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Edith Wharton - SSC 09

BOOK: Edith Wharton - SSC 09
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Human
Nature.

 

 

   
1933
   

 

 

 
Her Son.
 
 
 
I.
 
 

 
          
I did
not recognise Mrs. Stephen Glenn when I first saw her on the deck of the
Scythian.

 
          
The
voyage was more than half over, and we were counting on
Cherbourg
within forty-eight hours, when she appeared
on deck and sat down beside me. She was as handsome as ever, and not a day
older looking than when we had last met—toward the end of the war, in 1917 it
must have been, not long before her only son, the aviator, was killed. Yet now,
five years later, I was looking at her as if she were a stranger. Why? Not,
certainly, because of her white hair. She had had the American woman’s frequent
luck of acquiring it while the face beneath was still fresh, and a dozen years
earlier, when we used to meet at dinners, at the Opera, that silver diadem
already crowned her. Now, looking more closely, I saw that the face beneath was
still untouched; what then had so altered her? Perhaps it was the faint line of
anxiety between her dark strongly-drawn eyebrows; or the setting of the eyes
themselves, those sombre starlit eyes which seemed to have sunk deeper into their
lids, and showed like glimpses of night through the arch of a cavern. But what
a gloomy image to apply to eyes as tender as Catherine Glenn’s! Yet it was
immediately suggested by the look of the lady in deep mourning who had settled
herself beside me, and now turned to say: “So you don’t know me, Mr.
Norcutt—Catherine Glenn?”

 
          
The
fact was flagrant. I acknowledged it, and added: “But why didn’t I? I can’t
imagine. Do you mind my saying that I believe it’s because you’re even more
beautiful now than when I last saw you?”

 
          
She
replied with perfect simplicity: “No; I don’t mind—because I ought to be; that
is, if there’s any meaning in anything.”

 
          
“Any meaning—?”

 
          
She
seemed to hesitate; she had never been a woman who found words easily.
“Any meaning in life.
You see, since we’ve met I’ve lost
everything: my son, my husband.” She bent her head slightly, as though the
words she pronounced were holy.

 
          
Then
she added, with the air of striving for more scrupulous accuracy: “Or, at
least, almost everything.”

 
          
The
“almost” puzzled me. Mrs. Glenn, as far as I knew, had had no child but the son
she had lost in the war; and the old uncle who had brought her up had died
years earlier. I wondered if, in thus qualifying her loneliness, she alluded to
the consolations of religion.

 
          
I
murmured that I knew of her double mourning; and she surprised me still farther
by saying: “Yes; I saw you at my husband’s funeral. I’ve always wanted to thank
you for being there.”

 
          
“But
of course I was there.”

 
          
She
continued: “I noticed all of Stephen’s friends who came. I was very grateful to
them, and especially to the younger ones.” (This was meant for me.) “You see,”
she added, “a funeral is—is a very great comfort.”

 
          
Again
I looked my surprise.

 
          
“My son—my son Philip—” (why should she think it necessary to
mention his name, since he was her only child?)
—“my son Philip’s funeral
took place just where his aeroplane fell. A little village in the
Somme
; his father and I went there immediately
after the Armistice. One of our army chaplains read the service. The people
from the village were there—they were so kind to us. But there was no one
else—no personal friends; at that time only the nearest relations could get
passes. Our boy would have wished it … he would have wanted to stay where he
fell. But it’s not the same as feeling one’s friends about one, as I did at my
husband’s funeral.”

 
          
While
she spoke she kept her eyes intently, almost embarrassingly, on mine. It had
never occurred to me that Mrs. Stephen Glenn was the kind of woman who would
attach any particular importance to the list of names at her husband’s funeral.
She had always seemed aloof and abstracted, shut off from the world behind the
high walls of a happy domesticity. But on adding this new indication of
character to the fragments of information I had gathered concerning her first
appearance in New York, and to the vague impression she used to produce on me
when we met, I began to see that lists of names were probably just what she
would care about. And then I asked myself what I really knew of her. Very
little, I perceived; but no doubt just as much as she wished me to. For, as I
sat there, listening to her voice, and catching unguarded glimpses of her
crape-shadowed profile, I began to suspect that what had seemed in her a rather
dull simplicity might be the vigilance of a secretive person; or perhaps of a
person who had a secret. There is a world of difference between them, for the
secretive person is seldom interesting and seldom has a secret; but I felt
inclined—though nothing I knew of her justified it—to put her in the other
class.

 
          
I
began to think over the years of our intermittent acquaintance—it had never
been more, for I had never known the Glenns well. She had appeared in
New York
when I was a very young man, in the
‘nineties, as a beautiful girl—from
Kentucky
or
Alabama
—a niece of old Colonel Reamer’s. Left an
orphan, and penniless, when she was still almost a child, she had been passed
about from one reluctant relation to another, and had finally (the legend ran)
gone on the stage, and followed a strolling company across the continent. The
manager had deserted his troupe in some far-off state, and Colonel Reamer,
fatuous, impecunious, and no doubt perplexed as to how to deal with the
situation, had yet faced it manfully, and shaking off his bachelor selfishness
had taken the girl into his house. Such a past, though it looks dove-coloured
now, seemed hectic in the ‘nineties, and gave a touch of romance and mystery to
the beautiful Catherine Reamer, who appeared so aloof and distinguished, yet
had been snatched out of such promiscuities and perils.

 
          
Colonel
Reamer was a ridiculous old man: everything about him was ridiculous—his
“toupee” (probably the last in existence), his vague military title, his
anecdotes about southern chivalry, and duels between other gentlemen with
military titles and civilian pursuits, and all the obsolete swagger of a
character dropped out of Martin Chuzzlewit. He was the notorious bore of New
York; tolerated only because he was old Mrs. So-and-so’s second cousin, because
he was poor, because he was kindly—and because, out of his poverty, he had
managed, with a smile and a gay gesture, to shelter and clothe his starving
niece. Old Reamer, I recalled, had always had a passion for lists of names; tor
seeing his own appear in the “society column” of the morning papers, for giving
you those of the people he had dined with, or been unable to dine with because
already bespoken by others even more important. The young people called him
“Old Previous-Engagement,” because he was so anxious to have you know that, if
you hadn’t met him at some particular party, it was because he had been
previously engaged at another.

 
          
Perhaps,
I thought, it was from her uncle that Mrs. Glenn had learned to attach such
importance to names, to lists of names, to the presence of certain people on
certain occasions, to a social suitability which could give a consecration even
to death. The profile at my side, so marble-pure, so marble-sad, did not
suggest such preoccupations; neither did the deep entreating gaze she bent on
me; yet many details fitted into the theory.

 
          
Her
very marriage to Stephen Glenn seemed to confirm it. I thought back, and began
to reconstruct Stephen Glenn. He was considerably older than myself, and had
been a familiar figure in my earliest New York; a man who was a permanent
ornament to society, who looked precisely as he ought, spoke, behaved, received
his friends, filled his space on the social stage, exactly as his world
expected him to. While he was still a young man, old ladies in perplexity over
some social problem (there were many in those draconian days) would consult
Stephen Glenn as if he had been one of the Ancients of the community. Yet there
was nothing precociously old or dry about him. He was one of the handsomest men
of his day, a good shot, a leader of cotillions. He practised at the bar, and
became a member of a reputed legal firm chiefly occupied with the management of
old ponderous
New York
estates. In process of time the old ladies who had consulted him about
social questions began to ask his advice about investments; and on this point
he was considered equally reliable. Only one cloud shadowed his early life. He
had married a distant cousin, an effaced sort of woman who bore him no
children, and presently (on that account, it was said) fell into suicidal
melancholia; so that for a good many years Stephen Glenn’s handsome and once
hospitable house must have been a grim place to go home to. But at last she
died, and after a decent interval the widower married Miss Reamer. No one was
greatly surprised. It had been observed that the handsome Stephen Glenn and the
beautiful Catherine Reamer were drawn to each other; and though the old ladies
thought he might have done better, some of the more caustic remarked that he
could hardly have done differently, after having made Colonel Reamer’s niece so
“conspicuous.” The attentions of a married man, especially of one unhappily
married, and virtually separated from his wife, were regarded in those days as
likely to endanger a young lady’s future. Catherine Reamer, however, rose above
these hints as she had above the perils of her theatrical venture. One had only
to look at her to see that, in that smooth marble surface there was no crack in
which detraction could take root.

 
          
Stephen
Glenn’s house was opened again, and the couple began to entertain in a quiet
way. It was thought natural that Glenn should want to put a little life into
the house which had so long been a sort of tomb; but though the Glenn dinners
were as good as the most carefully chosen food and wine could make them,
neither of the pair had the gifts which make hospitality a success, and by the
time I knew them, the younger set had come to regard dining with them as
somewhat of a bore. Stephen Glenn was still handsome, his wife still beautiful,
perhaps more beautiful than ever; but the apathy of prosperity seemed to have
settled down on them, and they wore their beauty and affability like expensive
clothes put on for the occasion. There was something static, unchanging in
their appearance, as there was in their affability, their conversation, the
menus
of their carefully-planned
dinners,
the
studied arrangement of the drawing-room
furniture. They had a little boy, born after a year of marriage, and they were
devoted parents, given to lengthy anecdotes about their son’s doings and
sayings; but one could not imagine their tumbling about with him on the nursery
floor. Some one said they must go to bed with their crowns on, like the kings and
queens on packs of cards; and gradually, from being thought distinguished and
impressive, they came to be regarded as wooden, pompous and slightly absurd.
But the old ladies still spoke of Stephen Glenn as a man who had done his
family credit, and his wife began to acquire his figure-head attributes, and to
be consulted, as he was, about the minuter social problems. And all the while—I
thought as I looked back—there seemed to have been no one in their lives with
whom they were really intimate….

 
          
Then,
of a sudden, they again became interesting. It was when their only son was
killed, attacked alone in mid-sky by a German air squadron. Young Phil Glenn
was the first American aviator to fall; and when the news came people saw that
the Mr. and Mrs. Glenn they had known was a mere
façade,
and that behind it were a passionate father and mother,
crushed, rebellious, agonizing, but determined to face their loss dauntlessly,
though they should die of it.

 
          
Stephen
Glenn did die of it, barely two years later. The doctors ascribed his death to
a specific disease; but everybody who knew him knew better. “It was the loss of
the boy,” they said; and added: “It’s terrible to have only one child.”

 
          
Since
her husband’s funeral I had not seen Mrs. Glenn; I had completely ceased to
think of her. And now, on my way to take up a post at the American Consulate in
Paris
, I found myself sitting beside her and
remembering these things. “Poor creatures—it’s as if two marble busts had been
knocked off their pedestals and smashed,” I thought, recalling the faces of
husband and wife after the boy’s death; “and she’s been smashed twice, poor
woman…. Yet she says it has made her more beautiful. …” Again I lost myself in
conjecture.

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