The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

XLVI

In the great high-ceilinged library of a private hotel overlooking one of the new quarters of Paris, Paul Marvell stood listlessly gazing out into the twilight.

The trees were budding symmetrically along the avenue below; and Paul, looking down, saw, between windows and tree-tops, a pair of tall iron gates with gilt ornaments, the marble curb of a semi-circular drive, and bands of spring flowers set in turf. He was now a big boy of nearly nine, who went to a fashionable private school, and he had come home that day for the Easter holidays. He had not been back since Christmas, and it was the first time he had seen the new hotel which his step-father had bought, and in which Mr. and Mrs. Moffatt had hastily established themselves, a few weeks earlier, on their return from a flying trip to America. They were always coming and going; during the two years since their marriage they had been perpetually dashing over to New York and back, or rushing down to Rome or up to the Engadine: Paul never knew where they were except when a telegram announced that they were going somewhere else. He did not even know that there was any method of communication between mothers and sons less laconic than that of the electric wire; and once, when a boy at school asked him if his mother often wrote, he had answered in all sincerity: “Oh yes — I got a telegram last week.”

He had been almost sure — as sure as he ever was of anything — that he should find her at home when he arrived; but a message (for she hadn’t had time to telegraph) apprised him that she and Mr. Moffatt had run down to Deauville to look at a house they thought of hiring for the summer; they were taking an early train back, and would be at home for dinner — were in fact having a lot of people to dine.

It was just what he ought to have expected, and had been used to ever since he could remember; and generally he didn’t much mind, especially since his mother had become Mrs. Moffatt, and the father he had been most used to, and liked best, had abruptly disappeared from his life. But the new hotel was big and strange, and his own room, in which there was not a toy or a book, or one of his dear battered relics (none of the new servants — they were always new — could find his things, or think where they had been put), seemed the loneliest spot in the whole house. He had gone up there after his solitary luncheon, served in the immense marble dining-room by a footman on the same scale, and had tried to occupy himself with pasting post-cards into his album; but the newness and sumptuousness of the room embarrassed him — the white fur rugs and brocade chairs seemed maliciously on the watch for smears and ink-spots — and after a while he pushed the album aside and began to roam through the house.

He went to all the rooms in turn: his mother’s first, the wonderful lacy bedroom, all pale silks and velvets, artful mirrors and veiled lamps, and the boudoir as big as a drawing-room, with pictures he would have liked to know about, and tables and cabinets holding things he was afraid to touch. Mr. Moffatt’s rooms came next. They were soberer and darker, but as big and splendid; and in the bedroom, on the brown wall, hung a single picture — the portrait of a boy in grey velvet — that interested Paul most of all. The boy’s hand rested on the head of a big dog, and he looked infinitely noble and charming, and yet (in spite of the dog) so sad and lonely that he too might have come home that very day to a strange house in which none of his old things could be found.

From these rooms Paul wandered downstairs again. The library attracted him most: there were rows and rows of books, bound in dim browns and golds, and old faded reds as rich as velvet: they all looked as if they might have had stories in them as splendid as their bindings. But the bookcases were closed with gilt trellising, and when Paul reached up to open one, a servant told him that Mr. Moffatt’s secretary kept them locked because the books were too valuable to be taken down. This seemed to make the library as strange as the rest of the house, and he passed on to the ballroom at the back. Through its closed doors he heard a sound of hammering, and when he tried the door-handle a servant passing with a tray-full of glasses told him that “they” hadn’t finished, and wouldn’t let anybody in.

The mysterious pronoun somehow increased Paul’s sense of isolation, and he went on to the drawing-rooms, steering his way prudently between the gold arm-chairs and shining tables, and wondering whether the wigged and corseleted heroes on the walls represented Mr. Moffatt’s ancestors, and why, if they did, he looked so little like them. The dining-room beyond was more amusing, because busy servants were already laying the long table. It was too early for the florist, and the centre of the table was empty, but down the sides were gold baskets heaped with pulpy summer fruits-figs, strawberries and big blushing nectarines. Between them stood crystal decanters with red and yellow wine, and little dishes full of sweets; and against the walls were sideboards with great pieces of gold and silver, ewers and urns and branching candelabra, which sprinkled the green marble walls with starlike reflections.

After a while he grew tired of watching the coming and going of white-sleeved footmen, and of listening to the butler’s vociferated orders, and strayed back into the library. The habit of solitude had given him a passion for the printed page, and if he could have found a book anywhere — any kind of a book — he would have forgotten the long hours and the empty house. But the tables in the library held only massive unused inkstands and immense immaculate blotters; not a single volume had slipped its golden prison.

His loneliness had grown overwhelming, and he suddenly thought of Mrs. Heeny’s clippings. His mother, alarmed by an insidious gain in weight, had brought the masseuse back from New York with her, and Mrs. Heeny, with her old black bag and waterproof, was established in one of the grand bedrooms lined with mirrors. She had been loud in her joy at seeing her little friend that morning, but four years had passed since their last parting, and her personality had grown remote to him. He saw too many people, and they too often disappeared and were replaced by others: his scattered affections had ended by concentrating themselves on the charming image of the gentleman he called his French father; and since his French father had vanished no one else seemed to matter much to him.

“Oh, well,” Mrs. Heeny had said, discerning the reluctance under his civil greeting, “I guess you’re as strange here as I am, and we’re both pretty strange to each other. You just go and look round, and see what a lovely home your Ma’s got to live in; and when you get tired of that, come up here to me and I’ll give you a look at my clippings.”

The word woke a train of dormant associations, and Paul saw himself seated on a dingy carpet, between two familiar taciturn old presences, while he rummaged in the depths of a bag stuffed with strips of newspaper.

He found Mrs. Heeny sitting in a pink arm-chair, her bonnet perched on a pink-shaded electric lamp and her numerous implements spread out on an immense pink toilet-table. Vague as his recollection of her was, she gave him at once a sense of reassurance that nothing else in the house conveyed, and after he had examined all her scissors and pastes and nail-polishers he turned to the bag, which stood on the carpet at her feet as if she were waiting for a train.

“My, my!” she said, “do you want to get into that again? How you used to hunt in it for taffy, to be sure, when your Pa brought you up to Grandma Spragg’s o’ Saturdays! Well, I’m afraid there ain’t any taffy in it now; but there’s piles and piles of lovely new clippings you ain’t seen.”

“My Papa?” He paused, his hand among the strips of newspaper. “My Papa never saw my Grandma Spragg. He never went to America.”

“Never went to America? Your Pa never —? Why, land alive!” Mrs. Heeny gasped, a blush empurpling her large warm face. “Why, Paul Marvell, don’t you remember your own father, you that bear his name?” she exclaimed.

The boy blushed also, conscious that it must have been wrong to forget, and yet not seeing how he was to blame.

“That one died a long long time ago, didn’t he? I was thinking of my French father,” he explained.

“Oh, mercy,” ejaculated Mrs. Heeny; and as if to cut the conversation short she stooped over, creaking like a ship, and thrust her plump strong hand into the bag.

“Here, now, just you look at these clippings — I guess you’ll find a lot in them about your Ma. — Where do they come from? Why, out of the papers, of course,” she added, in response to Paul’s enquiry. “You’d oughter start a scrap-book yourself — you’re plenty old enough. You could make a beauty just about your Ma, with her picture pasted in the front — and another about Mr. Moffatt and his collections. There’s one I cut out the other day that says he’s the greatest collector in America.”

Paul listened, fascinated. He had the feeling that Mrs. Heeny’s clippings, aside from their great intrinsic interest, might furnish him the clue to many things he didn’t understand, and that nobody had ever had time to explain to him. His mother’s marriages, for instance: he was sure there was a great deal to find out about them. But she always said: “I’ll tell you all about it when I come back” — and when she came back it was invariably to rush off somewhere else. So he had remained without a key to her transitions, and had had to take for granted numberless things that seemed to have no parallel in the experience of the other boys he knew.

“Here — here it is,” said Mrs. Heeny, adjusting the big tortoiseshell spectacles she had taken to wearing, and reading out in a slow chant that seemed to Paul to come out of some lost remoteness of his infancy.

“‘It is reported in London that the price paid by Mr. Elmer Moffatt for the celebrated Grey Boy is the largest sum ever given for a Vandyck. Since Mr. Moffatt began to buy extensively it is estimated in art circles that values have gone up at least seventy-five per cent.’”

But the price of the Grey Boy did not interest Paul, and he said a little impatiently: “I’d rather hear about my mother.”

“To be sure you would! You wait now.” Mrs. Heeny made another dive, and again began to spread her clippings on her lap like cards on a big black table.

“Here’s one about her last portrait — no, here’s a better one about her pearl necklace, the one Mr. Moffatt gave her last Christmas. ‘The necklace, which was formerly the property of an Austrian Archduchess, is composed of five hundred perfectly matched pearls that took thirty years to collect. It is estimated among dealers in precious stones that since Mr. Moffatt began to buy the price of pearls has gone up over fifty per cent.’”

Even this did not fix Paul’s attention. He wanted to hear about his mother and Mr. Moffatt, and not about their things; and he didn’t quite know how to frame his question. But Mrs. Heeny looked kindly at him and he tried. “Why is mother married to Mr. Moffatt now?”

“Why, you must know that much, Paul.” Mrs. Heeny again looked warm and worried. “She’s married to him because she got a divorce — that’s why.” And suddenly she had another inspiration. “Didn’t she ever send you over any of those splendid clippings that came out the time they were married? Why, I declare, that’s a shame; but I must have some of ’em right here.”

She dived again, shuffled, sorted, and pulled out a long discoloured strip. “I’ve carried this round with me ever since, and so many’s wanted to read it, it’s all torn.” She smoothed out the paper and began:

“‘Divorce and remarriage of Mrs. Undine Spragg-de Chelles. American Marquise renounces ancient French title to wed Railroad King. Quick work untying and tying. Boy and girl romance renewed. “‘Reno, November 23d. The Marquise de Chelles, of Paris, France, formerly Mrs. Undine Spragg Marvell, of Apex City and New York, got a decree of divorce at a special session of the Court last night, and was remarried fifteen minutes later to Mr. Elmer Moffatt, the billionaire Railroad King, who was the Marquise’s first husband.

“‘No case has ever been railroaded through the divorce courts of this State at a higher rate of speed: as Mr. Moffatt said last night, before he and his bride jumped onto their east-bound special, every record has been broken. It was just six months ago yesterday that the present Mrs. Moffatt came to Reno to look for her divorce. Owing to a delayed train, her counsel was late yesterday in receiving some necessary papers, and it was feared the decision would have to be held over; but Judge Toomey, who is a personal friend of Mr. Moffatt’s, held a night session and rushed it through so that the happy couple could have the knot tied and board their special in time for Mrs. Moffatt to spend Thanksgiving in New York with her aged parents. The hearing began at seven ten p. m. and at eight o’clock the bridal couple were steaming out of the station.

“‘At the trial Mrs. Spragg-de Chelles, who wore copper velvet and sables, gave evidence as to the brutality of her French husband, but she had to talk fast as time pressed, and Judge Toomey wrote the entry at top speed, and then jumped into a motor with the happy couple and drove to the Justice of the Peace, where he acted as best man to the bridegroom. The latter is said to be one of the six wealthiest men east of the Rockies. His gifts to the bride are a necklace and tiara of pigeon-blood rubies belonging to Queen Marie Antoinette, a million dollar cheque and a house in New York. The happy pair will pass the honeymoon in Mrs. Moffatt’s new home, 5009 Fifth Avenue, which is an exact copy of the Pitti Palace, Florence. They plan to spend their springs in France.’”

Mrs. Heeny drew a long breath, folded the paper and took off her spectacles. “There,” she said, with a benignant smile and a tap on Paul’s cheek, “now you see how it all happened. . . . ”

Paul was not sure he did; but he made no answer. His mind was too full of troubled thoughts. In the dazzling description of his mother’s latest nuptials one fact alone stood out for him — that she had said things that weren’t true of his French father. Something he had half-guessed in her, and averted his frightened thoughts from, took his little heart in an iron grasp. She said things that weren’t true. . . . That was what he had always feared to find out. . . . She had got up and said before a lot of people things that were awfully false about his dear French father. . . .

The sound of a motor turning in at the gates made Mrs. Heeny exclaim “Here they are!” and a moment later Paul heard his mother calling to him. He got up reluctantly, and stood wavering till he felt Mrs. Heeny’s astonished eye upon him. Then he heard Mr. Moffatt’s jovial shout of “Paul Marvell, ahoy there!” and roused himself to run downstairs.

As he reached the landing he saw that the ballroom doors were open and all the lustres lit. His mother and Mr. Moffatt stood in the middle of the shining floor, looking up at the walls; and Paul’s heart gave a wondering bound, for there, set in great gilt panels, were the tapestries that had always hung in the gallery at Saint Desert.

“Well, Senator, it feels good to shake your fist again!” his step-father said, taking him in a friendly grasp; and his mother, who looked handsomer and taller and more splendidly dressed than ever, exclaimed: “Mercy! how they’ve cut his hair!” before she bent to kiss him.

“Oh, mother, mother!” he burst out, feeling, between his mother’s face and the others, hardly less familiar, on the walls, that he was really at home again, and not in a strange house.

“Gracious, how you squeeze!” she protested, loosening his arms. “But you look splendidly — and how you’ve grown!” She turned away from him and began to inspect the tapestries critically. “Somehow they look smaller here,” she said with a tinge of disappointment.

Mr. Moffatt gave a slight laugh and walked slowly down the room, as if to study its effect. As he turned back his wife said: “I didn’t think you’d ever get them.” He laughed again, more complacently. “Well, I don’t know as I ever should have, if General Arlington hadn’t happened to bust up.”

They both smiled, and Paul, seeing his mother’s softened face, stole his hand in hers and began: “Mother, I took a prize in composition — ”

“Did you? You must tell me about it to-morrow. No, I really must rush off now and dress — I haven’t even placed the dinner-cards.” She freed her hand, and as she turned to go Paul heard Mr. Moffatt say: “Can’t you ever give him a minute’s time, Undine?”

She made no answer, but sailed through the door with her head high, as she did when anything annoyed her; and Paul and his step-father stood alone in the illuminated ball-room.

Mr. Moffatt smiled good-naturedly at the little boy and then turned back to the contemplation of the hangings.

“I guess you know where those come from, don’t you?” he asked in a tone of satisfaction.

“Oh, yes,” Paul answered eagerly, with a hope he dared not utter that, since the tapestries were there, his French father might be coming too.

“You’re a smart boy to remember them. I don’t suppose you ever thought you’d see them here?”

“I don’t know,” said Paul, embarrassed.

“Well, I guess you wouldn’t have if their owner hadn’t been in a pretty tight place. It was like drawing teeth for him to let them go.”

Paul flushed up, and again the iron grasp was on his heart. He hadn’t, hitherto, actually disliked Mr. Moffatt, who was always in a good humour, and seemed less busy and absent-minded than his mother; but at that instant he felt a rage of hate for him. He turned away and burst into tears.

“Why, hullo, old chap — why, what’s up?” Mr. Moffatt was on his knees beside the boy, and the arms embracing him were firm and friendly. But Paul, for the life of him, couldn’t answer: he could only sob and sob as the great surges of loneliness broke over him.

“Is it because your mother hadn’t time for you? Well, she’s like that, you know; and you and I have got to lump it,” Mr. Moffatt continued, getting to his feet. He stood looking down at the boy with a queer smile. “If we two chaps stick together it won’t be so bad — we can keep each other warm, don’t you see? I like you first rate, you know; when you’re big enough I mean to put you in my business. And it looks as if one of these days you’d be the richest boy in America. . . . ”

The lamps were lit, the vases full of flowers, the foot-men assembled on the landing and in the vestibule below, when Undine descended to the drawing-room. As she passed the ballroom door she glanced in approvingly at the tapestries. They really looked better than she had been willing to admit: they made her ballroom the handsomest in Paris. But something had put her out on the way up from Deauville, and the simplest way of easing her nerves had been to affect indifference to the tapestries. Now she had quite recovered her good humour, and as she glanced down the list of guests she was awaiting she said to herself, with a sigh of satisfaction, that she was glad she had put on her rubies.

For the first time since her marriage to Moffatt she was about to receive in her house the people she most wished to see there. The beginnings had been a little difficult; their first attempt in New York was so unpromising that she feared they might not be able to live down the sensational details of their reunion, and had insisted on her husband’s taking her back to Paris. But her apprehensions were unfounded. It was only necessary to give people the time to pretend they had forgotten; and already they were all pretending beautifully. The French world had of course held out longest; it had strongholds she might never capture. But already seceders were beginning to show themselves, and her dinner-list that evening was graced with the names of an authentic Duke and a not too-damaged Countess. In addition, of course, she had the Shallums, the Chauncey Ellings, May Beringer, Dicky Bowles, Walsingham Popple, and the rest of the New York frequenters of the Nouveau Luxe; she had even, at the last minute, had the amusement of adding Peter Van Degen to their number. In the evening there were to be Spanish dancing and Russian singing; and Dicky Bowles had promised her a Grand Duke for her next dinner, if she could secure the new tenor who always refused to sing in private houses.

Even now, however, she was not always happy. She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them. And there had been moments lately when she had had to confess to herself that Moffatt did not fit into the picture. At first she had been dazzled by his success and subdued by his authority. He had given her all she had ever wished for, and more than she had ever dreamed of having: he had made up to her for all her failures and blunders, and there were hours when she still felt his dominion and exulted in it. But there were others when she saw his defects and was irritated by them: when his loudness and redness, his misplaced joviality, his familiarity with the servants, his alternating swagger and ceremony with her friends, jarred on perceptions that had developed in her unawares. Now and then she caught herself thinking that his two predecessors — who were gradually becoming merged in her memory — would have said this or that differently, behaved otherwise in such and such a case. And the comparison was almost always to Moffatt’s disadvantage.

This evening, however, she thought of him indulgently. She was pleased with his clever stroke in capturing the Saint Desert tapestries, which General Arlington’s sudden bankruptcy, and a fresh gambling scandal of Hubert’s, had compelled their owner to part with. She knew that Raymond de Chelles had told the dealers he would sell his tapestries to anyone but Mr. Elmer Moffatt, or a buyer acting for him; and it amused her to think that, thanks to Elmer’s astuteness, they were under her roof after all, and that Raymond and all his clan were by this time aware of it. These facts disposed her favourably toward her husband, and deepened the sense of well-being with which — according to her invariable habit — she walked up to the mirror above the mantelpiece and studied the image it reflected.

She was still lost in this pleasing contemplation when her husband entered, looking stouter and redder than ever, in evening clothes that were a little too tight. His shirt front was as glossy as his baldness, and in his buttonhole he wore the red ribbon bestowed on him for waiving his claim to a Velasquez that was wanted for the Louvre. He carried a newspaper in his hand, and stood looking about the room with a complacent eye.

“Well, I guess this is all right,” he said, and she answered briefly: “Don’t forget you’re to take down Madame de Follerive; and for goodness’ sake don’t call her ‘Countess.’”

“Why, she is one, ain’t she?” he returned good-humouredly.

“I wish you’d put that newspaper away,” she continued; his habit of leaving old newspapers about the drawing-room annoyed her.

“Oh, that reminds me — ” instead of obeying her he unfolded the paper. “I brought it in to show you something. Jim Driscoll’s been appointed Ambassador to England.”

“Jim Driscoll —!” She caught up the paper and stared at the paragraph he pointed to. Jim Driscoll — that pitiful nonentity, with his stout mistrustful commonplace wife! It seemed extraordinary that the government should have hunted up such insignificant people. And immediately she had a great vague vision of the splendours they were going to — all the banquets and ceremonies and precedences. . . .

“I shouldn’t say she’d want to, with so few jewels — ” She dropped the paper and turned to her husband. “If you had a spark of ambition, that’s the kind of thing you’d try for. You could have got it just as easily as not!”

He laughed and thrust his thumbs in his waistcoat armholes with the gesture she disliked. “As it happens, it’s about the one thing I couldn’t.”

“You couldn’t? Why not?”

“Because you’re divorced. They won’t have divorced Ambassadresses.”

“They won’t? Why not, I’d like to know?”

“Well, I guess the court ladies are afraid there’d be too many pretty women in the Embassies,” he answered jocularly.

She burst into an angry laugh, and the blood flamed up into her face. “I never heard of anything so insulting!” she cried, as if the rule had been invented to humiliate her.

There was a noise of motors backing and advancing in the court, and she heard the first voices on the stairs. She turned to give herself a last look in the glass, saw the blaze of her rubies, the glitter of her hair, and remembered the brilliant names on her list.

But under all the dazzle a tiny black cloud remained. She had learned that there was something she could never get, something that neither beauty nor influence nor millions could ever buy for her. She could never be an Ambassador’s wife; and as she advanced to welcome her first guests she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for.

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