The Spark, by Edith Wharton


This is not a story-teller’s story; it is not even the kind of episode capable of being shaped into one. Had it been, I should have reached my climax, or at any rate its first stage, in the incident at the Polo Club, and what I have left to tell would be the effect of that incident on the lives of the three persons concerned.

It is not a story, or anything in the semblance of a story, but merely an attempt to depict for you — and in so doing, perhaps make clearer to myself — the aspect and character of a man whom I loved, perplexedly but faithfully, for many years. I make no apology, therefore, for the fact that Bolton Byrne, whose evil shadow ought to fall across all my remaining pages, never again appears in them; and that the last I saw of him (for my purpose) was when, after our exaggeratedly cheerful and even noisy dinner that evening at Jack Alstrop’s, I observed him shaking hands with Hayley Delane, and declaring, with pinched lips and a tone of falsetto cordiality: “Bear malice? Well, rather not — why, what rot! All’s fair in — in polo, ain’t it? I should say so! Yes — off first thing tomorrow. S’pose of course you’re staying on with Jack over Sunday? I wish I hadn’t promised the Gildermeres — .” And therewith he vanishes, having served his purpose as a passing lantern-flash across the twilight of Hayley Delane’s character.

All the while, I continued to feel that it was not Bolton Byrne who mattered. While clubs and drawing-rooms twittered with the episode, and friends grew portentous in trying to look unconscious, and said “I don’t know what you mean,” with eyes beseeching you to speak if you knew more than they did, I had already discarded the whole affair, as I was sure Delane had. “It was the poney and nothing but the poney,” I chuckled to myself, as pleased as if I had owed Mrs. Delane a grudge, and were exulting in her abasement; and still there ran through my mind the phrase which Alstrop said Delane had kept repeating: “It was the cruelty — it was the cruelty. I hate cruelty.”

How it fitted in, now, with the other fact my host had let drop — the fact that Delane had fought all through the civil war! It seemed incredible that it should have come to me as a surprise; that I should have forgotten, or perhaps never even known, this phase of his history. Yet in young men like myself, just out of college in the ‘nineties, such ignorance was more excusable than now seems possible.

That was the dark time of our national indifference, before the country’s awakening; no doubt the war seemed much farther from us, much less a part of us, than it does to the young men of today. Such was the case, at any rate, in old New York, and more particularly, perhaps, in the little clan of well-to-do and indolent old New Yorkers among whom I had grown up. Some of these, indeed, had fought bravely through the four years: New York had borne her part, a memorable part, in the long struggle. But I remember with what perplexity I first wakened to the fact — it was in my school-days — that if certain of my father’s kinsmen and contemporaries had been in the war, others — how many! — had stood aside. I recall especially the shock with which, at school, I had heard a boy explain his father’s lameness: “He’s never got over that shot in the leg he got at Chancellorsville.”

I stared; for my friend’s father was just my own father’s age. At the moment (it was at a school foot-ball match) the two men were standing side by side, in full sight of us — HIS father stooping, halt and old, mine, even to filial eyes, straight and youthful. Only an hour before I had been bragging to my friend about the wonderful shot my father was (he had taken me down to his North Carolina shooting at Christmas); but now I stood abashed.

The next time I went home for the holidays I said to my mother, one day when we were alone: “Mother, why didn’t father fight in the war?” My heart was beating so hard that I thought she must have seen my excitement and been shocked. But she raised an untroubled face from her embroidery.

“You father, dear? Why, because he was a married man.” She had a reminiscent smile. “Molly was born already — she was six months old when Fort Sumter fell. I remember I was nursing her when Papa came in with the news. We couldn’t believe it.” She paused to match a silk placidly. “Married men weren’t called upon to fight,” she explained.

“But they DID, though, Mother! Payson Gray’s father fought. He was so badly wounded at Chancellorsville that he’s had to walk with a stick ever since.”

“Well, my dear, I don’t suppose you would want your Papa to be like that, would you?” She paused again, and finding I made no answer, probably thought it pained me to be thus convicted of heartlessness, for she added, as if softening the rebuke: “Two of your father’s cousins DID fight: his cousins Harold and James. They were young men, with no family obligations. And poor Jamie was killed, you remember.”

I listened in silence, and never again spoke to my mother of the war. Nor indeed to anyone — even myself. I buried the whole business out of sight, out of hearing, as I thought. After all, the war had all happened long ago; it had been over ten years when I was born. And nobody ever talked about it nowadays. Still, one did, of course, as one grew up, meet older men of whom it was said: “Yes, so-and-so was in the war.” Many of them even continued to be known by the military titles with which they had left the service: Colonel Ruscott, Major Detrancy, old General Scole. People smiled a little, but admitted that, if it pleased them to keep their army rank, it was a right they had earned. Hayley Delane, it appeared, thought differently. He had never allowed himself to be called “Major” or “Colonel” (I think he had left the service a Colonel). And besides he was years younger than these veterans. To find that he had fought at their side was like discovering that the grandmother one could remember playing with had been lifted up by her nurse to see General Washington. I always thought of Hayley Delane as belonging to my own generation rather than to my father’s; though I knew him to be so much older than myself, and occasionally called him “sir,” I felt on an equality with him, the equality produced by sharing the same amusements and talking of them in the same slang. and indeed he must have been ten or fifteen years younger than the few men I knew who had been in the war, none of whom, I was sure, had had to run away from school to volunteer; so that my forgetfulness (or perhaps even ignorance) of his past was not inexcusable.

Broad and Delane had been, for two or three generations, one of the safe and conservative private banks of New York. My friend Hayley had been made a partner early in his career; the post was almost hereditary in his family. It happened that, not long after the scene at Alstrop’s, I was offered a position in the house. The offer came, not through Delane, but through Mr. Frederick Broad, the senior member, who was an old friend of my father’s. The chance was too advantageous to be rejected, and I transferred to a desk at Broad and Delane’s my middling capacities and my earnest desire to do my best. It was owing to this accidental change that there gradually grew up between Hayley Delane and myself a sentiment almost filial on my part, elder-brotherly on his — for paternal one could hardly call him, even with his children.

My job need not have thrown me in his way, for his business duties sat lightly on him, and his hours at the bank were neither long nor regular. But he appeared to take a liking to me, and soon began to call on me for the many small services which, in the world of affairs, a young man can render his elders. His great perplexity was the writing of business letters. He knew what he wanted to say; his sense of the proper use of words was clear and prompt; I never knew anyone more impatient of the hazy verbiage with which American primary culture was already corrupting our speech. He would put his finger at once on these laborious inaccuracies, growling: “For God’s sake, translate it into English — ” but when he had to write, or worse still dictate, a letter his friendly forehead and big hands grew damp, and he would mutter, half to himself and half to me: “How the devil shall I say: ‘Your letter of the blankth came yesterday, and after thinking over what you propose I don’t like the looks of it’?” — “Why, say just that,” I would answer; but he would shake his head and object: “My dear fellow, you’re as bad as I am. You don’t know how TO WRITE GOOD ENGLISH.” In his mind there was a gulf fixed between speaking and writing the language. I could never get his imagination to bridge this gulf, or to see that the phrases which fell from his lips were “better English” than the written version, produced after much toil and pen-biting, which consisted in translating the same statement into some such language as: “I am in receipt of your communication of the 30th ultimo, and regret to be compelled to inform you in reply that, after mature consideration of the proposals therein contained, I find myself unable to pronounce a favourable judgment upon the same” — usually sending a furious dash through “the same” as “counterjumper’s lingo,” and then groaning over his inability to find a more Johnsonian substitute.

“The trouble with me,” he used to say, “is that both my parents were martinets on grammar, and never let any of us children use a vulgar expression without correcting us.” (By “vulgar” he meant either familiar or inexact.) “We were brought up on the best books — Scott and Washington Irving, old what’s-his-name who wrote the ‘Spectator’, and Gibbon and so forth; and though I’m not a literary man, and never set up to be, I can’t forget my early training and when I see the children reading a newspaper-fellow like Kipling I want to tear the rubbish out of their hands. Cheap journalism — that’s what most modern books are. And you’ll excuse my saying dear boy, that even you are too young to know how English ought to be WRITTEN.”

It was quite true — though I had at first found it difficult to believe — that Delane must once have been a reader. He surprised me, one night, as we were walking home from a dinner where we had met, by apostrophizing the moon, as she rose, astonished, behind the steeple of the “Heavenly Rest,” with “She walks in beauty like the night”; and he was fond of describing a victorious charge in a polo match by saying: “Tell you what, we came down on ’em like the Assyrian.” Nor had Byron been his only fare. There had evidently been a time when he had known the whole of “Gray’s Elegy” by heart, and I once heard him murmuring to himself, as we stood together one autumn evening on the terrace of his country-house:

“Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,

And all the air a solemn stillness holds . . . ”

Little sympathy as I felt for Mrs. Delane, I could not believe it was his marriage which had checked Delane’s interest in books. To judge from his very limited stock of allusions and quotations, his reading seemed to have ceased a good deal earlier than his first meeting with Leila Gracy. Exploring him like a geologist, I found, for several layers under the Leila stratum, no trace of any interest in letters; and I concluded that, like other men I knew, his mind had been receptive up to a certain age, and had then snapped shut on what it possessed, like a replete crustacean never reached by another high tide. People, I had by this time found, all stopped living at one time or another, however many years longer they continued to be alive; and I suspected that Delane had stopped at about nineteen. That date would roughly coincide with the end of the civil war, and with his return to the common-place existence from which he had never since deviated. Those four years had apparently filled to the brim every crevice of his being. For I could not hold that he had gone through them unawares, as some famous figures, puppets of fate, have been tossed from heights to depths of human experience without once knowing what was happening to them — forfeiting a crown by the insistence on some prescribed ceremonial, or by carrying on their flight a certain monumental dressing-case.

No, Hayley Delane had felt the war, had been made different by it; how different I saw only when I compared him to the other “veterans” who, from being regarded by me as the dullest of my father’s dinner-guests, were now become figures of absorbing interest. Time was when, at my mother’s announcement that General Scole or Major Detrancy was coming to dine, I had invariably found a pretext for absenting myself; now, when I knew they were expected, my chief object was to persuade her to invite Delane.

“But he’s so much younger — he cares only for the sporting set. He won’t be flattered at being asked with old gentlemen.” And my mother, with a slight smile, would add: “If Hayley has a weakness, it’s the wish to be thought younger than he is — on his wife’s account, I suppose.”

Once, however, she did invite him, and he accepted; and we got over having to ask Mrs. Delane (who undoubtedly WOULD have been bored) by leaving out Mrs. Scole and Mrs. Ruscott, and making it a “man’s dinner” of the old-fashioned sort, with canvas-backs, a bowl of punch, and my mother the only lady present — the kind of evening my father still liked best.

I remember, at that dinner, how attentively I studied the contrasts, and tried to detect the points of resemblance, between General Scole, old Detrancy and Delane. Allusions to the war — anecdotes of Bull Run and Andersonville, of Lincoln, Seward and MacClellan, were often on Major Detrancy’s lips, especially after the punch had gone round. “When a fellow’s been through the war,” he used to say as a preface to almost everything, from expressing his opinion of last Sunday’s sermon to praising the roasting of a canvas-back. Not so General Scole. No one knew exactly why he had been raised to the rank he bore, but he tacitly proclaimed his right to it by never alluding to the subject. He was a tall and silent old gentleman with a handsome shock of white hair, half-shut blue eyes glinting between veined lids, and an impressively upright carriage. His manners were perfect — so perfect that they stood him in lieu of language, and people would say afterward how agreeable he had been when he had only bowed and smiled, and got up and sat down again, with an absolute mastery of those difficult arts. He was said to be a judge of horses and Madeira, but he never rode, and was reported to give very indifferent wines to the rare guests he received in his grim old house in Irving Place.

He and Major Detrancy had one trait in common — the extreme caution of the old New Yorker. They viewed with instinctive distrust anything likely to derange their habits, diminish their comfort, or lay on them any unwonted responsibilities, civic or social; and slow as their other mental processes were, they showed a supernatural quickness in divining when a seemingly harmless conversation might draw them into “signing a paper,” backing up even the mildest attempt at municipal reform, or pledging them to support, on however small a scale, any new and unfamiliar cause.

According to their creed, gentlemen subscribed as handsomely as their means allowed to the Charity Organization Society, the Patriarchs Balls, the Children’s Aid, and their own parochial charities. Everything beyond savoured of “politics,” revivalist meetings, or the attempts of vulgar persons to buy their way into the circle of the elect; even the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, being of more recent creation, seemed open to doubt, and they thought it rash of certain members of the clergy to lend it their names. “But then,” as Major Detrancy said, “in this noisy age some people will do anything to attract notice.” And they breathed a joint sigh over the vanished “Old New York” of their youth, the exclusive and impenetrable New York to which Rubini and Jenny Lind had sung and Mr. Thackeray lectured, the New York which had declined to receive Charles Dickens, and which, out of revenge, he had so scandalously ridiculed.

Yet Major Detrancy and General Scole had fought all through the war, had participated in horrors and agonies untold, endured all manner of hardships and privations, suffered the extremes of heat and cold, hunger, sickness and wounds; and it had all faded like an indigestion comfortably slept off, leaving them perfectly commonplace and happy.

The same was true, with a difference, of Colonel Ruscott, who, though not by birth of the same group, had long since been received into it, partly because he was a companion in arms, partly because of having married a Hayley connection. I can see Colonel Russcott still: a dapper handsome little fellow, rather too much of both, with a lustrous wave to his hair (or was it a wig?), and a dash too much of Cologne on too-fine cambric. He had been in the New York militia in his youth, had “gone out” with the great Seventh; and the Seventh, ever since, had been the source and centre of his being, as still, to some octogenarians, their University dinner is.

Colonel Ruscott specialized in chivalry. For him the war was “the blue and the grey,” the rescue of lovely Southern girls, anecdotes about Old Glory, and the carrying of vital despatches through the enemy lines. Enchantments seemed to have abounded in his path during the four years which had been so drab and desolate to many; and the punch (to the amusement of us youngsters, who were not above drawing him) always evoked from his memory countless situations in which by prompt, respectful yet insinuating action, he had stamped his image indelibly on some proud Southern heart, while at the same time discovering where Jackson’s guerillas lay, or at what point the river was fordable.

And there sat Hayley Delane, so much younger than the others, yet seeming at such times so much their elder that I thought to myself: “But if HE stopped growing up at nineteen, they’re still in long-clothes!” But it was only morally that he had gone on growing. Intellectually they were all on a par. When the last new play at Wallack’s was discussed, or my mother tentatively alluded to the last new novel by the author of ‘Robert Elsmere’ (it was her theory that, as long as the hostess was present at a man’s dinner she should keep the talk at the highest level), Delane’s remarks were no more penetrating than his neighbours’ — and he was almost sure not to have read the novel.

It was when any social question was raised: any of the problems concerning club administration, charity, or the relation between “gentlemen” and the community, that he suddenly stood out from them, not so much opposed as aloof.

He would sit listening, stroking my sister’s long skye-terrier (who, defying all rules, had jumped up to his knees at dessert), with a grave half-absent look on his heavy face; and just as my mother (I knew) was thinking how bored he was, that big smile of his would reach out and light up his dimple, and he would say, with enough diffidence to mark his respect for his elders, yet a complete independence of their views: “After all, what does it matter who makes the first move? The thing is to get the business done.”

That was always the gist of it. To everyone else, my father included, what mattered in everything, from Diocesan Meetings to Patriarchs Balls, was just what Delane seemed so heedless of: the standing of the people who made up the committee or headed the movement. To Delane, only the movement itself counted; if the thing was worth doing, he pronounced in his slow lazy way, get it done somehow, even if its backers WERE Methodists or Congregationalists, or people who dined in the middle of the day.

“If they were convicts from Sing Sing I shouldn’t care,” he affirmed, his hand lazily flattering the dog’s neck as I had seen it caress Byrne’s terrified poney.

“Or lunatics out of Bloomingdale — as these ‘reformers’ usually are,” my father added, softening the remark with his indulgent smile.

“Oh, well,” Delane murmured, his attention flagging, “I daresay we’re well enough off as we are.”

“Especially,” added Major Detrancy with a playful sniff, “with the punch in the offing, as I perceive it to be.”

The punch struck the note for my mother’s withdrawal. She rose with her shy circular smile, while the gentlemen, all on their feet protested gallantly at her desertion.

“Abandoning us to go back to Mr. Elsmere — we shall be jealous of the gentleman!” Colonel Ruscott declared, chivalrously reaching the door first; and as he opened it my father said, again with his indulgent smile: “Ah, my wife — she’s a great reader.”

Then the punch was brought.

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