Sanctuary, by Edith Wharton

IV

The funeral took place the next morning, and on the return from the cemetery Dick told his mother that he must go and look over things at Darrow’s office. He had heard the day before from his friend’s aunt, a helpless person to whom telegraphy was difficult and travel inconceivable, and who, in eight pages of unpunctuated eloquence, made over to Dick what she called the melancholy privilege of winding up her nephew’s affairs.

Mrs. Peyton looked anxiously at her son. “Is there no one who can do this for you? He must have had a clerk or some one who knows about his work.”

Dick shook his head. “Not lately. He hasn’t had much to do this winter, and these last months he had chucked everything to work alone over his plans.”

The word brought a faint colour to Mrs. Peyton’s cheek. It was the first allusion that either of them had made to Darrow’s bequest.

“Oh, of course you must do all you can,” she murmured, turning alone into the house.

The emotions of the morning had stirred her deeply, and she sat at home during the day, letting her mind dwell, in a kind of retrospective piety, on the thought of poor Darrow’s devotion. She had given him too little time while he lived, had acquiesced too easily in his growing habits of seclusion; and she felt it as a proof of insensibility that she had not been more closely drawn to the one person who had loved Dick as she loved him. The evidence of that love, as shown in Darrow’s letter, filled her with a vain compunction. The very extravagance of his offer lent it a deeper pathos. It was wonderful that, even in the urgency of affection, a man of his almost morbid rectitude should have overlooked the restrictions of professional honour, should have implied the possibility of his friend’s overlooking them. It seemed to make his sacrifice the more complete that it had, unconsciously, taken the form of a subtle temptation.

The last word arrested Mrs. Peyton’s thoughts. A temptation? To whom? Not, surely, to one capable, as her son was capable, of rising to the height of his friend’s devotion. The offer, to Dick, would mean simply, as it meant to her, the last touching expression of an inarticulate fidelity: the utterance of a love which at last had found its formula. Mrs. Peyton dismissed as morbid any other view of the case. She was annoyed with herself for supposing that Dick could be ever so remotely affected by the possibility at which poor Darrow’s renunciation hinted. The nature of the offer removed it from practical issues to the idealizing region of sentiment.

Mrs. Peyton had been sitting alone with these thoughts for the greater part of the afternoon, and dusk was falling when Dick entered the drawing-room. In the dim light, with his pallour heightened by the sombre effect of his mourning, he came upon her almost startlingly, with a revival of some long-effaced impression which, for a moment, gave her the sense of struggling among shadows. She did not, at first, know what had produced the effect; then she saw that it was his likeness to his father.

“Well — is it over?” she asked, as he threw himself into a chair without speaking.

“Yes: I’ve looked through everything.” He leaned back, crossing his hands behind his head, and gazing past her with a look of utter lassitude.

She paused a moment, and then said tentatively: “Tomorrow you will be able to go back to your work.”

“Oh — my work,” he exclaimed, as if to brush aside an ill-timed pleasantry.

“Are you too tired?”

“No.” He rose and began to wander up and down the room. “I’m not tired. — Give me some tea, will you?” He paused before her while she poured the cup, and then, without taking it, turned away to light a cigarette.

“Surely there is still time?” she suggested, with her eyes on him.

“Time? To finish my plans? Oh, yes — there’s time. But they’re not worth it.”

“Not worth it?” She started up, and then dropped back into her seat, ashamed of having betrayed her anxiety. “They are worth as much as they were last week,” she said with an attempt at cheerfulness.

“Not to me,” he returned. “I hadn’t seen Darrow’s then.”

There was a long silence. Mrs. Peyton sat with her eyes fixed on her clasped hands, and her son paced the room restlessly.

“Are they so wonderful?” she asked at length.

“Yes.”

She paused again, and then said, lifting a tremulous glance to his face: “That makes his offer all the more beautiful.”

Dick was lighting another cigarette, and his face was turned from her. “Yes — I suppose so,” he said in a low tone.

“They were quite finished, he told me,” she continued, unconsciously dropping her voice to the pitch of his.

“Yes.”

“Then they will be entered, I suppose?”

“Of course — why not?” he answered almost sharply.

“Shall you have time to attend to all that and to finish yours too?”

“Oh, I suppose so. I’ve told you it isn’t a question of tune. I see now that mine are not worth bothering with.”

She rose and approached him, laying her hands on his shoulders. “You are tired and unstrung; how can you judge? Why not let me look at both designs to-morrow?”

Under her gaze he flushed abruptly and drew back with a half-impatient gesture.

“Oh, I’m afraid that wouldn’t help me; you’d be sure to think mine best,” he said with a laugh.

“But if I could give you good reasons?” she pressed him.

He took her hand, as if ashamed of his impatience. “Dear mother, if you had any reasons their mere existence would prove that they were bad.”

His mother did not return his smile. “You won’t let me see the two designs then?” she said with a faint tinge of insistence.

“Oh, of course — if you want to — if you only won’t talk about it now! Can’t you see that I’m pretty nearly dead-beat?” he burst out uncontrollably; and as she stood silent, he added with a weary fall in his voice, “I think I’ll go upstairs and see if I can’t get a nap before dinner.”

Though they had separated upon the assurance that she should see the two designs if she wished it, Mrs. Peyton knew they would not be shown to her. Dick, indeed, would not again deny her request; but had he not reckoned on the improbability of her renewing it? All night she lay confronted by that question. The situation shaped itself before her with that hallucinating distinctness which belongs to the midnight vision. She knew now why Dick had suddenly reminded her of his father: had she not once before seen the same thought moving behind the same eyes? She was sure it had occurred to Dick to use Darrow’s drawings. As she lay awake in the darkness she could hear him, long after midnight, pacing the floor overhead: she held her breath, listening to the recurring beat of his foot, which seemed that of an imprisoned spirit revolving wearily in the cage of the same thought. She felt in every fibre that a crisis in her son’s life had been reached, that the act now before him would have a determining effect on his whole future. The circumstances of her past had raised to clairvoyance her natural insight into human motive, had made of her a moral barometer responding to the faintest fluctuations of atmosphere, and years of anxious meditation had familiarized her with the form which her son’s temptations were likely to take. The peculiar misery of her situation was that she could not, except indirectly, put this intuition, this foresight, at his service. It was a part of her discernment to be aware that life is the only real counsellor, that wisdom unfiltered through personal experience does not become a part of the moral tissues. Love such as hers had a great office, the office of preparation and direction; but it must know how to hold its hand and keep its counsel, how to attend upon its object as an invisible influence rather than as an active interference.

All this Kate Peyton had told herself again and again, during those hours of anxious calculation in which she had tried to cast Dick’s horoscope; but not in her moments of most fantastic foreboding had she figured so cruel a test of her courage. If her prayers for him had taken precise shape, she might have asked that he should be spared the spectacular, the dramatic appeal to his will-power: that his temptations should slip by him in a dull disguise. She had secured him against all ordinary forms of baseness; the vulnerable point lay higher, in that region of idealizing egotism which is the seat of life in such natures.

Years of solitary foresight gave her mind a singular alertness in dealing with such possibilities. She saw at once that the peril of the situation lay in the minimum of risk it involved. Darrow had employed no assistant in working out his plans for the competition, and his secluded life made it almost certain that he had not shown them to any one, and that she and Dick alone knew them to have been completed. Moreover, it was a part of Dick’s duty to examine the contents of his friend’s office, and in doing this nothing would be easier than to possess himself of the drawings and make use of any part of them that might serve his purpose. He had Darrow’s authority for doing so; and though the act involved a slight breach of professional probity, might not his friend’s wishes be invoked as a secret justification? Mrs. Peyton found herself almost hating poor Darrow for having been the unconscious instrument of her son’s temptation. But what right had she, after all, to suspect Dick of considering, even for a moment, the act of which she was so ready to accuse him? His unwillingness to let her see the drawings might have been the accidental result of lassitude and discouragement. He was tired and troubled, and she had chosen the wrong moment to make the request. His want of readiness might even be due to the wish to conceal from her how far his friend had surpassed him. She knew his sensitiveness on this point, and reproached herself for not having foreseen it. But her own arguments failed to convince her. Deep beneath her love for her boy and her faith in him there lurked a nameless doubt. She could hardly now, in looking back, define the impulse upon which she had married Denis Peyton: she knew only that the deeps of her nature had been loosened, and that she had been borne forward on their current to the very fate from which her heart recoiled. But if in one sense her marriage remained a problem, there was another in which her motherhood seemed to solve it. She had never lost the sense of having snatched her child from some dim peril which still lurked and hovered; and he became more closely hers with every effort of her vigilant love. For the act of rescue had not been accomplished once and for all in the moment of immolation: it had not been by a sudden stroke of heroism, but by ever-renewed and indefatigable effort, that she had built up for him the miraculous shelter of her love. And now that it stood there, a hallowed refuge against failure, she could not even set a light in the pane, but must let him grope his way to it unaided.

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