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