The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XX

Some six weeks later. Undine Marvell stood at the window smiling down on her recovered Paris.

Her hotel sitting-room had, as usual, been flowered, cushioned and lamp-shaded into a delusive semblance of stability; and she had really felt, for the last few weeks, that the life she was leading there must be going to last — it seemed so perfect an answer to all her wants!

As she looked out at the thronged street, on which the summer light lay like a blush of pleasure, she felt herself naturally akin to all the bright and careless freedom of the scene. She had been away from Paris for two days, and the spectacle before her seemed more rich and suggestive after her brief absence from it. Her senses luxuriated in all its material details: the thronging motors, the brilliant shops, the novelty and daring of the women’s dresses, the piled-up colours of the ambulant flower-carts, the appetizing expanse of the fruiterers’ windows, even the chromatic effects of the petits fours behind the plate-glass of the pastry-cooks: all the surface-sparkle and variety of the inexhaustible streets of Paris.

The scene before her typified to Undine her first real taste of life. How meagre and starved the past appeared in comparison with this abundant present! The noise, the crowd, the promiscuity beneath her eyes symbolized the glare and movement of her life. Every moment of her days was packed with excitement and exhilaration. Everything amused her: the long hours of bargaining and debate with dress-makers and jewellers, the crowded lunches at fashionable restaurants, the perfunctory dash through a picture-show or the lingering visit to the last new milliner; the afternoon motor-rush to some leafy suburb, where tea and musics and sunset were hastily absorbed on a crowded terrace above the Seine; the whirl home through the Bois to dress for dinner and start again on the round of evening diversions; the dinner at the Nouveau Luxe or the Café de Paris, and the little play at the Capucines or the Variétés, followed, because the night was “too lovely,” and it was a shame to waste it, by a breathless flight back to the Bois, with supper in one of its lamp-hung restaurants, or, if the weather forbade, a tumultuous progress through the midnight haunts where “ladies” were not supposed to show themselves, and might consequently taste the thrill of being occasionally taken for their opposites.

As the varied vision unrolled itself, Undine contrasted it with the pale monotony of her previous summers. The one she most resented was the first after her marriage, the European summer out of whose joys she had been cheated by her own ignorance and Ralph’s perversity. They had been free then, there had been no child to hamper their movements, their money anxieties had hardly begun, the face of life had been fresh and radiant, and she had been doomed to waste such opportunities on a succession of ill-smelling Italian towns. She still felt it to be her deepest grievance against her husband; and now that, after four years of petty household worries, another chance of escape had come, he already wanted to drag her back to bondage!

This fit of retrospection had been provoked by two letters which had come that morning. One was from Ralph, who began by reminding her that he had not heard from her for weeks, and went on to point out, in his usual tone of good-humoured remonstrance, that since her departure the drain on her letter of credit had been deep and constant. “I wanted you,” he wrote, “to get all the fun you could out of the money I made last spring; but I didn’t think you’d get through it quite so fast. Try to come home without leaving too many bills behind you. Your illness and Paul’s cost more than I expected, and Lipscomb has had a bad knock in Wall Street, and hasn’t yet paid his first quarter . . . ”

Always the same monotonous refrain! Was it her fault that she and the boy had been ill? Or that Harry Lipscomb had been “on the wrong side” of Wall Street? Ralph seemed to have money on the brain: his business life had certainly deteriorated him. And, since he hadn’t made a success of it after all, why shouldn’t he turn back to literature and try to write his novel? Undine, the previous winter, had been dazzled by the figures which a well-known magazine editor, whom she had met at dinner had named as within reach of the successful novelist. She perceived for the first time that literature was becoming fashionable, and instantly decided that it would be amusing and original if she and Ralph should owe their prosperity to his talent. She already saw herself, as the wife of a celebrated author, wearing “artistic” dresses and doing the drawing-room over with Gothic tapestries and dim lights in altar candle-sticks. But when she suggested Ralph’s taking up his novel he answered with a laugh that his brains were sold to the firm — that when he came back at night the tank was empty . . . And now he wanted her to sail for home in a week!

The other letter excited a deeper resentment. It was an appeal from Laura Fairford to return and look after Ralph. He was overworked and out of spirits, she wrote, and his mother and sister, reluctant as they were to interfere, felt they ought to urge Undine to come back to him. Details followed, unwelcome and officious. What right had Laura Fairford to preach to her of wifely obligations? No doubt Charles Bowen had sent home a highly-coloured report — and there was really a certain irony in Mrs. Fairford’s criticizing her sister-in-law’s conduct on information obtained from such a source! Undine turned from the window and threw herself down on her deeply cushioned sofa. She was feeling the pleasant fatigue consequent on her trip to the country, whither she and Mrs. Shallum had gone with Raymond de Chelles to spend a night at the old Marquis’s chateau. When her travelling companions, an hour earlier, had left her at her door, she had half-promised to rejoin them for a late dinner in the Bois; and as she leaned back among the cushions disturbing thoughts were banished by the urgent necessity of deciding what dress she should wear.

These bright weeks of the Parisian spring had given her a first real glimpse into the art of living. From the experts who had taught her to subdue the curves of her figure and soften her bright free stare with dusky pencillings, to the skilled purveyors of countless forms of pleasure — the theatres and restaurants, the green and blossoming suburbs, the whole shining shifting spectacle of nights and days — every sight and sound and word had combined to charm her perceptions and refine her taste. And her growing friendship with Raymond de Chelles had been the most potent of these influences.

Chelles, at once immensely “taken,” had not only shown his eagerness to share in the helter-skelter motions of Undine’s party, but had given her glimpses of another, still more brilliant existence, that life of the inaccessible “Faubourg” of which the first tantalizing hints had but lately reached her. Hitherto she had assumed that Paris existed for the stranger, that its native life was merely an obscure foundation for the dazzling superstructure of hotels and restaurants in which her compatriots disported themselves. But lately she had begun to hear about other American women, the women who had married into the French aristocracy, and who led, in the high-walled houses beyond the Seine which she had once thought so dull and dingy, a life that made her own seem as undistinguished as the social existence of the Mealey House. Perhaps what most exasperated her was the discovery, in this impenetrable group, of the Miss Wincher who had poisoned her far-off summer at Potash Springs. To recognize her old enemy in the Marquise de Trezac who so frequently figured in the Parisian chronicle was the more irritating to Undine because her intervening social experiences had caused her to look back on Nettie Wincher as a frumpy girl who wouldn’t have “had a show” in New York.

Once more all the accepted values were reversed, and it turned out that Miss Wincher had been in possession of some key to success on which Undine had not yet put her hand. To know that others were indifferent to what she had thought important was to cheapen all present pleasure and turn the whole force of her desires in a new direction. What she wanted for the moment was to linger on in Paris, prolonging her flirtation with Chelles, and profiting by it to detach herself from her compatriots and enter doors closed to their approach. And Chelles himself attracted her: she thought him as “sweet” as she had once thought Ralph, whose fastidiousness and refinement were blent in him with a delightful foreign vivacity. His chief value, however, lay in his power of exciting Van Degen’s jealousy. She knew enough of French customs to be aware that such devotion as Chelles’ was not likely to have much practical bearing on her future; but Peter had an alarming way of lapsing into security, and as a spur to his ardour she knew the value of other men’s attentions.

It had become Undine’s fixed purpose to bring Van Degen to a definite expression of his intentions. The case of Indiana Frusk, whose brilliant marriage the journals of two continents had recently chronicled with unprecedented richness of detail, had made less impression on him than she hoped. He treated it as a comic episode without special bearing on their case, and once, when Undine cited Rolliver’s expensive fight for freedom as an instance of the power of love over the most invulnerable natures, had answered carelessly: “Oh, his first wife was a laundress, I believe.”

But all about them couples were unpairing and pairing again with an ease and rapidity that encouraged Undine to bide her time. It was simply a question of making Van Degen want her enough, and of not being obliged to abandon the game before he wanted her as much as she meant he should. This was precisely what would happen if she were compelled to leave Paris now. Already the event had shown how right she had been to come abroad: the attention she attracted in Paris had reawakened Van Degen’s fancy, and her hold over him was stronger than when they had parted in America. But the next step must be taken with coolness and circumspection; and she must not throw away what she had gained by going away at a stage when he was surer of her than she of him. She was still intensely considering these questions when the door behind her opened and he came in.

She looked up with a frown and he gave a deprecating laugh. “Didn’t I knock? Don’t look so savage! They told me downstairs you’d got back, and I just bolted in without thinking.”

He had widened and purpled since their first encounter, five years earlier, but his features had not matured. His face was still the face of a covetous bullying boy, with a large appetite for primitive satisfactions and a sturdy belief in his intrinsic right to them. It was all the more satisfying to Undine’s vanity to see his look change at her tone from command to conciliation, and from conciliation to the entreaty of a capriciously-treated animal.

“What a ridiculous hour for a visit!” she exclaimed, ignoring his excuse. “Well, if you disappear like that, without a word — ”

“I told my maid to telephone you I was going away.”

“You couldn’t make time to do it yourself, I suppose?”

“We rushed off suddenly; I’d hardly time to get to the station.”

“You rushed off where, may I ask?” Van Degen still lowered down on her.

“Oh didn’t I tell you? I’ve been down staying at Chelles’ chateau in Burgundy.” Her face lit up and she raised herself eagerly on her elbow.

“It’s the most wonderful old house you ever saw: a real castle, with towers, and water all round it, and a funny kind of bridge they pull up. Chelles said he wanted me to see just how they lived at home, and I did; I saw everything: the tapestries that Louis Quinze gave them, and the family portraits, and the chapel, where their own priest says mass, and they sit by themselves in a balcony with crowns all over it. The priest was a lovely old man — he said he’d give anything to convert me. Do you know, I think there’s something very beautiful about the Roman Catholic religion? I’ve often felt I might have been happier if I’d had some religious influence in my life.”

She sighed a little, and turned her head away. She flattered herself that she had learned to strike the right note with Van Degen. At this crucial stage he needed a taste of his own methods, a glimpse of the fact that there were women in the world who could get on without him.

He continued to gaze down at her sulkily. “Were the old people there? You never told me you knew his mother.”

“I don’t. They weren’t there. But it didn’t make a bit of difference, because Raymond sent down a cook from the Luxe.”

“Oh, Lord,” Van Degen groaned, dropping down on the end of the sofa. “Was the cook got down to chaperon you?”

Undine laughed. “You talk like Ralph! I had Bertha with me.”

“BERTHA!” His tone of contempt surprised her. She had supposed that Mrs. Shallum’s presence had made the visit perfectly correct.

“You went without knowing his parents, and without their inviting you? Don’t you know what that sort of thing means out here? Chelles did it to brag about you at his club. He wants to compromise you — that’s his game!”

“Do you suppose he does?” A flicker of a smile crossed her lips. “I’m so unconventional: when I like a man I never stop to think about such things. But I ought to, of course — you’re quite right.” She looked at Van Degen thoughtfully. “At any rate, he’s not a married man.”

Van Degen had got to his feet again and was standing accusingly before her; but as she spoke the blood rose to his neck and ears. “What difference does that make?”

“It might make a good deal. I see,” she added, “how careful I ought to be about going round with you.”

“With ME?” His face fell at the retort; then he broke into a laugh. He adored Undine’s “smartness,” which was of precisely the same quality as his own. “Oh, that’s another thing: you can always trust me to look after you!”

“With your reputation? Much obliged!”

Van Degen smiled. She knew he liked such allusions, and was pleased that she thought him compromising.

“Oh, I’m as good as gold. You’ve made a new man of me!”

“Have I?” She considered him in silence for a moment. “I wonder what you’ve done to me but make a discontented woman of me — discontented with everything I had before I knew you?”

The change of tone was thrilling to him. He forgot her mockery, forgot his rival, and sat down at her side, almost in possession of her waist. “Look here,” he asked, “where are we going to dine to-night?”

His nearness was not agreeable to Undine, but she liked his free way, his contempt for verbal preliminaries. Ralph’s reserves and delicacies, his perpetual desire that he and she should be attuned to the same key, had always vaguely bored her; whereas in Van Degen’s manner she felt a hint of the masterful way that had once subdued her in Elmer Moffatt. But she drew back, releasing herself.

“To-night? I can’t — I’m engaged.”

“I know you are: engaged to ME! You promised last Sunday you’d dine with me out of town to-night.”

“How can I remember what I promised last Sunday? Besides, after what you’ve said, I see I oughtn’t to.”

“What do you mean by what I’ve said?”

“Why, that I’m imprudent; that people are talking — ”

He stood up with an angry laugh. “I suppose you’re dining with Chelles. Is that it?”

“Is that the way you cross-examine Clare?”

“I don’t care a hang what Clare does — I never have.”

“That must — in some ways — be rather convenient for her!”

“Glad you think so. ARE you dining with him?”

She slowly turned the wedding-ring upon her finger. “You know I’m NOT married to you — yet!”

He took a random turn through the room; then he came back and planted himself wrathfully before her. “Can’t you see the man’s doing his best to make a fool of you?”

She kept her amused gaze on him. “Does it strike you that it’s such an awfully easy thing to do?”

The edges of his ears were purple. “I sometimes think it’s easier for these damned little dancing-masters than for one of us.”

Undine was still smiling up at him; but suddenly her grew grave. “What does it matter what I do or don’t do, when Ralph has ordered me home next week?”

“Ordered you home?” His face changed. “Well, you’re not going, are you?”

“What’s the use of saying such things?” She gave a disenchanted laugh. “I’m a poor man’s wife, and can’t do the things my friends do. It’s not because Ralph loves me that he wants me back — it’s simply because he can’t afford to let me stay!”

Van Degen’s perturbation was increasing. “But you mustn’t go — it’s preposterous! Why should a woman like you be sacrificed when a lot of dreary frumps have everything they want? Besides, you can’t chuck me like this! Why, we’re all to motor down to Aix next week, and perhaps take a dip into Italy — ”

“OH, ITALY— ” she murmured on a note of yearning.

He was closer now, and had her hands. “You’d love that, wouldn’t you? As far as Venice, anyhow; and then in August there’s Trouville — you’ve never tried Trouville? There’s an awfully jolly crowd there — and the motoring’s ripping in Normandy. If you say so I’ll take a villa there instead of going back to Newport. And I’ll put the Sorceress in commission, and you can make up parties and run off whenever you like, to Scotland or Norway — ” He hung above her. “Don’t dine with Chelles to-night! Come with me, and we’ll talk things over; and next week we’ll run down to Trouville to choose the villa.”

Undine’s heart was beating fast, but she felt within her a strange lucid force of resistance. Because of that sense of security she left her hands in Van Degen’s. So Mr. Spragg might have felt at the tensest hour of the Pure Water move. She leaned forward, holding her suitor off by the pressure of her bent-back palms.

“Kiss me good-bye, Peter; I sail on Wednesday,” she said.

It was the first time she had permitted him a kiss, and as his face darkened down on her she felt a moment’s recoil. But her physical reactions were never very acute: she always vaguely wondered why people made “such a fuss,” were so violently for or against such demonstrations. A cool spirit within her seemed to watch over and regulate her sensations, and leave her capable of measuring the intensity of those she provoked.

She turned to look at the clock. “You must go now — I shall be hours late for dinner.”

“Go — after that?” He held her fast. “Kiss me again,” he commanded.

It was wonderful how cool she felt — how easily she could slip out of his grasp! Any man could be managed like a child if he were really in love with one. . . .

“Don’t be a goose, Peter; do you suppose I’d have kissed you if — ”

“If what — what — what?” he mimicked her ecstatically, not listening.

She saw that if she wished to make him hear her she must put more distance between them, and she rose and moved across the room. From the fireplace she turned to add — “if we hadn’t been saying good-bye?”

“Good-bye — now? What’s the use of talking like that?” He jumped up and followed her. “Look here, Undine — I’ll do anything on earth you want; only don’t talk of going! If you’ll only stay I’ll make it all as straight and square as you please. I’ll get Bertha Shallum to stop over with you for the summer; I’ll take a house at Trouville and make my wife come out there. Hang it, she SHALL, if you say so! Only be a little good to me!”

Still she stood before him without speaking, aware that her implacable brows and narrowed lips would hold him off as long as she chose.

“What’s the matter. Undine? Why don’t you answer? You know you can’t go back to that deadly dry-rot!”

She swept about on him with indignant eyes. “I can’t go on with my present life either. It’s hateful — as hateful as the other. If I don’t go home I’ve got to decide on something different.”

“What do you mean by ‘something different’?” She was silent, and he insisted: “Are you really thinking of marrying Chelles?”

She started as if he had surprised a secret. “I’ll never forgive you if you speak of it — ”

“Good Lord! Good Lord!” he groaned.

She remained motionless, with lowered lids, and he went up to her and pulled her about so that she faced him. “Undine, honour bright — do you think he’ll marry you?”

She looked at him with a sudden hardness in her eyes. “I really can’t discuss such things with you.”

“Oh, for the Lord’s sake don’t take that tone! I don’t half know what I’m saying . . . but you mustn’t throw yourself away a second time. I’ll do anything you want — I swear I will!”

A knock on the door sent them apart, and a servant entered with a telegram.

Undine turned away to the window with the narrow blue slip. She was glad of the interruption: the sense of what she had at stake made her want to pause a moment and to draw breath.

The message was a long cable signed with Laura Fairford’s name. It told her that Ralph had been taken suddenly ill with pneumonia, that his condition was serious and that the doctors advised his wife’s immediate return.

Undine had to read the words over two or three times to get them into her crowded mind; and even after she had done so she needed more time to see their bearing on her own situation. If the message had concerned her boy her brain would have acted more quickly. She had never troubled herself over the possibility of Paul’s falling ill in her absence, but she understood now that if the cable had been about him she would have rushed to the earliest steamer. With Ralph it was different. Ralph was always perfectly well — she could not picture him as being suddenly at death’s door and in need of her. Probably his mother and sister had had a panic: they were always full of sentimental terrors. The next moment an angry suspicion flashed across her: what if the cable were a device of the Marvell women to bring her back? Perhaps it had been sent with Ralph’s connivance! No doubt Bowen had written home about her — Washington Square had received some monstrous report of her doings! . . . Yes, the cable was clearly an echo of Laura’s letter — mother and daughter had cooked it up to spoil her pleasure. Once the thought had occurred to her it struck root in her mind and began to throw out giant branches. Van Degen followed her to the window, his face still flushed and working. “What’s the matter?” he asked, as she continued to stare silently at the telegram.

She crumpled the strip of paper in her hand. If only she had been alone, had had a chance to think out her answers!

“What on earth’s the matter?” he repeated.

“Oh, nothing — nothing.”

“Nothing? When you’re as white as a sheet?”

“Am I?” She gave a slight laugh. “It’s only a cable from home.”

“Ralph?”

She hesitated. “No. Laura.”

“What the devil is SHE cabling you about?”

“She says Ralph wants me.”

“Now — at once?”

“At once.”

Van Degen laughed impatiently. “Why don’t he tell you so himself? What business is it of Laura Fairford’s?”

Undine’s gesture implied a “What indeed?”

“Is that all she says?”

She hesitated again. “Yes — that’s all.” As she spoke she tossed the telegram into the basket beneath the writing-table. “As if I didn’t HAVE to go anyhow?” she exclaimed.

With an aching clearness of vision she saw what lay before her — the hurried preparations, the long tedious voyage on a steamer chosen at haphazard, the arrival in the deadly July heat, and the relapse into all the insufferable daily fag of nursery and kitchen — she saw it and her imagination recoiled.

Van Degen’s eyes still hung on her: she guessed that he was intensely engaged in trying to follow what was passing through her mind. Presently he came up to her again, no longer perilous and importunate, but awkwardly tender, ridiculously moved by her distress.

“Undine, listen: won’t you let me make it all right for you to stay?”

Her heart began to beat more quickly, and she let him come close, meeting his eyes coldly but without anger.

“What do you call ‘making it all right’? Paying my bills? Don’t you see that’s what I hate, and will never let myself be dragged into again?” She laid her hand on his arm. “The time has come when I must be sensible, Peter; that’s why we must say good-bye.”

“Do you mean to tell me you’re going back to Ralph?”

She paused a moment; then she murmured between her lips: “I shall never go back to him.”

“Then you DO mean to marry Chelles?”

“I’ve told you we must say good-bye. I’ve got to look out for my future.”

He stood before her, irresolute, tormented, his lazy mind and impatient senses labouring with a problem beyond their power. “Ain’t I here to look out for your future?” he said at last.

“No one shall look out for it in the way you mean. I’d rather never see you again — ”

He gave her a baffled stare. “Oh, damn it — if that’s the way you feel!” He turned and flung away toward the door.

She stood motionless where he left her, every nerve strung to the highest pitch of watchfulness. As she stood there, the scene about her stamped itself on her brain with the sharpest precision. She was aware of the fading of the summer light outside, of the movements of her maid, who was laying out her dinner-dress in the room beyond, and of the fact that the tea-roses on her writing-table, shaken by Van Degen’s tread, were dropping their petals over Ralph’s letter, and down on the crumpled telegram which she could see through the trellised sides of the scrap-basket.

In another moment Van Degen would be gone. Worse yet, while he wavered in the doorway the Shallums and Chelles, after vainly awaiting her, might dash back from the Bois and break in on them. These and other chances rose before her, urging her to action; but she held fast, immovable, unwavering, a proud yet plaintive image of renunciation.

Van Degen’s hand was on the door. He half-opened it and then turned back.

“That’s all you’ve got to say, then?”

“That’s all.”

He jerked the door open and passed out. She saw him stop in the ante-room to pick up his hat and stick, his heavy figure silhouetted against the glare of the wall-lights. A ray of the same light fell on her where she stood in the unlit sitting-room, and her reflection bloomed out like a flower from the mirror that faced her. She looked at the image and waited. Van Degen put his hat on his head and slowly opened the door into the outer hall. Then he turned abruptly, his bulk eclipsing her reflection as he plunged back into the room and came up to her.

“I’ll do anything you say. Undine; I’ll do anything in God’s world to keep you!”

She turned her eyes from the mirror and let them rest on his face, which looked as small and withered as an old man’s, with a lower lip that trembled queerly. . . .

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