Part 3 out of 8
of continental idleness. Foremost among them was Mrs. Harvey Shallum,
a showy Parisianized figure, with a small wax-featured husband whose
ultra-fashionable clothes seemed a tribute to his wife's importance
rather than the mark of his personal taste. Mr. Shallum, in fact, could
not be said to have any personal bent. Though he conversed with a
colourless fluency in the principal European tongues, he seldom
exercised his gift except in intercourse with hotel-managers and
head-waiters; and his long silences were broken only by resigned
allusions to the enormities he had suffered at the hands of this gifted
but unscrupulous class.
Mrs. Shallum, though in command of but a few verbs, all of which, on her
lips, became irregular, managed to express a polyglot personality as
vivid as her husband's was effaced. Her only idea of intercourse with
her kind was to organize it into bands and subject it to frequent
displacements; and society smiled at her for these exertions like an
infant vigorously rocked. She saw at once Undine's value as a factor in
her scheme, and the two formed an alliance on which Ralph refrained from
shedding the cold light of depreciation. It was a point of honour
with him not to seem to disdain any of Undine's amusements: the noisy
interminable picnics, the hot promiscuous balls, the concerts,
bridge-parties and theatricals which helped to disguise the difference
between the high Alps and Paris or New York. He told himself that there
is always a Narcissus-element in youth, and that what Undine really
enjoyed was the image of her own charm mirrored in the general
admiration. With her quick perceptions and adaptabilities she would soon
learn to care more about the quality of the reflecting surface; and
meanwhile no criticism of his should mar her pleasure.
The appearance at their hotel of the cavalry-officer from Siena was a
not wholly agreeable surprise; but even after the handsome Marquis had
been introduced to Undine, and had whirled her through an evening's
dances, Ralph was not seriously disturbed. Husband and wife had grown
closer to each other since they had come to St. Moritz, and in the brief
moments she could give him Undine was now always gay and approachable.
Her fitful humours had vanished, and she showed qualities of comradeship
that seemed the promise of a deeper understanding. But this very hope
made him more subject to her moods, more fearful of disturbing the
harmony between them. Least of all could he broach the subject of money:
he had too keen a memory of the way her lips could narrow, and her eyes
turn from him as if he were a stranger.
It was a different matter that one day brought the look he feared to her
face. She had announced her intention of going on an excursion with Mrs.
Shallum and three or four of the young men who formed the nucleus of
their shifting circle, and for the first time she did not ask Ralph if
he were coming; but he felt no resentment at being left out. He was
tired of these noisy assaults on the high solitudes, and the prospect
of a quiet afternoon turned his thoughts to his book. Now if ever there
seemed a chance of recapturing the moonlight vision...
From his balcony he looked down on the assembling party. Mrs. Shallum
was already screaming bilingually at various windows in the long facade;
and Undine presently came out of the hotel with the Marchese Roviano and
two young English diplomatists. Slim and tall in her trim mountain
garb, she made the ornate Mrs. Shallum look like a piece of ambulant
upholstery. The high air brightened her cheeks and struck new lights
from her hair, and Ralph had never seen her so touched with morning
freshness. The party was not yet complete, and he felt a movement of
annoyance when he recognized, in the last person to join it, a Russian
lady of cosmopolitan notoriety whom he had run across in his unmarried
days, and as to whom he had already warned Undine. Knowing what
strange specimens from the depths slip through the wide meshes of the
watering-place world, he had foreseen that a meeting with the Baroness
Adelschein was inevitable; but he had not expected her to become one of
his wife's intimate circle.
When the excursionists had started he turned back to his writing-table
and tried to take up his work; but he could not fix his thoughts:
they were far away, in pursuit of Undine. He had been but five months
married, and it seemed, after all, rather soon for him to be dropped out
of such excursions as unquestioningly as poor Harvey Shallum. He smiled
away this first twinge of jealousy, but the irritation it left found
a pretext in his displeasure at Undine's choice of companions. Mrs.
Shallum grated on his taste, but she was as open to inspection as
a shop-window, and he was sure that time would teach his wife the
cheapness of what she had to show. Roviano and the Englishmen were well
enough too: frankly bent on amusement, but pleasant and well-bred. But
they would naturally take their tone from the women they were with;
and Madame Adelschein's tone was notorious. He knew also that Undine's
faculty of self-defense was weakened by the instinct of adapting herself
to whatever company she was in, of copying "the others" in speech and
gesture as closely as she reflected them in dress; and he was disturbed
by the thought of what her ignorance might expose her to.
She came back late, flushed with her long walk, her face all sparkle and
mystery, as he had seen it in the first days of their courtship; and the
look somehow revived his irritated sense of having been intentionally
left out of the party.
"You've been gone forever. Was it the Adelschein who made you go such
lengths?" he asked her, trying to keep to his usual joking tone.
Undine, as she dropped down on the sofa and unpinned her hat, shed on
him the light of her guileless gaze.
"I don't know: everybody was amusing. The Marquis is awfully bright."
"I'd no idea you or Bertha Shallum knew Madame Adelschein well enough to
take her off with you in that way."
Undine sat absently smoothing the tuft of glossy cock's-feathers in her
"I don't see that you've got to know people particularly well to go for
a walk with them. The Baroness is awfully bright too."
She always gave her acquaintances their titles, seeming not, in this
respect, to have noticed that a simpler form prevailed.
"I don't dispute the interest of what she says; but I've told you what
decent people think of what she does," Ralph retorted, exasperated by
what seemed a wilful pretense of ignorance.
She continued to scrutinize him with her clear eyes, in which there was
no shadow of offense.
"You mean they don't want to go round with her? You're mistaken: it's
not true. She goes round with everybody. She dined last night with the
Grand Duchess; Roviano told me so."
This was not calculated to make Ralph take a more tolerant view of the
"Does he also tell you what's said of her?"
"What's said of her?" Undine's limpid glance rebuked him. "Do you mean
that disgusting scandal you told me about? Do you suppose I'd let him
talk to me about such things? I meant you're mistaken about her social
position. He says she goes everywhere."
Ralph laughed impatiently. "No doubt Roviano's an authority; but it
doesn't happen to be his business to choose your friends for you."
Undine echoed his laugh. "Well, I guess I don't need anybody to do that:
I can do it myself," she said, with the good-humoured curtness that was
the habitual note of intercourse with the Spraggs.
Ralph sat down beside her and laid a caressing touch on her shoulder.
"No, you can't, you foolish child. You know nothing of this society
you're in; of its antecedents, its rules, its conventions; and it's my
affair to look after you, and warn you when you're on the wrong track."
"Mercy, what a solemn speech!" She shrugged away his hand without
ill-temper. "I don't believe an American woman needs to know such a lot
about their old rules. They can see I mean to follow my own, and if they
don't like it they needn't go with me."
"Oh, they'll go with you fast enough, as you call it. They'll be too
charmed to. The question is how far they'll make you go with THEM, and
where they'll finally land you."
She tossed her head back with the movement she had learned in "speaking"
school-pieces about freedom and the British tyrant.
"No one's ever yet gone any farther with me than I wanted!" she
declared. She was really exquisitely simple.
"I'm not sure Roviano hasn't, in vouching for Madame Adelschein. But he
probably thinks you know about her. To him this isn't 'society' any more
than the people in an omnibus are. Society, to everybody here, means
the sanction of their own special group and of the corresponding groups
elsewhere. The Adelschein goes about in a place like this because it's
nobody's business to stop her; but the women who tolerate her here would
drop her like a shot if she set foot on their own ground."
The thoughtful air with which Undine heard him out made him fancy this
argument had carried; and as be ended she threw him a bright look.
"Well, that's easy enough: I can drop her if she comes to New York."
Ralph sat silent for a moment--then he turned away and began to gather
up his scattered pages.
Undine, in the ensuing days, was no less often with Madame Adelschein,
and Ralph suspected a challenge in her open frequentation of the lady.
But if challenge there were, he let it lie. Whether his wife saw more or
less of Madame Adelschein seemed no longer of much consequence: she had
so amply shown him her ability to protect herself. The pang lay in the
completeness of the proof--in the perfect functioning of her instinct
of self-preservation. For the first time he was face to face with his
hovering dread: he was judging where he still adored.
Before long more pressing cares absorbed him. He had already begun to
watch the post for his father-in-law's monthly remittance, without
precisely knowing how, even with its aid, he was to bridge the gulf of
expense between St. Moritz and New York. The non-arrival of Mr. Spragg's
cheque was productive of graver tears, and these were abruptly confirmed
when, coming in one afternoon, he found Undine crying over a letter from
Her distress made him fear that Mr. Spragg was ill, and he drew her to
him soothingly; but she broke away with an impatient movement.
"Oh, they're all well enough--but father's lost a lot of money. He's
been speculating, and he can't send us anything for at least three
Ralph murmured reassuringly: "As long as there's no one ill!"--but in
reality he was following her despairing gaze down the long perspective
of their barren quarter.
"Three months! Three months!"
Undine dried her eyes, and sat with set lips and tapping foot while he
read her mother's letter.
"Your poor father! It's a hard knock for him. I'm sorry," he said as he
handed it back.
For a moment she did not seem to hear; then she said between her teeth:
"It's hard for US. I suppose now we'll have to go straight home."
He looked at her with wonder. "If that were all! In any case I should
have to be back in a few weeks."
"But we needn't have left here in August! It's the first place in Europe
that I've liked, and it's just my luck to be dragged away from it!"
"I'm so awfully sorry, dearest. It's my fault for persuading you to
marry a pauper."
"It's father's fault. Why on earth did he go and speculate? There's no
use his saying he's sorry now!" She sat brooding for a moment and then
suddenly took Ralph's hand. "Couldn't your people do something--help us
out just this once, I mean?"
He flushed to the forehead: it seemed inconceivable that she should make
such a suggestion.
"I couldn't ask them--it's not possible. My grandfather does as much as
he can for me, and my mother has nothing but what he gives her."
Undine seemed unconscious of his embarrassment. "He doesn't give us
nearly as much as father does," she said; and, as Ralph remained silent,
she went on:
"Couldn't you ask your sister, then? I must have some clothes to go home
His heart contracted as he looked at her. What sinister change came
over her when her will was crossed? She seemed to grow inaccessible,
implacable--her eyes were like the eyes of an enemy.
"I don't know--I'll see," he said, rising and moving away from her.
At that moment the touch of her hand was repugnant. Yes--he might ask
Laura, no doubt: and whatever she had would be his. But the necessity
was bitter to him, and Undine's unconsciousness of the fact hurt him
more than her indifference to her father's misfortune.
What hurt him most was the curious fact that, for all her light
irresponsibility, it was always she who made the practical suggestion,
hit the nail of expediency on the head. No sentimental scruple made the
blow waver or deflected her resolute aim. She had thought at once of
Laura, and Laura was his only, his inevitable, resource. His anxious
mind pictured his sister's wonder, and made him wince under the sting of
Henley Fairford's irony: Fairford, who at the time of the marriage had
sat silent and pulled his moustache while every one else argued and
objected, yet under whose silence Ralph had felt a deeper protest than
under all the reasoning of the others. It was no comfort to reflect that
Fairford would probably continue to say nothing! But necessity made
light of these twinges, and Ralph set his teeth and cabled.
Undine's chief surprise seemed to be that Laura's response, though
immediate and generous, did not enable them to stay on at St. Moritz.
But she apparently read in her husband's look the uselessness of such a
hope, for, with one of the sudden changes of mood that still disarmed
him, she accepted the need of departure, and took leave philosophically
of the Shallums and their band. After all, Paris was ahead, and in
September one would have a chance to see the new models and surprise the
secret councils of the dressmakers.
Ralph was astonished at the tenacity with which she held to her purpose.
He tried, when they reached Paris, to make her feel the necessity of
starting at once for home; but she complained of fatigue and of feeling
vaguely unwell, and he had to yield to her desire for rest. The word,
however, was to strike him as strangely misapplied, for from the day of
their arrival she was in state of perpetual activity. She seemed to
have mastered her Paris by divination, and between the hounds of the
Boulevards and the Place Vendome she moved at once with supernatural
"Of course," she explained to him, "I understand how little we've got
to spend; but I left New York without a rag, and it was you who made me
countermand my trousseau, instead of having it sent after us. I wish now
I hadn't listened to you--father'd have had to pay for THAT before he
lost his money. As it is, it will be cheaper in the end for me to pick
up a few things here. The advantage of going to the French dress-makers
is that they'll wait twice as long for their money as the people at
home. And they're all crazy to dress me--Bertha Shallum will tell you
so: she says no one ever had such a chance! That's why I was willing to
come to this stuffy little hotel--I wanted to save every scrap I could
to get a few decent things. And over here they're accustomed to being
bargained with--you ought to see how I've beaten them down! Have you any
idea what a dinner-dress costs in New York--?"
So it went on, obtusely and persistently, whenever he tried to sound
the note of prudence. But on other themes she was more than usually
responsive. Paris enchanted her, and they had delightful hours at
the theatres--the "little" ones--amusing dinners at fashionable
restaurants, and reckless evenings in haunts where she thrilled with
simple glee at the thought of what she must so obviously be "taken for."
All these familiar diversions regained, for Ralph, a fresh zest in her
company. Her innocence, her high spirits, her astounding comments and
credulities, renovated the old Parisian adventure and flung a veil of
romance over its hackneyed scenes. Beheld through such a medium the
future looked less near and implacable, and Ralph, when he had received
a reassuring letter from his sister, let his conscience sleep and
slipped forth on the high tide of pleasure. After all, in New York
amusements would be fewer, and their life, for a time, perhaps more
quiet. Moreover, Ralph's dim glimpses of Mr. Spragg's past suggested
that the latter was likely to be on his feet again at any moment, and
atoning by redoubled prodigalities for his temporary straits; and beyond
all these possibilities there was the book to be written--the book on
which Ralph was sure he should get a real hold as soon as they settled
down in New York.
Meanwhile the daily cost of living, and the bills that could not be
deferred, were eating deep into Laura's subsidy. Ralph's anxieties
returned, and his plight was brought home to him with a shock when, on
going one day to engage passages, he learned that the prices were that
of the "rush season," and one of the conditions immediate payment. At
other times, he was told the rules were easier; but in September and
October no exception could be made.
As he walked away with this fresh weight on his mind he caught sight of
the strolling figure of Peter Van Degen--Peter lounging and luxuriating
among the seductions of the Boulevard with the disgusting ease of a man
whose wants are all measured by money, and who always has enough to
His present sense of these advantages revealed itself in the affability
of his greeting to Ralph, and in his off-hand request that the latter
should "look up Clare," who had come over with him to get her winter
"She's motoring to Italy next week with some of her long-haired
friends--but I'm off for the other side; going back on the Sorceress.
She's just been overhauled at Greenock, and we ought to have a good spin
over. Better come along with me, old man."
The Sorceress was Van Degen's steam-yacht, most huge and complicated of
her kind: it was his habit, after his semi-annual flights to Paris and
London, to take a joyous company back on her and let Clare return by
steamer. The character of these parties made the invitation almost
an offense to Ralph; but reflecting that it was probably a phrase
distributed to every acquaintance when Van Degen was in a rosy mood, he
merely answered: "Much obliged, my dear fellow; but Undine and I are
Peter's glassy eye grew livelier. "Ah, to be sure--you're not over the
honeymoon yet. How's the bride? Stunning as ever? My regards to her,
please. I suppose she's too deep in dress-making to be called on?
Don't you forget to look up Clare!" He hurried on in pursuit of a
flitting petticoat and Ralph continued his walk home.
He prolonged it a little in order to put off telling Undine of his
plight; for he could devise only one way of meeting the cost of the
voyage, and that was to take it at once, and thus curtail their Parisian
expenses. But he knew how unwelcome this plan would be, and he shrank
the more from seeing Undine's face harden; since, of late, he had so
basked in its brightness.
When at last he entered the little salon she called "stuffy" he found
her in conference with a blond-bearded gentleman who wore the red
ribbon in his lapel, and who, on Ralph's appearance--and at a sign, as
it appeared, from Mrs. Marvell--swept into his note-case some small
objects that had lain on the table, and bowed himself out with a
"Madame--Monsieur" worthy of the highest traditions.
Ralph looked after him with amusement. "Who's your friend--an Ambassador
or a tailor?"
Undine was rapidly slipping on her rings, which, as he now saw, had also
been scattered over the table.
"Oh, it was only that jeweller I told you about--the one Bertha Shallum
"A jeweller? Good heavens, my poor girl! You're buying jewels?" The
extravagance of the idea struck a laugh from him.
Undine's face did not harden: it took on, instead, almost deprecating
look. "Of course not--how silly you are! I only wanted a few old things
reset. But I won't if you'd rather not."
She came to him and sat down at his side, laying her hand on his arm. He
took the hand up and looked at the deep gleam of the sapphires in the
old family ring he had given her.
"You won't have that reset?" he said, smiling and twisting the ring
about on her finger; then he went on with his thankless explanation.
"It's not that I don't want you to do this or that; it's simply that,
for the moment, we're rather strapped. I've just been to see the steamer
people, and our passages will cost a good deal more than I thought."
He mentioned the sum and the fact that he must give an answer the next
day. Would she consent to sail that very Saturday? Or should they go a
fortnight later, in a slow boat from Plymouth?
Undine frowned on both alternatives. She was an indifferent sailor and
shrank from the possible "nastiness" of the cheaper boat. She wanted
to get the voyage over as quickly and luxuriously as possible--Bertha
Shallum had told her that in a "deck-suite" no one need be sea-sick--but
she wanted still more to have another week or two of Paris; and it was
always hard to make her see why circumstances could not be bent to her
"This week? But how on earth can I be ready? Besides, we're dining at
Enghien with the Shallums on Saturday, and motoring to Chantilly with
the Jim Driscolls on Sunday. I can't imagine how you thought we could go
But she still opposed the cheap steamer, and after they had carried the
question on to Voisin's, and there unprofitably discussed it through a
long luncheon, it seemed no nearer a solution.
"Well, think it over--let me know this evening," Ralph said,
proportioning the waiter's fee to a bill burdened by Undine's reckless
choice of primeurs.
His wife was to join the newly-arrived Mrs. Shallum in a round of the
rue de la Paix; and he had seized the opportunity of slipping off to a
classical performance at the Francais. On their arrival in Paris he had
taken Undine to one of these entertainments, but it left her too weary
and puzzled for him to renew the attempt, and he had not found time
to go back without her. He was glad now to shed his cares in such an
atmosphere. The play was of the greatest, the interpretation that of the
vanishing grand manner which lived in his first memories of the Parisian
stage, and his surrender such influences as complete as in his early
days. Caught up in the fiery chariot of art, he felt once more the tug
of its coursers in his muscles, and the rush of their flight still
throbbed in him when he walked back late to the hotel.
He had expected to find Undine still out; but on the stairs he crossed
Mrs. Shallum, who threw at him from under an immense hat-brim: "Yes,
she's in, but you'd better come and have tea with me at the Luxe. I
don't think husbands are wanted!"
Ralph laughingly rejoined that that was just the moment for them to
appear; and Mrs. Shallum swept on, crying back: "All the same, I'll wait
In the sitting-room Ralph found Undine seated behind a tea-table on the
other side of which, in an attitude of easy intimacy, Peter Van Degen
stretched his lounging length.
He did not move on Ralph's appearance, no doubt thinking their kinship
close enough to make his nod and "Hullo!" a sufficient greeting. Peter
in intimacy was given to miscalculations of the sort, and Ralph's first
movement was to glance at Undine and see how it affected her. But her
eyes gave out the vivid rays that noise and banter always struck from
them; her face, at such moments, was like a theatre with all the lustres
blazing. That the illumination should have been kindled by his cousin's
husband was not precisely agreeable to Marvell, who thought Peter a bore
in society and an insufferable nuisance on closer terms. But he was
becoming blunted to Undine's lack of discrimination; and his own
treatment of Van Degen was always tempered by his sympathy for Clare.
He therefore listened with apparent good-humour to Peter's suggestion of
an evening at a petit theatre with the Harvey Shallums, and joined in
the laugh with which Undine declared: "Oh, Ralph won't go--he only
likes the theatres where they walk around in bathtowels and talk
poetry.--Isn't that what you've just been seeing?" she added, with a
turn of the neck that shed her brightness on him.
"What? One of those five-barrelled shows at the Francais? Great Scott,
Ralph--no wonder your wife's pining for the Folies Bergere!"
"She needn't, my dear fellow. We never interfere with each other's
Peter, unsolicited, was comfortably lighting a cigarette. "Ah, there's
the secret of domestic happiness. Marry somebody who likes all the
things you don't, and make love to somebody who likes all the things you
Undine laughed appreciatively. "Only it dooms poor Ralph to such awful
frumps. Can't you see the sort of woman who'd love his sort of play?"
"Oh, I can see her fast enough--my wife loves 'em," said their visitor,
rising with a grin; while Ralph threw, out: "So don't waste your pity on
me!" and Undine's laugh had the slight note of asperity that the mention
of Clare always elicited.
"To-morrow night, then, at Paillard's," Van Degen concluded. "And about
the other business--that's a go too? I leave it to you to settle the
The nod and laugh they exchanged seemed to hint at depths of collusion
from which Ralph was pointedly excluded; and he wondered how large
a programme of pleasure they had already had time to sketch out. He
disliked the idea of Undine's being too frequently seen with Van Degen,
whose Parisian reputation was not fortified by the connections that
propped it up in New York; but he did not want to interfere with her
pleasure, and he was still wondering what to say when, as the door
closed, she turned to him gaily.
"I'm so glad you've come! I've got some news for you." She laid a light
touch on his arm.
Touch and tone were enough to disperse his anxieties, and he answered
that he was in luck to find her already in when he had supposed her
engaged, over a Nouveau Luxe tea-table, in repairing the afternoon's
"Oh, I didn't shop much--I didn't stay out long." She raised a kindling
face to him. "And what do you think I've been doing? While you were
sitting in your stuffy old theatre, worrying about the money I was
spending (oh, you needn't fib--I know you were!) I was saving you
hundreds and thousands. I've saved you the price of our passage!"
Ralph laughed in pure enjoyment of her beauty. When she shone on him
like that what did it matter what nonsense she talked?
"You wonderful woman--how did you do it? By countermanding a tiara?"
"You know I'm not such a fool as you pretend!" She held him at arm's
length with a nod of joyous mystery. "You'll simply never guess! I've
made Peter Van Degen ask us to go home on the Sorceress. What. do you
say to that?"
She flashed it out on a laugh of triumph, without appearing to have a
doubt of the effect the announcement would produce.
Ralph stared at her. "The Sorceress? You MADE him?"
"Well, I managed it, I worked him round to it! He's crazy about the idea
now--but I don't think he'd thought of it before he came."
"I should say not!" Ralph ejaculated. "He never would have had the cheek
to think of it."
"Well, I've made him, anyhow! Did you ever know such luck?"
"Such luck?" He groaned at her obstinate innocence. "Do you suppose I'll
let you cross the ocean on the Sorceress?"
She shrugged impatiently. "You say that because your cousin doesn't go
"If she doesn't, it's because it's no place for decent women."
"It's Clare's fault if it isn't. Everybody knows she's crazy about you,
and she makes him feel it. That's why he takes up with other women."
Her anger reddened her cheeks and dropped her brows like a black bar
above her glowing eyes. Even in his recoil from what she said Ralph felt
the tempestuous heat of her beauty. But for the first time his latent
resentments rose in him, and he gave her back wrath for wrath.
"Is that the precious stuff he tells you?"
"Do you suppose I had to wait for him to tell me? Everybody knows
it--everybody in New York knew she was wild when you married. That's
why she's always been so nasty to me. If you won't go on the Sorceress
they'll all say it's because she was jealous of me and wouldn't let
Ralph's indignation had already flickered down to disgust. Undine was no
longer beautiful--she seemed to have the face of her thoughts. He stood
up with an impatient laugh.
"Is that another of his arguments? I don't wonder they're convincing--"
But as quickly as it had come the sneer dropped, yielding to a wave of
pity, the vague impulse to silence and protect her. How could he have
given way to the provocation of her weakness, when his business was to
defend her from it and lift her above it? He recalled his old dreams of
saving her from Van Degenism--it was not thus that he had imagined the
"Don't let's pay Peter the compliment of squabbling over him," he said,
turning away to pour himself a cup of tea.
When he had filled his cup he sat down beside Undine, with a smile. "No
doubt he was joking--and thought you were; but if you really made him
believe we might go with him you'd better drop him a line."
Undine's brow still gloomed. "You refuse, then?"
"Refuse? I don't need to! Do you want to succeed to half the
chorus-world of New York?"
"They won't be on board with us, I suppose!"
"The echoes of their conversation will. It's the only language Peter
"He told me he longed for the influence of a good woman--" She checked
herself, reddening at Ralph's laugh.
"Well, tell him to apply again when he's been under it a month or two.
Meanwhile we'll stick to the liners."
Ralph was beginning to learn that the only road to her reason lay
through her vanity, and he fancied that if she could be made to see
Van Degen as an object of ridicule she might give up the idea of the
Sorceress of her own accord. But her will hardened slowly under his
joking opposition, and she became no less formidable as she grew more
calm. He was used to women who, in such cases, yielded as a matter of
course to masculine judgments: if one pronounced a man "not decent"
the question was closed. But it was Undine's habit to ascribe all
interference with her plans to personal motives, and he could see that
she attributed his opposition to the furtive machinations of poor Clare.
It was odious to him to prolong the discussion, for the accent of
recrimination was the one he most dreaded on her lips. But the moment
came when he had to take the brunt of it, averting his thoughts as best
he might from the glimpse it gave of a world of mean familiarities, of
reprisals drawn from the vulgarest of vocabularies. Certain retorts sped
through the air like the flight of household utensils, certain charges
rang out like accusations of tampering with the groceries. He stiffened
himself against such comparisons, but they stuck in his imagination and
left him thankful when Undine's anger yielded to a burst of tears. He
had held his own and gained his point. The trip on the Sorceress was
given up, and a note of withdrawal despatched to Van Degen; but at the
same time Ralph cabled his sister to ask if she could increase her loan.
For he had conquered only at the cost of a concession: Undine was to
stay in Paris till October, and they were to sail on a fast steamer, in
a deck-suite, like the Harvey Shallums.
Undine's ill-humour was soon dispelled by any new distraction, and she
gave herself to the untroubled enjoyment of Paris. The Shallums were the
centre of a like-minded group, and in the hours the ladies could spare
from their dress-makers the restaurants shook with their hilarity
and the suburbs with the shriek of their motors. Van Degen, who had
postponed his sailing, was a frequent sharer in these amusements; but
Ralph counted on New York influences to detach him from Undine's train.
He was learning to influence her through her social instincts where he
had once tried to appeal to other sensibilities.
His worst moment came when he went to see Clare Van Degen, who, on the
eve of departure, had begged him to come to her hotel. He found her less
restless and rattling than usual, with a look in her eyes that reminded
him of the days when she had haunted his thoughts. The visit passed off
without vain returns to the past; but as he was leaving she surprised
him by saying: "Don't let Peter make a goose of your wife."
Ralph reddened, but laughed.
"Oh, Undine's wonderfully able to defend herself, even against such
seductions as Peter's."
Mrs. Van Degen looked down with a smile at the bracelets on her thin
brown wrist. "His personal seductions--yes. But as an inventor of
amusements he's inexhaustible; and Undine likes to be amused."
Ralph made no reply but showed no annoyance. He simply took her hand and
kissed it as he said good-bye; and she turned from him without audible
As the day of departure approached. Undine's absorption in her dresses
almost precluded the thought of amusement. Early and late she was
closeted with fitters and packers--even the competent Celeste not being
trusted to handle the treasures now pouring in--and Ralph cursed his
weakness in not restraining her, and then fled for solace to museums and
He could not rouse in her any scruple about incurring fresh debts, yet
he knew she was no longer unaware of the value of money. She had
learned to bargain, pare down prices, evade fees, brow-beat the small
tradespeople and wheedle concessions from the great--not, as Ralph
perceived, from any effort to restrain her expenses, but only to prolong
and intensify the pleasure of spending. Pained by the trait, he tried
to laugh her out of it. He told her once that she had a miserly
hand--showing her, in proof, that, for all their softness, the fingers
would not bend back, or the pink palm open. But she retorted a little
sharply that it was no wonder, since she'd heard nothing talked of since
their marriage but economy; and this left him without any answer. So
the purveyors continued to mount to their apartment, and Ralph, in the
course of his frequent nights from it, found himself always dodging the
corners of black glazed boxes and swaying pyramids of pasteboard; always
lifting his hat to sidling milliners' girls, or effacing himself before
slender vendeuses floating by in a mist of opopanax. He felt incompetent
to pronounce on the needs to which these visitors ministered; but the
reappearance among them of the blond-bearded jeweller gave him ground
for fresh fears. Undine had assured him that she had given up the idea
of having her ornaments reset, and there had been ample time for their
return; but on his questioning her she explained that there had been
delays and "bothers" and put him in the wrong by asking ironically if he
supposed she was buying things "for pleasure" when she knew as well as
he that there wasn't any money to pay for them.
But his thoughts were not all dark. Undine's moods still infected him,
and when she was happy he felt an answering lightness. Even when
her amusements were too primitive to be shared he could enjoy their
reflection in her face. Only, as he looked back, he was struck by the
evanescence, the lack of substance, in their moments of sympathy, and
by the permanent marks left by each breach between them. Yet he still
fancied that some day the balance might be reversed, and that as she
acquired a finer sense of values the depths in her would find a voice.
Something of this was in his mind when, the afternoon before their
departure, he came home to help her with their last arrangements. She
had begged him, for the day, to leave her alone in their cramped salon,
into which belated bundles were still pouring; and it was nearly dark
when he returned. The evening before she had seemed pale and nervous,
and at the last moment had excused herself from dining with the Shallums
at a suburban restaurant. It was so unlike her to miss any opportunity
of the kind that Ralph had felt a little anxious. But with the arrival
of the packers she was afoot and in command again, and he withdrew
submissively, as Mr. Spragg, in the early Apex days, might have fled
from the spring storm of "house-cleaning."
When he entered the sitting-room, he found it still in disorder. Every
chair was hidden under scattered dresses, tissue-paper surged from the
yawning trunks and, prone among her heaped-up finery. Undine lay with
closed eyes on the sofa.
She raised her head as he entered, and then turned listlessly away.
"My poor girl, what's the matter? Haven't they finished yet?"
Instead of answering she pressed her face into the cushion and began to
sob. The violence of her weeping shook her hair down on her shoulders,
and her hands, clenching the arm of the sofa, pressed it away from her
as if any contact were insufferable.
Ralph bent over her in alarm. "Why, what's wrong, dear? What's
Her fatigue of the previous evening came back to him--a puzzled hunted
look in her eyes; and with the memory a vague wonder revived. He had
fancied himself fairly disencumbered of the stock formulas about the
hallowing effects of motherhood, and there were many reasons for not
welcoming the news he suspected she had to give; but the woman a man
loves is always a special case, and everything was different that befell
Undine. If this was what had befallen her it was wonderful and divine:
for the moment that was all he felt.
"Dear, tell me what's the matter," he pleaded.
She sobbed on unheedingly and he waited for her agitation to subside. He
shrank from the phrases considered appropriate to the situation, but he
wanted to hold her close and give her the depth of his heart in long
Suddenly she sat upright and turned a desperate face on him. "Why on
earth are you staring at me like that? Anybody can see what's the
He winced at her tone, but managed to get one of her hands in his; and
they stayed thus in silence, eye to eye.
"Are you as sorry as all that?" he began at length conscious of the
flatness of his voice.
"Sorry--sorry? I'm--I'm--" She snatched her hand away, and went on
"But, Undine--dearest--bye and bye you'll feel differently--I know you
"Differently? Differently? When? In a year? It TAKES a year--a whole
year out of life! What do I care how I shall feel in a year?"
The chill of her tone struck in. This was more than a revolt of the
nerves: it was a settled, a reasoned resentment. Ralph found himself
groping for extenuations, evasions--anything to put a little warmth into
her! "Who knows? Perhaps, after all, it's a mistake."
There was no answering light in her face. She turned her head from him
"Don't you think, dear, you may be mistaken?"
"Mistaken? How on earth can I be mistaken?"
Even in that moment of confusion he was struck by the cold competence of
her tone, and wondered how she could be so sure.
"You mean you've asked--you've consulted--?" The irony of it took him
by the throat. They were the very words he might have spoken in some
miserable secret colloquy--the words he was speaking to his wife!
She repeated dully: "I know I'm not mistaken."
There was another long silence. Undine lay still, her eyes shut,
drumming on the arm of the sofa with a restless hand. The other lay
cold in Ralph's clasp, and through it there gradually stole to him the
benumbing influence of the thoughts she was thinking: the sense of
the approach of illness, anxiety, and expense, and of the general
unnecessary disorganization of their lives.
"That's all you feel, then?" he asked at length a little bitterly, as if
to disguise from himself the hateful fact that he felt it too. He stood
up and moved away. "That's all?" he repeated.
"Why, what else do you expect me to feel? I feel horribly ill, if that's
what you want." He saw the sobs trembling up through her again.
"Poor dear--poor girl...I'm so sorry--so dreadfully sorry!"
The senseless reiteration seemed to exasperate her. He knew it by the
quiver that ran through her like the premonitory ripple on smooth water
before the coming of the wind. She turned about on him and jumped to her
"Sorry--you're sorry? YOU'RE sorry? Why, what earthly difference will it
make to YOU?" She drew back a few steps and lifted her slender arms from
her sides. "Look at me--see how I look--how I'm going to look! YOU
won't hate yourself more and more every morning when you get up and see
yourself in the glass! YOUR life's going on just as usual! But what's
mine going to be for months and months? And just as I'd been to all this
bother--fagging myself to death about all these things--" her tragic
gesture swept the disordered room--"just as I thought I was going home
to enjoy myself, and look nice, and see people again, and have a little
pleasure after all our worries--" She dropped back on the sofa with
another burst of tears. "For all the good this rubbish will do me now! I
loathe the very sight of it!" she sobbed with her face in her hands.
It was one of the distinctions of Mr. Claud Walsingham Popple that his
studio was never too much encumbered with the attributes of his art
to permit the installing, in one of its cushioned corners, of an
elaborately furnished tea-table flanked by the most varied seductions
in sandwiches and pastry.
Mr. Popple, like all great men, had at first had his ups and downs; but
his reputation had been permanently established by the verdict of a
wealthy patron who, returning from an excursion into other fields of
portraiture, had given it as the final fruit of his experience that
Popple was the only man who could "do pearls." To sitters for whom this
was of the first consequence it was another of the artist's merits
that he always subordinated art to elegance, in life as well as in his
portraits. The "messy" element of production was no more visible in
his expensively screened and tapestried studio than its results were
perceptible in his painting; and it was often said, in praise of his
work, that he was the only artist who kept his studio tidy enough for a
lady to sit to him in a new dress.
Mr. Popple, in fact, held that the personality of the artist should at
all times be dissembled behind that of the man. It was his opinion that
the essence of good-breeding lay in tossing off a picture as easily as
you lit a cigarette. Ralph Marvell had once said of him that when he
began a portrait he always turned back his cuffs and said: "Ladies
and gentlemen, you can see there's absolutely nothing here," and Mrs.
Fairford supplemented the description by defining his painting as
"chafing-dish" art. On a certain late afternoon of December, some four
years after Mr. Popple's first meeting with Miss Undine Spragg of Apex,
even the symbolic chafing-dish was nowhere visible in his studio; the
only evidence of its recent activity being the full-length portrait of
Mrs. Ralph Marvell, who, from her lofty easel and her heavily garlanded
frame, faced the doorway with the air of having been invited to
"receive" for Mr. Popple.
The artist himself, becomingly clad in mouse-coloured velveteen, had
just turned away from the picture to hover above the tea-cups; but his
place had been taken by the considerably broader bulk of Mr. Peter Van
Degen, who, tightly moulded into a coat of the latest cut, stood before
the portrait in the attitude of a first arrival.
"Yes, it's good--it's damn good, Popp; you've hit the hair off
ripplingly; but the pearls ain't big enough," he pronounced.
A slight laugh sounded from the raised dais behind the easel.
"Of course they're not! But it's not HIS fault, poor man; HE didn't give
them to me!" As she spoke Mrs. Ralph Marvell rose from a monumental gilt
arm-chair of pseudo-Venetian design and swept her long draperies to Van
"He might, then--for the privilege of painting you!" the latter
rejoined, transferring his bulging stare from the counterfeit to the
original. His eyes rested on Mrs. Marvell's in what seemed a quick
exchange of understanding; then they passed on to a critical inspection
of her person. She was dressed for the sitting in something faint and
shining, above which the long curves of her neck looked dead white in
the cold light of the studio; and her hair, all a shadowless rosy gold,
was starred with a hard glitter of diamonds.
"The privilege of painting me? Mercy, _I_ have to pay for being painted!
He'll tell you he's giving me the picture--but what do you suppose this
cost?" She laid a finger-tip on her shimmering dress.
Van Degen's eye rested on her with cold enjoyment. "Does the price come
higher than the dress?"
She ignored the allusion. "Of course what they charge for is the cut--"
"What they cut away? That's what they ought to charge for, ain't it,
Undine took this with cool disdain, but Mr. Popple's sensibilities were
"My dear Peter--really--the artist, you understand, sees all this as a
pure question of colour, of pattern; and it's a point of honour with the
MAN to steel himself against the personal seduction."
Mr. Van Degen received this protest with a sound of almost vulgar
derision, but Undine thrilled agreeably under the glance which her
portrayer cast on her. She was flattered by Van Degen's notice, and
thought his impertinence witty; but she glowed inwardly at Mr. Popple's
eloquence. After more than three years of social experience she still
thought he "spoke beautifully," like the hero of a novel, and she
ascribed to jealousy the lack of seriousness with which her husband's
friends regarded him. His conversation struck her as intellectual, and
his eagerness to have her share his thoughts was in flattering contrast
to Ralph's growing tendency to keep his to himself. Popple's homage
seemed the, subtlest proof of what Ralph could have made of her if he
had "really understood" her. It was but another step to ascribe all her
past mistakes to the lack of such understanding; and the satisfaction
derived from this thought had once impelled her to tell the artist that
he alone knew how to rouse her 'higher self.' He had assured her that
the memory of her words would thereafter hallow his life; and as he
hinted that it had been stained by the darkest errors she was moved at
the thought of the purifying influence she exerted.
Thus it was that a man should talk to a true woman--but how few whom
she had known possessed the secret! Ralph, in the first months of their
marriage, had been eloquent too, had even gone the length of quoting
poetry; but he disconcerted her by his baffling twists and strange
allusions (she always scented ridicule in the unknown), and the poets he
quoted were esoteric and abstruse. Mr. Popple's rhetoric was drawn from
more familiar sources, and abounded in favourite phrases and in moving
reminiscences of the Fifth Reader. He was moreover as literary as he
was artistic; possessing an unequalled acquaintance with contemporary
fiction, and dipping even into the lighter type of memoirs, in which the
old acquaintances of history are served up in the disguise of "A Royal
Sorceress" or "Passion in a Palace." The mastery with which Mr.
Popple discussed the novel of the day, especially in relation to
the sensibilities of its hero and heroine, gave Undine a sense of
intellectual activity which contrasted strikingly with Marvell's
flippant estimate of such works. "Passion," the artist implied, would
have been the dominant note of his life, had it not been held in check
by a sentiment of exalted chivalry, and by the sense that a nature of
such emotional intensity as his must always be "ridden on the curb."
Van Degen was helping himself from the tray of iced cocktails which
stood near the tea-table, and Popple, turning to Undine, took up the
thread of his discourse. But why, he asked, why allude before others to
feelings so few could understand? The average man--lucky devil!--(with a
compassionate glance at Van Degen's back) the average man knew nothing
of the fierce conflict between the lower and higher natures; and even
the woman whose eyes had kindled it--how much did SHE guess of its
violence? Did she know--Popple recklessly asked--how often the artist
was forgotten in the man--how often the man would take the bit between
his teeth, were it not that the look in her eyes recalled some sacred
memory, some lesson learned perhaps beside his mother's knee? "I say,
Popp--was that where you learned to mix this drink? Because it does the
old lady credit," Van Degen called out, smacking his lips; while the
artist, dashing a nervous hand through his hair, muttered: "Hang it,
Peter--is NOTHING sacred to you?"
It pleased Undine to feel herself capable of inspiring such emotions.
She would have been fatigued by the necessity of maintaining her own
talk on Popple's level, but she liked to listen to him, and especially
to have others overhear what he said to her.
Her feeling for Van Degen was different. There was more similarity of
tastes between them, though his manner flattered her vanity less than
Popple's. She felt the strength of Van Degen's contempt for everything
he did not understand or could not buy: that was the only kind of
"exclusiveness" that impressed her. And he was still to her, as in her
inexperienced days, the master of the mundane science she had once
imagined that Ralph Marvell possessed. During the three years since her
marriage she had learned to make distinctions unknown to her girlish
categories. She had found out that she had given herself to the
exclusive and the dowdy when the future belonged to the showy and the
promiscuous; that she was in the case of those who have cast in
their lot with a fallen cause, or--to use an analogy more within her
range--who have hired an opera box on the wrong night. It was all
confusing and exasperating. Apex ideals had been based on the myth of
"old families" ruling New York from a throne of Revolutionary tradition,
with the new millionaires paying them feudal allegiance. But experience
had long since proved the delusiveness of the simile. Mrs. Marvell's
classification of the world into the visited and the unvisited was as
obsolete as a mediaeval cosmogony. Some of those whom Washington Square
left unvisited were the centre of social systems far outside its
ken, and as indifferent to its opinions as the constellations to the
reckonings of the astronomers; and all these systems joyously revolved
about their central sun of gold.
There were moments after Undine's return to New York when she was
tempted to class her marriage with the hateful early mistakes from the
memories of which she had hoped it would free her. Since it was never
her habit to accuse herself of such mistakes it was inevitable that she
should gradually come to lay the blame on Ralph. She found a poignant
pleasure, at this stage of her career, in the question: "What does a
young girl know of life?" And the poignancy was deepened by the fact
that each of the friends to whom she put the question seemed convinced
that--had the privilege been his--he would have known how to spare her
the disenchantment it implied.
The conviction of having blundered was never more present to her than
when, on this particular afternoon, the guests invited by Mr. Popple to
view her portrait began to assemble before it.
Some of the principal figures of Undine's group had rallied for
the occasion, and almost all were in exasperating enjoyment of
the privileges for which she pined. There was young Jim Driscoll,
heir-apparent of the house, with his short stout mistrustful wife, who
hated society, but went everywhere lest it might be thought she had been
left out; the "beautiful Mrs. Beringer," a lovely aimless being, who
kept (as Laura Fairford said) a home for stray opinions, and could never
quite tell them apart; little Dicky Bowles, whom every one invited
because he was understood to "say things" if one didn't; the Harvey
Shallums, fresh from Paris, and dragging in their wake a bewildered
nobleman vaguely designated as "the Count," who offered cautious
conversational openings, like an explorer trying beads on savages; and,
behind these more salient types, the usual filling in of those who are
seen everywhere because they have learned to catch the social eye.
Such a company was one to flatter the artist as much his sitter, so
completely did it represent that unamity of opinion which constitutes
social strength. Not one the number was troubled by any personal theory
of art: all they asked of a portrait was that the costume should be
sufficiently "life-like," and the face not too much so; and a long
experience in idealizing flesh and realizing dress-fabrics had enabled
Mr. Popple to meet both demands.
"Hang it," Peter Van Degen pronounced, standing before the easel in
an attitude of inspired interpretation, "the great thing in a man's
portrait is to catch the likeness--we all know that; but with a woman's
it's different--a woman's picture has got to be pleasing. Who wants
it about if it isn't? Those big chaps who blow about what they call
realism--how do THEIR portraits look in a drawing-room? Do you suppose
they ever ask themselves that? THEY don't care--they're not going to
live with the things! And what do they know of drawing-rooms, anyhow?
Lots of them haven't even got a dress-suit. There's where old Popp has
the pull over 'em--HE knows how we live and what we want."
This was received by the artist with a deprecating murmur, and by his
public with warm expressions of approval.
"Happily in this case," Popple began ("as in that of so many of my
sitters," he hastily put in), "there has been no need to idealize-nature
herself has outdone the artist's dream."
Undine, radiantly challenging comparison with her portrait, glanced
up at it with a smile of conscious merit, which deepened as young Jim
"By Jove, Mamie, you must be done exactly like that for the new
His wife turned a cautious eye upon the picture.
"How big is it? For our house it would have to be a good deal bigger,"
she objected; and Popple, fired by the thought of such a dimensional
opportunity, rejoined that it would be the chance of all others to.
"work in" a marble portico and a court-train: he had just done Mrs.
Lycurgus Ambler in a court-train and feathers, and as THAT was for
Buffalo of course the pictures needn't clash.
"Well, it would have to be a good deal bigger than Mrs. Ambler's," Mrs.
Driscoll insisted; and on Popple's suggestion that in that case he might
"work in" Driscoll, in court-dress also--("You've been presented? Well,
you WILL be,--you'll HAVE to, if I do the picture--which will make a
lovely memento")--Van Degen turned aside to murmur to Undine: "Pure
bluff, you know--Jim couldn't pay for a photograph. Old Driscoll's high
and dry since the Ararat investigation."
She threw him a puzzled glance, having no time, in her crowded
existence, to follow the perturbations of Wall Street save as they
affected the hospitality of Fifth Avenue.
"You mean they've lost their money? Won't they give their fancy ball,
Van Degen shrugged. "Nobody knows how it's coming out That queer chap
Elmer Moffatt threatens to give old Driscoll a fancy ball--says he's
going to dress him in stripes! It seems he knows too much about the Apex
Undine paled a little. Though she had already tried on her costume for
the Driscoll ball her disappointment at Van Degen's announcement was
effaced by the mention of Moffatt's name. She had not had the curiosity
to follow the reports of the "Ararat Trust Investigation," but once
or twice lately, in the snatches of smoking-room talk, she had been
surprised by a vague allusion to Elmer Moffatt, as to an erratic
financial influence, half ridiculed, yet already half redoubtable. Was
it possible that the redoubtable element had prevailed? That the time
had come when Elmer Moffatt--the Elmer Moffatt of Apex!--could, even for
a moment, cause consternation in the Driscoll camp? He had always said
he "saw things big"; but no one had ever believed he was destined to
carry them out on the same scale. Yet apparently in those idle Apex
days, while he seemed to be "loafing and fooling," as her father called
it, he had really been sharpening his weapons of aggression; there had
been something, after all, in the effect of loose-drifting power she had
always felt in him. Her heart beat faster, and she longed to question
Van Degen; but she was afraid of betraying herself, and turned back
to the group about the picture. Mrs. Driscoll was still presenting
objections in a tone of small mild obstinacy. "Oh, it's a LIKENESS, of
course--I can see that; but there's one thing I must say, Mr. Popple. It
looks like a last year's dress."
The attention of the ladies instantly rallied to the picture, and the
artist paled at the challenge.
"It doesn't look like a last year's face, anyhow--that's what makes them
all wild," Van Degen murmured. Undine gave him back a quick smile. She
had already forgotten about Moffatt. Any triumph in which she shared
left a glow in her veins, and the success of the picture obscured all
other impressions. She saw herself throning in a central panel at the
spring exhibition, with the crowd pushing about the picture, repeating
her name; and she decided to stop on the way home and telephone her
press-agent to do a paragraph about Popple's tea.
But in the hall, as she drew on her cloak, her thoughts reverted to the
Driscoll fancy ball. What a blow if it were given up after she had taken
so much trouble about her dress! She was to go as the Empress Josephine,
after the Prudhon portrait in the Louvre. The dress was already fitted
and partly embroidered, and she foresaw the difficulty of persuading the
dress-maker to take it back.
"Why so pale and sad, fair cousin? What's up?" Van Degen asked, as they
emerged from the lift in which they had descended alone from the studio.
"I don't know--I'm tired of posing. And it was so frightfully hot."
"Yes. Popple always keeps his place at low-neck temperature, as if the
portraits might catch cold." Van Degen glanced at his watch. "Where are
you off to?"
"West End Avenue, of course--if I can find a cab to take me there."
It was not the least of Undine's grievances that she was still living in
the house which represented Mr. Spragg's first real-estate venture in
New York. It had been understood, at the time of her marriage, that
the young couple were to be established within the sacred precincts of
fashion; but on their return from the honeymoon the still untenanted
house in West End Avenue had been placed at their disposal, and in view
of Mr. Spragg's financial embarrassment even Undine had seen the folly
of refusing it. That first winter, more-over, she had not regretted her
exile: while she awaited her boy's birth she was glad to be out of sight
of Fifth Avenue, and to take her hateful compulsory exercise where no
familiar eye could fall on her. And the next year of course her father
would give them a better house.
But the next year rents had risen in the Fifth Avenue quarter, and
meanwhile little Paul Marvell, from his beautiful pink cradle, was
already interfering with his mother's plans. Ralph, alarmed by the fresh
rush of expenses, sided with his father-in-law in urging Undine to
resign herself to West End Avenue; and thus after three years she
was still submitting to the incessant pin-pricks inflicted by the
incongruity between her social and geographical situation--the need of
having to give a west side address to her tradesmen, and the deeper
irritation of hearing her friends say: "Do let me give you a lift home,
dear--Oh, I'd forgotten! I'm afraid I haven't the time to go so far--"
It was bad enough to have no motor of her own, to be avowedly dependent
on "lifts," openly and unconcealably in quest of them, and perpetually
plotting to provoke their offer (she did so hate to be seen in a cab!)
but to miss them, as often as not, because of the remoteness of her
destination, emphasized the hateful sense of being "out of things."
Van Degen looked out at the long snow-piled streets, down which the
lamps were beginning to put their dreary yellow splashes.
"Of course you won't get a cab on a night like this. If you don't mind
the open car, you'd better jump in with me. I'll run you out to the High
Bridge and give you a breath of air before dinner."
The offer was tempting, for Undine's triumph in the studio had left her
tired and nervous--she was beginning to learn that success may be as
fatiguing as failure. Moreover, she was going to a big dinner that
evening, and the fresh air would give her the eyes and complexion she
needed; but in the back of her mind there lingered the vague sense of
a forgotten engagement. As she tried to recall it she felt Van Degen
raising the fur collar about her chin.
"Got anything you can put over your head? Will that lace thing do? Come
along, then." He pushed her through the swinging doors, and added with a
laugh, as they reached the street: "You're not afraid of being seen with
me, are you? It's all right at this hour--Ralph's still swinging on a
strap in the elevated."
The winter twilight was deliriously cold, and as they swept through
Central Park, and gathered impetus for their northward flight along the
darkening Boulevard, Undine felt the rush of physical joy that drowns
scruples and silences memory. Her scruples, indeed, were not serious;
but Ralph disliked her being too much with Van Degen, and it was her way
to get what she wanted with as little "fuss" as possible. Moreover, she
knew it was a mistake to make herself too accessible to a man of Peter's
sort: her impatience to enjoy was curbed by an instinct for holding off
and biding her time that resembled the patient skill with which her
father had conducted the sale of his "bad" real estate in the Pure Water
Move days. But now and then youth had its way--she could not always
resist the present pleasure. And it was amusing, too, to be "talked
about" with Peter Van Degen, who was noted for not caring for "nice
women." She enjoyed the thought of triumphing over meretricious charms:
it ennobled her in her own eyes to influence such a man for good.
Nevertheless, as the motor flew on through the icy twilight, her present
cares flew with it. She could not shake off the thought of the useless
fancy dress which symbolized the other crowding expenses she had not
dared confess to Ralph. Van Degen heard her sigh, and bent down,
lowering the speed of the motor.
"What's the matter? Isn't everything all right?"
His tone made her suddenly feel that she could confide in him, and
though she began by murmuring that it was nothing she did so with the
conscious purpose of being persuaded to confess. And his extraordinary
"niceness" seemed to justify her and to prove that she had been right in
trusting her instinct rather than in following the counsels of prudence.
Heretofore, in their talks, she had never gone beyond the vaguest hint
of material "bothers"--as to which dissimulation seemed vain while one
lived in West End Avenue! But now that the avowal of a definite worry
had been wrung from her she felt the injustice of the view generally
taken of poor Peter. For he had been neither too enterprising nor too
cautious (though people said of him that he "didn't care to part"); he
had just laughed away, in bluff brotherly fashion, the gnawing thought
of the fancy dress, had assured her he'd give a ball himself rather
than miss seeing her wear it, and had added: "Oh, hang waiting for the
bill--won't a couple of thou make it all right?" in a tone that showed
what a small matter money was to any one who took the larger view of
The whole incident passed off so quickly and easily that within a few
minutes she had settled down--with a nod for his "Everything jolly again
now?"--to untroubled enjoyment of the hour. Peace of mind, she said to
herself, was all she needed to make her happy--and that was just what
Ralph had never given her! At the thought his face seemed to rise before
her, with the sharp lines of care between the eyes: it was almost like a
part of his "nagging" that he should thrust himself in at such a moment!
She tried to shut her eyes to the face; but a moment later it was
replaced by another, a small odd likeness of itself; and with a cry of
compunction she started up from her furs.
"Mercy! It's the boy's birthday--I was to take him to his grandmother's.
She was to have a cake for him and Ralph was to come up town. I KNEW
there was something I'd forgotten!"
In the Dagonet drawing-room the lamps had long been lit, and Mrs.
Fairford, after a last impatient turn, had put aside the curtains of
worn damask to strain her eyes into the darkening square. She came
back to the hearth, where Charles Bowen stood leaning between the prim
caryatides of the white marble chimney-piece.
"No sign of her. She's simply forgotten."
Bowen looked at his watch, and turned to compare it with the
high-waisted Empire clock.
"Six o'clock. Why not telephone again? There must be some mistake.
Perhaps she knew Ralph would be late."
Laura laughed. "I haven't noticed that she follows Ralph's movements
so closely. When I telephoned just now the servant said she'd been out
since two. The nurse waited till half-past four, not liking to come
without orders; and now it's too late for Paul to come."
She wandered away toward the farther end of the room, where,
through half-open doors, a shining surface of mahogany reflected a
flower-wreathed cake in which two candles dwindled.
"Put them out, please," she said to some one in the background; then she
shut the doors and turned back to Bowen.
"It's all so unlucky--my grandfather giving up his drive, and mother
backing out of her hospital meeting, and having all the committee down
on her. And Henley: I'd even coaxed Henley away from his bridge! He
escaped again just before you came. Undine promised she'd have the boy
here at four. It's not as if it had never happened before. She's always
breaking her engagements."
"She has so many that it's inevitable some should get broken."
"All if she'd only choose! Now that Ralph has had into business, and
is kept in his office so late, it's cruel of her to drag him out every
night. He told us the other day they hadn't dined at home for a month.
Undine doesn't seem to notice how hard he works."
Bowen gazed meditatively at the crumbling fire. "No--why should she?"
"Why SHOULD she? Really, Charles--!"
"Why should she, when she knows nothing about it?"
"She may know nothing about his business; but she must know it's her
extravagance that's forced him into it." Mrs. Fairford looked at Bowen
reproachfully. "You talk as if you were on her side!"
"Are there sides already? If so, I want to look down on them impartially
from the heights of pure speculation. I want to get a general view of
the whole problem of American marriages."
Mrs. Fairford dropped into her arm-chair with a sigh. "If that's what
you want you must make haste! Most of them don't last long enough to be
"I grant you it takes an active mind. But the weak point is so
frequently the same that after a time one knows where to look for it."
"What do you call the weak point?"
He paused. "The fact that the average American looks down on his wife."
Mrs. Fairford was up with a spring. "If that's where paradox lands you!"
Bowen mildly stood his ground. "Well--doesn't he prove it? How much does
he let her share in the real business of life? How much does he rely on
her judgment and help in the conduct of serious affairs? Take Ralph for
instance--you say his wife's extravagance forces him to work too hard;
but that's not what's wrong. It's normal for a man to work hard for a
woman--what's abnormal is his not caring to tell her anything about it."
"To tell Undine? She'd be bored to death if he did!"
"Just so; she'd even feel aggrieved. But why? Because it's against the
custom of the country. And whose fault is that? The man's again--I don't
mean Ralph I mean the genus he belongs to: homo sapiens, Americanus.
Why haven't we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply
because we don't take enough interest in THEM."
Mrs. Fairford, sinking back into her chair, sat gazing at the
vertiginous depths above which his thought seemed to dangle her.
"YOU don't? The American man doesn't--the most slaving, self-effacing,
"Yes; and the most indifferent: there's the point. The 'slaving's' no
argument against the indifference To slave for women is part of the old
American tradition; lots of people give their lives for dogmas they've
ceased to believe in. Then again, in this country the passion for making
money has preceded the knowing how to spend it, and the American man
lavishes his fortune on his wife because he doesn't know what else to do
"Then you call it a mere want of imagination for a man to spend his
money on his wife?"
"Not necessarily--but it's a want of imagination to fancy it's all
he owes her. Look about you and you'll see what I mean. Why does the
European woman interest herself so much more in what the men are doing?
Because she's so important to them that they make it worth her while!
She's not a parenthesis, as she is here--she's in the very middle
of the picture. I'm not implying that Ralph isn't interested in his
wife--he's a passionate, a pathetic exception. But even he has to
conform to an environment where all the romantic values are reversed.
Where does the real life of most American men lie? In some woman's
drawing-room or in their offices? The answer's obvious, isn't it? The
emotional centre of gravity's not the same in the two hemispheres. In
the effete societies it's love, in our new one it's business. In America
the real crime passionnel is a 'big steal'--there's more excitement in
wrecking railways than homes."
Bowen paused to light another cigarette, and then took up his theme.
"Isn't that the key to our easy divorces? If we cared for women in the
old barbarous possessive way do you suppose we'd give them up as
readily as we do? The real paradox is the fact that the men who make,
materially, the biggest sacrifices for their women, should do least for
them ideally and romantically. And what's the result--how do the women
avenge themselves? All my sympathy's with them, poor deluded dears, when
I see their fallacious little attempt to trick out the leavings
tossed them by the preoccupied male--the money and the motors and the
clothes--and pretend to themselves and each other that THAT'S what
really constitutes life! Oh, I know what you're going to say--it's less
and less of a pretense with them, I grant you; they're more and more
succumbing to the force of the suggestion; but here and there I fancy
there's one who still sees through the humbug, and knows that money and
motors and clothes are simply the big bribe she's paid for keeping out
of some man's way!"
Mrs. Fairford presented an amazed silence to the rush of this tirade;
but when she rallied it was to murmur: "And is Undine one of the
Her companion took the shot with a smile. "No--she's a monstrously
perfect result of the system: the completest proof of its triumph. It's
Ralph who's the victim and the exception."
"Ah, poor Ralph!" Mrs. Fairford raised her head quickly. "I hear him
now. I suppose," she added in an undertone, "we can't give him your
explanation for his wife's having forgotten to come?"
Bowen echoed her sigh, and then seemed to toss it from him with his
cigarette-end; but he stood in silence while the door opened and Ralph
"Well, Laura! Hallo, Charles--have you been celebrating too?" Ralph
turned to his sister. "It's outrageous of me to be so late, and I
daren't look my son in the face! But I stayed down town to make
provision for his future birthdays." He returned Mrs. Fairford's kiss.
"Don't tell me the party's over, and the guest of honour gone to bed?"
As he stood before them, laughing and a little flushed, the strain of
long fatigue sounding through his gaiety and looking out of his anxious
eyes, Mrs. Fairford threw a glance at Bowen and then turned away to ring
"Sit down, Ralph--you look tired. I'll give you some tea."
He dropped into an arm-chair. "I did have rather a rush to get here--but
hadn't I better join the revellers? Where are they?"
He walked to the end of the room and threw open the dining-room doors.
"Hallo--where have they all gone to? What a jolly cake!" He went up to
it. "Why, it's never even been cut!"
Mrs. Fairford called after him: "Come and have your tea first."
"No, no--tea afterward, thanks. Are they all upstairs with my
grandfather? I must make my peace with Undine--" His sister put her arm
through his, and drew him back to the fire.
"Undine didn't come."
"Didn't come? Who brought the boy, then?"
"He didn't come either. That's why the cake's not cut."
Ralph frowned. "What's the mystery? Is he ill, or what's happened?"
"Nothing's happened--Paul's all right. Apparently Undine forgot. She
never went home for him, and the nurse waited till it was too late to
She saw his eyes darken; but he merely gave a slight laugh and drew out
his cigarette case. "Poor little Paul--poor chap!" He moved toward the
fire. "Yes, please--some tea."
He dropped back into his chair with a look of weariness, as if some
strong stimulant had suddenly ceased to take effect on him; but before
the tea-table was brought back he had glanced at his watch and was on
his feet again.
"But this won't do. I must rush home and see the poor chap before
dinner. And my mother--and my grandfather? I want to say a word to
them--I must make Paul's excuses!"
"Grandfather's taking his nap. And mother had to rush out for a
postponed committee meeting--she left as soon as we heard Paul wasn't
"Ah, I see." He sat down again. "Yes, make the strong, please. I've had
a beastly fagging sort of day."
He leaned back with half-closed eyes, his untouched cup in his hand.
Bowen took leave, and Laura sat silent, watching her brother under
lowered lids while she feigned to be busy with the kettle. Ralph
presently emptied his cup and put it aside; then, sinking into his
former attitude, he clasped his hands behind his head and lay staring
apathetically into the fire. But suddenly he came to life and started
up. A motor-horn had sounded outside, and there was a noise of wheels at
"There's Undine! I wonder what could have kept her." He jumped up and
walked to the door; but it was Clare Van Degen who came in. At sight of
him she gave a little murmur of pleasure. "What luck to find you! No,
not luck--I came because I knew you'd be here. He never comes near me,
Laura: I have to hunt him down to get a glimpse of him!"
Slender and shadowy in her long furs, she bent to kiss Mrs. Fairford and
then turned back to Ralph. "Yes, I knew I'd catch you here. I knew
it was the boy's birthday, and I've brought him a present: a vulgar
expensive Van Degen offering. I've not enough imagination left to find
the right thing, the thing it takes feeling and not money to buy. When I
look for a present nowadays I never say to the shopman: 'I want this or
that'--I simply say: 'Give me something that costs so much.'"
She drew a parcel from her muff. "Where's the victim of my vulgarity?
Let me crush him under the weight of my gold."
Mrs. Fairford sighed out "Clare--Clare!" and Ralph smiled at his cousin.
"I'm sorry; but you'll have to depute me to present it. The birthday's
over; you're too late."
She looked surprised. "Why, I've just left Mamie Driscoll, and she told
me Undine was still at Popple's studio a few minutes ago: Popple's
giving a tea to show the picture."
"Popple's giving a tea?" Ralph struck an attitude of mock consternation.
"Ah, in that case--! In Popple's society who wouldn't forget the flight
He had recovered his usual easy tone, and Laura sat that Mrs. Van
Degen's words had dispelled his preoccupation. He turned to his cousin.
"Will you trust me with your present for the boy?"
Clare gave him the parcel. "I'm sorry not to give it myself. I said what
I did because I knew what you and Laura were thinking--but it's really
a battered old Dagonet bowl that came down to me from our revered
"What--the heirloom you used to eat your porridge out of?" Ralph
detained her hand to put a kiss on it. "That's dear of you!"
She threw him one of her strange glances. "Why not say: 'That's like
you?' But you don't remember what I'm like." She turned away to glance
at the clock. "It's late, and I must be off. I'm going to a big dinner
at the Chauncey Ellings'--but you must be going there too, Ralph? You'd
better let me drive you home."
In the motor Ralph leaned back in silence, while the rug was drawn
over their knees, and Clare restlessly fingered the row of gold-topped
objects in the rack at her elbow. It was restful to be swept through the
crowded streets in this smooth fashion, and Clare's presence at his side
gave him a vague sense of ease.
For a long time now feminine nearness had come to mean to him, not
this relief from tension, but the ever-renewed dread of small daily
deceptions, evasions, subterfuges. The change had come gradually, marked
by one disillusionment after another; but there had been one moment that
formed the point beyond which there was no returning. It was the moment,
a month or two before his boy's birth, when, glancing over a batch of
belated Paris bills, he had come on one from the jeweller he had once
found in private conference with Undine. The bill was not large, but two
of its items stood out sharply. "Resetting pearl and diamond pendant.
Resetting sapphire and diamond ring." The pearl and diamond pendant was
his mother's wedding present; the ring was the one he had given Undine
on their engagement. That they were both family relics, kept unchanged
through several generations, scarcely mattered to him at the time: he
felt only the stab of his wife's deception. She had assured him in Paris
that she had not had her jewels reset. He had noticed, soon after their
return to New York, that she had left off her engagement-ring; but the
others were soon discarded also, and in answer to his question she had
told him that, in her ailing state, rings "worried" her. Now he saw she
had deceived him, and, forgetting everything else, he went to her, bill
in hand. Her tears and distress filled him with immediate contrition.
Was this a time to torment her about trifles? His anger seemed to
cause her actual physical fear, and at the sight he abased himself in
entreaties for forgiveness. When the scene ended she had pardoned him,
and the reset ring was on her finger...
Soon afterward, the birth of the boy seemed to wipe out these
humiliating memories; yet Marvell found in time that they were not
effaced, but only momentarily crowded out of sight. In reality, the
incident had a meaning out of proportion to its apparent seriousness,
for it put in his hand a clue to a new side of his wife's character. He
no longer minded her having lied about the jeweller; what pained him was
that she had been unconscious of the wound she inflicted in destroying
the identity of the jewels. He saw that, even after their explanation,
she still supposed he was angry only because she had deceived him; and
the discovery that she was completely unconscious of states of feeling
on which so much of his inner life depended marked a new stage in their
relation. He was not thinking of all this as he sat beside Clare Van
Degen; but it was part of the chronic disquietude which made him more
alive to his cousin's sympathy, her shy unspoken understanding. After
all, he and she were of the same blood and had the same traditions. She
was light and frivolous, without strength of will or depth of purpose;
but she had the frankness of her foibles, and she would never have lied
to him or traded on his tenderness.
Clare's nervousness gradually subsided, and she lapsed into a low-voiced
mood which seemed like an answer to his secret thought. But she did not
sound the personal note, and they chatted quietly of commonplace things:
of the dinner-dance at which they were presently to meet, of the
costume she had chosen for the Driscoll fancy-ball, the recurring
rumours of old Driscoll's financial embarrassment, and the mysterious
personality of Elmer Moffatt, on whose movements Wall Street was
beginning to fix a fascinated eye. When Ralph, the year after his
marriage, had renounced his profession to go into partnership with a
firm of real-estate agents, he had come in contact for the first time
with the drama of "business," and whenever he could turn his attention
from his own tasks he found a certain interest in watching the fierce
interplay of its forces. In the down-town world he had heard things
of Moffatt that seemed to single him out from the common herd of
money-makers: anecdotes of his coolness, his lazy good-temper, the
humorous detachment he preserved in the heat of conflicting interests;
and his figure was enlarged by the mystery that hung about it--the fact
that no one seemed to know whence he came, or how he had acquired the
information which, for the moment, was making him so formidable. "I
should like to see him," Ralph said; "he must be a good specimen of the
one of the few picturesque types we've got."
"Yes--it might be amusing to fish him out; but the most picturesque
types in Wall Street are generally the tamest in a drawing-room." Clare
considered. "But doesn't Undine know him? I seem to remember seeing them
"Undine and Moffatt? Then you KNOW him--you've' met him?"
"Not actually met him--but he's been pointed out to me. It must have
been some years ago. Yes--it was one night at the theatre, just after
you announced your engagement." He fancied her voice trembled slightly,
as though she thought he might notice her way of dating her memories.
"You came into our box," she went on, "and I asked you the name of the
red-faced man who was sitting in the stall next to Undine. You didn't
know, but some one told us it was Moffatt."
Marvell was more struck by her tone than by what she was saying. "If
Undine knows him it's odd she's never mentioned it," he answered
The motor stopped at his door and Clare, as she held out her hand,
turned a first full look on him.
"Why do you never come to see me? I miss you more than ever," she said.
He pressed her hand without answering, but after the motor had rolled
away he stood for a while on the pavement, looking after it.
When he entered the house the hall was still dark and the small
over-furnished drawing-room empty. The parlour-maid told him that Mrs.
Marvell had not yet come in, and he went upstairs to the nursery. But on
the threshold the nurse met him with the whispered request not to make
a noise, as it had been hard to quiet the boy after the afternoon's
disappointment, and she had just succeeded in putting him to sleep.
Ralph went down to his own room and threw himself in the old college
arm-chair in which, four years previously, he had sat the night out,
dreaming of Undine. He had no study of his own, and he had crowded into
his narrow bed-room his prints and bookshelves, and the other relics of
his youth. As he sat among them now the memory of that other night swept
over him--the night when he had heard the "call"! Fool as he had been
not to recognize its meaning then, he knew himself triply mocked in
being, even now, at its mercy. The flame of love that had played
about his passion for his wife had died down to its embers; all the
transfiguring hopes and illusions were gone, but they had left an
unquenchable ache for her nearness, her smile, her touch. His life
had come to be nothing but a long effort to win these mercies by one
concession after another: the sacrifice of his literary projects,
the exchange of his profession for an uncongenial business, and the
incessant struggle to make enough money to satisfy her increasing
exactions. That was where the "call" had led him... The clock struck
eight, but it was useless to begin to dress till Undine came in, and he
stretched himself out in his chair, reached for a pipe and took up the
evening paper. His passing annoyance had died out; he was usually too
tired after his day's work for such feelings to keep their edge long.
But he was curious--disinterestedly curious--to know what pretext Undine
would invent for being so late, and what excuse she would have found for
forgetting the little boy's birthday.
He read on till half-past eight; then he stood up and sauntered to the
window. The avenue below it was deserted; not a carriage or motor turned
the corner around which he expected Undine to appear, and he looked idly
in the opposite direction. There too the perspective was nearly empty,
so empty that he singled out, a dozen blocks away, the blazing lamps
of a large touring-car that was bearing furiously down the avenue from
Morningside. As it drew nearer its speed slackened, and he saw it hug
the curb and stop at his door. By the light of the street lamp he
recognized his wife as she sprang out and detected a familiar silhouette
in her companion's fur-coated figure. Then the motor flew on and Undine
ran up the steps. Ralph went out on the landing. He saw her coming up
quickly, as if to reach her room unperceived; but when she caught sight
of him she stopped, her head thrown back and the light falling on her
blown hair and glowing face.
"Well?" she said, smiling up at him.
"They waited for you all the afternoon in Washington Square--the boy
never had his birthday," he answered.
Her colour deepened, but she instantly rejoined: "Why, what happened?
Why didn't the nurse take him?"
"You said you were coming to fetch him, so she waited."
"But I telephoned--"
He said to himself: "Is THAT the lie?" and answered: "Where from?"
"Why, the studio, of course--" She flung her cloak open, as if to attest
her veracity. "The sitting lasted longer than usual--there was something
about the dress he couldn't get--"
"But I thought he was giving a tea."
"He had tea afterward; he always does. And he asked some people in to
see my portrait. That detained me too. I didn't know they were coming,
and when they turned up I couldn't rush away. It would have looked as
if I didn't like the picture." She paused and they gave each other a
searching simultaneous glance. "Who told you it was a tea?" she asked.
"Clare Van Degen. I saw her at my mother's."
"So you weren't unconsoled after all--!"
"The nurse didn't get any message. My people were awfully disappointed;
and the poor boy has cried his eyes out."
"Dear me! What a fuss! But I might have known my message wouldn't be
delivered. Everything always happens to put me in the wrong with your
With a little air of injured pride she started to go to her room; but he
put out a hand to detain her.
"You've just come from the studio?"
"Yes. It is awfully late? I must go and dress. We're dining with the
Ellings, you know."
"I know... How did you come? In a cab?"
She faced him limpidly. "No; I couldn't find one that would bring me--so
Peter gave me a lift, like an angel. I'm blown to bits. He had his open
Her colour was still high, and Ralph noticed that her lower lip twitched
a little. He had led her to the point they had reached solely to be able
to say: "If you're straight from the studio, how was it that I saw you
coming down from Morningside?"
Unless he asked her that there would be no point in his
cross-questioning, and he would have sacrificed his pride without
a purpose. But suddenly, as they stood there face to face, almost
touching, she became something immeasurably alien and far off, and the
question died on his lips.
"Is that all?" she asked with a slight smile.
"Yes; you'd better go and dress," he said, and turned back to his room.
The turnings of life seldom show a sign-post; or rather, though the
sign is always there, it is usually placed some distance back, like the
notices that give warning of a bad hill or a level railway-crossing.
Ralph Marvell, pondering upon this, reflected that for him the sign had
been set, more than three years earlier, in an Italian ilex-grove. That
day his life had brimmed over--so he had put it at the time. He saw now
that it had brimmed over indeed: brimmed to the extent of leaving the
cup empty, or at least of uncovering the dregs beneath the nectar. He
knew now that he should never hereafter look at his wife's hand without
remembering something he had read in it that day. Its surface-language
had been sweet enough, but under the rosy lines he had seen the warning
Since then he had been walking with a ghost: the miserable ghost of his
illusion. Only he had somehow vivified, coloured, substantiated it, by
the force of his own great need--as a man might breathe a semblance of
life into a dear drowned body that he cannot give up for dead. All this
came to him with aching distinctness the morning after his talk with his
wife on the stairs. He had accused himself, in midnight retrospect, of
having failed to press home his conclusion because he dared not face
the truth. But he knew this was not the case. It was not the truth he
feared, it was another lie. If he had foreseen a chance of her saying:
"Yes, I was with Peter Van Degen, and for the reason you think," he
would have put it to the touch, stood up to the blow like a man; but he
knew she would never say that. She would go on eluding and doubling,
watching him as he watched her; and at that game she was sure to beat
him in the end.
On their way home from the Elling dinner this certainty had become so
insufferable that it nearly escaped him in the cry: "You needn't watch
me--I shall never again watch you!" But he had held his peace, knowing
she would not understand. How little, indeed, she ever understood,
had been made clear to him when, the same night, he had followed her
upstairs through the sleeping house. She had gone on ahead while he
stayed below to lock doors and put out lights, and he had supposed her
to be already in her room when he reached the upper landing; but she
stood there waiting in the spot where he had waited for her a few hours
earlier. She had shone her vividest at dinner, with revolving brilliancy
that collective approval always struck from her; and the glow of it
still hung on her as she paused there in the dimness, her shining cloak
dropped from her white shoulders.
"Ralphie--" she began, a soft hand on his arm. He stopped, and she
pulled him about so that their faces were close, and he saw her lips
curving for a kiss. Every line of her face sought him, from the sweep of
the narrowed eyelids to the dimples that played away from her smile. His
eye received the picture with distinctness; but for the first time it
did not pass into his veins. It was as if he had been struck with a
subtle blindness that permitted images to give their colour to the eye
but communicated nothing to the brain.
"Good-night," he said, as he passed on.
When a man felt in that way about a woman he was surely in a position to
deal with his case impartially. This came to Ralph as the joyless solace
of the morning. At last the bandage was off and he could see. And what
did he see? Only the uselessness of driving his wife to subterfuges that
were no longer necessary. Was Van Degen her lover? Probably not--the
suspicion died as it rose. She would not take more risks than she could
help, and it was admiration, not love, that she wanted. She wanted
to enjoy herself, and her conception of enjoyment was publicity,
promiscuity--the band, the banners, the crowd, the close contact of
covetous impulses, and the sense of walking among them in cool security.
Any personal entanglement might mean "bother," and bother was the thing
she most abhorred. Probably, as the queer formula went, his "honour"
was safe: he could count on the letter of her fidelity. At moment the
conviction meant no more to him than if he had been assured of the
honesty of the first strangers he met in the street. A stranger--that
was what she had always been to him. So malleable outwardly, she had
remained insensible to the touch of the heart.
These thoughts accompanied him on his way to business the next morning.
Then, as the routine took him back, the feeling of strangeness
diminished. There he was again at his daily task--nothing tangible was
altered. He was there for the same purpose as yesterday: to make money
for his wife and child. The woman he had turned from on the stairs a few
hours earlier was still his wife and the mother of Paul Marvell. She was
an inherent part of his life; the inner disruption had not resulted in
any outward upheaval. And with the sense of inevitableness there came a
sudden wave of pity. Poor Undine! She was what the gods had made her--a
creature of skin-deep reactions, a mote in the beam of pleasure. He
had no desire to "preach down" such heart as she had--he felt only a
stronger wish to reach it, teach it, move it to something of the pity
that filled his own. They were fellow-victims in the noyade of marriage,
but if they ceased to struggle perhaps the drowning would be easier for
both...Meanwhile the first of the month was at hand, with its usual
batch of bills; and there was no time to think of any struggle less
pressing than that connected with paying them...
Undine had been surprised, and a little disconcerted, at her husband's
acceptance of the birthday incident. Since the resetting of her bridal
ornaments the relations between Washington Square and West End Avenue
had been more and more strained; and the silent disapproval of the
Marvell ladies was more irritating to her than open recrimination. She
knew how keenly Ralph must feel her last slight to his family, and she
had been frightened when she guessed that he had seen her returning with
Van Degen. He must have been watching from the window, since, credulous
as he always was, he evidently had a reason for not believing her when
she told him she had come from the studio. There was therefore something
both puzzling and disturbing in his silence; and she made up her mind
that it must be either explained or cajoled away.
These thoughts were with her as she dressed; but at the Ellings' they
fled like ghosts before light and laughter. She had never been more open
to the suggestions of immediate enjoyment. At last she had reached the
envied situation of the pretty woman with whom society must reckon, and
if she had only had the means to live up to her opportunities she would
have been perfectly content with life, with herself and her husband. She
still thought Ralph "sweet" when she was not bored by his good advice or
exasperated by his inability to pay her bills. The question of money
was what chiefly stood between them; and now that this was momentarily
disposed of by Van Degen's offer she looked at Ralph more kindly--she
even felt a return of her first impersonal affection for him. Everybody
could see that Clare Van Degen was "gone" on him, and Undine always
liked to know that what belonged to her was coveted by others. Her
reassurance had been fortified by the news she had heard at the Elling
dinner--the published fact of Harmon B. Driscoll's unexpected victory.
The Ararat investigation had been mysteriously stopped--quashed, in the
language of the law--and Elmer Moffatt "turned down," as Van Degen (who
sat next to her) expressed it.
"I don't believe we'll ever hear of that gentleman again," he said
contemptuously; and their eyes crossed gaily as she exclaimed: "Then
they'll give the fancy ball after all?"
"I should have given you one anyhow--shouldn't you have liked that as
well?" "Oh, you can give me one too!" she returned; and he bent closer
to say: "By Jove, I will--and anything else you want."
But on the way home her fears revived. Ralph's indifference struck
her as unnatural. He had not returned to the subject of Paul's
disappointment, had not even asked her to write a word of excuse to his
mother. Van Degen's way of looking at her at dinner--he was incapable
of graduating his glances--had made it plain that the favour she had
accepted would necessitate her being more conspicuously in his company
(though she was still resolved that it should be on just such terms as
she chose); and it would be extremely troublesome if, at this juncture,
Ralph should suddenly turn suspicious and secretive.
Undine, hitherto, had found more benefits than drawbacks in her
marriage; but now the tie began to gall. It was hard to be criticized
for every grasp at opportunity by a man so avowedly unable to do the
reaching for her! Ralph had gone into business to make more money for
her; but it was plain that the "more" would never be much, and that he
would not achieve the quick rise to affluence which was man's natural
tribute to woman's merits. Undine felt herself trapped, deceived; and it
was intolerable that the agent of her disillusionment should presume to
be the critic of her conduct. Her annoyance, however, died out with
her fears. Ralph, the morning after the Elling dinner, went his way as
usual, and after nerving herself for the explosion which did not come
she set down his indifference to the dulling effect of "business." No
wonder poor women whose husbands were always "down-town" had to look
elsewhere for sympathy! Van Degen's cheque helped to calm her, and the
weeks whirled on toward the Driscoll ball.
The ball was as brilliant as she had hoped, and her own part in it as
thrilling as a page from one of the "society novels" with which she had
cheated the monotony of Apex days. She had no time for reading now:
every hour was packed with what she would have called life, and the
intensity of her sensations culminated on that triumphant evening. What
could be more delightful than to feel that, while all the women envied
her dress, the men did not so much as look at it? Their admiration was
all for herself, and her beauty deepened under it as flowers take a
warmer colour in the rays of sunset. Only Van Degen's glance weighed
on her a little too heavily. Was it possible that he might become a
"bother" less negligible than those he had relieved her of? Undine
was not greatly alarmed--she still had full faith in her powers of
self-defense; but she disliked to feel the least crease in the smooth
surface of existence. She had always been what her parents called
As the winter passed, material cares once more assailed her. In
the thrill of liberation produced by Van Degen's gift she had been
imprudent--had launched into fresh expenses. Not that she accused
herself of extravagance: she had done nothing not really necessary. The
drawing-room, for instance, cried out to be "done over," and Popple, who
was an authority on decoration, had shown her, with a few strokes of his
pencil how easily it might be transformed into a French "period" room,
all curves and cupids: just the setting for a pretty woman and his
portrait of her. But Undine, still hopeful of leaving West End Avenue,
had heroically resisted the suggestion, and contented herself with the
renewal of the curtains and carpet, and the purchase of some fragile
gilt chairs which, as she told Ralph, would be "so much to the good"
when they moved--the explanation, as she made it, seemed an additional
evidence of her thrift.
Partly as a result of these exertions she had a "nervous breakdown"
toward the middle of the winter, and her physician having ordered
massage and a daily drive it became necessary to secure Mrs. Heeny's
attendance and to engage a motor by the month. Other unforeseen
expenses--the bills, that, at such times, seem to run up without visible
impulsion--were added to by a severe illness of little Paul's: a long
costly illness, with three nurses and frequent consultations. During
these days Ralph's anxiety drove him to what seemed to Undine foolish
excesses of expenditure and when the boy began to get better the doctors
advised country air. Ralph at once hired a small house at Tuxedo and
Undine of course accompanied her son to the country; but she spent only
the Sundays with him, running up to town during the week to be with
her husband, as she explained. This necessitated the keeping up of two
households, and even for so short a time the strain on Ralph's purse was
severe. So it came about that the bill for the fancy-dress was still
unpaid, and Undine left to wonder distractedly what had become of
Van Degen's money. That Van Degen seemed also to wonder was becoming
unpleasantly apparent: his cheque had evidently not brought in the
return he expected, and he put his grievance to her frankly one day when
he motored down to lunch at Tuxedo.
They were sitting, after luncheon, in the low-ceilinged drawing-room to
which Undine had adapted her usual background of cushions, bric-a-brac
and flowers--since one must make one's setting "home-like," however
little one's habits happened to correspond with that particular effect.
Undine, conscious of the intimate charm of her mise-en-scene, and of
the recovered freshness and bloom which put her in harmony with it, had
never been more sure of her power to keep her friend in the desired
state of adoring submission. But Peter, as he grew more adoring, became
less submissive; and there came a moment when she needed all her wits to
save the situation. It was easy enough to rebuff him, the easier as his
physical proximity always roused in her a vague instinct of resistance;
but it was hard so to temper the rebuff with promise that the game of
suspense should still delude him. He put it to her at last, standing
squarely before her, his batrachian sallowness unpleasantly flushed,
and primitive man looking out of the eyes from which a frock-coated
gentleman usually pined at her.
"Look here--the installment plan's all right; but ain't you a bit behind
even on that?" (She had brusquely eluded a nearer approach.) "Anyhow,
I think I'd rather let the interest accumulate for a while. This is
good-bye till I get back from Europe."
The announcement took her by surprise. "Europe? Why, when are you
"On the first of April: good day for a fool to acknowledge his folly.
I'm beaten, and I'm running away."
She sat looking down, her hand absently occupied with the twist of
pearls he had given her. In a flash she saw the peril of this departure.
Once off on the Sorceress, he was lost to her--the power of old
associations would prevail. Yet if she were as "nice" to him as he
asked--"nice" enough to keep him--the end might not be much more to her
advantage. Hitherto she had let herself drift on the current of their
adventure, but she now saw what port she had half-unconsciously been
trying for. If she had striven so hard to hold him, had "played" him
with such patience and such skill, it was for something more than her
passing amusement and convenience: for a purpose the more tenaciously
cherished that she had not dared name it to herself. In the light of
this discovery she saw the need of feigning complete indifference.
"Ah, you happy man! It's good-bye indeed, then," she threw back at him,
lifting a plaintive smile to his frown.
"Oh, you'll turn up in Paris later, I suppose--to get your things for
"Paris? Newport? They're not on my map! When Ralph can get away we shall
go to the Adirondacks for the boy. I hope I shan't need Paris clothes
there! It doesn't matter, at any rate," she ended, laughing, "because
nobody I care about will see me."
Van Degen echoed her laugh. "Oh, come--that's rough on Ralph!"
She looked down with a slight increase of colour. "I oughtn't to have
said it, ought I? But the fact is I'm unhappy--and a little hurt--"
"Unhappy? Hurt?" He was at her side again. "Why, what's wrong?"
She lifted her eyes with a grave look. "I thought you'd be sorrier to
"Oh, it won't be for long--it needn't be, you know." He was perceptibly
softening. "It's damnable, the way you're tied down. Fancy rotting all
summer in the Adirondacks! Why do you stand it? You oughtn't to be bound
for life by a girl's mistake."
The lashes trembled slightly on her cheek. "Aren't we all bound by our
mistakes--we women? Don't let us talk of such things! Ralph would never
let me go abroad without him." She paused, and then, with a quick upward
sweep of the lids: "After all, it's better it should be good-bye--since
I'm paying for another mistake in being so unhappy at your going."
"Another mistake? Why do you call it that?"
"Because I've misunderstood you--or you me." She continued to smile at
him wistfully. "And some things are best mended by a break."
He met her smile with a loud sigh--she could feel him in the meshes
again. "IS it to be a break between us?"