Read The Custom of the Country Online

Authors: Edith Wharton

Tags: #Historical, #Classics

The Custom of the Country (10 page)

BOOK: The Custom of the Country
9.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

‘Lipscomb? Lipscomb? What is Mr Lipscomb’s occupation?’

‘He’s a broker,’ said Undine, glad to be able to place her friend’s husband in so handsome a light. The subtleties of a professional classification unknown to Apex had already taught her that in New York it is more distinguished to be a broker than a dentist; and she was surprised at Mr Dagonet’s lack of enthusiasm.

‘Ah? A broker?’ He said it almost as Popple might have said ‘A
?’ and Undine found herself astray in a new labyrinth of social distinctions. She felt a sudden contempt for Harry Lipscomb, who had already struck her as too loud, and irrelevantly comic. ‘I guess Mabel’ll get a divorce pretty soon,’ she added, desiring, for personal reasons, to present Mrs Lipscomb as favourably as possible.

Mr Dagonet’s handsome eyebrows drew together. ‘A divorce? H’m – that’s bad. Has he been misbehaving himself?’

Undine looked innocently surprised. ‘Oh, I guess not. They like each other well enough. But he’s been a disappointment to her. He isn’t in the right set, and I think Mabel realizes she’ll never really get anywhere till she gets rid of him.’

These words, uttered in the high fluting tone that she rose to when sure of her subject, fell on a pause which prolonged and deepened itself to receive them, while every face at the table, Ralph Marvell’s excepted, reflected in varying degree Mr Dagonet’s pained astonishment.

‘But, my dear young lady – what would your friend’s own situation be if, as you put it, she “got rid” of her husband on so trivial a pretext?’

Undine, surprised at his dullness, tried to explain. ‘Oh, that wouldn’t be the reason
, of course. Any lawyer could fix it up for them. Don’t they generally call it desertion?’

There was another, more palpitating, silence, broken by a laugh from Ralph.

’ his mother breathed; then, turning to Undine, she said with a constrained smile: ‘I believe in certain parts of the country such – unfortunate arrangements – are beginning to be tolerated. But in New York, in spite of our growing indifference, a divorced woman is still – thank heaven! – at a decided disadvantage.’

Undine’s eyes opened wide. Here at last was a topic that really interested her, and one that gave another amazing
glimpse into the camera obscura of New York society. ‘Do you mean to say Mabel would be worse off, then? Couldn’t she even go round as much as she does now?’

Mrs Marvell met this gravely. ‘It would depend, I should say, on the kind of people she wished to see.’

‘Oh, the very best, of course! That would be her only object.’

Ralph interposed with another laugh. ‘You see, Undine, you’d better think twice before you divorce me!’

’ his mother again breathed; but the girl, flushed and sparkling, flung back: ‘Oh, it all depends on
! Out in Apex, if a girl marries a man who don’t come up to what she expected, people consider it’s to her credit to want to change.
better think twice of that!’

‘If I were only sure of knowing what you expect!’ he caught up her joke, tossing it back at her across the fascinated silence of their listeners.

!’ she announced – and Mr Dagonet, turning, laid an intricately-veined old hand on hers, and said, with a change of tone that relaxed the tension of the listeners: ‘My child, if you look like that you’ll get it.’


doubtless owing to Mrs Fairford’s foresight that such possibilities of tension were curtailed, after dinner, by her carrying off Ralph and his betrothed to the theatre.

Mr Dagonet, it was understood, always went to bed after an hour’s whist with his daughter; and the silent Mr Fairford gave his evenings to bridge at his club. The party, therefore, consisted only of Undine and Ralph, with Mrs Fairford and her attendant friend. Undine vaguely wondered why the grave and grey-haired Mr Bowen formed so invariable a part of that lady’s train; but she concluded that it was the New York custom for married ladies to have gentlemen “round’ (as girls had in Apex), and that Mr Bowen was the sole survivor of Laura Fairford’s earlier triumphs.

She had, however, little time to give to such conjectures, for the performance they were attending – the début of a fashionable London actress – had attracted a large audience in which Undine immediately recognized a number of familiar faces. Her engagement had been announced only the day before, and she had the delicious sense of being ‘in all the papers’, and of focusing countless glances of interest and curiosity as she swept through the theatre in Mrs Fairford’s wake. Their stalls were near the stage, and progress thither was slow enough to permit of prolonged enjoyment of this sensation. Before passing to her place she paused for Ralph to remove her cloak, and as he lifted it from her shoulders she heard a lady say behind her: ‘There she is – the one in white, with the lovely back –’ and a man answer: ‘Gad! Where did he find anything as good as that?’

Anonymous approval was sweet enough; but she was to taste a moment more exquisite when, in the proscenium box across the house, she saw Clare Van Degen seated beside the prim figure of Miss Harriet Ray. ‘They’re here to see me with him – they hate it, but they couldn’t keep away!’ She turned and lifted a smile of possessorship to Ralph.

Mrs Fairford seemed also struck by the presence of the two ladies and Undine heard her whisper to Mr Bowen: ‘Do you see Clare over there – and Harriet with her? Harriet
would come –
I call it Spartan! And so like Clare to ask her!’

Her companion laughed. ‘It’s one of the deepest instincts in human nature. The murdered are as much given as the murderer to haunting the scene of the crime.’

Doubtless guessing Ralph’s desire to have Undine to himself, Mrs Fairford had sent the girl in first; and Undine, as she seated herself, was aware that the occupant of the next stall half turned to her, as with a vague gesture of recognition. But just then the curtain rose, and she became absorbed in the development of the drama, especially as it tended to display the remarkable toilets which succeeded each other on the person of its leading lady. Undine, seated at Ralph Marvell’s side, and feeling the thrill of his proximity
as a subtler element in the general interest she was exciting, was at last repaid for the disappointment of her evening at the opera. It was characteristic of her that she remembered her failures as keenly as her triumphs, and that the passionate desire to obliterate, to ‘get even’ with them, was always among the latent incentives of her conduct. Now at last she was having what she wanted – she was in conscious possession of the ‘real thing’; and through her other, more diffused, sensations Ralph’s adoration gave her such a last refinement of pleasure as might have come to some warrior Queen borne in triumph by captive princes, and reading in the eyes of one the passion he dared not speak.

When the curtain fell this vague enjoyment was heightened by various acts of recognition. All the people she wanted to ‘go with’, as they said in Apex, seemed to be about her in the stalls and boxes; and her eyes continued to revert with special satisfaction to the incongruous group formed by Mrs Peter Van Degen and Miss Ray. The sight made it irresistible to whisper to Ralph: ‘You ought to go round and talk to your cousin. Have you told her we’re engaged?’

‘Clare? of course. She’s going to call on you tomorrow.’

‘Oh, she needn’t put herself out – she’s never been yet,’ said Undine loftily.

He made no rejoinder, but presently asked: ‘Who’s that you’re waving to?’

‘Mr Popple. He’s coming round to see us. You know he wants to paint me.’ Undine fluttered and beamed as the brilliant Popple made his way across the stalls to the seat which her neighbour had momentarily left.

‘First-rate chap next to you – whoever he is – to give me this chance,’ the artist declared. ‘Ha, Ralph, my boy, how did you pull it off? That’s what we’re all of us wondering.’ He leaned over to give Marvell’s hand the ironic grasp of celibacy. ‘Well, you’ve left us lamenting: he has, you know, Miss Spragg. But I’ve got one pull over the others – I can paint you! He can’t forbid that, can he? Not before marriage, anyhow!’

Undine divided her shining glances between the two. ‘I
guess he isn’t going to treat me any different afterward,’ she proclaimed with joyous defiance.

‘Ah, well, there’s no telling, you know. Hadn’t we better begin at once? Seriously, I want awfully to get you into the spring show.’

‘Oh, really? That would be too lovely!’

would be, certainly – the way I mean to do you. But I see Ralph getting glum. Cheer up, my dear fellow; I daresay you’ll be invited to some of the sittings – that’s for Miss Spragg to say. – Ah, here comes your neighbour back, confound him. – You’ll let me know when we can begin?’

As Popple moved away Undine turned eagerly to Marvell. ‘Do you suppose there’s time? I’d love to have him to do me!’

Ralph smiled. ‘My poor child – he
“do” you, with a vengeance. Infernal cheek, his asking you to sit –’

She stared. ‘But why? He’s painted your cousin, and all the smart women.’

‘Oh, if a “smart” portrait’s all you want!’

‘I want what the others want,’ she answered, frowning and pouting a little.

She was already beginning to resent in Ralph the slightest sign of resistance to her pleasure; and her resentment took the form – a familiar one in Apex courtships – of turning on him, in the next entr’acte, a deliberately averted shoulder. The result of this was to bring her, for the first time, in more direct relation to her other neighbour. As she turned he turned too, showing her, above a shining shirt-front fastened with a large imitation pearl, a ruddy plump snub face without an angle in it, which yet looked sharper than a razor. Undine’s eyes met his with a startled look, and for a long moment they remained suspended on each other’s stare.

Undine at length shrank back with an unrecognizing face; but her movement made her opera-glass slip to the floor, and her neighbour bent down and picked it up.

‘Well – don’t you know me yet?’ he said with a slight smile, as he restored the glass to her.

She had grown white to the lips, and when she tried to speak the effort produced only a faint click in her throat. She felt that the change in her appearance must be visible, and the dread of letting Marvell see it made her continue to turn her ravaged face to her other neighbour. The round black eyes set prominently in the latter’s round glossy countenance had expressed at first only an impersonal and slightly ironic interest; but a look of surprise grew in them as Undine’s silence continued.

‘What’s the matter? Don’t you want me to speak to you?’

She became aware that Marvell, as if unconscious of her slight show of displeasure, had left his seat, and was making his way toward the aisle; and this assertion of independence, which a moment before she would so deeply have resented, now gave her a feeling of intense relief.

‘No – don’t speak to me, please. I’ll tell you another time – I’ll write.’ Her neighbour continued to gaze at her, forming his lips into a noiseless whistle under his small dark moustache.

‘Well, I – That’s about the stiffest,’ he murmured; and as she made no answer he added: ‘Afraid I’ll ask to be introduced to your friend?’

She made a faint movement of entreaty. ‘I can’t explain. I promise to see you; but I
you not to talk to me now.’

He unfolded his programme, and went on speaking in a low tone while he affected to study it. ‘Anything to oblige, of course. That’s always been my motto. But
it a bargain – fair and square? You’ll see me?’

She receded farther from him. ‘I promise. I – I
to,’ she faltered.

‘All right, then. Call me up in the morning at the Driscoll Building. Seven-O-nine – got it?’

She nodded, and he added in a still lower tone: ‘I suppose I can congratulate you, anyhow?’ and then, without waiting for her reply, turned to study Mrs Van Degen’s box through his opera-glass.

Clare, as if aware of the scrutiny fixed on her from below,
leaned back and threw a question over her shoulder to Ralph Marvell, who had just seated himself behind her.

‘Who’s the funny man with the red face talking to Miss Spragg?’

Ralph bent forward. ‘The man next to her? Never saw him before. But I think you’re mistaken: she’s not speaking to him.’

was –
Wasn’t she, Harriet?’

Miss Ray pinched her lips together without speaking, and Mrs Van Degen paused for the fraction of a second. ‘Perhaps he’s an Apex friend,’ she then suggested.

‘Very likely. Only I think she’d have introduced him if he had been.’

His cousin faintly shrugged. ‘Shall you encourage that?’

Peter Van Degen, who had strayed into his wife’s box for a moment, caught the colloquy, and lifted his opera-glass.

‘The fellow next to Miss Spragg? (By George, Ralph, she’s ripping tonight!) Wait a minute – I know his face. Saw him in old Harmon Driscoll’s office the day of the Eubaw Mine meeting. This chap’s his secretary, or something. Driscoll called him in to give some facts to the directors, and he seemed a mighty wide-awake customer.’

Clare Van Degen turned gaily to her cousin. ‘If he has anything to do with the Driscolls you’d better cultivate him! That’s the kind of acquaintance the Dagonets have always needed. I married to set them an example!’

Ralph rose with a laugh. ‘You’re right. I’ll hurry back and make his acquaintance.’ He held out his hand to his cousin, avoiding her disappointed eyes.

Undine, on entering her bedroom late that evening, was startled by the presence of a muffled figure which revealed itself, through the dimness, as the ungirded midnight outline of Mrs Spragg.

What on earth –?’ the girl exclaimed, as Mrs Spragg pressed the electric button and flooded the room with light. The idea of a mother’s sitting up for her daughter was so foreign to Apex customs that it roused only mistrust and irritation in the object of the demonstration.

BOOK: The Custom of the Country
9.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Platform by Michel Houellebecq
Lucky Break by J. Minter
Hades by Alexandra Adornetto
JO01 - Guilty or Else by Jeff Sherratt
Water Witch by Deborah LeBlanc
Overdose by Kuili, Ray N.
The Railway by Hamid Ismailov