The Touchstone, by Edith Wharton


A knock roused him and looking up he saw his wife. He met her glance in silence, and she faltered out, “Are you ill?”

The words restored his self-possession. “Ill? Of course not. They told me you were out and I came upstairs.”

The books lay between them on the table; he wondered when she would see them. She lingered tentatively on the threshold, with the air of leaving his explanation on his hands. She was not the kind of woman who could be counted on to fortify an excuse by appearing to dispute it.

“Where have you been?” Glennard asked, moving forward so that he obstructed her vision of the books.

“I walked over to the Dreshams for tea.”

“I can’t think what you see in those people,” he said with a shrug; adding, uncontrollably — “I suppose Flamel was there?”

“No; he left on the yacht this morning.”

An answer so obstructing to the natural escape of his irritation left Glennard with no momentary resource but that of strolling impatiently to the window. As her eyes followed him they lit on the books.

“Ah, you’ve brought them! I’m so glad,” she exclaimed.

He answered over his shoulder, “For a woman who never reads you make the most astounding exceptions!”

Her smile was an exasperating concession to the probability that it had been hot in town or that something had bothered him.

“Do you mean it’s not nice to want to read the book?” she asked. “It was not nice to publish it, certainly; but after all, I’m not responsible for that, am I?” She paused, and, as he made no answer, went on, still smiling, “I do read sometimes, you know; and I’m very fond of Margaret Aubyn’s books. I was reading ‘Pomegranate Seed’ when we first met. Don’t you remember? It was then you told me all about her.”

Glennard had turned back into the room and stood staring at his wife. “All about her?” he repeated, and with the words remembrance came to him. He had found Miss Trent one afternoon with the novel in her hand, and moved by the lover’s fatuous impulse to associate himself in some way with whatever fills the mind of the beloved, had broken through his habitual silence about the past. Rewarded by the consciousness of figuring impressively in Miss Trent’s imagination he had gone on from one anecdote to another, reviving dormant details of his old Hillbridge life, and pasturing his vanity on the eagerness with which she received his reminiscences of a being already clothed in the impersonality of greatness.

The incident had left no trace in his mind; but it sprang up now like an old enemy, the more dangerous for having been forgotten. The instinct of self-preservation — sometimes the most perilous that man can exercise — made him awkwardly declare — “Oh, I used to see her at people’s houses, that was all;” and her silence as usual leaving room for a multiplication of blunders, he added, with increased indifference, “I simply can’t see what you can find to interest you in such a book.”

She seemed to consider this intently. “You’ve read it, then?”

“I glanced at it — I never read such things.”

“Is it true that she didn’t wish the letters to be published?”

Glennard felt the sudden dizziness of the mountaineer on a narrow ledge, and with it the sense that he was lost if he looked more than a step ahead.

“I’m sure I don’t know,” he said; then, summoning a smile, he passed his hand through her arm. “I didn’t have tea at the Dreshams, you know; won’t you give me some now?” he suggested.

That evening Glennard, under pretext of work to be done, shut himself into the small study opening off the drawing-room. As he gathered up his papers he said to his wife: “You’re not going to sit indoors on such a night as this? I’ll join you presently outside.”

But she had drawn her armchair to the lamp. “I want to look at my book,” she said, taking up the first volume of the “Letters.”

Glennard, with a shrug, withdrew into the study. “I’m going to shut the door; I want to be quiet,” he explained from the threshold; and she nodded without lifting her eyes from the book.

He sank into a chair, staring aimlessly at the outspread papers. How was he to work, while on the other side of the door she sat with that volume in her hand? The door did not shut her out — he saw her distinctly, felt her close to him in a contact as painful as the pressure on a bruise.

The sensation was part of the general strangeness that made him feel like a man waking from a long sleep to find himself in an unknown country among people of alien tongue. We live in our own souls as in an unmapped region, a few acres of which we have cleared for our habitation; while of the nature of those nearest us we know but the boundaries that march with ours. Of the points in his wife’s character not in direct contact with his own, Glennard now discerned his ignorance; and the baffling sense of her remoteness was intensified by the discovery that, in one way, she was closer to him than ever before. As one may live for years in happy unconsciousness of the possession of a sensitive nerve, he had lived beside his wife unaware that her individuality had become a part of the texture of his life, ineradicable as some growth on a vital organ; and he now felt himself at once incapable of forecasting her judgment and powerless to evade its effects.

To escape, the next morning, the confidences of the breakfast-table, he went to town earlier than usual. His wife, who read slowly, was given to talking over what she read, and at present his first object in life was to postpone the inevitable discussion of the letters. This instinct of protection in the afternoon, on his way uptown, guided him to the club in search of a man who might be persuaded to come out to the country to dine. The only man in the club was Flamel.

Glennard, as he heard himself almost involuntarily pressing Flamel to come and dine, felt the full irony of the situation. To use Flamel as a shield against his wife’s scrutiny was only a shade less humiliating than to reckon on his wife as a defence against Flamel.

He felt a contradictory movement of annoyance at the latter’s ready acceptance, and the two men drove in silence to the station. As they passed the bookstall in the waiting-room Flamel lingered a moment and the eyes of both fell on Margaret Aubyn’s name, conspicuously displayed above a counter stacked with the familiar volumes.

“We shall be late, you know,” Glennard remonstrated, pulling out his watch.

“Go ahead,” said Flamel, imperturbably. “I want to get something — ”

Glennard turned on his heel and walked down the platform. Flamel rejoined him with an innocent-looking magazine in his hand; but Glennard dared not even glance at the cover, lest it should show the syllables he feared.

The train was full of people they knew, and they were kept apart till it dropped them at the little suburban station. As they strolled up the shaded hill, Glennard talked volubly, pointing out the improvements in the neighborhood, deploring the threatened approach of an electric railway, and screening himself by a series of reflex adjustments from the imminent risk of any allusion to the “Letters.” Flamel suffered his discourse with the bland inattention that we accord to the affairs of someone else’s suburb, and they reached the shelter of Alexa’s tea-table without a perceptible turn toward the dreaded topic.

The dinner passed off safely. Flamel, always at his best in Alexa’s presence, gave her the kind of attention which is like a beaconing light thrown on the speaker’s words: his answers seemed to bring out a latent significance in her phrases, as the sculptor draws his statue from the block. Glennard, under his wife’s composure, detected a sensibility to this manoeuvre, and the discovery was like the lightning-flash across a nocturnal landscape. Thus far these momentary illuminations had served only to reveal the strangeness of the intervening country: each fresh observation seemed to increase the sum-total of his ignorance. Her simplicity of outline was more puzzling than a complex surface. One may conceivably work one’s way through a labyrinth; but Alexa’s candor was like a snow-covered plain where, the road once lost, there are no landmarks to travel by.

Dinner over, they returned to the veranda, where a moon, rising behind the old elm, was combining with that complaisant tree a romantic enlargement of their borders. Glennard had forgotten the cigars. He went to his study to fetch them, and in passing through the drawing-room he saw the second volume of the “Letters” lying open on his wife’s table. He picked up the book and looked at the date of the letter she had been reading. It was one of the last . . . he knew the few lines by heart. He dropped the book and leaned against the wall. Why had he included that one among the others? Or was it possible that now they would all seem like that . . .?

Alexa’s voice came suddenly out of the dusk. “May Touchett was right — it IS like listening at a key-hole. I wish I hadn’t read it!”

Flamel returned, in the leisurely tone of the man whose phrases are punctuated by a cigarette, “It seems so to us, perhaps; but to another generation the book will be a classic.”

“Then it ought not to have been published till it had become a classic. It’s horrible, it’s degrading almost, to read the secrets of a woman one might have known.” She added, in a lower tone, “Stephen DID know her — ”

“Did he?” came from Flamel.

“He knew her very well, at Hillbridge, years ago. The book has made him feel dreadfully . . . he wouldn’t read it . . . he didn’t want me to read it. I didn’t understand at first, but now I can see how horribly disloyal it must seem to him. It’s so much worse to surprise a friend’s secrets than a stranger’s.”

“Oh, Glennard’s such a sensitive chap,” Flamel said, easily; and Alexa almost rebukingly rejoined, “If you’d known her I’m sure you’d feel as he does. . . . ”

Glennard stood motionless, overcome by the singular infelicity with which he had contrived to put Flamel in possession of the two points most damaging to his case: the fact that he had been a friend of Margaret Aubyn’s, and that he had concealed from Alexa his share in the publication of the letters. To a man of less than Flamel’s astuteness it must now be clear to whom the letters were addressed; and the possibility once suggested, nothing could be easier than to confirm it by discreet research. An impulse of self-accusal drove Glennard to the window. Why not anticipate betrayal by telling his wife the truth in Flamel’s presence? If the man had a drop of decent feeling in him, such a course would be the surest means of securing his silence; and above all, it would rid Glennard of the necessity of defending himself against the perpetual criticism of his wife’s belief in him. . . .

The impulse was strong enough to carry him to the window; but there a reaction of defiance set in. What had he done, after all, to need defence and explanation? Both Dresham and Flamel had, in his hearing, declared the publication of the letters to be not only justifiable but obligatory; and if the disinterestedness of Flamel’s verdict might be questioned, Dresham’s at least represented the impartial view of the man of letters. As to Alexa’s words, they were simply the conventional utterance of the “nice” woman on a question already decided for her by other “nice” women. She had said the proper thing as mechanically as she would have put on the appropriate gown or written the correct form of dinner-invitation. Glennard had small faith in the abstract judgments of the other sex; he knew that half the women who were horrified by the publication of Mrs. Aubyn’s letters would have betrayed her secrets without a scruple.

The sudden lowering of his emotional pitch brought a proportionate relief. He told himself that now the worst was over and things would fall into perspective again. His wife and Flamel had turned to other topics, and coming out on the veranda, he handed the cigars to Flamel, saying, cheerfully — and yet he could have sworn they were the last words he meant to utter! — “Look here, old man, before you go down to Newport you must come out and spend a few days with us — mustn’t he, Alexa?”

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