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Chapter 2


II.

LANSING threw the end of Strefford's expensive cigar into the
lake, and bent over his wife.  Poor child!  She had fallen
asleep ....  He leaned back and stared up again at the
silver-flooded sky.  How queer--how inexpressibly queer--it was
to think that that light was shed by his honey-moon!  A year
ago, if anyone had predicted his risking such an adventure, he
would have replied by asking to be locked up at the first
symptoms ....

There was still no doubt in his mind that the adventure was a
mad one.  It was all very well for Susy to remind him twenty
times a day that they had pulled it off--and so why should he
worry?  Even in the light of her far-seeing cleverness, and of
his own present bliss, he knew the future would not bear the
examination of sober thought.  And as he sat there in the summer
moonlight, with her head on his knee, he tried to recapitulate
the successive steps that had landed them on Streffy's
lake-front.

On Lansing's side, no doubt, it dated back to his leaving
Harvard with the large resolve not to miss anything.  There
stood the evergreen Tree of Life, the Four Rivers flowing from
its foot; and on every one of the four currents he meant to
launch his little skiff.  On two of them he had not gone very
far, on the third he had nearly stuck in the mud; but the fourth
had carried him to the very heart of wonder.  It was the stream
of his lively imagination, of his inexhaustible interest in
every form of beauty and strangeness and folly.  On this stream,
sitting in the stout little craft of his poverty, his
insignificance and his independence, he had made some notable
voyages ....  And so, when Susy Branch, whom he had sought out
through a New York season as the prettiest and most amusing girl
in sight, had surprised him with the contradictory revelation of
her modern sense of expediency and her old-fashioned standard of
good faith, he had felt an irresistible desire to put off on one
more cruise into the unknown.

It was of the essence of the adventure that, after her one brief
visit to his lodgings, he should have kept his promise and not
tried to see her again.  Even if her straightforwardness had not
roused his emulation, his understanding of her difficulties
would have moved his pity.  He knew on how frail a thread the
popularity of the penniless hangs, and how miserably a girl like
Susy was the sport of other people's moods and whims.  It was a
part of his difficulty and of hers that to get what they liked
they so often had to do what they disliked.  But the keeping of
his promise was a greater bore than he had expected.  Susy
Branch had become a delightful habit in a life where most of the
fixed things were dull, and her disappearance had made it
suddenly clear to him that his resources were growing more and
more limited.  Much that had once amused him hugely now amused
him less, or not at all:  a good part of his world of wonder had
shrunk to a village peep-show.  And the things which had kept
their stimulating power--distant journeys, the enjoyment of art,
the contact with new scenes and strange societies--were becoming
less and less attainable.  Lansing had never had more than a
pittance; he had spent rather too much of it in his first plunge
into life, and the best he could look forward to was a middle-
age of poorly-paid hack-work, mitigated by brief and frugal
holidays.  He knew that he was more intelligent than the
average, but he had long since concluded that his talents were
not marketable.  Of the thin volume of sonnets which a friendly
publisher had launched for him, just seventy copies had been
sold; and though his essay on "Chinese Influences in Greek Art"
had created a passing stir, it had resulted in controversial
correspondence and dinner invitations rather than in more
substantial benefits.  There seemed, in short, no prospect of
his ever earning money, and his restricted future made him
attach an increasing value to the kind of friendship that Susy
Branch had given him.  Apart from the pleasure of looking at her
and listening to her--of enjoying in her what others less
discriminatingly but as liberally appreciated--he had the sense,
between himself and her, of a kind of free-masonry of precocious
tolerance and irony.  They had both, in early youth, taken the
measure of the world they happened to live in:  they knew just
what it was worth to them and for what reasons, and the
community of these reasons lent to their intimacy its last
exquisite touch.  And now, because of some jealous whim of a
dissatisfied fool of a woman, as to whom he felt himself no more
to blame than any young man who has paid for good dinners by
good manners, he was to be deprived of the one complete
companionship he had ever known ....

His thoughts travelled on.  He recalled the long dull spring in
New York after his break with Susy, the weary grind on his last
articles, his listless speculations as to the cheapest and least
boring way of disposing of the summer; and then the amazing luck
of going, reluctantly and at the last minute, to spend a Sunday
with the poor Nat Fulmers, in the wilds of New Hampshire, and of
finding Susy there--Susy, whom he had never even suspected of
knowing anybody in the Fulmers' set!

She had behaved perfectly--and so had he--but they were
obviously much too glad to see each other.  And then it was
unsettling to be with her in such a house as the Fulmers', away
from the large setting of luxury they were both used to, in the
cramped cottage where their host had his studio in the verandah,
their hostess practiced her violin in the dining-room, and five
ubiquitous children sprawled and shouted and blew trumpets and
put tadpoles in the water-jugs, and the mid-day dinner was two
hours late-and proportionately bad--because the Italian cook
was posing for Fulmer.

Lansing's first thought had been that meeting Susy in such
circumstances would be the quickest way to cure them both of
their regrets.  The case of the Fulmers was an awful object-
lesson in what happened to young people who lost their heads;
poor Nat, whose pictures nobody bought, had gone to seed so
terribly-and Grace, at twenty-nine, would never again be
anything but the woman of whom people say, "I can remember her
when she was lovely."

But the devil of it was that Nat had never been such good
company, or Grace so free from care and so full of music; and
that, in spite of their disorder and dishevelment, and the bad
food and general crazy discomfort, there was more amusement to
be got out of their society than out of the most opulently
staged house-party through which Susy and Lansing had ever
yawned their way.

It was almost a relief to tile young man when, on the second
afternoon, Miss Branch drew him into the narrow hall to say:  "I
really can't stand the combination of Grace's violin and little
Nat's motor-horn any longer.  Do let us slip out till the duet
is over."

"How do they stand it, I wonder?"  he basely echoed, as he
followed her up the wooded path behind the house.

"It might be worth finding out," she rejoined with a musing
smile.

But he remained resolutely skeptical.  "Oh, give them a year or
two more and they'll collapse--!  His pictures will never sell,
you know.  He'll never even get them into a show."

"I suppose not. And she'll never have time to do anything worth
while with her music."

They had reached a piny knoll high above the ledge on which the
house was perched.  All about them stretched an empty landscape
of endless featureless wooded hills.  "Think of sticking here
all the year round!"  Lansing groaned.

"I know.  But then think of wandering over the world with some
people!"

"Oh, Lord, yes.  For instance, my trip to India with the
Mortimer Hickses.  But it was my only chance and what the deuce
is one to do?"

"I wish I knew!"  she sighed, thinking of the Bockheimers; and
he turned and looked at her.

"Knew what?"

"The answer to your question.  What is one to do--when one sees
both sides of the problem?  Or every possible side of it,
indeed?"

They had seated themselves on a commanding rock under the pines,
but Lansing could not see the view at their feet for the stir of
the brown lashes on her cheek.

"You mean:  Nat and Grace may after all be having the best of
it?"

"How can I say, when I've told you I see all the sides?  Of
course," Susy added hastily, " I couldn't live as they do for a
week.  But it's wonderful how little it's dimmed them."

"Certainly Nat was never more coruscating.  And she keeps it up
even better." He reflected. "We do them good, I daresay."

"Yes--or they us. I wonder which?"

After that, he seemed to remember that they sat a long time
silent, and that his next utterance was a boyish outburst
against the tyranny of the existing order of things, abruptly
followed by the passionate query why, since he and she couldn't
alter it, and since they both had the habit of looking at facts
as they were, they wouldn't be utter fools not to take their
chance of being happy in the only way that was open to them, To
this challenge he did not recall Susy's making any definite
answer; but after another interval, in which all the world
seemed framed in a sudden kiss, he heard her murmur to herself
in a brooding tone:  "I don't suppose it's ever been tried
before; but we might--."  And then and there she had laid before
him the very experiment they had since hazarded.

She would have none of surreptitious bliss, she began by
declaring; and she set forth her reasons with her usual lucid
impartiality.  In the first place, she should have to marry some
day, and when she made the bargain she meant it to be an honest
one; and secondly, in the matter of love, she would never give
herself to anyone she did not really care for, and if such
happiness ever came to her she did not want it shorn of half its
brightness by the need of fibbing and plotting and dodging.

"I've seen too much of that kind of thing.  Half the women I
know who've had lovers have had them for the fun of sneaking and
lying about it; but the other half have been miserable. And I
should be miserable."

It was at this point that she unfolded her plan.  Why shouldn't
they marry; belong to each other openly and honourably, if for
ever so short a time, and with the definite understanding that
whenever either of them got the chance to do better he or she
should be immediately released?  The law of their country
facilitated such exchanges, and society was beginning to view
them as indulgently as the law.  As Susy talked, she warmed to
her theme and began to develop its endless possibilities.

"We should really, in a way, help more than we should hamper
each other," she ardently explained.  "We both know the ropes so
well; what one of us didn't see the other might--in the way of
opportunities, I mean.  And then we should be a novelty as
married people.  We're both rather unusually popular--why not be
frank!--and it's such a blessing for dinner-givers to be able to
count on a couple of whom neither one is a blank.  Yes, I really
believe we should be more than twice the success we are now; at
least," she added with a smile, "if there's that amount of room
for improvement.  I don't know how you feel; a man's popularity
is so much less precarious than a girl's--but I know it would
furbish me up tremendously to reappear as a married woman."  She
glanced away from him down the long valley at their feet, and
added in a lower tone: "And I should like, just for a little
while, to feel I had something in life of my very own--something
that nobody had lent me, like a fancy-dress or a motor or an
opera cloak."

The suggestion, at first, had seemed to Lansing as mad as it was
enchanting:  it had thoroughly frightened him.  But Susy's
arguments were irrefutable, her ingenuities inexhaustible. Had
he ever thought it all out?  She asked.  No.  Well, she had; and
would he kindly not interrupt?  In the first place, there would
be all the wedding-presents.  Jewels, and a motor, and a silver
dinner service, did she mean?  Not a bit of it!  She could see
he'd never given the question proper thought.  Cheques, my dear,
nothing but cheques--she undertook to manage that on her side:
she really thought she could count on about fifty, and she
supposed he could rake up a few more?  Well, all that would
simply represent pocket-money!  For they would have plenty of
houses to live in:  he'd see.  People were always glad to lend
their house to a newly-married couple.  It was such fun to pop
down and see them:  it made one feel romantic and jolly.  All
they need do was to accept the houses in turn:  go on honey-
mooning for a year!  What was he afraid of?  Didn't he think
they'd be happy enough to want to keep it up?  And why not at
least try--get engaged, and then see what would happen?  Even if
she was all wrong, and her plan failed, wouldn't it have been
rather nice, just for a month or two, to fancy they were going
to be happy?  "I've often fancied it all by myself," she
concluded; "but fancying it with you would somehow be so awfully
different ...."

That was how it began:  and this lakeside dream was what it had
led up to.  Fantastically improbable as they had seemed, all her
previsions had come true.  If there were certain links in the
chain that Lansing had never been able to put his hand on,
certain arrangements and contrivances that still needed further
elucidation, why, he was lazily resolved to clear them up with
her some day; and meanwhile it was worth all the past might have
cost, and every penalty the future might exact of him, just to
be sitting here in the silence and sweetness, her sleeping head
on his knee, clasped in his joy as the hushed world was clasped
in moonlight.

He stooped down and kissed her.  "Wake up," he whispered, "it's
bed-time."


Edith Wharton

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