The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XXXV

Within forty-eight hours Ralph’s money was in Moffatt’s hands, and the interval of suspense had begun.

The transaction over, he felt the deceptive buoyancy that follows on periods of painful indecision. It seemed to him that now at last life had freed him from all trammelling delusions, leaving him only the best thing in its gift — his boy.

The things he meant Paul to do and to be filled his fancy with happy pictures. The child was growing more and more interesting — throwing out countless tendrils of feeling and perception that delighted Ralph but preoccupied the watchful Laura.

“He’s going to be exactly like you, Ralph — ” she paused and then risked it: “For his own sake, I wish there were just a drop or two of Spragg in him.”

Ralph laughed, understanding her. “Oh, the plodding citizen I’ve become will keep him from taking after the lyric idiot who begot him. Paul and I, between us, are going to turn out something first-rate.”

His book too was spreading and throwing out tendrils, and he worked at it in the white heat of energy which his factitious exhilaration produced. For a few weeks everything he did and said seemed as easy and unconditioned as the actions in a dream.

Clare Van Degen, in the light of this mood, became again the comrade of his boyhood. He did not see her often, for she had gone down to the country with her children, but they communicated daily by letter or telephone, and now and then she came over to the Fairfords’ for a night. There they renewed the long rambles of their youth, and once more the summer fields and woods seemed full of magic presences. Clare was no more intelligent, she followed him no farther in his flights; but some of the qualities that had become most precious to him were as native to her as its perfume to a flower. So, through the long June afternoons, they ranged together over many themes; and if her answers sometimes missed the mark it did not matter, because her silences never did.

Meanwhile Ralph, from various sources, continued to pick up a good deal of more or less contradictory information about Elmer Moffatt. It seemed to be generally understood that Moffatt had come back from Europe with the intention of testifying in the Ararat investigation, and that his former patron, the great Harmon B. Driscoll, had managed to silence him; and it was implied that the price of this silence, which was set at a considerable figure, had been turned to account in a series of speculations likely to lift Moffatt to permanent eminence among the rulers of Wall Street. The stories as to his latest achievement, and the theories as to the man himself, varied with the visual angle of each reporter: and whenever any attempt was made to focus his hard sharp personality some guardian divinity seemed to throw a veil of mystery over him. His detractors, however, were the first to own that there was “something about him”; it was felt that he had passed beyond the meteoric stage, and the business world was unanimous in recognizing that he had “come to stay.” A dawning sense of his stability was even beginning to make itself felt in Fifth Avenue. It was said that he had bought a house in Seventy-second Street, then that he meant to build near the Park; one or two people (always “taken by a friend”) had been to his flat in the Pactolus, to see his Chinese porcelains and Persian rugs; now and then he had a few important men to dine at a Fifth Avenue restaurant; his name began to appear in philanthropic reports and on municipal committees (there were even rumours of its having been put up at a well-known club); and the rector of a wealthy parish, who was raising funds for a chantry, was known to have met him at dinner and to have stated afterward that “the man was not wholly a materialist.”

All these converging proofs of Moffatt’s solidity strengthened Ralph’s faith in his venture. He remembered with what astuteness and authority Moffatt had conducted their real estate transaction — how far off and unreal it all seemed! — and awaited events with the passive faith of a sufferer in the hands of a skilful surgeon.

The days moved on toward the end of June, and each morning Ralph opened his newspaper with a keener thrill of expectation. Any day now he might read of the granting of the Apex charter: Moffatt had assured him it would “go through” before the close of the month. But the announcement did not appear, and after what seemed to Ralph a decent lapse of time he telephoned to ask for news. Moffatt was away, and when he came back a few days later he answered Ralph’s enquiries evasively, with an edge of irritation in his voice. The same day Ralph received a letter from his lawyer, who had been reminded by Mrs. Marvell’s representatives that the latest date agreed on for the execution of the financial agreement was the end of the following week.

Ralph, alarmed, betook himself at once to the Ararat, and his first glimpse of Moffatt’s round common face and fastidiously dressed person gave him an immediate sense of reassurance. He felt that under the circle of baldness on top of that carefully brushed head lay the solution of every monetary problem that could beset the soul of man. Moffatt’s voice had recovered its usual cordial note, and the warmth of his welcome dispelled Ralph’s last apprehension.

“Why, yes, everything’s going along first-rate. They thought they’d hung us up last week — but they haven’t. There may be another week’s delay; but we ought to be opening a bottle of wine on it by the Fourth.”

An office-boy came in with a name on a slip of paper, and Moffatt looked at his watch and held out a hearty hand. “Glad you came. Of course I’ll keep you posted . . . No, this way . . . Look in again . . . ” and he steered Ralph out by another door.

July came, and passed into its second week. Ralph’s lawyer had obtained a postponement from the other side, but Undine’s representatives had given him to understand that the transaction must be closed before the first of August. Ralph telephoned once or twice to Moffatt, receiving genially-worded assurances that everything was “going their way”; but he felt a certain embarrassment in returning again to the office, and let himself drift through the days in a state of hungry apprehension. Finally one afternoon Henley Fairford, coming back from town (which Ralph had left in the morning to join his boy over Sunday), brought word that the Apex consolidation scheme had failed to get its charter. It was useless to attempt to reach Moffatt on Sunday, and Ralph wore on as he could through the succeeding twenty-four hours. Clare Van Degen had come down to stay with her youngest boy, and in the afternoon she and Ralph took the two children for a sail. A light breeze brightened the waters of the Sound, and they ran down the shore before it and then tacked out toward the sunset, coming back at last, under a failing breeze, as the summer sky passed from blue to a translucid green and then into the accumulating greys of twilight.

As they left the landing and walked up behind the children across the darkening lawn, a sense of security descended again on Ralph. He could not believe that such a scene and such a mood could be the disguise of any impending evil, and all his doubts and anxieties fell away from him.

The next morning, he and Clare travelled up to town together, and at the station he put her in the motor which was to take her to Long Island, and hastened down to Moffatt’s office. When he arrived he was told that Moffatt was “engaged,” and he had to wait for nearly half an hour in the outer office, where, to the steady click of the type-writer and the spasmodic buzzing of the telephone, his thoughts again began their restless circlings. Finally the inner door opened, and he found himself in the sanctuary. Moffatt was seated behind his desk, examining another little crystal vase somewhat like the one he had shown Ralph a few weeks earlier. As his visitor entered, he held it up against the light, revealing on its dewy sides an incised design as frail as the shadow of grass-blades on water.

“Ain’t she a peach?” He put the toy down and reached across the desk to shake hands. “Well, well,” he went on, leaning back in his chair, and pushing out his lower lip in a half-comic pout, “they’ve got us in the neck this time and no mistake. Seen this morning’s Radiator? I don’t know how the thing leaked out — but the reformers somehow got a smell of the scheme, and whenever they get swishing round something’s bound to get spilt.”

He talked gaily, genially, in his roundest tones and with his easiest gestures; never had he conveyed a completer sense of unhurried power; but Ralph noticed for the first time the crow’s-feet about his eyes, and the sharpness of the contrast between the white of his forehead and the redness of the fold of neck above his collar.

“Do you mean to say it’s not going through?”

“Not this time, anyhow. We’re high and dry.”

Something seemed to snap in Ralph’s head, and he sat down in the nearest chair. “Has the common stock dropped a lot?”

“Well, you’ve got to lean over to see it.” Moffatt pressed his finger-tips together and added thoughtfully: “But it’s THERE all right. We’re bound to get our charter in the end.”

“What do you call the end?”

“Oh, before the Day of Judgment, sure: next year, I guess.”

“Next year?” Ralph flushed. “What earthly good will that do me?”

“I don’t say it’s as pleasant as driving your best girl home by moonlight. But that’s how it is. And the stuff’s safe enough any way — I’ve told you that right along.”

“But you’ve told me all along I could count on a rise before August. You knew I had to have the money now.”

“I knew you WANTED to have the money now; and so did I, and several of my friends. I put you onto it because it was the only thing in sight likely to give you the return you wanted.”

“You ought at least to have warned me of the risk!”

“Risk? I don’t call it much of a risk to lie back in your chair and wait another few months for fifty thousand to drop into your lap. I tell you the thing’s as safe as a bank.”

“How do I know it is? You’ve misled me about it from the first.”

Moffatt’s face grew dark red to the forehead: for the first time in their acquaintance Ralph saw him on the verge of anger. “Well, if you get stuck so do I. I’m in it a good deal deeper than you. That’s about the best guarantee I can give; unless you won’t take my word for that either.” To control himself Moffatt spoke with extreme deliberation, separating his syllables like a machine cutting something into even lengths.

Ralph listened through a cloud of confusion; but he saw the madness of offending Moffatt, and tried to take a more conciliatory tone. “Of course I take your word for it. But I can’t — I simply can’t afford to lose . . . ”

“You ain’t going to lose: I don’t believe you’ll even have to put up any margin. It’s THERE safe enough, I tell you . . . ”

“Yes, yes; I understand. I’m sure you wouldn’t have advised me — ” Ralph’s tongue seemed swollen, and he had difficulty in bringing out the words. “Only, you see — I can’t wait; it’s not possible; and I want to know if there isn’t a way — ”

Moffatt looked at him with a sort of resigned compassion, as a doctor looks at a despairing mother who will not understand what he has tried to imply without uttering the word she dreads. Ralph understood the look, but hurried on.

“You’ll think I’m mad, or an ass, to talk like this; but the fact is, I must have the money.” He waited and drew a hard breath. “I must have it: that’s all. Perhaps I’d better tell you — ”

Moffatt, who had risen, as if assuming that the interview was over, sat down again and turned an attentive look on him. “Go ahead,” he said, more humanly than he had hitherto spoken.

“My boy . . . you spoke of him the other day . . . I’m awfully fond of him — ” Ralph broke off, deterred by the impossibility of confiding his feeling for Paul to this coarse-grained man with whom he hadn’t a sentiment in common.

Moffatt was still looking at him. “I should say you would be! He’s as smart a little chap as I ever saw; and I guess he’s the kind that gets better every day.”

Ralph had collected himself, and went on with sudden resolution: “Well, you see — when my wife and I separated, I never dreamed she’d want the boy: the question never came up. If it had, of course — but she’d left him with me when she went away two years before, and at the time of the divorce I was a fool . . . I didn’t take the proper steps . . . ”

“You mean she’s got sole custody?”

Ralph made a sign of assent, and Moffatt pondered. “That’s bad — bad.”

“And now I understand she’s going to marry again — and of course I can’t give up my son.”

“She wants you to, eh?”

Ralph again assented.

Moffatt swung his chair about and leaned back in it, stretching out his plump legs and contemplating the tips of his varnished boots. He hummed a low tune behind inscrutable lips.

“That’s what you want the money for?” he finally raised his head to ask.

The word came out of the depths of Ralph’s anguish: “Yes.”

“And why you want it in such a hurry. I see.” Moffatt reverted to the study of his boots. “It’s a lot of money.”

“Yes. That’s the difficulty. And I . . . she . . . ”

Ralph’s tongue was again too thick for his mouth. “I’m afraid she won’t wait . . . or take less . . . ”

Moffatt, abandoning the boots, was scrutinizing him through half-shut lids. “No,” he said slowly, “I don’t believe Undine Spragg’ll take a single cent less.”

Ralph felt himself whiten. Was it insolence or ignorance that had prompted Moffatt’s speech? Nothing in his voice or face showed the sense of any shades of expression or of feeling: he seemed to apply to everything the measure of the same crude flippancy. But such considerations could not curb Ralph now. He said to himself “Keep your temper — keep your temper — ” and his anger suddenly boiled over.

“Look here, Moffatt,” he said, getting to his feet, “the fact that I’ve been divorced from Mrs. Marvell doesn’t authorize any one to take that tone to me in speaking of her.”

Moffatt met the challenge with a calm stare under which there were dawning signs of surprise and interest. “That so? Well, if that’s the case I presume I ought to feel the same way: I’ve been divorced from her myself.”

For an instant the words conveyed no meaning to Ralph; then they surged up into his brain and flung him forward with half-raised arm. But he felt the grotesqueness of the gesture and his arm dropped back to his side. A series of unimportant and irrelevant things raced through his mind; then obscurity settled down on it. “THIS man . . . THIS man . . . ” was the one fiery point in his darkened consciousness. . . . “What on earth are you talking about?” he brought out.

“Why, facts,” said Moffatt, in a cool half-humorous voice. “You didn’t know? I understood from Mrs. Marvell your folks had a prejudice against divorce, so I suppose she kept quiet about that early episode. The truth is,” he continued amicably, “I wouldn’t have alluded to it now if you hadn’t taken rather a high tone with me about our little venture; but now it’s out I guess you may as well hear the whole story. It’s mighty wholesome for a man to have a round now and then with a few facts. Shall I go on?”

Ralph had stood listening without a sign, but as Moffatt ended he made a slight motion of acquiescence. He did not otherwise change his attitude, except to grasp with one hand the back of the chair that Moffatt pushed toward him.

“Rather stand? . . . ” Moffatt himself dropped back into his seat and took the pose of easy narrative. “Well, it was this way. Undine Spragg and I were made one at Opake, Nebraska, just nine years ago last month. My! She was a beauty then. Nothing much had happened to her before but being engaged for a year or two to a soft called Millard Binch; the same she passed on to Indiana Rolliver; and — well, I guess she liked the change. We didn’t have what you’d called a society wedding: no best man or bridesmaids or Voice that Breathed o’er Eden. Fact is, Pa and Ma didn’t know about it till it was over. But it was a marriage fast enough, as they found out when they tried to undo it. Trouble was, they caught on too soon; we only had a fortnight. Then they hauled Undine back to Apex, and — well, I hadn’t the cash or the pull to fight ’em. Uncle Abner was a pretty big man out there then; and he had James J. Rolliver behind him. I always know when I’m licked; and I was licked that time. So we unlooped the loop, and they fixed it up for me to make a trip to Alaska. Let me see — that was the year before they moved over to New York. Next time I saw Undine I sat alongside of her at the theatre the day your engagement was announced.”

He still kept to his half-humorous minor key, as though he were in the first stages of an after-dinner speech; but as he went on his bodily presence, which hitherto had seemed to Ralph the mere average garment of vulgarity, began to loom, huge and portentous as some monster released from a magician’s bottle. His redness, his glossiness, his baldness, and the carefully brushed ring of hair encircling it; the square line of his shoulders, the too careful fit of his clothes, the prominent lustre of his scarf-pin, the growth of short black hair on his manicured hands, even the tiny cracks and crows’-feet beginning to show in the hard close surface of his complexion: all these solid witnesses to his reality and his proximity pressed on Ralph with the mounting pang of physical nausea.

“THIS man . . . THIS man . . . ” he couldn’t get beyond the thought: whichever way he turned his haggard thought, there was Moffatt bodily blocking the perspective . . . Ralph’s eyes roamed toward the crystal toy that stood on the desk beside Moffatt’s hand. Faugh! That such a hand should have touched it!

Suddenly he heard himself speaking. “Before my marriage — did you know they hadn’t told me?”

“Why, I understood as much . . . ”

Ralph pushed on: “You knew it the day I met you in Mr. Spragg’s office?”

Moffatt considered a moment, as if the incident had escaped him. “Did we meet there?” He seemed benevolently ready for enlightenment. But Ralph had been assailed by another memory; he recalled that Moffatt had dined one night in his house, that he and the man who now faced him had sat at the same table, their wife between them . . . He was seized with another dumb gust of fury; but it died out and left him face to face with the uselessness, the irrelevance of all the old attitudes of appropriation and defiance. He seemed to be stumbling about in his inherited prejudices like a modern man in mediaeval armour . . . Moffatt still sat at his desk, unmoved and apparently uncomprehending. “He doesn’t even know what I’m feeling,” flashed through Ralph; and the whole archaic structure of his rites and sanctions tumbled down about him.

Through the noise of the crash he heard Moffatt’s voice going on without perceptible change of tone: “About that other matter now . . . you can’t feel any meaner about it than I do, I can tell you that . . . but all we’ve got to do is to sit tight . . . ”

Ralph turned from the voice, and found himself outside on the landing, and then in the street below.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/custom_of_the_country/chapter35.html

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