Sanctuary, by Edith Wharton

III

At dinner, with a rush of contrition, Mrs. Peyton remembered that she had after all not spoken to Darrow about his health. He had distracted her by beginning to talk of Dick; and besides, much as Darrow’s opinions interested her, his personality had never fixed her attention. He always seemed to her simply a vehicle for the transmission of ideas.

It was Dick who recalled her to a sense of her omission by asking if she hadn’t thought that old Paul looked rather more ragged than usual.

“He did look tired,” Mrs. Peyton conceded. “I meant to tell him to take care of himself.”

Dick laughed at the futility of the measure. “Old Paul is never tired: he can work twenty-five hours out of the twenty-four. The trouble with him is that he’s ill. Something wrong with the machinery, I’m afraid.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Has he seen a doctor?”

“He wouldn’t listen to me when I suggested it the other day; but he’s so deuced mysterious that I don’t know what he may have done since.” Dick rose, putting down his coffee-cup and half-smoked cigarette. “I’ve half a mind to pop in on him tonight and see how he’s getting on.”

“But he lives at the other end of the earth; and you’re tired yourself.”

“I’m not tired; only a little strung-up,” he returned, smiling. “And besides, I’m going to meet Gill at the office by and by and put in a night’s work. It won’t hurt me to take a look at Paul first.”

Mrs. Peyton was silent. She knew it was useless to contend with her son about his work, and she tried to fortify herself with the remembrance of her own words to Darrow: Dick was a man and must take his chance with other men.

But Dick, glancing at his watch, uttered an exclamation of annoyance. “Oh, by Jove, I shan’t have time after all. Gill is waiting for me now; we must have dawdled over dinner.” He went to give his mother a caressing tap on the cheek. “Now don’t worry,” he adjured her; and as she smiled back at him he added with a sudden happy blush: “She doesn’t, you know: she’s so sure of me.”

Mrs. Peyton’s smile faded, and laying a detaining hand on his, she said with sudden directness: “Sure of you, or of your success?”

He hesitated. “Oh, she regards them as synonymous. She thinks I’m bound to get on.”

“But if you don’t?”

He shrugged laughingly, but with a slight contraction of his confident brows. “Why, I shall have to make way for some one else, I suppose. That’s the law of life.”

Mrs. Peyton sat upright, gazing at him with a kind of solemnity. “Is it the law of love?” she asked.

He looked down on her with a smile that trembled a little. “My dear romantic mother, I don’t want her pity, you know!”

Dick, coming home the next morning shortly before daylight, left the house again after a hurried breakfast, and Mrs. Peyton heard nothing of him till nightfall. He had promised to be back for dinner, but a few moments before eight, as she was coming down to the drawing-room, the parlour-maid handed her a hastily pencilled note.

“Don’t wait for me,” it ran. “Darrow is ill and I can’t leave him. I’ll send a line when the doctor has seen him.”

Mrs. Peyton, who was a woman of rapid reactions, read the words with a pang. She was ashamed of the jealous thoughts she had harboured of Darrow, and of the selfishness which had made her lose sight of his troubles in the consideration of Dick’s welfare. Even Clemence Verney, whom she secretly accused of a want of heart, had been struck by Darrow’s ill looks, while she had had eyes only for her son. Poor Darrow! How cold and self-engrossed he must have thought her! In the first rush of penitence her impulse was to drive at once to his lodgings; but the infection of his own shyness restrained her. Dick’s note gave no details; the illness was evidently grave, but might not Darrow regard her coming as an intrusion? To repair her negligence of yesterday by a sudden invasion of his privacy might be only a greater failure in tact; and after a moment of deliberation she resolved on sending to ask Dick if he wished her to go to him.

The reply, which came late, was what she had expected. “No, we have all the help we need. The doctor has sent a good nurse, and is coming again later. It’s pneumonia, but of course he doesn’t say much yet. Let me have some beef-juice as soon as the cook can make it.”

The beef-juice ordered and dispatched, she was left to a vigil in melancholy contrast to that of the previous evening. Then she had been enclosed in the narrow limits of her maternal interests; now the barriers of self were broken down, and her personal preoccupations swept away on the current of a wider sympathy. As she sat there in the radius of lamp-light which, for so many evenings, had held Dick and herself in a charmed circle of tenderness, she saw that her love for her boy had come to be merely a kind of extended egotism. Love had narrowed instead of widening her, had rebuilt between herself and life the very walls which, years and years before, she had laid low with bleeding fingers. It was horrible, how she had come to sacrifice everything to the one passion of ambition for her boy. . . .

At daylight she sent another messenger, one of her own servants, who returned without having seen Dick. Mr. Peyton had sent word that there was no change. He would write later; he wanted nothing. The day wore on drearily. Once Kate found herself computing the precious hours lost to Dick’s unfinished task. She blushed at her ineradicable selfishness, and tried to turn her mind to poor Darrow. But she could not master her impulses; and now she caught herself indulging the thought that his illness would at least exclude him from the competition. But no — she remembered that he had said his work was finished. Come what might, he stood in the path of her boy’s success. She hated herself for the thought, but it would not down.

Evening drew on, but there was no note from Dick. At length, in the shamed reaction from her fears, she rang for a carriage and went upstairs to dress. She could stand aloof no longer: she must go to Darrow, if only to escape from her wicked thoughts of him. As she came down again she heard Dick’s key in the door. She hastened her steps, and as she reached the hall he stood before her without speaking.

She looked at him and the question died on her lips. He nodded, and walked slowly past her.

“There was no hope from the first,” he said.

The next day Dick was taken up with the preparations for the funeral. The distant aunt, who appeared to be Darrow’s only relation, had been duly notified of his death; but no answer having been received from her, it was left to his friend to fulfil the customary duties. He was again absent for the best part of the day; and when he returned at dusk Mrs. Peyton, looking up from the tea-table behind which she awaited him, was startled by the deep-lined misery of his face.

Her own thoughts were too painful for ready expression, and they sat for a while in a mute community of wretchedness.

“Is everything arranged?” she asked at length.

“Yes. Everything.”

“And you have not heard from the aunt?”

He shook his head.

“Can you find no trace of any other relations?”

“None. I went over all his papers. There were very few, and I found no address but the aunt’s.” He sat thrown back in his chair, disregarding the cup of tea she had mechanically poured for him. “I found this, though,” he added, after a pause, drawing a letter from his pocket and holding it out to her.

She took it doubtfully. “Ought I to read it?”

“Yes.”

She saw then that the envelope, in Darrow’s hand, was addressed to her son. Within were a few pencilled words, dated on the first day of his illness, the morrow of the day on which she had last seen him.

“Dear Dick,” she read, “I want you to use my plans for the museum if you can get any good out of them. Even if I pull out of this I want you to. I shall have other chances, and I have an idea this one means a lot to you.”

Mrs. Peyton sat speechless, gazing at the date of the letter, which she had instantly connected with her last talk with Darrow. She saw that he had understood her, and the thought scorched her to the soul.

“Wasn’t it glorious of him?” Dick said.

She dropped the letter, and hid her face in her hands.

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