The Touchstone, by Edith Wharton

III

It was one of the laws of Glennard’s intercourse with Miss Trent that he always went to see her the day after he had resolved to give her up. There was a special charm about the moments thus snatched from the jaws of renunciation; and his sense of their significance was on this occasion so keen that he hardly noticed the added gravity of her welcome.

His feeling for her had become so vital a part of him that her nearness had the quality of imperceptibly readjusting his point of view, so that the jumbled phenomena of experience fell at once into a rational perspective. In this redistribution of values the sombre retrospect of the previous evening shrank to a mere cloud on the edge of consciousness. Perhaps the only service an unloved woman can render the man she loves is to enhance and prolong his illusions about her rival. It was the fate of Margaret Aubyn’s memory to serve as a foil to Miss Trent’s presence, and never had the poor lady thrown her successor into more vivid relief.

Miss Trent had the charm of still waters that are felt to be renewed by rapid currents. Her attention spread a tranquil surface to the demonstrations of others, and it was only in days of storm that one felt the pressure of the tides. This inscrutable composure was perhaps her chief grace in Glennard’s eyes. Reserve, in some natures, implies merely the locking of empty rooms or the dissimulation of awkward encumbrances; but Miss Trent’s reticence was to Glennard like the closed door to the sanctuary, and his certainty of divining the hidden treasure made him content to remain outside in the happy expectancy of the neophyte.

“You didn’t come to the opera last night,” she began, in the tone that seemed always rather to record a fact than to offer a reflection on it.

He answered with a discouraged gesture. “What was the use? We couldn’t have talked.”

“Not as well as here,” she assented; adding, after a meditative pause, “As you didn’t come I talked to Aunt Virginia instead.”

“Ah!” he returned, the fact being hardly striking enough to detach him from the contemplation of her hands, which had fallen, as was their wont, into an attitude full of plastic possibilities. One felt them to be hands that, moving only to some purpose, were capable of intervals of serene inaction.

“We had a long talk,” Miss Trent went on; and she waited again before adding, with the increased absence of stress that marked her graver communications, “Aunt Virginia wants me to go abroad with her.”

Glennard looked up with a start. “Abroad? When?”

“Now — next month. To be gone two years.”

He permitted himself a movement of tender derision. “Does she really? Well, I want you to go abroad with ME— for any number of years. Which offer do you accept?”

“Only one of them seems to require immediate consideration,” she returned, with a smile.

Glennard looked at her again. “You’re not thinking of it?”

Her gaze dropped and she unclasped her hands. Her movements were so rare that they might have been said to italicize her words. “Aunt Virginia talked to me very seriously. It will be a great relief to mother and the others to have me provided for in that way for two years. I must think of that, you know.” She glanced down at her gown which, under a renovated surface, dated back to the first days of Glennard’s wooing. “I try not to cost much — but I do.”

“Good Lord!” Glennard groaned.

They sat silent till at length she gently took up the argument. “As the eldest, you know, I’m bound to consider these things. Women are such a burden. Jim does what he can for mother, but with his own children to provide for it isn’t very much. You see, we’re all poor together.”

“Your aunt isn’t. She might help your mother.”

“She does — in her own way.”

“Exactly — that’s the rich relation all over! You may be miserable in any way you like, but if you’re to be happy you’ve got to be so in her way — and in her old gowns.”

“I could be very happy in Aunt Virginia’s old gowns,” Miss Trent interposed.

“Abroad, you mean?”

“I mean wherever I felt that I was helping. And my going abroad will help.”

“Of course — I see that. And I see your considerateness in putting its advantages negatively.”

“Negatively?”

“In dwelling simply on what the going will take you from, not on what it will bring you to. It means a lot to a woman, of course, to get away from a life like this.” He summed up in a disparaging glance the background of indigent furniture. “The question is how you’ll like coming back to it.”

She seemed to accept the full consequences of his thought. “I only know I don’t like leaving it.”

He flung back sombrely, “You don’t even put it conditionally then?”

Her gaze deepened. “On what?”

He stood up and walked across the room. Then he came back and paused before her. “On the alternative of marrying me.”

The slow color — even her blushes seemed deliberate — rose to her lower lids; her lips stirred, but the words resolved themselves into a smile and she waited.

He took another turn, with the thwarted step of the man whose nervous exasperation escapes through his muscles.

“And to think that in fifteen years I shall have a big practice!”

Her eyes triumphed for him. “In less!”

“The cursed irony of it! What do I care for the man I shall be then? It’s slaving one’s life away for a stranger!” He took her hands abruptly. “You’ll go to Cannes, I suppose, or Monte Carlo? I heard Hollingsworth say to-day that he meant to take his yacht over to the Mediterranean — ”

She released herself. “If you think that — ”

“I don’t. I almost wish I did. It would be easier, I mean.” He broke off incoherently. “I believe your Aunt Virginia does, though. She somehow connotes Hollingsworth and the Mediterranean.” He caught her hands again. “Alexa — if we could manage a little hole somewhere out of town?”

“Could we?” she sighed, half yielding.

“In one of those places where they make jokes about the mosquitoes,” he pressed her. “Could you get on with one servant?”

“Could you get on without varnished boots?”

“Promise me you won’t go, then!”

“What are you thinking of, Stephen?”

“I don’t know,” he stammered, the question giving unexpected form to his intention. “It’s all in the air yet, of course; but I picked up a tip the other day — ”

“You’re not speculating?” she cried, with a kind of superstitious terror.

“Lord, no. This is a sure thing — I almost wish it wasn’t; I mean if I can work it — ” He had a sudden vision of the comprehensiveness of the temptation. If only he had been less sure of Dinslow! His assurance gave the situation the base element of safety.

“I don’t understand you,” she faltered.

“Trust me, instead!” he adjured her, with sudden energy; and turning on her abruptly, “If you go, you know, you go free,” he concluded.

She drew back, paling a little. “Why do you make it harder for me?”

“To make it easier for myself,” he retorted.

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