The Glimpses of the Moon, by Edith Wharton

XVI

STRETCHED out under an awning on the deck of the Ibis, Nick Lansing looked up for a moment at the vanishing cliffs of Malta and then plunged again into his book.

He had had nearly three weeks of drug-taking on the Ibis. The drugs he had absorbed were of two kinds: visions of fleeing landscapes, looming up from the blue sea to vanish into it again, and visions of study absorbed from the volumes piled up day and night at his elbow. For the first time in months he was in reach of a real library, just the kind of scholarly yet miscellaneous library, that his restless and impatient spirit craved. He was aware that the books he read, like the fugitive scenes on which he gazed, were merely a form of anesthetic: he swallowed them with the careless greed of the sufferer who seeks only to still pain and deaden memory. But they were beginning to produce in him a moral languor that was not disagreeable, that, indeed, compared with the fierce pain of the first days, was almost pleasurable. It was exactly the kind of drug that he needed.

There is probably no point on which the average man has more definite views than on the uselessness of writing a letter that is hard to write. In the line he had sent to Susy from Genoa Nick had told her that she would hear from him again in a few days; but when the few days had passed, and he began to consider setting himself to the task, he found fifty reasons for postponing it.

Had there been any practical questions to write about it would have been different; he could not have borne for twenty-four hours the idea that she was in uncertainty as to money. But that had all been settled long ago. From the first she had had the administering of their modest fortune. On their marriage Nick’s own meagre income, paid in, none too regularly, by the agent who had managed for years the dwindling family properties, had been transferred to her: it was the only wedding present he could make. And the wedding cheques had of course all been deposited in her name. There were therefore no “business” reasons for communicating with her; and when it came to reasons of another order the mere thought of them benumbed him.

For the first few days he reproached himself for his inertia; then he began to seek reasons for justifying it. After all, for both their sakes a waiting policy might be the wisest he could pursue. He had left Susy because he could not tolerate the conditions on which he had discovered their life together to be based; and he had told her so. What more was there to say?

Nothing was changed in their respective situations; if they came together it could be only to resume the same life; and that, as the days went by, seemed to him more and more impossible. He had not yet reached the point of facing a definite separation; but whenever his thoughts travelled back over their past life he recoiled from any attempt to return to it. As long as this state of mind continued there seemed nothing to add to the letter he had already written, except indeed the statement that he was cruising with the Hickses. And he saw no pressing reason for communicating that.

To the Hickses he had given no hint of his situation. When Coral Hicks, a fortnight earlier, had picked him up in the broiling streets of Genoa, and carried him off to the Ibis, he had thought only of a cool dinner and perhaps a moonlight sail. Then, in reply to their friendly urging, he had confessed that he had not been well — had indeed gone off hurriedly for a few days’ change of air — and that left him without defence against the immediate proposal that he should take his change of air on the Ibis. They were just off to Corsica and Sardinia, and from there to Sicily: he could rejoin the railway at Naples, and be back at Venice in ten days.

Ten days of respite — the temptation was irresistible. And he really liked the kind uncomplicated Hickses. A wholesome honesty and simplicity breathed through all their opulence, as if the rich trappings of their present life still exhaled the fragrance of their native prairies. The mere fact of being with such people was like a purifying bath. When the yacht touched at Naples he agreed since they were so awfully kind — to go on to Sicily. And when the chief steward, going ashore at Naples for the last time before they got up steam, said: “Any letters for the post, sir?” he answered, as he had answered at each previous halt: “No, thank you: none.”

Now they were heading for Rhodes and Crete — Crete, where he had never been, where he had so often longed to go. In spite of the lateness of the season the weather was still miraculously fine: the short waves danced ahead under a sky without a cloud, and the strong bows of the Ibis hardly swayed as she flew forward over the flying crests.

Only his hosts and their daughter were on the yacht-of course with Eldorada Tooker and Mr. Beck in attendance. An eminent archaeologist, who was to have joined them at Naples, had telegraphed an excuse at the last moment; and Nick noticed that, while Mrs. Hicks was perpetually apologizing for the great man’s absence, Coral merely smiled and said nothing.

As a matter of fact, Mr. and Mrs. Hicks were never as pleasant as when one had them to one’s self. In company, Mr. Hicks ran the risk of appearing over-hospitable, and Mrs. Hicks confused dates and names in the desire to embrace all culture in her conversation. But alone with Nick, their old travelling-companion, they shone out in their native simplicity, and Mr. Hicks talked soundly of investments, and Mrs. Hicks recalled her early married days in Apex City, when, on being brought home to her new house in Aeschylus Avenue, her first thought had been: “How on earth shall I get all those windows washed?”

The loss of Mr. Buttles had been as serious to them as Nick had supposed: Mr. Beck could never hope to replace him. Apart from his mysterious gift of languages, and his almost superhuman faculty for knowing how to address letters to eminent people, and in what terms to conclude them, he had a smattering of archaeology and general culture on which Mrs. Hicks had learned to depend — her own memory being, alas, so inadequate to the range of her interests.

Her daughter might perhaps have helped her; but it was not Miss Hicks’s way to mother her parents. She was exceedingly kind to them, but left them, as it were, to bring themselves up as best they could, while she pursued her own course of self-development. A sombre zeal for knowledge filled the mind of this strange girl: she appeared interested only in fresh opportunities of adding to her store of facts. They were illuminated by little imagination and less poetry; but, carefully catalogued and neatly sorted in her large cool brain, they were always as accessible as the volumes in an up-to-date public library.

To Nick there was something reposeful in this lucid intellectual curiosity. He wanted above all things to get away from sentiment, from seduction, from the moods and impulses and flashing contradictions that were Susy. Susy was not a great reader: her store of facts was small, and she had grown up among people who dreaded ideas as much as if they had been a contagious disease. But, in the early days especially, when Nick had put a book in her hand, or read a poem to her, her swift intelligence had instantly shed a new light on the subject, and, penetrating to its depths, had extracted from them whatever belonged to her. What a pity that this exquisite insight, this intuitive discrimination, should for the most part have been spent upon reading the thoughts of vulgar people, and extracting a profit from them — should have been wasted, since her childhood, on all the hideous intricacies of “managing”!

And visible beauty — how she cared for that too! He had not guessed it, or rather he had not been sure of it, till the day when, on their way through Paris, he had taken her to the Louvre, and they had stood before the little Crucifixion of Mantegna. He had not been looking at the picture, or watching to see what impression it produced on Susy. His own momentary mood was for Correggio and Fragonard, the laughter of the Music Lesson and the bold pagan joys of the Antiope; and then he had missed her from his side, and when he came to where she stood, forgetting him, forgetting everything, had seen the glare of that tragic sky in her face, her trembling lip, the tears on her lashes. That was Susy. . . .

Closing his book he stole a glance at Coral Hicks’s profile, thrown back against the cushions of the deck-chair at his side. There was something harsh and bracing in her blunt primitive build, in the projection of the black eyebrows that nearly met over her thick straight nose, and the faint barely visible black down on her upper lip. Some miracle of will-power, combined with all the artifices that wealth can buy, had turned the fat sallow girl he remembered into this commanding young woman, almost handsome at times indisputably handsome — in her big authoritative way. Watching the arrogant lines of her profile against the blue sea, he remembered, with a thrill that was sweet to his vanity, how twice — under the dome of the Scalzi and in the streets of Genoa — he had seen those same lines soften at his approach, turn womanly, pleading and almost humble. That was Coral. . . .

Suddenly she said, without turning toward him: “You’ve had no letters since you’ve been on board.”

He looked at her, surprised. “No — thank the Lord!” he laughed.

“And you haven’t written one either,” she continued in her hard statistical tone.

“No,” he again agreed, with the same laugh.

“That means that you really are free — ”

“Free?”

He saw the cheek nearest him redden. “Really off on a holiday, I mean; not tied down.” After a pause he rejoined: “No, I’m not particularly tied down.”

“And your book?”

“Oh, my book — ” He stopped and considered. He had thrust The Pageant of Alexander into his handbag on the night of his Bight from Venice; but since then he had never looked at it. Too many memories and illusions were pressed between its pages; and he knew just at what page he had felt Ellie Vanderlyn bending over him from behind, caught a whiff of her scent, and heard her breathless “I had to thank you!”

“My book’s hung up,” he said impatiently, annoyed with Miss Hicks’s lack of tact. There was a girl who never put out feelers. . . .

“Yes; I thought it was,” she went on quietly, and he gave her a startled glance. What the devil else did she think, he wondered? He had never supposed her capable of getting far enough out of her own thick carapace of self-sufficiency to penetrate into any one else’s feelings.

“The truth is,” he continued, embarrassed, “I suppose I dug away at it rather too continuously; that’s probably why I felt the need of a change. You see I’m only a beginner.”

She still continued her relentless questioning. “But later — you’ll go on with it, of course?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” He paused, glanced down the glittering deck, and then out across the glittering water. “I’ve been dreaming dreams, you see. I rather think I shall have to drop the book altogether, and try to look out for a job that will pay. To indulge in my kind of literature one must first have an assured income.”

He was instantly annoyed with himself for having spoken. Hitherto in his relations with the Hickses he had carefully avoided the least allusion that might make him feel the heavy hand of their beneficence. But the idle procrastinating weeks had weakened him and he had yielded to the need of putting into words his vague intentions. To do so would perhaps help to make them more definite.

To his relief Miss Hicks made no immediate reply; and when she spoke it was in a softer voice and with an unwonted hesitation.

“It seems a shame that with gifts like yours you shouldn’t find some kind of employment that would leave you leisure enough to do your real work. . . . ”

He shrugged ironically. “Yes — there are a goodish number of us hunting for that particular kind of employment.”

Her tone became more business-like. “I know it’s hard to find — almost impossible. But would you take it, I wonder, if it were offered to you —?”

She turned her head slightly, and their eyes met. For an instant blank terror loomed upon him; but before he had time to face it she continued, in the same untroubled voice: “Mr. Buttles’s place, I mean. My parents must absolutely have some one they can count on. You know what an easy place it is. . . . I think you would find the salary satisfactory.”

Nick drew a deep breath of relief. For a moment her eyes had looked as they had in the Scalzi — and he liked the girl too much not to shrink from reawakening that look. But Mr. Buttles’s place: why not?

“Poor Buttles!” he murmured, to gain time.

“Oh,” she said, “you won’t find the same reasons as he did for throwing up the job. He was the martyr of his artistic convictions.”

He glanced at her sideways, wondering. After all she did not know of his meeting with Mr. Buttles in Genoa, nor of the latter’s confidences; perhaps she did not even know of Mr. Buttles’s hopeless passion. At any rate her face remained calm.

“Why not consider it — at least just for a few months? Till after our expedition to Mesopotamia?” she pressed on, a little breathlessly.

“You’re awfully kind: but I don’t know — ”

She stood up with one of her abrupt movements. “You needn’t, all at once. Take time think it over. Father wanted me to ask you,” she appended.

He felt the inadequacy of his response. “It tempts me awfully, of course. But I must wait, at any rate — wait for letters. The fact is I shall have to wire from Rhodes to have them sent. I had chucked everything, even letters, for a few weeks.”

“Ah, you are tired,” she murmured, giving him a last downward glance as she turned away.

From Rhodes Nick Lansing telegraphed to his Paris bank to send his letters to Candia; but when the Ibis reached Candia, and the mail was brought on board, the thick envelope handed to him contained no letter from Susy.

Why should it, since he had not yet written to her?

He had not written, no: but in sending his address to the bank he knew he had given her the opportunity of reaching him if she wished to. And she had made no sign.

Late that afternoon, when they returned to the yacht from their first expedition, a packet of newspapers lay on the deck-house table. Nick picked up one of the London journals, and his eye ran absently down the list of social events.

He read:

“Among the visitors expected next week at Ruan Castle (let for the season to Mr. Frederick J. Gillow of New York) are Prince Altineri of Rome, the Earl of Altringham and Mrs. Nicholas Lansing, who arrived in London last week from Paris.” Nick threw down the paper. It was just a month since he had left the Palazzo Vanderlyn and flung himself into the night express for Milan. A whole month — and Susy had not written. Only a month — and Susy and Strefford were already together!

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