The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

VIII

It was doubtless owing to Mrs. Fairford’s foresight that such possibilities of tension were curtailed, after dinner, by her carrying off Ralph and his betrothed to the theatre.

Mr. Dagonet, it was understood, always went to bed after an hour’s whist with his daughter; and the silent Mr. Fairford gave his evenings to bridge at his club. The party, therefore, consisted only of Undine and Ralph, with Mrs. Fairford and her attendant friend. Undine vaguely wondered why the grave and grey-haired Mr. Bowen formed so invariable a part of that lady’s train; but she concluded that it was the York custom for married ladies to have gentlemen “‘round” (as girls had in Apex), and that Mr. Bowen was the sole survivor of Laura Fairford’s earlier triumphs.

She had, however, little time to give to such conjectures, for the performance they were attending — the debut of a fashionable London actress — had attracted a large audience in which Undine immediately recognized a number of familiar faces. Her engagement had been announced only the day before, and she had the delicious sense of being “in all the papers,” and of focussing countless glances of interest and curiosity as she swept through the theatre in Mrs. Fairford’s wake. Their stalls were near the stage, and progress thither was slow enough to permit of prolonged enjoyment of this sensation. Before passing to her place she paused for Ralph to remove her cloak, and as he lifted it from her shoulders she heard a lady say behind her: “There she is — the one in white, with the lovely back — ” and a man answer: “Gad! Where did he find anything as good as that?”

Anonymous approval was sweet enough; but she was to taste a moment more exquisite when, in the proscenium box across the house, she saw Clare Van Degen seated beside the prim figure of Miss Harriet Ray. “They’re here to see me with him — they hate it, but they couldn’t keep away!” She turned and lifted a smile of possessorship to Ralph. Mrs. Fairford seemed also struck by the presence Of the two ladies, and Undine heard her whisper to Mr. Bowen: “Do you see Clare over there — and Harriet with her? Harriet WOULD COME— I call it Spartan! And so like Clare to ask her!”

Her companion laughed. “It’s one of the deepest instincts in human nature. The murdered are as much given as the murderer to haunting the scene of the crime.”

Doubtless guessing Ralph’s desire to have Undine to himself, Mrs. Fairford had sent the girl in first; and Undine, as she seated herself, was aware that the occupant of the next stall half turned to her, as with a vague gesture of recognition. But just then the curtain rose, and she became absorbed in the development of the drama, especially as it tended to display the remarkable toilets which succeeded each other on the person of its leading lady. Undine, seated at Ralph Marvell’s side, and feeling the thrill of his proximity as a subtler element in the general interest she was exciting, was at last repaid for the disappointment of her evening at the opera. It was characteristic of her that she remembered her failures as keenly as her triumphs, and that the passionate desire to obliterate, to “get even” with them, was always among the latent incentives of her conduct. Now at last she was having what she wanted — she was in conscious possession of the “real thing”; and through her other, diffused, sensations Ralph’s adoration gave her such a last refinement of pleasure as might have come to some warrior Queen borne in triumph by captive princes, and reading in the eyes of one the passion he dared not speak. When the curtain fell this vague enjoyment was heightened by various acts of recognition. All the people she wanted to “go with,” as they said in Apex, seemed to be about her in the stalls and boxes; and her eyes continued to revert with special satisfaction to the incongruous group formed by Mrs. Peter Van Degen and Miss Ray. The sight made it irresistible to whisper to Ralph: “You ought to go round and talk to your cousin. Have you told her we’re engaged?”

“Clare? of course. She’s going to call on you tomorrow.”

“Oh, she needn’t put herself out — she’s never been yet,” said Undine loftily.

He made no rejoinder, but presently asked: “Who’s that you’re waving to?”

“Mr. Popple. He’s coming round to see us. You know he wants to paint me.” Undine fluttered and beamed as the brilliant Popple made his way across the stalls to the seat which her neighbour had momentarily left.

“First-rate chap next to you — whoever he is — to give me this chance,” the artist declared. “Ha, Ralph, my boy, how did you pull it off? That’s what we’re all of us wondering.” He leaned over to give Marvell’s hand the ironic grasp of celibacy. “Well, you’ve left us lamenting: he has, you know. Miss Spragg. But I’ve got one pull over the others — I can paint you! He can’t forbid that, can he? Not before marriage, anyhow!”

Undine divided her shining glances between the two. “I guess he isn’t going to treat me any different afterward,” she proclaimed with joyous defiance.

“Ah, well, there’s no telling, you know. Hadn’t we better begin at once? Seriously, I want awfully to get you into the spring show.”

“Oh, really? That would be too lovely!”

“YOU would be, certainly — the way I mean to do you. But I see Ralph getting glum. Cheer up, my dear fellow; I daresay you’ll be invited to some of the sittings — that’s for Miss Spragg to say. — Ah, here comes your neighbour back, confound him — You’ll let me know when we can begin?”

As Popple moved away Undine turned eagerly to Marvell. “Do you suppose there’s time? I’d love to have him to do me!”

Ralph smiled. “My poor child — he WOULD ‘do’ you, with a vengeance. Infernal cheek, his asking you to sit — ”

She stared. “But why? He’s painted your cousin, and all the smart women.”

“Oh, if a ‘smart’ portrait’s all you want!”

“I want what the others want,” she answered, frowning and pouting a little. She was already beginning to resent in Ralph the slightest sign of resistance to her pleasure; and her resentment took the form — a familiar one in Apex courtships — of turning on him, in the next entr’acte, a deliberately averted shoulder. The result of this was to bring her, for the first time, in more direct relation to her other neighbour. As she turned he turned too, showing her, above a shining shirt-front fastened with a large imitation pearl, a ruddy plump snub face without an angle in it, which yet looked sharper than a razor. Undine’s eyes met his with a startled look, and for a long moment they remained suspended on each other’s stare.

Undine at length shrank back with an unrecognizing face; but her movement made her opera-glass slip to the floor, and her neighbour bent down and picked it up.

“Well — don’t you know me yet?” he said with a slight smile, as he restored the glass to her.

She had grown white to the lips, and when she tried to speak the effort produced only a faint click in her throat. She felt that the change in her appearance must be visible, and the dread of letting Marvell see it made her continue to turn her ravaged face to her other neighbour. The round black eyes set prominently in the latter’s round glossy countenance had expressed at first only an impersonal and slightly ironic interest; but a look of surprise grew in them as Undine’s silence continued.

“What’s the matter? Don’t you want me to speak to you?”

She became aware that Marvell, as if unconscious of her slight show of displeasure, had left his seat, and was making his way toward the aisle; and this assertion of independence, which a moment before she would so deeply have resented, now gave her a feeling of intense relief.

“No — don’t speak to me, please. I’ll tell you another time — I’ll write.” Her neighbour continued to gaze at her, forming his lips into a noiseless whistle under his small dark moustache.

“Well, I— That’s about the stiffest,” he murmured; and as she made no answer he added: “Afraid I’ll ask to be introduced to your friend?”

She made a faint movement of entreaty. “I can’t explain. I promise to see you; but I ASK you not to talk to me now.”

He unfolded his programme, and went on speaking in a low tone while he affected to study it. “Anything to oblige, of course. That’s always been my motto. But is it a bargain — fair and square? You’ll see me?”

She receded farther from him. “I promise. I— I WANT to,” she faltered.

“All right, then. Call me up in the morning at the Driscoll Building. Seven-o-nine — got it?”

She nodded, and he added in a still lower tone: “I suppose I can congratulate you, anyhow?” and then, without waiting for her reply, turned to study Mrs. Van Degen’s box through his opera-glass. Clare, as if aware of the scrutiny fixed on her from below leaned back and threw a question over her shoulder to Ralph Marvell, who had just seated himself behind her.

“Who’s the funny man with the red face talking to Miss Spragg?”

Ralph bent forward. “The man next to her? Never saw him before. But I think you’re mistaken: she’s not speaking to him.”

“She WAS— Wasn’t she, Harriet?”

Miss Ray pinched her lips together without speaking, and Mrs. Van Degen paused for the fraction of a second. “Perhaps he’s an Apex friend,” she then suggested.

“Very likely. Only I think she’d have introduced him if he had been.”

His cousin faintly shrugged. “Shall you encourage that?”

Peter Van Degen, who had strayed into his wife’s box for a moment, caught the colloquy, and lifted his opera-glass.

“The fellow next to Miss Spragg? (By George, Ralph, she’s ripping to-night!) Wait a minute — I know his face. Saw him in old Harmon Driscoll’s office the day of the Eubaw Mine meeting. This chap’s his secretary, or something. Driscoll called him in to give some facts to the directors, and he seemed a mighty wide-awake customer.”

Clare Van Degen turned gaily to her cousin. “If he has anything to do with the Driscolls you’d better cultivate him! That’s the kind of acquaintance the Dagonets have always needed. I married to set them an example!”

Ralph rose with a laugh. “You’re right. I’ll hurry back and make his acquaintance.” He held out his hand to his cousin, avoiding her disappointed eyes.

Undine, on entering her bedroom late that evening, was startled by the presence of a muffled figure which revealed itself, through the dimness, as the ungirded midnight outline of Mrs. Spragg.

“MOTHER? What on earth —?” the girl exclaimed, as Mrs. Spragg pressed the electric button and flooded the room with light. The idea of a mother’s sitting up for her daughter was so foreign to Apex customs that it roused only mistrust and irritation in the object of the demonstration.

Mrs. Spragg came forward deprecatingly to lift the cloak from her daughter’s shoulders.

“I just HAD to, Undie — I told father I HAD to. I wanted to hear all about it.”

Undine shrugged away from her. “Mercy! At this hour? You’ll be as white as a sheet to-morrow, sitting up all night like this.”

She moved toward the toilet-table, and began to demolish with feverish hands the structure which Mrs. Heeny, a few hours earlier, had so lovingly raised. But the rose caught in a mesh of hair, and Mrs. Spragg, venturing timidly to release it, had a full view of her daughter’s face in the glass.

“Why, Undie, YOU’RE as white as a sheet now! You look fairly sick. What’s the matter, daughter?”

The girl broke away from her.

“Oh, can’t you leave me alone, mother? There — do I look white NOW?” she cried, the blood flaming into her pale cheeks; and as Mrs. Spragg shrank back, she added more mildly, in the tone of a parent rebuking a persistent child: “It’s enough to MAKE anybody sick to be stared at that way!”

Mrs. Spragg overflowed with compunction. “I’m so sorry, Undie. I guess it was just seeing you in this glare of light.”

“Yes — the light’s awful; do turn some off,” ordered Undine, for whom, ordinarily, no radiance was too strong; and Mrs. Spragg, grateful to have commands laid upon her, hastened to obey.

Undine, after this, submitted in brooding silence to having her dress unlaced, and her slippers and dressing-gown brought to her. Mrs. Spragg visibly yearned to say more, but she restrained the impulse lest it should provoke her dismissal.

“Won’t you take just a sup of milk before you go to bed?” she suggested at length, as Undine sank into an armchair.

“I’ve got some for you right here in the parlour.”

Without looking up the girl answered: “No. I don’t want anything. Do go to bed.”

Her mother seemed to be struggling between the life-long instinct of obedience and a swift unformulated fear. “I’m going, Undie.” She wavered. “Didn’t they receive you right, daughter?” she asked with sudden resolution.

“What nonsense! How should they receive me? Everybody was lovely to me.” Undine rose to her feet and went on with her undressing, tossing her clothes on the floor and shaking her hair over her bare shoulders.

Mrs. Spragg stooped to gather up the scattered garments as they fell, folding them with a wistful caressing touch, and laying them on the lounge, without daring to raise her eyes to her daughter. It was not till she heard Undine throw herself on the bed that she went toward her and drew the coverlet up with deprecating hands.

“Oh, do put the light out — I’m dead tired,” the girl grumbled, pressing her face into the pillow.

Mrs. Spragg turned away obediently; then, gathering all her scattered impulses into a passionate act of courage, she moved back to the bedside.

“Undie — you didn’t see anybody — I mean at the theatre? ANYBODY YOU DIDN’T WANT TO SEE?”

Undine, at the question, raised her head and started right against the tossed pillows, her white exasperated face close to her mother’s twitching features. The two women examined each other a moment, fear and anger in their crossed glances; then Undine answered: “No, nobody. Good-night.”

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