The Glimpses of the Moon, by Edith Wharton

XII

NICK LANSING, in the Milan express, was roused by the same bar of sunshine lying across his knees. He yawned, looked with disgust at his stolidly sleeping neighbours, and wondered why he had decided to go to Milan, and what on earth he should do when he got there. The difficulty about trenchant decisions was that the next morning they generally left one facing a void. . . .

When the train drew into the station at Milan, he scrambled out, got some coffee, and having drunk it decided to continue his journey to Genoa. The state of being carried passively onward postponed action and dulled thought; and after twelve hours of furious mental activity that was exactly what he wanted.

He fell into a doze again, waking now and then to haggard intervals of more thinking, and then dropping off to the clank and rattle of the train. Inside his head, in his waking intervals, the same clanking and grinding of wheels and chains went on unremittingly. He had done all his lucid thinking within an hour of leaving the Palazzo Vanderlyn the night before; since then, his brain had simply continued to revolve indefatigably about the same old problem. His cup of coffee, instead of clearing his thoughts, had merely accelerated their pace.

At Genoa he wandered about in the hot streets, bought a cheap suit-case and some underclothes, and then went down to the port in search of a little hotel he remembered there. An hour later he was sitting in the coffee-room, smoking and glancing vacantly over the papers while he waited for dinner, when he became aware of being timidly but intently examined by a small round-faced gentleman with eyeglasses who sat alone at the adjoining table.

“Hullo — Buttles!” Lansing exclaimed, recognising with surprise the recalcitrant secretary who had resisted Miss Hicks’s endeavour to convert him to Tiepolo.

Mr. Buttles, blushing to the roots of his scant hair, half rose and bowed ceremoniously.

Nick Lansing’s first feeling was of annoyance at being disturbed in his solitary broodings; his next, of relief at having to postpone them even to converse with Mr. Buttles.

“No idea you were here: is the yacht in harbour?” he asked, remembering that the Ibis must be just about to spread her wings.

Mr. Buttles, at salute behind his chair, signed a mute negation: for the moment he seemed too embarrassed to speak.

“Ah — you’re here as an advance guard? I remember now — I saw Miss Hicks in Venice the day before yesterday,” Lansing continued, dazed at the thought that hardly forty-eight hours had passed since his encounter with Coral in the Scalzi.

Mr. Buttles, instead of speaking, had tentatively approached his table. “May I take this seat for a moment, Mr. Lansing? Thank you. No, I am not here as an advance guard — though I believe the Ibis is due some time to-morrow.” He cleared his throat, wiped his eyeglasses on a silk handkerchief, replaced them on his nose, and went on solemnly: “Perhaps, to clear up any possible misunderstanding, I ought to say that I am no longer in the employ of Mr. Hicks.”

Lansing glanced at him sympathetically. It was clear that he suffered horribly in imparting this information, though his compact face did not lend itself to any dramatic display of emotion.

“Really,” Nick smiled, and then ventured: “I hope it’s not owing to conscientious objections to Tiepolo?”

Mr. Buttles’s blush became a smouldering agony. “Ah, Miss Hicks mentioned to you . . . told you . . .? No, Mr. Lansing. I am principled against the effete art of Tiepolo, and of all his contemporaries, I confess; but if Miss Hicks chooses to surrender herself momentarily to the unwholesome spell of the Italian decadence it is not for me to protest or to criticize. Her intellectual and aesthetic range so far exceeds my humble capacity that it would be ridiculous, unbecoming. . . . ”

He broke off, and once more wiped a faint moisture from his eyeglasses. It was evident that he was suffering from a distress which he longed and yet dreaded to communicate. But Nick made no farther effort to bridge the gulf of his own preoccupations; and Mr. Buttles, after an expectant pause, went on: “If you see me here to-day it is only because, after a somewhat abrupt departure, I find myself unable to take leave of our friends without a last look at the Ibis — the scene of so many stimulating hours. But I must beg you,” he added earnestly, “should you see Miss Hicks — or any other member of the party — to make no allusion to my presence in Genoa. I wish,” said Mr. Buttles with simplicity, “to preserve the strictest incognito.”

Lansing glanced at him kindly. “Oh, but — isn’t that a little unfriendly?”

“No other course is possible, Mr. Lansing,” said the ex-secretary, “and I commit myself to your discretion. The truth is, if I am here it is not to look once more at the Ibis, but at Miss Hicks: once only. You will understand me, and appreciate what I am suffering.”

He bowed again, and trotted away on his small, tightly-booted feet; pausing on the threshold to say: “From the first it was hopeless,” before he disappeared through the glass doors.

A gleam of commiseration flashed through Nick’s mind: there was something quaintly poignant in the sight of the brisk and efficient Mr. Buttles reduced to a limp image of unrequited passion. And what a painful surprise to the Hickses to be thus suddenly deprived of the secretary who possessed “the foreign languages”! Mr. Beck kept the accounts and settled with the hotel-keepers; but it was Mr. Buttles’s loftier task to entertain in their own tongues the unknown geniuses who flocked about the Hickses, and Nick could imagine how disconcerting his departure must be on the eve of their Grecian cruise which Mrs. Hicks would certainly call an Odyssey.

The next moment the vision of Coral’s hopeless suitor had faded, and Nick was once more spinning around on the wheel of his own woes. The night before, when he had sent his note to Susy, from a little restaurant close to Palazzo Vanderlyn that they often patronized, he had done so with the firm intention of going away for a day or two in order to collect his wits and think over the situation. But after his letter had been entrusted to the landlord’s little son, who was a particular friend of Susy’s, Nick had decided to await the lad’s return. The messenger had not been bidden to ask for an answer; but Nick, knowing the friendly and inquisitive Italian mind, was almost sure that the boy, in the hope of catching a glimpse of Susy, would linger about while the letter was carried up. And he pictured the maid knocking at his wife’s darkened room, and Susy dashing some powder on her tear-stained face before she turned on the light — poor foolish child!

The boy had returned rather sooner than Nick expected, and he had brought no answer, but merely the statement that the signora was out: that everybody was out.

“Everybody?”

“The signora and the four gentlemen who were dining at the palace. They all went out together on foot soon after dinner. There was no one to whom I could give the note but the gondolier on the landing, for the signora had said she would be very late, and had sent the maid to bed; and the maid had, of course, gone out immediately with her innamorato.”

“Ah — ” said Nick, slipping his reward into the boy’s hand, and walking out of the restaurant.

Susy had gone out — gone out with their usual band, as she did every night in these sultry summer weeks, gone out after her talk with Nick, as if nothing had happened, as if his whole world and hers had not crashed in ruins at their feet. Ah, poor Susy! After all, she had merely obeyed the instinct of self preservation, the old hard habit of keeping up, going ahead and hiding her troubles; unless indeed the habit had already engendered indifference, and it had become as easy for her as for most of her friends to pass from drama to dancing, from sorrow to the cinema. What of soul was left, he wondered —?

His train did not start till midnight, and after leaving the restaurant Nick tramped the sultry by-ways till his tired legs brought him to a standstill under the vine-covered pergola of a gondolier’s wine-shop at a landing close to the Piazzetta. There he could absorb cooling drinks until it was time to go to the station.

It was after eleven, and he was beginning to look about for a boat, when a black prow pushed up to the steps, and with much chaff and laughter a party of young people in evening dress jumped out. Nick, from under the darkness of the vine, saw that there was only one lady among them, and it did not need the lamp above the landing to reveal her identity. Susy, bareheaded and laughing, a light scarf slipping from her bare shoulders, a cigarette between her fingers, took Strefford’s arm and turned in the direction of Florian’s, with Gillow, the Prince and young Breckenridge in her wake. . . .

Nick had relived this rapid scene hundreds of times during his hours in the train and his aimless trampings through the streets of Genoa. In that squirrel-wheel of a world of his and Susy’s you had to keep going or drop out — and Susy, it was evident, had chosen to keep going. Under the lamp-flare on the landing he had had a good look at her face, and had seen that the mask of paint and powder was carefully enough adjusted to hide any ravages the scene between them might have left. He even fancied that she had dropped a little atropine into her eyes. . . .

There was no time to spare if he meant to catch the midnight train, and no gondola in sight but that which his wife had just left. He sprang into it, and bade the gondolier carry him to the station. The cushions, as he leaned back, gave out a breath of her scent; and in the glare of electric light at the station he saw at his feet a rose which had fallen from her dress. He ground his heel into it as he got out.

There it was, then; that was the last picture he was to have of her. For he knew now that he was not going back; at least not to take up their life together. He supposed he should have to see her once, to talk things over, settle something for their future. He had been sincere in saying that he bore her no ill-will; only he could never go back into that slough again. If he did, he knew he would inevitably be drawn under, slipping downward from concession to concession. . . .

The noises of a hot summer night in the port of Genoa would have kept the most care-free from slumber; but though Nick lay awake he did not notice them, for the tumult in his brain was more deafening. Dawn brought a negative relief, and out of sheer weariness he dropped into a heavy sleep. When he woke it was nearly noon, and from his window he saw the well-known outline of the Ibis standing up dark against the glitter of the harbour. He had no fear of meeting her owners, who had doubtless long since landed and betaken themselves to cooler and more fashionable regions: oddly enough, the fact seemed to accentuate his loneliness, his sense of having no one on earth to turn to. He dressed, and wandered out disconsolately to pick up a cup of coffee in some shady corner.

As he drank his coffee his thoughts gradually cleared. It became obvious to him that he had behaved like a madman or a petulant child — he preferred to think it was like a madman. If he and Susy were to separate there was no reason why it should not be done decently and quietly, as such transactions were habitually managed among people of their kind. It seemed grotesque to introduce melodrama into their little world of unruffled Sybarites, and he felt inclined, now, to smile at the incongruity of his gesture. . . . But suddenly his eyes filled with tears. The future without Susy was unbearable, inconceivable. Why, after all, should they separate? At the question, her soft face seemed close to his, and that slight lift of the upper lip that made her smile so exquisite. Well-he would go back. But not with any presence of going to talk things over, come to an agreement, wind up their joint life like a business association. No — if he went back he would go without conditions, for good, forever. . . .

Only, what about the future? What about the not far-distant day when the wedding cheques would have been spent, and Granny’s pearls sold, and nothing left except unconcealed and unconditional dependence on rich friends, the role of the acknowledged hangers-on? Was there no other possible solution, no new way of ordering their lives? No — there was none: he could not picture Susy out of her setting of luxury and leisure, could not picture either of them living such a life as the Nat Fulmers, for instance! He remembered the shabby untidy bungalow in New Hampshire, the slatternly servants, uneatable food and ubiquitous children. How could he ask Susy to share such a life with him? If he did, she would probably have the sense to refuse. Their alliance had been based on a moment’s midsummer madness; now the score must be paid. . . .

He decided to write. If they were to part he could not trust himself to see her. He called a waiter, asked for pen and paper, and pushed aside a pile of unread newspapers on the corner of the table where his coffee had been served. As he did so, his eye lit on a Daily Mail of two days before. As a pretext for postponing his letter, he took up the paper and glanced down the first page. He read:

“Tragic Yachting Accident in the Solent. The Earl of Altringham and his son Viscount d’Amblay drowned in midnight collision. Both bodies recovered.”

He read on. He grasped the fact that the disaster had happened the night before he had left Venice and that, as the result of a fog in the Solent, their old friend Strefford was now Earl of Altringham, and possessor of one of the largest private fortunes in England. It was vertiginous to think of their old impecunious Streff as the hero of such an adventure. And what irony in that double turn of the wheel which, in one day, had plunged him, Nick Lansing, into nethermost misery, while it tossed the other to the stars!

With an intenser precision he saw again Susy’s descent from the gondola at the calle steps, the sound of her laughter and of Strefford’s chaff, the way she had caught his arm and clung to it, sweeping the other men on in her train. Strefford — Susy and Strefford! . . . More than once, Nick had noticed the softer inflections of his friend’s voice when he spoke to Susy, the brooding look in his lazy eyes when they rested on her. In the security of his wedded bliss Nick had made light of those signs. The only real jealousy he had felt had been of Fred Gillow, because of his unlimited power to satisfy a woman’s whims. Yet Nick knew that such material advantages would never again suffice for Susy. With Strefford it was different. She had delighted in his society while he was notoriously ineligible; might not she find him irresistible now?

The forgotten terms of their bridal compact came back to Nick: the absurd agreement on which he and Susy had solemnly pledged their faith. But was it so absurd, after all? It had been Susy’s suggestion (not his, thank God!); and perhaps in making it she had been more serious than he imagined. Perhaps, even if their rupture had not occurred, Strefford’s sudden honours might have caused her to ask for her freedom. . . .

Money, luxury, fashion, pleasure: those were the four cornerstones of her existence. He had always known it — she herself had always acknowledged it, even in their last dreadful talk together; and once he had gloried in her frankness. How could he ever have imagined that, to have her fill of these things, she would not in time stoop lower than she had yet stooped? Perhaps in giving her up to Strefford he might be saving her. At any rate, the taste of the past was now so bitter to him that he was moved to thank whatever gods there were for pushing that mortuary paragraph under his eye. . . .

“Susy, dear [he wrote], the fates seem to have taken our future in hand, and spared us the trouble of unravelling it. If I have sometimes been selfish enough to forget the conditions on which you agreed to marry me, they have come back to me during these two days of solitude. You’ve given me the best a man can have, and nothing else will ever be worth much to me. But since I haven’t the ability to provide you with what you want, I recognize that I’ve no right to stand in your way. We must owe no more Venetian palaces to underhand services. I see by the newspapers that Streff can now give you as many palaces as you want. Let him have the chance — I fancy he’ll jump at it, and he’s the best man in sight. I wish I were in his shoes.

“I’ll write again in a day or two, when I’ve collected my wits, and can give you an address. NICK.”

He added a line on the subject of their modest funds, put the letter into an envelope, and addressed it to Mrs. Nicholas Lansing. As he did so, he reflected that it was the first time he had ever written his wife’s married name.

“Well — by God, no other woman shall have it after her,” he vowed, as he groped in his pocketbook for a stamp.

He stood up with a stretch of weariness — the heat was stifling! — and put the letter in his pocket.

“I’ll post it myself, it’s safer,” he thought; “and then what in the name of goodness shall I do next, I wonder?” He jammed his hat down on his head and walked out into the sun-blaze.

As he was turning away from the square by the general Post Office, a white parasol waved from a passing cab, and Coral Hicks leaned forward with outstretched hand. “I knew I’d find you,” she triumphed. “I’ve been driving up and down in this broiling sun for hours, shopping and watching for you at the same time.”

He stared at her blankly, too bewildered even to wonder how she knew he was in Genoa; and she continued, with the kind of shy imperiousness that always made him feel, in her presence, like a member of an orchestra under a masterful baton; “Now please get right into this carriage, and don’t keep me roasting here another minute.” To the cabdriver she called out: “Al porto.”

Nick Lansing sank down beside her. As he did so he noticed a heap of bundles at her feet, and felt that he had simply added one more to the number. He supposed that she was taking her spoils to the Ibis, and that he would be carried up to the deck-house to be displayed with the others. Well, it would all help to pass the day — and by night he would have reached some kind of a decision about his future.

On the third day after Nick’s departure the post brought to the Palazzo Vanderlyn three letters for Mrs. Lansing.

The first to arrive was a word from Strefford, scribbled in the train and posted at Turin. In it he briefly said that he had been called home by the dreadful accident of which Susy had probably read in the daily papers. He added that he would write again from England, and then — in a blotted postscript —: “I wanted uncommonly badly to see you for good-bye, but the hour was impossible. Regards to Nick. Do write me just a word to Altringham.”

The other two letters, which came together in the afternoon, were both from Genoa. Susy scanned the addresses and fell upon the one in her husband’s writing. Her hand trembled so much that for a moment she could not open the envelope. When she had done so, she devoured the letter in a flash, and then sat and brooded over the outspread page as it lay on her knee. It might mean so many things — she could read into it so many harrowing alternatives of indifference and despair, of irony and tenderness! Was he suffering tortures when he wrote it, or seeking only to inflict them upon her? Or did the words represent his actual feelings, no more and no less, and did he really intend her to understand that he considered it his duty to abide by the letter of their preposterous compact? He had left her in wrath and indignation, yet, as a closer scrutiny revealed, there was not a word of reproach in his brief lines. Perhaps that was why, in the last issue, they seemed so cold to her. . . . She shivered and turned to the other envelope.

The large stilted characters, though half-familiar, called up no definite image. She opened the envelope and discovered a post-card of the Ibis, canvas spread, bounding over a rippled sea. On the back was written:

“So awfully dear of you to lend us Mr. Lansing for a little cruise. You may count on our taking the best of care of him.

“CORAL”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30