THEIR month of Como was within a few hours of ending. Till the last moment they had hoped for a reprieve; but the accommodating Streffy had been unable to put the villa at their disposal for a longer time, since he had had the luck to let it for a thumping price to some beastly bouncers who insisted on taking possession at the date agreed on.
Lansing, leaving Susy’s side at dawn, had gone down to the lake for a last plunge; and swimming homeward through the crystal light he looked up at the garden brimming with flowers, the long low house with the cypress wood above it, and the window behind which his wife still slept. The month had been exquisite, and their happiness as rare, as fantastically complete, as the scene before him. He sank his chin into the sunlit ripples and sighed for sheer content. . . .
It was a bore to be leaving the scene of such complete well-being, but the next stage in their progress promised to be hardly less delightful. Susy was a magician: everything she predicted came true. Houses were being showered on them; on all sides he seemed to see beneficent spirits winging toward them, laden with everything from a piano nobile in Venice to a camp in the Adirondacks. For the present, they had decided on the former. Other considerations apart, they dared not risk the expense of a journey across the Atlantic; so they were heading instead for the Nelson Vanderlyns’ palace on the Giudecca. They were agreed that, for reasons of expediency, it might be wise to return to New York for the coming winter. It would keep them in view, and probably lead to fresh opportunities; indeed, Susy already had in mind the convenient flat that she was sure a migratory cousin (if tactfully handled, and assured that they would not overwork her cook) could certainly be induced to lend them. Meanwhile the need of making plans was still remote; and if there was one art in which young Lansing’s twenty-eight years of existence had perfected him it was that of living completely and unconcernedly in the present. . . .
If of late he had tried to look into the future more insistently than was his habit, it was only because of Susy. He had meant, when they married, to be as philosophic for her as for himself; and he knew she would have resented above everything his regarding their partnership as a reason for anxious thought. But since they had been together she had given him glimpses of her past that made him angrily long to shelter and defend her future. It was intolerable that a spirit as fine as hers should be ever so little dulled or diminished by the kind of compromises out of which their wretched lives were made. For himself, he didn’t care a hang: he had composed for his own guidance a rough-and-ready code, a short set of “mays” and “mustn’ts” which immensely simplified his course. There were things a fellow put up with for the sake of certain definite and otherwise unattainable advantages; there were other things he wouldn’t traffic with at any price. But for a woman, he began to see, it might be different. The temptations might be greater, the cost considerably higher, the dividing line between the “mays” and “mustn’ts” more fluctuating and less sharply drawn. Susy, thrown on the world at seventeen, with only a weak wastrel of a father to define that treacherous line for her, and with every circumstance soliciting her to overstep it, seemed to have been preserved chiefly by an innate scorn of most of the objects of human folly. “Such trash as he went to pieces for,” was her curt comment on her parent’s premature demise: as though she accepted in advance the necessity of ruining one’s self for something, but was resolved to discriminate firmly between what was worth it and what wasn’t.
This philosophy had at first enchanted Lansing; but now it began to rouse vague fears. The fine armour of her fastidiousness had preserved her from the kind of risks she had hitherto been exposed to; but what if others, more subtle, found a joint in it? Was there, among her delicate discriminations, any equivalent to his own rules? Might not her taste for the best and rarest be the very instrument of her undoing; and if something that wasn’t “trash” came her way, would she hesitate a second to go to pieces for it?
He was determined to stick to the compact that they should do nothing to interfere with what each referred to as the other’s “chance”; but what if, when hers came, he couldn’t agree with her in recognizing it? He wanted for her, oh, so passionately, the best; but his conception of that best had so insensibly, so subtly been transformed in the light of their first month together!
His lazy strokes were carrying him slowly shoreward; but the hour was so exquisite that a few yards from the landing he laid hold of the mooring rope of Streffy’s boat and floated there, following his dream. . . . It was a bore to be leaving; no doubt that was what made him turn things inside-out so uselessly. Venice would be delicious, of course; but nothing would ever again be as sweet as this. And then they had only a year of security before them; and of that year a month was gone.
Reluctantly he swam ashore, walked up to the house, and pushed open a window of the cool painted drawing-room. Signs of departure were already visible. There were trunks in the hall, tennis rackets on the stairs; on the landing, the cook Giulietta had both arms around a slippery hold-all that refused to let itself be strapped. It all gave him a chill sense of unreality, as if the past month had been an act on the stage, and its setting were being folded away and rolled into the wings to make room for another play in which he and Susy had no part.
By the time he came down again, dressed and hungry, to the terrace where coffee awaited him, he had recovered his usual pleasant sense of security. Susy was there, fresh and gay, a rose in her breast and the sun in her hair: her head was bowed over Bradshaw, but she waved a fond hand across the breakfast things, and presently looked up to say: “Yes, I believe we can just manage it.”
“To catch the train at Milan — if we start in the motor at ten sharp.”
He stared. “The motor? What motor?”
“Why, the new people’s — Streffy’s tenants. He’s never told me their name, and the chauffeur says he can’t pronounce it. The chauffeur’s is Ottaviano, anyhow; I’ve been making friends with him. He arrived last night, and he says they’re not due at Como till this evening. He simply jumped at the idea of running us over to Milan.”
“Good Lord — ” said Lansing, when she stopped.
She sprang up from the table with a laugh. “It will be a scramble; but I’ll manage it, if you’ll go up at once and pitch the last things into your trunk.”
“Yes; but look here — have you any idea what it’s going to cost?”
She raised her eyebrows gaily. “Why, a good deal less than our railway tickets. Ottaviano’s got a sweetheart in Milan, and hasn’t seen her for six months. When I found that out I knew he’d be going there anyhow.”
It was clever of her, and he laughed. But why was it that he had grown to shrink from even such harmless evidence of her always knowing how to “manage”? “Oh, well,” he said to himself, “she’s right: the fellow would be sure to be going to Milan.”
Upstairs, on the way to his dressing room, he found her in a cloud of finery which her skilful hands were forcibly compressing into a last portmanteau. He had never seen anyone pack as cleverly as Susy: the way she coaxed reluctant things into a trunk was a symbol of the way she fitted discordant facts into her life. “When I’m rich,” she often said, “the thing I shall hate most will be to see an idiot maid at my trunks.”
As he passed, she glanced over her shoulder, her face pink with the struggle, and drew a cigar-box from the depths. “Dearest, do put a couple of cigars into your pocket as a tip for Ottaviano.”
Lansing stared. “Why, what on earth are you doing with Streffy’s cigars?”
“Packing them, of course. . . . You don’t suppose he meant them for those other people?” She gave him a look of honest wonder.
“I don’t know whom he meant them for — but they’re not ours. . . . ”
She continued to look at him wonderingly. “I don’t see what there is to be solemn about. The cigars are not Streffy’s either . . . you may be sure he got them out of some bounder. And there’s nothing he’d hate more than to have them passed on to another.”
“Nonsense. If they’re not Streffy’s they’re much less mine. Hand them over, please, dear.”
“Just as you like. But it does seem a waste; and, of course, the other people will never have one of them. . . . The gardener and Giulietta’s lover will see to that!”
Lansing looked away from her at the waves of lace and muslin from which she emerged like a rosy Nereid. “How many boxes of them are left?”
“Unpack them, please.”
Before she moved there was a pause so full of challenge that Lansing had time for an exasperated sense of the disproportion between his anger and its cause. And this made him still angrier.
She held out a box. “The others are in your suitcase downstairs. It’s locked and strapped.”
“Give me the key, then.”
“We might send them back from Venice, mightn’t we? That lock is so nasty: it will take you half an hour.”
“Give me the key, please.” She gave it.
He went downstairs and battled with the lock, for the allotted half-hour, under the puzzled eyes of Giulietta and the sardonic grin of the chauffeur, who now and then, from the threshold, politely reminded him how long it would take to get to Milan. Finally the key turned, and Lansing, broken-nailed and perspiring, extracted the cigars and stalked with them into the deserted drawing room. The great bunches of golden roses that he and Susy had gathered the day before were dropping their petals on the marble embroidery of the floor, pale camellias floated in the alabaster tazzas between the windows, haunting scents of the garden blew in on him with the breeze from the lake. Never had Streffy’s little house seemed so like a nest of pleasures. Lansing laid the cigar boxes on a console and ran upstairs to collect his last possessions. When he came down again, his wife, her eyes brilliant with achievement, was seated in their borrowed chariot, the luggage cleverly stowed away, and Giulietta and the gardener kissing her hand and weeping out inconsolable farewells.
“I wonder what she’s given them?” he thought, as he jumped in beside her and the motor whirled them through the nightingale-thickets to the gate.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02