Part 3 out of 8
thrill of vexation: what right had he to touch her? Luckily Gerty
Farish had wandered off to the next table, and they were alone.
Trenor, looking stouter than ever in his tight frock-coat, and
unbecomingly flushed by the bridal libations, gazed at her with
"By Jove, Lily, you do look a stunner!" He had slipped insensibly
into the use of her Christian name, and she had never found the
right moment to correct him. Besides, in her set all the men and
women called each other by their Christian names; it was only on
Trenor's lips that the familiar address had an unpleasant
"Well," he continued, still jovially impervious to her annoyance,
"have you made up your mind which of these little trinkets you
mean to duplicate at Tiffany's tomorrow? I've got a cheque for
you in my pocket that will go a long way in that line!"
Lily gave him a startled look: his voice was louder than usual,
and the room was beginning to fill with people. But as her glance
assured her that they were still beyond ear-shot a sense of
pleasure replaced her apprehension.
"Another dividend?" she asked, smiling and drawing near him in
the desire not to be overheard.
"Well, not exactly: I sold out on the rise and I've pulled off
four thou' for you. Not so bad for a beginner, eh? I suppose
you'll begin to think you're a pretty knowing speculator. And
perhaps you won't think poor old Gus such an awful ass as some
"I think you the kindest of friends; but I can't thank you
She let her eyes shine into his with a look that made up for the
hand-clasp he would have claimed if they had been alone--and how
glad she was that they were not! The news filled her with the
glow produced by a sudden cessation of physical pain. The world
was not so stupid and blundering after all: now and then a stroke
of luck came to the unluckiest. At the thought her spirits began
to rise: it was characteristic of her that one trifling piece of
good fortune should give wings to all her hopes. Instantly came
the reflection that Percy Gryce was not irretrievably
lost; and she smiled to think of the excitement of recapturing
him from Evie Van Osburgh. What chance could such a simpleton
have against her if she chose to exert herself? She glanced
about, hoping to catch a glimpse of Gryce; but her eyes lit
instead on the glossy countenance of Mr. Rosedale, who was
slipping through the crowd with an air half obsequious, half
obtrusive, as though, the moment his presence was recognized, it
would swell to the dimensions of the room.
Not wishing to be the means of effecting this enlargement, Lily
quickly transferred her glance to Trenor, to whom the expression
of her gratitude seemed not to have brought the complete
gratification she had meant it to give.
"Hang thanking me--I don't want to be thanked, but I SHOULD like
the chance to say two words to you now and then," he grumbled. "I
thought you were going to spend the whole autumn with us, and
I've hardly laid eyes on you for the last month. Why can't you
come back to Bellomont this evening? We're all alone, and Judy is
as cross as two sticks. Do come and cheer a fellow up. If you say
yes I'll run you over in the motor, and you can telephone your
maid to bring your traps from town by the next train."
Lily shook her head with a charming semblance of regret. "I wish
I could--but it's quite impossible. My aunt has come back to
town, and I must be with her for the next few days."
"Well, I've seen a good deal less of you since we've got to be
such pals than I used to when you were Judy's friend," he
continued with unconscious penetration.
"When I was Judy's friend? Am I not her friend still? Really, you
say the most absurd things! If I were always at Bellomont you
would tire of me much sooner than Judy--but come and see me at my
aunt's the next afternoon you are in town; then we can have a
nice quiet talk, and you can tell me how I had better invest my
It was true that, during the last three or four weeks, she had
absented herself from Bellomont on the pretext of having other
visits to pay; but she now began to feel that the reckoning she
had thus contrived to evade had rolled up interest in the
The prospect of the nice quiet talk did not appear as all-97>sufficing to Trenor as she had hoped, and his brows continued
Miss Bart made an impatient movement, but suppressed the words
which seemed about to accompany it. After all, this was an
unexpectedly easy way of acquitting her debt; and had she not
reasons of her own for wishing to be civil to Mr. Rosedale?
"Oh, bring him by all means," she said smiling; "perhaps I can
get a tip out of him on my own account."
Trenor paused abruptly, and his eyes fixed themselves on hers
with a look which made her change colour.
"I say, you know--you'll please remember he's a blooming
bounder," he said; and with a slight laugh she turned toward the
open window near which they had been standing.
The throng in the room had increased, and she felt a desire for
space and fresh air. Both of these she found on the terrace,
where only a few men were lingering over cigarettes and liqueur,
while scattered couples strolled across the lawn to the
autumn-tinted borders of the flower-garden.
As she emerged, a man moved toward her from the knot of smokers,
and she found herself face to face with Selden. The stir of the
pulses which his nearness always caused was increased by a slight
sense of constraint. They had not met since their Sunday
afternoon walk at Bellomont, and that episode was still so vivid
to her that she could hardly believe him to be less conscious of
it. But his greeting expressed no more than the satisfaction
which every pretty woman expects to see reflected in masculine
eyes; and the discovery, if distasteful to her vanity, was
reassuring to her nerves. Between the relief of her escape from
Trenor, and the vague apprehension of her meeting with Rosedale,
it was pleasant to rest a moment on the sense of complete
understanding which Lawrence Selden's manner always conveyed.
"This is luck," he said smiling. "I was wondering if I should be
able to have a word with you before the special snatches us away.
I came with Gerty Farish, and promised not to let her miss the
train, but I am sure she is still extracting sentimental solace
from the wedding presents. She appears to regard their number and
value as evidence of the disinterested affection of the
There was not the least trace of embarrassment in his voice, and
as he spoke, leaning slightly against the jamb of the window, and
letting his eyes rest on her in the frank enjoyment of her grace,
she felt with a faint chill of regret that he had gone back
without an effort to the footing on which they had stood before
their last talk together. Her vanity was stung by the sight of
his unscathed smile. She longed to be to him something more than
a piece of sentient prettiness, a passing diversion to his eye
and brain; and the longing betrayed itself in her reply.
"Ah," she said, "I envy Gerty that power she has of dressing up
with romance all our ugly and prosaic arrangements! I have never
recovered my self-respect since you showed me how poor and
unimportant my ambitions were."
The words were hardly spoken when she realized their infelicity.
It seemed to be her fate to appear at her worst to Selden.
"I thought, on the contrary," he returned lightly, "that I had
been the means of proving they were more important to you than
It was as if the eager current of her being had been checked by a
sudden obstacle which drove it back upon itself. She looked at
him helplessly, like a hurt or frightened child: this real self
of hers, which he had the faculty of drawing out of the depths,
was so little accustomed to go alone!
The appeal of her helplessness touched in him, as it always did,
a latent chord of inclination. It would have meant nothing to him
to discover that his nearness made her more brilliant, but this
glimpse of a twilight mood to which he alone had the clue seemed
once more to set him in a world apart with her.
"At least you can't think worse things of me than you say!" she
exclaimed with a trembling laugh; but before he could
answer, the flow of comprehension between them was abruptly
stayed by the reappearance of Gus Trenor, who advanced with Mr.
Rosedale in his wake.
"Hang it, Lily, I thought you'd given me the slip: Rosedale and I
have been hunting all over for you!"
His voice had a note of conjugal familiarity: Miss Bart fancied
she detected in Rosedale's eye a twinkling perception of the
fact, and the idea turned her dislike of him to repugnance.
She returned his profound bow with a slight nod, made more
disdainful by the sense of Selden's surprise that she should
number Rosedale among her acquaintances. Trenor had turned away,
and his companion continued to stand before Miss Bart, alert and
expectant, his lips parted in a smile at whatever she might be
about to say, and his very back conscious of the privilege of
being seen with her.
It was the moment for tact; for the quick bridging over of gaps;
but Selden still leaned against the window, a detached observer
of the scene, and under the spell of his observation Lily felt
herself powerless to exert her usual arts. The dread of Selden's
suspecting that there was any need for her to propitiate such a
man as Rosedale checked the trivial phrases of politeness.
Rosedale still stood before her in an expectant attitude, and she
continued to face him in silence, her glance just level with his
polished baldness. The look put the finishing touch to what her
He reddened slowly, shifting from one foot to the other, fingered
the plump black pearl in his tie, and gave a nervous twist to his
moustache; then, running his eye over her, he drew back, and
said, with a side-glance at Selden: "Upon my soul, I never saw a
more ripping get-up. Is that the last creation of the dress-maker
you go to see at the Benedick? If so, I wonder all the other
women don't go to her too!"
The words were projected sharply against Lily's silence, and she
saw in a flash that her own act had given them their emphasis. In
ordinary talk they might have passed unheeded; but following on
her prolonged pause they acquired a special meaning. She felt,
without looking, that Selden had immediately seized it, and would
inevitably connect the allusion with her visit to himself. The
consciousness increased her irritation against Rosedale, but also
her feeling that now, if ever, was the moment to
propitiate him, hateful as it was to do so in Selden's presence.
"How do you know the other women don't go to my dress-maker?" she
returned. "You see I'm not afraid to give her address to my
Her glance and accent so plainly included Rosedale in this
privileged circle that his small eyes puckered with
gratification, and a knowing smile drew up his moustache.
"By Jove, you needn't be!" he declared. "You could give 'em the
whole outfit and win at a canter!"
"Ah, that's nice of you; and it would be nicer still if you would
carry me off to a quiet corner, and get me a glass of lemonade or
some innocent drink before we all have to rush for the train."
She turned away as she spoke, letting him strut at her side
through the gathering groups on the terrace, while every nerve in
her throbbed with the consciousness of what Selden must have
thought of the scene.
But under her angry sense of the perverseness of things, and the
light surface of her talk with Rosedale, a third idea persisted:
she did not mean to leave without an attempt to discover the
truth about Percy Gryce. Chance, or perhaps his own resolve, had
kept them apart since his hasty withdrawal from Bellomont; but
Miss Bart was an expert in making the most of the unexpected, and
the distasteful incidents of the last few minutes--the revelation
to Selden of precisely that part of her life which she most
wished him to ignore--increased her longing for shelter, for
escape from such humiliating contingencies. Any definite
situation would be more tolerable than this buffeting of chances,
which kept her in an attitude of uneasy alertness toward every
possibility of life.
Indoors there was a general sense of dispersal in the air, as of
an audience gathering itself up for departure after the principal
actors had left the stage; but among the remaining groups, Lily
could discover neither Gryce nor the youngest Miss Van Osburgh.
That both should be missing struck her with foreboding; and she
charmed Mr. Rosedale by proposing that they should make their way
to the conservatories at the farther end of the house. There were
just enough people left in the long suite of rooms to make their
spicuous, and Lily was aware of being followed
by looks of amusement and interrogation, which glanced off as
harmlessly from her indifference as from her companion's
self-satisfaction. She cared very little at that moment about
being seen with Rosedale: all her thoughts were centred on the
object of her search. The latter, however, was not discoverable
in the conservatories, and Lily, oppressed by a sudden conviction
of failure, was casting about for a way to rid herself of her now
superfluous companion, when they came upon Mrs. Van Osburgh,
flushed and exhausted, but beaming with the consciousness of duty
She glanced at them a moment with the benign but vacant eye of
the tired hostess, to whom her guests have become mere whirling
spots in a kaleidoscope of fatigue; then her attention became
suddenly fixed, and she seized on Miss Bart with a confidential
gesture. "My dear Lily, I haven't had time for a word with you,
and now I suppose you are just off. Have you seen Evie? She's
been looking everywhere for you: she wanted to tell you her
little secret; but I daresay you have guessed it already. The
engagement is not to be announced till next week--but you are
such a friend of Mr. Gryce's that they both wished you to be the
first to know of their happiness."
In Mrs. Peniston's youth, fashion had returned to town in
October; therefore on the tenth day of the month the blinds of
her Fifth Avenue residence were drawn up, and the eyes of the
Dying Gladiator in bronze who occupied the drawing-room window
resumed their survey of that deserted thoroughfare.
The first two weeks after her return represented to Mrs. Peniston
the domestic equivalent of a religious retreat. She "went
through" the linen and blankets in the precise spirit of the
penitent exploring the inner folds of conscience; she sought for
moths as the stricken soul seeks for lurking infirmities. The
topmost shelf of every closet was made to yield up its secret,
cellar and coal-bin were probed to their darkest depths and, as a
final stage in the lustral rites, the entire house was swathed in
penitential white and deluged with expiatory soapsuds.
It was on this phase of the proceedings that Miss Bart entered on
the afternoon of her return from the Van Osburgh wedding. The
journey back to town had not been calculated to soothe her
nerves. Though Evie Van Osburgh's engagement was still officially
a secret, it was one of which the innumerable intimate friends of
the family were already possessed; and the trainful of returning
guests buzzed with allusions and anticipations. Lily was acutely
aware of her own part in this drama of innuendo: she knew the
exact quality of the amusement the situation evoked. The crude
forms in which her friends took their pleasure included a loud
enjoyment of such complications: the zest of surprising destiny
in the act of playing a practical joke. Lily knew well enough how
to bear herself in difficult situations. She had, to a shade, the
exact manner between victory and defeat: every insinuation was
shed without an effort by the bright indifference of her manner.
But she was beginning to feel the strain of the attitude; the
reaction was more rapid, and she lapsed to a deeper self-disgust.
As was always the case with her, this moral repulsion found a
physical outlet in a quickened distaste for her surroundings.
She revolted from the complacent ugliness of Mrs. Peniston's
black walnut, from the slippery gloss of the vestibule tiles,
and the mingled odour of sapolio and furniture-polish that
met her at the door.
The stairs were still carpetless, and on the way up to her room
she was arrested on the landing by an encroaching tide of
soapsuds. Gathering up her skirts, she drew aside with an
impatient gesture; and as she did so she had the odd sensation of
having already found herself in the same situation but in
different surroundings. It seemed to her that she was again
descending the staircase from Selden's rooms; and looking down to
remonstrate with the dispenser of the soapy flood, she found
herself met by a lifted stare which had once before confronted
her under similar circumstances. It was the char-woman of the
Benedick who, resting on crimson elbows, examined her with the
same unflinching curiosity, the same apparent reluctance to let
her pass. On this occasion, however, Miss Bart was on her own
"Don't you see that I wish to go by? Please move your pail," she
The woman at first seemed not to hear; then, without a word of
excuse, she pushed back her pail and dragged a wet floor-cloth
across the landing, keeping her eyes fixed on Lily while the
latter swept by. It was insufferable that Mrs. Peniston should
have such creatures about the house; and Lily entered her room
resolved that the woman should be dismissed that evening.
Mrs. Peniston, however, was at the moment inaccessible to
remonstrance: since early morning she had been shut up with her
maid, going over her furs, a process which formed the culminating
episode in the drama of household renovation. In the evening also
Lily found herself alone, for her aunt, who rarely dined out, had
responded to the summons of a Van Alstyne cousin who was passing
through town. The house, in its state of unnatural immaculateness
and order, was as dreary as a tomb, and as Lily, turning from her
brief repast between shrouded sideboards, wandered into the
newly-uncovered glare of the drawing-room she felt as though she
were buried alive in the stifling limits of Mrs. Peniston's
She usually contrived to avoid being at home during the season of
domestic renewal. On the present occasion, however, a variety of
reasons had combined to bring her to town; and foremost among
them was the fact that she had fewer invitations than usual for
the autumn. She had so long been accustomed to pass from one
country-house to another, till the close of the holidays brought
her friends to town, that the unfilled gaps of time confronting
her produced a sharp sense of waning popularity. It was as she
had said to Selden--people were tired of her. They would welcome
her in a new character, but as Miss Bart they knew her by heart.
She knew herself by heart too, and was sick of the old story.
There were moments when she longed blindly for anything
different, anything strange, remote and untried; but the utmost
reach of her imagination did not go beyond picturing her usual
life in a new setting. She could not figure herself as anywhere
but in a drawing-room, diffusing elegance as a flower sheds
Meanwhile, as October advanced she had to face the alternative of
returning to the Trenors or joining her aunt in town. Even the
desolating dulness of New York in October, and the soapy
discomforts of Mrs. Peniston's interior, seemed preferable to
what might await her at Bellomont; and with an air of heroic
devotion she announced her intention of remaining with her
aunt till the holidays.
Sacrifices of this nature are sometimes received with feelings as
mixed as those which actuate them; and Mrs. Peniston remarked to
her confidential maid that, if any of the family were to be with
her at such a crisis (though for forty years she had been thought
competent to see to the hanging of her own curtains), she would
certainly have preferred Miss Grace to Miss Lily. Grace Stepney
was an obscure cousin, of adaptable manners and vicarious
interests, who "ran in" to sit with Mrs. Peniston when Lily dined
out too continuously; who played bezique, picked up dropped
stitches, read out the deaths from the Times, and sincerely
admired the purple satin drawing-room curtains, the Dying
Gladiator in the window, and the seven-by-five painting of
Niagara which represented the one artistic excess of Mr.
Peniston's temperate career.
Mrs. Peniston, under ordinary circumstances, was as much
bored by her excellent cousin as the recipient of such services
usually is by the person who performs them. She greatly preferred
the brilliant and unreliable Lily, who did not know one end of a
crochet-needle from the other, and had frequently wounded her
susceptibilities by suggesting that the drawing-room should be
"done over." But when it came to hunting for missing napkins, or
helping to decide whether the backstairs needed re-carpeting,
Grace's judgment was certainly sounder than Lily's: not to
mention the fact that the latter resented the smell of beeswax
and brown soap, and behaved as though she thought a house ought
to keep clean of itself, without extraneous assistance.
Seated under the cheerless blaze of the drawing-room
chandelier--Mrs. Peniston never lit the lamps unless there was
"company"--Lily seemed to watch her own figure retreating down
vistas of neutral-tinted dulness to a middle age like Grace
Stepney's. When she ceased to amuse Judy Trenor and her friends
she would have to fall back on amusing Mrs. Peniston; whichever
way she looked she saw only a future of servitude to the whims of
others, never the possibility of asserting her own eager
A ring at the door-bell, sounding emphatically through the empty
house, roused her suddenly to the extent of her boredom. It was
as though all the weariness of the past months had culminated in
the vacuity of that interminable evening. If only the ring meant
a summons from the outer world--a token that she was still
remembered and wanted!
After some delay a parlour-maid presented herself with the
announcement that there was a person outside who was asking to
see Miss Bart; and on Lily's pressing for a more specific
description, she added:
"It's Mrs. Haffen, Miss; she won't say what she wants."
Lily, to whom the name conveyed nothing, opened the door upon a
woman in a battered bonnet, who stood firmly planted under the
hall-light. The glare of the unshaded gas shone familiarly on her
pock-marked face and the reddish baldness visible through thin
strands of straw-coloured hair. Lily looked at the char-woman in
"Do you wish to see me?" she asked.
"I should like to say a word to you, Miss." The tone was
neither aggressive nor conciliatory: it revealed nothing of the
speaker's errand. Nevertheless, some precautionary instinct
warned Lily to withdraw beyond ear-shot of the hovering
She signed to Mrs. Haffen to follow her into the drawing-room,
and closed the door when they had entered.
"What is it that you wish?" she enquired.
The char-woman, after the manner of her kind, stood with her arms
folded in her shawl. Unwinding the latter, she produced a small
parcel wrapped in dirty newspaper.
"I have something here that you might like to see, Miss Bart."
She spoke the name with an unpleasant emphasis, as though her
knowing it made a part of her reason for being there. To Lily the
intonation sounded like a threat.
"You have found something belonging to me?" she asked, extending
Mrs. Haffen drew back. "Well, if it comes to that, I guess it's
mine as much as anybody's," she returned.
Lily looked at her perplexedly. She was sure, now, that her
visitor's manner conveyed a threat; but, expert as she was in
certain directions, there was nothing in her experience to
prepare her for the exact significance of the present scene. She
felt, however, that it must be ended as promptly as possible.
"I don't understand; if this parcel is not mine, why have you
asked for me?"
The woman was unabashed by the question. She was evidently
prepared to answer it, but like all her class she had to go a
long way back to make a beginning, and it was only after a pause
that she replied: "My husband was janitor to the Benedick till
the first of the month; since then he can't get nothing to do."
Lily remained silent and she continued: "It wasn't no fault of
our own, neither: the agent had another man he wanted the place
for, and we was put out, bag and baggage, just to suit his fancy.
I had a long sickness last winter, and an operation that ate up
all we'd put by; and it's hard for me and the children, Haffen
being so long out of a job."
After all, then, she had come only to ask Miss Bart to find a
place for her husband; or, more probably, to seek the young
lady's intervention with Mrs. Peniston. Lily had such an air
of always getting what she wanted that she was used to being
appealed to as an intermediary, and, relieved of her vague
apprehension, she took refuge in the conventional formula.
"I am sorry you have been in trouble," she said.
"Oh, that we have, Miss, and it's on'y just beginning. If on'y
we'd 'a got another situation--but the agent, he's dead against
us. It ain't no fault of ours, neither, but---"
At this point Lily's impatience overcame her. "If you have
anything to say to me---" she interposed.
The woman's resentment of the rebuff seemed to spur her lagging ideas.
"Yes, Miss; I'm coming to that," she said. She paused again, with
her eyes on Lily, and then continued, in a tone of diffuse
narrative: "When we was at the Benedick I had charge of some of
the gentlemen's rooms; leastways, I swep' 'em out on Saturdays.
Some of the gentlemen got the greatest sight of letters: I never
saw the like of it. Their waste-paper baskets 'd be fairly
brimming, and papers falling over on the floor. Maybe havin' so
many is how they get so careless. Some of 'em is worse than
others. Mr. Selden, Mr. Lawrence Selden, he was always one of the
carefullest: burnt his letters in winter, and tore 'em in little
bits in summer. But sometimes he'd have so many he'd just bunch
'em together, the way the others did, and tear the lot through
While she spoke she had loosened the string from the parcel in
her hand, and now she drew forth a letter which she laid on the
table between Miss Bart and herself. As she had said, the letter
was torn in two; but with a rapid gesture she laid the torn edges
together and smoothed out the page.
A wave of indignation swept over Lily. She felt herself in the
presence of something vile, as yet but dimly conjectured--the
kind of vileness of which people whispered, but which she had
never thought of as touching her own life. She drew back with a
motion of disgust, but her withdrawal was checked by a sudden
discovery: under the glare of Mrs. Peniston's chandelier she had
recognized the hand-writing of the letter. It was a large
disjointed hand, with a flourish of masculinity which but
slightly disguised its rambling weakness, and the words, scrawled
in heavy ink on pale-tinted note
paper, smote on Lily's
ear as though she had heard them spoken.
At first she did not grasp the full import of the situation. She
understood only that before her lay a letter written by Bertha
Dorset, and addressed, presumably, to Lawrence Selden. There was
no date, but the blackness of the ink proved the writing to be
comparatively recent. The packet in Mrs. Haffen's hand doubtless
contained more letters of the same kind--a dozen, Lily
conjectured from its thickness. The letter before her was short,
but its few words, which had leapt into her brain before she was
conscious of reading them, told a long history--a history over
which, for the last four years, the friends of the writer had
smiled and shrugged, viewing it merely as one among the countless
"good situations" of the mundane comedy. Now the other side
presented itself to Lily, the volcanic nether side of the surface
over which conjecture and innuendo glide so lightly till the
first fissure turns their whisper to a shriek. Lily knew that
there is nothing society resents so much as having given its
protection to those who have not known how to profit by it: it is
for having betrayed its connivance that the body social punishes
the offender who is found out. And in this case there was no
doubt of the issue. The code of Lily's world decreed that a
woman's husband should be the only judge of her conduct: she was
technically above suspicion while she had the shelter of his
approval, or even of his indifference. But with a man of George
Dorset's temper there could be no thought of condonation--the
possessor of his wife's letters could overthrow with a touch the
whole structure of her existence. And into what hands Bertha
Dorset's secret had been delivered! For a moment the irony of the
coincidence tinged Lily's disgust with a confused sense of
triumph. But the disgust prevailed--all her instinctive
resistances, of taste, of training, of blind inherited scruples,
rose against the other feeling. Her strongest sense was one of
She moved away, as though to put as much distance as possible
between herself and her visitor. "I know nothing of these
letters," she said; "I have no idea why you have brought them
"Mrs. Haffen faced her steadily. "I'll tell you why, Miss.
I brought 'em to you to sell, because I ain't got no other way
of raising money, and if we don't pay our rent by tomorrow night
we'll be put out. I never done anythin' of the kind before, and
if you'd speak to Mr. Selden or to Mr. Rosedale about getting
Haffen taken on again at the Benedick--I seen you talking to Mr.
Rosedale on the steps that day you come out of Mr. Selden's
The blood rushed to Lily's forehead. She understood now--Mrs.
Haffen supposed her to be the writer of the letters. In the first
leap of her anger she was about to ring and order the woman out;
but an obscure impulse restrained her. The mention of Selden's
name had started a new train of thought. Bertha Dorset's letters
were nothing to her--they might go where the current of chance
carried them! But Selden was inextricably involved in their fate.
Men do not, at worst, suffer much from such exposure; and in this
instance the flash of divination which had carried the meaning of
the letters to Lily's brain had revealed also that they were
appeals--repeated and therefore probably unanswered--for the
renewal of a tie which time had evidently relaxed. Nevertheless,
the fact that the correspondence had been allowed to fall into
strange hands would convict Selden of negligence in a matter
where the world holds it least pardonable; and there were graver
risks to consider where a man of Dorset's ticklish balance was
If she weighed all these things it was unconsciously: she was
aware only of feeling that Selden would wish the letters rescued,
and that therefore she must obtain possession of them. Beyond
that her mind did not travel. She had, indeed, a quick vision of
returning the packet to Bertha Dorset, and of the opportunities
the restitution offered; but this thought lit up abysses from
which she shrank back ashamed.
Meanwhile Mrs. Haffen, prompt to perceive her hesitation, had
already opened the packet and ranged its contents on the table.
All the letters had been pieced together with strips of thin
paper. Some were in small fragments, the others merely tom in
half. Though there were not many, thus spread out they nearly
covered the table. Lily's glance fell on a word here and
there--then she said in a low voice: "What do you wish me to pay
Mrs. Haffen's face reddened with satisfaction. It was clear that
the young lady was badly frightened, and Mrs. Haffen was the
woman to make the most of such fears. Anticipating an easier
victory than she had foreseen, she named an exorbitant sum.
But Miss Bart showed herself a less ready prey than might have
been expected from her imprudent opening. She refused to pay the
price named, and after a moment's hesitation, met it by a
counter-offer of half the amount.
Mrs. Haffen immediately stiffened. Her hand travelled toward the
outspread letters, and folding them slowly, she made as though to
restore them to their wrapping.
"I guess they're worth more to you than to me, Miss, but the poor
has got to live as well as the rich," she observed sententiously.
Lily was throbbing with fear, but the insinuation fortified her
"You are mistaken," she said indifferently. "I have offered all I
am willing to give for the letters; but there may be other ways
of getting them."
Mrs. Haffen raised a suspicious glance: she was too experienced
not to know that the traffic she was engaged in had perils as
great as its rewards, and she had a vision of the elaborate
machinery of revenge which a word of this commanding young lady's
might set in motion.
She applied the corner of her shawl to her eyes, and murmured
through it that no good came of bearing too hard on the poor, but
that for her part she had never been mixed up in such a business
before, and that on her honour as a Christian all she and Haffen
had thought of was that the letters mustn't go any farther.
Lily stood motionless, keeping between herself and the char-woman
the greatest distance compatible with the need of speaking in low
tones. The idea of bargaining for the letters was intolerable to
her, but she knew that, if she appeared to weaken, Mrs. Haffen
would at once increase her original demand.
She could never afterward recall how long the duel lasted, or
what was the decisive stroke which finally, after a lapse of time
recorded in minutes by the clock, in hours by the pre
She had no idea of reading the letters; even to unfold Mrs.
Haffen's dirty newspaper would have seemed degrading. But what
did she intend to do with its contents? The recipient of the
letters had meant to destroy them, and it was her duty to carry
out his intention. She had no right to keep them--to do so was to
lessen whatever merit lay in having secured their possession. But
how destroy them so effectually that there should be no second
risk of their falling in such hands? Mrs. Peniston's icy
drawing-room grate shone with a forbidding lustre: the fire, like
the lamps, was never lit except when there was company.
Miss Bart was turning to carry the letters upstairs when she
heard the opening of the outer door, and her aunt entered the
drawing-room. Mrs. Peniston was a small plump woman, with a
colourless skin lined with trivial wrinkles. Her grey hair was
arranged with precision, and her clothes looked excessively new
and yet slightly old-fashioned. They were always black and
tightly fitting, with an expensive glitter: she was the kind of
woman who wore jet at breakfast. Lily had never seen her when she
was not cuirassed in shining black, with small tight boots, and
an air of being packed and ready to start; yet she never started.
She looked about the drawing-room with an expression of minute
scrutiny. "I saw a streak of light under one of the blinds as I
drove up: it's extraordinary that I can never teach that woman to
draw them down evenly."
Having corrected the irregularity, she seated herself on one of
the glossy purple arm-chairs; Mrs. Peniston always sat on a
chair, never in it.
Then she turned her glance to Miss Bart. "My dear, you look
tired; I suppose it's the excitement of the wedding. Cornelia Van
Alstyne was full of it: Molly was there, and Gerty Farish ran in
for a minute to tell us about it. I think it was odd, their
serving melons before the CONSOMME: a wedding breakfast should
always begin with CONSOMME. Molly didn't care for the
bridesmaids' dresses. She had it straight from Julia Melson that
they cost three hundred dollars apiece at Celeste's, but she says
they didn't look it. I'm glad you decided not to be a
bridesmaid; that shade of salmon-pink wouldn't have suited you."
Mrs. Peniston delighted in discussing the minutest details of
festivities in which she had not taken part. Nothing would have
induced her to undergo the exertion and fatigue of attending the
Van Osburgh wedding, but so great was her interest in the event
that, having heard two versions of it, she now prepared to
extract a third from her niece. Lily, however, had been
deplorably careless in noting the particulars of the
entertainment. She had failed to observe the colour of Mrs. Van
Osburgh's gown, and could not even say whether the old Van
Osburgh Sevres had been used at the bride's table: Mrs. Peniston,
in short, found that she was of more service as a listener than
as a narrator.
"Really, Lily, I don't see why you took the trouble to go to the
wedding, if you don't remember what happened or whom you saw
there. When I was a girl I used to keep the MENU of every dinner
I went to, and write the names of the people on the back; and I
never threw away my cotillion favours till after your uncle's
death, when it seemed unsuitable to have so many coloured things
about the house. I had a whole closet-full, I remember; and I can
tell to this day what balls I got them at. Molly Van Alstyne
reminds me of what I was at that age; it's wonderful how she
notices. She was able to tell her mother exactly how the
wedding-dress was cut, and we knew at once, from the fold in the
back, that it must have come from Paquin."
Mrs. Peniston rose abruptly, and, advancing to the ormolu clock
surmounted by a helmeted Minerva, which throned on the
chimney-piece between two malachite vases, passed her lace
handkerchief between the helmet and its visor.
"I knew it--the parlour-maid never dusts there!" she exclaimed,
triumphantly displaying a minute spot on the handkerchief; then,
reseating herself, she went on: "Molly thought Mrs. Dorset the
best-dressed woman at the wedding. I've no doubt her dress DID
cost more than any one else's, but I can't quite like the idea--a
combination of sable and POINT DE MILAN. It seems she goes to a
new man in Paris, who won't take an order till his client has
spent a day with him at his villa at Neuilly. He says he must
study his subject's home life--a most peculiar
arrangement, I should say! But Mrs. Dorset told Molly about it
herself: she said the villa was full of the most exquisite things
and she was really sorry to leave. Molly said she never saw her
looking better; she was in tremendous spirits, and said she had
made a match between Evie Van Osburgh and Percy Gryce. She really
seems to have a very good influence on young men. I hear she is
interesting herself now in that silly Silverton boy, who has had
his head turned by Carry Fisher, and has been gambling so
dreadfully. Well, as I was saying, Evie is really engaged: Mrs.
Dorset had her to stay with Percy Gryce, and managed it all, and
Grace Van Osburgh is in the seventh heaven--she had almost
despaired of marrying Evie."
Mrs. Peniston again paused, but this time her scrutiny addressed
itself, not to the furniture, but to her niece.
"Cornelia Van Alstyne was so surprised: she had heard that you
were to marry young Gryce. She saw the Wetheralls just after they
had stopped with you at Bellomont, and Alice Wetherall was quite
sure there was an engagement. She said that when Mr. Gryce left
unexpectedly one morning, they all thought he had rushed to town
for the ring."
Lily rose and moved toward the door.
"I believe I AM tired: I think I will go to bed," she said; and
Mrs. Peniston, suddenly distracted by the discovery that the
easel sustaining the late Mr. Peniston's crayon-portrait was not
exactly in line with the sofa in front of it, presented an
absent-minded brow to her kiss.
In her own room Lily turned up the gas-jet and glanced toward the
grate. It was as brilliantly polished as the one below, but here
at least she could burn a few papers with less risk of incurring
her aunt's disapproval. She made no immediate motion to do so,
however, but dropping into a chair looked wearily about her. Her
room was large and comfortably-furnished--it was the envy and
admiration of poor Grace Stepney, who boarded; but, contrasted
with the light tints and luxurious appointments of the
guest-rooms where so many weeks of Lily's existence were spent,
it seemed as dreary as a prison. The monumental wardrobe and
bedstead of black walnut had migrated from Mr. Peniston's
bedroom, and the magenta "flock" wall-paper, of a pattern dear to
the early 'sixties, was hung with large steel engravings
of an anecdotic character. Lily had tried to mitigate this
charmless background by a few frivolous touches, in the shape of
a lace-decked toilet table and a little painted desk surmounted
by photographs; but the futility of the attempt struck her as she
looked about the room. What a contrast to the subtle elegance of
the setting she had pictured for herself--an apartment which
should surpass the complicated luxury of her friends'
surroundings by the whole extent of that artistic sensibility
which made her feel herself their superior; in which every tint
and line should combine to enhance her beauty and give
distinction to her leisure! Once more the haunting sense of
physical ugliness was intensified by her mental depression, so
that each piece of the offending furniture seemed to thrust forth
its most aggressive angle.
Her aunt's words had told her nothing new; but they had revived
the vision of Bertha Dorset, smiling, flattered, victorious,
holding her up to ridicule by insinuations intelligible to every
member of their little group. The thought of the ridicule struck
deeper than any other sensation: Lily knew every turn of the
allusive jargon which could flay its victims without the shedding
of blood. Her cheek burned at the recollection, and she rose and
caught up the letters. She no longer meant to destroy them: that
intention had been effaced by the quick corrosion of Mrs.
Instead, she approached her desk, and lighting a taper, tied and
sealed the packet; then she opened the wardrobe, drew out a
despatch-box, and deposited the letters within it. As she did so,
it struck her with a flash of irony that she was indebted to Gus
Trenor for the means of buying them.
The autumn dragged on monotonously. Miss Bart had received one
or two notes from Judy Trenor, reproaching her for not returning
to Bellomont; but she replied evasively, alleging the obligation
to remain with her aunt. In truth, however, she was fast wearying
of her solitary existence with Mrs. Peniston, and only the
excitement of spending her newly-acquired money lightened the
dulness of the days.
All her life Lily had seen money go out as quickly as it came in,
and whatever theories she cultivated as to the prudence of
setting aside a part of her gains, she had unhappily no saving
vision of the risks of the opposite course. It was a keen
satisfaction to feel that, for a few months at least, she would
be independent of her friends' bounty, that she could show
herself abroad without wondering whether some penetrating eye
would detect in her dress the traces of Judy Trenor's refurbished
splendour. The fact that the money freed her temporarily from all
minor obligations obscured her sense of the greater one it
represented, and having never before known what it was to command
so large a sum, she lingered delectably over the amusement of
It was on one of these occasions that, leaving a shop where she
had spent an hour of deliberation over a dressing-case of the
most complicated elegance, she ran across Miss Farish, who had
entered the same establishment with the modest object of having
her watch repaired. Lily was feeling unusually virtuous. She had
decided to defer the purchase of the dressing-case till she
should receive the bill for her new opera-cloak, and the resolve
made her feel much richer than when she had entered the shop. In
this mood of self-approval she had a sympathetic eye for others,
and she was struck by her friend's air of dejection.
Miss Farish, it appeared, had just left the committee-meeting of
a struggling charity in which she was interested. The object of
the association was to provide comfortable lodgings, with a
reading-room and other modest distractions, where young women of
the class employed in down town offices might find a home when
out of work, or in need of rest, and the first year's
financial report showed so deplorably small a balance that Miss
Farish, who was convinced of the urgency of the work, felt
proportionately discouraged by the small amount of interest it
aroused. The other-regarding sentiments had not been cultivated
in Lily, and she was often bored by the relation of her friend's
philanthropic efforts, but today her quick dramatizing fancy
seized on the contrast between her own situation and that
represented by some of Gerty's "cases." These were young girls,
like herself; some perhaps pretty, some not without a trace of
her finer sensibilities. She pictured herself leading such a life
as theirs--a life in which achievement seemed as squalid as
failure--and the vision made her shudder sympathetically. The
price of the dressing-case was still in her pocket; and drawing
out her little gold purse she slipped a liberal fraction of the
amount into Miss Farish's hand.
The satisfaction derived from this act was all that the most
ardent moralist could have desired. Lily felt a new interest in
herself as a person of charitable instincts: she had never before
thought of doing good with the wealth she had so often dreamed of
possessing, but now her horizon was enlarged by the vision of a
prodigal philanthropy. Moreover, by some obscure process of
logic, she felt that her momentary burst of generosity had
justified all previous extravagances, and excused any in which
she might subsequently indulge. Miss Farish's surprise and
gratitude confirmed this feeling, and Lily parted from her with a
sense of self-esteem which she naturally mistook for the fruits
About this time she was farther cheered by an invitation to spend
the Thanksgiving week at a camp in the Adirondacks. The
invitation was one which, a year earlier, would have provoked a
less ready response, for the party, though organized by Mrs.
Fisher, was ostensibly given by a lady of obscure origin and
indomitable social ambitions, whose acquaintance Lily had
hitherto avoided. Now, however, she was disposed to coincide with
Mrs. Fisher's view, that it didn't matter who gave the party, as
long as things were well done; and doing things well (under
competent direction) was Mrs. Wellington Bry's strong point. The
lady (whose consort was known as "Welly" Bry on the Stock
Exchange and in sporting circles) had already sacrificed
one husband, and sundry minor considerations, to her
determination to get on; and, having obtained a hold on Carry
Fisher, she was astute enough to perceive the wisdom of
committing herself entirely to that lady's guidance. Everything,
accordingly, was well done, for there was no limit to Mrs.
Fisher's prodigality when she was not spending her own money, and
as she remarked to her pupil, a good cook was the best
introduction to society. If the company was not as select as the
CUISINE, the Welly Brys at least had the satisfaction of
figuring for the first time in the society columns in company
with one or two noticeable names; and foremost among these was of
course Miss Bart's. The young lady was treated by her hosts with
corresponding deference; and she was in the mood when such
attentions are acceptable, whatever their source. Mrs. Bry's
admiration was a mirror in which Lily's self-complacency
recovered its lost outline. No insect hangs its nest on threads
as frail as those which will sustain the weight of human vanity;
and the sense of being of importance among the insignificant was
enough to restore to Miss Bart the gratifying consciousness of
power. If these people paid court to her it proved that she was
still conspicuous in the world to which they aspired; and she was
not above a certain enjoyment in dazzling them by her fineness,
in developing their puzzled perception of her superiorities.
Perhaps, however, her enjoyment proceeded more than she was aware
from the physical stimulus of the excursion, the challenge of
crisp cold and hard exercise, the responsive thrill of her body
to the influences of the winter woods. She returned to town in a
glow of rejuvenation, conscious of a clearer colour in her
a fresh elasticity in her muscles. The future seemed full of a
vague promise, and all her apprehensions were swept out of sight
on the buoyant current of her mood.
A few days after her return to town she had the unpleasant
surprise of a visit from Mr. Rosedale. He came late, at the
confidential hour when the tea-table still lingers by the fire in
friendly expectancy; and his manner showed a readiness to adapt
itself to the intimacy of the occasion.
Lily, who had a vague sense of his being somehow con
with her lucky speculations, tried to give him the welcome he
expected; but there was something in the quality of his geniality
which chilled her own, and she was conscious of marking each step
in their acquaintance by a fresh blunder.
Mr. Rosedale--making himself promptly at home in an adjoining
easy-chair, and sipping his tea critically, with the comment:
"You ought to go to my man for something really good"--appeared
totally unconscious of the repugnance which kept her in frozen
erectness behind the urn. It was perhaps her very manner of
holding herself aloof that appealed to his collector's passion
for the rare and unattainable. He gave, at any rate, no sign of
resenting it and seemed prepared to supply in his own manner all
the ease that was lacking in hers.
His object in calling was to ask her to go to the opera in his
box on the opening night, and seeing her hesitate he said
persuasively: "Mrs. Fisher is coming, and I've secured a
tremendous admirer of yours, who'll never forgive me if you don't
As Lily's silence left him with this allusion on his hands, he
added with a confidential smile: "Gus Trenor has promised to come
to town on purpose. I fancy he'd go a good deal farther for the
pleasure of seeing you."
Miss Bart felt an inward motion of annoyance: it was distasteful
enough to hear her name coupled with Trenor's, and on Rosedale's
lips the allusion was peculiarly unpleasant.
"The Trenors are my best friends--I think we should all go a long
way to see each other," she said, absorbing herself in the
preparation of fresh tea.
Her visitor's smile grew increasingly intimate. "Well, I wasn't
thinking of Mrs. Trenor at the moment--they say Gus doesn't
always, you know." Then, dimly conscious that he had not struck
the right note, he added, with a well-meant effort at diversion:
"How's your luck been going in Wall Street, by the way? I hear
Gus pulled off a nice little pile for you last month."
Lily put down the tea-caddy with an abrupt gesture. She felt that
her hands were trembling, and clasped them on her knee to steady
them; but her lip trembled too, and for a moment she was afraid
the tremor might communicate itself to her voice. When
she spoke, however, it was in a tone of perfect lightness.
"Ah, yes--I had a little bit of money to invest, and Mr. Trenor,
who helps me about such matters, advised my putting it in stocks
instead of a mortgage, as my aunt's agent wanted me to do; and as
it happened, I made a lucky 'turn'--is that what you call it? For
you make a great many yourself, I believe."
She was smiling back at him now, relaxing the tension of her
attitude, and admitting him, by imperceptible gradations of
glance and manner, a step farther toward intimacy. The protective
instinct always nerved her to successful dissimulation, and it
was not the first time she had used her beauty to divert
attention from an inconvenient topic.
When Mr. Rosedale took leave, he carried with him, not only her
acceptance of his invitation, but a general sense of having
comported himself in a way calculated to advance his cause. He
had always believed he had a light touch and a knowing way with
women, and the prompt manner in which Miss Bart (as he would have
phrased it) had "come into line," confirmed his confidence in his
powers of handling this skittish sex. Her way of glossing over
the transaction with Trenor he regarded at once as a tribute to
his own acuteness, and a confirmation of his suspicions. The girl
was evidently nervous, and Mr. Rosedale, if he saw no other means
of advancing his acquaintance with her, was not above taking
advantage of her nervousness.
He left Lily to a passion of disgust and fear. It seemed
incredible that Gus Trenor should have spoken of her to Rosedale.
With all his faults, Trenor had the safeguard of his traditions,
and was the less likely to overstep them because they were so
purely instinctive. But Lily recalled with a pang that there were
convivial moments when, as Judy had confided to her, Gus "talked
foolishly": in one of these, no doubt, the fatal word had slipped
from him. As for Rosedale, she did not, after the first shock,
greatly care what conclusions he had drawn. Though usually adroit
enough where her own interests were concerned, she made the
mistake, not uncommon to persons in whom the social habits are
instinctive, of supposing that the inability to acquire them
plies a general dulness. Because a blue-bottle
bangs irrationally against a window-pane, the drawing-room
naturalist may forget that under less artificial conditions it is
capable of measuring distances and drawing conclusions with all
the accuracy needful to its welfare; and the fact that Mr.
Rosedale's drawing-room manner lacked perspective made Lily class
him with Trenor and the other dull men she knew, and assume that
a little flattery, and the occasional acceptance of his
hospitality, would suffice to render him innocuous. However,
there could be no doubt of the expediency of showing herself in
his box on the opening night of the opera; and after all, since
Judy Trenor had promised to take him up that winter, it was as
well to reap the advantage of being first in the field.
For a day or two after Rosedale's visit, Lily's thoughts were
dogged by the consciousness of Trenor's shadowy claim, and she
wished she had a clearer notion of the exact nature of the
transaction which seemed to have put her in his power; but her
mind shrank from any unusual application, and she was always
helplessly puzzled by figures. Moreover she had not seen Trenor
since the day of the Van Osburgh wedding, and in his continued
absence the trace of Rosedale's words was soon effaced by other
When the opening night of the opera came, her apprehensions had
so completely vanished that the sight of Trenor's ruddy
countenance in the back of Mr. Rosedale's box filled her with a
sense of pleasant reassurance. Lily had not quite reconciled
herself to the necessity of appearing as Rosedale's guest on so
conspicuous an occasion, and it was a relief to find herself
supported by any one of her own set--for Mrs. Fisher's social
habits were too promiscuous for her presence to justify Miss
To Lily, always inspirited by the prospect of showing her beauty
in public, and conscious tonight of all the added enhancements of
dress, the insistency of Trenor's gaze merged itself in the
general stream of admiring looks of which she felt herself the
centre. Ah, it was good to be young, to be radiant, to glow with
the sense of slenderness, strength and elasticity, of well-poised
lines and happy tints, to feel one's self lifted to a height
apart by that incommunicable grace which is the bodily
counterpart of genius!
All means seemed justifiable to attain such an end, or rather, by
a happy shifting of lights with which practice had familiarized
Miss Bart, the cause shrank to a pin-point in the general
brightness of the effect. But brilliant young ladies, a little
blinded by their own effulgence, are apt to forget that the
modest satellite drowned in their light is still performing its
own revolutions and generating heat at its own rate. If Lily's
poetic enjoyment of the moment was undisturbed by the base
thought that her gown and opera cloak had been indirectly paid
for by Gus Trenor, the latter had not sufficient poetry in his
composition to lose sight of these prosaic facts. He knew only
that he had never seen Lily look smarter in her life, that there
wasn't a woman in the house who showed off good clothes as she
did, and that hitherto he, to whom she owed the opportunity of
making this display, had reaped no return beyond that of gazing
at her in company with several hundred other pairs of eyes.
It came to Lily therefore as a disagreeable surprise when, in the
back of the box, where they found themselves alone between two
acts, Trenor said, without preamble, and in a tone of sulky
authority: "Look here, Lily, how is a fellow ever to see anything
of you? I'm in town three or four days in the week, and you know
a line to the club will always find me, but you don't seem to
remember my existence nowadays unless you want to get a tip out
The fact that the remark was in distinctly bad taste did not make
it any easier to answer, for Lily was vividly aware that it was
not the moment for that drawing up of her slim figure and
surprised lifting of the brows by which she usually quelled
incipient signs of familiarity.
"I'm very much flattered by your wanting to see me," she
returned, essaying lightness instead, "but, unless you have
mislaid my address, it would have been easy to find me any
afternoon at my aunt's--in fact, I rather expected you to look me
If she hoped to mollify him by this last concession the attempt
was a failure, for he only replied, with the familiar lowering of
the brows that made him look his dullest when he was angry: "Hang
going to your aunt's, and wasting the afternoon listening to a
lot of other chaps talking to you! You know I'm not the
kind to sit in a crowd and jaw--I'd always rather clear out when
that sort of circus is going on. But why can't we go off
somewhere on a little lark together--a nice quiet little
expedition like that drive at Bellomont, the day you met me at
He leaned unpleasantly close in order to convey this suggestion,
and she fancied she caught a significant aroma which explained
the dark flush on his face and the glistening dampness of his
The idea that any rash answer might provoke an unpleasant
outburst tempered her disgust with caution, and she answered with
a laugh: "I don't see how one can very well take country drives
in town, but I am not always surrounded by an admiring throng,
and if you will let me know what afternoon you are coming I will
arrange things so that we can have a nice quiet talk."
"Hang talking! That's what you always say," returned Trenor,
whose expletives lacked variety. "You put me off with that at the
Van Osburgh wedding--but the plain English of it is that, now
you've got what you wanted out of me, you'd rather have any other
His voice had risen sharply with the last words, and Lily flushed
with annoyance, but she kept command of the situation and laid a
persuasive hand on his arm.
"Don't be foolish, Gus; I can't let you talk to me in that
ridiculous way. If you really want to see me, why shouldn't we
take a walk in the Park some afternoon? I agree with you that
it's amusing to be rustic in town, and if you like I'll meet you
there, and we'll go and feed the squirrels, and you shall take me
out on the lake in the steam-gondola."
She smiled as she spoke, letting her eyes rest on his in a way
that took the edge from her banter and made him suddenly
malleable to her will.
"All right, then: that's a go. Will you come tomorrow? Tomorrow
at three o'clock, at the end of the Mall. I'll be there sharp,
remember; you won't go back on me, Lily?"
But to Miss Bart's relief the repetition of her promise was cut
short by the opening of the box door to admit George Dorset.
Trenor sulkily yielded his place, and Lily turned a brilliant
smile on the newcomer. She had not talked with Dorset since
their visit at Bellomont, but something in his look and manner
told her that he recalled the friendly footing on which they had
last met. He was not a man to whom the expression of admiration
came easily: his long sallow face and distrustful eyes seemed
always barricaded against the expansive emotions. But, where her
own influence was concerned, Lily's intuitions sent out
thread-like feelers, and as she made room for him on the narrow
sofa she was sure he found a dumb pleasure in being near her. Few
women took the trouble to make themselves agreeable to Dorset,
and Lily had been kind to him at Bellomont, and was now smiling
on him with a divine renewal of kindness.
"Well, here we are, in for another six months of caterwauling,"
he began complainingly. "Not a shade of difference between this
year and last, except that the women have got new clothes and the
singers haven't got new voices. My wife's musical, you know--puts
me through a course of this every winter. It isn't so bad on
Italian nights--then she comes late, and there's time to digest.
But when they give Wagner we have to rush dinner, and I pay up
for it. And the draughts are damnable--asphyxia in front and
pleurisy in the back. There's Trenor leaving the box without
drawing the curtain! With a hide like that draughts don't make
any difference. Did you ever watch Trenor eat? If you did, you'd
wonder why he's alive; I suppose he's leather inside too.--But I
came to say that my wife wants you to come down to our place next
Sunday. Do for heaven's sake say yes. She's got a lot of bores
coming--intellectual ones, I mean; that's her new line, you
know, and I'm not sure it ain't worse than the music. Some of 'em
have long hair, and they start an argument with the soup, and
don't notice when things are handed to them. The consequence is
the dinner gets cold, and I have dyspepsia. That silly ass
Silverton brings them to the house--he writes poetry, you know,
and Bertha and he are getting tremendously thick. She could write
better than any of 'em if she chose, and I don't blame her for
wanting clever fellows about; all I say is: 'Don't let me see 'em
The gist of this strange communication gave Lily a distinct
thrill of pleasure. Under ordinary circumstances, there would
have been nothing surprising in an invitation from Bertha Dorset;
but since the Bellomont episode an unavowed hostility had
kept the two women apart. Now, with a start of inner wonder,
Lily felt that her thirst for retaliation had died out. IF YOU WOULD
FORGIVE YOUR ENEMY, says the Malay proverb, FIRST INFLICT A HURT
ON HIM; and Lily was experiencing the truth of the apothegm.
If she had destroyed Mrs. Dorset's letters, she might have
continued to hate her; but the fact that they remained in her
possession had fed her resentment to satiety.
She uttered a smiling acceptance, hailing in the renewal of the
tie an escape from Trenor's importunities.
Meanwhile the holidays had gone by and the season was beginning.
Fifth Avenue had become a nightly torrent of carriages surging
upward to the fashionable quarters about the Park, where
illuminated windows and outspread awnings betokened the usual
routine of hospitality. Other tributary currents crossed the
mainstream, bearing their freight to the theatres, restaurants or
opera; and Mrs. Peniston, from the secluded watch-tower of her
upper window, could tell to a nicety just when the chronic volume
of sound was increased by the sudden influx setting toward a Van
Osburgh ball, or when the multiplication of wheels meant merely
that the opera was over, or that there was a big supper at
Mrs. Peniston followed the rise and culmination of the season as
keenly as the most active sharer in its gaieties; and, as a
looker-on, she enjoyed opportunities of comparison and
generalization such as those who take part must proverbially
forego. No one could have kept a more accurate record of social
fluctuations, or have put a more unerring finger on the
distinguishing features of each season: its dulness, its
extravagance, its lack of balls or excess of divorces. She had a
special memory for the vicissitudes of the "new people" who rose
to the surface with each recurring tide, and were either
submerged beneath its rush or landed triumphantly beyond the
reach of envious breakers; and she was apt to display a
remarkable retrospective insight into their ultimate fate, so
that, when they had fulfilled their destiny, she was almost
always able to say to Grace Stepney--the recipient of her
prophecies--that she had known exactly what would happen.
This particular season Mrs. Peniston would have characterized as
that in which everybody "felt poor" except the Welly Brys and Mr.
Simon Rosedale. It had been a bad autumn in Wall Street, where
prices fell in accordance with that peculiar law which proves
railway stocks and bales of cotton to be more sensitive to the
allotment of executive power than many estimable citizens trained
to all the advantages of self-government. Even fortunes supposed
to be independent of the market either betrayed a secret
dependence on it, or suffered from a sympathetic affection:
fashion sulked in its country houses, or came to town incognito,
general entertainments were discountenanced, and informality and
short dinners became the fashion.
But society, amused for a while at playing Cinderella, soon
wearied of the hearthside role, and welcomed the Fairy Godmother
in the shape of any magician powerful enough to turn the shrunken
pumpkin back again into the golden coach. The mere fact of
growing richer at a time when most people's investments are
shrinking, is calculated to attract envious attention; and
according to Wall Street rumours, Welly Bry and Rosedale had
found the secret of performing this miracle.
Rosedale, in particular, was said to have doubled his fortune,
and there was talk of his buying the newly-finished house of one
of the victims of the crash, who, in the space of twelve short
months, had made the same number of millions, built a house in
Fifth Avenue, filled a picture-gallery with old masters,
entertained all New York in it, and been smuggled out of the
country between a trained nurse and a doctor, while his creditors
mounted guard over the old masters, and his guests explained to
each other that they had dined with him only because they wanted
to see the pictures. Mr. Rosedale meant to have a less meteoric
career. He knew he should have to go slowly, and the instincts of
his race fitted him to suffer rebuffs and put up with delays. But
he was prompt to perceive that the general dulness of the season
afforded him an unusual opportunity to shine, and he set about
with patient industry to form a background for his growing glory.
Mrs. Fisher was of immense service to him at this period. She had
set off so many newcomers on the social stage that she was like
one of those pieces of stock scenery which tell the experienced
spectator exactly what is going to take place. But Mr. Rosedale
wanted, in the long run, a more individual environment. He was
sensitive to shades of difference which Miss Bart would never
have credited him with perceiving, because he had no
corresponding variations of manner; and it was becoming more and
more clear to him that Miss Bart herself possessed precisely the
complementary qualities needed to round off his social
Such details did not fall within the range of Mrs. Peniston's
vision. Like many minds of panoramic sweep, hers was apt to
overlook the MINUTIAE of the foreground, and she was much more
likely to know where Carry Fisher had found the Welly Brys' CHEF
for them, than what was happening to her own niece. She was not,
however, without purveyors of information ready to supplement her
deficiencies. Grace Stepney's mind was like a kind of moral
fly-paper, to which the buzzing items of gossip were drawn by a
fatal attraction, and where they hung fast in the toils of an
inexorable memory. Lily would have been surprised to know how
many trivial facts concerning herself were lodged in Miss
Stepney's head. She was quite aware that she was of interest to
dingy people, but she assumed that there is only one form of
dinginess, and that admiration for brilliancy is the natural
expression of its inferior state. She knew that Gerty Farish
admired her blindly, and therefore supposed that she inspired the
same sentiments in Grace Stepney, whom she classified as a Gerty
Farish without the saving traits of youth and enthusiasm.
In reality, the two differed from each other as much as they
differed from the object of their mutual contemplation. Miss
Farish's heart was a fountain of tender illusions, Miss Stepney's
a precise register of facts as manifested in their relation to
herself. She had sensibilities which, to Lily, would have seemed
comic in a person with a freckled nose and red eyelids, who lived
in a boarding-house and admired Mrs. Peniston's drawing-room; but
poor Grace's limitations gave them a more concentrated inner
life, as poor soil starves certain plants into intenser
efflorescence. She had in truth no abstract propensity to malice:
she did not dislike Lily because the latter was brilliant and
predominant, but because she thought that Lily disliked her. It
is less mortifying to believe one's self unpopular than
insignificant, and vanity prefers to assume that indifference is
a latent form of unfriendliness. Even such scant civilities as
Lily accorded to Mr. Rosedale would have made Miss Stepney her
friend for life; but how could she foresee that such a friend was
worth cultivating? How, moreover, can a young woman who has never
been ignored measure the pang which this injury inflicts? And,
lastly, how could Lily, accustomed to choose between a
pressure of engagements, guess that she had mortally offended
Miss Stepney by causing her to be excluded from one of Mrs.
Peniston's infrequent dinner-parties?
Mrs. Peniston disliked giving dinners, but she had a high sense
of family obligation, and on the Jack Stepneys' return from their
honeymoon she felt it incumbent upon her to light the
drawing-room lamps and extract her best silver from the Safe
Deposit vaults. Mrs. Peniston's rare entertainments were preceded
by days of heart-rending vacillation as to every detail of the
feast, from the seating of the guests to the pattern of the
table-cloth, and in the course of one of these preliminary
discussions she had imprudently suggested to her cousin Grace
that, as the dinner was a family affair, she might be included in
it. For a week the prospect had lighted up Miss Stepney's
colourless existence; then she had been given to understand that
it would be more convenient to have her another day. Miss Stepney
knew exactly what had happened. Lily, to whom family reunions
were occasions of unalloyed dulness, had persuaded her aunt that
a dinner of "smart" people would be much more to the taste of the
young couple, and Mrs. Peniston, who leaned helplessly on her
niece in social matters, had been prevailed upon to pronounce
Grace's exile. After all, Grace could come any other day; why
should she mind being put off?
It was precisely because Miss Stepney could come any other
day--and because she knew her relations were in the secret of her
unoccupied evenings--that this incident loomed gigantically on
her horizon. She was aware that she had Lily to thank for it; and
dull resentment was turned to active animosity.
Mrs. Peniston, on whom she had looked in a day or two after the
dinner, laid down her crochet-work and turned abruptly from her
oblique survey of Fifth Avenue.
"Gus Trenor?--Lily and Gus Trenor?" she said, growing so suddenly
pale that her visitor was almost alarmed.
"Oh, cousin Julia . . . of course I don't mean . . ."
"I don't know what you DO mean," said Mrs. Peniston, with a
frightened quiver in her small fretful voice. "Such things were
never heard of in my day. And my own niece! I'm not sure I
understand you. Do people say he's in love with her?"
Mrs. Peniston's horror was genuine. Though she boasted an
unequalled familiarity with the secret chronicles of society, she
had the innocence of the school-girl who regards wickedness as a
part of "history," and to whom it never occurs that the scandals
she reads of in lesson-hours may be repeating themselves in the
next street. Mrs. Peniston had kept her imagination shrouded,
like the drawing-room furniture. She knew, of course, that
society was "very much changed," and that many women her mother
would have thought "peculiar" were now in a position to be
critical about their visiting-lists; she had discussed the perils
of divorce with her rector, and had felt thankful at times that
Lily was still unmarried; but the idea that any scandal could
attach to a young girl's name, above all that it could be lightly
coupled with that of a married man, was so new to her that she
was as much aghast as if she had been accused of leaving her
carpets down all summer, or of violating any of the other
cardinal laws of housekeeping.
Miss Stepney, when her first fright had subsided, began to feel
the superiority that greater breadth of mind confers. It was
really pitiable to be as ignorant of the world as Mrs. Peniston!
She smiled at the latter's question. "People always say
unpleasant things--and certainly they're a great deal together. A
friend of mine met them the other afternoon in the Park-quite
late, after the lamps were lit. It s a pity Lily makes herself so
"CONSPICUOUS!" gasped Mrs. Peniston. She bent forward, lowering
her voice to mitigate the horror. "What sort of things do they
say? That he means to get a divorce and marry her?"
Grace Stepney laughed outright. "Dear me, no! He would hardly do
that. It--it's a flirtation--nothing more."
"A flirtation? Between my niece and a married man? Do you mean to
tell me that, with Lily's looks and advantages, she could find no
better use for her time than to waste it on a fat stupid man
almost old enough to be her father?" This argument had such a
convincing ring that it gave Mrs. Peniston sufficient reassurance
to pick up her work, while she waited for Grace Stepney to rally
her scattered forces.
But Miss Stepney was on the spot in an instant. "That's the worst
of it--people say she isn't wasting her time! Every one knows, as
you say, that Lily is too handsome and-and charming--to devote
herself to a man like Gus Trenor unless--"
"Unless?" echoed Mrs. Peniston. Her visitor drew breath
nervously. It was agreeable to shock Mrs. Peniston, but not to
shock her to the verge of anger. Miss Stepney was not
sufficiently familiar with the classic drama to have recalled in
advance how bearers of bad tidings are proverbially received, but
she now had a rapid vision of forfeited dinners and a reduced
wardrobe as the possible consequence of her disinterestedness. To
the honour of her sex, however, hatred of Lily prevailed over
more personal considerations. Mrs. Peniston had chosen the wrong
moment to boast of her niece's charms.
"Unless," said Grace, leaning forward to speak with low-toned
emphasis, "unless there are material advantages to be gained by
making herself agreeable to him."
She felt that the moment was tremendous, and remembered suddenly
that Mrs. Peniston's black brocade, with the cut jet fringe,
would have been hers at the end of the season.
Mrs. Peniston put down her work again. Another aspect of the same
idea had presented itself to her, and she felt that it was
beneath her dignity to have her nerves racked by a dependent
relative who wore her old clothes.
"If you take pleasure in annoying me by mysterious insinuations,"
she said coldly, "you might at least have chosen a more suitable
time than just as I am recovering from the strain of giving a
The mention of the dinner dispelled Miss Stepney's last scruples.
"I don't know why I should be accused of taking pleasure in
telling you about Lily. I was sure I shouldn't get any thanks for
it," she returned with a flare of temper. "But I have some family
feeling left, and as you are the only person who has any
authority over Lily, I thought you ought to know what is being
said of her."
"Well," said Mrs. Peniston, "what I complain of is that you
haven't told me yet what IS being said."
"I didn't suppose I should have to put it so plainly. People say
that Gus Trenor pays her bills."
"Pays her bills--her bills?" Mrs. Peniston broke into a laugh. "I
can't imagine where you can have picked up such rubbish. Lily has
her own income--and I provide for her very handsomely--"
"Oh, we all know that," interposed Miss Stepney drily. "But Lily
wears a great many smart gowns--"
"I like her to be well-dressed--it's only suitable!"
"Certainly; but then there are her gambling debts besides."
Miss Stepney, in the beginning, had not meant to bring up this
point; but Mrs. Peniston had only her own incredulity to blame.
She was like the stiff-necked unbelievers of Scripture, who must
be annihilated to be convinced.
"Gambling debts? Lily?" Mrs. Peniston's voice shook with anger
and bewilderment. She wondered whether Grace Stepney had gone out
of her mind. "What do you mean by her gambling debts?"
"Simply that if one plays bridge for money in Lily's set one is
liable to lose a great deal--and I don't suppose Lily always
"Who told you that my niece played cards for money?"
"Mercy, cousin Julia, don't look at me as if I were trying to
turn you against Lily! Everybody knows she is crazy about bridge.
Mrs. Gryce told me herself that it was her gambling that
frightened Percy Gryce--it seems he was really taken with her at
first. But, of course, among Lily's friends it's quite the custom
for girls to play for money. In fact, people are inclined to
excuse her on that account---"
"To excuse her for what?"
"For being hard up--and accepting attentions from men like Gus
Trenor--and George Dorset---"
Mrs. Peniston gave another cry. "George Dorset? Is there any one
else? I should like to know the worst, if you please."
"Don't put it in that way, cousin Julia. Lately Lily has been a
good deal with the Dorsets, and he seems to admire her--but of
course that's only natural. And I'm sure there is no truth in the
horrid things people say; but she HAS been spending a great deal
of money this winter. Evie Van Osburgh was at Celeste's
ordering her trousseau the other day--yes, the marriage takes
place next month--and she told me that Celeste showed her the
most exquisite things she was just sending home to Lily. And
people say that Judy Trenor has quarrelled with her on account of
Gus; but I'm sure I'm sorry I spoke, though I only meant it as a
Mrs. Peniston's genuine incredulity enabled her to dismiss Miss
Stepney with a disdain which boded ill for that lady's prospect
of succeeding to the black brocade; but minds impenetrable to
reason have generally some crack through which suspicion filters,
and her visitor's insinuations did not glide off as easily as she
had expected. Mrs. Peniston disliked scenes, and her
determination to avoid them had always led her to hold herself
aloof from the details of Lily's life. In her youth, girls had
not been supposed to require close supervision. They were
generally assumed to be taken up with the legitimate business of
courtship and marriage, and interference in such affairs on the
part of their natural guardians was considered as unwarrantable
as a spectator's suddenly joining in a game. There had of course
been "fast" girls even in Mrs. Peniston's early experience; but
their fastness, at worst, was understood to be a mere excess of
animal spirits, against which there could be no graver charge
than that of being "unladylike." The modern fastness appeared
synonymous with immorality, and the mere idea of immorality was
as offensive to Mrs. Peniston as a smell of cooking in the
drawing-room: it was one of the conceptions her mind refused to
She had no immediate intention of repeating to Lily what she had
heard, or even of trying to ascertain its truth by means of
discreet interrogation. To do so might be to provoke a scene; and
a scene, in the shaken state of Mrs. Peniston's nerves, with the
effects of her dinner not worn off, and her mind still tremulous
with new impressions, was a risk she deemed it her duty to avoid.
But there remained in her thoughts a settled deposit of
resentment against her niece, all the denser because it was not
to be cleared by explanation or discussion. It was horrible of a
young girl to let herself be talked about; however unfounded the
charges against her, she must be to blame for their
having been made. Mrs. Peniston felt as if there had been a
contagious illness in the house, and she was doomed to sit
shivering among her contaminated furniture.
Miss Bart had in fact been treading a devious way, and none of
her critics could have been more alive to the fact than herself;
but she had a fatalistic sense of being drawn from one wrong
turning to another, without ever perceiving the right road till
it was too late to take it.
Lily, who considered herself above narrow prejudices, had not
imagined that the fact of letting Gus Trenor make a little money
for her would ever disturb her self-complacency. And the fact in
itself still seemed harmless enough; only it was a fertile source
of harmful complications. As she exhausted the amusement of
spending the money these complications be came more pressing, and
Lily, whose mind could be severely logical in tracing the causes
of her ill-luck to others, justified herself by the thought that
she owed all her troubles to the enmity of Bertha Dorset. This
enmity, however, had apparently expired in a renewal of
friendliness between the two women. Lily's visit to the Dorsets
had resulted, for both, in the discovery that they could be of
use to each other; and the civilized instinct finds a subtler
pleasure in making use of its antagonist than in confounding him.
Mrs. Dorset was, in fact, engaged in a new sentimental
experiment, of which Mrs. Fisher's late property, Ned Silverton,
was the rosy victim; and at such moments, as Judy Trenor had once
remarked, she felt a peculiar need of distracting her husband's
attention. Dorset was as difficult to amuse as a savage; but even
his self-engrossment was not proof against Lily's arts, or rather
these were especially adapted to soothe an uneasy egoism. Her
experience with Percy Gryce stood her in good stead in
ministering to Dorset's humours, and if the incentive to please
was less urgent, the difficulties of her situation were teaching
her to make much of minor opportunities.
Intimacy with the Dorsets was not likely to lessen such
difficulties on the material side. Mrs. Dorset had none of Judy
Trenor's lavish impulses, and Dorset's admiration was not likely
to express itself in financial "tips," even had Lily cared to
renew her experiences in that line. What she required, for the
moment, of the Dorsets' friendship, was simply its social
sanction. She knew that people were beginning to talk of her; but
this fact did not alarm her as it had alarmed Mrs. Peniston. In
her set such gossip was not unusual, and a handsome girl who
flirted with a married man was merely assumed to be pressing to
the limit of her opportunities. It was Trenor himself who
frightened her. Their walk in the Park had not been a success.
Trenor had married young, and since his marriage his intercourse
with women had not taken the form of the sentimental small-talk
which doubles upon itself like the paths in a maze. He was first
puzzled and then irritated to find himself always led back to the
same starting-point, and Lily felt that she was gradually losing
control of the situation. Trenor was in truth in an unmanageable
mood. In spite of his understanding with Rosedale he had been
somewhat heavily "touched" by the fall in stocks; his household
expenses weighed on him, and he seemed to be meeting, on all
sides, a sullen opposition to his wishes, instead of the easy
good luck he had hitherto encountered.
Mrs. Trenor was still at Bellomont, keeping the town-house open,
and descending on it now and then for a taste of the world, but
preferring the recurrent excitement of week-end parties to the
restrictions of a dull season. Since the holidays she had not
urged Lily to return to Bellomont, and the first time they met in
town Lily fancied there was a shade of coldness in her manner.
Was it merely the expression of her displeasure at Miss Bart's
neglect, or had disquieting rumours reached her? The latter
contingency seemed improbable, yet Lily was not without a sense
of uneasiness. If her roaming sympathies had struck root
anywhere, it was in her friendship with Judy Trenor. She believed
in the sincerity of her friend's affection, though it sometimes
showed itself in self-interested ways, and she shrank with
peculiar reluctance from any risk of estranging it. But, aside
from this, she was keenly conscious of the way in which such an
estrangement would react on herself. The fact that Gus Trenor was
Judy's husband was at times Lily's strongest reason for disliking
him, and for resenting the obligation under which he had placed
her. To set her doubts at rest, Miss Bart, soon after the New
Year, "proposed" herself for a week-end at Bellomont. She had
learned in advance that the presence of a large party
would protect her from too great assiduity on Trenor's part, and
his wife's telegraphic "come by all means" seemed to as sure her
of her usual welcome.
Judy received her amicably. The cares of a large party always
prevailed over personal feelings, and Lily saw no change in her
hostess's manner. Nevertheless, she was soon aware that the
experiment of coming to Bellomont was destined not to be
successful. The party was made up of what Mrs. Trenor called
"poky people"--her generic name for persons who did not play
bridge--and, it being her habit to group all such obstructionists
in one class, she usually invited them together, regardless of
their other characteristics. The result was apt to be an
irreducible combination of persons having no other quality in
common than their abstinence from bridge, and the antagonisms
developed in a group lacking the one taste which might have
amalgamated them, were in this case aggravated by bad weather,
and by the ill-concealed boredom of their host and hostess. In
such emergencies, Judy would usually have turned to Lily to fuse
the discordant elements; and Miss Bart, assuming that such a
service was expected of her, threw herself into it with her
accustomed zeal. But at the outset she perceived a subtle
resistance to her efforts. If Mrs. Trenor's manner toward her was
unchanged, there was certainly a faint coldness in that of the
other ladies. An occasional caustic allusion to "your friends the
Wellington Brys," or to "the little Jew who has bought the
Greiner house--some one told us you knew him, Miss Bart,"--showed
Lily that she was in disfavour with that portion of society
which, while contributing least to its amusement, has assumed the
right to decide what forms that amusement shall take. The
indication was a slight one, and a year ago Lily would have
smiled at it, trusting to the charm of her personality to dispel
any prejudice against her. But now she had grown more sensitive
to criticism and less confident in her power of disarming it. She
knew, moreover, that if the ladies at Bellomont permitted
themselves to criticize her friends openly, it was a proof that
they were not afraid of subjecting her to the same treatment
behind her back. The nervous dread lest anything in Trenor's
manner should seem to justify their disapproval made her seek
every pretext for avoiding him, and she left Bellomont con
In town she returned to preoccupations which, for the moment, had
the happy effect of banishing troublesome thoughts. The Welly
Brys, after much debate, and anxious counsel with their newly
acquired friends, had decided on the bold move of giving a
general entertainment. To attack society collectively, when one's
means of approach are limited to a few acquaintances, is like
advancing into a strange country with an insufficient number of
scouts; but such rash tactics have sometimes led to brilliant
victories, and the Brys had determined to put their fate to the
touch. Mrs. Fisher, to whom they had entrusted the conduct of the
affair, had decided that TABLEAUX VIVANTS and expensive music
were the two baits most likely to attract the desired prey, and
after prolonged negotiations, and the kind of wire-pulling in
which she was known to excel, she had induced a dozen fashionable
women to exhibit themselves in a series of pictures which, by a
farther miracle of persuasion, the distinguished portrait
painter, Paul Morpeth, had been prevailed upon to organize.
Lily was in her element on such occasions. Under Morpeth's
guidance her vivid plastic sense, hitherto nurtured on no higher
food than dress-making and upholstery, found eager expression in
the disposal of draperies, the study of attitudes, the shifting
of lights and shadows. Her dramatic instinct was roused by the
choice of subjects, and the gorgeous reproductions of historic
dress stirred an imagination which only visual impressions could
reach. But keenest of all was the exhilaration of displaying her
own beauty under a new aspect: of showing that her loveliness was
no mere fixed quality, but an element shaping all emotions to
fresh forms of grace.
Mrs. Fisher's measures had been well-taken, and society,
surprised in a dull moment, succumbed to the temptation of Mrs.
Bry's hospitality. The protesting minority were forgotten in the
throng which abjured and came; and the audience was almost as
brilliant as the show.
Lawrence Selden was among those who had yielded to the proffered
inducements. If he did not often act on the accepted social axiom
that a man may go where he pleases, it was because he had
long since learned that his pleasures were mainly to be found in
a small group of the like-minded. But he enjoyed spectacular
effects, and was not insensible to the part money plays in their
production: all he asked was that the very rich should live up to
their calling as stage-managers, and not spend their money in a
dull way. This the Brys could certainly not be charged with
doing. Their recently built house, whatever it might lack as a
frame for domesticity, was almost as well-designed for the
display of a festal assemblage as one of those airy
pleasure-halls which the Italian architects improvised to set off
the hospitality of princes. The air of improvisation was in fact
strikingly present: so recent, so rapidly-evoked was the whole
MISE-EN-SCENE that one had to touch the marble columns to learn
they were not of cardboard, to seat one's self in one of the
damask-and-gold arm-chairs to be sure it was not painted against
Selden, who had put one of these seats to the test, found
himself, from an angle of the ball-room, surveying the scene with
frank enjoyment. The company, in obedience to the decorative
instinct which calls for fine clothes in fine surroundings, had
dressed rather with an eye to Mrs. Bry's background than to
herself. The seated throng, filling the immense room without
undue crowding, presented a surface of rich tissues and jewelled
shoulders in harmony with the festooned and gilded walls, and the
flushed splendours of the Venetian ceiling. At the farther end of
the room a stage had been constructed behind a proscenium arch
curtained with folds of old damask; but in the pause before the
parting of the folds there was little thought of what they might
reveal, for every woman who had accepted Mrs. Bry's invitation
was engaged in trying to find out how many of her friends had
done the same.
Gerty Farish, seated next to Selden, was lost in that
indiscriminate and uncritical enjoyment so irritating to Miss
Bart's finer perceptions. It may be that Selden's nearness had
something to do with the quality of his cousin's pleasure; but
Miss Farish was so little accustomed to refer her enjoyment of
such scenes to her own share in them, that she was merely
conscious of a deeper sense of contentment.
"Wasn't it dear of Lily to get me an invitation? Of course
it would never have occurred to Carry Fisher to put me on
the list, and I should have been so sorry to miss seeing it
all-and especially Lily herself. Some one told me the ceiling was
by Veronese--you would know, of course, Lawrence. I suppose it's
very beautiful, but his women are so dreadfully fat. Goddesses?
Well, I can only say that if they'd been mortals and had to wear
corsets, it would have been better for them. I think our women
are much handsomer. And this room is wonderfully becoming--every
one looks so well! Did you ever see such jewels? Do look at Mrs.
George Dorset's pearls--I suppose the smallest of them would pay
the rent of our Girls' Club for a year. Not that I ought to
complain about the dub; every one has been so wonderfully kind.
Did I tell you that Lily had given us three hundred dollars?
Wasn't it splendid of her? And then she collected a lot of money
from her friends--Mrs. Bry gave us five hundred, and Mr. Rosedale
a thousand. I wish Lily were not so nice to Mr. Rosedale, but she
says it's no use being rude to him, because he doesn't see the
difference. She really can't bear to hurt people's feelings--it
makes me so angry when I hear her called cold and conceited! The
girls at the dub don't call her that. Do you know she has been
there with me twice?--yes, Lily! And you should have seen their
eyes! One of them said it was as good as a day in the country
just to look at her. And she sat there, and laughed and talked
with them--not a bit as if she were being CHARITABLE, you know,
but as if she liked it as much as they did. They've been asking
ever since when she's coming back; and she's promised me---oh!"
Miss Farish's confidences were cut short by the parting of the
curtain on the first TABLEAU--a group of nymphs dancing across
flower-strewn sward in the rhythmic postures of Botticelli's
Spring. TABLEAUX VIVANTS depend for their effect not only on the
happy disposal of lights and the delusive-interposition of layers
of gauze, but on a corresponding adjustment of the mental vision.
To unfurnished minds they remain, in spite of every enhancement
of art, only a superior kind of wax-works; but to the responsive
fancy they may give magic glimpses of the boundary world between
fact and imagination. Selden's mind was of this order: he could
yield to vision-making influences as completely as a child to the
spell of a fairy-tale. Mrs. Bry's TABLEAUX wanted none of
the qualities which go to the producing of such illusions, and
under Morpeth's organizing hand the pictures succeeded each other
with the rhythmic march of some splendid frieze, in which the
fugitive curves of living flesh and the wandering light of young
eyes have been subdued to plastic harmony without losing the
charm of life.
The scenes were taken from old pictures, and the participators
had been cleverly fitted with characters suited to their types.
No one, for instance, could have made a more typical Goya than
Carry Fisher, with her short dark-skinned face, the exaggerated
glow of her eyes, the provocation of her frankly-painted smile. A
brilliant Miss Smedden from Brooklyn showed to perfection the
sumptuous curves of Titian's Daughter, lifting her gold salver
laden with grapes above the harmonizing gold of rippled hair and
rich brocade, and a young Mrs. Van Alstyne, who showed the
frailer Dutch type, with high blue-veined forehead and pale eyes
and lashes, made a characteristic Vandyck, in black satin,
against a curtained archway. Then there were Kauffmann nymphs
garlanding the altar of Love; a Veronese supper, all sheeny
textures, pearl-woven heads and marble architecture; and a
Watteau group of lute-playing comedians, lounging by a fountain
in a sunlit glade.
Each evanescent picture touched the vision-building faculty in
Selden, leading him so far down the vistas of fancy that even
Gerty Farish's running commentary--"Oh, how lovely Lulu Melson
looks!" or: "That must be Kate Corby, to the right there, in
purple"--did not break the spell of the illusion. Indeed, so
skilfully had the personality of the actors been subdued to the
scenes they figured in that even the least imaginative of the
audience must have felt a thrill of contrast when the curtain
suddenly parted on a picture which was simply and undisguisedly
the portrait of Miss Bart.
Here there could be no mistaking the predominance of
personality--the unanimous "Oh!" of the spectators was a tribute,
not to the brush-work of Reynolds's "Mrs. Lloyd" but to the flesh
and blood loveliness of Lily Bart. She had shown her artistic
intelligence in selecting a type so like her own that she could
embody the person represented without ceasing to be
herself. It was as though she had stepped, not out of, but into,
Reynolds's canvas, banishing the phantom of his dead beauty by
the beams of her living grace. The impulse to show herself in a
splendid setting--she had thought for a moment of representing
Tiepolo's Cleopatra--had yielded to the truer instinct of
trusting to her unassisted beauty, and she had purposely chosen a
picture without distracting accessories of dress or surroundings.
Her pale draperies, and the background of foliage against which
she stood, served only to relieve the long dryad-like curves that
swept upward from her poised foot to her lifted arm. The noble
buoyancy of her attitude, its suggestion of soaring grace,
revealed the touch of poetry in her beauty that Selden always
felt in her presence, yet lost the sense of when he was not with
her. Its expression was now so vivid that for the first time he
seemed to see before him the real Lily Bart, divested of the
trivialities of her little world, and catching for a moment a
note of that eternal harmony of which her beauty was a part.
"Deuced bold thing to show herself in that get-up; but, gad,
there isn't a break in the lines anywhere, and I suppose she
wanted us to know it!"
These words, uttered by that experienced connoisseur, Mr. Ned Van
Alstyne, whose scented white moustache had brushed Selden's
shoulder whenever the parting of the curtains presented any
exceptional opportunity for the study of the female outline,
affected their hearer in an unexpected way. It was not the first
time that Selden had heard Lily's beauty lightly remarked on, and
hitherto the tone of the comments had imperceptibly coloured his
view of her. But now it woke only a motion of indignant contempt.
This was the world she lived in, these were the standards by
which she was fated to be measured! Does one go to Caliban for a
judgment on Miranda?
In the long moment before the curtain fell, he had time to feel
the whole tragedy of her life. It was as though her beauty, thus
detached from all that cheapened and vulgarized it, had held out
suppliant hands to him from the world in which he and she had
once met for a moment, and where he felt an overmastering longing
to be with her again.
He was roused by the pressure of ecstatic fingers. "Wasn't she
too beautiful, Lawrence? Don't you like her best in that simple dress?
It makes her look like the real Lily--the Lily I know."
He met Gerty Farish's brimming gaze. "The Lily we know," he
corrected; and his cousin, beaming at the implied understanding,
exclaimed joyfully: "I'll tell her that! She always says you
The performance over, Selden's first impulse was to seek Miss
Bart. During the interlude of music which succeeded the TABLEAUX,
the actors had seated themselves here and there in the audience,
diversifying its conventional appearance by the varied
picturesqueness of their dress. Lily, however, was not among
them, and her absence served to protract the effect she had
produced on Selden: it would have broken the spell to see her too
soon in the surroundings from which accident had so happily
detached her. They had not met since the day of the Van Osburgh
wedding, and on his side the avoidance had been intentional.
Tonight, however, he knew that, sooner or later, he should find
himself at her side; and though he let the dispersing crowd drift
him whither it would, without making an immediate effort to reach
her, his procrastination was not due to any lingering resistance,
but to the desire to luxuriate a moment in the sense of complete
Lily had not an instant's doubt as to the meaning of the murmur
greeting her appearance. No other tableau had been received with
that precise note of approval: it had obviously been called forth
by herself, and not by the picture she impersonated. She had
feared at the last moment that she was risking too much in
dispensing with the advantages of a more sumptuous setting, and
the completeness of her triumph gave her an intoxicating sense of
recovered power. Not caring to diminish the impression she had
produced, she held herself aloof from the audience till the
movement of dispersal before supper, and thus had a second
opportunity of showing herself to advantage, as the throng poured
slowly into the empty drawing-room where she was standing.
She was soon the centre of a group which increased and renewed
itself as the circulation became general, and the individual
comments on her success were a delightful prolon
the collective applause. At such moments she lost something of
her natural fastidiousness, and cared less for the quality of the
admiration received than for its quantity. Differences of
personality were merged in a warm atmosphere of praise, in which
her beauty expanded like a flower in sunlight; and if Selden had
approached a moment or two sooner he would have seen her turning
on Ned Van Alstyne and George Dorset the look he had dreamed of
capturing for himself.
Fortune willed, however, that the hurried approach of Mrs.
Fisher, as whose aide-de-camp Van Alstyne was acting, should
break up the group before Selden reached the threshold of the
room. One or two of the men wandered off in search of their
partners for supper, and the others, noticing Selden's approach,
gave way to him in accordance with the tacit freemasonry of the
ball-room. Lily was therefore standing alone when he reached her;
and finding the expected look in her eye, he had the satisfaction
of supposing he had kindled it. The look did indeed deepen as it
rested on him, for even in that moment of self-intoxication Lily
felt the quicker beat of life that his nearness always produced.
She read, too, in his answering gaze the delicious confirmation
of her triumph, and for the moment it seemed to her that it was
for him only she cared to be beautiful.
Selden had given her his arm without speaking. She took it in
silence, and they moved away, not toward the supper-room, but
against the tide which was setting thither. The faces about her
flowed by like the streaming images of sleep: she hardly noticed
where Selden was leading her, till they passed through a glass
doorway at the end of the long suite of rooms and stood suddenly
in the fragrant hush of a garden. Gravel grated beneath their
feet, and about them was the transparent dimness of a midsummer
night. Hanging lights made emerald caverns in the depths of
foliage, and whitened the spray of a fountain falling among
lilies. The magic place was deserted: there was no sound but the
splash of the water on the lily-pads, and a distant drift of
music that might have been blown across a sleeping lake.
Selden and Lily stood still, accepting the unreality of the scene
as a part of their own dream-like sensations. It would not have
surprised them to feel a summer breeze on their faces, or
to see the lights among the boughs reduplicated in the arch of a
starry sky. The strange solitude about them was no stranger than
the sweetness of being alone in it together. At length Lily
withdrew her hand, and moved away a step, so that her white-robed
slimness was outlined against the dusk of the branches. Selden
followed her, and still without speaking they seated themselves
on a bench beside the fountain.