The Glimpses of the Moon, by Edith Wharton

XVIII

“BUT I can’t think,” said Ellie Vanderlyn earnestly, “why you don’t announce your engagement before waiting for your divorce. People are beginning to do it, I assure you — it’s so much safer!”

Mrs. Vanderlyn, on the way back from St. Moritz to England, had paused in Paris to renew the depleted wardrobe which, only two months earlier, had filled so many trunks to bursting. Other ladies, flocking there from all points of the globe for the same purpose, disputed with her the Louis XVI suites of the Nouveau Luxe, the pink-candled tables in the restaurant, the hours for trying-on at the dressmakers’; and just because they were so many, and all feverishly fighting to get the same things at the same time, they were all excited, happy and at ease. It was the most momentous period of the year: the height of the “dress makers’ season.”

Mrs. Vanderlyn had run across Susy Lansing at one of the Rue de la Paix openings, where rows of ladies wan with heat and emotion sat for hours in rapt attention while spectral apparitions in incredible raiment tottered endlessly past them on aching feet.

Distracted from the regal splendours of a chinchilla cloak by the sense that another lady was also examining it, Mrs. Vanderlyn turned in surprise at sight of Susy, whose head was critically bent above the fur.

“Susy! I’d no idea you were here! I saw in the papers that you were with the Gillows.” The customary embraces followed; then Mrs. Vanderlyn, her eyes pursuing the matchless cloak as it disappeared down a vista of receding mannequins, interrogated sharply: “Are you shopping for Ursula? If you mean to order that cloak for her I’d rather know.”

Susy smiled, and paused a moment before answering. During the pause she took in all the exquisite details of Ellie Vanderlyn’s perpetually youthful person, from the plumed crown of her head to the perfect arch of her patent-leather shoes. At last she said quietly: “No — to-day I’m shopping for myself.”

“Yourself? Yourself?” Mrs. Vanderlyn echoed with a stare of incredulity.

“Yes; just for a change,” Susy serenely acknowledged.

“But the cloak — I meant the chinchilla cloak . . . the one with the ermine lining. . . . ”

“Yes; it is awfully good, isn’t it? But I mean to look elsewhere before I decide.”

Ah, how often she had heard her friends use that phrase; and how amusing it was, now, to see Ellie’s amazement as she heard it tossed off in her own tone of contemptuous satiety! Susy was becoming more and more dependent on such diversions; without them her days, crowded as they were, would nevertheless have dragged by heavily. But it still amused her to go to the big dressmakers’, watch the mannequins sweep by, and be seen by her friends superciliously examining all the most expensive dresses in the procession. She knew the rumour was abroad that she and Nick were to be divorced, and that Lord Altringham was “devoted” to her. She neither confirmed nor denied the report: she just let herself be luxuriously carried forward on its easy tide. But although it was now three months since Nick had left the Palazzo Vanderlyn she had not yet written to him — nor he to her.

Meanwhile, in spite of all that she packed into them, the days passed more and more slowly, and the excitements she had counted on no longer excited her. Strefford was hers: she knew that he would marry her as soon as she was free. They had been together at Ruan for ten days, and after that she had motored south with him, stopping on the way to see Altringham, from which, at the moment, his mourning relatives were absent.

At Altringham they had parted; and after one or two more visits in England she had come back to Paris, where he was now about to join her. After her few hours at Altringham she had understood that he would wait for her as long as was necessary: the fear of the “other women” had ceased to trouble her. But, perhaps for that very reason, the future seemed less exciting than she had expected. Sometimes she thought it was the sight of that great house which had overwhelmed her: it was too vast, too venerable, too like a huge monument built of ancient territorial traditions and obligations. Perhaps it had been lived in for too long by too many serious-minded and conscientious women: somehow she could not picture it invaded by bridge and debts and adultery. And yet that was what would have to be, of course . . . she could hardly picture either Strefford or herself continuing there the life of heavy county responsibilities, dull parties, laborious duties, weekly church-going, and presiding over local committees. . . . What a pity they couldn’t sell it and have a little house on the Thames!

Nevertheless she was not sorry to let it be known that Altringham was hers when she chose to take it. At times she wondered whether Nick knew . . . whether rumours had reached him. If they had, he had only his own letter to thank for it. He had told her what course to pursue; and she was pursuing it.

For a moment the meeting with Ellie Vanderlyn had been a shock to her; she had hoped never to see Ellie again. But now that they were actually face to face Susy perceived how dulled her sensibilities were. In a few moments she had grown used to Ellie, as she was growing used to everybody and to everything in the old life she had returned to. What was the use of making such a fuss about things? She and Mrs. Vanderlyn left the dress-maker’s together, and after an absorbing session at a new milliner’s were now taking tea in Ellie’s drawing-room at the Nouveau Luxe.

Ellie, with her spoiled child’s persistency, had come back to the question of the chinchilla cloak. It was the only one she had seen that she fancied in the very least, and as she hadn’t a decent fur garment left to her name she was naturally in somewhat of a hurry . . . but, of course, if Susy had been choosing that model for a friend. . . .

Susy, leaning back against her cushions, examined through half-closed lids Mrs. Vanderlyn’s small delicately-restored countenance, which wore the same expression of childish eagerness as when she discoursed of the young Davenant of the moment. Once again Susy remarked that, in Ellie’s agitated existence, every interest appeared to be on exactly the same plane.

“The poor shivering dear,” she answered laughing, “of course it shall have its nice warm winter cloak, and I’ll choose another one instead.”

“Oh, you darling, you! If you would! Of course, whoever you were ordering it for need never know. . . . ”

“Ah, you can’t comfort yourself with that, I’m afraid. I’ve already told you that I was ordering it for myself.” Susy paused to savour to the full Ellie’s look of blank bewilderment; then her amusement was checked by an indefinable change in her friend’s expression.

“Oh, dearest — seriously? I didn’t know there was someone. . . . ”

Susy flushed to the forehead. A horror of humiliation overwhelmed her. That Ellie should dare to think that of her — that anyone should dare to!

“Someone buying chinchilla cloaks for me? Thanks!” she flared out. “I suppose I ought to be glad that the idea didn’t immediately occur to you. At least there was a decent interval of doubt. . . . ” She stood up, laughing again, and began to wander about the room. In the mirror above the mantel she caught sight of her flushed angry face, and of Mrs. Vanderlyn’s disconcerted stare. She turned toward her friend.

“I suppose everybody else will think it if you do; so perhaps I’d better explain.” She paused, and drew a quick breath. “Nick and I mean to part — have parted, in fact. He’s decided that the whole thing was a mistake. He will probably; marry again soon — and so shall I.”

She flung the avowal out breathlessly, in her nervous dread of letting Ellie Vanderlyn think for an instant longer that any other explanation was conceivable. She had not meant to be so explicit; but once the words were spoken she was not altogether sorry. Of course people would soon begin to wonder why she was again straying about the world alone; and since it was by Nick’s choice, why should she not say so? Remembering the burning anguish of those last hours in Venice she asked herself what possible consideration she owed to the man who had so humbled her.

Ellie Vanderlyn glanced at her in astonishment. “You? You and Nick — are going to part?” A light appeared to dawn on her. “Ah — then that’s why he sent me back my pin, I suppose?”

“Your pin?” Susy wondered, not at once remembering.

“The poor little scarf-pin I gave him before I left Venice. He sent it back almost at once, with the oddest note — just: ‘I haven’t earned it, really.’ I couldn’t think why he didn’t care for the pin. But, now I suppose it was because you and he had quarrelled; though really, even so, I can’t see why he should bear me a grudge. . . . ”

Susy’s quick blood surged up. Nick had sent back the pin-the fatal pin! And she, Susy, had kept the bracelet — locked it up out of sight, shrunk away from the little packet whenever her hand touched it in packing or unpacking — but never thought of returning it, no, not once! Which of the two, she wondered, had been right? Was it not an indirect slight to her that Nick should fling back the gift to poor uncomprehending Ellie? Or was it not rather another proof of his finer moral sensitiveness! . . . And how could one tell, in their bewildering world, “It was not because we’ve quarrelled; we haven’t quarrelled,” she said slowly, moved by the sudden desire to defend her privacy and Nick’s, to screen from every eye their last bitter hour together. “We’ve simply decided that our experiment was impossible-for two paupers.”

“Ah, well — of course we all felt that at the time. And now somebody else wants to marry you! And it’s your trousseau you were choosing that cloak for?” Ellie cried in incredulous rapture; then she flung her arms about Susy’s shrinking shoulders. “You lucky lucky girl! You clever clever darling! But who on earth can he be?”

And it was then that Susy, for the first time, had pronounced the name of Lord Altringham.

“Streff — Streff? Our dear old Streff, You mean to say he wants to marry you?” As the news took possession of her mind Ellie became dithyrambic. “But, my dearest, what a miracle of luck! Of course I always knew he was awfully gone on you: Fred Davenant used to say so, I remember . . . and even Nelson, who’s so stupid about such things, noticed it in Venice. . . . But then it was so different. No one could possibly have thought of marrying him then; whereas now of course every woman is trying for him. Oh, Susy, whatever you do, don’t miss your chance! You can’t conceive of the wicked plotting and intriguing there will be to get him — on all sides, and even where one least suspects it. You don’t know what horrors women will do-and even girls!” A shudder ran through her at the thought, and she caught Susy’s wrists in vehement fingers. “But I can’t think, my dear, why you don’t announce your engagement at once. People are beginning to do it, I assure you — it’s so much safer!”

Susy looked at her, wondering. Not a word of sympathy for the ruin of her brief bliss, not even a gleam of curiosity as to its cause! No doubt Ellie Vanderlyn, like all Susy’s other friends, had long since “discounted” the brevity of her dream, and perhaps planned a sequel to it before she herself had seen the glory fading. She and Nick had spent the greater part of their few weeks together under Ellie Vanderlyn’s roof; but to Ellie, obviously, the fact meant no more than her own escapade, at the same moment, with young Davenant’s supplanter — the “bounder” whom Strefford had never named. Her one thought for her friend was that Susy should at last secure her prize — her incredible prize. And therein at any rate Ellie showed the kind of cold disinterestedness that raised her above the smiling perfidy of the majority of her kind. At least her advice was sincere; and perhaps it was wise. Why should Susy not let every one know that she meant to marry Strefford as soon as the “formalities” were fulfilled?

She did not immediately answer Mrs. Vanderlyn’s question; and the latter, repeating it, added impatiently: “I don’t understand you; if Nick agrees-”

“Oh, he agrees,” said Susy.

“Then what more do you want! Oh, Susy, if you’d only follow my example!”

“Your example?” Susy paused, weighed the word, was struck by something embarrassed, arch yet half-apologetic in her friend’s expression. “Your example?” she repeated. “Why, Ellie, what on earth do you mean? Not that you’re going to part from poor Nelson?”

Mrs. Vanderlyn met her reproachful gaze with a crystalline glance. “I don’t want to, heaven knows — poor dear Nelson! I assure you I simply hate it. He’s always such an angel to Clarissa . . . and then we’re used to each other. But what in the world am I to do? Algie’s so rich, so appallingly rich, that I have to be perpetually on the watch to keep other women away from him — and it’s too exhausting. . . . ”

“Algie?”

Mrs. Vanderlyn’s lovely eyebrows rose. “Algie: Algie Bockheimer. Didn’t you know, I think he said you’ve dined with his parents. Nobody else in the world is as rich as the Bockheimers; and Algie’s their only child. Yes, it was with him . . . with him I was so dreadfully happy last spring . . . and now I’m in mortal terror of losing him. And I do assure you there’s no other way of keeping them, when they’re as hideously rich as that!”

Susy rose to her feet. A little shudder ran over her. She remembered, now, having seen Algie Bockheimer at one of his parents’ first entertainments, in their newly-inaugurated marble halls in Fifth Avenue. She recalled his too faultless clothes and his small glossy furtive countenance. She looked at Ellie Vanderlyn with sudden scorn.

“I think you’re abominable,” she exclaimed.

The other’s perfect little face collapsed. “A-bo-minable? A-bo-mi-nable? Susy!”

“Yes . . . with Nelson . . . and Clarissa . . . and your past together . . . and all the money you can possibly want . . . and that man! Abominable.”

Ellie stood up trembling: she was not used to scenes, and they disarranged her thoughts as much as her complexion.

“You’re very cruel, Susy — so cruel and dreadful that I hardly know how to answer you,” she stammered. “But you simply don’t know what you’re talking about. As if anybody ever had all the money they wanted!” She wiped her dark-rimmed eyes with a cautious handkerchief, glanced at herself in the mirror, and added magnanimously: “But I shall try to forget what you’ve said.”

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