The Choice (Wharton)
|This short story was published by Charles Scribner's Sons in the United States, 1916.|
Stilling, that night after dinner, had surpassed himself. He always did, Wrayford reflected, when the small fry from Highfield came to dine. He, Cobham Stilling, who had to find his bearings and keep to his level in the big heedless ironic world of New York, dilated and grew vast in the congenial medium of Highfield. The Red House was the biggest house of the Highfield summer colony, and Cobham Stilling was its biggest man. No one else within a radius of a hundred miles (on a conservative estimate) had as many horses, as many greenhouses, as many servants, and assuredly no one else had three motors and a motor-boat for the lake.
The motor-boat was Stilling's latest hobby, and he rode—or steered—it in and out of the conversation all the evening, to the obvious edification of every one present save his wife and his visitor, Austin Wrayford. The interest of the latter two who, from opposite ends of the drawing-room, exchanged a fleeting glance when Stilling again launched his craft on the thin current of the talk—the interest of Mrs. Stilling and Wrayford had already lost its edge by protracted contact with the subject.
But the dinner-guests—the Rector, Mr. Swordsley, his wife Mrs. Swordsley, Lucy and Agnes Granger, their brother Addison, and young Jack Emmerton from Harvard—were all, for divers reasons, stirred to the proper pitch of feeling. Mr. Swordsley, no doubt, was saying to himself: "If my good parishioner here can afford to buy a motor-boat, in addition to all the other expenditures which an establishment like this must entail, I certainly need not scruple to appeal to him again for a contribution for our Galahad Club." The Granger girls, meanwhile, were evoking visions of lakeside picnics, not unadorned with the presence of young Mr. Emmerton; while that youth himself speculated as to whether his affable host would let him, when he came back on his next vacation, "learn to run the thing himself"; and Mr. Addison Granger, the elderly bachelor brother of the volatile Lucy and Agnes, mentally formulated the precise phrase in which, in his next letter to his cousin Professor Spildyke of the University of East Latmos, he should allude to "our last delightful trip in my old friend Cobham Stilling's ten-thousand-dollar motor-launch"—for East Latmos was still in that primitive stage of culture on which five figures impinge.
Isabel Stilling, sitting beside Mrs. Swordsley, her bead slightly
bent above the needlework with which on these occasions it was her
old-fashioned habit to employ herself—Isabel also had doubtless her
reflections to make. As Wrayford leaned back in his corner and looked
at her across the wide flower-filled drawing-room he noted, first of
all—for the how many hundredth time?—the play of her hands above the
embroidery-frame, the shadow of the thick dark hair on her forehead,
the lids over her somewhat full grey eyes. He noted all this with a
conscious deliberateness of enjoyment, taking in unconsciously, at the
same time, the particular quality in her attitude, in the fall of her
dress and the turn of her head, which had set her for him, from the
first day, in a separate world; then he said to himself: "She is
certainly thinking: 'Where on earth will Cobham get the money to pay for
Stilling, cigar in mouth and thumbs in his waistcoat pockets, was impressively perorating from his usual dominant position on the hearth-rug.
"I said: 'If I have the thing at all, I want the best that can be got.' That's my way, you know, Swordsley; I suppose I'm what you'd call fastidious. Always was, about everything, from cigars to wom—" his eye met the apprehensive glance of Mrs. Swordsley, who looked like her husband with his clerical coat cut slightly lower—"so I said: 'If I have the thing at all, I want the best that can be got.' Nothing makeshift for me, no second-best. I never cared for the cheap and showy. I always say frankly to a man: 'If you can't give me a first-rate cigar, for the Lord's sake let me smoke my own.'" He paused to do so. "Well, if you have my standards, you can't buy a thing in a minute. You must look round, compare, select. I found there were lots of motor-boats on the market, just as there's lots of stuff called champagne. But I said to myself: 'Ten to one there's only one fit to buy, just as there's only one champagne fit for a gentleman to drink.' Argued like a lawyer, eh, Austin?" He tossed this to Wrayford. "Take me for one of your own trade, wouldn't you? Well, I'm not such a fool as I look. I suppose you fellows who are tied to the treadmill—excuse me, Swordsley, but work's work, isn't it?—I suppose you think a man like me has nothing to do but take it easy: loll through life like a woman. By George, sir, I'd like either of you to see the time it takes—I won't say the brain—but just the time it takes to pick out a good motor-boat. Why, I went—"
Mrs. Stilling set her embroidery-frame noiselessly on the table at her side, and turned her head toward Wrayford. "Would you mind ringing for the tray?"
The interruption helped Mrs. Swordsley to waver to her feet. "I'm afraid we ought really to be going; my husband has an early service to-morrow."
Her host intervened with a genial protest. "Going already? Nothing of the sort! Why, the night's still young, as the poet says. Long way from here to the rectory? Nonsense! In our little twenty-horse car we do it in five minutes—don't we, Belle? Ah, you're walking, to be sure—" Stilling's indulgent gesture seemed to concede that, in such a case, allowances must be made, and that he was the last man not to make them. "Well, then, Swordsley—" He held out a thick red hand that seemed to exude beneficence, and the clergyman, pressing it, ventured to murmur a suggestion.
"What, that Galahad Club again? Why, I thought my wife—Isabel, didn't we—No? Well, it must have been my mother, then. Of course, you know, anything my good mother gives is—well—virtually—You haven't asked her? Sure? I could have sworn; I get so many of these appeals. And in these times, you know, we have to go cautiously. I'm sure you recognize that yourself, Swordsley. With my obligations—here now, to show you don't bear malice, have a brandy and soda before you go. Nonsense, man! This brandy isn't liquor; it's liqueur. I picked it up last year in London—last of a famous lot from Lord St. Oswyn's cellar. Laid down here, it stood me at—Eh?" he broke off as his wife moved toward him. "Ah, yes, of course. Miss Lucy, Miss Agnes—a drop of soda-water? Look here, Addison, you won't refuse my tipple, I know. Well, take a cigar, at any rate, Swordsley. And, by the way, I'm afraid you'll have to go round the long way by the avenue to-night. Sorry, Mrs. Swordsley, but I forgot to tell them to leave the gate into the lane unlocked. Well, it's a jolly night, and I daresay you won't mind the extra turn along the lake. And, by Jove! if the moon's out, you'll have a glimpse of the motorboat. She's moored just out beyond our boat-house; and it's a privilege to look at her, I can tell you!"
The dispersal of his guests carried Stilling out into the hall, where his pleasantries reverberated under the oak rafters while the Granger girls were being muffled for the drive and the carriages summoned from the stables.
By a common impulse Mrs. Stilling and Wrayford had moved together toward the fire-place, which was hidden by a tall screen from the door into the hall. Wrayford leaned his elbow against the mantel-piece, and Mrs. Stilling stood beside him, her clasped hands hanging down before her.
"Have you anything more to talk over with him?" she asked.
"No. We wound it all up before dinner. He doesn't want to talk about it any more than he can help."
"It's so bad?"
"No; but this time he's got to pull up."
She stood silent, with lowered lids. He listened a moment, catching Stilling's farewell shout; then he moved a little nearer, and laid his hand on her arm.
"In an hour?"
She made an imperceptible motion of assent.
"I'll tell you about it then. The key's as usual?"
She signed another "Yes" and walked away with her long drifting step as her husband came in from the hall.
He went up to the tray and poured himself out a tall glass of brandy and soda.
"The weather is turning queer—black as pitch. I hope the Swordsleys won't walk into the lake—involuntary immersion, eh? He'd come out a Baptist, I suppose. What'd the Bishop do in such a case? There's a problem for a lawyer, my boy!"
He clapped his hand on Wrayford's thin shoulder and then walked over to his wife, who was gathering up her embroidery silks and dropping them into her work-bag. Stilling took her by the arms and swung her playfully about so that she faced the lamplight.
"What's the matter with you tonight?"
"The matter?" she echoed, colouring a little, and standing very straight in her desire not to appear to shrink from his touch.
"You never opened your lips. Left me the whole job of entertaining those blessed people. Didn't she, Austin?"
Wrayford laughed and lit a cigarette.
"There! You see even Austin noticed it. What's the matter, I say? Aren't they good enough for you? I don't say they're particularly exciting; but, hang it! I like to ask them here—I like to give people pleasure."
"I didn't mean to be dull," said Isabel.
"Well, you must learn to make an effort. Don't treat people as if they weren't in the room just because they don't happen to amuse you. Do you know what they'll think? They'll think it's because you've got a bigger house and more money than they have. Shall I tell you something? My mother said she'd noticed the same thing in you lately. She said she sometimes felt you looked down on her for living in a small house. Oh, she was half joking, of course; but you see you do give people that impression. I can't understand treating any one in that way. The more I have myself, the more I want to make other people happy."
Isabel gently freed herself and laid the work-bag on her embroidery-frame. "I have a headache; perhaps that made me stupid. I'm going to bed." She turned toward Wrayford and held out her hand. "Good night."
"Good night," he answered, opening the door for her.
When he turned back into the room, his host was pouring himself a third glass of brandy and soda.
"Here, have a nip, Austin? Gad, I need it badly, after the shaking up you gave me this afternoon." Stilling laughed and carried his glass to the hearth, where he took up his usual commanding position. "Why the deuce don't you drink something? You look as glum as Isabel. One would think you were the chap that had been hit by this business."
Wrayford threw himself into the chair from which Mrs. Stilling had lately risen. It was the one she usually sat in, and to his fancy a faint scent of her clung to it. He leaned back and looked up at Stilling.
"Want a cigar?" the latter continued. "Shall we go into the den and smoke?"
Wrayford hesitated. "If there's anything more you want to ask me about—"
"Gad, no! I had full measure and running over this afternoon. The deuce of it is, I don't see where the money's all gone to. Luckily I've got plenty of nerve; I'm not the kind of man to sit down and snivel because I've been touched in Wall Street."
Wrayford got to his feet again. "Then, if you don't want me, I think I'll go up to my room and put some finishing touches to a brief before I turn in. I must get back to town to-morrow afternoon."
"All right, then." Stilling set down his empty glass, and held out his hand with a tinge of alacrity. "Good night, old man."
They shook hands, and Wrayford moved toward the door.
"I say, Austin—stop a minute!" his host called after him. Wrayford turned, and the two men faced each other across the hearth-rug. Stilling's eyes shifted uneasily.
"There's one thing more you can do for me before you leave. Tell Isabel about that loan; explain to her that she's got to sign a note for it."
Wrayford, in his turn, flushed slightly. "You want me to tell her?"
"Hang it! I'm soft-hearted—that's the worst of me."
Stilling moved toward the tray, and lifted the brandy decanter. "And she'll take it better from you; she'll have to take it from you. She's proud. You can take her out for a row to-morrow morning—look here, take her out in the motor-launch if you like. I meant to have a spin in it myself; but if you'll tell her—"
Wrayford hesitated. "All right, I'll tell her."
"Thanks a lot, my dear fellow. And you'll make her see it wasn't my fault, eh? Women are awfully vague about money, and she'll think it's all right if you back me up."
Wrayford nodded. "As you please."
"And, Austin—there's just one more thing. You needn't say anything to Isabel about the other business—I mean about my mother's securities."
"Ah?" said Wrayford, pausing.
Stilling shifted from one foot to the other. "I'd rather put that to the old lady myself. I can make it clear to her. She idolizes me, you know—and, hang it! I've got a good record. Up to now, I mean. My mother's been in clover since I married; I may say she's been my first thought. And I don't want her to hear of this beastly business from Isabel. Isabel's a little harsh at times—and of course this isn't going to make her any easier to live with."
"Very well," said Wrayford.
Stilling, with a look of relief, walked toward the window which opened on the terrace. "Gad! what a queer night! Hot as the kitchen-range. Shouldn't wonder if we had a squall before morning. I wonder if that infernal skipper took in the launch's awnings before he went home."
Wrayford stopped with his hand on the door. "Yes, I saw him do it. She's shipshape for the night."
"Good! That saves me a run down to the shore."
"Good night, then," said Wrayford.
"Good night, old man. You'll tell her?"
"I'll tell her."
"And mum about my mother!" his host called after him.
The darkness had thinned a little when Wrayford scrambled down the steep path to the shore. Though the air was heavy the threat of a storm seemed to have vanished, and now and then the moon's edge showed above a torn slope of cloud.
But in the thick shrubbery about the boat-house the darkness was still dense, and Wrayford had to strike a match before he could find the lock and insert his key. He left the door unlatched, and groped his way in. How often he had crept into this warm pine-scented obscurity, guiding himself by the edge of the bench along the wall, and hearing the soft lap of water through the gaps in the flooring! He knew just where one had to duck one's head to avoid the two canoes swung from the rafters, and just where to put his hand on the latch of the farther door that led to the broad balcony above the lake.
The boat-house represented one of Stilling's abandoned whims. He had built it some seven years before, and for a time it had been the scene of incessant nautical exploits. Stilling had rowed, sailed, paddled indefatigably, and all Highfield had been impressed to bear him company, and to admire his versatility. Then motors had come in, and he had forsaken aquatic sports for the flying chariot. The canoes of birch-bark and canvas had been hoisted to the roof, the sail-boat had rotted at her moorings, and the movable floor of the boat-house, ingeniously contrived to slide back on noiseless runners, had lain undisturbed through several seasons. Even the key of the boat-house had been mislaid—by Isabel's fault, her husband said—and the locksmith had to be called in to make a new one when the purchase of the motor-boat made the lake once more the centre of Stilling's activity.
As Wrayford entered he noticed that a strange oily odor overpowered the usual scent of dry pine-wood; and at the next step his foot struck an object that rolled noisily across the boards. He lighted another match, and found he had overturned a can of grease which the boatman had no doubt been using to oil the runners of the sliding floor.
Wrayford felt his way down the length of the boathouse, and softly opening the balcony door looked out on the lake. A few yards away, he saw the launch lying at anchor in the veiled moonlight; and just below him, on the black water, was the dim outline of the skiff which the boatman kept to paddle out to her. The silence was so intense that Wrayford fancied he heard a faint rustling in the shrubbery on the high bank behind the boat-house, and the crackle of gravel on the path descending to it.
He closed the door again and turned back into the darkness; and as he did so the other door, on the land-side, swung inward, and he saw a figure in the dim opening. Just enough light entered through the round holes above the respective doors to reveal Mrs. Stilling's cloaked outline, and to guide her to him as he advanced. But before they met she stumbled and gave a little cry.
"What is it?" he exclaimed.
"My foot caught; the floor seemed to give way under me. Ah, of course—" she bent down in the darkness—"I saw the men oiling it this morning."
Wrayford caught her by the arm. "Do take care! It might be dangerous if it slid too easily. The water's deep under here."
"Yes; the water's very deep. I sometimes wish—" She leaned against him without finishing her sentence, and he put both arms about her.
"Hush!" he said, his lips on hers.
Suddenly she threw her head back and seemed to listen.
"What's the matter? What do you hear?"
"I don't know." He felt her trembling. "I'm not sure this place is as safe as it used to be—"
Wrayford held her to him reassuringly. "But the boatman sleeps down at the village; and who else should come here at this hour?"
"Cobham might. He thinks of nothing but the launch.'"
"He won't to-night. I told him I'd seen the skipper put her shipshape, and that satisfied him."
"Ah—he did think of coming, then?"
"Only for a minute, when the sky looked so black half an hour ago, and he was afraid of a squall. It's clearing now, and there's no danger."
He drew her down on the bench, and they sat a moment or two in silence, her hands in his. Then she said: "You'd better tell me."
Wrayford gave a faint laugh. "Yes, I suppose I had. In fact, he asked me to."
"He asked you to?"
She uttered an exclamation of contempt. "He's afraid!"
Wrayford made no reply, and she went on: "I'm not. Tell me everything, please."
"Well, he's chucked away a pretty big sum again—"
"He says he doesn't know. He's been speculating, I suppose. The madness of making him your trustee!"
She drew her hands away. "You know why I did it. When we married I didn't want to put him in the false position of the man who contributes nothing and accepts everything; I wanted people to think the money was partly his."
"I don't know what you've made people think; but you've been eminently successful in one respect. He thinks it's all his—and he loses it as if it were."
"There are worse things. What was it that he wished you to tell me?"
"That you've got to sign another promissory note—for fifty thousand this time."
"Is that all?"
Wrayford hesitated; then he said: "Yes—for the present."
She sat motionless, her head bent, her hand resting passively in his.
He leaned nearer. "What did you' mean just now, by worse things?"
She hesitated. "Haven't you noticed that he's been drinking a great deal lately?"
"Yes; I've noticed."
They were both silent; then Wrayford broke out, with sudden vehemence: "And yet you won't—"
"Put an end to it. Good God! Save what's left of your life."
She made no answer, and in the stillness the throb of the water underneath them sounded like the beat of a tormented heart.
"Isabel—" Wrayford murmured. He bent over to kiss her. "Isabel! I can't stand it! listen—"
"No; no. I've thought of everything. There's the boy—the boy's fond of him. He's not a bad father."
"Except in the trifling matter of ruining his son."
"And there's his poor old mother. He's a good son, at any rate; he'd never hurt her. And I know her. If I left him, she'd never take a penny of my money. What she has of her own is not enough to live on; and how could he provide for her? If I put him out of doors, I should be putting his mother out too."
"You could arrange that—there are always ways."
"Not for her! She's proud. And then she believes in him. Lots of people believe in him, you know. It would kill her if she ever found out."
Wrayford made an impatient movement. "It will kill you if you stay with him to prevent her finding out."
She laid her other hand on his. "Not while I have you."
"Have me? In this way?"
"In any way."
"My poor girl—poor child!"
"Unless you grow tired—unless your patience gives out."
He was silent, and she went on insistently: "Don't you suppose I've thought of that too—foreseen it?"
"Well—and then?" he exclaimed.
"I've accepted that too."
He dropped her hands with a despairing gesture. "Then, indeed, I waste my breath!"
She made no answer, and for a time they sat silent again, a little between them. At length he asked: "You're not crying?"
"I can't see your face, it's grown so dark."
"Yes. The storm must be coming." She made a motion as if to rise.
He drew close and put his arm about her. "Don't leave me yet. You know I must go to-morrow." He broke off with a laugh. "I'm to break the news to you to-morrow morning, by the way; I'm to take you out in the motorlaunch and break it to you." He dropped her hands and stood up. "Good God! How can I go and leave you here with him?"
"You've done it often."
"Yes; but each time it's more damnable. And then I've always had a hope—"
She rose also. "Give it up! Give it up!"
"You've none, then, yourself?"
She was silent, drawing the folds of her cloak about her.
"None—none?" he insisted.
He had to bend his head to hear her answer. "Only one!"
"What, my dearest? What?"
"Don't touch me! That he may die!"
They drew apart again, hearing each other's quick breathing through the darkness.
"You wish that too?" he said.
"I wish it always—every day, every hour, every moment!" She paused, and then let the words break from her. "You'd better know it; you'd better know the worst of me. I'm not the saint you suppose; the duty I do is poisoned by the thoughts I think. Day by day, hour by hour, I wish him dead. When he goes out I pray for something to happen; when he comes back I say to myself: 'Are you here again?' When I hear of people being killed in accidents, I think: 'Why wasn't he there?' When I read the death-notices in the paper I say: 'So-and-so was just his age.' When I see him taking such care of his health and his diet—as he does, you know, except when he gets reckless and begins to drink too much—when I see him exercising and resting, and eating only certain things, and weighing himself, and feeling his muscles, and boasting that he hasn't gained a pound, I think of the men who die from overwork, or who throw their lives away for some great object, and I say to myself: 'What can kill a man who thinks only of himself?' And night after night I keep myself from going to sleep for fear I may dream that he's dead. When I dream that, and wake and find him there it's worse than ever—"
She broke off with a sob, and the loud lapping of the water under the floor was like the beat of a rebellious heart.
"There, you know the truth!" she said.
He answered after a pause: "People do die."
"Do they?" She laughed. "Yes—in happy marriages!"
They were silent again, and Isabel turned, feeling her way toward the door. As she did so, the profound stillness was broken by the sound of a man's voice trolling out unsteadily the refrain of a music-hall song.
The two in the boat-house darted toward each other with a simultaneous movement, clutching hands as they met.
"He's coming!" Isabel said.
Wrayford disengaged his hands.
"He may only be out for a turn before he goes to bed. Wait a minute. I'll see." He felt his way to the bench, scrambled up on it, and stretching his body forward managed to bring his eyes in line with the opening above the door.
"It's as black as pitch. I can't see anything."
The refrain rang out nearer.
"Wait! I saw something twinkle. There it is again. It's his cigar. It's coming this way—down the path."
There was a long rattle of thunder through the stillness.
"It's the storm!" Isabel whispered. "He's coming to see about the launch."
Wrayford dropped noiselessly from the bench and she caught him by the arm.
"Isn't there time to get up the path and slip under the shrubbery?"
"No, he's in the path now. He'll be here in two minutes. He'll find us."
He felt her hand tighten on his arm.
"You must go in the skiff, then. It's the only way."
"And let him find you? And hear my oars? Listen—there's something I must say."
She flung her arms about him and pressed her face to his.
"Isabel, just now I didn't tell you everything. He's ruined his mother—taken everything of hers too. And he's got to tell her; it can't be kept from her."
She uttered an incredulous exclamation and drew back.
"Is this the truth? Why didn't you tell me before?"
"He forbade me. You were not to know."
Close above them, in the shrubbery, Stilling warbled:
Ask thy soul if we must part!"
Wrayford held her by both arms. "Understand this—if he comes in, he'll find us. And if there's a row you'll lose your boy."
She seemed not to hear him. "You—you—you—he'll kill you!" she exclaimed.
Wrayford laughed impatiently and released her, and she stood shrinking against the wall, her hands pressed to her breast. Wrayford straightened himself and she felt that he was listening intently. Then he dropped to his knees and laid his hands against the boards of the sliding floor. It yielded at once, as if with a kind of evil alacrity; and at their feet they saw, under the motionless solid night, another darker night that moved and shimmered. Wrayford threw himself back against the opposite wall, behind the door.
A key rattled in the lock, and after a moment's fumbling the door swung open. Wrayford and Isabel saw a man's black bulk against the obscurity. It moved a step, lurched forward, and vanished out of sight. From the depths beneath them there came a splash and a long cry.
"Go! go!" Wrayford cried out, feeling blindly for Isabel in the blackness.
"Oh—" she cried, wrenching herself away from him.
He stood still a moment, as if dazed; then she saw him suddenly plunge from her side, and heard another splash far down, and a tumult in the beaten water.
In the darkness she cowered close to the opening, pressing her face over the edge, and crying out the name of each of the two men in turn. Suddenly she began to see: the obscurity was less opaque, as if a faint moon-pallor diluted it. Isabel vaguely discerned the two shapes struggling in the black pit below her; once she saw the gleam of a face. She glanced up desperately for some means of rescue, and caught sight of the oars ranged on brackets against the wall. She snatched down the nearest, bent over the opening, and pushed the oar down into the blackness, crying out her husband's name.
The clouds had swallowed the moon again, and she could see nothing below her; but she still heard the tumult in the beaten water.
"Cobham! Cobham!" she screamed.
As if in answer, she felt a mighty clutch on the oar, a clutch that strained her arms to the breaking-point as she tried to brace her knees against the runners of the sliding floor.
"Hold on! Hold on! Hold on!" a voice gasped out from below; and she held on, with racked muscles, with bleeding palms, with eyes straining from their sockets, and a heart that tugged at her as the weight was tugging at the oar.
Suddenly the weight relaxed, and the oar slipped up through her lacerated hands. She felt a wet body scrambling over the edge of the opening, and Stilling's voice, raucous and strange, groaned out, close to her: "God! I thought I was done for."
He staggered to his knees, coughing and sputtering, and the water dripped on her from his streaming clothes.
She flung herself down, again, straining over the pit. Not a sound came up from it.
"Austin! Austin! Quick! Another oar!" she shrieked.
Stilling gave a cry. "My God! Was it Austin? What in hell—Another oar? No, no; untie the skiff, I tell you. But it's no use. Nothing's any use. I felt him lose hold as I came up."
After that she was conscious of nothing till, hours later, as it appeared to her, she became dimly aware of her husband's voice, high, hysterical and important, haranguing a group of scared lantern-struck faces that had sprung up mysteriously about them in the night.
"Poor Austin! Poor Wrayford... terrible loss to me... mysterious dispensation. Yes, I do feel gratitude—miraculous escape—but I wish old Austin could have known that I was saved!"