The blinds of Mrs. Peniston's drawing-room were drawn down against th_ppressive June sun, and in the sultry twilight the faces of her assemble_elatives took on a fitting shadow of bereavement. They were all there: Va_lstynes, Stepneys and Melsons—even a stray Peniston or two, indicating, by _reater latitude in dress and manner, the fact of remoter relationship an_ore settled hopes. The Peniston side was, in fact, secure in the knowledg_hat the bulk of Mr. Peniston's property "went back"; while the direc_onnection hung suspended on the disposal of his widow's private fortune an_n the uncertainty of its extent. Jack Stepney, in his new character as th_ichest nephew, tacitly took the lead, emphasizing his importance by th_eeper gloss of his mourning and the subdued authority of his manner; whil_is wife's bored attitude and frivolous gown proclaimed the heiress'_isregard of the insignificant interests at stake. Old Ned Van Alstyne, seate_ext to her in a coat that made affliction dapper, twirled his white moustach_o conceal the eager twitch of his lips; and Grace Stepney, red-nosed an_melling of crape, whispered emotionally to Mrs. Herbert Melson: "I couldn'_EAR to see the Niagara anywhere else!"
A rustle of weeds and quick turning of heads hailed the opening of the door, and Lily Bart appeared, tall and noble in her black dress, with Gerty Faris_t her side. The women's faces, as she paused interrogatively on th_hreshold, were a study in hesitation. One or two made faint motions o_ecognition, which might have been subdued either by the solemnity of th_cene, or by the doubt as to how far the others meant to go; Mrs. Jack Stepne_ave a careless nod, and Grace Stepney, with a sepulchral gesture, indicated _eat at her side. But Lily, ignoring the invitation, as well as Jack Stepney'_fficial attempt to direct her, moved across the room with her smooth fre_ait, and seated herself in a chair which seemed to have been purposely place_part from the others.
It was the first time that she had faced her family since her return fro_urope, two weeks earlier; but if she perceived any uncertainty in thei_elcome, it served only to add a tinge of irony to the usual composure of he_earing. The shock of dismay with which, on the dock, she had heard from Gert_arish of Mrs. Peniston's sudden death, had been mitigated, almost at once, b_he irrepressible thought that now, at last, she would be able to pay he_ebts. She had looked forward with considerable uneasiness to her firs_ncounter with her aunt. Mrs. Peniston had vehemently opposed her niece'_eparture with the Dorsets, and had marked her continued disapproval by no_riting during Lily's absence. The certainty that she had heard of the ruptur_ith the Dorsets made the prospect of the meeting more formidable; and ho_hould Lily have repressed a quick sense of relief at the thought that, instead of undergoing the anticipated ordeal, she had only to enter gracefull_n a long-assured inheritance? It had been, in the consecrated phrase, "alway_nderstood" that Mrs. Peniston was to provide handsomely for her niece; and i_he latter's mind the understanding had long since crystallized into fact.
"She gets everything, of course—I don't see what we're here for," Mrs. Jac_tepney remarked with careless loudness to Ned Van Alstyne; and the latter'_eprecating murmur—"Julia was always a just woman"—might have been interprete_s signifying either acquiescence or doubt.
"Well, it's only about four hundred thousand," Mrs. Stepney rejoined with _awn; and Grace Stepney, in the silence produced by the lawyer's preliminar_ough, was heard to sob out: "They won't find a towel missing—I went over the_ith her the very day—"
Lily, oppressed by the close atmosphere, and the stifling odour of fres_ourning, felt her attention straying as Mrs. Peniston's lawyer, solemnl_rect behind the Buhl table at the end of the room, began to rattle throug_he preamble of the will.
"It's like being in church," she reflected, wondering vaguely where Gwe_tepney had got such an awful hat. Then she noticed how stout Jack ha_rown—he would soon be almost as plethoric as Herbert Melson, who sat a fe_eet off, breathing puffily as he leaned his black-gloved hands on his stick.
"I wonder why rich people always grow fat—I suppose it's because there'_othing to worry them. If I inherit, I shall have to be careful of my figure,"
she mused, while the lawyer droned on through a labyrinth of legacies. Th_ervants came first, then a few charitable institutions, then several remote_elsons and Stepneys, who stirred consciously as their names rang out, an_hen subsided into a state of impassiveness befitting the solemnity of th_ccasion. Ned Van Alstyne, Jack Stepney, and a cousin or two followed, eac_oupled with the mention of a few thousands: Lily wondered that Grace Stepne_as not among them. Then she heard her own name—"to my niece Lily Bart te_housand dollars—" and after that the lawyer again lost himself in a coil o_nintelligible periods, from which the concluding phrase flashed out wit_tartling distinctness: "and the residue of my estate to my dear cousin an_ame-sake, Grace Julia Stepney."
There was a subdued gasp of surprise, a rapid turning of heads, and a surgin_f sable figures toward the corner in which Miss Stepney wailed out her sens_f unworthiness through the crumpled ball of a black-edged handkerchief.
Lily stood apart from the general movement, feeling herself for the first tim_tterly alone. No one looked at her, no one seemed aware of her presence; sh_as probing the very depths of insignificance. And under her sense of th_ollective indifference came the acuter pang of hopes deceived.
Disinherited—she had been disinherited—and for Grace Stepney! She met Gerty'_amentable eyes, fixed on her in a despairing effort at consolation, and th_ook brought her to herself. There was something to be done before she lef_he house: to be done with all the nobility she knew how to put into suc_estures. She advanced to the group about Miss Stepney, and holding out he_and said simply: "Dear Grace, I am so glad."
The other ladies had fallen back at her approach, and a space created itsel_bout her. It widened as she turned to go, and no one advanced to fill it up.
She paused a moment, glancing about her, calmly taking the measure of he_ituation. She heard some one ask a question about the date of the will; sh_aught a fragment of the lawyer's answer—something about a sudden summons, an_n "earlier instrument." Then the tide of dispersal began to drift past her; Mrs. Jack Stepney and Mrs. Herbert Melson stood on the doorstep awaiting thei_otor; a sympathizing group escorted Grace Stepney to the cab it was felt t_e fitting she should take, though she lived but a street or two away; an_iss Bart and Gerty found themselves almost alone in the purple drawing-room, which more than ever, in its stuffy dimness, resembled a well-kept famil_ault, in which the last corpse had just been decently deposited.
In Gerty Farish's sitting-room, whither a hansom had carried the two friends, Lily dropped into a chair with a faint sound of laughter: it struck her as _umorous coincidence that her aunt's legacy should so nearly represent th_mount of her debt to Trenor. The need of discharging that debt had reasserte_tself with increased urgency since her return to America, and she spoke he_irst thought in saying to the anxiously hovering Gerty: "I wonder when th_egacies will be paid."
But Miss Farish could not pause over the legacies; she broke into a large_ndignation. "Oh, Lily, it's unjust; it's cruel—Grace Stepney must FEEL sh_as no right to all that money!"
"Any one who knew how to please Aunt Julia has a right to her money," Mis_art rejoined philosophically.
"But she was devoted to you—she led every one to think—" Gerty checked hersel_n evident embarrassment, and Miss Bart turned to her with a direct look.
"Gerty, be honest: this will was made only six weeks ago. She had heard of m_reak with the Dorsets?"
"Every one heard, of course, that there had been some disagreement—som_isunderstanding—"
"Did she hear that Bertha turned me off the yacht?"
"That was what happened, you know. She said I was trying to marry Georg_orset. She did it to make him think she was jealous. Isn't that what she tol_wen Stepney?"
"I don't know—I don't listen to such horrors."
"I MUST listen to them—I must know where I stand." She paused, and agai_ounded a faint note of derision. "Did you notice the women? They were afrai_o snub me while they thought I was going to get the money—afterward the_cuttled off as if I had the plague." Gerty remained silent, and sh_ontinued: "I stayed on to see what would happen. They took their cue fro_wen Stepney and Lulu Melson—I saw them watching to see what Gwen woul_o.—Gerty, I must know just what is being said of me."
"I tell you I don't listen—"
"One hears such things without listening." She rose and laid her resolut_ands on Miss Farish's shoulders. "Gerty, are people going to cut me?"
"Your FRIENDS, Lily—how can you think it?"
"Who are one's friends at such a time? Who, but you, you poor trustfu_arling? And heaven knows what YOU suspect me of!" She kissed Gerty with _himsical murmur. "You'd never let it make any difference—but then you're fon_f criminals, Gerty! How about the irreclaimable ones, though? For I'_bsolutely impenitent, you know."
She drew herself up to the full height of her slender majesty, towering lik_ome dark angel of defiance above the troubled Gerty, who could only falte_ut: "Lily, Lily—how can you laugh about such things?"
"So as not to weep, perhaps. But no—I'm not of the tearful order. I discovere_arly that crying makes my nose red, and the knowledge has helped me throug_everal painful episodes." She took a restless turn about the room, and then, reseating herself, lifted the bright mockery of her eyes to Gerty's anxiou_ountenance.
"I shouldn't have minded, you know, if I'd got the money—" and at Mis_arish's protesting "Oh!" she repeated calmly: "Not a straw, my dear; for, i_he first place, they wouldn't have quite dared to ignore me; and if they had, it wouldn't have mattered, because I should have been independent of them. Bu_ow—!" The irony faded from her eyes, and she bent a clouded face upon he_riend.
"How can you talk so, Lily? Of course the money ought to have been yours, bu_fter all that makes no difference. The important thing—" Gerty paused, an_hen continued firmly: "The important thing is that you should clea_ourself—should tell your friends the whole truth."
"The whole truth?" Miss Bart laughed. "What is truth? Where a woman i_oncerned, it's the story that's easiest to believe. In this case it's a grea_eal easier to believe Bertha Dorset's story than mine, because she has a bi_ouse and an opera box, and it's convenient to be on good terms with her."
Miss Farish still fixed her with an anxious gaze. "But what IS your story, Lily? I don't believe any one knows it yet."
"My story?—I don't believe I know it myself. You see I never thought o_reparing a version in advance as Bertha did—and if I had, I don't think _hould take the trouble to use it now."
But Gerty continued with her quiet reasonableness: "I don't want a versio_repared in advance—but I want you to tell me exactly what happened from th_eginning."
"From the beginning?" Miss Bart gently mimicked her. "Dear Gerty, how littl_magination you good people have! Why, the beginning was in my cradle, _uppose—in the way I was brought up, and the things I was taught to care for.
Or no—I won't blame anybody for my faults: I'll say it was in my blood, that _ot it from some wicked pleasure-loving ancestress, who reacted against th_omely virtues of New Amsterdam, and wanted to be back at the court of th_harleses!" And as Miss Farish continued to press her with troubled eyes, sh_ent on impatiently: "You asked me just now for the truth—well, the trut_bout any girl is that once she's talked about she's done for; and the mor_he explains her case the worse it looks.—My good Gerty, you don't happen t_ave a cigarette about you?"
In her stuffy room at the hotel to which she had gone on landing, Lily Bar_hat evening reviewed her situation. It was the last week in June, and none o_er friends were in town. The few relatives who had stayed on, or returned, for the reading of Mrs. Peniston's will, had taken flight again that afternoo_o Newport or Long Island; and not one of them had made any proffer o_ospitality to Lily. For the first time in her life she found herself utterl_lone except for Gerty Farish. Even at the actual moment of her break with th_orsets she had not had so keen a sense of its consequences, for the Duches_f Beltshire, hearing of the catastrophe from Lord Hubert, had instantl_ffered her protection, and under her sheltering wing Lily had made an almos_riumphant progress to London. There she had been sorely tempted to linger o_n a society which asked of her only to amuse and charm it, without enquirin_oo curiously how she had acquired her gift for doing so; but Selden, befor_hey parted, had pressed on her the urgent need of returning at once to he_unt, and Lord Hubert, when he presently reappeared in London, abounded in th_ame counsel. Lily did not need to be told that the Duchess's championship wa_ot the best road to social rehabilitation, and as she was besides aware tha_er noble defender might at any moment drop her in favour of a new PROTEGEE, she reluctantly decided to return to America. But she had not been ten minute_n her native shore before she realized that she had delayed too long t_egain it. The Dorsets, the Stepneys, the Brys—all the actors and witnesses i_he miserable drama—had preceded her with their version of the case; and, eve_ad she seen the least chance of gaining a hearing for her own, some obscur_isdain and reluctance would have restrained her. She knew it was not b_xplanations and counter-charges that she could ever hope to recover her los_tanding; but even had she felt the least trust in their efficacy, she woul_till have been held back by the feeling which had kept her from defendin_erself to Gerty Farish—a feeling that was half pride and half humiliation.
For though she knew she had been ruthlessly sacrificed to Bertha Dorset'_etermination to win back her husband, and though her own relation to Dorse_ad been that of the merest good-fellowship, yet she had been perfectly awar_rom the outset that her part in the affair was, as Carry Fisher brutally pu_t, to distract Dorset's attention from his wife. That was what she was "ther_or": it was the price she had chosen to pay for three months of luxury an_reedom from care. Her habit of resolutely facing the facts, in her rar_oments of introspection, did not now allow her to put any false gloss on th_ituation. She had suffered for the very faithfulness with which she ha_arried out her part of the tacit compact, but the part was not a handsome on_t best, and she saw it now in all the ugliness of failure.
She saw, too, in the same uncompromising light, the train of consequence_esulting from that failure; and these became clearer to her with every day o_er weary lingering in town. She stayed on partly for the comfort of Gert_arish's nearness, and partly for lack of knowing where to go. She understoo_ell enough the nature of the task before her. She must set out to regain, little by little, the position she had lost; and the first step in the tediou_ask was to find out, as soon as possible, on how many of her friends sh_ould count. Her hopes were mainly centred on Mrs. Trenor, who had treasure_f easy-going tolerance for those who were amusing or useful to her, and i_he noisy rush of whose existence the still small voice of detraction was slo_o make itself heard. But Judy, though she must have been apprised of Mis_art's return, had not even recognized it by the formal note of condolenc_hich her friend's bereavement demanded. Any advance on Lily's side might hav_een perilous: there was nothing to do but to trust to the happy chance of a_ccidental meeting, and Lily knew that, even so late in the season, there wa_lways a hope of running across her friends in their frequent passages throug_own.
To this end she assiduously showed herself at the restaurants they frequented, where, attended by the troubled Gerty, she lunched luxuriously, as she said, on her expectations.
"My dear Gerty, you wouldn't have me let the head-waiter see that I've nothin_o live on but Aunt Julia's legacy? Think of Grace Stepney's satisfaction i_he came in and found us lunching on cold mutton and tea! What sweet shall w_ave today, dear—COUPE JACQUES or PECHES A LA MELBA?"
She dropped the MENU abruptly, with a quick heightening of colour, and Gerty, following her glance, was aware of the advance, from an inner room, of a part_eaded by Mrs. Trenor and Carry Fisher. It was impossible for these ladies an_heir companions—among whom Lily had at once distinguished both Trenor an_osedale—not to pass, in going out, the table at which the two girls wer_eated; and Gerty's sense of the fact betrayed itself in the helples_repidation of her manner. Miss Bart, on the contrary, borne forward on th_ave of her buoyant grace, and neither shrinking from her friends no_ppearing to lie in wait for them, gave to the encounter the touch o_aturalness which she could impart to the most strained situations. Suc_mbarrassment as was shown was on Mrs. Trenor's side, and manifested itself i_he mingling of exaggerated warmth with imperceptible reservations. Her loudl_ffirmed pleasure at seeing Miss Bart took the form of a nebulou_eneralization, which included neither enquiries as to her future nor th_xpression of a definite wish to see her again. Lily, well-versed in th_anguage of these omissions, knew that they were equally intelligible to th_ther members of the party: even Rosedale, flushed as he was with th_mportance of keeping such company, at once took the temperature of Mrs.
Trenor's cordiality, and reflected it in his off-hand greeting of Miss Bart.
Trenor, red and uncomfortable, had cut short his salutations on the pretext o_ word to say to the head-waiter; and the rest of the group soon melted awa_n Mrs. Trenor's wake.
It was over in a moment—the waiter, MENU in hand, still hung on the result o_he choice between COUPE JACQUES and PECHES A LA MELBA—but Miss Bart, in th_nterval, had taken the measure of her fate. Where Judy Trenor led, all th_orld would follow; and Lily had the doomed sense of the castaway who ha_ignalled in vain to fleeing sails.
In a flash she remembered Mrs. Trenor's complaints of Carry Fisher's rapacity, and saw that they denoted an unexpected acquaintance with her husband'_rivate affairs. In the large tumultuous disorder of the life at Bellomont, where no one seemed to have time to observe any one else, and private aims an_ersonal interests were swept along unheeded in the rush of collectiv_ctivities, Lily had fancied herself sheltered from inconvenient scrutiny; bu_f Judy knew when Mrs. Fisher borrowed money of her husband, was she likely t_gnore the same transaction on Lily's part? If she was careless of hi_ffections she was plainly jealous of his pocket; and in that fact Lily rea_he explanation of her rebuff. The immediate result of these conclusions wa_he passionate resolve to pay back her debt to Trenor. That obligatio_ischarged, she would have but a thousand dollars of Mrs. Peniston's legac_eft, and nothing to live on but her own small income, which was considerabl_ess than Gerty Farish's wretched pittance; but this consideration gave way t_he imperative claim of her wounded pride. She must be quits with the Trenor_irst; after that she would take thought for the future.
In her ignorance of legal procrastinations she had supposed that her legac_ould be paid over within a few days of the reading of her aunt's will; an_fter an interval of anxious suspense, she wrote to enquire the cause of th_elay. There was another interval before Mrs. Peniston's lawyer, who was als_ne of the executors, replied to the effect that, some questions having arise_elative to the interpretation of the will, he and his associates might not b_n a position to pay the legacies till the close of the twelvemonth legall_llotted for their settlement. Bewildered and indignant, Lily resolved to tr_he effect of a personal appeal; but she returned from her expedition with _ense of the powerlessness of beauty and charm against the unfeeling processe_f the law. It seemed intolerable to live on for another year under the weigh_f her debt; and in her extremity she decided to turn to Miss Stepney, wh_till lingered in town, immersed in the delectable duty of "going over" he_enefactress's effects. It was bitter enough for Lily to ask a favour of Grac_tepney, but the alternative was bitterer still; and one morning she presente_erself at Mrs. Peniston's, where Grace, for the facilitation of her piou_ask, had taken up a provisional abode.
The strangeness of entering as a suppliant the house where she had so lon_ommanded, increased Lily's desire to shorten the ordeal; and when Mis_tepney entered the darkened drawing-room, rustling with the best quality o_rape, her visitor went straight to the point: would she be willing to advanc_he amount of the expected legacy?
Grace, in reply, wept and wondered at the request, bemoaned the inexorablenes_f the law, and was astonished that Lily had not realized the exact similarit_f their positions. Did she think that only the payment of the legacies ha_een delayed? Why, Miss Stepney herself had not received a penny of he_nheritance, and was paying rent—yes, actually!—for the privilege of living i_ house that belonged to her. She was sure it was not what poor dear cousi_ulia would have wished—she had told the executors so to their faces; but the_ere inaccessible to reason, and there was nothing to do but to wait. Let Lil_ake example by her, and be patient—let them both remember how beautifull_atient cousin Julia had always been.
Lily made a movement which showed her imperfect assimilation of this example.
"But you will have everything, Grace—it would be easy for you to borrow te_imes the amount I am asking for."
"Borrow—easy for me to borrow?" Grace Stepney rose up before her in sabl_rath. "Do you imagine for a moment that I would raise money on m_xpectations from cousin Julia, when I know so well her unspeakable horror o_very transaction of the sort? Why, Lily, if you must know the truth, it wa_he idea of your being in debt that brought on her illness—you remember sh_ad a slight attack before you sailed. Oh, I don't know the particulars, o_ourse—I don't WANT to know them—but there were rumours about your affair_hat made her most unhappy—no one could be with her without seeing that. _an't help it if you are offended by my telling you this now—if I can d_nything to make you realize the folly of your course, and how deeply SH_isapproved of it, I shall feel it is the truest way of making up to you fo_er loss."