The Custom of the Country/Chapter XVII

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The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
Chapter XVII

Chapter XVII[edit]

Nothing was bitterer to her than to confess to herself the failure of her power; but her last talk with Van Degen had taught her a lesson almost worth the abasement. She saw the mistake she had made in taking money from him, and understood that if she drifted into repeating that mistake her future would be irretrievably compromised. What she wanted was not a hand-to-mouth existence of precarious intrigue: to one with her gifts the privileges of life should come openly. Already in her short experience she had seen enough of the women who sacrifice future security for immediate success, and she meant to lay solid foundations before she began to build up the light super-structure of enjoyment.

Nevertheless it was galling to see Van Degen leave, and to know that for the time he had broken away from her. Over a nature so insensible to the spells of memory, the visible and tangible would always prevail. If she could have been with him again in Paris, where, in the shining spring days, every sight and sound ministered to such influences, she was sure she could have regained her hold. And the sense of frustration was intensified by the fact that every one she knew was to be there: her potential rivals were crowding the east-bound steamers. New York was a desert, and Ralph's seeming unconsciousness of the fact increased her resentment. She had had but one chance at Europe since her marriage, and that had been wasted through her husband's unaccountable perversity. She knew now with what packed hours of Paris and London they had paid for their empty weeks in Italy.

Meanwhile the long months of the New York spring stretched out before her in all their social vacancy to the measureless blank of a summer in the Adirondacks. In her girlhood she had plumbed the dim depths of such summers; but then she had been sustained by the hope of bringing some capture to the surface. Now she knew better: there were no "finds" for her in that direction. The people she wanted would be at Newport or in Europe, and she was too resolutely bent on a definite object, too sternly animated by her father's business instinct, to turn aside in quest of casual distractions.

The chief difficulty in the way of her attaining any distant end had always been her reluctance to plod through the intervening stretches of dulness and privation. She had begun to see this, but she could not always master the weakness: never had she stood in greater need of Mrs. Heeny's "Go slow. Undine!" Her imagination was incapable of long flights. She could not cheat her impatience with the mirage of far-off satisfactions, and for the moment present and future seemed equally void. But her desire to go to Europe and to rejoin the little New York world that was reforming itself in London and Paris was fortified by reasons which seemed urgent enough to justify an appeal to her father.

She went down to his office to plead her case, fearing Mrs. Spragg's intervention. For some time past Mr. Spragg had been rather continuously overworked, and the strain was beginning to tell on him. He had never quite regained, in New York, the financial security of his Apex days. Since he had changed his base of operations his affairs had followed an uncertain course, and Undine suspected that his breach with his old political ally, the Representative Rolliver who had seen him through the muddiest reaches of the Pure Water Move, was not unconnected with his failure to get a footing in Wall Street. But all this was vague and shadowy to her Even had "business" been less of a mystery, she was too much absorbed in her own affairs to project herself into her father's case; and she thought she was sacrificing enough to delicacy of feeling in sparing him the "bother" of Mrs. Spragg's opposition. When she came to him with a grievance he always heard her out with the same mild patience; but the long habit of "managing" him had made her, in his own language, "discount" this tolerance, and when she ceased to speak her heart throbbed with suspense as he leaned back, twirling an invisible toothpick under his sallow moustache. Presently he raised a hand to stroke the limp beard in which the moustache was merged; then he groped for the Masonic emblem that had lost itself in one of the folds of his depleted waistcoat.

He seemed to fish his answer from the same rusty depths, for as his fingers closed about the trinket he said: "Yes, the heated term IS trying in New York. That's why the Fresh Air Fund pulled my last dollar out of me last week."

Undine frowned: there was nothing more irritating, in these encounters with her father, than his habit of opening the discussion with a joke.

"I wish you'd understand that I'm serious, father. I've never been strong since the baby was born, and I need a change. But it's not only that: there are other reasons for my wanting to go."

Mr. Spragg still held to his mild tone of banter. "I never knew you short on reasons, Undie. Trouble is you don't always know other people's when you see 'em."

His daughter's lips tightened. "I know your reasons when I see them, father: I've heard them often enough. But you can't know mine because I haven't told you--not the real ones."

"Jehoshaphat! I thought they were all real as long as you had a use for them."

Experience had taught her that such protracted trifling usually concealed an exceptional vigour of resistance, and the suspense strengthened her determination.

"My reasons are all real enough," she answered; "but there's one more serious than the others."

Mr. Spragg's brows began to jut. "More bills?"

"No." She stretched out her hand and began to finger the dusty objects on his desk. "I'm unhappy at home."

"Unhappy--!" His start overturned the gorged waste-paper basket and shot a shower of paper across the rug. He stooped to put the basket back; then he turned his slow fagged eyes on his daughter. "Why, he worships the ground you walk on, Undie."

"That's not always a reason, for a woman--" It was the answer she would have given to Popple or Van Degen, but she saw in an instant the mistake of thinking it would impress her father. In the atmosphere of sentimental casuistry to which she had become accustomed, she had forgotten that Mr. Spragg's private rule of conduct was as simple as his business morality was complicated.

He glowered at her under thrust-out brows. "It isn't a reason, isn't it? I can seem to remember the time when you used to think it was equal to a whole carload of whitewash."

She blushed a bright red, and her own brows were levelled at his above her stormy steel-grey eyes. The sense of her blunder made her angrier with him, and more ruthless.

"I can't expect you to understand--you never HAVE, you or mother, when it came to my feelings. I suppose some people are born sensitive--I can't imagine anybody'd CHOOSE to be so. Because I've been too proud to complain you've taken it for granted that I was perfectly happy. But my marriage was a mistake from the beginning; and Ralph feels just as I do about it. His people hate me, they've always hated me; and he looks at everything as they do. They've never forgiven me for his having had to go into business--with their aristocratic ideas they look down on a man who works for his living. Of course it's all right for YOU to do it, because you're not a Marvell or a Dagonet; but they think Ralph ought to just lie back and let you support the baby and me."

This time she had found the right note: she knew it by the tightening of her father's slack muscles and the sudden straightening of his back.

"By George, he pretty near does!" he exclaimed bringing down his fist on the desk. "They haven't been taking it out of you about that, have they?" "They don't fight fair enough to say so. They just egg him on to turn against me. They only consented to his marrying me because they thought you were so crazy about the match you'd give us everything, and he'd have nothing to do but sit at home and write books."

Mr. Spragg emitted a derisive groan. "From what I hear of the amount of business he's doing I guess he could keep the Poet's Corner going right along. I suppose the old man was right--he hasn't got it in him to make money."

"Of course not; he wasn't brought up to it, and in his heart of hearts he's ashamed of having to do it. He told me it was killing a little more of him every day."

"Do they back him up in that kind of talk?"

"They back him up in everything. Their ideas are all different from ours. They look down on us--can't you see that? Can't you guess how they treat me from the way they've acted to you and mother?"

He met this with a puzzled stare. "The way they've acted to me and mother? Why, we never so much as set eyes on them."

"That's just what I mean! I don't believe they've even called on mother this year, have they? Last year they just left their cards without asking. And why do you suppose they never invite you to dine? In their set lots of people older than you and mother dine every night of the winter--society's full of them. The Marvells are ashamed to have you meet their friends: that's the reason. They're ashamed to have it known that Ralph married an Apex girl, and that you and mother haven't always had your own servants and carriages; and Ralph's ashamed of it too, now he's got over being crazy about me. If he was free I believe he'd turn round to-morrow and marry that Ray girl his mother's saving up for him."

Mr. Spragg listened with a heavy brow and pushed-out lip. His daughter's outburst seemed at last to have roused him to a faint resentment. After she had ceased to speak he remained silent, twisting an inky penhandle between his fingers; then he said: "I guess mother and I can worry along without having Ralph's relatives drop in; but I'd like to make it clear to them that if you came from Apex your income came from there too. I presume they'd be sorry if Ralph was left to support you on HIS."

She saw that she had scored in the first part of the argument, but every watchful nerve reminded her that the hardest stage was still ahead.

"Oh, they're willing enough he should take your money--that's only natural, they think."

A chuckle sounded deep down under Mr. Spragg's loose collar. "There seems to be practical unanimity on that point," he observed. "But I don't see," he continued, jerking round his bushy brows on her, "how going to Europe is going to help you out."

Undine leaned close enough for her lowered voice to reach him. "Can't you understand that, knowing how they all feel about me--and how Ralph feels--I'd give almost anything to get away?"

Her father looked at her compassionately. "I guess most of us feel that once in a way when we're youngy, Undine. Later on you'll see going away ain't much use when you've got to turn round and come back."

She nodded at him with close-pressed lips, like a child in possession of some solemn secret.

"That's just it--that's the reason I'm so wild to go; because it MIGHT mean I wouldn't ever have to come back."

"Not come back? What on earth are you talking about?"

"It might mean that I could get free--begin over again..."

He had pushed his seat back with a sudden jerk and cut her short by striking his palm on the arm of the chair.

"For the Lord's sake. Undine--do you know what you're saying?"

"Oh, yes, I know." She gave him back a confident smile. "If I can get away soon--go straight over to Paris...there's some one there who'd do anything... who COULD do anything...if I was free..."

Mr. Spragg's hands continued to grasp his chair-arms. "Good God, Undine Marvell--are you sitting there in your sane senses and talking to me of what you could do if you were FREE?"

Their glances met in an interval of speechless communion; but Undine did not shrink from her father's eyes and when she lowered her own it seemed to be only because there was nothing left for them to say.

"I know just what I could do if I were free. I could marry the right man," she answered boldly.

He met her with a murmur of helpless irony. "The right man? The right man? Haven't you had enough of trying for him yet?"

As he spoke the door behind them opened, and Mr. Spragg looked up abruptly.

The stenographer stood on the threshold, and above her shoulder Undine perceived the ingratiating grin of Elmer Moffatt.

"'A little farther lend thy guiding hand'--but I guess I can go the rest of the way alone," he said, insinuating himself through the doorway with an airy gesture of dismissal; then he turned to Mr. Spragg and Undine.

"I agree entirely with Mrs. Marvell--and I'm happy to have the opportunity of telling her so," he proclaimed, holding his hand out gallantly.

Undine stood up with a laugh. "It sounded like old times, I suppose--you thought father and I were quarrelling? But we never quarrel any more: he always agrees with me." She smiled at Mr. Spragg and turned her shining eyes on Moffatt. "I wish that treaty had been signed a few years sooner!" the latter rejoined in his usual tone of humorous familiarity.

Undine had not met him since her marriage, and of late the adverse turn of his fortunes had carried him quite beyond her thoughts. But his actual presence was always stimulating, and even through her self-absorption she was struck by his air of almost defiant prosperity. He did not look like a man who has been beaten; or rather he looked like a man who does not know when he is beaten; and his eye had the gleam of mocking confidence that had carried him unabashed through his lowest hours at Apex.

"I presume you're here to see me on business?" Mr. Spragg enquired, rising from his chair with a glance that seemed to ask his daughter's silence.

"Why, yes. Senator," rejoined Moffatt, who was given, in playful moments, to the bestowal of titles high-sounding. "At least I'm here to ask you a little question that may lead to business."

Mr. Spragg crossed the office and held open the door. "Step this way, please," he said, guiding Moffatt out before him, though the latter hung back to exclaim: "No family secrets, Mrs. Marvell--anybody can turn the fierce white light on ME!"

With the closing of the door Undine's thoughts turned back to her own preoccupations. It had not struck her as incongruous that Moffatt should have business dealings with her father: she was even a little surprised that Mr. Spragg should still treat him so coldly. But she had no time to give to such considerations. Her own difficulties were too importunately present to her. She moved restlessly about the office, listening to the rise and fall of the two voices on the other side of the partition without once wondering what they were discussing.

What should she say to her father when he came back--what argument was most likely to prevail with him? If he really had no money to give her she was imprisoned fast--Van Degen was lost to her, and the old life must go on interminably...In her nervous pacings she paused before the blotched looking-glass that hung in a corner of the office under a steel engraving of Daniel Webster. Even that defective surface could not disfigure her, and she drew fresh hope from the sight of her beauty. Her few weeks of ill-health had given her cheeks a subtler curve and deepened the shadows beneath her eyes, and she was handsomer than before her marriage. No, Van Degen was not lost to her even! From narrowed lids to parted lips her face was swept by a smile like retracted sunlight. He was not lost to her while she could smile like that! Besides, even if her father had no money, there were always mysterious ways of "raising" it--in the old Apex days he had often boasted of such feats. As the hope rose her eyes widened trustfully, and this time the smile that flowed up to them was as limpid as a child's. That was the was her father liked her to look at him...

The door opened, and she heard Mr. Spragg say behind her: "No, sir, I won't--that's final."

He came in alone, with a brooding face, and lowered himself heavily into his chair. It was plain that the talk between the two men had had an abrupt ending. Undine looked at her father with a passing flicker of curiosity. Certainly it was an odd coincidence that Moffatt should have called while she was there...

"What did he want?" she asked, glancing back toward the door.

Mr. Spragg mumbled his invisible toothpick. "Oh, just another of his wild-cat schemes--some real-estate deal he's in."

"Why did he come to YOU about it?"

He looked away from her, fumbling among the letters on the desk. "Guess he'd tried everybody else first. He'd go and ring the devil's front-door bell if he thought he could get anything out of him."

"I suppose he did himself a lot of harm by testifying in the Ararat investigation?"

"Yes, SIR--he's down and out this time."

He uttered the words with a certain satisfaction. His daughter did not answer, and they sat silent, facing each other across the littered desk. Under their brief about Elmer Moffatt currents of rapid intelligence seemed to be flowing between them. Suddenly Undine leaned over the desk, her eyes widening trustfully, and the limpid smile flowing up to them.

"Father, I did what you wanted that one time, anyhow--won't you listen to me and help me out now?"