The Spark, by Edith Wharton

IV

“You’ll admit,” Mrs. Delane challenged me, “that Hayley’s perfect.”

Don’t imagine you have yet done with Mrs. Delane, any more than Delane had, or I. Hitherto I have shown you only one side, or rather one phase, of her; that during which, for obvious reasons, Hayley became an obstacle or a burden. In the intervals between her great passions, when somebody had to occupy the vacant throne in her bosom, her husband was always reinstated there; and during these interlunar periods he and the children were her staple subjects of conversation. If you had met her then for the first time you would have taken her for the perfect wife and mother, and wondered if Hayley ever got a day off; and you would not have been far wrong in conjecturing that he seldom did.

Only these intervals were rather widely spaced, and usually of short duration; and at other times, his wife being elsewhere engaged, it was Delane who elder-brothered his big boys and their little sister. Sometimes, on these occasions — when Mrs. Delane was abroad or at Newport — Delane used to carry me off for a week to the quiet old house in the New Jersey hills, full of Hayley and Delane portraits, of heavy mahogany furniture and the mingled smell of lavender bags and leather — leather boots, leather gloves, leather luggage, all the aromas that emanate from the cupboards and passages of a house inhabited by hard riders.

When his wife was at home he never seemed to notice the family portraits or the old furniture. Leila carried off her own regrettable origin by professing a democratic scorn of ancestors in general. “I know enough bores in the flesh without bothering to remember all the dead ones,” she said one day, when I had asked her the name of a stern-visaged old forbear in breast-plate and buff jerkin who hung on the library wall: and Delane, so practised in sentimental duplicities, winked jovially at the children, as who should say: “There’s the proper American spirit for you, my dears! That’s the way we all ought to feel.”

Perhaps, however, he detected a tinge of irritation in my own look, for that evening, as we sat over the fire after Leila had yawned herself off to bed, he glanced up at the armoured image, and said: “That’s old Durward Hayley — the friend of Sir Harry Vane the Younger and all that lot. I have some curious letters somewhere . . . But Leila’s right, you know,” he added loyally.

“In not being interested?”

“In regarding all that old past as dead. It IS dead. We’ve got no use for it over here. That’s what that queer fellow in Washington always used to say to me . . . ”

“What queer fellow in Washington?”

“Oh, a sort of big backwoodsman who was awfully good to me when I was in hospital . . . after Bull Run . . . ”

I sat up abruptly. It was the first time that Delane had mentioned his life during the war. I thought my hand was on the clue; but it wasn’t.

“You were in hospital in Washington?”

“Yes; for a longish time. They didn’t know much about disinfecting wounds in those days . . . But Leila,” he resumed, with his smiling obstinacy, “Leila’s dead right, you know. It’s a better world now. Think of what has been done to relieve suffering since then!” When he pronounced the word “suffering” the vertical furrows in his forehead deepened as though he felt the actual pang of his old wound. “Oh, I believe in progress every bit as much as SHE does — I believe we’re working out toward something better. If we weren’t . . . ” He shrugged his mighty shoulders, reached lazily for the adjoining tray, and mixed my glass of whiskey-and-soda.

“But the war — you were wounded at Bull Run?”

“Yes.” He looked at his watch. “But I’m off to bed now. I promised the children to take them for an early canter tomorrow, before lessons, and I have to have my seven or eight hours of sleep to feel fit. I’m getting on, you see. Put out the lights when you come up.”

No; he wouldn’t talk about the war.

It was not long afterward that Mrs. Delane appealed to me to testify to Hayley’s perfection. She had come back from her last absence — a six weeks’ flutter at Newport — rather painfully subdued and pinched-looking. For the first time I saw in the corners of her mouth that middle-aged droop which has nothing to do with the loss of teeth. “How common-looking she’ll be in a few years!” I thought uncharitably.

“Perfect — perfect,” she insisted; and then, plaintively: “And yet — ”

I echoed coldly: “And yet?”

“With the children, for instance. He’s everything to them. He’s cut me out with my own children.” She was half joking, half whimpering.

Presently she stole an eye-lashed look at me, and added: “And at times he’s so HARD.”

“Delane?”

“Oh, I know you won’t believe it. But in business matters — have you never noticed? You wouldn’t admit it, I suppose. But there are times when one simply can’t move him.” We were in the library, and she glanced up at the breast-plated forbear. “He’s as hard to the touch as THAT.” She pointed to the steel convexity.

“Not the Delane I know,” I murmured, embarrassed by these confidences.

“Ah, you think you know him?” she half-sneered; then, with a dutiful accent: “I’ve always said he was a perfect father — and he’s made the children think so. And yet — ”

He came in, and dropping a pale smile on him she drifted away, calling to her children.

I thought to myself: “She’s getting on, and something has told her so at Newport. Poor thing!”

Delane looked as preoccupied as she did; but he said nothing till after she had left us that evening. Then he suddenly turned to me.

“Look here. You’re a good friend of ours. Will you help me to think out a rather bothersome question?”

“Me, sir?” I said, surprised by the “ours,” and overcome by so solemn an appeal from my elder.

He made a wan grimace. “Oh, don’t call me ‘sir’; not during this talk.” He paused, and then added: “You’re remembering the difference in our ages. Well, that’s just why I’m asking you. I want the opinion of somebody who hasn’t had time to freeze into his rut — as most of my contemporaries have. The fact is, I’m trying to make my wife see that we’ve got to let her father come and live with us.”

My open-mouthed amazement must have been marked enough to pierce his gloom, for he gave a slight laugh. “Well, yes — ”

I sat dumbfounded. All New York knew what Delane thought of his suave father-in-law. He had married Leila in spite of her antecedents; but Bill Gracy, at the outset, had been given to understand that he would not be received under the Delane roof. Mollified by the regular payment of a handsome allowance, the old gentleman, with tears in his eyes, was wont to tell his familiars that personally he didn’t blame his son-in-law. “Our tastes differ: that’s all. Hayley’s not a bad chap at heart; give you my word he isn’t.” And the familiars, touched by such magnanimity, would pledge Hayley in the champagne provided by his last remittance.

Delane, as I still remained silent, began to explain. “You see, somebody’s got to look after him — who else is there?

“But — ” I stammered.

“You’ll say he’s always needed looking after? Well, I’ve done my best; short of having him here. For a long time that seemed impossible; I quite agreed with Leila — ” (So it was Leila who had banished her father!) “But now,” Delane continued, “it’s different. The poor old chap’s getting on: he’s been breaking up very fast this last year. And some blood-sucker of a woman has got hold of him, and threatened to rake up old race-course rows, and I don’t know what. If we don’t take him in he’s bound to go under. It’s his last chance — he feels it is. He’s scared; he wants to come.”

I was still silent, and Delane went on: “You think, I suppose, what’s the use? Why not let him stew in his own juice? With a decent allowance, of course. Well, I can’t say . . . I can’t tell you . . . only I feel it mustn’t be . . . ”

“And Mrs. Delane?”

“Oh, I see her point. The children are growing up; they’ve hardly known their grandfather. And having him in the house isn’t going to be like having a nice old lady in a cap knitting by the fire. He takes up room, Gracy does; it’s not going to be pleasant. She thinks we ought to consider the children first. But I don’t agree. The world’s too ugly a place; why should anyone grow up thinking it’s a flower-garden? Let ’em take their chance. . . . And then” — he hesitated, as if embarrassed — “well, you know her; she’s fond of society. Why shouldn’t she be? She’s made for it. And of course it’ll cut us off, prevent our inviting people. She won’t like that, though she doesn’t admit that it has anything to do with her objecting.”

So, after all, he judged the wife he still worshipped! I was beginning to see why he had that great structural head, those large quiet movements. There WAS something —

“What alternative does Mrs. Delane propose?”

He coloured. “Oh, more money. I sometimes fancy,” he brought out, hardly above a whisper, “that she thinks I’ve suggested having him here because I don’t want to give more money. She won’t understand, you see, that more money would just precipitate things.”

I coloured too, ashamed of my own thought. Had she not, perhaps, understood; was it not her perspicacity which made her hold out? If her father was doomed to go under, why prolong the process? I could not be sure, now, that Delane did not suspect this also, and allow for it. There was apparently no limit to what he allowed for.

“YOU’LL never be frozen into a rut,” I ventured, smiling.

“Perhaps not frozen; but sunk down deep. I’m that already. Give me a hand up, do!” He answered my smile.

I was still in the season of cocksureness, and at a distance could no doubt have dealt glibly with the problem. But at such short range, and under those melancholy eyes, I had a chastening sense of inexperience.

“You don’t care to tell me what you think?” He spoke almost reproachfully.

“Oh, it’s not that . . . I’m trying to. But it’s so — so awfully evangelical,” I brought out — for some of us were already beginning to read the Russians.

“Is it? Funny, that, too. For I have an idea I got it, with other things, from an old heathen; that chap I told you about, who used to come and talk to me by the hour in Washington.”

My interest revived. “That chap in Washington — was he a heathen?”

“Well, he didn’t go to church.” Delane did, regularly taking the children, while Leila slept off the previous night’s poker, and joining in the hymns in a robust barytone, always half a tone flat.

He seemed to guess that I found his reply inadequate, and added helplessly: “You know I’m no scholar: I don’t know what you’d call him.” He lowered his voice to add: “I don’t think he believed in our Lord. Yet he taught me Christian charity.”

“He must have been an unusual sort of man, to have made such an impression on you. What was his name?”

“There’s the pity! I must have heard it, but I was all foggy with fever most of the time, and can’t remember. Nor what became of him either. One day he didn’t turn up — that’s all I recall. And soon afterward I was off again, and didn’t think of him for years. Then, one day, I had to settle something with myself, and, by George, there he was telling me the right and wrong of it! Queer — he comes like that, at long intervals; turning-points, I suppose.” He frowned his heavy head sunk forward, his eyes distant, pursuing the vision.

“Well — hasn’t he come this time?”

“Rather! That’s my trouble — I can’t see things in any way but his. And I want another eye to help me!”

My heart was beating rather excitedly. I felt small, trivial and inadequate, like an intruder on some grave exchange of confidences.

I tried to postpone my reply, and at the same time to satisfy another curiosity. “Have you ever told Mrs. Delane about — about him?”

Delane roused himself and turned to look at me. He lifted his shaggy eyebrows slightly, protruded his lower lip, and sank once more into abstraction.

“Well, sir,” I said, answering the look, “I believe in him.”

The blood rose in his dark cheek. He turned to me again and for a second the dimple twinkled through his gloom. “That’s your answer?”

I nodded breathlessly.

He got up, walked the length of the room, and came back, pausing in front of me. “He just vanished. I never even knew his name . . . ”

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