Twilight Sleep, by Edith Wharton



At the gates of Cedarledge Pauline lifted her head from a last hurried study of the letters and papers Maisie Bruss had thrust into the motor.

The departure from town had been tumultuous. Up to the last minute there had been the usual rush and trepidation, Maisie hanging on the footboard, Powder and the maid hurrying down with final messages and recommendations.

“Here’s another batch of bills passed by the architect, Mrs. Manford. And he asks if you’d mind — ”

“Yes, yes; draw another cheque for five thousand, Maisie, and send it to me with the others to be signed.”

“And the estimates for the new orchid-house. The contractor says building-materials are going up again next week, and he can’t guarantee, unless you telephone at once — ”

“Has madame the jewel-box? I put it under the rug myself, with madame’s motor-bag.”

“Thank you, Cécile. Yes, it’s here.”

“And is the Maison Herminie to deliver the green and gold teagown here or — ”

“Here are the proofs of the Birth Control speech, Mrs. Manford. If you could just glance over them in the motor, and let me have them back tonight — ”

“The Marchesa, madam, has called up to ask if you and Mr. Manford can receive her at Cedarledge for the next week-end — ”

“No, Powder; say no. I’m dreadfully sorry. . .”

“Very good, madam. I understand it was to bring a favourable answer from the Cardinal — ”

“Oh; very well. I’ll see. I’ll telephone from Cedarledge.”

“Please, madam, Mr. Wyant’s just telephoned — ”

“Mr. Wyant, Powder?”

“Mr. Arthur Wyant, madam. To ask — ”

“But Mr. Wyant and Mr. James were to have started for Georgia last night.”

“Yes, madam; but Mr. James was detained by business, and now Mr. Arthur Wyant asks if you’ll please ring up before they leave tonight.”

“Very well. (What can have happened, Nona? You don’t know?) Say I’ve started for Cedarledge, Powder; I’ll ring up from there. Yes; that’s all.”

“Mrs. Manford, wait! Here are two more telegrams, and a special — ”

“Take care, Maisie; you’ll slip and break your leg. . .”

“Yes; but Mrs. Manford! The special is from Mrs. Swoffer. She says the committee have just discovered a new genius, and they’re calling an emergency meeting for tomorrow afternoon at three, and couldn’t you possibly — ”

“No, no, Maisie — I can’t! Say I’ve LEFT— ”

The waves of agitation were slow in subsiding. A glimpse, down a side street, of the Marchesa’s cheap boarding-house-hotel, revived them; and so did the flash past the inscrutable “Dawnside,” aloof on its height above the Hudson. But as the motor slid over the wide suburban Boulevards, and out into the budding country, with the roar and menace of the city fading harmlessly away on the horizon, Pauline’s serenity gradually stole back.

Nona, at her side, sat silent; and the mother was grateful for that silence. She had noticed that the girl had looked pale and drawn for the last fortnight; but that was just another proof of how much they all needed the quiet of Cedarledge.

“You don’t know why Jim and his father have put off starting, Nona?”

“No idea, mother. Probably business of Jim’s, as Powder said.”

“Do you know why his father wants to telephone me?”

“Not a bit. Probably it’s not important. I’ll call up this evening.”

“Oh, if you would, dear! I’m really tired.”

There was a pause, and then Nona questioned: “Have you noticed Maisie, mother? She’s pretty tired too.”

“Yes; poor Maisie! Preparing Cedarledge has been rather a rush for her, I’m afraid — ”

“It’s not only that. She’s just been told that her mother has a cancer.”

“Oh, poor child! How dreadful! She never said a word to me — ”

“No, she wouldn’t.”

“But, Nona, have you told her to see Disterman AT ONCE? Perhaps an immediate operation . . . you must call her up as soon as we arrive. Tell her, of course, that I’ll bear all the expenses — ”

After that they both relapsed into silence.

These domestic tragedies happened now and then. One would have given the world to avert them; but when one couldn’t one was always ready to foot the bill . . . Pauline wished that she had known . . . had had time to say a kindly word to poor Maisie . . . Perhaps she would have to give her a week off; or at least a couple of days, while she settled her mother in the hospital. At least, if Disterman advised an operation. . .

It was dreadful, how rushed one always was. Pauline would have liked to go and see poor Mrs. Bruss herself. But there were Dexter and Lita and the baby all arriving the day after tomorrow, and only just time to put the last touches to Cedarledge before they came. And Pauline herself was desperately tired, though she had taken a “triple treatment” from Alvah Loft ($100) that very morning.

She always meant to be kind to every one dependent on her; it was only time that lacked — always time! Dependents and all, they were swept away with her in the same ceaseless rush. When now and then one of them dropped by the way she was sorry, and sent back first aid, and did all she could; but the rush never stopped; it couldn’t stop; when one did a kindness one could only fling it at its object and whirl by.

The blessèd peace of the country! Pauline drew a deep breath of content. Never before had she approached Cedarledge with so complete a sense of possessorship. The place was really of her own making, for though the house had been built and the grounds laid out years before she had acquired the property, she had stamped her will and her wealth on every feature. Pauline was persuaded that she was fond of the country — but what she was really fond of was doing things to the country, and owning, with this object, as many acres of it as possible. And so it had come about that every year the Cedarledge estate had pushed the encircling landscape farther back, and substituted for its miles of golden-rod and birch and maple more acres of glossy lawn, and more specimen limes and oaks and cut-leaved beeches, domed over more and more windings of expensive shrubbery.

From the farthest gate it was now a drive of two miles to the house, and Pauline found even this too short for her minutely detailed appreciation of what lay between her and her threshold. In the village, the glint of the gilt weathercock on the new half~timbered engine-house; under a rich slope of pasture-land the recently enlarged dairy-farm; then woods of hemlock and dogwood; acres of rhododendron, azalea and mountain laurel acclimatized about a hidden lake; a glimpse of Japanese water-gardens fringed with cherry bloom and catkins; open lawns, spreading trees, the long brick house-front and its terraces, and through a sculptured archway the Dutch garden with dwarf topiary work and endless files of bulbs about the commander’s baton of a stately sundial.

To Pauline each tree, shrub, water-course, herbaceous border, meant not only itself, but the surveying of grades, transporting of soil, tunnelling for drainage, conducting of water, the business correspondence and paying of bills, which had preceded its existence; and she would have cared for it far less — perhaps not at all — had it sprung into being unassisted, like the random shadbushes and wild cherry trees beyond the gates.

The faint spring loveliness reached her somehow, in long washes of pale green, and the blurred mauve of budding vegetation; but her eyes could not linger on any particular beauty without its dissolving into soil, manure, nurserymen’s catalogues, and bills again — bills. It had all cost a terrible lot of money; but she was proud of that too — to her it was part of the beauty, part of the exquisite order and suitability which reigned as much in the simulated wildness of the rhododendron glen as in the geometrical lines of the Dutch garden.

“Seventy-five thousand bulbs this year!” she thought, as the motor swept by the sculptured gateway, just giving and withdrawing a flash of turf sheeted with amber and lilac, in a setting of twisted and scalloped evergreens.

Twenty-five thousand more bulbs than last year . . . that was how she liked it to be. It was exhilarating to spend more money each year, to be always enlarging and improving, in small ways as well as great, to face unexpected demands with promptness and energy, beat down exorbitant charges, struggle through difficult moments, and come out at the end of the year tired but victorious, with improvements made, bills paid, and a reassuring balance in the bank. To Pauline that was “life.”

And how her expenditure at Cedarledge was justifying itself! Her husband, drawn by its fresh loveliness, had voluntarily given up his annual trip to California, the excitement of tarpon-fishing, the independence of bachelorhood — all to spend a quiet month in the country with his wife and children. Pauline felt that even the twenty-five thousand additional bulbs had had a part in shaping his decision. And what would he say when he saw the new bathrooms, assisted at the village fire-drill, and plunged into the artificially warmed waters of the new swimming pool? A mist of happiness rose to her eyes as she looked out on the spring-misted landscape.

Nona had not followed her mother into the house. Her dogs at her heels, she plunged down hill to the woods and lake. She knew nothing of what Cedarledge had cost, but little of the labour of its making. It was simply the world of her childhood, and she could see it from no other angle, nor imagine it as ever having been different. To her it had always worn the same enchantment, stretched to the same remote distances. At nineteen it was almost the last illusion she had left.

In the path by the lake she felt herself drawn back under the old spell. Those budding branches, the smell of black peaty soil quivering with life, the woodlands faintly starred with dogwood, all were the setting of childish adventures, old games with Jim, Indian camps on the willow-fringed island, and innocent descents among the rhododendrons to boat or bathe by moonlight.

The old skiff had escaped Mrs. Manford’s annual “doing-up” and still leaked through the same rusty seams. Pushing out upon the lake, Nona leaned on the oars and let the great mockery of the spring dilate her heart. . .

Manford questioned: “All right, eh? Warm enough? Not going too fast? The air’s still sharp up here in the hills;” and Lita settled down beside him into one of the deep silences that enfolded her as softly as her furs. By turning his head a little he could just see the tip of her nose and the curve of her upper lip between hat-brim and silver fox; and the sense of her, so close and so still, sunk in that warm animal hush which he always found so restful, dispelled his last uneasiness, and made her presence at his side seem as safe and natural as his own daughter’s.

“Just as well you sent the boy by train, though — I foresaw I’d get off too late to suit the young gentleman’s hours.”

She curled down more deeply at his side, with a contented laugh.

Manford, intent on the steering wheel, restrained the impulse to lay a hand over hers, and kept his profile steadily turned to her. It was wonderful, how successfully his plan was working out . . . how reasonable she’d been about it in the end. Poor child! No doubt she would always be reasonable with people who knew how to treat her. And he flattered himself that he did. It hadn’t been easy, just at first — but now he’d struck the right note and meant to hold it. Not paternal, exactly: she would have been the first to laugh at anything as old-fashioned as that. Heavy fathers had gone out with the rest of the tremolo effects. No; but elder brotherly. That was it. The same free and friendly relation which existed, say, between Jim and Nona. Why, he had actually tried chaffing Lita, and she hadn’t minded — he had made fun of that ridiculous Ardwin, and she had just laughed and shrugged. That little shrug — when her white shoulder, as the dress slipped from it, seemed to be pushing up into a wing! There was something birdlike and floating in all her motions . . . Poor child, poor little girl . . . He really felt like her elder brother; and his looking-glass told him that he didn’t look much too old for the part. . .

The sense of having just grazed something dark and lurid, which had threatened to submerge them, gave him an added feeling of security, a holiday feeling, as if life stretched before him as safe and open as his coming fortnight at Cedarledge. How glad he was that he had given up his tarpon-fishing, managed to pack Jim and Wyant off to Georgia, and secured this peaceful interval in which to look about him and take stock of things before the grind began again!

The day before yesterday — just after Pauline’s departure — it had seemed as if all their plans would be wrecked by one of Wyant’s fits of crankiness. Wyant always enjoyed changing his mind after every one else’s was made up; and at the last moment he had telephoned to say that he wasn’t well enough to go south. He had rung up Pauline first, and being told that she had left had communicated with Jim; and Jim, distracted, had appealed to Manford. It was one of his father’s usual attacks of “nervousness”; cousin Eleanor had seen it coming, and tried to cut down the whiskies-and~sodas; finally Jim begged Manford to drop in and reason with his predecessor.

These visits always produced a profound impression on Wyant; Manford himself, for all his professional acuteness, couldn’t quite measure the degree or guess the nature of the effect, but he felt his power, and preserved it by seeing Wyant as seldom as possible. This time, however, it seemed as if things might not go as smoothly as usual. Wyant, who looked gaunt and excited, tried to carry off the encounter with the jauntiness he always assumed in Manford’s presence. “My dear fellow! Sit down, do. Cigar? Always delighted to see my successor. Any little hints I can give about the management of the concern — ”

It was his usual note, but exaggerated, overemphasized, lacking the Wyant touch — and he had gone on: “Though why the man who has failed should offer advice to the man who has succeeded, I don’t know. Well, in this case it’s about Jim . . . Yes, you’re as fond of Jim as I am, I know . . . Still, he’s MY son, eh? Well, I’m not satisfied that it’s a good thing to take him away from his wife at this particular moment. Know I’m old-fashioned, of course . . . all the musty old traditions have been superseded. You and your set have seen to that — introduced the breezy code of the prairies . . . But my son’s my son; he wasn’t brought up in the new way, and, damn it all, Manford, you understand; well, no — I suppose there are some things you never WILL understand, no matter how devilish clever you are, and how many millions you’ve made.”

The apple-cart had been near upsetting; but if Manford didn’t understand poor Wyant’s social code he did know how to keep his temper when it was worth while, and how to talk to a weak overexcited man who had been drinking too hard, and who took no exercise.

“Worried about Jim, eh? Yes — I don’t wonder. I am too. Fact is, Jim’s worked himself to a standstill, and I feel partly responsible for it, for I put him onto that job at the bank, and he’s been doing it too well — overdoing it. That’s the whole trouble, and that’s why I feel responsible to you all for getting him away as soon as possible, and letting him have a complete holiday . . . Jim’s young — a fortnight off will straighten him out. But you’re the only person who can get him away from his wife and baby, and wherever Lita is there’ll be jazz and nonsense, and bills and bothers; that’s why his mother and I have offered to take the lady on for a while, and give him his chance. As man to man, Wyant, I think we two ought to stand together and see this thing through. If we do, I guarantee everything will come out right. Do you good too — being off like that with your boy, in a good climate, loafing on the beach and watching Jim recuperate. Wish I could run down and join you — and I don’t say I won’t make a dash for it, just for a week-end, if I can break away from the family. A-1 fishing at the island — and I know you used to be a great fisherman. As for Lita, she’ll be safe enough with Pauline and Nona.”

The trick was done.

But why think of it as a trick, when at the time he had meant every word he spoke? Jim WAS dead-beat — DID need a change — and yet could only have been got away on the pretext of having to take his father south. Queer, how in some inner fold of one’s conscience a collection of truths could suddenly seem to look like a tissue of lies! . . . Lord, but what morbid rubbish! Manford was on his honour to make the whole thing turn out as true as it sounded, and he was going to. And there was an end of it. And here was Cedarledge. The drive hadn’t lasted a minute. . .

How lovely the place looked in the twilight, a haze of tender tints melting into shadow, the long dark house-front already gemmed with orange panes!

“You’ll like it, won’t you, Lita?” A purr of content at his elbow.

If only Pauline would have the sense to leave him alone, let him enjoy it all in Lita’s lazy inarticulate way, not cram him with statistics and achievements, with expenditures and results. He was so tired of her perpetual stock-taking, her perpetual rendering of accounts and reckoning up of interest. He admired it all, of course — he admired Pauline herself more than ever. But he longed to let himself sink into the spring sweetness as a man might sink on a woman’s breast, and just feel her quiet hands in his hair.

“There’s the dogwood! Look! Never seen it in bloom here before, have you? It’s one of our sights.” He had counted a good deal on the effect of the dogwood. “Well, here we are — Jove, but it’s good to be here! Why, child, I believe you’ve been asleep. . .” He lifted her, still half-drowsing, from the motor —

And now, the illuminated threshold, Powder, the footmen, the inevitable stack of letters — and Pauline.

But outside the spring dusk was secretly weaving its velvet spell. He said to himself: “Shouldn’t wonder if I slept ten hours at a stretch tonight.”

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