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  • 1913
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She approached Madame de Trezac effusively, and after an interchange of exclamations Undine heard her say “You know my friend Mrs. Marvell? No? How odd! Where do you manage to hide yourself, chere Madame? Undine, here’s a compatriot who hasn’t the pleasure–“

“I’m such a hermit, dear Mrs. Marvell–the Princess shows me what I miss,” the Marquise de Trezac murmured, rising to give her hand to Undine, and speaking in a voice so different from that of the supercilious Miss Wincher that only her facial angle and the droop of her nose linked her to the hated vision of Potash Springs.

Undine felt herself dancing on a flood-tide of security. For the first time the memory of Potash Springs became a thing to smile at, and with the Princess’s arm through hers she shone back triumphantly on Madame de Trezac, who seemed to have grown suddenly obsequious and insignificant, as though the waving of the Princess’s wand had stripped her of all her false advantages.

But upstairs, in her own room. Undine’s courage fell. Madame de Trezac had been civil, effusive even, because for the moment she had been taken off her guard by finding Mrs. Marvell on terms of intimacy with the Princess Estradina and her mother. But the force of facts would reassert itself. Far from continuing to see Undine through her French friends’ eyes she would probably invite them to view her compatriot through the searching lens of her own ampler information. “The old hypocrite–she’ll tell them everything,” Undine murmured, wincing at the recollection of the dentist’s assistant from Deposit, and staring miserably at her reflection in the dressing-table mirror. Of what use were youth and grace and good looks, if one drop of poison distilled from the envy of a narrow-minded woman was enough to paralyze them? Of course Madame de Trezac knew and remembered, and, secure in her own impregnable position, would never rest till she had driven out the intruder.

XXVIII

“What do you say to Nice to-morrow, dearest?” the Princess suggested a few evenings later as she followed Undine upstairs after a languid evening at bridge with the Duchess and Madame de Trezac.

Half-way down the passage she stopped to open a door and, putting her finger to her lip, signed to Undine to enter. In the taper-lit dimness stood two small white beds, each surmounted by a crucifix and a palm branch, and each containing a small brown sleeping child with a mop of hair and a curiously finished little face. As the Princess stood gazing on their innocent slumbers she seemed for a moment like a third little girl scarcely bigger and browner than the others; and the smile with which she watched them was as clear as theirs. “Ah, si seulement je pouvais choisir leurs amants!” she sighed as she turned away.

“–Nice to-morrow,” she repeated, as she and Undine walked on to their rooms with linked arms. “We may as well make hay while the Trezac shines. She bores Mamma frightfully, but Mamma won’t admit it because they belong to the same oeuvres. Shall it be the eleven train, dear? We can lunch at the Royal and look in the shops–we may meet somebody amusing. Anyhow, it’s better than staying here!”

Undine was sure the trip to Nice would be delightful. Their previous expeditions had shown her the Princess’s faculty for organizing such adventures. At Monte-Carlo, a few days before, they had run across two or three amusing but unassorted people, and the Princess, having fused them in a jolly lunch, had followed it up by a bout at baccarat, and, finally hunting down an eminent composer who had just arrived to rehearse a new production, had insisted on his asking the party to tea, and treating them to fragments of his opera.

A few days earlier, Undine’s hope of renewing such pleasures would have been clouded by the dread of leaving Madame de Trezac alone with the Duchess. But she had no longer any fear of Madame de Trezac. She had discovered that her old rival of Potash Springs was in actual dread of her disfavour, and nervously anxious to conciliate her, and the discovery gave her such a sense of the heights she had scaled, and the security of her footing, that all her troubled past began to seem like the result of some providential “design,” and vague impulses of piety stirred in her as she and the Princess whirled toward Nice through the blue and gold glitter of the morning.

They wandered about the lively streets, they gazed into the beguiling shops, the Princess tried on hats and Undine bought them, and they lunched at the Royal on all sorts of succulent dishes prepared under the head-waiter’s special supervision. But as they were savouring their “double” coffee and liqueurs, and Undine was wondering what her companion would devise for the afternoon, the Princess clapped her hands together and cried out: “Dearest, I’d forgotten! I must desert you.”

She explained that she’d promised the Duchess to look up a friend who was ill–a poor wretch who’d been sent to Cimiez for her lungs–and that she must rush off at once, and would be back as soon as possible–well, if not in an hour, then in two at latest. She was full of compunction, but she knew Undine would forgive her, and find something amusing to fill up the time: she advised her to go back and buy the black hat with the osprey, and try on the crepe de Chine they’d thought so smart: for any one as good-looking as herself the woman would probably alter it for nothing; and they could meet again at the Palace Tea-Rooms at four. She whirled away in a cloud of explanations, and Undine, left alone, sat down on the Promenade des Anglais. She did not believe a word the Princess had said. She had seen in a flash why she was being left, and why the plan had not been divulged to her before-hand; and she quivered with resentment and humiliation. “That’s what she’s wanted me for…that’s why she made up to me. She’s trying it to-day, and after this it’ll happen regularly…she’ll drag me over here every day or two…at least she thinks she will!”

A sincere disgust was Undine’s uppermost sensation. She was as much ashamed as Mrs. Spragg might have been at finding herself used to screen a clandestine adventure.

“I’ll let her see… I’ll make her understand,” she repeated angrily; and for a moment she was half-disposed to drive to the station and take the first train back. But the sense of her precarious situation withheld her; and presently, with bitterness in her heart, she got up and began to stroll toward the shops.

To show that she was not a dupe, she arrived at the designated meeting-place nearly an hour later than the time appointed; but when she entered the Tea-Rooms the Princess was nowhere to be seen. The rooms were crowded, and Undine was guided toward a small inner apartment where isolated couples were absorbing refreshments in an atmosphere of intimacy that made it seem incongruous to be alone. She glanced about for a face she knew, but none was visible, and she was just giving up the search when she beheld Elmer Moffatt shouldering his way through the crowd.

The sight was so surprising that she sat gazing with unconscious fixity at the round black head and glossy reddish face which kept appearing and disappearing through the intervening jungle of aigrettes. It was long since she had either heard of Moffatt or thought about him, and now, in her loneliness and exasperation, she took comfort in the sight of his confident capable face, and felt a longing to hear his voice and unbosom her woes to him. She had half risen to attract his attention when she saw him turn back and make way for a companion, who was cautiously steering her huge feathered hat between the tea-tables. The woman was of the vulgarest type; everything about her was cheap and gaudy. But Moffatt was obviously elated: he stood aside with a flourish to usher her in, and as he followed he shot out a pink shirt-cuff with jewelled links, and gave his moustache a gallant twist. Undine felt an unreasoning irritation: she was vexed with him both for not being alone and for being so vulgarly accompanied. As the couple seated themselves she caught Moffatt’s glance and saw him redden to the edge of his white forehead; but he elaborately avoided her eye–he evidently wanted her to see him do it–and proceeded to minister to his companion’s wants with an air of experienced gallantry.

The incident, trifling as it was, filled up the measure of Undine’s bitterness. She thought Moffatt pitiably ridiculous, and she hated him for showing himself in such a light at that particular moment. Her mind turned back to her own grievance, and she was just saying to herself that nothing on earth should prevent her letting the Princess know what she thought of her, when the lady in question at last appeared. She came hurriedly forward and behind her Undine perceived the figure of a slight quietly dressed man, as to whom her immediate impression was that he made every one else in the room look as common as Moffatt. An instant later the colour had flown to her face and her hand was in Raymond de Chelles, while the Princess, murmuring: “Cimiez’s such a long way off; but you WILL forgive me?” looked into her eyes with a smile that added: “See how I pay for what I get!”

Her first glance showed Undine how glad Raymond de Chelles was to see her. Since their last meeting his admiration for her seemed not only to have increased but to have acquired a different character. Undine, at an earlier stage in her career, might not have known exactly what the difference signified; but it was as clear to her now as if the Princess had said–what her beaming eyes seemed, in fact, to convey–“I’m only too glad to do my cousin the same kind of turn you’re doing me.”

But Undine’s increased experience, if it had made her more vigilant, had also given her a clearer measure of her power. She saw at once that Chelles, in seeking to meet her again, was not in quest of a mere passing adventure. He was evidently deeply drawn to her, and her present situation, if it made it natural to regard her as more accessible, had not altered the nature of his feeling. She saw and weighed all this in the first five minutes during which, over tea and muffins, the Princess descanted on her luck in happening to run across her cousin, and Chelles, his enchanted eyes on Undine, expressed his sense of his good fortune. He was staying, it appeared, with friends at Beaulieu, and had run over to Nice that afternoon by the merest chance: he added that, having just learned of his aunt’s presence in the neighbourhood, he had already planned to present his homage to her.

“Oh, don’t come to us–we’re too dull!” the Princess exclaimed. “Let us run over occasionally and call on you: we’re dying for a pretext, aren’t we?” she added, smiling at Undine.

The latter smiled back vaguely, and looked across the room. Moffatt, looking flushed and foolish, was just pushing back his chair. To carry off his embarrassment he put an additional touch of importance; and as he swaggered out behind his companion, Undine said to herself, with a shiver: “If he’d been alone they would have found me taking tea with him.”

Undine, during the ensuing weeks, returned several times to Nice with the Princess; but, to the latter’s surprise, she absolutely refused to have Raymond de Chelles included in their luncheon-parties, or even apprised in advance of their expeditions.

The Princess, always impatient of unnecessary dissimulation, had not attempted to keep up the feint of the interesting invalid at Cimiez. She confessed to Undine that she was drawn to Nice by the presence there of the person without whom, for the moment, she found life intolerable, and whom she could not well receive under the same roof with her little girls and her mother. She appealed to Undine’s sisterly heart to feel for her in her difficulty, and implied that–as her conduct had already proved–she would always be ready to render her friend a like service. It was at this point that Undine checked her by a decided word. “I understand your position, and I’m very sorry for you, of course,” she began (the Princess stared at the “sorry”). “Your secret’s perfectly safe with me, and I’ll do anything I can for you…but if I go to Nice with you again you must promise not to ask your cousin to meet us.”

The Princess’s face expressed the most genuine astonishment. “Oh, my dear, do forgive me if I’ve been stupid! He admires you so tremendously; and I thought–“

“You’ll do as I ask, please–won’t you?” Undine went on, ignoring the interruption and looking straight at her under level brows; and the Princess, with a shrug, merely murmured: “What a pity! I fancied you liked him.”

XXIX

The early spring found Undine once more in Paris.

She had every reason to be satisfied with the result of the course she had pursued since she had pronounced her ultimatum on the subject of Raymond de Chelles. She had continued to remain on the best of terms with the Princess, to rise in the estimation of the old Duchess, and to measure the rapidity of her ascent in the upward gaze of Madame de Trezac; and she had given Chelles to understand that, if he wished to renew their acquaintance, he must do so in the shelter of his venerable aunt’s protection.

To the Princess she was careful to make her attitude equally clear. “I like your cousin very much–he’s delightful, and if I’m in Paris this spring I hope I shall see a great deal of him. But I know how easy it is for a woman in my position to get talked about–and I have my little boy to consider.”

Nevertheless, whenever Chelles came over from Beaulieu to spend a day with his aunt and cousin–an excursion he not infrequently repeated–Undine was at no pains to conceal her pleasure. Nor was there anything calculated in her attitude. Chelles seemed to her more charming than ever, and the warmth of his wooing was in flattering contrast to the cool reserve of his manners. At last she felt herself alive and young again, and it became a joy to look in her glass and to try on her new hats and dresses…

The only menace ahead was the usual one of the want of money. While she had travelled with her parents she had been at relatively small expense, and since their return to America Mr. Spragg had sent her allowance regularly; yet almost all the money she had received for the pearls was already gone, and she knew her Paris season would be far more expensive than the quiet weeks on the Riviera.

Meanwhile the sense of reviving popularity, and the charm of Chelles’ devotion, had almost effaced the ugly memories of failure, and refurbished that image of herself in other minds which was her only notion of self-seeing. Under the guidance of Madame de Trezac she had found a prettily furnished apartment in a not too inaccessible quarter, and in its light bright drawing-room she sat one June afternoon listening, with all the forbearance of which she was capable, to the counsels of her newly-acquired guide.

“Everything but marriage–” Madame de Trezac was repeating, her long head slightly tilted, her features wearing the rapt look of an adept reciting a hallowed formula.

Raymond de Chelles had not been mentioned by either of the ladies, and the former Miss Wincher was merely imparting to her young friend one of the fundamental dogmas of her social creed; but Undine was conscious that the air between them vibrated with an unspoken name. She made no immediate answer, but her glance, passing by Madame de Trezac’s dull countenance, sought her own reflection in the mirror behind her visitor’s chair. A beam of spring sunlight touched the living masses of her hair and made the face beneath as radiant as a girl’s. Undine smiled faintly at the promise her own eyes gave her, and then turned them back to her friend. “What can such women know about anything?” she thought compassionately.

“There’s everything against it,” Madame de Trezac continued in a tone of patient exposition. She seemed to be doing her best to make the matter clear. “In the first place, between people in society a religious marriage is necessary; and, since the Church doesn’t recognize divorce, that’s obviously out of the question. In France, a man of position who goes through the form of civil marriage with a divorced woman is simply ruining himself and her. They might much better–from her point of view as well as his–be ‘friends,’ as it’s called over here: such arrangements are understood and allowed for. But when a Frenchman marries he wants to marry as his people always have. He knows there are traditions he can’t fight against–and in his heart he’s glad there are.”

“Oh, I know: they’ve so much religious feeling. I admire that in them: their religion’s so beautiful.” Undine looked thoughtfully at her visitor. “I suppose even money–a great deal of money–wouldn’t make the least bit of difference?”

“None whatever, except to make matters worse,” Madame de Trezac decisively rejoined. She returned Undine’s look with something of Miss Wincher’s contemptuous authority. “But,” she added, softening to a smile, “between ourselves–I can say it, since we’re neither of us children–a woman with tact, who’s not in a position to remarry, will find society extremely indulgent… provided, of course, she keeps up appearances…”

Undine turned to her with the frown of a startled Diana. “We don’t look at things that way out at Apex,” she said coldly; and the blood rose in Madame de Trezac’s sallow cheek.

“Oh, my dear, it’s so refreshing to hear you talk like that! Personally, of course, I’ve never quite got used to the French view–“

“I hope no American woman ever does,” said Undine.

She had been in Paris for about two months when this conversation took place, and in spite of her reviving self-confidence she was beginning to recognize the strength of the forces opposed to her. It had taken a long time to convince her that even money could not prevail against them; and, in the intervals of expressing her admiration for the Catholic creed, she now had violent reactions of militant Protestantism, during which she talked of the tyranny of Rome and recalled school stories of immoral Popes and persecuting Jesuits.

Meanwhile her demeanour to Chelles was that of the incorruptible but fearless American woman, who cannot even conceive of love outside of marriage, but is ready to give her devoted friendship to the man on whom, in happier circumstances, she might have bestowed her hand. This attitude was provocative of many scenes, during which her suitor’s unfailing powers of expression–his gift of looking and saying all the desperate and devoted things a pretty woman likes to think she inspires–gave Undine the thrilling sense of breathing the very air of French fiction. But she was aware that too prolonged tension of these cords usually ends in their snapping, and that Chelles’ patience was probably in inverse ratio to his ardour.

When Madame de Trezac had left her these thoughts remained in her mind. She understood exactly what each of her new friends wanted of her. The Princess, who was fond of her cousin, and had the French sense of family solidarity, would have liked to see Chelles happy in what seemed to her the only imaginable way. Madame de Trezac would have liked to do what she could to second the Princess’s efforts in this or any other line; and even the old Duchess–though piously desirous of seeing her favourite nephew married–would have thought it not only natural but inevitable that, while awaiting that happy event, he should try to induce an amiable young woman to mitigate the drawbacks of celibacy. Meanwhile, they might one and all weary of her if Chelles did; and a persistent rejection of his suit would probably imperil her scarcely-gained footing among his friends. All this was clear to her, yet it did not shake her resolve. She was determined to give up Chelles unless he was willing to marry her; and the thought of her renunciation moved her to a kind of wistful melancholy.

In this mood her mind reverted to a letter she had just received from her mother. Mrs. Spragg wrote more fully than usual, and the unwonted flow of her pen had been occasioned by an event for which she had long yearned. For months she had pined for a sight of her grandson, had tried to screw up her courage to write and ask permission to visit him, and, finally breaking through her sedentary habits, had begun to haunt the neighbourhood of Washington Square, with the result that one afternoon she had had the luck to meet the little boy coming out of the house with his nurse. She had spoken to him, and he had remembered her and called her “Granny”; and the next day she had received a note from Mrs. Fairford saying that Ralph would be glad to send Paul to see her. Mrs. Spragg enlarged on the delights of the visit and the growing beauty and cleverness of her grandson. She described to Undine exactly how Paul was dressed, how he looked and what he said, and told her how he had examined everything in the room, and, finally coming upon his mother’s photograph, had asked who the lady was; and, on being told, had wanted to know if she was a very long way off, and when Granny thought she would come back.

As Undine re-read her mother’s pages, she felt an unusual tightness in her throat and two tears rose to her eyes. It was dreadful that her little boy should be growing up far away from her, perhaps dressed in clothes she would have hated; and wicked and unnatural that when he saw her picture he should have to be told who she was. “If I could only meet some good man who would give me a home and be a father to him,” she thought–and the tears overflowed and ran down.

Even as they fell, the door was thrown open to admit Raymond de Chelles, and the consciousness of the moisture still glistening on her cheeks perhaps strengthened her resolve to resist him, and thus made her more imperiously to be desired. Certain it is that on that day her suitor first alluded to a possibility which Madame de Trezac had prudently refrained from suggesting, there fell upon Undine’s attentive ears the magic phrase “annulment of marriage.”

Her alert intelligence immediately set to work in this new direction; but almost at the same moment she became aware of a subtle change of tone in the Princess and her mother, a change reflected in the corresponding decline of Madame de Trezac’s cordiality. Undine, since her arrival in Paris, had necessarily been less in the Princess’s company, but when they met she had found her as friendly as ever. It was manifestly not a failing of the Princess’s to forget past favours, and though increasingly absorbed by the demands of town life she treated her new friend with the same affectionate frankness, and Undine was given frequent opportunities to enlarge her Parisian acquaintance, not only in the Princess’s intimate circle but in the majestic drawing-rooms of the Hotel de Dordogne. Now, however, there was a perceptible decline in these signs of hospitality, and Undine, on calling one day on the Duchess, noticed that her appearance sent a visible flutter of discomfort through the circle about her hostess’s chair. Two or three of the ladies present looked away from the new-comer and at each other, and several of them seemed spontaneously to encircle without approaching her, while another–grey-haired, elderly and slightly frightened–with an “Adieu, ma bonne tante” to the Duchess, was hastily aided in her retreat down the long line of old gilded rooms.

The incident was too mute and rapid to have been noticeable had it not been followed by the Duchess’s resuming her conversation with the ladies nearest her as though Undine had just gone out of the room instead of entering it. The sense of having been thus rendered invisible filled Undine with a vehement desire to make herself seen, and an equally strong sense that all attempts to do so would be vain; and when, a few minutes later, she issued from the portals of the Hotel de Dordogne it was with the fixed resolve not to enter them again till she had had an explanation with the Princess.

She was spared the trouble of seeking one by the arrival, early the next morning, of Madame de Trezac, who, entering almost with the breakfast tray, mysteriously asked to be allowed to communicate something of importance.

“You’ll understand, I know, the Princess’s not coming herself–” Madame de Trezac began, sitting up very straight on the edge of the arm-chair over which Undine’s lace dressing-gown hung.

“If there’s anything she wants to say to me, I don’t,” Undine answered, leaning back among her rosy pillows, and reflecting compassionately that the face opposite her was just the colour of the cafe au lait she was pouring out.

“There are things that are…that might seem too pointed…if one said them one’s self,” Madame de Trezac continued. “Our dear Lili’s so good-natured… she so hates to do anything unfriendly; but she naturally thinks first of her mother…”

“Her mother? What’s the matter with her mother?”

“I told her I knew you didn’t understand. I was sure you’d take it in good part…”

Undine raised herself on her elbow. “What did Lili tell you to tell me?”

“Oh, not to TELL you…simply to ask if, just for the present, you’d mind avoiding the Duchess’s Thursdays …calling on any other day, that is.”

“Any other day? She’s not at home on any other. Do you mean she doesn’t want me to call?”

“Well–not while the Marquise de Chelles is in Paris. She’s the Duchess’s favourite niece–and of course they all hang together. That kind of family feeling is something you naturally don’t–“

Undine had a sudden glimpse of hidden intricacies.

“That was Raymond de Chelles’ mother I saw there yesterday? The one they hurried out when I came in?”

“It seems she was very much upset. She somehow heard your name.”

“Why shouldn’t she have heard my name? And why in the world should it upset her?”

Madame de Trezac heaved a hesitating sigh. “Isn’t it better to be frank? She thinks she has reason to feel badly–they all do.”

“To feel badly? Because her son wants to marry me?”

“Of course they know that’s impossible.” Madame de Trezac smiled compassionately. “But they’re afraid of your spoiling his other chances.”

Undine paused a moment before answering, “It won’t be impossible when my marriage is annulled,” she said.

The effect of this statement was less electrifying than she had hoped. Her visitor simply broke into a laugh. “My dear child! Your marriage annulled? Who can have put such a mad idea into your head?”

Undine’s gaze followed the pattern she was tracing with a lustrous nail on her embroidered bedspread. “Raymond himself,” she let fall.

This time there was no mistaking the effect she produced. Madame de Trezac, with a murmured “Oh,” sat gazing before her as if she had lost the thread of her argument; and it was only after a considerable interval that she recovered it sufficiently to exclaim: “They’ll never hear of it–absolutely never!”

“But they can’t prevent it, can they?”

“They can prevent its being of any use to you.”

“I see,” Undine pensively assented.

She knew the tone she had taken was virtually a declaration of war; but she was in a mood when the act of defiance, apart from its strategic value, was a satisfaction in itself. Moreover, if she could not gain her end without a fight it was better that the battle should be engaged while Raymond’s ardour was at its height. To provoke immediate hostilities she sent for him the same afternoon, and related, quietly and without comment, the incident of her visit to the Duchess, and the mission with which Madame de Trezac had been charged. In the circumstances, she went on to explain, it was manifestly impossible that she should continue to receive his visits; and she met his wrathful comments on his relatives by the gently but firmly expressed resolve not to be the cause of any disagreement between himself and his family.

XXX

A few days after her decisive conversation with Raymond de Chelles, Undine, emerging from the doors of the Nouveau Luxe, where she had been to call on the newly-arrived Mrs. Homer Branney, once more found herself face to face with Elmer Moffatt.

This time there was no mistaking his eagerness to be recognized. He stopped short as they met, and she read such pleasure in his eyes that she too stopped, holding out her hand.

“I’m glad you’re going to speak to me,” she said, and Moffatt reddened at the allusion.

“Well, I very nearly didn’t. I didn’t know you. You look about as old as you did when I first landed at Apex–remember?”

He turned back and began to walk at her side in the direction of the Champs Elysees.

“Say–this is all right!” he exclaimed; and she saw that his glance had left her and was ranging across the wide silvery square ahead of them to the congregated domes and spires beyond the river.

“Do you like Paris?” she asked, wondering what theatres he had been to.

“It beats everything.” He seemed to be breathing in deeply the impression of fountains, sculpture, leafy’ avenues and long-drawn architectural distances fading into the afternoon haze.

“I suppose you’ve been to that old church over there?” he went on, his gold-topped stick pointing toward the towers of Notre Dame.

“Oh, of course; when I used to sightsee. Have you never been to Paris before?”

“No, this is my first look-round. I came across in March.”

“In March?” she echoed inattentively. It never occurred to her that other people’s lives went on when they were out of her range of vision, and she tried in vain to remember what she had last heard of Moffatt. “Wasn’t that a bad time to leave Wall Street?”

“Well, so-so. Fact is, I was played out: needed a change.” Nothing in his robust mien confirmed the statement, and he did not seem inclined to develop it. “I presume you’re settled here now?” he went on. “I saw by the papers–“

“Yes,” she interrupted; adding, after a moment: “It was all a mistake from the first.”

“Well, I never thought he was your form,” said Moffatt.

His eyes had come back to her, and the look in them struck her as something she might use to her advantage; but the next moment he had glanced away with a furrowed brow, and she felt she had not wholly fixed his attention.

“I live at the other end of Paris. Why not come back and have tea with me?” she suggested, half moved by a desire to know more of his affairs, and half by the thought that a talk with him might help to shed some light on hers.

In the open taxi-cab he seemed to recover his sense of well-being, and leaned back, his hands on the knob of his stick, with the air of a man pleasantly aware of his privileges. “This Paris is a thundering good place,” he repeated once or twice as they rolled on through the crush and glitter of the afternoon; and when they had descended at Undine’s door, and he stood in her drawing-room, and looked out on the horse-chestnut trees rounding their green domes under the balcony, his satisfaction culminated in the comment: “I guess this lays out West End Avenue!”

His eyes met Undine’s with their old twinkle, and their expression encouraged her to murmur: “Of course there are times when I’m very lonely.”

She sat down behind the tea-table, and he stood at a little distance, watching her pull off her gloves with a queer comic twitch of his elastic mouth. “Well, I guess it’s only when you want to be,” he said, grasping a lyre-backed chair by its gilt cords, and sitting down astride of it, his light grey trousers stretching too tightly over his plump thighs. Undine was perfectly aware that he was a vulgar over-dressed man, with a red crease of fat above his collar and an impudent swaggering eye; yet she liked to see him there, and was conscious that he stirred the fibres of a self she had forgotten but had not ceased to understand.

She had fancied her avowal of loneliness might call forth some sentimental phrase; but though Moffatt was clearly pleased to be with her she saw that she was not the centre of his thoughts, and the discovery irritated her.

“I don’t suppose YOU’VE known what it is to be lonely since you’ve been in Europe?” she continued as she held out his tea-cup.

“Oh,” he said jocosely, “I don’t always go round with a guide”; and she rejoined on the same note: “Then perhaps I shall see something of you.”

“Why, there’s nothing would suit me better; but the fact is, I’m probably sailing next week.”

“Oh, are you? I’m sorry.” There was nothing feigned in her regret.

“Anything I can do for you across the pond?”

She hesitated. “There’s something you can do for me right off.”

He looked at her more attentively, as if his practised eve had passed through the surface of her beauty to what might be going on behind it. “Do you want my blessing again?” he asked with sudden irony.

Undine opened her eyes with a trustful look. “Yes–I do.”

“Well–I’ll be damned!” said Moffatt gaily.

“You’ve always been so awfully nice,” she began; and he leaned back, grasping both sides of the chair-back, and shaking it a little with his laugh.

He kept the same attitude while she proceeded to unfold her case, listening to her with the air of sober concentration that his frivolous face took on at any serious demand on his attention. When she had ended he kept the same look during an interval of silent pondering. “Is it the fellow who was over at Nice with you that day?”

She looked at him with surprise. “How did you know?”

“Why, I liked his looks,” said Moffatt simply. He got up and strolled toward the window. On the way he stopped before a table covered with showy trifles, and after looking at them for a moment singled out a dim old brown and golden book which Chelles had given her. He examined it lingeringly, as though it touched the spring of some choked-up sensibility for which he had no language. “Say–” he began: it was the usual prelude to his enthusiasms; but he laid the book down and turned back.

“Then you think if you had the cash you could fix it up all right with the Pope?”

Her heart began to beat. She remembered that he had once put a job in Ralph’s way, and had let her understand that he had done it partly for her sake.

“Well,” he continued, relapsing into hyperbole, “I wish I could send the old gentleman my cheque to-morrow morning: but the fact is I’m high and dry.” He looked at her with a sudden odd intensity. “If I WASN’T, I dunno but what–” The phrase was lost in his familiar whistle. “That’s an awfully fetching way you do your hair,” he said. It was a disappointment to Undine to hear that his affairs were not prospering, for she knew that in his world “pull” and solvency were closely related, and that such support as she had hoped he might give her would be contingent on his own situation. But she had again a fleeting sense of his mysterious power of accomplishing things in the teeth of adversity; and she answered: “What I want is your advice.”

He turned away and wandered across the room, his hands in his pockets. On her ornate writing desk he saw a photograph of Paul, bright-curled and sturdy-legged, in a manly reefer, and bent over it with a murmur of approval. “Say–what a fellow! Got him with you?”

Undine coloured. “No–” she began; and seeing his look of surprise, she embarked on her usual explanation. “I can’t tell you how I miss him,” she ended, with a ring of truth that carried conviction to her own ears if not to Moffatt’s.

“Why don’t you get him back, then?”

“Why, I–“

Moffatt had picked up the frame and was looking at the photograph more closely. “Pants!” he chuckled. “I declare!”

He turned back to Undine. “Who DOES he belong to, anyhow?”

“Belong to?”

“Who got him when you were divorced? Did you?”

“Oh, I got everything,” she said, her instinct of self-defense on the alert.

“So I thought.” He stood before her, stoutly planted on his short legs, and speaking with an aggressive energy. “Well, I know what I’d do if he was mine.”

“If he was yours?”

“And you tried to get him away from me. Fight you to a finish! If it cost me down to my last dollar I would.”

The conversation seemed to be wandering from the point, and she answered, with a touch of impatience: “It wouldn’t cost you anything like that. I haven’t got a dollar to fight back with.”

“Well, you ain’t got to fight. Your decree gave him to you, didn’t it? Why don’t you send right over and get him? That’s what I’d do if I was you.”

Undine looked up. “But I’m awfully poor; I can’t afford to have him here.”

“You couldn’t, up to now; but now you’re going to get married. You’re going to be able to give him a home and a father’s care–and the foreign languages. That’s what I’d say if I was you…His father takes considerable stock in him, don’t he?”

She coloured, a denial on her lips; but she could not shape it. “We’re both awfully fond of him, of course… His father’d never give him up!”

“Just so.” Moffatt’s face had grown as sharp as glass. “You’ve got the Marvells running. All you’ve got to do’s to sit tight and wait for their cheque.” He dropped back to his equestrian seat on the lyre-backed chair.

Undine stood up and moved uneasily toward the window. She seemed to see her little boy as though he were in the room with her; she did not understand how she could have lived so long without him…She stood for a long time without speaking, feeling behind her the concentrated irony of Moffatt’s gaze.

“You couldn’t lend me the money–manage to borrow it for me, I mean?” she finally turned back to ask. He laughed. “If I could manage to borrow any money at this particular minute–well, I’d have to lend every dollar of it to Elmer Moffatt, Esquire. I’m stone-broke, if you want to know. And wanted for an Investigation too. That’s why I’m over here improving my mind.”

“Why, I thought you were going home next week?”

He grinned. “I am, because I’ve found out there’s a party wants me to stay away worse than the courts want me back. Making the trip just for my private satisfaction–there won’t be any money in it, I’m afraid.”

Leaden disappointment descended on Undine. She had felt almost sure of Moffatt’s helping her, and for an instant she wondered if some long-smouldering jealousy had flamed up under its cold cinders. But another look at his face denied her this solace; and his evident indifference was the last blow to her pride. The twinge it gave her prompted her to ask: “Don’t you ever mean to get married?”

Moffatt gave her a quick look. “Why, I shouldn’t wonder–one of these days. Millionaires always collect something; but I’ve got to collect my millions first.”

He spoke coolly and half-humorously, and before he had ended she had lost all interest in his reply. He seemed aware of the fact, for he stood up and held out his hand. “Well, so long, Mrs. Marvell. It’s been uncommonly pleasant to see you; and you’d better think over what I’ve said.”

She laid her hand sadly in his. “You’ve never had a child,” she replied.

XXXI

Nearly two years had passed since Ralph Marvell, waking from his long sleep in the hot summer light of Washington Square, had found that the face of life was changed for him.

In the interval he had gradually adapted himself to the new order of things; but the months of adaptation had been a time of such darkness and confusion that, from the vantage-ground of his recovered lucidity, he could not yet distinguish the stages by which he had worked his way out; and even now his footing was not secure.

His first effort had been to readjust his values–to take an inventory of them, and reclassify them, so that one at least might be made to appear as important as those he had lost; otherwise there could be no reason why he should go on living. He applied himself doggedly to this attempt; but whenever he thought he had found a reason that his mind could rest in, it gave way under him, and the old struggle for a foothold began again. His two objects in life were his boy and his book. The boy was incomparably the stronger argument, yet the less serviceable in filling the void. Ralph felt his son all the while, and all through his other feelings; but he could not think about him actively and continuously, could not forever exercise his eager empty dissatisfied mind on the relatively simple problem of clothing, educating and amusing a little boy of six. Yet Paul’s existence was the all-sufficient reason for his own; and he turned again, with a kind of cold fervour, to his abandoned literary dream. Material needs obliged him to go on with his regular business; but, the day’s work over, he was possessed of a leisure as bare and as blank as an unfurnished house, yet that was at least his own to furnish as he pleased.

Meanwhile he was beginning to show a presentable face to the world, and to be once more treated like a man in whose case no one is particularly interested. His men friends ceased to say: “Hallo, old chap, I never saw you looking fitter!” and elderly ladies no longer told him they were sure he kept too much to himself, and urged him to drop in any afternoon for a quiet talk. People left him to his sorrow as a man is left to an incurable habit, an unfortunate tie: they ignored it, or looked over its head if they happened to catch a glimpse of it at his elbow.

These glimpses were given to them more and more rarely. The smothered springs of life were bubbling up in Ralph, and there were days when he was glad to wake and see the sun in his window, and when he began to plan his book, and to fancy that the planning really interested him. He could even maintain the delusion for several days–for intervals each time appreciably longer–before it shrivelled up again in a scorching blast of disenchantment. The worst of it was that he could never tell when these hot gusts of anguish would overtake him. They came sometimes just when he felt most secure, when he was saying to himself: “After all, things are really worth while–” sometimes even when he was sitting with Clare Van Degen, listening to her voice, watching her hands, and turning over in his mind the opening chapters of his book.

“You ought to write”; they had one and all said it to him from the first; and he fancied he might have begun sooner if he had not been urged on by their watchful fondness. Everybody wanted him to write–everybody had decided that he ought to, that he would, that he must be persuaded to; and the incessant imperceptible pressure of encouragement–the assumption of those about him that because it would be good for him to write he must naturally be able to–acted on his restive nerves as a stronger deterrent than disapproval.

Even Clare had fallen into the same mistake; and one day, as he sat talking with her on the verandah of Laura Fairford’s house on the Sound–where they now most frequently met–Ralph had half-impatiently rejoined: “Oh, if you think it’s literature I need–!”

Instantly he had seen her face change, and the speaking hands tremble on her knee. But she achieved the feat of not answering him, or turning her steady eyes from the dancing mid-summer water at the foot of Laura’s lawn. Ralph leaned a little nearer, and for an instant his hand imagined the flutter of hers. But instead of clasping it he drew back, and rising from his chair wandered away to the other end of the verandah…No, he didn’t feel as Clare felt. If he loved her–as he sometimes thought he did–it was not in the same way. He had a great tenderness for her, he was more nearly happy with her than with any one else; he liked to sit and talk with her, and watch her face and her hands, and he wished there were some way–some different way–of letting her know it; but he could not conceive that tenderness and desire could ever again be one for him: such a notion as that seemed part of the monstrous sentimental muddle on which his life had gone aground.

“I shall write–of course I shall write some day,” he said, turning back to his seat. “I’ve had a novel in the back of my head for years; and now’s the time to pull it out.”

He hardly knew what he was saying; but before the end of the sentence he saw that Clare had understood what he meant to convey, and henceforth he felt committed to letting her talk to him as much as she pleased about his book. He himself, in consequence, took to thinking about it more consecutively; and just as his friends ceased to urge him to write, he sat down in earnest to begin.

The vision that had come to him had no likeness to any of his earlier imaginings. Two or three subjects had haunted him, pleading for expression, during the first years of his marriage; but these now seemed either too lyrical or too tragic. He no longer saw life on the heroic scale: he wanted to do something in which men should look no bigger than the insects they were. He contrived in the course of time to reduce one of his old subjects to these dimensions, and after nights of brooding he made a dash at it, and wrote an opening chapter that struck him as not too bad. In the exhilaration of this first attempt he spent some pleasant evenings revising and polishing his work; and gradually a feeling of authority and importance developed in him. In the morning, when he woke, instead of his habitual sense of lassitude, he felt an eagerness to be up and doing, and a conviction that his individual task was a necessary part of the world’s machinery. He kept his secret with the beginner’s deadly fear of losing his hold on his half-real creations if he let in any outer light on them; but he went about with a more assured step, shrank less from meeting his friends, and even began to dine out again, and to laugh at some of the jokes he heard.

Laura Fairford, to get Paul away from town, had gone early to the country; and Ralph, who went down to her every Saturday, usually found Clare Van Degen there. Since his divorce he had never entered his cousin’s pinnacled palace; and Clare had never asked him why he stayed away. This mutual silence had been their sole allusion to Van Degen’s share in the catastrophe, though Ralph had spoken frankly of its other aspects. They talked, however, most often of impersonal subjects–books, pictures, plays, or whatever the world that interested them was doing–and she showed no desire to draw him back to his own affairs. She was again staying late in town–to have a pretext, as he guessed, for coming down on Sundays to the Fairfords’–and they often made the trip together in her motor; but he had not yet spoken to her of having begun his book. One May evening, however, as they sat alone in the verandah, he suddenly told her that he was writing. As he spoke his heart beat like a boy’s; but once the words were out they gave him a feeling of self-confidence, and he began to sketch his plan, and then to go into its details. Clare listened devoutly, her eyes burning on him through the dusk like the stars deepening above the garden; and when she got up to go in he followed her with a new sense of reassurance.

The dinner that evening was unusually pleasant. Charles Bowen, just back from his usual spring travels, had come straight down to his friends from the steamer; and the fund of impressions he brought with him gave Ralph a desire to be up and wandering. And why not–when the book was done? He smiled across the table at Clare.

“Next summer you’ll have to charter a yacht, and take us all off to the Aegean. We can’t have Charles condescending to us about the out-of-the-way places he’s been seeing.”

Was it really he who was speaking, and his cousin who was sending him back her dusky smile? Well–why not, again? The seasons renewed themselves, and he too was putting out a new growth. “My book–my book–my book,” kept repeating itself under all his thoughts, as Undine’s name had once perpetually murmured there. That night as he went up to bed he said to himself that he was actually ceasing to think about his wife…

As he passed Laura’s door she called him in, and put her arms about him.

“You look so well, dear!”

“But why shouldn’t I?” he answered gaily, as if ridiculing the fancy that he had ever looked otherwise. Paul was sleeping behind the next door, and the sense of the boy’s nearness gave him a warmer glow. His little world was rounding itself out again, and once more he felt safe and at peace in its circle.

His sister looked as if she had something more to say; but she merely kissed him good night, and he went up whistling to his room. The next morning he was to take a walk with Clare, and while he lounged about the drawing-room, waiting for her to come down, a servant came in with the Sunday papers. Ralph picked one up, and was absently unfolding it when his eye fell on his own name: a sight he had been spared since the last echoes of his divorce had subsided. His impulse was to fling the paper down, to hurl it as far from him as he could; but a grim fascination tightened his hold and drew his eyes back to the hated head-line.

NEW YORK BEAUTY WEDS FRENCH NOBLEMAN MRS. UNDINE MARVELL CONFIDENT POPE WILL ANNUL PREVIOUS MARRIAGE MRS. MARVELL TALKS ABOUT HER CASE

There it was before him in all its long-drawn horror–an “interview”–an “interview” of Undine’s about her coming marriage! Ah, she talked about her case indeed! Her confidences filled the greater part of a column, and the only detail she seemed to have omitted was the name of her future husband, who was referred to by herself as “my fiance” and by the interviewer as “the Count” or “a prominent scion of the French nobility.”

Ralph heard Laura’s step behind him. He threw the paper aside and their eyes met.

“Is this what you wanted to tell me last night?”

“Last night?–Is it in the papers?”

“Who told you? Bowen? What else has he heard?”

“Oh, Ralph, what does it matter–what can it matter?”

“Who’s the man? Did he tell you that?” Ralph insisted. He saw her growing agitation. “Why can’t you answer? Is it any one I know?”

“He was told in Paris it was his friend Raymond de Chelles.”

Ralph laughed, and his laugh sounded in his own ears like an echo of the dreary mirth with which he had filled Mr. Spragg’s office the day he had learned that Undine intended to divorce him. But now his wrath was seasoned with a wholesome irony. The fact of his wife’s having reached another stage in her ascent fell into its place as a part of the huge human buffoonery.

“Besides,” Laura went on, “it’s all perfect nonsense, of course. How in the world can she have her marriage annulled?”

Ralph pondered: this put the matter in another light. “With a great deal of money I suppose she might.”

“Well, she certainly won’t get that from Chelles. He’s far from rich, Charles tells me.” Laura waited, watching him, before she risked: “That’s what convinces me she wouldn’t have him if she could.”

Ralph shrugged. “There may be other inducements. But she won’t be able to manage it.” He heard himself speaking quite collectedly. Had Undine at last lost her power of wounding him?

Clare came in, dressed for their walk, and under Laura’s anxious eyes he picked up the newspaper and held it out with a careless: “Look at this!”

His cousin’s glance flew down the column, and he saw the tremor of her lashes as she read. Then she lifted her head. “But you’ll be free!” Her face was as vivid as a flower.

“Free? I’m free now, as far as that goes!”

“Oh, but it will go so much farther when she has another name–when she’s a different person altogether! Then you’ll really have Paul to yourself.”

“Paul?” Laura intervened with a nervous laugh. “But there’s never been the least doubt about his having Paul!”

They heard the boy’s laughter on the lawn, and she went out to join him. Ralph was still looking at his cousin.

“You’re glad, then?” came from him involuntarily; and she startled him by bursting into tears. He bent over and kissed her on the cheek.

XXXII

Ralph, as the days passed, felt that Clare was right: if Undine married again he would possess himself more completely, be more definitely rid of his past. And he did not doubt that she would gain her end: he knew her violent desires and her cold tenacity. If she had failed to capture Van Degen it was probably because she lacked experience of that particular type of man, of his huge immediate wants and feeble vacillating purposes; most of all, because she had not yet measured the strength of the social considerations that restrained him. It was a mistake she was not likely to repeat, and her failure had probably been a useful preliminary to success. It was a long time since Ralph had allowed himself to think of her, and as he did so the overwhelming fact of her beauty became present to him again, no longer as an element of his being but as a power dispassionately estimated. He said to himself: “Any man who can feel at all will feel it as I did”; and the conviction grew in him that Raymond de Chelles, of whom he had formed an idea through Bowen’s talk, was not the man to give her up, even if she failed to obtain the release his religion exacted.

Meanwhile Ralph was gradually beginning to feel himself freer and lighter. Undine’s act, by cutting the last link between them, seemed to have given him back to himself; and the mere fact that he could consider his case in all its bearings, impartially and ironically, showed him the distance he had travelled, the extent to which he had renewed himself. He had been moved, too, by Clare’s cry of joy at his release. Though the nature of his feeling for her had not changed he was aware of a new quality in their friendship. When he went back to his book again his sense of power had lost its asperity, and the spectacle of life seemed less like a witless dangling of limp dolls. He was well on in his second chapter now.

This lightness of mood was still on him when, returning one afternoon to Washington Square, full of projects for a long evening’s work, he found his mother awaiting him with a strange face. He followed her into the drawing-room, and she explained that there had been a telephone message she didn’t understand–something perfectly crazy about Paul–of course it was all a mistake…

Ralph’s first thought was of an accident, and his heart contracted. “Did Laura telephone?”

“No, no; not Laura. It seemed to be a message from Mrs. Spragg: something about sending some one here to fetch him–a queer name like Heeny–to fetch him to a steamer on Saturday. I was to be sure to have his things packed…but of course it’s a misunderstanding…” She gave an uncertain laugh, and looked up at Ralph as though entreating him to return the reassurance she had given him.

“Of course, of course,” he echoed.

He made his mother repeat her statement; but the unforeseen always flurried her, and she was confused and inaccurate. She didn’t actually know who had telephoned: the voice hadn’t sounded like Mrs. Spragg’s… A woman’s voice; yes–oh, not a lady’s! And there was certainly something about a steamer…but he knew how the telephone bewildered her…and she was sure she was getting a little deaf. Hadn’t he better call up the Malibran? Of course it was all a mistake–but… well, perhaps he HAD better go there himself…

As he reached the front door a letter clinked in the box, and he saw his name on an ordinary looking business envelope. He turned the door-handle, paused again, and stooped to take out the letter. It bore the address of the firm of lawyers who had represented Undine in the divorce proceedings and as he tore open the envelope Paul’s name started out at him.

Mrs. Marvell had followed him into the hall, and her cry broke the silence. “Ralph–Ralph–is it anything she’s done?”

“Nothing–it’s nothing.” He stared at her. “What’s the day of the week?”

“Wednesday. Why, what–?” She suddenly seemed to understand. “She’s not going to take him away from us?”

Ralph dropped into a chair, crumpling the letter in his hand. He had been in a dream, poor fool that he was–a dream about his child! He sat gazing at the type-written phrases that spun themselves out before him. “My client’s circumstances now happily permitting… at last in a position to offer her son a home…long separation…a mother’s feelings…every social and educational advantage”…and then, at the end, the poisoned dart that struck him speechless: “The courts having awarded her the sole custody…”

The sole custody! But that meant that Paul was hers, hers only, hers for always: that his father had no more claim on him than any casual stranger in the street! And he, Ralph Marvell, a sane man, young, able-bodied, in full possession of his wits, had assisted at the perpetration of this abominable wrong, had passively forfeited his right to the flesh of his body, the blood of his being! But it couldn’t be–of course it couldn’t be. The preposterousness of it proved that it wasn’t true. There was a mistake somewhere; a mistake his own lawyer would instantly rectify. If a hammer hadn’t been drumming in his head he could have recalled the terms of the decree–but for the moment all the details of the agonizing episode were lost in a blur of uncertainty.

To escape his mother’s silent anguish of interrogation he stood up and said: “I’ll see Mr. Spragg–of course it’s a mistake.” But as he spoke he retravelled the hateful months during the divorce proceedings, remembering his incomprehensible lassitude, his acquiescence in his family’s determination to ignore the whole episode, and his gradual lapse into the same state of apathy. He recalled all the old family catchwords, the full and elaborate vocabulary of evasion: “delicacy,” “pride,” “personal dignity,” “preferring not to know about such things”; Mrs. Marvell’s: “All I ask is that you won’t mention the subject to your grandfather,” Mr. Dagonet’s: “Spare your mother, Ralph, whatever happens,” and even Laura’s terrified: “Of course, for Paul’s sake, there must be no scandal.”

For Paul’s sake! And it was because, for Paul’s sake, there must be no scandal, that he, Paul’s father, had tamely abstained from defending his rights and contesting his wife’s charges, and had thus handed the child over to her keeping!

As his cab whirled him up Fifth Avenue, Ralph’s whole body throbbed with rage against the influences that had reduced him to such weakness. Then, gradually, he saw that the weakness was innate in him. He had been eloquent enough, in his free youth, against the conventions of his class; yet when the moment came to show his contempt for them they had mysteriously mastered him, deflecting his course like some hidden hereditary failing. As he looked back it seemed as though even his great disaster had been conventionalized and sentimentalized by this inherited attitude: that the thoughts he had thought about it were only those of generations of Dagonets, and that there had been nothing real and his own in his life but the foolish passion he had been trying so hard to think out of existence.

Halfway to the Malibran he changed his direction, and drove to the house of the lawyer he had consulted at the time of his divorce. The lawyer had not yet come up town, and Ralph had a half hour of bitter meditation before the sound of a latch-key brought him to his feet. The visit did not last long. His host, after an affable greeting, listened without surprise to what he had to say, and when he had ended reminded him with somewhat ironic precision that, at the time of the divorce, he had asked for neither advice nor information–had simply declared that he wanted to “turn his back on the whole business” (Ralph recognized the phrase as one of his grandfather’s), and, on hearing that in that case he had only to abstain from action, and was in no need of legal services, had gone away without farther enquiries.

“You led me to infer you had your reasons–” the slighted counsellor concluded; and, in reply to Ralph’s breathless question, he subjoined, “Why, you see, the case is closed, and I don’t exactly know on what ground you can re-open it–unless, of course, you can bring evidence showing that the irregularity of the mother’s life is such…”

“She’s going to marry again,” Ralph threw in.

“Indeed? Well, that in itself can hardly be described as irregular. In fact, in certain circumstances it might be construed as an advantage to the child.”

“Then I’m powerless?”

“Why–unless there’s an ulterior motive–through which pressure might be brought to bear.”

“You mean that the first thing to do is to find out what she’s up to?”

“Precisely. Of course, if it should prove to be a genuine case of maternal feeling, I won’t conceal from you that the outlook’s bad. At most, you could probably arrange to see your boy at stated intervals.”

To see his boy at stated intervals! Ralph wondered how a sane man could sit there, looking responsible and efficient, and talk such rubbish…As he got up to go the lawyer detained him to add: “Of course there’s no immediate cause for alarm. It will take time to enforce the provision of the Dakota decree in New York, and till it’s done your son can’t be taken from you. But there’s sure to be a lot of nasty talk in the papers; and you’re bound to lose in the end.”

Ralph thanked him and left.

He sped northward to the Malibran, where he learned that Mr. and Mrs. Spragg were at dinner. He sent his name down to the subterranean restaurant, and Mr. Spragg presently appeared between the limp portieres of the “Adam” writing-room. He had grown older and heavier, as if illness instead of health had put more flesh on his bones, and there were greyish tints in the hollows of his face.

“What’s this about Paul?” Ralph exclaimed. “My mother’s had a message we can’t make out.”

Mr. Spragg sat down, with the effect of immersing his spinal column in the depths of the arm-chair he selected. He crossed his legs, and swung one foot to and fro in its high wrinkled boot with elastic sides.

“Didn’t you get a letter?” he asked.

“From my–from Undine’s lawyers? Yes.” Ralph held it out. “It’s queer reading. She hasn’t hitherto been very keen to have Paul with her.”

Mr. Spragg, adjusting his glasses, read the letter slowly, restored it to the envelope and gave it back. “My daughter has intimated that she wishes these gentlemen to act for her. I haven’t received any additional instructions from her,” he said, with none of the curtness of tone that his stiff legal vocabulary implied.

“But the first communication I received was from you–at least from Mrs. Spragg.”

Mr. Spragg drew his beard through his hand. “The ladies are apt to be a trifle hasty. I believe Mrs. Spragg had a letter yesterday instructing her to select a reliable escort for Paul; and I suppose she thought–“

“Oh, this is all too preposterous!” Ralph burst out, springing from his seat. “You don’t for a moment imagine, do you–any of you–that I’m going to deliver up my son like a bale of goods in answer to any instructions in God’s world?–Oh, yes, I know–I let him go–I abandoned my right to him…but I didn’t know what I was doing…I was sick with grief and misery. My people were awfully broken up over the whole business, and I wanted to spare them. I wanted, above all, to spare my boy when he grew up. If I’d contested the case you know what the result would have been. I let it go by default–I made no conditions all I wanted was to keep Paul, and never to let him hear a word against his mother!”

Mr. Spragg received this passionate appeal in a silence that implied not so much disdain or indifference, as the total inability to deal verbally with emotional crises. At length, he said, a slight unsteadiness in his usually calm tones: “I presume at the time it was optional with you to demand Paul’s custody.”

“Oh, yes–it was optional,” Ralph sneered.

Mr. Spragg looked at him compassionately. “I’m sorry you didn’t do it,” he said.

XXXIII

The upshot of Ralph’s visit was that Mr. Spragg, after considerable deliberation, agreed, pending farther negotiations between the opposing lawyers, to undertake that no attempt should be made to remove Paul from his father’s custody. Nevertheless, he seemed to think it quite natural that Undine, on the point of making a marriage which would put it in her power to give her child a suitable home, should assert her claim on him. It was more disconcerting to Ralph to learn that Mrs. Spragg, for once departing from her attitude of passive impartiality, had eagerly abetted her daughter’s move; he had somehow felt that Undine’s desertion of the child had established a kind of mute understanding between himself and his mother-in-law.

“I thought Mrs. Spragg would know there’s no earthly use trying to take Paul from me,” he said with a desperate awkwardness of entreaty, and Mr. Spragg startled him by replying: “I presume his grandma thinks he’ll belong to her more if we keep him in the family.”

Ralph, abruptly awakened from his dream of recovered peace, found himself confronted on every side by. indifference or hostility: it was as though the June fields in which his boy was playing had suddenly opened to engulph him. Mrs. Marvell’s fears and tremors were almost harder to bear than the Spraggs’ antagonism; and for the next few days Ralph wandered about miserably, dreading some fresh communication from Undine’s lawyers, yet racked by the strain of hearing nothing more from them. Mr. Spragg had agreed to cable his daughter asking her to await a letter before enforcing her demands; but on the fourth day after Ralph’s visit to the Malibran a telephone message summoned him to his father-in-law’s office.

Half an hour later their talk was over and he stood once more on the landing outside Mr. Spragg’s door. Undine’s answer had come and Paul’s fate was sealed. His mother refused to give him up, refused to await the arrival of her lawyer’s letter, and reiterated, in more peremptory language, her demand that the child should be sent immediately to Paris in Mrs. Heeny’s care.

Mr. Spragg, in face of Ralph’s entreaties, remained pacific but remote. It was evident that, though he had no wish to quarrel with Ralph, he saw no reason for resisting Undine. “I guess she’s got the law on her side,” he said; and in response to Ralph’s passionate remonstrances he added fatalistically: “I presume you’ll have to leave the matter to my daughter.”

Ralph had gone to the office resolved to control his temper and keep on the watch for any shred of information he might glean; but it soon became clear that Mr. Spragg knew as little as himself of Undine’s projects, or of the stage her plans had reached. All she had apparently vouchsafed her parent was the statement that she intended to re-marry, and the command to send Paul over; and Ralph reflected that his own betrothal to her had probably been announced to Mr. Spragg in the same curt fashion.

The thought brought back an overwhelming sense of the past. One by one the details of that incredible moment revived, and he felt in his veins the glow of rapture with which he had first approached the dingy threshold he was now leaving. There came back to him with peculiar vividness the memory of his rushing up to Mr. Spragg’s office to consult him about a necklace for Undine. Ralph recalled the incident because his eager appeal for advice had been received by Mr. Spragg with the very phrase he had just used: “I presume you’ll have to leave the matter to my daughter.”

Ralph saw him slouching in his chair, swung sideways from the untidy desk, his legs stretched out, his hands in his pockets, his jaws engaged on the phantom tooth-pick; and, in a corner of the office, the figure of a middle-sized red-faced young man who seemed to have been interrupted in the act of saying something disagreeable.

“Why, it must have been then that I first saw Moffatt,” Ralph reflected; and the thought suggested the memory of other, subsequent meetings in the same building, and of frequent ascents to Moffatt’s office during the ardent weeks of their mysterious and remunerative “deal.”

Ralph wondered if Moffatt’s office were still in the Ararat; and on the way out he paused before the black tablet affixed to the wall of the vestibule and sought and found the name in its familiar place.

The next moment he was again absorbed in his own cares. Now that he had learned the imminence of Paul’s danger, and the futility of pleading for delay, a thousand fantastic projects were contending in his head. To get the boy away–that seemed the first thing to do: to put him out of reach, and then invoke the law, get the case re-opened, and carry the fight from court to court till his rights should be recognized. It would cost a lot of money–well, the money would have to be found. The first step was to secure the boy’s temporary safety; after that, the question of ways and means would have to be considered…Had there ever been a time, Ralph wondered, when that question hadn’t been at the root of all the others?

He had promised to let Clare Van Degen know the result of his visit, and half an hour later he was in her drawing-room. It was the first time he had entered it since his divorce; but Van Degen was tarpon-fishing in California–and besides, he had to see Clare. His one relief was in talking to her, in feverishly turning over with her every possibility of delay and obstruction; and he marvelled at the intelligence and energy she brought to the discussion of these questions. It was as if she had never before felt strongly enough about anything to put her heart or her brains into it; but now everything in her was at work for him.

She listened intently to what he told her; then she said: “You tell me it will cost a great deal; but why take it to the courts at all? Why not give the money to Undine instead of to your lawyers?”

Ralph looked at her in surprise, and she continued: “Why do you suppose she’s suddenly made up her mind she must have Paul?”

“That’s comprehensible enough to any one who knows her. She wants him because he’ll give her the appearance of respectability. Having him with her will prove, as no mere assertions can, that all the rights are on her side and the ‘wrongs’ on mine.”

Clare considered. “Yes; that’s the obvious answer. But shall I tell you what I think, my dear? You and I are both completely out-of-date. I don’t believe Undine cares a straw for ‘the appearance of respectability.’ What she wants is the money for her annulment.”

Ralph uttered an incredulous exclamation. “But don’t you see?” she hurried on. “It’s her only hope–her last chance. She’s much too clever to burden herself with the child merely to annoy you. What she wants is to make you buy him back from her.” She stood up and came to him with outstretched hands. “Perhaps I can be of use to you at last!”

“You?” He summoned up a haggard smile. “As if you weren’t always–letting me load you with all my bothers!”

“Oh, if only I’ve hit on the way out of this one! Then there wouldn’t be any others left!” Her eyes followed him intently as he turned away to the window and stood staring down at the sultry prospect of Fifth Avenue. As he turned over her conjecture its probability became more and more apparent. It put into logical relation all the incoherencies of Undine’s recent conduct, completed and defined her anew as if a sharp line had been drawn about her fading image.

“If it’s that, I shall soon know,” he said, turning back into the room. His course had instantly become plain. He had only to resist and Undine would have to show her hand. Simultaneously with this thought there sprang up in his mind the remembrance of the autumn afternoon in Paris when he had come home and found her, among her half-packed finery, desperately bewailing her coming motherhood. Clare’s touch was on his arm. “If I’m right–you WILL let me help?”

He laid his hand on hers without speaking, and she went on:

“It will take a lot of money: all these law-suits do. Besides, she’d be ashamed to sell him cheap. You must be ready to give her anything she wants. And I’ve got a lot saved up–money of my own, I mean…”

“Your own?” As he looked at her the rare blush rose under her brown skin.

“My very own. Why shouldn’t you believe me? I’ve been hoarding up my scrap of an income for years, thinking that some day I’d find I couldn’t stand this any longer…” Her gesture embraced their sumptuous setting. “But now I know I shall never budge. There are the children; and besides, things are easier for me since–” she paused, embarrassed.

“Yes, yes; I know.” He felt like completing her phrase: “Since my wife has furnished you with the means of putting pressure on your husband–” but he simply repeated: “I know.”

“And you WILL let me help?”

“Oh, we must get at the facts first.” He caught her hands in his with sudden energy. “As you say, when Paul’s safe there won’t be another bother left!”

XXXIV

The means of raising the requisite amount of money became, during the next few weeks, the anxious theme of all Ralph’s thoughts. His lawyers’ enquiries soon brought the confirmation of Clare’s surmise, and it became clear that–for reasons swathed in all the ingenuities of legal verbiage–Undine might, in return for a substantial consideration, be prevailed on to admit that it was for her son’s advantage to remain with his father.

The day this admission was communicated to Ralph his first impulse was to carry the news to his cousin. His mood was one of pure exaltation; he seemed to be hugging his boy to him as he walked. Paul and he were to belong to each other forever: no mysterious threat of separation could ever menace them again! He had the blissful sense of relief that the child himself might have had on waking out of a frightened dream and finding the jolly daylight in his room.

Clare at once renewed her entreaty to be allowed to aid in ransoming her little cousin, but Ralph tried to put her off by explaining that he meant to “look about.”

“Look where? In the Dagonet coffers? Oh, Ralph, what’s the use of pretending? Tell me what you’ve got to give her.” It was amazing how his cousin suddenly dominated him. But as yet he couldn’t go into the details of the bargain. That the reckoning between himself and Undine should be settled in dollars and cents seemed the last bitterest satire on his dreams: he felt himself miserably diminished by the smallness of what had filled his world.

Nevertheless, the looking about had to be done; and a day came when he found himself once more at the door of Elmer Moffatt’s office. His thoughts had been drawn back to Moffatt by the insistence with which the latter’s name had lately been put forward by the press in connection with a revival of the Ararat investigation. Moffatt, it appeared, had been regarded as one of the most valuable witnesses for the State; his return from Europe had been anxiously awaited, his unreadiness to testify caustically criticized; then at last he had arrived, had gone on to Washington–and had apparently had nothing to tell.

Ralph was too deep in his own troubles to waste any wonder over this anticlimax; but the frequent appearance of Moffatt’s name in the morning papers acted as an unconscious suggestion. Besides, to whom else could he look for help? The sum his wife demanded could be acquired only by “a quick turn,” and the fact that Ralph had once rendered the same kind of service to Moffatt made it natural to appeal to him now. The market, moreover, happened to be booming, and it seemed not unlikely that so experienced a speculator might have a “good thing” up his sleeve.

Moffatt’s office had been transformed since Ralph’s last visit. Paint, varnish and brass railings gave an air of opulence to the outer precincts, and the inner room, with its mahogany bookcases containing morocco-bound “sets” and its wide blue leather arm-chairs, lacked only a palm or two to resemble the lounge of a fashionable hotel. Moffatt himself, as he came forward, gave Ralph the impression of having been done over by the same hand: he was smoother, broader, more supremely tailored, and his whole person exhaled the faintest whiff of an expensive scent. He installed his visitor in one of the blue arm-chairs, and sitting opposite, an elbow on his impressive “Washington” desk, listened attentively while Ralph made his request.

“You want to be put onto something good in a damned hurry?” Moffatt twisted his moustache between two plump square-tipped fingers with a little black growth on their lower joints. “I don’t suppose,” he remarked, “there’s a sane man between here and San Francisco who isn’t consumed by that yearning.”

Having permitted himself this pleasantry he passed on to business. “Yes–it’s a first-rate time to buy: no doubt of that. But you say you want to make a quick turn-over? Heard of a soft thing that won’t wait, I presume? That’s apt to be the way with soft things–all kinds of ’em. There’s always other fellows after them.” Moffatt’s smile was playful. “Well, I’d go considerably out of my way to do you a good turn, because you did me one when I needed it mighty bad. ‘In youth you sheltered me.’ Yes, sir, that’s the kind I am.” He stood up, sauntered to the other side of the room, and took a small object from the top of the bookcase.

“Fond of these pink crystals?” He held the oriental toy against the light. “Oh, I ain’t a judge–but now and then I like to pick up a pretty thing.” Ralph noticed that his eyes caressed it.

“Well–now let’s talk. You say you’ve got to have the funds for your–your investment within three weeks. That’s quick work. And you want a hundred thousand. Can you put up fifty?”

Ralph had been prepared for the question, but when it came he felt a moment’s tremor. He knew he could count on half the amount from his grandfather; could possibly ask Fairford for a small additional loan–but what of the rest? Well, there was Clare. He had always known there would be no other way. And after all, the money was Clare’s–it was Dagonet money. At least she said it was. All the misery of his predicament was distilled into the short silence that preceded his answer: “Yes–I think so.”

“Well, I guess I can double it for you.” Moffatt spoke with an air of Olympian modesty. “Anyhow, I’ll try. Only don’t tell the other girls!”

He proceeded to develop his plan to ears which Ralph tried to make alert and attentive, but in which perpetually, through the intricate concert of facts and figures, there broke the shout of a small boy racing across a suburban lawn. “When I pick him up to-night he’ll be mine for good!” Ralph thought as Moffatt summed up: “There’s the whole scheme in a nut-shell; but you’d better think it over. I don’t want to let you in for anything you ain’t quite sure about.” “Oh, if you’re sure–” Ralph was already calculating the time it would take to dash up to Clare Van Degen’s on his way to catch the train for the Fairfords’.

His impatience made it hard to pay due regard to Moffatt’s parting civilities. “Glad to have seen you,” he heard the latter assuring him with a final hand-grasp. “Wish you’d dine with me some evening at my club”; and, as Ralph murmured a vague acceptance: “How’s that boy of yours, by the way?” Moffatt continued. “He was a stunning chap last time I saw him.–Excuse me if I’ve put my foot in it; but I understood you kept him with you…? Yes: that’s what I thought…. Well, so long.”

Clare’s inner sitting-room was empty; but the servant, presently returning, led Ralph into the gilded and tapestried wilderness where she occasionally chose to receive her visitors. There, under Popple’s effigy of herself, she sat, small and alone, on a monumental sofa behind a tea-table laden with gold plate; while from his lofty frame, on the opposite wall Van Degen, portrayed by a “powerful” artist, cast on her the satisfied eye of proprietorship.

Ralph, swept forward on the blast of his excitement, felt as in a dream the frivolous perversity of her receiving him in such a setting instead of in their usual quiet corner; but there was no room in his mind for anything but the cry that broke from him: “I believe I’ve done it!”

He sat down and explained to her by what means, trying, as best he could, to restate the particulars of Moffatt’s deal; and her manifest ignorance of business methods had the effect of making his vagueness appear less vague.

“Anyhow, he seems to be sure it’s a safe thing. I understand he’s in with Rolliver now, and Rolliver practically controls Apex. This is some kind of a scheme to buy up all the works of public utility at Apex. They’re practically sure of their charter, and Moffatt tells me I can count on doubling my investment within a few weeks. Of course I’ll go into the details if you like–“

“Oh, no; you’ve made it all so clear to me!” She really made him feel he had. “And besides, what on earth does it matter? The great thing is that it’s done.” She lifted her sparkling eyes. “And now–my share–you haven’t told me…”

He explained that Mr. Dagonet, to whom he had already named the amount demanded, had at once promised him twenty-five thousand dollars, to be eventually deducted from his share of the estate. His mother had something put by that she insisted on contributing; and Henley Fairford, of his own accord, had come forward with ten thousand: it was awfully decent of Henley…

“Even Henley!” Clare sighed. “Then I’m the only one left out?”

Ralph felt the colour in his face. “Well, you see, I shall need as much as fifty–“

Her hands flew together joyfully. “But then you’ve got to let me help! Oh, I’m so glad–so glad! I’ve twenty thousand waiting.”

He looked about the room, checked anew by all its oppressive implications. “You’re a darling…but I couldn’t take it.”

“I’ve told you it’s mine, every penny of it!”

“Yes; but supposing things went wrong?”

“Nothing CAN–if you’ll only take it…”

“I may lose it–“

“_I_ sha’n’t, if I’ve given it to you!” Her look followed his about the room and then came back to him. “Can’t you imagine all it will make up for?”

The rapture of the cry caught him up with it. Ah, yes, he could imagine it all! He stooped his head above her hands. “I accept,” he said; and they stood and looked at each other like radiant children.

She followed him to the door, and as he turned to leave he broke into a laugh. “It’s queer, though, its happening in this room!”

She was close beside him, her hand on the heavy tapestry curtaining the door; and her glance shot past him to her husband’s portrait. Ralph caught the look, and a flood of old tendernesses and hates welled up in him. He drew her under the portrait and kissed her vehemently.

XXXV

Within forty-eight hours Ralph’s money was in Moffatt’s hands, and the interval of suspense had begun.

The transaction over, he felt the deceptive buoyancy that follows on periods of painful indecision. It seemed to him that now at last life had freed him from all trammelling delusions, leaving him only the best thing in its gift–his boy.

The things he meant Paul to do and to be filled his fancy with happy pictures. The child was growing more and more interesting–throwing out countless tendrils of feeling and perception that delighted Ralph but preoccupied the watchful Laura.

“He’s going to be exactly like you, Ralph–” she paused and then risked it: “For his own sake, I wish there were just a drop or two of Spragg in him.”

Ralph laughed, understanding her. “Oh, the plodding citizen I’ve become will keep him from taking after the lyric idiot who begot him. Paul and I, between us, are going to turn out something first-rate.”

His book too was spreading and throwing out tendrils, and he worked at it in the white heat of energy which his factitious exhilaration produced. For a few weeks everything he did and said seemed as easy and unconditioned as the actions in a dream.

Clare Van Degen, in the light of this mood, became again the comrade of his boyhood. He did not see her often, for she had gone down to the country with her children, but they communicated daily by letter or telephone, and now and then she came over to the Fairfords’ for a night. There they renewed the long rambles of their youth, and once more the summer fields and woods seemed full of magic presences. Clare was no more intelligent, she followed him no farther in his flights; but some of the qualities that had become most precious to him were as native to her as its perfume to a flower. So, through the long June afternoons, they ranged together over many themes; and if her answers sometimes missed the mark it did not matter, because her silences never did.

Meanwhile Ralph, from various sources, continued to pick up a good deal of more or less contradictory information about Elmer Moffatt. It seemed to be generally understood that Moffatt had come back from Europe with the intention of testifying in the Ararat investigation, and that his former patron, the great Harmon B. Driscoll, had managed to silence him; and it was implied that the price of this silence, which was set at a considerable figure, had been turned to account in a series of speculations likely to lift Moffatt to permanent eminence among the rulers of Wall Street. The stories as to his latest achievement, and the theories as to the man himself, varied with the visual angle of each reporter: and whenever any attempt was made to focus his hard sharp personality some guardian divinity seemed to throw a veil of mystery over him. His detractors, however, were the first to own that there was “something about him”; it was felt that he had passed beyond the meteoric stage, and the business world was unanimous in recognizing that he had “come to stay.” A dawning sense of his stability was even beginning to make itself felt in Fifth Avenue. It was said that he had bought a house in Seventy-second Street, then that he meant to build near the Park; one or two people (always “taken by a friend”) had been to his flat in the Pactolus, to see his Chinese porcelains and Persian rugs; now and then he had a few important men to dine at a Fifth Avenue restaurant; his name began to appear in philanthropic reports and on municipal committees (there were even rumours of its having been put up at a well-known club); and the rector of a wealthy parish, who was raising funds for a chantry, was known to have met him at dinner and to have stated afterward that “the man was not wholly a materialist.”

All these converging proofs of Moffatt’s solidity strengthened Ralph’s faith in his venture. He remembered with what astuteness and authority Moffatt had conducted their real estate transaction–how far off and unreal it all seemed!–and awaited events with the passive faith of a sufferer in the hands of a skilful surgeon.

The days moved on toward the end of June, and each morning Ralph opened his newspaper with a keener thrill of expectation. Any day now he might read of the granting of the Apex charter: Moffatt had assured him it would “go through” before the close of the month. But the announcement did not appear, and after what seemed to Ralph a decent lapse of time he telephoned to ask for news. Moffatt was away, and when he came back a few days later he answered Ralph’s enquiries evasively, with an edge of irritation in his voice. The same day Ralph received a letter from his lawyer, who had been reminded by Mrs. Marvell’s representatives that the latest date agreed on for the execution of the financial agreement was the end of the following week.

Ralph, alarmed, betook himself at once to the Ararat, and his first glimpse of Moffatt’s round common face and fastidiously dressed person gave him an immediate sense of reassurance. He felt that under the circle of baldness on top of that carefully brushed head lay the solution of every monetary problem that could beset the soul of man. Moffatt’s voice had recovered its usual cordial note, and the warmth of his welcome dispelled Ralph’s last apprehension.

“Why, yes, everything’s going along first-rate. They thought they’d hung us up last week–but they haven’t. There may be another week’s delay; but we ought to be opening a bottle of wine on it by the Fourth.”

An office-boy came in with a name on a slip of paper, and Moffatt looked at his watch and held out a hearty hand. “Glad you came. Of course I’ll keep you posted…No, this way…Look in again…” and he steered Ralph out by another door.

July came, and passed into its second week. Ralph’s lawyer had obtained a postponement from the other side, but Undine’s representatives had given him to understand that the transaction must be closed before the first of August. Ralph telephoned once or twice to Moffatt, receiving genially-worded assurances that everything was “going their way”; but he felt a certain embarrassment in returning again to the office, and let himself drift through the days in a state of hungry apprehension. Finally one afternoon Henley Fairford, coming back from town (which Ralph had left in the morning to join his boy over Sunday), brought word that the Apex consolidation scheme had failed to get its charter. It was useless to attempt to reach Moffatt on Sunday, and Ralph wore on as he could through the succeeding twenty-four hours. Clare Van Degen had come down to stay with her youngest boy, and in the afternoon she and Ralph took the two children for a sail. A light breeze brightened the waters of the Sound, and they ran down the shore before it and then tacked out toward the sunset, coming back at last, under a failing breeze, as the summer sky passed from blue to a translucid green and then into the accumulating greys of twilight.

As they left the landing and walked up behind the children across the darkening lawn, a sense of security descended again on Ralph. He could not believe that such a scene and such a mood could be the disguise of any impending evil, and all his doubts and anxieties fell away from him.

The next morning, he and Clare travelled up to town together, and at the station he put her in the motor which was to take her to Long Island, and hastened down to Moffatt’s office. When he arrived he was told that Moffatt was “engaged,” and he had to wait for nearly half an hour in the outer office, where, to the steady click of the type-writer and the spasmodic buzzing of the telephone, his thoughts again began their restless circlings. Finally the inner door opened, and he found himself in the sanctuary. Moffatt was seated behind his desk, examining another little crystal vase somewhat like the one he had shown Ralph a few weeks earlier. As his visitor entered, he held it up against the light, revealing on its dewy sides an incised design as frail as the shadow of grass-blades on water.

“Ain’t she a peach?” He put the toy down and reached across the desk to shake hands. “Well, well,” he went on, leaning back in his chair, and pushing out his lower lip in a half-comic pout, “they’ve got us in the neck this time and no mistake. Seen this morning’s Radiator? I don’t know how the thing leaked out–but the reformers somehow got a smell of the scheme, and whenever they get swishing round something’s bound to get spilt.”

He talked gaily, genially, in his roundest tones and with his easiest gestures; never had he conveyed a completer sense of unhurried power; but Ralph noticed for the first time the crow’s-feet about his eyes, and the sharpness of the contrast between the white of his forehead and the redness of the fold of neck above his collar.

“Do you mean to say it’s not going through?”

“Not this time, anyhow. We’re high and dry.”

Something seemed to snap in Ralph’s head, and he sat down in the nearest chair. “Has the common stock dropped a lot?”

“Well, you’ve got to lean over to see it.” Moffatt pressed his finger-tips together and added thoughtfully: “But it’s THERE all right. We’re bound to get our charter in the end.”

“What do you call the end?”

“Oh, before the Day of Judgment, sure: next year, I guess.”

“Next year?” Ralph flushed. “What earthly good will that do me?”

“I don’t say it’s as pleasant as driving your best girl home by moonlight. But that’s how it is. And the stuff’s safe enough any way–I’ve told you that right along.”

“But you’ve told me all along I could count on a rise before August. You knew I had to have the money now.”

“I knew you WANTED to have the money now; and so did I, and several of my friends. I put you onto it because it was the only thing in sight likely to give you the return you wanted.”

“You ought at least to have warned me of the risk!”

“Risk? I don’t call it much of a risk to lie back in your chair and wait another few months for fifty thousand to drop into your lap. I tell you the thing’s as safe as a bank.”

“How do I know it is? You’ve misled me about it from the first.”

Moffatt’s face grew dark red to the forehead: for the first time in their acquaintance Ralph saw him on the verge of anger. “Well, if you get stuck so do I. I’m in it a good deal deeper than you. That’s about the best guarantee I can give; unless you won’t take my word for that either.” To control himself Moffatt spoke with extreme deliberation, separating his syllables like a machine cutting something into even lengths.

Ralph listened through a cloud of confusion; but he saw the madness of offending Moffatt, and tried to take a more conciliatory tone. “Of course I take your word for it. But I can’t–I simply can’t afford to lose…”

“You ain’t going to lose: I don’t believe you’ll even have to put up any margin. It’s THERE safe enough, I tell you…”

“Yes, yes; I understand. I’m sure you wouldn’t have advised me–” Ralph’s tongue seemed swollen, and he had difficulty in bringing out the words. “Only, you see–I can’t wait; it’s not possible; and I want to know if there isn’t a way–“

Moffatt looked at him with a sort of resigned compassion, as a doctor looks at a despairing mother who will not understand what he has tried to imply without uttering the word she dreads. Ralph understood the look, but hurried on.

“You’ll think I’m mad, or an ass, to talk like this; but the fact is, I must have the money.” He waited and drew a hard breath. “I must have it: that’s all. Perhaps I’d better tell you–“

Moffatt, who had risen, as if assuming that the interview was over, sat down again and turned an attentive look on him. “Go ahead,” he said, more humanly than he had hitherto spoken.

“My boy…you spoke of him the other day… I’m awfully fond of him–” Ralph broke off, deterred by the impossibility of confiding his feeling for Paul to this coarse-grained man with whom he hadn’t a sentiment in common.

Moffatt was still looking at him. “I should say you would be! He’s as smart a little chap as I ever saw; and I guess he’s the kind that gets better every day.”

Ralph had collected himself, and went on with sudden resolution: “Well, you see–when my wife and I separated, I never dreamed she’d want the boy: the question never came up. If it had, of course–but she’d left him with me when she went away two years before, and at the time of the divorce I was a fool…I didn’t take the proper steps…”

“You mean she’s got sole custody?”

Ralph made a sign of assent, and Moffatt pondered. “That’s bad–bad.”

“And now I understand she’s going to marry again–and of course I can’t give up my son.”

“She wants you to, eh?”

Ralph again assented.

Moffatt swung his chair about and leaned back in it, stretching out his plump legs and contemplating the tips of his varnished boots. He hummed a low tune behind inscrutable lips.

“That’s what you want the money for?” he finally raised his head to ask.

The word came out of the depths of Ralph’s anguish: “Yes.”

“And why you want it in such a hurry. I see.” Moffatt reverted to the study of his boots. “It’s a lot of money.”

“Yes. That’s the difficulty. And I…she…”

Ralph’s tongue was again too thick for his mouth. “I’m afraid she won’t wait…or take less…”

Moffatt, abandoning the boots, was scrutinizing him through half-shut lids. “No,” he said slowly, “I don’t believe Undine Spragg’ll take a single cent less.”

Ralph felt himself whiten. Was it insolence or ignorance that had prompted Moffatt’s speech? Nothing in his voice or face showed the sense of any shades of expression or of feeling: he seemed to apply to everything the measure of the same crude flippancy. But such considerations could not curb Ralph now. He said to himself “Keep your temper–keep your temper–” and his anger suddenly boiled over.

“Look here, Moffatt,” he said, getting to his feet, “the fact that I’ve been divorced from Mrs. Marvell doesn’t authorize any one to take that tone to me in speaking of her.”

Moffatt met the challenge with a calm stare under which there were dawning signs of surprise and interest. “That so? Well, if that’s the case I presume I ought to feel the same way: I’ve been divorced from her myself.”

For an instant the words conveyed no meaning to Ralph; then they surged up into his brain and flung him forward with half-raised arm. But he felt the grotesqueness of the gesture and his arm dropped back to his side. A series of unimportant and irrelevant things raced through his mind; then obscurity settled down on it. “THIS man…THIS man…” was the one fiery point in his darkened consciousness…. “What on earth are you talking about?” he brought out.

“Why, facts,” said Moffatt, in a cool half-humorous voice. “You didn’t know? I understood from Mrs. Marvell your folks had a prejudice against divorce, so I suppose she kept quiet about that early episode. The truth is,” he continued amicably, “I wouldn’t have alluded to it now if you hadn’t taken rather a high tone with me about our little venture; but now it’s out I guess you may as well hear the whole story. It’s mighty wholesome for a man to have a round now and then with a few facts. Shall I go on?”

Ralph had stood listening without a sign, but as Moffatt ended he made a slight motion of acquiescence. He did not otherwise change his attitude, except to grasp with one hand the back of the chair that Moffatt pushed toward him.

“Rather stand?…” Moffatt himself dropped back into his seat and took the pose of easy narrative. “Well, it was this way. Undine Spragg and I were made one at Opake, Nebraska, just nine years ago last month. My! She was a beauty then. Nothing much had happened to her before but being engaged for a year or two to a soft called Millard Binch; the same she passed on to Indiana Rolliver; and–well, I guess she liked the change. We didn’t have what you’d called a society wedding: no best man or bridesmaids or Voice that Breathed o’er Eden. Fact is, Pa and Ma didn’t know about it till it was over. But it was a marriage fast enough, as they found out when they tried to undo it. Trouble was, they caught on too soon; we only had a fortnight. Then they hauled Undine back to Apex, and–well, I hadn’t the cash or the pull to fight ’em. Uncle Abner was a pretty big man out there then; and he had James J. Rolliver behind him. I always know when I’m licked; and I was licked that time. So we unlooped the loop, and they fixed it up for me to make a trip to Alaska. Let me see–that was the year before they moved over to New York. Next time I saw Undine I sat alongside of her at the theatre the day your engagement was announced.”

He still kept to his half-humorous minor key, as though he were in the first stages of an after-dinner speech; but as he went on his bodily presence, which hitherto had seemed to Ralph the mere average garment of vulgarity, began to loom, huge and portentous as some monster released from a magician’s bottle. His redness, his glossiness, his baldness, and the carefully brushed ring of hair encircling it; the square line of his shoulders, the too careful fit of his clothes, the prominent lustre of his scarf-pin, the growth of short black hair on his manicured hands, even the tiny cracks and crows’-feet beginning to show in the hard close surface of his complexion: all these solid witnesses to his reality and his proximity pressed on Ralph with the mounting pang of physical nausea.

“THIS man…THIS man…” he couldn’t get beyond the thought: whichever way he turned his haggard thought, there was Moffatt bodily blocking the perspective…Ralph’s eyes roamed toward the crystal toy that stood on the desk beside Moffatt’s hand. Faugh! That such a hand should have touched it!

Suddenly he heard himself speaking. “Before my marriage–did you know they hadn’t told me?”

“Why, I understood as much…”

Ralph pushed on: “You knew it the day I met you in Mr. Spragg’s office?”

Moffatt considered a moment, as if the incident had escaped him. “Did we meet there?” He seemed benevolently ready for enlightenment. But Ralph had been assailed by another memory; he recalled that Moffatt had dined one night in his house, that he and the man who now faced him had sat at the same table, their wife between them… He was seized with another dumb gust of fury; but it died out and left him face to face with the uselessness, the irrelevance of all the old attitudes of appropriation and defiance. He seemed to be stumbling about in his inherited prejudices like a modern man in mediaeval armour… Moffatt still sat at his desk, unmoved and apparently uncomprehending. “He doesn’t even know what I’m feeling,” flashed through Ralph; and the whole archaic structure of his rites and sanctions tumbled down about him.

Through the noise of the crash he heard Moffatt’s voice going on without perceptible change of tone: “About that other matter now…you can’t feel any meaner about it than I do, I can tell you that… but all we’ve got to do is to sit tight…”

Ralph turned from the voice, and found himself outside on the landing, and then in the street below.

XXXVI

He stood at the corner of Wall Street, looking up and down its hot summer perspective. He noticed the swirls of dust in the cracks of the pavement, the rubbish in the gutters, the ceaseless stream of perspiring faces that poured by under tilted hats.

He found himself, next, slipping northward between the glazed walls of the Subway, another languid crowd in the seats about him and the nasal yelp of the stations ringing through the car like some repeated ritual wail. The blindness within him seemed to have intensified his physical perceptions, his sensitiveness to the heat, the noise, the smells of the dishevelled midsummer city; but combined with the acuter perception of these offenses was a complete indifference to them, as though he were some vivisected animal deprived of the power of discrimination.

Now he had turned into Waverly Place, and was walking westward toward Washington Square. At the corner he pulled himself up, saying half-aloud: “The office–I ought to be at the office.” He drew out his watch and stared at it blankly. What the devil had he taken it out for? He had to go through a laborious process of readjustment to find out what it had to say…. Twelve o’clock…. Should he turn back to the office? It seemed easier to cross the square, go up the steps of the old house and slip his key into the door….

The house was empty. His mother, a few days previously, had departed