The Touchstone by Edith Wharton
The week in town had been sultry, and the men, in the Sunday emancipation of white flannel and duck, filled the deck-chairs of the yacht with their outstretched apathy, following, through a mist of cigarette-smoke, the flitting inconsequences of the women. The part was a small one--Flamel had few intimate friends--but composed of more heterogeneous atoms than the little pools into which society usually runs. The reaction from the chief episode of his earlier life had bred in Glennard an uneasy distaste for any kind of personal saliency. Cleverness was useful in business; but in society it seemed to him as futile as the sham cascades formed by a stream that might have been used to drive a mill. He liked the collective point of view that goes with the civilized uniformity of dress-clothes, and his wife's attitude implied the same preference; yet they found themselves slipping more and more into Flamel's intimacy. Alexa had once or twice said that she enjoyed meeting clever people; but her enjoyment took the negative form of a smiling receptivity; and Glennard felt a growing preference for the kind of people who have their thinking done for them by the community.
Still, the deck of the yacht was a pleasant refuge from the heat on shore, and his wife's profile, serenely projected against the changing blue, lay on his retina like a cool hand on the nerves. He had never been more impressed by the kind of absoluteness that lifted her beauty above the transient effects of other women, making the most harmonious face seem an accidental collocation of features.
The ladies who directly suggested this comparison were of a kind accustomed to take similar risks with more gratifying results. Mrs. Armiger had in fact long been the triumphant alternative of those who couldn't "see" Alexa Glennard's looks; and Mrs. Touchett's claims to consideration were founded on that distribution of effects which is the wonder of those who admire a highly cultivated country. The third lady of the trio which Glennard's fancy had put to such unflattering uses, was bound by circumstances to support the claims of the other two. This was Mrs. Dresham, the wife of the editor of the Radiator. Mrs. Dresham was a lady who had rescued herself from social obscurity by assuming the role of her husband's exponent and interpreter; and Dresham's leisure being devoted to the cultivation of remarkable women, his wife's attitude committed her to the public celebration of their remarkableness. For the conceivable tedium of this duty, Mrs. Dresham was repaid by the fact that there were people who took her for a remarkable woman; and who in turn probably purchased similar distinction with the small change of her reflected importance. As to the other ladies of the party, they were simply the wives of some of the men--the kind of women who expect to be talked to collectively and to have their questions left unanswered.
Mrs. Armiger, the latest embodiment of Dresham's instinct for the remarkable, was an innocent beauty who for years had distilled dulness among a set of people now self-condemned by their inability to appreciate her. Under Dresham's tutelage she had developed into a "thoughtful woman," who read his leaders in the Radiator and bought the books he recommended. When a new novel appeared, people wanted to know what Mrs. Armiger thought of it; and a young gentleman who had made a trip in Touraine had recently inscribed to her the wide-margined result of his explorations.
Glennard, leaning back with his head against the rail and a slit of fugitive blue between his half-closed lids, vaguely wished she wouldn't spoil the afternoon by making people talk; though he reduced his annoyance to the minimum by not listening to what was said, there remained a latent irritation against the general futility of words.
His wife's gift of silence seemed to him the most vivid commentary on the clumsiness of speech as a means of intercourse, and his eyes had turned to her in renewed appreciation of this finer faculty when Mrs. Armiger's voice abruptly brought home to him the underrated potentialities of language.
"You've read them, of course, Mrs. Glennard?" he heard her ask; and, in reply to Alexa's vague interrogation--"Why, the 'Aubyn Letters'--it's the only book people are talking of this week."
Mrs. Dresham immediately saw her advantage. "You haven't read them? How very extraordinary! As Mrs. Armiger says, the book's in the air; one breathes it in like the influenza."
Glennard sat motionless, watching his wife.
"Perhaps it hasn't reached the suburbs yet," she said, with her unruffled smile.
"Oh, do let me come to you, then!" Mrs. Touchett cried; "anything for a change of air! I'm positively sick of the book and I can't put it down. Can't you sail us beyond its reach, Mr. Flamel?"
Flamel shook his head. "Not even with this breeze. Literature travels faster than steam nowadays. And the worst of it is that we can't any of us give up reading; it's as insidious as a vice and as tiresome as a virtue."
"I believe it is a vice, almost, to read such a book as the 'Letters,'" said Mrs. Touchett. "It's the woman's soul, absolutely torn up by the roots--her whole self laid bare; and to a man who evidently didn't care; who couldn't have cared. I don't mean to read another line; it's too much like listening at a keyhole."
"But if she wanted it published?"
"Wanted it? How do we know she did?"
"Why, I heard she'd left the letters to the man--whoever he is-- with directions that they should be published after his death--"
"I don't believe it," Mrs. Touchett declared.
"He's dead then, is he?" one of the men asked.
"Why, you don't suppose if he were alive he could ever hold up his head again, with these letters being read by everybody?" Mrs. Touchett protested. "It must have been horrible enough to know they'd been written to him; but to publish them! No man could have done it and no woman could have told him to--"
"Oh, come, come," Dresham judicially interposed; "after all, they're not love-letters."
"No--that's the worst of it; they're unloved letters," Mrs. Touchett retorted.
"Then, obviously, she needn't have written them; whereas the man, poor devil, could hardly help receiving them."
"Perhaps he counted on the public to save him the trouble of reading them," said young Hartly, who was in the cynical stage.
Mrs. Armiger turned her reproachful loveliness to Dresham. "From the way you defend him, I believe you know who he is."
Everyone looked at Dresham, and his wife smiled with the superior air of the woman who is in her husband's professional secrets. Dresham shrugged his shoulders.
"What have I said to defend him?"
"You called him a poor devil--you pitied him."
"A man who could let Margaret Aubyn write to him in that way? Of course I pity him."
"Then you must know who he is," cried Mrs. Armiger, with a triumphant air of penetration.
Hartly and Flamel laughed and Dresham shook his head. "No one knows; not even the publishers; so they tell me at least."
"So they tell you to tell us," Hartly astutely amended; and Mrs. Armiger added, with the appearance of carrying the argument a point farther, "But even if he's dead and she's dead, somebody must have given the letters to the publishers."
"A little bird, probably," said Dresham, smiling indulgently on her deduction.
"A little bird of prey then--a vulture, I should say--" another man interpolated.
"Oh, I'm not with you there," said Dresham, easily. "Those letters belonged to the public."
"How can any letters belong to the public that weren't written to the public?" Mrs. Touchett interposed.
"Well, these were, in a sense. A personality as big as Margaret Aubyn's belongs to the world. Such a mind is part of the general fund of thought. It's the penalty of greatness--one becomes a monument historique. Posterity pays the cost of keeping one up, but on condition that one is always open to the public."
"I don't see that that exonerates the man who gives up the keys of the sanctuary, as it were."
"Who was he?" another voice inquired.
"Who was he? Oh, nobody, I fancy--the letter-box, the slit in the wall through which the letters passed to posterity. . . ."
"But she never meant them for posterity!"
"A woman shouldn't write such letters if she doesn't mean them to be published. . . ."
"She shouldn't write them to such a man!" Mrs. Touchett scornfully corrected.
"I never keep letters," said Mrs. Armiger, under the obvious impression that she was contributing a valuable point to the discussion.
There was a general laugh, and Flamel, who had not spoken, said, lazily, "You women are too incurably subjective. I venture to say that most men would see in those letters merely their immense literary value, their significance as documents. The personal side doesn't count where there's so much else."
"Oh, we all know you haven't any principles," Mrs. Armiger declared; and Alexa Glennard, lifting an indolent smile, said: "I shall never write you a love-letter, Mr. Flamel."
Glennard moved away impatiently. Such talk was as tedious as the buzzing of gnats. He wondered why his wife had wanted to drag him on such a senseless expedition. . . . He hated Flamel's crowd-- and what business had Flamel himself to interfere in that way, standing up for the publication of the letters as though Glennard needed his defence? . . .
Glennard turned his head and saw that Flamel had drawn a seat to Alexa's elbow and was speaking to her in a low tone. The other groups had scattered, straying in twos along the deck. It came over Glennard that he should never again be able to see Flamel speaking to his wife without the sense of sick mistrust that now loosened his joints. . . .
Alexa, the next morning, over their early breakfast, surprised her husband by an unexpected request.
"Will you bring me those letters from town?" she asked.
"What letters?" he said, putting down his cup. He felt himself as helplessly vulnerable as a man who is lunged at in the dark.
"Mrs. Aubyn's. The book they were all talking about yesterday."
Glennard, carefully measuring his second cup of tea, said, with deliberation, "I didn't know you cared about that sort of thing."
She was, in fact, not a great reader, and a new book seldom reached her till it was, so to speak, on the home stretch; but she replied, with a gentle tenacity, "I think it would interest me because I read her life last year."
"Her life? Where did you get that?"
"Someone lent it to me when it came out--Mr. Flamel, I think."
His first impulse was to exclaim, "Why the devil do you borrow books of Flamel? I can buy you all you want--" but he felt himself irresistibly forced into an attitude of smiling compliance. "Flamel always has the newest books going, hasn't he? You must be careful, by the way, about returning what he lends you. He's rather crotchety about his library."
"Oh, I'm always very careful," she said, with a touch of competence that struck him; and she added, as he caught up his hat: "Don't forget the letters."
Why had she asked for the book? Was her sudden wish to see it the result of some hint of Flamel's? The thought turned Glennard sick, but he preserved sufficient lucidity to tell himself, a moment later, that his last hope of self-control would be lost if he yielded to the temptation of seeing a hidden purpose in everything she said and did. How much Flamel guessed, he had no means of divining; nor could he predicate, from what he knew of the man, to what use his inferences might be put. The very qualities that had made Flamel a useful adviser made him the most dangerous of accomplices. Glennard felt himself agrope among alien forces that his own act had set in motion. . . .
Alexa was a woman of few requirements; but her wishes, even in trifles, had a definiteness that distinguished them from the fluid impulses of her kind. He knew that, having once asked for the book, she would not forget it; and he put aside, as an ineffectual expedient, his momentary idea of applying for it at the circulating library and telling her that all the copies were out. If the book was to be bought it had better be bought at once. He left his office earlier than usual and turned in at the first book-shop on his way to the train. The show-window was stacked with conspicuously lettered volumes. "Margaret Aubyn" flashed back at him in endless repetition. He plunged into the shop and came on a counter where the name reiterated itself on row after row of bindings. It seemed to have driven the rest of literature to the back shelves. He caught up a copy, tossing the money to an astonished clerk who pursued him to the door with the unheeded offer to wrap up the volumes.
In the street he was seized with a sudden apprehension. What if he were to meet Flamel? The thought was intolerable. He called a cab and drove straight to the station where, amid the palm-leaf fans of a perspiring crowd, he waited a long half-hour for his train to start.
He had thrust a volume in either pocket and in the train he dared not draw them out; but the detested words leaped at him from the folds of the evening paper. The air seemed full of Margaret Aubyn's name. The motion of the train set it dancing up and down on the page of a magazine that a man in front of him was reading. . . .
At the door he was told that Mrs. Glennard was still out, and he went upstairs to his room and dragged the books from his pocket. They lay on the table before him like live things that he feared to touch. . . . At length he opened the first volume. A familiar letter sprang out at him, each word quickened by its glaring garb of type. The little broken phrases fled across the page like wounded animals in the open. . . . It was a horrible sight. . . . A battue of helpless things driven savagely out of shelter. He had not known it would be like this. . . .
He understood now that, at the moment of selling the letters, he had viewed the transaction solely as it affected himself: as an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise presentable record. He had scarcely considered the act in relation to Margaret Aubyn; for death, if it hallows, also makes innocuous. Glennard's God was a god of the living, of the immediate, the actual, the tangible; all his days he had lived in the presence of that god, heedless of the divinities who, below the surface of our deeds and passions, silently forge the fatal weapons of the dead.