The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XLIV

Undine had been right in supposing that her husband would expect their life to go on as before. There was no appreciable change in the situation save that he was more often absent-finding abundant reasons, agricultural and political, for frequent trips to Saint Desert — and that, when in Paris, he no longer showed any curiosity concerning her occupations and engagements. They lived as much apart is if their cramped domicile had been a palace; and when Undine — as she now frequently did — joined the Shallums or Rollivers for a dinner at the Nouveau Luxe, or a party at a petit theatre, she was not put to the trouble of prevaricating.

Her first impulse, after her scene with Raymond, had been to ring up Indiana Rolliver and invite herself to dine. It chanced that Indiana (who was now in full social progress, and had “run over” for a few weeks to get her dresses for Newport) had organized for the same evening a showy cosmopolitan banquet in which she was enchanted to include the Marquise de Chelles; and Undine, as she had hoped, found Elmer Moffatt of the party. When she drove up to the Nouveau Luxe she had not fixed on any plan of action; but once she had crossed its magic threshold her energies revived like plants in water. At last she was in her native air again, among associations she shared and conventions she understood; and all her self-confidence returned as the familiar accents uttered the accustomed things.

Save for an occasional perfunctory call, she had hitherto made no effort to see her compatriots, and she noticed that Mrs. Jim Driscoll and Bertha Shallum received her with a touch of constraint; but it vanished when they remarked the cordiality of Moffatt’s greeting. Her seat was at his side, and her old sense of triumph returned as she perceived the importance his notice conferred, not only in the eyes of her own party but of the other diners. Moffatt was evidently a notable figure in all the worlds represented about the crowded tables, and Undine saw that many people who seemed personally unacquainted with him were recognizing and pointing him out. She was conscious of receiving a large share of the attention he attracted, and, bathed again in the bright air of publicity, she remembered the evening when Raymond de Chelles’ first admiring glance had given her the same sense of triumph.

This inopportune memory did not trouble her: she was almost grateful to Raymond for giving her the touch of superiority her compatriots clearly felt in her. It was not merely her title and her “situation,” but the experiences she had gained through them, that gave her this advantage over the loud vague company. She had learned things they did not guess: shades of conduct, turns of speech, tricks of attitude — and easy and free and enviable as she thought them, she would not for the world have been back among them at the cost of knowing no more than they.

Moffatt made no allusion to his visit to Saint Desert; but when the party had re-grouped itself about coffee and liqueurs on the terrace, he bent over to ask confidentially: “What about my tapestries?”

She replied in the same tone: “You oughtn’t to have let Fleischhauer write that letter. My husband’s furious.”

He seemed honestly surprised. “Why? Didn’t I offer him enough?”

“He’s furious that any one should offer anything. I thought when he found out what they were worth he might be tempted; but he’d rather see me starve than part with one of his grand-father’s snuff-boxes.”

“Well, he knows now what the tapestries are worth. I offered more than Fleischhauer advised.”

“Yes; but you were in too much of a hurry.”

“I’ve got to be; I’m going back next week.”

She felt her eyes cloud with disappointment. “Oh, why do you? I hoped you might stay on.”

They looked at each other uncertainly a moment; then he dropped his voice to say: “Even if I did, I probably shouldn’t see anything of you.”

“Why not? Why won’t you come and see me? I’ve always wanted to be friends.”

He came the next day and found in her drawing-room two ladies whom she introduced as her sisters-in-law. The ladies lingered on for a long time, sipping their tea stiffly and exchanging low-voiced remarks while Undine talked with Moffatt; and when they left, with small sidelong bows in his direction.

Undine exclaimed: “Now you see how they all watch me!”

She began to go into the details of her married life, drawing on the experiences of the first months for instances that scarcely applied to her present liberated state. She could thus, without great exaggeration, picture herself as entrapped into a bondage hardly conceivable to Moffatt, and she saw him redden with excitement as he listened. “I call it darned low — darned low — ” he broke in at intervals.

“Of course I go round more now,” she concluded. “I mean to see my friends — I don’t care what he says.”

“What CAN he say?”

“Oh, he despises Americans — they all do.”

“Well, I guess we can still sit up and take nourishment.”

They laughed and slipped back to talking of earlier things. She urged him to put off his sailing — there were so many things they might do together: sight-seeing and excursions — and she could perhaps show him some of the private collections he hadn’t seen, the ones it was hard to get admitted to. This instantly roused his attention, and after naming one or two collections he had already seen she hit on one he had found inaccessible and was particularly anxious to visit. “There’s an Ingres there that’s one of the things I came over to have a look at; but I was told there was no use trying.”

“Oh, I can easily manage it: the Duke’s Raymond’s uncle.” It gave her a peculiar satisfaction to say it: she felt as though she were taking a surreptitious revenge on her husband. “But he’s down in the country this week,” she continued, “and no one — not even the family — is allowed to see the pictures when he’s away. Of course his Ingres are the finest in France.”

She ran it off glibly, though a year ago she had never heard of the painter, and did not, even now, remember whether he was an Old Master or one of the very new ones whose names one hadn’t had time to learn.

Moffatt put off sailing, saw the Duke’s Ingres under her guidance, and accompanied her to various other private galleries inaccessible to strangers. She had lived in almost total ignorance of such opportunities, but now that she could use them to advantage she showed a surprising quickness in picking up “tips,” ferreting out rare things and getting a sight of hidden treasures. She even acquired as much of the jargon as a pretty woman needs to produce the impression of being well-informed; and Moffatt’s sailing was more than once postponed.

They saw each other almost daily, for she continued to come and go as she pleased, and Raymond showed neither surprise nor disapproval. When they were asked to family dinners she usually excused herself at the last moment on the plea of a headache and, calling up Indiana or Bertha Shallum, improvised a little party at the Nouveau Luxe; and on other occasions she accepted such invitations as she chose, without mentioning to her husband where she was going.

In this world of lavish pleasures she lost what little prudence the discipline of Saint Desert had inculcated. She could never be with people who had all the things she envied without being hypnotized into the belief that she had only to put her hand out to obtain them, and all the unassuaged rancours and hungers of her early days in West End Avenue came back with increased acuity. She knew her wants so much better now, and was so much more worthy of the things she wanted!

She had given up hoping that her father might make another hit in Wall Street. Mrs. Spragg’s letters gave the impression that the days of big strokes were over for her husband, that he had gone down in the conflict with forces beyond his measure. If he had remained in Apex the tide of its new prosperity might have carried him to wealth; but New York’s huge waves of success had submerged instead of floating him, and Rolliver’s enmity was a hand perpetually stretched out to strike him lower. At most, Mr. Spragg’s tenacity would keep him at the level he now held, and though he and his wife had still further simplified their way of living Undine understood that their self-denial would not increase her opportunities. She felt no compunction in continuing to accept an undiminished allowance: it was the hereditary habit of the parent animal to despoil himself for his progeny. But this conviction did not seem incompatible with a sentimental pity for her parents. Aside from all interested motives, she wished for their own sakes that they were better off. Their personal requirements were pathetically limited, but renewed prosperity would at least have procured them the happiness of giving her what she wanted.

Moffatt lingered on; but he began to speak more definitely of sailing, and Undine foresaw the day when, strong as her attraction was, stronger influences would snap it like a thread. She knew she interested and amused him, and that it flattered his vanity to be seen with her, and to hear that rumour coupled their names; but he gave her, more than any one she had ever known, the sense of being detached from his life, in control of it, and able, without weakness or uncertainty, to choose which of its calls he should obey. If the call were that of business — of any of the great perilous affairs he handled like a snake-charmer spinning the deadly reptiles about his head — she knew she would drop from his life like a loosened leaf.

These anxieties sharpened the intensity of her enjoyment, and made the contrast keener between her crowded sparkling hours and the vacant months at Saint Desert. Little as she understood of the qualities that made Moffatt what he was, the results were of the kind most palpable to her. He used life exactly as she would have used it in his place. Some of his enjoyments were beyond her range, but even these appealed to her because of the money that was required to gratify them. When she took him to see some inaccessible picture, or went with him to inspect the treasures of a famous dealer, she saw that the things he looked at moved him in a way she could not understand, and that the actual touching of rare textures — bronze or marble, or velvets flushed with the bloom of age — gave him sensations like those her own beauty had once roused in him. But the next moment he was laughing over some commonplace joke, or absorbed in a long cipher cable handed to him as they re-entered the Nouveau Luxe for tea, and his aesthetic emotions had been thrust back into their own compartment of the great steel strong-box of his mind.

Her new life went on without comment or interference from her husband, and she saw that he had accepted their altered relation, and intended merely to keep up an external semblance of harmony. To that semblance she knew he attached intense importance: it was an article of his complicated social creed that a man of his class should appear to live on good terms with his wife. For different reasons it was scarcely less important to Undine: she had no wish to affront again the social reprobation that had so nearly wrecked her. But she could not keep up the life she was leading without more money, a great deal more money; and the thought of contracting her expenditure was no longer tolerable.

One afternoon, several weeks later, she came in to find a tradesman’s representative waiting with a bill. There was a noisy scene in the anteroom before the man threateningly withdrew — a scene witnessed by the servants, and overheard by her mother-in-law, whom she found seated in the drawing-room when she entered. The old Marquise’s visits to her daughter-in-law were made at long intervals but with ritual regularity; she called every other Friday at five, and Undine had forgotten that she was due that day. This did not make for greater cordiality between them, and the altercation in the anteroom had been too loud for concealment. The Marquise was on her feet when her daughter-in-law came in, and instantly said with lowered eyes: “It would perhaps be best for me to go.”

“Oh, I don’t care. You’re welcome to tell Raymond you’ve heard me insulted because I’m too poor to pay my bills — he knows it well enough already!” The words broke from Undine unguardedly, but once spoken they nourished her defiance.

“I’m sure my son has frequently recommended greater prudence — ” the Marquise murmured.

“Yes! It’s a pity he didn’t recommend it to your other son instead! All the money I was entitled to has gone to pay Hubert’s debts.”

“Raymond has told me that there are certain things you fail to understand — I have no wish whatever to discuss them.” The Marquise had gone toward the door; with her hand on it she paused to add: “I shall say nothing whatever of what has happened.”

Her icy magnanimity added the last touch to Undine’s wrath. They knew her extremity, one and all, and it did not move them. At most, they would join in concealing it like a blot on their honour. And the menace grew and mounted, and not a hand was stretched to help her. . . .

Hardly a half-hour earlier Moffatt, with whom she had been visiting a “private view,” had sent her home in his motor with the excuse that he must hurry back to the Nouveau Luxe to meet his stenographer and sign a batch of letters for the New York mail. It was therefore probable that he was still at home — that she should find him if she hastened there at once. An overwhelming desire to cry out her wrath and wretchedness brought her to her feet and sent her down to hail a passing cab. As it whirled her through the bright streets powdered with amber sunlight her brain throbbed with confused intentions. She did not think of Moffatt as a power she could use, but simply as some one who knew her and understood her grievance. It was essential to her at that moment to be told that she was right and that every one opposed to her was wrong.

At the hotel she asked his number and was carried up in the lift. On the landing she paused a moment, disconcerted — it had occurred to her that he might not be alone. But she walked on quickly, found the number and knocked. . . . Moffatt opened the door, and she glanced beyond him and saw that the big bright sitting-room was empty.

“Hullo!” he exclaimed, surprised; and as he stood aside to let her enter she saw him draw out his watch and glance at it surreptitiously. He was expecting someone, or he had an engagement elsewhere — something claimed him from which she was excluded. The thought flushed her with sudden resolution. She knew now what she had come for — to keep him from every one else, to keep him for herself alone.

“Don’t send me away!” she said, and laid her hand on his beseechingly.

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