Edith Wharton.

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hours earlier was still his wife and the mother of Paul Marvell. She was
an inherent part of his life; the inner disruption had not resulted in
any outward upheaval. And with the sense of inevitableness there came a
sudden wave of pity. Poor Undine! She was what the gods had made her - a
creature of skin-deep reactions, a mote in the beam of pleasure. He
had no desire to "preach down" such heart as she had - he felt only a
stronger wish to reach it, teach it, move it to something of the pity
that filled his own. They were fellow-victims in the noyade of marriage,
but if they ceased to struggle perhaps the drowning would be easier
for both...Meanwhile the first of the month was at hand, with its usual
batch of bills; and there was no time to think of any struggle less
pressing than that connected with paying them...

Undine had been surprised, and a little disconcerted, at her husband's
acceptance of the birthday incident. Since the resetting of her bridal
ornaments the relations between Washington Square and West End Avenue
had been more and more strained; and the silent disapproval of the
Marvell ladies was more irritating to her than open recrimination. She
knew how keenly Ralph must feel her last slight to his family, and she
had been frightened when she guessed that he had seen her returning with
Van Degen. He must have been watching from the window, since, credulous
as he always was, he evidently had a reason for not believing her when
she told him she had come from the studio. There was therefore something
both puzzling and disturbing in his silence; and she made up her mind
that it must be either explained or cajoled away.

These thoughts were with her as she dressed; but at the Ellings' they
fled like ghosts before light and laughter. She had never been more open
to the suggestions of immediate enjoyment. At last she had reached the
envied situation of the pretty woman with whom society must reckon, and
if she had only had the means to live up to her opportunities she would
have been perfectly content with life, with herself and her husband. She
still thought Ralph "sweet" when she was not bored by his good advice or
exasperated by his inability to pay her bills. The question of money
was what chiefly stood between them; and now that this was momentarily
disposed of by Van Degen's offer she looked at Ralph more kindly - she
even felt a return of her first impersonal affection for him. Everybody
could see that Clare Van Degen was "gone" on him, and Undine always
liked to know that what belonged to her was coveted by others. Her
reassurance had been fortified by the news she had heard at the Elling
dinner - the published fact of Harmon B. Driscoll's unexpected victory.
The Ararat investigation had been mysteriously stopped - quashed, in the
language of the law - and Elmer Moffatt "turned down," as Van Degen (who
sat next to her) expressed it.

"I don't believe we'll ever hear of that gentleman again," he said
contemptuously; and their eyes crossed gaily as she exclaimed: "Then
they'll give the fancy ball after all?"

"I should have given you one anyhow - shouldn't you have liked that as
well?" "Oh, you can give me one too!" she returned; and he bent closer
to say: "By Jove, I will - and anything else you want."

But on the way home her fears revived. Ralph's indifference struck
her as unnatural. He had not returned to the subject of Paul's
disappointment, had not even asked her to write a word of excuse to his
mother. Van Degen's way of looking at her at dinner - he was incapable
of graduating his glances - had made it plain that the favour she had
accepted would necessitate her being more conspicuously in his company
(though she was still resolved that it should be on just such terms as
she chose); and it would be extremely troublesome if, at this juncture,
Ralph should suddenly turn suspicious and secretive.

Undine, hitherto, had found more benefits than drawbacks in her
marriage; but now the tie began to gall. It was hard to be criticized
for every grasp at opportunity by a man so avowedly unable to do the
reaching for her! Ralph had gone into business to make more money for
her; but it was plain that the "more" would never be much, and that he
would not achieve the quick rise to affluence which was man's natural
tribute to woman's merits. Undine felt herself trapped, deceived; and it
was intolerable that the agent of her disillusionment should presume to
be the critic of her conduct. Her annoyance, however, died out with
her fears. Ralph, the morning after the Elling dinner, went his way as
usual, and after nerving herself for the explosion which did not come
she set down his indifference to the dulling effect of "business." No
wonder poor women whose husbands were always "down-town" had to look
elsewhere for sympathy! Van Degen's cheque helped to calm her, and the
weeks whirled on toward the Driscoll ball.

The ball was as brilliant as she had hoped, and her own part in it as
thrilling as a page from one of the "society novels" with which she
had cheated the monotony of Apex days. She had no time for reading now:
every hour was packed with what she would have called life, and the
intensity of her sensations culminated on that triumphant evening. What
could be more delightful than to feel that, while all the women envied
her dress, the men did not so much as look at it? Their admiration was
all for herself, and her beauty deepened under it as flowers take a
warmer colour in the rays of sunset. Only Van Degen's glance weighed
on her a little too heavily. Was it possible that he might become a
"bother" less negligible than those he had relieved her of? Undine
was not greatly alarmed - she still had full faith in her powers of
self-defense; but she disliked to feel the least crease in the smooth
surface of existence. She had always been what her parents called
"sensitive."

As the winter passed, material cares once more assailed her. In
the thrill of liberation produced by Van Degen's gift she had been
imprudent - had launched into fresh expenses. Not that she accused
herself of extravagance: she had done nothing not really necessary. The
drawing-room, for instance, cried out to be "done over," and Popple, who
was an authority on decoration, had shown her, with a few strokes of his
pencil how easily it might be transformed into a French "period" room,
all curves and cupids: just the setting for a pretty woman and his
portrait of her. But Undine, still hopeful of leaving West End Avenue,
had heroically resisted the suggestion, and contented herself with the
renewal of the curtains and carpet, and the purchase of some fragile
gilt chairs which, as she told Ralph, would be "so much to the good"
when they moved - the explanation, as she made it, seemed an additional
evidence of her thrift.

Partly as a result of these exertions she had a "nervous breakdown"
toward the middle of the winter, and her physician having ordered
massage and a daily drive it became necessary to secure Mrs. Heeny's
attendance and to engage a motor by the month. Other unforeseen
expenses - the bills, that, at such times, seem to run up without visible
impulsion - were added to by a severe illness of little Paul's: a long
costly illness, with three nurses and frequent consultations. During
these days Ralph's anxiety drove him to what seemed to Undine foolish
excesses of expenditure and when the boy began to get better the doctors
advised country air. Ralph at once hired a small house at Tuxedo and
Undine of course accompanied her son to the country; but she spent only
the Sundays with him, running up to town during the week to be with
her husband, as she explained. This necessitated the keeping up of two
households, and even for so short a time the strain on Ralph's purse
was severe. So it came about that the bill for the fancy-dress was still
unpaid, and Undine left to wonder distractedly what had become of
Van Degen's money. That Van Degen seemed also to wonder was becoming
unpleasantly apparent: his cheque had evidently not brought in the
return he expected, and he put his grievance to her frankly one day when
he motored down to lunch at Tuxedo.

They were sitting, after luncheon, in the low-ceilinged drawing-room to
which Undine had adapted her usual background of cushions, bric-a-brac
and flowers - since one must make one's setting "home-like," however
little one's habits happened to correspond with that particular effect.
Undine, conscious of the intimate charm of her mise-en-scene, and of
the recovered freshness and bloom which put her in harmony with it,
had never been more sure of her power to keep her friend in the desired
state of adoring submission. But Peter, as he grew more adoring, became
less submissive; and there came a moment when she needed all her wits to
save the situation. It was easy enough to rebuff him, the easier as his
physical proximity always roused in her a vague instinct of resistance;
but it was hard so to temper the rebuff with promise that the game of
suspense should still delude him. He put it to her at last, standing
squarely before her, his batrachian sallowness unpleasantly flushed,
and primitive man looking out of the eyes from which a frock-coated
gentleman usually pined at her.

"Look here - the installment plan's all right; but ain't you a bit behind
even on that?" (She had brusquely eluded a nearer approach.) "Anyhow,
I think I'd rather let the interest accumulate for a while. This is
good-bye till I get back from Europe."

The announcement took her by surprise. "Europe? Why, when are you
sailing?"

"On the first of April: good day for a fool to acknowledge his folly.
I'm beaten, and I'm running away."

She sat looking down, her hand absently occupied with the twist of
pearls he had given her. In a flash she saw the peril of this departure.
Once off on the Sorceress, he was lost to her - the power of old
associations would prevail. Yet if she were as "nice" to him as he
asked - "nice" enough to keep him - the end might not be much more to her
advantage. Hitherto she had let herself drift on the current of their
adventure, but she now saw what port she had half-unconsciously been
trying for. If she had striven so hard to hold him, had "played" him
with such patience and such skill, it was for something more than her
passing amusement and convenience: for a purpose the more tenaciously
cherished that she had not dared name it to herself. In the light of
this discovery she saw the need of feigning complete indifference.

"Ah, you happy man! It's good-bye indeed, then," she threw back at him,
lifting a plaintive smile to his frown.

"Oh, you'll turn up in Paris later, I suppose - to get your things for
Newport."

"Paris? Newport? They're not on my map! When Ralph can get away we shall
go to the Adirondacks for the boy. I hope I shan't need Paris clothes
there! It doesn't matter, at any rate," she ended, laughing, "because
nobody I care about will see me."

Van Degen echoed her laugh. "Oh, come - that's rough on Ralph!"

She looked down with a slight increase of colour. "I oughtn't to have
said it, ought I? But the fact is I'm unhappy - and a little hurt - "

"Unhappy? Hurt?" He was at her side again. "Why, what's wrong?"

She lifted her eyes with a grave look. "I thought you'd be sorrier to
leave me."

"Oh, it won't be for long - it needn't be, you know." He was perceptibly
softening. "It's damnable, the way you're tied down. Fancy rotting all
summer in the Adirondacks! Why do you stand it? You oughtn't to be bound
for life by a girl's mistake."

The lashes trembled slightly on her cheek. "Aren't we all bound by our
mistakes - we women? Don't let us talk of such things! Ralph would never
let me go abroad without him." She paused, and then, with a quick upward
sweep of the lids: "After all, it's better it should be good-bye - since
I'm paying for another mistake in being so unhappy at your going."

"Another mistake? Why do you call it that?"

"Because I've misunderstood you - or you me." She continued to smile at
him wistfully. "And some things are best mended by a break."

He met her smile with a loud sigh - she could feel him in the meshes
again. "IS it to be a break between us?"

"Haven't you just said so? Anyhow, it might as well be, since we shan't
be in the same place again for months."

The frock-coated gentleman once more languished from his eyes: she
thought she trembled on the edge of victory. "Hang it," he broke out,
"you ought to have a change - you're looking awfully pulled down. Why
can't you coax your mother to run over to Paris with you? Ralph couldn't
object to that."

She shook her head. "I don't believe she could afford it, even if I
could persuade her to leave father. You know father hasn't done very
well lately: I shouldn't like to ask him for the money."

"You're so confoundedly proud!" He was edging nearer. "It would all be
so easy if you'd only be a little fond of me..."

She froze to her sofa-end. "We women can't repair our mistakes. Don't
make me more miserable by reminding me of mine."

"Oh, nonsense! There's nothing cash won't do. Why won't you let me
straighten things out for you?"

Her colour rose again, and she looked him quickly and consciously in
the eye. It was time to play her last card. "You seem to forget that I
am - married," she said.

Van Degen was silent - for a moment she thought he was swaying to her
in the flush of surrender. But he remained doggedly seated, meeting her
look with an odd clearing of his heated gaze, as if a shrewd businessman
had suddenly replaced the pining gentleman at the window.

"Hang it - so am I!" he rejoined; and Undine saw that in the last issue
he was still the stronger of the two.



XVII

Nothing was bitterer to her than to confess to herself the failure of
her power; but her last talk with Van Degen had taught her a lesson
almost worth the abasement. She saw the mistake she had made in taking
money from him, and understood that if she drifted into repeating that
mistake her future would be irretrievably compromised. What she wanted
was not a hand-to-mouth existence of precarious intrigue: to one with
her gifts the privileges of life should come openly. Already in her
short experience she had seen enough of the women who sacrifice future
security for immediate success, and she meant to lay solid foundations
before she began to build up the light super-structure of enjoyment.

Nevertheless it was galling to see Van Degen leave, and to know that for
the time he had broken away from her. Over a nature so insensible to the
spells of memory, the visible and tangible would always prevail. If she
could have been with him again in Paris, where, in the shining spring
days, every sight and sound ministered to such influences, she was
sure she could have regained her hold. And the sense of frustration was
intensified by the fact that every one she knew was to be there: her
potential rivals were crowding the east-bound steamers. New York was a
desert, and Ralph's seeming unconsciousness of the fact increased her
resentment. She had had but one chance at Europe since her marriage, and
that had been wasted through her husband's unaccountable perversity. She
knew now with what packed hours of Paris and London they had paid for
their empty weeks in Italy.

Meanwhile the long months of the New York spring stretched out before
her in all their social vacancy to the measureless blank of a summer in
the Adirondacks. In her girlhood she had plumbed the dim depths of such
summers; but then she had been sustained by the hope of bringing some
capture to the surface. Now she knew better: there were no "finds" for
her in that direction. The people she wanted would be at Newport or
in Europe, and she was too resolutely bent on a definite object, too
sternly animated by her father's business instinct, to turn aside in
quest of casual distractions.

The chief difficulty in the way of her attaining any distant end had
always been her reluctance to plod through the intervening stretches
of dulness and privation. She had begun to see this, but she could not
always master the weakness: never had she stood in greater need of
Mrs. Heeny's "Go slow. Undine!" Her imagination was incapable of long
flights. She could not cheat her impatience with the mirage of far-off
satisfactions, and for the moment present and future seemed equally
void. But her desire to go to Europe and to rejoin the little New York
world that was reforming itself in London and Paris was fortified by
reasons which seemed urgent enough to justify an appeal to her father.

She went down to his office to plead her case, fearing Mrs. Spragg's
intervention. For some time past Mr. Spragg had been rather continuously
overworked, and the strain was beginning to tell on him. He had never
quite regained, in New York, the financial security of his Apex days.
Since he had changed his base of operations his affairs had followed
an uncertain course, and Undine suspected that his breach with his old
political ally, the Representative Rolliver who had seen him through the
muddiest reaches of the Pure Water Move, was not unconnected with his
failure to get a footing in Wall Street. But all this was vague and
shadowy to her Even had "business" been less of a mystery, she was too
much absorbed in her own affairs to project herself into her father's
case; and she thought she was sacrificing enough to delicacy of feeling
in sparing him the "bother" of Mrs. Spragg's opposition. When she came
to him with a grievance he always heard her out with the same mild
patience; but the long habit of "managing" him had made her, in his own
language, "discount" this tolerance, and when she ceased to speak her
heart throbbed with suspense as he leaned back, twirling an invisible
toothpick under his sallow moustache. Presently he raised a hand to
stroke the limp beard in which the moustache was merged; then he groped
for the Masonic emblem that had lost itself in one of the folds of his
depleted waistcoat.

He seemed to fish his answer from the same rusty depths, for as his
fingers closed about the trinket he said: "Yes, the heated term IS
trying in New York. That's why the Fresh Air Fund pulled my last dollar
out of me last week."

Undine frowned: there was nothing more irritating, in these encounters
with her father, than his habit of opening the discussion with a joke.

"I wish you'd understand that I'm serious, father. I've never been
strong since the baby was born, and I need a change. But it's not only
that: there are other reasons for my wanting to go."

Mr. Spragg still held to his mild tone of banter. "I never knew you
short on reasons, Undie. Trouble is you don't always know other people's
when you see 'em."

His daughter's lips tightened. "I know your reasons when I see them,
father: I've heard them often enough. But you can't know mine because I
haven't told you - not the real ones."

"Jehoshaphat! I thought they were all real as long as you had a use for
them."

Experience had taught her that such protracted trifling usually
concealed an exceptional vigour of resistance, and the suspense
strengthened her determination.

"My reasons are all real enough," she answered; "but there's one more
serious than the others."

Mr. Spragg's brows began to jut. "More bills?"

"No." She stretched out her hand and began to finger the dusty objects
on his desk. "I'm unhappy at home."

"Unhappy - !" His start overturned the gorged waste-paper basket and shot
a shower of paper across the rug. He stooped to put the basket back;
then he turned his slow fagged eyes on his daughter. "Why, he worships
the ground you walk on, Undie."

"That's not always a reason, for a woman - " It was the answer she would
have given to Popple or Van Degen, but she saw in an instant the
mistake of thinking it would impress her father. In the atmosphere
of sentimental casuistry to which she had become accustomed, she had
forgotten that Mr. Spragg's private rule of conduct was as simple as his
business morality was complicated.

He glowered at her under thrust-out brows. "It isn't a reason, isn't it?
I can seem to remember the time when you used to think it was equal to a
whole carload of whitewash."

She blushed a bright red, and her own brows were levelled at his above
her stormy steel-grey eyes. The sense of her blunder made her angrier
with him, and more ruthless.

"I can't expect you to understand - you never HAVE, you or mother, when
it came to my feelings. I suppose some people are born sensitive - I
can't imagine anybody'd CHOOSE to be so. Because I've been too proud to
complain you've taken it for granted that I was perfectly happy. But my
marriage was a mistake from the beginning; and Ralph feels just as I do
about it. His people hate me, they've always hated me; and he looks at
everything as they do. They've never forgiven me for his having had to
go into business - with their aristocratic ideas they look down on a man
who works for his living. Of course it's all right for YOU to do it,
because you're not a Marvell or a Dagonet; but they think Ralph ought to
just lie back and let you support the baby and me."

This time she had found the right note: she knew it by the tightening of
her father's slack muscles and the sudden straightening of his back.

"By George, he pretty near does!" he exclaimed bringing down his fist
on the desk. "They haven't been taking it out of you about that, have
they?" "They don't fight fair enough to say so. They just egg him on
to turn against me. They only consented to his marrying me because they
thought you were so crazy about the match you'd give us everything, and
he'd have nothing to do but sit at home and write books."

Mr. Spragg emitted a derisive groan. "From what I hear of the amount of
business he's doing I guess he could keep the Poet's Corner going right
along. I suppose the old man was right - he hasn't got it in him to make
money."

"Of course not; he wasn't brought up to it, and in his heart of hearts
he's ashamed of having to do it. He told me it was killing a little more
of him every day."

"Do they back him up in that kind of talk?"

"They back him up in everything. Their ideas are all different from
ours. They look down on us - can't you see that? Can't you guess how they
treat me from the way they've acted to you and mother?"

He met this with a puzzled stare. "The way they've acted to me and
mother? Why, we never so much as set eyes on them."

"That's just what I mean! I don't believe they've even called on mother
this year, have they? Last year they just left their cards without
asking. And why do you suppose they never invite you to dine? In their
set lots of people older than you and mother dine every night of the
winter - society's full of them. The Marvells are ashamed to have you
meet their friends: that's the reason. They're ashamed to have it known
that Ralph married an Apex girl, and that you and mother haven't always
had your own servants and carriages; and Ralph's ashamed of it too, now
he's got over being crazy about me. If he was free I believe he'd turn
round to-morrow and marry that Ray girl his mother's saving up for him."

Mr. Spragg listened with a heavy brow and pushed-out lip. His daughter's
outburst seemed at last to have roused him to a faint resentment. After
she had ceased to speak he remained silent, twisting an inky penhandle
between his fingers; then he said: "I guess mother and I can worry along
without having Ralph's relatives drop in; but I'd like to make it clear
to them that if you came from Apex your income came from there too. I
presume they'd be sorry if Ralph was left to support you on HIS."

She saw that she had scored in the first part of the argument, but every
watchful nerve reminded her that the hardest stage was still ahead.

"Oh, they're willing enough he should take your money - that's only
natural, they think."

A chuckle sounded deep down under Mr. Spragg's loose collar. "There
seems to be practical unanimity on that point," he observed. "But I
don't see," he continued, jerking round his bushy brows on her, "how
going to Europe is going to help you out."

Undine leaned close enough for her lowered voice to reach him. "Can't
you understand that, knowing how they all feel about me - and how Ralph
feels - I'd give almost anything to get away?"

Her father looked at her compassionately. "I guess most of us feel that
once in a way when we're youngy, Undine. Later on you'll see going away
ain't much use when you've got to turn round and come back."

She nodded at him with close-pressed lips, like a child in possession of



Online LibraryEdith WhartonThe Custom of the Country → online text (page 13 of 33)