The Mother's Recompense, by Edith Wharton

Book I

I

Kate Clephane was wakened, as usual, by the slant of Riviera sun across her bed. It was the thing she liked best about her shabby cramped room in the third-rate Hôtel de Minorque et de l’Univers: that the morning sun came in at her window, and yet that it didn’t come too early.

No more sunrises for Kate Clephane. They were associated with too many lost joys — coming home from balls where one had danced one’s self to tatters, or from suppers where one had lingered, counting one’s winnings (it was wonderful, in the old days, how often she had won, or friends had won for her, staking a louis just for fun, and cramming her hands with thousand franc bills); associated, too, with the scramble up hill through the whitening gray of the garden, flicked by scented shrubs, caught on perfidious prickles, up to the shuttered villa askew on its heat-soaked rock — and then, at the door, in the laurustinus-shade that smelt of honey, that unexpected kiss (well honestly, yes, unexpected, since it had long been settled that one was to remain “just friends”); and the pulling away from an insistent arm, and the one more pressure on hers of lips young enough to be fresh after a night of drinking and play and more drinking. And she had never let Chris come in with her at that hour, no, not once, though at the time there was only Julie the cook in the house, and goodness knew . . . Oh, but she had always had her pride — people ought to remember THAT when they said such things about her . . .

That was what the sunrise reminded Kate Clephane of — as she supposed it did most women of forty-two or so (or was it really forty-four last week?). For nearly twenty years now she had lived chiefly with women of her own kind, and she no longer very sincerely believed there were any others, that is to say among women properly so called. Her female world was made up of three categories: frumps, hypocrites and the “good sort” — like herself. After all, the last was the one she preferred to be in.

Not that she could not picture another life — if only one had met the right man at the right hour. She remembered her one week — that tiny little week of seven days, just six years ago — when she and Chris had gone together to a lost place in Normandy where there wasn’t a railway within ten miles, and you had to drive in the farmer’s cart to the farm-house smothered in apple-blossoms; and Chris and she had gone off every morning for the whole day, while he sketched by willowy river-banks, and under the flank of mossy village churches; and every day for seven days she had watched the farmyard life waking at dawn under their windows, while she dashed herself with cold water and did her hair and touched up her face before he was awake, because the early light is so pitiless after thirty. She remembered it all, and how sure she had been then that she was meant to live on a farm and keep chickens; just as sure as he was that he was meant to be a painter, and would already have made a name if his parents hadn’t called him back to Baltimore and shoved him into a broker’s office after Harvard — to have him off their minds, as he said.

Yes, she could still picture that kind of life: every fibre in her kept its glow. But she didn’t believe in it; she knew now that “things didn’t happen like that” for long, that reality and durability were attributes of the humdrum, the prosaic and the dreary. And it was to escape from reality and durability that one plunged into cards, gossip, flirtation, and all the artificial excitements which society so lavishly provides for people who want to forget.

She and Chris had never repeated that week. He had never suggested doing so, and had let her hints fall unheeded, or turned them off with a laugh, whenever she tried, with shy tentative allusions, to coax him back to the idea; for she had found out early that one could never ask him anything point-blank — it just put his back up, as he said himself. One had to manoeuvre and wait; but when didn’t a woman have to manoeuvre and wait? Ever since she had left her husband, eighteen years ago, what else had she ever done? Sometimes, nowadays, waking alone and unrefreshed in her dreary hotel room, she shivered at the memory of all the scheming, planning, ignoring, enduring, accepting, which had led her in the end to — this.

Ah, well —

“Aline!”

After all, there was the sun in her window, there was the triangular glimpse of blue wind-bitten sea between the roofs, and a new day beginning, and hot chocolate coming, and a new hat to try on at the milliner’s, and —

“ALINE!”

She had come to this cheap hotel just in order to keep her maid. One couldn’t afford everything, especially since the war, and she preferred veal for dinner every night to having to do her own mending and dress her hair: the unmanageable abundant hair which had so uncannily survived her youth, and sometimes, in her happier moods, made her feel that perhaps, after all, in the eyes of her friends, other of its attributes survived also. And besides, it looked better for a lone woman who, after having been thirty-nine for a number of years, had suddenly become forty-four, to have a respectable-looking servant in the background; to be able, for instance, when one arrived in new places, to say to supercilious hotel-clerks: “My maid is following with the luggage.”

“ALINE!”

Aline, ugly, neat and enigmatic, appeared with the breakfast-tray. A delicious scent preceded her.

Mrs. Clephane raised herself on a pink elbow, shook her hair over her shoulders, and exclaimed: “Violets?”

Aline permitted herself her dry smile. “From a gentleman.”

Colour flooded her mistress’s face. Hadn’t she known that something good was going to happen to her that morning — hadn’t she felt it in every touch of the sunshine, as its golden finger-tips pressed her lids open and wound their way through her hair? She supposed she was superstitious. She laughed expectantly.

“A gentleman?”

“The little lame boy with the newspapers that Madame was kind to,” the maid continued, arranging the tray with her spare Taylorized gestures.

“Oh, poor child!” Mrs. Clephane’s voice had a quaver which she tried to deflect to the lame boy, though she knew how impossible it was to deceive Aline. Of course Aline knew everything — well, yes, that was the other side of the medal. She often said to her mistress: “Madame is too much alone — Madame ought to make some new friends — ” and what did that mean, except that Aline knew she had lost the old ones?

But it was characteristic of Kate that, after a moment, the quaver in her voice did instinctively tilt in the direction of the lame boy who sold newspapers; and when the tears reached her eyes it was over his wistful image, and not her own, that they flowed. She had a way of getting desperately fond of people she had been kind to, and exaggeratedly touched by the least sign of their appreciation. It was her weakness — or her strength: she wondered which?

“Poor, poor little chap. But his mother’ll beat him if she finds out. Aline, you must hunt him up this very day and pay back what the flowers must have cost him.” She lifted the violets and pressed them to her face. As she did so she caught sight of a telegram beneath them.

A telegram — for her? It didn’t often happen nowadays. But after all there was no reason why it shouldn’t happen once again — at least once. There was no reason why, this very day, this day on which the sunshine had waked her with such a promise, there shouldn’t be a message at last, the message for which she had waited for two years, three years; yes, exactly three years and one month — just a word from him to say: “TAKE ME BACK.”

She snatched up the telegram, and then turned her head toward the wall, seeking, while she read, to hide her face from Aline. The maid, on whom such hints were never lost, immediately transferred her attention to the dressing-table, skilfully deploying the glittering troops on that last battlefield where the daily struggle still renewed itself.

Aline’s eyes averted, her mistress tore open the blue fold and read: “Mrs. Clephane dead — ”

A shiver ran over her. MRS. CLEPHANE DEAD? Not if Mrs. Clephane knew it! Never more alive than today, with the sun crisping her hair, the violet scent enveloping her, and that jolly north-west gale rioting out there on the Mediterranean. What was the meaning of this grim joke?

The first shock over, she read on more calmly and understood. It was the other Mrs. Clephane who was dead: the one who used to be her mother-in-law. Her first thought was: “Well, serve her right” — since, if it was so desirable to be alive on such a morning it must be correspondingly undesirable to be dead, and she could draw the agreeable conclusion that the other Mrs. Clephane had at last been come up with — oh, but thoroughly.

She lingered awhile on this pleasing fancy, and then began to reach out to wider inferences. “But if — but if — but little Anne — ”

At the murmur of the name her eyes filled again. For years now she had barricaded her heart against her daughter’s presence; and here it was, suddenly in possession again, crowding out everything else, yes, effacing even Chris as though he were the thinnest of ghosts, and the cable in her hand a cockcrow. “But perhaps now they’ll let me see her,” the mother thought.

She didn’t even know who “they” were, now that their formidable chieftain, her mother-in-law, was dead. Lawyers, judges, trustees, guardians, she supposed — all the natural enemies of woman. She wrinkled her brows, trying to remember who, at the death of the child’s father, had been appointed the child’s other guardian — old Mrs. Clephane’s overpowering assumption of the office having so completely effaced her associate that it took a few minutes to fish him up out of the far-off past.

“Why, poor old Fred Landers, of course!” She smiled retrospectively. “I don’t believe he’d prevent my seeing the child if he were left to himself. Besides, isn’t she nearly grown up? Why, I do believe she must be.”

The telegram fell from her hands, both of which she now impressed into a complicated finger-reckoning of how old little Anne must be, if Chris were thirty-three, as he certainly was — no, thirty-one, he couldn’t be more than thirty-one, because SHE, Kate, was only forty~two . . . yes, forty-two . . . and she’d always acknowledged to herself that there were nine years between them; no, eleven years, if she were really forty-two; yes, but was she? Or, goodness, was she actually forty-five? Well, then, if she was forty-five — just supposing it for a minute — and had married John Clephane at twenty~one, as she knew she had, and little Anne had been born the second summer afterward, then little Anne must be nearly twenty . . . why, quite twenty, wasn’t it? But then, how old would THAT make Chris? Oh, well, he MUST be older than he looked . . . she’d always thought he was. That boyish way of his, she had sometimes fancied, was put on to make her imagine there was a greater difference of age between them than there really was — a device he was perfectly capable of making use of for ulterior purposes. And of course she’d never been that dreadful kind of woman they called a “baby~snatcher” . . . But if Chris were thirty-one, and she forty-five, then how old WAS Anne?

With impatient fingers she began all over again.

The maid’s voice, seeming to come from a long way off, respectfully reminded her that the chocolate would be getting cold. Mrs. Clephane roused herself, looked about the room, and exclaimed: “My looking-glass, please.” She wanted to settle that question of ages.

As Aline approached with the glass there was a knock at the door. The maid went to it, and came back with her small inward smile.

“Another telegram.”

Another? This time Mrs. Clephane sat bolt upright. What could it be, now, but a word from him, a message at last? Oh, but she was ashamed of herself for thinking of such a thing at such a moment. Solitude had demoralized her, she supposed. And then her child was so far away, so invisible, so unknown — and Chris of a sudden had become so near and real again, though it was three whole years and one month since he had left her. And at her age — She opened the second message, trembling. Since Armistice Day her heart had not beat so hard.

“New York. Dearest mother,” it ran, “I want you to come home at once. I want you to come and live with me. Your daughter Anne.”

“You asked for the looking-glass, Madame,” Aline patiently reminded her.

Mrs. Clephane took the proffered glass, stared into it with eyes at first unseeing, and then gradually made out the reflection of her radiant irrepressible hair, a new smile on her lips, the first streak of gray on her temples, and the first tears — oh, she couldn’t remember for how long — running down over her transfigured face.

“Aline — ” The maid was watching her with narrowed eyes. “The Rachel powder, please — ”

Suddenly she dropped the glass and the powderpuff, buried her face in her hands, and sobbed.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/mothers_recompense/chapter1.html

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