The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XL

After the Princess Estradina’s departure, the days at Saint Desert succeeded each other indistinguishably; and more and more, as they passed, Undine felt herself drawn into the slow strong current already fed by so many tributary lives. Some spell she could not have named seemed to emanate from the old house which had so long been the custodian of an unbroken tradition: things had happened there in the same way for so many generations that to try to alter them seemed as vain as to contend with the elements.

Winter came and went, and once more the calendar marked the first days of spring; but though the horse-chestnuts of the Champs Elysees were budding snow still lingered in the grass drives of Saint Desert and along the ridges of the hills beyond the park. Sometimes, as Undine looked out of the windows of the Boucher gallery, she felt as if her eyes had never rested on any other scene. Even her occasional brief trips to Paris left no lasting trace: the life of the vivid streets faded to a shadow as soon as the black and white horizon of Saint Desert closed in on her again.

Though the afternoons were still cold she had lately taken to sitting in the gallery. The smiling scenes on its walls and the tall screens which broke its length made it more habitable than the drawing-rooms beyond; but her chief reason for preferring it was the satisfaction she found in having fires lit in both the monumental chimneys that faced each other down its long perspective. This satisfaction had its source in the old Marquise’s disapproval. Never before in the history of Saint Desert had the consumption of firewood exceeded a certain carefully-calculated measure; but since Undine had been in authority this allowance had been doubled. If any one had told her, a year earlier, that one of the chief distractions of her new life would be to invent ways of annoying her mother-in-law, she would have laughed at the idea of wasting her time on such trifles. But she found herself with a great deal of time to waste, and with a fierce desire to spend it in upsetting the immemorial customs of Saint Desert. Her husband had mastered her in essentials, but she had discovered innumerable small ways of irritating and hurting him, and one — and not the least effectual — was to do anything that went counter to his mother’s prejudices. It was not that he always shared her views, or was a particularly subservient son; but it seemed to be one of his fundamental principles that a man should respect his mother’s wishes, and see to it that his household respected them. All Frenchmen of his class appeared to share this view, and to regard it as beyond discussion: it was based on something so much more Immutable than personal feeling that one might even hate one’s mother and yet insist that her ideas as to the consumption of fire-wood should be regarded.

The old Marquise, during the cold weather, always sat in her bedroom; and there, between the tapestried four-poster and the fireplace, the family grouped itself around the ground-glass of her single carcel lamp. In the evening, if there were visitors, a fire was lit in the library; otherwise the family again sat about the Marquise’s lamp till the footman came in at ten with tisane and biscuits de Reims; after which every one bade the dowager good night and scattered down the corridors to chill distances marked by tapers floating in cups of oil.

Since Undine’s coming the library fire had never been allowed to go out; and of late, after experimenting with the two drawing-rooms and the so-called “study” where Raymond kept his guns and saw the bailiff, she had selected the gallery as the most suitable place for the new and unfamiliar ceremony of afternoon tea. Afternoon refreshments had never before been served at Saint Desert except when company was expected; when they had invariably consisted in a decanter of sweet port and a plate of small dry cakes — the kind that kept. That the complicated rites of the tea-urn, with its offering-up of perishable delicacies, should be enacted for the sole enjoyment of the family, was a thing so unheard of that for a while Undine found sufficient amusement in elaborating the ceremonial, and in making the ancestral plate groan under more varied viands; and when this palled she devised the plan of performing the office in the gallery and lighting sacrificial fires in both chimneys.

She had said to Raymond, at first: “It’s ridiculous that your mother should sit in her bedroom all day. She says she does it to save fires; but if we have a fire downstairs why can’t she let hers go out, and come down? I don’t see why I should spend my life in your mother’s bedroom.”

Raymond made no answer, and the Marquise did, in fact, let her fire go out. But she did not come down — she simply continued to sit upstairs without a fire.

At first this also amused Undine; then the tacit criticism implied began to irritate her. She hoped Raymond would speak of his mother’s attitude: she had her answer ready if he did! But he made no comment, he took no notice; her impulses of retaliation spent themselves against the blank surface of his indifference. He was as amiable, as considerate as ever; as ready, within reason, to accede to her wishes and gratify her whims. Once or twice, when she suggested running up to Paris to take Paul to the dentist, or to look for a servant, he agreed to the necessity and went up with her. But instead of going to an hotel they went to their apartment, where carpets were up and curtains down, and a care-taker prepared primitive food at uncertain hours; and Undine’s first glimpse of Hubert’s illuminated windows deepened her rancour and her sense of helplessness.

As Madame de Trezac had predicted, Raymond’s vigilance gradually relaxed, and during their excursions to the capital Undine came and went as she pleased. But her visits were too short to permit of her falling in with the social pace, and when she showed herself among her friends she felt countrified and out-of-place, as if even her clothes had come from Saint Desert. Nevertheless her dresses were more than ever her chief preoccupation: in Paris she spent hours at the dressmaker’s, and in the country the arrival of a box of new gowns was the chief event of the vacant days. But there was more bitterness than joy in the unpacking, and the dresses hung in her wardrobe like so many unfulfilled promises of pleasure, reminding her of the days at the Stentorian when she had reviewed other finery with the same cheated eyes. In spite of this, she multiplied her orders, writing up to the dress-makers for patterns, and to the milliners for boxes of hats which she tried on, and kept for days, without being able to make a choice. Now and then she even sent her maid up to Paris to bring back great assortments of veils, gloves, flowers and laces; and after periods of painful indecision she ended by keeping the greater number, lest those she sent back should turn out to be the ones that were worn in Paris. She knew she was spending too much money, and she had lost her youthful faith in providential solutions; but she had always had the habit of going out to buy something when she was bored, and never had she been in greater need of such solace.

The dulness of her life seemed to have passed into her blood: her complexion was less animated, her hair less shining. The change in her looks alarmed her, and she scanned the fashion-papers for new scents and powders, and experimented in facial bandaging, electric massage and other processes of renovation. Odd atavisms woke in her, and she began to pore over patent medicine advertisements, to send stamped envelopes to beauty doctors and professors of physical development, and to brood on the advantage of consulting faith-healers, mind-readers and their kindred adepts. She even wrote to her mother for the receipts of some of her grandfather’s forgotten nostrums, and modified her daily life, and her hours of sleeping, eating and exercise, in accordance with each new experiment.

Her constitutional restlessness lapsed into an apathy like Mrs. Spragg’s, and the least demand on her activity irritated her. But she was beset by endless annoyances: bickerings with discontented maids, the difficulty of finding a tutor for Paul, and the problem of keeping him amused and occupied without having him too much on her hands. A great liking had sprung up between Raymond and the little boy, and during the summer Paul was perpetually at his step-father’s side in the stables and the park. But with the coming of winter Raymond was oftener away, and Paul developed a persistent cold that kept him frequently indoors. The confinement made him fretful and exacting, and the old Marquise ascribed the change in his behaviour to the deplorable influence of his tutor, a “laic” recommended by one of Raymond’s old professors. Raymond himself would have preferred an abbé: it was in the tradition of the house, and though Paul was not of the house it seemed fitting that he should conform to its ways. Moreover, when the married sisters came to stay they objected to having their children exposed to the tutor’s influence, and even implied that Paul’s society might be contaminating. But Undine, though she had so readily embraced her husband’s faith, stubbornly resisted the suggestion that she should hand over her son to the Church. The tutor therefore remained; but the friction caused by his presence was so irritating to Undine that she began to consider the alternative of sending Paul to school. He was still small and tender for the experiment; but she persuaded herself that what he needed was “hardening,” and having heard of a school where fashionable infancy was subjected to this process, she entered into correspondence with the master. His first letter convinced her that his establishment was just the place for Paul; but the second contained the price-list, and after comparing it with the tutor’s keep and salary she wrote to say that she feared her little boy was too young to be sent away from home.

Her husband, for some time past, had ceased to make any comment on her expenditure. She knew he thought her too extravagant, and felt sure he was minutely aware of what she spent; for Saint Desert projected on economic details a light as different as might be from the haze that veiled them in West End Avenue. She therefore concluded that Raymond’s silence was intentional, and ascribed it to his having shortcomings of his own to conceal. The Princess Estradina’s pleasantry had reached its mark. Undine did not believe that her husband was seriously in love with another woman — she could not conceive that any one could tire of her of whom she had not first tired — but she was humiliated by his indifference, and it was easier to ascribe it to the arts of a rival than to any deficiency in herself. It exasperated her to think that he might have consolations for the outward monotony of his life, and she resolved that when they returned to Paris he should see that she was not without similar opportunities.

March, meanwhile, was verging on April, and still he did not speak of leaving. Undine had learned that he expected to have such decisions left to him, and she hid her impatience lest her showing it should incline him to delay. But one day, as she sat at tea in the gallery, he came in in his riding-clothes and said: “I’ve been over to the other side of the mountain. The February rains have weakened the dam of the Alette, and the vineyards will be in danger if we don’t rebuild at once.”

She suppressed a yawn, thinking, as she did so, how dull he always looked when he talked of agriculture. It made him seem years older, and she reflected with a shiver that listening to him probably gave her the same look.

He went on, as she handed him his tea: “I’m sorry it should happen just now. I’m afraid I shall have to ask you to give up your spring in Paris.” “Oh, no — no!” she broke out. A throng of half-subdued grievances choked in her: she wanted to burst into sobs like a child.

“I know it’s a disappointment. But our expenses have been unusually heavy this year.”

“It seems to me they always are. I don’t see why we should give up Paris because you’ve got to make repairs to a dam. Isn’t Hubert ever going to pay back that money?”

He looked at her with a mild surprise. “But surely you understood at the time that it won’t be possible till his wife inherits?”

“Till General Arlington dies, you mean? He doesn’t look much older than you!”

“You may remember that I showed you Hubert’s note. He has paid the interest quite regularly.”

“That’s kind of him!” She stood up, flaming with rebellion. “You can do as you please; but I mean to go to Paris.”

“My mother is not going. I didn’t intend to open our apartment.”

“I understand. But I shall open it — that’s all!”

He had risen too, and she saw his face whiten. “I prefer that you shouldn’t go without me.”

“Then I shall go and stay at the Nouveau Luxe with my American friends.”

“That never!”

“Why not?”

“I consider it unsuitable.”

“Your considering it so doesn’t prove it.”

They stood facing each other, quivering with an equal anger; then he controlled himself and said in a more conciliatory tone: “You never seem to see that there are necessities — ”

“Oh, neither do you — that’s the trouble. You can’t keep me shut up here all my life, and interfere with everything I want to do, just by saying it’s unsuitable.”

“I’ve never interfered with your spending your money as you please.”

It was her turn to stare, sincerely wondering. “Mercy, I should hope not, when you’ve always grudged me every penny of yours!”

“You know it’s not because I grudge it. I would gladly take you to Paris if I had the money.”

“You can always find the money to spend on this place. Why don’t you sell it if it’s so fearfully expensive?”

“Sell it? Sell Saint Desert?”

The suggestion seemed to strike him as something monstrously, almost fiendishly significant: as if her random word had at last thrust into his hand the clue to their whole unhappy difference. Without understanding this, she guessed it from the change in his face: it was as if a deadly solvent had suddenly decomposed its familiar lines.

“Well, why not?” His horror spurred her on. “You might sell some of the things in it anyhow. In America we’re not ashamed to sell what we can’t afford to keep.” Her eyes fell on the storied hangings at his back. “Why, there’s a fortune in this one room: you could get anything you chose for those tapestries. And you stand here and tell me you’re a pauper!”

His glance followed hers to the tapestries, and then returned to her face. “Ah, you don’t understand,” he said.

“I understand that you care for all this old stuff more than you do for me, and that you’d rather see me unhappy and miserable than touch one of your great-grandfather’s arm-chairs.”

The colour came slowly back to his face, but it hardened into lines she had never seen. He looked at her as though the place where she stood were empty. “You don’t understand,” he said again.

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