The Glimpses of the Moon, by Edith Wharton

XIX

JUST such a revolt as she had felt as a girl, such a disgusted recoil from the standards and ideals of everybody about her as had flung her into her mad marriage with Nick, now flamed in Susy Lansing’s bosom.

How could she ever go back into that world again? How echo its appraisals of life and bow down to its judgments? Alas, it was only by marrying according to its standards that she could escape such subjection. Perhaps the same thought had actuated Nick: perhaps he had understood sooner than she that to attain moral freedom they must both be above material cares. Perhaps . . .

Her talk with Ellie Vanderlyn had left Susy so oppressed and humiliated that she almost shrank from her meeting with Altringham the next day. She knew that he was coming to Paris for his final answer; he would wait as long as was necessary if only she would consent to take immediate steps for a divorce. She was staying at a modest hotel in the Faubourg St. Germain, and had once more refused his suggestion that they should lunch at the Nouveau Luxe, or at some fashionable restaurant of the Boulevards. As before, she insisted on going to an out-of-the-way place near the Luxembourg, where the prices were moderate enough for her own purse.

“I can’t understand,” Strefford objected, as they turned from her hotel door toward this obscure retreat, “why you insist on giving me bad food, and depriving me of the satisfaction of being seen with you. Why must we be so dreadfully clandestine? Don’t people know by this time that we’re to be married?”

Susy winced a little: she wondered if the word would always sound so unnatural on his lips.

“No,” she said, with a laugh, “they simply think, for the present, that you’re giving me pearls and chinchilla cloaks.”

He wrinkled his brows good-humouredly. “Well, so I would, with joy — at this particular minute. Don’t you think perhaps you’d better take advantage of it? I don’t wish to insist — but I foresee that I’m much too rich not to become stingy.”

She gave a slight shrug. “At present there’s nothing I loathe more than pearls and chinchilla, or anything else in the world that’s expensive and enviable. . . . ”

Suddenly she broke off, colouring with the consciousness that she had said exactly the kind of thing that all the women who were trying for him (except the very cleverest) would be sure to say; and that he would certainly suspect her of attempting the conventional comedy of disinterestedness, than which nothing was less likely to deceive or to flatter him.

His twinkling eyes played curiously over her face, and she went on, meeting them with a smile: “But don’t imagine, all the same, that if I should . . . decide . . . it would be altogether for your beaux yeux. . . . ”

He laughed, she thought, rather drily. “No,” he said, “I don’t suppose that’s ever likely to happen to me again.”

“Oh, Streff — ” she faltered with compunction. It was odd-once upon a time she had known exactly what to say to the man of the moment, whoever he was, and whatever kind of talk he required; she had even, in the difficult days before her marriage, reeled off glibly enough the sort of lime-light sentimentality that plunged poor Fred Gillow into such speechless beatitude. But since then she had spoken the language of real love, looked with its eyes, embraced with its hands; and now the other trumpery art had failed her, and she was conscious of bungling and groping like a beginner under Strefford’s ironic scrutiny.

They had reached their obscure destination and he opened the door and glanced in.

“It’s jammed — not a table. And stifling! Where shall we go? Perhaps they could give us a room to ourselves — ” he suggested.

She assented, and they were led up a cork-screw staircase to a squat-ceilinged closet lit by the arched top of a high window, the lower panes of which served for the floor below. Strefford opened the window, and Susy, throwing her cloak on the divan, leaned on the balcony while he ordered luncheon.

On the whole she was glad they were to be alone. Just because she felt so sure of Strefford it seemed ungenerous to keep him longer in suspense. The moment had come when they must have a decisive talk, and in the crowded rooms below it would have been impossible.

Strefford, when the waiter had brought the first course and left them to themselves, made no effort to revert to personal matters. He turned instead to the topic always most congenial to him: the humours and ironies of the human comedy, as presented by his own particular group. His malicious commentary on life had always amused Susy because of the shrewd flashes of philosophy he shed on the social antics they had so often watched together. He was in fact the one person she knew (excepting Nick) who was in the show and yet outside of it; and she was surprised, as the talk proceeded, to find herself so little interested in his scraps of gossip, and so little amused by his comments on them.

With an inward shrug of discouragement she said to herself that probably nothing would ever really amuse her again; then, as she listened, she began to understand that her disappointment arose from the fact that Strefford, in reality, could not live without these people whom he saw through and satirized, and that the rather commonplace scandals he narrated interested him as much as his own racy considerations on them; and she was filled with terror at the thought that the inmost core of the richly-decorated life of the Countess of Altringham would be just as poor and low-ceilinged a place as the little room in which he and she now sat, elbow to elbow yet so unapproachably apart.

If Strefford could not live without these people, neither could she and Nick; but for reasons how different! And if his opportunities had been theirs, what a world they would have created for themselves! Such imaginings were vain, and she shrank back from them into the present. After all, as Lady Altringham she would have the power to create that world which she and Nick had dreamed . . . only she must create it alone. Well, that was probably the law of things. All human happiness was thus conditioned and circumscribed, and hers, no doubt, must always be of the lonely kind, since material things did not suffice for it, even though it depended on them as Grace Fulmer’s, for instance, never had. Yet even Grace Fulmer had succumbed to Ursula’s offer, and had arrived at Ruan the day before Susy left, instead of going to Spain with her husband and Violet Melrose. But then Grace was making the sacrifice for her children, and somehow one had the feeling that in giving up her liberty she was not surrendering a tittle of herself. All the difference was there. . . .

“How I do bore you!” Susy heard Strefford exclaim. She became aware that she had not been listening: stray echoes of names of places and people — Violet Melrose, Ursula, Prince Altineri, others of their group and persuasion — had vainly knocked at her barricaded brain; what had he been telling her about them? She turned to him and their eyes met; his were full of a melancholy irony.

“Susy, old girl, what’s wrong?”

She pulled herself together. “I was thinking, Streff, just now — when I said I hated the very sound of pearls and chinchilla — how impossible it was that you should believe me; in fact, what a blunder I’d made in saying it.”

He smiled. “Because it was what so many other women might be likely to say so awfully unoriginal, in fact?”

She laughed for sheer joy at his insight. “It’s going to be easier than I imagined,” she thought. Aloud she rejoined: “Oh, Streff — how you’re always going to find me out! Where on earth shall I ever hide from you?”

“Where?” He echoed her laugh, laying his hand lightly on hers. “In my heart, I’m afraid.”

In spite of the laugh his accent shook her: something about it took all the mockery from his retort, checked on her lips the: “What? A valentine!” and made her suddenly feel that, if he were afraid, so was she. Yet she was touched also, and wondered half exultingly if any other woman had ever caught that particular deep inflexion of his shrill voice. She had never liked him as much as at that moment; and she said to herself, with an odd sense of detachment, as if she had been rather breathlessly observing the vacillations of someone whom she longed to persuade but dared not: “Now — NOW, if he speaks, I shall say yes!”

He did not speak; but abruptly, and as startlingly to her as if she had just dropped from a sphere whose inhabitants had other methods of expressing their sympathy, he slipped his arm around her and bent his keen ugly melting face to hers. . . .

It was the lightest touch — in an instant she was free again. But something within her gasped and resisted long after his arm and his lips were gone, and he was proceeding, with a too-studied ease, to light a cigarette and sweeten his coffee.

He had kissed her. . . . Well, naturally: why not? It was not the first time she had been kissed. It was true that one didn’t habitually associate Streff with such demonstrations; but she had not that excuse for surprise, for even in Venice she had begun to notice that he looked at her differently, and avoided her hand when he used to seek it.

No — she ought not to have been surprised; nor ought a kiss to have been so disturbing. Such incidents had punctuated the career of Susy Branch: there had been, in particular, in far-off discarded times, Fred Gillow’s large but artless embraces. Well — nothing of that kind had seemed of any more account than the click of a leaf in a woodland walk. It had all been merely epidermal, ephemeral, part of the trivial accepted “business” of the social comedy. But this kiss of Strefford’s was what Nick’s had been, under the New Hampshire pines, on the day that had decided their fate. It was a kiss with a future in it: like a ring slipped upon her soul. And now, in the dreadful pause that followed — while Strefford fidgeted with his cigarette-case and rattled the spoon in his cup, Susy remembered what she had seen through the circle of Nick’s kiss: that blue illimitable distance which was at once the landscape at their feet and the future in their souls. . . .

Perhaps that was what Strefford’s sharply narrowed eyes were seeing now, that same illimitable distance that she had lost forever — perhaps he was saying to himself, as she had said to herself when her lips left Nick’s: “Each time we kiss we shall see it all again. . . . ” Whereas all she herself had felt was the gasping recoil from Strefford’s touch, and an intenser vision of the sordid room in which he and she sat, and of their two selves, more distant from each other than if their embrace had been a sudden thrusting apart. . . .

The moment prolonged itself, and they sat numb. How long had it lasted? How long ago was it that she had thought: “It’s going to be easier than I imagined”? Suddenly she felt Strefford’s queer smile upon her, and saw in his eyes a look, not of reproach or disappointment, but of deep and anxious comprehension. Instead of being angry or hurt, he had seen, he had understood, he was sorry for her!

Impulsively she slipped her hand into his, and they sat silent for another moment. Then he stood up and took her cloak from the divan. “Shall we go now! I’ve got cards for the private view of the Reynolds exhibition at the Petit Palais. There are some portraits from Altringham. It might amuse you.”

In the taxi she had time, through their light rattle of talk, to readjust herself and drop back into her usual feeling of friendly ease with him. He had been extraordinarily considerate, for anyone who always so undisguisedly sought his own satisfaction above all things; and if his considerateness were just an indirect way of seeking that satisfaction now, well, that proved how much he cared for her, how necessary to his happiness she had become. The sense of power was undeniably pleasant; pleasanter still was the feeling that someone really needed her, that the happiness of the man at her side depended on her yes or no. She abandoned herself to the feeling, forgetting the abysmal interval of his caress, or at least saying to herself that in time she would forget it, that really there was nothing to make a fuss about in being kissed by anyone she liked as much as Streff. . . .

She had guessed at once why he was taking her to see the Reynoldses. Fashionable and artistic Paris had recently discovered English eighteenth century art. The principal collections of England had yielded up their best examples of the great portrait painter’s work, and the private view at the Petit Palais was to be the social event of the afternoon. Everybody — Strefford’s everybody and Susy’s — was sure to be there; and these, as she knew, were the occasions that revived Strefford’s intermittent interest in art. He really liked picture shows as much as the races, if one could be sure of seeing as many people there. With Nick how different it would have been! Nick hated openings and varnishing days, and worldly aesthetics in general; he would have waited till the tide of fashion had ebbed, and slipped off with Susy to see the pictures some morning when they were sure to have the place to themselves.

But Susy divined that there was another reason for Strefford’s suggestion. She had never yet shown herself with him publicly, among their own group of people: now he had determined that she should do so, and she knew why. She had humbled his pride; he had understood, and forgiven her. But she still continued to treat him as she had always treated the Strefford of old, Charlie Strefford, dear old negligible impecunious Streff; and he wanted to show her, ever so casually and adroitly, that the man who had asked her to marry him was no longer Strefford, but Lord Altringham.

At the very threshold, his Ambassador’s greeting marked the difference: it was followed, wherever they turned, by ejaculations of welcome from the rulers of the world they moved in. Everybody rich enough or titled enough, or clever enough or stupid enough, to have forced a way into the social citadel, was there, waving and flag-flying from the battlements; and to all of them Lord Altringham had become a marked figure. During their slow progress through the dense mass of important people who made the approach to the pictures so well worth fighting for, he never left Susy’s side, or failed to make her feel herself a part of his triumphal advance. She heard her name mentioned: “Lansing — a Mrs. Lansing — an American . . . Susy Lansing? Yes, of course. . . . You remember her? At Newport, At St. Moritz? Exactly. . . . Divorced already? They say so . . . Susy darling! I’d no idea you were here . . . and Lord Altringham! You’ve forgotten me, I know, Lord Altringham. . . . Yes, last year, in Cairo . . . or at Newport . . . or in Scotland . . . Susy, dearest, when will you bring Lord Altringham to dine? Any night that you and he are free I’ll arrange to be. . . . ”

“You and he”: they were “you and he” already!

“Ah, there’s one of them — of my great-grandmothers,” Strefford explained, giving a last push that drew him and Susy to the front rank, before a tall isolated portrait which, by sheer majesty of presentment, sat in its great carved golden frame as on a throne above the other pictures.

Susy read on the scroll beneath it: “The Hon’ble Diana Lefanu, fifteenth Countess of Altringham” — and heard Strefford say: “Do you remember? It hangs where you noticed the empty space above the mantel-piece, in the Vandyke room. They say Reynolds stipulated that it should be put with the Vandykes.”

She had never before heard him speak of his possessions, whether ancestral or merely material, in just that full and satisfied tone of voice: the rich man’s voice. She saw that he was already feeling the influence of his surroundings, that he was glad the portrait of a Countess of Altringham should occupy the central place in the principal room of the exhibition, that the crowd about it should be denser there than before any of the other pictures, and that he should be standing there with Susy, letting her feel, and letting all the people about them guess, that the day she chose she could wear the same name as his pictured ancestress.

On the way back to her hotel, Strefford made no farther allusion to their future; they chatted like old comrades in their respective corners of the taxi. But as the carriage stopped at her door he said: “I must go back to England the day after to-morrow, worse luck! Why not dine with me to-night at the Nouveau Luxe? I’ve got to have the Ambassador and Lady Ascot, with their youngest girl and my old Dunes aunt, the Dowager Duchess, who’s over here hiding from her creditors; but I’ll try to get two or three amusing men to leaven the lump. We might go on to a boite afterward, if you’re bored. Unless the dancing amuses you more. . . . ”

She understood that he had decided to hasten his departure rather than linger on in uncertainty; she also remembered having heard the Ascots’ youngest daughter, Lady Joan Senechal, spoken of as one of the prettiest girls of the season; and she recalled the almost exaggerated warmth of the Ambassador’s greeting at the private view.

“Of course I’ll come, Streff dear!” she cried, with an effort at gaiety that sounded successful to her own strained ears, and reflected itself in the sudden lighting up of his face.

She waved a good-bye from the step, saying to herself, as she looked after him: “He’ll drive me home to-night, and I shall say ‘yes’; and then he’ll kiss me again. But the next time it won’t be nearly as disagreeable.”

She turned into the hotel, glanced automatically at the empty pigeon-hole for letters under her key-hook, and mounted the stairs following the same train of images. “Yes, I shall say ‘yes’ to-night,” she repeated firmly, her hand on the door of her room. “That is, unless, they’ve brought up a letter. . . . ” She never re-entered the hotel without imagining that the letter she had not found below had already been brought up.

Opening the door, she turned on the light and sprang to the table on which her correspondence sometimes awaited her.

There was no letter; but the morning papers, still unread, lay at hand, and glancing listlessly down the column which chronicles the doings of society, she read:

“After an extended cruise in the AEgean and the Black Sea on their steam-yacht Ibis, Mr. and Mrs. Mortimer Hicks and their daughter are established at the Nouveau Luxe in Rome. They have lately had the honour of entertaining at dinner the Reigning Prince of Teutoburger–Waldhain and his mother the Princess Dowager, with their suite. Among those invited to meet their Serene Highnesses were the French and Spanish Ambassadors, the Duchesse de Vichy, Prince and Princess Bagnidilucca, Lady Penelope Pantiles — ” Susy’s eye flew impatiently on over the long list of titles — “and Mr. Nicholas Lansing of New York, who has been cruising with Mr. and Mrs. Hicks on the Ibis for the last few months.”

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