The Glimpses of the Moon, by Edith Wharton

XXIII

AS she fled on toward the lights of the streets a breath of freedom seemed to blow into her face.

Like a weary load the accumulated hypocrisies of the last months had dropped from her: she was herself again, Nick’s Susy, and no one else’s. She sped on, staring with bright bewildered eyes at the stately facades of the La Muette quarter, the perspectives of bare trees, the awakening glitter of shop-windows holding out to her all the things she would never again be able to buy. . . .

In an avenue of shops she paused before a milliner’s window, and said to herself: “Why shouldn’t I earn my living by trimming hats?” She met work-girls streaming out under a doorway, and scattering to catch trams and omnibuses; and she looked with newly-wakened interest at their tired independent faces. “Why shouldn’t I earn my living as well as they do?” she thought. A little farther on she passed a Sister of Charity with softly trotting feet, a calm anonymous glance, and hands hidden in her capacious sleeves. Susy looked at her and thought: “Why shouldn’t I be a Sister, and have no money to worry about, and trot about under a white coif helping poor people?”

All these strangers on whom she smiled in passing, and glanced back at enviously, were free from the necessities that enslaved her, and would not have known what she meant if she had told them that she must have so much money for her dresses, so much for her cigarettes, so much for bridge and cabs and tips, and all kinds of extras, and that at that moment she ought to be hurrying back to a dinner at the British Embassy, where her permanent right to such luxuries was to be solemnly recognized and ratified.

The artificiality and unreality of her life overcame her as with stifling fumes. She stopped at a street-corner, drawing long panting breaths as if she had been running a race. Then, slowly and aimlessly, she began to saunter along a street of small private houses in damp gardens that led to the Avenue du Bois. She sat down on a bench. Not far off, the Arc de Triomphe raised its august bulk, and beyond it a river of lights streamed down toward Paris, and the stir of the city’s heart-beats troubled the quiet in her bosom. But not for long. She seemed to be looking at it all from the other side of the grave; and as she got up and wandered down the Champs Elysees, half empty in the evening lull between dusk and dinner, she felt as if the glittering avenue were really changed into the Field of Shadows from which it takes its name, and as if she were a ghost among ghosts.

Halfway home, a weakness of loneliness overcame her, and she seated herself under the trees near the Rond Point. Lines of motors and carriages were beginning to animate the converging thoroughfares, streaming abreast, crossing, winding in and out of each other in a tangle of hurried pleasure-seeking. She caught the light on jewels and shirt-fronts and hard bored eyes emerging from dim billows of fur and velvet. She seemed to hear what the couples were saying to each other, she pictured the drawing-rooms, restaurants, dance-halls they were hastening to, the breathless routine that was hurrying them along, as Time, the old vacuum-cleaner, swept them away with the dust of their carriage-wheels. And again the loneliness vanished in a sense of release. . . .

At the corner of the Place de la Concorde she stopped, recognizing a man in evening dress who was hailing a taxi. Their eyes met, and Nelson Vanderlyn came forward. He was the last person she cared to run across, and she shrank back involuntarily. What did he know, what had he guessed, of her complicity in his wife’s affairs? No doubt Ellie had blabbed it all out by this time; she was just as likely to confide her love-affairs to Nelson as to anyone else, now that the Bockheimer prize was landed.

“Well — well — well — so I’ve caught you at it! Glad to see you, Susy, my dear.” She found her hand cordially clasped in Vanderlyn’s, and his round pink face bent on her with all its old urbanity. Did nothing matter, then, in this world she was fleeing from, did no one love or hate or remember?

“No idea you were in Paris — just got here myself,” Vanderlyn continued, visibly delighted at the meeting. “Look here, don’t suppose you’re out of a job this evening by any chance, and would come and cheer up a lone bachelor, eh? No? You are? Well, that’s luck for once! I say, where shall we go? One of the places where they dance, I suppose? Yes, I twirl the light fantastic once in a while myself. Got to keep up with the times! Hold on, taxi! Here — I’ll drive you home first, and wait while you jump into your toggery. Lots of time.” As he steered her toward the carriage she noticed that he had a gouty limp, and pulled himself in after her with difficulty.

“Mayn’t I come as I am, Nelson, I don’t feel like dancing. Let’s go and dine in one of those nice smoky little restaurants by the Place de la Bourse.”

He seemed surprised but relieved at the suggestion, and they rolled off together. In a corner at Bauge’s they found a quiet table, screened from the other diners, and while Vanderlyn adjusted his eyeglasses to study the carte Susy stole a long look at him. He was dressed with even more than his usual formal trimness, and she detected, in an ultra-flat wrist-watch and discreetly expensive waistcoat buttons, an attempt at smartness altogether new. His face had undergone the same change: its familiar look of worn optimism had been, as it were, done up to match his clothes, as though a sort of moral cosmetic had made him pinker, shinier and sprightlier without really rejuvenating him. A thin veil of high spirits had merely been drawn over his face, as the shining strands of hair were skilfully brushed over his baldness.

“Here! Carte des vins, waiter! What champagne, Susy?” He chose, fastidiously, the best the cellar could produce, grumbling a little at the bourgeois character of the dishes. “Capital food of its kind, no doubt, but coarsish, don’t you think? Well, I don’t mind . . . it’s rather a jolly change from the Luxe cooking. A new sensation — I’m all for new sensations, ain’t you, my dear?” He re-filled their champagne glasses, flung an arm sideways over his chair, and smiled at her with a foggy benevolence.

As the champagne flowed his confidences flowed with it.

“Suppose you know what I’m here for — this divorce business? We wanted to settle it quietly without a fuss, and of course Paris is the best place for that sort of job. Live and let live; no questions asked. None of your dirty newspapers. Great country, this. No hypocrisy . . . they understand Life over here!”

Susy gazed and listened. She remembered that people had thought Nelson would make a row when he found out. He had always been addicted to truculent anecdotes about unfaithful wives, and the very formula of his perpetual ejaculation — “Caught you at it, eh?” — seemed to hint at a constant preoccupation with such ideas. But now it was evident that, as the saying was, he had “swallowed his dose” like all the others. No strong blast of indignation had momentarily lifted him above his normal stature: he remained a little man among little men, and his eagerness to rebuild his life with all the old smiling optimism reminded Susy of the patient industry of an ant remaking its ruined ant-heap.

“Tell you what, great thing, this liberty! Everything’s changed nowadays; why shouldn’t marriage be too? A man can get out of a business partnership when he wants to; but the parsons want to keep us noosed up to each other for life because we’ve blundered into a church one day and said ‘Yes’ before one of ’em. No, no — that’s too easy. We’ve got beyond that. Science, and all these new discoveries. . . . I say the Ten Commandments were made for man, and not man for the Commandments; and there ain’t a word against divorce in ’em, anyhow! That’s what I tell my poor old mother, who builds everything on her Bible. Find me the place where it says: ‘Thou shalt not sue for divorce.’ It makes her wild, poor old lady, because she can’t; and she doesn’t know how they happen to have left it out. . . . I rather think Moses left it out because he knew more about human nature than these snivelling modern parsons do. Not that they’ll always bear investigating either; but I don’t care about that. Live and let live, eh, Susy? Haven’t we all got a right to our Affinities? I hear you’re following our example yourself. First-rate idea: I don’t mind telling you I saw it coming on last summer at Venice. Caught you at it, so to speak! Old Nelson ain’t as blind as people think. Here, let’s open another bottle to the health of Streff and Mrs. Streff!”

She caught the hand with which he was signalling to the sommelier. This flushed and garrulous Nelson moved her more poignantly than a more heroic figure. “No more champagne, please, Nelson. Besides,” she suddenly added, “it’s not true.”

He stared. “Not true that you’re going to marry Altringham?”

“No.”

“By George then what on earth did you chuck Nick for? Ain’t you got an Affinity, my dear?”

She laughed and shook her head.

“Do you mean to tell me it’s all Nick’s doing, then?”

“I don’t know. Let’s talk of you instead, Nelson. I’m glad you’re in such good spirits. I rather thought — ”

He interrupted her quickly. “Thought I’d cut up a rumpus-do some shooting? I know — people did.” He twisted his moustache, evidently proud of his reputation. “Well, maybe I did see red for a day or two — but I’m a philosopher, first and last. Before I went into banking I’d made and lost two fortunes out West. Well, how did I build ’em up again? Not by shooting anybody even myself. By just buckling to, and beginning all over again. That’s how . . . and that’s what I am doing now. Beginning all over again.” His voice dropped from boastfulness to a note of wistful melancholy, the look of strained jauntiness fell from his face like a mask, and for an instant she saw the real man, old, ruined, lonely. Yes, that was it: he was lonely, desperately lonely, foundering in such deep seas of solitude that any presence out of the past was like a spar to which he clung. Whatever he knew or guessed of the part she had played in his disaster, it was not callousness that had made him greet her with such forgiving warmth, but the same sense of smallness, insignificance and isolation which perpetually hung like a cold fog on her own horizon. Suddenly she too felt old — old and unspeakably tired.

“It’s been nice seeing you, Nelson. But now I must be getting home.”

He offered no objection, but asked for the bill, resumed his jaunty air while he scattered largesse among the waiters, and sauntered out behind her after calling for a taxi.

They drove off in silence. Susy was thinking: “And Clarissa?” but dared not ask. Vanderlyn lit a cigarette, hummed a dance-tune, and stared out of the window. Suddenly she felt his hand on hers.

“Susy — do you ever see her?”

“See — Ellie?”

He nodded, without turning toward her.

“Not often . . . sometimes. . . . ”

“If you do, for God’s sake tell her I’m happy . . . happy as a king . . . tell her you could see for yourself that I was. . . . ” His voice broke in a little gasp. “I . . . I’ll be damned if . . . if she shall ever be unhappy about me . . . if I can help it. . . . ” The cigarette dropped from his fingers, and with a sob he covered his face.

“Oh, poor Nelson — poor Nelson,” Susy breathed. While their cab rattled across the Place du Carrousel, and over the bridge, he continued to sit beside her with hidden face. At last he pulled out a scented handkerchief, rubbed his eyes with it, and groped for another cigarette.

“I’m all right! Tell her that, will you, Susy? There are some of our old times I don’t suppose I shall ever forget; but they make me feel kindly to her, and not angry. I didn’t know it would be so, beforehand — but it is. . . . And now the thing’s settled I’m as right as a trivet, and you can tell her so. . . . Look here, Susy . . . ” he caught her by the arm as the taxi drew up at her hotel. . . . “Tell her I understand, will you? I’d rather like her to know that. . . . ”

“I’ll tell her, Nelson,” she promised; and climbed the stairs alone to her dreary room.

Susy’s one fear was that Strefford, when he returned the next day, should treat their talk of the previous evening as a fit of “nerves” to be jested away. He might, indeed, resent her behaviour too deeply to seek to see her at once; but his easygoing modern attitude toward conduct and convictions made that improbable. She had an idea that what he had most minded was her dropping so unceremoniously out of the Embassy Dinner.

But, after all, why should she see him again? She had had enough of explanations during the last months to have learned how seldom they explain anything. If the other person did not understand at the first word, at the first glance even, subsequent elucidations served only to deepen the obscurity. And she wanted above all — and especially since her hour with Nelson Vanderlyn — to keep herself free, aloof, to retain her hold on her precariously recovered self. She sat down and wrote to Strefford — and the letter was only a little less painful to write than the one she had despatched to Nick. It was not that her own feelings were in any like measure engaged; but because, as the decision to give up Strefford affirmed itself, she remembered only his kindness, his forbearance, his good humour, and all the other qualities she had always liked in him; and because she felt ashamed of the hesitations which must cause him so much pain and humiliation. Yes: humiliation chiefly. She knew that what she had to say would hurt his pride, in whatever way she framed her renunciation; and her pen wavered, hating its task. Then she remembered Vanderlyn’s words about his wife: “There are some of our old times I don’t suppose I shall ever forget — ” and a phrase of Grace Fulmer’s that she had but half grasped at the time: “You haven’t been married long enough to understand how trifling such things seem in the balance of one’s memories.”

Here were two people who had penetrated farther than she into the labyrinth of the wedded state, and struggled through some of its thorniest passages; and yet both, one consciously, the other half-unaware, testified to the mysterious fact which was already dawning on her: that the influence of a marriage begun in mutual understanding is too deep not to reassert itself even in the moment of flight and denial.

“The real reason is that you’re not Nick” was what she would have said to Strefford if she had dared to set down the bare truth; and she knew that, whatever she wrote, he was too acute not to read that into it.

“He’ll think it’s because I’m still in love with Nick . . . and perhaps I am. But even if I were, the difference doesn’t seem to lie there, after all, but deeper, in things we’ve shared that seem to be meant to outlast love, or to change it into something different.” If she could have hoped to make Strefford understand that, the letter would have been easy enough to write — but she knew just at what point his imagination would fail, in what obvious and superficial inferences it would rest.

“Poor Streff — poor me!” she thought as she sealed the letter.

After she had despatched it a sense of blankness descended on her. She had succeeded in driving from her mind all vain hesitations, doubts, returns upon herself: her healthy system naturally rejected them. But they left a queer emptiness in which her thoughts rattled about as thoughts might, she supposed, in the first moments after death — before one got used to it. To get used to being dead: that seemed to be her immediate business. And she felt such a novice at it — felt so horribly alive! How had those others learned to do without living? Nelson — well, he was still in the throes; and probably never would understand, or be able to communicate, the lesson when he had mastered it. But Grace Fulmer — she suddenly remembered that Grace was in Paris, and set forth to find her.

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