New Year's Day, by Edith Wharton

V

She let herself in with her latch-key, glanced at the notes and letters on the hall-table (the old habit of allowing nothing to escape her), and stole up through the darkness to her room.

A fire still glowed in the chimney, and its light fell on two vases of crimson roses. The room was full of their scent.

Mrs. Hazeldean frowned, and then shrugged her shoulders. It had been a mistake, after all, to let it appear that she was indifferent to the flowers; she must remember to thank Susan for rescuing them. She began to undress, hastily yet clumsily, as if her deft fingers were all thumbs; but first, detaching the two faded pink roses from her bosom, she put them with a reverent touch into a glass on the toilet-table. Then, slipping on her dressing-gown, she stole to her husband’s door. It was shut, and she leaned her ear to the keyhole. After a moment she caught his breathing, heavy, as it always was when he had a cold, but regular, untroubled . . . With a sigh of relief she tiptoed back. Her uncovered bed, with its fresh pillows and satin coverlet, sent her a rosy invitation; but she cowered down by the fire, hugging her knees and staring into the coals.

“So THAT’S what it feels like!” she repeated.

It was the first time in her life that she had ever been deliberately “cut”; and the cut was a deadly injury in old New York. For Sabina Wesson to have used it, consciously, deliberately — for there was no doubt that she had purposely advanced toward her victim — she must have done so with intent to kill. And to risk that, she must have been sure of her facts, sure of corroborating witnesses, sure of being backed up by all her clan.

Lizzie Hazeldean had her clan too — but it was a small and weak one, and she hung on its outer fringe by a thread of little-regarded cousinship. As for the Hazeldean tribe, which was larger and stronger (though nothing like the great organized Wesson–Parrett gens, with half New York and all Albany at its back) — well, the Hazeldeans were not much to be counted on, and would even, perhaps, in a furtive negative way, be not too sorry (“if it were not for poor Charlie”) that poor Charlie’s wife should at last be made to pay for her good looks, her popularity, above all for being, in spite of her origin, treated by poor Charlie as if she were one of them!

Her origin was, of course, respectable enough. Everybody knew all about the Winters — she had been Lizzie Winter. But the Winters were very small people, and her father, the Reverend Arcadius Winter, the sentimental over-popular Rector of a fashionable New York church, after a few seasons of too great success as preacher and director of female consciences, had suddenly had to resign and go to Bermuda for his health — or was it France? — to some obscure watering-place, it was rumoured. At any rate, Lizzie, who went with him (with a crushed bed-ridden mother), was ultimately, after the mother’s death, fished out of a girls’ school in Brussels — they seemed to have been in so many countries at once! — and brought back to New York by a former parishioner of poor Arcadius’s, who had always “believed in him,” in spite of the Bishop, and who took pity on his lonely daughter.

The parishioner, Mrs. Mant, was “one of the Hazeldeans.” She was a rich widow, given to generous gestures which she was often at a loss how to complete: and when she had brought Lizzie Winter home, and sufficiently celebrated her own courage in doing so, she did not quite know what step to take next. She had fancied it would be pleasant to have a clever handsome girl about the house; but her house-keeper was not of the same mind. The spare-room sheets had not been out of lavender for twenty years — and Miss Winter always left the blinds up in her room, and the carpet and curtains, unused to such exposure, suffered accordingly. Then young men began to call — they calledin numbers. Mrs. Mant had not supposed that the daughter of a clergyman — and a clergyman “under a cloud” — would expect visitors. She had imagined herself taking Lizzie Winter to church Fairs, and having the stitches of her knitting picked up by the young girl, whose “eyes were better” than her benefactress’s. But Lizzie did not know how to knit — she possessed no useful accomplishments — and she was visibly bored by Church Fairs, where her presence was of little use, since she had no money to spend. Mrs. Mant began to see her mistake; and the discovery made her dislike her protegee, whom she secretly regarded as having intentionally misled her.

In Mrs. Mant’s life, the transition from one enthusiasm to another was always marked by an interval of disillusionment, during which, Providence having failed to fulfill her requirements, its existence was openly called into question. But in this flux of moods there was one fixed point: Mrs. Mant was a woman whose life revolved about a bunch of keys. What treasures they gave access to, what disasters would have ensued had they been forever lost, was not quite clear; but whenever they were missed the household was in an uproar, and as Mrs. Mant would trust them to no one but herself, these occasions were frequent. One of them arose at the very moment when Mrs. Mant was recovering from her enthusiasm for Miss Winter. A minute before, the keys had been there, in a pocket of her work-table; she had actually touched them in hunting for her buttonhole-scissors. She had been called away to speak to the plumber about the bath-room leak, and when she left the room there was no one in it but Miss Winter. When she returned, the keys were gone. The house had been turned inside out; everyone had been, if not accused, at least suspected; and in a rash moment Mrs. Mant had spoken of the police. The housemaid had thereupon given warning, and her own maid threatened to follow; when suddenly the Bishop’s hints recurred to Mrs. Mant. The bishop had always implied that there had been something irregular in Dr. Winter’s accounts, besides the other unfortunate business . . .

Very mildly, she had asked Miss Winter if she might not have seen the keys, and “picked them up without thinking.” Miss Winter permitted herself to smile in denying the suggestion; the smile irritated Mrs. Mant; and in a moment the floodgates were opened. She saw nothing to smile at in her question — unless it was of a kind that Miss Winter was already used to, prepared for . . . with that sort of background . . . her unfortunate father . . .

“Stop!” Lizzie Winter cried. She remembered now, as if it had happened yesterday, the abyss suddenly opening at her feet. It was her first direct contact with human cruelty. Suffering, weakness, frailties other than Mrs. Mant’s restricted fancy could have pictured, the girl had known, or at least suspected; but she had found as much kindness as folly in her path, and no one had ever before attempted to visit upon her the dimly-guessed shortcomings of her poor old father. She shook with horror as much as with indignation, and her “Stop!” blazed out so violently that Mrs. Mant, turning white, feebly groped for the bell.

And it was then, at that very moment, that Charles Hazeldean came in — Charles Hazeldean, the favourite nephew, the pride of the tribe. Lizzie had seen him only once or twice, for he had been absent since her return to New York. She had thought him distinguished-looking, but rather serious and sarcastic; and he had apparently taken little notice of her — which perhaps accounted for her opinion.

“Oh, Charles, dearest Charles — that you should be here to hear such things said to me!” his aunt gasped, her hand on her outraged heart.

“What things? Said by whom? I see no one here to say them but Miss Winter,” Charles had laughed, taking the girl’s icy hand.

“Don’t shake hands with her! She has insulted me! She has ordered me to keep silence — in my own house. “Stop!” she said, when I was trying, in the kindness of my heart, to get her to admit privately . . . Well, if she prefers to have the police . . . ”

“I do! I ask you to send for them!” Lizzie cried.

How vividly she remembered all that followed: the finding of the keys, Mrs. Mant’s reluctant apologies, her own cold acceptance of them, and the sense on both sides of the impossibility of continuing their life together! She had been wounded to the soul, and her own plight first revealed to her in all its destitution. Before that, despite the ups and downs of a wandering life, her youth, her good looks, the sense of a certain bright power over people and events, had hurried her along on a spring tide of confidence; she had never thought of herself as the dependent, the beneficiary, of the persons who were kind to her. Now she saw herself, at twenty, a penniless girl, with a feeble discredited father carrying his snowy head, his unctuous voice, his edifying manner from one cheap watering-place to another, through an endless succession of sentimental and pecuniary entanglements. To him she could be of no more help than he to her; and save for him she was alone. The Winter cousins, as much humiliated by his disgrace as they had been puffed-up by his triumphs, let it be understood, when the breach with Mrs. Mant became known, that they were not in a position to interfere; and among Dr. Winter’s former parishioners none was left to champion him. Almost at the same time, Lizzie heard that he was about to marry a Portuguese opera-singer and be received into the Church of Rome; and this crowning scandal too promptly justified his family.

The situation was a grave one, and called for energetic measures. Lizzie understood it — and a week later she was engaged to Charles Hazeldean.

She always said afterward that but for the keys he would never have thought of marrying her; while he laughingly affirmed that, on the contrary, but for the keys she would never have looked at HIM.

But what did it all matter, in the complete and blessed understanding which was to follow on their hasty union? If all the advantages on both sides had been weighed and found equal by judicious advisers, harmony more complete could hardly have been predicted. As a matter of fact, the advisers, had they been judicious, would probably have found only elements of discord in the characters concerned. Charles Hazeldean was by nature an observer and a student, brooding and curious of mind: Lizzie Winter (as she looked back at herself) — what was she, what would she ever be, but a quick, ephemeral creature, in whom a perpetual and adaptable activity simulated mind, as her grace, her swiftness, her expressiveness simulated beauty? So others would have judged her; so, now, she judged herself. And she knew that in fundamental things she was still the same. And yet she had satisfied him: satisfied him, to all appearances, as completely in the quiet later years as in the first flushed hours. As completely, or perhaps even more so. In the early months, dazzled gratitude made her the humbler, fonder worshipper: but as her powers expanded in the warm air of comprehension, as she felt herself grow handsomer, cleverer, more competent and more companionable than he had hoped, or she had dreamed herself capable of becoming, the balance was imperceptibly reversed, and the triumph in his eyes when they rested on her.

The Hazeldeans were conquered; they had to admit it. such a brilliant recruit to the clan was not to be disowned. Mrs. Mant was left to nurse her grievance in solitude, till she too fell into line, carelessly but handsomely forgiven.

Ah, those first years of triumph! They frightened Lizzie now as she looked back. One day, the friendless defenceless daughter of a discredited man; the next, almost the wife of Charlie Hazeldean, the popular successful young lawyer, with a good practice already assured, and the best of professional and private prospects. His own parents were dead, and had died poor; but two or three childless relatives were understood to be letting their capital accumulate for his benefit, and meanwhile in Lizzie’s thrifty hands his earnings were largely sufficient.

Ah, those first years! There had been barely six; but even now there were moments when their sweetness drenched her to the soul . . . Barely six; and then the sharp re-awakening of an inherited weakness of the heart that Hazeldean and his doctors had imagined to be completely cured. Once before, for the same cause, he had been sent off, suddenly, for a year of travel in mild climates and distant scenes; and his first return had coincided with the close of Lizzie’s sojourn at Mrs. Mant’s. The young man felt sure enough of the future to marry and take up his professional duties again, and for the following six years he had led, without interruption, the busy life of a successful lawyer; then had come a second break-down, more unexpectedly, and with more alarming symptoms. The “Hazeldean heart” was a proverbial boast in the family; the Hazeldeans privately considered it more distinguished than the Sillerton gout, and far more refined than the Wesson liver; and it had permitted most of them to survive, in valetudinarian ease, to a ripe old age, when they died of some quite other disorder. But Charles Hazeldean had defied it, and it took its revenge, and took it savagely.

One by one, hopes and plans faded. The Hazeldeans went south for a winter; he lay on a deck-chair in a Florida garden, and read and dreamed, and was happy with Lizzie beside him. So the months passed; and by the following autumn he was better, returned to New York, and took up his profession. Intermittently but obstinately, he had continued the struggle for two more years; but before they were over husband and wife understood that the good days were done.

He could be at his office only at lengthening intervals; he sank gradually into invalidism without submitting to it. His income dwindled; and, indifferent for himself, he fretted ceaselessly at the thought of depriving Lizzie of the least of her luxuries.

At heart she was indifferent to them too; but she could not convince him of it. He had been brought up in the old New York tradition, which decreed that a man, at whatever cost, must provide his wife with what she had always “been accustomed to”; and he had gloried too much in her prettiness, her elegance, her easy way of wearing her expensive dresses, and his friends’ enjoyment of the good dinners she knew how to order, not to accustom her to everything which could enhance such graces. Mrs. Mant’s secret satisfaction rankled in him. She sent him Baltimore terrapin, and her famous clam broth, and a dozen of the old Hazeldean port, and said “I told you so” to her confidants when Lizzie was mentioned; and Charles Hazeldean knew it, and swore at it.

“I won’t be pauperized by her!” he declared; but Lizzie smiled away his anger, and persuaded him to taste the terrapin and sip the port.

She was smiling faintly at the memory of the last passage between him and Mrs. Mant when the turning of the bedroom door-handle startled her. She jumped up, and he stood there. The blood rushed to her forehead; his expression frightened her; for an instant she stared at him as if he had been an enemy. Then she saw that the look in his face was only the remote lost look of excessive physical pain.

She was at his side at once, supporting him, guiding him to the nearest armchair. He sank into it, and she flung a shawl over him, and knelt at his side while his inscrutable eyes continued to repel her.

“Charles . . . Charles,” she pleaded.

For a while he could not speak; and she said to herself that she would perhaps never know whether he had sought her because he was ill, or whether illness had seized him as he entered her room to question, accuse, or reveal what he had seen or heard that afternoon.

Suddenly he lifted his hand and pressed back her forehead, so that her face lay bare under his eyes.

“Love, love — you’ve been happy?”

“HAPPY?” The word choked her. She clung to him, burying her anguish against his knees. His hand stirred weakly in her hair, and gathering her whole strength into the gesture, she raised her head again, looked into his eyes, and breathed back: “And you?”

He gave her one full look; all their life together was in it, from the first day to the last. His hand brushed her once more, like a blessing, and then dropped. The moment of their communion was over; the next she was preparing remedies, ringing for the servants, ordering the doctor to be called. Her husband was once more the harmless helpless captive that sickness makes of the most dreaded and the most loved.

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