The Glimpses of the Moon, by Edith Wharton

VII.

OF some new ferment at work in him Nick Lansing himself was equally aware. He was a better judge of the book he was trying to write than either Susy or Strefford; he knew its weaknesses, its treacheries, its tendency to slip through his fingers just as he thought his grasp tightest; but he knew also that at the very moment when it seemed to have failed him it would suddenly be back, beating its loud wings in his face.

He had no delusions as to its commercial value, and had winced more than he triumphed when Susy produced her allusion to Marius. His book was to be called The Pageant of Alexander. His imagination had been enchanted by the idea of picturing the young conqueror’s advance through the fabulous landscapes of Asia: he liked writing descriptions, and vaguely felt that under the guise of fiction he could develop his theory of Oriental influences in Western art at the expense of less learning than if he had tried to put his ideas into an essay. He knew enough of his subject to know that he did not know enough to write about it; but he consoled himself by remembering that Wilhelm Meister has survived many weighty volumes on aesthetics; and between his moments of self-disgust he took himself at Susy’s valuation, and found an unmixed joy in his task.

Never — no, never! — had he been so boundlessly, so confidently happy. His hack-work had given him the habit of application, and now habit wore the glow of inspiration. His previous literary ventures had been timid and tentative: if this one was growing and strengthening on his hands, it must be because the conditions were so different. He was at ease, he was secure, he was satisfied; and he had also, for the first time since his early youth, before his mother’s death, the sense of having some one to look after, some one who was his own particular care, and to whom he was answerable for himself and his actions, as he had never felt himself answerable to the hurried and indifferent people among whom he had chosen to live.

Susy had the same standards as these people: she spoke their language, though she understood others, she required their pleasures if she did not revere their gods. But from the moment that she had become his property he had built up in himself a conception of her answering to some deep-seated need of veneration. She was his, he had chosen her, she had taken her place in the long line of Lansing women who had been loved, honoured, and probably deceived, by bygone Lansing men. He didn’t pretend to understand the logic of it; but the fact that she was his wife gave purpose and continuity to his scattered impulses, and a mysterious glow of consecration to his task.

Once or twice, in the first days of his marriage, he had asked himself with a slight shiver what would happen if Susy should begin to bore him. The thing had happened to him with other women as to whom his first emotions had not differed in intensity from those she inspired. The part he had played in his previous love-affairs might indeed have been summed up in the memorable line: “I am the hunter and the prey,” for he had invariably ceased to be the first only to regard himself as the second. This experience had never ceased to cause him the liveliest pain, since his sympathy for his pursuer was only less keen than his commiseration for himself; but as he was always a little sorrier for himself, he had always ended by distancing the pursuer.

All these pre-natal experiences now seemed utterly inapplicable to the new man he had become. He could not imagine being bored by Susy — or trying to escape from her if he were. He could not think of her as an enemy, or even as an accomplice, since accomplices are potential enemies: she was some one with whom, by some unheard-of miracle, joys above the joys of friendship were to be tasted, but who, even through these fleeting ecstasies, remained simply and securely his friend.

These new feelings did not affect his general attitude toward life: they merely confirmed his faith in its ultimate “jolliness.” Never had he more thoroughly enjoyed the things he had always enjoyed. A good dinner had never been as good to him, a beautiful sunset as beautiful; he still rejoiced in the fact that he appreciated both with an equal acuity. He was as proud as ever of Susy’s cleverness and freedom from prejudice: she couldn’t be too “modern” for him now that she was his. He shared to the full her passionate enjoyment of the present, and all her feverish eagerness to make it last. He knew when she was thinking of ways of extending their golden opportunity, and he secretly thought with her, wondering what new means they could devise. He was thankful that Ellie Vanderlyn was still absent, and began to hope they might have the palace to themselves for the remainder of the summer. If they did, he would have time to finish his book, and Susy to lay up a little interest on their wedding cheques; and thus their enchanted year might conceivably be prolonged to two.

Late as the season was, their presence and Strefford’s in Venice had already drawn thither several wandering members of their set. It was characteristic of these indifferent but agglutinative people that they could never remain long parted from each other without a dim sense of uneasiness. Lansing was familiar with the feeling. He had known slight twinges of it himself, and had often ministered to its qualms in others. It was hardly stronger than the faint gnawing which recalls the tea-hour to one who has lunched well and is sure of dining as abundantly; but it gave a purpose to the purposeless, and helped many hesitating spirits over the annual difficulty of deciding between Deauville and St. Moritz, Biarritz and Capri.

Nick was not surprised to learn that it was becoming the fashion, that summer, to pop down to Venice and take a look at the Lansings. Streffy had set the example, and Streffy’s example was always followed. And then Susy’s marriage was still a subject of sympathetic speculation. People knew the story of the wedding cheques, and were interested in seeing how long they could be made to last. It was going to be the thing, that year, to help prolong the honey-moon by pressing houses on the adventurous couple. Before June was over a band of friends were basking with the Lansings on the Lido.

Nick found himself unexpectedly disturbed by their arrival. To avoid comment and banter he put his book aside and forbade Susy to speak of it, explaining to her that he needed an interval of rest. His wife instantly and exaggeratedly adopted this view, guarding him from the temptation to work as jealously as she had discouraged him from idling; and he was careful not to let her find out that the change in his habits coincided with his having reached a difficult point in his book. But though he was not sorry to stop writing he found himself unexpectedly oppressed by the weight of his leisure. For the first time communal dawdling had lost its charm for him; not because his fellow dawdlers were less congenial than of old, but because in the interval he had known something so immeasurably better. He had always felt himself to be the superior of his habitual associates, but now the advantage was too great: really, in a sense, it was hardly fair to them.

He had flattered himself that Susy would share this feeling; but he perceived with annoyance that the arrival of their friends heightened her animation. It was as if the inward glow which had given her a new beauty were now refracted upon her by the presence of the very people they had come to Venice to avoid.

Lansing was vaguely irritated; and when he asked her how she liked being with their old crowd again his irritation was increased by her answering with a laugh that she only hoped the poor dears didn’t see too plainly how they bored her. The patent insincerity of the reply was a shock to Lansing. He knew that Susy was not really bored, and he understood that she had simply guessed his feelings and instinctively adopted them: that henceforth she was always going to think as he thought. To confirm this fear he said carelessly: “Oh, all the same, it’s rather jolly knocking about with them again for a bit;” and she answered at once, and with equal conviction: “Yes, isn’t it? The old darlings — all the same!”

A fear of the future again laid its cold touch on Lansing. Susy’s independence and self-sufficiency had been among her chief attractions; if she were to turn into an echo their delicious duet ran the risk of becoming the dullest of monologues. He forgot that five minutes earlier he had resented her being glad to see their friends, and for a moment he found himself leaning dizzily over that insoluble riddle of the sentimental life: that to be differed with is exasperating, and to be agreed with monotonous.

Once more he began to wonder if he were not fundamentally unfitted for the married state; and was saved from despair only by remembering that Susy’s subjection to his moods was not likely to last. But even then it never occurred to him to reflect that his apprehensions were superfluous, since their tie was avowedly a temporary one. Of the special understanding on which their marriage had been based not a trace remained in his thoughts of her; the idea that he or she might ever renounce each other for their mutual good had long since dwindled to the ghost of an old joke.

It was borne in on him, after a week or two of unbroken sociability, that of all his old friends it was the Mortimer Hickses who bored him the least. The Hickses had left the Ibis for an apartment in a vast dilapidated palace near the Canareggio. They had hired the apartment from a painter (one of their newest discoveries), and they put up philosophically with the absence of modern conveniences in order to secure the inestimable advantage of “atmosphere.” In this privileged air they gathered about them their usual mixed company of quiet studious people and noisy exponents of new theories, themselves totally unconscious of the disparity between their different guests, and beamingly convinced that at last they were seated at the source of wisdom.

In old days Lansing would have got half an hour’s amusement, followed by a long evening of boredom, from the sight of Mrs. Hicks, vast and jewelled, seated between a quiet-looking professor of archaeology and a large-browed composer, or the high priest of a new dance-step, while Mr. Hicks, beaming above his vast white waistcoat, saw to it that the champagne flowed more abundantly than the talk, and the bright young secretaries industriously “kept up” with the dizzy cross-current of prophecy and erudition. But a change had come over Lansing. Hitherto it was in contrast to his own friends that the Hickses had seemed most insufferable; now it was as an escape from these same friends that they had become not only sympathetic but even interesting. It was something, after all, to be with people who did not regard Venice simply as affording exceptional opportunities for bathing and adultery, but who were reverently if confusedly aware that they were in the presence of something unique and ineffable, and determined to make the utmost of their privilege.

“After all,” he said to himself one evening, as his eyes wandered, with somewhat of a convalescent’s simple joy, from one to another of their large confiding faces, “after all, they’ve got a religion. . . . ” The phrase struck him, in the moment of using it, as indicating a new element in his own state of mind, and as being, in fact, the key to his new feeling about the Hickses. Their muddled ardour for great things was related to his own new view of the universe: the people who felt, however dimly, the wonder and weight of life must ever after be nearer to him than those to whom it was estimated solely by one’s balance at the bank. He supposed, on reflexion, that that was what he meant when he thought of the Hickses as having “a religion”. . . .

A few days later, his well-being was unexpectedly disturbed by the arrival of Fred Gillow. Lansing had always felt a tolerant liking for Gillow, a large smiling silent young man with an intense and serious desire to miss nothing attainable by one of his fortune and standing. What use he made of his experiences, Lansing, who had always gone into his own modest adventures rather thoroughly, had never been able to guess; but he had always suspected the prodigal Fred of being no more than a well-disguised looker-on. Now for the first time he began to view him with another eye. The Gillows were, in fact, the one uneasy point in Nick’s conscience. He and Susy from the first, had talked of them less than of any other members of their group: they had tacitly avoided the name from the day on which Susy had come to Lansing’s lodgings to say that Ursula Gillow had asked her to renounce him, till that other day, just before their marriage, when she had met him with the rapturous cry: “Here’s our first wedding present! Such a thumping big cheque from Fred and Ursula!”

Plenty of sympathizing people were ready, Lansing knew, to tell him just what had happened in the interval between those two dates; but he had taken care not to ask. He had even affected an initiation so complete that the friends who burned to enlighten him were discouraged by his so obviously knowing more than they; and gradually he had worked himself around to their view, and had taken it for granted that he really did.

Now he perceived that he knew nothing at all, and that the “Hullo, old Fred!” with which Susy hailed Gillow’s arrival might be either the usual tribal welcome — since they were all “old,” and all nicknamed, in their private jargon — or a greeting that concealed inscrutable depths of complicity.

Susy was visibly glad to see Gillow; but she was glad of everything just then, and so glad to show her gladness! The fact disarmed her husband and made him ashamed of his uneasiness. “You ought to have thought this all out sooner, or else you ought to chuck thinking of it at all,” was the sound but ineffectual advice he gave himself on the day after Gillow’s arrival; and immediately set to work to rethink the whole matter.

Fred Gillow showed no consciousness of disturbing any one’s peace of mind. Day after day he sprawled for hours on the Lido sands, his arms folded under his head, listening to Streffy’s nonsense and watching Susy between sleepy lids; but he betrayed no desire to see her alone, or to draw her into talk apart from the others. More than ever he seemed content to be the gratified spectator of a costly show got up for his private entertainment. It was not until he heard her, one morning, grumble a little at the increasing heat and the menace of mosquitoes, that he said, quite as if they had talked the matter over long before, and finally settled it: “The moor will be ready any time after the first of August.”

Nick fancied that Susy coloured a little, and drew herself up more defiantly than usual as she sent a pebble skimming across the dying ripples at their feet.

“You’ll be a lot cooler in Scotland,” Fred added, with what, for him, was an unusual effort at explicitness.

“Oh, shall we?” she retorted gaily; and added with an air of mystery and importance, pivoting about on her high heels: “Nick’s got work to do here. It will probably keep us all summer.”

“Work? Rot! You’ll die of the smells.” Gillow stared perplexedly skyward from under his tilted hat-brim; and then brought out, as from the depth of a rankling grievance: “I thought it was all understood.”

“Why,” Nick asked his wife that night, as they re-entered Ellie’s cool drawing-room after a late dinner at the Lido, “did Gillow think it was understood that we were going to his moor in August?” He was conscious of the oddness of speaking of their friend by his surname, and reddened at his blunder.

Susy had let her lace cloak slide to her feet, and stood before him in the faintly-lit room, slim and shimmering-white through black transparencies.

She raised her eyebrows carelessly. “I told you long ago he’d asked us there for August.”

“You didn’t tell me you’d accepted.”

She smiled as if he had said something as simple as Fred. “I accepted everything — from everybody!”

What could he answer? It was the very principle on which their bargain had been struck. And if he were to say: “Ah, but this is different, because I’m jealous of Gillow,” what light would such an answer shed on his past? The time for being jealous-if so antiquated an attitude were on any ground defensible-would have been before his marriage, and before the acceptance of the bounties which had helped to make it possible. He wondered a little now that in those days such scruples had not troubled him. His inconsistency irritated him, and increased his irritation against Gillow. “I suppose he thinks he owns us!” he grumbled inwardly.

He had thrown himself into an armchair, and Susy, advancing across the shining arabesques of the floor, slid down at his feet, pressed her slender length against him, and whispered with lifted face and lips close to his: “We needn’t ever go anywhere you don’t want to.” For once her submission was sweet, and folding her close he whispered back through his kiss: “Not there, then.”

In her response to his embrace he felt the acquiescence of her whole happy self in whatever future he decided on, if only it gave them enough of such moments as this; and as they held each other fast in silence his doubts and distrust began to seem like a silly injustice.

“Let us stay here as long as ever Ellie will let us,” he said, as if the shadowy walls and shining floors were a magic boundary drawn about his happiness.

She murmured her assent and stood up, stretching her sleepy arm above her shoulders. “How dreadfully late it is. . . . Will you unhook me? . . . Oh, there’s a telegram.”

She picked it up from the table, and tearing it open stared a moment at the message. “It’s from Ellie. She’s coming to-morrow.”

She turned to the window and strayed out onto the balcony. Nick followed her with enlacing arm. The canal below them lay in moonless shadow, barred with a few lingering lights. A last snatch of gondola-music came from far off, carried upward on a sultry gust.

“Dear old Ellie. All the same . . . I wish all this belonged to you and me.” Susy sighed.

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