The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XXXVII

In a drawing-room hung with portraits of high-nosed personages in perukes and orders, a circle of ladies and gentlemen, looking not unlike every-day versions of the official figures above their heads, sat examining with friendly interest a little boy in mourning.

The boy was slim, fair and shy, and his small black figure, islanded in the middle of the wide lustrous floor, looked curiously lonely and remote. This effect of remoteness seemed to strike his mother as something intentional, and almost naughty, for after having launched him from the door, and waited to judge of the impression he produced, she came forward and, giving him a slight push, said impatiently: “Paul! Why don’t you go and kiss your new granny?”

The boy, without turning to her, or moving, sent his blue glance gravely about the circle. “Does she want me to?” he asked, in a tone of evident apprehension; and on his mother’s answering: “Of course, you silly!” he added earnestly: “How many more do you think there’ll be?”

Undine blushed to the ripples of her brilliant hair. “I never knew such a child! They’ve turned him into a perfect little savage!”

Raymond de Chelles advanced from behind his mother’s chair.

“He won’t be a savage long with me,” he said, stooping down so that his fatigued finely-drawn face was close to Paul’s. Their eyes met and the boy smiled. “Come along, old chap,” Chelles continued in English, drawing the little boy after him.

“Il est bien beau,” the Marquise de Chelles observed, her eyes turning from Paul’s grave face to her daughter-in-law’s vivid countenance.

“Do be nice, darling! Say, ‘bonjour, Madame,’” Undine urged.

An odd mingling of emotions stirred in her while she stood watching Paul make the round of the family group under her husband’s guidance. It was “lovely” to have the child back, and to find him, after their three years’ separation, grown into so endearing a figure: her first glimpse of him when, in Mrs. Heeny’s arms, he had emerged that morning from the steamer train, had shown what an acquisition he would be. If she had had any lingering doubts on the point, the impression produced on her husband would have dispelled them. Chelles had been instantly charmed, and Paul, in a shy confused way, was already responding to his advances. The Count and Countess Raymond had returned but a few weeks before from their protracted wedding journey, and were staying — as they were apparently to do whenever they came to Paris — with the old Marquis, Raymond’s father, who had amicably proposed that little Paul Marvell should also share the hospitality of the Hotel de Chelles. Undine, at first, was somewhat dismayed to find that she was expected to fit the boy and his nurse into a corner of her contracted entresol. But the possibility of a mother’s not finding room for her son, however cramped her own quarters, seemed not to have occurred to her new relations, and the preparing of her dressing-room and boudoir for Paul’s occupancy was carried on by the household with a zeal which obliged her to dissemble her lukewarmness.

Undine had supposed that on her marriage one of the great suites of the Hotel de Chelles would be emptied of its tenants and put at her husband’s disposal; but she had since learned that, even had such a plan occurred to her parents-in-law, considerations of economy would have hindered it. The old Marquis and his wife, who were content, when they came up from Burgundy in the spring, with a modest set of rooms looking out on the court of their ancestral residence, expected their son and his wife to fit themselves into the still smaller apartment which had served as Raymond’s bachelor lodging. The rest of the fine old mouldering house — the tall-windowed premier on the garden, and the whole of the floor above — had been let for years to old fashioned tenants who would have been more surprised than their landlord had he suddenly proposed to dispossess them. Undine, at first, had regarded these arrangements as merely provisional. She was persuaded that, under her influence, Raymond would soon convert his parents to more modern ideas, and meanwhile she was still in the flush of a completer well-being than she had ever known, and disposed, for the moment, to make light of any inconveniences connected with it. The three months since her marriage had been more nearly like what she had dreamed of than any of her previous experiments in happiness. At last she had what she wanted, and for the first time the glow of triumph was warmed by a deeper feeling. Her husband was really charming (it was odd how he reminded her of Ralph!), and after her bitter two years of loneliness and humiliation it was delicious to find herself once more adored and protected.

The very fact that Raymond was more jealous of her than Ralph had ever been — or at any rate less reluctant to show it — gave her a keener sense of recovered power. None of the men who had been in love with her before had been so frankly possessive, or so eager for reciprocal assurances of constancy. She knew that Ralph had suffered deeply from her intimacy with Van Degen, but he had betrayed his feeling only by a more studied detachment; and Van Degen, from the first, had been contemptuously indifferent to what she did or felt when she was out of his sight. As to her earlier experiences, she had frankly forgotten them: her sentimental memories went back no farther than the beginning of her New York career.

Raymond seemed to attach more importance to love, in all its manifestations, than was usual or convenient in a husband; and she gradually began to be aware that her domination over him involved a corresponding loss of independence. Since their return to Paris she had found that she was expected to give a circumstantial report of every hour she spent away from him. She had nothing to hide, and no designs against his peace of mind except those connected with her frequent and costly sessions at the dress-makers’; but she had never before been called upon to account to any one for the use of her time, and after the first amused surprise at Raymond’s always wanting to know where she had been and whom she had seen she began to be oppressed by so exacting a devotion. Her parents, from her tenderest youth, had tacitly recognized her inalienable right to “go round,” and Ralph — though from motives which she divined to be different — had shown the same respect for her freedom. It was therefore disconcerting to find that Raymond expected her to choose her friends, and even her acquaintances, in conformity not only with his personal tastes but with a definite and complicated code of family prejudices and traditions; and she was especially surprised to discover that he viewed with disapproval her intimacy with the Princess Estradina.

“My cousin’s extremely amusing, of course, but utterly mad and very mal entourée. Most of the people she has about her ought to be in prison or Bedlam: especially that unspeakable Madame Adelschein, who’s a candidate for both. My aunt’s an angel, but she’s been weak enough to let Lili turn the Hotel de Dordogne into an annex of Montmartre. Of course you’ll have to show yourself there now and then: in these days families like ours must hold together. But go to the reunions de famille rather than to Lili’s intimate parties; go with me, or with my mother; don’t let yourself be seen there alone. You’re too young and good-looking to be mixed up with that crew. A woman’s classed — or rather unclassed — by being known as one of Lili’s set.”

Agreeable as it was to Undine that an appeal to her discretion should be based on the ground of her youth and good-looks, she was dismayed to find herself cut off from the very circle she had meant them to establish her in. Before she had become Raymond’s wife there had been a moment of sharp tension in her relations with the Princess Estradina and the old Duchess. They had done their best to prevent her marrying their cousin, and had gone so far as openly to accuse her of being the cause of a breach between themselves and his parents. But Ralph Marvell’s death had brought about a sudden change in her situation. She was now no longer a divorced woman struggling to obtain ecclesiastical sanction for her remarriage, but a widow whose conspicuous beauty and independent situation made her the object of lawful aspirations. The first person to seize on this distinction and make the most of it was her old enemy the Marquise de Trezac. The latter, who had been loudly charged by the house of Chelles with furthering her beautiful compatriot’s designs, had instantly seen a chance of vindicating herself by taking the widowed Mrs. Marvell under her wing and favouring the attentions of other suitors. These were not lacking, and the expected result had followed. Raymond de Chelles, more than ever infatuated as attainment became less certain, had claimed a definite promise from Undine, and his family, discouraged by his persistent bachelorhood, and their failure to fix his attention on any of the amiable maidens obviously designed to continue the race, had ended by withdrawing their opposition and discovering in Mrs. Marvell the moral and financial merits necessary to justify their change of front.

“A good match? If she isn’t, I should like to know what the Chelles call one!” Madame de Trezac went about indefatigably proclaiming. “Related to the best people in New York — well, by marriage, that is; and her husband left much more money than was expected. It goes to the boy, of course; but as the boy is with his mother she naturally enjoys the income. And her father’s a rich man — much richer than is generally known; I mean what WE call rich in America, you understand!”

Madame de Trezac had lately discovered that the proper attitude for the American married abroad was that of a militant patriotism; and she flaunted Undine Marvell in the face of the Faubourg like a particularly showy specimen of her national banner. The success of the experiment emboldened her to throw off the most sacred observances of her past. She took up Madame Adelschein, she entertained the James J. Rollivers, she resuscitated Creole dishes, she patronized negro melodists, she abandoned her weekly teas for impromptu afternoon dances, and the prim drawing-room in which dowagers had droned echoed with a cosmopolitan hubbub.

Even when the period of tension was over, and Undine had been officially received into the family of her betrothed, Madame de Trezac did not at once surrender. She laughingly professed to have had enough of the proprieties, and declared herself bored by the social rites she had hitherto so piously performed. “You’ll always find a corner of home here, dearest, when you get tired of their ceremonies and solemnities,” she said as she embraced the bride after the wedding breakfast; and Undine hoped that the devoted Nettie would in fact provide a refuge from the extreme domesticity of her new state. But since her return to Paris, and her taking up her domicile in the Hotel de Chelles, she had found Madame de Trezac less and less disposed to abet her in any assertion of independence.

“My dear, a woman must adopt her husband’s nationality whether she wants to or not. It’s the law, and it’s the custom besides. If you wanted to amuse yourself with your Nouveau Luxe friends you oughtn’t to have married Raymond — but of course I say that only in joke. As if any woman would have hesitated who’d had your chance! Take my advice — keep out of Lili’s set just at first. Later . . . well, perhaps Raymond won’t be so particular; but meanwhile you’d make a great mistake to go against his people — ” and Madame de Trezac, with a “Chere Madame,” swept forward from her tea-table to receive the first of the returning dowagers.

It was about this time that Mrs. Heeny arrived with Paul; and for a while Undine was pleasantly absorbed in her boy. She kept Mrs. Heeny in Paris for a fortnight, and between her more pressing occupations it amused her to listen to the masseuse’s New York gossip and her comments on the social organization of the old world. It was Mrs. Heeny’s first visit to Europe, and she confessed to Undine that she had always wanted to “see something of the aristocracy” — using the phrase as a naturalist might, with no hint of personal pretensions. Mrs. Heeny’s democratic ease was combined with the strictest professional discretion, and it would never have occurred to her to regard herself, or to wish others to regard her, as anything but a manipulator of muscles; but in that character she felt herself entitled to admission to the highest circles.

“They certainly do things with style over here — but it’s kinder one-horse after New York, ain’t it? Is this what they call their season? Why, you dined home two nights last week. They ought to come over to New York and see!” And she poured into Undine’s half-envious ear a list of the entertainments which had illuminated the last weeks of the New York winter. “I suppose you’ll begin to give parties as soon as ever you get into a house of your own. You’re not going to have one? Oh, well, then you’ll give a lot of big week-ends at your place down in the Shatter-country — that’s where the swells all go to in the summer time, ain’t it? But I dunno what your ma would say if she knew you were going to live on with HIS folks after you’re done honey-mooning. Why, we read in the papers you were going to live in some grand hotel or other — oh, they call their houses HOTELS, do they? That’s funny: I suppose it’s because they let out part of ’em. Well, you look handsomer than ever. Undine; I’ll take THAT back to your mother, anyhow. And he’s dead in love, I can see that; reminds me of the way — ” but she broke off suddenly, as if something in Undine’s look had silenced her.

Even to herself. Undine did not like to call up the image of Ralph Marvell; and any mention of his name gave her a vague sense of distress. His death had released her, had given her what she wanted; yet she could honestly say to herself that she had not wanted him to die — at least not to die like that. . . . People said at the time that it was the hot weather — his own family had said so: he had never quite got over his attack of pneumonia, and the sudden rise of temperature — one of the fierce “heat-waves” that devastate New York in summer — had probably affected his brain: the doctors said such cases were not uncommon. . . . She had worn black for a few weeks — not quite mourning, but something decently regretful (the dress-makers were beginning to provide a special garb for such cases); and even since her remarriage, and the lapse of a year, she continued to wish that she could have got what she wanted without having had to pay that particular price for it.

This feeling was intensified by an incident — in itself far from unwelcome — which had occurred about three months after Ralph’s death. Her lawyers had written to say that the sum of a hundred thousand dollars had been paid over to Marvell’s estate by the Apex Consolidation Company; and as Marvell had left a will bequeathing everything he possessed to his son, this unexpected windfall handsomely increased Paul’s patrimony. Undine had never relinquished her claim on her child; she had merely, by the advice of her lawyers, waived the assertion of her right for a few months after Marvell’s death, with the express stipulation that her doing so was only a temporary concession to the feelings of her husband’s family; and she had held out against all attempts to induce her to surrender Paul permanently. Before her marriage she had somewhat conspicuously adopted her husband’s creed, and the Dagonets, picturing Paul as the prey of the Jesuits, had made the mistake of appealing to the courts for his custody. This had confirmed Undine’s resistance, and her determination to keep the child. The case had been decided in her favour, and she had thereupon demanded, and obtained, an allowance of five thousand dollars, to be devoted to the bringing up and education of her son. This sum, added to what Mr. Spragg had agreed to give her, made up an income which had appreciably bettered her position, and justified Madame de Trezac’s discreet allusions to her wealth. Nevertheless, it was one of the facts about which she least liked to think when any chance allusion evoked Ralph’s image. The money was hers, of course; she had a right to it, and she was an ardent believer in “rights.” But she wished she could have got it in some other way — she hated the thought of it as one more instance of the perverseness with which things she was entitled to always came to her as if they had been stolen.

The approach of summer, and the culmination of the Paris season, swept aside such thoughts. The Countess Raymond de Chelles, contrasting her situation with that of Mrs. Undine Marvell, and the fulness and animation of her new life with the vacant dissatisfied days which had followed on her return from Dakota, forgot the smallness of her apartment, the inconvenient proximity of Paul and his nurse, the interminable round of visits with her mother-in-law, and the long dinners in the solemn hotels of all the family connection. The world was radiant, the lights were lit, the music playing; she was still young, and better-looking than ever, with a Countess’s coronet, a famous chateau and a handsome and popular husband who adored her. And then suddenly the lights went out and the music stopped when one day Raymond, putting his arm about her, said in his tenderest tones: “And now, my dear, the world’s had you long enough and it’s my turn. What do you say to going down to Saint Desert?”

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