The Glimpses of the Moon, by Edith Wharton

IV.

CHARLIE STREFFORD’S villa was like a nest in a rose-bush; the Nelson Vanderlyns’ palace called for loftier analogies.

Its vastness and splendour seemed, in comparison, oppressive to Susy. Their landing, after dark, at the foot of the great shadowy staircase, their dinner at a dimly-lit table under a ceiling weighed down with Olympians, their chilly evening in a corner of a drawing room where minuets should have been danced before a throne, contrasted with the happy intimacies of Como as their sudden sense of disaccord contrasted with the mutual confidence of the day before.

The journey had been particularly jolly: both Susy and Lansing had had too long a discipline in the art of smoothing things over not to make a special effort to hide from each other the ravages of their first disagreement. But, deep down and invisible, the disagreement remained; and compunction for having been its cause gnawed at Susy’s bosom as she sat in her tapestried and vaulted bedroom, brushing her hair before a tarnished mirror.

“I thought I liked grandeur; but this place is really out of scale,” she mused, watching the reflection of a pale hand move back and forward in the dim recesses of the mirror. “And yet,” she continued, “Ellie Vanderlyn’s hardly half an inch taller than I am; and she certainly isn’t a bit more dignified. . . . I wonder if it’s because I feel so horribly small to-night that the place seems so horribly big.”

She loved luxury: splendid things always made her feel handsome and high ceilings arrogant; she did not remember having ever before been oppressed by the evidences of wealth.

She laid down the brush and leaned her chin on her clasped hands. . . . Even now she could not understand what had made her take the cigars. She had always been alive to the value of her inherited scruples: her reasoned opinions were unusually free, but with regard to the things one couldn’t reason about she was oddly tenacious. And yet she had taken Streffy’s cigars! She had taken them — yes, that was the point — she had taken them for Nick, because the desire to please him, to make the smallest details of his life easy and agreeable and luxurious, had become her absorbing preoccupation. She had committed, for him, precisely the kind of little baseness she would most have scorned to commit for herself; and, since he hadn’t instantly felt the difference, she would never be able to explain it to him.

She stood up with a sigh, shook out her loosened hair, and glanced around the great frescoed room. The maid-servant had said something about the Signora’s having left a letter for her; and there it lay on the writing-table, with her mail and Nick’s; a thick envelope addressed in Ellie’s childish scrawl, with a glaring “Private” dashed across the corner.

“What on earth can she have to say, when she hates writing so,” Susy mused.

She broke open the envelope, and four or five stamped and sealed letters fell from it. All were addressed, in Ellie’s hand, to Nelson Vanderlyn Esqre; and in the corner of each was faintly pencilled a number and a date: one, two, three, four — with a week’s interval between the dates.

“Goodness — ” gasped Susy, understanding.

She had dropped into an armchair near the table, and for a long time she sat staring at the numbered letters. A sheet of paper covered with Ellie’s writing had fluttered out among them, but she let it lie; she knew so well what it would say! She knew all about her friend, of course; except poor old Nelson, who didn’t, But she had never imagined that Ellie would dare to use her in this way. It was unbelievable . . . she had never pictured anything so vile. . . . The blood rushed to her face, and she sprang up angrily, half minded to tear the letters in bits and throw them all into the fire.

She heard her husband’s knock on the door between their rooms, and swept the dangerous packet under the blotting-book.

“Oh, go away, please, there’s a dear,” she called out; “I haven’t finished unpacking, and everything’s in such a mess.” Gathering up Nick’s papers and letters, she ran across the room and thrust them through the door. “Here’s something to keep you quiet,” she laughed, shining in on him an instant from the threshold.

She turned back feeling weak with shame. Ellie’s letter lay on the floor: reluctantly she stooped to pick it up, and one by one the expected phrases sprang out at her.

“One good turn deserves another. . . . Of course you and Nick are welcome to stay all summer. . . . There won’t be a particle of expense for you — the servants have orders. . . . If you’ll just be an angel and post these letters yourself. . . . It’s been my only chance for such an age; when we meet I’ll explain everything. And in a month at latest I’ll be back to fetch Clarissa. . . . ”

Susy lifted the letter to the lamp to be sure she had read aright. To fetch Clarissa! Then Ellie’s child was here? Here, under the roof with them, left to their care? She read on, raging. “She’s so delighted, poor darling, to know you’re coming. I’ve had to sack her beastly governess for impertinence, and if it weren’t for you she’d be all alone with a lot of servants I don’t much trust. So for pity’s sake be good to my child, and forgive me for leaving her. She thinks I’ve gone to take a cure; and she knows she’s not to tell her Daddy that I’m away, because it would only worry him if he thought I was ill. She’s perfectly to be trusted; you’ll see what a clever angel she is. . . . ” And then, at the bottom of the page, in a last slanting postscript: “Susy darling, if you’ve ever owed me anything in the way of kindness, you won’t, on your sacred honour, say a word of this to any one, even to Nick. And I know I can count on you to rub out the numbers.”

Susy sprang up and tossed Mrs. Vanderlyn’s letter into the fire: then she came slowly back to the chair. There, at her elbow, lay the four fatal envelopes; and her next affair was to make up her mind what to do with them.

To destroy them on the spot had seemed, at first thought, inevitable: it might be saving Ellie as well as herself. But such a step seemed to Susy to involve departure on the morrow, and this in turn involved notifying Ellie, whose letter she had vainly scanned for an address. Well — perhaps Clarissa’s nurse would know where one could write to her mother; it was unlikely that even Ellie would go off without assuring some means of communication with her child. At any rate, there was nothing to be done that night: nothing but to work out the details of their flight on the morrow, and rack her brains to find a substitute for the hospitality they were rejecting. Susy did not disguise from herself how much she had counted on the Vanderlyn apartment for the summer: to be able to do so had singularly simplified the future. She knew Ellie’s largeness of hand, and had been sure in advance that as long as they were her guests their only expense would be an occasional present to the servants. And what would the alternative be? She and Lansing, in their endless talks, had so lived themselves into the vision of indolent summer days on the lagoon, of flaming hours on the beach of the Lido, and evenings of music and dreams on their broad balcony above the Giudecca, that the idea of having to renounce these joys, and deprive her Nick of them, filled Susy with a wrath intensified by his having confided in her that when they were quietly settled in Venice he “meant to write.” Already nascent in her breast was the fierce resolve of the author’s wife to defend her husband’s privacy and facilitate his encounters with the Muse. It was abominable, simply abominable, that Ellie Vanderlyn should have drawn her into such a trap!

Well — there was nothing for it but to make a clean breast of the whole thing to Nick. The trivial incident of the cigars-how trivial it now seemed! — showed her the kind of stand he would take, and communicated to her something of his own uncompromising energy. She would tell him the whole story in the morning, and try to find a way out with him: Susy’s faith in her power of finding a way out was inexhaustible. But suddenly she remembered the adjuration at the end of Mrs. Vanderlyn’s letter: “If you’re ever owed me anything in the way of kindness, you won’t, on your sacred honour, say a word to Nick. . . . ”

It was, of course, exactly what no one had the right to ask of her: if indeed the word “right”, could be used in any conceivable relation to this coil of wrongs. But the fact remained that, in the way of kindness, she did owe much to Ellie; and that this was the first payment her friend had ever exacted. She found herself, in fact, in exactly the same position as when Ursula Gillow, using the same argument, had appealed to her to give up Nick Lansing. Yes, Susy reflected; but then Nelson Vanderlyn had been kind to her too; and the money Ellie had been so kind with was Nelson’s. . . . The queer edifice of Susy’s standards tottered on its base she honestly didn’t know where fairness lay, as between so much that was foul.

The very depth of her perplexity puzzled her. She had been in “tight places” before; had indeed been in so few that were not, in one way or another, constricting! As she looked back on her past it lay before her as a very network of perpetual concessions and contrivings. But never before had she had such a sense of being tripped up, gagged and pinioned. The little misery of the cigars still galled her, and now this big humiliation superposed itself on the raw wound. Decidedly, the second month of their honey-moon was beginning cloudily. . . .

She glanced at the enamel led travelling-clock on her dressing table — one of the few wedding-presents she had consented to accept in kind — and was startled at the lateness of the hour. In a moment Nick would be coming; and an uncomfortable sensation in her throat warned her that through sheer nervousness and exasperation she might blurt out something ill-advised. The old habit of being always on her guard made her turn once more to the looking-glass. Her face was pale and haggard; and having, by a swift and skilful application of cosmetics, increased its appearance of fatigue, she crossed the room and softly opened her husband’s door.

He too sat by a lamp, reading a letter which he put aside as she entered. His face was grave, and she said to herself that he was certainly still thinking about the cigars.

“I’m very tired, dearest, and my head aches so horribly that I’ve come to bid you good-night.” Bending over the back of his chair, she laid her arms on his shoulders. He lifted his hands to clasp hers, but, as he threw his head back to smile up at her she noticed that his look was still serious, almost remote. It was as if, for the first time, a faint veil hung between his eyes and hers.

“I’m so sorry: it’s been a long day for you,” he said absently, pressing his lips to her hands

She felt the dreaded twitch in her throat.

“Nick!” she burst out, tightening her embrace, “before I go, you’ve got to swear to me on your honour that you know I should never have taken those cigars for myself!”

For a moment he stared at her, and she stared back at him with equal gravity; then the same irresistible mirth welled up in both, and Susy’s compunctions were swept away on a gale of laughter.

When she woke the next morning the sun was pouring in between her curtains of old brocade, and its refraction from the ripples of the Canal was drawing a network of golden scales across the vaulted ceiling. The maid had just placed a tray on a slim marquetry table near the bed, and over the edge of the tray Susy discovered the small serious face of Clarissa Vanderlyn. At the sight of the little girl all her dormant qualms awoke.

Clarissa was just eight, and small for her age: her little round chin was barely on a level with the tea-service, and her clear brown eyes gazed at Susy between the ribs of the toast-rack and the single tea-rose in an old Murano glass. Susy had not seen her for two years, and she seemed, in the interval, to have passed from a thoughtful infancy to complete ripeness of feminine experience. She was looking with approval at her mother’s guest.

“I’m so glad you’ve come,” she said in a small sweet voice. “I like you so very much. I know I’m not to be often with you; but at least you’ll have an eye on me, won’t you?”

“An eye on you! I shall never want to have it off you, if you say such nice things to me!” Susy laughed, leaning from her pillows to draw the little girl up to her side.

Clarissa smiled and settled herself down comfortably on the silken bedspread. “Oh, I know I’m not to be always about, because you’re just married; but could you see to it that I have my meals regularly?”

“Why, you poor darling! Don’t you always?”

“Not when mother’s away on these cures. The servants don’t always obey me: you see I’m so little for my age. In a few years, of course, they’ll have to — even if I don’t grow much,” she added judiciously. She put out her hand and touched the string of pearls about Susy’s throat. “They’re small, but they’re very good. I suppose you don’t take the others when you travel?”

“The others? Bless you! I haven’t any others — and never shall have, probably.”

“No other pearls?”

“No other jewels at all.”

Clarissa stared. “Is that really true?” she asked, as if in the presence of the unprecedented.

“Awfully true,” Susy confessed. “But I think I can make the servants obey me all the same.”

This point seemed to have lost its interest for Clarissa, who was still gravely scrutinizing her companion. After a while she brought forth another question.

“Did you have to give up all your jewels when you were divorced?”

“Divorced —?” Susy threw her head back against the pillows and laughed. “Why, what are you thinking of? Don’t you remember that I wasn’t even married the last time you saw me?”

“Yes; I do. But that was two years ago.” The little girl wound her arms about Susy’s neck and leaned against her caressingly. “Are you going to be soon, then? I’ll promise not to tell if you don’t want me to.”

“Going to be divorced? Of course not! What in the world made you think so? ”

“Because you look so awfully happy,” said Clarissa Vanderlyn simply.

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