The Glimpses of the Moon, by Edith Wharton

XXIV

NICK LANSING had walked out a long way into the Campagna. His hours were seldom his own, for both Mr. and Mrs. Hicks were becoming more and more addicted to sudden and somewhat imperious demands upon his time; but on this occasion he had simply slipped away after luncheon, and taking the tram to the Porta Salaria, had wandered on thence in the direction of the Ponte Nomentano.

He wanted to get away and think; but now that he had done it the business proved as unfruitful as everything he had put his hand to since he had left Venice. Think — think about what? His future seemed to him a negligible matter since he had received, two months earlier, the few lines in which Susy had asked him for her freedom.

The letter had been a shock — though he had fancied himself so prepared for it — yet it had also, in another sense, been a relief, since, now that at last circumstances compelled him to write to her, they also told him what to say. And he had said it as briefly and simply as possible, telling her that he would put no obstacle in the way of her release, that he held himself at her lawyer’s disposal to answer any further communication — and that he would never forget their days together, or cease to bless her for them.

That was all. He gave his Roman banker’s address, and waited for another letter; but none came. Probably the “formalities,” whatever they were, took longer than he had supposed; and being in no haste to recover his own liberty, he did not try to learn the cause of the delay. From that moment, however, he considered himself virtually free, and ceased, by the same token, to take any interest in his own future. His life seemed as flat as a convalescent’s first days after the fever has dropped.

The only thing he was sure of was that he was not going to remain in the Hickses’ employ: when they left Rome for Central Asia he had no intention of accompanying them. The part of Mr. Buttles’ successor was becoming daily more intolerable to him, for the very reasons that had probably made it most gratifying to Mr. Buttles. To be treated by Mr. and Mrs. Hicks as a paid oracle, a paraded and petted piece of property, was a good deal more distasteful than he could have imagined any relation with these kindly people could be. And since their aspirations had become frankly social he found his task, if easier, yet far less congenial than during his first months with them. He preferred patiently explaining to Mrs. Hicks, for the hundredth time, that Sassanian and Saracenic were not interchangeable terms, to unravelling for her the genealogies of her titled guests, and reminding her, when she “seated” her dinner-parties, that Dukes ranked higher than Princes. No — the job was decidedly intolerable; and he would have to look out for another means of earning his living. But that was not what he had really got away to think about. He knew he should never starve; he had even begun to believe again in his book. What he wanted to think of was Susy — or rather, it was Susy that he could not help thinking of, on whatever train of thought he set out.

Again and again he fancied he had established a truce with the past: had come to terms — the terms of defeat and failure with that bright enemy called happiness. And, in truth, he had reached the point of definitely knowing that he could never return to the kind of life that he and Susy had embarked on. It had been the tragedy, of their relation that loving her roused in him ideals she could never satisfy. He had fallen in love with her because she was, like himself, amused, unprejudiced and disenchanted; and he could not go on loving her unless she ceased to be all these things. From that circle there was no issue, and in it he desperately revolved.

If he had not heard such persistent rumours of her re-marriage to Lord Altringham he might have tried to see her again; but, aware of the danger and the hopelessness of a meeting, he was, on the whole, glad to have a reason for avoiding it. Such, at least, he honestly supposed to be his state of mind until he found himself, as on this occasion, free to follow out his thought to its end. That end, invariably, was Susy; not the bundle of qualities and defects into which his critical spirit had tried to sort her out, but the soft blur of identity, of personality, of eyes, hair, mouth, laugh, tricks of speech and gesture, that were all so solely and profoundly her own, and yet so mysteriously independent of what she might do, say, think, in crucial circumstances. He remembered her once saying to him: “After all, you were right when you wanted me to be your mistress,” and the indignant stare of incredulity with which he had answered her. Yet in these hours it was the palpable image of her that clung closest, till, as invariably happened, his vision came full circle, and feeling her on his breast he wanted her also in his soul.

Well — such all-encompassing loves were the rarest of human experiences; he smiled at his presumption in wanting no other. Wearily he turned, and tramped homeward through the winter twilight. . . .

At the door of the hotel he ran across the Prince of Teutoburg’s aide-de-camp. They had not met for some days, and Nick had a vague feeling that if the Prince’s matrimonial designs took definite shape he himself was not likely, after all, to be their chosen exponent. He had surprised, now and then, a certain distrustful coldness under the Princess Mother’s cordial glance, and had concluded that she perhaps suspected him of being an obstacle to her son’s aspirations. He had no idea of playing that part, but was not sorry to appear to; for he was sincerely attached to Coral Hicks, and hoped for her a more human fate than that of becoming Prince Anastasius’s consort.

This evening, however, he was struck by the beaming alacrity of the aide-de-camp’s greeting. Whatever cloud had hung between them had lifted: the Teutoburg clan, for one reason or another, no longer feared or distrusted him. The change was conveyed in a mere hand-pressure, a brief exchange of words, for the aide-de-camp was hastening after a well-known dowager of the old Roman world, whom he helped into a large coronetted brougham which looked as if it had been extracted, for some ceremonial purpose, from a museum of historic vehicles. And in an instant it flashed on Lansing that this lady had been the person chosen to lay the Prince’s offer at Miss Hicks’s feet.

The discovery piqued him; and instead of making straight for his own room he went up to Mrs. Hicks’s drawing-room.

The room was empty, but traces of elaborate tea pervaded it, and an immense bouquet of stiff roses lay on the centre table. As he turned away, Eldorada Tooker, flushed and tear-stained, abruptly entered.

“Oh, Mr. Lansing — we were looking everywhere for you.”

“Looking for me?”

“Yes. Coral especially . . . she wants to see you. She wants you to come to her own sitting-room.”

She led him across the ante-chamber and down the passage to the separate suite which Miss Hicks inhabited. On the threshold Eldorada gasped out emotionally: “You’ll find her looking lovely — ” and jerked away with a sob as he entered.

Coral Hicks was never lovely: but she certainly looked unusually handsome. Perhaps it was the long dress of black velvet which, outlined against a shaded lamp, made her strong build seem slenderer, or perhaps the slight flush on her dusky cheek: a bloom of womanhood hung upon her which she made no effort to dissemble. Indeed, it was one of her originalities that she always gravely and courageously revealed the utmost of whatever mood possessed her.

“How splendid you look!” he said, smiling at her.

She threw her head back and gazed him straight in the eyes. “That’s going to be my future job.”

“To look splendid?”

“Yes.”

“And wear a crown?”

“And wear a crown. . . . ”

They continued to consider each other without speaking. Nick’s heart contracted with pity and perplexity.

“Oh, Coral — it’s not decided?”

She scrutinized him for a last penetrating moment; then she looked away. “I’m never long deciding.”

He hesitated, choking with contradictory impulses, and afraid to formulate any, lest they should either mislead or pain her.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he questioned lamely; and instantly perceived his blunder.

She sat down, and looked up at him under brooding lashes — had he ever noticed the thickness of her lashes before?

“Would it have made any difference if I had told you?”

“Any difference —?”

“Sit down by me,” she commanded. “I want to talk to you. You can say now whatever you might have said sooner. I’m not married yet: I’m still free.”

“You haven’t given your answer?”

“It doesn’t matter if I have.”

The retort frightened him with the glimpse of what she still expected of him, and what he was still so unable to give.

“That means you’ve said yes?” he pursued, to gain time.

“Yes or no — it doesn’t matter. I had to say something. What I want is your advice.”

“At the eleventh hour?”

“Or the twelfth.” She paused. “What shall I do?” she questioned, with a sudden accent of helplessness.

He looked at her as helplessly. He could not say: “Ask yourself — ask your parents.” Her next word would sweep away such frail hypocrisies. Her “What shall I do?” meant “What are you going to do?” and he knew it, and knew that she knew it.

“I’m a bad person to give any one matrimonial advice,” he began, with a strained smile; “but I had such a different vision for you.”

“What kind of a vision?” She was merciless.

“Merely what people call happiness, dear.”

“‘People call’ — you see you don’t believe in it yourself! Well, neither do I— in that form, at any rate.”

He considered. “I believe in trying for it — even if the trying’s the best of it.”

“Well, I’ve tried, and failed. And I’m twenty-two, and I never was young. I suppose I haven’t enough imagination.” She drew a deep breath. “Now I want something different.” She appeared to search for the word. “I want to be — prominent,” she declared.

“Prominent?”

She reddened swarthily. “Oh, you smile — you think it’s ridiculous: it doesn’t seem worth while to you. That’s because you’ve always had all those things. But I haven’t. I know what father pushed up from, and I want to push up as high again — higher. No, I haven’t got much imagination. I’ve always liked Facts. And I find I shall like the fact of being a Princess — choosing the people I associate with, and being up above all these European grandees that father and mother bow down to, though they think they despise them. You can be up above these people by just being yourself; you know how. But I need a platform — a sky-scraper. Father and mother slaved to give me my education. They thought education was the important thing; but, since we’ve all three of us got mediocre minds, it has just landed us among mediocre people. Don’t you suppose I see through all the sham science and sham art and sham everything we’re surrounded with? That’s why I want to buy a place at the very top, where I shall be powerful enough to get about me the people I want, the big people, the right people, and to help them I want to promote culture, like those Renaissance women you’re always talking about. I want to do it for Apex City; do you understand? And for father and mother too. I want all those titles carved on my tombstone. They’re facts, anyhow! Don’t laugh at me. . . . ” She broke off with one of her clumsy smiles, and moved away from him to the other end of the room.

He sat looking at her with a curious feeling of admiration. Her harsh positivism was like a tonic to his disenchanted mood, and he thought: “What a pity!”

Aloud he said: “I don’t feel like laughing at you. You’re a great woman.”

“Then I shall be a great Princess.”

“Oh — but you might have been something so much greater!”

Her face flamed again. “Don’t say that!”

He stood up involuntarily, and drew near her.

“Why not?”

“Because you’re the only man with whom I can imagine the other kind of greatness.”

It moved him — moved him unexpectedly. He got as far as saying to himself: “Good God, if she were not so hideously rich — ” and then of yielding for a moment to the persuasive vision of all that he and she might do with those very riches which he dreaded. After all, there was nothing mean in her ideals they were hard and material, in keeping with her primitive and massive person; but they had a certain grim nobility. And when she spoke of “the other kind of greatness” he knew that she understood what she was talking of, and was not merely saying something to draw him on, to get him to commit himself. There was not a drop of guile in her, except that which her very honesty distilled.

“The other kind of greatness?” he repeated.

“Well, isn’t that what you said happiness was? I wanted to be happy . . . but one can’t choose.”

He went up to her. “No, one can’t choose. And how can anyone give you happiness who hasn’t got it himself?” He took her hands, feeling how large, muscular and voluntary they were, even as they melted in his palms.

“My poor Coral, of what use can I ever be to you? What you need is to be loved.”

She drew back and gave him one of her straight strong glances: “No,” she said gallantly, “but just to love.”

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