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Chapter 24


XXIV

NICK LANSING had walked out a long way into the Campagna.  His
hours were seldom his own, for both Mr. and Mrs. Hicks were
becoming more and more addicted to sudden and somewhat imperious
demands upon his time; but on this occasion he had simply
slipped away after luncheon, and taking the tram to the Porta
Salaria, had wandered on thence in the direction of the Ponte
Nomentano.

He wanted to get away and think; but now that he had done it the
business proved as unfruitful as everything he had put his hand
to since he had left Venice.  Think--think about what?  His
future seemed to him a negligible matter since he had received,
two months earlier, the few lines in which Susy had asked him
for her freedom.

The letter had been a shock--though he had fancied himself so
prepared for it--yet it had also, in another sense, been a
relief, since, now that at last circumstances compelled him to
write to her, they also told him what to say. And he had said it
as briefly and simply as possible, telling her that he would put
no obstacle in the way of her release, that he held himself at
her lawyer's disposal to answer any further communication--and
that he would never forget their days together, or cease to
bless her for them.

That was all.  He gave his Roman banker's address, and waited
for another letter; but none came.  Probably the "formalities,"
whatever they were, took longer than he had supposed; and being
in no haste to recover his own liberty, he did not try to learn
the cause of the delay.  From that moment, however, he
considered himself virtually free, and ceased, by the same
token, to take any interest in his own future.  His life seemed
as flat as a convalescent's first days after the fever has
dropped.

The only thing he was sure of was that he was not going to
remain in the Hickses' employ:  when they left Rome for Central
Asia he had no intention of accompanying them.  The part of Mr.
Buttles' successor was becoming daily more intolerable to him,
for the very reasons that had probably made it most gratifying
to Mr. Buttles.  To be treated by Mr. and Mrs. Hicks as a paid
oracle, a paraded and petted piece of property, was a good deal
more distasteful than he could have imagined any relation with
these kindly people could be.  And since their aspirations had
become frankly social he found his task, if easier, yet far less
congenial than during his first months with them.  He preferred
patiently explaining to Mrs. Hicks, for the hundredth time, that
Sassanian and Saracenic were not interchangeable terms, to
unravelling for her the genealogies of her titled guests, and
reminding her, when she "seated" her dinner-parties, that Dukes
ranked higher than Princes.  No--the job was decidedly
intolerable; and he would have to look out for another means of
earning his living.  But that was not what he had really got
away to think about.  He knew he should never starve; he had
even begun to believe again in his book.  What he wanted to
think of was Susy--or rather, it was Susy that he could not help
thinking of, on whatever train of thought he set out.

Again and again he fancied he had established a truce with the
past:  had come to terms--the terms of defeat and failure with
that bright enemy called happiness.  And, in truth, he had
reached the point of definitely knowing that he could never
return to the kind of life that he and Susy had embarked on.  It
had been the tragedy, of their relation that loving her roused
in him ideals she could never satisfy.  He had fallen in love
with her because she was, like himself, amused, unprejudiced and
disenchanted; and he could not go on loving her unless she
ceased to be all these things.  From that circle there was no
issue, and in it he desperately revolved.

If he had not heard such persistent rumours of her re-marriage
to Lord Altringham he might have tried to see her again; but,
aware of the danger and the hopelessness of a meeting, he was,
on the whole, glad to have a reason for avoiding it.  Such, at
least, he honestly supposed to be his state of mind until he
found himself, as on this occasion, free to follow out his
thought to its end.  That end, invariably, was Susy; not the
bundle of qualities and defects into which his critical spirit
had tried to sort her out, but the soft blur of identity, of
personality, of eyes, hair, mouth, laugh, tricks of speech and
gesture, that were all so solely and profoundly her own, and yet
so mysteriously independent of what she might do, say, think, in
crucial circumstances.  He remembered her once saying to him:
"After all, you were right when you wanted me to be your
mistress," and the indignant stare of incredulity with which he
had answered her.  Yet in these hours it was the palpable image
of her that clung closest, till, as invariably happened, his
vision came full circle, and feeling her on his breast he wanted
her also in his soul.

Well--such all-encompassing loves were the rarest of human
experiences; he smiled at his presumption in wanting no other.
Wearily he turned, and tramped homeward through the winter
twilight ....

At the door of the hotel he ran across the Prince of Teutoburg's
aide-de-camp.  They had not met for some days, and Nick had a
vague feeling that if the Prince's matrimonial designs took
definite shape he himself was not likely, after all, to be their
chosen exponent.  He had surprised, now and then, a certain
distrustful coldness under the Princess Mother's cordial glance,
and had concluded that she perhaps suspected him of being an
obstacle to her son's aspirations.  He had no idea of playing
that part, but was not sorry to appear to; for he was sincerely
attached to Coral Hicks, and hoped for her a more human fate
than that of becoming Prince Anastasius's consort.

This evening, however, he was struck by the beaming alacrity of
the aide-de-camp's greeting.  Whatever cloud had hung between
them had lifted:  the Teutoburg clan, for one reason or another,
no longer feared or distrusted him.  The change was conveyed in
a mere hand-pressure, a brief exchange of words, for the aide-
de-camp was hastening after a well-known dowager of the old
Roman world, whom he helped into a large coronetted brougham
which looked as if it had been extracted, for some ceremonial
purpose, from a museum of historic vehicles.  And in an instant
it flashed on Lansing that this lady had been the person chosen
to lay the Prince's offer at Miss Hicks's feet.

The discovery piqued him; and instead of making straight for his
own room he went up to Mrs. Hicks's drawing-room.

The room was empty, but traces of elaborate tea pervaded it, and
an immense bouquet of stiff roses lay on the centre table.  As
he turned away, Eldorada Tooker, flushed and tear-stained,
abruptly entered.

"Oh, Mr. Lansing--we were looking everywhere for you."

"Looking for me?"

"Yes.  Coral especially ... she wants to see you.  She wants you
to come to her own sitting-room."

She led him across the ante-chamber and down the passage to the
separate suite which Miss Hicks inhabited.  On the threshold
Eldorada gasped out emotionally:  "You'll find her looking
lovely--" and jerked away with a sob as he entered.

Coral Hicks was never lovely:  but she certainly looked
unusually handsome.  Perhaps it was the long dress of black
velvet which, outlined against a shaded lamp, made her strong
build seem slenderer, or perhaps the slight flush on her dusky
cheek:  a bloom of womanhood hung upon her which she made no
effort to dissemble.  Indeed, it was one of her originalities
that she always gravely and courageously revealed the utmost of
whatever mood possessed her.

"How splendid you look!" he said, smiling at her.

She threw her head back and gazed him straight in the eyes.
"That's going to be my future job."

"To look splendid?"

"Yes."

"And wear a crown?"

"And wear a crown ...."

They continued to consider each other without speaking.  Nick's
heart contracted with pity and perplexity.

"Oh, Coral--it's not decided?"

She scrutinized him for a last penetrating moment; then she
looked away.  "I'm never long deciding."

He hesitated, choking with contradictory impulses, and afraid to
formulate any, lest they should either mislead or pain her.

"Why didn't you tell me?" he questioned lamely; and instantly
perceived his blunder.

She sat down, and looked up at him under brooding lashes--had he
ever noticed the thickness of her lashes before?

"Would it have made any difference if I had told you?"

"Any difference--?"

"Sit down by me," she commanded.  "I want to talk to you.  You
can say now whatever you might have said sooner.  I'm not
married yet:  I'm still free."

"You haven't given your answer?"

"It doesn't matter if I have."

The retort frightened him with the glimpse of what she still
expected of him, and what he was still so unable to give.

"That means you've said yes?" he pursued, to gain time.

"Yes or no--it doesn't matter.  I had to say something.  What I
want is your advice."

"At the eleventh hour?"

"Or the twelfth."  She paused.  "What shall I do?" she
questioned, with a sudden accent of helplessness.

He looked at her as helplessly.  He could not say:  "Ask
yourself--ask your parents."  Her next word would sweep away
such frail hypocrisies.  Her "What shall I do?" meant "What are
you going to do?" and he knew it, and knew that she knew it.

"I'm a bad person to give any one matrimonial advice," he began,
with a strained smile; "but I had such a different vision for
you."

"What kind of a vision?" She was merciless.

"Merely what people call happiness, dear."

"'People call'--you see you don't believe in it yourself!  Well,
neither do I--in that form, at any rate. "

He considered. "I believe in trying for it--even if the trying's
the best of it."

"Well, I've tried, and failed.  And I'm twenty-two, and I never
was young.  I suppose I haven't enough imagination."  She drew a
deep breath.  "Now I want something different."  She appeared to
search for the word.  "I want to be--prominent," she declared.

"Prominent?"

She reddened swarthily.  "Oh, you smile--you think it's
ridiculous:  it doesn't seem worth while to you.  That's because
you've always had all those things.  But I haven't.  I know what
father pushed up from, and I want to push up as high again--
higher.  No, I haven't got much imagination.  I've always liked
Facts.  And I find I shall like the fact of being a Princess--
choosing the people I associate with, and being up above all
these European grandees that father and mother bow down to,
though they think they despise them.  You can be up above these
people by just being yourself; you know how.  But I need a
platform--a sky-scraper.  Father and mother slaved to give me my
education.  They thought education was the important thing; but,
since we've all three of us got mediocre minds, it has just
landed us among mediocre people.  Don't you suppose I see
through all the sham science and sham art and sham everything
we're surrounded with?  That's why I want to buy a place at the
very top, where I shall be powerful enough to get about me the
people I want, the big people, the right people, and to help
them I want to promote culture, like those Renaissance women
you're always talking about.  I want to do it for Apex City; do
you understand?  And for father and mother too.  I want all
those titles carved on my tombstone.  They're facts, anyhow!
Don't laugh at me ...."  She broke off with one of her clumsy
smiles, and moved away from him to the other end of the room.

He sat looking at her with a curious feeling of admiration.  Her
harsh positivism was like a tonic to his disenchanted mood, and
he thought:  "What a pity!"

Aloud he said:  "I don't feel like laughing at you.  You're a
great woman."

"Then I shall be a great Princess."

"Oh--but you might have been something so much greater!"

Her face flamed again.  "Don't say that!"

He stood up involuntarily, and drew near her.

"Why not?"

"Because you're the only man with whom I can imagine the other
kind of greatness."

It moved him--moved him unexpectedly.  He got as far as saying
to himself:  "Good God, if she were not so hideously rich--" and
then of yielding for a moment to the persuasive vision of all
that he and she might do with those very riches which he
dreaded.  After all, there was nothing mean in her ideals they
were hard and material, in keeping with her primitive and
massive person; but they had a certain grim nobility.  And when
she spoke of "the other kind of greatness" he knew that she
understood what she was talking of, and was not merely saying
something to draw him on, to get him to commit himself.  There
was not a drop of guile in her, except that which her very
honesty distilled.

"The other kind of greatness?" he repeated.

"Well, isn't that what you said happiness was?  I wanted to be
happy ... but one can't choose."

He went up to her.  "No, one can't choose.  And how can anyone
give you happiness who hasn't got it himself?"  He took her
hands, feeling how large, muscular and voluntary they were, even
as they melted in his palms.

"My poor Coral, of what use can I ever be to you?  What you need
is to be loved."

She drew back and gave him one of her straight strong glances:
"No," she said gallantly, "but just to love."


Edith Wharton

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