The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XXVI

The next phase in the unrolling vision was the episode of her return to New York. She had gone to the Malibran, to her parents — for it was a moment in her career when she clung passionately to the conformities, and when the fact of being able to say: “I’m here with my father and mother” was worth paying for even in the discomfort of that grim abode. Nevertheless, it was another thorn in her pride that her parents could not — for the meanest of material reasons — transfer themselves at her coming to one of the big Fifth Avenue hotels. When she had suggested it Mr. Spragg had briefly replied that, owing to the heavy expenses of her divorce suit, he couldn’t for the moment afford anything better; and this announcement cast a deeper gloom over the future.

It was not an occasion for being “nervous,” however; she had learned too many hard facts in the last few months to think of having recourse to her youthful methods. And something told her that if she made the attempt it would be useless. Her father and mother seemed much older, seemed tired and defeated, like herself.

Parents and daughter bore their common failure in a common silence, broken only by Mrs. Spragg’s occasional tentative allusions to her grandson. But her anecdotes of Paul left a deeper silence behind them. Undine did not want to talk of her boy. She could forget him when, as she put it, things were “going her way,” but in moments of discouragement the thought of him was an added bitterness, subtly different from her other bitter thoughts, and harder to quiet. It had not occurred to her to try to gain possession of the child. She was vaguely aware that the courts had given her his custody; but she had never seriously thought of asserting this claim. Her parents’ diminished means and her own uncertain future made her regard the care of Paul as an additional burden, and she quieted her scruples by thinking of him as “better off” with Ralph’s family, and of herself as rather touchingly disinterested in putting his welfare before her own. Poor Mrs. Spragg was pining for him, but Undine rejected her artless suggestion that Mrs. Heeny should be sent to “bring him round.” “I wouldn’t ask them a favour for the world — they’re just waiting for a chance to be hateful to me,” she scornfully declared; but it pained her that her boy, should be so near, yet inaccessible, and for the first time she was visited by unwonted questionings as to her share in the misfortunes that had befallen her. She had voluntarily stepped out of her social frame, and the only person on whom she could with any satisfaction have laid the blame was the person to whom her mind now turned with a belated tenderness. It was thus, in fact, that she thought of Ralph. His pride, his reserve, all the secret expressions of his devotion, the tones of his voice, his quiet manner, even his disconcerting irony: these seemed, in contrast to what she had since known, the qualities essential to her happiness. She could console herself only by regarding it as part of her sad lot that poverty and the relentless animosity of his family, should have put an end to so perfect a union: she gradually began to look on herself and Ralph as the victims of dark machinations, and when she mentioned him she spoke forgivingly, and implied that “everything might have been different” if “people” had not “come between” them. She had arrived in New York in midseason, and the dread of seeing familiar faces kept her shut up in her room at the Malibran, reading novels and brooding over possibilities of escape. She tried to avoid the daily papers, but they formed the staple diet of her parents, and now and then she could not help taking one up and turning to the “Society Column.” Its perusal produced the impression that the season must be the gayest New York had ever known. The Harmon B. Driscolls, young Jim and his wife, the Thurber Van Degens, the Chauncey Ellings, and all the other Fifth Avenue potentates, seemed to have their doors perpetually open to a stream of feasters among whom the familiar presences of Grace Beringer, Bertha Shallum, Dicky Bowles and Claud Walsingham Popple came and went with the irritating sameness of the figures in a stage-procession.

Among them also Peter Van Degen presently appeared. He had been on a tour around the world, and Undine could not look at a newspaper without seeing some allusion to his progress. After his return she noticed that his name was usually coupled with his wife’s: he and Clare seemed to be celebrating his home-coming in a series of festivities, and Undine guessed that he had reasons for wishing to keep before the world the evidences of his conjugal accord.

Mrs. Heeny’s clippings supplied her with such items as her own reading missed; and one day the masseuse appeared with a long article from the leading journal of Little Rock, describing the brilliant nuptials of Mabel Lipscomb — now Mrs. Homer Branney — and her departure for “the Coast” in the bridegroom’s private car. This put the last touch to Undine’s irritation, and the next morning she got up earlier than usual, put on her most effective dress, went for a quick walk around the Park, and told her father when she came in that she wanted him to take her to the opera that evening.

Mr. Spragg stared and frowned. “You mean you want me to go round and hire a box for you?”

“Oh, no.” Undine coloured at the infelicitous allusion: besides, she knew now that the smart people who were “musical” went in stalls.

“I only want two good seats. I don’t see why I should stay shut up. I want you to go with me,” she added.

Her father received the latter part of the request without comment: he seemed to have gone beyond surprise. But he appeared that evening at dinner in a creased and loosely fitting dress-suit which he had probably not put on since the last time he had dined with his son-in-law, and he and Undine drove off together, leaving Mrs. Spragg to gaze after them with the pale stare of Hecuba.

Their stalls were in the middle of the house, and around them swept the great curve of boxes at which Undine had so often looked up in the remote Stentorian days. Then all had been one indistinguishable glitter, now the scene was full of familiar details: the house was thronged with people she knew, and every box seemed to contain a parcel of her past. At first she had shrunk from recognition; but gradually, as she perceived that no one noticed her, that she was merely part of the invisible crowd out of range of the exploring opera glasses, she felt a defiant desire to make herself seen. When the performance was over her father wanted to leave the house by the door at which they had entered, but she guided him toward the stockholders’ entrance, and pressed her way among the furred and jewelled ladies waiting for their motors. “Oh, it’s the wrong door — never mind, we’ll walk to the corner and get a cab,” she exclaimed, speaking loudly enough to be overheard. Two or three heads turned, and she met Dicky Bowles’s glance, and returned his laughing bow. The woman talking to him looked around, coloured slightly, and made a barely perceptible motion of her head. Just beyond her, Mrs. Chauncey Elling, plumed and purple, stared, parted her lips, and turned to say something important to young Jim Driscoll, who looked up involuntarily and then squared his shoulders and gazed fixedly at a distant point, as people do at a funeral. Behind them Undine caught sight of Clare Van Degen; she stood alone, and her face was pale and listless. “Shall I go up and speak to her?” Undine wondered. Some intuition told her that, alone of all the women present, Clare might have greeted her kindly; but she hung back, and Mrs. Harmon Driscoll surged by on Popple’s arm. Popple crimsoned, coughed, and signalled despotically to Mrs. Driscoll’s footman. Over his shoulder Undine received a bow from Charles Bowen, and behind Bowen she saw two or three other men she knew, and read in their faces surprise, curiosity, and the wish to show their pleasure at seeing her. But she grasped her father’s arm and drew him out among the entangled motors and vociferating policemen.

Neither she nor Mr. Spragg spoke a word on the way home; but when they reached the Malibran her father followed her up to her room. She had dropped her cloak and stood before the wardrobe mirror studying her reflection when he came up behind her and she saw that he was looking at it too.

“Where did that necklace come from?”

Undine’s neck grew pink under the shining circlet. It was the first time since her return to New York that she had put on a low dress and thus uncovered the string of pearls she always wore. She made no answer, and Mr. Spragg continued: “Did your husband give them to you?”

“RALPH!” She could not restrain a laugh.

“Who did, then?”

Undine remained silent. She really had not thought about the pearls, except in so far as she consciously enjoyed the pleasure of possessing them; and her father, habitually so unobservant, had seemed the last person likely to raise the awkward question of their origin.

“Why — ” she began, without knowing what she meant to say.

“I guess you better send ’em back to the party they belong to,” Mr. Spragg continued, in a voice she did not know.

“They belong to me!” she flamed up. He looked at her as if she had grown suddenly small and insignificant. “You better send ’em back to Peter Van Degen the first thing to-morrow morning,” he said as he went out of the room. As far as Undine could remember, it was the first time in her life that he had ever ordered her to do anything; and when the door closed on him she had the distinct sense that the question had closed with it, and that she would have to obey. She took the pearls off and threw them from her angrily. The humiliation her father had inflicted on her was merged with the humiliation to which she had subjected herself in going to the opera, and she had never before hated her life as she hated it then.

All night she lay sleepless, wondering miserably what to do; and out of her hatred of her life, and her hatred of Peter Van Degen, there gradually grew a loathing of Van Degen’s pearls. How could she have kept them; how have continued to wear them about her neck! Only her absorption in other cares could have kept her from feeling the humiliation of carrying about with her the price of her shame. Her novel-reading had filled her mind with the vocabulary of outraged virtue, and with pathetic allusions to woman’s frailty, and while she pitied herself she thought her father heroic. She was proud to think that she had such a man to defend her, and rejoiced that it was in her power to express her scorn of Van Degen by sending back his jewels.

But her righteous ardour gradually cooled, and she was left once more to face the dreary problem of the future. Her evening at the opera had shown her the impossibility of remaining in New York. She had neither the skill nor the power to fight the forces of indifference leagued against her: she must get away at once, and try to make a fresh start. But, as usual, the lack of money hampered her. Mr. Spragg could no longer afford to make her the allowance she had intermittently received from him during the first years of her marriage, and since she was now without child or household she could hardly make it a grievance that he had reduced her income. But what he allowed her, even with the addition of her alimony, was absurdly insufficient. Not that she looked far ahead; she had always felt herself predestined to ease and luxury, and the possibility of a future adapted to her present budget did not occur to her. But she desperately wanted enough money to carry her without anxiety through the coming year.

When her breakfast tray was brought in she sent it away untouched and continued to lie in her darkened room. She knew that when she got up she must send back the pearls; but there was no longer any satisfaction in the thought, and she lay listlessly wondering how she could best transmit them to Van Degen.

As she lay there she heard Mrs. Heeny’s voice in the passage. Hitherto she had avoided the masseuse, as she did every one else associated with her past. Mrs. Heeny had behaved with extreme discretion, refraining from all direct allusions to Undine’s misadventure; but her silence was obviously the criticism of a superior mind. Once again Undine had disregarded her injunction to “go slow,” with results that justified the warning. Mrs. Heeny’s very reserve, however, now marked her as a safe adviser; and Undine sprang up and called her in. “My sakes. Undine! You look’s if you’d been setting up all night with a remains!” the masseuse exclaimed in her round rich tones.

Undine, without answering, caught up the pearls and thrust them into Mrs. Heeny’s hands.

“Good land alive!” The masseuse dropped into a chair and let the twist slip through her fat flexible fingers. “Well, you got a fortune right round your neck whenever you wear them, Undine Spragg.”

Undine murmured something indistinguishable. “I want you to take them — ” she began.

“Take ’em? Where to?”

“Why, to — ” She was checked by the wondering simplicity of Mrs. Heeny’s stare. The masseuse must know where the pearls had come from, yet it had evidently not occurred to her that Mrs. Marvell was about to ask her to return them to their donor. In the light of Mrs. Heeny’s unclouded gaze the whole episode took on a different aspect, and Undine began to be vaguely astonished at her immediate submission to her father’s will. The pearls were hers, after all!

“To be re-strung?” Mrs. Heeny placidly suggested. “Why, you’d oughter to have it done right here before your eyes, with pearls that are worth what these are.”

As Undine listened, a new thought shaped itself. She could not continue to wear the pearls: the idea had become intolerable. But for the first time she saw what they might be converted into, and what they might rescue her from; and suddenly she brought out: “Do you suppose I could get anything for them?”

“Get anything? Why, what — ”

“Anything like what they’re worth, I mean. They cost a lot of money: they came from the biggest place in Paris.” Under Mrs. Heeny’s simplifying eye it was comparatively easy to make these explanations. “I want you to try and sell them for me — I want you to do the best you can with them. I can’t do it myself — but you must swear you’ll never tell a soul,” she pressed on breathlessly.

“Why, you poor child — it ain’t the first time,” said Mrs. Heeny, coiling the pearls in her big palm. “It’s a pity too: they’re such beauties. But you’ll get others,” she added, as the necklace vanished into her bag.

A few days later there appeared from the same receptacle a bundle of banknotes considerable enough to quiet Undine’s last scruples. She no longer understood why she had hesitated. Why should she have thought it necessary to give back the pearls to Van Degen? His obligation to her represented far more than the relatively small sum she had been able to realize on the necklace. She hid the money in her dress, and when Mrs. Heeny had gone on to Mrs. Spragg’s room she drew the packet out, and counting the bills over, murmured to herself: “Now I can get away!”

Her one thought was to return to Europe; but she did not want to go alone. The vision of her solitary figure adrift in the spring mob of trans-Atlantic pleasure-seekers depressed and mortified her. She would be sure to run across acquaintances, and they would infer that she was in quest of a new opportunity, a fresh start, and would suspect her of trying to use them for the purpose. The thought was repugnant to her newly awakened pride, and she decided that if she went to Europe her father and mother must go with her. The project was a bold one, and when she broached it she had to run the whole gamut of Mr. Spragg’s irony. He wanted to know what she expected to do with him when she got him there; whether she meant to introduce him to “all those old Kings,” how she thought he and her mother would look in court dress, and how she supposed he was going to get on without his New York paper. But Undine had been aware of having what he himself would have called “a pull” over her father since, the day after their visit to the opera, he had taken her aside to ask: “You sent back those pearls?” and she had answered coldly: “Mrs. Heeny’s taken them.”

After a moment of half-bewildered resistance her parents, perhaps secretly flattered by this first expression of her need for them, had yielded to her entreaty, packed their trunks, and stoically set out for the unknown. Neither Mr. Spragg nor his wife had ever before been out of their country; and Undine had not understood, till they stood beside her tongue-tied and helpless on the dock at Cherbourg, the task she had undertaken in uprooting them. Mr. Spragg had never been physically active, but on foreign shores he was seized by a strange restlessness, and a helpless dependence on his daughter. Mrs. Spragg’s long habit of apathy was overcome by her dread of being left alone when her husband and Undine went out, and she delayed and impeded their expeditions by insisting on accompanying them; so that, much as Undine disliked sightseeing, there seemed no alternative between “going round” with her parents and shutting herself up with them in the crowded hotels to which she successively transported them.

The hotels were the only European institutions that really interested Mr. Spragg. He considered them manifestly inferior to those at home; but he was haunted by a statistical curiosity as to their size, their number, their cost and their capacity for housing and feeding the incalculable hordes of his countrymen. He went through galleries, churches and museums in a stolid silence like his daughter’s; but in the hotels he never ceased to enquire and investigate, questioning every one who could speak English, comparing bills, collecting prospectuses and computing the cost of construction and the probable return on the investment. He regarded the non-existence of the cold-storage system as one more proof of European inferiority, and no longer wondered, in the absence of the room-to-room telephone, that foreigners hadn’t yet mastered the first principles of time-saving.

After a few weeks it became evident to both parents and daughter that their unnatural association could not continue much longer. Mrs. Spragg’s shrinking from everything new and unfamiliar had developed into a kind of settled terror, and Mr. Spragg had begun to be depressed by the incredible number of the hotels and their simply incalculable housing capacity.

“It ain’t that they’re any great shakes in themselves, any one of ’em; but there’s such a darned lot of ’em: they’re as thick as mosquitoes, every place you go.” And he began to reckon up, on slips of paper, on the backs of bills and the margins of old newspapers, the number of travellers who could be simultaneously lodged, bathed and boarded on the continent of Europe. “Five hundred bedrooms — three hundred bathrooms — no; three hundred and fifty bathrooms, that one has: that makes, supposing two-thirds of ’em double up — do you s’pose as many as that do, Undie? That porter at Lucerne told me the Germans slept three in a room — well, call it eight hundred people; and three meals a day per head; no, four meals, with that afternoon tea they take; and the last place we were at — ‘way up on that mountain there — why, there were seventy-five hotels in that one spot alone, and all jam full — well, it beats me to know where all the people come from . . . ”

He had gone on in this fashion for what seemed to his daughter an endless length of days; and then suddenly he had roused himself to say: “See here, Undie, I got to go back and make the money to pay for all this.”

There had been no question on the part of any of the three of Undine’s returning with them; and after she had conveyed them to their steamer, and seen their vaguely relieved faces merged in the handkerchief-waving throng along the taffrail, she had returned alone to Paris and made her unsuccessful attempt to enlist the aid of Indiana Rolliver.

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