The Touchstone by Edith Wharton
The great renewals take effect as imperceptibly as the first workings of spring. Glennard, though he felt himself brought nearer to his wife, was still, as it were, hardly within speaking distance. He was but laboriously acquiring the rudiments of their new medium of communication; and he had to grope for her through the dense fog of his humiliation, the distorting vapor against which his personality loomed grotesque and mean.
Only the fact that we are unaware how well our nearest know us enables us to live with them. Love is the most impregnable refuge of self-esteem, and we hate the eye that reaches to our nakedness. If Glennard did not hate his wife it was slowly, sufferingly, that there was born in him that profounder passion which made his earlier feeling seem a mere commotion of the blood. He was like a child coming back to the sense of an enveloping presence: her nearness was a breast on which he leaned.
They did not, at first, talk much together, and each beat a devious track about the outskirts of the subject that lay between them like a haunted wood. But every word, every action, seemed to glance at it, to draw toward it, as though a fount of healing sprang in its poisoned shade. If only they might cut away through the thicket to that restoring spring!
Glennard, watching his wife with the intentness of a wanderer to whom no natural sign is negligible, saw that she had taken temporary refuge in the purpose of renouncing the money. If both, theoretically, owned the inefficacy of such amends, the woman's instinctive subjectiveness made her find relief in this crude form of penance. Glennard saw that she meant to live as frugally as possible till what she deemed their debt was discharged; and he prayed she might not discover how far-reaching, in its merely material sense, was the obligation she thus hoped to acquit. Her mind was fixed on the sum originally paid for the letters, and this he knew he could lay aside in a year or two. He was touched, meanwhile, by the spirit that made her discard the petty luxuries which she regarded as the signs of their bondage. Their shared renunciations drew her nearer to him, helped, in their evidence of her helplessness, to restore the full protecting stature of his love. And still they did not speak.
It was several weeks later that, one afternoon by the drawing-room fire, she handed him a letter that she had been reading when he entered.
"I've heard from Mr. Flamel," she said.
Glennard turned pale. It was as though a latent presence had suddenly become visible to both. He took the letter mechanically.
"It's from Smyrna," she said. "Won't you read it?"
He handed it back. "You can tell me about it--his hand's so illegible." He wandered to the other end of the room and then turned and stood before her. "I've been thinking of writing to Flamel," he said.
She looked up.
"There's one point," he continued, slowly, "that I ought to clear up. I told him you'd known about the letters all along; for a long time, at least; and I saw it hurt him horribly. It was just what I meant to do, of course; but I can't leave him to that false impression; I must write him."
She received this without outward movement, but he saw that the depths were stirred. At length she returned, in a hesitating tone, "Why do you call it a false impression? I did know."
"Yes, but I implied you didn't care."
He still stood looking down on her. "Don't you want me to set that right?" he tentatively pursued.
She lifted her head and fixed him bravely. "It isn't necessary," she said.
Glennard flushed with the shock of the retort; then, with a gesture of comprehension, "No," he said, "with you it couldn't be; but I might still set myself right."
She looked at him gently. "Don't I," she murmured, "do that?"
"In being yourself merely? Alas, the rehabilitation's too complete! You make me seem--to myself even--what I'm not; what I can never be. I can't, at times, defend myself from the delusion; but I can at least enlighten others."
The flood was loosened, and kneeling by her he caught her hands. "Don't you see that it's become an obsession with me? That if I could strip myself down to the last lie--only there'd always be another one left under it!--and do penance naked in the market- place, I should at least have the relief of easing one anguish by another? Don't you see that the worst of my torture is the impossibility of such amends?"
Her hands lay in his without returning pressure. "Ah, poor woman, poor woman," he heard her sigh.
"Don't pity her, pity me! What have I done to her or to you, after all? You're both inaccessible! It was myself I sold."
He took an abrupt turn away from her; then halted before her again. "How much longer," he burst out, "do you suppose you can stand it? You've been magnificent, you've been inspired, but what's the use? You can't wipe out the ignominy of it. It's miserable for you and it does her no good!"
She lifted a vivid face. "That's the thought I can't bear!" she cried.
"That it does her no good--all you're feeling, all you're suffering. Can it be that it makes no difference?"
He avoided her challenging glance. "What's done is done," he muttered.
"Is it ever, quite, I wonder?" she mused. He made no answer and they lapsed into one of the pauses that are a subterranean channel of communication.
It was she who, after awhile, began to speak with a new suffusing diffidence that made him turn a roused eye on her.
"Don't they say," she asked, feeling her way as in a kind of tender apprehensiveness, "that the early Christians, instead of pulling down the heathen temples--the temples of the unclean gods-- purified them by turning them to their own uses? I've always thought one might do that with one's actions--the actions one loathes but can't undo. One can make, I mean, a wrong the door to other wrongs or an impassable wall against them. . . ." Her voice wavered on the word. "We can't always tear down the temples we've built to the unclean gods, but we can put good spirits in the house of evil--the spirits of mercy and shame and understanding, that might never have come to us if we hadn't been in such great need. . . ."
She moved over to him and laid a hesitating hand on his. His head was bent and he did not change his attitude. She sat down beside him without speaking; but their silences now were fertile as rain- clouds--they quickened the seeds of understanding.
At length he looked up. "I don't know," he said, "what spirits have come to live in the house of evil that I built--but you're there and that's enough for me. It's strange," he went on after another pause, "she wished the best for me so often, and now, at last, it's through her that it's come to me. But for her I shouldn't have known you--it's through her that I've found you. Sometimes, do you know?--that makes it hardest--makes me most intolerable to myself. Can't you see that it's the worst thing I've got to face? I sometimes think I could have borne it better if you hadn't understood! I took everything from her--everything-- even to the poor shelter of loyalty she'd trusted in--the only thing I could have left her!--I took everything from her, I deceived her, I despoiled her, I destroyed her--and she's given me you in return!"
His wife's cry caught him up. "It isn't that she's given me to you--it is that she's given you to yourself." She leaned to him as though swept forward on a wave of pity. "Don't you see," she went on, as his eyes hung on her, "that that's the gift you can't escape from, the debt you're pledged to acquit? Don't you see that you've never before been what she thought you, and that now, so wonderfully, she's made you into the man she loved? That's worth suffering for, worth dying for, to a woman--that's the gift she would have wished to give!"
"Ah," he cried, "but woe to him by whom it cometh. What did I ever give her?"
"The happiness of giving," she said.