The Glimpses of the Moon/Chapter 8
IT was not Mrs. Vanderlyn's fault if, after her arrival, her palace seemed to belong any less to the Lansings.
She arrived in a mood of such general benevolence that it was impossible for Susy, when they finally found themselves alone, to make her view even her own recent conduct in any but the most benevolent light.
"I knew you'd be the veriest angel about it all, darling, because I knew you'd understand me—especially now," she declared, her slim hands in Susy's, her big eyes (so like Clarissa's) resplendent with past pleasures and future plans.
The expression of her confidence was unexpectedly distasteful to Susy Lansing, who had never lent so cold an ear to such warm avowals. She had always imagined that being happy one's self made one—as Mrs. Vanderlyn appeared to assume—more tolerant of the happiness of others, of however doubtful elements composed; and she was almost ashamed of responding so languidly to her friend's outpourings. But she herself had no desire to confide her bliss to Ellie; and why should not Ellie observe a similar reticence?
"It was all so perfect—you see, dearest, I was meant to be happy," that lady continued, as if the possession of so unusual a characteristic singled her out for special privileges.
Susy, with a certain sharpness, responded that she had always supposed we all were.
"Oh, no, dearest: not governesses and mothers-in-law and companions, and that sort of people. They wouldn't know how if they tried. But you and I, darling—"
"Oh, I don't consider myself in any way exceptional," Susyintervened. She longed to add: "Not in your way, at any rate—" but a few minutes earlier Mrs. Vanderlyn had told her that the palace was at her disposal for the rest of the summer, and that she herself was only going to perch there—if they'd let her!—long enough to gather up her things and start for St. Moritz. The memory of this announcement had the effect of curbing Susy's irony, and of making her shift the conversation to the safer if scarcely less absorbing topic of the number of day and evening dresses required for a season at St. Moritz.
As she listened to Mrs. Vanderlyn—no less eloquent on this theme than on the other—Susy began to measure the gulf between her past and present. "This is the life I used to lead; these are the things I used to live for," she thought, as she stood before the outspread glories of Mrs. Vanderlyn's wardrobe. Not that she did not still care: she could not look at Ellie's laces and silks and furs without picturing herself in them, and wondering by what new miracle of management she could give herself the air of being dressed by the same consummate artists. But these had become minor interests: the past few months had given her a new perspective, and the thing that most puzzled and disconcerted her about Ellie was the fact that love and finery and bridge and dining-out were seemingly all on the same plane to her.
The inspection of the dresses lasted a long time, and was marked by many fluctuations of mood on the part of Mrs. Vanderlyn, who passed from comparative hopefulness to despair at the total inadequacy of her wardrobe. It wouldn't do to go to St. Moritz looking like a frump, and yet there was no time to get anything sent from Paris, and, whatever she did, she wasn't going to show herself in any dowdy re-arrangements done at home. But suddenly light broke on her, and she clasped her hands for joy. "Why, Nelson'll bring them—I'd forgotten all about Nelson! There'll be just time if I wire to him at once."
"Is Nelson going to join you at St. Moritz?" Susy asked, surprised.
"Heavens, no! He's coming here to pick up Clarissa and take her to some stuffy cure in Austria with his mother. It's too lucky: there's just time to telegraph him to bring my things. I didn't mean to wait for him; but it won't delay me more than day or two."
Susy's heart sank. She was not much afraid of Ellie alone, but Ellie and Nelson together formed an incalculable menace. No one could tell what spark of truth might dash from their collision. Susy felt that she could deal with the two dangers separately and successively, but not together and simultaneously.
"But, Ellie, why should you wait for Nelson? I'm certain to find someone here who's going to St. Moritz and will take your things if he brings them. It's a pity to risk losing your rooms."
This argument appealed for a moment to Mrs. Vanderlyn. "That's true; they say all the hotels are jammed. You dear, you're always so practical!" She clasped Susy to her scented bosom. "And you know, darling, I'm sure you'll be glad to get rid of me—you and Nick! Oh, don't be hypocritical and say 'Nonsense!' You see, I understand . . . I used to think of you so often, you two . . . during those blessed weeks when we two were alone. . . ."
The sudden tears, brimming over Ellie's lovely eyes, and threatening to make the blue circles below them run into the adjoining carmine, filled Susy with compunction.
"Poor thing—oh, poor thing!" she thought; and hearing herself called by Nick, who was waiting to take her out for their usual sunset on the lagoon, she felt a wave of pity for the deluded creature who would never taste that highest of imaginable joys. "But all the same," Susy reflected, as she hurried down to her husband, "I'm glad I persuaded her not to wait for Nelson."
Some days had elapsed since Susy and Nick had had a sunset to themselves, and in the interval Susy had once again learned the superior quality of the sympathy that held them together. She now viewed all the rest of life as no more than a show: a jolly show which it would have been a thousand pities to miss, but which, if the need arose, they could get up and leave at any moment—provided that they left it together.
In the dusk, while their prow slid over inverted palaces, and through the scent of hidden gardens, she leaned against him and murmured, her mind returning to the recent scene with Ellie: "Nick, should you hate me dreadfully if I had no clothes?"
Her husband was kindling a cigarette, and the match lit up the grin with which he answered: "But, my dear, have I ever shown the slightest symptom—?"
"Oh, rubbish! When a woman says: 'No clothes,' she means: 'Not the right clothes.'"
He took a meditative puff. "Ah, you've been going over Ellie's finery with her."
"Yes: all those trunks and trunks full. And she finds she's got nothing for St. Moritz!"
"Of course," he murmured, drowsy with content, and manifesting but a languid interest in the subject of Mrs. Vanderlyn's wardrobe.
"Only fancy—she very nearly decided to stop over for Nelson's arrival next week, so that he might bring her two or three more trunkfuls from Paris. But mercifully I've managed to persuade her that it would be foolish to wait."
Susy felt a hardly perceptible shifting of her husband's lounging body, and was aware, through all her watchful tentacles, of a widening of his half-closed lids.
"You 'managed'—?" She fancied he paused on the word ironically. "But why?"
"Why on earth should you try to prevent Ellie's waiting for Nelson, if for once in her life she wants to?"
Susy, conscious of reddening suddenly, drew back as though the leap of her tell-tale heart might have penetrated the blue flannel shoulder against which she leaned.
"Really, dearest—!" she murmured; but with a sudden doggedness he renewed his "Why?"
"Because she's in such a fever to get to St. Moritz—and in such a funk lest the hotel shouldn't keep her rooms," Susy somewhat breathlessly produced.
"Ah—I see." Nick paused again. "You're a devoted friend, aren't you!"
"What an odd question! There's hardly anyone I've reason to be more devoted to than Ellie," his wife answered; and she felt his contrite clasp on her hand.
"Darling! No; nor I—. Or more grateful to for leaving us alone in this heaven."
Dimness had fallen on the waters, and her lifted lips met his bending ones.
Trailing late into dinner that evening, Ellie announced that, after all, she had decided it was safest to wait for Nelson.
"I should simply worry myself ill if I weren't sure of getting my things," she said, in the tone of tender solicitude with which she always discussed her own difficulties. "After all, people who deny themselves everything do get warped and bitter, don't they?" she argued plaintively, her lovely eyes wandering from one to the other of her assembled friends.
Strefford remarked gravely that it was the complaint which had fatally undermined his own health; and in the laugh that followed the party drifted into the great vaulted dining-room.
"Oh, I don't mind your laughing at me, Streffy darling," his hostess retorted, pressing his arm against her own; and Susy, receiving the shock of their rapidly exchanged glance, said to herself, with a sharp twinge of apprehension: "Of course Streffy knows everything; he showed no surprise at finding Ellie away when he arrived. And if he knows, what's to prevent Nelson's finding out?" For Strefford, in a mood of mischief, was no more to be trusted than a malicious child. Susy instantly resolved to risk speaking to him, if need be even betraying to him the secret of the letters. Only by revealing the depth of her own danger could she hope to secure his silence.
On the balcony, late in the evening, while the others were listening indoors to the low modulations of a young composer who had embroidered his fancies on Browning's "Toccata," Susy found her chance. Strefford, unsummoned, had followed her out, and stood silently smoking at her side.
"You see, Streff— oh, why should you and I make mysteries to each other?" she suddenly began.
"Why, indeed: but do we?"
Susy glanced back at the group around the piano. "About Ellie, I mean—and Nelson."
"Lord! Ellie and Nelson? You call that a mystery? I should as soon apply the term to one of the million candle-power advertisements that adorn your native thoroughfares."
"Well, yes. But—" She stopped again. Had she not tacitly promised Ellie not to speak?
"My Susan, what's wrong?" Strefford asked.
"I don't know. . . ."
"Well, I do, then: you're afraid that, if Ellie and Nelson meet here, she'll blurt out something—injudicious."
"Oh, she won't!" Susy cried with conviction.
"Well, then—who will! I trust that superhuman child not to. And you and I and Nick———"
"Oh," she gasped, interrupting him, "that's just it. Nick doesn't know . . . doesn't even suspect. And if he did. . . ."
Strefford flung away his cigar and turned to scrutinize her. "I don't see—hanged if I do. What business is it of any of us, after all?"
That, of course, was the old view that cloaked connivance in an air of decency. But to Susy it no longer carried conviction, and she hesitated.
"If Nick should find out that I know. . . ."
"Good Lord—doesn't he know that you know? After all, I suppose it's not the first time—"
She remained silent.
"The first time you've received confidences—from married friends. Does Nick suppose you've lived even to your tender age without . . . Hang it, what's come over you, child?"
What had, indeed, that she could make clear to him? And yet more than ever she felt the need of having him securely on her side. Once his word was pledged, he was safe: otherwise there was no limit to his capacity for wilful harmfulness.
"Look here, Streff, you and I know that Ellie hasn't been away for a cure; and that if poor Clarissa was sworn to secrecy it was not because it 'worries father' to think that mother needs to take care of her health." She paused, hating herself for the ironic note she had tried to sound.
"Well—?" he questioned, from the depths of the chair into which he had sunk.
"Well, Nick doesn't . . . doesn't dream of it. If he knew that we owed our summer here to . . . to my knowing. . . ."
Strefford sat silent: she felt his astonished stare through the darkness. "Jove!" he said at last, with a low whistle Susy bent over the balustrade, her heart thumping against the stone rail.
"What of soul was left, I wonder—?" the young composer's voice shrilled through the open windows.
Strefford sank into another silence, from which he roused himself only as Susy turned back toward the lighted threshold.
"Well, my dear, we'll see it through between us; you and I—and Clarissa," he said with his rasping laugh, rising to follow her. He caught her hand and gave it a short pressure as they reentered the drawing-room, where Ellie was saying plaintively to Fred Gillow: "I can never hear that thing sung without wanting to cry like a baby."