The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XXVIII

“What do you say to Nice to-morrow, dearest?” the Princess suggested a few evenings later as she followed Undine upstairs after a languid evening at bridge with the Duchess and Madame de Trezac.

Half-way down the passage she stopped to open a door and, putting her finger to her lip, signed to Undine to enter. In the taper-lit dimness stood two small white beds, each surmounted by a crucifix and a palm branch, and each containing a small brown sleeping child with a mop of hair and a curiously finished little face. As the Princess stood gazing on their innocent slumbers she seemed for a moment like a third little girl scarcely bigger and browner than the others; and the smile with which she watched them was as clear as theirs. “Ah, si seulement je pouvais choisir leurs amants!” she sighed as she turned away.

“ — Nice to-morrow,” she repeated, as she and Undine walked on to their rooms with linked arms. “We may as well make hay while the Trezac shines. She bores Mamma frightfully, but Mamma won’t admit it because they belong to the same oeuvres. Shall it be the eleven train, dear? We can lunch at the Royal and look in the shops — we may meet somebody amusing. Anyhow, it’s better than staying here!”

Undine was sure the trip to Nice would be delightful. Their previous expeditions had shown her the Princess’s faculty for organizing such adventures. At Monte–Carlo, a few days before, they had run across two or three amusing but unassorted people, and the Princess, having fused them in a jolly lunch, had followed it up by a bout at baccarat, and, finally hunting down an eminent composer who had just arrived to rehearse a new production, had insisted on his asking the party to tea, and treating them to fragments of his opera.

A few days earlier, Undine’s hope of renewing such pleasures would have been clouded by the dread of leaving Madame de Trezac alone with the Duchess. But she had no longer any fear of Madame de Trezac. She had discovered that her old rival of Potash Springs was in actual dread of her disfavour, and nervously anxious to conciliate her, and the discovery gave her such a sense of the heights she had scaled, and the security of her footing, that all her troubled past began to seem like the result of some providential “design,” and vague impulses of piety stirred in her as she and the Princess whirled toward Nice through the blue and gold glitter of the morning.

They wandered about the lively streets, they gazed into the beguiling shops, the Princess tried on hats and Undine bought them, and they lunched at the Royal on all sorts of succulent dishes prepared under the head-waiter’s special supervision. But as they were savouring their “double” coffee and liqueurs, and Undine was wondering what her companion would devise for the afternoon, the Princess clapped her hands together and cried out: “Dearest, I’d forgotten! I must desert you.”

She explained that she’d promised the Duchess to look up a friend who was ill — a poor wretch who’d been sent to Cimiez for her lungs — and that she must rush off at once, and would be back as soon as possible — well, if not in an hour, then in two at latest. She was full of compunction, but she knew Undine would forgive her, and find something amusing to fill up the time: she advised her to go back and buy the black hat with the osprey, and try on the crepe de Chine they’d thought so smart: for any one as good-looking as herself the woman would probably alter it for nothing; and they could meet again at the Palace Tea–Rooms at four. She whirled away in a cloud of explanations, and Undine, left alone, sat down on the Promenade des Anglais. She did not believe a word the Princess had said. She had seen in a flash why she was being left, and why the plan had not been divulged to her before-hand; and she quivered with resentment and humiliation. “That’s what she’s wanted me for . . . that’s why she made up to me. She’s trying it to-day, and after this it’ll happen regularly . . . she’ll drag me over here every day or two . . . at least she thinks she will!”

A sincere disgust was Undine’s uppermost sensation. She was as much ashamed as Mrs. Spragg might have been at finding herself used to screen a clandestine adventure.

“I’ll let her see . . . I’ll make her understand,” she repeated angrily; and for a moment she was half-disposed to drive to the station and take the first train back. But the sense of her precarious situation withheld her; and presently, with bitterness in her heart, she got up and began to stroll toward the shops.

To show that she was not a dupe, she arrived at the designated meeting-place nearly an hour later than the time appointed; but when she entered the Tea–Rooms the Princess was nowhere to be seen. The rooms were crowded, and Undine was guided toward a small inner apartment where isolated couples were absorbing refreshments in an atmosphere of intimacy that made it seem incongruous to be alone. She glanced about for a face she knew, but none was visible, and she was just giving up the search when she beheld Elmer Moffatt shouldering his way through the crowd.

The sight was so surprising that she sat gazing with unconscious fixity at the round black head and glossy reddish face which kept appearing and disappearing through the intervening jungle of aigrettes. It was long since she had either heard of Moffatt or thought about him, and now, in her loneliness and exasperation, she took comfort in the sight of his confident capable face, and felt a longing to hear his voice and unbosom her woes to him. She had half risen to attract his attention when she saw him turn back and make way for a companion, who was cautiously steering her huge feathered hat between the tea-tables. The woman was of the vulgarest type; everything about her was cheap and gaudy. But Moffatt was obviously elated: he stood aside with a flourish to usher her in, and as he followed he shot out a pink shirt-cuff with jewelled links, and gave his moustache a gallant twist. Undine felt an unreasoning irritation: she was vexed with him both for not being alone and for being so vulgarly accompanied. As the couple seated themselves she caught Moffatt’s glance and saw him redden to the edge of his white forehead; but he elaborately avoided her eye — he evidently wanted her to see him do it — and proceeded to minister to his companion’s wants with an air of experienced gallantry.

The incident, trifling as it was, filled up the measure of Undine’s bitterness. She thought Moffatt pitiably ridiculous, and she hated him for showing himself in such a light at that particular moment. Her mind turned back to her own grievance, and she was just saying to herself that nothing on earth should prevent her letting the Princess know what she thought of her, when the lady in question at last appeared. She came hurriedly forward and behind her Undine perceived the figure of a slight quietly dressed man, as to whom her immediate impression was that he made every one else in the room look as common as Moffatt. An instant later the colour had flown to her face and her hand was in Raymond de Chelles, while the Princess, murmuring: “Cimiez’s such a long way off; but you WILL forgive me?” looked into her eyes with a smile that added: “See how I pay for what I get!”

Her first glance showed Undine how glad Raymond de Chelles was to see her. Since their last meeting his admiration for her seemed not only to have increased but to have acquired a different character. Undine, at an earlier stage in her career, might not have known exactly what the difference signified; but it was as clear to her now as if the Princess had said — what her beaming eyes seemed, in fact, to convey — “I’m only too glad to do my cousin the same kind of turn you’re doing me.”

But Undine’s increased experience, if it had made her more vigilant, had also given her a clearer measure of her power. She saw at once that Chelles, in seeking to meet her again, was not in quest of a mere passing adventure. He was evidently deeply drawn to her, and her present situation, if it made it natural to regard her as more accessible, had not altered the nature of his feeling. She saw and weighed all this in the first five minutes during which, over tea and muffins, the Princess descanted on her luck in happening to run across her cousin, and Chelles, his enchanted eyes on Undine, expressed his sense of his good fortune. He was staying, it appeared, with friends at Beaulieu, and had run over to Nice that afternoon by the merest chance: he added that, having just learned of his aunt’s presence in the neighbourhood, he had already planned to present his homage to her.

“Oh, don’t come to us — we’re too dull!” the Princess exclaimed. “Let us run over occasionally and call on you: we’re dying for a pretext, aren’t we?” she added, smiling at Undine.

The latter smiled back vaguely, and looked across the room. Moffatt, looking flushed and foolish, was just pushing back his chair. To carry off his embarrassment he put an additional touch of importance; and as he swaggered out behind his companion, Undine said to herself, with a shiver: “If he’d been alone they would have found me taking tea with him.”

Undine, during the ensuing weeks, returned several times to Nice with the Princess; but, to the latter’s surprise, she absolutely refused to have Raymond de Chelles included in their luncheon-parties, or even apprised in advance of their expeditions.

The Princess, always impatient of unnecessary dissimulation, had not attempted to keep up the feint of the interesting invalid at Cimiez. She confessed to Undine that she was drawn to Nice by the presence there of the person without whom, for the moment, she found life intolerable, and whom she could not well receive under the same roof with her little girls and her mother. She appealed to Undine’s sisterly heart to feel for her in her difficulty, and implied that — as her conduct had already proved — she would always be ready to render her friend a like service. It was at this point that Undine checked her by a decided word. “I understand your position, and I’m very sorry for you, of course,” she began (the Princess stared at the “sorry”). “Your secret’s perfectly safe with me, and I’ll do anything I can for you . . . but if I go to Nice with you again you must promise not to ask your cousin to meet us.”

The Princess’s face expressed the most genuine astonishment. “Oh, my dear, do forgive me if I’ve been stupid! He admires you so tremendously; and I thought — ”

“You’ll do as I ask, please — won’t you?” Undine went on, ignoring the interruption and looking straight at her under level brows; and the Princess, with a shrug, merely murmured: “What a pity! I fancied you liked him.”

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