The Glimpses of the Moon, by Edith Wharton

XV

THAT hour with Strefford had altered her whole perspective. Instead of possible dependence, an enforced return to the old life of connivances and concessions, she saw before her — whenever she chose to take them — freedom, power and dignity. Dignity! It was odd what weight that word had come to have for her. She had dimly felt its significance, felt the need of its presence in her inmost soul, even in the young thoughtless days when she had seemed to sacrifice so little to the austere divinities. And since she had been Nick Lansing’s wife she had consciously acknowledged it, had suffered and agonized when she fell beneath its standard. Yes: to marry Strefford would give her that sense of self-respect which, in such a world as theirs, only wealth and position could ensure. If she had not the mental or moral training to attain independence in any other way, was she to blame for seeking it on such terms?

Of course there was always the chance that Nick would come back, would find life without her as intolerable as she was finding it without him. If that happened — ah, if that happened! Then she would cease to strain her eyes into the future, would seize upon the present moment and plunge into it to the very bottom of oblivion. Nothing on earth would matter then — money or freedom or pride, or her precious moral dignity, if only she were in Nick’s arms again!

But there was Nick’s icy letter, there was Coral Hicks’s insolent post-card, to show how little chance there was of such a solution. Susy understood that, even before the discovery of her transaction with Ellie Vanderlyn, Nick had secretly wearied, if not of his wife, at least of the life that their marriage compelled him to lead. His passion was not strong enough-had never been strong enough — to outweigh his prejudices, scruples, principles, or whatever one chose to call them. Susy’s dignity might go up like tinder in the blaze of her love; but his was made of a less combustible substance. She had felt, in their last talk together, that she had forever destroyed the inner harmony between them.

Well — there it was, and the fault was doubtless neither hers nor his, but that of the world they had grown up in, of their own moral contempt for it and physical dependence on it, of his half-talents and her half-principles, of the something in them both that was not stout enough to resist nor yet pliant enough to yield. She stared at the fact on the journey back to Versailles, and all that sleepless night in her room; and the next morning, when the housemaid came in with her breakfast tray, she felt the factitious energy that comes from having decided, however half-heartedly, on a definite course.

She had said to herself: “If there’s no letter from Nick this time next week I’ll write to Streff — ” and the week had passed, and there was no letter.

It was now three weeks since he had left her, and she had had no word but his note from Genoa. She had concluded that, foreseeing the probability of her leaving Venice, he would write to her in care of their Paris bank. But though she had immediately notified the bank of her change of address no communication from Nick had reached her; and she smiled with a touch of bitterness at the difficulty he was doubtless finding in the composition of the promised letter. Her own scrap-basket, for the first days, had been heaped with the fragments of the letters she had begun; and she told herself that, since they both found it so hard to write, it was probably because they had nothing left to say to each other.

Meanwhile the days at Mrs. Melrose’s drifted by as they had been wont to drift when, under the roofs of the rich, Susy Branch had marked time between one episode and the next of her precarious existence. Her experience of such sojourns was varied enough to make her acutely conscious of their effect on her temporary hosts; and in the present case she knew that Violet was hardly aware of her presence. But if no more than tolerated she was at least not felt to be an inconvenience; when your hostess forgot about you it proved that at least you were not in her way.

Violet, as usual, was perpetually on the wing, for her profound indolence expressed itself in a disordered activity. Nat Fulmer had returned to Paris; but Susy guessed that his benefactress was still constantly in his company, and that when Mrs. Melrose was whirled away in her noiseless motor it was generally toward the scene of some new encounter between Fulmer and the arts. On these occasions she sometimes offered to carry Susy to Paris, and they devoted several long and hectic mornings to the dress-makers, where Susy felt herself gradually succumbing to the familiar spell of heaped-up finery. It seemed impossible, as furs and laces and brocades were tossed aside, brought back, and at last carelessly selected from, that anything but the whim of the moment need count in deciding whether one should take all or none, or that any woman could be worth looking at who did not possess the means to make her choice regardless of cost.

Once alone, and in the street again, the evil fumes would evaporate, and daylight re-enter Susy’s soul; yet she felt that the old poison was slowly insinuating itself into her system. To dispel it she decided one day to look up Grace Fulmer. She was curious to know how the happy-go-lucky companion of Fulmer’s evil days was bearing the weight of his prosperity, and she vaguely felt that it would be refreshing to see some one who had never been afraid of poverty.

The airless pension sitting-room, where she waited while a reluctant maid-servant screamed about the house for Mrs. Fulmer, did not have the hoped-for effect. It was one thing for Grace to put up with such quarters when she shared them with Fulmer; but to live there while he basked in the lingering radiance of Versailles, or rolled from chateau to picture gallery in Mrs. Melrose’s motor, showed a courage that Susy felt unable to emulate.

“My dear! I knew you’d look me up,” Grace’s joyous voice ran down the stairway; and in another moment she was clasping Susy to her tumbled person.

“Nat couldn’t remember if he’d given you our address, though he promised me he would, the last time he was here.” She held Susy at arms’ length, beaming upon her with blinking short-sighted eyes: the same old dishevelled Grace, so careless of her neglected beauty and her squandered youth, so amused and absent-minded and improvident, that the boisterous air of the New Hampshire bungalow seemed to enter with her into the little air-tight salon.

While she poured out the tale of Nat’s sudden celebrity, and its unexpected consequences, Susy marvelled and dreamed. Was the secret of his triumph perhaps due to those long hard unrewarded years, the steadfast scorn of popularity, the indifference to every kind of material ease in which his wife had so gaily abetted him? Had it been bought at the cost of her own freshness and her own talent, of the children’s “advantages,” of everything except the closeness of the tie between husband and wife? Well — it was worth the price, no doubt; but what if, now that honours and prosperity had come, the tie were snapped, and Grace were left alone among the ruins?

There was nothing in her tone or words to suggest such a possibility. Susy noticed that her ill-assorted raiment was costlier in quality and more professional in cut than the home-made garments which had draped her growing bulk at the bungalow: it was clear that she was trying to dress up to Nat’s new situation. But, above all, she was rejoicing in it, filling her hungry lungs with the strong air of his success. It had evidently not occurred to her as yet that those who consent to share the bread of adversity may want the whole cake of prosperity for themselves.

“My dear, it’s too wonderful! He’s told me to take as many concert and opera tickets as I like; he lets me take all the children with me. The big concerts don’t begin till later; but of course the Opera is always going. And there are little things — there’s music in Paris at all seasons. And later it’s just possible we may get to Munich for a week — oh, Susy!” Her hands clasped, her eyes brimming, she drank the new wine of life almost sacramentally.

“Do you remember, Susy, when you and Nick came to stay at the bungalow? Nat said you’d be horrified by our primitiveness-but I knew better! And I was right, wasn’t I? Seeing us so happy made you and Nick decide to follow our example, didn’t it?” She glowed with the remembrance. “And now, what are your plans? Is Nick’s book nearly done? I suppose you’ll have to live very economically till he finds a publisher. And the baby, darling-when is that to be? If you’re coming home soon I could let you have a lot of the children’s little old things.”

“You’re always so dear, Grace. But we haven’t any special plans as yet — not even for a baby. And I wish you’d tell me all of yours instead.”

Mrs. Fulmer asked nothing better: Susy perceived that, so far, the greater part of her European experience had consisted in talking about what it was to be. “Well, you see, Nat is so taken up all day with sight-seeing and galleries and meeting important people that he hasn’t had time to go about with us; and as so few theatres are open, and there’s so little music, I’ve taken the opportunity to catch up with my mending. Junie helps me with it now — she’s our eldest, you remember? She’s grown into a big girl since you saw her. And later, perhaps, we’re to travel. And the most wonderful thing of all — next to Nat’s recognition, I mean — is not having to contrive and skimp, and give up something every single minute. Just think — Nat has even made special arrangements here in the pension, so that the children all have second helpings to everything. And when I go up to bed I can think of my music, instead of lying awake calculating and wondering how I can make things come out at the end of the month. Oh, Susy, that’s simply heaven!”

Susy’s heart contracted. She had come to her friend to be taught again the lesson of indifference to material things, and instead she was hearing from Grace Fulmer’s lips the long-repressed avowal of their tyranny. After all, that battle with poverty on the New Hampshire hillside had not been the easy smiling business that Grace and Nat had made it appear. And yet . . . and yet. . . .

Susy stood up abruptly, and straightened the expensive hat which hung irresponsibly over Grace’s left ear.

“What’s wrong with it? Junie helped me choose it, and she generally knows,” Mrs. Fulmer wailed with helpless hands.

“It’s the way you wear it, dearest — and the bow is rather top-heavy. Let me have it a minute, please.” Susy lifted the hat from her friend’s head and began to manipulate its trimming. “This is the way Maria Guy or Suzanne would do it. . . . And now go on about Nat. . . . ”

She listened musingly while Grace poured forth the tale of her husband’s triumph, of the notices in the papers, the demand for his work, the fine ladies’ battles over their priority in discovering him, and the multiplied orders that had resulted from their rivalry.

“Of course they’re simply furious with each other-Mrs. Melrose and Mrs. Gillow especially — because each one pretends to have been the first to notice his ‘Spring Snow–Storm,’ and in reality it wasn’t either of them, but only poor Bill Haslett, an art-critic we’ve known for years, who chanced on the picture, and rushed off to tell a dealer who was looking for a new painter to push.” Grace suddenly raised her soft myopic eyes to Susy’s face. “But, do you know, the funny thing is that I believe Nat is beginning to forget this, and to believe that it was Mrs. Melrose who stopped short in front of his picture on the opening day, and screamed out: ‘This is genius!’ It seems funny he should care so much, when I’ve always known he had genius-and he has known it too. But they’re all so kind to him; and Mrs. Melrose especially. And I suppose it makes a thing sound new to hear it said in a new voice.”

Susy looked at her meditatively. “And how should you feel if Nat liked too much to hear Mrs. Melrose say it? Too much, I mean, to care any longer what you felt or thought?”

Her friend’s worn face flushed quickly, and then paled: Susy almost repented the question. But Mrs. Fulmer met it with a tranquil dignity. “You haven’t been married long enough, dear, to understand . . . how people like Nat and me feel about such things . . . or how trifling they seem, in the balance . . . the balance of one’s memories.”

Susy stood up again, and flung her arms about her friend. “Oh, Grace,” she laughed with wet eyes, “how can you be as wise as that, and yet not have sense enough to buy a decent hat?” She gave Mrs. Fulmer a quick embrace and hurried away. She had learned her lesson after all; but it was not exactly the one she had come to seek.

The week she had allowed herself had passed, and still there was no word from Nick. She allowed herself yet another day, and that too went by without a letter. She then decided on a step from which her pride had hitherto recoiled; she would call at the bank and ask for Nick’s address. She called, embarrassed and hesitating; and was told, after enquiries in the post-office department, that Mr. Nicholas Lansing had given no address since that of the Palazzo Vanderlyn, three months previously. She went back to Versailles that afternoon with the definite intention of writing to Strefford unless the next morning’s post brought a letter.

The next morning brought nothing from Nick, but a scribbled message from Mrs. Melrose: would Susy, as soon as possible, come into her room for a word, Susy jumped up, hurried through her bath, and knocked at her hostess’s door. In the immense low bed that faced the rich umbrage of the park Mrs. Melrose lay smoking cigarettes and glancing over her letters. She looked up with her vague smile, and said dreamily: “Susy darling, have you any particular plans — for the next few months, I mean?”

Susy coloured: she knew the intonation of old, and fancied she understood what it implied.

“Plans, dearest? Any number . . . I’m tearing myself away the day after to-morrow . . . to the Gillows’ moor, very probably,” she hastened to announce.

Instead of the relief she had expected to read on Mrs. Melrose’s dramatic countenance she discovered there the blankest disappointment.

“Oh, really? That’s too bad. Is it absolutely settled —?”

“As far as I’m concerned,” said Susy crisply.

The other sighed. “I’m too sorry. You see, dear, I’d meant to ask you to stay on here quietly and look after the Fulmer children. Fulmer and I are going to Spain next week — I want to be with him when he makes his studies, receives his first impressions; such a marvellous experience, to be there when he and Velasquez meet!” She broke off, lost in prospective ecstasy. “And, you see, as Grace Fulmer insists on coming with us — ”

“Ah, I see.”

“Well, there are the five children — such a problem,” sighed the benefactress. “If you were at a loose end, you know, dear, while Nick’s away with his friends, I could really make it worth your while. . . . ”

“So awfully good of you, Violet; only I’m not, as it happens.”

Oh the relief of being able to say that, gaily, firmly and even truthfully! Take charge of the Fulmer children, indeed! Susy remembered how Nick and she had fled from them that autumn afternoon in New Hampshire. The offer gave her a salutary glimpse of the way in which, as the years passed, and she lost her freshness and novelty, she would more and more be used as a convenience, a stop-gap, writer of notes, runner of errands, nursery governess or companion. She called to mind several elderly women of her acquaintance, pensioners of her own group, who still wore its livery, struck its attitudes and chattered its jargon, but had long since been ruthlessly relegated to these slave-ant offices. Never in the world would she join their numbers.

Mrs. Melrose’s face fell, and she looked at Susy with the plaintive bewilderment of the wielder of millions to whom everything that cannot be bought is imperceptible.

“But I can’t see why you can’t change your plans,” she murmured with a soft persistency.

“Ah, well, you know” — Susy paused on a slow inward smile — “they’re not mine only, as it happens.”

Mrs. Melrose’s brow clouded. The unforeseen complication of Mrs. Fulmer’s presence on the journey had evidently tried her nerves, and this new obstacle to her arrangements shook her faith in the divine order of things.

“Your plans are not yours only? But surely you won’t let Ursula Gillow dictate to you? . . . There’s my jade pendant; the one you said you liked the other day. . . . The Fulmers won’t go with me, you understand, unless they’re satisfied about the children; the whole plan will fall through. Susy darling, you were always too unselfish; I hate to see you sacrificed to Ursula.”

Susy’s smile lingered. Time was when she might have been glad to add the jade pendant to the collection already enriched by Ellie Vanderlyn’s sapphires; more recently, she would have resented the offer as an insult to her newly-found principles. But already the mere fact that she might henceforth, if she chose, be utterly out of reach of such bribes, enabled her to look down on them with tolerance. Oh, the blessed moral freedom that wealth conferred! She recalled Mrs. Fulmer’s uncontrollable cry: “The most wonderful thing of all is not having to contrive and skimp, and give up something every single minute!” Yes; it was only on such terms that one could call one’s soul one’s own. The sense of it gave Susy the grace to answer amicably: “If I could possibly help you out, Violet, I shouldn’t want a present to persuade me. And, as you say, there’s no reason why I should sacrifice myself to Ursula — or to anybody else. Only, as it happens” — she paused and took the plunge — “I’m going to England because I’ve promised to see a friend.” That night she wrote to Strefford.

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