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Authors: Edith Wharton

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The Custom of the Country

BOOK: The Custom of the Country
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Edith Wharton

THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY

Edith Wharton (1862–1937) was born into high society in New York City. After her marriage, she lived in Newport and New York, traveled in Europe, and built a grand home, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts. In Europe, she met Henry James, who became her good friend, traveling companion, and best critic. In 1913, Edith divorced her husband and took up permanent residence in France, but her primary literary subject remained America and especially the moneyed New York of her youth. Her many stories and novels were critical successes as well as bestsellers, and
The Age of Innocence
won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1921.

ALSO AVAILABLE IN VINTAGE CLASSICS

BY EDITH WHARTON

The Age of Innocence
Ethan Frome
The House of Mirth

FIRST VINTAGE CLASSICS EDITION, JUNE 2012

Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage Classics and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

eISBN: 978-0-307-95058-1

www.vintagebooks.com

Cover photograph: William Morris, Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Cover design: Megan Wilson

v3.1

Contents
BOOK I
I

‘U
NDINE
Spragg – how
can
you?’ her mother wailed, raising a prematurely wrinkled hand heavy with rings to defend the note which a languid ‘bell-boy’ had just brought in.

But her defence was as feeble as her protest, and she continued to smile on her visitor while Miss Spragg, with a turn of her quick young fingers, possessed herself of the missive and withdrew to the window to read it.

‘I guess it’s meant for me,’ she merely threw over her shoulder at her mother.

‘Did you
ever
, Mrs Heeny?’ Mrs Spragg murmured with deprecating pride.

Mrs Heeny, a stout professional-looking person in a waterproof, her rusty veil thrown back, and a shabby alligator bag at her feet, followed the mother’s glance with good-humoured approval.

‘I never met with a lovelier form,’ she agreed, answering the spirit rather than the letter of her hostess’s inquiry.

Mrs Spragg and her visitor were enthroned in two heavy gilt armchairs in one of the private drawing-rooms of the Hotel Stentorian. The Spragg rooms were known as one of the Looey suites, and the drawing-room walls, above their wainscoting of highly varnished mahogany, were hung with salmon-pink damask and adorned with oval portraits of Marie Antoinette and the Princess de Lamballe. In the centre of the florid carpet a gilt table with a top of Mexican onyx sustained a palm in a gilt basket tied with a pink bow. But for this ornament, and a copy of
The Hound of the Baskervilles
which lay beside it, the room showed no traces of human use, and Mrs Spragg herself wore as complete an air of detachment as if she had been a wax figure in a show-window. Her attire was fashionable enough to justify such a post, and her
pale soft-cheeked face, with puffy eyelids and drooping mouth, suggested a partially melted wax figure which had run to double-chin.

Mrs Heeny, in comparison, had a reassuring look of solidity and reality. The planting of her firm black bulk in its chair, and the grasp of her broad red hands on the gilt arms, bespoke an organized and self-reliant activity, accounted for by the fact that Mrs Heeny was a ‘society’ manicure and masseuse. Toward Mrs Spragg and her daughter she filled the double role of manipulator and friend; and it was in the latter capacity that, her day’s task ended, she had dropped in for a moment to ‘cheer up’ the lonely ladies of the Stentorian.

The young girl whose ‘form’ had won Mrs Heeny’s professional commendation suddenly shifted its lovely lines as she turned back from the window.

‘Here – you can have it after all,’ she said, crumpling the note and tossing it with a contemptuous gesture into her mother’s lap.

‘Why – isn’t it from Mr Popple?’ Mrs Spragg exclaimed unguardedly.

‘No – it isn’t. What made you think I thought it was?’ snapped her daughter; but the next instant she added, with an outbreak of childish disappointment: ‘It’s only from Mr Marvell’s sister – at least she says she’s his sister.’

Mrs Spragg, with a puzzled frown, groped for her eye-glass among the jet fringes of her tightly girded front.

Mrs Heeny’s small blue eyes shot out sparks of curiosity. ‘Marvell – what Marvell is that?’

The girl explained languidly: ‘A little fellow – I think Mr Popple said his name was Ralph’; while her mother continued: ‘Undine met them both last night at that party downstairs. And from something Mr Popple said to her about going to one of the new plays, she thought –’

‘How on earth do you know what I thought?’ Undine flashed back, her grey eyes darting warnings at her mother under their straight black brows.

‘Why, you
said
you thought –’ Mrs Spragg began
reproachfully; but Mrs Heeny, heedless of their bickerings, was pursuing her own train of thought.

‘What Popple? Claud Walsingham Popple – the portrait painter?’

‘Yes – I suppose so. He said he’d like to paint me. Mabel Lipscomb introduced him. I don’t care if I never see him again,’ the girl said, bathed in angry pink.

‘Do you know him, Mrs Heeny?’ Mrs Spragg inquired.

‘I should say I did. I manicured him for his first society portrait – a full-length of Mrs Harmon B. Driscoll.’ Mrs Heeny smiled indulgently on her hearers. ‘I know everybody. If they don’t know
me
they ain’t in it, and Claud Walsingham Popple’s in it. But he ain’t nearly
as
in it,’ she continued judicially, ‘as Ralph Marvell – the little fellow, as you call him.’

Undine Spragg, at the word, swept round on the speaker with one of the quick turns that revealed her youthful flexibility. She was always doubling and twisting on herself, and every movement she made seemed to start at the nape of her neck, just below the lifted roll of reddish-gold hair, and flow without a break through her whole slim length to the tips of her fingers and the points of her slender restless feet.

‘Why, do you know the Marvells? Are
they
stylish?’ she asked.

Mrs Heeny gave the discouraged gesture of a pedagogue who has vainly striven to implant the rudiments of knowledge in a rebellious mind.

‘Why, Undine Spragg, I’ve told you all about them time and again! His mother was a Dagonet. They live with old Urban Dagonet down in Washington Square.’

To Mrs Spragg this conveyed even less than to her daughter. ‘ ’way down there? Why do they live with somebody else? Haven’t they got the means to have a home of their own?’

Undine’s perceptions were more rapid, and she fixed her eyes searchingly on Mrs Heeny.

‘Do you mean to say Mr Marvell’s as swell as Mr Popple?’


As swell?
Why, Claud Walsingham Popple ain’t in the same class with him!’

The girl was upon her mother with a spring, snatching and smoothing out the crumpled note.

‘Laura Fairford – is that the sister’s name?’

‘Mrs Henley Fairford; yes. What does she write about?’

Undine’s face lit up as if a shaft of sunset had struck it through the triple-curtained windows of the Stentorian.

‘She says she wants me to dine with her next Wednesday. Isn’t it queer? Why does
she
want me? She’s never seen me!’ Her tone implied that she had long been accustomed to being ‘wanted’ by those who had.

Mrs Heeny laughed. ‘
He
saw you, didn’t he?’

‘Who? Ralph Marvell? Why, of course he did – Mr Popple brought him to the party here last night.’

‘Well, there you are … When a young man in society wants to meet a girl again, he gets his sister to ask her.’

Undine stared at her incredulously. ‘How queer! But they haven’t all got sisters, have they? It must be fearfully poky for the ones that haven’t.’

BOOK: The Custom of the Country
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