The Dilettante by Edith Wharton (1903 short story-full text)
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The Dilettante by Edith Wharton is a short story that was first published in Harper’s Magazine in 1903, and then was part of The Descent of Man and Other Stories in 1904. Close on the heels of this short story collection, Wharton’s very successful first novel, The House of Mirth, was published in 1905, establishing her as a major figure in American literature.
The story centers around the relationship of Mrs. Vervain and Thursdale. Mrs. Vervain is in love with him, though he considers her just a friend (this possibly echoes some of Wharton’s own relationships with men). Arrogantly, Thursdale (the dilettante of the story’s title) even considers Mrs. Vervain something of his own creation. He describes her as “the finest material to work on,” almost as if she is merely clay in his hands.
The dictionary defines a dilettante as “a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge.”
It’s worth considering being a dilettante applies to Thursdale and the women in his life. He looks back on attempts at commitment as mistakes, comparing them to “long walks back from a picnic when one has to carry all the crockery one has finished using.”
The Dilettante, which is in the public domain, is reprinted here in full. Some of the long paragraphs have been broken up for easier readability. Edith Wharton’s The Descent of Man is not to be confused, of course, with Charles Darwin’s book of the same title.
The Dilettante by Edith Wharton
It was on an impulse hardly needing the arguments he found himself advancing in its favor, that Thursdale, on his way to the club, turned as usual into Mrs. Vervain’s street.
The “as usual” was his own qualification of the act; a convenient way of bridging the interval—in days and other sequences—that lay between this visit and the last. It was characteristic of him that he instinctively excluded his call two days earlier, with Ruth Gaynor, from the list of his visits to Mrs. Vervain: the special conditions attending it had made it no more like a visit to Mrs. Vervain than an engraved dinner invitation is like a personal letter.
Yet it was to talk over his call with Miss Gaynor that he was now returning to the scene of that episode; and it was because Mrs. Vervain could be trusted to handle the talking over as skillfully as the interview itself that, at her corner, he had felt the dilettante’s irresistible craving to take a last look at a work of art that was passing out of his possession.
On the whole, he knew no one better fitted to deal with the unexpected than Mrs. Vervain. She excelled in the rare art of taking things for granted, and Thursdale felt a pardonable pride in the thought that she owed her excellence to his training.
Early in his career Thursdale had made the mistake, at the outset of his acquaintance with a lady, of telling her that he loved her and exacting the same avowal in return. The latter part of that episode had been like the long walk back from a picnic, when one has to carry all the crockery one has finished using: it was the last time Thursdale ever allowed himself to be encumbered with the debris of a feast.
He thus incidentally learned that the privilege of loving her is one of the least favors that a charming woman can accord; and in seeking to avoid the pitfalls of sentiment he had developed a science of evasion in which the woman of the moment became a mere implement of the game.
He owed a great deal of delicate enjoyment to the cultivation of this art. The perils from which it had been his refuge became naively harmless: was it possible that he who now took his easy way along the levels had once preferred to gasp on the raw heights of emotion?
Youth is a high-colored season; but he had the satisfaction of feeling that he had entered earlier than most into that chiar’oscuro of sensation where every half-tone has its value.
As a promoter of this pleasure no one he had known was comparable to Mrs. Vervain. He had taught a good many women not to betray their feelings, but he had never before had such fine material to work in.
She had been surprisingly crude when he first knew her; capable of making the most awkward inferences, of plunging through thin ice, of recklessly undressing her emotions; but she had acquired, under the discipline of his reticences and evasions, a skill almost equal to his own, and perhaps more remarkable in that it involved keeping time with any tune he played and reading at sight some uncommonly difficult passages.
It had taken Thursdale seven years to form this fine talent; but the result justified the effort. At the crucial moment she had been perfect: her way of greeting Miss Gaynor had made him regret that he had announced his engagement by letter.
It was an evasion that confessed a difficulty; a deviation implying an obstacle, where, by common consent, it was agreed to see none; it betrayed, in short, a lack of confidence in the completeness of his method. It had been his pride never to put himself in a position which had to be quitted, as it were, by the back door; but here, as he perceived, the main portals would have opened for him of their own accord.
All this, and much more, he read in the finished naturalness with which Mrs. Vervain had met Miss Gaynor. He had never seen a better piece of work: there was no over-eagerness, no suspicious warmth, above all (and this gave her art the grace of a natural quality) there were none of those damnable implications whereby a woman, in welcoming her friend’s betrothed, may keep him on pins and needles while she laps the lady in complacency.
So masterly a performance, indeed, hardly needed the offset of Miss Gaynor’s door-step words—”To be so kind to me, how she must have liked you!”—though he caught himself wishing it lay within the bounds of fitness to transmit them, as a final tribute, to the one woman he knew who was unfailingly certain to enjoy a good thing.
It was perhaps the one drawback to his new situation that it might develop good things which it would be impossible to hand on to Margaret Vervain.
The fact that he had made the mistake of underrating his friend’s powers, the consciousness that his writing must have betrayed his distrust of her efficiency, seemed an added reason for turning down her street instead of going on to the club. He would show her that he knew how to value her; he would ask her to achieve with him a feat infinitely rarer and more delicate than the one he had appeared to avoid.
Incidentally, he would also dispose of the interval of time before dinner: ever since he had seen Miss Gaynor off, an hour earlier, on her return journey to Buffalo, he had been wondering how he should put in the rest of the afternoon. It was absurd, how he missed the girl….Yes, that was it; the desire to talk about her was, after all, at the bottom of his impulse to call on Mrs. Vervain!
It was absurd, if you like—but it was delightfully rejuvenating. He could recall the time when he had been afraid of being obvious: now he felt that this return to the primitive emotions might be as restorative as a holiday in the Canadian woods. And it was precisely by the girl’s candor, her directness, her lack of complications, that he was taken.
The sense that she might say something rash at any moment was positively exhilarating: if she had thrown her arms about him at the station he would not have given a thought to his crumpled dignity. It surprised Thursdale to find what freshness of heart he brought to the adventure; and though his sense of irony prevented his ascribing his intactness to any conscious purpose, he could but rejoice in the fact that his sentimental economies had left him such a large surplus to draw upon.
Mrs. Vervain was at home—as usual. When one visits the cemetery one expects to find the angel on the tombstone, and it struck Thursdale as another proof of his friend’s good taste that she had been in no undue haste to change her habits.
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The whole house appeared to count on his coming; the footman took his hat and overcoat as naturally as though there had been no lapse in his visits; and the drawing-room at once enveloped him in that atmosphere of tacit intelligence which Mrs. Vervain imparted to her very furniture.
It was a surprise that, in this general harmony of circumstances, Mrs. Vervain should herself sound the first false note.
“You?” she exclaimed; and the book she held slipped from her hand.
It was crude, certainly; unless it were a touch of the finest art. The difficulty of classifying it disturbed Thursdale’s balance.
“Why not?” he said, restoring the book. “Isn’t it my hour?” And as she made no answer, he added gently, “Unless it’s some one else’s?”
She laid the book aside and sank back into her chair. “Mine, merely,” she said.
“I hope that doesn’t mean that you’re unwilling to share it?”
“With you? By no means. You’re welcome to my last crust.”
He looked at her reproachfully. “Do you call this the last?”
She smiled as he dropped into the seat across the hearth. “It’s a way of giving it more flavor!”
He returned the smile. “A visit to you doesn’t need such condiments.”
She took this with just the right measure of retrospective amusement.
“Ah, but I want to put into this one a very special taste,” she confessed.
Her smile was so confident, so reassuring, that it lulled him into the imprudence of saying, “Why should you want it to be different from what was always so perfectly right?”
She hesitated. “Doesn’t the fact that it’s the last constitute a difference?”
“The last—my last visit to you?”
“Oh, metaphorically, I mean—there’s a break in the continuity.”
Decidedly, she was pressing too hard: unlearning his arts already!
“I don’t recognize it,” he said. “Unless you make me—” he added, with a note that slightly stirred her attitude of languid attention.
She turned to him with grave eyes. “You recognize no difference whatever?”
“None—except an added link in the chain.”
“An added link?”
“In having one more thing to like you for—your letting Miss Gaynor see why I had already so many.” He flattered himself that this turn had taken the least hint of fatuity from the phrase.
Mrs. Vervain sank into her former easy pose. “Was it that you came for?” she asked, almost gaily.
“If it is necessary to have a reason—that was one.”
“To talk to me about Miss Gaynor?”
“To tell you how she talks about you.”
“That will be very interesting—especially if you have seen her since her second visit to me.”
“Her second visit?” Thursdale pushed his chair back with a start and moved to another. “She came to see you again?”
“This morning, yes—by appointment.”
He continued to look at her blankly. “You sent for her?”
“I didn’t have to—she wrote and asked me last night. But no doubt you have seen her since.”
Thursdale sat silent. He was trying to separate his words from his thoughts, but they still clung together inextricably. “I saw her off just now at the station.”
“And she didn’t tell you that she had been here again?”
“There was hardly time, I suppose—there were people about—” he floundered.
“Ah, she’ll write, then.”
He regained his composure. “Of course she’ll write: very often, I hope. You know I’m absurdly in love,” he cried audaciously.
She tilted her head back, looking up at him as he leaned against the chimney-piece. He had leaned there so often that the attitude touched a pulse which set up a throbbing in her throat. “Oh, my poor Thursdale!” she murmured.
“I suppose it’s rather ridiculous,” he owned; and as she remained silent, he added, with a sudden break—”Or have you another reason for pitying me?”
Her answer was another question. “Have you been back to your rooms since you left her?”
“Since I left her at the station? I came straight here.”
“Ah, yes—you could: there was no reason—” Her words passed into a silent musing.
Thursdale moved nervously nearer. “You said you had something to tell me?”
“Perhaps I had better let her do so. There may be a letter at your rooms.”
“A letter? What do you mean? A letter from her? What has happened?”
His paleness shook her, and she raised a hand of reassurance. “Nothing has happened—perhaps that is just the worst of it. You always hated, you know,” she added incoherently, “to have things happen: you never would let them.”
“Well, that was what she came here for: I supposed you had guessed. To know if anything had happened.”
“Had happened?” He gazed at her slowly. “Between you and me?” he said with a rush of light.
The words were so much cruder than any that had ever passed between them that the color rose to her face; but she held his startled gaze.
“You know girls are not quite as unsophisticated as they used to be. Are you surprised that such an idea should occur to her?”
His own color answered hers: it was the only reply that came to him.
Mrs. Vervain went on, smoothly: “I supposed it might have struck you that there were times when we presented that appearance.”
He made an impatient gesture. “A man’s past is his own!”
“Perhaps—it certainly never belongs to the woman who has shared it. But one learns such truths only by experience; and Miss Gaynor is naturally inexperienced.”
“Of course—but—supposing her act a natural one—” he floundered lamentably among his innuendoes—”I still don’t see—how there was anything—”
“Anything to take hold of? There wasn’t—”
“Well, then—?” escaped him, in crude satisfaction; but as she did not complete the sentence he went on with a faltering laugh: “She can hardly object to the existence of a mere friendship between us!”
“But she does,” said Mrs. Vervain.
Thursdale stood perplexed. He had seen, on the previous day, no trace of jealousy or resentment in his betrothed: he could still hear the candid ring of the girl’s praise of Mrs. Vervain. If she were such an abyss of insincerity as to dissemble distrust under such frankness, she must at least be more subtle than to bring her doubts to her rival for solution.
The situation seemed one through which one could no longer move in a penumbra, and he let in a burst of light with the direct query: “Won’t you explain what you mean?”
Mrs. Vervain sat silent, not provokingly, as though to prolong his distress, but as if, in the attenuated phraseology he had taught her, it was difficult to find words robust enough to meet his challenge. It was the first time he had ever asked her to explain anything; and she had lived so long in dread of offering elucidations which were not wanted, that she seemed unable to produce one on the spot.
At last she said slowly: “She came to find out if you were really free.”
Thursdale colored again. “Free?” he stammered, with a sense of physical disgust at contact with such crassness.
“Yes—if I had quite done with you.” She smiled in recovered security. “It seems she likes clear outlines; she has a passion for definitions.”
“Yes—well?” he said, wincing at the echo of his own subtlety.
“Well—and when I told her that you had never belonged to me, she wanted me to define my status—to know exactly where I had stood all along.”
Thursdale sat gazing at her intently; his hand was not yet on the clue. “And even when you had told her that—”
“Even when I had told her that I had had no status—that I had never stood anywhere, in any sense she meant,” said Mrs. Vervain, slowly—”even then she wasn’t satisfied, it seems.”
He uttered an uneasy exclamation. “She didn’t believe you, you mean?”
“I mean that she did believe me: too thoroughly.”
“Well, then—in God’s name, what did she want?”
“Something more—those were the words she used.”
“Something more? Between—between you and me? Is it a conundrum?” He laughed awkwardly.
“Girls are not what they were in my day; they are no longer forbidden to contemplate the relation of the sexes.”
“So it seems!” he commented. “But since, in this case, there wasn’t any—” he broke off, catching the dawn of a revelation in her gaze.
“That’s just it. The unpardonable offence has been—in our not offending.”
He flung himself down despairingly. “I give it up!—What did you tell her?” he burst out with sudden crudeness.
“The exact truth. If I had only known,” she broke off with a beseeching tenderness, “won’t you believe that I would still have lied for you?”
“Lied for me? Why on earth should you have lied for either of us?”
“To save you—to hide you from her to the last! As I’ve hidden you from myself all these years!” She stood up with a sudden tragic import in her movement. “You believe me capable of that, don’t you? If I had only guessed—but I have never known a girl like her; she had the truth out of me with a spring.”
“The truth that you and I had never—”
“Had never—never in all these years! Oh, she knew why—she measured us both in a flash. She didn’t suspect me of having haggled with you—her words pelted me like hail. ‘He just took what he wanted—sifted and sorted you to suit his taste. Burnt out the gold and left a heap of cinders. And you let him—you let yourself be cut in bits’—she mixed her metaphors a little—’be cut in bits, and used or discarded, while all the while every drop of blood in you belonged to him! But he’s Shylock—and you have bled to death of the pound of flesh he has cut out of you.’ But she despises me the most, you know—far the most—” Mrs. Vervain ended.
The words fell strangely on the scented stillness of the room: they seemed out of harmony with its setting of afternoon intimacy, the kind of intimacy on which at any moment, a visitor might intrude without perceptibly lowering the atmosphere. It was as though a grand opera-singer had strained the acoustics of a private music-room.
Thursdale stood up, facing his hostess. Half the room was between them, but they seemed to stare close at each other now that the veils of reticence and ambiguity had fallen.
His first words were characteristic. “She does despise me, then?” he exclaimed.
“She thinks the pound of flesh you took was a little too near the heart.”
He was excessively pale. “Please tell me exactly what she said of me.”
“She did not speak much of you: she is proud. But I gather that while she understands love or indifference, her eyes have never been opened to the many intermediate shades of feeling. At any rate, she expressed an unwillingness to be taken with reservations—she thinks you would have loved her better if you had loved some one else first. The point of view is original—she insists on a man with a past!”
“Oh, a past—if she’s serious—I could rake up a past!” he said with a laugh.
“So I suggested: but she has her eyes on his particular portion of it. She insists on making it a test case. She wanted to know what you had done to me; and before I could guess her drift I blundered into telling her.”
Thursdale drew a difficult breath. “I never supposed—your revenge is complete,” he said slowly.
He heard a little gasp in her throat. “My revenge? When I sent for you to warn you—to save you from being surprised as I was surprised?”
“You’re very good—but it’s rather late to talk of saving me.” He held out his hand in the mechanical gesture of leave-taking.
“How you must care!—for I never saw you so dull,” was her answer. “Don’t you see that it’s not too late for me to help you?” And as he continued to stare, she brought out sublimely: “Take the rest—in imagination! Let it at least be of that much use to you. Tell her I lied to her—she’s too ready to believe it! And so, after all, in a sense, I sha’n’t have been wasted.”
His stare hung on her, widening to a kind of wonder. She gave the look back brightly, unblushingly, as though the expedient were too simple to need oblique approaches. It was extraordinary how a few words had swept them from an atmosphere of the most complex dissimulations to this contact of naked souls.
It was not in Thursdale to expand with the pressure of fate; but something in him cracked with it, and the rift let in new light. He went up to his friend and took her hand.
“You would do it—you would do it!”
She looked at him, smiling, but her hand shook.
“Good-by,” he said, kissing it.
“Good-by? You are going—?”
“To get my letter.”
“Your letter? The letter won’t matter, if you will only do what I ask.”
He returned her gaze. “I might, I suppose, without being out of character. Only, don’t you see that if your plan helped me it could only harm her?”
“To sacrifice you wouldn’t make me different. I shall go on being what I have always been—sifting and sorting, as she calls it. Do you want my punishment to fall on her?“
She looked at him long and deeply. “Ah, if I had to choose between you—!”
“You would let her take her chance? But I can’t, you see. I must take my punishment alone.”
She drew her hand away, sighing. “Oh, there will be no punishment for either of you.”
“For either of us? There will be the reading of her letter for me.”
She shook her head with a slight laugh. “There will be no letter.”
Thursdale faced about from the threshold with fresh life in his look. “No letter? You don’t mean—”
“I mean that she’s been with you since I saw her—she’s seen you and heard your voice. If there is a letter, she has recalled it—from the first station, by telegraph.”
He turned back to the door, forcing an answer to her smile. “But in the mean while I shall have read it,” he said.
The door closed on him, and she hid her eyes from the dreadful emptiness of the room.
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