The Glimpses of the Moon, by Edith Wharton

IX.

NELSON VANDERLYN, still in his travelling clothes, paused on the threshold of his own dining-room and surveyed the scene with pardonable satisfaction.

He was a short round man, with a grizzled head, small facetious eyes and a large and credulous smile.

At the luncheon table sat his wife, between Charlie Strefford and Nick Lansing. Next to Strefford, perched on her high chair, Clarissa throned in infant beauty, while Susy Lansing cut up a peach for her. Through wide orange awnings the sun slanted in upon the white-clad group.

“Well — well — well! So I’ve caught you at it!” cried the happy father, whose inveterate habit it was to address his wife and friends as if he had surprised them at an inopportune moment. Stealing up from behind, he lifted his daughter into the air, while a chorus of “Hello, old Nelson,” hailed his appearance.

It was two or three years since Nick Lansing had seen Mr. Vanderlyn, who was now the London representative of the big New York bank of Vanderlyn & Co., and had exchanged his sumptuous house in Fifth Avenue for another, more sumptuous still, in Mayfair; and the young man looked curiously and attentively at his host.

Mr. Vanderlyn had grown older and stouter, but his face still kept its look of somewhat worn optimism. He embraced his wife, greeted Susy affectionately, and distributed cordial hand-grasps to the two men.

“Hullo,” he exclaimed, suddenly noticing a pearl and coral trinket hanging from Clarissa’s neck. “Who’s been giving my daughter jewellery, I’d like to know!”

“Oh, Streffy did — just think, father! Because I said I’d rather have it than a book, you know,” Clarissa lucidly explained, her arms tight about her father’s neck, her beaming eyes on Strefford.

Nelson Vanderlyn’s own eyes took on the look of shrewdness which came into them whenever there was a question of material values.

“What, Streffy? Caught you at it, eh? Upon my soul-spoiling the brat like that! You’d no business to, my dear chap-a lovely baroque pearl — ” he protested, with the half-apologetic tone of the rich man embarrassed by too costly a gift from an impecunious friend.

“Oh, hadn’t I? Why? Because it’s too good for Clarissa, or too expensive for me? Of course you daren’t imply the first; and as for me — I’ve had a windfall, and am blowing it in on the ladies.”

Strefford, Lansing had noticed, always used American slang when he was slightly at a loss, and wished to divert attention from the main point. But why was he embarrassed, whose attention did he wish to divert, It was plain that Vanderlyn’s protest had been merely formal: like most of the wealthy, he had only the dimmest notion of what money represented to the poor. But it was unusual for Strefford to give any one a present, and especially an expensive one: perhaps that was what had fixed Vanderlyn’s attention.

“A windfall?” he gaily repeated.

“Oh, a tiny one: I was offered a thumping rent for my little place at Como, and dashed over here to squander my millions with the rest of you,” said Strefford imperturbably.

Vanderlyn’s look immediately became interested and sympathetic. “What — the scene of the honey-moon?” He included Nick and Susy in his friendly smile.

“Just so: the reward of virtue. I say, give me a cigar, will you, old man, I left some awfully good ones at Como, worse luck — and I don’t mind telling you that Ellie’s no judge of tobacco, and that Nick’s too far gone in bliss to care what he smokes,” Strefford grumbled, stretching a hand toward his host’s cigar-case.

“I do like jewellery best,” Clarissa murmured, hugging her father.

Nelson Vanderlyn’s first word to his wife had been that he had brought her all her toggery; and she had welcomed him with appropriate enthusiasm. In fact, to the lookers-on her joy at seeing him seemed rather too patently in proportion to her satisfaction at getting her clothes. But no such suspicion appeared to mar Mr. Vanderlyn’s happiness in being, for once, and for nearly twenty-four hours, under the same roof with his wife and child. He did not conceal his regret at having promised his mother to join her the next day; and added, with a wistful glance at Ellie: “If only I’d known you meant to wait for me!”

But being a man of duty, in domestic as well as business affairs, he did not even consider the possibility of disappointing the exacting old lady to whom he owed his being. “Mother cares for so few people,” he used to say, not without a touch of filial pride in the parental exclusiveness, “that I have to be with her rather more than if she were more sociable”; and with smiling resignation he gave orders that Clarissa should be ready to start the next evening.

“And meanwhile,” he concluded, “we’ll have all the good time that’s going.”

The ladies of the party seemed united in the desire to further this resolve; and it was settled that as soon as Mr. Vanderlyn had despatched a hasty luncheon, his wife, Clarissa and Susy should carry him off for a tea-picnic at Torcello. They did not even suggest that Strefford or Nick should be of the party, or that any of the other young men of the group should be summoned; as Susy said, Nelson wanted to go off alone with his harem. And Lansing and Strefford were left to watch the departure of the happy Pasha ensconced between attentive beauties.

“Well — that’s what you call being married!” Strefford commented, waving his battered Panama at Clarissa.

“Oh, no, I don’t!” Lansing laughed.

“He does. But do you know — ” Strefford paused and swung about on his companion — “do you know, when the Rude Awakening comes, I don’t care to be there. I believe there’ll be some crockery broken.”

“Shouldn’t wonder,” Lansing answered indifferently. He wandered away to his own room, leaving Strefford to philosophize to his pipe.

Lansing had always known about poor old Nelson: who hadn’t, except poor old Nelson? The case had once seemed amusing because so typical; now, it rather irritated Nick that Vanderlyn should be so complete an ass. But he would be off the next day, and so would Ellie, and then, for many enchanted weeks, the palace would once more be the property of Nick and Susy. Of all the people who came and went in it, they were the only ones who appreciated it, or knew how it was meant to be lived in; and that made it theirs in the only valid sense. In this light it became easy to regard the Vanderlyns as mere transient intruders.

Having relegated them to this convenient distance, Lansing shut himself up with his book. He had returned to it with fresh energy after his few weeks of holiday-making, and was determined to finish it quickly. He did not expect that it would bring in much money; but if it were moderately successful it might give him an opening in the reviews and magazines, and in that case he meant to abandon archaeology for novels, since it was only as a purveyor of fiction that he could count on earning a living for himself and Susy.

Late in the afternoon he laid down his pen and wandered out of doors. He loved the increasing heat of the Venetian summer, the bruised peach-tints of worn house-fronts, the enamelling of sunlight on dark green canals, the smell of half-decayed fruits and flowers thickening the languid air. What visions he could build, if he dared, of being tucked away with Susy in the attic of some tumble-down palace, above a jade-green waterway, with a terrace overhanging a scrap of neglected garden — and cheques from the publishers dropping in at convenient intervals! Why should they not settle in Venice if he pulled it off!

He found himself before the church of the Scalzi, and pushing open the leathern door wandered up the nave under the whirl of rose-and-lemon angels in Tiepolo’s great vault. It was not a church in which one was likely to run across sight-seers; but he presently remarked a young lady standing alone near the choir, and assiduously applying her field-glass to the celestial vortex, from which she occasionally glanced down at an open manual.

As Lansing’s step sounded on the pavement, the young lady, turning, revealed herself as Miss Hicks.

“Ah — you like this too? It’s several centuries out of your line, though, isn’t it!” Nick asked as they shook hands.

She gazed at him gravely. “Why shouldn’t one like things that are out of one’s line?” she answered; and he agreed, with a laugh, that it was often an incentive.

She continued to fix her grave eyes on him, and after one or two remarks about the Tiepolos he perceived that she was feeling her way toward a subject of more personal interest.

“I’m glad to see you alone,” she said at length, with an abruptness that might have seemed awkward had it not been so completely unconscious. She turned toward a cluster of straw chairs, and signed to Nick to seat himself beside her.

“I seldom do,” she added, with the serious smile that made her heavy face almost handsome; and she went on, giving him no time to protest: “I wanted to speak to you — to explain about father’s invitation to go with us to Persia and Turkestan.”

“To explain?”

“Yes. You found the letter when you arrived here just after your marriage, didn’t you? You must have thought it odd, our asking you just then; but we hadn’t heard that you were married.”

“Oh, I guessed as much: it happened very quietly, and I was remiss about announcing it, even to old friends.”

Lansing frowned. His thoughts had wandered away to the evening when he had found Mrs. Hicks’s letter in the mail awaiting him at Venice. The day was associated in his mind with the ridiculous and mortifying episode of the cigars — the expensive cigars that Susy had wanted to carry away from Strefford’s villa. Their brief exchange of views on the subject had left the first blur on the perfect surface of his happiness, and he still felt an uncomfortable heat at the remembrance. For a few hours the prospect of life with Susy had seemed unendurable; and it was just at that moment that he had found the letter from Mrs. Hicks, with its almost irresistible invitation. If only her daughter had known how nearly he had accepted it!

“It was a dreadful temptation,” he said, smiling.

“To go with us? Then why —?”

“Oh, everything’s different now: I’ve got to stick to my writing.”

Miss Hicks still bent on him the same unblinking scrutiny. “Does that mean that you’re going to give up your real work?”

“My real work — archaeology?” He smiled again to hide a twitch of regret. “Why, I’m afraid it hardly produces a living wage; and I’ve got to think of that.” He coloured suddenly, as if suspecting that Miss Hicks might consider the avowal an opening for he hardly knew what ponderous offer of aid. The Hicks munificence was too uncalculating not to be occasionally oppressive. But looking at her again he saw that her eyes were full of tears.

“I thought it was your vocation,” she said.

“So did I. But life comes along, and upsets things.”

“Oh, I understand. There may be things — worth giving up all other things for.”

“There are!” cried Nick with beaming emphasis.

He was conscious that Miss Hicks’s eyes demanded of him even more than this sweeping affirmation.

“But your novel may fail,” she said with her odd harshness.

“It may — it probably will,” he agreed. “But if one stopped to consider such possibilities — ”

“Don’t you have to, with a wife?”

“Oh, my dear Coral — how old are you? Not twenty?” he questioned, laying a brotherly hand on hers.

She stared at him a moment, and sprang up clumsily from her chair. “I was never young . . . if that’s what you mean. It’s lucky, isn’t it, that my parents gave me such a grand education? Because, you see, art’s a wonderful resource.” (She pronounced it RE-source.)

He continued to look at her kindly. “You won’t need it — or any other — when you grow young, as you will some day,” he assured her.

“Do you mean, when I fall in love? But I am in love — Oh, there’s Eldorada and Mr. Beck!” She broke off with a jerk, signalling with her field-glass to the pair who had just appeared at the farther end of the nave. “I told them that if they’d meet me here to-day I’d try to make them understand Tiepolo. Because, you see, at home we never really have understood Tiepolo; and Mr. Beck and Eldorada are the only ones to realize it. Mr. Buttles simply won’t.” She turned to Lansing and held out her hand. “I am in love,” she repeated earnestly, “and that’s the reason why I find art such a RE source.”

She restored her eye-glasses, opened her manual, and strode across the church to the expectant neophytes.

Lansing, looking after her, wondered for half a moment whether Mr. Beck were the object of this apparently unrequited sentiment; then, with a queer start of introspection, abruptly decided that, no, he certainly was not. But then — but then — . Well, there was no use in following up such conjectures. . . . He turned home-ward, wondering if the picnickers had already reached Palazzo Vanderlyn.

They got back only in time for a late dinner, full of chaff and laughter, and apparently still enchanted with each other’s society. Nelson Vanderlyn beamed on his wife, sent his daughter off to bed with a kiss, and leaning back in his armchair before the fruit-and-flower-laden table, declared that he’d never spent a jollier day in his life. Susy seemed to come in for a full share of his approbation, and Lansing thought that Ellie was unusually demonstrative to her friend. Strefford, from his hostess’s side, glanced across now and then at young Mrs. Lansing, and his glance seemed to Lansing a confidential comment on the Vanderlyn raptures. But then Strefford was always having private jokes with people or about them; and Lansing was irritated with himself for perpetually suspecting his best friends of vague complicities at his expense. “If I’m going to be jealous of Streffy now —!” he concluded with a grimace of self-derision.

Certainly Susy looked lovely enough to justify the most irrational pangs. As a girl she had been, for some people’s taste, a trifle fine-drawn and sharp-edged; now, to her old lightness of line was added a shadowy bloom, a sort of star-reflecting depth. Her movements were slower, less angular; her mouth had a needing droop, her lids seemed weighed down by their lashes; and then suddenly the old spirit would reveal itself through the new languor, like the tartness at the core of a sweet fruit. As her husband looked at her across the flowers and lights he laughed inwardly at the nothingness of all things else.

Vanderlyn and Clarissa left betimes the next morning; and Mrs. Vanderlyn, who was to start for St. Moritz in the afternoon, devoted her last hours to anxious conferences with her maid and Susy. Strefford, with Fred Gillow and the others, had gone for a swim at the Lido, and Lansing seized the opportunity to get back to his book.

The quietness of the great echoing place gave him a foretaste of the solitude to come. By mid-August all their party would be scattered: the Hickses off on a cruise to Crete and the AEgean, Fred Gillow on the way to his moor, Strefford to stay with friends in Capri till his annual visit to Northumberland in September. One by one the others would follow, and Lansing and Susy be left alone in the great sun-proof palace, alone under the star-laden skies, alone with the great orange moons-still theirs! — above the bell-tower of San Giorgio. The novel, in that blessed quiet, would unfold itself as harmoniously as his dreams.

He wrote on, forgetful of the passing hours, till the door opened and he heard a step behind him. The next moment two hands were clasped over his eyes, and the air was full of Mrs. Vanderlyn’s last new scent.

“You dear thing — I’m just off, you know,” she said. “Susy told me you were working, and I forbade her to call you down. She and Streffy are waiting to take me to the station, and I’ve run up to say good-bye.”

“Ellie, dear!” Full of compunction, Lansing pushed aside his writing and started up; but she pressed him back into his seat.

“No, no! I should never forgive myself if I’d interrupted you. I oughtn’t to have come up; Susy didn’t want me to. But I had to tell you, you dear. . . . I had to thank you . . . ”

In her dark travelling dress and hat, so discreetly conspicuous, so negligent and so studied, with a veil masking her paint, and gloves hiding her rings, she looked younger, simpler, more natural than he had ever seen her. Poor Ellie such a good fellow, after all!

“To thank me? For what? For being so happy here?” he laughed, taking her hands.

She looked at him, laughed back, and flung her arms about his neck.

“For helping me to be so happy elsewhere — you and Susy, you two blessed darlings!” she cried, with a kiss on his cheek.

Their eyes met for a second; then her arms slipped slowly downward, dropping to her sides. Lansing sat before her like a stone.

“Oh,” she gasped, “why do you stare so? Didn’t you know . . .?”

They heard Strefford’s shrill voice on the stairs. “Ellie, where the deuce are you? Susy’s in the gondola. You’ll miss the train!”

Lansing stood up and caught Mrs. Vanderlyn by the wrist. “What do you mean? What are you talking about?”

“Oh, nothing . . . But you were both such bricks about the letters. . . . And when Nelson was here, too. . . . Nick, don’t hurt my wrist so! I must run!”

He dropped her hand and stood motionless, staring after her and listening to the click of her high heels as she fled across the room and along the echoing corridor.

When he turned back to the table he noticed that a small morocco case had fallen among his papers. In falling it had opened, and before him, on the pale velvet lining, lay a scarf-pin set with a perfect pearl. He picked the box up, and was about to hasten after Mrs. Vanderlyn — it was so like her to shed jewels on her path! — when he noticed his own initials on the cover.

He dropped the box as if it had been a hot coal, and sat for a long while gazing at the gold N. L., which seemed to have burnt itself into his flesh.

At last he roused himself and stood up.

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