The Touchstone, by Edith Wharton

V

The little house, as Glennard strolled up to it between the trees, seemed no more than a gay tent pitched against the sunshine. It had the crispness of a freshly starched summer gown, and the geraniums on the veranda bloomed as simultaneously as the flowers in a bonnet. The garden was prospering absurdly. Seed they had sown at random — amid laughing counter-charges of incompetence — had shot up in fragrant defiance of their blunders. He smiled to see the clematis unfolding its punctual wings about the porch. The tiny lawn was smooth as a shaven cheek, and a crimson rambler mounted to the nursery-window of a baby who never cried. A breeze shook the awning above the tea-table, and his wife, as he drew near, could be seen bending above a kettle that was just about to boil. So vividly did the whole scene suggest the painted bliss of a stage setting, that it would have been hardly surprising to see her step forward among the flowers and trill out her virtuous happiness from the veranda-rail.

The stale heat of the long day in town, the dusty promiscuity of the suburban train were now but the requisite foil to an evening of scented breezes and tranquil talk. They had been married more than a year, and each home-coming still reflected the freshness of their first day together. If, indeed, their happiness had a flaw, it was in resembling too closely the bright impermanence of their surroundings. Their love as yet was but the gay tent of holiday-makers.

His wife looked up with a smile. The country life suited her, and her beauty had gained depth from a stillness in which certain faces might have grown opaque.

“Are you very tired?” she asked, pouring his tea.

“Just enough to enjoy this.” He rose from the chair in which he had thrown himself and bent over the tray for his cream. “You’ve had a visitor?” he commented, noticing a half-empty cup beside her own.

“Only Mr. Flamel,” she said, indifferently.

“Flamel? Again?”

She answered without show of surprise. “He left just now. His yacht is down at Laurel Bay and he borrowed a trap of the Dreshams to drive over here.”

Glennard made no comment, and she went on, leaning her head back against the cushions of her bamboo-seat, “He wants us to go for a sail with him next Sunday.”

Glennard meditatively stirred his tea. He was trying to think of the most natural and unartificial thing to say, and his voice seemed to come from the outside, as though he were speaking behind a marionette. “Do you want to?”

“Just as you please,” she said, compliantly. No affectation of indifference could have been as baffling as her compliance. Glennard, of late, was beginning to feel that the surface which, a year ago, he had taken for a sheet of clear glass, might, after all, be a mirror reflecting merely his own conception of what lay behind it.

“Do you like Flamel?” he suddenly asked; to which, still engaged with her tea, she returned the feminine answer — “I thought you did.”

“I do, of course,” he agreed, vexed at his own incorrigible tendency to magnify Flamel’s importance by hovering about the topic. “A sail would be rather jolly; let’s go.”

She made no reply and he drew forth the rolled-up evening papers which he had thrust into his pocket on leaving the train. As he smoothed them out his own countenance seemed to undergo the same process. He ran his eye down the list of stocks and Flamel’s importunate personality receded behind the rows of figures pushing forward into notice like so many bearers of good news. Glennard’s investments were flowering like his garden: the dryest shares blossomed into dividends, and a golden harvest awaited his sickle.

He glanced at his wife with the tranquil air of the man who digests good luck as naturally as the dry ground absorbs a shower. “Things are looking uncommonly well. I believe we shall be able to go to town for two or three months next winter if we can find something cheap.”

She smiled luxuriously: it was pleasant to be able to say, with an air of balancing relative advantages, “Really, on the baby’s account I shall be almost sorry; but if we do go, there’s Kate Erskine’s house . . . she’ll let us have it for almost nothing. . . . ”

“Well, write her about it,” he recommended, his eyes travelling on in search of the weather report. He had turned to the wrong page; and suddenly a line of black characters leapt out at him as from an ambush.

“‘Margaret Aubyn’s Letters.’ Two volumes. Out to-day. First edition of five thousand sold out before leaving the press. Second edition ready next week. THE BOOK OF THE YEAR. . . . ”

He looked up stupidly. His wife still sat with her head thrown back, her pure profile detached against the cushions. She was smiling a little over the prospect his last words had opened. Behind her head shivers of sun and shade ran across the striped awning. A row of maples and a privet hedge hid their neighbor’s gables, giving them undivided possession of their leafy half-acre; and life, a moment before, had been like their plot of ground, shut off, hedged in from importunities, impenetrably his and hers. Now it seemed to him that every maple-leaf, every privet-bud, was a relentless human gaze, pressing close upon their privacy. It was as though they sat in a brightly lit room, uncurtained from a darkness full of hostile watchers. . . . His wife still smiled; and her unconsciousness of danger seemed, in some horrible way, to put her beyond the reach of rescue. . . .

He had not known that it would be like this. After the first odious weeks, spent in preparing the letters for publication, in submitting them to Flamel, and in negotiating with the publishers, the transaction had dropped out of his consciousness into that unvisited limbo to which we relegate the deeds we would rather not have done but have no notion of undoing. From the moment he had obtained Miss Trent’s promise not to sail with her aunt he had tried to imagine himself irrevocably committed. After that, he argued, his first duty was to her — she had become his conscience. The sum obtained from the publishers by Flamel’s adroit manipulations and opportunely transferred to Dinslow’s successful venture, already yielded a return which, combined with Glennard’s professional earnings, took the edge of compulsion from their way of living, making it appear the expression of a graceful preference for simplicity. It was the mitigated poverty which can subscribe to a review or two and have a few flowers on the dinner-table. And already in a small way Glennard was beginning to feel the magnetic quality of prosperity. Clients who had passed his door in the hungry days sought it out now that it bore the name of a successful man. It was understood that a small inheritance, cleverly invested, was the source of his fortune; and there was a feeling that a man who could do so well for himself was likely to know how to turn over other people’s money.

But it was in the more intimate reward of his wife’s happiness that Glennard tasted the full flavor of success. Coming out of conditions so narrow that those he offered her seemed spacious, she fitted into her new life without any of those manifest efforts at adjustment that are as sore to a husband’s pride as the critical rearrangement of the bridal furniture. She had given him, instead, the delicate pleasure of watching her expand like a sea-creature restored to its element, stretching out the atrophied tentacles of girlish vanity and enjoyment to the rising tide of opportunity. And somehow — in the windowless inner cell of his consciousness where self-criticism cowered — Glennard’s course seemed justified by its merely material success. How could such a crop of innocent blessedness have sprung from tainted soil?

Now he had the injured sense of a man entrapped into a disadvantageous bargain. He had not known it would be like this; and a dull anger gathered at his heart. Anger against whom? Against his wife, for not knowing what he suffered? Against Flamel, for being the unconscious instrument of his wrong-doing? Or against that mute memory to which his own act had suddenly given a voice of accusation? Yes, that was it; and his punishment henceforth would be the presence, the unescapable presence, of the woman he had so persistently evaded. She would always be there now. It was as though he had married her instead of the other. It was what she had always wanted — to be with him — and she had gained her point at last. . . .

He sprang up, as though in an impulse of flight. . . . The sudden movement lifted his wife’s lids, and she asked, in the incurious voice of the woman whose life is enclosed in a magic circle of prosperity — “Any news?”

“No — none — ” he said, roused to a sense of immediate peril. The papers lay scattered at his feet — what if she were to see them? He stretched his arm to gather them up, but his next thought showed him the futility of such concealment. The same advertisement would appear every day, for weeks to come, in every newspaper; how could he prevent her seeing it? He could not always be hiding the papers from her. . . . Well, and what if she did see it? It would signify nothing to her, the chances were that she would never even read the book. . . . As she ceased to be an element of fear in his calculations the distance between them seemed to lessen and he took her again, as it were, into the circle of his conjugal protection. . . . Yet a moment before he had almost hated her! . . . He laughed aloud at his senseless terrors. . . . He was off his balance, decidedly.

“What are you laughing at?” she asked.

He explained, elaborately, that he was laughing at the recollection of an old woman in the train, an old woman with a lot of bundles, who couldn’t find her ticket. . . . But somehow, in the telling, the humor of the story seemed to evaporate, and he felt the conventionality of her smile. He glanced at his watch, “Isn’t it time to dress?”

She rose with serene reluctance. “It’s a pity to go in. The garden looks so lovely.”

They lingered side by side, surveying their domain. There was not space in it, at this hour, for the shadow of the elm-tree in the angle of the hedge; it crossed the lawn, cut the flower-border in two, and ran up the side of the house to the nursery window. She bent to flick a caterpillar from the honey-suckle; then, as they turned indoors, “If we mean to go on the yacht next Sunday,” she suggested, “oughtn’t you to let Mr. Flamel know?”

Glennard’s exasperation deflected suddenly. “Of course I shall let him know. You always seem to imply that I’m going to do something rude to Flamel.”

The words reverberated through her silence; she had a way of thus leaving one space in which to contemplate one’s folly at arm’s length. Glennard turned on his heel and went upstairs. As he dropped into a chair before his dressing-table he said to himself that in the last hour he had sounded the depths of his humiliation and that the lowest dregs of it, the very bottom-slime, was the hateful necessity of having always, as long as the two men lived, to be civil to Barton Flamel.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/touchstone/chapter5.html

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