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Chapter 16

The turnings of life seldom show a sign-post; or rather, though the
sign is always there, it is usually placed some distance back, like the
notices that give warning of a bad hill or a level railway-crossing.

Ralph Marvell, pondering upon this, reflected that for him the sign had
been set, more than three years earlier, in an Italian ilex-grove. That
day his life had brimmed over--so he had put it at the time. He saw now
that it had brimmed over indeed: brimmed to the extent of leaving the
cup empty, or at least of uncovering the dregs beneath the nectar. He
knew now that he should never hereafter look at his wife's hand without
remembering something he had read in it that day. Its surface-language
had been sweet enough, but under the rosy lines he had seen the warning
letters.

Since then he had been walking with a ghost: the miserable ghost of his
illusion. Only he had somehow vivified, coloured, substantiated it, by
the force of his own great need--as a man might breathe a semblance of
life into a dear drowned body that he cannot give up for dead. All this
came to him with aching distinctness the morning after his talk with his
wife on the stairs. He had accused himself, in midnight retrospect, of
having failed to press home his conclusion because he dared not face
the truth. But he knew this was not the case. It was not the truth he
feared, it was another lie. If he had foreseen a chance of her saying:
"Yes, I was with Peter Van Degen, and for the reason you think," he
would have put it to the touch, stood up to the blow like a man; but he
knew she would never say that. She would go on eluding and doubling,
watching him as he watched her; and at that game she was sure to beat
him in the end.

On their way home from the Elling dinner this certainty had become so
insufferable that it nearly escaped him in the cry: "You needn't watch
me--I shall never again watch you!" But he had held his peace, knowing
she would not understand. How little, indeed, she ever understood,
had been made clear to him when, the same night, he had followed her
upstairs through the sleeping house. She had gone on ahead while he
stayed below to lock doors and put out lights, and he had supposed her
to be already in her room when he reached the upper landing; but she
stood there waiting in the spot where he had waited for her a few hours
earlier. She had shone her vividest at dinner, with revolving brilliancy
that collective approval always struck from her; and the glow of it
still hung on her as she paused there in the dimness, her shining cloak
dropped from her white shoulders.

"Ralphie--" she began, a soft hand on his arm. He stopped, and she
pulled him about so that their faces were close, and he saw her lips
curving for a kiss. Every line of her face sought him, from the sweep of
the narrowed eyelids to the dimples that played away from her smile. His
eye received the picture with distinctness; but for the first time it
did not pass into his veins. It was as if he had been struck with a
subtle blindness that permitted images to give their colour to the eye
but communicated nothing to the brain.

"Good-night," he said, as he passed on.

When a man felt in that way about a woman he was surely in a position to
deal with his case impartially. This came to Ralph as the joyless solace
of the morning. At last the bandage was off and he could see. And what
did he see? Only the uselessness of driving his wife to subterfuges that
were no longer necessary. Was Van Degen her lover? Probably not--the
suspicion died as it rose. She would not take more risks than she could
help, and it was admiration, not love, that she wanted. She wanted
to enjoy herself, and her conception of enjoyment was publicity,
promiscuity--the band, the banners, the crowd, the close contact of
covetous impulses, and the sense of walking among them in cool security.
Any personal entanglement might mean "bother," and bother was the thing
she most abhorred. Probably, as the queer formula went, his "honour"
was safe: he could count on the letter of her fidelity. At moment the
conviction meant no more to him than if he had been assured of the
honesty of the first strangers he met in the street. A stranger--that
was what she had always been to him. So malleable outwardly, she had
remained insensible to the touch of the heart.

These thoughts accompanied him on his way to business the next morning.
Then, as the routine took him back, the feeling of strangeness
diminished. There he was again at his daily task--nothing tangible was
altered. He was there for the same purpose as yesterday: to make money
for his wife and child. The woman he had turned from on the stairs a few
hours earlier was still his wife and the mother of Paul Marvell. She was
an inherent part of his life; the inner disruption had not resulted in
any outward upheaval. And with the sense of inevitableness there came a
sudden wave of pity. Poor Undine! She was what the gods had made her--a
creature of skin-deep reactions, a mote in the beam of pleasure. He
had no desire to "preach down" such heart as she had--he felt only a
stronger wish to reach it, teach it, move it to something of the pity
that filled his own. They were fellow-victims in the noyade of marriage,
but if they ceased to struggle perhaps the drowning would be easier for
both...Meanwhile the first of the month was at hand, with its usual
batch of bills; and there was no time to think of any struggle less
pressing than that connected with paying them...

Undine had been surprised, and a little disconcerted, at her husband's
acceptance of the birthday incident. Since the resetting of her bridal
ornaments the relations between Washington Square and West End Avenue
had been more and more strained; and the silent disapproval of the
Marvell ladies was more irritating to her than open recrimination. She
knew how keenly Ralph must feel her last slight to his family, and she
had been frightened when she guessed that he had seen her returning with
Van Degen. He must have been watching from the window, since, credulous
as he always was, he evidently had a reason for not believing her when
she told him she had come from the studio. There was therefore something
both puzzling and disturbing in his silence; and she made up her mind
that it must be either explained or cajoled away.

These thoughts were with her as she dressed; but at the Ellings' they
fled like ghosts before light and laughter. She had never been more open
to the suggestions of immediate enjoyment. At last she had reached the
envied situation of the pretty woman with whom society must reckon, and
if she had only had the means to live up to her opportunities she would
have been perfectly content with life, with herself and her husband. She
still thought Ralph "sweet" when she was not bored by his good advice or
exasperated by his inability to pay her bills. The question of money
was what chiefly stood between them; and now that this was momentarily
disposed of by Van Degen's offer she looked at Ralph more kindly--she
even felt a return of her first impersonal affection for him. Everybody
could see that Clare Van Degen was "gone" on him, and Undine always
liked to know that what belonged to her was coveted by others. Her
reassurance had been fortified by the news she had heard at the Elling
dinner--the published fact of Harmon B. Driscoll's unexpected victory.
The Ararat investigation had been mysteriously stopped--quashed, in the
language of the law--and Elmer Moffatt "turned down," as Van Degen (who
sat next to her) expressed it.

"I don't believe we'll ever hear of that gentleman again," he said
contemptuously; and their eyes crossed gaily as she exclaimed: "Then
they'll give the fancy ball after all?"

"I should have given you one anyhow--shouldn't you have liked that as
well?" "Oh, you can give me one too!" she returned; and he bent closer
to say: "By Jove, I will--and anything else you want."

But on the way home her fears revived. Ralph's indifference struck
her as unnatural. He had not returned to the subject of Paul's
disappointment, had not even asked her to write a word of excuse to his
mother. Van Degen's way of looking at her at dinner--he was incapable
of graduating his glances--had made it plain that the favour she had
accepted would necessitate her being more conspicuously in his company
(though she was still resolved that it should be on just such terms as
she chose); and it would be extremely troublesome if, at this juncture,
Ralph should suddenly turn suspicious and secretive.

Undine, hitherto, had found more benefits than drawbacks in her
marriage; but now the tie began to gall. It was hard to be criticized
for every grasp at opportunity by a man so avowedly unable to do the
reaching for her! Ralph had gone into business to make more money for
her; but it was plain that the "more" would never be much, and that he
would not achieve the quick rise to affluence which was man's natural
tribute to woman's merits. Undine felt herself trapped, deceived; and it
was intolerable that the agent of her disillusionment should presume to
be the critic of her conduct. Her annoyance, however, died out with
her fears. Ralph, the morning after the Elling dinner, went his way as
usual, and after nerving herself for the explosion which did not come
she set down his indifference to the dulling effect of "business." No
wonder poor women whose husbands were always "down-town" had to look
elsewhere for sympathy! Van Degen's cheque helped to calm her, and the
weeks whirled on toward the Driscoll ball.

The ball was as brilliant as she had hoped, and her own part in it as
thrilling as a page from one of the "society novels" with which she had
cheated the monotony of Apex days. She had no time for reading now:
every hour was packed with what she would have called life, and the
intensity of her sensations culminated on that triumphant evening. What
could be more delightful than to feel that, while all the women envied
her dress, the men did not so much as look at it? Their admiration was
all for herself, and her beauty deepened under it as flowers take a
warmer colour in the rays of sunset. Only Van Degen's glance weighed
on her a little too heavily. Was it possible that he might become a
"bother" less negligible than those he had relieved her of? Undine
was not greatly alarmed--she still had full faith in her powers of
self-defense; but she disliked to feel the least crease in the smooth
surface of existence. She had always been what her parents called
"sensitive."

As the winter passed, material cares once more assailed her. In
the thrill of liberation produced by Van Degen's gift she had been
imprudent--had launched into fresh expenses. Not that she accused
herself of extravagance: she had done nothing not really necessary. The
drawing-room, for instance, cried out to be "done over," and Popple, who
was an authority on decoration, had shown her, with a few strokes of his
pencil how easily it might be transformed into a French "period" room,
all curves and cupids: just the setting for a pretty woman and his
portrait of her. But Undine, still hopeful of leaving West End Avenue,
had heroically resisted the suggestion, and contented herself with the
renewal of the curtains and carpet, and the purchase of some fragile
gilt chairs which, as she told Ralph, would be "so much to the good"
when they moved--the explanation, as she made it, seemed an additional
evidence of her thrift.

Partly as a result of these exertions she had a "nervous breakdown"
toward the middle of the winter, and her physician having ordered
massage and a daily drive it became necessary to secure Mrs. Heeny's
attendance and to engage a motor by the month. Other unforeseen
expenses--the bills, that, at such times, seem to run up without visible
impulsion--were added to by a severe illness of little Paul's: a long
costly illness, with three nurses and frequent consultations. During
these days Ralph's anxiety drove him to what seemed to Undine foolish
excesses of expenditure and when the boy began to get better the doctors
advised country air. Ralph at once hired a small house at Tuxedo and
Undine of course accompanied her son to the country; but she spent only
the Sundays with him, running up to town during the week to be with
her husband, as she explained. This necessitated the keeping up of two
households, and even for so short a time the strain on Ralph's purse was
severe. So it came about that the bill for the fancy-dress was still
unpaid, and Undine left to wonder distractedly what had become of
Van Degen's money. That Van Degen seemed also to wonder was becoming
unpleasantly apparent: his cheque had evidently not brought in the
return he expected, and he put his grievance to her frankly one day when
he motored down to lunch at Tuxedo.

They were sitting, after luncheon, in the low-ceilinged drawing-room to
which Undine had adapted her usual background of cushions, bric-a-brac
and flowers--since one must make one's setting "home-like," however
little one's habits happened to correspond with that particular effect.
Undine, conscious of the intimate charm of her mise-en-scene, and of
the recovered freshness and bloom which put her in harmony with it, had
never been more sure of her power to keep her friend in the desired
state of adoring submission. But Peter, as he grew more adoring, became
less submissive; and there came a moment when she needed all her wits to
save the situation. It was easy enough to rebuff him, the easier as his
physical proximity always roused in her a vague instinct of resistance;
but it was hard so to temper the rebuff with promise that the game of
suspense should still delude him. He put it to her at last, standing
squarely before her, his batrachian sallowness unpleasantly flushed,
and primitive man looking out of the eyes from which a frock-coated
gentleman usually pined at her.

"Look here--the installment plan's all right; but ain't you a bit behind
even on that?" (She had brusquely eluded a nearer approach.) "Anyhow,
I think I'd rather let the interest accumulate for a while. This is
good-bye till I get back from Europe."

The announcement took her by surprise. "Europe? Why, when are you
sailing?"

"On the first of April: good day for a fool to acknowledge his folly.
I'm beaten, and I'm running away."

She sat looking down, her hand absently occupied with the twist of
pearls he had given her. In a flash she saw the peril of this departure.
Once off on the Sorceress, he was lost to her--the power of old
associations would prevail. Yet if she were as "nice" to him as he
asked--"nice" enough to keep him--the end might not be much more to her
advantage. Hitherto she had let herself drift on the current of their
adventure, but she now saw what port she had half-unconsciously been
trying for. If she had striven so hard to hold him, had "played" him
with such patience and such skill, it was for something more than her
passing amusement and convenience: for a purpose the more tenaciously
cherished that she had not dared name it to herself. In the light of
this discovery she saw the need of feigning complete indifference.

"Ah, you happy man! It's good-bye indeed, then," she threw back at him,
lifting a plaintive smile to his frown.

"Oh, you'll turn up in Paris later, I suppose--to get your things for
Newport."

"Paris? Newport? They're not on my map! When Ralph can get away we shall
go to the Adirondacks for the boy. I hope I shan't need Paris clothes
there! It doesn't matter, at any rate," she ended, laughing, "because
nobody I care about will see me."

Van Degen echoed her laugh. "Oh, come--that's rough on Ralph!"

She looked down with a slight increase of colour. "I oughtn't to have
said it, ought I? But the fact is I'm unhappy--and a little hurt--"

"Unhappy? Hurt?" He was at her side again. "Why, what's wrong?"

She lifted her eyes with a grave look. "I thought you'd be sorrier to
leave me."

"Oh, it won't be for long--it needn't be, you know." He was perceptibly
softening. "It's damnable, the way you're tied down. Fancy rotting all
summer in the Adirondacks! Why do you stand it? You oughtn't to be bound
for life by a girl's mistake."

The lashes trembled slightly on her cheek. "Aren't we all bound by our
mistakes--we women? Don't let us talk of such things! Ralph would never
let me go abroad without him." She paused, and then, with a quick upward
sweep of the lids: "After all, it's better it should be good-bye--since
I'm paying for another mistake in being so unhappy at your going."

"Another mistake? Why do you call it that?"

"Because I've misunderstood you--or you me." She continued to smile at
him wistfully. "And some things are best mended by a break."

He met her smile with a loud sigh--she could feel him in the meshes
again. "IS it to be a break between us?"

"Haven't you just said so? Anyhow, it might as well be, since we shan't
be in the same place again for months."

The frock-coated gentleman once more languished from his eyes: she
thought she trembled on the edge of victory. "Hang it," he broke out,
"you ought to have a change--you're looking awfully pulled down. Why
can't you coax your mother to run over to Paris with you? Ralph couldn't
object to that."

She shook her head. "I don't believe she could afford it, even if I
could persuade her to leave father. You know father hasn't done very
well lately: I shouldn't like to ask him for the money."

"You're so confoundedly proud!" He was edging nearer. "It would all be
so easy if you'd only be a little fond of me..."

She froze to her sofa-end. "We women can't repair our mistakes. Don't
make me more miserable by reminding me of mine."

"Oh, nonsense! There's nothing cash won't do. Why won't you let me
straighten things out for you?"

Her colour rose again, and she looked him quickly and consciously in
the eye. It was time to play her last card. "You seem to forget that I
am--married," she said.

Van Degen was silent--for a moment she thought he was swaying to her in
the flush of surrender. But he remained doggedly seated, meeting her
look with an odd clearing of his heated gaze, as if a shrewd businessman
had suddenly replaced the pining gentleman at the window.

"Hang it--so am I!" he rejoined; and Undine saw that in the last issue
he was still the stronger of the two.

Edith Wharton