The Touchstone sets up a moral dilemma for Stephen Glennard, whose career is floundering making it impossible to marry the woman he loves. He is resentful of his contemporaries who always find a place at someone’s dinner table or invitation to the opera, while he has to calculate cab fares, clothing and food to make ends meet sacrificing the important contacts that could improve his life.
But one evening when at his club his eyes light on a name in a headline. Someone is soliciting information on Margaret Aubyn, a woman he had a relationship with. It ended when she left for England, though she continued to write to him for many years. The article states specifically, “She had so few intimate friends…that letters will be of special value.” Glennard has hundreds.
A friend helps him find a publisher for the letters, he being the go-between that keeps Glennard’s name out of any correspondence or notoriety. Based on the projected windfall, he marries Alexa Trent. They move to suburban New York City and for a year all is calm. When the letters are published Glennard is shocked to learn of the sympathy most readers, and his social circle, feel toward Margaret Aubyn. Slowly his conscience begins a slow downward spiral of guilt and for a time is haunted by her presence. He fears exposure and the reaction of his wife, who seems to have taken on a kind of protective stance against the exploitation of this woman.
The story had me glued to the narrative until the very last sentence, because the outcome was never assured. Wharton does not give the reader a firm conclusion to either Glennard’s guilt or Alexa’s acceptance. This is not a spoiler, this is pure Wharton!