Mrs. Peyton looked anxiously at her son. “Is there no one who can do this for you? He must have had a clerk or some one who knows about his work.”
Dick shook his head. “Not lately. He hasn’t had much to do this winter, and these last months he had chucked everything to work alone over his plans.”
The word brought a faint colour to Mrs. Peyton’s cheek. It was the first allusion that either of them had made to Darrow’s bequest.
“Oh, of course you must do all you can,” she murmured, turning alone into the house.
The emotions of the morning had stirred her deeply, and she sat at home during the day, letting her mind dwell, in a kind of retrospective piety, on the thought of poor Darrow’s devotion. She had given him too little time while he lived, had acquiesced too easily in his growing habits of seclusion; and she felt it as a proof of insensibility that she had not been more closely drawn to the one person who had loved Dick as she loved him. The evidence of that love, as shown in Darrow’s letter, filled her with a vain compunction. The very extravagance of his offer lent it a deeper pathos. It was wonderful that, even in the urgency of affection, a man of his almost morbid rectitude should have overlooked the restrictions of professional honour, should have implied the possibility of his friend’s overlooking them. It seemed to make his sacrifice the more complete that it had, unconsciously, taken the form of a subtle temptation.
The last word arrested Mrs. Peyton’s thoughts. A temptation? To whom? Not, surely, to one capable, as her son was capable, of rising to the height of his friend’s devotion. The offer, to Dick, would mean simply, as it meant to her, the last touching expression of an inarticulate fidelity: the utterance of a love which at last had found its formula. Mrs. Peyton dismissed as morbid any other view of the case. She was annoyed with herself for supposing that Dick could be ever so remotely affected by the possibility at which poor Darrow’s renunciation hinted. The nature of the offer removed it from practical issues to the idealizing region of sentiment.
Mrs. Peyton had been sitting alone with these thoughts for the greater part of the afternoon, and dusk was falling when Dick entered the drawing-room. In the dim light, with his pallour heightened by the sombre effect of his mourning, he came upon her almost startlingly, with a revival of some long-effaced impression which, for a moment, gave her the sense of struggling among shadows. She did not, at first, know what had produced the effect; then she saw that it was his likeness to his father.
“Well—is it over?” she asked, as he threw himself into a chair without speaking.
“Yes: I’ve looked through everything.” He leaned back, crossing his hands behind his head, and gazing past her with a look of utter lassitude.
She paused a moment, and then said tentatively: “Tomorrow you will be able to go back to your work.”
“Oh—my work,” he exclaimed, as if to brush aside an ill-timed pleasantry.
“Are you too tired?”
“No.” He rose and began to wander up and down the room. “I’m not tired.—Give me some tea, will you?” He paused before her while she poured the cup, and then, without taking it, turned away to light a cigarette.
“Surely there is still time?” she suggested, with her eyes on him.
“Time? To finish my plans? Oh, yes—there’s time. But they’re not worth it.”
“Not worth it?” She started up, and then dropped back into her seat, ashamed of having betrayed her anxiety. “They are worth as much as they were last week,” she said with an attempt at cheerfulness.
“Not to me,” he returned. “I hadn’t seen Darrow’s then.”
There was a long silence. Mrs. Peyton sat with her eyes fixed on her clasped hands, and her son paced the room restlessly.
“Are they so wonderful?” she asked at length.
She paused again, and then said, lifting a tremulous glance to his face: “That makes his offer all the more beautiful.”
Dick was lighting another cigarette, and his face was turned from her. “Yes—I suppose so,” he said in a low tone.
“They were quite finished, he told me,” she continued, unconsciously dropping her voice to the pitch of his.
“Then they will be entered, I suppose?”
“Of course—why not?” he answered almost sharply.
“Shall you have time to attend to all that and to finish yours too?”
“Oh, I suppose so. I’ve told you it isn’t a question of tune. I see now that mine are not worth bothering with.”
She rose and approached him, laying her hands on his shoulders. “You are tired and unstrung; how can you judge? Why not let me look at both designs tomorrow?”
Under her gaze he flushed abruptly and drew back with a half-impatient gesture.
“Oh, I’m afraid that wouldn’t help me; you’d be sure to think mine best,” he said with a laugh.
“But if I could give you good reasons?” she pressed him.
He took her hand, as if ashamed of his impatience. “Dear mother, if you had any reasons their mere existence would prove that they were bad.”
His mother did not return his smile. “You won’t let me see the two designs then?” she said with a faint tinge of insistence.
“Oh, of course—if you want to—if you only won’t talk about it now! Can’t you see that I’m pretty nearly dead-beat?” he burst out uncontrollably; and as she stood silent, he added with a weary fall in his voice, “I think I’ll go upstairs and see if I can’t get a nap before dinner.”
Though they had separated upon the assurance that she should see the two designs if she wished it, Mrs. Peyton knew they would not be shown to her. Dick, indeed, would not again deny her request; but had he not reckoned on the improbability of her renewing it? All night she lay confronted by that question. The situation shaped itself before her with that hallucinating distinctness which belongs to the midnight vision. She knew now why Dick had suddenly reminded her of his father: had she not once before seen the same thought moving behind the same eyes? She was sure it had occurred to Dick to use Darrow’s drawings. As she lay awake in the darkness she could hear him, long after midnight, pacing the floor overhead: she held her breath, listening to the recurring beat of his foot, which seemed that of an imprisoned spirit revolving wearily in the cage of the same thought. She felt in every fibre that a crisis in her son’s life had been reached, that the act now before him would have a determining effect on his whole future. The circumstances of her past had raised to clairvoyance her natural insight into human motive, had made of her a moral barometer responding to the faintest fluctuations of atmosphere, and years of anxious meditation had familiarized her with the form which her son’s temptations were likely to take. The peculiar misery of her situation was that she could not, except indirectly, put this intuition, this foresight, at his service. It was a part of her discernment to be aware that life is the only real counsellor, that wisdom unfiltered through personal experience does not become a part of the moral tissues. Love such as hers had a great office, the office of preparation and direction; but it must know how to hold its hand and keep its counsel, how to attend upon its object as an invisible influence rather than as an active interference.
All this Kate Peyton had told herself again and again, during those hours of anxious calculation in which she had tried to cast Dick’s horoscope; but not in her moments of most fantastic foreboding had she figured so cruel a test of her courage. If her prayers for him had taken precise shape, she might have asked that he should be spared the spectacular, the dramatic appeal to his will-power: that his temptations should slip by him in a dull disguise. She had secured him against all ordinary forms of baseness; the vulnerable point lay higher, in that region of idealizing egotism which is the seat of life in such natures.
Years of solitary foresight gave her mind a singular alertness in dealing with such possibilities. She saw at once that the peril of the situation lay in the minimum of risk it
Mrs. Peyton’s midnight musings summed themselves up in the conclusion that the next few hours would end her uncertainty. She felt the day to be decisive. If Dick offered to show her the drawings, her fears would be proved groundless; if he avoided the subject, they were justified.
She dressed early in order not to miss him at breakfast; but as she entered the dining-room the parlour-maid told her that Mr. Peyton had overslept himself, and had rung to have his breakfast sent upstairs. Was it a pretext to avoid her? She was vexed at her own readiness to see a portent in the simplest incident; but while she blushed at her doubts she let them govern her. She left the dining-room door open, determined not to miss him if he came downstairs while she was at breakfast; then she went back to the drawing-room and sat down at her writing-table, trying to busy herself with some accounts while she listened for his step. Here too she had left the door open; but presently even this slight departure from her daily usage seemed a deviation from the passive attitude she had adopted, and she rose and shut the door. She knew that she could still hear his step on the stairs—he had his father’s quick swinging gait—but as she sat listening, and vainly trying to write, the closed door seemed to symbolize a refusal to share in his trial, a hardening of herself against his need of her. What if he should come down intending to speak, and should be turned from his purpose? Slighter obstacles have deflected the course of events in those indeterminate moments when the soul floats between two tides. She sprang up quickly, and as her hand touched the latch she heard his step on the stairs.
When he entered the drawing-room she had regained the writing-table and could lift a composed face to his. He came in hurriedly, yet with a kind of reluctance beneath his haste: again it was his father’s step. She smiled, but looked away from him as he approached her; she seemed to be re-living her own past as one re-lives things in the distortion of fever.
“Are you off already?” she asked, glancing at the hat in his hand.
“Yes; I’m late as it is. I overslept myself.” He paused and looked vaguely about the room. “Don’t expect me till late—don’t wait dinner for me.”
She stirred impulsively. “Dick, you’re overworking—you’ll make yourself ill.”
“Nonsense. I’m as fit as ever this morning. Don’t be imagining things.”
He dropped his habitual kiss on her forehead, and turned to go. On the threshold he paused, and she felt that something in him sought her and then drew back. “Good-bye,” he called to her as the door closed on him.
She sat down and tried to survey the situation divested of her midnight fears. He had not referred to her wish to see the drawings: but what did the omission signify? Might he not have forgotten her request? Was she not forcing the most trivial details to fit in with her apprehensions? Unfortunately for her own reassurance, she knew that her familiarity with Dick’s processes was based on such minute observation, and that, to such intimacy as theirs, no indications were trivial. She was as certain as if he had spoken, that when he had left the house that morning he was weighing the possibility of using Darrow’s drawings, of supplementing his own incomplete design from the fulness of his friend’s invention. And with a bitter pang she divined that he was sorry he had shown her Darrow’s letter.
It was impossible to remain face to face with such conjectures, and though she had given up all her engagements during the few days since Darrow’s death, she now took refuge in the thought of a concert which was to take place at a friend’s house that morning. The music-room, when she entered, was thronged with acquaintances, and she found transient relief in that dispersal of attention which makes society an anesthetic for some forms of wretchedness. Contact with the pressure of busy indifferent life often gives remoteness to questions which have clung as close as the flesh to the bone; and if Mrs. Peyton did not find such complete release, she at least interposed between herself and her anxiety the obligation to dissemble it. But the relief was only momentary, and when the first bars of the overture turned from her the smiles of recognition among which she had tried to lose herself, she felt a deeper sense of isolation. The music, which at another time would have swept her away on some rich current of emotion, now seemed to island her in her own thoughts, to create an artificial solitude in which she found herself more immitigably face to face with her fears. The silence, the recueillement, about her gave resonance to the inner voices, lucidity to the inner vision, till she seemed enclosed in a luminous empty horizon against which every possibility took the sharp edge of accomplished fact. With relentless precision the course of events was unrolled before her: she saw Dick yielding to his opportunity, snatching victory from dishonour, winning love, happiness and success in the act by which he lost himself. It was all so simple, so easy, so inevitable, that she felt the futility of struggling or hoping against it. He would win the competition, would marry Miss Verney, would press on to achievement through the opening which the first success had made for him.
As Mrs. Peyton reached this point in her forecast, she found her outward gaze arrested by the face of the young lady who so dominated her inner vision. Miss Verney, a few rows distant, sat intent upon the music, in that attitude of poised motion which was her nearest approach to repose. Her slender brown profile with its breezy hair, her quick eye, and the lips which seemed to listen as well as speak, all betokened to Mrs. Peyton a nature through which the obvious energies blew free, a bare open stretch of consciousness without shelter for tenderer growths. She shivered to think of Dick’s frail scruples exposed to those rustling airs. And then, suddenly, a new thought struck her. What if she might turn this force to her own use, make it serve, unconsciously to Dick, as the means of his deliverance? Hitherto she had assumed that her son’s worst danger lay in the chance of his confiding his difficulty to Clemence Verney; and she had, in her own past, a precedent which made her thin
The excitement of this discovery had nearly, in mid-concert, swept Mrs. Peyton from her seat to the girl’s side. Fearing to miss the latter in the throng at the entrance, she slipped out during the last number and, lingering in the farther drawing-room, let the dispersing audience drift her in Miss Verney’s direction. The girl shone sympathetically on her approach, and in a moment they had detached themselves from the crowd and taken refuge in the perfumed emptiness of the conservatory.
The girl, whose sensations were always easily set in motion, had at first a good deal to say of the music, for which she claimed, on her hearer’s part, an active show of approval or dissent; but this dismissed, she turned a melting face on Mrs. Peyton and said with one of her rapid modulations of tone: “I was so sorry about poor Mr. Darrow.”
by Edith Wharton / Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes