The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XXVII

She was still brooding over this last failure when one afternoon, as she loitered on the hotel terrace, she was approached by a young woman whom she had seen sitting near the wheeled chair of an old lady wearing a crumpled black bonnet under a funny fringed parasol with a jointed handle.

The young woman, who was small, slight and brown, was dressed with a disregard of the fashion which contrasted oddly with the mauve powder on her face and the traces of artificial colour in her dark untidy hair. She looked as if she might have several different personalities, and as if the one of the moment had been hanging up a long time in her wardrobe and been hurriedly taken down as probably good enough for the present occasion.

With her hands in her jacket pockets, and an agreeable smile on her boyish face, she strolled up to Undine and asked, in a pretty variety of Parisian English, if she had the pleasure of speaking to Mrs. Marvell.

On Undine’s assenting, the smile grew more alert and the lady continued: “I think you know my friend Sacha Adelschein?”

No question could have been less welcome to Undine. If there was one point on which she was doggedly and puritanically resolved, it was that no extremes of social adversity should ever again draw her into the group of people among whom Madame Adelschein too conspicuously figured. Since her unsuccessful attempt to win over Indiana by introducing her to that group, Undine had been righteously resolved to remain aloof from it; and she was drawing herself up to her loftiest height of disapproval when the stranger, as if unconscious of it, went on: “Sacha speaks of you so often — she admires you so much. — I think you know also my cousin Chelles,” she added, looking into Undine’s eyes. “I am the Princess Estradina. I’ve come here with my mother for the air.”

The murmur of negation died on Undine’s lips. She found herself grappling with a new social riddle, and such surprises were always stimulating. The name of the untidy-looking young woman she had been about to repel was one of the most eminent in the impregnable quarter beyond the Seine. No one figured more largely in the Parisian chronicle than the Princess Estradina, and no name more impressively headed the list at every marriage, funeral and philanthropic entertainment of the Faubourg Saint Germain than that of her mother, the Duchesse de Dordogne, who must be no other than the old woman sitting in the Bath-chair with the crumpled bonnet and the ridiculous sunshade.

But it was not the appearance of the two ladies that surprised Undine. She knew that social gold does not always glitter, and that the lady she had heard spoken of as Lili Estradina was notoriously careless of the conventions; but that she should boast of her intimacy with Madame Adelschein, and use it as a pretext for naming herself, overthrew all Undine’s hierarchies.

“Yes — it’s hideously dull here, and I’m dying of it. Do come over and speak to my mother. She’s dying of it too; but don’t tell her so, because she hasn’t found it out. There were so many things our mothers never found out,” the Princess rambled on, with her half-mocking half-intimate smile; and in another moment Undine, thrilled at having Mrs. Spragg thus coupled with a Duchess, found herself seated between mother and daughter, and responding by a radiant blush to the elder lady’s amiable opening: “You know my nephew Raymond — he’s your great admirer.”

How had it happened, whither would it lead, how long could it last? The questions raced through Undine’s brain as she sat listening to her new friends — they seemed already too friendly to be called acquaintances! — replying to their enquiries, and trying to think far enough ahead to guess what they would expect her to say, and what tone it would be well to take. She was used to such feats of mental agility, and it was instinctive with her to become, for the moment, the person she thought her interlocutors expected her to be; but she had never had quite so new a part to play at such short notice. She took her cue, however, from the fact that the Princess Estradina, in her mother’s presence, made no farther allusion to her dear friend Sacha, and seemed somehow, though she continued to chat on in the same easy strain, to look differently and throw out different implications. All these shades of demeanour were immediately perceptible to Undine, who tried to adapt herself to them by combining in her manner a mixture of Apex dash and New York dignity; and the result was so successful that when she rose to go the Princess, with a hand on her arm, said almost wistfully: “You’re staying on too? Then do take pity on us! We might go on some trips together; and in the evenings we could make a bridge.”

A new life began for Undine. The Princess, chained her mother’s side, and frankly restive under her filial duty, clung to her new acquaintance with a persistence too flattering to be analyzed. “My dear, I was on the brink of suicide when I saw your name in the visitors’ list,” she explained; and Undine felt like answering that she had nearly reached the same pass when the Princess’s thin little hand had been held out to her. For the moment she was dizzy with the effect of that random gesture. Here she was, at the lowest ebb of her fortunes, miraculously rehabilitated, reinstated, and restored to the old victorious sense of her youth and her power! Her sole graces, her unaided personality, had worked the miracle; how should she not trust in them hereafter?

Aside from her feeling of concrete attainment. Undine was deeply interested in her new friends. The Princess and her mother, in their different ways, were different from any one else she had known. The Princess, who might have been of any age between twenty and forty, had a small triangular face with caressing impudent eyes, a smile like a silent whistle and the gait of a baker’s boy balancing his basket. She wore either baggy shabby clothes like a man’s, or rich draperies that looked as if they had been rained on; and she seemed equally at ease in either style of dress, and carelessly unconscious of both. She was extremely familiar and unblushingly inquisitive, but she never gave Undine the time to ask her any questions or the opportunity to venture on any freedom with her. Nevertheless she did not scruple to talk of her sentimental experiences, and seemed surprised, and rather disappointed, that Undine had so few to relate in return. She playfully accused her beautiful new friend of being cachottiere, and at the sight of Undine’s blush cried out: “Ah, you funny Americans! Why do you all behave as if love were a secret infirmity?”

The old Duchess was even more impressive, because she fitted better into Undine’s preconceived picture of the Faubourg Saint Germain, and was more like the people with whom she pictured the former Nettie Wincher as living in privileged intimacy. The Duchess was, indeed, more amiable and accessible than Undine’s conception of a Duchess, and displayed a curiosity as great as her daughter’s, and much more puerile, concerning her new friend’s history and habits. But through her mild prattle, and in spite of her limited perceptions. Undine felt in her the same clear impenetrable barrier that she ran against occasionally in the Princess; and she was beginning to understand that this barrier represented a number of things about which she herself had yet to learn. She would not have known this a few years earlier, nor would she have seen in the Duchess anything but the ruin of an ugly woman, dressed in clothes that Mrs. Spragg wouldn’t have touched. The Duchess certainly looked like a ruin; but Undine now saw that she looked like the ruin of a castle.

The Princess, who was unofficially separated from her husband, had with her her two little girls. She seemed extremely attached to both — though avowing for the younger a preference she frankly ascribed to the interesting accident of its parentage — and she could not understand that Undine, as to whose domestic difficulties she minutely informed herself, should have consented to leave her child to strangers. “For, to one’s child every one but one’s self is a stranger; and whatever your egarements — ” she began, breaking off with a stare when Undine interrupted her to explain that the courts had ascribed all the wrongs in the case to her husband. “But then — but then — ” murmured the Princess, turning away from the subject as if checked by too deep an abyss of difference.

The incident had embarrassed Undine, and though she tried to justify herself by allusions to her boy’s dependence on his father’s family, and to the duty of not standing in his way, she saw that she made no impression. “Whatever one’s errors, one’s child belongs to one,” her hearer continued to repeat; and Undine, who was frequently scandalized by the Princess’s conversation, now found herself in the odd position of having to set a watch upon her own in order not to scandalize the Princess.

Each day, nevertheless, strengthened her hold on her new friends. After her first flush of triumph she began indeed to suspect that she had been a slight disappointment to the Princess, had not completely justified the hopes raised by the doubtful honour of being one of Sacha Adelschein’s intimates. Undine guessed that the Princess had expected to find her more amusing, “queerer,” more startling in speech and conduct. Though by instinct she was none of these things, she was eager to go as far as was expected; but she felt that her audacities were on lines too normal to be interesting, and that the Princess thought her rather school-girlish and old-fashioned. Still, they had in common their youth, their boredom, their high spirits and their hunger for amusement; and Undine was making the most of these ties when one day, coming back from a trip to Monte–Carlo with the Princess, she was brought up short by the sight of a lady — evidently a new arrival — who was seated in an attitude of respectful intimacy beside the old Duchess’s chair. Undine, advancing unheard over the fine gravel of the garden path, recognized at a glance the Marquise de Trezac’s drooping nose and disdainful back, and at the same moment heard her say: “ — And her husband?”

“Her husband? But she’s an American — she’s divorced,” the Duchess replied, as if she were merely stating the same fact in two different ways; and Undine stopped short with a pang of apprehension.

The Princess came up behind her. “Who’s the solemn person with Mamma? Ah, that old bore of a Trezac!” She dropped her long eye-glass with a laugh. “Well, she’ll be useful — she’ll stick to Mamma like a leech and we shall get away oftener. Come, let’s go and be charming to her.”

She approached Madame de Trezac effusively, and after an interchange of exclamations Undine heard her say “You know my friend Mrs. Marvell? No? How odd! Where do you manage to hide yourself, chere Madame? Undine, here’s a compatriot who hasn’t the pleasure — ”

“I’m such a hermit, dear Mrs. Marvell — the Princess shows me what I miss,” the Marquise de Trezac murmured, rising to give her hand to Undine, and speaking in a voice so different from that of the supercilious Miss Wincher that only her facial angle and the droop of her nose linked her to the hated vision of Potash Springs.

Undine felt herself dancing on a flood-tide of security. For the first time the memory of Potash Springs became a thing to smile at, and with the Princess’s arm through hers she shone back triumphantly on Madame de Trezac, who seemed to have grown suddenly obsequious and insignificant, as though the waving of the Princess’s wand had stripped her of all her false advantages.

But upstairs, in her own room. Undine’s courage fell. Madame de Trezac had been civil, effusive even, because for the moment she had been taken off her guard by finding Mrs. Marvell on terms of intimacy with the Princess Estradina and her mother. But the force of facts would reassert itself. Far from continuing to see Undine through her French friends’ eyes she would probably invite them to view her compatriot through the searching lens of her own ampler information. “The old hypocrite — she’ll tell them everything,” Undine murmured, wincing at the recollection of the dentist’s assistant from Deposit, and staring miserably at her reflection in the dressing-table mirror. Of what use were youth and grace and good looks, if one drop of poison distilled from the envy of a narrow-minded woman was enough to paralyze them? Of course Madame de Trezac knew and remembered, and, secure in her own impregnable position, would never rest till she had driven out the intruder.

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