sorry for the Spraggs. Soon after Undine’s marriage they had abandoned their polychrome suite at the Stentorian, and since then their peregrinations had carried them through half the hotels of the metropolis. Undine, who had early discovered her mistake in thinking hotel life fashionable, had tried to persuade her parents to take a house of their own; but though they refrained from taxing her with inconsistency they did not act on her suggestion. Mrs. Spragg seemed to shrink from the thought of “going back to house-keeping,” and Ralph suspected that she depended on the transit from hotel to hotel as the one element of variety in her life. As for Mr. Spragg, it was impossible to imagine any one in whom the domestic sentiments were more completely unlocalized and disconnected from any fixed habits; and he was probably aware of his changes of abode chiefly as they obliged him to ascend from the Subway, or descend from the “Elevated,” a few blocks higher up or lower down.
Neither husband nor wife complained to Ralph of their frequent displacements, or assigned to them any cause save the vague one of “guessing they could do better”; but Ralph noticed that the decreasing luxury of their life synchronized with Undine’s growing demands for money. During the last few months they had transferred themselves to the “Malibran,” a tall narrow structure resembling a grain-elevator divided into cells, where linoleum and lincrusta simulated the stucco and marble of the Stentorian, and fagged business men and their families consumed the watery stews dispensed by “coloured help” in the grey twilight of a basement dining-room.
Mrs. Spragg had no sitting-room, and Paul and his father had to be received in one of the long public parlours, between ladies seated at rickety desks in the throes of correspondence and groups of listlessly conversing residents and callers.
The Spraggs were intensely proud of their grandson, and Ralph perceived that they would have liked to see Paul charging uproariously from group to group, and thrusting his bright curls and cherubic smile upon the general attention. The fact that the boy preferred to stand between his grandfather’s knees and play with Mr. Spragg’s Masonic emblem, or dangle his legs from the arm of Mrs. Spragg’s chair, seemed to his grandparents evidence of ill-health or undue repression, and he was subjected by Mrs. Spragg to searching enquiries as to how his food set, and whether he didn’t think his Popper was too strict with him. A more embarrassing problem was raised by the “surprise” (in the shape of peanut candy or chocolate creams) which he was invited to hunt for in Gran’ma’s pockets, and which Ralph had to confiscate on the way home lest the dietary rules of Washington Square should be too visibly infringed.
Sometimes Ralph found Mrs. Heeny, ruddy and jovial, seated in the arm-chair opposite Mrs. Spragg, and regaling her with selections from a new batch of clippings. During Undine’s illness of the previous winter Mrs. Heeny had become a familiar figure to Paul, who had learned to expect almost as much from her bag as from his grandmother’s pockets; so that the intemperate Saturdays at the Malibran were usually followed by languid and abstemious Sundays in Washington Square. Mrs. Heeny, being unaware of this sequel to her bounties, formed the habit of appearing regularly on Saturdays, and while she chatted with his grandmother the little boy was encouraged to scatter the grimy carpet with face-creams and bunches of clippings in his thrilling quest for the sweets at the bottom of her bag.
“I declare, if he ain’t in just as much of a hurry f’r everything as his mother!” she exclaimed one day in her rich rolling voice; and stooping to pick up a long strip of newspaper which Paul had flung aside she added, as she smoothed it out: “I guess ‘f he was a little mite older he’d be better pleased with this ‘n with the candy. It’s the very thing I was trying to find for you the other day, Mrs. Spragg,” she went on, holding the bit of paper at arm’s length; and she began to read out, with a loudness proportioned to the distance between her eyes and the text:
“With two such sprinters as ‘Pete’ Van Degen and Dicky Bowles to set the pace, it’s no wonder the New York set in Paris has struck a livelier gait than ever this spring. It’s a high-pressure season and no mistake, and no one lags behind less than the fascinating Mrs. Ralph Marvell, who is to be seen daily and nightly in all the smartest restaurants and naughtiest theatres, with so many devoted swains in attendance that the rival beauties of both worlds are said to be making catty comments. But then Mrs. Marvell’s gowns are almost as good as her looks–and how can you expect the other women to stand for such a monopoly?”
To escape the strain of these visits, Ralph once or twice tried the experiment of leaving Paul with his grand-parents and calling for him in the late afternoon; but one day, on re-entering the Malibran, he was met by a small abashed figure clad in a kaleidoscopic tartan and a green velvet cap with a silver thistle. After this experience of the “surprises” of which Gran’ma was capable when she had a chance to take Paul shopping Ralph did not again venture to leave his son, and their subsequent Saturdays were passed together in the sultry gloom of the Malibran. Conversation with the Spraggs was almost impossible. Ralph could talk with his father-in-law in his office, but in the hotel parlour Mr. Spragg sat in a ruminating silence broken only by the emission of an occasional “Well–well” addressed to his grandson. As for Mrs. Spragg, her son-in-law could not remember having had a sustained conversation with her since the distant day when he had first called at the Stentorian, and had been “entertained,” in Undine’s absence, by her astonished mother. The shock of that encounter had moved Mrs. Spragg to eloquence; but Ralph’s entrance into the family, without making him seem less of a stranger, appeared once for all to have relieved her of the obligation of finding something to say to him.
The one question she invariably asked: “You heard from Undie?” had been relatively easy to answer while his wife’s infrequent letters continued to arrive; but a Saturday came when he felt the blood rise to his temples as, for the fourth consecutive week, he stammered out, under the snapping eyes of Mrs. Heeny: “No, not by this post either–I begin to think I must have lost a letter”; and it was then that Mr. Spragg, who had sat silently looking up at the ceiling, cut short his wife’s exclamation by an enquiry about real estate in the Bronx. After that, Ralph noticed, Mrs. Spragg never again renewed her question; and he understood that his father-in-law had guessed his embarrassment and wished to spare it.
Ralph had never thought of looking for any delicacy of feeling under Mr. Spragg’s large lazy irony, and the incident drew the two men nearer together. Mrs. Spragg, for her part, was certainly not delicate; but she was simple and without malice, and Ralph liked her for her silent acceptance of her diminished state. Sometimes, as he sat between the lonely primitive old couple, he wondered from what source Undine’s voracious ambitions had been drawn: all she cared for, and attached importance to, was as remote from her parents’ conception of life as her impatient greed from their passive stoicism.
One hot afternoon toward the end of June Ralph suddenly wondered if Clare Van Degen were still in town. She had dined in Washington Square some ten days earlier, and he remembered her saying that she had sent the children down to Long Island, but that she herself meant to stay on in town till the heat grew unbearable. She hated her big showy place on Long Island, she was tired of the spring trip to London and Paris, where one met at every turn the faces one had grown sick of seeing all winter, and she declared that in the early summer New York was the only place in which one could escape from New Yorkers… She put the case amusingly, and it was like her to take up any attitude that went against the habits of her set; but she lived at the mercy of her moods, and one could never tell how long any one of them would rule her.
As he sat in his office, with the noise and glare of the endless afternoon rising up in hot waves from the street, there wandered into Ralph’s mind a vision of her shady drawing-room. All day it hung before him like the mirage of a spring before a dusty traveller: he felt a positive thirst for her presence, for the sound of her voice, the wide spaces and luxurious silences surrounding her.
It was perhaps because, on that particular day, a spiral pain was twisting around in the back of his head, and digging in a little deeper with each twist, and because the figures on the balance sheet before him were hopping about like black imps in an infernal forward-and-back, that the picture hung there so persistently. It was a long time since he had wanted anything as much as, at that particular moment, he wanted to be with Clare and hear her voice; and as soon as he had ground out the day’s measure of work he rang up the Van Degen palace and learned that she was still in town.
The lowered awnings of her inner drawing-room cast a luminous shadow on old cabinets and consoles, and on the pale flowers scattered here and there in vases of bronze and porcelain. Clare’s taste was as capricious as her moods, and the rest of the house was not in harmony with this room. There was, in particular, another drawing-room, which she now described as Peter’s creation, but which Ralph knew to be partly hers: a heavily decorated apartment, where Popple’s portrait of her throned over a waste of gilt furniture. It was characteristic that to-day she had had Ralph shown in by another way; and that, as she had spared him the polyphonic drawing-room, so she had skilfully adapted her own appearance to her soberer background. She sat near the window, reading, in a clear cool dress: and at his entrance she merely slipped a finger between the pages and looked up at him.
Her way of receiving him made him feel that restlessness and stridency were as unlike her genuine self as the gilded drawing-room, and that this quiet creature was the only real Clare, the Clare who had once been so nearly his, and who seemed to want him to know that she had never wholly been any one else’s.
“Why didn’t you let me know you were still in town?” he asked, as he sat down in the sofa-corner near her chair.
Her dark smile deepened. “I hoped you’d come and see.”
“One never knows, with you.”
He was looking about the room with a kind of confused pleasure in its pale shadows and spots of dark rich colour. The old lacquer screen behind Clare’s head looked like a lustreless black pool with gold leaves floating on it; and another piece, a little table at her elbow, had the brown bloom and the pear-like curves of an old violin.
“I like to be here,” Ralph said.
She did not make the mistake of asking: “Then why do you never come?” Instead, she turned away and drew an inner curtain across the window to shut out the sunlight which was beginning to slant in under the awning.
The mere fact of her not answering, and the final touch of well-being which her gesture gave, reminded him of other summer days they had spent together long rambling boy-and-girl days in the hot woods and fields, when they had never thought of talking to each other unless there was something they particularly wanted to say. His tired fancy strayed off for a second to the thought of what it would have been like come back, at the end of the day, to such a sweet community of silence; but his mind was too crowded with importunate facts for any lasting view of visionary distances. The thought faded, and he merely felt how restful it was to have her near…
“I’m glad you stayed in town: you must let me come again,” he said.
“I suppose you can’t always get away,” she answered; and she began to listen, with grave intelligent eyes, to his description of his tedious days.
With her eyes on him he felt the exquisite relief of talking about himself as he had not dared to talk to any one since his marriage. He would not for the world have confessed his discouragement, his consciousness of incapacity; to Undine and in Washington Square any hint of failure would have been taken as a criticism of what his wife demanded of him. Only to Clare Van Degen could he cry out his present despondency and his loathing of the interminable task ahead.
“A man doesn’t know till he tries it how killing uncongenial work is, and how it destroys the power of doing what one’s fit for, even if there’s time for both. But there’s Paul to be looked out for, and I daren’t chuck my job–I’m in mortal terror of its chucking me…”
Little by little he slipped into a detailed recital of all his lesser worries, the most recent of which was his experience with the Lipscombs, who, after a two months’ tenancy of the West End Avenue house, had decamped without paying their rent.
Clare laughed contemptuously. “Yes–I heard he’d come to grief and been suspended from the Stock Exchange, and I see in the papers that his wife’s retort has been to sue for a divorce.”
Ralph knew that, like all their clan, his cousin regarded a divorce-suit as a vulgar and unnecessary way of taking the public into one’s confidence. His mind flashed back to the family feast in Washington Square in celebration of his engagement. He recalled his grandfather’s chance allusion to Mrs. Lipscomb, and Undine’s answer, fluted out on her highest note: “Oh, I guess she’ll get a divorce pretty soon. He’s been a disappointment to her.”
Ralph could still hear the horrified murmur with which his mother had rebuked his laugh. For he had laughed–had thought Undine’s speech fresh and natural! Now he felt the ironic rebound of her words. Heaven knew he had been a disappointment to her; and what was there in her own feeling, or in her inherited prejudices, to prevent her seeking the same redress as Mabel Lipscomb? He wondered if the same thought were in his cousin’s mind…
They began to talk of other things: books, pictures, plays; and one by one the closed doors opened and light was let into dusty shuttered places. Clare’s mind was neither keen nor deep: Ralph, in the past, had smiled at her rash ardours and vague intensities. But she had his own range of allusions, and a great gift of momentary understanding; and he had so long beaten his thoughts out against a blank wall of incomprehension that her sympathy seemed full of insight.
She began by a question about his writing, but the subject was distasteful to him, and he turned the talk to a new book in which he had been interested. She knew enough of it to slip in the right word here and there; and thence they wandered on to kindred topics. Under the warmth of her attention his torpid ideas awoke again, and his eyes took their fill of pleasure as she leaned forward, her thin brown hands clasped on her knees and her eager face reflecting all his feelings.
There was a moment when the two currents of sensation were merged in one, and he began to feel confusedly that he was young and she was kind, and that there was nothing he would like better than to go on sitting there, not much caring what she said or how he answered, if only she would let him look at her and give him one of her thin brown hands to hold. Then the corkscrew in the back of his head dug into him again with a deeper thrust, and she seemed suddenly to recede to a great distance and be divided from him by a fog of pain. The fog lifted after a minute, but it left him queerly remote from her, from the cool room with its scents and shadows, and from all the objects which, a moment before, had so sharply impinged upon his senses. It was as though he looked at it all through a rain-blurred pane, against which his hand would strike if he held it out to her…
That impression passed also, and he found himself thinking how tired he was and how little anything mattered. He recalled the unfinished piece of work on his desk, and for a moment had the odd illusion that it was there before him…
She exclaimed: “But are you going?” and her exclamation made him aware that he had left his seat and was standing in front of her… He fancied there was some kind of appeal in her brown eyes; but she was so dim and far off that he couldn’t be sure of what she wanted, and the next moment he found himself shaking hands with her, and heard her saying something kind and cold about its having been so nice to see him…
Half way up the stairs little Paul, shining and rosy from supper, lurked in ambush for his evening game. Ralph was fond of stooping down to let the boy climb up his outstretched arms to his shoulders, but to-day, as he did so, Paul’s hug seemed to crush him in a vice, and the shout of welcome that accompanied it racked his ears like an explosion of steam-whistles. The queer distance between himself and the rest of the world was annihilated again: everything stared and glared and clutched him. He tried to turn away his face from the child’s hot kisses; and as he did so he caught sight of a mauve envelope among the hats and sticks on the hall table.
Instantly he passed Paul over to his nurse, stammered out a word about being tired, and sprang up the long flights to his study. The pain in his head had stopped, but his hands trembled as he tore open the envelope. Within it was a second letter bearing a French stamp and addressed to himself. It looked like a business communication and had apparently been sent to Undine’s hotel in Paris and forwarded to him by her hand. “Another bill!” he reflected grimly, as he threw it aside and felt in the outer envelope for her letter. There was nothing there, and after a first sharp pang of disappointment he picked up the enclosure and opened it.
Inside was a lithographed circular, headed “Confidential” and bearing the Paris address of a firm of private detectives who undertook, in conditions of attested and inviolable discretion, to investigate “delicate” situations, look up doubtful antecedents, and furnish reliable evidence of misconduct–all on the most reasonable terms.
For a long time Ralph sat and stared at this document; then he began to laugh and tossed it into the scrap-basket. After that, with a groan, he dropped his head against the edge of his writing table.
When he woke, the first thing he remembered was the fact of having cried.
He could not think how he had come to be such a fool. He hoped to heaven no one had seen him. He supposed he must have been worrying about the unfinished piece of work at the office: where was it, by the way, he wondered? Why–where he had left it the day before, of course! What a ridiculous thing to worry about–but it seemed to follow him about like a dog…
He said to himself that he must get up presently and go down to the office. Presently–when he could open his eyes. Just now there was a dead weight on them; he tried one after another in vain. The effort set him weakly trembling, and he wanted to cry again. Nonsense! He must get out of bed.
He stretched his arms out, trying to reach something to pull himself up by; but everything slipped away and evaded him. It was like trying to catch at bright short waves. Then suddenly his fingers clasped themselves about something firm and warm. A hand: a hand that gave back his pressure! The relief was inexpressible. He lay still and let the hand hold him, while mentally he went through the motions of getting up and beginning to dress. So indistinct were the boundaries between thought and action that he really felt himself moving about the room, in a queer disembodied way, as one treads the air in sleep. Then he felt the bedclothes over him and the pillows under his head.
“I MUST get up,” he said, and pulled at the hand.
It pressed him down again: down into a dim deep pool of sleep. He lay there for a long time, in a silent blackness far below light and sound; then he gradually floated to the surface with the buoyancy of a dead body. But his body had never been more alive. Jagged strokes of pain tore through it, hands dragged at it with nails that bit like teeth. They wound thongs about him, bound him, tied weights to him, tried to pull him down with them; but still he floated, floated, danced on the fiery waves of pain, with barbed light pouring down on him from an arrowy sky.
Charmed intervals of rest, blue sailings on melodious seas, alternated with the anguish. He became a leaf on the air, a feather on a current, a straw on the tide, the spray of the wave spinning itself to sunshine as the wave toppled over into gulfs of blue…
He woke on a stony beach, his legs and arms still lashed to his sides and the thongs cutting into him; but the fierce sky was hidden, and hidden by his own languid lids. He felt the ecstasy of decreasing pain, and courage came to him to open his eyes and look about him…
The beach was his own bed; the tempered light lay on familiar things, and some one was moving about in a shadowy way between bed and window. He was thirsty and some one gave him a drink. His pillow burned, and some one turned the cool side out. His brain was clear enough now for him to understand that he was ill, and to want to talk about it; but his tongue hung in his throat like a clapper in a bell. He must wait till the rope was pulled…
So time and life stole back on him, and his thoughts laboured weakly with dim fears. Slowly he cleared a way through them, adjusted himself to his strange state, and found out that he was in his own room, in his grandfather’s house, that alternating with the white-capped faces about him were those of his mother and sister, and that in a few days–if he took his beef-tea and didn’t fret–Paul would be brought up from Long Island, whither, on account of the great heat, he had been carried off by Clare Van Degen.
No one named Undine to him, and he did not speak of her. But one day, as he lay in bed in the summer twilight, he had a vision of a moment, a long way behind him–at the beginning of his illness, it must have been–when he had called out for her in his anguish, and some one had said: “She’s coming: she’ll be here next week.”
Could it be that next week was not yet here? He supposed that illness robbed one of all sense of time, and he lay still, as if in ambush, watching his scattered memories come out one by one and join themselves together. If he watched long enough he was sure he should recognize one that fitted into his picture of the day when he had asked for Undine. And at length a face came out of the twilight: a freckled face, benevolently bent over him under a starched cap. He had not seen the face for a long time, but suddenly it took shape and fitted itself into the picture…
Laura Fairford sat near by, a book on her knee. At the sound of his voice she looked up.
“What was the name of the first nurse?”
“The one that went away.”
“Oh–Miss Hicks, you mean?”
“How long is it since she went?”
“It must be three weeks. She had another case.”
He thought this over carefully; then he spoke again. “Call Undine.”
She made no answer, and he repeated irritably: “Why don’t you call her? I want to speak to her.”
Mrs. Fairford laid down her book and came to him.
“She’s not here–just now.”
He dealt with this also, laboriously. “You mean she’s out–she’s not in the house?”
“I mean she hasn’t come yet.”
As she spoke Ralph felt a sudden strength and hardness in his brain and body. Everything in him became as clear as noon.
“But it was before Miss Hicks left that you told me you’d sent for her, and that she’d be here the following week. And you say Miss Hicks has been gone three weeks.”
This was what he had worked out in his head, and what he meant to say to his sister; but something seemed to snap shut in his throat, and he closed his eyes without speaking.
Even when Mr. Spragg came to see him he said nothing. They talked about his illness, about the hot weather, about the rumours that Harmon B. Driscoll was again threatened with indictment; and then Mr. Spragg pulled himself out of his chair and said: “I presume you’ll call round at the office before you leave the city.”
“Oh, yes: as soon as I’m up,” Ralph answered. They understood each other.
Clare had urged him to come down to Long Island and complete his convalescence there, but he preferred to stay in Washington Square till he should be strong enough for the journey to the Adirondacks, whither Laura had already preceded him with Paul. He did not want to see any one but his mother and grandfather till his legs could carry him to Mr. Spragg’s office. It was an oppressive day in mid-August, with a yellow mist of heat in the sky, when at last he entered the big office-building. Swirls of dust lay on the mosaic floor, and a stale smell of decayed fruit and salt air and steaming asphalt filled the place like a fog. As he shot up in the elevator some one slapped him on the back, and turning he saw Elmer Moffatt at his side, smooth and rubicund under a new straw hat.
Moffatt was loudly glad to see him. “I haven’t laid eyes on you for months. At the old stand still?”
“So am I,” he added, as Ralph assented. “Hope to see you there again some day. Don’t forget it’s MY turn this time: glad if I can be any use to you. So long.” Ralph’s weak bones ached under his handshake.
“How’s Mrs. Marvell?” he turned back from his landing to call out; and Ralph answered: “Thanks; she’s very well.”
Mr. Spragg sat alone in his murky inner office, the fly-blown engraving of Daniel Webster above his head and the congested scrap-basket beneath his feet. He looked fagged and sallow, like the day.
Ralph sat down on the other side of the desk. For a moment his throat contracted as it had when he had tried to question his sister; then he asked: “Where’s Undine?”
Mr. Spragg glanced at the calendar that hung from a hat-peg on the door. Then he released the Masonic emblem from his grasp, drew out his watch and consulted it critically.
“If the train’s on time I presume she’s somewhere between Chicago and Omaha round about now.”
Ralph stared at him, wondering if the heat had gone to his head. “I don’t understand.”
“The Twentieth Century’s generally considered the best route to Dakota,” explained Mr. Spragg, who pronounced the word ROWT.
“Do you mean to say Undine’s in the United States?”
Mr. Spragg’s lower lip groped for the phantom tooth-pick. “Why, let me see: hasn’t Dakota been a state a year or two now?”
“Oh, God–” Ralph cried, pushing his chair back violently and striding across the narrow room.
As he turned, Mr. Spragg stood up and advanced a few steps. He had given up the quest for the tooth-pick, and his drawn-in lips were no more than a narrow depression in his beard. He stood before Ralph, absently shaking the loose change in his trouser-pockets.
Ralph felt the same hardness and lucidity that had come to him when he had heard his sister’s answer.
“She’s gone, you mean? Left me? With another man?”
Mr. Spragg drew himself up with a kind of slouching majesty. “My daughter is not that style. I understand Undine thinks there have been mistakes on both sides. She considers the tie was formed too hastily. I believe desertion is the usual plea in such cases.”
Ralph stared about him, hardly listening. He did not resent his father-in-law’s tone. In a dim way he guessed that Mr. Spragg was suffering hardly less than himself. But nothing was clear to him save the monstrous fact suddenly upheaved in his path. His wife had left him, and the plan for her evasion had been made and executed while he lay helpless: she had seized the opportunity of his illness to keep him in ignorance of her design. The humour of it suddenly struck him and he laughed.
“Do you mean to tell me that Undine’s divorcing ME?”
“I presume that’s her plan,” Mr. Spragg admitted.
“For desertion?” Ralph pursued, still laughing.
His father-in-law hesitated a moment; then he answered: “You’ve always done all you could for my daughter. There wasn’t any other plea she could think of. She presumed this would be the most agreeable to your family.”
“It was good of her to think of that!”
Mr. Spragg’s only comment was a sigh.
“Does she imagine I won’t fight it?” Ralph broke out with sudden passion.
His father-in-law looked at him thoughtfully. “I presume you realize it ain’t easy to change Undine, once she’s set on a thing.”
“Perhaps not. But if she really means to apply for a divorce I can make it a little less easy for her to get.”
“That’s so,” Mr. Spragg conceded. He turned back to his revolving chair, and seating himself in it began to drum on the desk with cigar-stained fingers.
“And by God, I will!” Ralph thundered. Anger was the only emotion in him now. He had been fooled, cheated, made a mock of; but the score was not settled yet. He turned back and stood before Mr. Spragg.
“I suppose she’s gone with Van Degen?”
“My daughter’s gone alone, sir. I saw her off at the station. I understood she was to join a lady friend.”
At every point Ralph felt his hold slip off the surface of his father-in-law’s impervious fatalism.
“Does she suppose Van Degen’s going to marry her?”
“Undine didn’t mention her future plans to me.” After a moment Mr. Spragg appended: “If she had, I should have declined to discuss them with her.” Ralph looked at him curiously, perceiving that he intended in this negative way to imply his disapproval of his daughter’s course.
“I shall fight it–I shall fight it!” the young man cried again. “You may tell her I shall fight it to the end!”
Mr. Spragg pressed the nib of his pen against the dust-coated inkstand. “I suppose you would have to engage a lawyer. She’ll know it that way,” he remarked.
“She’ll know it–you may count on that!”
Ralph had begun to laugh again. Suddenly he heard his own laugh and it pulled him up. What was he laughing about? What was he talking about? The thing was to act–to hold his tongue and act. There was no use uttering windy threats to this broken-spirited old man.
A fury of action burned in Ralph, pouring light into his mind and strength into his muscles. He caught up his hat and turned to the door.
As he opened it Mr. Spragg rose again and came forward with his slow shambling step. He laid his hand on Ralph’s arm.
“I’d ‘a’ given anything–anything short of my girl herself–not to have this happen to you, Ralph Marvell.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Ralph.
They looked at each other for a moment; then Mr. Spragg added: “But it HAS happened, you know. Bear that in mind. Nothing you can do will change it. Time and again, I’ve found that a good thing to remember.”
In the Adirondacks Ralph Marvell sat day after day on the balcony of his little house above the lake, staring at the great white cloud-reflections in the water and at the dark line of trees that closed them in. Now and then he got into the canoe and paddled himself through a winding chain of ponds to some lonely clearing in the forest; and there he lay on his back in the pine-needles and watched the great clouds form and dissolve themselves above his head.
All his past life seemed to be symbolized by the building-up and breaking-down of those fluctuating shapes, which incalculable wind-currents perpetually shifted and remodelled or swept from the zenith like a pinch of dust. His sister told him that he looked well–better than he had in years; and there were moments when his listlessness, his stony insensibility to the small pricks and frictions of daily life, might have passed for the serenity of recovered health.
There was no one with whom he could speak of Undine. His family had thrown over the whole subject a pall of silence which even Laura Fairford shrank from raising. As for his mother, Ralph had seen at once that the idea of talking over the situation was positively frightening to her. There was no provision for such emergencies in the moral order of Washington Square. The affair was a “scandal,” and it was not in the Dagonet tradition to acknowledge the existence of scandals. Ralph recalled a dim memory of his childhood, the tale of a misguided friend of his mother’s who had left her husband for a more congenial companion, and who, years later, returning ill and friendless to New York, had appealed for sympathy to Mrs. Marvell. The latter had not refused to give it; but she had put on her black cashmere and two veils when she went to see her unhappy friend, and had never mentioned these errands of mercy to her husband.
Ralph suspected that the constraint shown by his mother and sister was partly due to their having but a dim and confused view of what had happened. In their vocabulary the word “divorce” was wrapped in such a dark veil of innuendo as no ladylike hand would care to lift. They had not reached the point of differentiating divorces, but classed them indistinctively as disgraceful incidents, in which the woman was always to blame, but the man, though her innocent victim, was yet inevitably contaminated. The time involved in the “proceedings” was viewed as a penitential season during which it behoved the family of the persons concerned to behave as if they were dead; yet any open allusion to the reason for adopting such an attitude would have been regarded as the height of indelicacy.
Mr. Dagonet’s notion of the case was almost as remote from reality. All he asked was that his grandson should “thrash” somebody, and he could not be made to understand that the modern drama of divorce is sometimes cast without a Lovelace.
“You might as well tell me there was nobody but Adam in the garden when Eve picked the apple. You say your wife was discontented? No woman ever knows she’s discontented till some man tells her so. My God! I’ve seen smash-ups before now; but I never yet saw a marriage dissolved like a business partnership. Divorce without a lover? Why, it’s–it’s as unnatural as getting drunk on lemonade.”
After this first explosion Mr. Dagonet also became silent; and Ralph perceived that what annoyed him most was the fact of the “scandal’s” not being one in any gentlemanly sense of the word. It was like some nasty business mess, about which Mr. Dagonet couldn’t pretend to have an opinion, since such things didn’t happen to men of his kind. That such a thing should have happened to his only grandson was probably the bitterest experience of his pleasantly uneventful life; and it added a touch of irony to Ralph’s unhappiness to know how little, in the whole affair, he was cutting the figure Mr. Dagonet expected him to cut.
At first he had chafed under the taciturnity surrounding him: had passionately longed to cry out his humiliation, his rebellion, his despair. Then he began to feel the tonic effect of silence; and the next stage was reached when it became clear to him that there was nothing to say. There were thoughts and thoughts: they bubbled up perpetually from the black springs of his hidden misery, they stole on him in the darkness of night, they blotted out the light of day; but when it came to putting them into words and applying them to the external facts of the case, they seemed totally unrelated to it. One more white and sun-touched glory had gone from his sky; but there seemed no way of connecting that with such practical issues as his being called on to decide whether Paul was to be put in knickerbockers or trousers, and whether he should go back to Washington Square for the winter or hire a small house for himself and his son.
The latter question was ultimately decided by his remaining under his grandfather’s roof. November found him back in the office again, in fairly good health, with an outer skin of indifference slowly forming over his lacerated soul. There had been a hard minute to live through when he came back to his old brown room in Washington Square. The walls and tables were covered with photographs of Undine: effigies of all shapes and sizes, expressing every possible sentiment dear to the photographic tradition. Ralph had gathered them all up when he had moved from West End Avenue after Undine’s departure for Europe, and they throned over his other possessions as her image had throned over his future the night he had sat in that very room and dreamed of soaring up with her into the blue…
It was impossible to go on living with her photographs about him; and one evening, going up to his room after dinner, he began to unhang them from the walls, and to gather them up from book-shelves and mantel-piece and tables. Then he looked about for some place in which to hide them. There were drawers under his book-cases; but they were full of old discarded things, and even if he emptied the drawers, the photographs, in their heavy frames, were almost all too large to fit into them. He turned next to the top shelf of his cupboard; but here the nurse had stored Paul’s old toys, his sand-pails, shovels and croquet-box. Every corner was packed with the vain impedimenta of living, and the mere thought of clearing a space in the chaos was too great an effort.
He began to replace the pictures one by one; and the last was still in his hand when he heard his sister’s voice outside. He hurriedly put the portrait back in its usual place on his writing-table, and Mrs. Fairford, who had been dining in Washington Square, and had come up to bid him good night, flung her arms about him in a quick embrace and went down to her carriage.
The next afternoon, when he came home from the office, he did not at first see any change in his room; but when he had lit his pipe and thrown himself into his arm-chair he noticed that the photograph of his wife’s picture by Popple no longer faced him from the mantel-piece. He turned to his writing-table, but her image had vanished from there too; then his eye, making the circuit of the walls, perceived that they also had been stripped. Not a single photograph of Undine was left; yet so adroitly had the work of elimination been done, so ingeniously the remaining objects readjusted, that the change attracted no attention.
Ralph was angry, sore, ashamed. He felt as if Laura, whose hand he instantly detected, had taken a cruel pleasure in her work, and for an instant he hated her for it. Then a sense of relief stole over him. He was glad he could look about him without meeting Undine’s eyes, and he understood that what had been done to his room he must do to his memory and his imagination: he must so readjust his mind that, whichever way he turned his thoughts, her face should no longer confront him. But that was a task that Laura could not perform for him, a task to be accomplished only by the hard continuous tension of his will.
With the setting in of the mood of silence all desire to fight his wife’s suit died out. The idea of touching publicly on anything that had passed between himself and Undine had become unthinkable. Insensibly he had been subdued to the point of view about him, and the idea of calling on the law to repair his shattered happiness struck him as even more grotesque than it was degrading. Nevertheless, some contradictory impulse of his divided spirit made him resent, on the part of his mother and sister, a too-ready acceptance of his attitude. There were moments when their tacit assumption that his wife was banished and forgotten irritated him like the hushed tread of sympathizers about the bed of an invalid who will not admit that he suffers.
His irritation was aggravated by the discovery that Mrs. Marvell and Laura had already begun to treat Paul as if he were an orphan. One day, coming unnoticed into the nursery, Ralph heard the boy ask when his mother was coming back; and Mrs. Fairford, who was with him, answered: “She’s not coming back, dearest; and you’re not to speak of her to father.”
Ralph, when the boy was out of hearing, rebuked his sister for her answer. “I don’t want you to talk of his mother as if she were dead. I don’t want you to forbid Paul to speak of her.”
Laura, though usually so yielding, defended herself. “What’s the use of encouraging him to speak of her when he’s never to see her? The sooner he forgets her the better.”
Ralph pondered. “Later–if she asks to see him–I shan’t refuse.”
Mrs. Fairford pressed her lips together to check the answer: “She never will!”
Ralph heard it, nevertheless, and let it pass. Nothing gave him so profound a sense of estrangement from his former life as the conviction that his sister was probably right. He did not really believe that Undine would ever ask to see her boy; but if she did he was determined not to refuse her request.
Time wore on, the Christmas holidays came and went, and the winter continued to grind out the weary measure of its days. Toward the end of January Ralph received a registered letter, addressed to him at his office, and bearing in the corner of the envelope the names of a firm of Sioux Falls attorneys. He instantly divined that it contained the legal notification of his wife’s application for divorce, and as he wrote his name in the postman’s book he smiled grimly at the thought that the stroke of his pen was doubtless signing her release. He opened the letter, found it to be what he had expected, and locked it away in his desk without mentioning the matter to any one.
He supposed that with the putting away of this document he was thrusting the whole subject out of sight; but not more than a fortnight later, as he sat in the Subway on his way down-town, his eye was caught by his own name on the first page of the heavily head-lined paper which the unshaved occupant of the next seat held between grimy fists. The blood rushed to Ralph’s forehead as he looked over the man’s arm and read: “Society Leader Gets Decree,” and beneath it the subordinate clause: “Says Husband Too Absorbed In Business To Make Home Happy.” For weeks afterward, wherever he went, he felt that blush upon his forehead. For the first time in his life the coarse fingering of public curiosity had touched the secret places of his soul, and nothing that had gone before seemed as humiliating as this trivial comment on his tragedy. The paragraph continued on its way through the press, and whenever he took up a newspaper he seemed to come upon it, slightly modified, variously developed, but always reverting with a kind of unctuous irony to his financial preoccupations and his wife’s consequent loneliness. The phrase was even taken up by the paragraph writer, called forth excited letters from similarly situated victims, was commented on in humorous editorials and served as a text for pulpit denunciations of the growing craze for wealth; and finally, at his dentist’s, Ralph came across it in a Family Weekly, as one of the “Heart problems” propounded to subscribers, with a Gramophone, a Straight-front Corset and a Vanity-box among the prizes offered for its solution.
“If you’d only had the sense to come straight to me, Undine Spragg! There isn’t a tip I couldn’t have given you–not one!”
This speech, in which a faintly contemptuous compassion for her friend’s case was blent with the frankest pride in her own, probably represented the nearest approach to “tact” that Mrs. James J. Rolliver had yet acquired. Undine was impartial enough to note in it a distinct advance on the youthful methods of Indiana Frusk; yet it required a good deal of self-control to take the words to herself with a smile, while they seemed to be laying a visible scarlet welt across the pale face she kept valiantly turned to her friend. The fact that she must permit herself to be pitied by Indiana Frusk gave her the uttermost measure of the depth to which her fortunes had fallen. This abasement was inflicted on her in the staring gold apartment of the Hotel Nouveau Luxe in which the Rollivers had established themselves on their recent arrival in Paris. The vast drawing-room, adorned only by two high-shouldered gilt baskets of orchids drooping on their wires, reminded Undine of the “Looey suite” in which the opening scenes of her own history had been enacted; and the resemblance and the difference were emphasized by the fact that the image of her past self was not inaccurately repeated in the triumphant presence of Indiana Rolliver.
“There isn’t a tip I couldn’t have given you–not one!” Mrs. Rolliver reproachfully repeated; and all Undine’s superiorities and discriminations seemed to shrivel up in the crude blaze of the other’s solid achievement.
There was little comfort in noting, for one’s private delectation, that Indiana spoke of her husband as “Mr. Rolliver,” that she twanged a piercing R, that one of her shoulders was still higher than the other, and that her striking dress was totally unsuited to the hour, the place and the occasion. She still did and was all that Undine had so sedulously learned not to be and to do; but to dwell on these obstacles to her success was but to be more deeply impressed by the fact that she had nevertheless succeeded.
Not much more than a year had elapsed since Undine Marvell, sitting in the drawing-room of another Parisian hotel, had heard the immense orchestral murmur of Paris rise through the open windows like the ascending movement of her own hopes. The immense murmur still sounded on, deafening and implacable as some elemental force; and the discord in her fate no more disturbed it than the motor wheels rolling by under the windows were disturbed by the particles of dust that they ground to finer powder as they passed.
“I could have told you one thing right off,” Mrs. Rolliver went on with her ringing energy. “And that is, to get your divorce first thing. A divorce is always a good thing to have: you never can tell when you may want it. You ought to have attended to that before you even BEGAN with Peter Van Degen.”
Undine listened, irresistibly impressed. “Did YOU?” she asked; but Mrs. Rolliver, at this, grew suddenly veiled and sibylline. She wound her big bejewelled hand through her pearls–there were ropes and ropes of them–and leaned back, modestly sinking her lids.
“I’m here, anyhow,” she rejoined, with “CIRCUMSPICE!” in look and tone.
Undine, obedient to the challenge, continued to gaze at the pearls. They were real; there was no doubt about that. And so was Indiana’s marriage–if she kept out of certain states.
“Don’t you see,” Mrs. Rolliver continued, “that having to leave him when you did, and rush off to Dakota for six months, was–was giving him too much time to think; and giving it at the wrong time, too?” “Oh, I see. But what could I do? I’m not an immoral woman.”
“Of course not, dearest. You were merely thoughtless that’s what I meant by saying you ought to have had your divorce ready.”
A flicker of self-esteem caused Undine to protest. “It wouldn’t have made any difference. His wife would never have given him up.”
“She’s so crazy about him?”
“No: she hates him so. And she hates me too, because she’s in love with my husband.”
Indiana bounced out of her lounging attitude and struck her hands together with a rattle of rings.
“In love with your husband? What’s the matter, then? Why on earth didn’t the four of you fix it up together?”
“You don’t understand.” (It was an undoubted relief to be able, at last, to say that to Indiana!) “Clare Van Degen thinks divorce wrong–or rather awfully vulgar.”
“VULGAR?” Indiana flamed. “If that isn’t just too much! A woman who’s in love with another woman’s husband? What does she think refined, I’d like to know? Having a lover, I suppose–like the women in these nasty French plays? I’ve told Mr. Rolliver I won’t go to the theatre with him again in Paris–it’s too utterly low. And the swell society’s just as bad: it’s simply rotten. Thank goodness I was brought up in a place where there’s some sense of decency left!” She looked compassionately at Undine. “It was New York that demoralized you–and I don’t blame you for it. Out at Apex you’d have acted different. You never NEVER would have given way to your feelings before you’d got your divorce.”
A slow blush rose to Undine’s forehead.
“He seemed so unhappy–” she murmured.
“Oh, I KNOW!” said Indiana in a tone of cold competence. She gave Undine an impatient glance. “What was the understanding between you, when you left Europe last August to go out to Dakota?”
“Peter was to go to Reno in the autumn–so that it wouldn’t look too much as if we were acting together. I was to come to Chicago to see him on his way out there.”
“And he never came?”
“And he stopped writing?”
“Oh, he never writes.”
Indiana heaved a deep sigh of intelligence. “There’s one perfectly clear rule: never let out of your sight a man who doesn’t write.”
“I know. That’s why I stayed with him–those few weeks last summer….”
Indiana sat thinking, her fine shallow eyes fixed unblinkingly on her friend’s embarrassed face.
“I suppose there isn’t anybody else–?”
“Well–now you’ve got your divorce: anybody else it would come in handy for?”
This was harder to bear than anything that had gone before: Undine could not have borne it if she had not had a purpose. “Mr. Van Degen owes it to me–” she began with an air of wounded dignity.
“Yes, yes: I know. But that’s just talk. If there IS anybody else–“
“I can’t imagine what you think of me, Indiana!”
Indiana, without appearing to resent this challenge, again lost herself in meditation.
“Well, I’ll tell him he’s just GOT to see you,” she finally emerged from it to say.
Undine gave a quick upward look: this was what she had been waiting for ever since she had read, a few days earlier, in the columns of her morning journal, that Mr. Peter Van Degen and Mr. and Mrs. James J. Rolliver had been fellow-passengers on board the Semantic. But she did not betray her expectations by as much as the tremor of an eye-lash. She knew her friend well enough to pour out to her the expected tribute of surprise.
“Why, do you mean to say you know him, Indiana?”
“Mercy, yes! He’s round here all the time. He crossed on the steamer with us, and Mr. Rolliver’s taken a fancy to him,” Indiana explained, in the tone of the absorbed bride to whom her husband’s preferences are the sole criterion.
Undine turned a tear-suffused gaze on her. “Oh, Indiana, if I could only see him again I know it would be all right! He’s awfully, awfully fond of me; but his family have influenced him against me–“
“I know what THAT is!” Mrs. Rolliver interjected.
“But perhaps,” Undine continued, “it would be better if I could meet him first without his knowing beforehand–without your telling him … I love him too much to reproach him!” she added nobly.
Indiana pondered: it was clear that, though the nobility of the sentiment impressed her, she was disinclined to renounce the idea of taking a more active part in her friend’s rehabilitation. But Undine went on: “Of course you’ve found out by this time that he’s just a big spoiled baby. Afterward–when I’ve seen him–if you’d talk to him; or it you’d only just let him BE with you, and see how perfectly happy you and Mr. Rolliver are!”
Indiana seized on this at once. “You mean that what he wants is the influence of a home like ours? Yes, yes, I understand. I tell you what I’ll do: I’ll just ask him round to dine, and let you know the day, without telling him beforehand that you’re coming.”
“Oh, Indiana!” Undine held her in a close embrace, and then drew away to say: “I’m so glad I found you. You must go round with me everywhere. There are lots of people here I want you to know.”
Mrs. Rolliver’s expression changed from vague sympathy to concentrated interest. “I suppose it’s awfully gay here? Do you go round a great deal with the American set?”
Undine hesitated for a fraction of a moment. “There are a few of them who are rather jolly. But I particularly want you to meet my friend the Marquis Roviano–he’s from Rome; and a lovely Austrian woman, Baroness Adelschein.”
Her friend’s face was brushed by a shade of distrust. “I don’t know as I care much about meeting foreigners,” she said indifferently.
Undine smiled: it was agreeable at last to be able to give Indiana a “point” as valuable as any of hers on divorce.
“Oh, some of them are awfully attractive; and THEY’LL make you meet the Americans.”
Indiana caught this on the bound: one began to see why she had got on in spite of everything.
“Of course I’d love to know your friends,” she said, kissing Undine; who answered, giving back the kiss:
“You know there’s nothing on earth I wouldn’t do for you.”
Indiana drew back to look at her with a comic grimace under which a shade of anxiety was visible. “Well, that’s a pretty large order. But there’s just one thing you CAN do, dearest: please to let Mr. Rolliver alone!”
“Mr. Rolliver, my dear?” Undine’s laugh showed that she took this for unmixed comedy. “That’s a nice way to remind me that you’re heaps and heaps better-looking than I am!”
Indiana gave her an acute glance. “Millard Binch didn’t think so–not even at the very end.”
“Oh, poor Millard!” The women’s smiles mingled easily over the common reminiscence, and once again, on the threshold. Undine enfolded her friend. In the light of the autumn afternoon she paused a moment at the door of the Nouveau Luxe, and looked aimlessly forth at the brave spectacle in which she seemed no longer to have a stake.
Many of her old friends had already returned to Paris: the Harvey Shallums, May Beringer, Dicky Bowles and other westward-bound nomads lingering on for a glimpse of the autumn theatres and fashions before hurrying back to inaugurate the New York season. A year ago Undine would have had no difficulty in introducing Indiana Rolliver to this group–a group above which her own aspirations already beat an impatient wing. Now her place in it had become too precarious for her to force an entrance for her protectress. Her New York friends were at no pains to conceal from her that in their opinion her divorce had been a blunder. Their logic was that of Apex reversed. Since she had not been “sure” of Van Degen, why in the world, they asked, had she thrown away a position she WAS sure of? Mrs. Harvey Shallum, in particular, had not scrupled to put the question squarely. “Chelles was awfully taken–he would have introduced you everywhere. I thought you were wild to know smart French people; I thought Harvey and I weren’t good enough for you any longer. And now you’ve done your best to spoil everything! Of course I feel for you tremendously–that’s the reason why I’m talking so frankly. You must be horribly depressed. Come and dine to-night–or no, if you don’t mind I’d rather you chose another evening. I’d forgotten that I’d asked the Jim Driscolls, and it might be uncomfortable–for YOU….”
In another world she was still welcome, at first perhaps even more so than before: the world, namely, to which she had proposed to present Indiana Rolliver. Roviano, Madame Adelschein, and a few of the freer spirits of her old St. Moritz band, reappearing in Paris with the close of the watering-place season, had quickly discovered her and shown a keen interest in her liberation. It appeared in some mysterious way to make her more available for their purpose, and she found that, in the character of the last American divorcee, she was even regarded as eligible to the small and intimate inner circle of their loosely-knit association. At first she could not make out what had entitled her to this privilege, and increasing enlightenment produced a revolt of the Apex puritanism which, despite some odd accommodations and compliances, still carried its head so high in her.
Undine had been perfectly sincere in telling Indiana Rolliver that she was not “an Immoral woman.” The pleasures for which her sex took such risks had never attracted her, and she did not even crave the excitement of having it thought that they did. She wanted, passionately and persistently, two things which she believed should subsist together in any well-ordered life: amusement and respectability; and despite her surface-sophistication her notion of amusement was hardly less innocent than when she had hung on the plumber’s fence with Indiana Frusk. It gave her, therefore, no satisfaction to find herself included among Madame Adelschein’s intimates. It embarrassed her to feel that she was expected to be “queer” and “different,” to respond to pass-words and talk in innuendo, to associate with the equivocal and the subterranean and affect to despise the ingenuous daylight joys which really satisfied her soul. But the business shrewdness which was never quite dormant in her suggested that this was not the moment for such scruples. She must make the best of what she could get and wait her chance of getting something better; and meanwhile the most practical use to which she could put her shady friends was to flash their authentic nobility in the dazzled eyes of Mrs. Rolliver.
With this object in view she made haste, in a fashionable tea-room of the rue de Rivoli, to group about Indiana the most titled members of the band; and the felicity of the occasion would have been unmarred had she not suddenly caught sight of Raymond de Chelles sitting on the other side of the room.
She had not seen Chelles since her return to Paris. It had seemed preferable to leave their meeting to chance and the present chance might have served as well as another but for the fact that among his companions were two or three of the most eminent ladies of the proud quarter beyond the Seine. It was what Undine, in moments of discouragement, characterized as “her luck” that one of these should be the hated Miss Wincher of Potash Springs, who had now become the Marquise de Trezac. Undine knew that Chelles and his compatriots, however scandalized at her European companions, would be completely indifferent to Mrs. Rolliver’s appearance; but one gesture of Madame de Trezac’s eye-glass would wave Indiana to her place and thus brand the whole party as “wrong.”
All this passed through Undine’s mind in the very moment of her noting the change of expression with which Chelles had signalled his recognition. If their encounter could have occurred in happier conditions it might have had far-reaching results. As it was, the crowded state of the tea-room, and the distance between their tables, sufficiently excused his restricting his greeting to an eager bow; and Undine went home heavy-hearted from this first attempt to reconstruct her past.
Her spirits were not lightened by the developments of the next few days. She kept herself well in the foreground of Indiana’s life, and cultivated toward the rarely-visible Rolliver a manner in which impersonal admiration for the statesman was tempered with the politest indifference to the man. Indiana seemed to do justice to her efforts and to be reassured by the result; but still there came no hint of a reward. For a time Undine restrained the question on her lips; but one afternoon, when she had inducted Indiana into the deepest mysteries of Parisian complexion-making, the importance of the service and the confidential mood it engendered seemed to warrant a discreet allusion to their bargain.
Indiana leaned back among her cushions with an embarrassed laugh.
“Oh, my dear, I’ve been meaning to tell you–it’s off, I’m afraid. The dinner is, I mean. You see, Mr. Van Degen has seen you ’round with me, and the very minute I asked him to come and dine he guessed–“
“He guessed–and he wouldn’t?”
“Well, no. He wouldn’t. I hate to tell you.”
“Oh–” Undine threw off a vague laugh. “Since you’re intimate enough for him to tell you THAT he must, have told you more–told you something to justify his behaviour. He couldn’t–even Peter Van Degen couldn’t–just simply have said to you: ‘I wont see her.'”
Mrs. Rolliver hesitated, visibly troubled to the point of regretting her intervention.
“He DID say more?” Undine insisted. “He gave you a reason?
“He said you’d know.”
“Oh how base–how base!” Undine was trembling with one of her little-girl rages, the storms of destructive fury before which Mr. and Mrs. Spragg had cowered when she was a charming golden-curled cherub. But life had administered some of the discipline which her parents had spared her, and she pulled herself together with a gasp of pain. “Of course he’s been turned against me. His wife has the whole of New York behind her, and I’ve no one; but I know it would be all right if I could only see him.”
Her friend made no answer, and Undine pursued, with an irrepressible outbreak of her old vehemence: “Indiana Rolliver, if you won’t do it for me I’ll go straight off to his hotel this very minute. I’ll wait there in the hall till he sees me!”
Indiana lifted a protesting hand. “Don’t, Undine–not that!”
“Well–I wouldn’t, that’s all.”
“You wouldn’t? Why wouldn’t you? You must have a reason.” Undine faced her with levelled brows. “Without a reason you can’t have changed so utterly since our last talk. You were positive enough then that I had a right to make him see me.”
Somewhat to her surprise, Indiana made no effort to elude the challenge. “Yes, I did think so then. But I know now that it wouldn’t do you the least bit of good.”
“Have they turned him so completely against me? I don’t care if they have! I know him–I can get him back.”
“That’s the trouble.” Indiana shed on her a gaze of cold compassion. “It’s not that any one has turned him against you. It’s worse than that–“
“What can be?”
“You’ll hate me if I tell you.”
“Then you’d better make him tell me himself!”
“I can’t. I tried to. The trouble is that it was YOU–something you did, I mean. Something he found out about you–“
Undine, to restrain a spring of anger, had to clutch both arms of her chair. “About me? How fearfully false! Why, I’ve never even LOOKED at anybody–!”
“It’s nothing of that kind.” Indiana’s mournful head-shake seemed to deplore, in Undine, an unsuspected moral obtuseness. “It’s the way you acted to your own husband.”
“I–my–to Ralph? HE reproaches me for that? Peter Van Degen does?” “Well, for one particular thing. He says that the very day you went off with him last year you got a cable from New York telling you to come back at once to Mr. Marvell, who was desperately ill.”
“How on earth did he know?” The cry escaped Undine before she could repress it.
“It’s true, then?” Indiana exclaimed. “Oh, Undine–“
Undine sat speechless and motionless, the anger frozen to terror on her lips.
Mrs. Rolliver turned on her the reproachful gaze of the deceived benefactress. “I didn’t believe it when he told me; I’d never have thought it of you. Before you’d even applied for your divorce!”
Undine made no attempt to deny the charge or to defend herself. For a moment she was lost in the pursuit of an unseizable clue–the explanation of this monstrous last perversity of fate. Suddenly she rose to her feet with a set face.
“The Marvells must have told him–the beasts!” It relieved her to be able to cry it out.
“It was your husband’s sister–what did you say her name was? When you didn’t answer her cable, she cabled Mr. Van Degen to find out where you were and tell you to come straight back.”
Undine stared. “He never did!”
“Doesn’t that show you the story’s all trumped up?”
Indiana shook her head. “He said nothing to you about it because he was with you when you received the first cable, and you told him it was from your sister-in-law, just worrying you as usual to go home; and when he asked if there was anything else in it you said there wasn’t another thing.”
Undine, intently following her, caught at this with a spring. “Then he knew it all along–he admits that? And it made no earthly difference to him at the time?” She turned almost victoriously on her friend. “Did he happen to explain THAT, I wonder?”
“Yes.” Indiana’s longanimity grew almost solemn. “It came over him gradually, he said. One day when he wasn’t feeling very well he thought to himself: ‘Would she act like that to ME if I was dying?’ And after that he never felt the same to you.” Indiana lowered her empurpled lids. “Men have their feelings too–even when they’re carried away by passion.” After a pause she added: “I don’t know as I can blame him. Undine. You see, you were his ideal.”
Undine Marvell, for the next few months, tasted all the accumulated bitterness of failure. After January the drifting hordes of her compatriots had scattered to the four quarters of the globe, leaving Paris to resume, under its low grey sky, its compacter winter personality. Noting, from her more and more deserted corner, each least sign of the social revival, Undine felt herself as stranded and baffled as after the ineffectual summers of her girlhood. She was not without possible alternatives; but the sense of what she had lost took the savour from all that was left. She might have attached herself to some migratory group winged for Italy or Egypt; but the prospect of travel did not in itself appeal to her, and she was doubtful of its social benefit. She lacked the adventurous curiosity which seeks its occasion in the unknown; and though she could work doggedly for a given object the obstacles to be overcome had to be as distinct as the prize. Her one desire was to get back an equivalent of the precise value she had lost in ceasing to be Ralph Marvell’s wife. Her new visiting-card, bearing her Christian name in place of her husband’s, was like the coin of a debased currency testifying to her diminished trading capacity. Her restricted means, her vacant days, all the minor irritations of her life, were as nothing compared to this sense of a lost advantage. Even in the narrowed field of a Parisian winter she might have made herself a place in some more or less extra-social world; but her experiments in this line gave her no pleasure proportioned to the possible derogation. She feared to be associated with “the wrong people,” and scented a shade of disrespect in every amicable advance. The more pressing attentions of one or two men she had formerly known filled her with a glow of outraged pride, and for the first time in her life she felt that even solitude might be preferable to certain kinds of society. Since ill health was the most plausible pretext for seclusion, it was almost a relief to find that she was really growing “nervous” and sleeping badly. The doctor she summoned advised her trying a small quiet place on the Riviera, not too near the sea; and thither in the early days of December, she transported herself with her maid and an omnibus-load of luggage.
The place disconcerted her by being really small and quiet, and for a few days she struggled against the desire for flight. She had never before known a world as colourless and negative as that of the large white hotel where everybody went to bed at nine, and donkey-rides over stony hills were the only alternative to slow drives along dusty roads. Many of the dwellers in this temple of repose found even these exercises too stimulating, and preferred to sit for hours under the palms in the garden, playing Patience, embroidering, or reading odd volumes of Tauchnitz. Undine, driven by despair to an inspection of the hotel book-shelves, discovered that scarcely any work they contained was complete; but this did not seem to trouble the readers, who continued to feed their leisure with mutilated fiction, from which they occasionally raised their eyes to glance mistrustfully at the new arrival sweeping the garden gravel with her frivolous draperies. The inmates of the hotel were of different nationalities, but their racial differences were levelled by the stamp of a common mediocrity. All differences of tongue, of custom, of physiognomy, disappeared in this deep community of insignificance, which was like some secret bond, with the manifold signs and pass-words of its ignorances and its imperceptions. It was not the heterogeneous mediocrity of the American summer hotel where the lack of any standard is the nearest approach to a tie, but an organized codified dulness, in conscious possession of its rights, and strong in the voluntary ignorance of any others.
It took Undine a long time to accustom herself to such an atmosphere, and meanwhile she fretted, fumed and flaunted, or abandoned herself to long periods of fruitless brooding. Sometimes a flame of anger shot up in her, dismally illuminating the path she had travelled and the blank wall to which it led. At other moments past and present were enveloped in a dull fog of rancour which distorted and faded even the image she presented to her morning mirror. There were days when every young face she saw left in her a taste of poison. But when she compared herself with the specimens of her sex who plied their languid industries under the palms, or looked away as she passed them in hall or staircase, her spirits rose, and she rang for her maid and dressed herself in her newest and vividest. These were unprofitable triumphs, however. She never made one of her attacks on the organized disapproval of the community without feeling she had lost ground by it; and the next day she would lie in bed and send down capricious orders for food, which her maid would presently remove untouched, with instructions to transmit her complaints to the landlord.
Sometimes the events of the past year, ceaselessly revolving through her brain, became no longer a subject for criticism or justification but simply a series of pictures monotonously unrolled. Hour by hour, in such moods, she re-lived the incidents of her flight with Peter Van Degen: the part of her career that, since it had proved a failure, seemed least like herself and most difficult to justify. She had gone away with him, and had lived with him for two months: she, Undine Marvell, to whom respectability was the breath of life, to whom such follies had always been unintelligible and therefore inexcusable.–She had done this incredible thing, and she had done it from a motive that seemed, at the time, as clear, as logical, as free from the distorting mists of sentimentality, as any of her father’s financial enterprises. It had been a bold move, but it had been as carefully calculated as the happiest Wall Street “stroke.” She had gone away with Peter because, after the decisive scene in which she had put her power to the test, to yield to him seemed the surest means of victory. Even to her practical intelligence it was clear that an immediate dash to Dakota might look too calculated; and she had preserved her self-respect by telling herself that she was really his wife, and in no way to blame if the law delayed to ratify the bond. She was still persuaded of the justness of her reasoning; but she now saw that it had left certain risks out of account. Her life with Van Degen had taught her many things. The two had wandered from place to place, spending a great deal of money, always more and more money; for the first time in her life she had been able to buy everything she wanted. For a while this had kept her amused and busy; but presently she began to perceive that her companion’s view of their relation was not the same as hers. She saw that he had always meant it to be an unavowed tie, screened by Mrs. Shallum’s companionship and Clare’s careless tolerance; and that on those terms he would have been ready to shed on their adventure the brightest blaze of notoriety. But since Undine had insisted on being carried off like a sentimental school-girl he meant to shroud the affair in mystery, and was as zealous in concealing their relation as she was bent on proclaiming it. In the “powerful” novels which Popple was fond of lending her she had met with increasing frequency the type of heroine who scorns to love clandestinely, and proclaims the sanctity of passion and the moral duty of obeying its call. Undine had been struck by these arguments as justifying and even ennobling her course, and had let Peter understand that she had been actuated by the highest motives in openly associating her life with his; but he had opposed a placid insensibility to these allusions, and had persisted in treating her as though their journey were the kind of escapade that a man of the world is bound to hide. She had expected him to take her to all the showy places where couples like themselves are relieved from a too sustained contemplation of nature by the distractions of the restaurant and the gaming-table; but he had carried her from one obscure corner of Europe to another, shunning fashionable hotels and crowded watering-places, and displaying an ingenuity in the discovery of the unvisited and the out-of-season that gave their journey an odd resemblance to her melancholy wedding-tour.
She had never for a moment ceased to remember that the Dakota divorce-court was the objective point of this later honeymoon, and her allusions to the fact were as frequent as prudence permitted. Peter seemed in no way disturbed by them. He responded with expressions of increasing tenderness, or the purchase of another piece of jewelry; and though Undine could not remember his ever voluntarily bringing the subject of their marriage he did not shrink from her recurring mention of it. He seemed merely too steeped in present well-being to think of the future, and she ascribed this to the fact that his faculty of enjoyment could not project itself beyond the moment. Her business was to make each of their days so agreeable that when the last came he should be conscious of a void to be bridged over as rapidly as possible and when she thought this point had been reached she packed her trunks and started for Dakota.
The next picture to follow was that of the dull months in the western divorce-town, where, to escape loneliness and avoid comment, she had cast in her lot with Mabel Lipscomb, who had lately arrived there on the same errand.
Undine, at the outset, had been sorry for the friend whose new venture seemed likely to result so much less brilliantly than her own; but compassion had been replaced by irritation as Mabel’s unpruned vulgarities, her enormous encroaching satisfaction with herself and her surroundings, began to pervade every corner of their provisional household. Undine, during the first months of her exile, had been sustained by the fullest confidence in her future. When she had parted from Van Degen she had felt sure he meant to marry her, and the fact that Mrs. Lipscomb was fortified by no similar hope made her easier to bear with. Undine was almost ashamed that the unwooed Mabel should be the witness of her own felicity, and planned to send her off on a trip to Denver when Peter should announce his arrival; but the weeks passed, and Peter did not come. Mabel, on the whole, behaved well in this contingency. Undine, in her first exultation, had confided all her hopes and plans to her friend, but Mabel took no undue advantage of the confidence. She was even tactful in her loud fond clumsy way, with a tact that insistently boomed and buzzed about its victim’s head. But one day she mentioned that she had asked to dinner a gentleman from Little Rock who had come to Dakota with the same object as themselves, and whose acquaintance she had made through her lawyer.
The gentleman from Little Rock came to dine, and within a week Undine understood that Mabel’s future was assured. If Van Degen had been at hand Undine would have smiled with him at poor Mabel’s infatuation and her suitor’s crudeness. But Van Degen was not there. He made no sign, he sent no excuse; he simply continued to absent himself; and it was Undine who, in due course, had to make way for Mrs. Lipscomb’s caller, and sit upstairs with a novel while the drawing-room below was given up to the enacting of an actual love-story.
Even then, even to the end, Undine had to admit that Mabel had behaved “beautifully.” But it is comparatively easy to behave beautifully when one is getting what one wants, and when some one else, who has not always been altogether kind, is not. The net result of Mrs. Lipscomb’s magnanimity was that when, on the day of parting, she drew Undine to her bosom with the hand on which her new engagement-ring blazed, Undine hated her as she hated everything else connected with her vain exile in the wilderness.
The next phase in the unrolling vision was the episode of her return to New York. She had gone to the Malibran, to her parents–for it was a moment in her career when she clung passionately to the conformities, and when the fact of being able to say: “I’m here with my father and mother” was worth paying for even in the discomfort of that grim abode. Nevertheless, it was another thorn in her pride that her parents could not–for the meanest of material reasons–transfer themselves at her coming to one of the big Fifth Avenue hotels. When she had suggested it Mr. Spragg had briefly replied that, owing to the heavy expenses of her divorce suit, he couldn’t for the moment afford anything better; and this announcement cast a deeper gloom over the future.
It was not an occasion for being “nervous,” however; she had learned too many hard facts in the last few months to think of having recourse to her youthful methods. And something told her that if she made the attempt it would be useless. Her father and mother seemed much older, seemed tired and defeated, like herself.
Parents and daughter bore their common failure in a common silence, broken only by Mrs. Spragg’s occasional tentative allusions to her grandson. But her anecdotes of Paul left a deeper silence behind them. Undine did not want to talk of her boy. She could forget him when, as she put it, things were “going her way,” but in moments of discouragement the thought of him was an added bitterness, subtly different from her other bitter thoughts, and harder to quiet. It had not occurred to her to try to gain possession of the child. She was vaguely aware that the courts had given her his custody; but she had never seriously thought of asserting this claim. Her parents’ diminished means and her own uncertain future made her regard the care of Paul as an additional burden, and she quieted her scruples by thinking of him as “better off” with Ralph’s family, and of herself as rather touchingly disinterested in putting his welfare before her own. Poor Mrs. Spragg was pining for him, but Undine rejected her artless suggestion that Mrs. Heeny should be sent to “bring him round.” “I wouldn’t ask them a favour for the world–they’re just waiting for a chance to be hateful to me,” she scornfully declared; but it pained her that her boy, should be so near, yet inaccessible, and for the first time she was visited by unwonted questionings as to her share in the misfortunes that had befallen her. She had voluntarily stepped out of her social frame, and the only person on whom she could with any satisfaction have laid the blame was the person to whom her mind now turned with a belated tenderness. It was thus, in fact, that she thought of Ralph. His pride, his reserve, all the secret expressions of his devotion, the tones of his voice, his quiet manner, even his disconcerting irony: these seemed, in contrast to what she had since known, the qualities essential to her happiness. She could console herself only by regarding it as part of her sad lot that poverty and the relentless animosity of his family, should have put an end to so perfect a union: she gradually began to look on herself and Ralph as the victims of dark machinations, and when she mentioned him she spoke forgivingly, and implied that “everything might have been different” if “people” had not “come between” them. She had arrived in New York in midseason, and the dread of seeing familiar faces kept her shut up in her room at the Malibran, reading novels and brooding over possibilities of escape. She tried to avoid the daily papers, but they formed the staple diet of her parents, and now and then she could not help taking one up and turning to the “Society Column.” Its perusal produced the impression that the season must be the gayest New York had ever known. The Harmon B. Driscolls, young Jim and his wife, the Thurber Van Degens, the Chauncey Ellings, and all the other Fifth Avenue potentates, seemed to have their doors perpetually open to a stream of feasters among whom the familiar presences of Grace Beringer, Bertha Shallum, Dicky Bowles and Claud Walsingham Popple came and went with the irritating sameness of the figures in a stage-procession.
Among them also Peter Van Degen presently appeared. He had been on a tour around the world, and Undine could not look at a newspaper without seeing some allusion to his progress. After his return she noticed that his name was usually coupled with his wife’s: he and Clare seemed to be celebrating his home-coming in a series of festivities, and Undine guessed that he had reasons for wishing to keep before the world the evidences of his conjugal accord.
Mrs. Heeny’s clippings supplied her with such items as her own reading missed; and one day the masseuse appeared with a long article from the leading journal of Little Rock, describing the brilliant nuptials of Mabel Lipscomb–now Mrs. Homer Branney–and her departure for “the Coast” in the bridegroom’s private car. This put the last touch to Undine’s irritation, and the next morning she got up earlier than usual, put on her most effective dress, went for a quick walk around the Park, and told her father when she came in that she wanted him to take her to the opera that evening.
Mr. Spragg stared and frowned. “You mean you want me to go round and hire a box for you?”
“Oh, no.” Undine coloured at the infelicitous allusion: besides, she knew now that the smart people who were “musical” went in stalls.
“I only want two good seats. I don’t see why I should stay shut up. I want you to go with me,” she added.
Her father received the latter part of the request without comment: he seemed to have gone beyond surprise. But he appeared that evening at dinner in a creased and loosely fitting dress-suit which he had probably not put on since the last time he had dined with his son-in-law, and he and Undine drove off together, leaving Mrs. Spragg to gaze after them with the pale stare of Hecuba.
Their stalls were in the middle of the house, and around them swept the great curve of boxes at which Undine had so often looked up in the remote Stentorian days. Then all had been one indistinguishable glitter, now the scene was full of familiar details: the house was thronged with people she knew, and every box seemed to contain a parcel of her past. At first she had shrunk from recognition; but gradually, as she perceived that no one noticed her, that she was merely part of the invisible crowd out of range of the exploring opera glasses, she felt a defiant desire to make herself seen. When the performance was over her father wanted to leave the house by the door at which they had entered, but she guided him toward the stockholders’ entrance, and pressed her way among the furred and jewelled ladies waiting for their motors. “Oh, it’s the wrong door–never mind, we’ll walk to the corner and get a cab,” she exclaimed, speaking loudly enough to be overheard. Two or three heads turned, and she met Dicky Bowles’s glance, and returned his laughing bow. The woman talking to him looked around, coloured slightly, and made a barely perceptible motion of her head. Just beyond her, Mrs. Chauncey Elling, plumed and purple, stared, parted her lips, and turned to say something important to young Jim Driscoll, who looked up involuntarily and then squared his shoulders and gazed fixedly at a distant point, as people do at a funeral. Behind them Undine caught sight of Clare Van Degen; she stood alone, and her face was pale and listless. “Shall I go up and speak to her?” Undine wondered. Some intuition told her that, alone of all the women present, Clare might have greeted her kindly; but she hung back, and Mrs. Harmon Driscoll surged by on Popple’s arm. Popple crimsoned, coughed, and signalled despotically to Mrs. Driscoll’s footman. Over his shoulder Undine received a bow from Charles Bowen, and behind Bowen she saw two or three other men she knew, and read in their faces surprise, curiosity, and the wish to show their pleasure at seeing her. But she grasped her father’s arm and drew him out among the entangled motors and vociferating policemen.
Neither she nor Mr. Spragg spoke a word on the way home; but when they reached the Malibran her father followed her up to her room. She had dropped her cloak and stood before the wardrobe mirror studying her reflection when he came up behind her and she saw that he was looking at it too.
“Where did that necklace come from?”
Undine’s neck grew pink under the shining circlet. It was the first time since her return to New York that she had put on a low dress and thus uncovered the string of pearls she always wore. She made no answer, and Mr. Spragg continued: “Did your husband give them to you?”
“RALPH!” She could not restrain a laugh.
“Who did, then?”
Undine remained silent. She really had not thought about the pearls, except in so far as she consciously enjoyed the pleasure of possessing them; and her father, habitually so unobservant, had seemed the last person likely to raise the awkward question of their origin.
“Why–” she began, without knowing what she meant to say.
“I guess you better send ’em back to the party they belong to,” Mr. Spragg continued, in a voice she did not know.
“They belong to me!” she flamed up. He looked at her as if she had grown suddenly small and insignificant. “You better send ’em back to Peter Van Degen the first thing to-morrow morning,” he said as he went out of the room. As far as Undine could remember, it was the first time in her life that he had ever ordered her to do anything; and when the door closed on him she had the distinct sense that the question had closed with it, and that she would have to obey. She took the pearls off and threw them from her angrily. The humiliation her father had inflicted on her was merged with the humiliation to which she had subjected herself in going to the opera, and she had never before hated her life as she hated it then.
All night she lay sleepless, wondering miserably what to do; and out of her hatred of her life, and her hatred of Peter Van Degen, there gradually grew a loathing of Van Degen’s pearls. How could she have kept them; how have continued to wear them about her neck! Only her absorption in other cares could have kept her from feeling the humiliation of carrying about with her the price of her shame. Her novel-reading had filled her mind with the vocabulary of outraged virtue, and with pathetic allusions to woman’s frailty, and while she pitied herself she thought her father heroic. She was proud to think that she had such a man to defend her, and rejoiced that it was in her power to express her scorn of Van Degen by sending back his jewels.
But her righteous ardour gradually cooled, and she was left once more to face the dreary problem of the future. Her evening at the opera had shown her the impossibility of remaining in New York. She had neither the skill nor the power to fight the forces of indifference leagued against her: she must get away at once, and try to make a fresh start. But, as usual, the lack of money hampered her. Mr. Spragg could no longer afford to make her the allowance she had intermittently received from him during the first years of her marriage, and since she was now without child or household she could hardly make it a grievance that he had reduced her income. But what he allowed her, even with the addition of her alimony, was absurdly insufficient. Not that she looked far ahead; she had always felt herself predestined to ease and luxury, and the possibility of a future adapted to her present budget did not occur to her. But she desperately wanted enough money to carry her without anxiety through the coming year.
When her breakfast tray was brought in she sent it away untouched and continued to lie in her darkened room. She knew that when she got up she must send back the pearls; but there was no longer any satisfaction in the thought, and she lay listlessly wondering how she could best transmit them to Van Degen.
As she lay there she heard Mrs. Heeny’s voice in the passage. Hitherto she had avoided the masseuse, as she did every one else associated with her past. Mrs. Heeny had behaved with extreme discretion, refraining from all direct allusions to Undine’s misadventure; but her silence was obviously the criticism of a superior mind. Once again Undine had disregarded her injunction to “go slow,” with results that justified the warning. Mrs. Heeny’s very reserve, however, now marked her as a safe adviser; and Undine sprang up and called her in. “My sakes. Undine! You look’s if you’d been setting up all night with a remains!” the masseuse exclaimed in her round rich tones.
Undine, without answering, caught up the pearls and thrust them into Mrs. Heeny’s hands.
“Good land alive!” The masseuse dropped into a chair and let the twist slip through her fat flexible fingers. “Well, you got a fortune right round your neck whenever you wear them, Undine Spragg.”
Undine murmured something indistinguishable. “I want you to take them–” she began.
“Take ’em? Where to?”
“Why, to–” She was checked by the wondering simplicity of Mrs. Heeny’s stare. The masseuse must know where the pearls had come from, yet it had evidently not occurred to her that Mrs. Marvell was about to ask her to return them to their donor. In the light of Mrs. Heeny’s unclouded gaze the whole episode took on a different aspect, and Undine began to be vaguely astonished at her immediate submission to her father’s will. The pearls were hers, after all!
“To be re-strung?” Mrs. Heeny placidly suggested. “Why, you’d oughter to have it done right here before your eyes, with pearls that are worth what these are.”
As Undine listened, a new thought shaped itself. She could not continue to wear the pearls: the idea had become intolerable. But for the first time she saw what they might be converted into, and what they might rescue her from; and suddenly she brought out: “Do you suppose I could get anything for them?”
“Get anything? Why, what–“
“Anything like what they’re worth, I mean. They cost a lot of money: they came from the biggest place in Paris.” Under Mrs. Heeny’s simplifying eye it was comparatively easy to make these explanations. “I want you to try and sell them for me–I want you to do the best you can with them. I can’t do it myself–but you must swear you’ll never tell a soul,” she pressed on breathlessly.
“Why, you poor child–it ain’t the first time,” said Mrs. Heeny, coiling the pearls in her big palm. “It’s a pity too: they’re such beauties. But you’ll get others,” she added, as the necklace vanished into her bag.
A few days later there appeared from the same receptacle a bundle of banknotes considerable enough to quiet Undine’s last scruples. She no longer understood why she had hesitated. Why should she have thought it necessary to give back the pearls to Van Degen? His obligation to her represented far more than the relatively small sum she had been able to realize on the necklace. She hid the money in her dress, and when Mrs. Heeny had gone on to Mrs. Spragg’s room she drew the packet out, and counting the bills over, murmured to herself: “Now I can get away!”
Her one thought was to return to Europe; but she did not want to go alone. The vision of her solitary figure adrift in the spring mob of trans-Atlantic pleasure-seekers depressed and mortified her. She would be sure to run across acquaintances, and they would infer that she was in quest of a new opportunity, a fresh start, and would suspect her of trying to use them for the purpose. The thought was repugnant to her newly awakened pride, and she decided that if she went to Europe her father and mother must go with her. The project was a bold one, and when she broached it she had to run the whole gamut of Mr. Spragg’s irony. He wanted to know what she expected to do with him when she got him there; whether she meant to introduce him to “all those old Kings,” how she thought he and her mother would look in court dress, and how she supposed he was going to get on without his New York paper. But Undine had been aware of having what he himself would have called “a pull” over her father since, the day after their visit to the opera, he had taken her aside to ask: “You sent back those pearls?” and she had answered coldly: “Mrs. Heeny’s taken them.”
After a moment of half-bewildered resistance her parents, perhaps secretly flattered by this first expression of her need for them, had yielded to her entreaty, packed their trunks, and stoically set out for the unknown. Neither Mr. Spragg nor his wife had ever before been out of their country; and Undine had not understood, till they stood beside her tongue-tied and helpless on the dock at Cherbourg, the task she had undertaken in uprooting them. Mr. Spragg had never been physically active, but on foreign shores he was seized by a strange restlessness, and a helpless dependence on his daughter. Mrs. Spragg’s long habit of apathy was overcome by her dread of being left alone when her husband and Undine went out, and she delayed and impeded their expeditions by insisting on accompanying them; so that, much as Undine disliked sightseeing, there seemed no alternative between “going round” with her parents and shutting herself up with them in the crowded hotels to which she successively transported them.
The hotels were the only European institutions that really interested Mr. Spragg. He considered them manifestly inferior to those at home; but he was haunted by a statistical curiosity as to their size, their number, their cost and their capacity for housing and feeding the incalculable hordes of his countrymen. He went through galleries, churches and museums in a stolid silence like his daughter’s; but in the hotels he never ceased to enquire and investigate, questioning every one who could speak English, comparing bills, collecting prospectuses and computing the cost of construction and the probable return on the investment. He regarded the non-existence of the cold-storage system as one more proof of European inferiority, and no longer wondered, in the absence of the room-to-room telephone, that foreigners hadn’t yet mastered the first principles of time-saving.
After a few weeks it became evident to both parents and daughter that their unnatural association could not continue much longer. Mrs. Spragg’s shrinking from everything new and unfamiliar had developed into a kind of settled terror, and Mr. Spragg had begun to be depressed by the incredible number of the hotels and their simply incalculable housing capacity.
“It ain’t that they’re any great shakes in themselves, any one of ’em; but there’s such a darned lot of ’em: they’re as thick as mosquitoes, every place you go.” And he began to reckon up, on slips of paper, on the backs of bills and the margins of old newspapers, the number of travellers who could be simultaneously lodged, bathed and boarded on the continent of Europe. “Five hundred bedrooms–three hundred bathrooms–no; three hundred and fifty bathrooms, that one has: that makes, supposing two-thirds of ’em double up–do you s’pose as many as that do, Undie? That porter at Lucerne told me the Germans slept three in a room–well, call it eight hundred people; and three meals a day per head; no, four meals, with that afternoon tea they take; and the last place we were at–‘way up on that mountain there–why, there were seventy-five hotels in that one spot alone, and all jam full–well, it beats me to know where all the people come from…”
He had gone on in this fashion for what seemed to his daughter an endless length of days; and then suddenly he had roused himself to say: “See here, Undie, I got to go back and make the money to pay for all this.”
There had been no question on the part of any of the three of Undine’s returning with them; and after she had conveyed them to their steamer, and seen their vaguely relieved faces merged in the handkerchief-waving throng along the taffrail, she had returned alone to Paris and made her unsuccessful attempt to enlist the aid of Indiana Rolliver.
She was still brooding over this last failure when one afternoon, as she loitered on the hotel terrace, she was approached by a young woman whom she had seen sitting near the wheeled chair of an old lady wearing a crumpled black bonnet under a funny fringed parasol with a jointed handle.
The young woman, who was small, slight and brown, was dressed with a disregard of the fashion which contrasted oddly with the mauve powder on her face and the traces of artificial colour in her dark untidy hair. She looked as if she might have several different personalities, and as if the one of the moment had been hanging up a long time in her wardrobe and been hurriedly taken down as probably good enough for the present occasion.
With her hands in her jacket pockets, and an agreeable smile on her boyish face, she strolled up to Undine and asked, in a pretty variety of Parisian English, if she had the pleasure of speaking to Mrs. Marvell.
On Undine’s assenting, the smile grew more alert and the lady continued: “I think you know my friend Sacha Adelschein?”
No question could have been less welcome to Undine. If there was one point on which she was doggedly and puritanically resolved, it was that no extremes of social adversity should ever again draw her into the group of people among whom Madame Adelschein too conspicuously figured. Since her unsuccessful attempt to win over Indiana by introducing her to that group, Undine had been righteously resolved to remain aloof from it; and she was drawing herself up to her loftiest height of disapproval when the stranger, as if unconscious of it, went on: “Sacha speaks of you so often–she admires you so much.–I think you know also my cousin Chelles,” she added, looking into Undine’s eyes. “I am the Princess Estradina. I’ve come here with my mother for the air.”
The murmur of negation died on Undine’s lips. She found herself grappling with a new social riddle, and such surprises were always stimulating. The name of the untidy-looking young woman she had been about to repel was one of the most eminent in the impregnable quarter beyond the Seine. No one figured more largely in the Parisian chronicle than the Princess Estradina, and no name more impressively headed the list at every marriage, funeral and philanthropic entertainment of the Faubourg Saint Germain than that of her mother, the Duchesse de Dordogne, who must be no other than the old woman sitting in the Bath-chair with the crumpled bonnet and the ridiculous sunshade.
But it was not the appearance of the two ladies that surprised Undine. She knew that social gold does not always glitter, and that the lady she had heard spoken of as Lili Estradina was notoriously careless of the conventions; but that she should boast of her intimacy with Madame Adelschein, and use it as a pretext for naming herself, overthrew all Undine’s hierarchies.
“Yes–it’s hideously dull here, and I’m dying of it. Do come over and speak to my mother. She’s dying of it too; but don’t tell her so, because she hasn’t found it out. There were so many things our mothers never found out,” the Princess rambled on, with her half-mocking half-intimate smile; and in another moment Undine, thrilled at having Mrs. Spragg thus coupled with a Duchess, found herself seated between mother and daughter, and responding by a radiant blush to the elder lady’s amiable opening: “You know my nephew Raymond–he’s your great admirer.”
How had it happened, whither would it lead, how long could it last? The questions raced through Undine’s brain as she sat listening to her new friends–they seemed already too friendly to be called acquaintances!–replying to their enquiries, and trying to think far enough ahead to guess what they would expect her to say, and what tone it would be well to take. She was used to such feats of mental agility, and it was instinctive with her to become, for the moment, the person she thought her interlocutors expected her to be; but she had never had quite so new a part to play at such short notice. She took her cue, however, from the fact that the Princess Estradina, in her mother’s presence, made no farther allusion to her dear friend Sacha, and seemed somehow, though she continued to chat on in the same easy strain, to look differently and throw out different implications. All these shades of demeanour were immediately perceptible to Undine, who tried to adapt herself to them by combining in her manner a mixture of Apex dash and New York dignity; and the result was so successful that when she rose to go the Princess, with a hand on her arm, said almost wistfully: “You’re staying on too? Then do take pity on us! We might go on some trips together; and in the evenings we could make a bridge.”
A new life began for Undine. The Princess, chained her mother’s side, and frankly restive under her filial duty, clung to her new acquaintance with a persistence too flattering to be analyzed. “My dear, I was on the brink of suicide when I saw your name in the visitors’ list,” she explained; and Undine felt like answering that she had nearly reached the same pass when the Princess’s thin little hand had been held out to her. For the moment she was dizzy with the effect of that random gesture. Here she was, at the lowest ebb of her fortunes, miraculously rehabilitated, reinstated, and restored to the old victorious sense of her youth and her power! Her sole graces, her unaided personality, had worked the miracle; how should she not trust in them hereafter?
Aside from her feeling of concrete attainment. Undine was deeply interested in her new friends. The Princess and her mother, in their different ways, were different from any one else she had known. The Princess, who might have been of any age between twenty and forty, had a small triangular face with caressing impudent eyes, a smile like a silent whistle and the gait of a baker’s boy balancing his basket. She wore either baggy shabby clothes like a man’s, or rich draperies that looked as if they had been rained on; and she seemed equally at ease in either style of dress, and carelessly unconscious of both. She was extremely familiar and unblushingly inquisitive, but she never gave Undine the time to ask her any questions or the opportunity to venture on any freedom with her. Nevertheless she did not scruple to talk of her sentimental experiences, and seemed surprised, and rather disappointed, that Undine had so few to relate in return. She playfully accused her beautiful new friend of being cachottiere, and at the sight of Undine’s blush cried out: “Ah, you funny Americans! Why do you all behave as if love were a secret infirmity?”
The old Duchess was even more impressive, because she fitted better into Undine’s preconceived picture of the Faubourg Saint Germain, and was more like the people with whom she pictured the former Nettie Wincher as living in privileged intimacy. The Duchess was, indeed, more amiable and accessible than Undine’s conception of a Duchess, and displayed a curiosity as great as her daughter’s, and much more puerile, concerning her new friend’s history and habits. But through her mild prattle, and in spite of her limited perceptions. Undine felt in her the same clear impenetrable barrier that she ran against occasionally in the Princess; and she was beginning to understand that this barrier represented a number of things about which she herself had yet to learn. She would not have known this a few years earlier, nor would she have seen in the Duchess anything but the ruin of an ugly woman, dressed in clothes that Mrs. Spragg wouldn’t have touched. The Duchess certainly looked like a ruin; but Undine now saw that she looked like the ruin of a castle.
The Princess, who was unofficially separated from her husband, had with her her two little girls. She seemed extremely attached to both–though avowing for the younger a preference she frankly ascribed to the interesting accident of its parentage–and she could not understand that Undine, as to whose domestic difficulties she minutely informed herself, should have consented to leave her child to strangers. “For, to one’s child every one but one’s self is a stranger; and whatever your egarements–” she began, breaking off with a stare when Undine interrupted her to explain that the courts had ascribed all the wrongs in the case to her husband. “But then–but then–” murmured the Princess, turning away from the subject as if checked by too deep an abyss of difference.
The incident had embarrassed Undine, and though she tried to justify herself by allusions to her boy’s dependence on his father’s family, and to the duty of not standing in his way, she saw that she made no impression. “Whatever one’s errors, one’s child belongs to one,” her hearer continued to repeat; and Undine, who was frequently scandalized by the Princess’s conversation, now found herself in the odd position of having to set a watch upon her own in order not to scandalize the Princess.
Each day, nevertheless, strengthened her hold on her new friends. After her first flush of triumph she began indeed to suspect that she had been a slight disappointment to the Princess, had not completely justified the hopes raised by the doubtful honour of being one of Sacha Adelschein’s intimates. Undine guessed that the Princess had expected to find her more amusing, “queerer,” more startling in speech and conduct. Though by instinct she was none of these things, she was eager to go as far as was expected; but she felt that her audacities were on lines too normal to be interesting, and that the Princess thought her rather school-girlish and old-fashioned. Still, they had in common their youth, their boredom, their high spirits and their hunger for amusement; and Undine was making the most of these ties when one day, coming back from a trip to Monte-Carlo with the Princess, she was brought up short by the sight of a lady–evidently a new arrival–who was seated in an attitude of respectful intimacy beside the old Duchess’s chair. Undine, advancing unheard over the fine gravel of the garden path, recognized at a glance the Marquise de Trezac’s drooping nose and disdainful back, and at the same moment heard her say: “–And her husband?”
“Her husband? But she’s an American–she’s divorced,” the Duchess replied, as if she were merely stating the same fact in two different ways; and Undine stopped short with a pang of apprehension.
The Princess came up behind her. “Who’s the solemn person with Mamma? Ah, that old bore of a Trezac!” She dropped her long eye-glass with a laugh. “Well, she’ll be useful–she’ll stick to Mamma like a leech and we shall get away oftener. Come, let’s go and be charming to her.”