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House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Part 8 out of 8

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desperately needed....

She did not, in truth, consider the question very closely--the
physical craving for sleep was her only sustained sensation. Her
mind shrank from the glare of thought as instinctively as eyes
contract in a blaze of light--darkness, darkness was what she
must have at any cost. She raised herself in bed and swallowed
the contents of the glass; then she blew out her candle and lay

She lay very still, waiting with a sensuous pleasure for the
first effects of the soporific. She knew in advance what form
they would take--the gradual cessation of the inner throb, the
soft approach of passiveness, as though an invisible hand made
magic passes over her in the darkness. The very slowness and
hesitancy of the effect increased its fascination: it was
delicious to lean over and look down into the dim abysses of
unconsciousness. Tonight the drug seemed to work more slowly than
usual: each passionate pulse had to be stilled in turn, and it
was long before she felt them dropping into abeyance, like
sentinels falling asleep at their posts. But gradually the sense
of complete subjugation came over her, and she wondered languidly
what had made her feel so uneasy and excited. She saw now that
there was nothing to be excited about--she had returned to her
normal view of life. Tomorrow would not be so difficult after
all: she felt sure that she would have the strength to meet it.
She did not quite remember what it was that she had been afraid
to meet, but the uncertainty no longer troubled her. She had been
unhappy, and now she was happy--she had felt herself alone, and
now the sense of loneliness had vanished.

She stirred once, and turned on her side, and as she did so, she
suddenly understood why she did not feel herself alone. It was
odd--but Nettie Struther's child was lying on her arm: she felt
the pressure of its little head against her shoulder. She did not
know how it had come there, but she felt no great surprise at the
fact, only a gentle penetrating thrill of warmth and pleasure.
She settled herself into an easier position, hollowing her arm to
pillow the round downy head, and holding her breath lest
a sound should disturb the sleeping child.

As she lay there she said to herself that there was something she
must tell Selden, some word she had found that should make life
clear between them. She tried to repeat the word, which lingered
vague and luminous on the far edge of thought--she was afraid of
not remembering it when she woke; and if she could only remember
it and say it to him, she felt that everything would be well.

Slowly the thought of the word faded, and sleep began to enfold
her. She struggled faintly against it, feeling that she ought to
keep awake on account of the baby; but even this feeling was
gradually lost in an indistinct sense of drowsy peace, through
which, of a sudden, a dark flash of loneliness and terror tore
its way.

She started up again, cold and trembling with the shock: for a
moment she seemed to have lost her hold of the child. But no--she
was mistaken--the tender pressure of its body was still close to
hers: the recovered warmth flowed through her once more, she
yielded to it, sank into it, and slept.

The next morning rose mild and bright, with a promise of summer
in the air. The sunlight slanted joyously down Lily's street,
mellowed the blistered house-front, gilded the paintless railings
of the door-step, and struck prismatic glories from the panes of
her darkened window.

When such a day coincides with the inner mood there is
intoxication in its breath; and Selden, hastening along the
street through the squalor of its morning confidences, felt
himself thrilling with a youthful sense of adventure. He had cut
loose from the familiar shores of habit, and launched himself on
uncharted seas of emotion; all the old tests and measures were
left behind, and his course was to be shaped by new stars.

That course, for the moment, led merely to Miss Bart's
boarding-house; but its shabby door-step had suddenly become the
threshold of the untried. As he approached he looked up at the
triple row of windows, wondering boyishly which one of them was
hers. It was nine o'clock, and the house, being tenanted by
workers, already showed an awakened front to the street. He
remembered afterward having noticed that only one blind was down.
He noticed too that there was a pot of pansies on one of the
window sills, and at once concluded that the window must be hers:
it was inevitable that he should connect her with the one touch
of beauty in the dingy scene.

Nine o'clock was an early hour for a visit, but Selden had passed
beyond all such conventional observances. He only knew that he
must see Lily Bart at once--he had found the word he meant to say
to her, and it could not wait another moment to be said. It was
strange that it had not come to his lips sooner--that he had let
her pass from him the evening before without being able to speak
it. But what did that matter, now that a new day had come? It was
not a word for twilight, but for the morning.

Selden ran eagerly up the steps and pulled the bell; and even in
his state of self-absorption it came as a sharp surprise to him
that the door should open so promptly. It was still more
of a surprise to see, as he entered, that it had been opened by
Gerty Farish--and that behind her, in an agitated blur, several
other figures ominously loomed.

"Lawrence!" Gerty cried in a strange voice, "how could you get
here so quickly?"--and the trembling hand she laid on him seemed
instantly to close about his heart.

He noticed the other faces, vague with fear and conjecture--he
saw the landlady's imposing bulk sway professionally toward him;
but he shrank back, putting up his hand, while his eyes
mechanically mounted the steep black walnut stairs, up which he
was immediately aware that his cousin was about to lead him.

A voice in the background said that the doctor might be back at
any minute--and that nothing, upstairs, was to be disturbed. Some
one else exclaimed: "It was the greatest mercy--" then Selden
felt that Gerty had taken him gently by the hand, and that they
were to be suffered to go up alone.

In silence they mounted the three flights, and walked along the
passage to a closed door. Gerty opened the door, and Selden went
in after her. Though the blind was down, the irresistible
sunlight poured a tempered golden flood into the room, and in its
light Selden saw a narrow bed along the wall, and on the bed,
with motionless hands and calm unrecognizing face, the semblance
of Lily Bart.

That it was her real self, every pulse in him ardently denied.
Her real self had lain warm on his heart but a few hours
earlier--what had he to do with this estranged and tranquil face
which, for the first time, neither paled nor brightened at his

Gerty, strangely tranquil too, with the conscious self-control of
one who has ministered to much pain, stood by the bed, speaking
gently, as if transmitting a final message.

"The doctor found a bottle of chloral--she had been sleeping
badly for a long time, and she must have taken an overdose by
mistake.... There is no doubt of that--no doubt--there will be no
question--he has been very kind. I told him that you and I would
like to be left alone with her--to go over her things before any
one else comes. I know it is what she would have wished."

Selden was hardly conscious of what she said. He stood
looking down on the sleeping face which seemed to lie like a
delicate impalpable mask over the living lineaments he had known.
He felt that the real Lily was still there, close to him, yet
invisible and inaccessible; and the tenuity of the barrier
between them mocked him with a sense of helplessness. There had
never been more than a little impalpable barrier between
them--and yet he had suffered it to keep them apart! And now,
though it seemed slighter and frailer than ever, it had suddenly
hardened to adamant, and he might beat his life out against it in

He had dropped on his knees beside the bed, but a touch from
Gerty aroused him. He stood up, and as their eyes met he was
struck by the extraordinary light in his cousin's face.

"You understand what the doctor has gone for? He has promised
that there shall be no trouble--but of course the formalities
must be gone through. And I asked him to give us time to look
through her things first---"

He nodded, and she glanced about the small bare room. "It won't
take long," she concluded.

"No--it won't take long," he agreed.

She held his hand in hers a moment longer, and then, with a last
look at the bed, moved silently toward the door. On the threshold
she paused to add: "You will find me downstairs if you want me."

Selden roused himself to detain her. "But why are you going? She
would have wished---"

Gerty shook her head with a smile. "No: this is what she would
have wished---" and as she spoke a light broke through Selden's
stony misery, and he saw deep into the hidden things of love.

The door closed on Gerty, and he stood alone with the motionless
sleeper on the bed. His impulse was to return to her side, to
fall on his knees, and rest his throbbing head against the
peaceful cheek on the pillow. They had never been at peace
together, they two; and now he felt himself drawn downward into
the strange mysterious depths of her tranquillity.

But he remembered Gerty's warning words--he knew that, though
time had ceased in this room, its feet were hastening
relentlessly toward the door. Gerty had given him this supreme
half-hour, and he must use it as she willed.

He turned and looked about him, sternly compelling himself to
regain his consciousness of outward things. There was very little
furniture in the room. The shabby chest of drawers was spread
with a lace cover, and set out with a few gold-topped boxes and
bottles, a rose-coloured pin-cushion, a glass tray strewn with
tortoise-shell hair-pins--he shrank from the poignant intimacy of
these trifles, and from the blank surface of the toilet-mirror
above them.

These were the only traces of luxury, of that clinging to the
minute observance of personal seemliness, which showed what her
other renunciations must have cost. There was no other token of
her personality about the room, unless it showed itself in the
scrupulous neatness of the scant articles of furniture: a
washing-stand, two chairs, a small writing-desk, and the little
table near the bed. On this table stood the empty bottle and
glass, and from these also he averted his eyes.

The desk was closed, but on its slanting lid lay two letters
which he took up. One bore the address of a bank, and as it was
stamped and sealed, Selden, after a moment's hesitation, laid it
aside. On the other letter he read Gus Trenor's name; and the
flap of the envelope was still ungummed.

Temptation leapt on him like the stab of a knife. He staggered
under it, steadying himself against the desk. Why had she been
writing to Trenor--writing, presumably, just after their parting
of the previous evening? The thought unhallowed the memory of
that last hour, made a mock of the word he had come to speak, and
defiled even the reconciling silence upon which it fell. He felt
himself flung back on all the ugly uncertainties from which he
thought he had cast loose forever. After all, what did he know of
her life? Only as much as she had chosen to show him, and
measured by the world's estimate, how little that was! By what
right--the letter in his hand seemed to ask--by what right was it
he who now passed into her confidence through the gate which
death had left unbarred? His heart cried out that it was by right
of their last hour together, the hour when she herself had placed

the key in his hand. Yes--but what if the letter to
Trenor had been written afterward?

He put it from him with sudden loathing, and setting his lips,
addressed himself resolutely to what remained of his task. After
all, that task would be easier to perform, now that his personal
stake in it was annulled.

He raised the lid of the desk, and saw within it a cheque-book
and a few packets of bills and letters, arranged with the orderly
precision which characterized all her personal habits. He looked
through the letters first, because it was the most difficult part
of the work. They proved to be few and unimportant, but among
them he found, with a strange commotion of the heart, the note he
had written her the day after the Brys' entertainment.

"When may I come to you?"--his words overwhelmed him with a
realization of the cowardice which had driven him from her at the
very moment of attainment. Yes--he had always feared his fate,
and he was too honest to disown his cowardice now; for had not
all his old doubts started to life again at the mere sight of
Trenor's name?

He laid the note in his card-case, folding it away carefully, as
something made precious by the fact that she had held it so;
then, growing once more aware of the lapse of time, he continued
his examination of the papers.

To his surprise, he found that all the bills were receipted;
there was not an unpaid account among them. He opened the
cheque-book, and saw that, the very night before, a cheque of ten
thousand dollars from Mrs. Peniston's executors had been entered
in it. The legacy, then, had been paid sooner than Gerty had led
him to expect. But, turning another page or two, he discovered
with astonishment that, in spite of this recent accession of
funds, the balance had already declined to a few dollars. A rapid
glance at the stubs of the last cheques, all of which bore the
date of the previous day, showed that between four or five
hundred dollars of the legacy had been spent in the settlement of
bills, while the remaining thousands were comprehended in one
cheque, made out, at the same time, to Charles Augustus Trenor.

Selden laid the book aside, and sank into the chair beside the
desk. He leaned his elbows on it, and hid his face in his
hands. The bitter waters of life surged high about him, their
sterile taste was on his lips. Did the cheque to Trenor explain
the mystery or deepen it? At first his mind refused to act--he
felt only the taint of such a transaction between a man like
Trenor and a girl like Lily Bart. Then, gradually, his troubled
vision cleared, old hints and rumours came back to him, and out
of the very insinuations he had feared to probe, he constructed
an explanation of the mystery. It was true, then, that she had
taken money from Trenor; but true also, as the contents of the
little desk declared, that the obligation had been intolerable to
her, and that at the first opportunity she had freed herself from
it, though the act left her face to face with bare unmitigated

That was all he knew--all he could hope to unravel of the story.
The mute lips on the pillow refused him more than this--unless
indeed they had told him the rest in the kiss they had left upon
his forehead. Yes, he could now read into that farewell all that
his heart craved to find there; he could even draw from it
courage not to accuse himself for having failed to reach the
height of his opportunity.

He saw that all the conditions of life had conspired to keep them
apart; since his very detachment from the external influences
which swayed her had increased his spiritual fastidiousness, and
made it more difficult for him to live and love uncritically. But
at least he HAD loved her--had been willing to stake his future
on his faith in her--and if the moment had been fated to pass
from them before they could seize it, he saw now that, for both,
it had been saved whole out of the ruin of their lives.

It was this moment of love, this fleeting victory over
themselves, which had kept them from atrophy and extinction;
which, in her, had reached out to him in every struggle against
the influence of her surroundings, and in him, had kept alive the
faith that now drew him penitent and reconciled to her side.

He knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment
to its lees; and in the silence there passed between them the
word which made all clear.



1. I have modernized this text by modernizing the contractions:
do n't becomes don't, etc.

2. I have retained the British spelling of words like favour and

3. I found and corrected one instance of the name "Gertie,"
which I changed to "Gerty" to be consistent with rest of the

Linda Ruoff

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