The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XLI

The incident left Undine with the baffled feeling of not being able to count on any of her old weapons of aggression. In all her struggles for authority her sense of the rightfulness of her cause had been measured by her power of making people do as she pleased. Raymond’s firmness shook her faith in her own claims, and a blind desire to wound and destroy replaced her usual business-like intentness on gaining her end. But her ironies were as ineffectual as her arguments, and his imperviousness was the more exasperating because she divined that some of the things she said would have hurt him if any one else had said them: it was the fact of their coming from her that made them innocuous. Even when, at the close of their talk, she had burst out: “If you grudge me everything I care about we’d better separate,” he had merely answered with a shrug: “It’s one of the things we don’t do — ” and the answer had been like the slamming of an iron door in her face.

An interval of silent brooding had resulted in a reaction of rebellion. She dared not carry out her threat of joining her compatriots at the Nouveau Luxe: she had too clear a memory of the results of her former revolt. But neither could she submit to her present fate without attempting to make Raymond understand his selfish folly. She had failed to prove it by argument, but she had an inherited faith in the value of practical demonstration. If he could be made to see how easily he could give her what she wanted perhaps he might come round to her view.

With this idea in mind, she had gone up to Paris for twenty-four hours, on the pretext of finding a new nurse for Paul; and the steps then taken had enabled her, on the first occasion, to set her plan in motion. The occasion was furnished by Raymond’s next trip to Beaune. He went off early one morning, leaving word that he should not be back till night; and on the afternoon of the same day she stood at her usual post in the gallery, scanning the long perspective of the poplar avenue.

She had not stood there long before a black speck at the end of the avenue expanded into a motor that was presently throbbing at the entrance. Undine, at its approach, turned from the window, and as she moved down the gallery her glance rested on the great tapestries, with their ineffable minglings of blue and rose, as complacently as though they had been mirrors reflecting her own image.

She was still looking at them when the door opened and a servant ushered in a small swarthy man who, in spite of his conspicuously London-made clothes, had an odd exotic air, as if he had worn rings in his ears or left a bale of spices at the door.

He bowed to Undine, cast a rapid eye up and down the room, and then, with his back to the windows, stood intensely contemplating the wall that faced them.

Undine’s heart was beating excitedly. She knew the old Marquise was taking her afternoon nap in her room, yet each sound in the silent house seemed to be that of her heels on the stairs.

“Ah — ” said the visitor.

He had begun to pace slowly down the gallery, keeping his face to the tapestries, like an actor playing to the footlights.

“AH— ” he said again.

To ease the tension of her nerves Undine began: “They were given by Louis the Fifteenth to the Marquis de Chelles who — ”

“Their history has been published,” the visitor briefly interposed; and she coloured at her blunder.

The swarthy stranger, fitting a pair of eye-glasses to a nose that was like an instrument of precision, had begun a closer and more detailed inspection of the tapestries. He seemed totally unmindful of her presence, and his air of lofty indifference was beginning to make her wish she had not sent for him. His manner in Paris had been so different!

Suddenly he turned and took off the glasses, which sprang back into a fold of his clothing like retracted feelers.

“Yes.” He stood and looked at her without seeing her. “Very well. I have brought down a gentleman.”

“A gentleman —?”

“The greatest American collector — he buys only the best. He will not be long in Paris, and it was his only chance of coming down.”

Undine drew herself up. “I don’t understand — I never said the tapestries were for sale.”

“Precisely. But this gentleman buys only this that are not for sale.”

It sounded dazzling and she wavered. “I don’t know — you were only to put a price on them — ”

“Let me see him look at them first; then I’ll put a price on them,” he chuckled; and without waiting for her answer he went to the door and opened it. The gesture revealed the fur-coated back of a gentleman who stood at the opposite end of the hall examining the bust of a seventeenth century field-marshal.

The dealer addressed the back respectfully. “Mr. Moffatt!”

Moffatt, who appeared to be interested in the bust, glanced over his shoulder without moving. “See here — ”

His glance took in Undine, widened to astonishment and passed into apostrophe. “Well, if this ain’t the damnedest —!” He came forward and took her by both hands. “Why, what on earth are you doing down here?”

She laughed and blushed, in a tremor at the odd turn of the adventure. “I live here. Didn’t you know?”

“Not a word — never thought of asking the party’s name.” He turned jovially to the bowing dealer. “Say — I told you those tapestries’d have to be out and outers to make up for the trip; but now I see I was mistaken.”

Undine looked at him curiously. His physical appearance was unchanged: he was as compact and ruddy as ever, with the same astute eyes under the same guileless brow; but his self-confidence had become less aggressive, and she had never seen him so gallantly at ease.

“I didn’t know you’d become a great collector.”

“The greatest! Didn’t he tell you so? I thought that was why I was allowed to come.”

She hesitated. “Of course, you know, the tapestries are not for sale — ”

“That so? I thought that was only his dodge to get me down. Well, I’m glad they ain’t: it’ll give us more time to talk.”

Watch in hand, the dealer intervened. “If, nevertheless, you would first take a glance. Our train — ”

“It ain’t mine!” Moffatt interrupted; “at least not if there’s a later one.”

Undine’s presence of mind had returned. “Of course there is,” she said gaily. She led the way back into the gallery, half hoping the dealer would allege a pressing reason for departure. She was excited and amused at Moffatt’s unexpected appearance, but humiliated that he should suspect her of being in financial straits. She never wanted to see Moffatt except when she was happy and triumphant.

The dealer had followed the other two into the gallery, and there was a moment’s pause while they all stood silently before the tapestries. “By George!” Moffatt finally brought out.

“They’re historical, you know: the King gave them to Raymond’s great-great-grandfather. The other day when I was in Paris,” Undine hurried on, “I asked Mr. Fleischhauer to come down some time and tell us what they’re worth . . . and he seems to have misunderstood . . . to have thought we meant to sell them.” She addressed herself more pointedly to the dealer. “I’m sorry you’ve had the trip for nothing.”

Mr. Fleischhauer inclined himself eloquently. “It is not nothing to have seen such beauty.”

Moffatt gave him a humorous look. “I’d hate to see Mr. Fleischhauer miss his train — ”

“I shall not miss it: I miss nothing,” said Mr. Fleischhauer. He bowed to Undine and backed toward the door.

“See here,” Moffatt called to him as he reached the threshold, “you let the motor take you to the station, and charge up this trip to me.”

When the door closed he turned to Undine with a laugh. “Well, this beats the band. I thought of course you were living up in Paris.”

Again she felt a twinge of embarrassment. “Oh, French people — I mean my husband’s kind — always spend a part of the year on their estates.”

“But not this part, do they? Why, everything’s humming up there now. I was dining at the Nouveau Luxe last night with the Driscolls and Shallums and Mrs. Rolliver, and all your old crowd were there whooping things up.”

The Driscolls and Shallums and Mrs. Rolliver! How carelessly he reeled off their names! One could see from his tone that he was one of them and wanted her to know it. And nothing could have given her a completer sense of his achievement — of the number of millions he must be worth. It must have come about very recently, yet he was already at ease in his new honours — he had the metropolitan tone. While she examined him with these thoughts in her mind she was aware of his giving her as close a scrutiny. “But I suppose you’ve got your own crowd now,” he continued; “you always WERE a lap ahead of me.” He sent his glance down the lordly length of the room. “It’s sorter funny to see you in this kind of place; but you look it — you always DO look it!”

She laughed. “So do you — I was just thinking it!” Their eyes met. “I suppose you must be awfully rich.”

He laughed too, holding her eyes. “Oh, out of sight! The Consolidation set me on my feet. I own pretty near the whole of Apex. I came down to buy these tapestries for my private car.”

The familiar accent of hyperbole exhilarated her. “I don’t suppose I could stop you if you really wanted them!”

“Nobody can stop me now if I want anything.”

They were looking at each other with challenge and complicity in their eyes. His voice, his look, all the loud confident vigorous things he embodied and expressed, set her blood beating with curiosity. “I didn’t know you and Rolliver were friends,” she said.

“Oh JIM— ” his accent verged on the protective. “Old Jim’s all right. He’s in Congress now. I’ve got to have somebody up in Washington.” He had thrust his hands in his pockets, and with his head thrown back and his lips shaped to the familiar noiseless whistle, was looking slowly and discerningly about him.

Presently his eyes reverted to her face. “So this is what I helped you to get,” he said. “I’ve always meant to run over some day and take a look. What is it they call you — a Marquise?”

She paled a little, and then flushed again. “What made you do it?” she broke out abruptly. “I’ve often wondered.”

He laughed. “What — lend you a hand? Why, my business instinct, I suppose. I saw you were in a tight place that time I ran across you in Paris — and I hadn’t any grudge against you. Fact is, I’ve never had the time to nurse old scores, and if you neglect ’em they die off like gold-fish.” He was still composedly regarding her. “It’s funny to think of your having settled down to this kind of life; I hope you’ve got what you wanted. This is a great place you live in.”

“Yes; but I see a little too much of it. We live here most of the year.” She had meant to give him the illusion of success, but some underlying community of instinct drew the confession from her lips.

“That so? Why on earth don’t you cut it and come up to Paris?”

“Oh, Raymond’s absorbed in the estates — and we haven’t got the money. This place eats it all up.”

“Well, that sounds aristocratic; but ain’t it rather out of date? When the swells are hard-up nowadays they generally chip off an heirloom.” He wheeled round again to the tapestries. “There are a good many Paris seasons hanging right here on this wall.”

“Yes — I know.” She tried to check herself, to summon up a glittering equivocation; but his face, his voice, the very words he used, were like so many hammer-strokes demolishing the unrealities that imprisoned her. Here was some one who spoke her language, who knew her meanings, who understood instinctively all the deep-seated wants for which her acquired vocabulary had no terms; and as she talked she once more seemed to herself intelligent, eloquent and interesting.

“Of course it’s frightfully lonely down here,” she began; and through the opening made by the admission the whole flood of her grievances poured forth. She tried to let him see that she had not sacrificed herself for nothing; she touched on the superiorities of her situation, she gilded the circumstances of which she called herself the victim, and let titles, offices and attributes shed their utmost lustre on her tale; but what she had to boast of seemed small and tinkling compared with the evidences of his power.

“Well, it’s a downright shame you don’t go round more,” he kept saying; and she felt ashamed of her tame acceptance of her fate.

When she had told her story she asked for his; and for the first time she listened to it with interest. He had what he wanted at last. The Apex Consolidation scheme, after a long interval of suspense, had obtained its charter and shot out huge ramifications. Rolliver had “stood in” with him at the critical moment, and between them they had “chucked out” old Harmon B. Driscoll bag and baggage, and got the whole town in their control. Absorbed in his theme, and forgetting her inability to follow him, Moffatt launched out on an epic recital of plot and counterplot, and she hung, a new Desdemona, on his conflict with the new anthropophagi. It was of no consequence that the details and the technicalities escaped her: she knew their meaningless syllables stood for success, and what that meant was as clear as day to her. Every Wall Street term had its equivalent in the language of Fifth Avenue, and while he talked of building up railways she was building up palaces, and picturing all the multiple lives he would lead in them. To have things had always seemed to her the first essential of existence, and as she listened to him the vision of the things he could have unrolled itself before her like the long triumph of an Asiatic conqueror.

“And what are you going to do next?” she asked, almost breathlessly, when he had ended.

“Oh, there’s always a lot to do next. Business never goes to sleep.”

“Yes; but I mean besides business.”

“Why — everything I can, I guess.” He leaned back in his chair with an air of placid power, as if he were so sure of getting what he wanted that there was no longer any use in hurrying, huge as his vistas had become.

She continued to question him, and he began to talk of his growing passion for pictures and furniture, and of his desire to form a collection which should be a great representative assemblage of unmatched specimens. As he spoke she saw his expression change, and his eyes grow younger, almost boyish, with a concentrated look in them that reminded her of long-forgotten things.

“I mean to have the best, you know; not just to get ahead of the other fellows, but because I know it when I see it. I guess that’s the only good reason,” he concluded; and he added, looking at her with a smile: “It was what you were always after, wasn’t it?”

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