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Chapter 20

Some six weeks later. Undine Marvell stood at the window smiling down on
her recovered Paris.

Her hotel sitting-room had, as usual, been flowered, cushioned and
lamp-shaded into a delusive semblance of stability; and she had really
felt, for the last few weeks, that the life she was leading there must
be going to last--it seemed so perfect an answer to all her wants!

As she looked out at the thronged street, on which the summer light lay
like a blush of pleasure, she felt herself naturally akin to all the
bright and careless freedom of the scene. She had been away from
Paris for two days, and the spectacle before her seemed more rich and
suggestive after her brief absence from it. Her senses luxuriated in all
its material details: the thronging motors, the brilliant shops, the
novelty and daring of the women's dresses, the piled-up colours of
the ambulant flower-carts, the appetizing expanse of the fruiterers'
windows, even the chromatic effects of the petits fours behind the
plate-glass of the pastry-cooks: all the surface-sparkle and variety of
the inexhaustible streets of Paris.

The scene before her typified to Undine her first real taste of life.
How meagre and starved the past appeared in comparison with this
abundant present! The noise, the crowd, the promiscuity beneath her eyes
symbolized the glare and movement of her life. Every moment of her days
was packed with excitement and exhilaration. Everything amused her: the
long hours of bargaining and debate with dress-makers and jewellers, the
crowded lunches at fashionable restaurants, the perfunctory dash through
a picture-show or the lingering visit to the last new milliner; the
afternoon motor-rush to some leafy suburb, where tea and musics and
sunset were hastily absorbed on a crowded terrace above the Seine; the
whirl home through the Bois to dress for dinner and start again on the
round of evening diversions; the dinner at the Nouveau Luxe or the
Café de Paris, and the little play at the Capucines or the Variétés,
followed, because the night was "too lovely," and it was a shame to
waste it, by a breathless flight back to the Bois, with supper in one
of its lamp-hung restaurants, or, if the weather forbade, a tumultuous
progress through the midnight haunts where "ladies" were not supposed
to show themselves, and might consequently taste the thrill of being
occasionally taken for their opposites.

As the varied vision unrolled itself, Undine contrasted it with the pale
monotony of her previous summers. The one she most resented was the
first after her marriage, the European summer out of whose joys she had
been cheated by her own ignorance and Ralph's perversity. They had been
free then, there had been no child to hamper their movements, their
money anxieties had hardly begun, the face of life had been fresh and
radiant, and she had been doomed to waste such opportunities on a
succession of ill-smelling Italian towns. She still felt it to be her
deepest grievance against her husband; and now that, after four years of
petty household worries, another chance of escape had come, he already
wanted to drag her back to bondage!

This fit of retrospection had been provoked by two letters which had
come that morning. One was from Ralph, who began by reminding her that
he had not heard from her for weeks, and went on to point out, in his
usual tone of good-humoured remonstrance, that since her departure the
drain on her letter of credit had been deep and constant. "I wanted
you," he wrote, "to get all the fun you could out of the money I made
last spring; but I didn't think you'd get through it quite so fast. Try
to come home without leaving too many bills behind you. Your illness and
Paul's cost more than I expected, and Lipscomb has had a bad knock in
Wall Street, and hasn't yet paid his first quarter..."

Always the same monotonous refrain! Was it her fault that she and the
boy had been ill? Or that Harry Lipscomb had been "on the wrong side" of
Wall Street? Ralph seemed to have money on the brain: his business life
had certainly deteriorated him. And, since he hadn't made a success of
it after all, why shouldn't he turn back to literature and try to write
his novel? Undine, the previous winter, had been dazzled by the figures
which a well-known magazine editor, whom she had met at dinner had named
as within reach of the successful novelist. She perceived for the first
time that literature was becoming fashionable, and instantly decided
that it would be amusing and original if she and Ralph should owe their
prosperity to his talent. She already saw herself, as the wife of a
celebrated author, wearing "artistic" dresses and doing the drawing-room
over with Gothic tapestries and dim lights in altar candle-sticks. But
when she suggested Ralph's taking up his novel he answered with a laugh
that his brains were sold to the firm--that when he came back at night
the tank was empty...And now he wanted her to sail for home in a week!

The other letter excited a deeper resentment. It was an appeal from
Laura Fairford to return and look after Ralph. He was overworked and out
of spirits, she wrote, and his mother and sister, reluctant as they
were to interfere, felt they ought to urge Undine to come back to him.
Details followed, unwelcome and officious. What right had Laura Fairford
to preach to her of wifely obligations? No doubt Charles Bowen had sent
home a highly-coloured report--and there was really a certain irony in
Mrs. Fairford's criticizing her sister-in-law's conduct on information
obtained from such a source! Undine turned from the window and threw
herself down on her deeply cushioned sofa. She was feeling the pleasant
fatigue consequent on her trip to the country, whither she and Mrs.
Shallum had gone with Raymond de Chelles to spend a night at the old
Marquis's chateau. When her travelling companions, an hour earlier, had
left her at her door, she had half-promised to rejoin them for a late
dinner in the Bois; and as she leaned back among the cushions disturbing
thoughts were banished by the urgent necessity of deciding what dress
she should wear.

These bright weeks of the Parisian spring had given her a first real
glimpse into the art of living. From the experts who had taught her to
subdue the curves of her figure and soften her bright free stare with
dusky pencillings, to the skilled purveyors of countless forms of
pleasure--the theatres and restaurants, the green and blossoming
suburbs, the whole shining shifting spectacle of nights and days--every
sight and sound and word had combined to charm her perceptions and
refine her taste. And her growing friendship with Raymond de Chelles had
been the most potent of these influences.

Chelles, at once immensely "taken," had not only shown his eagerness to
share in the helter-skelter motions of Undine's party, but had given her
glimpses of another, still more brilliant existence, that life of the
inaccessible "Faubourg" of which the first tantalizing hints had but
lately reached her. Hitherto she had assumed that Paris existed for the
stranger, that its native life was merely an obscure foundation for
the dazzling superstructure of hotels and restaurants in which her
compatriots disported themselves. But lately she had begun to hear
about other American women, the women who had married into the French
aristocracy, and who led, in the high-walled houses beyond the Seine
which she had once thought so dull and dingy, a life that made her own
seem as undistinguished as the social existence of the Mealey
House. Perhaps what most exasperated her was the discovery, in this
impenetrable group, of the Miss Wincher who had poisoned her far-off
summer at Potash Springs. To recognize her old enemy in the Marquise de
Trezac who so frequently figured in the Parisian chronicle was the more
irritating to Undine because her intervening social experiences had
caused her to look back on Nettie Wincher as a frumpy girl who wouldn't
have "had a show" in New York.

Once more all the accepted values were reversed, and it turned out that
Miss Wincher had been in possession of some key to success on which
Undine had not yet put her hand. To know that others were indifferent to
what she had thought important was to cheapen all present pleasure and
turn the whole force of her desires in a new direction. What she wanted
for the moment was to linger on in Paris, prolonging her flirtation with
Chelles, and profiting by it to detach herself from her compatriots and
enter doors closed to their approach. And Chelles himself attracted
her: she thought him as "sweet" as she had once thought Ralph, whose
fastidiousness and refinement were blent in him with a delightful
foreign vivacity. His chief value, however, lay in his power of exciting
Van Degen's jealousy. She knew enough of French customs to be aware that
such devotion as Chelles' was not likely to have much practical bearing
on her future; but Peter had an alarming way of lapsing into security,
and as a spur to his ardour she knew the value of other men's
attentions.

It had become Undine's fixed purpose to bring Van Degen to a definite
expression of his intentions. The case of Indiana Frusk, whose brilliant
marriage the journals of two continents had recently chronicled with
unprecedented richness of detail, had made less impression on him than
she hoped. He treated it as a comic episode without special bearing on
their case, and once, when Undine cited Rolliver's expensive fight for
freedom as an instance of the power of love over the most invulnerable
natures, had answered carelessly: "Oh, his first wife was a laundress, I
believe."

But all about them couples were unpairing and pairing again with an ease
and rapidity that encouraged Undine to bide her time. It was simply a
question of making Van Degen want her enough, and of not being obliged
to abandon the game before he wanted her as much as she meant he should.
This was precisely what would happen if she were compelled to leave
Paris now. Already the event had shown how right she had been to come
abroad: the attention she attracted in Paris had reawakened Van Degen's
fancy, and her hold over him was stronger than when they had parted
in America. But the next step must be taken with coolness and
circumspection; and she must not throw away what she had gained by going
away at a stage when he was surer of her than she of him. She was still
intensely considering these questions when the door behind her opened
and he came in.

She looked up with a frown and he gave a deprecating laugh. "Didn't I
knock? Don't look so savage! They told me downstairs you'd got back, and
I just bolted in without thinking."

He had widened and purpled since their first encounter, five years
earlier, but his features had not matured. His face was still the
face of a covetous bullying boy, with a large appetite for primitive
satisfactions and a sturdy belief in his intrinsic right to them. It was
all the more satisfying to Undine's vanity to see his look change at her
tone from command to conciliation, and from conciliation to the entreaty
of a capriciously-treated animal.

"What a ridiculous hour for a visit!" she exclaimed, ignoring his
excuse. "Well, if you disappear like that, without a word--"

"I told my maid to telephone you I was going away."

"You couldn't make time to do it yourself, I suppose?"

"We rushed off suddenly; I'd hardly time to get to the station."

"You rushed off where, may I ask?" Van Degen still lowered down on her.

"Oh didn't I tell you? I've been down staying at Chelles' chateau in
Burgundy." Her face lit up and she raised herself eagerly on her elbow.

"It's the most wonderful old house you ever saw: a real castle, with
towers, and water all round it, and a funny kind of bridge they pull up.
Chelles said he wanted me to see just how they lived at home, and I did;
I saw everything: the tapestries that Louis Quinze gave them, and the
family portraits, and the chapel, where their own priest says mass, and
they sit by themselves in a balcony with crowns all over it. The priest
was a lovely old man--he said he'd give anything to convert me. Do you
know, I think there's something very beautiful about the Roman Catholic
religion? I've often felt I might have been happier if I'd had some
religious influence in my life."

She sighed a little, and turned her head away. She flattered herself
that she had learned to strike the right note with Van Degen. At this
crucial stage he needed a taste of his own methods, a glimpse of the
fact that there were women in the world who could get on without him.

He continued to gaze down at her sulkily. "Were the old people there?
You never told me you knew his mother."

"I don't. They weren't there. But it didn't make a bit of difference,
because Raymond sent down a cook from the Luxe."

"Oh, Lord," Van Degen groaned, dropping down on the end of the sofa.
"Was the cook got down to chaperon you?"

Undine laughed. "You talk like Ralph! I had Bertha with me."

"BERTHA!" His tone of contempt surprised her. She had supposed that Mrs.
Shallum's presence had made the visit perfectly correct.

"You went without knowing his parents, and without their inviting you?
Don't you know what that sort of thing means out here? Chelles did it
to brag about you at his club. He wants to compromise you--that's his
game!"

"Do you suppose he does?" A flicker of a smile crossed her lips. "I'm
so unconventional: when I like a man I never stop to think about such
things. But I ought to, of course--you're quite right." She looked at
Van Degen thoughtfully. "At any rate, he's not a married man."

Van Degen had got to his feet again and was standing accusingly before
her; but as she spoke the blood rose to his neck and ears. "What
difference does that make?"

"It might make a good deal. I see," she added, "how careful I ought to
be about going round with you."

"With ME?" His face fell at the retort; then he broke into a laugh. He
adored Undine's "smartness," which was of precisely the same quality
as his own. "Oh, that's another thing: you can always trust me to look
after you!"

"With your reputation? Much obliged!"

Van Degen smiled. She knew he liked such allusions, and was pleased that
she thought him compromising.

"Oh, I'm as good as gold. You've made a new man of me!"

"Have I?" She considered him in silence for a moment. "I wonder what
you've done to me but make a discontented woman of me--discontented with
everything I had before I knew you?"

The change of tone was thrilling to him. He forgot her mockery, forgot
his rival, and sat down at her side, almost in possession of her waist.
"Look here," he asked, "where are we going to dine to-night?"

His nearness was not agreeable to Undine, but she liked his free way,
his contempt for verbal preliminaries. Ralph's reserves and delicacies,
his perpetual desire that he and she should be attuned to the same key,
had always vaguely bored her; whereas in Van Degen's manner she felt a
hint of the masterful way that had once subdued her in Elmer Moffatt.
But she drew back, releasing herself.

"To-night? I can't--I'm engaged."

"I know you are: engaged to ME! You promised last Sunday you'd dine with
me out of town to-night."

"How can I remember what I promised last Sunday? Besides, after what
you've said, I see I oughtn't to."

"What do you mean by what I've said?"

"Why, that I'm imprudent; that people are talking--"

He stood up with an angry laugh. "I suppose you're dining with Chelles.
Is that it?"

"Is that the way you cross-examine Clare?"

"I don't care a hang what Clare does--I never have."

"That must--in some ways--be rather convenient for her!"

"Glad you think so. ARE you dining with him?"

She slowly turned the wedding-ring upon her finger. "You know I'm NOT
married to you--yet!"

He took a random turn through the room; then he came back and planted
himself wrathfully before her. "Can't you see the man's doing his best
to make a fool of you?"

She kept her amused gaze on him. "Does it strike you that it's such an
awfully easy thing to do?"

The edges of his ears were purple. "I sometimes think it's easier for
these damned little dancing-masters than for one of us."

Undine was still smiling up at him; but suddenly her grew grave. "What
does it matter what I do or don't do, when Ralph has ordered me home
next week?"

"Ordered you home?" His face changed. "Well, you're not going, are you?"

"What's the use of saying such things?" She gave a disenchanted laugh.
"I'm a poor man's wife, and can't do the things my friends do. It's not
because Ralph loves me that he wants me back--it's simply because he
can't afford to let me stay!"

Van Degen's perturbation was increasing. "But you mustn't go--it's
preposterous! Why should a woman like you be sacrificed when a lot of
dreary frumps have everything they want? Besides, you can't chuck me
like this! Why, we're all to motor down to Aix next week, and perhaps
take a dip into Italy--"

"OH, ITALY--" she murmured on a note of yearning.

He was closer now, and had her hands. "You'd love that, wouldn't you?
As far as Venice, anyhow; and then in August there's Trouville--you've
never tried Trouville? There's an awfully jolly crowd there--and the
motoring's ripping in Normandy. If you say so I'll take a villa there
instead of going back to Newport. And I'll put the Sorceress in
commission, and you can make up parties and run off whenever you like,
to Scotland or Norway--" He hung above her. "Don't dine with Chelles
to-night! Come with me, and we'll talk things over; and next week we'll
run down to Trouville to choose the villa."

Undine's heart was beating fast, but she felt within her a strange lucid
force of resistance. Because of that sense of security she left her
hands in Van Degen's. So Mr. Spragg might have felt at the tensest hour
of the Pure Water move. She leaned forward, holding her suitor off by
the pressure of her bent-back palms.

"Kiss me good-bye, Peter; I sail on Wednesday," she said.

It was the first time she had permitted him a kiss, and as his face
darkened down on her she felt a moment's recoil. But her physical
reactions were never very acute: she always vaguely wondered why
people made "such a fuss," were so violently for or against such
demonstrations. A cool spirit within her seemed to watch over and
regulate her sensations, and leave her capable of measuring the
intensity of those she provoked.

She turned to look at the clock. "You must go now--I shall be hours late
for dinner."

"Go--after that?" He held her fast. "Kiss me again," he commanded.

It was wonderful how cool she felt--how easily she could slip out of his
grasp! Any man could be managed like a child if he were really in love
with one....

"Don't be a goose, Peter; do you suppose I'd have kissed you if--"

"If what--what--what?" he mimicked her ecstatically, not listening.

She saw that if she wished to make him hear her she must put more
distance between them, and she rose and moved across the room. From the
fireplace she turned to add--"if we hadn't been saying good-bye?"

"Good-bye--now? What's the use of talking like that?" He jumped up and
followed her. "Look here, Undine--I'll do anything on earth you want;
only don't talk of going! If you'll only stay I'll make it all as
straight and square as you please. I'll get Bertha Shallum to stop over
with you for the summer; I'll take a house at Trouville and make my wife
come out there. Hang it, she SHALL, if you say so! Only be a little good
to me!"

Still she stood before him without speaking, aware that her implacable
brows and narrowed lips would hold him off as long as she chose.

"What's the matter. Undine? Why don't you answer? You know you can't go
back to that deadly dry-rot!"

She swept about on him with indignant eyes. "I can't go on with my
present life either. It's hateful--as hateful as the other. If I don't
go home I've got to decide on something different."

"What do you mean by 'something different'?" She was silent, and he
insisted: "Are you really thinking of marrying Chelles?"

She started as if he had surprised a secret. "I'll never forgive you if
you speak of it--"

"Good Lord! Good Lord!" he groaned.

She remained motionless, with lowered lids, and he went up to her and
pulled her about so that she faced him. "Undine, honour bright--do you
think he'll marry you?"

She looked at him with a sudden hardness in her eyes. "I really can't
discuss such things with you."

"Oh, for the Lord's sake don't take that tone! I don't half know what
I'm saying...but you mustn't throw yourself away a second time. I'll do
anything you want--I swear I will!"

A knock on the door sent them apart, and a servant entered with a
telegram.

Undine turned away to the window with the narrow blue slip. She was glad
of the interruption: the sense of what she had at stake made her want to
pause a moment and to draw breath.

The message was a long cable signed with Laura Fairford's name. It told
her that Ralph had been taken suddenly ill with pneumonia, that his
condition was serious and that the doctors advised his wife's immediate
return.

Undine had to read the words over two or three times to get them into
her crowded mind; and even after she had done so she needed more time to
see their bearing on her own situation. If the message had concerned
her boy her brain would have acted more quickly. She had never troubled
herself over the possibility of Paul's falling ill in her absence, but
she understood now that if the cable had been about him she would have
rushed to the earliest steamer. With Ralph it was different. Ralph was
always perfectly well--she could not picture him as being suddenly at
death's door and in need of her. Probably his mother and sister had had
a panic: they were always full of sentimental terrors. The next moment
an angry suspicion flashed across her: what if the cable were a device
of the Marvell women to bring her back? Perhaps it had been sent
with Ralph's connivance! No doubt Bowen had written home about
her--Washington Square had received some monstrous report of her
doings!... Yes, the cable was clearly an echo of Laura's letter--mother
and daughter had cooked it up to spoil her pleasure. Once the thought
had occurred to her it struck root in her mind and began to throw out
giant branches. Van Degen followed her to the window, his face still
flushed and working. "What's the matter?" he asked, as she continued to
stare silently at the telegram.

She crumpled the strip of paper in her hand. If only she had been alone,
had had a chance to think out her answers!

"What on earth's the matter?" he repeated.

"Oh, nothing--nothing."

"Nothing? When you're as white as a sheet?"

"Am I?" She gave a slight laugh. "It's only a cable from home."

"Ralph?"

She hesitated. "No. Laura."

"What the devil is SHE cabling you about?"

"She says Ralph wants me."

"Now--at once?"

"At once."

Van Degen laughed impatiently. "Why don't he tell you so himself? What
business is it of Laura Fairford's?"

Undine's gesture implied a "What indeed?"

"Is that all she says?"

She hesitated again. "Yes--that's all." As she spoke she tossed the
telegram into the basket beneath the writing-table. "As if I didn't HAVE
to go anyhow?" she exclaimed.

With an aching clearness of vision she saw what lay before her--the
hurried preparations, the long tedious voyage on a steamer chosen at
haphazard, the arrival in the deadly July heat, and the relapse into all
the insufferable daily fag of nursery and kitchen--she saw it and her
imagination recoiled.

Van Degen's eyes still hung on her: she guessed that he was intensely
engaged in trying to follow what was passing through her mind. Presently
he came up to her again, no longer perilous and importunate, but
awkwardly tender, ridiculously moved by her distress.

"Undine, listen: won't you let me make it all right for you to stay?"

Her heart began to beat more quickly, and she let him come close,
meeting his eyes coldly but without anger.

"What do you call 'making it all right'? Paying my bills? Don't you see
that's what I hate, and will never let myself be dragged into again?"
She laid her hand on his arm. "The time has come when I must be
sensible, Peter; that's why we must say good-bye."

"Do you mean to tell me you're going back to Ralph?"

She paused a moment; then she murmured between her lips: "I shall never
go back to him."

"Then you DO mean to marry Chelles?"

"I've told you we must say good-bye. I've got to look out for my
future."

He stood before her, irresolute, tormented, his lazy mind and impatient
senses labouring with a problem beyond their power. "Ain't I here to
look out for your future?" he said at last.

"No one shall look out for it in the way you mean. I'd rather never see
you again--"

He gave her a baffled stare. "Oh, damn it--if that's the way you feel!"
He turned and flung away toward the door.

She stood motionless where he left her, every nerve strung to the
highest pitch of watchfulness. As she stood there, the scene about her
stamped itself on her brain with the sharpest precision. She was aware
of the fading of the summer light outside, of the movements of her maid,
who was laying out her dinner-dress in the room beyond, and of the fact
that the tea-roses on her writing-table, shaken by Van Degen's tread,
were dropping their petals over Ralph's letter, and down on the crumpled
telegram which she could see through the trellised sides of the
scrap-basket.

In another moment Van Degen would be gone. Worse yet, while he wavered
in the doorway the Shallums and Chelles, after vainly awaiting her,
might dash back from the Bois and break in on them. These and other
chances rose before her, urging her to action; but she held fast,
immovable, unwavering, a proud yet plaintive image of renunciation.

Van Degen's hand was on the door. He half-opened it and then turned
back.

"That's all you've got to say, then?"

"That's all."

He jerked the door open and passed out. She saw him stop in the
ante-room to pick up his hat and stick, his heavy figure silhouetted
against the glare of the wall-lights. A ray of the same light fell
on her where she stood in the unlit sitting-room, and her reflection
bloomed out like a flower from the mirror that faced her. She looked
at the image and waited. Van Degen put his hat on his head and slowly
opened the door into the outer hall. Then he turned abruptly, his bulk
eclipsing her reflection as he plunged back into the room and came up to
her.

"I'll do anything you say. Undine; I'll do anything in God's world to
keep you!"

She turned her eyes from the mirror and let them rest on his face, which
looked as small and withered as an old man's, with a lower lip that
trembled queerly....

Edith Wharton