The Touchstone, by Edith Wharton

IX

HE rose next morning with the resolve to know what Alexa thought of him. It was not anchoring in a haven, but lying to in a storm — he felt the need of a temporary lull in the turmoil of his sensations.

He came home late, for they were dining alone and he knew that they would have the evening together. When he followed her to the drawing-room after dinner he thought himself on the point of speaking; but as she handed him his coffee he said, involuntarily: “I shall have to carry this off to the study, I’ve got a lot of work to-night.”

Alone in the study he cursed his cowardice. What was it that had withheld him? A certain bright unapproachableness seemed to keep him at arm’s length. She was not the kind of woman whose compassion could be circumvented; there was no chance of slipping past the outposts; he would never take her by surprise. Well — why not face her, then? What he shrank from could be no worse than what he was enduring. He had pushed back his chair and turned to go upstairs when a new expedient presented itself. What if, instead of telling her, he were to let her find out for herself and watch the effect of the discovery before speaking? In this way he made over to chance the burden of the revelation.

The idea had been suggested by the sight of the formula enclosing the publisher’s check. He had deposited the money, but the notice accompanying it dropped from his note-case as he cleared his table for work. It was the formula usual in such cases and revealed clearly enough that he was the recipient of a royalty on Margaret Aubyn’s letters. It would be impossible for Alexa to read it without understanding at once that the letters had been written to him and that he had sold them. . . .

He sat downstairs till he heard her ring for the parlor-maid to put out the lights; then he went up to the drawing-room with a bundle of papers in his hand. Alexa was just rising from her seat and the lamplight fell on the deep roll of hair that overhung her brow like the eaves of a temple. Her face had often the high secluded look of a shrine; and it was this touch of awe in her beauty that now made him feel himself on the brink of sacrilege.

Lest the feeling should dominate him, he spoke at once. “I’ve brought you a piece of work — a lot of old bills and things that I want you to sort for me. Some are not worth keeping — but you’ll be able to judge of that. There may be a letter or two among them — nothing of much account, but I don’t like to throw away the whole lot without having them looked over and I haven’t time to do it myself.”

He held out the papers and she took them with a smile that seemed to recognize in the service he asked the tacit intention of making amends for the incident of the previous day.

“Are you sure I shall know which to keep?”

“Oh, quite sure,” he answered, easily — “and besides, none are of much importance.”

The next morning he invented an excuse for leaving the house without seeing her, and when he returned, just before dinner, he found a visitor’s hat and stick in the hall. The visitor was Flamel, who was in the act of taking leave.

He had risen, but Alexa remained seated; and their attitude gave the impression of a colloquy that had prolonged itself beyond the limits of speech. Both turned a surprised eye on Glennard and he had the sense of walking into a room grown suddenly empty, as though their thoughts were conspirators dispersed by his approach. He felt the clutch of his old fear. What if his wife had already sorted the papers and had told Flamel of her discovery? Well, it was no news to Flamel that Glennard was in receipt of a royalty on the “Aubyn Letters.” . . .

A sudden resolve to know the worst made him lift his eyes to his wife as the door closed on Flamel. But Alexa had risen also, and bending over her writing-table, with her back to Glennard, was beginning to speak precipitately.

“I’m dining out to-night — you don’t mind my deserting you? Julia Armiger sent me word just now that she had an extra ticket for the last Ambrose concert. She told me to say how sorry she was that she hadn’t two — but I knew YOU wouldn’t be sorry!” She ended with a laugh that had the effect of being a strayed echo of Mrs. Armiger’s; and before Glennard could speak she had added, with her hand on the door, “Mr. Flamel stayed so late that I’ve hardly time to dress. The concert begins ridiculously early, and Julia dines at half-past seven — ”

Glennard stood alone in the empty room that seemed somehow full of an ironical consciousness of what was happening. “She hates me,” he murmured. “She hates me. . . . ”

The next day was Sunday, and Glennard purposely lingered late in his room. When he came downstairs his wife was already seated at the breakfast-table. She lifted her usual smile to his entrance and they took shelter in the nearest topic, like wayfarers overtaken by a storm. While he listened to her account of the concert he began to think that, after all, she had not yet sorted the papers, and that her agitation of the previous day must be ascribed to another cause, in which perhaps he had but an indirect concern. He wondered it had never before occurred to him that Flamel was the kind of man who might very well please a woman at his own expense, without need of fortuitous assistance. If this possibility cleared the outlook it did not brighten it. Glennard merely felt himself left alone with his baseness.

Alexa left the breakfast-table before him and when he went up to the drawing-room he found her dressed to go out.

“Aren’t you a little early for church?” he asked.

She replied that, on the way there, she meant to stop a moment at her mother’s; and while she drew on her gloves, he fumbled among the knick-knacks on the mantel-piece for a match to light his cigarette.

“Well, good-by,” she said, turning to go; and from the threshold she added: “By the way, I’ve sorted the papers you gave me. Those that I thought you would like to keep are on your study-table.” She went downstairs and he heard the door close behind her.

She had sorted the papers — she knew, then — she MUST know — and she had made no sign!

Glennard, he hardly knew how, found himself once more in the study. On the table lay the packet he had given her. It was much smaller — she had evidently gone over the papers with care, destroying the greater number. He loosened the elastic band and spread the remaining envelopes on his desk. The publisher’s notice was among them.

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