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Chapter 20


XX

THE Mortimer Hickses were in Rome; not, as they would in former
times have been, in one of the antiquated hostelries of the
Piazza di Spagna or the Porta del Popolo, where of old they had
so gaily defied fever and nourished themselves on local colour;
but spread out, with all the ostentation of philistine
millionaires, under the piano nobile ceilings of one of the
high-perched "Palaces," where, as Mrs. Hicks shamelessly
declared, they could "rely on the plumbing," and "have the
privilege of over-looking the Queen Mother's Gardens."

It was that speech, uttered with beaming aplomb at a dinner-
table surrounded by the cosmopolitan nobility of the Eternal
City, that had suddenly revealed to Lansing the profound change
in the Hicks point of view.

As he looked back over the four months since he had so
unexpectedly joined the Ibis at Genoa, he saw that the change,
at first insidious and unperceived, dated from the ill-fated day
when the Hickses had run across a Reigning Prince on his
travels.

Hitherto they had been proof against such perils:  both Mr. and
Mrs. Hicks had often declared that the aristocracy of the
intellect was the only one which attracted them.  But in this
case the Prince possessed an intellect, in addition to his few
square miles of territory, and to one of the most beautiful
Field Marshal's uniforms that had ever encased a royal warrior.
The Prince was not a warrior, however; he was stooping, pacific
and spectacled, and his possession of the uniform had been
revealed to Mrs. Hicks only by the gift of a full-length
photograph in a Bond Street frame, with Anastasius written
slantingly across its legs.  The Prince--and herein lay the
Hickses' undoing--the Prince was an archaeologist:  an earnest
anxious enquiring and scrupulous archaeologist.  Delicate health
(so his suite hinted) banished him for a part of each year from
his cold and foggy principality; and in the company of his
mother, the active and enthusiastic Dowager Princess, he
wandered from one Mediterranean shore to another, now assisting
at the exhumation of Ptolemaic mummies, now at the excavation of
Delphic temples or of North African basilicas.  The beginning of
winter usually brought the Prince and his mother to Rome or
Nice, unless indeed they were summoned by family duties to
Berlin, Vienna or Madrid; for an extended connection with the
principal royal houses of Europe compelled them, as the Princess
Mother said, to be always burying or marrying a cousin.  At
other moments they were seldom seen in the glacial atmosphere of
courts, preferring to royal palaces those of the other, and more
modern type, in one of which the Hickses were now lodged.

Yes:  the Prince and his mother (they gaily avowed it) revelled
in Palace Hotels; and, being unable to afford the luxury of
inhabiting them, they liked, as often as possible, to be invited
to dine there by their friends--"or even to tea, my dear," the
Princess laughingly avowed, "for I'm so awfully fond of buttered
scones; and Anastasius gives me so little to eat in the desert."

The encounter with these ambulant Highnesses had been fatal--
Lansing now perceived it--to Mrs. Hicks's principles.  She had
known a great many archaeologists, but never one as agreeable as
the Prince, and above all never one who had left a throne to
camp in the desert and delve in Libyan tombs.  And it seemed to
her infinitely pathetic that these two gifted beings, who
grumbled when they had to go to "marry a cousin" at the Palace
of St. James or of Madrid, and hastened back breathlessly to the
far-off point where, metaphorically speaking, pick-axe and spade
had dropped from their royal hands--that these heirs of the ages
should be unable to offer themselves the comforts of up-to-date
hotel life, and should enjoy themselves "like babies" when they
were invited to the other kind of "Palace," to feast on buttered
scones and watch the tango.

She simply could not bear the thought of their privations; and
neither, after a time, could Mr. Hicks, who found the Prince
more democratic than anyone he had ever known at Apex City, and
was immensely interested by the fact that their spectacles came
from the same optician.

But it was, above all, the artistic tendencies of the Prince and
his mother which had conquered the Hickses.  There was
fascination in the thought that, among the rabble of vulgar
uneducated royalties who overran Europe from Biarritz to the
Engadine, gambling, tangoing, and sponging on no less vulgar
plebeians, they, the unobtrusive and self-respecting Hickses,
should have had the luck to meet this cultivated pair, who
joined them in gentle ridicule of their own frivolous kinsfolk,
and whose tastes were exactly those of the eccentric, unreliable
and sometimes money-borrowing persons who had hitherto
represented the higher life to the Hickses.

Now at last Mrs. Hicks saw the possibility of being at once
artistic and luxurious, of surrendering herself to the joys of
modern plumbing and yet keeping the talk on the highest level.
"If the poor dear Princess wants to dine at the Nouveau Luxe why
shouldn't we give her that pleasure?"  Mrs. Hicks smilingly
enquired; "and as for enjoying her buttered scones like a baby,
as she says, I think it's the sweetest thing about her."

Coral Hicks did not join in this chorus; but she accepted, with
her curious air of impartiality, the change in her parents'
manner of life, and for the first time (as Nick observed)
occupied herself with her mother's toilet, with the result that
Mrs. Hicks's outline became firmer, her garments soberer in hue
and finer in material; so that, should anyone chance to detect
the daughter's likeness to her mother, the result was less
likely to be disturbing.

Such precautions were the more needful--Lansing could not but
note because of the different standards of the society in which
the Hickses now moved.  For it was a curious fact that admission
to the intimacy of the Prince and his mother-- who continually
declared themselves to be the pariahs, the outlaws, the
Bohemians among crowned heads nevertheless involved not only
living in Palace Hotels but mixing with those who frequented
them.  The Prince's aide-de-camp--an agreeable young man of easy
manners--had smilingly hinted that their Serene Highnesses,
though so thoroughly democratic and unceremonious, were yet
accustomed to inspecting in advance the names of the persons
whom their hosts wished to invite with them; and Lansing noticed
that Mrs. Hicks's lists, having been "submitted," usually came
back lengthened by the addition of numerous wealthy and titled
guests.  Their Highnesses never struck out a name; they welcomed
with enthusiasm and curiosity the Hickses' oddest and most
inexplicable friends, at most putting off some of them to a
later day on the plea that it would be "cosier" to meet them on
a more private occasion; but they invariably added to the list
any friends of their own, with the gracious hint that they
wished these latter (though socially so well-provided for) to
have the "immense privilege" of knowing the Hickses.  And thus
it happened that when October gales necessitated laying up the
Ibis, the Hickses, finding again in Rome the august travellers
from whom they had parted the previous month in Athens, also
found their visiting-list enlarged by all that the capital
contained of fashion.

It was true enough, as Lansing had not failed to note, that the
Princess Mother adored prehistoric art, and Russian music, and
the paintings of Gauguin and Matisse; but she also, and with a
beaming unconsciousness of perspective, adored large pearls and
powerful motors, caravan tea and modern plumbing, perfumed
cigarettes and society scandals; and her son, while apparently
less sensible to these forms of luxury, adored his mother, and
was charmed to gratify her inclinations without cost to
himself--"Since poor Mamma," as he observed, "is so courageous
when we are roughing it in the desert."

The smiling aide-de-camp, who explained these things to Lansing,
added with an intenser smile that the Prince and his mother were
under obligations, either social or cousinly, to most of the
titled persons whom they begged Mrs. Hicks to invite; "and it
seems to their Serene Highnesses," he added, "the most
flattering return they can make for the hospitality of their
friends to give them such an intellectual opportunity."

The dinner-table at which their Highnesses' friends were seated
on the evening in question represented, numerically, one of the
greatest intellectual opportunities yet afforded them.  Thirty
guests were grouped about the flower-wreathed board, from which
Eldorada and Mr. Beck had been excluded on the plea that the
Princess Mother liked cosy parties and begged her hosts that
there should never be more than thirty at table.  Such, at
least, was the reason given by Mrs. Hicks to her faithful
followers; but Lansing had observed that, of late, the same
skilled hand which had refashioned the Hickses' social circle
usually managed to exclude from it the timid presences of the
two secretaries.  Their banishment was the more displeasing to
Lansing from the fact that, for the last three months, he had
filled Mr. Buttles's place, and was himself their salaried
companion.  But since he had accepted the post, his obvious duty
was to fill it in accordance with his employers' requirements;
and it was clear even to Eldorada and Mr. Beck that he had, as
Eldorada ungrudgingly said, "Something of Mr. Buttles's
marvellous social gifts. "

During the cruise his task had not been distasteful to him.  He
was glad of any definite duties, however trivial, he felt more
independent as the Hickses' secretary than as their pampered
guest, and the large cheque which Mr. Hicks handed over to him
on the first of each month refreshed his languishing sense of
self-respect.

He considered himself absurdly over-paid, but that was the
Hickses' affair; and he saw nothing humiliating in being in the
employ of people he liked and respected.  But from the moment of
the ill-fated encounter with the wandering Princes, his position
had changed as much as that of his employers.  He was no longer,
to Mr. and Mrs. Hicks, a useful and estimable assistant, on the
same level as Eldorada and Mr. Beck; he had become a social
asset of unsuspected value, equalling Mr. Buttles in his
capacity for dealing with the mysteries of foreign etiquette,
and surpassing him in the art of personal attraction.  Nick
Lansing, the Hickses found, already knew most of the Princess
Mother's rich and aristocratic friends.  Many of them hailed him
with enthusiastic "Old Nicks", and he was almost as familiar as
His Highness's own aide-de-camp with all those secret
ramifications of love and hate that made dinner-giving so much
more of a science in Rome than at Apex City.

Mrs. Hicks, at first, had hopelessly lost her way in this
labyrinth of subterranean scandals, rivalries and jealousies;
and finding Lansing's hand within reach she clung to it with
pathetic tenacity.  But if the young man's value had risen in
the eyes of his employers it had deteriorated in his own.  He
was condemned to play a part he had not bargained for, and it
seemed to him more degrading when paid in bank-notes than if his
retribution had consisted merely in good dinners and luxurious
lodgings.  The first time the smiling aide-de-camp had caught
his eye over a verbal slip of Mrs. Hicks's, Nick had flushed to
the forehead and gone to bed swearing that he would chuck his
job the next day.

Two months had passed since then, and he was still the paid
secretary.  He had contrived to let the aide-de-camp feel that
he was too deficient in humour to be worth exchanging glances
with; but even this had not restored his self-respect, and on
the evening in question, as he looked about the long table, he
said to himself for the hundredth time that he would give up his
position on the morrow.

Only--what was the alternative?  The alternative, apparently,
was Coral Hicks.  He glanced down the line of diners, beginning
with the tall lean countenance of the Princess Mother, with its
small inquisitive eyes perched as high as attic windows under a
frizzled thatch of hair and a pediment of uncleaned diamonds;
passed on to the vacuous and overfed or fashionably haggard
masks of the ladies next in rank; and finally caught, between
branching orchids, a distant glimpse of Miss Hicks.

In contrast with the others, he thought, she looked surprisingly
noble.  Her large grave features made her appear like an old
monument in a street of Palace Hotels; and he marvelled at the
mysterious law which had brought this archaic face out of Apex
City, and given to the oldest society of Europe a look of such
mixed modernity.

Lansing perceived that the aide-de-camp, who was his neighbour,
was also looking at Miss Hicks.  His expression was serious, and
even thoughtful; but as his eyes met Lansing's he readjusted his
official smile.

"I was admiring our hostess's daughter.  Her absence of jewels
is--er--an inspiration," he remarked in the confidential tone
which Lansing had come to dread.

"Oh, Miss Hicks is full of inspirations," he returned curtly,
and the aide-de-camp bowed with an admiring air, as if
inspirations were rarer than pearls, as in his milieu they
undoubtedly were.  "She is the equal of any situation, I am
sure," he replied; and then abandoned the subject with one of
his automatic transitions.

After dinner, in the embrasure of a drawing-room window, he
surprised Nick by returning to the same topic, and this time
without thinking it needful to readjust his smile.  His face
remained serious, though his manner was studiously informal.

"I was admiring, at dinner, Miss Hicks's invariable sense of
appropriateness.  It must permit her friends to foresee for her
almost any future, however exalted."

Lansing hesitated, and controlled his annoyance.  Decidedly he
wanted to know what was in his companion's mind.

"What do you mean by exalted?" he asked, with a smile of faint
amusement.

"Well--equal to her marvellous capacity for shining in the
public eye."

Lansing still smiled.  "The question is, I suppose, whether her
desire to shine equals her capacity."

The aide-de-camp stared.  "You mean, she's not ambitious?"

"On the contrary; I believe her to be immeasurably ambitious."

"Immeasurably?"  The aide-de-camp seemed to try to measure it.
"But not, surely, beyond--" "beyond what we can offer," his eyes
completed the sentence; and it was Lansing's turn to stare.  The
aide-de-camp faced the stare.  "Yes," his eyes concluded in a
flash, while his lips let fall:  "The Princess Mother admires
her immensely."  But at that moment a wave of Mrs. Hicks's fan
drew them hurriedly from their embrasure.

"Professor Darchivio had promised to explain to us the
difference between the Sassanian and Byzantine motives in
Carolingian art; but the Manager has sent up word that the two
new Creole dancers from Paris have arrived, and her Serene
Highness wants to pop down to the ball-room and take a peep at
them ....  She's sure the Professor will understand ...."

"And accompany us, of course," the Princess irresistibly added.

Lansing's brief colloquy in the Nouveau Luxe window had lifted
the scales from his eyes.  Innumerable dim corners of memory had
been flooded with light by that one quick glance of the aide-de-
camp's:  things he had heard, hints he had let pass, smiles,
insinuations, cordialities, rumours of the improbability of the
Prince's founding a family, suggestions as to the urgent need of
replenishing the Teutoburger treasury ....

Miss Hicks, perforce, had accompanied her parents and their
princely guests to the ballroom; but as she did not dance, and
took little interest in the sight of others so engaged, she
remained aloof from the party, absorbed in an archaeological
discussion with the baffled but smiling savant who was to have
enlightened the party on the difference between Sassanian and
Byzantine ornament.

Lansing, also aloof, had picked out a post from which he could
observe the girl:  she wore a new look to him since he had seen
her as the centre of all these scattered threads of intrigue.
Yes; decidedly she was growing handsomer; or else she had
learned how to set off her massive lines instead of trying to
disguise them.  As she held up her long eye-glass to glance
absently at the dancers he was struck by the large beauty of her
arm and the careless assurance of the gesture.  There was
nothing nervous or fussy about Coral Hicks; and he was not
surprised that, plastically at least, the Princess Mother had
discerned her possibilities.

Nick Lansing, all that night, sat up and stared at his future.
He knew enough of the society into which the Hickses had drifted
to guess that, within a very short time, the hint of the
Prince's aide-de-camp would reappear in the form of a direct
proposal.  Lansing himself would probably--as the one person in
the Hicks entourage with whom one could intelligibly commune-be
entrusted with the next step in the negotiations:  he would be
asked, as the aide-de-camp would have said, "to feel the
ground."  It was clearly part of the state policy of Teutoburg
to offer Miss Hicks, with the hand of its sovereign, an
opportunity to replenish its treasury.

What would the girl do?  Lansing could not guess; yet he dimly
felt that her attitude would depend in a great degree upon his
own.  And he knew no more what his own was going to be than on
the night, four months earlier, when he had flung out of his
wife's room in Venice to take the midnight express for Genoa.

The whole of his past, and above all the tendency, on which he
had once prided himself, to live in the present and take
whatever chances it offered, now made it harder for him to act.
He began to see that he had never, even in the closest relations
of life, looked ahead of his immediate satisfaction.  He had
thought it rather fine to be able to give himself so intensely
to the fullness of each moment instead of hurrying past it in
pursuit of something more, or something else, in the manner of
the over-scrupulous or the under-imaginative, whom he had always
grouped together and equally pitied.  It was not till he had
linked his life with Susy's that he had begun to feel it
reaching forward into a future he longed to make sure of, to
fasten upon and shape to his own wants and purposes, till, by an
imperceptible substitution, that future had become his real
present, his all-absorbing moment of time.

Now the moment was shattered, and the power to rebuild it failed
him.  He had never before thought about putting together broken
bits:  he felt like a man whose house has been wrecked by an
earthquake, and who, for lack of skilled labour, is called upon
for the first time to wield a trowel and carry bricks.  He
simply did not know how.

Will-power, he saw, was not a thing one could suddenly decree
oneself to possess.  It must be built up imperceptibly and
laboriously out of a succession of small efforts to meet
definite objects, out of the facing of daily difficulties
instead of cleverly eluding them, or shifting their burden on
others.  The making of the substance called character was a
process about as slow and arduous as the building of the
Pyramids; and the thing itself, like those awful edifices, was
mainly useful to lodge one's descendants in, after they too were
dust.  Yet the Pyramid-instinct was the one which had made the
world, made man, and caused his fugitive joys to linger like
fading frescoes on imperishable walls ....


Edith Wharton

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