Sanctuary, by Edith Wharton

III

The housekeeper’s reminding her that Mr. Orme would be at home the next day for dinner, and did she think he would like the venison with claret sauce or jelly, roused Kate to the first consciousness of her surroundings. Her father would return on the morrow: he would give to the dressing of the venison such minute consideration as, in his opinion, every detail affecting his comfort or convenience quite obviously merited. And if it were not the venison it would be something else; if it were not the housekeeper it would be Mr. Orme, charged with the results of a conference with his agent, a committee-meeting at his club, or any of the other incidents which, by happening to himself, became events. Kate found herself caught in the inexorable continuity of life, found herself gazing over a scene of ruin lit up by the punctual recurrence of habit as nature’s calm stare lights the morrow of a whirlwind.

Life was going on, then, and dragging her at its wheels. She could neither check its rush nor wrench loose from it and drop out — oh, how blessedly — into darkness and cessation. She must go bounding on, racked, broken, but alive in every fibre. The most she could hope was a few hours’ respite, not from her own terrors, but from the pressure of outward claims: the midday halt, during which the victim is unbound while his torturers rest from their efforts. Till her father’s return she would have the house to herself, and, the question of the venison despatched, could give herself to long lonely pacings of the empty rooms, and shuddering subsidences upon her pillow.

Her first impulse, as the mist cleared from her brain, was the habitual one of reaching out for ultimate relations. She wanted to know the worst; and for her, as she saw in a flash, the worst of it was the core of fatality in what had happened. She shrank from her own way of putting it — nor was it even figuratively true that she had ever felt, under faith in Denis, any such doubt as the perception implied. But that was merely because her imagination had never put him to the test. She was fond of exposing herself to hypothetical ordeals, but somehow she had never carried Denis with her on these adventures. What she saw now was that, in a world of strangeness, he remained the object least strange to her. She was not in the tragic case of the girl who suddenly sees her lover unmasked. No mask had dropped from Denis’s face: the pink shades had simply been lifted from the lamps, and she saw him for the first time in an unmitigated glare.

Such exposure does not alter the features, but it lays an ugly emphasis on the most charming lines, pushing the smile to a grin, the curve of good-nature to the droop of slackness. And it was precisely into the flagging lines of extreme weakness that Denis’s graceful contour flowed. In the terrible talk which had followed his avowal, and wherein every word flashed a light on his moral processes, she had been less startled by what he had done than by the way in which his conscience had already become a passive surface for the channelling of consequences. He was like a child who had put a match to the curtains, and stands agape at the blaze. It was horribly naughty to put the match — but beyond that the child’s responsibility did not extend. In this business of Arthur’s, where all had been wrong from the beginning — where self-defence might well find a plea for its casuistries in the absence of a definite right to be measured by — it had been easy, after the first slip, to drop a little lower with each struggle. The woman — oh, the woman was — well, of the kind who prey on such men. Arthur, out there, at his lowest ebb, had drifted into living with her as a man drifts into drink or opium. He knew what she was — he knew where she had come from. But he had fallen ill, and she had nursed him — nursed him devotedly, of course. That was her chance, and she knew it. Before he was out of the fever she had the noose around him — he came to and found himself married. Such cases were common enough — if the man recovered he bought off the woman and got a divorce. It was all a part of the business — the marriage, the bribe, the divorce. Some of those women made a big income out of it — they were married and divorced once a year. If Arthur had only got well — but, instead, he had a relapse and died. And there was the woman, made his widow by mischance as it were, with her child on her arm — whose child? — and a scoundrelly black-mailing lawyer to work up her case for her. Her claim was clear enough — the right of dower, a third of his estate. But if he had never meant to marry her? If he had been trapped as patently as a rustic fleeced in a gambling-hell? Arthur, in his last hours, had confessed to the marriage, but had also acknowledged its folly. And after his death, when Denis came to look about him and make inquiries, he found that the witnesses, if there had been any, were dispersed and undiscoverable. The whole question hinged on Arthur’s statement to his brother. Suppress that statement, and the claim vanished, and with it the scandal, the humiliation, the life-long burden of the woman and child dragging the name of Peyton through heaven knew what depths. He had thought of that first, Denis swore, rather than of the money. The money, of course, had made a difference, — he was too honest not to own it — but not till afterward, he declared — would have declared on his honour, but that the word tripped him up, and sent a flush to his forehead.

Thus, in broken phrases, he flung his defence at her: a defence improvised, pieced together as he went along, to mask the crude instinctiveness of his act. For with increasing clearness Kate saw, as she listened, that there had been no real struggle in his mind; that, but for the grim logic of chance, he might never have felt the need of any justification. If the woman, after the manner of such baffled huntresses, had wandered off in search of fresh prey, he might, quite sincerely, have congratulated himself on having saved a decent name and an honest fortune from her talons. It was the price she had paid to establish her claim that for the first time brought him to a startled sense of its justice. His conscience responded only to the concrete pressure of facts.

It was with the anguish of this discovery that Kate Orme locked herself in at the end of their talk. How the talk had ended, how at length she had got him from the room and the house, she recalled but confusedly. The tragedy of the woman’s death, and of his own share in it, were as nothing in the disaster of his bright irreclaimableness. Once, when she had cried out, “You would have married me and said nothing,” and he groaned back, “But I have told you,” she felt like a trainer with a lash above some bewildered animal.

But she persisted savagely. “You told me because you had to; because your nerves gave way; because you knew it couldn’t hurt you to tell.” The perplexed appeal of his gaze had almost checked her. “You told me because it was a relief; but nothing will really relieve you — nothing will really help you — till you have told some one who — who will hurt you.”

“Who will hurt me —?”

“Till you have told the truth as — as openly as you lied.”

He started up, ghastly with fear. “I don’t understand you.”

“You must confess, then — publicly — openly — you must go to the judge. I don’t know how it’s done.”

“To the judge? When they’re both dead? When everything is at an end? What good could that do?” he groaned.

“Everything is not at an end for you — everything is just beginning. You must clear yourself of this guilt; and there is only one way — to confess it. And you must give back the money.”

This seemed to strike him as conclusive proof of her irrelevance. “I wish I had never heard of the money! But to whom would you have me give it back? I tell you she was a waif out of the gutter. I don’t believe any one knew her real name — I don’t believe she had one.”

“She must have had a mother and father.”

“Am I to devote my life to hunting for them through the slums of California? And how shall I know when I have found them? It’s impossible to make you understand. I did wrong — I did horribly wrong — but that is not the way to repair it.”

“What is, then?”

He paused, a little askance at the question. “To do better — to do my best,” he said, with a sudden flourish of firmness. “To take warning by this dreadful — ”

“Oh, be silent,” she cried out, and hid her face. He looked at her hopelessly.

At last he said: “I don’t know what good it can do to go on talking. I have only one more thing to say. Of course you know that you are free.”

He spoke simply, with a sudden return to his old voice and accent, at which she weakened as under a caress. She lifted her head and gazed at him. “Am I?” she said musingly.

“Kate!” burst from him; but she raised a silencing hand.

“It seems to me,” she said, “that I am imprisoned — imprisoned with you in this dreadful thing. First I must help you to get out — then it will be time enough to think of myself.”

His face fell and he stammered: “I don’t understand you.”

“I can’t say what I shall do — or how I shall feel — till I know what you are going to do and feel.”

“You must see how I feel — that I’m half dead with it.”

“Yes — but that is only half.”

He turned this over for a perceptible space of time before asking slowly: “You mean that you’ll give me up, if I don’t do this crazy thing you propose?”

She paused in turn. “No,” she said; “I don’t want to bribe you. You must feel the need of it yourself.”

“The need of proclaiming this thing publicly?”

“Yes.”

He sat staring before him. “Of course you realize what it would mean?” he began at length.

“To you?” she returned.

“I put that aside. To others — to you. I should go to prison.”

“I suppose so,” she said simply.

“You seem to take it very easily — I’m afraid my mother wouldn’t.”

“Your mother?” This produced the effect he had expected.

“You hadn’t thought of her, I suppose? It would probably kill her.”

“It would have killed her to think that you could do what you have done!”

“It would have made her very unhappy; but there’s a difference.”

Yes: there was a difference; a difference which no rhetoric could disguise. The secret sin would have made Mrs. Peyton wretched, but it would not have killed her. And she would have taken precisely Denis’s view of the elasticity of atonement: she would have accepted private regrets as the genteel equivalent of open expiation. Kate could even imagine her extracting a “lesson” from the providential fact that her son had not been found out.

“You see it’s not so simple,” he broke out, with a tinge of doleful triumph.

“No: it’s not simple,” she assented.

“One must think of others,” he continued, gathering faith in his argument as he saw her reduced to acquiescence.

She made no answer, and after a moment he rose to go. So far, in retrospect, she could follow the course of their talk; but when, in the act of parting, argument lapsed into entreaty, and renunciation into the passionate appeal to give him at least one more hearing, her memory lost itself in a tumult of pain, and she recalled only that, when the door closed on him, he took with him her promise to see him once again.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/sanctuary/part1.3.html

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