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Chapter 16


XVI

STRETCHED out under an awning on the deck of the Ibis, Nick
Lansing looked up for a moment at the vanishing cliffs of Malta
and then plunged again into his book.

He had had nearly three weeks of drug-taking on the Ibis.  The
drugs he had absorbed were of two kinds:  visions of fleeing
landscapes, looming up from the blue sea to vanish into it
again, and visions of study absorbed from the volumes piled up
day and night at his elbow.  For the first time in months he was
in reach of a real library, just the kind of scholarly yet
miscellaneous library, that his restless and impatient spirit
craved.  He was aware that the books he read, like the fugitive
scenes on which he gazed, were merely a form of anesthetic:  he
swallowed them with the careless greed of the sufferer who seeks
only to still pain and deaden memory.  But they were beginning
to produce in him a moral languor that was not disagreeable,
that, indeed, compared with the fierce pain of the first days,
was almost pleasurable.  It was exactly the kind of drug that he
needed.

There is probably no point on which the average man has more
definite views than on the uselessness of writing a letter that
is hard to write.  In the line he had sent to Susy from Genoa
Nick had told her that she would hear from him again in a few
days; but when the few days had passed, and he began to consider
setting himself to the task, he found fifty reasons for
postponing it.

Had there been any practical questions to write about it would
have been different; he could not have borne for twenty-four
hours the idea that she was in uncertainty as to money.  But
that had all been settled long ago.  From the first she had had
the administering of their modest fortune.  On their marriage
Nick's own meagre income, paid in, none too regularly, by the
agent who had managed for years the dwindling family properties,
had been transferred to her:  it was the only wedding present he
could make.  And the wedding cheques had of course all been
deposited in her name.  There were therefore no "business"
reasons for communicating with her; and when it came to reasons
of another order the mere thought of them benumbed him.

For the first few days he reproached himself for his inertia;
then he began to seek reasons for justifying it.  After all, for
both their sakes a waiting policy might be the wisest he could
pursue.  He had left Susy because he could not tolerate the
conditions on which he had discovered their life together to be
based; and he had told her so.  What more was there to say?

Nothing was changed in their respective situations; if they came
together it could be only to resume the same life; and that, as
the days went by, seemed to him more and more impossible.  He
had not yet reached the point of facing a definite separation;
but whenever his thoughts travelled back over their past life he
recoiled from any attempt to return to it.  As long as this
state of mind continued there seemed nothing to add to the
letter he had already written, except indeed the statement that
he was cruising with the Hickses.  And he saw no pressing reason
for communicating that.

To the Hickses he had given no hint of his situation.  When
Coral Hicks, a fortnight earlier, had picked him up in the
broiling streets of Genoa, and carried him off to the Ibis, he
had thought only of a cool dinner and perhaps a moonlight sail.
Then, in reply to their friendly urging, he had confessed that
he had not been well--had indeed gone off hurriedly for a few
days' change of air--and that left him without defence against
the immediate proposal that he should take his change of air on
the Ibis.  They were just off to Corsica and Sardinia, and from
there to Sicily:  he could rejoin the railway at Naples, and be
back at Venice in ten days.

Ten days of respite--the temptation was irresistible.  And he
really liked the kind uncomplicated Hickses.  A wholesome
honesty and simplicity breathed through all their opulence, as
if the rich trappings of their present life still exhaled the
fragrance of their native prairies.  The mere fact of being with
such people was like a purifying bath.  When the yacht touched
at Naples he agreed since they were so awfully kind--to go on to
Sicily.  And when the chief steward, going ashore at Naples for
the last time before they got up steam, said:  "Any letters for
the post, sir?" he answered, as he had answered at each previous
halt:  "No, thank you:  none."

Now they were heading for Rhodes and Crete--Crete, where he had
never been, where he had so often longed to go.  In spite of the
lateness of the season the weather was still miraculously fine:
the short waves danced ahead under a sky without a cloud, and
the strong bows of the Ibis hardly swayed as she flew forward
over the flying crests.

Only his hosts and their daughter were on the yacht-of course
with Eldorada Tooker and Mr. Beck in attendance.  An eminent
archaeologist, who was to have joined them at Naples, had
telegraphed an excuse at the last moment; and Nick noticed that,
while Mrs. Hicks was perpetually apologizing for the great man's
absence, Coral merely smiled and said nothing.

As a matter of fact, Mr. and Mrs. Hicks were never as pleasant
as when one had them to one's self.  In company, Mr. Hicks ran
the risk of appearing over-hospitable, and Mrs. Hicks confused
dates and names in the desire to embrace all culture in her
conversation.  But alone with Nick, their old travelling-
companion, they shone out in their native simplicity, and Mr.
Hicks talked soundly of investments, and Mrs. Hicks recalled her
early married days in Apex City, when, on being brought home to
her new house in Aeschylus Avenue, her first thought had been:
"How on earth shall I get all those windows washed?"

The loss of Mr. Buttles had been as serious to them as Nick had
supposed:  Mr. Beck could never hope to replace him.  Apart from
his mysterious gift of languages, and his almost superhuman
faculty for knowing how to address letters to eminent people,
and in what terms to conclude them, he had a smattering of
archaeology and general culture on which Mrs. Hicks had learned
to depend--her own memory being, alas, so inadequate to the
range of her interests.

Her daughter might perhaps have helped her; but it was not Miss
Hicks's way to mother her parents.  She was exceedingly kind to
them, but left them, as it were, to bring themselves up as best
they could, while she pursued her own course of self-
development.  A sombre zeal for knowledge filled the mind of
this strange girl:  she appeared interested only in fresh
opportunities of adding to her store of facts.  They were
illuminated by little imagination and less poetry; but,
carefully catalogued and neatly sorted in her large cool brain,
they were always as accessible as the volumes in an up-to-date
public library.

To Nick there was something reposeful in this lucid intellectual
curiosity.  He wanted above all things to get away from
sentiment, from seduction, from the moods and impulses and
flashing contradictions that were Susy.  Susy was not a great
reader:  her store of facts was small, and she had grown up
among people who dreaded ideas as much as if they had been a
contagious disease.  But, in the early days especially, when
Nick had put a book in her hand, or read a poem to her, her
swift intelligence had instantly shed a new light on the
subject, and, penetrating to its depths, had extracted from them
whatever belonged to her.  What a pity that this exquisite
insight, this intuitive discrimination, should for the most part
have been spent upon reading the thoughts of vulgar people, and
extracting a profit from them--should have been wasted, since
her childhood, on all the hideous intricacies of "managing"!

And visible beauty--how she cared for that too!  He had not
guessed it, or rather he had not been sure of it, till the day
when, on their way through Paris, he had taken her to the
Louvre, and they had stood before the little Crucifixion of
Mantegna.  He had not been looking at the picture, or watching
to see what impression it produced on Susy.  His own momentary
mood was for Correggio and Fragonard, the laughter of the Music
Lesson and the bold pagan joys of the Antiope; and then he had
missed her from his side, and when he came to where she stood,
forgetting him, forgetting everything, had seen the glare of
that tragic sky in her face, her trembling lip, the tears on her
lashes.  That was Susy ....

Closing his book he stole a glance at Coral Hicks's profile,
thrown back against the cushions of the deck-chair at his side.
There was something harsh and bracing in her blunt primitive
build, in the projection of the black eyebrows that nearly met
over her thick straight nose, and the faint barely visible black
down on her upper lip.  Some miracle of will-power, combined
with all the artifices that wealth can buy, had turned the fat
sallow girl he remembered into this commanding young woman,
almost handsome at times indisputably handsome--in her big
authoritative way.  Watching the arrogant lines of her profile
against the blue sea, he remembered, with a thrill that was
sweet to his vanity, how twice--under the dome of the Scalzi and
in the streets of Genoa--he had seen those same lines soften at
his approach, turn womanly, pleading and almost humble.  That
was Coral ....

Suddenly she said, without turning toward him:  "You've had no
letters since you've been on board."

He looked at her, surprised.  "No--thank the Lord!" he laughed.

"And you haven't written one either," she continued in her hard
statistical tone.

"No," he again agreed, with the same laugh.

"That means that you really are free--"

"Free?"

He saw the cheek nearest him redden.  "Really off on a holiday,
I mean; not tied down."  After a pause he rejoined:  "No, I'm
not particularly tied down."

"And your book?"

"Oh, my book--" He stopped and considered.  He had thrust The
Pageant of Alexander into his handbag on the night of his Bight
from Venice; but since then he had never looked at it.  Too many
memories and illusions were pressed between its pages; and he
knew just at what page he had felt Ellie Vanderlyn bending over
him from behind, caught a whiff of her scent, and heard her
breathless "I had to thank you!"

"My book's hung up," he said impatiently, annoyed with Miss
Hicks's lack of tact.  There was a girl who never put out
feelers ....

"Yes; I thought it was," she went on quietly, and he gave her a
startled glance.  What the devil else did she think, he
wondered?  He had never supposed her capable of getting far
enough out of her own thick carapace of self-sufficiency to
penetrate into any one else's feelings.

"The truth is," he continued, embarrassed, "I suppose I dug away
at it rather too continuously; that's probably why I felt the
need of a change.  You see I'm only a beginner."

She still continued her relentless questioning.  "But later--
you'll go on with it, of course?"

"Oh, I don't know."  He paused, glanced down the glittering
deck, and then out across the glittering water.  "I've been
dreaming dreams, you see. I rather think I shall have to drop
the book altogether, and try to look out for a job that will
pay.  To indulge in my kind of literature one must first have an
assured income."

He was instantly annoyed with himself for having spoken.
Hitherto in his relations with the Hickses he had carefully
avoided the least allusion that might make him feel the heavy
hand of their beneficence.  But the idle procrastinating weeks
had weakened him and he had yielded to the need of putting into
words his vague intentions.  To do so would perhaps help to make
them more definite.

To his relief Miss Hicks made no immediate reply; and when she
spoke it was in a softer voice and with an unwonted hesitation.

"It seems a shame that with gifts like yours you shouldn't find
some kind of employment that would leave you leisure enough to
do your real work ...."

He shrugged ironically.  "Yes--there are a goodish number of us
hunting for that particular kind of employment."

Her tone became more business-like.  "I know it's hard to
find--almost impossible.  But would you take it, I wonder, if it
were offered to you--?"

She turned her head slightly, and their eyes met.  For an
instant blank terror loomed upon him; but before he had time to
face it she continued, in the same untroubled voice:  "Mr.
Buttles's place, I mean.  My parents must absolutely have some
one they can count on.  You know what an easy place it is ....
I think you would find the salary satisfactory."

Nick drew a deep breath of relief.  For a moment her eyes had
looked as they had in the Scalzi--and he liked the girl too much
not to shrink from reawakening that look.  But Mr. Buttles's
place:  why not?

"Poor Buttles!" he murmured, to gain time.

"Oh," she said, "you won't find the same reasons as he did for
throwing up the job.  He was the martyr of his artistic
convictions."

He glanced at her sideways, wondering.  After all she did not
know of his meeting with Mr. Buttles in Genoa, nor of the
latter's confidences; perhaps she did not even know of Mr.
Buttles's hopeless passion.  At any rate her face remained calm.

"Why not consider it--at least just for a few months?  Till
after our expedition to Mesopotamia?" she pressed on, a little
breathlessly.

"You're awfully kind:  but I don't know--"

She stood up with one of her abrupt movements.  "You needn't,
all at once.  Take time think it over.  Father wanted me to ask
you," she appended.

He felt the inadequacy of his response.  "It tempts me awfully,
of course.  But I must wait, at any rate--wait for letters.  The
fact is I shall have to wire from Rhodes to have them sent.  I
had chucked everything, even letters, for a few weeks."

"Ah, you are tired," she murmured, giving him a last downward
glance as she turned away.

>From Rhodes Nick Lansing telegraphed to his Paris bank to send
his letters to Candia; but when the Ibis reached Candia, and the
mail was brought on board, the thick envelope handed to him
contained no letter from Susy.

Why should it, since he had not yet written to her?

He had not written, no:  but in sending his address to the bank
he knew he had given her the opportunity of reaching him if she
wished to.  And she had made no sign.

Late that afternoon, when they returned to the yacht from their
first expedition, a packet of newspapers lay on the deck-house
table.  Nick picked up one of the London journals, and his eye
ran absently down the list of social events.

He read:

"Among the visitors expected next week at Ruan Castle (let for
the season to Mr. Frederick J. Gillow of New York) are Prince
Altineri of Rome, the Earl of Altringham and Mrs. Nicholas
Lansing, who arrived in London last week from Paris. "Nick threw
down the paper.  It was just a month since he had left the
Palazzo Vanderlyn and flung himself into the night express for
Milan.  A whole month--and Susy had not written.  Only a month--
and Susy and Strefford were already together!


Edith Wharton

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