SUSY and Lord Altringham sat in the little drawing-room, divided from each other by a table carrying a smoky lamp and heaped with tattered school-books.
In another half hour the bonne, despatched to fetch the children from their classes, would be back with her flock; and at any moment Geordie’s imperious cries might summon his slave up to the nursery. In the scant time allotted them, the two sat, and visibly wondered what to say.
Strefford, on entering, had glanced about the dreary room, with its piano laden with tattered music, the children’s toys littering the lame sofa, the bunches of dyed grass and impaled butterflies flanking the cast-bronze clock. Then he had turned to Susy and asked simply: “Why on earth are you here?”
She had not tried to explain; from the first, she had understood the impossibility of doing so. And she would not betray her secret longing to return to Nick, now that she knew that Nick had taken definite steps for his release. In dread lest Strefford should have heard of this, and should announce it to her, coupling it with the news of Nick’s projected marriage, and lest, hearing her fears thus substantiated, she should lose her self-control, she had preferred to say, in a voice that she tried to make indifferent: “The ‘proceedings,’ or whatever the lawyers call them, have begun. While they’re going on I like to stay quite by myself. . . . I don’t know why. . . . ”
Strefford, at that, had looked at her keenly. “Ah,” he murmured; and his lips were twisted into their old mocking smile. “Speaking of proceedings,” he went on carelessly, “what stage have Ellie’s reached, I wonder? I saw her and Vanderlyn and Bockheimer all lunching cheerfully together to-day at Larue’s.”
The blood rushed to Susy’s forehead. She remembered her tragic evening with Nelson Vanderlyn, only two months earlier, and thought to herself. “In time, then, I suppose, Nick and I. . . . ”
Aloud she said: “I can’t imagine how Nelson and Ellie can ever want to see each other again. And in a restaurant, of all places!”
Strefford continued to smile. “My dear, you’re incorrigibly old-fashioned. Why should two people who’ve done each other the best turn they could by getting out of each other’s way at the right moment behave like sworn enemies ever afterward? It’s too absurd; the humbug’s too flagrant. Whatever our generation has failed to do, it’s got rid of humbug; and that’s enough to immortalize it. I daresay Nelson and Ellie never liked each other better than they do to-day. Twenty years ago, they’d have been afraid to confess it; but why shouldn’t they now?”
Susy looked at Strefford, conscious that under his words was the ache of the disappointment she had caused him; and yet conscious also that that very ache was not the overwhelming penetrating emotion he perhaps wished it to be, but a pang on a par with a dozen others; and that even while he felt it he foresaw the day when he should cease to feel it. And she thought to herself that this certainty of oblivion must be bitterer than any certainty of pain.
A silence had fallen between them. He broke it by rising from his seat, and saying with a shrug: “You’ll end by driving me to marry Joan Senechal.”
Susy smiled. “Well, why not? She’s lovely.”
“Yes; but she’ll bore me.”
“Poor Streff! So should I— ”
“Perhaps. But nothing like as soon — ” He grinned sardonically. “There’d be more margin.” He appeared to wait for her to speak. “And what else on earth are you going to do?” he concluded, as she still remained silent.
“Oh, Streff, I couldn’t marry you for a reason like that!” she murmured at length.
“Then marry me, and find your reason afterward.”
Her lips made a movement of denial, and still in silence she held out her hand for good-bye. He clasped it, and then turned away; but on the threshold he paused, his screwed-up eyes fixed on her wistfully.
The look moved her, and she added hurriedly: “The only reason I can find is one for not marrying you. It’s because I can’t yet feel unmarried enough.”
“Unmarried enough? But I thought Nick was doing his best to make you feel that.”
“Yes. But even when he has — sometimes I think even that won’t make any difference.”
He still scrutinized her hesitatingly, with the gravest eyes she had ever seen in his careless face.
“My dear, that’s rather the way I feel about you,” he said simply as he turned to go.
That evening after the children had gone to bed Susy sat up late in the cheerless sitting-room. She was not thinking of Strefford but of Nick. He was coming to Paris — perhaps he had already arrived. The idea that he might be in the same place with her at that very moment, and without her knowing it, was so strange and painful that she felt a violent revolt of all her strong and joy-loving youth. Why should she go on suffering so unbearably, so abjectly, so miserably? If only she could see him, hear his voice, even hear him say again such cruel and humiliating words as he had spoken on that dreadful day in Venice when that would be better than this blankness, this utter and final exclusion from his life! He had been cruel to her, unimaginably cruel: hard, arrogant, unjust; and had been so, perhaps, deliberately, because he already wanted to be free. But she was ready to face even that possibility, to humble herself still farther than he had humbled her — she was ready to do anything, if only she might see him once again.
She leaned her aching head on her hands and pondered. Do anything? But what could she do? Nothing that should hurt him, interfere with his liberty, be false to the spirit of their pact: on that she was more than ever resolved. She had made a bargain, and she meant to stick to it, not for any abstract reason, but simply because she happened to love him in that way. Yes — but to see him again, only once!
Suddenly she remembered what Strefford had said about Nelson Vanderlyn and his wife. “Why should two people who’ve just done each other the best turn they could behave like sworn enemies ever after?” If in offering Nick his freedom she had indeed done him such a service as that, perhaps he no longer hated her, would no longer be unwilling to see her. . . . At any rate, why should she not write to him on that assumption, write in a spirit of simple friendliness, suggesting that they should meet and “settle things”? The business-like word “settle” (how she hated it) would prove to him that she had no secret designs upon his liberty; and besides he was too unprejudiced, too modern, too free from what Strefford called humbug, not to understand and accept such a suggestion. After all, perhaps Strefford was right; it was something to have rid human relations of hypocrisy, even if, in the process, so many exquisite things seemed somehow to have been torn away with it. . . .
She ran up to her room, scribbled a note, and hurried with it through the rain and darkness to the post-box at the corner. As she returned through the empty street she had an odd feeling that it was not empty — that perhaps Nick was already there, somewhere near her in the night, about to follow her to the door, enter the house, go up with her to her bedroom in the old way. It was strange how close he had been brought by the mere fact of her having written that little note to him!
In the bedroom, Geordie lay in his crib in ruddy slumber, and she blew out the candle and undressed softly for fear of waking him.
Nick Lansing, the next day, received Susy’s letter, transmitted to his hotel from the lawyer’s office.
He read it carefully, two or three times over, weighing and scrutinizing the guarded words. She proposed that they should meet to “settle things.” What things? And why should he accede to such a request? What secret purpose had prompted her? It was horrible that nowadays, in thinking of Susy, he should always suspect ulterior motives, be meanly on the watch for some hidden tortuousness. What on earth was she trying to “manage” now, he wondered.
A few hours ago, at the sight of her, all his hardness had melted, and he had charged himself with cruelty, with injustice, with every sin of pride against himself and her; but the appearance of Strefford, arriving at that late hour, and so evidently expected and welcomed, had driven back the rising tide of tenderness.
Yet, after all, what was there to wonder at? Nothing was changed in their respective situations. He had left his wife, deliberately, and for reasons which no subsequent experience had caused him to modify. She had apparently acquiesced in his decision, and had utilized it, as she was justified in doing, to assure her own future.
In all this, what was there to wail or knock the breast between two people who prided themselves on looking facts in the face, and making their grim best of them, without vain repinings? He had been right in thinking their marriage an act of madness. Her charms had overruled his judgment, and they had had their year . . . their mad year . . . or at least all but two or three months of it. But his first intuition had been right; and now they must both pay for their madness. The Fates seldom forget the bargains made with them, or fail to ask for compound interest. Why not, then, now that the time had come, pay up gallantly, and remember of the episode only what had made it seem so supremely worth the cost?
He sent a pneumatic telegram to Mrs. Nicholas Lansing to say that he would call on her that afternoon at four. “That ought to give us time,” he reflected drily, “to ‘settle things,’ as she calls it, without interfering with Strefford’s afternoon visit.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15