The Pretext by Edith Wharton
MRS. RANSOM, when the front door had closed on her visitor, passed with
a spring from the drawing-room to the narrow hall, and thence up the
narrow stairs to her bedroom.
Though slender, and still light of foot, she did not always move so
quickly: hitherto, in her life, there had not been much to hurry for,
save the recurring domestic tasks that compel haste without fostering
elasticity; but some impetus of youth revived, communicated to her by
her talk with Guy Dawnish, now found expression in her girlish flight
upstairs, her girlish impatience to bolt herself into her room with her
throbs and her blushes.
Her blushes? Was she really blushing?
She approached the cramped eagle-topped mirror above her plain prim
dressing-table: just such a meagre concession to the weakness of the
flesh as every old-fashioned house in Wentworth counted among its
relics. The face reflected in this unflattering surface—for even the
mirrors of Wentworth erred on the side of depreciation—did not seem,
at first sight, a suitable theatre for the display of the tenderer
emotions, and its owner blushed more deeply as the fact was forced upon
Her fair hair had grown too thin—it no longer quite hid the blue veins
in her candid forehead—a forehead that one seemed to see turned toward
professorial desks, in large bare halls where a snowy winter light fell
uncompromisingly on rows of "thoughtful women." Her mouth was thin,
too, and a little strained; her lips were too pale; and there were
lines in the corners of her eyes. It was a face which had grown
middle-aged while it waited for the joys of youth.
Well—but if she could still blush? Instinctively she drew back a
little, so that her scrutiny became less microscopic, and the pretty
lingering pink threw a veil over her pallor, the hollows in her
temples, the faint wrinkles of inexperience about her lips and eyes.
How a little colour helped! It made her eyes so deep and shining. She
saw now why bad women rouged.... Her redness deepened at the thought.
But suddenly she noticed for the first time that the collar of her
dress was cut too low. It showed the shrunken lines of the throat. She
rummaged feverishly in a tidy scentless drawer, and snatching out a bit
of black velvet, bound it about her neck. Yes—that was better. It gave
her the relief she needed. Relief—contrast—that was it! She had never
had any, either in her appearance or in her setting. She was as flat as
the pattern of the wall-paper—and so was her life. And all the people
about her had the same look. Wentworth was the kind of place where
husbands and wives gradually grew to resemble each other—one or two of
her friends, she remembered, had told her lately that she and Ransom
were beginning to look alike....
But why had she always, so tamely, allowed her aspect to conform to her
situation? Perhaps a gayer exterior would have provoked a brighter
fate. Even now—she turned back to the glass, loosened the tight
strands of hair above her brow, ran the fine end of the comb under them
with a rapid frizzing motion, and then disposed them, more lightly and
amply, above her eager face. Yes—it was really better; it made a
difference. She smiled at herself with a timid coquetry, and her lips
seemed rosier as she smiled. Then she laid down the comb and the smile
faded. It made a difference, certainly—but was it right to try to make
one's hair look thicker and wavier than it really was? Between that and
rouging the ethical line seemed almost impalpable, and the spectre of
her rigid New England ancestry rose reprovingly before her. She was
sure that none of her grandmothers had ever simulated a curl or
encouraged a blush. A blush, indeed! What had any of them ever had to
blush for in all their frozen lives? And what, in Heaven's name, had
she? She sat down in the stiff mahogany rocking-chair beside her
work-table and tried to collect herself. From childhood she had been
taught to "collect herself"—but never before had her small sensations
and aspirations been so widely scattered, diffused over so vague and
uncharted an expanse. Hitherto they had lain in neatly sorted and
easily accessible bundles on the high shelves of a perfectly ordered
moral consciousness. And now—now that for the first time they needed
collecting—now that the little winged and scattered bits of self were
dancing madly down the vagrant winds of fancy, she knew no spell to
call them to the fold again. The best way, no doubt—if only her
bewilderment permitted—was to go back to the beginning—the beginning,
at least, of to-day's visit—to recapitulate, word for word and look
She clasped her hands on the arms of the chair, checked its swaying
with a firm thrust of her foot, and fixed her eyes upon the inward
To begin with, what had made to-day's visit so different from the
others? It became suddenly vivid to her that there had been many,
almost daily, others, since Guy Dawnish's coming to Wentworth. Even the
previous winter—the winter of his arrival from England—his visits had
been numerous enough to make Wentworth aware that—very naturally—Mrs.
Ransom was "looking after" the stray young Englishman committed to her
husband's care by an eminent Q. C. whom the Ransoms had known on one of
their brief London visits, and with whom Ransom had since maintained
professional relations. All this was in the natural order of things, as
sanctioned by the social code of Wentworth. Every one was kind to Guy
Dawnish—some rather importunately so, as Margaret Ransom had smiled to
observe—but it was recognized as fitting that she should be kindest,
since he was in a sense her property, since his people in England, by
profusely acknowledging her kindness, had given it the domestic
sanction without which, to Wentworth, any social relation between the
sexes remained unhallowed and to be viewed askance. Yes! And even this
second winter, when the visits had become so much more frequent, so
admitted a part of the day's routine, there had not been, from any one,
a hint of surprise or of conjecture....
Mrs. Ransom smiled with a faint bitterness. She was protected by her
age, no doubt—her age and her past, and the image her mirror gave back
Her door-handle turned suddenly, and the bolt's resistance was met by
an impatient knock.
She started up, her brightness fading, and unbolted the door to admit
"Why are you locked in? Why, you're not dressed yet!" he exclaimed.
It was possible for Ransom to reach his dressing-room by a slight
circuit through the passage; but it was characteristic of the
relentless domesticity of their relation that he chose, as a matter of
course, the directer way through his wife's bedroom. She had never
before been disturbed by this practice, which she accepted as
inevitable, but had merely adapted her own habits to it, delaying her
hasty toilet till he was safely in his room, or completing it before
she heard his step on the stair; since a scrupulous traditional prudery
had miraculously survived this massacre of all the privacies.
"Oh, I shan't dress this evening—I shall just have some tea in the
library after you've gone," she answered absently. "Your things are
laid out," she added, rousing herself.
He looked surprised. "The dinner's at seven. I suppose the speeches
will begin at nine. I thought you were coming to hear them."
She wavered. "I don't know. I think not. Mrs. Sperry's ill, and I've no
one else to go with."
He glanced at his watch. "Why not get hold of Dawnish? Wasn't he here
just now? Why didn't you ask him?"
She turned toward her dressing-table, and straightened the comb and
brush with a nervous hand. Her husband had given her, that morning, two
tickets for the ladies' gallery in Hamblin Hall, where the great public
dinner of the evening was to take place—a banquet offered by the
faculty of Wentworth to visitors of academic eminence—and she had
meant to ask Dawnish to go with her: it had seemed the most natural
thing to do, till the end of his visit came, and then, after all, she
had not spoken....
"It's too late now," she murmured, bending over her pin cushion.
"Too late? Not if you telephone him."
Her husband came toward her, and she turned quickly to face him, lest
he should suspect her of trying to avoid his eye. To what duplicity was
she already committed!
Ransom laid a friendly hand on her arm: "Come along, Margaret. You know
I speak for the bar." She was aware, in his voice, of a little note of
surprise at his having to remind her of this.
"Oh, yes. I meant to go, of course—"
"Well, then—" He opened his dressing-room door, and caught a glimpse
of the retreating house-maid's skirt. "Here's Maria now. Maria! Call up
Mr. Dawnish—at Mrs. Creswell's, you know. Tell him Mrs. Ransom wants
him to go with her to hear the speeches this evening—the speeches,
you understand?—and he's to call for her at a quarter before nine."
Margaret heard the Irish "Yessir" on the stairs, and stood motionless,
while her husband added loudly: "And bring me some towels when you come
up." Then he turned back into his wife's room.
"Why, it would be a thousand pities for Guy to miss this. He's so
interested in the way we do things over here—and I don't know that
he's ever heard me speak in public." Again the slight note of fatuity!
Was it possible that Ransom was a fatuous man?
He paused in front of her, his short-sighted unobservant glance
concentrating itself unexpectedly on her face.
"You're not going like that, are you?" he asked, with glaring
"Like what?" she faltered, lifting a conscious hand to the velvet at
"With your hair in such a fearful mess. Have you been shampooing it?
You look like the Brant girl at the end of a tennis-match."
The Brant girl was their horror—the horror of all right-thinking
Wentworth; a laced, whale-boned, frizzle-headed, high-heeled daughter
of iniquity, who came—from New York, of course—on long, disturbing,
tumultuous visits to a Wentworth aunt, working havoc among the
freshmen, and leaving, when she departed, an angry wake of criticism
that ruffled the social waters for weeks. She, too, had tried her
hand at Guy—with ludicrous unsuccess. And now, to be compared to
her—to be accused of looking "New Yorky!" Ah, there are times when
husbands are obtuse; and Ransom, as he stood there, thick and yet
juiceless, in his dry legal middle age, with his wiry dust-coloured
beard, and his perpetual pince-nez, seemed to his wife a sudden
embodiment of this traditional attribute. Not that she had ever fancied
herself, poor soul, a "femme incomprise." She had, on the contrary,
prided herself on being understood by her husband, almost as much as on
her own complete comprehension of him. Wentworth laid a good deal of
stress on "motives"; and Margaret Ransom and her husband had dwelt in a
complete community of motive. It had been the proudest day of her life
when, without consulting her, he had refused an offer of partnership in
an eminent New York firm because he preferred the distinction of
practising in Wentworth, of being known as the legal representative of
the University. Wentworth, in fact, had always been the bond between
the two; they were united in their veneration for that estimable seat
of learning, and in their modest yet vivid consciousness of possessing
its tone. The Wentworth "tone" is unmistakable: it permeates every part
of the social economy, from the coiffure of the ladies to the
preparation of the food. It has its sumptuary laws as well as its
curriculum of learning. It sits in judgment not only on its own
townsmen but on the rest of the world—enlightening, criticising,
ostracizing a heedless universe—and non-conformity to Wentworth
standards involves obliteration from Wentworth's consciousness.
In a world without traditions, without reverence, without stability,
such little expiring centres of prejudice and precedent make an
irresistible appeal to those instincts for which a democracy has
neglected to provide. Wentworth, with its "tone," its backward
references, its inflexible aversions and condemnations, its hard moral
outline preserved intact against a whirling background of experiment,
had been all the poetry and history of Margaret Ransom's life. Yes,
what she had really esteemed in her husband was the fact of his being
so intense an embodiment of Wentworth; so long and closely identified,
for instance, with its legal affairs, that he was almost a part of its
university existence, that of course, at a college banquet, he would
inevitably speak for the bar!
It was wonderful of how much consequence all this had seemed till
WHEN, punctually at ten minutes to seven, her husband had emerged from
the house, Margaret Ransom remained seated in her bedroom, addressing
herself anew to the difficult process of self-collection. As an aid to
this endeavour, she bent forward and looked out of the window,
following Ransom's figure as it receded down the elm-shaded street. He
moved almost alone between the prim flowerless grass-plots, the white
porches, the protrusion of irrelevant shingled gables, which stamped
the empty street as part of an American college town. She had always
been proud of living in Hill Street, where the university people
congregated, proud to associate her husband's retreating back, as he
walked daily to his office, with backs literary and pedagogic, backs of
which it was whispered, for the edification of duly-impressed visitors:
"Wait till that old boy turns—that's so-and-so."
This had been her world, a world destitute of personal experience, but
filled with a rich sense of privilege and distinction, of being not as
those millions were who, denied the inestimable advantage of living at
Wentworth, pursued elsewhere careers foredoomed to futility by that
She rose and turned to her work-table where she had dropped, on
entering, the handful of photographs that Guy Dawnish had left with
her. While he sat so close, pointing out and explaining, she had hardly
taken in the details; but now, on the full tones of his low young
voice, they came back with redoubled distinctness. This was Guise
Abbey, his uncle's place in Wiltshire, where, under his grandfather's
rule, Guy's own boyhood had been spent: a long gabled Jacobean facade,
many-chimneyed, ivy-draped, overhung (she felt sure) by the boughs of a
venerable rookery. And in this other picture—the walled garden at
Guise—that was his uncle, Lord Askern, a hale gouty-looking figure,
planted robustly on the terrace, a gun on his shoulder and a couple of
setters at his feet. And here was the river below the park, with Guy
"punting" a girl in a flapping hat—how Margaret hated the flap that
hid the girl's face! And here was the tennis-court, with Guy among a
jolly cross-legged group of youths in flannels, and pretty girls about
the tea-table under the big lime: in the centre the curate handing
bread and butter, and in the middle distance a footman approaching with
Margaret raised this picture closer to her eyes, puzzling, in the
diminished light, over the face of the girl nearest to Guy
Dawnish—bent above him in profile, while he laughingly lifted his
head. No hat hid this profile, which stood out clearly against the
foliage behind it.
"And who is that handsome girl?" Margaret had said, detaining the
photograph as he pushed it aside, and struck by the fact that, of the
whole group, he had left only this member unnamed.
"Oh, only Gwendolen Matcher—I've always known her—. Look at this: the
almshouses at Guise. Aren't they jolly?"
And then—without her having had the courage to ask if the girl in the
punt were also Gwendolen Matcher—they passed on to photographs of his
rooms at Oxford, of a cousin's studio in London—one of Lord Askern's
grandsons was "artistic"—of the rose-hung cottage in Wales to which,
on the old Earl's death, his daughter-in-law, Guy's mother, had retired.
Every one of the photographs opened a window on the life Margaret had
been trying to picture since she had known him—a life so rich, so
romantic, so packed—in the mere casual vocabulary of daily life—with
historic reference and poetic allusion, that she felt almost oppressed
by this distant whiff of its air. The very words he used fascinated and
bewildered her. He seemed to have been born into all sorts of
connections, political, historical, official, that made the Ransom
situation at Wentworth as featureless as the top shelf of a dark
closet. Some one in the family had "asked for the Chiltern
Hundreds"—one uncle was an Elder Brother of the Trinity House—some
one else was the Master of a College—some one was in command at
Devonport—the Army, the Navy, the House of Commons, the House of
Lords, the most venerable seats of learning, were all woven into the
dense background of this young man's light unconscious talk. For the
unconsciousness was unmistakable. Margaret was not without experience
of the transatlantic visitor who sounds loud names and evokes
reverberating connections. The poetry of Guy Dawnish's situation lay in
the fact that it was so completely a part of early associations and
accepted facts. Life was like that in England—in Wentworth of course
(where he had been sent, through his uncle's influence, for two years'
training in the neighbouring electrical works at Smedden)—in
Wentworth, though "immensely jolly," it was different. The fact that he
was qualifying to be an electrical engineer—with the hope of a
secretaryship at the London end of the great Smedden Company—that, at
best, he was returning home to a life of industrial "grind," this fact,
though avowedly a bore, did not disconnect him from that brilliant
pinnacled past, that many-faceted life in which the brightest episodes
of the whole body of English fiction seemed collectively reflected. Of
course he would have to work—younger sons' sons almost always had
to—but his uncle Askern (like Wentworth) was "immensely jolly," and
Guise always open to him, and his other uncle, the Master, a capital
old boy too—and in town he could always put up with his clever aunt,
Lady Caroline Duckett, who had made a "beastly marriage" and was
horribly poor, but who knew everybody jolly and amusing, and had always
been particularly kind to him.
It was not—and Margaret had not, even in her own thoughts, to defend
herself from the imputation—it was not what Wentworth would have
called the "material side" of her friend's situation that captivated
her. She was austerely proof against such appeals: her enthusiasms were
all of the imaginative order. What subjugated her was the unexampled
prodigality with which he poured for her the same draught of tradition
of which Wentworth held out its little teacupful. He besieged her with
a million Wentworths in one—saying, as it were: "All these are mine
for the asking—and I choose you instead!"
For this, she told herself somewhat dizzily, was what it came to—the
summing-up toward which her conscientious efforts at self-collection
had been gradually pushing her: with all this in reach, Guy Dawnish was
leaving Wentworth reluctantly.
"I was a bit lonely here at first—but now!" And again: "It will be
jolly, of course, to see them all again—but there are some things one
doesn't easily give up...."
If he had known only Wentworth, it would have been wonderful enough
that he should have chosen her out of all Wentworth—but to have known
that other life, and to set her in the balance against it—poor
Margaret Ransom, in whom, at the moment, nothing seemed of weight but
her years! Ah, it might well produce, in nerves and brain, and poor
unpractised pulses, a flushed tumult of sensation, the rush of a great
wave of life, under which memory struggled in vain to reassert itself,
to particularize again just what his last words—the very last—had
When consciousness emerged, quivering, from this retrospective assault,
it pushed Margaret Ransom—feeling herself a mere leaf in the
blast—toward the writing-table from which her innocent and voluminous
correspondence habitually flowed. She had a letter to write now—much
shorter but more difficult than any she had ever been called on to
"Dear Mr. Dawnish," she began, "since telephoning you just now I have
Maria's voice, at the door, announced that tea was in the library: "And
I s'pose it's the brown silk you'll wear to the speaking?"
In the usual order of the Ransom existence, its mistress's toilet was
performed unassisted; and the mere enquiry—at once friendly and
deferential—projected, for Margaret, a strong light on the importance
of the occasion. That she should answer: "But I am not going," when the
going was so manifestly part of a household solemnity about which the
thoughts below stairs fluttered in proud participation; that in face of
such participation she should utter a word implying indifference or
hesitation—nay, revealing herself the transposed, uprooted thing she
had been on the verge of becoming; to do this was—well! infinitely
harder than to perform the alternative act of tearing up the sheet of
note-paper under her reluctant pen.
Yes, she said, she would wear the brown silk....
ALL the heat and glare from the long illuminated table, about which the
fumes of many courses still hung in a savoury fog, seemed to surge up
to the ladies' gallery, and concentrate themselves in the burning
cheeks of a slender figure withdrawn behind the projection of a pillar.
It never occurred to Margaret Ransom that she was sitting in the shade.
She supposed that the full light of the chandeliers was beating on her
face—and there were moments when it seemed as though all the heads
about the great horse-shoe below, bald, shaggy, sleek, close-thatched,
or thinly latticed, were equipped with an additional pair of eyes, set
at an angle which enabled them to rake her face as relentlessly as the
In the lull after a speech, the gallery was fluttering with the rustle
of programmes consulted, and Mrs. Sheff (the Brant girl's aunt) leaned
forward to say enthusiastically: "And now we're to hear Mr. Ransom!"
A louder buzz rose from the table, and the heads (without relaxing
their upward vigilance) seemed to merge, and flow together, like an
attentive flood, toward the upper end of the horse-shoe, where all the
threads of Margaret Ransom's consciousness were suddenly drawn into
what seemed a small speck, no more—a black speck that rose, hung in
air, dissolved into gyrating gestures, became distended, enormous,
preponderant—became her husband "speaking."
"It's the heat—" Margaret gasped, pressing her handkerchief to her
whitening lips, and finding just strength enough left to push back
farther into the shadow.
She felt a touch on her arm. "It is horrible—shall we go?" a voice
suggested; and, "Yes, yes, let us go," she whispered, feeling, with a
great throb of relief, that to be the only possible, the only
conceivable, solution. To sit and listen to her husband now—how
could she ever have thought she could survive it? Luckily, under the
lingering hubbub from below, his opening words were inaudible, and she
had only to run the gauntlet of sympathetic feminine glances, shot
after her between waving fans and programmes, as, guided by Guy
Dawnish, she managed to reach the door. It was really so hot that even
Mrs. Sheff was not much surprised—till long afterward....
The winding staircase was empty, half dark and blessedly silent. In a
committee room below Dawnish found the inevitable water jug, and filled
a glass for her, while she leaned back, confronted only by a frowning
college President in an emblazoned frame. The academic frown descended
on her like an anathema when she rose and followed her companion out of
Hamblin Hall stands at the end of the long green "Campus" with its
sextuple line of elms—the boast and the singularity of Wentworth. A
pale spring moon, rising above the dome of the University library at
the opposite end of the elm-walk, diffused a pearly mildness in the
sky, melted to thin haze the shadows of the trees, and turned to golden
yellow the lights of the college windows. Against this soft suffusion
of light the Library cupola assumed a Bramantesque grace, the white
steeple of the congregational church became a campanile topped by a
winged spirit, and the scant porticoes of the older halls the
colonnades of classic temples.
"This is better—" Dawnish said, as they passed down the steps and
under the shadow of the elms.
They moved on a little way in silence before he began again: "You're
too tired to walk. Let us sit down a few minutes."
Her feet, in truth, were leaden, and not far off a group of park
benches, encircling the pedestal of a patriot in bronze, invited them
to rest. But Dawnish was guiding her toward a lateral path which bent,
through shrubberies, toward a strip of turf between two of the
"It will be cooler by the river," he said, moving on without waiting
for a possible protest. None came: it seemed easier, for the moment, to
let herself be led without any conventional feint of resistance. And
besides, there was nothing wrong about this—the wrong would have
been in sitting up there in the glare, pretending to listen to her
husband, a dutiful wife among her kind....
The path descended, as both knew, to the chosen, the inimitable spot of
Wentworth: that fugitive curve of the river, where, before hurrying on
to glut the brutal industries of South Wentworth and Smedden, it
simulated for a few hundred yards the leisurely pace of an ancient
university stream, with willows on its banks and a stretch of turf
extending from the grounds of Hamblin Hall to the boat houses at the
farther bend. Here too were benches, beneath the willows, and so close
to the river that the voice of its gliding softened and filled out the
reverberating silence between Margaret and her companion, and made her
feel that she knew why he had brought her there.
"Do you feel better?" he asked gently as he sat down beside her.
"Oh, yes. I only needed a little air."
"I'm so glad you did. Of course the speeches were tremendously
interesting—but I prefer this. What a good night!"
There was a pause, which now, after all, the soothing accompaniment of
the river seemed hardly sufficient to fill.
"I wonder what time it is. I ought to be going home," Margaret began at
"Oh, it's not late. They'll be at it for hours in there—yet."
She made a faint inarticulate sound. She wanted to say: "No—Robert's
speech was to be the last—" but she could not bring herself to
pronounce Ransom's name, and at the moment no other way of refuting her
companion's statement occurred to her.
The young man leaned back luxuriously, reassured by her silence.
"You see it's my last chance—and I want to make the most of it."
"Your last chance?" How stupid of her to repeat his words on that
cooing note of interrogation! It was just such a lead as the Brant girl
might have given him.
"To be with you—like this. I haven't had so many. And there's less
than a week left."
She attempted to laugh. "Perhaps it will sound longer if you call it
The flatness of that, again! And she knew there were people who called
her intelligent. Fortunately he did not seem to notice it; but her
laugh continued to sound in her own ears—the coquettish chirp of
middle age! She decided that if he spoke again—if he said
anything—she would make no farther effort at evasion: she would take
it directly, seriously, frankly—she would not be doubly disloyal.
"Besides," he continued, throwing his arm along the back of the bench,
and turning toward her so that his face was like a dusky bas-relief
with a silver rim—"besides, there's something I've been wanting to
The sound of the river seemed to cease altogether: the whole world
Margaret had trusted her inspiration farther than it appeared likely to
carry her. Again she could think of nothing happier than to repeat, on
the same witless note of interrogation: "To tell me?"
The constraint, the difficulty, seemed to be on his side now: she
divined it by the renewed shifting of his attitude—he was capable,
usually, of such fine intervals of immobility—and by a confusion in
his utterance that set her own voice throbbing in her throat.
"You've been so perfect to me," he began again. "It's not my fault if
you've made me feel that you would understand everything—make
allowances for everything—see just how a man may have held out, and
fought against a thing—as long as he had the strength.... This may be
my only chance; and I can't go away without telling you."
He had turned from her now, and was staring at the river, so that his
profile was projected against the moonlight in all its beautiful young
There was a slight pause, as though he waited for her to speak; then
she leaned forward and laid her hand on his.
"If I have really been—if I have done for you even the least part of
what you say ... what you imagine ... will you do for me, now, just one
thing in return?"
He sat motionless, as if fearing to frighten away the shy touch on his
hand, and she left it there, conscious of her gesture only as part of
the high ritual of their farewell.
"What do you want me to do?" he asked in a low tone.
"Not to tell me!" she breathed on a deep note of entreaty.
"Not to tell you—?"
"Anything—anything—just to leave our ... our friendship ... as it
has been—as—as a painter, if a friend asked him, might leave a
picture—not quite finished, perhaps ... but all the more exquisite...."
She felt the hand under hers slip away, recover itself, and seek her
own, which had flashed out of reach in the same instant—felt the start
that swept him round on her as if he had been caught and turned about
by the shoulders.
"You—you—?" he stammered, in a strange voice full of fear and
tenderness; but she held fast, so centred in her inexorable resolve
that she was hardly conscious of the effect her words might be
"Don't you see," she hurried on, "don't you feel how much safer it
is—yes, I'm willing to put it so!—how much safer to leave everything
undisturbed ... just as ... as it has grown of itself ... without
trying to say: 'It's this or that'...? It's what we each choose to call
it to ourselves, after all, isn't it? Don't let us try to find a name
that ... that we should both agree upon ... we probably shouldn't
succeed." She laughed abruptly. "And ghosts vanish when one names
them!" she ended with a break in her voice.
When she ceased her heart was beating so violently that there was a
rush in her ears like the noise of the river after rain, and she did
not immediately make out what he was answering. But as she recovered
her lucidity she said to herself that, whatever he was saying, she must
not hear it; and she began to speak again, half playfully, half
appealingly, with an eloquence of entreaty, an ingenuity in argument,
of which she had never dreamed herself capable. And then, suddenly,
strangling hands seemed to reach up from her heart to her throat, and
she had to stop.
Her companion remained motionless. He had not tried to regain her hand,
and his eyes were away from her, on the river. But his nearness had
become something formidable and exquisite—something she had never
before imagined. A flush of guilt swept over her—vague reminiscences
of French novels and of opera plots. This was what such women felt,
then ... this was "shame." ... Phrases of the newspaper and the pulpit
danced before her.... She dared not speak, and his silence began to
frighten her. Had ever a heart beat so wildly before in Wentworth?
He turned at last, and taking her two hands, quite simply, kissed them
one after the other.
"I shall never forget—" he said in a confused voice, unlike his own.
A return of strength enabled her to rise, and even to let her eyes meet
his for a moment.
"Thank you," she said, simply also.
She turned away from the bench, regaining the path that led back to the
college buildings, and he walked beside her in silence. When they
reached the elm walk it was dotted with dispersing groups. The
"speaking" was over, and Hamblin Hall had poured its audience out into
the moonlight. Margaret felt a rush of relief, followed by a receding
wave of regret. She had the distinct sensation that her hour—her one
One of the groups just ahead broke up as they approached, and projected
Ransom's solid bulk against the moonlight.
"My husband," she said, hastening forward; and she never afterward
forgot the look of his back—heavy, round-shouldered, yet a little
pompous—in a badly fitting overcoat that stood out at the neck and hid
his collar. She had never before noticed how he dressed.
THEY met again, inevitably, before Dawnish left; but the thing she
feared did not happen—he did not try to see her alone.
It even became clear to her, in looking back, that he had deliberately
avoided doing so; and this seemed merely an added proof of his
"understanding," of that deep undefinable communion that set them alone
in an empty world, as if on a peak above the clouds.
The five days passed in a flash; and when the last one came, it brought
to Margaret Ransom an hour of weakness, of profound disorganization,
when old barriers fell, old convictions faded—when to be alone with
him for a moment became, after all, the one craving of her heart. She
knew he was coming that afternoon to say "good-by"—and she knew also
that Ransom was to be away at South Wentworth. She waited alone in her
pale little drawing-room, with its scant kakemonos, its one or two
chilly reproductions from the antique, its slippery Chippendale chairs.
At length the bell rang, and her world became a rosy blur—through
which she presently discerned the austere form of Mrs. Sperry, wife of
the Professor of palaeontology, who had come to talk over with her the
next winter's programme for the Higher Thought Club. They debated the
question for an hour, and when Mrs. Sperry departed Margaret had a
confused impression that the course was to deal with the influence of
the First Crusade on the development of European architecture—but the
sentient part of her knew only that Dawnish had not come.
He "bobbed in," as he would have put it, after dinner—having, it
appeared, run across Ransom early in the day, and learned that the
latter would be absent till evening. Margaret was in the study with her
husband when the door opened and Dawnish stood there. Ransom—who had
not had time to dress—was seated at his desk, a pile of shabby law
books at his elbow, the light from a hanging lamp falling on his
grayish stubble of hair, his sallow forehead and spectacled eyes.
Dawnish, towering higher than usual against the shadows of the room,
and refined by his unusual pallor, hung a moment on the threshold, then
came in, explaining himself profusely—laughing, accepting a cigar,
letting Ransom push an arm-chair forward—a Dawnish she had never seen,
ill at ease, ejaculatory, yet somehow more mature, more obscurely in
command of himself.
Margaret drew back, seating herself in the shade, in such a way that
she saw her husband's head first, and beyond it their visitor's,
relieved against the dusk of the book shelves. Her heart was still—she
felt no throbbing in her throat or temples: all her life seemed
concentrated in the hand that lay on her knee, the hand he would touch
when they said good-by.
Afterward her heart rang all the changes, and there was a mood in which
she reproached herself for cowardice—for having deliberately missed
her one moment with him, the moment in which she might have sounded the
depths of life, for joy or anguish. But that mood was fleeting and
infrequent. In quieter hours she blushed for it—she even trembled to
think that he might have guessed such a regret in her. It seemed to
convict her of a lack of fineness that he should have had, in his youth
and his power, a tenderer, surer sense of the peril of a rash
touch—should have handled the case so much more delicately.
At first her days were fire and the nights long solemn vigils. Her
thoughts were no longer vulgarized and defaced by any notion of
"guilt," of mental disloyalty. She was ashamed now of her shame. What
had happened was as much outside the sphere of her marriage as some
transaction in a star. It had simply given her a secret life of
incommunicable joys, as if all the wasted springs of her youth had been
stored in some hidden pool, and she could return there now to bathe in
After that there came a phase of loneliness, through which the life
about her loomed phantasmal and remote. She thought the dead must feel
thus, repeating the vain gestures of the living beside some Stygian
shore. She wondered if any other woman had lived to whom nothing had
ever happened? And then his first letter came....
It was a charming letter—a perfect letter. The little touch of
awkwardness and constraint under its boyish spontaneity told her more
than whole pages of eloquence. He spoke of their friendship—of their
good days together.... Ransom, chancing to come in while she read,
noticed the foreign stamps; and she was able to hand him the letter,
saying gaily: "There's a message for you," and knowing all the while
that her message was safe in her heart.
On the days when the letters came the outlines of things grew
indistinct, and she could never afterward remember what she had done or
how the business of life had been carried on. It was always a surprise
when she found dinner on the table as usual, and Ransom seated opposite
to her, running over the evening paper.
But though Dawnish continued to write, with all the English loyalty to
the outward observances of friendship, his communications came only at
intervals of several weeks, and between them she had time to repossess
herself, to regain some sort of normal contact with life. And the
customary, the recurring, gradually reclaimed her, the net of habit
tightened again—her daily life became real, and her one momentary
escape from it an exquisite illusion. Not that she ceased to believe in
the miracle that had befallen her: she still treasured the reality of
her one moment beside the river. What reason was there for doubting it?
She could hear the ring of truth in young Dawnish's voice: "It's not my
fault if you've made me feel that you would understand everything...."
No! she believed in her miracle, and the belief sweetened and illumined
her life; but she came to see that what was for her the transformation
of her whole being might well have been, for her companion, a mere
passing explosion of gratitude, of boyish good-fellowship touched with
the pang of leave-taking. She even reached the point of telling herself
that it was "better so": this view of the episode so defended it from
the alternating extremes of self-reproach and derision, so enshrined it
in a pale immortality to which she could make her secret pilgrimages
For a long time she had not been able to pass by the bench under the
willows—she even avoided the elm walk till autumn had stripped its
branches. But every day, now, she noted a step toward recovery; and at
last a day came when, walking along the river, she said to herself, as
she approached the bench: "I used not to be able to pass here without
thinking of him; and now I am not thinking of him at all!"
This seemed such convincing proof of her recovery that she began, as
spring returned, to permit herself, now and then, a quiet session on
the bench—a dedicated hour from which she went back fortified to her
She had not heard from her friend for six weeks or more—the intervals
between his letters were growing longer. But that was "best" too, and
she was not anxious, for she knew he had obtained the post he had been
preparing for, and that his active life in London had begun. The
thought reminded her, one mild March day, that in leaving the house she
had thrust in her reticule a letter from a Wentworth friend who was
abroad on a holiday. The envelope bore the London post mark, a fact
showing that the lady's face was turned toward home. Margaret seated
herself on her bench, and drawing out the letter began to read it.
The London described was that of shops and museums—as remote as
possible from the setting of Guy Dawnish's existence. But suddenly
Margaret's eye fell on his name, and the page began to tremble in her
"I heard such a funny thing yesterday about your friend Mr. Dawnish. We
went to a tea at Professor Bunce's (I do wish you knew the
Bunces—their atmosphere is so uplifting), and there I met that Miss
Bruce-Pringle who came out last year to take a course in histology at
the Annex. Of course she asked about you and Mr. Ransom, and then she
told me she had just seen Mr. Dawnish's aunt—the clever one he was
always talking about, Lady Caroline something—and that they were all
in a dreadful state about him. I wonder if you knew he was engaged when
he went to America? He never mentioned it to us. She said it was not
a positive engagement, but an understanding with a girl he has always
been devoted to, who lives near their place in Wiltshire; and both
families expected the marriage to take place as soon as he got back. It
seems the girl is an heiress (you know how low the English ideals are
compared with ours), and Miss Bruce-Pringle said his relations were
perfectly delighted at his 'being provided for,' as she called it.
Well, when he got back he asked the girl to release him; and she and
her family were furious, and so were his people; but he holds out, and
won't marry her, and won't give a reason, except that he has 'formed an
unfortunate attachment.' Did you ever hear anything so peculiar? His
aunt, who is quite wild about it, says it must have happened at
Wentworth, because he didn't go anywhere else in America. Do you
suppose it could have been the Brant girl? But why 'unfortunate' when
everybody knows she would have jumped at him?"
Margaret folded the letter and looked out across the river. It was not
the same river, but a mystic current shot with moonlight. The bare
willows wove a leafy veil above her head, and beside her she felt the
nearness of youth and tempestuous tenderness. It had all happened just
here, on this very seat by the river—it had come to her, and passed
her by, and she had not held out a hand to detain it....
Well! Was it not, by that very abstention, made more deeply and
ineffaceably hers? She could argue thus while she had thought the
episode, on his side, a mere transient effect of propinquity; but now
that she knew it had altered the whole course of his life, now that it
took on substance and reality, asserted a separate existence outside of
her own troubled consciousness—now it seemed almost cowardly to have
missed her share in it.
She walked home in a dream. Now and then, when she passed an
acquaintance, she wondered if the pain and glory were written on her
face. But Mrs. Sperry, who stopped her at the corner of Maverick Street
to say a word about the next meeting of the Higher Thought Club, seemed
to remark no change in her.
When she reached home Ransom had not yet returned from the office, and
she went straight to the library to tidy his writing-table. It was part
of her daily duty to bring order out of the chaos of his papers, and of
late she had fastened on such small recurring tasks as some one falling
over a precipice might snatch at the weak bushes in its clefts.
When she had sorted the letters she took up some pamphlets and
newspapers, glancing over them to see if they were to be kept. Among
the papers was a page torn from a London Times of the previous month.
Her eye ran down its columns and suddenly a paragraph flamed out.
"We are requested to state that the marriage arranged between Mr. Guy
Dawnish, son of the late Colonel the Hon. Roderick Dawnish, of Malby,
Wilts, and Gwendolen, daughter of Samuel Matcher, Esq. of Armingham
Towers, Wilts, will not take place."
Margaret dropped the paper and sat down, hiding her face against the
stained baize of the desk. She remembered the photograph of the
tennis-court at Guise—she remembered the handsome girl at whom Guy
Dawnish looked up, laughing. A gust of tears shook her, loosening the
dry surface of conventional feeling, welling up from unsuspected
depths. She was sorry—very sorry, yet so glad—so ineffably,
THERE came a reaction in which she decided to write to him. She even
sketched out a letter of sisterly, almost motherly, remonstrance, in
which she reminded him that he "still had all his life before him." But
she reflected that so, after all, had she; and that seemed to weaken
In the end she decided not to send the letter. He had never spoken to
her of his engagement to Gwendolen Matcher, and his letters had
contained no allusion to any sentimental disturbance in his life. She
had only his few broken words, that night by the river, on which to
build her theory of the case. But illuminated by the phrase "an
unfortunate attachment" the theory towered up, distinct and immovable,
like some high landmark by which travellers shape their course. She had
been loved—extraordinarily loved. But he had chosen that she should
know of it by his silence rather than by his speech. He had understood
that only on those terms could their transcendant communion
continue—that he must lose her to keep her. To break that silence
would be like spilling a cup of water in a waste of sand. There would
be nothing left for her thirst.
Her life, thenceforward, was bathed in a tranquil beauty. The days
flowed by like a river beneath the moon—each ripple caught the
brightness and passed it on. She began to take a renewed interest in
her familiar round of duties. The tasks which had once seemed
colourless and irksome had now a kind of sacrificial sweetness, a
symbolic meaning into which she alone was initiated. She had been
restless—had longed to travel; now she felt that she should never
again care to leave Wentworth. But if her desire to wander had ceased,
she travelled in spirit, performing invisible pilgrimages in the
footsteps of her friend. She regretted that her one short visit to
England had taken her so little out of London—that her acquaintance
with the landscape had been formed chiefly through the windows of a
railway carriage. She threw herself into the architectural studies of
the Higher Thought Club, and distinguished herself, at the spring
meetings, by her fluency, her competence, her inexhaustible curiosity
on the subject of the growth of English Gothic. She ransacked the
shelves of the college library, she borrowed photographs of the
cathedrals, she pored over the folio pages of "The Seats of Noblemen
and Gentlemen." She was like some banished princess who learns that she
has inherited a domain in her own country, who knows that she will
never see it, yet feels, wherever she walks, its soil beneath her feet.
May was half over, and the Higher Thought Club was to hold its last
meeting, previous to the college festivities which, in early June,
agreeably disorganized the social routine of Wentworth. The meeting was
to take place in Margaret Ransom's drawing-room, and on the day before
she sat upstairs preparing for her dual duties as hostess and
orator—for she had been invited to read the final paper of the course.
In order to sum up with precision her conclusions on the subject of
English Gothic she had been rereading an analysis of the structural
features of the principal English cathedrals; and she was murmuring
over to herself the phrase: "The longitudinal arches of Lincoln have an
approximately elliptical form," when there came a knock on the door,
and Maria's voice announced: "There's a lady down in the parlour."
Margaret's soul dropped from the heights of the shadowy vaulting to the
dead level of an afternoon call at Wentworth.
"A lady? Did she give no name?"
Maria became confused. "She only said she was a lady—" and in reply to
her mistress's look of mild surprise: "Well, ma'am, she told me so
three or four times over."
Margaret laid her book down, leaving it open at the description of
Lincoln, and slowly descended the stairs. As she did so, she repeated
to herself: "The longitudinal arches are elliptical."
On the threshold below, she had the odd impression that her bare and
inanimate drawing-room was brimming with life and noise—an impression
produced, as she presently perceived, by the resolute forward dash—it
was almost a pounce—of the one small figure restlessly measuring its
The dash checked itself within a yard of Margaret, and the lady—a
stranger—held back long enough to stamp on her hostess a sharp
impression of sallowness, leanness, keenness, before she said, in a
voice that might have been addressing an unruly committee meeting: "I
am Lady Caroline Duckett—a fact I found it impossible to make clear to
the young woman who let me in."
A warm wave rushed up from Margaret's heart to her throat and forehead.
She held out both hands impulsively. "Oh, I'm so glad—I'd no idea—"
Her voice sank under her visitor's impartial scrutiny.
"I don't wonder," said the latter drily. "I suppose she didn't mention,
either, that my object in calling here was to see Mrs. Ransom?"
"Oh, yes—won't you sit down?" Margaret pushed a chair forward. She
seated herself at a little distance, brain and heart humming with a
confused interchange of signals. This dark sharp woman was his
aunt—the "clever aunt" who had had such a hard life, but had always
managed to keep her head above water. Margaret remembered that Guy had
spoken of her kindness—perhaps she would seem kinder when they had
talked together a little. Meanwhile the first impression she produced
was of an amplitude out of all proportion to her somewhat scant
exterior. With her small flat figure, her shabby heterogeneous dress,
she was as dowdy as any Professor's wife at Wentworth; but her
dowdiness (Margaret borrowed a literary analogy to define it), her
dowdiness was somehow "of the centre." Like the insignificant emissary
of a great power, she was to be judged rather by her passports than her
While Margaret was receiving these impressions, Lady Caroline, with
quick bird-like twists of her head, was gathering others from the pale
void spaces of the drawing-room. Her eyes, divided by a sharp nose like
a bill, seemed to be set far enough apart to see at separate angles;
but suddenly she bent both of them on Margaret.
"This is Mrs. Ransom's house?" she asked, with an emphasis on the
verb that gave a distinct hint of unfulfilled expectations.
"Because your American houses, especially in the provincial towns, all
look so remarkably alike, that I thought I might have been mistaken;
and as my time is extremely limited—in fact I'm sailing on Wednesday—"
She paused long enough to let Margaret say: "I had no idea you were in
Lady Caroline made no attempt to take this up. "And so much of it," she
carried on her sentence, "has been wasted in talking to people I really
hadn't the slightest desire to see, that you must excuse me if I go
straight to the point."
Margaret felt a sudden tension of the heart. "Of course," she said
while a voice within her cried: "He is dead—he has left me a message."
There was another pause; then Lady Caroline went on, with increasing
asperity: "So that—in short—if I could see Mrs. Ransom at once—"
Margaret looked up in surprise. "I am Mrs. Ransom," she said.
The other stared a moment, with much the same look of cautious
incredulity that had marked her inspection of the drawing-room. Then
light came to her.
"Oh, I beg your pardon. I should have said that I wished to see Mrs.
Robert Ransom, not Mrs. Ransom. But I understood that in the States
you don't make those distinctions." She paused a moment, and then went
on, before Margaret could answer: "Perhaps, after all, it's as well
that I should see you instead, since you're evidently one of the
household—your son and his wife live with you, I suppose? Yes, on the
whole, then, it's better—I shall be able to talk so much more
frankly." She spoke as if, as a rule, circumstances prevented her
giving rein to this propensity. "And frankness, of course, is the only
way out of this—this extremely tiresome complication. You know, I
suppose, that my nephew thinks he's in love with your daughter-in-law?"
Margaret made a slight movement, but her visitor pressed on without
heeding it. "Oh, don't fancy, please, that I'm pretending to take a
high moral ground—though his mother does, poor dear! I can perfectly
imagine that in a place like this—I've just been driving about it for
two hours—a young man of Guy's age would have to provide himself
with some sort of distraction, and he's not the kind to go in for
anything objectionable. Oh, we quite allow for that—we should allow
for the whole affair, if it hadn't so preposterously ended in his
throwing over the girl he was engaged to, and upsetting an arrangement
that affected a number of people besides himself. I understand that in
the States it's different—the young people have only themselves to
consider. In England—in our class, I mean—a great deal may depend on
a young man's making a good match; and in Guy's case I may say that his
mother and sisters (I won't include myself, though I might) have been
simply stranded—thrown overboard—by his freak. You can understand how
serious it is when I tell you that it's that and nothing else that has
brought me all the way to America. And my first idea was to go straight
to your daughter-in-law, since her influence is the only thing we can
count on now, and put it to her fairly, as I'm putting it to you. But,
on the whole, I dare say it's better to see you first—you might give
me an idea of the line to take with her. I'm prepared to throw myself
on her mercy!"
Margaret rose from her chair, outwardly rigid in proportion to her
"You don't understand—" she began.
Lady Caroline brushed the interruption aside. "Oh, but I
do—completely! I cast no reflection on your daughter-in-law. Guy has
made it quite clear to us that his attachment is—has, in short, not
been rewarded. But don't you see that that's the worst part of it?
There'd be much more hope of his recovering if Mrs. Robert Ransom
Margaret's voice broke from her in a cry. "I am Mrs. Robert Ransom,"
If Lady Caroline Duckett had hitherto given her hostess the impression
of a person not easily silenced, this fact added sensibly to the effect
produced by the intense stillness which now fell on her.
She sat quite motionless, her large bangled hands clasped about the
meagre fur boa she had unwound from her neck on entering, her rusty
black veil pushed up to the edge of a "fringe" of doubtful
authenticity, her thin lips parted on a gasp that seemed to sharpen
itself on the edges of her teeth. So overwhelming and helpless was her
silence that Margaret began to feel a motion of pity beneath her
indignation—a desire at least to facilitate the excuses which must
terminate their disastrous colloquy. But when Lady Caroline found voice
she did not use it to excuse herself.
"You can't be," she said, quite simply.
"Can't be?" Margaret stammered, with a flushing cheek.
"I mean, it's some mistake. Are there two Mrs. Robert Ransoms in the
same town? Your family arrangements are so extremely puzzling." She had
a farther rush of enlightenment. "Oh, I see! I ought of course to
have asked for Mrs. Robert Ransom 'Junior'!"
The idea sent her to her feet with a haste which showed her impatience
to make up for lost time.
"There is no other Mrs. Robert Ransom at Wentworth," said Margaret.
"No other—no 'Junior'? Are you sure?" Lady Caroline fell back into
her seat again. "Then I simply don't see," she murmured helplessly.
Margaret's blush had fixed itself on her throbbing forehead. She
remained standing, while her strange visitor continued to gaze at her
with a perturbation in which the consciousness of indiscretion had
evidently as yet no part.
"I simply don't see," she repeated.
Suddenly she sprang up, and advancing to Margaret laid an inspired hand
on her arm. "But, my dear woman, you can help us out all the same; you
can help us to find out who it is—and you will, won't you? Because,
as it's not you, you can't in the least mind what I've been saying—"
Margaret, freeing her arm from her visitor's hold, drew back a step;
but Lady Caroline instantly rejoined her.
"Of course, I can see that if it had been, you might have been
annoyed: I dare say I put the case stupidly—but I'm so bewildered by
this new development—by his using you all this time as a pretext—that
I really don't know where to turn for light on the mystery—"
She had Margaret in her imperious grasp again, but the latter broke
from her with a more resolute gesture.
"I'm afraid I have no light to give you," she began; but once more Lady
Caroline caught her up.
"Oh, but do please understand me! I condemn Guy most strongly for using
your name—when we all know you'd been so amazingly kind to him! I
haven't a word to say in his defence—but of course the important thing
now is: who is the woman, since you're not?"
The question rang out loudly, as if all the pale puritan corners of the
room flung it back with a shudder at the speaker. In the silence that
ensued Margaret felt the blood ebbing back to her heart; then she said,
in a distinct and level voice: "I know nothing of the history of Mr.
Lady Caroline gave a stare and a gasp. Her distracted hand groped for
her boa and she began to wind it mechanically about her long neck.
"It would really be an enormous help to us—and to poor Gwendolen
Matcher," she persisted pleadingly. "And you'd be doing Guy himself a
Margaret remained silent and motionless while her visitor drew on one
of the worn gloves she had pulled off to adjust her veil. Lady Caroline
gave the veil a final twitch.
"I've come a tremendously long way," she said, "and, since it isn't
you, I can't think why you won't help me...."
When the door had closed on her visitor Margaret Ransom went slowly up
the stairs to her room. As she dragged her feet from one step to
another, she remembered how she had sprung up the same steep flight
after that visit of Guy Dawnish's when she had looked in the glass and
seen on her face the blush of youth.
When she reached her room she bolted the door as she had done that day,
and again looked at herself in the narrow mirror above her
dressing-table. It was just a year since then—the elms were budding
again, the willows hanging their green veil above the bench by the
river. But there was no trace of youth left in her face—she saw it now
as others had doubtless always seen it. If it seemed as it did to Lady
Caroline Duckett, what look must it have worn to the fresh gaze of
young Guy Dawnish?
A pretext—she had been a pretext. He had used her name to screen some
one else—or perhaps merely to escape from a situation of which he was
weary. She did not care to conjecture what his motive had
been—everything connected with him had grown so remote and alien. She
felt no anger—only an unspeakable sadness, a sadness which she knew
would never be appeased.
She looked at herself long and steadily; she wished to clear her eyes
of all illusions. Then she turned away and took her usual seat beside
her work-table. From where she sat she could look down the empty
elm-shaded street, up which, at this hour every day, she was sure to
see her husband's figure advancing. She would see it presently—she
would see it for many years to come. She had a sudden aching sense of
the length of the years that stretched before her. Strange that one who
was not young should still, in all likelihood, have so long to live!
Nothing was changed in the setting of her life, perhaps nothing would
ever change in it. She would certainly live and die in Wentworth. And
meanwhile the days would go on as usual, bringing the usual
obligations. As the word flitted through her brain she remembered that
she had still to put the finishing touches to the paper she was to read
the next afternoon at the meeting of the Higher Thought Club.
The book she had been reading lay face downward beside her, where she
had left it an hour ago. She took it up, and slowly and painfully, like
a child laboriously spelling out the syllables, she went on with the
rest of the sentence:
—"and they spring from a level not much above that of the springing of
the transverse and diagonal ribs, which are so arranged as to give a
convex curve to the surface of the vaulting conoid."