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The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

Part 6 out of 8

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She approached Madame de Trezac effusively, and after an interchange of
exclamations Undine heard her say "You know my friend Mrs. Marvell? No?
How odd! Where do you manage to hide yourself, chere Madame? Undine,
here's a compatriot who hasn't the pleasure--"

"I'm such a hermit, dear Mrs. Marvell--the Princess shows me what I
miss," the Marquise de Trezac murmured, rising to give her hand
to Undine, and speaking in a voice so different from that of the
supercilious Miss Wincher that only her facial angle and the droop of
her nose linked her to the hated vision of Potash Springs.

Undine felt herself dancing on a flood-tide of security. For the first
time the memory of Potash Springs became a thing to smile at, and with
the Princess's arm through hers she shone back triumphantly on Madame de
Trezac, who seemed to have grown suddenly obsequious and insignificant,
as though the waving of the Princess's wand had stripped her of all her
false advantages.

But upstairs, in her own room. Undine's courage fell. Madame de Trezac
had been civil, effusive even, because for the moment she had been taken
off her guard by finding Mrs. Marvell on terms of intimacy with the
Princess Estradina and her mother. But the force of facts would reassert
itself. Far from continuing to see Undine through her French friends'
eyes she would probably invite them to view her compatriot through the
searching lens of her own ampler information. "The old hypocrite--she'll
tell them everything," Undine murmured, wincing at the recollection
of the dentist's assistant from Deposit, and staring miserably at her
reflection in the dressing-table mirror. Of what use were youth and
grace and good looks, if one drop of poison distilled from the envy of
a narrow-minded woman was enough to paralyze them? Of course Madame de
Trezac knew and remembered, and, secure in her own impregnable position,
would never rest till she had driven out the intruder.


"What do you say to Nice to-morrow, dearest?" the Princess suggested
a few evenings later as she followed Undine upstairs after a languid
evening at bridge with the Duchess and Madame de Trezac.

Half-way down the passage she stopped to open a door and, putting her
finger to her lip, signed to Undine to enter. In the taper-lit dimness
stood two small white beds, each surmounted by a crucifix and a palm
branch, and each containing a small brown sleeping child with a mop of
hair and a curiously finished little face. As the Princess stood gazing
on their innocent slumbers she seemed for a moment like a third little
girl scarcely bigger and browner than the others; and the smile with
which she watched them was as clear as theirs. "Ah, si seulement je
pouvais choisir leurs amants!" she sighed as she turned away.

"--Nice to-morrow," she repeated, as she and Undine walked on to their
rooms with linked arms. "We may as well make hay while the Trezac
shines. She bores Mamma frightfully, but Mamma won't admit it because
they belong to the same oeuvres. Shall it be the eleven train, dear?
We can lunch at the Royal and look in the shops--we may meet somebody
amusing. Anyhow, it's better than staying here!"

Undine was sure the trip to Nice would be delightful. Their previous
expeditions had shown her the Princess's faculty for organizing such
adventures. At Monte-Carlo, a few days before, they had run across two
or three amusing but unassorted people, and the Princess, having fused
them in a jolly lunch, had followed it up by a bout at baccarat, and,
finally hunting down an eminent composer who had just arrived to
rehearse a new production, had insisted on his asking the party to tea,
and treating them to fragments of his opera.

A few days earlier, Undine's hope of renewing such pleasures would have
been clouded by the dread of leaving Madame de Trezac alone with the
Duchess. But she had no longer any fear of Madame de Trezac. She had
discovered that her old rival of Potash Springs was in actual dread
of her disfavour, and nervously anxious to conciliate her, and the
discovery gave her such a sense of the heights she had scaled, and the
security of her footing, that all her troubled past began to seem like
the result of some providential "design," and vague impulses of piety
stirred in her as she and the Princess whirled toward Nice through the
blue and gold glitter of the morning.

They wandered about the lively streets, they gazed into the beguiling
shops, the Princess tried on hats and Undine bought them, and they
lunched at the Royal on all sorts of succulent dishes prepared under
the head-waiter's special supervision. But as they were savouring
their "double" coffee and liqueurs, and Undine was wondering what her
companion would devise for the afternoon, the Princess clapped her hands
together and cried out: "Dearest, I'd forgotten! I must desert you."

She explained that she'd promised the Duchess to look up a friend who
was ill--a poor wretch who'd been sent to Cimiez for her lungs--and that
she must rush off at once, and would be back as soon as possible--well,
if not in an hour, then in two at latest. She was full of compunction,
but she knew Undine would forgive her, and find something amusing to
fill up the time: she advised her to go back and buy the black hat with
the osprey, and try on the crepe de Chine they'd thought so smart: for
any one as good-looking as herself the woman would probably alter it for
nothing; and they could meet again at the Palace Tea-Rooms at four. She
whirled away in a cloud of explanations, and Undine, left alone, sat
down on the Promenade des Anglais. She did not believe a word the
Princess had said. She had seen in a flash why she was being left, and
why the plan had not been divulged to her before-hand; and she
quivered with resentment and humiliation. "That's what she's wanted me
for...that's why she made up to me. She's trying it to-day, and after
this it'll happen regularly...she'll drag me over here every day or
two...at least she thinks she will!"

A sincere disgust was Undine's uppermost sensation. She was as much
ashamed as Mrs. Spragg might have been at finding herself used to screen
a clandestine adventure.

"I'll let her see... I'll make her understand," she repeated angrily;
and for a moment she was half-disposed to drive to the station and take
the first train back. But the sense of her precarious situation withheld
her; and presently, with bitterness in her heart, she got up and began
to stroll toward the shops.

To show that she was not a dupe, she arrived at the designated
meeting-place nearly an hour later than the time appointed; but when she
entered the Tea-Rooms the Princess was nowhere to be seen. The rooms
were crowded, and Undine was guided toward a small inner apartment
where isolated couples were absorbing refreshments in an atmosphere of
intimacy that made it seem incongruous to be alone. She glanced about
for a face she knew, but none was visible, and she was just giving up
the search when she beheld Elmer Moffatt shouldering his way through the

The sight was so surprising that she sat gazing with unconscious fixity
at the round black head and glossy reddish face which kept appearing and
disappearing through the intervening jungle of aigrettes. It was long
since she had either heard of Moffatt or thought about him, and now, in
her loneliness and exasperation, she took comfort in the sight of his
confident capable face, and felt a longing to hear his voice and unbosom
her woes to him. She had half risen to attract his attention when she
saw him turn back and make way for a companion, who was cautiously
steering her huge feathered hat between the tea-tables. The woman was
of the vulgarest type; everything about her was cheap and gaudy. But
Moffatt was obviously elated: he stood aside with a flourish to usher
her in, and as he followed he shot out a pink shirt-cuff with jewelled
links, and gave his moustache a gallant twist. Undine felt an
unreasoning irritation: she was vexed with him both for not being alone
and for being so vulgarly accompanied. As the couple seated themselves
she caught Moffatt's glance and saw him redden to the edge of his white
forehead; but he elaborately avoided her eye--he evidently wanted her to
see him do it--and proceeded to minister to his companion's wants with
an air of experienced gallantry.

The incident, trifling as it was, filled up the measure of Undine's
bitterness. She thought Moffatt pitiably ridiculous, and she hated him
for showing himself in such a light at that particular moment. Her mind
turned back to her own grievance, and she was just saying to herself
that nothing on earth should prevent her letting the Princess know what
she thought of her, when the lady in question at last appeared. She came
hurriedly forward and behind her Undine perceived the figure of a slight
quietly dressed man, as to whom her immediate impression was that he
made every one else in the room look as common as Moffatt. An instant
later the colour had flown to her face and her hand was in Raymond de
Chelles, while the Princess, murmuring: "Cimiez's such a long way off;
but you WILL forgive me?" looked into her eyes with a smile that added:
"See how I pay for what I get!"

Her first glance showed Undine how glad Raymond de Chelles was to see
her. Since their last meeting his admiration for her seemed not only to
have increased but to have acquired a different character. Undine, at
an earlier stage in her career, might not have known exactly what the
difference signified; but it was as clear to her now as if the Princess
had said--what her beaming eyes seemed, in fact, to convey--"I'm only
too glad to do my cousin the same kind of turn you're doing me."

But Undine's increased experience, if it had made her more vigilant,
had also given her a clearer measure of her power. She saw at once
that Chelles, in seeking to meet her again, was not in quest of a mere
passing adventure. He was evidently deeply drawn to her, and her present
situation, if it made it natural to regard her as more accessible, had
not altered the nature of his feeling. She saw and weighed all this in
the first five minutes during which, over tea and muffins, the Princess
descanted on her luck in happening to run across her cousin, and
Chelles, his enchanted eyes on Undine, expressed his sense of his good
fortune. He was staying, it appeared, with friends at Beaulieu, and had
run over to Nice that afternoon by the merest chance: he added that,
having just learned of his aunt's presence in the neighbourhood, he had
already planned to present his homage to her.

"Oh, don't come to us--we're too dull!" the Princess exclaimed. "Let us
run over occasionally and call on you: we're dying for a pretext, aren't
we?" she added, smiling at Undine.

The latter smiled back vaguely, and looked across the room. Moffatt,
looking flushed and foolish, was just pushing back his chair. To carry
off his embarrassment he put an additional touch of importance; and as
he swaggered out behind his companion, Undine said to herself, with a
shiver: "If he'd been alone they would have found me taking tea with

Undine, during the ensuing weeks, returned several times to Nice with
the Princess; but, to the latter's surprise, she absolutely refused to
have Raymond de Chelles included in their luncheon-parties, or even
apprised in advance of their expeditions.

The Princess, always impatient of unnecessary dissimulation, had not
attempted to keep up the feint of the interesting invalid at Cimiez. She
confessed to Undine that she was drawn to Nice by the presence there of
the person without whom, for the moment, she found life intolerable,
and whom she could not well receive under the same roof with her little
girls and her mother. She appealed to Undine's sisterly heart to feel
for her in her difficulty, and implied that--as her conduct had already
proved--she would always be ready to render her friend a like service.
It was at this point that Undine checked her by a decided word. "I
understand your position, and I'm very sorry for you, of course," she
began (the Princess stared at the "sorry"). "Your secret's perfectly
safe with me, and I'll do anything I can for you...but if I go to Nice
with you again you must promise not to ask your cousin to meet us."

The Princess's face expressed the most genuine astonishment. "Oh, my
dear, do forgive me if I've been stupid! He admires you so tremendously;
and I thought--"

"You'll do as I ask, please--won't you?" Undine went on, ignoring the
interruption and looking straight at her under level brows; and the
Princess, with a shrug, merely murmured: "What a pity! I fancied you
liked him."


The early spring found Undine once more in Paris.

She had every reason to be satisfied with the result of the course she
had pursued since she had pronounced her ultimatum on the subject of
Raymond de Chelles. She had continued to remain on the best of terms
with the Princess, to rise in the estimation of the old Duchess, and
to measure the rapidity of her ascent in the upward gaze of Madame de
Trezac; and she had given Chelles to understand that, if he wished to
renew their acquaintance, he must do so in the shelter of his venerable
aunt's protection.

To the Princess she was careful to make her attitude equally clear. "I
like your cousin very much--he's delightful, and if I'm in Paris this
spring I hope I shall see a great deal of him. But I know how easy it is
for a woman in my position to get talked about--and I have my little boy
to consider."

Nevertheless, whenever Chelles came over from Beaulieu to spend a
day with his aunt and cousin--an excursion he not infrequently
repeated--Undine was at no pains to conceal her pleasure. Nor was there
anything calculated in her attitude. Chelles seemed to her more charming
than ever, and the warmth of his wooing was in flattering contrast to
the cool reserve of his manners. At last she felt herself alive and
young again, and it became a joy to look in her glass and to try on her
new hats and dresses...

The only menace ahead was the usual one of the want of money. While she
had travelled with her parents she had been at relatively small expense,
and since their return to America Mr. Spragg had sent her allowance
regularly; yet almost all the money she had received for the pearls was
already gone, and she knew her Paris season would be far more expensive
than the quiet weeks on the Riviera.

Meanwhile the sense of reviving popularity, and the charm of Chelles'
devotion, had almost effaced the ugly memories of failure, and
refurbished that image of herself in other minds which was her only
notion of self-seeing. Under the guidance of Madame de Trezac she had
found a prettily furnished apartment in a not too inaccessible quarter,
and in its light bright drawing-room she sat one June afternoon
listening, with all the forbearance of which she was capable, to the
counsels of her newly-acquired guide.

"Everything but marriage--" Madame de Trezac was repeating, her long
head slightly tilted, her features wearing the rapt look of an adept
reciting a hallowed formula.

Raymond de Chelles had not been mentioned by either of the ladies, and
the former Miss Wincher was merely imparting to her young friend one of
the fundamental dogmas of her social creed; but Undine was conscious
that the air between them vibrated with an unspoken name. She made no
immediate answer, but her glance, passing by Madame de Trezac's dull
countenance, sought her own reflection in the mirror behind her
visitor's chair. A beam of spring sunlight touched the living masses of
her hair and made the face beneath as radiant as a girl's. Undine smiled
faintly at the promise her own eyes gave her, and then turned them back
to her friend. "What can such women know about anything?" she thought

"There's everything against it," Madame de Trezac continued in a tone of
patient exposition. She seemed to be doing her best to make the matter
clear. "In the first place, between people in society a religious
marriage is necessary; and, since the Church doesn't recognize divorce,
that's obviously out of the question. In France, a man of position who
goes through the form of civil marriage with a divorced woman is simply
ruining himself and her. They might much better--from her point of
view as well as his--be 'friends,' as it's called over here: such
arrangements are understood and allowed for. But when a Frenchman
marries he wants to marry as his people always have. He knows there are
traditions he can't fight against--and in his heart he's glad there

"Oh, I know: they've so much religious feeling. I admire that in them:
their religion's so beautiful." Undine looked thoughtfully at her
visitor. "I suppose even money--a great deal of money--wouldn't make the
least bit of difference?"

"None whatever, except to make matters worse," Madame de Trezac
decisively rejoined. She returned Undine's look with something of Miss
Wincher's contemptuous authority. "But," she added, softening to a
smile, "between ourselves--I can say it, since we're neither of us
children--a woman with tact, who's not in a position to remarry, will
find society extremely indulgent... provided, of course, she keeps up

Undine turned to her with the frown of a startled Diana. "We don't look
at things that way out at Apex," she said coldly; and the blood rose in
Madame de Trezac's sallow cheek.

"Oh, my dear, it's so refreshing to hear you talk like that! Personally,
of course, I've never quite got used to the French view--"

"I hope no American woman ever does," said Undine.

She had been in Paris for about two months when this conversation took
place, and in spite of her reviving self-confidence she was beginning to
recognize the strength of the forces opposed to her. It had taken a long
time to convince her that even money could not prevail against them;
and, in the intervals of expressing her admiration for the Catholic
creed, she now had violent reactions of militant Protestantism, during
which she talked of the tyranny of Rome and recalled school stories of
immoral Popes and persecuting Jesuits.

Meanwhile her demeanour to Chelles was that of the incorruptible but
fearless American woman, who cannot even conceive of love outside of
marriage, but is ready to give her devoted friendship to the man on
whom, in happier circumstances, she might have bestowed her hand. This
attitude was provocative of many scenes, during which her suitor's
unfailing powers of expression--his gift of looking and saying all
the desperate and devoted things a pretty woman likes to think she
inspires--gave Undine the thrilling sense of breathing the very air of
French fiction. But she was aware that too prolonged tension of these
cords usually ends in their snapping, and that Chelles' patience was
probably in inverse ratio to his ardour.

When Madame de Trezac had left her these thoughts remained in her mind.
She understood exactly what each of her new friends wanted of her. The
Princess, who was fond of her cousin, and had the French sense of family
solidarity, would have liked to see Chelles happy in what seemed to her
the only imaginable way. Madame de Trezac would have liked to do what
she could to second the Princess's efforts in this or any other line;
and even the old Duchess--though piously desirous of seeing her
favourite nephew married--would have thought it not only natural but
inevitable that, while awaiting that happy event, he should try to
induce an amiable young woman to mitigate the drawbacks of celibacy.
Meanwhile, they might one and all weary of her if Chelles did; and
a persistent rejection of his suit would probably imperil her
scarcely-gained footing among his friends. All this was clear to her,
yet it did not shake her resolve. She was determined to give up Chelles
unless he was willing to marry her; and the thought of her renunciation
moved her to a kind of wistful melancholy.

In this mood her mind reverted to a letter she had just received from
her mother. Mrs. Spragg wrote more fully than usual, and the unwonted
flow of her pen had been occasioned by an event for which she had long
yearned. For months she had pined for a sight of her grandson, had tried
to screw up her courage to write and ask permission to visit him, and,
finally breaking through her sedentary habits, had begun to haunt the
neighbourhood of Washington Square, with the result that one afternoon
she had had the luck to meet the little boy coming out of the house with
his nurse. She had spoken to him, and he had remembered her and called
her "Granny"; and the next day she had received a note from Mrs.
Fairford saying that Ralph would be glad to send Paul to see her. Mrs.
Spragg enlarged on the delights of the visit and the growing beauty and
cleverness of her grandson. She described to Undine exactly how Paul
was dressed, how he looked and what he said, and told her how he had
examined everything in the room, and, finally coming upon his mother's
photograph, had asked who the lady was; and, on being told, had wanted
to know if she was a very long way off, and when Granny thought she
would come back.

As Undine re-read her mother's pages, she felt an unusual tightness in
her throat and two tears rose to her eyes. It was dreadful that her
little boy should be growing up far away from her, perhaps dressed in
clothes she would have hated; and wicked and unnatural that when he saw
her picture he should have to be told who she was. "If I could only meet
some good man who would give me a home and be a father to him," she
thought--and the tears overflowed and ran down.

Even as they fell, the door was thrown open to admit Raymond de Chelles,
and the consciousness of the moisture still glistening on her cheeks
perhaps strengthened her resolve to resist him, and thus made her more
imperiously to be desired. Certain it is that on that day her suitor
first alluded to a possibility which Madame de Trezac had prudently
refrained from suggesting, there fell upon Undine's attentive ears the
magic phrase "annulment of marriage."

Her alert intelligence immediately set to work in this new direction;
but almost at the same moment she became aware of a subtle change
of tone in the Princess and her mother, a change reflected in the
corresponding decline of Madame de Trezac's cordiality. Undine, since
her arrival in Paris, had necessarily been less in the Princess's
company, but when they met she had found her as friendly as ever. It was
manifestly not a failing of the Princess's to forget past favours, and
though increasingly absorbed by the demands of town life she treated her
new friend with the same affectionate frankness, and Undine was given
frequent opportunities to enlarge her Parisian acquaintance, not only in
the Princess's intimate circle but in the majestic drawing-rooms of the
Hotel de Dordogne. Now, however, there was a perceptible decline in
these signs of hospitality, and Undine, on calling one day on the
Duchess, noticed that her appearance sent a visible flutter of
discomfort through the circle about her hostess's chair. Two or three of
the ladies present looked away from the new-comer and at each other,
and several of them seemed spontaneously to encircle without approaching
her, while another--grey-haired, elderly and slightly frightened--with
an "Adieu, ma bonne tante" to the Duchess, was hastily aided in her
retreat down the long line of old gilded rooms.

The incident was too mute and rapid to have been noticeable had it not
been followed by the Duchess's resuming her conversation with the ladies
nearest her as though Undine had just gone out of the room instead of
entering it. The sense of having been thus rendered invisible filled
Undine with a vehement desire to make herself seen, and an equally
strong sense that all attempts to do so would be vain; and when, a few
minutes later, she issued from the portals of the Hotel de Dordogne it
was with the fixed resolve not to enter them again till she had had an
explanation with the Princess.

She was spared the trouble of seeking one by the arrival, early the next
morning, of Madame de Trezac, who, entering almost with the breakfast
tray, mysteriously asked to be allowed to communicate something of

"You'll understand, I know, the Princess's not coming herself--" Madame
de Trezac began, sitting up very straight on the edge of the arm-chair
over which Undine's lace dressing-gown hung.

"If there's anything she wants to say to me, I don't," Undine answered,
leaning back among her rosy pillows, and reflecting compassionately that
the face opposite her was just the colour of the cafe au lait she was
pouring out.

"There are things that are...that might seem too pointed...if one said
them one's self," Madame de Trezac continued. "Our dear Lili's so
good-natured... she so hates to do anything unfriendly; but she
naturally thinks first of her mother..."

"Her mother? What's the matter with her mother?"

"I told her I knew you didn't understand. I was sure you'd take it in
good part..."

Undine raised herself on her elbow. "What did Lili tell you to tell me?"

"Oh, not to TELL you...simply to ask if, just for the present, you'd
mind avoiding the Duchess's Thursdays ...calling on any other day, that

"Any other day? She's not at home on any other. Do you mean she doesn't
want me to call?"

"Well--not while the Marquise de Chelles is in Paris. She's the
Duchess's favourite niece--and of course they all hang together. That
kind of family feeling is something you naturally don't--"

Undine had a sudden glimpse of hidden intricacies.

"That was Raymond de Chelles' mother I saw there yesterday? The one they
hurried out when I came in?"

"It seems she was very much upset. She somehow heard your name."

"Why shouldn't she have heard my name? And why in the world should it
upset her?"

Madame de Trezac heaved a hesitating sigh. "Isn't it better to be frank?
She thinks she has reason to feel badly--they all do."

"To feel badly? Because her son wants to marry me?"

"Of course they know that's impossible." Madame de Trezac smiled
compassionately. "But they're afraid of your spoiling his other

Undine paused a moment before answering, "It won't be impossible when my
marriage is annulled," she said.

The effect of this statement was less electrifying than she had hoped.
Her visitor simply broke into a laugh. "My dear child! Your marriage
annulled? Who can have put such a mad idea into your head?"

Undine's gaze followed the pattern she was tracing with a lustrous nail
on her embroidered bedspread. "Raymond himself," she let fall.

This time there was no mistaking the effect she produced. Madame de
Trezac, with a murmured "Oh," sat gazing before her as if she had
lost the thread of her argument; and it was only after a considerable
interval that she recovered it sufficiently to exclaim: "They'll never
hear of it--absolutely never!"

"But they can't prevent it, can they?"

"They can prevent its being of any use to you."

"I see," Undine pensively assented.

She knew the tone she had taken was virtually a declaration of war; but
she was in a mood when the act of defiance, apart from its strategic
value, was a satisfaction in itself. Moreover, if she could not gain
her end without a fight it was better that the battle should be
engaged while Raymond's ardour was at its height. To provoke immediate
hostilities she sent for him the same afternoon, and related, quietly
and without comment, the incident of her visit to the Duchess, and
the mission with which Madame de Trezac had been charged. In the
circumstances, she went on to explain, it was manifestly impossible that
she should continue to receive his visits; and she met his wrathful
comments on his relatives by the gently but firmly expressed resolve not
to be the cause of any disagreement between himself and his family.


A few days after her decisive conversation with Raymond de Chelles,
Undine, emerging from the doors of the Nouveau Luxe, where she had been
to call on the newly-arrived Mrs. Homer Branney, once more found herself
face to face with Elmer Moffatt.

This time there was no mistaking his eagerness to be recognized. He
stopped short as they met, and she read such pleasure in his eyes that
she too stopped, holding out her hand.

"I'm glad you're going to speak to me," she said, and Moffatt reddened at
the allusion.

"Well, I very nearly didn't. I didn't know you. You look about as old as
you did when I first landed at Apex--remember?"

He turned back and began to walk at her side in the direction of the
Champs Elysees.

"Say--this is all right!" he exclaimed; and she saw that his glance had
left her and was ranging across the wide silvery square ahead of them to
the congregated domes and spires beyond the river.

"Do you like Paris?" she asked, wondering what theatres he had been to.

"It beats everything." He seemed to be breathing in deeply the
impression of fountains, sculpture, leafy' avenues and long-drawn
architectural distances fading into the afternoon haze.

"I suppose you've been to that old church over there?" he went on, his
gold-topped stick pointing toward the towers of Notre Dame.

"Oh, of course; when I used to sightsee. Have you never been to Paris

"No, this is my first look-round. I came across in March."

"In March?" she echoed inattentively. It never occurred to her that
other people's lives went on when they were out of her range of vision,
and she tried in vain to remember what she had last heard of Moffatt.
"Wasn't that a bad time to leave Wall Street?"

"Well, so-so. Fact is, I was played out: needed a change." Nothing in
his robust mien confirmed the statement, and he did not seem inclined to
develop it. "I presume you're settled here now?" he went on. "I saw by
the papers--"

"Yes," she interrupted; adding, after a moment: "It was all a mistake
from the first."

"Well, I never thought he was your form," said Moffatt.

His eyes had come back to her, and the look in them struck her as
something she might use to her advantage; but the next moment he had
glanced away with a furrowed brow, and she felt she had not wholly fixed
his attention.

"I live at the other end of Paris. Why not come back and have tea with
me?" she suggested, half moved by a desire to know more of his affairs,
and half by the thought that a talk with him might help to shed some
light on hers.

In the open taxi-cab he seemed to recover his sense of well-being, and
leaned back, his hands on the knob of his stick, with the air of a man
pleasantly aware of his privileges. "This Paris is a thundering good
place," he repeated once or twice as they rolled on through the crush
and glitter of the afternoon; and when they had descended at Undine's
door, and he stood in her drawing-room, and looked out on the
horse-chestnut trees rounding their green domes under the balcony, his
satisfaction culminated in the comment: "I guess this lays out West End

His eyes met Undine's with their old twinkle, and their expression
encouraged her to murmur: "Of course there are times when I'm very

She sat down behind the tea-table, and he stood at a little distance,
watching her pull off her gloves with a queer comic twitch of his
elastic mouth. "Well, I guess it's only when you want to be," he said,
grasping a lyre-backed chair by its gilt cords, and sitting down astride
of it, his light grey trousers stretching too tightly over his plump
thighs. Undine was perfectly aware that he was a vulgar over-dressed
man, with a red crease of fat above his collar and an impudent
swaggering eye; yet she liked to see him there, and was conscious that
he stirred the fibres of a self she had forgotten but had not ceased to

She had fancied her avowal of loneliness might call forth some
sentimental phrase; but though Moffatt was clearly pleased to be with
her she saw that she was not the centre of his thoughts, and the
discovery irritated her.

"I don't suppose YOU'VE known what it is to be lonely since you've been
in Europe?" she continued as she held out his tea-cup.

"Oh," he said jocosely, "I don't always go round with a guide"; and she
rejoined on the same note: "Then perhaps I shall see something of you."

"Why, there's nothing would suit me better; but the fact is, I'm
probably sailing next week."

"Oh, are you? I'm sorry." There was nothing feigned in her regret.

"Anything I can do for you across the pond?"

She hesitated. "There's something you can do for me right off."

He looked at her more attentively, as if his practised eve had passed
through the surface of her beauty to what might be going on behind it.
"Do you want my blessing again?" he asked with sudden irony.

Undine opened her eyes with a trustful look. "Yes--I do."

"Well--I'll be damned!" said Moffatt gaily.

"You've always been so awfully nice," she began; and he leaned back,
grasping both sides of the chair-back, and shaking it a little with his

He kept the same attitude while she proceeded to unfold her case,
listening to her with the air of sober concentration that his frivolous
face took on at any serious demand on his attention. When she had ended
he kept the same look during an interval of silent pondering. "Is it the
fellow who was over at Nice with you that day?"

She looked at him with surprise. "How did you know?"

"Why, I liked his looks," said Moffatt simply. He got up and strolled
toward the window. On the way he stopped before a table covered with
showy trifles, and after looking at them for a moment singled out a dim
old brown and golden book which Chelles had given her. He examined
it lingeringly, as though it touched the spring of some choked-up
sensibility for which he had no language. "Say--" he began: it was the
usual prelude to his enthusiasms; but he laid the book down and turned

"Then you think if you had the cash you could fix it up all right with
the Pope?"

Her heart began to beat. She remembered that he had once put a job in
Ralph's way, and had let her understand that he had done it partly for
her sake.

"Well," he continued, relapsing into hyperbole, "I wish I could send the
old gentleman my cheque to-morrow morning: but the fact is I'm high and
dry." He looked at her with a sudden odd intensity. "If I WASN'T, I
dunno but what--" The phrase was lost in his familiar whistle.
"That's an awfully fetching way you do your hair," he said. It was a
disappointment to Undine to hear that his affairs were not prospering,
for she knew that in his world "pull" and solvency were closely related,
and that such support as she had hoped he might give her would be
contingent on his own situation. But she had again a fleeting sense of
his mysterious power of accomplishing things in the teeth of adversity;
and she answered: "What I want is your advice."

He turned away and wandered across the room, his hands in his pockets.
On her ornate writing desk he saw a photograph of Paul, bright-curled
and sturdy-legged, in a manly reefer, and bent over it with a murmur of
approval. "Say--what a fellow! Got him with you?"

Undine coloured. "No--" she began; and seeing his look of surprise, she
embarked on her usual explanation. "I can't tell you how I miss him,"
she ended, with a ring of truth that carried conviction to her own ears
if not to Moffatt's.

"Why don't you get him back, then?"

"Why, I--"

Moffatt had picked up the frame and was looking at the photograph more
closely. "Pants!" he chuckled. "I declare!"

He turned back to Undine. "Who DOES he belong to, anyhow?"

"Belong to?"

"Who got him when you were divorced? Did you?"

"Oh, I got everything," she said, her instinct of self-defense on the

"So I thought." He stood before her, stoutly planted on his short legs,
and speaking with an aggressive energy. "Well, I know what I'd do if he
was mine."

"If he was yours?"

"And you tried to get him away from me. Fight you to a finish! If it
cost me down to my last dollar I would."

The conversation seemed to be wandering from the point, and she
answered, with a touch of impatience: "It wouldn't cost you anything
like that. I haven't got a dollar to fight back with."

"Well, you ain't got to fight. Your decree gave him to you, didn't it?
Why don't you send right over and get him? That's what I'd do if I was

Undine looked up. "But I'm awfully poor; I can't afford to have him

"You couldn't, up to now; but now you're going to get married. You're
going to be able to give him a home and a father's care--and the
foreign languages. That's what I'd say if I was you...His father takes
considerable stock in him, don't he?"

She coloured, a denial on her lips; but she could not shape it. "We're
both awfully fond of him, of course... His father'd never give him up!"

"Just so." Moffatt's face had grown as sharp as glass. "You've got the
Marvells running. All you've got to do's to sit tight and wait for their
cheque." He dropped back to his equestrian seat on the lyre-backed

Undine stood up and moved uneasily toward the window. She seemed to
see her little boy as though he were in the room with her; she did not
understand how she could have lived so long without him...She stood for
a long time without speaking, feeling behind her the concentrated irony
of Moffatt's gaze.

"You couldn't lend me the money--manage to borrow it for me, I mean?"
she finally turned back to ask. He laughed. "If I could manage to borrow
any money at this particular minute--well, I'd have to lend every
dollar of it to Elmer Moffatt, Esquire. I'm stone-broke, if you want
to know. And wanted for an Investigation too. That's why I'm over here
improving my mind."

"Why, I thought you were going home next week?"

He grinned. "I am, because I've found out there's a party wants me to
stay away worse than the courts want me back. Making the trip just for
my private satisfaction--there won't be any money in it, I'm afraid."

Leaden disappointment descended on Undine. She had felt almost sure
of Moffatt's helping her, and for an instant she wondered if some
long-smouldering jealousy had flamed up under its cold cinders. But
another look at his face denied her this solace; and his evident
indifference was the last blow to her pride. The twinge it gave her
prompted her to ask: "Don't you ever mean to get married?"

Moffatt gave her a quick look. "Why, I shouldn't wonder--one of these
days. Millionaires always collect something; but I've got to collect my
millions first."

He spoke coolly and half-humorously, and before he had ended she had
lost all interest in his reply. He seemed aware of the fact, for he
stood up and held out his hand. "Well, so long, Mrs. Marvell. It's been
uncommonly pleasant to see you; and you'd better think over what I've

She laid her hand sadly in his. "You've never had a child," she replied.


Nearly two years had passed since Ralph Marvell, waking from his long
sleep in the hot summer light of Washington Square, had found that the
face of life was changed for him.

In the interval he had gradually adapted himself to the new order of
things; but the months of adaptation had been a time of such darkness
and confusion that, from the vantage-ground of his recovered lucidity,
he could not yet distinguish the stages by which he had worked his way
out; and even now his footing was not secure.

His first effort had been to readjust his values--to take an inventory
of them, and reclassify them, so that one at least might be made to
appear as important as those he had lost; otherwise there could be no
reason why he should go on living. He applied himself doggedly to this
attempt; but whenever he thought he had found a reason that his mind
could rest in, it gave way under him, and the old struggle for a
foothold began again. His two objects in life were his boy and his book.
The boy was incomparably the stronger argument, yet the less serviceable
in filling the void. Ralph felt his son all the while, and all through
his other feelings; but he could not think about him actively and
continuously, could not forever exercise his eager empty dissatisfied
mind on the relatively simple problem of clothing, educating and amusing
a little boy of six. Yet Paul's existence was the all-sufficient reason
for his own; and he turned again, with a kind of cold fervour, to his
abandoned literary dream. Material needs obliged him to go on with
his regular business; but, the day's work over, he was possessed of a
leisure as bare and as blank as an unfurnished house, yet that was at
least his own to furnish as he pleased.

Meanwhile he was beginning to show a presentable face to the world, and
to be once more treated like a man in whose case no one is particularly
interested. His men friends ceased to say: "Hallo, old chap, I never saw
you looking fitter!" and elderly ladies no longer told him they were
sure he kept too much to himself, and urged him to drop in any afternoon
for a quiet talk. People left him to his sorrow as a man is left to an
incurable habit, an unfortunate tie: they ignored it, or looked over its
head if they happened to catch a glimpse of it at his elbow.

These glimpses were given to them more and more rarely. The smothered
springs of life were bubbling up in Ralph, and there were days when he
was glad to wake and see the sun in his window, and when he began to
plan his book, and to fancy that the planning really interested him. He
could even maintain the delusion for several days--for intervals each
time appreciably longer--before it shrivelled up again in a scorching
blast of disenchantment. The worst of it was that he could never tell
when these hot gusts of anguish would overtake him. They came sometimes
just when he felt most secure, when he was saying to himself: "After
all, things are really worth while--" sometimes even when he was sitting
with Clare Van Degen, listening to her voice, watching her hands, and
turning over in his mind the opening chapters of his book.

"You ought to write"; they had one and all said it to him from the
first; and he fancied he might have begun sooner if he had not
been urged on by their watchful fondness. Everybody wanted him to
write--everybody had decided that he ought to, that he would, that
he must be persuaded to; and the incessant imperceptible pressure of
encouragement--the assumption of those about him that because it would
be good for him to write he must naturally be able to--acted on his
restive nerves as a stronger deterrent than disapproval.

Even Clare had fallen into the same mistake; and one day, as he sat
talking with her on the verandah of Laura Fairford's house on the
Sound--where they now most frequently met--Ralph had half-impatiently
rejoined: "Oh, if you think it's literature I need--!"

Instantly he had seen her face change, and the speaking hands tremble on
her knee. But she achieved the feat of not answering him, or turning her
steady eyes from the dancing mid-summer water at the foot of Laura's
lawn. Ralph leaned a little nearer, and for an instant his hand imagined
the flutter of hers. But instead of clasping it he drew back, and rising
from his chair wandered away to the other end of the verandah...No, he
didn't feel as Clare felt. If he loved her--as he sometimes thought he
did--it was not in the same way. He had a great tenderness for her, he
was more nearly happy with her than with any one else; he liked to sit
and talk with her, and watch her face and her hands, and he wished there
were some way--some different way--of letting her know it; but he could
not conceive that tenderness and desire could ever again be one for him:
such a notion as that seemed part of the monstrous sentimental muddle on
which his life had gone aground.

"I shall write--of course I shall write some day," he said, turning back
to his seat. "I've had a novel in the back of my head for years; and
now's the time to pull it out."

He hardly knew what he was saying; but before the end of the sentence he
saw that Clare had understood what he meant to convey, and henceforth he
felt committed to letting her talk to him as much as she pleased about
his book. He himself, in consequence, took to thinking about it more
consecutively; and just as his friends ceased to urge him to write, he
sat down in earnest to begin.

The vision that had come to him had no likeness to any of his earlier
imaginings. Two or three subjects had haunted him, pleading for
expression, during the first years of his marriage; but these now seemed
either too lyrical or too tragic. He no longer saw life on the heroic
scale: he wanted to do something in which men should look no bigger than
the insects they were. He contrived in the course of time to reduce one
of his old subjects to these dimensions, and after nights of brooding he
made a dash at it, and wrote an opening chapter that struck him as
not too bad. In the exhilaration of this first attempt he spent some
pleasant evenings revising and polishing his work; and gradually a
feeling of authority and importance developed in him. In the morning,
when he woke, instead of his habitual sense of lassitude, he felt an
eagerness to be up and doing, and a conviction that his individual task
was a necessary part of the world's machinery. He kept his secret with
the beginner's deadly fear of losing his hold on his half-real creations
if he let in any outer light on them; but he went about with a more
assured step, shrank less from meeting his friends, and even began to
dine out again, and to laugh at some of the jokes he heard.

Laura Fairford, to get Paul away from town, had gone early to the
country; and Ralph, who went down to her every Saturday, usually found
Clare Van Degen there. Since his divorce he had never entered his
cousin's pinnacled palace; and Clare had never asked him why he stayed
away. This mutual silence had been their sole allusion to Van Degen's
share in the catastrophe, though Ralph had spoken frankly of its other
aspects. They talked, however, most often of impersonal subjects--books,
pictures, plays, or whatever the world that interested them was
doing--and she showed no desire to draw him back to his own affairs. She
was again staying late in town--to have a pretext, as he guessed, for
coming down on Sundays to the Fairfords'--and they often made the trip
together in her motor; but he had not yet spoken to her of having begun
his book. One May evening, however, as they sat alone in the verandah,
he suddenly told her that he was writing. As he spoke his heart beat
like a boy's; but once the words were out they gave him a feeling of
self-confidence, and he began to sketch his plan, and then to go into
its details. Clare listened devoutly, her eyes burning on him through
the dusk like the stars deepening above the garden; and when she got up
to go in he followed her with a new sense of reassurance.

The dinner that evening was unusually pleasant. Charles Bowen, just back
from his usual spring travels, had come straight down to his friends
from the steamer; and the fund of impressions he brought with him gave
Ralph a desire to be up and wandering. And why not--when the book was
done? He smiled across the table at Clare.

"Next summer you'll have to charter a yacht, and take us all off to
the Aegean. We can't have Charles condescending to us about the
out-of-the-way places he's been seeing."

Was it really he who was speaking, and his cousin who was sending
him back her dusky smile? Well--why not, again? The seasons renewed
themselves, and he too was putting out a new growth. "My book--my
book--my book," kept repeating itself under all his thoughts, as
Undine's name had once perpetually murmured there. That night as he went
up to bed he said to himself that he was actually ceasing to think about
his wife...

As he passed Laura's door she called him in, and put her arms about him.

"You look so well, dear!"

"But why shouldn't I?" he answered gaily, as if ridiculing the fancy
that he had ever looked otherwise. Paul was sleeping behind the next
door, and the sense of the boy's nearness gave him a warmer glow. His
little world was rounding itself out again, and once more he felt safe
and at peace in its circle.

His sister looked as if she had something more to say; but she merely
kissed him good night, and he went up whistling to his room. The next
morning he was to take a walk with Clare, and while he lounged about the
drawing-room, waiting for her to come down, a servant came in with the
Sunday papers. Ralph picked one up, and was absently unfolding it when
his eye fell on his own name: a sight he had been spared since the last
echoes of his divorce had subsided. His impulse was to fling the paper
down, to hurl it as far from him as he could; but a grim fascination
tightened his hold and drew his eyes back to the hated head-line.


There it was before him in all its long-drawn horror--an "interview"--an
"interview" of Undine's about her coming marriage! Ah, she talked about
her case indeed! Her confidences filled the greater part of a column,
and the only detail she seemed to have omitted was the name of her
future husband, who was referred to by herself as "my fiance" and by
the interviewer as "the Count" or "a prominent scion of the French

Ralph heard Laura's step behind him. He threw the paper aside and their
eyes met.

"Is this what you wanted to tell me last night?"

"Last night?--Is it in the papers?"

"Who told you? Bowen? What else has he heard?"

"Oh, Ralph, what does it matter--what can it matter?"

"Who's the man? Did he tell you that?" Ralph insisted. He saw her
growing agitation. "Why can't you answer? Is it any one I know?"

"He was told in Paris it was his friend Raymond de Chelles."

Ralph laughed, and his laugh sounded in his own ears like an echo of the
dreary mirth with which he had filled Mr. Spragg's office the day he
had learned that Undine intended to divorce him. But now his wrath was
seasoned with a wholesome irony. The fact of his wife's having reached
another stage in her ascent fell into its place as a part of the huge
human buffoonery.

"Besides," Laura went on, "it's all perfect nonsense, of course. How in
the world can she have her marriage annulled?"

Ralph pondered: this put the matter in another light. "With a great deal
of money I suppose she might."

"Well, she certainly won't get that from Chelles. He's far from rich,
Charles tells me." Laura waited, watching him, before she risked:
"That's what convinces me she wouldn't have him if she could."

Ralph shrugged. "There may be other inducements. But she won't be able
to manage it." He heard himself speaking quite collectedly. Had Undine
at last lost her power of wounding him?

Clare came in, dressed for their walk, and under Laura's anxious eyes he
picked up the newspaper and held it out with a careless: "Look at this!"

His cousin's glance flew down the column, and he saw the tremor of her
lashes as she read. Then she lifted her head. "But you'll be free!" Her
face was as vivid as a flower.

"Free? I'm free now, as far as that goes!"

"Oh, but it will go so much farther when she has another name--when
she's a different person altogether! Then you'll really have Paul to

"Paul?" Laura intervened with a nervous laugh. "But there's never been
the least doubt about his having Paul!"

They heard the boy's laughter on the lawn, and she went out to join him.
Ralph was still looking at his cousin.

"You're glad, then?" came from him involuntarily; and she startled him
by bursting into tears. He bent over and kissed her on the cheek.


Ralph, as the days passed, felt that Clare was right: if Undine married
again he would possess himself more completely, be more definitely rid
of his past. And he did not doubt that she would gain her end: he knew
her violent desires and her cold tenacity. If she had failed to capture
Van Degen it was probably because she lacked experience of that
particular type of man, of his huge immediate wants and feeble
vacillating purposes; most of all, because she had not yet measured the
strength of the social considerations that restrained him. It was a
mistake she was not likely to repeat, and her failure had probably been
a useful preliminary to success. It was a long time since Ralph had
allowed himself to think of her, and as he did so the overwhelming fact
of her beauty became present to him again, no longer as an element of
his being but as a power dispassionately estimated. He said to himself:
"Any man who can feel at all will feel it as I did"; and the conviction
grew in him that Raymond de Chelles, of whom he had formed an idea
through Bowen's talk, was not the man to give her up, even if she failed
to obtain the release his religion exacted.

Meanwhile Ralph was gradually beginning to feel himself freer and
lighter. Undine's act, by cutting the last link between them, seemed to
have given him back to himself; and the mere fact that he could consider
his case in all its bearings, impartially and ironically, showed him the
distance he had travelled, the extent to which he had renewed himself.
He had been moved, too, by Clare's cry of joy at his release. Though
the nature of his feeling for her had not changed he was aware of a new
quality in their friendship. When he went back to his book again his
sense of power had lost its asperity, and the spectacle of life seemed
less like a witless dangling of limp dolls. He was well on in his second
chapter now.

This lightness of mood was still on him when, returning one afternoon to
Washington Square, full of projects for a long evening's work, he found
his mother awaiting him with a strange face. He followed her into the
drawing-room, and she explained that there had been a telephone message
she didn't understand--something perfectly crazy about Paul--of course
it was all a mistake...

Ralph's first thought was of an accident, and his heart contracted. "Did
Laura telephone?"

"No, no; not Laura. It seemed to be a message from Mrs. Spragg:
something about sending some one here to fetch him--a queer name like
Heeny--to fetch him to a steamer on Saturday. I was to be sure to have
his things packed...but of course it's a misunderstanding..." She gave
an uncertain laugh, and looked up at Ralph as though entreating him to
return the reassurance she had given him.

"Of course, of course," he echoed.

He made his mother repeat her statement; but the unforeseen always
flurried her, and she was confused and inaccurate. She didn't actually
know who had telephoned: the voice hadn't sounded like Mrs. Spragg's...
A woman's voice; yes--oh, not a lady's! And there was certainly
something about a steamer...but he knew how the telephone bewildered
her...and she was sure she was getting a little deaf. Hadn't he better
call up the Malibran? Of course it was all a mistake--but... well,
perhaps he HAD better go there himself...

As he reached the front door a letter clinked in the box, and he saw
his name on an ordinary looking business envelope. He turned the
door-handle, paused again, and stooped to take out the letter. It bore
the address of the firm of lawyers who had represented Undine in the
divorce proceedings and as he tore open the envelope Paul's name started
out at him.

Mrs. Marvell had followed him into the hall, and her cry broke the
silence. "Ralph--Ralph--is it anything she's done?"

"Nothing--it's nothing." He stared at her. "What's the day of the week?"

"Wednesday. Why, what--?" She suddenly seemed to understand. "She's not
going to take him away from us?"

Ralph dropped into a chair, crumpling the letter in his hand. He had
been in a dream, poor fool that he was--a dream about his child! He sat
gazing at the type-written phrases that spun themselves out before
him. "My client's circumstances now happily permitting... at last in
a position to offer her son a home...long separation...a mother's
feelings...every social and educational advantage"...and then, at the
end, the poisoned dart that struck him speechless: "The courts having
awarded her the sole custody..."

The sole custody! But that meant that Paul was hers, hers only, hers
for always: that his father had no more claim on him than any casual
stranger in the street! And he, Ralph Marvell, a sane man, young,
able-bodied, in full possession of his wits, had assisted at the
perpetration of this abominable wrong, had passively forfeited his right
to the flesh of his body, the blood of his being! But it couldn't be--of
course it couldn't be. The preposterousness of it proved that it wasn't
true. There was a mistake somewhere; a mistake his own lawyer would
instantly rectify. If a hammer hadn't been drumming in his head he
could have recalled the terms of the decree--but for the moment all the
details of the agonizing episode were lost in a blur of uncertainty.

To escape his mother's silent anguish of interrogation he stood up and
said: "I'll see Mr. Spragg--of course it's a mistake." But as he spoke
he retravelled the hateful months during the divorce proceedings,
remembering his incomprehensible lassitude, his acquiescence in his
family's determination to ignore the whole episode, and his gradual
lapse into the same state of apathy. He recalled all the old family
catchwords, the full and elaborate vocabulary of evasion: "delicacy,"
"pride," "personal dignity," "preferring not to know about such things";
Mrs. Marvell's: "All I ask is that you won't mention the subject to
your grandfather," Mr. Dagonet's: "Spare your mother, Ralph, whatever
happens," and even Laura's terrified: "Of course, for Paul's sake, there
must be no scandal."

For Paul's sake! And it was because, for Paul's sake, there must be no
scandal, that he, Paul's father, had tamely abstained from defending his
rights and contesting his wife's charges, and had thus handed the child
over to her keeping!

As his cab whirled him up Fifth Avenue, Ralph's whole body throbbed with
rage against the influences that had reduced him to such weakness. Then,
gradually, he saw that the weakness was innate in him. He had been
eloquent enough, in his free youth, against the conventions of his
class; yet when the moment came to show his contempt for them they
had mysteriously mastered him, deflecting his course like some hidden
hereditary failing. As he looked back it seemed as though even his great
disaster had been conventionalized and sentimentalized by this inherited
attitude: that the thoughts he had thought about it were only those of
generations of Dagonets, and that there had been nothing real and his
own in his life but the foolish passion he had been trying so hard to
think out of existence.

Halfway to the Malibran he changed his direction, and drove to the house
of the lawyer he had consulted at the time of his divorce. The lawyer
had not yet come up town, and Ralph had a half hour of bitter meditation
before the sound of a latch-key brought him to his feet. The visit did
not last long. His host, after an affable greeting, listened without
surprise to what he had to say, and when he had ended reminded him with
somewhat ironic precision that, at the time of the divorce, he had asked
for neither advice nor information--had simply declared that he wanted
to "turn his back on the whole business" (Ralph recognized the phrase as
one of his grandfather's), and, on hearing that in that case he had only
to abstain from action, and was in no need of legal services, had gone
away without farther enquiries.

"You led me to infer you had your reasons--" the slighted counsellor
concluded; and, in reply to Ralph's breathless question, he subjoined,
"Why, you see, the case is closed, and I don't exactly know on what
ground you can re-open it--unless, of course, you can bring evidence
showing that the irregularity of the mother's life is such..."

"She's going to marry again," Ralph threw in.

"Indeed? Well, that in itself can hardly be described as irregular. In
fact, in certain circumstances it might be construed as an advantage to
the child."

"Then I'm powerless?"

"Why--unless there's an ulterior motive--through which pressure might be
brought to bear."

"You mean that the first thing to do is to find out what she's up to?"

"Precisely. Of course, if it should prove to be a genuine case of
maternal feeling, I won't conceal from you that the outlook's bad. At
most, you could probably arrange to see your boy at stated intervals."

To see his boy at stated intervals! Ralph wondered how a sane man could
sit there, looking responsible and efficient, and talk such rubbish...As
he got up to go the lawyer detained him to add: "Of course there's no
immediate cause for alarm. It will take time to enforce the provision
of the Dakota decree in New York, and till it's done your son can't
be taken from you. But there's sure to be a lot of nasty talk in the
papers; and you're bound to lose in the end."

Ralph thanked him and left.

He sped northward to the Malibran, where he learned that Mr. and Mrs.
Spragg were at dinner. He sent his name down to the subterranean
restaurant, and Mr. Spragg presently appeared between the limp portieres
of the "Adam" writing-room. He had grown older and heavier, as if
illness instead of health had put more flesh on his bones, and there
were greyish tints in the hollows of his face.

"What's this about Paul?" Ralph exclaimed. "My mother's had a message we
can't make out."

Mr. Spragg sat down, with the effect of immersing his spinal column in
the depths of the arm-chair he selected. He crossed his legs, and swung
one foot to and fro in its high wrinkled boot with elastic sides.

"Didn't you get a letter?" he asked.

"From my--from Undine's lawyers? Yes." Ralph held it out. "It's queer
reading. She hasn't hitherto been very keen to have Paul with her."

Mr. Spragg, adjusting his glasses, read the letter slowly, restored it
to the envelope and gave it back. "My daughter has intimated that she
wishes these gentlemen to act for her. I haven't received any additional
instructions from her," he said, with none of the curtness of tone that
his stiff legal vocabulary implied.

"But the first communication I received was from you--at least from Mrs.

Mr. Spragg drew his beard through his hand. "The ladies are apt to be a
trifle hasty. I believe Mrs. Spragg had a letter yesterday instructing
her to select a reliable escort for Paul; and I suppose she thought--"

"Oh, this is all too preposterous!" Ralph burst out, springing from his
seat. "You don't for a moment imagine, do you--any of you--that I'm
going to deliver up my son like a bale of goods in answer to any
instructions in God's world?--Oh, yes, I know--I let him go--I
abandoned my right to him...but I didn't know what I was doing...I was
sick with grief and misery. My people were awfully broken up over the
whole business, and I wanted to spare them. I wanted, above all, to
spare my boy when he grew up. If I'd contested the case you know what
the result would have been. I let it go by default--I made no conditions
all I wanted was to keep Paul, and never to let him hear a word against
his mother!"

Mr. Spragg received this passionate appeal in a silence that implied not
so much disdain or indifference, as the total inability to deal verbally
with emotional crises. At length, he said, a slight unsteadiness in his
usually calm tones: "I presume at the time it was optional with you to
demand Paul's custody."

"Oh, yes--it was optional," Ralph sneered.

Mr. Spragg looked at him compassionately. "I'm sorry you didn't do it,"
he said.


The upshot of Ralph's visit was that Mr. Spragg, after considerable
deliberation, agreed, pending farther negotiations between the opposing
lawyers, to undertake that no attempt should be made to remove Paul from
his father's custody. Nevertheless, he seemed to think it quite natural
that Undine, on the point of making a marriage which would put it in her
power to give her child a suitable home, should assert her claim on him.
It was more disconcerting to Ralph to learn that Mrs. Spragg, for once
departing from her attitude of passive impartiality, had eagerly abetted
her daughter's move; he had somehow felt that Undine's desertion of the
child had established a kind of mute understanding between himself and
his mother-in-law.

"I thought Mrs. Spragg would know there's no earthly use trying to take
Paul from me," he said with a desperate awkwardness of entreaty, and Mr.
Spragg startled him by replying: "I presume his grandma thinks he'll
belong to her more if we keep him in the family."

Ralph, abruptly awakened from his dream of recovered peace, found
himself confronted on every side by. indifference or hostility: it was
as though the June fields in which his boy was playing had suddenly
opened to engulph him. Mrs. Marvell's fears and tremors were almost
harder to bear than the Spraggs' antagonism; and for the next few days
Ralph wandered about miserably, dreading some fresh communication from
Undine's lawyers, yet racked by the strain of hearing nothing more from
them. Mr. Spragg had agreed to cable his daughter asking her to await a
letter before enforcing her demands; but on the fourth day after
Ralph's visit to the Malibran a telephone message summoned him to his
father-in-law's office.

Half an hour later their talk was over and he stood once more on the
landing outside Mr. Spragg's door. Undine's answer had come and Paul's
fate was sealed. His mother refused to give him up, refused to await
the arrival of her lawyer's letter, and reiterated, in more peremptory
language, her demand that the child should be sent immediately to Paris
in Mrs. Heeny's care.

Mr. Spragg, in face of Ralph's entreaties, remained pacific but remote.
It was evident that, though he had no wish to quarrel with Ralph, he saw
no reason for resisting Undine. "I guess she's got the law on her side,"
he said; and in response to Ralph's passionate remonstrances he added
fatalistically: "I presume you'll have to leave the matter to my

Ralph had gone to the office resolved to control his temper and keep
on the watch for any shred of information he might glean; but it soon
became clear that Mr. Spragg knew as little as himself of Undine's
projects, or of the stage her plans had reached. All she had apparently
vouchsafed her parent was the statement that she intended to re-marry,
and the command to send Paul over; and Ralph reflected that his own
betrothal to her had probably been announced to Mr. Spragg in the same
curt fashion.

The thought brought back an overwhelming sense of the past. One by one
the details of that incredible moment revived, and he felt in his
veins the glow of rapture with which he had first approached the dingy
threshold he was now leaving. There came back to him with peculiar
vividness the memory of his rushing up to Mr. Spragg's office to consult
him about a necklace for Undine. Ralph recalled the incident because his
eager appeal for advice had been received by Mr. Spragg with the very
phrase he had just used: "I presume you'll have to leave the matter to
my daughter."

Ralph saw him slouching in his chair, swung sideways from the untidy
desk, his legs stretched out, his hands in his pockets, his jaws engaged
on the phantom tooth-pick; and, in a corner of the office, the
figure of a middle-sized red-faced young man who seemed to have been
interrupted in the act of saying something disagreeable.

"Why, it must have been then that I first saw Moffatt," Ralph reflected;
and the thought suggested the memory of other, subsequent meetings in
the same building, and of frequent ascents to Moffatt's office during
the ardent weeks of their mysterious and remunerative "deal."

Ralph wondered if Moffatt's office were still in the Ararat; and on the
way out he paused before the black tablet affixed to the wall of the
vestibule and sought and found the name in its familiar place.

The next moment he was again absorbed in his own cares. Now that he had
learned the imminence of Paul's danger, and the futility of pleading for
delay, a thousand fantastic projects were contending in his head. To
get the boy away--that seemed the first thing to do: to put him out of
reach, and then invoke the law, get the case re-opened, and carry the
fight from court to court till his rights should be recognized. It would
cost a lot of money--well, the money would have to be found. The first
step was to secure the boy's temporary safety; after that, the question
of ways and means would have to be considered...Had there ever been a
time, Ralph wondered, when that question hadn't been at the root of all
the others?

He had promised to let Clare Van Degen know the result of his visit, and
half an hour later he was in her drawing-room. It was the first time he
had entered it since his divorce; but Van Degen was tarpon-fishing in
California--and besides, he had to see Clare. His one relief was in
talking to her, in feverishly turning over with her every possibility of
delay and obstruction; and he marvelled at the intelligence and energy
she brought to the discussion of these questions. It was as if she had
never before felt strongly enough about anything to put her heart or her
brains into it; but now everything in her was at work for him.

She listened intently to what he told her; then she said: "You tell me
it will cost a great deal; but why take it to the courts at all? Why not
give the money to Undine instead of to your lawyers?"

Ralph looked at her in surprise, and she continued: "Why do you suppose
she's suddenly made up her mind she must have Paul?"

"That's comprehensible enough to any one who knows her. She wants him
because he'll give her the appearance of respectability. Having him with
her will prove, as no mere assertions can, that all the rights are on
her side and the 'wrongs' on mine."

Clare considered. "Yes; that's the obvious answer. But shall I tell you
what I think, my dear? You and I are both completely out-of-date.
I don't believe Undine cares a straw for 'the appearance of
respectability.' What she wants is the money for her annulment."

Ralph uttered an incredulous exclamation. "But don't you see?" she
hurried on. "It's her only hope--her last chance. She's much too clever
to burden herself with the child merely to annoy you. What she wants is
to make you buy him back from her." She stood up and came to him with
outstretched hands. "Perhaps I can be of use to you at last!"

"You?" He summoned up a haggard smile. "As if you weren't
always--letting me load you with all my bothers!"

"Oh, if only I've hit on the way out of this one! Then there wouldn't be
any others left!" Her eyes followed him intently as he turned away
to the window and stood staring down at the sultry prospect of Fifth
Avenue. As he turned over her conjecture its probability became more and
more apparent. It put into logical relation all the incoherencies of
Undine's recent conduct, completed and defined her anew as if a sharp
line had been drawn about her fading image.

"If it's that, I shall soon know," he said, turning back into the room.
His course had instantly become plain. He had only to resist and Undine
would have to show her hand. Simultaneously with this thought there
sprang up in his mind the remembrance of the autumn afternoon in Paris
when he had come home and found her, among her half-packed finery,
desperately bewailing her coming motherhood. Clare's touch was on his
arm. "If I'm right--you WILL let me help?"

He laid his hand on hers without speaking, and she went on:

"It will take a lot of money: all these law-suits do. Besides, she'd be
ashamed to sell him cheap. You must be ready to give her anything she
wants. And I've got a lot saved up--money of my own, I mean..."

"Your own?" As he looked at her the rare blush rose under her brown

"My very own. Why shouldn't you believe me? I've been hoarding up my
scrap of an income for years, thinking that some day I'd find I couldn't
stand this any longer..." Her gesture embraced their sumptuous setting.
"But now I know I shall never budge. There are the children; and
besides, things are easier for me since--" she paused, embarrassed.

"Yes, yes; I know." He felt like completing her phrase: "Since my wife
has furnished you with the means of putting pressure on your husband--"
but he simply repeated: "I know."

"And you WILL let me help?"

"Oh, we must get at the facts first." He caught her hands in his with
sudden energy. "As you say, when Paul's safe there won't be another
bother left!"


The means of raising the requisite amount of money became, during the
next few weeks, the anxious theme of all Ralph's thoughts. His lawyers'
enquiries soon brought the confirmation of Clare's surmise, and it
became clear that--for reasons swathed in all the ingenuities of legal
verbiage--Undine might, in return for a substantial consideration, be
prevailed on to admit that it was for her son's advantage to remain with
his father.

The day this admission was communicated to Ralph his first impulse was
to carry the news to his cousin. His mood was one of pure exaltation; he
seemed to be hugging his boy to him as he walked. Paul and he were to
belong to each other forever: no mysterious threat of separation could
ever menace them again! He had the blissful sense of relief that the
child himself might have had on waking out of a frightened dream and
finding the jolly daylight in his room.

Clare at once renewed her entreaty to be allowed to aid in ransoming
her little cousin, but Ralph tried to put her off by explaining that he
meant to "look about."

"Look where? In the Dagonet coffers? Oh, Ralph, what's the use of
pretending? Tell me what you've got to give her." It was amazing how
his cousin suddenly dominated him. But as yet he couldn't go into the
details of the bargain. That the reckoning between himself and Undine
should be settled in dollars and cents seemed the last bitterest satire
on his dreams: he felt himself miserably diminished by the smallness of
what had filled his world.

Nevertheless, the looking about had to be done; and a day came when
he found himself once more at the door of Elmer Moffatt's office. His
thoughts had been drawn back to Moffatt by the insistence with which the
latter's name had lately been put forward by the press in connection
with a revival of the Ararat investigation. Moffatt, it appeared, had
been regarded as one of the most valuable witnesses for the State;
his return from Europe had been anxiously awaited, his unreadiness to
testify caustically criticized; then at last he had arrived, had gone on
to Washington--and had apparently had nothing to tell.

Ralph was too deep in his own troubles to waste any wonder over this
anticlimax; but the frequent appearance of Moffatt's name in the morning
papers acted as an unconscious suggestion. Besides, to whom else could
he look for help? The sum his wife demanded could be acquired only by "a
quick turn," and the fact that Ralph had once rendered the same kind of
service to Moffatt made it natural to appeal to him now. The market,
moreover, happened to be booming, and it seemed not unlikely that so
experienced a speculator might have a "good thing" up his sleeve.

Moffatt's office had been transformed since Ralph's last visit. Paint,
varnish and brass railings gave an air of opulence to the outer
precincts, and the inner room, with its mahogany bookcases containing
morocco-bound "sets" and its wide blue leather arm-chairs, lacked only
a palm or two to resemble the lounge of a fashionable hotel. Moffatt
himself, as he came forward, gave Ralph the impression of having been
done over by the same hand: he was smoother, broader, more supremely
tailored, and his whole person exhaled the faintest whiff of an
expensive scent. He installed his visitor in one of the blue arm-chairs,
and sitting opposite, an elbow on his impressive "Washington" desk,
listened attentively while Ralph made his request.

"You want to be put onto something good in a damned hurry?" Moffatt
twisted his moustache between two plump square-tipped fingers with
a little black growth on their lower joints. "I don't suppose," he
remarked, "there's a sane man between here and San Francisco who isn't
consumed by that yearning."

Having permitted himself this pleasantry he passed on to business.
"Yes--it's a first-rate time to buy: no doubt of that. But you say you
want to make a quick turn-over? Heard of a soft thing that won't wait,
I presume? That's apt to be the way with soft things--all kinds of 'em.
There's always other fellows after them." Moffatt's smile was playful.
"Well, I'd go considerably out of my way to do you a good turn, because
you did me one when I needed it mighty bad. 'In youth you sheltered me.'
Yes, sir, that's the kind I am." He stood up, sauntered to the other
side of the room, and took a small object from the top of the bookcase.

"Fond of these pink crystals?" He held the oriental toy against the
light. "Oh, I ain't a judge--but now and then I like to pick up a pretty
thing." Ralph noticed that his eyes caressed it.

"Well--now let's talk. You say you've got to have the funds for
your--your investment within three weeks. That's quick work. And you
want a hundred thousand. Can you put up fifty?"

Ralph had been prepared for the question, but when it came he felt a
moment's tremor. He knew he could count on half the amount from his
grandfather; could possibly ask Fairford for a small additional
loan--but what of the rest? Well, there was Clare. He had always known
there would be no other way. And after all, the money was Clare's--it
was Dagonet money. At least she said it was. All the misery of his
predicament was distilled into the short silence that preceded his
answer: "Yes--I think so."

"Well, I guess I can double it for you." Moffatt spoke with an air of
Olympian modesty. "Anyhow, I'll try. Only don't tell the other girls!"

He proceeded to develop his plan to ears which Ralph tried to make alert
and attentive, but in which perpetually, through the intricate concert
of facts and figures, there broke the shout of a small boy racing across
a suburban lawn. "When I pick him up to-night he'll be mine for good!"
Ralph thought as Moffatt summed up: "There's the whole scheme in a
nut-shell; but you'd better think it over. I don't want to let you in
for anything you ain't quite sure about." "Oh, if you're sure--" Ralph
was already calculating the time it would take to dash up to Clare Van
Degen's on his way to catch the train for the Fairfords'.

His impatience made it hard to pay due regard to Moffatt's parting
civilities. "Glad to have seen you," he heard the latter assuring him
with a final hand-grasp. "Wish you'd dine with me some evening at my
club"; and, as Ralph murmured a vague acceptance: "How's that boy of
yours, by the way?" Moffatt continued. "He was a stunning chap last time
I saw him.--Excuse me if I've put my foot in it; but I understood you
kept him with you...? Yes: that's what I thought.... Well, so long."

Clare's inner sitting-room was empty; but the servant, presently
returning, led Ralph into the gilded and tapestried wilderness where she
occasionally chose to receive her visitors. There, under Popple's effigy
of herself, she sat, small and alone, on a monumental sofa behind a
tea-table laden with gold plate; while from his lofty frame, on the
opposite wall Van Degen, portrayed by a "powerful" artist, cast on her
the satisfied eye of proprietorship.

Ralph, swept forward on the blast of his excitement, felt as in a dream
the frivolous perversity of her receiving him in such a setting instead
of in their usual quiet corner; but there was no room in his mind for
anything but the cry that broke from him: "I believe I've done it!"

He sat down and explained to her by what means, trying, as best he
could, to restate the particulars of Moffatt's deal; and her manifest
ignorance of business methods had the effect of making his vagueness
appear less vague.

"Anyhow, he seems to be sure it's a safe thing. I understand he's in
with Rolliver now, and Rolliver practically controls Apex. This is some
kind of a scheme to buy up all the works of public utility at Apex.
They're practically sure of their charter, and Moffatt tells me I can
count on doubling my investment within a few weeks. Of course I'll go
into the details if you like--"

"Oh, no; you've made it all so clear to me!" She really made him feel he
had. "And besides, what on earth does it matter? The great thing is
that it's done." She lifted her sparkling eyes. "And now--my share--you
haven't told me..."

He explained that Mr. Dagonet, to whom he had already named the amount
demanded, had at once promised him twenty-five thousand dollars, to
be eventually deducted from his share of the estate. His mother had
something put by that she insisted on contributing; and Henley Fairford,
of his own accord, had come forward with ten thousand: it was awfully
decent of Henley...

"Even Henley!" Clare sighed. "Then I'm the only one left out?"

Ralph felt the colour in his face. "Well, you see, I shall need as much
as fifty--"

Her hands flew together joyfully. "But then you've got to let me help!
Oh, I'm so glad--so glad! I've twenty thousand waiting."

He looked about the room, checked anew by all its oppressive
implications. "You're a darling...but I couldn't take it."

"I've told you it's mine, every penny of it!"

"Yes; but supposing things went wrong?"

"Nothing CAN--if you'll only take it..."

"I may lose it--"

"_I_ sha'n't, if I've given it to you!" Her look followed his about the
room and then came back to him. "Can't you imagine all it will make up

The rapture of the cry caught him up with it. Ah, yes, he could imagine
it all! He stooped his head above her hands. "I accept," he said; and
they stood and looked at each other like radiant children.

She followed him to the door, and as he turned to leave he broke into a
laugh. "It's queer, though, its happening in this room!"

She was close beside him, her hand on the heavy tapestry curtaining the
door; and her glance shot past him to her husband's portrait. Ralph
caught the look, and a flood of old tendernesses and hates welled up in
him. He drew her under the portrait and kissed her vehemently.


Within forty-eight hours Ralph's money was in Moffatt's hands, and the
interval of suspense had begun.

The transaction over, he felt the deceptive buoyancy that follows on
periods of painful indecision. It seemed to him that now at last life
had freed him from all trammelling delusions, leaving him only the best
thing in its gift--his boy.

The things he meant Paul to do and to be filled his fancy with happy
pictures. The child was growing more and more interesting--throwing out
countless tendrils of feeling and perception that delighted Ralph but
preoccupied the watchful Laura.

"He's going to be exactly like you, Ralph--" she paused and then risked
it: "For his own sake, I wish there were just a drop or two of Spragg in

Ralph laughed, understanding her. "Oh, the plodding citizen I've become
will keep him from taking after the lyric idiot who begot him. Paul and
I, between us, are going to turn out something first-rate."

His book too was spreading and throwing out tendrils, and he worked
at it in the white heat of energy which his factitious exhilaration
produced. For a few weeks everything he did and said seemed as easy and
unconditioned as the actions in a dream.

Clare Van Degen, in the light of this mood, became again the comrade
of his boyhood. He did not see her often, for she had gone down to the
country with her children, but they communicated daily by letter or
telephone, and now and then she came over to the Fairfords' for a night.
There they renewed the long rambles of their youth, and once more the
summer fields and woods seemed full of magic presences. Clare was no
more intelligent, she followed him no farther in his flights; but some
of the qualities that had become most precious to him were as native to
her as its perfume to a flower. So, through the long June afternoons,
they ranged together over many themes; and if her answers sometimes
missed the mark it did not matter, because her silences never did.

Meanwhile Ralph, from various sources, continued to pick up a good deal
of more or less contradictory information about Elmer Moffatt. It seemed
to be generally understood that Moffatt had come back from Europe with
the intention of testifying in the Ararat investigation, and that his
former patron, the great Harmon B. Driscoll, had managed to silence him;
and it was implied that the price of this silence, which was set at
a considerable figure, had been turned to account in a series of
speculations likely to lift Moffatt to permanent eminence among the
rulers of Wall Street. The stories as to his latest achievement, and the
theories as to the man himself, varied with the visual angle of each
reporter: and whenever any attempt was made to focus his hard sharp
personality some guardian divinity seemed to throw a veil of mystery
over him. His detractors, however, were the first to own that there
was "something about him"; it was felt that he had passed beyond the
meteoric stage, and the business world was unanimous in recognizing
that he had "come to stay." A dawning sense of his stability was even
beginning to make itself felt in Fifth Avenue. It was said that he had
bought a house in Seventy-second Street, then that he meant to build
near the Park; one or two people (always "taken by a friend") had been
to his flat in the Pactolus, to see his Chinese porcelains and Persian
rugs; now and then he had a few important men to dine at a Fifth Avenue
restaurant; his name began to appear in philanthropic reports and on
municipal committees (there were even rumours of its having been put
up at a well-known club); and the rector of a wealthy parish, who was
raising funds for a chantry, was known to have met him at dinner and to
have stated afterward that "the man was not wholly a materialist."

All these converging proofs of Moffatt's solidity strengthened Ralph's
faith in his venture. He remembered with what astuteness and authority
Moffatt had conducted their real estate transaction--how far off and
unreal it all seemed!--and awaited events with the passive faith of a
sufferer in the hands of a skilful surgeon.

The days moved on toward the end of June, and each morning Ralph opened
his newspaper with a keener thrill of expectation. Any day now he might
read of the granting of the Apex charter: Moffatt had assured him it
would "go through" before the close of the month. But the announcement
did not appear, and after what seemed to Ralph a decent lapse of time he
telephoned to ask for news. Moffatt was away, and when he came back a
few days later he answered Ralph's enquiries evasively, with an edge of
irritation in his voice. The same day Ralph received a letter from his
lawyer, who had been reminded by Mrs. Marvell's representatives that the
latest date agreed on for the execution of the financial agreement was
the end of the following week.

Ralph, alarmed, betook himself at once to the Ararat, and his first
glimpse of Moffatt's round common face and fastidiously dressed person
gave him an immediate sense of reassurance. He felt that under the
circle of baldness on top of that carefully brushed head lay the
solution of every monetary problem that could beset the soul of man.
Moffatt's voice had recovered its usual cordial note, and the warmth of
his welcome dispelled Ralph's last apprehension.

"Why, yes, everything's going along first-rate. They thought they'd hung
us up last week--but they haven't. There may be another week's delay;
but we ought to be opening a bottle of wine on it by the Fourth."

An office-boy came in with a name on a slip of paper, and Moffatt looked
at his watch and held out a hearty hand. "Glad you came. Of course I'll
keep you posted...No, this way...Look in again..." and he steered Ralph
out by another door.

July came, and passed into its second week. Ralph's lawyer had obtained
a postponement from the other side, but Undine's representatives had
given him to understand that the transaction must be closed before the
first of August. Ralph telephoned once or twice to Moffatt, receiving
genially-worded assurances that everything was "going their way"; but he
felt a certain embarrassment in returning again to the office, and
let himself drift through the days in a state of hungry apprehension.
Finally one afternoon Henley Fairford, coming back from town (which
Ralph had left in the morning to join his boy over Sunday), brought word
that the Apex consolidation scheme had failed to get its charter. It was
useless to attempt to reach Moffatt on Sunday, and Ralph wore on as he
could through the succeeding twenty-four hours. Clare Van Degen had come
down to stay with her youngest boy, and in the afternoon she and Ralph
took the two children for a sail. A light breeze brightened the waters
of the Sound, and they ran down the shore before it and then tacked out
toward the sunset, coming back at last, under a failing breeze, as the
summer sky passed from blue to a translucid green and then into the
accumulating greys of twilight.

As they left the landing and walked up behind the children across the
darkening lawn, a sense of security descended again on Ralph. He could
not believe that such a scene and such a mood could be the disguise of
any impending evil, and all his doubts and anxieties fell away from him.

The next morning, he and Clare travelled up to town together, and at the
station he put her in the motor which was to take her to Long Island,
and hastened down to Moffatt's office. When he arrived he was told that
Moffatt was "engaged," and he had to wait for nearly half an hour in
the outer office, where, to the steady click of the type-writer and
the spasmodic buzzing of the telephone, his thoughts again began their
restless circlings. Finally the inner door opened, and he found himself
in the sanctuary. Moffatt was seated behind his desk, examining another
little crystal vase somewhat like the one he had shown Ralph a few
weeks earlier. As his visitor entered, he held it up against the light,
revealing on its dewy sides an incised design as frail as the shadow of
grass-blades on water.

"Ain't she a peach?" He put the toy down and reached across the desk to
shake hands. "Well, well," he went on, leaning back in his chair, and
pushing out his lower lip in a half-comic pout, "they've got us in the
neck this time and no mistake. Seen this morning's Radiator? I don't
know how the thing leaked out--but the reformers somehow got a smell of
the scheme, and whenever they get swishing round something's bound to
get spilt."

He talked gaily, genially, in his roundest tones and with his easiest
gestures; never had he conveyed a completer sense of unhurried power;
but Ralph noticed for the first time the crow's-feet about his eyes, and
the sharpness of the contrast between the white of his forehead and the
redness of the fold of neck above his collar.

"Do you mean to say it's not going through?"

"Not this time, anyhow. We're high and dry."

Something seemed to snap in Ralph's head, and he sat down in the nearest
chair. "Has the common stock dropped a lot?"

"Well, you've got to lean over to see it." Moffatt pressed his
finger-tips together and added thoughtfully: "But it's THERE all right.
We're bound to get our charter in the end."

"What do you call the end?"

"Oh, before the Day of Judgment, sure: next year, I guess."

"Next year?" Ralph flushed. "What earthly good will that do me?"

"I don't say it's as pleasant as driving your best girl home by
moonlight. But that's how it is. And the stuff's safe enough any
way--I've told you that right along."

"But you've told me all along I could count on a rise before August. You
knew I had to have the money now."

"I knew you WANTED to have the money now; and so did I, and several of
my friends. I put you onto it because it was the only thing in sight
likely to give you the return you wanted."

"You ought at least to have warned me of the risk!"

"Risk? I don't call it much of a risk to lie back in your chair and wait
another few months for fifty thousand to drop into your lap. I tell you
the thing's as safe as a bank."

"How do I know it is? You've misled me about it from the first."

Moffatt's face grew dark red to the forehead: for the first time in
their acquaintance Ralph saw him on the verge of anger. "Well, if you
get stuck so do I. I'm in it a good deal deeper than you. That's about
the best guarantee I can give; unless you won't take my word for that
either." To control himself Moffatt spoke with extreme deliberation,
separating his syllables like a machine cutting something into even

Ralph listened through a cloud of confusion; but he saw the madness
of offending Moffatt, and tried to take a more conciliatory tone. "Of
course I take your word for it. But I can't--I simply can't afford to

"You ain't going to lose: I don't believe you'll even have to put up any
margin. It's THERE safe enough, I tell you..."

"Yes, yes; I understand. I'm sure you wouldn't have advised me--"
Ralph's tongue seemed swollen, and he had difficulty in bringing out the
words. "Only, you see--I can't wait; it's not possible; and I want to
know if there isn't a way--"

Moffatt looked at him with a sort of resigned compassion, as a doctor
looks at a despairing mother who will not understand what he has tried
to imply without uttering the word she dreads. Ralph understood the
look, but hurried on.

"You'll think I'm mad, or an ass, to talk like this; but the fact is, I
must have the money." He waited and drew a hard breath. "I must have it:
that's all. Perhaps I'd better tell you--"

Moffatt, who had risen, as if assuming that the interview was over, sat
down again and turned an attentive look on him. "Go ahead," he said,
more humanly than he had hitherto spoken.

"My boy...you spoke of him the other day... I'm awfully fond of him--"
Ralph broke off, deterred by the impossibility of confiding his feeling
for Paul to this coarse-grained man with whom he hadn't a sentiment in

Moffatt was still looking at him. "I should say you would be! He's as
smart a little chap as I ever saw; and I guess he's the kind that gets
better every day."

Ralph had collected himself, and went on with sudden resolution: "Well,
you see--when my wife and I separated, I never dreamed she'd want the
boy: the question never came up. If it had, of course--but she'd left
him with me when she went away two years before, and at the time of the
divorce I was a fool...I didn't take the proper steps..."

"You mean she's got sole custody?"

Ralph made a sign of assent, and Moffatt pondered. "That's bad--bad."

"And now I understand she's going to marry again--and of course I can't
give up my son."

"She wants you to, eh?"

Ralph again assented.

Moffatt swung his chair about and leaned back in it, stretching out his
plump legs and contemplating the tips of his varnished boots. He hummed
a low tune behind inscrutable lips.

"That's what you want the money for?" he finally raised his head to ask.

The word came out of the depths of Ralph's anguish: "Yes."

"And why you want it in such a hurry. I see." Moffatt reverted to the
study of his boots. "It's a lot of money."

"Yes. That's the difficulty. And I...she..."

Ralph's tongue was again too thick for his mouth. "I'm afraid she won't
wait...or take less..."

Moffatt, abandoning the boots, was scrutinizing him through half-shut
lids. "No," he said slowly, "I don't believe Undine Spragg'll take a
single cent less."

Ralph felt himself whiten. Was it insolence or ignorance that had
prompted Moffatt's speech? Nothing in his voice or face showed the
sense of any shades of expression or of feeling: he seemed to apply
to everything the measure of the same crude flippancy. But such
considerations could not curb Ralph now. He said to himself "Keep your
temper--keep your temper--" and his anger suddenly boiled over.

"Look here, Moffatt," he said, getting to his feet, "the fact that I've
been divorced from Mrs. Marvell doesn't authorize any one to take that
tone to me in speaking of her."

Moffatt met the challenge with a calm stare under which there were
dawning signs of surprise and interest. "That so? Well, if that's the
case I presume I ought to feel the same way: I've been divorced from her

For an instant the words conveyed no meaning to Ralph; then they surged
up into his brain and flung him forward with half-raised arm. But he
felt the grotesqueness of the gesture and his arm dropped back to his
side. A series of unimportant and irrelevant things raced through his
mind; then obscurity settled down on it. "THIS man...THIS man..." was
the one fiery point in his darkened consciousness.... "What on earth
are you talking about?" he brought out.

"Why, facts," said Moffatt, in a cool half-humorous voice. "You didn't
know? I understood from Mrs. Marvell your folks had a prejudice against
divorce, so I suppose she kept quiet about that early episode. The truth
is," he continued amicably, "I wouldn't have alluded to it now if you
hadn't taken rather a high tone with me about our little venture; but
now it's out I guess you may as well hear the whole story. It's mighty
wholesome for a man to have a round now and then with a few facts. Shall
I go on?"

Ralph had stood listening without a sign, but as Moffatt ended he made a
slight motion of acquiescence. He did not otherwise change his attitude,
except to grasp with one hand the back of the chair that Moffatt pushed
toward him.

"Rather stand?..." Moffatt himself dropped back into his seat and took
the pose of easy narrative. "Well, it was this way. Undine Spragg and I
were made one at Opake, Nebraska, just nine years ago last month. My!
She was a beauty then. Nothing much had happened to her before but being
engaged for a year or two to a soft called Millard Binch; the same she
passed on to Indiana Rolliver; and--well, I guess she liked the change.
We didn't have what you'd called a society wedding: no best man or
bridesmaids or Voice that Breathed o'er Eden. Fact is, Pa and Ma didn't
know about it till it was over. But it was a marriage fast enough, as
they found out when they tried to undo it. Trouble was, they caught on
too soon; we only had a fortnight. Then they hauled Undine back to Apex,
and--well, I hadn't the cash or the pull to fight 'em. Uncle Abner was
a pretty big man out there then; and he had James J. Rolliver behind
him. I always know when I'm licked; and I was licked that time. So we
unlooped the loop, and they fixed it up for me to make a trip to Alaska.
Let me see--that was the year before they moved over to New York. Next
time I saw Undine I sat alongside of her at the theatre the day your
engagement was announced."

He still kept to his half-humorous minor key, as though he were in the
first stages of an after-dinner speech; but as he went on his bodily
presence, which hitherto had seemed to Ralph the mere average garment of
vulgarity, began to loom, huge and portentous as some monster released
from a magician's bottle. His redness, his glossiness, his baldness, and
the carefully brushed ring of hair encircling it; the square line of his
shoulders, the too careful fit of his clothes, the prominent lustre of
his scarf-pin, the growth of short black hair on his manicured hands,
even the tiny cracks and crows'-feet beginning to show in the hard close
surface of his complexion: all these solid witnesses to his reality
and his proximity pressed on Ralph with the mounting pang of physical

"THIS man...THIS man..." he couldn't get beyond the thought: whichever
way he turned his haggard thought, there was Moffatt bodily blocking the
perspective...Ralph's eyes roamed toward the crystal toy that stood on
the desk beside Moffatt's hand. Faugh! That such a hand should have
touched it!

Suddenly he heard himself speaking. "Before my marriage--did you know
they hadn't told me?"

"Why, I understood as much..."

Ralph pushed on: "You knew it the day I met you in Mr. Spragg's office?"

Moffatt considered a moment, as if the incident had escaped him. "Did we
meet there?" He seemed benevolently ready for enlightenment. But Ralph
had been assailed by another memory; he recalled that Moffatt had dined
one night in his house, that he and the man who now faced him had sat at
the same table, their wife between them... He was seized with another
dumb gust of fury; but it died out and left him face to face with the
uselessness, the irrelevance of all the old attitudes of appropriation
and defiance. He seemed to be stumbling about in his inherited
prejudices like a modern man in mediaeval armour... Moffatt still sat at
his desk, unmoved and apparently uncomprehending. "He doesn't even
know what I'm feeling," flashed through Ralph; and the whole archaic
structure of his rites and sanctions tumbled down about him.

Through the noise of the crash he heard Moffatt's voice going on without
perceptible change of tone: "About that other matter now...you can't
feel any meaner about it than I do, I can tell you that... but all we've
got to do is to sit tight..."

Ralph turned from the voice, and found himself outside on the landing,
and then in the street below.


He stood at the corner of Wall Street, looking up and down its hot
summer perspective. He noticed the swirls of dust in the cracks of the
pavement, the rubbish in the gutters, the ceaseless stream of perspiring
faces that poured by under tilted hats.

He found himself, next, slipping northward between the glazed walls of
the Subway, another languid crowd in the seats about him and the nasal
yelp of the stations ringing through the car like some repeated ritual
wail. The blindness within him seemed to have intensified his physical
perceptions, his sensitiveness to the heat, the noise, the smells of the
dishevelled midsummer city; but combined with the acuter perception of
these offenses was a complete indifference to them, as though he were
some vivisected animal deprived of the power of discrimination.

Now he had turned into Waverly Place, and was walking westward
toward Washington Square. At the corner he pulled himself up, saying
half-aloud: "The office--I ought to be at the office." He drew out his
watch and stared at it blankly. What the devil had he taken it out for?
He had to go through a laborious process of readjustment to find out
what it had to say.... Twelve o'clock.... Should he turn back to the
office? It seemed easier to cross the square, go up the steps of the old
house and slip his key into the door....

The house was empty. His mother, a few days previously, had departed

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