The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

II

Undine’s white and gold bedroom, with sea-green panels and old rose carpet, looked along Seventy-second Street toward the leafless tree-tops of the Central Park.

She went to the window, and drawing back its many layers of lace gazed eastward down the long brownstone perspective. Beyond the Park lay Fifth Avenue — and Fifth Avenue was where she wanted to be!

She turned back into the room, and going to her writing-table laid Mrs. Fairford’s note before her, and began to study it minutely. She had read in the “Boudoir Chat” of one of the Sunday papers that the smartest women were using the new pigeon-blood notepaper with white ink; and rather against her mother’s advice she had ordered a large supply, with her monogram in silver. It was a disappointment, therefore, to find that Mrs. Fairford wrote on the old-fashioned white sheet, without even a monogram — simply her address and telephone number. It gave Undine rather a poor opinion of Mrs. Fairford’s social standing, and for a moment she thought with considerable satisfaction of answering the note on her pigeon-blood paper. Then she remembered Mrs. Heeny’s emphatic commendation of Mrs. Fairford, and her pen wavered. What if white paper were really newer than pigeon blood? It might be more stylish, anyhow. Well, she didn’t care if Mrs. Fairford didn’t like red paper — SHE did! And she wasn’t going to truckle to any woman who lived in a small house down beyond Park Avenue . . .

Undine was fiercely independent and yet passionately imitative. She wanted to surprise every one by her dash and originality, but she could not help modelling herself on the last person she met, and the confusion of ideals thus produced caused her much perturbation when she had to choose between two courses. She hesitated a moment longer, and then took from the drawer a plain sheet with the hotel address.

It was amusing to write the note in her mother’s name — she giggled as she formed the phrase “I shall be happy to permit my daughter to take dinner with you” (“take dinner” seemed more elegant than Mrs. Fairford’s “dine”) — but when she came to the signature she was met by a new difficulty. Mrs. Fairford had signed herself “Laura Fairford” — just as one school-girl would write to another. But could this be a proper model for Mrs. Spragg? Undine could not tolerate the thought of her mother’s abasing herself to a denizen of regions beyond Park Avenue, and she resolutely formed the signature: “Sincerely, Mrs. Abner E. Spragg.” Then uncertainty overcame her, and she re-wrote her note and copied Mrs. Fairford’s formula: “Yours sincerely, Leota B. Spragg.” But this struck her as an odd juxtaposition of formality and freedom, and she made a third attempt: “Yours with love, Leota B. Spragg.” This, however, seemed excessive, as the ladies had never met; and after several other experiments she finally decided on a compromise, and ended the note: “Yours sincerely, Mrs. Leota B. Spragg.” That might be conventional. Undine reflected, but it was certainly correct. This point settled, she flung open her door, calling imperiously down the passage: “Celeste!” and adding, as the French maid appeared: “I want to look over all my dinner-dresses.”

Considering the extent of Miss Spragg’s wardrobe her dinner-dresses were not many. She had ordered a number the year before but, vexed at her lack of use for them, had tossed them over impatiently to the maid. Since then, indeed, she and Mrs. Spragg had succumbed to the abstract pleasure of buying two or three more, simply because they were too exquisite and Undine looked too lovely in them; but she had grown tired of these also — tired of seeing them hang unworn in her wardrobe, like so many derisive points of interrogation. And now, as Celeste spread them out on the bed, they seemed disgustingly common-place, and as familiar as if she had danced them to shreds. Nevertheless, she yielded to the maid’s persuasions and tried them on.

The first and second did not gain by prolonged inspection: they looked old-fashioned already. “It’s something about the sleeves,” Undine grumbled as she threw them aside.

The third was certainly the prettiest; but then it was the one she had worn at the hotel dance the night before and the impossibility of wearing it again within the week was too obvious for discussion. Yet she enjoyed looking at herself in it, for it reminded her of her sparkling passages with Claud Walsingham Popple, and her quieter but more fruitful talk with his little friend — the young man she had hardly noticed.

“You can go, Celeste — I’ll take off the dress myself,” she said: and when Celeste had passed out, laden with discarded finery. Undine bolted her door, dragged the tall pier-glass forward and, rummaging in a drawer for fan and gloves, swept to a seat before the mirror with the air of a lady arriving at an evening party. Celeste, before leaving, had drawn down the blinds and turned on the electric light, and the white and gold room, with its blazing wall-brackets, formed a sufficiently brilliant background to carry out the illusion. So untempered a glare would have been destructive to all half-tones and subtleties of modelling; but Undine’s beauty was as vivid, and almost as crude, as the brightness suffusing it. Her black brows, her reddish-tawny hair and the pure red and white of her complexion defied the searching decomposing radiance: she might have been some fabled creature whose home was in a beam of light.

Undine, as a child, had taken but a lukewarm interest in the diversions of her playmates. Even in the early days when she had lived with her parents in a ragged outskirt of Apex, and hung on the fence with Indiana Frusk, the freckled daughter of the plumber “across the way,” she had cared little for dolls or skipping-ropes, and still less for the riotous games in which the loud Indiana played Atalanta to all the boyhood of the quarter. Already Undine’s chief delight was to “dress up” in her mother’s Sunday skirt and “play lady” before the wardrobe mirror. The taste had outlasted childhood, and she still practised the same secret pantomime, gliding in, settling her skirts, swaying her fan, moving her lips in soundless talk and laughter; but lately she had shrunk from everything that reminded her of her baffled social yearnings. Now, however, she could yield without afterthought to the joy of dramatizing her beauty. Within a few days she would be enacting the scene she was now mimicking; and it amused her to see in advance just what impression she would produce on Mrs. Fairford’s guests.

For a while she carried on her chat with an imaginary circle of admirers, twisting this way and that, fanning, fidgeting, twitching at her draperies, as she did in real life when people were noticing her. Her incessant movements were not the result of shyness: she thought it the correct thing to be animated in society, and noise and restlessness were her only notion of vivacity. She therefore watched herself approvingly, admiring the light on her hair, the flash of teeth between her smiling lips, the pure shadows of her throat and shoulders as she passed from one attitude to another. Only one fact disturbed her: there was a hint of too much fulness in the curves of her neck and in the spring of her hips. She was tall enough to carry off a little extra weight, but excessive slimness was the fashion, and she shuddered at the thought that she might some day deviate from the perpendicular.

Presently she ceased to twist and sparkle at her image, and sinking into her chair gave herself up to retrospection. She was vexed, in looking back, to think how little notice she had taken of young Marvell, who turned out to be so much less negligible than his brilliant friend. She remembered thinking him rather shy, less accustomed to society; and though in his quiet deprecating way he had said one or two droll things he lacked Mr. Popple’s masterly manner, his domineering yet caressing address. When Mr. Popple had fixed his black eyes on Undine, and murmured something “artistic” about the colour of her hair, she had thrilled to the depths of her being. Even now it seemed incredible that he should not turn out to be more distinguished than young Marvell: he seemed so much more in the key of the world she read about in the Sunday papers — the dazzling auriferous world of the Van Degens, the Driscolls and their peers.

She was roused by the sound in the hall of her mother’s last words to Mrs. Heeny. Undine waited till their adieux were over; then, opening her door, she seized the astonished masseuse and dragged her into the room. Mrs. Heeny gazed in admiration at the luminous apparition in whose hold she found herself.

“Mercy, Undine — you do look stunning! Are you trying on your dress for Mrs. Fairford’s?”

“Yes — no — this is only an old thing.” The girl’s eyes glittered under their black brows. “Mrs. Heeny, you’ve got to tell me the truth — ARE they as swell as you said?”

“Who? The Fairfords and Marvells? If they ain’t swell enough for you. Undine Spragg, you’d better go right over to the court of England!”

Undine straightened herself. “I want the best. Are they as swell as the Driscolls and Van Degens?”

Mrs. Heeny sounded a scornful laugh. “Look at here, now, you unbelieving girl! As sure as I’m standing here before you, I’ve seen Mrs. Harmon B. Driscoll of Fifth Avenue laying in her pink velvet bed with Honiton lace sheets on it, and crying her eyes out because she couldn’t get asked to one of Mrs. Paul Marvell’s musicals. She’d never ‘a dreamt of being asked to a dinner there! Not all of her money couldn’t ‘a bought her that — and she knows it!”

Undine stood for a moment with bright cheeks and parted lips; then she flung her soft arms about the masseuse. “Oh Mrs. Heeny — you’re lovely to me!” she breathed, her lips on Mrs. Heeny’s rusty veil; while the latter, freeing herself with a good-natured laugh, said as she turned away: “Go steady. Undine, and you’ll get anywheres.”

GO STEADY, UNDINE! Yes, that was the advice she needed. Sometimes, in her dark moods, she blamed her parents for not having given it to her. She was so young . . . and they had told her so little! As she looked back she shuddered at some of her escapes. Even since they had come to New York she had been on the verge of one or two perilous adventures, and there had been a moment during their first winter when she had actually engaged herself to the handsome Austrian riding-master who accompanied her in the Park. He had carelessly shown her a card-case with a coronet, and had confided in her that he had been forced to resign from a crack cavalry regiment for fighting a duel about a Countess; and as a result of these confidences she had pledged herself to him, and bestowed on him her pink pearl ring in exchange for one of twisted silver, which he said the Countess had given him on her deathbed with the request that he should never take it off till he met a woman more beautiful than herself.

Soon afterward, luckily. Undine had run across Mabel Lipscomb, whom she had known at a middle western boarding-school as Mabel Blitch. Miss Blitch occupied a position of distinction as the only New York girl at the school, and for a time there had been sharp rivalry for her favour between Undine and Indiana Frusk, whose parents had somehow contrived — for one term — to obtain her admission to the same establishment. In spite of Indiana’s unscrupulous methods, and of a certain violent way she had of capturing attention, the victory remained with Undine, whom Mabel pronounced more refined; and the discomfited Indiana, denouncing her schoolmates as a “bunch of mushes,” had disappeared forever from the scene of her defeat.

Since then Mabel had returned to New York and married a stock-broker; and Undine’s first steps in social enlightenment dated from the day when she had met Mrs. Harry Lipscomb, and been again taken under her wing.

Harry Lipscomb had insisted on investigating the riding-master’s record, and had found that his real name was Aaronson, and that he had left Cracow under a charge of swindling servant-girls out of their savings; in the light of which discoveries Undine noticed for the first time that his lips were too red and that his hair was pommaded. That was one of the episodes that sickened her as she looked back, and made her resolve once more to trust less to her impulses — especially in the matter of giving away rings. In the interval, however, she felt she had learned a good deal, especially since, by Mabel Lipscomb’s advice, the Spraggs had moved to the Stentorian, where that lady was herself established.

There was nothing of the monopolist about Mabel, and she lost no time in making Undine free of the Stentorian group and its affiliated branches: a society addicted to “days,” and linked together by membership in countless clubs, mundane, cultural or “earnest.” Mabel took Undine to the days, and introduced her as a “guest” to the club-meetings, where she was supported by the presence of many other guests — “my friend Miss Stager, of Phalanx, Georgia,” or (if the lady were literary) simply “my friend Ora Prance Chettle of Nebraska — you know what Mrs. Chettle stands for.”

Some of these reunions took place in the lofty hotels moored like a sonorously named fleet of battle-ships along the upper reaches of the West Side: the Olympian, the Incandescent, the Ormolu; while others, perhaps the more exclusive, were held in the equally lofty but more romantically styled apartment-houses: the Parthenon, the Tintern Abbey or the Lido.

Undine’s preference was for the worldly parties, at which games were played, and she returned home laden with prizes in Dutch silver; but she was duly impressed by the debating clubs, where ladies of local distinction addressed the company from an improvised platform, or the members argued on subjects of such imperishable interest as: “What is charm?” or “The Problem–Novel” after which pink lemonade and rainbow sandwiches were consumed amid heated discussion of the “ethical aspect” of the question.

It was all very novel and interesting, and at first Undine envied Mabel Lipscomb for having made herself a place in such circles; but in time she began to despise her for being content to remain there. For it did not take Undine long to learn that introduction to Mabel’s “set” had brought her no nearer to Fifth Avenue. Even in Apex, Undine’s tender imagination had been nurtured on the feats and gestures of Fifth Avenue. She knew all of New York’s golden aristocracy by name, and the lineaments of its most distinguished scions had been made familiar by passionate poring over the daily press. In Mabel’s world she sought in vain for the originals, and only now and then caught a tantalizing glimpse of one of their familiars: as when Claud Walsingham Popple, engaged on the portrait of a lady whom the Lipscombs described as “the wife of a Steel Magnet,” felt it his duty to attend one of his client’s teas, where it became Mabel’s privilege to make his acquaintance and to name to him her friend Miss Spragg.

Unsuspected social gradations were thus revealed to the attentive Undine, but she was beginning to think that her sad proficiency had been acquired in vain when her hopes were revived by the appearance of Mr. Popple and his friend at the Stentorian dance. She thought she had learned enough to be safe from any risk of repeating the hideous Aaronson mistake; yet she now saw she had blundered again in distinguishing Claud Walsingham Popple while she almost snubbed his more retiring companion. It was all very puzzling, and her perplexity had been farther increased by Mrs. Heeny’s tale of the great Mrs. Harmon B. Driscoll’s despair.

Hitherto Undine had imagined that the Driscoll and Van Degen clans and their allies held undisputed suzerainty over New York society. Mabel Lipscomb thought so too, and was given to bragging of her acquaintance with a Mrs. Spoff, who was merely a second cousin of Mrs. Harmon B. Driscoll’s. Yet here was she. Undine Spragg of Apex, about to be introduced into an inner circle to which Driscolls and Van Degens had laid siege in vain! It was enough to make her feel a little dizzy with her triumph — to work her up into that state of perilous self-confidence in which all her worst follies had been committed.

She stood up and, going close to the glass, examined the reflection of her bright eyes and glowing cheeks. This time her fears were superfluous: there were to be no more mistakes and no more follies now! She was going to know the right people at last — she was going to get what she wanted!

As she stood there, smiling at her happy image, she heard her father’s voice in the room beyond, and instantly began to tear off her dress, strip the long gloves from her arms and unpin the rose in her hair. Tossing the fallen finery aside, she slipped on a dressing-gown and opened the door into the drawing-room.

Mr. Spragg was standing near her mother, who sat in a drooping attitude, her head sunk on her breast, as she did when she had one of her “turns.” He looked up abruptly as Undine entered.

“Father — has mother told you? Mrs. Fairford has asked me to dine. She’s Mrs. Paul Marvell’s daughter — Mrs. Marvell was a Dagonet — and they’re sweller than anybody; they WON’T KNOW the Driscolls and Van Degens!”

Mr. Spragg surveyed her with humorous fondness.

“That so? What do they want to know you for, I wonder?” he jeered.

“Can’t imagine — unless they think I’ll introduce YOU!” she jeered back in the same key, her arms around his stooping shoulders, her shining hair against his cheek.

“Well — and are you going to? Have you accepted?” he took up her joke as she held him pinioned; while Mrs. Spragg, behind them, stirred in her seat with a little moan.

Undine threw back her head, plunging her eyes in his, and pressing so close that to his tired elderly sight her face was a mere bright blur.

“I want to awfully,” she declared, “but I haven’t got a single thing to wear.”

Mrs. Spragg, at this, moaned more audibly. “Undine, I wouldn’t ask father to buy any more clothes right on top of those last bills.”

“I ain’t on top of those last bills yet — I’m way down under them,” Mr. Spragg interrupted, raising his hands to imprison his daughter’s slender wrists.

“Oh, well — if you want me to look like a scarecrow, and not get asked again, I’ve got a dress that’ll do PERFECTLY,” Undine threatened, in a tone between banter and vexation.

Mr. Spragg held her away at arm’s length, a smile drawing up the loose wrinkles about his eyes.

“Well, that kind of dress might come in mighty handy on SOME occasions; so I guess you’d better hold on to it for future use, and go and select another for this Fairford dinner,” he said; and before he could finish he was in her arms again, and she was smothering his last word in little cries and kisses.

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