It was last winter, after a twelve years’ absence from New York, that I saw again, at one of the Jim Cumnors’ dinners, my old friend Halston Merrick.
The Cumnors’ house is one of the few where, even after such a lapse of time, one can be sure of finding familiar faces and picking up old threads; where for a moment one can abandon one’s self to the illusion that New York humanity is a shade less unstable than its bricks and mortar. And that evening in particular I remember feeling that there could be no pleasanter way of re-entering the confused and careless world to which I was returning than through the quiet softly-lit diningroom in which Mrs. Cumnor, with a characteristic sense of my needing to be broken in gradually, had contrived to assemble so many friendly faces.
I was glad to see them all, including the three or four I did not know, or failed to recognize, but had no difficulty in passing as in the tradition and of the group; but I was most of all glad — as I rather wonderingly found — to set eyes again on Halston Merrick.
He and I had been at Harvard together, for one thing, and had shared there curiosities and ardours a little outside the current tendencies: had, on the whole, been more critical than our comrades, and less amenable to the accepted. Then, for the next following years, Merrick had been a vivid and promising figure in young American life. Handsome, careless, and free, he had wandered and tasted and compared. After leaving Harvard he had spent two years at Oxford; then he had accepted a private secretaryship to our Ambassador in England, and had come back from this adventure with a fresh curiosity about public affairs at home, and the conviction that men of his kind should play a larger part in them. This led, first, to his running for a State Senatorship which he failed to get, and ultimately to a few months of intelligent activity in a municipal office. Soon after being deprived of this post by a change of party he had published a small volume of delicate verse, and, a year later, an odd uneven brilliant book on Municipal Government. After that one hardly knew where to look for his next appearance; but chance rather disappointingly solved the problem by killing off his father and placing Halston at the head of the Merrick Iron Foundry at Yonkers.
His friends had gathered that, whenever this regrettable contingency should occur, he meant to dispose of the business and continue his life of free experiment. As often happens in just such cases, however, it was not the moment for a sale, and Merrick had to take over the management of the foundry. Some two years later he had a chance to free himself; but when it came he did not choose to take it. This tame sequel to an inspiriting start was disappointing to some of us, and I was among those disposed to regret Merrick’s drop to the level of the prosperous. Then I went away to a big engineering job in China, and from there to Africa, and spent the next twelve years out of sight and sound of New York doings.
During that long interval I heard of no new phase in Merrick’s evolution, but this did not surprise me, as I had never expected from him actions resonant enough to cross the globe. All I knew — and this did surprise me — was that he had not married, and that he was still in the iron business. All through those years, however, I never ceased to wish, in certain situations and at certain turns of thought, that Merrick were in reach, that I could tell this or that to Merrick. I had never, in the interval, found any one with just his quickness of perception and just his sureness of response.
After dinner, therefore, we irresistibly drew together. In Mrs. Cumnor’s big easy drawing-room cigars were allowed, and there was no break in the communion of the sexes; and, this being the case, I ought to have sought a seat beside one of the ladies among whom we were allowed to remain. But, as had generally happened of old when Merrick was in sight, I found myself steering straight for him past all minor ports of call.
There had been no time, before dinner, for more than the barest expression of satisfaction at meeting, and our seats had been at opposite ends of the longish table, so that we got our first real look at each other in the secluded corner to which Mrs. Cumnor’s vigilance now directed us.
Merrick was still handsome in his stooping tawny way: handsomer perhaps, with thinnish hair and more lines in his face, than in the young excess of his good looks. He was very glad to see me and conveyed his gladness by the same charming smile; but as soon as we began to talk I felt a change. It was not merely the change that years and experience and altered values bring. There was something more fundamental the matter with Merrick, something dreadful, unforeseen, unaccountable: Merrick had grown conventional and dull.
In the glow of his frank pleasure in seeing me I was ashamed to analyze the nature of the change; but presently our talk began to flag — fancy a talk with Merrick flagging! — and self-deception became impossible as I watched myself handing out platitudes with the gesture of the salesman offering something to a purchaser “equally good.” The worst of it was that Merrick — Merrick, who had once felt everything! — didn’t seem to feel the lack of spontaneity in my remarks, but hung on’ them with a harrowing faith in the resuscitating power of our past. It was as if he hugged the empty vessel of our friendship without perceiving that the last drop of its essence was dry.
But after all, I am exaggerating. Through my surprise and disappointment I felt a certain sense of well-being in the mere physical presence of my old friend. I liked looking at the way his dark hair waved away from the forehead, at the tautness of his dry brown cheek, the thoughtful backward tilt of his head, the way his brown eyes mused upon the scene through lowered lids. All the past was in his way of looking and sitting, and I wanted to stay near him, and felt that he wanted me to stay; but the devil of it was that neither of us knew what to talk about.
It was this difficulty which caused me, after a while, since I could not follow Merrick’s talk, to follow his eyes in their roaming circuit of the room.
At the moment when our glances joined, his had paused on a lady seated at some distance from our corner. Immersed, at first, in the satisfaction of finding myself again with Merrick, I had been only half aware of this lady, as of one of the few persons present whom I did not know, or had failed to remember. There was nothing in her appearance to challenge my attention or to excite my curiosity, and I don’t suppose I should have looked at her again if I had not noticed that my friend was doing so.
She was a woman of about forty-seven, with fair faded hair and a young figure. Her gray dress was handsome but ineffective, and her pale and rather serious face wore a small unvarying smile which might have been pinned on with her ornaments. She was one of the women in whom increasing years show rather what they have taken than what they have bestowed, and only on looking closely did one see that what they had taken must have been good of its kind.
Phil Cumnor and another man were talking to her, and the very intensity of the attention she bestowed on them betrayed the straining of rebellious thoughts. She never let her eyes stray or her smile drop; and at the proper moment I saw she was ready with the proper sentiment.
The party, like most of those that Mrs. Cumnor gathered about her, was not composed of exceptional beings. The people of the old vanished New York set were not exceptional: they were mostly cut on the same convenient and unobtrusive pattern; but they were often exceedingly “nice.” And this obsolete quality marked every look and gesture of the lady I was scrutinizing.
While these reflections were passing through my mind I was aware that Merrick’s eyes rested still on her. I took a cross-section of his look and found in it neither surprise nor absorption, but only a certain sober pleasure just about at the emotional level of the rest of the room.
If he continued to look at her, his expression seemed to say, it was only because, all things considered, there were fewer reasons for looking at anybody else.
This made me wonder what were the reasons for looking at her; and as a first step toward enlightenment I said:— “I’m sure I’ve seen the lady over there in gray — ”
Merrick detached his eyes and turned them on me with a wondering look.
“Seen her? You know her.” He waited. “Don’t you know her? It’s Mrs. Reardon.”
I wondered that he should wonder, for I could not remember, in the Cumnor group or elsewhere, having known any one of the name he mentioned.
“But perhaps,” he continued, “you hadn’t heard of her marriage? You knew her as Mrs. Trant.”
I gave him back his stare. “Not Mrs. Philip Trant?”
“Yes; Mrs. Philip Trant.”
“Yes — Paulina,” he said, with a just perceptible delay before the name.
In my surprise I continued to stare at him. He averted his eyes from mine after a moment, and I saw that they had strayed back to her. “You find her so changed?” he asked.
Something in his voice acted as a warning signal, and I tried to reduce my astonishment to less unbecoming proportions. “I don’t find that she looks much older.”
“No. Only different?” he suggested, as if there were nothing new to him in my perplexity.
“Yes — awfully different.”
“I suppose we’re all awfully different. To you, I mean — coming from so far?”
“I recognized all the rest of you,” I said, hesitating. “And she used to be the one who stood out most.”
There was a flash, a wave, a stir of something deep down in his eyes. “Yes,” he said. “That’s the difference.”
“I see it is. She — she looks worn down. Soft but blurred, like the figures in that tapestry behind her.”
He glanced at her again, as if to test the exactness of my analogy.
“Life wears everybody down,” he said.
“Yes — except those it makes more distinct. They’re the rare ones, of course; but she was rare.”
He stood up suddenly, looking old and tired. “I believe I’ll be off. I wish you’d come down to my place for Sunday. . . . No, don’t shake hands — I want to slide away unawares.”
He had backed away to the threshold and was turning the noiseless door-knob. Even Mrs. Cumnor’s doorknobs had tact and didn’t tell.
“Of course I’ll come,” I promised warmly. In the last ten minutes he had begun to interest me again.
“All right Good-bye.” Half through the door he paused to add:— “She remembers you. You ought to speak to her.”
“I’m going to. But tell me a little more.” I thought I saw a shade of constraint on his face, and did not add, as I had meant to: “Tell me — because she interests me — what wore her down?” Instead, I asked: “How soon after Trant’s death did she remarry?”
He seemed to make an effort of memory. “It was seven years ago, I think.”
“And is Reardon here to-night?”
“Yes; over there, talking to Mrs. Cumnor.”
I looked across the broken groupings and saw a large glossy man with straw-coloured hair and a red face, whose shirt and shoes and complexion seemed all to have received a coat of the same expensive varnish.
As I looked there was a drop in the talk about us, and I heard Mr. Reardon pronounce in a big booming voice: “What I say is: what’s the good of disturbing things? Thank the Lord, I’m content with what I’ve got!”
“Is that her husband? What’s he like?”
“Oh, the best fellow in the world,” said Merrick, going.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02