The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XXXIII

The upshot of Ralph’s visit was that Mr. Spragg, after considerable deliberation, agreed, pending farther negotiations between the opposing lawyers, to undertake that no attempt should be made to remove Paul from his father’s custody. Nevertheless, he seemed to think it quite natural that Undine, on the point of making a marriage which would put it in her power to give her child a suitable home, should assert her claim on him. It was more disconcerting to Ralph to learn that Mrs. Spragg, for once departing from her attitude of passive impartiality, had eagerly abetted her daughter’s move; he had somehow felt that Undine’s desertion of the child had established a kind of mute understanding between himself and his mother-in-law.

“I thought Mrs. Spragg would know there’s no earthly use trying to take Paul from me,” he said with a desperate awkwardness of entreaty, and Mr. Spragg startled him by replying: “I presume his grandma thinks he’ll belong to her more if we keep him in the family.”

Ralph, abruptly awakened from his dream of recovered peace, found himself confronted on every side by. indifference or hostility: it was as though the June fields in which his boy was playing had suddenly opened to engulph him. Mrs. Marvell’s fears and tremors were almost harder to bear than the Spraggs’ antagonism; and for the next few days Ralph wandered about miserably, dreading some fresh communication from Undine’s lawyers, yet racked by the strain of hearing nothing more from them. Mr. Spragg had agreed to cable his daughter asking her to await a letter before enforcing her demands; but on the fourth day after Ralph’s visit to the Malibran a telephone message summoned him to his father-in-law’s office.

Half an hour later their talk was over and he stood once more on the landing outside Mr. Spragg’s door. Undine’s answer had come and Paul’s fate was sealed. His mother refused to give him up, refused to await the arrival of her lawyer’s letter, and reiterated, in more peremptory language, her demand that the child should be sent immediately to Paris in Mrs. Heeny’s care.

Mr. Spragg, in face of Ralph’s entreaties, remained pacific but remote. It was evident that, though he had no wish to quarrel with Ralph, he saw no reason for resisting Undine. “I guess she’s got the law on her side,” he said; and in response to Ralph’s passionate remonstrances he added fatalistically: “I presume you’ll have to leave the matter to my daughter.”

Ralph had gone to the office resolved to control his temper and keep on the watch for any shred of information he might glean; but it soon became clear that Mr. Spragg knew as little as himself of Undine’s projects, or of the stage her plans had reached. All she had apparently vouchsafed her parent was the statement that she intended to re-marry, and the command to send Paul over; and Ralph reflected that his own betrothal to her had probably been announced to Mr. Spragg in the same curt fashion.

The thought brought back an overwhelming sense of the past. One by one the details of that incredible moment revived, and he felt in his veins the glow of rapture with which he had first approached the dingy threshold he was now leaving. There came back to him with peculiar vividness the memory of his rushing up to Mr. Spragg’s office to consult him about a necklace for Undine. Ralph recalled the incident because his eager appeal for advice had been received by Mr. Spragg with the very phrase he had just used: “I presume you’ll have to leave the matter to my daughter.”

Ralph saw him slouching in his chair, swung sideways from the untidy desk, his legs stretched out, his hands in his pockets, his jaws engaged on the phantom tooth-pick; and, in a corner of the office, the figure of a middle-sized red-faced young man who seemed to have been interrupted in the act of saying something disagreeable.

“Why, it must have been then that I first saw Moffatt,” Ralph reflected; and the thought suggested the memory of other, subsequent meetings in the same building, and of frequent ascents to Moffatt’s office during the ardent weeks of their mysterious and remunerative “deal.”

Ralph wondered if Moffatt’s office were still in the Ararat; and on the way out he paused before the black tablet affixed to the wall of the vestibule and sought and found the name in its familiar place.

The next moment he was again absorbed in his own cares. Now that he had learned the imminence of Paul’s danger, and the futility of pleading for delay, a thousand fantastic projects were contending in his head. To get the boy away — that seemed the first thing to do: to put him out of reach, and then invoke the law, get the case re-opened, and carry the fight from court to court till his rights should be recognized. It would cost a lot of money — well, the money would have to be found. The first step was to secure the boy’s temporary safety; after that, the question of ways and means would have to be considered . . . Had there ever been a time, Ralph wondered, when that question hadn’t been at the root of all the others?

He had promised to let Clare Van Degen know the result of his visit, and half an hour later he was in her drawing-room. It was the first time he had entered it since his divorce; but Van Degen was tarpon-fishing in California — and besides, he had to see Clare. His one relief was in talking to her, in feverishly turning over with her every possibility of delay and obstruction; and he marvelled at the intelligence and energy she brought to the discussion of these questions. It was as if she had never before felt strongly enough about anything to put her heart or her brains into it; but now everything in her was at work for him.

She listened intently to what he told her; then she said: “You tell me it will cost a great deal; but why take it to the courts at all? Why not give the money to Undine instead of to your lawyers?”

Ralph looked at her in surprise, and she continued: “Why do you suppose she’s suddenly made up her mind she must have Paul?”

“That’s comprehensible enough to any one who knows her. She wants him because he’ll give her the appearance of respectability. Having him with her will prove, as no mere assertions can, that all the rights are on her side and the ‘wrongs’ on mine.”

Clare considered. “Yes; that’s the obvious answer. But shall I tell you what I think, my dear? You and I are both completely out-of-date. I don’t believe Undine cares a straw for ‘the appearance of respectability.’ What she wants is the money for her annulment.”

Ralph uttered an incredulous exclamation. “But don’t you see?” she hurried on. “It’s her only hope — her last chance. She’s much too clever to burden herself with the child merely to annoy you. What she wants is to make you buy him back from her.” She stood up and came to him with outstretched hands. “Perhaps I can be of use to you at last!”

“You?” He summoned up a haggard smile. “As if you weren’t always — letting me load you with all my bothers!”

“Oh, if only I’ve hit on the way out of this one! Then there wouldn’t be any others left!” Her eyes followed him intently as he turned away to the window and stood staring down at the sultry prospect of Fifth Avenue. As he turned over her conjecture its probability became more and more apparent. It put into logical relation all the incoherencies of Undine’s recent conduct, completed and defined her anew as if a sharp line had been drawn about her fading image.

“If it’s that, I shall soon know,” he said, turning back into the room. His course had instantly become plain. He had only to resist and Undine would have to show her hand. Simultaneously with this thought there sprang up in his mind the remembrance of the autumn afternoon in Paris when he had come home and found her, among her half-packed finery, desperately bewailing her coming motherhood. Clare’s touch was on his arm. “If I’m right — you WILL let me help?”

He laid his hand on hers without speaking, and she went on:

“It will take a lot of money: all these law-suits do. Besides, she’d be ashamed to sell him cheap. You must be ready to give her anything she wants. And I’ve got a lot saved up — money of my own, I mean . . . ”

“Your own?” As he looked at her the rare blush rose under her brown skin.

“My very own. Why shouldn’t you believe me? I’ve been hoarding up my scrap of an income for years, thinking that some day I’d find I couldn’t stand this any longer . . . ” Her gesture embraced their sumptuous setting. “But now I know I shall never budge. There are the children; and besides, things are easier for me since — ” she paused, embarrassed.

“Yes, yes; I know.” He felt like completing her phrase: “Since my wife has furnished you with the means of putting pressure on your husband — ” but he simply repeated: “I know.”

“And you WILL let me help?”

“Oh, we must get at the facts first.” He caught her hands in his with sudden energy. “As you say, when Paul’s safe there won’t be another bother left!”

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