The Triumph of Night, by Edith Wharton

I

It was clear that the sleigh from Weymore had not come; and the shivering young traveller from Boston, who had counted on jumping into it when he left the train at Northridge Junction, found himself standing alone on the open platform, exposed to the full assault of night-fall and winter.

The blast that swept him came off New Hampshire snow-fields and ice-hung forests. It seemed to have traversed interminable leagues of frozen silence, filling them with the same cold roar and sharpening its edge against the same bitter black-and-white landscape. Dark, searching and sword-like, it alternately muffled and harried its victim, like a bull-fighter now whirling his cloak and now planting his darts. This analogy brought home to the young man the fact that he himself had no cloak, and that the overcoat in which he had faced the relatively temperate air of Boston seemed no thicker than a sheet of paper on the bleak heights of Northridge. George Faxon said to himself that the place was uncommonly well-named. It clung to an exposed ledge over the valley from which the train had lifted him, and the wind combed it with teeth of steel that he seemed actually to hear scraping against the wooden sides of the station. Other building there was none: the village lay far down the road, and thither — since the Weymore sleigh had not come — Faxon saw himself under the necessity of plodding through several feet of snow.

He understood well enough what had happened: his hostess had forgotten that he was coming. Young as Faxon was, this sad lucidity of soul had been acquired as the result of long experience, and he knew that the visitors who can least afford to hire a carriage are almost always those whom their hosts forget to send for. Yet to say that Mrs. Culme had forgotten him was too crude a way of putting it Similar incidents led him to think that she had probably told her maid to tell the butler to telephone the coachman to tell one of the grooms (if no one else needed him) to drive over to Northridge to fetch the new secretary; but on a night like this, what groom who respected his rights would fail to forget the order?

Faxon’s obvious course was to struggle through the drifts to the village, and there rout out a sleigh to convey him to Weymore; but what if, on his arrival at Mrs. Culme’s, no one remembered to ask him what this devotion to duty had cost? That, again, was one of the contingencies he had expensively learned to look out for, and the perspicacity so acquired told him it would be cheaper to spend the night at the Northridge inn, and advise Mrs. Culme of his presence there by telephone. He had reached this decision, and was about to entrust his luggage to a vague man with a lantern, when his hopes were raised by the sound of bells.

Two sleighs were just dashing up to the station, and from the foremost there sprang a young man muffled in furs.

“Weymore? — No, these are not the Weymore sleighs.”

The voice was that of the youth who had jumped to the platform — a voice so agreeable that, in spite of the words, it fell consolingly on Faxon’s ears. At the same moment the wandering station-lantern, casting a transient light on the speaker, showed his features to be in the pleasantest harmony with his voice. He was very fair and very young — hardly in the twenties, Faxon thought — but his face, though full of a morning freshness, was a trifle too thin and fine-drawn, as though a vivid spirit contended in him with a strain of physical weakness. Faxon was perhaps the quicker to notice such delicacies of balance because his own temperament hung on lightly quivering nerves, which yet, as he believed, would never quite swing him beyond a normal sensibility.

“You expected a sleigh from Weymore?” the newcomer continued, standing beside Faxon like a slender column of fur.

Mrs. Culme’s secretary explained his difficulty, and the other brushed it aside with a contemptuous “Oh, Mrs. Culme! ” that carried both speakers a long way toward reciprocal understanding.

“But then you must be — ” The youth broke off with a smile of interrogation.

“The new secretary? Yes. But apparently there are no notes to be answered this evening.” Faxon’s laugh deepened the sense of solidarity which had so promptly established itself between the two.

His friend laughed also. “Mrs. Culme,” he explained, “was lunching at my uncle’s to-day, and she said you were due this evening. But seven hours is a long time for Mrs. Culme to remember anything.”

“Well,” said Faxon philosophically, “I suppose that’s one of the reasons why she needs a secretary. And I’ve always the inn at Northridge,” he concluded.

“Oh, but you haven’t, though! It burned down last week.”

“The deuce it did!” said Faxon; but the humour of the situation struck him before its inconvenience. His life, for years past, had been mainly a succession of resigned adaptations, and he had learned, before dealing practically with his embarrassments, to extract from most of them a small tribute of amusement.

“Oh, well, there’s sure to be somebody in the place who can put me up.”

“No one you could put up with. Besides, Northridge is three miles off, and our place — in the opposite direction — is a little nearer.” Through the darkness, Faxon saw his friend sketch a gesture of self-introduction. “My name’s Frank Rainer, and I’m staying with my uncle at Overdale. I’ve driven over to meet two friends of his, who are due in a few minutes from New York. If you don’t mind waiting till they arrive I’m sure Overdale can do you better than Northridge. We’re only down from town for a few days, but the house is always ready for a lot of people.”

“But your uncle —?” Faxon could only object, with the odd sense, through his embarrassment, that it would be magically dispelled by his invisible friend’s next words.

“Oh, my uncle — you’ll see! I answer for him! I daresay you’ve heard of him — John Lavington?”

John Lavington! There was a certain irony in asking if one had heard of John Lavington! Even from a post of observation as obscure as that of Mrs. Culme’s secretary the rumour of John Lavington’s money, of his pictures, his politics, his charities and his hospitality, was as difficult to escape as the roar of a cataract in a mountain solitude. It might almost have been said that the one place in which one would not have expected to come upon him was in just such a solitude as now surrounded the speakers — at least in this deepest hour of its desertedness. But it was just like Lavington’s brilliant ubiquity to put one in the wrong even there.

“Oh, yes, I’ve heard of your uncle.”

“Then you will come, won’t you? We’ve only five minutes to wait.” young Rainer urged, in the tone that dispels scruples by ignoring them; and Faxon found himself accepting the invitation as simply as it was offered.

A delay in the arrival of the New York train lengthened their five minutes to fifteen; and as they paced the icy platform Faxon began to see why it had seemed the most natural thing in the world to accede to his new acquaintance’s suggestion. It was because Frank Rainer was one of the privileged beings who simplify human intercourse by the atmosphere of confidence and good humour they diffuse. He produced this effect, Faxon noted, by the exercise of no gift but his youth, and of no art but his sincerity; and these qualities were revealed in a smile of such sweetness that Faxon felt, as never before, what Nature can achieve when she deigns to match the face with the mind.

He learned that the young man was the ward, and the only nephew, of John Lavington, with whom he had made his home since the death of his mother, the great man’s sister. Mr. Lavington, Rainer said, had been “a regular brick” to him — “But then he is to every one, you know” — and the young fellow’s situation seemed in fact to be perfectly in keeping with his person. Apparently the only shade that had ever rested on him was cast by the physical weakness which Faxon had already detected. Young Rainer had been threatened with tuberculosis, and the disease was so far advanced that, according to the highest authorities, banishment to Arizona or New Mexico was inevitable. “But luckily my uncle didn’t pack me off, as most people would have done, without getting another opinion. Whose? Oh, an awfully clever chap, a young doctor with a lot of new ideas, who simply laughed at my being sent away, and said I’d do perfectly well in New York if I didn’t dine out too much, and if I dashed off occasionally to Northridge for a little fresh air. So it’s really my uncle’s doing that I’m not in exile — and I feel no end better since the new chap told me I needn’t bother.” Young Rainer went on to confess that he was extremely fond of dining out, dancing and similar distractions; and Faxon, listening to him, was inclined to think that the physician who had refused to cut him off altogether from these pleasures was probably a better psychologist than his seniors.

“All the same you ought to be careful, you know.” The sense of elder-brotherly concern that forced the words from Faxon made him, as he spoke, slip his arm through Frank Rainer ‘s.

The latter met the movement with a responsive pressure. “Oh, I am: awfully, awfully. And then my uncle has such an eye on me!”

“But if your uncle has such an eye on you, what does he say to your swallowing knives out here in this Siberian wild?”

Rainer raised his fur collar with a careless gesture. “It’s not that that does it — the cold’s good for me.”

“And it’s not the dinners and dances? What is it, then?” Faxon good-humouredly insisted; to which his companion answered with a laugh: “Well, my uncle says it’s being bored; and I rather think he’s right!”

His laugh ended in a spasm of coughing and a struggle for breath that made Faxon, still holding his arm, guide him hastily into the shelter of the fireless waitingroom.

Young Rainer had dropped down on the bench against the wall and pulled off one of his fur gloves to grope for a handkerchief. He tossed aside his cap and drew the handkerchief across his forehead, which was intensely white, and beaded with moisture, though his face retained a healthy glow. But Faxon’s gaze remained fastened to the hand he had uncovered: it was so long, so colourless, so wasted, so much older than the brow he passed it over.

“It’s queer — a healthy face but dying hands,” the secretary mused: he somehow wished young Rainer had kept on his glove.

The whistle of the express drew the young men to their feet, and the next moment two heavily-furred gentlemen had descended to the platform and were breasting the rigour of the night. Frank Rainer introduced them as Mr. Grisben and Mr. Balch, and Faxon, while their luggage was being lifted into the second sleigh, discerned them, by the roving lantern-gleam, to be an elderly greyheaded pair, of the average prosperous business cut.

They saluted their host’s nephew with friendly familiarity, and Mr. Grisben, who seemed the spokesman of the two, ended his greeting with a genial — “and many many more of them, dear boy!” which suggested to Faxon that their arrival coincided with an anniversary. But he could not press the enquiry, for the seat allotted him was at the coachman’s side, while Frank Rainer joined his uncle’s guests inside the sleigh.

A swift flight (behind such horses as one could be sure of John Lavington’s having) brought them to tall gateposts, an illuminated lodge, and an avenue on which the snow had been levelled to the smoothness of marble. At the end of the avenue the long house loomed up, its principal bulk dark, but one wing sending out a ray of welcome; and the next moment Faxon was receiving a violent impression of warmth and light, of hot-house plants, hurrying servants, a vast spectacular oak hall like a stage-setting, and, in its unreal middle distance, a small figure, correctly dressed, conventionally featured, and utterly unlike his rather florid conception of the great John Lavington.

The surprise of the contrast remained with him through his hurried dressing in the large luxurious bedroom to which he had been shown. “I don’t see where he comes in,” was the only way he could put it, so difficult was it to fit the exuberance of Lavington’s public personality into his host’s contracted frame and manner. Mr. Laving ton, to whom Faxon’s case had been rapidly explained by young Rainer, had welcomed him with a sort of dry and stilted cordiality that exactly matched his narrow face, his stiff hand, and the whiff of scent on his evening handkerchief. “Make yourself at home — at home!” he had repeated, in a tone that suggested, on his own part, a complete inability to perform the feat he urged on his visitor. “Any friend of Frank’s . . . delighted . . . make yourself thoroughly at home!”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 19:43