THE inhabitants of the little house in Passy were of necessity early risers; but when Susy jumped out of bed the next morning no one else was astir, and it lacked nearly an hour of the call of the bonne’s alarm-clock.
For a moment Susy leaned out of her dark room into the darker night. A cold drizzle fell on her face, and she shivered and drew back. Then, lighting a candle, and shading it, as her habit was, from the sleeping child, she slipped on her dressing-gown and opened the door. On the threshold she paused to look at her watch. Only half-past five! She thought with compunction of the unkindness of breaking in on Junie Fulmer’s slumbers; but such scruples did not weigh an ounce in the balance of her purpose. Poor Junie would have to oversleep herself on Sunday, that was all.
Susy stole into the passage, opened a door, and cast her light on the girl’s face.
“Junie! Dearest Junie, you must wake up!”
Junie lay in the abandonment of youthful sleep; but at the sound of her name she sat up with the promptness of a grown person on whom domestic burdens have long weighed.
“Which one of them is it?” she asked, one foot already out of bed.
“Oh, Junie dear, no . . . it’s nothing wrong with the children . . . or with anybody,” Susy stammered, on her knees by the bed.
In the candlelight, she saw Junie’s anxious brow darken reproachfully.
“Oh, Susy, then why —? I was just dreaming we were all driving about Rome in a great big motor-car with father and mother!”
“I’m so sorry, dear. What a lovely dream! I’m a brute to have interrupted it — ”
She felt the little girl’s awakening scrutiny. “If there’s nothing wrong with anybody, why are you crying, Susy? Is it you there’s something wrong with? What has happened?”
“Am I crying?” Susy rose from her knees and sat down on the counterpane. “Yes, it is me. And I had to disturb you.”
“Oh, Susy, darling, what is it?” Junie’s arms were about her in a flash, and Susy grasped them in burning fingers.
“Junie, listen! I’ve got to go away at once — to leave you all for the whole day. I may not be back till late this evening; late to-night; I can’t tell. I promised your mother I’d never leave you; but I’ve got to — I’ve got to.”
Junie considered her agitated face with fully awakened eyes. “Oh, I won’t tell, you know, you old brick,” she said with simplicity.
Susy hugged her. “Junie, Junie, you darling! But that wasn’t what I meant. Of course you may tell — you must tell. I shall write to your mother myself. But what worries me is the idea of having to go away — away from Paris — for the whole day, with Geordie still coughing a little, and no one but that silly Angele to stay with him while you’re out — and no one but you to take yourself and the others to school. But Junie, Junie, I’ve got to do it!” she sobbed out, clutching the child tighter.
Junie Fulmer, with her strangely mature perception of the case, and seemingly of every case that fate might call on her to deal with, sat for a moment motionless in Susy’s hold. Then she freed her wrists with an adroit twist, and leaning back against the pillows said judiciously: “You’ll never in the world bring up a family of your own if you take on like this over other people’s children.”
Through all her turmoil of spirit the observation drew a laugh from Susy. “Oh, a family of my own — I don’t deserve one, the way I’m behaving to your — ”
Junie still considered her. “My dear, a change will do you good: you need it,” she pronounced.
Susy rose with a laughing sigh. “I’m not at all sure it will! But I’ve got to have it, all the same. Only I do feel anxious — and I can’t even leave you my address!”
Junie still seemed to examine the case.
“Can’t you even tell me where you’re going?” she ventured, as if not quite sure of the delicacy of asking.
“Well — no, I don’t think I can; not till I get back. Besides, even if I could it wouldn’t be much use, because I couldn’t give you my address there. I don’t know what it will be.”
“But what does it matter, if you’re coming back to-night?”
“Of course I’m coming back! How could you possibly imagine I should think of leaving you for more than a day?”
“Oh, I shouldn’t be afraid — not much, that is, with the poker, and Nat’s water-pistol,” emended Junie, still judicious.
Susy again enfolded her vehemently, and then turned to more practical matters. She explained that she wished if possible to catch an eight-thirty train from the Gare de Lyon, and that there was not a moment to lose if the children were to be dressed and fed, and full instructions written out for Junie and Angele, before she rushed for the underground.
While she bathed Geordie, and then hurried into her own clothes, she could not help wondering at her own extreme solicitude for her charges. She remembered, with a pang, how often she had deserted Clarissa Vanderlyn for the whole day, and even for two or three in succession — poor little Clarissa, whom she knew to be so unprotected, so exposed to evil influences. She had been too much absorbed in her own greedy bliss to be more than intermittently aware of the child; but now, she felt, no sorrow however ravaging, no happiness however absorbing, would ever again isolate her from her kind.
And then these children were so different! The exquisite Clarissa was already the predestined victim of her surroundings: her budding soul was divided from Susy’s by the same barrier of incomprehension that separated the latter from Mrs. Vanderlyn. Clarissa had nothing to teach Susy but the horror of her own hard little appetites; whereas the company of the noisy argumentative Fulmers had been a school of wisdom and abnegation.
As she applied the brush to Geordie’s shining head and the handkerchief to his snuffling nose, the sense of what she owed him was so borne in on Susy that she interrupted the process to catch him to her bosom.
“I’ll have such a story to tell you when I get back to-night, if you’ll promise me to be good all day,” she bargained with him; and Geordie, always astute, bargained back: “Before I promise, I’d like to know what story.”
At length all was in order. Junie had been enlightened, and Angele stunned, by the minuteness of Susy’s instructions; and the latter, waterproofed and stoutly shod, descended the doorstep, and paused to wave at the pyramid of heads yearning to her from an upper window.
It was hardly light, and still raining, when she turned into the dismal street. As usual, it was empty; but at the corner she perceived a hesitating taxi, with luggage piled beside the driver. Perhaps it was some early traveller, just arriving, who would release the carriage in time for her to catch it, and thus avoid the walk to the metro, and the subsequent strap-hanging; for it was the work-people’s hour. Susy raced toward the vehicle, which, overcoming its hesitation, was beginning to move in her direction. Observing this, she stopped to see where it would discharge its load. Thereupon the taxi stopped also, and the load discharged itself in front of her in the shape of Nick Lansing.
The two stood staring at each other through the rain till Nick broke out: “Where are you going? I came to get you.”
“To get me? To get me?” she repeated. Beside the driver she had suddenly remarked the old suit-case from which her husband had obliged her to extract Strefford’s cigars as they were leaving Como; and everything that had happened since seemed to fall away and vanish in the pang and rapture of that memory.
“To get you; yes. Of course.” He spoke the words peremptorily, almost as if they were an order. “Where were you going?” he repeated.
Without answering, she turned toward the house. He followed her, and the laden taxi closed the procession.
“Why are you out in such weather without an umbrella?” he continued, in the same severe tone, drawing her under the shelter of his.
“Oh, because Junie’s umbrella is in tatters, and I had to leave her mine, as I was going away for the whole day.” She spoke the words like a person in a trance.
“For the whole day? At this hour? Where?”
They were on the doorstep, and she fumbled automatically for her key, let herself in, and led the way to the sitting-room. It had not been tidied up since the night before. The children’s school books lay scattered on the table and sofa, and the empty fireplace was grey with ashes. She turned to Nick in the pallid light.
“I was going to see you,” she stammered, “I was going to follow you to Fontainebleau, if necessary, to tell you . . . to prevent you. . . . ”
He repeated in the same aggressive tone: “Tell me what? Prevent what?”
“Tell you that there must be some other way . . . some decent way . . . of our separating . . . without that horror, that horror of your going off with a woman. . . . ”
He stared, and then burst into a laugh. The blood rushed to her face. She had caught a familiar ring in his laugh, and it wounded her. What business had he, at such a time, to laugh in the old way?
“I’m sorry; but there is no other way, I’m afraid. No other way but one,” he corrected himself.
She raised her head sharply. “Well?”
“That you should be the woman. — Oh, my dear!” He had dropped his mocking smile, and was at her side, her hands in his. “Oh, my dear, don’t you see that we’ve both been feeling the same thing, and at the same hour? You lay awake thinking of it all night, didn’t you? So did I. Whenever the clock struck, I said to myself: ‘She’s hearing it too.’ And I was up before daylight, and packed my traps — for I never want to set foot again in that awful hotel where I’ve lived in hell for the last three days. And I swore to myself that I’d go off with a woman by the first train I could catch — and so I mean to, my dear.”
She stood before him numb. Yes, numb: that was the worst of it! The violence of the reaction had been too great, and she could hardly understand what he was saying. Instead, she noticed that the tassel of the window-blind was torn off again (oh, those children!), and vaguely wondered if his luggage were safe on the waiting taxi. One heard such stories. . . .
His voice came back to her. “Susy! Listen!” he was entreating. “You must see yourself that it can’t be. We’re married — isn’t that all that matters? Oh, I know — I’ve behaved like a brute: a cursed arrogant ass! You couldn’t wish that ass a worse kicking than I’ve given him! But that’s not the point, you see. The point is that we’re married. . . . Married. . . . Doesn’t it mean something to you, something — inexorable? It does to me. I didn’t dream it would — in just that way. But all I can say is that I suppose the people who don’t feel it aren’t really married-and they’d better separate; much better. As for us — ”
Through her tears she gasped out: “That’s what I felt . . . that’s what I said to Streff. . . . ”
He was upon her with a great embrace. “My darling! My darling! You have told him?”
“Yes,” she panted. “That’s why I’m living here.” She paused. “And you’ve told Coral?”
She felt his embrace relax. He drew away a little, still holding her, but with lowered head.
“No . . . I . . . haven’t.”
“Oh, Nick! But then —?”
He caught her to him again, resentfully. “Well — then what? What do you mean? What earthly difference does it make?”
“But if you’ve told her you were going to marry her — ” (Try as she would, her voice was full of silver chimes.)
“Marry her? Marry her?” he echoed. “But how could I? What does marriage mean anyhow? If it means anything at all it means — you! And I can’t ask Coral Hicks just to come and live with me, can I?”
Between crying and laughing she lay on his breast, and his hand passed over her hair.
They were silent for a while; then he began again: “You said it yourself yesterday, you know.”
She strayed back from sunlit distances. “Yesterday?”
“Yes: that Grace Fulmer says you can’t separate two people who’ve been through a lot of things — ”
“Ah, been through them together — it’s not the things, you see, it’s the togetherness,” she interrupted.
“The togetherness — that’s it!” He seized on the word as if it had just been coined to express their case, and his mind could rest in it without farther labour.
The door-bell rang, and they started. Through the window they saw the taxi-driver gesticulating enquiries as to the fate of the luggage.
“He wants to know if he’s to leave it here,” Susy laughed.
“No — no! You’re to come with me,” her husband declared.
“Come with you?” She laughed again at the absurdity of the suggestion.
“Of course: this very instant. What did you suppose? That I was going away without you? Run up and pack your things,” he commanded.
“My things? My things? But I can’t leave the children!”
He stared, between indignation and amusement. “Can’t leave the children? Nonsense! Why, you said yourself you were going to follow me to Fontainebleau — ”
She reddened again, this time a little painfully “I didn’t know what I was doing. . . . I had to find you . . . but I should have come back this evening, no matter what happened.”
“No matter what?”
She nodded, and met his gaze resolutely.
“No; but really — ”
“Really, I can’t leave the children till Nat and Grace come back. I promised I wouldn’t.”
“Yes; but you didn’t know then. . . . Why on earth can’t their nurse look after them?”
“There isn’t any nurse but me.”
“But it’s only for two weeks more,” she pleaded. “Two weeks! Do you know how long I’ve been without you!” He seized her by both wrists, and drew them against his breast. “Come with me at least for two days — Susy!” he entreated her.
“Oh,” she cried, “that’s the very first time you’ve said my name!”
“Susy, Susy, then — my Susy — Susy! And you’ve only said mine once, you know.”
“Nick!” she sighed, at peace, as if the one syllable were a magic seed that hung out great branches to envelop them.
“Well, then, Susy, be reasonable. Come!”
“Reasonable — oh, reasonable!” she sobbed through laughter.
“Unreasonable, then! That’s even better.”
She freed herself, and drew back gently. “Nick, I swore I wouldn’t leave them; and I can’t. It’s not only my promise to their mother — it’s what they’ve been to me themselves. You don’t, know . . . You can’t imagine the things they’ve taught me. They’re awfully naughty at times, because they’re so clever; but when they’re good they’re the wisest people I know.” She paused, and a sudden inspiration illuminated her. “But why shouldn’t we take them with us?” she exclaimed.
Her husband’s arms fell away from her, and he stood dumfounded.
“Take them with us?”
“All five of them?”
“Of course — I couldn’t possibly separate them. And Junie and Nat will help us to look after the young ones.”
“Help us!” he groaned.
“Oh, you’ll see; they won’t bother you. Just leave it to me; I’ll manage — ” The word stopped her short, and an agony of crimson suffused her from brow to throat. Their eyes met; and without a word he stooped and laid his lips gently on the stain of red on her neck.
“Nick,” she breathed, her hands in his.
“But those children — ”
Instead of answering, she questioned: “Where are we going?”
His face lit up.
“Anywhere, dearest, that you choose.”
“Well — I choose Fontainebleau!” she exulted.
“So do I! But we can’t take all those children to an hotel at Fontainebleau, can we?” he questioned weakly. “You see, dear, there’s the mere expense of it — ”
Her eyes were already travelling far ahead of him. “The expense won’t amount to much. I’ve just remembered that Angele, the bonne, has a sister who is cook there in a nice old-fashioned pension which must be almost empty at this time of year. I’m sure I can ma — arrange easily,” she hurried on, nearly tripping again over the fatal word. “And just think of the treat it will be to them! This is Friday, and I can get them let off from their afternoon classes, and keep them in the country till Monday. Poor darlings, they haven’t been out of Paris for months! And I daresay the change will cure Geordie’s cough — Geordie’s the youngest,” she explained, surprised to find herself, even in the rapture of reunion, so absorbed in the welfare of the Fulmers.
She was conscious that her husband was surprised also; but instead of prolonging the argument he simply questioned: “Was Geordie the chap you had in your arms when you opened the front door the night before last?”
She echoed: “I opened the front door the night before last?”
“To a boy with a parcel.”
“Oh,” she sobbed, “you were there? You were watching?”
He held her to him, and the currents flowed between them warm and full as on the night of their moon over Como.
In a trice, after that, she had the matter in hand and her forces marshalled. The taxi was paid, Nick’s luggage deposited in the vestibule, and the children, just piling down to breakfast, were summoned in to hear the news.
It was apparent that, seasoned to surprises as they were, Nick’s presence took them aback. But when, between laughter and embraces, his identity, and his right to be where he was, had been made clear to them, Junie dismissed the matter by asking him in her practical way: “Then I suppose we may talk about you to Susy now?” — and thereafter all five addressed themselves to the vision of their imminent holiday.
From that moment the little house became the centre of a whirlwind. Treats so unforeseen, and of such magnitude, were rare in the young Fulmers’ experience, and had it not been for Junie’s steadying influence Susy’s charges would have got out of hand. But young Nat, appealed to by Nick on the ground of their common manhood, was induced to forego celebrating the event on his motor horn (the very same which had tortured the New Hampshire echoes), and to assert his authority over his juniors; and finally a plan began to emerge from the chaos, and each child to fit into it like a bit of a picture puzzle.
Susy, riding the whirlwind with her usual firmness, nevertheless felt an undercurrent of anxiety. There had been no time as yet, between her and Nick, to revert to money matters; and where there was so little money it could not, obviously, much matter. But that was the more reason for being secretly aghast at her intrepid resolve not to separate herself from her charges. A three days’ honey-moon with five children in the party-and children with the Fulmer appetite — could not but be a costly business; and while she settled details, packed them off to school, and routed out such nondescript receptacles as the house contained in the way of luggage, her thoughts remained fixed on the familiar financial problem.
Yes — it was cruel to have it rear its hated head, even through the bursting boughs of her new spring; but there it was, the perpetual serpent in her Eden, to be bribed, fed, sent to sleep with such scraps as she could beg, borrow or steal for it. And she supposed it was the price that fate meant her to pay for her blessedness, and was surer than ever that the blessedness was worth it. Only, how was she to compound the business with her new principles?
With the children’s things to pack, luncheon to be got ready, and the Fontainebleau pension to be telephoned to, there was little time to waste on moral casuistry; and Susy asked herself with a certain irony if the chronic lack of time to deal with money difficulties had not been the chief cause of her previous lapses. There was no time to deal with this question either; no time, in short, to do anything but rush forward on a great gale of plans and preparations, in the course of which she whirled Nick forth to buy some charcuterie for luncheon, and telephone to Fontainebleau.
Once he was gone — and after watching him safely round the corner — she too got into her wraps, and transferring a small packet from her dressing-case to her pocket, hastened out in a different direction.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15