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Chapter 25

Undine Marvell, for the next few months, tasted all the accumulated
bitterness of failure. After January the drifting hordes of her
compatriots had scattered to the four quarters of the globe, leaving
Paris to resume, under its low grey sky, its compacter winter
personality. Noting, from her more and more deserted corner, each least
sign of the social revival, Undine felt herself as stranded and baffled
as after the ineffectual summers of her girlhood. She was not without
possible alternatives; but the sense of what she had lost took the
savour from all that was left. She might have attached herself to some
migratory group winged for Italy or Egypt; but the prospect of travel
did not in itself appeal to her, and she was doubtful of its social
benefit. She lacked the adventurous curiosity which seeks its occasion
in the unknown; and though she could work doggedly for a given object
the obstacles to be overcome had to be as distinct as the prize. Her one
desire was to get back an equivalent of the precise value she had lost
in ceasing to be Ralph Marvell's wife. Her new visiting-card, bearing
her Christian name in place of her husband's, was like the coin of a
debased currency testifying to her diminished trading capacity. Her
restricted means, her vacant days, all the minor irritations of her
life, were as nothing compared to this sense of a lost advantage. Even
in the narrowed field of a Parisian winter she might have made herself
a place in some more or less extra-social world; but her experiments in
this line gave her no pleasure proportioned to the possible derogation.
She feared to be associated with "the wrong people," and scented a shade
of disrespect in every amicable advance. The more pressing attentions of
one or two men she had formerly known filled her with a glow of outraged
pride, and for the first time in her life she felt that even solitude
might be preferable to certain kinds of society. Since ill health was
the most plausible pretext for seclusion, it was almost a relief to find
that she was really growing "nervous" and sleeping badly. The doctor she
summoned advised her trying a small quiet place on the Riviera, not too
near the sea; and thither in the early days of December, she transported
herself with her maid and an omnibus-load of luggage.

The place disconcerted her by being really small and quiet, and for a
few days she struggled against the desire for flight. She had never
before known a world as colourless and negative as that of the large
white hotel where everybody went to bed at nine, and donkey-rides over
stony hills were the only alternative to slow drives along dusty roads.
Many of the dwellers in this temple of repose found even these exercises
too stimulating, and preferred to sit for hours under the palms in
the garden, playing Patience, embroidering, or reading odd volumes of
Tauchnitz. Undine, driven by despair to an inspection of the hotel
book-shelves, discovered that scarcely any work they contained was
complete; but this did not seem to trouble the readers, who continued to
feed their leisure with mutilated fiction, from which they occasionally
raised their eyes to glance mistrustfully at the new arrival sweeping
the garden gravel with her frivolous draperies. The inmates of the hotel
were of different nationalities, but their racial differences were
levelled by the stamp of a common mediocrity. All differences of tongue,
of custom, of physiognomy, disappeared in this deep community of
insignificance, which was like some secret bond, with the manifold signs
and pass-words of its ignorances and its imperceptions. It was not the
heterogeneous mediocrity of the American summer hotel where the lack of
any standard is the nearest approach to a tie, but an organized codified
dulness, in conscious possession of its rights, and strong in the
voluntary ignorance of any others.

It took Undine a long time to accustom herself to such an atmosphere,
and meanwhile she fretted, fumed and flaunted, or abandoned herself to
long periods of fruitless brooding. Sometimes a flame of anger shot up
in her, dismally illuminating the path she had travelled and the blank
wall to which it led. At other moments past and present were enveloped
in a dull fog of rancour which distorted and faded even the image she
presented to her morning mirror. There were days when every young face
she saw left in her a taste of poison. But when she compared herself
with the specimens of her sex who plied their languid industries under
the palms, or looked away as she passed them in hall or staircase, her
spirits rose, and she rang for her maid and dressed herself in her
newest and vividest. These were unprofitable triumphs, however. She
never made one of her attacks on the organized disapproval of the
community without feeling she had lost ground by it; and the next day
she would lie in bed and send down capricious orders for food, which her
maid would presently remove untouched, with instructions to transmit her
complaints to the landlord.

Sometimes the events of the past year, ceaselessly revolving through her
brain, became no longer a subject for criticism or justification but
simply a series of pictures monotonously unrolled. Hour by hour, in such
moods, she re-lived the incidents of her flight with Peter Van Degen:
the part of her career that, since it had proved a failure, seemed least
like herself and most difficult to justify. She had gone away with him,
and had lived with him for two months: she, Undine Marvell, to whom
respectability was the breath of life, to whom such follies had always
been unintelligible and therefore inexcusable.--She had done this
incredible thing, and she had done it from a motive that seemed, at
the time, as clear, as logical, as free from the distorting mists of
sentimentality, as any of her father's financial enterprises. It had
been a bold move, but it had been as carefully calculated as the
happiest Wall Street "stroke." She had gone away with Peter because,
after the decisive scene in which she had put her power to the test, to
yield to him seemed the surest means of victory. Even to her practical
intelligence it was clear that an immediate dash to Dakota might look
too calculated; and she had preserved her self-respect by telling
herself that she was really his wife, and in no way to blame if the law
delayed to ratify the bond. She was still persuaded of the justness of
her reasoning; but she now saw that it had left certain risks out of
account. Her life with Van Degen had taught her many things. The two had
wandered from place to place, spending a great deal of money, always
more and more money; for the first time in her life she had been able
to buy everything she wanted. For a while this had kept her amused and
busy; but presently she began to perceive that her companion's view of
their relation was not the same as hers. She saw that he had always
meant it to be an unavowed tie, screened by Mrs. Shallum's companionship
and Clare's careless tolerance; and that on those terms he would have
been ready to shed on their adventure the brightest blaze of notoriety.
But since Undine had insisted on being carried off like a sentimental
school-girl he meant to shroud the affair in mystery, and was as zealous
in concealing their relation as she was bent on proclaiming it. In the
"powerful" novels which Popple was fond of lending her she had met
with increasing frequency the type of heroine who scorns to love
clandestinely, and proclaims the sanctity of passion and the moral
duty of obeying its call. Undine had been struck by these arguments as
justifying and even ennobling her course, and had let Peter understand
that she had been actuated by the highest motives in openly associating
her life with his; but he had opposed a placid insensibility to these
allusions, and had persisted in treating her as though their journey
were the kind of escapade that a man of the world is bound to hide. She
had expected him to take her to all the showy places where couples like
themselves are relieved from a too sustained contemplation of nature by
the distractions of the restaurant and the gaming-table; but he had
carried her from one obscure corner of Europe to another, shunning
fashionable hotels and crowded watering-places, and displaying an
ingenuity in the discovery of the unvisited and the out-of-season that
gave their journey an odd resemblance to her melancholy wedding-tour.

She had never for a moment ceased to remember that the Dakota
divorce-court was the objective point of this later honeymoon, and her
allusions to the fact were as frequent as prudence permitted. Peter
seemed in no way disturbed by them. He responded with expressions of
increasing tenderness, or the purchase of another piece of jewelry;
and though Undine could not remember his ever voluntarily bringing the
subject of their marriage he did not shrink from her recurring mention
of it. He seemed merely too steeped in present well-being to think
of the future, and she ascribed this to the fact that his faculty of
enjoyment could not project itself beyond the moment. Her business was
to make each of their days so agreeable that when the last came he
should be conscious of a void to be bridged over as rapidly as possible
and when she thought this point had been reached she packed her trunks
and started for Dakota.

The next picture to follow was that of the dull months in the western
divorce-town, where, to escape loneliness and avoid comment, she had
cast in her lot with Mabel Lipscomb, who had lately arrived there on the
same errand.

Undine, at the outset, had been sorry for the friend whose new venture
seemed likely to result so much less brilliantly than her own; but
compassion had been replaced by irritation as Mabel's unpruned
vulgarities, her enormous encroaching satisfaction with herself and
her surroundings, began to pervade every corner of their provisional
household. Undine, during the first months of her exile, had been
sustained by the fullest confidence in her future. When she had parted
from Van Degen she had felt sure he meant to marry her, and the fact
that Mrs. Lipscomb was fortified by no similar hope made her easier to
bear with. Undine was almost ashamed that the unwooed Mabel should be
the witness of her own felicity, and planned to send her off on a trip
to Denver when Peter should announce his arrival; but the weeks passed,
and Peter did not come. Mabel, on the whole, behaved well in this
contingency. Undine, in her first exultation, had confided all her
hopes and plans to her friend, but Mabel took no undue advantage of the
confidence. She was even tactful in her loud fond clumsy way, with a
tact that insistently boomed and buzzed about its victim's head. But one
day she mentioned that she had asked to dinner a gentleman from Little
Rock who had come to Dakota with the same object as themselves, and
whose acquaintance she had made through her lawyer.

The gentleman from Little Rock came to dine, and within a week Undine
understood that Mabel's future was assured. If Van Degen had been at
hand Undine would have smiled with him at poor Mabel's infatuation and
her suitor's crudeness. But Van Degen was not there. He made no sign, he
sent no excuse; he simply continued to absent himself; and it was Undine
who, in due course, had to make way for Mrs. Lipscomb's caller, and sit
upstairs with a novel while the drawing-room below was given up to the
enacting of an actual love-story.

Even then, even to the end, Undine had to admit that Mabel had behaved
"beautifully." But it is comparatively easy to behave beautifully when
one is getting what one wants, and when some one else, who has not
always been altogether kind, is not. The net result of Mrs. Lipscomb's
magnanimity was that when, on the day of parting, she drew Undine to
her bosom with the hand on which her new engagement-ring blazed, Undine
hated her as she hated everything else connected with her vain exile in
the wilderness.

Edith Wharton