The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XLII

Undine had gained her point, and the entresol of the Hotel de Chelles reopened its doors for the season.

Hubert and his wife, in expectation of the birth of an heir, had withdrawn to the sumptuous chateau which General Arlington had hired for them near Compiegne, and Undine was at least spared the sight of their bright windows and animated stairway. But she had to take her share of the felicitations which the whole far-reaching circle of friends and relations distributed to every member of Hubert’s family on the approach of the happy event. Nor was this the hardest of her trials. Raymond had done what she asked — he had stood out against his mother’s protests, set aside considerations of prudence, and consented to go up to Paris for two months; but he had done so on the understanding that during their stay they should exercise the most unremitting economy. As dinner-giving put the heaviest strain on their budget, all hospitality was suspended; and when Undine attempted to invite a few friends informally she was warned that she could not do so without causing the gravest offense to the many others genealogically entitled to the same attention.

Raymond’s insistence on this rule was simply part of an elaborate and inveterate system of “relations” (the whole of French social life seemed to depend on the exact interpretation of that word), and Undine felt the uselessness of struggling against such mysterious inhibitions. He reminded her, however, that their inability to receive would give them all the more opportunity for going out, and he showed himself more socially disposed than in the past. But his concession did not result as she had hoped. They were asked out as much as ever, but they were asked to big dinners, to impersonal crushes, to the kind of entertainment it is a slight to be omitted from but no compliment to be included in. Nothing could have been more galling to Undine, and she frankly bewailed the fact to Madame de Trezac.

“Of course it’s what was sure to come of being mewed up for months and months in the country. We’re out of everything, and the people who are having a good time are simply too busy to remember us. We’re only asked to the things that are made up from visiting-lists.”

Madame de Trezac listened sympathetically, but did not suppress a candid answer.

“It’s not altogether that, my dear; Raymond’s not a man his friends forget. It’s rather more, if you’ll excuse my saying so, the fact of your being — you personally — in the wrong set.”

“The wrong set? Why, I’m in HIS set — the one that thinks itself too good for all the others. That’s what you’ve always told me when I’ve said it bored me.”

“Well, that’s what I mean — ” Madame de Trezac took the plunge. “It’s not a question of your being bored.”

Undine coloured; but she could take the hardest thrusts where her personal interest was involved. “You mean that I’M the bore, then?”

“Well, you don’t work hard enough — you don’t keep up. It’s not that they don’t admire you — your looks, I mean; they think you beautiful; they’re delighted to bring you out at their big dinners, with the Sevres and the plate. But a woman has got to be something more than good-looking to have a chance to be intimate with them: she’s got to know what’s being said about things. I watched you the other night at the Duchess’s, and half the time you hadn’t an idea what they were talking about. I haven’t always, either; but then I have to put up with the big dinners.”

Undine winced under the criticism; but she had never lacked insight into the cause of her own failures, and she had already had premonitions of what Madame de Trezac so bluntly phrased. When Raymond ceased to be interested in her conversation she had concluded it was the way of husbands; but since then it had been slowly dawning on her that she produced the same effect on others. Her entrances were always triumphs; but they had no sequel. As soon as people began to talk they ceased to see her. Any sense of insufficiency exasperated her, and she had vague thoughts of cultivating herself, and went so far as to spend a morning in the Louvre and go to one or two lectures by a fashionable philosopher. But though she returned from these expeditions charged with opinions, their expression did not excite the interest she had hoped. Her views, if abundant, were confused, and the more she said the more nebulous they seemed to grow. She was disconcerted, moreover, by finding that everybody appeared to know about the things she thought she had discovered, and her comments clearly produced more bewilderment than interest.

Remembering the attention she had attracted on her first appearance in Raymond’s world she concluded that she had “gone off” or grown dowdy, and instead of wasting more time in museums and lecture-halls she prolonged her hours at the dress-maker’s and gave up the rest of the day to the scientific cultivation of her beauty.

“I suppose I’ve turned into a perfect frump down there in that wilderness,” she lamented to Madame de Trezac, who replied inexorably: “Oh, no, you’re as handsome as ever; but people here don’t go on looking at each other forever as they do in London.”

Meanwhile financial cares became more pressing. A dunning letter from one of her tradesmen fell into Raymond’s hands, and the talk it led to ended in his making it clear to her that she must settle her personal debts without his aid. All the “scenes” about money which had disturbed her past had ended in some mysterious solution of her difficulty. Disagreeable as they were, she had always, vulgarly speaking, found they paid; but now it was she who was expected to pay. Raymond took his stand without ill-temper or apology: he simply argued from inveterate precedent. But it was impossible for Undine to understand a social organization which did not regard the indulging of woman as its first purpose, or to believe that any one taking another view was not moved by avarice or malice; and the discussion ended in mutual acrimony.

The morning afterward, Raymond came into her room with a letter in his hand.

“Is this your doing?” he asked. His look and voice expressed something she had never known before: the disciplined anger of a man trained to keep his emotions in fixed channels, but knowing how to fill them to the brim.

The letter was from Mr. Fleischhauer, who begged to transmit to the Marquis de Chelles an offer for his Boucher tapestries from a client prepared to pay the large sum named on condition that it was accepted before his approaching departure for America.

“What does it mean?” Raymond continued, as she did not speak.

“How should I know? It’s a lot of money,” she stammered, shaken out of her self-possession. She had not expected so prompt a sequel to the dealer’s visit, and she was vexed with him for writing to Raymond without consulting her. But she recognized Moffatt’s high-handed way, and her fears faded in the great blaze of the sum he offered.

Her husband was still looking at her. “It was Fleischhauer who brought a man down to see the tapestries one day when I was away at Beaune?”

He had known, then — everything was known at Saint Desert!

She wavered a moment and then gave him back his look.

“Yes — it was Fleischhauer; and I sent for him.”

“You sent for him?”

He spoke in a voice so veiled and repressed that he seemed to be consciously saving it for some premeditated outbreak. Undine felt its menace, but the thought of Moffatt sent a flame through her, and the words he would have spoken seemed to fly to her lips.

“Why shouldn’t I? Something had to be done. We can’t go on as we are. I’ve tried my best to economize — I’ve scraped and scrimped, and gone without heaps of things I’ve always had. I’ve moped for months and months at Saint Desert, and given up sending Paul to school because it was too expensive, and asking my friends to dine because we couldn’t afford it. And you expect me to go on living like this for the rest of my life, when all you’ve got to do is to hold out your hand and have two million francs drop into it!”

Her husband stood looking at her coldly and curiously, as though she were some alien apparition his eyes had never before beheld.

“Ah, that’s your answer — that’s all you feel when you lay hands on things that are sacred to us!” He stopped a moment, and then let his voice break out with the volume she had felt it to be gathering. “And you’re all alike,” he exclaimed, “every one of you. You come among us from a country we don’t know, and can’t imagine, a country you care for so little that before you’ve been a day in ours you’ve forgotten the very house you were born in — if it wasn’t torn down before you knew it! You come among us speaking our language and not knowing what we mean; wanting the things we want, and not knowing why we want them; aping our weaknesses, exaggerating our follies, ignoring or ridiculing all we care about — you come from hotels as big as towns, and from towns as flimsy as paper, where the streets haven’t had time to be named, and the buildings are demolished before they’re dry, and the people are as proud of changing as we are of holding to what we have — and we’re fools enough to imagine that because you copy our ways and pick up our slang you understand anything about the things that make life decent and honourable for us!”

He stopped again, his white face and drawn nostrils giving him so much the look of an extremely distinguished actor in a fine part that, in spite of the vehemence of his emotion, his silence might have been the deliberate pause for a replique. Undine kept him waiting long enough to give the effect of having lost her cue — then she brought out, with a little soft stare of incredulity: “Do you mean to say you’re going to refuse such an offer?”

“Ah —!” He turned back from the door, and picking up the letter that lay on the table between them, tore it in pieces and tossed the pieces on the floor. “That’s how I refuse it!”

The violence of his tone and gesture made her feel as though the fluttering strips were so many lashes laid across her face, and a rage that was half fear possessed her.

“How dare you speak to me like that? Nobody’s ever dared to before. Is talking to a woman in that way one of the things you call decent and honourable? Now that I know what you feel about me I don’t want to stay in your house another day. And I don’t mean to — I mean to walk out of it this very hour!”

For a moment they stood face to face, the depths of their mutual incomprehension at last bared to each other’s angry eyes; then Raymond, his glance travelling past her, pointed to the fragments of paper on the floor.

“If you’re capable of that you’re capable of anything!” he said as he went out of the room.

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