Sanctuary, by Edith Wharton

IV

She had promised to see him again; but the promise did not imply that she had rejected his offer of freedom. In the first rush of misery she had not fully repossessed herself, had felt herself entangled in his fate by a hundred meshes of association and habit; but after a sleepless night spent with the thought of him — that dreadful bridal of their souls — she woke to a morrow in which he had no part. She had not sought her freedom, nor had he given it; but a chasm had opened at their feet, and they found themselves on different sides.

Now she was able to scan the disaster from the melancholy vantage of her independence. She could even draw a solace from the fact that she had ceased to love Denis. It was inconceivable that an emotion so interwoven with every fibre of consciousness should cease as suddenly as the flow of sap in an uprooted plant; but she had never allowed herself to be tricked by the current phraseology of sentiment, and there were no stock axioms to protect her from the truth.

It was probably because she had ceased to love him that she could look forward with a kind of ghastly composure to seeing him again. She had stipulated, of course, that the wedding should be put off, but she had named no other condition beyond asking for two days to herself — two days during which he was not even to write. She wished to shut herself in with her misery, to accustom herself to it as she had accustomed herself to happiness. But actual seclusion was impossible: the subtle reactions of life almost at once began to break down her defences. She could no more have her wretchedness to herself than any other emotion: all the lives about her were so many unconscious factors in her sensations. She tried to concentrate herself on the thought as to how she could best help poor Denis; for love, in ebbing, had laid bare an unsuspected depth of pity. But she found it more and more difficult to consider his situation in the abstract light of right and wrong. Open expiation still seemed to her the only possible way of healing; but she tried vainly to think of Mrs. Peyton as taking such a view. Yet Mrs. Peyton ought at least to know what had happened: was it not, in the last resort, she who should pronounce on her son’s course? For a moment Kate was fascinated by this evasion of responsibility; she had nearly decided to tell Denis that he must begin by confessing everything to his mother. But almost at once she began to shrink from the consequences. There was nothing she so dreaded for him as that any one should take a light view of his act: should turn its irremediableness into an excuse. And this, she foresaw, was what Mrs. Peyton would do. The first burst of misery over, she would envelop the whole situation in a mist of expediency. Brought to the bar of Kate’s judgment, she at once revealed herself incapable of higher action.

Kate’s conception of her was still under arraignment when the actual Mrs. Peyton fluttered in. It was the afternoon of the second day, as the girl phrased it in the dismal re-creation of her universe. She had been thinking so hard of Mrs. Peyton that the lady’s silvery insubstantial presence seemed hardly more than a projection of the thought; but as Kate collected herself, and regained contact with the outer world, her preoccupation yielded to surprise. It was unusual for Mrs. Peyton to pay visits. For years she had remained enthroned in a semi-invalidism which prohibited effort while it did not preclude diversion; and the girl at once divined a special purpose in her coming.

Mrs. Peyton’s traditions would not have permitted any direct method of attack; and Kate had to sit through the usual prelude of ejaculation and anecdote. Presently, however, the elder lady’s voice gathered significance, and laying her hand on Kate’s she murmured: “I have come to talk to you of this sad affair.”

Kate began to tremble. Was it possible that Denis had after all spoken? A rising hope checked her utterance, and she saw in a flash that it still lay with him to regain his hold on her. But Mrs. Peyton went on delicately: “It has been a great shock to my poor boy. To be brought in contact with Arthur’s past was in itself inexpressibly painful; but this last dreadful business — that woman’s wicked act — ”

“Wicked?” Kate exclaimed.

Mrs. Peyton’s gentle stare reproved her. “Surely religion teaches us that suicide is a sin? And to murder her child! I ought not to speak to you of such things, my dear. No one has ever mentioned anything so dreadful in my presence: my dear husband used to screen me so carefully from the painful side of life. Where there is so much that is beautiful to dwell upon, we should try to ignore the existence of such horrors. But nowadays everything is in the papers; and Denis told me he thought it better that you should hear the news first from him.”

Kate nodded without speaking.

“He felt how dreadful it was to have to tell you. But I tell him he takes a morbid view of the case. Of course one is shocked at the woman’s crime — but, if one looks a little deeper, how can one help seeing that it may have been designed as the means of rescuing that poor child from a life of vice and misery? That is the view I want Denis to take: I want him to see how all the difficulties of life disappear when one has learned to look for a divine purpose in human sufferings.”

Mrs. Peyton rested a moment on this period, as an experienced climber pauses to be overtaken by a less agile companion; but presently she became aware that Kate was still far below her, and perhaps needed a stronger incentive to the ascent.

“My dear child,” she said adroitly, “I said just now that I was sorry you had been obliged to hear of this sad affair; but after all it is only you who can avert its consequences.”

Kate drew an eager breath. “Its consequences?” she faltered.

Mrs. Peyton’s voice dropped solemnly. “Denis has told me everything,” she said.

“Everything?”

“That you insist on putting off the marriage. Oh, my dear, I do implore you to reconsider that!”

Kate sank back with the sense of having passed again into a region of leaden shadow. “Is that all he told you?”

Mrs. Peyton gazed at her with arch raillery. “All? Isn’t it everything — to him?”

“Did he give you my reason, I mean?”

“He said you felt that, after this shocking tragedy, there ought, in decency, to be a delay; and I quite understand the feeling. It does seem too unfortunate that the woman should have chosen this particular time! But you will find as you grow older that life is full of such sad contrasts.”

Kate felt herself slowly petrifying under the warm drip of Mrs. Peyton’s platitudes.

“It seems to me,” the elder lady continued, “that there is only one point from which we ought to consider the question — and that is, its effect on Denis. But for that we ought to refuse to know anything about it. But it has made my boy so unhappy. The law-suit was a cruel ordeal to him — the dreadful notoriety, the revelation of poor Arthur’s infirmities. Denis is as sensitive as a woman; it is his unusual refinement of feeling that makes him so worthy of being loved by you. But such sensitiveness may be carried to excess. He ought not to let this unhappy incident prey on him: it shows a lack of trust in the divine ordering of things. That is what troubles me: his faith in life has been shaken. And — you must forgive me, dear child — you will forgive me, I know — but I can’t help blaming you a little — ”

Mrs. Peyton’s accent converted the accusation into a caress, which prolonged itself in a tremulous pressure of Kate’s hand.

The girl gazed at her blankly. “You blame me —?”

“Don’t be offended, my child. I only fear that your excessive sympathy with Denis, your own delicacy of feeling, may have led you to encourage his morbid ideas. He tells me you were very much shocked — as you naturally would be — as any girl must be — I would not have you otherwise, dear Kate! It is beautiful that you should both feel so; most beautiful; but you know religion teaches us not to yield too much to our grief. Let the dead bury their dead; the living owe themselves to each other. And what had this wretched woman to do with either of you? It is a misfortune for Denis to have been connected in any way with a man of Arthur Peyton’s character; but after all, poor Arthur did all he could to atone for the disgrace he brought on us, by making Denis his heir — and I am sure I have no wish to question the decrees of Providence.” Mrs. Peyton paused again, and then softly absorbed both of Kate’s hands. “For my part,” she continued, “I see in it another instance of the beautiful ordering of events. Just after dear Denis’s inheritance has removed the last obstacle to your marriage, this sad incident comes to show how desperately he needs you, how cruel it would be to ask him to defer his happiness.”

She broke off, shaken out of her habitual placidity by the abrupt withdrawal of the girl’s hands. Kate sat inertly staring, but no answer rose to her lips.

At length Mrs. Peyton resumed, gathering her draperies about her with a tentative hint of leave-taking: “I may go home and tell him that you will not put off the wedding?”

Kate was still silent, and her visitor looked at her with the mild surprise of an advocate unaccustomed to plead in vain.

“If your silence means refusal, my dear, I think you ought to realize the responsibility you assume.” Mrs. Peyton’s voice had acquired an edge of righteous asperity. “If Denis has a fault it is that he is too gentle, too yielding, too readily influenced by those he cares for. Your influence is paramount with him now — but if you turn from him just when he needs your help, who can say what the result will be?”

The argument, though impressively delivered, was hardly of a nature to carry conviction to its hearer; but it was perhaps for that very reason that she suddenly and unexpectedly replied to it by sinking back into her seat with a burst of tears. To Mrs. Peyton, however, tears were the signal of surrender, and, at Kate’s side in an instant she hastened to temper her triumph with magnanimity.

“Don’t think I don’t feel with you; but we must both forget ourselves for our boy’s sake. I told him I should come back with your promise.”

The arm she had slipped about Kate’s shoulder fell back with the girl’s start. Kate had seen in a flash what capital would be made of her emotion.

“No, no, you misunderstand me. I can make no promise,” she declared.

The older lady sat a moment irresolute; then she restored her arm to the shoulder from which it had been so abruptly displaced.

“My dear child,” she said, in a tone of tender confidence, “if I have misunderstood you, ought you not to enlighten me? You asked me just now if Denis had given me your reason for this strange postponement. He gave me one reason, but it seems hardly sufficient to explain your conduct. If there is any other, — and I know you well enough to feel sure there is, — will you not trust me with it? If my boy has been unhappy enough to displease you, will you not give his mother the chance to plead his cause? Remember, no one should be condemned unheard. As Denis’s mother, I have the right to ask for your reason.”

“My reason? My reason?” Kate stammered, panting with the exhaustion of the struggle. Oh, if only Mrs. Peyton would release her! “If you have the right to know it, why doesn’t he tell you?” she cried.

Mrs. Peyton stood up, quivering. “I will go home and ask him,” she said. “I will tell him he had your permission to speak.”

She moved toward the door, with the nervous haste of a person unaccustomed to decisive action. But Kate sprang before her.

“No, no; don’t ask him! I implore you not to ask him,” she cried.

Mrs. Peyton turned on her with sudden authority of voice and gesture. “Do I understand you?” she said. “You admit that you have a reason for putting off your marriage, and yet you forbid me — me, Denis’s mother — to ask him what it is? My poor child, I needn’t ask, for I know already. If he has offended you, and you refuse him the chance to defend himself, I needn’t look farther for your reason: it is simply that you have ceased to love him.”

Kate fell back from the door which she had instinctively barricaded.

“Perhaps that is it,” she murmured, letting Mrs. Peyton pass.

Mr. Orme’s returning carriage-wheels crossed Mrs. Peyton’s indignant flight; and an hour later Kate, in the bland candle-light of the dinner-hour, sat listening with practised fortitude to her father’s comments on the venison.

She had wondered, as she awaited him in the drawing-room, if he would notice any change in her appearance. It seemed to her that the flagellation of her thoughts must have left visible traces. But Mr. Orme was not a man of subtle perceptions, save where his personal comfort was affected: though his egoism was clothed in the finest feelers, he did not suspect a similar surface in others. His daughter, as part of himself, came within the normal range of his solicitude; but she was an outlying region, a subject province; and Mr. Orme’s was a highly centralized polity.

News of the painful incident — he often used Mrs. Peyton’s vocabulary — had reached him at his club, and to some extent disturbed the assimilation of a carefully ordered breakfast; but since then two days had passed, and it did not take Mr. Orme forty-eight hours to resign himself to the misfortunes of others. It was all very nasty, of course, and he wished to heaven it hadn’t happened to any one about to be connected with him; but he viewed it with the transient annoyance of a gentleman who has been splashed by the mud of a fatal runaway.

Mr. Orme affected, under such circumstances, a bluff and hearty stoicism as remote as possible from Mrs. Peyton’s deprecating evasion of facts. It was a bad business; he was sorry Kate should have been mixed up with it; but she would be married soon now, and then she would see that life wasn’t exactly a Sunday-school story. Everybody was exposed to such disagreeable accidents: he remembered a case in their own family — oh, a distant cousin whom Kate wouldn’t have heard of — a poor fellow who had got entangled with just such a woman, and having (most properly) been sent packing by his father, had justified the latter’s course by promptly forging his name — a very nasty affair altogether; but luckily the scandal had been hushed up, the woman bought off, and the prodigal, after a season of probation, safely married to a nice girl with a good income, who was told by the family that the doctors recommended his settling in California.

Luckily the scandal was hushed up: the phrase blazed out against the dark background of Kate’s misery. That was doubtless what most people felt — the words represented the consensus of respectable opinion. The best way of repairing a fault was to hide it: to tear up the floor and bury the victim at night. Above all, no coroner and no autopsy!

She began to feel a strange interest in her distant cousin. “And his wife — did she know what he had done?”

Mr. Orme stared. His moral pointed, he had returned to the contemplation of his own affairs.

“His wife? Oh, of course not. The secret has been most admirably kept; but her property was put in trust, so she’s quite safe with him.”

Her property! Kate wondered if her faith in her husband had also been put in trust, if her sensibilities had been protected from his possible inroads.

“Do you think it quite fair to have deceived her in that way?”

Mr. Orme gave her a puzzled glance: he had no taste for the by-paths of ethical conjecture.

“His people wanted to give the poor fellow another chance; they did the best they could for him.”

“And — he has done nothing dishonourable since?”

“Not that I know of: the last I heard was that they had a little boy, and that he was quite happy. At that distance he’s not likely to bother us, at all events.”

Long after Mr. Orme had left the topic, Kate remained lost in its contemplation. She had begun to perceive that the fair surface of life was honeycombed by a vast system of moral sewage. Every respectable household had its special arrangements for the private disposal of family scandals; it was only among the reckless and improvident that such hygienic precautions were neglected. Who was she to pass judgment on the merits of such a system? The social health must be preserved: the means devised were the result of long experience and the collective instinct of self-preservation. She had meant to tell her father that evening that her marriage had been put off; but she now abstained from doing so, not from any doubt of Mr. Orme’s acquiescence — he could always be made to feel the force of conventional scruples — but because the whole question sank into insignificance beside the larger issue which his words had raised.

In her own room, that night, she passed through that travail of the soul of which the deeper life is born. Her first sense was of a great moral loneliness — an isolation more complete, more impenetrable, than that in which the discovery of Denis’s act had plunged her. For she had vaguely leaned, then, on a collective sense of justice that should respond to her own ideas of right and wrong: she still believed in the logical correspondence of theory and practice. Now she saw that, among those nearest her, there was no one who recognized the moral need of expiation. She saw that to take her father or Mrs. Peyton into her confidence would be but to widen the circle of sterile misery in which she and Denis moved. At first the aspect of life thus revealed to her seemed simply mean and base — a world where honour was a pact of silence between adroit accomplices. The network of circumstance had tightened round her, and every effort to escape drew its meshes closer. But as her struggles subsided she felt the spiritual release which comes with acceptance: not connivance in dishonour, but recognition of evil. Out of that dark vision light was to come, the shaft of cloud turning to the pillar of fire. For here, at last, life lay before her as it was: not brave, garlanded and victorious, but naked, grovelling and diseased, dragging its maimed limbs through the mud, yet lifting piteous hands to the stars. Love itself, once throned aloft on an altar of dreams, how it stole to her now, storm-beaten and scarred, pleading for the shelter of her breast! Love, indeed, not in the old sense in which she had conceived it, but a graver, austerer presence — the charity of the mystic three. She thought she had ceased to love Denis — but what had she loved in him but her happiness and his? Their affection had been the garden enclosed of the Canticles, where they were to walk forever in a delicate isolation of bliss. But now love appeared to her as something more than this — something wider, deeper, more enduring than the selfish passion of a man and a woman. She saw it in all its far-reaching issues, till the first meeting of two pairs of young eyes kindled a light which might be a high-lifted beacon across dark waters of humanity.

All this did not come to her clearly, consecutively, but in a series of blurred and shifting images. Marriage had meant to her, as it means to girls brought up in ignorance of life, simply the exquisite prolongation of wooing. If she had looked beyond, to the vision of wider ties, it was as a traveller gazes over a land veiled in golden haze, and so far distant that the imagination delays to explore it. But now through the blur of sensations one image strangely persisted — the image of Denis’s child. Had she ever before thought of their having a child? She could not remember. She was like one who wakens from a long fever: she recalled nothing of her former self or of her former feelings. She knew only that the vision persisted — the vision of the child whose mother she was not to be. It was impossible that she should marry Denis — her inmost soul rejected him . . . but it was just because she was not to be the child’s mother that its image followed her so pleadingly. For she saw with perfect clearness the inevitable course of events. Denis would marry some one else — he was one of the men who are fated to marry, and she needed not his mother’s reminder that her abandonment of him at an emotional crisis would fling him upon the first sympathy within reach. He would marry a girl who knew nothing of his secret — for Kate was intensely aware that he would never again willingly confess himself — he would marry a girl who trusted him and leaned on him, as she, Kate Orme — the earlier Kate Orme — had done but two days since! And with this deception between them their child would be born: born to an inheritance of secret weakness, a vice of the moral fibre, as it might be born with some hidden physical taint which would destroy it before the cause should be detected. . . . Well, and what of it? Was she to hold herself responsible? Were not thousands of children born with some such unsuspected taint? . . . Ah, but if here was one that she could save? What if she, who had had so exquisite a vision of wifehood, should reconstruct from its ruins this vision of protecting maternity — if her love for her lover should be, not lost, but transformed, enlarged, into this passion of charity for his race? If she might expiate and redeem his fault by becoming a refuge from its consequences? Before this strange extension of her love all the old limitations seemed to fall. Something had cleft the surface of self, and there welled up the mysterious primal influences, the sacrificial instinct of her sex, a passion of spiritual motherhood that made her long to fling herself between the unborn child and its fate. . . .

She never knew, then or after, how she reached this mystic climax of effacement; she was only conscious, through her anguish, of that lift of the heart which made one of the saints declare that joy was the inmost core of sorrow. For it was indeed a kind of joy she felt, if old names must serve for such new meanings; a surge of liberating faith in life, the old credo quia absurdum which is the secret cry of all supreme endeavour.

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