over his disgrace at the temperance supper began to speak of him as a hopeless failure, and he lost the support of the feminine community when one Sunday morning, just as the Baptist and Methodist churches were releasing their congregations, he walked up Eubaw Avenue with a young woman less known to those sacred edifices than to the saloons of North Fifth Street.
Undine’s estimate of people had always been based on their apparent power of getting what they wanted–provided it came under the category of things she understood wanting. Success was beauty and romance to her; yet it was at the moment when Elmer Moffatt’s failure was most complete and flagrant that she suddenly felt the extent of his power. After the Eubaw Avenue scandal he had been asked not to return to the surveyor’s office to which Ben Frusk had managed to get him admitted; and on the day of his dismissal he met Undine in Main Street, at the shopping hour, and, sauntering up cheerfully, invited her to take a walk with him. She was about to refuse when she saw Millard Binch’s mother looking at her disapprovingly from the opposite street-corner.
“Oh, well, I will–” she said; and they walked the length of Main Street and out to the immature park in which it ended. She was in a mood of aimless discontent and unrest, tired of her engagement to Millard Binch, disappointed with Moffatt, half-ashamed of being seen with him, and yet not sorry to have it known that she was independent enough to choose her companions without regard to the Apex verdict.
“Well, I suppose you know I’m down and out,” he began; and she responded virtuously: “You must have wanted to be, or you wouldn’t have behaved the way you did last Sunday.”
“Oh, shucks!” he sneered. “What do I care, in a one-horse place like this? If it hadn’t been for you I’d have got a move on long ago.”
She did not remember afterward what else he said: she recalled only the expression of a great sweeping scorn of Apex, into which her own disdain of it was absorbed like a drop in the sea, and the affirmation of a soaring self-confidence that seemed to lift her on wings. All her own attempts to get what she wanted had come to nothing; but she had always attributed her lack of success to the fact that she had had no one to second her. It was strange that Elmer Moffatt, a shiftless out-cast from even the small world she despised, should give her, in the very moment of his downfall, the sense of being able to succeed where she had failed. It was a feeling she never had in his absence, but that his nearness always instantly revived; and he seemed nearer to her now than he had ever been. They wandered on to the edge of the vague park, and sat down on a bench behind the empty band-stand.
“I went with that girl on purpose, and you know it,” he broke out abruptly. “It makes me too damned sick to see Millard Binch going round looking as if he’d patented you.”
“You’ve got no right–” she interrupted; and suddenly she was in his arms, and feeling that no one had ever kissed her before….
The week that followed was a big bright blur–the wildest vividest moment of her life. And it was only eight days later that they were in the train together, Apex and all her plans and promises behind them, and a bigger and brighter blur ahead, into which they were plunging as the “Limited” plunged into the sunset….
Undine stood up, looking about her with vague eyes, as if she had come back from a long distance. Elmer Moffatt was still in Paris–he was in reach, within telephone-call. She stood hesitating a moment; then she went into her dressing-room, and turning over the pages of the telephone book, looked out the number of the Nouveau Luxe….
Undine had been right in supposing that her husband would expect their life to go on as before. There was no appreciable change in the situation save that he was more often absent-finding abundant reasons, agricultural and political, for frequent trips to Saint Desert–and that, when in Paris, he no longer showed any curiosity concerning her occupations and engagements. They lived as much apart is if their cramped domicile had been a palace; and when Undine–as she now frequently did–joined the Shallums or Rollivers for a dinner at the Nouveau Luxe, or a party at a petit theatre, she was not put to the trouble of prevaricating.
Her first impulse, after her scene with Raymond, had been to ring up Indiana Rolliver and invite herself to dine. It chanced that Indiana (who was now in full social progress, and had “run over” for a few weeks to get her dresses for Newport) had organized for the same evening a showy cosmopolitan banquet in which she was enchanted to include the Marquise de Chelles; and Undine, as she had hoped, found Elmer Moffatt of the party. When she drove up to the Nouveau Luxe she had not fixed on any plan of action; but once she had crossed its magic threshold her energies revived like plants in water. At last she was in her native air again, among associations she shared and conventions she understood; and all her self-confidence returned as the familiar accents uttered the accustomed things.
Save for an occasional perfunctory call, she had hitherto made no effort to see her compatriots, and she noticed that Mrs. Jim Driscoll and Bertha Shallum received her with a touch of constraint; but it vanished when they remarked the cordiality of Moffatt’s greeting. Her seat was at his side, and her old sense of triumph returned as she perceived the importance his notice conferred, not only in the eyes of her own party but of the other diners. Moffatt was evidently a notable figure in all the worlds represented about the crowded tables, and Undine saw that many people who seemed personally unacquainted with him were recognizing and pointing him out. She was conscious of receiving a large share of the attention he attracted, and, bathed again in the bright air of publicity, she remembered the evening when Raymond de Chelles’ first admiring glance had given her the same sense of triumph.
This inopportune memory did not trouble her: she was almost grateful to Raymond for giving her the touch of superiority her compatriots clearly felt in her. It was not merely her title and her “situation,” but the experiences she had gained through them, that gave her this advantage over the loud vague company. She had learned things they did not guess: shades of conduct, turns of speech, tricks of attitude–and easy and free and enviable as she thought them, she would not for the world have been back among them at the cost of knowing no more than they.
Moffatt made no allusion to his visit to Saint Desert; but when the party had re-grouped itself about coffee and liqueurs on the terrace, he bent over to ask confidentially: “What about my tapestries?”
She replied in the same tone: “You oughtn’t to have let Fleischhauer write that letter. My husband’s furious.”
He seemed honestly surprised. “Why? Didn’t I offer him enough?”
“He’s furious that any one should offer anything. I thought when he found out what they were worth he might be tempted; but he’d rather see me starve than part with one of his grand-father’s snuff-boxes.”
“Well, he knows now what the tapestries are worth. I offered more than Fleischhauer advised.”
“Yes; but you were in too much of a hurry.”
“I’ve got to be; I’m going back next week.”
She felt her eyes cloud with disappointment. “Oh, why do you? I hoped you might stay on.”
They looked at each other uncertainly a moment; then he dropped his voice to say: “Even if I did, I probably shouldn’t see anything of you.”
“Why not? Why won’t you come and see me? I’ve always wanted to be friends.”
He came the next day and found in her drawing-room two ladies whom she introduced as her sisters-in-law. The ladies lingered on for a long time, sipping their tea stiffly and exchanging low-voiced remarks while Undine talked with Moffatt; and when they left, with small sidelong bows in his direction.
Undine exclaimed: “Now you see how they all watch me!”
She began to go into the details of her married life, drawing on the experiences of the first months for instances that scarcely applied to her present liberated state. She could thus, without great exaggeration, picture herself as entrapped into a bondage hardly conceivable to Moffatt, and she saw him redden with excitement as he listened. “I call it darned low–darned low–” he broke in at intervals.
“Of course I go round more now,” she concluded. “I mean to see my friends–I don’t care what he says.”
“What CAN he say?”
“Oh, he despises Americans–they all do.”
“Well, I guess we can still sit up and take nourishment.”
They laughed and slipped back to talking of earlier things. She urged him to put off his sailing–there were so many things they might do together: sight-seeing and excursions–and she could perhaps show him some of the private collections he hadn’t seen, the ones it was hard to get admitted to. This instantly roused his attention, and after naming one or two collections he had already seen she hit on one he had found inaccessible and was particularly anxious to visit. “There’s an Ingres there that’s one of the things I came over to have a look at; but I was told there was no use trying.”
“Oh, I can easily manage it: the Duke’s Raymond’s uncle.” It gave her a peculiar satisfaction to say it: she felt as though she were taking a surreptitious revenge on her husband. “But he’s down in the country this week,” she continued, “and no one–not even the family–is allowed to see the pictures when he’s away. Of course his Ingres are the finest in France.”
She ran it off glibly, though a year ago she had never heard of the painter, and did not, even now, remember whether he was an Old Master or one of the very new ones whose names one hadn’t had time to learn.
Moffatt put off sailing, saw the Duke’s Ingres under her guidance, and accompanied her to various other private galleries inaccessible to strangers. She had lived in almost total ignorance of such opportunities, but now that she could use them to advantage she showed a surprising quickness in picking up “tips,” ferreting out rare things and getting a sight of hidden treasures. She even acquired as much of the jargon as a pretty woman needs to produce the impression of being well-informed; and Moffatt’s sailing was more than once postponed.
They saw each other almost daily, for she continued to come and go as she pleased, and Raymond showed neither surprise nor disapproval. When they were asked to family dinners she usually excused herself at the last moment on the plea of a headache and, calling up Indiana or Bertha Shallum, improvised a little party at the Nouveau Luxe; and on other occasions she accepted such invitations as she chose, without mentioning to her husband where she was going.
In this world of lavish pleasures she lost what little prudence the discipline of Saint Desert had inculcated. She could never be with people who had all the things she envied without being hypnotized into the belief that she had only to put her hand out to obtain them, and all the unassuaged rancours and hungers of her early days in West End Avenue came back with increased acuity. She knew her wants so much better now, and was so much more worthy of the things she wanted!
She had given up hoping that her father might make another hit in Wall Street. Mrs. Spragg’s letters gave the impression that the days of big strokes were over for her husband, that he had gone down in the conflict with forces beyond his measure. If he had remained in Apex the tide of its new prosperity might have carried him to wealth; but New York’s huge waves of success had submerged instead of floating him, and Rolliver’s enmity was a hand perpetually stretched out to strike him lower. At most, Mr. Spragg’s tenacity would keep him at the level he now held, and though he and his wife had still further simplified their way of living Undine understood that their self-denial would not increase her opportunities. She felt no compunction in continuing to accept an undiminished allowance: it was the hereditary habit of the parent animal to despoil himself for his progeny. But this conviction did not seem incompatible with a sentimental pity for her parents. Aside from all interested motives, she wished for their own sakes that they were better off. Their personal requirements were pathetically limited, but renewed prosperity would at least have procured them the happiness of giving her what she wanted.
Moffatt lingered on; but he began to speak more definitely of sailing, and Undine foresaw the day when, strong as her attraction was, stronger influences would snap it like a thread. She knew she interested and amused him, and that it flattered his vanity to be seen with her, and to hear that rumour coupled their names; but he gave her, more than any one she had ever known, the sense of being detached from his life, in control of it, and able, without weakness or uncertainty, to choose which of its calls he should obey. If the call were that of business–of any of the great perilous affairs he handled like a snake-charmer spinning the deadly reptiles about his head–she knew she would drop from his life like a loosened leaf.
These anxieties sharpened the intensity of her enjoyment, and made the contrast keener between her crowded sparkling hours and the vacant months at Saint Desert. Little as she understood of the qualities that made Moffatt what he was, the results were of the kind most palpable to her. He used life exactly as she would have used it in his place. Some of his enjoyments were beyond her range, but even these appealed to her because of the money that was required to gratify them. When she took him to see some inaccessible picture, or went with him to inspect the treasures of a famous dealer, she saw that the things he looked at moved him in a way she could not understand, and that the actual touching of rare textures–bronze or marble, or velvets flushed with the bloom of age–gave him sensations like those her own beauty had once roused in him. But the next moment he was laughing over some commonplace joke, or absorbed in a long cipher cable handed to him as they re-entered the Nouveau Luxe for tea, and his aesthetic emotions had been thrust back into their own compartment of the great steel strong-box of his mind.
Her new life went on without comment or interference from her husband, and she saw that he had accepted their altered relation, and intended merely to keep up an external semblance of harmony. To that semblance she knew he attached intense importance: it was an article of his complicated social creed that a man of his class should appear to live on good terms with his wife. For different reasons it was scarcely less important to Undine: she had no wish to affront again the social reprobation that had so nearly wrecked her. But she could not keep up the life she was leading without more money, a great deal more money; and the thought of contracting her expenditure was no longer tolerable.
One afternoon, several weeks later, she came in to find a tradesman’s representative waiting with a bill. There was a noisy scene in the anteroom before the man threateningly withdrew–a scene witnessed by the servants, and overheard by her mother-in-law, whom she found seated in the drawing-room when she entered. The old Marquise’s visits to her daughter-in-law were made at long intervals but with ritual regularity; she called every other Friday at five, and Undine had forgotten that she was due that day. This did not make for greater cordiality between them, and the altercation in the anteroom had been too loud for concealment. The Marquise was on her feet when her daughter-in-law came in, and instantly said with lowered eyes: “It would perhaps be best for me to go.”
“Oh, I don’t care. You’re welcome to tell Raymond you’ve heard me insulted because I’m too poor to pay my bills–he knows it well enough already!” The words broke from Undine unguardedly, but once spoken they nourished her defiance.
“I’m sure my son has frequently recommended greater prudence–” the Marquise murmured.
“Yes! It’s a pity he didn’t recommend it to your other son instead! All the money I was entitled to has gone to pay Hubert’s debts.”
“Raymond has told me that there are certain things you fail to understand–I have no wish whatever to discuss them.” The Marquise had gone toward the door; with her hand on it she paused to add: “I shall say nothing whatever of what has happened.”
Her icy magnanimity added the last touch to Undine’s wrath. They knew her extremity, one and all, and it did not move them. At most, they would join in concealing it like a blot on their honour. And the menace grew and mounted, and not a hand was stretched to help her….
Hardly a half-hour earlier Moffatt, with whom she had been visiting a “private view,” had sent her home in his motor with the excuse that he must hurry back to the Nouveau Luxe to meet his stenographer and sign a batch of letters for the New York mail. It was therefore probable that he was still at home–that she should find him if she hastened there at once. An overwhelming desire to cry out her wrath and wretchedness brought her to her feet and sent her down to hail a passing cab. As it whirled her through the bright streets powdered with amber sunlight her brain throbbed with confused intentions. She did not think of Moffatt as a power she could use, but simply as some one who knew her and understood her grievance. It was essential to her at that moment to be told that she was right and that every one opposed to her was wrong.
At the hotel she asked his number and was carried up in the lift. On the landing she paused a moment, disconcerted–it had occurred to her that he might not be alone. But she walked on quickly, found the number and knocked…. Moffatt opened the door, and she glanced beyond him and saw that the big bright sitting-room was empty.
“Hullo!” he exclaimed, surprised; and as he stood aside to let her enter she saw him draw out his watch and glance at it surreptitiously. He was expecting someone, or he had an engagement elsewhere–something claimed him from which she was excluded. The thought flushed her with sudden resolution. She knew now what she had come for–to keep him from every one else, to keep him for herself alone.
“Don’t send me away!” she said, and laid her hand on his beseechingly.
She advanced into the room and slowly looked about her. The big vulgar writing-table wreathed in bronze was heaped with letters and papers. Among them stood a lapis bowl in a Renaissance mounting of enamel and a vase of Phenician glass that was like a bit of rainbow caught in cobwebs. On a table against the window a little Greek marble lifted its pure lines. On every side some rare and sensitive object seemed to be shrinking back from the false colours and crude contours of the hotel furniture. There were no books in the room, but the florid console under the mirror was stacked with old numbers of Town Talk and the New York Radiator. Undine recalled the dingy hall-room that Moffatt had lodged in at Mrs. Flynn’s, over Hober’s livery stable, and her heart beat at the signs of his altered state. When her eyes came back to him their lids were moist.
“Don’t send me away,” she repeated. He looked at her and smiled. “What is it? What’s the matter?”
“I don’t know–but I had to come. To-day, when you spoke again of sailing, I felt as if I couldn’t stand it.” She lifted her eyes and looked in his profoundly.
He reddened a little under her gaze, but she could detect no softening or confusion in the shrewd steady glance he gave her back.
“Things going wrong again–is that the trouble?” he merely asked with a comforting inflexion.
“They always are wrong; it’s all been an awful mistake. But I shouldn’t care if you were here and I could see you sometimes. You’re so STRONG: that’s what I feel about you, Elmer. I was the only one to feel it that time they all turned against you out at Apex…. Do you remember the afternoon I met you down on Main Street, and we walked out together to the Park? I knew then that you were stronger than any of them….”
She had never spoken more sincerely. For the moment all thought of self-interest was in abeyance, and she felt again, as she had felt that day, the instinctive yearning of her nature to be one with his. Something in her voice must have attested it, for she saw a change in his face.
“You’re not the beauty you were,” he said irrelevantly; “but you’re a lot more fetching.”
The oddly qualified praise made her laugh with mingled pleasure and annoyance.
“I suppose I must be dreadfully changed–“
“You’re all right!–But I’ve got to go back home,” he broke off abruptly. “I’ve put it off too long.”
She paled and looked away, helpless in her sudden disappointment. “I knew you’d say that…. And I shall just be left here….” She sat down on the sofa near which they had been standing, and two tears formed on her lashes and fell.
Moffatt sat down beside her, and both were silent. She had never seen him at a loss before. She made no attempt to draw nearer, or to use any of the arts of cajolery; but presently she said, without rising: “I saw you look at your watch when I came in. I suppose somebody else is waiting for you.”
“It don’t matter.”
“Some other woman?”
“It don’t matter.”
“I’ve wondered so often–but of course I’ve got no right to ask.” She stood up slowly, understanding that he meant to let her go.
“Just tell me one thing–did you never miss me?”
“Oh, damnably!” he brought out with sudden bitterness.
She came nearer, sinking her voice to a low whisper. “It’s the only time I ever really cared–all through!”
He had risen too, and they stood intensely gazing at each other. Moffatt’s face was fixed and grave, as she had seen it in hours she now found herself rapidly reliving.
“I believe you DID,” he said.
“Oh, Elmer–if I’d known–if I’d only known!”
He made no answer, and she turned away, touching with an unconscious hand the edge of the lapis bowl among his papers.
“Elmer, if you’re going away it can’t do any harm to tell me–is there any one else?”
He gave a laugh that seemed to shake him free. “In that kind of way? Lord, no! Too busy!”
She came close again and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Then why not–why shouldn’t we–?” She leaned her head back so that her gaze slanted up through her wet lashes. “I can do as I please–my husband does. They think so differently about marriage over here: it’s just a business contract. As long as a woman doesn’t make a show of herself no one cares.” She put her other hand up, so that she held him facing her. “I’ve always felt, all through everything, that I belonged to you.”
Moffatt left her hands on his shoulders, but did not lift his own to clasp them. For a moment she thought she had mistaken him, and a leaden sense of shame descended on her. Then he asked: “You say your husband goes with other women?”
Lili Estradina’s taunt flashed through her and she seized on it. “People have told me so–his own relations have. I’ve never stooped to spy on him….”
“And the women in your set–I suppose it’s taken for granted they all do the same?”
“Everything fixed up for them, same as it is for the husbands, eh? Nobody meddles or makes trouble if you know the ropes?”
“No, nobody … it’s all quite easy….” She stopped, her faint smile checked, as his backward movement made her hands drop from his shoulders.
“And that’s what you’re proposing to me? That you and I should do like the rest of ’em?” His face had lost its comic roundness and grown harsh and dark, as it had when her father had taken her away from him at Opake. He turned on his heel, walked the length of the room and halted with his back to her in the embrasure of the window. There he paused a full minute, his hands in his pockets, staring out at the perpetual interweaving of motors in the luminous setting of the square. Then he turned and spoke from where he stood.
“Look here. Undine, if I’m to have you again I don’t want to have you that way. That time out in Apex, when everybody in the place was against me, and I was down and out, you stood up to them and stuck by me. Remember that walk down Main Street? Don’t I!–and the way the people glared and hurried by; and how you kept on alongside of me, talking and laughing, and looking your Sunday best. When Abner Spragg came out to Opake after us and pulled you back I was pretty sore at your deserting; but I came to see it was natural enough. You were only a spoilt girl, used to having everything you wanted; and I couldn’t give you a thing then, and the folks you’d been taught to believe in all told you I never would. Well, I did look like a back number, and no blame to you for thinking so. I used to say it to myself over and over again, laying awake nights and totting up my mistakes … and then there were days when the wind set another way, and I knew I’d pull it off yet, and I thought you might have held on….” He stopped, his head a little lowered, his concentrated gaze on her flushed face. “Well, anyhow,” he broke out, “you were my wife once, and you were my wife first–and if you want to come back you’ve got to come that way: not slink through the back way when there’s no one watching, but walk in by the front door, with your head up, and your Main Street look.”
Since the days when he had poured out to her his great fortune-building projects she had never heard him make so long a speech; and her heart, as she listened, beat with a new joy and terror. It seemed to her that the great moment of her life had come at last–the moment all her minor failures and successes had been building up with blind indefatigable hands.
“Elmer–Elmer–” she sobbed out.
She expected to find herself in his arms, shut in and shielded from all her troubles; but he stood his ground across the room, immovable.
“Is it yes?”
She faltered the word after him: “Yes–?”
“Are you going to marry me?”
She stared, bewildered. “Why, Elmer–marry you? You forget!”
“Forget what? That you don’t want to give up what you’ve got?”
“How can I? Such things are not done out here. Why, I’m a Catholic; and the Catholic Church–” She broke off, reading the end in his face. “But later, perhaps … things might change. Oh, Elmer, if only you’d stay over here and let me see you sometimes!”
“Yes–the way your friends see each other. We’re differently made out in Apex. When I want that sort of thing I go down to North Fifth Street for it.”
She paled under the retort, but her heart beat high with it. What he asked was impossible–and she gloried in his asking it. Feeling her power, she tried to temporize. “At least if you stayed we could be friends–I shouldn’t feel so terribly alone.”
He laughed impatiently. “Don’t talk magazine stuff to me, Undine Spragg. I guess we want each other the same way. Only our ideas are different. You’ve got all muddled, living out here among a lot of loafers who call it a career to run round after every petticoat. I’ve got my job out at home, and I belong where my job is.”
“Are you going to be tied to business all your life?” Her smile was faintly depreciatory.
“I guess business is tied to ME: Wall Street acts as if it couldn’t get along without me.” He gave his shoulders a shake and moved a few steps nearer. “See here, Undine–you’re the one that don’t understand. If I was to sell out to-morrow, and spend the rest of my life reading art magazines in a pink villa, I wouldn’t do what you’re asking me. And I’ve about as much idea of dropping business as you have of taking to district nursing. There are things a man doesn’t do. I understand why your husband won’t sell those tapestries–till he’s got to. His ancestors are HIS business: Wall Street’s mine.”
He paused, and they silently faced each other. Undine made no attempt to approach him: she understood that if he yielded it would be only to recover his advantage and deepen her feeling of defeat. She put out her hand and took up the sunshade she had dropped on entering. “I suppose it’s good-bye then,” she said.
“You haven’t got the nerve?”
“The nerve for what?”
“To come where you belong: with me.”
She laughed a little and then sighed. She wished he would come nearer, or look at her differently: she felt, under his cool eye, no more compelling than a woman of wax in a show-case.
“How could I get a divorce? With my religion–“
“Why, you were born a Baptist, weren’t you? That’s where you used to attend church when I waited round the corner, Sunday mornings, with one of old Hober’s buggies.” They both laughed, and he went on: “If you’ll come along home with me I’ll see you get your divorce all right. Who cares what they do over here? You’re an American, ain’t you? What you want is the home-made article.”
She listened, discouraged yet fascinated by his sturdy inaccessibility to all her arguments and objections. He knew what he wanted, saw his road before him, and acknowledged no obstacles. Her defense was drawn from reasons he did not understand, or based on difficulties that did not exist for him; and gradually she felt herself yielding to the steady pressure of his will. Yet the reasons he brushed away came back with redoubled tenacity whenever he paused long enough for her to picture the consequences of what he exacted.
“You don’t know–you don’t understand–” she kept repeating; but she knew that his ignorance was part of his terrible power, and that it was hopeless to try to make him feel the value of what he was asking her to give up.
“See here, Undine,” he said slowly, as if he measured her resistance though he couldn’t fathom it, “I guess it had better be yes or no right here. It ain’t going to do either of us any good to drag this thing out. If you want to come back to me, come–if you don’t, we’ll shake hands on it now. I’m due in Apex for a directors’ meeting on the twentieth, and as it is I’ll have to cable for a special to get me out there. No, no, don’t cry–it ain’t that kind of a story … but I’ll have a deck suite for you on the Semantic if you’ll sail with me the day after to-morrow.”
In the great high-ceilinged library of a private hotel overlooking one of the new quarters of Paris, Paul Marvell stood listlessly gazing out into the twilight.
The trees were budding symmetrically along the avenue below; and Paul, looking down, saw, between windows and tree-tops, a pair of tall iron gates with gilt ornaments, the marble curb of a semi-circular drive, and bands of spring flowers set in turf. He was now a big boy of nearly nine, who went to a fashionable private school, and he had come home that day for the Easter holidays. He had not been back since Christmas, and it was the first time he had seen the new hotel which his step-father had bought, and in which Mr. and Mrs. Moffatt had hastily established themselves, a few weeks earlier, on their return from a flying trip to America. They were always coming and going; during the two years since their marriage they had been perpetually dashing over to New York and back, or rushing down to Rome or up to the Engadine: Paul never knew where they were except when a telegram announced that they were going somewhere else. He did not even know that there was any method of communication between mothers and sons less laconic than that of the electric wire; and once, when a boy at school asked him if his mother often wrote, he had answered in all sincerity: “Oh yes–I got a telegram last week.”
He had been almost sure–as sure as he ever was of anything–that he should find her at home when he arrived; but a message (for she hadn’t had time to telegraph) apprised him that she and Mr. Moffatt had run down to Deauville to look at a house they thought of hiring for the summer; they were taking an early train back, and would be at home for dinner–were in fact having a lot of people to dine.
It was just what he ought to have expected, and had been used to ever since he could remember; and generally he didn’t much mind, especially since his mother had become Mrs. Moffatt, and the father he had been most used to, and liked best, had abruptly disappeared from his life. But the new hotel was big and strange, and his own room, in which there was not a toy or a book, or one of his dear battered relics (none of the new servants–they were always new–could find his things, or think where they had been put), seemed the loneliest spot in the whole house. He had gone up there after his solitary luncheon, served in the immense marble dining-room by a footman on the same scale, and had tried to occupy himself with pasting post-cards into his album; but the newness and sumptuousness of the room embarrassed him–the white fur rugs and brocade chairs seemed maliciously on the watch for smears and ink-spots–and after a while he pushed the album aside and began to roam through the house.
He went to all the rooms in turn: his mother’s first, the wonderful lacy bedroom, all pale silks and velvets, artful mirrors and veiled lamps, and the boudoir as big as a drawing-room, with pictures he would have liked to know about, and tables and cabinets holding things he was afraid to touch. Mr. Moffatt’s rooms came next. They were soberer and darker, but as big and splendid; and in the bedroom, on the brown wall, hung a single picture–the portrait of a boy in grey velvet–that interested Paul most of all. The boy’s hand rested on the head of a big dog, and he looked infinitely noble and charming, and yet (in spite of the dog) so sad and lonely that he too might have come home that very day to a strange house in which none of his old things could be found.
From these rooms Paul wandered downstairs again. The library attracted him most: there were rows and rows of books, bound in dim browns and golds, and old faded reds as rich as velvet: they all looked as if they might have had stories in them as splendid as their bindings. But the bookcases were closed with gilt trellising, and when Paul reached up to open one, a servant told him that Mr. Moffatt’s secretary kept them locked because the books were too valuable to be taken down. This seemed to make the library as strange as the rest of the house, and he passed on to the ballroom at the back. Through its closed doors he heard a sound of hammering, and when he tried the door-handle a servant passing with a tray-full of glasses told him that “they” hadn’t finished, and wouldn’t let anybody in.
The mysterious pronoun somehow increased Paul’s sense of isolation, and he went on to the drawing-rooms, steering his way prudently between the gold arm-chairs and shining tables, and wondering whether the wigged and corseleted heroes on the walls represented Mr. Moffatt’s ancestors, and why, if they did, he looked so little like them. The dining-room beyond was more amusing, because busy servants were already laying the long table. It was too early for the florist, and the centre of the table was empty, but down the sides were gold baskets heaped with pulpy summer fruits-figs, strawberries and big blushing nectarines. Between them stood crystal decanters with red and yellow wine, and little dishes full of sweets; and against the walls were sideboards with great pieces of gold and silver, ewers and urns and branching candelabra, which sprinkled the green marble walls with starlike reflections.
After a while he grew tired of watching the coming and going of white-sleeved footmen, and of listening to the butler’s vociferated orders, and strayed back into the library. The habit of solitude had given him a passion for the printed page, and if he could have found a book anywhere–any kind of a book–he would have forgotten the long hours and the empty house. But the tables in the library held only massive unused inkstands and immense immaculate blotters; not a single volume had slipped its golden prison.
His loneliness had grown overwhelming, and he suddenly thought of Mrs. Heeny’s clippings. His mother, alarmed by an insidious gain in weight, had brought the masseuse back from New York with her, and Mrs. Heeny, with her old black bag and waterproof, was established in one of the grand bedrooms lined with mirrors. She had been loud in her joy at seeing her little friend that morning, but four years had passed since their last parting, and her personality had grown remote to him. He saw too many people, and they too often disappeared and were replaced by others: his scattered affections had ended by concentrating themselves on the charming image of the gentleman he called his French father; and since his French father had vanished no one else seemed to matter much to him.
“Oh, well,” Mrs. Heeny had said, discerning the reluctance under his civil greeting, “I guess you’re as strange here as I am, and we’re both pretty strange to each other. You just go and look round, and see what a lovely home your Ma’s got to live in; and when you get tired of that, come up here to me and I’ll give you a look at my clippings.”
The word woke a train of dormant associations, and Paul saw himself seated on a dingy carpet, between two familiar taciturn old presences, while he rummaged in the depths of a bag stuffed with strips of newspaper.
He found Mrs. Heeny sitting in a pink arm-chair, her bonnet perched on a pink-shaded electric lamp and her numerous implements spread out on an immense pink toilet-table. Vague as his recollection of her was, she gave him at once a sense of reassurance that nothing else in the house conveyed, and after he had examined all her scissors and pastes and nail-polishers he turned to the bag, which stood on the carpet at her feet as if she were waiting for a train.
“My, my!” she said, “do you want to get into that again? How you used to hunt in it for taffy, to be sure, when your Pa brought you up to Grandma Spragg’s o’ Saturdays! Well, I’m afraid there ain’t any taffy in it now; but there’s piles and piles of lovely new clippings you ain’t seen.”
“My Papa?” He paused, his hand among the strips of newspaper. “My Papa never saw my Grandma Spragg. He never went to America.”
“Never went to America? Your Pa never–? Why, land alive!” Mrs. Heeny gasped, a blush empurpling her large warm face. “Why, Paul Marvell, don’t you remember your own father, you that bear his name?” she exclaimed.
The boy blushed also, conscious that it must have been wrong to forget, and yet not seeing how he was to blame.
“That one died a long long time ago, didn’t he? I was thinking of my French father,” he explained.
“Oh, mercy,” ejaculated Mrs. Heeny; and as if to cut the conversation short she stooped over, creaking like a ship, and thrust her plump strong hand into the bag.
“Here, now, just you look at these clippings–I guess you’ll find a lot in them about your Ma.–Where do they come from? Why, out of the papers, of course,” she added, in response to Paul’s enquiry. “You’d oughter start a scrap-book yourself–you’re plenty old enough. You could make a beauty just about your Ma, with her picture pasted in the front–and another about Mr. Moffatt and his collections. There’s one I cut out the other day that says he’s the greatest collector in America.”
Paul listened, fascinated. He had the feeling that Mrs. Heeny’s clippings, aside from their great intrinsic interest, might furnish him the clue to many things he didn’t understand, and that nobody had ever had time to explain to him. His mother’s marriages, for instance: he was sure there was a great deal to find out about them. But she always said: “I’ll tell you all about it when I come back”–and when she came back it was invariably to rush off somewhere else. So he had remained without a key to her transitions, and had had to take for granted numberless things that seemed to have no parallel in the experience of the other boys he knew.
“Here–here it is,” said Mrs. Heeny, adjusting the big tortoiseshell spectacles she had taken to wearing, and reading out in a slow chant that seemed to Paul to come out of some lost remoteness of his infancy.
“‘It is reported in London that the price paid by Mr. Elmer Moffatt for the celebrated Grey Boy is the largest sum ever given for a Vandyck. Since Mr. Moffatt began to buy extensively it is estimated in art circles that values have gone up at least seventy-five per cent.'”
But the price of the Grey Boy did not interest Paul, and he said a little impatiently: “I’d rather hear about my mother.”
“To be sure you would! You wait now.” Mrs. Heeny made another dive, and again began to spread her clippings on her lap like cards on a big black table.
“Here’s one about her last portrait–no, here’s a better one about her pearl necklace, the one Mr. Moffatt gave her last Christmas. ‘The necklace, which was formerly the property of an Austrian Archduchess, is composed of five hundred perfectly matched pearls that took thirty years to collect. It is estimated among dealers in precious stones that since Mr. Moffatt began to buy the price of pearls has gone up over fifty per cent.'”
Even this did not fix Paul’s attention. He wanted to hear about his mother and Mr. Moffatt, and not about their things; and he didn’t quite know how to frame his question. But Mrs. Heeny looked kindly at him and he tried. “Why is mother married to Mr. Moffatt now?”
“Why, you must know that much, Paul.” Mrs. Heeny again looked warm and worried. “She’s married to him because she got a divorce–that’s why.” And suddenly she had another inspiration. “Didn’t she ever send you over any of those splendid clippings that came out the time they were married? Why, I declare, that’s a shame; but I must have some of ’em right here.”
She dived again, shuffled, sorted, and pulled out a long discoloured strip. “I’ve carried this round with me ever since, and so many’s wanted to read it, it’s all torn.” She smoothed out the paper and began:
“‘Divorce and remarriage of Mrs. Undine Spragg-de Chelles. American Marquise renounces ancient French title to wed Railroad King. Quick work untying and tying. Boy and girl romance renewed. “‘Reno, November 23d. The Marquise de Chelles, of Paris, France, formerly Mrs. Undine Spragg Marvell, of Apex City and New York, got a decree of divorce at a special session of the Court last night, and was remarried fifteen minutes later to Mr. Elmer Moffatt, the billionaire Railroad King, who was the Marquise’s first husband.
“‘No case has ever been railroaded through the divorce courts of this State at a higher rate of speed: as Mr. Moffatt said last night, before he and his bride jumped onto their east-bound special, every record has been broken. It was just six months ago yesterday that the present Mrs. Moffatt came to Reno to look for her divorce. Owing to a delayed train, her counsel was late yesterday in receiving some necessary papers, and it was feared the decision would have to be held over; but Judge Toomey, who is a personal friend of Mr. Moffatt’s, held a night session and rushed it through so that the happy couple could have the knot tied and board their special in time for Mrs. Moffatt to spend Thanksgiving in New York with her aged parents. The hearing began at seven ten p. m. and at eight o’clock the bridal couple were steaming out of the station.
“‘At the trial Mrs. Spragg-de Chelles, who wore copper velvet and sables, gave evidence as to the brutality of her French husband, but she had to talk fast as time pressed, and Judge Toomey wrote the entry at top speed, and then jumped into a motor with the happy couple and drove to the Justice of the Peace, where he acted as best man to the bridegroom. The latter is said to be one of the six wealthiest men east of the Rockies. His gifts to the bride are a necklace and tiara of pigeon-blood rubies belonging to Queen Marie Antoinette, a million dollar cheque and a house in New York. The happy pair will pass the honeymoon in Mrs. Moffatt’s new home, 5009 Fifth Avenue, which is an exact copy of the Pitti Palace, Florence. They plan to spend their springs in France.'”
Mrs. Heeny drew a long breath, folded the paper and took off her spectacles. “There,” she said, with a benignant smile and a tap on Paul’s cheek, “now you see how it all happened….”
Paul was not sure he did; but he made no answer. His mind was too full of troubled thoughts. In the dazzling description of his mother’s latest nuptials one fact alone stood out for him–that she had said things that weren’t true of his French father. Something he had half-guessed in her, and averted his frightened thoughts from, took his little heart in an iron grasp. She said things that weren’t true…. That was what he had always feared to find out…. She had got up and said before a lot of people things that were awfully false about his dear French father….
The sound of a motor turning in at the gates made Mrs. Heeny exclaim “Here they are!” and a moment later Paul heard his mother calling to him. He got up reluctantly, and stood wavering till he felt Mrs. Heeny’s astonished eye upon him. Then he heard Mr. Moffatt’s jovial shout of “Paul Marvell, ahoy there!” and roused himself to run downstairs.
As he reached the landing he saw that the ballroom doors were open and all the lustres lit. His mother and Mr. Moffatt stood in the middle of the shining floor, looking up at the walls; and Paul’s heart gave a wondering bound, for there, set in great gilt panels, were the tapestries that had always hung in the gallery at Saint Desert.
“Well, Senator, it feels good to shake your fist again!” his step-father said, taking him in a friendly grasp; and his mother, who looked handsomer and taller and more splendidly dressed than ever, exclaimed: “Mercy! how they’ve cut his hair!” before she bent to kiss him.
“Oh, mother, mother!” he burst out, feeling, between his mother’s face and the others, hardly less familiar, on the walls, that he was really at home again, and not in a strange house.
“Gracious, how you squeeze!” she protested, loosening his arms. “But you look splendidly–and how you’ve grown!” She turned away from him and began to inspect the tapestries critically. “Somehow they look smaller here,” she said with a tinge of disappointment.
Mr. Moffatt gave a slight laugh and walked slowly down the room, as if to study its effect. As he turned back his wife said: “I didn’t think you’d ever get them.” He laughed again, more complacently. “Well, I don’t know as I ever should have, if General Arlington hadn’t happened to bust up.”
They both smiled, and Paul, seeing his mother’s softened face, stole his hand in hers and began: “Mother, I took a prize in composition–“
“Did you? You must tell me about it to-morrow. No, I really must rush off now and dress–I haven’t even placed the dinner-cards.” She freed her hand, and as she turned to go Paul heard Mr. Moffatt say: “Can’t you ever give him a minute’s time, Undine?”
She made no answer, but sailed through the door with her head high, as she did when anything annoyed her; and Paul and his step-father stood alone in the illuminated ball-room.
Mr. Moffatt smiled good-naturedly at the little boy and then turned back to the contemplation of the hangings.
“I guess you know where those come from, don’t you?” he asked in a tone of satisfaction.
“Oh, yes,” Paul answered eagerly, with a hope he dared not utter that, since the tapestries were there, his French father might be coming too.
“You’re a smart boy to remember them. I don’t suppose you ever thought you’d see them here?”
“I don’t know,” said Paul, embarrassed.
“Well, I guess you wouldn’t have if their owner hadn’t been in a pretty tight place. It was like drawing teeth for him to let them go.”
Paul flushed up, and again the iron grasp was on his heart. He hadn’t, hitherto, actually disliked Mr. Moffatt, who was always in a good humour, and seemed less busy and absent-minded than his mother; but at that instant he felt a rage of hate for him. He turned away and burst into tears.
“Why, hullo, old chap–why, what’s up?” Mr. Moffatt was on his knees beside the boy, and the arms embracing him were firm and friendly. But Paul, for the life of him, couldn’t answer: he could only sob and sob as the great surges of loneliness broke over him.
“Is it because your mother hadn’t time for you? Well, she’s like that, you know; and you and I have got to lump it,” Mr. Moffatt continued, getting to his feet. He stood looking down at the boy with a queer smile. “If we two chaps stick together it won’t be so bad–we can keep each other warm, don’t you see? I like you first rate, you know; when you’re big enough I mean to put you in my business. And it looks as if one of these days you’d be the richest boy in America….”
The lamps were lit, the vases full of flowers, the foot-men assembled on the landing and in the vestibule below, when Undine descended to the drawing-room. As she passed the ballroom door she glanced in approvingly at the tapestries. They really looked better than she had been willing to admit: they made her ballroom the handsomest in Paris. But something had put her out on the way up from Deauville, and the simplest way of easing her nerves had been to affect indifference to the tapestries. Now she had quite recovered her good humour, and as she glanced down the list of guests she was awaiting she said to herself, with a sigh of satisfaction, that she was glad she had put on her rubies.
For the first time since her marriage to Moffatt she was about to receive in her house the people she most wished to see there. The beginnings had been a little difficult; their first attempt in New York was so unpromising that she feared they might not be able to live down the sensational details of their reunion, and had insisted on her husband’s taking her back to Paris. But her apprehensions were unfounded. It was only necessary to give people the time to pretend they had forgotten; and already they were all pretending beautifully. The French world had of course held out longest; it had strongholds she might never capture. But already seceders were beginning to show themselves, and her dinner-list that evening was graced with the names of an authentic Duke and a not too-damaged Countess. In addition, of course, she had the Shallums, the Chauncey Ellings, May Beringer, Dicky Bowles, Walsingham Popple, and the rest of the New York frequenters of the Nouveau Luxe; she had even, at the last minute, had the amusement of adding Peter Van Degen to their number. In the evening there were to be Spanish dancing and Russian singing; and Dicky Bowles had promised her a Grand Duke for her next dinner, if she could secure the new tenor who always refused to sing in private houses.
Even now, however, she was not always happy. She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them. And there had been moments lately when she had had to confess to herself that Moffatt did not fit into the picture. At first she had been dazzled by his success and subdued by his authority. He had given her all she had ever wished for, and more than she had ever dreamed of having: he had made up to her for all her failures and blunders, and there were hours when she still felt his dominion and exulted in it. But there were others when she saw his defects and was irritated by them: when his loudness and redness, his misplaced joviality, his familiarity with the servants, his alternating swagger and ceremony with her friends, jarred on perceptions that had developed in her unawares. Now and then she caught herself thinking that his two predecessors–who were gradually becoming merged in her memory–would have said this or that differently, behaved otherwise in such and such a case. And the comparison was almost always to Moffatt’s disadvantage.
This evening, however, she thought of him indulgently. She was pleased with his clever stroke in capturing the Saint Desert tapestries, which General Arlington’s sudden bankruptcy, and a fresh gambling scandal of Hubert’s, had compelled their owner to part with. She knew that Raymond de Chelles had told the dealers he would sell his tapestries to anyone but Mr. Elmer Moffatt, or a buyer acting for him; and it amused her to think that, thanks to Elmer’s astuteness, they were under her roof after all, and that Raymond and all his clan were by this time aware of it. These facts disposed her favourably toward her husband, and deepened the sense of well-being with which–according to her invariable habit–she walked up to the mirror above the mantelpiece and studied the image it reflected.
She was still lost in this pleasing contemplation when her husband entered, looking stouter and redder than ever, in evening clothes that were a little too tight. His shirt front was as glossy as his baldness, and in his buttonhole he wore the red ribbon bestowed on him for waiving his claim to a Velasquez that was wanted for the Louvre. He carried a newspaper in his hand, and stood looking about the room with a complacent eye.
“Well, I guess this is all right,” he said, and she answered briefly: “Don’t forget you’re to take down Madame de Follerive; and for goodness’ sake don’t call her ‘Countess.'”
“Why, she is one, ain’t she?” he returned good-humouredly.
“I wish you’d put that newspaper away,” she continued; his habit of leaving old newspapers about the drawing-room annoyed her.
“Oh, that reminds me–” instead of obeying her he unfolded the paper. “I brought it in to show you something. Jim Driscoll’s been appointed Ambassador to England.”
“Jim Driscoll–!” She caught up the paper and stared at the paragraph he pointed to. Jim Driscoll–that pitiful nonentity, with his stout mistrustful commonplace wife! It seemed extraordinary that the government should have hunted up such insignificant people. And immediately she had a great vague vision of the splendours they were going to–all the banquets and ceremonies and precedences….
“I shouldn’t say she’d want to, with so few jewels–” She dropped the paper and turned to her husband. “If you had a spark of ambition, that’s the kind of thing you’d try for. You could have got it just as easily as not!”
He laughed and thrust his thumbs in his waistcoat armholes with the gesture she disliked. “As it happens, it’s about the one thing I couldn’t.”
“You couldn’t? Why not?”
“Because you’re divorced. They won’t have divorced Ambassadresses.”
“They won’t? Why not, I’d like to know?”
“Well, I guess the court ladies are afraid there’d be too many pretty women in the Embassies,” he answered jocularly.
She burst into an angry laugh, and the blood flamed up into her face. “I never heard of anything so insulting!” she cried, as if the rule had been invented to humiliate her.
There was a noise of motors backing and advancing in the court, and she heard the first voices on the stairs. She turned to give herself a last look in the glass, saw the blaze of her rubies, the glitter of her hair, and remembered the brilliant names on her list.
But under all the dazzle a tiny black cloud remained. She had learned that there was something she could never get, something that neither beauty nor influence nor millions could ever buy for her. She could never be an Ambassador’s wife; and as she advanced to welcome her first guests she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for.