The Mother's Recompense, by Edith Wharton

Book Three

XV

Fantastic shapes of heavy leaf-shadows on blinding whiteness. Torrents of blue and lilac and crimson foaming over the branches of unknown trees. Azure distances, snow-peaks, silver reefs, and an unbroken glare of dead-white sunshine merging into a moonlight hardly whiter. Was there never any night, real, black, obliterating, in all these dazzling latitudes in which two desperate women had sought refuge?

They had “travelled.” It had been very interesting; and Anne was better. Certainly she was much better. They were on their way home now, moving at a leisurely pace — what was there to return for? — from one scene of gorgeous unreality to another. And all the while Anne had never spoken — never really spoken! She had simply, a day or two after Mrs. Clephane’s furtive trip to Baltimore, told her mother that her engagement was broken: “by mutual agreement” were the stiff old-fashioned words she used. As no one else, even among their nearest, had been let into the secret of that fleeting bond, there was no one to whom explanations were due; and the girl, her curt confidence to her mother once made, had withdrawn instantly into the rigid reserve she had maintained ever since. Just so, in former days, Kate Clephane had seen old Mrs. Clephane meet calamity. After her favourite daughter’s death the old woman had never spoken her name. And thus with Anne; her soul seemed to freeze about its secret. Even the physical resemblance to old Mrs. Clephane reappeared, and with it a certain asperity of speech, a sharp intolerance of trifles, breaking every now and again upon long intervals of smiling apathy.

During their travels the girl was more than ever attentive to her mother; but her solicitude seemed the result of a lesson in manners inculcated long ago (with the rest of her creed) by old Mrs. Clephane. It was impossible for a creature so young and eager to pass unseeingly through the scenes of their journey; but it was clear that each momentary enthusiasm only deepened the inner pang. And from all participation in that hidden conflict between youth and suffering the mother continued to feel herself shut out.

Nevertheless, she began to imagine that time was working its usual miracle. Anne’s face was certainly less drawn — Anne’s manner perhaps a shade less guarded. Lately she had begun to sketch again . . . she had suggested one day their crossing from Rio to Marseilles, continuing their wanderings in the Mediterranean . . . had spoken of Egypt and Crete for the winter . . .

Mrs. Clephane acquiesced, bought guide-books, read up furtively, and tried to temper zeal with patience. It would not do to seem too eager; she held her breath, waiting on her daughter’s moods, and praying for the appearance of the “some one else” whose coming mothers invoke in such contingencies. That very afternoon, sitting on the hotel balcony above a sea of flowers, she had suffered herself to wonder if Anne, who was off on a long riding excursion with a party of young people, might not return with a different look, the clear happy look of the last year’s Anne. The young English planter to whose hacienda they had gone had certainly interested her more than any one they had hitherto met.

The mother, late that evening, was still alone on the balcony when, from behind her, Anne’s shadow fell across the moonlight. The girl dropped into a seat. No, she wasn’t tired — wasn’t hungry — they had supped, on the way back, at a glorious place high up over Rio. Yes, the day had been wonderful; the beauty incredible; and the moonlit descent through the forest . . . Anne lapsed into silence, her profile turned from her mother. Perhaps — who could tell? Her silence seemed heavy with promise. Suddenly she put out a hand to Kate.

“Mother, I want to make over all my money to you. It would have been yours if things had been different. It IS yours, really; and I don’t want it — I hate it!” Her hand was trembling.

Mrs. Clephane trembled too. “But, Anne — how absurd! What can it matter? What difference can it make?”

“All the difference.” The girl lowered her voice. “It’s because I was too rich that he wouldn’t marry me.” It broke from her in a sob. “I can’t bear it — I can’t bear it!” She stretched her hand to the silver splendours beneath them. “All this beauty and glory in the world — and nothing in me but cold and darkness!”

Kate Clephane sat speechless. She remembered just such flashes of wild revolt in her own youth, when sea and earth and sky seemed joined in a vast conspiracy of beauty, and within her too all was darkness. For months she had been praying for this hour of recovered communion with her daughter; yet now that it had come, now that the barriers were down, she felt powerless to face what was beyond. If it had been any other man! Paralysed by the fact that it was just that one, she continued to sit silent, her hand on Anne’s sunken head.

“Why should you think it’s the money?” she whispered at last, to gain time.

“I know it — I know it! He told Nollie once that nothing would induce him to marry a girl with a fortune. He thought it an impossible position for a poor man.”

“Did he tell YOU so?”

“Not in so many words. But it was easy to guess. When he wrote to . . . to give me back my freedom, he said he’d been mad to think we might marry . . . that it was impossible . . . there would always be an obstacle between us . . .” The girl lifted her head, her agonized eyes on her mother’s. “What obstacle could there be but my money?”

Kate Clephane had turned as cold as marble. At the word “obstacle” she stood up, almost pushing the girl from her. In that searching moonlight, what might not Anne read in her eyes?

“Come indoors, dear,” she said.

Anne followed her mechanically. In the high-ceilinged shadowy room Mrs. Clephane sat down in a wooden rocking-chair and the girl stood before her, tall and ghostly in her white linen riding-habit, the dark hair damp on her forehead.

“Come and sit by me, Anne.”

“No. I want you to answer me first — to promise.”

“But, my dear, what you suggest is madness. How can I promise such a thing? And why should it make any difference? Why should any man be humiliated by the fact of marrying a girl with money?”

“Ah, but Chris is different! You don’t know him.”

The mother locked her hands about the chair-arms. She sat looking down at the bare brick floor of the room, and at Anne’s two feet, slim and imperious, planted just before her in an attitude of challenge, of resistance. She did not dare to raise her eyes higher. “I DON’T KNOW HIM!” she repeated to herself.

“Mother, answer me — you’ve got to answer me!” The girl’s low~pitched voice had grown shrill; her swaying tall white presence seemed to disengage some fiery fluid. Kate Clephane suddenly recalled the baby Anne’s lightning-flashes of rage, and understood what reserves of violence still underlay her daughter’s calm exterior.

“How can I answer? I know what you’re suffering — but I can’t pretend to think that what you propose would make any difference.”

“You don’t think it was the money?”

Kate Clephane drew a deep breath, and clasped the chair-arms tighter. “No.”

“What WAS it, then?” Anne had once more sunk on her knees beside her mother. “I can’t bear not to know. I can’t bear it an hour longer,” she gasped out.

“It’s hard, dear . . . I know how hard . . .” Kate put her arms about the shuddering body.

“What shall I do, mother? I’ve written, and he doesn’t answer. I’ve written three times. And yet I know — ”

“You know?”

“He DID love me, mother.”

“Yes, dear.

“And there wasn’t any one else; I know that too.”

“Yes.”

“No one else that he cared about . . . or who had any claim . . . I asked him that before I promised to marry him.”

“Then, dear, there’s nothing more to say — or to do. You can only conclude that he gave you back your freedom because he wanted his.”

“But it was all so quick! How can anybody love one day, and not the next?”

Kate winced. “It does happen so — sometimes.”

“I don’t believe it — not of him and me! And there WAS the money; I know that. Mother, let me try; let me tell him that you’ve agreed to take it all back; that I shall have only the allowance you choose to make me.”

Mrs. Clephane again sat silent, with lowered head. She had not foreseen this torture.

“Don’t you think, dear, as you’ve written three times and had no answer, that you’d better wait? Better try to forget?”

The girl shook herself free and stood up with a tragic laugh. “You don’t know me either, mother!”

That word was crueller than the other; the mother shrank from it as if she had received a blow.

“I do know that, in such cases, there’s never any remedy but one. If your courage fails you, there’s your pride.”

“My pride? What’s pride, if one cares? I’d do anything to get him back. I only want you to do what I ask!”

Kate Clephane rose to her feet also. Her own pride seemed suddenly to start up from its long lethargy, and she looked almost defiantly at her defiant daughter.

“I can’t do what you ask.”

“You won’t?”

“I can’t.”

“You want me to go on suffering, then? You want to kill me?” The girl was close to her, in a white glare of passion. “Ah, it’s true — why should you care what happens to me? After all, we’re only strangers to each other.”

Kate Clephane’s first thought was: “I mustn’t let her see how it hurts — ” not because of the fear of increasing her daughter’s suffering, but to prevent her finding out how she could inflict more pain. Anne, at that moment, looked as if the discovery would have been exquisite to her.

The mother dared not speak; she feared her whole agony would break from her with her first word. The two stood facing each other for a moment; then Mrs. Clephane put her hand out blindly. But the girl turned from it with a fierce “Don’t!” that seemed to thrust her mother still farther from her, and swept out of the room without a look.

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