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Chapter 23


XXIII

AS she fled on toward the lights of the streets a breath of
freedom seemed to blow into her face.

Like a weary load the accumulated hypocrisies of the last months
had dropped from her:  she was herself again, Nick's Susy, and
no one else's.  She sped on, staring with bright bewildered eyes
at the stately facades of the La Muette quarter, the
perspectives of bare trees, the awakening glitter of shop-
windows holding out to her all the things she would never again
be able to buy ....

In an avenue of shops she paused before a milliner's window, and
said to herself:  "Why shouldn't I earn my living by trimming
hats?"  She met work-girls streaming out under a doorway, and
scattering to catch trams and omnibuses; and she looked with
newly-wakened interest at their tired independent faces.  "Why
shouldn't I earn my living as well as they do?" she thought.  A
little farther on she passed a Sister of Charity with softly
trotting feet, a calm anonymous glance, and hands hidden in her
capacious sleeves.  Susy looked at her and thought:  "Why
shouldn't I be a Sister, and have no money to worry about, and
trot about under a white coif helping poor people?"

All these strangers on whom she smiled in passing, and glanced
back at enviously, were free from the necessities that enslaved
her, and would not have known what she meant if she had told
them that she must have so much money for her dresses, so much
for her cigarettes, so much for bridge and cabs and tips, and
all kinds of extras, and that at that moment she ought to be
hurrying back to a dinner at the British Embassy, where her
permanent right to such luxuries was to be solemnly recognized
and ratified.

The artificiality and unreality of her life overcame her as with
stifling fumes.  She stopped at a street-corner, drawing long
panting breaths as if she had been running a race.  Then, slowly
and aimlessly, she began to saunter along a street of small
private houses in damp gardens that led to the Avenue du Bois.
She sat down on a bench.  Not far off, the Arc de Triomphe
raised its august bulk, and beyond it a river of lights streamed
down toward Paris, and the stir of the city's heart-beats
troubled the quiet in her bosom.  But not for long.  She seemed
to be looking at it all from the other side of the grave; and as
she got up and wandered down the Champs Elysees, half empty in
the evening lull between dusk and dinner, she felt as if the
glittering avenue were really changed into the Field of Shadows
from which it takes its name, and as if she were a ghost among
ghosts.

Halfway home, a weakness of loneliness overcame her, and she
seated herself under the trees near the Rond Point.  Lines of
motors and carriages were beginning to animate the converging
thoroughfares, streaming abreast, crossing, winding in and out
of each other in a tangle of hurried pleasure-seeking.  She
caught the light on jewels and shirt-fronts and hard bored eyes
emerging from dim billows of fur and velvet.  She seemed to hear
what the couples were saying to each other, she pictured the
drawing-rooms, restaurants, dance-halls they were hastening to,
the breathless routine that was hurrying them along, as Time,
the old vacuum-cleaner, swept them away with the dust of their
carriage-wheels.  And again the loneliness vanished in a sense
of release ....

At the corner of the Place de la Concorde she stopped,
recognizing a man in evening dress who was hailing a taxi.
Their eyes met, and Nelson Vanderlyn came forward.  He was the
last person she cared to run across, and she shrank back
involuntarily.  What did he know, what had he guessed, of her
complicity in his wife's affairs?  No doubt Ellie had blabbed it
all out by this time; she was just as likely to confide her
love-affairs to Nelson as to anyone else, now that the
Bockheimer prize was landed.

"Well--well--well--so I've caught you at it!  Glad to see you,
Susy, my dear."  She found her hand cordially clasped in
Vanderlyn's, and his round pink face bent on her with all its
old urbanity.  Did nothing matter, then, in this world she was
fleeing from, did no one love or hate or remember?

"No idea you were in Paris--just got here myself," Vanderlyn
continued, visibly delighted at the meeting.  "Look here, don't
suppose you're out of a job this evening by any chance, and
would come and cheer up a lone bachelor, eh?  No?  You are?
Well, that's luck for once!  I say, where shall we go?  One of
the places where they dance, I suppose?  Yes, I twirl the light
fantastic once in a while myself.  Got to keep up with the
times!  Hold on, taxi!  Here--I'll drive you home first, and
wait while you jump into your toggery.  Lots of time."  As he
steered her toward the carriage she noticed that he had a gouty
limp, and pulled himself in after her with difficulty.

"Mayn't I come as I am, Nelson, I don't feel like dancing.
Let's go and dine in one of those nice smoky little restaurants
by the Place de la Bourse."

He seemed surprised but relieved at the suggestion, and they
rolled off together.  In a corner at Bauge's they found a quiet
table, screened from the other diners, and while Vanderlyn
adjusted his eyeglasses to study the carte Susy stole a long
look at him.  He was dressed with even more than his usual
formal trimness, and she detected, in an ultra-flat wrist-watch
and discreetly expensive waistcoat buttons, an attempt at
smartness altogether new.  His face had undergone the same
change:  its familiar look of worn optimism had been, as it
were, done up to match his clothes, as though a sort of moral
cosmetic had made him pinker, shinier and sprightlier without
really rejuvenating him.  A thin veil of high spirits had merely
been drawn over his face, as the shining strands of hair were
skilfully brushed over his baldness.

"Here!  Carte des vins, waiter!  What champagne, Susy?"  He
chose, fastidiously, the best the cellar could produce,
grumbling a little at the bourgeois character of the dishes.
"Capital food of its kind, no doubt, but coarsish, don't you
think?  Well, I don't mind ... it's rather a jolly change from
the Luxe cooking.  A new sensation--I'm all for new sensations,
ain't you, my dear?"  He re-filled their champagne glasses,
flung an arm sideways over his chair, and smiled at her with a
foggy benevolence.

As the champagne flowed his confidences flowed with it.

"Suppose you know what I'm here for--this divorce business?  We
wanted to settle it quietly without a fuss, and of course Paris
is the best place for that sort of job.  Live and let live; no
questions asked.  None of your dirty newspapers.  Great country,
this.  No hypocrisy ... they understand Life over here!"

Susy gazed and listened.  She remembered that people had thought
Nelson would make a row when he found out.  He had always been
addicted to truculent anecdotes about unfaithful wives, and the
very formula of his perpetual ejaculation-- "Caught you at it,
eh?"--seemed to hint at a constant preoccupation with such
ideas.  But now it was evident that, as the saying was, he had
"swallowed his dose" like all the others.  No strong blast of
indignation had momentarily lifted him above his normal stature:
he remained a little man among little men, and his eagerness to
rebuild his life with all the old smiling optimism reminded Susy
of the patient industry of an ant remaking its ruined ant-heap.

"Tell you what, great thing, this liberty!  Everything's changed
nowadays; why shouldn't marriage be too?  A man can get out of a
business partnership when he wants to; but the parsons want to
keep us noosed up to each other for life because we've blundered
into a church one day and said 'Yes' before one of 'em.  No,
no--that's too easy.  We've got beyond that.  Science, and all
these new discoveries ....  I say the Ten Commandments were made
for man, and not man for the Commandments; and there ain't a
word against divorce in 'em, anyhow!  That's what I tell my poor
old mother, who builds everything on her Bible.  Find me the
place where it says:  'Thou shalt not sue for divorce.'  It
makes her wild, poor old lady, because she can't; and she
doesn't know how they happen to have left it out....  I rather
think Moses left it out because he knew more about human nature
than these snivelling modern parsons do.  Not that they'll
always bear investigating either; but I don't care about that.
Live and let live, eh, Susy?  Haven't we all got a right to our
Affinities?  I hear you're following our example yourself.
First-rate idea:  I don't mind telling you I saw it coming on
last summer at Venice.  Caught you at it, so to speak!  Old
Nelson ain't as blind as people think.  Here, let's open another
bottle to the health of Streff and Mrs. Streff!"

She caught the hand with which he was signalling to the
sommelier.  This flushed and garrulous Nelson moved her more
poignantly than a more heroic figure.  "No more champagne,
please, Nelson.  Besides," she suddenly added, "it's not true."

He stared.  "Not true that you're going to marry Altringham?"

"No."

"By George then what on earth did you chuck Nick for?  Ain't you
got an Affinity, my dear?"

She laughed and shook her head.

"Do you mean to tell me it's all Nick's doing, then?"

"I don't know.  Let's talk of you instead, Nelson.  I'm glad
you're in such good spirits.  I rather thought--"

He interrupted her quickly.  "Thought I'd cut up a rumpus-do
some shooting?  I know--people did."  He twisted his moustache,
evidently proud of his reputation.  "Well, maybe I did see red
for a day or two--but I'm a philosopher, first and last.  Before
I went into banking I'd made and lost two fortunes out West.
Well, how did I build 'em up again?  Not by shooting anybody
even myself.  By just buckling to, and beginning all over again.
That's how ... and that's what I am doing now.  Beginning all
over again.    "  His voice dropped from boastfulness to a note
of wistful melancholy, the look of strained jauntiness fell from
his face like a mask, and for an instant she saw the real man,
old, ruined, lonely.  Yes, that was it:  he was lonely,
desperately lonely, foundering in such deep seas of solitude
that any presence out of the past was like a spar to which he
clung.  Whatever he knew or guessed of the part she had played
in his disaster, it was not callousness that had made him greet
her with such forgiving warmth, but the same sense of smallness,
insignificance and isolation which perpetually hung like a cold
fog on her own horizon.  Suddenly she too felt old--old and
unspeakably tired.

"It's been nice seeing you, Nelson.  But now I must be getting
home."

He offered no objection, but asked for the bill, resumed his
jaunty air while he scattered largesse among the waiters, and
sauntered out behind her after calling for a taxi.

They drove off in silence.  Susy was thinking:  "And Clarissa?"
but dared not ask.  Vanderlyn lit a cigarette, hummed a dance-
tune, and stared out of the window.  Suddenly she felt his hand
on hers.

"Susy--do you ever see her?"

"See--Ellie?"

He nodded, without turning toward her.

"Not often ... sometimes ...."

"If you do, for God's sake tell her I'm happy ... happy as a
king ... tell her you could see for yourself that I was ...."
His voice broke in a little gasp.  "I ... I'll be damned if ...
if she shall ever be unhappy about me ... if I can help it ...."
The cigarette dropped from his fingers, and with a sob he
covered his face.

"Oh, poor Nelson--poor Nelson, " Susy breathed.  While their cab
rattled across the Place du Carrousel, and over the bridge, he
continued to sit beside her with hidden face.  At last he pulled
out a scented handkerchief, rubbed his eyes with it, and groped
for another cigarette.

"I'm all right!  Tell her that, will you, Susy?  There are some
of our old times I don't suppose I shall ever forget; but they
make me feel kindly to her, and not angry.  I didn't know it
would be so, beforehand--but it is ....  And now the thing's
settled I'm as right as a trivet, and you can tell her so ....
Look here, Susy ..." he caught her by the arm as the taxi drew
up at her hotel ....  "Tell her I understand, will you?  I'd
rather like her to know that .... "

"I'll tell her, Nelson," she promised; and climbed the stairs
alone to her dreary room.

Susy's one fear was that Strefford, when he returned the next
day, should treat their talk of the previous evening as a fit of
"nerves" to be jested away.  He might, indeed, resent her
behaviour too deeply to seek to see her at once; but his
easygoing modern attitude toward conduct and convictions made
that improbable.  She had an idea that what he had most minded
was her dropping so unceremoniously out of the Embassy Dinner.

But, after all, why should she see him again?  She had had
enough of explanations during the last months to have learned
how seldom they explain anything.  If the other person did not
understand at the first word, at the first glance even,
subsequent elucidations served only to deepen the obscurity.
And she wanted above all--and especially since her hour with
Nelson Vanderlyn--to keep herself free, aloof, to retain her
hold on her precariously recovered self.  She sat down and wrote
to Strefford--and the letter was only a little less painful to
write than the one she had despatched to Nick.  It was not that
her own feelings were in any like measure engaged; but because,
as the decision to give up Strefford affirmed itself, she
remembered only his kindness, his forbearance, his good humour,
and all the other qualities she had always liked in him; and
because she felt ashamed of the hesitations which must cause him
so much pain and humiliation.  Yes:  humiliation chiefly.  She
knew that what she had to say would hurt his pride, in whatever
way she framed her renunciation; and her pen wavered, hating its
task.  Then she remembered Vanderlyn's words about his wife:
"There are some of our old times I don't suppose I shall ever
forget--" and a phrase of Grace Fulmer's that she had but half
grasped at the time:  "You haven't been married long enough to
understand how trifling such things seem in the balance of one's
memories."

Here were two people who had penetrated farther than she into
the labyrinth of the wedded state, and struggled through some of
its thorniest passages; and yet both, one consciously, the other
half-unaware, testified to the mysterious fact which was already
dawning on her:  that the influence of a marriage begun in
mutual understanding is too deep not to reassert itself even in
the moment of flight and denial.

"The real reason is that you're not Nick" was what she would
have said to Strefford if she had dared to set down the bare
truth; and she knew that, whatever she wrote, he was too acute
not to read that into it.

"He'll think it's because I'm still in love with Nick ... and
perhaps I am.  But even if I were, the difference doesn't seem
to lie there, after all, but deeper, in things we've shared that
seem to be meant to outlast love, or to change it into something
different."  If she could have hoped to make Strefford
understand that, the letter would have been easy enough to
write--but she knew just at what point his imagination would
fail, in what obvious and superficial inferences it would rest


"Poor Streff--poor me!" she thought as she sealed the letter.

After she had despatched it a sense of blankness descended on
her.  She had succeeded in driving from her mind all vain
hesitations, doubts, returns upon herself:  her healthy system
naturally rejected them.  But they left a queer emptiness in
which her thoughts rattled about as thoughts might, she
supposed, in the first moments after death--before one got used
to it.  To get used to being dead:  that seemed to be her
immediate business.  And she felt such a novice at it--felt so
horribly alive!  How had those others learned to do without
living?  Nelson--well, he was still in the throes; and probably
never would understand, or be able to communicate, the lesson
when he had mastered it.  But Grace Fulmer--she suddenly
remembered that Grace was in Paris, and set forth to find her.


Edith Wharton

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