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Chapter 26


XXVI

NICK Lansing arrived in Paris two days after his lawyer had
announced his coming to Mr. Spearman.

He had left Rome with the definite purpose of freeing himself
and Susy; and though he was not pledged to Coral Hicks he had
not concealed from her the object of his journey.  In vain had
he tried to rouse in himself any sense of interest in his own
future.  Beyond the need of reaching a definite point in his
relation to Susy his imagination could not travel.  But he had
been moved by Coral's confession, and his reason told him that
he and she would probably be happy together, with the temperate
happiness based on a community of tastes and an enlargement of
opportunities.  He meant, on his return to Rome, to ask her to
marry him; and he knew that she knew it.  Indeed, if he had not
spoken before leaving it was with no idea of evading his fate,
or keeping her longer in suspense, but simply because of the
strange apathy that had fallen on him since he had received
Susy's letter.  In his incessant self-communings he dressed up
this apathy as a discretion which forbade his engaging Coral's
future till his own was assured.  But in truth he knew that
Coral's future was already engaged, and his with it:  in Rome
the fact had seemed natural and even inevitable.

In Paris, it instantly became the thinnest of unrealities.  Not
because Paris was not Rome, nor because it was Paris; but
because hidden away somewhere in that vast unheeding labyrinth
was the half-forgotten part of himself that was Susy ....  For
weeks, for months past, his mind had been saturated with Susy:
she had never seemed more insistently near him than as their
separation lengthened, and the chance of reunion became less
probable.  It was as if a sickness long smouldering in him had
broken out and become acute, enveloping him in the Nessus-shirt
of his memories.  There were moments when, to his memory, their
actual embraces seemed perfunctory, accidental, compared with
this deep deliberate imprint of her soul on his.

Yet now it had become suddenly different.  Now that he was in
the same place with her, and might at any moment run across her,
meet her eyes, hear her voice, avoid her hand--now that
penetrating ghost of her with which he had been living was
sucked back into the shadows, and he seemed, for the first time
since their parting, to be again in her actual presence.  He
woke to the fact on the morning of his arrival, staring down
from his hotel window on a street she would perhaps walk through
that very day, and over a limitless huddle of roofs, one of
which covered her at that hour.  The abruptness of the
transition startled him; he had not known that her mere
geographical nearness would take him by the throat in that way.
What would it be, then, if she were to walk into the room?

Thank heaven that need never happen!  He was sufficiently
informed as to French divorce proceedings to know that they
would not necessitate a confrontation with his wife; and with
ordinary luck, and some precautions, he might escape even a
distant glimpse of her.  He did not mean to remain in Paris more
than a few days; and during that time it would be easy--knowing,
as he did, her tastes and Altringham's--to avoid the places
where she was likely to be met.  He did not know where she was
living, but imagined her to be staying with Mrs. Melrose, or
some other rich friend, or else lodged, in prospective
affluence, at the Nouveau Luxe, or in a pretty flat of her own.
Trust Susy--ah, the pang of it--to "manage"!

His first visit was to his lawyer's; and as he walked through
the familiar streets each approaching face, each distant figure
seemed hers.  The obsession was intolerable.  It would not last,
of course; but meanwhile he had the exposed sense of a fugitive
in a nightmare, who feels himself the only creature visible in a
ghostly and besetting multitude.  The eye of the metropolis
seemed fixed on him in an immense unblinking stare.

At the lawyer's he was told that, as a first step to freedom, he
must secure a domicile in Paris.  He had of course known of this
necessity:  he had seen too many friends through the Divorce
Court, in one country or another, not to be fairly familiar with
the procedure.  But the fact presented a different aspect as
soon as he tried to relate it to himself and Susy:  it was as
though Susy's personality were a medium through which events
still took on a transfiguring colour.  He found the "domicile"
that very day:  a tawdrily furnished rez-de-chaussee, obviously
destined to far different uses.  And as he sat there, after the
concierge had discreetly withdrawn with the first quarter's
payment in her pocket, and stared about him at the vulgar plushy
place, he burst out laughing at what it was about to figure in
the eyes of the law:  a Home, and a Home desecrated by his own
act!  The Home in which he and Susy had reared their precarious
bliss, and seen it crumble at the brutal touch of his
unfaithfulness and his cruelty--for he had been told that he
must be cruel to her as well as unfaithful!  He looked at the
walls hung with sentimental photogravures, at the shiny bronze
"nudes," the moth-eaten animal-skins and the bedizened bed-and
once more the unreality, the impossibility, of all that was
happening to him entered like a drug into his veins.

To rouse himself he stood up, turned the key on the hideous
place, and returned to his lawyer's.  He knew that in the hard
dry atmosphere of the office the act of giving the address of
the flat would restore some kind of reality to the phantasmal
transaction.  And with wonder he watched the lawyer, as a matter
of course, pencil the street and the number on one of the papers
enclosed in a folder on which his own name was elaborately
engrossed.

As he took leave it occurred to him to ask where Susy was
living.  At least he imagined that it had just occurred to him,
and that he was making the enquiry merely as a measure of
precaution, in order to know what quarter of Paris to avoid; but
in reality the question had been on his lips since he had first
entered the office, and lurking in his mind since he had emerged
from the railway station that morning.  The fact of not knowing
where she lived made the whole of Paris a meaningless
unintelligible place, as useless to him as the face of a huge
clock that has lost its hour hand.

The address in Passy surprised him:  he had imagined that she
would be somewhere in the neighborhood of the Champs Elysees or
the Place de l'Etoile.  But probably either Mrs. Melrose or
Ellie Vanderlyn had taken a house at Passy.  Well--it was
something of a relief to know that she was so far off.  No
business called him to that almost suburban region beyond the
Trocadero, and there was much less chance of meeting her than if
she had been in the centre of Paris.

All day he wandered, avoiding the fashionable quarters, the
streets in which private motors glittered five deep, and furred
and feathered silhouettes glided from them into tea-rooms,
picture-galleries and jewellers' shops.  In some such scenes
Susy was no doubt figuring:  slenderer, finer, vivider, than the
other images of clay, but imitating their gestures, chattering
their jargon, winding her hand among the same pearls and sables.
He struck away across the Seine, along the quays to the Cite,
the net-work of old Paris, the great grey vaults of St.
Eustache, the swarming streets of the Marais.  He gazed at
monuments dawdled before shop-windows, sat in squares and on
quays, watching people bargain, argue, philander, quarrel, work-
girls stroll past in linked bands, beggars whine on the bridges,
derelicts doze in the pale winter sun, mothers in mourning
hasten by taking children to school, and street-walkers beat
their weary rounds before the cafes.

The day drifted on.  Toward evening he began to grow afraid of
his solitude, and to think of dining at the Nouveau Luxe, or
some other fashionable restaurant where he would be fairly sure
to meet acquaintances, and be carried off to a theatre, a boite
or a dancing-hall.  Anything, anything now, to get away from the
maddening round of his thoughts.  He felt the same blank fear of
solitude as months ago in Genoa ....  Even if he were to run
across Susy and Altringham, what of it?  Better get the job
over.  People had long since ceased to take on tragedy airs
about divorce:  dividing couples dined together to the last, and
met afterward in each other's houses, happy in the consciousness
that their respective remarriages had provided two new centres
of entertainment.  Yet most of the couples who took their re-
matings so philosophically had doubtless had their hour of
enchantment, of belief in the immortality of loving; whereas he
and Susy had simply and frankly entered into a business contract
for their mutual advantage.  The fact gave the last touch of
incongruity to his agonies and exaltations, and made him appear
to himself as grotesque and superannuated as the hero of a
romantic novel.

He stood up from a bench on which he had been lounging in the
Luxembourg gardens, and hailed a taxi.  Dusk had fallen, and he
meant to go back to his hotel, take a rest, and then go out to
dine.  But instead, he threw Susy's address to the driver, and
settled down in the cab, resting both hands on the knob of his
umbrella and staring straight ahead of him as if he were
accomplishing some tiresome duty that had to be got through with
before he could turn his mind to more important things.

"It's the easiest way," he heard himself say.

At the street-corner--her street-corner--he stopped the cab, and
stood motionless while it rattled away.  It was a short vague
street, much farther off than he had expected, and fading away
at the farther end in a dusky blur of hoardings overhung by
trees.  A thin rain was beginning to fall, and it was already
night in this inadequately lit suburban quarter.  Lansing walked
down the empty street.  The houses stood a few yards apart, with
bare-twigged shrubs between, and gates and railings dividing
them from the pavement.  He could not, at first, distinguish
their numbers; but presently, coming abreast of a street-lamp,
he discovered that the small shabby facade it illuminated was
precisely the one he sought.  The discovery surprised him.  He
had imagined that, as frequently happened in the outlying
quarters of Passy and La Muette, the mean street would lead to a
stately private hotel, built upon some bowery fragment of an old
country-place.  It was the latest whim of the wealthy to
establish themselves on these outskirts of Paris, where there
was still space for verdure; and he had pictured Susy behind
some pillared house-front, with lights pouring across glossy
turf to sculptured gateposts.  Instead, he saw a six-windowed
house, huddled among neighbours of its kind, with the family
wash fluttering between meagre bushes.  The arc-light beat
ironically on its front, which had the worn look of a tired
work-woman's face; and Lansing, as he leaned against the
opposite railing, vainly tried to fit his vision of Susy into so
humble a setting.

The probable explanation was that his lawyer had given him the
wrong address; not only the wrong number but the wrong street.
He pulled out the slip of paper, and was crossing over to
decipher it under the lamp, when an errand-boy appeared out of
the obscurity, and approached the house.  Nick drew back, and
the boy, unlatching the gate, ran up the steps and gave the bell
a pull.

Almost immediately the door opened; and there stood Susy, the
light full upon her, and upon a red-checked child against her
shoulder.  The space behind them was dark, or so dimly lit that
it formed a black background to her vivid figure.  She looked at
the errand-boy without surprise, took his parcel, and after he
had turned away, lingered a moment in the door, glancing down
the empty street.

That moment, to her watcher, seemed quicker than a flash yet as
long as a life-time.  There she was, a stone's throw away, but
utterly unconscious of his presence:  his Susy, the old Susy,
and yet a new Susy, curiously transformed, transfigured almost,
by the new attitude in which he beheld her.

In the first shock of the vision he forgot his surprise at her
being in such a place, forgot to wonder whose house she was in,
or whose was the sleepy child in her arms.  For an instant she
stood out from the blackness behind her, and through the veil of
the winter night, a thing apart, an unconditioned vision, the
eternal image of the woman and the child; and in that instant
everything within him was changed and renewed.  His eyes were
still absorbing her, finding again the familiar curves of her
light body, noting the thinness of the lifted arm that upheld
the little boy, the droop of the shoulder he weighed on, the
brooding way in which her cheek leaned to his even while she
looked away; then she drew back, the door closed, and the
street-lamp again shone on blankness.

"But she's mine!"  Nick cried, in a fierce triumph of
recovery ...

His eyes were so full of her that he shut them to hold in the
crowding vision.

It remained with him, at first, as a complete picture; then
gradually it broke up into its component parts, the child
vanished, the strange house vanished, and Susy alone stood
before him, his own Susy, only his Susy, yet changed, worn,
tempered--older, even--with sharper shadows under the cheek-
bones, the brows drawn, the joint of the slim wrist more
prominent.  It was not thus that his memory had evoked her, and
he recalled, with a remorseful pang, the fact that something in
her look, her dress, her tired and drooping attitude, suggested
poverty, dependence, seemed to make her after all a part of the
shabby house in which, at first sight, her presence had seemed
so incongruous.

"But she looks poor!" he thought, his heart tightening.  And
instantly it occurred to him that these must be the Fulmer
children whom she was living with while their parents travelled
in Italy.  Rumours of Nat Fulmer's sudden ascension had reached
him, and he had heard that the couple had lately been seen in
Naples and Palermo.  No one had mentioned Susy's name in
connection with them, and he could hardly tell why he had
arrived at this conclusion, except perhaps because it seemed
natural that, if Susy were in trouble, she should turn to her
old friend Grace.

But why in trouble?  What trouble?  What could have happened to
check her triumphant career?

"That's what I mean to find out!" he exclaimed.

His heart was beating with a tumult of new hopes and old
memories.  The sight of his wife, so remote in mien and manner
from the world in which he had imagined her to be re-absorbed,
changed in a flash his own relation to life, and flung a mist of
unreality over all that he had been trying to think most solid
and tangible.  Nothing now was substantial to him but the stones
of the street in which he stood, the front of the house which
hid her, the bell-handle he already felt in his grasp.  He
started forward, and was halfway to the threshold when a private
motor turned the corner, the twin glitter of its lamps carpeting
the wet street with gold to Susy's door.

Lansing drew back into the shadow as the motor swept up to the
house.  A man jumped out, and the light fell on Strefford's
shambling figure, its lazy disjointed movements so unmistakably
the same under his fur coat, and in the new setting of
prosperity.

Lansing stood motionless, staring at the door.  Strefford rang,
and waited.  Would Susy appear again?  Perhaps she had done so
before only because she had been on the watch ....

But no:  after a slight delay a bonne appeared --the breathless
maid-of-all-work of a busy household--and at once effaced
herself, letting the visitor in.  Lansing was sure that not a
word passed between the two, of enquiry on Lord Altringham's
part, or of acquiescence on the servant's.  There could be no
doubt that he was expected.

The door closed on him, and a light appeared behind the blind of
the adjoining window.  The maid had shown the visitor into the
sitting-room and lit the lamp.  Upstairs, meanwhile, Susy was no
doubt running skilful fingers through her tumbled hair and
daubing her pale lips with red.  Ah, how Lansing knew every
movement of that familiar rite, even to the pucker of the brow
and the pouting thrust-out of the lower lip!  He was seized with
a sense of physical sickness as the succession of remembered
gestures pressed upon his eyes ....  And the other man?  The
other man, inside the house, was perhaps at that very instant
smiling over the remembrance of the same scene!

At the thought, Lansing plunged away into the night.


Edith Wharton

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