The Triumph of Night, by Edith Wharton

iv

In the gallery, the instinct of self-preservation helped him to turn back and sign to young Rainer not to follow. He stammered out something about a touch of dizziness, and joining them presently; and the boy nodded sympathetically and drew back.

At the foot of the stairs Faxon ran against a servant. “I should like to telephone to Weymore,” he said with dry lips.

“Sorry, sir; wires all down. We’ve been trying the last hour to get New York again for Mr. Lavington.”

Faxon shot on to his room, burst into it, and bolted the door. The lamplight lay on furniture, flowers, books; in the ashes a log still glimmered. He dropped down on the sofa and hid his face. The room was profoundly silent, the whole house was still: nothing about him gave a hint of what was going on, darkly and dumbly, in the room he had flown from, and with the covering of his eyes oblivion and reassurance seemed to fall on him. But they fell for a moment only; then his lids opened again to the monstrous vision. There it was, stamped on his pupils, a part of him forever, an indelible horror burnt into his body and brain. But why into his — just his? Why had he alone been chosen to see what he had seen? What business was it of his, in God’s name? Any one of the others, thus enlightened, might have exposed the horror and defeated it; but he, the one weaponless and defenceless spectator, the one whom none of the others would believe or understand if he attempted to reveal what he knew — he alone had been singled out as the victim of this dreadful initiation!

Suddenly he sat up, listening: he had heard a step on the stairs. Some one, no doubt, was coming to see how he was — to urge him, if he felt better, to go down and join the smokers. Cautiously he opened his door; yes, it was young Rainer’s step. Faxon looked down the passage, remembered the other stairway and darted to it. All he wanted was to get out of the house. Not another instant would he breathe its abominable air! What business was it of his, in God’s name?

He reached the opposite end of the lower gallery, and beyond it saw the hall by which he had entered. It was empty, and on a long table he recognized his coat and cap. He got into his coat, unbolted the door, and plunged into the purifying night.

The darkness was deep, and the cold so intense that for an instant it stopped his breathing. Then he perceived that only a thin snow was falling, and resolutely he set his face for flight. The trees along the avenue marked his way as he hastened with long strides over the beaten snow. Gradually, while he walked, the tumult in his brain subsided. The impulse to fly still drove him forward, but he began feel that he was flying from a terror of his own creating, and that the most urgent reason for escape was the need of hiding his state, of shunning other eyes till he should regain his balance.

He had spent the long hours in the train in fruitless broodings on a discouraging situation, and he remembered how his bitterness had turned to exasperation when he found that the Weymore sleigh was not awaiting him. It was absurd, of course; but, though he had joked with Rainer over Mrs. Culme’s forgetfulness, to confess it had cost a pang. That was what his rootless life had brought him to: for lack of a personal stake in things his sensibility was at the mercy of such trifles. . . . Yes; that, and the cold and fatigue, the absence of hope and the haunting sense of starved aptitudes, all these had brought him to the perilous verge over which, once or twice before, his terrified brain had hung.

Why else, in the name of any imaginable logic, human or devilish, should he, a stranger, be singled out for this experience? What could it mean to him, how was he related to it, what bearing had it on his case? . . . Unless, indeed, it was just because he was a stranger — a stranger everywhere — because he had no personal life, no warm screen of private egotisms to shield him from exposure, that he had developed this abnormal sensitiveness to the vicissitudes of others. The thought pulled him up with a shudder. No! Such a fate was too abominable; all that was strong and sound in him rejected it. A thousand times better regard himself as ill, disorganized, deluded, than as the predestined victim of such warnings!

He reached the gates and paused before the darkened lodge. The wind had risen and was sweeping the snow into his race. The cold had him in its grasp again, and he stood uncertain. Should he put his sanity to the test and go back? He turned and looked down the dark drive to the house. A single ray shone through the trees, evoking a picture of the lights, the flowers, the faces grouped about that fatal room. He turned and plunged out into the road. . . .

He remembered that, about a mile from Overdale, the coachman had pointed out the road to Northridge; and he began to walk in that direction. Once in the road he had the gale in his face, and the wet snow on his moustache and eye-lashes instantly hardened to ice. The same ice seemed to be driving a million blades into his throat and lungs, but he pushed on, the vision of the warm room pursuing him.

The snow in the road was deep and uneven. He stumbled across ruts and sank into drifts, and the wind drove against him like a granite cliff. Now and then he stopped, gasping, as if an invisible hand had tightened an iron band about his body; then he started again, stiffening himself against the stealthy penetration of the cold. The snow continued to descend out of a pall of inscrutable darkness, and once or twice he paused, fearing he had missed the road to Northridge; but, seeing no sign of a turn, he ploughed on.

At last, feeling sure that he had walked for more than a mile, he halted and looked back. The act of turning brought immediate relief, first because it put his back to the wind, and then because, far down the road, it showed him the gleam of a lantern. A sleigh was coming — a sleigh that might perhaps give him a lift to the village! Fortified by the hope, he began to walk back toward the light. It came forward very slowly, with unaccountable sigsags and waverings; and even when he was within a few yards of it he could catch no sound of sleigh-bells. Then it paused and became stationary by the roadside, as though carried by a pedestrian who had stopped, exhausted by the cold. The thought made Faxon hasten on, and a moment later he was stooping over a motionless figure huddled against the snow-bank. The lantern had dropped from its bearer’s hand, and Faxon, fearfully raising it, threw its light into the face of Frank Rainer.

“Rainer! What on earth are you doing here?”

The boy smiled back through his pallour. “What are you, I’d like to know?” he retorted; and, scrambling to his feet with a clutch oh Faxon’s arm, he added gaily: “Well, I’ve run you down!”

Faxon stood confounded, his heart sinking. The lad’s face was grey.

“What madness — ” he began.

“Yes, it is . What on earth did you do it for?”

“I? Do what? . . . Why I. . . . I was just taking a walk. . . . I often walk at night. . . . ”

Frank Rainer burst into a laugh. “On such nights? Then you hadn’t bolted?”

“Bolted?”

“Because I’d done something to offend you? My uncle thought you had.”

Faxon grasped his arm. “Did your uncle send you after me?”

“Well, he gave me an awful rowing for not going up to your room with you when you said you were ill. And when we found you’d gone we were frightened — and he was awfully upset — so I said I’d catch you. . . . You’re not ill, are you?”

“Ill? No. Never better.” Faxon picked up the lantern. “Come; let’s go back. It was awfully hot in that diningroom.”

“Yes; I hoped it was only that.”

They trudged on in silence for a few minutes; then Faxon questioned: “You’re not too done up?”

“Oh, no. It’s a lot easier with the wind behind us.”

“All right Don’t talk any more.”

They pushed ahead, walking, in spite of the light that guided them, more slowly than Faxon had walked alone into the gale. The fact of his companion’s stumbling against a drift gave Faxon a pretext for saying: “Take hold of my arm,” and Rainer obeying, gasped out: “I’m blown!”

“So am I. Who wouldn’t be?”

“What a dance you led me! If it hadn’t been for one of the servants happening to see you — ”

“Yes; all right. And now, won’t you kindly shut up?”

Rainer laughed and hung on him. “Oh, the cold doesn’t hurt me. . . . ”

For the first few minutes after Rainer had overtaken him, anxiety for the lad had been Faxon’s only thought. But as each labouring step carried them nearer to the spot he had been fleeing, the reasons for his flight grew more ominous and more insistent. No, he was not ill, he was not distraught and deluded — he was the instrument singled out to warn and save; and here he was, irresistibly driven, dragging the victim back to his doom!

The intensity of the conviction had almost checked his steps. But what could he do or say? At all costs he must get Rainer out of the cold, into the house and into his bed. After that he would act.

The snow-fall was thickening, and as they reached a stretch of the road between open fields the wind took them at an angle, lashing their faces with barbed thongs. Rainer stopped to take breath, and Faxon felt the heavier pressure of his arm.

“When we get to the lodge, can’t we telephone to the stable for a sleigh?”

“If they’re not all asleep at the lodge.”

“Oh, I’ll manage. Don’t talk!” Faxon ordered; and they plodded on. . . .

At length the lantern ray showed ruts that curved away from the road under tree-darkness.

Faxon’s spirits rose. “There’s the gate! We’ll be there in five minutes.”

As he spoke he caught, above the boundary hedge, the gleam of a light at the farther end of the dark avenue. It was the same light that had shone on the scene of which every detail was burnt into his brain; and he felt again its overpowering reality. No — he couldn’t let the boy go back!

They were at the lodge at last, and Faxon was hammering on the door. He said to himself: “I’ll get him inside first, and make them give him a hot drink. Then I’ll see — I’ll find an argument. . . . ”

There was no answer to his knocking, and after an interval Rainer said: “Look here — we’d better go on.”

“No!”

“I can, perfectly — ”

“You sha’n’t go to the house, I say!” Faxon redoubled his blows, and at length steps sounded on the stairs. Rainer was leaning against the lintel, and as the door opened the light from the hall flashed on his pale face and fixed eyes. Faxon caught him by the arm and drew him in.

“It was cold out there.” he sighed; and then, abruptly, as if invisible shears at a single stroke had cut every muscle in his body, he swerved, drooped on Faxon’s arm, and seemed to sink into nothing at his feet.

The lodge-keeper and Faxon bent over him, and somehow, between them, lifted him into the kitchen and laid him on a sofa by the stove.

The lodge-keeper, stammering: “I’ll ring up the house,” dashed out of the room. But Faxon heard the words without heeding them: omens mattered nothing now, beside this woe fulfilled. He knelt down to undo the fur collar about Rainer’s throat, and as he did so he felt a warm moisture on his hands. He held them up, and they were red. . . .

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