The Glimpses of the Moon eBook: Page2

Edith Wharton (1998)


  II.

  LANSING threw the end of Strefford's expensive cigar into the lake, andbent over his wife. Poor child! She had fallen asleep.... He leanedback and stared up again at the silver-flooded sky. How queer--howinexpressibly queer--it was to think that that light was shed by hishoney-moon! A year ago, if anyone had predicted his risking such anadventure, he would have replied by asking to be locked up at the firstsymptoms....

  There was still no doubt in his mind that the adventure was a mad one.It was all very well for Susy to remind him twenty times a day that theyhad pulled it off--and so why should he worry? Even in the light of herfar-seeing cleverness, and of his own present bliss, he knew the futurewould not bear the examination of sober thought. And as he sat therein the summer moonlight, with her head on his knee, he tried torecapitulate the successive steps that had landed them on Streffy'slake-front.

  On Lansing's side, no doubt, it dated back to his leaving Harvard withthe large resolve not to miss anything. There stood the evergreen Treeof Life, the Four Rivers flowing from its foot; and on every one of thefour currents he meant to launch his little skiff. On two of them he hadnot gone very far, on the third he had nearly stuck in the mud; but thefourth had carried him to the very heart of wonder. It was the stream ofhis lively imagination, of his inexhaustible interest in every form ofbeauty and strangeness and folly. On this stream, sitting in the stoutlittle craft of his poverty, his insignificance and his independence, hehad made some notable voyages.... And so, when Susy Branch, whom he hadsought out through a New York season as the prettiest and most amusinggirl in sight, had surprised him with the contradictory revelation ofher modern sense of expediency and her old-fashioned standard of goodfaith, he had felt an irresistible desire to put off on one more cruiseinto the unknown.

  It was of the essence of the adventure that, after her one brief visitto his lodgings, he should have kept his promise and not tried to seeher again. Even if her straightforwardness had not roused his emulation,his understanding of her difficulties would have moved his pity. He knewon how frail a thread the popularity of the penniless hangs, and howmiserably a girl like Susy was the sport of other people's moods andwhims. It was a part of his difficulty and of hers that to get what theyliked they so often had to do what they disliked. But the keeping of hispromise was a greater bore than he had expected. Susy Branch had becomea delightful habit in a life where most of the fixed things weredull, and her disappearance had made it suddenly clear to him that hisresources were growing more and more limited. Much that had once amusedhim hugely now amused him less, or not at all: a good part of his worldof wonder had shrunk to a village peep-show. And the things which hadkept their stimulating power--distant journeys, the enjoyment of art,the contact with new scenes and strange societies--were becoming lessand less attainable. Lansing had never had more than a pittance; he hadspent rather too much of it in his first plunge into life, and the besthe could look forward to was a middle-age of poorly-paid hack-work,mitigated by brief and frugal holidays. He knew that he was moreintelligent than the average, but he had long since concluded thathis talents were not marketable. Of the thin volume of sonnets which afriendly publisher had launched for him, just seventy copies had beensold; and though his essay on "Chinese Influences in Greek Art" hadcreated a passing stir, it had resulted in controversial correspondenceand dinner invitations rather than in more substantial benefits.There seemed, in short, no prospect of his ever earning money, and hisrestricted future made him attach an increasing value to the kind offriendship that Susy Branch had given him. Apart from the pleasure oflooking at her and listening to her--of enjoying in her what others lessdiscriminatingly but as liberally appreciated--he had the sense, betweenhimself and her, of a kind of free-masonry of precocious tolerance andirony. They had both, in early youth, taken the measure of the worldthey happened to live in: they knew just what it was worth to themand for what reasons, and the community of these reasons lent to theirintimacy its last exquisite touch. And now, because of some jealous whimof a dissatisfied fool of a woman, as to whom he felt himself no more toblame than any young man who has paid for good dinners by good manners,he was to be deprived of the one complete companionship he had everknown....

  His thoughts travelled on. He recalled the long dull spring in New Yorkafter his break with Susy, the weary grind on his last articles,his listless speculations as to the cheapest and least boring way ofdisposing of the summer; and then the amazing luck of going, reluctantlyand at the last minute, to spend a Sunday with the poor Nat Fulmers, inthe wilds of New Hampshire, and of finding Susy there--Susy, whom he hadnever even suspected of knowing anybody in the Fulmers' set!

  She had behaved perfectly--and so had he--but they were obviously muchtoo glad to see each other. And then it was unsettling to be with her insuch a house as the Fulmers', away from the large setting of luxurythey were both used to, in the cramped cottage where their host hadhis studio in the verandah, their hostess practiced her violin in thedining-room, and five ubiquitous children sprawled and shouted and blewtrumpets and put tadpoles in the water-jugs, and the mid-day dinner wastwo hours late-and proportionately bad--because the Italian cook wasposing for Fulmer.

  Lansing's first thought had been that meeting Susy in such circumstanceswould be the quickest way to cure them both of their regrets. The caseof the Fulmers was an awful object-lesson in what happened to youngpeople who lost their heads; poor Nat, whose pictures nobody bought, hadgone to seed so terribly-and Grace, at twenty-nine, would never again beanything but the woman of whom people say, "I can remember her when shewas lovely."

  But the devil of it was that Nat had never been such good company, orGrace so free from care and so full of music; and that, in spite oftheir disorder and dishevelment, and the bad food and general crazydiscomfort, there was more amusement to be got out of their societythan out of the most opulently staged house-party through which Susy andLansing had ever yawned their way.

  It was almost a relief to tile young man when, on the second afternoon,Miss Branch drew him into the narrow hall to say: "I really can'tstand the combination of Grace's violin and little Nat's motor-horn anylonger. Do let us slip out till the duet is over."

  "How do they stand it, I wonder?" he basely echoed, as he followed herup the wooded path behind the house.

  "It might be worth finding out," she rejoined with a musing smile.

  But he remained resolutely skeptical. "Oh, give them a year or two moreand they'll collapse--! His pictures will never sell, you know. He'llnever even get them into a show."

  "I suppose not. And she'll never have time to do anything worth whilewith her music."

  They had reached a piny knoll high above the ledge on which the housewas perched. All about them stretched an empty landscape of endlessfeatureless wooded hills. "Think of sticking here all the year round!"Lansing groaned.

  "I know. But then think of wandering over the world with some people!"

  "Oh, Lord, yes. For instance, my trip to India with the MortimerHickses. But it was my only chance and what the deuce is one to do?"

  "I wish I knew!" she sighed, thinking of the Bockheimers; and he turnedand looked at her.

  "Knew what?"

  "The answer to your question. What is one to do--when one sees bothsides of the problem? Or every possible side of it, indeed?"

  They had seated themselves on a commanding rock under the pines, butLansing could not see the view at their feet for the stir of the brownlashes on her cheek.

  "You mean: Nat and Grace may after all be having the best of it?"

  "How can I say, when I've told you I see all the sides? Of course,"Susy added hastily, "I couldn't live as they do for a week. But it'swonderful how little it's dimmed them."

  "Certainly Nat was never more coruscating. And she keeps it up evenbetter." He reflected. "We do them good, I daresay."

  "Yes--or they us. I wonder which?"

  After that, he seemed to remember that they sat a long time silent, andthat his next utteran
ce was a boyish outburst against the tyranny of theexisting order of things, abruptly followed by the passionate query why,since he and she couldn't alter it, and since they both had the habit oflooking at facts as they were, they wouldn't be utter fools not to taketheir chance of being happy in the only way that was open to them, Tothis challenge he did not recall Susy's making any definite answer; butafter another interval, in which all the world seemed framed in asudden kiss, he heard her murmur to herself in a brooding tone: "I don'tsuppose it's ever been tried before; but we might--." And then and thereshe had laid before him the very experiment they had since hazarded.

  She would have none of surreptitious bliss, she began by declaring;and she set forth her reasons with her usual lucid impartiality. In thefirst place, she should have to marry some day, and when she made thebargain she meant it to be an honest one; and secondly, in the matterof love, she would never give herself to anyone she did not really carefor, and if such happiness ever came to her she did not want it shorn ofhalf its brightness by the need of fibbing and plotting and dodging.

  "I've seen too much of that kind of thing. Half the women I know who'vehad lovers have had them for the fun of sneaking and lying about it; butthe other half have been miserable. And I should be miserable."

  It was at this point that she unfolded her plan. Why shouldn't theymarry; belong to each other openly and honourably, if for ever so shorta time, and with the definite understanding that whenever either of themgot the chance to do better he or she should be immediately released?The law of their country facilitated such exchanges, and society wasbeginning to view them as indulgently as the law. As Susy talked, shewarmed to her theme and began to develop its endless possibilities.

  "We should really, in a way, help more than we should hamper eachother," she ardently explained. "We both know the ropes so well; whatone of us didn't see the other might--in the way of opportunities, Imean. And then we should be a novelty as married people. We're bothrather unusually popular--why not be frank!--and it's such a blessingfor dinner-givers to be able to count on a couple of whom neither one isa blank. Yes, I really believe we should be more than twice the successwe are now; at least," she added with a smile, "if there's that amountof room for improvement. I don't know how you feel; a man's popularityis so much less precarious than a girl's--but I know it would furbish meup tremendously to reappear as a married woman." She glanced away fromhim down the long valley at their feet, and added in a lower tone: "AndI should like, just for a little while, to feel I had something in lifeof my very own--something that nobody had lent me, like a fancy-dress ora motor or an opera cloak."

  The suggestion, at first, had seemed to Lansing as mad as it wasenchanting: it had thoroughly frightened him. But Susy's arguments wereirrefutable, her ingenuities inexhaustible. Had he ever thought it allout? She asked. No. Well, she had; and would he kindly not interrupt? Inthe first place, there would be all the wedding-presents. Jewels, and amotor, and a silver dinner service, did she mean? Not a bit of it! Shecould see he'd never given the question proper thought. Cheques, mydear, nothing but cheques--she undertook to manage that on her side: shereally thought she could count on about fifty, and she supposed he couldrake up a few more? Well, all that would simply represent pocket-money!For they would have plenty of houses to live in: he'd see. People werealways glad to lend their house to a newly-married couple. It was suchfun to pop down and see them: it made one feel romantic and jolly. Allthey need do was to accept the houses in turn: go on honey-mooning fora year! What was he afraid of? Didn't he think they'd be happy enough towant to keep it up? And why not at least try--get engaged, and thensee what would happen? Even if she was all wrong, and her plan failed,wouldn't it have been rather nice, just for a month or two, to fancythey were going to be happy? "I've often fancied it all by myself,"she concluded; "but fancying it with you would somehow be so awfullydifferent...."

  That was how it began: and this lakeside dream was what it had led upto. Fantastically improbable as they had seemed, all her previsions hadcome true. If there were certain links in the chain that Lansinghad never been able to put his hand on, certain arrangements andcontrivances that still needed further elucidation, why, he was lazilyresolved to clear them up with her some day; and meanwhile it was worthall the past might have cost, and every penalty the future might exactof him, just to be sitting here in the silence and sweetness, hersleeping head on his knee, clasped in his joy as the hushed world wasclasped in moonlight.

  He stooped down and kissed her. "Wake up," he whispered, "it'sbed-time."