The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XIX

“The Parisian Diamond Company — Anglo–American branch.”

Charles Bowen, seated, one rainy evening of the Paris season, in a corner of the great Nouveau Luxe restaurant, was lazily trying to resolve his impressions of the scene into the phrases of a letter to his old friend Mrs. Henley Fairford.

The long habit of unwritten communion with this lady — in no way conditioned by the short rare letters they actually exchanged — usually caused his notations, in absence, to fall into such terms when the subject was of a kind to strike an answering flash from her. And who but Mrs. Fairford would see, from his own precise angle, the fantastic improbability, the layers on layers of unsubstantialness, on which the seemingly solid scene before him rested?

The dining-room of the Nouveau Luxe was at its fullest, and, having contracted on the garden side through stress of weather, had even overflowed to the farther end of the long hall beyond; so that Bowen, from his corner, surveyed a seemingly endless perspective of plumed and jewelled heads, of shoulders bare or black-coated, encircling the close-packed tables. He had come half an hour before the time he had named to his expected guest, so that he might have the undisturbed amusement of watching the picture compose itself again before his eyes. During some forty years’ perpetual exercise of his perceptions he had never come across anything that gave them the special titillation produced by the sight of the dinner-hour at the Nouveau Luxe: the same sense of putting his hand on human nature’s passion for the factitious, its incorrigible habit of imitating the imitation.

As he sat watching the familiar faces swept toward him on the rising tide of arrival — for it was one of the joys of the scene that the type was always the same even when the individual was not — he hailed with renewed appreciation this costly expression of a social ideal. The dining-room at the Nouveau Luxe represented, on such a spring evening, what unbounded material power had devised for the delusion of its leisure: a phantom “society,” with all the rules, smirks, gestures of its model, but evoked out of promiscuity and incoherence while the other had been the product of continuity and choice. And the instinct which had driven a new class of world-compellers to bind themselves to slavish imitation of the superseded, and their prompt and reverent faith in the reality of the sham they had created, seemed to Bowen the most satisfying proof of human permanence.

With this thought in his mind he looked up to greet his guest. The Comte Raymond de Chelles, straight, slim and gravely smiling, came toward him with frequent pauses of salutation at the crowded tables; saying, as he seated himself and turned his pleasant eyes on the scene: “Il n’y a pas à dire, my dear Bowen, it’s charming and sympathetic and original — we owe America a debt of gratitude for inventing it!”

Bowen felt a last touch of satisfaction: they were the very words to complete his thought.

“My dear fellow, it’s really you and your kind who are responsible. It’s the direct creation of feudalism, like all the great social upheavals!”

Raymond de Chelles stroked his handsome brown moustache. “I should have said, on the contrary, that one enjoyed it for the contrast. It’s such a refreshing change from our institutions — which are, nevertheless, the necessary foundations of society. But just as one may have an infinite admiration for one’s wife, and yet occasionally — ” he waved a light hand toward the spectacle. “This, in the social order, is the diversion, the permitted diversion, that your original race has devised: a kind of superior Bohemia, where one may be respectable without being bored.”

Bowen laughed. “You’ve put it in a nutshell: the ideal of the American woman is to be respectable without being bored; and from that point of view this world they’ve invented has more originality than I gave it credit for.”

Chelles thoughtfully unfolded his napkin. “My impression’s a superficial one, of course — for as to what goes on underneath —!” He looked across the room. “If I married I shouldn’t care to have my wife come here too often.”

Bowen laughed again. “She’d be as safe as in a bank! Nothing ever goes on! Nothing that ever happens here is real.”

“Ah, quant à cela — ” the Frenchman murmured, inserting a fork into his melon. Bowen looked at him with enjoyment — he was such a precious foot-note to the page! The two men, accidentally thrown together some years previously during a trip up the Nile, always met again with pleasure when Bowen returned to France. Raymond de Chelles, who came of a family of moderate fortune, lived for the greater part of the year on his father’s estates in Burgundy; but he came up every spring to the entresol of the old Marquis’s hotel for a two months’ study of human nature, applying to the pursuit the discriminating taste and transient ardour that give the finest bloom to pleasure. Bowen liked him as a companion and admired him as a charming specimen of the Frenchman of his class, embodying in his lean, fatigued and finished person that happy mean of simplicity and intelligence of which no other race has found the secret. If Raymond de Chelles had been English he would have been a mere fox-hunting animal, with appetites but without tastes; but in his lighter Gallic clay the wholesome territorial savour, the inherited passion for sport and agriculture, were blent with an openness to finer sensations, a sense of the come-and-go of ideas, under which one felt the tight hold of two or three inherited notions, religious, political, and domestic, in total contradiction to his surface attitude. That the inherited notions would in the end prevail, everything in his appearance declared from the distinguished slant of his nose to the narrow forehead under his thinning hair; he was the kind of man who would inevitably “revert” when he married. But meanwhile the surface he presented to the play of life was broad enough to take in the fantastic spectacle of the Nouveau Luxe; and to see its gestures reflected in a Latin consciousness was an endless entertainment to Bowen.

The tone of his guest’s last words made him take them up. “But is the lady you allude to more than a hypothesis? Surely you’re not thinking of getting married?”

Chelles raised his eye-brows ironically. “When hasn’t one to think of it, in my situation? One hears of nothing else at home — one knows that, like death, it has to come.” His glance, which was still mustering the room, came to a sudden pause and kindled.

“Who’s the lady over there — fair-haired, in white — the one who’s just come in with the red-faced man? They seem to be with a party of your compatriots.”

Bowen followed his glance to a neighbouring table, where, at the moment, Undine Marvell was seating herself at Peter Van Degen’s side, in the company of the Harvey Shallums, the beautiful Mrs. Beringer and a dozen other New York figures.

She was so placed that as she took her seat she recognized Bowen and sent him a smile across the tables. She was more simply dressed than usual, and the pink lights, warming her cheeks and striking gleams from her hair, gave her face a dewy freshness that was new to Bowen. He had always thought her beauty too obvious, too bathed in the bright publicity of the American air; but to-night she seemed to have been brushed by the wing of poetry, and its shadow lingered in her eyes.

Chelles’ gaze made it evident that he had received the same impression.

“One is sometimes inclined to deny your compatriots actual beauty — to charge them with producing the effect without having the features; but in this case — you say you know the lady?”

“Yes: she’s the wife of an old friend.”

“The wife? She’s married? There, again, it’s so puzzling! Your young girls look so experienced, and your married women sometimes so — unmarried.”

“Well, they often are — in these days of divorce!”

The other’s interest quickened. “Your friend’s divorced?”

“Oh, no; heaven forbid! Mrs. Marvell hasn’t been long married; and it was a love-match of the good old kind.”

“Ah — and the husband? Which is he?”

“He’s not here — he’s in New York.”

“Feverishly adding to a fortune already monstrous?”

“No; not precisely monstrous. The Marvells are not well off,” said Bowen, amused by his friend’s interrogations.

“And he allows an exquisite being like that to come to Paris without him — and in company with the red-faced gentleman who seems so alive to his advantages?”

“We don’t ‘allow’ our women this or that; I don’t think we set much store by the compulsory virtues.”

His companion received this with amusement. “If: you’re as detached as that, why does the obsolete institution of marriage survive with you?”

“Oh, it still has its uses. One couldn’t be divorced without it.”

Chelles laughed again; but his straying eye still followed the same direction, and Bowen noticed that the fact was not unremarked by the object of his contemplation. Undine’s party was one of the liveliest in the room: the American laugh rose above the din of the orchestra as the American toilets dominated the less daring effects at the other tables. Undine, on entering, had seemed to be in the same mood as her companions; but Bowen saw that, as she became conscious of his friend’s observation, she isolated herself in a kind of soft abstraction; and he admired the adaptability which enabled her to draw from such surroundings the contrasting graces of reserve.

They had greeted each other with all the outer signs of cordiality, but Bowen fancied she would not care to have him speak to her. She was evidently dining with Van Degen, and Van Degen’s proximity was the last fact she would wish to have transmitted to the critics in Washington Square. Bowen was therefore surprised when, as he rose to leave the restaurant, he heard himself hailed by Peter.

“Hallo — hold on! When did you come over? Mrs. Marvell’s dying for the last news about the old homestead.”

Undine’s smile confirmed the appeal. She wanted to know how lately Bowen had left New York, and pressed him to tell her when he had last seen her boy, how he was looking, and whether Ralph had been persuaded to go down to Clare’s on Saturdays and get a little riding and tennis? And dear Laura — was she well too, and was Paul with her, or still with his grandmother? They were all dreadfully bad correspondents, and so was she. Undine laughingly admitted; and when Ralph had last written her these questions had still been undecided.

As she smiled up at Bowen he saw her glance stray to the spot where his companion hovered; and when the diners rose to move toward the garden for coffee she said, with a sweet note and a detaining smile: “Do come with us — I haven’t half finished.”

Van Degen echoed the request, and Bowen, amused by Undine’s arts, was presently introducing Chelles, and joining with him in the party’s transit to the terrace. The rain had ceased, and under the clear evening sky the restaurant garden opened green depths that skilfully hid its narrow boundaries. Van Degen’s company was large enough to surround two of the tables on the terrace, and Bowen noted the skill with which Undine, leaving him to Mrs. Shallum’s care, contrived to draw Raymond de Chelles to the other table. Still more noticeable was the effect of this stratagem on Van Degen, who also found himself relegated to Mrs. Shallum’s group. Poor Peter’s state was betrayed by the irascibility which wreaked itself on a jostling waiter, and found cause for loud remonstrance in the coldness of the coffee and the badness of the cigars; and Bowen, with something more than the curiosity of the looker-on, wondered whether this were the real clue to Undine’s conduct. He had always smiled at Mrs. Fairford’s fears for Ralph’s domestic peace. He thought Undine too clear-headed to forfeit the advantages of her marriage; but it now struck him that she might have had a glimpse of larger opportunities. Bowen, at the thought, felt the pang of the sociologist over the individual havoc wrought by every social readjustment: it had so long been clear to him that poor Ralph was a survival, and destined, as such, to go down in any conflict with the rising forces.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/custom_of_the_country/chapter19.html

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