The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XXXI

Nearly two years had passed since Ralph Marvell, waking from his long sleep in the hot summer light of Washington Square, had found that the face of life was changed for him.

In the interval he had gradually adapted himself to the new order of things; but the months of adaptation had been a time of such darkness and confusion that, from the vantage-ground of his recovered lucidity, he could not yet distinguish the stages by which he had worked his way out; and even now his footing was not secure.

His first effort had been to readjust his values — to take an inventory of them, and reclassify them, so that one at least might be made to appear as important as those he had lost; otherwise there could be no reason why he should go on living. He applied himself doggedly to this attempt; but whenever he thought he had found a reason that his mind could rest in, it gave way under him, and the old struggle for a foothold began again. His two objects in life were his boy and his book. The boy was incomparably the stronger argument, yet the less serviceable in filling the void. Ralph felt his son all the while, and all through his other feelings; but he could not think about him actively and continuously, could not forever exercise his eager empty dissatisfied mind on the relatively simple problem of clothing, educating and amusing a little boy of six. Yet Paul’s existence was the all-sufficient reason for his own; and he turned again, with a kind of cold fervour, to his abandoned literary dream. Material needs obliged him to go on with his regular business; but, the day’s work over, he was possessed of a leisure as bare and as blank as an unfurnished house, yet that was at least his own to furnish as he pleased.

Meanwhile he was beginning to show a presentable face to the world, and to be once more treated like a man in whose case no one is particularly interested. His men friends ceased to say: “Hallo, old chap, I never saw you looking fitter!” and elderly ladies no longer told him they were sure he kept too much to himself, and urged him to drop in any afternoon for a quiet talk. People left him to his sorrow as a man is left to an incurable habit, an unfortunate tie: they ignored it, or looked over its head if they happened to catch a glimpse of it at his elbow.

These glimpses were given to them more and more rarely. The smothered springs of life were bubbling up in Ralph, and there were days when he was glad to wake and see the sun in his window, and when he began to plan his book, and to fancy that the planning really interested him. He could even maintain the delusion for several days — for intervals each time appreciably longer — before it shrivelled up again in a scorching blast of disenchantment. The worst of it was that he could never tell when these hot gusts of anguish would overtake him. They came sometimes just when he felt most secure, when he was saying to himself: “After all, things are really worth while — ” sometimes even when he was sitting with Clare Van Degen, listening to her voice, watching her hands, and turning over in his mind the opening chapters of his book.

“You ought to write”; they had one and all said it to him from the first; and he fancied he might have begun sooner if he had not been urged on by their watchful fondness. Everybody wanted him to write — everybody had decided that he ought to, that he would, that he must be persuaded to; and the incessant imperceptible pressure of encouragement — the assumption of those about him that because it would be good for him to write he must naturally be able to — acted on his restive nerves as a stronger deterrent than disapproval.

Even Clare had fallen into the same mistake; and one day, as he sat talking with her on the verandah of Laura Fairford’s house on the Sound — where they now most frequently met — Ralph had half-impatiently rejoined: “Oh, if you think it’s literature I need —!”

Instantly he had seen her face change, and the speaking hands tremble on her knee. But she achieved the feat of not answering him, or turning her steady eyes from the dancing mid-summer water at the foot of Laura’s lawn. Ralph leaned a little nearer, and for an instant his hand imagined the flutter of hers. But instead of clasping it he drew back, and rising from his chair wandered away to the other end of the verandah . . . No, he didn’t feel as Clare felt. If he loved her — as he sometimes thought he did — it was not in the same way. He had a great tenderness for her, he was more nearly happy with her than with any one else; he liked to sit and talk with her, and watch her face and her hands, and he wished there were some way — some different way — of letting her know it; but he could not conceive that tenderness and desire could ever again be one for him: such a notion as that seemed part of the monstrous sentimental muddle on which his life had gone aground.

“I shall write — of course I shall write some day,” he said, turning back to his seat. “I’ve had a novel in the back of my head for years; and now’s the time to pull it out.”

He hardly knew what he was saying; but before the end of the sentence he saw that Clare had understood what he meant to convey, and henceforth he felt committed to letting her talk to him as much as she pleased about his book. He himself, in consequence, took to thinking about it more consecutively; and just as his friends ceased to urge him to write, he sat down in earnest to begin.

The vision that had come to him had no likeness to any of his earlier imaginings. Two or three subjects had haunted him, pleading for expression, during the first years of his marriage; but these now seemed either too lyrical or too tragic. He no longer saw life on the heroic scale: he wanted to do something in which men should look no bigger than the insects they were. He contrived in the course of time to reduce one of his old subjects to these dimensions, and after nights of brooding he made a dash at it, and wrote an opening chapter that struck him as not too bad. In the exhilaration of this first attempt he spent some pleasant evenings revising and polishing his work; and gradually a feeling of authority and importance developed in him. In the morning, when he woke, instead of his habitual sense of lassitude, he felt an eagerness to be up and doing, and a conviction that his individual task was a necessary part of the world’s machinery. He kept his secret with the beginner’s deadly fear of losing his hold on his half-real creations if he let in any outer light on them; but he went about with a more assured step, shrank less from meeting his friends, and even began to dine out again, and to laugh at some of the jokes he heard.

Laura Fairford, to get Paul away from town, had gone early to the country; and Ralph, who went down to her every Saturday, usually found Clare Van Degen there. Since his divorce he had never entered his cousin’s pinnacled palace; and Clare had never asked him why he stayed away. This mutual silence had been their sole allusion to Van Degen’s share in the catastrophe, though Ralph had spoken frankly of its other aspects. They talked, however, most often of impersonal subjects — books, pictures, plays, or whatever the world that interested them was doing — and she showed no desire to draw him back to his own affairs. She was again staying late in town — to have a pretext, as he guessed, for coming down on Sundays to the Fairfords’ — and they often made the trip together in her motor; but he had not yet spoken to her of having begun his book. One May evening, however, as they sat alone in the verandah, he suddenly told her that he was writing. As he spoke his heart beat like a boy’s; but once the words were out they gave him a feeling of self-confidence, and he began to sketch his plan, and then to go into its details. Clare listened devoutly, her eyes burning on him through the dusk like the stars deepening above the garden; and when she got up to go in he followed her with a new sense of reassurance.

The dinner that evening was unusually pleasant. Charles Bowen, just back from his usual spring travels, had come straight down to his friends from the steamer; and the fund of impressions he brought with him gave Ralph a desire to be up and wandering. And why not — when the book was done? He smiled across the table at Clare.

“Next summer you’ll have to charter a yacht, and take us all off to the Aegean. We can’t have Charles condescending to us about the out-of-the-way places he’s been seeing.”

Was it really he who was speaking, and his cousin who was sending him back her dusky smile? Well — why not, again? The seasons renewed themselves, and he too was putting out a new growth. “My book — my book — my book,” kept repeating itself under all his thoughts, as Undine’s name had once perpetually murmured there. That night as he went up to bed he said to himself that he was actually ceasing to think about his wife . . .

As he passed Laura’s door she called him in, and put her arms about him.

“You look so well, dear!”

“But why shouldn’t I?” he answered gaily, as if ridiculing the fancy that he had ever looked otherwise. Paul was sleeping behind the next door, and the sense of the boy’s nearness gave him a warmer glow. His little world was rounding itself out again, and once more he felt safe and at peace in its circle.

His sister looked as if she had something more to say; but she merely kissed him good night, and he went up whistling to his room. The next morning he was to take a walk with Clare, and while he lounged about the drawing-room, waiting for her to come down, a servant came in with the Sunday papers. Ralph picked one up, and was absently unfolding it when his eye fell on his own name: a sight he had been spared since the last echoes of his divorce had subsided. His impulse was to fling the paper down, to hurl it as far from him as he could; but a grim fascination tightened his hold and drew his eyes back to the hated head-line.

NEW YORK BEAUTY WEDS FRENCH NOBLEMAN MRS. UNDINE MARVELL CONFIDENT POPE WILL ANNUL PREVIOUS MARRIAGE MRS. MARVELL TALKS ABOUT HER CASE

There it was before him in all its long-drawn horror — an “interview” — an “interview” of Undine’s about her coming marriage! Ah, she talked about her case indeed! Her confidences filled the greater part of a column, and the only detail she seemed to have omitted was the name of her future husband, who was referred to by herself as “my fiancé” and by the interviewer as “the Count” or “a prominent scion of the French nobility.”

Ralph heard Laura’s step behind him. He threw the paper aside and their eyes met.

“Is this what you wanted to tell me last night?”

“Last night? — Is it in the papers?”

“Who told you? Bowen? What else has he heard?”

“Oh, Ralph, what does it matter — what can it matter?”

“Who’s the man? Did he tell you that?” Ralph insisted. He saw her growing agitation. “Why can’t you answer? Is it any one I know?”

“He was told in Paris it was his friend Raymond de Chelles.”

Ralph laughed, and his laugh sounded in his own ears like an echo of the dreary mirth with which he had filled Mr. Spragg’s office the day he had learned that Undine intended to divorce him. But now his wrath was seasoned with a wholesome irony. The fact of his wife’s having reached another stage in her ascent fell into its place as a part of the huge human buffoonery.

“Besides,” Laura went on, “it’s all perfect nonsense, of course. How in the world can she have her marriage annulled?”

Ralph pondered: this put the matter in another light. “With a great deal of money I suppose she might.”

“Well, she certainly won’t get that from Chelles. He’s far from rich, Charles tells me.” Laura waited, watching him, before she risked: “That’s what convinces me she wouldn’t have him if she could.”

Ralph shrugged. “There may be other inducements. But she won’t be able to manage it.” He heard himself speaking quite collectedly. Had Undine at last lost her power of wounding him?

Clare came in, dressed for their walk, and under Laura’s anxious eyes he picked up the newspaper and held it out with a careless: “Look at this!”

His cousin’s glance flew down the column, and he saw the tremor of her lashes as she read. Then she lifted her head. “But you’ll be free!” Her face was as vivid as a flower.

“Free? I’m free now, as far as that goes!”

“Oh, but it will go so much farther when she has another name — when she’s a different person altogether! Then you’ll really have Paul to yourself.”

“Paul?” Laura intervened with a nervous laugh. “But there’s never been the least doubt about his having Paul!”

They heard the boy’s laughter on the lawn, and she went out to join him. Ralph was still looking at his cousin.

“You’re glad, then?” came from him involuntarily; and she startled him by bursting into tears. He bent over and kissed her on the cheek.

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