New Year's Day, by Edith Wharton

III

She returned to the library, where the fire was beginning to send a bright blaze through the twilight. It flashed on the bindings of Hazeldean’s many books, and she smiled absently at the welcome it held out. A latch-key rattled, and she heard her husband’s step, and the sound of his cough below in the hall.

“What madness — what madness!” she murmured.

Slowly — how slowly for a young man! — he mounted the stairs, and still coughing came into the library. She ran to him and took him in her arms.

“Charlie! How could you? In this weather? It’s nearly dark!”

His long thin face lit up with a deprecating smile. “I suppose Susan’s betrayed me, eh? Don’t be cross. You’ve missed such a show! The Fifth Avenue Hotel’s been on fire.”

“Yes; I know.” She paused, just perceptibly. I DIDN’T miss it, though — I rushed across Madison Square for a look at it myself.”

“You did? You were there too? What fun!” The idea appeared to fill him with boyish amusement.

“Naturally I was! On my way home from Cousin Cecilia’s . . . ”

“Ah, of course. I’d forgotten you were going there. But how odd, then, that we didn’t meet!”

“If we HAD I should have dragged you home long ago. I’ve been in at least half an hour, and the fire was already over when I got there. What a baby you are to have stayed out so long, staring at smoke and a fire-engine!”

He smiled, still holding her, and passing his gaunt hand softly and wistfully over her head. “Oh, don’t worry. I’ve been indoors, safely sheltered, and drinking old Mrs. Parrett’s punch. The old lady saw me from her window, and sent one of the Wesson boys across the street to fetch me in. They had just finished a family luncheon. And Sillerton Jackson, who was there, drove me home. So you see, — ”

He released her, and moved toward the fire, and she stood motionless, staring blindly ahead, while the thoughts spun through her mind like a mill-race.

“Sillerton Jackson — ” she echoed, without in the least knowing what she said.

“Yes; he has the gout again — luckily for me! — and his sister’s brougham came to the Parretts’ to fetch him.”

She collected herself. “You’re coughing more than you did yesterday,” she accused him.

“Oh, well — the air’s sharpish. But I shall be all right presently . . . Oh, those roses!” He paused in admiration before his writing-table.

Her face glowed with a reflected pleasure, though all the while the names he had pronounced — “The Parretts, the Wessons, Sillerton Jackson” — were clanging through her brain like a death-knell.

“They ARE lovely, aren’t they?” she beamed.

“Much too lovely for me. You must take them down to the drawing-room.”

“No; we’re going to have tea up here.”

“That’s jolly — it means there’ll be no visitors, I hope?”

She nodded, smiling.

“Good! But the roses — no, they mustn’t be wasted on this desert air. You’ll wear them in your dress this evening?”

She started perceptibly, and moved slowly back toward the hearth.

“This evening? . . . Oh, I’m not going to Mrs. Struthers’s” she said, remembering.

“Yes, you are. Dearest — I want you to!”

“But what shall you do alone all the evening? With that cough, you won’t go to sleep till late.”

“Well, if I don’t I’ve a lot of new books to keep me busy.”

“Oh, your books —!” She made a little gesture, half teasing, half impatient, in the direction of the freshly cut volumes stacked up beside his student lamp. It was an old joke between them that she had never been able to believe anyone could really “care for reading.” Long as she and her husband had lived together, this passion of his remained for her as much of a mystery as on the day when she had first surprised him, mute and absorbed, over what the people she had always lived with would have called “a deep book.” It was her first encounter with a born reader; or at least, the few she had known had been, like her stepmother, the retired opera-singer, feverish devourers of circulating library fiction: she had never before lived in a house with books in it. Gradually she had learned to take a pride in Hazeldean’s reading, as if it had been some rare accomplishment; she had perceived that it reflected credit on him, and was even conscious of its adding to the charm of his talk, a charm she had always felt without being able to define it. But still, in her heart of hearts she regarded books as a mere expedient, and felt sure that they were only an aid to patience, like jackstraws or a game of patience, with the disadvantage of requiring a greater mental effort.

“Shan’t you be too tired to read tonight?” she questioned wistfully.

“Too tired? Why, you goose, reading is the greatest rest in the world! — I want you to go to Mrs. Struthers’s dear; I want to see you again in that black velvet dress,” he added with his coaxing smile.

The parlourmaid brought in the tray, and Mrs. Hazeldean busied herself with the tea-caddy. Her husband had stretched himself out in the deep armchair which was his habitual seat. He crossed his arms behind his neck, leaning his head back wearily against them, so that, as she glanced at him across the hearth, she saw the salient muscles in his long neck, and the premature wrinkles about his ears and chin. The lower part of his face was singularly ravaged; only the eyes, those quiet ironic grey eyes, and the white forehead above them, reminded her of what he had been seven years before. Only seven years!

She felt a rush of tears: no, there were times when fate was too cruel, the future too horrible to contemplate, and the past — the past, oh, how much worse! And there he sat, coughing, coughing — and thinking God knows what, behind those quiet half-closed lids. At such times he grew so mysteriously remote that she felt lonelier than when he was not in the room.

“Charlie!”

He roused himself, “Yes?”

“Here’s your tea.”

He took it from her in silence, and she began, nervously, to wonder why he was not talking. Was it because he was afraid it might make him cough again, afraid she would be worried, and scold him? Or was it because he was thinking — thinking of things he had heard at old Mrs. Parrett’s, or on the drive home with Sillerton Jackson . . . hints they might have dropped . . . insinuations . . . she didn’t know what . . . or of something he had SEEN, perhaps, from old Mrs. Parrett’s window? She looked across at his white forehead, so smooth and impenetrable in the lamplight, and thought: “Oh, God, it’s like a locked door. I shall dash my brains out against it some day!”

For, after all, it was not impossible that he had actually seen her, seen her from Mrs. Parrett’s window, or even from the crowd around the door of the hotel. For all she knew, he might have been near enough, in that crowd, to put out his hand and touch her. And he might have held back, benumbed, aghast, not believing his own eyes . . . She couldn’t tell. She had never yet made up her mind how he would look, how he would behave, what he would say, if ever he DID see or hear anything . . .

No! That was the worst of it. They had lived together for nearly nine years — and how closely! — and nothing that she knew of him, or had observed in him, enabled her to forecast exactly what, in that particular case, his state of mind and his attitude would be. In his profession, she knew, he was celebrated for his shrewdness and insight; in personal matters he often seemed, to her alert mind, oddly absent-minded and indifferent. Yet that might be merely his instinctive way of saving his strength for things he considered more important. There were times when she was sure he was quite deliberate and self-controlled enough to feel in one way and behave in another: perhaps even to have thought out a course in advance — just as, at the first bad symptoms of illness, he had calmly made his will, and planned everything about her future, the house and the servants . . . No, she couldn’t tell; there always hung over her the thin glittering menace of a danger she could neither define nor localize — like that avenging lightning which groped for the lovers in the horrible poem he had once read aloud to her (what a choice!) on a lazy afternoon of their wedding journey, as they lay stretched under Italian stone-pines.

The maid came in to draw the curtains and light the lamps. The fire glowed, the scent of the roses drifted on the warm air, and the clock ticked out the minutes, and softly struck a half hour, while Mrs. Hazeldean continued to ask herself, as she so often had before: “Now, what would be the NATURAL thing for me to say?”

And suddenly the words escaped from her, she didn’t know how: “I wonder you didn’t see me coming out of the hotel — for I actually squeezed my way in.”

Her husband made no answer. Her heart jumped convulsively; then she lifted her eyes and saw that he was asleep. How placid his face looked — years younger than when he was awake! The immensity of her relief rushed over her in a warm glow, the counterpart of the icy sweat which had sent her chattering homeward from the fire. After all, if he could fall asleep, fall into such a peaceful sleep ass that — tired, no doubt, by his imprudent walk, and the exposure to the cold — it meant, beyond all doubt, beyond all conceivable dread, that he knew nothing, had seen nothing, suspected nothing: that she was safe, safe, safe!

The violence of the reaction made her long to spring to her feet and move about the room. She saw a crooked picture that she wanted to straighten, she would have liked to give the roses another tilt in their glass. But there he sat, quietly sleeping, and the long habit of vigilance made her respect his rest, watching over it as patiently as if it had been a sick child’s.

She drew a contented breath. Now she could afford to think of his outing only as it might affect his health; and she knew that this sudden drowsiness, even if it were a sign of extreme fatigue, was also the natural restorative for that fatigue. She continued to sit behind the tea-tray, her hands folded, her eyes on his face, while the peace of the scene entered into her, and held her under brooding wings.

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