by Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
Approximate Word Count: 10669
heir railway carriage had been full when the train left Bologna; but
at the first station beyond Milan their only remaining companion a
courtly person who ate garlic out of a carpetbag had left his crumbstrewn seat with a bow.
Lydia's eye regretfully followed the shiny broadcloth of his retreating
back till it lost itself in the cloud of touts and cab drivers hanging about
the station; then she glanced across at Gannett and caught the same
regret in his look. They were both sorry to be alone.
"Par-ten-za!" shouted the guard. The train vibrated to a sudden
slamming of doors; a waiter ran along the platform with a tray of
fossilized sandwiches; a belated porter flung a bundle of shawls and
band-boxes into a third-class carriage; the guard snapped out a
brief Partenza!which indicated the purely ornamental nature of his first
shout; and the train swung out of the station.
The direction of the road had changed, and a shaft of sunlight struck
across the dusty red velvet seats into Lydia's corner. Gannett did not
notice it. He had returned to his Revue de Paris, and she had to rise and
lower the shade of the farther window. Against the vast horizon of their
leisure such incidents stood out sharply.
Having lowered the shade, Lydia sat down, leaving the length of the
carriage between herself and Gannett. At length he missed her and
I moved out of the sun," she hastily explained.
He looked at her curiously: the sun was beating on her through the
"Very well," he said pleasantly; adding, "You don't mind?" as he drew a
cigarette case from his pocket.
It was a refreshing touch, relieving the tension of her spirit with the
suggestion that, after all, if he could smoke! The relief was only
momentary. Her experience of smokers was limited (her husband had
disapproved of the use of tobacco) but she knew from hearsay that men
sometimes smoked to get away from things; that a cigar might be the
masculine equivalent of darkened windows and a headache. Gannett,
after a puff or two, returned to his review.
It was just as she had foreseen; he feared to speak as much as she did. It
was one of the misfortunes of their situation that they were never busy
enough to necessitate, or even to justify, the postponement of unpleasant
discussions. If they avoided a question it was disagreeable. They had
unlimited leisure and an accumulation of mental energy to devote to any
subject that presented itself; new topics were in fact at a premium. Lydia
sometimes had premonitions of a famine-stricken period when there
would be nothing left to talk about, and she had already caught herself
doling out piecemeal what, in the first prodigality of their confidences,
she would have flung to him in a breath. Their silence therefore might
simply mean that they had nothing to say; but it was another
disadvantage of their position that it allowed infinite opportunity for the
classification of minute differences. Lydia had learned to distinguish
between real and factitious silences; and under Gannett's she now
detected a hum of speech to which her own thoughts made breathless
How could it be otherwise, with that thing between them? She glanced
up at the rack overhead. The thing was there, in her dressing bag,
symbolically suspended over her head and his. He was thinking of it now,
just as she was; they had been thinking of it in unison ever since they had
entered the train. While the carriage had held other travelers they had
screened her from his thought; but now that he and she were alone she
knew exactly what was passing through his mind; she could almost hear
him asking himself what he should say to her.
The thing had come that morning, brought up to her in an innocentlooking envelope with the rest of their letters, as they were leaving the
hotel at Bologna. As she tore it open, she and Gannett were laughing over
some ineptitude of the local guidebook they had been driven, of late, to
make the most of such incidental humors of travel. Even when she had
unfolded the document she took it for some unimportant business paper
sent abroad for her signature, and her eye traveled inattentively over the
curly Whereases of the preamble until a word arrested her: Divorce.
There it stood, an impassable barrier, between her husband's name and
She had been prepared for it, of course, as healthy people are said to be
prepared for death, in the sense of knowing it must come without in the
least expecting that it will. She had known from the first that Tillotson
meant to divorce her but what did it matter? Nothing mattered, in those
first days of supreme deliverance, but the fact that she was free; and not
so much (she had begun to be aware) that freedom had released her from
Tillotson as that it had given her to Gannett. This discovery had not been
agreeable to her self-esteem. She had preferred to think that Tillotson
had himself embodied all her reasons for leaving him; and those he
represented had seemed cogent enough to stand in no need of
reinforcement. Yet she had not left him till she met Gannett. It was her
love for Gannett that had made life with Tillotson so poor and
incomplete a business. If she had never, from the first, regarded her
marriage as a full cancelling of her claims upon life, she had at least, for a
number of years, accepted it as a provisional compensation, she had
made it "do." Existence in the commodious Tillotson mansion in Fifth
Avenue with Mrs. Tillotson senior commanding the approaches from the
second-story front windows had been reduced to a series of purely
automatic acts. The moral atmosphere of the Tillotson interior was as
carefully screened and curtained as the house itself: Mrs. Tillotson senior
dreaded ideas as much as a draft in her back. Prudent people liked an
even temperature; and to do anything unexpected was as foolish as going
out in the rain. One of the chief advantages of being rich was that one
need not be exposed to unforeseen contingencies: by the use of ordinary
firmness and common sense one could make sure of doing exactly the
same thing every day at the same hour. These doctrines, reverentially
imbibed with his mother's milk, Tillotson (a model son who had never
given his parents an hour's anxiety) complacently expounded to his wife,
testifying to his sense of their importance by the regularity with which he
wore galoshes on damp days, his punctuality at meals, and his elaborate
precautions against burglars and contagious diseases. Lydia, coming
from a smaller town, and entering New York life through the portals of
the Tillotson mansion, had mechanically accepted this point of view as
inseparable from having a front pew in church and a parterre box at the
opera. All the people who came to the house revolved in the same small
circle of predjudices. It was the kind of society in which, after dinner, the
ladies compared the exorbitant charges of thier children's teachers, and
agreed that, even with the new duties on French clothes, it was cheaper
in the end to get everything from Worth; while the husbands, over their
cigars, lamented municipal corruption, and decided that the men to start
a reform were those who had no private interests at stake.
To Lydia this view of life had become a matter of course, just as
lumbering about in her mother-in-law's locomotion, and listening every
Sunday to fashionable Presbyterian divine the inevitable atonement for
having thought oneself bored on the other six days of the week. Before
she met Gannett her life had seemed merely dull; his coming made it
appear like one of those dismal Cruikshank prints in which the people
are all ugly and all engaged in occupations that are either vulgar or
It was natural that Tillotson should be the chief sufferer from this
readjustment of focus. Gannett's nearness had made her husband
ridiculous, and a part of the ridicule had been reflected on herself. Her
tolerance laid her open to a suspicion of obtuseness from which she
must, at all costs, clear herself in Gannett's eyes.
She did not understand this until afterwards. At the time she fancied that
she had merely reached the limits of endurance. In so large a charter of
liberties as the mere act of leaving Tillotson seemed to confer, the small
question of divorce or no divorce did not count. It was when she saw that
she had left her husband only to be with Gannett that she perceived the
significance of anything affecting their relations. Her husband, in casting
her off, had virtually flung her at Gannett: it was thus that the world
viewed it. The measure of alacrity with which Gannett would receive her
would be the subject of curious speculation over afternoon tea tables and
in club corners. She knew what would be said she had heard it so often of
others! The recollection bathed her in misery. The men would probably
back Gannett to "do the decent thing"; but the ladies' eyebrows would
emphasize the worthlessness of such enforced fidelity; and after all, they
would be right. She had put herself in a position where Ganett "owed"
her something; where, as a gentleman, he was bound to "stand the
damage." The idea of accepting such compensation had never crossed
her mind; the so-called rehabilitation of such a marriage had always
seemed to her the only real disgrace. What she dreaded was the necessity
of having to explain herself; of having to combat his arguments; of
calculating, in spite of herself, the exact measure of insistence with which
he presssed them. She knew not whether she most shrank from his
insisting too much or too little. In such a case the nicest sense of
proportion might be at fault; and how easily to fall into the error of
taking her resistance for a test of his sincerity! Whichever way she
turned, an ironical implication confronted her: she had the exasperated
sense of having walked into the trap of some stupid practical joke.
Beneath all these preoccupations lurked the dread of what he was
thinking. Sooner or later, of course, he would have to speak; but that, in
the meantime, he should think, even for a moment that there was any
use in speaking, seemed to her simply unendurable. Her sensitiveness on
this point was aggravated by another fear, as yet barely on the level of
consciousness; the fear of unwillingly involving Gannett in the trammels
of her dependence. To look upon him as the instrument of her liberation;
to resist in herself the least tendency to a wifely taking possession of his
future; had seemed to Lydia the one way of maintaining the dignity of
their relation. Her view had not changed, but she was aware of a growing
inability to keep her thoughts fixed on the essential point the point of
parting with Gannett. It was easy to face as long as she kept it sufficiently
far off: but what was this act of mental postponement but a gradual
encroachment on his future? What was needful was the courage to
recognize the moment when by some word or look, their voluntary
fellowship should be transformed into a bondage the more wearing that
it was based on none of those common obligations which make the most
imperfect marriage in some sort a center of gravity.
When the porter, at the next station, threw the door open, Lydia drew
back, making way for the hoped-for intruder; but none came, and the
train took up its leisurely progress through the spring wheat fields and
budding copses. She now began to hope that Gannett would speak before
the next station. She watched him furtively, half-disposed to return to
the seat opposite his, but there was an artificiality about his absorption
that restrained her. She had never before seen him read with so
conspicuous an air of warding off interruption. What could he be
thinking of? Why should he be afraid to speak? Or was it her answer that
The train paused for the passing of an express, and he put down his book
and leaned out of the window. Presently he turned to her with a smile.
"There's a jolly old villa out here," he said.
His easy tone relieved her, and she smiled back at him as she crossed
over to his corner.
Beyond the embankment, through the opening in a mossy wall, she
caught sight of the villa, with its broken balustrades, its stagnant
fountains, and the stone satyr closing the perspective of a dusky grass
"How should you like to live there?" he asked as the train moved on.
"In some such place, I mean. One might do worse, don't you think so?
There must be at least two centuries of solitude under those yew trees.
Shouldn't you like it?"
"I don't know," she faltered. She knew now that he meant to speak.
He lit another cigarette. "We shall have to live somewhere, you know," he
said as he bent above the match.
Lydia tried to speak carelessly. "Je n'en vois pas la necessite! Why not
live everywhere, as we have been doing?"
"But we can't travel forever, can we?
"Oh, forever's a long word," she objected, picking up the review he had
"For the rest of our lives then," he said, moving nearer.
She made a slight gesture which caused his hand to slip from hers.
"Why should we make plans? I thought you agreed with me that it's
pleasanter to drift."
He looked at her hesitatingly. "It's been pleasant, certainly; but I suppose
I shall have to get at my work again some day. You know I haven't
written a line since all this time," he hastily amended.
She flamed with sympathy and self-reproach. "Oh, if you mean that if
you want to write of course we must settle down. How stupid of me not
to have thought of it sooner! Where shall we go? Where do you think you
could work best? We oughtn't to lose any more time."
He hesitated again. "I had thought of a villa in these parts. It's quiet; we
shouldn't be bothered. Should you like it?"
"Of course I should like it." She paused and looked away. "But I thought I
remember your telling me once that your best work had been done in a
crowd in big cities. Why should you shut yourself up in a desert?"
Gannett, for a moment, made no reply. At length he said, avoiding her
eye as carefully as she avoided his: "It might be different now; I can't tell,
of course, till I try. A writer ought not be dependent on his milieu, it's a
mistake to humor oneself in that way; and I thought that just at first you
might prefer to be."
She faced him. "To be what?"
"Well quiet. I mean."
"What do you mean by 'at first'?" she interruped.
He paused again. "I mean after we are married."
She thrust up her chin and turned toward the window. "Thank you!" she
tossed back at him.
"Lydia!" he exclaimed blankly; and she felt in every fiber of her averted
person that he had made the inconceivable, the unpardonable mistake of
anticipating her acquiescence.
The train rattled on and he groped for a third cigarette. Lydia remained
"I haven't offended you?" he ventured at length, in the tone of a man who
feels his way.
She shook her head with a sigh. "I thought you understood," she
moaned. Their eyes met and she moved back to his side.
"Do you want to know how not to offend me? By taking it for granted,
once for all, that you've said your say on the odious question and that I've
said mine, and that we stand just where we did this morning before that
that hateful paper came to spoil everything between us!"
"To spoil everything between us? What on earth do you mean? Aren't
you glad to be free?"
"I was free before."
"Not to marry me," he suggested.
But I don't want to marry you!" she cried.
She saw that he turned pale. "I'm obtuse, I suppose," he said slowly. "I
confess I don't see what you're driving at. Are you tired of the whole
business? Or was I simply an excuse for getting away? Perhaps you didn't
care to travel alone? Was that it? And now you want to chuck me?" His
voice had grown harsh. "You owe me a straight answer, you know; don't
Her eyes swam as she leaned to him. "Don't you see it's because I care
because I care so much? Oh, Ralph! Can't you see how it would humiliate
me? Try to feel it as a woman would! Don't you see the misery of being
made your wife in this way? If I'd known you as a girl that would have
been a real marriage! But now this vulgar fraud upon society and upon a
society we despised and laughed at this sneaking back into a position
that we've voluntarily foreited: don't you see what a cheap compromise it
is? We neither of us believe in the abstract 'sacredness' of marriage; we
both know that no ceremony is needed to consecrate our love for each
other; what object can we have in marrying, except the secret fear of each
that the other may escape, or the secret longing to work our way back
graduallyoh, very gradually into the esteem of the people whose
conventional morality we have always ridiculed and hated? And the very
fact that, after a decent interval, these same people would come and dine
with us the women who would let me die in a gutter today because I am
'leading a life of sin doesn't that disgust you more than their turning their
backs on us now? I can stand being cut by them, but I couldn't stand
their coming to call and asking what I meant to do about visiting that
unfortunate Mrs. So-and-so!"
She paused, and Gannett maintained a perplexed silence.
"You judge things too theoretically," he said at length, slowly. "Life is
made up of compromises."
"The life we ran away from yes! If we had been willing to accept them
"she flushed" we might have gone on meeting each other at Mrs.
He smiled slightly. "I didn't know that we ran away to found a new
system of ethics. I supposed it was because we loved each other."
"Life is complex, of course; isn't it the very recognition of that fact that
separates us from the people who see it tout d'une piece? If they are
right, if marriage is sacred in itself and the individual must always be
sacrificed to the family then there can be no real marriage between us,
since our being together is a protest against the sacrifice of the individual
to the family." She interrupted herself with a laugh. "You'll say now that
I'm giving you a lecture on sociology! Of course one acts as one can as
one must, perhaps pulled by all sorts of invisible threads; but at least one
needn't pretend, for social advantages, to subscribe to a creed that
ignores the complexity of human motives that classifies people by
arbitrary signs, and puts it in everybody's reach to be on Mrs. Tillotson's
visiting list. It may be necessary that the world should be ruled by
conventions but if we believed in them, why did we break through them?
And if we don't believe in them, is it honest to take advantage of the
protection they afford?"
Gannett hesitated. "One may believe in them or not; but as long as they
do rule the world it is only by taking advantage of their protection that
one can find a modus vivendi."
"Do outlaws need a modus vivendi?"
He looked at her hopelessly. Nothing is more perplexing to man than the
mental process of a woman who reasons her emotions.
She thought she had scored a point and followed it up passionately. "You
do understand, don't you? You see how the very thought of the thing
humiliates me! We are together today because we choose to be don't let
us look any farther than that!" She caught his hands. "Promise me you'll
never speak of it again; promise me you'll never think of it even," she
implored, with a tearful prodigality of italics.
Through what followed his protests, his arguments, his final
unconvinced submission to her wishes she had a sense of his but halfdiscerning all that, for her, had made the moment so tumultuous. They
had reached that memorable point in every heart history when, for the
first time, the man seems obtuse and the woman irrational. It was the
abundance of his intentions that consoled her, on reflection, for what
they lacked in quality. After all, it would have been worse, incalculably
worse, to have detected any overreadiness to understand her.
hen the tra ...
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