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
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
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
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
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
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)
Warland. It's odd he never married.
Isabel. The comparison is to my disadvantage. But then I met
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
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 (a 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,
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
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
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
Isabel. Ah—let me see. (She opens the note.) Ah, yes.
(A 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Oberville (tentatively). Does that mean that you don't want
Isabel. Heaven forbid! I want everything I can get.
Oberville. And you get everything you want. At least you used
Isabel. Let us talk of your surprise.
Oberville. It's to be yours, you know. (A 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
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
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
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
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
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
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. (A 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. (A 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. (A 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
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
Isabel. My hesitations? That reminds me how much your coming
has simplified things. I feel as if I'd had an auction sale of
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
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
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?