WITH a sigh of relief Susy drew the pins from her hat and threw herself down on the lounge.
The ordeal she had dreaded was over, and Mr. and Mrs. Vanderlyn had safely gone their several ways. Poor Ellie was not noted for prudence, and when life smiled on her she was given to betraying her gratitude too openly; but thanks to Susy’s vigilance (and, no doubt, to Strefford’s tacit co-operation), the dreaded twenty-four hours were happily over. Nelson Vanderlyn had departed without a shadow on his brow, and though Ellie’s, when she came down from bidding Nick good-bye, had seemed to Susy less serene than usual, she became her normal self as soon as it was discovered that the red morocco bag with her jewel-box was missing. Before it had been discovered in the depths of the gondola they had reached the station, and there was just time to thrust her into her “sleeper,” from which she was seen to wave an unperturbed farewell to her friends.
“Well, my dear, we’ve been it through,” Strefford remarked with a deep breath as the St. Moritz express rolled away.
“Oh,” Susy sighed in mute complicity; then, as if to cover her self-betrayal: “Poor darling, she does so like what she likes!”
“Yes — even if it’s a rotten bounder,” Strefford agreed.
“A rotten bounder? Why, I thought — ”
“That it was still young Davenant? Lord, no — not for the last six months. Didn’t she tell you —?”
Susy felt herself redden. “I didn’t ask her — ”
“Ask her? You mean you didn’t let her!”
“I didn’t let her. And I don’t let you,” Susy added sharply, as he helped her into the gondola.
“Oh, all right: I daresay you’re right. It simplifies things,” Strefford placidly acquiesced.
She made no answer, and in silence they glided homeward.
Now, in the quiet of her own room, Susy lay and pondered on the distance she had travelled during the last year. Strefford had read her mind with his usual penetration. It was true that there had been a time when she would have thought it perfectly natural that Ellie should tell her everything; that the name of young Davenant’s successor should be confided to her as a matter of course. Apparently even Ellie had been obscurely aware of the change, for after a first attempt to force her confidences on Susy she had contented herself with vague expressions of gratitude, allusive smiles and sighs, and the pretty “surprise” of the sapphire bangle slipped onto her friend’s wrist in the act of their farewell embrace.
The bangle was extremely handsome. Susy, who had an auctioneer’s eye for values, knew to a fraction the worth of those deep convex stones alternating with small emeralds and brilliants. She was glad to own the bracelet, and enchanted with the effect it produced on her slim wrist; yet, even while admiring it, and rejoicing that it was hers, she had already transmuted it into specie, and reckoned just how far it would go toward the paying of domestic necessities. For whatever came to her now interested her only as something more to be offered up to Nick.
The door opened and Nick came in. Dusk had fallen, and she could not see his face; but something in the jerk of the door-handle roused her ever-wakeful apprehension. She hurried toward him with outstretched wrist.
“Look, dearest — wasn’t it too darling of Ellie?”
She pressed the button of the lamp that lit her dressing-table, and her husband’s face started unfamiliarly out of the twilight. She slipped off the bracelet and held it up to him.
“Oh, I can go you one better,” he said with a laugh; and pulling a morocco case from his pocket he flung it down among the scent-bottles.
Susy opened the case automatically, staring at the pearl because she was afraid to look again at Nick.
“Ellie — gave you this?” she asked at length.
“Yes. She gave me this.” There was a pause. “Would you mind telling me,” Lansing continued in the same dead-level tone, “exactly for what services we’ve both been so handsomely paid?”
“The pearl is beautiful,” Susy murmured, to gain time, while her head spun round with unimaginable terrors.
“So are your sapphires; though, on closer examination, my services would appear to have been valued rather higher than yours. Would you be kind enough to tell me just what they were?”
Susy threw her head back and looked at him. “What on earth are you talking about, Nick! Why shouldn’t Ellie have given us these things? Do you forget that it’s like our giving her a pen-wiper or a button-hook? What is it you are trying to suggest?”
It had cost her a considerable effort to hold his eyes while she put the questions. Something had happened between him and Ellie, that was evident-one of those hideous unforeseeable blunders that may cause one’s cleverest plans to crumble at a stroke; and again Susy shuddered at the frailty of her bliss. But her old training stood her in good stead. There had been more than one moment in her past when everything-somebody else’s everything-had depended on her keeping a cool head and a clear glance. It would have been a wonder if now, when she felt her own everything at stake, she had not been able to put up as good a defence.
“What is it?” she repeated impatiently, as Lansing continued to remain silent.
“That’s what I’m here to ask,” he returned, keeping his eyes as steady as she kept hers. “There’s no reason on earth, as you say, why Ellie shouldn’t give us presents — as expensive presents as she likes; and the pearl is a beauty. All I ask is: for what specific services were they given? For, allowing for all the absence of scruple that marks the intercourse of truly civilized people, you’ll probably agree that there are limits; at least up to now there have been limits. . . . ”
“I really don’t know what you mean. I suppose Ellie wanted to show that she was grateful to us for looking after Clarissa.”
“But she gave us all this in exchange for that, didn’t she?” he suggested, with a sweep of the hand around the beautiful shadowy room. “A whole summer of it if we choose.”
Susy smiled. “Apparently she didn’t think that enough.”
“What a doting mother! It shows the store she sets upon her child.”
“Well, don’t you set store upon Clarissa?”
“Clarissa is exquisite; but her mother didn’t mention her in offering me this recompense.”
Susy lifted her head again. “Whom did she mention?”
“Vanderlyn,” said Lansing.
“Yes — and some letters . . . something about letters. . . . What is it, my dear, that you and I have been hired to hide from Vanderlyn? Because I should like to know,” Nick broke out savagely, “if we’ve been adequately paid.”
Susy was silent: she needed time to reckon up her forces, and study her next move; and her brain was in such a whirl of fear that she could at last only retort: “What is it that Ellie said to you?”
Lansing laughed again. “That’s just what you’d like to find out — isn’t it? — in order to know the line to take in making your explanation.”
The sneer had an effect that he could not have foreseen, and that Susy herself had not expected.
“Oh, don’t — don’t let us speak to each other like that!” she cried; and sinking down by the dressing-table she hid her face in her hands.
It seemed to her, now, that nothing mattered except that their love for each other, their faith in each other, should be saved from some unhealable hurt. She was willing to tell Nick everything — she wanted to tell him everything — if only she could be sure of reaching a responsive chord in him. But the scene of the cigars came back to her, and benumbed her. If only she could make him see that nothing was of any account as long as they continued to love each other!
His touch fell compassionately on her shoulder. “Poor child — don’t,” he said.
Their eyes met, but his expression checked the smile breaking through her tears. “Don’t you see,” he continued, “that we’ve got to have this thing out?”
She continued to stare at him through a prism of tears. “I can’t — while you stand up like that,” she stammered, childishly.
She had cowered down again into a corner of the lounge; but Lansing did not seat himself at her side. He took a chair facing her, like a caller on the farther side of a stately tea-tray. “Will that do?” he asked with a stiff smile, as if to humour her.
“Nothing will do — as long as you’re not you!”
She shook her head wearily. “What’s the use? You accept things theoretically — and then when they happen. . . . ”
“What things? What has happened!”
A sudden impatience mastered her. What did he suppose, after all —? “But you know all about Ellie. We used to talk about her often enough in old times,” she said.
“Ellie and young Davenant?”
“Young Davenant; or the others. . . . ”
“Or the others. But what business was it of ours?”
“Ah, that’s just what I think!” she cried, springing up with an explosion of relief. Lansing stood up also, but there was no answering light in his face.
“We’re outside of all that; we’ve nothing to do with it, have we?” he pursued.
“Then what on earth is the meaning of Ellie’s gratitude? Gratitude for what we’ve done about some letters — and about Vanderlyn?”
“Oh, not you,” Susy cried, involuntarily.
“Not I? Then you?” He came close and took her by the wrist. “Answer me. Have you been mixed up in some dirty business of Ellie’s?”
There was a pause. She found it impossible to speak, with that burning grasp on the wrist where the bangle had been. At length he let her go and moved away. “Answer,” he repeated.
“I’ve told you it was my business and not yours.”
He received this in silence; then he questioned: “You’ve been sending letters for her, I suppose? To whom?”
“Oh, why do you torment me? Nelson was not supposed to know that she’d been away. She left me the letters to post to him once a week. I found them here the night we arrived. . . . It was the price — for this. Oh, Nick, say it’s been worth it-say at least that it’s been worth it!” she implored him.
He stood motionless, unresponding. One hand drummed on the corner of her dressing-table, making the jewelled bangle dance.
“How many letters?”
“I don’t know . . . four . . . five . . . What does it matter?”
“And once a week, for six weeks —?”
“And you took it all as a matter of course?”
“No: I hated it. But what could I do?”
“What could you do?”
“When our being together depended on it? Oh, Nick, how could you think I’d give you up?”
“Give me up?” he echoed.
“Well — doesn’t our being together depend on — on what we can get out of people? And hasn’t there always got to be some give-and-take? Did you ever in your life get anything for nothing?” she cried with sudden exasperation. “You’ve lived among these people as long as I have; I suppose it’s not the first time — ”
“By God, but it is,” he exclaimed, flushing. “And that’s the difference — the fundamental difference.”
“Between you and me. I’ve never in my life done people’s dirty work for them — least of all for favours in return. I suppose you guessed it, or you wouldn’t have hidden this beastly business from me.”
The blood rose to Susy’s temples also. Yes, she had guessed it; instinctively, from the day she had first visited him in his bare lodgings, she had been aware of his stricter standard. But how could she tell him that under his influence her standard had become stricter too, and that it was as much to hide her humiliation from herself as to escape his anger that she had held her tongue?
“You knew I wouldn’t have stayed here another day if I’d known,” he continued.
“Yes: and then where in the world should we have gone?”
“You mean that — in one way or another — what you call give-and-take is the price of our remaining together?”
“Well — isn’t it,” she faltered.
“Then we’d better part, hadn’t we?”
He spoke in a low tone, thoughtfully and deliberately, as if this had been the inevitable conclusion to which their passionate argument had led.
Susy made no answer. For a moment she ceased to be conscious of the causes of what had happened; the thing itself seemed to have smothered her under its ruins.
Nick wandered away from the dressing-table and stood gazing out of the window at the darkening canal flecked with lights. She looked at his back, and wondered what would happen if she were to go up to him and fling her arms about him. But even if her touch could have broken the spell, she was not sure she would have chosen that way of breaking it. Beneath her speechless anguish there burned the half-conscious sense of having been unfairly treated. When they had entered into their queer compact, Nick had known as well as she on what compromises and concessions the life they were to live together must be based. That he should have forgotten it seemed so unbelievable that she wondered, with a new leap of fear, if he were using the wretched Ellie’s indiscretion as a means of escape from a tie already wearied of. Suddenly she raised her head with a laugh.
“After all — you were right when you wanted me to be your mistress.”
He turned on her with an astonished stare. “You — my mistress?”
Through all her pain she thrilled with pride at the discovery that such a possibility had long since become unthinkable to him. But she insisted. “That day at the Fulmers’ — have you forgotten? When you said it would be sheer madness for us to marry.”
Lansing stood leaning in the embrasure of the window, his eyes fixed on the mosaic volutes of the floor.
“I was right enough when I said it would be sheer madness for us to marry,” he rejoined at length.
She sprang up trembling. “Well, that’s easily settled. Our compact — ”
“Oh, that compact — ” he interrupted her with an impatient laugh.
“Aren’t you asking me to carry it out now?”
“Because I said we’d better part?” He paused. “But the compact — I’d almost forgotten it — was to the effect, wasn’t it, that we were to give each other a helping hand if either of us had a better chance? The thing was absurd, of course; a mere joke; from my point of view, at least. I shall never want any better chance . . . any other chance. . . . ”
“Oh, Nick, oh, Nick . . . but then. . . . ” She was close to him, his face looming down through her tears; but he put her back.
“It would have been easy enough, wouldn’t it,” he rejoined, “if we’d been as detachable as all that? As it is, it’s going to hurt horribly. But talking it over won’t help. You were right just now when you asked how else we were going to live. We’re born parasites, both, I suppose, or we’d have found out some way long ago. But I find there are things I might put up with for myself, at a pinch — and should, probably, in time that I can’t let you put up with for me . . . ever. . . . Those cigars at Como: do you suppose I didn’t know it was for me? And this too? Well, it won’t do . . . it won’t do. . . . ”
He stopped, as if his courage failed him; and she moaned out: “But your writing — if your book’s a success. . . . ”
“My poor Susy — that’s all part of the humbug. We both know that my sort of writing will never pay. And what’s the alternative except more of the same kind of baseness? And getting more and more blunted to it? At least, till now, I’ve minded certain things; I don’t want to go on till I find myself taking them for granted.”
She reached out a timid hand. “But you needn’t ever, dear . . . if you’d only leave it to me. . . . ”
He drew back sharply. “That seems simple to you, I suppose? Well, men are different.” He walked toward the dressing-table and glanced at the little enamelled clock which had been one of her wedding-presents.
“Time to dress, isn’t it? Shall you mind if I leave you to dine with Streffy, and whoever else is coming? I’d rather like a long tramp, and no more talking just at present except with myself.”
He passed her by and walked rapidly out of the room. Susy stood motionless, unable to lift a detaining hand or to find a final word of appeal. On her disordered dressing-table Mrs. Vanderlyn’s gifts glittered in the rosy lamp-light.
Yes: men were different, as he said.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:56