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Chapter 14


XIV

THE next day a lot of people turned up unannounced for luncheon.
They were not of the far-fetched and the exotic, in whom Mrs.
Melrose now specialized, but merely commonplace fashionable
people belonging to Susy's own group, people familiar with the
amusing romance of her penniless marriage, and to whom she had
to explain (though none of them really listened to the
explanation) that Nick was not with her just now but had gone
off cruising ... cruising in the AEgean with friends ... getting
up material for his book (this detail had occurred to her in the
night).

It was the kind of encounter she had most dreaded; but it
proved, after all, easy enough to go through compared with those
endless hours of turning to and fro, the night before, in the
cage of her lonely room.  Anything, anything, but to be
alone ....

Gradually, from the force of habit, she found herself actually
in tune with the talk of the luncheon table, interested in the
references to absent friends, the light allusions to last year's
loves and quarrels, scandals and absurdities.  The women, in
their pale summer dresses, were so graceful, indolent and sure
of themselves, the men so easy and good-humoured!  Perhaps,
after all, Susy reflected, it was the world she was meant for,
since the other, the brief Paradise of her dreams, had already
shut its golden doors upon her.  And then, as they sat on the
terrace after luncheon, looking across at the yellow tree-tops
of the park, one of the women said something--made just an
allusion--that Susy would have let pass unnoticed in the old
days, but that now filled her with a sudden deep disgust ....
She stood up and wandered away, away from them all through the
fading garden.

Two days later Susy and Strefford sat on the terrace of the
Tuileries above the Seine.  She had asked him to meet her there,
with the desire to avoid the crowded halls and drawing-room of
the Nouveau Luxe where, even at that supposedly "dead" season,
people one knew were always drifting to and fro; and they sat on
a bench in the pale sunlight, the discoloured leaves heaped at
their feet, and no one to share their solitude but a lame
working-man and a haggard woman who were lunching together
mournfully at the other end of the majestic vista.

Strefford, in his new mourning, looked unnaturally prosperous
and well-valeted; but his ugly untidy features remained as
undisciplined, his smile as whimsical, as of old.  He had been
on cool though friendly terms with the pompous uncle and the
poor sickly cousin whose joint disappearance had so abruptly
transformed his future; and it was his way to understate his
feelings rather than to pretend more than he felt.
Nevertheless, beneath his habitual bantering tone Susy discerned
a change.  The disaster had shocked him profoundly; already, in
his brief sojourn among his people and among the great
possessions so tragically acquired, old instincts had awakened,
forgotten associations had spoken in him.  Susy listened to him
wistfully, silenced by her imaginative perception of the
distance that these things had put between them.

"It was horrible ... seeing them both there together, laid out
in that hideous Pugin chapel at Altringham ... the poor boy
especially.  I suppose that's really what's cutting me up now,"
he murmured, almost apologetically.

"Oh, it's more than that--more than you know," she insisted; but
he jerked back:  "Now, my dear, don't be edifying, please," and
fumbled for a cigarette in the pocket which was already
beginning to bulge with his miscellaneous properties.

"And now about you--for that's what I came for," he continued,
turning to her with one of his sudden movements.  "I couldn't
make head or tail of your letter."

She paused a moment to steady her voice.  "Couldn't you?  I
suppose you'd forgotten my bargain with Nick.  He hadn't-and
he's asked me to fulfil it."

Strefford stared.  "What--that nonsense about your setting each
other free if either of you had the chance to make a good
match?"

She signed "Yes."

"And he's actually asked you--?"

"Well:  practically.  He's gone off with the Hickses.  Before
going he wrote me that we'd better both consider ourselves free.
And Coral sent me a postcard to say that she would take the best
of care of him."

Strefford mused, his eyes upon his cigarette.  "But what the
deuce led up to all this?  It can't have happened like that, out
of a clear sky."

Susy flushed, hesitated, looked away.  She had meant to tell
Strefford the whole story; it had been one of her chief reasons
for wishing to see him again, and half-unconsciously, perhaps,
she had hoped, in his laxer atmosphere, to recover something of
her shattered self-esteem.  But now she suddenly felt the
impossibility of confessing to anyone the depths to which Nick's
wife had stooped.  She fancied that her companion guessed the
nature of her hesitation.

"Don't tell me anything you don't want to, you know, my dear."

"No; I do want to; only it's difficult.  You see--we had so very
little money ...."

"Yes?"

"And Nick--who was thinking of his book, and of all sorts of big
things, fine things--didn't realise ... left it all to me ... to
manage ...."

She stumbled over the word, remembering how Nick had always
winced at it.  But Strefford did not seem to notice her, and she
hurried on, unfolding in short awkward sentences the avowal of
their pecuniary difficulties, and of Nick's inability to
understand that, to keep on with the kind of life they were
leading, one had to put up with things ... accept favours ....

"Borrow money, you mean?"

"Well--yes; and all the rest."  No--decidedly she could not
reveal to Strefford the episode of Ellie's letters.  "Nick
suddenly felt, I suppose, that he couldn't stand it," she
continued; "and instead of asking me to try--to try to live
differently, go off somewhere with him and live, like work-
people, in two rooms, without a servant, as I was ready to do;
well, instead he wrote me that it had all been a mistake from
the beginning, that we couldn't keep it up, and had better
recognize the fact; and he went off on the Hickses' yacht.  The
last evening that you were in Venice--the day he didn't come
back to dinner--he had gone off to Genoa to meet them.  I
suppose he intends to marry Coral."

Strefford received this in silence.  "Well--it was your bargain,
wasn't it?" he said at length.

"Yes; but--"

"Exactly:  I always told you so.  You weren't ready to have him
go yet--that's all."

She flushed to the forehead.  "Oh, Streff--is it really all?"

"A question of time?  If you doubt it, I'd like to see you try,
for a while, in those two rooms without a servant; and then let
me hear from you.  Why, my dear, it's only a question of time in
a palace, with a steam yacht lying off the door-step, and a
flock of motors in the garage; look around you and see.  And did
you ever imagine that you and Nick, of all people, were going to
escape the common doom, and survive like Mr. and Mrs. Tithonus,
while all about you the eternal passions were crumbling to
pieces, and your native Divorce-states piling up their
revenues?"

She sat with bent head, the weight of the long years to come
pressing like a leaden load on her shoulders.

"But I'm so young ... life's so long.  What does last, then?"

"Ah, you're too young to believe me, if I were to tell you;
though you're intelligent enough to understand."

"What does, then?"

"Why, the hold of the things we all think we could do without.
Habits--they outstand the Pyramids. Comforts, luxuries, the
atmosphere of ease ... above all, the power to get away from
dulness and monotony, from constraints and uglinesses.  You
chose that power, instinctively, before you were even grown up;
and so did Nick.  And the only difference between you is that
he's had the sense to see sooner than you that those are the
things that last, the prime necessities."

"I don't believe it!"

"Of course you don't:  at your age one doesn't reason one's
materialism.  And besides you're mortally hurt that Nick has
found out sooner than you, and hasn't disguised his discovery
under any hypocritical phrases."

"But surely there are people--"

"Yes--saints and geniuses and heroes:  all the fanatics!  To
which of their categories do you suppose we soft people belong?
And the heroes and the geniuses--haven't they their enormous
frailties and their giant appetites?  And how should we escape
being the victims of our little ones?"

She sat for a while without speaking.  "But, Streff, how can you
say such things, when I know you care:  care for me, for
instance!"

"Care?"  He put his hand on hers.  "But, my dear, it's just the
fugitiveness of mortal caring that makes it so exquisite!  It's
because we know we can't hold fast to it, or to each other, or
to anything ...."

"Yes ... yes ... but hush, please!  Oh, don't say it!"  She
stood up, the tears in her throat, and he rose also.

"Come along, then; where do we lunch?" he said with a smile,
slipping his hand through her arm.

"Oh, I don't know.  Nowhere.  I think I'm going back to
Versailles."

"Because I've disgusted you so deeply?  Just my luck--when I
came over to ask you to marry me!"

She laughed, but he had become suddenly grave.  "Upon my soul, I
did."

"Dear Streff!  As if--now--"

"Oh, not now--I know.  I'm aware that even with your accelerated
divorce methods--"

"It's not that.  I told you it was no use, Streff--I told you
long ago, in Venice."

He shrugged ironically.  "It's not Streff who's asking you now.
Streff was not a marrying man:  he was only trifling with you.
The present offer comes from an elderly peer of independent
means. Think it over, my dear: as many days out as you like, and
five footmen kept.  There's not the least hurry, of course; but
I rather think Nick himself would advise it."

She flushed to the temples, remembering that Nick had; and the
remembrance made Strefford's sneering philosophy seem less
unbearable.  Why should she not lunch with him, after all?  In
the first days of his mourning he had come to Paris expressly to
see her, and to offer her one of the oldest names and one of the
greatest fortunes in England.  She thought of Ursula Gillow,
Ellie Vanderlyn, Violet Melrose, of their condescending
kindnesses, their last year's dresses, their Christmas cheques,
and all the careless bounties that were so easy to bestow and so
hard to accept.  "I should rather enjoy paying them back,"
something in her maliciously murmured.

She did not mean to marry Strefford--she had not even got as far
as contemplating the possibility of a divorce but it was
undeniable that this sudden prospect of wealth and freedom was
like fresh air in her lungs.  She laughed again, but now without
bitterness.

"Very good, then; we'll lunch together.  But it's Streff I want
to lunch with to-day."

"Ah, well," her companion agreed, "I rather think that for a
tete-a-tete he's better company."

During their repast in a little restaurant over the Seine, where
she insisted on the cheapest dishes because she was lunching
with "Streff," he became again his old whimsical companionable
self.  Once or twice she tried to turn the talk to his altered
future, and the obligations and interests that lay before him;
but he shrugged away from the subject, questioning her instead
about the motley company at Violet Melrose's, and fitting a
droll or malicious anecdote to each of the people she named.

It was not till they had finished their coffee, and she was
glancing at her watch with a vague notion of taking the next
train, that he asked abruptly:  "But what are you going to do?
You can't stay forever at Violet's."

"Oh, no!" she cried with a shiver.

"Well, then--you've got some plan, I suppose?"

"Have I?" she wondered, jerked back into grim reality from the
soothing interlude of their hour together.

"You can't drift indefinitely, can you?  Unless you mean to go
back to the old sort of life once for all."

She reddened and her eyes filled.  "I can't do that, Streff--I
know I can't!"

"Then what--?"

She hesitated, and brought out with lowered head:  "Nick said he
would write again--in a few days.  I must wait--"

"Oh, naturally.  Don't do anything in a hurry."  Strefford also
glanced at his watch.  "Garcon, l'addition!  I'm taking the
train back to-night, and I've a lot of things left to do.  But
look here, my dear--when you come to a decision one way or the
other let me know, will you?  Oh, I don't mean in the matter
I've most at heart; we'll consider that closed for the present.
But at least I can be of use in other ways--hang it, you know, I
can even lend you money.  There's a new sensation for our jaded
palates!"

"Oh, Streff ... Streff!" she could only falter; and he pressed
on gaily:  "Try it, now do try it--I assure you there'll be no
interest to pay, and no conditions attached.  And promise to let
me know when you've decided anything. "

She looked into his humorously puckered eyes, answering. Their
friendly smile with hers.

"I promise!" she said.


Edith Wharton

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