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Chapter 37

In a drawing-room hung with portraits of high-nosed personages in
perukes and orders, a circle of ladies and gentlemen, looking not unlike
every-day versions of the official figures above their heads, sat
examining with friendly interest a little boy in mourning.

The boy was slim, fair and shy, and his small black figure, islanded
in the middle of the wide lustrous floor, looked curiously lonely
and remote. This effect of remoteness seemed to strike his mother as
something intentional, and almost naughty, for after having launched him
from the door, and waited to judge of the impression he produced, she
came forward and, giving him a slight push, said impatiently: "Paul! Why
don't you go and kiss your new granny?"

The boy, without turning to her, or moving, sent his blue glance gravely
about the circle. "Does she want me to?" he asked, in a tone of evident
apprehension; and on his mother's answering: "Of course, you silly!" he
added earnestly: "How many more do you think there'll be?"

Undine blushed to the ripples of her brilliant hair. "I never knew such
a child! They've turned him into a perfect little savage!"

Raymond de Chelles advanced from behind his mother's chair.

"He won't be a savage long with me," he said, stooping down so that his
fatigued finely-drawn face was close to Paul's. Their eyes met and
the boy smiled. "Come along, old chap," Chelles continued in English,
drawing the little boy after him.

"Il est bien beau," the Marquise de Chelles observed, her eyes turning
from Paul's grave face to her daughter-in-law's vivid countenance.

"Do be nice, darling! Say, 'bonjour, Madame,'" Undine urged.

An odd mingling of emotions stirred in her while she stood watching Paul
make the round of the family group under her husband's guidance. It was
"lovely" to have the child back, and to find him, after their three
years' separation, grown into so endearing a figure: her first glimpse
of him when, in Mrs. Heeny's arms, he had emerged that morning from the
steamer train, had shown what an acquisition he would be. If she had
had any lingering doubts on the point, the impression produced on her
husband would have dispelled them. Chelles had been instantly charmed,
and Paul, in a shy confused way, was already responding to his advances.
The Count and Countess Raymond had returned but a few weeks before
from their protracted wedding journey, and were staying--as they were
apparently to do whenever they came to Paris--with the old Marquis,
Raymond's father, who had amicably proposed that little Paul Marvell
should also share the hospitality of the Hotel de Chelles. Undine, at
first, was somewhat dismayed to find that she was expected to fit the
boy and his nurse into a corner of her contracted entresol. But the
possibility of a mother's not finding room for her son, however cramped
her own quarters, seemed not to have occurred to her new relations, and
the preparing of her dressing-room and boudoir for Paul's occupancy was
carried on by the household with a zeal which obliged her to dissemble
her lukewarmness.

Undine had supposed that on her marriage one of the great suites of
the Hotel de Chelles would be emptied of its tenants and put at her
husband's disposal; but she had since learned that, even had such a plan
occurred to her parents-in-law, considerations of economy would have
hindered it. The old Marquis and his wife, who were content, when they
came up from Burgundy in the spring, with a modest set of rooms looking
out on the court of their ancestral residence, expected their son and
his wife to fit themselves into the still smaller apartment which
had served as Raymond's bachelor lodging. The rest of the fine old
mouldering house--the tall-windowed premier on the garden, and the whole
of the floor above--had been let for years to old fashioned tenants
who would have been more surprised than their landlord had he suddenly
proposed to dispossess them. Undine, at first, had regarded these
arrangements as merely provisional. She was persuaded that, under her
influence, Raymond would soon convert his parents to more modern ideas,
and meanwhile she was still in the flush of a completer well-being than
she had ever known, and disposed, for the moment, to make light of any
inconveniences connected with it. The three months since her marriage
had been more nearly like what she had dreamed of than any of her
previous experiments in happiness. At last she had what she wanted, and
for the first time the glow of triumph was warmed by a deeper feeling.
Her husband was really charming (it was odd how he reminded her of
Ralph!), and after her bitter two years of loneliness and humiliation it
was delicious to find herself once more adored and protected.

The very fact that Raymond was more jealous of her than Ralph had ever
been--or at any rate less reluctant to show it--gave her a keener sense
of recovered power. None of the men who had been in love with her before
had been so frankly possessive, or so eager for reciprocal assurances
of constancy. She knew that Ralph had suffered deeply from her intimacy
with Van Degen, but he had betrayed his feeling only by a more studied
detachment; and Van Degen, from the first, had been contemptuously
indifferent to what she did or felt when she was out of his sight. As to
her earlier experiences, she had frankly forgotten them: her sentimental
memories went back no farther than the beginning of her New York career.

Raymond seemed to attach more importance to love, in all its
manifestations, than was usual or convenient in a husband; and she
gradually began to be aware that her domination over him involved a
corresponding loss of independence. Since their return to Paris she had
found that she was expected to give a circumstantial report of every
hour she spent away from him. She had nothing to hide, and no designs
against his peace of mind except those connected with her frequent and
costly sessions at the dress-makers'; but she had never before been
called upon to account to any one for the use of her time, and after the
first amused surprise at Raymond's always wanting to know where she had
been and whom she had seen she began to be oppressed by so exacting a
devotion. Her parents, from her tenderest youth, had tacitly recognized
her inalienable right to "go round," and Ralph--though from motives
which she divined to be different--had shown the same respect for her
freedom. It was therefore disconcerting to find that Raymond expected
her to choose her friends, and even her acquaintances, in conformity not
only with his personal tastes but with a definite and complicated code
of family prejudices and traditions; and she was especially surprised to
discover that he viewed with disapproval her intimacy with the Princess
Estradina.

"My cousin's extremely amusing, of course, but utterly mad and very mal
entourée. Most of the people she has about her ought to be in prison or
Bedlam: especially that unspeakable Madame Adelschein, who's a candidate
for both. My aunt's an angel, but she's been weak enough to let Lili
turn the Hotel de Dordogne into an annex of Montmartre. Of course you'll
have to show yourself there now and then: in these days families like
ours must hold together. But go to the reunions de famille rather than
to Lili's intimate parties; go with me, or with my mother; don't let
yourself be seen there alone. You're too young and good-looking to be
mixed up with that crew. A woman's classed--or rather unclassed--by
being known as one of Lili's set."

Agreeable as it was to Undine that an appeal to her discretion should
be based on the ground of her youth and good-looks, she was dismayed
to find herself cut off from the very circle she had meant them to
establish her in. Before she had become Raymond's wife there had been a
moment of sharp tension in her relations with the Princess Estradina and
the old Duchess. They had done their best to prevent her marrying their
cousin, and had gone so far as openly to accuse her of being the cause
of a breach between themselves and his parents. But Ralph Marvell's
death had brought about a sudden change in her situation. She was now no
longer a divorced woman struggling to obtain ecclesiastical sanction for
her remarriage, but a widow whose conspicuous beauty and independent
situation made her the object of lawful aspirations. The first person to
seize on this distinction and make the most of it was her old enemy the
Marquise de Trezac. The latter, who had been loudly charged by the house
of Chelles with furthering her beautiful compatriot's designs, had
instantly seen a chance of vindicating herself by taking the widowed
Mrs. Marvell under her wing and favouring the attentions of other
suitors. These were not lacking, and the expected result had followed.
Raymond de Chelles, more than ever infatuated as attainment became less
certain, had claimed a definite promise from Undine, and his family,
discouraged by his persistent bachelorhood, and their failure to fix his
attention on any of the amiable maidens obviously designed to continue
the race, had ended by withdrawing their opposition and discovering in
Mrs. Marvell the moral and financial merits necessary to justify their
change of front.

"A good match? If she isn't, I should like to know what the Chelles call
one!" Madame de Trezac went about indefatigably proclaiming. "Related to
the best people in New York--well, by marriage, that is; and her husband
left much more money than was expected. It goes to the boy, of course;
but as the boy is with his mother she naturally enjoys the income. And
her father's a rich man--much richer than is generally known; I mean
what WE call rich in America, you understand!"

Madame de Trezac had lately discovered that the proper attitude for
the American married abroad was that of a militant patriotism; and she
flaunted Undine Marvell in the face of the Faubourg like a particularly
showy specimen of her national banner. The success of the experiment
emboldened her to throw off the most sacred observances of her past. She
took up Madame Adelschein, she entertained the James J. Rollivers,
she resuscitated Creole dishes, she patronized negro melodists, she
abandoned her weekly teas for impromptu afternoon dances, and the prim
drawing-room in which dowagers had droned echoed with a cosmopolitan
hubbub.

Even when the period of tension was over, and Undine had been officially
received into the family of her betrothed, Madame de Trezac did not
at once surrender. She laughingly professed to have had enough of the
proprieties, and declared herself bored by the social rites she had
hitherto so piously performed. "You'll always find a corner of home
here, dearest, when you get tired of their ceremonies and solemnities,"
she said as she embraced the bride after the wedding breakfast; and
Undine hoped that the devoted Nettie would in fact provide a refuge from
the extreme domesticity of her new state. But since her return to Paris,
and her taking up her domicile in the Hotel de Chelles, she had found
Madame de Trezac less and less disposed to abet her in any assertion of
independence.

"My dear, a woman must adopt her husband's nationality whether she wants
to or not. It's the law, and it's the custom besides. If you wanted
to amuse yourself with your Nouveau Luxe friends you oughtn't to have
married Raymond--but of course I say that only in joke. As if any woman
would have hesitated who'd had your chance! Take my advice--keep out of
Lili's set just at first. Later ... well, perhaps Raymond won't be so
particular; but meanwhile you'd make a great mistake to go against his
people--" and Madame de Trezac, with a "Chere Madame," swept forward
from her tea-table to receive the first of the returning dowagers.

It was about this time that Mrs. Heeny arrived with Paul; and for a
while Undine was pleasantly absorbed in her boy. She kept Mrs. Heeny
in Paris for a fortnight, and between her more pressing occupations it
amused her to listen to the masseuse's New York gossip and her comments
on the social organization of the old world. It was Mrs. Heeny's first
visit to Europe, and she confessed to Undine that she had always wanted
to "see something of the aristocracy"--using the phrase as a naturalist
might, with no hint of personal pretensions. Mrs. Heeny's democratic
ease was combined with the strictest professional discretion, and it
would never have occurred to her to regard herself, or to wish others
to regard her, as anything but a manipulator of muscles; but in that
character she felt herself entitled to admission to the highest circles.

"They certainly do things with style over here--but it's kinder
one-horse after New York, ain't it? Is this what they call their season?
Why, you dined home two nights last week. They ought to come over to New
York and see!" And she poured into Undine's half-envious ear a list of
the entertainments which had illuminated the last weeks of the New York
winter. "I suppose you'll begin to give parties as soon as ever you get
into a house of your own. You're not going to have one? Oh, well,
then you'll give a lot of big week-ends at your place down in the
Shatter-country--that's where the swells all go to in the summer time,
ain't it? But I dunno what your ma would say if she knew you were going
to live on with HIS folks after you're done honey-mooning. Why, we read
in the papers you were going to live in some grand hotel or other--oh,
they call their houses HOTELS, do they? That's funny: I suppose it's
because they let out part of 'em. Well, you look handsomer than ever.
Undine; I'll take THAT back to your mother, anyhow. And he's dead
in love, I can see that; reminds me of the way--" but she broke off
suddenly, as if something in Undine's look had silenced her.

Even to herself. Undine did not like to call up the image of Ralph
Marvell; and any mention of his name gave her a vague sense of distress.
His death had released her, had given her what she wanted; yet she could
honestly say to herself that she had not wanted him to die--at least
not to die like that.... People said at the time that it was the hot
weather--his own family had said so: he had never quite got over his
attack of pneumonia, and the sudden rise of temperature--one of the
fierce "heat-waves" that devastate New York in summer--had probably
affected his brain: the doctors said such cases were not uncommon....
She had worn black for a few weeks--not quite mourning, but something
decently regretful (the dress-makers were beginning to provide a special
garb for such cases); and even since her remarriage, and the lapse of
a year, she continued to wish that she could have got what she wanted
without having had to pay that particular price for it.

This feeling was intensified by an incident--in itself far from
unwelcome--which had occurred about three months after Ralph's death.
Her lawyers had written to say that the sum of a hundred thousand
dollars had been paid over to Marvell's estate by the Apex Consolidation
Company; and as Marvell had left a will bequeathing everything he
possessed to his son, this unexpected windfall handsomely increased
Paul's patrimony. Undine had never relinquished her claim on her child;
she had merely, by the advice of her lawyers, waived the assertion of
her right for a few months after Marvell's death, with the express
stipulation that her doing so was only a temporary concession to the
feelings of her husband's family; and she had held out against all
attempts to induce her to surrender Paul permanently. Before her
marriage she had somewhat conspicuously adopted her husband's creed, and
the Dagonets, picturing Paul as the prey of the Jesuits, had made the
mistake of appealing to the courts for his custody. This had confirmed
Undine's resistance, and her determination to keep the child. The case
had been decided in her favour, and she had thereupon demanded, and
obtained, an allowance of five thousand dollars, to be devoted to the
bringing up and education of her son. This sum, added to what Mr. Spragg
had agreed to give her, made up an income which had appreciably bettered
her position, and justified Madame de Trezac's discreet allusions to
her wealth. Nevertheless, it was one of the facts about which she least
liked to think when any chance allusion evoked Ralph's image. The money
was hers, of course; she had a right to it, and she was an ardent
believer in "rights." But she wished she could have got it in some
other way--she hated the thought of it as one more instance of the
perverseness with which things she was entitled to always came to her as
if they had been stolen.

The approach of summer, and the culmination of the Paris season, swept
aside such thoughts. The Countess Raymond de Chelles, contrasting
her situation with that of Mrs. Undine Marvell, and the fulness and
animation of her new life with the vacant dissatisfied days which
had followed on her return from Dakota, forgot the smallness of her
apartment, the inconvenient proximity of Paul and his nurse, the
interminable round of visits with her mother-in-law, and the long
dinners in the solemn hotels of all the family connection. The world was
radiant, the lights were lit, the music playing; she was still young,
and better-looking than ever, with a Countess's coronet, a famous
chateau and a handsome and popular husband who adored her. And then
suddenly the lights went out and the music stopped when one day Raymond,
putting his arm about her, said in his tenderest tones: "And now, my
dear, the world's had you long enough and it's my turn. What do you say
to going down to Saint Desert?"

Edith Wharton