Twilight Sleep, by Edith Wharton



Pauline Manford was losing faith in herself; she felt the need of a new moral tonic. Could she still obtain it from the old sources? The morning after the Toys’ dinner, considering the advisability of repairing to that small bare room at Dawnside where the Mahatma gave his private audiences, she felt a chill of doubt. She would have preferred, just then, not to be confronted with the sage; in going to him she risked her husband’s anger, and prudence warned her to keep out of the coming struggle. If the Mahatma should ask her to intervene she could only answer that she had already done so unsuccessfully; and such admissions, while generally useless, are always painful. Yet guidance she must have: no Papist in quest of “direction” (wasn’t that what Amalasuntha called it?) could have felt the need more acutely. Certainly the sacrament of confession, from which Pauline’s ingrained Protestantism recoiled in horror, must have its uses at such moments. But to whom, if not to the Mahatma, could she confess?

Dexter had gone down town without asking to see her; she had been sure he would, after their drive to and from the Toys’ the evening before. When he was in one of his moods of clenched silence — they were becoming more frequent, she had remarked — she knew the uselessness of interfering. Echoes of the Freudian doctrine, perhaps rather confusedly apprehended, had strengthened her faith in the salutariness of “talking things over,” and she longed to urge this remedy again on Dexter; but the last time she had done so he had wounded her by replying that he preferred an aperient. And in his present mood of stony inaccessibility he might say something even coarser.

She sat in her boudoir, painfully oppressed by an hour of unexpected leisure. The facial-massage artist had the grippe, and had notified her only at the last moment. To be sure, she had skipped her “Silent Meditation” that morning; but she did not feel in the mood for it now. And besides, an hour is too long for meditation — an hour is too long for anything. Now that she had one to herself, for the first time in years, she didn’t in the least know what to do with it. That was something which no one had ever thought of teaching her; and the sense of being surrounded by a sudden void, into which she could reach out on all sides without touching an engagement or an obligation, produced in her a sort of mental dizziness. She had taken plenty of rest-cures, of course; all one’s friends did. But during a rest-cure one was always busy resting; every minute was crammed with passive activities; one never had this queer sense of inoccupation, never had to face an absolutely featureless expanse of time. It made her feel as if the world had rushed by and forgotten her. An hour — why, there was no way of measuring the length of an empty hour! It stretched away into infinity like the endless road in a nightmare; it gaped before her like the slippery sides of an abyss. Nervously she began to wonder what she could do to fill it — if there were not some new picture show or dressmakers’ opening or hygienic exhibition that she might cram into it before the minute hand switched round to her next engagement. She took up her list to see what that engagement was.

“11.45. Mrs. Swoffer.”

Oh, to be sure . . . Mrs. Swoffer. Maisie had reminded her that morning. The relief was instantaneous. Only, who WAS Mrs. Swoffer? Was she the President of the Militant Pacifists’ League, or the Heroes’ Day delegate, or the exponent of the New Religion of Hope, or the woman who had discovered a wonderful trick for taking the wrinkles out of the corners of your eyes? Maisie was out on an urgent commission, and could not be consulted; but whatever Mrs. Swoffer’s errand was, her arrival would be welcome — especially if she came before her hour. And she did.

She was a small plump woman of indefinite age, with faded blond hair and rambling features held together by a pair of urgent eye~glasses. She asked if she might hold Pauline’s hand just a moment while she looked at her and reverenced her — and Pauline, on learning that this was the result of reading her Mothers’ Day speech in the morning papers, acceded not unwillingly.

Not that that was what Mrs. Swoffer had come for; she said it was just a flower she wanted to gather on the way. A rose with the dew on it — she took off her glasses and wiped them, as if to show where the dew had come from. “You speak for so MANY of us,” she breathed, and recovered Pauline’s hand for another pressure.

But she HAD come for the children, all the same; and that was really coming for the mothers, wasn’t it? Only she wanted to reach the mothers through the children — reversing the usual process. Mrs. Swoffer said she believed in reversing almost everything. Standing on your head was one of the most restorative physical exercises, and she believed it was the same mentally and morally. It was a good thing to stand one’s SOUL upside down. And so she’d come about the children. . .

The point was to form a League — a huge International League of Mothers —— against the dreadful old practice of telling children they were naughty. Had Mrs. Manford ever stopped to think what an abominable thing it was to suggest to a pure innocent child that there was such a thing in the world as Being Naughty? What did it open the door to? Why, to the idea of Wickedness, the most awful idea in the whole world.

Of course Mrs. Manford would see at once what getting rid of the idea of Wickedness would lead to. How could there be bad men if there were no bad children? And how could there be bad children if children were never allowed to know that such a thing as badness existed? There was a splendid woman — Orba Clapp; no doubt Mrs. Manford had heard of her? — who was getting up a gigantic world-wide movement to boycott the manufacturers and sellers of all military toys, tin soldiers, cannon, toy rifles, water-pistols and so on. It was a grand beginning, and several governments had joined the movement already: the Philippines, Mrs. Swoffer thought, and possibly Montenegro. But that seemed to her only a beginning: much as she loved and revered Orba Clapp, she couldn’t honestly say that she thought the scheme went deep enough. She, Mrs. Swoffer, wanted to go right down to the soul: the collective soul of all the little children. The great Teacher, Alvah Loft — she supposed Mrs. Manford knew about HIM? No? She was surprised that a woman like Mrs. Manford — “one of our beacon-lights” — hadn’t heard of Alvah Loft. She herself owed everything to him. No one had helped her as he had: he had pulled her out of the very depths of scepticism. But didn’t Mrs. Manford know his books, even: “Spiritual Vacuum~Cleaning” and “Beyond God”?

Pauline had grown a little listless while the children were to the fore. She would help, of course; lend her name; subscribe. But that string had been so often twanged that it gave out rather a deadened note: whereas the name of a new Messiah immediately roused her. “Beyond God” was a tremendous title; she would get Maisie to telephone for the books at once. But what exactly did Alvah Loft teach?

Mrs. Swoffer’s eye-glasses flashed with inspiration. “He doesn’t teach: he absolutely refuses to be regarded as a TEACHER. He says there are too many already. He’s an Inspirational Healer. What he does is to ACT on you — on your spirit. He simply relieves you of your frustrations.”

Frustrations! Pauline was fascinated by the word. Not that it was new to her. Her vocabulary was fairly large, far more so, indeed, than that of her daughter’s friends, whose range was strictly limited to sport and dancing; but whenever she heard a familiar word used as if it had some unsuspected and occult significance it fascinated her like a phial containing a new remedy.

Mrs. Swoffer’s glasses were following Pauline’s thoughts as they formed. “Will you let me speak to you as I would to an old friend? The moment I took your hand I KNEW you were suffering from frustrations. To any disciple of Alvah Loft’s the symptoms are unmistakeable. Sometimes I almost wish I didn’t see it all so clearly . . . it gives one such a longing to help. . .”

Pauline murmured: “I DO want help.”

“Of course you do,” Mrs. Swoffer purred, “and you want HIS help. Don’t you know those wonderful shoe-shops where they stock every size and shape the human foot can require? I tell Alvah Loft he’s like that; he’s got a cure for everybody’s frustrations. Of course,” she added, “there isn’t time for everybody; he has to choose. But he would take YOU at once.” She drew back, and her glasses seemed to suck Pauline down as if they had been quicksands. “You’re psychic,” she softly pronounced.

“I believe I am,” Pauline acknowledged. “But — ”

“Yes; I know; those frustrations! All the things you think you ought to do, AND CAN’T; that’s it, isn’t it?” Mrs. Swoffer stood up. “Dear friend, come with me. Don’t look at your watch. Just come!”

An hour later Pauline, refreshed and invigorated, descended the Inspirational Healer’s brown-stone doorstep with a springing step. It had been worth while breaking three or four engagements to regain that feeling of moral freedom. Why had she never heard of Alvah Loft before? His method was so much simpler than the Mahatma’s: no eurythmics, gymnastics, community life, no mental deep-breathing, or long words to remember. Alvah Loft simply took out your frustrations as if they’d been adenoids; it didn’t last ten minutes, and was perfectly painless. Pauline had always felt that the Messiah who should reduce his message to tabloid form would outdistance all the others; and Alvah Loft had done it. He just received you in a boarding-house back-parlour, with bunches of pampas-grass on the mantelpiece, while rows of patients sat in the front room waiting their turn. You told him what was bothering you, and he said it was just a frustration, and he could relieve you of it, and make it so that it didn’t exist, by five minutes of silent communion. And he sat and held you by the wrist, very lightly, as if he were taking your temperature, and told you to keep your eyes on the Ella Wheeler Wilcox line-a-day on the wall over his head. After it was over he said: “You’re a good subject. The frustrations are all out. Go home, and you’ll hear something good before dinner. Twenty-five dollars.” And a pasty-faced young man with pale hair, who was waiting in the passage, added: “Pass on, please,” and steered Pauline out by the elbow.

Of course she wasn’t naturally credulous; she prided herself on always testing everything by reason. But it WAS marvellous, how light she felt as she went down the steps! The buoyancy persisted all day, perhaps strengthened by an attentive study of the reports of the Mothers’ Day Meeting, laid out by the vigilant Maisie for perusal. Alvah Loft had told her that she would hear of something good before dinner, and when, late in the afternoon, she went up to her boudoir, she glanced expectantly at the writing-table, as if revelation might be there. It was, in the shape of a telephone message.

“Mr. Manford will be at home by seven. He would like to see you for a few minutes before dinner.”

It was nearly seven, and Pauline settled herself by the fire and unfolded the evening paper. She seldom had time for its perusal, but today there might be some reference to the Mothers’ Day Meeting; and her newly-regained serenity made it actually pleasant to be sitting there undisturbed, waiting for her husband.

“Dexter — how tired you look!” she exclaimed when he came in. It occurred to her at once that she might possibly insinuate an allusion to the new healer; but wisdom counselled a waiting policy, and she laid down her paper and smiled expectantly.

Manford gave his shoulders their usual impatient shake. “Everybody looks tired at the end of a New York day; I suppose it’s what New York is for.” He sat down in the armchair facing hers, and stared at the fire.

“I wanted to see you to talk about plans — a rearrangement,” he began. “It’s so hard to find a quiet minute.”

“Yes; but there’s no hurry now. The Delavans don’t dine till half~past eight.”

“Oh, are we dining there?” He reached for a cigarette.

She couldn’t help saying: “I’m sure you smoke too much, Dexter. The irritation produced by the paper — ”

“Yes; I know. But what I wanted to say is: I should like you to ask Lita and the boy to Cedarledge while Jim and Wyant are at the island.”

This was a surprise; but she met it with unmoved composure. “Of course, if you like. But do you think Lita’ll go, all alone? You’ll be off tarpon-fishing, Nona is going to Asheville for a fortnight’s change, and I had intended — ” She pulled up suddenly. She had meant, of course, to take her rest-cure at Dawnside.

Manford sat frowning and studying the fire. “Why shouldn’t we all go to Cedarledge instead?” he began. “Somebody ought to look after Lita while Jim’s away; in fact, I don’t believe he’ll go with Wyant if we don’t. She’s dead-beat, and doesn’t know it, and with all the fools she has about her the only way to ensure her getting a real rest is to carry her off to the country with the boy.”

Pauline’s face lit up with a blissful incredulity. “Oh, Dexter — would you really come to Cedarledge for Easter? How splendid! Of course I’ll give up my rest-cure. As you say, there’s no place like the country.”

She was already raising an inward hymn to Alvah Loft. An Easter holiday in the country, all together — how long it was since that had happened! She had always thought it her duty to urge Dexter to get away from the family when he had the chance; to travel or shoot or fish, and not feel himself chained to her side. And here at last was her reward — of his own accord he was proposing that they should all be together for a quiet fortnight. A softness came about her heart: the stiff armour of her self-constraint seemed loosened, and she saw the fire through a luminous blur. “It will be lovely,” she murmured.

Manford lit another cigarette, and sat puffing it in silence. It seemed as though a weight had been lifted from him too; yet his face was still heavy and preoccupied. Perhaps before their talk was over she might be able to say a word about Alvah Loft; she was so sure that Dexter would see everything differently if only he could be relieved of his frustrations.

At length he said: “I don’t see why this should interfere with your arrangements, though. Hadn’t you meant to go somewhere for a rest-cure?”

He had thought of that too! She felt a fresh tremor of gratitude. How wicked she had been ever to doubt the designs of Providence, and the resolving of all discords in the Higher Harmony!

“Oh, my rest-cure doesn’t matter; being with you all at Cedarledge will be the best kind of rest.”

His obvious solicitude for her was more soothing than any medicine, more magical even than Alvah Loft’s silent communion. Perhaps the one thing she had lacked, in all these years, was to feel that some one was worrying about her as she worried about the universe.

“It’s awfully unselfish of you, Pauline. But running a big house is never restful. Nona will give up Asheville and come to Cedarledge to look after us; you mustn’t change your plans.”

She smiled a little. “But I MUST, dear; because I’d meant to go to Dawnside, and now, of course, in any case — ”

Manford stood up and went and leaned against the chimney-piece. “Well, that will be all right,” he said.

“All right?”

He was absently turning about in his hand a little bronze statuette. “Yes. If you think the fellow does you good. I’ve been thinking over what you said the other day; and I’ve decided to advise the Lindons not to act . . . too precipitately. . .” He coughed and put the statuette back on the mantelshelf. “They’ve abandoned the idea. . .”

“Oh, Dexter — ” She started to her feet, her eyes brimming. He had actually thought over what she had said to him — when, at the time, he had seemed so obdurate and sneering! Her heart trembled with a happy wonder in which love and satisfied vanity were subtly mingled. Perhaps, after all, what her life had really needed was something much simpler than all the complicated things she had put into it.

“I’m so glad,” she murmured, not knowing what else to say. She wanted to hold out her arms, to win from him some answering gesture. But he was already glancing at his watch. “That’s all right. Jove, though — we’ll be late for dinner . . . Opera afterward, isn’t there?”

The door closed on him. For a moment or two she stood still, awed by the sense of some strange presence in the room, something as fresh and strong as a spring gale. It must be happiness, she thought.

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