"Expiation" is a short story written by Pulitzer prize winning author Edith Wharton. It was published in 1904 as one of the stories in the collection, "The Descent of Man and Other Stories". The Bishop of Ossining is announced at the home of Mrs. Fetherel, his niece. And when he is ushered in he has a polite request to make of her. A request she is all too willing to accede for the wellbeing of her soul…
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"I CAN never," said Mrs. Fetherel, "hear the bell ring without a shudder."
Her unruffled aspect--she was the kind of woman whose emotions never communicate themselves to her clothes--and the conventional background of the New York drawing-room, with its pervading implication of an imminent tea-tray and of an atmosphere in which the social functions have become purely reflex, lent to her declaration a relief not lost on her cousin Mrs. Clinch, who, from the other side of the fireplace, agreed with a glance at the clock, that it _was_ the hour for bores.
"Bores!" cried Mrs. Fetherel impatiently. "If I shuddered at _them_, I should have a chronic ague!"
She leaned forward and laid a sparkling finger on her cousin's shabby black knee. "I mean the newspaper clippings," she whispered.
Mrs. Clinch returned a glance of intelligence. "They've begun already?"
"Not yet; but they're sure to now, at any minute, my publisher tells me."
Mrs. Fetherel's look of apprehension sat oddly on her small features, which had an air of neat symmetry somehow suggestive of being set in order every morning by the housemaid. Some one (there were rumors that it was her cousin) had once said that Paula Fetherel would have been very pretty if she hadn't looked so like a moral axiom in a copy-book hand.
Mrs. Clinch received her confidence with a smile. "Well," she said, "I suppose you were prepared for the consequences of authorship?"
Mrs. Fetherel blushed brightly. "It isn't their coming," she owned--"it's their coming _now_."
"The Bishop's in town."
Mrs. Clinch leaned back and shaped her lips to a whistle which deflected in a laugh. "Well!" she said.
"You see!" Mrs. Fetherel triumphed.
"Well--weren't you prepared for the Bishop?"
"Not now--at least, I hadn't thought of his seeing the clippings."
"And why should he see them?"
"Bella--_won't_ you understand? It's John."
"Who has taken the most unexpected tone--one might almost say out of perversity."
"Oh, perversity--" Mrs. Clinch murmured, observing her cousin between lids wrinkled by amusement. "What tone has John taken?"
Mrs. Fetherel threw out her answer with the desperate gesture of a woman who lays bare the traces of a marital fist. "The tone of being proud of my book."
The measure of Mrs. Clinch's enjoyment overflowed in laughter.
"Oh, you may laugh," Mrs. Fetherel insisted, "but it's no joke to me. In the first place, John's liking the book is so--so--such a false note--it puts me in such a ridiculous position; and then it has set him watching for the reviews--who would ever have suspected John of knowing that books were _reviewed?_ Why, he's actually found out about the Clipping Bureau, and whenever the postman rings I hear John rush out of the library to see if there are any yellow envelopes. Of course, when they _do_ come he'll bring them into the drawing-room and read them aloud to everybody who happens to be here--and the Bishop is sure to happen to be here!"
Mrs. Clinch repressed her amusement. "The picture you draw is a lurid one," she conceded, "but your modesty strikes me as abnormal, especially in an author. The chances are that some of the clippings will be rather pleasant reading. The critics are not all union men."
Mrs. Fetherel stared. "Union men?"
"Well, I mean they don't all belong to the well-known Society-for-the-Persecution-of-Rising-Authors. Some of them have even been known to defy its regulations and say a good word for a new writer."
"Oh, I dare say," said Mrs. Fetherel, with the laugh her cousin's epigram exacted. "But you don't quite see my point. I'm not at all nervous about the success of my book--my publisher tells me I have no need to be--but I _am_ afraid of its being a succes de scandale."
"Mercy!" said Mrs. Clinch, sitting up.
The butler and footman at this moment appeared with the tea-tray, and when they had withdrawn, Mrs. Fetherel, bending her brightly rippled head above the kettle, continued in a murmur of avowal, "The title, even, is a kind of challenge."
"'Fast and Loose,'" Mrs. Clinch mused. "Yes, it ought to take."
"I didn't choose it for that reason!" the author protested. "I should have preferred something quieter--less pronounced; but I was determined not to shirk the responsibility of what I had written. I want people to know beforehand exactly what kind of book they are buying."
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