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Chapter 5


V.

IT was a trifling enough sign, but it had remained in Susy's
mind:  that first morning in Venice Nick had gone out without
first coming in to see her.  She had stayed in bed late,
chatting with Clarissa, and expecting to see the door open and
her husband appear; and when the child left, and she had jumped
up and looked into Nick's room, she found it empty, and a line
on his dressing table informed her that he had gone out to send
a telegram.

It was lover-like, and even boyish, of him to think it necessary
to explain his absence; but why had he not simply come in and
told her!  She instinctively connected the little fact with the
shade of preoccupation she had noticed on his face the night
before, when she had gone to his room and found him absorbed in
letter; and while she dressed she had continued to wonder what
was in the letter, and whether the telegram he had hurried out
to send was an answer to it.

She had never found out.  When he reappeared, handsome and happy
as the morning, he proffered no explanation; and it was part of
her life-long policy not to put uncalled-for questions.  It was
not only that her jealous regard for her own freedom was matched
by an equal respect for that of others; she had steered too long
among the social reefs and shoals not to know how narrow is the
passage that leads to peace of mind, and she was determined to
keep her little craft in mid-channel.  But the incident had
lodged itself in her memory, acquiring a sort of symbolic
significance, as of a turning-point in her relations with her
husband.  Not that these were less happy, but that she now
beheld them, as she had always formerly beheld such joys, as an
unstable islet in a sea of storms.  Her present bliss was as
complete as ever, but it was ringed by the perpetual menace of
all she knew she was hiding from Nick, and of all she suspected
him of hiding from her ....

She was thinking of these things one afternoon about three weeks
after their arrival in Venice.  It was near sunset, and she sat
alone on the balcony, watching the cross-lights on the water
weave their pattern above the flushed reflection of old
palace-basements.  She was almost always alone at that hour.
Nick had taken to writing in the afternoons--he had been as good
as his word, and so, apparently, had the Muse and it was his
habit to join his wife only at sunset, for a late row on the
lagoon.  She had taken Clarissa, as usual, to the Giardino
Pubblico, where that obliging child had politely but
indifferently "played"--Clarissa joined in the diversions of her
age as if conforming to an obsolete tradition--and had brought
her back for a music lesson, echoes of which now drifted down
from a distant window.

Susy had come to be extremely thankful for  Clarissa.  But for
the little girl, her pride in her  husband's industry might have
been tinged with a  faint sense of being at times left out and
forgotten;  and as Nick's industry was the completest
justification for their being where they were, and for her
having done what she had, she was grateful  to Clarissa for
helping her to feel less alone.  Clarissa, indeed, represented
the other half of her  justification:  it was as much on the
child's account as on Nick's that Susy had held her tongue,
remained in Venice, and slipped out once a week to  post one of
Ellie's numbered letters.  A day's experience of the Palazzo
Vanderlyn had convinced Susy of the impossibility of deserting
Clarissa.  Long experience had shown her that the most crowded
households often contain the loneliest nurseries, and that the
rich child is exposed to evils unknown to less pampered infancy;
but hitherto such things had merely been to her one of the
uglier bits in the big muddled pattern of life.  Now she found
herself feeling where before she had only judged:  her
precarious bliss came to her charged with a new weight of pity.

She was thinking of these things, and of the approaching date of
Ellie Vanderlyn's return, and of the searching truths she was
storing up for that lady's private ear, when she noticed a
gondola turning its prow toward the steps below the balcony.
She leaned over, and a tall gentleman in shabby clothes,
glancing up at her as he jumped out, waved a mouldy Panama in
joyful greeting.

"Streffy!" she exclaimed as joyfully; and she was half-way down
the stairs when he ran up them followed by his luggage-laden
boatman.

"It's all right, I suppose?--Ellie said I might come," he
explained in a shrill cheerful voice; "and I'm to have my same
green room with the parrot-panels, because its furniture is
already so frightfully stained with my hair-wash."

Susy was beaming on him with the deep sense of satisfaction
which his presence always produced in his friends.  There was no
one in the world, they all agreed, half as ugly and untidy and
delightful as Streffy; no one who combined such outspoken
selfishness with such imperturbable good humour; no one who knew
so well how to make you believe he was being charming to you
when it was you who were being charming to him.

In addition to these seductions, of which none estimated the
value more accurately than their possessor, Strefford had for
Susy another attraction of which he was probably unconscious.
It was that of being the one rooted and stable being among the
fluid and shifting figures that composed her world.  Susy had
always lived among people so denationalized that those one took
for Russians generally turned out to be American, and those one
was inclined to ascribe to New York proved to have originated in
Rome or Bucharest.  These cosmopolitan people, who, in countries
not their own, lived in houses as big as hotels, or in hotels
where the guests were as international as the waiters, had
inter-married, inter-loved and inter-divorced each other over
the whole face of Europe, and according to every code that
attempts to regulate human ties.  Strefford, too, had his home
in this world, but only one of his homes.  The other, the one he
spoke of, and probably thought of, least often, was a great dull
English country-house in a northern county, where a life as
monotonous and self-contained as his own was chequered and
dispersed had gone on for generation after generation; and it
was the sense of that house, and of all it typified even to his
vagrancy and irreverence, which, coming out now and then in his
talk, or in his attitude toward something or somebody, gave him
a firmer outline and a steadier footing than the other
marionettes in the dance.  Superficially so like them all, and
so eager to outdo them in detachment and adaptability,
ridiculing the prejudices he had shaken off, and the people to
whom he belonged, he still kept, under his easy pliancy, the
skeleton of old faiths and old fashions.  "He talks every
language as well as the rest of us," Susy had once said of him,
"but at least he talks one language better than the others"; and
Strefford, told of the remark, had laughed, called her an idiot,
and been pleased.

As he shambled up the stairs with her, arm in arm, she was
thinking of this quality with a new appreciation of its value.
Even she and Lansing, in spite of their unmixed Americanism,
their substantial background of old-fashioned cousinships in New
York and Philadelphia, were as mentally detached, as universally
at home, as touts at an International Exhibition.  If they were
usually recognized as Americans it was only because they spoke
French so well, and because Nick was too fair to be "foreign,"
and too sharp-featured to be English.  But Charlie Strefford was
English with all the strength of an inveterate habit; and
something in Susy was slowly waking to a sense of the beauty of
habit.

Lounging on the balcony, whither he had followed her without
pausing to remove the stains of travel, Strefford showed himself
immensely interested in the last chapter of her history, greatly
pleased at its having been enacted under his roof, and hugely
and flippantly amused at the firmness with which she refused to
let him see Nick till the latter's daily task was over.

"Writing?  Rot!  What's he writing?  He's breaking you in, my
dear; that's what he's doing: establishing an alibi.  What'll
you bet he's just sitting there smoking and reading Le Rire?
Let's go and see."

But Susy was firm.  "He's read me his first chapter:  it's
wonderful.  It's a philosophic romance--rather like Marius, you
know."

"Oh, yes--I do!" said Strefford, with a laugh that she thought
idiotic.

She flushed up like a child.  "You're stupid, Streffy.  You
forget that Nick and I don't need alibis.  We've got rid of all
that hyprocrisy by agreeing that each will give the other a hand
up when either of us wants a change.  We've not married to spy
and lie, and nag each other; we've formed a partnership for our
mutual advantage."

"I see; that's capital.  But how can you be sure that, when Nick
wants a change, you'll consider it for his advantage to have
one?"

It was the point that had always secretly tormented Susy; she
often wondered if it equally tormented Nick.

"I hope I shall have enough common sense--" she began.

"Oh, of course:  common sense is what you're both bound to base
your argument on, whichever way you argue."

This flash of insight disconcerted her, and she said, a little
irritably:  "What should you do then, if you married?--Hush,
Streffy!  I forbid you to shout like that--all the gondolas are
stopping to look!"

"How can I help it?"  He rocked backward and forward in his
chair.  "'If you marry,' she says:  'Streffy, what have you
decided to do if you suddenly become a raving maniac?'"

"I said no such thing.  If your uncle and your cousin died,
you'd marry to-morrow; you know you would."

"Oh, now you're talking business."  He folded his long arms and
leaned over the balcony, looking down at the dusky ripples
streaked with fire.  "In that case I should say:  'Susan, my
dear--Susan--now that by the merciful intervention of Providence
you have become Countess of Altringham in the peerage of Great
Britain, and Baroness Dunsterville and d'Amblay in the peerages
of Ireland and Scotland, I'll thank you to remember that you are
a member of one of the most ancient houses in the United
Kingdom--and not to get found out.'"

Susy laughed.  "We know what those warnings mean!  I pity my
namesake."

He swung about and gave her a quick look out of his small ugly
twinkling eyes.  "Is there any other woman in the world named
Susan?"

"I hope so, if the name's an essential.  Even if Nick chucks me,
don't count on me to carry out that programme.  I've seen it in
practice too often."

"Oh, well:  as far as I know, everybody's in perfect health at
Altringham."  He fumbled in his pocket and drew out a fountain
pen, a handkerchief over which it had leaked, and a packet of
dishevelled cigarettes.  Lighting one, and restoring the other
objects to his pocket, he continued calmly:  "Tell me how did
you manage to smooth things over with the Gillows?  Ursula was
running amuck when I was in Newport last Summer; it was just
when people were beginning to say that you were going to marry
Nick.  I was afraid she'd put a spoke in your wheel; and I hear
she put a big cheque in your hand instead."

Susy was silent.  From the first moment of Strefford's
appearance she had known that in the  course of time he would
put that question.  He was as inquisitive as a monkey, and when
he had made up his mind to find out anything it was useless to
try to divert his attention.  After a moment's hesitation she
said:  "I flirted with Fred.  It was a bore but he was very
decent."

"He would be--poor Fred.  And you got Ursula thoroughly
frightened!"

"Well--enough.  And then luckily that young Nerone Altineri
turned up from Rome:  he went over to New York to look for a job
as an engineer, and Ursula made Fred put him in their iron
works."  She paused again, and then added abruptly:  "Streffy!
If you knew how I hate that kind of thing.  I'd rather have Nick
come in now and tell me frankly, as I know he would, that he's
going off with--"

"With Coral Hicks?"  Strefford suggested.

She laughed.  "Poor Coral Hicks!  What on earth made you think
of the Hickses?"

"Because I caught a glimpse of them the other day at Capri.
They're cruising about:  they said they were coming in here."

"What a nuisance!  I do hope they won't find us out.  They were
awfully kind to Nick when he went to India with them, and
they're so simple-minded that they would expect him to be glad
to see them."

Strefford aimed his cigarette-end at a tourist on a puggaree who
was gazing up from his guidebook at the palace.  "Ah," he
murmured with satisfaction, seeing the shot take effect; then he
added:  "Coral Hicks is growing up rather pretty."

"Oh, Streff--you're dreaming!  That lump of a girl with
spectacles and thick ankles!  Poor Mrs. Hicks used to say to
Nick:  'When Mr. Hicks and I had Coral educated we presumed
culture was in greater demand in Europe than it appears to be.'"

"Well, you'll see:  that girl's education won't interfere with
her, once she's started.  So then:  if Nick came in and told you
he was going off--"

"I should be so thankful if it was with a fright like Coral!
But you know," she added with a smile, "we've agreed that it's
not to happen for a year."


Edith Wharton

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