Hudson River Bracketed, by Edith Wharton

Book II


“It’s here,” Upton said.

Vance had jokingly offered to accompany Upton to the Willows, and help him to dust Miss Lorburn’s rooms, so that Laura Lou should not miss the movies. But Laura Lou, flushing crimson, replied in a frightened whisper that it wasn’t true, that she wanted to go to the Willows, that she always did go when her mother couldn’t — so Vance hired a bicycle at a nearby garage, and the three cousins set out.

Upton stopped before a padlocked gate overhung with trees. A deep green lane led up to it, so rutty and grass-grown that the cousins, jumping from their bicycles, climbed it on foot. Upton pulled out a key, unlocked the padlock of the gate, and led the way in, followed by Vance and Laura Lou. The house, which was painted a dark brown, stood at the end of a short grass-grown drive, its front so veiled in the showering gold-green foliage of two ancient weeping willows that Vance could only catch, here and there, a hint of a steep roof, a jutting balcony, an aspiring turret. The façade, thus seen in trembling glimpses, as if it were as fluid as the trees, suggested vastness, fantasy, and secrecy. Green slopes of unmown grass, and heavy shrubberies of unpruned syringa and lilac, surrounded it; and beyond the view was closed in on all sides by trees and more trees. “An old house — this is the way an old house looks!” Vance thought.

The three walked up the drive, their steps muffled by the long grass and clover which had pushed up through the gravel. When the front of the house was before them, disengaged from the fluctuating veil of willows, Vance saw that it was smaller than he had expected; but the air of fantasy and mystery remained. Everything about the front was irregular, but with an irregularity unfamiliar to him. The shuttered windows were very tall and narrow, and narrow too the balconies, which projected at odd angles, supported by ornate wooden brackets. One corner of the house rose into a tower with a high shingled roof, and arched windows which seemed to simulate the openings in a belfry. A sort of sloping roof over the front door also rested on elaborately ornamented brackets, and on each side of the steps was a large urn of fluted iron painted to imitate stone, in which some half-dead geraniums languished.

While Upton unlocked the front door and went in with his sister, Vance wandered around to the other side of the building. Here a still stranger spectacle awaited him. An arcaded verandah ran across this front, and all about it, and reaching out above it from bracket to bracket, from balcony to balcony, a wistaria with huge distorted branches like rheumatic arms lifted itself to the eaves, festooning, as it mounted, every projecting point with long lilac fringes — as if, Vance thought, a flock of very old monkeys had been ordered to climb up and decorate the house front in celebration of some august arrival. He had never seen so prodigal a flowering, or a plant so crippled and ancient; and for a while it took his attention from the house. But not for long. To bear so old a climber on its front, the house must be still older; and its age, its mystery, its reserve, laid a weight on his heart. He remembered once, at Euphoria, waking in the night — a thing which seldom happened to him — and hearing the bell of the Roman Catholic church slowly and solemnly toll the hour. He saw the church every day on his way to school: a narrow-fronted red brick building with sandstone trim, and a sandstone cross over the gable; and though he had heard the bell time and time again its note had never struck him. But sounding thus through the hush of the night, alone awake in the sleeping town, it spoke to his wakefulness with a shock of mystery.

The same feeling came over him as he stood in the long grass before the abandoned house. He felt in the age and the emptiness of it something of the church bell’s haunting sonority — as if it kept in its mute walls a voice as secret and compelling. If only he had known how to pull the rope and start the clapper swinging!

As he stood there the shutters were thrown back from one of the windows on the ground floor, and Upton leaned out to hail him. “Hul-LO! Laura Lou thought the ghosts had got you.”

“They had — almost,” Vance laughed. He went up to the window and swung himself into the room. Upton had opened all the shutters, and the afternoon light flowed softly in. The room was not large, but its ceiling was high, with a dim cobwebby cornice. On the floor was a carpet with a design of large flower wreaths and bows and loops of faded green. The mantelpiece, richly carved, was surmounted by a mirror reaching to the ceiling; and here and there stood pieces of furniture of a polished black wood inlaid with patterns of ivory or metal. There were tall vases on mantel and table, their flanks painted with landscapes in medallion, or garlanded with heavy wreathes like those on the carpet. On the mantelpiece Vance noticed a round-faced clock guarded by an old man in bronze with a scythe and an hourglass; and stiffly ranged about the room were armchairs and small seats covered with a pale material slit and tattered with age. As Vance stood looking at it all Laura Lou appeared from another room. A long apron covered her from chin to knees, and she had tied a towel about her head, and carried a large feather duster.

“This is where she always sat,” she whispered to Vance, signalling to him to follow. The room she led him into was more sombre than the other, partly because the wistaria had stretched a long drapery across one of the windows, partly because the walls were dark and had tall heavy bookcases against them. In a bow window stood a table with a velvet table cover trailing its faded folds and moth~eaten fringes on the floor. It bore a monumental inkstand, a bronze lamp with a globe of engraved glass, a work basket, and two or three books. But what startled Vance, and made him, in his surprise, forget everything else, was the fact that one of the books lay open, and that across the page was a small pair of oddly shaped spectacles in a thin gold mounting. It looked as if someone had been reading there a few minutes before, and, disturbed by the sound of steps, had dropped the book and spectacles and glided out of sight. Vance remembered Laura Lou’s fear of ghosts, and glanced about him half apprehensively, as if the reader of that book, the wearer of those spectacles, might be peering at them from some shadowy corner of the room.

As he looked his eye fell on a picture hanging above the mantelpiece — a crayon drawing, he thought it must be, in a bossy and ponderous gilt frame. It was the portrait of a middle-aged woman, seen in three-quarter length. She leaned on a table with a heavy velvet cover, bearing an inkstand and some books — the very table and the very inkstand, Vance perceived, on which the picture itself looked down. And the lady, past a doubt, was Miss Lorburn: Miss Lorburn in her thoughtful middle age. She had dark hair, parted in heavy folds above a wide meditative forehead touched with highlights in chalk. Her face was long and melancholy. The lappets of her lace cap fell on her shoulders, and her thin arms emerged from the wide sleeves of a dark jacket, with undersleeves of white lawn also picked out in chalk.

The peculiar dress, the sad face, resembled nothing Vance had ever seen; but instantly he felt their intimate relation to all that was peculiar and unfamiliar in the house. The past — they all belonged to the past, this woman and her house, to the same past, a past of their own, a past so remote from anything in Vance Weston’s experience that it took its place in the pages of history anywhere in the dark Unknown before Euphoria was. He continued to gaze up at the sad woman, who looked down on him with large full-orbed eyes, as if it were she who had just dropped her book and spectacles, and reascended to her frame as he came in.

Without surprise he heard Laura Lou say behind him: “This is the book she was reading when she died. Mr. Lorburn — that’s her nephew — won’t let us touch anything in this room, not even to dust it. We have to dust the things without moving them.”

He had never heard Laura Lou make such a long speech; but he had no ears for it. He nodded, and she tiptoed away with her duster. Far off, down the inlaid wooden floors, he heard Upton clumping about in his heavy gardening shoes, opening other doors and shutters. Laura Lou called to him, and their voices receded together to some distant part of the house.

Vance stood alone in Miss Lorburn’s library. He had never been in a private library before; he hardly knew that collections of books existed as personal possessions, outside of colleges and other public institutions. And all these books had been a woman’s, had been this Miss Lorburn’s, and she had sat among them, lived among them, died reading them — reading the very one on the table at his elbow! It all seemed part of the incomprehensible past to which she and the house belonged, a past so remote, so full of elusive mystery, that Vance’s first thought was: “Why wasn’t I ever told about the Past before?”

He turned from the portrait and looked about the room, trying vainly to picture what this woman’s life had been, in her solemn high-ceilinged house, alone among her books. He thought of her on winter evenings, sitting at this table, beside the oil lamp with the engraved globe, her queer little spectacles on that long grave nose, poring, poring over the pages, while the wind wailed down the chimney and the snow piled itself up on the lawns. And on summer evenings she sat here too, probably — he could not picture her out of doors; sat here in a slanting light, like that now falling through the wistaria fringes, and leaned her sad head on her hand, and read and read . . . .

His eyes wandered from the close rows of books on the shelves to the one lying open on the table. That was the book she had been reading when she died — died as a very old woman, and yet so incalculably long ago. Vance moved to the table, and bent over the open page. It was yellow, and blotched with dampness: the type was queer too, different from any that was familiar to him. He read:

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan — ”

Oh, what beautiful, what incredible words! What did they mean? But what did it matter what they meant? Or whether they meant anything but their own unutterable music? Vance dropped down into the high-backed armchair by the table, pushed the spectacles away from the page, and read on.

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man,

Down to a sunless sea . . .”

It was a new music, a music utterly unknown to him, but to which the hidden chords of his soul at once vibrated. It was something for HIM— something that intimately belonged to him. What had he ever known of poetry before? His mind’s eye ran over the verse he had been nurtured on: James Whitcomb Riley, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Bliss Carman’s “Songs from Vagabondia”; hackneyed old “pieces” from Whittier and Longfellow, in the Sixth Reader; Lowell’s “Ode” — there were fine bits in that — Whitman’s “Pioneers” (good, too, but rather jiggy); and then the new stuff he had got glimpses of here and there in the magazines, in one or two of the “highbrow” reviews (but these hardly ever came his way), and in his college paper. And he had taken it for granted that he had covered the field of poetry . . . .

And now — this! But this WAS poetry, this was what his soul had been alight for, this was what the word Poetry meant, the word which always made wings rustle in him when he read it. He sat with his head between his hands, reading on, passionately, absorbedly, his whole being swept away on that mighty current. He remembered that, as he looked up at the house from without, he had compared it to a long-silent bell, and had longed to set its sonorous waves in motion. And behold, the bell was swinging and clanging all about him now, enveloping him in great undulation of sound like the undulations of a summer sea.

But for that inner music the house was utterly silent. The steps and voices of his cousins had died away. The very afternoon light seemed to lie arrested on the page. He seemed to have been sitting there a long time, in this unmoving ecstasy, when something stirred near him, and raising his head he saw a girl standing in the door and looking at him.

“Oh, who wrote this?” he exclaimed breathlessly, pointing to the book.

It was only after he had asked the question, after his voice had sounded aloud in his own ears, that he became conscious of her presence as of something alien, substantial, outside of his own mind, a part of the forgotten world of reality. Then he saw that she was young, tall, and pale, with dark hair banded close under her drooping hat. There was something about her, he saw also, that fitted into the scene, seemed to mark her as a part of it, though he was instantly aware of her being so young, not much older than himself, he imagined. But what were time and space at that moment?

Without surprise, but merely smiling a little, she came up and bent over the book, narrowing her lids slightly in the way of the short~sighted. “That? Why — but Coleridge, of course!” She chanted softly after him:

“‘Through caverns measureless to man,

Down to a sunless sea.’”

Vance sat looking up at her. He had heard the “of course,” but without heeding it. All he cared for was that she had given him the man’s name — the man who had imagined that. His brain was reeling as if he were drunk. He had not thought of moving from his chair, of naming himself to the newcomer, or asking her name.

“Did he write a lot more?” he asked.

She stood by the table, her hands lightly resting on it, and looked down on him with a faint smile. “Yes, he did, worse luck.”

“Worse luck —?”

“Because so very little was of that quality.” Without taking the book from him, or looking at the page, she went on:

“‘But O, that deep romantic chasm which slanted

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover . . .’”

Vance listened enthralled. Her rich voice, modelling the words, gave them a new relief. He was half aware that her way of speaking was unlike any he had ever heard, but too much under the spell of what she was saying to separate it from the quality of her utterance. He commanded imperiously: “Go on — ” and she continued, leaning slightly toward him and dropping the petal-like syllables with soft deliberation:

“‘A damsel with a dulcimer

In a vision once I saw . . .’”

Vance leaned back and listened with deep-drawn breath and lowered lids. “Honey-dew . . . honey-dew . . .” he murmured as she ended, half consciously applying the epithet to her voice.

She dropped down into a chair beside him and looked at him thoughtfully. “It’s queer — your caring as much as that about poetry, and never having come across this.”

He flushed up, and for the first time looked at her with full awareness of her presence as a stranger, and an intruder on his dream. The look confirmed him in the impression that she was very young, though probably two or three years older than himself. But it might be only her tallness and self-assurance which made him think her older. She had dark gray eyes, deeply lashed, and features somewhat too long and thin in repose, but rounded and illumined by a smile which flashed across her face in sudden sympathy or amusement. Vance detected amusement now, and answered curtly: “I daresay if you knew me you’d think there was a whole lot of things I’d never come across.”

“I daresay,” she agreed complaisantly. “But I might also remember that you were probably too young even to have heard of ‘The Ancient Mariner.’”

“Coleridge? The ‘Ancient Mariner’ one? Was it the same who wrote this?”

She nodded. “You know ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ then? Sixth Reader, I suppose — or college course?” She laughed a little. “So culture comes.”

He interrupted angrily: “What have I said to make you laugh?”

“Nothing. I wasn’t laughing at you, but at the intelligence of our national educators — no, educationists, I think they call themselves nowadays — who manage to take the bloom off our greatest treasures by giving them to young savages to maul. I see, for instance, that they’ve spoilt ‘The Ancient Mariner’ for you.” She continued to scrutinize him thoughtfully. “You’re not one of the young savages — but the bloom has been rubbed off a good many things for you in that way, hasn’t it?”

“Well, yes — some.”

“Not that it matters — for YOU. You’ll get it back. But I do so hate to think of mutilated beauty.”

MUTILATED BEAUTY! How rich the words sounded on her lips — as if she swept the rubbish of the centuries from some broken statue, noble in its ruin! Vance continued to look at her, absently yet intently. He had drawn her into his dream.

But she stood up and pushed her chair aside. “And now,” she said gaily, in a new voice, a light and humorous one, “perhaps you’ll tell me who you are and how you got here.”

The question seemed to come to him from so far off that he stared at her perplexedly before answering. “I— oh, I’m just the Tracys’ cousin. I’m staying at their house. They’re somewhere round dusting the other rooms.”

Her look became more friendly. “Oh, you’re the cousin from the West, who’s been ill and has come to Paul’s Landing for a change? Mrs. Tracy told me about you — only I can’t remember your name.”

“Vance Weston.”

“Mine’s Héloïse Spear. They call me Halo. The name and the nickname are both ridiculous.” She held out her hand. “And you’ve come to call on poor old Cousin Elinor? It’s an attention she doesn’t often receive from her own family.” She glanced about the room. “I haven’t been here in an age — I don’t know what made me come today. At least I didn’t — ” she broke off with one of her fugitive smiles, letting her eyes rest on his and then turning away from him to inspect the books. “Some day,” she said, as if to herself, “I must have the courage to take these down and give them a good cleaning.”

Vance stood up also, beginning to speak eagerly. “Could I come and help you when you do — I mean with the books? I’d — I’d like it first-rate.”

She turned back to him, her eyes brimming with banter and coquetry. “On account of the books?”

But he was too deep in his own emotion to heed the challenge. He answered simply: “I don’t often get a chance at this kind.” His eyes followed hers about the crowded shelves. “I’ve never before been in a house with a library — a real library like this.”

She gave a little shrug. “Oh, it’s a funny library, antiquated, like the house. But Cousin Elinor does seem to have cared for good poetry. When other ladies were reading ‘Friendship’s Garland’ she chose Coleridge.”

His gaze returned perplexed to her face. “Why do you call it a funny library?”

“Well, it’s not exactly up-to-date. I suppose it’s a fairly good specimen of what used to be called a ‘gentleman’s library’ in my great-grandfather’s time. With additions, naturally, from each generation. Cousin Elinor must have bought a good many books herself.” She looked about her critically. “After all,” she concluded with a smile, “the Willows is getting to have an atmosphere.”

Vance listened, still perplexed. Her allusions escaped him — her smile was unintelligible — but he gathered that she attached no very great importance to the house, or to the books, and he dimly resented this air of taking for granted what to him was the revelation of an unknown world.

Involuntarily he lowered his voice. “It’s the first time I’ve ever been in a very old house,” he said, as if announcing something of importance.

“A very old house? The Willows?” The idea seemed a new one to her. “Well — after all, everything is relative, as what’s-his-name said.”

“Don’t you call it a very old house?”

She wrinkled her dark eyebrows in an effort of memory. “Let me see. Father’s great-uncle Ambrose Lorburn built it, I believe. When would that be?” She began to count on her fingers. “Say about 1830. Well, that DOES make it very nearly an old house for America, doesn’t it? Almost a hundred years!”

“And the same folks always lived in it?”

“Oh, of course.” She seemed surprised at the question. “The present owner is the first absentee — poor Cousin Tom! He thinks he ought to live here, but he says he can’t come up to scratch. So he makes up for it by keeping everything unchanged.” Again she surveyed the plaintive shadowy room. “I suppose,” she mused, “the house will be getting to have an archaeological interest of its own before long. It must be one of the best specimens of Hudson River Bracketed that are left, even in our ultra-conservative neighbourhood.”

To Vance she seemed still to be speaking another language, of which he caught only an occasional phrase, and even that but half comprehensible.

“Hudson River Bracketed?” he echoed. “What’s that?”

“Why, didn’t you know it was our indigenous style of architecture in this part of the world?” Her smile of mockery had returned, but he did not mind for he saw it was not directed against himself. “I perceive,” she continued, “that you are not familiar with the epoch~making work of A. J. Downing Esq. on Landscape Gardening in America.” She turned to the bookcases, ran her hand along a shelf, and took down a volume bound in black cloth with the title in gilt Gothic lettering. Her fingers flew from page to page, her short~sighted eyes following as swiftly. “Here — here’s the place. It’s too long to read aloud; but the point is that Mr. Downing, who was the great authority of the period, sums up the principal architectural styles as the Grecian, the Chinese, the Gothic, the Tuscan or Italian villa, and — Hudson River Bracketed. Unless I’m mistaken, he cites the Willows as one of the most perfect examples of Hudson River Bracketed (this was in 1842), and — yes, here’s the place: ‘The seat of Ambrose Lorburn Esq., the Willows, near Paul’s Landing, Dutchess County, N.Y., is one of the most successful instances of etc., etc. . . . architectural elements ingeniously combined from the Chinese and the Tuscan.’ And so they were! What an eye the man had. And here’s the picture, willows and all! How lovely these old steel engravings were . . . and look at my great~uncle and aunt on the lawn, pointing out to each other with pride and admiration their fairly obvious copper beech . . . ‘one of the first ever planted in a gentleman’s grounds in the United States.’”

They bent their heads together over the engraving, which, as she said, reproduced the house exactly as Vance had just beheld it, except that the willows were then slender young trees, and the lawns mown, that striped awnings shaded the lower windows, and that a gentleman in a tall hat and a stock was calling the attention of a lady in bonnet and cashmere shawl to the celebrated copper beech. From Miss Spear’s tone Vance could not tell whether pride or mockery was uppermost in her comments on her ancestor’s achievement. But he dimly guessed that, though she might laugh at the Willows, and at what Mr. Downing said of it, she was not sorry that the house figured so honourably in his book.

“There,” she concluded with a laugh, “now you know what the Hudson River Bracketed style was like, and why Uncle Ambrose Lorburn was so proud of his specimen of it.” She handed him the volume, glanced at her wristwatch, and turned to nod to him from the threshold. “Gracious, how late it is! I must hunt up the Tracy children, and see how much crockery they’ve smashed.”

She disappeared in the spectral shadows of the drawing room, and Vance heard her heels rapping lightly across the hall, and through unknown rooms and passages beyond. He sat motionless where she had left him, his elbows propped on the table, the book still open before him, his head pressed between his hands, letting the strangeness of the place and the hour envelop him like the falling light.

It was dusk in the book-lined room when he was roused by Upton’s hobbledehoy tread and a tap on the shoulder. “What’s become of you? I guess you’ve been sound asleep,” his cousin challenged him.

Vance sat upright with a start. “No, I haven’t been asleep.” He got to his feet and looked about him. “Where’s Miss Spear?”

“Miss Halo? Oh, did you see her? She’s gone long ago. A gentleman friend called for her in his car. I don’t know where they went. She never stays anywhere more than five minutes.” Vance was silent, and Upton added: “Say, come along; Laura Lou’s waiting. Time to lock up.”

Vance reluctantly followed his cousin. As they left the house he realized that, instead of seizing the opportunity to explore every nook of it, he had sat all the afternoon in one room, and merely dreamed of what he might have seen in the others. But that was always his way: the least little fragment of fact was enough for him to transform into a palace of dreams, whereas if he tried to grasp more of it at a time it remained on his hands as so much unusable reality.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02