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Chapter 9


IX.

NELSON VANDERLYN, still in his travelling clothes, paused on the
threshold of his own dining-room and surveyed the scene with
pardonable satisfaction.

He was a short round man, with a grizzled head, small facetious
eyes and a large and credulous smile.

At the luncheon table sat his wife, between Charlie Strefford
and Nick Lansing.  Next to Strefford, perched on her high chair,
Clarissa throned in infant beauty, while Susy Lansing cut up a
peach for her.  Through wide orange awnings the sun slanted in
upon the white-clad group.

"Well--well--well!  So I've caught you at it!" cried the happy
father, whose inveterate habit it was to address his wife and
friends as if he had surprised them at an inopportune moment.
Stealing up from behind, he lifted his daughter into the air,
while a chorus of "Hello, old Nelson," hailed his appearance.

It was two or three years since Nick Lansing had seen Mr.
Vanderlyn, who was now the London representative of the big New
York bank of Vanderlyn & Co., and had exchanged his sumptuous
house in Fifth Avenue for another, more sumptuous still, in
Mayfair; and the young man looked curiously and attentively at
his host.

Mr. Vanderlyn had grown older and stouter, but his face still
kept its look of somewhat worn optimism.  He embraced his wife,
greeted Susy affectionately, and distributed cordial hand-grasps
to the two men.

"Hullo," he exclaimed, suddenly noticing a pearl and coral
trinket hanging from Clarissa's neck.  "Who's been giving my
daughter jewellery, I'd like to know!"

"Oh, Streffy did--just think, father!  Because I said I'd rather
have it than a book, you know," Clarissa lucidly explained, her
arms tight about her father's neck, her beaming eyes on
Strefford.

Nelson Vanderlyn's own eyes took on the look of shrewdness which
came into them whenever there was a question of material values.

"What, Streffy?  Caught you at it, eh?  Upon my soul-spoiling
the brat like that!  You'd no business to, my dear chap-a
lovely baroque pearl--" he protested, with the half-apologetic
tone of the rich man embarrassed by too costly a gift from an
impecunious friend.

"Oh, hadn't I?  Why?  Because it's too good for Clarissa, or too
expensive for me?  Of course you daren't imply the first; and as
for me--I've had a windfall, and am blowing it in on the
ladies."

Strefford, Lansing had noticed, always used American slang when
he was slightly at a loss, and wished to divert attention from
the main point.  But why was he embarrassed, whose attention did
he wish to divert, It was plain that Vanderlyn's protest had
been merely formal:  like most of the wealthy, he had only the
dimmest notion of what money represented to the poor.  But it
was unusual for Strefford to give any one a present, and
especially an expensive one:  perhaps that was what had fixed
Vanderlyn's attention.

"A windfall?" he gaily repeated.

"Oh, a tiny one:  I was offered a thumping rent for my little
place at Como, and dashed over here to squander my millions with
the rest of you," said Strefford imperturbably.

Vanderlyn's look immediately became interested and sympathetic.
"What--the scene of the honey-moon?"  He included Nick and Susy
in his friendly smile.

"Just so:  the reward of virtue.  I say, give me a cigar, will
you, old man, I left some awfully good ones at Como, worse
luck--and I don't mind telling you that Ellie's no judge of
tobacco, and that Nick's too far gone in bliss to care what he
smokes," Strefford grumbled, stretching a hand toward his host's
cigar-case.

"I do like jewellery best," Clarissa murmured, hugging her
father.

Nelson Vanderlyn's first word to his wife had been that he had
brought her all her toggery; and she had welcomed him with
appropriate enthusiasm.  In fact, to the lookers-on her joy at
seeing him seemed rather too patently in proportion to her
satisfaction at getting her clothes.  But no such suspicion
appeared to mar Mr. Vanderlyn's happiness in being, for once,
and for nearly twenty-four hours, under the same roof with his
wife and child.  He did not conceal his regret at having
promised his mother to join her the next day; and added, with a
wistful glance at Ellie:  "If only I'd known you meant to wait
for me!"

But being a man of duty, in domestic as well as business
affairs, he did not even consider the possibility of
disappointing the exacting old lady to whom he owed his being.
"Mother cares for so few people," he used to say, not without a
touch of filial pride in the parental exclusiveness, "that I
have to be with her rather more than if she were more sociable";
and with smiling resignation he gave orders that Clarissa should
be ready to start the next evening.

"And meanwhile," he concluded, "we'll have all the good time
that's going."

The ladies of the party seemed united in the desire to further
this resolve; and it was settled that as soon as Mr. Vanderlyn
had despatched a hasty luncheon, his wife, Clarissa and Susy
should carry him off for a tea-picnic at Torcello.  They did not
even suggest that Strefford or Nick should be of the party, or
that any of the other young men of the group should be summoned;
as Susy said, Nelson wanted to go off alone with his harem.  And
Lansing and Strefford were left to watch the departure of the
happy Pasha ensconced between attentive beauties.

"Well--that's what you call being married!"  Strefford
commented, waving his battered Panama at Clarissa.

"Oh, no, I don't!"  Lansing laughed.

"He does.  But do you know--" Strefford paused and swung about
on his companion--"do you know, when the Rude Awakening comes, I
don't care to be there.  I believe there'll be some crockery
broken."

"Shouldn't wonder," Lansing answered indifferently.  He wandered
away to his own room, leaving Strefford to philosophize to his
pipe.

Lansing had always known about poor old Nelson:  who hadn't,
except poor old Nelson?  The case had once seemed amusing
because so typical; now, it rather irritated Nick that Vanderlyn
should be so complete an ass.  But he would be off the next day,
and so would Ellie, and then, for many enchanted weeks, the
palace would once more be the property of Nick and Susy.  Of all
the people who came and went in it, they were the only ones who
appreciated it, or knew how it was meant to be lived in; and
that made it theirs in the only valid sense.  In this light it
became easy to regard the Vanderlyns as mere transient
intruders.

Having relegated them to this convenient distance, Lansing shut
himself up with his book.  He had returned to it with fresh
energy after his few weeks of holiday-making, and was determined
to finish it quickly.  He did not expect that it would bring in
much money; but if it were moderately successful it might give
him an opening in the reviews and magazines, and in that case he
meant to abandon archaeology for novels, since it was only as a
purveyor of fiction that he could count on earning a living for
himself and Susy.

Late in the afternoon he laid down his pen and wandered out of
doors.  He loved the increasing heat of the Venetian summer, the
bruised peach-tints of worn house-fronts, the enamelling of
sunlight on dark green canals, the smell of half-decayed fruits
and flowers thickening the languid air.  What visions he could
build, if he dared, of being tucked away with Susy in the attic
of some tumble-down palace, above a jade-green waterway, with a
terrace overhanging a scrap of neglected garden--and cheques
from the publishers dropping in at convenient intervals!  Why
should they not settle in Venice if he pulled it off!

He found himself before the church of the Scalzi, and pushing
open the leathern door wandered up the nave under the whirl of
rose-and-lemon angels in Tiepolo's great vault.  It was not a
church in which one was likely to run across sight-seers; but he
presently remarked a young lady standing alone near the choir,
and assiduously applying her field-glass to the celestial
vortex, from which she occasionally glanced down at an open
manual.

As Lansing's step sounded on the pavement, the young lady,
turning, revealed herself as Miss Hicks.

"Ah--you like this too?  It's several centuries out of your
line, though, isn't it!"  Nick asked as they shook hands.

She gazed at him gravely.  "Why shouldn't one like things that
are out of one's line?"  she answered; and he agreed, with a
laugh, that it was often an incentive.

She continued to fix her grave eyes on him, and after one or two
remarks about the Tiepolos he perceived that she was feeling her
way toward a subject of more personal interest.

"I'm glad to see you alone," she said at length, with an
abruptness that might have seemed awkward had it not been so
completely unconscious.  She turned toward a cluster of straw
chairs, and signed to Nick to seat himself beside her.

"I seldom do," she added, with the serious smile that made her
heavy face almost handsome; and she went on, giving him no time
to protest:  "I wanted to speak to you--to explain about
father's invitation to go with us to Persia and Turkestan."

"To explain?"

"Yes.  You found the letter when you arrived here just after
your marriage, didn't you?  You must have thought it odd, our
asking you just then; but we hadn't heard that you were
married."

"Oh, I guessed as much:  it happened very quietly, and I was
remiss about announcing it, even to old friends."

Lansing frowned.  His thoughts had wandered away to the evening
when he had found Mrs. Hicks's letter in the mail awaiting him
at Venice.  The day was associated in his mind with the
ridiculous and mortifying episode of the cigars--the expensive
cigars that Susy had wanted to carry away from Strefford's
villa.  Their brief exchange of views on the subject had left
the first blur on the perfect surface of his happiness, and he
still felt an uncomfortable heat at the remembrance.  For a few
hours the prospect of life with Susy had seemed unendurable; and
it was just at that moment that he had found the letter from
Mrs. Hicks, with its almost irresistible invitation.  If only
her daughter had known how nearly he had accepted it!

"It was a dreadful temptation," he said, smiling.

"To go with us?  Then why--?"

"Oh, everything's different now:  I've got to stick to my
writing."

Miss Hicks still bent on him the same unblinking scrutiny.
"Does that mean that you're going to give up your real work?"

"My real work--archaeology?"  He smiled again to hide a twitch
of regret.  "Why, I'm afraid it hardly produces a living wage;
and I've got to think of that."  He coloured suddenly, as if
suspecting that Miss Hicks might consider the avowal an opening
for he hardly knew what ponderous offer of aid.  The Hicks
munificence was too uncalculating not to be occasionally
oppressive.  But looking at her again he saw that her eyes were
full of tears.

"I thought it was your vocation," she said.

"So did I.  But life comes along, and upsets things."

"Oh, I understand.  There may be things--worth giving up all
other things for."

"There are!" cried Nick with beaming emphasis.

He was conscious that Miss Hicks's eyes demanded of him even
more than this sweeping affirmation.

"But your novel may fail," she said with her odd harshness.

"It may--it probably will," he agreed.  "But if one stopped to
consider such possibilities--"

"Don't you have to, with a wife?"

"Oh, my dear Coral--how old are you?  Not twenty?" he
questioned, laying a brotherly hand on hers.

She stared at him a moment, and sprang up clumsily from her
chair.  "I was never young ... if that's what you mean.  It's
lucky, isn't it, that my parents gave me such a grand education?
Because, you see, art's a wonderful resource."  (She pronounced
it RE-source.)

He continued to look at her kindly.  "You won't need it--or any
other--when you grow young, as you will some day," he assured
her.

"Do you mean, when I fall in love?  But I am in love--Oh,
there's Eldorada and Mr. Beck!"  She broke off with a jerk,
signalling with her field-glass to the pair who had just
appeared at the farther end of the nave.  "I told them that if
they'd meet me here to-day I'd try to make them understand
Tiepolo.  Because, you see, at home we never really have
understood Tiepolo; and Mr. Beck and Eldorada are the only ones
to realize it.  Mr. Buttles simply won't."  She turned to
Lansing and held out her hand.  "I am in love," she repeated
earnestly, "and that's the reason why I find art such a RE
source."

She restored her eye-glasses, opened her manual, and strode
across the church to the expectant neophytes.

Lansing, looking after her, wondered for half a moment whether
Mr. Beck were the object of this apparently unrequited
sentiment; then, with a queer start of introspection, abruptly
decided that, no, he certainly was not.  But then--but then--.
Well, there was no use in following up such conjectures ....  He
turned home-ward, wondering if the picnickers had already
reached Palazzo Vanderlyn.

They got back only in time for a late dinner, full of chaff and
laughter, and apparently still enchanted with each other's
society.  Nelson Vanderlyn beamed on his wife, sent his daughter
off to bed with a kiss, and leaning back in his armchair before
the fruit-and-flower-laden table, declared that he'd never spent
a jollier day in his life.  Susy seemed to come in for a full
share of his approbation, and Lansing thought that Ellie was
unusually demonstrative to her friend.  Strefford, from his
hostess's side, glanced across now and then at young Mrs.
Lansing, and his glance seemed to Lansing a confidential comment
on the Vanderlyn raptures.  But then Strefford was always having
private jokes with people or about them; and Lansing was
irritated with himself for perpetually suspecting his best
friends of vague complicities at his expense.  "If I'm going to
be jealous of Streffy now--!"  he concluded with a grimace of
self-derision.

Certainly Susy looked lovely enough to justify the most
irrational pangs.  As a girl she had been, for some people's
taste, a trifle fine-drawn and sharp-edged; now, to her old
lightness of line was added a shadowy bloom, a sort of star-
reflecting depth.  Her movements were slower, less angular; her
mouth had a needing droop, her lids seemed weighed down by their
lashes; and then suddenly the old spirit would reveal itself
through the new languor, like the tartness at the core of a
sweet fruit.  As her husband looked at her across the flowers
and lights he laughed inwardly at the nothingness of all things
else.

Vanderlyn and Clarissa left betimes the next morning; and Mrs.
Vanderlyn, who was to start for St. Moritz in the afternoon,
devoted her last hours to anxious conferences with her maid and
Susy.  Strefford, with Fred Gillow and the others, had gone for
a swim at the Lido, and Lansing seized the opportunity to get
back to his book.

The quietness of the great echoing place gave him a foretaste of
the solitude to come.  By mid-August all their party would be
scattered:  the Hickses off on a cruise to Crete and the AEgean,
Fred Gillow on the way to his moor, Strefford to stay with
friends in Capri till his annual visit to Northumberland in
September.  One by one the others would follow, and Lansing and
Susy be left alone in the great sun-proof palace, alone under
the star-laden skies, alone with the great orange moons-still
theirs!--above the bell-tower of San Giorgio.  The novel, in
that blessed quiet, would unfold itself as harmoniously as his
dreams.

He wrote on, forgetful of the passing hours, till the door
opened and he heard a step behind him.  The next moment two
hands were clasped over his eyes, and the air was full of Mrs.
Vanderlyn's last new scent.

"You dear thing--I'm just off, you know," she said.  "Susy told
me you were working, and I forbade her to call you down.  She
and Streffy are waiting to take me to the station, and I've run
up to say good-bye."

"Ellie, dear!"  Full of compunction, Lansing pushed aside his
writing and started up; but she pressed him back into his seat.

"No, no!  I should never forgive myself if I'd interrupted you.
I oughtn't to have come up; Susy didn't want me to.  But I had
to tell you, you dear ....  I had to thank you..."

In her dark travelling dress and hat, so discreetly conspicuous,
so negligent and so studied, with a veil masking her paint, and
gloves hiding her rings, she looked younger, simpler, more
natural than he had ever seen her.  Poor Ellie such a good
fellow, after all!

"To thank me?  For what?  For being so happy here?"  he laughed,
taking her hands.

She looked at him, laughed back, and flung her arms about his
neck.

"For helping me to be so happy elsewhere--you and Susy, you two
blessed darlings!"  she cried, with a kiss on his cheek.

Their eyes met for a second; then her arms slipped slowly
downward, dropping to her sides.  Lansing sat before her like a
stone.

"Oh," she gasped, "why do you stare so?  Didn't you know ...?"

They heard Strefford's shrill voice on the stairs.  "Ellie,
where the deuce are you?  Susy's in the gondola.  You'll miss
the train!"

Lansing stood up and caught Mrs. Vanderlyn by the wrist.  "What
do you mean?  What are you talking about?"

"Oh, nothing ... But you were both such bricks about the
letters ....  And when Nelson was here, too ....  Nick, don't
hurt my wrist so!  I must run!"

He dropped her hand and stood motionless, staring after her and
listening to the click of her high heels as she fled across the
room and along the echoing corridor.

When he turned back to the table he noticed that a small morocco
case had fallen among his papers.  In falling it had opened, and
before him, on the pale velvet lining, lay a scarf-pin set with
a perfect pearl.  He picked the box up, and was about to hasten
after Mrs. Vanderlyn--it was so like her to shed jewels on her
path!--when he noticed his own initials on the cover.

He dropped the box as if it had been a hot coal, and sat for a
long while gazing at the gold N. L., which seemed to have burnt
itself into his flesh.

At last he roused himself and stood up.


Edith Wharton

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