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In Trust, Page 2

Edith Wharton

  "Ned Halidon and Paul's wife!" I murmured; and, incongruously enough, my next thought was: "I wish I'd bought the library table that day."

  The letter went on with waxing eloquence: "I could not stand the money if it were not that, to her as well as to me, it represents the sacred opportunity of at last giving speech to his inarticulateness . . ."

  "Oh, damn it, they're too glib!" I muttered, dashing the letter down; then, controlling my unreasoning resentment, I read on. "You remember, old man, those words of his that you repeated to me three or four years ago: 'I've half a mind to leave my money in trust to Ned'? Well, it has come to me in trust--as if in mysterious fulfillment of his thought; and, oh, dear chap--" I dashed the letter down again, and plunged into my work.

  "WON'T you own yourself a beast, dear boy?" Halidon asked me gently, one afternoon of the following spring.

  I had escaped for a six weeks' holiday, and was lying outstretched beside him in a willow chair on the terrace of their villa above Florence.

  My eyes turned from the happy vale at our feet to the illuminated face beside me. A little way off, at the other end of the terrace, Mrs. Halidon was bending over a pot of carnations on the balustrade.

  "Oh, cheerfully," I assented.

  "You see," he continued, glowing, "living here costs us next to nothing, and it was quite her idea, our founding that fourth scholarship in memory of Paul."

  I had already heard of the fourth scholarship, but I may have betrayed my surprise at the plural pronoun, for the blood rose under Ned's sensitive skin, and he said with an embarrassed laugh: "Ah, she so completely makes me forget that it's not mine too."

  "Well, the great thing is that you both think of it chiefly as his."

  "Oh, chiefly--altogether. I should be no more than a wretched parasite if I didn't live first of all for that!"

  Mrs. Halidon had turned and was advancing toward us with the slow step of leisurely enjoyment. The bud of her beauty had at last unfolded: her vague enigmatical gaze had given way to the clear look of the woman whose hand is on the clue of life.

  "She's not living for anything but her own happiness," I mused, "and why in heaven's name should she? But Ned--"

  "My wife," Halidon continued, his eyes following mine, "my wife feels it too, even more strongly. You know a woman's sensitiveness. She's--there's nothing she wouldn't do for his memory--because--in other ways. . . . You understand," he added, lowering his tone as she drew nearer, "that as soon as the child is born we mean to go home for good, and take up his work--Paul's work."

  Mrs. Halidon recovered slowly after the birth of her child: the return to America was deferred for six months, and then again for a whole year. I heard of the Halidons as established first at Biarritz, then in Rome. The second summer Ned wrote me a line from St. Moritz. He said the place agreed so well with his wife--who was still delicate--that they were "thinking of building a house there: a mere cleft in the rocks, to hide our happiness in when it becomes too exuberant"--and the rest of the letter, very properly, was filled with a rhapsody upon his little daughter. He spoke of her as Paula.

  The following year the Halidons reappeared in New York, and I heard with surprise that they had taken the Brereton house for the winter.

  "Well, why not?" I argued with myself. "After all, the money is hers: as far as I know the will didn't even hint at a restriction. Why should I expect a pretty woman with two children" (for now there was an heir) "to spend her fortune on a visionary scheme that its originator hadn't the heart to carry out?"

  "Yes," cried the devil's advocate--"but Ned?"

  My first impression of Halidon was that he had thickened-- thickened all through. He was heavier, physically, with the ruddiness of good living rather than of hard training; he spoke more deliberately, and had less frequent bursts of subversive enthusiasm. Well, he was a father, a householder--yes, and a capitalist now. It was fitting that his manner should show a sense of these responsibilities. As for Mrs. Halidon, it was evident that the only responsibilities she was conscious of were those of the handsome woman and the accomplished hostess. She was handsomer than ever, with her two babies at her knee--perfect mother as she was perfect wife. Poor Paul! I wonder if he ever dreamed what a flower was hidden in the folded bud?

  Not long after their arrival, I dined alone with the Halidons, and lingered on to smoke with Ned while his wife went alone to the opera. He seemed dull and out of sorts, and complained of a twinge of gout.

  "Fact is, I don't get enough exercise--I must look about for a horse."

  He had gone afoot for a good many years, and kept his clear skin and quick eye on that homely regimen--but I had to remind myself that, after all, we were both older; and also that the Halidons had champagne every evening.

  "How do you like these cigars? They're some I've just got out from London, but I'm not quite satisfied with them myself," he grumbled, pushing toward me the silver box and its attendant taper.

  I leaned to the flame, and our eyes met as I lit my cigar. Ned flushed and laughed uneasily. "Poor Paul! Were you thinking of those execrable weeds of his?--I wonder how I knew you were? Probably because I have been wanting to talk to you of our plan--I sent Daisy off alone so that we might have a quiet evening. Not that she isn't interested, only the technical details bore her."

  I hesitated. "Are there many technical details left to settle?"

  Halidon pushed his armchair back from the fire-light, and twirled his cigar between his fingers. "I didn't suppose there were till I began to look into things a little more closely. You know I never had much of a head for business, and it was chiefly with you that Paul used to go over the figures."

  "The figures--?"

  "There it is, you see." He paused. "Have you any idea how much this thing is going to cost?"

  "Approximately, yes."

  "And have you any idea how much we--how much Daisy's fortune amounts to?"

  "None whatever," I hastened to assert.

  He looked relieved. "Well, we simply can't do it--and live."


  "Paul didn't live," he said impatiently. "I can't ask a woman with two children to think of--hang it, she's under no actual obligation--" He rose and began to walk the floor. Presently he paused and halted in front of me, defensively, as Paul had once done years before. "It's not that I've lost the sense of my obligation--it grows keener with the growth of my happiness; but my position's a delicate one--"

  "Ah, my dear fellow--"

  "You do see it? I knew you would." (Yes, he was duller!) "That's the point. I can't strip my wife and children to carry out a plan--a plan so nebulous that even its inventor. . . . The long and short of it is that the whole scheme must be re-studied, reorganized. Paul lived in a world of dreams."

  I rose and tossed my cigar into the fire. "There were some things he never dreamed of," I said.

  Halidon rose too, facing me uneasily. "You mean--?"

  "That you would taunt him with not having spent that money."

  He pulled himself up with darkening brows; then the muscles of his forehead relaxed, a flush suffused it, and he held out his hand in boyish penitence.

  "I stand a good deal from you," he said.

  He kept up his idea of going over the Academy question-- threshing it out once for all, as he expressed it; but my suggestion that we should provisionally resuscitate the extinct board did not meet with his approval.

  "Not till the whole business is settled. I shouldn't have the face--Wait till I can go to them and say: 'We're laying the foundation-stone on such a day.'"

  We had one or two conferences, and Ned speedily lost himself in a maze of figures. His nimble fancy was recalcitrant to mental discipline, and he excused his inattention with the plea that he had no head for business.

  "All I know is that it's a colossal undertaking, and that short of living on bread and water--" and then we turned anew to the hard problem of retrenchment.

  At the close of the second conference we fixed a date for a th
ird, when Ned's business adviser was to be called in; but before the day came, I learned casually that the Halidons had gone south. Some weeks later Ned wrote me from Florida, apologizing for his remissness. They had rushed off suddenly--his wife had a cough, he explained.

  When they returned in the spring, I heard that they had bought the Brereton house, for what seemed to my inexperienced ears a very large sum. But Ned, whom I met one day at the club, explained to me convincingly that it was really the most economical thing they could do. "You don't understand about such things, dear boy, living in your Diogenes tub; but wait till there's a Mrs. Diogenes. I can assure you it's a lot cheaper than building, which is what Daisy would have preferred, and of course," he added, his color rising as our eyes met, "of course, once the Academy's going, I shall have to make my head-quarters here; and I suppose even you won't grudge me a roof over my head."

  The Brereton roof was a vast one, with a marble balustrade about it; and I could quite understand, without Ned's halting explanation, that "under the circumstances" it would be necessary to defer what he called "our work--" "Of course, after we've rallied from this amputation, we shall grow fresh supplies--I mean my wife's investments will," he laughingly corrected, "and then we'll have no big outlays ahead and shall know exactly where we stand. After all, my dear fellow, charity begins at home!"

  THE Halidons floated off to Europe for the summer. In due course their return was announced in the social chronicle, and walking up Fifth Avenue one afternoon I saw the back of the Brereton house sheathed in scaffolding, and realized that they were adding a wing.

  I did not look up Halidon, nor did I hear from him till the middle of the winter. Once or twice, meanwhile, I had seen him in the back of his wife's opera box; but Mrs. Halidon had grown so resplendent that she reduced her handsome husband to a supernumerary. In January the papers began to talk of the Halidon ball; and in due course I received a card for it. I was not a frequenter of balls, and had no intention of going to this one; but when the day came some obscure impulse moved me to set aside my rule, and toward midnight I presented myself at Ned's illuminated portals.

  I shall never forget his look when I accosted him on the threshold of the big new ballroom. With celibate egoism I had rather fancied he would be gratified by my departure from custom; but one glance showed me my mistake. He smiled warmly, indeed, and threw into his hand-clasp an artificial energy of welcome-- "You of all people--my dear fellow! Have you seen Daisy?"--but the look behind the smile made me feel cold in the crowded room.

  Nor was Mrs. Halidon's greeting calculated to restore my circulation. "Have you come to spy on us?" her frosty smile seemed to say; and I crept home early, wondering if she had not found me out.

  It was the following week that Halidon turned up one day in my office. He looked pale and thinner, and for the first time I noticed a dash of gray in his hair. I was startled at the change in him, but I reflected that it was nearly a year since we had looked at each other by daylight, and that my shaving-glass had doubtless a similar tale to tell.

  He fidgeted about the office, told me a funny story about his little boy, and then dropped into a chair.

  "Look here," he said, "I want to go into business."

  "Business?" I stared.

  "Well, why not? I suppose men have gone to work, even at my age, and not made a complete failure of it. The fact is, I want to make some money." He paused, and added: "I've heard of an opportunity to pick up for next to nothing a site for the Academy, and if I could lay my hands on a little cash--"

  "Do you want to speculate?" I interposed.

  "Heaven forbid! But don't you see that, if I had a fixed job--so much a quarter--I could borrow the money and pay it off gradually?"

  I meditated upon this astounding proposition. "Do you really think it's wise to buy a site before--"

  "Before what?"

  "Well--seeing ahead a little?"

  His face fell for a moment, but he rejoined cheerfully: "It's an exceptional chance, and after all, I shall see ahead if I can get regular work. I can put by a little every month, and by and bye, when our living expenses diminish, my wife means to come forward--her idea would be to give the building--"

  He broke off and drummed on the table, waiting nervously for me to speak. He did not say on what grounds he still counted on a diminution of his household expenses, and I had not the cruelty to press this point; but I murmured, after a moment: "I think you're right--I should try to buy the land."

  We discussed his potentialities for work, which were obviously still an unknown quantity, and the conference ended in my sending him to a firm of real-estate brokers who were looking out for a partner with a little money to invest. Halidon had a few thousands of his own, which he decided to embark in the venture; and thereafter, for the remaining months of the winter, he appeared punctually at a desk in the brokers' office, and sketched plans of the Academy on the back of their business paper. The site for the future building had meanwhile been bought, and I rather deplored the publicity which Ned gave to the fact; but, after all, since this publicity served to commit him more deeply, to pledge him conspicuously to the completion of his task, it was perhaps a wise instinct of self-coercion that had prompted him.

  It was a dull winter in realty, and toward spring, when the market began to revive, one of the Halidon children showed symptoms of a delicate throat, and the fashionable doctor who humoured the family ailments counselled--nay, commanded--a prompt flight to the Mediterranean.

  "He says a New York spring would be simply criminal--and as for those ghastly southern places, my wife won't hear of them; so we're off. But I shall be back in July, and I mean to stick to the office all summer."

  He was true to his word, and reappeared just as all his friends were deserting town. For two torrid months he sat at his desk, drawing fresh plans of the Academy, and waiting for the wind- fall of a "big deal"; but in September he broke down from the effect of the unwonted confinement, and his indignant wife swept him off to the mountains.

  "Why Ned should work when we have the money--I wish he would sell that wretched piece of land!" And sell it he did one day: I chanced on a record of the transaction in the realty column of the morning paper. He afterward explained the sale to me at length. Owing to some spasmodic effort at municipal improvement, there had been an unforeseen rise in the adjoining property, and it would have been foolish--yes, I agreed that it would have been foolish. He had made $10,000 on the sale, and that would go toward paying off what he had borrowed for the original purchase. Meanwhile he could be looking about for another site.

  Later in the winter he told me it was a bad time to look. His position in the real-estate business enabled him to follow the trend of the market, and that trend was obstinately upward. But of course there would be a reaction--and he was keeping his eyes open.

  As the resuscitated Academy scheme once more fell into abeyance, I saw Halidon less and less frequently; and we had not met for several months, when one day of June, my morning paper startled me with the announcement that the President had appointed Edward Halidon of New York to be Civil Commissioner of our newly acquired Eastern possession, the Manana Islands. "The unhealthy climate of the islands, and the defective sanitation of the towns, make it necessary that vigorous measures should be taken to protect the health of the American citizens established there, and it is believed that Mr. Halidon's large experience of Eastern life and well-known energy of character--" I read the paragraph twice; then I dropped the paper, and projected myself through the subway to Halidon's office. But he was not there; he had not been there for a month. One of the clerks believed he was in Washington.

  "It's true, then!" I said to myself. "But Mrs. Halidon in the Mananas--?"

  A day or two later Ned appeared in my office. He looked better than when we had last met, and there was a determined line about his lips.

  "My wife? Heaven forbid! You don't suppose I should think of taking her? But the job is a tremendously interesting one, an
d it's the kind of work I believe I can do--the only kind," he added, smiling rather ruefully.

  "But my dear Ned--"

  He faced me with a look of quiet resolution. "I think I've been through all the buts. It's an infernal climate, of course, but then I am used to the East--I know what precautions to take. And it would be a big thing to clean up that Augean stable."

  "But consider your wife and children--"

  He met this with deliberation. "I have considered my children--that's the point. I don't want them to be able to say, when they look back: 'He was content to go on living on that money--'"

  "My dear Ned--"

  "That's the one thing they shan't say of me," he pressed on vehemently. "I've tried other ways--but I'm no good at business. I see now that I shall never make money enough to carry out the scheme myself; but at least I can clear out, and not go on being his pensioner--seeing his dreams turned into horses and carpets and clothes--"

  He broke off, and leaning on my desk hid his face in his hands. When he looked up again his flush of wrath had subsided.

  "Just understand me--it's not her fault. Don't fancy I'm trying for an instant to shift the blame. A woman with children simply obeys the instinct of her sex; she puts them first--and I wouldn't have it otherwise. As far as she's concerned there were no conditions attached--there's no reason why she should make any sacrifice." He paused, and added painfully: "The trouble is, I can't make her see that I am differently situated."

  "But, Ned, the climate--what are you going to gain by chucking yourself away?"

  He lifted his brows. "That's a queer argument from you. And, besides, I'm up to the tricks of all those ague-holes. And I've got to live, you see: I've got something to put through." He saw my look of enquiry, and added with a shy, poignant laugh-- how I hear it still!--: "I don't mean only the job in hand, though that's enough in itself; but Paul's work--you understand.--It won't come in my day, of course--I've got to accept that--but my boy's a splendid chap" (the boy was three), "and I tell you what it is, old man, I believe when he grows up he'll put it through."