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Chapter 11

The July sun enclosed in a ring of fire the ilex grove of a villa in the
hills near Siena.

Below, by the roadside, the long yellow house seemed to waver and
palpitate in the glare; but steep by steep, behind it, the cool
ilex-dusk mounted to the ledge where Ralph Marvell, stretched on his
back in the grass, lay gazing up at a black reticulation of branches
between which bits of sky gleamed with the hardness and brilliancy of
blue enamel.

Up there too the air was thick with heat; but compared with the white
fire below it was a dim and tempered warmth, like that of the churches
in which he and Undine sometimes took refuge at the height of the torrid
days.

Ralph loved the heavy Italian summer, as he had loved the light spring
days leading up to it: the long line of dancing days that had drawn them
on and on ever since they had left their ship at Naples four months
earlier. Four months of beauty, changeful, inexhaustible, weaving itself
about him in shapes of softness and strength; and beside him, hand in
hand with him, embodying that spirit of shifting magic, the radiant
creature through whose eyes he saw it. This was what their hastened
marriage had blessed them with, giving them leisure, before summer came,
to penetrate to remote folds of the southern mountains, to linger in the
shade of Sicilian orange-groves, and finally, travelling by slow stages
to the Adriatic, to reach the central hill-country where even in July
they might hope for a breathable air.

To Ralph the Sienese air was not only breathable but intoxicating. The
sun, treading the earth like a vintager, drew from it heady fragrances,
crushed out of it new colours. All the values of the temperate landscape
were reversed: the noon high-lights were whiter but the shadows had
unimagined colour. On the blackness of cork and ilex and cypress lay the
green and purple lustres, the coppery iridescences, of old bronze; and
night after night the skies were wine-blue and bubbling with stars.
Ralph said to himself that no one who had not seen Italy thus prostrate
beneath the sun knew what secret treasures she could yield.

As he lay there, fragments of past states of emotion, fugitive
felicities of thought and sensation, rose and floated on the surface
of his thoughts. It was one of those moments when the accumulated
impressions of life converge on heart and brain, elucidating, enlacing
each other, in a mysterious confusion of beauty. He had had glimpses of
such a state before, of such mergings of the personal with the general
life that one felt one's self a mere wave on the wild stream of being,
yet thrilled with a sharper sense of individuality than can be known
within the mere bounds of the actual. But now he knew the sensation in
its fulness, and with it came the releasing power of language. Words
were flashing like brilliant birds through the boughs overhead; he had
but to wave his magic wand to have them flutter down to him. Only they
were so beautiful up there, weaving their fantastic flights against the
blue, that it was pleasanter, for the moment, to watch them and let the
wand lie.

He stared up at the pattern they made till his eyes ached with excess of
light; then he changed his position and looked at his wife.

Undine, near by, leaned against a gnarled tree with the slightly
constrained air of a person unused to sylvan abandonments. Her beautiful
back could not adapt itself to the irregularities of the tree-trunk,
and she moved a little now and then in the effort to find an easier
position. But her expression was serene, and Ralph, looking up at her
through drowsy lids, thought her face had never been more exquisite.

"You look as cool as a wave," he said, reaching out for the hand on her
knee. She let him have it, and he drew it closer, scrutinizing it as if
it had been a bit of precious porcelain or ivory. It was small and soft,
a mere featherweight, a puff-ball of a hand--not quick and thrilling,
not a speaking hand, but one to be fondled and dressed in rings, and to
leave a rosy blur in the brain. The fingers were short and tapering,
dimpled at the base, with nails as smooth as rose-leaves. Ralph lifted
them one by one, like a child playing with piano-keys, but they were
inelastic and did not spring back far--only far enough to show the
dimples.

He turned the hand over and traced the course of its blue veins from the
wrist to the rounding of the palm below the fingers; then he put a kiss
in the warm hollow between. The upper world had vanished: his universe
had shrunk to the palm of a hand. But there was no sense of diminution.
In the mystic depths whence his passion sprang, earthly dimensions were
ignored and the curve of beauty was boundless enough to hold whatever
the imagination could pour into it. Ralph had never felt more convinced
of his power to write a great poem; but now it was Undine's hand which
held the magic wand of expression.

She stirred again uneasily, answering his last words with a faint accent
of reproach.

"I don't FEEL cool. You said there'd be a breeze up here.".

He laughed.

"You poor darling! Wasn't it ever as hot as this in Apex?"

She withdrew her hand with a slight grimace.

"Yes--but I didn't marry you to go back to Apex!"

Ralph laughed again; then he lifted himself on his elbow and regained
the hand. "I wonder what you DID marry me for?"

"Mercy! It's too hot for conundrums." She spoke without impatience, but
with a lassitude less joyous than his.

He roused himself. "Do you really mind the heat so much? We'll go, if
you do."

She sat up eagerly. "Go to Switzerland, you mean?"

"Well, I hadn't taken quite as long a leap. I only meant we might drive
back to Siena."

She relapsed listlessly against her tree-trunk. "Oh, Siena's hotter than
this."

"We could go and sit in the cathedral--it's always cool there at
sunset."

"We've sat in the cathedral at sunset every day for a week."

"Well, what do you say to stopping at Lecceto on the way? I haven't
shown you Lecceto yet; and the drive back by moonlight would be
glorious."

This woke her to a slight show of interest. "It might be nice--but where
could we get anything to eat?"

Ralph laughed again. "I don't believe we could. You're too practical."

"Well, somebody's got to be. And the food in the hotel is too disgusting
if we're not on time."

"I admit that the best of it has usually been appropriated by the
extremely good-looking cavalry-officer who's so keen to know you."

Undine's face brightened. "You know he's not a Count; he's a Marquis.
His name's Roviano; his palace in Rome is in the guide-books, and
he speaks English beautifully. Celeste found out about him from the
headwaiter," she said, with the security of one who treats of recognized
values.

Marvell, sitting upright, reached lazily across the grass for his hat.
"Then there's all the more reason for rushing back to defend our share."
He spoke in the bantering tone which had become the habitual expression
of his tenderness; but his eyes softened as they absorbed in a last
glance the glimmering submarine light of the ancient grove, through
which Undine's figure wavered nereid-like above him.

"You never looked your name more than you do now," he said, kneeling
at her side and putting his arm about her. She smiled back a little
vaguely, as if not seizing his allusion, and being content to let it
drop into the store of unexplained references which had once stimulated
her curiosity but now merely gave her leisure to think of other things.
But her smile was no less lovely for its vagueness, and indeed, to
Ralph, the loveliness was enhanced by the latent doubt. He remembered
afterward that at that moment the cup of life seemed to brim over.

"Come, dear--here or there--it's all divine!"

In the carriage, however, she remained insensible to the soft spell of
the evening, noticing only the heat and dust, and saying, as they passed
under the wooded cliff of Lecceto, that they might as well have stopped
there after all, since with such a headache as she felt coming on she
didn't care if she dined or not. Ralph looked up yearningly at the long
walls overhead; but Undine's mood was hardly favourable to communion
with such scenes, and he made no attempt to stop the carriage. Instead
he presently said: "If you're tired of Italy, we've got the world to
choose from."

She did not speak for a moment; then she said: "It's the heat I'm tired
of. Don't people generally come here earlier?"

"Yes. That's why I chose the summer: so that we could have it all to
ourselves."

She tried to put a note of reasonableness into her voice. "If you'd told
me we were going everywhere at the wrong time, of course I could have
arranged about my clothes."

"You poor darling! Let us, by all means, go to the place where the
clothes will be right: they're too beautiful to be left out of our
scheme of life."

Her lips hardened. "I know you don't care how I look. But you didn't
give me time to order anything before we were married, and I've got
nothing but my last winter's things to wear."

Ralph smiled. Even his subjugated mind perceived the inconsistency
of Undine's taxing him with having hastened their marriage; but her
variations on the eternal feminine still enchanted him.

"We'll go wherever you please--you make every place the one place," he
said, as if he were humouring an irresistible child.

"To Switzerland, then? Celeste says St. Moritz is too heavenly,"
exclaimed Undine, who gathered her ideas of Europe chiefly from the
conversation of her experienced attendant.

"One can be cool short of the Engadine. Why not go south again--say to
Capri?"

"Capri? Is that the island we saw from Naples, where the artists go?"
She drew her brows together. "It would be simply awful getting there in
this heat."

"Well, then, I know a little place in Switzerland where one can still
get away from the crowd, and we can sit and look at a green water-fall
while I lie in wait for adjectives."

Mr. Spragg's astonishment on learning that his son-in-law contemplated
maintaining a household on the earnings of his Muse was still matter for
pleasantry between the pair; and one of the humours of their first weeks
together had consisted in picturing themselves as a primeval couple
setting forth across a virgin continent and subsisting on the adjectives
which Ralph was to trap for his epic. On this occasion, however, his
wife did not take up the joke, and he remained silent while their
carriage climbed the long dusty hill to the Fontebranda gate. He had
seen her face droop as he suggested the possibility of an escape from
the crowds in Switzerland, and it came to him, with the sharpness of a
knife-thrust, that a crowd was what she wanted--that she was sick to
death of being alone with him.

He sat motionless, staring ahead at the red-brown walls and towers
on the steep above them. After all there was nothing sudden in his
discovery. For weeks it had hung on the edge of consciousness, but
he had turned from it with the heart's instinctive clinging to the
unrealities by which it lives. Even now a hundred qualifying reasons
rushed to his aid. They told him it was not of himself that Undine had
wearied, but only of their present way of life. He had said a moment
before, without conscious exaggeration, that her presence made any place
the one place; yet how willingly would he have consented to share in
such a life as she was leading before their marriage? And he had to
acknowledge their months of desultory wandering from one remote Italian
hill-top to another must have seemed as purposeless to her as balls and
dinners would have been to him. An imagination like his, peopled with
such varied images and associations, fed by so many currents from the
long stream of human experience, could hardly picture the bareness of
the small half-lit place in which his wife's spirit fluttered. Her mind
was as destitute of beauty and mystery as the prairie school-house in
which she had been educated; and her ideals seemed to Ralph as pathetic
as the ornaments made of corks and cigar-bands with which her infant
hands had been taught to adorn it. He was beginning to understand this,
and learning to adapt himself to the narrow compass of her experience.
The task of opening new windows in her mind was inspiring enough to give
him infinite patience; and he would not yet own to himself that her
pliancy and variety were imitative rather than spontaneous.

Meanwhile he had no desire to sacrifice her wishes to his, and it
distressed him that he dared not confess his real reason for avoiding
the Engadine. The truth was that their funds were shrinking faster than
he had expected. Mr. Spragg, after bluntly opposing their hastened
marriage on the ground that he was not prepared, at such short notice,
to make the necessary provision for his daughter, had shortly afterward
(probably, as Undine observed to Ralph, in consequence of a lucky "turn"
in the Street) met their wishes with all possible liberality, bestowing
on them a wedding in conformity with Mrs. Spragg's ideals and up to the
highest standard of Mrs. Heeny's clippings, and pledging himself to
provide Undine with an income adequate to so brilliant a beginning. It
was understood that Ralph, on their return, should renounce the law for
some more paying business; but this seemed the smallest of sacrifices to
make for the privilege of calling Undine his wife; and besides, he still
secretly hoped that, in the interval, his real vocation might declare
itself in some work which would justify his adopting the life of
letters.

He had assumed that Undine's allowance, with the addition of his own
small income, would be enough to satisfy their needs. His own were few,
and had always been within his means; but his wife's daily requirements,
combined with her intermittent outbreaks of extravagance, had thrown out
all his calculations, and they were already seriously exceeding their
income.

If any one had prophesied before his marriage that he would find it
difficult to tell this to Undine he would have smiled at the suggestion;
and during their first days together it had seemed as though pecuniary
questions were the last likely to be raised between them. But his
marital education had since made strides, and he now knew that a
disregard for money may imply not the willingness to get on without
it but merely a blind confidence that it will somehow be provided. If
Undine, like the lilies of the field, took no care, it was not because
her wants were as few but because she assumed that care would be taken
for her by those whose privilege it was to enable her to unite floral
insouciance with Sheban elegance.

She had met Ralph's first note of warning with the assurance that she
"didn't mean to worry"; and her tone implied that it was his business to
do so for her. He certainly wanted to guard her from this as from all
other cares; he wanted also, and still more passionately after the topic
had once or twice recurred between them, to guard himself from the risk
of judging where he still adored. These restraints to frankness kept him
silent during the remainder of the drive, and when, after dinner, Undine
again complained of her headache, he let her go up to her room and
wandered out into the dimly lit streets to renewed communion with his
problems.

They hung on him insistently as darkness fell, and Siena grew vocal with
that shrill diversity of sounds that breaks, on summer nights, from
every cleft of the masonry in old Italian towns. Then the moon rose,
unfolding depth by depth the lines of the antique land; and Ralph,
leaning against an old brick parapet, and watching each silver-blue
remoteness disclose itself between the dark masses of the middle
distance, felt his spirit enlarged and pacified. For the first time, as
his senses thrilled to the deep touch of beauty, he asked himself if out
of these floating and fugitive vibrations he might not build something
concrete and stable, if even such dull common cares as now oppressed him
might not become the motive power of creation. If he could only, on
the spot, do something with all the accumulated spoils of the last
months--something that should both put money into his pocket and harmony
into the rich confusion of his spirit! "I'll write--I'll write: that
must be what the whole thing means," he said to himself, with a vague
clutch at some solution which should keep him a little longer hanging
half-way down the steep of disenchantment.

He would have stayed on, heedless of time, to trace the ramifications
of his idea in the complex beauty of the scene, but for the longing to
share his mood with Undine. For the last few months every thought and
sensation had been instantly transmuted into such emotional impulses
and, though the currents of communication between himself and Undine
were neither deep nor numerous, each fresh rush of feeling seemed
strong enough to clear a way to her heart. He hurried back, almost
breathlessly, to the inn; but even as he knocked at her door the subtle
emanation of other influences seemed to arrest and chill him.

She had put out the lamp, and sat by the window in the moonlight, her
head propped on a listless hand. As Marvell entered she turned; then,
without speaking, she looked away again.

He was used to this mute reception, and had learned that it had no
personal motive, but was the result of an extremely simplified social
code. Mr. and Mrs. Spragg seldom spoke to each other when they met, and
words of greeting seemed almost unknown to their domestic vocabulary.
Marvell, at first, had fancied that his own warmth would call forth a
response from his wife, who had been so quick to learn the forms of
worldly intercourse; but he soon saw that she regarded intimacy as a
pretext for escaping from such forms into a total absence of expression.

To-night, however, he felt another meaning in her silence, and perceived
that she intended him to feel it. He met it by silence, but of a
different kind; letting his nearness speak for him as he knelt beside
her and laid his cheek against hers. She seemed hardly aware of
the gesture; but to that he was also used. She had never shown any
repugnance to his tenderness, but such response as it evoked was remote
and Ariel-like, suggesting, from the first, not so much of the recoil of
ignorance as the coolness of the element from which she took her name.

As he pressed her to him she seemed to grow less impassive and he felt
her resign herself like a tired child. He held his breath, not daring to
break the spell.

At length he whispered: "I've just seen such a wonderful thing--I wish
you'd been with me!"

"What sort of a thing?" She turned her head with a faint show of
interest.

"A--I don't know--a vision.... It came to me out there just now with the
moonrise."

"A vision?" Her interest flagged. "I never cared much about spirits.
Mother used to try to drag me to seances--but they always made me
sleepy."

Ralph laughed. "I don't mean a dead spirit but a living one! I saw the
vision of a book I mean to do. It came to me suddenly, magnificently,
swooped down on me as that big white moon swooped down on the black
landscape, tore at me like a great white eagle-like the bird of Jove!
After all, imagination WAS the eagle that devoured Prometheus!"

She drew away abruptly, and the bright moonlight showed him the
apprehension in her face. "You're not going to write a book HERE?"

He stood up and wandered away a step or two; then he turned and came
back. "Of course not here. Wherever you want. The main point is that
it's come to me--no, that it's come BACK to me! For it's all these
months together, it's all our happiness--it's the meaning of life that
I've found, and it's you, dearest, you who've given it to me!"

He dropped down beside her again; but she disengaged herself and he
heard a little sob in her throat.

"Undine--what's the matter?"

"Nothing...I don't know...I suppose I'm homesick..."

"Homesick? You poor darling! You're tired of travelling? What is it?"

"I don't know...I don't like Europe...it's not what I expected, and I
think it's all too dreadfully dreary!" The words broke from her in a
long wail of rebellion.

Marvell gazed at her perplexedly. It seemed strange that such unguessed
thoughts should have been stirring in the heart pressed to his. "It's
less interesting than you expected--or less amusing? Is that it?"

"It's dirty and ugly--all the towns we've been to are disgustingly
dirty. I loathe the smells and the beggars. I'm sick and tired of the
stuffy rooms in the hotels. I thought it would all be so splendid--but
New York's ever so much nicer!"

"Not New York in July?"

"I don't care--there are the roof-gardens, anyway; and there are always
people round. All these places seem as if they were dead. It's all like
some awful cemetery."

A sense of compunction checked Marvell's laughter. "Don't cry,
dear--don't! I see, I understand. You're lonely and the heat has tired
you out. It IS dull here; awfully dull; I've been stupid not to feel it.
But we'll start at once--we'll get out of it."

She brightened instantly. "We'll go up to Switzerland?"

"We'll go up to Switzerland." He had a fleeting glimpse of the quiet
place with the green water-fall, where he might have made tryst with his
vision; then he turned his mind from it and said: "We'll go just where
you want. How soon can you be ready to start?"

"Oh, to-morrow--the first thing to-morrow! I'll make Celeste get out
of bed now and pack. Can we go right through to St. Moritz? I'd rather
sleep in the train than in another of these awful places."

She was on her feet in a flash, her face alight, her hair waving and
floating about her as though it rose on her happy heart-beats.

"Oh, Ralph, it's SWEET of you, and I love you!" she cried out, letting
him take her to his breast.

Edith Wharton