The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XV

In the Dagonet drawing-room the lamps had long been lit, and Mrs. Fairford, after a last impatient turn, had put aside the curtains of worn damask to strain her eyes into the darkening square. She came back to the hearth, where Charles Bowen stood leaning between the prim caryatides of the white marble chimney-piece.

“No sign of her. She’s simply forgotten.”

Bowen looked at his watch, and turned to compare it with the high-waisted Empire clock.

“Six o’clock. Why not telephone again? There must be some mistake. Perhaps she knew Ralph would be late.”

Laura laughed. “I haven’t noticed that she follows Ralph’s movements so closely. When I telephoned just now the servant said she’d been out since two. The nurse waited till half-past four, not liking to come without orders; and now it’s too late for Paul to come.”

She wandered away toward the farther end of the room, where, through half-open doors, a shining surface of mahogany reflected a flower-wreathed cake in which two candles dwindled.

“Put them out, please,” she said to some one in the background; then she shut the doors and turned back to Bowen.

“It’s all so unlucky — my grandfather giving up his drive, and mother backing out of her hospital meeting, and having all the committee down on her. And Henley: I’d even coaxed Henley away from his bridge! He escaped again just before you came. Undine promised she’d have the boy here at four. It’s not as if it had never happened before. She’s always breaking her engagements.”

“She has so many that it’s inevitable some should get broken.”

“All if she’d only choose! Now that Ralph has had into business, and is kept in his office so late, it’s cruel of her to drag him out every night. He told us the other day they hadn’t dined at home for a month. Undine doesn’t seem to notice how hard he works.”

Bowen gazed meditatively at the crumbling fire. “No — why should she?”

“Why SHOULD she? Really, Charles —!”

“Why should she, when she knows nothing about it?”

“She may know nothing about his business; but she must know it’s her extravagance that’s forced him into it.” Mrs. Fairford looked at Bowen reproachfully. “You talk as if you were on her side!”

“Are there sides already? If so, I want to look down on them impartially from the heights of pure speculation. I want to get a general view of the whole problem of American marriages.”

Mrs. Fairford dropped into her arm-chair with a sigh. “If that’s what you want you must make haste! Most of them don’t last long enough to be classified.”

“I grant you it takes an active mind. But the weak point is so frequently the same that after a time one knows where to look for it.”

“What do you call the weak point?”

He paused. “The fact that the average American looks down on his wife.”

Mrs. Fairford was up with a spring. “If that’s where paradox lands you!”

Bowen mildly stood his ground. “Well — doesn’t he prove it? How much does he let her share in the real business of life? How much does he rely on her judgment and help in the conduct of serious affairs? Take Ralph for instance — you say his wife’s extravagance forces him to work too hard; but that’s not what’s wrong. It’s normal for a man to work hard for a woman — what’s abnormal is his not caring to tell her anything about it.”

“To tell Undine? She’d be bored to death if he did!”

“Just so; she’d even feel aggrieved. But why? Because it’s against the custom of the country. And whose fault is that? The man’s again — I don’t mean Ralph I mean the genus he belongs to: homo sapiens, Americanus. Why haven’t we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply because we don’t take enough interest in THEM.”

Mrs. Fairford, sinking back into her chair, sat gazing at the vertiginous depths above which his thought seemed to dangle her.

“YOU don’t? The American man doesn’t — the most slaving, self-effacing, self-sacrificing —?”

“Yes; and the most indifferent: there’s the point. The ‘slaving’s’ no argument against the indifference To slave for women is part of the old American tradition; lots of people give their lives for dogmas they’ve ceased to believe in. Then again, in this country the passion for making money has preceded the knowing how to spend it, and the American man lavishes his fortune on his wife because he doesn’t know what else to do with it.”

“Then you call it a mere want of imagination for a man to spend his money on his wife?”

“Not necessarily — but it’s a want of imagination to fancy it’s all he owes her. Look about you and you’ll see what I mean. Why does the European woman interest herself so much more in what the men are doing? Because she’s so important to them that they make it worth her while! She’s not a parenthesis, as she is here — she’s in the very middle of the picture. I’m not implying that Ralph isn’t interested in his wife — he’s a passionate, a pathetic exception. But even he has to conform to an environment where all the romantic values are reversed. Where does the real life of most American men lie? In some woman’s drawing-room or in their offices? The answer’s obvious, isn’t it? The emotional centre of gravity’s not the same in the two hemispheres. In the effete societies it’s love, in our new one it’s business. In America the real crime passionnel is a ‘big steal’ — there’s more excitement in wrecking railways than homes.”

Bowen paused to light another cigarette, and then took up his theme. “Isn’t that the key to our easy divorces? If we cared for women in the old barbarous possessive way do you suppose we’d give them up as readily as we do? The real paradox is the fact that the men who make, materially, the biggest sacrifices for their women, should do least for them ideally and romantically. And what’s the result — how do the women avenge themselves? All my sympathy’s with them, poor deluded dears, when I see their fallacious little attempt to trick out the leavings tossed them by the preoccupied male — the money and the motors and the clothes — and pretend to themselves and each other that THAT’S what really constitutes life! Oh, I know what you’re going to say — it’s less and less of a pretense with them, I grant you; they’re more and more succumbing to the force of the suggestion; but here and there I fancy there’s one who still sees through the humbug, and knows that money and motors and clothes are simply the big bribe she’s paid for keeping out of some man’s way!”

Mrs. Fairford presented an amazed silence to the rush of this tirade; but when she rallied it was to murmur: “And is Undine one of the exceptions?”

Her companion took the shot with a smile. “No — she’s a monstrously perfect result of the system: the completest proof of its triumph. It’s Ralph who’s the victim and the exception.”

“Ah, poor Ralph!” Mrs. Fairford raised her head quickly. “I hear him now. I suppose,” she added in an undertone, “we can’t give him your explanation for his wife’s having forgotten to come?”

Bowen echoed her sigh, and then seemed to toss it from him with his cigarette-end; but he stood in silence while the door opened and Ralph Marvell entered.

“Well, Laura! Hallo, Charles — have you been celebrating too?” Ralph turned to his sister. “It’s outrageous of me to be so late, and I daren’t look my son in the face! But I stayed down town to make provision for his future birthdays.” He returned Mrs. Fairford’s kiss. “Don’t tell me the party’s over, and the guest of honour gone to bed?”

As he stood before them, laughing and a little flushed, the strain of long fatigue sounding through his gaiety and looking out of his anxious eyes, Mrs. Fairford threw a glance at Bowen and then turned away to ring the bell.

“Sit down, Ralph — you look tired. I’ll give you some tea.”

He dropped into an arm-chair. “I did have rather a rush to get here — but hadn’t I better join the revellers? Where are they?”

He walked to the end of the room and threw open the dining-room doors. “Hallo — where have they all gone to? What a jolly cake!” He went up to it. “Why, it’s never even been cut!”

Mrs. Fairford called after him: “Come and have your tea first.”

“No, no — tea afterward, thanks. Are they all upstairs with my grandfather? I must make my peace with Undine — ” His sister put her arm through his, and drew him back to the fire.

“Undine didn’t come.”

“Didn’t come? Who brought the boy, then?”

“He didn’t come either. That’s why the cake’s not cut.”

Ralph frowned. “What’s the mystery? Is he ill, or what’s happened?”

“Nothing’s happened — Paul’s all right. Apparently Undine forgot. She never went home for him, and the nurse waited till it was too late to come.”

She saw his eyes darken; but he merely gave a slight laugh and drew out his cigarette case. “Poor little Paul — poor chap!” He moved toward the fire. “Yes, please — some tea.”

He dropped back into his chair with a look of weariness, as if some strong stimulant had suddenly ceased to take effect on him; but before the tea-table was brought back he had glanced at his watch and was on his feet again.

“But this won’t do. I must rush home and see the poor chap before dinner. And my mother — and my grandfather? I want to say a word to them — I must make Paul’s excuses!”

“Grandfather’s taking his nap. And mother had to rush out for a postponed committee meeting — she left as soon as we heard Paul wasn’t coming.”

“Ah, I see.” He sat down again. “Yes, make the strong, please. I’ve had a beastly fagging sort of day.”

He leaned back with half-closed eyes, his untouched cup in his hand. Bowen took leave, and Laura sat silent, watching her brother under lowered lids while she feigned to be busy with the kettle. Ralph presently emptied his cup and put it aside; then, sinking into his former attitude, he clasped his hands behind his head and lay staring apathetically into the fire. But suddenly he came to life and started up. A motor-horn had sounded outside, and there was a noise of wheels at the door.

“There’s Undine! I wonder what could have kept her.” He jumped up and walked to the door; but it was Clare Van Degen who came in. At sight of him she gave a little murmur of pleasure. “What luck to find you! No, not luck — I came because I knew you’d be here. He never comes near me, Laura: I have to hunt him down to get a glimpse of him!”

Slender and shadowy in her long furs, she bent to kiss Mrs. Fairford and then turned back to Ralph. “Yes, I knew I’d catch you here. I knew it was the boy’s birthday, and I’ve brought him a present: a vulgar expensive Van Degen offering. I’ve not enough imagination left to find the right thing, the thing it takes feeling and not money to buy. When I look for a present nowadays I never say to the shopman: ‘I want this or that’ — I simply say: ‘Give me something that costs so much.’”

She drew a parcel from her muff. “Where’s the victim of my vulgarity? Let me crush him under the weight of my gold.”

Mrs. Fairford sighed out “Clare — Clare!” and Ralph smiled at his cousin.

“I’m sorry; but you’ll have to depute me to present it. The birthday’s over; you’re too late.”

She looked surprised. “Why, I’ve just left Mamie Driscoll, and she told me Undine was still at Popple’s studio a few minutes ago: Popple’s giving a tea to show the picture.”

“Popple’s giving a tea?” Ralph struck an attitude of mock consternation. “Ah, in that case —! In Popple’s society who wouldn’t forget the flight of time?”

He had recovered his usual easy tone, and Laura sat that Mrs. Van Degen’s words had dispelled his preoccupation. He turned to his cousin. “Will you trust me with your present for the boy?”

Clare gave him the parcel. “I’m sorry not to give it myself. I said what I did because I knew what you and Laura were thinking — but it’s really a battered old Dagonet bowl that came down to me from our revered great-grandmother.”

“What — the heirloom you used to eat your porridge out of?” Ralph detained her hand to put a kiss on it. “That’s dear of you!”

She threw him one of her strange glances. “Why not say: ‘That’s like you?’ But you don’t remember what I’m like.” She turned away to glance at the clock. “It’s late, and I must be off. I’m going to a big dinner at the Chauncey Ellings’ — but you must be going there too, Ralph? You’d better let me drive you home.”

In the motor Ralph leaned back in silence, while the rug was drawn over their knees, and Clare restlessly fingered the row of gold-topped objects in the rack at her elbow. It was restful to be swept through the crowded streets in this smooth fashion, and Clare’s presence at his side gave him a vague sense of ease.

For a long time now feminine nearness had come to mean to him, not this relief from tension, but the ever-renewed dread of small daily deceptions, evasions, subterfuges. The change had come gradually, marked by one disillusionment after another; but there had been one moment that formed the point beyond which there was no returning. It was the moment, a month or two before his boy’s birth, when, glancing over a batch of belated Paris bills, he had come on one from the jeweller he had once found in private conference with Undine. The bill was not large, but two of its items stood out sharply. “Resetting pearl and diamond pendant. Resetting sapphire and diamond ring.” The pearl and diamond pendant was his mother’s wedding present; the ring was the one he had given Undine on their engagement. That they were both family relics, kept unchanged through several generations, scarcely mattered to him at the time: he felt only the stab of his wife’s deception. She had assured him in Paris that she had not had her jewels reset. He had noticed, soon after their return to New York, that she had left off her engagement-ring; but the others were soon discarded also, and in answer to his question she had told him that, in her ailing state, rings “worried” her. Now he saw she had deceived him, and, forgetting everything else, he went to her, bill in hand. Her tears and distress filled him with immediate contrition. Was this a time to torment her about trifles? His anger seemed to cause her actual physical fear, and at the sight he abased himself in entreaties for forgiveness. When the scene ended she had pardoned him, and the reset ring was on her finger . . .

Soon afterward, the birth of the boy seemed to wipe out these humiliating memories; yet Marvell found in time that they were not effaced, but only momentarily crowded out of sight. In reality, the incident had a meaning out of proportion to its apparent seriousness, for it put in his hand a clue to a new side of his wife’s character. He no longer minded her having lied about the jeweller; what pained him was that she had been unconscious of the wound she inflicted in destroying the identity of the jewels. He saw that, even after their explanation, she still supposed he was angry only because she had deceived him; and the discovery that she was completely unconscious of states of feeling on which so much of his inner life depended marked a new stage in their relation. He was not thinking of all this as he sat beside Clare Van Degen; but it was part of the chronic disquietude which made him more alive to his cousin’s sympathy, her shy unspoken understanding. After all, he and she were of the same blood and had the same traditions. She was light and frivolous, without strength of will or depth of purpose; but she had the frankness of her foibles, and she would never have lied to him or traded on his tenderness.

Clare’s nervousness gradually subsided, and she lapsed into a low-voiced mood which seemed like an answer to his secret thought. But she did not sound the personal note, and they chatted quietly of commonplace things: of the dinner-dance at which they were presently to meet, of the costume she had chosen for the Driscoll fancy-ball, the recurring rumours of old Driscoll’s financial embarrassment, and the mysterious personality of Elmer Moffatt, on whose movements Wall Street was beginning to fix a fascinated eye. When Ralph, the year after his marriage, had renounced his profession to go into partnership with a firm of real-estate agents, he had come in contact for the first time with the drama of “business,” and whenever he could turn his attention from his own tasks he found a certain interest in watching the fierce interplay of its forces. In the down-town world he had heard things of Moffatt that seemed to single him out from the common herd of money-makers: anecdotes of his coolness, his lazy good-temper, the humorous detachment he preserved in the heat of conflicting interests; and his figure was enlarged by the mystery that hung about it — the fact that no one seemed to know whence he came, or how he had acquired the information which, for the moment, was making him so formidable. “I should like to see him,” Ralph said; “he must be a good specimen of the one of the few picturesque types we’ve got.”

“Yes — it might be amusing to fish him out; but the most picturesque types in Wall Street are generally the tamest in a drawing-room.” Clare considered. “But doesn’t Undine know him? I seem to remember seeing them together.”

“Undine and Moffatt? Then you KNOW him — you’ve’ met him?”

“Not actually met him — but he’s been pointed out to me. It must have been some years ago. Yes — it was one night at the theatre, just after you announced your engagement.” He fancied her voice trembled slightly, as though she thought he might notice her way of dating her memories. “You came into our box,” she went on, “and I asked you the name of the red-faced man who was sitting in the stall next to Undine. You didn’t know, but some one told us it was Moffatt.”

Marvell was more struck by her tone than by what she was saying. “If Undine knows him it’s odd she’s never mentioned it,” he answered indifferently.

The motor stopped at his door and Clare, as she held out her hand, turned a first full look on him.

“Why do you never come to see me? I miss you more than ever,” she said.

He pressed her hand without answering, but after the motor had rolled away he stood for a while on the pavement, looking after it.

When he entered the house the hall was still dark and the small over-furnished drawing-room empty. The parlour-maid told him that Mrs. Marvell had not yet come in, and he went upstairs to the nursery. But on the threshold the nurse met him with the whispered request not to make a noise, as it had been hard to quiet the boy after the afternoon’s disappointment, and she had just succeeded in putting him to sleep. Ralph went down to his own room and threw himself in the old college arm-chair in which, four years previously, he had sat the night out, dreaming of Undine. He had no study of his own, and he had crowded into his narrow bed-room his prints and bookshelves, and the other relics of his youth. As he sat among them now the memory of that other night swept over him — the night when he had heard the “call”! Fool as he had been not to recognize its meaning then, he knew himself triply mocked in being, even now, at its mercy. The flame of love that had played about his passion for his wife had died down to its embers; all the transfiguring hopes and illusions were gone, but they had left an unquenchable ache for her nearness, her smile, her touch. His life had come to be nothing but a long effort to win these mercies by one concession after another: the sacrifice of his literary projects, the exchange of his profession for an uncongenial business, and the incessant struggle to make enough money to satisfy her increasing exactions. That was where the “call” had led him . . . The clock struck eight, but it was useless to begin to dress till Undine came in, and he stretched himself out in his chair, reached for a pipe and took up the evening paper. His passing annoyance had died out; he was usually too tired after his day’s work for such feelings to keep their edge long. But he was curious — disinterestedly curious — to know what pretext Undine would invent for being so late, and what excuse she would have found for forgetting the little boy’s birthday.

He read on till half-past eight; then he stood up and sauntered to the window. The avenue below it was deserted; not a carriage or motor turned the corner around which he expected Undine to appear, and he looked idly in the opposite direction. There too the perspective was nearly empty, so empty that he singled out, a dozen blocks away, the blazing lamps of a large touring-car that was bearing furiously down the avenue from Morningside. As it drew nearer its speed slackened, and he saw it hug the curb and stop at his door. By the light of the street lamp he recognized his wife as she sprang out and detected a familiar silhouette in her companion’s fur-coated figure. Then the motor flew on and Undine ran up the steps. Ralph went out on the landing. He saw her coming up quickly, as if to reach her room unperceived; but when she caught sight of him she stopped, her head thrown back and the light falling on her blown hair and glowing face.

“Well?” she said, smiling up at him.

“They waited for you all the afternoon in Washington Square — the boy never had his birthday,” he answered.

Her colour deepened, but she instantly rejoined: “Why, what happened? Why didn’t the nurse take him?”

“You said you were coming to fetch him, so she waited.”

“But I telephoned — ”

He said to himself: “Is THAT the lie?” and answered: “Where from?”

“Why, the studio, of course — ” She flung her cloak open, as if to attest her veracity. “The sitting lasted longer than usual — there was something about the dress he couldn’t get — ”

“But I thought he was giving a tea.”

“He had tea afterward; he always does. And he asked some people in to see my portrait. That detained me too. I didn’t know they were coming, and when they turned up I couldn’t rush away. It would have looked as if I didn’t like the picture.” She paused and they gave each other a searching simultaneous glance. “Who told you it was a tea?” she asked.

“Clare Van Degen. I saw her at my mother’s.”

“So you weren’t unconsoled after all —!”

“The nurse didn’t get any message. My people were awfully disappointed; and the poor boy has cried his eyes out.”

“Dear me! What a fuss! But I might have known my message wouldn’t be delivered. Everything always happens to put me in the wrong with your family.”

With a little air of injured pride she started to go to her room; but he put out a hand to detain her.

“You’ve just come from the studio?”

“Yes. It is awfully late? I must go and dress. We’re dining with the Ellings, you know.”

“I know . . . How did you come? In a cab?”

She faced him limpidly. “No; I couldn’t find one that would bring me — so Peter gave me a lift, like an angel. I’m blown to bits. He had his open car.”

Her colour was still high, and Ralph noticed that her lower lip twitched a little. He had led her to the point they had reached solely to be able to say: “If you’re straight from the studio, how was it that I saw you coming down from Morningside?”

Unless he asked her that there would be no point in his cross-questioning, and he would have sacrificed his pride without a purpose. But suddenly, as they stood there face to face, almost touching, she became something immeasurably alien and far off, and the question died on his lips.

“Is that all?” she asked with a slight smile.

“Yes; you’d better go and dress,” he said, and turned back to his room.

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