The Mother's Recompense, by Edith Wharton

Book Two

VIII

“Chris!” she said.

She felt herself trembling all over; then, abruptly, mysteriously, and in the very act of uttering his name, she ceased to tremble, and it came flooding in on her with a shock of wonder that the worst was already over — that at last she was going to be free.

“Well, well,” she heard him saying, in that round full voice which always became fuller and more melodious when it had any inner uncertainty to mask; and “If only,” she thought, “it doesn’t all come back when he laughs!”

He laughed. “I’m so glad . . . GLAD,” he reiterated, as if explaining; and with the laugh in her ears she still felt herself as lucidly, as incredibly remote from him.

“Glad?” she echoed, a little less sure of her speech than of her thoughts, and remembering how sometimes the smile in his eyes used to break up her words into little meaningless splinters that she could never put together again till he was gone.

“Of your good luck, I mean . . . I’ve heard, of course.” And now she had him, for the first time, actually reddening and stammering as she herself used to do, and catching at the splinters of his own words! Ah, the trick was done — she could even see, as they continued to face each other in the searching spring light, that he had reddened, thickened, hardened — as if the old Chris had been walled into this new one, and were not even looking at her out of the windows of his prison.

“My good luck?” she echoed again, while the truth still danced in her ears: the truth that she was free, free, free — away from him at last, far enough off to see him and judge him!

It must have been his bad taste — the bad taste that could lead him into such an opening as that — which, from the very first, she had felt in him, and tried not to feel, even when she was worshipping him most blindly.

But, after all, if she felt so free, why be so cruel? Ah, because the terror was still there — it had only shifted its ground. What frightened her now was not the thought of their past but of their future. And she must not let him see that it frightened her. What had his last words been? Ah, yes — . She answered: “Of course I’m very happy to be at home again.”

He lowered his voice to murmur: “And I’m happy FOR you.”

Yes; she remembered now; it was always in emotional moments that his tact failed him, his subtlety vanished, and he seemed to be reciting speeches learned by heart out of some sentimental novel — the very kind he was so clever at ridiculing.

They continued to stand facing each other, their inspiration spent, as if waiting for the accident that had swept them together to whirl them apart again.

Suddenly she risked (since it was better to know): “So you’re living now in New York?”

He shook his head with an air of melancholy. “No such luck. I’m back in Baltimore again. Come full circle. For a time, after the war, I was on a newspaper there; interviewing film-stars and base~ball fans and female prohibitionists. Then I tried to run a Country Club — awful job! All book-keeping, and rows between members. Now Horace Maclew has taken pity on me; I’m what I suppose you’d call his private secretary. No eight-hour day: he keeps me pretty close. It’s only once in a blue moon I can get away.”

She felt her tightened heart dilating. Baltimore wasn’t very far away; but it was far enough as long as he had anything to keep him there. She knew about Horace Maclew, an elderly wealthy bibliophile and philanthropist, with countless municipal and social interests in his own town, and a big country-place just outside it. No; Mr. Maclew’s private secretary was not likely to have many holidays. But how long would Chris resign himself to such drudgery? She wanted to be kind and say: “And your painting? Your writing?” but she didn’t dare. Besides, he had probably left both phases far behind him, and there was no need, really, for her to concern herself with his new hobbies, whatever they might be. Of course she knew that he and she would have to stand there staring at one another till she made a gesture of dismissal; but on what note was she to make it? The natural thing (since she felt so safe and easy with him) would have been to say: “The next time you’re in town you must be sure to look me up — ”. But, with him, how could one be certain of not having such a suggestion taken literally? Now that he had seen she was not afraid of him he would probably not be afraid of HER; if he wanted a good dinner, or an evening at the Opera, he’d be as likely as not to call her up and ask for it.

And suddenly, as they hung there, she caught, over his shoulder, a glimpse of another figure just turning into the Park from the same direction; Anne, with her quick step, her intent inward air, as she always moved and looked when she had just left her easel. In another moment Anne would be upon them.

Mrs. Clephane held out her hand: for a fraction of a second it lay in his. “Well, goodbye; I’m glad to know you’ve got a job that must be so interesting.”

“Oh — interesting!” He dismissed it with a gesture. “But I’m glad to see you,” he added; “just to SEE you,” with a clever shifting of the emphasis. He paused a moment, and then risked a smile. “You don’t look a day older, you know.”

She threw her head back with an answering smile. “Why should I, when I feel years younger?”

Thank heaven, an approaching group of people must have obstructed her daughter’s view! Mrs. Clephane hurried on, wanting to put as much distance as she could between herself and Chris’s retreating figure before she came up with her daughter. When she did, she plunged straight into the girl’s eyes, and saw that they were still turned on her inward vision. “Dearest,” she cried gaily, “I can see by your look that you’ve been doing a good day’s work.”

Anne’s soul rose slowly to the surface, shining out between deep lashes. “How do you know, I wonder? I suppose you must have been a great deal with somebody who painted. For a long time afterward one carries the thing about with one wherever one goes.” She slipped her arm in Kate’s, and turned unresistingly as the latter guided her back toward Fifth Avenue.

“It’s dusty in the Park, and I feel as if I wanted a quick walk home. I like Fifth Avenue when the lights are just coming out,” Mrs. Clephane explained.

All night long she lay awake in the great bed of the Clephane spare~room, and stared at Chris. While they still faced each other — and after her first confused impression of his having thickened and reddened — she had seen him only through the blur of her fears and tremors. Even after they had parted, and she was walking home with Anne, the shock of the encounter still tingling in her, he remained far off, almost imponderable, less close and importunate than her memories of him. It was as if his actual presence had exorcised his ghost. But now —

He had not vanished; he had only been waiting. Waiting till she was alone in her room in the sleeping house, in the unheeding city. How alone, she had never more acutely felt. Who on earth was there to intervene between them, when there was not a soul to whom she could even breathe that she had met him? She lay in the darkness with terrified staring eyes, and there he stood, his smile deriding her — a strange composite figure, made equally of the old Chris and the new . . .

It was of no use to shut her eyes; he was between lid and ball. It was of no use to murmur disjointed phrases to herself, conjure him away with the language of her new life, with allusions and incantations unknown to him; he just stood there and waited. Well, then — she would face it out now, would deal with him! But how? What was he to her, and what did he want of her?

Yes: it all came to the question of what he wanted; it always had. When had there ever been a question of what SHE wanted? He took what he chose from life, gathered and let drop and went on: it was the artist’s way, he told her. But what could he possibly want of her now, and why did she imagine that he wanted anything, when by his own showing he was so busy and so provided for?

She pulled herself together, suddenly ashamed of her own thoughts. In pity for herself she would have liked to draw the old tattered glamour over him; but there must always have been rents and cracks in it, and now it couldn’t by any tugging be made to cover him. No; she didn’t love him any longer; she was sure of that. Like a traveller who has just skirted an abyss, she could lean over without dizziness and measure the depth into which she had not fallen. But if that were so, why was she so afraid of him? If it were a mere question of her own social safety, a mean dread of having her past suspected, why, she was more ashamed of that than of having loved him. She would almost rather have endured the misery of still loving him than of seeing what he and she looked like, now that the tide had ebbed from them. She had been a coward; she had been stiff and frightened and conventional, when, from the vantage-ground of her new security, she could so easily have been friendly and generous; she felt like rushing out into the streets to find him, to speak to him as she ought to have spoken, to tell . . .

And yet she WAS! She supposed it was the old incalculable element in him, that profound fundamental difference in their natures which used to make their closest nearness seem more like a spell than a reality. She understood now that if she had always been afraid of him it was just because she could never tell what she was afraid of . . .

If only there had been some one to whom she could confess herself, some one who would laugh away her terrors! Fred Landers? But she would frighten him more than he reassured her. And the others — the kindly approving family? What would they do but avert their eyes and beg her to be reasonable and remember her daughter? Well — and her daughter, then? And Anne? Was there any one on earth but Anne who would understand her?

The oppression of the night and the silence, and the rumour of her own fears, were becoming intolerable. She could not endure them any longer. She jumped up, flung on her dressing-gown, and stole out of her room. The corridor was empty and obscure; only a faint light from the lower hall cast its reflection upward on the ceiling of the stairs. From below came the pompous tick of the hall clock, as loud as a knocking in the silence.

She stole to her daughter’s door, and kneeling down laid her ear against the crack. Presently, through the hush, she caught the soft rhythmic breath of youthful sleep, and pictured Anne, slim and motionless, her dark hair in orderly braids along the pillow. The vision startled the mother back to sanity. She got up stiffly and stood looking about her with dazed eyes.

Suddenly the light on the stairs, the nocturnal ticking, swept another vision through her throbbing brain. In just such a silence, before the first cold sounds of the winter daylight, she had crept down those very stairs, unchained the front door, slipped back one after another of John Clephane’s patent bolts, and let herself out of his house for the last time. Ah, what business had she in it now, her hand on her daughter’s door? She dragged herself back to her own room, switched on the light, and sat hunched up in the great bed, mechanically turning over the pages of a fashion-paper she had picked up on her sitting-room table. Skirts were certainly going to be narrower that spring . . .

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