In the persistent drizzle of a Paris winter morning Susy Lansing walked back alone from the school at which she had just deposited the four eldest Fulmers to the little house in Passy where, for the last two months, she had been living with them.
She had on ready-made boots, an old waterproof and a last year’s hat; but none of these facts disturbed her, though she took no particular pride in them. The truth was that she was too busy to think much about them. Since she had assumed the charge of the Fulmer children, in the absence of both their parents in Italy, she had had to pass through such an arduous apprenticeship of motherhood that every moment of her waking hours was packed with things to do at once, and other things to remember to do later. There were only five Fulmers; but at times they were like an army with banners, and their power of self-multiplication was equalled only by the manner in which they could dwindle, vanish, grow mute, and become as it were a single tumbled brown head bent over a book in some corner of the house in which nobody would ever have thought of hunting for them — and which, of course, were it the bonne’s room in the attic, or the subterranean closet where the trunks were kept, had been singled out by them for that very reason.
These changes from ubiquity to invisibility would have seemed to Susy, a few months earlier, one of the most maddening of many characteristics not calculated to promote repose. But now she felt differently. She had grown interested in her charges, and the search for a clue to their methods, whether tribal or individual, was as exciting to her as the development of a detective story.
What interested her most in the whole stirring business was the discovery that they had a method. These little creatures, pitched upward into experience on the tossing waves of their parents’ agitated lives, had managed to establish a rough-and-ready system of self-government. Junie, the eldest (the one who already chose her mother’s hats, and tried to put order in her wardrobe) was the recognized head of the state. At twelve she knew lots of things which her mother had never thoroughly learned, and Susy, her temporary mother, had never even guessed at: she spoke with authority on all vital subjects, from castor-oil to flannel under-clothes, from the fair sharing of stamps or marbles to the number of helpings of rice-pudding or jam which each child was entitled to.
There was hardly any appeal from her verdict; yet each of her subjects revolved in his or her own orbit of independence, according to laws which Junie acknowledged and respected; and the interpreting of this mysterious charter of rights and privileges had not been without difficulty for Susy.
Besides this, there were material difficulties to deal with. The six of them, and the breathless bonne who cooked and slaved for them all, had but a slim budget to live on; and, as Junie remarked, you’d have thought the boys ate their shoes, the way they vanished. They ate, certainly, a great deal else, and mostly of a nourishing and expensive kind. They had definite views about the amount and quality of their food, and were capable of concerted rebellion when Susy’s catering fell beneath their standard. All this made her life a hurried and harassing business, but never — what she had most feared it would be a dull or depressing one.
It was not, she owned to herself, that the society of the Fulmer children had roused in her any abstract passion for the human young. She knew — had known since Nick’s first kiss — how she would love any child of his and hers; and she had cherished poor little Clarissa Vanderlyn with a shrinking and wistful solicitude. But in these rough young Fulmers she took a positive delight, and for reasons that were increasingly clear to her. It was because, in the first place, they were all intelligent; and because their intelligence had been fed only on things worth caring for. However inadequate Grace Fulmer’s bringing-up of her increasing tribe had been, they had heard in her company nothing trivial or dull: good music, good books and good talk had been their daily food, and if at times they stamped and roared and crashed about like children unblessed by such privileges, at others they shone with the light of poetry and spoke with the voice of wisdom.
That had been Susy’s discovery: for the first time she was among awakening minds which had been wakened only to beauty. From their cramped and uncomfortable household Grace and Nat Fulmer had managed to keep out mean envies, vulgar admirations, shabby discontents; above all the din and confusion the great images of beauty had brooded, like those ancestral figures that stood apart on their shelf in the poorest Roman households.
No, the task she had undertaken for want of a better gave Susy no sense of a missed vocation: “mothering” on a large scale would never, she perceived, be her job. Rather it gave her, in odd ways, the sense of being herself mothered, of taking her first steps in the life of immaterial values which had begun to seem so much more substantial than any she had known.
On the day when she had gone to Grace Fulmer for counsel and comfort she had little guessed that they would come to her in this form. She had found her friend, more than ever distracted and yet buoyant, riding the large untidy waves of her life with the splashed ease of an amphibian. Grace was probably the only person among Susy’s friends who could have understood why she could not make up her mind to marry Altringham; but at the moment Grace was too much absorbed in her own problems to pay much attention to her friend’s, and, according to her wont, she immediately “unpacked” her difficulties.
Nat was not getting what she had hoped out of his European opportunity. Oh, she was enough of an artist herself to know that there must be fallow periods — that the impact of new impressions seldom produced immediate results. She had allowed for all that. But her past experience of Nat’s moods had taught her to know just when he was assimilating, when impressions were fructifying in him. And now they were not, and he knew it as well as she did. There had been too much rushing about, too much excitement and sterile flattery . . . Mrs. Melrose? Well, yes, for a while . . . the trip to Spain had been a love-journey, no doubt. Grace spoke calmly, but the lines of her face sharpened: she had suffered, oh horribly, at his going to Spain without her. Yet she couldn’t, for the children’s sake, afford to miss the big sum that Ursula Gillow had given her for her fortnight at Ruan. And her playing had struck people, and led, on the way back, to two or three profitable engagements in private houses in London. Fashionable society had made “a little fuss” about her, and it had surprised and pleased Nat, and given her a new importance in his eyes. “He was beginning to forget that I wasn’t only a nursery-maid, and it’s been a good thing for him to be reminded . . . but the great thing is that with what I’ve earned he and I can go off to southern Italy and Sicily for three months. You know I know how to manage . . . and, alone with me, Nat will settle down to work: to observing, feeling, soaking things in. It’s the only way. Mrs. Melrose wants to take him, to pay all the expenses again-well she shan’t. I’ll pay them.” Her worn cheek flushed with triumph. “And you’ll see what wonders will come of it. . . . Only there’s the problem of the children. Junie quite agrees that we can’t take them. . . . ”
Thereupon she had unfolded her idea. If Susy was at a loose end, and hard up, why shouldn’t she take charge of the children while their parents were in Italy? For three months at most-Grace could promise it shouldn’t be longer. They couldn’t pay her much, of course, but at least she would be lodged and fed. “And, you know, it will end by interesting you — I’m sure it will,” the mother concluded, her irrepressible hopefulness rising even to this height, while Susy stood before her with a hesitating smile.
Take care of five Fulmers for three months! The prospect cowed her. If there had been only Junie and Geordie, the oldest and youngest of the band, she might have felt less hesitation. But there was Nat, the second in age, whose motor-horn had driven her and Nick out to the hill-side on their fatal day at the Fulmers’ and there were the twins, Jack and Peggy, of whom she had kept memories almost equally disquieting. To rule this uproarious tribe would be a sterner business than trying to beguile Clarissa Vanderlyn’s ladylike leisure; and she would have refused on the spot, as she had refused once before, if the only possible alternatives had not come to seem so much less bearable, and if Junie, called in for advice, and standing there, small, plain and competent, had not said in her quiet grown-up voice: “Oh, yes, I’m sure Mrs. Lansing and I can manage while you’re away — especially if she reads aloud well.”
Reads aloud well! The stipulation had enchanted Susy. She had never before known children who cared to be read aloud to; she remembered with a shiver her attempts to interest Clarissa in anything but gossip and the fashions, and the tone in which the child had said, showing Strefford’s trinket to her father: “Because I said I’d rather have it than a book.”
And here were children who consented to be left for three months by their parents, but on condition that a good reader was provided for them!
“Very well — I will! But what shall I be expected to read to you?” she had gaily questioned; and Junie had answered, after one of her sober pauses of reflection: “The little ones like nearly everything; but Nat and I want poetry particularly, because if we read it to ourselves we so often pronounce the puzzling words wrong, and then it sounds so horrid.”
“Oh, I hope I shall pronounce them right,” Susy murmured, stricken with self-distrust and humility.
Apparently she did; for her reading was a success, and even the twins and Geordie, once they had grown used to her, seemed to prefer a ringing page of Henry V, or the fairy scenes from the Midsummer Night’s Dream, to their own more specialized literature, though that had also at times to be provided.
There were, in fact, no lulls in her life with the Fulmers; but its commotions seemed to Susy less meaningless, and therefore less fatiguing, than those that punctuated the existence of people like Altringham, Ursula Gillow, Ellie Vanderlyn and their train; and the noisy uncomfortable little house at Passy was beginning to greet her with the eyes of home when she returned there after her tramps to and from the children’s classes. At any rate she had the sense of doing something useful and even necessary, and of earning her own keep, though on so modest a scale; and when the children were in their quiet mood, and demanded books or music (or, even, on one occasion, at the surprising Junie’s instigation, a collective visit to the Louvre, where they recognized the most unlikely pictures, and the two elders emitted startling technical judgments, and called their companion’s attention to details she had not observed); on these occasions, Susy had a surprised sense of being drawn back into her brief life with Nick, or even still farther and deeper, into those visions of Nick’s own childhood on which the trivial later years had heaped their dust.
It was curious to think that if he and she had remained together, and she had had a child — the vision used to come to her, in her sleepless hours, when she looked at little Geordie, in his cot by her bed — their life together might have been very much like the life she was now leading, a small obscure business to the outer world, but to themselves how wide and deep and crowded!
She could not bear, at that moment, the thought of giving up this mystic relation to the life she had missed. In spite of the hurry and fatigue of her days, the shabbiness and discomfort of everything, and the hours when the children were as “horrid” as any other children, and turned a conspiracy of hostile faces to all her appeals; in spite of all this she did not want to give them up, and had decided, when their parents returned, to ask to go back to America with them. Perhaps, if Nat’s success continued, and Grace was able to work at her music, they would need a kind of governess-companion. At any rate, she could picture no future less distasteful.
She had not sent to Mr. Spearman Nick’s answer to her letter. In the interval between writing to him and receiving his reply she had broken with Strefford; she had therefore no object in seeking her freedom. If Nick wanted his, he knew he had only to ask for it; and his silence, as the weeks passed, woke a faint hope in her. The hope flamed high when she read one day in the newspapers a vague but evidently “inspired” allusion to the possibility of an alliance between his Serene Highness the reigning Prince of Teutoburg–Waldhain and Miss Coral Hicks of Apex City; it sank to ashes when, a few days later, her eye lit on a paragraph wherein Mr. and Mrs. Mortimer Hicks “requested to state” that there was no truth in the report.
On the foundation of these two statements Susy raised one watch-tower of hope after another, feverish edifices demolished or rebuilt by every chance hint from the outer world wherein Nick’s name figured with the Hickses’. And still, as the days passed and she heard nothing, either from him or from her lawyer, her flag continued to fly from the quaking structures.
Apart from the custody of the children there was indeed little to distract her mind from these persistent broodings. She winced sometimes at the thought of the ease with which her fashionable friends had let her drop out of sight. In the perpetual purposeless rush of their days, the feverish making of winter plans, hurrying off to the Riviera or St. Moritz, Egypt or New York, there was no time to hunt up the vanished or to wait for the laggard. Had they learned that she had broken her “engagement” (how she hated the word!) to Strefford, and had the fact gone about that she was once more only a poor hanger-on, to be taken up when it was convenient, and ignored in the intervals? She did not know; though she fancied Strefford’s newly-developed pride would prevent his revealing to any one what had passed between them. For several days after her abrupt flight he had made no sign; and though she longed to write and ask his forgiveness she could not find the words. Finally it was he who wrote: a short note, from Altringham, typical of all that was best in the old Strefford. He had gone down to Altringham, he told her, to think quietly over their last talk, and try to understand what she had been driving at. He had to own that he couldn’t; but that, he supposed, was the very head and front of his offending. Whatever he had done to displease her, he was sorry for; but he asked, in view of his invincible ignorance, to be allowed not to regard his offence as a cause for a final break. The possibility of that, he found, would make him even more unhappy than he had foreseen; as she knew, his own happiness had always been his first object in life, and he therefore begged her to suspend her decision a little longer. He expected to be in Paris within another two months, and before arriving he would write again, and ask her to see him.
The letter moved her but did not make her waver. She simply wrote that she was touched by his kindness, and would willingly see him if he came to Paris later; though she was bound to tell him that she had not yet changed her mind, and did not believe it would promote his happiness to have her try to do so.
He did not reply to this, and there was nothing further to keep her thoughts from revolving endlessly about her inmost hopes and fears.
On the rainy afternoon in question, tramping home from the “cours” (to which she was to return at six), she had said to herself that it was two months that very day since Nick had known she was ready to release him — and that after such a delay he was not likely to take any further steps. The thought filled her with a vague ecstasy. She had had to fix an arbitrary date as the term of her anguish, and she had fixed that one; and behold she was justified. For what could his silence mean but that he too. . . .
On the hall-table lay a typed envelope with the Paris postage-mark. She opened it carelessly, and saw that the letter-head bore Mr. Spearman’s office address. The words beneath spun round before her eyes. . . . “Has notified us that he is at your disposal . . . carry out your wishes . . . arriving in Paris . . . fix an appointment with his lawyers. . . . ”
Nick — it was Nick the words were talking of! It was the fact of Nick’s return to Paris that was being described in those preposterous terms! She sank down on the bench beside the dripping umbrella-stand and stared vacantly before her. It had fallen at last — this blow in which she now saw that she had never really believed! And yet she had imagined she was prepared for it, had expected it, was already planning her future life in view of it — an effaced impersonal life in the service of somebody else’s children — when, in reality, under that thin surface of abnegation and acceptance, all the old hopes had been smouldering red-hot in their ashes! What was the use of any self-discipline, any philosophy, any experience, if the lawless self underneath could in an instant consume them like tinder?
She tried to collect herself — to understand what had happened. Nick was coming to Paris — coming not to see her but to consult his lawyer! It meant, of course, that he had definitely resolved to claim his freedom; and that, if he had made up his mind to this final step, after more than six months of inaction and seeming indifference, it could be only because something unforeseen and decisive had happened to him. Feverishly, she put together again the stray scraps of gossip and the newspaper paragraphs that had reached her in the last months. It was evident that Miss Hicks’s projected marriage with the Prince of Teutoburg–Waldhain had been broken off at the last moment; and broken off because she intended to marry Nick. The announcement of his arrival in Paris and the publication of Mr. and Mrs. Hicks’s formal denial of their daughter’s betrothal coincided too closely to admit of any other inference. Susy tried to grasp the reality of these assembled facts, to picture to herself their actual tangible results. She thought of Coral Hicks bearing the name of Mrs. Nick Lansing — her name, Susy’s own! — and entering drawing-rooms with Nick in her wake, gaily welcomed by the very people who, a few months before, had welcomed Susy with the same warmth. In spite of Nick’s growing dislike of society, and Coral’s attitude of intellectual superiority, their wealth would fatally draw them back into the world to which Nick was attached by all his habits and associations. And no doubt it would amuse him to re-enter that world as a dispenser of hospitality, to play the part of host where he had so long been a guest; just as Susy had once fancied it would amuse her to re-enter it as Lady Altringham. . . . But, try as she would, now that the reality was so close on her, she could not visualize it or relate it to herself. The mere juxtaposition of the two names — Coral, Nick — which in old times she had so often laughingly coupled, now produced a blur in her brain.
She continued to sit helplessly beside the hall-table, the tears running down her cheeks. The appearance of the bonne aroused her. Her youngest charge, Geordie, had been feverish for a day or two; he was better, but still confined to the nursery, and he had heard Susy unlock the house-door, and could not imagine why she had not come straight up to him. He now began to manifest his indignation in a series of racking howls, and Susy, shaken out of her trance, dropped her cloak and umbrella and hurried up.
“Oh, that child!” she groaned.
Under the Fulmer roof there was little time or space for the indulgence of private sorrows. From morning till night there was always some immediate practical demand on one’s attention; and Susy was beginning to see how, in contracted households, children may play a part less romantic but not less useful than that assigned to them in fiction, through the mere fact of giving their parents no leisure to dwell on irremediable grievances. Though her own apprenticeship to family life had been so short, she had already acquired the knack of rapid mental readjustment, and as she hurried up to the nursery her private cares were dispelled by a dozen problems of temperature, diet and medicine.
Such readjustment was of course only momentary; yet each time it happened it seemed to give her more firmness and flexibility of temper. “What a child I was myself six months ago!” she thought, wondering that Nick’s influence, and the tragedy of their parting, should have done less to mature and steady her than these few weeks in a house full of children.
Pacifying Geordie was not easy, for he had long since learned to use his grievances as a pretext for keeping the offender at his beck with a continuous supply of stories, songs and games. “You’d better be careful never to put yourself in the wrong with Geordie,” the astute Junie had warned Susy at the outset, “because he’s got such a memory, and he won’t make it up with you till you’ve told him every fairy-tale he’s ever heard before.”
But on this occasion, as soon as he saw her, Geordie’s indignation melted. She was still in the doorway, compunctious, abject and racking her dazed brain for his favourite stories, when she saw, by the smoothing out of his mouth and the sudden serenity of his eyes, that he was going to give her the delicious but not wholly reassuring shock of being a good boy.
Thoughtfully he examined her face as she knelt down beside the cot; then he poked out a finger and pressed it on her tearful cheek.
“Poor Susy got a pain too,” he said, putting his arms about her; and as she hugged him close, he added philosophically: “Tell Geordie a new story, darling, and you’ll forget all about it.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02