The Glimpses of the Moon, by Edith Wharton

XIV

THE next day a lot of people turned up unannounced for luncheon. They were not of the far-fetched and the exotic, in whom Mrs. Melrose now specialized, but merely commonplace fashionable people belonging to Susy’s own group, people familiar with the amusing romance of her penniless marriage, and to whom she had to explain (though none of them really listened to the explanation) that Nick was not with her just now but had gone off cruising . . . cruising in the AEgean with friends . . . getting up material for his book (this detail had occurred to her in the night).

It was the kind of encounter she had most dreaded; but it proved, after all, easy enough to go through compared with those endless hours of turning to and fro, the night before, in the cage of her lonely room. Anything, anything, but to be alone. . . .

Gradually, from the force of habit, she found herself actually in tune with the talk of the luncheon table, interested in the references to absent friends, the light allusions to last year’s loves and quarrels, scandals and absurdities. The women, in their pale summer dresses, were so graceful, indolent and sure of themselves, the men so easy and good-humoured! Perhaps, after all, Susy reflected, it was the world she was meant for, since the other, the brief Paradise of her dreams, had already shut its golden doors upon her. And then, as they sat on the terrace after luncheon, looking across at the yellow tree-tops of the park, one of the women said something — made just an allusion — that Susy would have let pass unnoticed in the old days, but that now filled her with a sudden deep disgust. . . . She stood up and wandered away, away from them all through the fading garden.

Two days later Susy and Strefford sat on the terrace of the Tuileries above the Seine. She had asked him to meet her there, with the desire to avoid the crowded halls and drawing-room of the Nouveau Luxe where, even at that supposedly “dead” season, people one knew were always drifting to and fro; and they sat on a bench in the pale sunlight, the discoloured leaves heaped at their feet, and no one to share their solitude but a lame working-man and a haggard woman who were lunching together mournfully at the other end of the majestic vista.

Strefford, in his new mourning, looked unnaturally prosperous and well-valeted; but his ugly untidy features remained as undisciplined, his smile as whimsical, as of old. He had been on cool though friendly terms with the pompous uncle and the poor sickly cousin whose joint disappearance had so abruptly transformed his future; and it was his way to understate his feelings rather than to pretend more than he felt. Nevertheless, beneath his habitual bantering tone Susy discerned a change. The disaster had shocked him profoundly; already, in his brief sojourn among his people and among the great possessions so tragically acquired, old instincts had awakened, forgotten associations had spoken in him. Susy listened to him wistfully, silenced by her imaginative perception of the distance that these things had put between them.

“It was horrible . . . seeing them both there together, laid out in that hideous Pugin chapel at Altringham . . . the poor boy especially. I suppose that’s really what’s cutting me up now,” he murmured, almost apologetically.

“Oh, it’s more than that — more than you know,” she insisted; but he jerked back: “Now, my dear, don’t be edifying, please,” and fumbled for a cigarette in the pocket which was already beginning to bulge with his miscellaneous properties.

“And now about you — for that’s what I came for,” he continued, turning to her with one of his sudden movements. “I couldn’t make head or tail of your letter.”

She paused a moment to steady her voice. “Couldn’t you? I suppose you’d forgotten my bargain with Nick. He hadn’t-and he’s asked me to fulfil it.”

Strefford stared. “What — that nonsense about your setting each other free if either of you had the chance to make a good match?”

She signed “Yes.”

“And he’s actually asked you —?”

“Well: practically. He’s gone off with the Hickses. Before going he wrote me that we’d better both consider ourselves free. And Coral sent me a postcard to say that she would take the best of care of him.”

Strefford mused, his eyes upon his cigarette. “But what the deuce led up to all this? It can’t have happened like that, out of a clear sky.”

Susy flushed, hesitated, looked away. She had meant to tell Strefford the whole story; it had been one of her chief reasons for wishing to see him again, and half-unconsciously, perhaps, she had hoped, in his laxer atmosphere, to recover something of her shattered self-esteem. But now she suddenly felt the impossibility of confessing to anyone the depths to which Nick’s wife had stooped. She fancied that her companion guessed the nature of her hesitation.

“Don’t tell me anything you don’t want to, you know, my dear.”

“No; I do want to; only it’s difficult. You see — we had so very little money. . . . ”

“Yes?”

“And Nick — who was thinking of his book, and of all sorts of big things, fine things — didn’t realise . . . left it all to me . . . to manage. . . . ”

She stumbled over the word, remembering how Nick had always winced at it. But Strefford did not seem to notice her, and she hurried on, unfolding in short awkward sentences the avowal of their pecuniary difficulties, and of Nick’s inability to understand that, to keep on with the kind of life they were leading, one had to put up with things . . . accept favours. . . .

“Borrow money, you mean?”

“Well — yes; and all the rest.” No — decidedly she could not reveal to Strefford the episode of Ellie’s letters. “Nick suddenly felt, I suppose, that he couldn’t stand it,” she continued; “and instead of asking me to try — to try to live differently, go off somewhere with him and live, like work-people, in two rooms, without a servant, as I was ready to do; well, instead he wrote me that it had all been a mistake from the beginning, that we couldn’t keep it up, and had better recognize the fact; and he went off on the Hickses’ yacht. The last evening that you were in Venice — the day he didn’t come back to dinner — he had gone off to Genoa to meet them. I suppose he intends to marry Coral.”

Strefford received this in silence. “Well — it was your bargain, wasn’t it?” he said at length.

“Yes; but — ”

“Exactly: I always told you so. You weren’t ready to have him go yet — that’s all.”

She flushed to the forehead. “Oh, Streff — is it really all?”

“A question of time? If you doubt it, I’d like to see you try, for a while, in those two rooms without a servant; and then let me hear from you. Why, my dear, it’s only a question of time in a palace, with a steam yacht lying off the door-step, and a flock of motors in the garage; look around you and see. And did you ever imagine that you and Nick, of all people, were going to escape the common doom, and survive like Mr. and Mrs. Tithonus, while all about you the eternal passions were crumbling to pieces, and your native Divorce-states piling up their revenues?”

She sat with bent head, the weight of the long years to come pressing like a leaden load on her shoulders.

“But I’m so young . . . life’s so long. What does last, then?”

“Ah, you’re too young to believe me, if I were to tell you; though you’re intelligent enough to understand.”

“What does, then?”

“Why, the hold of the things we all think we could do without. Habits — they outstand the Pyramids. Comforts, luxuries, the atmosphere of ease . . . above all, the power to get away from dulness and monotony, from constraints and uglinesses. You chose that power, instinctively, before you were even grown up; and so did Nick. And the only difference between you is that he’s had the sense to see sooner than you that those are the things that last, the prime necessities.”

“I don’t believe it!”

“Of course you don’t: at your age one doesn’t reason one’s materialism. And besides you’re mortally hurt that Nick has found out sooner than you, and hasn’t disguised his discovery under any hypocritical phrases.”

“But surely there are people — ”

“Yes — saints and geniuses and heroes: all the fanatics! To which of their categories do you suppose we soft people belong? And the heroes and the geniuses — haven’t they their enormous frailties and their giant appetites? And how should we escape being the victims of our little ones?”

She sat for a while without speaking. “But, Streff, how can you say such things, when I know you care: care for me, for instance!”

“Care?” He put his hand on hers. “But, my dear, it’s just the fugitiveness of mortal caring that makes it so exquisite! It’s because we know we can’t hold fast to it, or to each other, or to anything. . . . ”

“Yes . . . yes . . . but hush, please! Oh, don’t say it!” She stood up, the tears in her throat, and he rose also.

“Come along, then; where do we lunch?” he said with a smile, slipping his hand through her arm.

“Oh, I don’t know. Nowhere. I think I’m going back to Versailles.”

“Because I’ve disgusted you so deeply? Just my luck — when I came over to ask you to marry me!”

She laughed, but he had become suddenly grave. “Upon my soul, I did.”

“Dear Streff! As if — now — ”

“Oh, not now — I know. I’m aware that even with your accelerated divorce methods — ”

“It’s not that. I told you it was no use, Streff — I told you long ago, in Venice.”

He shrugged ironically. “It’s not Streff who’s asking you now. Streff was not a marrying man: he was only trifling with you. The present offer comes from an elderly peer of independent means. Think it over, my dear: as many days out as you like, and five footmen kept. There’s not the least hurry, of course; but I rather think Nick himself would advise it.”

She flushed to the temples, remembering that Nick had; and the remembrance made Strefford’s sneering philosophy seem less unbearable. Why should she not lunch with him, after all? In the first days of his mourning he had come to Paris expressly to see her, and to offer her one of the oldest names and one of the greatest fortunes in England. She thought of Ursula Gillow, Ellie Vanderlyn, Violet Melrose, of their condescending kindnesses, their last year’s dresses, their Christmas cheques, and all the careless bounties that were so easy to bestow and so hard to accept. “I should rather enjoy paying them back,” something in her maliciously murmured.

She did not mean to marry Strefford — she had not even got as far as contemplating the possibility of a divorce but it was undeniable that this sudden prospect of wealth and freedom was like fresh air in her lungs. She laughed again, but now without bitterness.

“Very good, then; we’ll lunch together. But it’s Streff I want to lunch with to-day.”

“Ah, well,” her companion agreed, “I rather think that for a tete-a-tete he’s better company.”

During their repast in a little restaurant over the Seine, where she insisted on the cheapest dishes because she was lunching with “Streff,” he became again his old whimsical companionable self. Once or twice she tried to turn the talk to his altered future, and the obligations and interests that lay before him; but he shrugged away from the subject, questioning her instead about the motley company at Violet Melrose’s, and fitting a droll or malicious anecdote to each of the people she named.

It was not till they had finished their coffee, and she was glancing at her watch with a vague notion of taking the next train, that he asked abruptly: “But what are you going to do? You can’t stay forever at Violet’s.”

“Oh, no!” she cried with a shiver.

“Well, then — you’ve got some plan, I suppose?”

“Have I?” she wondered, jerked back into grim reality from the soothing interlude of their hour together.

“You can’t drift indefinitely, can you? Unless you mean to go back to the old sort of life once for all.”

She reddened and her eyes filled. “I can’t do that, Streff — I know I can’t!”

“Then what —?”

She hesitated, and brought out with lowered head: “Nick said he would write again — in a few days. I must wait — ”

“Oh, naturally. Don’t do anything in a hurry.” Strefford also glanced at his watch. “Garcon, l’addition! I’m taking the train back to-night, and I’ve a lot of things left to do. But look here, my dear — when you come to a decision one way or the other let me know, will you? Oh, I don’t mean in the matter I’ve most at heart; we’ll consider that closed for the present. But at least I can be of use in other ways — hang it, you know, I can even lend you money. There’s a new sensation for our jaded palates!”

“Oh, Streff . . . Streff!” she could only falter; and he pressed on gaily: “Try it, now do try it — I assure you there’ll be no interest to pay, and no conditions attached. And promise to let me know when you’ve decided anything.”

She looked into his humorously puckered eyes, answering. Their friendly smile with hers.

“I promise!” she said.

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