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Chapter 33

The upshot of Ralph's visit was that Mr. Spragg, after considerable
deliberation, agreed, pending farther negotiations between the opposing
lawyers, to undertake that no attempt should be made to remove Paul from
his father's custody. Nevertheless, he seemed to think it quite natural
that Undine, on the point of making a marriage which would put it in her
power to give her child a suitable home, should assert her claim on him.
It was more disconcerting to Ralph to learn that Mrs. Spragg, for once
departing from her attitude of passive impartiality, had eagerly abetted
her daughter's move; he had somehow felt that Undine's desertion of the
child had established a kind of mute understanding between himself and
his mother-in-law.

"I thought Mrs. Spragg would know there's no earthly use trying to take
Paul from me," he said with a desperate awkwardness of entreaty, and Mr.
Spragg startled him by replying: "I presume his grandma thinks he'll
belong to her more if we keep him in the family."

Ralph, abruptly awakened from his dream of recovered peace, found
himself confronted on every side by. indifference or hostility: it was
as though the June fields in which his boy was playing had suddenly
opened to engulph him. Mrs. Marvell's fears and tremors were almost
harder to bear than the Spraggs' antagonism; and for the next few days
Ralph wandered about miserably, dreading some fresh communication from
Undine's lawyers, yet racked by the strain of hearing nothing more from
them. Mr. Spragg had agreed to cable his daughter asking her to await a
letter before enforcing her demands; but on the fourth day after
Ralph's visit to the Malibran a telephone message summoned him to his
father-in-law's office.

Half an hour later their talk was over and he stood once more on the
landing outside Mr. Spragg's door. Undine's answer had come and Paul's
fate was sealed. His mother refused to give him up, refused to await
the arrival of her lawyer's letter, and reiterated, in more peremptory
language, her demand that the child should be sent immediately to Paris
in Mrs. Heeny's care.

Mr. Spragg, in face of Ralph's entreaties, remained pacific but remote.
It was evident that, though he had no wish to quarrel with Ralph, he saw
no reason for resisting Undine. "I guess she's got the law on her side,"
he said; and in response to Ralph's passionate remonstrances he added
fatalistically: "I presume you'll have to leave the matter to my
daughter."

Ralph had gone to the office resolved to control his temper and keep
on the watch for any shred of information he might glean; but it soon
became clear that Mr. Spragg knew as little as himself of Undine's
projects, or of the stage her plans had reached. All she had apparently
vouchsafed her parent was the statement that she intended to re-marry,
and the command to send Paul over; and Ralph reflected that his own
betrothal to her had probably been announced to Mr. Spragg in the same
curt fashion.

The thought brought back an overwhelming sense of the past. One by one
the details of that incredible moment revived, and he felt in his
veins the glow of rapture with which he had first approached the dingy
threshold he was now leaving. There came back to him with peculiar
vividness the memory of his rushing up to Mr. Spragg's office to consult
him about a necklace for Undine. Ralph recalled the incident because his
eager appeal for advice had been received by Mr. Spragg with the very
phrase he had just used: "I presume you'll have to leave the matter to
my daughter."

Ralph saw him slouching in his chair, swung sideways from the untidy
desk, his legs stretched out, his hands in his pockets, his jaws engaged
on the phantom tooth-pick; and, in a corner of the office, the
figure of a middle-sized red-faced young man who seemed to have been
interrupted in the act of saying something disagreeable.

"Why, it must have been then that I first saw Moffatt," Ralph reflected;
and the thought suggested the memory of other, subsequent meetings in
the same building, and of frequent ascents to Moffatt's office during
the ardent weeks of their mysterious and remunerative "deal."

Ralph wondered if Moffatt's office were still in the Ararat; and on the
way out he paused before the black tablet affixed to the wall of the
vestibule and sought and found the name in its familiar place.

The next moment he was again absorbed in his own cares. Now that he had
learned the imminence of Paul's danger, and the futility of pleading for
delay, a thousand fantastic projects were contending in his head. To
get the boy away--that seemed the first thing to do: to put him out of
reach, and then invoke the law, get the case re-opened, and carry the
fight from court to court till his rights should be recognized. It would
cost a lot of money--well, the money would have to be found. The first
step was to secure the boy's temporary safety; after that, the question
of ways and means would have to be considered...Had there ever been a
time, Ralph wondered, when that question hadn't been at the root of all
the others?

He had promised to let Clare Van Degen know the result of his visit, and
half an hour later he was in her drawing-room. It was the first time he
had entered it since his divorce; but Van Degen was tarpon-fishing in
California--and besides, he had to see Clare. His one relief was in
talking to her, in feverishly turning over with her every possibility of
delay and obstruction; and he marvelled at the intelligence and energy
she brought to the discussion of these questions. It was as if she had
never before felt strongly enough about anything to put her heart or her
brains into it; but now everything in her was at work for him.

She listened intently to what he told her; then she said: "You tell me
it will cost a great deal; but why take it to the courts at all? Why not
give the money to Undine instead of to your lawyers?"

Ralph looked at her in surprise, and she continued: "Why do you suppose
she's suddenly made up her mind she must have Paul?"

"That's comprehensible enough to any one who knows her. She wants him
because he'll give her the appearance of respectability. Having him with
her will prove, as no mere assertions can, that all the rights are on
her side and the 'wrongs' on mine."

Clare considered. "Yes; that's the obvious answer. But shall I tell you
what I think, my dear? You and I are both completely out-of-date.
I don't believe Undine cares a straw for 'the appearance of
respectability.' What she wants is the money for her annulment."

Ralph uttered an incredulous exclamation. "But don't you see?" she
hurried on. "It's her only hope--her last chance. She's much too clever
to burden herself with the child merely to annoy you. What she wants is
to make you buy him back from her." She stood up and came to him with
outstretched hands. "Perhaps I can be of use to you at last!"

"You?" He summoned up a haggard smile. "As if you weren't
always--letting me load you with all my bothers!"

"Oh, if only I've hit on the way out of this one! Then there wouldn't be
any others left!" Her eyes followed him intently as he turned away
to the window and stood staring down at the sultry prospect of Fifth
Avenue. As he turned over her conjecture its probability became more and
more apparent. It put into logical relation all the incoherencies of
Undine's recent conduct, completed and defined her anew as if a sharp
line had been drawn about her fading image.

"If it's that, I shall soon know," he said, turning back into the room.
His course had instantly become plain. He had only to resist and Undine
would have to show her hand. Simultaneously with this thought there
sprang up in his mind the remembrance of the autumn afternoon in Paris
when he had come home and found her, among her half-packed finery,
desperately bewailing her coming motherhood. Clare's touch was on his
arm. "If I'm right--you WILL let me help?"

He laid his hand on hers without speaking, and she went on:

"It will take a lot of money: all these law-suits do. Besides, she'd be
ashamed to sell him cheap. You must be ready to give her anything she
wants. And I've got a lot saved up--money of my own, I mean..."

"Your own?" As he looked at her the rare blush rose under her brown
skin.

"My very own. Why shouldn't you believe me? I've been hoarding up my
scrap of an income for years, thinking that some day I'd find I couldn't
stand this any longer..." Her gesture embraced their sumptuous setting.
"But now I know I shall never budge. There are the children; and
besides, things are easier for me since--" she paused, embarrassed.

"Yes, yes; I know." He felt like completing her phrase: "Since my wife
has furnished you with the means of putting pressure on your husband--"
but he simply repeated: "I know."

"And you WILL let me help?"

"Oh, we must get at the facts first." He caught her hands in his with
sudden energy. "As you say, when Paul's safe there won't be another
bother left!"

Edith Wharton