What was the stanchest code of ethics but a trunk with a series of false bottoms?

I’m sad I waited so long to read Edith Wharton’s short stories.  I’d appreciated Age of Innocence but I doubt I’d have made it back to her if it hadn’t been for finding a stray copy of her Glimpses of the Moon in the civilized section of the Uffizi store last fall.  I still don’t know why it was there – where nearly everything else is specialty art and history – but blessings upon whoever wanted to fluff out their literary offerings.  This is from one of her earlier stories, A Cup of Cold Water.  It is not in the least original as an idea but the perfect aptness of the image is what I’m finding so appealing in her.

The desire to see Miss Talcott had driven Woburn to the Gildermeres’; but
once in the ball-room he made no effort to find her. The people about him
seemed more like strangers than those he had passed in the street. He
stood in the doorway, studying the petty manoeuvres of the women and the
resigned amenities of their partners. Was it possible that these were his
friends? These mincing women, all paint and dye and whalebone, these
apathetic men who looked as much alike as the figures that children cut
out of a folded sheet of paper? Was it to live among such puppets that he
had sold his soul? What had any of these people done that was noble,
exceptional, distinguished? Who knew them by name even, except their
tradesmen and the society reporters? Who were they, that they should sit
in judgment on him?

The bald man with the globular stomach, who stood at Mrs. Gildermere’s
elbow surveying the dancers, was old Boylston, who had made his pile in
wrecking railroads; the smooth chap with glazed eyes, at whom a pretty
girl smiled up so confidingly, was Collerton, the political lawyer, who
had been mixed up to his own advantage in an ugly lobbying transaction;
near him stood Brice Lyndham, whose recent failure had ruined his friends
and associates, but had not visibly affected the welfare of his large and
expensive family. The slim fellow dancing with Miss Gildermere was Alec
Vance, who lived on a salary of five thousand a year, but whose wife was
such a good manager that they kept a brougham and victoria and always put
in their season at Newport and their spring trip to Europe. The little
ferret-faced youth in the corner was Regie Colby, who wrote the _Entre-
Nous_ paragraphs in the _Social Searchlight_: the women were charming to
him and he got all the financial tips he wanted from their husbands and

And the women? Well, the women knew all about the men, and flattered them
and married them and tried to catch them for their daughters. It was a
domino-party at which the guests were forbidden to unmask, though they all
saw through each other’s disguises.

And these were the people who, within twenty-four hours, would be agreeing
that they had always felt there was something wrong about Woburn! They
would be extremely sorry for him, of course, poor devil; but there are
certain standards, after all–what would society be without standards? His
new friends, his future associates, were the suspicious-looking man whom
the policeman had ordered to move on, and the drunken woman asleep on the
door-step. To these he was linked by the freemasonry of failure.

Miss Talcott passed him on Collerton’s arm; she was giving him one of the
smiles of which Woburn had fancied himself sole owner. Collerton was a
sharp fellow; he must have made a lot in that last deal; probably she
would marry him. How much did she know about the transaction? She was a
shrewd girl and her father was in Wall Street. If Woburn’s luck had turned
the other way she might have married him instead; and if he had confessed
his sin to her one evening, as they drove home from the opera in their new
brougham, she would have said that really it was of no use to tell her,
for she never could understand about business, but that she did entreat
him in future to be nicer to Regie Colby. Even now, if he made a big
strike somewhere, and came back in ten years with a beard and a steam
yacht, they would all deny that anything had been proved against him, and
Mrs. Collerton might blush and remind him of their friendship. Well–why
not? Was not all morality based on a convention? What was the stanchest
code of ethics but a trunk with a series of false bottoms? Now and then
one had the illusion of getting down to absolute right or wrong, but it
was only a false bottom–a removable hypothesis–with another false bottom
underneath. There was no getting beyond the relative.

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