The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

IV

“Father, you’ve got to take a box for me at the opera next Friday.”

From the tone of her voice Undine’s parents knew at once that she was “nervous.”

They had counted a great deal on the Fairford dinner as a means of tranquillization, and it was a blow to detect signs of the opposite result when, late the next morning, their daughter came dawdling into the sodden splendour of the Stentorian breakfast-room.

The symptoms of Undine’s nervousness were unmistakable to Mr. and Mrs. Spragg. They could read the approaching storm in the darkening of her eyes from limpid grey to slate-colour, and in the way her straight black brows met above them and the red curves of her lips narrowed to a parallel line below.

Mr. Spragg, having finished the last course of his heterogeneous meal, was adjusting his gold eye-glasses for a glance at the paper when Undine trailed down the sumptuous stuffy room, where coffee-fumes hung perpetually under the emblazoned ceiling and the spongy carpet might have absorbed a year’s crumbs without a sweeping.

About them sat other pallid families, richly dressed, and silently eating their way through a bill-of-fare which seemed to have ransacked the globe for gastronomic incompatibilities; and in the middle of the room a knot of equally pallid waiters, engaged in languid conversation, turned their backs by common consent on the persons they were supposed to serve.

Undine, who rose too late to share the family breakfast, usually had her chocolate brought to her in bed by Celeste, after the manner described in the articles on “A Society Woman’s Day” which were appearing in Boudoir Chat. Her mere appearance in the restaurant therefore prepared her parents for those symptoms of excessive tension which a nearer inspection confirmed, and Mr. Spragg folded his paper and hooked his glasses to his waistcoat with the air of a man who prefers to know the worst and have it over.

“An opera box!” faltered Mrs. Spragg, pushing aside the bananas and cream with which she had been trying to tempt an appetite too languid for fried liver or crab mayonnaise.

“A parterre box,” Undine corrected, ignoring the exclamation, and continuing to address herself to her father. “Friday’s the stylish night, and that new tenor’s going to sing again in ‘Cavaleeria,’” she condescended to explain.

“That so?” Mr. Spragg thrust his hands into his waistcoat pockets, and began to tilt his chair till he remembered there was no wall to meet it. He regained his balance and said: “Wouldn’t a couple of good orchestra seats do you?”

“No; they wouldn’t,” Undine answered with a darkening brow. He looked at her humorously. “You invited the whole dinner-party, I suppose?”

“No — no one.”

“Going all alone in a box?” She was disdainfully silent. “I don’t s’pose you’re thinking of taking mother and me?”

This was so obviously comic that they all laughed — even Mrs. Spragg — and Undine went on more mildly: “I want to do something for Mabel Lipscomb: make some return. She’s always taking me ‘round, and I’ve never done a thing for her — not a single thing.”

This appeal to the national belief in the duty of reciprocal “treating” could not fail of its effect, and Mrs. Spragg murmured: “She never HAS, Abner,” — but Mr. Spragg’s brow remained unrelenting.

“Do you know what a box costs?”

“No; but I s’pose you do,” Undine returned with unconscious flippancy.

“I do. That’s the trouble. WHY won’t seats do you?”

“Mabel could buy seats for herself.”

“That’s so,” interpolated Mrs. Spragg — always the first to succumb to her daughter’s arguments.

“Well, I guess I can’t buy a box for her.”

Undine’s face gloomed more deeply. She sat silent, her chocolate thickening in the cup, while one hand, almost as much beringed as her mother’s, drummed on the crumpled table-cloth.

“We might as well go straight back to Apex,” she breathed at last between her teeth.

Mrs. Spragg cast a frightened glance at her husband. These struggles between two resolute wills always brought on her palpitations, and she wished she had her phial of digitalis with her.

“A parterre box costs a hundred and twenty-five dollars a night,” said Mr. Spragg, transferring a toothpick to his waistcoat pocket.

“I only want it once.”

He looked at her with a quizzical puckering of his crows’-feet. “You only want most things once. Undine.”

It was an observation they had made in her earliest youth — Undine never wanted anything long, but she wanted it “right off.” And until she got it the house was uninhabitable.

“I’d a good deal rather have a box for the season,” she rejoined, and he saw the opening he had given her. She had two ways of getting things out of him against his principles; the tender wheedling way, and the harsh-lipped and cold — and he did not know which he dreaded most. As a child they had admired her assertiveness, had made Apex ring with their boasts of it; but it had long since cowed Mrs. Spragg, and it was beginning to frighten her husband.

“Fact is, Undie,” he said, weakening, “I’m a little mite strapped just this month.”

Her eyes grew absent-minded, as they always did when he alluded to business. THAT was man’s province; and what did men go “down town” for but to bring back the spoils to their women? She rose abruptly, leaving her parents seated, and said, more to herself than the others: “Think I’ll go for a ride.”

“Oh, Undine!” fluttered Mrs. Spragg. She always had palpitations when Undine rode, and since the Aaronson episode her fears were not confined to what the horse might do.

“Why don’t you take your mother out shopping a little?” Mr. Spragg suggested, conscious of the limitation of his resources.

Undine made no answer, but swept down the room, and out of the door ahead of her mother, with scorn and anger in every line of her arrogant young back. Mrs. Spragg tottered meekly after her, and Mr. Spragg lounged out into the marble hall to buy a cigar before taking the Subway to his office.

Undine went for a ride, not because she felt particularly disposed for the exercise, but because she wished to discipline her mother. She was almost sure she would get her opera box, but she did not see why she should have to struggle for her rights, and she was especially annoyed with Mrs. Spragg for seconding her so half-heartedly. If she and her mother did not hold together in such crises she would have twice the work to do.

Undine hated “scenes”: she was essentially peace-loving, and would have preferred to live on terms of unbroken harmony with her parents. But she could not help it if they were unreasonable. Ever since she could remember there had been “fusses” about money; yet she and her mother had always got what they wanted, apparently without lasting detriment to the family fortunes. It was therefore natural to conclude that there were ample funds to draw upon, and that Mr. Spragg’s occasional resistances were merely due to an imperfect understanding of what constituted the necessities of life.

When she returned from her ride Mrs. Spragg received her as if she had come back from the dead. It was absurd, of course; but Undine was inured to the absurdity of parents.

“Has father telephoned?” was her first brief question.

“No, he hasn’t yet.”

Undine’s lips tightened, but she proceeded deliberately with the removal of her habit.

“You’d think I’d asked him to buy me the Opera House, the way he’s acting over a single box,” she muttered, flinging aside her smartly-fitting coat. Mrs. Spragg received the flying garment and smoothed it out on the bed. Neither of the ladies could “bear” to have their maid about when they were at their toilet, and Mrs. Spragg had always performed these ancillary services for Undine.

“You know, Undie, father hasn’t always got the money in his pocket, and the bills have been pretty heavy lately. Father was a rich man for Apex, but that’s different from being rich in New York.”

She stood before her daughter, looking down on her appealingly.

Undine, who had seated herself while she detached her stock and waistcoat, raised her head with an impatient jerk. “Why on earth did we ever leave Apex, then?” she exclaimed.

Mrs. Spragg’s eyes usually dropped before her daughter’s inclement gaze; but on this occasion they held their own with a kind of awe-struck courage, till Undine’s lids sank above her flushing cheeks.

She sprang up, tugging at the waistband of her habit, while Mrs. Spragg, relapsing from temerity to meekness, hovered about her with obstructive zeal. “If you’d only just let go of my skirt, mother — I can unhook it twice as quick myself.”

Mrs. Spragg drew back, understanding that her presence was no longer wanted. But on the threshold she paused, as if overruled by a stronger influence, and said, with a last look at her daughter: “You didn’t meet anybody when you were out, did you, Undie?”

Undine’s brows drew together: she was struggling with her long patent-leather boot.

“Meet anybody? Do you mean anybody I know? I don’t KNOW anybody — I never shall, if father can’t afford to let me go round with people!”

The boot was off with a wrench, and she flung it violently across the old-rose carpet, while Mrs. Spragg, turning away to hide a look of inexpressible relief, slipped discreetly from the room.

The day wore on. Undine had meant to go down and tell Mabel Lipscomb about the Fairford dinner, but its aftertaste was flat on her lips. What would it lead to? Nothing, as far as she could see. Ralph Marvell had not even asked when he might call; and she was ashamed to confess to Mabel that he had not driven home with her.

Suddenly she decided that she would go and see the pictures of which Mrs. Fairford had spoken. Perhaps she might meet some of the people she had seen at dinner — from their talk one might have imagined that they spent their lives in picture-galleries.

The thought reanimated her, and she put on her handsomest furs, and a hat for which she had not yet dared present the bill to her father. It was the fashionable hour in Fifth Avenue, but Undine knew none of the ladies who were bowing to each other from interlocked motors. She had to content herself with the gaze of admiration which she left in her wake along the pavement; but she was used to the homage of the streets and her vanity craved a choicer fare.

When she reached the art gallery which Mrs. Fairford had named she found it even more crowded than Fifth Avenue; and some of the ladies and gentlemen wedged before the pictures had the “look” which signified social consecration. As Undine made her way among them, she was aware of attracting almost as much notice as in the street, and she flung herself into rapt attitudes before the canvases, scribbling notes in the catalogue in imitation of a tall girl in sables, while ripples of self-consciousness played up and down her watchful back.

Presently her attention was drawn to a lady in black who was examining the pictures through a tortoise-shell eye-glass adorned with diamonds and hanging from a long pearl chain. Undine was instantly struck by the opportunities which this toy presented for graceful wrist movements and supercilious turns of the head. It seemed suddenly plebeian and promiscuous to look at the world with a naked eye, and all her floating desires were merged in the wish for a jewelled eye-glass and chain. So violent was this wish that, drawn on in the wake of the owner of the eye-glass, she found herself inadvertently bumping against a stout tight-coated young man whose impact knocked her catalogue from her hand.

As the young man picked the catalogue up and held it out to her she noticed that his bulging eyes and queer retreating face were suffused with a glow of admiration. He was so unpleasant-looking that she would have resented his homage had not his odd physiognomy called up some vaguely agreeable association of ideas. Where had she seen before this grotesque saurian head, with eye-lids as thick as lips and lips as thick as ear-lobes? It fled before her down a perspective of innumerable newspaper portraits, all, like the original before her, tightly coated, with a huge pearl transfixing a silken tie. . . .

“Oh, thank you,” she murmured, all gleams and graces, while he stood hat in hand, saying sociably:

“The crowd’s simply awful, isn’t it?”

At the same moment the lady of the eye-glass drifted closer, and with a tap of her wand, and a careless “Peter, look at this,” swept him to the other side of the gallery.

Undine’s heart was beating excitedly, for as he turned away she had identified him. Peter Van Degen — who could he be but young Peter Van Degen, the son of the great banker, Thurber Van Degen, the husband of Ralph Marvell’s cousin, the hero of “Sunday Supplements,” the captor of Blue Ribbons at Horse–Shows, of Gold Cups at Motor Races, the owner of winning race-horses and “crack” sloops: the supreme exponent, in short, of those crowning arts that made all life seem stale and unprofitable outside the magic ring of the Society Column? Undine smiled as she recalled the look with which his pale protruding eyes had rested on her — it almost consoled her for his wife’s indifference!

When she reached home she found that she could not remember anything about the pictures she had seen . . .

There was no message from her father, and a reaction of disgust set in. Of what good were such encounters if they were to have no sequel? She would probably never meet Peter Van Degen again — or, if she DID run across him in the same accidental way, she knew they could not continue their conversation without being “introduced.” What was the use of being beautiful and attracting attention if one were perpetually doomed to relapse again into the obscure mass of the Uninvited?

Her gloom was not lightened by finding Ralph Marvell’s card on the drawing-room table. She thought it unflattering and almost impolite of him to call without making an appointment: it seemed to show that he did not wish to continue their acquaintance. But as she tossed the card aside her mother said: “He was real sorry not to see you. Undine — he sat here nearly an hour.”

Undine’s attention was roused. “Sat here — all alone? Didn’t you tell him I was out?”

“Yes — but he came up all the same. He asked for me.”

“Asked for YOU?”

The social order seemed to be falling in ruins at Undine’s feet. A visitor who asked for a girl’s mother! — she stared at Mrs. Spragg with cold incredulity. “What makes you think he did?”

“Why, they told me so. I telephoned down that you were out, and they said he’d asked for me.” Mrs. Spragg let the fact speak for itself — it was too much out of the range of her experience to admit of even a hypothetical explanation.

Undine shrugged her shoulders. “It was a mistake, of course. Why on earth did you let him come up?”

“I thought maybe he had a message for you, Undie.”

This plea struck her daughter as not without weight. “Well, did he?” she asked, drawing out her hat-pins and tossing down her hat on the onyx table.

“Why, no — he just conversed. He was lovely to me, but I couldn’t make out what he was after,” Mrs. Spragg was obliged to own.

Her daughter looked at her with a kind of chill commiseration. “You never CAN,” she murmured, turning away.

She stretched herself out moodily on one of the pink and gold sofas, and lay there brooding, an unread novel on her knee. Mrs. Spragg timidly slipped a cushion under her daughter’s head, and then dissembled herself behind the lace window-curtains and sat watching the lights spring out down the long street and spread their glittering net across the Park. It was one of Mrs. Spragg’s chief occupations to watch the nightly lighting of New York.

Undine lay silent, her hands clasped behind her head. She was plunged in one of the moods of bitter retrospection when all her past seemed like a long struggle for something she could not have, from a trip to Europe to an opera-box; and when she felt sure that, as the past had been, so the future would be. And yet, as she had often told her parents, all she sought for was improvement: she honestly wanted the best.

Her first struggle — after she had ceased to scream for candy, or sulk for a new toy — had been to get away from Apex in summer. Her summers, as she looked back on them, seemed to typify all that was dreariest and most exasperating in her life. The earliest had been spent in the yellow “frame” cottage where she had hung on the fence, kicking her toes against the broken palings and exchanging moist chewing-gum and half-eaten apples with Indiana Frusk. Later on, she had returned from her boarding-school to the comparative gentility of summer vacations at the Mealey House, whither her parents, forsaking their squalid suburb, had moved in the first flush of their rising fortunes. The tessellated floors, the plush parlours and organ-like radiators of the Mealey House had, aside from their intrinsic elegance, the immense advantage of lifting the Spraggs high above the Frusks, and making it possible for Undine, when she met Indiana in the street or at school, to chill her advances by a careless allusion to the splendours of hotel life. But even in such a setting, and in spite of the social superiority it implied, the long months of the middle western summer, fly-blown, torrid, exhaling stale odours, soon became as insufferable as they had been in the little yellow house. At school Undine met other girls whose parents took them to the Great Lakes for August; some even went to California, others — oh bliss ineffable! — went “east.”

Pale and listless under the stifling boredom of the Mealey House routine, Undine secretly sucked lemons, nibbled slate-pencils and drank pints of bitter coffee to aggravate her look of ill-health; and when she learned that even Indiana Frusk was to go on a month’s visit to Buffalo it needed no artificial aids to emphasize the ravages of envy. Her parents, alarmed by her appearance, were at last convinced of the necessity of change, and timidly, tentatively, they transferred themselves for a month to a staring hotel on a glaring lake.

There Undine enjoyed the satisfaction of sending ironic post-cards to Indiana, and discovering that she could more than hold her own against the youth and beauty of the other visitors. Then she made the acquaintance of a pretty woman from Richmond, whose husband, a mining engineer, had brought her west with him while he inspected the newly developed Eubaw mines; and the southern visitor’s dismay, her repugnances, her recoil from the faces, the food, the amusements, the general bareness and stridency of the scene, were a terrible initiation to Undine. There was something still better beyond, then — more luxurious, more exciting, more worthy of her! She once said to herself, afterward, that it was always her fate to find out just too late about the “something beyond.” But in this case it was not too late — and obstinately, inflexibly, she set herself to the task of forcing her parents to take her “east” the next summer.

Yielding to the inevitable, they suffered themselves to be impelled to a Virginia “resort,” where Undine had her first glimpse of more romantic possibilities — leafy moonlight rides and drives, picnics in mountain glades, and an atmosphere of Christmas-chromo sentimentality that tempered her hard edges a little, and gave her glimpses of a more delicate kind of pleasure. But here again everything was spoiled by a peep through another door. Undine, after a first mustering of the other girls in the hotel, had, as usual, found herself easily first — till the arrival, from Washington, of Mr. and Mrs. Wincher and their daughter. Undine was much handsomer than Miss Wincher, but she saw at a glance that she did not know how to use her beauty as the other used her plainness. She was exasperated too, by the discovery that Miss Wincher seemed not only unconscious of any possible rivalry between them, but actually unaware of her existence. Listless, long-faced, supercilious, the young lady from Washington sat apart reading novels or playing solitaire with her parents, as though the huge hotel’s loud life of gossip and flirtation were invisible and inaudible to her. Undine never even succeeded in catching her eye: she always lowered it to her book when the Apex beauty trailed or rattled past her secluded corner. But one day an acquaintance of the Winchers’ turned up — a lady from Boston, who had come to Virginia on a botanizing tour; and from scraps of Miss Wincher’s conversation with the newcomer, Undine, straining her ears behind a column of the long veranda, obtained a new glimpse into the unimagined.

The Winchers, it appeared, found themselves at Potash Springs merely because a severe illness of Mrs. Wincher’s had made it impossible, at the last moment, to move her farther from Washington. They had let their house on the North Shore, and as soon as they could leave “this dreadful hole” were going to Europe for the autumn. Miss Wincher simply didn’t know how she got through the days; though no doubt it was as good as a rest-cure after the rush of the winter. Of course they would have preferred to hire a house, but the “hole,” if one could believe it, didn’t offer one; so they had simply shut themselves off as best they could from the “hotel crew” — had her friend, Miss Wincher parenthetically asked, happened to notice the Sunday young men? They were queerer even than the “belles” they came for — and had escaped the promiscuity of the dinner-hour by turning one of their rooms into a dining-room, and picnicking there — with the Persimmon House standards, one couldn’t describe it in any other way! But luckily the awful place was doing mamma good, and now they had nearly served their term . . .

Undine turned sick as she listened. Only the evening before she had gone on a “buggy-ride” with a young gentleman from Deposit — a dentist’s assistant — and had let him kiss her, and given him the flower from her hair. She loathed the thought of him now: she loathed all the people about her, and most of all the disdainful Miss Wincher. It enraged her to think that the Winchers classed her with the “hotel crew” — with the “belles” who awaited their Sunday young men. The place was forever blighted for her, and the next week she dragged her amazed but thankful parents back to Apex.

But Miss Wincher’s depreciatory talk had opened ampler vistas, and the pioneer blood in Undine would not let her rest. She had heard the call of the Atlantic seaboard, and the next summer found the Spraggs at Skog Harbour, Maine. Even now Undine felt a shiver of boredom as she recalled it. That summer had been the worst of all. The bare wind-beaten inn, all shingles without and blueberry pie within, was “exclusive,” parochial, Bostonian; and the Spraggs wore through the interminable weeks in blank unmitigated isolation. The incomprehensible part of it was that every other woman in the hotel was plain, dowdy or elderly — and most of them all three. If there had been any competition on ordinary lines Undine would have won, as Van Degen said, “hands down.” But there wasn’t — the other “guests” simply formed a cold impenetrable group who walked, boated, played golf, and discussed Christian Science and the Subliminal, unaware of the tremulous organism drifting helplessly against their rock-bound circle.

It was on the day the Spraggs left Skog Harbour that Undine vowed to herself with set lips: “I’ll never try anything again till I try New York.” Now she had gained her point and tried New York, and so far, it seemed, with no better success. From small things to great, everything went against her. In such hours of self-searching she was ready enough to acknowledge her own mistakes, but they exasperated her less than the blunders of her parents. She was sure, for instance, that she was on what Mrs. Heeny called “the right tack” at last: yet just at the moment when her luck seemed about to turn she was to be thwarted by her father’s stupid obstinacy about the opera-box . . .

She lay brooding over these things till long after Mrs. Spragg had gone away to dress for dinner, and it was nearly eight o’clock when she heard her father’s dragging tread in the hall.

She kept her eyes fixed on her book while he entered the room and moved about behind her, laying aside his hat and overcoat; then his steps came close and a small parcel dropped on the pages of her book.

“Oh, father!” She sprang up, all alight, the novel on the floor, her fingers twitching for the tickets. But a substantial packet emerged, like nothing she had ever seen. She looked at it, hoping, fearing — she beamed blissful interrogation on her father while his sallow smile continued to tantalize her. Then she closed on him with a rush, smothering his words against her hair.

“It’s for more than one night — why, it’s for every other Friday! Oh, you darling, you darling!” she exulted.

Mr. Spragg, through the glittering meshes, feigned dismay. “That so? They must have given me the wrong —!” Then, convicted by her radiant eyes as she swung round on him: “I knew you only wanted it ONCE for yourself. Undine; but I thought maybe, off nights, you’d like to send it to your friends.”

Mrs. Spragg, who from her doorway had assisted with moist eyes at this closing pleasantry, came forward as Undine hurried away to dress.

“Abner — can you really manage it all right?”

He answered her with one of his awkward brief caresses. “Don’t you fret about that, Leota. I’m bound to have her go round with these people she knows. I want her to be with them all she can.”

A pause fell between them, while Mrs. Spragg looked anxiously into his fagged eyes.

“You seen Elmer again?”

“No. Once was enough,” he returned, with a scowl like Undine’s.

“Why — you SAID he couldn’t come after her, Abner!”

“No more he can. But what if she was to get nervous and lonesome, and want to go after him?”

Mrs. Spragg shuddered away from the suggestion. “How’d he look? Just the same?” she whispered.

“No. Spruced up. That’s what scared me.”

It scared her too, to the point of blanching her habitually lifeless cheek. She continued to scrutinize her husband broodingly. “You look fairly sick, Abner. You better let me get you some of those stomach drops right off,” she proposed.

But he parried this with his unfailing humour. “I guess I’m too sick to risk that.” He passed his hand through her arm with the conjugal gesture familiar to Apex City. “Come along down to dinner, mother — I guess Undine won’t mind if I don’t rig up to-night.”

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