The Long Run, by Edith Wharton

IV

“I wrote her a long letter that night, and waited two days for a reply.

“On the third day I had a brief line saying that she was going to spend Sunday with some friends who had a place near Riverdale, and that she would arrange to see me while she was there. That was all.

“It was on a Saturday that I received the note and I came out here the same night. The next morning was rainy, and I was in despair, for I had counted on her asking me to take her for a drive or a long walk. It was hopeless to try to say what I had to say to her in the drawing-room of a crowded country-house. And only eleven days were left!

“I stayed indoors all the morning, fearing to go out lest she should telephone me. But no sign came, and I grew more and more restless and anxious. She was too free and frank for coquetry, but her silence and evasiveness made me feel that, for some reason, she did not wish to hear what she knew I meant to say. Could it be that she was, after all, more conventional, less genuine, than I had thought? I went again and again over the whole maddening round of conjecture; but the only conclusion I could rest in was that, if she loved me as I loved her, she would be as determined as I was to let no obstacle come between us during the days that were left.

“The luncheon-hour came and passed, and there was no word from her. I had ordered my trap to be ready, so that I might drive over as soon as she summoned me; but the hours dragged on, the early twilight came, and I sat here in this very chair, or measured up and down, up and down, the length of this very rug — and still there was no message and no letter.

“It had grown quite dark, and I had ordered away, impatiently, the servant who came in with the lamps: I couldn’t bear any definite sign that the day was over! And I was standing there on the rug, staring at the door, and noticing a bad crack in its panel, when I heard the sound of wheels on the gravel. A word at last, no doubt — a line to explain. . . . I didn’t seem to care much for her reasons, and I stood where I was and continued to stare at the door. And suddenly it opened and she came in.

“The servant followed her with a light, and then went out and closed the door. Her face looked pale in the lamplight, but her voice was as clear as a bell.

“‘Well,’ she said, ‘you see I’ve come.’

“I started toward her with hands outstretched. ‘You’ve come — you’ve come!’ I stammered.

“Yes; it was like her to come in that way — without dissimulation or explanation or excuse. It was like her, if she gave at all, to give not furtively or in haste, but openly, deliberately, without stinting the measure or counting the cost. But her quietness and serenity disconcerted me. She did not look like a woman who has yielded impetuously to an uncontrollable impulse. There was something almost solemn in her face.

“The effect of it stole over me as I looked at her, suddenly subduing the huge flush of gratified longing.

“‘You’re here, here, here!’ I kept repeating, like a child singing over a happy word.

“‘You said,’ she continued, in her grave clear voice, ‘that we couldn’t go on as we were — ’

“‘Ah, it’s divine of you!’ I held out my arms to her.

“She didn’t draw back from them, but her faint smile said, ‘Wait,’ and lifting her hands she took the pins from her hat, and laid the hat on the table.

“As I saw her dear head bare in the lamp-light, with the thick hair waving away from the parting, I forgot everything but the bliss and wonder of her being here — here, in my house, on my hearth — that fourth rose from the corner of the rug is the exact spot where she was standing. . . .

“I drew her to the fire, and made her sit down in the chair you’re in, and knelt down by her, and hid my face on her knees. She put her hand on my head, and I was happy to the depths of my soul.

“‘Oh, I forgot — ’ she exclaimed suddenly. I lifted my head and our eyes met. Hers were smiling.

“She reached out her hand, opened the little bag she had tossed down with her hat, and drew a small object from it. ‘I left my trunk at the station. Here’s the check. Can you send for it?’ she asked.

“Her trunk — she wanted me to send for her trunk! Oh, yes — I see your smile, your ‘lucky man!’ Only, you see, I didn’t love her in that way. I knew she couldn’t come to my house without running a big risk of discovery, and my tenderness for her, my impulse to shield her, was stronger, even then, than vanity or desire. Judged from the point of view of those emotions I fell terribly short of my part. I hadn’t any of the proper feelings. Such an act of romantic folly was so unlike her that it almost irritated me, and I found myself desperately wondering how I could get her to reconsider her plan without — well, without seeming to want her to.

“It’s not the way a novel hero feels; it’s probably not the way a man in real life ought to have felt. But it’s the way I felt — and she saw it.

“She put her hands on my shoulders and looked at me with deep, deep eyes. ‘Then you didn’t expect me to stay?’ she asked.

“I caught her hands and pressed them to me, stammering out that I hadn’t dared to dream. . . .

“‘You thought I’d come — just for an hour?’

“‘How could I dare think more? I adore you, you know, for what you’ve done! But it would be known if you — if you stayed on. My servants — everybody about here knows you. I’ve no right to expose you to the risk.’ She made no answer, and I went on tenderly: ‘Give me, if you will, the next few hours: there’s a train that will get you to town by midnight. And then we’ll arrange something — in town — where it’s safer for you — more easily managed. . . . It’s beautiful, it’s heavenly of you to have come; but I love you too much — I must take care of you and think for you — ’

“I don’t suppose it ever took me so long to say so few words, and though they were profoundly sincere they sounded unutterably shallow, irrelevant and grotesque. She made no effort to help me out, but sat silent, listening, with her meditative smile. ‘It’s my duty, dearest, as a man,’ I rambled on. The more I love you the more I’m bound — ’

“‘Yes; but you don’t understand,’ she interrupted.

“She rose as she spoke, and I got up also, and we stood and looked at each other.

“‘I haven’t come for a night; if you want me I’ve come for always,’ she said.

“Here again, if I give you an honest account of my feelings I shall write myself down as the poor-spirited creature I suppose I am. There wasn’t, I swear, at the moment, a grain of selfishness, of personal reluctance, in my feeling. I worshipped every hair of her head — when we were together I was happy, when I was away from her something was gone from every good thing; but I had always looked on our love for each other, our possible relation to each other, as such situations are looked on in what is called society. I had supposed her, for all her freedom and originality, to be just as tacitly subservient to that view as I was: ready to take what she wanted on the terms on which society concedes such taking, and to pay for it by the usual restrictions, concealments and hypocrisies. In short, I supposed that she would ‘play the game’ — look out for her own safety, and expect me to look out for it. It sounds cheap enough, put that way — but it’s the rule we live under, all of us. And the amazement of finding her suddenly outside of it, oblivious of it, unconscious of it, left me, for an awful minute, stammering at her like a graceless dolt. . . . Perhaps it wasn’t even a minute; but in it she had gone the whole round of my thoughts.

“‘It’s raining,’ she said, very low. ‘I suppose you can telephone for a trap?’

“There was no irony or resentment in her voice. She walked slowly across the room and paused before the Brangwyn etching over there. ‘That’s a good impression. Will you telephone, please?’ she repeated.

“I found my voice again, and with it the power of movement. I followed her and dropped at her feet. ‘You can’t go like this!’ I cried.

“She looked down on me from heights and heights. ‘I can’t stay like this,’ she answered.

“I stood up and we faced each other like antagonists. ‘You don’t know,’ I accused her passionately, ‘in the least what you’re asking me to ask of you!’

“‘Yes, I do: everything,’ she breathed.

“‘And it’s got to be that or nothing?’

“‘Oh, on both sides,’ she reminded me.

“‘Not on both sides. It’s not fair. That’s why — ’

“‘Why you won’t?’

“‘Why I cannot — may not!’

“‘Why you’ll take a night and not a life?’

“The taunt, for a woman usually so sure of her aim, fell so short of the mark that its only effect was to increase my conviction of her helplessness. The very intensity of my longing for her made me tremble where she was fearless. I had to protect her first, and think of my own attitude afterward.

“She was too discerning not to see this too. Her face softened, grew inexpressibly appealing, and she dropped again into that chair you’re in, leaned forward, and looked up with her grave smile.

“‘You think I’m beside myself — raving? (You’re not thinking of yourself, I know.) I’m not: I never was saner. Since I’ve known you I’ve often thought this might happen. This thing between us isn’t an ordinary thing. If it had been we shouldn’t, all these months, have drifted. We should have wanted to skip to the last page — and then throw down the book. We shouldn’t have felt we could trust the future as we did. We were in no hurry because we knew we shouldn’t get tired; and when two people feel that about each other they must live together — or part. I don’t see what else they can do. A little trip along the coast won’t answer. It’s the high seas — or else being tied up to Lethe wharf. And I’m for the high seas, my dear!’

“Think of sitting here — here, in this room, in this chair — and listening to that, and seeing the tight on her hair, and hearing the sound of her voice! I don’t suppose there ever was a scene just like it. . . .

“She was astounding — inexhaustible; through all my anguish of resistance I found a kind of fierce joy in following her. It was lucidity at white heat: the last sublimation of passion. She might have been an angel arguing a point in the empyrean if she hadn’t been, so completely, a woman pleading for her life. . . .

“Her life: that was the thing at stake! She couldn’t do with less of it than she was capable of; and a woman’s life is inextricably part of the man’s she cares for.

“That was why, she argued, she couldn’t accept the usual solution: couldn’t enter into the only relation that society tolerates between people situated like ourselves. Yes: she knew all the arguments on that side: didn’t I suppose she’d been over them and over them? She knew (for hadn’t she often said it of others?) what is said of the woman who, by throwing in her lot with her lover’s, binds him to a lifelong duty which has the irksomeness without the dignity of marriage. Oh, she could talk on that side with the best of them: only she asked me to consider the other — the side of the man and woman who love each other deeply and completely enough to want their lives enlarged, and not diminished, by their love. What, in such a case — she reasoned — must be the inevitable effect of concealing, denying, disowning, the central fact, the motive power of one’s existence? She asked me to picture the course of such a love: first working as a fever in the blood, distorting and deflecting everything, making all other interests insipid, all other duties irksome, and then, as the acknowledged claims of life regained their hold, gradually dying — the poor starved passion! — for want of the wholesome necessary food of common living and doing, yet leaving life impoverished by the loss of all it might have been.

“‘I’m not talking, dear — ’ I see her now, leaning toward me with shining eyes: ‘I’m not talking of the people who haven’t enough to fill their days, and to whom a little mystery, a little manoeuvring, gives an illusion of importance that they can’t afford to miss; I’m talking of you and me, with all our tastes and curiosities and activities; and I ask you what our love would become if we had to keep it apart from our lives, like a pretty useless animal that we went to peep at and feed with sweetmeats through its cage?’

“I won’t, my dear fellow, go into the other side of our strange duel: the arguments I used were those that most men in my situation would have felt bound to use, and that most women in Paulina’s accept instinctively, without even formulating them. The exceptionalness, the significance, of the case lay wholly in the fact that she had formulated them all and then rejected them. . . .

“There was one point I didn’t, of course, touch on; and that was the popular conviction (which I confess I shared) that when a man and a woman agree to defy the world together the man really sacrifices much more than the woman. I was not even conscious of thinking of this at the time, though it may have lurked somewhere in the shadow of my scruples for her; but she dragged it out into the daylight and held me face to face with it.

“‘Remember, I’m not attempting to lay down any general rule,’ she insisted; ‘I’m not theorizing about Man and Woman, I’m talking about you and me. How do I know what’s best for the woman in the next house? Very likely she’ll bolt when it would have been better for her to stay at home. And it’s the same with the man: he’ll probably do the wrong thing. It’s generally the weak heads that commit follies, when it’s the strong ones that ought to: and my point is that you and I are both strong enough to behave like fools if we want to. . . .

“‘Take your own case first — because, in spite of the sentimentalists, it’s the man who stands to lose most. You’ll have to give up the Iron Works: which you don’t much care about — because it won’t be particularly agreeable for us to live in New York: which you don’t care much about either. But you won’t be sacrificing what is called “a career.” You made up your mind long ago that your best chance of self-development, and consequently of general usefulness, lay in thinking rather than doing; and, when we first met, you were already planning to sell out your business, and travel and write. Well! Those ambitions are of a kind that won’t be harmed by your dropping out of your social setting. On the contrary, such work as you want to do ought to gain by it, because you’ll be brought nearer to life-as-it-is, in contrast to life-as-a-visiting-list. . . . ’

“She threw back her head with a sudden laugh. ‘And the joy of not having any more visits to make! I wonder if you’ve ever thought of that? Just at first, I mean; for society’s getting so deplorably lax that, little by little, it will edge up to us — you’ll see! I don’t want to idealize the situation, dearest, and I won’t conceal from you that in time we shall be called on. But, oh, the fun we shall have had in the interval! And then, for the first time we shall be able to dictate our own terms, one of which will be that no bores need apply. Think of being cured of all one’s chronic bores! We shall feel as jolly as people do after a successful operation.’

“I don’t know why this nonsense sticks in my mind when some of the graver things we said are less distinct. Perhaps it’s because of a certain iridescent quality of feeling that made her gaiety seem like sunshine through a shower. . . .

“‘You ask me to think of myself?’ she went on. ‘But the beauty of our being together will be that, for the first time, I shall dare to! Now I have to think of all the tedious trifles I can pack the days with, because I’m afraid — I’m afraid — to hear the voice of the real me, down below, in the windowless underground hole where I keep her. . . .

“‘Remember again, please, it’s not Woman, it’s Paulina Trant, I’m talking of. The woman in the next house may have all sorts of reasons — honest reasons — for staying there. There may be some one there who needs her badly: for whom the light would go out if she went. Whereas to Philip I’ve been simply — well, what New York was before he decided to travel: the most important thing in life till he made up his mind to leave it; and now merely the starting-place of several lines of steamers. Oh, I didn’t have to love you to know that! I only had to live with him. . . . If he lost his eye-glasses he’d think it was the fault of the eye-glasses; he’d really feel that the eyeglasses had been careless. And he’d be convinced that no others would suit him quite as well. But at the optician’s he’d probably be told that he needed something a little different, and after that he’d feel that the old eye-glasses had never suited him at all, and that that was their fault too. . . . ’

“At one moment — but I don’t recall when — I remember she stood up with one of her quick movements, and came toward me, holding out her arms. ‘Oh, my dear, I’m pleading for my life; do you suppose I shall ever want for arguments?’ she cried. . . .

“After that, for a bit, nothing much remains with me except a sense of darkness and of conflict. The one spot of daylight in my whirling brain was the conviction that I couldn’t — whatever happened — profit by the sudden impulse she had acted on, and allow her to take, in a moment of passion, a decision that was to shape her whole life. I couldn’t so much as lift my little finger to keep her with me then, unless I were prepared to accept for her as well as for myself the full consequences of the future she had planned for us. . . .

“Well — there’s the point: I wasn’t. I felt in her — poor fatuous idiot that I was! — that lack of objective imagination which had always seemed to me to account, at least in part, for many of the so-called heroic qualities in women. When their feelings are involved they simply can’t look ahead. Her unfaltering logic notwithstanding, I felt this about Paulina as I listened. She had a specious air of knowing where she was going, but she didn’t. She seemed the genius of logic and understanding, but the demon of illusion spoke through her lips. . . .

“I said just now that I hadn’t, at the outset, given my own side of the case a thought. It would have been truer to say that I hadn’t given it a separate thought. But I couldn’t think of her without seeing myself as a factor — the chief factor — in her problem, and without recognizing that whatever the experiment made of me, that it must fatally, in the end, make of her. If I couldn’t carry the thing through she must break down with me: we should have to throw our separate selves into the melting-pot of this mad adventure, and be ‘one’ in a terrible indissoluble completeness of which marriage is only an imperfect counterpart. . . .

“There could be no better proof of her extraordinary power over me, and of the way she had managed to clear the air of sentimental illusion, than the fact that I presently found myself putting this before her with a merciless precision of touch.

“‘If we love each other enough to do a thing like this, we must love each other enough to see just what it is we’re going to do.’

“So I invited her to the dissecting-table, and I see now the fearless eye with which she approached the cadaver. ‘For that’s what it is, you know,’ she flashed out at me, at the end of my long demonstration. ‘It’s a dead body, like all the instances and examples and hypothetical cases that ever were! What do you expect to learn from thai? The first great anatomist was the man who stuck his knife in a heart that was beating; and the only way to find out what doing a thing will be like is to do it!’

“She looked away from me suddenly, as if she were fixing her eyes on some vision on the outer rim of consciousness. ‘No: there’s one other way,’ she exclaimed; ‘and that is, not to do it! To abstain and refrain; and then see what we become, or what we don’t become, in the long run, and to draw our inferences. That’s the game that almost everybody about us is playing, I suppose; there’s hardly one of the dull people one meets at dinner who hasn’t had, just once, the chance of a berth on a ship that was off for the Happy Isles, and hasn’t refused it for fear of sticking on a sand-bank!

“‘I’m doing my best, you know,’ she continued, ‘to see the sequel as you see it, as you believe it’s your duty to me to see it. I know the instances you’re thinking of: the listless couples wearing out their lives in shabby watering places, and hanging on the favour of hotel acquaintances; or the proud quarrelling wretches shut up alone in a fine house because they’re too good for the only society they can get, and trying to cheat their boredom by squabbling with their tradesmen and spying on their servants. No doubt there are such cases; but I don’t recognize either of us in those dismal figures. Why, to do it would be to admit that our life, yours and mine, is in the people about us and not in ourselves; that we’re parasites and not self-sustaining creatures; and that the lives we’re leading now are so brilliant, full and satisfying that what we should have to give up would surpass even the blessedness of being together!’

“At that stage, I confess, the solid ground of my resistance began to give way under me. It was not that my convictions were shaken, but that she had swept me into a world whose laws were different, where one could reach out in directions that the slave of gravity hasn’t pictured. But at the same time my opposition hardened from reason into instinct. I knew it was her voice, and not her logic, that was unsettling me. I knew that if she’d written out her thesis and sent it me by post I should have made short work of it; and again the part of me which I called by all the finest names: my chivalry, my unselfishness, my superior masculine experience, cried out with one voice: ‘You can’t let a woman use her graces to her own undoing — you can’t, for her own sake, let her eyes convince you when her reasons don’t!’

“And then, abruptly, and for the first time, a doubt entered me: a doubt of her perfect moral honesty. I don’t know how else to describe my feeling that she wasn’t playing fair, that in coming to my house, in throwing herself at my head (I called things by their names), she had perhaps not so much obeyed an irresistible impulse as deeply, deliberately reckoned on the dissolvent effect of her generosity, her rashness and her beauty. . . .

“From the moment that this mean doubt raised its head in me I was once more the creature of all the conventional scruples: I was repeating, before the looking-glass of my self-consciousness, all the stereotyped gestures of the ‘man of honour.’ . . . Oh, the sorry figure I must have cut! You’ll understand my dropping the curtain on it as quickly as I can. . . .

“Yet I remember, as I made my point, being struck by its impressiveness. I was suffering and enjoying my own suffering. I told her that, whatever step we decided to take, I owed it to her to insist on its being taken soberly, deliberately —

“(‘No: it’s “advisedly,” isn’t it? Oh, I was thinking of the Marriage Service,’ she interposed with a faint laugh.)

“ — that if I accepted, there, on the spot, her headlong beautiful gift of herself, I should feel I had taken an unfair advantage of her, an advantage which she would be justified in reproaching me with afterward; that I was not afraid to tell her this because she was intelligent enough to know that my scruples were the surest proof of the quality of my love; that I refused to owe my happiness to an unconsidered impulse; that we must see each other again, in her own house, in less agitating circumstances, when she had had time to reflect on my words, to study her heart and look into the future. . . .

“The factitious exhilaration produced by uttering these beautiful sentiments did not last very long, as you may imagine. It fell, little by little, under her quiet gaze, a gaze in which there was neither contempt nor irony nor wounded pride, but only a tender wistfulness of interrogation; and I think the acutest point in my suffering was reached when she said, as I ended: ‘Oh; yes, of course I understand.’

“‘If only you hadn’t come to me here!’ I blurted out in the torture of my soul.

“She was on the threshold when I said it, and she turned and laid her hand gently on mine. ‘There was no other way,’ she said; and at the moment it seemed to me like some hackneyed phrase in a novel that she had used without any sense of its meaning.

“I don’t remember what I answered or what more we either of us said. At the end a desperate longing to take her in my arms and keep her with me swept aside everything else, and I went up to her, pleading, stammering, urging I don’t know what. . . . But she held me back with a quiet look, and went. I had ordered the carriage, as she asked me to; and my last definite recollection is of watching her drive off in the rain. . . .

“I had her promise that she would see me, two days later, at her house in town, and that we should then have what I called ‘a decisive talk’; but I don’t think that even at the moment I was the dupe of my phrase. I knew, and she knew, that the end had come. . . . ”

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