It was last winter, after a twelve
years’ absence from New York, that I saw again,
at one of the Jim Cumnors’ dinners, my old friend
The Cumnors’ house is one of
the few where, even after such a lapse of time, one
can be sure of finding familiar faces and picking up
old threads; where for a moment one can abandon one’s
self to the illusion that New York humanity is a shade
less unstable than its bricks and mortar. And
that evening in particular I remember feeling that
there could be no pleasanter way of re-entering the
confused and careless world to which I was returning
than through the quiet softly-lit diningroom in which
Mrs. Cumnor, with a characteristic sense of my needing
to be broken in gradually, had contrived to assemble
so many friendly faces.
I was glad to see them all, including
the three or four I did not know, or failed to recognize,
but had no difficulty in passing as in the tradition
and of the group; but I was most of all glad as
I rather wonderingly found to set eyes
again on Halston Merrick.
He and I had been at Harvard together,
for one thing, and had shared there curiosities and
ardours a little outside the current tendencies:
had, on the whole, been more critical than our comrades,
and less amenable to the accepted. Then, for
the next following years, Merrick had been a vivid
and promising figure in young American life. Handsome,
careless, and free, he had wandered and tasted and
compared. After leaving Harvard he had spent
two years at Oxford; then he had accepted a private
secretaryship to our Ambassador in England, and had
come back from this adventure with a fresh curiosity
about public affairs at home, and the conviction that
men of his kind should play a larger part in them.
This led, first, to his running for a State Senatorship
which he failed to get, and ultimately to a few months
of intelligent activity in a municipal office.
Soon after being deprived of this post by a change
of party he had published a small volume of delicate
verse, and, a year later, an odd uneven brilliant
book on Municipal Government. After that one
hardly knew where to look for his next appearance;
but chance rather disappointingly solved the problem
by killing off his father and placing Halston at the
head of the Merrick Iron Foundry at Yonkers.
His friends had gathered that, whenever
this regrettable contingency should occur, he meant
to dispose of the business and continue his life of
free experiment. As often happens in just such
cases, however, it was not the moment for a sale,
and Merrick had to take over the management of the
foundry. Some two years later he had a chance
to free himself; but when it came he did not choose
to take it. This tame sequel to an inspiriting
start was disappointing to some of us, and I was among
those disposed to regret Merrick’s drop to the
level of the prosperous. Then I went away to
a big engineering job in China, and from there to Africa,
and spent the next twelve years out of sight and sound
of New York doings.
During that long interval I heard
of no new phase in Merrick’s evolution, but
this did not surprise me, as I had never expected from
him actions resonant enough to cross the globe.
All I knew and this did surprise me was
that he had not married, and that he was still in the
iron business. All through those years, however,
I never ceased to wish, in certain situations and
at certain turns of thought, that Merrick were in
reach, that I could tell this or that to Merrick.
I had never, in the interval, found any one with just
his quickness of perception and just his sureness
After dinner, therefore, we irresistibly
drew together. In Mrs. Cumnor’s big easy
drawing-room cigars were allowed, and there was no
break in the communion of the sexes; and, this being
the case, I ought to have sought a seat beside one
of the ladies among whom we were allowed to remain.
But, as had generally happened of old when Merrick
was in sight, I found myself steering straight for
him past all minor ports of call.
There had been no time, before dinner,
for more than the barest expression of satisfaction
at meeting, and our seats had been at opposite ends
of the longish table, so that we got our first real
look at each other in the secluded corner to which
Mrs. Cumnor’s vigilance now directed us.
Merrick was still handsome in his
stooping tawny way: handsomer perhaps, with thinnish
hair and more lines in his face, than in the young
excess of his good looks. He was very glad to
see me and conveyed his gladness by the same charming
smile; but as soon as we began to talk I felt a change.
It was not merely the change that years and experience
and altered values bring. There was something
more fundamental the matter with Merrick, something
dreadful, unforeseen, unaccountable: Merrick had
grown conventional and dull.
In the glow of his frank pleasure
in seeing me I was ashamed to analyze the nature of
the change; but presently our talk began to flag fancy
a talk with Merrick flagging! and self-deception
became impossible as I watched myself handing out
platitudes with the gesture of the salesman offering
something to a purchaser “equally good.”
The worst of it was that Merrick Merrick,
who had once felt everything! didn’t
seem to feel the lack of spontaneity in my remarks,
but hung on’ them with a harrowing faith in
the resuscitating power of our past. It was as
if he hugged the empty vessel of our friendship without
perceiving that the last drop of its essence was dry.
But after all, I am exaggerating.
Through my surprise and disappointment I felt a certain
sense of well-being in the mere physical presence of
my old friend. I liked looking at the way his
dark hair waved away from the forehead, at the tautness
of his dry brown cheek, the thoughtful backward tilt
of his head, the way his brown eyes mused upon the
scene through lowered lids. All the past was in
his way of looking and sitting, and I wanted to stay
near him, and felt that he wanted me to stay; but
the devil of it was that neither of us knew what to
It was this difficulty which caused
me, after a while, since I could not follow Merrick’s
talk, to follow his eyes in their roaming circuit of
At the moment when our glances joined,
his had paused on a lady seated at some distance from
our corner. Immersed, at first, in the satisfaction
of finding myself again with Merrick, I had been only
half aware of this lady, as of one of the few persons
present whom I did not know, or had failed to remember.
There was nothing in her appearance to challenge my
attention or to excite my curiosity, and I don’t
suppose I should have looked at her again if I had
not noticed that my friend was doing so.
She was a woman of about forty-seven,
with fair faded hair and a young figure. Her
gray dress was handsome but ineffective, and her pale
and rather serious face wore a small unvarying smile
which might have been pinned on with her ornaments.
She was one of the women in whom increasing years
show rather what they have taken than what they have
bestowed, and only on looking closely did one see that
what they had taken must have been good of its kind.
Phil Cumnor and another man were talking
to her, and the very intensity of the attention she
bestowed on them betrayed the straining of rebellious
thoughts. She never let her eyes stray or her
smile drop; and at the proper moment I saw she was
ready with the proper sentiment.
The party, like most of those that
Mrs. Cumnor gathered about her, was not composed of
exceptional beings. The people of the old vanished
New York set were not exceptional: they were mostly
cut on the same convenient and unobtrusive pattern;
but they were often exceedingly “nice.”
And this obsolete quality marked every look and gesture
of the lady I was scrutinizing.
While these reflections were passing
through my mind I was aware that Merrick’s eyes
rested still on her. I took a cross-section of
his look and found in it neither surprise nor absorption,
but only a certain sober pleasure just about at the
emotional level of the rest of the room.
If he continued to look at her, his
expression seemed to say, it was only because, all
things considered, there were fewer reasons for looking
at anybody else.
This made me wonder what were the
reasons for looking at her; and as a first
step toward enlightenment I said: “I’m
sure I’ve seen the lady over there in gray ”
Merrick detached his eyes and turned
them on me with a wondering look.
“Seen her? You know her.”
He waited. “Don’t you know her?
It’s Mrs. Reardon.”
I wondered that he should wonder,
for I could not remember, in the Cumnor group or elsewhere,
having known any one of the name he mentioned.
“But perhaps,” he continued,
“you hadn’t heard of her marriage?
You knew her as Mrs. Trant.”
I gave him back his stare. “Not Mrs. Philip
“Yes; Mrs. Philip Trant.”
“Yes Paulina,” he said, with
a just perceptible delay before the name.
In my surprise I continued to stare
at him. He averted his eyes from mine after a
moment, and I saw that they had strayed back to her.
“You find her so changed?” he asked.
Something in his voice acted as a
warning signal, and I tried to reduce my astonishment
to less unbecoming proportions. “I don’t
find that she looks much older.”
“No. Only different?”
he suggested, as if there were nothing new to him
in my perplexity.
“Yes awfully different.”
“I suppose we’re all awfully
different. To you, I mean coming from
“I recognized all the rest of
you,” I said, hesitating. “And she
used to be the one who stood out most.”
There was a flash, a wave, a stir
of something deep down in his eyes. “Yes,”
he said. “That’s the difference.”
“I see it is. She she
looks worn down. Soft but blurred, like the figures
in that tapestry behind her.”
He glanced at her again, as if to
test the exactness of my analogy.
“Life wears everybody down,” he said.
“Yes except those
it makes more distinct. They’re the rare
ones, of course; but she was rare.”
He stood up suddenly, looking old
and tired. “I believe I’ll be off.
I wish you’d come down to my place for Sunday....
No, don’t shake hands I want to slide
He had backed away to the threshold
and was turning the noiseless door-knob. Even
Mrs. Cumnor’s doorknobs had tact and didn’t
“Of course I’ll come,”
I promised warmly. In the last ten minutes he
had begun to interest me again.
“All right Good-bye.”
Half through the door he paused to add: “She
remembers you. You ought to speak to her.”
“I’m going to. But
tell me a little more.” I thought I saw
a shade of constraint on his face, and did not add,
as I had meant to: “Tell me because
she interests me what wore her down?”
Instead, I asked: “How soon after Trant’s
death did she remarry?”
He seemed to make an effort of memory.
“It was seven years ago, I think.”
“And is Reardon here to-night?”
“Yes; over there, talking to Mrs. Cumnor.”
I looked across the broken groupings
and saw a large glossy man with straw-coloured hair
and a red face, whose shirt and shoes and complexion
seemed all to have received a coat of the same expensive
As I looked there was a drop in the
talk about us, and I heard Mr. Reardon pronounce in
a big booming voice: “What I say is:
what’s the good of disturbing things? Thank
the Lord, I’m content with what I’ve got!”
“Is that her husband? What’s
“Oh, the best fellow in the world,” said