easily to answer: “Why, we called her after a hair-waver father put on the market the week she was born–” and then to explain, as he remained struck and silent: “It’s from UNdoolay, you know, the French for crimping; father always thought the name made it take. He was quite a scholar, and had the greatest knack for finding names. I remember the time he invented his Goliath Glue he sat up all night over the Bible to get the name… No, father didn’t start IN as a druggist,” she went on, expanding with the signs of Marvell’s interest; “he was educated for an undertaker, and built up a first-class business; but he was always a beautiful speaker, and after a while he sorter drifted into the ministry. Of course it didn’t pay him anything like as well, so finally he opened a drug-store, and he did first-rate at that too, though his heart was always in the pulpit. But after he made such a success with his hair-waver he got speculating in land out at Apex, and somehow everything went–though Mr. Spragg did all he COULD–.” Mrs. Spragg, when she found herself embarked on a long sentence, always ballasted it by italicizing the last word.
Her husband, she continued, could not, at the time, do much for his father-in-law. Mr. Spragg had come to Apex as a poor boy, and their early married life had been a protracted struggle, darkened by domestic affliction. Two of their three children had died of typhoid in the epidemic which devastated Apex before the new water-works were built; and this calamity, by causing Mr. Spragg to resolve that thereafter Apex should drink pure water, had led directly to the founding of his fortunes.
“He had taken over some of poor father’s land for a bad debt, and when he got up the Pure Water move the company voted to buy the land and build the new reservoir up there: and after that we began to be better off, and it DID seem as if it had come out so to comfort us some about the children.”
Mr. Spragg, thereafter, had begun to be a power in Apex, and fat years had followed on the lean. Ralph Marvell was too little versed in affairs to read between the lines of Mrs. Spragg’s untutored narrative, and he understood no more than she the occult connection between Mr. Spragg’s domestic misfortunes and his business triumph. Mr. Spragg had “helped out” his ruined father-in-law, and had vowed on his children’s graves that no Apex child should ever again drink poisoned water–and out of those two disinterested impulses, by some impressive law of compensation, material prosperity had come. What Ralph understood and appreciated was Mrs. Spragg’s unaffected frankness in talking of her early life. Here was no retrospective pretense of an opulent past, such as the other Invaders were given to parading before the bland but undeceived subject race. The Spraggs had been “plain people” and had not yet learned to be ashamed of it. The fact drew them much closer to the Dagonet ideals than any sham elegance in the past tense. Ralph felt that his mother, who shuddered away from Mrs. Harmon B. Driscoll, would understand and esteem Mrs. Spragg.
But how long would their virgin innocence last? Popple’s vulgar hands were on it already–Popple’s and the unspeakable Van Degen’s! Once they and theirs had begun the process of initiating Undine, there was no knowing–or rather there was too easy knowing–how it would end! It was incredible that she too should be destined to swell the ranks of the cheaply fashionable; yet were not her very freshness, her malleability, the mark of her fate? She was still at the age when the flexible soul offers itself to the first grasp. That the grasp should chance to be Van Degen’s–that was what made Ralph’s temples buzz, and swept away all his plans for his own future like a beaver’s dam in a spring flood. To save her from Van Degen and Van Degenism: was that really to be his mission–the “call” for which his life had obscurely waited? It was not in the least what he had meant to do with the fugitive flash of consciousness he called self; but all that he had purposed for that transitory being sank into insignificance under the pressure of Undine’s claims.
Ralph Marvell’s notion of women had been formed on the experiences common to good-looking young men of his kind. Women were drawn to him as much by his winning appealing quality, by the sense of a youthful warmth behind his light ironic exterior, as by his charms of face and mind. Except during Clare Dagonet’s brief reign the depths in him had not been stirred; but in taking what each sentimental episode had to give he had preserved, through all his minor adventures, his faith in the great adventure to come. It was this faith that made him so easy a victim when love had at last appeared clad in the attributes of romance: the imaginative man’s indestructible dream of a rounded passion.
The clearness with which he judged the girl and himself seemed the surest proof that his feeling was more than a surface thrill. He was not blind to her crudity and her limitations, but they were a part of her grace and her persuasion. Diverse et ondoyante–so he had seen her from the first. But was not that merely the sign of a quicker response to the world’s manifold appeal? There was Harriet Ray, sealed up tight in the vacuum of inherited opinion, where not a breath of fresh sensation could get at her: there could be no call to rescue young ladies so secured from the perils of reality! Undine had no such traditional safeguards–Ralph guessed Mrs. Spragg’s opinions to be as fluid as her daughter’s–and the girl’s very sensitiveness to new impressions, combined with her obvious lack of any sense of relative values, would make her an easy prey to the powers of folly. He seemed to see her–as he sat there, pressing his fists into his temples–he seemed to see her like a lovely rock-bound Andromeda, with the devouring monster Society careering up to make a mouthful of her; and himself whirling down on his winged horse–just Pegasus turned Rosinante for the nonce–to cut her bonds, snatch her up, and whirl her back into the blue…
Some two months later than the date of young Marvell’s midnight vigil, Mrs. Heeny, seated on a low chair at Undine’s knee, gave the girl’s left hand an approving pat as she laid aside her lapful of polishers.
“There! I guess you can put your ring on again,” she said with a laugh of jovial significance; and Undine, echoing the laugh in a murmur of complacency, slipped on the fourth finger of her recovered hand a band of sapphires in an intricate setting.
Mrs. Heeny took up the hand again. “Them’s old stones, Undine–they’ve got a different look,” she said, examining the ring while she rubbed her cushioned palm over the girl’s brilliant finger-tips. “And the setting’s quaint–I wouldn’t wonder but what it was one of old Gran’ma Dagonet’s.”
Mrs. Spragg, hovering near in fond beatitude, looked up quickly.
“Why, don’t you s’pose he BOUGHT it for her, Mrs. Heeny? It came in a Tiff’ny box.”
The manicure laughed again. “Of course he’s had Tiff’ny rub it up. Ain’t you ever heard of ancestral jewels, Mrs. Spragg? In the Eu-ropean aristocracy they never go out and BUY engagement-rings; and Undine’s marrying into our aristocracy.”
Mrs. Spragg looked relieved. “Oh, I thought maybe they were trying to scrimp on the ring–“
Mrs. Heeny, shrugging away this explanation, rose from her seat and rolled back her shiny black sleeves.
“Look at here, Undine, if you really want me to do your hair it’s time we got to work.”
The girl swung about in her seat so that she faced the mirror on the dressing-table. Her shoulders shone through transparencies of lace and muslin which slipped back as she lifted her arms to draw the tortoise-shell pins from her hair.
“Of course you’ve got to do it–I want to look perfectly lovely!”
“Well–I dunno’s my hand’s in nowadays,” said Mrs. Heeny in a tone that belied the doubt she cast on her own ability.
“Oh, you’re an ARTIST, Mrs. Heeny–and I just couldn’t have had that French maid ’round to-night,” sighed Mrs. Spragg, sinking into a chair near the dressing-table.
Undine, with a backward toss of her head, scattered her loose locks about her. As they spread and sparkled under Mrs. Heeny’s touch, Mrs. Spragg leaned back, drinking in through half-closed lids her daughter’s loveliness. Some new quality seemed added to Undine’s beauty: it had a milder bloom, a kind of melting grace, which might have been lent to it by the moisture in her mother’s eyes.
“So you’re to see the old gentleman for the first time at this dinner?” Mrs. Heeny pursued, sweeping the live strands up into a loosely woven crown.
“Yes. I’m frightened to death!” Undine, laughing confidently, took up a hand-glass and scrutinized the small brown mole above the curve of her upper lip.
“I guess she’ll know how to talk to him,” Mrs. Spragg averred with a kind of quavering triumph.
“She’ll know how to LOOK at him, anyhow,” said Mrs. Heeny; and Undine smiled at her own image.
“I hope he won’t think I’m too awful!”
Mrs. Heeny laughed. “Did you read the description of yourself in the Radiator this morning? I wish’t I’d ‘a had time to cut it out. I guess I’ll have to start a separate bag for YOUR clippings soon.”
Undine stretched her arms luxuriously above her head and gazed through lowered lids at the foreshortened reflection of her face.
“Mercy! Don’t jerk about like that. Am I to put in this rose?–There–you ARE lovely!” Mrs. Heeny sighed, as the pink petals sank into the hair above the girl’s forehead. Undine pushed her chair back, and sat supporting her chin on her clasped hands while she studied the result of Mrs. Heeny’s manipulations.
“Yes–that’s the way Mrs. Peter Van Degen’s flower was put in the other night; only hers was a camellia.–Do you think I’d look better with a camellia?”
“I guess if Mrs. Van Degen looked like a rose she’d ‘a worn a rose,” Mrs. Heeny rejoined poetically. “Sit still a minute longer,” she added. “Your hair’s so heavy I’d feel easier if I was to put in another pin.”
Undine remained motionless, and the manicure, suddenly laying both hands on the girl’s shoulders, and bending over to peer at her reflection, said playfully: “Ever been engaged before, Undine?”
A blush rose to the face in the mirror, spreading from chin to brow, and running rosily over the white shoulders from which their covering had slipped down.
“My! If he could see you now!” Mrs. Heeny jested.
Mrs. Spragg, rising noiselessly, glided across the room and became lost in a minute examination of the dress laid out on the bed.
With a supple twist Undine slipped from Mrs. Heeny’s hold.
“Engaged? Mercy, yes! Didn’t you know? To the Prince of Wales. I broke it off because I wouldn’t live in the Tower.”
Mrs. Spragg, lifting the dress cautiously over her arm, advanced with a reassured smile.
“I s’pose Undie’ll go to Europe now,” she said to Mrs. Heeny.
“I guess Undie WILL!” the young lady herself declared. “We’re going to sail right afterward.–Here, mother, do be careful of my hair!” She ducked gracefully to slip into the lacy fabric which her mother held above her head. As she rose Venus-like above its folds there was a tap on the door, immediately followed by its tentative opening.
“Mabel!” Undine muttered, her brows lowering like her father’s; and Mrs. Spragg, wheeling about to screen her daughter, addressed herself protestingly to the half-open door.
“Who’s there? Oh, that YOU, Mrs. Lipscomb? Well, I don’t know as you CAN–Undie isn’t half dressed yet–“
“Just like her–always pushing in!” Undine murmured as she slipped her arms into their transparent sleeves.
“Oh, that don’t matter–I’ll help dress her!” Mrs. Lipscomb’s large blond person surged across the threshold. “Seems to me I ought to lend a hand to-night, considering I was the one that introduced them!”
Undine forced a smile, but Mrs. Spragg, her soft wrinkles deepening with resentment, muttered to Mrs. Heeny, as she bent down to shake out the girl’s train: “I guess my daughter’s only got to show herself–“
The first meeting with old Mr. Dagonet was less formidable than Undine had expected. She had been once before to the house in Washington Square, when, with her mother, she had returned Mrs. Marvell’s ceremonial visit; but on that occasion Ralph’s grandfather had not been present. All the rites connected with her engagement were new and mysterious to Undine, and none more so than the unaccountable necessity of “dragging”–as she phrased it–Mrs. Spragg into the affair. It was an accepted article of the Apex creed that parental detachment should be completest at the moment when the filial fate was decided; and to find that New York reversed this rule was as puzzling to Undine as to her mother. Mrs. Spragg was so unprepared for the part she was to play that on the occasion of her visit to Mrs. Marvell her helplessness had infected Undine, and their half-hour in the sober faded drawing-room remained among the girl’s most unsatisfactory memories.
She re-entered it alone with more assurance. Her confidence in her beauty had hitherto carried her through every ordeal; and it was fortified now by the feeling of power that came with the sense of being loved. If they would only leave her mother out she was sure, in her own phrase, of being able to “run the thing”; and Mrs. Spragg had providentially been left out of the Dagonet dinner.
It was to consist, it appeared, only of the small family group Undine had already met; and, seated at old Mr. Dagonet’s right, in the high dark dining-room with mahogany doors and dim portraits of “Signers” and their females, she felt a conscious joy in her ascendancy. Old Mr. Dagonet–small, frail and softly sardonic–appeared to fall at once under her spell. If she felt, beneath his amenity, a kind of delicate dangerousness, like that of some fine surgical instrument, she ignored it as unimportant; for she had as yet no clear perception of forces that did not directly affect her.
Mrs. Marvell, low-voiced, faded, yet impressive, was less responsive to her arts, and Undine divined in her the head of the opposition to Ralph’s marriage. Mrs. Heeny had reported that Mrs. Marvell had other views for her son; and this was confirmed by such echoes of the short sharp struggle as reached the throbbing listeners at the Stentorian. But the conflict over, the air had immediately cleared, showing the enemy in the act of unconditional surrender. It surprised Undine that there had been no reprisals, no return on the points conceded. That was not her idea of warfare, and she could ascribe the completeness of the victory only to the effect of her charms.
Mrs. Marvell’s manner did not express entire subjugation; yet she seemed anxious to dispel any doubts of her good faith, and if she left the burden of the talk to her lively daughter it might have been because she felt more capable of showing indulgence by her silence than in her speech.
As for Mrs. Fairford, she had never seemed more brilliantly bent on fusing the various elements under her hand. Undine had already discovered that she adored her brother, and had guessed that this would make her either a strong ally or a determined enemy. The latter alternative, however, did not alarm the girl. She thought Mrs. Fairford “bright,” and wanted to be liked by her; and she was in the state of dizzy self-assurance when it seemed easy to win any sympathy she chose to seek.
For the only other guests–Mrs. Fairford’s husband, and the elderly Charles Bowen who seemed to be her special friend–Undine had no attention to spare: they remained on a plane with the dim pictures hanging at her back. She had expected a larger party; but she was relieved, on the whole, that it was small enough to permit of her dominating it. Not that she wished to do so by any loudness of assertion. Her quickness in noting external differences had already taught her to modulate and lower her voice, and to replace “The I-dea!” and “I wouldn’t wonder” by more polished locutions; and she had not been ten minutes at table before she found that to seem very much in love, and a little confused and subdued by the newness and intensity of the sentiment, was, to the Dagonet mind, the becoming attitude for a young lady in her situation. The part was not hard to play, for she WAS in love, of course. It was pleasant, when she looked across the table, to meet Ralph’s grey eyes, with that new look in them, and to feel that she had kindled it; but I it was only part of her larger pleasure in the general homage to her beauty, in the sensations of interest and curiosity excited by everything about her, from the family portraits overhead to the old Dagonet silver on the table–which were to be hers too, after all!
The talk, as at Mrs. Fairford’s, confused her by its lack of the personal allusion, its tendency to turn to books, pictures and politics. “Politics,” to Undine, had always been like a kind of back-kitchen to business–the place where the refuse was thrown and the doubtful messes were brewed. As a drawing-room topic, and one to provoke disinterested sentiments, it had the hollowness of Fourth of July orations, and her mind wandered in spite of the desire to appear informed and competent.
Old Mr. Dagonet, with his reedy staccato voice, that gave polish and relief to every syllable, tried to come to her aid by questioning her affably about her family and the friends she had made in New York. But the caryatid-parent, who exists simply as a filial prop, is not a fruitful theme, and Undine, called on for the first time to view her own progenitors as a subject of conversation, was struck by their lack of points. She had never paused to consider what her father and mother were “interested” in, and, challenged to specify, could have named–with sincerity–only herself. On the subject of her New York friends it was not much easier to enlarge; for so far her circle had grown less rapidly than she expected. She had fancied Ralph’s wooing would at once admit her to all his social privileges; but he had shown a puzzling reluctance to introduce her to the Van Degen set, where he came and went with such familiarity; and the persons he seemed anxious to have her know–a few frumpy “clever women” of his sister’s age, and one or two brisk old ladies in shabby houses with mahogany furniture and Stuart portraits–did not offer the opportunities she sought.
“Oh, I don’t know many people yet–I tell Ralph he’s got to hurry up and take me round,” she said to Mr. Dagonet, with a side-sparkle for Ralph, whose gaze, between the flowers and lights, she was aware of perpetually drawing.
“My daughter will take you–you must know his mother’s friends,” the old gentleman rejoined while Mrs. Marvell smiled noncommittally.
“But you have a great friend of your own–the lady who takes you into society,” Mr. Dagonet pursued; and Undine had the sense that the irrepressible Mabel was again “pushing in.”
“Oh, yes–Mabel Lipscomb. We were school-mates,” she said indifferently.
“Lipscomb? Lipscomb? What is Mr. Lipscomb’s occupation?”
“He’s a broker,” said Undine, glad to be able to place her friend’s husband in so handsome a light. The subtleties of a professional classification unknown to Apex had already taught her that in New York it is more distinguished to be a broker than a dentist; and she was surprised at Mr. Dagonet’s lack of enthusiasm.
“Ah? A broker?” He said it almost as Popple might have said “A DENTIST?” and Undine found herself astray in a new labyrinth of social distinctions. She felt a sudden contempt for Harry Lipscomb, who had already struck her as too loud, and irrelevantly comic. “I guess Mabel’ll get a divorce pretty soon,” she added, desiring, for personal reasons, to present Mrs. Lipscomb as favourably as possible.
Mr. Dagonet’s handsome eye-brows drew together. “A divorce? H’m–that’s bad. Has he been misbehaving himself?”
Undine looked innocently surprised. “Oh, I guess not. They like each other well enough. But he’s been a disappointment to her. He isn’t in the right set, and I think Mabel realizes she’ll never really get anywhere till she gets rid of him.”
These words, uttered in the high fluting tone that she rose to when sure of her subject, fell on a pause which prolonged and deepened itself to receive them, while every face at the table, Ralph Marvell’s excepted, reflected in varying degree Mr. Dagonet’s pained astonishment.
“But, my dear young lady–what would your friend’s situation be if, as you put it, she ‘got rid’ of her husband on so trivial a pretext?”
Undine, surprised at his dullness, tried to explain. “Oh that wouldn’t be the reason GIVEN, of course. Any lawyer could fix it up for them. Don’t they generally call it desertion?”
There was another, more palpitating, silence, broken by a laugh from Ralph.
“RALPH!” his mother breathed; then, turning to Undine, she said with a constrained smile: “I believe in certain parts of the country such–unfortunate arrangements–are beginning to be tolerated. But in New York, in spite of our growing indifference, a divorced woman is still–thank heaven!–at a decided disadvantage.”
Undine’s eyes opened wide. Here at last was a topic that really interested her, and one that gave another amazing glimpse into the camera obscura of New York society. “Do you mean to say Mabel would be worse off, then? Couldn’t she even go round as much as she does now?”
Mrs. Marvell met this gravely. “It would depend, I should say, on the kind of people she wished to see.”
“Oh, the very best, of course! That would be her only object.”
Ralph interposed with another laugh. “You see, Undine, you’d better think twice before you divorce me!”
“RALPH!” his mother again breathed; but the girl, flushed and sparkling, flung back: “Oh, it all depends on YOU! Out in Apex, if a girl marries a man who don’t come up to what she expected, people consider it’s to her credit to want to change. YOU’D better think twice of that!”
“If I were only sure of knowing what you expect!” he caught up her joke, tossing it back at her across the fascinated silence of their listeners.
“Why, EVERYTHING!” she announced–and Mr. Dagonet, turning, laid an intricately-veined old hand on, hers, and said, with a change of tone that relaxed the tension of the listeners: “My child, if you look like that you’ll get it.”
It was doubtless owing to Mrs. Fairford’s foresight that such possibilities of tension were curtailed, after dinner, by her carrying off Ralph and his betrothed to the theatre.
Mr. Dagonet, it was understood, always went to bed after an hour’s whist with his daughter; and the silent Mr. Fairford gave his evenings to bridge at his club. The party, therefore, consisted only of Undine and Ralph, with Mrs. Fairford and her attendant friend. Undine vaguely wondered why the grave and grey-haired Mr. Bowen formed so invariable a part of that lady’s train; but she concluded that it was the York custom for married ladies to have gentlemen “’round” (as girls had in Apex), and that Mr. Bowen was the sole survivor of Laura Fairford’s earlier triumphs.
She had, however, little time to give to such conjectures, for the performance they were attending–the debut of a fashionable London actress–had attracted a large audience in which Undine immediately recognized a number of familiar faces. Her engagement had been announced only the day before, and she had the delicious sense of being “in all the papers,” and of focussing countless glances of interest and curiosity as she swept through the theatre in Mrs. Fairford’s wake. Their stalls were near the stage, and progress thither was slow enough to permit of prolonged enjoyment of this sensation. Before passing to her place she paused for Ralph to remove her cloak, and as he lifted it from her shoulders she heard a lady say behind her: “There she is–the one in white, with the lovely back–” and a man answer: “Gad! Where did he find anything as good as that?”
Anonymous approval was sweet enough; but she was to taste a moment more exquisite when, in the proscenium box across the house, she saw Clare Van Degen seated beside the prim figure of Miss Harriet Ray. “They’re here to see me with him–they hate it, but they couldn’t keep away!” She turned and lifted a smile of possessorship to Ralph. Mrs. Fairford seemed also struck by the presence Of the two ladies, and Undine heard her whisper to Mr. Bowen: “Do you see Clare over there–and Harriet with her? Harriet WOULD COME–I call it Spartan! And so like Clare to ask her!”
Her companion laughed. “It’s one of the deepest instincts in human nature. The murdered are as much given as the murderer to haunting the scene of the crime.”
Doubtless guessing Ralph’s desire to have Undine to himself, Mrs. Fairford had sent the girl in first; and Undine, as she seated herself, was aware that the occupant of the next stall half turned to her, as with a vague gesture of recognition. But just then the curtain rose, and she became absorbed in the development of the drama, especially as it tended to display the remarkable toilets which succeeded each other on the person of its leading lady. Undine, seated at Ralph Marvell’s side, and feeling the thrill of his proximity as a subtler element in the general interest she was exciting, was at last repaid for the disappointment of her evening at the opera. It was characteristic of her that she remembered her failures as keenly as her triumphs, and that the passionate desire to obliterate, to “get even” with them, was always among the latent incentives of her conduct. Now at last she was having what she wanted–she was in conscious possession of the “real thing”; and through her other, diffused, sensations Ralph’s adoration gave her such a last refinement of pleasure as might have come to some warrior Queen borne in triumph by captive princes, and reading in the eyes of one the passion he dared not speak. When the curtain fell this vague enjoyment was heightened by various acts of recognition. All the people she wanted to “go with,” as they said in Apex, seemed to be about her in the stalls and boxes; and her eyes continued to revert with special satisfaction to the incongruous group formed by Mrs. Peter Van Degen and Miss Ray. The sight made it irresistible to whisper to Ralph: “You ought to go round and talk to your cousin. Have you told her we’re engaged?”
“Clare? of course. She’s going to call on you tomorrow.”
“Oh, she needn’t put herself out–she’s never been yet,” said Undine loftily.
He made no rejoinder, but presently asked: “Who’s that you’re waving to?”
“Mr. Popple. He’s coming round to see us. You know he wants to paint me.” Undine fluttered and beamed as the brilliant Popple made his way across the stalls to the seat which her neighbour had momentarily left.
“First-rate chap next to you–whoever he is–to give me this chance,” the artist declared. “Ha, Ralph, my boy, how did you pull it off? That’s what we’re all of us wondering.” He leaned over to give Marvell’s hand the ironic grasp of celibacy. “Well, you’ve left us lamenting: he has, you know. Miss Spragg. But I’ve got one pull over the others–I can paint you! He can’t forbid that, can he? Not before marriage, anyhow!”
Undine divided her shining glances between the two. “I guess he isn’t going to treat me any different afterward,” she proclaimed with joyous defiance.
“Ah, well, there’s no telling, you know. Hadn’t we better begin at once? Seriously, I want awfully to get you into the spring show.”
“Oh, really? That would be too lovely!”
“YOU would be, certainly–the way I mean to do you. But I see Ralph getting glum. Cheer up, my dear fellow; I daresay you’ll be invited to some of the sittings–that’s for Miss Spragg to say.–Ah, here comes your neighbour back, confound him–You’ll let me know when we can begin?”
As Popple moved away Undine turned eagerly to Marvell. “Do you suppose there’s time? I’d love to have him to do me!”
Ralph smiled. “My poor child–he WOULD ‘do’ you, with a vengeance. Infernal cheek, his asking you to sit–“
She stared. “But why? He’s painted your cousin, and all the smart women.”
“Oh, if a ‘smart’ portrait’s all you want!”
“I want what the others want,” she answered, frowning and pouting a little. She was already beginning to resent in Ralph the slightest sign of resistance to her pleasure; and her resentment took the form–a familiar one in Apex courtships–of turning on him, in the next entr’acte, a deliberately averted shoulder. The result of this was to bring her, for the first time, in more direct relation to her other neighbour. As she turned he turned too, showing her, above a shining shirt-front fastened with a large imitation pearl, a ruddy plump snub face without an angle in it, which yet looked sharper than a razor. Undine’s eyes met his with a startled look, and for a long moment they remained suspended on each other’s stare.
Undine at length shrank back with an unrecognizing face; but her movement made her opera-glass slip to the floor, and her neighbour bent down and picked it up.
“Well–don’t you know me yet?” he said with a slight smile, as he restored the glass to her.
She had grown white to the lips, and when she tried to speak the effort produced only a faint click in her throat. She felt that the change in her appearance must be visible, and the dread of letting Marvell see it made her continue to turn her ravaged face to her other neighbour. The round black eyes set prominently in the latter’s round glossy countenance had expressed at first only an impersonal and slightly ironic interest; but a look of surprise grew in them as Undine’s silence continued.
“What’s the matter? Don’t you want me to speak to you?”
She became aware that Marvell, as if unconscious of her slight show of displeasure, had left his seat, and was making his way toward the aisle; and this assertion of independence, which a moment before she would so deeply have resented, now gave her a feeling of intense relief.
“No–don’t speak to me, please. I’ll tell you another time–I’ll write.” Her neighbour continued to gaze at her, forming his lips into a noiseless whistle under his small dark moustache.
“Well, I–That’s about the stiffest,” he murmured; and as she made no answer he added: “Afraid I’ll ask to be introduced to your friend?”
She made a faint movement of entreaty. “I can’t explain. I promise to see you; but I ASK you not to talk to me now.”
He unfolded his programme, and went on speaking in a low tone while he affected to study it. “Anything to oblige, of course. That’s always been my motto. But is it a bargain–fair and square? You’ll see me?”
She receded farther from him. “I promise. I–I WANT to,” she faltered.
“All right, then. Call me up in the morning at the Driscoll Building. Seven-o-nine–got it?”
She nodded, and he added in a still lower tone: “I suppose I can congratulate you, anyhow?” and then, without waiting for her reply, turned to study Mrs. Van Degen’s box through his opera-glass. Clare, as if aware of the scrutiny fixed on her from below leaned back and threw a question over her shoulder to Ralph Marvell, who had just seated himself behind her.
“Who’s the funny man with the red face talking to Miss Spragg?”
Ralph bent forward. “The man next to her? Never saw him before. But I think you’re mistaken: she’s not speaking to him.”
“She WAS–Wasn’t she, Harriet?”
Miss Ray pinched her lips together without speaking, and Mrs. Van Degen paused for the fraction of a second. “Perhaps he’s an Apex friend,” she then suggested.
“Very likely. Only I think she’d have introduced him if he had been.”
His cousin faintly shrugged. “Shall you encourage that?”
Peter Van Degen, who had strayed into his wife’s box for a moment, caught the colloquy, and lifted his opera-glass.
“The fellow next to Miss Spragg? (By George, Ralph, she’s ripping to-night!) Wait a minute–I know his face. Saw him in old Harmon Driscoll’s office the day of the Eubaw Mine meeting. This chap’s his secretary, or something. Driscoll called him in to give some facts to the directors, and he seemed a mighty wide-awake customer.”
Clare Van Degen turned gaily to her cousin. “If he has anything to do with the Driscolls you’d better cultivate him! That’s the kind of acquaintance the Dagonets have always needed. I married to set them an example!”
Ralph rose with a laugh. “You’re right. I’ll hurry back and make his acquaintance.” He held out his hand to his cousin, avoiding her disappointed eyes.
Undine, on entering her bedroom late that evening, was startled by the presence of a muffled figure which revealed itself, through the dimness, as the ungirded midnight outline of Mrs. Spragg.
“MOTHER? What on earth–?” the girl exclaimed, as Mrs. Spragg pressed the electric button and flooded the room with light. The idea of a mother’s sitting up for her daughter was so foreign to Apex customs that it roused only mistrust and irritation in the object of the demonstration.
Mrs. Spragg came forward deprecatingly to lift the cloak from her daughter’s shoulders.
“I just HAD to, Undie–I told father I HAD to. I wanted to hear all about it.”
Undine shrugged away from her. “Mercy! At this hour? You’ll be as white as a sheet to-morrow, sitting up all night like this.”
She moved toward the toilet-table, and began to demolish with feverish hands the structure which Mrs. Heeny, a few hours earlier, had so lovingly raised. But the rose caught in a mesh of hair, and Mrs. Spragg, venturing timidly to release it, had a full view of her daughter’s face in the glass.
“Why, Undie, YOU’RE as white as a sheet now! You look fairly sick. What’s the matter, daughter?”
The girl broke away from her.
“Oh, can’t you leave me alone, mother? There–do I look white NOW?” she cried, the blood flaming into her pale cheeks; and as Mrs. Spragg shrank back, she added more mildly, in the tone of a parent rebuking a persistent child: “It’s enough to MAKE anybody sick to be stared at that way!”
Mrs. Spragg overflowed with compunction. “I’m so sorry, Undie. I guess it was just seeing you in this glare of light.”
“Yes–the light’s awful; do turn some off,” ordered Undine, for whom, ordinarily, no radiance was too strong; and Mrs. Spragg, grateful to have commands laid upon her, hastened to obey.
Undine, after this, submitted in brooding silence to having her dress unlaced, and her slippers and dressing-gown brought to her. Mrs. Spragg visibly yearned to say more, but she restrained the impulse lest it should provoke her dismissal.
“Won’t you take just a sup of milk before you go to bed?” she suggested at length, as Undine sank into an armchair.
“I’ve got some for you right here in the parlour.”
Without looking up the girl answered: “No. I don’t want anything. Do go to bed.”
Her mother seemed to be struggling between the life-long instinct of obedience and a swift unformulated fear. “I’m going, Undie.” She wavered. “Didn’t they receive you right, daughter?” she asked with sudden resolution.
“What nonsense! How should they receive me? Everybody was lovely to me.” Undine rose to her feet and went on with her undressing, tossing her clothes on the floor and shaking her hair over her bare shoulders.
Mrs. Spragg stooped to gather up the scattered garments as they fell, folding them with a wistful caressing touch, and laying them on the lounge, without daring to raise her eyes to her daughter. It was not till she heard Undine throw herself on the bed that she went toward her and drew the coverlet up with deprecating hands.
“Oh, do put the light out–I’m dead tired,” the girl grumbled, pressing her face into the pillow.
Mrs. Spragg turned away obediently; then, gathering all her scattered impulses into a passionate act of courage, she moved back to the bedside.
“Undie–you didn’t see anybody–I mean at the theatre? ANYBODY YOU DIDN’T WANT TO SEE?”
Undine, at the question, raised her head and started right against the tossed pillows, her white exasperated face close to her mother’s twitching features. The two women examined each other a moment, fear and anger in their crossed glances; then Undine answered: “No, nobody. Good-night.”
Undine, late the next day, waited alone under the leafless trellising of a wistaria arbour on the west side of the Central Park. She had put on her plainest dress, and wound a closely, patterned veil over her least vivid hat; but even thus toned down to the situation she was conscious of blazing out from it inconveniently.
The habit of meeting young men in sequestered spots was not unknown to her: the novelty was in feeling any embarrassment about it. Even now she–was disturbed not so much by the unlikely chance of an accidental encounter with Ralph Marvell as by the remembrance of similar meetings, far from accidental, with the romantic Aaronson. Could it be that the hand now adorned with Ralph’s engagement ring had once, in this very spot, surrendered itself to the riding-master’s pressure? At the thought a wave of physical disgust passed over her, blotting out another memory as distasteful but more remote.
It was revived by the appearance of a ruddy middle-sized young man, his stoutish figure tightly buttoned into a square-shouldered over-coat, who presently approached along the path that led to the arbour. Silhouetted against the slope of the asphalt, the newcomer revealed an outline thick yet compact, with a round head set on a neck in which, at the first chance, prosperity would be likely to develop a red crease. His face, with its rounded surfaces, and the sanguine innocence of a complexion belied by prematurely astute black eyes, had a look of jovial cunning which Undine had formerly thought “smart” but which now struck her as merely vulgar. She felt that in the Marvell set Elmer Moffatt would have been stamped as “not a gentleman.” Nevertheless something in his look seemed to promise the capacity to develop into any character he might care to assume; though it did not seem probable that, for the present, that of a gentleman would be among them. He had always had a brisk swaggering step, and the faintly impudent tilt of the head that she had once thought “dashing”; but whereas this look had formerly denoted a somewhat desperate defiance of the world and its judgments it now suggested an almost assured relation to these powers; and Undine’s heart sank at the thought of what the change implied.
As he drew nearer, the young man’s air of assurance was replaced by an expression of mildly humorous surprise.
“Well–this is white of you. Undine!” he said, taking her lifeless fingers into his dapperly gloved hand.
Through her veil she formed the words: “I said I’d come.”
He laughed. “That’s so. And you see I believed you. Though I might not have–“
“I don’t see the use of beginning like this,” she interrupted nervously.
“That’s so too. Suppose we walk along a little ways? It’s rather chilly standing round.”
He turned down the path that descended toward the Ramble and the girl moved on beside him with her long flowing steps.
When they had reached the comparative shelter of the interlacing trees Moffatt paused again to say: “If we’re going to talk I’d like to see you. Undine;” and after a first moment of reluctance she submissively threw back her veil.
He let his eyes rest on her in silence; then he said judicially: “You’ve filled out some; but you’re paler.” After another appreciative scrutiny he added: “There’s mighty few women as well worth looking at, and I’m obliged to you for letting me have the chance again.”
Undine’s brows drew together, but she softened her frown to a quivering smile.
“I’m glad to see you too, Elmer–I am, REALLY!”
He returned her smile while his glance continued to study her humorously. “You didn’t betray the fact last night. Miss Spragg.”
“I was so taken aback. I thought you were out in Alaska somewhere.”
The young man shaped his lips into the mute whistle by which he habitually vented his surprise. “You DID? Didn’t Abner E. Spragg tell you he’d seen me down town?”
Undine gave him a startled glance. “Father? Why, have you seen him? He never said a word about it!”
Her companion’s whistle became audible. “He’s running yet!” he said gaily. “I wish I could scare some people as easy as I can your father.”
The girl hesitated. “I never felt toward you the way father did,” she hazarded at length; and he gave her another long look in return.
“Well, if they’d left you alone I don’t believe you’d ever have acted mean to me,” was the conclusion he drew from it.
“I didn’t mean to, Elmer … I give you my word–but I was so young … I didn’t know anything….”
His eyes had a twinkle of reminiscent pleasantry. “No–I don’t suppose it WOULD teach a girl much to be engaged two years to a stiff like Millard Binch; and that was about all that had happened to you before I came along.”
Undine flushed to the forehead. “Oh, Elmer–I was only a child when I was engaged to Millard–“
“That’s a fact. And you went on being one a good while afterward. The Apex Eagle always head-lined you ‘The child-bride’–“
“I can’t see what’s the use–now–.”
“That ruled out of court too? See here. Undine–what CAN we talk about? I understood that was what we were here for.”
“Of course.” She made an effort at recovery. “I only meant to say–what’s the use of raking up things that are over?”
“Rake up? That’s the idea, is it? Was that why you tried to cut me last night?”
“I–oh, Elmer! I didn’t mean to; only, you see, I’m engaged.”
“Oh, I saw that fast enough. I’d have seen it even if I didn’t read the papers.” He gave a short laugh. “He was feeling pretty good, sitting there alongside of you, wasn’t he? I don’t wonder he was. I remember. But I don’t see that that was a reason for cold-shouldering me. I’m a respectable member of society now–I’m one of Harmon B. Driscoll’s private secretaries.” He brought out the fact with mock solemnity.
But to Undine, though undoubtedly impressive, the statement did not immediately present itself as a subject for pleasantry.
“Elmer Moffatt–you ARE?”
He laughed again. “Guess you’d have remembered me last night if you’d known it.”
She was following her own train of thought with a look of pale intensity. “You’re LIVING in New York, then–you’re going to live here right along?”
“Well, it looks that way; as long as I can hang on to this job. Great men always gravitate to the metropolis. And I gravitated here just as Uncle Harmon B. was looking round for somebody who could give him an inside tip on the Eubaw mine deal–you know the Driscolls are pretty deep in Eubaw. I happened to go out there after our little unpleasantness at Apex, and it was just the time the deal went through. So in one way your folks did me a good turn when they made Apex too hot for me: funny to think of, ain’t it?”
Undine, recovering herself, held out her hand impulsively.
“I’m real glad of it–I mean I’m real glad you’ve had such a stroke of luck!”
“Much obliged,” he returned. “By the way, you might mention the fact to Abner E. Spragg next time you run across him.”
“Father’ll be real glad too, Elmer.” She hesitated, and then went on: “You must see now that it was natural father and mother should have felt the way they did–“
“Oh, the only thing that struck me as unnatural was their making you feel so too. But I’m free to admit I wasn’t a promising case in those days.” His glance played over her for a moment. “Say, Undine–it was good while it lasted, though, wasn’t it?”
She shrank back with a burning face and eyes of misery.
“Why, what’s the matter? That ruled out too? Oh, all right. Look at here, Undine, suppose you let me know what you ARE here to talk about, anyhow.”
She cast a helpless glance down the windings of the wooded glen in which they had halted.
“Just to ask you–to beg you–not to say anything of this kind again–EVER–“
“Anything about you and me?”
She nodded mutely.
“Why, what’s wrong? Anybody been saying anything against me?”
“Oh, no. It’s not that!”
“What on earth is it, then–except that you’re ashamed of me, one way or another?” She made no answer, and he stood digging the tip of his walking-stick into a fissure of the asphalt. At length he went on in a tone that showed a first faint trace of irritation: “I don’t want to break into your gilt-edged crowd, if it’s that you’re scared of.”
His tone seemed to increase her distress. “No, no–you don’t understand. All I want is that nothing shall be known.”
“Yes; but WHY? It was all straight enough, if you come to that.”
“It doesn’t matter … whether it was straight … or … not …” He interpolated a whistle which made her add: “What I mean is that out here in the East they don’t even like it if a girl’s been ENGAGED before.”
This last strain on his credulity wrung a laugh from Moffatt. “Gee! How’d they expect her fair young life to pass? Playing ‘Holy City’ on the melodeon, and knitting tidies for church fairs?”
“Girls are looked after here. It’s all different. Their mothers go round with them.”
This increased her companion’s hilarity and he glanced about him with a pretense of compunction. “Excuse ME! I ought to have remembered. Where’s your chaperon, Miss Spragg?” He crooked his arm with mock ceremony. “Allow me to escort you to the bew-fay. You see I’m onto the New York style myself.”
A sigh of discouragement escaped her. “Elmer–if you really believe I never wanted to act mean to you, don’t you act mean to me now!”
“Act mean?” He grew serious again and moved nearer to her. “What is it you want, Undine? Why can’t you say it right out?”
“What I told you. I don’t want Ralph Marvell–or any of them–to know anything. If any of his folks found out, they’d never let him marry me–never! And he wouldn’t want to: he’d be so horrified. And it would KILL me, Elmer–it would just kill me!”
She pressed close to him, forgetful of her new reserves and repugnances, and impelled by the passionate absorbing desire to wring from him some definite pledge of safety.
“Oh, Elmer, if you ever liked me, help me now, and I’ll help you if I get the chance!”
He had recovered his coolness as hers forsook her, and stood his ground steadily, though her entreating hands, her glowing face, were near enough to have shaken less sturdy nerves.
“That so, Puss? You just ask me to pass the sponge over Elmer Moffatt of Apex City? Cut the gentleman when we meet? That the size of it?”
“Oh, Elmer, it’s my first chance–I can’t lose it!” she broke out, sobbing.
“Nonsense, child! Of course you shan’t. Here, look up. Undine–why, I never saw you cry before. Don’t you be afraid of me–_I_ ain’t going to interrupt the wedding march.” He began to whistle a bar of Lohengrin. “I only just want one little promise in return.”
She threw a startled look at him and he added reassuringly: “Oh, don’t mistake me. I don’t want to butt into your set–not for social purposes, anyhow; but if ever it should come handy to know any of ’em in a business way, would you fix it up for me–AFTER YOU’RE MARRIED?'”
Their eyes met, and she remained silent for a tremulous moment or two; then she held out her hand. “Afterward–yes. I promise. And YOU promise, Elmer?”
“Oh, to have and to hold!” he sang out, swinging about to follow her as she hurriedly began to retrace her steps.
The March twilight had fallen, and the Stentorian facade was all aglow, when Undine regained its monumental threshold. She slipped through the marble vestibule and soared skyward in the mirror-lined lift, hardly conscious of the direction she was taking. What she wanted was solitude, and the time to put some order into her thoughts; and she hoped to steal into her room without meeting her mother. Through her thick veil the clusters of lights in the Spragg drawing-room dilated and flowed together in a yellow blur, from which, as she entered, a figure detached itself; and with a start of annoyance she saw Ralph Marvell rise from the perusal of the “fiction number” of a magazine which had replaced “The Hound of the Baskervilles” on the onyx table.
“Yes; you told me not to come–and here I am.” He lifted her hand to his lips as his eyes tried to find hers through the veil.
She drew back with a nervous gesture. “I told you I’d be awfully late.”
“I know–trying on! And you’re horribly tired, and wishing with all your might I wasn’t here.”
“I’m not so sure I’m not!” she rejoined, trying to hide her vexation in a smile.
“What a tragic little voice! You really are done up. I couldn’t help dropping in for a minute; but of course if you say so I’ll be off.” She was removing her long gloves and he took her hands and drew her close. “Only take off your veil, and let me see you.”
A quiver of resistance ran through her: he felt it and dropped her hands.
“Please don’t tease. I never could bear it,” she stammered, drawing away.
“Till to-morrow, then; that is, if the dress-makers permit.”
She forced a laugh. “If I showed myself now you might not come back to-morrow. I look perfectly hideous–it was so hot and they kept me so long.”
“All to make yourself more beautiful for a man who’s blind with your beauty already?”
The words made her smile, and moving nearer she bent her head and stood still while he undid her veil. As he put it back their lips met, and his look of passionate tenderness was incense to her.
But the next moment his expression passed from worship to concern. “Dear! Why, what’s the matter? You’ve been crying!”
She put both hands to her hat in the instinctive effort to hide her face. His persistence was as irritating as her mother’s.
“I told you it was frightfully hot–and all my things were horrid; and it made me so cross and nervous!” She turned to the looking-glass with a feint of smoothing her hair.
Marvell laid his hand on her arm, “I can’t bear to see you so done up. Why can’t we be married to-morrow, and escape all these ridiculous preparations? I shall hate your fine clothes if they’re going to make you so miserable.”
She dropped her hands, and swept about on him, her face lit up by a new idea. He was extraordinarily handsome and appealing, and her heart began to beat faster.
“I hate it all too! I wish we COULD be married right away!”
Marvell caught her to him joyously. “Dearest–dearest! Don’t, if you don’t mean it! The thought’s too glorious!”
Undine lingered in his arms, not with any intent of tenderness, but as if too deeply lost in a new train of thought to be conscious of his hold.
“I suppose most of the things COULD be got ready sooner–if I said they MUST,” she brooded, with a fixed gaze that travelled past him. “And the rest–why shouldn’t the rest be sent over to Europe after us? I want to go straight off with you, away from everything–ever so far away, where there’ll be nobody but you and me alone!” She had a flash of illumination which made her turn her lips to his.
“Oh, my darling–my darling!” Marvell whispered.
Mr. and Mrs. Spragg were both given to such long periods of ruminating apathy that the student of inheritance might have wondered whence Undine derived her overflowing activity. The answer would have been obtained by observing her father’s business life. From the moment he set foot in Wall Street Mr. Spragg became another man. Physically the change revealed itself only by the subtlest signs. As he steered his way to his office through the jostling crowd of William Street his relaxed muscles did not grow more taut or his lounging gait less desultory. His shoulders were hollowed by the usual droop, and his rusty black waistcoat showed the same creased concavity at the waist, the same flabby prominence below. It was only in his face that the difference was perceptible, though even here it rather lurked behind the features than openly modified them: showing itself now and then in the cautious glint of half-closed eyes, the forward thrust of black brows, or a tightening of the lax lines of the mouth–as the gleam of a night-watchman’s light might flash across the darkness of a shuttered house-front. The shutters were more tightly barred than usual, when, on a morning some two weeks later than the date of the incidents last recorded, Mr. Spragg approached the steel and concrete tower in which his office occupied a lofty pigeon-hole. Events had moved rapidly and somewhat surprisingly in the interval, and Mr. Spragg had already accustomed himself to the fact that his daughter was to be married within the week, instead of awaiting the traditional post-Lenten date. Conventionally the change meant little to him; but on the practical side it presented unforeseen difficulties. Mr. Spragg had learned within the last weeks that a New York marriage involved material obligations unknown to Apex. Marvell, indeed, had been loftily careless of such questions; but his grandfather, on the announcement of the engagement, had called on Mr. Spragg and put before him, with polished precision, the young man’s financial situation.
Mr. Spragg, at the moment, had been inclined to deal with his visitor in a spirit of indulgent irony. As he leaned back in his revolving chair, with feet adroitly balanced against a tilted scrap basket, his air of relaxed power made Mr. Dagonet’s venerable elegance seem as harmless as that of an ivory jack-straw–and his first replies to his visitor were made with the mildness of a kindly giant.
“Ralph don’t make a living out of the law, you say? No, it didn’t strike me he’d be likely to, from the talks I’ve had with him. Fact is, the law’s a business that wants–” Mr. Spragg broke off, checked by a protest from Mr. Dagonet. “Oh, a PROFESSION, you call it? It ain’t a business?” His smile grew more indulgent as this novel distinction dawned on him. “Why, I guess that’s the whole trouble with Ralph. Nobody expects to make money in a PROFESSION; and if you’ve taught him to regard the law that way, he’d better go right into cooking-stoves and done with it.”
Mr. Dagonet, within a narrower range, had his own play of humour; and it met Mr. Spragg’s with a leap. “It’s because I knew he would manage to make cooking-stoves as unremunerative as a profession that I saved him from so glaring a failure by putting him into the law.”
The retort drew a grunt of amusement from Mr. Spragg; and the eyes of the two men met in unexpected understanding.
“That so? What can he do, then?” the future father-in-law enquired.
“He can write poetry–at least he tells me he can.” Mr. Dagonet hesitated, as if aware of the inadequacy of the alternative, and then added: “And he can count on three thousand a year from me.”
Mr. Spragg tilted himself farther back without disturbing his subtly-calculated relation to the scrap basket.
“Does it cost anything like that to print his poetry?”
Mr. Dagonet smiled again: he was clearly enjoying his visit. “Dear, no–he doesn’t go in for ‘luxe’ editions. And now and then he gets ten dollars from a magazine.”
Mr. Spragg mused. “Wasn’t he ever TAUGHT to work?”
“No; I really couldn’t have afforded that.”
“I see. Then they’ve got to live on two hundred and fifty dollars a month.”
Mr. Dagonet remained pleasantly unmoved. “Does it cost anything like that to buy your daughter’s dresses?”
A subterranean chuckle agitated the lower folds of Mr. Spragg’s waistcoat.
“I might put him in the way of something–I guess he’s smart enough.”
Mr. Dagonet made a gesture of friendly warning. “It will pay us both in the end to keep him out of business,” he said, rising as if to show that his mission was accomplished.
The results of this friendly conference had been more serious than Mr. Spragg could have foreseen–and the victory remained with his antagonist. It had not entered into Mr. Spragg’s calculations that he would have to give his daughter any fixed income on her marriage. He meant that she should have the “handsomest” wedding the New York press had ever celebrated, and her mother’s fancy was already afloat on a sea of luxuries–a motor, a Fifth Avenue house, and a tiara that should out-blaze Mrs. Van Degen’s; but these were movable benefits, to be conferred whenever Mr. Spragg happened to be “on the right side” of the market. It was a different matter to be called on, at such short notice, to bridge the gap between young Marvell’s allowance and Undine’s requirements; and her father’s immediate conclusion was that the engagement had better be broken off. Such scissions were almost painless in Apex, and he had fancied it would be easy, by an appeal to the girl’s pride, to make her see that she owed it to herself to do better.
“You’d better wait awhile and look round again,” was the way he had put it to her at the opening of the talk of which, even now, he could not recall the close without a tremor.
Undine, when she took his meaning, had been terrible. Everything had gone down before her, as towns and villages went down before one of the tornadoes of her native state. Wait awhile? Look round? Did he suppose she was marrying for MONEY? Didn’t he see it was all a question, now and here, of the kind of people she wanted to “go with”? Did he want to throw her straight back into the Lipscomb set, to have her marry a dentist and live in a West Side flat? Why hadn’t they stayed in Apex, if that was all he thought she was fit for? She might as well have married Millard Binch, instead of handing him over to Indiana Frusk! Couldn’t her father understand that nice girls, in New York, didn’t regard getting married like going on a buggy-ride? It was enough to ruin a girl’s chances if she broke her engagement to a man in Ralph Marvell’s set. All kinds of spiteful things would be said about her, and she would never be able to go with the right people again. They had better go back to Apex right off–it was they and not SHE who had wanted to leave Apex, anyhow–she could call her mother to witness it. She had always, when it came to that, done what her father and mother wanted, but she’d given up trying to make out what they were after, unless it was to make her miserable; and if that was it, hadn’t they had enough of it by this time? She had, anyhow. But after this she meant to lead her own life; and they needn’t ask her where she was going, or what she meant to do, because this time she’d die before she told them–and they’d made life so hateful to her that she only wished she was dead already.
Mr. Spragg heard her out in silence, pulling at his beard with one sallow wrinkled hand, while the other dragged down the armhole of his waistcoat. Suddenly he looked up and said: “Ain’t you in love with the fellow, Undie?”
The girl glared back at him, her splendid brows beetling like an Amazon’s. “Do you think I’d care a cent for all the rest of it if I wasn’t?”
“Well, if you are, you and he won’t mind beginning in a small way.”
Her look poured contempt on his ignorance. “Do you s’pose I’d drag him down?” With a magnificent gesture she tore Marvell’s ring from her finger. “I’ll send this back this minute. I’ll tell him I thought he was a rich man, and now I see I’m mistaken–” She burst into shattering sobs, rocking her beautiful body back and forward in all the abandonment of young grief; and her father stood over her, stroking her shoulder and saying helplessly: “I’ll see what I can do, Undine–“
All his life, and at ever-diminishing intervals, Mr. Spragg had been called on by his womenkind to “see what he could do”; and the seeing had almost always resulted as they wished. Undine did not have to send back her ring, and in her state of trance-like happiness she hardly asked by what means her path had been smoothed, but merely accepted her mother’s assurance that “father had fixed everything all right.”
Mr. Spragg accepted the situation also. A son-in-law who expected to be pensioned like a Grand Army veteran was a phenomenon new to his experience; but if that was what Undine wanted she should have it. Only two days later, however, he was met by a new demand–the young people had decided to be married “right off,” instead of waiting till June. This change of plan was made known to Mr. Spragg at a moment when he was peculiarly unprepared for the financial readjustment it necessitated. He had always declared himself able to cope with any crisis if Undine and her mother would “go steady”; but he now warned them of his inability to keep up with the new pace they had set. Undine, not deigning to return to the charge, had commissioned her mother to speak for her; and Mr. Spragg was surprised to meet in his wife a firmness as inflexible as his daughter’s.
“I can’t do it, Loot–can’t put my hand on the cash,” he had protested; but Mrs. Spragg fought him inch by inch, her back to the wall–flinging out at last, as he pressed her closer: “Well, if you want to know, she’s seen Elmer.”
The bolt reached its mark, and her husband turned an agitated face on her.
“Elmer? What on earth–he didn’t come HERE?”
“No; but he sat next to her the other night at the theatre, and she’s wild with us for not having warned her.”
Mr. Spragg’s scowl drew his projecting brows together. “Warned her of what? What’s Elmer to her? Why’s she afraid of Elmer Moffatt?”
“She’s afraid of his talking.”
“Talking? What on earth can he say that’ll hurt HER?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Mrs. Spragg wailed. “She’s so nervous I can hardly get a word out of her.”
Mr. Spragg’s whitening face showed the touch of a new fear. “Is she afraid he’ll get round her again–make up to her? Is that what she means by ‘talking’?” “I don’t know, I don’t know. I only know she is afraid–she’s afraid as death of him.”
For a long interval they sat silently looking at each other while their heavy eyes exchanged conjectures: then Mr. Spragg rose from his chair, saying, as he took up his hat: “Don’t you fret, Leota; I’ll see what I can do.”
He had been “seeing” now for an arduous fortnight; and the strain on his vision had resulted in a state of tension such as he had not undergone since the epic days of the Pure Water Move at Apex. It was not his habit to impart his fears to Mrs. Spragg and Undine, and they continued the bridal preparations, secure in their invariable experience that, once “father” had been convinced of the impossibility of evading their demands, he might be trusted to satisfy them by means with which his womenkind need not concern themselves. Mr. Spragg, as he approached his office on the morning in question, felt reasonably sure of fulfilling these expectations; but he reflected that a few more such victories would mean disaster.
He entered the vast marble vestibule of the Ararat Trust Building and walked toward the express elevator that was to carry him up to his office. At the door of the elevator a man turned to him, and he recognized Elmer Moffatt, who put out his hand with an easy gesture.
Mr. Spragg did not ignore the gesture: he did not even withhold his hand. In his code the cut, as a conscious sign of disapproval, did not exist. In the south, if you had a grudge against a man you tried to shoot him; in the west, you tried to do him in a mean turn in business; but in neither region was the cut among the social weapons of offense. Mr. Spragg, therefore, seeing Moffatt in his path, extended a lifeless hand while he faced the young man scowlingly. Moffatt met the hand and the scowl with equal coolness.
“Going up to your office? I was on my way there.”
The elevator door rolled back, and Mr. Spragg, entering it, found his companion at his side. They remained silent during the ascent to Mr. Spragg’s threshold; but there the latter turned to enquire ironically of Moffatt: “Anything left to say?”
Moffatt smiled. “Nothing LEFT–no; I’m carrying a whole new line of goods.”
Mr. Spragg pondered the reply; then he opened the door and suffered Moffatt to follow him in. Behind an inner glazed enclosure, with its one window dimmed by a sooty perspective barred with chimneys, he seated himself at a dusty littered desk, and groped instinctively for the support of the scrap basket. Moffatt, uninvited, dropped into the nearest chair, and Mr. Spragg said, after another silence: “I’m pretty busy this morning.”
“I know you are: that’s why I’m here,” Moffatt serenely answered. He leaned back, crossing his legs, and twisting his small stiff moustache with a plump hand adorned by a cameo.
“Fact is,” he went on, “this is a coals-of-fire call. You think I owe you a grudge, and I’m going to show you I’m not that kind. I’m going to put you onto a good thing–oh, not because I’m so fond of you; just because it happens to hit my sense of a joke.”
While Moffatt talked Mr. Spragg took up the pile of letters on his desk and sat shuffling them like a pack of cards. He dealt them deliberately to two imaginary players; then he pushed them aside and drew out his watch.
“All right–I carry one too,” said the young man easily. “But you’ll find it’s time gained to hear what I’ve got to say.”
Mr. Spragg considered the vista of chimneys without speaking, and Moffatt continued: “I don’t suppose you care to hear the story of my life, so I won’t refer you to the back numbers. You used to say out in Apex that I spent too much time loafing round the bar of the Mealey House; that was one of the things you had against me. Well, maybe I did–but it taught me to talk, and to listen to the other fellows too. Just at present I’m one of Harmon B. Driscoll’s private secretaries, and some of that Mealey House loafing has come in more useful than any job I ever put my hand to. The old man happened to hear I knew something about the inside of the Eubaw deal, and took me on to have the information where he could get at it. I’ve given him good talk for his money; but I’ve done some listening too. Eubaw ain’t the only commodity the Driscolls deal in.”
Mr. Spragg restored his watch to his pocket and shifted his drowsy gaze from the window to his visitor’s face.
“Yes,” said Moffatt, as if in reply to the movement, “the Driscolls are getting busy out in Apex. Now they’ve got all the street railroads in their pocket they want the water-supply too–but you know that as well as I do. Fact is, they’ve got to have it; and there’s where you and I come in.”
Mr. Spragg thrust his hands in his waistcoat arm-holes and turned his eyes back to the window.
“I’m out of that long ago,” he said indifferently.
“Sure,” Moffatt acquiesced; “but you know what went on when you were in it.”
“Well?” said Mr. Spragg, shifting one hand to the Masonic emblem on his watch-chain.
“Well, Representative James J. Rolliver, who was in it with you, ain’t out of it yet. He’s the man the Driscolls are up against. What d’you know about him?”
Mr. Spragg twirled the emblem thoughtfully. “Driscoll tell you to come here?”
Moffatt laughed. “No, SIR–not by a good many miles.”
Mr. Spragg removed his feet from the scrap basket and straightened himself in his chair.
“Well–I didn’t either; good morning, Mr. Moffatt.”
The young man stared a moment, a humorous glint in his small black eyes; but he made no motion to leave his seat. “Undine’s to be married next week, isn’t she?” he asked in a conversational tone.
Mr. Spragg’s face blackened and he swung about in his revolving chair.
“You go to–“
Moffatt raised a deprecating hand. “Oh, you needn’t warn me off. I don’t want to be invited to the wedding. And I don’t want to forbid the banns.”
There was a derisive sound in Mr. Spragg’s throat.
“But I DO want to get out of Driscoll’s office,” Moffatt imperturbably continued. “There’s no future there for a fellow like me. I see things big. That’s the reason Apex was too tight a fit for me. It’s only the little fellows that succeed in little places. New York’s my size–without a single alteration. I could prove it to you to-morrow if I could put my hand on fifty thousand dollars.”
Mr. Spragg did not repeat his gesture of dismissal: he was once more listening guardedly but intently. Moffatt saw it and continued.
“And I could put my hand on double that sum–yes, sir, DOUBLE–if you’d just step round with me to old Driscoll’s office before five P. M. See the connection, Mr. Spragg?”
The older man remained silent while his visitor hummed a bar or two of “In the Gloaming”; then he said: “You want me to tell Driscoll what I know about James J. Rolliver?”
“I want you to tell the truth–I want you to stand for political purity in your native state. A man of your prominence owes it to the community, sir,” cried Moffatt. Mr. Spragg was still tormenting his Masonic emblem.
“Rolliver and I always stood together,” he said at last, with a tinge of reluctance.
“Well, how much have you made out of it? Ain’t he always been ahead of the game?”
“I can’t do it–I can’t do it,” said Mr. Spragg, bringing his clenched hand down on the desk, as if addressing an invisible throng of assailants.
Moffatt rose without any evidence of disappointment in his ruddy countenance. “Well, so long,” he said, moving toward the door. Near the threshold he paused to add carelessly: “Excuse my referring to a personal matter–but I understand Miss Spragg’s wedding takes place next Monday.”
Mr. Spragg was silent.
“How’s that?” Moffatt continued unabashed. “I saw in the papers the date was set for the end of June.”
Mr. Spragg rose heavily from his seat. “I presume my daughter has her reasons,” he said, moving toward the door in Moffatt’s wake.
“I guess she has–same as I have for wanting you to step round with me to old Driscoll’s. If Undine’s reasons are as good as mine–“
“Stop right here, Elmer Moffatt!” the older man broke out with lifted hand. Moffatt made a burlesque feint of evading a blow; then his face grew serious, and he moved close to Mr. Spragg, whose arm had fallen to his side.
“See here, I know Undine’s reasons. I’ve had a talk with her–didn’t she tell you? SHE don’t beat about the bush the way you do. She told me straight out what was bothering her. She wants the Marvells to think she’s right out of Kindergarten. ‘No goods sent out on approval from this counter.’ And I see her point–_I_ don’t mean to publish my meemo’rs. Only a deal’s a deal.” He paused a moment, twisting his fingers about the heavy gold watch-chain that crossed his waistcoat. “Tell you what, Mr. Spragg, I don’t bear malice–not against Undine, anyway–and if I could have afforded it I’d have been glad enough to oblige her and forget old times. But you didn’t hesitate to kick me when I was down and it’s taken me a day or two to get on my legs again after that kicking. I see my way now to get there and keep there; and there’s a kinder poetic justice in your being the man to help me up. If I can get hold of fifty thousand dollars within a day or so I don’t care who’s got the start of me. I’ve got a dead sure thing in sight, and you’re the only man that can get it for me. Now do you see where we’re coming out?”
Mr. Spragg, during this discourse, had remained motionless, his hands in his pockets, his jaws moving mechanically, as though he mumbled a tooth-pick under his beard. His sallow cheek had turned a shade paler, and his brows hung threateningly over his half-closed eyes. But there was no threat–there was scarcely more than a note of dull curiosity–in the voice with which he said: “You mean to talk?”
Moffatt’s rosy face grew as hard as a steel safe. “I mean YOU to talk–to old Driscoll.” He paused, and then added: “It’s a hundred thousand down, between us.”
Mr. Spragg once more consulted his watch. “I’ll see you again,” he said with an effort.
Moffatt struck one fist against the other. “No, SIR–you won’t! You’ll only hear from me–through the Marvell family. Your news ain’t worth a dollar to Driscoll if he don’t get it to-day.”
He was checked by the sound of steps in the outer office, and Mr. Spragg’s stenographer appeared in the doorway.
“It’s Mr. Marvell,” she announced; and Ralph Marvell, glowing with haste and happiness, stood between the two men, holding out his hand to Mr. Spragg.
“Am I awfully in the way, sir? Turn me out if I am–but first let me just say a word about this necklace I’ve ordered for Un–“
He broke off, made aware by Mr. Spragg’s glance of the presence of Elmer Moffatt, who, with unwonted discretion, had dropped back into the shadow of the door. Marvell turned on Moffatt a bright gaze full of the instinctive hospitality of youth; but Moffatt looked straight past him at Mr. Spragg. The latter, as if in response to an imperceptible signal, mechanically pronounced his visitor’s name; and the two young men moved toward each other.
“I beg your pardon most awfully–am I breaking up an important conference?” Ralph asked as he shook hands.
“Why, no–I guess we’re pretty nearly through. I’ll step outside and woo the blonde while you’re talking,” Moffatt rejoined in the same key.
“Thanks so much–I shan’t take two seconds.” Ralph broke off to scrutinize him. “But haven’t we met before? It seems to me I’ve seen you–just lately–“
Moffatt seemed about to answer, but his reply was checked by an abrupt movement on the part of Mr. Spragg. There was a perceptible pause, during which Moffatt’s bright black glance rested questioningly on Ralph; then he looked again at the older man, and their eyes held each other for a silent moment.
“Why, no–not as I’m aware of, Mr. Marvell,” Moffatt said, addressing himself amicably to Ralph. “Better late than never, though–and I hope to have the pleasure soon again.”
He divided a nod between the two men, and passed into the outer office, where they heard him addressing the stenographer in a strain of exaggerated gallantry.
The July sun enclosed in a ring of fire the ilex grove of a villa in the hills near Siena.
Below, by the roadside, the long yellow house seemed to waver and palpitate in the glare; but steep by steep, behind it, the cool ilex-dusk mounted to the ledge where Ralph Marvell, stretched on his back in the grass, lay gazing up at a black reticulation of branches between which bits of sky gleamed with the hardness and brilliancy of blue enamel.
Up there too the air was thick with heat; but compared with the white fire below it was a dim and tempered warmth, like that of the churches in which he and Undine sometimes took refuge at the height of the torrid days.
Ralph loved the heavy Italian summer, as he had loved the light spring days leading up to it: the long line of dancing days that had drawn them on and on ever since they had left their ship at Naples four months earlier. Four months of beauty, changeful, inexhaustible, weaving itself about him in shapes of softness and strength; and beside him, hand in hand with him, embodying that spirit of shifting magic, the radiant creature through whose eyes he saw it. This was what their hastened marriage had blessed them with, giving them leisure, before summer came, to penetrate to remote folds of the southern mountains, to linger in the shade of Sicilian orange-groves, and finally, travelling by slow stages to the Adriatic, to reach the central hill-country where even in July they might hope for a breathable air.
To Ralph the Sienese air was not only breathable but intoxicating. The sun, treading the earth like a vintager, drew from it heady fragrances, crushed out of it new colours. All the values of the temperate landscape were reversed: the noon high-lights were whiter but the shadows had unimagined colour. On the blackness of cork and ilex and cypress lay the green and purple lustres, the coppery iridescences, of old bronze; and night after night the skies were wine-blue and bubbling with stars. Ralph said to himself that no one who had not seen Italy thus prostrate beneath the sun knew what secret treasures she could yield.
As he lay there, fragments of past states of emotion, fugitive felicities of thought and sensation, rose and floated on the surface of his thoughts. It was one of those moments when the accumulated impressions of life converge on heart and brain, elucidating, enlacing each other, in a mysterious confusion of beauty. He had had glimpses of such a state before, of such mergings of the personal with the general life that one felt one’s self a mere wave on the wild stream of being, yet thrilled with a sharper sense of individuality than can be known within the mere bounds of the actual. But now he knew the sensation in its fulness, and with it came the releasing power of language. Words were flashing like brilliant birds through the boughs overhead; he had but to wave his magic wand to have them flutter down to him. Only they were so beautiful up there, weaving their fantastic flights against the blue, that it was pleasanter, for the moment, to watch them and let the wand lie.
He stared up at the pattern they made till his eyes ached with excess of light; then he changed his position and looked at his wife.
Undine, near by, leaned against a gnarled tree with the slightly constrained air of a person unused to sylvan abandonments. Her beautiful back could not adapt itself to the irregularities of the tree-trunk, and she moved a little now and then in the effort to find an easier position. But her expression was serene, and Ralph, looking up at her through drowsy lids, thought her face had never been more exquisite.
“You look as cool as a wave,” he said, reaching out for the hand on her knee. She let him have it, and he drew it closer, scrutinizing it as if it had been a bit of precious porcelain or ivory. It was small and soft, a mere featherweight, a puff-ball of a hand–not quick and thrilling, not a speaking hand, but one to be fondled and dressed in rings, and to leave a rosy blur in the brain. The fingers were short and tapering, dimpled at the base, with nails as smooth as rose-leaves. Ralph lifted them one by one, like a child playing with piano-keys, but they were inelastic and did not spring back far–only far enough to show the dimples.
He turned the hand over and traced the course of its blue veins from the wrist to the rounding of the palm below the fingers; then he put a kiss in the warm hollow between. The upper world had vanished: his universe had shrunk to the palm of a hand. But there was no sense of diminution. In the mystic depths whence his passion sprang, earthly dimensions were ignored and the curve of beauty was boundless enough to hold whatever the imagination could pour into it. Ralph had never felt more convinced of his power to write a great poem; but now it was Undine’s hand which held the magic wand of expression.
She stirred again uneasily, answering his last words with a faint accent of reproach.
“I don’t FEEL cool. You said there’d be a breeze up here.”.
“You poor darling! Wasn’t it ever as hot as this in Apex?”
She withdrew her hand with a slight grimace.
“Yes–but I didn’t marry you to go back to Apex!”
Ralph laughed again; then he lifted himself on his elbow and regained the hand. “I wonder what you DID marry me for?”
“Mercy! It’s too hot for conundrums.” She spoke without impatience, but with a lassitude less joyous than his.
He roused himself. “Do you really mind the heat so much? We’ll go, if you do.”
She sat up eagerly. “Go to Switzerland, you mean?”
“Well, I hadn’t taken quite as long a leap. I only meant we might drive back to Siena.”
She relapsed listlessly against her tree-trunk. “Oh, Siena’s hotter than this.”
“We could go and sit in the cathedral–it’s always cool there at sunset.”
“We’ve sat in the cathedral at sunset every day for a week.”
“Well, what do you say to stopping at Lecceto on the way? I haven’t shown you Lecceto yet; and the drive back by moonlight would be glorious.”
This woke her to a slight show of interest. “It might be nice–but where could we get anything to eat?”
Ralph laughed again. “I don’t believe we could. You’re too practical.”
“Well, somebody’s got to be. And the food in the hotel is too disgusting if we’re not on time.”
“I admit that the best of it has usually been appropriated by the extremely good-looking cavalry-officer who’s so keen to know you.”
Undine’s face brightened. “You know he’s not a Count; he’s a Marquis. His name’s Roviano; his palace in Rome is in the guide-books, and he speaks English beautifully. Celeste found out about him from the headwaiter,” she said, with the security of one who treats of recognized values.
Marvell, sitting upright, reached lazily across the grass for his hat. “Then there’s all the more reason for rushing back to defend our share.” He spoke in the bantering tone which had become the habitual expression of his tenderness; but his eyes softened as they absorbed in a last glance the glimmering submarine light of the ancient grove, through which Undine’s figure wavered nereid-like above him.
“You never looked your name more than you do now,” he said, kneeling at her side and putting his arm about her. She smiled back a little vaguely, as if not seizing his allusion, and being content to let it drop into the store of unexplained references which had once stimulated her curiosity but now merely gave her leisure to think of other things. But her smile was no less lovely for its vagueness, and indeed, to Ralph, the loveliness was enhanced by the latent doubt. He remembered afterward that at that moment the cup of life seemed to brim over.
“Come, dear–here or there–it’s all divine!”
In the carriage, however, she remained insensible to the soft spell of the evening, noticing only the heat and dust, and saying, as they passed under the wooded cliff of Lecceto, that they might as well have stopped there after all, since with such a headache as she felt coming on she didn’t care if she dined or not. Ralph looked up yearningly at the long walls overhead; but Undine’s mood was hardly favourable to communion with such scenes, and he made no attempt to stop the carriage. Instead he presently said: “If you’re tired of Italy, we’ve got the world to choose from.”
She did not speak for a moment; then she said: “It’s the heat I’m tired of. Don’t people generally come here earlier?”
“Yes. That’s why I chose the summer: so that we could have it all to ourselves.”
She tried to put a note of reasonableness into her voice. “If you’d told me we were going everywhere at the wrong time, of course I could have arranged about my clothes.”
“You poor darling! Let us, by all means, go to the place where the clothes will be right: they’re too beautiful to be left out of our scheme of life.”
Her lips hardened. “I know you don’t care how I look. But you didn’t give me time to order anything before we were married, and I’ve got nothing but my last winter’s things to wear.”
Ralph smiled. Even his subjugated mind perceived the inconsistency of Undine’s taxing him with having hastened their marriage; but her variations on the eternal feminine still enchanted him.
“We’ll go wherever you please–you make every place the one place,” he said, as if he were humouring an irresistible child.
“To Switzerland, then? Celeste says St. Moritz is too heavenly,” exclaimed Undine, who gathered her ideas of Europe chiefly from the conversation of her experienced attendant.
“One can be cool short of the Engadine. Why not go south again–say to Capri?”
“Capri? Is that the island we saw from Naples, where the artists go?” She drew her brows together. “It would be simply awful getting there in this heat.”
“Well, then, I know a little place in Switzerland where one can still get away from the crowd, and we can sit and look at a green water-fall while I lie in wait for adjectives.”
Mr. Spragg’s astonishment on learning that his son-in-law contemplated maintaining a household on the earnings of his Muse was still matter for pleasantry between the pair; and one of the humours of their first weeks together had consisted in picturing themselves as a primeval couple setting forth across a virgin continent and subsisting on the adjectives which Ralph was to trap for his epic. On this occasion, however, his wife did not take up the joke, and he remained silent while their carriage climbed the long dusty hill to the Fontebranda gate. He had seen her face droop as he suggested the possibility of an escape from the crowds in Switzerland, and it came to him, with the sharpness of a knife-thrust, that a crowd was what she wanted–that she was sick to death of being alone with him.
He sat motionless, staring ahead at the red-brown walls and towers on the steep above them. After all there was nothing sudden in his discovery. For weeks it had hung on the edge of consciousness, but he had turned from it with the heart’s instinctive clinging to the unrealities by which it lives. Even now a hundred qualifying reasons rushed to his aid. They told him it was not of himself that Undine had wearied, but only of their present way of life. He had said a moment before, without conscious exaggeration, that her presence made any place the one place; yet how willingly would he have consented to share in such a life as she was leading before their marriage? And he had to acknowledge their months of desultory wandering from one remote Italian hill-top to another must have seemed as purposeless to her as balls and dinners would have been to him. An imagination like his, peopled with such varied images and associations, fed by so many currents from the long stream of human experience, could hardly picture the bareness of the small half-lit place in which his wife’s spirit fluttered. Her mind was as destitute of beauty and mystery as the prairie school-house in which she had been educated; and her ideals seemed to Ralph as pathetic as the ornaments made of corks and cigar-bands with which her infant hands had been taught to adorn it. He was beginning to understand this, and learning to adapt himself to the narrow compass of her experience. The task of opening new windows in her mind was inspiring enough to give him infinite patience; and he would not yet own to himself that her pliancy and variety were imitative rather than spontaneous.
Meanwhile he had no desire to sacrifice her wishes to his, and it distressed him that he dared not confess his real reason for avoiding the Engadine. The truth was that their funds were shrinking faster than he had expected. Mr. Spragg, after bluntly opposing their hastened marriage on the ground that he was not prepared, at such short notice, to make the necessary provision for his daughter, had shortly afterward (probably, as Undine observed to Ralph, in consequence of a lucky “turn” in the Street) met their wishes with all possible liberality, bestowing on them a wedding in conformity with Mrs. Spragg’s ideals and up to the highest standard of Mrs. Heeny’s clippings, and pledging himself to provide Undine with an income adequate to so brilliant a beginning. It was understood that Ralph, on their return, should renounce the law for some more paying business; but this seemed the smallest of sacrifices to make for the privilege of calling Undine his wife; and besides, he still secretly hoped that, in the interval, his real vocation might declare itself in some work which would justify his adopting the life of letters.
He had assumed that Undine’s allowance, with the addition of his own small income, would be enough to satisfy their needs. His own were few, and had always been within his means; but his wife’s daily requirements, combined with her intermittent outbreaks of extravagance, had thrown out all his calculations, and they were already seriously exceeding their income.
If any one had prophesied before his marriage that he would find it difficult to tell this to Undine he would have smiled at the suggestion; and during their first days together it had seemed as though pecuniary questions were the last likely to be raised between them. But his marital education had since made strides, and he now knew that a disregard for money may imply not the willingness to get on without it but merely a blind confidence that it will somehow be provided. If Undine, like the lilies of the field, took no care, it was not because her wants were as few but because she assumed that care would be taken for her by those whose privilege it was to enable her to unite floral insouciance with Sheban elegance.
She had met Ralph’s first note of warning with the assurance that she “didn’t mean to worry”; and her tone implied that it was his business to do so for her. He certainly wanted to guard her from this as from all other cares; he wanted also, and still more passionately after the topic had once or twice recurred between them, to guard himself from the risk of judging where he still adored. These restraints to frankness kept him silent during the remainder of the drive, and when, after dinner, Undine again complained of her headache, he let her go up to her room and wandered out into the dimly lit streets to renewed communion with his problems.
They hung on him insistently as darkness fell, and Siena grew vocal with that shrill diversity of sounds that breaks, on summer nights, from every cleft of the masonry in old Italian towns. Then the moon rose, unfolding depth by depth the lines of the antique land; and Ralph, leaning against an old brick parapet, and watching each silver-blue remoteness disclose itself between the dark masses of the middle distance, felt his spirit enlarged and pacified. For the first time, as his senses thrilled to the deep touch of beauty, he asked himself if out of these floating and fugitive vibrations he might not build something concrete and stable, if even such dull common cares as now oppressed him might not become the motive power of creation. If he could only, on the spot, do something with all the accumulated spoils of the last months–something that should both put money into his pocket and harmony into the rich confusion of his spirit! “I’ll write–I’ll write: that must be what the whole thing means,” he said to himself, with a vague clutch at some solution which should keep him a little longer hanging half-way down the steep of disenchantment.
He would have stayed on, heedless of time, to trace the ramifications of his idea in the complex beauty of the scene, but for the longing to share his mood with Undine. For the last few months every thought and sensation had been instantly transmuted into such emotional impulses and, though the currents of communication between himself and Undine were neither deep nor numerous, each fresh rush of feeling seemed strong enough to clear a way to her heart. He hurried back, almost breathlessly, to the inn; but even as he knocked at her door the subtle emanation of other influences seemed to arrest and chill him.
She had put out the lamp, and sat by the window in the moonlight, her head propped on a listless hand. As Marvell entered she turned; then, without speaking, she looked away again.
He was used to this mute reception, and had learned that it had no personal motive, but was the result of an extremely simplified social code. Mr. and Mrs. Spragg seldom spoke to each other when they met, and words of greeting seemed almost unknown to their domestic vocabulary. Marvell, at first, had fancied that his own warmth would call forth a response from his wife, who had been so quick to learn the forms of worldly intercourse; but he soon saw that she regarded intimacy as a pretext for escaping from such forms into a total absence of expression.
To-night, however, he felt another meaning in her silence, and perceived that she intended him to feel it. He met it by silence, but of a different kind; letting his nearness speak for him as he knelt beside her and laid his cheek against hers. She seemed hardly aware of the gesture; but to that he was also used. She had never shown any repugnance to his tenderness, but such response as it evoked was remote and Ariel-like, suggesting, from the first, not so much of the recoil of ignorance as the coolness of the element from which she took her name.
As he pressed her to him she seemed to grow less impassive and he felt her resign herself like a tired child. He held his breath, not daring to break the spell.
At length he whispered: “I’ve just seen such a wonderful thing–I wish you’d been with me!”
“What sort of a thing?” She turned her head with a faint show of interest.
“A–I don’t know–a vision…. It came to me out there just now with the moonrise.”
“A vision?” Her interest flagged. “I never cared much about spirits. Mother used to try to drag me to seances–but they always made me sleepy.”
Ralph laughed. “I don’t mean a dead spirit but a living one! I saw the vision of a book I mean to do. It came to me suddenly, magnificently, swooped down on me as that big white moon swooped down on the black landscape, tore at me like a great white eagle-like the bird of Jove! After all, imagination WAS the eagle that devoured Prometheus!”
She drew away abruptly, and the bright moonlight showed him the apprehension in her face. “You’re not going to write a book HERE?”
He stood up and wandered away a step or two; then he turned and came back. “Of course not here. Wherever you want. The main point is that it’s come to me–no, that it’s come BACK to me! For it’s all these months together, it’s all our happiness–it’s the meaning of life that I’ve found, and it’s you, dearest, you who’ve given it to me!”
He dropped down beside her again; but she disengaged herself and he heard a little sob in her throat.
“Undine–what’s the matter?”
“Nothing…I don’t know…I suppose I’m homesick…”
“Homesick? You poor darling! You’re tired of travelling? What is it?”
“I don’t know…I don’t like Europe…it’s not what I expected, and I think it’s all too dreadfully dreary!” The words broke from her in a long wail of rebellion.
Marvell gazed at her perplexedly. It seemed strange that such unguessed thoughts should have been stirring in the heart pressed to his. “It’s less interesting than you expected–or less amusing? Is that it?”
“It’s dirty and ugly–all the towns we’ve been to are disgustingly dirty. I loathe the smells and the beggars. I’m sick and tired of the stuffy rooms in the hotels. I thought it would all be so splendid–but New York’s ever so much nicer!”
“Not New York in July?”
“I don’t care–there are the roof-gardens, anyway; and there are always people round. All these places seem as if they were dead. It’s all like some awful cemetery.”
A sense of compunction checked Marvell’s laughter. “Don’t cry, dear–don’t! I see, I understand. You’re lonely and the heat has tired you out. It IS dull here; awfully dull; I’ve been stupid not to feel it. But we’ll start at once–we’ll get out of it.”
She brightened instantly. “We’ll go up to Switzerland?”
“We’ll go up to Switzerland.” He had a fleeting glimpse of the quiet place with the green water-fall, where he might have made tryst with his vision; then he turned his mind from it and said: “We’ll go just where you want. How soon can you be ready to start?”
“Oh, to-morrow–the first thing to-morrow! I’ll make Celeste get out of bed now and pack. Can we go right through to St. Moritz? I’d rather sleep in the train than in another of these awful places.”
She was on her feet in a flash, her face alight, her hair waving and floating about her as though it rose on her happy heart-beats.
“Oh, Ralph, it’s SWEET of you, and I love you!” she cried out, letting him take her to his breast.
In the quiet place with the green water-fall Ralph’s vision might have kept faith with him; but how could he hope to surprise it in the midsummer crowds of St. Moritz? Undine, at any rate, had found there what she wanted; and when he was at her side, and her radiant smile included him, every other question was in abeyance. But there were hours of solitary striding over bare grassy slopes, face to face with the ironic interrogation of sky and mountains, when his anxieties came back, more persistent and importunate. Sometimes they took the form of merely material difficulties. How, for instance, was he to meet the cost of their ruinous suite at the Engadine Palace while he awaited Mr. Spragg’s next remittance? And once the hotel bills were paid, what would be left for the journey back to Paris, the looming expenses there, the price of the passage to America? These questions would fling him back on the thought of his projected book, which was, after all, to be what the masterpieces of literature had mostly been–a pot-boiler. Well! Why not? Did not the worshipper always heap the rarest essences on the altar of his divinity? Ralph still rejoiced in the thought of giving back to Undine something of the beauty of their first months together. But even on his solitary walks the vision eluded him; and he could spare so few hours to its pursuit!
Undine’s days were crowded, and it was still a matter of course that where she went he should follow. He had risen visibly in her opinion since they had been absorbed into the life of the big hotels, and she had seen that his command of foreign tongues put him at an advantage even in circles where English was generally spoken if not understood. Undine herself, hampered by her lack of languages, was soon drawn into the group of compatriots who struck the social pitch of their hotel.
Their types were familiar enough to Ralph, who had taken their measure in former wanderings, and come across their duplicates in every scene