LANSING threw the end of Strefford’s expensive cigar into the lake, and bent over his wife. Poor child! She had fallen asleep. . . . He leaned back and stared up again at the silver-flooded sky. How queer — how inexpressibly queer — it was to think that that light was shed by his honey-moon! A year ago, if anyone had predicted his risking such an adventure, he would have replied by asking to be locked up at the first symptoms. . . .
There was still no doubt in his mind that the adventure was a mad one. It was all very well for Susy to remind him twenty times a day that they had pulled it off — and so why should he worry? Even in the light of her far-seeing cleverness, and of his own present bliss, he knew the future would not bear the examination of sober thought. And as he sat there in the summer moonlight, with her head on his knee, he tried to recapitulate the successive steps that had landed them on Streffy’s lake-front.
On Lansing’s side, no doubt, it dated back to his leaving Harvard with the large resolve not to miss anything. There stood the evergreen Tree of Life, the Four Rivers flowing from its foot; and on every one of the four currents he meant to launch his little skiff. On two of them he had not gone very far, on the third he had nearly stuck in the mud; but the fourth had carried him to the very heart of wonder. It was the stream of his lively imagination, of his inexhaustible interest in every form of beauty and strangeness and folly. On this stream, sitting in the stout little craft of his poverty, his insignificance and his independence, he had made some notable voyages. . . . And so, when Susy Branch, whom he had sought out through a New York season as the prettiest and most amusing girl in sight, had surprised him with the contradictory revelation of her modern sense of expediency and her old-fashioned standard of good faith, he had felt an irresistible desire to put off on one more cruise into the unknown.
It was of the essence of the adventure that, after her one brief visit to his lodgings, he should have kept his promise and not tried to see her again. Even if her straightforwardness had not roused his emulation, his understanding of her difficulties would have moved his pity. He knew on how frail a thread the popularity of the penniless hangs, and how miserably a girl like Susy was the sport of other people’s moods and whims. It was a part of his difficulty and of hers that to get what they liked they so often had to do what they disliked. But the keeping of his promise was a greater bore than he had expected. Susy Branch had become a delightful habit in a life where most of the fixed things were dull, and her disappearance had made it suddenly clear to him that his resources were growing more and more limited. Much that had once amused him hugely now amused him less, or not at all: a good part of his world of wonder had shrunk to a village peep-show. And the things which had kept their stimulating power — distant journeys, the enjoyment of art, the contact with new scenes and strange societies — were becoming less and less attainable. Lansing had never had more than a pittance; he had spent rather too much of it in his first plunge into life, and the best he could look forward to was a middle-age of poorly-paid hack-work, mitigated by brief and frugal holidays. He knew that he was more intelligent than the average, but he had long since concluded that his talents were not marketable. Of the thin volume of sonnets which a friendly publisher had launched for him, just seventy copies had been sold; and though his essay on “Chinese Influences in Greek Art” had created a passing stir, it had resulted in controversial correspondence and dinner invitations rather than in more substantial benefits. There seemed, in short, no prospect of his ever earning money, and his restricted future made him attach an increasing value to the kind of friendship that Susy Branch had given him. Apart from the pleasure of looking at her and listening to her — of enjoying in her what others less discriminatingly but as liberally appreciated — he had the sense, between himself and her, of a kind of free-masonry of precocious tolerance and irony. They had both, in early youth, taken the measure of the world they happened to live in: they knew just what it was worth to them and for what reasons, and the community of these reasons lent to their intimacy its last exquisite touch. And now, because of some jealous whim of a dissatisfied fool of a woman, as to whom he felt himself no more to blame than any young man who has paid for good dinners by good manners, he was to be deprived of the one complete companionship he had ever known. . . .
His thoughts travelled on. He recalled the long dull spring in New York after his break with Susy, the weary grind on his last articles, his listless speculations as to the cheapest and least boring way of disposing of the summer; and then the amazing luck of going, reluctantly and at the last minute, to spend a Sunday with the poor Nat Fulmers, in the wilds of New Hampshire, and of finding Susy there — Susy, whom he had never even suspected of knowing anybody in the Fulmers’ set!
She had behaved perfectly — and so had he — but they were obviously much too glad to see each other. And then it was unsettling to be with her in such a house as the Fulmers’, away from the large setting of luxury they were both used to, in the cramped cottage where their host had his studio in the verandah, their hostess practiced her violin in the dining-room, and five ubiquitous children sprawled and shouted and blew trumpets and put tadpoles in the water-jugs, and the mid-day dinner was two hours late-and proportionately bad — because the Italian cook was posing for Fulmer.
Lansing’s first thought had been that meeting Susy in such circumstances would be the quickest way to cure them both of their regrets. The case of the Fulmers was an awful object-lesson in what happened to young people who lost their heads; poor Nat, whose pictures nobody bought, had gone to seed so terribly-and Grace, at twenty-nine, would never again be anything but the woman of whom people say, “I can remember her when she was lovely.”
But the devil of it was that Nat had never been such good company, or Grace so free from care and so full of music; and that, in spite of their disorder and dishevelment, and the bad food and general crazy discomfort, there was more amusement to be got out of their society than out of the most opulently staged house-party through which Susy and Lansing had ever yawned their way.
It was almost a relief to tile young man when, on the second afternoon, Miss Branch drew him into the narrow hall to say: “I really can’t stand the combination of Grace’s violin and little Nat’s motor-horn any longer. Do let us slip out till the duet is over.”
“How do they stand it, I wonder?” he basely echoed, as he followed her up the wooded path behind the house.
“It might be worth finding out,” she rejoined with a musing smile.
But he remained resolutely skeptical. “Oh, give them a year or two more and they’ll collapse —! His pictures will never sell, you know. He’ll never even get them into a show.”
“I suppose not. And she’ll never have time to do anything worth while with her music.”
They had reached a piny knoll high above the ledge on which the house was perched. All about them stretched an empty landscape of endless featureless wooded hills. “Think of sticking here all the year round!” Lansing groaned.
“I know. But then think of wandering over the world with some people!”
“Oh, Lord, yes. For instance, my trip to India with the Mortimer Hickses. But it was my only chance and what the deuce is one to do?”
“I wish I knew!” she sighed, thinking of the Bockheimers; and he turned and looked at her.
“The answer to your question. What is one to do — when one sees both sides of the problem? Or every possible side of it, indeed?”
They had seated themselves on a commanding rock under the pines, but Lansing could not see the view at their feet for the stir of the brown lashes on her cheek.
“You mean: Nat and Grace may after all be having the best of it?”
“How can I say, when I’ve told you I see all the sides? Of course,” Susy added hastily, “I couldn’t live as they do for a week. But it’s wonderful how little it’s dimmed them.”
“Certainly Nat was never more coruscating. And she keeps it up even better.” He reflected. “We do them good, I daresay.”
“Yes — or they us. I wonder which?”
After that, he seemed to remember that they sat a long time silent, and that his next utterance was a boyish outburst against the tyranny of the existing order of things, abruptly followed by the passionate query why, since he and she couldn’t alter it, and since they both had the habit of looking at facts as they were, they wouldn’t be utter fools not to take their chance of being happy in the only way that was open to them, To this challenge he did not recall Susy’s making any definite answer; but after another interval, in which all the world seemed framed in a sudden kiss, he heard her murmur to herself in a brooding tone: “I don’t suppose it’s ever been tried before; but we might — .” And then and there she had laid before him the very experiment they had since hazarded.
She would have none of surreptitious bliss, she began by declaring; and she set forth her reasons with her usual lucid impartiality. In the first place, she should have to marry some day, and when she made the bargain she meant it to be an honest one; and secondly, in the matter of love, she would never give herself to anyone she did not really care for, and if such happiness ever came to her she did not want it shorn of half its brightness by the need of fibbing and plotting and dodging.
“I’ve seen too much of that kind of thing. Half the women I know who’ve had lovers have had them for the fun of sneaking and lying about it; but the other half have been miserable. And I should be miserable.”
It was at this point that she unfolded her plan. Why shouldn’t they marry; belong to each other openly and honourably, if for ever so short a time, and with the definite understanding that whenever either of them got the chance to do better he or she should be immediately released? The law of their country facilitated such exchanges, and society was beginning to view them as indulgently as the law. As Susy talked, she warmed to her theme and began to develop its endless possibilities.
“We should really, in a way, help more than we should hamper each other,” she ardently explained. “We both know the ropes so well; what one of us didn’t see the other might — in the way of opportunities, I mean. And then we should be a novelty as married people. We’re both rather unusually popular — why not be frank! — and it’s such a blessing for dinner-givers to be able to count on a couple of whom neither one is a blank. Yes, I really believe we should be more than twice the success we are now; at least,” she added with a smile, “if there’s that amount of room for improvement. I don’t know how you feel; a man’s popularity is so much less precarious than a girl’s — but I know it would furbish me up tremendously to reappear as a married woman.” She glanced away from him down the long valley at their feet, and added in a lower tone: “And I should like, just for a little while, to feel I had something in life of my very own — something that nobody had lent me, like a fancy-dress or a motor or an opera cloak.”
The suggestion, at first, had seemed to Lansing as mad as it was enchanting: it had thoroughly frightened him. But Susy’s arguments were irrefutable, her ingenuities inexhaustible. Had he ever thought it all out? She asked. No. Well, she had; and would he kindly not interrupt? In the first place, there would be all the wedding-presents. Jewels, and a motor, and a silver dinner service, did she mean? Not a bit of it! She could see he’d never given the question proper thought. Cheques, my dear, nothing but cheques — she undertook to manage that on her side: she really thought she could count on about fifty, and she supposed he could rake up a few more? Well, all that would simply represent pocket-money! For they would have plenty of houses to live in: he’d see. People were always glad to lend their house to a newly-married couple. It was such fun to pop down and see them: it made one feel romantic and jolly. All they need do was to accept the houses in turn: go on honey-mooning for a year! What was he afraid of? Didn’t he think they’d be happy enough to want to keep it up? And why not at least try — get engaged, and then see what would happen? Even if she was all wrong, and her plan failed, wouldn’t it have been rather nice, just for a month or two, to fancy they were going to be happy? “I’ve often fancied it all by myself,” she concluded; “but fancying it with you would somehow be so awfully different. . . . ”
That was how it began: and this lakeside dream was what it had led up to. Fantastically improbable as they had seemed, all her previsions had come true. If there were certain links in the chain that Lansing had never been able to put his hand on, certain arrangements and contrivances that still needed further elucidation, why, he was lazily resolved to clear them up with her some day; and meanwhile it was worth all the past might have cost, and every penalty the future might exact of him, just to be sitting here in the silence and sweetness, her sleeping head on his knee, clasped in his joy as the hushed world was clasped in moonlight.
He stooped down and kissed her. “Wake up,” he whispered, “it’s bed-time.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15