The Glimpses of the Moon, by Edith Wharton

XXVI

NICK Lansing arrived in Paris two days after his lawyer had announced his coming to Mr. Spearman.

He had left Rome with the definite purpose of freeing himself and Susy; and though he was not pledged to Coral Hicks he had not concealed from her the object of his journey. In vain had he tried to rouse in himself any sense of interest in his own future. Beyond the need of reaching a definite point in his relation to Susy his imagination could not travel. But he had been moved by Coral’s confession, and his reason told him that he and she would probably be happy together, with the temperate happiness based on a community of tastes and an enlargement of opportunities. He meant, on his return to Rome, to ask her to marry him; and he knew that she knew it. Indeed, if he had not spoken before leaving it was with no idea of evading his fate, or keeping her longer in suspense, but simply because of the strange apathy that had fallen on him since he had received Susy’s letter. In his incessant self-communings he dressed up this apathy as a discretion which forbade his engaging Coral’s future till his own was assured. But in truth he knew that Coral’s future was already engaged, and his with it: in Rome the fact had seemed natural and even inevitable.

In Paris, it instantly became the thinnest of unrealities. Not because Paris was not Rome, nor because it was Paris; but because hidden away somewhere in that vast unheeding labyrinth was the half-forgotten part of himself that was Susy. . . . For weeks, for months past, his mind had been saturated with Susy: she had never seemed more insistently near him than as their separation lengthened, and the chance of reunion became less probable. It was as if a sickness long smouldering in him had broken out and become acute, enveloping him in the Nessus-shirt of his memories. There were moments when, to his memory, their actual embraces seemed perfunctory, accidental, compared with this deep deliberate imprint of her soul on his.

Yet now it had become suddenly different. Now that he was in the same place with her, and might at any moment run across her, meet her eyes, hear her voice, avoid her hand — now that penetrating ghost of her with which he had been living was sucked back into the shadows, and he seemed, for the first time since their parting, to be again in her actual presence. He woke to the fact on the morning of his arrival, staring down from his hotel window on a street she would perhaps walk through that very day, and over a limitless huddle of roofs, one of which covered her at that hour. The abruptness of the transition startled him; he had not known that her mere geographical nearness would take him by the throat in that way. What would it be, then, if she were to walk into the room?

Thank heaven that need never happen! He was sufficiently informed as to French divorce proceedings to know that they would not necessitate a confrontation with his wife; and with ordinary luck, and some precautions, he might escape even a distant glimpse of her. He did not mean to remain in Paris more than a few days; and during that time it would be easy — knowing, as he did, her tastes and Altringham’s — to avoid the places where she was likely to be met. He did not know where she was living, but imagined her to be staying with Mrs. Melrose, or some other rich friend, or else lodged, in prospective affluence, at the Nouveau Luxe, or in a pretty flat of her own. Trust Susy — ah, the pang of it — to “manage”!

His first visit was to his lawyer’s; and as he walked through the familiar streets each approaching face, each distant figure seemed hers. The obsession was intolerable. It would not last, of course; but meanwhile he had the exposed sense of a fugitive in a nightmare, who feels himself the only creature visible in a ghostly and besetting multitude. The eye of the metropolis seemed fixed on him in an immense unblinking stare.

At the lawyer’s he was told that, as a first step to freedom, he must secure a domicile in Paris. He had of course known of this necessity: he had seen too many friends through the Divorce Court, in one country or another, not to be fairly familiar with the procedure. But the fact presented a different aspect as soon as he tried to relate it to himself and Susy: it was as though Susy’s personality were a medium through which events still took on a transfiguring colour. He found the “domicile” that very day: a tawdrily furnished rez-de-chaussee, obviously destined to far different uses. And as he sat there, after the concierge had discreetly withdrawn with the first quarter’s payment in her pocket, and stared about him at the vulgar plushy place, he burst out laughing at what it was about to figure in the eyes of the law: a Home, and a Home desecrated by his own act! The Home in which he and Susy had reared their precarious bliss, and seen it crumble at the brutal touch of his unfaithfulness and his cruelty — for he had been told that he must be cruel to her as well as unfaithful! He looked at the walls hung with sentimental photogravures, at the shiny bronze “nudes,” the moth-eaten animal-skins and the bedizened bed-and once more the unreality, the impossibility, of all that was happening to him entered like a drug into his veins.

To rouse himself he stood up, turned the key on the hideous place, and returned to his lawyer’s. He knew that in the hard dry atmosphere of the office the act of giving the address of the flat would restore some kind of reality to the phantasmal transaction. And with wonder he watched the lawyer, as a matter of course, pencil the street and the number on one of the papers enclosed in a folder on which his own name was elaborately engrossed.

As he took leave it occurred to him to ask where Susy was living. At least he imagined that it had just occurred to him, and that he was making the enquiry merely as a measure of precaution, in order to know what quarter of Paris to avoid; but in reality the question had been on his lips since he had first entered the office, and lurking in his mind since he had emerged from the railway station that morning. The fact of not knowing where she lived made the whole of Paris a meaningless unintelligible place, as useless to him as the face of a huge clock that has lost its hour hand.

The address in Passy surprised him: he had imagined that she would be somewhere in the neighborhood of the Champs Elysees or the Place de l’Etoile. But probably either Mrs. Melrose or Ellie Vanderlyn had taken a house at Passy. Well — it was something of a relief to know that she was so far off. No business called him to that almost suburban region beyond the Trocadero, and there was much less chance of meeting her than if she had been in the centre of Paris.

All day he wandered, avoiding the fashionable quarters, the streets in which private motors glittered five deep, and furred and feathered silhouettes glided from them into tea-rooms, picture-galleries and jewellers’ shops. In some such scenes Susy was no doubt figuring: slenderer, finer, vivider, than the other images of clay, but imitating their gestures, chattering their jargon, winding her hand among the same pearls and sables. He struck away across the Seine, along the quays to the Cite, the net-work of old Paris, the great grey vaults of St. Eustache, the swarming streets of the Marais. He gazed at monuments dawdled before shop-windows, sat in squares and on quays, watching people bargain, argue, philander, quarrel, work-girls stroll past in linked bands, beggars whine on the bridges, derelicts doze in the pale winter sun, mothers in mourning hasten by taking children to school, and street-walkers beat their weary rounds before the cafes.

The day drifted on. Toward evening he began to grow afraid of his solitude, and to think of dining at the Nouveau Luxe, or some other fashionable restaurant where he would be fairly sure to meet acquaintances, and be carried off to a theatre, a boite or a dancing-hall. Anything, anything now, to get away from the maddening round of his thoughts. He felt the same blank fear of solitude as months ago in Genoa. . . . Even if he were to run across Susy and Altringham, what of it? Better get the job over. People had long since ceased to take on tragedy airs about divorce: dividing couples dined together to the last, and met afterward in each other’s houses, happy in the consciousness that their respective remarriages had provided two new centres of entertainment. Yet most of the couples who took their re-matings so philosophically had doubtless had their hour of enchantment, of belief in the immortality of loving; whereas he and Susy had simply and frankly entered into a business contract for their mutual advantage. The fact gave the last touch of incongruity to his agonies and exaltations, and made him appear to himself as grotesque and superannuated as the hero of a romantic novel.

He stood up from a bench on which he had been lounging in the Luxembourg gardens, and hailed a taxi. Dusk had fallen, and he meant to go back to his hotel, take a rest, and then go out to dine. But instead, he threw Susy’s address to the driver, and settled down in the cab, resting both hands on the knob of his umbrella and staring straight ahead of him as if he were accomplishing some tiresome duty that had to be got through with before he could turn his mind to more important things.

“It’s the easiest way,” he heard himself say.

At the street-corner — her street-corner — he stopped the cab, and stood motionless while it rattled away. It was a short vague street, much farther off than he had expected, and fading away at the farther end in a dusky blur of hoardings overhung by trees. A thin rain was beginning to fall, and it was already night in this inadequately lit suburban quarter. Lansing walked down the empty street. The houses stood a few yards apart, with bare-twigged shrubs between, and gates and railings dividing them from the pavement. He could not, at first, distinguish their numbers; but presently, coming abreast of a street-lamp, he discovered that the small shabby facade it illuminated was precisely the one he sought. The discovery surprised him. He had imagined that, as frequently happened in the outlying quarters of Passy and La Muette, the mean street would lead to a stately private hotel, built upon some bowery fragment of an old country-place. It was the latest whim of the wealthy to establish themselves on these outskirts of Paris, where there was still space for verdure; and he had pictured Susy behind some pillared house-front, with lights pouring across glossy turf to sculptured gateposts. Instead, he saw a six-windowed house, huddled among neighbours of its kind, with the family wash fluttering between meagre bushes. The arc-light beat ironically on its front, which had the worn look of a tired work-woman’s face; and Lansing, as he leaned against the opposite railing, vainly tried to fit his vision of Susy into so humble a setting.

The probable explanation was that his lawyer had given him the wrong address; not only the wrong number but the wrong street. He pulled out the slip of paper, and was crossing over to decipher it under the lamp, when an errand-boy appeared out of the obscurity, and approached the house. Nick drew back, and the boy, unlatching the gate, ran up the steps and gave the bell a pull.

Almost immediately the door opened; and there stood Susy, the light full upon her, and upon a red-checked child against her shoulder. The space behind them was dark, or so dimly lit that it formed a black background to her vivid figure. She looked at the errand-boy without surprise, took his parcel, and after he had turned away, lingered a moment in the door, glancing down the empty street.

That moment, to her watcher, seemed quicker than a flash yet as long as a life-time. There she was, a stone’s throw away, but utterly unconscious of his presence: his Susy, the old Susy, and yet a new Susy, curiously transformed, transfigured almost, by the new attitude in which he beheld her.

In the first shock of the vision he forgot his surprise at her being in such a place, forgot to wonder whose house she was in, or whose was the sleepy child in her arms. For an instant she stood out from the blackness behind her, and through the veil of the winter night, a thing apart, an unconditioned vision, the eternal image of the woman and the child; and in that instant everything within him was changed and renewed. His eyes were still absorbing her, finding again the familiar curves of her light body, noting the thinness of the lifted arm that upheld the little boy, the droop of the shoulder he weighed on, the brooding way in which her cheek leaned to his even while she looked away; then she drew back, the door closed, and the street-lamp again shone on blankness.

“But she’s mine!” Nick cried, in a fierce triumph of recovery . . .

His eyes were so full of her that he shut them to hold in the crowding vision.

It remained with him, at first, as a complete picture; then gradually it broke up into its component parts, the child vanished, the strange house vanished, and Susy alone stood before him, his own Susy, only his Susy, yet changed, worn, tempered — older, even — with sharper shadows under the cheek-bones, the brows drawn, the joint of the slim wrist more prominent. It was not thus that his memory had evoked her, and he recalled, with a remorseful pang, the fact that something in her look, her dress, her tired and drooping attitude, suggested poverty, dependence, seemed to make her after all a part of the shabby house in which, at first sight, her presence had seemed so incongruous.

“But she looks poor!” he thought, his heart tightening. And instantly it occurred to him that these must be the Fulmer children whom she was living with while their parents travelled in Italy. Rumours of Nat Fulmer’s sudden ascension had reached him, and he had heard that the couple had lately been seen in Naples and Palermo. No one had mentioned Susy’s name in connection with them, and he could hardly tell why he had arrived at this conclusion, except perhaps because it seemed natural that, if Susy were in trouble, she should turn to her old friend Grace.

But why in trouble? What trouble? What could have happened to check her triumphant career?

“That’s what I mean to find out!” he exclaimed.

His heart was beating with a tumult of new hopes and old memories. The sight of his wife, so remote in mien and manner from the world in which he had imagined her to be re-absorbed, changed in a flash his own relation to life, and flung a mist of unreality over all that he had been trying to think most solid and tangible. Nothing now was substantial to him but the stones of the street in which he stood, the front of the house which hid her, the bell-handle he already felt in his grasp. He started forward, and was halfway to the threshold when a private motor turned the corner, the twin glitter of its lamps carpeting the wet street with gold to Susy’s door.

Lansing drew back into the shadow as the motor swept up to the house. A man jumped out, and the light fell on Strefford’s shambling figure, its lazy disjointed movements so unmistakably the same under his fur coat, and in the new setting of prosperity.

Lansing stood motionless, staring at the door. Strefford rang, and waited. Would Susy appear again? Perhaps she had done so before only because she had been on the watch. . . .

But no: after a slight delay a bonne appeared — the breathless maid-of-all-work of a busy household — and at once effaced herself, letting the visitor in. Lansing was sure that not a word passed between the two, of enquiry on Lord Altringham’s part, or of acquiescence on the servant’s. There could be no doubt that he was expected.

The door closed on him, and a light appeared behind the blind of the adjoining window. The maid had shown the visitor into the sitting-room and lit the lamp. Upstairs, meanwhile, Susy was no doubt running skilful fingers through her tumbled hair and daubing her pale lips with red. Ah, how Lansing knew every movement of that familiar rite, even to the pucker of the brow and the pouting thrust-out of the lower lip! He was seized with a sense of physical sickness as the succession of remembered gestures pressed upon his eyes. . . . And the other man? The other man, inside the house, was perhaps at that very instant smiling over the remembrance of the same scene!

At the thought, Lansing plunged away into the night.

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