The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

V

She had looked down at them, enviously, from the balcony — she had looked up at them, reverentially, from the stalls; but now at last she was on a line with them, among them, she was part of the sacred semicircle whose privilege it is, between the acts, to make the mere public forget that the curtain has fallen.

As she swept to the left-hand seat of their crimson niche, waving Mabel Lipscomb to the opposite corner with a gesture learned during her apprenticeship in the stalls, Undine felt that quickening of the faculties that comes in the high moments of life. Her consciousness seemed to take in at once the whole bright curve of the auditorium, from the unbroken lines of spectators below her to the culminating blaze of the central chandelier; and she herself was the core of that vast illumination, the sentient throbbing surface which gathered all the shafts of light into a centre.

It was almost a relief when, a moment later, the lights sank, the curtain rose, and the focus of illumination was shifted. The music, the scenery, and the movement on the stage, were like a rich mist tempering the radiance that shot on her from every side, and giving her time to subside, draw breath, adjust herself to this new clear medium which made her feel so oddly brittle and transparent.

When the curtain fell on the first act she began to be aware of a subtle change in the house. In all the boxes cross-currents of movement had set in: groups were coalescing and breaking up, fans waving and heads twinkling, black coats emerging among white shoulders, late comers dropping their furs and laces in the red penumbra of the background. Undine, for the moment unconscious of herself, swept the house with her opera-glass, searching for familiar faces. Some she knew without being able to name them — fixed figure-heads of the social prow — others she recognized from their portraits in the papers; but of the few from whom she could herself claim recognition not one was visible, and as she pursued her investigations the whole scene grew blank and featureless.

Almost all the boxes were full now, but one, just opposite, tantalized her by its continued emptiness. How queer to have an opera-box and not use it! What on earth could the people be doing — what rarer delight could they be tasting? Undine remembered that the numbers of the boxes and the names of their owners were given on the back of the programme, and after a rapid computation she turned to consult the list. Mondays and Fridays, Mrs. Peter Van Degen. That was it: the box was empty because Mrs. Van Degen was dining alone with Ralph Marvell! “PETER WILL BE AT ONE OF HIS DINNERS.” Undine had a sharp vision of the Van Degen dining-room — she pictured it as oak-carved and sumptuous with gilding — with a small table in the centre, and rosy lights and flowers, and Ralph Marvell, across the hot-house grapes and champagne, leaning to take a light from his hostess’s cigarette. Undine had seen such scenes on the stage, she had come upon them in the glowing pages of fiction, and it seemed to her that every detail was before her now, from the glitter of jewels on Mrs. Van Degen’s bare shoulders to the way young Marvell stroked his slight blond moustache while he smiled and listened.

Undine blushed with anger at her own simplicity in fancying that he had been “taken” by her — that she could ever really count among these happy self-absorbed people! They all had their friends, their ties, their delightful crowding obligations: why should they make room for an intruder in a circle so packed with the initiated?

As her imagination developed the details of the scene in the Van Degen dining-room it became clear to her that fashionable society was horribly immoral and that she could never really be happy in such a poisoned atmosphere. She remembered that an eminent divine was preaching a series of sermons against Social Corruption, and she determined to go and hear him on the following Sunday.

This train of thought was interrupted by the feeling that she was being intently observed from the neighbouring box. She turned around with a feint of speaking to Mrs. Lipscomb, and met the bulging stare of Peter Van Degen. He was standing behind the lady of the eye-glass, who had replaced her tortoise-shell implement by one of closely-set brilliants, which, at word from her companion, she critically bent on Undine.

“No — I don’t remember,” she said; and the girl reddened, divining herself unidentified after this protracted scrutiny.

But there was no doubt as to young Van Degen’s remembering her. She was even conscious that he was trying to provoke in her some reciprocal sign of recognition; and the attempt drove her to the haughty study of her programme.

“Why, there’s Mr. Popple over there!” exclaimed Mabel Lipscomb, making large signs across the house with fan and play-bill.

Undine had already become aware that Mabel, planted, blond and brimming, too near the edge of the box, was somehow out of scale and out of drawing; and the freedom of her demonstrations increased the effect of disproportion. No one else was wagging and waving in that way: a gestureless mute telegraphy seemed to pass between the other boxes. Still, Undine could not help following Mrs. Lipscomb’s glance, and there in fact was Claud Popple, taller and more dominant than ever, and bending easily over what she felt must be the back of a brilliant woman.

He replied by a discreet salute to Mrs. Lipscomb’s intemperate motions, and Undine saw the brilliant woman’s opera-glass turn in their direction, and said to herself that in a moment Mr. Popple would be “round.” But the entr’acte wore on, and no one turned the handle of their door, or disturbed the peaceful somnolence of Harry Lipscomb, who, not being (as he put it) “onto” grand opera, had abandoned the struggle and withdrawn to the seclusion of the inner box. Undine jealously watched Mr. Popple’s progress from box to box, from brilliant woman to brilliant woman; but just as it seemed about to carry him to their door he reappeared at his original post across the house.

“Undie, do look — there’s Mr. Marvell!” Mabel began again, with another conspicuous outbreak of signalling; and this time Undine flushed to the nape as Mrs. Peter Van Degen appeared in the opposite box with Ralph Marvell behind her. The two seemed to be alone in the box — as they had doubtless been alone all the evening! — and Undine furtively turned to see if Mr. Van Degen shared her disapproval. But Mr. Van Degen had disappeared, and Undine, leaning forward, nervously touched Mabel’s arm.

“What’s the matter. Undine? Don’t you see Mr. Marvell over there? Is that his sister he’s with?”

“No. — I wouldn’t beckon like that,” Undine whispered between her teeth.

“Why not? Don’t you want him to know you’re here?”

“Yes — but the other people are not beckoning.”

Mabel looked about unabashed. “Perhaps they’ve all found each other. Shall I send Harry over to tell him?” she shouted above the blare of the wind instruments.

“NO!” gasped Undine as the curtain rose.

She was no longer capable of following the action on the stage. Two presences possessed her imagination: that of Ralph Marvell, small, unattainable, remote, and that of Mabel Lipscomb, near-by, immense and irrepressible.

It had become clear to Undine that Mabel Lipscomb was ridiculous. That was the reason why Popple did not come to the box. No one would care to be seen talking to her while Mabel was at her side: Mabel, monumental and moulded while the fashionable were flexible and diaphanous, Mabel strident and explicit while they were subdued and allusive. At the Stentorian she was the centre of her group — here she revealed herself as unknown and unknowing. Why, she didn’t even know that Mrs. Peter Van Degen was not Ralph Marvell’s sister! And she had a way of trumpeting out her ignorances that jarred on Undine’s subtler methods. It was precisely at this point that there dawned on Undine what was to be one of the guiding principles of her career: “IT’S BETTER TO WATCH THAN TO ASK QUESTIONS.”

The curtain fell again, and Undine’s eyes flew back to the Van Degen box. Several men were entering it together, and a moment later she saw Ralph Marvell rise from his seat and pass out. Half-unconsciously she placed herself in such a way as to have an eye on the door of the box. But its handle remained unturned, and Harry Lipscomb, leaning back on the sofa, his head against the opera cloaks, continued to breathe stentorously through his open mouth and stretched his legs a little farther across the threshold . . .

The entr’acte was nearly over when the door opened and two gentlemen stumbled over Mr. Lipscomb’s legs. The foremost was Claud Walsingham Popple; and above his shoulder shone the batrachian countenance of Peter Van Degen. A brief murmur from Mr. Popple made his companion known to the two ladies, and Mr. Van Degen promptly seated himself behind Undine, relegating the painter to Mrs. Lipscomb’s elbow.

“Queer go — I happened to see your friend there waving to old Popp across the house. So I bolted over and collared him: told him he’d got to introduce me before he was a minute older. I tried to find out who you were the other day at the Motor Show — no, where was it? Oh, those pictures at Goldmark’s. What d’you think of ’em, by the way? You ought to be painted yourself — no, I mean it, you know — you ought to get old Popp to do you. He’d do your hair ripplingly. You must let me come and talk to you about it . . . About the picture or your hair? Well, your hair if you don’t mind. Where’d you say you were staying? Oh, you LIVE here, do you? I say, that’s first rate!”

Undine sat well forward, curving toward him a little, as she had seen the other women do, but holding back sufficiently to let it be visible to the house that she was conversing with no less a person than Mr. Peter Van Degen. Mr. Popple’s talk was certainly more brilliant and purposeful, and she saw him cast longing glances at her from behind Mrs. Lipscomb’s shoulder; but she remembered how lightly he had been treated at the Fairford dinner, and she wanted — oh, how she wanted! — to have Ralph Marvell see her talking to Van Degen.

She poured out her heart to him, improvising an opinion on the pictures and an opinion on the music, falling in gaily with his suggestion of a jolly little dinner some night soon, at the Café Martin, and strengthening her position, as she thought, by an easy allusion to her acquaintance with Mrs. Van Degen. But at the word her companion’s eye clouded, and a shade of constraint dimmed his enterprising smile.

“My wife —? Oh, SHE doesn’t go to restaurants — she moves on too high a plane. But we’ll get old Popp, and Mrs. — Mrs. — what’d you say your fat friend’s name was? Just a select little crowd of four — and some kind of a cheerful show afterward . . . Jove! There’s the curtain, and I must skip.”

As the door closed on him Undine’s cheeks burned with resentment. If Mrs. Van Degen didn’t go to restaurants, why had he supposed that SHE would? and to have to drag Mabel in her wake! The leaden sense of failure overcame her again. Here was the evening nearly over, and what had it led to? Looking up from the stalls, she had fancied that to sit in a box was to be in society — now she saw it might but emphasize one’s exclusion. And she was burdened with the box for the rest of the season! It was really stupid of her father to have exceeded his instructions: why had he not done as she told him? . . . Undine felt helpless and tired . . . hateful memories of Apex crowded back on her. Was it going to be as dreary here as there?

She felt Lipscomb’s loud whisper in her back: “Say, you girls, I guess I’ll cut this and come back for you when the show busts up.” They heard him shuffle out of the box, and Mabel settled back to undisturbed enjoyment of the stage.

When the last entr’acte began Undine stood up, resolved to stay no longer. Mabel, lost in the study of the audience, had not noticed her movement, and as she passed alone into the back of the box the door opened and Ralph Marvell came in.

Undine stood with one arm listlessly raised to detach her cloak from the wall. Her attitude showed the long slimness of her figure and the fresh curve of the throat below her bent-back head. Her face was paler and softer than usual, and the eyes she rested on Marvell’s face looked deep and starry under their fixed brows.

“Oh — you’re not going?” he exclaimed.

“I thought you weren’t coming,” she answered simply.

“I waited till now on purpose to dodge your other visitors.”

She laughed with pleasure. “Oh, we hadn’t so many!”

Some intuition had already told her that frankness was the tone to take with him. They sat down together on the red damask sofa, against the hanging cloaks. As Undine leaned back her hair caught in the spangles of the wrap behind her, and she had to sit motionless while the young man freed the captive mesh. Then they settled themselves again, laughing a little at the incident.

A glance had made the situation clear to Mrs. Lipscomb, and they saw her return to her rapt inspection of the boxes. In their mirror-hung recess the light was subdued to a rosy dimness and the hum of the audience came to them through half-drawn silken curtains. Undine noticed the delicacy and finish of her companion’s features as his head detached itself against the red silk walls. The hand with which he stroked his small moustache was finely-finished too, but sinewy and not effeminate. She had always associated finish and refinement entirely with her own sex, but she began to think they might be even more agreeable in a man. Marvell’s eyes were grey, like her own, with chestnut eyebrows and darker lashes; and his skin was as clear as a woman’s, but pleasantly reddish, like his hands.

As he sat talking in a low tone, questioning her about the music, asking her what she had been doing since he had last seen her, she was aware that he looked at her less than usual, and she also glanced away; but when she turned her eyes suddenly they always met his gaze.

His talk remained impersonal. She was a little disappointed that he did not compliment her on her dress or her hair — Undine was accustomed to hearing a great deal about her hair, and the episode of the spangles had opened the way to a graceful allusion — but the instinct of sex told her that, under his quiet words, he was throbbing with the sense of her proximity. And his self-restraint sobered her, made her refrain from the flashing and fidgeting which were the only way she knew of taking part in the immemorial love-dance. She talked simply and frankly of herself, of her parents, of how few people they knew in New York, and of how, at times, she was almost sorry she had persuaded them to give up Apex.

“You see, they did it entirely on my account; they’re awfully lonesome here; and I don’t believe I shall ever learn New York ways either,” she confessed, turning on him the eyes of youth and truthfulness. “Of course I know a few people; but they’re not — not the way I expected New York people to be.” She risked what seemed an involuntary glance at Mabel. “I’ve seen girls here to-night that I just LONG to know — they look so lovely and refined — but I don’t suppose I ever shall. New York’s not very friendly to strange girls, is it? I suppose you’ve got so many of your own already — and they’re all so fascinating you don’t care!” As she spoke she let her eyes rest on his, half-laughing, half-wistful, and then dropped her lashes while the pink stole slowly up to them.

When he left her he asked if he might hope to find her at home the next day.

The night was fine, and Marvell, having put his cousin into her motor, started to walk home to Washington Square. At the corner he was joined by Mr. Popple. “Hallo, Ralph, old man — did you run across our auburn beauty of the Stentorian? Who’d have thought old Harry Lipscomb’d have put us onto anything as good as that? Peter Van Degen was fairly taken off his feet — pulled me out of Mrs. Monty Thurber’s box and dragged me ‘round by the collar to introduce him. Planning a dinner at Martin’s already. Gad, young Peter must have what he wants WHEN he wants it! I put in a word for you — told him you and I ought to be let in on the ground floor. Funny the luck some girls have about getting started. I believe this one’ll take if she can manage to shake the Lipscombs. I think I’ll ask to paint her; might be a good thing for the spring show. She’d show up splendidly as a PENDANT to my Mrs. Van Degen — Blonde and Brunette . . . Night and Morning . . . Of course I prefer Mrs. Van Degen’s type — personally, I MUST have breeding — but as a mere bit of flesh and blood . . . hallo, ain’t you coming into the club?”

Marvell was not coming into the club, and he drew a long breath of relief as his companion left him.

Was it possible that he had ever thought leniently of the egregious Popple? The tone of social omniscience which he had once found so comic was now as offensive to him as a coarse physical touch. And the worst of it was that Popple, with the slight exaggeration of a caricature, really expressed the ideals of the world he frequented. As he spoke of Miss Spragg, so others at any rate would think of her: almost every one in Ralph’s set would agree that it was luck for a girl from Apex to be started by Peter Van Degen at a Café Martin dinner . . .

Ralph Marvell, mounting his grandfather’s doorstep, looked up at the symmetrical old red house-front, with its frugal marble ornament, as he might have looked into a familiar human face.

“They’re right, — after all, in some ways they’re right,” he murmured, slipping his key into the door.

“They” were his mother and old Mr. Urban Dagonet, both, from Ralph’s earliest memories, so closely identified with the old house in Washington Square that they might have passed for its inner consciousness as it might have stood for their outward form; and the question as to which the house now seemed to affirm their intrinsic rightness was that of the social disintegration expressed by widely-different architectural physiognomies at the other end of Fifth Avenue. As Ralph pushed the bolts behind him, and passed into the hall, with its dark mahogany doors and the quiet “Dutch interior” effect of its black and white marble paving, he said to himself that what Popple called society was really just like the houses it lived in: a muddle of misapplied ornament over a thin steel shell of utility. The steel shell was built up in Wall Street, the social trimmings were hastily added in Fifth Avenue; and the union between them was as monstrous and factitious, as unlike the gradual homogeneous growth which flowers into what other countries know as society, as that between the Blois gargoyles on Peter Van Degen’s roof and the skeleton walls supporting them.

That was what “they” had always said; what, at least, the Dagonet attitude, the Dagonet view of life, the very lines of the furniture in the old Dagonet house expressed. Ralph sometimes called his mother and grandfather the Aborigines, and likened them to those vanishing denizens of the American continent doomed to rapid extinction with the advance of the invading race. He was fond of describing Washington Square as the “Reservation,” and of prophesying that before long its inhabitants would be exhibited at ethnological shows, pathetically engaged in the exercise of their primitive industries.

Small, cautious, middle-class, had been the ideals of aboriginal New York; but it suddenly struck the young man that they were singularly coherent and respectable as contrasted with the chaos of indiscriminate appetites which made up its modern tendencies. He too had wanted to be “modern,” had revolted, half-humorously, against the restrictions and exclusions of the old code; and it must have been by one of the ironic reversions of heredity that, at this precise point, he began to see what there was to be said on the other side — his side, as he now felt it to be.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/custom_of_the_country/chapter5.html

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