When Violet Melrose had said to Susy Branch, the winter before in New York: “But why on earth don’t you and Nick go to my little place at Versailles for the honeymoon? I’m off to China, and you could have it to yourselves all summer,” the offer had been tempting enough to make the lovers waver.
It was such an artless ingenuous little house, so full of the demoralizing simplicity of great wealth, that it seemed to Susy just the kind of place in which to take the first steps in renunciation. But Nick had objected that Paris, at that time of year, would be swarming with acquaintances who would hunt them down at all hours; and Susy’s own experience had led her to remark that there was nothing the very rich enjoyed more than taking pot-luck with the very poor. They therefore gave Strefford’s villa the preference, with an inward proviso (on Susy’s part) that Violet’s house might very conveniently serve their purpose at another season.
These thoughts were in her mind as she drove up to Mrs. Melrose’s door on a rainy afternoon late in August, her boxes piled high on the roof of the cab she had taken at the station. She had travelled straight through from Venice, stopping in Milan just long enough to pick up a reply to the telegram she had despatched to the perfect housekeeper whose permanent presence enabled Mrs. Melrose to say: “Oh, when I’m sick of everything I just rush off without warning to my little shanty at Versailles, and live there all alone on scrambled eggs.”
The perfect house-keeper had replied to Susy’s enquiry: “Am sure Mrs. Melrose most happy”; and Susy, without further thought, had jumped into a Versailles train, and now stood in the thin rain before the sphinx-guarded threshold of the pavilion.
The revolving year had brought around the season at which Mrs. Melrose’s house might be convenient: no visitors were to be feared at Versailles at the end of August, and though Susy’s reasons for seeking solitude were so remote from those she had once prefigured, they were none the less cogent. To be alone — alone! After those first exposed days when, in the persistent presence of Fred Gillow and his satellites, and in the mocking radiance of late summer on the lagoons, she had fumed and turned about in her agony like a trapped animal in a cramping cage, to be alone had seemed the only respite, the one craving: to be alone somewhere in a setting as unlike as possible to the sensual splendours of Venice, under skies as unlike its azure roof. If she could have chosen she would have crawled away into a dingy inn in a rainy northern town, where she had never been and no one knew her. Failing that unobtainable luxury, here she was on the threshold of an empty house, in a deserted place, under lowering skies. She had shaken off Fred Gillow, sulkily departing for his moor (where she had half-promised to join him in September); the Prince, young Breckenridge, and the few remaining survivors of the Venetian group, had dispersed in the direction of the Engadine or Biarritz; and now she could at least collect her wits, take stock of herself, and prepare the countenance with which she was to face the next stage in her career. Thank God it was raining at Versailles!
The door opened, she heard voices in the drawing-room, and a slender languishing figure appeared on the threshold.
“Darling!” Violet Melrose cried in an embrace, drawing her into the dusky perfumed room.
“But I thought you were in China!” Susy stammered.
“In China . . . in China,” Mrs. Melrose stared with dreamy eyes, and Susy remembered her drifting disorganised life, a life more planless, more inexplicable than that of any of the other ephemeral beings blown about upon the same winds of pleasure.
“Well, Madam, I thought so myself till I got a wire from Mrs. Melrose last evening,” remarked the perfect house-keeper, following with Susy’s handbag.
Mrs. Melrose clutched her cavernous temples in her attenuated hands. “Of course, of course! I had meant to go to China — no, India. . . . But I’ve discovered a genius . . . and Genius, you know. . . . ” Unable to complete her thought, she sank down upon a pillowy divan, stretched out an arm, cried: “Fulmer! Fulmer!” and, while Susy Lansing stood in the middle of the room with widening eyes, a man emerged from the more deeply cushioned and scented twilight of some inner apartment, and she saw with surprise Nat Fulmer, the good Nat Fulmer of the New Hampshire bungalow and the ubiquitous progeny, standing before her in lordly ease, his hands in his pockets, a cigarette between his lips, his feet solidly planted in the insidious depths of one of Violet Melrose’s white leopard skins.
“Susy!” he shouted with open arms; and Mrs. Melrose murmured: “You didn’t know, then? You hadn’t heard of his masterpieces?”
In spite of herself, Susy burst into a laugh. “Is Nat your genius?”
Mrs. Melrose looked at her reproachfully.
Fulmer laughed. “No; I’m Grace’s. But Mrs. Melrose has been our Providence, and. . . . ”
“Providence?” his hostess interrupted. “Don’t talk as if you were at a prayer-meeting! He had an exhibition in New York . . . it was the most fabulous success. He’s come abroad to make studies for the decoration of my music-room in New York. Ursula Gillow has given him her garden-house at Roslyn to do. And Mrs. Bockheimer’s ball-room — oh, Fulmer, where are the cartoons?” She sprang up, tossed about some fashion-papers heaped on a lacquer table, and sank back exhausted by the effort. “I’d got as far as Brindisi. I’ve travelled day and night to be here to meet him,” she declared. “But, you darling,” and she held out a caressing hand to Susy, “I’m forgetting to ask if you’ve had tea?”
An hour later, over the tea-table, Susy already felt herself mysteriously reabsorbed into what had so long been her native element. Ellie Vanderlyn had brought a breath of it to Venice; but Susy was then nourished on another air, the air of Nick’s presence and personality; now that she was abandoned, left again to her own devices, she felt herself suddenly at the mercy of the influences from which she thought she had escaped.
In the queer social whirligig from which she had so lately fled, it seemed natural enough that a shake of the box should have tossed Nat Fulmer into celebrity, and sent Violet Melrose chasing back from the ends of the earth to bask in his success. Susy knew that Mrs. Melrose belonged to the class of moral parasites; for in that strange world the parts were sometimes reversed, and the wealthy preyed upon the pauper. Wherever there was a reputation to batten on, there poor Violet appeared, a harmless vampire in pearls who sought only to feed on the notoriety which all her millions could not create for her. Any one less versed than Susy in the shallow mysteries of her little world would have seen in Violet Melrose a baleful enchantress, in Nat Fulmer her helpless victim. Susy knew better. Violet, poor Violet, was not even that. The insignificant Ellie Vanderlyn, with her brief trivial passions, her artless mixture of amorous and social interests, was a woman with a purpose, a creature who fulfilled herself; but Violet was only a drifting interrogation.
And what of Fulmer? Mustering with new eyes his short sturdily-built figure, his nondescript bearded face, and the eyes that dreamed and wandered, and then suddenly sank into you like claws, Susy seemed to have found the key to all his years of dogged toil, his indifference to neglect, indifference to poverty, indifference to the needs of his growing family. . . . Yes: for the first time she saw that he looked commonplace enough to be a genius — was a genius, perhaps, even though it was Violet Melrose who affirmed it! Susy looked steadily at Fulmer, their eyes met, and he smiled at her faintly through his beard.
“Yes, I did discover him — I did,” Mrs. Melrose was insisting, from the depths of the black velvet divan in which she lay sunk like a wan Nereid in a midnight sea. “You mustn’t believe a word that Ursula Gillow tells you about having pounced on his ‘Spring Snow Storm’ in a dark corner of the American Artists’ exhibition — skied, if you please! They skied him less than a year ago! And naturally Ursula never in her life looked higher than the first line at a picture-show. And now she actually pretends . . . oh, for pity’s sake don’t say it doesn’t matter, Fulmer! Your saying that just encourages her, and makes people think she did. When, in reality, any one who saw me at the exhibition on varnishing-day. . . . Who? Well, Eddy Breckenridge, for instance. He was in Egypt, you say? Perhaps he was! As if one could remember the people about one, when suddenly one comes upon a great work of art, as St. Paul did — didn’t he? — and the scales fell from his eyes. Well . . . that’s exactly what happened to me that day . . . and Ursula, everybody knows, was down at Roslyn at the time, and didn’t come up for the opening of the exhibition at all. And Fulmer sits there and laughs, and says it doesn’t matter, and that he’ll paint another picture any day for me to discover!”
Susy had rung the door-bell with a hand trembling with eagerness — eagerness to be alone, to be quiet, to stare her situation in the face, and collect herself before she came out again among her kind. She had stood on the door-step, cowering among her bags, counting the instants till a step sounded and the door-knob turned, letting her in from the searching glare of the outer world. . . . And now she had sat for an hour in Violet’s drawing-room, in the very house where her honey-moon might have been spent; and no one had asked her where she had come from, or why she was alone, or what was the key to the tragedy written on her shrinking face. . . .
That was the way of the world they lived in. Nobody questioned, nobody wondered any more-because nobody had time to remember. The old risk of prying curiosity, of malicious gossip, was virtually over: one was left with one’s drama, one’s disaster, on one’s hands, because there was nobody to stop and notice the little shrouded object one was carrying. As Susy watched the two people before her, each so frankly unaffected by her presence, Violet Melrose so engrossed in her feverish pursuit of notoriety, Fulmer so plunged in the golden sea of his success, she felt like a ghost making inaudible and imperceptible appeals to the grosser senses of the living.
“If I wanted to be alone,” she thought, “I’m alone enough, in all conscience.” There was a deathly chill in such security. She turned to Fulmer.
He beamed back without sign of embarrassment. “Oh, she’s here, naturally — we’re in Paris, kids and all. In a pension, where we can polish up the lingo. But I hardly ever lay eyes on her, because she’s as deep in music as I am in paint; it was as big a chance for her as for me, you see, and she’s making the most of it, fiddling and listening to the fiddlers. Well, it’s a considerable change from New Hampshire.” He looked at her dreamily, as if making an intense effort to detach himself from his dream, and situate her in the fading past. “Remember the bungalow? And Nick — ah, how’s Nick?” he brought out triumphantly.
“Oh, yes — darling Nick?” Mrs. Melrose chimed in; and Susy, her head erect, her cheeks aflame, declared with resonance: “Most awfully well — splendidly!”
“He’s not here, though?” from Fulmer.
“No. He’s off travelling — cruising.”
Mrs. Melrose’s attention was faintly roused. “With anybody interesting?”
“No; you wouldn’t know them. People we met. . . . ” She did not have to continue, for her hostess’s gaze had again strayed.
“And you’ve come for your clothes, I suppose, darling? Don’t listen to people who say that skirts are to be wider. I’ve discovered a new woman — a Genius — and she absolutely swathes you. . . . Her name’s my secret; but we’ll go to her together.”
Susy rose from her engulphing armchair. “Do you mind if I go up to my room? I’m rather tired — coming straight through.”
“Of course, dear. I think there are some people coming to dinner . . . Mrs. Match will tell you. She has such a memory. . . . Fulmer, where on earth are those cartoons of the music-room?”
Their voices pursued Susy upstairs, as, in Mrs. Match’s perpendicular wake, she mounted to the white-panelled room with its gay linen hangings and the low bed heaped with more cushions.
“If we’d come here,” she thought, “everything might have been different.” And she shuddered at the sumptuous memories of the Palazzo Vanderlyn, and the great painted bedroom where she had met her doom.
Mrs. Match, hoping she would find everything, and mentioning that dinner was not till nine, shut her softly in among her terrors.
“Find everything?” Susy echoed the phrase. Oh, yes, she would always find everything: every time the door shut on her now, and the sound of voices ceased, her memories would be there waiting for her, every one of them, waiting quietly, patiently, obstinately, like poor people in a doctor’s office, the people who are always last to be attended to, but whom nothing will discourage or drive away, people to whom time is nothing, fatigue nothing, hunger nothing, other engagements nothing: who just wait. . . . Thank heaven, after all, that she had not found the house empty, if, whenever she returned to her room, she was to meet her memories there!
It was just a week since Nick had left her. During that week, crammed with people, questions, packing, explaining, evading, she had believed that in solitude lay her salvation. Now she understood that there was nothing she was so unprepared for, so unfitted for. When, in all her life, had she ever been alone? And how was she to bear it now, with all these ravening memories besetting her!
Dinner not till nine? What on earth was she to do till nine o’clock? She knelt before her boxes, and feverishly began to unpack.
Gradually, imperceptibly, the subtle influences of her old life were stealing into her. As she pulled out her tossed and crumpled dresses she remembered Violet’s emphatic warning: “Don’t believe the people who tell you that skirts are going to be wider.” Were hers, perhaps, too wide as it was? She looked at her limp raiment, piling itself up on bed and sofa, and understood that, according to Violet’s standards, and that of all her set, those dresses, which Nick had thought so original and exquisite, were already commonplace and dowdy, fit only to be passed on to poor relations or given to one’s maid. And Susy would have to go on wearing them till they fell to bits-or else. . . . Well, or else begin the old life again in some new form. . . .
She laughed aloud at the turn of her thoughts. Dresses? How little they had mattered a few short weeks ago! And now, perhaps, they would again be one of the foremost considerations in her life. How could it be otherwise, if she were to return again to her old dependence on Ellie Vanderlyn, Ursula Gillow, Violet Melrose? And beyond that, only the Bockheimers and their kind awaited her. . . .
A knock on the door — what a relief! It was Mrs. Match again, with a telegram. To whom had Susy given her new address? With a throbbing heart she tore open the envelope and read:
“Shall be in Paris Friday for twenty-four hours where can I see you write Nouveau Luxe.”
Ah, yes — she remembered now: she had written to Strefford! And this was his answer: he was coming. She dropped into a chair, and tried to think. What on earth had she said in her letter? It had been mainly, of course, one of condolence; but now she remembered having added, in a precipitate postscript: “I can’t give your message to Nick, for he’s gone off with the Hickses-I don’t know where, or for how long. It’s all right, of course: it was in our bargain.”
She had not meant to put in that last phrase; but as she sealed her letter to Strefford her eye had fallen on Nick’s missive, which lay beside it. Nothing in her husband’s brief lines had embittered her as much as the allusion to Strefford. It seemed to imply that Nick’s own plans were made, that his own future was secure, and that he could therefore freely and handsomely take thought for hers, and give her a pointer in the right direction. Sudden rage had possessed her at the thought: where she had at first read jealousy she now saw only a cold providence, and in a blur of tears she had scrawled her postscript to Strefford. She remembered that she had not even asked him to keep her secret. Well — after all, what would it matter if people should already know that Nick had left her? Their parting could not long remain a mystery, and the fact that it was known might help her to keep up a presence of indifference.
“It was in the bargain — in the bargain,” rang through her brain as she re-read Strefford’s telegram. She understood that he had snatched the time for this hasty trip solely in the hope of seeing her, and her eyes filled. The more bitterly she thought of Nick the more this proof of Strefford’s friendship moved her.
The clock, to her relief, reminded her that it was time to dress for dinner. She would go down presently, chat with Violet and Fulmer, and with Violet’s other guests, who would probably be odd and amusing, and too much out of her world to embarrass her by awkward questions. She would sit at a softly-lit table, breathe delicate scents, eat exquisite food (trust Mrs. Match!), and be gradually drawn again under the spell of her old associations. Anything, anything but to be alone. . . .
She dressed with even more than her habitual care, reddened her lips attentively, brushed the faintest bloom of pink over her drawn cheeks, and went down — to meet Mrs. Match coming up with a tray.
“Oh, Madam, I thought you were too tired. . . . I was bringing it up to you myself — just a little morsel of chicken.”
Susy, glancing past her, saw, through the open door, that the lamps were not lit in the drawing-room.
“Oh, no, I’m not tired, thank you. I thought Mrs. Melrose expected friends at dinner!”
“Friends at dinner-to-night?” Mrs. Match heaved a despairing sigh. Sometimes, the sigh seemed to say, her mistress put too great a strain upon her. “Why, Mrs. Melrose and Mr. Fulmer were engaged to dine in Paris. They left an hour ago. Mrs. Melrose told me she’d told you,” the house-keeper wailed.
Susy kept her little fixed smile. “I must have misunderstood. In that case . . . well, yes, if it’s no trouble, I believe I will have my tray upstairs.”
Slowly she turned, and followed the housekeeper up into the dread solitude she had just left.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15