The Quicksand by Edith Wharton
AS Mrs. Quentin's victoria, driving homeward, turned from the Park into
Fifth Avenue, she divined her son's tall figure walking ahead of her in
the twilight. His long stride covered the ground more rapidly than
usual, and she had a premonition that, if he were going home at that
hour, it was because he wanted to see her.
Mrs. Quentin, though not a fanciful woman, was sometimes aware of a
sixth sense enabling her to detect the faintest vibrations of her son's
impulses. She was too shrewd to fancy herself the one mother in
possession of this faculty, but she permitted herself to think that few
could exercise it more discreetly. If she could not help overhearing
Alan's thoughts, she had the courage to keep her discoveries to
herself, the tact to take for granted nothing that lay below the
surface of their spoken intercourse: she knew that most people would
rather have their letters read than their thoughts. For this
superfeminine discretion Alan repaid her by—being Alan. There could
have been no completer reward. He was the key to the meaning of life,
the justification of what must have seemed as incomprehensible as it
was odious, had it not all-sufficingly ended in himself. He was a
perfect son, and Mrs. Quentin had always hungered for perfection.
Her house, in a minor way, bore witness to the craving. One felt it to
be the result of a series of eliminations: there was nothing fortuitous
in its blending of line and color. The almost morbid finish of every
material detail of her life suggested the possibility that a diversity
of energies had, by some pressure of circumstance, been forced into the
channel of a narrow dilettanteism. Mrs. Quentin's fastidiousness had,
indeed, the flaw of being too one-sided. Her friends were not always
worthy of the chairs they sat in, and she overlooked in her associates
defects she would not have tolerated in her bric-a-brac. Her house was,
in fact, never so distinguished as when it was empty; and it was at its
best in the warm fire-lit silence that now received her.
Her son, who had overtaken her on the door-step, followed her into the
drawing-room, and threw himself into an armchair near the fire, while
she laid off her furs and busied herself about the tea table. For a
while neither spoke; but glancing at him across the kettle, his mother
noticed that he sat staring at the embers with a look she had never
seen on his face, though its arrogant young outline was as familiar to
her as her own thoughts. The look extended itself to his negligent
attitude, to the droop of his long fine hands, the dejected tilt of his
head against the cushions. It was like the moral equivalent of physical
fatigue: he looked, as he himself would have phrased it, dead-beat,
played out. Such an air was so foreign to his usual bright
indomitableness that Mrs. Quentin had the sense of an unfamiliar
presence, in which she must observe herself, must raise hurried
barriers against an alien approach. It was one of the drawbacks of
their excessive intimacy that any break in it seemed a chasm.
She was accustomed to let his thoughts circle about her before they
settled into speech, and she now sat in motionless expectancy, as
though a sound might frighten them away.
At length, without turning his eyes from the fire, he said: "I'm so
glad you're a nice old-fashioned intuitive woman. It's painful to see
Her apprehension had already preceded him. "Hope Fenno—?" she faltered.
He nodded. "She's been thinking—hard. It was very painful—to me, at
least; and I don't believe she enjoyed it: she said she didn't." He
stretched his feet to the fire. "The result of her cogitations is that
she won't have me. She arrived at this by pure ratiocination—it's not
a question of feeling, you understand. I'm the only man she's ever
loved—but she won't have me. What novels did you read when you were
young, dear? I'm convinced it all turns on that. If she'd been brought
up on Trollope and Whyte-Melville, instead of Tolstoi and Mrs. Ward, we
should have now been vulgarly sitting on a sofa, trying on the
Mrs. Quentin at first was kept silent by the mother's instinctive anger
that the girl she has not wanted for her son should have dared to
refuse him. Then she said, "Tell me, dear."
"My good woman, she has scruples."
"Against the paper. She objects to me in my official capacity as owner
of the Radiator."
His mother did not echo his laugh.
"She had found a solution, of course—she overflows with expedients. I
was to chuck the paper, and we were to live happily ever afterward on
canned food and virtue. She even had an alternative ready—women are so
full of resources! I was to turn the Radiator into an independent
organ, and run it at a loss to show the public what a model newspaper
ought to be. On the whole, I think she fancied this plan more than the
other—it commended itself to her as being more uncomfortable and
aggressive. It's not the fashion nowadays to be good by stealth."
Mrs. Quentin said to herself, "I didn't know how much he cared!" Aloud
she murmured, "You must give her time."
"To move out the old prejudices and make room for new ones."
"My dear mother, those she has are brand-new; that's the trouble with
them. She's tremendously up-to-date. She takes in all the moral
fashion-papers, and wears the newest thing in ethics."
Her resentment lost its way in the intricacies of his metaphor. "Is she
so very religious?"
"You dear archaic woman! She's hopelessly irreligious; that's the
difficulty. You can make a religious woman believe almost anything:
there's the habit of credulity to work on. But when a girl's faith in
the Deluge has been shaken, it's very hard to inspire her with
confidence. She makes you feel that, before believing in you, it's her
duty as a conscientious agnostic to find out whether you're not
obsolete, or whether the text isn't corrupt, or somebody hasn't proved
conclusively that you never existed, anyhow."
Mrs. Quentin was again silent. The two moved in that atmosphere of
implications and assumptions where the lightest word may shake down the
dust of countless stored impressions; and speech was sometimes more
difficult between them than had their union been less close.
Presently she ventured, "It's impossible?"
She seemed to use her words cautiously, like weapons that might slip
and inflict a cut. "What she suggests."
Her son, raising himself, turned to look at her for the first time.
Their glance met in a shock of comprehension. He was with her against
the girl, then! Her satisfaction overflowed in a murmur of tenderness.
"Of course not, dear. One can't change—change one's life...."
"One's self," he emended. "That's what I tell her. What's the use of my
giving up the paper if I keep my point of view?"
The psychological distinction attracted her. "Which is it she minds
"Oh, the paper—for the present. She undertakes to modify the point of
view afterward. All she asks is that I shall renounce my heresy: the
gift of grace will come later."
Mrs. Quentin sat gazing into her untouched cup. Her son's first words
had produced in her the hallucinated sense of struggling in the thick
of a crowd that he could not see. It was horrible to feel herself
hemmed in by influences imperceptible to him; yet if anything could
have increased her misery it would have been the discovery that her
ghosts had become visible.
As though to divert his attention, she precipitately asked, "And you—?"
His answer carried the shock of an evocation. "I merely asked her what
she thought of you."
"She admires you immensely, you know."
For a moment Mrs. Quentin's cheek showed the lingering light of
girlhood: praise transmitted by her son acquired something of the
transmitter's merit. "Well—?" she smiled.
"Well—you didn't make my father give up the Radiator, did you?"
His mother, stiffening, made a circuitous return: "She never comes
here. How can she know me?"
"She's so poor! She goes out so little." He rose and leaned against the
mantel-piece, dislodging with impatient fingers a slender bronze
wrestler poised on a porphyry base, between two warm-toned Spanish
ivories. "And then her mother—" he added, as if involuntarily.
"Her mother has never visited me," Mrs. Quentin finished for him.
He shrugged his shoulders. "Mrs. Fenno has the scope of a wax doll. Her
rule of conduct is taken from her grandmother's sampler."
"But the daughter is so modern—and yet—"
"The result is the same? Not exactly. She admires you—oh,
immensely!" He replaced the bronze and turned to his mother with a
smile. "Aren't you on some hospital committee together? What especially
strikes her is your way of doing good. She says philanthropy is not a
line of conduct, but a state of mind—and it appears that you are one
of the elect."
As, in the vague diffusion of physical pain, relief seems to come with
the acuter pang of a single nerve, Mrs. Quentin felt herself suddenly
eased by a rush of anger against the girl. "If she loved you—" she
His gesture checked her. "I'm not asking you to get her to do that."
The two were again silent, facing each other in the disarray of a
common catastrophe—as though their thoughts, at the summons of danger,
had rushed naked into action. Mrs. Quentin, at this revealing moment,
saw for the first time how many elements of her son's character had
seemed comprehensible simply because they were familiar: as, in reading
a foreign language, we take the meaning of certain words for granted
till the context corrects us. Often as in a given case, her maternal
musings had figured his conduct, she now found herself at a loss to
forecast it; and with this failure of intuition came a sense of the
subserviency which had hitherto made her counsels but the anticipation
of his wish. Her despair escaped in the moan, "What is it you ask me?"
"To talk to her."
"Talk to her?"
"Show her—tell her—make her understand that the paper has always been
a thing outside your life—that hasn't touched you—that needn't touch
her. Only, let her hear you—watch you—be with you—she'll see...she
can't help seeing..."
His mother faltered. "But if she's given you her reasons—?"
"Let her give them to you! If she can—when she sees you...." His
impatient hand again displaced the wrestler. "I care abominably," he
On the Fenno threshold a sudden sense of the futility of the attempt
had almost driven Mrs. Quentin back to her carriage; but the door was
already opening, and a parlor-maid who believed that Miss Fenno was in
led the way to the depressing drawing-room. It was the kind of room in
which no member of the family is likely to be found except after dinner
or after death. The chairs and tables looked like poor relations who
had repaid their keep by a long career of grudging usefulness: they
seemed banded together against intruders in a sullen conspiracy of
discomfort. Mrs. Quentin, keenly susceptible to such influences, read
failure in every angle of the upholstery. She was incapable of the
vulgar error of thinking that Hope Fenno might be induced to marry Alan
for his money; but between this assumption and the inference that the
girl's imagination might be touched by the finer possibilities of
wealth, good taste admitted a distinction. The Fenno furniture,
however, presented to such reasoning the obtuseness of its black-walnut
chamferings; and something in its attitude suggested that its owners
would be as uncompromising. The room showed none of the modern attempts
at palliation, no apologetic draping of facts; and Mrs. Quentin,
provisionally perched on a green-reps Gothic sofa with which it was
clearly impossible to establish any closer relations, concluded that,
had Mrs. Fenno needed another seat of the same size, she would have set
out placidly to match the one on which her visitor now languished.
To Mrs. Quentin's fancy, Hope Fenno's opinions, presently imparted in a
clear young voice from the opposite angle of the Gothic sofa, partook
of the character of their surroundings. The girl's mind was like a
large light empty place, scantily furnished with a few massive
prejudices, not designed to add to any one's comfort but too ponderous
to be easily moved. Mrs. Quentin's own intelligence, in which its
owner, in an artistically shaded half-light, had so long moved amid a
delicate complexity of sensations, seemed in comparison suddenly close
and crowded; and in taking refuge there from the glare of the young
girl's candor, the older woman found herself stumbling in an unwonted
obscurity. Her uneasiness resolved itself into a sense of irritation
against her listener. Mrs. Quentin knew that the momentary value of any
argument lies in the capacity of the mind to which it is addressed, and
as her shafts of persuasion spent themselves against Miss Fenno's
obduracy, she said to herself that, since conduct is governed by
emotions rather than ideas, the really strong people are those who
mistake their sensations for opinions. Viewed in this light, Miss Fenno
was certainly very strong: there was an unmistakable ring of finality
in the tone with which she declared,
Mrs. Quentin's answer veiled the least shade of feminine resentment. "I
told Alan that, where he had failed, there was no chance of my making
Hope Fenno laid on her visitor's an almost reverential hand. "Dear Mrs.
Quentin, it's the impression you make that confirms the impossibility."
Mrs. Quentin waited a moment: she was perfectly aware that, where her
feelings were concerned, her sense of humor was not to be relied on.
"Do I make such an odious impression?" she asked at length, with a
smile that seemed to give the girl her choice of two meanings.
"You make such a beautiful one! It's too beautiful—it obscures my
Mrs. Quentin looked at her thoughtfully. "Would it be permissible, I
wonder, for an older woman to suggest that, at your age, it isn't
always a misfortune to have what one calls one's judgment temporarily
Miss Fenno flushed. "I try not to judge others—"
"You judge Alan."
"Ah, he is not others," she murmured, with an accent that touched the
"You judge his mother."
"I don't; I don't!"
Mrs. Quentin pressed her point. "You judge yourself, then, as you would
be in my position—and your verdict condemns me."
"How can you think it? It's because I appreciate the difference in our
point of view that I find it so difficult to defend myself—"
"The temptation to imagine that I might be as you are—feeling as I
Mrs. Quentin rose with a sigh. "My child, in my day love was less
subtle." She added, after a moment, "Alan is a perfect son."
"Ah, that again—that makes it worse!"
"Just as your goodness does, your sweetness, your immense indulgence in
letting me discuss things with you in a way that must seem almost an
Mrs. Quentin's smile was not without irony. "You must remember that I
do it for Alan."
"That's what I love you for!" the girl instantly returned; and again
her tone touched her listener.
"And yet you're sacrificing him—and to an idea!"
"Isn't it to ideas that all the sacrifices that were worth while have
"One may sacrifice one's self."
Miss Fenno's color rose. "That's what I'm doing," she said gently.
Mrs. Quentin took her hand. "I believe you are," she answered. "And it
isn't true that I speak only for Alan. Perhaps I did when I began; but
now I want to plead for you too—against yourself." She paused, and
then went on with a deeper note: "I have let you, as you say, speak
your mind to me in terms that some women might have resented, because I
wanted to show you how little, as the years go on, theories, ideas,
abstract conceptions of life, weigh against the actual, against the
particular way in which life presents itself to us—to women
especially. To decide beforehand exactly how one ought to behave in
given circumstances is like deciding that one will follow a certain
direction in crossing an unexplored country. Afterward we find that we
must turn out for the obstacles—cross the rivers where they're
shallowest—take the tracks that others have beaten—make all sorts of
unexpected concessions. Life is made up of compromises: that is what
youth refuses to understand. I've lived long enough to doubt whether
any real good ever came of sacrificing beautiful facts to even more
beautiful theories. Do I seem casuistical? I don't know—there may be
losses either way...but the love of the man one loves...of the child
one loves... that makes up for everything...."
She had spoken with a thrill which seemed to communicate itself to the
hand her listener had left in hers. Her eyes filled suddenly, but
through their dimness she saw the girl's lips shape a last desperate
"Don't you see it's because I feel all this that I mustn't—that I
Mrs. Quentin, in the late spring afternoon, had turned in at the doors
of the Metropolitan Museum. She had been walking in the Park, in a
solitude oppressed by the ever-present sense of her son's trouble, and
had suddenly remembered that some one had added a Beltraffio to the
collection. It was an old habit of Mrs. Quentin's to seek in the
enjoyment of the beautiful the distraction that most of her
acquaintances appeared to find in each other's company. She had few
friends, and their society was welcome to her only in her more
superficial moods; but she could drug anxiety with a picture as some
women can soothe it with a bonnet.
During the six months that had elapsed since her visit to Miss Fenno
she had been conscious of a pain of which she had supposed herself no
longer capable: as a man will continue to feel the ache of an amputated
arm. She had fancied that all her centres of feeling had been
transferred to Alan; but she now found herself subject to a kind of
dual suffering, in which her individual pang was the keener in that it
divided her from her son's. Alan had surprised her: she had not
foreseen that he would take a sentimental rebuff so hard. His
disappointment took the uncommunicative form of a sterner application
to work. He threw himself into the concerns of the Radiator with an
aggressiveness that almost betrayed itself in the paper. Mrs. Quentin
never read the Radiator, but from the glimpses of it reflected in the
other journals she gathered that it was at least not being subjected to
the moral reconstruction which had been one of Miss Fenno's
Mrs. Quentin never spoke to her son of what had happened. She was
superior to the cheap satisfaction of avenging his injury by
depreciating its cause. She knew that in sentimental sorrows such
consolations are as salt in the wound. The avoidance of a subject so
vividly present to both could not but affect the closeness of their
relation. An invisible presence hampered their liberty of speech and
thought. The girl was always between them; and to hide the sense of her
intrusion they began to be less frequently together. It was then that
Mrs. Quentin measured the extent of her isolation. Had she ever dared
to forecast such a situation, she would have proceeded on the
conventional theory that her son's suffering must draw her nearer to
him; and this was precisely the relief that was denied her. Alan's
uncommunicativeness extended below the level of speech, and his mother,
reduced to the helplessness of dead-reckoning, had not even the solace
of adapting her sympathy to his needs. She did not know what he felt:
his course was incalculable to her. She sometimes wondered if she had
become as incomprehensible to him; and it was to find a moment's refuge
from the dogging misery of such conjectures that she had now turned in
at the Museum.
The long line of mellow canvases seemed to receive her into the rich
calm of an autumn twilight. She might have been walking in an enchanted
wood where the footfall of care never sounded. So deep was the sense of
seclusion that, as she turned from her prolonged communion with the new
Beltraffio, it was a surprise to find she was not alone.
A young lady who had risen from the central ottoman stood in suspended
flight as Mrs. Quentin faced her. The older woman was the first to
regain her self-possession.
"Miss Fenno!" she said.
The girl advanced with a blush. As it faded, Mrs. Quentin noticed a
change in her. There had always been something bright and bannerlike in
her aspect, but now her look drooped, and she hung at half-mast, as it
were. Mrs. Quentin, in the embarrassment of surprising a secret that
its possessor was doubtless unconscious of betraying, reverted
hurriedly to the Beltraffio.
"I came to see this," she said. "It's very beautiful."
Miss Fenno's eye travelled incuriously over the mystic blue reaches of
the landscape. "I suppose so," she assented; adding, after another
tentative pause, "You come here often, don't you?"
"Very often," Mrs. Quentin answered. "I find pictures a great help."
"A rest, I mean...if one is tired or out of sorts."
"Ah," Miss Fenno murmured, looking down.
"This Beltraffio is new, you know," Mrs. Quentin continued. "What a
wonderful background, isn't it? Is he a painter who interests you?"
The girl glanced again at the dusky canvas, as though in a final
endeavor to extract from it a clue to the consolations of art. "I don't
know," she said at length; "I'm afraid I don't understand pictures."
She moved nearer to Mrs. Quentin and held out her hand.
Mrs. Quentin looked at her. "Let me drive you home," she said,
impulsively. She was feeling, with a shock of surprise, that it gave
her, after all, no pleasure to see how much the girl had suffered.
Miss Fenno stiffened perceptibly. "Thank you; I shall like the walk."
Mrs. Quentin dropped her hand with a corresponding movement of
withdrawal, and a momentary wave of antagonism seemed to sweep the two
women apart. Then, as Mrs. Quentin, bowing slightly, again addressed
herself to the picture, she felt a sudden touch on her arm.
"Mrs. Quentin," the girl faltered, "I really came here because I saw
your carriage." Her eyes sank, and then fluttered back to her hearer's
face. "I've been horribly unhappy!" she exclaimed.
Mrs. Quentin was silent. If Hope Fenno had expected an immediate
response to her appeal, she was disappointed. The older woman's face
was like a veil dropped before her thoughts.
"I've thought so often," the girl went on precipitately, "of what you
said that day you came to see me last autumn. I think I understand now
what you meant—what you tried to make me see.... Oh, Mrs. Quentin,"
she broke out, "I didn't mean to tell you this—I never dreamed of it
till this moment—but you do remember what you said, don't you? You
must remember it! And now that I've met you in this way, I can't help
telling you that I believe—I begin to believe—that you were right,
Mrs. Quentin had listened without moving; but now she raised her eyes
with a slight smile. "Do you wish me to say this to Alan?" she asked.
The girl flushed, but her glance braved the smile. "Would he still care
to hear it?" she said fearlessly.
Mrs. Quentin took momentary refuge in a renewed inspection of the
Beltraffio; then, turning, she said, with a kind of reluctance: "He
would still care."
"Ah!" broke from the girl.
During this exchange of words the two speakers had drifted
unconsciously toward one of the benches. Mrs. Quentin glanced about
her: a custodian who had been hovering in the doorway sauntered into
the adjoining gallery, and they remained alone among the silvery
Vandykes and flushed bituminous Halses. Mrs. Quentin sank down on the
bench and reached a hand to the girl.
"Sit by me," she said.
Miss Fenno dropped beside her. In both women the stress of emotion was
too strong for speech. The girl was still trembling, and Mrs. Quentin
was the first to regain her composure.
"You say you've suffered," she began at last. "Do you suppose I
"I knew you had. That made it so much worse for me—that I should have
been the cause of your suffering for Alan!"
Mrs. Quentin drew a deep breath. "Not for Alan only," she said. Miss
Fenno turned on her a wondering glance. "Not for Alan only. That pain
every woman expects—and knows how to bear. We all know our children
must have such disappointments, and to suffer with them is not the
deepest pain. It's the suffering apart—in ways they don't understand."
She breathed deeply. "I want you to know what I mean. You were
right—that day—and I was wrong."
"Oh," the girl faltered.
Mrs. Quentin went on in a voice of passionate lucidity. "I knew it
then—I knew it even while I was trying to argue with you—I've always
known it! I didn't want my son to marry you till I heard your reasons
for refusing him; and then—then I longed to see you his wife!"
"Oh, Mrs. Quentin!"
"I longed for it; but I knew it mustn't be."
Mrs. Quentin shook her head sadly, and the girl, gaining courage from
this mute negation, cried with an uncontrollable escape of feeling:
"It's because you thought me hard, obstinate narrow-minded? Oh, I
understand that so well! My self-righteousness must have seemed so
petty! A girl who could sacrifice a man's future to her own moral
vanity—for it was a form of vanity; you showed me that plainly
enough—how you must have despised me! But I am not that girl
now—indeed I'm not. I'm not impulsive—I think things out. I've
thought this out. I know Alan loves me—I know how he loves me—and I
believe I can help him—oh, not in the ways I had fancied before—but
just merely by loving him." She paused, but Mrs. Quentin made no sign.
"I see it all so differently now. I see what an influence love itself
may be—how my believing in him, loving him, accepting him just as he
is, might help him more than any theories, any arguments. I might have
seen this long ago in looking at you—as he often told me—in seeing
how you'd kept yourself apart from—from—Mr. Quentin's work and
his—been always the beautiful side of life to them—kept their faith
alive in spite of themselves—not by interfering, preaching, reforming,
but by—just loving them and being there—" She looked at Mrs. Quentin
with a simple nobleness. "It isn't as if I cared for the money, you
know; if I cared for that, I should be afraid—"
"You will care for it in time," Mrs. Quentin said suddenly.
Miss Fenno drew back, releasing her hand. "In time?"
"Yes; when there's nothing else left." She stared a moment at the
pictures. "My poor child," she broke out, "I've heard all you say so
"You've heard it?"
"Yes—from myself. I felt as you do, I argued as you do, I acted as I
mean to prevent your doing, when I married Alan's father."
The long empty gallery seemed to reverberate with the girl's startled
exclamation—"Oh, Mrs. Quentin—"
"Hush; let me speak. Do you suppose I'd do this if you were the kind of
pink-and-white idiot he ought to have married? It's because I see
you're alive, as I was, tingling with beliefs, ambitions, energies, as
I was—that I can't see you walled up alive, as I was, without
stretching out a hand to save you!" She sat gazing rigidly forward, her
eyes on the pictures, speaking in the low precipitate tone of one who
tries to press the meaning of a lifetime into a few breathless
"When I met Alan's father," she went on, "I knew nothing of his—his
work. We met abroad, where I had been living with my mother. That was
twenty-six years ago, when the Radiator was less—less notorious than
it is now. I knew my husband owned a newspaper—a great newspaper—and
nothing more. I had never seen a copy of the Radiator; I had no
notion what it stood for, in politics—or in other ways. We were
married in Europe, and a few months afterward we came to live here.
People were already beginning to talk about the Radiator. My husband,
on leaving college, had bought it with some money an old uncle had left
him, and the public at first was merely curious to see what an
ambitious, stirring young man without any experience of journalism was
going to make out of his experiment. They found first of all that he
was going to make a great deal of money out of it. I found that out
too. I was so happy in other ways that it didn't make much difference
at first; though it was pleasant to be able to help my mother, to be
generous and charitable, to live in a nice house, and wear the handsome
gowns he liked to see me in. But still it didn't really count—it
counted so little that when, one day, I learned what the Radiator
was, I would have gone out into the streets barefooted rather than live
another hour on the money it brought in...." Her voice sank, and she
paused to steady it. The girl at her side did not speak or move. "I
shall never forget that day," she began again. "The paper had stripped
bare some family scandal—some miserable bleeding secret that a dozen
unhappy people had been struggling to keep out of print—that would
have been kept out if my husband had not—Oh, you must guess the rest!
I can't go on!"
She felt a hand on hers. "You mustn't go on, Mrs. Quentin," the girl
"Yes, I must—I must! You must be made to understand." She drew a deep
breath. "My husband was not like Alan. When he found out how I felt
about it he was surprised at first—but gradually he began to see—or
at least I fancied he saw—the hatefulness of it. At any rate he saw
how I suffered, and he offered to give up the whole thing—to sell the
paper. It couldn't be done all of a sudden, of course—he made me see
that—for he had put all his money in it, and he had no special
aptitude for any other kind of work. He was a born journalist—like
Alan. It was a great sacrifice for him to give up the paper, but he
promised to do it—in time—when a good opportunity offered. Meanwhile,
of course, he wanted to build it up, to increase the circulation—and
to do that he had to keep on in the same way—he made that clear to me.
I saw that we were in a vicious circle. The paper, to sell well, had to
be made more and more detestable and disgraceful. At first I
rebelled—but somehow—I can't tell you how it was—after that first
concession the ground seemed to give under me: with every struggle I
sank deeper. And then—then Alan was born. He was such a delicate baby
that there was very little hope of saving him. But money did it—the
money from the paper. I took him abroad to see the best physicians—I
took him to a warm climate every winter. In hot weather the doctors
recommended sea air, and we had a yacht and cruised every summer. I
owed his life to the Radiator. And when he began to grow stronger the
habit was formed—the habit of luxury. He could not get on without the
things he had always been used to. He pined in bad air; he drooped
under monotony and discomfort; he throve on variety, amusement, travel,
every kind of novelty and excitement. And all I wanted for him his
inexhaustible foster-mother was there to give!
"My husband said nothing, but he must have seen how things were going.
There was no more talk of giving up the Radiator. He never reproached
me with my inconsistency, but I thought he must despise me, and the
thought made me reckless. I determined to ignore the paper
altogether—to take what it gave as though I didn't know where it came
from. And to excuse this I invented the theory that one may, so to
speak, purify money by putting it to good uses. I gave away a great
deal in charity—I indulged myself very little at first. All the money
that was not spent on Alan I tried to do good with. But gradually, as
my boy grew up, the problem became more complicated. How was I to
protect Alan from the contamination I had let him live in? I couldn't
preach by example—couldn't hold up his father as a warning, or
denounce the money we were living on. All I could do was to disguise
the inner ugliness of life by making it beautiful outside—to build a
wall of beauty between him and the facts of life, turn his tastes and
interests another way, hide the Radiator from him as a smiling woman
at a ball may hide a cancer in her breast! Just as Alan was entering
college his father died. Then I saw my way clear. I had loved my
husband—and yet I drew my first free breath in years. For the
Radiator had been left to Alan outright—there was nothing on earth
to prevent his selling it when he came of age. And there was no excuse
for his not selling it. I had brought him up to depend on money, but
the paper had given us enough money to gratify all his tastes. At last
we could turn on the monster that had nourished us. I felt a savage joy
in the thought—I could hardly bear to wait till Alan came of age. But
I had never spoken to him of the paper, and I didn't dare speak of it
now. Some false shame kept me back, some vague belief in his ignorance.
I would wait till he was twenty-one, and then we should be free.
"I waited—the day came, and I spoke. You can guess his answer, I
suppose. He had no idea of selling the Radiator. It wasn't the money
he cared for—it was the career that tempted him. He was a born
journalist, and his ambition, ever since he could remember, had been to
carry on his father's work, to develop, to surpass it. There was
nothing in the world as interesting as modern journalism. He couldn't
imagine any other kind of life that wouldn't bore him to death. A
newspaper like the Radiator might be made one of the biggest powers
on earth, and he loved power, and meant to have all he could get. I
listened to him in a kind of trance. I couldn't find a word to say. His
father had had scruples—he had none. I seemed to realize at once that
argument would be useless. I don't know that I even tried to plead with
him—he was so bright and hard and inaccessible! Then I saw that he
was, after all, what I had made him—the creature of my concessions, my
connivances, my evasions. That was the price I had paid for him—I had
kept him at that cost!
"Well—I had kept him, at any rate. That was the feeling that
survived. He was my boy, my son, my very own—till some other woman
took him. Meanwhile the old life must go on as it could. I gave up the
struggle. If at that point he was inaccessible, at others he was close
to me. He has always been a perfect son. Our tastes grew together—we
enjoyed the same books, the same pictures, the same people. All I had
to do was to look at him in profile to see the side of him that was
really mine. At first I kept thinking of the dreadful other side—but
gradually the impression faded, and I kept my mind turned from it, as
one does from a deformity in a face one loves. I thought I had made my
last compromise with life—had hit on a modus vivendi that would last
"And then he met you. I had always been prepared for his marrying, but
not a girl like you. I thought he would choose a sweet thing who would
never pry into his closets—he hated women with ideas! But as soon as I
saw you I knew the struggle would have to begin again. He is so much
stronger than his father—he is full of the most monstrous convictions.
And he has the courage of them, too—you saw last year that his love
for you never made him waver. He believes in his work; he adores it—it
is a kind of hideous idol to which he would make human sacrifices! He
loves you still—I've been honest with you—but his love wouldn't
change him. It is you who would have to change—to die gradually, as I
have died, till there is only one live point left in me. Ah, if one
died completely—that's simple enough! But something persists—remember
that—a single point, an aching nerve of truth. Now and then you may
drug it—but a touch wakes it again, as your face has waked it in me.
There's always enough of one's old self left to suffer with...."
She stood up and faced the girl abruptly. "What shall I tell Alan?" she
Miss Fenno sat motionless, her eyes on the ground. Twilight was falling
on the gallery—a twilight which seemed to emanate not so much from the
glass dome overhead as from the crepuscular depths into which the faces
of the pictures were receding. The custodian's step sounded warningly
down the corridor. When the girl looked up she was alone.