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Chapter 19


XIX

JUST such a revolt as she had felt as a girl, such a disgusted
recoil from the standards and ideals of everybody about her as
had flung her into her mad marriage with Nick, now flamed in
Susy Lansing's bosom.

How could she ever go back into that world again?  How echo its
appraisals of life and bow down to its judgments?  Alas, it was
only by marrying according to its standards that she could
escape such subjection.  Perhaps the same thought had actuated
Nick:  perhaps he had understood sooner than she that to attain
moral freedom they must both be above material cares.
Perhaps ...

Her talk with Ellie Vanderlyn had left Susy so oppressed and
humiliated that she almost shrank from her meeting with
Altringham the next day.  She knew that he was coming to Paris
for his final answer; he would wait as long as was necessary if
only she would consent to take immediate steps for a divorce.
She was staying at a modest hotel in the Faubourg St. Germain,
and had once more refused his suggestion that they should lunch
at the Nouveau Luxe, or at some fashionable restaurant of the
Boulevards.  As before, she insisted on going to an out-of-the-
way place near the Luxembourg, where the prices were moderate
enough for her own purse.

"I can't understand," Strefford objected, as they turned from
her hotel door toward this obscure retreat, "why you insist on
giving me bad food, and depriving me of the satisfaction of
being seen with you.  Why must we be so dreadfully clandestine?
Don't people know by this time that we're to be married?"

Susy winced a little:  she wondered if the word would always
sound so unnatural on his lips.

"No," she said, with a laugh, "they simply think, for the
present, that you're giving me pearls and chinchilla cloaks."

He wrinkled his brows good-humouredly.  "Well, so I would, with
joy--at this particular minute.  Don't you think perhaps you'd
better take advantage of it?  I don't wish to insist--but I
foresee that I'm much too rich not to become stingy."

She gave a slight shrug.  "At present there's nothing I loathe
more than pearls and chinchilla, or anything else in the world
that's expensive and enviable ...."

Suddenly she broke off, colouring with the consciousness that
she had said exactly the kind of thing that all the women who
were trying for him (except the very cleverest) would be sure to
say; and that he would certainly suspect her of attempting the
conventional comedy of disinterestedness, than which nothing was
less likely to deceive or to flatter him.

His twinkling eyes played curiously over her face, and she went
on, meeting them with a smile:  "But don't imagine, all the
same, that if I should ... decide ... it would be altogether for
your beaux yeux ...."

He laughed, she thought, rather drily.  "No," he said, "I don't
suppose that's ever likely to happen to me again."

"Oh, Streff--" she faltered with compunction.  It was odd-once
upon a time she had known exactly what to say to the man of the
moment, whoever he was, and whatever kind of talk he required;
she had even, in the difficult days before her marriage, reeled
off glibly enough the sort of lime-light sentimentality that
plunged poor Fred Gillow into such speechless beatitude.  But
since then she had spoken the language of real love, looked with
its eyes, embraced with its hands; and now the other trumpery
art had failed her, and she was conscious of bungling and
groping like a beginner under Strefford's ironic scrutiny.

They had reached their obscure destination and he opened the
door and glanced in.

"It's jammed--not a table.  And stifling!  Where shall we go?
Perhaps they could give us a room to ourselves--" he suggested.

She assented, and they were led up a cork-screw staircase to a
squat-ceilinged closet lit by the arched top of a high window,
the lower panes of which served for the floor below.  Strefford
opened the window, and Susy, throwing her cloak on the divan,
leaned on the balcony while he ordered luncheon.

On the whole she was glad they were to be alone.  Just because
she felt so sure of Strefford it seemed ungenerous to keep him
longer in suspense.  The moment had come when they must have a
decisive talk, and in the crowded rooms below it would have been
impossible.

Strefford, when the waiter had brought the first course and left
them to themselves, made no effort to revert to personal
matters.  He turned instead to the topic always most congenial
to him:  the humours and ironies of the human comedy, as
presented by his own particular group.  His malicious commentary
on life had always amused Susy because of the shrewd flashes of
philosophy he shed on the social antics they had so often
watched together.  He was in fact the one person she knew
(excepting Nick) who was in the show and yet outside of it; and
she was surprised, as the talk proceeded, to find herself so
little interested in his scraps of gossip, and so little amused
by his comments on them.

With an inward shrug of discouragement she said to herself that
probably nothing would ever really amuse her again; then, as she
listened, she began to understand that her disappointment arose
from the fact that Strefford, in reality, could not live without
these people whom he saw through and satirized, and that the
rather commonplace scandals he narrated interested him as much
as his own racy considerations on them; and she was filled with
terror at the thought that the inmost core of the richly-
decorated life of the Countess of Altringham would be just as
poor and low-ceilinged a place as the little room in which he
and she now sat, elbow to elbow yet so unapproachably apart.

If Strefford could not live without these people, neither could
she and Nick; but for reasons how different!  And if his
opportunities had been theirs, what a world they would have
created for themselves!  Such imaginings were vain, and she
shrank back from them into the present.  After all, as Lady
Altringham she would have the power to create that world which
she and Nick had dreamed ... only she must create it alone.
Well, that was probably the law of things.  All human happiness
was thus conditioned and circumscribed, and hers, no doubt, must
always be of the lonely kind, since material things did not
suffice for it, even though it depended on them as Grace
Fulmer's, for instance, never had.  Yet even Grace Fulmer had
succumbed to Ursula's offer, and had arrived at Ruan the day
before Susy left, instead of going to Spain with her husband and
Violet Melrose.  But then Grace was making the sacrifice for her
children, and somehow one had the feeling that in giving up her
liberty she was not surrendering a tittle of herself.  All the
difference was there ....

"How I do bore you!"  Susy heard Strefford exclaim.  She became
aware that she had not been listening:  stray echoes of names of
places and people--Violet Melrose, Ursula, Prince Altineri,
others of their group and persuasion--had vainly knocked at her
barricaded brain; what had he been telling her about them?  She
turned to him and their eyes met; his were full of a melancholy
irony.

"Susy, old girl, what's wrong?"

She pulled herself together.  "I was thinking, Streff, just
now--when I said I hated the very sound of pearls and
chinchilla--how impossible it was that you should believe me; in
fact, what a blunder I'd made in saying it."

He smiled.  "Because it was what so many other women might be
likely to say so awfully unoriginal, in fact?"

She laughed for sheer joy at his insight.  "It's going to be
easier than I imagined," she thought.  Aloud she rejoined:  "Oh,
Streff--how you're always going to find me out!  Where on earth
shall I ever hide from you?"

"Where?"  He echoed her laugh, laying his hand lightly on hers.
"In my heart, I'm afraid."

In spite of the laugh his accent shook her:  something about it
took all the mockery from his retort, checked on her lips the:
"What?  A valentine!" and made her suddenly feel that, if he
were afraid, so was she.  Yet she was touched also, and wondered
half exultingly if any other woman had ever caught that
particular deep inflexion of his shrill voice.  She had never
liked him as much as at that moment; and she said to herself,
with an odd sense of detachment, as if she had been rather
breathlessly observing the vacillations of someone whom she
longed to persuade but dared not:  "Now--NOW, if he speaks, I
shall say yes!"

He did not speak; but abruptly, and as startlingly to her as if
she had just dropped from a sphere whose inhabitants had other
methods of expressing their sympathy, he slipped his arm around
her and bent his keen ugly melting face to hers ....

It was the lightest touch--in an instant she was free again.
But something within her gasped and resisted long after his arm
and his lips were gone, and he was proceeding, with a too-
studied ease, to light a cigarette and sweeten his coffee.

He had kissed her ....  Well, naturally:  why not?  It was not
the first time she had been kissed.  It was true that one didn't
habitually associate Streff with such demonstrations; but she
had not that excuse for surprise, for even in Venice she had
begun to notice that he looked at her differently, and avoided
her hand when he used to seek it.

No--she ought not to have been surprised; nor ought a kiss to
have been so disturbing.  Such incidents had punctuated the
career of Susy Branch:  there had been, in particular, in far-
off discarded times, Fred Gillow's large but artless embraces.
Well--nothing of that kind had seemed of any more account than
the click of a leaf in a woodland walk.  It had all been merely
epidermal, ephemeral, part of the trivial accepted "business" of
the social comedy.  But this kiss of Strefford's was what Nick's
had been, under the New Hampshire pines, on the day that had
decided their fate.  It was a kiss with a future in it:  like a
ring slipped upon her soul.  And now, in the dreadful pause that
followed--while Strefford fidgeted with his cigarette-case and
rattled the spoon in his cup, Susy remembered what she had seen
through the circle of Nick's kiss:  that blue illimitable
distance which was at once the landscape at their feet and the
future in their souls ....

Perhaps that was what Strefford's sharply narrowed eyes were
seeing now, that same illimitable distance that she had lost
forever--perhaps he was saying to himself, as she had said to
herself when her lips left Nick's:  "Each time we kiss we shall
see it all again ...."  Whereas all she herself had felt was the
gasping recoil from Strefford's touch, and an intenser vision of
the sordid room in which he and she sat, and of their two
selves, more distant from each other than if their embrace had
been a sudden thrusting apart ....

The moment prolonged itself, and they sat numb.  How long had it
lasted?  How long ago was it that she had thought:  "It's going
to be easier than I imagined"?  Suddenly she felt Strefford's
queer smile upon her, and saw in his eyes a look, not of
reproach or disappointment, but of deep and anxious
comprehension.  Instead of being angry or hurt, he had seen, he
had understood, he was sorry for her!

Impulsively she slipped her hand into his, and they sat silent
for another moment.  Then he stood up and took her cloak from
the divan.  "Shall we go now!  I've got cards for the private
view of the Reynolds exhibition at the Petit Palais.  There are
some portraits from Altringham.  It might amuse you."

In the taxi she had time, through their light rattle of talk, to
readjust herself and drop back into her usual feeling of
friendly ease with him.  He had been extraordinarily
considerate, for anyone who always so undisguisedly sought his
own satisfaction above all things; and if his considerateness
were just an indirect way of seeking that satisfaction now,
well, that proved how much he cared for her, how necessary to
his happiness she had become.  The sense of power was undeniably
pleasant; pleasanter still was the feeling that someone really
needed her, that the happiness of the man at her side depended
on her yes or no.  She abandoned herself to the feeling,
forgetting the abysmal interval of his caress, or at least
saying to herself that in time she would forget it, that really
there was nothing to make a fuss about in being kissed by anyone
she liked as much as Streff ....

She had guessed at once why he was taking her to see the
Reynoldses.  Fashionable and artistic Paris had recently
discovered English eighteenth century art.  The principal
collections of England had yielded up their best examples of the
great portrait painter's work, and the private view at the Petit
Palais was to be the social event of the afternoon.  Everybody--
Strefford's everybody and Susy's--was sure to be there; and
these, as she knew, were the occasions that revived Strefford's
intermittent interest in art.  He really liked picture shows as
much as the races, if one could be sure of seeing as many people
there.  With Nick how different it would have been!  Nick hated
openings and varnishing days, and worldly aesthetics in general;
he would have waited till the tide of fashion had ebbed, and
slipped off with Susy to see the pictures some morning when they
were sure to have the place to themselves.

But Susy divined that there was another reason for Strefford's
suggestion.  She had never yet shown herself with him publicly,
among their own group of people:  now he had determined that she
should do so, and she knew why.  She had humbled his pride; he
had understood, and forgiven her.  But she still continued to
treat him as she had always treated the Strefford of old,
Charlie Strefford, dear old negligible impecunious Streff; and
he wanted to show her, ever so casually and adroitly, that the
man who had asked her to marry him was no longer Strefford, but
Lord Altringham.

At the very threshold, his Ambassador's greeting marked the
difference:  it was followed, wherever they turned, by
ejaculations of welcome from the rulers of the world they moved
in.  Everybody rich enough or titled enough, or clever enough or
stupid enough, to have forced a way into the social citadel, was
there, waving and flag-flying from the battlements; and to all
of them Lord Altringham had become a marked figure.  During
their slow progress through the dense mass of important people
who made the approach to the pictures so well worth fighting
for, he never left Susy's side, or failed to make her feel
herself a part of his triumphal advance.  She heard her name
mentioned:  "Lansing--a Mrs. Lansing--an American ... Susy
Lansing?  Yes, of course ....  You remember her?  At Newport, At
St. Moritz?  Exactly....  Divorced already?  They say so ...
Susy darling!  I'd no idea you were here ... and Lord
Altringham!  You've forgotten me, I know, Lord Altringham ....
Yes, last year, in Cairo ... or at Newport ... or in Scotland
... Susy, dearest, when will you bring Lord Altringham to dine?
Any night that you and he are free I'll arrange to be ...."

"You and he":  they were "you and he" already!

"Ah, there's one of them--of my great-grandmothers," Strefford
explained, giving a last push that drew him and Susy to the
front rank, before a tall isolated portrait which, by sheer
majesty of presentment, sat in its great carved golden frame as
on a throne above the other pictures.

Susy read on the scroll beneath it:  "The Hon'ble Diana Lefanu,
fifteenth Countess of Altringham"--and heard Strefford say:  "Do
you remember?  It hangs where you noticed the empty space above
the mantel-piece, in the Vandyke room.  They say Reynolds
stipulated that it should be put with the Vandykes."

She had never before heard him speak of his possessions, whether
ancestral or merely material, in just that full and satisfied
tone of voice:  the rich man's voice.  She saw that he was
already feeling the influence of his surroundings, that he was
glad the portrait of a Countess of Altringham should occupy the
central place in the principal room of the exhibition, that the
crowd about it should be denser there than before any of the
other pictures, and that he should be standing there with Susy,
letting her feel, and letting all the people about them guess,
that the day she chose she could wear the same name as his
pictured ancestress.

On the way back to her hotel, Strefford made no farther allusion
to their future; they chatted like old comrades in their
respective corners of the taxi.  But as the carriage stopped at
her door he said:  "I must go back to England the day after to-
morrow, worse luck!  Why not dine with me to-night at the
Nouveau Luxe?  I've got to have the Ambassador and Lady Ascot,
with their youngest girl and my old Dunes aunt, the Dowager
Duchess, who's over here hiding from her creditors; but I'll try
to get two or three amusing men to leaven the lump.  We might go
on to a boite afterward, if you're bored.  Unless the dancing
amuses you more ...."

She understood that he had decided to hasten his departure
rather than linger on in uncertainty; she also remembered having
heard the Ascots' youngest daughter, Lady Joan Senechal, spoken
of as one of the prettiest girls of the season; and she recalled
the almost exaggerated warmth of the Ambassador's greeting at
the private view.

"Of course I'll come, Streff dear!" she cried, with an effort at
gaiety that sounded successful to her own strained ears, and
reflected itself in the sudden lighting up of his face.

She waved a good-bye from the step, saying to herself, as she
looked after him:  "He'll drive me home to-night, and I shall
say 'yes'; and then he'll kiss me again. But the next time it
won't be nearly as disagreeable."

She turned into the hotel, glanced automatically at the empty
pigeon-hole for letters under her key-hook, and mounted the
stairs following the same train of images.  "Yes, I shall say
'yes' to-night," she repeated firmly, her hand on the door of
her room.  "That is, unless, they've brought up a letter ...."
She never re-entered the hotel without imagining that the letter
she had not found below had already been brought up.

Opening the door, she turned on the light and sprang to the
table on which her correspondence sometimes awaited her.

There was no letter; but the morning papers, still unread, lay
at hand, and glancing listlessly down the column which
chronicles the doings of society, she read:

"After an extended cruise in the AEgean and the Black Sea on
their steam-yacht Ibis, Mr. and Mrs. Mortimer Hicks and their
daughter are established at the Nouveau Luxe in Rome.  They have
lately had the honour of entertaining at dinner the Reigning
Prince of Teutoburger-Waldhain and his mother the Princess
Dowager, with their suite.  Among those invited to meet their
Serene Highnesses were the French and Spanish Ambassadors, the
Duchesse de Vichy, Prince and Princess Bagnidilucca, Lady
Penelope Pantiles--" Susy's eye flew impatiently on over the
long list of titles--"and Mr. Nicholas Lansing of New York, who
has been cruising with Mr. and Mrs. Hicks on the Ibis for the
last few months."


Edith Wharton

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