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Chapter 4

  • 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?"
  • "Lily!"
  • "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."