Sanctuary, by Edith Wharton

V

Mrs. Peyton’s midnight musings summed themselves up in the conclusion that the next few hours would end her uncertainty. She felt the day to be decisive. If Dick offered to show her the drawings, her fears would be proved groundless; if he avoided the subject, they were justified.

She dressed early in order not to miss him at breakfast; but as she entered the dining-room the parlour-maid told her that Mr. Peyton had overslept himself, and had rung to have his breakfast sent upstairs. Was it a pretext to avoid her? She was vexed at her own readiness to see a portent in the simplest incident; but while she blushed at her doubts she let them govern her. She left the dining-room door open, determined not to miss him if he came downstairs while she was at breakfast; then she went back to the drawing-room and sat down at her writing-table, trying to busy herself with some accounts while she listened for his step. Here too she had left the door open; but presently even this slight departure from her daily usage seemed a deviation from the passive attitude she had adopted, and she rose and shut the door. She knew that she could still hear his step on the stairs — he had his father’s quick swinging gait — but as she sat listening, and vainly trying to write, the closed door seemed to symbolize a refusal to share in his trial, a hardening of herself against his need of her. What if he should come down intending to speak, and should be turned from his purpose? Slighter obstacles have deflected the course of events in those indeterminate moments when the soul floats between two tides. She sprang up quickly, and as her hand touched the latch she heard his step on the stairs.

When he entered the drawing-room she had regained the writing-table and could lift a composed face to his. He came in hurriedly, yet with a kind of reluctance beneath his haste: again it was his father’s step. She smiled, but looked away from him as he approached her; she seemed to be re-living her own past as one re-lives things in the distortion of fever.

“Are you off already?” she asked, glancing at the hat in his hand.

“Yes; I’m late as it is. I overslept myself.” He paused and looked vaguely about the room. “Don’t expect me till late — don’t wait dinner for me.”

She stirred impulsively. “Dick, you’re overworking — you’ll make yourself ill.”

“Nonsense. I’m as fit as ever this morning. Don’t be imagining things.”

He dropped his habitual kiss on her forehead, and turned to go. On the threshold he paused, and she felt that something in him sought her and then drew back. “Good-bye,” he called to her as the door closed on him.

She sat down and tried to survey the situation divested of her midnight fears. He had not referred to her wish to see the drawings: but what did the omission signify? Might he not have forgotten her request? Was she not forcing the most trivial details to fit in with her apprehensions? Unfortunately for her own reassurance, she knew that her familiarity with Dick’s processes was based on such minute observation, and that, to such intimacy as theirs, no indications were trivial. She was as certain as if he had spoken, that when he had left the house that morning he was weighing the possibility of using Darrow’s drawings, of supplementing his own incomplete design from the fulness of his friend’s invention. And with a bitter pang she divined that he was sorry he had shown her Darrow’s letter.

It was impossible to remain face to face with such conjectures, and though she had given up all her engagements during the few days since Darrow’s death, she now took refuge in the thought of a concert which was to take place at a friend’s house that morning. The music-room, when she entered, was thronged with acquaintances, and she found transient relief in that dispersal of attention which makes society an anesthetic for some forms of wretchedness. Contact with the pressure of busy indifferent life often gives remoteness to questions which have clung as close as the flesh to the bone; and if Mrs. Peyton did not find such complete release, she at least interposed between herself and her anxiety the obligation to dissemble it. But the relief was only momentary, and when the first bars of the overture turned from her the smiles of recognition among which she had tried to lose herself, she felt a deeper sense of isolation. The music, which at another time would have swept her away on some rich current of emotion, now seemed to island her in her own thoughts, to create an artificial solitude in which she found herself more immitigably face to face with her fears. The silence, the recueillement, about her gave resonance to the inner voices, lucidity to the inner vision, till she seemed enclosed in a luminous empty horizon against which every possibility took the sharp edge of accomplished fact. With relentless precision the course of events was unrolled before her: she saw Dick yielding to his opportunity, snatching victory from dishonour, winning love, happiness and success in the act by which he lost himself. It was all so simple, so easy, so inevitable, that she felt the futility of struggling or hoping against it. He would win the competition, would marry Miss Verney, would press on to achievement through the opening which the first success had made for him.

As Mrs. Peyton reached this point in her forecast, she found her outward gaze arrested by the face of the young lady who so dominated her inner vision. Miss Verney, a few rows distant, sat intent upon the music, in that attitude of poised motion which was her nearest approach to repose. Her slender brown profile with its breezy hair, her quick eye, and the lips which seemed to listen as well as speak, all betokened to Mrs. Peyton a nature through which the obvious energies blew free, a bare open stretch of consciousness without shelter for tenderer growths. She shivered to think of Dick’s frail scruples exposed to those rustling airs. And then, suddenly, a new thought struck her. What if she might turn this force to her own use, make it serve, unconsciously to Dick, as the means of his deliverance? Hitherto she had assumed that her son’s worst danger lay in the chance of his confiding his difficulty to Clemence Verney; and she had, in her own past, a precedent which made her think such a confidence not unlikely. If he did carry his scruples to the girl, she argued, the latter’s imperviousness, her frank inability to understand them, would have the effect of dispelling them like mist; and he was acute enough to know this and profit by it. So she had hitherto reasoned; but now the girl’s presence seemed to clarify her perceptions, and she told herself that something in Dick’s nature, something which she herself had put there, would resist this short cut to safety, would make him take the more tortuous way to his goal rather than gain it through the privacies of the heart he loved. For she had lifted him thus far above his father, that it would be a disenchantment to him to find that Clemence Verney did not share his scruples. On this much, his mother now exultingly felt, she could count in her passive struggle for supremacy. No, he would never, never tell Clemence Verney — and his one hope, his sure salvation, therefore lay in some one else’s telling her.

The excitement of this discovery had nearly, in mid-concert, swept Mrs. Peyton from her seat to the girl’s side. Fearing to miss the latter in the throng at the entrance, she slipped out during the last number and, lingering in the farther drawing-room, let the dispersing audience drift her in Miss Verney’s direction. The girl shone sympathetically on her approach, and in a moment they had detached themselves from the crowd and taken refuge in the perfumed emptiness of the conservatory.

The girl, whose sensations were always easily set in motion, had at first a good deal to say of the music, for which she claimed, on her hearer’s part, an active show of approval or dissent; but this dismissed, she turned a melting face on Mrs. Peyton and said with one of her rapid modulations of tone: “I was so sorry about poor Mr. Darrow.”

Mrs. Peyton uttered an assenting sigh. “It was a great grief to us — a great loss to my son.”

“Yes — I know. I can imagine what you must have felt. And then it was so unlucky that it should have happened just now.”

Mrs. Peyton shot a reconnoitring glance at her profile. “His dying, you mean, on the eve of success?”

Miss Verney turned a frank smile upon her. “One ought to feel that, of course — but I’m afraid I am very selfish where my friends are concerned, and I was thinking of Mr. Peyton’s having to give up his work at such a critical moment.” She spoke without a note of deprecation: there was a pagan freshness in her opportunism.

Mrs. Peyton was silent, and the girl continued after a pause: “I suppose now it will be almost impossible for him to finish his drawings in time. It’s a pity he hadn’t worked out the whole scheme a little sooner. Then the details would have come of themselves.”

Mrs. Peyton felt a contempt strangely mingled with exultation. If only the girl would talk in that way to Dick!

“He has hardly had time to think of himself lately,” she said, trying to keep the coldness out of her voice.

“No, of course not,” Miss Verney assented; “but isn’t that all the more reason for his friends to think of him? It was very dear of him to give up everything to nurse Mr. Darrow — but, after all, if a man is going to get on in his career there are times when he must think first of himself.”

Mrs. Peyton paused, trying to choose her words with deliberation. It was quite clear now that Dick had not spoken, and she felt the responsibility that devolved upon her.

“Getting on in a career — is that always the first thing to be considered?” she asked, letting her eyes rest musingly on the girl’s.

The glance did not disconcert Miss Verney, who returned it with one of equal comprehensiveness. “Yes,” she said quickly, and with a slight blush. “With a temperament like Mr. Peyton’s I believe it is. Some people can pick themselves up after any number of bad falls: I am not sure that he could. I think discouragement would weaken instead of strengthening him.”

Both women had forgotten external conditions in the quick reach for each other’s meanings. Mrs. Peyton flushed, her maternal pride in revolt; but the answer was checked on her lips by the sense of the girl’s unexpected insight. Here was some one who knew Dick as well as she did — should she say a partisan or an accomplice? A dim jealousy stirred beneath Mrs. Peyton’s other emotions: she was undergoing the agony which the mother feels at the first intrusion on her privilege of judging her child; and her voice had a flutter of resentment.

“You must have a poor opinion of his character,” she said.

Miss Verney did not remove her eyes, but her blush deepened beautifully. “I have, at any rate,” she Said, “a high one of his talent. I don’t suppose many men have an equal amount of moral and intellectual energy.”

“And you would cultivate the one at the expense of the other?”

“In certain cases — and up to a certain point.” She shook out the long fur of her muff, one of those silvery flexible furs which clothe a woman with a delicate sumptuousness. Everything about her, at the moment, seemed rich and cold — everything, as Mrs. Peyton quickly noted, but the blush lingering under her dark skin; and so complete was the girl’s self-command that the blush seemed to be there only because it had been forgotten.

“I dare say you think me strange,” she continued. “Most people do, because I speak the truth. It’s the easiest way of concealing one’s feelings. I can, for instance, talk quite openly about Mr. Peyton under shelter of your inference that I shouldn’t do so if I were what is called ‘interested’ in him. And as I am interested in him, my method has its advantages!” She ended with one of the fluttering laughs which seemed to flit from point to point of her expressive person.

Mrs. Peyton leaned toward her. “I believe you are interested,” she said quietly; “and since I suppose you allow others the privilege you claim for yourself, I am going to confess that I followed you here in the hope of finding out the nature of your interest.”

Miss Verney shot a glance at her, and drew away in a soft subsidence of undulating furs.

“Is this an embassy?” she asked smiling.

“No: not in any sense.”

The girl leaned back with an air of relief. “I’m glad; I should have disliked — ” She looked again at Mrs. Peyton. “You want to know what I mean to do?”

“Yes.”

“Then I can only answer that I mean to wait and see what he does.”

“You mean that everything is contingent on his success?”

I am — if I’m everything,” she admitted gaily.

The mother’s heart was beating in her throat, and her words seemed to force themselves out through the throbs.

“I— I don’t quite see why you attach such importance to this special success.”

“Because he does,” the girl returned instantly. “Because to him it is the final answer to his self-questioning — the questioning whether he is ever to amount to anything or not. He says if he has anything in him it ought to come out now. All the conditions are favourable — it is the chance he has always prayed for. You see,” she continued, almost confidentially, but without the least loss of composure — “you see he has told me a great deal about himself and his various experiments — his phrases of indecision and disgust. There are lots of tentative talents in the world, and the sooner they are crushed out by circumstances the better. But it seems as though he really had it in him to do something distinguished — as though the uncertainty lay in his character and not in his talent. That is what interests, what attracts me. One can’t teach a man to have genius, but if he has it one may show him how to use it. That is what I should be good for, you see — to keep him up to his opportunities.”

Mrs. Peyton had listened with an intensity of attention that left her reply unprepared. There was something startling and yet half attractive in the girl’s avowal of principles which are oftener lived by than professed.

“And you think,” she began at length, “that in this case he has fallen below his opportunity?”

“No one can tell, of course; but his discouragement, his abattement, is a bad sign. I don’t think he has any hope of succeeding.”

The mother again wavered a moment. “Since you are so frank,” she then said, “will you let me be equally so, and ask how lately you have seen him?”

The girl smiled at the circumlocution. “Yesterday afternoon,” she said simply.

“And you thought him — ”

“Horribly down on his luck. He said himself that his brain was empty.”

Again Mrs. Peyton felt the throb in her throat, and a slow blush rose to her cheek. “Was that all he said?”

“About himself — was there anything else?” said the girl quickly.

“He didn’t tell you of — of an opportunity to make up for the time he has lost?”

“An opportunity? I don’t understand.”

“He didn’t speak to you, then, of Mr. Darrow’s letter?”

“He said nothing of any letter.”

“There was one, which was found after poor Darrow’s death. In it he gave Dick leave to use his design for the competition. Dick says the design is wonderful — it would give him just what he needs.”

Miss Verney sat listening raptly, with a rush of colour that suffused her like light.

“But when was this? Where was the letter found? He never said a word of it!” she exclaimed.

“The letter was found on the day of Darrow’s death.”

“But I don’t understand! Why has he never told me? Why should he seem so hopeless?” She turned an ignorant appealing face on Mrs. Peyton. It was prodigious, but it was true — she felt nothing, saw nothing, but the crude fact of the opportunity.

Mrs. Peyton’s voice trembled with the completeness of her triumph. “I suppose his reason for not speaking is that he has scruples.”

“Scruples?”

“He feels that to use the design would be dishonest.”

Miss Verney’s eyes fixed themselves on her in a commiserating stare. “Dishonest? When the poor man wished it himself? When it was his last request? When the letter is there to prove it? Why, the design belongs to your son! No one else had any right to it.”

“But Dick’s right does not extend to passing it off as his own — at least that is his feeling, I believe. If he won the competition he would be winning it on false pretenses.”

“Why should you call them false pretenses? His design might have been better than Darrow’s if he had had time to carry it out. It seems to me that Mr. Darrow must have felt this — must have felt that he owed his friend some compensation for the time he took from him. I can imagine nothing more natural than his wishing to make this return for your son’s sacrifice.”

She positively glowed with the force of her conviction, and Mrs. Peyton, for a strange instant, felt her own resistance wavering. She herself had never considered the question in that light — the light of Darrow’s viewing his gift as a justifiable compensation. But the glimpse she caught of it drove her shuddering behind her retrenchments.

“That argument,” she said coldly, “would naturally be more convincing to Darrow than to my son.”

Miss Verney glanced up, struck by the change in Mrs. Peyton’s voice.

“Ah, then you agree with him? You think it would be dishonest?”

Mrs. Peyton saw that she had slipped into self-betrayal. “My son and I have not spoken of the matter,” she said evasively. She caught the flash of relief in Miss Verney’s face.

“You haven’t spoken? Then how do you know how he feels about it?”

“I only judge from — well, perhaps from his not speaking.”

The girl drew a deep breath. “I see,” she murmured. “That is the very reason that prevents his speaking.”

“The reason?”

“Your knowing what he thinks — and his knowing that you know.”

Mrs. Peyton was startled at her subtlety. “I assure you,” she said, rising, “that I have done nothing to influence him.”

The girl gazed at her musingly. “No,” she said with a faint smile, “nothing except to read his thoughts.”

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