The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XXX

A few days after her decisive conversation with Raymond de Chelles, Undine, emerging from the doors of the Nouveau Luxe, where she had been to call on the newly-arrived Mrs. Homer Branney, once more found herself face to face with Elmer Moffatt.

This time there was no mistaking his eagerness to be recognized. He stopped short as they met, and she read such pleasure in his eyes that she too stopped, holding out her hand.

“I’m glad you’re going to speak to me,” she said, and Moffatt reddened at the allusion.

“Well, I very nearly didn’t. I didn’t know you. You look about as old as you did when I first landed at Apex — remember?”

He turned back and began to walk at her side in the direction of the Champs Elysees.

“Say — this is all right!” he exclaimed; and she saw that his glance had left her and was ranging across the wide silvery square ahead of them to the congregated domes and spires beyond the river.

“Do you like Paris?” she asked, wondering what theatres he had been to.

“It beats everything.” He seemed to be breathing in deeply the impression of fountains, sculpture, leafy’ avenues and long-drawn architectural distances fading into the afternoon haze.

“I suppose you’ve been to that old church over there?” he went on, his gold-topped stick pointing toward the towers of Notre Dame.

“Oh, of course; when I used to sightsee. Have you never been to Paris before?”

“No, this is my first look-round. I came across in March.”

“In March?” she echoed inattentively. It never occurred to her that other people’s lives went on when they were out of her range of vision, and she tried in vain to remember what she had last heard of Moffatt. “Wasn’t that a bad time to leave Wall Street?”

“Well, so-so. Fact is, I was played out: needed a change.” Nothing in his robust mien confirmed the statement, and he did not seem inclined to develop it. “I presume you’re settled here now?” he went on. “I saw by the papers — ”

“Yes,” she interrupted; adding, after a moment: “It was all a mistake from the first.”

“Well, I never thought he was your form,” said Moffatt.

His eyes had come back to her, and the look in them struck her as something she might use to her advantage; but the next moment he had glanced away with a furrowed brow, and she felt she had not wholly fixed his attention.

“I live at the other end of Paris. Why not come back and have tea with me?” she suggested, half moved by a desire to know more of his affairs, and half by the thought that a talk with him might help to shed some light on hers.

In the open taxi-cab he seemed to recover his sense of well-being, and leaned back, his hands on the knob of his stick, with the air of a man pleasantly aware of his privileges. “This Paris is a thundering good place,” he repeated once or twice as they rolled on through the crush and glitter of the afternoon; and when they had descended at Undine’s door, and he stood in her drawing-room, and looked out on the horse-chestnut trees rounding their green domes under the balcony, his satisfaction culminated in the comment: “I guess this lays out West End Avenue!”

His eyes met Undine’s with their old twinkle, and their expression encouraged her to murmur: “Of course there are times when I’m very lonely.”

She sat down behind the tea-table, and he stood at a little distance, watching her pull off her gloves with a queer comic twitch of his elastic mouth. “Well, I guess it’s only when you want to be,” he said, grasping a lyre-backed chair by its gilt cords, and sitting down astride of it, his light grey trousers stretching too tightly over his plump thighs. Undine was perfectly aware that he was a vulgar over-dressed man, with a red crease of fat above his collar and an impudent swaggering eye; yet she liked to see him there, and was conscious that he stirred the fibres of a self she had forgotten but had not ceased to understand.

She had fancied her avowal of loneliness might call forth some sentimental phrase; but though Moffatt was clearly pleased to be with her she saw that she was not the centre of his thoughts, and the discovery irritated her.

“I don’t suppose YOU’VE known what it is to be lonely since you’ve been in Europe?” she continued as she held out his tea-cup.

“Oh,” he said jocosely, “I don’t always go round with a guide”; and she rejoined on the same note: “Then perhaps I shall see something of you.”

“Why, there’s nothing would suit me better; but the fact is, I’m probably sailing next week.”

“Oh, are you? I’m sorry.” There was nothing feigned in her regret.

“Anything I can do for you across the pond?”

She hesitated. “There’s something you can do for me right off.”

He looked at her more attentively, as if his practised eve had passed through the surface of her beauty to what might be going on behind it. “Do you want my blessing again?” he asked with sudden irony.

Undine opened her eyes with a trustful look. “Yes — I do.”

“Well — I’ll be damned!” said Moffatt gaily.

“You’ve always been so awfully nice,” she began; and he leaned back, grasping both sides of the chair-back, and shaking it a little with his laugh.

He kept the same attitude while she proceeded to unfold her case, listening to her with the air of sober concentration that his frivolous face took on at any serious demand on his attention. When she had ended he kept the same look during an interval of silent pondering. “Is it the fellow who was over at Nice with you that day?”

She looked at him with surprise. “How did you know?”

“Why, I liked his looks,” said Moffatt simply. He got up and strolled toward the window. On the way he stopped before a table covered with showy trifles, and after looking at them for a moment singled out a dim old brown and golden book which Chelles had given her. He examined it lingeringly, as though it touched the spring of some choked-up sensibility for which he had no language. “Say — ” he began: it was the usual prelude to his enthusiasms; but he laid the book down and turned back.

“Then you think if you had the cash you could fix it up all right with the Pope?”

Her heart began to beat. She remembered that he had once put a job in Ralph’s way, and had let her understand that he had done it partly for her sake.

“Well,” he continued, relapsing into hyperbole, “I wish I could send the old gentleman my cheque to-morrow morning: but the fact is I’m high and dry.” He looked at her with a sudden odd intensity. “If I WASN’T, I dunno but what — ” The phrase was lost in his familiar whistle. “That’s an awfully fetching way you do your hair,” he said. It was a disappointment to Undine to hear that his affairs were not prospering, for she knew that in his world “pull” and solvency were closely related, and that such support as she had hoped he might give her would be contingent on his own situation. But she had again a fleeting sense of his mysterious power of accomplishing things in the teeth of adversity; and she answered: “What I want is your advice.”

He turned away and wandered across the room, his hands in his pockets. On her ornate writing desk he saw a photograph of Paul, bright-curled and sturdy-legged, in a manly reefer, and bent over it with a murmur of approval. “Say — what a fellow! Got him with you?”

Undine coloured. “No — ” she began; and seeing his look of surprise, she embarked on her usual explanation. “I can’t tell you how I miss him,” she ended, with a ring of truth that carried conviction to her own ears if not to Moffatt’s.

“Why don’t you get him back, then?”

“Why, I— ”

Moffatt had picked up the frame and was looking at the photograph more closely. “Pants!” he chuckled. “I declare!”

He turned back to Undine. “Who DOES he belong to, anyhow?”

“Belong to?”

“Who got him when you were divorced? Did you?”

“Oh, I got everything,” she said, her instinct of self-defense on the alert.

“So I thought.” He stood before her, stoutly planted on his short legs, and speaking with an aggressive energy. “Well, I know what I’d do if he was mine.”

“If he was yours?”

“And you tried to get him away from me. Fight you to a finish! If it cost me down to my last dollar I would.”

The conversation seemed to be wandering from the point, and she answered, with a touch of impatience: “It wouldn’t cost you anything like that. I haven’t got a dollar to fight back with.”

“Well, you ain’t got to fight. Your decree gave him to you, didn’t it? Why don’t you send right over and get him? That’s what I’d do if I was you.”

Undine looked up. “But I’m awfully poor; I can’t afford to have him here.”

“You couldn’t, up to now; but now you’re going to get married. You’re going to be able to give him a home and a father’s care — and the foreign languages. That’s what I’d say if I was you . . . His father takes considerable stock in him, don’t he?”

She coloured, a denial on her lips; but she could not shape it. “We’re both awfully fond of him, of course . . . His father’d never give him up!”

“Just so.” Moffatt’s face had grown as sharp as glass. “You’ve got the Marvells running. All you’ve got to do’s to sit tight and wait for their cheque.” He dropped back to his equestrian seat on the lyre-backed chair.

Undine stood up and moved uneasily toward the window. She seemed to see her little boy as though he were in the room with her; she did not understand how she could have lived so long without him . . . She stood for a long time without speaking, feeling behind her the concentrated irony of Moffatt’s gaze.

“You couldn’t lend me the money — manage to borrow it for me, I mean?” she finally turned back to ask. He laughed. “If I could manage to borrow any money at this particular minute — well, I’d have to lend every dollar of it to Elmer Moffatt, Esquire. I’m stone-broke, if you want to know. And wanted for an Investigation too. That’s why I’m over here improving my mind.”

“Why, I thought you were going home next week?”

He grinned. “I am, because I’ve found out there’s a party wants me to stay away worse than the courts want me back. Making the trip just for my private satisfaction — there won’t be any money in it, I’m afraid.”

Leaden disappointment descended on Undine. She had felt almost sure of Moffatt’s helping her, and for an instant she wondered if some long-smouldering jealousy had flamed up under its cold cinders. But another look at his face denied her this solace; and his evident indifference was the last blow to her pride. The twinge it gave her prompted her to ask: “Don’t you ever mean to get married?”

Moffatt gave her a quick look. “Why, I shouldn’t wonder — one of these days. Millionaires always collect something; but I’ve got to collect my millions first.”

He spoke coolly and half-humorously, and before he had ended she had lost all interest in his reply. He seemed aware of the fact, for he stood up and held out his hand. “Well, so long, Mrs. Marvell. It’s been uncommonly pleasant to see you; and you’d better think over what I’ve said.”

She laid her hand sadly in his. “You’ve never had a child,” she replied.

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