Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 18


XVIII

"BUT I can't think," said Ellie Vanderlyn earnestly, "why you
don't announce your engagement before waiting for your divorce.
People are beginning to do it, I assure you--it's so much
safer!"

Mrs. Vanderlyn, on the way back from St. Moritz to England, had
paused in Paris to renew the depleted wardrobe which, only two
months earlier, had filled so many trunks to bursting.  Other
ladies, flocking there from all points of the globe for the same
purpose, disputed with her the Louis XVI suites of the Nouveau
Luxe, the pink-candled tables in the restaurant, the hours for
trying-on at the dressmakers'; and just because they were so
many, and all feverishly fighting to get the same things at the
same time, they were all excited, happy and at ease.  It was the
most momentous period of the year:  the height of the "dress
makers' season."

Mrs. Vanderlyn had run across Susy Lansing at one of the Rue de
la Paix openings, where rows of ladies wan with heat and emotion
sat for hours in rapt attention while spectral apparitions in
incredible raiment tottered endlessly past them on aching feet.

Distracted from the regal splendours of a chinchilla cloak by
the sense that another lady was also examining it, Mrs.
Vanderlyn turned in surprise at sight of Susy, whose head was
critically bent above the fur.

"Susy!  I'd no idea you were here!  I saw in the papers that you
were with the Gillows."  The customary embraces followed; then
Mrs. Vanderlyn, her eyes pursuing the matchless cloak as it
disappeared down a vista of receding mannequins, interrogated
sharply:  "Are you shopping for Ursula?  If you mean to order
that cloak for her I'd rather know."

Susy smiled, and paused a moment before answering.  During the
pause she took in all the exquisite details of Ellie Vanderlyn's
perpetually youthful person, from the plumed crown of her head
to the perfect arch of her patent-leather shoes.  At last she
said quietly:  "No--to-day I'm shopping for myself."

"Yourself?  Yourself?"  Mrs. Vanderlyn echoed with a stare of
incredulity.

"Yes; just for a change," Susy serenely acknowledged.

"But the cloak--I meant the chinchilla cloak ... the one with
the ermine lining ...."

"Yes; it is awfully good, isn't it?  But I mean to look
elsewhere before I decide."

Ah, how often she had heard her friends use that phrase; and how
amusing it was, now, to see Ellie's amazement as she heard it
tossed off in her own tone of contemptuous satiety!  Susy was
becoming more and more dependent on such diversions; without
them her days, crowded as they were, would nevertheless have
dragged by heavily.  But it still amused her to go to the big
dressmakers', watch the mannequins sweep by, and be seen by her
friends superciliously examining all the most expensive dresses
in the procession.  She knew the rumour was abroad that she and
Nick were to be divorced, and that Lord Altringham was "devoted"
to her.  She neither confirmed nor denied the report:  she just
let herself be luxuriously carried forward on its easy tide.
But although it was now three months since Nick had left the
Palazzo Vanderlyn she had not yet written to him-nor he to her.

Meanwhile, in spite of all that she packed into them, the days
passed more and more slowly, and the excitements she had counted
on no longer excited her.  Strefford was hers:  she knew that he
would marry her as soon as she was free.  They had been together
at Ruan for ten days, and after that she had motored south with
him, stopping on the way to see Altringham, from which, at the
moment, his mourning relatives were absent.

At Altringham they had parted; and after one or two more visits
in England she had come back to Paris, where he was now about to
join her.  After her few hours at Altringham she had understood
that he would wait for her as long as was necessary:  the fear
of the "other women" had ceased to trouble her.  But, perhaps
for that very reason, the future seemed less exciting than she
had expected.  Sometimes she thought it was the sight of that
great house which had overwhelmed her:  it was too vast, too
venerable, too like a huge monument built of ancient territorial
traditions and obligations.  Perhaps it had been lived in for
too long by too many serious-minded and conscientious women:
somehow she could not picture it invaded by bridge and debts and
adultery.  And yet that was what would have to be, of course ...
she could hardly picture either Strefford or herself continuing
there the life of heavy county responsibilities, dull parties,
laborious duties, weekly church-going, and presiding over local
committees ....  What a pity they couldn't sell it and have a
little house on the Thames!

Nevertheless she was not sorry to let it be known that
Altringham was hers when she chose to take it.  At times she
wondered whether Nick knew ... whether rumours had reached him.
If they had, he had only his own letter to thank for it.  He had
told her what course to pursue; and she was pursuing it.

For a moment the meeting with Ellie Vanderlyn had been a shock
to her; she had hoped never to see Ellie again.  But now that
they were actually face to face Susy perceived how dulled her
sensibilities were.  In a few moments she had grown used to
Ellie, as she was growing used to everybody and to everything in
the old life she had returned to.  What was the use of making
such a fuss about things?  She and Mrs. Vanderlyn left the
dress-maker's together, and after an absorbing session at a new
milliner's were now taking tea in Ellie's drawing-room at the
Nouveau Luxe.

Ellie, with her spoiled child's persistency, had come back to
the question of the chinchilla cloak.  It was the only one she
had seen that she fancied in the very least, and as she hadn't a
decent fur garment left to her name she was naturally in
somewhat of a hurry ... but, of course, if Susy had been
choosing that model for a friend ....

Susy, leaning back against her cushions, examined through half-
closed lids Mrs. Vanderlyn's small delicately-restored
countenance, which wore the same expression of childish
eagerness as when she discoursed of the young Davenant of the
moment.  Once again Susy remarked that, in Ellie's agitated
existence, every interest appeared to be on exactly the same
plane.

"The poor shivering dear," she answered laughing, "of course it
shall have its nice warm winter cloak, and I'll choose another
one instead."

"Oh, you darling, you!  If you would!  Of course, whoever you
were ordering it for need never know ...."

"Ah, you can't comfort yourself with that, I'm afraid.  I've
already told you that I was ordering it for myself."  Susy
paused to savour to the full Ellie's look of blank bewilderment;
then her amusement was checked by an indefinable change in her
friend's expression.

"Oh, dearest--seriously?  I didn't know there was someone ...."

Susy flushed to the forehead.  A horror of humiliation
overwhelmed her.  That Ellie should dare to think that of her--
that anyone should dare to!

"Someone buying chinchilla cloaks for me?  Thanks!"  she flared
out.  "I suppose I ought to be glad that the idea didn't
immediately occur to you.  At least there was a decent interval
of doubt ...."  She stood up, laughing again, and began to
wander about the room.  In the mirror above the mantel she
caught sight of her flushed angry face, and of Mrs. Vanderlyn's
disconcerted stare.  She turned toward her friend.

"I suppose everybody else will think it if you do; so perhaps
I'd better explain."  She paused, and drew a quick breath.
"Nick and I mean to part--have parted, in fact.  He's decided
that the whole thing was a mistake.  He will probably; marry
again soon--and so shall I."

She flung the avowal out breathlessly, in her nervous dread of
letting Ellie Vanderlyn think for an instant longer that any
other explanation was conceivable.  She had not meant to be so
explicit; but once the words were spoken she was not altogether
sorry.  Of course people would soon begin to wonder why she was
again straying about the world alone; and since it was by Nick's
choice, why should she not say so?  Remembering the burning
anguish of those last hours in Venice she asked herself what
possible consideration she owed to the man who had so humbled
her.

Ellie Vanderlyn glanced at her in astonishment.  "You?  You and
Nick--are going to part?"  A light appeared to dawn on her.
"Ah--then that's why he sent me back my pin, I suppose?"

"Your pin?"  Susy wondered, not at once remembering.

"The poor little scarf-pin I gave him before I left Venice.  He
sent it back almost at once, with the oddest note--just:  'I
haven't earned it, really.'  I couldn't think why he didn't care
for the pin.  But, now I suppose it was because you and he had
quarrelled; though really, even so, I can't see why he should
bear me a grudge ...."

Susy's quick blood surged up.  Nick had sent back the pin-the
fatal pin!  And she, Susy, had kept the bracelet--locked it up
out of sight, shrunk away from the little packet whenever her
hand touched it in packing or unpacking--but never thought of
returning it, no, not once!  Which of the two, she wondered, had
been right?  Was it not an indirect slight to her that Nick
should fling back the gift to poor uncomprehending Ellie?  Or
was it not rather another proof of his finer moral
sensitiveness! ... And how could one tell, in their bewildering
world, "It was not because we've quarrelled; we haven't
quarrelled," she said slowly, moved by the sudden desire to
defend her privacy and Nick's, to screen from every eye their
last bitter hour together.  "We've simply decided that our
experiment was impossible-for two paupers."

"Ah, well--of course we all felt that at the time.  And now
somebody else wants to marry you!  And it's your trousseau you
were choosing that cloak for?"  Ellie cried in incredulous
rapture; then she flung her arms about Susy's shrinking
shoulders.  "You lucky lucky girl!  You clever clever darling!
But who on earth can he be?"

And it was then that Susy, for the first time, had pronounced
the name of Lord Altringham.

"Streff--Streff?  Our dear old Streff, You mean to say he wants
to marry you?"  As the news took possession of her mind Ellie
became dithyrambic.  "But, my dearest, what a miracle of luck!
Of course I always knew he was awfully gone on you:  Fred
Davenant used to say so, I remember ... and even Nelson, who's
so stupid about such things, noticed it in Venice ....  But then
it was so different.  No one could possibly have thought of
marrying him then; whereas now of course every woman is trying
for him.  Oh, Susy, whatever you do, don't miss your chance!
You can't conceive of the wicked plotting and intriguing there
will be to get him--on all sides, and even where one least
suspects it.  You don't know what horrors women will do-and
even girls!"  A shudder ran through her at the thought, and she
caught Susy's wrists in vehement fingers.  "But I can't think,
my dear, why you don't announce your engagement at once.  People
are beginning to do it, I assure you--it's so much safer!"

Susy looked at her, wondering.  Not a word of sympathy for the
ruin of her brief bliss, not even a gleam of curiosity as to its
cause!  No doubt Ellie Vanderlyn, like all Susy's other friends,
had long since "discounted" the brevity of her dream, and
perhaps planned a sequel to it before she herself had seen the
glory fading.  She and Nick had spent the greater part of their
few weeks together under Ellie Vanderlyn's roof; but to Ellie,
obviously, the fact meant no more than her own escapade, at the
same moment, with young Davenant's supplanter--the "bounder"
whom Strefford had never named.  Her one thought for her friend
was that Susy should at last secure her prize--her incredible
prize.  And therein at any rate Ellie showed the kind of cold
disinterestedness that raised her above the smiling perfidy of
the majority of her kind.  At least her advice was sincere; and
perhaps it was wise.  Why should Susy not let every one know
that she meant to marry Strefford as soon as the "formalities"
were fulfilled?

She did not immediately answer Mrs. Vanderlyn's question; and
the latter, repeating it, added impatiently:  "I don't
understand you; if Nick agrees-"

"Oh, he agrees," said Susy.

"Then what more do you want!  Oh, Susy, if you'd only follow my
example!"

"Your example?"  Susy paused, weighed the word, was struck by
something embarrassed, arch yet half-apologetic in her friend's
expression.  "Your example?" she repeated.  "Why, Ellie, what on
earth do you mean?  Not that you're going to part from poor
Nelson?"

Mrs. Vanderlyn met her reproachful gaze with a crystalline
glance.  "I don't want to, heaven knows--poor dear Nelson!  I
assure you I simply hate it.  He's always such an angel to
Clarissa ... and then we're used to each other.  But what in the
world am I to do?  Algie's so rich, so appallingly rich, that I
have to be perpetually on the watch to keep other women away
from him--and it's too exhausting ...."

"Algie?"

Mrs. Vanderlyn's lovely eyebrows rose.  "Algie:  Algie
Bockheimer.  Didn't you know, I think he said you've dined with
his parents.  Nobody else in the world is as rich as the
Bockheimers; and Algie's their only child.  Yes, it was with
him ... with him I was so dreadfully happy last spring ... and
now I'm in mortal terror of losing him.  And I do assure you
there's no other way of keeping them, when they're as hideously
rich as that!"

Susy rose to her feet.  A little shudder ran over her.  She
remembered, now, having seen Algie Bockheimer at one of his
parents' first entertainments, in their newly-inaugurated marble
halls in Fifth Avenue.  She recalled his too faultless clothes
and his small glossy furtive countenance.  She looked at Ellie
Vanderlyn with sudden scorn.

"I think you're abominable," she exclaimed.

The other's perfect little face collapsed.  "A-bo-minable?
A-bo-mi-nable?  Susy!"

"Yes ... with Nelson ... and Clarissa ... and your past
together ... and all the money you can possibly want ... and
that man!  Abominable."

Ellie stood up trembling: she was not used to scenes, and they
disarranged her thoughts as much as her complexion.

"You're very cruel, Susy--so cruel and dreadful that I hardly
know how to answer you," she stammered.  "But you simply don't
know what you're talking about.  As if anybody ever had all the
money they wanted!"  She wiped her dark-rimmed eyes with a
cautious handkerchief, glanced at herself in the mirror, and
added magnanimously:  "But I shall try to forget what you've
said."


Edith Wharton

Sorry, no summary available yet.