The Touchstone, by Edith Wharton

XII

The motive of his visit to the cemetery remained undefined save as a final effort of escape from his wife’s inexpressive acceptance of his shame. It seemed to him that as long as he could keep himself alive to that shame he would not wholly have succumbed to its consequences. His chief fear was that he should become the creature of his act. His wife’s indifference degraded him; it seemed to put him on a level with his dishonor. Margaret Aubyn would have abhorred the deed in proportion to her pity for the man. The sense of her potential pity drew him back to her. The one woman knew but did not understand; the other, it sometimes seemed, understood without knowing.

In its last disguise of retrospective remorse, his self-pity affected a desire for solitude and meditation. He lost himself in morbid musings, in futile visions of what life with Margaret Aubyn might have been. There were moments when, in the strange dislocation of his view, the wrong he had done her seemed a tie between them.

To indulge these emotions he fell into the habit, on Sunday afternoons, of solitary walks prolonged till after dusk. The days were lengthening, there was a touch of spring in the air, and his wanderings now usually led him to the Park and its outlying regions.

One Sunday, tired of aimless locomotion, he took a cab at the Park gates and let it carry him out to the Riverside Drive. It was a gray afternoon streaked with east wind. Glennard’s cab advanced slowly, and as he leaned back, gazing with absent intentness at the deserted paths that wound under bare boughs between grass banks of premature vividness, his attention was arrested by two figures walking ahead of him. This couple, who had the path to themselves, moved at an uneven pace, as though adapting their gait to a conversation marked by meditative intervals. Now and then they paused, and in one of these pauses the lady, turning toward her companion, showed Glennard the outline of his wife’s profile. The man was Flamel.

The blood rushed to Glennard’s forehead. He sat up with a jerk and pushed back the lid in the roof of the hansom; but when the cabman bent down he dropped into his seat without speaking. Then, becoming conscious of the prolonged interrogation of the lifted lid, he called out — “Turn — drive back — anywhere — I’m in a hurry — ”

As the cab swung round he caught a last glimpse of the two figures. They had not moved; Alexa, with bent head, stood listening.

“My God, my God — ” he groaned.

It was hideous — it was abominable — he could not understand it. The woman was nothing to him — less than nothing — yet the blood hummed in his ears and hung a cloud before him. He knew it was only the stirring of the primal instinct, that it had no more to do with his reasoning self than any reflex impulse of the body; but that merely lowered anguish to disgust. Yes, it was disgust he felt — almost a physical nausea. The poisonous fumes of life were in his lungs. He was sick, unutterably sick. . . .

He drove home and went to his room. They were giving a little dinner that night, and when he came down the guests were arriving. He looked at his wife: her beauty was extraordinary, but it seemed to him the beauty of a smooth sea along an unlit coast. She frightened him.

He sat late that night in his study. He heard the parlor-maid lock the front door; then his wife went upstairs and the lights were put out. His brain was like some great empty hall with an echo in it; one thought reverberated endlessly. . . . At length he drew his chair to the table and began to write. He addressed an envelope and then slowly re-read what he had written.

“MY DEAR FLAMEL,”

“Many apologies for not sending you sooner the enclosed check, which represents the customary percentage on the sale of the Letters.”

“Trusting you will excuse the oversight,

“Yours truly,

“STEPHEN GLENNARD.”

He let himself out of the darkened house and dropped the letter in the post-box at the corner.

The next afternoon he was detained late at his office, and as he was preparing to leave he heard someone asking for him in the outer room. He seated himself again and Flamel was shown in.

The two men, as Glennard pushed aside an obstructive chair, had a moment to measure each other; then Flamel advanced, and drawing out his note-case, laid a slip of paper on the desk.

“My dear fellow, what on earth does this mean?” Glennard recognized his check.

“That I was remiss, simply. It ought to have gone to you before.”

Flamel’s tone had been that of unaffected surprise, but at this his accent changed and he asked, quickly: “On what ground?”

Glennard had moved away from the desk and stood leaning against the calf-backed volumes of the bookcase. “On the ground that you sold Mrs. Aubyn’s letters for me, and that I find the intermediary in such cases is entitled to a percentage on the sale.”

Flamel paused before answering. “You find, you say. It’s a recent discovery?”

“Obviously, from my not sending the check sooner. You see I’m new to the business.”

“And since when have you discovered that there was any question of business, as far as I was concerned?”

Glennard flushed and his voice rose slightly. “Are you reproaching me for not having remembered it sooner?”

Flamel, who had spoken in the rapid repressed tone of a man on the verge of anger, stared a moment at this and then, in his natural voice, rejoined, good-humoredly, “Upon my soul, I don’t understand you!”

The change of key seemed to disconcert Glennard. “It’s simple enough — ” he muttered.

“Simple enough — your offering me money in return for a friendly service? I don’t know what your other friends expect!”

“Some of my friends wouldn’t have undertaken the job. Those who would have done so would probably have expected to be paid.”

He lifted his eyes to Flamel and the two men looked at each other. Flamel had turned white and his lips stirred, but he held his temperate note. “If you mean to imply that the job was not a nice one, you lay yourself open to the retort that you proposed it. But for my part I’ve never seen, I never shall see, any reason for not publishing the letters.”

“That’s just it!”

“What —?”

“The certainty of your not seeing was what made me go to you. When a man’s got stolen goods to pawn he doesn’t take them to the police-station.”

“Stolen?” Flamel echoed. “The letters were stolen?”

Glennard burst into a coarse laugh. “How much longer to you expect me to keep up that pretence about the letters? You knew well enough they were written to me.”

Flamel looked at him in silence. “Were they?” he said at length. “I didn’t know it.”

“And didn’t suspect it, I suppose,” Glennard sneered.

The other was again silent; then he said, “I may remind you that, supposing I had felt any curiosity about the matter, I had no way of finding out that the letters were written to you. You never showed me the originals.”

“What does that prove? There were fifty ways of finding out. It’s the kind of thing one can easily do.”

Flamel glanced at him with contempt. “Our ideas probably differ as to what a man can easily do. It would not have been easy for me.”

Glennard’s anger vented itself in the words uppermost in his thought. “It may, then, interest you to hear that my wife DOES know about the letters — has known for some months. . . . ”

“Ah,” said the other, slowly. Glennard saw that, in his blind clutch at a weapon, he had seized the one most apt to wound. Flamel’s muscles were under control, but his face showed the undefinable change produced by the slow infiltration of poison. Every implication that the words contained had reached its mark; but Glennard felt that their obvious intention was lost in the anguish of what they suggested. He was sure now that Flamel would never have betrayed him; but the inference only made a wider outlet for his anger. He paused breathlessly for Flamel to speak.

“If she knows, it’s not through me.” It was what Glennard had waited for.

“Through you, by God? Who said it was through you? Do you suppose I leave it to you, or to anybody else, for that matter, to keep my wife informed of my actions? I didn’t suppose even such egregious conceit as yours could delude a man to that degree!” Struggling for a foothold in the small landslide of his dignity, he added, in a steadier tone, “My wife learned the facts from me.”

Flamel received this in silence. The other’s outbreak seemed to have reinforced his self-control, and when he spoke it was with a deliberation implying that his course was chosen. “In that case I understand still less — ”

“Still less —?”

“The meaning of this.” He pointed to the check. “When you began to speak I supposed you had meant it as a bribe; now I can only infer it was intended as a random insult. In either case, here’s my answer.”

He tore the slip of paper in two and tossed the fragments across the desk to Glennard. Then he turned and walked out of the office.

Glennard dropped his head on his hands. If he had hoped to restore his self-respect by the simple expedient of assailing Flamel’s, the result had not justified his expectation. The blow he had struck had blunted the edge of his anger, and the unforeseen extent of the hurt inflicted did not alter the fact that his weapon had broken in his hands. He saw now that his rage against Flamel was only the last projection of a passionate self-disgust. This consciousness did not dull his dislike of the man; it simply made reprisals ineffectual. Flamel’s unwillingness to quarrel with him was the last stage of his abasement.

In the light of this final humiliation his assumption of his wife’s indifference struck him as hardly so fatuous as the sentimental resuscitation of his past. He had been living in a factitious world wherein his emotions were the sycophants of his vanity, and it was with instinctive relief that he felt its ruins crash about his head.

It was nearly dark when he left his office, and he walked slowly homeward in the complete mental abeyance that follows on such a crisis. He was not aware that he was thinking of his wife; yet when he reached his own door he found that, in the involuntary readjustment of his vision, she had once more become the central point of consciousness.

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