Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 25


PART III, XXV

IN the persistent drizzle of a Paris winter morning Susy Lansing
walked back alone from the school at which she had just
deposited the four eldest Fulmers to the little house in Passy
where, for the last two months, she had been living with them.

She had on ready-made boots, an old waterproof and a last year's
hat; but none of these facts disturbed her, though she took no
particular pride in them.  The truth was that she was too busy
to think much about them.  Since she had assumed the charge of
the Fulmer children, in the absence of both their parents in
Italy, she had had to pass through such an arduous
apprenticeship of motherhood that every moment of her waking
hours was packed with things to do at once, and other things to
remember to do later.  There were only five Fulmers; but at
times they were like an army with banners, and their power of
self-multiplication was equalled only by the manner in which
they could dwindle, vanish, grow mute, and become as it were a
single tumbled brown head bent over a book in some corner of the
house in which nobody would ever have thought of hunting for
them--and which, of course, were it the bonne's room in the
attic, or the subterranean closet where the trunks were kept,
had been singled out by them for that very reason.

These changes from ubiquity to invisibility would have seemed to
Susy, a few months earlier, one of the most maddening of many
characteristics not calculated to promote repose.  But now she
felt differently.  She had grown interested in her charges, and
the search for a clue to their methods, whether tribal or
individual, was as exciting to her as the development of a
detective story.

What interested her most in the whole stirring business was the
discovery that they had a method.  These little creatures,
pitched upward into experience on the tossing waves of their
parents' agitated lives, had managed to establish a rough-and-
ready system of self-government.  Junie, the eldest (the one who
already chose her mother's hats, and tried to put order in her
wardrobe) was the recognized head of the state.  At twelve she
knew lots of things which her mother had never thoroughly
learned, and Susy, her temporary mother, had never even guessed
at:  she spoke with authority on all vital subjects, from
castor-oil to flannel under-clothes, from the fair sharing of
stamps or marbles to the number of helpings of rice-pudding or
jam which each child was entitled to.

There was hardly any appeal from her verdict; yet each of her
subjects revolved in his or her own orbit of independence,
according to laws which Junie acknowledged and respected; and
the interpreting of this mysterious charter of rights and
privileges had not been without difficulty for Susy.

Besides this, there were material difficulties to deal with.
The six of them, and the breathless bonne who cooked and slaved
for them all, had but a slim budget to live on; and, as Junie
remarked, you'd have thought the boys ate their shoes, the way
they vanished.  They ate, certainly, a great deal else, and
mostly of a nourishing and expensive kind.  They had definite
views about the amount and quality of their food, and were
capable of concerted rebellion when Susy's catering fell beneath
their standard.  All this made her life a hurried and harassing
business, but never-- what she had most feared it would be a
dull or depressing one.

It was not, she owned to herself, that the society of the Fulmer
children had roused in her any abstract passion for the human
young.  She knew--had known since Nick's first kiss--how she
would love any child of his and hers; and she had cherished poor
little Clarissa Vanderlyn with a shrinking and wistful
solicitude.  But in these rough young Fulmers she took a
positive delight, and for reasons that were increasingly clear
to her.  It was because, in the first place, they were all
intelligent; and because their intelligence had been fed only on
things worth caring for.  However inadequate Grace Fulmer's
bringing-up of her increasing tribe had been, they had heard in
her company nothing trivial or dull:  good music, good books and
good talk had been their daily food, and if at times they
stamped and roared and crashed about like children unblessed by
such privileges, at others they shone with the light of poetry
and spoke with the voice of wisdom.

That had been Susy's discovery:  for the first time she was
among awakening minds which had been wakened only to beauty.
>From their cramped and uncomfortable household Grace and Nat
Fulmer had managed to keep out mean envies, vulgar admirations,
shabby discontents; above all the din and confusion the great
images of beauty had brooded, like those ancestral figures that
stood apart on their shelf in the poorest Roman households.

No, the task she had undertaken for want of a better gave Susy
no sense of a missed vocation:  "mothering" on a large scale
would never, she perceived, be her job.  Rather it gave her, in
odd ways, the sense of being herself mothered, of taking her
first steps in the life of immaterial values which had begun to
seem so much more substantial than any she had known.

On the day when she had gone to Grace Fulmer for counsel and
comfort she had little guessed that they would come to her in
this form.  She had found her friend, more than ever distracted
and yet buoyant, riding the large untidy waves of her life with
the splashed ease of an amphibian.  Grace was probably the only
person among Susy's friends who could have understood why she
could not make up her mind to marry Altringham; but at the
moment Grace was too much absorbed in her own problems to pay
much attention to her friend's, and, according to her wont, she
immediately "unpacked" her difficulties.

Nat was not getting what she had hoped out of his European
opportunity.  Oh, she was enough of an artist herself to know
that there must be fallow periods--that the impact of new
impressions seldom produced immediate results.  She had allowed
for all that.  But her past experience of Nat's moods had taught
her to know just when he was assimilating, when impressions were
fructifying in him.  And now they were not, and he knew it as
well as she did.  There had been too much rushing about, too
much excitement and sterile flattery ... Mrs. Melrose?  Well,
yes, for a while ... the trip to Spain had been a love-journey,
no doubt.  Grace spoke calmly, but the lines of her face
sharpened:  she had suffered, oh horribly, at his going to Spain
without her.  Yet she couldn't, for the children's sake, afford
to miss the big sum that Ursula Gillow had given her for her
fortnight at Ruan.  And her playing had struck people, and led,
on the way back, to two or three profitable engagements in
private houses in London.  Fashionable society had made "a
little fuss" about her, and it had surprised and pleased Nat,
and given her a new importance in his eyes.  "He was beginning
to forget that I wasn't only a nursery-maid, and it's been a
good thing for him to be reminded ... but the great thing is
that with what I've earned he and I can go off to southern Italy
and Sicily for three months.  You know I know how to manage ...
and, alone with me, Nat will settle down to work:  to observing,
feeling, soaking things in.  It's the only way. Mrs. Melrose
wants to take him, to pay all the expenses again-well she
shan't.  I'll pay them."  Her worn cheek flushed with triumph.
"And you'll see what wonders will come of it ....  Only there's
the problem of the children.  Junie quite agrees that we can't
take them ...."

Thereupon she had unfolded her idea.  If Susy was at a loose
end, and hard up, why shouldn't she take charge of the children
while their parents were in Italy?  For three months at most-
Grace could promise it shouldn't be longer.  They couldn't pay
her much, of course, but at least she would be lodged and fed.
"And, you know, it will end by interesting you--I'm sure it
will," the mother concluded, her irrepressible hopefulness
rising even to this height, while Susy stood before her with a
hesitating smile.

Take care of five Fulmers for three months!  The prospect cowed
her.  If there had been only Junie and Geordie, the oldest and
youngest of the band, she might have felt less hesitation.  But
there was Nat, the second in age, whose motor-horn had driven
her and Nick out to the hill-side on their fatal day at the
Fulmers' and there were the twins, Jack and Peggy, of whom she
had kept memories almost equally disquieting.  To rule this
uproarious tribe would be a sterner business than trying to
beguile Clarissa Vanderlyn's ladylike leisure; and she would
have refused on the spot, as she had refused once before, if the
only possible alternatives had not come to seem so much less
bearable, and if Junie, called in for advice, and standing
there, small, plain and competent, had not said in her quiet
grown-up voice:  "Oh, yes, I'm sure Mrs. Lansing and I can
manage while you're away--especially if she reads aloud well."

Reads aloud well!  The stipulation had enchanted Susy.  She had
never before known children who cared to be read aloud to; she
remembered with a shiver her attempts to interest Clarissa in
anything but gossip and the fashions, and the tone in which the
child had said, showing Strefford's trinket to her father:
"Because I said I'd rather have it than a book."

And here were children who consented to be left for three months
by their parents, but on condition that a good reader was
provided for them!

"Very well--I will!  But what shall I be expected to read to
you?" she had gaily questioned; and Junie had answered, after
one of her sober pauses of reflection:  "The little ones like
nearly everything; but Nat and I want poetry particularly,
because if we read it to ourselves we so often pronounce the
puzzling words wrong, and then it sounds so horrid."

"Oh, I hope I shall pronounce them right," Susy murmured,
stricken with self-distrust and humility.

Apparently she did; for her reading was a success, and even the
twins and Geordie, once they had grown used to her, seemed to
prefer a ringing page of Henry V, or the fairy scenes from the
Midsummer Night's Dream, to their own more specialized
literature, though that had also at times to be provided.

There were, in fact, no lulls in her life with the Fulmers; but
its commotions seemed to Susy less meaningless, and therefore
less fatiguing, than those that punctuated the existence of
people like Altringham, Ursula Gillow, Ellie Vanderlyn and their
train; and the noisy uncomfortable little house at Passy was
beginning to greet her with the eyes of home when she returned
there after her tramps to and from the children's classes.  At
any rate she had the sense of doing something useful and even
necessary, and of earning her own keep, though on so modest a
scale; and when the children were in their quiet mood, and
demanded books or music (or, even, on one occasion, at the
surprising Junie's instigation, a collective visit to the
Louvre, where they recognized the most unlikely pictures, and
the two elders emitted startling technical judgments, and called
their companion's attention to details she had not observed); on
these occasions, Susy had a surprised sense of being drawn back
into her brief life with Nick, or even still farther and deeper,
into those visions of Nick's own childhood on which the trivial
later years had heaped their dust.

It was curious to think that if he and she had remained
together, and she had had a child--the vision used to come to
her, in her sleepless hours, when she looked at little Geordie,
in his cot by her bed--their life together might have been very
much like the life she was now leading, a small obscure business
to the outer world, but to themselves how wide and deep and
crowded!

She could not bear, at that moment, the thought of giving up
this mystic relation to the life she had missed.  In spite of
the hurry and fatigue of her days, the shabbiness and discomfort
of everything, and the hours when the children were as "horrid"
as any other children, and turned a conspiracy of hostile faces
to all her appeals; in spite of all this she did not want to
give them up, and had decided, when their parents returned, to
ask to go back to America with them.  Perhaps, if Nat's success
continued, and Grace was able to work at her music, they would
need a kind of governess-companion.  At any rate, she could
picture no future less distasteful.

She had not sent to Mr. Spearman Nick's answer to her letter.
In the interval between writing to him and receiving his reply
she had broken with Strefford; she had therefore no object in
seeking her freedom.  If Nick wanted his, he knew he had only to
ask for it; and his silence, as the weeks passed, woke a faint
hope in her.  The hope flamed high when she read one day in the
newspapers a vague but evidently "inspired" allusion to the
possibility of an alliance between his Serene Highness the
reigning Prince of Teutoburg-Waldhain and Miss Coral Hicks of
Apex City; it sank to ashes when, a few days later, her eye lit
on a paragraph wherein Mr. and Mrs. Mortimer Hicks "requested to
state" that there was no truth in the report.

On the foundation of these two statements Susy raised one watch-
tower of hope after another, feverish edifices demolished or
rebuilt by every chance hint from the outer world wherein Nick's
name figured with the Hickses'.  And still, as the days passed
and she heard nothing, either from him or from her lawyer, her
flag continued to fly from the quaking structures.

Apart from the custody of the children there was indeed little
to distract her mind from these persistent broodings.  She
winced sometimes at the thought of the ease with which her
fashionable friends had let her drop out of sight.  In the
perpetual purposeless rush of their days, the feverish making of
winter plans, hurrying off to the Riviera or St. Moritz, Egypt
or New York, there was no time to hunt up the vanished or to
wait for the laggard.  Had they learned that she had broken her
"engagement" (how she hated the word!) to Strefford, and had the
fact gone about that she was once more only a poor hanger-on, to
be taken up when it was convenient, and ignored in the
intervals?  She did not know; though she fancied Strefford's
newly-developed pride would prevent his revealing to any one
what had passed between them.  For several days after her abrupt
flight he had made no sign; and though she longed to write and
ask his forgiveness she could not find the words.  Finally it
was he who wrote:  a short note, from Altringham, typical of all
that was best in the old Strefford.  He had gone down to
Altringham, he told her, to think quietly over their last talk,
and try to understand what she had been driving at.  He had to
own that he couldn't; but that, he supposed, was the very head
and front of his offending.  Whatever he had done to displease
her, he was sorry for; but he asked, in view of his invincible
ignorance, to be allowed not to regard his offence as a cause
for a final break.  The possibility of that, he found, would
make him even more unhappy than he had foreseen; as she knew,
his own happiness had always been his first object in life, and
he therefore begged her to suspend her decision a little longer.
He expected to be in Paris within another two months, and before
arriving he would write again, and ask her to see him.

The letter moved her but did not make her waver.  She simply
wrote that she was touched by his kindness, and would willingly
see him if he came to Paris later; though she was bound to tell
him that she had not yet changed her mind, and did not believe
it would promote his happiness to have her try to do so.

He did not reply to this, and there was nothing further to keep
her thoughts from revolving endlessly about her inmost hopes and
fears.

On the rainy afternoon in question, tramping home from the
"cours" (to which she was to return at six), she had said to
herself that it was two months that very day since Nick had
known she was ready to release him--and that after such a delay
he was not likely to take any further steps.  The thought filled
her with a vague ecstasy.  She had had to fix an arbitrary date
as the term of her anguish, and she had fixed that one; and
behold she was justified.  For what could his silence mean but
that he too ....

On the hall-table lay a typed envelope with the Paris postage-
mark.  She opened it carelessly, and saw that the letter-head
bore Mr. Spearman's office address.  The words beneath spun
round before her eyes ....  "Has notified us that he is at your
disposal ... carry out your wishes ... arriving in Paris ... fix
an appointment with his lawyers ...."

Nick--it was Nick the words were talking of!  It was the fact of
Nick's return to Paris that was being described in those
preposterous terms!  She sank down on the bench beside the
dripping umbrella-stand and stared vacantly before her.  It had
fallen at last--this blow in which she now saw that she had
never really believed!  And yet she had imagined she was
prepared for it, had expected it, was already planning her
future life in view of it--an effaced impersonal life in the
service of somebody else's children--when, in reality, under
that thin surface of abnegation and acceptance, all the old
hopes had been smouldering red-hot in their ashes!  What was the
use of any self-discipline, any philosophy, any experience, if
the lawless self underneath could in an instant consume them
like tinder?

She tried to collect herself--to understand what had happened.
Nick was coming to Paris--coming not to see her but to consult
his lawyer!  It meant, of course, that he had definitely
resolved to claim his freedom; and that, if he had made up his
mind to this final step, after more than six months of inaction
and seeming indifference, it could be only because something
unforeseen and decisive had happened to him.  Feverishly, she
put together again the stray scraps of gossip and the newspaper
paragraphs that had reached her in the last months.  It was
evident that Miss Hicks's projected marriage with the Prince of
Teutoburg-Waldhain had been broken off at the last moment; and
broken off because she intended to marry Nick.  The announcement
of his arrival in Paris and the publication of Mr. and Mrs.
Hicks's formal denial of their daughter's betrothal coincided
too closely to admit of any other inference.  Susy tried to
grasp the reality of these assembled facts, to picture to
herself their actual tangible results.  She thought of Coral
Hicks bearing the name of Mrs. Nick Lansing--her name, Susy's
own!--and entering drawing-rooms with Nick in her wake, gaily
welcomed by the very people who, a few months before, had
welcomed Susy with the same warmth.  In spite of Nick's growing
dislike of society, and Coral's attitude of intellectual
superiority, their wealth would fatally draw them back into the
world to which Nick was attached by all his habits and
associations.  And no doubt it would amuse him to re-enter that
world as a dispenser of hospitality, to play the part of host
where he had so long been a guest; just as Susy had once fancied
it would amuse her to re-enter it as Lady Altringham ....  But,
try as she would, now that the reality was so close on her, she
could not visualize it or relate it to herself.  The mere
juxtaposition of the two names--Coral, Nick--which in old times
she had so often laughingly coupled, now produced a blur in her
brain.

She continued to sit helplessly beside the hall-table, the tears
running down her cheeks.  The appearance of the bonne aroused
her.  Her youngest charge, Geordie, had been feverish for a day
or two; he was better, but still confined to the nursery, and he
had heard Susy unlock the house-door, and could not imagine why
she had not come straight up to him.  He now began to manifest
his indignation in a series of racking howls, and Susy, shaken
out of her trance, dropped her cloak and umbrella and hurried
up.

"Oh, that child!" she groaned.

Under the Fulmer roof there was little time or space for the
indulgence of private sorrows.  From morning till night there
was always some immediate practical demand on one's attention;
and Susy was beginning to see how, in contracted households,
children may play a part less romantic but not less useful than
that assigned to them in fiction, through the mere fact of
giving their parents no leisure to dwell on irremediable
grievances.  Though her own apprenticeship to family life had
been so short, she had already acquired the knack of rapid
mental readjustment, and as she hurried up to the nursery her
private cares were dispelled by a dozen problems of temperature,
diet and medicine.

Such readjustment was of course only momentary; yet each time it
happened it seemed to give her more firmness and flexibility of
temper.  "What a child I was myself six months ago!" she
thought, wondering that Nick's influence, and the tragedy of
their parting, should have done less to mature and steady her
than these few weeks in a house full of children.

Pacifying Geordie was not easy, for he had long since learned to
use his grievances as a pretext for keeping the offender at his
beck with a continuous supply of stories, songs and games.
"You'd better be careful never to put yourself in the wrong with
Geordie," the astute Junie had warned Susy at the outset,
"because he's got such a memory, and he won't make it up with
you till you've told him every fairy-tale he's ever heard
before."

But on this occasion, as soon as he saw her, Geordie's
indignation melted.  She was still in the doorway, compunctious,
abject and racking her dazed brain for his favourite stories,
when she saw, by the smoothing out of his mouth and the sudden
serenity of his eyes, that he was going to give her the
delicious but not wholly reassuring shock of being a good boy.

Thoughtfully he examined her face as she knelt down beside the
cot; then he poked out a finger and pressed it on her tearful
cheek.

"Poor Susy got a pain too," he said, putting his arms about her;
and as she hugged him close, he added philosophically: "Tell
Geordie a new story, darling, and you'll forget all about it."


Edith Wharton

Sorry, no summary available yet.