The Spark, by Edith Wharton


Delane was right; having Bill Gracy under one’s roof was not like harbouring a nice old lady. I looked on at the sequence of our talk and marvelled.

New York — the Delanes’ New York — sided unhesitatingly with Leila. Society’s attitude toward drink and dishonesty was still inflexible: a man who had had to resign from his clubs went down into a pit presumably bottomless. The two or three people who thought Delane’s action “rather fine” made haste to add: “But he ought to have taken a house for the old man in some quiet place in the country.” Bill Gracy cabined in a quiet place in the country! Within a week he would have set the neighbourhood on fire. He was simply not to be managed by proxy: Delane had understood that, and faced it.

Nothing in the whole unprecedented situation was more odd, more unexpected and interesting, than Mr. Gracy’s own perception of it. He too had become aware that his case was without alternative.

“They HAD to have me here, by gad; I see that myself. Old firebrand like me . . . couldn’t be trusted! Hayley saw it from the first — fine fellow, my son-in-law. He made no bones about telling me so. Said: ‘I can’t trust you, father’ . . . said it right out to me. By gad, if he’d talked to me like that a few years sooner I don’t answer for the consequences! But I ain’t my own man any longer . . . I’ve got to put up with being treated like a baby . . . I forgave him on the spot, sir — on the spot.” His fine eye filled, and he stretched a soft old hand, netted with veins and freckles, across the table to me.

In the virtual seclusion imposed by his presence I was one of the few friends the Delanes still saw. I knew Leila was grateful to me for coming; but I did not need that incentive. It was enough that I could give even a negative support to Delane. The first months were horrible; but he was evidently saying to himself: “Things will settle down gradually,” and just squaring his great shoulders to the storm.

Things didn’t settle down; as embodied in Bill Gracy they continued in a state of effervescence. Filial care, good food and early hours restored the culprit to comparative health; he became exuberant, arrogant and sly. Happily his first imprudence caused a relapse alarming even to himself. He saw that his powers of resistance were gone, and, tremulously tender over his own plight, he relapsed into a plaintive burden. But he was never a passive one. Some part or other he had to play, usually to somebody’s detriment.

One day a strikingly dressed lady forced her way in to see him, and the house echoed with her recriminations. Leila objected to the children’s assisting at such scenes, and when Christmas brought the boys home she sent them to Canada with a tutor, and herself went with the little girl to Florida. Delane, Gracy and I sat down alone to our Christmas turkey, and I wondered what Delane’s queer friend of the Washington hospital would have thought of that festivity. Mr. Gracy was in a melting mood, and reviewed his past with an edifying prolixity. “After all, women and children have always loved me,” he summed up, a tear on his lashes. “But I’ve been a curse to you and Leila, and I know it, Hayley. That’s my only merit, I suppose — that I DO know it! Well, here’s to turning over a new leaf . . . ” and so forth.

One day, a few months later, Mr. Broad, the head of the firm, sent for me. I was surprised, and somewhat agitated, at the summons, for I was not often called into his august presence.

“Mr. Delane has a high regard for your ability,” he began affably.

I bowed, thrilled at what I supposed to be a hint of promotion; but Mr. Broad went on: “I know you are at his house a great deal. In spite of the difference in age he always speaks of you as an old friend.” Hopes of promotion faded, yet left me unregretful. Somehow, this was even better. I bowed again.

Mr. Broad was becoming embarrassed. “You see Mr. William Gracy rather frequently at his son-in-law’s?”

“He’s living there,” I answered bluntly.

Mr. Broad heaved a sigh. “Yes. It’s a fine thing of Mr. Delane . . . but does he quite realize the consequences? His own family side with his wife. You’ll wonder at my speaking with such frankness . . . but I’ve been asked . . . it has been suggested . . . ”

“If he weren’t there he’d be in the gutter.”

Mr. Broad sighed more deeply. “Ah, it’s a problem . . . You may ask why I don’t speak directly to Mr. Delane . . . but it’s so delicate, and he’s so uncommunicative. Still, there are Institutions . . . You don’t feel there’s anything to be done?”

I was silent, and he shook hands, murmured: “This is confidential,” and made a motion of dismissal. I withdrew to my desk, feeling that the situation must indeed be grave if Mr. Broad could so emphasize it by consulting me.

New York, to ease its mind of the matter, had finally decided that Hayley Delane was “queer.” There were the two of them, madmen both, hobnobbing together under his roof; no wonder poor Leila found the place untenable! That view, bruited about, as such things are, with a mysterious underground rapidity, prepared me for what was to follow.

One day during the Easter holidays I went to dine with the Delanes, and finding my host alone with old Gracy I concluded that Leila had again gone off with the children. She had: she had been gone a week, and had just sent a letter to her husband saying that she was sailing from Montreal with the little girl. The boys would be sent back to Groton with a trusted servant. She would add nothing more, as she did not wish to reflect unkindly on what his own family agreed with her in thinking an act of ill-advised generosity. He knew that she was worn out by the strain he had imposed on her, and would understand her wishing to get away for a while . . .

She had left him.

Such events were not, in those days, the matters of course they have since become; and I doubt if, on a man like Delane, the blow would ever have fallen lightly. Certainly that evening was the grimmest I ever passed in his company. I had the same impression as on the day of Bolton Bryne’s chastisement: the sense that Delane did not care a fig for public opinion. His knowing that it sided with his wife did not, I believe, affect him in the least; nor did her own view of his conduct — and for that I was unprepared. What really ailed him, I discovered, was his loneliness. He missed her, he wanted her back — her trivial irritating presence was the thing in the world he could least dispense with. But when he told me what she had done he simply added: “I see no help for it; we’ve both of us got a right to our own opinion.”

Again I looked at him with astonishment. Another voice seemed to be speaking through his lips, and I had it on mine to say: “Was that what your old friend in Washington would have told you?” But at the door of the dining-room where we had lingered, Mr. Gracy’s flushed countenance and unreverend auburn locks appeared between us.

“Look here, Hayley; what about our little game? If I’m to be packed off to bed at ten like a naughty boy you might at least give me my hand of poker first.” He winked faintly at me as we passed into the library, and added, in a hoarse aside: “If he thinks he’s going to boss me like Leila he’s mistaken. Flesh and blood’s one thing; now she’s gone I’ll be damned if I take any bullying.”

That threat was the last flare of Mr. Gracy’s indomitable spirit. The act of defiance which confirmed it brought on a severe attack of pleurisy. Delane nursed the old man with dogged patience, and he emerged from the illness diminished, wizened, the last trace of auburn gone from his scant curls, and nothing left of his old self but a harmless dribble of talk.

Delane taught him to play patience, and he used to sit for hours by the library fire, puzzling over the cards, or talking to the children’s parrot, which he fed and tended with a touching regularity. He also devoted a good deal of time to collecting stamps for his youngest grandson, and his increasing gentleness and playful humour so endeared him to the servants that a trusted housemaid had to be dismissed for smuggling cocktails into his room. On fine days Delane, coming home earlier from the bank, would take him for a short stroll; and one day, happening to walk up Fifth Avenue behind them, I noticed that the younger man’s broad shoulders were beginning to stoop like the other’s, and that there was less lightness in his gait than in Bill Gracy’s jaunty shamble. They looked like two old men doing their daily mile on the sunny side of the street. Bill Gracy was no longer a danger to the community, and Leila might have come home. But I understood from Delane that she was still abroad with her daughter.

Society soon grows used to any state of things which is imposed upon it without explanation. I had noticed that Delane never explained; his chief strength lay in that negative quality. He was probably hardly aware that people were beginning to say: “Poor old Gracy — after all, he’s making a decent end. It was the proper thing for Hayley to do — but his wife ought to come back and share the burden with him.” In important matters he was so careless of public opinion that he was not likely to notice its veering. He wanted Leila to come home; he missed her and the little girl more and more; but for him there was no “ought” about the matter.

And one day she came. Absence had rejuvenated her, she had some dazzling new clothes, she had made the acquaintance of a charming Italian nobleman who was coming to New York on the next steamer . . . she was ready to forgive her husband, to be tolerant, resigned and even fond. Delane, with his amazing simplicity, took all this for granted; the effect of her return was to make him feel he had somehow been in the wrong, and he was ready to bask in her forgiveness. Luckily for her own popularity she arrived in time to soothe her parent’s declining moments. Mr. Gracy was now a mere mild old pensioner and Leila used to drive out with him regularly and refuse dull invitations “because she had to be with Papa.” After all, people said, she had a heart. Her husband thought so too, and triumphed in the conviction. At that time life under the Delane roof, though melancholy, was idyllic; it was a pity that old Gracy could not have been kept alive longer, so miraculously did his presence unite the household it had once divided. But he was beyond being aware of this, and from a cheerful senility sank into coma and death. The funeral was attended by the whole of New York, and Leila’s crape veil was of exactly the right length — a matter of great importance in those days.

Life has a way of overgrowing its achievements as well as its ruins. In less time than seemed possible in so slow-moving a society, the Delane’s family crisis had been smothered and forgotten. Nothing seemed changed in the mutual attitude of husband and wife, or in that of their little group toward the couple. If anything, Leila had gained in popular esteem by her assiduity at her father’s bedside; though as a truthful chronicler I am bound to add that she partly forfeited this advantage by plunging into a flirtation with the Italian nobleman before her crape trimmings had been replaced by ‘passemeterie’. On such fundamental observances old New York still took its stand.

As for Hayley Delane, he emerged older, heavier, more stooping, but otherwise unchanged from the ordeal. I am not sure that anyone except myself was aware that there had been an ordeal. But my conviction remained. His wife’s return had changed him back into a card-playing, ball-going, race-frequenting elderly gentleman; but I had seen the waters part, and a granite rock thrust up from them. Twice the upheaval had taken place; and each time in obedience to motives unintelligible to the people he lived among. Almost any man can take a stand on a principle his fellow-citizens are already occupying; but Hayley Delane held out for things his friends could not comprehend, and did it for reasons he could not explain. The central puzzle subsisted.

Does it subsist for me to this day? Sometimes, walking up town from the bank where in my turn I have become an institution, I glance through the rails of Trinity churchyard and wonder. He has lain there ten years or more now; his wife has married the President of a rising Western University, and grown intellectual and censorious; his children are scattered and established. Does the old Delane vault hold his secret, or did I surprise it one day; did he and I surprise it together?

It was one Sunday afternoon, I remember, not long after Bill Gracy’s edifying end. I had not gone out of town that week-end, and after a long walk in the frosty blue twilight of Central Park I let myself into my little flat. To my surprise I saw Hayley Delane’s big overcoat and tall hat in the hall. He used to drop in on me now and then, but mostly on the way home from a dinner where we happened to have met; and I was rather startled at his appearance at that hour and on a Sunday. But he lifted an untroubled face from the morning paper.

“You didn’t expect a call on a Sunday? Fact is, I’m out of a job. I wanted to go down to the country, as usual, but there’s some grand concert or other that Leila was booked for this afternoon; and a dinner tonight at Alstrop’s. So I dropped in to pass the time of day. What IS there to do on a Sunday afternoon, anyhow?”

There he was, the same old usual Hayley, as much put to it as the merest fribble of his set to employ an hour unfilled by poker! I was glad he viewed me as a possible alternative, and laughingly told him so. He laughed too — we were on terms of brotherly equality — and told me to go ahead and read two or three notes which had arrived in my absence. “Gad — how they shower down on a fellow at your age!” he chuckled.

I broke the seals and was glancing through the letters when I heard an exclamation at my back.

“By Jove — there he is!” Hayley Delane shouted. I turned to see what he meant.

He had taken up a book — an unusual gesture, but it lay at his elbow, and I suppose he had squeezed the newspapers dry. He held the volume out to me without speaking, his forefinger resting on the open page; his swarthy face was in a glow, his hand shook a little. The page to which his finger pointed bore the steel engraving of a man’s portrait.

“It’s him to the life — I’d know those old clothes of his again anywhere,” Delane exulted, jumping up from his seat.

I took the book and stared first at the portrait and then at my friend.

“Your pal in Washington?”

He nodded excitedly. “That chap I’ve often told you about — yes!” I shall never forget the way his smile flew out and reached the dimple. There seemed a network of them spangling his happy face. His eyes had grown absent, as if gazing down invisible vistas. At length they travelled back to me.

“How on earth did the old boy get his portrait in a book? Has somebody been writing something about him?” His sluggish curiosity awakened, he stretched his hand for the volume. But I held it back.

“Lots of people have written about him; but this book is his own.”

“You mean he wrote it?” He smiled incredulously. “Why, the poor chap hadn’t any education!”

“Perhaps he had more than you think. Let me keep the book a moment longer, and read you something from it.”

He signed an assent, though I could see the apprehension of the printed page already clouding his interest.

“What sort of things did he write?”

“Things for YOU. Now listen.”

He settled back into his armchair, composing a painfully attentive countenance, and I sat down and began:

“A sight in camp in the day-break grey and dim.

As from my tent I emerge so early, sleepless,

As slow I walk in the cool fresh air, the path near by the hospital tent,

Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there, untended lying,

Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woollen blanket,

Grey and heavy blanket, folding, covering all

“Curious, I halt, and silent stand:

Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest, the first, just lift the blanket:

Who are you, elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-grey’d hair, and flesh all sunken about the eyes?

Who are you, my dear comrade?

Then to the second I step — And who are you, my child and darling?

Who are you, sweet boy, with cheeks yet blooming?

“Then to the third — a face nor child, nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory;

Young man, I think I know you — I think this face of yours is the face of the Christ himself;

Dead and divine, and brother of all, and here again he lies.”

I laid the open book on my knee, and stole a glance at Delane. His face was a blank, still composed in the heavy folds of enforced attention. No spark had been struck from him. Evidently the distance was too great between the far-off point at which he and English poetry had parted company, and this new strange form it had put on. I must find something which would bring the matter closely enough home to surmount the unfamiliar medium.

“Vigil strange I kept on the field one night,

When you, my son and my comrade, dropt at my side . . . ”

The starlit murmur of the verse flowed on, muffled, insistent; my throat filled with it, my eyes grew dim. I said to myself, as my voice sank on the last line: “He’s reliving it all now, seeing it again — knowing for the first time that someone else saw it as he did.”

Delane stirred uneasily in his seat, and shifted his crossed legs one over the other. One hand absently stroked the fold of his carefully ironed trousers. His face was still a blank. The distance had not yet been bridged between “Gray’s Elegy” and this unintelliglble harmony. But I was not discouraged. I ought not to have expected any of it to reach him — not just at first — except by way of the closest personal appeal. I turned from the “Lovely and Soothing Death,” at which I had re-opened the book, and looked for another page. My listener leaned back resignedly.

“Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,

Straight and swift to my wounded I go . . . ”

I read on to the end. Then I shut the book and looked up again. Delane sat silent, his great hands clasping the arms of his chair, his head slightly sunk on his breast. His lids were dropped, as I imagined reverentially. My own heart was beating with a religious emotion; I had never felt the oft-read lines as I felt them then.

A little timidly, he spoke at length. “Did HE write that?”

“Yes; just about the time you were seeing him, probably.”

Delane still brooded; his expression grew more and more timid. “What do you . . . er . . . call it . . . exactly?” he ventured.

I was puzzled for a moment; then: “Why, poetry . . . rather a free form, of course . . . You see, he was an originator of new verse-forms . . . ”

“New verse-forms?” Delane echoed forlornly. He stood up in his heavy way, but did not offer to take the book from me again. I saw in his face the symptoms of approaching departure.

“Well, I’m glad to have seen his picture after all these years,” he said; and on the threshold he paused to ask: “What was his name, by the way?”

When I told him he repeated it with a smile of slow relish. “Yes; that’s it. Old Walt — that was what all the fellows used to call him. He was a great chap: I’ll never forget him. — I rather wish, though,” he added, in his mildest tone of reproach, “you hadn’t told me that he wrote all that rubbish.”

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University of Adelaide
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02