The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XXXII

Ralph, as the days passed, felt that Clare was right: if Undine married again he would possess himself more completely, be more definitely rid of his past. And he did not doubt that she would gain her end: he knew her violent desires and her cold tenacity. If she had failed to capture Van Degen it was probably because she lacked experience of that particular type of man, of his huge immediate wants and feeble vacillating purposes; most of all, because she had not yet measured the strength of the social considerations that restrained him. It was a mistake she was not likely to repeat, and her failure had probably been a useful preliminary to success. It was a long time since Ralph had allowed himself to think of her, and as he did so the overwhelming fact of her beauty became present to him again, no longer as an element of his being but as a power dispassionately estimated. He said to himself: “Any man who can feel at all will feel it as I did”; and the conviction grew in him that Raymond de Chelles, of whom he had formed an idea through Bowen’s talk, was not the man to give her up, even if she failed to obtain the release his religion exacted.

Meanwhile Ralph was gradually beginning to feel himself freer and lighter. Undine’s act, by cutting the last link between them, seemed to have given him back to himself; and the mere fact that he could consider his case in all its bearings, impartially and ironically, showed him the distance he had travelled, the extent to which he had renewed himself. He had been moved, too, by Clare’s cry of joy at his release. Though the nature of his feeling for her had not changed he was aware of a new quality in their friendship. When he went back to his book again his sense of power had lost its asperity, and the spectacle of life seemed less like a witless dangling of limp dolls. He was well on in his second chapter now.

This lightness of mood was still on him when, returning one afternoon to Washington Square, full of projects for a long evening’s work, he found his mother awaiting him with a strange face. He followed her into the drawing-room, and she explained that there had been a telephone message she didn’t understand — something perfectly crazy about Paul — of course it was all a mistake . . .

Ralph’s first thought was of an accident, and his heart contracted. “Did Laura telephone?”

“No, no; not Laura. It seemed to be a message from Mrs. Spragg: something about sending some one here to fetch him — a queer name like Heeny — to fetch him to a steamer on Saturday. I was to be sure to have his things packed . . . but of course it’s a misunderstanding . . . ” She gave an uncertain laugh, and looked up at Ralph as though entreating him to return the reassurance she had given him.

“Of course, of course,” he echoed.

He made his mother repeat her statement; but the unforeseen always flurried her, and she was confused and inaccurate. She didn’t actually know who had telephoned: the voice hadn’t sounded like Mrs. Spragg’s . . . A woman’s voice; yes — oh, not a lady’s! And there was certainly something about a steamer . . . but he knew how the telephone bewildered her . . . and she was sure she was getting a little deaf. Hadn’t he better call up the Malibran? Of course it was all a mistake — but . . . well, perhaps he HAD better go there himself . . .

As he reached the front door a letter clinked in the box, and he saw his name on an ordinary looking business envelope. He turned the door-handle, paused again, and stooped to take out the letter. It bore the address of the firm of lawyers who had represented Undine in the divorce proceedings and as he tore open the envelope Paul’s name started out at him.

Mrs. Marvell had followed him into the hall, and her cry broke the silence. “Ralph — Ralph — is it anything she’s done?”

“Nothing — it’s nothing.” He stared at her. “What’s the day of the week?”

“Wednesday. Why, what —?” She suddenly seemed to understand. “She’s not going to take him away from us?”

Ralph dropped into a chair, crumpling the letter in his hand. He had been in a dream, poor fool that he was — a dream about his child! He sat gazing at the type-written phrases that spun themselves out before him. “My client’s circumstances now happily permitting . . . at last in a position to offer her son a home . . . long separation . . . a mother’s feelings . . . every social and educational advantage” . . . and then, at the end, the poisoned dart that struck him speechless: “The courts having awarded her the sole custody . . . ”

The sole custody! But that meant that Paul was hers, hers only, hers for always: that his father had no more claim on him than any casual stranger in the street! And he, Ralph Marvell, a sane man, young, able-bodied, in full possession of his wits, had assisted at the perpetration of this abominable wrong, had passively forfeited his right to the flesh of his body, the blood of his being! But it couldn’t be — of course it couldn’t be. The preposterousness of it proved that it wasn’t true. There was a mistake somewhere; a mistake his own lawyer would instantly rectify. If a hammer hadn’t been drumming in his head he could have recalled the terms of the decree — but for the moment all the details of the agonizing episode were lost in a blur of uncertainty.

To escape his mother’s silent anguish of interrogation he stood up and said: “I’ll see Mr. Spragg — of course it’s a mistake.” But as he spoke he retravelled the hateful months during the divorce proceedings, remembering his incomprehensible lassitude, his acquiescence in his family’s determination to ignore the whole episode, and his gradual lapse into the same state of apathy. He recalled all the old family catchwords, the full and elaborate vocabulary of evasion: “delicacy,” “pride,” “personal dignity,” “preferring not to know about such things”; Mrs. Marvell’s: “All I ask is that you won’t mention the subject to your grandfather,” Mr. Dagonet’s: “Spare your mother, Ralph, whatever happens,” and even Laura’s terrified: “Of course, for Paul’s sake, there must be no scandal.”

For Paul’s sake! And it was because, for Paul’s sake, there must be no scandal, that he, Paul’s father, had tamely abstained from defending his rights and contesting his wife’s charges, and had thus handed the child over to her keeping!

As his cab whirled him up Fifth Avenue, Ralph’s whole body throbbed with rage against the influences that had reduced him to such weakness. Then, gradually, he saw that the weakness was innate in him. He had been eloquent enough, in his free youth, against the conventions of his class; yet when the moment came to show his contempt for them they had mysteriously mastered him, deflecting his course like some hidden hereditary failing. As he looked back it seemed as though even his great disaster had been conventionalized and sentimentalized by this inherited attitude: that the thoughts he had thought about it were only those of generations of Dagonets, and that there had been nothing real and his own in his life but the foolish passion he had been trying so hard to think out of existence.

Halfway to the Malibran he changed his direction, and drove to the house of the lawyer he had consulted at the time of his divorce. The lawyer had not yet come up town, and Ralph had a half hour of bitter meditation before the sound of a latch-key brought him to his feet. The visit did not last long. His host, after an affable greeting, listened without surprise to what he had to say, and when he had ended reminded him with somewhat ironic precision that, at the time of the divorce, he had asked for neither advice nor information — had simply declared that he wanted to “turn his back on the whole business” (Ralph recognized the phrase as one of his grandfather’s), and, on hearing that in that case he had only to abstain from action, and was in no need of legal services, had gone away without farther enquiries.

“You led me to infer you had your reasons — ” the slighted counsellor concluded; and, in reply to Ralph’s breathless question, he subjoined, “Why, you see, the case is closed, and I don’t exactly know on what ground you can re-open it — unless, of course, you can bring evidence showing that the irregularity of the mother’s life is such . . . ”

“She’s going to marry again,” Ralph threw in.

“Indeed? Well, that in itself can hardly be described as irregular. In fact, in certain circumstances it might be construed as an advantage to the child.”

“Then I’m powerless?”

“Why — unless there’s an ulterior motive — through which pressure might be brought to bear.”

“You mean that the first thing to do is to find out what she’s up to?”

“Precisely. Of course, if it should prove to be a genuine case of maternal feeling, I won’t conceal from you that the outlook’s bad. At most, you could probably arrange to see your boy at stated intervals.”

To see his boy at stated intervals! Ralph wondered how a sane man could sit there, looking responsible and efficient, and talk such rubbish . . . As he got up to go the lawyer detained him to add: “Of course there’s no immediate cause for alarm. It will take time to enforce the provision of the Dakota decree in New York, and till it’s done your son can’t be taken from you. But there’s sure to be a lot of nasty talk in the papers; and you’re bound to lose in the end.”

Ralph thanked him and left.

He sped northward to the Malibran, where he learned that Mr. and Mrs. Spragg were at dinner. He sent his name down to the subterranean restaurant, and Mr. Spragg presently appeared between the limp portieres of the “Adam” writing-room. He had grown older and heavier, as if illness instead of health had put more flesh on his bones, and there were greyish tints in the hollows of his face.

“What’s this about Paul?” Ralph exclaimed. “My mother’s had a message we can’t make out.”

Mr. Spragg sat down, with the effect of immersing his spinal column in the depths of the arm-chair he selected. He crossed his legs, and swung one foot to and fro in its high wrinkled boot with elastic sides.

“Didn’t you get a letter?” he asked.

“From my — from Undine’s lawyers? Yes.” Ralph held it out. “It’s queer reading. She hasn’t hitherto been very keen to have Paul with her.”

Mr. Spragg, adjusting his glasses, read the letter slowly, restored it to the envelope and gave it back. “My daughter has intimated that she wishes these gentlemen to act for her. I haven’t received any additional instructions from her,” he said, with none of the curtness of tone that his stiff legal vocabulary implied.

“But the first communication I received was from you — at least from Mrs. Spragg.”

Mr. Spragg drew his beard through his hand. “The ladies are apt to be a trifle hasty. I believe Mrs. Spragg had a letter yesterday instructing her to select a reliable escort for Paul; and I suppose she thought — ”

“Oh, this is all too preposterous!” Ralph burst out, springing from his seat. “You don’t for a moment imagine, do you — any of you — that I’m going to deliver up my son like a bale of goods in answer to any instructions in God’s world? — Oh, yes, I know — I let him go — I abandoned my right to him . . . but I didn’t know what I was doing . . . I was sick with grief and misery. My people were awfully broken up over the whole business, and I wanted to spare them. I wanted, above all, to spare my boy when he grew up. If I’d contested the case you know what the result would have been. I let it go by default — I made no conditions all I wanted was to keep Paul, and never to let him hear a word against his mother!”

Mr. Spragg received this passionate appeal in a silence that implied not so much disdain or indifference, as the total inability to deal verbally with emotional crises. At length, he said, a slight unsteadiness in his usually calm tones: “I presume at the time it was optional with you to demand Paul’s custody.”

“Oh, yes — it was optional,” Ralph sneered.

Mr. Spragg looked at him compassionately. “I’m sorry you didn’t do it,” he said.

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