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Chapter 19

"The Parisian Diamond Company--Anglo-American branch."

Charles Bowen, seated, one rainy evening of the Paris season, in a
corner of the great Nouveau Luxe restaurant, was lazily trying to
resolve his impressions of the scene into the phrases of a letter to his
old friend Mrs. Henley Fairford.

The long habit of unwritten communion with this lady--in no way
conditioned by the short rare letters they actually exchanged--usually
caused his notations, in absence, to fall into such terms when the
subject was of a kind to strike an answering flash from her. And who
but Mrs. Fairford would see, from his own precise angle, the fantastic
improbability, the layers on layers of unsubstantialness, on which the
seemingly solid scene before him rested?

The dining-room of the Nouveau Luxe was at its fullest, and, having
contracted on the garden side through stress of weather, had even
overflowed to the farther end of the long hall beyond; so that Bowen,
from his corner, surveyed a seemingly endless perspective of plumed
and jewelled heads, of shoulders bare or black-coated, encircling the
close-packed tables. He had come half an hour before the time he had
named to his expected guest, so that he might have the undisturbed
amusement of watching the picture compose itself again before his eyes.
During some forty years' perpetual exercise of his perceptions he had
never come across anything that gave them the special titillation
produced by the sight of the dinner-hour at the Nouveau Luxe: the same
sense of putting his hand on human nature's passion for the factitious,
its incorrigible habit of imitating the imitation.

As he sat watching the familiar faces swept toward him on the rising
tide of arrival--for it was one of the joys of the scene that the type
was always the same even when the individual was not--he hailed with
renewed appreciation this costly expression of a social ideal. The
dining-room at the Nouveau Luxe represented, on such a spring evening,
what unbounded material power had devised for the delusion of its
leisure: a phantom "society," with all the rules, smirks, gestures of
its model, but evoked out of promiscuity and incoherence while the other
had been the product of continuity and choice. And the instinct which
had driven a new class of world-compellers to bind themselves to slavish
imitation of the superseded, and their prompt and reverent faith in
the reality of the sham they had created, seemed to Bowen the most
satisfying proof of human permanence.

With this thought in his mind he looked up to greet his guest. The Comte
Raymond de Chelles, straight, slim and gravely smiling, came toward him
with frequent pauses of salutation at the crowded tables; saying, as he
seated himself and turned his pleasant eyes on the scene: "Il n'y a pas
dire, my dear Bowen, it's charming and sympathetic and original--we
owe America a debt of gratitude for inventing it!"

Bowen felt a last touch of satisfaction: they were the very words to
complete his thought.

"My dear fellow, it's really you and your kind who are responsible. It's
the direct creation of feudalism, like all the great social upheavals!"

Raymond de Chelles stroked his handsome brown moustache. "I should have
said, on the contrary, that one enjoyed it for the contrast. It's such
a refreshing change from our institutions--which are, nevertheless, the
necessary foundations of society. But just as one may have an infinite
admiration for one's wife, and yet occasionally--" he waved a light hand
toward the spectacle. "This, in the social order, is the diversion, the
permitted diversion, that your original race has devised: a kind of
superior Bohemia, where one may be respectable without being bored."

Bowen laughed. "You've put it in a nutshell: the ideal of the American
woman is to be respectable without being bored; and from that point of
view this world they've invented has more originality than I gave it
credit for."

Chelles thoughtfully unfolded his napkin. "My impression's a superficial
one, of course--for as to what goes on underneath--!" He looked across
the room. "If I married I shouldn't care to have my wife come here too
often."

Bowen laughed again. "She'd be as safe as in a bank! Nothing ever goes
on! Nothing that ever happens here is real."

"Ah, quant cela--" the Frenchman murmured, inserting a fork into
his melon. Bowen looked at him with enjoyment--he was such a precious
foot-note to the page! The two men, accidentally thrown together some
years previously during a trip up the Nile, always met again with
pleasure when Bowen returned to France. Raymond de Chelles, who came of
a family of moderate fortune, lived for the greater part of the year on
his father's estates in Burgundy; but he came up every spring to the
entresol of the old Marquis's hotel for a two months' study of human
nature, applying to the pursuit the discriminating taste and transient
ardour that give the finest bloom to pleasure. Bowen liked him as a
companion and admired him as a charming specimen of the Frenchman of his
class, embodying in his lean, fatigued and finished person that happy
mean of simplicity and intelligence of which no other race has found the
secret. If Raymond de Chelles had been English he would have been a
mere fox-hunting animal, with appetites but without tastes; but in his
lighter Gallic clay the wholesome territorial savour, the inherited
passion for sport and agriculture, were blent with an openness to finer
sensations, a sense of the come-and-go of ideas, under which one felt
the tight hold of two or three inherited notions, religious, political,
and domestic, in total contradiction to his surface attitude. That the
inherited notions would in the end prevail, everything in his appearance
declared from the distinguished slant of his nose to the narrow forehead
under his thinning hair; he was the kind of man who would inevitably
"revert" when he married. But meanwhile the surface he presented to the
play of life was broad enough to take in the fantastic spectacle of the
Nouveau Luxe; and to see its gestures reflected in a Latin consciousness
was an endless entertainment to Bowen.

The tone of his guest's last words made him take them up. "But is the
lady you allude to more than a hypothesis? Surely you're not thinking of
getting married?"

Chelles raised his eye-brows ironically. "When hasn't one to think of
it, in my situation? One hears of nothing else at home--one knows that,
like death, it has to come." His glance, which was still mustering the
room, came to a sudden pause and kindled.

"Who's the lady over there--fair-haired, in white--the one who's just
come in with the red-faced man? They seem to be with a party of your
compatriots."

Bowen followed his glance to a neighbouring table, where, at the moment,
Undine Marvell was seating herself at Peter Van Degen's side, in the
company of the Harvey Shallums, the beautiful Mrs. Beringer and a dozen
other New York figures.

She was so placed that as she took her seat she recognized Bowen and
sent him a smile across the tables. She was more simply dressed than
usual, and the pink lights, warming her cheeks and striking gleams from
her hair, gave her face a dewy freshness that was new to Bowen. He
had always thought her beauty too obvious, too bathed in the bright
publicity of the American air; but to-night she seemed to have been
brushed by the wing of poetry, and its shadow lingered in her eyes.

Chelles' gaze made it evident that he had received the same impression.

"One is sometimes inclined to deny your compatriots actual beauty--to
charge them with producing the effect without having the features; but
in this case--you say you know the lady?"

"Yes: she's the wife of an old friend."

"The wife? She's married? There, again, it's so puzzling! Your
young girls look so experienced, and your married women sometimes
so--unmarried."

"Well, they often are--in these days of divorce!"

The other's interest quickened. "Your friend's divorced?"

"Oh, no; heaven forbid! Mrs. Marvell hasn't been long married; and it
was a love-match of the good old kind."

"Ah--and the husband? Which is he?"

"He's not here--he's in New York."

"Feverishly adding to a fortune already monstrous?"

"No; not precisely monstrous. The Marvells are not well off," said
Bowen, amused by his friend's interrogations.

"And he allows an exquisite being like that to come to Paris without
him--and in company with the red-faced gentleman who seems so alive to
his advantages?"

"We don't 'allow' our women this or that; I don't think we set much
store by the compulsory virtues."

His companion received this with amusement. "If: you're as detached as
that, why does the obsolete institution of marriage survive with you?"

"Oh, it still has its uses. One couldn't be divorced without it."

Chelles laughed again; but his straying eye still followed the same
direction, and Bowen noticed that the fact was not unremarked by the
object of his contemplation. Undine's party was one of the liveliest in
the room: the American laugh rose above the din of the orchestra as the
American toilets dominated the less daring effects at the other
tables. Undine, on entering, had seemed to be in the same mood as her
companions; but Bowen saw that, as she became conscious of his friend's
observation, she isolated herself in a kind of soft abstraction; and
he admired the adaptability which enabled her to draw from such
surroundings the contrasting graces of reserve.

They had greeted each other with all the outer signs of cordiality,
but Bowen fancied she would not care to have him speak to her. She was
evidently dining with Van Degen, and Van Degen's proximity was the last
fact she would wish to have transmitted to the critics in Washington
Square. Bowen was therefore surprised when, as he rose to leave the
restaurant, he heard himself hailed by Peter.

"Hallo--hold on! When did you come over? Mrs. Marvell's dying for the
last news about the old homestead."

Undine's smile confirmed the appeal. She wanted to know how lately Bowen
had left New York, and pressed him to tell her when he had last seen her
boy, how he was looking, and whether Ralph had been persuaded to go down
to Clare's on Saturdays and get a little riding and tennis? And dear
Laura--was she well too, and was Paul with her, or still with his
grandmother? They were all dreadfully bad correspondents, and so was
she. Undine laughingly admitted; and when Ralph had last written her
these questions had still been undecided.

As she smiled up at Bowen he saw her glance stray to the spot where his
companion hovered; and when the diners rose to move toward the garden
for coffee she said, with a sweet note and a detaining smile: "Do come
with us--I haven't half finished."

Van Degen echoed the request, and Bowen, amused by Undine's arts, was
presently introducing Chelles, and joining with him in the party's
transit to the terrace. The rain had ceased, and under the clear evening
sky the restaurant garden opened green depths that skilfully hid its
narrow boundaries. Van Degen's company was large enough to surround
two of the tables on the terrace, and Bowen noted the skill with which
Undine, leaving him to Mrs. Shallum's care, contrived to draw Raymond de
Chelles to the other table. Still more noticeable was the effect of
this stratagem on Van Degen, who also found himself relegated to Mrs.
Shallum's group. Poor Peter's state was betrayed by the irascibility
which wreaked itself on a jostling waiter, and found cause for loud
remonstrance in the coldness of the coffee and the badness of the
cigars; and Bowen, with something more than the curiosity of the
looker-on, wondered whether this were the real clue to Undine's conduct.
He had always smiled at Mrs. Fairford's fears for Ralph's domestic
peace. He thought Undine too clear-headed to forfeit the advantages of
her marriage; but it now struck him that she might have had a glimpse
of larger opportunities. Bowen, at the thought, felt the pang of
the sociologist over the individual havoc wrought by every social
readjustment: it had so long been clear to him that poor Ralph was a
survival, and destined, as such, to go down in any conflict with the
rising forces.

Edith Wharton