The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XVIII

Undine stood alone on the landing outside her father’s office.

Only once before had she failed to gain her end with him — and there was a peculiar irony in the fact that Moffatt’s intrusion should have brought before her the providential result of her previous failure. Not that she confessed to any real resemblance between the two situations. In the present case she knew well enough what she wanted, and how to get it. But the analogy had served her father’s purpose, and Moffatt’s unlucky entrance had visibly strengthened his resistance.

The worst of it was that the obstacles in the way were real enough. Mr. Spragg had not put her off with vague asseverations — somewhat against her will he had forced his proofs on her, showing her how much above his promised allowance he had contributed in the last three years to the support of her household. Since she could not accuse herself of extravagance — having still full faith in her gift of “managing” — she could only conclude that it was impossible to live on what her father and Ralph could provide; and this seemed a practical reason for desiring her freedom. If she and Ralph parted he would of course return to his family, and Mr. Spragg would no longer be burdened with a helpless son-in-law. But even this argument did not move him. Undine, as soon as she had risked Van Degen’s name, found herself face to face with a code of domestic conduct as rigid as its exponent’s business principles were elastic. Mr. Spragg did not regard divorce as intrinsically wrong or even inexpedient; and of its social disadvantages he had never even heard. Lots of women did it, as Undine said, and if their reasons were adequate they were justified. If Ralph Marvell had been a drunkard or “unfaithful” Mr. Spragg would have approved Undine’s desire to divorce him; but that it should be prompted by her inclination for another man — and a man with a wife of his own — was as shocking to him as it would have been to the most uncompromising of the Dagonets and Marvells. Such things happened, as Mr. Spragg knew, but they should not happen to any woman of his name while he had the power to prevent it; and Undine recognized that for the moment he had that power.

As she emerged from the elevator she was surprised to see Moffatt in the vestibule. His presence was an irritating reminder of her failure, and she walked past him with a rapid bow; but he overtook her.

“Mrs. Marvell — I’ve been waiting to say a word to you.”

If it had been any one else she would have passed on; but Moffatt’s voice had always a detaining power. Even now that she knew him to be defeated and negligible, the power asserted itself, and she paused to say: “I’m afraid I can’t stop — I’m late for an engagement.”

“I shan’t make you much later; but if you’d rather have me call round at your house — ”

“Oh, I’m so seldom in.” She turned a wondering look on him. “What is it you wanted to say?”

“Just two words. I’ve got an office in this building and the shortest way would be to come up there for a minute.” As her look grew distant he added: “I think what I’ve got to say is worth the trip.”

His face was serious, without underlying irony: the face he wore when he wanted to be trusted.

“Very well,” she said, turning back.

Undine, glancing at her watch as she came out of Moffatt’s office, saw that he had been true to his promise of not keeping her more than ten minutes. The fact was characteristic. Under all his incalculableness there had always been a hard foundation of reliability: it seemed to be a matter of choice with him whether he let one feel that solid bottom or not. And in specific matters the same quality showed itself in an accuracy of statement, a precision of conduct, that contrasted curiously with his usual hyperbolic banter and his loose lounging manner. No one could be more elusive yet no one could be firmer to the touch. Her face had cleared and she moved more lightly as she left the building. Moffatt’s communication had not been completely clear to her, but she understood the outline of the plan he had laid before her, and was satisfied with the bargain they had struck. He had begun by reminding her of her promise to introduce him to any friend of hers who might be useful in the way of business. Over three years had passed since they had made the pact, and Moffatt had kept loyally to his side of it. With the lapse of time the whole matter had become less important to her, but she wanted to prove her good faith, and when he reminded her of her promise she at once admitted it.

“Well, then — I want you to introduce me to your husband.”

Undine was surprised; but beneath her surprise she felt a quick sense of relief. Ralph was easier to manage than so many of her friends — and it was a mark of his present indifference to acquiesce in anything she suggested.

“My husband? Why, what can he do for you?”

Moffatt explained at once, in the fewest words, as his way was when it came to business. He was interested in a big “deal” which involved the purchase of a piece of real estate held by a number of wrangling heirs. The real-estate broker with whom Ralph Marvell was associated represented these heirs, but Moffatt had his reasons for not approaching him directly. And he didn’t want to go to Marvell with a “business proposition” — it would be better to be thrown with him socially as if by accident. It was with that object that Moffatt had just appealed to Mr. Spragg, but Mr. Spragg, as usual, had “turned him down,” without even consenting to look into the case.

“He’d rather have you miss a good thing than have it come to you through me. I don’t know what on earth he thinks it’s in my power to do to you — or ever was, for that matter,” he added. “Anyhow,” he went on to explain, “the power’s all on your side now; and I’ll show you how little the doing will hurt you as soon as I can have a quiet chat with your husband.” He branched off again into technicalities, nebulous projections of capital and interest, taxes and rents, from which she finally extracted, and clung to, the central fact that if the “deal went through” it would mean a commission of forty thousand dollars to Marvell’s firm, of which something over a fourth would come to Ralph.

“By Jove, that’s an amazing fellow!” Ralph Marvell exclaimed, turning back into the drawing-room, a few evenings later, at the conclusion of one of their little dinners. Undine looked up from her seat by the fire. She had had the inspired thought of inviting Moffatt to meet Clare Van Degen, Mrs. Fairford and Charles Bowen. It had occurred to her that the simplest way of explaining Moffatt was to tell Ralph that she had unexpectedly discovered an old Apex acquaintance in the protagonist of the great Ararat Trust fight. Moffatt’s defeat had not wholly divested him of interest. As a factor in affairs he no longer inspired apprehension, but as the man who had dared to defy Harmon B. Driscoll he was a conspicuous and, to some minds, almost an heroic figure.

Undine remembered that Clare and Mrs. Fairford had once expressed a wish to see this braver of the Olympians, and her suggestion that he should be asked meet them gave Ralph evident pleasure. It was long since she had made any conciliatory sign to his family.

Moffatt’s social gifts were hardly of a kind to please the two ladies: he would have shone more brightly in Peter Van Degen’s set than in his wife’s. But neither Clare nor Mrs. Fairford had expected a man of conventional cut, and Moffatt’s loud easiness was obviously less disturbing to them than to their hostess. Undine felt only his crudeness, and the tacit criticism passed on it by the mere presence of such men as her husband and Bowen; but Mrs. Fairford’ seemed to enjoy provoking him to fresh excesses of slang and hyperbole. Gradually she drew him into talking of the Driscoll campaign, and he became recklessly explicit. He seemed to have nothing to hold back: all the details of the prodigious exploit poured from him with Homeric volume. Then he broke off abruptly, thrusting his hands into his trouser-pockets and shaping his red lips to a whistle which he checked as his glance met Undine’s. To conceal his embarrassment he leaned back in his chair, looked about the table with complacency, and said “I don’t mind if I do” to the servant who approached to re-fill his champagne glass.

The men sat long over their cigars; but after an interval Undine called Charles Bowen into the drawing-room to settle some question in dispute between Clare and Mrs. Fairford, and thus gave Moffatt a chance to be alone with her husband. Now that their guests had gone she was throbbing with anxiety to know what had passed between the two; but when Ralph rejoined her in the drawing-room she continued to keep her eyes on the fire and twirl her fan listlessly.

“That’s an amazing chap,” Ralph repeated, looking down at her. “Where was it you ran across him — out at Apex?”

As he leaned against the chimney-piece, lighting his cigarette, it struck Undine that he looked less fagged and lifeless than usual, and she felt more and more sure that something important had happened during the moment of isolation she had contrived.

She opened and shut her fan reflectively. “Yes — years ago; father had some business with him and brought him home to dinner one day.”

“And you’ve never seen him since?”

She waited, as if trying to piece her recollections together. “I suppose I must have; but all that seems so long ago,” she said sighing. She had been given, of late, to such plaintive glances toward her happy girlhood but Ralph seemed not to notice the allusion.

“Do you know,” he exclaimed after a moment, “I don’t believe the fellow’s beaten yet.”

She looked up quickly. “Don’t you?”

“No; and I could see that Bowen didn’t either. He strikes me as the kind of man who develops slowly, needs a big field, and perhaps makes some big mistakes, but gets where he wants to in the end. Jove, I wish I could put him in a book! There’s something epic about him — a kind of epic effrontery.”

Undine’s pulses beat faster as she listened. Was it not what Moffatt had always said of himself — that all he needed was time and elbow-room? How odd that Ralph, who seemed so dreamy and unobservant, should instantly have reached the same conclusion! But what she wanted to know was the practical result of their meeting.

“What did you and he talk about when you were smoking?”

“Oh, he got on the Driscoll fight again — gave us some extraordinary details. The man’s a thundering brute, but he’s full of observation and humour. Then, after Bowen joined you, he told me about a new deal he’s gone into — rather a promising scheme, but on the same Titanic scale. It’s just possible, by the way, that we may be able to do something for him: part of the property he’s after is held in our office.” He paused, knowing Undine’s indifference to business matters; but the face she turned to him was alive with interest.

“You mean you might sell the property to him?”

“Well, if the thing comes off. There would be a big commission if we did.” He glanced down on her half ironically. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

She answered with a shade of reproach: “Why do you say that? I haven’t complained.”

“Oh, no; but I know I’ve been a disappointment as a money-maker.”

She leaned back in her chair, closing her eyes as if in utter weariness and indifference, and in a moment she felt him bending over her. “What’s the matter? Don’t you feel well?”

“I’m a little tired. It’s nothing.” She pulled her hand away and burst into tears.

Ralph knelt down by her chair and put his arm about her. It was the first time he had touched her since the night of the boy’s birthday, and the sense of her softness woke a momentary warmth in his veins.

“What is it, dear? What is it?”

Without turning her head she sobbed out: “You seem to think I’m too selfish and odious — that I’m just pretending to be ill.”

“No, no,” he assured her, smoothing back her hair. But she continued to sob on in a gradual crescendo of despair, till the vehemence of her weeping began to frighten him, and he drew her to her feet and tried to persuade her to let herself be led upstairs. She yielded to his arm, sobbing in short exhausted gasps, and leaning her whole weight on him as he guided her along the passage to her bedroom. On the lounge to which he lowered her she lay white and still, tears trickling through her lashes and her handkerchief pressed against her lips. He recognized the symptoms with a sinking heart: she was on the verge of a nervous attack such as she had had in the winter, and he foresaw with dismay the disastrous train of consequences, the doctors’ and nurses’ bills, and all the attendant confusion and expense. If only Moffatt’s project might be realized — if for once he could feel a round sum in his pocket, and be freed from the perpetual daily strain!

The next morning Undine, though calmer, was too weak to leave her bed, and her doctor prescribed rest and absence of worry — later, perhaps, a change of scene. He explained to Ralph that nothing was so wearing to a high-strung nature as monotony, and that if Mrs. Marvell were contemplating a Newport season it was necessary that she should be fortified to meet it. In such cases he often recommended a dash to Paris or London, just to tone up the nervous system.

Undine regained her strength slowly, and as the days dragged on the suggestion of the European trip recurred with increasing frequency. But it came always from her medical adviser: she herself had grown strangely passive and indifferent. She continued to remain upstairs on her lounge, seeing no one but Mrs. Heeny, whose daily ministrations had once more been prescribed, and asking only that the noise of Paul’s play should be kept from her. His scamperings overhead disturbed her sleep, and his bed was moved into the day nursery, above his father’s room. The child’s early romping did not trouble Ralph, since he himself was always awake before daylight. The days were not long enough to hold his cares, and they came and stood by him through the silent hours, when there was no other sound to drown their voices.

Ralph had not made a success of his business. The real-estate brokers who had taken him into partnership had done so only with the hope of profiting by his social connections; and in this respect the alliance had been a failure. It was in such directions that he most lacked facility, and so far he had been of use to his partners only as an office-drudge. He was resigned to the continuance of such drudgery, though all his powers cried out against it; but even for the routine of business his aptitude was small, and he began to feel that he was not considered an addition to the firm. The difficulty of finding another opening made him fear a break; and his thoughts turned hopefully to Elmer Moffatt’s hint of a “deal.” The success of the negotiation might bring advantages beyond the immediate pecuniary profit; and that, at the present juncture, was important enough in itself.

Moffatt reappeared two days after the dinner, presenting himself in West End Avenue in the late afternoon with the explanation that the business in hand necessitated discretion, and that he preferred not to be seen in Ralph’s office. It was a question of negotiating with the utmost privacy for the purchase of a small strip of land between two large plots already acquired by purchasers cautiously designated by Moffatt as his “parties.” How far he “stood in” with the parties he left it to Ralph to conjecture; but it was plain that he had a large stake in the transaction, and that it offered him his first chance of recovering himself since Driscoll had “thrown” him. The owners of the coveted plot did not seem anxious to sell, and there were personal reasons for Moffatt’s not approaching them through Ralph’s partners, who were the regular agents of the estate: so that Ralph’s acquaintance with the conditions, combined with his detachments from the case, marked him out as a useful intermediary.

Their first talk left Ralph with a dazzled sense of Moffatt’s strength and keenness, but with a vague doubt as to the “straightness” of the proposed transaction. Ralph had never seen his way clearly in that dim underworld of affairs where men of the Moffatt and Driscoll type moved like shadowy destructive monsters beneath the darting small fry of the surface. He knew that “business” has created its own special morality; and his musings on man’s relation to his self imposed laws had shown him how little human conduct is generally troubled about its own sanctions. He had a vivid sense of the things a man of his kind didn’t do; but his inability to get a mental grasp on large financial problems made it hard to apply to them so simple a measure as this inherited standard. He only knew, as Moffatt’s plan developed, that it seemed all right while he talked of it with its originator, but vaguely wrong when he thought it over afterward. It occurred to him to consult his grandfather; and if he renounced the idea for the obvious reason that Mr. Dagonet’s ignorance of business was as fathomless as his own, this was not his sole motive. Finally it occurred to him to put the case hypothetically to Mr. Spragg. As far as Ralph knew, his father-in-law’s business record was unblemished; yet one felt in him an elasticity of adjustment not allowed for in the Dagonet code.

Mr. Spragg listened thoughtfully to Ralph’s statement of the case, growling out here and there a tentative correction, and turning his cigar between his lips as he seemed to turn the problem over in the loose grasp of his mind.

“Well, what’s the trouble with it?” he asked at length, stretching his big square-toed shoes against the grate of his son-in-law’s dining-room, where, in the after-dinner privacy of a family evening, Ralph had seized the occasion to consult him.

“The trouble?” Ralph considered. “Why, that’s just what I should like you to explain to me.”

Mr. Spragg threw back his head and stared at the garlanded French clock on the chimney-piece. Mrs. Spragg was sitting upstairs in her daughter’s bedroom, and the silence of the house seemed to hang about the two men like a listening presence.

“Well, I dunno but what I agree with the doctor who said there warn’t any diseases, but only sick people. Every case is different, I guess.” Mr. Spragg, munching his cigar, turned a ruminating glance on Ralph. “Seems to me it all boils down to one thing. Was this fellow we’re supposing about under any obligation to the other party — the one he was trying to buy the property from?”

Ralph hesitated. “Only the obligation recognized between decent men to deal with each other decently.” Mr. Spragg listened to this with the suffering air of a teacher compelled to simplify upon his simplest questions.

“Any personal obligation, I meant. Had the other fellow done him a good turn any time?”

“No — I don’t imagine them to have had any previous relations at all.”

His father-in-law stared. “Where’s your trouble, then?” He sat for a moment frowning at the embers. “Even when it’s the other way round it ain’t always so easy to decide how far that kind of thing’s binding . . . and they say shipwrecked fellows’ll make a meal of friend as quick as they would of a total stranger.” He drew himself together with a shake of his shoulders and pulled back his feet from the grate. “But I don’t see the conundrum in your case, I guess it’s up to both parties to take care of their own skins.”

He rose from his chair and wandered upstairs to Undine.

That was the Wall Street code: it all “boiled down” to the personal obligation, to the salt eaten in the enemy’s tent. Ralph’s fancy wandered off on a long trail of speculation from which he was pulled back with a jerk by the need of immediate action. Moffatt’s “deal” could not wait: quick decisions were essential to effective action, and brooding over ethical shades of difference might work more ill than good in a world committed to swift adjustments. The arrival of several unforeseen bills confirmed this view, and once Ralph had adopted it he began to take a detached interest in the affair.

In Paris, in his younger days, he had once attended a lesson in acting given at the Conservatoire by one of the great lights of the theatre, and had seen an apparently uncomplicated role of the classic repertory, familiar to him through repeated performances, taken to pieces before his eyes, dissolved into its component elements, and built up again with a minuteness of elucidation and a range of reference that made him feel as though he had been let into the secret of some age-long natural process. As he listened to Moffatt the remembrance of that lesson came back to him. At the outset the “deal,” and his own share in it, had seemed simple enough: he would have put on his hat and gone out on the spot in the full assurance of being able to transact the affair. But as Moffatt talked he began to feel as blank and blundering as the class of dramatic students before whom the great actor had analyzed his part. The affair was in fact difficult and complex, and Moffatt saw at once just where the difficulties lay and how the personal idiosyncrasies of “the parties” affected them. Such insight fascinated Ralph, and he strayed off into wondering why it did not qualify every financier to be a novelist, and what intrinsic barrier divided the two arts.

Both men had strong incentives for hastening the affair; and within a fortnight after Moffatt’s first advance Ralph was able to tell him that his offer was accepted. Over and above his personal satisfaction he felt the thrill of the agent whom some powerful negotiator has charged with a delicate mission: he might have been an eager young Jesuit carrying compromising papers to his superior. It had been stimulating to work with Moffatt, and to study at close range the large powerful instrument of his intelligence.

As he came out of Moffatt’s office at the conclusion of this visit Ralph met Mr. Spragg descending from his eyrie. He stopped short with a backward glance at Moffatt’s door.

“Hallo — what were you doing in there with those cut-throats?”

Ralph judged discretion to be essential. “Oh, just a little business for the firm.”

Mr. Spragg said no more, but resorted to the soothing labial motion of revolving his phantom toothpick.

“How’s Undie getting along?” he merely asked, as he and his son-in-law descended together in the elevator.

“She doesn’t seem to feel much stronger. The doctor wants her to run over to Europe for a few weeks. She thinks of joining her friends the Shallums in Paris.”

Mr. Spragg was again silent, but he left the building at Ralph’s side, and the two walked along together toward Wall Street.

Presently the older man asked: “How did you get acquainted with Moffatt?”

“Why, by chance — Undine ran across him somewhere and asked him to dine the other night.”

“Undine asked him to dine?”

“Yes: she told me you used to know him out at Apex.”

Mr. Spragg appeared to search his memory for confirmation of the fact. “I believe he used to be round there at one time. I’ve never heard any good of him yet.” He paused at a crossing and looked probingly at his son-in-law. “Is she terribly set on this trip to Europe?”

Ralph smiled. “You know how it is when she takes a fancy to do anything — ”

Mr. Spragg, by a slight lift of his brooding brows, seemed to convey a deep if unspoken response.

“Well, I’d let her do it this time — I’d let her do it,” he said as he turned down the steps of the Subway.

Ralph was surprised, for he had gathered from some frightened references of Mrs. Spragg’s that Undine’s parents had wind of her European plan and were strongly opposed to it. He concluded that Mr. Spragg had long since measured the extent of profitable resistance, and knew just when it became vain to hold out against his daughter or advise others to do so.

Ralph, for his own part, had no inclination to resist. As he left Moffatt’s office his inmost feeling was one of relief. He had reached the point of recognizing that it was best for both that his wife should go. When she returned perhaps their lives would readjust themselves — but for the moment he longed for some kind of benumbing influence, something that should give relief to the dull daily ache of feeling her so near and yet so inaccessible. Certainly there were more urgent uses for their brilliant wind-fall: heavy arrears of household debts had to be met, and the summer would bring its own burden. But perhaps another stroke of luck might befall him: he was getting to have the drifting dependence on “luck” of the man conscious of his inability to direct his life. And meanwhile it seemed easier to let Undine have what she wanted.

Undine, on the whole, behaved with discretion. She received the good news languidly and showed no unseemly haste to profit by it. But it was as hard to hide the light in her eyes as to dissemble the fact that she had not only thought out every detail of the trip in advance, but had decided exactly how her husband and son were to be disposed of in her absence. Her suggestion that Ralph should take Paul to his grandparents, and that the West End Avenue house should be let for the summer, was too practical not to be acted on; and Ralph found she had already put her hand on the Harry Lipscombs, who, after three years of neglect, were to be dragged back to favour and made to feel, as the first step in their reinstatement, the necessity of hiring for the summer months a cool airy house on the West Side. On her return from Europe, Undine explained, she would of course go straight to Ralph and the boy in the Adirondacks; and it seemed a foolish extravagance to let the house stand empty when the Lipscombs were so eager to take it.

As the day of departure approached it became harder for her to temper her beams; but her pleasure showed itself so amiably that Ralph began to think she might, after all, miss the boy and himself more than she imagined. She was tenderly preoccupied with Paul’s welfare, and, to prepare for his translation to his grandparents’ she gave the household in Washington Square more of her time than she had accorded it since her marriage. She explained that she wanted Paul to grow used to his new surroundings; and with that object she took him frequently to his grandmother’s, and won her way into old Mr. Dagonet’s sympathies by her devotion to the child and her pretty way of joining in his games.

Undine was not consciously acting a part: this new phase was as natural to her as the other. In the joy of her gratified desires she wanted to make everybody about her happy. If only everyone would do as she wished she would never be unreasonable. She much preferred to see smiling faces about her, and her dread of the reproachful and dissatisfied countenance gave the measure of what she would do to avoid it.

These thoughts were in her mind when, a day or two before sailing, she came out of the Washington Square house with her boy. It was a late spring afternoon, and she and Paul had lingered on till long past the hour sacred to his grandfather’s nap. Now, as she came out into the square she saw that, however well Mr. Dagonet had borne their protracted romp, it had left his playmate flushed and sleepy; and she lifted Paul in her arms to carry him to the nearest cab-stand.

As she raised herself she saw a thick-set figure approaching her across the square; and a moment later she was shaking hands with Elmer Moffatt. In the bright spring air he looked seasonably glossy and prosperous; and she noticed that he wore a bunch of violets in his buttonhole. His small black eyes twinkled with approval as they rested on her, and Undine reflected that, with Paul’s arms about her neck, and his little flushed face against her own, she must present a not unpleasing image of young motherhood.

“That the heir apparent?” Moffatt asked; adding “Happy to make your acquaintance, sir,” as the boy, at Undine’s bidding, held out a fist sticky with sugarplums.

“He’s been spending the afternoon with his grandfather, and they played so hard that he’s sleepy,” she explained. Little Paul, at that stage in his career, had a peculiar grace of wide-gazing deep-lashed eyes and arched cherubic lips, and Undine saw that Moffatt was not insensible to the picture she and her son composed. She did not dislike his admiration, for she no longer felt any shrinking from him — she would even have been glad to thank him for the service he had done her husband if she had known how to allude to it without awkwardness. Moffatt seemed equally pleased at the meeting, and they looked at each other almost intimately over Paul’s tumbled curls.

“He’s a mighty fine fellow and no mistake — but isn’t he rather an armful for you?” Moffatt asked, his eyes lingering with real kindliness on the child’s face.

“Oh, we haven’t far to go. I’ll pick up a cab at the corner.”

“Well, let me carry him that far anyhow,” said Moffatt.

Undine was glad to be relieved of her burden, for she was unused to the child’s weight, and disliked to feel that her skirt was dragging on the pavement. “Go to the gentleman, Pauly — he’ll carry you better than mother,” she said.

The little boy’s first movement was one of recoil from the ruddy sharp-eyed countenance that was so unlike his father’s delicate face; but he was an obedient child, and after a moment’s hesitation he wound his arms trustfully about the red gentleman’s neck.

“That’s a good fellow — sit tight and I’ll give you a ride,” Moffatt cried, hoisting the boy to his shoulder.

Paul was not used to being perched at such a height, and his nature was hospitable to new impressions. “Oh, I like it up here — you’re higher than father!” he exclaimed; and Moffatt hugged him with a laugh.

“It must feel mighty good to come uptown to a fellow like you in the evenings,” he said, addressing the child but looking at Undine, who also laughed a little.

“Oh, they’re a dreadful nuisance, you know; but Paul’s a very good boy.”

“I wonder if he knows what a friend I’ve been to him lately,” Moffatt went on, as they turned into Fifth Avenue.

Undine smiled: she was glad he should have given her an opening. “He shall be told as soon as he’s old enough to thank you. I’m so glad you came to Ralph about that business.”

“Oh I gave him a leg up, and I guess he’s given me one too. Queer the way things come round — he’s fairly put me in the way of a fresh start.”

Their eyes met in a silence which Undine was the first to break. “It’s been awfully nice of you to do what you’ve done — right along. And this last thing has made a lot of difference to us.”

“Well, I’m glad you feel that way. I never wanted to be anything but ‘nice,’ as you call it.” Moffatt paused a moment and then added: “If you’re less scared of me than your father is I’d be glad to call round and see you once in a while.”

The quick blood rushed to her cheeks. There was nothing challenging, demanding in his tone — she guessed at once that if he made the request it was simply for the pleasure of being with her, and she liked the magnanimity implied. Nevertheless she was not sorry to have to answer: “Of course I’ll always be glad to see you — only, as it happens, I’m just sailing for Europe.”

“For Europe?” The word brought Moffatt to a stand so abruptly that little Paul lurched on his shoulder.

“For Europe?” he repeated. “Why, I thought you said the other evening you expected to stay on in town till July. Didn’t you think of going to the Adirondacks?”

Flattered by his evident disappointment, she became high and careless in her triumph. “Oh, yes, — but that’s all changed. Ralph and the boy are going, but I sail on Saturday to join some friends in Paris — and later I may do some motoring in Switzerland an Italy.”

She laughed a little in the mere enjoyment of putting her plans into words and Moffatt laughed too, but with an edge of sarcasm.

“I see — I see: everything’s changed, as you say, and your husband can blow you off to the trip. Well, I hope you’ll have a first-class time.”

Their glances crossed again, and something in his cool scrutiny impelled Undine to say, with a burst of candour: “If I do, you know, I shall owe it all to you!”

“Well, I always told you I meant to act white by you,” he answered.

They walked on in silence, and presently he began again in his usual joking strain: “See what one of the Apex girls has been up to?”

Apex was too remote for her to understand the reference, and he went on: “Why, Millard Binch’s wife — Indiana Frusk that was. Didn’t you see in the papers that Indiana’d fixed it up with James J. Rolliver to marry her? They say it was easy enough squaring Millard Binch — you’d know it WOULD be — but it cost Roliver near a million to mislay Mrs. R. and the children. Well, Indiana’s pulled it off, anyhow; she always WAS a bright girl. But she never came up to you.”

“Oh — ” she stammered with a laugh, astonished and agitated by his news. Indiana Frusk and Rolliver! It showed how easily the thing could be done. If only her father had listened to her! If a girl like Indiana Frusk could gain her end so easily, what might not Undine have accomplished? She knew Moffatt was right in saying that Indiana had never come up to her . . . She wondered how the marriage would strike Van Degen . . .

She signalled to a cab and they walked toward it without speaking. Undine was recalling with intensity that one of Indiana’s shoulders was higher than the other, and that people in Apex had thought her lucky to catch Millard Binch, the druggist’s clerk, when Undine herself had cast him off after a lingering engagement. And now Indiana Frusk was to be Mrs. James J. Rolliver!

Undine got into the cab and bent forward to take little Paul.

Moffatt lowered his charge with exaggerated care, and a “Steady there, steady,” that made the child laugh; then, stooping over, he put a kiss on Paul’s lips before handing him over to his mother.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/custom_of_the_country/chapter18.html

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