Twilight Sleep - Edith Wharton - E-Book

Twilight Sleep E-Book

Edith Wharton

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Twilight Sleep is a novel by American author Edith Wharton and was first published in 1927 as a serial in the Pictorial Review before being published as a novel in the same year. The story, filled with irony, is centered around a socialite family navigating the New York of the Jazz Age and their relationships. This novel landed at number one on the best-selling list just two months after its publication and finished the year at number 7. Even as a best selling novel Twilight Sleep was not well received by critics at the time, who, while appreciating Wharton as a writer, struggled with the scenarios and characters she had created in the novel. While it was not considered as such in its own time period, today Twilight Sleep is widely considered to be a modernist novel as it employs modernist literary devices, such as an ever changing narration among the novel's characters and a close examination of the characters' self-identities and relationships with one another.

Edith Wharton (January 24, 1862 – August 11, 1937) was an American writer and designer. Wharton drew upon her insider's knowledge of the upper-class New York "aristocracy" to portray realistically the lives and morals of the Gilded Age. In 1921, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, for her novel The Age of Innocence. She was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1996. Among her other well known works are The House of Mirth, the novella Ethan Frome, and several notable ghost stories.

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Edith Wharton

Twilight Sleep

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Table of contents




FAUST. Und du, wer bist du?
SORGE. Bin einmal da.
FAUST. Entferne dich!
SORGE. Ich bin am rechten Ort.
--Faust. Teil II. Akt V.



Miss Bruss, the perfect secretary, received Nona Manford at the door of her mother's boudoir ("the office," Mrs. Manford's children called it) with a gesture of the kindliest denial.
"She wants to, you know, dear--your mother always wants to see you," pleaded Maisie Bruss, in a voice which seemed to be thinned and sharpened by continuous telephoning. Miss Bruss, attached to Mrs. Manford's service since shortly after the latter's second marriage, had known Nona from her childhood, and was privileged, even now that she was "out," to treat her with a certain benevolent familiarity--benevolence being the note of the Manford household.
"But look at her list--just for this morning!" the secretary continued, handing over a tall morocco-framed tablet, on which was inscribed, in the colourless secretarial hand: "7.30 Mental uplift. 7.45 Breakfast. 8. Psycho-analysis. 8.15 See cook. 8.30 Silent Meditation. 8.45 Facial massage. 9. Man with Persian miniatures. 9.15 Correspondence. 9.30 Manicure. 9.45 Eurythmic exercises. 10. Hair waved. 10.15 Sit for bust. 10.30 Receive Mothers' Day deputation. 11. Dancing lesson. 11.30 Birth Control committee at Mrs.--"
"The manicure is there now, late as usual. That's what martyrizes your mother; everybody's being so unpunctual. This New York life is killing her."
"I'm not unpunctual," said Nona Manford, leaning in the doorway.
"No; and a miracle, too! The way you girls keep up your dancing all night. You and Lita--what times you two do have!" Miss Bruss was becoming almost maternal. "But just run your eye down that list--. You see your mother didn't expect to see you before lunch; now did she?"
Nona shook her head. "No; but you might perhaps squeeze me in."
It was said in a friendly, a reasonable tone; on both sides the matter was being examined with an evident desire for impartiality and good-will. Nona was used to her mother's engagements; used to being squeezed in between faith-healers, art-dealers, social service workers and manicures. When Mrs. Manford did see her children she was perfect to them; but in this killing New York life, with its ever-multiplying duties and responsibilities, if her family had been allowed to tumble in at all hours and devour her time, her nervous system simply couldn't have stood it--and how many duties would have been left undone!
Mrs. Manford's motto had always been: "There's a time for everything." But there were moments when this optimistic view failed her, and she began to think there wasn't. This morning, for instance, as Miss Bruss pointed out, she had had to tell the new French sculptor who had been all the rage in New York for the last month that she wouldn't be able to sit to him for more than fifteen minutes, on account of the Birth Control committee meeting at 11.30 at Mrs.--
Nona seldom assisted at these meetings, her own time being--through force of habit rather than real inclination--so fully taken up with exercise, athletics and the ceaseless rush from thrill to thrill which was supposed to be the happy privilege of youth. But she had had glimpses enough of the scene: of the audience of bright elderly women, with snowy hair, eurythmic movements, and finely-wrinkled over-massaged faces on which a smile of glassy benevolence sat like their rimless pince-nez. They were all inexorably earnest, aimlessly kind and fathomlessly pure; and all rather too well-dressed, except the "prominent woman" of the occasion, who usually wore dowdy clothes, and had steel-rimmed spectacles and straggling wisps of hair. Whatever the question dealt with, these ladies always seemed to be the same, and always advocated with equal zeal Birth Control and unlimited maternity, free love or the return to the traditions of the American home; and neither they nor Mrs. Manford seemed aware that there was anything contradictory in these doctrines. All they knew was that they were determined to force certain persons to do things that those persons preferred not to do. Nona, glancing down the serried list, recalled a saying of her mother's former husband, Arthur Wyant: "Your mother and her friends would like to teach the whole world how to say its prayers and brush its teeth."
The girl had laughed, as she could never help laughing at Wyant's sallies; but in reality she admired her mother's zeal, though she sometimes wondered if it were not a little too promiscuous. Nona was the daughter of Mrs. Manford's second marriage, and her own father, Dexter Manford, who had had to make his way in the world, had taught her to revere activity as a virtue in itself; his tone in speaking of Pauline's zeal was very different from Wyant's. He had been brought up to think there was a virtue in work per se, even if it served no more useful purpose than the revolving of a squirrel in a wheel. "Perhaps your mother tries to cover too much ground; but it's very fine of her, you know--she never spares herself."
"Nor us!" Nona sometimes felt tempted to add; but Manford's admiration was contagious. Yes; Nona did admire her mother's altruistic energy; but she knew well enough that neither she nor her brother's wife Lita would ever follow such an example--she no more than Lita. They belonged to another generation: to the bewildered disenchanted young people who had grown up since the Great War, whose energies were more spasmodic and less definitely directed, and who, above all, wanted a more personal outlet for them. "Bother earthquakes in Bolivia!" Lita had once whispered to Nona, when Mrs. Manford had convoked the bright elderly women to deal with a seismic disaster at the other end of the world, the repetition of which these ladies somehow felt could be avoided if they sent out a commission immediately to teach the Bolivians to do something they didn't want to do--not to believe in earthquakes, for instance.
The young people certainly felt no corresponding desire to set the houses of others in order. Why shouldn't the Bolivians have earthquakes if they chose to live in Bolivia? And why must Pauline Manford lie awake over it in New York, and have to learn a new set of Mahatma exercises to dispel the resulting wrinkles? "I suppose if we feel like that it's really because we're too lazy to care," Nona reflected, with her incorrigible honesty.
She turned from Miss Bruss with a slight shrug. "Oh, well," she murmured.
"You know, pet," Miss Bruss volunteered, "things always get worse as the season goes on; and the last fortnight in February is the worst of all, especially with Easter coming as early as it does this year. I never could see why they picked out such an awkward date for Easter: perhaps those Florida hotel people did it. Why, your poor mother wasn't even able to see your father this morning before he went down town, though she thinks it's all wrong to let him go off to his office like that, without finding time for a quiet little chat first. . . Just a cheery word to put him in the right mood for the day. . . Oh, by the way, my dear, I wonder if you happen to have heard him say if he's dining at home tonight? Because you know he never does remember to leave word about his plans, and if he hasn't, I'd better telephone to the office to remind him that it's the night of the big dinner for the Marchesa---"
"Well, I don't think father's dining at home," said the girl indifferently.
"Not--not--not? Oh, my gracious!" clucked Miss Bruss, dashing across the room to the telephone on her own private desk.
The engagement-list had slipped from her hands, and Nona Manford, picking it up, ran her glance over it. She read: "4 P.M. See A.--4.30 P.M. Musical: Torfried Lobb."
"4 P.M. See A." Nona had been almost sure it was Mrs. Manford's day for going to see her divorced husband, Arthur Wyant, the effaced mysterious person always designated on Mrs. Manford's lists as "A," and hence known to her children as "Exhibit A." It was rather a bore, for Nona had meant to go and see him herself at about that hour, and she always timed her visits so that they should not clash with Mrs. Manford's, not because the latter disapproved of Nona's friendship with Arthur Wyant (she thought it "beautiful" of the girl to show him so much kindness), but because Wyant and Nona were agreed that on these occasions the presence of the former Mrs. Wyant spoilt their fun. But there was nothing to do about it. Mrs. Manford's plans were unchangeable. Even illness and death barely caused a ripple in them. One might as well have tried to bring down one of the Pyramids by poking it with a parasol as attempt to disarrange the close mosaic of Mrs. Manford's engagement-list. Mrs. Manford herself couldn't have done it; not with the best will in the world; and Mrs. Manford's will, as her children and all her household knew, was the best in the world.
Nona Manford moved away with a final shrug. She had wanted to speak to her mother about something rather important; something she had caught a startled glimpse of, the evening before, in the queer little half-formed mind of her sister-in-law Lita, the wife of her half-brother Jim Wyant--the Lita with whom, as Miss Bruss remarked, she, Nona, danced away the nights. There was nobody on earth as dear to Nona as that same Jim, her elder by six or seven years, and who had been brother, comrade, guardian, almost father to her--her own father, Dexter Manford, who was so clever, capable and kind, being almost always too busy at the office, or too firmly requisitioned by Mrs. Manford, when he was at home, to be able to spare much time for his daughter.
Jim, bless him, always had time; no doubt that was what his mother meant when she called him lazy--as lazy as his father, she had once added, with one of her rare flashes of impatience. Nothing so conduced to impatience in Mrs. Manford as the thought of anybody's having the least fraction of unapportioned time and not immediately planning to do something with it. If only they could have given it to her! And Jim, who loved and admired her (as all her family did) was always conscientiously trying to fill his days, or to conceal from her their occasional vacuity. But he had a way of not being in a hurry, and this had been all to the good for little Nona, who could always count on him to ride or walk with her, to slip off with her to a concert or a "movie," or, more pleasantly still, just to be there--idling in the big untenanted library of Cedarledge, the place in the country, or in his untidy study on the third floor of the town house, and ready to answer questions, help her to look up hard words in dictionaries, mend her golf-sticks, or get a thorn out of her Sealyham's paw. Jim was wonderful with his hands: he could repair clocks, start up mechanical toys, make fascinating models of houses or gardens, apply a tourniquet, scramble eggs, mimic his mother's visitors--preferably the "earnest" ones who held forth about "causes" or "messages" in her gilded drawing-rooms--and make delicious coloured maps of imaginary continents, concerning which Nona wrote interminable stories. And of all these gifts he had, alas, made no particular use as yet--except to enchant his little half-sister.
It had been just the same, Nona knew, with his father: poor useless "Exhibit A"! Mrs. Manford said it was their "old New York blood"--she spoke of them with mingled contempt and pride, as if they were the last of the Capetians, exhausted by a thousand years of sovereignty. Her own red corpuscles were tinged with a more plebeian dye. Her progenitors had mined in Pennsylvania and made bicycles at Exploit, and now gave their name to one of the most popular automobiles in the United States. Not that other ingredients were lacking in her hereditary make-up: her mother was said to have contributed southern gentility by being a Pascal of Tallahassee. Mrs. Manford, in certain moods, spoke of "The Pascals of Tallahassee" as if they accounted for all that was noblest in her; but when she was exhorting Jim to action it was her father's blood that she invoked. "After all, in spite of the Pascal tradition, there is no shame in being in trade. My father's father came over from Scotland with two sixpences in his pocket . . ." and Mrs. Manford would glance with pardonable pride at the glorious Gainsborough over the dining-room mantelpiece (which she sometimes almost mistook for an ancestral portrait), and at her healthy handsome family sitting about the dinner-table laden with Georgian silver and orchids from her own hot-houses.
From the threshold, Nona called back to Miss Bruss: "Please tell mother I shall probably be lunching with Jim and Lita--" but Miss Bruss was passionately saying to an unseen interlocutor: "Oh, but Mr. Rigley, but you must make Mr. Manford understand that Mrs. Manford counts on him for dinner this evening. . . The dinner-dance for the Marchesa, you know. . ."
The marriage of her half-brother had been Nona Manford's first real sorrow. Not that she had disapproved of his choice: how could any one take that funny irresponsible little Lita Cliffe seriously enough to disapprove of her? The sisters-in-law were soon the best of friends; if Nona had a fault to find with Lita, it was that she didn't worship the incomparable Jim as blindly as his sister did. But then Lita was made to be worshipped, not to worship; that was manifest in the calm gaze of her long narrow nut-coloured eyes, in the hieratic fixity of her lovely smile, in the very shape of her hands, so slim yet dimpled, hands which had never grown up, and which drooped from her wrists as if listlessly waiting to be kissed, or lay like rare shells or upcurved magnolia-petals on the cushions luxuriously piled about her indolent body.
The Jim Wyants had been married for nearly two years now; the baby was six months old; the pair were beginning to be regarded as one of the "old couples" of their set, one of the settled landmarks in the matrimonial quicksands of New York. Nona's love for her brother was too disinterested for her not to rejoice in this: above all things she wanted her old Jim to be happy, and happy she was sure he was--or had been until lately. The mere getting away from Mrs. Manford's iron rule had been a greater relief than he himself perhaps guessed. And then he was still the foremost of Lita's worshippers; still enchanted by the childish whims, the unpunctuality, the irresponsibility, which made life with her such a thrillingly unsettled business after the clock-work routine of his mother's perfect establishment.
All this Nona rejoiced in; but she ached at times with the loneliness of the perfect establishment, now that Jim, its one disturbing element, had left. Jim guessed her loneliness, she was sure: it was he who encouraged the growing intimacy between his wife and his half-sister, and tried to make the latter feel that his house was another home to her.
Lita had always been amiably disposed toward Nona. The two, though so fundamentally different, were nearly of an age, and united by the prevailing passion for every form of sport. Lita, in spite of her soft curled-up attitudes, was not only a tireless dancer but a brilliant if uncertain tennis-player, and an adventurous rider to hounds. Between her hours of lolling, and smoking amber-scented cigarettes, every moment of her life was crammed with dancing, riding or games. During the two or three months before the baby's birth, when Lita had been reduced to partial inactivity, Nona had rather feared that her perpetual craving for new "thrills" might lead to some insidious form of time-killing--some of the drinking or drugging that went on among the young women of their set; but Lita had sunk into a state of smiling animal patience, as if the mysterious work going on in her tender young body had a sacred significance for her, and it was enough to lie still and let it happen. All she asked was that nothing should "hurt" her: she had the blind dread of physical pain common also to most of the young women of her set. But all that was so easily managed nowadays: Mrs. Manford (who took charge of the business, Lita being an orphan) of course knew the most perfect "Twilight Sleep" establishment in the country, installed Lita in its most luxurious suite, and filled her rooms with spring flowers, hot-house fruits, new novels and all the latest picture-papers--and Lita drifted into motherhood as lightly and unperceivingly as if the wax doll which suddenly appeared in the cradle at her bedside had been brought there in one of the big bunches of hot-house roses that she found every morning on her pillow.
"Of course there ought to be no Pain . . . nothing but Beauty. . . It ought to be one of the loveliest, most poetic things in the world to have a baby," Mrs. Manford declared, in that bright efficient voice which made loveliness and poetry sound like the attributes of an advanced industrialism, and babies something to be turned out in series like Fords. And Jim's joy in his son had been unbounded; and Lita really hadn't minded in the least.
The Marchesa was something which happened at irregular but inevitable moments in Mrs. Manford's life.
Most people would have regarded the Marchesa as a disturbance; some as a distinct inconvenience; the pessimistic as a misfortune. It was a matter of conscious pride to Mrs. Manford that, while recognizing these elements in the case, she had always contrived to make out of it something not only showy but even enviable.
For, after all, if your husband (even an ex-husband) has a first cousin called Amalasuntha degli Duchi di Lucera, who has married the Marchese Venturino di San Fedele, of one of the great Neapolitan families, it seems stupid and wasteful not to make some use of such a conjunction of names and situations, and to remember only (as the Wyants did) that when Amalasuntha came to New York it was always to get money, or to get her dreadful son out of a new scrape, or to consult the family lawyers as to some new way of guarding the remains of her fortune against Venturino's systematic depredations.
Mrs. Manford knew in advance the hopelessness of these quests--all of them, that is, except that which consisted in borrowing money from herself. She always lent Amalasuntha two or three thousand dollars (and put it down to the profit-and-loss column of her carefully-kept private accounts); she even gave the Marchesa her own last year's clothes, cleverly retouched; and in return she expected Amalasuntha to shed on the Manford entertainments that exotic lustre which the near relative of a Duke who is also a grandee of Spain and a great dignitary of the Papal Court trails with her through the dustiest by-ways, even if her mother has been a mere Mary Wyant of Albany.
Mrs. Manford had been successful. The Marchesa, without taking thought, fell naturally into the part assigned to her. In her stormy and uncertain life, New York, where her rich relations lived, and from which she always came back with a few thousand dollars, and clothes that could be made to last a year, and good advice about putting the screws on Venturino, was like a foretaste of heaven. "Live there? Carina, no! It is too--too uneventful. As heaven must be. But everybody is celestially kind . . . and Venturino has learnt that there are certain things my American relations will not tolerate. . ." Such was Amalasuntha's version of her visits to New York, when she recounted them in the drawing-rooms of Rome, Naples or St. Moritz; whereas in New York, quite carelessly and unthinkingly--for no one was simpler at heart than Amalasuntha--she pronounced names, and raised suggestions, which cast a romantic glow of unreality over a world bounded by Wall Street on the south and Long Island in most other directions; and in this glow Pauline Manford was always eager to sun her other guests.
"My husband's cousin" (become, since the divorce from Wyant "my son's cousin") was still, after twenty-seven years, a useful social card. The Marchesa di San Fedele, now a woman of fifty, was still, in Pauline's set, a pretext for dinners, a means of paying off social scores, a small but steady luminary in the uncertain New York heavens. Pauline could never see her rather forlorn wisp of a figure, always clothed in careless unnoticeable black (even when she wore Mrs. Manford's old dresses), without a vision of echoing Roman staircases, of the torchlit arrival of Cardinals at the Lucera receptions, of a great fresco-like background of Popes, princes, dilapidated palaces, cypress-guarded villas, scandals, tragedies, and interminable feuds about inheritances.
"It's all so dreadful--the wicked lives those great Roman families lead. After all, poor Amalasuntha has good American blood in her--her mother was a Wyant; yes--Mary Wyant married Prince Ottaviano di Lago Negro, the Duke of Lucera's son, who used to be at the Italian Legation in Washington; but what is Amalasuntha to do, in a country where there's no divorce, and a woman just has to put up with everything? The Pope has been most kind; he sides entirely with Amalasuntha. But Venturino's people are very powerful too--a great Neapolitan family--yes, Cardinal Ravello is Venturino's uncle . . . so that altogether it's been dreadful for Amalasuntha . . . and such an oasis to her, coming back to her own people. . ."
Pauline Manford was quite sincere in believing that it was dreadful for Amalasuntha. Pauline herself could conceive of nothing more shocking than a social organization which did not recognize divorce, and let all kinds of domestic evils fester undisturbed, instead of having people's lives disinfected and whitewashed at regular intervals, like the cellar. But while Mrs. Manford thought all this--in fact, in the very act of thinking it--she remembered that Cardinal Ravello, Venturino's uncle, had been mentioned as one of the probable delegates to the Roman Catholic Congress which was to meet at Baltimore that winter, and wondered whether an evening party for his Eminence could not be organized with Amalasuntha's help; even got as far as considering the effect of torch-bearing footmen (in silk stockings) lining the Manford staircase--which was of marble, thank goodness!--and of Dexter Manford and Jim receiving the Prince of the Church on the doorstep, and walking upstairs backward carrying silver candelabra; though Pauline wasn't sure she could persuade them to go as far as that.
Pauline felt no more inconsistency in this double train of thought than she did in shuddering at the crimes of the Roman Church and longing to receive one of its dignitaries with all the proper ceremonial. She was used to such rapid adjustments, and proud of the fact that whole categories of contradictory opinions lay down together in her mind as peacefully as the Happy Families exhibited by strolling circuses. And of course, if the Cardinal did come to her house, she would show her American independence by inviting also the Bishop of New York--her own Episcopal Bishop--and possibly the Chief Rabbi (also a friend of hers), and certainly that wonderful much-slandered "Mahatma" in whom she still so thoroughly believed. . .
But the word pulled her up short. Yes; certainly she believed in the "Mahatma." She had every reason to. Standing before the tall threefold mirror in her dressing-room, she glanced into the huge bathroom beyond--which looked like a biological laboratory, with its white tiles, polished pipes, weighing machines, mysterious appliances for douches, gymnastics and "physical culture"--and recalled with gratitude that it was certainly those eurythmic exercises of the Mahatma's ("holy ecstasy," he called them) which had reduced her hips after everything else had failed. And this gratitude for the reduction of her hips was exactly on the same plane, in her neat card-catalogued mind, with her enthusiastic faith in his wonderful mystical teachings about Self-Annihilation, Anterior Existence and Astral Affinities . . . all so incomprehensible and so pure. . . Yes; she would certainly ask the Mahatma. It would do the Cardinal good to have a talk with him. She could almost hear his Eminence saying, in a voice shaken by emotion: "Mrs. Manford, I want to thank you for making me know that Wonderful Man. If it hadn't been for you--"
Ah, she did like people who said to her: "If it hadn't been for you--!"
The telephone on her dressing-table rang. Miss Bruss had switched on from the boudoir. Mrs. Manford, as she unhooked the receiver, cast a nervous glance at the clock. She was already seven minutes late for her Marcel-waving, and--
Ah: it was Dexter's voice! Automatically she composed her face to a wifely smile, and her voice to a corresponding intonation. "Yes? Pauline, dear. Oh--about dinner tonight? Why, you know, Amalasuntha. . . You say you're going to the theatre with Jim and Lita? But, Dexter, you can't! They're dining here--Jim and Lita are. But of course. . . Yes, it must have been a mistake; Lita's so flighty. . . I know. . ." (The smile grew a little pinched; the voice echoed it. Then, patiently): "Yes; what else? . . . Oh. . . oh, Dexter. . . what do you mean? . . . The Mahatma? What? I don't understand!"
But she did. She was conscious of turning white under her discreet cosmetics. Somewhere in the depths of her there had lurked for the last weeks an unexpressed fear of this very thing: a fear that the people who were opposed to the teaching of the Hindu sage--New York's great "spiritual uplift" of the last two years--were gaining power and beginning to be a menace. And here was Dexter Manford actually saying something about having been asked to conduct an investigation into the state of things at the Mahatma's "School of Oriental Thought," in which all sorts of unpleasantness might be involved. Of course Dexter never said much about professional matters on the telephone; he did not, to his wife's thinking, say enough about them when he got home. But what little she now gathered made her feel positively ill.
"Oh, Dexter, but I must see you about this! At once! You couldn't come back to lunch, I suppose? Not possibly? No--this evening there'll be no chance. Why, the dinner for Amalasuntha--oh, please don't forget it again!"
With one hand on the receiver, she reached with the other for her engagement-list (the duplicate of Miss Bruss's), and ran a nervous unseeing eye over it. A scandal--another scandal! It mustn't be. She loathed scandals. And besides, she did believe in the Mahatma. He had "vision." From the moment when she had picked up that word in a magazine article she had felt she had a complete answer about him. . .
"But I must see you before this evening, Dexter. Wait! I'm looking over my engagements." She came to "4 p.m. See A. 4.30 Musical--Torfried Lobb." No; she couldn't give up Torfried Lobb: she was one of the fifty or sixty ladies who had "discovered" him the previous winter, and she knew he counted on her presence at his recital. Well, then--for once "A" must be sacrificed.
"Listen, Dexter; if I were to come to the office at 4? Yes; sharp. Is that right? And don't do anything till I see you--promise!"
She hung up with a sigh of relief. She would try to readjust things so as tosee "A" the next day; though readjusting her list in the height of the season was as exhausting as a major operation.
In her momentary irritation she was almost inclined to feel as if it were Arthur's fault for figuring on that day's list, and thus unsettling all her arrangements. Poor Arthur--from the first he had been one of her failures. She had a little cemetery of them--a very small one--planted over with quick-growing things, so that you might have walked all through her life and not noticed there were any graves in it. To the inexperienced Pauline of thirty years ago, fresh from the factory-smoke of Exploit, Arthur Wyant had symbolized the tempting contrast between a city absorbed in making money and a society bent on enjoying it. Such a brilliant figure--and nothing to show for it! She didn't know exactly what she had expected, her own ideal of manly achievement being at that time solely based on the power of getting rich faster than your neighbours--which Arthur would certainly never do. His father-in-law at Exploit had seen at a glance that it was no use taking him into the motor-business, and had remarked philosophically to Pauline: "Better just regard him as a piece of jewellery: I guess we can afford it."
But jewellery must at least be brilliant; and Arthur had somehow--faded. At one time she had hoped he might play a part in state politics--with Washington and its enticing diplomatic society at the end of the vista--but he shrugged that away as contemptuously as what he called "trade." At Cedarledge he farmed a little, fussed over the accounts, and muddled away her money till she replaced him by a trained superintendent; and in town he spent hours playing bridge at his club, took an intermittent interest in racing, and went and sat every afternoon with his mother, old Mrs. Wyant, in the dreary house near Stuyvesant Square which had never been "done over," and was still lit by Carcel lamps.
An obstacle and a disappointment; that was what he had always been. Still, she would have borne with his inadequacy, his resultless planning, dreaming and dawdling, even his growing tendency to drink, as the wives of her generation were taught to bear with such failings, had it not been for the discovery that he was also "immoral." Immorality no high-minded woman could condone; and when, on her return from a rest-cure in California, she found that he had drifted into a furtive love affair with the dependent cousin who lived with his mother, every law of self-respect known to Pauline decreed his repudiation. Old Mrs. Wyant, horror-struck, banished the cousin and pleaded for her son: Pauline was adamant. She addressed herself to the rising divorce-lawyer, Dexter Manford, and in his capable hands the affair was settled rapidly, discreetly, without scandal, wrangling or recrimination. Wyant withdrew to his mother's house, and Pauline went to Europe, a free woman.
In the early days of the new century divorce had not become a social institution in New York, and the blow to Wyant's pride was deeper than Pauline had foreseen. He lived in complete retirement at his mother's, saw his boy at the dates prescribed by the court, and sank into a sort of premature old age which contrasted painfully--even to Pauline herself--with her own recovered youth and elasticity. The contrast caused her a retrospective pang, and gradually, after her second marriage, and old Mrs. Wyant's death, she came to regard poor Arthur not as a grievance but as a responsibility. She prided herself on never neglecting her responsibilities, and therefore felt a not unnatural vexation with Arthur for having figured among her engagements that day, and thus obliged her to postpone him.
Moving back to the dressing-table she caught her reflection in the tall triple glass. Again those fine wrinkles about lids and lips, those vertical lines between the eyes! She would not permit it; no, not for a moment. She commanded herself: "Now, Pauline, stop worrying. You know perfectly well there's no such thing as worry; it's only dyspepsia or want of exercise, and everything's really all right--" in the insincere tone of a mother soothing a bruised baby.
She looked again, and fancied the wrinkles were really fainter, the vertical lines less deep. Once more she saw before her an erect athletic woman, with all her hair and all her teeth, and just a hint of rouge (because "people did it") brightening a still fresh complexion; saw her small symmetrical features, the black brows drawn with a light stroke over handsome directly-gazing gray eyes, the abundant whitening hair which still responded so crisply to the waver's wand, the firmly planted feet with arched insteps rising to slim ankles.
How absurd, how unlike herself, to be upset by that foolish news! She would look in on Dexter and settle the Mahatma business in five minutes. If there was to be a scandal she wasn't going to have Dexter mixed up in it--above all not against the Mahatma. She could never forget that it was the Mahatma who had first told her she was psychic.
The maid opened an inner door an inch or two to say rebukingly: "Madam, the hair-dresser; and Miss Bruss asked me to remind you--"
"Yes, yes, yes," Mrs. Manford responded hastily; repeating below her breath, as she flung herself into her kimono and settled down before her toilet-table: "Now, I forbid you to let yourself feel hurried! You know there's no such thing as hurry."
But her eye again turned anxiously to the little clock among her scent-bottles, and she wondered if she might not save time by dictating to Maisie Bruss while she was being waved and manicured. She envied women who had no sense of responsibility--like Jim's little Lita. As for herself, the only world she knew rested on her shoulders.
At a quarter past one, when Nona arrived at her half-brother's house, she was told that Mrs. Wyant was not yet down.
"And Mr. Wyant not yet up, I suppose? From his office, I mean," she added, as the young butler looked his surprise.
Pauline Manford had been very generous at the time of her son's marriage. She was relieved at his settling down, and at his seeming to understand that marriage connoted the choice of a profession, and the adoption of what people called regular habits. Not that Jim's irregularities had ever been such as the phrase habitually suggests. They had chiefly consisted in his not being able to make up his mind what to do with his life (so like his poor father, that!), in his always forgetting what time it was, or what engagements his mother had made for him, in his wanting a chemical laboratory fitted up for him at Cedarledge, and then, when it was all done, using it first as a kennel for breeding fox-terriers and then as a quiet place to practise the violin.
Nona knew how sorely these vacillations had tried her mother, and how reassured Mrs. Manford had been when the young man, in the heat of his infatuation for Lita, had vowed that if she would have him he would turn to and grind in an office like all the other husbands.
Lita have him! Lita Cliffe, a portionless orphan, with no one to guide her in the world but a harum-scarum and somewhat blown-upon aunt, the "impossible" Mrs. Percy Landish! Mrs. Manford smiled at her son's modesty while she applauded his good resolutions. "This experience has made a man of dear Jim," she said, mildly triumphing in the latest confirmation of her optimism. "If only it lasts--!" she added, relapsing into human uncertainty.
"Oh, it will, mother; you'll see; as long as Lita doesn't get tired of him," Nona had assured her.
"As long--? But, my dear child, why should Lita ever get tired of him? You seem to forget what a miracle it was that a girl like Lita, with no one but poor Kitty Landish to look after her, should ever have got such a husband!"
Nona held her ground. "Well--just look about you, mother! Don't they almost all get tired of each other? And when they do, will anything ever stop their having another try? Think of your big dinners! Doesn't Maisie always have to make out a list of previous marriages as long as a cross-word puzzle, to prevent your calling people by the wrong names?"
Mrs. Manford waved away the challenge. "Jim and Lita are not like that; and I don't like your way of speaking of divorce, Nona," she had added, rather weakly for her--since, as Nona might have reminded her, her own way of speaking of divorce varied disconcertingly with the time, the place and the divorce.
The young girl had leisure to recall this discussion while she sat and waited for her brother and his wife. In the freshly decorated and studiously empty house there seemed to be no one to welcome her. The baby (whom she had first enquired for) was asleep, his mother hardly awake, and the head of the house still "at the office." Nona looked about the drawing-room and wondered--the habit was growing on her.
The drawing-room (it suddenly occurred to her) was very expressive of the modern marriage state. It looked, for all its studied effects, its rather nervous attention to "values," complementary colours, and the things the modern decorator lies awake over, more like the waiting-room of a glorified railway station than the setting of an established way of life. Nothing in it seemed at home or at ease--from the early kakemono of a bearded sage, on walls of pale buff silk, to the three mourning irises isolated in a white Sung vase in the desert of an otherwise empty table. The only life in the room was contributed by the agitations of the exotic goldfish in a huge spherical aquarium; and they too were but transients, since Lita insisted on having the aquarium illuminated night and day with electric bulbs, and the sleepless fish were always dying off and having to be replaced.
Mrs. Manford had paid for the house and its decoration. It was not what she would have wished for herself--she had not yet quite caught up with the new bareness and selectiveness. But neither would she have wished the young couple to live in the opulent setting of tapestries and "period" furniture which she herself preferred. Above all she wanted them to keep up; to do what the other young couples were doing; she had even digested--in one huge terrified gulp--Lita's black boudoir, with its welter of ebony velvet cushions overlooked by a statue as to which Mrs. Manford could only minimize the indecency by saying that she understood it was Cubist. But she did think it unkind--after all she had done--to have Nona suggest that Lita might get tired of Jim!
The idea had never really troubled Nona--at least not till lately. Even now she had nothing definite in her mind. Nothing beyond the vague question: what would a woman like Lita be likely to do if she suddenly grew tired of the life she was leading? But that question kept coming back so often that she had really wanted, that morning, to consult her mother about it; for who else was there to consult? Arthur Wyant? Why, poor Arthur had never been able to manage his own poor little concerns with any sort of common sense or consistency; and at the suggestion that any one might tire of Jim he would be as indignant as Mrs. Manford, and without her power of controlling her emotions.
Dexter Manford? Well--Dexter Manford's daughter had to admit that it really wasn't his business if his step-son's marriage threatened to be a failure; and besides, Nona knew how overwhelmed with work her father always was, and hesitated to lay this extra burden on him. For it would be a burden. Manford was very fond of Jim (as indeed they all were), and had been extremely kind to him. It was entirely owing to Manford's influence that Jim, who was regarded as vague and unreliable, had got such a good berth in the Amalgamated Trust Co.; and Manford had been much pleased at the way in which the boy had stuck to his job. Just like Jim, Nona thought tenderly--if ever you could induce him to do anything at all, he always did it with such marvellous neatness and persistency. And the incentive of working for Lita and the boy was enough to anchor him to his task for life.
A new scent--unrecognizable but exquisite. In its wake came Lita Wyant, half-dancing, half-drifting, fastening a necklace, humming a tune, her little round head, with the goldfish-coloured hair, the mother-of-pearl complexion and screwed-up auburn eyes, turning sideways like a bird's on her long throat. She was astonished but delighted to see Nona, indifferent to her husband's non-arrival, and utterly unaware that lunch had been waiting for half an hour.
"I had a sandwich and a cocktail after my exercises. I don't suppose it's time for me to be hungry again," she conjectured. "But perhaps you are, you poor child. Have you been waiting long?"
"Not much! I know you too well to be punctual," Nona laughed.
Lita widened her eyes. "Are you suggesting that I'm not? Well, then, how about your ideal brother?"
"He's down town working to keep a roof over your head and your son's."
Lita shrugged. "Oh, a roof--I don't care much for roofs, do you--or is it rooves? Not this one, at any rate." She caught Nona by the shoulders, held her at arm's-length, and with tilted head and persuasively narrowed eyes, demanded: "This room is awful, isn't it? Now acknowledge that it is! And Jim won't give me the money to do it over."
"Do it over? But, Lita, you did it exactly as you pleased two years ago!"
"Two years ago? Do you mean to say you like anything that you liked two years ago?"
"Yes--you!" Nona retorted: adding rather helplessly: "And, besides, everybody admires the room so much--." She stopped, feeling that she was talking exactly like her mother.
Lita's little hands dropped in a gesture of despair. "That's just it! Everybody admires it. Even Mrs. Manford does. And when you think what sort of things Everybody admires! What's the use of pretending, Nona? It's the typical cliché drawing-room. Every one of the couples who were married the year we were has one like it. The first time Tommy Ardwin saw it--you know he's the new decorator--he said: 'Gracious, how familiar all this seems!' and began to whistle 'Home, Sweet Home'!"
"But of course he would, you simpleton! When what he wants is to be asked to do it over!"
Lita heaved a sigh. "If he only could! Perhaps he might reconcile me to this house. But I don't believe anybody could do that." She glanced about her with an air of ineffable disgust. "I'd like to throw everything in it into the street. I've been so bored here."
Nona laughed. "You'd be bored anywhere. I wish another Tommy Ardwin would come along and tell you what an old cliché being bored is."
"An old cliché? Why shouldn't it be? When life itself is such a bore? You can't redecorate life!"
"If you could, what would you begin by throwing into the street? The baby?"
Lita's eyes woke to fire. "Don't be an idiot! You know I adore my baby."
"Well--then Jim?"
"You know I adore my Jim!" echoed the young wife, mimicking her own emotion.
"Hullo--that sounds ominous!" Jim Wyant came in, clearing the air with his fresh good-humoured presence. "I fear my bride when she says she adores me," he said, taking Nona into a brotherly embrace.
As he stood there, sturdy and tawny, a trifle undersized, with his bright blue eyes and short blunt-nosed face, in which everything was so handsomely modelled and yet so safe and sober, Nona fell again to her dangerous wondering. Something had gone out of his face--all the wild uncertain things, the violin, model-making, inventing, dreaming, vacillating--everything she had best loved except the twinkle in his sobered eyes. Whatever else was left now was all plain utility. Well, better so, no doubt--when one looked at Lita! Her glance caught her sister-in-law's face in a mirror between two panels, and the reflection of her own beside it; she winced a little at the contrast. At her best she had none of that milky translucence, or of the long lines which made Lita seem in perpetual motion, as a tremor of air lives in certain trees. Though Nona was as tall and nearly as slim, she seemed to herself to be built, while Lita was spun of spray and sunlight. Perhaps it was Nona's general brownness--she had Dexter Manford's brown crinkled hair, his strong black lashes setting her rather usual-looking gray eyes; and the texture of her dusky healthy skin, compared to Lita's, seemed rough and opaque. The comparison added to her general vague sense of discouragement. "It's not one of my beauty days," she thought.
Jim was drawing her arm through his. "Come along, my girl. Is there going to be any lunch?" he queried, turning toward the dining-room.
"Oh, probably. In this house the same things always happen every day," Lita averred with a slight grimace.
"Well, I'm glad lunch does--on the days when I can make a dash up-town for it."
"On others Lita eats goldfish food," Nona laughed.
"Luncheon is served, madam," the butler announced.
The meal, as usual under Lita's roof, was one in which delicacies alternated with delays. Mrs. Manford would have been driven out of her mind by the uncertainties of the service and the incoherence of the menu; but she would have admitted that no one did a pilaff better than Lita's cook. Gastronomic refinements were wasted on Jim, whose indifference to the possession of the Wyant madeira was one of his father's severest trials. ("I shouldn't have been surprised if you hadn't cared, Nona; after all, you're a Manford; but that a Wyant shouldn't have a respect for old wine!" Arthur Wyant often lamented to her.) As for Lita, she either nibbled languidly at new health foods, or made ravenous inroads into the most indigestible dish presented to her. To-day she leaned back, dumb and indifferent, while Jim devoured what was put before him as if unaware that it was anything but canned beef; and Nona watched the two under guarded lids.
The telephone tinkled, and the butler announced: "Mr. Manford, madam."
Nona Manford looked up. "For me?"
"No, miss; Mrs. Wyant."
Lita was on her feet, suddenly animated. "Oh, all right. . . Don't wait for me," she flung over her shoulder as she made for the door.