The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XXIX

The early spring found Undine once more in Paris.

She had every reason to be satisfied with the result of the course she had pursued since she had pronounced her ultimatum on the subject of Raymond de Chelles. She had continued to remain on the best of terms with the Princess, to rise in the estimation of the old Duchess, and to measure the rapidity of her ascent in the upward gaze of Madame de Trezac; and she had given Chelles to understand that, if he wished to renew their acquaintance, he must do so in the shelter of his venerable aunt’s protection.

To the Princess she was careful to make her attitude equally clear. “I like your cousin very much — he’s delightful, and if I’m in Paris this spring I hope I shall see a great deal of him. But I know how easy it is for a woman in my position to get talked about — and I have my little boy to consider.”

Nevertheless, whenever Chelles came over from Beaulieu to spend a day with his aunt and cousin — an excursion he not infrequently repeated — Undine was at no pains to conceal her pleasure. Nor was there anything calculated in her attitude. Chelles seemed to her more charming than ever, and the warmth of his wooing was in flattering contrast to the cool reserve of his manners. At last she felt herself alive and young again, and it became a joy to look in her glass and to try on her new hats and dresses . . .

The only menace ahead was the usual one of the want of money. While she had travelled with her parents she had been at relatively small expense, and since their return to America Mr. Spragg had sent her allowance regularly; yet almost all the money she had received for the pearls was already gone, and she knew her Paris season would be far more expensive than the quiet weeks on the Riviera.

Meanwhile the sense of reviving popularity, and the charm of Chelles’ devotion, had almost effaced the ugly memories of failure, and refurbished that image of herself in other minds which was her only notion of self-seeing. Under the guidance of Madame de Trezac she had found a prettily furnished apartment in a not too inaccessible quarter, and in its light bright drawing-room she sat one June afternoon listening, with all the forbearance of which she was capable, to the counsels of her newly-acquired guide.

“Everything but marriage — ” Madame de Trezac was repeating, her long head slightly tilted, her features wearing the rapt look of an adept reciting a hallowed formula.

Raymond de Chelles had not been mentioned by either of the ladies, and the former Miss Wincher was merely imparting to her young friend one of the fundamental dogmas of her social creed; but Undine was conscious that the air between them vibrated with an unspoken name. She made no immediate answer, but her glance, passing by Madame de Trezac’s dull countenance, sought her own reflection in the mirror behind her visitor’s chair. A beam of spring sunlight touched the living masses of her hair and made the face beneath as radiant as a girl’s. Undine smiled faintly at the promise her own eyes gave her, and then turned them back to her friend. “What can such women know about anything?” she thought compassionately.

“There’s everything against it,” Madame de Trezac continued in a tone of patient exposition. She seemed to be doing her best to make the matter clear. “In the first place, between people in society a religious marriage is necessary; and, since the Church doesn’t recognize divorce, that’s obviously out of the question. In France, a man of position who goes through the form of civil marriage with a divorced woman is simply ruining himself and her. They might much better — from her point of view as well as his — be ‘friends,’ as it’s called over here: such arrangements are understood and allowed for. But when a Frenchman marries he wants to marry as his people always have. He knows there are traditions he can’t fight against — and in his heart he’s glad there are.”

“Oh, I know: they’ve so much religious feeling. I admire that in them: their religion’s so beautiful.” Undine looked thoughtfully at her visitor. “I suppose even money — a great deal of money — wouldn’t make the least bit of difference?”

“None whatever, except to make matters worse,” Madame de Trezac decisively rejoined. She returned Undine’s look with something of Miss Wincher’s contemptuous authority. “But,” she added, softening to a smile, “between ourselves — I can say it, since we’re neither of us children — a woman with tact, who’s not in a position to remarry, will find society extremely indulgent . . . provided, of course, she keeps up appearances . . . ”

Undine turned to her with the frown of a startled Diana. “We don’t look at things that way out at Apex,” she said coldly; and the blood rose in Madame de Trezac’s sallow cheek.

“Oh, my dear, it’s so refreshing to hear you talk like that! Personally, of course, I’ve never quite got used to the French view — ”

“I hope no American woman ever does,” said Undine.

She had been in Paris for about two months when this conversation took place, and in spite of her reviving self-confidence she was beginning to recognize the strength of the forces opposed to her. It had taken a long time to convince her that even money could not prevail against them; and, in the intervals of expressing her admiration for the Catholic creed, she now had violent reactions of militant Protestantism, during which she talked of the tyranny of Rome and recalled school stories of immoral Popes and persecuting Jesuits.

Meanwhile her demeanour to Chelles was that of the incorruptible but fearless American woman, who cannot even conceive of love outside of marriage, but is ready to give her devoted friendship to the man on whom, in happier circumstances, she might have bestowed her hand. This attitude was provocative of many scenes, during which her suitor’s unfailing powers of expression — his gift of looking and saying all the desperate and devoted things a pretty woman likes to think she inspires — gave Undine the thrilling sense of breathing the very air of French fiction. But she was aware that too prolonged tension of these cords usually ends in their snapping, and that Chelles’ patience was probably in inverse ratio to his ardour.

When Madame de Trezac had left her these thoughts remained in her mind. She understood exactly what each of her new friends wanted of her. The Princess, who was fond of her cousin, and had the French sense of family solidarity, would have liked to see Chelles happy in what seemed to her the only imaginable way. Madame de Trezac would have liked to do what she could to second the Princess’s efforts in this or any other line; and even the old Duchess — though piously desirous of seeing her favourite nephew married — would have thought it not only natural but inevitable that, while awaiting that happy event, he should try to induce an amiable young woman to mitigate the drawbacks of celibacy. Meanwhile, they might one and all weary of her if Chelles did; and a persistent rejection of his suit would probably imperil her scarcely-gained footing among his friends. All this was clear to her, yet it did not shake her resolve. She was determined to give up Chelles unless he was willing to marry her; and the thought of her renunciation moved her to a kind of wistful melancholy.

In this mood her mind reverted to a letter she had just received from her mother. Mrs. Spragg wrote more fully than usual, and the unwonted flow of her pen had been occasioned by an event for which she had long yearned. For months she had pined for a sight of her grandson, had tried to screw up her courage to write and ask permission to visit him, and, finally breaking through her sedentary habits, had begun to haunt the neighbourhood of Washington Square, with the result that one afternoon she had had the luck to meet the little boy coming out of the house with his nurse. She had spoken to him, and he had remembered her and called her “Granny”; and the next day she had received a note from Mrs. Fairford saying that Ralph would be glad to send Paul to see her. Mrs. Spragg enlarged on the delights of the visit and the growing beauty and cleverness of her grandson. She described to Undine exactly how Paul was dressed, how he looked and what he said, and told her how he had examined everything in the room, and, finally coming upon his mother’s photograph, had asked who the lady was; and, on being told, had wanted to know if she was a very long way off, and when Granny thought she would come back.

As Undine re-read her mother’s pages, she felt an unusual tightness in her throat and two tears rose to her eyes. It was dreadful that her little boy should be growing up far away from her, perhaps dressed in clothes she would have hated; and wicked and unnatural that when he saw her picture he should have to be told who she was. “If I could only meet some good man who would give me a home and be a father to him,” she thought — and the tears overflowed and ran down.

Even as they fell, the door was thrown open to admit Raymond de Chelles, and the consciousness of the moisture still glistening on her cheeks perhaps strengthened her resolve to resist him, and thus made her more imperiously to be desired. Certain it is that on that day her suitor first alluded to a possibility which Madame de Trezac had prudently refrained from suggesting, there fell upon Undine’s attentive ears the magic phrase “annulment of marriage.”

Her alert intelligence immediately set to work in this new direction; but almost at the same moment she became aware of a subtle change of tone in the Princess and her mother, a change reflected in the corresponding decline of Madame de Trezac’s cordiality. Undine, since her arrival in Paris, had necessarily been less in the Princess’s company, but when they met she had found her as friendly as ever. It was manifestly not a failing of the Princess’s to forget past favours, and though increasingly absorbed by the demands of town life she treated her new friend with the same affectionate frankness, and Undine was given frequent opportunities to enlarge her Parisian acquaintance, not only in the Princess’s intimate circle but in the majestic drawing-rooms of the Hotel de Dordogne. Now, however, there was a perceptible decline in these signs of hospitality, and Undine, on calling one day on the Duchess, noticed that her appearance sent a visible flutter of discomfort through the circle about her hostess’s chair. Two or three of the ladies present looked away from the new-comer and at each other, and several of them seemed spontaneously to encircle without approaching her, while another — grey-haired, elderly and slightly frightened — with an “Adieu, ma bonne tante” to the Duchess, was hastily aided in her retreat down the long line of old gilded rooms.

The incident was too mute and rapid to have been noticeable had it not been followed by the Duchess’s resuming her conversation with the ladies nearest her as though Undine had just gone out of the room instead of entering it. The sense of having been thus rendered invisible filled Undine with a vehement desire to make herself seen, and an equally strong sense that all attempts to do so would be vain; and when, a few minutes later, she issued from the portals of the Hotel de Dordogne it was with the fixed resolve not to enter them again till she had had an explanation with the Princess.

She was spared the trouble of seeking one by the arrival, early the next morning, of Madame de Trezac, who, entering almost with the breakfast tray, mysteriously asked to be allowed to communicate something of importance.

“You’ll understand, I know, the Princess’s not coming herself — ” Madame de Trezac began, sitting up very straight on the edge of the arm-chair over which Undine’s lace dressing-gown hung.

“If there’s anything she wants to say to me, I don’t,” Undine answered, leaning back among her rosy pillows, and reflecting compassionately that the face opposite her was just the colour of the café au lait she was pouring out.

“There are things that are . . . that might seem too pointed . . . if one said them one’s self,” Madame de Trezac continued. “Our dear Lili’s so good-natured . . . she so hates to do anything unfriendly; but she naturally thinks first of her mother . . . ”

“Her mother? What’s the matter with her mother?”

“I told her I knew you didn’t understand. I was sure you’d take it in good part . . . ”

Undine raised herself on her elbow. “What did Lili tell you to tell me?”

“Oh, not to TELL you . . . simply to ask if, just for the present, you’d mind avoiding the Duchess’s Thursdays . . . calling on any other day, that is.”

“Any other day? She’s not at home on any other. Do you mean she doesn’t want me to call?”

“Well — not while the Marquise de Chelles is in Paris. She’s the Duchess’s favourite niece — and of course they all hang together. That kind of family feeling is something you naturally don’t — ”

Undine had a sudden glimpse of hidden intricacies.

“That was Raymond de Chelles’ mother I saw there yesterday? The one they hurried out when I came in?”

“It seems she was very much upset. She somehow heard your name.”

“Why shouldn’t she have heard my name? And why in the world should it upset her?”

Madame de Trezac heaved a hesitating sigh. “Isn’t it better to be frank? She thinks she has reason to feel badly — they all do.”

“To feel badly? Because her son wants to marry me?”

“Of course they know that’s impossible.” Madame de Trezac smiled compassionately. “But they’re afraid of your spoiling his other chances.”

Undine paused a moment before answering, “It won’t be impossible when my marriage is annulled,” she said.

The effect of this statement was less electrifying than she had hoped. Her visitor simply broke into a laugh. “My dear child! Your marriage annulled? Who can have put such a mad idea into your head?”

Undine’s gaze followed the pattern she was tracing with a lustrous nail on her embroidered bedspread. “Raymond himself,” she let fall.

This time there was no mistaking the effect she produced. Madame de Trezac, with a murmured “Oh,” sat gazing before her as if she had lost the thread of her argument; and it was only after a considerable interval that she recovered it sufficiently to exclaim: “They’ll never hear of it — absolutely never!”

“But they can’t prevent it, can they?”

“They can prevent its being of any use to you.”

“I see,” Undine pensively assented.

She knew the tone she had taken was virtually a declaration of war; but she was in a mood when the act of defiance, apart from its strategic value, was a satisfaction in itself. Moreover, if she could not gain her end without a fight it was better that the battle should be engaged while Raymond’s ardour was at its height. To provoke immediate hostilities she sent for him the same afternoon, and related, quietly and without comment, the incident of her visit to the Duchess, and the mission with which Madame de Trezac had been charged. In the circumstances, she went on to explain, it was manifestly impossible that she should continue to receive his visits; and she met his wrathful comments on his relatives by the gently but firmly expressed resolve not to be the cause of any disagreement between himself and his family.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/custom_of_the_country/chapter29.html

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