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Chapter 27

She was still brooding over this last failure when one afternoon, as she
loitered on the hotel terrace, she was approached by a young woman whom
she had seen sitting near the wheeled chair of an old lady wearing a
crumpled black bonnet under a funny fringed parasol with a jointed
handle.

The young woman, who was small, slight and brown, was dressed with a
disregard of the fashion which contrasted oddly with the mauve powder on
her face and the traces of artificial colour in her dark untidy hair.
She looked as if she might have several different personalities, and as
if the one of the moment had been hanging up a long time in her wardrobe
and been hurriedly taken down as probably good enough for the present
occasion.

With her hands in her jacket pockets, and an agreeable smile on her
boyish face, she strolled up to Undine and asked, in a pretty variety of
Parisian English, if she had the pleasure of speaking to Mrs. Marvell.

On Undine's assenting, the smile grew more alert and the lady continued:
"I think you know my friend Sacha Adelschein?"

No question could have been less welcome to Undine. If there was one
point on which she was doggedly and puritanically resolved, it was that
no extremes of social adversity should ever again draw her into the
group of people among whom Madame Adelschein too conspicuously figured.
Since her unsuccessful attempt to win over Indiana by introducing her to
that group, Undine had been righteously resolved to remain aloof from
it; and she was drawing herself up to her loftiest height of disapproval
when the stranger, as if unconscious of it, went on: "Sacha speaks of
you so often--she admires you so much.--I think you know also my cousin
Chelles," she added, looking into Undine's eyes. "I am the Princess
Estradina. I've come here with my mother for the air."

The murmur of negation died on Undine's lips. She found herself
grappling with a new social riddle, and such surprises were always
stimulating. The name of the untidy-looking young woman she had been
about to repel was one of the most eminent in the impregnable quarter
beyond the Seine. No one figured more largely in the Parisian chronicle
than the Princess Estradina, and no name more impressively headed the
list at every marriage, funeral and philanthropic entertainment of
the Faubourg Saint Germain than that of her mother, the Duchesse de
Dordogne, who must be no other than the old woman sitting in the
Bath-chair with the crumpled bonnet and the ridiculous sunshade.

But it was not the appearance of the two ladies that surprised Undine.
She knew that social gold does not always glitter, and that the lady she
had heard spoken of as Lili Estradina was notoriously careless of the
conventions; but that she should boast of her intimacy with Madame
Adelschein, and use it as a pretext for naming herself, overthrew all
Undine's hierarchies.

"Yes--it's hideously dull here, and I'm dying of it. Do come over and
speak to my mother. She's dying of it too; but don't tell her so,
because she hasn't found it out. There were so many things our mothers
never found out," the Princess rambled on, with her half-mocking
half-intimate smile; and in another moment Undine, thrilled at having
Mrs. Spragg thus coupled with a Duchess, found herself seated between
mother and daughter, and responding by a radiant blush to the elder
lady's amiable opening: "You know my nephew Raymond--he's your great
admirer."

How had it happened, whither would it lead, how long could it last? The
questions raced through Undine's brain as she sat listening to her
new friends--they seemed already too friendly to be called
acquaintances!--replying to their enquiries, and trying to think far
enough ahead to guess what they would expect her to say, and what tone
it would be well to take. She was used to such feats of mental agility,
and it was instinctive with her to become, for the moment, the person
she thought her interlocutors expected her to be; but she had never had
quite so new a part to play at such short notice. She took her cue,
however, from the fact that the Princess Estradina, in her mother's
presence, made no farther allusion to her dear friend Sacha, and seemed
somehow, though she continued to chat on in the same easy strain, to
look differently and throw out different implications. All these shades
of demeanour were immediately perceptible to Undine, who tried to adapt
herself to them by combining in her manner a mixture of Apex dash and
New York dignity; and the result was so successful that when she rose to
go the Princess, with a hand on her arm, said almost wistfully: "You're
staying on too? Then do take pity on us! We might go on some trips
together; and in the evenings we could make a bridge."

A new life began for Undine. The Princess, chained her mother's side,
and frankly restive under her filial duty, clung to her new acquaintance
with a persistence too flattering to be analyzed. "My dear, I was on
the brink of suicide when I saw your name in the visitors' list," she
explained; and Undine felt like answering that she had nearly reached
the same pass when the Princess's thin little hand had been held out
to her. For the moment she was dizzy with the effect of that random
gesture. Here she was, at the lowest ebb of her fortunes, miraculously
rehabilitated, reinstated, and restored to the old victorious sense of
her youth and her power! Her sole graces, her unaided personality, had
worked the miracle; how should she not trust in them hereafter?

Aside from her feeling of concrete attainment. Undine was deeply
interested in her new friends. The Princess and her mother, in their
different ways, were different from any one else she had known. The
Princess, who might have been of any age between twenty and forty, had
a small triangular face with caressing impudent eyes, a smile like a
silent whistle and the gait of a baker's boy balancing his basket. She
wore either baggy shabby clothes like a man's, or rich draperies that
looked as if they had been rained on; and she seemed equally at ease
in either style of dress, and carelessly unconscious of both. She was
extremely familiar and unblushingly inquisitive, but she never gave
Undine the time to ask her any questions or the opportunity to venture
on any freedom with her. Nevertheless she did not scruple to talk of her
sentimental experiences, and seemed surprised, and rather disappointed,
that Undine had so few to relate in return. She playfully accused her
beautiful new friend of being cachottiere, and at the sight of Undine's
blush cried out: "Ah, you funny Americans! Why do you all behave as if
love were a secret infirmity?"

The old Duchess was even more impressive, because she fitted better into
Undine's preconceived picture of the Faubourg Saint Germain, and was
more like the people with whom she pictured the former Nettie Wincher as
living in privileged intimacy. The Duchess was, indeed, more amiable
and accessible than Undine's conception of a Duchess, and displayed a
curiosity as great as her daughter's, and much more puerile, concerning
her new friend's history and habits. But through her mild prattle, and
in spite of her limited perceptions. Undine felt in her the same clear
impenetrable barrier that she ran against occasionally in the Princess;
and she was beginning to understand that this barrier represented a
number of things about which she herself had yet to learn. She would
not have known this a few years earlier, nor would she have seen in the
Duchess anything but the ruin of an ugly woman, dressed in clothes that
Mrs. Spragg wouldn't have touched. The Duchess certainly looked like a
ruin; but Undine now saw that she looked like the ruin of a castle.

The Princess, who was unofficially separated from her husband, had with
her her two little girls. She seemed extremely attached to both--though
avowing for the younger a preference she frankly ascribed to the
interesting accident of its parentage--and she could not understand that
Undine, as to whose domestic difficulties she minutely informed herself,
should have consented to leave her child to strangers. "For, to one's
child every one but one's self is a stranger; and whatever your
egarements--" she began, breaking off with a stare when Undine
interrupted her to explain that the courts had ascribed all the wrongs
in the case to her husband. "But then--but then--" murmured the
Princess, turning away from the subject as if checked by too deep an
abyss of difference.

The incident had embarrassed Undine, and though she tried to justify
herself by allusions to her boy's dependence on his father's family,
and to the duty of not standing in his way, she saw that she made no
impression. "Whatever one's errors, one's child belongs to one," her
hearer continued to repeat; and Undine, who was frequently scandalized
by the Princess's conversation, now found herself in the odd position
of having to set a watch upon her own in order not to scandalize the
Princess.

Each day, nevertheless, strengthened her hold on her new friends. After
her first flush of triumph she began indeed to suspect that she had been
a slight disappointment to the Princess, had not completely justified
the hopes raised by the doubtful honour of being one of Sacha
Adelschein's intimates. Undine guessed that the Princess had expected to
find her more amusing, "queerer," more startling in speech and conduct.
Though by instinct she was none of these things, she was eager to go as
far as was expected; but she felt that her audacities were on lines
too normal to be interesting, and that the Princess thought her rather
school-girlish and old-fashioned. Still, they had in common their youth,
their boredom, their high spirits and their hunger for amusement; and
Undine was making the most of these ties when one day, coming back from
a trip to Monte-Carlo with the Princess, she was brought up short by the
sight of a lady--evidently a new arrival--who was seated in an attitude
of respectful intimacy beside the old Duchess's chair. Undine, advancing
unheard over the fine gravel of the garden path, recognized at a glance
the Marquise de Trezac's drooping nose and disdainful back, and at the
same moment heard her say: "--And her husband?"

"Her husband? But she's an American--she's divorced," the Duchess
replied, as if she were merely stating the same fact in two different
ways; and Undine stopped short with a pang of apprehension.

The Princess came up behind her. "Who's the solemn person with Mamma?
Ah, that old bore of a Trezac!" She dropped her long eye-glass with a
laugh. "Well, she'll be useful--she'll stick to Mamma like a leech and
we shall get away oftener. Come, let's go and be charming to her."

She approached Madame de Trezac effusively, and after an interchange of
exclamations Undine heard her say "You know my friend Mrs. Marvell? No?
How odd! Where do you manage to hide yourself, chere Madame? Undine,
here's a compatriot who hasn't the pleasure--"

"I'm such a hermit, dear Mrs. Marvell--the Princess shows me what I
miss," the Marquise de Trezac murmured, rising to give her hand
to Undine, and speaking in a voice so different from that of the
supercilious Miss Wincher that only her facial angle and the droop of
her nose linked her to the hated vision of Potash Springs.

Undine felt herself dancing on a flood-tide of security. For the first
time the memory of Potash Springs became a thing to smile at, and with
the Princess's arm through hers she shone back triumphantly on Madame de
Trezac, who seemed to have grown suddenly obsequious and insignificant,
as though the waving of the Princess's wand had stripped her of all her
false advantages.

But upstairs, in her own room. Undine's courage fell. Madame de Trezac
had been civil, effusive even, because for the moment she had been taken
off her guard by finding Mrs. Marvell on terms of intimacy with the
Princess Estradina and her mother. But the force of facts would reassert
itself. Far from continuing to see Undine through her French friends'
eyes she would probably invite them to view her compatriot through the
searching lens of her own ampler information. "The old hypocrite--she'll
tell them everything," Undine murmured, wincing at the recollection
of the dentist's assistant from Deposit, and staring miserably at her
reflection in the dressing-table mirror. Of what use were youth and
grace and good looks, if one drop of poison distilled from the envy of
a narrow-minded woman was enough to paralyze them? Of course Madame de
Trezac knew and remembered, and, secure in her own impregnable position,
would never rest till she had driven out the intruder.

Edith Wharton