SUSY found Strefford, after his first burst of nonsense, unusually kind and responsive. The interest he showed in her future and Nick’s seemed to proceed not so much from his habitual spirit of scientific curiosity as from simple friendliness. He was privileged to see Nick’s first chapter, of which he formed so favourable an impression that he spoke sternly to Susy on the importance of respecting her husband’s working hours; and he even carried his general benevolence to the length of showing a fatherly interest in Clarissa Vanderlyn. He was always charming to children, but fitfully and warily, with an eye on his independence, and on the possibility of being suddenly bored by them; Susy had never seen him abandon these precautions so completely as he did with Clarissa.
“Poor little devil! Who looks after her when you and Nick are off together? Do you mean to tell me Ellie sacked the governess and went away without having anyone to take her place?”
“I think she expected me to do it,” said Susy with a touch of asperity. There were moments when her duty to Clarissa weighed on her somewhat heavily; whenever she went off alone with Nick she was pursued by the vision of a little figure waving wistful farewells from the balcony.
“Ah, that’s like Ellie: you might have known she’d get an equivalent when she lent you all this. But I don’t believe she thought you’d be so conscientious about it.”
Susy considered. “I don’t suppose she did; and perhaps I shouldn’t have been, a year ago. But you see” — she hesitated — “Nick’s so awfully good: it’s made me look; at a lot of things differently. . . . ”
“Oh, hang Nick’s goodness! It’s happiness that’s done it, my dear. You’re just one of the people with whom it happens to agree.”
Susy, leaning back, scrutinized between her lashes his crooked ironic face.
“What is it that’s agreeing with you, Streffy? I’ve never seen you so human. You must be getting an outrageous price for the villa.”
Strefford laughed and clapped his hand on his breast-pocket. “I should be an ass not to: I’ve got a wire here saying they must have it for another month at any price.”
“What luck! I’m so glad. Who are they, by the way?”
He drew himself up out of the long chair in which he was disjointedly lounging, and looked down at her with a smile. “Another couple of love-sick idiots like you and Nick. . . . I say, before I spend it all let’s go out and buy something ripping for Clarissa.”
The days passed so quickly and radiantly that, but for her concern for Clarissa, Susy would hardly have been conscious of her hostess’s protracted absence. Mrs. Vanderlyn had said: “Four weeks at the latest,” and the four weeks were over, and she had neither arrived nor written to explain her non-appearance. She had, in fact, given no sign of life since her departure, save in the shape of a post-card which had reached Clarissa the day after the Lansings’ arrival, and in which Mrs. Vanderlyn instructed her child to be awfully good, and not to forget to feed the mongoose. Susy noticed that this missive had been posted in Milan.
She communicated her apprehensions to Strefford. “I don’t trust that green-eyed nurse. She’s forever with the younger gondolier; and Clarissa’s so awfully sharp. I don’t see why Ellie hasn’t come: she was due last Monday.”
Her companion laughed, and something in the sound of his laugh suggested that he probably knew as much of Ellie’s movements as she did, if not more. The sense of disgust which the subject always roused in her made her look away quickly from his tolerant smile. She would have given the world, at that moment, to have been free to tell Nick what she had learned on the night of their arrival, and then to have gone away with him, no matter where. But there was Clarissa —!
To fortify herself against the temptation, she resolutely fixed her thoughts on her husband. Of Nick’s beatitude there could be no doubt. He adored her, he revelled in Venice, he rejoiced in his work; and concerning the quality of that work her judgment was as confident as her heart. She still doubted if he would ever earn a living by what he wrote, but she no longer doubted that he would write something remarkable. The mere fact that he was engaged on a philosophic romance, and not a mere novel, seemed the proof of an intrinsic superiority. And if she had mistrusted her impartiality Strefford’s approval would have reassured her. Among their friends Strefford passed as an authority on such matters: in summing him up his eulogists always added: “And you know he writes.” As a matter of fact, the paying public had remained cold to his few published pages; but he lived among the kind of people who confuse taste with talent, and are impressed by the most artless attempts at literary expression; and though he affected to disdain their judgment, and his own efforts, Susy knew he was not sorry to have it said of him: “Oh, if only Streffy had chosen —!”
Strefford’s approval of the philosophic romance convinced her that it had been worth while staying in Venice for Nick’s sake; and if only Ellie would come back, and carry off Clarissa to St. Moritz or Deauville, the disagreeable episode on which their happiness was based would vanish like a cloud, and leave them to complete enjoyment.
Ellie did not come; but the Mortimer Hickses did, and Nick Lansing was assailed by the scruples his wife had foreseen. Strefford, coming back one evening from the Lido, reported having recognized the huge outline of the Ibis among the pleasure craft of the outer harbour; and the very next evening, as the guests of Palazzo Vanderlyn were sipping their ices at Florian’s, the Hickses loomed up across the Piazza.
Susy pleaded in vain with her husband in defence of his privacy. “Remember you’re here to write, dearest; it’s your duty not to let any one interfere with that. Why shouldn’t we tell them we’re just leaving!”
“Because it’s no use: we’re sure to be always meeting them. And besides, I’ll be hanged if I’m going to shirk the Hickses. I spent five whole months on the Ibis, and if they bored me occasionally, India didn’t.”
“We’ll make them take us to Aquileia anyhow,” said Strefford philosophically; and the next moment the Hickses were bearing down on the defenceless trio.
They presented a formidable front, not only because of their mere physical bulk — Mr. and Mrs. Hicks were equally and majestically three-dimensional — but because they never moved abroad without the escort of two private secretaries (one for the foreign languages), Mr. Hicks’s doctor, a maiden lady known as Eldoradder Tooker, who was Mrs. Hicks’s cousin and stenographer, and finally their daughter, Coral Hicks.
Coral Hicks, when Susy had last encountered the party, had been a fat spectacled school-girl, always lagging behind her parents, with a reluctant poodle in her wake. Now the poodle had gone, and his mistress led the procession. The fat school-girl had changed into a young lady of compact if not graceful outline; a long-handled eyeglass had replaced the spectacles, and through it, instead of a sullen glare, Miss Coral Hicks projected on the world a glance at once confident and critical. She looked so strong and so assured that Susy, taking her measure in a flash, saw that her position at the head of the procession was not fortuitous, and murmured inwardly: “Thank goodness she’s not pretty too!”
If she was not pretty, she was well-dressed; and if she was overeducated, she seemed capable, as Strefford had suggested, of carrying off even this crowning disadvantage. At any rate, she was above disguising it; and before the whole party had been seated five minutes in front of a fresh supply of ices (with Eldorada and the secretaries at a table slightly in the background) she had taken up with Nick the question of exploration in Mesopotamia.
“Queer child, Coral,” he said to Susy that night as they smoked a last cigarette on their balcony. “She told me this afternoon that she’d remembered lots of things she heard me say in India. I thought at the time that she cared only for caramels and picture-puzzles, but it seems she was listening to everything, and reading all the books she could lay her hands on; and she got so bitten with Oriental archaeology that she took a course last year at Bryn Mawr. She means to go to Bagdad next spring, and back by the Persian plateau and Turkestan.”
Susy laughed luxuriously: she was sitting with her hand in Nick’s, while the late moon — theirs again — rounded its orange-coloured glory above the belfry of San Giorgio.
“Poor Coral! How dreary — ” Susy murmured
“Dreary? Why? A trip like that is about as well worth doing as anything I know.”
“Oh, I meant: dreary to do it without you or me,” she laughed, getting up lazily to go indoors. A broad band of moonlight, dividing her room onto two shadowy halves, lay on the painted Venetian bed with its folded-back sheet, its old damask coverlet and lace-edged pillows. She felt the warmth of Nick’s enfolding arm and lifted her face to his.
The Hickses retained the most tender memory of Nick’s sojourn on the Ibis, and Susy, moved by their artless pleasure in meeting him again, was glad he had not followed her advice and tried to elude them. She had always admired Strefford’s ruthless talent for using and discarding the human material in his path, but now she began to hope that Nick would not remember her suggestion that he should mete out that measure to the Hickses. Even if it had been less pleasant to have a big yacht at their door during the long golden days and the nights of silver fire, the Hickses’ admiration for Nick would have made Susy suffer them gladly. She even began to be aware of a growing liking for them, a liking inspired by the very characteristics that would once have provoked her disapproval. Susy had had plenty of training in liking common people with big purses; in such cases her stock of allowances and extenuations was inexhaustible. But they had to be successful common people; and the trouble was that the Hickses, judged by her standards, were failures. It was not only that they were ridiculous; so, heaven knew, were many of their rivals. But the Hickses were both ridiculous and unsuccessful. They had consistently resisted the efforts of the experienced advisers who had first descried them on the horizon and tried to help them upward. They were always taking up the wrong people, giving the wrong kind of party, and spending millions on things that nobody who mattered cared about. They all believed passionately in “movements” and “causes” and “ideals,” and were always attended by the exponents of their latest beliefs, always asking you to hear lectures by haggard women in peplums, and having their portraits painted by wild people who never turned out to be the fashion.
All this would formerly have increased Susy’s contempt; now she found herself liking the Hickses most for their failings. She was touched by their simple good faith, their isolation in the midst of all their queer apostles and parasites, their way of drifting about an alien and indifferent world in a compactly clinging group of which Eldorada Tooker, the doctor and the two secretaries formed the outer fringe, and by their view of themselves as a kind of collective re-incarnation of some past state of princely culture, symbolised for Mrs. Hicks in what she called “the court of the Renaissance.” Eldorada, of course, was their chief prophetess; but even the intensely “bright” and modern young secretaries, Mr. Beck and Mr. Buttles, showed a touching tendency to share her view, and spoke of Mr. Hicks as “promoting art,” in the spirit of Pandolfino celebrating the munificence of the Medicis.
“I’m getting really fond of the Hickses; I believe I should be nice to them even if they were staying at Danieli’s,” Susy said to Strefford.
“And even if you owned the yacht?” he answered; and for once his banter struck her as beside the point.
The Ibis carried them, during the endless June days, far and wide along the enchanted shores; they roamed among the Euganeans, they saw Aquileia and Pomposa and Ravenna. Their hosts would gladly have taken them farther, across the Adriatic and on into the golden network of the Aegean; but Susy resisted this infraction of Nick’s rules, and he himself preferred to stick to his task. Only now he wrote in the early mornings, so that on most days they could set out before noon and steam back late to the low fringe of lights on the lagoon. His work continued to progress, and as page was added to page Susy obscurely but surely perceived that each one corresponded with a hidden secretion of energy, the gradual forming within him of something that might eventually alter both their lives. In what sense she could not conjecture: she merely felt that the fact of his having chosen a job and stuck to it, if only through a few rosy summer weeks, had already given him a new way of saying “Yes” and “No.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02