The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XIV

It was one of the distinctions of Mr. Claud Walsingham Popple that his studio was never too much encumbered with the attributes of his art to permit the installing, in one of its cushioned corners, of an elaborately furnished tea-table flanked by the most varied seductions in sandwiches and pastry.

Mr. Popple, like all great men, had at first had his ups and downs; but his reputation had been permanently established by the verdict of a wealthy patron who, returning from an excursion into other fields of portraiture, had given it as the final fruit of his experience that Popple was the only man who could “do pearls.” To sitters for whom this was of the first consequence it was another of the artist’s merits that he always subordinated art to elegance, in life as well as in his portraits. The “messy” element of production was no more visible in his expensively screened and tapestried studio than its results were perceptible in his painting; and it was often said, in praise of his work, that he was the only artist who kept his studio tidy enough for a lady to sit to him in a new dress.

Mr. Popple, in fact, held that the personality of the artist should at all times be dissembled behind that of the man. It was his opinion that the essence of good-breeding lay in tossing off a picture as easily as you lit a cigarette. Ralph Marvell had once said of him that when he began a portrait he always turned back his cuffs and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, you can see there’s absolutely nothing here,” and Mrs. Fairford supplemented the description by defining his painting as “chafing-dish” art. On a certain late afternoon of December, some four years after Mr. Popple’s first meeting with Miss Undine Spragg of Apex, even the symbolic chafing-dish was nowhere visible in his studio; the only evidence of its recent activity being the full-length portrait of Mrs. Ralph Marvell, who, from her lofty easel and her heavily garlanded frame, faced the doorway with the air of having been invited to “receive” for Mr. Popple.

The artist himself, becomingly clad in mouse-coloured velveteen, had just turned away from the picture to hover above the tea-cups; but his place had been taken by the considerably broader bulk of Mr. Peter Van Degen, who, tightly moulded into a coat of the latest cut, stood before the portrait in the attitude of a first arrival.

“Yes, it’s good — it’s damn good, Popp; you’ve hit the hair off ripplingly; but the pearls ain’t big enough,” he pronounced.

A slight laugh sounded from the raised dais behind the easel.

“Of course they’re not! But it’s not HIS fault, poor man; HE didn’t give them to me!” As she spoke Mrs. Ralph Marvell rose from a monumental gilt arm-chair of pseudo-Venetian design and swept her long draperies to Van Degen’s side.

“He might, then — for the privilege of painting you!” the latter rejoined, transferring his bulging stare from the counterfeit to the original. His eyes rested on Mrs. Marvell’s in what seemed a quick exchange of understanding; then they passed on to a critical inspection of her person. She was dressed for the sitting in something faint and shining, above which the long curves of her neck looked dead white in the cold light of the studio; and her hair, all a shadowless rosy gold, was starred with a hard glitter of diamonds.

“The privilege of painting me? Mercy, I have to pay for being painted! He’ll tell you he’s giving me the picture — but what do you suppose this cost?” She laid a finger-tip on her shimmering dress.

Van Degen’s eye rested on her with cold enjoyment. “Does the price come higher than the dress?”

She ignored the allusion. “Of course what they charge for is the cut — ”

“What they cut away? That’s what they ought to charge for, ain’t it, Popp?”

Undine took this with cool disdain, but Mr. Popple’s sensibilities were offended.

“My dear Peter — really — the artist, you understand, sees all this as a pure question of colour, of pattern; and it’s a point of honour with the MAN to steel himself against the personal seduction.”

Mr. Van Degen received this protest with a sound of almost vulgar derision, but Undine thrilled agreeably under the glance which her portrayer cast on her. She was flattered by Van Degen’s notice, and thought his impertinence witty; but she glowed inwardly at Mr. Popple’s eloquence. After more than three years of social experience she still thought he “spoke beautifully,” like the hero of a novel, and she ascribed to jealousy the lack of seriousness with which her husband’s friends regarded him. His conversation struck her as intellectual, and his eagerness to have her share his thoughts was in flattering contrast to Ralph’s growing tendency to keep his to himself. Popple’s homage seemed the, subtlest proof of what Ralph could have made of her if he had “really understood” her. It was but another step to ascribe all her past mistakes to the lack of such understanding; and the satisfaction derived from this thought had once impelled her to tell the artist that he alone knew how to rouse her ‘higher self.’ He had assured her that the memory of her words would thereafter hallow his life; and as he hinted that it had been stained by the darkest errors she was moved at the thought of the purifying influence she exerted.

Thus it was that a man should talk to a true woman — but how few whom she had known possessed the secret! Ralph, in the first months of their marriage, had been eloquent too, had even gone the length of quoting poetry; but he disconcerted her by his baffling twists and strange allusions (she always scented ridicule in the unknown), and the poets he quoted were esoteric and abstruse. Mr. Popple’s rhetoric was drawn from more familiar sources, and abounded in favourite phrases and in moving reminiscences of the Fifth Reader. He was moreover as literary as he was artistic; possessing an unequalled acquaintance with contemporary fiction, and dipping even into the lighter type of memoirs, in which the old acquaintances of history are served up in the disguise of “A Royal Sorceress” or “Passion in a Palace.” The mastery with which Mr. Popple discussed the novel of the day, especially in relation to the sensibilities of its hero and heroine, gave Undine a sense of intellectual activity which contrasted strikingly with Marvell’s flippant estimate of such works. “Passion,” the artist implied, would have been the dominant note of his life, had it not been held in check by a sentiment of exalted chivalry, and by the sense that a nature of such emotional intensity as his must always be “ridden on the curb.”

Van Degen was helping himself from the tray of iced cocktails which stood near the tea-table, and Popple, turning to Undine, took up the thread of his discourse. But why, he asked, why allude before others to feelings so few could understand? The average man — lucky devil! — (with a compassionate glance at Van Degen’s back) the average man knew nothing of the fierce conflict between the lower and higher natures; and even the woman whose eyes had kindled it — how much did SHE guess of its violence? Did she know — Popple recklessly asked — how often the artist was forgotten in the man — how often the man would take the bit between his teeth, were it not that the look in her eyes recalled some sacred memory, some lesson learned perhaps beside his mother’s knee? “I say, Popp — was that where you learned to mix this drink? Because it does the old lady credit,” Van Degen called out, smacking his lips; while the artist, dashing a nervous hand through his hair, muttered: “Hang it, Peter — is NOTHING sacred to you?”

It pleased Undine to feel herself capable of inspiring such emotions. She would have been fatigued by the necessity of maintaining her own talk on Popple’s level, but she liked to listen to him, and especially to have others overhear what he said to her.

Her feeling for Van Degen was different. There was more similarity of tastes between them, though his manner flattered her vanity less than Popple’s. She felt the strength of Van Degen’s contempt for everything he did not understand or could not buy: that was the only kind of “exclusiveness” that impressed her. And he was still to her, as in her inexperienced days, the master of the mundane science she had once imagined that Ralph Marvell possessed. During the three years since her marriage she had learned to make distinctions unknown to her girlish categories. She had found out that she had given herself to the exclusive and the dowdy when the future belonged to the showy and the promiscuous; that she was in the case of those who have cast in their lot with a fallen cause, or — to use an analogy more within her range — who have hired an opera box on the wrong night. It was all confusing and exasperating. Apex ideals had been based on the myth of “old families” ruling New York from a throne of Revolutionary tradition, with the new millionaires paying them feudal allegiance. But experience had long since proved the delusiveness of the simile. Mrs. Marvell’s classification of the world into the visited and the unvisited was as obsolete as a mediaeval cosmogony. Some of those whom Washington Square left unvisited were the centre of social systems far outside its ken, and as indifferent to its opinions as the constellations to the reckonings of the astronomers; and all these systems joyously revolved about their central sun of gold.

There were moments after Undine’s return to New York when she was tempted to class her marriage with the hateful early mistakes from the memories of which she had hoped it would free her. Since it was never her habit to accuse herself of such mistakes it was inevitable that she should gradually come to lay the blame on Ralph. She found a poignant pleasure, at this stage of her career, in the question: “What does a young girl know of life?” And the poignancy was deepened by the fact that each of the friends to whom she put the question seemed convinced that — had the privilege been his — he would have known how to spare her the disenchantment it implied.

The conviction of having blundered was never more present to her than when, on this particular afternoon, the guests invited by Mr. Popple to view her portrait began to assemble before it.

Some of the principal figures of Undine’s group had rallied for the occasion, and almost all were in exasperating enjoyment of the privileges for which she pined. There was young Jim Driscoll, heir-apparent of the house, with his short stout mistrustful wife, who hated society, but went everywhere lest it might be thought she had been left out; the “beautiful Mrs. Beringer,” a lovely aimless being, who kept (as Laura Fairford said) a home for stray opinions, and could never quite tell them apart; little Dicky Bowles, whom every one invited because he was understood to “say things” if one didn’t; the Harvey Shallums, fresh from Paris, and dragging in their wake a bewildered nobleman vaguely designated as “the Count,” who offered cautious conversational openings, like an explorer trying beads on savages; and, behind these more salient types, the usual filling in of those who are seen everywhere because they have learned to catch the social eye.

Such a company was one to flatter the artist as much his sitter, so completely did it represent that unamity of opinion which constitutes social strength. Not one the number was troubled by any personal theory of art: all they asked of a portrait was that the costume should be sufficiently “life-like,” and the face not too much so; and a long experience in idealizing flesh and realizing dress-fabrics had enabled Mr. Popple to meet both demands.

“Hang it,” Peter Van Degen pronounced, standing before the easel in an attitude of inspired interpretation, “the great thing in a man’s portrait is to catch the likeness — we all know that; but with a woman’s it’s different — a woman’s picture has got to be pleasing. Who wants it about if it isn’t? Those big chaps who blow about what they call realism — how do THEIR portraits look in a drawing-room? Do you suppose they ever ask themselves that? THEY don’t care — they’re not going to live with the things! And what do they know of drawing-rooms, anyhow? Lots of them haven’t even got a dress-suit. There’s where old Popp has the pull over ’em — HE knows how we live and what we want.”

This was received by the artist with a deprecating murmur, and by his public with warm expressions of approval.

“Happily in this case,” Popple began (“as in that of so many of my sitters,” he hastily put in), “there has been no need to idealize-nature herself has outdone the artist’s dream.”

Undine, radiantly challenging comparison with her portrait, glanced up at it with a smile of conscious merit, which deepened as young Jim Driscoll declared:

“By Jove, Mamie, you must be done exactly like that for the new music-room.”

His wife turned a cautious eye upon the picture.

“How big is it? For our house it would have to be a good deal bigger,” she objected; and Popple, fired by the thought of such a dimensional opportunity, rejoined that it would be the chance of all others to. “work in” a marble portico and a court-train: he had just done Mrs. Lycurgus Ambler in a court-train and feathers, and as THAT was for Buffalo of course the pictures needn’t clash.

“Well, it would have to be a good deal bigger than Mrs. Ambler’s,” Mrs. Driscoll insisted; and on Popple’s suggestion that in that case he might “work in” Driscoll, in court-dress also — (“You’ve been presented? Well, you WILL be, — you’ll HAVE to, if I do the picture — which will make a lovely memento”) — Van Degen turned aside to murmur to Undine: “Pure bluff, you know — Jim couldn’t pay for a photograph. Old Driscoll’s high and dry since the Ararat investigation.”

She threw him a puzzled glance, having no time, in her crowded existence, to follow the perturbations of Wall Street save as they affected the hospitality of Fifth Avenue.

“You mean they’ve lost their money? Won’t they give their fancy ball, then?”

Van Degen shrugged. “Nobody knows how it’s coming out That queer chap Elmer Moffatt threatens to give old Driscoll a fancy ball — says he’s going to dress him in stripes! It seems he knows too much about the Apex street-railways.”

Undine paled a little. Though she had already tried on her costume for the Driscoll ball her disappointment at Van Degen’s announcement was effaced by the mention of Moffatt’s name. She had not had the curiosity to follow the reports of the “Ararat Trust Investigation,” but once or twice lately, in the snatches of smoking-room talk, she had been surprised by a vague allusion to Elmer Moffatt, as to an erratic financial influence, half ridiculed, yet already half redoubtable. Was it possible that the redoubtable element had prevailed? That the time had come when Elmer Moffatt — the Elmer Moffatt of Apex! — could, even for a moment, cause consternation in the Driscoll camp? He had always said he “saw things big”; but no one had ever believed he was destined to carry them out on the same scale. Yet apparently in those idle Apex days, while he seemed to be “loafing and fooling,” as her father called it, he had really been sharpening his weapons of aggression; there had been something, after all, in the effect of loose-drifting power she had always felt in him. Her heart beat faster, and she longed to question Van Degen; but she was afraid of betraying herself, and turned back to the group about the picture. Mrs. Driscoll was still presenting objections in a tone of small mild obstinacy. “Oh, it’s a LIKENESS, of course — I can see that; but there’s one thing I must say, Mr. Popple. It looks like a last year’s dress.”

The attention of the ladies instantly rallied to the picture, and the artist paled at the challenge.

“It doesn’t look like a last year’s face, anyhow — that’s what makes them all wild,” Van Degen murmured. Undine gave him back a quick smile. She had already forgotten about Moffatt. Any triumph in which she shared left a glow in her veins, and the success of the picture obscured all other impressions. She saw herself throning in a central panel at the spring exhibition, with the crowd pushing about the picture, repeating her name; and she decided to stop on the way home and telephone her press-agent to do a paragraph about Popple’s tea.

But in the hall, as she drew on her cloak, her thoughts reverted to the Driscoll fancy ball. What a blow if it were given up after she had taken so much trouble about her dress! She was to go as the Empress Josephine, after the Prudhon portrait in the Louvre. The dress was already fitted and partly embroidered, and she foresaw the difficulty of persuading the dress-maker to take it back.

“Why so pale and sad, fair cousin? What’s up?” Van Degen asked, as they emerged from the lift in which they had descended alone from the studio.

“I don’t know — I’m tired of posing. And it was so frightfully hot.”

“Yes. Popple always keeps his place at low-neck temperature, as if the portraits might catch cold.” Van Degen glanced at his watch. “Where are you off to?”

“West End Avenue, of course — if I can find a cab to take me there.”

It was not the least of Undine’s grievances that she was still living in the house which represented Mr. Spragg’s first real-estate venture in New York. It had been understood, at the time of her marriage, that the young couple were to be established within the sacred precincts of fashion; but on their return from the honeymoon the still untenanted house in West End Avenue had been placed at their disposal, and in view of Mr. Spragg’s financial embarrassment even Undine had seen the folly of refusing it. That first winter, more-over, she had not regretted her exile: while she awaited her boy’s birth she was glad to be out of sight of Fifth Avenue, and to take her hateful compulsory exercise where no familiar eye could fall on her. And the next year of course her father would give them a better house.

But the next year rents had risen in the Fifth Avenue quarter, and meanwhile little Paul Marvell, from his beautiful pink cradle, was already interfering with his mother’s plans. Ralph, alarmed by the fresh rush of expenses, sided with his father-in-law in urging Undine to resign herself to West End Avenue; and thus after three years she was still submitting to the incessant pin-pricks inflicted by the incongruity between her social and geographical situation — the need of having to give a west side address to her tradesmen, and the deeper irritation of hearing her friends say: “Do let me give you a lift home, dear — Oh, I’d forgotten! I’m afraid I haven’t the time to go so far — ”

It was bad enough to have no motor of her own, to be avowedly dependent on “lifts,” openly and unconcealably in quest of them, and perpetually plotting to provoke their offer (she did so hate to be seen in a cab!) but to miss them, as often as not, because of the remoteness of her destination, emphasized the hateful sense of being “out of things.”

Van Degen looked out at the long snow-piled streets, down which the lamps were beginning to put their dreary yellow splashes.

“Of course you won’t get a cab on a night like this. If you don’t mind the open car, you’d better jump in with me. I’ll run you out to the High Bridge and give you a breath of air before dinner.”

The offer was tempting, for Undine’s triumph in the studio had left her tired and nervous — she was beginning to learn that success may be as fatiguing as failure. Moreover, she was going to a big dinner that evening, and the fresh air would give her the eyes and complexion she needed; but in the back of her mind there lingered the vague sense of a forgotten engagement. As she tried to recall it she felt Van Degen raising the fur collar about her chin.

“Got anything you can put over your head? Will that lace thing do? Come along, then.” He pushed her through the swinging doors, and added with a laugh, as they reached the street: “You’re not afraid of being seen with me, are you? It’s all right at this hour — Ralph’s still swinging on a strap in the elevated.”

The winter twilight was deliriously cold, and as they swept through Central Park, and gathered impetus for their northward flight along the darkening Boulevard, Undine felt the rush of physical joy that drowns scruples and silences memory. Her scruples, indeed, were not serious; but Ralph disliked her being too much with Van Degen, and it was her way to get what she wanted with as little “fuss” as possible. Moreover, she knew it was a mistake to make herself too accessible to a man of Peter’s sort: her impatience to enjoy was curbed by an instinct for holding off and biding her time that resembled the patient skill with which her father had conducted the sale of his “bad” real estate in the Pure Water Move days. But now and then youth had its way — she could not always resist the present pleasure. And it was amusing, too, to be “talked about” with Peter Van Degen, who was noted for not caring for “nice women.” She enjoyed the thought of triumphing over meretricious charms: it ennobled her in her own eyes to influence such a man for good.

Nevertheless, as the motor flew on through the icy twilight, her present cares flew with it. She could not shake off the thought of the useless fancy dress which symbolized the other crowding expenses she had not dared confess to Ralph. Van Degen heard her sigh, and bent down, lowering the speed of the motor.

“What’s the matter? Isn’t everything all right?”

His tone made her suddenly feel that she could confide in him, and though she began by murmuring that it was nothing she did so with the conscious purpose of being persuaded to confess. And his extraordinary “niceness” seemed to justify her and to prove that she had been right in trusting her instinct rather than in following the counsels of prudence. Heretofore, in their talks, she had never gone beyond the vaguest hint of material “bothers” — as to which dissimulation seemed vain while one lived in West End Avenue! But now that the avowal of a definite worry had been wrung from her she felt the injustice of the view generally taken of poor Peter. For he had been neither too enterprising nor too cautious (though people said of him that he “didn’t care to part”); he had just laughed away, in bluff brotherly fashion, the gnawing thought of the fancy dress, had assured her he’d give a ball himself rather than miss seeing her wear it, and had added: “Oh, hang waiting for the bill — won’t a couple of thou make it all right?” in a tone that showed what a small matter money was to any one who took the larger view of life.

The whole incident passed off so quickly and easily that within a few minutes she had settled down — with a nod for his “Everything jolly again now?” — to untroubled enjoyment of the hour. Peace of mind, she said to herself, was all she needed to make her happy — and that was just what Ralph had never given her! At the thought his face seemed to rise before her, with the sharp lines of care between the eyes: it was almost like a part of his “nagging” that he should thrust himself in at such a moment! She tried to shut her eyes to the face; but a moment later it was replaced by another, a small odd likeness of itself; and with a cry of compunction she started up from her furs.

“Mercy! It’s the boy’s birthday — I was to take him to his grandmother’s. She was to have a cake for him and Ralph was to come up town. I KNEW there was something I’d forgotten!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/custom_of_the_country/chapter14.html

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