THE GLIMPSES OF THE MOON
By Edith Wharton
IT rose for them—their honey-moon—over the waters of a lake so famed as the scene of romantic raptures that they were rather proud of not having been afraid to choose it as the setting of their own.
"It required a total lack of humour, or as great a gift for it as ours, to risk the experiment," Susy Lansing opined, as they hung over the inevitable marble balustrade and watched their tutelary orb roll its magic carpet across the waters to their feet.
"Yes—or the loan of Strefford's villa," her husband emended, glancing upward through the branches at a long low patch of paleness to which the moonlight was beginning to give the form of a white house-front.
"Oh, come when we'd five to choose from. At least if you count the Chicago flat."
"So we had—you wonder!" He laid his hand on hers, and his touch renewed the sense of marvelling exultation which the deliberate survey of their adventure always roused in her.... It was characteristic that she merely added, in her steady laughing tone: "Or, not counting the flat—for I hate to brag—just consider the others: Violet Melrose's place at Versailles, your aunt's villa at Monte Carlo—and a moor!"
She was conscious of throwing in the moor tentatively, and yet with a somewhat exaggerated emphasis, as if to make sure that he shouldn't accuse her of slurring it over. But he seemed to have no desire to do so. "Poor old Fred!" he merely remarked; and she breathed out carelessly: "Oh, well—"
His hand still lay on hers, and for a long interval, while they stood silent in the enveloping loveliness of the night, she was aware only of the warm current running from palm to palm, as the moonlight below them drew its line of magic from shore to shore.
Nick Lansing spoke at last. "Versailles in May would have been impossible: all our Paris crowd would have run us down within twenty-four hours. And Monte Carlo is ruled out because it's exactly the kind of place everybody expected us to go. So—with all respect to you—it wasn't much of a mental strain to decide on Como."
His wife instantly challenged this belittling of her capacity. "It took a good deal of argument to convince you that we could face the ridicule of Como!"
"Well, I should have preferred something in a lower key; at least I thought I should till we got here. Now I see that this place is idiotic unless one is perfectly happy; and that then it's-as good as any other."
She sighed out a blissful assent. "And I must say that Streffy has done things to a turn. Even the cigars—who do you suppose gave him those cigars?" She added thoughtfully: "You'll miss them when we have to go."
"Oh, I say, don't let's talk to-night about going. Aren't we outside of time and space...? Smell that guinea-a-bottle stuff over there: what is it? Stephanotis?"
"Y-yes.... I suppose so. Or gardenias.... Oh, the fire-flies! Look... there, against that splash of moonlight on the water. Apples of silver in a net-work of gold...." They leaned together, one flesh from shoulder to finger-tips, their eyes held by the snared glitter of the ripples.
"I could bear," Lansing remarked, "even a nightingale at this moment...."
A faint gurgle shook the magnolias behind them, and a long liquid whisper answered it from the thicket of laurel above their heads.
"It's a little late in the year for them: they're ending just as we begin."
Susy laughed. "I hope when our turn comes we shall say good-bye to each other as sweetly."
It was in her husband's mind to answer: "They're not saying good-bye, but only settling down to family cares." But as this did not happen to be in his plan, or in Susy's, he merely echoed her laugh and pressed her closer.
The spring night drew them into its deepening embrace. The ripples of the lake had gradually widened and faded into a silken smoothness, and high above the mountains the moon was turning from gold to white in a sky powdered with vanishing stars. Across the lake the lights of a little town went out, one after another, and the distant shore became a floating blackness. A breeze that rose and sank brushed their faces with the scents of the garden; once it blew out over the water a great white moth like a drifting magnolia petal. The nightingales had paused and the trickle of the fountain behind the house grew suddenly insistent.
When Susy spoke it was in a voice languid with visions. "I have been thinking," she said, "that we ought to be able to make it last at least a year longer."
Her husband received the remark without any sign of surprise or disapprobation; his answer showed that he not only understood her, but had been inwardly following the same train of thought.
"You mean," he enquired after a pause, "without counting your grandmother's pearls?"
"Yes—without the pearls."
He pondered a while, and then rejoined in a tender whisper: "Tell me again just how."
"Let's sit down, then. No, I like the cushions best." He stretched himself in a long willow chair, and she curled up on a heap of boat-cushions and leaned her head against his knee. Just above her, when she lifted her lids, she saw bits of moon-flooded sky incrusted like silver in a sharp black patterning of plane-boughs. All about them breathed of peace and beauty and stability, and her happiness was so acute that it was almost a relief to remember the stormy background of bills and borrowing against which its frail structure had been reared. "People with a balance can't be as happy as all this," Susy mused, letting the moonlight filter through her lazy lashes.
People with a balance had always been Susy Branch's bugbear; they were still, and more dangerously, to be Susy Lansing's. She detested them, detested them doubly, as the natural enemies of mankind and as the people one always had to put one's self out for. The greater part of her life having been passed among them, she knew nearly all that there was to know about them, and judged them with the contemptuous lucidity of nearly twenty years of dependence. But at the present moment her animosity was diminished not only by the softening effect of love but by the fact that she had got out of those very people more—yes, ever so much more—than she and Nick, in their hours of most reckless planning, had ever dared to hope for.
"After all, we owe them this!" she mused.
Her husband, lost in the drowsy beatitude of the hour, had not repeated his question; but she was still on the trail of the thought he had started. A year—yes, she was sure now that with a little management they could have a whole year of it! "It" was their marriage, their being together, and away from bores and bothers, in a comradeship of which both of them had long ago guessed the immediate pleasure, but she at least had never imagined the deeper harmony.
It was at one of their earliest meetings—at one of the heterogeneous dinners that the Fred Gillows tried to think "literary"—that the young man who chanced to sit next to her, and of whom it was vaguely rumoured that he had "written," had presented himself to her imagination as the sort of luxury to which Susy Branch, heiress, might conceivably have treated herself as a crowning folly. Susy Branch, pauper, was fond of picturing how this fancied double would employ her millions: it was one of her chief grievances against her rich friends that they disposed of theirs so unimaginatively.
"I'd rather have a husband like that than a steam-yacht!" she had thought at the end of her talk with the young man who had written, and as to whom it had at once been clear to her that nothing his pen had produced, or might hereafter set down, would put him in a position to offer his wife anything more costly than a row-boat.
"His wife! As if he could ever have one! For he's not the kind to marry for a yacht either." In spite of her past, Susy had preserved enough inner independence to detect the latent signs of it in others, and also to ascribe it impulsively to those of the opposite sex who happened to interest her. She had a natural contempt for people who gloried in what they need only have endured. She herself meant eventually to marry, because one couldn't forever hang on to rich people; but she was going to wait till she found some one who combined the maximum of wealth with at least a minimum of companionableness.
She had at once perceived young Lansing's case to be exactly the opposite: he was as poor as he could be, and as companionable as it was possible to imagine. She therefore decided to see as much of him as her hurried and entangled life permitted; and this, thanks to a series of adroit adjustments, turned out to be a good deal. They met frequently all the rest of that winter; so frequently that Mrs. Fred Gillow one day abruptly and sharply gave Susy to understand that she was "making herself ridiculous."
"Ah—" said Susy with a long breath, looking her friend and patroness straight in the painted eyes.
"Yes," cried Ursula Gillow in a sob, "before you interfered Nick liked me awfully... and, of course, I don't want to reproach you... but when I think...."
Susy made no answer. How could she, when she thought? The dress she had on had been given her by Ursula; Ursula's motor had carried her to the feast from which they were both returning. She counted on spending the following August with the Gillows at Newport... and the only alternative was to go to California with the Bockheimers, whom she had hitherto refused even to dine with.
"Of course, what you fancy is perfect nonsense, Ursula; and as to my interfering—" Susy hesitated, and then murmured: "But if it will make you any happier I'll arrange to see him less often...." She sounded the lowest depths of subservience in returning Ursula's tearful kiss....
Susy Branch had a masculine respect for her word; and the next day she put on her most becoming hat and sought out young Mr. Lansing in his lodgings. She was determined to keep her promise to Ursula; but she meant to look her best when she did it.
She knew at what time the young man was likely to be found, for he was doing a dreary job on a popular encyclopaedia (V to X), and had told her what hours were dedicated to the hateful task. "Oh, if only it were a novel!" she thought as she mounted his dingy stairs; but immediately reflected that, if it were the kind that she could bear to read, it probably wouldn't bring him in much more than his encyclopaedia. Miss Branch had her standards in literature....
The apartment to which Mr. Lansing admitted her was a good deal cleaner, but hardly less dingy, than his staircase. Susy, knowing him to be addicted to Oriental archaeology, had pictured him in a bare room adorned by a single Chinese bronze of flawless shape, or by some precious fragment of Asiatic pottery. But such redeeming features were conspicuously absent, and no attempt had been made to disguise the decent indigence of the bed-sitting-room.
Lansing welcomed his visitor with every sign of pleasure, and with apparent indifference as to what she thought of his furniture. He seemed to be conscious only of his luck in seeing her on a day when they had not expected to meet. This made Susy all the sorrier to execute her promise, and the gladder that she had put on her prettiest hat; and for a moment or two she looked at him in silence from under its conniving brim.
Warm as their mutual liking was, Lansing had never said a word of love to her; but this was no deterrent to his visitor, whose habit it was to speak her meaning clearly when there were no reasons, worldly or pecuniary, for its concealment. After a moment, therefore, she told him why she had come; it was a nuisance, of course, but he would understand. Ursula Gillow was jealous, and they would have to give up seeing each other.
The young man's burst of laughter was music to her; for, after all, she had been rather afraid that being devoted to Ursula might be as much in his day's work as doing the encyclopaedia.
"But I give you my word it's a raving-mad mistake! And I don't believe she ever meant me, to begin with—" he protested; but Susy, her common-sense returning with her reassurance, promptly cut short his denial.
"You can trust Ursula to make herself clear on such occasions. And it doesn't make any difference what you think. All that matters is what she believes."
"Oh, come! I've got a word to say about that too, haven't I?"
Susy looked slowly and consideringly about the room. There was nothing in it, absolutely nothing, to show that he had ever possessed a spare dollar—or accepted a present.
"Not as far as I'm concerned," she finally pronounced.
"How do you mean? If I'm as free as air—?"
He grew thoughtful. "Oh, then, of course—. It only seems a little odd," he added drily, "that in that case, the protest should have come from Mrs. Gillow."
"Instead of coming from my millionaire bridegroom, Oh, I haven't any; in that respect I'm as free as you."
"Well, then—? Haven't we only got to stay free?"
Susy drew her brows together anxiously. It was going to be rather more difficult than she had supposed.
"I said I was as free in that respect. I'm not going to marry—and I don't suppose you are?"
"God, no!" he ejaculated fervently.
"But that doesn't always imply complete freedom...."
He stood just above her, leaning his elbow against the hideous black marble arch that framed his fireless grate. As she glanced up she saw his face harden, and the colour flew to hers.
"Was that what you came to tell me?" he asked.
"Oh, you don't understand—and I don't see why you don't, since we've knocked about so long among exactly the same kind of people." She stood up impulsively and laid her hand on his arm. "I do wish you'd help me—!"
He remained motionless, letting the hand lie untouched.
"Help you to tell me that poor Ursula was a pretext, but that there IS someone who—for one reason or another—really has a right to object to your seeing me too often?"
Susy laughed impatiently. "You talk like the hero of a novel—the kind my governess used to read. In the first place I should never recognize that kind of right, as you call it—never!"
"Then what kind do you?" he asked with a clearing brow.
"Why—the kind I suppose you recognize on the part of your publisher." This evoked a hollow laugh from him. "A business claim, call it," she pursued. "Ursula does a lot for me: I live on her for half the year. This dress I've got on now is one she gave me. Her motor is going to take me to a dinner to-night. I'm going to spend next summer with her at Newport.... If I don't, I've got to go to California with the Bockheimers-so good-bye."
Suddenly in tears, she was out of the door and down his steep three flights before he could stop her—though, in thinking it over, she didn't even remember if he had tried to. She only recalled having stood a long time on the corner of Fifth Avenue, in the harsh winter radiance, waiting till a break in the torrent of motors laden with fashionable women should let her cross, and saying to herself: "After all, I might have promised Ursula... and kept on seeing him...."
Instead of which, when Lansing wrote the next day entreating a word with her, she had sent back a friendly but firm refusal; and had managed soon afterward to get taken to Canada for a fortnight's ski-ing, and then to Florida for six weeks in a house-boat....
As she reached this point in her retrospect the remembrance of Florida called up a vision of moonlit waters, magnolia fragrance and balmy airs; merging with the circumambient sweetness, it laid a drowsy spell upon her lids. Yes, there had been a bad moment: but it was over; and she was here, safe and blissful, and with Nick; and this was his knee her head rested on, and they had a year ahead of them... a whole year.... "Not counting the pearls," she murmured, shutting her eyes....
LANSING threw the end of Strefford's expensive cigar into the lake, and bent over his wife. Poor child! She had fallen asleep.... He leaned back and stared up again at the silver-flooded sky. How queer—how inexpressibly queer—it was to think that that light was shed by his honey-moon! A year ago, if anyone had predicted his risking such an adventure, he would have replied by asking to be locked up at the first symptoms....
There was still no doubt in his mind that the adventure was a mad one. It was all very well for Susy to remind him twenty times a day that they had pulled it off—and so why should he worry? Even in the light of her far-seeing cleverness, and of his own present bliss, he knew the future would not bear the examination of sober thought. And as he sat there in the summer moonlight, with her head on his knee, he tried to recapitulate the successive steps that had landed them on Streffy's lake-front.
On Lansing's side, no doubt, it dated back to his leaving Harvard with the large resolve not to miss anything. There stood the evergreen Tree of Life, the Four Rivers flowing from its foot; and on every one of the four currents he meant to launch his little skiff. On two of them he had not gone very far, on the third he had nearly stuck in the mud; but the fourth had carried him to the very heart of wonder. It was the stream of his lively imagination, of his inexhaustible interest in every form of beauty and strangeness and folly. On this stream, sitting in the stout little craft of his poverty, his insignificance and his independence, he had made some notable voyages.... And so, when Susy Branch, whom he had sought out through a New York season as the prettiest and most amusing girl in sight, had surprised him with the contradictory revelation of her modern sense of expediency and her old-fashioned standard of good faith, he had felt an irresistible desire to put off on one more cruise into the unknown.
It was of the essence of the adventure that, after her one brief visit to his lodgings, he should have kept his promise and not tried to see her again. Even if her straightforwardness had not roused his emulation, his understanding of her difficulties would have moved his pity. He knew on how frail a thread the popularity of the penniless hangs, and how miserably a girl like Susy was the sport of other people's moods and whims. It was a part of his difficulty and of hers that to get what they liked they so often had to do what they disliked. But the keeping of his promise was a greater bore than he had expected. Susy Branch had become a delightful habit in a life where most of the fixed things were dull, and her disappearance had made it suddenly clear to him that his resources were growing more and more limited. Much that had once amused him hugely now amused him less, or not at all: a good part of his world of wonder had shrunk to a village peep-show. And the things which had kept their stimulating power—distant journeys, the enjoyment of art, the contact with new scenes and strange societies—were becoming less and less attainable. Lansing had never had more than a pittance; he had spent rather too much of it in his first plunge into life, and the best he could look forward to was a middle-age of poorly-paid hack-work, mitigated by brief and frugal holidays. He knew that he was more intelligent than the average, but he had long since concluded that his talents were not marketable. Of the thin volume of sonnets which a friendly publisher had launched for him, just seventy copies had been sold; and though his essay on "Chinese Influences in Greek Art" had created a passing stir, it had resulted in controversial correspondence and dinner invitations rather than in more substantial benefits. There seemed, in short, no prospect of his ever earning money, and his restricted future made him attach an increasing value to the kind of friendship that Susy Branch had given him. Apart from the pleasure of looking at her and listening to her—of enjoying in her what others less discriminatingly but as liberally appreciated—he had the sense, between himself and her, of a kind of free-masonry of precocious tolerance and irony. They had both, in early youth, taken the measure of the world they happened to live in: they knew just what it was worth to them and for what reasons, and the community of these reasons lent to their intimacy its last exquisite touch. And now, because of some jealous whim of a dissatisfied fool of a woman, as to whom he felt himself no more to blame than any young man who has paid for good dinners by good manners, he was to be deprived of the one complete companionship he had ever known....
His thoughts travelled on. He recalled the long dull spring in New York after his break with Susy, the weary grind on his last articles, his listless speculations as to the cheapest and least boring way of disposing of the summer; and then the amazing luck of going, reluctantly and at the last minute, to spend a Sunday with the poor Nat Fulmers, in the wilds of New Hampshire, and of finding Susy there—Susy, whom he had never even suspected of knowing anybody in the Fulmers' set!
She had behaved perfectly—and so had he—but they were obviously much too glad to see each other. And then it was unsettling to be with her in such a house as the Fulmers', away from the large setting of luxury they were both used to, in the cramped cottage where their host had his studio in the verandah, their hostess practiced her violin in the dining-room, and five ubiquitous children sprawled and shouted and blew trumpets and put tadpoles in the water-jugs, and the mid-day dinner was two hours late-and proportionately bad—because the Italian cook was posing for Fulmer.
Lansing's first thought had been that meeting Susy in such circumstances would be the quickest way to cure them both of their regrets. The case of the Fulmers was an awful object-lesson in what happened to young people who lost their heads; poor Nat, whose pictures nobody bought, had gone to seed so terribly-and Grace, at twenty-nine, would never again be anything but the woman of whom people say, "I can remember her when she was lovely."
But the devil of it was that Nat had never been such good company, or Grace so free from care and so full of music; and that, in spite of their disorder and dishevelment, and the bad food and general crazy discomfort, there was more amusement to be got out of their society than out of the most opulently staged house-party through which Susy and Lansing had ever yawned their way.
It was almost a relief to tile young man when, on the second afternoon, Miss Branch drew him into the narrow hall to say: "I really can't stand the combination of Grace's violin and little Nat's motor-horn any longer. Do let us slip out till the duet is over."
"How do they stand it, I wonder?" he basely echoed, as he followed her up the wooded path behind the house.
"It might be worth finding out," she rejoined with a musing smile.
But he remained resolutely skeptical. "Oh, give them a year or two more and they'll collapse—! His pictures will never sell, you know. He'll never even get them into a show."
"I suppose not. And she'll never have time to do anything worth while with her music."
They had reached a piny knoll high above the ledge on which the house was perched. All about them stretched an empty landscape of endless featureless wooded hills. "Think of sticking here all the year round!" Lansing groaned.
"I know. But then think of wandering over the world with some people!"
"Oh, Lord, yes. For instance, my trip to India with the Mortimer Hickses. But it was my only chance and what the deuce is one to do?"
"I wish I knew!" she sighed, thinking of the Bockheimers; and he turned and looked at her.
"The answer to your question. What is one to do—when one sees both sides of the problem? Or every possible side of it, indeed?"
They had seated themselves on a commanding rock under the pines, but Lansing could not see the view at their feet for the stir of the brown lashes on her cheek.
"You mean: Nat and Grace may after all be having the best of it?"
"How can I say, when I've told you I see all the sides? Of course," Susy added hastily, "I couldn't live as they do for a week. But it's wonderful how little it's dimmed them."
"Certainly Nat was never more coruscating. And she keeps it up even better." He reflected. "We do them good, I daresay."
"Yes—or they us. I wonder which?"
After that, he seemed to remember that they sat a long time silent, and that his next utterance was a boyish outburst against the tyranny of the existing order of things, abruptly followed by the passionate query why, since he and she couldn't alter it, and since they both had the habit of looking at facts as they were, they wouldn't be utter fools not to take their chance of being happy in the only way that was open to them, To this challenge he did not recall Susy's making any definite answer; but after another interval, in which all the world seemed framed in a sudden kiss, he heard her murmur to herself in a brooding tone: "I don't suppose it's ever been tried before; but we might—." And then and there she had laid before him the very experiment they had since hazarded.
She would have none of surreptitious bliss, she began by declaring; and she set forth her reasons with her usual lucid impartiality. In the first place, she should have to marry some day, and when she made the bargain she meant it to be an honest one; and secondly, in the matter of love, she would never give herself to anyone she did not really care for, and if such happiness ever came to her she did not want it shorn of half its brightness by the need of fibbing and plotting and dodging.
"I've seen too much of that kind of thing. Half the women I know who've had lovers have had them for the fun of sneaking and lying about it; but the other half have been miserable. And I should be miserable."
It was at this point that she unfolded her plan. Why shouldn't they marry; belong to each other openly and honourably, if for ever so short a time, and with the definite understanding that whenever either of them got the chance to do better he or she should be immediately released? The law of their country facilitated such exchanges, and society was beginning to view them as indulgently as the law. As Susy talked, she warmed to her theme and began to develop its endless possibilities.
"We should really, in a way, help more than we should hamper each other," she ardently explained. "We both know the ropes so well; what one of us didn't see the other might—in the way of opportunities, I mean. And then we should be a novelty as married people. We're both rather unusually popular—why not be frank!—and it's such a blessing for dinner-givers to be able to count on a couple of whom neither one is a blank. Yes, I really believe we should be more than twice the success we are now; at least," she added with a smile, "if there's that amount of room for improvement. I don't know how you feel; a man's popularity is so much less precarious than a girl's—but I know it would furbish me up tremendously to reappear as a married woman." She glanced away from him down the long valley at their feet, and added in a lower tone: "And I should like, just for a little while, to feel I had something in life of my very own—something that nobody had lent me, like a fancy-dress or a motor or an opera cloak."
The suggestion, at first, had seemed to Lansing as mad as it was enchanting: it had thoroughly frightened him. But Susy's arguments were irrefutable, her ingenuities inexhaustible. Had he ever thought it all out? She asked. No. Well, she had; and would he kindly not interrupt? In the first place, there would be all the wedding-presents. Jewels, and a motor, and a silver dinner service, did she mean? Not a bit of it! She could see he'd never given the question proper thought. Cheques, my dear, nothing but cheques—she undertook to manage that on her side: she really thought she could count on about fifty, and she supposed he could rake up a few more? Well, all that would simply represent pocket-money! For they would have plenty of houses to live in: he'd see. People were always glad to lend their house to a newly-married couple. It was such fun to pop down and see them: it made one feel romantic and jolly. All they need do was to accept the houses in turn: go on honey-mooning for a year! What was he afraid of? Didn't he think they'd be happy enough to want to keep it up? And why not at least try—get engaged, and then see what would happen? Even if she was all wrong, and her plan failed, wouldn't it have been rather nice, just for a month or two, to fancy they were going to be happy? "I've often fancied it all by myself," she concluded; "but fancying it with you would somehow be so awfully different...."
That was how it began: and this lakeside dream was what it had led up to. Fantastically improbable as they had seemed, all her previsions had come true. If there were certain links in the chain that Lansing had never been able to put his hand on, certain arrangements and contrivances that still needed further elucidation, why, he was lazily resolved to clear them up with her some day; and meanwhile it was worth all the past might have cost, and every penalty the future might exact of him, just to be sitting here in the silence and sweetness, her sleeping head on his knee, clasped in his joy as the hushed world was clasped in moonlight.
He stooped down and kissed her. "Wake up," he whispered, "it's bed-time."
THEIR month of Como was within a few hours of ending. Till the last moment they had hoped for a reprieve; but the accommodating Streffy had been unable to put the villa at their disposal for a longer time, since he had had the luck to let it for a thumping price to some beastly bouncers who insisted on taking possession at the date agreed on.
Lansing, leaving Susy's side at dawn, had gone down to the lake for a last plunge; and swimming homeward through the crystal light he looked up at the garden brimming with flowers, the long low house with the cypress wood above it, and the window behind which his wife still slept. The month had been exquisite, and their happiness as rare, as fantastically complete, as the scene before him. He sank his chin into the sunlit ripples and sighed for sheer content....
It was a bore to be leaving the scene of such complete well-being, but the next stage in their progress promised to be hardly less delightful. Susy was a magician: everything she predicted came true. Houses were being showered on them; on all sides he seemed to see beneficent spirits winging toward them, laden with everything from a piano nobile in Venice to a camp in the Adirondacks. For the present, they had decided on the former. Other considerations apart, they dared not risk the expense of a journey across the Atlantic; so they were heading instead for the Nelson Vanderlyns' palace on the Giudecca. They were agreed that, for reasons of expediency, it might be wise to return to New York for the coming winter. It would keep them in view, and probably lead to fresh opportunities; indeed, Susy already had in mind the convenient flat that she was sure a migratory cousin (if tactfully handled, and assured that they would not overwork her cook) could certainly be induced to lend them. Meanwhile the need of making plans was still remote; and if there was one art in which young Lansing's twenty-eight years of existence had perfected him it was that of living completely and unconcernedly in the present....
If of late he had tried to look into the future more insistently than was his habit, it was only because of Susy. He had meant, when they married, to be as philosophic for her as for himself; and he knew she would have resented above everything his regarding their partnership as a reason for anxious thought. But since they had been together she had given him glimpses of her past that made him angrily long to shelter and defend her future. It was intolerable that a spirit as fine as hers should be ever so little dulled or diminished by the kind of compromises out of which their wretched lives were made. For himself, he didn't care a hang: he had composed for his own guidance a rough-and-ready code, a short set of "mays" and "mustn'ts" which immensely simplified his course. There were things a fellow put up with for the sake of certain definite and otherwise unattainable advantages; there were other things he wouldn't traffic with at any price. But for a woman, he began to see, it might be different. The temptations might be greater, the cost considerably higher, the dividing line between the "mays" and "mustn'ts" more fluctuating and less sharply drawn. Susy, thrown on the world at seventeen, with only a weak wastrel of a father to define that treacherous line for her, and with every circumstance soliciting her to overstep it, seemed to have been preserved chiefly by an innate scorn of most of the objects of human folly. "Such trash as he went to pieces for," was her curt comment on her parent's premature demise: as though she accepted in advance the necessity of ruining one's self for something, but was resolved to discriminate firmly between what was worth it and what wasn't.
This philosophy had at first enchanted Lansing; but now it began to rouse vague fears. The fine armour of her fastidiousness had preserved her from the kind of risks she had hitherto been exposed to; but what if others, more subtle, found a joint in it? Was there, among her delicate discriminations, any equivalent to his own rules? Might not her taste for the best and rarest be the very instrument of her undoing; and if something that wasn't "trash" came her way, would she hesitate a second to go to pieces for it?
He was determined to stick to the compact that they should do nothing to interfere with what each referred to as the other's "chance"; but what if, when hers came, he couldn't agree with her in recognizing it? He wanted for her, oh, so passionately, the best; but his conception of that best had so insensibly, so subtly been transformed in the light of their first month together!
His lazy strokes were carrying him slowly shoreward; but the hour was so exquisite that a few yards from the landing he laid hold of the mooring rope of Streffy's boat and floated there, following his dream.... It was a bore to be leaving; no doubt that was what made him turn things inside-out so uselessly. Venice would be delicious, of course; but nothing would ever again be as sweet as this. And then they had only a year of security before them; and of that year a month was gone.
Reluctantly he swam ashore, walked up to the house, and pushed open a window of the cool painted drawing-room. Signs of departure were already visible. There were trunks in the hall, tennis rackets on the stairs; on the landing, the cook Giulietta had both arms around a slippery hold-all that refused to let itself be strapped. It all gave him a chill sense of unreality, as if the past month had been an act on the stage, and its setting were being folded away and rolled into the wings to make room for another play in which he and Susy had no part.
By the time he came down again, dressed and hungry, to the terrace where coffee awaited him, he had recovered his usual pleasant sense of security. Susy was there, fresh and gay, a rose in her breast and the sun in her hair: her head was bowed over Bradshaw, but she waved a fond hand across the breakfast things, and presently looked up to say: "Yes, I believe we can just manage it."
"To catch the train at Milan—if we start in the motor at ten sharp."
He stared. "The motor? What motor?"
"Why, the new people's—Streffy's tenants. He's never told me their name, and the chauffeur says he can't pronounce it. The chauffeur's is Ottaviano, anyhow; I've been making friends with him. He arrived last night, and he says they're not due at Como till this evening. He simply jumped at the idea of running us over to Milan."
"Good Lord—" said Lansing, when she stopped.
She sprang up from the table with a laugh. "It will be a scramble; but I'll manage it, if you'll go up at once and pitch the last things into your trunk."
"Yes; but look here—have you any idea what it's going to cost?"
She raised her eyebrows gaily. "Why, a good deal less than our railway tickets. Ottaviano's got a sweetheart in Milan, and hasn't seen her for six months. When I found that out I knew he'd be going there anyhow."
It was clever of her, and he laughed. But why was it that he had grown to shrink from even such harmless evidence of her always knowing how to "manage"? "Oh, well," he said to himself, "she's right: the fellow would be sure to be going to Milan."
Upstairs, on the way to his dressing room, he found her in a cloud of finery which her skilful hands were forcibly compressing into a last portmanteau. He had never seen anyone pack as cleverly as Susy: the way she coaxed reluctant things into a trunk was a symbol of the way she fitted discordant facts into her life. "When I'm rich," she often said, "the thing I shall hate most will be to see an idiot maid at my trunks."
As he passed, she glanced over her shoulder, her face pink with the struggle, and drew a cigar-box from the depths. "Dearest, do put a couple of cigars into your pocket as a tip for Ottaviano."
Lansing stared. "Why, what on earth are you doing with Streffy's cigars?"
"Packing them, of course.... You don't suppose he meant them for those other people?" She gave him a look of honest wonder.
"I don't know whom he meant them for—but they're not ours...."
She continued to look at him wonderingly. "I don't see what there is to be solemn about. The cigars are not Streffy's either... you may be sure he got them out of some bounder. And there's nothing he'd hate more than to have them passed on to another."
"Nonsense. If they're not Streffy's they're much less mine. Hand them over, please, dear."
"Just as you like. But it does seem a waste; and, of course, the other people will never have one of them.... The gardener and Giulietta's lover will see to that!"
Lansing looked away from her at the waves of lace and muslin from which she emerged like a rosy Nereid. "How many boxes of them are left?"
"Unpack them, please."
Before she moved there was a pause so full of challenge that Lansing had time for an exasperated sense of the disproportion between his anger and its cause. And this made him still angrier.
She held out a box. "The others are in your suitcase downstairs. It's locked and strapped."
"Give me the key, then."
"We might send them back from Venice, mightn't we? That lock is so nasty: it will take you half an hour."
"Give me the key, please." She gave it.
He went downstairs and battled with the lock, for the allotted half-hour, under the puzzled eyes of Giulietta and the sardonic grin of the chauffeur, who now and then, from the threshold, politely reminded him how long it would take to get to Milan. Finally the key turned, and Lansing, broken-nailed and perspiring, extracted the cigars and stalked with them into the deserted drawing room. The great bunches of golden roses that he and Susy had gathered the day before were dropping their petals on the marble embroidery of the floor, pale camellias floated in the alabaster tazzas between the windows, haunting scents of the garden blew in on him with the breeze from the lake. Never had Streffy's little house seemed so like a nest of pleasures. Lansing laid the cigar boxes on a console and ran upstairs to collect his last possessions. When he came down again, his wife, her eyes brilliant with achievement, was seated in their borrowed chariot, the luggage cleverly stowed away, and Giulietta and the gardener kissing her hand and weeping out inconsolable farewells.
"I wonder what she's given them?" he thought, as he jumped in beside her and the motor whirled them through the nightingale-thickets to the gate.
CHARLIE STREFFORD'S villa was like a nest in a rose-bush; the Nelson Vanderlyns' palace called for loftier analogies.
Its vastness and splendour seemed, in comparison, oppressive to Susy. Their landing, after dark, at the foot of the great shadowy staircase, their dinner at a dimly-lit table under a ceiling weighed down with Olympians, their chilly evening in a corner of a drawing room where minuets should have been danced before a throne, contrasted with the happy intimacies of Como as their sudden sense of disaccord contrasted with the mutual confidence of the day before.
The journey had been particularly jolly: both Susy and Lansing had had too long a discipline in the art of smoothing things over not to make a special effort to hide from each other the ravages of their first disagreement. But, deep down and invisible, the disagreement remained; and compunction for having been its cause gnawed at Susy's bosom as she sat in her tapestried and vaulted bedroom, brushing her hair before a tarnished mirror.
"I thought I liked grandeur; but this place is really out of scale," she mused, watching the reflection of a pale hand move back and forward in the dim recesses of the mirror. "And yet," she continued, "Ellie Vanderlyn's hardly half an inch taller than I am; and she certainly isn't a bit more dignified.... I wonder if it's because I feel so horribly small to-night that the place seems so horribly big."
She loved luxury: splendid things always made her feel handsome and high ceilings arrogant; she did not remember having ever before been oppressed by the evidences of wealth.
She laid down the brush and leaned her chin on her clasped hands.... Even now she could not understand what had made her take the cigars. She had always been alive to the value of her inherited scruples: her reasoned opinions were unusually free, but with regard to the things one couldn't reason about she was oddly tenacious. And yet she had taken Streffy's cigars! She had taken them—yes, that was the point—she had taken them for Nick, because the desire to please him, to make the smallest details of his life easy and agreeable and luxurious, had become her absorbing preoccupation. She had committed, for him, precisely the kind of little baseness she would most have scorned to commit for herself; and, since he hadn't instantly felt the difference, she would never be able to explain it to him.
She stood up with a sigh, shook out her loosened hair, and glanced around the great frescoed room. The maid-servant had said something about the Signora's having left a letter for her; and there it lay on the writing-table, with her mail and Nick's; a thick envelope addressed in Ellie's childish scrawl, with a glaring "Private" dashed across the corner.
"What on earth can she have to say, when she hates writing so," Susy mused.
She broke open the envelope, and four or five stamped and sealed letters fell from it. All were addressed, in Ellie's hand, to Nelson Vanderlyn Esqre; and in the corner of each was faintly pencilled a number and a date: one, two, three, four—with a week's interval between the dates.
"Goodness—" gasped Susy, understanding.
She had dropped into an armchair near the table, and for a long time she sat staring at the numbered letters. A sheet of paper covered with Ellie's writing had fluttered out among them, but she let it lie; she knew so well what it would say! She knew all about her friend, of course; except poor old Nelson, who didn't, But she had never imagined that Ellie would dare to use her in this way. It was unbelievable... she had never pictured anything so vile.... The blood rushed to her face, and she sprang up angrily, half minded to tear the letters in bits and throw them all into the fire.
She heard her husband's knock on the door between their rooms, and swept the dangerous packet under the blotting-book.
"Oh, go away, please, there's a dear," she called out; "I haven't finished unpacking, and everything's in such a mess." Gathering up Nick's papers and letters, she ran across the room and thrust them through the door. "Here's something to keep you quiet," she laughed, shining in on him an instant from the threshold.
She turned back feeling weak with shame. Ellie's letter lay on the floor: reluctantly she stooped to pick it up, and one by one the expected phrases sprang out at her.
"One good turn deserves another.... Of course you and Nick are welcome to stay all summer.... There won't be a particle of expense for you—the servants have orders.... If you'll just be an angel and post these letters yourself.... It's been my only chance for such an age; when we meet I'll explain everything. And in a month at latest I'll be back to fetch Clarissa...."
Susy lifted the letter to the lamp to be sure she had read aright. To fetch Clarissa! Then Ellie's child was here? Here, under the roof with them, left to their care? She read on, raging. "She's so delighted, poor darling, to know you're coming. I've had to sack her beastly governess for impertinence, and if it weren't for you she'd be all alone with a lot of servants I don't much trust. So for pity's sake be good to my child, and forgive me for leaving her. She thinks I've gone to take a cure; and she knows she's not to tell her Daddy that I'm away, because it would only worry him if he thought I was ill. She's perfectly to be trusted; you'll see what a clever angel she is...." And then, at the bottom of the page, in a last slanting postscript: "Susy darling, if you've ever owed me anything in the way of kindness, you won't, on your sacred honour, say a word of this to any one, even to Nick. And I know I can count on you to rub out the numbers."
Susy sprang up and tossed Mrs. Vanderlyn's letter into the fire: then she came slowly back to the chair. There, at her elbow, lay the four fatal envelopes; and her next affair was to make up her mind what to do with them.
To destroy them on the spot had seemed, at first thought, inevitable: it might be saving Ellie as well as herself. But such a step seemed to Susy to involve departure on the morrow, and this in turn involved notifying Ellie, whose letter she had vainly scanned for an address. Well—perhaps Clarissa's nurse would know where one could write to her mother; it was unlikely that even Ellie would go off without assuring some means of communication with her child. At any rate, there was nothing to be done that night: nothing but to work out the details of their flight on the morrow, and rack her brains to find a substitute for the hospitality they were rejecting. Susy did not disguise from herself how much she had counted on the Vanderlyn apartment for the summer: to be able to do so had singularly simplified the future. She knew Ellie's largeness of hand, and had been sure in advance that as long as they were her guests their only expense would be an occasional present to the servants. And what would the alternative be? She and Lansing, in their endless talks, had so lived themselves into the vision of indolent summer days on the lagoon, of flaming hours on the beach of the Lido, and evenings of music and dreams on their broad balcony above the Giudecca, that the idea of having to renounce these joys, and deprive her Nick of them, filled Susy with a wrath intensified by his having confided in her that when they were quietly settled in Venice he "meant to write." Already nascent in her breast was the fierce resolve of the author's wife to defend her husband's privacy and facilitate his encounters with the Muse. It was abominable, simply abominable, that Ellie Vanderlyn should have drawn her into such a trap!
Well—there was nothing for it but to make a clean breast of the whole thing to Nick. The trivial incident of the cigars-how trivial it now seemed!—showed her the kind of stand he would take, and communicated to her something of his own uncompromising energy. She would tell him the whole story in the morning, and try to find a way out with him: Susy's faith in her power of finding a way out was inexhaustible. But suddenly she remembered the adjuration at the end of Mrs. Vanderlyn's letter: "If you're ever owed me anything in the way of kindness, you won't, on your sacred honour, say a word to Nick...."
It was, of course, exactly what no one had the right to ask of her: if indeed the word "right", could be used in any conceivable relation to this coil of wrongs. But the fact remained that, in the way of kindness, she did owe much to Ellie; and that this was the first payment her friend had ever exacted. She found herself, in fact, in exactly the same position as when Ursula Gillow, using the same argument, had appealed to her to give up Nick Lansing. Yes, Susy reflected; but then Nelson Vanderlyn had been kind to her too; and the money Ellie had been so kind with was Nelson's.... The queer edifice of Susy's standards tottered on its base she honestly didn't know where fairness lay, as between so much that was foul.
The very depth of her perplexity puzzled her. She had been in "tight places" before; had indeed been in so few that were not, in one way or another, constricting! As she looked back on her past it lay before her as a very network of perpetual concessions and contrivings. But never before had she had such a sense of being tripped up, gagged and pinioned. The little misery of the cigars still galled her, and now this big humiliation superposed itself on the raw wound. Decidedly, the second month of their honey-moon was beginning cloudily....
She glanced at the enamel led travelling-clock on her dressing table—one of the few wedding-presents she had consented to accept in kind—and was startled at the lateness of the hour. In a moment Nick would be coming; and an uncomfortable sensation in her throat warned her that through sheer nervousness and exasperation she might blurt out something ill-advised. The old habit of being always on her guard made her turn once more to the looking-glass. Her face was pale and haggard; and having, by a swift and skilful application of cosmetics, increased its appearance of fatigue, she crossed the room and softly opened her husband's door.
He too sat by a lamp, reading a letter which he put aside as she entered. His face was grave, and she said to herself that he was certainly still thinking about the cigars.
"I'm very tired, dearest, and my head aches so horribly that I've come to bid you good-night." Bending over the back of his chair, she laid her arms on his shoulders. He lifted his hands to clasp hers, but, as he threw his head back to smile up at her she noticed that his look was still serious, almost remote. It was as if, for the first time, a faint veil hung between his eyes and hers.
"I'm so sorry: it's been a long day for you," he said absently, pressing his lips to her hands
She felt the dreaded twitch in her throat.
"Nick!" she burst out, tightening her embrace, "before I go, you've got to swear to me on your honour that you know I should never have taken those cigars for myself!"
For a moment he stared at her, and she stared back at him with equal gravity; then the same irresistible mirth welled up in both, and Susy's compunctions were swept away on a gale of laughter.
When she woke the next morning the sun was pouring in between her curtains of old brocade, and its refraction from the ripples of the Canal was drawing a network of golden scales across the vaulted ceiling. The maid had just placed a tray on a slim marquetry table near the bed, and over the edge of the tray Susy discovered the small serious face of Clarissa Vanderlyn. At the sight of the little girl all her dormant qualms awoke.
Clarissa was just eight, and small for her age: her little round chin was barely on a level with the tea-service, and her clear brown eyes gazed at Susy between the ribs of the toast-rack and the single tea-rose in an old Murano glass. Susy had not seen her for two years, and she seemed, in the interval, to have passed from a thoughtful infancy to complete ripeness of feminine experience. She was looking with approval at her mother's guest.
"I'm so glad you've come," she said in a small sweet voice. "I like you so very much. I know I'm not to be often with you; but at least you'll have an eye on me, won't you?"
"An eye on you! I shall never want to have it off you, if you say such nice things to me!" Susy laughed, leaning from her pillows to draw the little girl up to her side.
Clarissa smiled and settled herself down comfortably on the silken bedspread. "Oh, I know I'm not to be always about, because you're just married; but could you see to it that I have my meals regularly?"
"Why, you poor darling! Don't you always?"
"Not when mother's away on these cures. The servants don't always obey me: you see I'm so little for my age. In a few years, of course, they'll have to—even if I don't grow much," she added judiciously. She put out her hand and touched the string of pearls about Susy's throat. "They're small, but they're very good. I suppose you don't take the others when you travel?"
"The others? Bless you! I haven't any others—and never shall have, probably."
"No other pearls?"
"No other jewels at all."
Clarissa stared. "Is that really true?" she asked, as if in the presence of the unprecedented.
"Awfully true," Susy confessed. "But I think I can make the servants obey me all the same."
This point seemed to have lost its interest for Clarissa, who was still gravely scrutinizing her companion. After a while she brought forth another question.
"Did you have to give up all your jewels when you were divorced?"
"Divorced—?" Susy threw her head back against the pillows and laughed. "Why, what are you thinking of? Don't you remember that I wasn't even married the last time you saw me?"
"Yes; I do. But that was two years ago." The little girl wound her arms about Susy's neck and leaned against her caressingly. "Are you going to be soon, then? I'll promise not to tell if you don't want me to."
"Going to be divorced? Of course not! What in the world made you think so? "
"Because you look so awfully happy," said Clarissa Vanderlyn simply.
IT was a trifling enough sign, but it had remained in Susy's mind: that first morning in Venice Nick had gone out without first coming in to see her. She had stayed in bed late, chatting with Clarissa, and expecting to see the door open and her husband appear; and when the child left, and she had jumped up and looked into Nick's room, she found it empty, and a line on his dressing table informed her that he had gone out to send a telegram.
It was lover-like, and even boyish, of him to think it necessary to explain his absence; but why had he not simply come in and told her! She instinctively connected the little fact with the shade of preoccupation she had noticed on his face the night before, when she had gone to his room and found him absorbed in letter; and while she dressed she had continued to wonder what was in the letter, and whether the telegram he had hurried out to send was an answer to it.
She had never found out. When he reappeared, handsome and happy as the morning, he proffered no explanation; and it was part of her life-long policy not to put uncalled-for questions. It was not only that her jealous regard for her own freedom was matched by an equal respect for that of others; she had steered too long among the social reefs and shoals not to know how narrow is the passage that leads to peace of mind, and she was determined to keep her little craft in mid-channel. But the incident had lodged itself in her memory, acquiring a sort of symbolic significance, as of a turning-point in her relations with her husband. Not that these were less happy, but that she now beheld them, as she had always formerly beheld such joys, as an unstable islet in a sea of storms. Her present bliss was as complete as ever, but it was ringed by the perpetual menace of all she knew she was hiding from Nick, and of all she suspected him of hiding from her....
She was thinking of these things one afternoon about three weeks after their arrival in Venice. It was near sunset, and she sat alone on the balcony, watching the cross-lights on the water weave their pattern above the flushed reflection of old palace-basements. She was almost always alone at that hour. Nick had taken to writing in the afternoons—he had been as good as his word, and so, apparently, had the Muse and it was his habit to join his wife only at sunset, for a late row on the lagoon. She had taken Clarissa, as usual, to the Giardino Pubblico, where that obliging child had politely but indifferently "played"—Clarissa joined in the diversions of her age as if conforming to an obsolete tradition—and had brought her back for a music lesson, echoes of which now drifted down from a distant window.
Susy had come to be extremely thankful for Clarissa. But for the little girl, her pride in her husband's industry might have been tinged with a faint sense of being at times left out and forgotten; and as Nick's industry was the completest justification for their being where they were, and for her having done what she had, she was grateful to Clarissa for helping her to feel less alone. Clarissa, indeed, represented the other half of her justification: it was as much on the child's account as on Nick's that Susy had held her tongue, remained in Venice, and slipped out once a week to post one of Ellie's numbered letters. A day's experience of the Palazzo Vanderlyn had convinced Susy of the impossibility of deserting Clarissa. Long experience had shown her that the most crowded households often contain the loneliest nurseries, and that the rich child is exposed to evils unknown to less pampered infancy; but hitherto such things had merely been to her one of the uglier bits in the big muddled pattern of life. Now she found herself feeling where before she had only judged: her precarious bliss came to her charged with a new weight of pity.
She was thinking of these things, and of the approaching date of Ellie Vanderlyn's return, and of the searching truths she was storing up for that lady's private ear, when she noticed a gondola turning its prow toward the steps below the balcony. She leaned over, and a tall gentleman in shabby clothes, glancing up at her as he jumped out, waved a mouldy Panama in joyful greeting.
"Streffy!" she exclaimed as joyfully; and she was half-way down the stairs when he ran up them followed by his luggage-laden boatman.
"It's all right, I suppose?—Ellie said I might come," he explained in a shrill cheerful voice; "and I'm to have my same green room with the parrot-panels, because its furniture is already so frightfully stained with my hair-wash."
Susy was beaming on him with the deep sense of satisfaction which his presence always produced in his friends. There was no one in the world, they all agreed, half as ugly and untidy and delightful as Streffy; no one who combined such outspoken selfishness with such imperturbable good humour; no one who knew so well how to make you believe he was being charming to you when it was you who were being charming to him.
In addition to these seductions, of which none estimated the value more accurately than their possessor, Strefford had for Susy another attraction of which he was probably unconscious. It was that of being the one rooted and stable being among the fluid and shifting figures that composed her world. Susy had always lived among people so denationalized that those one took for Russians generally turned out to be American, and those one was inclined to ascribe to New York proved to have originated in Rome or Bucharest. These cosmopolitan people, who, in countries not their own, lived in houses as big as hotels, or in hotels where the guests were as international as the waiters, had inter-married, inter-loved and inter-divorced each other over the whole face of Europe, and according to every code that attempts to regulate human ties. Strefford, too, had his home in this world, but only one of his homes. The other, the one he spoke of, and probably thought of, least often, was a great dull English country-house in a northern county, where a life as monotonous and self-contained as his own was chequered and dispersed had gone on for generation after generation; and it was the sense of that house, and of all it typified even to his vagrancy and irreverence, which, coming out now and then in his talk, or in his attitude toward something or somebody, gave him a firmer outline and a steadier footing than the other marionettes in the dance. Superficially so like them all, and so eager to outdo them in detachment and adaptability, ridiculing the prejudices he had shaken off, and the people to whom he belonged, he still kept, under his easy pliancy, the skeleton of old faiths and old fashions. "He talks every language as well as the rest of us," Susy had once said of him, "but at least he talks one language better than the others"; and Strefford, told of the remark, had laughed, called her an idiot, and been pleased.
As he shambled up the stairs with her, arm in arm, she was thinking of this quality with a new appreciation of its value. Even she and Lansing, in spite of their unmixed Americanism, their substantial background of old-fashioned cousinships in New York and Philadelphia, were as mentally detached, as universally at home, as touts at an International Exhibition. If they were usually recognized as Americans it was only because they spoke French so well, and because Nick was too fair to be "foreign," and too sharp-featured to be English. But Charlie Strefford was English with all the strength of an inveterate habit; and something in Susy was slowly waking to a sense of the beauty of habit.
Lounging on the balcony, whither he had followed her without pausing to remove the stains of travel, Strefford showed himself immensely interested in the last chapter of her history, greatly pleased at its having been enacted under his roof, and hugely and flippantly amused at the firmness with which she refused to let him see Nick till the latter's daily task was over.
"Writing? Rot! What's he writing? He's breaking you in, my dear; that's what he's doing: establishing an alibi. What'll you bet he's just sitting there smoking and reading Le Rire? Let's go and see."
But Susy was firm. "He's read me his first chapter: it's wonderful. It's a philosophic romance—rather like Marius, you know."
"Oh, yes—I do!" said Strefford, with a laugh that she thought idiotic.
She flushed up like a child. "You're stupid, Streffy. You forget that Nick and I don't need alibis. We've got rid of all that hyprocrisy by agreeing that each will give the other a hand up when either of us wants a change. We've not married to spy and lie, and nag each other; we've formed a partnership for our mutual advantage."
"I see; that's capital. But how can you be sure that, when Nick wants a change, you'll consider it for his advantage to have one?"
It was the point that had always secretly tormented Susy; she often wondered if it equally tormented Nick.
"I hope I shall have enough common sense—" she began.
"Oh, of course: common sense is what you're both bound to base your argument on, whichever way you argue."
This flash of insight disconcerted her, and she said, a little irritably: "What should you do then, if you married?—Hush, Streffy! I forbid you to shout like that—all the gondolas are stopping to look!"
"How can I help it?" He rocked backward and forward in his chair. "'If you marry,' she says: 'Streffy, what have you decided to do if you suddenly become a raving maniac?'"
"I said no such thing. If your uncle and your cousin died, you'd marry to-morrow; you know you would."
"Oh, now you're talking business." He folded his long arms and leaned over the balcony, looking down at the dusky ripples streaked with fire. "In that case I should say: 'Susan, my dear—Susan—now that by the merciful intervention of Providence you have become Countess of Altringham in the peerage of Great Britain, and Baroness Dunsterville and d'Amblay in the peerages of Ireland and Scotland, I'll thank you to remember that you are a member of one of the most ancient houses in the United Kingdom—and not to get found out.'"
Susy laughed. "We know what those warnings mean! I pity my namesake."
He swung about and gave her a quick look out of his small ugly twinkling eyes. "Is there any other woman in the world named Susan?"
"I hope so, if the name's an essential. Even if Nick chucks me, don't count on me to carry out that programme. I've seen it in practice too often."
"Oh, well: as far as I know, everybody's in perfect health at Altringham." He fumbled in his pocket and drew out a fountain pen, a handkerchief over which it had leaked, and a packet of dishevelled cigarettes. Lighting one, and restoring the other objects to his pocket, he continued calmly: "Tell me how did you manage to smooth things over with the Gillows? Ursula was running amuck when I was in Newport last Summer; it was just when people were beginning to say that you were going to marry Nick. I was afraid she'd put a spoke in your wheel; and I hear she put a big cheque in your hand instead."
Susy was silent. From the first moment of Strefford's appearance she had known that in the course of time he would put that question. He was as inquisitive as a monkey, and when he had made up his mind to find out anything it was useless to try to divert his attention. After a moment's hesitation she said: "I flirted with Fred. It was a bore but he was very decent."
"He would be—poor Fred. And you got Ursula thoroughly frightened!"
"Well—enough. And then luckily that young Nerone Altineri turned up from Rome: he went over to New York to look for a job as an engineer, and Ursula made Fred put him in their iron works." She paused again, and then added abruptly: "Streffy! If you knew how I hate that kind of thing. I'd rather have Nick come in now and tell me frankly, as I know he would, that he's going off with—"
"With Coral Hicks?" Strefford suggested.
She laughed. "Poor Coral Hicks! What on earth made you think of the Hickses?"
"Because I caught a glimpse of them the other day at Capri. They're cruising about: they said they were coming in here."
"What a nuisance! I do hope they won't find us out. They were awfully kind to Nick when he went to India with them, and they're so simple-minded that they would expect him to be glad to see them."
Strefford aimed his cigarette-end at a tourist on a puggaree who was gazing up from his guidebook at the palace. "Ah," he murmured with satisfaction, seeing the shot take effect; then he added: "Coral Hicks is growing up rather pretty."
"Oh, Streff—you're dreaming! That lump of a girl with spectacles and thick ankles! Poor Mrs. Hicks used to say to Nick: 'When Mr. Hicks and I had Coral educated we presumed culture was in greater demand in Europe than it appears to be.'"
"Well, you'll see: that girl's education won't interfere with her, once she's started. So then: if Nick came in and told you he was going off—"
"I should be so thankful if it was with a fright like Coral! But you know," she added with a smile, "we've agreed that it's not to happen for a year."
SUSY found Strefford, after his first burst of nonsense, unusually kind and responsive. The interest he showed in her future and Nick's seemed to proceed not so much from his habitual spirit of scientific curiosity as from simple friendliness. He was privileged to see Nick's first chapter, of which he formed so favourable an impression that he spoke sternly to Susy on the importance of respecting her husband's working hours; and he even carried his general benevolence to the length of showing a fatherly interest in Clarissa Vanderlyn. He was always charming to children, but fitfully and warily, with an eye on his independence, and on the possibility of being suddenly bored by them; Susy had never seen him abandon these precautions so completely as he did with Clarissa.
"Poor little devil! Who looks after her when you and Nick are off together? Do you mean to tell me Ellie sacked the governess and went away without having anyone to take her place?"
"I think she expected me to do it," said Susy with a touch of asperity. There were moments when her duty to Clarissa weighed on her somewhat heavily; whenever she went off alone with Nick she was pursued by the vision of a little figure waving wistful farewells from the balcony.
"Ah, that's like Ellie: you might have known she'd get an equivalent when she lent you all this. But I don't believe she thought you'd be so conscientious about it."
Susy considered. "I don't suppose she did; and perhaps I shouldn't have been, a year ago. But you see"—she hesitated—"Nick's so awfully good: it's made me look; at a lot of things differently...."
"Oh, hang Nick's goodness! It's happiness that's done it, my dear. You're just one of the people with whom it happens to agree."
Susy, leaning back, scrutinized between her lashes his crooked ironic face.
"What is it that's agreeing with you, Streffy? I've never seen you so human. You must be getting an outrageous price for the villa."
Strefford laughed and clapped his hand on his breast-pocket. "I should be an ass not to: I've got a wire here saying they must have it for another month at any price."
"What luck! I'm so glad. Who are they, by the way?"
He drew himself up out of the long chair in which he was disjointedly lounging, and looked down at her with a smile. "Another couple of love-sick idiots like you and Nick.... I say, before I spend it all let's go out and buy something ripping for Clarissa."
The days passed so quickly and radiantly that, but for her concern for Clarissa, Susy would hardly have been conscious of her hostess's protracted absence. Mrs. Vanderlyn had said: "Four weeks at the latest," and the four weeks were over, and she had neither arrived nor written to explain her non-appearance. She had, in fact, given no sign of life since her departure, save in the shape of a post-card which had reached Clarissa the day after the Lansings' arrival, and in which Mrs. Vanderlyn instructed her child to be awfully good, and not to forget to feed the mongoose. Susy noticed that this missive had been posted in Milan.
She communicated her apprehensions to Strefford. "I don't trust that green-eyed nurse. She's forever with the younger gondolier; and Clarissa's so awfully sharp. I don't see why Ellie hasn't come: she was due last Monday."
Her companion laughed, and something in the sound of his laugh suggested that he probably knew as much of Ellie's movements as she did, if not more. The sense of disgust which the subject always roused in her made her look away quickly from his tolerant smile. She would have given the world, at that moment, to have been free to tell Nick what she had learned on the night of their arrival, and then to have gone away with him, no matter where. But there was Clarissa—!
To fortify herself against the temptation, she resolutely fixed her thoughts on her husband. Of Nick's beatitude there could be no doubt. He adored her, he revelled in Venice, he rejoiced in his work; and concerning the quality of that work her judgment was as confident as her heart. She still doubted if he would ever earn a living by what he wrote, but she no longer doubted that he would write something remarkable. The mere fact that he was engaged on a philosophic romance, and not a mere novel, seemed the proof of an intrinsic superiority. And if she had mistrusted her impartiality Strefford's approval would have reassured her. Among their friends Strefford passed as an authority on such matters: in summing him up his eulogists always added: "And you know he writes." As a matter of fact, the paying public had remained cold to his few published pages; but he lived among the kind of people who confuse taste with talent, and are impressed by the most artless attempts at literary expression; and though he affected to disdain their judgment, and his own efforts, Susy knew he was not sorry to have it said of him: "Oh, if only Streffy had chosen—!"
Strefford's approval of the philosophic romance convinced her that it had been worth while staying in Venice for Nick's sake; and if only Ellie would come back, and carry off Clarissa to St. Moritz or Deauville, the disagreeable episode on which their happiness was based would vanish like a cloud, and leave them to complete enjoyment.
Ellie did not come; but the Mortimer Hickses did, and Nick Lansing was assailed by the scruples his wife had foreseen. Strefford, coming back one evening from the Lido, reported having recognized the huge outline of the Ibis among the pleasure craft of the outer harbour; and the very next evening, as the guests of Palazzo Vanderlyn were sipping their ices at Florian's, the Hickses loomed up across the Piazza.
Susy pleaded in vain with her husband in defence of his privacy. "Remember you're here to write, dearest; it's your duty not to let any one interfere with that. Why shouldn't we tell them we're just leaving!"
"Because it's no use: we're sure to be always meeting them. And besides, I'll be hanged if I'm going to shirk the Hickses. I spent five whole months on the Ibis, and if they bored me occasionally, India didn't."
"We'll make them take us to Aquileia anyhow," said Strefford philosophically; and the next moment the Hickses were bearing down on the defenceless trio.
They presented a formidable front, not only because of their mere physical bulk—Mr. and Mrs. Hicks were equally and majestically three-dimensional—but because they never moved abroad without the escort of two private secretaries (one for the foreign languages), Mr. Hicks's doctor, a maiden lady known as Eldoradder Tooker, who was Mrs. Hicks's cousin and stenographer, and finally their daughter, Coral Hicks.
Coral Hicks, when Susy had last encountered the party, had been a fat spectacled school-girl, always lagging behind her parents, with a reluctant poodle in her wake. Now the poodle had gone, and his mistress led the procession. The fat school-girl had changed into a young lady of compact if not graceful outline; a long-handled eyeglass had replaced the spectacles, and through it, instead of a sullen glare, Miss Coral Hicks projected on the world a glance at once confident and critical. She looked so strong and so assured that Susy, taking her measure in a flash, saw that her position at the head of the procession was not fortuitous, and murmured inwardly: "Thank goodness she's not pretty too!"
If she was not pretty, she was well-dressed; and if she was overeducated, she seemed capable, as Strefford had suggested, of carrying off even this crowning disadvantage. At any rate, she was above disguising it; and before the whole party had been seated five minutes in front of a fresh supply of ices (with Eldorada and the secretaries at a table slightly in the background) she had taken up with Nick the question of exploration in Mesopotamia.
"Queer child, Coral," he said to Susy that night as they smoked a last cigarette on their balcony. "She told me this afternoon that she'd remembered lots of things she heard me say in India. I thought at the time that she cared only for caramels and picture-puzzles, but it seems she was listening to everything, and reading all the books she could lay her hands on; and she got so bitten with Oriental archaeology that she took a course last year at Bryn Mawr. She means to go to Bagdad next spring, and back by the Persian plateau and Turkestan."
Susy laughed luxuriously: she was sitting with her hand in Nick's, while the late moon—theirs again—rounded its orange-coloured glory above the belfry of San Giorgio.
"Poor Coral! How dreary—" Susy murmured
"Dreary? Why? A trip like that is about as well worth doing as anything I know."
"Oh, I meant: dreary to do it without you or me," she laughed, getting up lazily to go indoors. A broad band of moonlight, dividing her room onto two shadowy halves, lay on the painted Venetian bed with its folded-back sheet, its old damask coverlet and lace-edged pillows. She felt the warmth of Nick's enfolding arm and lifted her face to his.
The Hickses retained the most tender memory of Nick's sojourn on the Ibis, and Susy, moved by their artless pleasure in meeting him again, was glad he had not followed her advice and tried to elude them. She had always admired Strefford's ruthless talent for using and discarding the human material in his path, but now she began to hope that Nick would not remember her suggestion that he should mete out that measure to the Hickses. Even if it had been less pleasant to have a big yacht at their door during the long golden days and the nights of silver fire, the Hickses' admiration for Nick would have made Susy suffer them gladly. She even began to be aware of a growing liking for them, a liking inspired by the very characteristics that would once have provoked her disapproval. Susy had had plenty of training in liking common people with big purses; in such cases her stock of allowances and extenuations was inexhaustible. But they had to be successful common people; and the trouble was that the Hickses, judged by her standards, were failures. It was not only that they were ridiculous; so, heaven knew, were many of their rivals. But the Hickses were both ridiculous and unsuccessful. They had consistently resisted the efforts of the experienced advisers who had first descried them on the horizon and tried to help them upward. They were always taking up the wrong people, giving the wrong kind of party, and spending millions on things that nobody who mattered cared about. They all believed passionately in "movements" and "causes" and "ideals," and were always attended by the exponents of their latest beliefs, always asking you to hear lectures by haggard women in peplums, and having their portraits painted by wild people who never turned out to be the fashion.
All this would formerly have increased Susy's contempt; now she found herself liking the Hickses most for their failings. She was touched by their simple good faith, their isolation in the midst of all their queer apostles and parasites, their way of drifting about an alien and indifferent world in a compactly clinging group of which Eldorada Tooker, the doctor and the two secretaries formed the outer fringe, and by their view of themselves as a kind of collective re-incarnation of some past state of princely culture, symbolised for Mrs. Hicks in what she called "the court of the Renaissance." Eldorada, of course, was their chief prophetess; but even the intensely "bright" and modern young secretaries, Mr. Beck and Mr. Buttles, showed a touching tendency to share her view, and spoke of Mr. Hicks as "promoting art," in the spirit of Pandolfino celebrating the munificence of the Medicis.
"I'm getting really fond of the Hickses; I believe I should be nice to them even if they were staying at Danieli's," Susy said to Strefford.
"And even if you owned the yacht?" he answered; and for once his banter struck her as beside the point.
The Ibis carried them, during the endless June days, far and wide along the enchanted shores; they roamed among the Euganeans, they saw Aquileia and Pomposa and Ravenna. Their hosts would gladly have taken them farther, across the Adriatic and on into the golden network of the Aegean; but Susy resisted this infraction of Nick's rules, and he himself preferred to stick to his task. Only now he wrote in the early mornings, so that on most days they could set out before noon and steam back late to the low fringe of lights on the lagoon. His work continued to progress, and as page was added to page Susy obscurely but surely perceived that each one corresponded with a hidden secretion of energy, the gradual forming within him of something that might eventually alter both their lives. In what sense she could not conjecture: she merely felt that the fact of his having chosen a job and stuck to it, if only through a few rosy summer weeks, had already given him a new way of saying "Yes" and "No."
OF some new ferment at work in him Nick Lansing himself was equally aware. He was a better judge of the book he was trying to write than either Susy or Strefford; he knew its weaknesses, its treacheries, its tendency to slip through his fingers just as he thought his grasp tightest; but he knew also that at the very moment when it seemed to have failed him it would suddenly be back, beating its loud wings in his face.
He had no delusions as to its commercial value, and had winced more than he triumphed when Susy produced her allusion to Marius. His book was to be called The Pageant of Alexander. His imagination had been enchanted by the idea of picturing the young conqueror's advance through the fabulous landscapes of Asia: he liked writing descriptions, and vaguely felt that under the guise of fiction he could develop his theory of Oriental influences in Western art at the expense of less learning than if he had tried to put his ideas into an essay. He knew enough of his subject to know that he did not know enough to write about it; but he consoled himself by remembering that Wilhelm Meister has survived many weighty volumes on aesthetics; and between his moments of self-disgust he took himself at Susy's valuation, and found an unmixed joy in his task.
Never—no, never!—had he been so boundlessly, so confidently happy. His hack-work had given him the habit of application, and now habit wore the glow of inspiration. His previous literary ventures had been timid and tentative: if this one was growing and strengthening on his hands, it must be because the conditions were so different. He was at ease, he was secure, he was satisfied; and he had also, for the first time since his early youth, before his mother's death, the sense of having some one to look after, some one who was his own particular care, and to whom he was answerable for himself and his actions, as he had never felt himself answerable to the hurried and indifferent people among whom he had chosen to live.
Susy had the same standards as these people: she spoke their language, though she understood others, she required their pleasures if she did not revere their gods. But from the moment that she had become his property he had built up in himself a conception of her answering to some deep-seated need of veneration. She was his, he had chosen her, she had taken her place in the long line of Lansing women who had been loved, honoured, and probably deceived, by bygone Lansing men. He didn't pretend to understand the logic of it; but the fact that she was his wife gave purpose and continuity to his scattered impulses, and a mysterious glow of consecration to his task.
Once or twice, in the first days of his marriage, he had asked himself with a slight shiver what would happen if Susy should begin to bore him. The thing had happened to him with other women as to whom his first emotions had not differed in intensity from those she inspired. The part he had played in his previous love-affairs might indeed have been summed up in the memorable line: "I am the hunter and the prey," for he had invariably ceased to be the first only to regard himself as the second. This experience had never ceased to cause him the liveliest pain, since his sympathy for his pursuer was only less keen than his commiseration for himself; but as he was always a little sorrier for himself, he had always ended by distancing the pursuer.
All these pre-natal experiences now seemed utterly inapplicable to the new man he had become. He could not imagine being bored by Susy—or trying to escape from her if he were. He could not think of her as an enemy, or even as an accomplice, since accomplices are potential enemies: she was some one with whom, by some unheard-of miracle, joys above the joys of friendship were to be tasted, but who, even through these fleeting ecstasies, remained simply and securely his friend.
These new feelings did not affect his general attitude toward life: they merely confirmed his faith in its ultimate "jolliness." Never had he more thoroughly enjoyed the things he had always enjoyed. A good dinner had never been as good to him, a beautiful sunset as beautiful; he still rejoiced in the fact that he appreciated both with an equal acuity. He was as proud as ever of Susy's cleverness and freedom from prejudice: she couldn't be too "modern" for him now that she was his. He shared to the full her passionate enjoyment of the present, and all her feverish eagerness to make it last. He knew when she was thinking of ways of extending their golden opportunity, and he secretly thought with her, wondering what new means they could devise. He was thankful that Ellie Vanderlyn was still absent, and began to hope they might have the palace to themselves for the remainder of the summer. If they did, he would have time to finish his book, and Susy to lay up a little interest on their wedding cheques; and thus their enchanted year might conceivably be prolonged to two.