The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XXII

When he woke, the first thing he remembered was the fact of having cried.

He could not think how he had come to be such a fool. He hoped to heaven no one had seen him. He supposed he must have been worrying about the unfinished piece of work at the office: where was it, by the way, he wondered? Why — where he had left it the day before, of course! What a ridiculous thing to worry about — but it seemed to follow him about like a dog . . .

He said to himself that he must get up presently and go down to the office. Presently — when he could open his eyes. Just now there was a dead weight on them; he tried one after another in vain. The effort set him weakly trembling, and he wanted to cry again. Nonsense! He must get out of bed.

He stretched his arms out, trying to reach something to pull himself up by; but everything slipped away and evaded him. It was like trying to catch at bright short waves. Then suddenly his fingers clasped themselves about something firm and warm. A hand: a hand that gave back his pressure! The relief was inexpressible. He lay still and let the hand hold him, while mentally he went through the motions of getting up and beginning to dress. So indistinct were the boundaries between thought and action that he really felt himself moving about the room, in a queer disembodied way, as one treads the air in sleep. Then he felt the bedclothes over him and the pillows under his head.

“I MUST get up,” he said, and pulled at the hand.

It pressed him down again: down into a dim deep pool of sleep. He lay there for a long time, in a silent blackness far below light and sound; then he gradually floated to the surface with the buoyancy of a dead body. But his body had never been more alive. Jagged strokes of pain tore through it, hands dragged at it with nails that bit like teeth. They wound thongs about him, bound him, tied weights to him, tried to pull him down with them; but still he floated, floated, danced on the fiery waves of pain, with barbed light pouring down on him from an arrowy sky.

Charmed intervals of rest, blue sailings on melodious seas, alternated with the anguish. He became a leaf on the air, a feather on a current, a straw on the tide, the spray of the wave spinning itself to sunshine as the wave toppled over into gulfs of blue . . .

He woke on a stony beach, his legs and arms still lashed to his sides and the thongs cutting into him; but the fierce sky was hidden, and hidden by his own languid lids. He felt the ecstasy of decreasing pain, and courage came to him to open his eyes and look about him . . .

The beach was his own bed; the tempered light lay on familiar things, and some one was moving about in a shadowy way between bed and window. He was thirsty and some one gave him a drink. His pillow burned, and some one turned the cool side out. His brain was clear enough now for him to understand that he was ill, and to want to talk about it; but his tongue hung in his throat like a clapper in a bell. He must wait till the rope was pulled . . .

So time and life stole back on him, and his thoughts laboured weakly with dim fears. Slowly he cleared a way through them, adjusted himself to his strange state, and found out that he was in his own room, in his grandfather’s house, that alternating with the white-capped faces about him were those of his mother and sister, and that in a few days — if he took his beef-tea and didn’t fret — Paul would be brought up from Long Island, whither, on account of the great heat, he had been carried off by Clare Van Degen.

No one named Undine to him, and he did not speak of her. But one day, as he lay in bed in the summer twilight, he had a vision of a moment, a long way behind him — at the beginning of his illness, it must have been — when he had called out for her in his anguish, and some one had said: “She’s coming: she’ll be here next week.”

Could it be that next week was not yet here? He supposed that illness robbed one of all sense of time, and he lay still, as if in ambush, watching his scattered memories come out one by one and join themselves together. If he watched long enough he was sure he should recognize one that fitted into his picture of the day when he had asked for Undine. And at length a face came out of the twilight: a freckled face, benevolently bent over him under a starched cap. He had not seen the face for a long time, but suddenly it took shape and fitted itself into the picture . . .

Laura Fairford sat near by, a book on her knee. At the sound of his voice she looked up.

“What was the name of the first nurse?”

“The first —?”

“The one that went away.”

“Oh — Miss Hicks, you mean?”

“How long is it since she went?”

“It must be three weeks. She had another case.”

He thought this over carefully; then he spoke again. “Call Undine.”

She made no answer, and he repeated irritably: “Why don’t you call her? I want to speak to her.”

Mrs. Fairford laid down her book and came to him.

“She’s not here — just now.”

He dealt with this also, laboriously. “You mean she’s out — she’s not in the house?”

“I mean she hasn’t come yet.”

As she spoke Ralph felt a sudden strength and hardness in his brain and body. Everything in him became as clear as noon.

“But it was before Miss Hicks left that you told me you’d sent for her, and that she’d be here the following week. And you say Miss Hicks has been gone three weeks.”

This was what he had worked out in his head, and what he meant to say to his sister; but something seemed to snap shut in his throat, and he closed his eyes without speaking.

Even when Mr. Spragg came to see him he said nothing. They talked about his illness, about the hot weather, about the rumours that Harmon B. Driscoll was again threatened with indictment; and then Mr. Spragg pulled himself out of his chair and said: “I presume you’ll call round at the office before you leave the city.”

“Oh, yes: as soon as I’m up,” Ralph answered. They understood each other.

Clare had urged him to come down to Long Island and complete his convalescence there, but he preferred to stay in Washington Square till he should be strong enough for the journey to the Adirondacks, whither Laura had already preceded him with Paul. He did not want to see any one but his mother and grandfather till his legs could carry him to Mr. Spragg’s office. It was an oppressive day in mid-August, with a yellow mist of heat in the sky, when at last he entered the big office-building. Swirls of dust lay on the mosaic floor, and a stale smell of decayed fruit and salt air and steaming asphalt filled the place like a fog. As he shot up in the elevator some one slapped him on the back, and turning he saw Elmer Moffatt at his side, smooth and rubicund under a new straw hat.

Moffatt was loudly glad to see him. “I haven’t laid eyes on you for months. At the old stand still?”

“So am I,” he added, as Ralph assented. “Hope to see you there again some day. Don’t forget it’s MY turn this time: glad if I can be any use to you. So long.” Ralph’s weak bones ached under his handshake.

“How’s Mrs. Marvell?” he turned back from his landing to call out; and Ralph answered: “Thanks; she’s very well.”

Mr. Spragg sat alone in his murky inner office, the fly-blown engraving of Daniel Webster above his head and the congested scrap-basket beneath his feet. He looked fagged and sallow, like the day.

Ralph sat down on the other side of the desk. For a moment his throat contracted as it had when he had tried to question his sister; then he asked: “Where’s Undine?”

Mr. Spragg glanced at the calendar that hung from a hat-peg on the door. Then he released the Masonic emblem from his grasp, drew out his watch and consulted it critically.

“If the train’s on time I presume she’s somewhere between Chicago and Omaha round about now.”

Ralph stared at him, wondering if the heat had gone to his head. “I don’t understand.”

“The Twentieth Century’s generally considered the best route to Dakota,” explained Mr. Spragg, who pronounced the word ROWT.

“Do you mean to say Undine’s in the United States?”

Mr. Spragg’s lower lip groped for the phantom tooth-pick. “Why, let me see: hasn’t Dakota been a state a year or two now?”

“Oh, God — ” Ralph cried, pushing his chair back violently and striding across the narrow room.

As he turned, Mr. Spragg stood up and advanced a few steps. He had given up the quest for the tooth-pick, and his drawn-in lips were no more than a narrow depression in his beard. He stood before Ralph, absently shaking the loose change in his trouser-pockets.

Ralph felt the same hardness and lucidity that had come to him when he had heard his sister’s answer.

“She’s gone, you mean? Left me? With another man?”

Mr. Spragg drew himself up with a kind of slouching majesty. “My daughter is not that style. I understand Undine thinks there have been mistakes on both sides. She considers the tie was formed too hastily. I believe desertion is the usual plea in such cases.”

Ralph stared about him, hardly listening. He did not resent his father-in-law’s tone. In a dim way he guessed that Mr. Spragg was suffering hardly less than himself. But nothing was clear to him save the monstrous fact suddenly upheaved in his path. His wife had left him, and the plan for her evasion had been made and executed while he lay helpless: she had seized the opportunity of his illness to keep him in ignorance of her design. The humour of it suddenly struck him and he laughed.

“Do you mean to tell me that Undine’s divorcing ME?”

“I presume that’s her plan,” Mr. Spragg admitted.

“For desertion?” Ralph pursued, still laughing.

His father-in-law hesitated a moment; then he answered: “You’ve always done all you could for my daughter. There wasn’t any other plea she could think of. She presumed this would be the most agreeable to your family.”

“It was good of her to think of that!”

Mr. Spragg’s only comment was a sigh.

“Does she imagine I won’t fight it?” Ralph broke out with sudden passion.

His father-in-law looked at him thoughtfully. “I presume you realize it ain’t easy to change Undine, once she’s set on a thing.”

“Perhaps not. But if she really means to apply for a divorce I can make it a little less easy for her to get.”

“That’s so,” Mr. Spragg conceded. He turned back to his revolving chair, and seating himself in it began to drum on the desk with cigar-stained fingers.

“And by God, I will!” Ralph thundered. Anger was the only emotion in him now. He had been fooled, cheated, made a mock of; but the score was not settled yet. He turned back and stood before Mr. Spragg.

“I suppose she’s gone with Van Degen?”

“My daughter’s gone alone, sir. I saw her off at the station. I understood she was to join a lady friend.”

At every point Ralph felt his hold slip off the surface of his father-in-law’s impervious fatalism.

“Does she suppose Van Degen’s going to marry her?”

“Undine didn’t mention her future plans to me.” After a moment Mr. Spragg appended: “If she had, I should have declined to discuss them with her.” Ralph looked at him curiously, perceiving that he intended in this negative way to imply his disapproval of his daughter’s course.

“I shall fight it — I shall fight it!” the young man cried again. “You may tell her I shall fight it to the end!”

Mr. Spragg pressed the nib of his pen against the dust-coated inkstand. “I suppose you would have to engage a lawyer. She’ll know it that way,” he remarked.

“She’ll know it — you may count on that!”

Ralph had begun to laugh again. Suddenly he heard his own laugh and it pulled him up. What was he laughing about? What was he talking about? The thing was to act — to hold his tongue and act. There was no use uttering windy threats to this broken-spirited old man.

A fury of action burned in Ralph, pouring light into his mind and strength into his muscles. He caught up his hat and turned to the door.

As he opened it Mr. Spragg rose again and came forward with his slow shambling step. He laid his hand on Ralph’s arm.

“I’d ‘a’ given anything — anything short of my girl herself — not to have this happen to you, Ralph Marvell.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Ralph.

They looked at each other for a moment; then Mr. Spragg added: “But it HAS happened, you know. Bear that in mind. Nothing you can do will change it. Time and again, I’ve found that a good thing to remember.”

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