New Year's Day, by Edith Wharton

VII

. . . “She was BAD . . . always. They used to meet at the Fifth Avenue Hotel.”

I must go back now to this phrase of my mother’s — the phrase from which, at the opening of my narrative, I broke away for a time in order to project more vividly on the scene that anxious moving vision of Lizzie Hazeldean: a vision in which memories of my one boyish glimpse of her were pieced together with hints collected afterward.

When my mother uttered her condemnatory judgment I was a young man of twenty-one, newly graduated from Harvard, and at home again under the family roof in New York. It was long since I had heard Mrs. Hazeldean spoken of. I had been away, at school and at Harvard, for the greater part of the interval, and in the holidays she was probably not considered a fitting subject of conversation, especially now that my sisters came to the table.

At any rate, I had forgotten everything I might ever have picked up about her when, on the evening after my return, my cousin Hubert Wesson — now towering above me as a pillar of the Knickerbocker Club, and a final authority on the ways of the world — suggested our joining her at the opera.

“Mrs. Hazeldean? But I don’t know her. What will she think?”

“That it’s all right. Come along. She’s the jolliest woman I know. We’ll go back afterward and have supper with her — jolliest house I know.” Hubert twirled a self-conscious moustache.

We were dining at the Knickerbocker, to which I had just been elected, and the bottle of Pommery we were finishing disposed me to think that nothing could be more fitting for two men of the world than to end their evening in the box of the jolliest woman Hubert knew. I groped for my own moustache, gave a twirl in the void, and followed him, after meticulously sliding my overcoat sleeve around my silk hat as I had seen him do.

But once in Mrs. Hazeldean’s box I was only an overgrown boy again, bathed in such blushes as used, at the same age, to visit Hubert, forgetting that I had a moustache to twirl, and knocking my hat from the peg on which I had just hung it, in my zeal to pick up a programme she had not dropped.

For she was really too lovely — too formidably lovely. I was used by now to mere unadjectived loveliness, the kind that youth and spirits hang like a rosy veil over commonplace features, an average outline and a pointless merriment. But this was something calculated, accomplished, finished — and just a little worn. It frightened me with my first glimpse of the infinity of beauty and the multiplicity of her pit-falls. What! There were women who need not fear crow’s-feet, were more beautiful for being pale, could let a silver hair or two show among the dark, and their eyes brood inwardly while they smiled and chatted? but then no young man was safe for a moment! But then the world I had hitherto known had been only a warm pink nursery, while this new one was a place of darkness, perils and enchantments . . .

It was the next day that one of my sisters asked me where I had been the evening before, and that I puffed out my chest to answer: “With Mrs. Hazeldean — at the opera.” My mother looked up, but did not speak till the governess had swept the girls off; then she said with pinched lips: “Hubert Wesson took you to Mrs. Hazeldean’s box?”

“Yes.”

“Well, a young man may go where he pleases. I hear Hubert is still infatuated; it serves Sabina right for not letting him marry the youngest Lyman girl. But don’t mention Mrs. Hazeldean again before your sisters . . . They say her husband never knew — I suppose if he HAD she would never have got old Miss Cecilia Winter’s money.” And it was then that my mother pronounced the name of Henry Prest, and added that phrase about the Fifth Avenue Hotel which suddenly woke my boyish memories . . .

In a flash I saw again, under its quickly-lowered veil, the face with the exposed eyes and the frozen smile, and felt through my grown-up waistcoat the stab to my boy’s heart and the loosened murmur of my soul; felt all this, and at the same moment tried to relate that former face, so fresh and clear despite its anguish, to the smiling guarded countenance of Hubert’s “Jolliest woman I know.”

I was familiar with Hubert’s indiscriminate use of his one adjective, and had not expected to find Mrs. Hazeldean “jolly” in the literal sense: in the case of the lady he happened to be in love with the epithet simply meant that she justified his choice. Nevertheless, as I compared Mrs. Hazeldean’s earlier face to this one, I had my first sense of what may befall in the long years between youth and maturity, and of how short a distance I had travelled on that mysterious journey. If only she would take me by the hand!

I was not wholly unprepared for my mother’s comment. There was no other lady in Mrs. Hazeldean’s box when we entered; none joined her during the evening, and our hostess offered no apology for her isolation. In the New York of my youth every one knew what to think of a woman who was seen “alone at the opera”; if Mrs. Hazeldean was not openly classed with Fanny Ring, our one conspicuous “professional,” it was because, out of respect for her social origin, New York preferred to avoid such juxtapositions. Young as I was, I knew this social law, and had guessed, before the evening was over, that Mrs. Hazeldean was not a lady on whom other ladies called, though she was not, on the other hand, a lady whom it was forbidden to mention to other ladies. So I did mention her, with bravado.

No ladies showed themselves at the opera with Mrs. Hazeldean; but one or two dropped in to the jolly supper announced by Hubert, an entertainment whose jollity consisted in a good deal of harmless banter over broiled canvas-backs and celery, with the best of champagne. These same ladies I sometimes met at her house afterward. They were mostly younger than their hostess, and still, though precariously, within the social pale: pretty trivial creatures, bored with a monotonous prosperity, and yearning for such unlawful joys as cigarettes, plain speaking, and a drive home in the small hours with the young man of the moment. But such daring spirits were few in old New York, their appearances infrequent and somewhat furtive. Mrs. Hazeldean’s society consisted mainly of men, men of all ages, from her bald or grey-headed contemporaries to youths of Hubert’s accomplished years and raw novices of mine.

A great dignity and decency prevailed in her little circle. It was not the oppressive respectability which weighs on the reformed declassee, but the air of ease imparted by a woman of distinction who has wearied of society and closed her doors to all save her intimates. One always felt, at Lizzie Hazeldean’s, that the next moment one’s grandmother and aunts might be announced; and yet so pleasantly certain that they wouldn’t be.

What is there in the atmosphere of such houses that makes them so enchanting to a fastidious and imaginative youth? Why is it that “those women” (as the others call them) alone know how to put the awkward at ease, check the familiar, smile a little at the over-knowing, and yet encourage naturalness in all? The difference of atmosphere is felt on the very threshold. The flowers grow differently in their vases, the lamps and easy-chairs have found a cleverer way of coming together, the books on the table are the very ones that one is longing to get hold of. The most perilous coquetry may not be in a woman’s way of arranging her dress but in her way of arranging her drawing-room; and in this art Mrs. Hazeldean excelled.

I have spoken of books; even then they were usually the first objects to attract me in a room, whatever else of beauty it contained; and I remember, on the evening of that first “jolly supper,” coming to an astonished pause before the crowded shelves that took up one wall of the drawing room. What! The goddess read, then? She could accompany one on those flights too? Lead one, no doubt? My heart beat high . . .

But I soon learned that Lizzie Hazeldean did not read. She turned but languidly even the pages of the last Ouida novel: and I remember seeing Mallock’s ‘New Republic’ uncut on her table for weeks. It took me no long time to make the discovery: at my very next visit she caught my glance of surprise in the direction of the rich shelves, smiled, coloured a little, and met it with the confession: “No, I can’t read them. I’ve tried — I HAVE tried — but print makes me sleepy. Even novels do . . . ” “They” were the accumulated treasures of English poetry, and a rich and varied selection of history, criticism, letters, in English, French and Italian — she spoke these languages, I knew — books evidently assembled by a sensitive and widely-ranging reader. We were alone at the time, and Mrs. Hazeldean went on in a lower tone: “I kept just the few he liked best — my husband, you know.” It was the first time that Charles Hazeldean’s name had been spoken between us, and my surprise was so great that my candid cheek must have reflected the blush on hers. I had fancied that women in her situation avoided alluding to their husbands. But she continued to look at me, wistfully, humbly almost, as if there were something more that she wanted to say, and was inwardly entreating me to understand.

“He was a great reader: a student. And he tried so hard to make me read too — he wanted to share everything with me. And I DID like poetry — some poetry — when he read it aloud to me. After his death I thought: ‘There’ll be his books. I can go back to them — I shall find him there.’ And I tried — oh, so hard — but it’s no use. They’ve lost their meaning . . . as most things have.” She stood up, lit a cigarette, pushed back a log on the hearth. I felt that she was waiting for me to speak. If life had but taught me how to answer her, what was there of her story I might not have learned? But I was too inexperienced; I could not shake off my bewilderment. What! This woman whom I had been pitying for matrimonial miseries which seemed to justify her seeking solace elsewhere — this woman could speak of her husband in such a tone! I had instantly perceived that the tone was not feigned; and a confused sense of the complexity — or the chaos — of human relations held me as tongue-tied as a schoolboy to whom a problem beyond his grasp is suddenly propounded.

Before the thought took shape she had read it, and with the smile which drew such sad lines about her mouth, had continued gaily: “What are you up to this evening, by the way? What do you say to going to the “Black Crook” with your cousin Hubert and one or two others? I have a box.”

It was inevitable that, not long after this candid confession, I should have persuaded myself that a taste for reading was boring in a woman, and that one of Mrs. Hazeldean’s chief charms lay in her freedom from literary pretensions. The truth was, of course, that it lay in her sincerity; in her humble yet fearless estimate of her own qualities and short-comings. I had never met its like in a woman of any age, and coming to me in such early days, and clothed in such looks and intonations, it saved me, in after years, from all peril of meaner beauties.

But before I had come to understand that, or to guess what falling in love with Lizzie Hazeldean was to do for me, I had quite unwittingly and fatuously done the falling. The affair turned out, in the perspective of the years, to be but an incident of our long friendship; and if I touch on it here it is only to illustrate another of my poor friend’s gifts. If she could not read books she could read hearts; and she bent a playful yet compassionate gaze on mine while it still floundered in unawareness.

I remember it all as if it were yesterday. We were sitting alone in her drawing-room, in the winter twilight, over the fire. We had reached — in her company it was not difficult — the degree of fellowship when friendly talk lapses naturally into a friendlier silence, and she had taken up the evening paper while I glowered dumbly at the embers. One little foot, just emerging below her dress, swung, I remember, between me and the fire, and seemed to hold her all in the spring of its instep . . .

“Oh,” she exclaimed, “poor Henry Prest — ”. She dropped the paper. “His wife is dead — poor fellow,” she said simply.

The blood rushed to my forehead: my heart was in my throat. She had named him — named him at last, the recreant lover, the man who had “dishonoured” her! My hands were clenched: if he had entered the room they would have been at his throat . . .

And then, after a quick interval, I had again the humiliating disheartening sense of not understanding: of being too young, too inexperienced, to know. This woman, who spoke of her deceived husband with tenderness, spoke compassionately of her faithless lover! And she did the one as naturally as the other, not as if this impartial charity were an attitude she had determined to assume, but as if it were part of the lesson life had taught her.

“I didn’t know he was married,” I growled between my teeth.

She meditated absently. “Married? Oh, yes; when was it? The year after . . . ” her voice dropped again . . . “after my husband died. He married a quiet cousin, who had always been in love with him, I believe. They had two boys. — You knew him?” she abruptly questioned.

I nodded grimly.

“People always thought he would never marry — he used to say so himself,” she went on, still absently.

I burst out: “The — hound!”

“OH!” she exclaimed. I started up, our eyes met, and hers filled with tears of reproach and understanding. We sat looking at each other in silence. Two of the tears overflowed, hung on her lashes, melted down her cheeks. I continued to stare at her shamefacedly; then I got to my feet, drew out my handkerchief, and tremblingly, reverently, as if I had touched a sacred image, I wiped them away.

My love-making went no farther. In another moment she had contrived to put a safe distance between us. She did not want to turn a boy’s head; long since (she told me afterward) such amusements had ceased to excite her. But she did want my sympathy, wanted it overwhelmingly: amid the various feelings she was aware of arousing, she let me see that sympathy, in the sense of a moved understanding, had always been lacking. “But then,” she added ingenuously, “I’ve never really been sure, because I’ve never told anyone my story. Only I take it for granted that, if I haven’t, it’s THEIR fault rather than mine . . . ” She smiled half-deprecatingly, and my bosom swelled, acknowledging the distinction. “And now I want to tell YOU— ” she began.

I have said that my love for Mrs. Hazeldean was a brief episode in our long relation. At my age, it was inevitable that it should be so. The “fresher face” soon came, and in its light I saw my old friend as a middle-aged woman, turning grey, with a mechanical smile and haunted eyes. But it was in the first glow of my feeling that she had told me her story; and when the glow subsided, and in the afternoon light of a long intimacy I judged and tested her statements, I found that each detail fitted into the earlier picture.

My opportunities were many; for once she had told the tale she always wanted to be retelling it. A perpetual longing to relive the past, a perpetual need to explain and justify herself — the satisfaction of these two cravings, once she had permitted herself to indulge them, became the luxury of her empty life. She had kept it empty — emotionally, sentimentally empty — from the day of her husband’s death, as the guardian of an abandoned temple might go on forever sweeping and tending what had once been the god’s abode. But this duty performed, she had no other. She had done one great — or abominable — thing; rank it as you please, it had been done heroically. But there was nothing in her to keep her at that height. Her tastes, her interests, her conceivable occupations, were all on the level of a middling domesticity; she did not know how to create for herself any inner life in keeping with that one unprecedented impulse.

Soon after her husband’s death, one of her cousins, the Miss Cecilia Winter of Washington Square to whom my mother had referred, had died also, and left Mrs. Hazeldean a handsome legacy. And a year or two later Charles Hazeldean’s small estate had undergone the favourable change that befell New York realty in the ‘eighties. The property he had bequeathed to his wife had doubled, then tripled, in value; and she found herself, after a few years of widowhood, in possession of an income large enough to supply her with all the luxuries which her husband had struggled so hard to provide. It was the peculiar irony of her lot to be secured from temptation when all danger of temptation was over; for she would never, I am certain, have held out the tip of her finger to any man to obtain such luxuries for her own enjoyment. But if she did not value her money for itself, she owed to it — and the service was perhaps greater than she was aware — the power of mitigating her solitude, and filling it with the trivial distractions without which she was less and less able to live.

She had been put into the world, apparently, to amuse men and enchant them; yet, her husband dead, her sacrifice accomplished, she would have preferred, I am sure, to shut herself up in a lonely monumental attitude, with thoughts and pursuits on a scale with her one great hour. But what was she to do? She had known of no way of earning money except by her graces; and now she knew no way of filling her days except with cards and chatter and theatre-going. Not one of the men who approached her passed beyond the friendly barrier she had opposed to me. Of that I was sure. She had not shut out Henry Prest in order to replace him — her face grew white at the suggestion. But what else was there to do, she asked me; what? The days had to be spent somehow; and she was incurably, disconsolately sociable.

So she lived, in a cold celibacy that passed for I don’t know what licence; so she lived, withdrawn from us all, yet needing us so desperately, inwardly faithful to her one high impulse, yet so incapable of attuning her daily behaviour to it! And so, at the very moment when she ceased to deserve the blame of society, she found herself cut off from it, and reduced to the status of the “fast” widow noted for her jolly suppers.

I bent bewildered over the depths of her plight. What else, at any stage of her career, could she have done, I often wondered? Among the young women now growing up about me I find none with enough imagination to picture the helpless incapacity of the pretty girl of the ‘seventies, the girl without money or vocation, seemingly put into the world only to please, and unlearned in any way of maintaining herself there by her own efforts. Marriage alone could save such a girl from starvation, unless she happened to run across an old lady who wanted her dogs exercised and her ‘Churchman’ read aloud to her. Even the day of painting wild-roses on fans, of colouring photographs to “look like” miniatures, of manufacturing lamp-shades and trimming hats for more fortunate friends — even this precarious beginning of feminine independence had not dawned. It was inconceivable to my mother’s generation that a portionless girl should not be provided for by her relations until she found a husband; and that, having found him, she should have to help him to earn a living, was more inconceivable still. The self-sufficing little society of that vanished New York attached no great importance to wealth, but regarded poverty as so distasteful that it simply took no account of it.

These things pleaded in favour of poor Lizzie Hazeldean, though to superficial observers her daily life seemed to belie the plea. She had known no way of smoothing her husband’s last years but by being false to him; but once he was dead, she expiated her betrayal by a rigidity of conduct for which she asked no reward but her own inner satisfaction. As she grew older, and her friends scattered, married, or were kept away from one cause or another, she filled her depleted circle with a less fastidious hand. One met in her drawing-room dull men, common men, men who too obviously came there because they were not invited elsewhere, and hoped to use her as a social stepping-stone. She was aware of the difference — her eyes said so whenever I found one of these new-comers installed in my arm-chair — but never, by word or sign, did she admit it. She said to me once: “You find it duller here than it used to be. It’s my fault, perhaps; I think I knew better how to draw out my old friends.” And another day: “Remember, the people you meet here now come out of kindness. I’m an old woman, and I consider nothing else.” That was all.

She went more assiduously than ever to the theatre and the opera; she performed for her friends a hundred trivial services; in her eagerness to be always busy she invented superfluous attentions, oppressed people by offering assistance they did not need, verged at times — for all her tact — on the officiousness of the desperately lonely. At her little suppers she surprised us with exquisite flowers and novel delicacies. The champagne and cigars grew better and better as the quality of the guests declined; and sometimes, as the last of her dull company dispersed, I used to see her, among the scattered ash-trays and liqueur decanters, turn a stealthy glance at her reflection in the mirror, with haggard eyes which seemed to ask: “Will even THESE come back to-morrow?”

I should be loth to leave the picture at this point; my last vision of her is more satisfying. I had been away, travelling for a year at the other end of the world; the day I came back I ran across Hubert Wesson at my club. Hubert had grown pompous and heavy. He drew me into a corner, and said, turning red, and glancing cautiously over his shoulder: “Have you seen our old friend Mrs. Hazeldean? She’s very ill, I hear.”

I was about to take up the “I hear”; then I remembered that in my absence Hubert had married, and that his caution was probably a tribute to his new state. I hurried at once to Mrs. Hazeldean’s; and on her door-step, to my surprise, I ran against a Catholic priest, who looked gravely at me, bowed and passed out.

I was unprepared for such an encounter, for my old friend had never spoken to me of religious matters. The spectacle of her father’s career had presumably shaken whatever incipient faith was in her; though in her little-girlhood, as she often told me, she had been as deeply impressed by Dr. Winter’s eloquence as any grown-up member of his flock. But now, as soon as I laid eyes on her, I understood. She was very ill, she was visibly dying; and in her extremity, fate, not always kind, had sent her the solace which she needed. Had some obscure inheritance of religious feeling awaked in her? Had she remembered that her poor father, after his long life of mental and moral vagabondage, had finally found rest in the ancient fold? I never knew the explanation — she probably never knew it herself.

But she knew that she had found what she wanted. At last she could talk of Charles, she could confess her sin, she could be absolved of it. Since cards and suppers and chatter were over, what more blessed barrier could she find against solitude? All her life, henceforth, was a long preparation for that daily hour of expansion and consolation. And then this merciful visitor, who understood her so well, could also tell her things about Charles: knew where he was, how he felt, what exquisite daily attentions could still be paid to him, and how, with all unworthiness washed away, she might at last hope to reach him. Heaven could never seem strange, so interpreted; each time that I saw her, during the weeks of her slow fading, she was more and more like a traveller with her face turned homeward, yet smilingly resigned to await her summons. The house no longer seemed lonely, nor the hours tedious; there had even been found for her, among the books she had so often tried to read, those books which had long looked at her with such hostile faces, two or three (they were always on her bed) containing messages from the world where Charles was waiting.

Thus provided and led, one day she went to him.

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