New Year's Day, by Edith Wharton

IV

At Mrs. Struthers’s, at eleven o’clock that evening, the long over-lit drawing-rooms were already thronged with people.

Lizzie Hazeldean paused on the threshold and looked about her. The habit of pausing to get her bearings, of sending a circular glance around any assemblage of people, any drawing-room, concert-hall or theatre that she entered, had become so instinctive that she would have been surprised had anyone pointed out to her the unobservant expression and careless movements of the young women of her acquaintance, who also looked about them, it is true, but with the vague unseeing stare of youth, and of beauty conscious only of itself.

Lizzie Hazeldean had long since come to regard most women of her age as children in the art of life. Some savage instinct of self-defence, fostered by experience, had always made her more alert and perceiving than the charming creatures who passed from the nursery to marriage as if lifted from one rose-lined cradle into another. “Rocked to sleep — that’s what they’ve always been,” she used to think sometimes, listening to their innocuous talk during the long after-dinners in hot drawing-rooms, while their husbands, in the smoking-rooms below, exchanged ideas which, if no more striking, were at least based on more direct experiences.

But then, as all the old ladies said, Lizzie Hazeldean had always preferred the society of men.

The man she now sought was not visible, and she gave a little sigh of ease. “If only he has had the sense to stay away!” she thought.

She would have preferred to stay away herself; but it had been her husband’s whim that she should come. “You know you always enjoy yourself at Mrs. Struthers’s — everybody does. The old girl somehow manages to have the most amusing house in New York. Who is it who’s going to sing tonight? . . . If you don’t go, I shall know it’s because I’ve coughed two or three times oftener than usual, and you’re worrying about me. My dear girl, it will take more than the Fifth Avenue Hotel fire to kill ME . . . My heart’s feeling unusually steady . . . Put on your black velvet, will you? — with these two roses . . . ”

So she had gone. And here she was, in her black velvet, under the glitter of Mrs. Struthers’s chandeliers, amid all the youth and good looks and gaiety of New York; for, as Hazeldean said, Mrs. Struthers’s house was more amusing than anybody else’s, and whenever she opened her doors the world flocked through them.

As Mrs. Hazeldean reached the inner drawing-room the last notes of a rich tenor were falling on the attentive silence. She saw Campanini’s low-necked throat subside into silence above the piano, and the clapping of many tightly-fitted gloves was succeeded by a general movement, and the usual irrepressible outburst of talk.

In the breaking-up of groups she caught a glimpse of Sillerton Jackson’s silvery crown. Their eyes met across bare shoulders, he bowed profoundly, and she fancied that a dry smile lifted his moustache. “He doesn’t usually bow to me as low as that,” she thought apprehensively.

But as she advanced into the room her self-possession returned. Among all these stupid pretty women she had such a sense of power, of knowing almost everything better than they did, from the way of doing her hair to the art of keeping a secret! She felt a thrill of pride in the slope of her white shoulders above the black velvet, in the one curl escaping from her thick chignon, and the slant of the gold arrow tipped with diamonds which she had thrust in to retain it. And she had done it all without a maid, with no one cleverer than Susan to help her! Ah, as a woman she knew her business . . .

Mrs. Struthers, plumed and ponderous, with diamond stars studding her black wig like a pin-cushion, had worked her resolute way back to the outer room. More people were coming in; and with her customary rough skill she was receiving, distributing, introducing them. Suddenly her smile deepened; she was evidently greeting an old friend. The group about her scattered, and Mrs. Hazeldean saw that, in her cordial absent-minded way, and while her wandering hostess-eye swept the rooms, she was saying a confidential word to a tall man whose hand she detained. They smiled at each other; then Mrs. Struthers’s glance turned toward the inner room, and her smile seemed to say: “You’ll find her there.”

The tall man nodded. He looked about him composedly, and began to move toward the centre of the throng, speaking to everyone, appearing to have no object beyond that of greeting the next person in his path, yet quietly, steadily pursuing that path, which led straight to the inner room.

Mrs. Hazeldean had found a seat near the piano. A good-looking youth, seated beside her, was telling her at considerable length what he was going to wear at the Beauforts’ fancy-ball. She listened, approved, suggested; but her glance never left the advancing figure of the tall man.

Handsome? Yes, she said to herself; she had to admit that he was handsome. A trifle too broad and florid, perhaps; though his air and his attitude so plainly denied it that, on second thoughts, one agreed that a man of his height had, after all, to carry some ballast. Yes; his assurance made him, as a rule, appear to people exactly as he chose to appear; that is, as a man over forty, but carrying his years carelessly, an active muscular man, whose blue eyes were still clear, whose fair hair waved ever so little less thickly than it used to on a low sunburnt forehead, over eyebrows almost silvery in their blondness, and blue eyes the bluer for their thatch. Stupid-looking? By no means. His smile denied that. Just self-sufficient enough to escape fatuity, yet so cool that one felt the fundamental coldness, he steered his way through life as easily and resolutely as he was now working his way through Mrs. Struthers’s drawing-rooms.

Half-way, he was detained by a tap of Mrs. Wesson’s red fan. Mrs. Wesson — surely, Mrs. Hazeldean reflected, Charles had spoken of Mrs. Sabina Wesson’s being with her mother, old Mrs. Parrett, while they watched the fire? Sabina Wesson was a redoubtable woman, one of the few of her generation and her clan who had broken with tradition, and gone to Mrs. Struthers’s almost as soon as the Shoe–Polish Queen had bought her house in Fifth Avenue, and issued her first challenge to society. Lizzie Hazeldean shut her eyes for an instant; then, rising from her seat, she joined the group about the singer. From there she wandered on to another knot of acquaintances.

“Look here: the fellow’s going to sing again. Let’s get into that corner over there.”

She felt ever so slight a touch on her arm, and met Henry Prest’s composed glance.

A red-lit and palm-shaded recess divided the drawing-rooms from the dining-room, which ran across the width of the house at the back. Mrs. Hazeldean hesitated; then she caught Mrs. Wesson’s watchful glance, lifted her head with a smile and followed her companion.

They sat down on a small sofa under the palms, and a couple, who had been in search of the same retreat, paused on the threshold, and with an interchange of glances passed on. Mrs. Hazeldean smiled more vividly.

“Where are my roses? Didn’t you get them?” Prest asked. He had a way of looking her over from beneath lowered lids, while he affected to be examining a glove-button or contemplating the tip of his shining boot.

“Yes, I got them,” she answered.

“You’re not wearing them. I didn’t order those.”

“No.”

“Whose are they, then?”

She unfolded her mother-of-pearl fan, and bent above its complicated traceries.

“Mine,” she pronounced.

“Yours! Well, obviously. But I suppose someone sent them to you?”

I did.” She hesitated a second. “I sent them to myself.”

He raised his eyebrows a little. “Well they don’t suit you — that washy pink! May I ask why you didn’t wear mine?”

“I’ve already told you . . . I’ve often asked you never to send flowers . . . on the day . . . ”

“Nonsense. That’s the very day . . . What’s the matter? Are you still nervous?”

She was silent for a moment; then she lowered her voice to say: “You ought not to have come here tonight.”

“My dear girl, how unlike you! You ARE nervous.”

“Didn’t you see all those people in the Parretts’ window?”

“What, opposite? Lord, no; I just took to my heels! It was the deuce, the back way being barred. But what of it? In all that crowd, do you suppose for a moment — ”

“My husband was in the window with them,” she said, still lower.

His confident face fell for a moment, and then almost at once regained its look of easy arrogance.

“Well —?”

“Oh, nothing — as yet. Only I ask you . . . to go away now.”

“Just as you asked me not to come! Yet YOU came, because you had the sense to see that if you didn’t . . . and I came for the same reason. Look here, my dear, for God’s sake don’t lose your head!”

The challenge seemed to rouse her. She lifted her chin, glanced about the thronged room which they commanded from their corner, and nodded and smiled invitingly at several acquaintances, with the hope that some one of them might come up to her. But though they all returned her greetings with a somewhat elaborate cordiality, not one advanced toward her secluded seat.

She turned her head slightly toward her companion. “I ask you again to go,” she repeated.

“Well, I will then, after the fellow’s sung. But I’m bound to say you’re a good deal pleasanter — ”

The first bars of “Salve, Dimora” silenced him, and they sat side by side in the meditative rigidity of fashionable persons listening to expensive music. She had thrown herself into a corner of the sofa, and Henry Prest, about whom everything was discreet but his eyes, sat apart from her, one leg crossed over the other, one hand holding his folded opera-hat on his knee, while the other hand rested beside him on the sofa. But an end of her tulle scarf lay in the space between them; and without looking in his direction, without turning her glance from the singer, she was conscious that Prest’s hand had reached and drawn the scarf toward him. She shivered a little, made an involuntary motion as though to gather it about her — and then desisted. As the song ended, he bent toward her slightly, said: “Darling” so low that it seemed no more than a breath on her cheek, and then, rising, bowed, and strolled into the other room.

She sighed faintly, and, settling herself once more in her corner, lifted her brilliant eyes to Sillerton Jackson, who was approaching. “It WAS good of you to bring Charlie home from the Parretts’ this afternoon.” She held out her hand, making way for him at her side.

“Good of me?” he laughed. “Why, I was glad of the chance of getting him safely home; it was rather naughty of HIM to be where he was, I suspect.” She fancied a slight pause, as if he waited to see the effect of this, and her lashes beat her cheeks. But already he was going on: “Do you encourage him, with that cough, to run about town after fire-engines?”

She gave back the laugh.

“I don’t discourage him — ever — if I can help it. But it WAS foolish of him to go out today,” she agreed; and all the while she kept on asking herself, as she had that afternoon, in her talk with her husband: “Now, what would be the NATURAL thing for me to say?”

Should she speak of having been at the fire herself — or should she not? The question dinned in her brain so loudly that she could hardly hear what her companion was saying; yet she had, at the same time, a queer feeling of his never having been so close to her, or rather so closely intent on her, as now. In her strange state of nervous lucidity, her eyes seemed to absorb with a new precision every facial detail of whoever approached her; and old Sillerton Jackson’s narrow mask, his withered pink cheeks, the veins in the hollow of his temples, under the carefully-tended silvery hair, and the tiny blood-specks in the white of his eyes as he turned their cautious blue gaze on her, appeared as if presented under some powerful lens. With his eye-glasses dangling over one white-gloved hand, the other supporting his opera-hat on his knee, he suggested, behind that assumed carelessness of pose, the patient fixity of a naturalist holding his breath near the crack from which some tiny animal might suddenly issue — if one watched long enough, or gave it, completely enough, the impression of not looking for it, or dreaming it was anywhere near. The sense of that tireless attention made Mrs. Hazeldean’s temples ache as if she sat under a glare of light even brighter than that of the Struthers’ chandeliers — a glare in which each quiver of a half-formed thought might be as visible behind her forehead as the faint lines wrinkling its surface into an uncontrollable frown of anxiety. Yes, Prest was right; she was losing her head — losing it for the first time in the dangerous year during which she had had such continual need to keep it steady.

“What is it? What has happened to me?” she wondered.

There had been alarms before — how could it be otherwise? but they had only stimulated her, made her more alert and prompt; whereas tonight she felt herself quivering away into she knew not what abyss of weakness. What was different, then? Oh, she knew well enough! It was Charles . . . that haggard look in his eyes, and the lines of his throat as he had leaned back sleeping. She had never before admitted to herself how ill she thought him; and now, to have to admit it, and at the same time not to have the complete certainty that the look in his eyes was caused by illness only, made the strain unbearable.

She glanced about her with a sudden sense of despair. Of all the people in those brilliant animated groups — of all the women who called her Lizzie, and the men who were familiars at her house — she knew that not one, at that moment, guessed, or could have understood what she was feeling . . . Her eyes fell on Henry Prest, who had come to the surface a little way off, bending over the chair of the handsome Mrs. Lyman. “And YOU least of all!” she thought. “Yet God knows,” she added with a shiver, “they all have their theories about me!”

“My dear Mrs. Hazeldean, you look a little pale. Are you cold? Shall I get you some champagne?” Sillerton Jackson was officiously suggesting.

“If you think the other women look blooming! My dear man, it’s this hideous vulgar overhead lighting . . . ” She rose impatiently. It had occurred to her that the thing to do — the “natural” thing — would be to stroll up to Jinny Lyman, over whom Prest was still attentively bending. THEN people would see if she was nervous, or ill — or afraid!

But half-way she stopped and thought: “Suppose the Parretts and Wessons DID see me? Then my joining Jinny while he’s talking to her will look — how will it look?” She began to regret not having had it out on the spot with Sillerton Jackson, who could be trusted to hold his tongue on occasion, especially if a pretty woman threw herself on his mercy. She glanced over her shoulder as if to call him back; but he had turned away, been absorbed into another group, and she found herself, instead, abruptly face to face with Sabina Wesson. Well, perhaps that was better still. After all, it all depended on how much Mrs. Wesson had seen, and what line she meant to take, supposing she HAD seen anything. She was not likely to be as inscrutable as old Sillerton. Lizzie wished now that she had not forgotten to go to Mrs. Wesson’s last party.

“Dear Mrs. Wesson, it was so kind of you — ”

But Mrs. Wesson was not there. By the exercise of that mysterious protective power which enables a woman desirous of not being waylaid to make herself invisible, or to transport herself, by means imperceptible, to another part of the earth’s surface, Mrs. Wesson, who, two seconds earlier, appeared in all her hard handsomeness to be bearing straight down on Mrs. Hazeldean, with a scant yard of clear parquet between them — Mrs. Wesson, as her animated back and her active red fan now called on all the company to notice, had never been there at all, had never seen Mrs. Hazeldean (“WAS she at Mrs. Struthers’s last Sunday? How odd! I must have left before she got there — "), but was busily engaged, on the farther side of the piano, in examining a picture to which her attention appeared to have been called by the persons nearest her.

“Ah, how LIFE-LIKE! That’s what I always feel when I see a Meissonier,” she was heard to exclaim, with her well-known instinct for the fitting epithet.

Lizzie Hazeldean stood motionless. Her eyes dazzled as if she had received a blow on the forehead. “So THAT’S what it feels like!” she thought. She lifted her head very high, looked about her again, tried to signal to Henry Prest, but saw him still engaged with the lovely Mrs. Lyman, and at the same moment caught the glance of young Hubert Wesson, Sabina’s eldest, who was standing in disengaged expectancy near the supper-room door.

Hubert Wesson, as his eyes met Mrs. Hazeldean’s, crimsoned to the forehead, hung back a moment, and then came forward, bowing low — again that too low bow! “So HE saw me too,” she thought. She put her hand on his arm with a laugh. “Dear me, how ceremonious you are! Really, I’m not as old as that bow of yours implies. My dear boy, I hope you want to take me in to supper at once. I was out in the cold all the afternoon, gazing at the Fifth Avenue Hotel fire, and I’m simply dying of hunger and fatigue.”

There, the die was cast — she had said it loud enough for all the people nearest her to hear! And she was sure now that it was the right, the “natural” thing to do.

Her spirits rose, and she sailed into the supper-room like a goddess, steering Hubert to an unoccupied table in a flowery corner.

“No — I think we’re very well by ourselves, don’t you? Do you want that fat old bore of a Lucy Vanderlow to join us? If you DO, of course . . . I can see she’s dying to . . . but then, I warn you, I shall ask a young man! Let me see — shall I ask Henry Prest? You see he’s hovering! No, it IS jollier with just you and me, isn’t it?” She leaned forward a little, resting her chin on her clasped hands, her elbows on the table, in an attitude which the older women thought shockingly free, but the younger ones were beginning to imitate.

“And now, some champagne, please — and HOT terrapin! . . . But I suppose you were at the fire yourself, weren’t you?” she leaned still a little nearer to say.

The blush again swept over young Wesson’s face, rose to his forehead, and turned the lobes of his large ears to balls of fire (“It looks,” she thought, “as if he had on huge coral earrings.”). But she forced him to look at her, laughed straight into his eyes, and went on: “Did you ever see a funnier sight than all those dressed up absurdities rushing out into the cold? It looked like the end of an Inauguration Ball! I was so fascinated that I actually pushed my way into the hall. The firemen were furious, but they couldn’t stop me — nobody can stop me at a fire! You should have seen the ladies scuttling down-stairs — the fat ones! Oh, but I beg your pardon; I’d forgotten that you admire . . . avoirdupois. No? But . . . Mrs. Van . . . so stupid of me! Why, you’re actually blushing! I assure you, you’re as red as your mother’s fan — and visible from as great a distance! Yes, please; a little more champagne . . . ”

And then the inevitable began. She forgot the fire, forgot her anxieties, forgot Mrs. Wesson’s affront, forgot everything but the amusement, the passing childish amusement, of twirling around her little finger this shy clumsy boy, as she had twirled so many others, old and young, not caring afterward if she ever saw them again, but so absorbed in the sport, and in her sense of knowing how to do it better than the other women — more quietly, more insidiously, without ogling, bridling or grimacing — that sometimes she used to ask herself with a shiver: “What was the gift given to me for?” Yes; it always amused her at first: the gradual dawn of attraction in eyes that had regarded her with indifference, the blood rising to the face, the way she could turn and twist the talk as though she had her victim on a leash, spinning him after her down winding paths of sentimentality, irony, caprice . . . and leaving him, with beating heart and dazzled eyes, to visions of an all-promising morrow . . . ” My only accomplishment!” she murmured to herself as she rose from the table followed by young Wesson’s fascinated gaze, while already, on her own lips, she felt the taste of cinders.

“But at any rate,” she thought, “he’ll hold his tongue about having seen me at the fire.”

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