The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XVI

The turnings of life seldom show a sign-post; or rather, though the sign is always there, it is usually placed some distance back, like the notices that give warning of a bad hill or a level railway-crossing.

Ralph Marvell, pondering upon this, reflected that for him the sign had been set, more than three years earlier, in an Italian ilex-grove. That day his life had brimmed over — so he had put it at the time. He saw now that it had brimmed over indeed: brimmed to the extent of leaving the cup empty, or at least of uncovering the dregs beneath the nectar. He knew now that he should never hereafter look at his wife’s hand without remembering something he had read in it that day. Its surface-language had been sweet enough, but under the rosy lines he had seen the warning letters.

Since then he had been walking with a ghost: the miserable ghost of his illusion. Only he had somehow vivified, coloured, substantiated it, by the force of his own great need — as a man might breathe a semblance of life into a dear drowned body that he cannot give up for dead. All this came to him with aching distinctness the morning after his talk with his wife on the stairs. He had accused himself, in midnight retrospect, of having failed to press home his conclusion because he dared not face the truth. But he knew this was not the case. It was not the truth he feared, it was another lie. If he had foreseen a chance of her saying: “Yes, I was with Peter Van Degen, and for the reason you think,” he would have put it to the touch, stood up to the blow like a man; but he knew she would never say that. She would go on eluding and doubling, watching him as he watched her; and at that game she was sure to beat him in the end.

On their way home from the Elling dinner this certainty had become so insufferable that it nearly escaped him in the cry: “You needn’t watch me — I shall never again watch you!” But he had held his peace, knowing she would not understand. How little, indeed, she ever understood, had been made clear to him when, the same night, he had followed her upstairs through the sleeping house. She had gone on ahead while he stayed below to lock doors and put out lights, and he had supposed her to be already in her room when he reached the upper landing; but she stood there waiting in the spot where he had waited for her a few hours earlier. She had shone her vividest at dinner, with revolving brilliancy that collective approval always struck from her; and the glow of it still hung on her as she paused there in the dimness, her shining cloak dropped from her white shoulders.

“Ralphie — ” she began, a soft hand on his arm. He stopped, and she pulled him about so that their faces were close, and he saw her lips curving for a kiss. Every line of her face sought him, from the sweep of the narrowed eyelids to the dimples that played away from her smile. His eye received the picture with distinctness; but for the first time it did not pass into his veins. It was as if he had been struck with a subtle blindness that permitted images to give their colour to the eye but communicated nothing to the brain.

“Good-night,” he said, as he passed on.

When a man felt in that way about a woman he was surely in a position to deal with his case impartially. This came to Ralph as the joyless solace of the morning. At last the bandage was off and he could see. And what did he see? Only the uselessness of driving his wife to subterfuges that were no longer necessary. Was Van Degen her lover? Probably not — the suspicion died as it rose. She would not take more risks than she could help, and it was admiration, not love, that she wanted. She wanted to enjoy herself, and her conception of enjoyment was publicity, promiscuity — the band, the banners, the crowd, the close contact of covetous impulses, and the sense of walking among them in cool security. Any personal entanglement might mean “bother,” and bother was the thing she most abhorred. Probably, as the queer formula went, his “honour” was safe: he could count on the letter of her fidelity. At moment the conviction meant no more to him than if he had been assured of the honesty of the first strangers he met in the street. A stranger — that was what she had always been to him. So malleable outwardly, she had remained insensible to the touch of the heart.

These thoughts accompanied him on his way to business the next morning. Then, as the routine took him back, the feeling of strangeness diminished. There he was again at his daily task — nothing tangible was altered. He was there for the same purpose as yesterday: to make money for his wife and child. The woman he had turned from on the stairs a few hours earlier was still his wife and the mother of Paul Marvell. She was an inherent part of his life; the inner disruption had not resulted in any outward upheaval. And with the sense of inevitableness there came a sudden wave of pity. Poor Undine! She was what the gods had made her — a creature of skin-deep reactions, a mote in the beam of pleasure. He had no desire to “preach down” such heart as she had — he felt only a stronger wish to reach it, teach it, move it to something of the pity that filled his own. They were fellow-victims in the noyade of marriage, but if they ceased to struggle perhaps the drowning would be easier for both . . . Meanwhile the first of the month was at hand, with its usual batch of bills; and there was no time to think of any struggle less pressing than that connected with paying them . . .

Undine had been surprised, and a little disconcerted, at her husband’s acceptance of the birthday incident. Since the resetting of her bridal ornaments the relations between Washington Square and West End Avenue had been more and more strained; and the silent disapproval of the Marvell ladies was more irritating to her than open recrimination. She knew how keenly Ralph must feel her last slight to his family, and she had been frightened when she guessed that he had seen her returning with Van Degen. He must have been watching from the window, since, credulous as he always was, he evidently had a reason for not believing her when she told him she had come from the studio. There was therefore something both puzzling and disturbing in his silence; and she made up her mind that it must be either explained or cajoled away.

These thoughts were with her as she dressed; but at the Ellings’ they fled like ghosts before light and laughter. She had never been more open to the suggestions of immediate enjoyment. At last she had reached the envied situation of the pretty woman with whom society must reckon, and if she had only had the means to live up to her opportunities she would have been perfectly content with life, with herself and her husband. She still thought Ralph “sweet” when she was not bored by his good advice or exasperated by his inability to pay her bills. The question of money was what chiefly stood between them; and now that this was momentarily disposed of by Van Degen’s offer she looked at Ralph more kindly — she even felt a return of her first impersonal affection for him. Everybody could see that Clare Van Degen was “gone” on him, and Undine always liked to know that what belonged to her was coveted by others. Her reassurance had been fortified by the news she had heard at the Elling dinner — the published fact of Harmon B. Driscoll’s unexpected victory. The Ararat investigation had been mysteriously stopped — quashed, in the language of the law — and Elmer Moffatt “turned down,” as Van Degen (who sat next to her) expressed it.

“I don’t believe we’ll ever hear of that gentleman again,” he said contemptuously; and their eyes crossed gaily as she exclaimed: “Then they’ll give the fancy ball after all?”

“I should have given you one anyhow — shouldn’t you have liked that as well?” “Oh, you can give me one too!” she returned; and he bent closer to say: “By Jove, I will — and anything else you want.”

But on the way home her fears revived. Ralph’s indifference struck her as unnatural. He had not returned to the subject of Paul’s disappointment, had not even asked her to write a word of excuse to his mother. Van Degen’s way of looking at her at dinner — he was incapable of graduating his glances — had made it plain that the favour she had accepted would necessitate her being more conspicuously in his company (though she was still resolved that it should be on just such terms as she chose); and it would be extremely troublesome if, at this juncture, Ralph should suddenly turn suspicious and secretive.

Undine, hitherto, had found more benefits than drawbacks in her marriage; but now the tie began to gall. It was hard to be criticized for every grasp at opportunity by a man so avowedly unable to do the reaching for her! Ralph had gone into business to make more money for her; but it was plain that the “more” would never be much, and that he would not achieve the quick rise to affluence which was man’s natural tribute to woman’s merits. Undine felt herself trapped, deceived; and it was intolerable that the agent of her disillusionment should presume to be the critic of her conduct. Her annoyance, however, died out with her fears. Ralph, the morning after the Elling dinner, went his way as usual, and after nerving herself for the explosion which did not come she set down his indifference to the dulling effect of “business.” No wonder poor women whose husbands were always “down-town” had to look elsewhere for sympathy! Van Degen’s cheque helped to calm her, and the weeks whirled on toward the Driscoll ball.

The ball was as brilliant as she had hoped, and her own part in it as thrilling as a page from one of the “society novels” with which she had cheated the monotony of Apex days. She had no time for reading now: every hour was packed with what she would have called life, and the intensity of her sensations culminated on that triumphant evening. What could be more delightful than to feel that, while all the women envied her dress, the men did not so much as look at it? Their admiration was all for herself, and her beauty deepened under it as flowers take a warmer colour in the rays of sunset. Only Van Degen’s glance weighed on her a little too heavily. Was it possible that he might become a “bother” less negligible than those he had relieved her of? Undine was not greatly alarmed — she still had full faith in her powers of self-defense; but she disliked to feel the least crease in the smooth surface of existence. She had always been what her parents called “sensitive.”

As the winter passed, material cares once more assailed her. In the thrill of liberation produced by Van Degen’s gift she had been imprudent — had launched into fresh expenses. Not that she accused herself of extravagance: she had done nothing not really necessary. The drawing-room, for instance, cried out to be “done over,” and Popple, who was an authority on decoration, had shown her, with a few strokes of his pencil how easily it might be transformed into a French “period” room, all curves and cupids: just the setting for a pretty woman and his portrait of her. But Undine, still hopeful of leaving West End Avenue, had heroically resisted the suggestion, and contented herself with the renewal of the curtains and carpet, and the purchase of some fragile gilt chairs which, as she told Ralph, would be “so much to the good” when they moved — the explanation, as she made it, seemed an additional evidence of her thrift.

Partly as a result of these exertions she had a “nervous breakdown” toward the middle of the winter, and her physician having ordered massage and a daily drive it became necessary to secure Mrs. Heeny’s attendance and to engage a motor by the month. Other unforeseen expenses — the bills, that, at such times, seem to run up without visible impulsion — were added to by a severe illness of little Paul’s: a long costly illness, with three nurses and frequent consultations. During these days Ralph’s anxiety drove him to what seemed to Undine foolish excesses of expenditure and when the boy began to get better the doctors advised country air. Ralph at once hired a small house at Tuxedo and Undine of course accompanied her son to the country; but she spent only the Sundays with him, running up to town during the week to be with her husband, as she explained. This necessitated the keeping up of two households, and even for so short a time the strain on Ralph’s purse was severe. So it came about that the bill for the fancy-dress was still unpaid, and Undine left to wonder distractedly what had become of Van Degen’s money. That Van Degen seemed also to wonder was becoming unpleasantly apparent: his cheque had evidently not brought in the return he expected, and he put his grievance to her frankly one day when he motored down to lunch at Tuxedo.

They were sitting, after luncheon, in the low-ceilinged drawing-room to which Undine had adapted her usual background of cushions, bric-a-brac and flowers — since one must make one’s setting “home-like,” however little one’s habits happened to correspond with that particular effect. Undine, conscious of the intimate charm of her mise-en-scene, and of the recovered freshness and bloom which put her in harmony with it, had never been more sure of her power to keep her friend in the desired state of adoring submission. But Peter, as he grew more adoring, became less submissive; and there came a moment when she needed all her wits to save the situation. It was easy enough to rebuff him, the easier as his physical proximity always roused in her a vague instinct of resistance; but it was hard so to temper the rebuff with promise that the game of suspense should still delude him. He put it to her at last, standing squarely before her, his batrachian sallowness unpleasantly flushed, and primitive man looking out of the eyes from which a frock-coated gentleman usually pined at her.

“Look here — the installment plan’s all right; but ain’t you a bit behind even on that?” (She had brusquely eluded a nearer approach.) “Anyhow, I think I’d rather let the interest accumulate for a while. This is good-bye till I get back from Europe.”

The announcement took her by surprise. “Europe? Why, when are you sailing?”

“On the first of April: good day for a fool to acknowledge his folly. I’m beaten, and I’m running away.”

She sat looking down, her hand absently occupied with the twist of pearls he had given her. In a flash she saw the peril of this departure. Once off on the Sorceress, he was lost to her — the power of old associations would prevail. Yet if she were as “nice” to him as he asked — “nice” enough to keep him — the end might not be much more to her advantage. Hitherto she had let herself drift on the current of their adventure, but she now saw what port she had half-unconsciously been trying for. If she had striven so hard to hold him, had “played” him with such patience and such skill, it was for something more than her passing amusement and convenience: for a purpose the more tenaciously cherished that she had not dared name it to herself. In the light of this discovery she saw the need of feigning complete indifference.

“Ah, you happy man! It’s good-bye indeed, then,” she threw back at him, lifting a plaintive smile to his frown.

“Oh, you’ll turn up in Paris later, I suppose — to get your things for Newport.”

“Paris? Newport? They’re not on my map! When Ralph can get away we shall go to the Adirondacks for the boy. I hope I shan’t need Paris clothes there! It doesn’t matter, at any rate,” she ended, laughing, “because nobody I care about will see me.”

Van Degen echoed her laugh. “Oh, come — that’s rough on Ralph!”

She looked down with a slight increase of colour. “I oughtn’t to have said it, ought I? But the fact is I’m unhappy — and a little hurt — ”

“Unhappy? Hurt?” He was at her side again. “Why, what’s wrong?”

She lifted her eyes with a grave look. “I thought you’d be sorrier to leave me.”

“Oh, it won’t be for long — it needn’t be, you know.” He was perceptibly softening. “It’s damnable, the way you’re tied down. Fancy rotting all summer in the Adirondacks! Why do you stand it? You oughtn’t to be bound for life by a girl’s mistake.”

The lashes trembled slightly on her cheek. “Aren’t we all bound by our mistakes — we women? Don’t let us talk of such things! Ralph would never let me go abroad without him.” She paused, and then, with a quick upward sweep of the lids: “After all, it’s better it should be good-bye — since I’m paying for another mistake in being so unhappy at your going.”

“Another mistake? Why do you call it that?”

“Because I’ve misunderstood you — or you me.” She continued to smile at him wistfully. “And some things are best mended by a break.”

He met her smile with a loud sigh — she could feel him in the meshes again. “IS it to be a break between us?”

“Haven’t you just said so? Anyhow, it might as well be, since we shan’t be in the same place again for months.”

The frock-coated gentleman once more languished from his eyes: she thought she trembled on the edge of victory. “Hang it,” he broke out, “you ought to have a change — you’re looking awfully pulled down. Why can’t you coax your mother to run over to Paris with you? Ralph couldn’t object to that.”

She shook her head. “I don’t believe she could afford it, even if I could persuade her to leave father. You know father hasn’t done very well lately: I shouldn’t like to ask him for the money.”

“You’re so confoundedly proud!” He was edging nearer. “It would all be so easy if you’d only be a little fond of me . . . ”

She froze to her sofa-end. “We women can’t repair our mistakes. Don’t make me more miserable by reminding me of mine.”

“Oh, nonsense! There’s nothing cash won’t do. Why won’t you let me straighten things out for you?”

Her colour rose again, and she looked him quickly and consciously in the eye. It was time to play her last card. “You seem to forget that I am — married,” she said.

Van Degen was silent — for a moment she thought he was swaying to her in the flush of surrender. But he remained doggedly seated, meeting her look with an odd clearing of his heated gaze, as if a shrewd businessman had suddenly replaced the pining gentleman at the window.

“Hang it — so am I!” he rejoined; and Undine saw that in the last issue he was still the stronger of the two.

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