A Coward by Edith Wharton
"My daughter Irene," said Mrs. Carstyle (she made it rhyme with tureen),
"has had no social advantages; but if Mr. Carstyle had chosen—" she
paused significantly and looked at the shabby sofa on the opposite side of
the fire-place as though it had been Mr. Carstyle. Vibart was glad that it
Mrs. Carstyle was one of the women who make refinement vulgar. She
invariably spoke of her husband as Mr. Carstyle and, though she had
but one daughter, was always careful to designate the young lady by name.
At luncheon she had talked a great deal of elevating influences and
ideals, and had fluctuated between apologies for the overdone mutton and
affected surprise that the bewildered maid-servant should have forgotten
to serve the coffee and liqueurs as usual.
Vibart was almost sorry that he had come. Miss Carstyle was still
beautiful—almost as beautiful as when, two days earlier, against the
leafy background of a June garden-party, he had seen her for the first
time—but her mother's expositions and elucidations cheapened her
beauty as sign-posts vulgarize a woodland solitude. Mrs. Carstyle's eye
was perpetually plying between her daughter and Vibart, like an empty cab
in quest of a fare. Miss Carstyle, the young man decided, was the kind of
girl whose surroundings rub off on her; or was it rather that Mrs.
Carstyle's idiosyncrasies were of a nature to color every one within
reach? Vibart, looking across the table as this consolatory alternative
occurred to him, was sure that they had not colored Mr. Carstyle; but
that, perhaps, was only because they had bleached him instead. Mr.
Carstyle was quite colorless; it would have been impossible to guess his
native tint. His wife's qualities, if they had affected him at all, had
acted negatively. He did not apologize for the mutton, and he wandered off
after luncheon without pretending to wait for the diurnal coffee and
liqueurs; while the few remarks that he had contributed to the
conversation during the meal had not been in the direction of abstract
conceptions of life. As he strayed away, with his vague oblique step, and
the stoop that suggested the habit of dodging missiles, Vibart, who was
still in the age of formulas, found himself wondering what life could be
worth to a man who had evidently resigned himself to travelling with his
back to the wind; so that Mrs. Carstyle's allusion to her daughter's lack
of advantages (imparted while Irene searched the house for an
undiscoverable cigarette) had an appositeness unintended by the speaker.
"If Mr. Carstyle had chosen," that lady repeated, "we might have had our
city home" (she never used so small a word as town) "and Ireen could have
mixed in the society to which I myself was accustomed at her age." Her
sigh pointed unmistakably to a past when young men had come to luncheon to
The sigh led Vibart to look at her, and the look led him to the unwelcome
conclusion that Irene "took after" her mother. It was certainly not from
the sapless paternal stock that the girl had drawn her warm bloom: Mrs.
Carstyle had contributed the high lights to the picture.
Mrs. Carstyle caught his look and appropriated it with the complacency of
a vicarious beauty. She was quite aware of the value of her appearance as
guaranteeing Irene's development into a fine woman.
"But perhaps," she continued, taking up the thread of her explanation,
"you have heard of Mr. Carstyle's extraordinary hallucination. Mr.
Carstyle knows that I call it so—as I tell him, it is the most
charitable view to take."
She looked coldly at the threadbare sofa and indulgently at the young man
who filled a corner of it.
"You may think it odd, Mr. Vibart, that I should take you into my
confidence in this way after so short an acquaintance, but somehow I can't
help regarding you as a friend already. I believe in those intuitive
sympathies, don't you? They have never misled me—" her lids drooped
retrospectively—"and besides, I always tell Mr. Carstyle that on
this point I will have no false pretences. Where truth is concerned I am
inexorable, and I consider it my duty to let our friends know that our
restricted way of living is due entirely to choice—to Mr. Carstyle's
choice. When I married Mr. Carstyle it was with the expectation of living
in New York and of keeping my carriage; and there is no reason for our not
doing so—there is no reason, Mr. Vibart, why my daughter Ireen
should have been denied the intellectual advantages of foreign travel. I
wish that to be understood. It is owing to her father's deliberate choice
that Ireen and I have been imprisoned in the narrow limits of Millbrook
society. For myself I do not complain. If Mr. Carstyle chooses to place
others before his wife it is not for his wife to repine. His course may be
noble—Quixotic; I do not allow myself to pronounce judgment on it,
though others have thought that in sacrificing his own family to strangers
he was violating the most sacred obligations of domestic life. This is the
opinion of my pastor and of other valued friends; but, as I have always
told them, for myself I make no claims. Where my daughter Ireen is
concerned it is different—"
It was a relief to Vibart when, at this point, Mrs. Carstyle's discharge
of her duty was cut short by her daughter's reappearance. Irene had been
unable to find a cigarette for Mr. Vibart, and her mother, with beaming
irrelevance, suggested that in that case she had better show him the
The Carstyle house stood but a few yards back from the brick-paved
Millbrook street, and the garden was a very small place, unless measured,
as Mrs. Carstyle probably intended that it should be, by the extent of her
daughter's charms. These were so considerable that Vibart walked back and
forward half a dozen times between the porch and the gate, before he
discovered the limitations of the Carstyle domain. It was not till Irene
had accused him of being sarcastic and had confided in him that "the
girls" were furious with her for letting him talk to her so long at his
aunt's garden-party, that he awoke to the exiguity of his surroundings;
and then it was with a touch of irritation that he noticed Mr. Carstyle's
inconspicuous profile bent above a newspaper in one of the lower windows.
Vibart had an idea that Mr. Carstyle, while ostensibly reading the paper,
had kept count of the number of times that his daughter had led her
companion up and down between the syringa-bushes; and for some undefinable
reason he resented Mr. Carstyle's unperturbed observation more than his
wife's zealous self-effacement. To a man who is trying to please a pretty
girl there are moments when the proximity of an impartial spectator is
more disconcerting than the most obvious connivance; and something about
Mr. Carstyle's expression conveyed his good-humored indifference to
When the garden-gate closed behind Vibart he had become aware that his
preoccupation with the Carstyles had shifted its centre from the daughter
to the father; but he was accustomed to such emotional surprises, and
skilled in seizing any compensations they might offer.
The Carstyles belonged to the all-the-year-round Millbrook of paper-mills,
cable-cars, brick pavements and church sociables, while Mrs. Vance, the
aunt with whom Vibart lived, was an ornament of the summer colony whose
big country-houses dotted the surrounding hills. Mrs. Vance had, however,
no difficulty in appeasing the curiosity which Mrs. Carstyle's enigmatic
utterances had aroused in the young man. Mrs. Carstyle's relentless
veracity vented itself mainly on the "summer people," as they were called:
she did not propose that any one within ten miles of Millbrook should keep
a carriage without knowing that she was entitled to keep one too. Mrs.
Vance remarked with a sigh that Mrs. Carstyle's annual demand to have her
position understood came in as punctually as the taxes and the
"My dear, it's simply this: when Andrew Carstyle married her years ago—Heaven
knows why he did; he's one of the Albany Carstyles, you know, and she was
a daughter of old Deacon Ash of South Millbrook—well, when he
married her he had a tidy little income, and I suppose the bride expected
to set up an establishment in New York and be hand-in-glove with the whole
Carstyle clan. But whether he was ashamed of her from the first, or for
some other unexplained reason, he bought a country-place and settled down
here for life. For a few years they lived comfortably enough, and she had
plenty of smart clothes, and drove about in a victoria calling on the
summer people. Then, when the beautiful Irene was about ten years old, Mr.
Carstyle's only brother died, and it turned out that he had made away with
a lot of trust-property. It was a horrid business: over three hundred
thousand dollars were gone, and of course most of it had belonged to
widows and orphans. As soon as the facts were made known, Andrew Carstyle
announced that he would pay back what his brother had stolen. He sold his
country-place and his wife's carriage, and they moved to the little house
they live in now. Mr. Carstyle's income is probably not as large as his
wife would like to have it thought, and though I'm told he puts aside, a
good part of it every year to pay off his brother's obligations, I fancy
the debt won't be discharged for some time to come. To help things along
he opened a law office—he had studied law in his youth—but
though he is said to be clever I hear that he has very little to do.
People are afraid of him: he's too dry and quiet. Nobody believes in a man
who doesn't believe in himself, and Mr. Carstyle always seems to be
winking at you through a slit in his professional manner. People don't
like it—his wife doesn't like it. I believe she would have accepted
the sacrifice of the country-place and the carriage if he had struck an
attitude and talked about doing his duty. It was his regarding the whole
thing as a matter of course that exasperated her. What is the use of doing
something difficult in a way that makes it look perfectly easy? I feel
sorry for Mrs. Carstyle. She's lost her house and her carriage, and she
hasn't been allowed to be heroic."
Vibart had listened attentively.
"I wonder what Miss Carstyle thinks of it?" he mused.
Mrs. Vance looked at him with a tentative smile. "I wonder what you
think of Miss Carstyle?" she returned,
His answer reassured her.
"I think she takes after her mother," he said.
"Ah," cried his aunt cheerfully, "then I needn't write to your
mother, and I can have Irene at all my parties!"
Miss Carstyle was an important factor in the restricted social
combinations of a Millbrook hostess. A local beauty is always a useful
addition to a Saturday-to-Monday house-party, and the beautiful Irene was
served up as a perennial novelty to the jaded guests of the summer colony.
As Vibart's aunt remarked, she was perfect till she became playful, and
she never became playful till the third day.
Under these conditions, it was natural that Vibart should see a good deal
of the young lady, and before he was aware of it he had drifted into the
anomalous position of paying court to the daughter in order to ingratiate
himself with the father. Miss Carstyle was beautiful, Vibart was young,
and the days were long in his aunt's spacious and distinguished house; but
it was really the desire to know something more of Mr. Carstyle that led
the young man to partake so often of that gentleman's overdone mutton.
Vibart's imagination had been touched by the discovery that this little
huddled-up man, instead of travelling with the wind, was persistently
facing a domestic gale of considerable velocity. That he should have paid
off his brother's debt at one stroke was to the young man a conceivable
feat; but that he should go on methodically and uninterruptedly
accumulating the needed amount, under the perpetual accusation of Irene's
inadequate frocks and Mrs. Carstyle's apologies for the mutton, seemed to
Vibart proof of unexampled heroism. Mr. Carstyle was as inaccessible as
the average American parent, and led a life so detached from the
preoccupations of his womankind that Vibart had some difficulty in fixing
his attention. To Mr. Carstyle, Vibart was simply the inevitable young man
who had been hanging about the house ever since Irene had left school; and
Vibart's efforts to differentiate himself from this enamored abstraction
were hampered by Mrs. Carstyle's cheerful assumption that he was
the young man, and by Irene's frank appropriation of his visits.
In this extremity he suddenly observed a slight but significant change in
the manner of the two ladies. Irene, instead of charging him with being
sarcastic and horrid, and declaring herself unable to believe a word he
said, began to receive his remarks with the impersonal smile which he had
seen her accord to the married men of his aunt's house-parties; while Mrs.
Carstyle, talking over his head to an invisible but evidently sympathetic
and intelligent listener, debated the propriety of Irene's accepting an
invitation to spend the month of August at Narragansett. When Vibart,
rashly trespassing on the rights of this unseen oracle, remarked that a
few weeks at the seashore would make a delightful change for Miss
Carstyle, the ladies looked at him and then laughed.
It was at this point that Vibart, for the first time, found himself
observed by Mr. Carstyle. They were grouped about the debris of a luncheon
which had ended precipitously with veal stew (Mrs. Carstyle explaining
that poor cooks always failed with their sweet dish when there was
company) and Mr. Carstyle, his hands thrust in his pockets, his lean
baggy-coated shoulders pressed against his chair-back, sat contemplating
his guest with a smile of unmistakable approval. When Vibart caught his
eye the smile vanished, and Mr. Carstyle, dropping his glasses from the
bridge of his thin nose, looked out of the window with the expression of a
man determined to prove an alibi. But Vibart was sure of the smile: it had
established, between his host and himself, a complicity which Mr.
Carstyle's attempted evasion served only to confirm.
On the strength of this incident Vibart, a few days later, called at Mr.
Carstyle's office. Ostensibly, the young man had come to ask, on his
aunt's behalf, some question on a point at issue between herself and the
Millbrook telephone company; but his purpose in offering to perform the
errand had been the hope of taking up his intercourse with Mr. Carstyle
where that gentleman's smile had left it. Vibart was not disappointed. In
a dingy office, with a single window looking out on a blank wall, he found
Mr. Carstyle, in an alpaca coat, reading Montaigne.
It evidently did not occur to him that Vibart had come on business, and
the warmth of his welcome gave the young man a sense of furnishing the
last word in a conjugal argument in which, for once, Mr. Carstyle had come
The legal question disposed of, Vibart reverted to Montaigne: had Mr.
Carstyle seen young So-and-so's volume of essays? There was one on
Montaigne that had a decided flavor: the point of view was curious. Vibart
was surprised to find that Mr. Carstyle had heard of young So-and-so.
Clever young men are given to thinking that their elders have never got
beyond Macaulay; but Mr. Carstyle seemed sufficiently familiar with recent
literature not to take it too seriously. He accepted Vibart's offer of
young So-and-so's volume, admitting that his own library was not exactly
Vibart went away musing. The next day he came back with the volume of
essays. It seemed to be tacitly understood that he was to call at the
office when he wished to see Mr. Carstyle, whose legal engagements did not
seriously interfere with the pursuit of literature.
For a week or ten days Mrs. Carstyle, in Vibart's presence, continued to
take counsel with her unseen adviser on the subject of her daughter's
visit to Narragansett. Once or twice Irene dropped her impersonal smile to
tax Vibart with not caring whether she went or not; and Mrs. Carstyle
seized a moment of tête-à-tête to confide in him that the dear
child hated the idea of leaving, and was going only because her friend
Mrs. Higby would not let her off. Of course, if it had not been for Mr.
Carstyle's peculiarities they would have had their own seaside home—at
Newport, probably: Mrs. Carstyle preferred the tone of Newport—and
Irene would not have been dependent on the charity of her friends;
but as it was, they must be thankful for small mercies, and Mrs. Higby was
certainly very kind in her way, and had a charming social position—for
These confidences, however, were soon superseded by an exchange, between
mother and daughter, of increasingly frequent allusions to the delights of
Narragansett, the popularity of Mrs. Higby, and the jolliness of her
house; with an occasional reference on Mrs. Carstyle's part to the
probability of Hewlett Bain's being there as usual—hadn't Irene
heard from Mrs. Higby that he was to be there? Upon this note Miss
Carstyle at length departed, leaving Vibart to the undisputed enjoyment of
her father's company.
Vibart had at no time a keen taste for the summer joys of Millbrook, and
the family obligation which, for several months of the year, kept him at
his aunt's side (Mrs. Vance was a childless widow and he filled the
onerous post of favorite nephew) gave a sense of compulsion to the light
occupations that chequered his leisure. Mrs. Vance, who fancied herself
lonely when he was away, was too much engaged with notes, telegrams and
arriving and departing guests, to do more than breathlessly smile upon his
presence, or implore him to take the dullest girl of the party for a drive
(and would he go by way of Millbrook, like a dear, and stop at the market
to ask why the lobsters hadn't come?); and the house itself, and the
guests who came and went in it like people rushing through a
railway-station, offered no points of repose to his thoughts. Some houses
are companions in themselves: the walls, the book-shelves, the very chairs
and tables, have the qualities of a sympathetic mind; but Mrs. Vance's
interior was as impersonal as the setting of a classic drama.
These conditions made Vibart cultivate an assiduous exchange of books
between himself and Mr. Carstyle. The young man went down almost daily to
the little house in the town, where Mrs. Carstyle, who had now an air of
receiving him in curl-papers, and of not always immediately distinguishing
him from the piano-tuner, made no effort to detain him on his way to her
Now and then, at the close of one of Vibart's visits, Mr. Carstyle put on
a mildewed Panama hat and accompanied the young man for a mile or two on
his way home. The road to Mrs. Vance's lay through one of the most amiable
suburbs of Millbrook, and Mr. Carstyle, walking with his slow uneager
step, his hat pushed back, and his stick dragging behind him, seemed to
take a philosophic pleasure in the aspect of the trim lawns and opulent
Vibart could never induce his companion to prolong his walk as far as Mrs.
Vance's drawing-room; but one afternoon, when the distant hills lay blue
beyond the twilight of overarching elms, the two men strolled on into the
country past that lady's hospitable gateposts.
It was a still day, the road was deserted, and every sound came sharply
through the air. Mr. Carstyle was in the midst of a disquisition on
Diderot, when he raised his head and stood still.
"What's that?" he said. "Listen!"
Vibart listened and heard a distant storm of hoof-beats. A moment later, a
buggy drawn by a pair of trotters swung round the turn of the road. It was
about thirty yards off, coming toward them at full speed. The man who
drove was leaning forward with outstretched arms; beside him sat a girl.
Suddenly Vibart saw Mr. Carstyle jump into the middle of the road, in
front of the buggy. He stood there immovable, his arms extended, his legs
apart, in an attitude of indomitable resistance. Almost at the same moment
Vibart realized that the man in the buggy had his horses in hand.
"They're not running!" Vibart shouted, springing into the road and
catching Mr. Carstyle's alpaca sleeve. The older man looked around
vaguely: he seemed dazed.
"Come away, sir, come away!" cried Vibart, gripping his arm. The buggy
swept past them, and Mr. Carstyle stood in the dust gazing after it.
At length he drew out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead. He was very
pale and Vibart noticed that his hand shook.
"That was a close call, sir, wasn't it? I suppose you thought they were
"Yes," said Mr. Carstyle slowly, "I thought they were running."
"It certainly looked like it for a minute. Let's sit down, shall we? I
feel rather breathless myself."
Vibart saw that his friend could hardly stand. They seated themselves on a
tree-trunk by the roadside, and Mr. Carstyle continued to wipe his
forehead in silence.
At length he turned to Vibart and said abruptly:
"I made straight for the middle of the road, didn't I? If there had
been a runaway I should have stopped it?"
Vibart looked at him in surprise.
"You would have tried to, undoubtedly, unless I'd had time to drag you
Mr. Carstyle straightened his narrow shoulders.
"There was no hesitation, at all events? I—I showed no signs of—avoiding
"I should say not, sir; it was I who funked it for you."
Mr. Carstyle was silent: his head had dropped forward and he looked like
an old man.
"It was just my cursed luck again!" he exclaimed suddenly in a loud voice.
For a moment Vibart thought that he was wandering; but he raised his head
and went on speaking in more natural tones.
"I daresay I appeared ridiculous enough to you just now, eh? Perhaps you
saw all along that the horses weren't running? Your eyes are younger than
mine; and then you're not always looking out for runaways, as I am. Do you
know that in thirty years I've never seen a runaway?"
"You're fortunate," said Vibart, still bewildered.
"Fortunate? Good God, man, I've prayed to see one: not a runaway
especially, but any bad accident; anything that endangered people's lives.
There are accidents happening all the time all over the world; why
shouldn't I ever come across one? It's not for want of trying! At one time
I used to haunt the theatres in the hope of a fire: fires in theatres are
so apt to be fatal. Well, will you believe it? I was in the Brooklyn
theatre the night before it burned down; I left the old Madison Square
Garden half an hour before the walls fell in. And it's the same way with
street accidents—I always miss them; I'm always just too late. Last
year there was a boy knocked down by a cable-car at our corner; I got to
my gate just as they were carrying him off on a stretcher. And so it goes.
If anybody else had been walking along this road, those horses would have
been running away. And there was a girl in the buggy, too—a mere
Mr. Carstyle's head sank again.
"You're wondering what this means," he began after another pause. "I was a
little confused for a moment—must have seemed incoherent." His voice
cleared and he made an effort to straighten himself. "Well, I was a damned
coward once and I've been trying to live it down ever since."
Vibart looked at him incredulously and Mr. Carstyle caught the look with a
"Why not? Do I look like a Hercules?" He held up his loose-skinned hand
and shrunken wrist. "Not built for the part, certainly; but that doesn't
count, of course. Man's unconquerable soul, and all the rest of it ...
well, I was a coward every inch of me, body and soul."
He paused and glanced up and down the road. There was no one in sight.
"It happened when I was a young chap just out of college. I was travelling
round the world with another youngster of my own age and an older man—Charles
Meriton—who has since made a name for himself. You may have heard of
"Meriton, the archaeologist? The man who discovered those ruined African
cities the other day?"
"That's the man. He was a college tutor then, and my father, who had known
him since he was a boy, and who had a very high opinion of him, had asked
him to make the tour with us. We both—my friend Collis and I—had
an immense admiration for Meriton. He was just the fellow to excite a
boy's enthusiasm: cool, quick, imperturbable—the kind of man whose
hand is always on the hilt of action. His explorations had led him into
all sorts of tight places, and he'd shown an extraordinary combination of
calculating patience and reckless courage. He never talked about his
doings; we picked them up from various people on our journey. He'd been
everywhere, he knew everybody, and everybody had something stirring to
tell about him. I daresay this account of the man sounds exaggerated;
perhaps it is; I've never seen him since; but at that time he seemed to me
a tremendous fellow—a kind of scientific Ajax. He was a capital
travelling-companion, at any rate: good-tempered, cheerful, easily amused,
with none of the been-there-before superiority so irritating to
youngsters. He made us feel as though it were all as new to him as to us:
he never chilled our enthusiasms or took the bloom off our surprises.
There was nobody else whose good opinion I cared as much about: he was the
biggest thing in sight.
"On the way home Collis broke down with diphtheria. We were in the
Mediterranean, cruising about the Sporades in a felucca. He was taken ill
at Chios. The attack came on suddenly and we were afraid to run the risk
of taking him back to Athens in the felucca. We established ourselves in
the inn at Chios and there the poor fellow lay for weeks. Luckily there
was a fairly good doctor on the island and we sent to Athens for a sister
to help with the nursing. Poor Collis was desperately bad: the diphtheria
was followed by partial paralysis. The doctor assured us that the danger
was past; he would gradually regain the use of his limbs; but his recovery
would be slow. The sister encouraged us too—she had seen such cases
before; and he certainly did improve a shade each day. Meriton and I had
taken turns with the sister in nursing him, but after the paralysis had
set in there wasn't much to do, and there was nothing to prevent Meriton's
leaving us for a day or two. He had received word from some place on the
coast of Asia Minor that a remarkable tomb had been discovered somewhere
in the interior; he had not been willing to take us there, as the journey
was not a particularly safe one; but now that we were tied up at Chios
there seemed no reason why he shouldn't go and take a look at the place.
The expedition would not take more than three days; Collis was
convalescent; the doctor and nurse assured us that there was no cause for
uneasiness; and so Meriton started off one evening at sunset. I walked
down to the quay with him and saw him rowed off to the felucca. I would
have given a good deal to be going with him; the prospect of danger
"'You'll see that Collis is never left alone, won't you?' he shouted back
to me as the boat pulled out into the harbor; I remembered I rather
resented the suggestion.
"I walked back to the inn and went to bed: the nurse sat up with Collis at
night. The next morning I relieved her at the usual hour. It was a sultry
day with a queer coppery-looking sky; the air was stifling. In the middle
of the day the nurse came to take my place while I dined; when I went back
to Collis's room she said she would go out for a breath of air.
"I sat down by Collis's bed and began to fan him with the fan the sister
had been using. The heat made him uneasy and I turned him over in bed, for
he was still helpless: the whole of his right side was numb. Presently he
fell asleep and I went to the window and sat looking down on the hot
deserted square, with a bunch of donkeys and their drivers asleep in the
shade of the convent-wall across the way. I remember noticing the blue
beads about the donkeys' necks.... Were you ever in an earthquake? No? I'd
never been in one either. It's an indescribable sensation ... there's a
Day of Judgment feeling in the air. It began with the donkeys waking up
and trembling; I noticed that and thought it queer. Then the drivers
jumped up—I saw the terror in their faces. Then a roar.... I
remember noticing a big black crack in the convent-wall opposite—a
zig-zag crack, like a flash of lightning in a wood-cut.... I thought of
that, too, at the time; then all the bells in the place began to ring—it
made a fearful discord.... I saw people rushing across the square ... the
air was full of crashing noises. The floor went down under me in a
sickening way and then jumped back and pitched me to the ceiling ... but
where was the ceiling? And the door? I said to myself: We're two
stories up—the stairs are just wide enough for one.... I gave
one glance at Collis: he was lying in bed, wide awake, looking straight at
me. I ran. Something struck me on the head as I bolted downstairs—I
kept on running. I suppose the knock I got dazed me, for I don't remember
much of anything till I found myself in a vineyard a mile from the town. I
was roused by the warm blood running down my nose and heard myself
explaining to Meriton exactly how it had happened....
"When I crawled back to the town they told me that all the houses near the
inn were in ruins and that a dozen people had been killed. Collis was
among them, of course. The ceiling had come down on him."
Mr. Carstyle wiped his forehead. Vibart sat looking away from him.
"Two days later Meriton came back. I began to tell him the story, but he
"'There was no one with him at the time, then? You'd left him alone?'
"'No, he wasn't alone.'
"'Who was with him? You said the sister was out.'
"'I was with him.'
"'You were with him?'
"I shall never forget Meriton's look. I believe I had meant to explain, to
accuse myself, to shout out my agony of soul; but I saw the uselessness of
it. A door had been shut between us. Neither of us spoke another word. He
was very kind to me on the way home; he looked after me in a motherly way
that was a good deal harder to stand than his open contempt. I saw the man
was honestly trying to pity me; but it was no good—he simply
Mr. Carstyle rose slowly, with a certain stiffness.
"Shall we turn toward home? Perhaps I'm keeping you."
They walked on a few steps in silence; then he spoke again.
"That business altered my whole life. Of course I oughtn't to have allowed
it to—that was another form of cowardice. But I saw myself only with
Meriton's eyes—it is one of the worst miseries of youth that one is
always trying to be somebody else. I had meant to be a Meriton—I saw
I'd better go home and study law....
"It's a childish fancy, a survival of the primitive savage, if you like;
but from that hour to this I've hankered day and night for a chance to
retrieve myself, to set myself right with the man I meant to be. I want to
prove to that man that it was all an accident—an unaccountable
deviation from my normal instincts; that having once been a coward doesn't
mean that a man's cowardly... and I can't, I can't!"
Mr. Carstyle's tone had passed insensibly from agitation to irony. He had
got back to his usual objective stand-point.
"Why, I'm a perfect olive-branch," he concluded, with his dry indulgent
laugh; "the very babies stop crying at my approach—I carry a sort of
millennium about with me—I'd make my fortune as an agent of the
Peace Society. I shall go to the grave leaving that other man
Vibart walked back with him to Millbrook. On her doorstep they met Mrs.
Carstyle, flushed and feathered, with a card-case and dusty boots.
"I don't ask you in," she said plaintively, to Vibart, "because I can't
answer for the food this evening. My maid-of-all-work tells me that she's
going to a ball—which is more than I've done in years! And besides,
it would be cruel to ask you to spend such a hot evening in our stuffy
little house—the air is so much cooler at Mrs. Vance's. Remember me
to Mrs. Vance, please, and tell her how sorry I am that I can no longer
include her in my round of visits. When I had my carriage I saw the people
I liked, but now that I have to walk, my social opportunities are more
limited. I was not obliged to do my visiting on foot when I was younger,
and my doctor tells me that to persons accustomed to a carriage no
exercise is more injurious than walking."
She glanced at her husband with a smile of unforgiving sweetness.
"Fortunately," she concluded, "it agrees with Mr. Carstyle."