The Touchstone, by Edith Wharton

VIII

Glennard had, perhaps unconsciously, counted on the continuance of this easier mood. He had always taken pride in a certain robustness of fibre that enabled him to harden himself against the inevitable, to convert his failures into the building materials of success. Though it did not even now occur to him that what he called the inevitable had hitherto been the alternative he happened to prefer, he was yet obscurely aware that his present difficulty was one not to be conjured by any affectation of indifference. Some griefs build the soul a spacious house — but in this misery of Glennard’s he could not stand upright. It pressed against him at every turn. He told himself that this was because there was no escape from the visible evidences of his act. The “Letters” confronted him everywhere. People who had never opened a book discussed them with critical reservations; to have read them had become a social obligation in circles to which literature never penetrates except in a personal guise.

Glennard did himself injustice, it was from the unexpected discovery of his own pettiness that he chiefly suffered. Our self-esteem is apt to be based on the hypothetical great act we have never had occasion to perform; and even the most self-scrutinizing modesty credits itself negatively with a high standard of conduct. Glennard had never thought himself a hero; but he had been certain that he was incapable of baseness. We all like our wrong-doings to have a becoming cut, to be made to order, as it were; and Glennard found himself suddenly thrust into a garb of dishonor surely meant for a meaner figure.

The immediate result of his first weeks of wretchedness was the resolve to go to town for the winter. He knew that such a course was just beyond the limit of prudence; but it was easy to allay the fears of Alexa who, scrupulously vigilant in the management of the household, preserved the American wife’s usual aloofness from her husband’s business cares. Glennard felt that he could not trust himself to a winter’s solitude with her. He had an unspeakable dread of her learning the truth about the letters, yet could not be sure of steeling himself against the suicidal impulse of avowal. His very soul was parched for sympathy; he thirsted for a voice of pity and comprehension. But would his wife pity? Would she understand? Again he found himself brought up abruptly against his incredible ignorance of her nature. The fact that he knew well enough how she would behave in the ordinary emergencies of life, that he could count, in such contingencies, on the kind of high courage and directness he had always divined in her, made him the more hopeless of her entering into the torturous psychology of an act that he himself could no longer explain or understand. It would have been easier had she been more complex, more feminine — if he could have counted on her imaginative sympathy or her moral obtuseness — but he was sure of neither. He was sure of nothing but that, for a time, he must avoid her. Glennard could not rid himself of the delusion that by and by his action would cease to make its consequences felt. He would not have cared to own to himself that he counted on the dulling of his sensibilities: he preferred to indulge the vague hypothesis that extraneous circumstances would somehow efface the blot upon his conscience. In his worst moments of self-abasement he tried to find solace in the thought that Flamel had sanctioned his course. Flamel, at the outset, must have guessed to whom the letters were addressed; yet neither then nor afterward had he hesitated to advise their publication. This thought drew Glennard to him in fitful impulses of friendliness, from each of which there was a sharper reaction of distrust and aversion. When Flamel was not at the house, he missed the support of his tacit connivance; when he was there, his presence seemed the assertion of an intolerable claim.

Early in the winter the Glennards took possession of the little house that was to cost them almost nothing. The change brought Glennard the immediate relief of seeing less of his wife, and of being protected, in her presence, by the multiplied preoccupations of town life. Alexa, who could never appear hurried, showed the smiling abstraction of a pretty woman to whom the social side of married life has not lost its novelty. Glennard, with the recklessness of a man fresh from his first financial imprudence, encouraged her in such little extravagances as her good sense at first resisted. Since they had come to town, he argued, they might as well enjoy themselves. He took a sympathetic view of the necessity of new gowns, he gave her a set of furs at Christmas, and before the New Year they had agreed on the obligation of adding a parlour-maid to their small establishment.

Providence the very next day hastened to justify this measure by placing on Glennard’s breakfast-plate an envelope bearing the name of the publishers to whom he had sold Mrs. Aubyn’s letters. It happened to be the only letter the early post had brought, and he glanced across the table at his wife, who had come down before him and had probably laid the envelope on his plate. She was not the woman to ask awkward questions, but he felt the conjecture of her glance, and he was debating whether to affect surprise at the receipt of the letter, or to pass it off as a business communication that had strayed to his house, when a check fell from the envelope. It was the royalty on the first edition of the letters. His first feeling was one of simple satisfaction. The money had come with such infernal opportuneness that he could not help welcoming it. Before long, too, there would be more; he knew the book was still selling far beyond the publisher’s previsions. He put the check in his pocket and left the room without looking at his wife.

On the way to his office the habitual reaction set in. The money he had received was the first tangible reminder that he was living on the sale of his self-esteem. The thought of material benefit had been overshadowed by his sense of the intrinsic baseness of making the letters known; now he saw what an element of sordidness it added to the situation and how the fact that he needed the money, and must use it, pledged him more irrevocably than ever to the consequences of his act. It seemed to him, in that first hour of misery, that he had betrayed his friend anew.

When, that afternoon, he reached home earlier than usual, Alexa’s drawing-room was full of a gayety that overflowed to the stairs. Flamel, for a wonder, was not there; but Dresham and young Hartly, grouped about the tea-table, were receiving with resonant mirth a narrative delivered in the fluttered staccato that made Mrs. Armiger’s conversation like the ejaculations of a startled aviary.

She paused as Glennard entered, and he had time to notice that his wife, who was busied about the tea-tray, had not joined in the laughter of the men.

“Oh, go on, go on,” young Hartly rapturously groaned; and Mrs. Armiger met Glennard’s inquiry with the deprecating cry that really she didn’t see what there was to laugh at. “I’m sure I feel more like crying. I don’t know what I should have done if Alexa hadn’t been home to give me a cup of tea. My nerves are in shreds — yes, another, dear, please — ” and as Glennard looked his perplexity, she went on, after pondering on the selection of a second lump of sugar, “Why, I’ve just come from the reading, you know — the reading at the Waldorf.”

“I haven’t been in town long enough to know anything,” said Glennard, taking the cup his wife handed him. “Who has been reading what?”

“That lovely girl from the South — Georgie — Georgie what’s her name — Mrs. Dresham’s protegee — unless she’s YOURS, Mr. Dresham! Why, the big ball-room was PACKED, and all the women were crying like idiots — it was the most harrowing thing I ever heard — ”

“What DID you hear?” Glennard asked; and his wife interposed: “Won’t you have another bit of cake, Julia? Or, Stephen, ring for some hot toast, please.” Her tone betrayed a polite satiety of the topic under discussion. Glennard turned to the bell, but Mrs. Armiger pursued him with her lovely amazement.

“Why, the ‘Aubyn Letters’ — didn’t you know about it? The girl read them so beautifully that it was quite horrible — I should have fainted if there’d been a man near enough to carry me out.”

Hartly’s glee redoubled, and Dresham said, jovially, “How like you women to raise a shriek over the book and then do all you can to encourage the blatant publicity of the readings!”

Mrs. Armiger met him more than half-way on a torrent of self-accusal. “It WAS horrid; it was disgraceful. I told your wife we ought all to be ashamed of ourselves for going, and I think Alexa was quite right to refuse to take any tickets — even if it was for a charity.”

“Oh,” her hostess murmured, indifferently, “with me charity begins at home. I can’t afford emotional luxuries.”

“A charity? A charity?” Hartly exulted. “I hadn’t seized the full beauty of it. Reading poor Margaret Aubyn’s love-letters at the Waldorf before five hundred people for a charity! WHAT charity, dear Mrs. Armiger?”

“Why, the Home for Friendless Women — ”

“It was well chosen,” Dresham commented; and Hartly buried his mirth in the sofa-cushions.

When they were alone Glennard, still holding his untouched cup of tea, turned to his wife, who sat silently behind the kettle. “Who asked you to take a ticket for that reading?”

“I don’t know, really — Kate Dresham, I fancy. It was she who got it up.”

“It’s just the sort of damnable vulgarity she’s capable of! It’s loathsome — it’s monstrous — ”

His wife, without looking up, answered gravely, “I thought so too. It was for that reason I didn’t go. But you must remember that very few people feel about Mrs. Aubyn as you do — ”

Glennard managed to set down his cup with a steady hand, but the room swung round with him and he dropped into the nearest chair. “As I do?” he repeated.

“I mean that very few people knew her when she lived in New York. To most of the women who went to the reading she was a mere name, too remote to have any personality. With me, of course, it was different — ”

Glennard gave her a startled look. “Different? Why different?”

“Since you were her friend — ”

“Her friend!” He stood up impatiently. “You speak as if she had had only one — the most famous woman of her day!” He moved vaguely about the room, bending down to look at some books on the table. “I hope,” he added, “you didn’t give that as a reason, by the way?”

“A reason?”

“For not going. A woman who gives reasons for getting out of social obligations is sure to make herself unpopular or ridiculous.

The words were uncalculated; but in an instant he saw that they had strangely bridged the distance between his wife and himself. He felt her close on him, like a panting foe; and her answer was a flash that showed the hand on the trigger.

“I seem,” she said from the threshold, “to have done both in giving my reason to you.”

The fact that they were dining out that evening made it easy for him to avoid Alexa till she came downstairs in her opera-cloak. Mrs. Touchett, who was going to the same dinner, had offered to call for her, and Glennard, refusing a precarious seat between the ladies’ draperies, followed on foot. The evening was interminable. The reading at the Waldorf, at which all the women had been present, had revived the discussion of the “Aubyn Letters” and Glennard, hearing his wife questioned as to her absence, felt himself miserably wishing that she had gone, rather than that her staying away should have been remarked. He was rapidly losing all sense of proportion where the “Letters” were concerned. He could no longer hear them mentioned without suspecting a purpose in the allusion; he even yielded himself for a moment to the extravagance of imagining that Mrs. Dresham, whom he disliked, had organized the reading in the hope of making him betray himself — for he was already sure that Dresham had divined his share in the transaction.

The attempt to keep a smooth surface on this inner tumult was as endless and unavailing as efforts made in a nightmare. He lost all sense of what he was saying to his neighbors and once when he looked up his wife’s glance struck him cold.

She sat nearly opposite him, at Flamel’s side, and it appeared to Glennard that they had built about themselves one of those airy barriers of talk behind which two people can say what they please. While the reading was discussed they were silent. Their silence seemed to Glennard almost cynical — it stripped the last disguise from their complicity. A throb of anger rose in him, but suddenly it fell, and he felt, with a curious sense of relief, that at bottom he no longer cared whether Flamel had told his wife or not. The assumption that Flamel knew about the letters had become a fact to Glennard; and it now seemed to him better that Alexa should know too.

He was frightened at first by the discovery of his own indifference. The last barriers of his will seemed to be breaking down before a flood of moral lassitude. How could he continue to play his part, to keep his front to the enemy, with this poison of indifference stealing through his veins? He tried to brace himself with the remembrance of his wife’s scorn. He had not forgotten the note on which their conversation had closed. If he had ever wondered how she would receive the truth he wondered no longer — she would despise him. But this lent a new insidiousness to his temptation, since her contempt would be a refuge from his own. He said to himself that, since he no longer cared for the consequences, he could at least acquit himself of speaking in self-defence. What he wanted now was not immunity but castigation: his wife’s indignation might still reconcile him to himself. Therein lay his one hope of regeneration; her scorn was the moral antiseptic that he needed, her comprehension the one balm that could heal him. . . .

When they left the dinner he was so afraid of speaking that he let her drive home alone, and went to the club with Flamel.

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