The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

X

Mr. and Mrs. Spragg were both given to such long periods of ruminating apathy that the student of inheritance might have wondered whence Undine derived her overflowing activity. The answer would have been obtained by observing her father’s business life. From the moment he set foot in Wall Street Mr. Spragg became another man. Physically the change revealed itself only by the subtlest signs. As he steered his way to his office through the jostling crowd of William Street his relaxed muscles did not grow more taut or his lounging gait less desultory. His shoulders were hollowed by the usual droop, and his rusty black waistcoat showed the same creased concavity at the waist, the same flabby prominence below. It was only in his face that the difference was perceptible, though even here it rather lurked behind the features than openly modified them: showing itself now and then in the cautious glint of half-closed eyes, the forward thrust of black brows, or a tightening of the lax lines of the mouth — as the gleam of a night-watchman’s light might flash across the darkness of a shuttered house-front. The shutters were more tightly barred than usual, when, on a morning some two weeks later than the date of the incidents last recorded, Mr. Spragg approached the steel and concrete tower in which his office occupied a lofty pigeon-hole. Events had moved rapidly and somewhat surprisingly in the interval, and Mr. Spragg had already accustomed himself to the fact that his daughter was to be married within the week, instead of awaiting the traditional post-Lenten date. Conventionally the change meant little to him; but on the practical side it presented unforeseen difficulties. Mr. Spragg had learned within the last weeks that a New York marriage involved material obligations unknown to Apex. Marvell, indeed, had been loftily careless of such questions; but his grandfather, on the announcement of the engagement, had called on Mr. Spragg and put before him, with polished precision, the young man’s financial situation.

Mr. Spragg, at the moment, had been inclined to deal with his visitor in a spirit of indulgent irony. As he leaned back in his revolving chair, with feet adroitly balanced against a tilted scrap basket, his air of relaxed power made Mr. Dagonet’s venerable elegance seem as harmless as that of an ivory jack-straw — and his first replies to his visitor were made with the mildness of a kindly giant.

“Ralph don’t make a living out of the law, you say? No, it didn’t strike me he’d be likely to, from the talks I’ve had with him. Fact is, the law’s a business that wants — ” Mr. Spragg broke off, checked by a protest from Mr. Dagonet. “Oh, a PROFESSION, you call it? It ain’t a business?” His smile grew more indulgent as this novel distinction dawned on him. “Why, I guess that’s the whole trouble with Ralph. Nobody expects to make money in a PROFESSION; and if you’ve taught him to regard the law that way, he’d better go right into cooking-stoves and done with it.”

Mr. Dagonet, within a narrower range, had his own play of humour; and it met Mr. Spragg’s with a leap. “It’s because I knew he would manage to make cooking-stoves as unremunerative as a profession that I saved him from so glaring a failure by putting him into the law.”

The retort drew a grunt of amusement from Mr. Spragg; and the eyes of the two men met in unexpected understanding.

“That so? What can he do, then?” the future father-in-law enquired.

“He can write poetry — at least he tells me he can.” Mr. Dagonet hesitated, as if aware of the inadequacy of the alternative, and then added: “And he can count on three thousand a year from me.”

Mr. Spragg tilted himself farther back without disturbing his subtly-calculated relation to the scrap basket.

“Does it cost anything like that to print his poetry?”

Mr. Dagonet smiled again: he was clearly enjoying his visit. “Dear, no — he doesn’t go in for ‘luxe’ editions. And now and then he gets ten dollars from a magazine.”

Mr. Spragg mused. “Wasn’t he ever TAUGHT to work?”

“No; I really couldn’t have afforded that.”

“I see. Then they’ve got to live on two hundred and fifty dollars a month.”

Mr. Dagonet remained pleasantly unmoved. “Does it cost anything like that to buy your daughter’s dresses?”

A subterranean chuckle agitated the lower folds of Mr. Spragg’s waistcoat.

“I might put him in the way of something — I guess he’s smart enough.”

Mr. Dagonet made a gesture of friendly warning. “It will pay us both in the end to keep him out of business,” he said, rising as if to show that his mission was accomplished.

The results of this friendly conference had been more serious than Mr. Spragg could have foreseen — and the victory remained with his antagonist. It had not entered into Mr. Spragg’s calculations that he would have to give his daughter any fixed income on her marriage. He meant that she should have the “handsomest” wedding the New York press had ever celebrated, and her mother’s fancy was already afloat on a sea of luxuries — a motor, a Fifth Avenue house, and a tiara that should out-blaze Mrs. Van Degen’s; but these were movable benefits, to be conferred whenever Mr. Spragg happened to be “on the right side” of the market. It was a different matter to be called on, at such short notice, to bridge the gap between young Marvell’s allowance and Undine’s requirements; and her father’s immediate conclusion was that the engagement had better be broken off. Such scissions were almost painless in Apex, and he had fancied it would be easy, by an appeal to the girl’s pride, to make her see that she owed it to herself to do better.

“You’d better wait awhile and look round again,” was the way he had put it to her at the opening of the talk of which, even now, he could not recall the close without a tremor.

Undine, when she took his meaning, had been terrible. Everything had gone down before her, as towns and villages went down before one of the tornadoes of her native state. Wait awhile? Look round? Did he suppose she was marrying for MONEY? Didn’t he see it was all a question, now and here, of the kind of people she wanted to “go with”? Did he want to throw her straight back into the Lipscomb set, to have her marry a dentist and live in a West Side flat? Why hadn’t they stayed in Apex, if that was all he thought she was fit for? She might as well have married Millard Binch, instead of handing him over to Indiana Frusk! Couldn’t her father understand that nice girls, in New York, didn’t regard getting married like going on a buggy-ride? It was enough to ruin a girl’s chances if she broke her engagement to a man in Ralph Marvell’s set. All kinds of spiteful things would be said about her, and she would never be able to go with the right people again. They had better go back to Apex right off — it was they and not SHE who had wanted to leave Apex, anyhow — she could call her mother to witness it. She had always, when it came to that, done what her father and mother wanted, but she’d given up trying to make out what they were after, unless it was to make her miserable; and if that was it, hadn’t they had enough of it by this time? She had, anyhow. But after this she meant to lead her own life; and they needn’t ask her where she was going, or what she meant to do, because this time she’d die before she told them — and they’d made life so hateful to her that she only wished she was dead already.

Mr. Spragg heard her out in silence, pulling at his beard with one sallow wrinkled hand, while the other dragged down the armhole of his waistcoat. Suddenly he looked up and said: “Ain’t you in love with the fellow, Undie?”

The girl glared back at him, her splendid brows beetling like an Amazon’s. “Do you think I’d care a cent for all the rest of it if I wasn’t?”

“Well, if you are, you and he won’t mind beginning in a small way.”

Her look poured contempt on his ignorance. “Do you s’pose I’d drag him down?” With a magnificent gesture she tore Marvell’s ring from her finger. “I’ll send this back this minute. I’ll tell him I thought he was a rich man, and now I see I’m mistaken — ” She burst into shattering sobs, rocking her beautiful body back and forward in all the abandonment of young grief; and her father stood over her, stroking her shoulder and saying helplessly: “I’ll see what I can do, Undine — ”

All his life, and at ever-diminishing intervals, Mr. Spragg had been called on by his womenkind to “see what he could do”; and the seeing had almost always resulted as they wished. Undine did not have to send back her ring, and in her state of trance-like happiness she hardly asked by what means her path had been smoothed, but merely accepted her mother’s assurance that “father had fixed everything all right.”

Mr. Spragg accepted the situation also. A son-in-law who expected to be pensioned like a Grand Army veteran was a phenomenon new to his experience; but if that was what Undine wanted she should have it. Only two days later, however, he was met by a new demand — the young people had decided to be married “right off,” instead of waiting till June. This change of plan was made known to Mr. Spragg at a moment when he was peculiarly unprepared for the financial readjustment it necessitated. He had always declared himself able to cope with any crisis if Undine and her mother would “go steady”; but he now warned them of his inability to keep up with the new pace they had set. Undine, not deigning to return to the charge, had commissioned her mother to speak for her; and Mr. Spragg was surprised to meet in his wife a firmness as inflexible as his daughter’s.

“I can’t do it, Loot — can’t put my hand on the cash,” he had protested; but Mrs. Spragg fought him inch by inch, her back to the wall — flinging out at last, as he pressed her closer: “Well, if you want to know, she’s seen Elmer.”

The bolt reached its mark, and her husband turned an agitated face on her.

“Elmer? What on earth — he didn’t come HERE?”

“No; but he sat next to her the other night at the theatre, and she’s wild with us for not having warned her.”

Mr. Spragg’s scowl drew his projecting brows together. “Warned her of what? What’s Elmer to her? Why’s she afraid of Elmer Moffatt?”

“She’s afraid of his talking.”

“Talking? What on earth can he say that’ll hurt HER?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Mrs. Spragg wailed. “She’s so nervous I can hardly get a word out of her.”

Mr. Spragg’s whitening face showed the touch of a new fear. “Is she afraid he’ll get round her again — make up to her? Is that what she means by ‘talking’?” “I don’t know, I don’t know. I only know she is afraid — she’s afraid as death of him.”

For a long interval they sat silently looking at each other while their heavy eyes exchanged conjectures: then Mr. Spragg rose from his chair, saying, as he took up his hat: “Don’t you fret, Leota; I’ll see what I can do.”

He had been “seeing” now for an arduous fortnight; and the strain on his vision had resulted in a state of tension such as he had not undergone since the epic days of the Pure Water Move at Apex. It was not his habit to impart his fears to Mrs. Spragg and Undine, and they continued the bridal preparations, secure in their invariable experience that, once “father” had been convinced of the impossibility of evading their demands, he might be trusted to satisfy them by means with which his womenkind need not concern themselves. Mr. Spragg, as he approached his office on the morning in question, felt reasonably sure of fulfilling these expectations; but he reflected that a few more such victories would mean disaster.

He entered the vast marble vestibule of the Ararat Trust Building and walked toward the express elevator that was to carry him up to his office. At the door of the elevator a man turned to him, and he recognized Elmer Moffatt, who put out his hand with an easy gesture.

Mr. Spragg did not ignore the gesture: he did not even withhold his hand. In his code the cut, as a conscious sign of disapproval, did not exist. In the south, if you had a grudge against a man you tried to shoot him; in the west, you tried to do him in a mean turn in business; but in neither region was the cut among the social weapons of offense. Mr. Spragg, therefore, seeing Moffatt in his path, extended a lifeless hand while he faced the young man scowlingly. Moffatt met the hand and the scowl with equal coolness.

“Going up to your office? I was on my way there.”

The elevator door rolled back, and Mr. Spragg, entering it, found his companion at his side. They remained silent during the ascent to Mr. Spragg’s threshold; but there the latter turned to enquire ironically of Moffatt: “Anything left to say?”

Moffatt smiled. “Nothing LEFT— no; I’m carrying a whole new line of goods.”

Mr. Spragg pondered the reply; then he opened the door and suffered Moffatt to follow him in. Behind an inner glazed enclosure, with its one window dimmed by a sooty perspective barred with chimneys, he seated himself at a dusty littered desk, and groped instinctively for the support of the scrap basket. Moffatt, uninvited, dropped into the nearest chair, and Mr. Spragg said, after another silence: “I’m pretty busy this morning.”

“I know you are: that’s why I’m here,” Moffatt serenely answered. He leaned back, crossing his legs, and twisting his small stiff moustache with a plump hand adorned by a cameo.

“Fact is,” he went on, “this is a coals-of-fire call. You think I owe you a grudge, and I’m going to show you I’m not that kind. I’m going to put you onto a good thing — oh, not because I’m so fond of you; just because it happens to hit my sense of a joke.”

While Moffatt talked Mr. Spragg took up the pile of letters on his desk and sat shuffling them like a pack of cards. He dealt them deliberately to two imaginary players; then he pushed them aside and drew out his watch.

“All right — I carry one too,” said the young man easily. “But you’ll find it’s time gained to hear what I’ve got to say.”

Mr. Spragg considered the vista of chimneys without speaking, and Moffatt continued: “I don’t suppose you care to hear the story of my life, so I won’t refer you to the back numbers. You used to say out in Apex that I spent too much time loafing round the bar of the Mealey House; that was one of the things you had against me. Well, maybe I did — but it taught me to talk, and to listen to the other fellows too. Just at present I’m one of Harmon B. Driscoll’s private secretaries, and some of that Mealey House loafing has come in more useful than any job I ever put my hand to. The old man happened to hear I knew something about the inside of the Eubaw deal, and took me on to have the information where he could get at it. I’ve given him good talk for his money; but I’ve done some listening too. Eubaw ain’t the only commodity the Driscolls deal in.”

Mr. Spragg restored his watch to his pocket and shifted his drowsy gaze from the window to his visitor’s face.

“Yes,” said Moffatt, as if in reply to the movement, “the Driscolls are getting busy out in Apex. Now they’ve got all the street railroads in their pocket they want the water-supply too — but you know that as well as I do. Fact is, they’ve got to have it; and there’s where you and I come in.”

Mr. Spragg thrust his hands in his waistcoat arm-holes and turned his eyes back to the window.

“I’m out of that long ago,” he said indifferently.

“Sure,” Moffatt acquiesced; “but you know what went on when you were in it.”

“Well?” said Mr. Spragg, shifting one hand to the Masonic emblem on his watch-chain.

“Well, Representative James J. Rolliver, who was in it with you, ain’t out of it yet. He’s the man the Driscolls are up against. What d’you know about him?”

Mr. Spragg twirled the emblem thoughtfully. “Driscoll tell you to come here?”

Moffatt laughed. “No, SIR— not by a good many miles.”

Mr. Spragg removed his feet from the scrap basket and straightened himself in his chair.

“Well — I didn’t either; good morning, Mr. Moffatt.”

The young man stared a moment, a humorous glint in his small black eyes; but he made no motion to leave his seat. “Undine’s to be married next week, isn’t she?” he asked in a conversational tone.

Mr. Spragg’s face blackened and he swung about in his revolving chair.

“You go to — ”

Moffatt raised a deprecating hand. “Oh, you needn’t warn me off. I don’t want to be invited to the wedding. And I don’t want to forbid the banns.”

There was a derisive sound in Mr. Spragg’s throat.

“But I DO want to get out of Driscoll’s office,” Moffatt imperturbably continued. “There’s no future there for a fellow like me. I see things big. That’s the reason Apex was too tight a fit for me. It’s only the little fellows that succeed in little places. New York’s my size — without a single alteration. I could prove it to you to-morrow if I could put my hand on fifty thousand dollars.”

Mr. Spragg did not repeat his gesture of dismissal: he was once more listening guardedly but intently. Moffatt saw it and continued.

“And I could put my hand on double that sum — yes, sir, DOUBLE— if you’d just step round with me to old Driscoll’s office before five P. M. See the connection, Mr. Spragg?”

The older man remained silent while his visitor hummed a bar or two of “In the Gloaming”; then he said: “You want me to tell Driscoll what I know about James J. Rolliver?”

“I want you to tell the truth — I want you to stand for political purity in your native state. A man of your prominence owes it to the community, sir,” cried Moffatt. Mr. Spragg was still tormenting his Masonic emblem.

“Rolliver and I always stood together,” he said at last, with a tinge of reluctance.

“Well, how much have you made out of it? Ain’t he always been ahead of the game?”

“I can’t do it — I can’t do it,” said Mr. Spragg, bringing his clenched hand down on the desk, as if addressing an invisible throng of assailants.

Moffatt rose without any evidence of disappointment in his ruddy countenance. “Well, so long,” he said, moving toward the door. Near the threshold he paused to add carelessly: “Excuse my referring to a personal matter — but I understand Miss Spragg’s wedding takes place next Monday.”

Mr. Spragg was silent.

“How’s that?” Moffatt continued unabashed. “I saw in the papers the date was set for the end of June.”

Mr. Spragg rose heavily from his seat. “I presume my daughter has her reasons,” he said, moving toward the door in Moffatt’s wake.

“I guess she has — same as I have for wanting you to step round with me to old Driscoll’s. If Undine’s reasons are as good as mine — ”

“Stop right here, Elmer Moffatt!” the older man broke out with lifted hand. Moffatt made a burlesque feint of evading a blow; then his face grew serious, and he moved close to Mr. Spragg, whose arm had fallen to his side.

“See here, I know Undine’s reasons. I’ve had a talk with her — didn’t she tell you? SHE don’t beat about the bush the way you do. She told me straight out what was bothering her. She wants the Marvells to think she’s right out of Kindergarten. ‘No goods sent out on approval from this counter.’ And I see her point — I don’t mean to publish my meemo’rs. Only a deal’s a deal.” He paused a moment, twisting his fingers about the heavy gold watch-chain that crossed his waistcoat. “Tell you what, Mr. Spragg, I don’t bear malice — not against Undine, anyway — and if I could have afforded it I’d have been glad enough to oblige her and forget old times. But you didn’t hesitate to kick me when I was down and it’s taken me a day or two to get on my legs again after that kicking. I see my way now to get there and keep there; and there’s a kinder poetic justice in your being the man to help me up. If I can get hold of fifty thousand dollars within a day or so I don’t care who’s got the start of me. I’ve got a dead sure thing in sight, and you’re the only man that can get it for me. Now do you see where we’re coming out?”

Mr. Spragg, during this discourse, had remained motionless, his hands in his pockets, his jaws moving mechanically, as though he mumbled a tooth-pick under his beard. His sallow cheek had turned a shade paler, and his brows hung threateningly over his half-closed eyes. But there was no threat — there was scarcely more than a note of dull curiosity — in the voice with which he said: “You mean to talk?”

Moffatt’s rosy face grew as hard as a steel safe. “I mean YOU to talk — to old Driscoll.” He paused, and then added: “It’s a hundred thousand down, between us.”

Mr. Spragg once more consulted his watch. “I’ll see you again,” he said with an effort.

Moffatt struck one fist against the other. “No, SIR— you won’t! You’ll only hear from me — through the Marvell family. Your news ain’t worth a dollar to Driscoll if he don’t get it to-day.”

He was checked by the sound of steps in the outer office, and Mr. Spragg’s stenographer appeared in the doorway.

“It’s Mr. Marvell,” she announced; and Ralph Marvell, glowing with haste and happiness, stood between the two men, holding out his hand to Mr. Spragg.

“Am I awfully in the way, sir? Turn me out if I am — but first let me just say a word about this necklace I’ve ordered for Un — ”

He broke off, made aware by Mr. Spragg’s glance of the presence of Elmer Moffatt, who, with unwonted discretion, had dropped back into the shadow of the door. Marvell turned on Moffatt a bright gaze full of the instinctive hospitality of youth; but Moffatt looked straight past him at Mr. Spragg. The latter, as if in response to an imperceptible signal, mechanically pronounced his visitor’s name; and the two young men moved toward each other.

“I beg your pardon most awfully — am I breaking up an important conference?” Ralph asked as he shook hands.

“Why, no — I guess we’re pretty nearly through. I’ll step outside and woo the blonde while you’re talking,” Moffatt rejoined in the same key.

“Thanks so much — I shan’t take two seconds.” Ralph broke off to scrutinize him. “But haven’t we met before? It seems to me I’ve seen you — just lately — ”

Moffatt seemed about to answer, but his reply was checked by an abrupt movement on the part of Mr. Spragg. There was a perceptible pause, during which Moffatt’s bright black glance rested questioningly on Ralph; then he looked again at the older man, and their eyes held each other for a silent moment.

“Why, no — not as I’m aware of, Mr. Marvell,” Moffatt said, addressing himself amicably to Ralph. “Better late than never, though — and I hope to have the pleasure soon again.”

He divided a nod between the two men, and passed into the outer office, where they heard him addressing the stenographer in a strain of exaggerated gallantry.

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