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Chapter 31

Nearly two years had passed since Ralph Marvell, waking from his long
sleep in the hot summer light of Washington Square, had found that the
face of life was changed for him.

In the interval he had gradually adapted himself to the new order of
things; but the months of adaptation had been a time of such darkness
and confusion that, from the vantage-ground of his recovered lucidity,
he could not yet distinguish the stages by which he had worked his way
out; and even now his footing was not secure.

His first effort had been to readjust his values--to take an inventory
of them, and reclassify them, so that one at least might be made to
appear as important as those he had lost; otherwise there could be no
reason why he should go on living. He applied himself doggedly to this
attempt; but whenever he thought he had found a reason that his mind
could rest in, it gave way under him, and the old struggle for a
foothold began again. His two objects in life were his boy and his book.
The boy was incomparably the stronger argument, yet the less serviceable
in filling the void. Ralph felt his son all the while, and all through
his other feelings; but he could not think about him actively and
continuously, could not forever exercise his eager empty dissatisfied
mind on the relatively simple problem of clothing, educating and amusing
a little boy of six. Yet Paul's existence was the all-sufficient reason
for his own; and he turned again, with a kind of cold fervour, to his
abandoned literary dream. Material needs obliged him to go on with
his regular business; but, the day's work over, he was possessed of a
leisure as bare and as blank as an unfurnished house, yet that was at
least his own to furnish as he pleased.

Meanwhile he was beginning to show a presentable face to the world, and
to be once more treated like a man in whose case no one is particularly
interested. His men friends ceased to say: "Hallo, old chap, I never saw
you looking fitter!" and elderly ladies no longer told him they were
sure he kept too much to himself, and urged him to drop in any afternoon
for a quiet talk. People left him to his sorrow as a man is left to an
incurable habit, an unfortunate tie: they ignored it, or looked over its
head if they happened to catch a glimpse of it at his elbow.

These glimpses were given to them more and more rarely. The smothered
springs of life were bubbling up in Ralph, and there were days when he
was glad to wake and see the sun in his window, and when he began to
plan his book, and to fancy that the planning really interested him. He
could even maintain the delusion for several days--for intervals each
time appreciably longer--before it shrivelled up again in a scorching
blast of disenchantment. The worst of it was that he could never tell
when these hot gusts of anguish would overtake him. They came sometimes
just when he felt most secure, when he was saying to himself: "After
all, things are really worth while--" sometimes even when he was sitting
with Clare Van Degen, listening to her voice, watching her hands, and
turning over in his mind the opening chapters of his book.

"You ought to write"; they had one and all said it to him from the
first; and he fancied he might have begun sooner if he had not
been urged on by their watchful fondness. Everybody wanted him to
write--everybody had decided that he ought to, that he would, that
he must be persuaded to; and the incessant imperceptible pressure of
encouragement--the assumption of those about him that because it would
be good for him to write he must naturally be able to--acted on his
restive nerves as a stronger deterrent than disapproval.

Even Clare had fallen into the same mistake; and one day, as he sat
talking with her on the verandah of Laura Fairford's house on the
Sound--where they now most frequently met--Ralph had half-impatiently
rejoined: "Oh, if you think it's literature I need--!"

Instantly he had seen her face change, and the speaking hands tremble on
her knee. But she achieved the feat of not answering him, or turning her
steady eyes from the dancing mid-summer water at the foot of Laura's
lawn. Ralph leaned a little nearer, and for an instant his hand imagined
the flutter of hers. But instead of clasping it he drew back, and rising
from his chair wandered away to the other end of the verandah...No, he
didn't feel as Clare felt. If he loved her--as he sometimes thought he
did--it was not in the same way. He had a great tenderness for her, he
was more nearly happy with her than with any one else; he liked to sit
and talk with her, and watch her face and her hands, and he wished there
were some way--some different way--of letting her know it; but he could
not conceive that tenderness and desire could ever again be one for him:
such a notion as that seemed part of the monstrous sentimental muddle on
which his life had gone aground.

"I shall write--of course I shall write some day," he said, turning back
to his seat. "I've had a novel in the back of my head for years; and
now's the time to pull it out."

He hardly knew what he was saying; but before the end of the sentence he
saw that Clare had understood what he meant to convey, and henceforth he
felt committed to letting her talk to him as much as she pleased about
his book. He himself, in consequence, took to thinking about it more
consecutively; and just as his friends ceased to urge him to write, he
sat down in earnest to begin.

The vision that had come to him had no likeness to any of his earlier
imaginings. Two or three subjects had haunted him, pleading for
expression, during the first years of his marriage; but these now seemed
either too lyrical or too tragic. He no longer saw life on the heroic
scale: he wanted to do something in which men should look no bigger than
the insects they were. He contrived in the course of time to reduce one
of his old subjects to these dimensions, and after nights of brooding he
made a dash at it, and wrote an opening chapter that struck him as
not too bad. In the exhilaration of this first attempt he spent some
pleasant evenings revising and polishing his work; and gradually a
feeling of authority and importance developed in him. In the morning,
when he woke, instead of his habitual sense of lassitude, he felt an
eagerness to be up and doing, and a conviction that his individual task
was a necessary part of the world's machinery. He kept his secret with
the beginner's deadly fear of losing his hold on his half-real creations
if he let in any outer light on them; but he went about with a more
assured step, shrank less from meeting his friends, and even began to
dine out again, and to laugh at some of the jokes he heard.

Laura Fairford, to get Paul away from town, had gone early to the
country; and Ralph, who went down to her every Saturday, usually found
Clare Van Degen there. Since his divorce he had never entered his
cousin's pinnacled palace; and Clare had never asked him why he stayed
away. This mutual silence had been their sole allusion to Van Degen's
share in the catastrophe, though Ralph had spoken frankly of its other
aspects. They talked, however, most often of impersonal subjects--books,
pictures, plays, or whatever the world that interested them was
doing--and she showed no desire to draw him back to his own affairs. She
was again staying late in town--to have a pretext, as he guessed, for
coming down on Sundays to the Fairfords'--and they often made the trip
together in her motor; but he had not yet spoken to her of having begun
his book. One May evening, however, as they sat alone in the verandah,
he suddenly told her that he was writing. As he spoke his heart beat
like a boy's; but once the words were out they gave him a feeling of
self-confidence, and he began to sketch his plan, and then to go into
its details. Clare listened devoutly, her eyes burning on him through
the dusk like the stars deepening above the garden; and when she got up
to go in he followed her with a new sense of reassurance.

The dinner that evening was unusually pleasant. Charles Bowen, just back
from his usual spring travels, had come straight down to his friends
from the steamer; and the fund of impressions he brought with him gave
Ralph a desire to be up and wandering. And why not--when the book was
done? He smiled across the table at Clare.

"Next summer you'll have to charter a yacht, and take us all off to
the Aegean. We can't have Charles condescending to us about the
out-of-the-way places he's been seeing."

Was it really he who was speaking, and his cousin who was sending
him back her dusky smile? Well--why not, again? The seasons renewed
themselves, and he too was putting out a new growth. "My book--my
book--my book," kept repeating itself under all his thoughts, as
Undine's name had once perpetually murmured there. That night as he went
up to bed he said to himself that he was actually ceasing to think about
his wife...

As he passed Laura's door she called him in, and put her arms about him.

"You look so well, dear!"

"But why shouldn't I?" he answered gaily, as if ridiculing the fancy
that he had ever looked otherwise. Paul was sleeping behind the next
door, and the sense of the boy's nearness gave him a warmer glow. His
little world was rounding itself out again, and once more he felt safe
and at peace in its circle.

His sister looked as if she had something more to say; but she merely
kissed him good night, and he went up whistling to his room. The next
morning he was to take a walk with Clare, and while he lounged about the
drawing-room, waiting for her to come down, a servant came in with the
Sunday papers. Ralph picked one up, and was absently unfolding it when
his eye fell on his own name: a sight he had been spared since the last
echoes of his divorce had subsided. His impulse was to fling the paper
down, to hurl it as far from him as he could; but a grim fascination
tightened his hold and drew his eyes back to the hated head-line.

NEW YORK BEAUTY WEDS FRENCH NOBLEMAN MRS. UNDINE MARVELL CONFIDENT POPE
WILL ANNUL PREVIOUS MARRIAGE MRS. MARVELL TALKS ABOUT HER CASE

There it was before him in all its long-drawn horror--an "interview"--an
"interview" of Undine's about her coming marriage! Ah, she talked about
her case indeed! Her confidences filled the greater part of a column,
and the only detail she seemed to have omitted was the name of her
future husband, who was referred to by herself as "my fiancÚ" and by
the interviewer as "the Count" or "a prominent scion of the French
nobility."

Ralph heard Laura's step behind him. He threw the paper aside and their
eyes met.

"Is this what you wanted to tell me last night?"

"Last night?--Is it in the papers?"

"Who told you? Bowen? What else has he heard?"

"Oh, Ralph, what does it matter--what can it matter?"

"Who's the man? Did he tell you that?" Ralph insisted. He saw her
growing agitation. "Why can't you answer? Is it any one I know?"

"He was told in Paris it was his friend Raymond de Chelles."

Ralph laughed, and his laugh sounded in his own ears like an echo of the
dreary mirth with which he had filled Mr. Spragg's office the day he
had learned that Undine intended to divorce him. But now his wrath was
seasoned with a wholesome irony. The fact of his wife's having reached
another stage in her ascent fell into its place as a part of the huge
human buffoonery.

"Besides," Laura went on, "it's all perfect nonsense, of course. How in
the world can she have her marriage annulled?"

Ralph pondered: this put the matter in another light. "With a great deal
of money I suppose she might."

"Well, she certainly won't get that from Chelles. He's far from rich,
Charles tells me." Laura waited, watching him, before she risked:
"That's what convinces me she wouldn't have him if she could."

Ralph shrugged. "There may be other inducements. But she won't be able
to manage it." He heard himself speaking quite collectedly. Had Undine
at last lost her power of wounding him?

Clare came in, dressed for their walk, and under Laura's anxious eyes he
picked up the newspaper and held it out with a careless: "Look at this!"

His cousin's glance flew down the column, and he saw the tremor of her
lashes as she read. Then she lifted her head. "But you'll be free!" Her
face was as vivid as a flower.

"Free? I'm free now, as far as that goes!"

"Oh, but it will go so much farther when she has another name--when
she's a different person altogether! Then you'll really have Paul to
yourself."

"Paul?" Laura intervened with a nervous laugh. "But there's never been
the least doubt about his having Paul!"

They heard the boy's laughter on the lawn, and she went out to join him.
Ralph was still looking at his cousin.

"You're glad, then?" came from him involuntarily; and she startled him
by bursting into tears. He bent over and kissed her on the cheek.

Edith Wharton