The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XIII

He had expected to find Undine still out; but on the stairs he crossed Mrs. Shallum, who threw at him from under an immense hat-brim: “Yes, she’s in, but you’d better come and have tea with me at the Luxe. I don’t think husbands are wanted!”

Ralph laughingly rejoined that that was just the moment for them to appear; and Mrs. Shallum swept on, crying back: “All the same, I’ll wait for you!”

In the sitting-room Ralph found Undine seated behind a tea-table on the other side of which, in an attitude of easy intimacy, Peter Van Degen stretched his lounging length.

He did not move on Ralph’s appearance, no doubt thinking their kinship close enough to make his nod and “Hullo!” a sufficient greeting. Peter in intimacy was given to miscalculations of the sort, and Ralph’s first movement was to glance at Undine and see how it affected her. But her eyes gave out the vivid rays that noise and banter always struck from them; her face, at such moments, was like a theatre with all the lustres blazing. That the illumination should have been kindled by his cousin’s husband was not precisely agreeable to Marvell, who thought Peter a bore in society and an insufferable nuisance on closer terms. But he was becoming blunted to Undine’s lack of discrimination; and his own treatment of Van Degen was always tempered by his sympathy for Clare.

He therefore listened with apparent good-humour to Peter’s suggestion of an evening at a petit theatre with the Harvey Shallums, and joined in the laugh with which Undine declared: “Oh, Ralph won’t go — he only likes the theatres where they walk around in bathtowels and talk poetry. — Isn’t that what you’ve just been seeing?” she added, with a turn of the neck that shed her brightness on him.

“What? One of those five-barrelled shows at the Français? Great Scott, Ralph — no wonder your wife’s pining for the Folies Bergère!”

“She needn’t, my dear fellow. We never interfere with each other’s vices.”

Peter, unsolicited, was comfortably lighting a cigarette. “Ah, there’s the secret of domestic happiness. Marry somebody who likes all the things you don’t, and make love to somebody who likes all the things you do.”

Undine laughed appreciatively. “Only it dooms poor Ralph to such awful frumps. Can’t you see the sort of woman who’d love his sort of play?”

“Oh, I can see her fast enough — my wife loves ’em,” said their visitor, rising with a grin; while Ralph threw, out: “So don’t waste your pity on me!” and Undine’s laugh had the slight note of asperity that the mention of Clare always elicited.

“To-morrow night, then, at Paillard’s,” Van Degen concluded. “And about the other business — that’s a go too? I leave it to you to settle the date.”

The nod and laugh they exchanged seemed to hint at depths of collusion from which Ralph was pointedly excluded; and he wondered how large a programme of pleasure they had already had time to sketch out. He disliked the idea of Undine’s being too frequently seen with Van Degen, whose Parisian reputation was not fortified by the connections that propped it up in New York; but he did not want to interfere with her pleasure, and he was still wondering what to say when, as the door closed, she turned to him gaily.

“I’m so glad you’ve come! I’ve got some news for you.” She laid a light touch on his arm.

Touch and tone were enough to disperse his anxieties, and he answered that he was in luck to find her already in when he had supposed her engaged, over a Nouveau Luxe tea-table, in repairing the afternoon’s ravages.

“Oh, I didn’t shop much — I didn’t stay out long.” She raised a kindling face to him. “And what do you think I’ve been doing? While you were sitting in your stuffy old theatre, worrying about the money I was spending (oh, you needn’t fib — I know you were!) I was saving you hundreds and thousands. I’ve saved you the price of our passage!”

Ralph laughed in pure enjoyment of her beauty. When she shone on him like that what did it matter what nonsense she talked?

“You wonderful woman — how did you do it? By countermanding a tiara?”

“You know I’m not such a fool as you pretend!” She held him at arm’s length with a nod of joyous mystery. “You’ll simply never guess! I’ve made Peter Van Degen ask us to go home on the Sorceress. What. do you say to that?”

She flashed it out on a laugh of triumph, without appearing to have a doubt of the effect the announcement would produce.

Ralph stared at her. “The Sorceress? You MADE him?”

“Well, I managed it, I worked him round to it! He’s crazy about the idea now — but I don’t think he’d thought of it before he came.”

“I should say not!” Ralph ejaculated. “He never would have had the cheek to think of it.”

“Well, I’ve made him, anyhow! Did you ever know such luck?”

“Such luck?” He groaned at her obstinate innocence. “Do you suppose I’ll let you cross the ocean on the Sorceress?”

She shrugged impatiently. “You say that because your cousin doesn’t go on her.”

“If she doesn’t, it’s because it’s no place for decent women.”

“It’s Clare’s fault if it isn’t. Everybody knows she’s crazy about you, and she makes him feel it. That’s why he takes up with other women.”

Her anger reddened her cheeks and dropped her brows like a black bar above her glowing eyes. Even in his recoil from what she said Ralph felt the tempestuous heat of her beauty. But for the first time his latent resentments rose in him, and he gave her back wrath for wrath.

“Is that the precious stuff he tells you?”

“Do you suppose I had to wait for him to tell me? Everybody knows it — everybody in New York knew she was wild when you married. That’s why she’s always been so nasty to me. If you won’t go on the Sorceress they’ll all say it’s because she was jealous of me and wouldn’t let you.”

Ralph’s indignation had already flickered down to disgust. Undine was no longer beautiful — she seemed to have the face of her thoughts. He stood up with an impatient laugh.

“Is that another of his arguments? I don’t wonder they’re convincing — ” But as quickly as it had come the sneer dropped, yielding to a wave of pity, the vague impulse to silence and protect her. How could he have given way to the provocation of her weakness, when his business was to defend her from it and lift her above it? He recalled his old dreams of saving her from Van Degenism — it was not thus that he had imagined the rescue.

“Don’t let’s pay Peter the compliment of squabbling over him,” he said, turning away to pour himself a cup of tea.

When he had filled his cup he sat down beside Undine, with a smile. “No doubt he was joking — and thought you were; but if you really made him believe we might go with him you’d better drop him a line.”

Undine’s brow still gloomed. “You refuse, then?”

“Refuse? I don’t need to! Do you want to succeed to half the chorus-world of New York?”

“They won’t be on board with us, I suppose!”

“The echoes of their conversation will. It’s the only language Peter knows.”

“He told me he longed for the influence of a good woman — ” She checked herself, reddening at Ralph’s laugh.

“Well, tell him to apply again when he’s been under it a month or two. Meanwhile we’ll stick to the liners.”

Ralph was beginning to learn that the only road to her reason lay through her vanity, and he fancied that if she could be made to see Van Degen as an object of ridicule she might give up the idea of the Sorceress of her own accord. But her will hardened slowly under his joking opposition, and she became no less formidable as she grew more calm. He was used to women who, in such cases, yielded as a matter of course to masculine judgments: if one pronounced a man “not decent” the question was closed. But it was Undine’s habit to ascribe all interference with her plans to personal motives, and he could see that she attributed his opposition to the furtive machinations of poor Clare. It was odious to him to prolong the discussion, for the accent of recrimination was the one he most dreaded on her lips. But the moment came when he had to take the brunt of it, averting his thoughts as best he might from the glimpse it gave of a world of mean familiarities, of reprisals drawn from the vulgarest of vocabularies. Certain retorts sped through the air like the flight of household utensils, certain charges rang out like accusations of tampering with the groceries. He stiffened himself against such comparisons, but they stuck in his imagination and left him thankful when Undine’s anger yielded to a burst of tears. He had held his own and gained his point. The trip on the Sorceress was given up, and a note of withdrawal despatched to Van Degen; but at the same time Ralph cabled his sister to ask if she could increase her loan. For he had conquered only at the cost of a concession: Undine was to stay in Paris till October, and they were to sail on a fast steamer, in a deck-suite, like the Harvey Shallums.

Undine’s ill-humour was soon dispelled by any new distraction, and she gave herself to the untroubled enjoyment of Paris. The Shallums were the centre of a like-minded group, and in the hours the ladies could spare from their dress-makers the restaurants shook with their hilarity and the suburbs with the shriek of their motors. Van Degen, who had postponed his sailing, was a frequent sharer in these amusements; but Ralph counted on New York influences to detach him from Undine’s train. He was learning to influence her through her social instincts where he had once tried to appeal to other sensibilities.

His worst moment came when he went to see Clare Van Degen, who, on the eve of departure, had begged him to come to her hotel. He found her less restless and rattling than usual, with a look in her eyes that reminded him of the days when she had haunted his thoughts. The visit passed off without vain returns to the past; but as he was leaving she surprised him by saying: “Don’t let Peter make a goose of your wife.”

Ralph reddened, but laughed.

“Oh, Undine’s wonderfully able to defend herself, even against such seductions as Peter’s.”

Mrs. Van Degen looked down with a smile at the bracelets on her thin brown wrist. “His personal seductions — yes. But as an inventor of amusements he’s inexhaustible; and Undine likes to be amused.”

Ralph made no reply but showed no annoyance. He simply took her hand and kissed it as he said good-bye; and she turned from him without audible farewell.

As the day of departure approached. Undine’s absorption in her dresses almost precluded the thought of amusement. Early and late she was closeted with fitters and packers — even the competent Celeste not being trusted to handle the treasures now pouring in — and Ralph cursed his weakness in not restraining her, and then fled for solace to museums and galleries.

He could not rouse in her any scruple about incurring fresh debts, yet he knew she was no longer unaware of the value of money. She had learned to bargain, pare down prices, evade fees, brow-beat the small tradespeople and wheedle concessions from the great — not, as Ralph perceived, from any effort to restrain her expenses, but only to prolong and intensify the pleasure of spending. Pained by the trait, he tried to laugh her out of it. He told her once that she had a miserly hand — showing her, in proof, that, for all their softness, the fingers would not bend back, or the pink palm open. But she retorted a little sharply that it was no wonder, since she’d heard nothing talked of since their marriage but economy; and this left him without any answer. So the purveyors continued to mount to their apartment, and Ralph, in the course of his frequent nights from it, found himself always dodging the corners of black glazed boxes and swaying pyramids of pasteboard; always lifting his hat to sidling milliners’ girls, or effacing himself before slender vendeuses floating by in a mist of opopanax. He felt incompetent to pronounce on the needs to which these visitors ministered; but the reappearance among them of the blond-bearded jeweller gave him ground for fresh fears. Undine had assured him that she had given up the idea of having her ornaments reset, and there had been ample time for their return; but on his questioning her she explained that there had been delays and “bothers” and put him in the wrong by asking ironically if he supposed she was buying things “for pleasure” when she knew as well as he that there wasn’t any money to pay for them.

But his thoughts were not all dark. Undine’s moods still infected him, and when she was happy he felt an answering lightness. Even when her amusements were too primitive to be shared he could enjoy their reflection in her face. Only, as he looked back, he was struck by the evanescence, the lack of substance, in their moments of sympathy, and by the permanent marks left by each breach between them. Yet he still fancied that some day the balance might be reversed, and that as she acquired a finer sense of values the depths in her would find a voice.

Something of this was in his mind when, the afternoon before their departure, he came home to help her with their last arrangements. She had begged him, for the day, to leave her alone in their cramped salon, into which belated bundles were still pouring; and it was nearly dark when he returned. The evening before she had seemed pale and nervous, and at the last moment had excused herself from dining with the Shallums at a suburban restaurant. It was so unlike her to miss any opportunity of the kind that Ralph had felt a little anxious. But with the arrival of the packers she was afoot and in command again, and he withdrew submissively, as Mr. Spragg, in the early Apex days, might have fled from the spring storm of “house-cleaning.”

When he entered the sitting-room, he found it still in disorder. Every chair was hidden under scattered dresses, tissue-paper surged from the yawning trunks and, prone among her heaped-up finery. Undine lay with closed eyes on the sofa.

She raised her head as he entered, and then turned listlessly away.

“My poor girl, what’s the matter? Haven’t they finished yet?”

Instead of answering she pressed her face into the cushion and began to sob. The violence of her weeping shook her hair down on her shoulders, and her hands, clenching the arm of the sofa, pressed it away from her as if any contact were insufferable.

Ralph bent over her in alarm. “Why, what’s wrong, dear? What’s happened?”

Her fatigue of the previous evening came back to him — a puzzled hunted look in her eyes; and with the memory a vague wonder revived. He had fancied himself fairly disencumbered of the stock formulas about the hallowing effects of motherhood, and there were many reasons for not welcoming the news he suspected she had to give; but the woman a man loves is always a special case, and everything was different that befell Undine. If this was what had befallen her it was wonderful and divine: for the moment that was all he felt.

“Dear, tell me what’s the matter,” he pleaded.

She sobbed on unheedingly and he waited for her agitation to subside. He shrank from the phrases considered appropriate to the situation, but he wanted to hold her close and give her the depth of his heart in long kiss.

Suddenly she sat upright and turned a desperate face on him. “Why on earth are you staring at me like that? Anybody can see what’s the matter!”

He winced at her tone, but managed to get one of her hands in his; and they stayed thus in silence, eye to eye.

“Are you as sorry as all that?” he began at length conscious of the flatness of his voice.

“Sorry — sorry? I’m — I’m — ” She snatched her hand away, and went on weeping.

“But, Undine — dearest — bye and bye you’ll feel differently — I know you will!”

“Differently? Differently? When? In a year? It TAKES a year — a whole year out of life! What do I care how I shall feel in a year?”

The chill of her tone struck in. This was more than a revolt of the nerves: it was a settled, a reasoned resentment. Ralph found himself groping for extenuations, evasions — anything to put a little warmth into her! “Who knows? Perhaps, after all, it’s a mistake.”

There was no answering light in her face. She turned her head from him wearily.

“Don’t you think, dear, you may be mistaken?”

“Mistaken? How on earth can I be mistaken?”

Even in that moment of confusion he was struck by the cold competence of her tone, and wondered how she could be so sure.

“You mean you’ve asked — you’ve consulted —?” The irony of it took him by the throat. They were the very words he might have spoken in some miserable secret colloquy — the words he was speaking to his wife!

She repeated dully: “I know I’m not mistaken.”

There was another long silence. Undine lay still, her eyes shut, drumming on the arm of the sofa with a restless hand. The other lay cold in Ralph’s clasp, and through it there gradually stole to him the benumbing influence of the thoughts she was thinking: the sense of the approach of illness, anxiety, and expense, and of the general unnecessary disorganization of their lives.

“That’s all you feel, then?” he asked at length a little bitterly, as if to disguise from himself the hateful fact that he felt it too. He stood up and moved away. “That’s all?” he repeated.

“Why, what else do you expect me to feel? I feel horribly ill, if that’s what you want.” He saw the sobs trembling up through her again.

“Poor dear — poor girl . . . I’m so sorry — so dreadfully sorry!”

The senseless reiteration seemed to exasperate her. He knew it by the quiver that ran through her like the premonitory ripple on smooth water before the coming of the wind. She turned about on him and jumped to her feet.

“Sorry — you’re sorry? YOU’RE sorry? Why, what earthly difference will it make to YOU?” She drew back a few steps and lifted her slender arms from her sides. “Look at me — see how I look — how I’m going to look! YOU won’t hate yourself more and more every morning when you get up and see yourself in the glass! YOUR life’s going on just as usual! But what’s mine going to be for months and months? And just as I’d been to all this bother — fagging myself to death about all these things — ” her tragic gesture swept the disordered room — “just as I thought I was going home to enjoy myself, and look nice, and see people again, and have a little pleasure after all our worries — ” She dropped back on the sofa with another burst of tears. “For all the good this rubbish will do me now! I loathe the very sight of it!” she sobbed with her face in her hands.

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