Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

Part 8 out of 8

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.9 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

over his disgrace at the temperance supper began to speak of him as a
hopeless failure, and he lost the support of the feminine community when
one Sunday morning, just as the Baptist and Methodist churches were
releasing their congregations, he walked up Eubaw Avenue with a young
woman less known to those sacred edifices than to the saloons of North
Fifth Street.

Undine's estimate of people had always been based on their apparent
power of getting what they wanted--provided it came under the category
of things she understood wanting. Success was beauty and romance to her;
yet it was at the moment when Elmer Moffatt's failure was most complete
and flagrant that she suddenly felt the extent of his power. After the
Eubaw Avenue scandal he had been asked not to return to the surveyor's
office to which Ben Frusk had managed to get him admitted; and on the
day of his dismissal he met Undine in Main Street, at the shopping hour,
and, sauntering up cheerfully, invited her to take a walk with him. She
was about to refuse when she saw Millard Binch's mother looking at her
disapprovingly from the opposite street-corner.

"Oh, well, I will--" she said; and they walked the length of Main Street
and out to the immature park in which it ended. She was in a mood of
aimless discontent and unrest, tired of her engagement to Millard Binch,
disappointed with Moffatt, half-ashamed of being seen with him, and yet
not sorry to have it known that she was independent enough to choose her
companions without regard to the Apex verdict.

"Well, I suppose you know I'm down and out," he began; and she responded
virtuously: "You must have wanted to be, or you wouldn't have behaved
the way you did last Sunday."

"Oh, shucks!" he sneered. "What do I care, in a one-horse place like
this? If it hadn't been for you I'd have got a move on long ago."

She did not remember afterward what else he said: she recalled only the
expression of a great sweeping scorn of Apex, into which her own disdain
of it was absorbed like a drop in the sea, and the affirmation of a
soaring self-confidence that seemed to lift her on wings. All her own
attempts to get what she wanted had come to nothing; but she had always
attributed her lack of success to the fact that she had had no one to
second her. It was strange that Elmer Moffatt, a shiftless out-cast from
even the small world she despised, should give her, in the very moment
of his downfall, the sense of being able to succeed where she had
failed. It was a feeling she never had in his absence, but that his
nearness always instantly revived; and he seemed nearer to her now than
he had ever been. They wandered on to the edge of the vague park, and
sat down on a bench behind the empty band-stand.

"I went with that girl on purpose, and you know it," he broke out
abruptly. "It makes me too damned sick to see Millard Binch going round
looking as if he'd patented you."

"You've got no right--" she interrupted; and suddenly she was in his
arms, and feeling that no one had ever kissed her before....

The week that followed was a big bright blur--the wildest vividest
moment of her life. And it was only eight days later that they were in
the train together, Apex and all her plans and promises behind them, and
a bigger and brighter blur ahead, into which they were plunging as the
"Limited" plunged into the sunset....

Undine stood up, looking about her with vague eyes, as if she had come
back from a long distance. Elmer Moffatt was still in Paris--he was in
reach, within telephone-call. She stood hesitating a moment; then
she went into her dressing-room, and turning over the pages of the
telephone book, looked out the number of the Nouveau Luxe....


Undine had been right in supposing that her husband would expect
their life to go on as before. There was no appreciable change in the
situation save that he was more often absent-finding abundant reasons,
agricultural and political, for frequent trips to Saint Desert--and
that, when in Paris, he no longer showed any curiosity concerning her
occupations and engagements. They lived as much apart is if their
cramped domicile had been a palace; and when Undine--as she now
frequently did--joined the Shallums or Rollivers for a dinner at the
Nouveau Luxe, or a party at a petit theatre, she was not put to the
trouble of prevaricating.

Her first impulse, after her scene with Raymond, had been to ring up
Indiana Rolliver and invite herself to dine. It chanced that Indiana
(who was now in full social progress, and had "run over" for a few weeks
to get her dresses for Newport) had organized for the same evening a
showy cosmopolitan banquet in which she was enchanted to include the
Marquise de Chelles; and Undine, as she had hoped, found Elmer Moffatt
of the party. When she drove up to the Nouveau Luxe she had not fixed
on any plan of action; but once she had crossed its magic threshold her
energies revived like plants in water. At last she was in her native air
again, among associations she shared and conventions she understood; and
all her self-confidence returned as the familiar accents uttered the
accustomed things.

Save for an occasional perfunctory call, she had hitherto made no effort
to see her compatriots, and she noticed that Mrs. Jim Driscoll and
Bertha Shallum received her with a touch of constraint; but it vanished
when they remarked the cordiality of Moffatt's greeting. Her seat was
at his side, and her old sense of triumph returned as she perceived the
importance his notice conferred, not only in the eyes of her own party
but of the other diners. Moffatt was evidently a notable figure in all
the worlds represented about the crowded tables, and Undine saw that
many people who seemed personally unacquainted with him were recognizing
and pointing him out. She was conscious of receiving a large share of
the attention he attracted, and, bathed again in the bright air of
publicity, she remembered the evening when Raymond de Chelles' first
admiring glance had given her the same sense of triumph.

This inopportune memory did not trouble her: she was almost grateful to
Raymond for giving her the touch of superiority her compatriots clearly
felt in her. It was not merely her title and her "situation," but the
experiences she had gained through them, that gave her this advantage
over the loud vague company. She had learned things they did not guess:
shades of conduct, turns of speech, tricks of attitude--and easy and
free and enviable as she thought them, she would not for the world have
been back among them at the cost of knowing no more than they.

Moffatt made no allusion to his visit to Saint Desert; but when the
party had re-grouped itself about coffee and liqueurs on the terrace, he
bent over to ask confidentially: "What about my tapestries?"

She replied in the same tone: "You oughtn't to have let Fleischhauer
write that letter. My husband's furious."

He seemed honestly surprised. "Why? Didn't I offer him enough?"

"He's furious that any one should offer anything. I thought when he
found out what they were worth he might be tempted; but he'd rather see
me starve than part with one of his grand-father's snuff-boxes."

"Well, he knows now what the tapestries are worth. I offered more than
Fleischhauer advised."

"Yes; but you were in too much of a hurry."

"I've got to be; I'm going back next week."

She felt her eyes cloud with disappointment. "Oh, why do you? I hoped
you might stay on."

They looked at each other uncertainly a moment; then he dropped his
voice to say: "Even if I did, I probably shouldn't see anything of you."

"Why not? Why won't you come and see me? I've always wanted to be

He came the next day and found in her drawing-room two ladies whom she
introduced as her sisters-in-law. The ladies lingered on for a long
time, sipping their tea stiffly and exchanging low-voiced remarks while
Undine talked with Moffatt; and when they left, with small sidelong bows
in his direction.

Undine exclaimed: "Now you see how they all watch me!"

She began to go into the details of her married life, drawing on the
experiences of the first months for instances that scarcely applied to
her present liberated state. She could thus, without great exaggeration,
picture herself as entrapped into a bondage hardly conceivable to
Moffatt, and she saw him redden with excitement as he listened. "I call
it darned low--darned low--" he broke in at intervals.

"Of course I go round more now," she concluded. "I mean to see my
friends--I don't care what he says."

"What CAN he say?"

"Oh, he despises Americans--they all do."

"Well, I guess we can still sit up and take nourishment."

They laughed and slipped back to talking of earlier things. She urged
him to put off his sailing--there were so many things they might do
together: sight-seeing and excursions--and she could perhaps show him
some of the private collections he hadn't seen, the ones it was hard to
get admitted to. This instantly roused his attention, and after naming
one or two collections he had already seen she hit on one he had found
inaccessible and was particularly anxious to visit. "There's an Ingres
there that's one of the things I came over to have a look at; but I was
told there was no use trying."

"Oh, I can easily manage it: the Duke's Raymond's uncle." It gave her a
peculiar satisfaction to say it: she felt as though she were taking a
surreptitious revenge on her husband. "But he's down in the country this
week," she continued, "and no one--not even the family--is allowed to
see the pictures when he's away. Of course his Ingres are the finest in

She ran it off glibly, though a year ago she had never heard of the
painter, and did not, even now, remember whether he was an Old Master or
one of the very new ones whose names one hadn't had time to learn.

Moffatt put off sailing, saw the Duke's Ingres under her guidance, and
accompanied her to various other private galleries inaccessible
to strangers. She had lived in almost total ignorance of such
opportunities, but now that she could use them to advantage she showed a
surprising quickness in picking up "tips," ferreting out rare things and
getting a sight of hidden treasures. She even acquired as much of the
jargon as a pretty woman needs to produce the impression of being
well-informed; and Moffatt's sailing was more than once postponed.

They saw each other almost daily, for she continued to come and go as
she pleased, and Raymond showed neither surprise nor disapproval. When
they were asked to family dinners she usually excused herself at the
last moment on the plea of a headache and, calling up Indiana or Bertha
Shallum, improvised a little party at the Nouveau Luxe; and on other
occasions she accepted such invitations as she chose, without mentioning
to her husband where she was going.

In this world of lavish pleasures she lost what little prudence the
discipline of Saint Desert had inculcated. She could never be with
people who had all the things she envied without being hypnotized into
the belief that she had only to put her hand out to obtain them, and all
the unassuaged rancours and hungers of her early days in West End Avenue
came back with increased acuity. She knew her wants so much better now,
and was so much more worthy of the things she wanted!

She had given up hoping that her father might make another hit in Wall
Street. Mrs. Spragg's letters gave the impression that the days of big
strokes were over for her husband, that he had gone down in the conflict
with forces beyond his measure. If he had remained in Apex the tide of
its new prosperity might have carried him to wealth; but New York's huge
waves of success had submerged instead of floating him, and Rolliver's
enmity was a hand perpetually stretched out to strike him lower. At
most, Mr. Spragg's tenacity would keep him at the level he now held, and
though he and his wife had still further simplified their way of
living Undine understood that their self-denial would not increase
her opportunities. She felt no compunction in continuing to accept an
undiminished allowance: it was the hereditary habit of the parent animal
to despoil himself for his progeny. But this conviction did not seem
incompatible with a sentimental pity for her parents. Aside from all
interested motives, she wished for their own sakes that they were better
off. Their personal requirements were pathetically limited, but renewed
prosperity would at least have procured them the happiness of giving her
what she wanted.

Moffatt lingered on; but he began to speak more definitely of sailing,
and Undine foresaw the day when, strong as her attraction was, stronger
influences would snap it like a thread. She knew she interested and
amused him, and that it flattered his vanity to be seen with her, and to
hear that rumour coupled their names; but he gave her, more than any
one she had ever known, the sense of being detached from his life, in
control of it, and able, without weakness or uncertainty, to choose
which of its calls he should obey. If the call were that of business--of
any of the great perilous affairs he handled like a snake-charmer
spinning the deadly reptiles about his head--she knew she would drop
from his life like a loosened leaf.

These anxieties sharpened the intensity of her enjoyment, and made the
contrast keener between her crowded sparkling hours and the vacant
months at Saint Desert. Little as she understood of the qualities that
made Moffatt what he was, the results were of the kind most palpable to
her. He used life exactly as she would have used it in his place. Some
of his enjoyments were beyond her range, but even these appealed to her
because of the money that was required to gratify them. When she took
him to see some inaccessible picture, or went with him to inspect the
treasures of a famous dealer, she saw that the things he looked at moved
him in a way she could not understand, and that the actual touching of
rare textures--bronze or marble, or velvets flushed with the bloom of
age--gave him sensations like those her own beauty had once roused in
him. But the next moment he was laughing over some commonplace joke, or
absorbed in a long cipher cable handed to him as they re-entered the
Nouveau Luxe for tea, and his aesthetic emotions had been thrust back
into their own compartment of the great steel strong-box of his mind.

Her new life went on without comment or interference from her husband,
and she saw that he had accepted their altered relation, and intended
merely to keep up an external semblance of harmony. To that semblance
she knew he attached intense importance: it was an article of his
complicated social creed that a man of his class should appear to live
on good terms with his wife. For different reasons it was scarcely
less important to Undine: she had no wish to affront again the social
reprobation that had so nearly wrecked her. But she could not keep up
the life she was leading without more money, a great deal more money;
and the thought of contracting her expenditure was no longer tolerable.

One afternoon, several weeks later, she came in to find a tradesman's
representative waiting with a bill. There was a noisy scene in the
anteroom before the man threateningly withdrew--a scene witnessed by the
servants, and overheard by her mother-in-law, whom she found seated in
the drawing-room when she entered. The old Marquise's visits to her
daughter-in-law were made at long intervals but with ritual regularity;
she called every other Friday at five, and Undine had forgotten that she
was due that day. This did not make for greater cordiality between them,
and the altercation in the anteroom had been too loud for concealment.
The Marquise was on her feet when her daughter-in-law came in, and
instantly said with lowered eyes: "It would perhaps be best for me to

"Oh, I don't care. You're welcome to tell Raymond you've heard me
insulted because I'm too poor to pay my bills--he knows it well enough
already!" The words broke from Undine unguardedly, but once spoken they
nourished her defiance.

"I'm sure my son has frequently recommended greater prudence--" the
Marquise murmured.

"Yes! It's a pity he didn't recommend it to your other son instead! All
the money I was entitled to has gone to pay Hubert's debts."

"Raymond has told me that there are certain things you fail to
understand--I have no wish whatever to discuss them." The Marquise had
gone toward the door; with her hand on it she paused to add: "I shall
say nothing whatever of what has happened."

Her icy magnanimity added the last touch to Undine's wrath. They knew
her extremity, one and all, and it did not move them. At most, they
would join in concealing it like a blot on their honour. And the menace
grew and mounted, and not a hand was stretched to help her....

Hardly a half-hour earlier Moffatt, with whom she had been visiting a
"private view," had sent her home in his motor with the excuse that he
must hurry back to the Nouveau Luxe to meet his stenographer and sign a
batch of letters for the New York mail. It was therefore probable that
he was still at home--that she should find him if she hastened there
at once. An overwhelming desire to cry out her wrath and wretchedness
brought her to her feet and sent her down to hail a passing cab. As it
whirled her through the bright streets powdered with amber sunlight her
brain throbbed with confused intentions. She did not think of Moffatt
as a power she could use, but simply as some one who knew her and
understood her grievance. It was essential to her at that moment to be
told that she was right and that every one opposed to her was wrong.

At the hotel she asked his number and was carried up in the lift. On the
landing she paused a moment, disconcerted--it had occurred to her that
he might not be alone. But she walked on quickly, found the number and
knocked.... Moffatt opened the door, and she glanced beyond him and saw
that the big bright sitting-room was empty.

"Hullo!" he exclaimed, surprised; and as he stood aside to let her enter
she saw him draw out his watch and glance at it surreptitiously. He was
expecting someone, or he had an engagement elsewhere--something claimed
him from which she was excluded. The thought flushed her with sudden
resolution. She knew now what she had come for--to keep him from every
one else, to keep him for herself alone.

"Don't send me away!" she said, and laid her hand on his beseechingly.


She advanced into the room and slowly looked about her. The big vulgar
writing-table wreathed in bronze was heaped with letters and papers.
Among them stood a lapis bowl in a Renaissance mounting of enamel and
a vase of Phenician glass that was like a bit of rainbow caught in
cobwebs. On a table against the window a little Greek marble lifted its
pure lines. On every side some rare and sensitive object seemed to be
shrinking back from the false colours and crude contours of the hotel
furniture. There were no books in the room, but the florid console under
the mirror was stacked with old numbers of Town Talk and the New York
Radiator. Undine recalled the dingy hall-room that Moffatt had lodged in
at Mrs. Flynn's, over Hober's livery stable, and her heart beat at the
signs of his altered state. When her eyes came back to him their lids
were moist.

"Don't send me away," she repeated. He looked at her and smiled. "What
is it? What's the matter?"

"I don't know--but I had to come. To-day, when you spoke again of
sailing, I felt as if I couldn't stand it." She lifted her eyes and
looked in his profoundly.

He reddened a little under her gaze, but she could detect no softening
or confusion in the shrewd steady glance he gave her back.

"Things going wrong again--is that the trouble?" he merely asked with a
comforting inflexion.

"They always are wrong; it's all been an awful mistake. But I shouldn't
care if you were here and I could see you sometimes. You're so STRONG:
that's what I feel about you, Elmer. I was the only one to feel it that
time they all turned against you out at Apex.... Do you remember the
afternoon I met you down on Main Street, and we walked out together to
the Park? I knew then that you were stronger than any of them...."

She had never spoken more sincerely. For the moment all thought of
self-interest was in abeyance, and she felt again, as she had felt
that day, the instinctive yearning of her nature to be one with his.
Something in her voice must have attested it, for she saw a change in
his face.

"You're not the beauty you were," he said irrelevantly; "but you're a
lot more fetching."

The oddly qualified praise made her laugh with mingled pleasure and

"I suppose I must be dreadfully changed--"

"You're all right!--But I've got to go back home," he broke off
abruptly. "I've put it off too long."

She paled and looked away, helpless in her sudden disappointment. "I
knew you'd say that.... And I shall just be left here...." She sat down
on the sofa near which they had been standing, and two tears formed on
her lashes and fell.

Moffatt sat down beside her, and both were silent. She had never seen
him at a loss before. She made no attempt to draw nearer, or to use any
of the arts of cajolery; but presently she said, without rising: "I
saw you look at your watch when I came in. I suppose somebody else is
waiting for you."

"It don't matter."

"Some other woman?"

"It don't matter."

"I've wondered so often--but of course I've got no right to ask." She
stood up slowly, understanding that he meant to let her go.

"Just tell me one thing--did you never miss me?"

"Oh, damnably!" he brought out with sudden bitterness.

She came nearer, sinking her voice to a low whisper. "It's the only time
I ever really cared--all through!"

He had risen too, and they stood intensely gazing at each other.
Moffatt's face was fixed and grave, as she had seen it in hours she now
found herself rapidly reliving.

"I believe you DID," he said.

"Oh, Elmer--if I'd known--if I'd only known!"

He made no answer, and she turned away, touching with an unconscious
hand the edge of the lapis bowl among his papers.

"Elmer, if you're going away it can't do any harm to tell me--is there
any one else?"

He gave a laugh that seemed to shake him free. "In that kind of way?
Lord, no! Too busy!"

She came close again and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Then why not--why
shouldn't we--?" She leaned her head back so that her gaze slanted up
through her wet lashes. "I can do as I please--my husband does. They
think so differently about marriage over here: it's just a business
contract. As long as a woman doesn't make a show of herself no one
cares." She put her other hand up, so that she held him facing her.
"I've always felt, all through everything, that I belonged to you."

Moffatt left her hands on his shoulders, but did not lift his own to
clasp them. For a moment she thought she had mistaken him, and a leaden
sense of shame descended on her. Then he asked: "You say your husband
goes with other women?"

Lili Estradina's taunt flashed through her and she seized on it. "People
have told me so--his own relations have. I've never stooped to spy on

"And the women in your set--I suppose it's taken for granted they all do
the same?"

She laughed.

"Everything fixed up for them, same as it is for the husbands, eh?
Nobody meddles or makes trouble if you know the ropes?"

"No, nobody ... it's all quite easy...." She stopped, her faint
smile checked, as his backward movement made her hands drop from his

"And that's what you're proposing to me? That you and I should do like
the rest of 'em?" His face had lost its comic roundness and grown harsh
and dark, as it had when her father had taken her away from him at
Opake. He turned on his heel, walked the length of the room and halted
with his back to her in the embrasure of the window. There he paused
a full minute, his hands in his pockets, staring out at the perpetual
interweaving of motors in the luminous setting of the square. Then he
turned and spoke from where he stood.

"Look here. Undine, if I'm to have you again I don't want to have you
that way. That time out in Apex, when everybody in the place was against
me, and I was down and out, you stood up to them and stuck by me.
Remember that walk down Main Street? Don't I!--and the way the people
glared and hurried by; and how you kept on alongside of me, talking and
laughing, and looking your Sunday best. When Abner Spragg came out to
Opake after us and pulled you back I was pretty sore at your deserting;
but I came to see it was natural enough. You were only a spoilt girl,
used to having everything you wanted; and I couldn't give you a thing
then, and the folks you'd been taught to believe in all told you I never
would. Well, I did look like a back number, and no blame to you for
thinking so. I used to say it to myself over and over again, laying
awake nights and totting up my mistakes ... and then there were days
when the wind set another way, and I knew I'd pull it off yet, and
I thought you might have held on...." He stopped, his head a little
lowered, his concentrated gaze on her flushed face. "Well, anyhow," he
broke out, "you were my wife once, and you were my wife first--and if
you want to come back you've got to come that way: not slink through the
back way when there's no one watching, but walk in by the front door,
with your head up, and your Main Street look."

Since the days when he had poured out to her his great fortune-building
projects she had never heard him make so long a speech; and her heart,
as she listened, beat with a new joy and terror. It seemed to her that
the great moment of her life had come at last--the moment all her minor
failures and successes had been building up with blind indefatigable

"Elmer--Elmer--" she sobbed out.

She expected to find herself in his arms, shut in and shielded from all
her troubles; but he stood his ground across the room, immovable.

"Is it yes?"

She faltered the word after him: "Yes--?"

"Are you going to marry me?"

She stared, bewildered. "Why, Elmer--marry you? You forget!"

"Forget what? That you don't want to give up what you've got?"

"How can I? Such things are not done out here. Why, I'm a Catholic; and
the Catholic Church--" She broke off, reading the end in his face. "But
later, perhaps ... things might change. Oh, Elmer, if only you'd stay
over here and let me see you sometimes!"

"Yes--the way your friends see each other. We're differently made out in
Apex. When I want that sort of thing I go down to North Fifth Street for

She paled under the retort, but her heart beat high with it. What he
asked was impossible--and she gloried in his asking it. Feeling her
power, she tried to temporize. "At least if you stayed we could be
friends--I shouldn't feel so terribly alone."

He laughed impatiently. "Don't talk magazine stuff to me, Undine Spragg.
I guess we want each other the same way. Only our ideas are different.
You've got all muddled, living out here among a lot of loafers who call
it a career to run round after every petticoat. I've got my job out at
home, and I belong where my job is."

"Are you going to be tied to business all your life?" Her smile was
faintly depreciatory.

"I guess business is tied to ME: Wall Street acts as if it couldn't get
along without me." He gave his shoulders a shake and moved a few steps
nearer. "See here, Undine--you're the one that don't understand. If I
was to sell out to-morrow, and spend the rest of my life reading art
magazines in a pink villa, I wouldn't do what you're asking me. And
I've about as much idea of dropping business as you have of taking to
district nursing. There are things a man doesn't do. I understand
why your husband won't sell those tapestries--till he's got to. His
ancestors are HIS business: Wall Street's mine."

He paused, and they silently faced each other. Undine made no attempt
to approach him: she understood that if he yielded it would be only to
recover his advantage and deepen her feeling of defeat. She put out her
hand and took up the sunshade she had dropped on entering. "I suppose
it's good-bye then," she said.

"You haven't got the nerve?"

"The nerve for what?"

"To come where you belong: with me."

She laughed a little and then sighed. She wished he would come nearer,
or look at her differently: she felt, under his cool eye, no more
compelling than a woman of wax in a show-case.

"How could I get a divorce? With my religion--"

"Why, you were born a Baptist, weren't you? That's where you used to
attend church when I waited round the corner, Sunday mornings, with one
of old Hober's buggies." They both laughed, and he went on: "If you'll
come along home with me I'll see you get your divorce all right. Who
cares what they do over here? You're an American, ain't you? What you
want is the home-made article."

She listened, discouraged yet fascinated by his sturdy inaccessibility
to all her arguments and objections. He knew what he wanted, saw his
road before him, and acknowledged no obstacles. Her defense was drawn
from reasons he did not understand, or based on difficulties that did
not exist for him; and gradually she felt herself yielding to the steady
pressure of his will. Yet the reasons he brushed away came back with
redoubled tenacity whenever he paused long enough for her to picture the
consequences of what he exacted.

"You don't know--you don't understand--" she kept repeating; but she
knew that his ignorance was part of his terrible power, and that it was
hopeless to try to make him feel the value of what he was asking her to
give up.

"See here, Undine," he said slowly, as if he measured her resistance
though he couldn't fathom it, "I guess it had better be yes or no right
here. It ain't going to do either of us any good to drag this thing out.
If you want to come back to me, come--if you don't, we'll shake hands on
it now. I'm due in Apex for a directors' meeting on the twentieth, and
as it is I'll have to cable for a special to get me out there. No, no,
don't cry--it ain't that kind of a story ... but I'll have a deck suite
for you on the Semantic if you'll sail with me the day after to-morrow."


In the great high-ceilinged library of a private hotel overlooking one
of the new quarters of Paris, Paul Marvell stood listlessly gazing out
into the twilight.

The trees were budding symmetrically along the avenue below; and Paul,
looking down, saw, between windows and tree-tops, a pair of tall iron
gates with gilt ornaments, the marble curb of a semi-circular drive,
and bands of spring flowers set in turf. He was now a big boy of nearly
nine, who went to a fashionable private school, and he had come home
that day for the Easter holidays. He had not been back since Christmas,
and it was the first time he had seen the new hotel which his
step-father had bought, and in which Mr. and Mrs. Moffatt had hastily
established themselves, a few weeks earlier, on their return from a
flying trip to America. They were always coming and going; during the
two years since their marriage they had been perpetually dashing over to
New York and back, or rushing down to Rome or up to the Engadine: Paul
never knew where they were except when a telegram announced that they
were going somewhere else. He did not even know that there was any
method of communication between mothers and sons less laconic than that
of the electric wire; and once, when a boy at school asked him if his
mother often wrote, he had answered in all sincerity: "Oh yes--I got a
telegram last week."

He had been almost sure--as sure as he ever was of anything--that he
should find her at home when he arrived; but a message (for she hadn't
had time to telegraph) apprised him that she and Mr. Moffatt had run
down to Deauville to look at a house they thought of hiring for the
summer; they were taking an early train back, and would be at home for
dinner--were in fact having a lot of people to dine.

It was just what he ought to have expected, and had been used to ever
since he could remember; and generally he didn't much mind, especially
since his mother had become Mrs. Moffatt, and the father he had been
most used to, and liked best, had abruptly disappeared from his life.
But the new hotel was big and strange, and his own room, in which there
was not a toy or a book, or one of his dear battered relics (none of
the new servants--they were always new--could find his things, or think
where they had been put), seemed the loneliest spot in the whole house.
He had gone up there after his solitary luncheon, served in the immense
marble dining-room by a footman on the same scale, and had tried to
occupy himself with pasting post-cards into his album; but the newness
and sumptuousness of the room embarrassed him--the white fur rugs
and brocade chairs seemed maliciously on the watch for smears and
ink-spots--and after a while he pushed the album aside and began to roam
through the house.

He went to all the rooms in turn: his mother's first, the wonderful lacy
bedroom, all pale silks and velvets, artful mirrors and veiled lamps,
and the boudoir as big as a drawing-room, with pictures he would have
liked to know about, and tables and cabinets holding things he was
afraid to touch. Mr. Moffatt's rooms came next. They were soberer and
darker, but as big and splendid; and in the bedroom, on the brown wall,
hung a single picture--the portrait of a boy in grey velvet--that
interested Paul most of all. The boy's hand rested on the head of a big
dog, and he looked infinitely noble and charming, and yet (in spite of
the dog) so sad and lonely that he too might have come home that very
day to a strange house in which none of his old things could be found.

From these rooms Paul wandered downstairs again. The library attracted
him most: there were rows and rows of books, bound in dim browns and
golds, and old faded reds as rich as velvet: they all looked as if they
might have had stories in them as splendid as their bindings. But the
bookcases were closed with gilt trellising, and when Paul reached up
to open one, a servant told him that Mr. Moffatt's secretary kept them
locked because the books were too valuable to be taken down. This seemed
to make the library as strange as the rest of the house, and he passed
on to the ballroom at the back. Through its closed doors he heard a
sound of hammering, and when he tried the door-handle a servant passing
with a tray-full of glasses told him that "they" hadn't finished, and
wouldn't let anybody in.

The mysterious pronoun somehow increased Paul's sense of isolation, and
he went on to the drawing-rooms, steering his way prudently between the
gold arm-chairs and shining tables, and wondering whether the wigged and
corseleted heroes on the walls represented Mr. Moffatt's ancestors, and
why, if they did, he looked so little like them. The dining-room beyond
was more amusing, because busy servants were already laying the long
table. It was too early for the florist, and the centre of the table was
empty, but down the sides were gold baskets heaped with pulpy summer
fruits-figs, strawberries and big blushing nectarines. Between them
stood crystal decanters with red and yellow wine, and little dishes full
of sweets; and against the walls were sideboards with great pieces
of gold and silver, ewers and urns and branching candelabra, which
sprinkled the green marble walls with starlike reflections.

After a while he grew tired of watching the coming and going of
white-sleeved footmen, and of listening to the butler's vociferated
orders, and strayed back into the library. The habit of solitude had
given him a passion for the printed page, and if he could have found
a book anywhere--any kind of a book--he would have forgotten the long
hours and the empty house. But the tables in the library held only
massive unused inkstands and immense immaculate blotters; not a single
volume had slipped its golden prison.

His loneliness had grown overwhelming, and he suddenly thought of Mrs.
Heeny's clippings. His mother, alarmed by an insidious gain in weight,
had brought the masseuse back from New York with her, and Mrs. Heeny,
with her old black bag and waterproof, was established in one of the
grand bedrooms lined with mirrors. She had been loud in her joy at
seeing her little friend that morning, but four years had passed since
their last parting, and her personality had grown remote to him. He saw
too many people, and they too often disappeared and were replaced by
others: his scattered affections had ended by concentrating themselves
on the charming image of the gentleman he called his French father; and
since his French father had vanished no one else seemed to matter much
to him.

"Oh, well," Mrs. Heeny had said, discerning the reluctance under his
civil greeting, "I guess you're as strange here as I am, and we're both
pretty strange to each other. You just go and look round, and see what
a lovely home your Ma's got to live in; and when you get tired of that,
come up here to me and I'll give you a look at my clippings."

The word woke a train of dormant associations, and Paul saw himself
seated on a dingy carpet, between two familiar taciturn old presences,
while he rummaged in the depths of a bag stuffed with strips of

He found Mrs. Heeny sitting in a pink arm-chair, her bonnet perched on a
pink-shaded electric lamp and her numerous implements spread out on an
immense pink toilet-table. Vague as his recollection of her was, she
gave him at once a sense of reassurance that nothing else in the house
conveyed, and after he had examined all her scissors and pastes and
nail-polishers he turned to the bag, which stood on the carpet at her
feet as if she were waiting for a train.

"My, my!" she said, "do you want to get into that again? How you used to
hunt in it for taffy, to be sure, when your Pa brought you up to Grandma
Spragg's o' Saturdays! Well, I'm afraid there ain't any taffy in it now;
but there's piles and piles of lovely new clippings you ain't seen."

"My Papa?" He paused, his hand among the strips of newspaper. "My Papa
never saw my Grandma Spragg. He never went to America."

"Never went to America? Your Pa never--? Why, land alive!" Mrs. Heeny
gasped, a blush empurpling her large warm face. "Why, Paul Marvell,
don't you remember your own father, you that bear his name?" she

The boy blushed also, conscious that it must have been wrong to forget,
and yet not seeing how he was to blame.

"That one died a long long time ago, didn't he? I was thinking of my
French father," he explained.

"Oh, mercy," ejaculated Mrs. Heeny; and as if to cut the conversation
short she stooped over, creaking like a ship, and thrust her plump
strong hand into the bag.

"Here, now, just you look at these clippings--I guess you'll find a lot
in them about your Ma.--Where do they come from? Why, out of the papers,
of course," she added, in response to Paul's enquiry. "You'd oughter
start a scrap-book yourself--you're plenty old enough. You could make
a beauty just about your Ma, with her picture pasted in the front--and
another about Mr. Moffatt and his collections. There's one I cut out the
other day that says he's the greatest collector in America."

Paul listened, fascinated. He had the feeling that Mrs. Heeny's
clippings, aside from their great intrinsic interest, might furnish him
the clue to many things he didn't understand, and that nobody had ever
had time to explain to him. His mother's marriages, for instance: he was
sure there was a great deal to find out about them. But she always said:
"I'll tell you all about it when I come back"--and when she came back
it was invariably to rush off somewhere else. So he had remained without
a key to her transitions, and had had to take for granted numberless
things that seemed to have no parallel in the experience of the other
boys he knew.

"Here--here it is," said Mrs. Heeny, adjusting the big tortoiseshell
spectacles she had taken to wearing, and reading out in a slow chant
that seemed to Paul to come out of some lost remoteness of his infancy.

"'It is reported in London that the price paid by Mr. Elmer Moffatt for
the celebrated Grey Boy is the largest sum ever given for a Vandyck.
Since Mr. Moffatt began to buy extensively it is estimated in art
circles that values have gone up at least seventy-five per cent.'"

But the price of the Grey Boy did not interest Paul, and he said a
little impatiently: "I'd rather hear about my mother."

"To be sure you would! You wait now." Mrs. Heeny made another dive, and
again began to spread her clippings on her lap like cards on a big black

"Here's one about her last portrait--no, here's a better one about
her pearl necklace, the one Mr. Moffatt gave her last Christmas. 'The
necklace, which was formerly the property of an Austrian Archduchess, is
composed of five hundred perfectly matched pearls that took thirty years
to collect. It is estimated among dealers in precious stones that since
Mr. Moffatt began to buy the price of pearls has gone up over fifty per

Even this did not fix Paul's attention. He wanted to hear about his
mother and Mr. Moffatt, and not about their things; and he didn't quite
know how to frame his question. But Mrs. Heeny looked kindly at him and
he tried. "Why is mother married to Mr. Moffatt now?"

"Why, you must know that much, Paul." Mrs. Heeny again looked warm and
worried. "She's married to him because she got a divorce--that's why."
And suddenly she had another inspiration. "Didn't she ever send you
over any of those splendid clippings that came out the time they were
married? Why, I declare, that's a shame; but I must have some of 'em
right here."

She dived again, shuffled, sorted, and pulled out a long discoloured
strip. "I've carried this round with me ever since, and so many's wanted
to read it, it's all torn." She smoothed out the paper and began:

"'Divorce and remarriage of Mrs. Undine Spragg-de Chelles. American
Marquise renounces ancient French title to wed Railroad King. Quick work
untying and tying. Boy and girl romance renewed. "'Reno, November 23d.
The Marquise de Chelles, of Paris, France, formerly Mrs. Undine Spragg
Marvell, of Apex City and New York, got a decree of divorce at a special
session of the Court last night, and was remarried fifteen minutes
later to Mr. Elmer Moffatt, the billionaire Railroad King, who was the
Marquise's first husband.

"'No case has ever been railroaded through the divorce courts of this
State at a higher rate of speed: as Mr. Moffatt said last night, before
he and his bride jumped onto their east-bound special, every record has
been broken. It was just six months ago yesterday that the present Mrs.
Moffatt came to Reno to look for her divorce. Owing to a delayed train,
her counsel was late yesterday in receiving some necessary papers, and
it was feared the decision would have to be held over; but Judge Toomey,
who is a personal friend of Mr. Moffatt's, held a night session and
rushed it through so that the happy couple could have the knot tied and
board their special in time for Mrs. Moffatt to spend Thanksgiving in
New York with her aged parents. The hearing began at seven ten p. m. and
at eight o'clock the bridal couple were steaming out of the station.

"'At the trial Mrs. Spragg-de Chelles, who wore copper velvet and
sables, gave evidence as to the brutality of her French husband, but she
had to talk fast as time pressed, and Judge Toomey wrote the entry at
top speed, and then jumped into a motor with the happy couple and
drove to the Justice of the Peace, where he acted as best man to the
bridegroom. The latter is said to be one of the six wealthiest men east
of the Rockies. His gifts to the bride are a necklace and tiara of
pigeon-blood rubies belonging to Queen Marie Antoinette, a million
dollar cheque and a house in New York. The happy pair will pass the
honeymoon in Mrs. Moffatt's new home, 5009 Fifth Avenue, which is an
exact copy of the Pitti Palace, Florence. They plan to spend their
springs in France.'"

Mrs. Heeny drew a long breath, folded the paper and took off her
spectacles. "There," she said, with a benignant smile and a tap on
Paul's cheek, "now you see how it all happened...."

Paul was not sure he did; but he made no answer. His mind was too full
of troubled thoughts. In the dazzling description of his mother's latest
nuptials one fact alone stood out for him--that she had said things that
weren't true of his French father. Something he had half-guessed in her,
and averted his frightened thoughts from, took his little heart in an
iron grasp. She said things that weren't true.... That was what he had
always feared to find out.... She had got up and said before a lot of
people things that were awfully false about his dear French father....

The sound of a motor turning in at the gates made Mrs. Heeny exclaim
"Here they are!" and a moment later Paul heard his mother calling to
him. He got up reluctantly, and stood wavering till he felt Mrs. Heeny's
astonished eye upon him. Then he heard Mr. Moffatt's jovial shout of
"Paul Marvell, ahoy there!" and roused himself to run downstairs.

As he reached the landing he saw that the ballroom doors were open and
all the lustres lit. His mother and Mr. Moffatt stood in the middle of
the shining floor, looking up at the walls; and Paul's heart gave
a wondering bound, for there, set in great gilt panels, were the
tapestries that had always hung in the gallery at Saint Desert.

"Well, Senator, it feels good to shake your fist again!" his step-father
said, taking him in a friendly grasp; and his mother, who looked
handsomer and taller and more splendidly dressed than ever, exclaimed:
"Mercy! how they've cut his hair!" before she bent to kiss him.

"Oh, mother, mother!" he burst out, feeling, between his mother's face
and the others, hardly less familiar, on the walls, that he was really
at home again, and not in a strange house.

"Gracious, how you squeeze!" she protested, loosening his arms. "But you
look splendidly--and how you've grown!" She turned away from him and
began to inspect the tapestries critically. "Somehow they look smaller
here," she said with a tinge of disappointment.

Mr. Moffatt gave a slight laugh and walked slowly down the room, as if
to study its effect. As he turned back his wife said: "I didn't think
you'd ever get them." He laughed again, more complacently. "Well, I
don't know as I ever should have, if General Arlington hadn't happened
to bust up."

They both smiled, and Paul, seeing his mother's softened face, stole his
hand in hers and began: "Mother, I took a prize in composition--"

"Did you? You must tell me about it to-morrow. No, I really must rush
off now and dress--I haven't even placed the dinner-cards." She freed
her hand, and as she turned to go Paul heard Mr. Moffatt say: "Can't you
ever give him a minute's time, Undine?"

She made no answer, but sailed through the door with her head high, as
she did when anything annoyed her; and Paul and his step-father stood
alone in the illuminated ball-room.

Mr. Moffatt smiled good-naturedly at the little boy and then turned back
to the contemplation of the hangings.

"I guess you know where those come from, don't you?" he asked in a tone
of satisfaction.

"Oh, yes," Paul answered eagerly, with a hope he dared not utter that,
since the tapestries were there, his French father might be coming too.

"You're a smart boy to remember them. I don't suppose you ever thought
you'd see them here?"

"I don't know," said Paul, embarrassed.

"Well, I guess you wouldn't have if their owner hadn't been in a pretty
tight place. It was like drawing teeth for him to let them go."

Paul flushed up, and again the iron grasp was on his heart. He hadn't,
hitherto, actually disliked Mr. Moffatt, who was always in a good
humour, and seemed less busy and absent-minded than his mother; but at
that instant he felt a rage of hate for him. He turned away and burst
into tears.

"Why, hullo, old chap--why, what's up?" Mr. Moffatt was on his knees
beside the boy, and the arms embracing him were firm and friendly. But
Paul, for the life of him, couldn't answer: he could only sob and sob as
the great surges of loneliness broke over him.

"Is it because your mother hadn't time for you? Well, she's like that,
you know; and you and I have got to lump it," Mr. Moffatt continued,
getting to his feet. He stood looking down at the boy with a queer
smile. "If we two chaps stick together it won't be so bad--we can keep
each other warm, don't you see? I like you first rate, you know; when
you're big enough I mean to put you in my business. And it looks as if
one of these days you'd be the richest boy in America...."

The lamps were lit, the vases full of flowers, the foot-men assembled
on the landing and in the vestibule below, when Undine descended to the
drawing-room. As she passed the ballroom door she glanced in approvingly
at the tapestries. They really looked better than she had been willing
to admit: they made her ballroom the handsomest in Paris. But something
had put her out on the way up from Deauville, and the simplest way of
easing her nerves had been to affect indifference to the tapestries. Now
she had quite recovered her good humour, and as she glanced down the
list of guests she was awaiting she said to herself, with a sigh of
satisfaction, that she was glad she had put on her rubies.

For the first time since her marriage to Moffatt she was about to
receive in her house the people she most wished to see there. The
beginnings had been a little difficult; their first attempt in New York
was so unpromising that she feared they might not be able to live down
the sensational details of their reunion, and had insisted on her
husband's taking her back to Paris. But her apprehensions were
unfounded. It was only necessary to give people the time to pretend they
had forgotten; and already they were all pretending beautifully. The
French world had of course held out longest; it had strongholds she
might never capture. But already seceders were beginning to show
themselves, and her dinner-list that evening was graced with the names
of an authentic Duke and a not too-damaged Countess. In addition, of
course, she had the Shallums, the Chauncey Ellings, May Beringer, Dicky
Bowles, Walsingham Popple, and the rest of the New York frequenters of
the Nouveau Luxe; she had even, at the last minute, had the amusement of
adding Peter Van Degen to their number. In the evening there were to be
Spanish dancing and Russian singing; and Dicky Bowles had promised her
a Grand Duke for her next dinner, if she could secure the new tenor who
always refused to sing in private houses.

Even now, however, she was not always happy. She had everything she
wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she
might want if she knew about them. And there had been moments lately
when she had had to confess to herself that Moffatt did not fit into the
picture. At first she had been dazzled by his success and subdued by his
authority. He had given her all she had ever wished for, and more than
she had ever dreamed of having: he had made up to her for all her
failures and blunders, and there were hours when she still felt his
dominion and exulted in it. But there were others when she saw his
defects and was irritated by them: when his loudness and redness, his
misplaced joviality, his familiarity with the servants, his alternating
swagger and ceremony with her friends, jarred on perceptions that had
developed in her unawares. Now and then she caught herself thinking
that his two predecessors--who were gradually becoming merged in her
memory--would have said this or that differently, behaved otherwise in
such and such a case. And the comparison was almost always to Moffatt's

This evening, however, she thought of him indulgently. She was pleased
with his clever stroke in capturing the Saint Desert tapestries, which
General Arlington's sudden bankruptcy, and a fresh gambling scandal of
Hubert's, had compelled their owner to part with. She knew that Raymond
de Chelles had told the dealers he would sell his tapestries to anyone
but Mr. Elmer Moffatt, or a buyer acting for him; and it amused her to
think that, thanks to Elmer's astuteness, they were under her roof after
all, and that Raymond and all his clan were by this time aware of it.
These facts disposed her favourably toward her husband, and deepened the
sense of well-being with which--according to her invariable habit--she
walked up to the mirror above the mantelpiece and studied the image it

She was still lost in this pleasing contemplation when her husband
entered, looking stouter and redder than ever, in evening clothes that
were a little too tight. His shirt front was as glossy as his baldness,
and in his buttonhole he wore the red ribbon bestowed on him for waiving
his claim to a Velasquez that was wanted for the Louvre. He carried
a newspaper in his hand, and stood looking about the room with a
complacent eye.

"Well, I guess this is all right," he said, and she answered briefly:
"Don't forget you're to take down Madame de Follerive; and for goodness'
sake don't call her 'Countess.'"

"Why, she is one, ain't she?" he returned good-humouredly.

"I wish you'd put that newspaper away," she continued; his habit of
leaving old newspapers about the drawing-room annoyed her.

"Oh, that reminds me--" instead of obeying her he unfolded the paper.
"I brought it in to show you something. Jim Driscoll's been appointed
Ambassador to England."

"Jim Driscoll--!" She caught up the paper and stared at the paragraph
he pointed to. Jim Driscoll--that pitiful nonentity, with his stout
mistrustful commonplace wife! It seemed extraordinary that the
government should have hunted up such insignificant people. And
immediately she had a great vague vision of the splendours they were
going to--all the banquets and ceremonies and precedences....

"I shouldn't say she'd want to, with so few jewels--" She dropped the
paper and turned to her husband. "If you had a spark of ambition, that's
the kind of thing you'd try for. You could have got it just as easily as

He laughed and thrust his thumbs in his waistcoat armholes with the
gesture she disliked. "As it happens, it's about the one thing I

"You couldn't? Why not?"

"Because you're divorced. They won't have divorced Ambassadresses."

"They won't? Why not, I'd like to know?"

"Well, I guess the court ladies are afraid there'd be too many pretty
women in the Embassies," he answered jocularly.

She burst into an angry laugh, and the blood flamed up into her face.
"I never heard of anything so insulting!" she cried, as if the rule had
been invented to humiliate her.

There was a noise of motors backing and advancing in the court, and she
heard the first voices on the stairs. She turned to give herself a last
look in the glass, saw the blaze of her rubies, the glitter of her hair,
and remembered the brilliant names on her list.

But under all the dazzle a tiny black cloud remained. She had learned
that there was something she could never get, something that neither
beauty nor influence nor millions could ever buy for her. She could
never be an Ambassador's wife; and as she advanced to welcome her first
guests she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made


Book of the day:
Facebook Google Reddit StumbleUpon Twitter Pinterest