ON the drive back from her dinner at the Nouveau Luxe, events had followed the course foreseen by Susy.
She had promised Strefford to seek legal advice about her divorce, and he had kissed her; and the promise had been easier to make than she had expected, the kiss less difficult to receive.
She had gone to the dinner a-quiver with the mortification of learning that her husband was still with the Hickses. Morally sure of it though she had been, the discovery was a shock, and she measured for the first time the abyss between fearing and knowing. No wonder he had not written — the modern husband did not have to: he had only to leave it to time and the newspapers to make known his intentions. Susy could imagine Nick’s saying to himself, as he sometimes used to say when she reminded him of an unanswered letter: “But there are lots of ways of answering a letter — and writing doesn’t happen to be mine.”
Well — he had done it in his way, and she was answered. For a minute, as she laid aside the paper, darkness submerged her, and she felt herself dropping down into the bottomless anguish of her dreadful vigil in the Palazzo Vanderlyn. But she was weary of anguish: her healthy body and nerves instinctively rejected it. The wave was spent, and she felt herself irresistibly struggling back to light and life and youth. He didn’t want her! Well, she would try not to want him! There lay all the old expedients at her hand — the rouge for her white lips, the atropine for her blurred eyes, the new dress on her bed, the thought of Strefford and his guests awaiting her, and of the conclusions that the diners of the Nouveau Luxe would draw from seeing them together. Thank heaven no one would say: “Poor old Susy — did you know Nick had chucked her?” They would all say: “Poor old Nick! Yes, I daresay she was sorry to chuck him; but Altringham’s mad to marry her, and what could she do?”
And once again events had followed the course she had foreseen. Seeing her at Lord Altringham’s table, with the Ascots and the old Duchess of Dunes, the interested spectators could not but regard the dinner as confirming the rumour of her marriage. As Ellie said, people didn’t wait nowadays to announce their “engagements” till the tiresome divorce proceedings were over. Ellie herself, prodigally pearled and ermined, had floated in late with Algie Bockheimer in her wake, and sat, in conspicuous tete-a-tete, nodding and signalling her sympathy to Susy. Approval beamed from every eye: it was awfully exciting, they all seemed to say, seeing Susy Lansing pull it off! As the party, after dinner, drifted from the restaurant back into the hall, she caught, in the smiles and hand-pressures crowding about her, the scarcely-repressed hint of official congratulations; and Violet Melrose, seated in a corner with Fulmer, drew her down with a wan jade-circled arm, to whisper tenderly: “It’s most awfully clever of you, darling, not to be wearing any jewels.”
In all the women’s eyes she read the reflected lustre of the jewels she could wear when she chose: it was as though their glitter reached her from the far-off bank where they lay sealed up in the Altringham strong-box. What a fool she had been to think that Strefford would ever believe she didn’t care for them!
The Ambassadress, a blank perpendicular person, had been a shade less affable than Susy could have wished; but then there was Lady Joan — and the girl was handsome, alarmingly handsome to account for that: probably every one in the room had guessed it. And the old Duchess of Dunes was delightful. She looked rather like Strefford in a wig and false pearls (Susy was sure they were as false as her teeth); and her cordiality was so demonstrative that the future bride found it more difficult to account for than Lady Ascot’s coldness, till she heard the old lady, as they passed into the hall, breathe in a hissing whisper to her nephew: “Streff, dearest, when you have a minute’s time, and can drop in at my wretched little pension, I know you can explain in two words what I ought to do to pacify those awful money-lenders. . . . And you’ll bring your exquisite American to see me, won’t you! . . . No, Joan Senechal’s too fair for my taste. . . . Insipid. . . . ”
Yes: the taste of it all was again sweet on her lips. A few days later she began to wonder how the thought of Strefford’s endearments could have been so alarming. To be sure he was not lavish of them; but when he did touch her, even when he kissed her, it no longer seemed to matter. An almost complete absence of sensation had mercifully succeeded to the first wild flurry of her nerves.
And so it would be, no doubt, with everything else in her new life. If it failed to provoke any acute reactions, whether of pain or pleasure, the very absence of sensation would make for peace. And in the meanwhile she was tasting what, she had begun to suspect, was the maximum of bliss to most of the women she knew: days packed with engagements, the exhilaration of fashionable crowds, the thrill of snapping up a jewel or a bibelot or a new “model” that one’s best friend wanted, or of being invited to some private show, or some exclusive entertainment, that one’s best friend couldn’t get to. There was nothing, now, that she couldn’t buy, nowhere that she couldn’t go: she had only to choose and to triumph. And for a while the surface-excitement of her life gave her the illusion of enjoyment.
Strefford, as she had expected, had postponed his return to England, and they had now been for nearly three weeks together in their new, and virtually avowed, relation. She had fancied that, after all, the easiest part of it would be just the being with Strefford — the falling back on their old tried friendship to efface the sense of strangeness. But, though she had so soon grown used to his caresses, he himself remained curiously unfamiliar: she was hardly sure, at times, that it was the old Strefford she was talking to. It was not that his point of view had changed, but that new things occupied and absorbed him. In all the small sides of his great situation he took an almost childish satisfaction; and though he still laughed at both its privileges and its obligations, it was now with a jealous laughter.
It amused him inexhaustibly, for instance, to be made up to by all the people who had always disapproved of him, and to unite at the same table persons who had to dissemble their annoyance at being invited together lest they should not be invited at all. Equally exhilarating was the capricious favouring of the dull and dowdy on occasions when the brilliant and disreputable expected his notice. It enchanted him, for example, to ask the old Duchess of Dunes and Violet Melrose to dine with the Vicar of Altringham, on his way to Switzerland for a month’s holiday, and to watch the face of the Vicar’s wife while the Duchess narrated her last difficulties with book-makers and money-lenders, and Violet proclaimed the rights of Love and Genius to all that had once been supposed to belong exclusively to Respectability and Dulness.
Susy had to confess that her own amusements were hardly of a higher order; but then she put up with them for lack of better, whereas Strefford, who might have had what he pleased, was completely satisfied with such triumphs.
Somehow, in spite of his honours and his opportunities, he seemed to have shrunk. The old Strefford had certainly been a larger person, and she wondered if material prosperity were always a beginning of ossification. Strefford had been much more fun when he lived by his wits. Sometimes, now, when he tried to talk of politics, or assert himself on some question of public interest, she was startled by his limitations. Formerly, when he was not sure of his ground, it had been his way to turn the difficulty by glib nonsense or easy irony; now he was actually dull, at times almost pompous. She noticed too, for the first time, that he did not always hear clearly when several people were talking at once, or when he was at the theatre; and he developed a habit of saying over and over again: “Does so-and-so speak indistinctly? Or am I getting deaf, I wonder?” which wore on her nerves by its suggestion of a corresponding mental infirmity.
These thoughts did not always trouble her. The current of idle activity on which they were both gliding was her native element as well as his; and never had its tide been as swift, its waves as buoyant. In his relation to her, too, he was full of tact and consideration. She saw that he still remembered their frightened exchange of glances after their first kiss; and the sense of this little hidden spring of imagination in him was sometimes enough for her thirst.
She had always had a rather masculine punctuality in keeping her word, and after she had promised Strefford to take steps toward a divorce she had promptly set about doing it. A sudden reluctance prevented her asking the advice of friends like Ellie Vanderlyn, whom she knew to be in the thick of the same negotiations, and all she could think of was to consult a young American lawyer practicing in Paris, with whom she felt she could talk the more easily because he was not from New York, and probably unacquainted with her history.
She was so ignorant of the procedure in such matters that she was surprised and relieved at his asking few personal questions; but it was a shock to learn that a divorce could not be obtained, either in New York or Paris, merely on the ground of desertion or incompatibility.
“I thought nowadays . . . if people preferred to live apart . . . it could always be managed,” she stammered, wondering at her own ignorance, after the many conjugal ruptures she had assisted at.
The young lawyer smiled, and coloured slightly. His lovely client evidently intimidated him by her grace, and still more by her inexperience.
“It can be — generally,” he admitted; “and especially so if . . . as I gather is the case . . . your husband is equally anxious. . . . ”
“Oh, quite!” she exclaimed, suddenly humiliated by having to admit it.
“Well, then — may I suggest that, to bring matters to a point, the best way would be for you to write to him?”
She recoiled slightly. It had never occurred to her that the lawyers would not “manage it” without her intervention.
“Write to him . . . but what about?”
“Well, expressing your wish . . . to recover your freedom. . . . The rest, I assume,” said the young lawyer, “may be left to Mr. Lansing.”
She did not know exactly what he meant, and was too much perturbed by the idea of having to communicate with Nick to follow any other train of thought. How could she write such a letter? And yet how could she confess to the lawyer that she had not the courage to do so? He would, of course, tell her to go home and be reconciled. She hesitated perplexedly.
“Wouldn’t it be better,” she suggested, “if the letter were to come from — from your office?”
He considered this politely. “On the whole: no. If, as I take it, an amicable arrangement is necessary — to secure the requisite evidence then a line from you, suggesting an interview, seems to me more advisable.”
“An interview? Is an interview necessary?” She was ashamed to show her agitation to this cautiously smiling young man, who must wonder at her childish lack of understanding; but the break in her voice was uncontrollable.
“Oh, please write to him — I can’t! And I can’t see him! Oh, can’t you arrange it for me?” she pleaded.
She saw now that her idea of a divorce had been that it was something one went out — or sent out — to buy in a shop: something concrete and portable, that Strefford’s money could pay for, and that it required no personal participation to obtain. What a fool the lawyer must think her! Stiffening herself, she rose from her seat.
“My husband and I don’t wish to see each other again. . . . I’m sure it would be useless . . . and very painful.”
“You are the best judge, of course. But in any case, a letter from you, a friendly letter, seems wiser . . . considering the apparent lack of evidence. . . . ”
“Very well, then; I’ll write,” she agreed, and hurried away, scarcely hearing his parting injunction that she should take a copy of her letter.
That night she wrote. At the last moment it might have been impossible, if at the theatre little Breckenridge had not bobbed into her box. He was just back from Rome, where he had dined with the Hickses (“a bang-up show — they’re really lances-you wouldn’t know them!”), and had met there Lansing, whom he reported as intending to marry Coral “as soon as things were settled”. “You were dead right, weren’t you, Susy,” he snickered, “that night in Venice last summer, when we all thought you were joking about their engagement? Pity now you chucked our surprise visit to the Hickses, and sent Streff up to drag us back just as we were breaking in! You remember?”
He flung off the “Streff” airily, in the old way, but with a tentative side-glance at his host; and Lord Altringham, leaning toward Susy, said coldly: “Was Breckenridge speaking about me? I didn’t catch what he said. Does he speak indistinctly — or am I getting deaf, I wonder?”
After that it seemed comparatively easy, when Strefford had dropped her at her hotel, to go upstairs and write. She dashed off the date and her address, and then stopped; but suddenly she remembered Breckenridge’s snicker, and the words rushed from her. “Nick dear, it was July when you left Venice, and I have had no word from you since the note in which you said you had gone for a few days, and that I should hear soon again.
“You haven’t written yet, and it is five months since you left me. That means, I suppose, that you want to take back your freedom and give me mine. Wouldn’t it be kinder, in that case, to tell me so? It is worse than anything to go on as we are now. I don’t know how to put these things but since you seem unwilling to write to me perhaps you would prefer to send your answer to Mr. Frederic Spearman, the American lawyer here. His address is 100, Boulevard Haussmann. I hope — ”
She broke off on the last word. Hope? What did she hope, either for him or for herself? Wishes for his welfare would sound like a mockery — and she would rather her letter should seem bitter than unfeeling. Above all, she wanted to get it done. To have to re-write even those few lines would be torture. So she left “I hope,” and simply added: “to hear before long what you have decided.”
She read it over, and shivered. Not one word of the past-not one allusion to that mysterious interweaving of their lives which had enclosed them one in the other like the flower in its sheath! What place had such memories in such a letter? She had the feeling that she wanted to hide that other Nick away in her own bosom, and with him the other Susy, the Susy he had once imagined her to be. . . . Neither of them seemed concerned with the present business.
The letter done, she stared at the sealed envelope till its presence in the room became intolerable, and she understood that she must either tear it up or post it immediately. She went down to the hall of the sleeping hotel, and bribed the night-porter to carry the letter to the nearest post office, though he objected that, at that hour, no time would be gained. “I want it out of the house,” she insisted: and waited sternly by the desk, in her dressing-gown, till he had performed the errand.
As she re-entered her room, the disordered writing-table struck her; and she remembered the lawyer’s injunction to take a copy of her letter. A copy to be filed away with the documents in “Lansing versus Lansing!” She burst out laughing at the idea. What were lawyers made of, she wondered? Didn’t the man guess, by the mere look in her eyes and the sound of her voice, that she would never, as long as she lived, forget a word of that letter — that night after night she would lie down, as she was lying down to-night, to stare wide-eyed for hours into the darkness, while a voice in her brain monotonously hammered out: “Nick dear, it was July when you left me . . . ” and so on, word after word, down to the last fatal syllable?
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02