New Year's Day, by Edith Wharton

II

Mrs. Hazeldean paused at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Madison Square. The crowd attracted by the fire still enveloped her; it was safe to halt and take breath.

Her companion, she knew, had gone in the opposite direction. Their movements, on such occasions, were as well-ordered and as promptly executed as those of the New York Fire Brigade; and after their precipitate descent to the hall, the discovery that the police had barred their usual exit, and the quick: “You’re all right?” to which her imperceptible nod had responded, she was sure he had turned down Twenty-third Street toward Sixth Avenue.

“The Parretts’ windows were full of people,” was her first thought.

She dwelt on it a moment, and then reflected: “Yes, but in all that crowd and excitement nobody would have beenthinking of ME!”

Instinctively she put her hand to her veil, as though recalling that her features had been exposed when she ran out, and unable to remember whether she had covered them in time or not.

“What a fool I am! It can’t have been off my face for more than a second — ” but immediately afterward another disquieting possibility assailed her. “I’m almost sure I saw Sillerton Jackson’s head in one of the windows, just behind Sabina Wesson’s. No one else has that particularly silvery gray hair.” She shivered, for everyone in New York knew that Sillerton Jackson saw everything, and could piece together seemingly unrelated fragments of fact with the art of a skilled china-mender.

Meanwhile, after sending through her veil the circular glance which she always shot about her at that particular corner, she had begun to walk up Broadway. She walked well — fast, but not too fast; easily, assuredly, with the air of a woman who knows that she has a good figure, and expects rather than fears to be identified by it. But under this external appearance of ease she was covered with cold beads of sweat.

Broadway, as usual at that hour, and on a holiday, was nearly deserted; the promenading public still slowly poured up and down Fifth Avenue.

“Luckily there was such a crowd when we came out of the hotel that no one could possibly have noticed me,” she murmured over again, reassured by the sense of having the long thoroughfare to herself. Composure and presence of mind were so necessary to a woman in her situation that they had become almost a second nature to her, and in a few minutes her thick uneven heart-beats began to subside and to grow steadier. As if to test their regularity, she paused before a florist’s window, and looked appreciatively at the jars of roses and forced lilac, the compact bunches of lilies-of-the-valley and violets, the first pots of close-budded azaleas. Finally she opened the shop-door, and after examining the Jacqueminots and Marshal Niels, selected with care two perfect specimens of a new silvery-pink rose, waited for the florist to wrap them in cotton-wool, and slipped their long stems into her muff for more complete protection.

“It’s so simple, after all,” she said to herself as she walked on. “I’ll tell him that as I was coming up Fifth Avenue from Cousin Cecilia’s I heard the fire-engines turning into Twenty-third Street, and ran after them. Just what HE would have done . . . once . . . ” she ended on a sigh.

At Thirty-first Street she turned the corner with a quicker step. The house she was approaching was low and narrow; but the Christmas holly glistening between frilled curtains, the well-scrubbed steps, the shining bell and door-knob, gave it a welcoming look. From garret to basement it beamed like the abode of a happy couple.

As Lizzie Hazeldean reached the door a curious change came over her. She was conscious of it at once — she had so often said to herself, when her little house rose before her: “It makes me feel younger as soon as I turn the corner.” And it was true even today. In spite of her agitation she was aware that the lines between her eyebrows were smoothing themselves out, and that a kind of inner lightness was replacing the heavy tumult of her breast. The lightness revealed itself in her movements, which grew as quick as a girl’s as she ran up the steps. She rang twice — it was her signal — and turned an unclouded smile on her elderly parlourmaid.

“Is Mr. Hazeldean in the library, Susan? I hope you’ve kept up the fire for him.”

“Oh, yes, ma’am. But Mr. Hazeldean’s not in,” said Susan, returning the smile respectfully.

“NOT IN? With his cold — and in this weather?”

“That’s what I told him, ma’am. But he just laughed — ”

“Just laughed? What do you mean, Susan?” Lizzie Hazeldean felt herself turning pale. She rested her hand quickly on the hall table.

“Well, ma’am, the minute he heard the fire-engine, off he rushed like a boy. It seems the Fifth Avenue Hotel’s on fire: there’s where he’s gone.”

The blood left Mrs. Hazeldean’s lips; she felt it shuddering back to her heart. But a second later she spoke in a tone of natural and good-humoured impatience.

“What madness! How long ago — can you remember?” Instantly, she felt the possible imprudence of the question, and added: “The doctor said he ought not to be out more than a quarter of an hour, and only at the sunniest time of the day.”

“I know that, ma’am, and so I reminded him. But he’s been gone nearly an hour, I should say.”

A sense of deep fatigue overwhelmed Mrs. Hazeldean. She felt as if she had walked for miles against an icy gale: her breath came laboriously.

“How could you let him go?” she wailed; then, as the parlourmaid again smiled respectfully, she added: “Oh, I know — sometimes one can’t stop him. He gets so restless, being shut up with these long colds.”

“That’s what I DO feel, ma’am.”

Mistress and maid exchanged a glance of sympathy, and Susan felt herself emboldened to suggest: “Perhaps the outing will do him good,” with the tendency of her class to encourage favoured invalids in disobedience.

Mrs. Hazeldean’s look grew severe. “Susan! I’ve often warned you against talking to him in that way — ”

Susan reddened, and assumed a pained expression. “How can you think it, ma’am? — me that never say anything to anybody, as all in the house will bear witness.”

Her mistress made an impatient movement. “Oh, well, I daresay he won’t be long. The fire’s over.”

“Ah — you knew of it too, then, ma’am?”

“Of the fire? Why, of course. I SAW it, even — ” Mrs. Hazeldean smiled. “I was walking home from Washington Square — from Miss Cecilia Winter’s — and at the corner of Twenty-third Street there was a huge crowd, and clouds of smoke . . . It’s very odd that I shouldn’t have run across Mr. Hazeldean.” She looked limpidly at the parlourmaid.” But, then, of course, in all that crowd and confusion . . . ”

Half-way up the stairs she turned to call back: “Make up a good fire in the library, please, and bring the tea up. It’s too cold in the drawing-room.”

The library was on the upper landing. She went in, drew the two roses from her muff, tenderly unswathed them, and put them in a slim glass on her husband’s writing-table. In the doorway she paused to smile at this touch of summer in the firelit wintry room; but a moment later her frown of anxiety reappeared. She stood listening intently for the sound of a latch-key; then, hearing nothing, passed on to her bedroom.

It was a rosy room, hung with one of the new English chintzes, which also covered the deep sofa, and the bed with its rose-lined pillow-covers. The carpet was cherry red, the toilet-table ruffled and looped like a ball-dress. Ah, how she and Susan had ripped and sewn and hammered, and pieced together old scraps of lace and ribbon and muslin, in the making of that airy monument! For weeks after she had done over the room her husband never came into it without saying: “I can’t think how you managed to squeeze all this loveliness out of that last cheque of your stepmother’s.”

On the dressing-table Lizzie Hazeldean noticed a long florist’s box, one end of which had been cut open to give space to the still longer stems of a bunch of roses. She snipped the string, and extracted from the box an envelope which she flung into the fire without so much as a glance at its contents. Then she pushed the flowers aside, and after rearranging her dark hair before the mirror, carefully dressed herself in a loose garment of velvet and lace which lay awaiting her on the sofa, beside her high-heeled slippers and stockings of open-work silk.

She had been one of the first women in New York to have tea every afternoon at five, and to put off her walking-dress for a tea-gown.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/new_years_day/chapter2.html

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