industrialism was not, at that time, in the line of my tastes, and I know now that it wasn’t what I was meant for. Above all, I wanted to get away, to see new places and rub up against different ideas. I had reached a time of life — the top of the first hill, so to speak — where the distance draws one, and everything in the foreground seems tame and stale. I was sick to death of the particular set of conformities I had grown up among; sick of being a pleasant popular young man with a long line of dinners on my list, and the dead certainty of meeting the same people, or their prototypes, at all of them.

“Well — I failed to sell the Works, and that increased my discontent. I went through moods of cold unsociability, alternating with sudden flushes of curiosity, when I gloated over stray scraps of talk overheard in railway stations and omnibuses, when strange faces that I passed in the street tantalized me with fugitive promises. I wanted to be among things that were unexpected and unknown; and it seemed to me that nobody about me understood in the least what I felt, but that somewhere just out of reach there was some one who did, and whom I must find or despair. . . .

“It was just then that, one evening, I saw Mrs. Trant for the first time.

“Yes: I know — you wonder what I mean. I’d known her, of course, as a girl; I’d met her several times after her marriage; and I’d lately been thrown with her, quite intimately and continuously, during a succession of country-house visits. But I had never, as it happened, really seen her. . . .

“It was at a dinner at the Cumnors’; and there she was, in front of the very tapestry we saw her against the other evening, with people about her, and her face turned from me, and nothing noticeable or different in her dress or manner; and suddenly she stood out for me against the familiar unimportant background, and for the first time I saw a meaning in the stale phrase of a picture’s walking out of its frame. For, after all, most people are just that to us: pictures, furniture, the inanimate accessories of our little island-area of sensation. And then sometimes one of these graven images moves and throws out live filaments toward us, and the line they make draws us across the world as the moon-track seems to draw a boat across the water. . . .

“There she stood; and as this queer sensation came over me I felt that she was looking steadily at me, that her eyes were voluntarily, consciously resting on me with the weight of the very question I was asking.

“I went over and joined her, and she turned and walked with me into the music-room. Earlier in the evening some one had been singing, and there were low lights there, and a few couples still sitting in those confidential corners of which Mrs. Cumnor has the art; but we were under no illusion as to the nature of these presences. We knew that they were just painted in, and that the whole of life was in us two, flowing back and forward between us. We talked, of course; we had the attitudes, even the words, of the others: I remember her telling me her plans for the spring and asking me politely about mine! As if there were the least sense in plans, now that this thing had happened!

“When we went back into the drawing-room I had said nothing to her that I might not have said to any other woman of the party; but when we shook hands I knew we should meet the next day — and the next. . . .

“That’s the way, I take it, that Nature has arranged the beginning of the great enduring loves; and likewise of the little epidermal flurries. And how is a man to know where he is going?

“From the first my feeling for Paulina Trant seemed to me a grave business; but then the Enemy is given to producing that illusion. Many a man — I’m talking of the kind with imagination — has thought he was seeking a soul when all he wanted was a closer view of its tenement. And I tried — honestly tried — to make myself think I was in the latter case. Because, in the first place, I didn’t, just then, want a big disturbing influence in my life; and because I didn’t want to be a dupe; and because Paulina Trant was not, according to hearsay, the kind of woman for whom it was worth while to bring up the big batteries. . . .

“But my resistance was only half-hearted. What I really felt — all I really felt — was the flood of joy that comes of heightened emotion. She had given me that, and I wanted her to give it to me again. That’s as near as I’ve ever come to analyzing my state in the beginning.

“I knew her story, as no doubt you know it: the current version, I mean. She had been poor and fond of enjoyment, and she had married that pompous stick Philip Trant because she needed a home, and perhaps also because she wanted a little luxury. Queer how we sneer at women for wanting the thing that gives them half their attraction!

“People shook their heads over the marriage, and divided, prematurely, into Philip’s partisans and hers: for no one thought it would work. And they were almost disappointed when, after all, it did. She and her wooden consort seemed to get on well enough. There was a ripple, at one time, over her friendship with young Jim Dalham, who was always with her during a summer at Newport and an autumn in Italy; then the talk died out, and she and Trant were seen together, as before, on terms of apparent good-fellowship.

“This was the more surprising because, from the first, Paulina had never made the least attempt to change her tone or subdue her colours. In the gray Trant atmosphere she flashed with prismatic fires. She smoked, she talked subversively, she did as she liked and went where she chose, and danced over the Trant prejudices and the Trant principles as if they’d been a ball-room floor; and all without apparent offence to her solemn husband and his cloud of cousins. I believe her frankness and directness struck them dumb. She moved like a kind of primitive Una through the virtuous rout, and never got a finger-mark on her freshness.

“One of the finest things about her was the fact that she never, for an instant, used her situation as a means of enhancing her attraction. With a husband like Trant it would have been so easy! He was a man who always saw the small sides of big things. He thought most of life compressible into a set of by-laws and the rest unmentionable; and with his stiff frock-coated and tall-hatted mind, instinctively distrustful of intelligences in another dress, with his arbitrary classification of whatever he didn’t understand into ‘the kind of thing I don’t approve of,’ ‘the kind of thing that isn’t done,’ and — deepest depth of all — ‘the kind of thing I’d rather not discuss,’ he lived in bondage to a shadowy moral etiquette of which the complex rites and awful penalties had cast an abiding gloom upon his manner.

“A woman like his wife couldn’t have asked a better foil; yet I’m sure she never consciously used his dullness to relieve her brilliancy. She may have felt that the case spoke for itself. But I believe her reserve was rather due to a lively sense of justice, and to the rare habit (you said she was rare) of looking at facts as they are, without any throwing of sentimental lime-lights. She knew Trant could no more help being Trant than she could help being herself — and there was an end of it. I’ve never known a woman who ‘made up’ so little mentally. . . .

“Perhaps her very reserve, the fierceness of her implicit rejection of sympathy, exposed her the more to — well, to what happened when we met. She said afterward that it was like having been shut up for months in the hold of a ship, and coming suddenly on deck on a day that was all flying blue and silver. . . .

“I won’t try to tell you what she was. It’s easier to tell you what her friendship made of me; and I can do that best by adopting her metaphor of the ship. Haven’t you, sometimes, at the moment of starting on a journey, some glorious plunge into the unknown, been tripped up by the thought: ‘If only one hadn’t to come back’? Well, with her one had the sense that one would never have to come back; that the magic ship, would always carry one farther. And what an air one breathed on it! And, oh, the wind, and the islands, and the sunsets!

“I said just now ‘her friendship’; and I used the word advisedly. Love is deeper than friendship, but friendship is a good deal wider. The beauty of our relation was that it included both dimensions. Our thoughts met as naturally as our eyes: it was almost as if we loved each other because we liked each other. The quality of a love may be tested by the amount of friendship it contains, and in our case there was no dividing line between loving and liking, no disproportion between them, no barrier against which desire beat in vain or from which thought fell back unsatisfied. Ours was a robust passion that could give an open-eyed account of itself, and not a beautiful madness shrinking away from the proof. . . .

“For the first months friendship sufficed us, or rather gave us so much by the way that we were in no hurry to reach what we knew it was leading to. But we were moving there nevertheless, and one day we found ourselves on the borders. It came about through a sudden decision of Trant’s to start on a long tour with his wife. We had never foreseen that: he seemed rooted in his New York habits and convinced that the whole social and financial machinery of the metropolis would cease to function if he did not keep an eye on it through the columns of his morning paper, and pronounce judgment on it in the afternoon at his club. But something new had happened to him: he caught a cold, which was followed by a touch of pleurisy, and instantly he perceived the intense interest and importance which ill-health may add to life. He took the fullest advantage of it. A discerning doctor recommended travel in a warm climate; and suddenly, the morning paper, the afternoon club, Fifth Avenue, Wall Street, all the complex phenomena of the metropolis, faded into insignificance, and the rest of the terrestrial globe, from being a mere geographical hypothesis, useful in enabling one to determine the latitude of New York, acquired reality and magnitude as a factor in the convalescence of Mr. Philip Trant.

“His wife was absorbed in preparations for the journey. To move him was like mobilizing an army, and weeks before the date set for their departure it was almost as if she were already gone.

“This foretaste of separation showed us what we were to each other. Yet I was letting her go — and there was no help for it, no way of preventing it. Resistance was as useless as the vain struggles in a nightmare. She was Trant’s and not mine: part of his luggage when he travelled as she was part of his household furniture when he stayed at home. . . .

“The day she told me that their passages were taken — it was on a November afternoon, in her drawing-room in town — I turned away from her and, going to the window, stood looking out at the torrent of traffic interminably pouring down Fifth Avenue. I watched the senseless machinery of life revolving in the rain and mud, and tried to picture myself performing my small function in it after she had gone from me.

“‘It can’t be — it can’t be!’ I exclaimed.

“‘What can’t be?’

“I came back into the room and sat down by her. ‘This — this — ’ I hadn’t any words. ‘Two weeks!’ I said. ‘What’s two weeks?”

“She answered, vaguely, something about their thinking of Spain for the spring —

“‘Two weeks — two weeks!’ I repeated. ‘And the months we’ve lost — the days that belonged to us!’

“‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I’m thankful it’s settled.’

“Our words seemed irrelevant, haphazard. It was as if each were answering a secret voice, and not what the other was saying.

“‘Don’t you feel anything at all?’ I remember bursting out at her. As I asked it the tears were streaming down her face. I felt angry with her, and was almost glad to note that her lids were red and that she didn’t cry becomingly. I can’t express my sensation to you except by saying that she seemed part of life’s huge league against me. And suddenly I thought of an afternoon we had spent together in the country, on a ferny hill-side, when we had sat under a beech-tree, and her hand had lain palm upward in the moss, close to mine, and I had watched a little black-and-red beetle creeping over it. . . .

“The bell rang, and we heard the voice of a visitor and the click of an umbrella in the umbrella-stand.

“She rose to go into the inner drawing-room, and I caught her suddenly by the wrist. ‘You understand,’ I said, ‘that we can’t go on like this?’

“‘I understand,’ she answered, and moved away to meet her visitor. As I went out I heard her saying in the other room: ‘Yes, we’re really off on the twelfth.’”

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