“I don’t say it wasn’t straight, yet don’t say it was straight. It was business.”
Mary, at the words, lifted her head with a start, and looked intently at the speaker.
When, half an hour before, a card with “Mr. Parvis” on it had been brought up to her, she had been immediately aware that the name had been a part of her consciousness ever since she had read it at the head of Boyne’s unfinished letter. In the library she had found awaiting her a small neutral-tinted man with a bald head and gold eye-glasses, and it sent a strange tremor through her to know that this was the person to whom her husband’s last known thought had been directed.
Parvis, civilly, but without vain preamble,–in the manner of a man who has his watch in his hand,–had set forth the object of his visit. He had “run over” to England on business, and finding himself in the neighborhood of Dorchester, had not wished to leave it without paying his respects to Mrs. Boyne; without asking her, if the occasion offered, what she meant to do about Bob Elwell’s family.
The words touched the spring of some obscure dread in Mary’s bosom. Did her visitor, after all, know what Boyne had meant by his unfinished phrase? She asked for an elucidation of his question, and noticed at once that he seemed surprised at her continued ignorance of the subject. Was it possible that she really knew as little as she said?
“I know nothing–you must tell me,” she faltered out; and her visitor thereupon proceeded to unfold his story. It threw, even to her confused perceptions, and imperfectly initiated vision, a lurid glare on the whole hazy episode of the Blue Star Mine. Her husband had made his money in that brilliant speculation at the cost of “getting ahead” of some one less alert to seize the chance; the victim of his ingenuity was young Robert Elwell, who had “put him on” to the Blue Star scheme.
Parvis, at Mary’s first startled cry, had thrown her a sobering glance through his impartial glasses.
“Bob Elwell wasn’t smart enough, that’s all; if he had been, he might have turned round and served Boyne the same way. It’s the kind of thing that happens every day in business. I guess it’s what the scientists call the survival of the fittest,” said Mr. Parvis, evidently pleased with the aptness of his analogy.
Mary felt a physical shrinking from the next question she tried to frame; it was as though the words on her lips had a taste that nauseated her.
“But then–you accuse my husband of doing something dishonorable?”
Mr. Parvis surveyed the question dispassionately. “Oh, no, I don’t. I don’t even say it wasn’t straight.” He glanced up and down the long lines of books, as if one of them might have supplied him with the definition he sought. “I don’t say it wasn’t straight, and yet I don’t say it was straight. It was business.” After all, no definition in his category could be more comprehensive than that.
Mary sat staring at him with a look of terror. He seemed to her like the indifferent, implacable emissary of some dark, formless power.
“But Mr. Elwell’s lawyers apparently did not take your view, since I suppose the suit was withdrawn by their advice.”
“Oh, yes, they knew he hadn’t a leg to stand on, technically. It was when they advised him to withdraw the suit that he got desperate. You see, he’d borrowed most of the money he lost in the Blue Star, and he was up a tree. That’s why he shot himself when they told him he had no show.”
The horror was sweeping over Mary in great, deafening waves.
“He shot himself? He killed himself because of that?”
“Well, he didn’t kill himself, exactly. He dragged on two months before he died.” Parvis emitted the statement as unemotionally as a gramophone grinding out its “record.”
“You mean that he tried to kill himself, and failed? And tried again?”
“Oh, he didn’t have to try again,” said Parvis, grimly.
They sat opposite each other in silence, he swinging his eye-glass thoughtfully about his finger, she, motionless, her arms stretched along her knees in an attitude of rigid tension.
“But if you knew all this,” she began at length, hardly able to force her voice above a whisper, “how is it that when I wrote you at the time of my husband’s disappearance you said you didn’t understand his letter?”
Parvis received this without perceptible discomfiture. “Why, I didn’t understand it–strictly speaking. And it wasn’t the time to talk about it, if I had. The Elwell business was settled when the suit was withdrawn. Nothing I could have told you would have helped you to find your husband.”
Mary continued to scrutinize him. “Then why are you telling me now?”
Still Parvis did not hesitate. “Well, to begin with, I supposed you knew more than you appear to–I mean about the circumstances of Elwell’s death. And then people are talking of it now; the whole matter’s been raked up again. And I thought, if you didn’t know, you ought to.”…
by: Edith Wharton (1862-1937)