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Chapter 36

He stood at the corner of Wall Street, looking up and down its hot
summer perspective. He noticed the swirls of dust in the cracks of the
pavement, the rubbish in the gutters, the ceaseless stream of perspiring
faces that poured by under tilted hats.

He found himself, next, slipping northward between the glazed walls of
the Subway, another languid crowd in the seats about him and the nasal
yelp of the stations ringing through the car like some repeated ritual
wail. The blindness within him seemed to have intensified his physical
perceptions, his sensitiveness to the heat, the noise, the smells of the
dishevelled midsummer city; but combined with the acuter perception of
these offenses was a complete indifference to them, as though he were
some vivisected animal deprived of the power of discrimination.

Now he had turned into Waverly Place, and was walking westward
toward Washington Square. At the corner he pulled himself up, saying
half-aloud: "The office--I ought to be at the office." He drew out his
watch and stared at it blankly. What the devil had he taken it out for?
He had to go through a laborious process of readjustment to find out
what it had to say.... Twelve o'clock.... Should he turn back to the
office? It seemed easier to cross the square, go up the steps of the old
house and slip his key into the door....

The house was empty. His mother, a few days previously, had departed
with Mr. Dagonet for their usual two months on the Maine coast, where
Ralph was to join them with his boy.... The blinds were all drawn down,
and the freshness and silence of the marble-paved hall laid soothing
hands on him.... He said to himself: "I'll jump into a cab presently,
and go and lunch at the club--" He laid down his hat and stick and
climbed the carpetless stairs to his room. When he entered it he had
the shock of feeling himself in a strange place: it did not seem like
anything he had ever seen before. Then, one by one, all the old stale
usual things in it confronted him, and he longed with a sick intensity
to be in a place that was really strange.

"How on earth can I go on living here?" he wondered.

A careless servant had left the outer shutters open, and the sun was
beating on the window-panes. Ralph pushed open the windows, shut the
shutters, and wandered toward his arm-chair. Beads of perspiration stood
on his forehead: the temperature of the room reminded him of the heat
under the ilexes of the Sienese villa where he and Undine had sat
through a long July afternoon. He saw her before him, leaning against
the tree-trunk in her white dress, limpid and inscrutable.... "We were
made one at Opake, Nebraska...." Had she been thinking of it that
afternoon at Siena, he wondered? Did she ever think of it at all?... It
was she who had asked Moffatt to dine. She had said: "Father brought
him home one day at Apex.... I don't remember ever having seen him
since"--and the man she spoke of had had her in his arms ... and perhaps
it was really all she remembered!

She had lied to him--lied to him from the first ... there hadn't been
a moment when she hadn't lied to him, deliberately, ingeniously and
inventively. As he thought of it, there came to him, for the first time
in months, that overwhelming sense of her physical nearness which had
once so haunted and tortured him. Her freshness, her fragrance, the
luminous haze of her youth, filled the room with a mocking glory; and he
dropped his head on his hands to shut it out....

The vision was swept away by another wave of hurrying thoughts. He felt
it was intensely important that he should keep the thread of every one
of them, that they all represented things to be said or done, or guarded
against; and his mind, with the unwondering versatility and tireless
haste of the dreamer's brain, seemed to be pursuing them all
simultaneously. Then they became as unreal and meaningless as the red
specks dancing behind the lids against which he had pressed his fists
clenched, and he had the feeling that if he opened his eyes they would
vanish, and the familiar daylight look in on him....

A knock disturbed him. The old parlour-maid who was always left in
charge of the house had come up to ask if he wasn't well, and if there
was anything she could do for him. He told her no ... he was perfectly
well ... or, rather, no, he wasn't ... he supposed it must be the heat;
and he began to scold her for having forgotten to close the shutters.

It wasn't her fault, it appeared, but Eliza's: her tone implied that he
knew what one had to expect of Eliza ... and wouldn't he go down to the
nice cool shady dining-room, and let her make him an iced drink and a
few sandwiches?

"I've always told Mrs. Marvell I couldn't turn my back for a second
but what Eliza'd find a way to make trouble," the old woman continued,
evidently glad of the chance to air a perennial grievance. "It's not
only the things she FORGETS to do," she added significantly; and it
dawned on Ralph that she was making an appeal to him, expecting him to
take sides with her in the chronic conflict between herself and Eliza.
He said to himself that perhaps she was right ... that perhaps there was
something he ought to do ... that his mother was old, and didn't always
see things; and for a while his mind revolved this problem with feverish
intensity....

"Then you'll come down, sir?"

"Yes."

The door closed, and he heard her heavy heels along the passage.

"But the money--where's the money to come from?" The question sprang out
from some denser fold of the fog in his brain. The money--how on earth
was he to pay it back? How could he have wasted his time in thinking of
anything else while that central difficulty existed?

"But I can't ... I can't ... it's gone ... and even if it weren't...."
He dropped back in his chair and took his head between his hands. He had
forgotten what he wanted the money for. He made a great effort to regain
hold of the idea, but all the whirring, shuttling, flying had abruptly
ceased in his brain, and he sat with his eyes shut, staring straight
into darkness.... The clock struck, and he remembered that he had said
he would go down to the dining-room. "If I don't she'll come up--" He
raised his head and sat listening for the sound of the old woman's step:
it seemed to him perfectly intolerable that any one should cross the
threshold of the room again.

"Why can't they leave me alone?" he groaned.... At length through the
silence of the empty house, he fancied he heard a door opening and
closing far below; and he said to himself: "She's coming."

He got to his feet and went to the door. He didn't feel anything now
except the insane dread of hearing the woman's steps come nearer. He
bolted the door and stood looking about the room. For a moment he was
conscious of seeing it in every detail with a distinctness he had never
before known; then everything in it vanished but the single narrow panel
of a drawer under one of the bookcases. He went up to the drawer, knelt
down and slipped his hand into it.

As he raised himself he listened again, and this time he distinctly
heard the old servant's steps on the stairs. He passed his left hand
over the side of his head, and down the curve of the skull behind the
ear. He said to himself: "My wife ... this will make it all right for
her...." and a last flash of irony twitched through him. Then he felt
again, more deliberately, for the spot he wanted, and put the muzzle of
his revolver against it.

Edith Wharton