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Chapter 11


XI.

BUT there were necessary accommodations, there always had been;
Nick in old times, had been the first to own it ....  How they
had laughed at the Perpendicular People, the people who went by
on the other side (since you couldn't be a good Samaritan
without stooping over and poking into heaps of you didn't know
what)!  And now Nick had suddenly become perpendicular ....

Susy, that evening, at the head of the dinner table, saw--in the
breaks between her scudding thoughts--the nauseatingly familiar
faces of the people she called her friends:  Strefford, Fred
Gillow, a giggling fool of a young Breckenridge, of their New
York group, who had arrived that day, and Prince Nerone
Altineri, Ursula's Prince, who, in Ursula's absence at a
tiresome cure, had, quite simply and naturally, preferred to
join her husband at Venice.  Susy looked from one to the other
of them, as if with newly-opened eyes, and wondered what life
would be like with no faces but such as theirs to furnish
it ....

Ah, Nick had become perpendicular! ....  After all, most people
went through life making a given set of gestures, like dance-
steps learned in advance.  If your dancing manual told you at a
given time to be perpendicular, you had to be, automatically--
and that was Nick!

"But what on earth, Susy," Gillow's puzzled voice suddenly came
to her as from immeasurable distances,  "Are you going to do in
this beastly stifling hole for the rest of the summer?"

"Ask Nick, my dear fellow," Strefford answered for her; and:
"By the way, where is Nick--if one may ask?" young Breckenridge
interposed, glancing up to take belated note of his host's
absence.

"Dining out," said Susy glibly.  "People turned up:  blighting
bores that I wouldn't have dared to inflict on you."  How easily
the old familiar fibbing came to her !

"The kind to whom you say, 'Now mind you look me up'; and then
spend the rest of your life dodging-like our good Hickses,"
Strefford amplified.

The Hickses--but, of course, Nick was with the Hickses!  It went
through Susy like a knife, and the dinner she had so lightly
fibbed became a hateful truth.  She said to herself feverishly:
"I'll call him up there after dinner--and then he will feel
silly"--but only to remember that the Hickses, in their
mediaeval setting, had of course sternly denied themselves a
telephone.

The fact of Nick's temporary inaccessibility--since she was now
convinced that he was really at the Hickses'--turned her
distress to a mocking irritation.  Ah, that was where he carried
his principles, his standards, or whatever he called the new set
of rules he had suddenly begun to apply to the old game!  It was
stupid of her not to have guessed it at once.

"Oh, the Hickses--Nick adores them, you know.  He's going to
marry Coral next," she laughed out, flashing the joke around the
table with all her practiced flippancy.

"Lord!" grasped Gillow, inarticulate:  while the Prince
displayed the unsurprised smile which Susy accused him of
practicing every morning with his Mueller exercises.

Suddenly Susy felt Strefford's eyes upon her.

"What's the matter with me?  Too much rouge?" she asked, passing
her arm in his as they left the table.

"No:  too little.  Look at yourself," he answered in a low tone.

"Oh, in these cadaverous old looking-glasses-everybody looks
fished up from the canal!"

She jerked away from him to spin down the long floor of the
sala, hands on hips, whistling a rag-time tune.  The Prince and
young Breckenridge caught her up, and she spun back with the
latter, while Gillow-it was believed to be his sole
accomplishment-snapped his fingers in simulation of bones, and
shuffled after the couple on stamping feet.

Susy sank down on a sofa near the window, fanning herself with a
floating scarf, and the men foraged for cigarettes, and rang for
the gondoliers, who came in with trays of cooling drinks.

"Well, what next--this ain't all, is it?" Gillow presently
queried, from the divan where he lolled half-asleep with
dripping brow.  Fred Gillow, like Nature, abhorred a void, and
it was inconceivable to him that every hour of man's rational
existence should not furnish a motive for getting up and going
somewhere else.  Young Breckenridge, who took the same view, and
the Prince, who earnestly desired to, reminded the company that
somebody they knew was giving a dance that night at the Lido.

Strefford vetoed the Lido, on the ground that he'd just come
back from there, and proposed that they should go out on foot
for a change.

"Why not?  What fun!"  Susy was up in an instant.  "Let's pay
somebody a surprise visit--I don't know who!  Streffy, Prince,
can't you think of somebody who'd be particularly annoyed by our
arrival?"

"Oh, the list's too long.  Let's start, and choose our victim on
the way," Strefford suggested.

Susy ran to her room for a light cloak, and without changing her
high-heeled satin slippers went out with the four men.  There
was no moon--thank heaven there was no moon!--but the stars hung
over them as close as fruit, and secret fragrances dropped on
them from garden-walls. Susy's heart tightened with memories of
Como.

They wandered on, laughing and dawdling, and yielding to the
drifting whims of aimless people.  Presently someone proposed
taking a nearer look at the facade of San Giorgio Maggiore, and
they hailed a gondola and were rowed out through the bobbing
lanterns and twanging guitar-strings.  When they landed again,
Gillow, always acutely bored by scenery, and particularly
resentful of midnight aesthetics, suggested a night club near at
hand, which was said to be jolly.  The Prince warmly supported
this proposal; but on Susy's curt refusal they started their
rambling again, circuitously threading the vague dark lanes and
making for the Piazza and Florian's ices.  Suddenly, at a calle-
corner, unfamiliar and yet somehow known to her, Susy paused to
stare about her with a laugh.

"But the Hickses--surely that's their palace?  And the windows
all lit up!  They must be giving a party!  Oh, do let's go up
and surprise them!"  The idea struck her as one of the drollest
that she had ever originated, and she wondered that her
companions should respond so languidly.

"I can't see anything very thrilling in surprising the Hickses,"
Gillow protested, defrauded of possible excitements; and
Strefford added:  "It would surprise me more than them if I
went."

But Susy insisted feverishly:  "You don't know.  It may be
awfully exciting!  I have an idea that Coral's announcing her
engagement--her engagement to Nick!  Come, give me a hand,
Streff--and you the other, Fred-" she began to hum the first
bars of Donna Anna's entrance in Don Giovanni.  "Pity I haven't
got a black cloak and a mask ...."

"Oh, your face will do," said Strefford, laying his hand on her
arm.

She drew back, flushing crimson.  Breckenridge and the Prince
had sprung on ahead, and Gillow, lumbering after them, was
already halfway up the stairs.

"My face?  My face?  What's the matter with my face?  Do you
know any reason why I shouldn't go to the Hickses to-night?"
Susy broke out in sudden wrath.

"None whatever; except that if you do it will bore me to death,"
Strefford returned, with serenity.

"Oh, in that case--!"

"No; come on.  I hear those fools banging on the door already."
He caught her by the hand, and they started up the stairway.
But on the first landing she paused, twisted her hand out of
his, and without a word, without a conscious thought, dashed
down the long flight, across the great resounding vestibule and
out into the darkness of the calle.

Strefford caught up with her, and they stood a moment silent in
the night.

"Susy--what the devil's the matter?"

"The matter?  Can't you see?  That I'm tired, that I've got a
splitting headache--that you bore me to death, one and all of
you!"  She turned and laid a deprecating hand on his arm.
"Streffy, old dear, don't mind me:  but for God's sake find a
gondola and send me home."

"Alone?"

"Alone."

It was never any concern of Streff's if people wanted to do
things he did not understand, and she knew that she could count
on his obedience.  They walked on in silence to the next canal,
and he picked up a passing gondola and put her in it.

"Now go and amuse yourself," she called after him, as the boat
shot under the nearest bridge.  Anything, anything, to be alone,
away from the folly and futility that would be all she had left
if Nick were to drop out of her life ....

"But perhaps he has dropped already--dropped for good," she
thought as she set her foot on the Vanderlyn threshold.

The short summer night was already growing transparent:  a new
born breeze stirred the soiled surface of the water and sent it
lapping freshly against the old palace doorways.  Nearly two
o'clock!  Nick had no doubt come back long ago.  Susy hurried up
the stairs, reassured by the mere thought of his nearness.  She
knew that when their eyes and their lips met it would be
impossible for anything to keep them apart.

The gondolier dozing on the landing roused himself to receive
her, and to proffer two envelopes.  The upper one was a telegram
for Strefford:  she threw it down again and paused under the
lantern hanging from the painted vault, the other envelope in
her hand.  The address it bore was in Nick's writing.  "When did
the signore leave this for me?  Has he gone out again?"

Gone out again?  But the signore had not come in since dinner:
of that the gondolier was positive, as he had been on duty all
the evening.  A boy had brought the letter--an unknown boy:  he
had left it without waiting.  It must have been about half an
hour after the signora had herself gone out with her guests.

Susy, hardly hearing him, fled on to her own room, and there,
beside the very lamp which, two months before, had illuminated
Ellie Vanderlyn's fatal letter, she opened Nick's.

"Don't think me hard on you, dear; but I've got to work this
thing out by myself.  The sooner the better-don't you agree?  So
I'm taking the express to Milan presently.  You'll get a proper
letter in a day or two.  I wish I could think, now, of something
to say that would show you I'm not a brute--but I can't. N. L. "

There was not much of the night left in which to sleep, even had
a semblance of sleep been achievable.  The letter fell from
Susy's hands, and she crept out onto the balcony and cowered
there, her forehead pressed against the balustrade, the dawn
wind stirring in her thin laces.  Through her closed eyelids and
the tightly-clenched fingers pressed against them, she felt the
penetration of the growing light, the relentless advance of
another day--a day without purpose and without meaning--a day
without Nick.  At length she dropped her hands, and staring from
dry lids saw a rim of fire above the roofs across the Grand
Canal.  She sprang up, ran back into her room, and dragging the
heavy curtains shut across the windows, stumbled over in the
darkness to the lounge and fell among its pillows-face
downward--groping, delving for a deeper night ....

She started up, stiff and aching, to see a golden wedge of sun
on the floor at her feet.  She had slept, then--was it
possible?--it must be eight or nine o'clock already!  She had
slept--slept like a drunkard--with that letter on the table at
her elbow!  Ah, now she remembered--she had dreamed that the
letter was a dream!  But there, inexorably, it lay; and she
picked it up, and slowly, painfully re-read it.  Then she tore
it into shreds hunted for a match, and kneeling before the empty
hearth, as though she were accomplishing some funeral rite, she
burnt every shred of it to ashes.  Nick would thank her for that
some day!

After a bath and a hurried toilet she began to be aware of
feeling younger and more hopeful.  After all, Nick had merely
said that he was going away for "a day or two."  And the letter
was not cruel:  there were tender things in it, showing through
the curt words.  She smiled at herself a little stiffly in the
glass, put a dash of red on her colourless lips, and rang for
the maid.

"Coffee, Giovanna, please; and will you tell Mr. Strefford that
I should like to see him presently."

If Nick really kept to his intention of staying away for a few
days she must trump up some explanation of his absence; but her
mind refused to work, and the only thing she could think of was
to take Strefford into her confidence.  She knew that he could
be trusted in a real difficulty; his impish malice transformed
itself into a resourceful ingenuity when his friends required
it.

The maid stood looking at her with a puzzled gaze, and Susy
somewhat sharply repeated her order.  "But don't wake him on
purpose," she added, foreseeing the probable effect on
Strefford's temper.

"But, signora, the gentleman is already out."

"Already out?"  Strefford, who could hardly be routed from his
bed before luncheon-time!  "Is it so late?" Susy cried,
incredulous.

"After nine.  And the gentleman took the eight o'clock train for
England.  Gervaso said he had received a telegram.  He left word
that he would write to the signora."

The door closed upon the maid, and Susy continued to gaze at her
painted image in the glass, as if she had been trying to
outstare an importunate stranger.  There was no one left for her
to take counsel of, then--no one but poor Fred Gillow!  She made
a grimace at the idea.

But what on earth could have summoned Strefford back to England?


Edith Wharton

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