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Chapter 3


III.

THEIR month of Como was within a few hours of ending.  Till the
last moment they had hoped for a reprieve; but the accommodating
Streffy had been unable to put the villa at their disposal for a
longer time, since he had had the luck to let it for a thumping
price to some beastly bouncers who insisted on taking possession
at the date agreed on.

Lansing, leaving Susy's side at dawn, had gone down to the lake
for a last plunge; and swimming homeward through the crystal
light he looked up at the garden brimming with flowers, the long
low house with the cypress wood above it, and the window behind
which his wife still slept.  The month had been exquisite, and
their happiness as rare, as fantastically complete, as the scene
before him.  He sank his chin into the sunlit ripples and sighed
for sheer content ....

It was a bore to be leaving the scene of such complete
well-being, but the next stage in their progress promised to be
hardly less delightful.  Susy was a magician: everything she
predicted came true.  Houses were being showered on them; on all
sides he seemed to see beneficent spirits winging toward them,
laden with everything from a piano nobile in Venice to a camp in
the Adirondacks.  For the present, they had decided on the
former.  Other considerations apart, they dared not risk the
expense of a journey across the Atlantic; so they were heading
instead for the Nelson Vanderlyns' palace on the Giudecca.  They
were agreed that, for reasons of expediency, it might be wise to
return to New York for the coming winter.  It would keep them in
view, and probably lead to fresh opportunities; indeed, Susy
already had in mind the convenient flat that she was sure a
migratory cousin (if tactfully handled, and assured that they
would not overwork her cook) could certainly be induced to lend
them.  Meanwhile the need of making plans was still remote; and
if there was one art in which young Lansing's twenty-eight years
of existence had perfected him it was that of living completely
and unconcernedly in the present ....

If of late he had tried to look into the future more insistently
than was his habit, it was only because of Susy.  He had meant,
when they married, to be as philosophic for her as for himself;
and he knew she would have resented above everything his
regarding their partnership as a reason for anxious thought.
But since they had been together she had given him glimpses of
her past that made him angrily long to shelter and defend her
future.  It was intolerable that a spirit as fine as hers should
be ever so little dulled or diminished by the kind of
compromises out of which their wretched lives were made.  For
himself, he didn't care a hang:  he had composed for his own
guidance a rough-and-ready code, a short set of "mays" and
"mustn'ts" which immensely simplified his course.  There were
things a fellow put up with for the sake of certain definite and
otherwise unattainable advantages; there were other things he
wouldn't traffic with at any price.  But for a woman, he began
to see, it might be different.  The temptations might be
greater, the cost considerably higher, the dividing line between
the "mays" and "mustn'ts" more fluctuating and less sharply
drawn.  Susy, thrown on the world at seventeen, with only a weak
wastrel of a father to define that treacherous line for her, and
with every circumstance soliciting her to overstep it, seemed to
have been preserved chiefly by an innate scorn of most of the
objects of human folly.  "Such trash as he went to pieces for,"
was her curt comment on her parent's premature demise:  as
though she accepted in advance the necessity of ruining one's
self for something, but was resolved to discriminate firmly
between what was worth it and what wasn't.

This philosophy had at first enchanted Lansing; but now it began
to rouse vague fears.  The fine armour of her fastidiousness had
preserved her from the kind of risks she had hitherto been
exposed to; but what if others, more subtle, found a joint in
it?  Was there, among her delicate discriminations, any
equivalent to his own rules?  Might not her taste for the best
and rarest be the very instrument of her undoing; and if
something that wasn't "trash" came her way, would she hesitate a
second to go to pieces for it?

He was determined to stick to the compact that they should do
nothing to interfere with what each referred to as the other's
"chance"; but what if, when hers came, he couldn't agree with
her in recognizing it?  He wanted for her, oh, so passionately,
the best; but his conception of that best had so insensibly, so
subtly been transformed in the light of their first month
together!

His lazy strokes were carrying him slowly shoreward; but the
hour was so exquisite that a few yards from the landing he laid
hold of the mooring rope of Streffy's boat and floated there,
following his dream ....  It was a bore to be leaving; no doubt
that was what made him turn things inside-out so uselessly.
Venice would be delicious, of course; but nothing would ever
again be as sweet as this.  And then they had only a year of
security before them; and of that year a month was gone.

Reluctantly he swam ashore, walked up to the house, and pushed
open a window of the cool painted drawing-room.  Signs of
departure were already visible.  There were trunks in the hall,
tennis rackets on the stairs; on the landing, the cook Giulietta
had both arms around a slippery hold-all that refused to let
itself be strapped.  It all gave him a chill sense of unreality,
as if the past month had been an act on the stage, and
its setting were being folded away and rolled into the wings to
make room for another play in which he and Susy had no part.

By the time he came down again, dressed and hungry, to the
terrace where coffee awaited him, he had recovered his usual
pleasant sense of security.  Susy was there, fresh and gay, a
rose in her breast and the sun in her hair:  her head was bowed
over Bradshaw, but she waved a fond hand across the breakfast
things, and presently looked up to say:  "Yes, I believe we can
just manage it."

"Manage what?"

"To catch the train at Milan--if we start in the motor at ten
sharp."

He stared.  "The motor?  What motor?"

"Why, the new people's--Streffy's tenants.  He's never told me
their name, and the chauffeur says he can't pronounce it.  The
chauffeur's is Ottaviano, anyhow; I've been making friends with
him.  He arrived last night, and he says they're not due at Como
till this evening.  He simply jumped at the idea of running us
over to Milan."

"Good Lord--" said Lansing, when she stopped.

She sprang up from the table with a laugh.  "It will be a
scramble; but I'll manage it, if you'll go up at once and pitch
the last things into your trunk. "

"Yes; but look here--have you any idea what it's going to cost?"

She raised her eyebrows gaily.  "Why, a good deal less than our
railway tickets.  Ottaviano's got a sweetheart in Milan, and
hasn't seen her for six months.  When I found that out I knew
he'd be going there anyhow."

It was clever of her, and he laughed.  But why was it that he
had grown to shrink from even such harmless evidence of her
always knowing how to "manage"?  "Oh, well," he said to himself,
"she's right:  the fellow would be sure to be going to Milan."

Upstairs, on the way to his dressing room, he found her in a
cloud of finery which her skilful hands were forcibly
compressing into a last portmanteau.  He had never seen anyone
pack as cleverly as Susy:  the way she coaxed reluctant things
into a trunk was a symbol of the way she fitted discordant facts
into her life.  "When I'm rich," she often said, "the thing I
shall hate most will be to see an idiot maid at my trunks."

As he passed, she glanced over her shoulder, her face pink with
the struggle, and drew a cigar-box from the depths.  "Dearest,
do put a couple of cigars into your pocket as a tip for
Ottaviano."

Lansing stared.  "Why, what on earth are you doing with
Streffy's cigars?"

"Packing them, of course ....  You don't suppose he meant them
for those other people?"  She gave him a look of honest wonder.

"I don't know whom he meant them for--but they're not
ours ...."

She continued to look at him wonderingly.  "I don't see
what there is to be solemn about.  The cigars are not Streffy's
either ... you may be sure he got them out of some bounder.  And
there's nothing he'd hate more than to have them passed on to
another."

"Nonsense.  If they're not Streffy's they're much less mine.
Hand them over, please, dear."

"Just as you like.  But it does seem a waste; and, of course,
the other people will never have one of them ....  The gardener
and Giulietta's lover will see to that!"

Lansing looked away from her at the waves of lace and muslin
from which she emerged like a rosy Nereid.  "How many boxes of
them are left?"

"Only four."

"Unpack them, please."

Before she moved there was a pause so full of challenge that
Lansing had time for an exasperated sense of the disproportion
between his anger and its cause.  And this made him still
angrier.

She held out a box.  "The others are in your suitcase
downstairs.  It's locked and strapped."

"Give me the key, then."

"We might send them back from Venice, mightn't we?  That lock is
so nasty:  it will take you half an hour."

"Give me the key, please."  She gave it.

He went downstairs and battled with the lock, for the allotted
half-hour, under the puzzled eyes of Giulietta and the sardonic
grin of the chauffeur, who now and then, from the threshold,
politely reminded him how long it would take to get to Milan.
Finally the key turned, and Lansing, broken-nailed and
perspiring, extracted the cigars and stalked with them into the
deserted drawing room.  The great bunches of golden roses that
he and Susy had gathered the day before were dropping their
petals on the marble embroidery of the floor, pale camellias
floated in the alabaster tazzas between the windows, haunting
scents of the garden blew in on him with the breeze from the
lake.  Never had Streffy's little house seemed so like a nest of
pleasures.  Lansing laid the cigar boxes on a console and ran
upstairs to collect his last possessions.  When he came down
again, his wife, her eyes brilliant with achievement, was seated
in their borrowed chariot, the luggage cleverly stowed away, and
Giulietta and the gardener kissing her hand and weeping out
inconsolable farewells.

"I wonder what she's given them?" he thought, as he jumped in
beside her and the motor whirled them through the nightingale-
thickets to the gate.


Edith Wharton

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