It seemed to Lily, as Mrs. Peniston's door closed on her, that she was takin_ final leave of her old life. The future stretched before her dull and bar_s the deserted length of Fifth Avenue, and opportunities showed as meagrel_s the few cabs trailing in quest of fares that did not come. The completenes_f the analogy was, however, disturbed as she reached the sidewalk by th_apid approach of a hansom which pulled up at sight of her.
From beneath its luggage-laden top, she caught the wave of a signalling hand; and the next moment Mrs. Fisher, springing to the street, had folded her in _emonstrative embrace.
"My dear, you don't mean to say you're still in town? When I saw you the othe_ay at Sherry's I didn't have time to ask—" She broke off, and added with _urst of frankness: "The truth is I was HORRID, Lily, and I've wanted to tel_ou so ever since."
"Oh—" Miss Bart protested, drawing back from her penitent clasp; but Mrs.
Fisher went on with her usual directness: "Look here, Lily, don't let's bea_bout the bush: half the trouble in life is caused by pretending there isn'_ny. That's not my way, and I can only say I'm thoroughly ashamed of mysel_or following the other women's lead. But we'll talk of that by and bye—tel_e now where you're staying and what your plans are. I don't suppose you'r_eeping house in there with Grace Stepney, eh?—and it struck me you might b_ather at loose ends."
In Lily's present mood there was no resisting the honest friendliness of thi_ppeal, and she said with a smile: "I am at loose ends for the moment, bu_erty Farish is still in town, and she's good enough to let me be with he_henever she can spare the time."
Mrs. Fisher made a slight grimace. "H'm—that's a temperate joy. Oh, _now—Gerty's a trump, and worth all the rest of us put together; but A L_ONGUE you're used to a little higher seasoning, aren't you, dear? An_esides, I suppose she'll be off herself before long—the first of August, yo_ay? Well, look here, you can't spend your summer in town; we'll talk of tha_ater too. But meanwhile, what do you say to putting a few things in a trun_nd coming down with me to the Sam Gormers' tonight?"
And as Lily stared at the breathless suddenness of the suggestion, sh_ontinued with her easy laugh: "You don't know them and they don't know you; but that don't make a rap of difference. They've taken the Van Alstyne plac_t Roslyn, and I've got CARTE BLANCHE to bring my friends down there—the mor_he merrier. They do things awfully well, and there's to be rather a joll_arty there this week—" she broke off, checked by an undefinable change i_iss Bart's expression. "Oh, I don't mean YOUR particular set, you know: rather a different crowd, but very good fun. The fact is, the Gormers hav_truck out on a line of their own: what they want is to have a good time, an_o have it in their own way. They gave the other thing a few months' trial, under my distinguished auspices, and they were really doing extremel_ell—getting on a good deal faster than the Brys, just because they didn'_are as much—but suddenly they decided that the whole business bored them, an_hat what they wanted was a crowd they could really feel at home with. Rathe_riginal of them, don't you think so? Mattie Gormer HAS got aspirations still; women always have; but she's awfully easy-going, and Sam won't be bothered, and they both like to be the most important people in sight, so they'v_tarted a sort of continuous performance of their own, a kind of social Cone_sland, where everybody is welcome who can make noise enough and doesn't pu_n airs. I think it's awfully good fun myself—some of the artistic set, yo_now, any pretty actress that's going, and so on. This week, for instance, they have Audrey Anstell, who made such a hit last spring in 'The Winning o_inny'; and Paul Morpeth—he's painting Mattie Gormer—and the Dick Bellingers, and Kate Corby—well, every one you can think of who's jolly and makes a row.
Now don't stand there with your nose in the air, my dear—it will be a goo_eal better than a broiling Sunday in town, and you'll find clever people a_ell as noisy ones—Morpeth, who admires Mattie enormously, always brings on_r two of his set."
Mrs. Fisher drew Lily toward the hansom with friendly authority. "Jump in now, there's a dear, and we'll drive round to your hotel and have your thing_acked, and then we'll have tea, and the two maids can meet us at the train."
It was a good deal better than a broiling Sunday in town—of that no doub_emained to Lily as, reclining in the shade of a leafy verandah, she looke_eaward across a stretch of greensward picturesquely dotted with groups o_adies in lace raiment and men in tennis flannels. The huge Van Alstyne hous_nd its rambling dependencies were packed to their fullest capacity with th_ormers' week-end guests, who now, in the radiance of the Sunday forenoon, were dispersing themselves over the grounds in quest of the variou_istractions the place afforded: distractions ranging from tennis-courts t_hooting-galleries, from bridge and whiskey within doors to motors and steam- launches without. Lily had the odd sense of having been caught up into th_rowd as carelessly as a passenger is gathered in by an express train. Th_londe and genial Mrs. Gormer might, indeed, have figured the conductor, calmly assigning seats to the rush of travellers, while Carry Fishe_epresented the porter pushing their bags into place, giving them thei_umbers for the dining-car, and warning them when their station was at hand.
The train, meanwhile, had scarcely slackened speed—life whizzed on with _eafening' rattle and roar, in which one traveller at least found a welcom_efuge from the sound of her own thoughts. The Gormer MILIEU represented _ocial out-skirt which Lily had always fastidiously avoided; but it struc_er, now that she was in it, as only a flamboyant copy of her own world, _aricature approximating the real thing as the "society play" approaches th_anners of the drawing-room. The people about her were doing the same thing_s the Trenors, the Van Osburghs and the Dorsets: the difference lay in _undred shades of aspect and manner, from the pattern of the men's waistcoat_o the inflexion of the women's voices. Everything was pitched in a highe_ey, and there was more of each thing: more noise, more colour, mor_hampagne, more familiarity—but also greater good-nature, less rivalry, and _resher capacity for enjoyment.
Miss Bart's arrival had been welcomed with an uncritical friendliness tha_irst irritated her pride and then brought her to a sharp sense of her ow_ituation—of the place in life which, for the moment, she must accept and mak_he best of. These people knew her story—of that her first long talk wit_arry Fisher had left no doubt: she was publicly branded as the heroine of a
"queer" episode—but instead of shrinking from her as her own friends had done, they received her without question into the easy promiscuity of their lives.
They swallowed her past as easily as they did Miss Anstell's, and with n_pparent sense of any difference in the size of the mouthful: all they aske_as that she should—in her own way, for they recognized a diversity o_ifts—contribute as much to the general amusement as that graceful actress, whose talents, when off the stage, were of the most varied order. Lily felt a_nce that any tendency to be "stuck-up," to mark a sense of differences an_istinctions, would be fatal to her continuance in the Gormer set. To be take_n on such terms—and into such a world!—was hard enough to the lingering prid_n her; but she realized, with a pang of self-contempt, that to be exclude_rom it would, after all, be harder still. For, almost at once, she had fel_he insidious charm of slipping back into a life where every materia_ifficulty was smoothed away. The sudden escape from a stifling hotel in _usty deserted city to the space and luxury of a great country-house fanned b_ea breezes, had produced a state of moral lassitude agreeable enough afte_he nervous tension and physical discomfort of the past weeks. For the momen_he must yield to the refreshment her senses craved—after that she woul_econsider her situation, and take counsel with her dignity. Her enjoyment o_er surroundings was, indeed, tinged by the unpleasant consideration that sh_as accepting the hospitality and courting the approval of people she ha_isdained under other conditions. But she was growing less sensitive on suc_oints: a hard glaze of indifference was fast forming over her delicacies an_usceptibilities, and each concession to expediency hardened the surface _ittle more.
On the Monday, when the party disbanded with uproarious adieux, the return t_own threw into stronger relief the charms of the life she was leaving. Th_ther guests were dispersing to take up the same existence in a differen_etting: some at Newport, some at Bar Harbour, some in the elaborate rusticit_f an Adirondack camp. Even Gerty Farish, who welcomed Lily's return wit_ender solicitude, would soon be preparing to join the aunt with whom sh_pent her summers on Lake George: only Lily herself remained without plan o_urpose, stranded in a backwater of the great current of pleasure. But Carr_isher, who had insisted on transporting her to her own house, where sh_erself was to perch for a day or two on the way to the Brys' camp, came t_he rescue with a new suggestion.
"Look here, Lily—I'll tell you what it is: I want you to take my place wit_attie Gormer this summer. They're taking a party out to Alaska next month i_heir private car, and Mattie, who is the laziest woman alive, wants me to g_ith them, and relieve her of the bother of arranging things; but the Bry_ant me too—oh, yes, we've made it up: didn't I tell you?—and, to put i_rankly, though I like the Gormers best, there's more profit for me in th_rys. The fact is, they want to try Newport this summer, and if I can make i_ success for them they—well, they'll make it a success for me." Mrs. Fishe_lasped her hands enthusiastically. "Do you know, Lily, the more I think of m_dea the better I like it—quite as much for you as for myself. The Gormer_ave both taken a tremendous fancy to you, and the trip to Alaska is—well—th_ery thing I should want for you just at present."
Miss Bart lifted her eyes with a keen glance. "To take me out of my friends'
way, you mean?" she said quietly; and Mrs. Fisher responded with a deprecatin_iss: "To keep you out of their sight till they realize how much they mis_ou."
Miss Bart went with the Gormers to Alaska; and the expedition, if it did no_roduce the effect anticipated by her friend, had at least the negativ_dvantage of removing her from the fiery centre of criticism and discussion.
Gerty Farish had opposed the plan with all the energy of her somewha_narticulate nature. She had even offered to give up her visit to Lake George, and remain in town with Miss Bart, if the latter would renounce her journey; but Lily could disguise her real distaste for this plan under a sufficientl_alid reason.
"You dear innocent, don't you see," she protested, "that Carry is quite right, and that I must take up my usual life, and go about among people as much a_ossible? If my old friends choose to believe lies about me I shall have t_ake new ones, that's all; and you know beggars mustn't be choosers. Not tha_ don't like Mattie Gormer—I DO like her: she's kind and honest an_naffected; and don't you suppose I feel grateful to her for making me welcom_t a time when, as you've yourself seen, my own family have unanimously washe_heir hands of me?"
Gerty shook her head, mutely unconvinced. She felt not only that Lily wa_heapening herself by making use of an intimacy she would never hav_ultivated from choice, but that, in drifting back now to her former manner o_ife, she was forfeiting her last chance of ever escaping from it. Gerty ha_ut an obscure conception of what Lily's actual experience had been: but it_onsequences had established a lasting hold on her pity since the memorabl_ight when she had offered up her own secret hope to her friend's extremity.
To characters like Gerty's such a sacrifice constitutes a moral claim on th_art of the person in whose behalf it has been made. Having once helped Lily, she must continue to help her; and helping her, must believe in her, becaus_aith is the main-spring of such natures. But even if Miss Bart, after he_enewed taste of the amenities of life, could have returned to the barrennes_f a New York August, mitigated only by poor Gerty's presence, her worldl_isdom would have counselled her against such an act of abnegation. She kne_hat Carry Fisher was right: that an opportune absence might be the first ste_oward rehabilitation, and that, at any rate, to linger on in town out o_eason was a fatal admission of defeat. From the Gormers' tumultuous progres_cross their native continent, she returned with an altered view of he_ituation. The renewed habit of luxury—the daily waking to an assured absenc_f care and presence of material ease—gradually blunted her appreciation o_hese values, and left her more conscious of the void they could not fill.
Mattie Gormer's undiscriminating good-nature, and the slap-dash sociability o_er friends, who treated Lily precisely as they treated each other—all thes_haracteristic notes of difference began to wear upon her endurance; and th_ore she saw to criticize in her companions, the less justification she foun_or making use of them. The longing to get back to her former surrounding_ardened to a fixed idea; but with the strengthening of her purpose came th_nevitable perception that, to attain it, she must exact fresh concession_rom her pride. These, for the moment, took the unpleasant form of continuin_o cling to her hosts after their return from Alaska. Little as she was in th_ey of their MILIEU, her immense social facility, her long habit of adaptin_erself to others without suffering her own outline to be blurred, the skille_anipulation of all the polished implements of her craft, had won for her a_mportant place in the Gormer group. If their resonant hilarity could never b_ers, she contributed a note of easy elegance more valuable to Mattie Gorme_han the louder passages of the band. Sam Gormer and his special cronies stoo_ndeed a little in awe of her; but Mattie's following, headed by Paul Morpeth, made her feel that they prized her for the very qualities they mos_onspicuously lacked. If Morpeth, whose social indolence was as great as hi_rtistic activity, had abandoned himself to the easy current of the Gorme_xistence, where the minor exactions of politeness were unknown or ignored, and a man could either break his engagements, or keep them in a painting- jacket and slippers, he still preserved his sense of differences, and hi_ppreciation of graces he had no time to cultivate. During the preparation_or the Brys' TABLEAUX he had been immensely struck by Lily's plasti_ossibilities—"not the face: too self-controlled for expression; but the res_f her—gad, what a model she'd make!"—and though his abhorrence of the worl_n which he had seen her was too great for him to think of seeking her there, he was fully alive to the privilege of having her to look at and listen t_hile he lounged in Mattie Gormer's dishevelled drawing-room.
Lily had thus formed, in the tumult of her surroundings, a little nucleus o_riendly relations which mitigated the crudeness of her course in lingerin_ith the Gormers after their return. Nor was she without pale glimpses of he_wn world, especially since the breaking-up of the Newport season had set th_ocial current once more toward Long Island. Kate Corby, whose tastes made he_s promiscuous as Carry Fisher was rendered by her necessities, occasionall_escended on the Gormers, where, after a first stare of surprise, she too_ily's presence almost too much as a matter of course. Mrs. Fisher, too, appearing frequently in the neighbourhood, drove over to impart he_xperiences and give Lily what she called the latest report from the weather- bureau; and the latter, who had never directly invited her confidence, coul_et talk with her more freely than with Gerty Farish, in whose presence it wa_mpossible even to admit the existence of much that Mrs. Fisher convenientl_ook for granted.
Mrs. Fisher, moreover, had no embarrassing curiosity. She did not wish t_robe the inwardness of Lily's situation, but simply to view it from th_utside, and draw her conclusions accordingly; and these conclusions, at th_nd of a confidential talk, she summed up to her friend in the succinc_emark: "You must marry as soon as you can."
Lily uttered a faint laugh—for once Mrs. Fisher lacked originality. "Do yo_ean, like Gerty Farish, to recommend the unfailing panacea of 'a good man'_ove'?"
"No—I don't think either of my candidates would answer to that description,"
said Mrs. Fisher after a pause of reflection.
"Either? Are there actually two?"
"Well, perhaps I ought to say one and a half—for the moment."
Miss Bart received this with increasing amusement. "Other things being equal, I think I should prefer a half-husband: who is he?"
"Don't fly out at me till you hear my reasons—George Dorset."
"Oh—" Lily murmured reproachfully; but Mrs. Fisher pressed on unrebuffed.
"Well, why not? They had a few weeks' honeymoon when they first got back fro_urope, but now things are going badly with them again. Bertha has bee_ehaving more than ever like a madwoman, and George's powers of credulity ar_ery nearly exhausted. They're at their place here, you know, and I spent las_unday with them. It was a ghastly party—no one else but poor Neddy Silverton, who looks like a galley-slave (they used to talk of my making that poor bo_nhappy!)—and after luncheon George carried me off on a long walk, and told m_he end would have to come soon."
Miss Bart made an incredulous gesture. "As far as that goes, the end wil_ever come—Bertha will always know how to get him back when she wants him."
Mrs. Fisher continued to observe her tentatively. "Not if he has any one els_o turn to! Yes—that's just what it comes to: the poor creature can't stan_lone. And I remember him such a good fellow, full of life and enthusiasm."
She paused, and went on, dropping her glance from Lily's: "He wouldn't sta_ith her ten minutes if he KNEW—"
"Knew—?" Miss Bart repeated.
"What YOU must, for instance—with the opportunities you've had! If he ha_ositive proof, I mean—"
Lily interrupted her with a deep blush of displeasure. "Please let us drop th_ubject, Carry: it's too odious to me." And to divert her companion'_ttention she added, with an attempt at lightness: "And your second candidate?
We must not forget him."
Mrs. Fisher echoed her laugh. "I wonder if you'll cry out just as loud if _ay—Sim Rosedale?"
Miss Bart did not cry out: she sat silent, gazing thoughtfully at her friend.
The suggestion, in truth, gave expression to a possibility which, in the las_eeks, had more than once recurred to her; but after a moment she sai_arelessly: "Mr. Rosedale wants a wife who can establish him in the bosom o_he Van Osburghs and Trenors."
Mrs. Fisher caught her up eagerly. "And so YOU could—with his money! Don't yo_ee how beautifully it would work out for you both?"
"I don't see any way of making him see it," Lily returned, with a laug_ntended to dismiss the subject.
But in reality it lingered with her long after Mrs. Fisher had taken leave.
She had seen very little of Rosedale since her annexation by the Gormers, fo_e was still steadily bent on penetrating to the inner Paradise from which sh_as now excluded; but once or twice, when nothing better offered, he ha_urned up for a Sunday, and on these occasions he had left her in no doubt a_o his view of her situation. That he still admired her was, more than ever, offensively evident; for in the Gormer circle, where he expanded as in hi_ative element, there were no puzzling conventions to check the ful_xpression of his approval. But it was in the quality of his admiration tha_he read his shrewd estimate of her case. He enjoyed letting the Gormers se_hat he had known "Miss Lily"—she was "Miss Lily" to him now—before they ha_ad the faintest social existence: enjoyed more especially impressing Pau_orpeth with the distance to which their intimacy dated back. But he let it b_elt that that intimacy was a mere ripple on the surface of a rushing socia_urrent, the kind of relaxation which a man of large interests and manifol_reoccupations permits himself in his hours of ease.
The necessity of accepting this view of their past relation, and of meeting i_n the key of pleasantry prevalent among her new friends, was deepl_umiliating to Lily. But she dared less than ever to quarrel with Rosedale.
She suspected that her rejection rankled among the most unforgettable of hi_ebuffs, and the fact that he knew something of her wretched transaction wit_renor, and was sure to put the basest construction on it, seemed to place he_opelessly in his power. Yet at Carry Fisher's suggestion a new hope ha_tirred in her. Much as she disliked Rosedale, she no longer absolutel_espised him. For he was gradually attaining his object in life, and that, t_ily, was always less despicable than to miss it. With the slow unalterabl_ersistency which she had always felt in him, he was making his way throug_he dense mass of social antagonisms. Already his wealth, and the masterly us_e had made of it, were giving him an enviable prominence in the world o_ffairs, and placing Wall Street under obligations which only Fifth Avenu_ould repay. In response to these claims, his name began to figure o_unicipal committees and charitable boards; he appeared at banquets t_istinguished strangers, and his candidacy at one of the fashionable clubs wa_iscussed with diminishing opposition. He had figured once or twice at th_renor dinners, and had learned to speak with just the right note of disdai_f the big Van Osburgh crushes; and all he now needed was a wife whos_ffiliations would shorten the last tedious steps of his ascent. It was wit_hat object that, a year earlier, he had fixed his affections on Miss Bart; but in the interval he had mounted nearer to the goal, while she had lost th_ower to abbreviate the remaining steps of the way. All this she saw with th_learness of vision that came to her in moments of despondency. It was succes_hat dazzled her—she could distinguish facts plainly enough in the twilight o_ailure. And the twilight, as she now sought to pierce it, was graduall_ighted by a faint spark of reassurance. Under the utilitarian motive o_osedale's wooing she had felt, clearly enough, the heat of persona_nclination. She would not have detested him so heartily had she not know_hat he dared to admire her. What, then, if the passion persisted, though th_ther motive had ceased to sustain it? She had never even tried to pleas_im—he had been drawn to her in spite of her manifest disdain. What if she no_hose to exert the power which, even in its passive state, he had felt s_trongly? What if she made him marry her for love, now that he had no othe_eason for marrying her?