“Haven’t you just said so? Anyhow, it might as well be, since we shan’t be in the same place again for months.”
The frock-coated gentleman once more languished from his eyes: she thought she trembled on the edge of victory. “Hang it,” he broke out, “you ought to have a change–you’re looking awfully pulled down. Why can’t you coax your mother to run over to Paris with you? Ralph couldn’t object to that.”
She shook her head. “I don’t believe she could afford it, even if I could persuade her to leave father. You know father hasn’t done very well lately: I shouldn’t like to ask him for the money.”
“You’re so confoundedly proud!” He was edging nearer. “It would all be so easy if you’d only be a little fond of me…”
She froze to her sofa-end. “We women can’t repair our mistakes. Don’t make me more miserable by reminding me of mine.”
“Oh, nonsense! There’s nothing cash won’t do. Why won’t you let me straighten things out for you?”
Her colour rose again, and she looked him quickly and consciously in the eye. It was time to play her last card. “You seem to forget that I am–married,” she said.
Van Degen was silent–for a moment she thought he was swaying to her in the flush of surrender. But he remained doggedly seated, meeting her look with an odd clearing of his heated gaze, as if a shrewd businessman had suddenly replaced the pining gentleman at the window.
“Hang it–so am I!” he rejoined; and Undine saw that in the last issue he was still the stronger of the two.
Nothing was bitterer to her than to confess to herself the failure of her power; but her last talk with Van Degen had taught her a lesson almost worth the abasement. She saw the mistake she had made in taking money from him, and understood that if she drifted into repeating that mistake her future would be irretrievably compromised. What she wanted was not a hand-to-mouth existence of precarious intrigue: to one with her gifts the privileges of life should come openly. Already in her short experience she had seen enough of the women who sacrifice future security for immediate success, and she meant to lay solid foundations before she began to build up the light super-structure of enjoyment.
Nevertheless it was galling to see Van Degen leave, and to know that for the time he had broken away from her. Over a nature so insensible to the spells of memory, the visible and tangible would always prevail. If she could have been with him again in Paris, where, in the shining spring days, every sight and sound ministered to such influences, she was sure she could have regained her hold. And the sense of frustration was intensified by the fact that every one she knew was to be there: her potential rivals were crowding the east-bound steamers. New York was a desert, and Ralph’s seeming unconsciousness of the fact increased her resentment. She had had but one chance at Europe since her marriage, and that had been wasted through her husband’s unaccountable perversity. She knew now with what packed hours of Paris and London they had paid for their empty weeks in Italy.
Meanwhile the long months of the New York spring stretched out before her in all their social vacancy to the measureless blank of a summer in the Adirondacks. In her girlhood she had plumbed the dim depths of such summers; but then she had been sustained by the hope of bringing some capture to the surface. Now she knew better: there were no “finds” for her in that direction. The people she wanted would be at Newport or in Europe, and she was too resolutely bent on a definite object, too sternly animated by her father’s business instinct, to turn aside in quest of casual distractions.
The chief difficulty in the way of her attaining any distant end had always been her reluctance to plod through the intervening stretches of dulness and privation. She had begun to see this, but she could not always master the weakness: never had she stood in greater need of Mrs. Heeny’s “Go slow. Undine!” Her imagination was incapable of long flights. She could not cheat her impatience with the mirage of far-off satisfactions, and for the moment present and future seemed equally void. But her desire to go to Europe and to rejoin the little New York world that was reforming itself in London and Paris was fortified by reasons which seemed urgent enough to justify an appeal to her father.
She went down to his office to plead her case, fearing Mrs. Spragg’s intervention. For some time past Mr. Spragg had been rather continuously overworked, and the strain was beginning to tell on him. He had never quite regained, in New York, the financial security of his Apex days. Since he had changed his base of operations his affairs had followed an uncertain course, and Undine suspected that his breach with his old political ally, the Representative Rolliver who had seen him through the muddiest reaches of the Pure Water Move, was not unconnected with his failure to get a footing in Wall Street. But all this was vague and shadowy to her Even had “business” been less of a mystery, she was too much absorbed in her own affairs to project herself into her father’s case; and she thought she was sacrificing enough to delicacy of feeling in sparing him the “bother” of Mrs. Spragg’s opposition. When she came to him with a grievance he always heard her out with the same mild patience; but the long habit of “managing” him had made her, in his own language, “discount” this tolerance, and when she ceased to speak her heart throbbed with suspense as he leaned back, twirling an invisible toothpick under his sallow moustache. Presently he raised a hand to stroke the limp beard in which the moustache was merged; then he groped for the Masonic emblem that had lost itself in one of the folds of his depleted waistcoat.
He seemed to fish his answer from the same rusty depths, for as his fingers closed about the trinket he said: “Yes, the heated term IS trying in New York. That’s why the Fresh Air Fund pulled my last dollar out of me last week.”
Undine frowned: there was nothing more irritating, in these encounters with her father, than his habit of opening the discussion with a joke.
“I wish you’d understand that I’m serious, father. I’ve never been strong since the baby was born, and I need a change. But it’s not only that: there are other reasons for my wanting to go.”
Mr. Spragg still held to his mild tone of banter. “I never knew you short on reasons, Undie. Trouble is you don’t always know other people’s when you see ’em.”
His daughter’s lips tightened. “I know your reasons when I see them, father: I’ve heard them often enough. But you can’t know mine because I haven’t told you–not the real ones.”
“Jehoshaphat! I thought they were all real as long as you had a use for them.”
Experience had taught her that such protracted trifling usually concealed an exceptional vigour of resistance, and the suspense strengthened her determination.
“My reasons are all real enough,” she answered; “but there’s one more serious than the others.”
Mr. Spragg’s brows began to jut. “More bills?”
“No.” She stretched out her hand and began to finger the dusty objects on his desk. “I’m unhappy at home.”
“Unhappy–!” His start overturned the gorged waste-paper basket and shot a shower of paper across the rug. He stooped to put the basket back; then he turned his slow fagged eyes on his daughter. “Why, he worships the ground you walk on, Undie.”
“That’s not always a reason, for a woman–” It was the answer she would have given to Popple or Van Degen, but she saw in an instant the mistake of thinking it would impress her father. In the atmosphere of sentimental casuistry to which she had become accustomed, she had forgotten that Mr. Spragg’s private rule of conduct was as simple as his business morality was complicated.
He glowered at her under thrust-out brows. “It isn’t a reason, isn’t it? I can seem to remember the time when you used to think it was equal to a whole carload of whitewash.”
She blushed a bright red, and her own brows were levelled at his above her stormy steel-grey eyes. The sense of her blunder made her angrier with him, and more ruthless.
“I can’t expect you to understand–you never HAVE, you or mother, when it came to my feelings. I suppose some people are born sensitive–I can’t imagine anybody’d CHOOSE to be so. Because I’ve been too proud to complain you’ve taken it for granted that I was perfectly happy. But my marriage was a mistake from the beginning; and Ralph feels just as I do about it. His people hate me, they’ve always hated me; and he looks at everything as they do. They’ve never forgiven me for his having had to go into business–with their aristocratic ideas they look down on a man who works for his living. Of course it’s all right for YOU to do it, because you’re not a Marvell or a Dagonet; but they think Ralph ought to just lie back and let you support the baby and me.”
This time she had found the right note: she knew it by the tightening of her father’s slack muscles and the sudden straightening of his back.
“By George, he pretty near does!” he exclaimed bringing down his fist on the desk. “They haven’t been taking it out of you about that, have they?” “They don’t fight fair enough to say so. They just egg him on to turn against me. They only consented to his marrying me because they thought you were so crazy about the match you’d give us everything, and he’d have nothing to do but sit at home and write books.”
Mr. Spragg emitted a derisive groan. “From what I hear of the amount of business he’s doing I guess he could keep the Poet’s Corner going right along. I suppose the old man was right–he hasn’t got it in him to make money.”
“Of course not; he wasn’t brought up to it, and in his heart of hearts he’s ashamed of having to do it. He told me it was killing a little more of him every day.”
“Do they back him up in that kind of talk?”
“They back him up in everything. Their ideas are all different from ours. They look down on us–can’t you see that? Can’t you guess how they treat me from the way they’ve acted to you and mother?”
He met this with a puzzled stare. “The way they’ve acted to me and mother? Why, we never so much as set eyes on them.”
“That’s just what I mean! I don’t believe they’ve even called on mother this year, have they? Last year they just left their cards without asking. And why do you suppose they never invite you to dine? In their set lots of people older than you and mother dine every night of the winter–society’s full of them. The Marvells are ashamed to have you meet their friends: that’s the reason. They’re ashamed to have it known that Ralph married an Apex girl, and that you and mother haven’t always had your own servants and carriages; and Ralph’s ashamed of it too, now he’s got over being crazy about me. If he was free I believe he’d turn round to-morrow and marry that Ray girl his mother’s saving up for him.”
Mr. Spragg listened with a heavy brow and pushed-out lip. His daughter’s outburst seemed at last to have roused him to a faint resentment. After she had ceased to speak he remained silent, twisting an inky penhandle between his fingers; then he said: “I guess mother and I can worry along without having Ralph’s relatives drop in; but I’d like to make it clear to them that if you came from Apex your income came from there too. I presume they’d be sorry if Ralph was left to support you on HIS.”
She saw that she had scored in the first part of the argument, but every watchful nerve reminded her that the hardest stage was still ahead.
“Oh, they’re willing enough he should take your money–that’s only natural, they think.”
A chuckle sounded deep down under Mr. Spragg’s loose collar. “There seems to be practical unanimity on that point,” he observed. “But I don’t see,” he continued, jerking round his bushy brows on her, “how going to Europe is going to help you out.”
Undine leaned close enough for her lowered voice to reach him. “Can’t you understand that, knowing how they all feel about me–and how Ralph feels–I’d give almost anything to get away?”
Her father looked at her compassionately. “I guess most of us feel that once in a way when we’re youngy, Undine. Later on you’ll see going away ain’t much use when you’ve got to turn round and come back.”
She nodded at him with close-pressed lips, like a child in possession of some solemn secret.
“That’s just it–that’s the reason I’m so wild to go; because it MIGHT mean I wouldn’t ever have to come back.”
“Not come back? What on earth are you talking about?”
“It might mean that I could get free–begin over again…”
He had pushed his seat back with a sudden jerk and cut her short by striking his palm on the arm of the chair.
“For the Lord’s sake. Undine–do you know what you’re saying?”
“Oh, yes, I know.” She gave him back a confident smile. “If I can get away soon–go straight over to Paris…there’s some one there who’d do anything… who COULD do anything…if I was free…”
Mr. Spragg’s hands continued to grasp his chair-arms. “Good God, Undine Marvell–are you sitting there in your sane senses and talking to me of what you could do if you were FREE?”
Their glances met in an interval of speechless communion; but Undine did not shrink from her father’s eyes and when she lowered her own it seemed to be only because there was nothing left for them to say.
“I know just what I could do if I were free. I could marry the right man,” she answered boldly.
He met her with a murmur of helpless irony. “The right man? The right man? Haven’t you had enough of trying for him yet?”
As he spoke the door behind them opened, and Mr. Spragg looked up abruptly.
The stenographer stood on the threshold, and above her shoulder Undine perceived the ingratiating grin of Elmer Moffatt.
“‘A little farther lend thy guiding hand’–but I guess I can go the rest of the way alone,” he said, insinuating himself through the doorway with an airy gesture of dismissal; then he turned to Mr. Spragg and Undine.
“I agree entirely with Mrs. Marvell–and I’m happy to have the opportunity of telling her so,” he proclaimed, holding his hand out gallantly.
Undine stood up with a laugh. “It sounded like old times, I suppose–you thought father and I were quarrelling? But we never quarrel any more: he always agrees with me.” She smiled at Mr. Spragg and turned her shining eyes on Moffatt. “I wish that treaty had been signed a few years sooner!” the latter rejoined in his usual tone of humorous familiarity.
Undine had not met him since her marriage, and of late the adverse turn of his fortunes had carried him quite beyond her thoughts. But his actual presence was always stimulating, and even through her self-absorption she was struck by his air of almost defiant prosperity. He did not look like a man who has been beaten; or rather he looked like a man who does not know when he is beaten; and his eye had the gleam of mocking confidence that had carried him unabashed through his lowest hours at Apex.
“I presume you’re here to see me on business?” Mr. Spragg enquired, rising from his chair with a glance that seemed to ask his daughter’s silence.
“Why, yes. Senator,” rejoined Moffatt, who was given, in playful moments, to the bestowal of titles high-sounding. “At least I’m here to ask you a little question that may lead to business.”
Mr. Spragg crossed the office and held open the door. “Step this way, please,” he said, guiding Moffatt out before him, though the latter hung back to exclaim: “No family secrets, Mrs. Marvell–anybody can turn the fierce white light on ME!”
With the closing of the door Undine’s thoughts turned back to her own preoccupations. It had not struck her as incongruous that Moffatt should have business dealings with her father: she was even a little surprised that Mr. Spragg should still treat him so coldly. But she had no time to give to such considerations. Her own difficulties were too importunately present to her. She moved restlessly about the office, listening to the rise and fall of the two voices on the other side of the partition without once wondering what they were discussing.
What should she say to her father when he came back–what argument was most likely to prevail with him? If he really had no money to give her she was imprisoned fast–Van Degen was lost to her, and the old life must go on interminably…In her nervous pacings she paused before the blotched looking-glass that hung in a corner of the office under a steel engraving of Daniel Webster. Even that defective surface could not disfigure her, and she drew fresh hope from the sight of her beauty. Her few weeks of ill-health had given her cheeks a subtler curve and deepened the shadows beneath her eyes, and she was handsomer than before her marriage. No, Van Degen was not lost to her even! From narrowed lids to parted lips her face was swept by a smile like retracted sunlight. He was not lost to her while she could smile like that! Besides, even if her father had no money, there were always mysterious ways of “raising” it–in the old Apex days he had often boasted of such feats. As the hope rose her eyes widened trustfully, and this time the smile that flowed up to them was as limpid as a child’s. That was the was her father liked her to look at him…
The door opened, and she heard Mr. Spragg say behind her: “No, sir, I won’t–that’s final.”
He came in alone, with a brooding face, and lowered himself heavily into his chair. It was plain that the talk between the two men had had an abrupt ending. Undine looked at her father with a passing flicker of curiosity. Certainly it was an odd coincidence that Moffatt should have called while she was there…
“What did he want?” she asked, glancing back toward the door.
Mr. Spragg mumbled his invisible toothpick. “Oh, just another of his wild-cat schemes–some real-estate deal he’s in.”
“Why did he come to YOU about it?”
He looked away from her, fumbling among the letters on the desk. “Guess he’d tried everybody else first. He’d go and ring the devil’s front-door bell if he thought he could get anything out of him.”
“I suppose he did himself a lot of harm by testifying in the Ararat investigation?”
“Yes, SIR–he’s down and out this time.”
He uttered the words with a certain satisfaction. His daughter did not answer, and they sat silent, facing each other across the littered desk. Under their brief about Elmer Moffatt currents of rapid intelligence seemed to be flowing between them. Suddenly Undine leaned over the desk, her eyes widening trustfully, and the limpid smile flowing up to them.
“Father, I did what you wanted that one time, anyhow–won’t you listen to me and help me out now?”
Undine stood alone on the landing outside her father’s office.
Only once before had she failed to gain her end with him–and there was a peculiar irony in the fact that Moffatt’s intrusion should have brought before her the providential result of her previous failure. Not that she confessed to any real resemblance between the two situations. In the present case she knew well enough what she wanted, and how to get it. But the analogy had served her father’s purpose, and Moffatt’s unlucky entrance had visibly strengthened his resistance.
The worst of it was that the obstacles in the way were real enough. Mr. Spragg had not put her off with vague asseverations–somewhat against her will he had forced his proofs on her, showing her how much above his promised allowance he had contributed in the last three years to the support of her household. Since she could not accuse herself of extravagance–having still full faith in her gift of “managing”–she could only conclude that it was impossible to live on what her father and Ralph could provide; and this seemed a practical reason for desiring her freedom. If she and Ralph parted he would of course return to his family, and Mr. Spragg would no longer be burdened with a helpless son-in-law. But even this argument did not move him. Undine, as soon as she had risked Van Degen’s name, found herself face to face with a code of domestic conduct as rigid as its exponent’s business principles were elastic. Mr. Spragg did not regard divorce as intrinsically wrong or even inexpedient; and of its social disadvantages he had never even heard. Lots of women did it, as Undine said, and if their reasons were adequate they were justified. If Ralph Marvell had been a drunkard or “unfaithful” Mr. Spragg would have approved Undine’s desire to divorce him; but that it should be prompted by her inclination for another man–and a man with a wife of his own–was as shocking to him as it would have been to the most uncompromising of the Dagonets and Marvells. Such things happened, as Mr. Spragg knew, but they should not happen to any woman of his name while he had the power to prevent it; and Undine recognized that for the moment he had that power.
As she emerged from the elevator she was surprised to see Moffatt in the vestibule. His presence was an irritating reminder of her failure, and she walked past him with a rapid bow; but he overtook her.
“Mrs. Marvell–I’ve been waiting to say a word to you.”
If it had been any one else she would have passed on; but Moffatt’s voice had always a detaining power. Even now that she knew him to be defeated and negligible, the power asserted itself, and she paused to say: “I’m afraid I can’t stop–I’m late for an engagement.”
“I shan’t make you much later; but if you’d rather have me call round at your house–“
“Oh, I’m so seldom in.” She turned a wondering look on him. “What is it you wanted to say?”
“Just two words. I’ve got an office in this building and the shortest way would be to come up there for a minute.” As her look grew distant he added: “I think what I’ve got to say is worth the trip.”
His face was serious, without underlying irony: the face he wore when he wanted to be trusted.
“Very well,” she said, turning back.
Undine, glancing at her watch as she came out of Moffatt’s office, saw that he had been true to his promise of not keeping her more than ten minutes. The fact was characteristic. Under all his incalculableness there had always been a hard foundation of reliability: it seemed to be a matter of choice with him whether he let one feel that solid bottom or not. And in specific matters the same quality showed itself in an accuracy of statement, a precision of conduct, that contrasted curiously with his usual hyperbolic banter and his loose lounging manner. No one could be more elusive yet no one could be firmer to the touch. Her face had cleared and she moved more lightly as she left the building. Moffatt’s communication had not been completely clear to her, but she understood the outline of the plan he had laid before her, and was satisfied with the bargain they had struck. He had begun by reminding her of her promise to introduce him to any friend of hers who might be useful in the way of business. Over three years had passed since they had made the pact, and Moffatt had kept loyally to his side of it. With the lapse of time the whole matter had become less important to her, but she wanted to prove her good faith, and when he reminded her of her promise she at once admitted it.
“Well, then–I want you to introduce me to your husband.”
Undine was surprised; but beneath her surprise she felt a quick sense of relief. Ralph was easier to manage than so many of her friends–and it was a mark of his present indifference to acquiesce in anything she suggested.
“My husband? Why, what can he do for you?”
Moffatt explained at once, in the fewest words, as his way was when it came to business. He was interested in a big “deal” which involved the purchase of a piece of real estate held by a number of wrangling heirs. The real-estate broker with whom Ralph Marvell was associated represented these heirs, but Moffatt had his reasons for not approaching him directly. And he didn’t want to go to Marvell with a “business proposition”–it would be better to be thrown with him socially as if by accident. It was with that object that Moffatt had just appealed to Mr. Spragg, but Mr. Spragg, as usual, had “turned him down,” without even consenting to look into the case.
“He’d rather have you miss a good thing than have it come to you through me. I don’t know what on earth he thinks it’s in my power to do to you–or ever was, for that matter,” he added. “Anyhow,” he went on to explain, “the power’s all on your side now; and I’ll show you how little the doing will hurt you as soon as I can have a quiet chat with your husband.” He branched off again into technicalities, nebulous projections of capital and interest, taxes and rents, from which she finally extracted, and clung to, the central fact that if the “deal went through” it would mean a commission of forty thousand dollars to Marvell’s firm, of which something over a fourth would come to Ralph.
“By Jove, that’s an amazing fellow!” Ralph Marvell exclaimed, turning back into the drawing-room, a few evenings later, at the conclusion of one of their little dinners. Undine looked up from her seat by the fire. She had had the inspired thought of inviting Moffatt to meet Clare Van Degen, Mrs. Fairford and Charles Bowen. It had occurred to her that the simplest way of explaining Moffatt was to tell Ralph that she had unexpectedly discovered an old Apex acquaintance in the protagonist of the great Ararat Trust fight. Moffatt’s defeat had not wholly divested him of interest. As a factor in affairs he no longer inspired apprehension, but as the man who had dared to defy Harmon B. Driscoll he was a conspicuous and, to some minds, almost an heroic figure.
Undine remembered that Clare and Mrs. Fairford had once expressed a wish to see this braver of the Olympians, and her suggestion that he should be asked meet them gave Ralph evident pleasure. It was long since she had made any conciliatory sign to his family.
Moffatt’s social gifts were hardly of a kind to please the two ladies: he would have shone more brightly in Peter Van Degen’s set than in his wife’s. But neither Clare nor Mrs. Fairford had expected a man of conventional cut, and Moffatt’s loud easiness was obviously less disturbing to them than to their hostess. Undine felt only his crudeness, and the tacit criticism passed on it by the mere presence of such men as her husband and Bowen; but Mrs. Fairford’ seemed to enjoy provoking him to fresh excesses of slang and hyperbole. Gradually she drew him into talking of the Driscoll campaign, and he became recklessly explicit. He seemed to have nothing to hold back: all the details of the prodigious exploit poured from him with Homeric volume. Then he broke off abruptly, thrusting his hands into his trouser-pockets and shaping his red lips to a whistle which he checked as his glance met Undine’s. To conceal his embarrassment he leaned back in his chair, looked about the table with complacency, and said “I don’t mind if I do” to the servant who approached to re-fill his champagne glass.
The men sat long over their cigars; but after an interval Undine called Charles Bowen into the drawing-room to settle some question in dispute between Clare and Mrs. Fairford, and thus gave Moffatt a chance to be alone with her husband. Now that their guests had gone she was throbbing with anxiety to know what had passed between the two; but when Ralph rejoined her in the drawing-room she continued to keep her eyes on the fire and twirl her fan listlessly.
“That’s an amazing chap,” Ralph repeated, looking down at her. “Where was it you ran across him–out at Apex?”
As he leaned against the chimney-piece, lighting his cigarette, it struck Undine that he looked less fagged and lifeless than usual, and she felt more and more sure that something important had happened during the moment of isolation she had contrived.
She opened and shut her fan reflectively. “Yes–years ago; father had some business with him and brought him home to dinner one day.”
“And you’ve never seen him since?”
She waited, as if trying to piece her recollections together. “I suppose I must have; but all that seems so long ago,” she said sighing. She had been given, of late, to such plaintive glances toward her happy girlhood but Ralph seemed not to notice the allusion.
“Do you know,” he exclaimed after a moment, “I don’t believe the fellow’s beaten yet.”
She looked up quickly. “Don’t you?”
“No; and I could see that Bowen didn’t either. He strikes me as the kind of man who develops slowly, needs a big field, and perhaps makes some big mistakes, but gets where he wants to in the end. Jove, I wish I could put him in a book! There’s something epic about him–a kind of epic effrontery.”
Undine’s pulses beat faster as she listened. Was it not what Moffatt had always said of himself–that all he needed was time and elbow-room? How odd that Ralph, who seemed so dreamy and unobservant, should instantly have reached the same conclusion! But what she wanted to know was the practical result of their meeting.
“What did you and he talk about when you were smoking?”
“Oh, he got on the Driscoll fight again–gave us some extraordinary details. The man’s a thundering brute, but he’s full of observation and humour. Then, after Bowen joined you, he told me about a new deal he’s gone into–rather a promising scheme, but on the same Titanic scale. It’s just possible, by the way, that we may be able to do something for him: part of the property he’s after is held in our office.” He paused, knowing Undine’s indifference to business matters; but the face she turned to him was alive with interest.
“You mean you might sell the property to him?”
“Well, if the thing comes off. There would be a big commission if we did.” He glanced down on her half ironically. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
She answered with a shade of reproach: “Why do you say that? I haven’t complained.”
“Oh, no; but I know I’ve been a disappointment as a money-maker.”
She leaned back in her chair, closing her eyes as if in utter weariness and indifference, and in a moment she felt him bending over her. “What’s the matter? Don’t you feel well?”
“I’m a little tired. It’s nothing.” She pulled her hand away and burst into tears.
Ralph knelt down by her chair and put his arm about her. It was the first time he had touched her since the night of the boy’s birthday, and the sense of her softness woke a momentary warmth in his veins.
“What is it, dear? What is it?”
Without turning her head she sobbed out: “You seem to think I’m too selfish and odious–that I’m just pretending to be ill.”
“No, no,” he assured her, smoothing back her hair. But she continued to sob on in a gradual crescendo of despair, till the vehemence of her weeping began to frighten him, and he drew her to her feet and tried to persuade her to let herself be led upstairs. She yielded to his arm, sobbing in short exhausted gasps, and leaning her whole weight on him as he guided her along the passage to her bedroom. On the lounge to which he lowered her she lay white and still, tears trickling through her lashes and her handkerchief pressed against her lips. He recognized the symptoms with a sinking heart: she was on the verge of a nervous attack such as she had had in the winter, and he foresaw with dismay the disastrous train of consequences, the doctors’ and nurses’ bills, and all the attendant confusion and expense. If only Moffatt’s project might be realized–if for once he could feel a round sum in his pocket, and be freed from the perpetual daily strain!
The next morning Undine, though calmer, was too weak to leave her bed, and her doctor prescribed rest and absence of worry–later, perhaps, a change of scene. He explained to Ralph that nothing was so wearing to a high-strung nature as monotony, and that if Mrs. Marvell were contemplating a Newport season it was necessary that she should be fortified to meet it. In such cases he often recommended a dash to Paris or London, just to tone up the nervous system.
Undine regained her strength slowly, and as the days dragged on the suggestion of the European trip recurred with increasing frequency. But it came always from her medical adviser: she herself had grown strangely passive and indifferent. She continued to remain upstairs on her lounge, seeing no one but Mrs. Heeny, whose daily ministrations had once more been prescribed, and asking only that the noise of Paul’s play should be kept from her. His scamperings overhead disturbed her sleep, and his bed was moved into the day nursery, above his father’s room. The child’s early romping did not trouble Ralph, since he himself was always awake before daylight. The days were not long enough to hold his cares, and they came and stood by him through the silent hours, when there was no other sound to drown their voices.
Ralph had not made a success of his business. The real-estate brokers who had taken him into partnership had done so only with the hope of profiting by his social connections; and in this respect the alliance had been a failure. It was in such directions that he most lacked facility, and so far he had been of use to his partners only as an office-drudge. He was resigned to the continuance of such drudgery, though all his powers cried out against it; but even for the routine of business his aptitude was small, and he began to feel that he was not considered an addition to the firm. The difficulty of finding another opening made him fear a break; and his thoughts turned hopefully to Elmer Moffatt’s hint of a “deal.” The success of the negotiation might bring advantages beyond the immediate pecuniary profit; and that, at the present juncture, was important enough in itself.
Moffatt reappeared two days after the dinner, presenting himself in West End Avenue in the late afternoon with the explanation that the business in hand necessitated discretion, and that he preferred not to be seen in Ralph’s office. It was a question of negotiating with the utmost privacy for the purchase of a small strip of land between two large plots already acquired by purchasers cautiously designated by Moffatt as his “parties.” How far he “stood in” with the parties he left it to Ralph to conjecture; but it was plain that he had a large stake in the transaction, and that it offered him his first chance of recovering himself since Driscoll had “thrown” him. The owners of the coveted plot did not seem anxious to sell, and there were personal reasons for Moffatt’s not approaching them through Ralph’s partners, who were the regular agents of the estate: so that Ralph’s acquaintance with the conditions, combined with his detachments from the case, marked him out as a useful intermediary.
Their first talk left Ralph with a dazzled sense of Moffatt’s strength and keenness, but with a vague doubt as to the “straightness” of the proposed transaction. Ralph had never seen his way clearly in that dim underworld of affairs where men of the Moffatt and Driscoll type moved like shadowy destructive monsters beneath the darting small fry of the surface. He knew that “business” has created its own special morality; and his musings on man’s relation to his self imposed laws had shown him how little human conduct is generally troubled about its own sanctions. He had a vivid sense of the things a man of his kind didn’t do; but his inability to get a mental grasp on large financial problems made it hard to apply to them so simple a measure as this inherited standard. He only knew, as Moffatt’s plan developed, that it seemed all right while he talked of it with its originator, but vaguely wrong when he thought it over afterward. It occurred to him to consult his grandfather; and if he renounced the idea for the obvious reason that Mr. Dagonet’s ignorance of business was as fathomless as his own, this was not his sole motive. Finally it occurred to him to put the case hypothetically to Mr. Spragg. As far as Ralph knew, his father-in-law’s business record was unblemished; yet one felt in him an elasticity of adjustment not allowed for in the Dagonet code.
Mr. Spragg listened thoughtfully to Ralph’s statement of the case, growling out here and there a tentative correction, and turning his cigar between his lips as he seemed to turn the problem over in the loose grasp of his mind.
“Well, what’s the trouble with it?” he asked at length, stretching his big square-toed shoes against the grate of his son-in-law’s dining-room, where, in the after-dinner privacy of a family evening, Ralph had seized the occasion to consult him.
“The trouble?” Ralph considered. “Why, that’s just what I should like you to explain to me.”
Mr. Spragg threw back his head and stared at the garlanded French clock on the chimney-piece. Mrs. Spragg was sitting upstairs in her daughter’s bedroom, and the silence of the house seemed to hang about the two men like a listening presence.
“Well, I dunno but what I agree with the doctor who said there warn’t any diseases, but only sick people. Every case is different, I guess.” Mr. Spragg, munching his cigar, turned a ruminating glance on Ralph. “Seems to me it all boils down to one thing. Was this fellow we’re supposing about under any obligation to the other party–the one he was trying to buy the property from?”
Ralph hesitated. “Only the obligation recognized between decent men to deal with each other decently.” Mr. Spragg listened to this with the suffering air of a teacher compelled to simplify upon his simplest questions.
“Any personal obligation, I meant. Had the other fellow done him a good turn any time?”
“No–I don’t imagine them to have had any previous relations at all.”
His father-in-law stared. “Where’s your trouble, then?” He sat for a moment frowning at the embers. “Even when it’s the other way round it ain’t always so easy to decide how far that kind of thing’s binding… and they say shipwrecked fellows’ll make a meal of friend as quick as they would of a total stranger.” He drew himself together with a shake of his shoulders and pulled back his feet from the grate. “But I don’t see the conundrum in your case, I guess it’s up to both parties to take care of their own skins.”
He rose from his chair and wandered upstairs to Undine.
That was the Wall Street code: it all “boiled down” to the personal obligation, to the salt eaten in the enemy’s tent. Ralph’s fancy wandered off on a long trail of speculation from which he was pulled back with a jerk by the need of immediate action. Moffatt’s “deal” could not wait: quick decisions were essential to effective action, and brooding over ethical shades of difference might work more ill than good in a world committed to swift adjustments. The arrival of several unforeseen bills confirmed this view, and once Ralph had adopted it he began to take a detached interest in the affair.
In Paris, in his younger days, he had once attended a lesson in acting given at the Conservatoire by one of the great lights of the theatre, and had seen an apparently uncomplicated role of the classic repertory, familiar to him through repeated performances, taken to pieces before his eyes, dissolved into its component elements, and built up again with a minuteness of elucidation and a range of reference that made him feel as though he had been let into the secret of some age-long natural process. As he listened to Moffatt the remembrance of that lesson came back to him. At the outset the “deal,” and his own share in it, had seemed simple enough: he would have put on his hat and gone out on the spot in the full assurance of being able to transact the affair. But as Moffatt talked he began to feel as blank and blundering as the class of dramatic students before whom the great actor had analyzed his part. The affair was in fact difficult and complex, and Moffatt saw at once just where the difficulties lay and how the personal idiosyncrasies of “the parties” affected them. Such insight fascinated Ralph, and he strayed off into wondering why it did not qualify every financier to be a novelist, and what intrinsic barrier divided the two arts.
Both men had strong incentives for hastening the affair; and within a fortnight after Moffatt’s first advance Ralph was able to tell him that his offer was accepted. Over and above his personal satisfaction he felt the thrill of the agent whom some powerful negotiator has charged with a delicate mission: he might have been an eager young Jesuit carrying compromising papers to his superior. It had been stimulating to work with Moffatt, and to study at close range the large powerful instrument of his intelligence.
As he came out of Moffatt’s office at the conclusion of this visit Ralph met Mr. Spragg descending from his eyrie. He stopped short with a backward glance at Moffatt’s door.
“Hallo–what were you doing in there with those cut-throats?”
Ralph judged discretion to be essential. “Oh, just a little business for the firm.”
Mr. Spragg said no more, but resorted to the soothing labial motion of revolving his phantom toothpick.
“How’s Undie getting along?” he merely asked, as he and his son-in-law descended together in the elevator.
“She doesn’t seem to feel much stronger. The doctor wants her to run over to Europe for a few weeks. She thinks of joining her friends the Shallums in Paris.”
Mr. Spragg was again silent, but he left the building at Ralph’s side, and the two walked along together toward Wall Street.
Presently the older man asked: “How did you get acquainted with Moffatt?”
“Why, by chance–Undine ran across him somewhere and asked him to dine the other night.”
“Undine asked him to dine?”
“Yes: she told me you used to know him out at Apex.”
Mr. Spragg appeared to search his memory for confirmation of the fact. “I believe he used to be round there at one time. I’ve never heard any good of him yet.” He paused at a crossing and looked probingly at his son-in-law. “Is she terribly set on this trip to Europe?”
Ralph smiled. “You know how it is when she takes a fancy to do anything–“
Mr. Spragg, by a slight lift of his brooding brows, seemed to convey a deep if unspoken response.
“Well, I’d let her do it this time–I’d let her do it,” he said as he turned down the steps of the Subway.
Ralph was surprised, for he had gathered from some frightened references of Mrs. Spragg’s that Undine’s parents had wind of her European plan and were strongly opposed to it. He concluded that Mr. Spragg had long since measured the extent of profitable resistance, and knew just when it became vain to hold out against his daughter or advise others to do so.
Ralph, for his own part, had no inclination to resist. As he left Moffatt’s office his inmost feeling was one of relief. He had reached the point of recognizing that it was best for both that his wife should go. When she returned perhaps their lives would readjust themselves–but for the moment he longed for some kind of benumbing influence, something that should give relief to the dull daily ache of feeling her so near and yet so inaccessible. Certainly there were more urgent uses for their brilliant wind-fall: heavy arrears of household debts had to be met, and the summer would bring its own burden. But perhaps another stroke of luck might befall him: he was getting to have the drifting dependence on “luck” of the man conscious of his inability to direct his life. And meanwhile it seemed easier to let Undine have what she wanted.
Undine, on the whole, behaved with discretion. She received the good news languidly and showed no unseemly haste to profit by it. But it was as hard to hide the light in her eyes as to dissemble the fact that she had not only thought out every detail of the trip in advance, but had decided exactly how her husband and son were to be disposed of in her absence. Her suggestion that Ralph should take Paul to his grandparents, and that the West End Avenue house should be let for the summer, was too practical not to be acted on; and Ralph found she had already put her hand on the Harry Lipscombs, who, after three years of neglect, were to be dragged back to favour and made to feel, as the first step in their reinstatement, the necessity of hiring for the summer months a cool airy house on the West Side. On her return from Europe, Undine explained, she would of course go straight to Ralph and the boy in the Adirondacks; and it seemed a foolish extravagance to let the house stand empty when the Lipscombs were so eager to take it.
As the day of departure approached it became harder for her to temper her beams; but her pleasure showed itself so amiably that Ralph began to think she might, after all, miss the boy and himself more than she imagined. She was tenderly preoccupied with Paul’s welfare, and, to prepare for his translation to his grandparents’ she gave the household in Washington Square more of her time than she had accorded it since her marriage. She explained that she wanted Paul to grow used to his new surroundings; and with that object she took him frequently to his grandmother’s, and won her way into old Mr. Dagonet’s sympathies by her devotion to the child and her pretty way of joining in his games.
Undine was not consciously acting a part: this new phase was as natural to her as the other. In the joy of her gratified desires she wanted to make everybody about her happy. If only everyone would do as she wished she would never be unreasonable. She much preferred to see smiling faces about her, and her dread of the reproachful and dissatisfied countenance gave the measure of what she would do to avoid it.
These thoughts were in her mind when, a day or two before sailing, she came out of the Washington Square house with her boy. It was a late spring afternoon, and she and Paul had lingered on till long past the hour sacred to his grandfather’s nap. Now, as she came out into the square she saw that, however well Mr. Dagonet had borne their protracted romp, it had left his playmate flushed and sleepy; and she lifted Paul in her arms to carry him to the nearest cab-stand.
As she raised herself she saw a thick-set figure approaching her across the square; and a moment later she was shaking hands with Elmer Moffatt. In the bright spring air he looked seasonably glossy and prosperous; and she noticed that he wore a bunch of violets in his buttonhole. His small black eyes twinkled with approval as they rested on her, and Undine reflected that, with Paul’s arms about her neck, and his little flushed face against her own, she must present a not unpleasing image of young motherhood.
“That the heir apparent?” Moffatt asked; adding “Happy to make your acquaintance, sir,” as the boy, at Undine’s bidding, held out a fist sticky with sugarplums.
“He’s been spending the afternoon with his grandfather, and they played so hard that he’s sleepy,” she explained. Little Paul, at that stage in his career, had a peculiar grace of wide-gazing deep-lashed eyes and arched cherubic lips, and Undine saw that Moffatt was not insensible to the picture she and her son composed. She did not dislike his admiration, for she no longer felt any shrinking from him–she would even have been glad to thank him for the service he had done her husband if she had known how to allude to it without awkwardness. Moffatt seemed equally pleased at the meeting, and they looked at each other almost intimately over Paul’s tumbled curls.
“He’s a mighty fine fellow and no mistake–but isn’t he rather an armful for you?” Moffatt asked, his eyes lingering with real kindliness on the child’s face.
“Oh, we haven’t far to go. I’ll pick up a cab at the corner.”
“Well, let me carry him that far anyhow,” said Moffatt.
Undine was glad to be relieved of her burden, for she was unused to the child’s weight, and disliked to feel that her skirt was dragging on the pavement. “Go to the gentleman, Pauly–he’ll carry you better than mother,” she said.
The little boy’s first movement was one of recoil from the ruddy sharp-eyed countenance that was so unlike his father’s delicate face; but he was an obedient child, and after a moment’s hesitation he wound his arms trustfully about the red gentleman’s neck.
“That’s a good fellow–sit tight and I’ll give you a ride,” Moffatt cried, hoisting the boy to his shoulder.
Paul was not used to being perched at such a height, and his nature was hospitable to new impressions. “Oh, I like it up here–you’re higher than father!” he exclaimed; and Moffatt hugged him with a laugh.
“It must feel mighty good to come uptown to a fellow like you in the evenings,” he said, addressing the child but looking at Undine, who also laughed a little.
“Oh, they’re a dreadful nuisance, you know; but Paul’s a very good boy.”
“I wonder if he knows what a friend I’ve been to him lately,” Moffatt went on, as they turned into Fifth Avenue.
Undine smiled: she was glad he should have given her an opening. “He shall be told as soon as he’s old enough to thank you. I’m so glad you came to Ralph about that business.”
“Oh I gave him a leg up, and I guess he’s given me one too. Queer the way things come round–he’s fairly put me in the way of a fresh start.”
Their eyes met in a silence which Undine was the first to break. “It’s been awfully nice of you to do what you’ve done–right along. And this last thing has made a lot of difference to us.”
“Well, I’m glad you feel that way. I never wanted to be anything but ‘nice,’ as you call it.” Moffatt paused a moment and then added: “If you’re less scared of me than your father is I’d be glad to call round and see you once in a while.”
The quick blood rushed to her cheeks. There was nothing challenging, demanding in his tone–she guessed at once that if he made the request it was simply for the pleasure of being with her, and she liked the magnanimity implied. Nevertheless she was not sorry to have to answer: “Of course I’ll always be glad to see you–only, as it happens, I’m just sailing for Europe.”
“For Europe?” The word brought Moffatt to a stand so abruptly that little Paul lurched on his shoulder.
“For Europe?” he repeated. “Why, I thought you said the other evening you expected to stay on in town till July. Didn’t you think of going to the Adirondacks?”
Flattered by his evident disappointment, she became high and careless in her triumph. “Oh, yes,–but that’s all changed. Ralph and the boy are going, but I sail on Saturday to join some friends in Paris–and later I may do some motoring in Switzerland an Italy.”
She laughed a little in the mere enjoyment of putting her plans into words and Moffatt laughed too, but with an edge of sarcasm.
“I see–I see: everything’s changed, as you say, and your husband can blow you off to the trip. Well, I hope you’ll have a first-class time.”
Their glances crossed again, and something in his cool scrutiny impelled Undine to say, with a burst of candour: “If I do, you know, I shall owe it all to you!”
“Well, I always told you I meant to act white by you,” he answered.
They walked on in silence, and presently he began again in his usual joking strain: “See what one of the Apex girls has been up to?”
Apex was too remote for her to understand the reference, and he went on: “Why, Millard Binch’s wife–Indiana Frusk that was. Didn’t you see in the papers that Indiana’d fixed it up with James J. Rolliver to marry her? They say it was easy enough squaring Millard Binch–you’d know it WOULD be–but it cost Roliver near a million to mislay Mrs. R. and the children. Well, Indiana’s pulled it off, anyhow; she always WAS a bright girl. But she never came up to you.”
“Oh–” she stammered with a laugh, astonished and agitated by his news. Indiana Frusk and Rolliver! It showed how easily the thing could be done. If only her father had listened to her! If a girl like Indiana Frusk could gain her end so easily, what might not Undine have accomplished? She knew Moffatt was right in saying that Indiana had never come up to her…She wondered how the marriage would strike Van Degen…
She signalled to a cab and they walked toward it without speaking. Undine was recalling with intensity that one of Indiana’s shoulders was higher than the other, and that people in Apex had thought her lucky to catch Millard Binch, the druggist’s clerk, when Undine herself had cast him off after a lingering engagement. And now Indiana Frusk was to be Mrs. James J. Rolliver!
Undine got into the cab and bent forward to take little Paul.
Moffatt lowered his charge with exaggerated care, and a “Steady there, steady,” that made the child laugh; then, stooping over, he put a kiss on Paul’s lips before handing him over to his mother.
“The Parisian Diamond Company–Anglo-American branch.”
Charles Bowen, seated, one rainy evening of the Paris season, in a corner of the great Nouveau Luxe restaurant, was lazily trying to resolve his impressions of the scene into the phrases of a letter to his old friend Mrs. Henley Fairford.
The long habit of unwritten communion with this lady–in no way conditioned by the short rare letters they actually exchanged–usually caused his notations, in absence, to fall into such terms when the subject was of a kind to strike an answering flash from her. And who but Mrs. Fairford would see, from his own precise angle, the fantastic improbability, the layers on layers of unsubstantialness, on which the seemingly solid scene before him rested?
The dining-room of the Nouveau Luxe was at its fullest, and, having contracted on the garden side through stress of weather, had even overflowed to the farther end of the long hall beyond; so that Bowen, from his corner, surveyed a seemingly endless perspective of plumed and jewelled heads, of shoulders bare or black-coated, encircling the close-packed tables. He had come half an hour before the time he had named to his expected guest, so that he might have the undisturbed amusement of watching the picture compose itself again before his eyes. During some forty years’ perpetual exercise of his perceptions he had never come across anything that gave them the special titillation produced by the sight of the dinner-hour at the Nouveau Luxe: the same sense of putting his hand on human nature’s passion for the factitious, its incorrigible habit of imitating the imitation.
As he sat watching the familiar faces swept toward him on the rising tide of arrival–for it was one of the joys of the scene that the type was always the same even when the individual was not–he hailed with renewed appreciation this costly expression of a social ideal. The dining-room at the Nouveau Luxe represented, on such a spring evening, what unbounded material power had devised for the delusion of its leisure: a phantom “society,” with all the rules, smirks, gestures of its model, but evoked out of promiscuity and incoherence while the other had been the product of continuity and choice. And the instinct which had driven a new class of world-compellers to bind themselves to slavish imitation of the superseded, and their prompt and reverent faith in the reality of the sham they had created, seemed to Bowen the most satisfying proof of human permanence.
With this thought in his mind he looked up to greet his guest. The Comte Raymond de Chelles, straight, slim and gravely smiling, came toward him with frequent pauses of salutation at the crowded tables; saying, as he seated himself and turned his pleasant eyes on the scene: “Il n’y a pas a dire, my dear Bowen, it’s charming and sympathetic and original–we owe America a debt of gratitude for inventing it!”
Bowen felt a last touch of satisfaction: they were the very words to complete his thought.
“My dear fellow, it’s really you and your kind who are responsible. It’s the direct creation of feudalism, like all the great social upheavals!”
Raymond de Chelles stroked his handsome brown moustache. “I should have said, on the contrary, that one enjoyed it for the contrast. It’s such a refreshing change from our institutions–which are, nevertheless, the necessary foundations of society. But just as one may have an infinite admiration for one’s wife, and yet occasionally–” he waved a light hand toward the spectacle. “This, in the social order, is the diversion, the permitted diversion, that your original race has devised: a kind of superior Bohemia, where one may be respectable without being bored.”
Bowen laughed. “You’ve put it in a nutshell: the ideal of the American woman is to be respectable without being bored; and from that point of view this world they’ve invented has more originality than I gave it credit for.”
Chelles thoughtfully unfolded his napkin. “My impression’s a superficial one, of course–for as to what goes on underneath–!” He looked across the room. “If I married I shouldn’t care to have my wife come here too often.”
Bowen laughed again. “She’d be as safe as in a bank! Nothing ever goes on! Nothing that ever happens here is real.”
“Ah, quant a cela–” the Frenchman murmured, inserting a fork into his melon. Bowen looked at him with enjoyment–he was such a precious foot-note to the page! The two men, accidentally thrown together some years previously during a trip up the Nile, always met again with pleasure when Bowen returned to France. Raymond de Chelles, who came of a family of moderate fortune, lived for the greater part of the year on his father’s estates in Burgundy; but he came up every spring to the entresol of the old Marquis’s hotel for a two months’ study of human nature, applying to the pursuit the discriminating taste and transient ardour that give the finest bloom to pleasure. Bowen liked him as a companion and admired him as a charming specimen of the Frenchman of his class, embodying in his lean, fatigued and finished person that happy mean of simplicity and intelligence of which no other race has found the secret. If Raymond de Chelles had been English he would have been a mere fox-hunting animal, with appetites but without tastes; but in his lighter Gallic clay the wholesome territorial savour, the inherited passion for sport and agriculture, were blent with an openness to finer sensations, a sense of the come-and-go of ideas, under which one felt the tight hold of two or three inherited notions, religious, political, and domestic, in total contradiction to his surface attitude. That the inherited notions would in the end prevail, everything in his appearance declared from the distinguished slant of his nose to the narrow forehead under his thinning hair; he was the kind of man who would inevitably “revert” when he married. But meanwhile the surface he presented to the play of life was broad enough to take in the fantastic spectacle of the Nouveau Luxe; and to see its gestures reflected in a Latin consciousness was an endless entertainment to Bowen.
The tone of his guest’s last words made him take them up. “But is the lady you allude to more than a hypothesis? Surely you’re not thinking of getting married?”
Chelles raised his eye-brows ironically. “When hasn’t one to think of it, in my situation? One hears of nothing else at home–one knows that, like death, it has to come.” His glance, which was still mustering the room, came to a sudden pause and kindled.
“Who’s the lady over there–fair-haired, in white–the one who’s just come in with the red-faced man? They seem to be with a party of your compatriots.”
Bowen followed his glance to a neighbouring table, where, at the moment, Undine Marvell was seating herself at Peter Van Degen’s side, in the company of the Harvey Shallums, the beautiful Mrs. Beringer and a dozen other New York figures.
She was so placed that as she took her seat she recognized Bowen and sent him a smile across the tables. She was more simply dressed than usual, and the pink lights, warming her cheeks and striking gleams from her hair, gave her face a dewy freshness that was new to Bowen. He had always thought her beauty too obvious, too bathed in the bright publicity of the American air; but to-night she seemed to have been brushed by the wing of poetry, and its shadow lingered in her eyes.
Chelles’ gaze made it evident that he had received the same impression.
“One is sometimes inclined to deny your compatriots actual beauty–to charge them with producing the effect without having the features; but in this case–you say you know the lady?”
“Yes: she’s the wife of an old friend.”
“The wife? She’s married? There, again, it’s so puzzling! Your young girls look so experienced, and your married women sometimes so–unmarried.”
“Well, they often are–in these days of divorce!”
The other’s interest quickened. “Your friend’s divorced?”
“Oh, no; heaven forbid! Mrs. Marvell hasn’t been long married; and it was a love-match of the good old kind.”
“Ah–and the husband? Which is he?”
“He’s not here–he’s in New York.”
“Feverishly adding to a fortune already monstrous?”
“No; not precisely monstrous. The Marvells are not well off,” said Bowen, amused by his friend’s interrogations.
“And he allows an exquisite being like that to come to Paris without him–and in company with the red-faced gentleman who seems so alive to his advantages?”
“We don’t ‘allow’ our women this or that; I don’t think we set much store by the compulsory virtues.”
His companion received this with amusement. “If: you’re as detached as that, why does the obsolete institution of marriage survive with you?”
“Oh, it still has its uses. One couldn’t be divorced without it.”
Chelles laughed again; but his straying eye still followed the same direction, and Bowen noticed that the fact was not unremarked by the object of his contemplation. Undine’s party was one of the liveliest in the room: the American laugh rose above the din of the orchestra as the American toilets dominated the less daring effects at the other tables. Undine, on entering, had seemed to be in the same mood as her companions; but Bowen saw that, as she became conscious of his friend’s observation, she isolated herself in a kind of soft abstraction; and he admired the adaptability which enabled her to draw from such surroundings the contrasting graces of reserve.
They had greeted each other with all the outer signs of cordiality, but Bowen fancied she would not care to have him speak to her. She was evidently dining with Van Degen, and Van Degen’s proximity was the last fact she would wish to have transmitted to the critics in Washington Square. Bowen was therefore surprised when, as he rose to leave the restaurant, he heard himself hailed by Peter.
“Hallo–hold on! When did you come over? Mrs. Marvell’s dying for the last news about the old homestead.”
Undine’s smile confirmed the appeal. She wanted to know how lately Bowen had left New York, and pressed him to tell her when he had last seen her boy, how he was looking, and whether Ralph had been persuaded to go down to Clare’s on Saturdays and get a little riding and tennis? And dear Laura–was she well too, and was Paul with her, or still with his grandmother? They were all dreadfully bad correspondents, and so was she. Undine laughingly admitted; and when Ralph had last written her these questions had still been undecided.
As she smiled up at Bowen he saw her glance stray to the spot where his companion hovered; and when the diners rose to move toward the garden for coffee she said, with a sweet note and a detaining smile: “Do come with us–I haven’t half finished.”
Van Degen echoed the request, and Bowen, amused by Undine’s arts, was presently introducing Chelles, and joining with him in the party’s transit to the terrace. The rain had ceased, and under the clear evening sky the restaurant garden opened green depths that skilfully hid its narrow boundaries. Van Degen’s company was large enough to surround two of the tables on the terrace, and Bowen noted the skill with which Undine, leaving him to Mrs. Shallum’s care, contrived to draw Raymond de Chelles to the other table. Still more noticeable was the effect of this stratagem on Van Degen, who also found himself relegated to Mrs. Shallum’s group. Poor Peter’s state was betrayed by the irascibility which wreaked itself on a jostling waiter, and found cause for loud remonstrance in the coldness of the coffee and the badness of the cigars; and Bowen, with something more than the curiosity of the looker-on, wondered whether this were the real clue to Undine’s conduct. He had always smiled at Mrs. Fairford’s fears for Ralph’s domestic peace. He thought Undine too clear-headed to forfeit the advantages of her marriage; but it now struck him that she might have had a glimpse of larger opportunities. Bowen, at the thought, felt the pang of the sociologist over the individual havoc wrought by every social readjustment: it had so long been clear to him that poor Ralph was a survival, and destined, as such, to go down in any conflict with the rising forces.
Some six weeks later. Undine Marvell stood at the window smiling down on her recovered Paris.
Her hotel sitting-room had, as usual, been flowered, cushioned and lamp-shaded into a delusive semblance of stability; and she had really felt, for the last few weeks, that the life she was leading there must be going to last–it seemed so perfect an answer to all her wants!
As she looked out at the thronged street, on which the summer light lay like a blush of pleasure, she felt herself naturally akin to all the bright and careless freedom of the scene. She had been away from Paris for two days, and the spectacle before her seemed more rich and suggestive after her brief absence from it. Her senses luxuriated in all its material details: the thronging motors, the brilliant shops, the novelty and daring of the women’s dresses, the piled-up colours of the ambulant flower-carts, the appetizing expanse of the fruiterers’ windows, even the chromatic effects of the petits fours behind the plate-glass of the pastry-cooks: all the surface-sparkle and variety of the inexhaustible streets of Paris.
The scene before her typified to Undine her first real taste of life. How meagre and starved the past appeared in comparison with this abundant present! The noise, the crowd, the promiscuity beneath her eyes symbolized the glare and movement of her life. Every moment of her days was packed with excitement and exhilaration. Everything amused her: the long hours of bargaining and debate with dress-makers and jewellers, the crowded lunches at fashionable restaurants, the perfunctory dash through a picture-show or the lingering visit to the last new milliner; the afternoon motor-rush to some leafy suburb, where tea and musics and sunset were hastily absorbed on a crowded terrace above the Seine; the whirl home through the Bois to dress for dinner and start again on the round of evening diversions; the dinner at the Nouveau Luxe or the Cafe de Paris, and the little play at the Capucines or the Varietes, followed, because the night was “too lovely,” and it was a shame to waste it, by a breathless flight back to the Bois, with supper in one of its lamp-hung restaurants, or, if the weather forbade, a tumultuous progress through the midnight haunts where “ladies” were not supposed to show themselves, and might consequently taste the thrill of being occasionally taken for their opposites.
As the varied vision unrolled itself, Undine contrasted it with the pale monotony of her previous summers. The one she most resented was the first after her marriage, the European summer out of whose joys she had been cheated by her own ignorance and Ralph’s perversity. They had been free then, there had been no child to hamper their movements, their money anxieties had hardly begun, the face of life had been fresh and radiant, and she had been doomed to waste such opportunities on a succession of ill-smelling Italian towns. She still felt it to be her deepest grievance against her husband; and now that, after four years of petty household worries, another chance of escape had come, he already wanted to drag her back to bondage!
This fit of retrospection had been provoked by two letters which had come that morning. One was from Ralph, who began by reminding her that he had not heard from her for weeks, and went on to point out, in his usual tone of good-humoured remonstrance, that since her departure the drain on her letter of credit had been deep and constant. “I wanted you,” he wrote, “to get all the fun you could out of the money I made last spring; but I didn’t think you’d get through it quite so fast. Try to come home without leaving too many bills behind you. Your illness and Paul’s cost more than I expected, and Lipscomb has had a bad knock in Wall Street, and hasn’t yet paid his first quarter…”
Always the same monotonous refrain! Was it her fault that she and the boy had been ill? Or that Harry Lipscomb had been “on the wrong side” of Wall Street? Ralph seemed to have money on the brain: his business life had certainly deteriorated him. And, since he hadn’t made a success of it after all, why shouldn’t he turn back to literature and try to write his novel? Undine, the previous winter, had been dazzled by the figures which a well-known magazine editor, whom she had met at dinner had named as within reach of the successful novelist. She perceived for the first time that literature was becoming fashionable, and instantly decided that it would be amusing and original if she and Ralph should owe their prosperity to his talent. She already saw herself, as the wife of a celebrated author, wearing “artistic” dresses and doing the drawing-room over with Gothic tapestries and dim lights in altar candle-sticks. But when she suggested Ralph’s taking up his novel he answered with a laugh that his brains were sold to the firm–that when he came back at night the tank was empty…And now he wanted her to sail for home in a week!
The other letter excited a deeper resentment. It was an appeal from Laura Fairford to return and look after Ralph. He was overworked and out of spirits, she wrote, and his mother and sister, reluctant as they were to interfere, felt they ought to urge Undine to come back to him. Details followed, unwelcome and officious. What right had Laura Fairford to preach to her of wifely obligations? No doubt Charles Bowen had sent home a highly-coloured report–and there was really a certain irony in Mrs. Fairford’s criticizing her sister-in-law’s conduct on information obtained from such a source! Undine turned from the window and threw herself down on her deeply cushioned sofa. She was feeling the pleasant fatigue consequent on her trip to the country, whither she and Mrs. Shallum had gone with Raymond de Chelles to spend a night at the old Marquis’s chateau. When her travelling companions, an hour earlier, had left her at her door, she had half-promised to rejoin them for a late dinner in the Bois; and as she leaned back among the cushions disturbing thoughts were banished by the urgent necessity of deciding what dress she should wear.
These bright weeks of the Parisian spring had given her a first real glimpse into the art of living. From the experts who had taught her to subdue the curves of her figure and soften her bright free stare with dusky pencillings, to the skilled purveyors of countless forms of pleasure–the theatres and restaurants, the green and blossoming suburbs, the whole shining shifting spectacle of nights and days–every sight and sound and word had combined to charm her perceptions and refine her taste. And her growing friendship with Raymond de Chelles had been the most potent of these influences.
Chelles, at once immensely “taken,” had not only shown his eagerness to share in the helter-skelter motions of Undine’s party, but had given her glimpses of another, still more brilliant existence, that life of the inaccessible “Faubourg” of which the first tantalizing hints had but lately reached her. Hitherto she had assumed that Paris existed for the stranger, that its native life was merely an obscure foundation for the dazzling superstructure of hotels and restaurants in which her compatriots disported themselves. But lately she had begun to hear about other American women, the women who had married into the French aristocracy, and who led, in the high-walled houses beyond the Seine which she had once thought so dull and dingy, a life that made her own seem as undistinguished as the social existence of the Mealey House. Perhaps what most exasperated her was the discovery, in this impenetrable group, of the Miss Wincher who had poisoned her far-off summer at Potash Springs. To recognize her old enemy in the Marquise de Trezac who so frequently figured in the Parisian chronicle was the more irritating to Undine because her intervening social experiences had caused her to look back on Nettie Wincher as a frumpy girl who wouldn’t have “had a show” in New York.
Once more all the accepted values were reversed, and it turned out that Miss Wincher had been in possession of some key to success on which Undine had not yet put her hand. To know that others were indifferent to what she had thought important was to cheapen all present pleasure and turn the whole force of her desires in a new direction. What she wanted for the moment was to linger on in Paris, prolonging her flirtation with Chelles, and profiting by it to detach herself from her compatriots and enter doors closed to their approach. And Chelles himself attracted her: she thought him as “sweet” as she had once thought Ralph, whose fastidiousness and refinement were blent in him with a delightful foreign vivacity. His chief value, however, lay in his power of exciting Van Degen’s jealousy. She knew enough of French customs to be aware that such devotion as Chelles’ was not likely to have much practical bearing on her future; but Peter had an alarming way of lapsing into security, and as a spur to his ardour she knew the value of other men’s attentions.
It had become Undine’s fixed purpose to bring Van Degen to a definite expression of his intentions. The case of Indiana Frusk, whose brilliant marriage the journals of two continents had recently chronicled with unprecedented richness of detail, had made less impression on him than she hoped. He treated it as a comic episode without special bearing on their case, and once, when Undine cited Rolliver’s expensive fight for freedom as an instance of the power of love over the most invulnerable natures, had answered carelessly: “Oh, his first wife was a laundress, I believe.”
But all about them couples were unpairing and pairing again with an ease and rapidity that encouraged Undine to bide her time. It was simply a question of making Van Degen want her enough, and of not being obliged to abandon the game before he wanted her as much as she meant he should. This was precisely what would happen if she were compelled to leave Paris now. Already the event had shown how right she had been to come abroad: the attention she attracted in Paris had reawakened Van Degen’s fancy, and her hold over him was stronger than when they had parted in America. But the next step must be taken with coolness and circumspection; and she must not throw away what she had gained by going away at a stage when he was surer of her than she of him. She was still intensely considering these questions when the door behind her opened and he came in.
She looked up with a frown and he gave a deprecating laugh. “Didn’t I knock? Don’t look so savage! They told me downstairs you’d got back, and I just bolted in without thinking.”
He had widened and purpled since their first encounter, five years earlier, but his features had not matured. His face was still the face of a covetous bullying boy, with a large appetite for primitive satisfactions and a sturdy belief in his intrinsic right to them. It was all the more satisfying to Undine’s vanity to see his look change at her tone from command to conciliation, and from conciliation to the entreaty of a capriciously-treated animal.
“What a ridiculous hour for a visit!” she exclaimed, ignoring his excuse. “Well, if you disappear like that, without a word–“
“I told my maid to telephone you I was going away.”
“You couldn’t make time to do it yourself, I suppose?”
“We rushed off suddenly; I’d hardly time to get to the station.”
“You rushed off where, may I ask?” Van Degen still lowered down on her.
“Oh didn’t I tell you? I’ve been down staying at Chelles’ chateau in Burgundy.” Her face lit up and she raised herself eagerly on her elbow.
“It’s the most wonderful old house you ever saw: a real castle, with towers, and water all round it, and a funny kind of bridge they pull up. Chelles said he wanted me to see just how they lived at home, and I did; I saw everything: the tapestries that Louis Quinze gave them, and the family portraits, and the chapel, where their own priest says mass, and they sit by themselves in a balcony with crowns all over it. The priest was a lovely old man–he said he’d give anything to convert me. Do you know, I think there’s something very beautiful about the Roman Catholic religion? I’ve often felt I might have been happier if I’d had some religious influence in my life.”
She sighed a little, and turned her head away. She flattered herself that she had learned to strike the right note with Van Degen. At this crucial stage he needed a taste of his own methods, a glimpse of the fact that there were women in the world who could get on without him.
He continued to gaze down at her sulkily. “Were the old people there? You never told me you knew his mother.”
“I don’t. They weren’t there. But it didn’t make a bit of difference, because Raymond sent down a cook from the Luxe.”
“Oh, Lord,” Van Degen groaned, dropping down on the end of the sofa. “Was the cook got down to chaperon you?”
Undine laughed. “You talk like Ralph! I had Bertha with me.”
“BERTHA!” His tone of contempt surprised her. She had supposed that Mrs. Shallum’s presence had made the visit perfectly correct.
“You went without knowing his parents, and without their inviting you? Don’t you know what that sort of thing means out here? Chelles did it to brag about you at his club. He wants to compromise you–that’s his game!”
“Do you suppose he does?” A flicker of a smile crossed her lips. “I’m so unconventional: when I like a man I never stop to think about such things. But I ought to, of course–you’re quite right.” She looked at Van Degen thoughtfully. “At any rate, he’s not a married man.”
Van Degen had got to his feet again and was standing accusingly before her; but as she spoke the blood rose to his neck and ears. “What difference does that make?”
“It might make a good deal. I see,” she added, “how careful I ought to be about going round with you.”
“With ME?” His face fell at the retort; then he broke into a laugh. He adored Undine’s “smartness,” which was of precisely the same quality as his own. “Oh, that’s another thing: you can always trust me to look after you!”
“With your reputation? Much obliged!”
Van Degen smiled. She knew he liked such allusions, and was pleased that she thought him compromising.
“Oh, I’m as good as gold. You’ve made a new man of me!”
“Have I?” She considered him in silence for a moment. “I wonder what you’ve done to me but make a discontented woman of me–discontented with everything I had before I knew you?”
The change of tone was thrilling to him. He forgot her mockery, forgot his rival, and sat down at her side, almost in possession of her waist. “Look here,” he asked, “where are we going to dine to-night?”
His nearness was not agreeable to Undine, but she liked his free way, his contempt for verbal preliminaries. Ralph’s reserves and delicacies, his perpetual desire that he and she should be attuned to the same key, had always vaguely bored her; whereas in Van Degen’s manner she felt a hint of the masterful way that had once subdued her in Elmer Moffatt. But she drew back, releasing herself.
“To-night? I can’t–I’m engaged.”
“I know you are: engaged to ME! You promised last Sunday you’d dine with me out of town to-night.”
“How can I remember what I promised last Sunday? Besides, after what you’ve said, I see I oughtn’t to.”
“What do you mean by what I’ve said?”
“Why, that I’m imprudent; that people are talking–“
He stood up with an angry laugh. “I suppose you’re dining with Chelles. Is that it?”
“Is that the way you cross-examine Clare?”
“I don’t care a hang what Clare does–I never have.”
“That must–in some ways–be rather convenient for her!”
“Glad you think so. ARE you dining with him?”
She slowly turned the wedding-ring upon her finger. “You know I’m NOT married to you–yet!”
He took a random turn through the room; then he came back and planted himself wrathfully before her. “Can’t you see the man’s doing his best to make a fool of you?”
She kept her amused gaze on him. “Does it strike you that it’s such an awfully easy thing to do?”
The edges of his ears were purple. “I sometimes think it’s easier for these damned little dancing-masters than for one of us.”
Undine was still smiling up at him; but suddenly her grew grave. “What does it matter what I do or don’t do, when Ralph has ordered me home next week?”
“Ordered you home?” His face changed. “Well, you’re not going, are you?”
“What’s the use of saying such things?” She gave a disenchanted laugh. “I’m a poor man’s wife, and can’t do the things my friends do. It’s not because Ralph loves me that he wants me back–it’s simply because he can’t afford to let me stay!”
Van Degen’s perturbation was increasing. “But you mustn’t go–it’s preposterous! Why should a woman like you be sacrificed when a lot of dreary frumps have everything they want? Besides, you can’t chuck me like this! Why, we’re all to motor down to Aix next week, and perhaps take a dip into Italy–“
“OH, ITALY–” she murmured on a note of yearning.
He was closer now, and had her hands. “You’d love that, wouldn’t you? As far as Venice, anyhow; and then in August there’s Trouville–you’ve never tried Trouville? There’s an awfully jolly crowd there–and the motoring’s ripping in Normandy. If you say so I’ll take a villa there instead of going back to Newport. And I’ll put the Sorceress in commission, and you can make up parties and run off whenever you like, to Scotland or Norway–” He hung above her. “Don’t dine with Chelles to-night! Come with me, and we’ll talk things over; and next week we’ll run down to Trouville to choose the villa.”
Undine’s heart was beating fast, but she felt within her a strange lucid force of resistance. Because of that sense of security she left her hands in Van Degen’s. So Mr. Spragg might have felt at the tensest hour of the Pure Water move. She leaned forward, holding her suitor off by the pressure of her bent-back palms.
“Kiss me good-bye, Peter; I sail on Wednesday,” she said.
It was the first time she had permitted him a kiss, and as his face darkened down on her she felt a moment’s recoil. But her physical reactions were never very acute: she always vaguely wondered why people made “such a fuss,” were so violently for or against such demonstrations. A cool spirit within her seemed to watch over and regulate her sensations, and leave her capable of measuring the intensity of those she provoked.
She turned to look at the clock. “You must go now–I shall be hours late for dinner.”
“Go–after that?” He held her fast. “Kiss me again,” he commanded.
It was wonderful how cool she felt–how easily she could slip out of his grasp! Any man could be managed like a child if he were really in love with one….
“Don’t be a goose, Peter; do you suppose I’d have kissed you if–“
“If what–what–what?” he mimicked her ecstatically, not listening.
She saw that if she wished to make him hear her she must put more distance between them, and she rose and moved across the room. From the fireplace she turned to add–“if we hadn’t been saying good-bye?”
“Good-bye–now? What’s the use of talking like that?” He jumped up and followed her. “Look here, Undine–I’ll do anything on earth you want; only don’t talk of going! If you’ll only stay I’ll make it all as straight and square as you please. I’ll get Bertha Shallum to stop over with you for the summer; I’ll take a house at Trouville and make my wife come out there. Hang it, she SHALL, if you say so! Only be a little good to me!”
Still she stood before him without speaking, aware that her implacable brows and narrowed lips would hold him off as long as she chose.
“What’s the matter. Undine? Why don’t you answer? You know you can’t go back to that deadly dry-rot!”
She swept about on him with indignant eyes. “I can’t go on with my present life either. It’s hateful–as hateful as the other. If I don’t go home I’ve got to decide on something different.”
“What do you mean by ‘something different’?” She was silent, and he insisted: “Are you really thinking of marrying Chelles?”
She started as if he had surprised a secret. “I’ll never forgive you if you speak of it–“
“Good Lord! Good Lord!” he groaned.
She remained motionless, with lowered lids, and he went up to her and pulled her about so that she faced him. “Undine, honour bright–do you think he’ll marry you?”
She looked at him with a sudden hardness in her eyes. “I really can’t discuss such things with you.”
“Oh, for the Lord’s sake don’t take that tone! I don’t half know what I’m saying…but you mustn’t throw yourself away a second time. I’ll do anything you want–I swear I will!”
A knock on the door sent them apart, and a servant entered with a telegram.
Undine turned away to the window with the narrow blue slip. She was glad of the interruption: the sense of what she had at stake made her want to pause a moment and to draw breath.
The message was a long cable signed with Laura Fairford’s name. It told her that Ralph had been taken suddenly ill with pneumonia, that his condition was serious and that the doctors advised his wife’s immediate return.
Undine had to read the words over two or three times to get them into her crowded mind; and even after she had done so she needed more time to see their bearing on her own situation. If the message had concerned her boy her brain would have acted more quickly. She had never troubled herself over the possibility of Paul’s falling ill in her absence, but she understood now that if the cable had been about him she would have rushed to the earliest steamer. With Ralph it was different. Ralph was always perfectly well–she could not picture him as being suddenly at death’s door and in need of her. Probably his mother and sister had had a panic: they were always full of sentimental terrors. The next moment an angry suspicion flashed across her: what if the cable were a device of the Marvell women to bring her back? Perhaps it had been sent with Ralph’s connivance! No doubt Bowen had written home about her–Washington Square had received some monstrous report of her doings!… Yes, the cable was clearly an echo of Laura’s letter–mother and daughter had cooked it up to spoil her pleasure. Once the thought had occurred to her it struck root in her mind and began to throw out giant branches. Van Degen followed her to the window, his face still flushed and working. “What’s the matter?” he asked, as she continued to stare silently at the telegram.
She crumpled the strip of paper in her hand. If only she had been alone, had had a chance to think out her answers!
“What on earth’s the matter?” he repeated.
“Nothing? When you’re as white as a sheet?”
“Am I?” She gave a slight laugh. “It’s only a cable from home.”
She hesitated. “No. Laura.”
“What the devil is SHE cabling you about?”
“She says Ralph wants me.”
Van Degen laughed impatiently. “Why don’t he tell you so himself? What business is it of Laura Fairford’s?”
Undine’s gesture implied a “What indeed?”
“Is that all she says?”
She hesitated again. “Yes–that’s all.” As she spoke she tossed the telegram into the basket beneath the writing-table. “As if I didn’t HAVE to go anyhow?” she exclaimed.
With an aching clearness of vision she saw what lay before her–the hurried preparations, the long tedious voyage on a steamer chosen at haphazard, the arrival in the deadly July heat, and the relapse into all the insufferable daily fag of nursery and kitchen–she saw it and her imagination recoiled.
Van Degen’s eyes still hung on her: she guessed that he was intensely engaged in trying to follow what was passing through her mind. Presently he came up to her again, no longer perilous and importunate, but awkwardly tender, ridiculously moved by her distress.
“Undine, listen: won’t you let me make it all right for you to stay?”
Her heart began to beat more quickly, and she let him come close, meeting his eyes coldly but without anger.
“What do you call ‘making it all right’? Paying my bills? Don’t you see that’s what I hate, and will never let myself be dragged into again?” She laid her hand on his arm. “The time has come when I must be sensible, Peter; that’s why we must say good-bye.”
“Do you mean to tell me you’re going back to Ralph?”
She paused a moment; then she murmured between her lips: “I shall never go back to him.”
“Then you DO mean to marry Chelles?”
“I’ve told you we must say good-bye. I’ve got to look out for my future.”
He stood before her, irresolute, tormented, his lazy mind and impatient senses labouring with a problem beyond their power. “Ain’t I here to look out for your future?” he said at last.
“No one shall look out for it in the way you mean. I’d rather never see you again–“
He gave her a baffled stare. “Oh, damn it–if that’s the way you feel!” He turned and flung away toward the door.
She stood motionless where he left her, every nerve strung to the highest pitch of watchfulness. As she stood there, the scene about her stamped itself on her brain with the sharpest precision. She was aware of the fading of the summer light outside, of the movements of her maid, who was laying out her dinner-dress in the room beyond, and of the fact that the tea-roses on her writing-table, shaken by Van Degen’s tread, were dropping their petals over Ralph’s letter, and down on the crumpled telegram which she could see through the trellised sides of the scrap-basket.
In another moment Van Degen would be gone. Worse yet, while he wavered in the doorway the Shallums and Chelles, after vainly awaiting her, might dash back from the Bois and break in on them. These and other chances rose before her, urging her to action; but she held fast, immovable, unwavering, a proud yet plaintive image of renunciation.
Van Degen’s hand was on the door. He half-opened it and then turned back.
“That’s all you’ve got to say, then?”
He jerked the door open and passed out. She saw him stop in the ante-room to pick up his hat and stick, his heavy figure silhouetted against the glare of the wall-lights. A ray of the same light fell on her where she stood in the unlit sitting-room, and her reflection bloomed out like a flower from the mirror that faced her. She looked at the image and waited. Van Degen put his hat on his head and slowly opened the door into the outer hall. Then he turned abruptly, his bulk eclipsing her reflection as he plunged back into the room and came up to her.
“I’ll do anything you say. Undine; I’ll do anything in God’s world to keep you!”
She turned her eyes from the mirror and let them rest on his face, which looked as small and withered as an old man’s, with a lower lip that trembled queerly….
The spring in New York proceeded through more than its usual extremes of temperature to the threshold of a sultry June.
Ralph Marvell, wearily bent to his task, felt the fantastic humours of the weather as only one more incoherence in the general chaos of his case. It was strange enough, after four years of marriage, to find himself again in his old brown room in Washington Square. It was hardly there that he had expected Pegasus to land him; and, like a man returning to the scenes of his childhood, he found everything on a much smaller scale than he had imagined. Had the Dagonet boundaries really narrowed, or had the breach in the walls of his own life let in a wider vision?
Certainly there had come to be other differences between his present and his former self than that embodied in the presence of his little boy in the next room. Paul, in fact, was now the chief link between Ralph and his past. Concerning his son he still felt and thought, in a general way, in the terms of the Dagonet tradition; he still wanted to implant in Paul some of the reserves and discriminations which divided that tradition from the new spirit of limitless concession. But for himself it was different. Since his transaction with Moffatt he had had the sense of living under a new dispensation. He was not sure that it was any worse than the other; but then he was no longer very sure about anything. Perhaps this growing indifference was merely the reaction from a long nervous strain: that his mother and sister thought it so was shown by the way in which they mutely watched and hovered. Their discretion was like the hushed tread about a sick-bed. They permitted themselves no criticism of Undine; he was asked no awkward questions, subjected to no ill-timed sympathy. They simply took him back, on his own terms, into the life he had left them to; and their silence had none of those subtle implications of disapproval which may be so much more wounding than speech.
For a while he received a weekly letter from Undine. Vague and disappointing though they were, these missives helped him through the days; but he looked forward to them rather as a pretext for replies than for their actual contents. Undine was never at a loss for the spoken word: Ralph had often wondered at her verbal range and her fluent use of terms outside the current vocabulary. She had certainly not picked these up in books, since she never opened one: they seemed rather like some odd transmission of her preaching grandparent’s oratory. But in her brief and colourless letters she repeated the same bald statements in the same few terms. She was well, she had been “round” with Bertha Shallum, she had dined with the Jim Driscolls or May Beringer or Dicky Bowles, the weather was too lovely or too awful; such was the gist of her news. On the last page she hoped Paul was well and sent him a kiss; but she never made a suggestion concerning his care or asked a question about his pursuits. One could only infer that, knowing in what good hands he was, she judged such solicitude superfluous; and it was thus that Ralph put the matter to his mother.
“Of course she’s not worrying about the boy–why should she? She knows that with you and Laura he’s as happy as a king.”
To which Mrs. Marvell would answer gravely: “When you write, be sure to say I shan’t put on his thinner flannels as long as this east wind lasts.”
As for her husband’s welfare. Undine’s sole allusion to it consisted in the invariable expression of the hope that he was getting along all right: the phrase was always the same, and Ralph learned to know just how far down the third page to look for it. In a postscript she sometimes asked him to tell her mother about a new way of doing hair or cutting a skirt; and this was usually the most eloquent passage of the letter. What satisfaction he extracted from these communications he would have found it hard to say; yet when they did not come he missed them hardly less than if they had given him all he craved. Sometimes the mere act of holding the blue or mauve sheet and breathing its scent was like holding his wife’s hand and being enveloped in her fresh young fragrance: the sentimental disappointment vanished in the penetrating physical sensation. In other moods it was enough to trace the letters of the first line and the last for the desert of perfunctory phrases between the two to vanish, leaving him only the vision of their interlaced names, as of a mystic bond which her own hand had tied. Or else he saw her, closely, palpably before him, as she sat at her writing-table, frowning and a little flushed, her bent nape showing the light on her hair, her short lip pulled up by the effort of composition; and this picture had the violent reality of dream-images on the verge of waking. At other times, as he read her letter, he felt simply that at least in the moment of writing it she had been with him. But in one of the last she had said (to excuse a bad blot and an incoherent sentence): “Everybody’s talking to me at once, and I don’t know what I’m writing.” That letter he had thrown into the fire….
After the first few weeks, the letters came less and less regularly: at the end of two months they ceased. Ralph had got into the habit of watching for them on the days when a foreign post was due, and as the weeks went by without a sign he began to invent excuses for leaving the office earlier and hurrying back to Washington Square to search the letter-box for a big tinted envelope with a straggling blotted superscription.
Undine’s departure had given him a momentary sense of liberation: at that stage in their relations any change would have brought relief. But now that she was gone he knew she could never really go. Though his feeling for her had changed, it still ruled his life. If he saw her in her weakness he felt her in her power: the power of youth and physical radiance that clung to his disenchanted memories as the scent she used clung to her letters. Looking back at their four years of marriage he began to ask himself if he had done all he could to draw her half-formed spirit from its sleep. Had he not expected too much at first, and grown too indifferent in the sequel? After all, she was still in the toy age; and perhaps the very extravagance of his love had retarded her growth, helped to imprison her in a little circle of frivolous illusions. But the last months had made a man of him, and when she came back he would know how to lift her to the height of his experience.
So he would reason, day by day, as he hastened back to Washington Square; but when he opened the door, and his first glance at the hall table showed him there was no letter there, his illusions shrivelled down to their weak roots. She had not written: she did not mean to write. He and the boy were no longer a part of her life. When she came back everything would be as it had been before, with the dreary difference that she had tasted new pleasures and that their absence would take the savour from all he had to give her. Then the coming of another foreign mail would lift his hopes, and as he hurried home he would imagine new reasons for expecting a letter….
Week after week he swung between the extremes of hope and dejection, and at last, when the strain had become unbearable, he cabled her. The answer ran: “Very well best love writing”; but the promised letter never came….
He went on steadily with his work: he even passed through a phase of exaggerated energy. But his baffled youth fought in him for air. Was this to be the end? Was he to wear his life out in useless drudgery? The plain prose of it, of course, was that the economic situation remained unchanged by the sentimental catastrophe and that he must go on working for his wife and child. But at any rate, as it was mainly for Paul that he would henceforth work, it should be on his own terms and according to his inherited notions of “straightness.” He would never again engage in any transaction resembling his compact with Moffatt. Even now he was not sure there had been anything crooked in that; but the fact of his having instinctively referred the point to Mr. Spragg rather than to his grandfather implied a presumption against it.
His partners were quick to profit by his sudden spurt of energy, and his work grew no lighter. He was not only the youngest and most recent member of the firm, but the one who had so far added least to the volume of its business. His hours were the longest, his absences, as summer approached, the least frequent and the most grudgingly accorded. No doubt his associates knew that he was pressed for money and could not risk a break. They “worked” him, and he was aware of it, and submitted because he dared not lose his job. But the long hours of mechanical drudgery were telling on his active body and undisciplined nerves. He had begun too late to subject himself to the persistent mortification of spirit and flesh which is a condition of the average business life; and after the long dull days in the office the evenings at his grandfather’s whist-table did not give him the counter-stimulus he needed.
Almost every one had gone out of town; but now and then Miss Ray came to dine, and Ralph, seated beneath the family portraits and opposite the desiccated Harriet, who had already faded to the semblance of one of her own great-aunts, listened languidly to the kind of talk that the originals might have exchanged about the same table when New York gentility centred in the Battery and the Bowling Green. Mr. Dagonet was always pleasant to see and hear, but his sarcasms were growing faint and recondite: they had as little bearing on life as the humours of a Restoration comedy. As for Mrs. Marvell and Miss Ray, they seemed to the young man even more spectrally remote: hardly anything that mattered to him existed for them, and their prejudices reminded him of sign-posts warning off trespassers who have long since ceased to intrude.
Now and then he dined at his club and went on to the theatre with some young men of his own age; but he left them afterward, half vexed with himself for not being in the humour to prolong the adventure. There were moments when he would have liked to affirm his freedom in however commonplace a way: moments when the vulgarest way would have seemed the most satisfying. But he always ended by walking home alone and tip-toeing upstairs through the sleeping house lest he should wake his boy….
On Saturday afternoons, when the business world was hurrying to the country for golf and tennis, he stayed in town and took Paul to see the Spraggs. Several times since his wife’s departure he had tried to bring about closer relations between his own family and Undine’s; and the ladies of Washington Square, in their eagerness to meet his wishes, had made various friendly advances to Mrs. Spragg. But they were met by a mute resistance which made Ralph suspect that Undine’s strictures on his family had taken root in her mother’s brooding mind; and he gave up the struggle to bring together what had been so effectually put asunder.
If he regretted his lack of success it was chiefly because he was so