New Year's Day, by Edith Wharton

VI

It was in Mrs. Mant’s drawing-room that, some half-year later, Mrs. Charles Hazeldean, after a moment’s hesitation, said to the servant that, yes, he might show in Mr. Prest.

Mrs. Mant was away. She had been leaving for Washington to visit a new protégée when Mrs. Hazeldean arrived from Europe, and after a rapid consultation with the clan had decided that it would not be “decent” to let poor Charles’s widow go to an hotel. Lizzie had therefore the strange sensation of returning, after nearly nine years, to the house from which her husband had triumphantly rescued her; of returning there, to be sure, in comparative independence, and without danger of falling into her former bondage, yet with every nerve shrinking from all that the scene revived.

Mrs. Mant, the next day, had left for Washington; but before starting she had tossed a note across the breakfast-table to her visitor.

“Very proper — he was one of Charlie’s oldest friends, I believe?” she said, with her mild frosty smile. Mrs. Hazeldean glanced at the note, turned it over as if to examine the signature, and restored it to her hostess.

“Yes. But I don’t think I care to see anyone just yet.”

There was a pause, during which the butler brought in fresh griddle-cakes, replenished the hot milk, and withdrew. As the door closed on him, Mrs. Mant said, with a dangerous cordiality: “No one would misunderstand your receiving an old friend of your husband’s . . . like Mr. Prest.”

Lizzie Hazeldean cast a sharp glance at the large empty mysterious face across the table. They WANTED her to receive Henry Prest, then? Ah, well . . . perhaps she understood . . .

“Shall I answer this for you, my dear? Or will you?” Mrs. Mant pursued.

“Oh, as you like. But don’t fix a day, please. Later — ”

Mrs. Mant’s face again became vacuous. She murmured: “You must not shut yourself up too much. It will not do to be morbid. I’m sorry to have to leave you here alone — ”

Lizzie’s eyes filled: Mrs. Mant’s sympathy seemed more cruel than her cruelty. Every word that she used had a veiled taunt for its counterpart.

“Oh, you mustn’t think of giving up your visit — ”

“My dear, how can I? It’s a DUTY. I’ll send a line to Henry Prest, then . . . If you would sip a little port at luncheon and dinner we should have you looking less like a ghost . . . ”

Mrs. Mant departed; and two days later — the interval was “decent” — Mr. Henry Prest was announced. Mrs. Hazeldean had not seen him since the previous New Year’s day. Their last words had been exchanged in Mrs. Struthers’s crimson boudoir, and since then half a year had elapsed. Charles Hazeldean had lingered for a fortnight; but though there had been ups and downs, and intervals of hope when none could have criticised his wife for seeing her friends, her door had been barred against everyone. She had not excluded Henry Prest more rigorously than the others; he had simply been one of the many who received, day by day, the same answer: “Mrs. Hazeldean sees no one but the family.”

Almost immediately after her husband’s death she had sailed for Europe on a long-deferred visit to her father, who was now settled at Nice; but from this expedition she had presumably brought back little comfort, for when she arrived in New York her relations were struck by her air of ill-health and depression. It spoke in her favour, however; they were agreed that she was behaving with propriety.

She looked at Henry Prest as if he were a stranger: so difficult was it, at the first moment, to fit his robust and splendid person into the region of twilight shades which, for the last months, she had inhabited. She was beginning to find that everyone had an air of remoteness; she seemed to see people and life through the confusing blur of the long crape veil in which it was a widow’s duty to shroud her affliction. But she gave him her hand without perceptible reluctance.

He lifted it toward his lips, in an obvious attempt to combine gallantry with condolence, and then, half-way up, seemed to feel that the occasion required him to release it.

“Well — you’ll admit that I’ve been patient!” he exclaimed.

“Patient? Yes. What else was there to be?” she rejoined with a faint smile, as he seated himself beside her, a little too near.

“Oh, well . . . of course! I understood all that. I hope you’ll believe. But mightn’t you at least have answered my letters — one or two of them?

She shook her head. “I couldn’t write.”

“Not to anyone? Or not to me?” he queried, with ironic emphasis.

“I wrote only the letters I had to — no others.”

“Ah, I see.” He laughed slightly. “And you didn’t consider that letters to ME were among them?”

She was silent, and he stood up and took a turn across the room. His face was redder than usual, and now and then a twitch passed over it. She saw that he felt the barrier of her crape, and that it left him baffled and resentful. A struggle was still perceptibly going on in him between his traditional standard of behaviour at such a meeting, and primitive impulses renewed by the memory of their last hours together. When he turned back and paused before her his ruddy flush had paled, and he stood there, frowning, uncertain, and visibly resenting the fact that she made him so.

“You sit there like a stone!” he said.

“I feel like a stone.”

“Oh, come —!”

She knew well enough what he was thinking: that the only way to bridge over such a bad beginning was to get the woman into your arms — and talk afterward. It was the classic move. He had done it dozens of times, no doubt, and was evidently asking himself why the deuce he couldn’t do it now . . . But something in her look must have benumbed him. He sat down again beside her.

“What you must have been through, dearest!” He waited and coughed. “I can understand your being — all broken up. But I know nothing; remember, I know nothing as to what actually happened . . . ”

“Nothing happened.”

“As to — what we feared? No hint —?”

She shook her head.

He cleared his throat before the next question. “And you don’t think that in your absence he may have spoken — to anyone?”

“Never!”

“Then, my dear, we seem to have had the most unbelievable good luck; and I can’t see — ”

He had edged slowly nearer, and now laid a large ringed hand on her sleeve. How well she knew those rings — the two dull gold snakes with malevolent jewelled eyes! She sat as motionless as if their coils were about her, till slowly his tentative grasp relaxed.

“Lizzie, you know” — his tone was discouraged — “this is morbid . . . ”

“Morbid?”

“When you’re safe out of the worst scrape . . . and free, my darling, FREE! Don’t you realize it? I suppose the strain’s been too much for you; but I want you to feel that now — ”

She stood up suddenly, and put half the length of the room between them.

“Stop! Stop! Stop!” she almost screamed, as she had screamed long ago at Mrs. Mant.

He stood up also, darkly red under his rich sunburn, and forced a smile.

“Really,” he protested, “all things considered — and after a separation of six months!” She was silent. “My dear,” he continued mildly, “will you tell me what you expect me to think?”

“Oh, don’t take that tone,” she murmured.

“What tone?”

“As if — as if — you still imagined we could go back — ”

She saw his face fall. Had he ever before, she wondered, stumbled upon an obstacle in that smooth walk of his? It flashed over her that this was the danger besetting men who had a “way with women” — the day came when they might follow it too blindly.

The reflection evidently occurred to him almost as soon as it did to her. He summoned another propitiatory smile, and drawing near, took her hand gently. “But I don’t want to go back . . . I want to go forward, dearest . . . Now that at last you’re free.”

She seized on the word as if she had been waiting for her cue. “Free! Oh, that’s it — FREE! Can’t you see, can’t you understand, that I mean to stay free?”

Again a shadow of distrust crossed his face, and the smile he had begun for her reassurance seemed to remain on his lips for his own.

“But of course! Can you imagine that I want to put you in chains? I want you to be as free as you please — free to love me as much as you choose!” He was visibly pleased with the last phrase.

She drew away her hand, but not unkindly. “I’m sorry — I AM sorry, Henry. But you don’t understand.”

“What don’t I understand?”

“That what you ask is quite impossible — ever. I can’t go on . . . in the old way . . . ”

She saw his face working nervously. “In the old way? You mean —?” Before she could explain he hurried on with an increasing majesty of manner: “Don’t answer! I see — I understand. When you spoke of freedom just now I was misled for a moment — I frankly own I was — into thinking that, after your wretched marriage, you might prefer discreeter ties . . . an apparent independence which would leave us both . . . I say APPARENT, for on my side there has never been the least wish to conceal . . . But if I was mistaken, if on the contrary what you wish is . . . is to take advantage of your freedom to regularize our . . . our attachment . . . ”

She said nothing, not because she had any desire to have him complete the phrase, but because she found nothing to say. To all that concerned their common past she was aware of offering a numbed soul. But her silence evidently perplexed him, and in his perplexity he began to lose his footing, and to flounder in a sea of words.

“Lizzie! Do you hear me? If I was mistaken, I say — and I hope I’m not above owning that at times I MAY be mistaken; if I was — why, by God, my dear, no woman ever heard me speak the words before; but here I am to have and to hold, as the Book says! Why, hadn’t you realized it? Lizzie, look up —! I’M ASKING YOU TO MARRY ME.”

Still for a moment, she made no reply, but stood gazing about her as if she had the sudden sense of unseen presences between them. At length she gave a faint laugh. It visibly ruffled her visitor.

“I’m not conscious,” he began again, “of having said anything particularly laughable — ” He stopped and scrutinized her narrowly, as though checked by the thought that there might be something not quite normal . . . Then, apparently reassured, he half-murmured his only French phrase: “La joie fait peur . . . eh?”

She did not seem to hear. “I wasn’t laughing at you,” she said, “but only at the coincidences of life. It was in this room that my husband asked me to marry him.”

“Ah?” Her suitor appeared politely doubtful of the good taste, or the opportunity, of producing this reminiscence. But he made another call on his magnanimity. “Really? But, I say, my dear, I couldn’t be expected to know it, could I? If I’d guessed that such a painful association — ”

“Painful?” She turned upon him. “A painful association? Do you think that was what I meant?” Her voice sank. “This room is sacred to me.”

She had her eyes on his face, which, perhaps because of its architectural completeness, seemed to lack the mobility necessary to follow such a leap of thought. It was so ostensibly a solid building, and not a nomad’s tent. He struggled with a ruffled pride, rose again to playful magnanimity, and murmured: “Compassionate angel!”

“Oh, compassionate? To whom? Do you imagine — did I ever say anything to make you doubt the truth of what I’m telling you?”

His brows fretted: his temper was up. “SAY anything? No,” he insinuated ironically; then, in a hasty plunge after his lost forbearance, added with exquisite mildness: “Your tact was perfect . . . always. I’ve invariably done you that justice. No one could have been more thoroughly the . . . the lady. I never failed to admire your good-breeding in avoiding any reference to your . . . your other life.”

She faced him steadily. “Well, that other life WAS my life — my only life! Now you know.”

There was a silence. Henry Prest drew out a monogrammed handkerchief and passed it over his dry lips. As he did so, a whiff of his eau de Cologne reached her, and she winced a little. It was evident that he was seeking what to say next; wondering, rather helplessly, how to get back his lost command of the situation. He finally induced his features to break again into a persuasive smile.

“Not your ONLY life, dearest,” he reproached her.

She met it instantly. “Yes; so you thought — because I chose you should.”

“You chose —?” The smile became incredulous.

“Oh, deliberately. But I suppose I’ve no excuse that you would not dislike to hear . . . Why shouldn’t we break off now?”

“Break off . . . this conversation?” His tone was aggrieved. “Of course I’ve no wish to force myself — ”

She interrupted him with a raised hand. “Break off for good, Henry.”

“For good?” He stared, and gave a quick swallow, as though the dose were choking him. “For good? Are you really —? You and I? Is this serious, Lizzie?”

“Perfectly. But if you prefer to hear . . . what can only be painful . . . ”

He straightened himself, threw back his shoulders, and said in an uncertain voice: “I hope you don’t take me for a coward.”

She made no direct reply, but continued: “Well, then, you thought I loved you, I suppose — ”

He smiled again, revived his moustache with a slight twist, and gave a hardly perceptible shrug. “You . . . ah . . . managed to produce the illusion . . . ”

“Oh, well, yes: a woman CAN— so easily! That’s what men often forget. You thought I was a lovelorn mistress; and I was only an expensive prostitute.”

“Elizabeth!” he gasped, pale now to the ruddy eyelids. She saw that the word had wounded more than his pride, and that, before realizing the insult to his love, he was shuddering at the offence to his taste. Mistress! Prostitute! Such words were banned. No one reproved coarseness of language in women more than Henry Prest; one of Mrs. Hazeldean’s greatest charms (as he had just told her) had been her way of remaining, “through it all,” so ineffably “the lady.” He looked at her as if a fresh doubt of her sanity had assailed him.

“Shall I go on?” she smiled.

He bent his head stiffly. “I am still at a loss to imagine for what purpose you made a fool of me.”

“Well, then, it was as I say. I wanted money — money for my husband.”

He moistened his lips. “For your husband?”

“Yes; when he began to be so ill; when he needed comforts, luxury, the opportunity to get away. He saved me, when I was a girl, from untold humiliation and wretchedness. No one else lifted a finger to help me — not one of my own family. I hadn’t a penny or a friend. Mrs. Mant had grown sick of me, and was trying to find an excuse to throw me over. Oh, you don’t know what a girl has to put up with — a girl alone in the world — who depends for her clothes, and her food, and the roof over her head, on the whims of a vain capricious old woman! It was because HE knew, because he understood, that he married me . . . He took me out of misery into blessedness. He put me up above them all . . . he put me beside himself. I didn’t care for anything but that; I didn’t care for the money or the freedom; I cared only for him. I would have followed him into the desert — I would have gone barefoot to be with him. I would have starved, begged, done anything for him — ANYTHING.” She broke off, her voice lost in a sob. She was no longer aware of Prest’s presence — all her consciousness was absorbed in the vision she had evoked. “It was HE who cared — who wanted me to be rich and independent and admired! He wanted to heap everything on me — during the first years I could hardly persuade him to keep enough money for himself . . . And then he was taken ill; and as he got worse, and gradually dropped out of affairs, his income grew smaller, and then stopped altogether; and all the while there were new expenses piling up — nurses, doctors, travel; and he grew frightened; frightened not for himself but for me . . . And what was I to do? I had to pay for things somehow. For the first year I managed to put off paying — then I borrowed small sums here and there. But that couldn’t last. And all the while I had to keep on looking pretty and prosperous, or else he began to worry, and think we were ruined, and wonder what would become of me if he didn’t get well. By the time you came I was desperate — I would have done anything, anything! He thought the money came from my Portuguese stepmother. She really was rich, as it happens. Unluckily my poor father tried to invest her money, and lost it all; but when they were first married she sent a thousand dollars — and all the rest, all you gave me, I built on that.”

She paused pantingly, as if her tale were at an end. Gradually her consciousness of present things returned, and she saw Henry Prest, as if far off, a small indistinct figure looming through the mist of her blurred eyes. She thought to herself: “He doesn’t believe me,” and the thought exasperated her.

“You wonder, I suppose,” she began again, “that a woman should dare confess such things about herself — ”

He cleared his throat. “About herself? No; perhaps not. But about her husband.”

The blood rushed to her forehead. “About her husband? But you don’t dare to imagine —?”

“You leave me,” he rejoined icily, “no other inference that I can see.” She stood dumbfounded, and he added: “At any rate, it certainly explains your extraordinary coolness — pluck, I used to think it. I perceive that I needn’t have taken such precautions.”

She considered this. “You think, then, that he knew? You think, perhaps, that I knew he did?” She pondered again painfully, and then her face lit up. “He never knew — never! That’s enough for me — and for you it doesn’t matter. Think what you please. He was happy to the end — that’s all I care for.”

“There can be no doubt about your frankness,” he said with pinched lips.

“There’s no longer any reason for not being frank.”

He picked up his hat, and studiously considered its lining; then he took the gloves he had laid in it, and drew them thoughtfully through his hands. She thought: “Thank God, he’s going!”

But he set the hat and gloves down on a table, and moved a little nearer to her. His face looked as ravaged as a reveller’s at daybreak.

“You — leave positively nothing to the imagination!” he murmured.

“I told you it was useless — ” she began; but he interrupted her: “Nothing, that is — if I believed you.” He moistened his lips again, and tapped them with his handkerchief. Again she had a whiff of the eau de Cologne. “But I don’t! he proclaimed. “Too many memories . . . too many . . . proofs, my dearest . . . ” He stopped, smiling somewhat convulsively. She saw that he imagined the smile would soothe her.

She remained silent, and he began once more, as if appealing to her against her own verdict: “I know better, Lizzie. In spite of everything, I KNOW YOU’RE NOT THAT KIND OF WOMAN.”

“I took your money — ”

“As a favour. I knew the difficulties of your position . . . I understood completely. I beg of you never again to allude to — all that.” It dawned on her that anything would be more endurable to him than to think he had been a dupe — and one of two dupes! The part was not one that he could conceive of having played. His pride was up in arms to defend her, not so much for her sake as for his own. The discovery gave her a baffling sense of helplessness; against that impenetrable self-sufficiency all her affirmations might spend themselves in vain.

“No man who has had the privilege of being loved by you could ever for a moment . . . ”

She raised her head and looked at him. “You have never had that privilege,” she interrupted.

His jaw fell. She saw his eyes pass from uneasy supplication to a cold anger. He gave a little inarticulate grunt before his voice came back to him.

“You spare no pains in degrading yourself in my eyes.”

“I am not degrading myself. I am telling you the truth. I needed money. I knew no way of earning it. You were willing to give it . . . for what you call the privilege . . . ”

“Lizzie,” he interrupted solemnly, “don’t go on! I believe I enter into all your feelings — I believe I always have. In so sensitive, so hypersensitive a nature, there are moments when every other feeling is swept away by scruples . . . For those scruples I only honour you the more. But I won’t hear another word now. If I allowed you to go on in your present state of . . . nervous exaltation . . . you might be the first to deplore . . . I wish to forget everything you have said . . . I wish to look forward, not back . . .: He squared his shoulders, took a deep breath, and fixed her with a glance of recovered confidence. “How little you know me if you believe that I could fail you NOW!”

She returned his look with a weary steadiness. “You are kind — you mean to be generous, I’m sure. But don’t you see that I CAN’T marry you?”

“I only see that, in the natural rush of your remorse — ”

“Remorse? Remorse?” She broke in with a laugh. “Do you imagine I feel any remorse? I’d do it all over again tomorrow — for the same object! I got what I wanted — I gave him that last year, that last good year. It was the relief from anxiety that kept him alive, that kept him happy. Oh, he WAS happy — I know that!” She turned to Prest with a strange smile. “I do thank you for that — I’m not ungrateful.”

“You . . . you . . . UNGRATEFUL? This . . . is really . . . indecent . . . ” He took up his hat again, and stood in the middle of the room as if waiting to be waked from a bad dream.

“You are — rejecting an opportunity — ” he began.

She made a faint motion of assent.

“You do realize it? I’m still prepared to — to help you, if you should . . . ” She made no answer, and he continued: “How do you expect to live — since you have chosen to drag in such considerations?”

“I don’t care how I live. I never wanted the money for myself.”

He raised a deprecating hand. “Oh, don’t — AGAIN! The woman I had meant to . . . ” Suddenly, to her surprise, she saw a glitter of moisture on his lower lids. He applied his handkerchief to them, and the waft of scent checked her momentary impulse of compunction. That Cologne water! It called up picture after picture with a hideous precision. “Well, it was worth it,” she murmured doggedly.

Henry Prest restored his handkerchief to his pocket. He waited, glanced about the room, turned back to her.

“If your decision is final — ”

“Oh, final!”

He bowed. “There is one thing more — which I should have mentioned if you had ever given me the opportunity of seeing you after — after last New Year’s day. Something I preferred not to commit to writing — ”

“Yes?” she questioned indifferently.

“Your husband, you are positively convinced had no idea . . . that day . . .?”

“None.”

“Well, others, it appears, had.” He paused. “Mrs. Wesson saw us.”

“So I supposed. I remember now that she went out of her way to cut me that evening at Mrs. Struthers’s.”

“Exactly. And she was not the only person who saw us. If people had not been disarmed by your husband’s falling ill that very day you would have found yourself — ostracized.”

She made no comment, and he pursued, with a last effort: “In your grief, your solitude, you haven’t yet realized what your future will be — how difficult. It is what I wished to guard you against — it was my purpose in asking you to marry me.” He drew himself up and smiled as if he were looking at his own reflection in a mirror, and thought favourably of it. “A man who has had the misfortune to compromise a woman is bound in honour — Even if my own inclination were not what it is, I should consider . . . ”

She turned to him with a softened smile. Yes, he had really brought himself to think that he was proposing to marry her to save her reputation. At this glimpse of the old hackneyed axioms on which he actually believed that his conduct was based, she felt anew her remoteness from the life he would have drawn her back to.

“My poor Henry, don’t you see how far I’ve got beyond the Mrs. Wessons? If all New York wants to ostracize me, let it! I’ve had my day . . . no woman has more than one. Why shouldn’t I have to pay for it? I’m ready.”

“Good heavens!” he murmured.

She was aware that he had put forth his last effort. The wound she had inflicted had gone to the most vital spot; she had prevented his being magnanimous, and the injury was unforgivable. He was glad, yes, actually glad now, to have her know that New York meant to cut her; but, strive as she might, she could not bring herself to care either for the fact, or for his secret pleasure in it. Her own secret pleasures were beyond New York’s reach and his.

“I’m sorry,” she reiterated gently. He bowed, without trying to take her hand, and left the room.

As the door closed she looked after him with a dazed stare. “He’s right, I suppose; I don’t realize yet — ” She heard the shutting of the outer door, and dropped to the sofa, pressing her hands against her aching eyes. At that moment, for the first time, she asked herself what the next day, and the next, would be like . . .

“If only I cared more about reading,” she moaned, remembering how vainly she had tried to acquire her husband’s tastes, and how gently and humorously he had smiled at her efforts. “Well — there are always cards; and when I get older, knitting and patience, I suppose. And if everybody cuts me I shan’t need any evening dresses. That will be an economy, at any rate,” she concluded with a little shiver.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/new_years_day/chapter6.html

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