Sanctuary, by Edith Wharton

II

With the sunset in their faces they swept through the keen-scented autumn air at the swiftest pace of Kate’s ponies. She had given the reins to Peyton, and he had turned the horses’ heads away from the lake, rising by woody upland lanes to the high pastures which still held the sunlight. The horses were fresh enough to claim his undivided attention, and he drove in silence, his smooth fair profile turned to his companion, who sat silent also.

Kate Orme was engaged in one of those rapid mental excursions which were forever sweeping her from the straight path of the actual into uncharted regions of conjecture. Her survey of life had always been marked by the tendency to seek out ultimate relations, to extend her researches to the limit of her imaginative experience. But hitherto she had been like some young captive brought up in a windowless palace whose painted walls she takes for the actual world. Now the palace had been shaken to its base, and through a cleft in the walls she looked out upon life. For the first moment all was indistinguishable blackness; then she began to detect vague shapes and confused gestures in the depths. There were people below there, men like Denis, girls like herself — for under the unlikeness she felt the strange affinity — all struggling in that awful coil of moral darkness, with agonized hands reaching up for rescue. Her heart shrank from the horror of it, and then, in a passion of pity, drew back to the edge of the abyss. Suddenly her eyes turned toward Denis. His face was grave, but less disturbed. And men knew about these things! They carried this abyss in their bosoms, and went about smiling, and sat at the feet of innocence. Could it be that Denis — Denis even — Ah, no! She remembered what he had been to poor Arthur; she understood, now, the vague allusions to what he had tried to do for his brother. He had seen Arthur down there, in that coiling blackness, and had leaned over and tried to drag him out. But Arthur was too deep down, and his arms were interlocked with other arms — they had dragged each other deeper, poor souls, like drowning people who fight together in the waves! Kate’s visualizing habit gave a hateful precision and persistency to the image she had evoked — she could not rid herself of the vision of anguished shapes striving together in the darkness. The horror of it took her by the throat — she drew a choking breath, and felt the tears on her face.

Peyton turned to her. The horses were climbing a hill, and his attention had strayed from them.

“This has done me good,” he began; but as he looked his voice changed. “Kate! What is it? Why are you crying? Oh, for God’s sake, don’t!” he ended, his hand closing on her wrist.

She steadied herself and raised her eyes to his.

“I— I couldn’t help it,” she stammered, struggling in the sudden release of her pent compassion. “It seems so awful that we should stand so close to this horror — that it might have been you who — ”

“I who — what on earth do you mean?” he broke in stridently.

“Oh, don’t you see? I found myself exulting that you and I were so far from it — above it — safe in ourselves and each other — and then the other feeling came — the sense of selfishness, of going by on the other side; and I tried to realize that it might have been you and I who — who were down there in the night and the flood — ”

Peyton let the whip fall on the ponies’ flanks. “Upon my soul,” he said with a laugh, “you must have a nice opinion of both of us.”

The words fell chillingly on the blaze of her self-immolation. Would she never learn to remember that Denis was incapable of mounting such hypothetical pyres? He might be as alive as herself to the direct demands of duty, but of its imaginative claims he was robustly unconscious. The thought brought a wholesome reaction of thankfulness.

“Ah, well,” she said, the sunset dilating through her tears, “don’t you see that I can bear to think such things only because they’re impossibilities? It’s easy to look over into the depths if one has a rampart to lean on. What I most pity poor Arthur for is that, instead of that woman lying there, so dreadfully dead, there might have been a girl like me, so exquisitely alive because of him; but it seems cruel, doesn’t it, to let what he was not add ever so little to the value of what you are? To let him contribute ever so little to my happiness by the difference there is between you?”

She was conscious, as she spoke, of straying again beyond his reach, through intricacies of sensation new even to her exploring susceptibilities. A happy literalness usually enabled him to strike a short cut through such labyrinths, and rejoin her smiling on the other side; but now she became wonderingly aware that he had been caught in the thick of her hypothesis.

“It’s the difference that makes you care for me, then?” he broke out, with a kind of violence which seemed to renew his clutch on her wrist.

“The difference?”

He lashed the ponies again, so sharply that a murmur escaped her, and he drew them up, quivering, with an inconsequent “Steady, boys,” at which their back-laid ears protested.

“It’s because I’m moral and respectable, and all that, that you’re fond of me,” he went on; “you’re — you’re simply in love with my virtues. You couldn’t imagine caring if I were down there in the ditch, as you say, with Arthur?”

The question fell on a silence which seemed to deepen suddenly within herself. Every thought hung bated on the sense that something was coming: her whole consciousness became a void to receive it.

“Denis!” she cried.

He turned on her almost savagely. “I don’t want your pity, you know,” he burst out. “You can keep that for Arthur. I had an idea women loved men for themselves — through everything, I mean. But I wouldn’t steal your love — I don’t want it on false pretenses, you understand. Go and look into other men’s lives, that’s all I ask of you. I slipped into it — it was just a case of holding my tongue when I ought to have spoken — but I— I— for God’s sake, don’t sit there staring! I suppose you’ve seen all along that I knew he was married to the woman.”

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