The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

III

Though she would not for the world have owned it to her parents, Undine was disappointed in the Fairford dinner.

The house, to begin with, was small and rather shabby. There was no gilding, no lavish diffusion of light: the room they sat in after dinner, with its green-shaded lamps making faint pools of brightness, and its rows of books from floor to ceiling, reminded Undine of the old circulating library at Apex, before the new marble building was put up. Then, instead of a gas-log, or a polished grate with electric bulbs behind ruby glass, there was an old-fashioned wood-fire, like pictures of “Back to the farm for Christmas”; and when the logs fell forward Mrs. Pairford or her brother had to jump up to push them in place, and the ashes scattered over the hearth untidily.

The dinner too was disappointing. Undine was too young to take note of culinary details, but she had expected to view the company through a bower of orchids and eat pretty-coloured entrees in ruffled papers. Instead, there was only a low centre-dish of ferns, and plain roasted and broiled meat that one could recognize — as if they’d been dyspeptics on a diet! With all the hints in the Sunday papers, she thought it dull of Mrs. Fairford not to have picked up something newer; and as the evening progressed she began to suspect that it wasn’t a real “dinner party,” and that they had just asked her in to share what they had when they were alone.

But a glance about the table convinced her that Mrs. Fairford could not have meant to treat her other guests so lightly. They were only eight in number, but one was no less a person than young Mrs. Peter Van Degen — the one who had been a Dagonet — and the consideration which this young lady, herself one of the choicest ornaments of the Society Column, displayed toward the rest of the company, convinced Undine that they must be more important than they looked. She liked Mrs. Fairford, a small incisive woman, with a big nose and good teeth revealed by frequent smiles. In her dowdy black and antiquated ornaments she was not what Undine would have called “stylish”; but she had a droll kind way which reminded the girl of her father’s manner when he was not tired or worried about money. One of the other ladies, having white hair, did not long arrest Undine’s attention; and the fourth, a girl like herself, who was introduced as Miss Harriet Ray, she dismissed at a glance as plain and wearing a last year’s “model.”

The men, too, were less striking than she had hoped. She had not expected much of Mr. Fairford, since married men were intrinsically uninteresting, and his baldness and grey moustache seemed naturally to relegate him to the background; but she had looked for some brilliant youths of her own age — in her inmost heart she had looked for Mr. Popple. He was not there, however, and of the other men one, whom they called Mr. Bowen, was hopelessly elderly — she supposed he was the husband of the white-haired lady — and the other two, who seemed to be friends of young Marvell’s, were both lacking in Claud Walsingham’s dash.

Undine sat between Mr. Bowen and young Marvell, who struck her as very “sweet” (it was her word for friendliness), but even shyer than at the hotel dance. Yet she was not sure if he were shy, or if his quietness were only a new kind of self-possession which expressed itself negatively instead of aggressively. Small, well-knit, fair, he sat stroking his slight blond moustache and looking at her with kindly, almost tender eyes; but he left it to his sister and the others to draw her out and fit her into the pattern.

Mrs. Fairford talked so well that the girl wondered why Mrs. Heeny had found her lacking in conversation. But though Undine thought silent people awkward she was not easily impressed by verbal fluency. All the ladies in Apex City were more voluble than Mrs. Fairford, and had a larger vocabulary: the difference was that with Mrs. Fairford conversation seemed to be a concert and not a solo. She kept drawing in the others, giving each a turn, beating time for them with her smile, and somehow harmonizing and linking together what they said. She took particular pains to give Undine her due part in the performance; but the girl’s expansive impulses were always balanced by odd reactions of mistrust, and to-night the latter prevailed. She meant to watch and listen without letting herself go, and she sat very straight and pink, answering promptly but briefly, with the nervous laugh that punctuated all her phrases — saying “I don’t care if I do” when her host asked her to try some grapes, and “I wouldn’t wonder” when she thought any one was trying to astonish her.

This state of lucidity enabled her to take note of all that was being said. The talk ran more on general questions, and less on people, than she was used to; but though the allusions to pictures and books escaped her, she caught and stored up every personal reference, and the pink in her cheeks deepened at a random mention of Mr. Popple.

“Yes — he’s doing me,” Mrs. Peter Van Degen was saying, in her slightly drawling voice. “He’s doing everybody this year, you know — ”

“As if that were a reason!” Undine heard Mrs. Fairford breathe to Mr. Bowen; who replied, at the same pitch: “It’s a Van Degen reason, isn’t it?” — to which Mrs. Fairford shrugged assentingly.

“That delightful Popple — he paints so exactly as he talks!” the white-haired lady took it up. “All his portraits seem to proclaim what a gentleman he is, and how he fascinates women! They’re not pictures of Mrs. or Miss So-and-so, but simply of the impression Popple thinks he’s made on them.”

Mrs. Fairford smiled. “I’ve sometimes thought,” she mused, “that Mr. Popple must be the only gentleman I know; at least he’s the only man who has ever told me he was a gentleman — and Mr. Popple never fails to mention it.”

Undine’s ear was too well attuned to the national note of irony for her not to perceive that her companions were making sport of the painter. She winced at their banter as if it had been at her own expense, yet it gave her a dizzy sense of being at last in the very stronghold of fashion. Her attention was diverted by hearing Mrs. Van Degen, under cover of the general laugh, say in a low tone to young Marvell: “I thought you liked his things, or I wouldn’t have had him paint me.”

Something in her tone made all Undine’s perceptions bristle, and she strained her ears for the answer.

“I think he’ll do you capitally — you must let me come and see some day soon.” Marvell’s tone was always so light, so unemphasized, that she could not be sure of its being as indifferent as it sounded. She looked down at the fruit on her plate and shot a side-glance through her lashes at Mrs. Peter Van Degen.

Mrs. Van Degen was neither beautiful nor imposing: just a dark girlish-looking creature with plaintive eyes and a fidgety frequent laugh. But she was more elaborately dressed and jewelled than the other ladies, and her elegance and her restlessness made her seem less alien to Undine. She had turned on Marvell a gaze at once pleading and possessive; but whether betokening merely an inherited intimacy (Undine had noticed that they were all more or less cousins) or a more personal feeling, her observer was unable to decide; just as the tone of the young man’s reply might have expressed the open avowal of good-fellowship or the disguise of a different sentiment. All was blurred and puzzling to the girl in this world of half-lights, half-tones, eliminations and abbreviations; and she felt a violent longing to brush away the cobwebs and assert herself as the dominant figure of the scene.

Yet in the drawing-room, with the ladies, where Mrs. Fairford came and sat by her, the spirit of caution once more prevailed. She wanted to be noticed but she dreaded to be patronized, and here again her hostess’s gradations of tone were confusing. Mrs. Fairford made no tactless allusions to her being a newcomer in New York — there was nothing as bitter to the girl as that — but her questions as to what pictures had interested Undine at the various exhibitions of the moment, and which of the new books she had read, were almost as open to suspicion, since they had to be answered in the negative. Undine did not even know that there were any pictures to be seen, much less that “people” went to see them; and she had read no new book but “When The Kissing Had to Stop,” of which Mrs. Fairford seemed not to have heard. On the theatre they were equally at odds, for while Undine had seen “Oolaloo” fourteen times, and was “wild” about Ned Norris in “The Soda–Water Fountain,” she had not heard of the famous Berlin comedians who were performing Shakespeare at the German Theatre, and knew only by name the clever American actress who was trying to give “repertory” plays with a good stock company. The conversation was revived for a moment by her recalling that she had seen Sarah Bernhard in a play she called “Leg-long,” and another which she pronounced “Fade”; but even this did not carry them far, as she had forgotten what both plays were about and had found the actress a good deal older than she expected.

Matters were not improved by the return of the men from the smoking-room. Henley Fairford replaced his wife at Undine’s side; and since it was unheard-of at Apex for a married man to force his society on a young girl, she inferred that the others didn’t care to talk to her, and that her host and hostess were in league to take her off their hands. This discovery resulted in her holding her vivid head very high, and answering “I couldn’t really say,” or “Is that so?” to all Mr. Fairford’s ventures; and as these were neither numerous nor striking it was a relief to both when the rising of the elderly lady gave the signal for departure.

In the hall, where young Marvell had managed to precede her. Undine found Mrs. Van Degen putting on her cloak. As she gathered it about her she laid her hand on Marvell’s arm.

“Ralphie, dear, you’ll come to the opera with me on Friday? We’ll dine together first — Peter’s got a club dinner.” They exchanged what seemed a smile of intelligence, and Undine heard the young man accept. Then Mrs. Van Degen turned to her.

“Good-bye, Miss Spragg. I hope you’ll come — ”

“ — TO DINE WITH ME TOO?” That must be what she was going to say, and Undine’s heart gave a bound.

“ — to see me some afternoon,” Mrs. Van Degen ended, going down the steps to her motor, at the door of which a much-furred footman waited with more furs on his arm.

Undine’s face burned as she turned to receive her cloak. When she had drawn it on with haughty deliberation she found Marvell at her side, in hat and overcoat, and her heart gave a higher bound. He was going to “escort” her home, of course! This brilliant youth — she felt now that he WAS brilliant — who dined alone with married women, whom the “Van Degen set” called “Ralphie, dear,” had really no eyes for any one but herself; and at the thought her lost self-complacency flowed back warm through her veins.

The street was coated with ice, and she had a delicious moment descending the steps on Marvell’s arm, and holding it fast while they waited for her cab to come up; but when he had helped her in he closed the door and held his hand out over the lowered window.

“Good-bye,” he said, smiling; and she could not help the break of pride in her voice, as she faltered out stupidly, from the depths of her disillusionment: “Oh — good-bye.”

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