SUSY had decided to wait for Strefford in London.
The new Lord Altringham was with his family in the north, and though she found a telegram on arriving, saying that he would join her in town the following week, she had still an interval of several days to fill.
London was a desert; the rain fell without ceasing, and alone in the shabby family hotel which, even out of season, was the best she could afford, she sat at last face to face with herself.
From the moment when Violet Melrose had failed to carry out her plan for the Fulmer children her interest in Susy had visibly waned. Often before, in the old days, Susy Branch had felt the same abrupt change of temperature in the manner of the hostess of the moment; and often — how often — had yielded, and performed the required service, rather than risk the consequences of estrangement. To that, at least, thank heaven, she need never stoop again.
But as she hurriedly packed her trunks at Versailles, scraped together an adequate tip for Mrs. Match, and bade good-bye to Violet (grown suddenly fond and demonstrative as she saw her visitor safely headed for the station) — as Susy went through the old familiar mummery of the enforced leave-taking, there rose in her so deep a disgust for the life of makeshifts and accommodations, that if at that moment Nick had reappeared and held out his arms to her, she was not sure she would have had the courage to return to them.
In her London solitude the thirst for independence grew fiercer. Independence with ease, of course. Oh, her hateful useless love of beauty . . . the curse it had always been to her, the blessing it might have been if only she had had the material means to gratify and to express it! And instead, it only gave her a morbid loathing of that hideous hotel bedroom drowned in yellow rain-light, of the smell of soot and cabbage through the window, the blistered wall-paper, the dusty wax bouquets under glass globes, and the electric lighting so contrived that as you turned on the feeble globe hanging from the middle of the ceiling the feebler one beside the bed went out!
What a sham world she and Nick had lived in during their few months together! What right had either of them to those exquisite settings of the life of leisure: the long white house hidden in camellias and cypresses above the lake, or the great rooms on the Giudecca with the shimmer of the canal always playing over their frescoed ceilings! Yet she had come to imagine that these places really belonged to them, that they would always go on living, fondly and irreproachably, in the frame of other people’s wealth. . . . That, again, was the curse of her love of beauty, the way she always took to it as if it belonged to her!
Well, the awakening was bound to come, and it was perhaps better that it should have come so soon. At any rate there was no use in letting her thoughts wander back to that shattered fool’s paradise of theirs. Only, as she sat there and reckoned up the days till Strefford arrived, what else in the world was there to think of?
Her future and his?
But she knew that future by heart already! She had not spent her life among the rich and fashionable without having learned every detail of the trappings of a rich and fashionable marriage. She had calculated long ago just how many dinner-dresses, how many tea-gowns and how much lacy lingerie would go to make up the outfit of the future Countess of Altringham. She had even decided to which dressmaker she would go for her chinchilla cloak-for she meant to have one, and down to her feet, and softer and more voluminous and more extravagantly sumptuous than Violet’s or Ursula’s . . . not to speak of silver foxes and sables . . . nor yet of the Altringham jewels.
She knew all this by heart; had always known it. It all belonged to the make-up of the life of elegance: there was nothing new about it. What had been new to her was just that short interval with Nick — a life unreal indeed in its setting, but so real in its essentials: the one reality she had ever known. As she looked back on it she saw how much it had given her besides the golden flush of her happiness, the sudden flowering of sensuous joy in heart and body. Yes — there had been the flowering too, in pain like birth-pangs, of something graver, stronger, fuller of future power, something she had hardly heeded in her first light rapture, but that always came back and possessed her stilled soul when the rapture sank: the deep disquieting sense of something that Nick and love had taught her, but that reached out even beyond love and beyond Nick.
Her nerves were racked by the ceaseless swish, swish of the rain on the dirty panes and the smell of cabbage and coal that came in under the door when she shut the window. This nauseating foretaste of the luncheon she must presently go down to was more than she could bear. It brought with it a vision of the dank coffee-room below, the sooty Smyrna rug, the rain on the sky-light, the listless waitresses handing about food that tasted as if it had been rained on too. There was really no reason why she should let such material miseries add to her depression. . . .
She sprang up, put on her hat and jacket, and calling for a taxi drove to the London branch of the Nouveau Luxe hotel. It was just one o’clock and she was sure to pick up a luncheon, for though London was empty that great establishment was not. It never was. Along those sultry velvet-carpeted halls, in that great flowered and scented dining-room, there was always a come-and-go of rich aimless people, the busy people who, having nothing to do, perpetually pursue their inexorable task from one end of the earth to the other.
Oh, the monotony of those faces — the faces one always knew, whether one knew the people they belonged to or not! A fresh disgust seized her at the sight of them: she wavered, and then turned and fled. But on the threshold a still more familiar figure met her: that of a lady in exaggerated pearls and sables, descending from an exaggerated motor, like the motors in magazine advertisements, the huge arks in which jewelled beauties and slender youths pause to gaze at snowpeaks from an Alpine summit.
It was Ursula Gillow — dear old Ursula, on her way to Scotland — and she and Susy fell on each other’s necks. It appeared that Ursula, detained till the next evening by a dress-maker’s delay, was also out of a job and killing time, and the two were soon smiling at each other over the exquisite preliminaries of a luncheon which the head-waiter had authoritatively asked Mrs. Gillow to “leave to him, as usual.”
Ursula was in a good humour. It did not often happen; but when it did her benevolence knew no bounds.
Like Mrs. Melrose, like all her tribe in fact, she was too much absorbed in her own affairs to give more than a passing thought to any one else’s; but she was delighted at the meeting with Susy, as her wandering kind always were when they ran across fellow-wanderers, unless the meeting happened to interfere with choicer pleasures. Not to be alone was the urgent thing; and Ursula, who had been forty-eight hours alone in London, at once exacted from her friend a promise that they should spend the rest of the day together. But once the bargain struck her mind turned again to her own affairs, and she poured out her confidences to Susy over a succession of dishes that manifested the head-waiter’s understanding of the case.
Ursula’s confidences were always the same, though they were usually about a different person. She demolished and rebuilt her sentimental life with the same frequency and impetuosity as that with which she changed her dress-makers, did over her drawing-rooms, ordered new motors, altered the mounting of her jewels, and generally renewed the setting of her life. Susy knew in advance what the tale would be; but to listen to it over perfect coffee, an amber-scented cigarette at her lips, was pleasanter than consuming cold mutton alone in a mouldy coffee-room. The contrast was so soothing that she even began to take a languid interest in her friend’s narrative.
After luncheon they got into the motor together and began a systematic round of the West End shops: furriers, jewellers and dealers in old furniture. Nothing could be more unlike Violet Melrose’s long hesitating sessions before the things she thought she wanted till the moment came to decide. Ursula pounced on silver foxes and old lacquer as promptly and decisively as on the objects of her surplus sentimentality: she knew at once what she wanted, and valued it more after it was hers.
“And now — I wonder if you couldn’t help me choose a grand piano?” she suggested, as the last antiquarian bowed them out.
“Yes: for Ruan. I’m sending one down for Grace Fulmer. She’s coming to stay . . . did I tell you? I want people to hear her. I want her to get engagements in London. My dear, she’s a Genius.”
“A Genius — Grace!” Susy gasped. “I thought it was Nat. . . . ”
“Nat — Nat Fulmer?” Ursula laughed derisively. “Ah, of course — you’ve been staying with that silly Violet! The poor thing is off her head about Nat — it’s really pitiful. Of course he has talent: I saw that long before Violet had ever heard of him. Why, on the opening day of the American Artists’ exhibition, last winter, I stopped short before his ‘Spring Snow–Storm’ (which nobody else had noticed till that moment), and said to the Prince, who was with me: ‘The man has talent.’ But genius — why, it’s his wife who has genius! Have you never heard Grace play the violin? Poor Violet, as usual, is off on the wrong tack. I’ve given Fulmer my garden-house to do — no doubt Violet told you — because I wanted to help him. But Grace is my discovery, and I’m determined to make her known, and to have every one understand that she is the genius of the two. I’ve told her she simply must come to Ruan, and bring the best accompanyist she can find. You know poor Nerone is dreadfully bored by sport, though of course he goes out with the guns. And if one didn’t have a little art in the evening. . . . Oh, Susy, do you mean to tell me you don’t know how to choose a piano? I thought you were so fond of music!”
“I am fond of it; but without knowing anything about it — in the way we’re all of us fond of the worthwhile things in our stupid set,” she added to herself — since it was obviously useless to impart such reflections to Ursula.
“But are you sure Grace is coming?” she questioned aloud.
“Quite sure. Why shouldn’t she? I wired to her yesterday. I’m giving her a thousand dollars and all her expenses.”
It was not till they were having tea in a Piccadilly tea-room that Mrs. Gillow began to manifest some interest in her companion’s plans. The thought of losing Susy became suddenly intolerable to her. The Prince, who did not see why he should be expected to linger in London out of season, was already at Ruan, and Ursula could not face the evening and the whole of the next day by herself.
“But what are you doing in town, darling, I don’t remember if I’ve asked you,” she said, resting her firm elbows on the tea-table while she took a light from Susy’s cigarette.
Susy hesitated. She had foreseen that the time must soon come when she should have to give some account of herself; and why should she not begin by telling Ursula?
But telling her what?
Her silence appeared to strike Mrs. Gillow as a reproach, and she continued with compunction: “And Nick? Nick’s with you? How is he, I thought you and he still were in Venice with Ellie Vanderlyn.”
“We were, for a few weeks.” She steadied her voice. “It was delightful. But now we’re both on our own again — for a while.”
Mrs. Gillow scrutinized her more searchingly. “Oh, you’re alone here, then; quite alone?”
“Yes: Nick’s cruising with some friends in the Mediterranean.”
Ursula’s shallow gaze deepened singularly. “But, Susy darling, then if you’re alone — and out of a job, just for the moment?”
Susy smiled. “Well, I’m not sure.”
“Oh, but if you are, darling, and you would come to Ruan! I know Fred asked you didn’t he? And he told me that both you and Nick had refused. He was awfully huffed at your not coming; but I suppose that was because Nick had other plans. We couldn’t have him now, because there’s no room for another gun; but since he’s not here, and you’re free, why you know, dearest, don’t you, how we’d love to have you? Fred would be too glad — too outrageously glad — but you don’t much mind Fred’s love-making, do you? And you’d be such a help to me — if that’s any argument! With that big house full of men, and people flocking over every night to dine, and Fred caring only for sport, and Nerone simply loathing it and ridiculing it, and not a minute to myself to try to keep him in a good humour. . . . Oh, Susy darling, don’t say no, but let me telephone at once for a place in the train to morrow night!”
Susy leaned back, letting the ash lengthen on her cigarette. How familiar, how hatefully familiar, was that old appeal! Ursula felt the pressing need of someone to flirt with Fred for a few weeks . . . and here was the very person she needed. Susy shivered at the thought. She had never really meant to go to Ruan. She had simply used the moor as a pretext when Violet Melrose had gently put her out of doors. Rather than do what Ursula asked she would borrow a few hundred pounds of Strefford, as he had suggested, and then look about for some temporary occupation until —
Until she became Lady Altringham? Well, perhaps. At any rate, she was not going back to slave for Ursula.
She shook her head with a faint smile. “I’m so sorry, Ursula: of course I want awfully to oblige you — ”
Mrs. Gillow’s gaze grew reproachful. “I should have supposed you would,” she murmured. Susy, meeting her eyes, looked into them down a long vista of favours bestowed, and perceived that Ursula was not the woman to forget on which side the obligation lay between them.
Susy hesitated: she remembered the weeks of ecstasy she had owed to the Gillows’ wedding cheque, and it hurt her to appear ungrateful.
“If I could, Ursula . . . but really . . . I’m not free at the moment.” She paused, and then took an abrupt decision. “The fact is, I’m waiting here to see Strefford.”
“Strefford’ Lord Altringham?” Ursula stared. “Ah, yes-I remember. You and he used to be great friends, didn’t you?” Her roving attention deepened. . . . But if Susy were waiting to see Lord Altringham — one of the richest men in England! Suddenly Ursula opened her gold-meshed bag and snatched a miniature diary from it.
“But wait a moment — yes, it is next week! I knew it was next week he’s coming to Ruan! But, you darling, that makes everything all right. You’ll send him a wire at once, and come with me tomorrow, and meet him there instead of in this nasty sloppy desert. . . . Oh, Susy, if you knew how hard life is for me in Scotland between the Prince and Fred you couldn’t possibly say no!”
Susy still wavered; but, after all, if Strefford were really bound for Ruan, why not see him there, agreeably and at leisure, instead of spending a dreary day with him in roaming the wet London streets, or screaming at him through the rattle of a restaurant orchestra? She knew he would not be likely to postpone his visit to Ruan in order to linger in London with her: such concessions had never been his way, and were less than ever likely to be, now that he could do so thoroughly and completely as he pleased.
For the first time she fully understood how different his destiny had become. Now of course all his days and hours were mapped out in advance: invitations assailed him, opportunities pressed on him, he had only to choose. . . . And the women! She had never before thought of the women. All the girls in England would be wanting to marry him, not to mention her own enterprising compatriots. And there were the married women, who were even more to be feared. Streff might, for the time, escape marriage; though she could guess the power of persuasion, family pressure, all the converging traditional influences he had so often ridiculed, yet, as she knew, had never completely thrown off. . . . Yes, those quiet invisible women at Altringham-his uncle’s widow, his mother, the spinster sisters — it was not impossible that, with tact and patience — and the stupidest women could be tactful and patient on such occasions — they might eventually persuade him that it was his duty, they might put just the right young loveliness in his way. . . . But meanwhile, now, at once, there were the married women. Ah, they wouldn’t wait, they were doubtless laying their traps already! Susy shivered at the thought. She knew too much about the way the trick was done, had followed, too often, all the sinuosities of such approaches. Not that they were very sinuous nowadays: more often there was just a swoop and a pounce when the time came; but she knew all the arts and the wiles that led up to it. She knew them, oh, how she knew them — though with Streff, thank heaven, she had never been called upon to exercise them! His love was there for the asking: would she not be a fool to refuse it?
Perhaps; though on that point her mind still wavered. But at any rate she saw that, decidedly, it would be better to yield to Ursula’s pressure; better to meet him at Ruan, in a congenial setting, where she would have time to get her bearings, observe what dangers threatened him, and make up her mind whether, after all, it was to be her mission to save him from the other women.
“Well, if you like, then, Ursula. . . . ”
“Oh, you angel, you! I’m so glad! We’ll go to the nearest post office, and send off the wire ourselves.”
As they got into the motor Mrs. Gillow seized Susy’s arm with a pleading pressure. “And you will let Fred make love to you a little, won’t you, darling?”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15