House of Mirth
Part 7 out of 8
the tea-hour was not dedicated to social rites, and the lady was
in the hands of her masseuse.
Selden's entrance had caused Lily an inward start of
embarrassment; but his air of constraint had the effect of
restoring her self-possession, and she took at once the tone of
surprise and pleasure, wondering frankly that he should
have traced her to so unlikely a place, and asking what had
inspired him to make the search.
Selden met this with an unusual seriousness: she had never seen
him so little master of the situation, so plainly at the mercy of
any obstructions she might put in his way. "I wanted to see you,"
he said; and she could not resist observing in reply that he had
kept his wishes under remarkable control. She had in truth felt
his long absence as one of the chief bitternesses of the last
months: his desertion had wounded sensibilities far below the
surface of her pride.
Selden met the challenge with directness. "Why should I have
come, unless I thought I could be of use to you? It is my only
excuse for imagining you could want me."
This struck her as a clumsy evasion, and the thought gave a flash
of keenness to her answer. "Then you have come now because you
think you can be of use to me?"
He hesitated again. "Yes: in the modest capacity of a person to
talk things over with."
For a clever man it was certainly a stupid beginning; and the
idea that his awkwardness was due to the fear of her attaching a
personal significance to his visit, chilled her pleasure in
seeing him. Even under the most adverse conditions, that pleasure
always made itself felt: she might hate him, but she had never
been able to wish him out of the room. She was very near hating
him now; yet the sound of his voice, the way the light fell on
his thin dark hair, the way he sat and moved and wore his
clothes--she was conscious that even these trivial things were
inwoven with her deepest life. In his presence a sudden stillness
came upon her, and the turmoil of her spirit ceased; but an
impulse of resistance to this stealing influence now prompted her
to say: "It's very good of you to present yourself in that
capacity; but what makes you think I have anything particular to
Though she kept the even tone of light intercourse, the question
was framed in a way to remind him that his good offices were
unsought; and for a moment Selden was checked by it. The
situation between them was one which could have been cleared up
only by a sudden explosion of feeling; and their whole training
and habit of mind were against the chances of such an
explosion. Selden's calmness seemed rather to harden into
resistance, and Miss Bart's into a surface of glittering irony,
as they faced each other from the opposite comers of one of Mrs.
Hatch's elephantine sofas. The sofa in question, and the
apartment peopled by its monstrous mates, served at length to
suggest the turn of Selden's reply.
"Gerty told me that you were acting as Mrs. Hatch's secretary;
and I knew she was anxious to hear how you were getting on."
Miss Bart received this explanation without perceptible
softening. "Why didn't she look me up herself, then?" she asked.
"Because, as you didn't send her your address, she was afraid of
being importunate." Selden continued with a smile: "You see no
such scruples restrained me; but then I haven't as much to risk
if I incur your displeasure."
Lily answered his smile. "You haven't incurred it as yet; but I
have an idea that you are going to."
"That rests with you, doesn't it? You see my initiative doesn't
go beyond putting myself at your disposal."
"But in what capacity? What am I to do with you?" she asked in
the same light tone.
Selden again glanced about Mrs. Hatch's drawing-room; then he
said, with a decision which he seemed to have gathered from this
final inspection: "You are to let me take you away from here."
Lily flushed at the suddenness of the attack; then she stiffened
under it and said coldly: "And may I ask where you mean me to
"Back to Gerty in the first place, if you will; the essential
thing is that it should be away from here."
The unusual harshness of his tone might have shown her how much
the words cost him; but she was in no state to measure his
feelings while her own were in a flame of revolt. To neglect her,
perhaps even to avoid her, at a time when she had most need of
her friends, and then suddenly and unwarrantably to break into
her life with this strange assumption of authority, was to rouse
in her every instinct of pride and self-defence.
"I am very much obliged to you," she said, "for taking such
an interest in my plans; but I am quite contented where I am,
and have no intention of leaving.
"Selden had risen, and was standing before her in an attitude of
"That simply means that you don't know where you are!" he
Lily rose also, with a quick flash of anger. "If you have come
here to say disagreeable things about Mrs. Hatch---"
"It is only with your relation to Mrs. Hatch that I am
"My relation to Mrs. Hatch is one I have no reason to be ashamed
of. She has helped me to earn a living when my old friends were
quite resigned to seeing me starve."
"Nonsense! Starvation is not the only alternative. You know you
can always find a home with Gerty till you are independent
"You show such an intimate acquaintance with my affairs that I
suppose you mean--till my aunt's legacy is paid?"
"I do mean that; Gerty told me of it," Selden acknowledged
without embarrassment. He was too much in earnest now to feel any
false constraint in speaking his mind.
"But Gerty does not happen to know," Miss Bart rejoined, "that I
owe every penny of that legacy."
"Good God!" Selden exclaimed, startled out of his composure by
the abruptness of the statement.
"Every penny of it, and more too," Lily repeated; "and you now
perhaps see why I prefer to remain with Mrs. Hatch rather than
take advantage of Gerty's kindness. I have no money left, except
my small income, and I must earn something more to keep myself
Selden hesitated a moment; then he rejoined in a quieter tone:
"But with your income and Gerty's--since you allow me to go so
far into the details of the situation--you and she could surely
contrive a life together which would put you beyond the need of
having to support yourself. Gerty, I know, is eager to make such
an arrangement, and would be quite happy in it---"
"But I should not," Miss Bart interposed. "There are many reasons
why it would be neither kind to Gerty nor wise for myself." She
paused a moment, and as he seemed to await a farther
explanation, added with a quick lift of her head: "You will
perhaps excuse me from giving you these reasons."
"I have no claim to know them," Selden answered, ignoring her
tone; "no claim to offer any comment or suggestion beyond the one
I have already made. And my right to make that is simply the
universal right of a man to enlighten a woman when he sees her
unconsciously placed in a false position."
Lily smiled. "I suppose," she rejoined, "that by a false position
you mean one outside of what we call society; but you must
remember that I had been excluded from those sacred precincts
long before I met Mrs. Hatch. As far as I can see, there is very
little real difference in being inside or out, and I remember
your once telling me that it was only those inside who took the
"She had not been without intention in making this allusion to
their memorable talk at Bellomont, and she waited with an odd
tremor of the nerves to see what response it would bring; but the
result of the experiment was disappointing. Selden did not allow
the allusion to deflect him from his point; he merely said with
completer fulness of emphasis: "The question of being inside or
out is, as you say, a small one, and it happens to have nothing
to do with the case, except in so far as Mrs. Hatch's desire to
be inside may put you in the position I call false."
In spite of the moderation of his tone, each word he spoke had
the effect of confirming Lily's resistance. The very
apprehensions he aroused hardened her against him: she had been
on the alert for the note of personal sympathy, for any sign of
recovered power over him; and his attitude of sober impartiality,
the absence of all response to her appeal, turned her hurt pride
to blind resentment of his interference. The conviction that he
had been sent by Gerty, and that, whatever straits he conceived
her to be in, he would never voluntarily have come to her aid,
strengthened her resolve not to admit him a hair's breadth
farther into her confidence. However doubtful she might feel her
situation to be, she would rather persist in darkness than owe
her enlightenment to Selden.
"I don't know," she said, when he had ceased to speak, "why you
imagine me to be situated as you describe; but as you
have always told me that the sole object of a bringing-up like
mine was to teach a girl to get what she wants, why not assume
that that is precisely what I am doing?"
The smile with which she summed up her case was like a clear
barrier raised against farther confidences: its brightness held
him at such a distance that he had a sense of being almost out of
hearing as he rejoined: "I am not sure that I have ever called
you a successful example of that kind of bringing-up."
Her colour rose a little at the implication, but she steeled
herself with a light laugh."Ah, wait a little longer--give me a
little more time before you decide!" And as he wavered before
her, still watching for a break in the impenetrable front she
presented: "Don't give me up; I may still do credit to my
training!" she affirmed.
Look at those spangles, Miss Bart--every one of 'em sewed on
The tall forewoman, a pinched perpendicular figure, dropped the
condemned structure of wire and net on the table at Lily's side,
and passed on to the next figure in the line.
There were twenty of them in the work-room, their fagged
profiles, under exaggerated hair, bowed in the harsh north light
above the utensils of their art; for it was something more than
an industry, surely, this creation of ever-varied settings for
the face of fortunate womanhood. Their own faces were sallow with
the unwholesomeness of hot air and sedentary toil, rather than
with any actual signs of want: they were employed in a
fashionable millinery establishment, and were fairly well clothed
and well paid; but the youngest among them was as dull and
colourless as the middle-aged. In the whole work-room there was
only one skin beneath which the blood still visibly played; and
that now burned with vexation as Miss Bart, under the lash of the
forewoman's comment, began to strip the hat-frame of its
To Gerty Farish's hopeful spirit a solution appeared to have been
reached when she remembered how beautifully Lily could trim hats.
Instances of young lady-milliners establishing themselves under
fashionable patronage, and imparting to their "creations" that
indefinable touch which the professional hand can never give, had
flattered Gerty's visions of the future, and convinced even Lily
that her separation from Mrs. Norma Hatch need not reduce her to
dependence on her friends.
The parting had occurred a few weeks after Selden's visit, and
would have taken place sooner had it not been for the resistance
set up in Lily by his ill-starred offer of advice. The sense of
being involved in a transaction she would not have cared to
examine too closely had soon afterward defined itself in the
light of a hint from Mr. Stancy that, if she "saw them through,"
she would have no reason to be sorry. The implication that such
loyalty would meet with a direct reward had hastened her flight,
and flung her back, ashamed and peni
tent, on the broad
bosom of Gerty's sympathy. She did not, however, propose to lie
there prone, and Gerty's inspiration about the hats at once
revived her hopes of profitable activity. Here was, after all,
something that her charming listless hands could really do; she
had no doubt of their capacity for knotting a ribbon or placing a
flower to advantage. And of course only these finishing touches
would be expected of her: subordinate fingers, blunt, grey,
needle-pricked fingers, would prepare the shapes and stitch the
linings, while she presided over the charming little front
shop--a shop all white panels, mirrors, and moss-green
hangings--where her finished creations, hats, wreaths, aigrettes
and the rest, perched on their stands like birds just poising for
But at the very outset of Gerty's campaign this vision of the
green-and-white shop had been dispelled. Other young ladies of
fashion had been thus "set-up," selling their hats by the mere
attraction of a name and the reputed knack of tying a bow; but
these privileged beings could command a faith in their powers
materially expressed by the readiness to pay their shop-rent and
advance a handsome sum for current expenses. Where was Lily to
find such support? And even could it have been found, how were
the ladies on whose approval she depended to be induced to give
her their patronage? Gerty learned that whatever sympathy her
friend's case might have excited a few months since had been
imperilled, if not lost, by her association with Mrs. Hatch. Once
again, Lily had withdrawn from an ambiguous situation in time to
save her self-respect, but too late for public vindication.
Freddy Van Osburgh was not to marry Mrs. Hatch; he had been
rescued at the eleventh hour--some said by the efforts of Gus
Trenor and Rosedale--and despatched to Europe with old Ned Van
Alstyne; but the risk he had run would always be ascribed to Miss
Bart's connivance, and would somehow serve as a summing-up and
corroboration of the vague general distrust of her. It was a
relief to those who had hung back from her to find themselves
thus justified, and they were inclined to insist a little on her
connection with the Hatch case in order to show that they had
Gerty's quest, at any rate, brought up against a solid wall of
resistance; and even when Carry Fisher, momentarily pen
298>itent for her share in the Hatch affair, joined her efforts
to Miss Farish's, they met with no better success. Gerty had
tried to veil her failure in tender ambiguities; but Carry,
always the soul of candour, put the case squarely to her friend.
"I went straight to Judy Trenor; she has fewer prejudices than
the others, and besides she's always hated Bertha Dorset. But
what HAVE you done to her, Lily? At the very first word about
giving you a start she flamed out about some money you'd got from
Gus; I never knew her so hot before. You know she'll let him do
anything but spend money on his friends: the only reason she's
decent to me now is that she knows I'm not hard up.--He
speculated for you, you say? Well, what's the harm? He had no
business to lose. He DIDN'T lose? Then what on earth--but I never
COULD understand you, Lily!"
The end of it was that, after anxious enquiry and much
deliberation, Mrs. Fisher and Gerty, for once oddly united in
their effort to help their friend, decided on placing her in the
work-room of Mme. Regina's renowned millinery establishment. Even
this arrangement was not effected without considerable
negotiation, for Mme. Regina had a strong prejudice against
untrained assistance, and was induced to yield only by the fact
that she owed the patronage of Mrs. Bry and Mrs. Gormer to Carry
Fisher's influence. She had been willing from the first to employ
Lily in the show-room: as a displayer of hats, a fashionable
beauty might be a valuable asset. But to this suggestion Miss
Bart opposed a negative which Gerty emphatically supported, while
Mrs. Fisher, inwardly unconvinced, but resigned to this latest
proof of Lily's unreason, agreed that perhaps in the end it would
be more useful that she should learn the trade. To Regina's
work-room Lily was therefore committed by her friends, and there
Mrs. Fisher left her with a sigh of relief, while Gerty's
watchfulness continued to hover over her at a distance.
Lily had taken up her work early in January: it was now two
months later, and she was still being rebuked for her inability
to sew spangles on a hat-frame. As she returned to her work she
heard a titter pass down the tables. She knew she was an object
of criticism and amusement to the other work-women. They were,
of course, aware of her history--the exact situation of
every girl in the room was known and freely discussed by all the
others--but the knowledge did not produce in them any awkward
sense of class distinction: it merely explained why her untutored
fingers were still blundering over the rudiments of the trade.
Lily had no desire that they should recognize any social
difference in her; but she had hoped to be received as their
equal, and perhaps before long to show herself their superior by
a special deftness of touch, and it was humiliating to find that,
after two months of drudgery, she still betrayed her lack of
early training. Remote was the day when she might aspire to
exercise the talents she felt confident of possessing; only
experienced workers were entrusted with the delicate art of
shaping and trimming the hat, and the forewoman still held her
inexorably to the routine of preparatory work.
She began to rip the spangles from the frame, listening absently
to the buzz of talk which rose and fell with the coming and going
of Miss Haines's active figure. The air was closer than usual,
because Miss Haines, who had a cold, had not allowed a window to
be opened even during the noon recess; and Lily's head was so
heavy with the weight of a sleepless night that the chatter of
her companions had the incoherence of a dream.
"I TOLD her he'd never look at her again; and he didn't. I
wouldn't have, either--I think she acted real mean to him. He
took her to the Arion Ball, and had a hack for her both ways....
She's taken ten bottles, and her headaches don't seem no
better--but she's written a testimonial to say the first bottle
cured her, and she got five dollars and her picture in the
paper.... Mrs. Trenor's hat? The one with the green Paradise?
Here, Miss Haines--it'll be ready right off.... That was one of
the Trenor girls here yesterday with Mrs. George Dorset. How'd I
know? Why, Madam sent for me to alter the flower in that Virot
hat--the blue tulle: she's tall and slight, with her hair fuzzed
out--a good deal like Mamie Leach, on'y thinner...."
On and on it flowed, a current of meaningless sound, on which,
startlingly enough, a familiar name now and then floated to the
surface. It was the strangest part of Lily's strange experience,
the hearing of these names, the seeing the fragmentary
and distorted image of the world she had lived in reflected in
the mirror of the working-girls' minds. She had never before
suspected the mixture of insatiable curiosity and contemptuous
freedom with which she and her kind were discussed in this
underworld of toilers who lived on their vanity and
self-indulgence. Every girl in Mme. Regina's work-room knew to
whom the headgear in her hands was destined, and had her opinion
of its future wearer, and a definite knowledge of the latter's
place in the social system. That Lily was a star fallen from that
sky did not, after the first stir of curiosity had subsided,
materially add to their interest in her. She had fallen, she had
"gone under," and true to the ideal of their race, they were awed
only by success--by the gross tangible image of material
achievement. The consciousness of her different point of view
merely kept them at a little distance from her, as though she
were a foreigner with whom it was an effort to talk.
"Miss Bart, if you can't sew those spangles on more regular I
guess you'd better give the hat to Miss Kilroy."
Lily looked down ruefully at her handiwork. The forewoman was
right: the sewing on of the spangles was inexcusably bad. What
made her so much more clumsy than usual? Was it a growing
distaste for her task, or actual physical disability? She felt
tired and confused: it was an effort to put her thoughts
together. She rose and handed the hat to Miss Kilroy, who took it
with a suppressed smile.
"I'm sorry; I'm afraid I am not well," she said to the forewoman.
Miss Haines offered no comment. From the first she had augured
ill of Mme. Regina's consenting to include a fashionable
apprentice among her workers. In that temple of art no raw
beginners were wanted, and Miss Haines would have been more than
human had she not taken a certain pleasure in seeing her
"You'd better go back to binding edges," she said drily. Lily
slipped out last among the band of liberated work-women. She did
not care to be mingled in their noisy dispersal: once in the
street, she always felt an irresistible return to her old
standpoint, an instinctive shrinking from all that was unpolished
and promiscuous. In the days--how distant they now
seemed!--when she had visited the Girls' Club with Gerty Farish,
she had felt an enlightened interest in the working-classes; but
that was because she looked down on them from above, from the
happy altitude of her grace and her beneficence. Now that she was
on a level with them, the point of view was less interesting.
She felt a touch on her arm, and met the penitent eye of Miss
Kilroy. "Miss Bart, I guess you can sew those spangles on as well
as I can when you're feeling right. Miss Haines didn't act fair
Lily's colour rose at the unexpected advance: it was a long time
since real kindness had looked at her from any eyes but Gerty's.
"Oh, thank you: I'm not particularly well, but Miss Haines was
right. I AM clumsy."
"Well, it's mean work for anybody with a headache." Miss Kilroy
paused irresolutely. "You ought to go right home and lay down.
Ever try orangeine?"
"Thank you." Lily held out her hand. "It's very kind of you--I
mean to go home."
She looked gratefully at Miss Kilroy, but neither knew what more
to say. Lily was aware that the other was on the point of
offering to go home with her, but she wanted to be alone and
silent--even kindness, the sort of kindness that Miss Kilroy
could give, would have jarred on her just then.
"Thank you," she repeated as she turned away.
She struck westward through the dreary March twilight, toward the
street where her boarding-house stood. She had resolutely refused
Gerty's offer of hospitality. Something of her mother's fierce
shrinking from observation and sympathy was beginning to develop
in her, and the promiscuity of small quarters and close intimacy
seemed, on the whole, less endurable than the solitude of a hall
bedroom in a house where she could come and go unremarked among
other workers. For a while she had been sustained by this desire
for privacy and independence; but now, perhaps from increasing
physical weariness, the lassitude brought about by hours of
unwonted confinement, she was beginning to feel acutely the
ugliness and discomfort of her surroundings. The day's task done,
she dreaded to return to her narrow room, with its
blotched wallpaper and shabby paint; and she hated every step of
the walk thither, through the degradation of a New York street in
the last stages of decline from fashion to commerce.
But what she dreaded most of all was having to pass the chemist's
at the corner of Sixth Avenue. She had meant to take another
street: she had usually done so of late. But today her steps were
irresistibly drawn toward the flaring plate-glass comer; she
tried to take the lower crossing, but a laden dray crowded her
back, and she struck across the street obliquely, reaching the
sidewalk just opposite the chemist's door.
Over the counter she caught the eye of the clerk who had waited
on her before, and slipped the prescription into his hand. There
could be no question about the prescription: it was a copy of one
of Mrs. Hatch's, obligingly furnished by that lady's chemist.
Lily was confident that the clerk would fill it without
hesitation; yet the nervous dread of a refusal, or even of an
expression of doubt, communicated itself to her restless hands as
she affected to examine the bottles of perfume stacked on the
glass case before her.
The clerk had read the prescription without comment; but in the
act of handing out the bottle he paused.
"You don't want to increase the dose, you know," he remarked.
Lily's heart contracted.
What did he mean by looking at her in that way?
"Of course not," she murmured, holding out her hand.
"That's all right: it's a queer-acting drug. A drop or two more,
and off you go--the doctors don't know why."
The dread lest he should question her, or keep the bottle back,
choked the murmur of acquiescence in her throat; and when at
length she emerged safely from the shop she was almost dizzy with
the intensity of her relief. The mere touch of the packet
thrilled her tired nerves with the delicious promise of a night
of sleep, and in the reaction from her momentary fear she felt as
if the first fumes of drowsiness were already stealing over her.
In her confusion she stumbled against a man who was hurrying down
the last steps of the elevated station. He drew back, and she
heard her name uttered with surprise. It was Rosedale,
fur-coated, glossy and prosperous--but why did she seem to see
him so far off, and as if through a mist of splintered crystals?
Before she could account for the phenomenon she found herself
shaking hands with him. They had parted with scorn on her side
and anger upon his; but all trace of these emotions seemed to
vanish as their hands met, and she was only aware of a confused
wish that she might continue to hold fast to him.
"Why, what's the matter, Miss Lily? You're not well!" he
exclaimed; and she forced her lips into a pallid smile of
"I'm a little tired--it's nothing. Stay with me a moment,
please," she faltered. That she should be asking this service of
He glanced at the dirty and unpropitious comer on which they
stood, with the shriek of the "elevated" and the tumult of trams
and waggons contending hideously in their ears.
"We can't stay here; but let me take you somewhere for a cup of
tea. The LONGWORTH is only a few yards off, and there'll be no
one there at this hour."
A cup of tea in quiet, somewhere out of the noise and ugliness,
seemed for the moment the one solace she could bear. A few steps
brought them to the ladies' door of the hotel he had named, and a
moment later he was seated opposite to her, and the waiter had
placed the tea-tray between them.
"Not a drop of brandy or whiskey first? You look regularly done
up, Miss Lily. Well, take your tea strong, then; and, waiter, get
a cushion for the lady's back."
Lily smiled faintly at the injunction to take her tea strong. It
was the temptation she was always struggling to resist. Her
craving for the keen stimulant was forever conflicting with that
other craving for sleep--the midnight craving which only the
little phial in her hand could still. But today, at any rate, the
tea could hardly be too strong: she counted on it to pour warmth
and resolution into her empty veins.
As she leaned back before him, her lids drooping in utter
lassitude, though the first warm draught already tinged her face
with returning life, Rosedale was seized afresh by the poignant
surprise of her beauty. The dark pencilling of fatigue under her
eyes, the morbid blue-veined pallour of the temples,
brought out the brightness of her hair and lips, as though all
her ebbing vitality were centred there. Against the dull
chocolate-coloured background of the restaurant, the purity of
her head stood out as it had never done in the most brightly-lit
ball-room. He looked at her with a startled uncomfortable
feeling, as though her beauty were a forgotten enemy that had
lain in ambush and now sprang out on him unawares.
To clear the air he tried to take an easy tone with her. "Why,
Miss Lily, I haven't seen you for an age. I didn't know what had
become of you."
As he spoke, he was checked by an embarrassing sense of the
complications to which this might lead. Though he had not seen
her he had heard of her; he knew of her connection with Mrs.
Hatch, and of the talk resulting from it. Mrs. Hatch's MILIEU was
one which he had once assiduously frequented, and now as devoutly
Lily, to whom the tea had restored her usual clearness of mind,
saw what was in his thoughts and said with a slight smile: "You
would not be likely to know about me. I have joined the working
He stared in genuine wonder. "You don't mean ? Why, what on earth
are you doing?"
"Learning to be a milliner--at least TRYING to learn," she
hastily qualified the statement.
Rosedale suppressed a low whistle of surprise. "Come off--you
ain't serious, are you?"
"Perfectly serious. I'm obliged to work for my living."
"But I understood--I thought you were with Norma Hatch."
"You heard I had gone to her as her secretary?"
"Something of the kind, I believe." He leaned forward to refill
Lily guessed the possibilities of embarrassment which the topic
held for him, and raising her eyes to his, she said suddenly: "I
left her two months ago."
Rosedale continued to fumble awkwardly with the tea-pot, and she
felt sure that he had heard what had been said of her. But what
was there that Rosedale did not hear?
"Wasn't it a soft berth?" he enquired, with an attempt at
"Too soft--one might have sunk in too deep." Lily rested one arm
on the edge of the table, and sat looking at him more intently
than she had ever looked before. An uncontrollable impulse was
urging her to put her case to this man, from whose curiosity she
had always so fiercely defended herself.
"You know Mrs. Hatch, I think? Well, perhaps you can understand
that she might make things too easy for one."
Rosedale looked faintly puzzled, and she remembered that
allusiveness was lost on him.
"It was no place for you, anyhow," he agreed, so suffused and
immersed in the light of her full gaze that he found himself
being drawn into strange depths of intimacy. He who had had to
subsist on mere fugitive glances, looks winged in flight and
swiftly lost under covert, now found her eyes settling on him
with a brooding intensity that fairly dazzled him.
"I left," Lily continued, "lest people should say I was helping
Mrs. Hatch to marry Freddy Van Osburgh--who is not in the least
too good for her--and as they still continue to say it, I see
that I might as well have stayed where I was."
"Oh, Freddy---" Rosedale brushed aside the topic with an air of
its unimportance which gave a sense of the immense perspective he
had acquired. "Freddy don't count--but I knew YOU weren't mixed
up in that. It ain't your style."
Lily coloured slightly: she could not conceal from herself that
the words gave her pleasure. She would have liked to sit there,
drinking more tea, and continuing to talk of herself to Rosedale.
But the old habit of observing the conventions reminded her that
it was time to bring their colloquy to an end, and she made a
faint motion to push back her chair.
Rosedale stopped her with a protesting gesture. "Wait a
minute--don't go yet; sit quiet and rest a little longer. You
look thoroughly played out. And you haven't told me---" He broke
off, conscious of going farther than he had meant. She saw the
struggle and understood it; understood also the nature of the
spell to which he yielded as, with his eyes on her face, he began
again abruptly: "What on earth did you mean by saying just now
that you were learning to be a milliner?"
"Just what I said. I am an apprentice at Regina's."
"Good Lord--YOU? But what for? I knew your aunt had
turned you down: Mrs. Fisher told me about it. But I understood
you got a legacy from her---"
"I got ten thousand dollars; but the legacy is not to be paid
till next summer."
"Well, but--look here: you could BORROW on it any time you
She shook her head gravely. "No; for I owe it already."
"Owe it? The whole ten thousand?"
"Every penny." She paused, and then continued abruptly, with her
eyes on his face: "I think Gus Trenor spoke to you once about
having made some money for me in stocks."
She waited, and Rosedale, congested with embarrassment, muttered
that he remembered something of the kind.
"He made about nine thousand dollars," Lily pursued, in the same
tone of eager communicativeness. "At the time, I understood that
he was speculating with my own money: it was incredibly stupid of
me, but I knew nothing of business. Afterward I found out that he
had NOT used my money--that what he said he had made for me he
had really given me. It was meant in kindness, of course; but it
was not the sort of obligation one could remain under.
Unfortunately I had spent the money before I discovered my
mistake; and so my legacy will have to go to pay it back. That is
the reason why I am trying to learn a trade."
She made the statement clearly, deliberately, with pauses between
the sentences, so that each should have time to sink deeply into
her hearer's mind. She had a passionate desire that some one
should know the truth about this transaction, and also that the
rumour of her intention to repay the money should reach Judy
Trenor's ears. And it had suddenly occurred to her that Rosedale,
who had surprised Trenor's confidence, was the fitting person to
receive and transmit her version of the facts. She had even felt
a momentary exhilaration at the thought of thus relieving herself
of her detested secret; but the sensation gradually faded in the
telling, and as she ended her pallour was suffused with a deep
blush of misery.
Rosedale continued to stare at her in wonder; but the wonder took
the turn she had least expected.
"But see here--if that's the case, it cleans you out altogether?"
He put it to her as if she had not grasped the consequences of
her act; as if her incorrigible ignorance of business were about
to precipitate her into a fresh act of folly.
"Altogether--yes," she calmly agreed.
He sat silent, his thick hands clasped on the table, his little
puzzled eyes exploring the recesses of the deserted restaurant.
"See here--that's fine," he exclaimed abruptly.
Lily rose from her seat with a deprecating laugh. "Oh, no--it's
merely a bore," she asserted, gathering together the ends of her
Rosedale remained seated, too intent on his thoughts to notice
her movement. "Miss Lily, if you want any backing--I like pluck--
-" broke from him disconnectedly.
"Thank you." She held out her hand. "Your tea has given me a
tremendous backing. I feel equal to anything now."
Her gesture seemed to show a definite intention of dismissal, but
her companion had tossed a bill to the waiter, and was slipping
his short arms into his expensive overcoat.
"Wait a minute--you've got to let me walk home with you," he
Lily uttered no protest, and when he had paused to make sure of
his change they emerged from the hotel and crossed Sixth Avenue
again. As she led the way westward past a long line of areas
which, through the distortion of their paintless rails, revealed
with increasing candour the DISJECTA MEMBRA of bygone dinners,
Lily felt that Rosedale was taking contemptuous note of the
neighbourhood; and before the doorstep at which she finally
paused he looked up with an air of incredulous disgust.
"This isn't the place? Some one told me you were living with Miss
"No: I am boarding here. I have lived too long on my friends."
He continued to scan the blistered brown stone front, the windows
draped with discoloured lace, and the Pompeian decoration of the
muddy vestibule; then he looked back at her face and said with a
visible effort: "You'll let me come and see you some day?"
She smiled, recognizing the heroism of the offer to the point of
being frankly touched by it. "Thank you--I shall be very
glad," she made answer, in the first sincere words she had ever
spoken to him.
That evening in her own room Miss Bart--who had fled early from
the heavy fumes of the basement dinner-table--sat musing upon the
impulse which had led her to unbosom herself to Rosedale. Beneath
it she discovered an increasing sense of loneliness--a dread of
returning to the solitude of her room, while she could be
anywhere else, or in any company but her own. Circumstances, of
late, had combined to cut her off more and more from her few
remaining friends. On Carry Fisher's part the withdrawal was
perhaps not quite involuntary. Having made her final effort on
Lily's behalf, and landed her safely in Mme. Regina's work-room,
Mrs. Fisher seemed disposed to rest from her labours; and Lily,
understanding the reason, could not condemn her. Carry had in
fact come dangerously near to being involved in the episode of
Mrs. Norma Hatch, and it had taken some verbal ingenuity to
extricate herself. She frankly owned to having brought Lily and
Mrs. Hatch together, but then she did not know Mrs. Hatch--she
had expressly warned Lily that she did not know Mrs. Hatch--and
besides, she was not Lily's keeper, and really the girl was old
enough to take care of herself. Carry did not put her own case so
brutally, but she allowed it to be thus put for her by her latest
bosom friend, Mrs. Jack Stepney: Mrs. Stepney, trembling over the
narrowness of her only brother's escape, but eager to vindicate
Mrs. Fisher, at whose house she could count on the "jolly
parties" which had become a necessity to her since marriage had
emancipated her from the Van Osburgh point of view.
Lily understood the situation and could make allowances for it.
Carry had been a good friend to her in difficult days, and
perhaps only a friendship like Gerty's could be proof against
such an increasing strain. Gerty's friendship did indeed hold
fast; yet Lily was beginning to avoid her also. For she could not
go to Gerty's without risk of meeting Selden; and to meet him now
would be pure pain. It was pain enough even to think of him,
whether she considered him in the distinctness of her waking
thoughts, or felt the obsession of his presence through the blur
of her tormented nights. That was one of the reasons why
she had turned again to Mrs. Hatch's prescription. In the uneasy
snatches of her natural dreams he came to her sometimes in the
old guise of fellowship and tenderness; and she would rise from
the sweet delusion mocked and emptied of her courage. But in the
sleep which the phial procured she sank far below such
half-waking visitations, sank into depths of dreamless
annihilation from which she woke each morning with an obliterated
Gradually, to be sure, the stress of the old thoughts would
return; but at least they did not importune her waking hour. The
drug gave her a momentary illusion of complete renewal, from
which she drew strength to take up her daily work. The strength
was more and more needed as the perplexities of her future
increased. She knew that to Gerty and Mrs. Fisher she was only
passing through a temporary period of probation, since they
believed that the apprenticeship she was serving at Mme. Regina's
would enable her, when Mrs. Peniston's legacy was paid, to
realize the vision of the green-and-white shop with the fuller
competence acquired by her preliminary training. But to Lily
herself, aware that the legacy could not be put to such a use,
the preliminary training seemed a wasted effort. She understood
clearly enough that, even if she could ever learn to compete with
hands formed from childhood for their special work, the small pay
she received would not be a sufficient addition to her income to
compensate her for such drudgery. And the realization of this
fact brought her recurringly face to face with the temptation to
use the legacy in establishing her business. Once installed, and
in command of her own work-women, she believed she had sufficient
tact and ability to attract a fashionable CLIENTELE; and if the
business succeeded she could gradually lay aside money enough to
discharge her debt to Trenor. But the task might take years to
accomplish, even if she continued to stint herself to the utmost;
and meanwhile her pride would be crushed under the weight of an
These were her superficial considerations; but under them lurked
the secret dread that the obligation might not always remain
intolerable. She knew she could not count on her continuity of
purpose, and what really frightened her was the thought that she
might gradually accommodate herself to remaining
indefinitely in Trenor's debt, as she had accommodated herself to
the part allotted her on the Sabrina, and as she had so nearly
drifted into acquiescing with Stancy's scheme for the advancement
of Mrs. Hatch. Her danger lay, as she knew, in her old incurable
dread of discomfort and poverty; in the fear of that mounting
tide of dinginess against which her mother had so passionately
warned her. And now a new vista of peril opened before her. She
understood that Rosedale was ready to lend her money; and the
longing to take advantage of his offer began to haunt her
insidiously. It was of course impossible to accept a loan from
Rosedale; but proximate possibilities hovered temptingly before
her. She was quite sure that he would come and see her again, and
almost sure that, if he did, she could bring him to the point of
offering to marry her on the terms she had previously rejected.
Would she still reject them if they were offered? More and more,
with every fresh mischance befalling her, did the pursuing furies
seem to take the shape of Bertha Dorset; and close at hand,
safely locked among her papers, lay the means of ending their
pursuit. The temptation, which her scorn of Rosedale had once
enabled her to reject, now insistently returned upon her; and how
much strength was left her to oppose it?
What little there was must at any rate be husbanded to the
utmost; she could not trust herself again to the perils of a
sleepless night. Through the long hours of silence the dark
spirit of fatigue and loneliness crouched upon her breast,
leaving her so drained of bodily strength that her morning
thoughts swam in a haze of weakness. The only hope of renewal lay
in the little bottle at her bed-side; and how much longer that
hope would last she dared not conjecture.
Lily, lingering for a moment on the corner, looked out on the
afternoon spectacle of Fifth Avenue. It was a day in late April,
and the sweetness of spring was in the air. It mitigated the
ugliness of the long crowded thoroughfare, blurred the gaunt
roof-lines, threw a mauve veil over the discouraging perspective
of the side streets, and gave a touch of poetry to the delicate
haze of green that marked the entrance to the Park.
As Lily stood there, she recognized several familiar faces in the
passing carriages. The season was over, and its ruling forces had
disbanded; but a few still lingered, delaying their departure for
Europe, or passing through town on their return from the South.
Among them was Mrs. Van Osburgh, swaying majestically in her
C-spring barouche, with Mrs. Percy Gryce at her side, and the new
heir to the Gryce millions enthroned before them on his nurse's
knees. They were succeeded by Mrs. Hatch's electric victoria, in
which that lady reclined in the lonely splendour of a spring
toilet obviously designed for company; and a moment or two later
came Judy Trenor, accompanied by Lady Skiddaw, who had come over
for her annual tarpon fishing and a dip into "the street."
This fleeting glimpse of her past served to emphasize the sense
of aimlessness with which Lily at length turned toward home. She
had nothing to do for the rest of the day, nor for the days to
come; for the season was over in millinery as well as in society,
and a week earlier Mme. Regina had notified her that her services
were no longer required. Mme. Regina always reduced her staff on
the first of May, and Miss Bart's attendance had of late been so
irregular--she had so often been unwell, and had done so little
work when she came--that it was only as a favour that her
dismissal had hitherto been deferred.
Lily did not question the justice of the decision. She was
conscious of having been forgetful, awkward and slow to learn. It
was bitter to acknowledge her inferiority even to herself, but
the fact had been brought home to her that as a
bread-winner she could never compete with professional ability.
Since she had been brought up to be ornamental, she could hardly
blame herself for failing to serve any practical purpose; but the
discovery put an end to her consoling sense of universal
As she turned homeward her thoughts shrank in anticipation from
the fact that there would be nothing to get up for the next
morning. The luxury of lying late in bed was a pleasure belonging
to the life of ease; it had no part in the utilitarian existence
of the boarding-house. She liked to leave her room early, and to
return to it as late as possible; and she was walking slowly now
in order to postpone the detested approach to her doorstep.
But the doorstep, as she drew near it, acquired a sudden interest
from the fact that it was occupied--and indeed filled--by the
conspicuous figure of Mr. Rosedale, whose presence seemed to take
on an added amplitude from the meanness of his surroundings.
The sight stirred Lily with an irresistible sense of triumph.
Rosedale, a day or two after their chance meeting, had called to
enquire if she had recovered from her indisposition; but since
then she had not seen or heard from him, and his absence seemed
to betoken a struggle to keep away, to let her pass once more out
of his life. If this were the case, his return showed that the
struggle had been unsuccessful, for Lily knew he was not the man
to waste his time in an ineffectual sentimental dalliance. He was
too busy, too practical, and above all too much preoccupied with
his own advancement, to indulge in such unprofitable asides.
In the peacock-blue parlour, with its bunches of dried pampas
grass, and discoloured steel engravings of sentimental episodes,
he looked about him with unconcealed disgust, laying his hat
distrustfully on the dusty console adorned with a Rogers
Lily sat down on one of the plush and rosewood sofas, and he
deposited himself in a rocking-chair draped with a starched
antimacassar which scraped unpleasantly against the pink fold of
skin above his collar.
"My goodness--you can't go on living here!" he exclaimed.
Lily smiled at his tone. "I am not sure that I can; but I have
gone over my expenses very carefully, and I rather think I shall
be able to manage it."
"Be able to manage it? That's not what I mean--it's no place for
"It's what I mean; for I have been out of work for the last
"Out of work--out of work! What a way for you to talk! The idea
of your having to work--it's preposterous." He brought out his
sentences in short violent jerks, as though they were forced up
from a deep inner crater of indignation. "It's a farce--a crazy
farce," he repeated, his eyes fixed on the long vista of the room
reflected in the blotched glass between the windows.
Lily continued to meet his expostulations with a smile. "I don't
know why I should regard myself as an exception---" she began.
"Because you ARE; that's why; and your being in a place like this
is a damnable outrage. I can't talk of it calmly."
She had in truth never seen him so shaken out of his usual
glibness; and there was something almost moving to her in his
inarticulate struggle with his emotions.
He rose with a start which left the rocking-chair quivering on
its beam ends, and placed himself squarely before her.
"Look here, Miss Lily, I'm going to Europe next week: going over
to Paris and London for a couple of months--and I can't leave you
like this. I can't do it. I know it's none of my business--you've
let me understand that often enough; but things are worse with
you now than they have been before, and you must see that you've
got to accept help from somebody. You spoke to me the other day
about some debt to Trenor. I know what you mean--and I respect
you for feeling as you do about it."
A blush of surprise rose to Lily's pale face, but before she
could interrupt him he had continued eagerly: "Well, I'll lend
you the money to pay Trenor; and I won't--I--see here, don't take
me up till I've finished. What I mean is, it'll be a plain
business arrangement, such as one man would make with another.
Now, what have you got to say against that?"
Lily's blush deepened to a glow in which humiliation and
gratitude were mingled; and both sentiments revealed themselves
in the unexpected gentleness of her reply.
"Only this: that it is exactly what Gus Trenor proposed; and that
I can never again be sure of understanding the plainest business
arrangement." Then, realizing that this answer contained a germ
of injustice, she added, even more kindly: "Not that I don't
appreciate your kindness--that I'm not grateful for it. But a
business arrangement between us would in any case be impossible,
because I shall have no security to give when my debt to Gus
Trenor has been paid."
Rosedale received this statement in silence: he seemed to fed the
note of finality in her voice, yet to be unable to accept it as
closing the question between them.
In the silence Lily had a clear perception of what was passing
through his mind. Whatever perplexity he felt as to the
inexorableness of her course--however little he penetrated its
motive--she saw that it unmistakably tended to strengthen her
hold over him. It was as though the sense in her of unexplained
scruples and resistances had the same attraction as the delicacy
of feature, the fastidiousness of manner, which gave her an
external rarity, an air of being impossible to match. As he
advanced in social experience this uniqueness had acquired a
greater value for him, as though he were a collector who had
learned to distinguish minor differences of design and quality in
some long-coveted object.
Lily, perceiving all this, understood that he would marry her at
once, on the sole condition of a reconciliation with Mrs. Dorset;
and the temptation was the less easy to put aside because, little
by little, circumstances were breaking down her dislike for
Rosedale. The dislike, indeed, still subsisted; but it was
penetrated here and there by the perception of mitigating
qualities in him: of a certain gross kindliness, a rather
helpless fidelity of sentiment, which seemed to be struggling
through the hard surface of his material ambitions.
Reading his dismissal in her eyes, he held out his hand with a
gesture which conveyed something of this inarticulate conflict.
"If you'd only let me, I'd set you up over them all--I'd put you
where you could wipe your feet on 'em!" he declared; and
it touched her oddly to see that his new passion had not altered
his old standard of values.
Lily took no sleeping-drops that night. She lay awake viewing her
situation in the crude light which Rosedale's visit had shed on
it. In fending off the offer he was so plainly ready to renew,
had she not sacrificed to one of those abstract notions of honour
that might be called the conventionalities of the moral life?
What debt did she owe to a social order which had condemned and
banished her without trial? She had never been heard in her own
defence; she was innocent of the charge on which she had been
found guilty; and the irregularity of her conviction might seem
to justify the use of methods as irregular in recovering her lost
rights. Bertha Dorset, to save herself, had not scrupled to ruin
her by an open falsehood; why should she hesitate to make private
use of the facts that chance had put in her way? After all, half
the opprobrium of such an act lies in the name attached to it.
Call it blackmail and it becomes unthinkable; but explain that it
injures no one, and that the rights regained by it were unjustly
forfeited, and he must be a formalist indeed who can find no plea
in its defence.
The arguments pleading for it with Lily were the old unanswerable
ones of the personal situation: the sense of injury, the sense of
failure, the passionate craving for a fair chance against the
selfish despotism of society. She had learned by experience that
she had neither the aptitude nor the moral constancy to remake
her life on new lines; to become a worker among workers, and let
the world of luxury and pleasure sweep by her unregarded. She
could not hold herself much to blame for this ineffectiveness,
and she was perhaps less to blame than she believed. Inherited
tendencies had combined with early training to make her the
highly specialized product she was: an organism as helpless out
of its narrow range as the sea-anemone torn from the rock. She
had been fashioned to adorn and delight; to what other end does
nature round the rose-leaf and paint the humming-bird's breast?
And was it her fault that the purely decorative mission is less
easily and harmoniously fulfilled among social beings
than in the world of nature? That it is apt to be hampered by
material necessities or complicated by moral scruples?
These last were the two antagonistic forces which fought out
their battle in her breast during the long watches of the night;
and when she rose the next morning she hardly knew where the
victory lay. She was exhausted by the reaction of a night without
sleep, coming after many nights of rest artificially obtained;
and in the distorting light of fatigue the future stretched out
before her grey, interminable and desolate.
She lay late in bed, refusing the coffee and fried eggs which the
friendly Irish servant thrust through her door, and hating the
intimate domestic noises of the house and the cries and rumblings
of the street. Her week of idleness had brought home to her with
exaggerated force these small aggravations of the boarding-house
world, and she yearned for that other luxurious world, whose
machinery is so carefully concealed that one scene flows into
another without perceptible agency.
At length she rose and dressed. Since she had left Mme. Regina's
she had spent her days in the streets, partly to escape from the
uncongenial promiscuities of the boarding-house, and partly in
the hope that physical fatigue would help her to sleep. But once
out of the house, she could not decide where to go; for she had
avoided Gerty since her dismissal from the milliner's, and she
was not sure of a welcome anywhere else.
The morning was in harsh contrast to the previous day. A cold
grey sky threatened rain, and a high wind drove the dust in wild
spirals up and down the streets. Lily walked up Fifth Avenue
toward the Park, hoping to find a sheltered nook where she might
sit; but the wind chilled her, and after an hour's wandering
under the tossing boughs she yielded to her increasing weariness,
and took refuge in a little restaurant in Fifty-ninth Street. She
was not hungry, and had meant to go without luncheon; but she was
too tired to return home, and the long perspective of white
tables showed alluringly through the windows.
The room was full of women and girls, all too much engaged in the
rapid absorption of tea and pie to remark her entrance. A hum of
shrill voices reverberated against the low ceiling, leaving Lily
shut out in a little circle of silence. She felt a sudden pang of
profound loneliness. She had lost the sense of time, and
it seemed to her as though she had not spoken to any one for
days. Her eyes sought the faces about her, craving a responsive
glance, some sign of an intuition of her trouble. But the sallow
preoccupied women, with their bags and note-books and rolls of
music, were all engrossed in their own affairs, and even those
who sat by themselves were busy running over proof-sheets or
devouring magazines between their hurried gulps of tea. Lily
alone was stranded in a great waste of disoccupation.
She drank several cups of the tea which was served with her
portion of stewed oysters, and her brain felt clearer and
livelier when she emerged once more into the street. She realized
now that, as she sat in the restaurant, she had unconsciously
arrived at a final decision. The discovery gave her an immediate
illusion of activity: it was exhilarating to think that she had
actually a reason for hurrying home. To prolong her enjoyment of
the sensation she decided to walk; but the distance was so great
that she found herself glancing nervously at the clocks on the
way. One of the surprises of her unoccupied state was the
discovery that time, when it is left to itself and no definite
demands are made on it, cannot be trusted to move at any
recognized pace. Usually it loiters; but just when one has come
to count upon its slowness, it may suddenly break into a wild
She found, however, on reaching home, that the hour was still
early enough for her to sit down and rest a few minutes before
putting her plan into execution. The delay did not perceptibly
weaken her resolve. She was frightened and yet stimulated by the
reserved force of resolution which she felt within herself: she
saw it was going to be easier, a great deal easier, than she had
At five o'clock she rose, unlocked her trunk, and took out a
sealed packet which she slipped into the bosom of her dress. Even
the contact with the packet did not shake her nerves as she had
half-expected it would. She seemed encased in a strong armour of
indifference, as though the vigorous exertion of her will had
finally benumbed her finer sensibilities.
She dressed herself once more for the street, locked her door and
went out. When she emerged on the pavement, the day was still
high, but a threat of rain darkened the sky and cold
gusts shook the signs projecting from the basement shops along
the street. She reached Fifth Avenue and began to walk slowly
northward. She was sufficiently familiar with Mrs. Dorset's
habits to know that she could always be found at home after five.
She might not, indeed, be accessible to visitors, especially to a
visitor so unwelcome, and against whom it was quite possible that
she had guarded herself by special orders; but Lily had written a
note which she meant to send up with her name, and which she
thought would secure her admission.
She had allowed herself time to walk to Mrs. Dorset's, thinking
that the quick movement through the cold evening air would help
to steady her nerves; but she really felt no need of being
tranquillized. Her survey of the situation remained calm and
As she reached Fiftieth Street the clouds broke abruptly, and a
rush of cold rain slanted into her face. She had no umbrella and
the moisture quickly penetrated her thin spring dress. She was
still half a mile from her destination, and she decided to walk
across to Madison Avenue and take the electric car. As she turned
into the side street, a vague memory stirred in her. The row of
budding trees, the new brick and limestone house-fronts, the
Georgian flat-house with flowerboxes on its balconies, were
merged together into the setting of a familiar scene. It was down
this street that she had walked with Selden, that September day
two years ago; a few yards ahead was the doorway they had entered
together. The recollection loosened a throng of benumbed
sensations--longings, regrets, imaginings, the throbbing brood of
the only spring her heart had ever known. It was strange to find
herself passing his house on such an errand. She seemed suddenly
to see her action as he would see it--and the fact of his own
connection with it, the fact that, to attain her end, she must
trade on his name, and profit by a secret of his past, chilled
her blood with shame. What a long way she had travelled since the
day of their first talk together! Even then her feet had been set
in the path she was now following--even then she had resisted the
hand he had held out.
All her resentment of his fancied coldness was swept away in this
overwhelming rush of recollection. Twice he had been
ready to help her--to help her by loving her, as he had said--and
if, the third time, he had seemed to fail her, whom but herself
could she accuse? . . . Well, that part of her life was over; she
did not know why her thoughts still clung to it. But the sudden
longing to see him remained; it grew to hunger as she paused on
the pavement opposite his door. The street was dark and empty,
swept by the rain. She had a vision of his quiet room, of the
bookshelves, and the fire on the hearth. She looked up and saw a
light in his window; then she crossed the street and entered the
The library looked as she had pictured it. The green-shaded lamps
made tranquil circles of light in the gathering dusk, a little
fire flickered on the hearth, and Selden's easy-chair, which
stood near it, had been pushed aside when he rose to admit her.
He had checked his first movement of surprise, and stood silent,
waiting for her to speak, while she paused a moment on the
threshold, assailed by a rush of memories.
The scene was unchanged. She recognized the row of shelves from
which he had taken down his La Bruyere, and the worn arm of the
chair he had leaned against while she examined the precious
volume. But then the wide September light had filled the room,
making it seem a part of the outer world: now the shaded lamps
and the warm hearth, detaching it from the gathering darkness of
the street, gave it a sweeter touch of intimacy.
Becoming gradually aware of the surprise under Selden's silence,
Lily turned to him and said simply: "I came to tell you that I
was sorry for the way we parted--for what I said to you that day
at Mrs. Hatch's."
The words rose to her lips spontaneously. Even on her way up the
stairs, she had not thought of preparing a pretext for her visit,
but she now felt an intense longing to dispel the cloud of
misunderstanding that hung between them.
Selden returned her look with a smile. "I was sorry too that we
should have parted in that way; but I am not sure I didn't bring
it on myself. Luckily I had foreseen the risk I was taking---"
"So that you really didn't care---?" broke from her with a flash
of her old irony.
"So that I was prepared for the consequences," he corrected
good-humouredly. "But we'll talk of all this later. Do come and
sit by the fire. I can recommend that arm-chair, if you'll let me
put a cushion behind you."
While he spoke she had moved slowly to the middle of the room,
and paused near his writing-table, where the lamp,
striking upward, cast exaggerated shadows on the pallour of her
"You look tired--do sit down," he repeated gently.
She did not seem to hear the request. "I wanted you to know that
I left Mrs. Hatch immediately after I saw you," she said, as
though continuing her confession.
"Yes--yes; I know," he assented, with a rising tinge of
"And that I did so because you told me to. Before you came I had
already begun to see that it would be impossible to remain with
her--for the reasons you gave me; but I wouldn't admit it--I
wouldn't let you see that I understood what you meant."
"Ah, I might have trusted you to find your own way out--don't
overwhelm me with the sense of my officiousness!"
His light tone, in which, had her nerves been steadier, she would
have recognized the mere effort to bridge over an awkward moment,
jarred on her passionate desire to be understood. In her strange
state of extra-lucidity, which gave her the sense of being
already at the heart of the situation, it seemed incredible that
any one should think it necessary to linger in the conventional
outskirts of word-play and evasion.
"It was not that--I was not ungrateful," she insisted. But the
power of expression failed her suddenly; she felt a tremor in her
throat, and two tears gathered and fell slowly from her eyes.
Selden moved forward and took her hand. "You are very tired. Why
won't you sit down and let me make you comfortable?"
He drew her to the arm-chair near the fire, and placed a cushion
behind her shoulders.
"And now you must let me make you some tea: you know I always
have that amount of hospitality at my command."
She shook her head, and two more tears ran over. But she did not
weep easily, and the long habit of self-control reasserted
itself, though she was still too tremulous to speak.
"You know I can coax the water to boil in five minutes," Selden
continued, speaking as though she were a troubled child.
His words recalled the vision of that other afternoon
when they had sat together over his tea-table and talked
jestingly of her future. There were moments when that day seemed
more remote than any other event in her life; and yet she could
always relive it in its minutest detail.
She made a gesture of refusal. "No: I drink too much tea. I would
rather sit quiet--I must go in a moment," she added confusedly.
Selden continued to stand near her, leaning against the
mantelpiece. The tinge of constraint was beginning to be more
distinctly perceptible under the friendly ease of his manner. Her
self-absorption had not allowed her to perceive it at first; but
now that her consciousness was once more putting forth its eager
feelers, she saw that her presence was becoming an embarrassment
to him. Such a situation can be saved only by an immediate
outrush of feeling; and on Selden's side the determining impulse
was still lacking.
The discovery did not disturb Lily as it might once have done.
She had passed beyond the phase of well-bred reciprocity, in
which every demonstration must be scrupulously proportioned to
the emotion it elicits, and generosity of feeling is the only
ostentation condemned. But the sense of loneliness returned with
redoubled force as she saw herself forever shut out from Selden's
inmost self. She had come to him with no definite purpose; the
mere longing to see him had directed her; but the secret hope she
had carried with her suddenly revealed itself in its death-pang.
"I must go," she repeated, making a motion to rise from her
chair. "But I may not see you again for a long time, and I wanted
to tell you that I have never forgotten the things you said to me
at Bellomont, and that sometimes--sometimes when I seemed
farthest from remembering them--they have helped me, and kept me
from mistakes; kept me from really becoming what many people have
Strive as she would to put some order in her thoughts, the words
would not come more clearly; yet she felt that she could not
leave him without trying to make him understand that she had
saved herself whole from the seeming ruin of her life.
A change had come over Selden's face as she spoke. Its guarded
look had yielded to an expression still untinged by personal
emotion, but full of a gentle understanding.
"I am glad to have you tell me that; but nothing I have said has
really made the difference. The difference is in yourself--it
will always be there. And since it IS there, it can't really
matter to you what people think: you are so sure that your
friends will always understand you."
"Ah, don't say that--don't say that what you have told me has
made no difference. It seems to shut me out--to leave me all
alone with the other people." She had risen and stood before him,
once more completely mastered by the inner urgency of the moment.
The consciousness of his half-divined reluctance had vanished.
Whether he wished it or not, he must see her wholly for once
before they parted.
Her voice had gathered strength, and she looked him gravely in
the eyes as she continued. "Once--twice--you gave me the chance
to escape from my life, and I refused it: refused it because I
was a coward. Afterward I saw my mistake--I saw I could never be
happy with what had contented me before. But it was too late: you
had judged me--I understood. It was too late for happiness--but
not too late to be helped by the thought of what I had missed.
That is all I have lived on--don't take it from me now! Even in
my worst moments it has been like a little light in the darkness.
Some women are strong enough to be good by themselves, but I
needed the help of your belief in me. Perhaps I might have
resisted a great temptation, but the little ones would have
pulled me down. And then I remembered--I remembered your saying
that such a life could never satisfy me; and I was ashamed to
admit to myself that it could. That is what you did for me--that
is what I wanted to thank you for. I wanted to tell you that I
have always remembered; and that I have tried--tried hard . . ."
She broke off suddenly. Her tears had risen again, and in drawing
out her handkerchief her fingers touched the packet in the folds
of her dress. A wave of colour suffused her, and the words died
on her lips. Then she lifted her eyes to his and went on in an
"I have tried hard--but life is difficult, and I am a very
useless person. I can hardly be said to have an independent
existence. I was just a screw or a cog in the great machine
I called life, and when I dropped out of it I found I was
of no use anywhere else. What can one do when one finds that one
only fits into one hole? One must get back to it or be thrown out
into the rubbish heap--and you don't know what it's like in the
Her lips wavered into a smile--she had been distracted by the
whimsical remembrance of the confidences she had made to him, two
years earlier, in that very room. Then she had been planning to
marry Percy Gryce--what was it she was planning now?
The blood had risen strongly under Selden's dark skin, but his
emotion showed itself only in an added seriousness of manner.
"You have something to tell me--do you mean to marry?" he said
Lily's eyes did not falter, but a look of wonder, of puzzled
self-interrogation, formed itself slowly in their depths. In the
light of his question, she had paused to ask herself if her
decision had really been taken when she entered the room.
"You always told me I should have to come to it sooner or later!"
she said with a faint smile.
"And you have come to it now?"
"I shall have to come to it--presently. But there is something
else I must come to first." She paused again, trying to transmit
to her voice the steadiness of her recovered smile. "There is
some one I must say goodbye to. Oh, not YOU--we are sure to see
each other again--but the Lily Bart you knew. I have kept her
with me all this time, but now we are going to part, and I have
brought her back to you--I am going to leave her here. When I go
out presently she will not go with me. I shall like to think that
she has stayed with you--and she'll be no trouble, she'll take up
She went toward him, and put out her hand, still smiling. "Will
you let her stay with you?" she asked.
He caught her hand, and she felt in his the vibration of feeling
that had not yet risen to his lips. "Lily--can't I help you?" he
She looked at him gently. "Do you remember what you said to me
once? That you could help me only by loving me? Well--you did
love me for a moment; and it helped me. It has always
helped me. But the moment is gone--it was I who let it go. And
one must go on living. Goodbye."
She laid her other hand on his, and they looked at each other
with a kind of solemnity, as though they stood in the presence of
death. Something in truth lay dead between them--the love she had
killed in him and could no longer call to life. But something
lived between them also, and leaped up in her like an
imperishable flame: it was the love his love had kindled, the
passion of her soul for his.
In its light everything else dwindled and fell away from her. She
understood now that she could not go forth and leave her old self
with him: that self must indeed live on in his presence, but it
must still continue to be hers.
Selden had retained her hand, and continued to scrutinize her
with a strange sense of foreboding. The external aspect of the
situation had vanished for him as completely as for her: he felt
it only as one of those rare moments which lift the veil from
their faces as they pass.
"Lily," he said in a low voice, "you mustn't speak in this way. I
can't let you go without knowing what you mean to do. Things may
change--but they don't pass. You can never go out of my life."
She met his eyes with an illumined look. "No," she said. "I see
that now. Let us always be friends. Then I shall feel safe,
"Whatever happens? What do you mean? What is going to happen?"
She turned away quietly and walked toward the hearth.
"Nothing at present--except that I am very cold, and that before
I go you must make up the fire for me."
She knelt on the hearth-rug, stretching her hands to the embers.
Puzzled by the sudden change in her tone, he mechanically
gathered a handful of wood from the basket and tossed it on the
fire. As he did so, he noticed how thin her hands looked against
the rising light of the flames. He saw too, under the loose lines
of her dress, how the curves of her figure had shrunk to
angularity; he remembered long afterward how the red play of the
flame sharpened the depression of her nostrils, and intensified
the blackness of the shadows which struck up from her cheekbones
to her eyes. She knelt there for a few moments in
silence; a silence which he dared not break. When she rose he
fancied that he saw her draw something from her dress and drop it
into the fire; but he hardly noticed the gesture at the time. His
faculties seemed tranced, and he was still groping for the word
to break the spell. She went up to him and laid her hands on his
shoulders. "Goodbye," she said, and as he bent over her she
touched his forehead with her lips.
The street-lamps were lit, but the rain had ceased, and there was
a momentary revival of light in the upper sky. Lily walked on
unconscious of her surroundings. She was still treading the
buoyant ether which emanates from the high moments of life. But
gradually it shrank away from her and she felt the dull pavement
beneath her feet. The sense of weariness returned with
accumulated force, and for a moment she felt that she could walk
no farther. She had reached the corner of Forty-first Street and
Fifth Avenue, and she remembered that in Bryant Park there were
seats where she might rest.
That melancholy pleasure-ground was almost deserted when she
entered it, and she sank down on an empty bench in the glare of
an electric street-lamp. The warmth of the fire had passed out of
her veins, and she told herself that she must not sit long in the
penetrating dampness which struck up from the wet asphalt. But
her will-power seemed to have spent itself in a last great
effort, and she was lost in the blank reaction which follows on
an unwonted expenditure of energy. And besides, what was there to
go home to? Nothing but the silence of her cheerless room--that
silence of the night which may be more racking to tired nerves
than the most discordant noises: that, and the bottle of chloral
by her bed. The thought of the chloral was the only spot of light
in the dark prospect: she could feel its lulling influence
stealing over her already. But she was troubled by the thought
that it was losing its power--she dared not go back to it too
soon. Of late the sleep it had brought her had been more broken
and less profound; there had been nights when she was perpetually
floating up through it to consciousness. What if the effect of
the drug should gradually fail, as all narcotics were said to
fail? She remembered the chemist's warning against increasing the
dose; and she had heard before of the capricious and incalculable
action of the drug. Her dread of returning to a sleepless night
was so great that she lingered on, hoping that excessive
weariness would reinforce the waning power of the chloral.
Night had now closed in, and the roar of traffic in Forty-second
Street was dying out. As complete darkness fell on the square the
lingering occupants of the benches rose and dispersed; but now
and then a stray figure, hurrying homeward, struck across the
path where Lily sat, looming black for a moment in the white
circle of electric light. One or two of these passers-by
slackened their pace to glance curiously at her lonely figure;
but she was hardly conscious of their scrutiny.
Suddenly, however, she became aware that one of the passing
shadows remained stationary between her line of vision and the
gleaming asphalt; and raising her eyes she saw a young woman
bending over her.
"Excuse me--are you sick?--Why, it's Miss Bart!" a half-familiar
Lily looked up. The speaker was a poorly-dressed young woman with
a bundle under her arm. Her face had the air of unwholesome
refinement which ill-health and over-work may produce, but its
common prettiness was redeemed by the strong and generous curve
of the lips.
"You don't remember me," she continued, brightening with the
pleasure of recognition, "but I'd know you anywhere, I've thought
of you such a lot. I guess my folks all know your name by heart.
I was one of the girls at Miss Farish's club--you helped me to go
to the country that time I had lung-trouble. My name's Nettie
Struther. It was Nettie Crane then--but I daresay you don't
remember that either."
Yes: Lily was beginning to remember. The episode of Nettie
Crane's timely rescue from disease had been one of the most
satisfying incidents of her connection with Gerty's charitable
work. She had furnished the girl with the means to go to a
sanatorium in the mountains: it struck her now with a peculiar
irony that the money she had used had been Gus Trenor's.
She tried to reply, to assure the speaker that she had not
forgotten; but her voice failed in the effort, and she felt
herself sinking under a great wave of physical weakness. Nettie
Struther, with a startled exclamation, sat down and slipped a
shabbily-clad arm behind her back.
"Why, Miss Bart, you ARE sick. Just lean on me a little till you
A faint glow of returning strength seemed to pass into Lily from
the pressure of the supporting arm.
"I'm only tired--it is nothing," she found voice to say in a
moment; and then, as she met the timid appeal of her companion's
eyes, she added involuntarily: "I have been unhappy--in great
"YOU in trouble? I've always thought of you as being so high up,
where everything was just grand. Sometimes, when I felt real
mean, and got to wondering why things were so queerly fixed in
the world, I used to remember that you were having a lovely time,
anyhow, and that seemed to show there was a kind of justice
somewhere. But you mustn't sit here too long--it's fearfully
damp. Don't you feel strong enough to walk on a little ways now?"
she broke off.
"Yes--yes; I must go home," Lily murmured, rising.
Her eyes rested wonderingly on the thin shabby figure at her
side. She had known Nettie Crane as one of the discouraged
victims of over-work and anaemic parentage: one of the
superfluous fragments of life destined to be swept prematurely
into that social refuse-heap of which Lily had so lately
expressed her dread. But Nettie Struther's frail envelope was now
alive with hope and energy: whatever fate the future reserved for
her, she would not be cast into the refuse-heap without a
"I am very glad to have seen you," Lily continued, summoning a
smile to her unsteady lips. "It'll be my turn to think of you as
happy--and the world will seem a less unjust place to me too."
"Oh, but I can't leave you like this--you're not fit to go home
alone. And I can't go with you either!" Nettie Struther wailed
with a start of recollection. "You see, it's my husband's
night-shift--he's a motor-man--and the friend I leave the baby
with has to step upstairs to get HER husband's supper at seven. I
didn't tell you I had a baby, did I? She'll be four months old
day after tomorrow, and to look at her you wouldn't think I'd
ever had a sick day. I'd give anything to show you the baby, Miss
Bart, and we live right down the street here--it's only three
blocks off." She lifted her eyes tentatively to Lily's face, and
then added with a burst of courage: "Why won't you get right into
the cars and come home with me while I get baby's supper?
It's real warm in our kitchen, and you can rest there, and I'll
take YOU home as soon as ever she drops off to sleep."
It WAS warm in the kitchen, which, when Nettie Struther's match
had made a flame leap from the gas-jet above the table, revealed
itself to Lily as extraordinarily small and almost miraculously
clean. A fire shone through the polished flanks of the iron
stove, and near it stood a crib in which a baby was sitting
upright, with incipient anxiety struggling for expression on a
countenance still placid with sleep.
Having passionately celebrated her reunion with her offspring,
and excused herself in cryptic language for the lateness of her
return, Nettie restored the baby to the crib and shyly invited
Miss Bart to the rocking-chair near the stove.
"We've got a parlour too," she explained with pardonable pride;
"but I guess it's warmer in here, and I don't want to leave you
alone while I'm getting baby's supper."
On receiving Lily's assurance that she much preferred the
friendly proximity of the kitchen fire, Mrs. Struther proceeded
to prepare a bottle of infantile food, which she tenderly applied
to the baby's impatient lips; and while the ensuing degustation
went on, she seated herself with a beaming countenance beside her
"You're sure you won't let me warm up a drop of coffee for you,
Miss Bart? There's some of baby's fresh milk left over--well,
maybe you'd rather just sit quiet and rest a little while. It's
too lovely having you here. I've thought of it so often that I
can't believe it's really come true. I've said to George again
and again: 'I just wish Miss Bart could see me NOW--' and I used
to watch for your name in the papers, and we'd talk over what you
were doing, and read the descriptions of the dresses you wore. I
haven't seen your name for a long time, though, and I began to be
afraid you were sick, and it worried me so that George said I'd
get sick myself, fretting about it." Her lips broke into a
reminiscent smile. "Well, I can't afford to be sick again, that's
a fact: the last spell nearly finished me. When you sent me off
that time I never thought I'd come back alive, and I didn't much
care if I did. You see I didn't know about George and the baby
She paused to readjust the bottle to the child's bubbling mouth.
"You precious--don't you be in too much of a hurry! Was it mad
with mommer for getting its supper so late? Marry
Anto'nette--that's what we call her: after the French queen in
that play at the Garden--I told George the actress reminded me of
you, and that made me fancy the name . . . I never thought I'd
get married, you know, and I'd never have had the heart to go on
working just for myself."
She broke off again, and meeting the encouragement in Lily's
eyes, went on, with a flush rising under her anaemic skin: "You
see I wasn't only just SICK that time you sent me off--I was
dreadfully unhappy too. I'd known a gentleman where I was
employed--I don't know as you remember I did type-writing in a
big importing firm--and--well--I thought we were to be married:
he'd gone steady with me six months and given me his mother's
wedding ring. But I presume he was too stylish for me--he
travelled for the firm, and had seen a great deal of society.
Work girls aren't looked after the way you are, and they don't
always know how to look after themselves. I didn't . . . and it
pretty near killed me when he went away and left off writing . .
. It was then I came down sick--I thought it was the end of
everything. I guess it would have been if you hadn't sent me off.
But when I found I was getting well I began to take heart in
spite of myself. And then, when I got back home, George came
round and asked me to marry him. At first I thought I couldn't,
because we'd been brought up together, and I knew he knew about
me. But after a while I began to see that that made it easier. I
never could have told another man, and I'd never have married
without telling; but if George cared for me enough to have me as
I was, I didn't see why I shouldn't begin over again--and I did."
The strength of the victory shone forth from her as she lifted
her irradiated face from the child on her knees. "But, mercy, I
didn't mean to go on like this about myself, with you sitting
there looking so fagged out. Only it's so lovely having you here,
and letting you see just how you've helped me." The baby had sunk
back blissfully replete, and Mrs. Struther softly rose to
lay the bottle aside. Then she paused before Miss Bart.
"I only wish I could help YOU--but I suppose there's nothing on
earth I could do," she murmured wistfully.
Lily, instead of answering, rose with a smile and held out her
arms; and the mother, understanding the gesture, laid her child
The baby, feeling herself detached from her habitual anchorage,
made an instinctive motion of resistance; but the soothing
influences of digestion prevailed, and Lily felt the soft weight
sink trustfully against her breast. The child's confidence in its
safety thrilled her with a sense of warmth and returning life,
and she bent over, wondering at the rosy blur of the little face,
the empty clearness of the eyes, the vague tendrilly motions of
the folding and unfolding fingers. At first the burden in her
arms seemed as light as a pink cloud or a heap of down, but as
she continued to hold it the weight increased, sinking deeper,
and penetrating her with a strange sense of weakness, as though
the child entered into her and became a part of herself.
She looked up, and saw Nettie's eyes resting on her with
tenderness and exultation.
"Wouldn't it be too lovely for anything if she could grow up to
be just like you? Of course I know she never COULD--but mothers
are always dreaming the craziest things for their children."
Lily clasped the child close for a moment and laid her back in
"Oh, she must not do that--I should be afraid to come and see her
too often!" she said with a smile; and then, resisting Mrs.
Struther's anxious offer of companionship, and reiterating the
promise that of course she would come back soon, and make
George's acquaintance, and see the baby in her bath, she passed
out of the kitchen and went alone down the tenement stairs.
As she reached the street she realized that she felt stronger and
happier: the little episode had done her good. It was the first
time she had ever come across the results of her spas
benevolence, and the surprised sense of human fellowship took the
mortal chill from her heart.
It was not till she entered her own door that she felt the
reaction of a deeper loneliness. It was long after seven o'clock,
and the light and odours proceeding from the basement made it
manifest that the boarding-house dinner had begun. She hastened
up to her room, lit the gas, and began to dress. She did not mean
to pamper herself any longer, to go without food because her
surroundings made it unpalatable. Since it was her fate to live
in a boarding-house, she must learn to fall in with the
conditions of the life. Nevertheless she was glad that, when she
descended to the heat and glare of the dining-room, the repast
was nearly over.
In her own room again, she was seized with a sudden fever of
activity. For weeks past she had been too listless and
indifferent to set her possessions in order, but now she began to
examine systematically the contents of her drawers and cupboard.
She had a few handsome dresses left--survivals of her last phase
of splendour, on the Sabrina and in London--but when she had been
obliged to part with her maid she had given the woman a generous
share of her cast-off apparel. The remaining dresses, though they
had lost their freshness, still kept the long unerring lines, the
sweep and amplitude of the great artist's stroke, and as she
spread them out on the bed the scenes in which they had been worn
rose vividly before her. An association lurked in every fold:
each fall of lace and gleam of embroidery was like a letter in
the record of her past. She was startled to find how the
atmosphere of her old life enveloped her. But, after all, it was
the life she had been made for: every dawning tendency in her had
been carefully directed toward it, all her interests and
activities had been taught to centre around it. She was like some
rare flower grown for exhibition, a flower from which every bud
had been nipped except the crowning blossom of her beauty.
Last of all, she drew forth from the bottom of her trunk a heap
of white drapery which fell shapelessly across her arm. It was
the Reynolds dress she had worn in the Bry TABLEAUX. It had been
impossible for her to give it away, but she had never seen it
since that night, and the long flexible folds, as she
shook them out, gave forth an odour of violets which came to her
like a breath from the flower-edged fountain where she had stood
with Lawrence Selden and disowned her fate. She put back the
dresses one by one, laying away with each some gleam of light,
some note of laughter, some stray waft from the rosy shores of
pleasure. She was still in a state of highly-wrought
impressionability, and every hint of the past sent a lingering
tremor along her nerves.
She had just closed her trunk on the white folds of the Reynolds
dress when she heard a tap at her door, and the red fist of the
Irish maid-servant thrust in a belated letter. Carrying it to the
light, Lily read with surprise the address stamped on the upper
comer of the envelope. It was a business communication from the
office of her aunt's executors, and she wondered what unexpected
development had caused them to break silence before the appointed
time. She opened the envelope and a cheque fluttered to the
floor. As she stooped to pick it up the blood rushed to her face.
The cheque represented the full amount of Mrs. Peniston's legacy,
and the letter accompanying it explained that the executors,
having adjusted the business of the estate with less delay than
they had expected, had decided to anticipate the date fixed for
the payment of the bequests.
Lily sat down beside the desk at the foot of her bed, and
spreading out the cheque, read over and over the TEN THOUSAND
DOLLARS written across it in a steely business hand. Ten months
earlier the amount it stood for had represented the depths of
penury; but her standard of values had changed in the interval,
and now visions of wealth lurked in every flourish of the pen. As
she continued to gaze at it, she felt the glitter of the visions
mounting to her brain, and after a while she lifted the lid of
the desk and slipped the magic formula out of sight. It was
easier to think without those five figures dancing before her
eyes; and she had a great deal of thinking to do before she
She opened her cheque-book, and plunged into such anxious
calculations as had prolonged her vigil at Bellomont on the night
when she had decided to marry Percy Gryce. Poverty simplifies
book-keeping, and her financial situation was easier to ascertain
than it had been then; but she had not yet learned the
control of money, and during her transient phase of luxury at the
Emporium she had slipped back into habits of extravagance which
still impaired her slender balance. A careful examination of her
cheque-book, and of the unpaid bills in her desk, showed that,
when the latter had been settled, she would have barely enough to
live on for the next three or four months; and even after that,
if she were to continue her present way of living, without
earning any additional money, all incidental expenses must be
reduced to the vanishing point. She hid her eyes with a shudder,
beholding herself at the entrance of that ever-narrowing
perspective down which she had seen Miss Silverton's dowdy figure
take its despondent way.
It was no longer, however, from the vision of material poverty
that she turned with the greatest shrinking. She had a sense of
deeper empoverishment--of an inner destitution compared to which
outward conditions dwindled into insignificance. It was indeed
miserable to be poor--to look forward to a shabby, anxious
middle-age, leading by dreary degrees of economy and self-denial
to gradual absorption in the dingy communal existence of the
boarding-house. But there was something more miserable still--it
was the clutch of solitude at her heart, the sense of being swept
like a stray uprooted growth down the heedless current of the
years. That was the feeling which possessed her now--the feeling
of being something rootless and ephemeral, mere spin-drift of the
whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor
little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood
submerged them. And as she looked back she saw that there had
never been a time when she had had any real relation to life. Her
parents too had been rootless, blown hither and thither on every
wind of fashion, without any personal existence to shelter them
from its shifting gusts. She herself had grown up without any one
spot of earth being dearer to her than another: there was no
centre of early pieties, of grave endearing traditions, to which
her heart could revert and from which it could draw strength for
itself and tenderness for others. In whatever form a
slowly-accumulated past lives in the blood--whether in the
concrete image of the old house stored with visual memories, or
in the conception of the house not built with hands, but
made up of inherited passions and loyalties--it has the same
power of broadening and deepening the individual existence, of
attaching it by mysterious links of kinship to all the mighty sum
of human striving.
Such a vision of the solidarity of life had never before come to
Lily. She had had a premonition of it in the blind motions of her
mating-instinct; but they had been checked by the disintegrating
influences of the life about her. All the men and women she knew
were like atoms whirling away from each other in some wild
centrifugal dance: her first glimpse of the continuity of life
had come to her that evening in Nettie Struther's kitchen.
The poor little working-girl who had found strength to gather up
the fragments of her life, and build herself a shelter with them,
seemed to Lily to have reached the central truth of existence. It
was a meagre enough life, on the grim edge of poverty, with scant
margin for possibilities of sickness or mischance, but it had the
frail audacious permanence of a bird's nest built on the edge of
a cliff--a mere wisp of leaves and straw, yet so put together
that the lives entrusted to it may hang safely over the abyss.
Yes--but it had taken two to build the nest; the man's faith as
well as the woman's courage. Lily remembered Nettie's words: I
KNEW HE KNEW ABOUT ME. Her husband's faith in her had made her
renewal possible--it is so easy for a woman to become what the
man she loves believes her to be! Well--Selden had twice been
ready to stake his faith on Lily Bart; but the third trial had
been too severe for his endurance. The very quality of his love
had made it the more impossible to recall to life. If it had been
a simple instinct of the blood, the power of her beauty might
have revived it. But the fact that it struck deeper, that it was
inextricably wound up with inherited habits of thought and
feeling, made it as impossible to restore to growth as a
deep-rooted plant tom from its bed. Selden had given her of his
best; but he was as incapable as herself of an uncritical return
to former states of feeling.
There remained to her, as she had told him, the uplifting memory
of his faith in her; but she had not reached the age when a woman
can live on her memories. As she held Nettie Struther's
child in her arms the frozen currents of youth had loosed
themselves and run warm in her veins: the old life-hunger
possessed her, and all her being clamoured for its share of
personal happiness. Yes--it was happiness she still wanted, and
the glimpse she had caught of it made everything else of no
account. One by one she had detached herself from the baser
possibilities, and she saw that nothing now remained to her but
the emptiness of renunciation.
It was growing late, and an immense weariness once more possessed
her. It was not the stealing sense of sleep, but a vivid wakeful
fatigue, a wan lucidity of mind against which all the
possibilities of the future were shadowed forth gigantically. She
was appalled by the intense cleanness of the vision; she seemed
to have broken through the merciful veil which intervenes between
intention and action, and to see exactly what she would do in all
the long days to come. There was the cheque in her desk, for
instance--she meant to use it in paying her debt to Trenor; but
she foresaw that when the morning came she would put off doing
so, would slip into gradual tolerance of the debt. The thought
terrified her--she dreaded to fall from the height of her last
moment with Lawrence Selden. But how could she trust herself to
keep her footing? She knew the strength of the opposing
impulses-she could feel the countless hands of habit dragging her
back into some fresh compromise with fate. She felt an intense
longing to prolong, to perpetuate, the momentary exaltation of
her spirit. If only life could end now--end on this tragic yet
sweet vision of lost possibilities, which gave her a sense of
kinship with all the loving and foregoing in the world!
She reached out suddenly and, drawing the cheque from her
writing-desk, enclosed it in an envelope which she addressed to
her bank. She then wrote out a cheque for Trenor, and placing it,
without an accompanying word, in an envelope inscribed with his
name, laid the two letters side by side on her desk. After that
she continued to sit at the table, sorting her papers and
writing, till the intense silence of the house reminded her of
the lateness of the hour. In the street the noise of wheels had
ceased, and the rumble of the "elevated" came only at long
intervals through the deep unnatural hush. In the mysterious
nocturnal separation from all outward signs of life, she
felt herself more strangely confronted with her fate. The
sensation made her brain reel, and she tried to shut out
consciousness by pressing her hands against her eyes. But the
terrible silence and emptiness seemed to symbolize her
future--she felt as though the house, the street, the world were
all empty, and she alone left sentient in a lifeless universe.
But this was the verge of delirium . . . she had never hung so
near the dizzy brink of the unreal. Sleep was what she
wanted--she remembered that she had not closed her eyes for two
nights. The little bottle was at her bed-side, waiting to lay its
spell upon her. She rose and undressed hastily, hungering now for
the touch of her pillow. She felt so profoundly tired that she
thought she must fall asleep at once; but as soon as she had lain
down every nerve started once more into separate wakefulness. It
was as though a great blaze of electric light had been turned on
in her head, and her poor little anguished self shrank and
cowered in it, without knowing where to take refuge.
She had not imagined that such a multiplication of wakefulness
was possible: her whole past was reenacting itself at a hundred
different points of consciousness. Where was the drug that could
still this legion of insurgent nerves? The sense of exhaustion
would have been sweet compared to this shrill beat of activities;
but weariness had dropped from her as though some cruel stimulant
had been forced into her veins.
She could bear it--yes, she could bear it; but what strength
would be left her the next day? Perspective had disappeared--the
next day pressed close upon her, and on its heels came the days
that were to follow--they swarmed about her like a shrieking mob.
She must shut them out for a few hours; she must take a brief
bath of oblivion. She put out her hand, and measured the soothing
drops into a glass; but as she did so, she knew they would be
powerless against the supernatural lucidity of her brain. She had
long since raised the dose to its highest limit, but tonight she
felt she must increase it. She knew she took a slight risk in
doing so--she remembered the chemist's warning. If sleep came at
all, it might be a sleep without waking. But after all that was
but one chance in a hundred: the action of the drug was
incalculable, and the addition of a few drops to the regular dose
would probably do no more than procure for her the rest she so
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