The Long Run, by Edith Wharton


“It was about that time (Merrick went on after a long pause) that I definitely decided not to sell the Works, but to stick to my job and conform my life to it.

“I can’t describe to you the rage of conformity that possessed me. Poetry, ideas — all the picture-making processes stopped. A kind of dull self-discipline seemed to me the only exercise worthy of a reflecting mind. I had to justify my great refusal, and I tried to do it by plunging myself up to the eyes into the very conditions I had been instinctively struggling to get away from. The only possible consolation would have been to find in a life of business routine and social submission such moral compensations as may reward the citizen if they fail the man; but to attain to these I should have had to accept the old delusion that the social and the individual man are two. Now, on the contrary, I found soon enough that I couldn’t get one part of my machinery to work effectively while another wanted feeding: and that in rejecting what had seemed to me a negation of action I had made all my action negative.

“The best solution, of course, would have been to fall in love with another woman; but it was long before I could bring myself to wish that this might happen to me. . . . Then, at length, I suddenly and violently desired it; and as such impulses are seldom without some kind of imperfect issue I contrived, a year or two later, to work myself up into the wished-for state. . . . She was a woman in society, and with all the awe of that institution that Paulina lacked. Our relation was consequently one of those unavowed affairs in which triviality is the only alternative to tragedy. Luckily we had, on both sides, risked only as much as prudent people stake in a drawingroom game; and when the match was over I take it that we came out fairly even.

“My gain, at all events, was of an unexpected kind. The adventure had served only to make me understand Paulina’s abhorrence of such experiments, and at every turn of the slight intrigue I had felt how exasperating and belittling such a relation was bound to be between two people who, had they been free, would have mated openly. And so from a brief phase of imperfect forgetting I was driven back to a deeper and more understanding remembrance. . . .

“This second incarnation of Paulina was one of the strangest episodes of the whole strange experience. Things she had said during our extraordinary talk, things I had hardly heard at the time, came back to me with singular vividness and a fuller meaning. I hadn’t any longer the cold consolation of believing in my own perspicacity: I saw that her insight had been deeper and keener than mine.

“I remember, in particular, starting up in bed one sleepless night as there flashed into my head the meaning of her last words: ‘There was no other way’; the phrase I had half-smiled at at the time, as a parrot-like echo of the novel-heroine’s stock farewell. I had never, up to that moment, wholly understood why Paulina had come to my house that night. I had never been able to make that particular act — which could hardly, in the light of her subsequent conduct, be dismissed as a blind surge of passion — square with my conception of her character. She was at once the most spontaneous and the steadiest-minded woman I had ever known, and the last to wish to owe any advantage to surprise, to unpreparedness, to any play on the spring of sex. The better I came, retrospectively, to know her, the more sure I was of this, and the less intelligible her act appeared. And then, suddenly, after a night of hungry restless thinking, the flash of enlightenment came. She had come to my house, had brought her trunk with her, had thrown herself at my head with all possible violence and publicity, in order to give me a pretext, a loophole, an honourable excuse, for doing and saying — why, precisely what I had said and done!

“As the idea came to me it was as if some ironic hand had touched an electric button, and all my fatuous phrases had leapt out on me in fire.

“Of course she had known all along just the kind of thing I should say if I didn’t at once open my arms to her; and to save my pride, my dignity, my conception of the figure I was cutting in her eyes, she had recklessly and magnificently provided me with the decentest pretext a man could have for doing a pusillanimous thing. . . .

“With that discovery the whole case took a different aspect. It hurt less to think of Paulina — and yet it hurt more. The tinge of bitterness, of doubt, in my thoughts of her had had a tonic quality. It was harder to go on persuading myself that I had done right as, bit by bit, my theories crumbled under the test of time. Yet, after all, as she herself had said, one could judge of results only in the long run. . . .

“The Trants stayed away for two years; and about a year after they got back, you may remember, Trant was killed in a railway accident. You know Fate’s way of untying a knot after everybody has given up tugging at it!

“Well — there I was, completely justified: all my weaknesses turned into merits! I had ‘saved’ a weak woman from herself, I had kept her to the path of duty, I had spared her the humiliation of scandal and the misery of self-reproach; and now I had only to put out my hand and take my reward.

“I had avoided Paulina since her return, and she had made no effort to see me. But after Trant’s death I wrote her a few lines, to which she sent a friendly answer; and when a decent interval had elapsed, and I asked if I might call on her, she answered at once that she would see me.

“I went to her house with the fixed intention of asking her to marry me — and I left it without having done so. Why? I don’t know that I can tell you. Perhaps you would have had to sit there opposite her, knowing what I did and feeling as I did, to understand why. She was kind, she was compassionate — I could see she didn’t want to make it hard for me. Perhaps she even wanted to make it easy. But there, between us, was the memory of the gesture I hadn’t made, forever parodying the one I was attempting! There wasn’t a word I could think of that hadn’t an echo in it of words of hers I had been deaf to; there wasn’t an appeal I could make that didn’t mock the appeal I had rejected. I sat there and talked of her husband’s death, of her plans, of my sympathy; and I knew she understood; and knowing that, in a way, made it harder. . . . The door-bell rang and the footman came in to ask if she would receive other visitors. She looked at me a moment and said ‘Yes,’ and I got up and shook hands and went away.

“A few days later she sailed for Europe, and the next time we met she had married Reardon. . . . ”

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