The Triumph of Night, by Edith Wharton

ii

In spite of the balmy temperature and complicated conveniences of Faxon’s bedroom, the injunction was not easy to obey. It was wonderful luck to have found a night’s shelter under the opulent roof of Overdale, and he tasted the physical satisfaction to the full. But the place, for all its ingenuities of comfort, was oddly cold and unwelcoming. He couldn’t have said why, and could only suppose that Mr. Lavington’s intense personality — intensely negative, but intense all the same — must, in some occult way, have penetrated every corner of his dwelling. Perhaps, though, it was merely that Faxon himself was tired and hungry, more deeply chilled than he had known till he came in from the cold, and unutterably sick of all strange houses, and of the prospect of perpetually treading other people’s stairs.

“I hope you’re not famished?” Rainer’s slim figure was in the doorway. “My uncle has a little business to attend to with Mr. Grisben, and we don’t dine for half an hour. Shall I fetch you, or can you find your way down? Come straight to the dining-room — the second door on the left of the long gallery.”

He disappeared, leaving a ray of warmth behind him, and Faxon, relieved, lit a cigarette and sat down by the fire.

Looking about with less haste, he was struck by a detail that had escaped him. The room was full of flowers — a mere “bachelor’s room,” in the wing of a house opened only for a few days, in the dead middle of a New Hampshire winter! Flowers were everywhere, not in senseless profusion, but placed with the same conscious art that he had remarked in the grouping of the blossoming shrubs in the hall. A vase of arums stood on the writing-table, a cluster of strange-hued carnations on the stand at his elbow, and from bowls of glass and porcelain clumps of freesia-bulbs diffused their melting fragrance. The fact implied acres of glass — but that was the least interesting part of it. The flowers themselves, their quality, selection and arrangement, attested on some one’s part — and on whose but John Lavington’s? — a solicitous and sensitive passion for that particular form of beauty. Well, it simply made the man, as he had appeared to Faxon, all the harder to understand!

The half-hour elapsed, and Faxon, rejoicing at the prospect of food, set out to make his way to the dining-room. He had not noticed the direction he had followed in going to his room, and was puzzled, when he left it, to find that two staircases, of apparently equal importance, invited him. He chose the one to his right, and reached, at its foot, a long gallery such as Rainer had described. The gallery was empty, the doors down its length were closed; but Rainer had said: “The second to the left,” and Faxon, after pausing for some chance enlightenment which did not come, laid his hand on the second knob to the left.

The room he entered was square, with dusky picture-hung walls. In its centre, about a table lit by veiled lamps, he fancied Mr. Lavington and his guests to be already seated at dinner; then he perceived that the table was covered not with viands but with papers, and that he had blundered into what seemed to be his host’s study. As he paused Frank Rainer looked up.

“Oh, here’s Mr. Faxon. Why not ask him —?”

Mr. Lavington, from the end of the table, reflected his nephew’s smile in a glance of impartial benevolence.

“Certainly. Come in, Mr. Faxon. If you won’t think it a liberty — ”

Mr. Grisben, who sat opposite his host, turned his head toward the door. “Of course Mr. Faxon’s an American citizen?”

Frank Rainer laughed. “That’s all right! . . . Oh, no, not one of your pin-pointed pens, Uncle Jack! Haven’t you got a quill somewhere?”

Mr. Balch, who spoke slowly and as if reluctantly, in a muffled voice of which there seemed to be very little left, raised his hand to say: “One moment: you acknowledge this to be —?”

“My last will and testament?” Rainer’s laugh redoubled. “Well, I won’t answer for the ‘last.’ It’s the first, anyway.”

“It’s a mere formula,” Mr. Balch explained.

“Well, here goes.” Rainer dipped his quill in the inkstand his uncle had pushed in his direction, and dashed a gallant signature across the document.

Faxon, understanding what was expected of him, and conjecturing that the young man was signing his will on the attainment of his majority, had placed himself behind Mr. Grisben, and stood awaiting his turn to affix his name to the instrument. Rainer, having signed, was about to push the paper across the table to Mr. Balch; but the latter, again raising his hand, said in his sad imprisoned voice: “The seal —?”

“Oh, does there have to be a seal?”

Faxon, looking over Mr. Grisben at John Lavington, saw a faint frown between his impassive eyes. “Really, Frank!” He seemed, Faxon thought, slightly irritated by his nephew’s frivolity.

“Who’s got a seal?” Frank Rainer continued, glancing about the table. “There doesn’t seem to be one here.”

Mr. Grisben interposed. “A wafer will do. Lavington, you have a wafer?”

Mr. Lavington had recovered his serenity. “There must be some in one of the drawers. But I’m ashamed to say I don’t know where my secretary keeps these things. He ought to have seen to it that a wafer was sent with the document.”

“Oh, hang it — ” Frank Rainer pushed the paper aside: “It’s the hand of God — and I’m as hungry as a wolf. Let’s dine first, Uncle Jack.”

“I think I’ve a seal upstairs,” said Faxon.

Mr. Lavington sent him a barely perceptible smile. “So sorry to give you the trouble — ”

“Oh, I say, don’t send him after it now. Let’s wait till after dinner!”

Mr. Lavington continued to smile on his guest, and the latter, as if under the faint coercion of the smile, turned from the room and ran upstairs. Having taken the seal from his writing-case he came down again, and once more opened the door of the study. No one was speaking when he entered — they were evidently awaiting his return with the mute impatience of hunger, and he put the seal in Rainer’s reach, and stood watching while Mr. Grisben struck a match and held it to one of the candles flanking the inkstand. As the wax descended on the paper Faxon remarked again the strange emaciation, the premature physical weariness, of the hand that held it: he wondered if Mr. Lavington had ever noticed his nephew’s hand, and if it were not poignantly visible to him now.

With this thought in his mind, Faxon raised his eyes to look at Mr. Lavington. The great man’s gaze rested on Frank Rainer with an expression of untroubled benevolence; and at the same instant Faxon’s attention was attracted by the presence in the room of another person, who must have joined the group while he was upstairs searching for the seal. The new-comer was a man of about Mr. Lavington’s age and figure, who stood just behind his chair, and who, at the moment when Faxon first saw him, was gazing at young Rainer with an equal intensity of attention. The likeness between the two men — perhaps increased by the fact that the hooded lamps on the table left the figure behind the chair in shadow — struck Faxon the more because of the contrast in their expression. John Lavington, during his nephew’s clumsy attempt to drop the wax and apply the seal, continued to fasten on him a look of half-amused affection; while the man behind the chair, so oddly reduplicating the lines of his features and figure, turned on the boy a face of pale hostility.

The impression was so startling that Faxon forgot what was going on about him. He was just dimly aware of young Reiner’s exclaiming; “Your turn, Mr. Grisben!” of Mr. Grisben’s protesting: “No — no; Mr. Faxon first,” and of the pen’s being thereupon transferred to his own hand. He received it with a deadly sense of being unable to move, or even to understand what was expected of him, till he became conscious of Mr. Grisben’s paternally pointing out the precise spot on which he was to leave his autograph. The effort to fix his attention and steady his hand prolonged the process of signing, and when he stood up — a strange weight of fatigue on all his limbs — the figure behind Mr. Lavington’s chair was gone.

Faxon felt an immediate sense of relief. It was puzzling that the man’s exit should have been so rapid and noiseless, but the door behind Mr. Lavington was screened by a tapestry hanging, and Faxon concluded that the unknown looker-on had merely had to raise it to pass out. At any rate he was gone, and with his withdrawal the strange weight was lifted. Young Rainer was lighting a cigarette, Mr. Balch inscribing his name at the foot of the document, Mr. Lavington — his eyes no longer on his nephew — examining a strange white-winged orchid in the vase at his elbow. Every thing suddenly seemed to have grown natural and simple again, and Faxon found himself responding with a smile to the affable gesture with which his host declared: “And now, Mr. Faxon, we’ll dine.”

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