The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XLV

She advanced into the room and slowly looked about her. The big vulgar writing-table wreathed in bronze was heaped with letters and papers. Among them stood a lapis bowl in a Renaissance mounting of enamel and a vase of Phenician glass that was like a bit of rainbow caught in cobwebs. On a table against the window a little Greek marble lifted its pure lines. On every side some rare and sensitive object seemed to be shrinking back from the false colours and crude contours of the hotel furniture. There were no books in the room, but the florid console under the mirror was stacked with old numbers of Town Talk and the New York Radiator. Undine recalled the dingy hall-room that Moffatt had lodged in at Mrs. Flynn’s, over Hober’s livery stable, and her heart beat at the signs of his altered state. When her eyes came back to him their lids were moist.

“Don’t send me away,” she repeated. He looked at her and smiled. “What is it? What’s the matter?”

“I don’t know — but I had to come. To-day, when you spoke again of sailing, I felt as if I couldn’t stand it.” She lifted her eyes and looked in his profoundly.

He reddened a little under her gaze, but she could detect no softening or confusion in the shrewd steady glance he gave her back.

“Things going wrong again — is that the trouble?” he merely asked with a comforting inflexion.

“They always are wrong; it’s all been an awful mistake. But I shouldn’t care if you were here and I could see you sometimes. You’re so STRONG: that’s what I feel about you, Elmer. I was the only one to feel it that time they all turned against you out at Apex. . . . Do you remember the afternoon I met you down on Main Street, and we walked out together to the Park? I knew then that you were stronger than any of them. . . . ”

She had never spoken more sincerely. For the moment all thought of self-interest was in abeyance, and she felt again, as she had felt that day, the instinctive yearning of her nature to be one with his. Something in her voice must have attested it, for she saw a change in his face.

“You’re not the beauty you were,” he said irrelevantly; “but you’re a lot more fetching.”

The oddly qualified praise made her laugh with mingled pleasure and annoyance.

“I suppose I must be dreadfully changed — ”

“You’re all right! — But I’ve got to go back home,” he broke off abruptly. “I’ve put it off too long.”

She paled and looked away, helpless in her sudden disappointment. “I knew you’d say that. . . . And I shall just be left here. . . . ” She sat down on the sofa near which they had been standing, and two tears formed on her lashes and fell.

Moffatt sat down beside her, and both were silent. She had never seen him at a loss before. She made no attempt to draw nearer, or to use any of the arts of cajolery; but presently she said, without rising: “I saw you look at your watch when I came in. I suppose somebody else is waiting for you.”

“It don’t matter.”

“Some other woman?”

“It don’t matter.”

“I’ve wondered so often — but of course I’ve got no right to ask.” She stood up slowly, understanding that he meant to let her go.

“Just tell me one thing — did you never miss me?”

“Oh, damnably!” he brought out with sudden bitterness.

She came nearer, sinking her voice to a low whisper. “It’s the only time I ever really cared — all through!”

He had risen too, and they stood intensely gazing at each other. Moffatt’s face was fixed and grave, as she had seen it in hours she now found herself rapidly reliving.

“I believe you DID,” he said.

“Oh, Elmer — if I’d known — if I’d only known!”

He made no answer, and she turned away, touching with an unconscious hand the edge of the lapis bowl among his papers.

“Elmer, if you’re going away it can’t do any harm to tell me — is there any one else?”

He gave a laugh that seemed to shake him free. “In that kind of way? Lord, no! Too busy!”

She came close again and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Then why not — why shouldn’t we —?” She leaned her head back so that her gaze slanted up through her wet lashes. “I can do as I please — my husband does. They think so differently about marriage over here: it’s just a business contract. As long as a woman doesn’t make a show of herself no one cares.” She put her other hand up, so that she held him facing her. “I’ve always felt, all through everything, that I belonged to you.”

Moffatt left her hands on his shoulders, but did not lift his own to clasp them. For a moment she thought she had mistaken him, and a leaden sense of shame descended on her. Then he asked: “You say your husband goes with other women?”

Lili Estradina’s taunt flashed through her and she seized on it. “People have told me so — his own relations have. I’ve never stooped to spy on him. . . . ”

“And the women in your set — I suppose it’s taken for granted they all do the same?”

She laughed.

“Everything fixed up for them, same as it is for the husbands, eh? Nobody meddles or makes trouble if you know the ropes?”

“No, nobody . . . it’s all quite easy. . . . ” She stopped, her faint smile checked, as his backward movement made her hands drop from his shoulders.

“And that’s what you’re proposing to me? That you and I should do like the rest of ’em?” His face had lost its comic roundness and grown harsh and dark, as it had when her father had taken her away from him at Opake. He turned on his heel, walked the length of the room and halted with his back to her in the embrasure of the window. There he paused a full minute, his hands in his pockets, staring out at the perpetual interweaving of motors in the luminous setting of the square. Then he turned and spoke from where he stood.

“Look here. Undine, if I’m to have you again I don’t want to have you that way. That time out in Apex, when everybody in the place was against me, and I was down and out, you stood up to them and stuck by me. Remember that walk down Main Street? Don’t I! — and the way the people glared and hurried by; and how you kept on alongside of me, talking and laughing, and looking your Sunday best. When Abner Spragg came out to Opake after us and pulled you back I was pretty sore at your deserting; but I came to see it was natural enough. You were only a spoilt girl, used to having everything you wanted; and I couldn’t give you a thing then, and the folks you’d been taught to believe in all told you I never would. Well, I did look like a back number, and no blame to you for thinking so. I used to say it to myself over and over again, laying awake nights and totting up my mistakes . . . and then there were days when the wind set another way, and I knew I’d pull it off yet, and I thought you might have held on. . . . ” He stopped, his head a little lowered, his concentrated gaze on her flushed face. “Well, anyhow,” he broke out, “you were my wife once, and you were my wife first — and if you want to come back you’ve got to come that way: not slink through the back way when there’s no one watching, but walk in by the front door, with your head up, and your Main Street look.”

Since the days when he had poured out to her his great fortune-building projects she had never heard him make so long a speech; and her heart, as she listened, beat with a new joy and terror. It seemed to her that the great moment of her life had come at last — the moment all her minor failures and successes had been building up with blind indefatigable hands.

“Elmer — Elmer — ” she sobbed out.

She expected to find herself in his arms, shut in and shielded from all her troubles; but he stood his ground across the room, immovable.

“Is it yes?”

She faltered the word after him: “Yes —?”

“Are you going to marry me?”

She stared, bewildered. “Why, Elmer — marry you? You forget!”

“Forget what? That you don’t want to give up what you’ve got?”

“How can I? Such things are not done out here. Why, I’m a Catholic; and the Catholic Church — ” She broke off, reading the end in his face. “But later, perhaps . . . things might change. Oh, Elmer, if only you’d stay over here and let me see you sometimes!”

“Yes — the way your friends see each other. We’re differently made out in Apex. When I want that sort of thing I go down to North Fifth Street for it.”

She paled under the retort, but her heart beat high with it. What he asked was impossible — and she gloried in his asking it. Feeling her power, she tried to temporize. “At least if you stayed we could be friends — I shouldn’t feel so terribly alone.”

He laughed impatiently. “Don’t talk magazine stuff to me, Undine Spragg. I guess we want each other the same way. Only our ideas are different. You’ve got all muddled, living out here among a lot of loafers who call it a career to run round after every petticoat. I’ve got my job out at home, and I belong where my job is.”

“Are you going to be tied to business all your life?” Her smile was faintly depreciatory.

“I guess business is tied to ME: Wall Street acts as if it couldn’t get along without me.” He gave his shoulders a shake and moved a few steps nearer. “See here, Undine — you’re the one that don’t understand. If I was to sell out to-morrow, and spend the rest of my life reading art magazines in a pink villa, I wouldn’t do what you’re asking me. And I’ve about as much idea of dropping business as you have of taking to district nursing. There are things a man doesn’t do. I understand why your husband won’t sell those tapestries — till he’s got to. His ancestors are HIS business: Wall Street’s mine.”

He paused, and they silently faced each other. Undine made no attempt to approach him: she understood that if he yielded it would be only to recover his advantage and deepen her feeling of defeat. She put out her hand and took up the sunshade she had dropped on entering. “I suppose it’s good-bye then,” she said.

“You haven’t got the nerve?”

“The nerve for what?”

“To come where you belong: with me.”

She laughed a little and then sighed. She wished he would come nearer, or look at her differently: she felt, under his cool eye, no more compelling than a woman of wax in a show-case.

“How could I get a divorce? With my religion — ”

“Why, you were born a Baptist, weren’t you? That’s where you used to attend church when I waited round the corner, Sunday mornings, with one of old Hober’s buggies.” They both laughed, and he went on: “If you’ll come along home with me I’ll see you get your divorce all right. Who cares what they do over here? You’re an American, ain’t you? What you want is the home-made article.”

She listened, discouraged yet fascinated by his sturdy inaccessibility to all her arguments and objections. He knew what he wanted, saw his road before him, and acknowledged no obstacles. Her defense was drawn from reasons he did not understand, or based on difficulties that did not exist for him; and gradually she felt herself yielding to the steady pressure of his will. Yet the reasons he brushed away came back with redoubled tenacity whenever he paused long enough for her to picture the consequences of what he exacted.

“You don’t know — you don’t understand — ” she kept repeating; but she knew that his ignorance was part of his terrible power, and that it was hopeless to try to make him feel the value of what he was asking her to give up.

“See here, Undine,” he said slowly, as if he measured her resistance though he couldn’t fathom it, “I guess it had better be yes or no right here. It ain’t going to do either of us any good to drag this thing out. If you want to come back to me, come — if you don’t, we’ll shake hands on it now. I’m due in Apex for a directors’ meeting on the twentieth, and as it is I’ll have to cable for a special to get me out there. No, no, don’t cry — it ain’t that kind of a story . . . but I’ll have a deck suite for you on the Semantic if you’ll sail with me the day after to-morrow.”

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