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Chapter 21


XXI

ON the drive back from her dinner at the Nouveau Luxe, events
had followed the course foreseen by Susy.

She had promised Strefford to seek legal advice about her
divorce, and he had kissed her; and the promise had been easier
to make than she had expected, the kiss less difficult to
receive.

She had gone to the dinner a-quiver with the mortification of
learning that her husband was still with the Hickses.  Morally
sure of it though she had been, the discovery was a shock, and
she measured for the first time the abyss between fearing and
knowing.  No wonder he had not written--the modern husband did
not have to:  he had only to leave it to time and the newspapers
to make known his intentions.  Susy could imagine Nick's saying
to himself, as he sometimes used to say when she reminded him of
an unanswered letter:  "But there are lots of ways of answering
a letter--and writing doesn't happen to be mine."

Well--he had done it in his way, and she was answered.  For a
minute, as she laid aside the paper, darkness submerged her, and
she felt herself dropping down into the bottomless anguish of
her dreadful vigil in the Palazzo Vanderlyn.  But she was weary
of anguish:  her healthy body and nerves instinctively rejected
it.  The wave was spent, and she felt herself irresistibly
struggling back to light and life and youth.  He didn't want
her!  Well, she would try not to want him!  There lay all the
old expedients at her hand--the rouge for her white lips, the
atropine for her blurred eyes, the new dress on her bed, the
thought of Strefford and his guests awaiting her, and of the
conclusions that the diners of the Nouveau Luxe would draw from
seeing them together.  Thank heaven no one would say:  "Poor old
Susy--did you know Nick had chucked her?"  They would all say:
"Poor old Nick!  Yes, I daresay she was sorry to chuck him; but
Altringham's mad to marry her, and what could she do? "

And once again events had followed the course she had foreseen.
Seeing her at Lord Altringham's table, with the Ascots and the
old Duchess of Dunes, the interested spectators could not but
regard the dinner as confirming the rumour of her marriage.  As
Ellie said, people didn't wait nowadays to announce their
"engagements" till the tiresome divorce proceedings were over.
Ellie herself, prodigally pearled and ermined, had floated in
late with Algie Bockheimer in her wake, and sat, in conspicuous
tete-a-tete, nodding and signalling her sympathy to Susy.
Approval beamed from every eye:  it was awfully exciting, they
all seemed to say, seeing Susy Lansing pull it off!  As the
party, after dinner, drifted from the restaurant back into the
hall, she caught, in the smiles and hand-pressures crowding
about her, the scarcely-repressed hint of official
congratulations; and Violet Melrose, seated in a corner with
Fulmer, drew her down with a wan jade-circled arm, to whisper
tenderly:  "It's most awfully clever of you, darling, not to be
wearing any jewels."

In all the women's eyes she read the reflected lustre of the
jewels she could wear when she chose:  it was as though their
glitter reached her from the far-off bank where they lay sealed
up in the Altringham strong-box.  What a fool she had been to
think that Strefford would ever believe she didn't care for
them!

The Ambassadress, a blank perpendicular person, had been a shade
less affable than Susy could have wished; but then there was
Lady Joan--and the girl was handsome, alarmingly handsome to
account for that:  probably every one in the room had guessed
it.  And the old Duchess of Dunes was delightful.  She looked
rather like Strefford in a wig and false pearls (Susy was sure
they were as false as her teeth); and her cordiality was so
demonstrative that the future bride found it more difficult to
account for than Lady Ascot's coldness, till she heard the old
lady, as they passed into the hall, breathe in a hissing whisper
to her nephew:  "Streff, dearest, when you have a minute's time,
and can drop in at my wretched little pension, I know you can
explain in two words what I ought to do to pacify those awful
money-lenders ....  And you'll bring your exquisite American to
see me, won't you! ...  No, Joan Senechal's too fair for my
taste ....  Insipid..."
"

Yes:  the taste of it all was again sweet on her lips.  A few
days later she began to wonder how the thought of Strefford's
endearments could have been so alarming.  To be sure he was not
lavish of them; but when he did touch her, even when he kissed
her, it no longer seemed to matter.  An almost complete absence
of sensation had mercifully succeeded to the first wild flurry
of her nerves.

And so it would be, no doubt, with everything else in her new
life.  If it failed to provoke any acute reactions, whether of
pain or pleasure, the very absence of sensation would make for
peace.  And in the meanwhile she was tasting what, she had begun
to suspect, was the maximum of bliss to most of the women she
knew:  days packed with engagements, the exhilaration of
fashionable crowds, the thrill of snapping up a jewel or a
bibelot or a new "model" that one's best friend wanted, or of
being invited to some private show, or some exclusive
entertainment, that one's best friend couldn't get to.  There
was nothing, now, that she couldn't buy, nowhere that she
couldn't go:  she had only to choose and to triumph.  And for a
while the surface-excitement of her life gave her the illusion
of enjoyment.

Strefford, as she had expected, had postponed his return to
England, and they had now been for nearly three weeks together
in their new, and virtually avowed, relation.  She had fancied
that, after all, the easiest part of it would be just the being
with Strefford--the falling back on their old tried friendship
to efface the sense of strangeness.  But, though she had so soon
grown used to his caresses, he himself remained curiously
unfamiliar:  she was hardly sure, at times, that it was the old
Strefford she was talking to.  It was not that his point of view
had changed, but that new things occupied and absorbed him.  In
all the small sides of his great situation he took an almost
childish satisfaction; and though he still laughed at both its
privileges and its obligations, it was now with a jealous
laughter.

It amused him inexhaustibly, for instance, to be made up to by
all the people who had always disapproved of him, and to unite
at the same table persons who had to dissemble their annoyance
at being invited together lest they should not be invited at
all.  Equally exhilarating was the capricious favouring of the
dull and dowdy on occasions when the brilliant and disreputable
expected his notice.  It enchanted him, for example, to ask the
old Duchess of Dunes and Violet Melrose to dine with the Vicar
of Altringham, on his way to Switzerland for a month's holiday,
and to watch the face of the Vicar's wife while the Duchess
narrated her last difficulties with book-makers and money-
lenders, and Violet proclaimed the rights of Love and Genius to
all that had once been supposed to belong exclusively to
Respectability and Dulness.

Susy had to confess that her own amusements were hardly of a
higher order; but then she put up with them for lack of better,
whereas Strefford, who might have had what he pleased, was
completely satisfied with such triumphs.

Somehow, in spite of his honours and his opportunities, he
seemed to have shrunk.  The old Strefford had certainly been a
larger person, and she wondered if material prosperity were
always a beginning of ossification.  Strefford had been much
more fun when he lived by his wits.  Sometimes, now, when he
tried to talk of politics, or assert himself on some question of
public interest, she was startled by his limitations.  Formerly,
when he was not sure of his ground, it had been his way to turn
the difficulty by glib nonsense or easy irony; now he was
actually dull, at times almost pompous.  She noticed too, for
the first time, that he did not always hear clearly when several
people were talking at once, or when he was at the theatre; and
he developed a habit of saying over and over again:  "Does so-
and-so speak indistinctly?  Or am I getting deaf, I wonder?"
which wore on her nerves by its suggestion of a corresponding
mental infirmity.

These thoughts did not always trouble her.  The current of idle
activity on which they were both gliding was her native element
as well as his; and never had its tide been as swift, its waves
as buoyant.  In his relation to her, too, he was full of tact
and consideration.  She saw that he still remembered their
frightened exchange of glances after their first kiss; and the
sense of this little hidden spring of imagination in him was
sometimes enough for her thirst.

She had always had a rather masculine punctuality in keeping her
word, and after she had promised Strefford to take steps toward
a divorce she had promptly set about doing it.  A sudden
reluctance prevented her asking the advice of friends like Ellie
Vanderlyn, whom she knew to be in the thick of the same
negotiations, and all she could think of was to consult a young
American lawyer practicing in Paris, with whom she felt she
could talk the more easily because he was not from New York, and
probably unacquainted with her history.

She was so ignorant of the procedure in such matters that she
was surprised and relieved at his asking few personal questions;
but it was a shock to learn that a divorce could not be
obtained, either in New York or Paris, merely on the ground of
desertion or incompatibility.

"I thought nowadays ... if people preferred to live apart ... it
could always be managed," she stammered, wondering at her own
ignorance, after the many conjugal ruptures she had assisted at.

The young lawyer smiled, and coloured slightly.  His lovely
client evidently intimidated him by her grace, and still more by
her inexperience.

"It can be--generally," he admitted; "and especially so if ...
as I gather is the case ... your husband is equally
anxious ...."

"Oh, quite!" she exclaimed, suddenly humiliated by having to
admit it.

"Well, then--may I suggest that, to bring matters to a point,
the best way would be for you to write to him?"

She recoiled slightly.  It had never occurred to her that the
lawyers would not "manage it" without her intervention.

"Write to him ... but what about?"

"Well, expressing your wish ... to recover your freedom ....
The rest, I assume," said the young lawyer, "may be left to Mr.
Lansing."

She did not know exactly what he meant, and was too much
perturbed by the idea of having to communicate with Nick to
follow any other train of thought.  How could she write such a
letter?  And yet how could she confess to the lawyer that she
had not the courage to do so?  He would, of course, tell her to
go home and be reconciled.  She hesitated perplexedly.

"Wouldn't it be better," she suggested, "if the letter were to
come from--from your office?"

He considered this politely.  "On the whole:  no.  If, as I take
it, an amicable arrangement is necessary--to secure the
requisite evidence then a line from you, suggesting an
interview, seems to me more advisable."

"An interview?  Is an interview necessary?"  She was ashamed to
show her agitation to this cautiously smiling young man, who
must wonder at her childish lack of understanding; but the break
in her voice was uncontrollable.

"Oh, please write to him--I can't!  And I can't see him!  Oh,
can't you arrange it for me?" she pleaded.

She saw now that her idea of a divorce had been that it was
something one went out--or sent out--to buy in a shop:
something concrete and portable, that Strefford's money could
pay for, and that it required no personal participation to
obtain.  What a fool the lawyer must think her!  Stiffening
herself, she rose from her seat.

"My husband and I don't wish to see each other again ....  I'm
sure it would be useless ... and very painful."

"You are the best judge, of course.  But in any case, a letter
from you, a friendly letter, seems wiser ... considering the
apparent lack of evidence ...."

"Very well, then; I'll write," she agreed, and hurried away,
scarcely hearing his parting injunction that she should take a
copy of her letter.

That night she wrote.  At the last moment it might have been
impossible, if at the theatre little Breckenridge had not bobbed
into her box.  He was just back from Rome, where he had dined
with the Hickses ("a bang-up show--they're really lances-you
wouldn't know them!"), and had met there Lansing, whom he
reported as intending to marry Coral "as soon as things were
settled".  "You were dead right, weren't you, Susy," he
snickered, "that night in Venice last summer, when we all
thought you were joking about their engagement?  Pity now you
chucked our surprise visit to the Hickses, and sent Streff up to
drag us back just as we were breaking in!  You remember?"

He flung off the "Streff" airily, in the old way, but with a
tentative side-glance at his host; and Lord Altringham, leaning
toward Susy, said coldly:  "Was Breckenridge speaking about me?
I didn't catch what he said.  Does he speak indistinctly--or am
I getting deaf, I wonder?"

After that it seemed comparatively easy, when Strefford had
dropped her at her hotel, to go upstairs and write.  She dashed
off the date and her address, and then stopped; but suddenly she
remembered Breckenridge's snicker, and the words rushed from
her.  "Nick dear, it was July when you left Venice, and I have
had no word from you since the note in which you said you had
gone for a few days, and that I should hear soon again.

"You haven't written yet, and it is five months since you left
me.  That means, I suppose, that you want to take back your
freedom and give me mine.  Wouldn't it be kinder, in that case,
to tell me so?  It is worse than anything to go on as we are
now.  I don't know how to put these things but since you seem
unwilling to write to me perhaps you would prefer to send your
answer to Mr. Frederic Spearman, the American lawyer here.  His
address is 100, Boulevard Haussmann. I hope--"

She broke off on the last word.  Hope?  What did she hope,
either for him or for herself?  Wishes for his welfare would
sound like a mockery--and she would rather her letter should
seem bitter than unfeeling.  Above all, she wanted to get it
done.  To have to re-write even those few lines would be
torture.  So she left "I hope," and simply added:  "to hear
before long what you have decided."

She read it over, and shivered.  Not one word of the past-not
one allusion to that mysterious interweaving of their lives
which had enclosed them one in the other like the flower in its
sheath!  What place had such memories in such a letter?  She had
the feeling that she wanted to hide that other Nick away in her
own bosom, and with him the other Susy, the Susy he had once
imagined her to be ....  Neither of them seemed concerned with
the present business.

The letter done, she stared at the sealed envelope till its
presence in the room became intolerable, and she understood that
she must either tear it up or post it immediately.  She went
down to the hall of the sleeping hotel, and bribed the night-
porter to carry the letter to the nearest post office, though he
objected that, at that hour, no time would be gained.  "I want
it out of the house," she insisted: and waited sternly by the
desk, in her dressing-gown, till he had performed the errand.

As she re-entered her room, the disordered writing-table struck
her; and she remembered the lawyer's injunction to take a copy
of her letter.  A copy to be filed away with the documents in
"Lansing versus Lansing!"  She burst out laughing at the idea.
What were lawyers made of, she wondered?  Didn't the man guess,
by the mere look in her eyes and the sound of her voice, that
she would never, as long as she lived, forget a word of that
letter--that night after night she would lie down, as she was
lying down to-night, to stare wide-eyed for hours into the
darkness, while a voice in her brain monotonously hammered out:
"Nick dear, it was July when you left me ..." and so on, word
after word, down to the last fatal syllable?


Edith Wharton

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