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That Good May Come

Edith Wharton

  Wharton, Edith. "That Good May Come."

  Scribner's Magazine 15 (May 1894): 629-642.

  "OH, it's the same old story," said Birkton, impatiently. "They've all come home to roost, as usual."

  He glanced at a heap of type-written pages which lay on the shabby desk at his elbow; then, pushing back his chair, he began to stride up and down the length of the little bedroom in which he and Helfenridge sat.

  "What magazines have you tried?"

  "All the good ones--every one. Nobody wants poetry nowadays. One of the editors told me the other day that it 'was going out.'"

  Helfenridge picked up the sheet which lay nearest him and began to read, half to himself, half aloud, with a warmth of undertoned emphasis which made the lines glow.

  Neither of the men was far beyond twenty-five. Birkton, the younger of the two, had the musing, irresolute profile of the dreamer of dreams; while his friend, stouter, squarer, of more clayey make, was nevertheless too much like him to prove a useful counterpoise.

  "I always liked 'The Old Odysseus,'" Helfenridge murmured. "There's something tremendously suggestive in that fancy of yours, that tradition has misrepresented the real feelings of all the great heroes and heroines; or rather, has only handed down to us the official statement of their sentiments, as an epitaph records the obligatory virtues which the defunct ought to have had, if he hadn't. That theory, now, that Odysseus never really forgot Circe; and that Esther was in love with Haman, and decoyed him to the banquet with Ahasuerus just for the sake of once having him near her and hearing him speak; and that Dante, perhaps, if he could have been brought to book, would have had to confess for caring a great deal more for the pietosa donna of the window than for the mummified memory of a long-dead Beatrice--well, you know, it tallies wonderfully with the inconsequences and surprises that one is always discovering under the superficial fitnesses of life."

  "Ah," said Birkton, "I meant to get a cycle of poems out of that idea--but what's the use, when I can't even get the first one into print?"

  "You've tried sending 'The Old Odysseus'?"

  Birkton nodded.

  "To 'Scribner's' and 'The Century'?"

  "And all the rest."

  "Queer!" protested Helfenridge. "If I were an editor--now this, for instance, is so fine:

  "'Circe, Circe, the sharp anguish of that last

  long speechless night

  With the flame of tears unfallen scorches still

  mine aching sight;

  Still I feel the thunderous blackness of the hot

  sky overhead,

  While we two with close-locked fingers through

  thy pillared porches strayed,

  And athwart the sullen darkness, from the

  shadow-muffled shore,

  Heard aghast the savage summons of the sea's

  incoming roar,

  Shouting like a voice from Ilium, wailing like

  a voice from home,

  Shrieking through the pillared porches, Up,

  Odysseus, wake and come!'

  "Devil take it, why isn't there an audience for that sort of thing? And this line too--

  "'Where Persephone remembers the Trinacrian

  buds and bees--

  what a light, allegretto movement it has, following on all that gloom and horror! Ah--and here's that delicious little nocturne from 'The New and the Old.'

  "'Before the yellow dawn is up,

  With pomp of shield and shaft,

  Drink we of night's fast ebbing cup

  One last delicious draught.

  'The shadowy wine of night is sweet,

  With subtle, slumberous fumes

  Pressed by the Hours' melodious feet

  From bloodless elder-blooms.'

  "There--isn't that just like a little bacchanalian scene on a Greek gem?"

  "Oh, don't go on," said Birkton sharply, "I'm sick of them."

  "Don't say that," Helfenridge rebuked him. "It's like disowning one's own children. But if they say that mythology and classicism and plastik are played out--if they want Manet in place of David, or Cazin instead of Claude--why don't they like 'Boulterby Ridge,' with its grim mystery intensified by a setting of such modern realism? What lines there are in that!

  "'It was dark on Boulterby Ridge, with an ulti-

  mate darkness like death,

  And the weak wind flagged and gasped like

  a sick man straining for breath,

  And one star's ineffectual flicker shot pale

  through a gap in the gloom,

  As faint as the taper that struggles with night

  in the sick man's room.'

  "There's something about that beginning that makes me feel quietly cold from head to foot. And how charming the description of the girl is:

  "'She walked with a springing step, as if to some

  inner tune,

  And her cheeks had the lucent pink of maple-

  wings in June.'

  "There's Millet and nature for you! And then when he meets her ghost on Boulterby Ridge--

  "'White in the palpable black as a lily moored

  on a moat'--

  what a contrast, eh? And the deadly hopeless chill of the last line, too--

  "'For the grave is deeper than grief, and longer

  than life is death.'

  "By Jove, I don't see how that could be improved!"

  "Neither do I," said Birkton, bitterly, "more's the pity."

  "And what comes next? Ah, that strange sonnet on the Cinque Cento. Did you ever carry out your scheme of writing a series of sonnets embodying all the great epochs of art?"

  "No," said Birkton, indifferently.

  "It seems a pity, after such a fine beginning. Now just listen to this--listen to it as if it had been written by somebody else:

  "'Strange hour of art's august ascendency

  When Sin and Beauty, the old lovers, met

  In a new paradise, still sword-beset

  With monkish terrors, but wherein the tree

  Of knowledge held its golden apples free

  To lips unstayed by hell's familiar threat;

  And men, grown mad upon the fruit they


  Dreamed a wild dream of lust and liberty;

  Strange hour, when the dead gods arose in


  From altars where the mass was sacrificed,

  When Phryne flaunted on the tiaraed tomb

  Of him who dearly sold the grace unpriced,

  And, twixt old shames and infamies to come,

  Cellini in his prison talked with Christ!'

  "There now, don't you call that a very happy definition of the most magical moment the world has ever known?"

  "Don't," said Birkton, with an impatient gesture. "You're very good, old man, but don't go on."

  Helfenridge, with a sigh, replaced the loose sheets on the desk.

  "Well," he repeated, "I can't understand it. But the tide's got to turn, Maurice--it's got to. Don't forget that."

  Birkton laughed drearily.

  "Haven't you had a single opening--not one since I saw you?"

  "Not one; at least nothing to speak of," said Birkton, reddening. "I've had one offer, but what do you suppose it was? Do you remember that idiotic squib that I wrote the other day about Mrs. Tolquitt's being seen alone with Dick Blason at Koster & Bial's? The thing I read that night in Bradley's rooms after supper?"

  Helfenridge nodded.

  "Well, I'm sorry I read it now. Somebody must have betrayed me (of course, though no names are mentioned, they all knew who was meant), for who should turn up yesterday but Baker Buley, the editor of the Social Kite, with an offer of a hundred and fifty dollars for my poem."

  "You didn't,

  "Hang you, Helfenridge, what do you take me for? I told him to go to the devil."

  There was a long pause, during which Helfenridge relit his pipe. Then he said, "But the book reviews in the Symbolic keep you going, don't they?"

  "After a fashion," said Birkton, with a shrug. "Luckily my mother has had a tremendous lot of visiting-lists to make up lately, and she has written the invitations for half the balls that have been given this winter, so that between us we manage to keep Annette and ourselves alive; but God knows what would happen if one of us fell ill."

  "Something else will happen before that. You'll be offered a hundred and fifty dollars for one of those," said Helfenridge, pointing to the pile of verses.

  "I wish you were an editor!" Birkton retorted.

  Helfenridge rose, picking up his battered gray hat, and slipping his pipe into his pocket. "I'm not an editor and I'm no good at all," he said, mournfully.

  "Don't say that, old man. It's been the saving of me to be believed in by somebody."

  Their hands met closely, and with a quick nod and inarticulate grunt Helfenridge turned from the room.

  Maurice, left alone, dropped the smile which he had assumed to speed his friend, and sank into the nearest chair. His eyes, the sensitive eyes of the seer whom Beauty has anointed with her mysterious unguent, travelled painfully about the little room. Not a detail of it but was stamped upon his mind with a morbid accuracy--the yellowish-brown paper which had peeled off here and there, revealing the discolored plaster beneath; the ink-stained desk at which all his poems had been written; the rickety wash- stand of ash, with a strip of marbled oil-cloth nailed over it, and a cracked pitcher and basin; the gas-stove in which a low flame glimmered, the blurred looking-glass, and the book-case which held his thirty or forty worn volumes; yet he never took note of his sordid surroundings without a fresh movement of disgust.

  "And this is our best room," he muttered to himself.

  His mother and sister slept in the next room, which opened on an air-shaft in the centre of the house, and beyond that was the kitchen, drawing its ventilation from the same shaft, and sending its smells with corresponding facility into the room occupied by the two women.

  The apartment in which they lived, by courtesy called a flat, was in reality a thinly disguised tenement in one of those ignoble quarters of New York where the shabby has lapsed into the degraded. They had moved there a year earlier, leaving reluctantly, under pressure of a diminished purse, the pleasant little flat up-town, with its three bedrooms and sunny parlor, which had been their former home. Maurice winced when he remembered that he had made the change imperative by resigning his clerkship in a wholesale warehouse in order to give more leisure to the writing of the literary criticisms with which he supplied the Symbolic Weekly Review. His mother had approved, had even urged his course; but in the unsparing light of poverty it showed as less inevitable than he had imagined. And then, somehow, the great novel, which he had planned to write as soon as he should be released from his clerical task, was still in embryo. He had time and to spare, but his pen persisted in turning to sonnets, and only the opening chapters of the romance had been summarily blocked out. All this was not very satisfactory, and Maurice was glad to be called from the contemplation of facts so unamiable by the sound of his mother's voice in the adjoining room.

  "Maurice, dear, has your friend gone?" Mrs. Birkton asked, advancing timidly across the threshold. She had the step and gesture of one who has spent her best energies in a vain endeavor to propitiate fate, and her small, pale face was like a palimpsest on which the record of suffering had been so deeply written that its original lines were concealed beyond recovery.

  "If you are not writing, Maurice," she continued, "I might come and finish Mrs. Rushingham's list and save the gas for an hour longer. The light is so good at your window."

  "Come," said Maurice, sweeping the poems into his desk and pushing a chair forward for his mother.

  Mrs. Birkton, as she seated herself and opened her neat blank- book, glanced up almost furtively into her son's face.

  "No news, dear?" she asked, in a low tone.

  "None," said Maurice, briefly. "I tried the editor of the Inter Oceanic when I was out just now, and he likes The Old Odysseus and Boulterby Ridge very much, but they aren't exactly suited to his purpose. That's their formula, you know."

  Mrs. Birkton dipped her fine steel pen into the inkstand, and began to write, in a delicate copperplate hand:

  Mrs. Albert Lowbridge, 14 East Seventy-fifth Street.

  Mrs. Charles M. McManus, 910 Fifth Avenue.

  The Misses McManus, 910 Fifth Avenue.

  Mr. & Mrs. Hugh Lovermore, 30 East Ninety-Sixth Street.

  She wrote on in silence, but Maurice, who had seated himself near her, saw a glimmer of tears on her thin lashes as her head moved mechanically to and fro with the motion of the pen.

  "Well," he said, trying for a more cheerful note, " your literary productions are always in demand, at all events. Mrs. Stapleton's ball ought to bring you in a very tidy little sum. Some one told me the other day that she was going to send out two thousand invitations."

  "Oh, Maurice--the Stapleton ball! Haven't you heard?"

  "What about it?"

  "Mr. Seymour Carbridge, Mrs. Stapleton's uncle, died yesterday, and the ball is given up."

  Maurice rose from his seat with a movement of dismay.

  "The stars in their courses fight against us!" he exclaimed. "I'm afraid this will make a great difference to you, won't it, mother?"

  "It does make a difference," she assented, writing on uninterruptedly. "You see I was to have rewritten her whole visiting-list, besides doing the invitations to the ball. And Lent comes so early this year."

  Maurice was silent, and for some twenty minutes Mrs. Birkton's pen continued to move steadily forward over the ruled sheets of the visiting-book. The short January afternoon was fast darkening into a snowy twilight, and Maurice presently stretched out his hand toward the match-box which lay on the desk.

  "Oh, Maurice, don't light the gas yet. I can see quite well, and you had better keep the stove going a little longer. It's so cold."

  "Why not have both?"

  "You extravagant boy! When it gets really dark I shall take my writing into the kitchen, but meanwhile it is so much pleasanter here; and I don't believe Annette has lit the kitchen stove yet. I haven't heard her come in."

  "Where has she been this afternoon?"

  "At her confirmation class. Father Thurifer holds a class every afternoon this week in the chantry. You know Annette is to be confirmed next Sunday."

  "Is she? No--I had forgotten."

  "But she must have come in by this time," Mrs. Birkton continued, with a glance at the darkening window. "Go and see, dear, will you?"

  Maurice obediently stepped out into the narrow passage-way which led from his bedroom to the kitchen. The kitchen door was shut, and as he opened it he came abruptly upon the figure of a young girl, seated in an attitude of tragic self-abandonment at the deal table in the middle of the room. She had evidently just come in, for her shabby hat and jacket and two or three devotional- looking little volumes lay on a chair at her side. Her arms were flung out across the table, with her face hidden between, so that the bluish glimmer of the gas-jet overhead, vaguely outlining her figure, seemed to concentrate all its light upon the mass of her wheat-colored braids. At the sound of the opening door she sprang up sud- denly, turning upon Maurice a small disordered face, with red lids and struggling mouth. She was evidently not more than fifteen years old and her undeveloped figure and little round face, in its setting of pale hair, presented that curious mixture of maturity and childishness often seen in girls of her age who have been carefully watched over at home, yet inevitably exposed to the grim diurnal spectacle of poverty and degradation.

  "Annette!" Maurice said, catching the hand with which she tried to hide her face.

  "Oh, Maurice, don't--don't please!" sh
e entreated, "I wasn't crying--I wasn't! I was only a little tired; and it was so cold walking home from church."

  "If you are cold, why haven't you lit the stove?" he asked, giving her time to regain her composure.

  "I will--I was going to."

  "Carry your things to your room, and I'll light it for you."

  "As he spoke his eye fell on the slim little volumes at her side, and he picked up one, which was emblazoned with a cross, surmounted by the title: "Passion Flowers."

  "And so you are going to be confirmed very soon, Annette?" he asked, his glance wandering over the wide-margined pages with their reiterated invocations in delicate italics:

  O Jesu Christ! Eternal sweetness of them that love Thee,

  O Jesu, Paradise of delights and very glory of the Angels,

  O Jesu, mirror of everlasting love,

  O King most lovely, and Loving One most dear, impress I pray Thee, O Lord Jesus, all Thy wounds upon my heart!

  Annette's face was smoothed into instant serenity. "Next Sunday--just think, Maurice, only three days more to wait! It will be Sexagesima Sunday, you know."

  "Will it? And are you glad to be confirmed?"

  "Oh, Maurice! I have waited so long--some girls are confirmed at thirteen."

  "Are they? And why did you have to wait?"

  "Because Father Thurifer thought it best," she answered, humbly. "You see I am very young for my age, and very stupid in some ways. He was afraid that I might not understand all the holy mysteries."

  "And do you now?"

  "Oh, yes--as well as a girl can presume to. At least Father Thurifer says so."

  "That is very nice," said Maurice. "Now run away and I'll light the fire. Mother will be coming soon to sit here."

  He went back to his bedroom, where Mrs. Birkton's pen, in the thickening obscurity, still travelled unremittingly over the smooth pages.

  "Mother, what's the matter with Annette? When I went into the kitchen I found her crying."

  Mrs. Birkton pushed her work aside with a vexed exclamation.

  "Poor child!" she said. "After all, Maurice, she is only a child; one can't be too hard on her."

  "Hard on her? But why? What's the matter?"

  "You see," continued Mrs. Birkton, who invariably put her apologies before her explanations, "she would never have allowed herself to think of it if we hadn't been so sure of the Stapleton ball."