The Custom of the Country/Chapter XXXIV

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The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
Chapter XXXIV

Chapter XXXIV[edit]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Even Henley!" Clare sighed. "Then I'm the only one left out?"

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

Her hands flew together joyfully. "But then you've got to let me help! Oh, I'm so glad--so glad! I've twenty thousand waiting."

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

"I've told you it's mine, every penny of it!"

"Yes; but supposing things went wrong?"

"Nothing CAN--if you'll only take it..."

"I may lose it--"

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

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

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

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