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'Copy': A Dialogue, Page 2

Edith Wharton

  VENTNOR. Yours?

  MRS. DALE (haughtily). Yes; I claim them.

  VENTNOR (in the same tone). On what ground?

  MRS. DALE. Hear the man!--Because I wrote them, of course.

  VENTNOR. But it seems to me that--under your inspiration, I admit--I also wrote mine.

  MRS. DALE. Oh, I don't dispute their authenticity--it's yours I deny!

  VENTNOR. Mine?

  MRS. DALE. You voluntarily ceased to be the man who wrote me those letters--you've admitted as much. You traded paper for flesh and blood. I don't dispute your wisdom--only you must hold to your bargain! The letters are all mine.

  VENTNOR (groping between two tones). Your arguments are as convincing as ever. (He hazards a faint laugh.) You're a marvellous dialectician--but, if we're going to settle the matter in a spirit of arbitration treaty, why, there are accepted conventions in such cases. It's an odious way to put it, but since you won't help me, one of them is--

  MRS. DALE. One of them is--?

  VENTNOR. That it is usual--that technically, I mean, the letter--belongs to its writer--

  MRS. DALE (after a pause). Such letters as these?

  VENTNOR. Such letters especially--

  MRS. DALE. But you couldn't have written them if I hadn't-- been willing to read them. Surely there's more of myself in them than of you.

  VENTNOR. Surely there's nothing in which a man puts more of himself than in his love-letters!

  MRS. DALE (with emotion). But a woman's love-letters are like her child. They belong to her more than to anybody else--

  VENTNOR. And a man's?

  MRS. DALE (with sudden violence). Are all he risks!-- There, take them. (She flings the key of the cabinet at his feet and sinks into a chair.)

  VENTNOR (starts as though to pick up the key; then approaches and bends over her). Helen--oh, Helen!

  MRS. DALE (she yields her hands to him, murmuring:) Paul! (Suddenly she straightens herself and draws back illuminated.) What a fool I am! I see it all now. You want them for your memoirs!

  VENTNOR (disconcerted). Helen--

  MRS. DALE (agitated). Come, come--the rule is to unmask when the signal's given! You want them for your memoirs.

  VENTNOR (with a forced laugh). What makes you think so?

  MRS. DALE (triumphantly). Because I want them for mine!

  VENTNOR (in a changed tone). Ah--. (He moves away from her and leans against the mantelpiece. She remains seated, with her eyes fixed on him.)

  MRS. DALE. I wonder I didn't see it sooner. Your reasons were lame enough.

  VENTNOR (ironically). Yours were masterly. You're the more accomplished actor of the two. I was completely deceived.

  MRS. DALE. Oh, I'm a novelist. I can keep up that sort of thing for five hundred pages!

  VENTNOR. I congratulate you. (A pause.)

  MRS. DALE (moving to her seat behind the tea-table). I've never offered you any tea. (She bends over the kettle.) Why don't you take your letters?

  VENTNOR. Because you've been clever enough to make it impossible for me. (He picks up the key and hands it to her. Then abruptly)-- Was it all acting--just now?

  MRS. DALE. By what right do you ask?

  VENTNOR. By right of renouncing my claim to my letters. Keep them--and tell me.

  MRS. DALE. I give you back your claim--and I refuse to tell you.

  VENTNOR (sadly). Ah, Helen, if you deceived me, you deceived yourself also.

  MRS. DALE. What does it matter, now that we're both undeceived? I played a losing game, that's all.

  VENTNOR. Why losing--since all the letters are yours?

  MRS. DALE. The letters? (Slowly.) I'd forgotten the letters--

  VENTNOR (exultant). Ah, I knew you'd end by telling me the truth!

  MRS. DALE. The truth? Where is the truth? (Half to herself.) I thought I was lying when I began--but the lies turned into truth as I uttered them! (She looks at VENTNOR.) I did want your letters for my memoirs--I did think I'd kept them for that purpose--and I wanted to get mine back for the same reason--but now (she puts out her hand and picks up some of her letters, which are lying scattered on the table near her)--how fresh they seem, and how they take me back to the time when we lived instead of writing about life!

  VENTNOR (smiling). The time when we didn't prepare our impromptu effects beforehand and copyright our remarks about the weather!

  MRS. DALE. Or keep our epigrams in cold storage and our adjectives under lock and key!

  VENTNOR. When our emotions weren't worth ten cents a word, and a signature wasn't an autograph. Ah, Helen, after all, there's nothing like the exhilaration of spending one's capital!

  MRS. DALE. Of wasting it, you mean. (She points to the letters.) Do you suppose we could have written a word of these if we'd known we were putting our dreams out at interest? (She sits musing, with her eyes on the fire, and he watches her in silence.) Paul, do you remember the deserted garden we sometimes used to walk in?

  VENTNOR. The old garden with the high wall at the end of the village street? The garden with the ruined box-borders and the broken-down arbor? Why, I remember every weed in the paths and every patch of moss on the walls!

  MRS. DALE. Well--I went back there the other day. The village is immensely improved. There's a new hotel with gas-fires, and a trolley in the main street; and the garden has been turned into a public park, where excursionists sit on cast-iron benches admiring the statue of an Abolitionist.

  VENTNOR. An Abolitionist--how appropriate!

  MRS. DALE. And the man who sold the garden has made a fortune that he doesn't know how to spend--

  VENTNOR (rising impulsively). Helen, (he approaches and lays his hand on her letters), let's sacrifice our fortune and keep the excursionists out!

  MRS. DALE (with a responsive movement). Paul, do you really mean it?

  VENTNOR (gayly). Mean it? Why, I feel like a landed proprietor already! It's more than a garden--it's a park.

  MRS. DALE. It's more than a park, it's a world--as long as we keep it to ourselves!

  VENTNOR. Ah, yes--even the pyramids look small when one sees a Cook's tourist on top of them! (He takes the key from the table, unlocks the cabinet and brings out his letters, which he lays beside hers.) Shall we burn the key to our garden?

  MRS. DALE. Ah, then it will indeed be boundless! (Watching him while he throws the letters into the fire.)

  VENTNOR (turning back to her with a half-sad smile). But not too big for us to find each other in?

  MRS. DALE. Since we shall be the only people there! (He takes both her hands and they look at each other a moment in silence. Then he goes out by the door to the right. As he reaches the door she takes a step toward him, impulsively; then turning back she leans against the chimney-piece, quietly watching the letters burn.)