Part 4 out of 5
He wrinkled his brows good-humouredly. "Well, so I would, with
joy--at this particular minute. Don't you think perhaps you'd
better take advantage of it? I don't wish to insist--but I
foresee that I'm much too rich not to become stingy."
She gave a slight shrug. "At present there's nothing I loathe
more than pearls and chinchilla, or anything else in the world
that's expensive and enviable ...."
Suddenly she broke off, colouring with the consciousness that
she had said exactly the kind of thing that all the women who
were trying for him (except the very cleverest) would be sure to
say; and that he would certainly suspect her of attempting the
conventional comedy of disinterestedness, than which nothing was
less likely to deceive or to flatter him.
His twinkling eyes played curiously over her face, and she went
on, meeting them with a smile: "But don't imagine, all the
same, that if I should ... decide ... it would be altogether for
your beaux yeux ...."
He laughed, she thought, rather drily. "No," he said, "I don't
suppose that's ever likely to happen to me again."
"Oh, Streff--" she faltered with compunction. It was odd-once
upon a time she had known exactly what to say to the man of the
moment, whoever he was, and whatever kind of talk he required;
she had even, in the difficult days before her marriage, reeled
off glibly enough the sort of lime-light sentimentality that
plunged poor Fred Gillow into such speechless beatitude. But
since then she had spoken the language of real love, looked with
its eyes, embraced with its hands; and now the other trumpery
art had failed her, and she was conscious of bungling and
groping like a beginner under Strefford's ironic scrutiny.
They had reached their obscure destination and he opened the
door and glanced in.
"It's jammed--not a table. And stifling! Where shall we go?
Perhaps they could give us a room to ourselves--" he suggested.
She assented, and they were led up a cork-screw staircase to a
squat-ceilinged closet lit by the arched top of a high window,
the lower panes of which served for the floor below. Strefford
opened the window, and Susy, throwing her cloak on the divan,
leaned on the balcony while he ordered luncheon.
On the whole she was glad they were to be alone. Just because
she felt so sure of Strefford it seemed ungenerous to keep him
longer in suspense. The moment had come when they must have a
decisive talk, and in the crowded rooms below it would have been
Strefford, when the waiter had brought the first course and left
them to themselves, made no effort to revert to personal
matters. He turned instead to the topic always most congenial
to him: the humours and ironies of the human comedy, as
presented by his own particular group. His malicious commentary
on life had always amused Susy because of the shrewd flashes of
philosophy he shed on the social antics they had so often
watched together. He was in fact the one person she knew
(excepting Nick) who was in the show and yet outside of it; and
she was surprised, as the talk proceeded, to find herself so
little interested in his scraps of gossip, and so little amused
by his comments on them.
With an inward shrug of discouragement she said to herself that
probably nothing would ever really amuse her again; then, as she
listened, she began to understand that her disappointment arose
from the fact that Strefford, in reality, could not live without
these people whom he saw through and satirized, and that the
rather commonplace scandals he narrated interested him as much
as his own racy considerations on them; and she was filled with
terror at the thought that the inmost core of the richly-
decorated life of the Countess of Altringham would be just as
poor and low-ceilinged a place as the little room in which he
and she now sat, elbow to elbow yet so unapproachably apart.
If Strefford could not live without these people, neither could
she and Nick; but for reasons how different! And if his
opportunities had been theirs, what a world they would have
created for themselves! Such imaginings were vain, and she
shrank back from them into the present. After all, as Lady
Altringham she would have the power to create that world which
she and Nick had dreamed ... only she must create it alone.
Well, that was probably the law of things. All human happiness
was thus conditioned and circumscribed, and hers, no doubt, must
always be of the lonely kind, since material things did not
suffice for it, even though it depended on them as Grace
Fulmer's, for instance, never had. Yet even Grace Fulmer had
succumbed to Ursula's offer, and had arrived at Ruan the day
before Susy left, instead of going to Spain with her husband and
Violet Melrose. But then Grace was making the sacrifice for her
children, and somehow one had the feeling that in giving up her
liberty she was not surrendering a tittle of herself. All the
difference was there ....
"How I do bore you!" Susy heard Strefford exclaim. She became
aware that she had not been listening: stray echoes of names of
places and people--Violet Melrose, Ursula, Prince Altineri,
others of their group and persuasion--had vainly knocked at her
barricaded brain; what had he been telling her about them? She
turned to him and their eyes met; his were full of a melancholy
"Susy, old girl, what's wrong?"
She pulled herself together. "I was thinking, Streff, just
now--when I said I hated the very sound of pearls and
chinchilla--how impossible it was that you should believe me; in
fact, what a blunder I'd made in saying it."
He smiled. "Because it was what so many other women might be
likely to say so awfully unoriginal, in fact?"
She laughed for sheer joy at his insight. "It's going to be
easier than I imagined," she thought. Aloud she rejoined: "Oh,
Streff--how you're always going to find me out! Where on earth
shall I ever hide from you?"
"Where?" He echoed her laugh, laying his hand lightly on hers.
"In my heart, I'm afraid."
In spite of the laugh his accent shook her: something about it
took all the mockery from his retort, checked on her lips the:
"What? A valentine!" and made her suddenly feel that, if he
were afraid, so was she. Yet she was touched also, and wondered
half exultingly if any other woman had ever caught that
particular deep inflexion of his shrill voice. She had never
liked him as much as at that moment; and she said to herself,
with an odd sense of detachment, as if she had been rather
breathlessly observing the vacillations of someone whom she
longed to persuade but dared not: "Now--NOW, if he speaks, I
shall say yes!"
He did not speak; but abruptly, and as startlingly to her as if
she had just dropped from a sphere whose inhabitants had other
methods of expressing their sympathy, he slipped his arm around
her and bent his keen ugly melting face to hers ....
It was the lightest touch--in an instant she was free again.
But something within her gasped and resisted long after his arm
and his lips were gone, and he was proceeding, with a too-
studied ease, to light a cigarette and sweeten his coffee.
He had kissed her .... Well, naturally: why not? It was not
the first time she had been kissed. It was true that one didn't
habitually associate Streff with such demonstrations; but she
had not that excuse for surprise, for even in Venice she had
begun to notice that he looked at her differently, and avoided
her hand when he used to seek it.
No--she ought not to have been surprised; nor ought a kiss to
have been so disturbing. Such incidents had punctuated the
career of Susy Branch: there had been, in particular, in far-
off discarded times, Fred Gillow's large but artless embraces.
Well--nothing of that kind had seemed of any more account than
the click of a leaf in a woodland walk. It had all been merely
epidermal, ephemeral, part of the trivial accepted "business" of
the social comedy. But this kiss of Strefford's was what Nick's
had been, under the New Hampshire pines, on the day that had
decided their fate. It was a kiss with a future in it: like a
ring slipped upon her soul. And now, in the dreadful pause that
followed--while Strefford fidgeted with his cigarette-case and
rattled the spoon in his cup, Susy remembered what she had seen
through the circle of Nick's kiss: that blue illimitable
distance which was at once the landscape at their feet and the
future in their souls ....
Perhaps that was what Strefford's sharply narrowed eyes were
seeing now, that same illimitable distance that she had lost
forever--perhaps he was saying to himself, as she had said to
herself when her lips left Nick's: "Each time we kiss we shall
see it all again ...." Whereas all she herself had felt was the
gasping recoil from Strefford's touch, and an intenser vision of
the sordid room in which he and she sat, and of their two
selves, more distant from each other than if their embrace had
been a sudden thrusting apart ....
The moment prolonged itself, and they sat numb. How long had it
lasted? How long ago was it that she had thought: "It's going
to be easier than I imagined"? Suddenly she felt Strefford's
queer smile upon her, and saw in his eyes a look, not of
reproach or disappointment, but of deep and anxious
comprehension. Instead of being angry or hurt, he had seen, he
had understood, he was sorry for her!
Impulsively she slipped her hand into his, and they sat silent
for another moment. Then he stood up and took her cloak from
the divan. "Shall we go now! I've got cards for the private
view of the Reynolds exhibition at the Petit Palais. There are
some portraits from Altringham. It might amuse you."
In the taxi she had time, through their light rattle of talk, to
readjust herself and drop back into her usual feeling of
friendly ease with him. He had been extraordinarily
considerate, for anyone who always so undisguisedly sought his
own satisfaction above all things; and if his considerateness
were just an indirect way of seeking that satisfaction now,
well, that proved how much he cared for her, how necessary to
his happiness she had become. The sense of power was undeniably
pleasant; pleasanter still was the feeling that someone really
needed her, that the happiness of the man at her side depended
on her yes or no. She abandoned herself to the feeling,
forgetting the abysmal interval of his caress, or at least
saying to herself that in time she would forget it, that really
there was nothing to make a fuss about in being kissed by anyone
she liked as much as Streff ....
She had guessed at once why he was taking her to see the
Reynoldses. Fashionable and artistic Paris had recently
discovered English eighteenth century art. The principal
collections of England had yielded up their best examples of the
great portrait painter's work, and the private view at the Petit
Palais was to be the social event of the afternoon. Everybody--
Strefford's everybody and Susy's--was sure to be there; and
these, as she knew, were the occasions that revived Strefford's
intermittent interest in art. He really liked picture shows as
much as the races, if one could be sure of seeing as many people
there. With Nick how different it would have been! Nick hated
openings and varnishing days, and worldly aesthetics in general;
he would have waited till the tide of fashion had ebbed, and
slipped off with Susy to see the pictures some morning when they
were sure to have the place to themselves.
But Susy divined that there was another reason for Strefford's
suggestion. She had never yet shown herself with him publicly,
among their own group of people: now he had determined that she
should do so, and she knew why. She had humbled his pride; he
had understood, and forgiven her. But she still continued to
treat him as she had always treated the Strefford of old,
Charlie Strefford, dear old negligible impecunious Streff; and
he wanted to show her, ever so casually and adroitly, that the
man who had asked her to marry him was no longer Strefford, but
At the very threshold, his Ambassador's greeting marked the
difference: it was followed, wherever they turned, by
ejaculations of welcome from the rulers of the world they moved
in. Everybody rich enough or titled enough, or clever enough or
stupid enough, to have forced a way into the social citadel, was
there, waving and flag-flying from the battlements; and to all
of them Lord Altringham had become a marked figure. During
their slow progress through the dense mass of important people
who made the approach to the pictures so well worth fighting
for, he never left Susy's side, or failed to make her feel
herself a part of his triumphal advance. She heard her name
mentioned: "Lansing--a Mrs. Lansing--an American ... Susy
Lansing? Yes, of course .... You remember her? At Newport, At
St. Moritz? Exactly.... Divorced already? They say so ...
Susy darling! I'd no idea you were here ... and Lord
Altringham! You've forgotten me, I know, Lord Altringham ....
Yes, last year, in Cairo ... or at Newport ... or in Scotland
... Susy, dearest, when will you bring Lord Altringham to dine?
Any night that you and he are free I'll arrange to be ...."
"You and he": they were "you and he" already!
"Ah, there's one of them--of my great-grandmothers," Strefford
explained, giving a last push that drew him and Susy to the
front rank, before a tall isolated portrait which, by sheer
majesty of presentment, sat in its great carved golden frame as
on a throne above the other pictures.
Susy read on the scroll beneath it: "The Hon'ble Diana Lefanu,
fifteenth Countess of Altringham"--and heard Strefford say: "Do
you remember? It hangs where you noticed the empty space above
the mantel-piece, in the Vandyke room. They say Reynolds
stipulated that it should be put with the Vandykes."
She had never before heard him speak of his possessions, whether
ancestral or merely material, in just that full and satisfied
tone of voice: the rich man's voice. She saw that he was
already feeling the influence of his surroundings, that he was
glad the portrait of a Countess of Altringham should occupy the
central place in the principal room of the exhibition, that the
crowd about it should be denser there than before any of the
other pictures, and that he should be standing there with Susy,
letting her feel, and letting all the people about them guess,
that the day she chose she could wear the same name as his
On the way back to her hotel, Strefford made no farther allusion
to their future; they chatted like old comrades in their
respective corners of the taxi. But as the carriage stopped at
her door he said: "I must go back to England the day after to-
morrow, worse luck! Why not dine with me to-night at the
Nouveau Luxe? I've got to have the Ambassador and Lady Ascot,
with their youngest girl and my old Dunes aunt, the Dowager
Duchess, who's over here hiding from her creditors; but I'll try
to get two or three amusing men to leaven the lump. We might go
on to a boite afterward, if you're bored. Unless the dancing
amuses you more ...."
She understood that he had decided to hasten his departure
rather than linger on in uncertainty; she also remembered having
heard the Ascots' youngest daughter, Lady Joan Senechal, spoken
of as one of the prettiest girls of the season; and she recalled
the almost exaggerated warmth of the Ambassador's greeting at
the private view.
"Of course I'll come, Streff dear!" she cried, with an effort at
gaiety that sounded successful to her own strained ears, and
reflected itself in the sudden lighting up of his face.
She waved a good-bye from the step, saying to herself, as she
looked after him: "He'll drive me home to-night, and I shall
say 'yes'; and then he'll kiss me again. But the next time it
won't be nearly as disagreeable."
She turned into the hotel, glanced automatically at the empty
pigeon-hole for letters under her key-hook, and mounted the
stairs following the same train of images. "Yes, I shall say
'yes' to-night," she repeated firmly, her hand on the door of
her room. "That is, unless, they've brought up a letter ...."
She never re-entered the hotel without imagining that the letter
she had not found below had already been brought up.
Opening the door, she turned on the light and sprang to the
table on which her correspondence sometimes awaited her.
There was no letter; but the morning papers, still unread, lay
at hand, and glancing listlessly down the column which
chronicles the doings of society, she read:
"After an extended cruise in the AEgean and the Black Sea on
their steam-yacht Ibis, Mr. and Mrs. Mortimer Hicks and their
daughter are established at the Nouveau Luxe in Rome. They have
lately had the honour of entertaining at dinner the Reigning
Prince of Teutoburger-Waldhain and his mother the Princess
Dowager, with their suite. Among those invited to meet their
Serene Highnesses were the French and Spanish Ambassadors, the
Duchesse de Vichy, Prince and Princess Bagnidilucca, Lady
Penelope Pantiles--" Susy's eye flew impatiently on over the
long list of titles--"and Mr. Nicholas Lansing of New York, who
has been cruising with Mr. and Mrs. Hicks on the Ibis for the
last few months."
THE Mortimer Hickses were in Rome; not, as they would in former
times have been, in one of the antiquated hostelries of the
Piazza di Spagna or the Porta del Popolo, where of old they had
so gaily defied fever and nourished themselves on local colour;
but spread out, with all the ostentation of philistine
millionaires, under the piano nobile ceilings of one of the
high-perched "Palaces," where, as Mrs. Hicks shamelessly
declared, they could "rely on the plumbing," and "have the
privilege of over-looking the Queen Mother's Gardens."
It was that speech, uttered with beaming aplomb at a dinner-
table surrounded by the cosmopolitan nobility of the Eternal
City, that had suddenly revealed to Lansing the profound change
in the Hicks point of view.
As he looked back over the four months since he had so
unexpectedly joined the Ibis at Genoa, he saw that the change,
at first insidious and unperceived, dated from the ill-fated day
when the Hickses had run across a Reigning Prince on his
Hitherto they had been proof against such perils: both Mr. and
Mrs. Hicks had often declared that the aristocracy of the
intellect was the only one which attracted them. But in this
case the Prince possessed an intellect, in addition to his few
square miles of territory, and to one of the most beautiful
Field Marshal's uniforms that had ever encased a royal warrior.
The Prince was not a warrior, however; he was stooping, pacific
and spectacled, and his possession of the uniform had been
revealed to Mrs. Hicks only by the gift of a full-length
photograph in a Bond Street frame, with Anastasius written
slantingly across its legs. The Prince--and herein lay the
Hickses' undoing--the Prince was an archaeologist: an earnest
anxious enquiring and scrupulous archaeologist. Delicate health
(so his suite hinted) banished him for a part of each year from
his cold and foggy principality; and in the company of his
mother, the active and enthusiastic Dowager Princess, he
wandered from one Mediterranean shore to another, now assisting
at the exhumation of Ptolemaic mummies, now at the excavation of
Delphic temples or of North African basilicas. The beginning of
winter usually brought the Prince and his mother to Rome or
Nice, unless indeed they were summoned by family duties to
Berlin, Vienna or Madrid; for an extended connection with the
principal royal houses of Europe compelled them, as the Princess
Mother said, to be always burying or marrying a cousin. At
other moments they were seldom seen in the glacial atmosphere of
courts, preferring to royal palaces those of the other, and more
modern type, in one of which the Hickses were now lodged.
Yes: the Prince and his mother (they gaily avowed it) revelled
in Palace Hotels; and, being unable to afford the luxury of
inhabiting them, they liked, as often as possible, to be invited
to dine there by their friends--"or even to tea, my dear," the
Princess laughingly avowed, "for I'm so awfully fond of buttered
scones; and Anastasius gives me so little to eat in the desert."
The encounter with these ambulant Highnesses had been fatal--
Lansing now perceived it--to Mrs. Hicks's principles. She had
known a great many archaeologists, but never one as agreeable as
the Prince, and above all never one who had left a throne to
camp in the desert and delve in Libyan tombs. And it seemed to
her infinitely pathetic that these two gifted beings, who
grumbled when they had to go to "marry a cousin" at the Palace
of St. James or of Madrid, and hastened back breathlessly to the
far-off point where, metaphorically speaking, pick-axe and spade
had dropped from their royal hands--that these heirs of the ages
should be unable to offer themselves the comforts of up-to-date
hotel life, and should enjoy themselves "like babies" when they
were invited to the other kind of "Palace," to feast on buttered
scones and watch the tango.
She simply could not bear the thought of their privations; and
neither, after a time, could Mr. Hicks, who found the Prince
more democratic than anyone he had ever known at Apex City, and
was immensely interested by the fact that their spectacles came
from the same optician.
But it was, above all, the artistic tendencies of the Prince and
his mother which had conquered the Hickses. There was
fascination in the thought that, among the rabble of vulgar
uneducated royalties who overran Europe from Biarritz to the
Engadine, gambling, tangoing, and sponging on no less vulgar
plebeians, they, the unobtrusive and self-respecting Hickses,
should have had the luck to meet this cultivated pair, who
joined them in gentle ridicule of their own frivolous kinsfolk,
and whose tastes were exactly those of the eccentric, unreliable
and sometimes money-borrowing persons who had hitherto
represented the higher life to the Hickses.
Now at last Mrs. Hicks saw the possibility of being at once
artistic and luxurious, of surrendering herself to the joys of
modern plumbing and yet keeping the talk on the highest level.
"If the poor dear Princess wants to dine at the Nouveau Luxe why
shouldn't we give her that pleasure?" Mrs. Hicks smilingly
enquired; "and as for enjoying her buttered scones like a baby,
as she says, I think it's the sweetest thing about her."
Coral Hicks did not join in this chorus; but she accepted, with
her curious air of impartiality, the change in her parents'
manner of life, and for the first time (as Nick observed)
occupied herself with her mother's toilet, with the result that
Mrs. Hicks's outline became firmer, her garments soberer in hue
and finer in material; so that, should anyone chance to detect
the daughter's likeness to her mother, the result was less
likely to be disturbing.
Such precautions were the more needful--Lansing could not but
note because of the different standards of the society in which
the Hickses now moved. For it was a curious fact that admission
to the intimacy of the Prince and his mother-- who continually
declared themselves to be the pariahs, the outlaws, the
Bohemians among crowned heads nevertheless involved not only
living in Palace Hotels but mixing with those who frequented
them. The Prince's aide-de-camp--an agreeable young man of easy
manners--had smilingly hinted that their Serene Highnesses,
though so thoroughly democratic and unceremonious, were yet
accustomed to inspecting in advance the names of the persons
whom their hosts wished to invite with them; and Lansing noticed
that Mrs. Hicks's lists, having been "submitted," usually came
back lengthened by the addition of numerous wealthy and titled
guests. Their Highnesses never struck out a name; they welcomed
with enthusiasm and curiosity the Hickses' oddest and most
inexplicable friends, at most putting off some of them to a
later day on the plea that it would be "cosier" to meet them on
a more private occasion; but they invariably added to the list
any friends of their own, with the gracious hint that they
wished these latter (though socially so well-provided for) to
have the "immense privilege" of knowing the Hickses. And thus
it happened that when October gales necessitated laying up the
Ibis, the Hickses, finding again in Rome the august travellers
from whom they had parted the previous month in Athens, also
found their visiting-list enlarged by all that the capital
contained of fashion.
It was true enough, as Lansing had not failed to note, that the
Princess Mother adored prehistoric art, and Russian music, and
the paintings of Gauguin and Matisse; but she also, and with a
beaming unconsciousness of perspective, adored large pearls and
powerful motors, caravan tea and modern plumbing, perfumed
cigarettes and society scandals; and her son, while apparently
less sensible to these forms of luxury, adored his mother, and
was charmed to gratify her inclinations without cost to
himself--"Since poor Mamma," as he observed, "is so courageous
when we are roughing it in the desert."
The smiling aide-de-camp, who explained these things to Lansing,
added with an intenser smile that the Prince and his mother were
under obligations, either social or cousinly, to most of the
titled persons whom they begged Mrs. Hicks to invite; "and it
seems to their Serene Highnesses," he added, "the most
flattering return they can make for the hospitality of their
friends to give them such an intellectual opportunity."
The dinner-table at which their Highnesses' friends were seated
on the evening in question represented, numerically, one of the
greatest intellectual opportunities yet afforded them. Thirty
guests were grouped about the flower-wreathed board, from which
Eldorada and Mr. Beck had been excluded on the plea that the
Princess Mother liked cosy parties and begged her hosts that
there should never be more than thirty at table. Such, at
least, was the reason given by Mrs. Hicks to her faithful
followers; but Lansing had observed that, of late, the same
skilled hand which had refashioned the Hickses' social circle
usually managed to exclude from it the timid presences of the
two secretaries. Their banishment was the more displeasing to
Lansing from the fact that, for the last three months, he had
filled Mr. Buttles's place, and was himself their salaried
companion. But since he had accepted the post, his obvious duty
was to fill it in accordance with his employers' requirements;
and it was clear even to Eldorada and Mr. Beck that he had, as
Eldorada ungrudgingly said, "Something of Mr. Buttles's
marvellous social gifts. "
During the cruise his task had not been distasteful to him. He
was glad of any definite duties, however trivial, he felt more
independent as the Hickses' secretary than as their pampered
guest, and the large cheque which Mr. Hicks handed over to him
on the first of each month refreshed his languishing sense of
He considered himself absurdly over-paid, but that was the
Hickses' affair; and he saw nothing humiliating in being in the
employ of people he liked and respected. But from the moment of
the ill-fated encounter with the wandering Princes, his position
had changed as much as that of his employers. He was no longer,
to Mr. and Mrs. Hicks, a useful and estimable assistant, on the
same level as Eldorada and Mr. Beck; he had become a social
asset of unsuspected value, equalling Mr. Buttles in his
capacity for dealing with the mysteries of foreign etiquette,
and surpassing him in the art of personal attraction. Nick
Lansing, the Hickses found, already knew most of the Princess
Mother's rich and aristocratic friends. Many of them hailed him
with enthusiastic "Old Nicks", and he was almost as familiar as
His Highness's own aide-de-camp with all those secret
ramifications of love and hate that made dinner-giving so much
more of a science in Rome than at Apex City.
Mrs. Hicks, at first, had hopelessly lost her way in this
labyrinth of subterranean scandals, rivalries and jealousies;
and finding Lansing's hand within reach she clung to it with
pathetic tenacity. But if the young man's value had risen in
the eyes of his employers it had deteriorated in his own. He
was condemned to play a part he had not bargained for, and it
seemed to him more degrading when paid in bank-notes than if his
retribution had consisted merely in good dinners and luxurious
lodgings. The first time the smiling aide-de-camp had caught
his eye over a verbal slip of Mrs. Hicks's, Nick had flushed to
the forehead and gone to bed swearing that he would chuck his
job the next day.
Two months had passed since then, and he was still the paid
secretary. He had contrived to let the aide-de-camp feel that
he was too deficient in humour to be worth exchanging glances
with; but even this had not restored his self-respect, and on
the evening in question, as he looked about the long table, he
said to himself for the hundredth time that he would give up his
position on the morrow.
Only--what was the alternative? The alternative, apparently,
was Coral Hicks. He glanced down the line of diners, beginning
with the tall lean countenance of the Princess Mother, with its
small inquisitive eyes perched as high as attic windows under a
frizzled thatch of hair and a pediment of uncleaned diamonds;
passed on to the vacuous and overfed or fashionably haggard
masks of the ladies next in rank; and finally caught, between
branching orchids, a distant glimpse of Miss Hicks.
In contrast with the others, he thought, she looked surprisingly
noble. Her large grave features made her appear like an old
monument in a street of Palace Hotels; and he marvelled at the
mysterious law which had brought this archaic face out of Apex
City, and given to the oldest society of Europe a look of such
Lansing perceived that the aide-de-camp, who was his neighbour,
was also looking at Miss Hicks. His expression was serious, and
even thoughtful; but as his eyes met Lansing's he readjusted his
"I was admiring our hostess's daughter. Her absence of jewels
is--er--an inspiration," he remarked in the confidential tone
which Lansing had come to dread.
"Oh, Miss Hicks is full of inspirations," he returned curtly,
and the aide-de-camp bowed with an admiring air, as if
inspirations were rarer than pearls, as in his milieu they
undoubtedly were. "She is the equal of any situation, I am
sure," he replied; and then abandoned the subject with one of
his automatic transitions.
After dinner, in the embrasure of a drawing-room window, he
surprised Nick by returning to the same topic, and this time
without thinking it needful to readjust his smile. His face
remained serious, though his manner was studiously informal.
"I was admiring, at dinner, Miss Hicks's invariable sense of
appropriateness. It must permit her friends to foresee for her
almost any future, however exalted."
Lansing hesitated, and controlled his annoyance. Decidedly he
wanted to know what was in his companion's mind.
"What do you mean by exalted?" he asked, with a smile of faint
"Well--equal to her marvellous capacity for shining in the
Lansing still smiled. "The question is, I suppose, whether her
desire to shine equals her capacity."
The aide-de-camp stared. "You mean, she's not ambitious?"
"On the contrary; I believe her to be immeasurably ambitious."
"Immeasurably?" The aide-de-camp seemed to try to measure it.
"But not, surely, beyond--" "beyond what we can offer," his eyes
completed the sentence; and it was Lansing's turn to stare. The
aide-de-camp faced the stare. "Yes," his eyes concluded in a
flash, while his lips let fall: "The Princess Mother admires
her immensely." But at that moment a wave of Mrs. Hicks's fan
drew them hurriedly from their embrasure.
"Professor Darchivio had promised to explain to us the
difference between the Sassanian and Byzantine motives in
Carolingian art; but the Manager has sent up word that the two
new Creole dancers from Paris have arrived, and her Serene
Highness wants to pop down to the ball-room and take a peep at
them .... She's sure the Professor will understand ...."
"And accompany us, of course," the Princess irresistibly added.
Lansing's brief colloquy in the Nouveau Luxe window had lifted
the scales from his eyes. Innumerable dim corners of memory had
been flooded with light by that one quick glance of the aide-de-
camp's: things he had heard, hints he had let pass, smiles,
insinuations, cordialities, rumours of the improbability of the
Prince's founding a family, suggestions as to the urgent need of
replenishing the Teutoburger treasury ....
Miss Hicks, perforce, had accompanied her parents and their
princely guests to the ballroom; but as she did not dance, and
took little interest in the sight of others so engaged, she
remained aloof from the party, absorbed in an archaeological
discussion with the baffled but smiling savant who was to have
enlightened the party on the difference between Sassanian and
Lansing, also aloof, had picked out a post from which he could
observe the girl: she wore a new look to him since he had seen
her as the centre of all these scattered threads of intrigue.
Yes; decidedly she was growing handsomer; or else she had
learned how to set off her massive lines instead of trying to
disguise them. As she held up her long eye-glass to glance
absently at the dancers he was struck by the large beauty of her
arm and the careless assurance of the gesture. There was
nothing nervous or fussy about Coral Hicks; and he was not
surprised that, plastically at least, the Princess Mother had
discerned her possibilities.
Nick Lansing, all that night, sat up and stared at his future.
He knew enough of the society into which the Hickses had drifted
to guess that, within a very short time, the hint of the
Prince's aide-de-camp would reappear in the form of a direct
proposal. Lansing himself would probably--as the one person in
the Hicks entourage with whom one could intelligibly commune-be
entrusted with the next step in the negotiations: he would be
asked, as the aide-de-camp would have said, "to feel the
ground." It was clearly part of the state policy of Teutoburg
to offer Miss Hicks, with the hand of its sovereign, an
opportunity to replenish its treasury.
What would the girl do? Lansing could not guess; yet he dimly
felt that her attitude would depend in a great degree upon his
own. And he knew no more what his own was going to be than on
the night, four months earlier, when he had flung out of his
wife's room in Venice to take the midnight express for Genoa.
The whole of his past, and above all the tendency, on which he
had once prided himself, to live in the present and take
whatever chances it offered, now made it harder for him to act.
He began to see that he had never, even in the closest relations
of life, looked ahead of his immediate satisfaction. He had
thought it rather fine to be able to give himself so intensely
to the fullness of each moment instead of hurrying past it in
pursuit of something more, or something else, in the manner of
the over-scrupulous or the under-imaginative, whom he had always
grouped together and equally pitied. It was not till he had
linked his life with Susy's that he had begun to feel it
reaching forward into a future he longed to make sure of, to
fasten upon and shape to his own wants and purposes, till, by an
imperceptible substitution, that future had become his real
present, his all-absorbing moment of time.
Now the moment was shattered, and the power to rebuild it failed
him. He had never before thought about putting together broken
bits: he felt like a man whose house has been wrecked by an
earthquake, and who, for lack of skilled labour, is called upon
for the first time to wield a trowel and carry bricks. He
simply did not know how.
Will-power, he saw, was not a thing one could suddenly decree
oneself to possess. It must be built up imperceptibly and
laboriously out of a succession of small efforts to meet
definite objects, out of the facing of daily difficulties
instead of cleverly eluding them, or shifting their burden on
others. The making of the substance called character was a
process about as slow and arduous as the building of the
Pyramids; and the thing itself, like those awful edifices, was
mainly useful to lodge one's descendants in, after they too were
dust. Yet the Pyramid-instinct was the one which had made the
world, made man, and caused his fugitive joys to linger like
fading frescoes on imperishable walls ....
ON the drive back from her dinner at the Nouveau Luxe, events
had followed the course foreseen by Susy.
She had promised Strefford to seek legal advice about her
divorce, and he had kissed her; and the promise had been easier
to make than she had expected, the kiss less difficult to
She had gone to the dinner a-quiver with the mortification of
learning that her husband was still with the Hickses. Morally
sure of it though she had been, the discovery was a shock, and
she measured for the first time the abyss between fearing and
knowing. No wonder he had not written--the modern husband did
not have to: he had only to leave it to time and the newspapers
to make known his intentions. Susy could imagine Nick's saying
to himself, as he sometimes used to say when she reminded him of
an unanswered letter: "But there are lots of ways of answering
a letter--and writing doesn't happen to be mine."
Well--he had done it in his way, and she was answered. For a
minute, as she laid aside the paper, darkness submerged her, and
she felt herself dropping down into the bottomless anguish of
her dreadful vigil in the Palazzo Vanderlyn. But she was weary
of anguish: her healthy body and nerves instinctively rejected
it. The wave was spent, and she felt herself irresistibly
struggling back to light and life and youth. He didn't want
her! Well, she would try not to want him! There lay all the
old expedients at her hand--the rouge for her white lips, the
atropine for her blurred eyes, the new dress on her bed, the
thought of Strefford and his guests awaiting her, and of the
conclusions that the diners of the Nouveau Luxe would draw from
seeing them together. Thank heaven no one would say: "Poor old
Susy--did you know Nick had chucked her?" They would all say:
"Poor old Nick! Yes, I daresay she was sorry to chuck him; but
Altringham's mad to marry her, and what could she do? "
And once again events had followed the course she had foreseen.
Seeing her at Lord Altringham's table, with the Ascots and the
old Duchess of Dunes, the interested spectators could not but
regard the dinner as confirming the rumour of her marriage. As
Ellie said, people didn't wait nowadays to announce their
"engagements" till the tiresome divorce proceedings were over.
Ellie herself, prodigally pearled and ermined, had floated in
late with Algie Bockheimer in her wake, and sat, in conspicuous
tete-a-tete, nodding and signalling her sympathy to Susy.
Approval beamed from every eye: it was awfully exciting, they
all seemed to say, seeing Susy Lansing pull it off! As the
party, after dinner, drifted from the restaurant back into the
hall, she caught, in the smiles and hand-pressures crowding
about her, the scarcely-repressed hint of official
congratulations; and Violet Melrose, seated in a corner with
Fulmer, drew her down with a wan jade-circled arm, to whisper
tenderly: "It's most awfully clever of you, darling, not to be
wearing any jewels."
In all the women's eyes she read the reflected lustre of the
jewels she could wear when she chose: it was as though their
glitter reached her from the far-off bank where they lay sealed
up in the Altringham strong-box. What a fool she had been to
think that Strefford would ever believe she didn't care for
The Ambassadress, a blank perpendicular person, had been a shade
less affable than Susy could have wished; but then there was
Lady Joan--and the girl was handsome, alarmingly handsome to
account for that: probably every one in the room had guessed
it. And the old Duchess of Dunes was delightful. She looked
rather like Strefford in a wig and false pearls (Susy was sure
they were as false as her teeth); and her cordiality was so
demonstrative that the future bride found it more difficult to
account for than Lady Ascot's coldness, till she heard the old
lady, as they passed into the hall, breathe in a hissing whisper
to her nephew: "Streff, dearest, when you have a minute's time,
and can drop in at my wretched little pension, I know you can
explain in two words what I ought to do to pacify those awful
money-lenders .... And you'll bring your exquisite American to
see me, won't you! ... No, Joan Senechal's too fair for my
taste .... Insipid..."
Yes: the taste of it all was again sweet on her lips. A few
days later she began to wonder how the thought of Strefford's
endearments could have been so alarming. To be sure he was not
lavish of them; but when he did touch her, even when he kissed
her, it no longer seemed to matter. An almost complete absence
of sensation had mercifully succeeded to the first wild flurry
of her nerves.
And so it would be, no doubt, with everything else in her new
life. If it failed to provoke any acute reactions, whether of
pain or pleasure, the very absence of sensation would make for
peace. And in the meanwhile she was tasting what, she had begun
to suspect, was the maximum of bliss to most of the women she
knew: days packed with engagements, the exhilaration of
fashionable crowds, the thrill of snapping up a jewel or a
bibelot or a new "model" that one's best friend wanted, or of
being invited to some private show, or some exclusive
entertainment, that one's best friend couldn't get to. There
was nothing, now, that she couldn't buy, nowhere that she
couldn't go: she had only to choose and to triumph. And for a
while the surface-excitement of her life gave her the illusion
Strefford, as she had expected, had postponed his return to
England, and they had now been for nearly three weeks together
in their new, and virtually avowed, relation. She had fancied
that, after all, the easiest part of it would be just the being
with Strefford--the falling back on their old tried friendship
to efface the sense of strangeness. But, though she had so soon
grown used to his caresses, he himself remained curiously
unfamiliar: she was hardly sure, at times, that it was the old
Strefford she was talking to. It was not that his point of view
had changed, but that new things occupied and absorbed him. In
all the small sides of his great situation he took an almost
childish satisfaction; and though he still laughed at both its
privileges and its obligations, it was now with a jealous
It amused him inexhaustibly, for instance, to be made up to by
all the people who had always disapproved of him, and to unite
at the same table persons who had to dissemble their annoyance
at being invited together lest they should not be invited at
all. Equally exhilarating was the capricious favouring of the
dull and dowdy on occasions when the brilliant and disreputable
expected his notice. It enchanted him, for example, to ask the
old Duchess of Dunes and Violet Melrose to dine with the Vicar
of Altringham, on his way to Switzerland for a month's holiday,
and to watch the face of the Vicar's wife while the Duchess
narrated her last difficulties with book-makers and money-
lenders, and Violet proclaimed the rights of Love and Genius to
all that had once been supposed to belong exclusively to
Respectability and Dulness.
Susy had to confess that her own amusements were hardly of a
higher order; but then she put up with them for lack of better,
whereas Strefford, who might have had what he pleased, was
completely satisfied with such triumphs.
Somehow, in spite of his honours and his opportunities, he
seemed to have shrunk. The old Strefford had certainly been a
larger person, and she wondered if material prosperity were
always a beginning of ossification. Strefford had been much
more fun when he lived by his wits. Sometimes, now, when he
tried to talk of politics, or assert himself on some question of
public interest, she was startled by his limitations. Formerly,
when he was not sure of his ground, it had been his way to turn
the difficulty by glib nonsense or easy irony; now he was
actually dull, at times almost pompous. She noticed too, for
the first time, that he did not always hear clearly when several
people were talking at once, or when he was at the theatre; and
he developed a habit of saying over and over again: "Does so-
and-so speak indistinctly? Or am I getting deaf, I wonder?"
which wore on her nerves by its suggestion of a corresponding
These thoughts did not always trouble her. The current of idle
activity on which they were both gliding was her native element
as well as his; and never had its tide been as swift, its waves
as buoyant. In his relation to her, too, he was full of tact
and consideration. She saw that he still remembered their
frightened exchange of glances after their first kiss; and the
sense of this little hidden spring of imagination in him was
sometimes enough for her thirst.
She had always had a rather masculine punctuality in keeping her
word, and after she had promised Strefford to take steps toward
a divorce she had promptly set about doing it. A sudden
reluctance prevented her asking the advice of friends like Ellie
Vanderlyn, whom she knew to be in the thick of the same
negotiations, and all she could think of was to consult a young
American lawyer practicing in Paris, with whom she felt she
could talk the more easily because he was not from New York, and
probably unacquainted with her history.
She was so ignorant of the procedure in such matters that she
was surprised and relieved at his asking few personal questions;
but it was a shock to learn that a divorce could not be
obtained, either in New York or Paris, merely on the ground of
desertion or incompatibility.
"I thought nowadays ... if people preferred to live apart ... it
could always be managed," she stammered, wondering at her own
ignorance, after the many conjugal ruptures she had assisted at.
The young lawyer smiled, and coloured slightly. His lovely
client evidently intimidated him by her grace, and still more by
"It can be--generally," he admitted; "and especially so if ...
as I gather is the case ... your husband is equally
"Oh, quite!" she exclaimed, suddenly humiliated by having to
"Well, then--may I suggest that, to bring matters to a point,
the best way would be for you to write to him?"
She recoiled slightly. It had never occurred to her that the
lawyers would not "manage it" without her intervention.
"Write to him ... but what about?"
"Well, expressing your wish ... to recover your freedom ....
The rest, I assume," said the young lawyer, "may be left to Mr.
She did not know exactly what he meant, and was too much
perturbed by the idea of having to communicate with Nick to
follow any other train of thought. How could she write such a
letter? And yet how could she confess to the lawyer that she
had not the courage to do so? He would, of course, tell her to
go home and be reconciled. She hesitated perplexedly.
"Wouldn't it be better," she suggested, "if the letter were to
come from--from your office?"
He considered this politely. "On the whole: no. If, as I take
it, an amicable arrangement is necessary--to secure the
requisite evidence then a line from you, suggesting an
interview, seems to me more advisable."
"An interview? Is an interview necessary?" She was ashamed to
show her agitation to this cautiously smiling young man, who
must wonder at her childish lack of understanding; but the break
in her voice was uncontrollable.
"Oh, please write to him--I can't! And I can't see him! Oh,
can't you arrange it for me?" she pleaded.
She saw now that her idea of a divorce had been that it was
something one went out--or sent out--to buy in a shop:
something concrete and portable, that Strefford's money could
pay for, and that it required no personal participation to
obtain. What a fool the lawyer must think her! Stiffening
herself, she rose from her seat.
"My husband and I don't wish to see each other again .... I'm
sure it would be useless ... and very painful."
"You are the best judge, of course. But in any case, a letter
from you, a friendly letter, seems wiser ... considering the
apparent lack of evidence ...."
"Very well, then; I'll write," she agreed, and hurried away,
scarcely hearing his parting injunction that she should take a
copy of her letter.
That night she wrote. At the last moment it might have been
impossible, if at the theatre little Breckenridge had not bobbed
into her box. He was just back from Rome, where he had dined
with the Hickses ("a bang-up show--they're really lances-you
wouldn't know them!"), and had met there Lansing, whom he
reported as intending to marry Coral "as soon as things were
settled". "You were dead right, weren't you, Susy," he
snickered, "that night in Venice last summer, when we all
thought you were joking about their engagement? Pity now you
chucked our surprise visit to the Hickses, and sent Streff up to
drag us back just as we were breaking in! You remember?"
He flung off the "Streff" airily, in the old way, but with a
tentative side-glance at his host; and Lord Altringham, leaning
toward Susy, said coldly: "Was Breckenridge speaking about me?
I didn't catch what he said. Does he speak indistinctly--or am
I getting deaf, I wonder?"
After that it seemed comparatively easy, when Strefford had
dropped her at her hotel, to go upstairs and write. She dashed
off the date and her address, and then stopped; but suddenly she
remembered Breckenridge's snicker, and the words rushed from
her. "Nick dear, it was July when you left Venice, and I have
had no word from you since the note in which you said you had
gone for a few days, and that I should hear soon again.
"You haven't written yet, and it is five months since you left
me. That means, I suppose, that you want to take back your
freedom and give me mine. Wouldn't it be kinder, in that case,
to tell me so? It is worse than anything to go on as we are
now. I don't know how to put these things but since you seem
unwilling to write to me perhaps you would prefer to send your
answer to Mr. Frederic Spearman, the American lawyer here. His
address is 100, Boulevard Haussmann. I hope--"
She broke off on the last word. Hope? What did she hope,
either for him or for herself? Wishes for his welfare would
sound like a mockery--and she would rather her letter should
seem bitter than unfeeling. Above all, she wanted to get it
done. To have to re-write even those few lines would be
torture. So she left "I hope," and simply added: "to hear
before long what you have decided."
She read it over, and shivered. Not one word of the past-not
one allusion to that mysterious interweaving of their lives
which had enclosed them one in the other like the flower in its
sheath! What place had such memories in such a letter? She had
the feeling that she wanted to hide that other Nick away in her
own bosom, and with him the other Susy, the Susy he had once
imagined her to be .... Neither of them seemed concerned with
the present business.
The letter done, she stared at the sealed envelope till its
presence in the room became intolerable, and she understood that
she must either tear it up or post it immediately. She went
down to the hall of the sleeping hotel, and bribed the night-
porter to carry the letter to the nearest post office, though he
objected that, at that hour, no time would be gained. "I want
it out of the house," she insisted: and waited sternly by the
desk, in her dressing-gown, till he had performed the errand.
As she re-entered her room, the disordered writing-table struck
her; and she remembered the lawyer's injunction to take a copy
of her letter. A copy to be filed away with the documents in
"Lansing versus Lansing!" She burst out laughing at the idea.
What were lawyers made of, she wondered? Didn't the man guess,
by the mere look in her eyes and the sound of her voice, that
she would never, as long as she lived, forget a word of that
letter--that night after night she would lie down, as she was
lying down to-night, to stare wide-eyed for hours into the
darkness, while a voice in her brain monotonously hammered out:
"Nick dear, it was July when you left me ..." and so on, word
after word, down to the last fatal syllable?
STREFFORD was leaving for England.
Once assured that Susy had taken the first step toward freeing
herself, he frankly regarded her as his affianced wife, and
could see no reason for further mystery. She understood his
impatience to have their plans settled; it would protect him
from the formidable menace of the marriageable, and cause
people, as he said, to stop meddling. Now that the novelty of
his situation was wearing off, his natural indolence reasserted
itself, and there was nothing he dreaded more than having to be
on his guard against the innumerable plans that his well-wishers
were perpetually making for him. Sometimes Susy fancied he was
marrying her because to do so was to follow the line of least
"To marry me is the easiest way of not marrying all the others,"
she laughed, as he stood before her one day in a quiet alley of
the Bois de Boulogne, insisting on the settlement of various
preliminaries. "I believe I'm only a protection to you."
An odd gleam passed behind his eyes, and she instantly guessed
that he was thinking: "And what else am I to you?"
She changed colour, and he rejoined, laughing also: "Well,
you're that at any rate, thank the Lord!"
She pondered, and then questioned: "But in the interval-how
are you going to defend yourself for another year?"
"Ah, you've got to see to that; you've got to take a little
house in London. You've got to look after me, you know."
It was on the tip of her tongue to flash back: "Oh, if that's
all you care--!" But caring was exactly the factor she wanted,
as much as possible, to keep out of their talk and their
thoughts. She could not ask him how much he cared without
laying herself open to the same question; and that way terror
lay. As a matter of fact, though Strefford was not an ardent
wooer--perhaps from tact, perhaps from temperament, perhaps
merely from the long habit of belittling and disintegrating
every sentiment and every conviction--yet she knew he did care
for her as much as he was capable of caring for anyone. If the
element of habit entered largely into the feeling--if he liked
her, above all, because he was used to her, knew her views, her
indulgences, her allowances, knew he was never likely to be
bored, and almost certain to be amused, by her; why, such
ingredients though not of the fieriest, were perhaps those most
likely to keep his feeling for her at a pleasant temperature.
She had had a taste of the tropics, and wanted more equable
weather; but the idea of having to fan his flame gently for a
year was unspeakably depressing to her. Yet all this was
precisely what she could not say. The long period of probation,
during which, as she knew, she would have to amuse him, to guard
him, to hold him, and to keep off the other women, was a
necessary part of their situation. She was sure that, as little
Breckenridge would have said, she could "pull it off"; but she
did not want to think about it. What she would have preferred
would have been to go away--no matter where and not see
Strefford again till they were married. But she dared not tell
him that either.
"A little house in London--?" She wondered.
"Well, I suppose you've got to have some sort of a roof over
"I suppose so."
He sat down beside her. "If you like me well enough to live at
Altringham some day, won't you, in the meantime, let me provide
you with a smaller and more convenient establishment?"
Still she hesitated. The alternative, she knew, would be to
live on Ursula Gillow, Violet Melrose, or some other of her rich
friends, any one of whom would be ready to lavish the largest
hospitality on the prospective Lady Altringham. Such an
arrangement, in the long run, would be no less humiliating to
her pride, no less destructive to her independence, than
Altringham's little establishment. But she temporized. "I
shall go over to London in December, and stay for a while with
various people--then we can look about."
"All right; as you like." He obviously considered her
hesitation ridiculous, but was too full of satisfaction at her
having started divorce proceedings to be chilled by her reply.
"And now, look here, my dear; couldn't I give you some sort of a
"A ring?" She flushed at the suggestion. "What's the use,
Streff, dear? With all those jewels locked away in London--"
"Oh, I daresay you'll think them old-fashioned. And, hang it,
why shouldn't I give you something new, I ran across Ellie and
Bockheimer yesterday, in the rue de la Paix, picking out
sapphires. Do you like sapphires, or emeralds? Or just a
diamond? I've seen a thumping one .... I'd like you to have
Ellie and Bockheimer! How she hated the conjunction of the
names! Their case always seemed to her like a caricature of her
own, and she felt an unreasoning resentment against Ellie for
having selected the same season for her unmating and re-mating.
"I wish you wouldn't speak of them, Streff ... as if they were
like us! I can hardly bear to sit in the same room with Ellie
"Hullo? What's wrong? You mean because of her giving up
"Not that only .... You don't know .... I can't tell you ...."
She shivered at the memory, and rose restlessly from the bench
where they had been sitting.
Strefford gave his careless shrug. "Well, my dear, you can
hardly expect me to agree, for after all it was to Ellie I owed
the luck of being so long alone with you in Venice. If she and
Algie hadn't prolonged their honeymoon at the villa--"
He stopped abruptly, and looked at Susy. She was conscious that
every drop of blood had left her face. She felt it ebbing away
from her heart, flowing out of her as if from all her severed
arteries, till it seemed as though nothing were left of life in
her but one point of irreducible pain.
"Ellie--at your villa? What do you mean? Was it Ellie and
Strefford still stared. "You mean to say you didn't know?"
"Who came after Nick and me...?" she insisted.
"Why, do you suppose I'd have turned you out otherwise? That
beastly Bockheimer simply smothered me with gold. Ah, well,
there's one good thing: I shall never have to let the villa
again! I rather like the little place myself, and I daresay
once in a while we might go there for a day or two .... Susy,
what's the matter?" he exclaimed.
She returned his stare, but without seeing him. Everything swam
and danced before her eyes.
"Then she was there while I was posting all those letters for
"Letters--what letters? What makes you look so frightfully
She pursued her thought as if he had not spoken. "She and Algie
Bockheimer arrived there the very day that Nick and I left?"
"I suppose so. I thought she'd told you. Ellie always tells
"She would have told me, I daresay--but I wouldn't let her."
"Well, my dear, that was hardly my fault, was it? Though I
really don't see--"
But Susy, still blind to everything but the dance of dizzy
sparks before her eyes, pressed on as if she had not heard him.
"It was their motor, then, that took us to Milan! It was Algie
Bockheimer's motor!" She did not know why, but this seemed to
her the most humiliating incident in the whole hateful business.
She remembered Nick's reluctance to use the motor-she
remembered his look when she had boasted of her "managing." The
nausea mounted to her throat.
Strefford burst out laughing. "I say--you borrowed their motor?
And you didn't know whose it was?"
"How could I know? I persuaded the chauffeur ... for a little
tip .... It was to save our railway fares to Milan ... extra
luggage costs so frightfully in Italy ...."
"Good old Susy! Well done! I can see you doing it--"
"Oh, how horrible--how horrible!" she groaned.
"Horrible? What's horrible?"
"Why, your not seeing ... not feeling ..." she began
impetuously; and then stopped. How could she explain to him
that what revolted her was not so much the fact of his having
given the little house, as soon as she and Nick had left it, to
those two people of all others--though the vision of them in the
sweet secret house, and under the plane-trees of the terrace,
drew such a trail of slime across her golden hours? No, it was
not that from which she most recoiled, but from the fact that
Strefford, living in luxury in Nelson Vanderlyn's house, should
at the same time have secretly abetted Ellie Vanderlyn's love-
affairs, and allowed her--for a handsome price--to shelter them
under his own roof. The reproach trembled on her lip--but she
remembered her own part in the wretched business, and the
impossibility of avowing it to Strefford, and of revealing to
him that Nick had left her for that very reason. She was not
afraid that the discovery would diminish her in Strefford's
eyes: he was untroubled by moral problems, and would laugh away
her avowal, with a sneer at Nick in his new part of moralist.
But that was just what she could not bear: that anyone should
cast a doubt on the genuineness of Nick's standards, or should
know how far below them she had fallen.
She remained silent, and Strefford, after a moment, drew her
gently down to the seat beside him. "Susy, upon my soul I don't
know what you're driving at. Is it me you're angry with-or
yourself? And what's it all about! Are you disgusted because I
let the villa to a couple who weren't married! But, hang it,
they're the kind that pay the highest price and I had to earn my
living somehow! One doesn't run across a bridal pair every
She lifted her eyes to his puzzled incredulous face. Poor
Streff! No, it was not with him that she was angry. Why should
she be? Even that ill-advised disclosure had told her nothing
she had not already known about him. It had simply revealed to
her once more the real point of view of the people he and she
lived among, had shown her that, in spite of the superficial
difference, he felt as they felt, judged as they judged, was
blind as they were-and as she would be expected to be, should
she once again become one of them. What was the use of being
placed by fortune above such shifts and compromises, if in one's
heart one still condoned them? And she would have to--she would
catch the general note, grow blunted as those other people were
blunted, and gradually come to wonder at her own revolt, as
Strefford now honestly wondered at it. She felt as though she
were on the point of losing some new-found treasure, a treasure
precious only to herself, but beside which all he offered her
was nothing, the triumph of her wounded pride nothing, the
security of her future nothing.
"What is it, Susy?" he asked, with the same puzzled gentleness.
Ah, the loneliness of never being able to make him understand!
She had felt lonely enough when the flaming sword of Nick's
indignation had shut her out from their Paradise; but there had
been a cruel bliss in the pain. Nick had not opened her eyes to
new truths, but had waked in her again something which had lain
unconscious under years of accumulated indifference. And that
re-awakened sense had never left her since, and had somehow kept
her from utter loneliness because it was a secret shared with
Nick, a gift she owed to Nick, and which, in leaving her, he
could not take from her. It was almost, she suddenly felt, as
if he had left her with a child.
"My dear girl," Strefford said, with a resigned glance at his
watch, "you know we're dining at the Embassy ...."
At the Embassy? She looked at him vaguely: then she
remembered. Yes, they were dining that night at the Ascots',
with Strefford's cousin, the Duke of Dunes, and his wife, the
handsome irreproachable young Duchess; with the old gambling
Dowager Duchess, whom her son and daughter-in-law had come over
from England to see; and with other English and French guests of
a rank and standing worthy of the Duneses. Susy knew that her
inclusion in such a dinner could mean but one thing: it was her
definite recognition as Altringham's future wife. She was "the
little American" whom one had to ask when one invited him, even
on ceremonial occasions. The family had accepted her; the
Embassy could but follow suit.
"It's late, dear; and I've got to see someone on business
first," Strefford reminded her patiently.
"Oh, Streff--I can't, I can't!" The words broke from her
without her knowing what she was saying. "I can't go with
you--I can't go to the Embassy. I can't go on any longer like
this ...." She lifted her eyes to his in desperate appeal.
"Oh, understand-do please understand!" she wailed, knowing,
while she spoke, the utter impossibility of what she asked.
Strefford's face had gradually paled and hardened. From sallow
it turned to a dusky white, and lines of obstinacy deepened
between the ironic eyebrows and about the weak amused mouth.
"Understand? What do you want me to understand," He laughed.
"That you're trying to chuck me already?"
She shrank at the sneer of the "already," but instantly
remembered that it was the only thing he could be expected to
say, since it was just because he couldn't understand that she
was flying from him.
"Oh, Streff--if I knew how to tell you!"
"It doesn't so much matter about the how. Is that what you're
trying to say?"
Her head drooped, and she saw the dead leaves whirling across
the path at her feet, lifted on a sudden wintry gust.
"The reason," he continued, clearing his throat with a stiff
smile, "is not quite as important to me as the fact."
She stood speechless, agonized by his pain. But still, she
thought, he had remembered the dinner at the Embassy. The
thought gave her courage to go on.
"It wouldn't do, Streff. I'm not a bit the kind of person to
make you happy."
"Oh, leave that to me, please, won't you?"
"No, I can't. Because I should be unhappy too."
He clicked at the leaves as they whirled past. "You've taken a
rather long time to find it out." She saw that his new-born
sense of his own consequence was making him suffer even more
than his wounded affection; and that again gave her courage.
"If I've taken long it's all the more reason why I shouldn't
take longer. If I've made a mistake it's you who would have
suffered from it ...."
"Thanks," he said, "for your extreme solicitude."
She looked at him helplessly, penetrated by the despairing sense
of their inaccessibility to each other. Then she remembered
that Nick, during their last talk together, had seemed as
inaccessible, and wondered if, when human souls try to get too
near each other, they do not inevitably become mere blurs to
each other's vision. She would have liked to say this to
Streff-but he would not have understood it either. The sense
of loneliness once more enveloped her, and she groped in vain
for a word that should reach him.
"Let me go home alone, won't you?" she appealed to him.
She nodded. "To-morrow--to-morrow ...."
He tried, rather valiantly, to smile. "Hang tomorrow! Whatever
is wrong, it needn't prevent my seeing you home." He glanced
toward the taxi that awaited them at the end of the deserted
"No, please. You're in a hurry; take the taxi. I want
immensely a long long walk by myself ... through the streets,
with the lights coming out ...."
He laid his hand on her arm. "I say, my dear, you're not ill?"
"No; I'm not ill. But you may say I am, to-night at the
He released her and drew back. "Oh, very well," he answered
coldly; and she understood by his tone that the knot was cut,
and that at that moment he almost hated her. She turned away,
hastening down the deserted alley, flying from him, and knowing,
as she fled, that he was still standing there motionless,
staring after her, wounded, humiliated, uncomprehending. It was
neither her fault nor his ....
AS she fled on toward the lights of the streets a breath of
freedom seemed to blow into her face.
Like a weary load the accumulated hypocrisies of the last months
had dropped from her: she was herself again, Nick's Susy, and
no one else's. She sped on, staring with bright bewildered eyes
at the stately facades of the La Muette quarter, the
perspectives of bare trees, the awakening glitter of shop-
windows holding out to her all the things she would never again
be able to buy ....
In an avenue of shops she paused before a milliner's window, and
said to herself: "Why shouldn't I earn my living by trimming
hats?" She met work-girls streaming out under a doorway, and
scattering to catch trams and omnibuses; and she looked with
newly-wakened interest at their tired independent faces. "Why
shouldn't I earn my living as well as they do?" she thought. A
little farther on she passed a Sister of Charity with softly
trotting feet, a calm anonymous glance, and hands hidden in her
capacious sleeves. Susy looked at her and thought: "Why
shouldn't I be a Sister, and have no money to worry about, and
trot about under a white coif helping poor people?"
All these strangers on whom she smiled in passing, and glanced
back at enviously, were free from the necessities that enslaved
her, and would not have known what she meant if she had told
them that she must have so much money for her dresses, so much
for her cigarettes, so much for bridge and cabs and tips, and
all kinds of extras, and that at that moment she ought to be
hurrying back to a dinner at the British Embassy, where her
permanent right to such luxuries was to be solemnly recognized
The artificiality and unreality of her life overcame her as with
stifling fumes. She stopped at a street-corner, drawing long
panting breaths as if she had been running a race. Then, slowly
and aimlessly, she began to saunter along a street of small
private houses in damp gardens that led to the Avenue du Bois.
She sat down on a bench. Not far off, the Arc de Triomphe
raised its august bulk, and beyond it a river of lights streamed
down toward Paris, and the stir of the city's heart-beats
troubled the quiet in her bosom. But not for long. She seemed
to be looking at it all from the other side of the grave; and as
she got up and wandered down the Champs Elysees, half empty in
the evening lull between dusk and dinner, she felt as if the
glittering avenue were really changed into the Field of Shadows
from which it takes its name, and as if she were a ghost among
Halfway home, a weakness of loneliness overcame her, and she
seated herself under the trees near the Rond Point. Lines of
motors and carriages were beginning to animate the converging
thoroughfares, streaming abreast, crossing, winding in and out
of each other in a tangle of hurried pleasure-seeking. She
caught the light on jewels and shirt-fronts and hard bored eyes
emerging from dim billows of fur and velvet. She seemed to hear
what the couples were saying to each other, she pictured the
drawing-rooms, restaurants, dance-halls they were hastening to,
the breathless routine that was hurrying them along, as Time,
the old vacuum-cleaner, swept them away with the dust of their
carriage-wheels. And again the loneliness vanished in a sense
of release ....
At the corner of the Place de la Concorde she stopped,
recognizing a man in evening dress who was hailing a taxi.
Their eyes met, and Nelson Vanderlyn came forward. He was the
last person she cared to run across, and she shrank back
involuntarily. What did he know, what had he guessed, of her
complicity in his wife's affairs? No doubt Ellie had blabbed it
all out by this time; she was just as likely to confide her
love-affairs to Nelson as to anyone else, now that the
Bockheimer prize was landed.
"Well--well--well--so I've caught you at it! Glad to see you,
Susy, my dear." She found her hand cordially clasped in
Vanderlyn's, and his round pink face bent on her with all its
old urbanity. Did nothing matter, then, in this world she was
fleeing from, did no one love or hate or remember?
"No idea you were in Paris--just got here myself," Vanderlyn
continued, visibly delighted at the meeting. "Look here, don't
suppose you're out of a job this evening by any chance, and
would come and cheer up a lone bachelor, eh? No? You are?
Well, that's luck for once! I say, where shall we go? One of
the places where they dance, I suppose? Yes, I twirl the light
fantastic once in a while myself. Got to keep up with the
times! Hold on, taxi! Here--I'll drive you home first, and
wait while you jump into your toggery. Lots of time." As he
steered her toward the carriage she noticed that he had a gouty
limp, and pulled himself in after her with difficulty.
"Mayn't I come as I am, Nelson, I don't feel like dancing.
Let's go and dine in one of those nice smoky little restaurants
by the Place de la Bourse."
He seemed surprised but relieved at the suggestion, and they
rolled off together. In a corner at Bauge's they found a quiet
table, screened from the other diners, and while Vanderlyn
adjusted his eyeglasses to study the carte Susy stole a long
look at him. He was dressed with even more than his usual
formal trimness, and she detected, in an ultra-flat wrist-watch
and discreetly expensive waistcoat buttons, an attempt at
smartness altogether new. His face had undergone the same
change: its familiar look of worn optimism had been, as it
were, done up to match his clothes, as though a sort of moral
cosmetic had made him pinker, shinier and sprightlier without
really rejuvenating him. A thin veil of high spirits had merely
been drawn over his face, as the shining strands of hair were
skilfully brushed over his baldness.
"Here! Carte des vins, waiter! What champagne, Susy?" He
chose, fastidiously, the best the cellar could produce,
grumbling a little at the bourgeois character of the dishes.
"Capital food of its kind, no doubt, but coarsish, don't you
think? Well, I don't mind ... it's rather a jolly change from
the Luxe cooking. A new sensation--I'm all for new sensations,
ain't you, my dear?" He re-filled their champagne glasses,
flung an arm sideways over his chair, and smiled at her with a
As the champagne flowed his confidences flowed with it.
"Suppose you know what I'm here for--this divorce business? We
wanted to settle it quietly without a fuss, and of course Paris
is the best place for that sort of job. Live and let live; no
questions asked. None of your dirty newspapers. Great country,
this. No hypocrisy ... they understand Life over here!"
Susy gazed and listened. She remembered that people had thought
Nelson would make a row when he found out. He had always been
addicted to truculent anecdotes about unfaithful wives, and the
very formula of his perpetual ejaculation-- "Caught you at it,
eh?"--seemed to hint at a constant preoccupation with such
ideas. But now it was evident that, as the saying was, he had
"swallowed his dose" like all the others. No strong blast of
indignation had momentarily lifted him above his normal stature:
he remained a little man among little men, and his eagerness to
rebuild his life with all the old smiling optimism reminded Susy
of the patient industry of an ant remaking its ruined ant-heap.
"Tell you what, great thing, this liberty! Everything's changed
nowadays; why shouldn't marriage be too? A man can get out of a
business partnership when he wants to; but the parsons want to
keep us noosed up to each other for life because we've blundered
into a church one day and said 'Yes' before one of 'em. No,
no--that's too easy. We've got beyond that. Science, and all
these new discoveries .... I say the Ten Commandments were made
for man, and not man for the Commandments; and there ain't a
word against divorce in 'em, anyhow! That's what I tell my poor
old mother, who builds everything on her Bible. Find me the
place where it says: 'Thou shalt not sue for divorce.' It
makes her wild, poor old lady, because she can't; and she
doesn't know how they happen to have left it out.... I rather
think Moses left it out because he knew more about human nature
than these snivelling modern parsons do. Not that they'll
always bear investigating either; but I don't care about that.
Live and let live, eh, Susy? Haven't we all got a right to our
Affinities? I hear you're following our example yourself.
First-rate idea: I don't mind telling you I saw it coming on
last summer at Venice. Caught you at it, so to speak! Old
Nelson ain't as blind as people think. Here, let's open another
bottle to the health of Streff and Mrs. Streff!"
She caught the hand with which he was signalling to the
sommelier. This flushed and garrulous Nelson moved her more
poignantly than a more heroic figure. "No more champagne,
please, Nelson. Besides," she suddenly added, "it's not true."
He stared. "Not true that you're going to marry Altringham?"
"By George then what on earth did you chuck Nick for? Ain't you
got an Affinity, my dear?"
She laughed and shook her head.
"Do you mean to tell me it's all Nick's doing, then?"
"I don't know. Let's talk of you instead, Nelson. I'm glad
you're in such good spirits. I rather thought--"
He interrupted her quickly. "Thought I'd cut up a rumpus-do
some shooting? I know--people did." He twisted his moustache,
evidently proud of his reputation. "Well, maybe I did see red
for a day or two--but I'm a philosopher, first and last. Before
I went into banking I'd made and lost two fortunes out West.
Well, how did I build 'em up again? Not by shooting anybody
even myself. By just buckling to, and beginning all over again.
That's how ... and that's what I am doing now. Beginning all
over again. " His voice dropped from boastfulness to a note
of wistful melancholy, the look of strained jauntiness fell from
his face like a mask, and for an instant she saw the real man,
old, ruined, lonely. Yes, that was it: he was lonely,
desperately lonely, foundering in such deep seas of solitude
that any presence out of the past was like a spar to which he
clung. Whatever he knew or guessed of the part she had played
in his disaster, it was not callousness that had made him greet
her with such forgiving warmth, but the same sense of smallness,
insignificance and isolation which perpetually hung like a cold
fog on her own horizon. Suddenly she too felt old--old and
"It's been nice seeing you, Nelson. But now I must be getting
He offered no objection, but asked for the bill, resumed his
jaunty air while he scattered largesse among the waiters, and
sauntered out behind her after calling for a taxi.
They drove off in silence. Susy was thinking: "And Clarissa?"
but dared not ask. Vanderlyn lit a cigarette, hummed a dance-
tune, and stared out of the window. Suddenly she felt his hand
"Susy--do you ever see her?"
He nodded, without turning toward her.
"Not often ... sometimes ...."
"If you do, for God's sake tell her I'm happy ... happy as a
king ... tell her you could see for yourself that I was ...."
His voice broke in a little gasp. "I ... I'll be damned if ...
if she shall ever be unhappy about me ... if I can help it ...."
The cigarette dropped from his fingers, and with a sob he
covered his face.
"Oh, poor Nelson--poor Nelson, " Susy breathed. While their cab
rattled across the Place du Carrousel, and over the bridge, he
continued to sit beside her with hidden face. At last he pulled
out a scented handkerchief, rubbed his eyes with it, and groped
for another cigarette.
"I'm all right! Tell her that, will you, Susy? There are some
of our old times I don't suppose I shall ever forget; but they
make me feel kindly to her, and not angry. I didn't know it
would be so, beforehand--but it is .... And now the thing's
settled I'm as right as a trivet, and you can tell her so ....
Look here, Susy ..." he caught her by the arm as the taxi drew
up at her hotel .... "Tell her I understand, will you? I'd
rather like her to know that .... "
"I'll tell her, Nelson," she promised; and climbed the stairs
alone to her dreary room.
Susy's one fear was that Strefford, when he returned the next
day, should treat their talk of the previous evening as a fit of
"nerves" to be jested away. He might, indeed, resent her
behaviour too deeply to seek to see her at once; but his
easygoing modern attitude toward conduct and convictions made
that improbable. She had an idea that what he had most minded
was her dropping so unceremoniously out of the Embassy Dinner.
But, after all, why should she see him again? She had had
enough of explanations during the last months to have learned
how seldom they explain anything. If the other person did not
understand at the first word, at the first glance even,
subsequent elucidations served only to deepen the obscurity.
And she wanted above all--and especially since her hour with
Nelson Vanderlyn--to keep herself free, aloof, to retain her
hold on her precariously recovered self. She sat down and wrote
to Strefford--and the letter was only a little less painful to
write than the one she had despatched to Nick. It was not that
her own feelings were in any like measure engaged; but because,
as the decision to give up Strefford affirmed itself, she
remembered only his kindness, his forbearance, his good humour,
and all the other qualities she had always liked in him; and
because she felt ashamed of the hesitations which must cause him
so much pain and humiliation. Yes: humiliation chiefly. She
knew that what she had to say would hurt his pride, in whatever
way she framed her renunciation; and her pen wavered, hating its
task. Then she remembered Vanderlyn's words about his wife:
"There are some of our old times I don't suppose I shall ever
forget--" and a phrase of Grace Fulmer's that she had but half
grasped at the time: "You haven't been married long enough to
understand how trifling such things seem in the balance of one's
Here were two people who had penetrated farther than she into
the labyrinth of the wedded state, and struggled through some of
its thorniest passages; and yet both, one consciously, the other
half-unaware, testified to the mysterious fact which was already
dawning on her: that the influence of a marriage begun in
mutual understanding is too deep not to reassert itself even in
the moment of flight and denial.
"The real reason is that you're not Nick" was what she would
have said to Strefford if she had dared to set down the bare
truth; and she knew that, whatever she wrote, he was too acute
not to read that into it.
"He'll think it's because I'm still in love with Nick ... and
perhaps I am. But even if I were, the difference doesn't seem
to lie there, after all, but deeper, in things we've shared that
seem to be meant to outlast love, or to change it into something
different." If she could have hoped to make Strefford
understand that, the letter would have been easy enough to
write--but she knew just at what point his imagination would
fail, in what obvious and superficial inferences it would rest
"Poor Streff--poor me!" she thought as she sealed the letter.
After she had despatched it a sense of blankness descended on
her. She had succeeded in driving from her mind all vain
hesitations, doubts, returns upon herself: her healthy system
naturally rejected them. But they left a queer emptiness in
which her thoughts rattled about as thoughts might, she
supposed, in the first moments after death--before one got used
to it. To get used to being dead: that seemed to be her
immediate business. And she felt such a novice at it--felt so
horribly alive! How had those others learned to do without
living? Nelson--well, he was still in the throes; and probably
never would understand, or be able to communicate, the lesson
when he had mastered it. But Grace Fulmer--she suddenly
remembered that Grace was in Paris, and set forth to find her.
NICK LANSING had walked out a long way into the Campagna. His
hours were seldom his own, for both Mr. and Mrs. Hicks were
becoming more and more addicted to sudden and somewhat imperious
demands upon his time; but on this occasion he had simply
slipped away after luncheon, and taking the tram to the Porta
Salaria, had wandered on thence in the direction of the Ponte
He wanted to get away and think; but now that he had done it the
business proved as unfruitful as everything he had put his hand
to since he had left Venice. Think--think about what? His
future seemed to him a negligible matter since he had received,
two months earlier, the few lines in which Susy had asked him
for her freedom.
The letter had been a shock--though he had fancied himself so
prepared for it--yet it had also, in another sense, been a
relief, since, now that at last circumstances compelled him to
write to her, they also told him what to say. And he had said it
as briefly and simply as possible, telling her that he would put
no obstacle in the way of her release, that he held himself at
her lawyer's disposal to answer any further communication--and
that he would never forget their days together, or cease to
bless her for them.
That was all. He gave his Roman banker's address, and waited
for another letter; but none came. Probably the "formalities,"
whatever they were, took longer than he had supposed; and being
in no haste to recover his own liberty, he did not try to learn
the cause of the delay. From that moment, however, he
considered himself virtually free, and ceased, by the same
token, to take any interest in his own future. His life seemed
as flat as a convalescent's first days after the fever has
The only thing he was sure of was that he was not going to
remain in the Hickses' employ: when they left Rome for Central
Asia he had no intention of accompanying them. The part of Mr.
Buttles' successor was becoming daily more intolerable to him,
for the very reasons that had probably made it most gratifying
to Mr. Buttles. To be treated by Mr. and Mrs. Hicks as a paid
oracle, a paraded and petted piece of property, was a good deal
more distasteful than he could have imagined any relation with
these kindly people could be. And since their aspirations had
become frankly social he found his task, if easier, yet far less
congenial than during his first months with them. He preferred
patiently explaining to Mrs. Hicks, for the hundredth time, that
Sassanian and Saracenic were not interchangeable terms, to
unravelling for her the genealogies of her titled guests, and
reminding her, when she "seated" her dinner-parties, that Dukes
ranked higher than Princes. No--the job was decidedly
intolerable; and he would have to look out for another means of
earning his living. But that was not what he had really got
away to think about. He knew he should never starve; he had
even begun to believe again in his book. What he wanted to
think of was Susy--or rather, it was Susy that he could not help
thinking of, on whatever train of thought he set out.
Again and again he fancied he had established a truce with the
past: had come to terms--the terms of defeat and failure with
that bright enemy called happiness. And, in truth, he had
reached the point of definitely knowing that he could never
return to the kind of life that he and Susy had embarked on. It
had been the tragedy, of their relation that loving her roused
in him ideals she could never satisfy. He had fallen in love
with her because she was, like himself, amused, unprejudiced and
disenchanted; and he could not go on loving her unless she
ceased to be all these things. From that circle there was no
issue, and in it he desperately revolved.
If he had not heard such persistent rumours of her re-marriage
to Lord Altringham he might have tried to see her again; but,
aware of the danger and the hopelessness of a meeting, he was,
on the whole, glad to have a reason for avoiding it. Such, at
least, he honestly supposed to be his state of mind until he
found himself, as on this occasion, free to follow out his
thought to its end. That end, invariably, was Susy; not the
bundle of qualities and defects into which his critical spirit
had tried to sort her out, but the soft blur of identity, of
personality, of eyes, hair, mouth, laugh, tricks of speech and
gesture, that were all so solely and profoundly her own, and yet
so mysteriously independent of what she might do, say, think, in
crucial circumstances. He remembered her once saying to him:
"After all, you were right when you wanted me to be your
mistress," and the indignant stare of incredulity with which he
had answered her. Yet in these hours it was the palpable image
of her that clung closest, till, as invariably happened, his
vision came full circle, and feeling her on his breast he wanted
her also in his soul.
Well--such all-encompassing loves were the rarest of human
experiences; he smiled at his presumption in wanting no other.
Wearily he turned, and tramped homeward through the winter
At the door of the hotel he ran across the Prince of Teutoburg's
aide-de-camp. They had not met for some days, and Nick had a
vague feeling that if the Prince's matrimonial designs took
definite shape he himself was not likely, after all, to be their
chosen exponent. He had surprised, now and then, a certain
distrustful coldness under the Princess Mother's cordial glance,
and had concluded that she perhaps suspected him of being an
obstacle to her son's aspirations. He had no idea of playing
that part, but was not sorry to appear to; for he was sincerely
attached to Coral Hicks, and hoped for her a more human fate
than that of becoming Prince Anastasius's consort.
This evening, however, he was struck by the beaming alacrity of
the aide-de-camp's greeting. Whatever cloud had hung between
them had lifted: the Teutoburg clan, for one reason or another,
no longer feared or distrusted him. The change was conveyed in
a mere hand-pressure, a brief exchange of words, for the aide-
de-camp was hastening after a well-known dowager of the old
Roman world, whom he helped into a large coronetted brougham
which looked as if it had been extracted, for some ceremonial
purpose, from a museum of historic vehicles. And in an instant
it flashed on Lansing that this lady had been the person chosen
to lay the Prince's offer at Miss Hicks's feet.
The discovery piqued him; and instead of making straight for his
own room he went up to Mrs. Hicks's drawing-room.
The room was empty, but traces of elaborate tea pervaded it, and
an immense bouquet of stiff roses lay on the centre table. As
he turned away, Eldorada Tooker, flushed and tear-stained,
"Oh, Mr. Lansing--we were looking everywhere for you."
"Looking for me?"
"Yes. Coral especially ... she wants to see you. She wants you
to come to her own sitting-room."
She led him across the ante-chamber and down the passage to the
separate suite which Miss Hicks inhabited. On the threshold
Eldorada gasped out emotionally: "You'll find her looking
lovely--" and jerked away with a sob as he entered.
Coral Hicks was never lovely: but she certainly looked
unusually handsome. Perhaps it was the long dress of black
velvet which, outlined against a shaded lamp, made her strong
build seem slenderer, or perhaps the slight flush on her dusky
cheek: a bloom of womanhood hung upon her which she made no
effort to dissemble. Indeed, it was one of her originalities
that she always gravely and courageously revealed the utmost of
whatever mood possessed her.
"How splendid you look!" he said, smiling at her.
She threw her head back and gazed him straight in the eyes.
"That's going to be my future job."
"To look splendid?"
"And wear a crown?"
"And wear a crown ...."
They continued to consider each other without speaking. Nick's
heart contracted with pity and perplexity.
"Oh, Coral--it's not decided?"
She scrutinized him for a last penetrating moment; then she
looked away. "I'm never long deciding."
He hesitated, choking with contradictory impulses, and afraid to
formulate any, lest they should either mislead or pain her.
"Why didn't you tell me?" he questioned lamely; and instantly
perceived his blunder.
She sat down, and looked up at him under brooding lashes--had he
ever noticed the thickness of her lashes before?
"Would it have made any difference if I had told you?"
"Sit down by me," she commanded. "I want to talk to you. You
can say now whatever you might have said sooner. I'm not
married yet: I'm still free."
"You haven't given your answer?"
"It doesn't matter if I have."
The retort frightened him with the glimpse of what she still
expected of him, and what he was still so unable to give.
"That means you've said yes?" he pursued, to gain time.
"Yes or no--it doesn't matter. I had to say something. What I
want is your advice."
"At the eleventh hour?"
"Or the twelfth." She paused. "What shall I do?" she
questioned, with a sudden accent of helplessness.
He looked at her as helplessly. He could not say: "Ask
yourself--ask your parents." Her next word would sweep away
such frail hypocrisies. Her "What shall I do?" meant "What are
you going to do?" and he knew it, and knew that she knew it.
"I'm a bad person to give any one matrimonial advice," he began,
with a strained smile; "but I had such a different vision for
"What kind of a vision?" She was merciless.
"Merely what people call happiness, dear."
"'People call'--you see you don't believe in it yourself! Well,
neither do I--in that form, at any rate. "
He considered. "I believe in trying for it--even if the trying's
the best of it."
"Well, I've tried, and failed. And I'm twenty-two, and I never
was young. I suppose I haven't enough imagination." She drew a
deep breath. "Now I want something different." She appeared to
search for the word. "I want to be--prominent," she declared.
She reddened swarthily. "Oh, you smile--you think it's
ridiculous: it doesn't seem worth while to you. That's because
you've always had all those things. But I haven't. I know what
father pushed up from, and I want to push up as high again--
higher. No, I haven't got much imagination. I've always liked
Facts. And I find I shall like the fact of being a Princess--
choosing the people I associate with, and being up above all
these European grandees that father and mother bow down to,
though they think they despise them. You can be up above these
people by just being yourself; you know how. But I need a
platform--a sky-scraper. Father and mother slaved to give me my
education. They thought education was the important thing; but,
since we've all three of us got mediocre minds, it has just
landed us among mediocre people. Don't you suppose I see
through all the sham science and sham art and sham everything
we're surrounded with? That's why I want to buy a place at the
very top, where I shall be powerful enough to get about me the
people I want, the big people, the right people, and to help
them I want to promote culture, like those Renaissance women
you're always talking about. I want to do it for Apex City; do
you understand? And for father and mother too. I want all
those titles carved on my tombstone. They're facts, anyhow!
Don't laugh at me ...." She broke off with one of her clumsy
smiles, and moved away from him to the other end of the room.
He sat looking at her with a curious feeling of admiration. Her
harsh positivism was like a tonic to his disenchanted mood, and
he thought: "What a pity!"
Aloud he said: "I don't feel like laughing at you. You're a
"Then I shall be a great Princess."
"Oh--but you might have been something so much greater!"
Her face flamed again. "Don't say that!"
He stood up involuntarily, and drew near her.