The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XII

In the quiet place with the green water-fall Ralph’s vision might have kept faith with him; but how could he hope to surprise it in the midsummer crowds of St. Moritz? Undine, at any rate, had found there what she wanted; and when he was at her side, and her radiant smile included him, every other question was in abeyance. But there were hours of solitary striding over bare grassy slopes, face to face with the ironic interrogation of sky and mountains, when his anxieties came back, more persistent and importunate. Sometimes they took the form of merely material difficulties. How, for instance, was he to meet the cost of their ruinous suite at the Engadine Palace while he awaited Mr. Spragg’s next remittance? And once the hotel bills were paid, what would be left for the journey back to Paris, the looming expenses there, the price of the passage to America? These questions would fling him back on the thought of his projected book, which was, after all, to be what the masterpieces of literature had mostly been — a pot-boiler. Well! Why not? Did not the worshipper always heap the rarest essences on the altar of his divinity? Ralph still rejoiced in the thought of giving back to Undine something of the beauty of their first months together. But even on his solitary walks the vision eluded him; and he could spare so few hours to its pursuit!

Undine’s days were crowded, and it was still a matter of course that where she went he should follow. He had risen visibly in her opinion since they had been absorbed into the life of the big hotels, and she had seen that his command of foreign tongues put him at an advantage even in circles where English was generally spoken if not understood. Undine herself, hampered by her lack of languages, was soon drawn into the group of compatriots who struck the social pitch of their hotel.

Their types were familiar enough to Ralph, who had taken their measure in former wanderings, and come across their duplicates in every scene of continental idleness. Foremost among them was Mrs. Harvey Shallum, a showy Parisianized figure, with a small wax-featured husband whose ultra-fashionable clothes seemed a tribute to his wife’s importance rather than the mark of his personal taste. Mr. Shallum, in fact, could not be said to have any personal bent. Though he conversed with a colourless fluency in the principal European tongues, he seldom exercised his gift except in intercourse with hotel-managers and head-waiters; and his long silences were broken only by resigned allusions to the enormities he had suffered at the hands of this gifted but unscrupulous class.

Mrs. Shallum, though in command of but a few verbs, all of which, on her lips, became irregular, managed to express a polyglot personality as vivid as her husband’s was effaced. Her only idea of intercourse with her kind was to organize it into bands and subject it to frequent displacements; and society smiled at her for these exertions like an infant vigorously rocked. She saw at once Undine’s value as a factor in her scheme, and the two formed an alliance on which Ralph refrained from shedding the cold light of depreciation. It was a point of honour with him not to seem to disdain any of Undine’s amusements: the noisy interminable picnics, the hot promiscuous balls, the concerts, bridge-parties and theatricals which helped to disguise the difference between the high Alps and Paris or New York. He told himself that there is always a Narcissus-element in youth, and that what Undine really enjoyed was the image of her own charm mirrored in the general admiration. With her quick perceptions and adaptabilities she would soon learn to care more about the quality of the reflecting surface; and meanwhile no criticism of his should mar her pleasure.

The appearance at their hotel of the cavalry-officer from Siena was a not wholly agreeable surprise; but even after the handsome Marquis had been introduced to Undine, and had whirled her through an evening’s dances, Ralph was not seriously disturbed. Husband and wife had grown closer to each other since they had come to St. Moritz, and in the brief moments she could give him Undine was now always gay and approachable. Her fitful humours had vanished, and she showed qualities of comradeship that seemed the promise of a deeper understanding. But this very hope made him more subject to her moods, more fearful of disturbing the harmony between them. Least of all could he broach the subject of money: he had too keen a memory of the way her lips could narrow, and her eyes turn from him as if he were a stranger.

It was a different matter that one day brought the look he feared to her face. She had announced her intention of going on an excursion with Mrs. Shallum and three or four of the young men who formed the nucleus of their shifting circle, and for the first time she did not ask Ralph if he were coming; but he felt no resentment at being left out. He was tired of these noisy assaults on the high solitudes, and the prospect of a quiet afternoon turned his thoughts to his book. Now if ever there seemed a chance of recapturing the moonlight vision . . .

From his balcony he looked down on the assembling party. Mrs. Shallum was already screaming bilingually at various windows in the long facade; and Undine presently came out of the hotel with the Marchese Roviano and two young English diplomatists. Slim and tall in her trim mountain garb, she made the ornate Mrs. Shallum look like a piece of ambulant upholstery. The high air brightened her cheeks and struck new lights from her hair, and Ralph had never seen her so touched with morning freshness. The party was not yet complete, and he felt a movement of annoyance when he recognized, in the last person to join it, a Russian lady of cosmopolitan notoriety whom he had run across in his unmarried days, and as to whom he had already warned Undine. Knowing what strange specimens from the depths slip through the wide meshes of the watering-place world, he had foreseen that a meeting with the Baroness Adelschein was inevitable; but he had not expected her to become one of his wife’s intimate circle.

When the excursionists had started he turned back to his writing-table and tried to take up his work; but he could not fix his thoughts: they were far away, in pursuit of Undine. He had been but five months married, and it seemed, after all, rather soon for him to be dropped out of such excursions as unquestioningly as poor Harvey Shallum. He smiled away this first twinge of jealousy, but the irritation it left found a pretext in his displeasure at Undine’s choice of companions. Mrs. Shallum grated on his taste, but she was as open to inspection as a shop-window, and he was sure that time would teach his wife the cheapness of what she had to show. Roviano and the Englishmen were well enough too: frankly bent on amusement, but pleasant and well-bred. But they would naturally take their tone from the women they were with; and Madame Adelschein’s tone was notorious. He knew also that Undine’s faculty of self-defense was weakened by the instinct of adapting herself to whatever company she was in, of copying “the others” in speech and gesture as closely as she reflected them in dress; and he was disturbed by the thought of what her ignorance might expose her to.

She came back late, flushed with her long walk, her face all sparkle and mystery, as he had seen it in the first days of their courtship; and the look somehow revived his irritated sense of having been intentionally left out of the party.

“You’ve been gone forever. Was it the Adelschein who made you go such lengths?” he asked her, trying to keep to his usual joking tone.

Undine, as she dropped down on the sofa and unpinned her hat, shed on him the light of her guileless gaze.

“I don’t know: everybody was amusing. The Marquis is awfully bright.”

“I’d no idea you or Bertha Shallum knew Madame Adelschein well enough to take her off with you in that way.”

Undine sat absently smoothing the tuft of glossy cock’s-feathers in her hat.

“I don’t see that you’ve got to know people particularly well to go for a walk with them. The Baroness is awfully bright too.”

She always gave her acquaintances their titles, seeming not, in this respect, to have noticed that a simpler form prevailed.

“I don’t dispute the interest of what she says; but I’ve told you what decent people think of what she does,” Ralph retorted, exasperated by what seemed a wilful pretense of ignorance.

She continued to scrutinize him with her clear eyes, in which there was no shadow of offense.

“You mean they don’t want to go round with her? You’re mistaken: it’s not true. She goes round with everybody. She dined last night with the Grand Duchess; Roviano told me so.”

This was not calculated to make Ralph take a more tolerant view of the question.

“Does he also tell you what’s said of her?”

“What’s said of her?” Undine’s limpid glance rebuked him. “Do you mean that disgusting scandal you told me about? Do you suppose I’d let him talk to me about such things? I meant you’re mistaken about her social position. He says she goes everywhere.”

Ralph laughed impatiently. “No doubt Roviano’s an authority; but it doesn’t happen to be his business to choose your friends for you.”

Undine echoed his laugh. “Well, I guess I don’t need anybody to do that: I can do it myself,” she said, with the good-humoured curtness that was the habitual note of intercourse with the Spraggs.

Ralph sat down beside her and laid a caressing touch on her shoulder. “No, you can’t, you foolish child. You know nothing of this society you’re in; of its antecedents, its rules, its conventions; and it’s my affair to look after you, and warn you when you’re on the wrong track.”

“Mercy, what a solemn speech!” She shrugged away his hand without ill-temper. “I don’t believe an American woman needs to know such a lot about their old rules. They can see I mean to follow my own, and if they don’t like it they needn’t go with me.”

“Oh, they’ll go with you fast enough, as you call it. They’ll be too charmed to. The question is how far they’ll make you go with THEM, and where they’ll finally land you.”

She tossed her head back with the movement she had learned in “speaking” school-pieces about freedom and the British tyrant.

“No one’s ever yet gone any farther with me than I wanted!” she declared. She was really exquisitely simple.

“I’m not sure Roviano hasn’t, in vouching for Madame Adelschein. But he probably thinks you know about her. To him this isn’t ‘society’ any more than the people in an omnibus are. Society, to everybody here, means the sanction of their own special group and of the corresponding groups elsewhere. The Adelschein goes about in a place like this because it’s nobody’s business to stop her; but the women who tolerate her here would drop her like a shot if she set foot on their own ground.”

The thoughtful air with which Undine heard him out made him fancy this argument had carried; and as be ended she threw him a bright look.

“Well, that’s easy enough: I can drop her if she comes to New York.”

Ralph sat silent for a moment — then he turned away and began to gather up his scattered pages.

Undine, in the ensuing days, was no less often with Madame Adelschein, and Ralph suspected a challenge in her open frequentation of the lady. But if challenge there were, he let it lie. Whether his wife saw more or less of Madame Adelschein seemed no longer of much consequence: she had so amply shown him her ability to protect herself. The pang lay in the completeness of the proof — in the perfect functioning of her instinct of self-preservation. For the first time he was face to face with his hovering dread: he was judging where he still adored.

Before long more pressing cares absorbed him. He had already begun to watch the post for his father-in-law’s monthly remittance, without precisely knowing how, even with its aid, he was to bridge the gulf of expense between St. Moritz and New York. The non-arrival of Mr. Spragg’s cheque was productive of graver tears, and these were abruptly confirmed when, coming in one afternoon, he found Undine crying over a letter from her mother.

Her distress made him fear that Mr. Spragg was ill, and he drew her to him soothingly; but she broke away with an impatient movement.

“Oh, they’re all well enough — but father’s lost a lot of money. He’s been speculating, and he can’t send us anything for at least three months.”

Ralph murmured reassuringly: “As long as there’s no one ill!” — but in reality he was following her despairing gaze down the long perspective of their barren quarter.

“Three months! Three months!”

Undine dried her eyes, and sat with set lips and tapping foot while he read her mother’s letter.

“Your poor father! It’s a hard knock for him. I’m sorry,” he said as he handed it back.

For a moment she did not seem to hear; then she said between her teeth: “It’s hard for US. I suppose now we’ll have to go straight home.”

He looked at her with wonder. “If that were all! In any case I should have to be back in a few weeks.”

“But we needn’t have left here in August! It’s the first place in Europe that I’ve liked, and it’s just my luck to be dragged away from it!”

“I’m so awfully sorry, dearest. It’s my fault for persuading you to marry a pauper.”

“It’s father’s fault. Why on earth did he go and speculate? There’s no use his saying he’s sorry now!” She sat brooding for a moment and then suddenly took Ralph’s hand. “Couldn’t your people do something — help us out just this once, I mean?”

He flushed to the forehead: it seemed inconceivable that she should make such a suggestion.

“I couldn’t ask them — it’s not possible. My grandfather does as much as he can for me, and my mother has nothing but what he gives her.”

Undine seemed unconscious of his embarrassment. “He doesn’t give us nearly as much as father does,” she said; and, as Ralph remained silent, she went on:

“Couldn’t you ask your sister, then? I must have some clothes to go home in.”

His heart contracted as he looked at her. What sinister change came over her when her will was crossed? She seemed to grow inaccessible, implacable — her eyes were like the eyes of an enemy.

“I don’t know — I’ll see,” he said, rising and moving away from her. At that moment the touch of her hand was repugnant. Yes — he might ask Laura, no doubt: and whatever she had would be his. But the necessity was bitter to him, and Undine’s unconsciousness of the fact hurt him more than her indifference to her father’s misfortune.

What hurt him most was the curious fact that, for all her light irresponsibility, it was always she who made the practical suggestion, hit the nail of expediency on the head. No sentimental scruple made the blow waver or deflected her resolute aim. She had thought at once of Laura, and Laura was his only, his inevitable, resource. His anxious mind pictured his sister’s wonder, and made him wince under the sting of Henley Fairford’s irony: Fairford, who at the time of the marriage had sat silent and pulled his moustache while every one else argued and objected, yet under whose silence Ralph had felt a deeper protest than under all the reasoning of the others. It was no comfort to reflect that Fairford would probably continue to say nothing! But necessity made light of these twinges, and Ralph set his teeth and cabled.

Undine’s chief surprise seemed to be that Laura’s response, though immediate and generous, did not enable them to stay on at St. Moritz. But she apparently read in her husband’s look the uselessness of such a hope, for, with one of the sudden changes of mood that still disarmed him, she accepted the need of departure, and took leave philosophically of the Shallums and their band. After all, Paris was ahead, and in September one would have a chance to see the new models and surprise the secret councils of the dressmakers.

Ralph was astonished at the tenacity with which she held to her purpose. He tried, when they reached Paris, to make her feel the necessity of starting at once for home; but she complained of fatigue and of feeling vaguely unwell, and he had to yield to her desire for rest. The word, however, was to strike him as strangely misapplied, for from the day of their arrival she was in state of perpetual activity. She seemed to have mastered her Paris by divination, and between the hounds of the Boulevards and the Place Vendome she moved at once with supernatural ease.

“Of course,” she explained to him, “I understand how little we’ve got to spend; but I left New York without a rag, and it was you who made me countermand my trousseau, instead of having it sent after us. I wish now I hadn’t listened to you — father’d have had to pay for THAT before he lost his money. As it is, it will be cheaper in the end for me to pick up a few things here. The advantage of going to the French dress-makers is that they’ll wait twice as long for their money as the people at home. And they’re all crazy to dress me — Bertha Shallum will tell you so: she says no one ever had such a chance! That’s why I was willing to come to this stuffy little hotel — I wanted to save every scrap I could to get a few decent things. And over here they’re accustomed to being bargained with — you ought to see how I’ve beaten them down! Have you any idea what a dinner-dress costs in New York —?”

So it went on, obtusely and persistently, whenever he tried to sound the note of prudence. But on other themes she was more than usually responsive. Paris enchanted her, and they had delightful hours at the theatres — the “little” ones — amusing dinners at fashionable restaurants, and reckless evenings in haunts where she thrilled with simple glee at the thought of what she must so obviously be “taken for.” All these familiar diversions regained, for Ralph, a fresh zest in her company. Her innocence, her high spirits, her astounding comments and credulities, renovated the old Parisian adventure and flung a veil of romance over its hackneyed scenes. Beheld through such a medium the future looked less near and implacable, and Ralph, when he had received a reassuring letter from his sister, let his conscience sleep and slipped forth on the high tide of pleasure. After all, in New York amusements would be fewer, and their life, for a time, perhaps more quiet. Moreover, Ralph’s dim glimpses of Mr. Spragg’s past suggested that the latter was likely to be on his feet again at any moment, and atoning by redoubled prodigalities for his temporary straits; and beyond all these possibilities there was the book to be written — the book on which Ralph was sure he should get a real hold as soon as they settled down in New York.

Meanwhile the daily cost of living, and the bills that could not be deferred, were eating deep into Laura’s subsidy. Ralph’s anxieties returned, and his plight was brought home to him with a shock when, on going one day to engage passages, he learned that the prices were that of the “rush season,” and one of the conditions immediate payment. At other times, he was told the rules were easier; but in September and October no exception could be made.

As he walked away with this fresh weight on his mind he caught sight of the strolling figure of Peter Van Degen — Peter lounging and luxuriating among the seductions of the Boulevard with the disgusting ease of a man whose wants are all measured by money, and who always has enough to gratify them.

His present sense of these advantages revealed itself in the affability of his greeting to Ralph, and in his off-hand request that the latter should “look up Clare,” who had come over with him to get her winter finery.

“She’s motoring to Italy next week with some of her long-haired friends — but I’m off for the other side; going back on the Sorceress. She’s just been overhauled at Greenock, and we ought to have a good spin over. Better come along with me, old man.”

The Sorceress was Van Degen’s steam-yacht, most huge and complicated of her kind: it was his habit, after his semi-annual flights to Paris and London, to take a joyous company back on her and let Clare return by steamer. The character of these parties made the invitation almost an offense to Ralph; but reflecting that it was probably a phrase distributed to every acquaintance when Van Degen was in a rosy mood, he merely answered: “Much obliged, my dear fellow; but Undine and I are sailing immediately.”

Peter’s glassy eye grew livelier. “Ah, to be sure — you’re not over the honeymoon yet. How’s the bride? Stunning as ever? My regards to her, please. I suppose she’s too deep in dress-making to be called on? Don’t you forget to look up Clare!” He hurried on in pursuit of a flitting petticoat and Ralph continued his walk home.

He prolonged it a little in order to put off telling Undine of his plight; for he could devise only one way of meeting the cost of the voyage, and that was to take it at once, and thus curtail their Parisian expenses. But he knew how unwelcome this plan would be, and he shrank the more from seeing Undine’s face harden; since, of late, he had so basked in its brightness.

When at last he entered the little salon she called “stuffy” he found her in conference with a blond-bearded gentleman who wore the red ribbon in his lapel, and who, on Ralph’s appearance — and at a sign, as it appeared, from Mrs. Marvell — swept into his note-case some small objects that had lain on the table, and bowed himself out with a “Madame — Monsieur” worthy of the highest traditions.

Ralph looked after him with amusement. “Who’s your friend — an Ambassador or a tailor?”

Undine was rapidly slipping on her rings, which, as he now saw, had also been scattered over the table.

“Oh, it was only that jeweller I told you about — the one Bertha Shallum goes to.”

“A jeweller? Good heavens, my poor girl! You’re buying jewels?” The extravagance of the idea struck a laugh from him.

Undine’s face did not harden: it took on, instead, almost deprecating look. “Of course not — how silly you are! I only wanted a few old things reset. But I won’t if you’d rather not.”

She came to him and sat down at his side, laying her hand on his arm. He took the hand up and looked at the deep gleam of the sapphires in the old family ring he had given her.

“You won’t have that reset?” he said, smiling and twisting the ring about on her finger; then he went on with his thankless explanation. “It’s not that I don’t want you to do this or that; it’s simply that, for the moment, we’re rather strapped. I’ve just been to see the steamer people, and our passages will cost a good deal more than I thought.”

He mentioned the sum and the fact that he must give an answer the next day. Would she consent to sail that very Saturday? Or should they go a fortnight later, in a slow boat from Plymouth?

Undine frowned on both alternatives. She was an indifferent sailor and shrank from the possible “nastiness” of the cheaper boat. She wanted to get the voyage over as quickly and luxuriously as possible — Bertha Shallum had told her that in a “deck-suite” no one need be sea-sick — but she wanted still more to have another week or two of Paris; and it was always hard to make her see why circumstances could not be bent to her wishes.

“This week? But how on earth can I be ready? Besides, we’re dining at Enghien with the Shallums on Saturday, and motoring to Chantilly with the Jim Driscolls on Sunday. I can’t imagine how you thought we could go this week!”

But she still opposed the cheap steamer, and after they had carried the question on to Voisin’s, and there unprofitably discussed it through a long luncheon, it seemed no nearer a solution.

“Well, think it over — let me know this evening,” Ralph said, proportioning the waiter’s fee to a bill burdened by Undine’s reckless choice of primeurs.

His wife was to join the newly-arrived Mrs. Shallum in a round of the rue de la Paix; and he had seized the opportunity of slipping off to a classical performance at the Français. On their arrival in Paris he had taken Undine to one of these entertainments, but it left her too weary and puzzled for him to renew the attempt, and he had not found time to go back without her. He was glad now to shed his cares in such an atmosphere. The play was of the greatest, the interpretation that of the vanishing grand manner which lived in his first memories of the Parisian stage, and his surrender such influences as complete as in his early days. Caught up in the fiery chariot of art, he felt once more the tug of its coursers in his muscles, and the rush of their flight still throbbed in him when he walked back late to the hotel.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/custom_of_the_country/chapter12.html

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