The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

I

“Undine Spragg — how can you?” her mother wailed, raising a prematurely-wrinkled hand heavy with rings to defend the note which a languid “bell-boy” had just brought in.

But her defence was as feeble as her protest, and she continued to smile on her visitor while Miss Spragg, with a turn of her quick young fingers, possessed herself of the missive and withdrew to the window to read it.

“I guess it’s meant for me,” she merely threw over her shoulder at her mother.

“Did you EVER, Mrs. Heeny?” Mrs. Spragg murmured with deprecating pride.

Mrs. Heeny, a stout professional-looking person in a waterproof, her rusty veil thrown back, and a shabby alligator bag at her feet, followed the mother’s glance with good-humoured approval.

“I never met with a lovelier form,” she agreed, answering the spirit rather than the letter of her hostess’s enquiry.

Mrs. Spragg and her visitor were enthroned in two heavy gilt armchairs in one of the private drawing-rooms of the Hotel Stentorian. The Spragg rooms were known as one of the Looey suites, and the drawing-room walls, above their wainscoting of highly-varnished mahogany, were hung with salmon-pink damask and adorned with oval portraits of Marie Antoinette and the Princess de Lamballe. In the centre of the florid carpet a gilt table with a top of Mexican onyx sustained a palm in a gilt basket tied with a pink bow. But for this ornament, and a copy of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” which lay beside it, the room showed no traces of human use, and Mrs. Spragg herself wore as complete an air of detachment as if she had been a wax figure in a show-window. Her attire was fashionable enough to justify such a post, and her pale soft-cheeked face, with puffy eye-lids and drooping mouth, suggested a partially-melted wax figure which had run to double-chin.

Mrs. Heeny, in comparison, had a reassuring look of solidity and reality. The planting of her firm black bulk in its chair, and the grasp of her broad red hands on the gilt arms, bespoke an organized and self-reliant activity, accounted for by the fact that Mrs. Heeny was a “society” manicure and masseuse. Toward Mrs. Spragg and her daughter she filled the double role of manipulator and friend; and it was in the latter capacity that, her day’s task ended, she had dropped in for a moment to “cheer up” the lonely ladies of the Stentorian.

The young girl whose “form” had won Mrs. Heeny’s professional commendation suddenly shifted its lovely lines as she turned back from the window.

“Here — you can have it after all,” she said, crumpling the note and tossing it with a contemptuous gesture into her mother’s lap.

“Why — isn’t it from Mr. Popple?” Mrs. Spragg exclaimed unguardedly.

“No — it isn’t. What made you think I thought it was?” snapped her daughter; but the next instant she added, with an outbreak of childish disappointment: “It’s only from Mr. Marvell’s sister — at least she says she’s his sister.”

Mrs. Spragg, with a puzzled frown, groped for her eye-glass among the jet fringes of her tightly-girded front.

Mrs. Heeny’s small blue eyes shot out sparks of curiosity. “Marvell — what Marvell is that?”

The girl explained languidly: “A little fellow — I think Mr. Popple said his name was Ralph”; while her mother continued: “Undine met them both last night at that party downstairs. And from something Mr. Popple said to her about going to one of the new plays, she thought — ”

“How on earth do you know what I thought?” Undine flashed back, her grey eyes darting warnings at her mother under their straight black brows.

“Why, you SAID you thought — ” Mrs. Spragg began reproachfully; but Mrs. Heeny, heedless of their bickerings, was pursuing her own train of thought.

“What Popple? Claud Walsingham Popple — the portrait painter?”

“Yes — I suppose so. He said he’d like to paint me. Mabel Lipscomb introduced him. I don’t care if I never see him again,” the girl said, bathed in angry pink.

“Do you know him, Mrs. Heeny?” Mrs. Spragg enquired.

“I should say I did. I manicured him for his first society portrait — a full-length of Mrs. Harmon B. Driscoll.” Mrs. Heeny smiled indulgently on her hearers. “I know everybody. If they don’t know ME they ain’t in it, and Claud Walsingham Popple’s in it. But he ain’t nearly AS in it,” she continued judicially, “as Ralph Marvell — the little fellow, as you call him.”

Undine Spragg, at the word, swept round on the speaker with one of the quick turns that revealed her youthful flexibility. She was always doubling and twisting on herself, and every movement she made seemed to start at the nape of her neck, just below the lifted roll of reddish-gold hair, and flow without a break through her whole slim length to the tips of her fingers and the points of her slender restless feet.

“Why, do you know the Marvells? Are THEY stylish?” she asked.

Mrs. Heeny gave the discouraged gesture of a pedagogue who has vainly striven to implant the rudiments of knowledge in a rebellious mind.

“Why, Undine Spragg, I’ve told you all about them time and again! His mother was a Dagonet. They live with old Urban Dagonet down in Washington Square.”

To Mrs. Spragg this conveyed even less than to her daughter, “‘way down there? Why do they live with somebody else? Haven’t they got the means to have a home of their own?”

Undine’s perceptions were more rapid, and she fixed her eyes searchingly on Mrs. Heeny.

“Do you mean to say Mr. Marvell’s as swell as Mr. Popple?”

“As swell? Why, Claud Walsingham Popple ain’t in the same class with him!”

The girl was upon her mother with a spring, snatching and smoothing out the crumpled note.

“Laura Fairford — is that the sister’s name?”

“Mrs. Henley Fairford; yes. What does she write about?”

Undine’s face lit up as if a shaft of sunset had struck it through the triple-curtained windows of the Stentorian.

“She says she wants me to dine with her next Wednesday. Isn’t it queer? Why does SHE want me? She’s never seen me!” Her tone implied that she had long been accustomed to being “wanted” by those who had.

Mrs. Heeny laughed. “HE saw you, didn’t he?”

“Who? Ralph Marvell? Why, of course he did — Mr. Popple brought him to the party here last night.”

“Well, there you are . . . When a young man in society wants to meet a girl again, he gets his sister to ask her.”

Undine stared at her incredulously. “How queer! But they haven’t all got sisters, have they? It must be fearfully poky for the ones that haven’t.”

“They get their mothers — or their married friends,” said Mrs. Heeny omnisciently.

“Married gentlemen?” enquired Mrs. Spragg, slightly shocked, but genuinely desirous of mastering her lesson.

“Mercy, no! Married ladies.”

“But are there never any gentlemen present?” pursued Mrs. Spragg, feeling that if this were the case Undine would certainly be disappointed.

“Present where? At their dinners? Of course — Mrs. Fairford gives the smartest little dinners in town. There was an account of one she gave last week in this morning’s TOWN TALK: I guess it’s right here among my clippings.” Mrs. Heeny, swooping down on her bag, drew from it a handful of newspaper cuttings, which she spread on her ample lap and proceeded to sort with a moistened forefinger. “Here,” she said, holding one of the slips at arm’s length; and throwing back her head she read, in a slow unpunctuated chant: ‘“Mrs. Henley Fairford gave another of her natty little dinners last Wednesday as usual it was smart small and exclusive and there was much gnashing of teeth among the left-outs as Madame Olga Loukowska gave some of her new steppe dances after dinner’ — that’s the French for new dance steps,” Mrs. Heeny concluded, thrusting the documents back into her bag.

“Do you know Mrs. Fairford too?” Undine asked eagerly; while Mrs. Spragg, impressed, but anxious for facts, pursued: “Does she reside on Fifth Avenue?”

“No, she has a little house in Thirty-eighth Street, down beyond Park Avenue.”

The ladies’ faces drooped again, and the masseuse went on promptly: “But they’re glad enough to have her in the big houses! — Why, yes, I know her,” she said, addressing herself to Undine. “I mass’d her for a sprained ankle a couple of years ago. She’s got a lovely manner, but NO conversation. Some of my patients converse exquisitely,” Mrs. Heeny added with discrimination.

Undine was brooding over the note. “It IS written to mother — Mrs. Abner E. Spragg — I never saw anything so funny! ‘Will you ALLOW your daughter to dine with me?’ Allow! Is Mrs. Fairford peculiar?”

“No — you are,” said Mrs. Heeny bluntly. “Don’t you know it’s the thing in the best society to pretend that girls can’t do anything without their mothers’ permission? You just remember that. Undine. You mustn’t accept invitations from gentlemen without you say you’ve got to ask your mother first.”

“Mercy! But how’ll mother know what to say?”

“Why, she’ll say what you tell her to, of course. You’d better tell her you want to dine with Mrs. Fairford,” Mrs. Heeny added humorously, as she gathered her waterproof together and stooped for her bag.

“Have I got to write the note, then?” Mrs. Spragg asked with rising agitation.

Mrs. Heeny reflected. “Why, no. I guess Undine can write it as if it was from you. Mrs. Fairford don’t know your writing.”

This was an evident relief to Mrs. Spragg, and as Undine swept to her room with the note her mother sank back, murmuring plaintively: “Oh, don’t go yet, Mrs. Heeny. I haven’t seen a human being all day, and I can’t seem to find anything to say to that French maid.”

Mrs. Heeny looked at her hostess with friendly compassion. She was well aware that she was the only bright spot on Mrs. Spragg’s horizon. Since the Spraggs, some two years previously, had moved from Apex City to New York, they had made little progress in establishing relations with their new environment; and when, about four months earlier, Mrs. Spragg’s doctor had called in Mrs. Heeny to minister professionally to his patient, he had done more for her spirit than for her body. Mrs. Heeny had had such “cases” before: she knew the rich helpless family, stranded in lonely splendour in a sumptuous West Side hotel, with a father compelled to seek a semblance of social life at the hotel bar, and a mother deprived of even this contact with her kind, and reduced to illness by boredom and inactivity. Poor Mrs. Spragg had done her own washing in her youth, but since her rising fortunes had made this occupation unsuitable she had sunk into the relative inertia which the ladies of Apex City regarded as one of the prerogatives of affluence. At Apex, however, she had belonged to a social club, and, until they moved to the Mealey House, had been kept busy by the incessant struggle with domestic cares; whereas New York seemed to offer no field for any form of lady-like activity. She therefore took her exercise vicariously, with Mrs. Heeny’s help; and Mrs. Heeny knew how to manipulate her imagination as well as her muscles. It was Mrs. Heeny who peopled the solitude of the long ghostly days with lively anecdotes of the Van Degens, the Driscolls, the Chauncey Ellings and the other social potentates whose least doings Mrs. Spragg and Undine had followed from afar in the Apex papers, and who had come to seem so much more remote since only the width of the Central Park divided mother and daughter from their Olympian portals.

Mrs. Spragg had no ambition for herself — she seemed to have transferred her whole personality to her child — but she was passionately resolved that Undine should have what she wanted, and she sometimes fancied that Mrs. Heeny, who crossed those sacred thresholds so familiarly, might some day gain admission for Undine.

“Well — I’ll stay a little mite longer if you want; and supposing I was to rub up your nails while we’re talking? It’ll be more sociable,” the masseuse suggested, lifting her bag to the table and covering its shiny onyx surface with bottles and polishers.

Mrs. Spragg consentingly slipped the rings from her small mottled hands. It was soothing to feel herself in Mrs. Heeny’s grasp, and though she knew the attention would cost her three dollars she was secure in the sense that Abner wouldn’t mind. It had been clear to Mrs. Spragg, ever since their rather precipitate departure from Apex City, that Abner was resolved not to mind — resolved at any cost to “see through” the New York adventure. It seemed likely now that the cost would be considerable. They had lived in New York for two years without any social benefit to their daughter; and it was of course for that purpose that they had come. If, at the time, there had been other and more pressing reasons, they were such as Mrs. Spragg and her husband never touched on, even in the gilded privacy of their bedroom at the Stentorian; and so completely had silence closed in on the subject that to Mrs. Spragg it had become non-existent: she really believed that, as Abner put it, they had left Apex because Undine was too big for the place.

She seemed as yet — poor child! — too small for New York: actually imperceptible to its heedless multitudes; and her mother trembled for the day when her invisibility should be borne in on her. Mrs. Spragg did not mind the long delay for herself — she had stores of lymphatic patience. But she had noticed lately that Undine was beginning to be nervous, and there was nothing that Undine’s parents dreaded so much as her being nervous. Mrs. Spragg’s maternal apprehensions unconsciously escaped in her next words.

“I do hope she’ll quiet down now,” she murmured, feeling quieter herself as her hand sank into Mrs. Heeny’s roomy palm.

“Who’s that? Undine?”

“Yes. She seemed so set on that Mr. Popple’s coming round. From the way he acted last night she thought he’d be sure to come round this morning. She’s so lonesome, poor child — I can’t say as I blame her.”

“Oh, he’ll come round. Things don’t happen as quick as that in New York,” said Mrs. Heeny, driving her nail-polisher cheeringly.

Mrs. Spragg sighed again. “They don’t appear to. They say New Yorkers are always in a hurry; but I can’t say as they’ve hurried much to make our acquaintance.”

Mrs. Heeny drew back to study the effect of her work. “You wait, Mrs. Spragg, you wait. If you go too fast you sometimes have to rip out the whole seam.”

“Oh, that’s so — that’s SO!” Mrs. Spragg exclaimed, with a tragic emphasis that made the masseuse glance up at her.

“Of course it’s so. And it’s more so in New York than anywhere. The wrong set’s like fly-paper: once you’re in it you can pull and pull, but you’ll never get out of it again.”

Undine’s mother heaved another and more helpless sigh. “I wish YOU’D tell Undine that, Mrs. Heeny.”

“Oh, I guess Undine’s all right. A girl like her can afford to wait. And if young Marvell’s really taken with her she’ll have the run of the place in no time.”

This solacing thought enabled Mrs. Spragg to yield herself unreservedly to Mrs. Heeny’s ministrations, which were prolonged for a happy confidential hour; and she had just bidden the masseuse good-bye, and was restoring the rings to her fingers, when the door opened to admit her husband.

Mr. Spragg came in silently, setting his high hat down on the centre-table, and laying his overcoat across one of the gilt chairs. He was tallish, grey-bearded and somewhat stooping, with the slack figure of the sedentary man who would be stout if he were not dyspeptic; and his cautious grey eyes with pouch-like underlids had straight black brows like his daughter’s. His thin hair was worn a little too long over his coat collar, and a Masonic emblem dangled from the heavy gold chain which crossed his crumpled black waistcoat.

He stood still in the middle of the room, casting a slow pioneering glance about its gilded void; then he said gently: “Well, mother?”

Mrs. Spragg remained seated, but her eyes dwelt on him affectionately. “Undine’s been asked out to a dinner-party; and Mrs. Heeny says it’s to one of the first families. It’s the sister of one of the gentlemen that Mabel Lipscomb introduced her to last night.”

There was a mild triumph in her tone, for it was owing to her insistence and Undine’s that Mr. Spragg had been induced to give up the house they had bought in West End Avenue, and move with his family to the Stentorian. Undine had early decided that they could not hope to get on while they “kept house” — all the fashionable people she knew either boarded or lived in hotels. Mrs. Spragg was easily induced to take the same view, but Mr. Spragg had resisted, being at the moment unable either to sell his house or to let it as advantageously as he had hoped. After the move was made it seemed for a time as though he had been right, and the first social steps would be as difficult to make in a hotel as in one’s own house; and Mrs. Spragg was therefore eager to have him know that Undine really owed her first invitation to a meeting under the roof of the Stentorian.

“You see we were right to come here, Abner,” she added, and he absently rejoined: “I guess you two always manage to be right.”

But his face remained unsmiling, and instead of seating himself and lighting his cigar, as he usually did before dinner, he took two or three aimless turns about the room, and then paused in front of his wife.

“What’s the matter — anything wrong down town?” she asked, her eyes reflecting his anxiety.

Mrs. Spragg’s knowledge of what went on “down town” was of the most elementary kind, but her husband’s face was the barometer in which she had long been accustomed to read the leave to go on unrestrictedly, or the warning to pause and abstain till the coming storm should be weathered.

He shook his head. “N— no. Nothing worse than what I can see to, if you and Undine will go steady for a while.” He paused and looked across the room at his daughter’s door. “Where is she — out?”

“I guess she’s in her room, going over her dresses with that French maid. I don’t know as she’s got anything fit to wear to that dinner,” Mrs. Spragg added in a tentative murmur.

Mr. Spragg smiled at last. “Well — I guess she WILL have,” he said prophetically.

He glanced again at his daughter’s door, as if to make sure of its being shut; then, standing close before his wife, he lowered his voice to say: “I saw Elmer Moffatt down town to-day.”

“Oh, Abner!” A wave of almost physical apprehension passed over Mrs. Spragg. Her jewelled hands trembled in her black brocade lap, and the pulpy curves of her face collapsed as if it were a pricked balloon.

“Oh, Abner,” she moaned again, her eyes also on her daughter’s door. Mr. Spragg’s black eyebrows gathered in an angry frown, but it was evident that his anger was not against his wife.

“What’s the good of Oh Abner-ing? Elmer Moffatt’s nothing to us — no more’n if we never laid eyes on him.”

“No — I know it; but what’s he doing here? Did you speak to him?” she faltered.

He slipped his thumbs into his waistcoat pockets. “No — I guess Elmer and I are pretty well talked out.”

Mrs. Spragg took up her moan. “Don’t you tell her you saw him, Abner.”

“I’ll do as you say; but she may meet him herself.”

“Oh, I guess not — not in this new set she’s going with! Don’t tell her ANYHOW.”

He turned away, feeling for one of the cigars which he always carried loose in his pocket; and his wife, rising, stole after him, and laid her hand on his arm.

“He can’t do anything to her, can he?”

“Do anything to her?” He swung about furiously. “I’d like to see him touch her — that’s all!”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30