The Choice by Edith Wharton
By Edith Wharton
Copyright, 1916, By Charles Scribner's Sons
Stilling, that night after dinner, had surpassed himself. He always
did, Wrayford reflected, when the small fry from Highfield came to
dine. He, Cobham Stilling, who had to find his bearings and keep to his
level in the big heedless ironic world of New York, dilated and grew
vast in the congenial medium of Highfield. The Red House was the
biggest house of the Highfield summer colony, and Cobham Stilling was
its biggest man. No one else within a radius of a hundred miles (on a
conservative estimate) had as many horses, as many greenhouses, as many
servants, and assuredly no one else had three motors and a motor-boat
for the lake.
The motor-boat was Stilling's latest hobby, and he rodeor
steeredit in and out of the conversation all the evening, to the
obvious edification of every one present save his wife and his visitor,
Austin Wrayford. The interest of the latter two who, from opposite ends
of the drawing-room, exchanged a fleeting glance when Stilling again
launched his craft on the thin current of the talkthe interest of
Mrs. Stilling and Wrayford had already lost its edge by protracted
contact with the subject.
But the dinner-gueststhe Rector, Mr. Swordsley, his wife Mrs.
Swordsley, Lucy and Agnes Granger, their brother Addison, and young
Jack Emmerton from Harvardwere all, for divers reasons, stirred to
the proper pitch of feeling. Mr. Swordsley, no doubt, was saying to
himself: If my good parishioner here can afford to buy a motor-boat,
in addition to all the other expenditures which an establishment like
this must entail, I certainly need not scruple to appeal to him again
for a contribution for our Galahad Club. The Granger girls, meanwhile,
were evoking visions of lakeside picnics, not unadorned with the
presence of young Mr. Emmerton; while that youth himself speculated as
to whether his affable host would let him, when he came back on his
next vacation, learn to run the thing himself; and Mr. Addison
Granger, the elderly bachelor brother of the volatile Lucy and Agnes,
mentally formulated the precise phrase in which, in his next letter to
his cousin Professor Spildyke of the University of East Latmos, he
should allude to our last delightful trip in my old friend Cobham
Stilling's ten-thousand-dollar motor-launchfor East Latmos was still
in that primitive stage of culture on which five figures impinge.
Isabel Stilling, sitting beside Mrs. Swordsley, her bead slightly
bent above the needlework with which on these occasions it was her
old-fashioned habit to employ herselfIsabel also had doubtless her
reflections to make. As Wrayford leaned back in his corner and looked
at her across the wide flower-filled drawing-room he noted, first of
allfor the how many hundredth time?the play of her hands above the
embroidery-frame, the shadow of the thick dark hair on her forehead,
the lids over her somewhat full grey eyes. He noted all this with
a conscious deliberateness of enjoyment, taking in unconsciously, at
the same time, the particular quality in her attitude, in the fall of
her dress and the turn of her head, which had set her for him, from the
first day, in a separate world; then he said to himself: She is
certainly thinking: 'Where on earth will Cobham get the money to pay
Stilling, cigar in mouth and thumbs in his waistcoat pockets, was
impressively perorating from his usual dominant position on the
I said: 'If I have the thing at all, I want the best that can be
got.' That's my way, you know, Swordsley; I suppose I'm what you'd call
fastidious. Always was, about everything, from cigars to wom his eye
met the apprehensive glance of Mrs. Swordsley, who looked like her
husband with his clerical coat cut slightly lowerso I said: 'If I
have the thing at all, I want the best that can be got.' Nothing
makeshift for me, no second-best. I never cared for the cheap and
showy. I always say frankly to a man: 'If you can't give me a
first-rate cigar, for the Lord's sake let me smoke my own.' He paused
to do so. Well, if you have my standards, you can't buy a thing in a
minute. You must look round, compare, select. I found there were lots
of motor-boats on the market, just as there's lots of stuff called
champagne. But I said to myself: 'Ten to one there's only one fit to
buy, just as there's only one champagne fit for a gentleman to drink.'
Argued like a lawyer, eh, Austin? He tossed this to Wrayford. Take me
for one of your own trade, wouldn't you? Well, I'm not such a fool as I
look. I suppose you fellows who are tied to the treadmillexcuse me,
Swordsley, but work's work, isn't it?I suppose you think a man like
me has nothing to do but take it easy: loll through life like a woman.
By George, sir, I'd like either of you to see the time it takesI
won't say the brainbut just the time it takes to pick out a
good motor-boat. Why, I went
Mrs. Stilling set her embroidery-frame noiselessly on the table at
her side, and turned her head toward Wrayford. Would you mind ringing
for the tray?
The interruption helped Mrs. Swordsley to waver to her feet. I'm
afraid we ought really to be going; my husband has an early service
Her host intervened with a genial protest. Going already? Nothing
of the sort! Why, the night's still young, as the poet says. Long way
from here to the rectory? Nonsense! In our little twenty-horse car we
do it in five minutesdon't we, Belle? Ah, you're walking, to be
sure Stilling's indulgent gesture seemed to concede that, in such a
case, allowances must be made, and that he was the last man not to make
them. Well, then, Swordsley He held out a thick red hand that
seemed to exude beneficence, and the clergyman, pressing it, ventured
to murmur a suggestion.
What, that Galahad Club again? Why, I thought my wifeIsabel,
didn't weNo? Well, it must have been my mother, then. Of course, you
know, anything my good mother gives iswellvirtuallyYou haven't
asked her? Sure? I could have sworn; I get so many of these appeals.
And in these times, you know, we have to go cautiously. I'm sure you
recognize that yourself, Swordsley. With my obligationshere now, to
show you don't bear malice, have a brandy and soda before you go.
Nonsense, man! This brandy isn't liquor; it's liqueur. I picked it up
last year in Londonlast of a famous lot from Lord St. Oswyn's cellar.
Laid down here, it stood me atEh? he broke off as his wife moved
toward him. Ah, yes, of course. Miss Lucy, Miss Agnesa drop of
soda-water? Look here, Addison, you won't refuse my tipple, I know.
Well, take a cigar, at any rate, Swordsley. And, by the way, I'm afraid
you'll have to go round the long way by the avenue to-night. Sorry,
Mrs. Swordsley, but I forgot to tell them to leave the gate into the
lane unlocked. Well, it's a jolly night, and I daresay you won't mind
the extra turn along the lake. And, by Jove! if the moon's out, you'll
have a glimpse of the motorboat. She's moored just out beyond our
boat-house; and it's a privilege to look at her, I can tell you!
The dispersal of his guests carried Stilling out into the hall,
where his pleasantries reverberated under the oak rafters while the
Granger girls were being muffled for the drive and the carriages
summoned from the stables.
By a common impulse Mrs. Stilling and Wrayford had moved together
toward the fire-place, which was hidden by a tall screen from the door
into the hall. Wrayford leaned his elbow against the mantel-piece, and
Mrs. Stilling stood beside him, her clasped hands hanging down before
Have you anything more to talk over with him? she asked.
No. We wound it all up before dinner. He doesn't want to talk about
it any more than he can help.
It's so bad?
No; but this time he's got to pull up.
She stood silent, with lowered lids. He listened a moment, catching
Stilling's farewell shout; then he moved a little nearer, and laid his
hand on her arm.
In an hour?
She made an imperceptible motion of assent.
I'll tell you about it then. The key's as usual?
She signed another Yes and walked away with her long drifting step
as her husband came in from the hall.
He went up to the tray and poured himself out a tall glass of brandy
The weather is turning queerblack as pitch. I hope the Swordsleys
won't walk into the lakeinvoluntary immersion, eh? He'd come out a
Baptist, I suppose. What'd the Bishop do in such a case? There's a
problem for a lawyer, my boy!
He clapped his hand on Wrayford's thin shoulder and then walked over
to his wife, who was gathering up her embroidery silks and dropping
them into her work-bag. Stilling took her by the arms and swung her
playfully about so that she faced the lamplight.
What's the matter with you tonight?
The matter? she echoed, colouring a little, and standing very
straight in her desire not to appear to shrink from his touch.
You never opened your lips. Left me the whole job of entertaining
those blessed people. Didn't she, Austin?
Wrayford laughed and lit a cigarette.
There! You see even Austin noticed it. What's the matter, I say?
Aren't they good enough for you? I don't say they're particularly
exciting; but, hang it! I like to ask them hereI like to give people
I didn't mean to be dull, said Isabel.
Well, you must learn to make an effort. Don't treat people as if
they weren't in the room just because they don't happen to amuse you.
Do you know what they'll think? They'll think it's because you've got a
bigger house and more money than they have. Shall I tell you something?
My mother said she'd noticed the same thing in you lately. She said she
sometimes felt you looked down on her for living in a small house. Oh,
she was half joking, of course; but you see you do give people that
impression. I can't understand treating any one in that way. The more I
have myself, the more I want to make other people happy.
Isabel gently freed herself and laid the work-bag on her
embroidery-frame. I have a headache; perhaps that made me stupid. I'm
going to bed. She turned toward Wrayford and held out her hand. Good
Good night, he answered, opening the door for her.
When he turned back into the room, his host was pouring himself a
third glass of brandy and soda.
Here, have a nip, Austin? Gad, I need it badly, after the shaking
up you gave me this afternoon. Stilling laughed and carried his glass
to the hearth, where he took up his usual commanding position. Why the
deuce don't you drink something? You look as glum as Isabel. One would
think you were the chap that had been hit by this business.
Wrayford threw himself into the chair from which Mrs. Stilling had
lately risen. It was the one she usually sat in, and to his fancy a
faint scent of her clung to it. He leaned back and looked up at
Want a cigar? the latter continued. Shall we go into the den and
Wrayford hesitated. If there's anything more you want to ask me
Gad, no! I had full measure and running over this afternoon. The
deuce of it is, I don't see where the money's all gone to. Luckily I've
got plenty of nerve; I'm not the kind of man to sit down and snivel
because I've been touched in Wall Street.
Wrayford got to his feet again. Then, if you don't want me, I think
I'll go up to my room and put some finishing touches to a brief before
I turn in. I must get back to town to-morrow afternoon.
All right, then. Stilling set down his empty glass, and held out
his hand with a tinge of alacrity. Good night, old man.
They shook hands, and Wrayford moved toward the door.
I say, Austinstop a minute! his host called after him. Wrayford
turned, and the two men faced each other across the hearth-rug.
Stilling's eyes shifted uneasily.
There's one thing more you can do for me before you leave. Tell
Isabel about that loan; explain to her that she's got to sign a note
Wrayford, in his turn, flushed slightly. You want me to tell her?
Hang it! I'm soft-heartedthat's the worst of me.
Stilling moved toward the tray, and lifted the brandy decanter. And
she'll take it better from you; she'll have to take it from you.
She's proud. You can take her out for a row to-morrow morninglook
here, take her out in the motor-launch if you like. I meant to have a
spin in it myself; but if you'll tell her
Wrayford hesitated. All right, I'll tell her.
Thanks a lot, my dear fellow. And you'll make her see it wasn't my
fault, eh? Women are awfully vague about money, and she'll think it's
all right if you back me up.
Wrayford nodded. As you please.
And, Austinthere's just one more thing. You needn't say anything
to Isabel about the other businessI mean about my mother's
Ah? said Wrayford, pausing.
Stilling shifted from one foot to the other. I'd rather put that to
the old lady myself. I can make it clear to her. She idolizes me, you
knowand, hang it! I've got a good record. Up to now, I mean. My
mother's been in clover since I married; I may say she's been my first
thought. And I don't want her to hear of this beastly business from
Isabel. Isabel's a little harsh at timesand of course this isn't
going to make her any easier to live with.
Very well, said Wrayford.
Stilling, with a look of relief, walked toward the window which
opened on the terrace. Gad! what a queer night! Hot as the
kitchen-range. Shouldn't wonder if we had a squall before morning. I
wonder if that infernal skipper took in the launch's awnings before he
Wrayford stopped with his hand on the door. Yes, I saw him do it.
She's shipshape for the night.
Good! That saves me a run down to the shore.
Good night, then, said Wrayford.
Good night, old man. You'll tell her?
I'll tell her.
And mum about my mother! his host called after him.
The darkness had thinned a little when Wrayford scrambled down the
steep path to the shore. Though the air was heavy the threat of a storm
seemed to have vanished, and now and then the moon's edge showed above
a torn slope of cloud.
But in the thick shrubbery about the boat-house the darkness was
still dense, and Wrayford had to strike a match before he could find
the lock and insert his key. He left the door unlatched, and groped his
way in. How often he had crept into this warm pine-scented obscurity,
guiding himself by the edge of the bench along the wall, and hearing
the soft lap of water through the gaps in the flooring! He knew just
where one had to duck one's head to avoid the two canoes swung from the
rafters, and just where to put his hand on the latch of the farther
door that led to the broad balcony above the lake.
The boat-house represented one of Stilling's abandoned whims. He had
built it some seven years before, and for a time it had been the scene
of incessant nautical exploits. Stilling had rowed, sailed, paddled
indefatigably, and all Highfield had been impressed to bear him
company, and to admire his versatility. Then motors had come in, and he
had forsaken aquatic sports for the flying chariot. The canoes of
birch-bark and canvas had been hoisted to the roof, the sail-boat had
rotted at her moorings, and the movable floor of the boat-house,
ingeniously contrived to slide back on noiseless runners, had lain
undisturbed through several seasons. Even the key of the boat-house had
been mislaidby Isabel's fault, her husband saidand the locksmith
had to be called in to make a new one when the purchase of the
motor-boat made the lake once more the centre of Stilling's activity.
As Wrayford entered he noticed that a strange oily odor overpowered
the usual scent of dry pine-wood; and at the next step his foot struck
an object that rolled noisily across the boards. He lighted another
match, and found he had overturned a can of grease which the boatman
had no doubt been using to oil the runners of the sliding floor.
Wrayford felt his way down the length of the boathouse, and softly
opening the balcony door looked out on the lake. A few yards away, he
saw the launch lying at anchor in the veiled moonlight; and just below
him, on the black water, was the dim outline of the skiff which the
boatman kept to paddle out to her. The silence was so intense that
Wrayford fancied he heard a faint rustling in the shrubbery on the high
bank behind the boat-house, and the crackle of gravel on the path
descending to it.
He closed the door again and turned back into the darkness; and as
he did so the other door, on the land-side, swung inward, and he saw a
figure in the dim opening. Just enough light entered through the round
holes above the respective doors to reveal Mrs. Stilling's cloaked
outline, and to guide her to him as he advanced. But before they met
she stumbled and gave a little cry.
What is it? he exclaimed.
My foot caught; the floor seemed to give way under me. Ah, of
course she bent down in the darknessI saw the men oiling it this
Wrayford caught her by the arm. Do take care! It might be dangerous
if it slid too easily. The water's deep under here.
Yes; the water's very deep. I sometimes wish She leaned against
him without finishing her sentence, and he put both arms about her.
Hush! he said, his lips on hers.
Suddenly she threw her head back and seemed to listen.
What's the matter? What do you hear?
I don't know. He felt her trembling. I'm not sure this place is
as safe as it used to be
Wrayford held her to him reassuringly. But the boatman sleeps down
at the village; and who else should come here at this hour?
Cobham might. He thinks of nothing but the launch.'
He won't to-night. I told him I'd seen the skipper put her
shipshape, and that satisfied him.
Ahhe did think of coming, then?
Only for a minute, when the sky looked so black half an hour ago,
and he was afraid of a squall. It's clearing now, and there's no
He drew her down on the bench, and they sat a moment or two in
silence, her hands in his. Then she said: You'd better tell me.
Wrayford gave a faint laugh. Yes, I suppose I had. In fact, he
asked me to.
He asked you to?
She uttered an exclamation of contempt. He's afraid!
Wrayford made no reply, and she went on: I'm not. Tell me
Well, he's chucked away a pretty big sum again
He says he doesn't know. He's been speculating, I suppose. The
madness of making him your trustee!
She drew her hands away. You know why I did it. When we married I
didn't want to put him in the false position of the man who contributes
nothing and accepts everything; I wanted people to think the money was
I don't know what you've made people think; but you've been
eminently successful in one respect. He thinks it's all hisand
he loses it as if it were.
There are worse things. What was it that he wished you to tell me?
That you've got to sign another promissory notefor fifty thousand
Is that all?
Wrayford hesitated; then he said: Yesfor the present.
She sat motionless, her head bent, her hand resting passively in
He leaned nearer. What did you' mean just now, by worse things?
She hesitated. Haven't you noticed that he's been drinking a great
Yes; I've noticed.
They were both silent; then Wrayford broke out, with sudden
vehemence: And yet you won't
Put an end to it. Good God! Save what's left of your life.
She made no answer, and in the stillness the throb of the water
underneath them sounded like the beat of a tormented heart.
Isabel Wrayford murmured. He bent over to kiss her. Isabel! I
can't stand it! listen
No; no. I've thought of everything. There's the boythe boy's fond
of him. He's not a bad father.
Except in the trifling matter of ruining his son.
And there's his poor old mother. He's a good son, at any rate; he'd
never hurt her. And I know her. If I left him, she'd never take a penny
of my money. What she has of her own is not enough to live on; and how
could he provide for her? If I put him out of doors, I should be
putting his mother out too.
You could arrange thatthere are always ways.
Not for her! She's proud. And then she believes in him. Lots of
people believe in him, you know. It would kill her if she ever found
Wrayford made an impatient movement. It will kill you if you stay
with him to prevent her finding out.
She laid her other hand on his. Not while I have you.
Have me? In this way?
In any way.
My poor girlpoor child!
Unless you grow tiredunless your patience gives out.
He was silent, and she went on insistently: Don't you suppose I've
thought of that tooforeseen it?
Welland then? he exclaimed.
I've accepted that too.
He dropped her hands with a despairing gesture. Then, indeed, I
waste my breath!
She made no answer, and for a time they sat silent again, a little
between them. At length he asked: You're not crying?
I can't see your face, it's grown so dark.
Yes. The storm must be coming. She made a motion as if to rise.
He drew close and put his arm about her. Don't leave me yet. You
know I must go to-morrow. He broke off with a laugh. I'm to break the
news to you to-morrow morning, by the way; I'm to take you out in the
motorlaunch and break it to you. He dropped her hands and stood up.
Good God! How can I go and leave you here with him?
You've done it often.
Yes; but each time it's more damnable. And then I've always had a
She rose also. Give it up! Give it up!
You've none, then, yourself?
She was silent, drawing the folds of her cloak about her.
Nonenone? he insisted.
He had to bend his head to hear her answer. Only one!
What, my dearest? What?
Don't touch me! That he may die!
They drew apart again, hearing each other's quick breathing through
You wish that too? he said.
I wish it alwaysevery day, every hour, every moment! She paused,
and then let the words break from her. You'd better know it; you'd
better know the worst of me. I'm not the saint you suppose; the duty I
do is poisoned by the thoughts I think. Day by day, hour by hour, I
wish him dead. When he goes out I pray for something to happen; when he
comes back I say to myself: 'Are you here again?' When I hear of people
being killed in accidents, I think: 'Why wasn't he there?' When I read
the death-notices in the paper I say: 'So-and-so was just his age.'
When I see him taking such care of his health and his dietas he does,
you know, except when he gets reckless and begins to drink too
muchwhen I see him exercising and resting, and eating only certain
things, and weighing himself, and feeling his muscles, and boasting
that he hasn't gained a pound, I think of the men who die from
overwork, or who throw their lives away for some great object, and I
say to myself: 'What can kill a man who thinks only of himself?' And
night after night I keep myself from going to sleep for fear I may
dream that he's dead. When I dream that, and wake and find him there
it's worse than ever
She broke off with a sob, and the loud lapping of the water under
the floor was like the beat of a rebellious heart.
There, you know the truth! she said.
He answered after a pause: People do die.
Do they? She laughed. Yesin happy marriages!
They were silent again, and Isabel turned, feeling her way toward
the door. As she did so, the profound stillness was broken by the sound
of a man's voice trolling out unsteadily the refrain of a music-hall
The two in the boat-house darted toward each other with a
simultaneous movement, clutching hands as they met.
He's coming! Isabel said.
Wrayford disengaged his hands.
He may only be out for a turn before he goes to bed. Wait a minute.
I'll see. He felt his way to the bench, scrambled up on it, and
stretching his body forward managed to bring his eyes in line with the
opening above the door.
It's as black as pitch. I can't see anything.
The refrain rang out nearer.
Wait! I saw something twinkle. There it is again. It's his cigar.
It's coming this waydown the path.
There was a long rattle of thunder through the stillness.
It's the storm! Isabel whispered. He's coming to see about the
Wrayford dropped noiselessly from the bench and she caught him by
Isn't there time to get up the path and slip under the shrubbery?
No, he's in the path now. He'll be here in two minutes. He'll find
He felt her hand tighten on his arm.
You must go in the skiff, then. It's the only way.
And let him find you? And hear my oars? Listenthere's something I
She flung her arms about him and pressed her face to his.
Isabel, just now I didn't tell you everything. He's ruined his
mothertaken everything of hers too. And he's got to tell her; it
can't be kept from her.
She uttered an incredulous exclamation and drew back.
Is this the truth? Why didn't you tell me before?
He forbade me. You were not to know.
Close above them, in the shrubbery, Stilling warbled:
Ask thy soul if we must part!
Wrayford held her by both arms. Understand thisif he comes in,
he'll find us. And if there's a row you'll lose your boy.
She seemed not to hear him. Youyouyouhe'll kill you! she
Wrayford laughed impatiently and released her, and she stood
shrinking against the wall, her hands pressed to her breast. Wrayford
straightened himself and she felt that he was listening intently. Then
he dropped to his knees and laid his hands against the boards of the
sliding floor. It yielded at once, as if with a kind of evil alacrity;
and at their feet they saw, under the motionless solid night, another
darker night that moved and shimmered. Wrayford threw himself back
against the opposite wall, behind the door.
A key rattled in the lock, and after a moment's fumbling the door
swung open. Wrayford and Isabel saw a man's black bulk against the
obscurity. It moved a step, lurched forward, and vanished out of sight.
From the depths beneath them there came a splash and a long cry.
Go! go! Wrayford cried out, feeling blindly for Isabel in the
Oh she cried, wrenching herself away from him.
He stood still a moment, as if dazed; then she saw him suddenly
plunge from her side, and heard another splash far down, and a tumult
in the beaten water.
In the darkness she cowered close to the opening, pressing her face
over the edge, and crying out the name of each of the two men in turn.
Suddenly she began to see: the obscurity was less opaque, as if a faint
moon-pallor diluted it. Isabel vaguely discerned the two shapes
struggling in the black pit below her; once she saw the gleam of a
face. She glanced up desperately for some means of rescue, and caught
sight of the oars ranged on brackets against the wall. She snatched
down the nearest, bent over the opening, and pushed the oar down into
the blackness, crying out her husband's name.
The clouds had swallowed the moon again, and she could see nothing
below her; but she still heard the tumult in the beaten water.
Cobham! Cobham! she screamed.
As if in answer, she felt a mighty clutch on the oar, a clutch that
strained her arms to the breaking-point as she tried to brace her knees
against the runners of the sliding floor.
Hold on! Hold on! Hold on! a voice gasped out from below; and she
held on, with racked muscles, with bleeding palms, with eyes straining
from their sockets, and a heart that tugged at her as the weight was
tugging at the oar.
Suddenly the weight relaxed, and the oar slipped up through her
lacerated hands. She felt a wet body scrambling over the edge of the
opening, and Stilling's voice, raucous and strange, groaned out, close
to her: God! I thought I was done for.
He staggered to his knees, coughing and sputtering, and the water
dripped on her from his streaming clothes.
She flung herself down, again, straining over the pit. Not a sound
came up from it.
Austin! Austin! Quick! Another oar! she shrieked.
Stilling gave a cry. My God! Was it Austin? What in hellAnother
oar? No, no; untie the skiff, I tell you. But it's no use. Nothing's
any use. I felt him lose hold as I came up.
After that she was conscious of nothing till, hours later, as it
appeared to her, she became dimly aware of her husband's voice, high,
hysterical and important, haranguing a group of scared lantern-struck
faces that had sprung up mysteriously about them in the night.
Poor Austin! Poor Wrayford... terrible loss to me... mysterious
dispensation. Yes, I do feel gratitudemiraculous escapebut I wish
old Austin could have known that I was saved!