STREFFORD was leaving for England.
Once assured that Susy had taken the first step toward freeing herself, he frankly regarded her as his affianced wife, and could see no reason for further mystery. She understood his impatience to have their plans settled; it would protect him from the formidable menace of the marriageable, and cause people, as he said, to stop meddling. Now that the novelty of his situation was wearing off, his natural indolence reasserted itself, and there was nothing he dreaded more than having to be on his guard against the innumerable plans that his well-wishers were perpetually making for him. Sometimes Susy fancied he was marrying her because to do so was to follow the line of least resistance.
“To marry me is the easiest way of not marrying all the others,” she laughed, as he stood before her one day in a quiet alley of the Bois de Boulogne, insisting on the settlement of various preliminaries. “I believe I’m only a protection to you.”
An odd gleam passed behind his eyes, and she instantly guessed that he was thinking: “And what else am I to you?”
She changed colour, and he rejoined, laughing also: “Well, you’re that at any rate, thank the Lord!”
She pondered, and then questioned: “But in the interval-how are you going to defend yourself for another year?”
“Ah, you’ve got to see to that; you’ve got to take a little house in London. You’ve got to look after me, you know.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to flash back: “Oh, if that’s all you care —!” But caring was exactly the factor she wanted, as much as possible, to keep out of their talk and their thoughts. She could not ask him how much he cared without laying herself open to the same question; and that way terror lay. As a matter of fact, though Strefford was not an ardent wooer — perhaps from tact, perhaps from temperament, perhaps merely from the long habit of belittling and disintegrating every sentiment and every conviction — yet she knew he did care for her as much as he was capable of caring for anyone. If the element of habit entered largely into the feeling — if he liked her, above all, because he was used to her, knew her views, her indulgences, her allowances, knew he was never likely to be bored, and almost certain to be amused, by her; why, such ingredients though not of the fieriest, were perhaps those most likely to keep his feeling for her at a pleasant temperature. She had had a taste of the tropics, and wanted more equable weather; but the idea of having to fan his flame gently for a year was unspeakably depressing to her. Yet all this was precisely what she could not say. The long period of probation, during which, as she knew, she would have to amuse him, to guard him, to hold him, and to keep off the other women, was a necessary part of their situation. She was sure that, as little Breckenridge would have said, she could “pull it off”; but she did not want to think about it. What she would have preferred would have been to go away — no matter where and not see Strefford again till they were married. But she dared not tell him that either.
“A little house in London —?” She wondered.
“Well, I suppose you’ve got to have some sort of a roof over your head.”
“I suppose so.”
He sat down beside her. “If you like me well enough to live at Altringham some day, won’t you, in the meantime, let me provide you with a smaller and more convenient establishment?”
Still she hesitated. The alternative, she knew, would be to live on Ursula Gillow, Violet Melrose, or some other of her rich friends, any one of whom would be ready to lavish the largest hospitality on the prospective Lady Altringham. Such an arrangement, in the long run, would be no less humiliating to her pride, no less destructive to her independence, than Altringham’s little establishment. But she temporized. “I shall go over to London in December, and stay for a while with various people — then we can look about.”
“All right; as you like.” He obviously considered her hesitation ridiculous, but was too full of satisfaction at her having started divorce proceedings to be chilled by her reply.
“And now, look here, my dear; couldn’t I give you some sort of a ring?”
“A ring?” She flushed at the suggestion. “What’s the use, Streff, dear? With all those jewels locked away in London — ”
“Oh, I daresay you’ll think them old-fashioned. And, hang it, why shouldn’t I give you something new, I ran across Ellie and Bockheimer yesterday, in the rue de la Paix, picking out sapphires. Do you like sapphires, or emeralds? Or just a diamond? I’ve seen a thumping one. . . . I’d like you to have it.”
Ellie and Bockheimer! How she hated the conjunction of the names! Their case always seemed to her like a caricature of her own, and she felt an unreasoning resentment against Ellie for having selected the same season for her unmating and re-mating.
“I wish you wouldn’t speak of them, Streff . . . as if they were like us! I can hardly bear to sit in the same room with Ellie Vanderlyn.”
“Hullo? What’s wrong? You mean because of her giving up Clarissa?”
“Not that only. . . . You don’t know. . . . I can’t tell you. . . . ” She shivered at the memory, and rose restlessly from the bench where they had been sitting.
Strefford gave his careless shrug. “Well, my dear, you can hardly expect me to agree, for after all it was to Ellie I owed the luck of being so long alone with you in Venice. If she and Algie hadn’t prolonged their honeymoon at the villa — ”
He stopped abruptly, and looked at Susy. She was conscious that every drop of blood had left her face. She felt it ebbing away from her heart, flowing out of her as if from all her severed arteries, till it seemed as though nothing were left of life in her but one point of irreducible pain.
“Ellie — at your villa? What do you mean? Was it Ellie and Bockheimer who —?”
Strefford still stared. “You mean to say you didn’t know?”
“Who came after Nick and me . . .?” she insisted.
“Why, do you suppose I’d have turned you out otherwise? That beastly Bockheimer simply smothered me with gold. Ah, well, there’s one good thing: I shall never have to let the villa again! I rather like the little place myself, and I daresay once in a while we might go there for a day or two. . . . Susy, what’s the matter?” he exclaimed.
She returned his stare, but without seeing him. Everything swam and danced before her eyes.
“Then she was there while I was posting all those letters for her —?”
“Letters — what letters? What makes you look so frightfully upset?”
She pursued her thought as if he had not spoken. “She and Algie Bockheimer arrived there the very day that Nick and I left?”
“I suppose so. I thought she’d told you. Ellie always tells everybody everything.”
“She would have told me, I daresay — but I wouldn’t let her.”
“Well, my dear, that was hardly my fault, was it? Though I really don’t see — ”
But Susy, still blind to everything but the dance of dizzy sparks before her eyes, pressed on as if she had not heard him. “It was their motor, then, that took us to Milan! It was Algie Bockheimer’s motor!” She did not know why, but this seemed to her the most humiliating incident in the whole hateful business. She remembered Nick’s reluctance to use the motor-she remembered his look when she had boasted of her “managing.” The nausea mounted to her throat.
Strefford burst out laughing. “I say — you borrowed their motor? And you didn’t know whose it was?”
“How could I know? I persuaded the chauffeur . . . for a little tip. . . . It was to save our railway fares to Milan . . . extra luggage costs so frightfully in Italy. . . . ”
“Good old Susy! Well done! I can see you doing it — ”
“Oh, how horrible — how horrible!” she groaned.
“Horrible? What’s horrible?”
“Why, your not seeing . . . not feeling . . . ” she began impetuously; and then stopped. How could she explain to him that what revolted her was not so much the fact of his having given the little house, as soon as she and Nick had left it, to those two people of all others — though the vision of them in the sweet secret house, and under the plane-trees of the terrace, drew such a trail of slime across her golden hours? No, it was not that from which she most recoiled, but from the fact that Strefford, living in luxury in Nelson Vanderlyn’s house, should at the same time have secretly abetted Ellie Vanderlyn’s love-affairs, and allowed her — for a handsome price — to shelter them under his own roof. The reproach trembled on her lip — but she remembered her own part in the wretched business, and the impossibility of avowing it to Strefford, and of revealing to him that Nick had left her for that very reason. She was not afraid that the discovery would diminish her in Strefford’s eyes: he was untroubled by moral problems, and would laugh away her avowal, with a sneer at Nick in his new part of moralist. But that was just what she could not bear: that anyone should cast a doubt on the genuineness of Nick’s standards, or should know how far below them she had fallen.
She remained silent, and Strefford, after a moment, drew her gently down to the seat beside him. “Susy, upon my soul I don’t know what you’re driving at. Is it me you’re angry with-or yourself? And what’s it all about! Are you disgusted because I let the villa to a couple who weren’t married! But, hang it, they’re the kind that pay the highest price and I had to earn my living somehow! One doesn’t run across a bridal pair every day. . . . ”
She lifted her eyes to his puzzled incredulous face. Poor Streff! No, it was not with him that she was angry. Why should she be? Even that ill-advised disclosure had told her nothing she had not already known about him. It had simply revealed to her once more the real point of view of the people he and she lived among had shown her that, in spite of the superficial difference, he felt as they felt, judged as they judged, was blind as they were-and as she would be expected to be, should she once again become one of them. What was the use of being placed by fortune above such shifts and compromises, if in one’s heart one still condoned them? And she would have to — she would catch the general note, grow blunted as those other people were blunted, and gradually come to wonder at her own revolt, as Strefford now honestly wondered at it. She felt as though she were on the point of losing some new-found treasure, a treasure precious only to herself, but beside which all he offered her was nothing, the triumph of her wounded pride nothing, the security of her future nothing.
“What is it, Susy?” he asked, with the same puzzled gentleness.
Ah, the loneliness of never being able to make him understand! She had felt lonely enough when the flaming sword of Nick’s indignation had shut her out from their Paradise; but there had been a cruel bliss in the pain. Nick had not opened her eyes to new truths, but had waked in her again something which had lain unconscious under years of accumulated indifference. And that re-awakened sense had never left her since, and had somehow kept her from utter loneliness because it was a secret shared with Nick, a gift she owed to Nick, and which, in leaving her, he could not take from her. It was almost, she suddenly felt, as if he had left her with a child.
“My dear girl,” Strefford said, with a resigned glance at his watch, “you know we’re dining at the Embassy. . . . ”
At the Embassy? She looked at him vaguely: then she remembered. Yes, they were dining that night at the Ascots’, with Strefford’s cousin, the Duke of Dunes, and his wife, the handsome irreproachable young Duchess; with the old gambling Dowager Duchess, whom her son and daughter-in-law had come over from England to see; and with other English and French guests of a rank and standing worthy of the Duneses. Susy knew that her inclusion in such a dinner could mean but one thing: it was her definite recognition as Altringham’s future wife. She was “the little American” whom one had to ask when one invited him, even on ceremonial occasions. The family had accepted her; the Embassy could but follow suit.
“It’s late, dear; and I’ve got to see someone on business first,” Strefford reminded her patiently.
“Oh, Streff — I can’t, I can’t!” The words broke from her without her knowing what she was saying. “I can’t go with you — I can’t go to the Embassy. I can’t go on any longer like this. . . . ” She lifted her eyes to his in desperate appeal. “Oh, understand-do please understand!” she wailed, knowing, while she spoke, the utter impossibility of what she asked.
Strefford’s face had gradually paled and hardened. From sallow it turned to a dusky white, and lines of obstinacy deepened between the ironic eyebrows and about the weak amused mouth.
“Understand? What do you want me to understand,” He laughed. “That you’re trying to chuck me already?”
She shrank at the sneer of the “already,” but instantly remembered that it was the only thing he could be expected to say, since it was just because he couldn’t understand that she was flying from him.
“Oh, Streff — if I knew how to tell you!”
“It doesn’t so much matter about the how. Is that what you’re trying to say?”
Her head drooped, and she saw the dead leaves whirling across the path at her feet, lifted on a sudden wintry gust.
“The reason,” he continued, clearing his throat with a stiff smile, “is not quite as important to me as the fact.”
She stood speechless, agonized by his pain. But still, she thought, he had remembered the dinner at the Embassy. The thought gave her courage to go on.
“It wouldn’t do, Streff. I’m not a bit the kind of person to make you happy.”
“Oh, leave that to me, please, won’t you?”
“No, I can’t. Because I should be unhappy too.”
He clicked at the leaves as they whirled past. “You’ve taken a rather long time to find it out.” She saw that his new-born sense of his own consequence was making him suffer even more than his wounded affection; and that again gave her courage.
“If I’ve taken long it’s all the more reason why I shouldn’t take longer. If I’ve made a mistake it’s you who would have suffered from it. . . . ”
“Thanks,” he said, “for your extreme solicitude.”
She looked at him helplessly, penetrated by the despairing sense of their inaccessibility to each other. Then she remembered that Nick, during their last talk together, had seemed as inaccessible, and wondered if, when human souls try to get too near each other, they do not inevitably become mere blurs to each other’s vision. She would have liked to say this to Streff-but he would not have understood it either. The sense of loneliness once more enveloped her, and she groped in vain for a word that should reach him.
“Let me go home alone, won’t you?” she appealed to him.
She nodded. “To-morrow — to-morrow. . . . ”
He tried, rather valiantly, to smile. “Hang tomorrow! Whatever is wrong, it needn’t prevent my seeing you home.” He glanced toward the taxi that awaited them at the end of the deserted drive.
“No, please. You’re in a hurry; take the taxi. I want immensely a long long walk by myself . . . through the streets, with the lights coming out. . . . ”
He laid his hand on her arm. “I say, my dear, you’re not ill?”
“No; I’m not ill. But you may say I am, to-night at the Embassy.”
He released her and drew back. “Oh, very well,” he answered coldly; and she understood by his tone that the knot was cut, and that at that moment he almost hated her. She turned away, hastening down the deserted alley, flying from him, and knowing, as she fled, that he was still standing there motionless, staring after her, wounded, humiliated, uncomprehending. It was neither her fault nor his. . . .
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15