The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

VII

Some two months later than the date of young Marvell’s midnight vigil, Mrs. Heeny, seated on a low chair at Undine’s knee, gave the girl’s left hand an approving pat as she laid aside her lapful of polishers.

“There! I guess you can put your ring on again,” she said with a laugh of jovial significance; and Undine, echoing the laugh in a murmur of complacency, slipped on the fourth finger of her recovered hand a band of sapphires in an intricate setting.

Mrs. Heeny took up the hand again. “Them’s old stones, Undine — they’ve got a different look,” she said, examining the ring while she rubbed her cushioned palm over the girl’s brilliant finger-tips. “And the setting’s quaint — I wouldn’t wonder but what it was one of old Gran’ma Dagonet’s.”

Mrs. Spragg, hovering near in fond beatitude, looked up quickly.

“Why, don’t you s’pose he BOUGHT it for her, Mrs. Heeny? It came in a Tiff’ny box.”

The manicure laughed again. “Of course he’s had Tiff’ny rub it up. Ain’t you ever heard of ancestral jewels, Mrs. Spragg? In the Eu-ropean aristocracy they never go out and BUY engagement-rings; and Undine’s marrying into our aristocracy.”

Mrs. Spragg looked relieved. “Oh, I thought maybe they were trying to scrimp on the ring — ”

Mrs. Heeny, shrugging away this explanation, rose from her seat and rolled back her shiny black sleeves.

“Look at here, Undine, if you really want me to do your hair it’s time we got to work.”

The girl swung about in her seat so that she faced the mirror on the dressing-table. Her shoulders shone through transparencies of lace and muslin which slipped back as she lifted her arms to draw the tortoise-shell pins from her hair.

“Of course you’ve got to do it — I want to look perfectly lovely!”

“Well — I dunno’s my hand’s in nowadays,” said Mrs. Heeny in a tone that belied the doubt she cast on her own ability.

“Oh, you’re an ARTIST, Mrs. Heeny — and I just couldn’t have had that French maid ‘round to-night,” sighed Mrs. Spragg, sinking into a chair near the dressing-table.

Undine, with a backward toss of her head, scattered her loose locks about her. As they spread and sparkled under Mrs. Heeny’s touch, Mrs. Spragg leaned back, drinking in through half-closed lids her daughter’s loveliness. Some new quality seemed added to Undine’s beauty: it had a milder bloom, a kind of melting grace, which might have been lent to it by the moisture in her mother’s eyes.

“So you’re to see the old gentleman for the first time at this dinner?” Mrs. Heeny pursued, sweeping the live strands up into a loosely woven crown.

“Yes. I’m frightened to death!” Undine, laughing confidently, took up a hand-glass and scrutinized the small brown mole above the curve of her upper lip.

“I guess she’ll know how to talk to him,” Mrs. Spragg averred with a kind of quavering triumph.

“She’ll know how to LOOK at him, anyhow,” said Mrs. Heeny; and Undine smiled at her own image.

“I hope he won’t think I’m too awful!”

Mrs. Heeny laughed. “Did you read the description of yourself in the Radiator this morning? I wish’t I’d ‘a had time to cut it out. I guess I’ll have to start a separate bag for YOUR clippings soon.”

Undine stretched her arms luxuriously above her head and gazed through lowered lids at the foreshortened reflection of her face.

“Mercy! Don’t jerk about like that. Am I to put in this rose? — There — you ARE lovely!” Mrs. Heeny sighed, as the pink petals sank into the hair above the girl’s forehead. Undine pushed her chair back, and sat supporting her chin on her clasped hands while she studied the result of Mrs. Heeny’s manipulations.

“Yes — that’s the way Mrs. Peter Van Degen’s flower was put in the other night; only hers was a camellia. — Do you think I’d look better with a camellia?”

“I guess if Mrs. Van Degen looked like a rose she’d ‘a worn a rose,” Mrs. Heeny rejoined poetically. “Sit still a minute longer,” she added. “Your hair’s so heavy I’d feel easier if I was to put in another pin.”

Undine remained motionless, and the manicure, suddenly laying both hands on the girl’s shoulders, and bending over to peer at her reflection, said playfully: “Ever been engaged before, Undine?”

A blush rose to the face in the mirror, spreading from chin to brow, and running rosily over the white shoulders from which their covering had slipped down.

“My! If he could see you now!” Mrs. Heeny jested.

Mrs. Spragg, rising noiselessly, glided across the room and became lost in a minute examination of the dress laid out on the bed.

With a supple twist Undine slipped from Mrs. Heeny’s hold.

“Engaged? Mercy, yes! Didn’t you know? To the Prince of Wales. I broke it off because I wouldn’t live in the Tower.”

Mrs. Spragg, lifting the dress cautiously over her arm, advanced with a reassured smile.

“I s’pose Undie’ll go to Europe now,” she said to Mrs. Heeny.

“I guess Undie WILL!” the young lady herself declared. “We’re going to sail right afterward. — Here, mother, do be careful of my hair!” She ducked gracefully to slip into the lacy fabric which her mother held above her head. As she rose Venus-like above its folds there was a tap on the door, immediately followed by its tentative opening.

“Mabel!” Undine muttered, her brows lowering like her father’s; and Mrs. Spragg, wheeling about to screen her daughter, addressed herself protestingly to the half-open door.

“Who’s there? Oh, that YOU, Mrs. Lipscomb? Well, I don’t know as you CAN— Undie isn’t half dressed yet — ”

“Just like her — always pushing in!” Undine murmured as she slipped her arms into their transparent sleeves.

“Oh, that don’t matter — I’ll help dress her!” Mrs. Lipscomb’s large blond person surged across the threshold. “Seems to me I ought to lend a hand to-night, considering I was the one that introduced them!”

Undine forced a smile, but Mrs. Spragg, her soft wrinkles deepening with resentment, muttered to Mrs. Heeny, as she bent down to shake out the girl’s train: “I guess my daughter’s only got to show herself — ”

The first meeting with old Mr. Dagonet was less formidable than Undine had expected. She had been once before to the house in Washington Square, when, with her mother, she had returned Mrs. Marvell’s ceremonial visit; but on that occasion Ralph’s grandfather had not been present. All the rites connected with her engagement were new and mysterious to Undine, and none more so than the unaccountable necessity of “dragging” — as she phrased it — Mrs. Spragg into the affair. It was an accepted article of the Apex creed that parental detachment should be completest at the moment when the filial fate was decided; and to find that New York reversed this rule was as puzzling to Undine as to her mother. Mrs. Spragg was so unprepared for the part she was to play that on the occasion of her visit to Mrs. Marvell her helplessness had infected Undine, and their half-hour in the sober faded drawing-room remained among the girl’s most unsatisfactory memories.

She re-entered it alone with more assurance. Her confidence in her beauty had hitherto carried her through every ordeal; and it was fortified now by the feeling of power that came with the sense of being loved. If they would only leave her mother out she was sure, in her own phrase, of being able to “run the thing”; and Mrs. Spragg had providentially been left out of the Dagonet dinner.

It was to consist, it appeared, only of the small family group Undine had already met; and, seated at old Mr. Dagonet’s right, in the high dark dining-room with mahogany doors and dim portraits of “Signers” and their females, she felt a conscious joy in her ascendancy. Old Mr. Dagonet — small, frail and softly sardonic — appeared to fall at once under her spell. If she felt, beneath his amenity, a kind of delicate dangerousness, like that of some fine surgical instrument, she ignored it as unimportant; for she had as yet no clear perception of forces that did not directly affect her.

Mrs. Marvell, low-voiced, faded, yet impressive, was less responsive to her arts, and Undine divined in her the head of the opposition to Ralph’s marriage. Mrs. Heeny had reported that Mrs. Marvell had other views for her son; and this was confirmed by such echoes of the short sharp struggle as reached the throbbing listeners at the Stentorian. But the conflict over, the air had immediately cleared, showing the enemy in the act of unconditional surrender. It surprised Undine that there had been no reprisals, no return on the points conceded. That was not her idea of warfare, and she could ascribe the completeness of the victory only to the effect of her charms.

Mrs. Marvell’s manner did not express entire subjugation; yet she seemed anxious to dispel any doubts of her good faith, and if she left the burden of the talk to her lively daughter it might have been because she felt more capable of showing indulgence by her silence than in her speech.

As for Mrs. Fairford, she had never seemed more brilliantly bent on fusing the various elements under her hand. Undine had already discovered that she adored her brother, and had guessed that this would make her either a strong ally or a determined enemy. The latter alternative, however, did not alarm the girl. She thought Mrs. Fairford “bright,” and wanted to be liked by her; and she was in the state of dizzy self-assurance when it seemed easy to win any sympathy she chose to seek.

For the only other guests — Mrs. Fairford’s husband, and the elderly Charles Bowen who seemed to be her special friend — Undine had no attention to spare: they remained on a plane with the dim pictures hanging at her back. She had expected a larger party; but she was relieved, on the whole, that it was small enough to permit of her dominating it. Not that she wished to do so by any loudness of assertion. Her quickness in noting external differences had already taught her to modulate and lower her voice, and to replace “The I-dea!” and “I wouldn’t wonder” by more polished locutions; and she had not been ten minutes at table before she found that to seem very much in love, and a little confused and subdued by the newness and intensity of the sentiment, was, to the Dagonet mind, the becoming attitude for a young lady in her situation. The part was not hard to play, for she WAS in love, of course. It was pleasant, when she looked across the table, to meet Ralph’s grey eyes, with that new look in them, and to feel that she had kindled it; but I it was only part of her larger pleasure in the general homage to her beauty, in the sensations of interest and curiosity excited by everything about her, from the family portraits overhead to the old Dagonet silver on the table — which were to be hers too, after all!

The talk, as at Mrs. Fairford’s, confused her by its lack of the personal allusion, its tendency to turn to books, pictures and politics. “Politics,” to Undine, had always been like a kind of back-kitchen to business — the place where the refuse was thrown and the doubtful messes were brewed. As a drawing-room topic, and one to provoke disinterested sentiments, it had the hollowness of Fourth of July orations, and her mind wandered in spite of the desire to appear informed and competent.

Old Mr. Dagonet, with his reedy staccato voice, that gave polish and relief to every syllable, tried to come to her aid by questioning her affably about her family and the friends she had made in New York. But the caryatid-parent, who exists simply as a filial prop, is not a fruitful theme, and Undine, called on for the first time to view her own progenitors as a subject of conversation, was struck by their lack of points. She had never paused to consider what her father and mother were “interested” in, and, challenged to specify, could have named — with sincerity — only herself. On the subject of her New York friends it was not much easier to enlarge; for so far her circle had grown less rapidly than she expected. She had fancied Ralph’s wooing would at once admit her to all his social privileges; but he had shown a puzzling reluctance to introduce her to the Van Degen set, where he came and went with such familiarity; and the persons he seemed anxious to have her know — a few frumpy “clever women” of his sister’s age, and one or two brisk old ladies in shabby houses with mahogany furniture and Stuart portraits — did not offer the opportunities she sought.

“Oh, I don’t know many people yet — I tell Ralph he’s got to hurry up and take me round,” she said to Mr. Dagonet, with a side-sparkle for Ralph, whose gaze, between the flowers and lights, she was aware of perpetually drawing.

“My daughter will take you — you must know his mother’s friends,” the old gentleman rejoined while Mrs. Marvell smiled noncommittally.

“But you have a great friend of your own — the lady who takes you into society,” Mr. Dagonet pursued; and Undine had the sense that the irrepressible Mabel was again “pushing in.”

“Oh, yes — Mabel Lipscomb. We were school-mates,” she said indifferently.

“Lipscomb? Lipscomb? What is Mr. Lipscomb’s occupation?”

“He’s a broker,” said Undine, glad to be able to place her friend’s husband in so handsome a light. The subtleties of a professional classification unknown to Apex had already taught her that in New York it is more distinguished to be a broker than a dentist; and she was surprised at Mr. Dagonet’s lack of enthusiasm.

“Ah? A broker?” He said it almost as Popple might have said “A DENTIST?” and Undine found herself astray in a new labyrinth of social distinctions. She felt a sudden contempt for Harry Lipscomb, who had already struck her as too loud, and irrelevantly comic. “I guess Mabel’ll get a divorce pretty soon,” she added, desiring, for personal reasons, to present Mrs. Lipscomb as favourably as possible.

Mr. Dagonet’s handsome eye-brows drew together. “A divorce? H’m — that’s bad. Has he been misbehaving himself?”

Undine looked innocently surprised. “Oh, I guess not. They like each other well enough. But he’s been a disappointment to her. He isn’t in the right set, and I think Mabel realizes she’ll never really get anywhere till she gets rid of him.”

These words, uttered in the high fluting tone that she rose to when sure of her subject, fell on a pause which prolonged and deepened itself to receive them, while every face at the table, Ralph Marvell’s excepted, reflected in varying degree Mr. Dagonet’s pained astonishment.

“But, my dear young lady — what would your friend’s situation be if, as you put it, she ‘got rid’ of her husband on so trivial a pretext?”

Undine, surprised at his dullness, tried to explain. “Oh that wouldn’t be the reason GIVEN, of course. Any lawyer could fix it up for them. Don’t they generally call it desertion?”

There was another, more palpitating, silence, broken by a laugh from Ralph.

“RALPH!” his mother breathed; then, turning to Undine, she said with a constrained smile: “I believe in certain parts of the country such — unfortunate arrangements — are beginning to be tolerated. But in New York, in spite of our growing indifference, a divorced woman is still — thank heaven! — at a decided disadvantage.”

Undine’s eyes opened wide. Here at last was a topic that really interested her, and one that gave another amazing glimpse into the camera obscura of New York society. “Do you mean to say Mabel would be worse off, then? Couldn’t she even go round as much as she does now?”

Mrs. Marvell met this gravely. “It would depend, I should say, on the kind of people she wished to see.”

“Oh, the very best, of course! That would be her only object.”

Ralph interposed with another laugh. “You see, Undine, you’d better think twice before you divorce me!”

“RALPH!” his mother again breathed; but the girl, flushed and sparkling, flung back: “Oh, it all depends on YOU! Out in Apex, if a girl marries a man who don’t come up to what she expected, people consider it’s to her credit to want to change. YOU’D better think twice of that!”

“If I were only sure of knowing what you expect!” he caught up her joke, tossing it back at her across the fascinated silence of their listeners.

“Why, EVERYTHING!” she announced — and Mr. Dagonet, turning, laid an intricately-veined old hand on, hers, and said, with a change of tone that relaxed the tension of the listeners: “My child, if you look like that you’ll get it.”

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