The Spark, by Edith Wharton

I

“You idiot!” said his wife, and threw down her cards.

I turned my head away quickly, to avoid seeing Hayley Delane’s face; though why I wished to avoid it I could not have told you, much less why I should have imagined (if I did) that a man of his age and importance would notice what was happening to the wholly negligible features of a youth like myself.

I turned away so that he should not see how it hurt me to hear him called an idiot, even in joke — well, at least half in joke; yet I often thought him an idiot myself, and bad as my own poker was, I knew enough of the game to judge that his — when he wasn’t attending — fully justified such an outburst from his wife. Why her sally disturbed me I couldn’t have said; nor why, when it was greeted by a shrill guffaw from her “latest,” young Bolton Byrne, I itched to cuff the little bounder; nor why, when Hayley Delane, on whom banter always dawned slowly but certainly, at length gave forth his low rich gurgle of appreciation — why then, most of all, I wanted to blot the whole scene from my memory. Why?

There they sat, as I had so often seen them, in Jack Alstrop’s luxurious bookless library (I’m sure the rich rows behind the glass doors were hollow), while beyond the windows the pale twilight thickened to blue over Long Island lawns and woods and a moonlit streak of sea. No one ever looked out at THAT, except to conjecture what sort of weather there would be the next day for polo, or hunting, or racing, or whatever use the season required the face of nature to be put to; no one was aware of the twilight, the moon or the blue shadows — and Hayley Delane least of all. Day after day, night after night, he sat anchored at somebody’s poker-table, and fumbled absently with his cards . . .

Yes; that was the man. He didn’t even (as it was once said of a great authority on heraldry) know his own silly business; which was to hang about in his wife’s train, play poker with her friends, and giggle at her nonsense and theirs. No wonder Mrs. Delane was sometimes exasperated. As she said, SHE hadn’t asked him to marry her! Rather not: all their contemporaries could remember what a thunderbolt it had been on his side. The first time he had seen her — at the theatre, I think: “Who’s that? Over there — with the heaps of hair?” — “Oh, Leila Gracy? Why, she’s not REALLY pretty . . . ” “Well, I’m going to marry her — ” “Marry her? But her father’s that old scoundrel Bill Gracy . . . the one . . . ” “I’m going to marry her . . . ” “The one who’s had to resign from all his clubs . . . ” “I’m going to marry her . . . ” And he did; and it was she, if you please, who kept him dangling, and who would and who wouldn’t, until some whipper-snapper of a youth, who was meanwhile making up his mind about HER, had finally decided in the negative.

Such had been Hayley Delane’s marriage; and such, I imagined, his way of conducting most of the transactions of his futile clumsy life . . . Big bursts of impulse — storms he couldn’t control — then long periods of drowsing calm, during which, something made me feel, old regrets and remorses woke and stirred under the indolent surface of his nature. And yet, wasn’t I simply romanticizing a commonplace case? I turned back from the window to look at the group. The bringing of candles to the card-tables had scattered pools of illumination throughout the shadowy room; in their radiance Delane’s harsh head stood out like a cliff from a flowery plain. Perhaps it was only his bigness, his heaviness and swarthiness — perhaps his greater age, for he must have been at least fifteen years older than his wife and most of her friends; at any rate, I could never look at him without feeling that he belonged elsewhere, not so much in another society as in another age. For there was no doubt that the society he lived in suited him well enough. He shared cheerfully in all the amusements of his little set — rode, played polo, hunted and drove his four-in-hand with the best of them (you will see, by the last allusion, that we were still in the archaic ‘nineties). Nor could I guess what other occupations he would have preferred, had he been given his choice. In spite of my admiration for him I could not bring myself to think it was Leila Gracy who had subdued him to what she worked in. What would he have chosen to do if he had not met her that night at the play? Why, I rather thought, to meet and marry somebody else just like her. No; the difference in him was not in his tastes — it was in something ever so much deeper. Yet what is deeper in a man than his tastes?

In another age, then, he would probably have been doing the equivalent of what he was doing now: idling, taking much violent exercise, eating more than was good for him, laughing at the same kind of nonsense, and worshipping, with the same kind of dull routine-worship, the same kind of woman, whether dressed in a crinoline, a farthingale, a peplum or the skins of beasts — it didn’t much matter under what sumptuary dispensation one placed her. Only in that in that other age there might have been outlets for other faculties, now dormant, perhaps even atrophied, but which must — yes, really must — have had something to do with the building of that big friendly forehead, the monumental nose, and the rich dimple which now and then furrowed his cheek with light. Did the dimple even mean no more than Leila Gracy?

Well, perhaps it was I who was the idiot, if she’d only known it; an idiot to believe in her husband, be obsessed by him, oppressed by him, when, for thirty years now, he’d been only the Hayley Delane whom everybody took for granted, and was glad to see, and immediately forgot. Turning from my contemplation of that great structural head, I looked at his wife. Her head was still like something in the making, something just flowering, a girl’s head ringed with haze. Even the kindly candles betrayed the lines in her face, the paint on her lips, the peroxide on her hair; but they could not lessen her fluidity of outline, or the girlishness that lurked in her eyes, floating up from their depths like a startled Naiad. There was an irreducible innocence about her, as there so often is about women who have spent their time in amassing sentimental experiences. As I looked at the husband and wife, thus confronted above the cards, I marvelled more and more that it was she who ruled and he who bent the neck. You will see by this how young I still was.

So young, indeed, that Hayley Delane had dawned on me in my school-days as an accomplished fact, a finished monument: like Trinity Church, the Reservoir or the Knickerbocker Club. A New Yorker of my generation could no more imagine him altered or away than any of those venerable institutions. And so I had continued to take him for granted till, my Harvard days over, I had come back after an interval of world-wandering to settle down in New York, and he had broken on me afresh as something still not wholly accounted for, and more interesting than I had suspected.

I don’t say the matter kept me awake. I had my own business (in a down-town office), and the pleasures of my age; I was hard at work discovering New York. But now and then the Hayley Delane riddle would thrust itself between me and my other interests, as it had done tonight just because his wife had sneered at him, and he had laughed and thought her funny. And at such times I found myself moved and excited out of all proportion to anything I knew about him, or had observed in him, to justify such emotions.

The game was over, the dressing-bell had rung. It rang again presently, with a discreet insistence: Alstrop, easy in all else, preferred that his guests should not be more than half an hour late for dinner.

“I say — LEILA!” he finally remonstrated.

The golden coils drooped above her chips. “Yes — yes. Just a minute. Hayley, you’ll have to pay for me. — There, I’m going!” She laughed and pushed back her chair.

Delane, laughing also, got up lazily. Byrne flew to open the door for Mrs. Delane; the other women trooped out with her. Delane, having settled her debts, picked up her gold-mesh bag and cigarette-case, and followed.

I turned toward a window opening on the lawn. There was just time to stretch my legs while curling-tongs and powder were being plied above stairs. Alstrop joined me, and we stood staring up at a soft dishevelled sky in which the first stars came and went.

“Curse it — looks rotten for our match tomorrow!”

“Yes — but what a good smell the coming rain does give to things!”

He laughed. “You’re an optimist — like old Hayley.”

We strolled across the lawn toward the woodland.

“Why like old Hayley?”

“Oh, he’s a regular philosopher, I’ve never seen him put out, have you?”

“No. That must be what makes him look so sad,” I exclaimed.

“Sad? Hayley? Why, I was just saying — ”

“Yes, I know. But the only people who are never put out are the people who don’t care; and not caring is about the saddest occupation there is. I’d like to see him in a rage just once.”

My host gave a faint whistle, and remarked: “By Jove, I believe the wind’s hauling round to the north. If it does — ” He moistened his finger and held it up.

I knew there was no use in theorizing with Alstrop; but I tried another tack, “What on earth has Delane done with himself all these years?” I asked. Alstrop was forty, or thereabouts, and by a good many years better able than I to cast a backward glance over the problem.

But the effort seemed beyond him. “Why — what years?”

“Well — ever since he left college.”

“Lord! How do I know? I wasn’t there. Hayley must be well past fifty.”

It sounded formidable to my youth; almost like a geological era. And that suited him, in a way — I could imagine him drifting, or silting, or something measurable by aeons, at the rate of about a millimetre a century.

“How long has he been married?” I asked.

“I don’t know that either; nearly twenty years, I should say. The kids are growing up. The boys are both at Groton. Leila doesn’t look it, I must say — not in some lights.”

“Well, then, what’s he been doing since he married?”

“Why, what should he have done? He’s always had money enough to do what he likes. He’s got his partnership in the bank, of course. They say that rascally old father-in-law, whom he refuses to see, gets a good deal of money out of him. You know he’s awfully soft-hearted. But he can swing it all, I fancy. Then he sits on lots of boards — Blind Asylum, Children’s Aid, S.P.C.A., and all the rest. And there isn’t a better sport going.”

“But that’s not what I mean,” I persisted.

Alstrop looked at me through the darkness. “You don’t mean women? I never heard — but then one wouldn’t, very likely. He’s a shut-up fellow.”

We turned back to dress for dinner. Yes, that was the word I wanted; he was a shut-up fellow. Even the rudimentary Alstrop felt it. But shut-up consciously, deliberately — or only instinctively, congenitally? There the mystery lay

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