The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XXIV

“If you’d only had the sense to come straight to me, Undine Spragg! There isn’t a tip I couldn’t have given you — not one!”

This speech, in which a faintly contemptuous compassion for her friend’s case was blent with the frankest pride in her own, probably represented the nearest approach to “tact” that Mrs. James J. Rolliver had yet acquired. Undine was impartial enough to note in it a distinct advance on the youthful methods of Indiana Frusk; yet it required a good deal of self-control to take the words to herself with a smile, while they seemed to be laying a visible scarlet welt across the pale face she kept valiantly turned to her friend. The fact that she must permit herself to be pitied by Indiana Frusk gave her the uttermost measure of the depth to which her fortunes had fallen. This abasement was inflicted on her in the staring gold apartment of the Hotel Nouveau Luxe in which the Rollivers had established themselves on their recent arrival in Paris. The vast drawing-room, adorned only by two high-shouldered gilt baskets of orchids drooping on their wires, reminded Undine of the “Looey suite” in which the opening scenes of her own history had been enacted; and the resemblance and the difference were emphasized by the fact that the image of her past self was not inaccurately repeated in the triumphant presence of Indiana Rolliver.

“There isn’t a tip I couldn’t have given you — not one!” Mrs. Rolliver reproachfully repeated; and all Undine’s superiorities and discriminations seemed to shrivel up in the crude blaze of the other’s solid achievement.

There was little comfort in noting, for one’s private delectation, that Indiana spoke of her husband as “Mr. Rolliver,” that she twanged a piercing R, that one of her shoulders was still higher than the other, and that her striking dress was totally unsuited to the hour, the place and the occasion. She still did and was all that Undine had so sedulously learned not to be and to do; but to dwell on these obstacles to her success was but to be more deeply impressed by the fact that she had nevertheless succeeded.

Not much more than a year had elapsed since Undine Marvell, sitting in the drawing-room of another Parisian hotel, had heard the immense orchestral murmur of Paris rise through the open windows like the ascending movement of her own hopes. The immense murmur still sounded on, deafening and implacable as some elemental force; and the discord in her fate no more disturbed it than the motor wheels rolling by under the windows were disturbed by the particles of dust that they ground to finer powder as they passed.

“I could have told you one thing right off,” Mrs. Rolliver went on with her ringing energy. “And that is, to get your divorce first thing. A divorce is always a good thing to have: you never can tell when you may want it. You ought to have attended to that before you even BEGAN with Peter Van Degen.”

Undine listened, irresistibly impressed. “Did YOU?” she asked; but Mrs. Rolliver, at this, grew suddenly veiled and sibylline. She wound her big bejewelled hand through her pearls — there were ropes and ropes of them — and leaned back, modestly sinking her lids.

“I’m here, anyhow,” she rejoined, with “CIRCUMSPICE!” in look and tone.

Undine, obedient to the challenge, continued to gaze at the pearls. They were real; there was no doubt about that. And so was Indiana’s marriage — if she kept out of certain states.

“Don’t you see,” Mrs. Rolliver continued, “that having to leave him when you did, and rush off to Dakota for six months, was — was giving him too much time to think; and giving it at the wrong time, too?” “Oh, I see. But what could I do? I’m not an immoral woman.”

“Of course not, dearest. You were merely thoughtless that’s what I meant by saying you ought to have had your divorce ready.”

A flicker of self-esteem caused Undine to protest. “It wouldn’t have made any difference. His wife would never have given him up.”

“She’s so crazy about him?”

“No: she hates him so. And she hates me too, because she’s in love with my husband.”

Indiana bounced out of her lounging attitude and struck her hands together with a rattle of rings.

“In love with your husband? What’s the matter, then? Why on earth didn’t the four of you fix it up together?”

“You don’t understand.” (It was an undoubted relief to be able, at last, to say that to Indiana!) “Clare Van Degen thinks divorce wrong — or rather awfully vulgar.”

“VULGAR?” Indiana flamed. “If that isn’t just too much! A woman who’s in love with another woman’s husband? What does she think refined, I’d like to know? Having a lover, I suppose — like the women in these nasty French plays? I’ve told Mr. Rolliver I won’t go to the theatre with him again in Paris — it’s too utterly low. And the swell society’s just as bad: it’s simply rotten. Thank goodness I was brought up in a place where there’s some sense of decency left!” She looked compassionately at Undine. “It was New York that demoralized you — and I don’t blame you for it. Out at Apex you’d have acted different. You never NEVER would have given way to your feelings before you’d got your divorce.”

A slow blush rose to Undine’s forehead.

“He seemed so unhappy — ” she murmured.

“Oh, I KNOW!” said Indiana in a tone of cold competence. She gave Undine an impatient glance. “What was the understanding between you, when you left Europe last August to go out to Dakota?”

“Peter was to go to Reno in the autumn — so that it wouldn’t look too much as if we were acting together. I was to come to Chicago to see him on his way out there.”

“And he never came?”

“No.”

“And he stopped writing?”

“Oh, he never writes.”

Indiana heaved a deep sigh of intelligence. “There’s one perfectly clear rule: never let out of your sight a man who doesn’t write.”

“I know. That’s why I stayed with him — those few weeks last summer. . . . ”

Indiana sat thinking, her fine shallow eyes fixed unblinkingly on her friend’s embarrassed face.

“I suppose there isn’t anybody else —?”

“Anybody —?”

“Well — now you’ve got your divorce: anybody else it would come in handy for?”

This was harder to bear than anything that had gone before: Undine could not have borne it if she had not had a purpose. “Mr. Van Degen owes it to me — ” she began with an air of wounded dignity.

“Yes, yes: I know. But that’s just talk. If there IS anybody else — ”

“I can’t imagine what you think of me, Indiana!”

Indiana, without appearing to resent this challenge, again lost herself in meditation.

“Well, I’ll tell him he’s just GOT to see you,” she finally emerged from it to say.

Undine gave a quick upward look: this was what she had been waiting for ever since she had read, a few days earlier, in the columns of her morning journal, that Mr. Peter Van Degen and Mr. and Mrs. James J. Rolliver had been fellow-passengers on board the Semantic. But she did not betray her expectations by as much as the tremor of an eye-lash. She knew her friend well enough to pour out to her the expected tribute of surprise.

“Why, do you mean to say you know him, Indiana?”

“Mercy, yes! He’s round here all the time. He crossed on the steamer with us, and Mr. Rolliver’s taken a fancy to him,” Indiana explained, in the tone of the absorbed bride to whom her husband’s preferences are the sole criterion.

Undine turned a tear-suffused gaze on her. “Oh, Indiana, if I could only see him again I know it would be all right! He’s awfully, awfully fond of me; but his family have influenced him against me — ”

“I know what THAT is!” Mrs. Rolliver interjected.

“But perhaps,” Undine continued, “it would be better if I could meet him first without his knowing beforehand — without your telling him . . . I love him too much to reproach him!” she added nobly.

Indiana pondered: it was clear that, though the nobility of the sentiment impressed her, she was disinclined to renounce the idea of taking a more active part in her friend’s rehabilitation. But Undine went on: “Of course you’ve found out by this time that he’s just a big spoiled baby. Afterward — when I’ve seen him — if you’d talk to him; or it you’d only just let him BE with you, and see how perfectly happy you and Mr. Rolliver are!”

Indiana seized on this at once. “You mean that what he wants is the influence of a home like ours? Yes, yes, I understand. I tell you what I’ll do: I’ll just ask him round to dine, and let you know the day, without telling him beforehand that you’re coming.”

“Oh, Indiana!” Undine held her in a close embrace, and then drew away to say: “I’m so glad I found you. You must go round with me everywhere. There are lots of people here I want you to know.”

Mrs. Rolliver’s expression changed from vague sympathy to concentrated interest. “I suppose it’s awfully gay here? Do you go round a great deal with the American set?”

Undine hesitated for a fraction of a moment. “There are a few of them who are rather jolly. But I particularly want you to meet my friend the Marquis Roviano — he’s from Rome; and a lovely Austrian woman, Baroness Adelschein.”

Her friend’s face was brushed by a shade of distrust. “I don’t know as I care much about meeting foreigners,” she said indifferently.

Undine smiled: it was agreeable at last to be able to give Indiana a “point” as valuable as any of hers on divorce.

“Oh, some of them are awfully attractive; and THEY’LL make you meet the Americans.”

Indiana caught this on the bound: one began to see why she had got on in spite of everything.

“Of course I’d love to know your friends,” she said, kissing Undine; who answered, giving back the kiss:

“You know there’s nothing on earth I wouldn’t do for you.”

Indiana drew back to look at her with a comic grimace under which a shade of anxiety was visible. “Well, that’s a pretty large order. But there’s just one thing you CAN do, dearest: please to let Mr. Rolliver alone!”

“Mr. Rolliver, my dear?” Undine’s laugh showed that she took this for unmixed comedy. “That’s a nice way to remind me that you’re heaps and heaps better-looking than I am!”

Indiana gave her an acute glance. “Millard Binch didn’t think so — not even at the very end.”

“Oh, poor Millard!” The women’s smiles mingled easily over the common reminiscence, and once again, on the threshold. Undine enfolded her friend. In the light of the autumn afternoon she paused a moment at the door of the Nouveau Luxe, and looked aimlessly forth at the brave spectacle in which she seemed no longer to have a stake.

Many of her old friends had already returned to Paris: the Harvey Shallums, May Beringer, Dicky Bowles and other westward-bound nomads lingering on for a glimpse of the autumn theatres and fashions before hurrying back to inaugurate the New York season. A year ago Undine would have had no difficulty in introducing Indiana Rolliver to this group — a group above which her own aspirations already beat an impatient wing. Now her place in it had become too precarious for her to force an entrance for her protectress. Her New York friends were at no pains to conceal from her that in their opinion her divorce had been a blunder. Their logic was that of Apex reversed. Since she had not been “sure” of Van Degen, why in the world, they asked, had she thrown away a position she WAS sure of? Mrs. Harvey Shallum, in particular, had not scrupled to put the question squarely. “Chelles was awfully taken — he would have introduced you everywhere. I thought you were wild to know smart French people; I thought Harvey and I weren’t good enough for you any longer. And now you’ve done your best to spoil everything! Of course I feel for you tremendously — that’s the reason why I’m talking so frankly. You must be horribly depressed. Come and dine to-night — or no, if you don’t mind I’d rather you chose another evening. I’d forgotten that I’d asked the Jim Driscolls, and it might be uncomfortable — for YOU. . . . ”

In another world she was still welcome, at first perhaps even more so than before: the world, namely, to which she had proposed to present Indiana Rolliver. Roviano, Madame Adelschein, and a few of the freer spirits of her old St. Moritz band, reappearing in Paris with the close of the watering-place season, had quickly discovered her and shown a keen interest in her liberation. It appeared in some mysterious way to make her more available for their purpose, and she found that, in the character of the last American divorcee, she was even regarded as eligible to the small and intimate inner circle of their loosely-knit association. At first she could not make out what had entitled her to this privilege, and increasing enlightenment produced a revolt of the Apex puritanism which, despite some odd accommodations and compliances, still carried its head so high in her.

Undine had been perfectly sincere in telling Indiana Rolliver that she was not “an Immoral woman.” The pleasures for which her sex took such risks had never attracted her, and she did not even crave the excitement of having it thought that they did. She wanted, passionately and persistently, two things which she believed should subsist together in any well-ordered life: amusement and respectability; and despite her surface-sophistication her notion of amusement was hardly less innocent than when she had hung on the plumber’s fence with Indiana Frusk. It gave her, therefore, no satisfaction to find herself included among Madame Adelschein’s intimates. It embarrassed her to feel that she was expected to be “queer” and “different,” to respond to pass-words and talk in innuendo, to associate with the equivocal and the subterranean and affect to despise the ingenuous daylight joys which really satisfied her soul. But the business shrewdness which was never quite dormant in her suggested that this was not the moment for such scruples. She must make the best of what she could get and wait her chance of getting something better; and meanwhile the most practical use to which she could put her shady friends was to flash their authentic nobility in the dazzled eyes of Mrs. Rolliver.

With this object in view she made haste, in a fashionable tea-room of the rue de Rivoli, to group about Indiana the most titled members of the band; and the felicity of the occasion would have been unmarred had she not suddenly caught sight of Raymond de Chelles sitting on the other side of the room.

She had not seen Chelles since her return to Paris. It had seemed preferable to leave their meeting to chance and the present chance might have served as well as another but for the fact that among his companions were two or three of the most eminent ladies of the proud quarter beyond the Seine. It was what Undine, in moments of discouragement, characterized as “her luck” that one of these should be the hated Miss Wincher of Potash Springs, who had now become the Marquise de Trezac. Undine knew that Chelles and his compatriots, however scandalized at her European companions, would be completely indifferent to Mrs. Rolliver’s appearance; but one gesture of Madame de Trezac’s eye-glass would wave Indiana to her place and thus brand the whole party as “wrong.”

All this passed through Undine’s mind in the very moment of her noting the change of expression with which Chelles had signalled his recognition. If their encounter could have occurred in happier conditions it might have had far-reaching results. As it was, the crowded state of the tea-room, and the distance between their tables, sufficiently excused his restricting his greeting to an eager bow; and Undine went home heavy-hearted from this first attempt to reconstruct her past.

Her spirits were not lightened by the developments of the next few days. She kept herself well in the foreground of Indiana’s life, and cultivated toward the rarely-visible Rolliver a manner in which impersonal admiration for the statesman was tempered with the politest indifference to the man. Indiana seemed to do justice to her efforts and to be reassured by the result; but still there came no hint of a reward. For a time Undine restrained the question on her lips; but one afternoon, when she had inducted Indiana into the deepest mysteries of Parisian complexion-making, the importance of the service and the confidential mood it engendered seemed to warrant a discreet allusion to their bargain.

Indiana leaned back among her cushions with an embarrassed laugh.

“Oh, my dear, I’ve been meaning to tell you — it’s off, I’m afraid. The dinner is, I mean. You see, Mr. Van Degen has seen you ‘round with me, and the very minute I asked him to come and dine he guessed — ”

“He guessed — and he wouldn’t?”

“Well, no. He wouldn’t. I hate to tell you.”

“Oh — ” Undine threw off a vague laugh. “Since you’re intimate enough for him to tell you THAT he must, have told you more — told you something to justify his behaviour. He couldn’t — even Peter Van Degen couldn’t — just simply have said to you: ‘I wont see her.’”

Mrs. Rolliver hesitated, visibly troubled to the point of regretting her intervention.

“He DID say more?” Undine insisted. “He gave you a reason?

“He said you’d know.”

“Oh how base — how base!” Undine was trembling with one of her little-girl rages, the storms of destructive fury before which Mr. and Mrs. Spragg had cowered when she was a charming golden-curled cherub. But life had administered some of the discipline which her parents had spared her, and she pulled herself together with a gasp of pain. “Of course he’s been turned against me. His wife has the whole of New York behind her, and I’ve no one; but I know it would be all right if I could only see him.”

Her friend made no answer, and Undine pursued, with an irrepressible outbreak of her old vehemence: “Indiana Rolliver, if you won’t do it for me I’ll go straight off to his hotel this very minute. I’ll wait there in the hall till he sees me!”

Indiana lifted a protesting hand. “Don’t, Undine — not that!”

“Why not?”

“Well — I wouldn’t, that’s all.”

“You wouldn’t? Why wouldn’t you? You must have a reason.” Undine faced her with levelled brows. “Without a reason you can’t have changed so utterly since our last talk. You were positive enough then that I had a right to make him see me.”

Somewhat to her surprise, Indiana made no effort to elude the challenge. “Yes, I did think so then. But I know now that it wouldn’t do you the least bit of good.”

“Have they turned him so completely against me? I don’t care if they have! I know him — I can get him back.”

“That’s the trouble.” Indiana shed on her a gaze of cold compassion. “It’s not that any one has turned him against you. It’s worse than that — ”

“What can be?”

“You’ll hate me if I tell you.”

“Then you’d better make him tell me himself!”

“I can’t. I tried to. The trouble is that it was YOU— something you did, I mean. Something he found out about you — ”

Undine, to restrain a spring of anger, had to clutch both arms of her chair. “About me? How fearfully false! Why, I’ve never even LOOKED at anybody —!”

“It’s nothing of that kind.” Indiana’s mournful head-shake seemed to deplore, in Undine, an unsuspected moral obtuseness. “It’s the way you acted to your own husband.”

“I— my — to Ralph? HE reproaches me for that? Peter Van Degen does?” “Well, for one particular thing. He says that the very day you went off with him last year you got a cable from New York telling you to come back at once to Mr. Marvell, who was desperately ill.”

“How on earth did he know?” The cry escaped Undine before she could repress it.

“It’s true, then?” Indiana exclaimed. “Oh, Undine — ”

Undine sat speechless and motionless, the anger frozen to terror on her lips.

Mrs. Rolliver turned on her the reproachful gaze of the deceived benefactress. “I didn’t believe it when he told me; I’d never have thought it of you. Before you’d even applied for your divorce!”

Undine made no attempt to deny the charge or to defend herself. For a moment she was lost in the pursuit of an unseizable clue — the explanation of this monstrous last perversity of fate. Suddenly she rose to her feet with a set face.

“The Marvells must have told him — the beasts!” It relieved her to be able to cry it out.

“It was your husband’s sister — what did you say her name was? When you didn’t answer her cable, she cabled Mr. Van Degen to find out where you were and tell you to come straight back.”

Undine stared. “He never did!”

“No.”

“Doesn’t that show you the story’s all trumped up?”

Indiana shook her head. “He said nothing to you about it because he was with you when you received the first cable, and you told him it was from your sister-in-law, just worrying you as usual to go home; and when he asked if there was anything else in it you said there wasn’t another thing.”

Undine, intently following her, caught at this with a spring. “Then he knew it all along — he admits that? And it made no earthly difference to him at the time?” She turned almost victoriously on her friend. “Did he happen to explain THAT, I wonder?”

“Yes.” Indiana’s longanimity grew almost solemn. “It came over him gradually, he said. One day when he wasn’t feeling very well he thought to himself: ‘Would she act like that to ME if I was dying?’ And after that he never felt the same to you.” Indiana lowered her empurpled lids. “Men have their feelings too — even when they’re carried away by passion.” After a pause she added: “I don’t know as I can blame him. Undine. You see, you were his ideal.”

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