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Chapter 23

In the Adirondacks Ralph Marvell sat day after day on the balcony of
his little house above the lake, staring at the great white
cloud-reflections in the water and at the dark line of trees that closed
them in. Now and then he got into the canoe and paddled himself through
a winding chain of ponds to some lonely clearing in the forest; and
there he lay on his back in the pine-needles and watched the great
clouds form and dissolve themselves above his head.

All his past life seemed to be symbolized by the building-up and
breaking-down of those fluctuating shapes, which incalculable
wind-currents perpetually shifted and remodelled or swept from the
zenith like a pinch of dust. His sister told him that he looked
well--better than he had in years; and there were moments when his
listlessness, his stony insensibility to the small pricks and frictions
of daily life, might have passed for the serenity of recovered health.

There was no one with whom he could speak of Undine. His family had
thrown over the whole subject a pall of silence which even Laura
Fairford shrank from raising. As for his mother, Ralph had seen at once
that the idea of talking over the situation was positively frightening
to her. There was no provision for such emergencies in the moral order
of Washington Square. The affair was a "scandal," and it was not in
the Dagonet tradition to acknowledge the existence of scandals. Ralph
recalled a dim memory of his childhood, the tale of a misguided friend
of his mother's who had left her husband for a more congenial companion,
and who, years later, returning ill and friendless to New York, had
appealed for sympathy to Mrs. Marvell. The latter had not refused to
give it; but she had put on her black cashmere and two veils when she
went to see her unhappy friend, and had never mentioned these errands of
mercy to her husband.

Ralph suspected that the constraint shown by his mother and sister was
partly due to their having but a dim and confused view of what had
happened. In their vocabulary the word "divorce" was wrapped in such a
dark veil of innuendo as no ladylike hand would care to lift. They had
not reached the point of differentiating divorces, but classed them
indistinctively as disgraceful incidents, in which the woman was always
to blame, but the man, though her innocent victim, was yet inevitably
contaminated. The time involved in the "proceedings" was viewed as a
penitential season during which it behoved the family of the persons
concerned to behave as if they were dead; yet any open allusion to the
reason for adopting such an attitude would have been regarded as the
height of indelicacy.

Mr. Dagonet's notion of the case was almost as remote from reality. All
he asked was that his grandson should "thrash" somebody, and he could
not be made to understand that the modern drama of divorce is sometimes
cast without a Lovelace.

"You might as well tell me there was nobody but Adam in the garden when
Eve picked the apple. You say your wife was discontented? No woman ever
knows she's discontented till some man tells her so. My God! I've seen
smash-ups before now; but I never yet saw a marriage dissolved like
a business partnership. Divorce without a lover? Why, it's--it's as
unnatural as getting drunk on lemonade."

After this first explosion Mr. Dagonet also became silent; and Ralph
perceived that what annoyed him most was the fact of the "scandal's" not
being one in any gentlemanly sense of the word. It was like some nasty
business mess, about which Mr. Dagonet couldn't pretend to have an
opinion, since such things didn't happen to men of his kind. That such
a thing should have happened to his only grandson was probably the
bitterest experience of his pleasantly uneventful life; and it added a
touch of irony to Ralph's unhappiness to know how little, in the whole
affair, he was cutting the figure Mr. Dagonet expected him to cut.

At first he had chafed under the taciturnity surrounding him: had
passionately longed to cry out his humiliation, his rebellion, his
despair. Then he began to feel the tonic effect of silence; and the next
stage was reached when it became clear to him that there was nothing to
say. There were thoughts and thoughts: they bubbled up perpetually
from the black springs of his hidden misery, they stole on him in the
darkness of night, they blotted out the light of day; but when it came
to putting them into words and applying them to the external facts
of the case, they seemed totally unrelated to it. One more white and
sun-touched glory had gone from his sky; but there seemed no way of
connecting that with such practical issues as his being called on to
decide whether Paul was to be put in knickerbockers or trousers, and
whether he should go back to Washington Square for the winter or hire a
small house for himself and his son.

The latter question was ultimately decided by his remaining under his
grandfather's roof. November found him back in the office again, in
fairly good health, with an outer skin of indifference slowly forming
over his lacerated soul. There had been a hard minute to live through
when he came back to his old brown room in Washington Square. The walls
and tables were covered with photographs of Undine: effigies of all
shapes and sizes, expressing every possible sentiment dear to the
photographic tradition. Ralph had gathered them all up when he had moved
from West End Avenue after Undine's departure for Europe, and they
throned over his other possessions as her image had throned over his
future the night he had sat in that very room and dreamed of soaring up
with her into the blue...

It was impossible to go on living with her photographs about him; and
one evening, going up to his room after dinner, he began to unhang them
from the walls, and to gather them up from book-shelves and mantel-piece
and tables. Then he looked about for some place in which to hide them.
There were drawers under his book-cases; but they were full of old
discarded things, and even if he emptied the drawers, the photographs,
in their heavy frames, were almost all too large to fit into them. He
turned next to the top shelf of his cupboard; but here the nurse had
stored Paul's old toys, his sand-pails, shovels and croquet-box. Every
corner was packed with the vain impedimenta of living, and the mere
thought of clearing a space in the chaos was too great an effort.

He began to replace the pictures one by one; and the last was still in
his hand when he heard his sister's voice outside. He hurriedly put
the portrait back in its usual place on his writing-table, and Mrs.
Fairford, who had been dining in Washington Square, and had come up to
bid him good night, flung her arms about him in a quick embrace and went
down to her carriage.

The next afternoon, when he came home from the office, he did not at
first see any change in his room; but when he had lit his pipe and
thrown himself into his arm-chair he noticed that the photograph of his
wife's picture by Popple no longer faced him from the mantel-piece. He
turned to his writing-table, but her image had vanished from there too;
then his eye, making the circuit of the walls, perceived that they also
had been stripped. Not a single photograph of Undine was left; yet so
adroitly had the work of elimination been done, so ingeniously the
remaining objects readjusted, that the change attracted no attention.

Ralph was angry, sore, ashamed. He felt as if Laura, whose hand he
instantly detected, had taken a cruel pleasure in her work, and for an
instant he hated her for it. Then a sense of relief stole over him. He
was glad he could look about him without meeting Undine's eyes, and he
understood that what had been done to his room he must do to his memory
and his imagination: he must so readjust his mind that, whichever way he
turned his thoughts, her face should no longer confront him. But
that was a task that Laura could not perform for him, a task to be
accomplished only by the hard continuous tension of his will.

With the setting in of the mood of silence all desire to fight his
wife's suit died out. The idea of touching publicly on anything that had
passed between himself and Undine had become unthinkable. Insensibly he
had been subdued to the point of view about him, and the idea of calling
on the law to repair his shattered happiness struck him as even more
grotesque than it was degrading. Nevertheless, some contradictory
impulse of his divided spirit made him resent, on the part of his mother
and sister, a too-ready acceptance of his attitude. There were moments
when their tacit assumption that his wife was banished and forgotten
irritated him like the hushed tread of sympathizers about the bed of an
invalid who will not admit that he suffers.

His irritation was aggravated by the discovery that Mrs. Marvell and
Laura had already begun to treat Paul as if he were an orphan. One day,
coming unnoticed into the nursery, Ralph heard the boy ask when his
mother was coming back; and Mrs. Fairford, who was with him, answered:
"She's not coming back, dearest; and you're not to speak of her to
father."

Ralph, when the boy was out of hearing, rebuked his sister for her
answer. "I don't want you to talk of his mother as if she were dead. I
don't want you to forbid Paul to speak of her."

Laura, though usually so yielding, defended herself. "What's the use of
encouraging him to speak of her when he's never to see her? The sooner
he forgets her the better."

Ralph pondered. "Later--if she asks to see him--I shan't refuse."

Mrs. Fairford pressed her lips together to check the answer: "She never
will!"

Ralph heard it, nevertheless, and let it pass. Nothing gave him so
profound a sense of estrangement from his former life as the conviction
that his sister was probably right. He did not really believe that
Undine would ever ask to see her boy; but if she did he was determined
not to refuse her request.

Time wore on, the Christmas holidays came and went, and the winter
continued to grind out the weary measure of its days. Toward the end
of January Ralph received a registered letter, addressed to him at his
office, and bearing in the corner of the envelope the names of a firm of
Sioux Falls attorneys. He instantly divined that it contained the legal
notification of his wife's application for divorce, and as he wrote his
name in the postman's book he smiled grimly at the thought that the
stroke of his pen was doubtless signing her release. He opened the
letter, found it to be what he had expected, and locked it away in his
desk without mentioning the matter to any one.

He supposed that with the putting away of this document he was thrusting
the whole subject out of sight; but not more than a fortnight later, as
he sat in the Subway on his way down-town, his eye was caught by his
own name on the first page of the heavily head-lined paper which the
unshaved occupant of the next seat held between grimy fists. The blood
rushed to Ralph's forehead as he looked over the man's arm and read:
"Society Leader Gets Decree," and beneath it the subordinate clause:
"Says Husband Too Absorbed In Business To Make Home Happy." For weeks
afterward, wherever he went, he felt that blush upon his forehead. For
the first time in his life the coarse fingering of public curiosity had
touched the secret places of his soul, and nothing that had gone before
seemed as humiliating as this trivial comment on his tragedy. The
paragraph continued on its way through the press, and whenever he took
up a newspaper he seemed to come upon it, slightly modified, variously
developed, but always reverting with a kind of unctuous irony to his
financial preoccupations and his wife's consequent loneliness. The
phrase was even taken up by the paragraph writer, called forth excited
letters from similarly situated victims, was commented on in humorous
editorials and served as a text for pulpit denunciations of the growing
craze for wealth; and finally, at his dentist's, Ralph came across it
in a Family Weekly, as one of the "Heart problems" propounded to
subscribers, with a Gramophone, a Straight-front Corset and a
Vanity-box among the prizes offered for its solution.

Edith Wharton