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The Line of Least Resistance, Page 2

Edith Wharton

  When he sat up, worn out with his thoughts, the room was growing dark. Eight o’clock! Millicent must be dressing--but no; to-night at least, he grimly reflected, she was condemned to the hateful necessity of dining alone; unless, indeed, her audacity sent her to Mrs. Targe’s in the always-acceptable role of the pretty woman whose husband has been "called away." Perhaps Antrim would be asked to fill his place!

  The thought flung him on his feet, but its impetus carried him no farther. He was borne down by the physical apathy of a traveller who has a week’s journey in his bones. He sat down and thought of the little girls, who were just going to bed. They would have welcomed him at that hour: he was aware that they cherished him chiefly as a pretext, a sanctuary from bed-time and lessons. He had never in his life been more than an alternative to anyone.

  A vague sense of physical apprehension resolved itself into hunger stripped of appetite, and he decided that he ought to urge himself to eat. He opened his door on a rising aroma of stale coffee and fry.

  In the dining-room, where a waiter offered him undefinable food in thick-lipped saucers, Mr. Mindon decided to go to New York. Retreating from the heavy assault of a wedge of pie, he pushed back his chair and went upstairs. He felt hot and grimy in the yachting-clothes he had worn since morning, and the Fall River boat would at least be cool. Then he remembered the playful throngs that held the deck, the midnight hilarity of the waltz-tunes, the horror of the morning coffee. His stomach was still tremulous from its late adventure into the unknown, and he shrank from further risks. He had never before realized how much he loved his home.

  He grew soft at the vision of his vacant chair. What were they doing and saying without him? His little ones were fatherless--and Millicent? Hitherto he had evaded the thought of Millicent, but now he took a doleful pleasure in picturing her in ruins at his feet. Involuntarily he found himself stooping to her despair; but he straightened himself and said aloud, "I’ll take the night-train, then." The sound of his voice surprised him, and he started up. Was that a footstep outside?--a message, a note? Had they found out where he was, and was his wretched wife mad enough to sue for mercy? His ironical smile gave the measure of her madness; but the step passed on, and he sat down rather blankly. The impressiveness of his attitude was being gradually sapped by the sense that no one knew where he was. He had reached the point where he could not be sure of remaining inflexible unless someone asked him to relent.


  AT the sound of a knock he clutched his hat and bag.

  "Mindon, I say!" a genial voice adjured him; and before he could take counsel with his newly acquired dignity, which did not immediately respond to a first summons, the door opened on the reassuring presence of Laurence Meysy.

  Mr. Mindon felt the relief of a sufferer at the approach of the eminent specialist. Laurence Meysy was the past tense of a dangerous man: though time-worn, still a favorite; a circulating- library romance, dog-eared by many a lovely hand, and still perused with pleasure, though, alas! no longer on the sly. He was said to have wrought much havoc in his youth; and it being now his innocent pleasure to repair the damage done by others, he had become the consulting physician of injured husbands and imprudent wives.

  Two gentlemen followed him: Mr. Mindon’s uncle and senior partner, the eminent Ezra Brownrigg, and the Reverend Doctor Bonifant, rector of the New York church in which Mr. Mindon owned a pew that was almost as expensive as his opera-box.

  Mr. Brownrigg entered silently: to get at anything to say he had to sink an artesian well of meditation; but he always left people impressed by what he would have said if he had spoken. He greeted his nephew with the air of a distinguished mourner at a funeral--the mourner who consciously overshadows the corpse; and Doctor Bonifant did justice to the emotional side of the situation by fervently exclaiming, "Thank Heaven, we are not too late!"

  Mr. Mindon looked about him with pardonable pride. The scene suggested something between a vestry-meeting and a conference of railway-directors; and the knowledge that he himself was its central figure, that even his uncle was an accessory, an incident, a mere bit of still-life brushed in by the artist Circumstance to throw Mr. Mindon into fuller prominence, gave that gentleman his first sense of equality with his wife. Equality? In another moment he towered above her, picturing her in an attitude of vaguely imagined penance at Doctor Bonifant’s feet. Mr. Mindon had always felt about the clergy much as he did about his library: he had never quite known what they were for; but, with the pleased surprise of the pious naturalist, he now saw that they had their uses, like every other object in the economy of nature.

  "My dear fellow," Meysy persuasively went on, "we’ve come to have a little chat with you."

  Mr. Brownrigg and the Rector seated themselves. Mr. Mindon mechanically followed their example, and Meysy, asking the others if they minded his cigarette, cheerfully accommodated himself to the edge of the bed.

  From the life-long habit of taking the chair, Mr. Brownrigg coughed and looked at Doctor Bonifant. The Rector leaned forward, stroking his cheek with a hand on which a massive intaglio seemed to be rehearsing the part of the episcopal ring; then his deprecating glance transferred the burden of action to Laurence Meysy. Meysy seemed to be surveying the case through the mitigating medium of cigarette-smoke. His view was that of the professional setting to rights the blunders of two amateurs. It was his theory that the art of carrying on a love affair was very nearly extinct; and he had a far greater contempt for Antrim than for Mr. Mindon.

  "My dear fellow," he began, "I’ve seen Mrs. Mindon--she sent for me."

  Mr. Brownrigg, peering between guarded lids, here interposed a "Very proper."

  Of course Millicent had done the proper thing! Mr. Mindon could not repress a thrill of pride at her efficiency.

  "Mrs. Mindon," Meysy continued, "showed me your letter." He paused. "She was perfectly frank--she throws herself on your mercy."

  "That should be remembered in her favor," Doctor Bonifant murmured in a voice of absolution.

  "It’s a wretched business, Mindon--the poor woman’s crushed-- crushed. Your uncle here has seen her."

  Mr. Brownrigg glanced suspiciously at Meysy, as though not certain whether he cared to corroborate an unauthorized assertion; then he said, "Mrs. Brownrigg has not."

  Doctor Bonifant sighed: Mrs. Brownrigg was one of his most cherished parishioners.

  "And the long and short of it is," Meysy summed up, "that we’re here as your friends--and as your wife’s friends--to ask you what you mean to do."

  There was a pause. Mr. Mindon was disturbed by finding the initiative shifted to his shoulders. He had been talking to himself so volubly for the last six hours that he seemed to have nothing left to say.

  "To do--to do?" he stammered. "Why, I mean to go away--leave her--"

  "Divorce her?"


  Doctor Bonifant sighed again, and Mr. Brownrigg’s lips stirred like a door being cautiously unbarred.

  Meysy knocked the ashes off his cigarette. "You’ve quite made up your mind, eh?"

  Mr. Mindon faltered another assent. Then, annoyed at the uncertain sound of his voice, he repeated loudly, "I mean to divorce her."

  The repetition fortified his resolve; and his declaration seemed to himself against entreaty: their mere presence was a pedestal for his wrongs. The words flocked of themselves, building up his conviction like a throng of masons buttressing a weak wall.

  Mr. Brownrigg spoke upon his first pause. "There’s the publicity--it’s the kind of thing that’s prejudicial to a man’s business interests.

  An hour earlier the words would have turned Mr. Mindon cold; now he brushed them aside. His business interests, forsooth! What good had his money ever done him? What chance had he ever had of enjoying it? All his toil hadn’t made him a rich man--it had merely made Millicent a rich woman.

  Doctor Bonifant murmured, "The children must be considered."

  "They’ve never considered me!" Mr. Min
don retorted--and turned afresh upon his uncle. Mr. Brownrigg listened impassively. He was a very silent man, but his silence was not a receptacle for the speech of others--it was a hard convex surface on which argument found no footing. Mr. Mindon reverted to the Rector. Doctor Bonifant’s attitude towards life was full of a benignant receptivity; as though, logically, a man who had accepted the Thirty-nine Articles was justified in accepting anything else that he chose. His attention had therefore an absorbent quality peculiarly encouraging to those who addressed him. He listened affirmatively, as it were.

  Mr. Mindon’s spirits rose. It was the first time that he had ever had an audience. He dragged his hearers over every stage of his wrongs, losing sight of the vital injury in the enumeration of incidental grievances. He had the excited sense that at last Millicent would know what he had always thought of her.

  Mr. Brownrigg looked at his watch, and Doctor Bonifant bent his head as though under the weight of a pulpit peroration. Meysy, from the bed, watched the three men with the air of an expert who holds the solution of the problem.

  He slipped to his feet as Mr. Mindon’s speech flagged.

  "I suppose you’ve considered, Mindon, that it rests with you to proclaim the fact that you’re no longer--well, the chief object of your wife’s affection?"

  Mr. Mindon raised his head irritably; interrogation impeded the flow of his diatribe.

  "That you--er--in short, create the situation by making it known?" Meysy glanced at the Rector. "Am I right, Bonifant?"

  The Rector took meditative counsel of his finger-tips; then slowly, as though formulating a dogma, "Under certain conditions," he conceded, "what is unknown may be said to be non- existent."

  Mr. Mindon looked from one to the other.

  "Damn it, man--before it’s too late," Meysy followed up, "can’t you see that you’re the only person who can make you ridiculous?"

  Mr. Brownrigg rose, and Mr. Mindon had the desperate sense that the situation was slipping out of his grasp.

  "It rests with you," Doctor Bonifant murmured, "to save your children from even the shadow of obloquy."

  "You can’t stay here, at any rate," said Mr. Brownrigg heavily.

  Mr. Mindon, who had risen, dropped weakly into his chair. His three counsellors were now all on their feet, taking up their hats with the air of men who have touched the limit of duty. In another moment they would be gone, and with them Mr. Mindon’s audience, his support, his confidence in the immutability of his resolve. He felt himself no more than an evocation of their presence; and, in dread of losing the identity they had created, he groped for a detaining word. "I sha’n’t leave for New York till to-morrow."

  "To-morrow everything will be known," said Mr. Brownrigg, with his hand on the door.

  Meysy glanced at his watch with a faint smile. "It’s to- morrow now," he added.

  He fell back, letting the older men pass out; but, turning as though to follow, he felt a drowning clutch upon his arm.

  "It’s for the children," Mr. Mindon stammered.