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Chapter 27


XXVII

SUSY and Lord Altringham sat in the little drawing-room, divided
from each other by a table carrying a smoky lamp and heaped with
tattered school-books.

In another half hour the bonne, despatched to fetch the children
from their classes, would be back with her flock; and at any
moment Geordie's imperious cries might summon his slave up to
the nursery.  In the scant time allotted them, the two sat, and
visibly wondered what to say.

Strefford, on entering, had glanced about the dreary room, with
its piano laden with tattered music, the children's toys
littering the lame sofa, the bunches of dyed grass and impaled
butterflies flanking the cast-bronze clock.  Then he had turned
to Susy and asked simply:  "Why on earth are you here?"

She had not tried to explain; from the first, she had understood
the impossibility of doing so.  And she would not betray her
secret longing to return to Nick, now that she knew that Nick
had taken definite steps for his release.  In dread lest
Strefford should have heard of this, and should announce it to
her, coupling it with the news of Nick's projected marriage, and
lest, hearing her fears thus substantiated, she should lose her
self-control, she had preferred to say, in a voice that she
tried to make indifferent:  "The 'proceedings,' or whatever the
lawyers call them, have begun.  While they're going on I like to
stay quite by myself ....  I don't know why ...."

Strefford, at that, had looked at her keenly.  "Ah," he
murmured; and his lips were twisted into their old mocking
smile.  "Speaking of proceedings," he went on carelessly, "what
stage have Ellie's reached, I wonder?  I saw her and Vanderlyn
and Bockheimer all lunching cheerfully together to-day at
Larue's."

The blood rushed to Susy's forehead.  She remembered her tragic
evening with Nelson Vanderlyn, only two months earlier, and
thought to herself.  "In time, then, I suppose, Nick and I ....

Aloud she said:  "I can't imagine how Nelson and Ellie can ever
want to see each other again.  And in a restaurant, of all
places!"

Strefford continued to smile.  "My dear, you're incorrigibly
old-fashioned.  Why should two people who've done each other the
best turn they could by getting out of each other's way at the
right moment behave like sworn enemies ever afterward?  It's too
absurd; the humbug's too flagrant.  Whatever our generation has
failed to do, it's got rid of humbug; and that's enough to
immortalize it.  I daresay Nelson and Ellie never liked each
other better than they do to-day.  Twenty years ago, they'd have
been afraid to confess it; but why shouldn't they now?"

Susy looked at Strefford, conscious that under his words was the
ache of the disappointment she had caused him; and yet conscious
also that that very ache was not the overwhelming penetrating
emotion he perhaps wished it to be, but a pang on a par with a
dozen others; and that even while he felt it he foresaw the day
when he should cease to feel it.  And she thought to herself
that this certainty of oblivion must be bitterer than any
certainty of pain.

A silence had fallen between them.  He broke it by rising from
his seat, and saying with a shrug:  "You'll end by driving me to
marry Joan Senechal."

Susy smiled.  "Well, why not?  She's lovely."

"Yes; but she'll bore me."

"Poor Streff!  So should I--"

"Perhaps.  But nothing like as soon--" He grinned sardonically.
"There'd be more margin."  He appeared to wait for her to speak.
"And what else on earth are you going to do?" he concluded, as
she still remained silent.

"Oh, Streff, I couldn't marry you for a reason like that!" she
murmured at length.

"Then marry me, and find your reason afterward."

Her lips made a movement of denial, and still in silence she
held out her hand for good-bye.  He clasped it, and then turned
away; but on the threshold he paused, his screwed-up eyes fixed
on her wistfully.

The look moved her, and she added hurriedly:  "The only reason I
can find is one for not marrying you.  It's because I can't yet
feel unmarried enough."

"Unmarried enough?  But I thought Nick was doing his best to
make you feel that."

"Yes.  But even when he has--sometimes I think even that won't
make any difference."

He still scrutinized her hesitatingly, with the gravest eyes she
had ever seen in his careless face.

"My dear, that's rather the way I feel about you," he said
simply as he turned to go.

That evening after the children had gone to bed Susy sat up late
in the cheerless sitting-room.  She was not thinking of
Strefford but of Nick.  He was coming to Paris--perhaps he had
already arrived.  The idea that he might be in the same place
with her at that very moment, and without her knowing it, was so
strange and painful that she felt a violent revolt of all her
strong and joy-loving youth.  Why should she go on suffering so
unbearably, so abjectly, so miserably?  If only she could see
him, hear his voice, even hear him say again such cruel and
humiliating words as he had spoken on that dreadful day in
Venice when that would be better than this blankness, this utter
and final exclusion from his life!  He had been cruel to her,
unimaginably cruel:  hard, arrogant, unjust; and had been so,
perhaps, deliberately, because he already wanted to be free.
But she was ready to face even that possibility, to humble
herself still farther than he had humbled her--she was ready to
do anything, if only she might see him once again.

She leaned her aching head on her hands and pondered.  Do
anything?  But what could she do?  Nothing that should hurt him,
interfere with his liberty, be false to the spirit of their
pact:  on that she was more than ever resolved.  She had made a
bargain, and she meant to stick to it, not for any abstract
reason, but simply because she happened to love him in that way.
Yes--but to see him again, only once!

Suddenly she remembered what Strefford had said about Nelson
Vanderlyn and his wife.  "Why should two people who've just done
each other the best turn they could behave like sworn enemies
ever after?"  If in offering Nick his freedom she had indeed
done him such a service as that, perhaps he no longer hated her,
would no longer be unwilling to see her ....  At any rate, why
should she not write to him on that assumption, write in a
spirit of simple friendliness, suggesting that they should meet
and "settle things"?  The business-like word "settle" (how she
hated it) would prove to him that she had no secret designs upon
his liberty; and besides he was too unprejudiced, too modern,
too free from what Strefford called humbug, not to understand
and accept such a suggestion.  After all, perhaps Strefford was
right; it was something to have rid human relations of
hypocrisy, even if, in the process, so many exquisite things
seemed somehow to have been torn away with it ....

She ran up to her room, scribbled a note, and hurried with it
through the rain and darkness to the post-box at the corner.  As
she returned through the empty street she had an odd feeling
that it was not empty--that perhaps Nick was already there,
somewhere near her in the night, about to follow her to the
door, enter the house, go up with her to her bedroom in the old
way.  It was strange how close he had been brought by the mere
fact of her having written that little note to him!

In the bedroom, Geordie lay in his crib in ruddy slumber, and
she blew out the candle and undressed softly for fear of waking
him.

Nick Lansing, the next day, received Susy's letter, transmitted
to his hotel from the lawyer's office.

He read it carefully, two or three times over, weighing and
scrutinizing the guarded words.  She proposed that they should
meet to "settle things."  What things?  And why should he accede
to such a request?  What secret purpose had prompted her?  It
was horrible that nowadays, in thinking of Susy, he should
always suspect ulterior motives, be meanly on the watch for some
hidden tortuousness.  What on earth was she trying to "manage"
now, he wondered.

A few hours ago, at the sight of her, all his hardness had
melted, and he had charged himself with cruelty, with injustice,
with every sin of pride against himself and her; but the
appearance of Strefford, arriving at that late hour, and so
evidently expected and welcomed, had driven back the rising tide
of tenderness.

Yet, after all, what was there to wonder at?  Nothing was
changed in their respective situations.  He had left his wife,
deliberately, and for reasons which no subsequent experience had
caused him to modify.  She had apparently acquiesced in his
decision, and had utilized it, as she was justified in doing, to
assure her own future.

In all this, what was there to wail or knock the breast between
two people who prided themselves on looking facts in the face,
and making their grim best of them, without vain repinings?  He
had been right in thinking their marriage an act of madness.
Her charms had overruled his judgment, and they had had their
year ... their mad year ... or at least all but two or three
months of it.  But his first intuition had been right; and now
they must both pay for their madness.  The Fates seldom forget
the bargains made with them, or fail to ask for compound
interest.  Why not, then, now that the time had come, pay up
gallantly, and remember of the episode only what had made it
seem so supremely worth the cost?

He sent a pneumatic telegram to Mrs. Nicholas Lansing to say
that he would call on her that afternoon at four.  "That ought
to give us time," he reflected drily, "to 'settle things,' as
she calls it, without interfering with Strefford's afternoon
visit."


Edith Wharton

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