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Chapter 17


XVII

SUSY had decided to wait for Strefford in London.

The new Lord Altringham was with his family in the north, and
though she found a telegram on arriving, saying that he would
join her in town the following week, she had still an interval
of several days to fill.

London was a desert; the rain fell without ceasing, and alone in
the shabby family hotel which, even out of season, was the best
she could afford, she sat at last face to face with herself.

>From the moment when Violet Melrose had failed to carry out her
plan for the Fulmer children her interest in Susy had visibly
waned.  Often before, in the old days, Susy Branch had felt the
same abrupt change of temperature in the manner of the hostess
of the moment; and often--how often--had yielded, and performed
the required service, rather than risk the consequences of
estrangement.  To that, at least, thank heaven, she need never
stoop again.

But as she hurriedly packed her trunks at Versailles, scraped
together an adequate tip for Mrs. Match, and bade good-bye to
Violet (grown suddenly fond and demonstrative as she saw her
visitor safely headed for the station)--as Susy went through the
old familiar mummery of the enforced leave-taking, there rose in
her so deep a disgust for the life of makeshifts and
accommodations, that if at that moment Nick had reappeared and
held out his arms to her, she was not sure she would have had
the courage to return to them.

In her London solitude the thirst for independence grew fiercer.
Independence with ease, of course.  Oh, her hateful useless love
of beauty ... the curse it had always been to her, the blessing
it might have been if only she had had the material means to
gratify and to express it!  And instead, it only gave her a
morbid loathing of that hideous hotel bedroom drowned in yellow
rain-light, of the smell of soot and cabbage through the window,
the blistered wall-paper, the dusty wax bouquets under glass
globes, and the electric lighting so contrived that as you
turned on the feeble globe hanging from the middle of the
ceiling the feebler one beside the bed went out!

What a sham world she and Nick had lived in during their few
months together!  What right had either of them to those
exquisite settings of the life of leisure:  the long white house
hidden in camellias and cypresses above the lake, or the great
rooms on the Giudecca with the shimmer of the canal always
playing over their frescoed ceilings!  Yet she had come to
imagine that these places really belonged to them, that they
would always go on living, fondly and irreproachably, in the
frame of other people's wealth ....  That, again, was the curse
of her love of beauty, the way she always took to it as if it
belonged to her!

Well, the awakening was bound to come, and it was perhaps better
that it should have come so soon.  At any rate there was no use
in letting her thoughts wander back to that shattered fool's
paradise of theirs.  Only, as she sat there and reckoned up the
days till Strefford arrived, what else in the world was there to
think of?

Her future and his?

But she knew that future by heart already!  She had not spent
her life among the rich and fashionable without having learned
every detail of the trappings of a rich and fashionable
marriage.  She had calculated long ago just how many dinner-
dresses, how many tea-gowns and how much lacy lingerie would go
to make up the outfit of the future Countess of Altringham.  She
had even decided to which dressmaker she would go for her
chinchilla cloak-for she meant to have one, and down to her
feet, and softer and more voluminous and more extravagantly
sumptuous than Violet's or Ursula's ... not to speak of silver
foxes and sables ... nor yet of the Altringham jewels.

She knew all this by heart; had always known it.  It all
belonged to the make-up of the life of elegance:  there was
nothing new about it.  What had been new to her was just that
short interval with Nick--a life unreal indeed in its setting,
but so real in its essentials:  the one reality she had ever
known.  As she looked back on it she saw how much it had given
her besides the golden flush of her happiness, the sudden
flowering of sensuous joy in heart and body.  Yes--there had
been the flowering too, in pain like birth-pangs, of something
graver, stronger, fuller of future power, something she had
hardly heeded in her first light rapture, but that always came
back and possessed her stilled soul when the rapture sank:  the
deep disquieting sense of something that Nick and love had
taught her, but that reached out even beyond love and beyond
Nick.

Her nerves were racked by the ceaseless swish, swish of the rain
on the dirty panes and the smell of cabbage and coal that came
in under the door when she shut the window.  This nauseating
foretaste of the luncheon she must presently go down to was more
than she could bear.  It brought with it a vision of the dank
coffee-room below, the sooty Smyrna rug, the rain on the sky-
light, the listless waitresses handing about food that tasted as
if it had been rained on too.  There was really no reason why
she should let such material miseries add to her depression ....

She sprang up, put on her hat and jacket, and calling for a taxi
drove to the London branch of the Nouveau Luxe hotel.  It was
just one o'clock and she was sure to pick up a luncheon, for
though London was empty that great establishment was not.  It
never was.  Along those sultry velvet-carpeted halls, in that
great flowered and scented dining-room, there was always a come-
and-go of rich aimless people, the busy people who, having
nothing to do, perpetually pursue their inexorable task from one
end of the earth to the other.

Oh, the monotony of those faces--the faces one always knew,
whether one knew the people they belonged to or not!  A fresh
disgust seized her at the sight of them:  she wavered, and then
turned and fled.  But on the threshold a still more familiar
figure met her:  that of a lady in exaggerated pearls and
sables, descending from an exaggerated motor, like the motors in
magazine advertisements, the huge arks in which jewelled
beauties and slender youths pause to gaze at snowpeaks from an
Alpine summit.

It was Ursula Gillow--dear old Ursula, on her way to Scotland--
and she and Susy fell on each other's necks.  It appeared that
Ursula, detained till the next evening by a dress-maker's delay,
was also out of a job and killing time, and the two were soon
smiling at each other over the exquisite preliminaries of a
luncheon which the head-waiter had authoritatively asked Mrs.
Gillow to "leave to him, as usual."

Ursula was in a good humour.  It did not often happen; but when
it did her benevolence knew no bounds.

Like Mrs. Melrose, like all her tribe in fact, she was too much
absorbed in her own affairs to give more than a passing thought
to any one else's; but she was delighted at the meeting with
Susy, as her wandering kind always were when they ran across
fellow-wanderers, unless the meeting happened to interfere with
choicer pleasures.  Not to be alone was the urgent thing; and
Ursula, who had been forty-eight hours alone in London, at once
exacted from her friend a promise that they should spend the
rest of the day together.  But once the bargain struck her mind
turned again to her own affairs, and she poured out her
confidences to Susy over a succession of dishes that manifested
the head-waiter's understanding of the case.

Ursula's confidences were always the same, though they were
usually about a different person.  She demolished and rebuilt
her sentimental life with the same frequency and impetuosity as
that with which she changed her dress-makers, did over her
drawing-rooms, ordered new motors, altered the mounting of her
jewels, and generally renewed the setting of her life.  Susy
knew in advance what the tale would be; but to listen to it over
perfect coffee, an amber-scented cigarette at her lips, was
pleasanter than consuming cold mutton alone in a mouldy coffee-
room.  The contrast was so soothing that she even began to take
a languid interest in her friend's narrative.

After luncheon they got into the motor together and began a
systematic round of the West End shops:  furriers, jewellers and
dealers in old furniture.  Nothing could be more unlike Violet
Melrose's long hesitating sessions before the things she thought
she wanted till the moment came to decide.  Ursula pounced on
silver foxes and old lacquer as promptly and decisively as on
the objects of her surplus sentimentality:  she knew at once
what she wanted, and valued it more after it was hers.

"And now--I wonder if you couldn't help me choose a grand
piano?" she suggested, as the last antiquarian bowed them out.

"A piano?"

"Yes:  for Ruan.  I'm sending one down for Grace Fulmer.  She's
coming to stay ... did I tell you?  I want people to hear her.
I want her to get engagements in London.  My dear, she's a
Genius."

"A Genius--Grace!" Susy gasped.  "I thought it was Nat ...."

"Nat--Nat Fulmer?  Ursula laughed derisively.  "Ah, of course--
you've been staying with that silly Violet!  The poor thing is
off her head about Nat--it's really pitiful.  Of course he has
talent:  I saw that long before Violet had ever heard of him.
Why, on the opening day of the American Artists' exhibition,
last winter, I stopped short before his 'Spring Snow-Storm'
(which nobody else had noticed till that moment), and said to
the Prince, who was with me:  'The man has talent.'  But
genius--why, it's his wife who has genius!  Have you never heard
Grace play the violin?  Poor Violet, as usual, is off on the
wrong tack.  I've given Fulmer my garden-house to do--no doubt
Violet told you--because I  wanted to help him.  But Grace is my
discovery, and I'm determined to make her known, and to have
every one understand that she is the genius of the two.  I've
told her she simply must come to Ruan, and bring the best
accompanyist she can find.  You know poor Nerone is dreadfully
bored by sport, though of course he goes out with the guns.  And
if one didn't have a little art in the evening ....  Oh, Susy,
do you mean to tell me you don't know how to choose a piano?  I
thought you were so fond of music!"

"I am fond of it; but without knowing anything about it--in the
way we're all of us fond of the worthwhile things in our stupid
set," she added to herself--since it was obviously useless to
impart such reflections to Ursula.

"But are you sure Grace is coming?" she questioned aloud.

"Quite sure.  Why shouldn't she?  I wired to her yesterday.  I'm
giving her a thousand dollars and all her expenses."

It was not till they were having tea in a Piccadilly tea-room
that Mrs. Gillow began to manifest some interest in her
companion's plans.  The thought of losing Susy became suddenly
intolerable to her.  The Prince, who did not see why he should
be expected to linger in London out of season, was already at
Ruan, and Ursula could not face the evening and the whole of the
next day by herself.

"But what are you doing in town, darling, I don't remember if
I've asked you," she said, resting her firm elbows on the tea-
table while she took a light from Susy's cigarette.

Susy hesitated.  She had foreseen that the time must soon come
when she should have to give some account of herself; and why
should she not begin by telling Ursula?

But telling her what?

Her silence appeared to strike Mrs. Gillow as a reproach, and
she continued with compunction:  "And Nick?  Nick's with you?
How is he, I thought you and he still were in Venice with Ellie
Vanderlyn."

"We were, for a few weeks."  She steadied her voice.  "It was
delightful.  But now we're both on our own again--for a while."

Mrs. Gillow scrutinized her more searchingly.  "Oh, you're alone
here, then; quite alone?"

"Yes:  Nick's cruising with some friends in the Mediterranean."

Ursula's shallow gaze deepened singularly.  "But, Susy darling,
then if you're alone--and out of a job, just for the moment?"

Susy smiled.  "Well, I'm not sure."

"Oh, but if you are, darling, and you would come to Ruan!  I
know Fred asked you didn't he?  And he told me that both you and
Nick had refused.  He was awfully huffed at your not coming; but
I suppose that was because Nick had other plans.  We couldn't
have him now, because there's no room for another gun; but since
he's not here, and you're free, why you know, dearest, don't
you, how we'd love to have you?  Fred would be too glad--too
outrageously glad--but you don't much mind Fred's love-making,
do you?  And you'd be such a help to me--if that's any argument!
With that big house full of men, and people flocking over every
night to dine, and Fred caring only for sport, and Nerone simply
loathing it and ridiculing it, and not a minute to myself to try
to keep him in a good humour ....  Oh, Susy darling, don't say
no, but let me telephone at once for a place in the train to
morrow night!"

Susy leaned back, letting the ash lengthen on her cigarette.
How familiar, how hatefully familiar, was that old appeal!
Ursula felt the pressing need of someone to flirt with Fred for
a few weeks ... and here was the very person she needed.  Susy
shivered at the thought.  She had never really meant to go to
Ruan.  She had simply used the moor as a pretext when Violet
Melrose had gently put her out of doors.  Rather than do what
Ursula asked she would borrow a few hundred pounds of Strefford,
as he had suggested, and then look about for some temporary
occupation until--

Until she became Lady Altringham?  Well, perhaps.  At any rate,
she was not going back to slave for Ursula.

She shook her head with a faint smile.  "I'm so sorry, Ursula:
of course I want awfully to oblige you--"

Mrs. Gillow's gaze grew reproachful.  "I should have supposed
you would," she murmured.  Susy, meeting her eyes, looked into
them down a long vista of favours bestowed, and perceived that
Ursula was not the woman to forget on which side the obligation
lay between them.

Susy hesitated:  she remembered the weeks of ecstasy she had
owed to the Gillows' wedding cheque, and it hurt her to appear
ungrateful.

"If I could, Ursula ... but really ... I'm not free at the
moment."  She paused, and then took an abrupt decision.  "The
fact is, I'm waiting here to see Strefford."

"Strefford' Lord Altringham?"  Ursula stared.  "Ah, yes-I
remember.  You and he used to be great friends, didn't you?"
Her roving attention deepened ....  But if Susy were waiting to
see Lord Altringham--one of the richest men in England!
Suddenly Ursula opened her gold-meshed bag and snatched a
miniature diary from it.

"But wait a moment--yes, it is next week!  I knew it was next
week he's coming to Ruan!  But, you darling, that makes
everything all right.  You'll send him a wire at once, and come
with me tomorrow, and meet him there instead of in this nasty
sloppy desert ....  Oh, Susy, if you knew how hard life is for
me in Scotland between the Prince and Fred you couldn't possibly
say no!"

Susy still wavered; but, after all, if Strefford were really
bound for Ruan, why not see him there, agreeably and at leisure,
instead of spending a dreary day with him in roaming the wet
London streets, or screaming at him through the rattle of a
restaurant orchestra?  She knew he would not be likely to
postpone his visit to Ruan in order to linger in London with
her:  such concessions had never been his way, and were less
than ever likely to be, now that he could do so thoroughly and
completely as he pleased.

For the first time she fully understood how different his
destiny had become.  Now of course all his days and hours were
mapped out in advance:  invitations assailed him, opportunities
pressed on him, he had only to choose ....  And the women!  She
had never before thought of the women.  All the girls in England
would be wanting to marry him, not to mention her own
enterprising compatriots.  And there were the married women, who
were even more to be feared.  Streff might, for the time, escape
marriage; though she could guess the power of persuasion, family
pressure, all the converging traditional influences he had so
often ridiculed, yet, as she knew, had never completely thrown
off ....  Yes, those quiet invisible women at Altringham-his
uncle's widow, his mother, the spinster sisters--it was not
impossible that, with tact and patience--and the stupidest women
could be tactful and patient on such occasions--they might
eventually persuade him that it was his duty, they might put
just the right young loveliness in his way ....  But meanwhile,
now, at once, there were the married women.  Ah, they wouldn't
wait, they were doubtless laying their traps already!  Susy
shivered at the thought.  She knew too much about the way the
trick was done, had followed, too often, all the sinuosities of
such approaches.  Not that they were very sinuous nowadays:
more often there was just a swoop and a pounce when the time
came; but she knew all the arts and the wiles that led up to it.
She knew them, oh, how she knew them--though with Streff, thank
heaven, she had never been called upon to exercise them!  His
love was there for the asking:  would she not be a fool to
refuse it?

Perhaps; though on that point her mind still wavered.  But at
any rate she saw that, decidedly, it would be better to yield to
Ursula's pressure; better to meet him at Ruan, in a congenial
setting, where she would have time to get her bearings, observe
what dangers threatened him, and make up her mind whether, after
all, it was to be her mission to save him from the other women.

"Well, if you like, then, Ursula ...."

"Oh, you angel, you!  I'm so glad!  We'll go to the nearest post
office, and send off the wire ourselves."

As they got into the motor Mrs. Gillow seized Susy's arm with a
pleading pressure.  "And you will let Fred make love to you a
little, won't you, darling?"


Edith Wharton

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