The Twilight of the God
by Edith Wharton
A Newport drawing-room. Tapestries, flowers, bric-a-brac. Through the windows, a geranium-edged lawn, the cliffs and the sea. Isabel Warland sits reading. Lucius Warland enters in flannels and a yachting-cap.
Isabel. Back already?
Warland. The wind dropped–it turned into a drifting race. Langham took me off the yacht on his launch. What time is it? Two o’clock? Where’s Mrs. Raynor?
Isabel. On her way to New York.
Warland. To New York?
Isabel. Precisely. The boat must be just leaving; she started an hour ago and took Laura with her. In fact I’m alone in the house–that is, until this evening. Some people are coming then.
Warland. But what in the world–
Isabel. Her aunt, Mrs. Griscom, has had a fit. She has them constantly. They’re not serious–at least they wouldn’t be, if Mrs. Griscom were not so rich–and childless. Naturally, under the circumstances, Marian feels a peculiar sympathy for her; her position is such a sad one; there’s positively no one to care whether she lives or dies–except her heirs. Of course they all rush to Newburgh whenever she has a fit. It’s hard on Marian, for she lives the farthest away; but she has come to an understanding with the housekeeper, who always telegraphs her first, so that she gets a start of several hours. She will be at Newburgh to-night at ten, and she has calculated that the others can’t possibly arrive before midnight.
Warland. You have a delightful way of putting things. I suppose you’d talk of me like that.
Isabel. Oh, no. It’s too humiliating to doubt one’s husband’s disinterestedness.
Warland. I wish I had a rich aunt who had fits.
Isabel. If I were wishing I should choose heart-disease.
Warland. There’s no doing anything without money or influence.
Isabel (picking up her book). Have you heard from Washington?
Warland. Yes. That’s what I was going to speak of when I asked for Mrs. Raynor. I wanted to bid her good-bye.
Isabel. You’re going?
Warland. By the five train. Fagott has just wired me that the Ambassador will be in Washington on Monday. He hasn’t named his secretaries yet, but there isn’t much hope for me. He has a nephew–
Isabel. They always have. Like the Popes.
Warland. Well, I’m going all the same. You’ll explain to Mrs. Raynor if she gets back before I do? Are there to be people at dinner? I don’t suppose it matters. You can always pick up an extra man on a Saturday.
Isabel. By the way, that reminds me that Marian left me a list of the people who are arriving this afternoon. My novel is so absorbing that I forgot to look at it. Where can it be? Ah, here–Let me see: the Jack Merringtons, Adelaide Clinton, Ned Lender–all from New York, by seven P.M. train. Lewis Darley to-night, by Fall River boat. John Oberville, from Boston at five P.M. Why, I didn’t know–
Warland (excitedly). John Oberville? John Oberville? Here? To-day at five o’clock? Let me see–let me look at the list. Are you sure you’re not mistaken? Why, she never said a word! Why the deuce didn’t you tell me?
Isabel. I didn’t know.
Isabel. Why, what difference does it make?
Warland. What difference? What difference? Don’t look at me as if you didn’t understand English! Why, if Oberville’s coming–(a pause) Look here, Isabel, didn’t you know him very well at one time?
Isabel. Very well–yes.
Warland. I thought so–of course–I remember now; I heard all about it before I met you. Let me see–didn’t you and your mother spend a winter in Washington when he was Under-secretary of State?
Isabel. That was before the deluge.
Warland. I remember–it all comes back to me. I used to hear it said that he admired you tremendously; there was a report that you were engaged. Don’t you remember? Why, it was in all the papers. By Jove, Isabel, what a match that would have been!
Isabel. You are disinterested!
Warland. Well, I can’t help thinking–
Isabel. That I paid you a handsome compliment?
Warland (preoccupied). Eh?–Ah, yes–exactly. What was I saying? Oh– about the report of your engagement. (Playfully.) He was awfully gone on you, wasn’t he?
Isabel. It’s not for me to diminish your triumph.
Warland. By Jove, I can’t think why Mrs. Raynor didn’t tell me he was coming. A man like that–one doesn’t take him for granted, like the piano- tuner! I wonder I didn’t see it in the papers.
Isabel. Is he grown such a great man?
Warland. Oberville? Great? John Oberville? I’ll tell you what he is–the power behind the throne, the black Pope, the King-maker and all the rest of it. Don’t you read the papers? Of course I’ll never get on if you won’t interest yourself in politics. And to think you might have married that man!
Isabel. And got you your secretaryship!
Warland. Oberville has them all in the hollow of his hand.
Isabel. Well, you’ll see him at five o’clock.
Warland. I don’t suppose he’s ever heard of me. worse luck! (A silence.) Isabel, look here. I never ask questions, do I? But it was so long ago–and Oberville almost belongs to history–he will one of these days at any rate. Just tell me–did he want to marry you?
Isabel. Since you answer for his immortality–(after a pause. I was very much in love with him.
Warland. Then of course he did. (Another pause.) But what in the world–
Isabel (musing). As you say, it was so long ago; I don’t see why I shouldn’t tell you. There was a married woman who had–what is the correct expression?–made sacrifices for him. There was only one sacrifice she objected to making–and he didn’t consider himself free. It sounds rather rococo. doesn’t it? It was odd that she died the year after we were married.
Isabel (following her own thoughts). I’ve never seen him since; it must be ten years ago. I’m certainly thirty-two, and I was just twenty-two then. It’s curious to talk of it. I had put it away so carefully. How it smells of camphor! And what an old-fashioned cut it has! (Rising.) Where’s the list, Lucius? You wanted to know if there were to be people at dinner tonight–
Warland. Here it is–but never mind. Isabel–(silence. Isabel–
Warland. It’s odd he never married.
Isabel. The comparison is to my disadvantage. But then I met you.
Warland. Don’t be so confoundedly sarcastic. I wonder how he’ll feel about seeing you. Oh, I don’t mean any sentimental rot, of course… but you’re an uncommonly agreeable woman. I daresay he’ll be pleased to see you again; you’re fifty times more attractive than when I married you.
Isabel. I wish your other investments had appreciated at the same rate. Unfortunately my charms won’t pay the butcher.
Warland. Damn the butcher!
Isabel. I happened to mention him because he’s just written again; but I might as well have said the baker or the candlestick-maker. The candlestick-maker–I wonder what he is, by the way? He must have more faith in human nature than the others, for I haven’t heard from him yet. I wonder if there is a Creditor’s Polite Letter-writer which they all consult; their style is so exactly alike. I advise you to pass through New York incognito on your way to Washington; their attentions might be oppressive.
Warland. Confoundedly oppressive. What a dog’s life it is! My poor Isabel–
Isabel. Don’t pity me. I didn’t marry yon for a home.
Warland (after a pause). What did you marry me for, if you cared for Oberville? (Another pause.) Eh?
Isabel. Don’t make me regret my confidence.
Warland. I beg your pardon.
Isabel. Oh, it was only a subterfuge to conceal the fact that I have no distinct recollection of my reasons. The fact is, a girl’s motives in marrying are like a passport–apt to get mislaid. One is so seldom asked for either. But mine certainly couldn’t have been mercenary: I never heard a mother praise you to her daughters.
Warland. No, I never was much of a match.
Isabel. You impugn my judgment.
Warland. If I only had a head for business, now, I might have done something by this time. But I’d sooner break stones in the road.
Isabel. It must be very hard to get an opening in that profession. So many of my friends have aspired to it, and yet I never knew any one who actually did it.
Warland. If I could only get the secretaryship. How that kind of life would suit you! It’s as much for you that I want it–
Isabel. And almost as much for the butcher. Don’t belittle the circle of your benevolence. (She walks across the room.) Three o’clock already– and Marian asked me to give orders about the carriages. Let me see–Mr. Oberville is the first arrival; if you’ll ring I will send word to the stable. I suppose you’ll stay now?
Isabel. Not go to Washington. I thought you spoke as if he could help you.
Warland. He could settle the whole thing in five minutes. The President can’t refuse him anything. But he doesn’t know me; he may have a candidate of his own. It’s a pity you haven’t seen him for so long–and yet I don’t know; perhaps it’s just as well. The others don’t arrive till seven? It seems as if–How long is he going to be here? Till to-morrow night, I suppose? I wonder what he’s come for. The Merringtons will bore him to death, and Adelaide, of course, will be philandering with Lender. I wonder (. pause. if Darley likes boating. (Rings the bell.)
Warland. Oh, I was only thinking–Where are the matches? One may smoke here, I suppose? (He looks at his wife.) If I were you I’d put on that black gown of yours to-night–the one with the spangles.–It’s only that Fred Langham asked me to go over to Narragansett in his launch to-morrow morning, and I was thinking that I might take Darley; I always liked Darley.
Isabel (to the footman who enters). Mrs. Raynor wishes the dog-cart sent to the station at five o’clock to meet Mr. Oberville.
Footman. Very good, m’m. Shall I serve tea at the usual time, m’m?
Isabel. Yes. That is, when Mr. Oberville arrives.
Footman (going out). Very good, m’m.
Warland (to Isabel, who is moving toward the door). Where are you going?
Isabel. To my room now–for a walk later.
Warland. Later? It’s past three already.
Isabel. I’ve no engagement this afternoon.
Warland. Oh, I didn’t know. (As she reaches the door.) You’ll be back, I suppose?
Isabel. I have no intention of eloping.
Warland. For tea, I mean?
Isabel. I never take tea. (Warland shrugs his shoulders.)
The same drawing-room. Isabel enters from the lawn in hat and gloves. The tea-table is set out, and the footman just lighting the lamp under the kettle.
Isabel. You may take the tea-things away. I never take tea.
Footman. Very good, m’m. (He hesitates.) I understood, m’m, that Mr. Oberville was to have tea?
Isabel. Mr. Oberville? But he was to arrive long ago! What time is it?
Footman. Only a quarter past five, m’m.
Isabel. A quarter past five? (She goes up to the clock.) Surely you’re mistaken? I thought it was long after six. (To herself.) I walked and walked–I must have walked too fast … (To the Footman.) I’m going out again. When Mr. Oberville arrives please give him his tea without waiting for me. I shall not be back till dinner-time.
Footman. Very good, m’m. Here are some letters, m’m.
Isabel (glancing at them with a movement of disgust). You may send them up to my room.
Footman. I beg pardon, m’m, but one is a note from Mme. Fanfreluche, and the man who brought it is waiting for an answer.
Isabel. Didn’t you tell him I was out?
Footman. Yes, m’m. But he said he had orders to wait till you came in.
Isabel. Ah–let me see. (She opens the note.) Ah, yes. (. pause.) Please say that I am on my way now to Mme Fanfreluche’s to give her the answer in person. You may tell the man that I have already started. Do you understand? Already started.
Footman. Yes, m’m.
Isabel. And–wait. (With an effort.) You may tell me when the man has started. I shall wait here till then. Be sure you let me know.
Footman. Yes, m’m. (He goes out.)
Isabel (sinking into a chair and hiding her face). Ah! (After a moment she rises, taking up her gloves and sunshade, and walks toward the window which opens on the lawn.) I’m so tired. (She hesitates and turns back into the room.) Where can I go to? (She sits down again by the tea- table, and bends over the kettle. The clock strikes half-past five.)
Isabel (picking up her sunshade, walks back to the window). If I must meet one of them…
Oberville (speaking in the hall). Thanks. I’ll take tea first. (He enters the room, and pauses doubtfully on seeing Isabel.)
Isabel (stepping towards him with a smile). It’s not that I’ve changed, of course, but only that I happened to have my back to the light. Isn’t that what you are going to say?
Oberville. Mrs. Warland!
Isabel. So you really have become a great man! They always remember people’s names.
Oberville. Were you afraid I was going to call you Isabel?
Isabel. Bravo! Crescendo!
Oberville. But you have changed, all the same.
Isabel. You must indeed have reached a dizzy eminence, since you can indulge yourself by speaking the truth!
Oberville. It’s your voice. I knew it at once, and yet it’s different.
Isabel. I hope it can still convey the pleasure I feel in seeing an old friend. (She holds out her hand. He takes it.) You know, I suppose, that Mrs. Raynor is not here to receive you? She was called away this morning very suddenly by her aunt’s illness.
Oberville. Yes. She left a note for me. (Absently.) I’m sorry to hear of Mrs. Griscom’s illness.
Isabel. Oh, Mrs. Griscom’s illnesses are less alarming than her recoveries. But I am forgetting to offer you any tea. (She hands him a cup.) I remember you liked it very strong.
Oberville. What else do you remember?
Isabel. A number of equally useless things. My mind is a store-room of obsolete information.
Oberville. Why obsolete, since I am providing you with a use for it?
Isabel. At any rate, it’s open to question whether it was worth storing for that length of time. Especially as there must have been others more fitted–by opportunity–to undertake the duty.
Oberville. The duty?
Isabel. Of remembering how you like your tea.
Oberville (with a change of tone). Since you call it a duty–I may remind you that it’s one I have never asked any one else to perform.
Isabel. As a duty! But as a pleasure?
Oberville. Do you really want to know?
Isabel. Oh, I don’t require and charge you.
Oberville. You dislike as much as ever having the i’s dotted?
Isabel. With a handwriting I know as well as yours!
Oberville (recovering his lightness of manner). Accomplished woman! (He examines her approvingly.) I’d no idea that you were here. I never was more surprised.
Isabel. I hope you like being surprised. To my mind it’s an overrated pleasure.
Oberville. Is it? I’m sorry to hear that.
Isabel. Why? Have you a surprise to dispose of?
Oberville. I’m not sure that I haven’t.
Isabel. Don’t part with it too hastily. It may improve by being kept.
Oberville (tentatively). Does that mean that you don’t want it?
Isabel. Heaven forbid! I want everything I can get.
Oberville. And you get everything you want. At least you used to.
Isabel. Let us talk of your surprise.
Oberville. It’s to be yours, you know. (. pause. He speaks gravely.) I find that I’ve never got over having lost you.
Isabel (also gravely). And is that a surprise–to you too?
Oberville. Honestly–yes. I thought I’d crammed my life full. I didn’t know there was a cranny left anywhere. At first, you know, I stuffed in everything I could lay my hands on–there was such a big void to fill. And after all I haven’t filled it. I felt that the moment I saw you. (A pause.) I’m talking stupidly.
Isabel. It would be odious if you were eloquent.
Oberville. What do you mean?
Isabel. That’s a question you never used to ask me.
Oberville. Be merciful. Remember how little practise I’ve had lately.
Isabel. In what?
Oberville. Never mind! (He rises and walks away; then comes back and stands in front of her.) What a fool I was to give you up!
Isabel. Oh, don’t say that! I’ve lived on it!
Oberville. On my letting you go?
Isabel. On your letting everything go–but the right.
Oberville. Oh, hang the right! What is truth? We had the right to be happy!
Isabel (with rising emotion). I used to think so sometimes.
Oberville. Did you? Triple fool that I was!
Isabel. But you showed me–
Oberville. Why, good God, we belonged to each other–and I let you go! It’s fabulous. I’ve fought for things since that weren’t worth a crooked sixpence; fought as well as other men. And you–you–I lost you because I couldn’t face a scene! Hang it, suppose there’d been a dozen scenes–I might have survived them. Men have been known to. They’re not necessarily fatal.
Isabel. A scene?
Oberville. It’s a form of fear that women don’t understand. How you must have despised me!
Isabel. You were–afraid–of a scene?
Oberville. I was a damned coward, Isabel. That’s about the size of it.
Isabel. Ah–I had thought it so much larger!
Oberville. What did you say?
Isabel. I said that you have forgotten to drink your tea. It must be quite cold.
Isabel. Let me give you another cup.
Oberville (collecting himself). No–no. This is perfect.
Isabel. You haven’t tasted it.
Oberville (falling into her mood). You always made it to perfection. Only you never gave me enough sugar.
Isabel. I know better now. (She puts another lump in his cup.)
Oberville (drinks his tea, and then says, with an air of reproach). Isn’t all this chaff rather a waste of time between two old friends who haven’t met for so many years?
Isabel (lightly). Oh, it’s only a hors d’oeuvre–the tuning of the instruments. I’m out of practise too.
Oberville. Let us come to the grand air, then. (Sits down near her.) Tell me about yourself. What are you doing?
Isabel. At this moment? You’ll never guess. I’m trying to remember you.
Oberville. To remember me?
Isabel. Until you came into the room just now my recollection of you was so vivid; you were a living whole in my thoughts. Now I am engaged in gathering up the fragments–in laboriously reconstructing you….
Oberville. I have changed so much, then?
Isabel. No, I don’t believe that you’ve changed. It’s only that I see you differently. Don’t you know how hard it is to convince elderly people that the type of the evening paper is no smaller than when they were young?
Oberville. I’ve shrunk then?
Isabel. You couldn’t have grown bigger. Oh, I’m serious now; you needn’t prepare a smile. For years you were the tallest object on my horizon. I used to climb to the thought of you, as people who live in a flat country mount the church steeple for a view. It’s wonderful how much I used to see from there! And the air was so strong and pure!
Oberville. And now?
Isabel. Now I can fancy how delightful it must be to sit next to you at dinner.
Oberville. You’re unmerciful. Have I said anything to offend you?
Isabel. Of course not. How absurd!
Oberville. I lost my head a little–I forgot how long it is since we have met. When I saw you I forgot everything except what you had once been to me. (She is silent.) I thought you too generous to resent that. Perhaps I have overtaxed your generosity. (. pause.) Shall I confess it? When I first saw you I thought for a moment that you had remembered–as I had. You see I can only excuse myself by saying something inexcusable.
Isabel (deliberately). Not inexcusable.
Isabel. I had remembered.
Isabel. But now–
Oberville. Ah, give me a moment before you unsay it!
Isabel. I don’t mean to unsay it. There’s no use in repealing an obsolete law. That’s the pity of it! You say you lost me ten years ago. (. pause.) I never lost you till now.
Isabel. Only this morning you were my supreme court of justice; there was no appeal from your verdict. Not an hour ago you decided a case for me–against myself! And now–. And the worst of it is that it’s not because you’ve changed. How do I know if you’ve changed? You haven’t said a hundred words to me. You haven’t been an hour in the room. And the years must have enriched you–I daresay you’ve doubled your capital. You’ve been in the thick of life, and the metal you’re made of brightens with use. Success on some men looks like a borrowed coat; it sits on you as though it had been made to order. I see all this; I know it; but I don’t feel it. I don’t feel anything… anywhere… I’m numb. (. pause.) Don’t laugh, but I really don’t think I should know now if you came into the room–unless I actually saw you. (They are both silent.)
Oberville (at length). Then, to put the most merciful interpretation upon your epigrams, your feeling for me was made out of poorer stuff than mine for you.
Isabel. Perhaps it has had harder wear.
Oberville. Or been less cared for?
Isabel. If one has only one cloak one must wear it in all weathers.
Oberville. Unless it is so beautiful and precious that one prefers to go cold and keep it under lock and key.
Isabel. In the cedar-chest of indifference–the key of which is usually lost.
Oberville. Ah, Isabel, you’re too pat! How much I preferred your hesitations.
Isabel. My hesitations? That reminds me how much your coming has simplified things. I feel as if I’d had an auction sale of fallacies.
Oberville. You speak in enigmas, and I have a notion that your riddles are the reverse of the sphinx’s–more dangerous to guess than to give up. And yet I used to find your thoughts such good reading.
Isabel. One cares so little for the style in which one’s praises are written.
Oberville. You’ve been praising me for the last ten minutes and I find your style detestable. I would rather have you find fault with me like a friend than approve me like a dilettante.
Isabel. A dilettante. The very word I wanted!
Oberville. I am proud to have enriched so full a vocabulary. But I am still waiting for the word I want. (He grows serious.) Isabel, look in your heart–give me the first word you find there. You’ve no idea how much a beggar can buy with a penny!
Isabel. It’s empty, my poor friend, it’s empty.
Oberville. Beggars never say that to each other.
Isabel. No; never, unless it’s true.
Oberville (after another silence). Why do you look at me so curiously?
Isabel. I’m–what was it you said? Approving you as a dilettante. Don’t be alarmed; you can bear examination; I don’t see a crack anywhere. After all, it’s a satisfaction to find that one’s idol makes a handsome bibelot.
Oberville (with an attempt at lightness). I was right then–you’re a collector?
Isabel (modestly). One must make a beginning. I think I shall begin with you. (She smiles at him.) Positively, I must have you on my mantel- shelf! (She rises and looks at the clock.) But it’s time to dress for dinner. (She holds out her hand to him and he kisses it. They look at each other, and it is clear that he does not quite understand, but is watching eagerly for his cue.)
Warland (coming in). Hullo, Isabel–you’re here after all?
Isabel. And so is Mr. Oberville. (She looks straight at Warland.) I stayed in on purpose to meet him. My husband–(The two men bow.)
Warland (effusively). So glad to meet you. My wife talks of you so often. She’s been looking forward tremendously to your visit.
Oberville. It’s a long time since I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Mrs. Warland.
Isabel. But now we are going to make up for lost time. (As he goes to the door.) I claim you to-morrow for the whole day.
Oberville bows and goes out.
Isabel. Lucius… I think you’d better go to Washington, after all. (Musing.) Narragansett might do for the others, though…. Couldn’t you get Fred Langham to ask all the rest of the party to go over there with him to-morrow morning? I shall have a headache and stay at home. (He looks at her doubtfully.) Mr. Oberville is a bad sailor.
Warland advances demonstratively.
Isabel (drawing back). It’s time to go and dress. I think you said the black gown with spangles?