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Chapter 11

  • Meanwhile the holidays had gone by and the season was beginning. Fifth Avenu_ad become a nightly torrent of carriages surging upward to the fashionabl_uarters about the Park, where illuminated windows and outspread awning_etokened the usual routine of hospitality. Other tributary currents crosse_he mainstream, bearing their freight to the theatres, restaurants or opera; and Mrs. Peniston, from the secluded watch-tower of her upper window, coul_ell to a nicety just when the chronic volume of sound was increased by th_udden influx setting toward a Van Osburgh ball, or when the multiplication o_heels meant merely that the opera was over, or that there was a big supper a_herry's.
  • Mrs. Peniston followed the rise and culmination of the season as keenly as th_ost active sharer in its gaieties; and, as a looker-on, she enjoye_pportunities of comparison and generalization such as those who take par_ust proverbially forego. No one could have kept a more accurate record o_ocial fluctuations, or have put a more unerring finger on the distinguishin_eatures of each season: its dulness, its extravagance, its lack of balls o_xcess of divorces. She had a special memory for the vicissitudes of the "ne_eople" who rose to the surface with each recurring tide, and were eithe_ubmerged beneath its rush or landed triumphantly beyond the reach of enviou_reakers; and she was apt to display a remarkable retrospective insight int_heir ultimate fate, so that, when they had fulfilled their destiny, she wa_lmost always able to say to Grace Stepney—the recipient of he_rophecies—that she had known exactly what would happen.
  • This particular season Mrs. Peniston would have characterized as that in whic_verybody "felt poor" except the Welly Brys and Mr. Simon Rosedale. It ha_een a bad autumn in Wall Street, where prices fell in accordance with tha_eculiar law which proves railway stocks and bales of cotton to be mor_ensitive to the allotment of executive power than many estimable citizen_rained to all the advantages of self-government. Even fortunes supposed to b_ndependent of the market either betrayed a secret dependence on it, o_uffered from a sympathetic affection: fashion sulked in its country houses, or came to town incognito, general entertainments were discountenanced, an_nformality and short dinners became the fashion.
  • But society, amused for a while at playing Cinderella, soon wearied of th_earthside role, and welcomed the Fairy Godmother in the shape of any magicia_owerful enough to turn the shrunken pumpkin back again into the golden coach.
  • The mere fact of growing richer at a time when most people's investments ar_hrinking, is calculated to attract envious attention; and according to Wal_treet rumours, Welly Bry and Rosedale had found the secret of performing thi_iracle.
  • Rosedale, in particular, was said to have doubled his fortune, and there wa_alk of his buying the newly-finished house of one of the victims of th_rash, who, in the space of twelve short months, had made the same number o_illions, built a house in Fifth Avenue, filled a picture-gallery with ol_asters, entertained all New York in it, and been smuggled out of the countr_etween a trained nurse and a doctor, while his creditors mounted guard ove_he old masters, and his guests explained to each other that they had dine_ith him only because they wanted to see the pictures. Mr. Rosedale meant t_ave a less meteoric career. He knew he should have to go slowly, and th_nstincts of his race fitted him to suffer rebuffs and put up with delays. Bu_e was prompt to perceive that the general dulness of the season afforded hi_n unusual opportunity to shine, and he set about with patient industry t_orm a background for his growing glory. Mrs. Fisher was of immense service t_im at this period. She had set off so many newcomers on the social stage tha_he was like one of those pieces of stock scenery which tell the experience_pectator exactly what is going to take place. But Mr. Rosedale wanted, in th_ong run, a more individual environment. He was sensitive to shades o_ifference which Miss Bart would never have credited him with perceiving, because he had no corresponding variations of manner; and it was becoming mor_nd more clear to him that Miss Bart herself possessed precisely th_omplementary qualities needed to round off his social personality.
  • Such details did not fall within the range of Mrs. Peniston's vision. Lik_any minds of panoramic sweep, hers was apt to overlook the MINUTIAE of th_oreground, and she was much more likely to know where Carry Fisher had foun_he Welly Brys' CHEF for them, than what was happening to her own niece. Sh_as not, however, without purveyors of information ready to supplement he_eficiencies. Grace Stepney's mind was like a kind of moral fly-paper, t_hich the buzzing items of gossip were drawn by a fatal attraction, and wher_hey hung fast in the toils of an inexorable memory. Lily would have bee_urprised to know how many trivial facts concerning herself were lodged i_iss Stepney's head. She was quite aware that she was of interest to ding_eople, but she assumed that there is only one form of dinginess, and tha_dmiration for brilliancy is the natural expression of its inferior state. Sh_new that Gerty Farish admired her blindly, and therefore supposed that sh_nspired the same sentiments in Grace Stepney, whom she classified as a Gert_arish without the saving traits of youth and enthusiasm.
  • In reality, the two differed from each other as much as they differed from th_bject of their mutual contemplation. Miss Farish's heart was a fountain o_ender illusions, Miss Stepney's a precise register of facts as manifested i_heir relation to herself. She had sensibilities which, to Lily, would hav_eemed comic in a person with a freckled nose and red eyelids, who lived in _oarding-house and admired Mrs. Peniston's drawing-room; but poor Grace'_imitations gave them a more concentrated inner life, as poor soil starve_ertain plants into intenser efflorescence. She had in truth no abstrac_ropensity to malice: she did not dislike Lily because the latter wa_rilliant and predominant, but because she thought that Lily disliked her. I_s less mortifying to believe one's self unpopular than insignificant, an_anity prefers to assume that indifference is a latent form of unfriendliness.
  • Even such scant civilities as Lily accorded to Mr. Rosedale would have mad_iss Stepney her friend for life; but how could she foresee that such a frien_as worth cultivating? How, moreover, can a young woman who has never bee_gnored measure the pang which this injury inflicts? And, lastly, how coul_ily, accustomed to choose between a pressure of engagements, guess that sh_ad mortally offended Miss Stepney by causing her to be excluded from one o_rs. Peniston's infrequent dinner-parties?
  • Mrs. Peniston disliked giving dinners, but she had a high sense of famil_bligation, and on the Jack Stepneys' return from their honeymoon she felt i_ncumbent upon her to light the drawing-room lamps and extract her best silve_rom the Safe Deposit vaults. Mrs. Peniston's rare entertainments wer_receded by days of heart-rending vacillation as to every detail of the feast, from the seating of the guests to the pattern of the table-cloth, and in th_ourse of one of these preliminary discussions she had imprudently suggeste_o her cousin Grace that, as the dinner was a family affair, she might b_ncluded in it. For a week the prospect had lighted up Miss Stepney'_olourless existence; then she had been given to understand that it would b_ore convenient to have her another day. Miss Stepney knew exactly what ha_appened. Lily, to whom family reunions were occasions of unalloyed dulness, had persuaded her aunt that a dinner of "smart" people would be much more t_he taste of the young couple, and Mrs. Peniston, who leaned helplessly on he_iece in social matters, had been prevailed upon to pronounce Grace's exile.
  • After all, Grace could come any other day; why should she mind being put off?
  • It was precisely because Miss Stepney could come any other day—and because sh_new her relations were in the secret of her unoccupied evenings—that thi_ncident loomed gigantically on her horizon. She was aware that she had Lil_o thank for it; and dull resentment was turned to active animosity.
  • Mrs. Peniston, on whom she had looked in a day or two after the dinner, lai_own her crochet-work and turned abruptly from her oblique survey of Fift_venue.
  • "Gus Trenor?—Lily and Gus Trenor?" she said, growing so suddenly pale that he_isitor was almost alarmed.
  • "Oh, cousin Julia … of course I don't mean … "
  • "I don't know what you DO mean," said Mrs. Peniston, with a frightened quive_n her small fretful voice. "Such things were never heard of in my day. And m_wn niece! I'm not sure I understand you. Do people say he's in love wit_er?"
  • Mrs. Peniston's horror was genuine. Though she boasted an unequalle_amiliarity with the secret chronicles of society, she had the innocence o_he school-girl who regards wickedness as a part of "history," and to whom i_ever occurs that the scandals she reads of in lesson-hours may be repeatin_hemselves in the next street. Mrs. Peniston had kept her imaginatio_hrouded, like the drawing-room furniture. She knew, of course, that societ_as "very much changed," and that many women her mother would have thought
  • "peculiar" were now in a position to be critical about their visiting-lists; she had discussed the perils of divorce with her rector, and had felt thankfu_t times that Lily was still unmarried; but the idea that any scandal coul_ttach to a young girl's name, above all that it could be lightly coupled wit_hat of a married man, was so new to her that she was as much aghast as if sh_ad been accused of leaving her carpets down all summer, or of violating an_f the other cardinal laws of housekeeping.
  • Miss Stepney, when her first fright had subsided, began to feel th_uperiority that greater breadth of mind confers. It was really pitiable to b_s ignorant of the world as Mrs. Peniston! She smiled at the latter'_uestion. "People always say unpleasant things—and certainly they're a grea_eal together. A friend of mine met them the other afternoon in the Park-quit_ate, after the lamps were lit. It's a pity Lily makes herself s_onspicuous."
  • "CONSPICUOUS!" gasped Mrs. Peniston. She bent forward, lowering her voice t_itigate the horror. "What sort of things do they say? That he means to get _ivorce and marry her?"
  • Grace Stepney laughed outright. "Dear me, no! He would hardly do that. It—it'_ flirtation—nothing more."
  • "A flirtation? Between my niece and a married man? Do you mean to tell m_hat, with Lily's looks and advantages, she could find no better use for he_ime than to waste it on a fat stupid man almost old enough to be her father?"
  • This argument had such a convincing ring that it gave Mrs. Peniston sufficien_eassurance to pick up her work, while she waited for Grace Stepney to rall_er scattered forces.
  • But Miss Stepney was on the spot in an instant. "That's the worst of it—peopl_ay she isn't wasting her time! Every one knows, as you say, that Lily is to_andsome and-and charming—to devote herself to a man like Gus Trenor unless—"
  • "Unless?" echoed Mrs. Peniston. Her visitor drew breath nervously. It wa_greeable to shock Mrs. Peniston, but not to shock her to the verge of anger.
  • Miss Stepney was not sufficiently familiar with the classic drama to hav_ecalled in advance how bearers of bad tidings are proverbially received, bu_he now had a rapid vision of forfeited dinners and a reduced wardrobe as th_ossible consequence of her disinterestedness. To the honour of her sex, however, hatred of Lily prevailed over more personal considerations. Mrs.
  • Peniston had chosen the wrong moment to boast of her niece's charms.
  • "Unless," said Grace, leaning forward to speak with low-toned emphasis,
  • "unless there are material advantages to be gained by making herself agreeabl_o him."
  • She felt that the moment was tremendous, and remembered suddenly that Mrs.
  • Peniston's black brocade, with the cut jet fringe, would have been hers at th_nd of the season.
  • Mrs. Peniston put down her work again. Another aspect of the same idea ha_resented itself to her, and she felt that it was beneath her dignity to hav_er nerves racked by a dependent relative who wore her old clothes.
  • "If you take pleasure in annoying me by mysterious insinuations," she sai_oldly, "you might at least have chosen a more suitable time than just as I a_ecovering from the strain of giving a large dinner."
  • The mention of the dinner dispelled Miss Stepney's last scruples. "I don'_now why I should be accused of taking pleasure in telling you about Lily. _as sure I shouldn't get any thanks for it," she returned with a flare o_emper. "But I have some family feeling left, and as you are the only perso_ho has any authority over Lily, I thought you ought to know what is bein_aid of her."
  • "Well," said Mrs. Peniston, "what I complain of is that you haven't told m_et what IS being said."
  • "I didn't suppose I should have to put it so plainly. People say that Gu_renor pays her bills."
  • "Pays her bills—her bills?" Mrs. Peniston broke into a laugh. "I can't imagin_here you can have picked up such rubbish. Lily has her own income—and _rovide for her very handsomely—"
  • "Oh, we all know that," interposed Miss Stepney drily. "But Lily wears a grea_any smart gowns—"
  • "I like her to be well-dressed—it's only suitable!"
  • "Certainly; but then there are her gambling debts besides."
  • Miss Stepney, in the beginning, had not meant to bring up this point; but Mrs.
  • Peniston had only her own incredulity to blame. She was like the stiff-necke_nbelievers of Scripture, who must be annihilated to be convinced.
  • "Gambling debts? Lily?" Mrs. Peniston's voice shook with anger an_ewilderment. She wondered whether Grace Stepney had gone out of her mind.
  • "What do you mean by her gambling debts?"
  • "Simply that if one plays bridge for money in Lily's set one is liable to los_ great deal—and I don't suppose Lily always wins."
  • "Who told you that my niece played cards for money?"
  • "Mercy, cousin Julia, don't look at me as if I were trying to turn you agains_ily! Everybody knows she is crazy about bridge. Mrs. Gryce told me hersel_hat it was her gambling that frightened Percy Gryce—it seems he was reall_aken with her at first. But, of course, among Lily's friends it's quite th_ustom for girls to play for money. In fact, people are inclined to excuse he_n that account—"
  • "To excuse her for what?"
  • "For being hard up—and accepting attentions from men like Gus Trenor—an_eorge Dorset—"
  • Mrs. Peniston gave another cry. "George Dorset? Is there any one else? _hould like to know the worst, if you please."
  • "Don't put it in that way, cousin Julia. Lately Lily has been a good deal wit_he Dorsets, and he seems to admire her—but of course that's only natural. An_'m sure there is no truth in the horrid things people say; but she HAS bee_pending a great deal of money this winter. Evie Van Osburgh was at Celeste'_rdering her trousseau the other day—yes, the marriage takes place nex_onth—and she told me that Celeste showed her the most exquisite things sh_as just sending home to Lily. And people say that Judy Trenor has quarrelle_ith her on account of Gus; but I'm sure I'm sorry I spoke, though I onl_eant it as a kindness."
  • Mrs. Peniston's genuine incredulity enabled her to dismiss Miss Stepney with _isdain which boded ill for that lady's prospect of succeeding to the blac_rocade; but minds impenetrable to reason have generally some crack throug_hich suspicion filters, and her visitor's insinuations did not glide off a_asily as she had expected. Mrs. Peniston disliked scenes, and he_etermination to avoid them had always led her to hold herself aloof from th_etails of Lily's life. In her youth, girls had not been supposed to requir_lose supervision. They were generally assumed to be taken up with th_egitimate business of courtship and marriage, and interference in suc_ffairs on the part of their natural guardians was considered as unwarrantabl_s a spectator's suddenly joining in a game. There had of course been "fast"
  • girls even in Mrs. Peniston's early experience; but their fastness, at worst, was understood to be a mere excess of animal spirits, against which ther_ould be no graver charge than that of being "unladylike." The modern fastnes_ppeared synonymous with immorality, and the mere idea of immorality was a_ffensive to Mrs. Peniston as a smell of cooking in the drawing-room: it wa_ne of the conceptions her mind refused to admit.
  • She had no immediate intention of repeating to Lily what she had heard, o_ven of trying to ascertain its truth by means of discreet interrogation. T_o so might be to provoke a scene; and a scene, in the shaken state of Mrs.
  • Peniston's nerves, with the effects of her dinner not worn off, and her min_till tremulous with new impressions, was a risk she deemed it her duty t_void. But there remained in her thoughts a settled deposit of resentmen_gainst her niece, all the denser because it was not to be cleared b_xplanation or discussion. It was horrible of a young girl to let herself b_alked about; however unfounded the charges against her, she must be to blam_or their having been made. Mrs. Peniston felt as if there had been _ontagious illness in the house, and she was doomed to sit shivering among he_ontaminated furniture.