The Glimpses of the Moon, by Edith Wharton

XX

THE Mortimer Hickses were in Rome; not, as they would in former times have been, in one of the antiquated hostelries of the Piazza di Spagna or the Porta del Popolo, where of old they had so gaily defied fever and nourished themselves on local colour; but spread out, with all the ostentation of philistine millionaires, under the piano nobile ceilings of one of the high-perched “Palaces,” where, as Mrs. Hicks shamelessly declared, they could “rely on the plumbing,” and “have the privilege of over-looking the Queen Mother’s Gardens.”

It was that speech, uttered with beaming aplomb at a dinner-table surrounded by the cosmopolitan nobility of the Eternal City, that had suddenly revealed to Lansing the profound change in the Hicks point of view.

As he looked back over the four months since he had so unexpectedly joined the Ibis at Genoa, he saw that the change, at first insidious and unperceived, dated from the ill-fated day when the Hickses had run across a Reigning Prince on his travels.

Hitherto they had been proof against such perils: both Mr. and Mrs. Hicks had often declared that the aristocracy of the intellect was the only one which attracted them. But in this case the Prince possessed an intellect, in addition to his few square miles of territory, and to one of the most beautiful Field Marshal’s uniforms that had ever encased a royal warrior. The Prince was not a warrior, however; he was stooping, pacific and spectacled, and his possession of the uniform had been revealed to Mrs. Hicks only by the gift of a full-length photograph in a Bond Street frame, with Anastasius written slantingly across its legs. The Prince — and herein lay the Hickses’ undoing — the Prince was an archaeologist: an earnest anxious enquiring and scrupulous archaeologist. Delicate health (so his suite hinted) banished him for a part of each year from his cold and foggy principality; and in the company of his mother, the active and enthusiastic Dowager Princess, he wandered from one Mediterranean shore to another, now assisting at the exhumation of Ptolemaic mummies, now at the excavation of Delphic temples or of North African basilicas. The beginning of winter usually brought the Prince and his mother to Rome or Nice, unless indeed they were summoned by family duties to Berlin, Vienna or Madrid; for an extended connection with the principal royal houses of Europe compelled them, as the Princess Mother said, to be always burying or marrying a cousin. At other moments they were seldom seen in the glacial atmosphere of courts, preferring to royal palaces those of the other, and more modern type, in one of which the Hickses were now lodged.

Yes: the Prince and his mother (they gaily avowed it) revelled in Palace Hotels; and, being unable to afford the luxury of inhabiting them, they liked, as often as possible, to be invited to dine there by their friends — “or even to tea, my dear,” the Princess laughingly avowed, “for I’m so awfully fond of buttered scones; and Anastasius gives me so little to eat in the desert.”

The encounter with these ambulant Highnesses had been fatal — Lansing now perceived it — to Mrs. Hicks’s principles. She had known a great many archaeologists, but never one as agreeable as the Prince, and above all never one who had left a throne to camp in the desert and delve in Libyan tombs. And it seemed to her infinitely pathetic that these two gifted beings, who grumbled when they had to go to “marry a cousin” at the Palace of St. James or of Madrid, and hastened back breathlessly to the far-off point where, metaphorically speaking, pick-axe and spade had dropped from their royal hands — that these heirs of the ages should be unable to offer themselves the comforts of up-to-date hotel life, and should enjoy themselves “like babies” when they were invited to the other kind of “Palace,” to feast on buttered scones and watch the tango.

She simply could not bear the thought of their privations; and neither, after a time, could Mr. Hicks, who found the Prince more democratic than anyone he had ever known at Apex City, and was immensely interested by the fact that their spectacles came from the same optician.

But it was, above all, the artistic tendencies of the Prince and his mother which had conquered the Hickses. There was fascination in the thought that, among the rabble of vulgar uneducated royalties who overran Europe from Biarritz to the Engadine, gambling, tangoing, and sponging on no less vulgar plebeians, they, the unobtrusive and self-respecting Hickses, should have had the luck to meet this cultivated pair, who joined them in gentle ridicule of their own frivolous kinsfolk, and whose tastes were exactly those of the eccentric, unreliable and sometimes money-borrowing persons who had hitherto represented the higher life to the Hickses.

Now at last Mrs. Hicks saw the possibility of being at once artistic and luxurious, of surrendering herself to the joys of modern plumbing and yet keeping the talk on the highest level. “If the poor dear Princess wants to dine at the Nouveau Luxe why shouldn’t we give her that pleasure?” Mrs. Hicks smilingly enquired; “and as for enjoying her buttered scones like a baby, as she says, I think it’s the sweetest thing about her.”

Coral Hicks did not join in this chorus; but she accepted, with her curious air of impartiality, the change in her parents’ manner of life, and for the first time (as Nick observed) occupied herself with her mother’s toilet, with the result that Mrs. Hicks’s outline became firmer, her garments soberer in hue and finer in material; so that, should anyone chance to detect the daughter’s likeness to her mother, the result was less likely to be disturbing.

Such precautions were the more needful — Lansing could not but note because of the different standards of the society in which the Hickses now moved. For it was a curious fact that admission to the intimacy of the Prince and his mother — who continually declared themselves to be the pariahs, the outlaws, the Bohemians among crowned heads nevertheless involved not only living in Palace Hotels but mixing with those who frequented them. The Prince’s aide-de-camp — an agreeable young man of easy manners — had smilingly hinted that their Serene Highnesses, though so thoroughly democratic and unceremonious, were yet accustomed to inspecting in advance the names of the persons whom their hosts wished to invite with them; and Lansing noticed that Mrs. Hicks’s lists, having been “submitted,” usually came back lengthened by the addition of numerous wealthy and titled guests. Their Highnesses never struck out a name; they welcomed with enthusiasm and curiosity the Hickses’ oddest and most inexplicable friends, at most putting off some of them to a later day on the plea that it would be “cosier” to meet them on a more private occasion; but they invariably added to the list any friends of their own, with the gracious hint that they wished these latter (though socially so well-provided for) to have the “immense privilege” of knowing the Hickses. And thus it happened that when October gales necessitated laying up the Ibis, the Hickses, finding again in Rome the august travellers from whom they had parted the previous month in Athens, also found their visiting-list enlarged by all that the capital contained of fashion.

It was true enough, as Lansing had not failed to note, that the Princess Mother adored prehistoric art, and Russian music, and the paintings of Gauguin and Matisse; but she also, and with a beaming unconsciousness of perspective, adored large pearls and powerful motors, caravan tea and modern plumbing, perfumed cigarettes and society scandals; and her son, while apparently less sensible to these forms of luxury, adored his mother, and was charmed to gratify her inclinations without cost to himself — “Since poor Mamma,” as he observed, “is so courageous when we are roughing it in the desert.”

The smiling aide-de-camp, who explained these things to Lansing, added with an intenser smile that the Prince and his mother were under obligations, either social or cousinly, to most of the titled persons whom they begged Mrs. Hicks to invite; “and it seems to their Serene Highnesses,” he added, “the most flattering return they can make for the hospitality of their friends to give them such an intellectual opportunity.”

The dinner-table at which their Highnesses’ friends were seated on the evening in question represented, numerically, one of the greatest intellectual opportunities yet afforded them. Thirty guests were grouped about the flower-wreathed board, from which Eldorada and Mr. Beck had been excluded on the plea that the Princess Mother liked cosy parties and begged her hosts that there should never be more than thirty at table. Such, at least, was the reason given by Mrs. Hicks to her faithful followers; but Lansing had observed that, of late, the same skilled hand which had refashioned the Hickses’ social circle usually managed to exclude from it the timid presences of the two secretaries. Their banishment was the more displeasing to Lansing from the fact that, for the last three months, he had filled Mr. Buttles’s place, and was himself their salaried companion. But since he had accepted the post, his obvious duty was to fill it in accordance with his employers’ requirements; and it was clear even to Eldorada and Mr. Beck that he had, as Eldorada ungrudgingly said, “Something of Mr. Buttles’s marvellous social gifts.”

During the cruise his task had not been distasteful to him. He was glad of any definite duties, however trivial, he felt more independent as the Hickses’ secretary than as their pampered guest, and the large cheque which Mr. Hicks handed over to him on the first of each month refreshed his languishing sense of self-respect.

He considered himself absurdly over-paid, but that was the Hickses’ affair; and he saw nothing humiliating in being in the employ of people he liked and respected. But from the moment of the ill-fated encounter with the wandering Princes, his position had changed as much as that of his employers. He was no longer, to Mr. and Mrs. Hicks, a useful and estimable assistant, on the same level as Eldorada and Mr. Beck; he had become a social asset of unsuspected value, equalling Mr. Buttles in his capacity for dealing with the mysteries of foreign etiquette, and surpassing him in the art of personal attraction. Nick Lansing, the Hickses found, already knew most of the Princess Mother’s rich and aristocratic friends. Many of them hailed him with enthusiastic “Old Nicks”, and he was almost as familiar as His Highness’s own aide-de-camp with all those secret ramifications of love and hate that made dinner-giving so much more of a science in Rome than at Apex City.

Mrs. Hicks, at first, had hopelessly lost her way in this labyrinth of subterranean scandals, rivalries and jealousies; and finding Lansing’s hand within reach she clung to it with pathetic tenacity. But if the young man’s value had risen in the eyes of his employers it had deteriorated in his own. He was condemned to play a part he had not bargained for, and it seemed to him more degrading when paid in bank-notes than if his retribution had consisted merely in good dinners and luxurious lodgings. The first time the smiling aide-de-camp had caught his eye over a verbal slip of Mrs. Hicks’s, Nick had flushed to the forehead and gone to bed swearing that he would chuck his job the next day.

Two months had passed since then, and he was still the paid secretary. He had contrived to let the aide-de-camp feel that he was too deficient in humour to be worth exchanging glances with; but even this had not restored his self-respect, and on the evening in question, as he looked about the long table, he said to himself for the hundredth time that he would give up his position on the morrow.

Only — what was the alternative? The alternative, apparently, was Coral Hicks. He glanced down the line of diners, beginning with the tall lean countenance of the Princess Mother, with its small inquisitive eyes perched as high as attic windows under a frizzled thatch of hair and a pediment of uncleaned diamonds; passed on to the vacuous and overfed or fashionably haggard masks of the ladies next in rank; and finally caught, between branching orchids, a distant glimpse of Miss Hicks.

In contrast with the others, he thought, she looked surprisingly noble. Her large grave features made her appear like an old monument in a street of Palace Hotels; and he marvelled at the mysterious law which had brought this archaic face out of Apex City, and given to the oldest society of Europe a look of such mixed modernity.

Lansing perceived that the aide-de-camp, who was his neighbour, was also looking at Miss Hicks. His expression was serious, and even thoughtful; but as his eyes met Lansing’s he readjusted his official smile.

“I was admiring our hostess’s daughter. Her absence of jewels is — er — an inspiration,” he remarked in the confidential tone which Lansing had come to dread.

“Oh, Miss Hicks is full of inspirations,” he returned curtly, and the aide-de-camp bowed with an admiring air, as if inspirations were rarer than pearls, as in his milieu they undoubtedly were. “She is the equal of any situation, I am sure,” he replied; and then abandoned the subject with one of his automatic transitions.

After dinner, in the embrasure of a drawing-room window, he surprised Nick by returning to the same topic, and this time without thinking it needful to readjust his smile. His face remained serious, though his manner was studiously informal.

“I was admiring, at dinner, Miss Hicks’s invariable sense of appropriateness. It must permit her friends to foresee for her almost any future, however exalted.”

Lansing hesitated, and controlled his annoyance. Decidedly he wanted to know what was in his companion’s mind.

“What do you mean by exalted?” he asked, with a smile of faint amusement.

“Well — equal to her marvellous capacity for shining in the public eye.”

Lansing still smiled. “The question is, I suppose, whether her desire to shine equals her capacity.”

The aide-de-camp stared. “You mean, she’s not ambitious?”

“On the contrary; I believe her to be immeasurably ambitious.”

“Immeasurably?” The aide-de-camp seemed to try to measure it. “But not, surely, beyond — beyond what we can offer,” his eyes completed the sentence; and it was Lansing’s turn to stare. The aide-de-camp faced the stare. “Yes,” his eyes concluded in a flash, while his lips let fall: “The Princess Mother admires her immensely.” But at that moment a wave of Mrs. Hicks’s fan drew them hurriedly from their embrasure.

“Professor Darchivio had promised to explain to us the difference between the Sassanian and Byzantine motives in Carolingian art; but the Manager has sent up word that the two new Creole dancers from Paris have arrived, and her Serene Highness wants to pop down to the ball-room and take a peep at them. . . . She’s sure the Professor will understand. . . . ”

“And accompany us, of course,” the Princess irresistibly added.

Lansing’s brief colloquy in the Nouveau Luxe window had lifted the scales from his eyes. Innumerable dim corners of memory had been flooded with light by that one quick glance of the aide-de-camp’s: things he had heard, hints he had let pass, smiles, insinuations, cordialities, rumours of the improbability of the Prince’s founding a family, suggestions as to the urgent need of replenishing the Teutoburger treasury. . . .

Miss Hicks, perforce, had accompanied her parents and their princely guests to the ballroom; but as she did not dance, and took little interest in the sight of others so engaged, she remained aloof from the party, absorbed in an archaeological discussion with the baffled but smiling savant who was to have enlightened the party on the difference between Sassanian and Byzantine ornament.

Lansing, also aloof, had picked out a post from which he could observe the girl: she wore a new look to him since he had seen her as the centre of all these scattered threads of intrigue. Yes; decidedly she was growing handsomer; or else she had learned how to set off her massive lines instead of trying to disguise them. As she held up her long eye-glass to glance absently at the dancers he was struck by the large beauty of her arm and the careless assurance of the gesture. There was nothing nervous or fussy about Coral Hicks; and he was not surprised that, plastically at least, the Princess Mother had discerned her possibilities.

Nick Lansing, all that night, sat up and stared at his future. He knew enough of the society into which the Hickses had drifted to guess that, within a very short time, the hint of the Prince’s aide-de-camp would reappear in the form of a direct proposal. Lansing himself would probably — as the one person in the Hicks entourage with whom one could intelligibly commune-be entrusted with the next step in the negotiations: he would be asked, as the aide-de-camp would have said, “to feel the ground.” It was clearly part of the state policy of Teutoburg to offer Miss Hicks, with the hand of its sovereign, an opportunity to replenish its treasury.

What would the girl do? Lansing could not guess; yet he dimly felt that her attitude would depend in a great degree upon his own. And he knew no more what his own was going to be than on the night, four months earlier, when he had flung out of his wife’s room in Venice to take the midnight express for Genoa.

The whole of his past, and above all the tendency, on which he had once prided himself, to live in the present and take whatever chances it offered, now made it harder for him to act. He began to see that he had never, even in the closest relations of life, looked ahead of his immediate satisfaction. He had thought it rather fine to be able to give himself so intensely to the fullness of each moment instead of hurrying past it in pursuit of something more, or something else, in the manner of the over-scrupulous or the under-imaginative, whom he had always grouped together and equally pitied. It was not till he had linked his life with Susy’s that he had begun to feel it reaching forward into a future he longed to make sure of, to fasten upon and shape to his own wants and purposes, till, by an imperceptible substitution, that future had become his real present, his all-absorbing moment of time.

Now the moment was shattered, and the power to rebuild it failed him. He had never before thought about putting together broken bits: he felt like a man whose house has been wrecked by an earthquake, and who, for lack of skilled labour, is called upon for the first time to wield a trowel and carry bricks. He simply did not know how.

Will-power, he saw, was not a thing one could suddenly decree oneself to possess. It must be built up imperceptibly and laboriously out of a succession of small efforts to meet definite objects, out of the facing of daily difficulties instead of cleverly eluding them, or shifting their burden on others. The making of the substance called character was a process about as slow and arduous as the building of the Pyramids; and the thing itself, like those awful edifices, was mainly useful to lodge one’s descendants in, after they too were dust. Yet the Pyramid-instinct was the one which had made the world, made man, and caused his fugitive joys to linger like fading frescoes on imperishable walls. . . .

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