The autumn days declined to winter. Once more the leisure world was i_ransition between country and town, and Fifth Avenue, still deserted at th_eek-end, showed from Monday to Friday a broadening stream of carriage_etween house-fronts gradually restored to consciousness.
The Horse Show, some two weeks earlier, had produced a passing semblance o_eanimation, filling the theatres and restaurants with a human display of th_ame costly and high-stepping kind as circled daily about its ring. In Mis_art's world the Horse Show, and the public it attracted, had ostensibly com_o be classed among the spectacles disdained of the elect; but, as the feuda_ord might sally forth to join in the dance on his village green, so society, unofficially and incidentally, still condescended to look in upon the scene.
Mrs. Gormer, among the rest, was not above seizing such an occasion for th_isplay of herself and her horses; and Lily was given one or two opportunitie_f appearing at her friend's side in the most conspicuous box the hous_fforded. But this lingering semblance of intimacy made her only the mor_onscious of a change in the relation between Mattie and herself, of a dawnin_iscrimination, a gradually formed social standard, emerging from Mrs.
Gormer's chaotic view of life. It was inevitable that Lily herself shoul_onstitute the first sacrifice to this new ideal, and she knew that, once th_ormers were established in town, the whole drift of fashionable life woul_acilitate Mattie's detachment from her. She had, in short, failed to mak_erself indispensable; or rather, her attempt to do so had been thwarted by a_nfluence stronger than any she could exert. That influence, in its las_nalysis, was simply the power of money: Bertha Dorset's social credit wa_ased on an impregnable bank-account.
Lily knew that Rosedale had overstated neither the difficulty of her ow_osition nor the completeness of the vindication he offered: once Bertha'_atch in material resources, her superior gifts would make it easy for her t_ominate her adversary. An understanding of what such domination would mean, and of the disadvantages accruing from her rejection of it, was brought hom_o Lily with increasing clearness during the early weeks of the winter.
Hitherto, she had kept up a semblance of movement outside the main flow of th_ocial current; but with the return to town, and the concentrating o_cattered activities, the mere fact of not slipping back naturally into he_ld habits of life marked her as being unmistakably excluded from them. If on_ere not a part of the season's fixed routine, one swung unsphered in a voi_f social non-existence. Lily, for all her dissatisfied dreaming, had neve_eally conceived the possibility of revolving about a different centre: it wa_asy enough to despise the world, but decidedly difficult to find any othe_abitable region. Her sense of irony never quite deserted her, and she coul_till note, with self-directed derision, the abnormal value suddenly acquire_y the most tiresome and insignificant details of her former life. Its ver_rudgeries had a charm now that she was involuntarily released from them: card-leaving, note-writing, enforced civilities to the dull and elderly, an_he smiling endurance of tedious dinners—how pleasantly such obligations woul_ave filled the emptiness of her days! She did indeed leave cards in plenty; she kept herself, with a smiling and valiant persistence, well in the eye o_er world; nor did she suffer any of those gross rebuffs which sometime_roduce a wholesome reaction of contempt in their victim. Society did not tur_way from her, it simply drifted by, preoccupied and inattentive, letting he_eel, to the full measure of her humbled pride, how completely she had bee_he creature of its favour.
She had rejected Rosedale's suggestion with a promptness of scorn almos_urprising to herself: she had not lost her capacity for high flashes o_ndignation. But she could not breathe long on the heights; there had bee_othing in her training to develop any continuity of moral strength: what sh_raved, and really felt herself entitled to, was a situation in which th_oblest attitude should also be the easiest. Hitherto her intermitten_mpulses of resistance had sufficed to maintain her self-respect. If sh_lipped she recovered her footing, and it was only afterward that she wa_ware of having recovered it each time on a slightly lower level. She ha_ejected Rosedale's offer without conscious effort; her whole being had rise_gainst it; and she did not yet perceive that, by the mere act of listening t_im, she had learned to live with ideas which would once have been intolerabl_o her.
To Gerty Farish, keeping watch over her with a tenderer if less discerning ey_han Mrs. Fisher's, the results of the struggle were already distinctl_isible. She did not, indeed, know what hostages Lily had already given t_xpediency; but she saw her passionately and irretrievably pledged to th_uinous policy of "keeping up." Gerty could smile now at her own early drea_f her friend's renovation through adversity: she understood clearly enoug_hat Lily was not of those to whom privation teaches the unimportance of wha_hey have lost. But this very fact, to Gerty, made her friend the mor_iteously in want of aid, the more exposed to the claims of a tenderness sh_as so little conscious of needing.
Lily, since her return to town, had not often climbed Miss Farish's stairs.
There was something irritating to her in the mute interrogation of Gerty'_ympathy: she felt the real difficulties of her situation to be incommunicabl_o any one whose theory of values was so different from her own, and th_estrictions of Gerty's life, which had once had the charm of contrast, no_eminded her too painfully of the limits to which her own existence wa_hrinking. When at length, one afternoon, she put into execution the belate_esolve to visit her friend, this sense of shrunken opportunities possesse_er with unusual intensity. The walk up Fifth Avenue, unfolding before her, i_he brilliance of the hard winter sunlight, an interminable procession o_astidiously-equipped carriages—giving her, through the little squares o_rougham-windows, peeps of familiar profiles bent above visiting-lists, o_urried hands dispensing notes and cards to attendant footmen—this glimpse o_he ever-revolving wheels of the great social machine made Lily more than eve_onscious of the steepness and narrowness of Gerty's stairs, and of th_ramped blind alley of life to which they led. Dull stairs destined to b_ounted by dull people: how many thousands of insignificant figures were goin_p and down such stairs all over the world at that very moment—figures a_habby and uninteresting as that of the middle-aged lady in limp black wh_escended Gerty's flight as Lily climbed to it!
"That was poor Miss Jane Silverton—she came to talk things over with me: sh_nd her sister want to do something to support themselves," Gerty explained, as Lily followed her into the sitting-room.
"To support themselves? Are they so hard up?" Miss Bart asked with a touch o_rritation: she had not come to listen to the woes of other people.
"I'm afraid they have nothing left: Ned's debts have swallowed up everything.
They had such hopes, you know, when he broke away from Carry Fisher; the_hought Bertha Dorset would be such a good influence, because she doesn't car_or cards, and—well, she talked quite beautifully to poor Miss Jane abou_eeling as if Ned were her younger brother, and wanting to carry him off o_he yacht, so that he might have a chance to drop cards and racing, and tak_p his literary work again."
Miss Farish paused with a sigh which reflected the perplexity of her departin_isitor. "But that isn't all; it isn't even the worst. It seems that Ned ha_uarrelled with the Dorsets; or at least Bertha won't allow him to see her, and he is so unhappy about it that he has taken to gambling again, and goin_bout with all sorts of queer people. And cousin Grace Van Osburgh accuses hi_f having had a very bad influence on Freddy, who left Harvard last spring, and has been a great deal with Ned ever since. She sent for Miss Jane, an_ade a dreadful scene; and Jack Stepney and Herbert Melson, who were ther_oo, told Miss Jane that Freddy was threatening to marry some dreadful woma_o whom Ned had introduced him, and that they could do nothing with hi_ecause now he's of age he has his own money. You can fancy how poor Miss Jan_elt—she came to me at once, and seemed to think that if I could get he_omething to do she could earn enough to pay Ned's debts and send him away—I'_fraid she has no idea how long it would take her to pay for one of hi_venings at bridge. And he was horribly in debt when he came back from th_ruise—I can't see why he should have spent so much more money under Bertha'_nfluence than Carry's: can you?"
Lily met this query with an impatient gesture. "My dear Gerty, I alway_nderstand how people can spend much more money—never how they can spend an_ess!"
She loosened her furs and settled herself in Gerty's easy-chair, while he_riend busied herself with the tea-cups.
"But what can they do—the Miss Silvertons? How do they mean to suppor_hemselves?" she asked, conscious that the note of irritation still persiste_n her voice. It was the very last topic she had meant to discuss—it reall_id not interest her in the least—but she was seized by a sudden pervers_uriosity to know how the two colourless shrinking victims of youn_ilverton's sentimental experiments meant to cope with the grim necessit_hich lurked so close to her own threshold.
"I don't know—I am trying to find something for them. Miss Jane reads alou_ery nicely—but it's so hard to find any one who is willing to be read to. An_iss Annie paints a little—"
"Oh, I know—apple-blossoms on blotting-paper; just the kind of thing I shal_e doing myself before long!" exclaimed Lily, starting up with a vehemence o_ovement that threatened destruction to Miss Farish's fragile tea-table.
Lily bent over to steady the cups; then she sank back into her seat. "I'_orgotten there was no room to dash about in—how beautifully one does have t_ehave in a small flat! Oh, Gerty, I wasn't meant to be good," she sighed ou_ncoherently.
Gerty lifted an apprehensive look to her pale face, in which the eyes shon_ith a peculiar sleepless lustre.
"You look horribly tired, Lily; take your tea, and let me give you thi_ushion to lean against."
Miss Bart accepted the cup of tea, but put back the cushion with an impatien_and.
"Don't give me that! I don't want to lean back—I shall go to sleep if I do."
"Well, why not, dear? I'll be as quiet as a mouse," Gerty urge_ffectionately.
"No—no; don't be quiet; talk to me—keep me awake! I don't sleep at night, an_n the afternoon a dreadful drowsiness creeps over me."
"You don't sleep at night? Since when?"
"I don't know—I can't remember." She rose and put the empty cup on the tea- tray. "Another, and stronger, please; if I don't keep awake now I shall se_orrors tonight—perfect horrors!"
"But they'll be worse if you drink too much tea."
"No, no—give it to me; and don't preach, please," Lily returned imperiously.
Her voice had a dangerous edge, and Gerty noticed that her hand shook as sh_eld it out to receive the second cup.
"But you look so tired: I'm sure you must be ill—"
Miss Bart set down her cup with a start. "Do I look ill? Does my face sho_t?" She rose and walked quickly toward the little mirror above the writing- table. "What a horrid looking-glass—it's all blotched and discoloured. Any on_ould look ghastly in it!" She turned back, fixing her plaintive eyes o_erty. "You stupid dear, why do you say such odious things to me? It's enoug_o make one ill to be told one looks so! And looking ill means looking ugly."
She caught Gerty's wrists, and drew her close to the window. "After all, I'_ather know the truth. Look me straight in the face, Gerty, and tell me: am _erfectly frightful?"
"You're perfectly beautiful now, Lily: your eyes are shining, and your cheek_ave grown so pink all of a sudden—"
"Ah, they WERE pale, then—ghastly pale, when I came in? Why don't you tell m_rankly that I'm a wreck? My eyes are bright now because I'm so nervous—but i_he mornings they look like lead. And I can see the lines coming in m_ace—the lines of worry and disappointment and failure! Every sleepless nigh_eaves a new one—and how can I sleep, when I have such dreadful things t_hink about?"
"What things? Well, poverty, for one—and I don't know any that's mor_readful." Lily turned away and sank with sudden weariness into the easy-chai_ear the tea-table. "You asked me just now if I could understand why Ne_ilverton spent so much money. Of course I understand—he spends it on livin_ith the rich. You think we live ON the rich, rather than with them: and so w_o, in a sense—but it's a privilege we have to pay for! We eat their dinners, and drink their wine, and smoke their cigarettes, and use their carriages an_heir opera-boxes and their private cars—yes, but there's a tax to pay o_very one of those luxuries. The man pays it by big tips to the servants, b_laying cards beyond his means, by flowers and presents—and—and—lots of othe_hings that cost; the girl pays it by tips and cards too—oh, yes, I've had t_ake up bridge again—and by going to the best dress-makers, and having jus_he right dress for every occasion, and always keeping herself fresh an_xquisite and amusing!"
She leaned back for a moment, closing her eyes, and as she sat there, her pal_ips slightly parted, and the lids dropped above her fagged brilliant gaze, Gerty had a startled perception of the change in her face—of the way in whic_n ashen daylight seemed suddenly to extinguish its artificial brightness. Sh_ooked up, and the vision vanished.
"It doesn't sound very amusing, does it? And it isn't—I'm sick to death of it!
And yet the thought of giving it all up nearly kills me—it's what keeps m_wake at night, and makes me so crazy for your strong tea. For I can't go o_n this way much longer, you know—I'm nearly at the end of my tether. And the_hat can I do—how on earth am I to keep myself alive? I see myself reduced t_he fate of that poor Silverton woman—slinking about to employment agencies, and trying to sell painted blotting-pads to Women's Exchanges! And there ar_housands and thousands of women trying to do the same thing already, and no_ne of the number who has less idea how to earn a dollar than I have!"
She rose again with a hurried glance at the clock. "It's late, and I must b_ff—I have an appointment with Carry Fisher. Don't look so worried, you dea_hing—don't think too much about the nonsense I've been talking." She wa_efore the mirror again, adjusting her hair with a light hand, drawing dow_er veil, and giving a dexterous touch to her furs. "Of course, you know, i_asn't come to the employment agencies and the painted blotting-pads yet; bu_'m rather hard-up just for the moment, and if I could find something t_o—notes to write and visiting-lists to make up, or that kind of thing—i_ould tide me over till the legacy is paid. And Carry has promised to fin_omebody who wants a kind of social secretary—you know she makes a specialt_f the helpless rich."
Miss Bart had not revealed to Gerty the full extent of her anxiety. She was i_act in urgent and immediate need of money: money to meet the vulgar weekl_laims which could neither be deferred nor evaded. To give up her apartment, and shrink to the obscurity of a boarding-house, or the provisiona_ospitality of a bed in Gerty Farish's sitting-room, was an expedient whic_ould only postpone the problem confronting her; and it seemed wiser as wel_s more agreeable to remain where she was and find some means of earning he_iving. The possibility of having to do this was one which she had neve_efore seriously considered, and the discovery that, as a bread-winner, sh_as likely to prove as helpless and ineffectual as poor Miss Silverton, was _evere shock to her self-confidence.
Having been accustomed to take herself at the popular valuation, as a perso_f energy and resource, naturally fitted to dominate any situation in whic_he found herself, she vaguely imagined that such gifts would be of value t_eekers after social guidance; but there was unfortunately no specific hea_nder which the art of saying and doing the right thing could be offered i_he market, and even Mrs. Fisher's resourcefulness failed before th_ifficulty of discovering a workable vein in the vague wealth of Lily'_races. Mrs. Fisher was full of indirect expedients for enabling her friend_o earn a living, and could conscientiously assert that she had put severa_pportunities of this kind before Lily; but more legitimate methods of bread- winning were as much out of her line as they were beyond the capacity of th_ufferers she was generally called upon to assist. Lily's failure to profit b_he chances already afforded her might, moreover, have justified th_bandonment of farther effort on her behalf; but Mrs. Fisher's inexhaustibl_ood-nature made her an adept at creating artificial demands in response to a_ctual supply. In the pursuance of this end she at once started on a voyage o_iscovery in Miss Bart's behalf; and as the result of her explorations she no_ummoned the latter with the announcement that she had "found something."
Left to herself, Gerty mused distressfully upon her friend's plight, and he_wn inability to relieve it. It was clear to her that Lily, for the present, had no wish for the kind of help she could give. Miss Farish could see no hop_or her friend but in a life completely reorganized and detached from its ol_ssociations; whereas all Lily's energies were centred in the determine_ffort to hold fast to those associations, to keep herself visibly identifie_ith them, as long as the illusion could be maintained. Pitiable as such a_ttitude seemed to Gerty, she could not judge it as harshly as Selden, fo_nstance, might have done. She had not forgotten the night of emotion when sh_nd Lily had lain in each other's arms, and she had seemed to feel her ver_eart's blood passing into her friend. The sacrifice she had made had seeme_navailing enough; no trace remained in Lily of the subduing influences o_hat hour; but Gerty's tenderness, disciplined by long years of contact wit_bscure and inarticulate suffering, could wait on its object with a silen_orbearance which took no account of time. She could not, however, den_erself the solace of taking anxious counsel with Lawrence Selden, with whom, since his return from Europe, she had renewed her old relation of cousinl_onfidence.
Selden himself had never been aware of any change in their relation. He foun_erty as he had left her, simple, undemanding and devoted, but with _uickened intelligence of the heart which he recognized without seeking t_xplain it. To Gerty herself it would once have seemed impossible that sh_hould ever again talk freely with him of Lily Bart; but what had passed i_he secrecy of her own breast seemed to resolve itself, when the mist of th_truggle cleared, into a breaking down of the bounds of self, a deflecting o_he wasted personal emotion into the general current of human understanding.
It was not till some two weeks after her visit from Lily that Gerty had th_pportunity of communicating her fears to Selden. The latter, having presente_imself on a Sunday afternoon, had lingered on through the dowdy animation o_is cousin's tea-hour, conscious of something in her voice and eye whic_olicited a word apart; and as soon as the last visitor was gone Gerty opene_er case by asking how lately he had seen Miss Bart.
Selden's perceptible pause gave her time for a slight stir of surprise.
"I haven't seen her at all—I've perpetually missed seeing her since she cam_ack."
This unexpected admission made Gerty pause too; and she was still hesitatin_n the brink of her subject when he relieved her by adding: "I've wanted t_ee her—but she seems to have been absorbed by the Gormer set since her retur_rom Europe."
"That's all the more reason: she's been very unhappy."
"Unhappy at being with the Gormers?"
"Oh, I don't defend her intimacy with the Gormers; but that too is at an en_ow, I think. You know people have been very unkind since Bertha Dorse_uarrelled with her."
"Ah—" Selden exclaimed, rising abruptly to walk to the window, where h_emained with his eyes on the darkening street while his cousin continued t_xplain: "Judy Trenor and her own family have deserted her too—and all becaus_ertha Dorset has said such horrible things. And she is very poor—you kno_rs. Peniston cut her off with a small legacy, after giving her to understan_hat she was to have everything."
"Yes—I know," Selden assented curtly, turning back into the room, but only t_tir about with restless steps in the circumscribed space between door an_indow. "Yes—she's been abominably treated; but it's unfortunately the precis_hing that a man who wants to show his sympathy can't say to her."
His words caused Gerty a slight chill of disappointment. "There would be othe_ays of showing your sympathy," she suggested.
Selden, with a slight laugh, sat down beside her on the little sofa whic_rojected from the hearth. "What are you thinking of, you incorrigibl_issionary?" he asked.
Gerty's colour rose, and her blush was for a moment her only answer. Then sh_ade it more explicit by saying: "I am thinking of the fact that you and sh_sed to be great friends—that she used to care immensely for what you though_f her—and that, if she takes your staying away as a sign of what you thin_ow, I can imagine its adding a great deal to her unhappiness."
"My dear child, don't add to it still more—at least to your conception o_t—by attributing to her all sorts of susceptibilities of your own." Selden, for his life, could not keep a note of dryness out of his voice; but he me_erty's look of perplexity by saying more mildly: "But, though you immensel_xaggerate the importance of anything I could do for Miss Bart, you can'_xaggerate my readiness to do it—if you ask me to." He laid his hand for _oment on hers, and there passed between them, on the current of the rar_ontact, one of those exchanges of meaning which fill the hidden reservoirs o_ffection. Gerty had the feeling that he measured the cost of her request a_lainly as she read the significance of his reply; and the sense of all tha_as suddenly clear between them made her next words easier to find.
"I do ask you, then; I ask you because she once told me that you had been _elp to her, and because she needs help now as she has never needed it before.
You know how dependent she has always been on ease and luxury—how she ha_ated what was shabby and ugly and uncomfortable. She can't help it—she wa_rought up with those ideas, and has never been able to find her way out o_hem. But now all the things she cared for have been taken from her, and th_eople who taught her to care for them have abandoned her too; and it seems t_e that if some one could reach out a hand and show her the other side—sho_er how much is left in life and in herself—" Gerty broke off, abashed at th_ound of her own eloquence, and impeded by the difficulty of giving precis_xpression to her vague yearning for her friend's retrieval. "I can't help he_yself: she's passed out of my reach," she continued. "I think she's afraid o_eing a burden to me. When she was last here, two weeks ago, she seeme_readfully worried about her future: she said Carry Fisher was trying to fin_omething for her to do. A few days later she wrote me that she had taken _osition as private secretary, and that I was not to be anxious, fo_verything was all right, and she would come in and tell me about it when sh_ad time; but she has never come, and I don't like to go to her, because I a_fraid of forcing myself on her when I'm not wanted. Once, when we wer_hildren, and I had rushed up after a long separation, and thrown my arm_bout her, she said: 'Please don't kiss me unless I ask you to, Gerty'—and sh_ID ask me, a minute later; but since then I've always waited to be asked."
Selden had listened in silence, with the concentrated look which his thin dar_ace could assume when he wished to guard it against any involuntary change o_xpression. When his cousin ended, he said with a slight smile: "Since you'v_earned the wisdom of waiting, I don't see why you urge me to rush in—" bu_he troubled appeal of her eyes made him add, as he rose to take leave:
"Still, I'll do what you wish, and not hold you responsible for my failure."
Selden's avoidance of Miss Bart had not been as unintentional as he ha_llowed his cousin to think. At first, indeed, while the memory of their las_our at Monte Carlo still held the full heat of his indignation, he ha_nxiously watched for her return; but he had disappointed him by lingering i_ngland, and when she finally reappeared it happened that business had calle_im to the West, whence he came back only to learn that she was starting fo_laska with the Gormers. The revelation of this suddenly-established intimac_ffectually chilled his desire to see her. If, at a moment when her whole lif_eemed to be breaking up, she could cheerfully commit its reconstruction t_he Gormers, there was no reason why such accidents should ever strike her a_rreparable. Every step she took seemed in fact to carry her farther from th_egion where, once or twice, he and she had met for an illumined moment; an_he recognition of this fact, when its first pang had been surmounted, produced in him a sense of negative relief. It was much simpler for him t_udge Miss Bart by her habitual conduct than by the rare deviations from i_hich had thrown her so disturbingly in his way; and every act of hers whic_ade the recurrence of such deviations more unlikely, confirmed the sense o_elief with which he returned to the conventional view of her.
But Gerty Farish's words had sufficed to make him see how little this view wa_eally his, and how impossible it was for him to live quietly with the though_f Lily Bart. To hear that she was in need of help—even such vague help as h_ould offer—was to be at once repossessed by that thought; and by the time h_eached the street he had sufficiently convinced himself of the urgency of hi_ousin's appeal to turn his steps directly toward Lily's hotel.
There his zeal met a check in the unforeseen news that Miss Bart had move_way; but, on his pressing his enquiries, the clerk remembered that she ha_eft an address, for which he presently began to search through his books.
It was certainly strange that she should have taken this step without lettin_erty Farish know of her decision; and Selden waited with a vague sense o_neasiness while the address was sought for. The process lasted long enoug_or uneasiness to turn to apprehension; but when at length a slip of paper wa_anded him, and he read on it: "Care of Mrs. Norma Hatch, Emporium Hotel," hi_pprehension passed into an incredulous stare, and this into the gesture o_isgust with which he tore the paper in two, and turned to walk quickl_omeward.