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Lily uttered a faint laugh--for once Mrs. Fisher lacked originality. "Do you mean, like Gerty Farish, to recommend the unfailing panacea of 'a good man's love'?"
"No--I don't think either of my candidates would answer to that description," said Mrs. Fisher after a pause of reflection.
"Either? Are there actually two?"
"Well, perhaps I ought to say one and a half--for the moment."
Miss Bart received this with increasing amusement. "Other things being equal, I think I should prefer a half-husband: who is he?" "Don't fly out at me till you hear my reasons--George Dorset."
"Oh---" Lily murmured reproachfully; but Mrs. Fisher pressed on unrebuffed. "Well, why not? They had a few weeks' honeymoon when they first got back from Europe, but now things are going badly with them again. Bertha has been behaving more than ever like a madwoman, and George's powers of credulity are very nearly exhausted. They're at their place here, you know, and I spent last Sunday with them. It was a ghastly party--no one else but poor Neddy Silverton, who looks like a galley-slave (they used to talk of my making that poor boy unhappy!)--and after luncheon George carried me off on a long walk, and told me the end would have to come soon."
Miss Bart made an incredulous gesture. "As far as that goes, the end will never come--Bertha will always know how to get him back when she wants him."
Mrs. Fisher continued to observe her tentatively. "Not if he has any one else to turn to! Yes--that's just what it comes to: the poor creature can't stand alone. And I remember him such a good fellow, full of life and enthusiasm." She paused, and went on, dropping her glance from Lily's: "He wouldn't stay with her ten minutes if he KNEW---"
"Knew---?" Miss Bart repeated.
"What YOU must, for instance--with the opportunities you've had! If he had positive proof, I mean---"
Lily interrupted her with a deep blush of displeasure. "Please let us drop the subject, Carry: it's too odious to me." And to divert her companion's attention she added, with an attempt at lightness: "And your second candidate? We must not forget him."
Mrs. Fisher echoed her laugh. "I wonder if you'll cry out just as loud if I say--Sim Rosedale?"
Miss Bart did not cry out: she sat silent, gazing thoughtfully at her friend. The suggestion, in truth, gave expression to a possibility which, in the last weeks, had more than once recurred to her; but after a moment she said carelessly: "Mr. Rosedale wants a wife who can establish him in the bosom of the Van Osburghs and Trenors."
Mrs. Fisher caught her up eagerly. "And so YOU could--with his money! Don't you see how beautifully it would work out for you both?"
"I don't see any way of making him see it," Lily returned, with a laugh intended to dismiss the subject.
But in reality it lingered with her long after Mrs. Fisher had taken leave. She had seen very little of Rosedale since her annexation by the Gormers, for he was still steadily bent on penetrating to the inner Paradise from which she was now excluded; but once or twice, when nothing better offered, he had turned up for a Sunday, and on these occasions he had left her in no doubt as to his view of her situation. That he still admired her was, more than ever, offensively evident; for in the Gormer circle, where he expanded as in his native element, there were no puzzling conventions to check the full expression of his approval. But it was in the quality of his admiration that she read his shrewd estimate of her case. He enjoyed letting the Gormers see that he had known "Miss Lily"--she was "Miss Lily" to him now--before they had had the faintest social existence: enjoyed more especially impressing Paul Morpeth with the distance to which their intimacy dated back. But he let it be felt that that intimacy was a mere ripple on the surface of a rushing social current, the kind of relaxation which a man of large interests and manifold preoccupations permits himself in his hours of ease.
The necessity of accepting this view of their past relation, and of meeting it in the key of pleasantry prevalent among her new friends, was deeply humiliating to Lily. But she dared less than ever to quarrel with Rosedale. She suspected that her rejection rankled among the most unforgettable of his rebuffs, and the fact that he knew something of her wretched transaction with Trenor, and was sure to put the basest construction on it, seemed to place her hopelessly in his power. Yet at Carry Fisher's suggestion a new hope had stirred in her. Much as she disliked Rosedale, she no longer absolutely despised him. For he was gradually attaining his object in life, and that, to Lily, was always less despicable than to miss it. With the slow unalterable persistency which she had always felt in him, he was making his way through the dense mass of social antagonisms. Already his wealth, and the masterly use he had made of it, were giving him an enviable prominence in the world of affairs, and placing Wall Street under obligations which only Fifth Avenue could repay. In response to these claims, his name began to figure on municipal committees and charitable boards; he appeared at banquets to distinguished strangers, and his candidacy at one of the fashionable clubs was discussed with diminishing opposition. He had figured once or twice at the Trenor dinners, and had learned to speak with just the right note of disdain of the big Van Osburgh crushes; and all he now needed was a wife whose affiliations would shorten the last tedious steps of his ascent. It was with that object that, a year earlier, he had fixed his affections on Miss Bart; but in the interval he had mounted nearer to the goal, while she had lost the power to abbreviate the remaining steps of the way. All this she saw with the clearness of vision that came to her in moments of despondency. It was success that dazzled her--she could distinguish facts plainly enough in the twilight of failure. And the twilight, as she now sought to pierce it, was gradually lighted by a faint spark of reassurance. Under the utilitarian motive of Rosedale's wooing she had felt, clearly enough, the heat of personal inclination. She would not have detested him so heartily had she not known that he dared to admire her. What, then, if the passion persisted, though the other motive had ceased to sustain it? She had never even tried to please him--he had been drawn to her in spite of her manifest disdain. What if she now chose to exert the power which, even in its passive state, he had felt so strongly? What if she made him marry her for love, now that he had no other reason for marrying her?
As became persons of their rising consequence, the Gormers were engaged in building a country-house on Long Island; and it was a part of Miss Bart's duty to attend her hostess on frequent visits of inspection to the new estate. There, while Mrs. Gormer plunged into problems of lighting and sanitation, Lily had leisure to wander, in the bright autumn air, along the tree-fringed bay to which the land declined. Little as she was addicted to solitude, there had come to be moments when it seemed a welcome escape from the empty noises of her life. She was weary of being swept passively along a current of pleasure and business in which she had no share; weary of seeing other people pursue amusement and squander money, while she felt herself of no more account among them than an expensive toy in the hands of a spoiled child.
It was in this frame of mind that, striking back from the shore one morning into the windings of an unfamiliar lane, she came suddenly upon the figure of George Dorset. The Dorset place was in the immediate neighbourhood of the Gormers' newly-acquired estate, and in her motor-flights thither with Mrs. Gormer, Lily had caught one or two passing glimpses of the couple; but they moved in so different an orbit that she had not considered the possibility of a direct encounter.
Dorset, swinging along with bent head, in moody abstraction, did not see Miss Bart till he was close upon her; but the sight, instead of bringing him to a halt, as she had half-expected, sent him toward her with an eagerness which found expression in his opening words.
"Miss Bart!--You'll shake hands, won't you? I've been hoping to meet you--I should have written to you if I'd dared." His face, with its tossed red hair and straggling moustache, had a driven uneasy look, as though life had become an unceasing race between himself and the thoughts at his heels.
The look drew a word of compassionate greeting from Lily, and he pressed on, as if encouraged by her tone: "I wanted to apologize--to ask you to forgive me for the miserable part I played---"
She checked him with a quick gesture. "Don't let us speak of it: I was very sorry for you," she said, with a tinge of disdain which, as she instantly perceived, was not lost on him.
He flushed to his haggard eyes, flushed so cruelly that she repented the thrust. "You might well be; you don't know--you must let me explain. I was deceived: abominably deceived---"
"I am still more sorry for you, then," she interposed, without irony; "but you must see that I am not exactly the person with whom the subject can be discussed."
He met this with a look of genuine wonder. "Why not? Isn't it to you, of all people, that I owe an explanation---"
"No explanation is necessary: the situation was perfectly clear to me."
"Ah---" he murmured, his head drooping again, and his irresolute hand switching at the underbrush along the lane. But as Lily made a movement to pass on, he broke out with fresh vehemence: "Miss Bart, for God's sake don't turn from me! We used to be good friends--you were always kind to me--and you don't know how I need a friend now."
The lamentable weakness of the words roused a motion of pity in Lily's breast. She too needed friends--she had tasted the pang of loneliness; and her resentment of Bertha Dorset's cruelty softened her heart to the poor wretch who was after all the chief of Bertha's victims.
"I still wish to be kind; I feel no ill-will toward you," she said. "But you must understand that after what has happened we can't be friends again--we can't see each other."
"Ah, you ARE kind--you're merciful--you always were!" He fixed his miserable gaze on her. "But why can't we be friends--why not, when I've repented in dust and ashes? Isn't it hard that you should condemn me to suffer for the falseness, the treachery of others? I was punished enough at the time--is there to be no respite for me?"
"I should have thought you had found complete respite in the reconciliation which was effected at my expense," Lily began, with renewed impatience; but he broke in imploringly: "Don't put it in that way--when that's been the worst of my punishment. My God! what could I do--wasn't I powerless? You were singled out as a sacrifice: any word I might have said would have been turned against you---"
"I have told you I don't blame you; all I ask you to understand is that, after the use Bertha chose to make of me--after all that her behaviour has since implied--it's impossible that you and I should meet."
He continued to stand before her, in his dogged weakness. "Is it--need it be? Mightn't there be circumstances---?" he checked himself, slashing at the wayside weeds in a wider radius. Then he began again: "Miss Bart, listen--give me a minute. If we're not to meet again, at least let me have a hearing now. You say we can't be friends after--after what has happened. But can't I at least appeal to your pity? Can't I move you if I ask you to think of me as a prisoner--a prisoner you alone can set free?"
Lily's inward start betrayed itself in a quick blush: was it possible that this was really the sense of Carry Fisher's adumbrations?
"I can't see how I can possibly be of any help to you," she murmured, drawing back a little from the mounting excitement of his look.
Her tone seemed to sober him, as it had so often done in his stormiest moments. The stubborn lines of his face relaxed, and he said, with an abrupt drop to docility: "You WOULD see, if you'd be as merciful as you used to be: and heaven knows I've never needed it more!"
She paused a moment, moved in spite of herself by this reminder of her influence over him. Her fibres had been softened by suffering, and the sudden glimpse into his mocked and broken life disarmed her contempt for his weakness.
"I am very sorry for you--I would help you willingly; but you must have other friends, other advisers."
"I never had a friend like you," he answered simply. "And besides--can't you see?--you're the only person"--his voice dropped to a whisper--"the only person who knows."
Again she felt her colour change; again her heart rose in precipitate throbs to meet what she felt was coming. He lifted his eyes to her entreatingly. "You do see, don't you? You understand? I'm desperate--I'm at the end of my tether. I want to be free, and you can free me. I know you can. You don't want to keep me bound fast in hell, do you? You can't want to take such a vengeance as that. You were always kind--your eyes are kind now. You say you're sorry for me. Well, it rests with you to show it; and heaven knows there's nothing to keep you back. You understand, of course--there wouldn't be a hint of publicity--not a sound or a syllable to connect you with the thing. It would never come to that, you know: all I need is to be able to say definitely:'I know this--and this--and this'--and the fight would drop, and the way be cleared, and the whole abominable business swept out of sight in a second."
He spoke pantingly, like a tired runner, with breaks of exhaustion between his words; and through the breaks she caught, as through the shifting rents of a fog, great golden vistas of peace and safety. For there was no mistaking the definite intention behind his vague appeal; she could have filled up the blanks without the help of Mrs. Fisher's insinuations. Here was a man who turned to her in the extremity of his loneliness and his humiliation: if she came to him at such a moment he would be hers with all the force of his deluded faith. And the power to make him so lay in her hand--lay there in a completeness he could not even remotely conjecture. Revenge and rehabilitation might be hers at a stroke--there was something dazzling in the completeness of the opportunity.
She stood silent, gazing away from him down the autumnal stretch of the deserted lane. And suddenly fear possessed her--fear of herself, and of the terrible force of the temptation. All her past weaknesses were like so many eager accomplices drawing her toward the path their feet had already smoothed. She turned quickly, and held out her hand to Dorset.
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House of Mirth -by- Edith Wharton