The Triumph of Night, by Edith Wharton

iii

“I wonder how I blundered into the wrong room just now; I thought you told me to take the second door to the left,” Faxon said to Frank Rainer as they followed the older men down the gallery.

“So I did; but I probably forgot to tell you which staircase to take. Coming from your bedroom, I ought to have said the fourth door to the right. It’s a puzzling house, because my uncle keeps adding to it from year to year. He built this room last summer for his modern pictures.”

Young Rainer, pausing to open another door, touched an electric button which sent a circle of light about the walls of a long room hung with canvases of the French impressionist school.

Faxon advanced, attracted by a shimmering Monet, but Rainer laid a hand on his arm.

“He bought that last week. But come along — I’ll show you all this after dinner. Or he will, rather — he loves it.”

“Does he really love things?”

Rainer stared, clearly perplexed at the question. “Rather! Flowers and pictures especially! Haven’t you noticed the flowers? I suppose you think his manner’s cold; it seems so at first; but he’s really awfully keen about things.”

Faxon looked quickly at the speaker. “Has your uncle a brother?”

“Brother? No — never had. He and my mother were the only ones.”

“Or any relation who — who looks like him? Who might be mistaken for him?”

“Not that I ever heard of. Does he remind you of some one?”

“Yes.”

“That’s queer. We’ll ask him if he’s got a double. Come on!”

But another picture had arrested Faxon, and some minutes elapsed before he and his young host reached the dining-room. It was a large room, with the same conventionally handsome furniture and delicately grouped flowers; and Faxon’s first glance showed him that only three men were seated about the dining-table. The man who had stood behind Mr. Lavington’s chair was not present, and no seat awaited him.

When the young men entered, Mr. Grisben was speaking, and his host, who faced the door, sat looking down at his untouched soup-plate and turning the spoon about in his small dry hand.

“It’s pretty late to call them rumours — they were devilish close to facts when we left town this morning,” Mr. Grisben was saying, with an unexpected incisiveness of tone.

Mr. Lavington laid down his spoon and smiled interrogatively. “Oh, facts — what are facts? Just the way a thing happens to look at a given minute. . . . ”

“You haven’t heard anything from town?” Mr. Grisben persisted.

“Not a syllable. So you see. . . . Balch, a little more of that petite marmite . Mr. Faxon . . . between Frank and Mr. Grisben, please.”

The dinner progressed through a series of complicated courses, ceremoniously dispensed by a prelatical butler attended by three tall footmen, and it was evident that Mr. Lavington took a certain satisfaction in the pageant. That, Faxon reflected, was probably the joint in his armour — that and the flowers. He had changed the subject — not abruptly but firmly — when the young men entered, but Faxon perceived that it still possessed the thoughts of the two elderly visitors, and Mr. Balch presently observed, in a voice that seemed to come from the last survivor down a mine-shaft: “If it does come, it will be the biggest crash since ‘93.”

Mr. Lavington looked bored but polite. “Wall Street can stand crashes better than it could then. It’s got a robuster constitution.”

“Yes; but — ”

“Speaking of constitutions,” Mr. Grisben intervened: “Frank, are you taking care of yourself?”

A flush rose to young Rainer’s cheeks.

“Why, of course! Isn’t that what I’m here for?”

“You’re here about three days in the month, aren’t you? And the rest of the time it’s crowded restaurants and hot ballrooms in town. I thought you were to be shipped off to New Mexico?”

“Oh, I’ve got a new man who says that’s rot.”

“Well, you don’t look as if your new man were right,” said Mr. Grisben bluntly.

Faxon saw the lad’s colour fade, and the rings of shadow deepen under his gay eyes. At the same moment his uncle turned to him with a renewed intensity of attention. There was such solicitude in Mr. Lavington’s gaze that it seemed almost to fling a shield between his nephew and Mr. Grisben’s tactless scrutiny.

“We think Frank’s a good deal better,” he began; “this new doctor — ”

The butler, coming up, bent to whisper a word in his ear, and the communication caused a sudden change in Mr. Lavington’s expression. His face was naturally so colourless that it seemed not so much to pale as to fade, to dwindle and recede into something blurred and blotted-out. He half rose, sat down again and sent a rigid smile about the table.

“Will you excuse me? The telephone. Peters, go on with the dinner.” With small precise steps he walked out of the door which one of the footmen had thrown open.

A momentary silence fell on the group; then Mr. Grisben once more addressed himself to Rainer. “You ought to have gone, my boy; you ought to have gone.”

The anxious look returned to the youth’s eyes. “My uncle doesn’t think so, really.”

“You’re not a baby, to be always governed by your uncle’s opinion. You came of age to-day, didn’t you? Your uncle spoils you. . . . that’s what’s the matter. . . . ”

The thrust evidently went home, for Rainer laughed and looked down with a slight accession of colour.

“But the doctor — ”

“Use your common sense, Frank! You had to try twenty doctors to find one to tell you what you wanted to be told.”

A look of apprehension overshadowed Rainer’, gaiety. “Oh, come — I say! . . . What would you do?” he stammered.

“Pack up and jump on the first train.” Mr. Grisben leaned forward and laid his hand kindly on the young man’s arm. “Look here: my nephew Jim Grisben is out there ranching on a big scale. He’ll take you in and be glad to have you. You say your new doctor thinks it won’t do you any good; but he doesn’t pretend to say it will do you harm, does he? Well, then — give it a trial. It’ll take you out of hot theatres and night restaurants, anyhow. . . . And all the rest of it. . . . Eh, Balch?”

“Go!” said Mr. Balch hollowly. “Go at once,” he added, as if a closer look at the youth’s face had impressed on him the need of backing up his friend.

Young Rainer had turned ashy-pale. He tried to stiffen his mouth into a smile. “Do I look as bad as all that?”

Mr. Grisben was helping himself to terrapin. “You look like the day after an earthquake,” he said.

The terrapin had encircled the table, and been deliberately enjoyed by Mr. Lavington’s three visitors (Rainer, Faxon noticed, left his plate untouched) before the door was thrown open to re-admit their host. Mr. Lavington advanced with an air of recovered composure. He seated himself, picked up his napkin and consulted the gold-monogrammed menu. “No, don’t bring back the filet. . . . Some terrapin; yes. . . . ” He looked affably about the table. “Sorry to have deserted you, but the storm has played the deuce with the wires, and I had to wait a long time before I could get a good connection. It must be blowing up for a blizzard.”

“Uncle Jack,” young Rainer broke out, “Mr. Grisben’s been lecturing me.”

Mr. Lavington was helping himself to terrapin. “Ah — what about?”

“He thinks I ought to have given New Mexico a show.”

“I want him to go straight out to my nephew at Santa Paz and stay there till his next birthday.” Mr. Lavington signed to the butler to hand the terrapin to Mr. Grisben, who, as he took a second helping, addressed himself again to Rainer. “Jim’s in New York now, and going back the day after tomorrow in Olyphant’s private car. I’ll ask Olyphant to squeeze you in if you’ll go. And when you’ve been out there a week or two, in the saddle all day and sleeping nine hours a night, I suspect you won’t think much of the doctor who prescribed New York.”

Faxon spoke up, he knew not why. “I was out there once: it’s a splendid life. I saw a fellow — oh, a really bad case — who’d been simply made over by it.”

“It does sound jolly,” Rainer laughed, a sudden eagerness in his tone.

His uncle looked at him gently. “Perhaps Grisben’s right. It’s an opportunity — ”

Faxon glanced up with a start: the figure dimly perceived in the study was now more visibly and tangibly planted behind Mr. Lavington’s chair.

“That’s right, Frank: you see your uncle approves. And the trip out there with Olyphant isn’t a thing to be missed. So drop a few dozen dinners and be at the Grand Central the day after tomorrow at five.”

Mr. Grisben’s pleasant grey eye sought corroboration of his host, and Faxon, in a cold anguish of suspense, continued to watch him as he turned his glance on Mr. Lavington. One could not look at Lavington without seeing the presence at his back, and it was clear that, the next minute, some change in Mr. Grisben’s expression must give his watcher a clue.

But Mr. Grisben’s expression did not change: the gaze he fixed on his host remained unperturbed, and the clue he gave was the startling one of not seeming to see the other figure.

Faxon’s first impulse was to look away, to look anywhere else, to resort again to the champagne glass the watchful butler had already brimmed; but some fatal attraction, at war in him with an overwhelming physical resistance, held his eyes upon the spot they feared.

The figure was still standing, more distinctly, and therefore more resemblingly, at Mr. Lavington’s back; and while the latter continued to gaze affectionately at his nephew, his counterpart, as before, fixed young Rainer with eyes of deadly menace.

Faxon, with what felt like an actual wrench of the muscles, dragged his own eyes from the sight to scan the other countenances about the table; but not one revealed the least consciousness of what he saw, and a sense of mortal isolation sank upon him.

“It’s worth considering, certainly — ” he heard Mr. Lavington continue; and as Rainer’s face lit up, the face behind his uncle’s chair seemed to gather into its look all the fierce weariness of old unsatisfied hates. That was the thing that, as the minutes laboured by, Faxon was becoming most conscious of. The watcher behind the chair was no longer merely malevolent: he had grown suddenly, unutterably tired. His hatred seemed to well up out of the very depths of balked effort and thwarted hopes, and the fact made him more pitiable, and yet more dire.

Faxon’s look reverted to Mr. Lavington, as if to surprise in him a corresponding change. At first none was visible: his pinched smile was screwed to his blank face like a gas-light to a white-washed wall. Then the fixity of the smile became ominous: Faxon saw that its wearer was afraid to let it go. It was evident that Mr. Lavington was unutterably tired too, and the discovery sent a colder current through Faxon’s veins. Looking down at his untouched plate, he caught the soliciting twinkle of the champagne glass; but the sight of the wine turned him sick.

“Well, we’ll go into the details presently,” he heard Mr. Lavington say, still on the question of his nephew’s future. “Let’s have a cigar first. No — not here, Peters.” He turned his smile on Faxon. “When we’ve had coffee I want to show you my pictures.”

“Oh, by the way, Uncle Jack — Mr. Faxon wants to know if you’ve got a double?”

“A double?” Mr. Lavington, still smiling, continued to address himself to his guest. “Not that I know of. Have you seen one, Mr. Faxon?”

Faxon thought: “My God, if I look up now they’ll both be looking at me!” To avoid raising his eyes he made as though to lift the glass to his lips; but his hand sank inert, and he looked up. Mr. Lavington’s glance was politely bent on him, but with a loosening of the strain about his heart he saw that the figure behind the chair still kept its gaze on Rainer.

“Do you think you’ve seen my double, Mr. Faxon?”

Would the other face turn if he said yes? Faxon felt a dryness in his throat. “No,” he answered.

“Ah? It’s possible I’ve a dozen. I believe I’m extremely usual-looking,” Mr. Lavington went on conversationally; and still the other face watched Rainer.

“It was . . . a mistake . . . a confusion of memory. . . . ” Faxon heard himself stammer. Mr. Lavington pushed back his chair, and as he did so Mr. Grisben suddenly leaned forward.

“Lavington! What have, we been thinking of? We haven’t drunk Frank’s health!”

Mr. Lavington reseated himself. “My dear boy! . . . Peters, another bottle. . . . ” He turned to his nephew. “After such a sin of omission I don’t presume to propose the toast myself . . . but Frank knows. . . . Go ahead, Grisben!”

The boy shone on his uncle. “No, no, Uncle Jack! Mr. Grisben won’t mind. Nobody but you — today!”

The butler was replenishing the glasses. He filled Mr. Lavington’s last, and Mr. Lavington put out his small hand to raise it. . . . As he did so, Faxon looked away.

“Well, then — All the good I’ve wished you in all the past years. . . . I put it into the prayer that the coming ones may be healthy and happy and many . . . and many, dear boy!”

Faxon saw the hands about him reach out for their glasses. Automatically, he reached for his. His eyes were still on the table, and he repeated to himself with a trembling vehemence: “I won’t look up! I won’t. . . . I won’t. . . . ”

His finders clasped the glass and raised it to the level of his lips. He saw the other hands making the same motion. He heard Mr. Grisben’s genial “Hear! Hear!” and Mr. Batch’s hollow echo. He said to himself, as the rim of the glass touched his lips: “I won’t look up! I swear I won’t! — ” and he looked.

The glass was so full that it required an extraordinary effort to hold it there, brimming and suspended, during the awful interval before he could trust his hand to lower it again, untouched, to the table. It was this merciful preoccupation which saved him, kept him from crying out, from losing his hold, from slipping down into the bottomless blackness that gaped for him. As long as the problem of the glass engaged him he felt able to keep his seat, manage his muscles, fit unnoticeably into the group; but as the glass touched the table his last link with safety snapped. He stood up and dashed out of the room.

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