The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XXXVIII

In a window of the long gallery of the chateau de Saint Desert the new Marquise de Chelles stood looking down the poplar avenue into the November rain. It had been raining heavily and persistently for a longer time than she could remember. Day after day the hills beyond the park had been curtained by motionless clouds, the gutters of the long steep roofs had gurgled with a perpetual overflow, the opaque surface of the moat been peppered by a continuous pelting of big drops. The water lay in glassy stretches under the trees and along the sodden edges of the garden-paths, it rose in a white mist from the fields beyond, it exuded in a chill moisture from the brick flooring of the passages and from the walls of the rooms on the lower floor. Everything in the great empty house smelt of dampness: the stuffing of the chairs, the threadbare folds of the faded curtains, the splendid tapestries, that were fading too, on the walls of the room in which Undine stood, and the wide bands of crape which her husband had insisted on her keeping on her black dresses till the last hour of her mourning for the old Marquis.

The summer had been more than usually inclement, and since her first coming to the country Undine had lived through many periods of rainy weather; but none which had gone before had so completely epitomized, so summed up in one vast monotonous blur, the image of her long months at Saint Desert.

When, the year before, she had reluctantly suffered herself to be torn from the joys of Paris, she had been sustained by the belief that her exile would not be of long duration. Once Paris was out of sight, she had even found a certain lazy charm in the long warm days at Saint Desert. Her parents-in-law had remained in town, and she enjoyed being alone with her husband, exploring and appraising the treasures of the great half abandoned house, and watching her boy scamper over the June meadows or trot about the gardens on the poney his stepfather had given him. Paul, after Mrs. Heeny’s departure, had grown fretful and restive, and Undine had found it more and more difficult to fit his small exacting personality into her cramped rooms and crowded life. He irritated her by pining for his Aunt Laura, his Marvell granny, and old Mr. Dagonet’s funny stories about gods and fairies; and his wistful allusions to his games with Clare’s children sounded like a lesson he might have been drilled in to make her feel how little he belonged to her. But once released from Paris, and blessed with rabbits, a poney and the freedom of the fields, he became again all that a charming child should be, and for a time it amused her to share in his romps and rambles. Raymond seemed enchanted at the picture they made, and the quiet weeks of fresh air and outdoor activity gave her back a bloom that reflected itself in her tranquillized mood. She was the more resigned to this interlude because she was so sure of its not lasting. Before they left Paris a doctor had been found to say that Paul — who was certainly looking pale and pulled-down — was in urgent need of sea air, and Undine had nearly convinced her husband of the expediency of hiring a chalet at Deauville for July and August, when this plan, and with it every other prospect of escape, was dashed by the sudden death of the old Marquis.

Undine, at first, had supposed that the resulting change could not be other than favourable. She had been on too formal terms with her father-in-law — a remote and ceremonious old gentleman to whom her own personality was evidently an insoluble enigma — to feel more than the merest conventional pang at his death; and it was certainly “more fun” to be a marchioness than a countess, and to know that one’s husband was the head of the house. Besides, now they would have the chateau to themselves — or at least the old Marquise, when she came, would be there as a guest and not a ruler — and visions of smart house-parties and big shoots lit up the first weeks of Undine’s enforced seclusion. Then, by degrees, the inexorable conditions of French mourning closed in on her. Immediately after the long-drawn funeral observances the bereaved family — mother, daughters, sons and sons-in-law — came down to seclude themselves at Saint Desert; and Undine, through the slow hot crape-smelling months, lived encircled by shrouded images of woe in which the only live points were the eyes constantly fixed on her least movements. The hope of escaping to the seaside with Paul vanished in the pained stare with which her mother-in-law received the suggestion. Undine learned the next day that it had cost the old Marquise a sleepless night, and might have had more distressing results had it not been explained as a harmless instance of transatlantic oddness. Raymond entreated his wife to atone for her involuntary legereté by submitting with a good grace to the usages of her adopted country; and he seemed to regard the remaining months of the summer as hardly long enough for this act of expiation. As Undine looked back on them, they appeared to have been composed of an interminable succession of identical days, in which attendance at early mass (in the coroneted gallery she had once so glowingly depicted to Van Degen) was followed by a great deal of conversational sitting about, a great deal of excellent eating, an occasional drive to the nearest town behind a pair of heavy draft horses, and long evenings in a lamp-heated drawing-room with all the windows shut, and the stout cure making an asthmatic fourth at the Marquise’s card-table.

Still, even these conditions were not permanent, and the discipline of the last years had trained Undine to wait and dissemble. The summer over, it was decided — after a protracted family conclave — that the state of the old Marquise’s health made it advisable for her to spend the winter with the married daughter who lived near Pau. The other members of the family returned to their respective estates, and Undine once more found herself alone with her husband. But she knew by this time that there was to be no thought of Paris that winter, or even the next spring. Worse still, she was presently to discover that Raymond’s accession of rank brought with it no financial advantages.

Having but the vaguest notion of French testamentary law, she was dismayed to learn that the compulsory division of property made it impossible for a father to benefit his eldest son at the expense of the others. Raymond was therefore little richer than before, and with the debts of honour of a troublesome younger brother to settle, and Saint Desert to keep up, his available income was actually reduced. He held out, indeed, the hope of eventual improvement, since the old Marquis had managed his estates with a lofty contempt for modern methods, and the application of new principles of agriculture and forestry were certain to yield profitable results. But for a year or two, at any rate, this very change of treatment would necessitate the owner’s continual supervision, and would not in the meanwhile produce any increase of income.

To faire valoir the family acres had always, it appeared, been Raymond’s deepest-seated purpose, and all his frivolities dropped from him with the prospect of putting his hand to the plough. He was not, indeed, inhuman enough to condemn his wife to perpetual exile. He meant, he assured her, that she should have her annual spring visit to Paris — but he stared in dismay at her suggestion that they should take possession of the coveted premier of the Hotel de Chelles. He was gallant enough to express the wish that it were in his power to house her on such a scale; but he could not conceal his surprise that she had ever seriously expected it. She was beginning to see that he felt her constitutional inability to understand anything about money as the deepest difference between them. It was a proficiency no one had ever expected her to acquire, and the lack of which she had even been encouraged to regard as a grace and to use as a pretext. During the interval between her divorce and her remarriage she had learned what things cost, but not how to do without them; and money still seemed to her like some mysterious and uncertain stream which occasionally vanished underground but was sure to bubble up again at one’s feet. Now, however, she found herself in a world where it represented not the means of individual gratification but the substance binding together whole groups of interests, and where the uses to which it might be put in twenty years were considered before the reasons for spending it on the spot. At first she was sure she could laugh Raymond out of his prudence or coax him round to her point of view. She did not understand how a man so romantically in love could be so unpersuadable on certain points. Hitherto she had had to contend with personal moods, now she was arguing against a policy; and she was gradually to learn that it was as natural to Raymond de Chelles to adore her and resist her as it had been to Ralph Marvell to adore her and let her have her way. At first, indeed, he appealed to her good sense, using arguments evidently drawn from accumulations of hereditary experience. But his economic plea was as unintelligible to her as the silly problems about pen-knives and apples in the “Mental Arithmetic” of her infancy; and when he struck a tenderer note and spoke of the duty of providing for the son he hoped for, she put her arms about him to whisper: “But then I oughtn’t to be worried . . . ”

After that, she noticed, though he was as charming as ever, he behaved as if the case were closed. He had apparently decided that his arguments were unintelligible to her, and under all his ardour she felt the difference made by the discovery. It did not make him less kind, but it evidently made her less important; and she had the half-frightened sense that the day she ceased to please him she would cease to exist for him. That day was a long way off, of course, but the chill of it had brushed her face; and she was no longer heedless of such signs. She resolved to cultivate all the arts of patience and compliance, and habit might have helped them to take root if they had not been nipped by a new cataclysm.

It was barely a week ago that her husband had been called to Paris to straighten out a fresh tangle in the affairs of the troublesome brother whose difficulties were apparently a part of the family tradition. Raymond’s letters had been hurried, his telegrams brief and contradictory, and now, as Undine stood watching for the brougham that was to bring him from the station, she had the sense that with his arrival all her vague fears would be confirmed. There would be more money to pay out, of course — since the funds that could not be found for her just needs were apparently always forthcoming to settle Hubert’s scandalous prodigalities — and that meant a longer perspective of solitude at Saint Desert, and a fresh pretext for postponing the hospitalities that were to follow on their period of mourning. The brougham — a vehicle as massive and lumbering as the pair that drew it — presently rolled into the court, and Raymond’s sable figure (she had never before seen a man travel in such black clothes) sprang up the steps to the door. Whenever Undine saw him after an absence she had a curious sense of his coming back from unknown distances and not belonging to her or to any state of things she understood. Then habit reasserted itself, and she began to think of him again with a querulous familiarity. But she had learned to hide her feelings, and as he came in she put up her face for a kiss.

“Yes — everything’s settled — ” his embrace expressed the satisfaction of the man returning from an accomplished task to the joys of his fireside.

“Settled?” Her face kindled. “Without your having to pay?”

He looked at her with a shrug. “Of course I’ve had to pay. Did you suppose Hubert’s creditors would be put off with vanilla eclairs?”

“Oh, if THAT’S what you mean — if Hubert has only to wire you at any time to be sure of his affairs being settled — !”

She saw his lips narrow and a line come out between his eyes. “Wouldn’t it be a happy thought to tell them to bring tea?” he suggested.

“In the library, then. It’s so cold here — and the tapestries smell so of rain.”

He paused a moment to scrutinize the long walls, on which the fabulous blues and pinks of the great Boucher series looked as livid as withered roses. “I suppose they ought to be taken down and aired,” he said.

She thought: “In THIS air — much good it would do them!” But she had already repented her outbreak about Hubert, and she followed her husband into the library with the resolve not to let him see her annoyance. Compared with the long grey gallery the library, with its brown walls of books, looked warm and home-like, and Raymond seemed to feel the influence of the softer atmosphere. He turned to his wife and put his arm about her.

“I know it’s been a trial to you, dearest; but this is the last time I shall have to pull the poor boy out.”

In spite of herself she laughed incredulously: Hubert’s “last times” were a household word.

But when tea had been brought, and they were alone over the fire, Raymond unfolded the amazing sequel. Hubert had found an heiress, Hubert was to be married, and henceforth the business of paying his debts (which might be counted on to recur as inevitably as the changes of the seasons) would devolve on his American bride — the charming Miss Looty Arlington, whom Raymond had remained over in Paris to meet.

“An American? He’s marrying an American?” Undine wavered between wrath and satisfaction. She felt a flash of resentment at any other intruder’s venturing upon her territory — (“Looty Arlington? Who is she? What a name!”) — but it was quickly superseded by the relief of knowing that henceforth, as Raymond said, Hubert’s debts would be some one else’s business. Then a third consideration prevailed. “But if he’s engaged to a rich girl, why on earth do WE have to pull him out?”

Her husband explained that no other course was possible. Though General Arlington was immensely wealthy, (“her father’s a general — a General Manager, whatever that may be,”) he had exacted what he called “a clean slate” from his future son-in-law, and Hubert’s creditors (the boy was such a donkey!) had in their possession certain papers that made it possible for them to press for immediate payment.

“Your compatriots’ views on such matters are so rigid — and it’s all to their credit — that the marriage would have fallen through at once if the least hint of Hubert’s mess had got out — and then we should have had him on our hands for life.”

Yes — from that point of view it was doubtless best to pay up; but Undine obscurely wished that their doing so had not incidentally helped an unknown compatriot to what the American papers were no doubt already announcing as “another brilliant foreign alliance.”

“Where on earth did your brother pick up anybody respectable? Do you know where her people come from? I suppose she’s perfectly awful,” she broke out with a sudden escape of irritation.

“I believe Hubert made her acquaintance at a skating rink. They come from some new state — the general apologized for its not yet being on the map, but seemed surprised I hadn’t heard of it. He said it was already known as one of ‘the divorce states,’ and the principal city had, in consequence, a very agreeable society. La petite n’est vraiment pas trop mal.”

“I daresay not! We’re all good-looking. But she must be horribly common.”

Raymond seemed sincerely unable to formulate a judgment. “My dear, you have your own customs . . . ”

“Oh, I know we’re all alike to you!” It was one of her grievances that he never attempted to discriminate between Americans. “You see no difference between me and a girl one gets engaged to at a skating rink!”

He evaded the challenge by rejoining: “Miss Arlington’s burning to know you. She says she’s heard a great deal about you, and Hubert wants to bring her down next week. I think we’d better do what we can.”

“Of course.” But Undine was still absorbed in the economic aspect of the case. “If they’re as rich as you say, I suppose Hubert means to pay you back by and bye?”

“Naturally. It’s all arranged. He’s given me a paper.” He drew her hands into his. “You see we’ve every reason to be kind to Miss Arlington.”

“Oh, I’ll be as kind as you like!” She brightened at the prospect of repayment. Yes, they would ask the girl down . . . She leaned a little nearer to her husband. “But then after a while we shall be a good deal better off — especially, as you say, with no more of Hubert’s debts to worry us.” And leaning back far enough to give her upward smile, she renewed her plea for the premier in the Hotel de Chelles: “Because, really, you know, as the head of the house you ought to — ”

“Ah, my dear, as the head of the house I’ve so many obligations; and one of them is not to miss a good stroke of business when it comes my way.”

Her hands slipped from his shoulders and she drew back. “What do you mean by a good stroke of business?

“Why, an incredible piece of luck — it’s what kept me on so long in Paris. Miss Arlington’s father was looking for an apartment for the young couple, and I’ve let him the premier for twelve years on the understanding that he puts electric light and heating into the whole hotel. It’s a wonderful chance, for of course we all benefit by it as much as Hubert.”

“A wonderful chance . . . benefit by it as much as Hubert!” He seemed to be speaking a strange language in which familiar-sounding syllables meant something totally unknown. Did he really think she was going to coop herself up again in their cramped quarters while Hubert and his skating-rink bride luxuriated overhead in the coveted premier? All the resentments that had been accumulating in her during the long baffled months since her marriage broke into speech. “It’s extraordinary of you to do such a thing without consulting me!”

“Without consulting you? But, my dear child, you’ve always professed the most complete indifference to business matters — you’ve frequently begged me not to bore you with them. You may be sure I’ve acted on the best advice; and my mother, whose head is as good as a man’s, thinks I’ve made a remarkably good arrangement.”

“I daresay — but I’m not always thinking about money, as you are.”

As she spoke she had an ominous sense of impending peril; but she was too angry to avoid even the risks she saw. To her surprise Raymond put his arm about her with a smile. “There are many reasons why I have to think about money. One is that YOU don’t; and another is that I must look out for the future of our son.”

Undine flushed to the forehead. She had grown accustomed to such allusions and the thought of having a child no longer filled her with the resentful terror she had felt before Paul’s birth. She had been insensibly influenced by a different point of view, perhaps also by a difference in her own feeling; and the vision of herself as the mother of the future Marquis de Chelles was softened to happiness by the thought of giving Raymond a son. But all these lightly-rooted sentiments went down in the rush of her resentment, and she freed herself with a petulant movement. “Oh, my dear, you’d better leave it to your brother to perpetuate the race. There’ll be more room for nurseries in their apartment!”

She waited a moment, quivering with the expectation of her husband’s answer; then, as none came except the silent darkening of his face, she walked to the door and turned round to fling back: “Of course you can do what you like with your own house, and make any arrangements that suit your family, without consulting me; but you needn’t think I’m ever going back to live in that stuffy little hole, with Hubert and his wife splurging round on top of our heads!”

“Ah — ” said Raymond de Chelles in a low voice.

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