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The Reckoning, a short story by Edith Wharton


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_ If there be a distinction in being misunderstood, it was one denied
to Julia Westall when she left her first husband. Every one was
ready to excuse and even to defend her. The world she adorned agreed
that John Arment was "impossible," and hostesses gave a sigh of
relief at the thought that it would no longer be necessary to ask
him to dine.

There had been no scandal connected with the divorce: neither side
had accused the other of the offence euphemistically described as
"statutory." The Arments had indeed been obliged to transfer their
allegiance to a State which recognized desertion as a cause for
divorce, and construed the term so liberally that the seeds of
desertion were shown to exist in every union. Even Mrs. Arment's
second marriage did not make traditional morality stir in its sleep.
It was known that she had not met her second husband till after she
had parted from the first, and she had, moreover, replaced a rich
man by a poor one. Though Clement Westall was acknowledged to be a
rising lawyer, it was generally felt that his fortunes would not
rise as rapidly as his reputation. The Westalls would probably
always have to live quietly and go out to dinner in cabs. Could
there be better evidence of Mrs. Arment's complete

If the reasoning by which her friends justified her course was
somewhat cruder and less complex than her own elucidation of the
matter, both explanations led to the same conclusion: John Arment
was impossible. The only difference was that, to his wife, his
impossibility was something deeper than a social disqualification.
She had once said, in ironical defence of her marriage, that it had
at least preserved her from the necessity of sitting next to him at
dinner; but she had not then realized at what cost the immunity was
purchased. John Arment was impossible; but the sting of his
impossibility lay in the fact that he made it impossible for those
about him to be other than himself. By an unconscious process of
elimination he had excluded from the world everything of which he
did not feel a personal need: had become, as it were, a climate in
which only his own requirements survived. This might seem to imply a
deliberate selfishness; but there was nothing deliberate about
Arment. He was as instinctive as an animal or a child. It was this
childish element in his nature which sometimes for a moment
unsettled his wife's estimate of him. Was it possible that he was
simply undeveloped, that he had delayed, somewhat longer than is
usual, the laborious process of growing up? He had the kind of
sporadic shrewdness which causes it to be said of a dull man that he
is "no fool"; and it was this quality that his wife found most
trying. Even to the naturalist it is annoying to have his deductions
disturbed by some unforeseen aberrancy of form or function; and how
much more so to the wife whose estimate of herself is inevitably
bound up with her judgment of her husband!

Arment's shrewdness did not, indeed, imply any latent intellectual
power; it suggested, rather, potentialities of feeling, of
suffering, perhaps, in a blind rudimentary way, on which Julia's
sensibilities naturally declined to linger. She so fully understood
her own reasons for leaving him that she disliked to think they were
not as comprehensible to her husband. She was haunted, in her
analytic moments, by the look of perplexity, too inarticulate for
words, with which he had acquiesced to her explanations.

These moments were rare with her, however. Her marriage had been too
concrete a misery to be surveyed philosophically. If she had been
unhappy for complex reasons, the unhappiness was as real as though
it had been uncomplicated. Soul is more bruisable than flesh, and
Julia was wounded in every fibre of her spirit. Her husband's
personality seemed to be closing gradually in on her, obscuring the
sky and cutting off the air, till she felt herself shut up among the
decaying bodies of her starved hopes. A sense of having been decoyed
by some world-old conspiracy into this bondage of body and soul
filled her with despair. If marriage was the slow life-long
acquittal of a debt contracted in ignorance, then marriage was a
crime against human nature. She, for one, would have no share in
maintaining the pretence of which she had been a victim: the
pretence that a man and a woman, forced into the narrowest of
personal relations, must remain there till the end, though they may
have outgrown the span of each other's natures as the mature tree
outgrows the iron brace about the sapling.

It was in the first heat of her moral indignation that she had met
Clement Westall. She had seen at once that he was "interested," and
had fought off the discovery, dreading any influence that should
draw her back into the bondage of conventional relations. To ward
off the peril she had, with an almost crude precipitancy, revealed
her opinions to him. To her surprise, she found that he shared them.
She was attracted by the frankness of a suitor who, while pressing
his suit, admitted that he did not believe in marriage. Her worst
audacities did not seem to surprise him: he had thought out all that
she had felt, and they had reached the same conclusion. People grew
at varying rates, and the yoke that was an easy fit for the one
might soon become galling to the other. That was what divorce was
for: the readjustment of personal relations. As soon as their
necessarily transitive nature was recognized they would gain in
dignity as well as in harmony. There would be no farther need of the
ignoble concessions and connivances, the perpetual sacrifice of
personal delicacy and moral pride, by means of which imperfect
marriages were now held together. Each partner to the contract would
be on his mettle, forced to live up to the highest standard of
self-development, on pain of losing the other's respect and
affection. The low nature could no longer drag the higher down, but
must struggle to rise, or remain alone on its inferior level. The
only necessary condition to a harmonious marriage was a frank
recognition of this truth, and a solemn agreement between the
contracting parties to keep faith with themselves, and not to live
together for a moment after complete accord had ceased to exist
between them. The new adultery was unfaithfulness to self.

It was, as Westall had just reminded her, on this understanding that
they had married. The ceremony was an unimportant concession to
social prejudice: now that the door of divorce stood open, no
marriage need be an imprisonment, and the contract therefore no
longer involved any diminution of self-respect. The nature of their
attachment placed them so far beyond the reach of such contingencies
that it was easy to discuss them with an open mind; and Julia's
sense of security made her dwell with a tender insistence on
Westall's promise to claim his release when he should cease to love
her. The exchange of these vows seemed to make them, in a sense,
champions of the new law, pioneers in the forbidden realm of
individual freedom: they felt that they had somehow achieved
beatitude without martyrdom.

This, as Julia now reviewed the past, she perceived to have been her
theoretical attitude toward marriage. It was unconsciously,
insidiously, that her ten years of happiness with Westall had
developed another conception of the tie; a reversion, rather, to the
old instinct of passionate dependency and possessorship that now
made her blood revolt at the mere hint of change. Change? Renewal?
Was that what they had called it, in their foolish jargon?
Destruction, extermination rather--this rending of a myriad fibres
interwoven with another's being! Another? But he was not other! He
and she were one, one in the mystic sense which alone gave marriage
its significance. The new law was not for them, but for the
disunited creatures forced into a mockery of union. The gospel she
had felt called on to proclaim had no bearing on her own case....
She sent for the doctor and told him she was sure she needed a nerve

She took the nerve tonic diligently, but it failed to act as a
sedative to her fears. She did not know what she feared; but that
made her anxiety the more pervasive. Her husband had not reverted to
the subject of his Saturday talks. He was unusually kind and
considerate, with a softening of his quick manner, a touch of
shyness in his consideration, that sickened her with new fears. She
told herself that it was because she looked badly--because he knew
about the doctor and the nerve tonic--that he showed this deference
to her wishes, this eagerness to screen her from moral draughts; but
the explanation simply cleared the way for fresh inferences.

The week passed slowly, vacantly, like a prolonged Sunday. On
Saturday the morning post brought a note from Mrs. Van Sideren.
Would dear Julia ask Mr. Westall to come half an hour earlier than
usual, as there was to be some music after his "talk"? Westall was
just leaving for his office when his wife read the note. She opened
the drawing-room door and called him back to deliver the message.

He glanced at the note and tossed it aside. "What a bore! I shall
have to cut my game of racquets. Well, I suppose it can't be helped.
Will you write and say it's all right?"

Julia hesitated a moment, her hand stiffening on the chair-back
against which she leaned.

"You mean to go on with these talks?" she asked.

"I--why not?" he returned; and this time it struck her that his
surprise was not quite unfeigned. The discovery helped her to find

"You said you had started them with the idea of pleasing me--"


"I told you last week that they didn't please me."

"Last week? Oh--" He seemed to make an effort of memory. "I thought
you were nervous then; you sent for the doctor the next day."

"It was not the doctor I needed; it was your assurance--"

"My assurance?"

Suddenly she felt the floor fail under her. She sank into the chair
with a choking throat, her words, her reasons slipping away from her
like straws down a whirling flood.

"Clement," she cried, "isn't it enough for you to know that I hate

He turned to close the door behind them; then he walked toward her
and sat down. "What is it that you hate?" he asked gently.

She had made a desperate effort to rally her routed argument.

"I can't bear to have you speak as if--as if--our marriage--were
like the other kind--the wrong kind. When I heard you there, the
other afternoon, before all those inquisitive gossiping people,
proclaiming that husbands and wives had a right to leave each other
whenever they were tired--or had seen some one else--"

Westall sat motionless, his eyes fixed on a pattern of the carpet.

"You _have_ ceased to take this view, then?" he said as she broke
off. "You no longer believe that husbands and wives _are_ justified
in separating--under such conditions?"

"Under such conditions?" she stammered. "Yes--I still believe
that--but how can we judge for others? What can we know of the

He interrupted her. "I thought it was a fundamental article of our
creed that the special circumstances produced by marriage were not
to interfere with the full assertion of individual liberty." He
paused a moment. "I thought that was your reason for leaving

She flushed to the forehead. It was not like him to give a personal
turn to the argument.

"It was my reason," she said simply.

"Well, then--why do you refuse to recognize its validity now?"

"I don't--I don't--I only say that one can't judge for others."

He made an impatient movement. "This is mere hair-splitting. What
you mean is that, the doctrine having served your purpose when you
needed it, you now repudiate it."

"Well," she exclaimed, flushing again, "what if I do? What does it
matter to us?"

Westall rose from his chair. He was excessively pale, and stood
before his wife with something of the formality of a stranger.

"It matters to me," he said in a low voice, "because I do _not_
repudiate it."


"And because I had intended to invoke it as"--

He paused and drew his breath deeply. She sat silent, almost
deafened by her heart-beats.--"as a complete justification of the
course I am about to take."

Julia remained motionless. "What course is that?" she asked.

He cleared his throat. "I mean to claim the fulfilment of your

For an instant the room wavered and darkened; then she recovered a
torturing acuteness of vision. Every detail of her surroundings
pressed upon her: the tick of the clock, the slant of sunlight on
the wall, the hardness of the chair-arms that she grasped, were a
separate wound to each sense.

"My promise--" she faltered.

"Your part of our mutual agreement to set each other free if one or
the other should wish to be released."

She was silent again. He waited a moment, shifting his position
nervously; then he said, with a touch of irritability: "You
acknowledge the agreement?"

The question went through her like a shock. She lifted her head to
it proudly. "I acknowledge the agreement," she said.

"And--you don't mean to repudiate it?"

A log on the hearth fell forward, and mechanically he advanced and
pushed it back.

"No," she answered slowly, "I don't mean to repudiate it."

There was a pause. He remained near the hearth, his elbow resting on
the mantel-shelf. Close to his hand stood a little cup of jade that
he had given her on one of their wedding anniversaries. She wondered
vaguely if he noticed it.

"You intend to leave me, then?" she said at length.

His gesture seemed to deprecate the crudeness of the allusion.

"To marry some one else?"

Again his eye and hand protested. She rose and stood before him.

"Why should you be afraid to tell me? Is it Una Van Sideren?"

He was silent.

"I wish you good luck," she said. _

Read next: CHAPTER III

Read previous: CHAPTER I

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