IT was a trifling enough sign, but it had remained in Susy’s mind: that first morning in Venice Nick had gone out without first coming in to see her. She had stayed in bed late, chatting with Clarissa, and expecting to see the door open and her husband appear; and when the child left, and she had jumped up and looked into Nick’s room, she found it empty, and a line on his dressing table informed her that he had gone out to send a telegram.
It was lover-like, and even boyish, of him to think it necessary to explain his absence; but why had he not simply come in and told her! She instinctively connected the little fact with the shade of preoccupation she had noticed on his face the night before, when she had gone to his room and found him absorbed in letter; and while she dressed she had continued to wonder what was in the letter, and whether the telegram he had hurried out to send was an answer to it.
She had never found out. When he reappeared, handsome and happy as the morning, he proffered no explanation; and it was part of her life-long policy not to put uncalled-for questions. It was not only that her jealous regard for her own freedom was matched by an equal respect for that of others; she had steered too long among the social reefs and shoals not to know how narrow is the passage that leads to peace of mind, and she was determined to keep her little craft in mid-channel. But the incident had lodged itself in her memory, acquiring a sort of symbolic significance, as of a turning-point in her relations with her husband. Not that these were less happy, but that she now beheld them, as she had always formerly beheld such joys, as an unstable islet in a sea of storms. Her present bliss was as complete as ever, but it was ringed by the perpetual menace of all she knew she was hiding from Nick, and of all she suspected him of hiding from her. . . .
She was thinking of these things one afternoon about three weeks after their arrival in Venice. It was near sunset, and she sat alone on the balcony, watching the cross-lights on the water weave their pattern above the flushed reflection of old palace-basements. She was almost always alone at that hour. Nick had taken to writing in the afternoons — he had been as good as his word, and so, apparently, had the Muse and it was his habit to join his wife only at sunset, for a late row on the lagoon. She had taken Clarissa, as usual, to the Giardino Pubblico, where that obliging child had politely but indifferently “played” — Clarissa joined in the diversions of her age as if conforming to an obsolete tradition — and had brought her back for a music lesson, echoes of which now drifted down from a distant window.
Susy had come to be extremely thankful for Clarissa. But for the little girl, her pride in her husband’s industry might have been tinged with a faint sense of being at times left out and forgotten; and as Nick’s industry was the completest justification for their being where they were, and for her having done what she had, she was grateful to Clarissa for helping her to feel less alone. Clarissa, indeed, represented the other half of her justification: it was as much on the child’s account as on Nick’s that Susy had held her tongue, remained in Venice, and slipped out once a week to post one of Ellie’s numbered letters. A day’s experience of the Palazzo Vanderlyn had convinced Susy of the impossibility of deserting Clarissa. Long experience had shown her that the most crowded households often contain the loneliest nurseries, and that the rich child is exposed to evils unknown to less pampered infancy; but hitherto such things had merely been to her one of the uglier bits in the big muddled pattern of life. Now she found herself feeling where before she had only judged: her precarious bliss came to her charged with a new weight of pity.
She was thinking of these things, and of the approaching date of Ellie Vanderlyn’s return, and of the searching truths she was storing up for that lady’s private ear, when she noticed a gondola turning its prow toward the steps below the balcony. She leaned over, and a tall gentleman in shabby clothes, glancing up at her as he jumped out, waved a mouldy Panama in joyful greeting.
“Streffy!” she exclaimed as joyfully; and she was half-way down the stairs when he ran up them followed by his luggage-laden boatman.
“It’s all right, I suppose? — Ellie said I might come,” he explained in a shrill cheerful voice; “and I’m to have my same green room with the parrot-panels, because its furniture is already so frightfully stained with my hair-wash.”
Susy was beaming on him with the deep sense of satisfaction which his presence always produced in his friends. There was no one in the world, they all agreed, half as ugly and untidy and delightful as Streffy; no one who combined such outspoken selfishness with such imperturbable good humour; no one who knew so well how to make you believe he was being charming to you when it was you who were being charming to him.
In addition to these seductions, of which none estimated the value more accurately than their possessor, Strefford had for Susy another attraction of which he was probably unconscious. It was that of being the one rooted and stable being among the fluid and shifting figures that composed her world. Susy had always lived among people so denationalized that those one took for Russians generally turned out to be American, and those one was inclined to ascribe to New York proved to have originated in Rome or Bucharest. These cosmopolitan people, who, in countries not their own, lived in houses as big as hotels, or in hotels where the guests were as international as the waiters, had inter-married, inter-loved and inter-divorced each other over the whole face of Europe, and according to every code that attempts to regulate human ties. Strefford, too, had his home in this world, but only one of his homes. The other, the one he spoke of, and probably thought of, least often, was a great dull English country-house in a northern county, where a life as monotonous and self-contained as his own was chequered and dispersed had gone on for generation after generation; and it was the sense of that house, and of all it typified even to his vagrancy and irreverence, which, coming out now and then in his talk, or in his attitude toward something or somebody, gave him a firmer outline and a steadier footing than the other marionettes in the dance. Superficially so like them all, and so eager to outdo them in detachment and adaptability, ridiculing the prejudices he had shaken off, and the people to whom he belonged, he still kept, under his easy pliancy, the skeleton of old faiths and old fashions. “He talks every language as well as the rest of us,” Susy had once said of him, “but at least he talks one language better than the others”; and Strefford, told of the remark, had laughed, called her an idiot, and been pleased.
As he shambled up the stairs with her, arm in arm, she was thinking of this quality with a new appreciation of its value. Even she and Lansing, in spite of their unmixed Americanism, their substantial background of old-fashioned cousinships in New York and Philadelphia, were as mentally detached, as universally at home, as touts at an International Exhibition. If they were usually recognized as Americans it was only because they spoke French so well, and because Nick was too fair to be “foreign,” and too sharp-featured to be English. But Charlie Strefford was English with all the strength of an inveterate habit; and something in Susy was slowly waking to a sense of the beauty of habit.
Lounging on the balcony, whither he had followed her without pausing to remove the stains of travel, Strefford showed himself immensely interested in the last chapter of her history, greatly pleased at its having been enacted under his roof, and hugely and flippantly amused at the firmness with which she refused to let him see Nick till the latter’s daily task was over.
“Writing? Rot! What’s he writing? He’s breaking you in, my dear; that’s what he’s doing: establishing an alibi. What’ll you bet he’s just sitting there smoking and reading Le Rire? Let’s go and see.”
But Susy was firm. “He’s read me his first chapter: it’s wonderful. It’s a philosophic romance — rather like Marius, you know.”
“Oh, yes — I do!” said Strefford, with a laugh that she thought idiotic.
She flushed up like a child. “You’re stupid, Streffy. You forget that Nick and I don’t need alibis. We’ve got rid of all that hyprocrisy by agreeing that each will give the other a hand up when either of us wants a change. We’ve not married to spy and lie, and nag each other; we’ve formed a partnership for our mutual advantage.”
“I see; that’s capital. But how can you be sure that, when Nick wants a change, you’ll consider it for his advantage to have one?”
It was the point that had always secretly tormented Susy; she often wondered if it equally tormented Nick.
“I hope I shall have enough common sense — ” she began.
“Oh, of course: common sense is what you’re both bound to base your argument on, whichever way you argue.”
This flash of insight disconcerted her, and she said, a little irritably: “What should you do then, if you married? — Hush, Streffy! I forbid you to shout like that — all the gondolas are stopping to look!”
“How can I help it?” He rocked backward and forward in his chair. “‘If you marry,’ she says: ‘Streffy, what have you decided to do if you suddenly become a raving maniac?’”
“I said no such thing. If your uncle and your cousin died, you’d marry to-morrow; you know you would.”
“Oh, now you’re talking business.” He folded his long arms and leaned over the balcony, looking down at the dusky ripples streaked with fire. “In that case I should say: ‘Susan, my dear — Susan — now that by the merciful intervention of Providence you have become Countess of Altringham in the peerage of Great Britain, and Baroness Dunsterville and d’Amblay in the peerages of Ireland and Scotland, I’ll thank you to remember that you are a member of one of the most ancient houses in the United Kingdom — and not to get found out.’”
Susy laughed. “We know what those warnings mean! I pity my namesake.”
He swung about and gave her a quick look out of his small ugly twinkling eyes. “Is there any other woman in the world named Susan?”
“I hope so, if the name’s an essential. Even if Nick chucks me, don’t count on me to carry out that programme. I’ve seen it in practice too often.”
“Oh, well: as far as I know, everybody’s in perfect health at Altringham.” He fumbled in his pocket and drew out a fountain pen, a handkerchief over which it had leaked, and a packet of dishevelled cigarettes. Lighting one, and restoring the other objects to his pocket, he continued calmly: “Tell me how did you manage to smooth things over with the Gillows? Ursula was running amuck when I was in Newport last Summer; it was just when people were beginning to say that you were going to marry Nick. I was afraid she’d put a spoke in your wheel; and I hear she put a big cheque in your hand instead.”
Susy was silent. From the first moment of Strefford’s appearance she had known that in the course of time he would put that question. He was as inquisitive as a monkey, and when he had made up his mind to find out anything it was useless to try to divert his attention. After a moment’s hesitation she said: “I flirted with Fred. It was a bore but he was very decent.”
“He would be — poor Fred. And you got Ursula thoroughly frightened!”
“Well — enough. And then luckily that young Nerone Altineri turned up from Rome: he went over to New York to look for a job as an engineer, and Ursula made Fred put him in their iron works.” She paused again, and then added abruptly: “Streffy! If you knew how I hate that kind of thing. I’d rather have Nick come in now and tell me frankly, as I know he would, that he’s going off with — ”
“With Coral Hicks?” Strefford suggested.
She laughed. “Poor Coral Hicks! What on earth made you think of the Hickses?”
“Because I caught a glimpse of them the other day at Capri. They’re cruising about: they said they were coming in here.”
“What a nuisance! I do hope they won’t find us out. They were awfully kind to Nick when he went to India with them, and they’re so simple-minded that they would expect him to be glad to see them.”
Strefford aimed his cigarette-end at a tourist on a puggaree who was gazing up from his guidebook at the palace. “Ah,” he murmured with satisfaction, seeing the shot take effect; then he added: “Coral Hicks is growing up rather pretty.”
“Oh, Streff — you’re dreaming! That lump of a girl with spectacles and thick ankles! Poor Mrs. Hicks used to say to Nick: ‘When Mr. Hicks and I had Coral educated we presumed culture was in greater demand in Europe than it appears to be.’”
“Well, you’ll see: that girl’s education won’t interfere with her, once she’s started. So then: if Nick came in and told you he was going off — ”
“I should be so thankful if it was with a fright like Coral! But you know,” she added with a smile, “we’ve agreed that it’s not to happen for a year.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15