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Chapter 38

In a window of the long gallery of the chateau de Saint Desert the
new Marquise de Chelles stood looking down the poplar avenue into the
November rain. It had been raining heavily and persistently for a longer
time than she could remember. Day after day the hills beyond the park
had been curtained by motionless clouds, the gutters of the long steep
roofs had gurgled with a perpetual overflow, the opaque surface of the
moat been peppered by a continuous pelting of big drops. The water lay
in glassy stretches under the trees and along the sodden edges of the
garden-paths, it rose in a white mist from the fields beyond, it exuded
in a chill moisture from the brick flooring of the passages and from the
walls of the rooms on the lower floor. Everything in the great empty
house smelt of dampness: the stuffing of the chairs, the threadbare
folds of the faded curtains, the splendid tapestries, that were fading
too, on the walls of the room in which Undine stood, and the wide bands
of crape which her husband had insisted on her keeping on her black
dresses till the last hour of her mourning for the old Marquis.

The summer had been more than usually inclement, and since her first
coming to the country Undine had lived through many periods of rainy
weather; but none which had gone before had so completely epitomized, so
summed up in one vast monotonous blur, the image of her long months at
Saint Desert.

When, the year before, she had reluctantly suffered herself to be torn
from the joys of Paris, she had been sustained by the belief that her
exile would not be of long duration. Once Paris was out of sight, she
had even found a certain lazy charm in the long warm days at Saint
Desert. Her parents-in-law had remained in town, and she enjoyed being
alone with her husband, exploring and appraising the treasures of the
great half abandoned house, and watching her boy scamper over the June
meadows or trot about the gardens on the poney his stepfather had given
him. Paul, after Mrs. Heeny's departure, had grown fretful and restive,
and Undine had found it more and more difficult to fit his small
exacting personality into her cramped rooms and crowded life. He
irritated her by pining for his Aunt Laura, his Marvell granny, and old
Mr. Dagonet's funny stories about gods and fairies; and his wistful
allusions to his games with Clare's children sounded like a lesson he
might have been drilled in to make her feel how little he belonged to
her. But once released from Paris, and blessed with rabbits, a poney and
the freedom of the fields, he became again all that a charming child
should be, and for a time it amused her to share in his romps and
rambles. Raymond seemed enchanted at the picture they made, and the
quiet weeks of fresh air and outdoor activity gave her back a bloom that
reflected itself in her tranquillized mood. She was the more resigned to
this interlude because she was so sure of its not lasting. Before they
left Paris a doctor had been found to say that Paul--who was certainly
looking pale and pulled-down--was in urgent need of sea air, and Undine
had nearly convinced her husband of the expediency of hiring a chalet at
Deauville for July and August, when this plan, and with it every other
prospect of escape, was dashed by the sudden death of the old Marquis.

Undine, at first, had supposed that the resulting change could not
be other than favourable. She had been on too formal terms with her
father-in-law--a remote and ceremonious old gentleman to whom her own
personality was evidently an insoluble enigma--to feel more than the
merest conventional pang at his death; and it was certainly "more fun"
to be a marchioness than a countess, and to know that one's husband
was the head of the house. Besides, now they would have the chateau to
themselves--or at least the old Marquise, when she came, would be there
as a guest and not a ruler--and visions of smart house-parties and big
shoots lit up the first weeks of Undine's enforced seclusion. Then, by
degrees, the inexorable conditions of French mourning closed in on
her. Immediately after the long-drawn funeral observances the bereaved
family--mother, daughters, sons and sons-in-law--came down to
seclude themselves at Saint Desert; and Undine, through the slow hot
crape-smelling months, lived encircled by shrouded images of woe in
which the only live points were the eyes constantly fixed on her least
movements. The hope of escaping to the seaside with Paul vanished in
the pained stare with which her mother-in-law received the suggestion.
Undine learned the next day that it had cost the old Marquise a
sleepless night, and might have had more distressing results had it not
been explained as a harmless instance of transatlantic oddness. Raymond
entreated his wife to atone for her involuntary legereté by submitting
with a good grace to the usages of her adopted country; and he seemed to
regard the remaining months of the summer as hardly long enough for this
act of expiation. As Undine looked back on them, they appeared to have
been composed of an interminable succession of identical days, in which
attendance at early mass (in the coroneted gallery she had once so
glowingly depicted to Van Degen) was followed by a great deal of
conversational sitting about, a great deal of excellent eating, an
occasional drive to the nearest town behind a pair of heavy draft
horses, and long evenings in a lamp-heated drawing-room with all the
windows shut, and the stout cure making an asthmatic fourth at the
Marquise's card-table.

Still, even these conditions were not permanent, and the discipline of
the last years had trained Undine to wait and dissemble. The summer
over, it was decided--after a protracted family conclave--that the
state of the old Marquise's health made it advisable for her to spend
the winter with the married daughter who lived near Pau. The other
members of the family returned to their respective estates, and Undine
once more found herself alone with her husband. But she knew by this
time that there was to be no thought of Paris that winter, or even the
next spring. Worse still, she was presently to discover that Raymond's
accession of rank brought with it no financial advantages.

Having but the vaguest notion of French testamentary law, she was
dismayed to learn that the compulsory division of property made it
impossible for a father to benefit his eldest son at the expense of the
others. Raymond was therefore little richer than before, and with the
debts of honour of a troublesome younger brother to settle, and Saint
Desert to keep up, his available income was actually reduced. He held
out, indeed, the hope of eventual improvement, since the old Marquis had
managed his estates with a lofty contempt for modern methods, and the
application of new principles of agriculture and forestry were certain
to yield profitable results. But for a year or two, at any rate, this
very change of treatment would necessitate the owner's continual
supervision, and would not in the meanwhile produce any increase of
income.

To faire valoir the family acres had always, it appeared, been Raymond's
deepest-seated purpose, and all his frivolities dropped from him with
the prospect of putting his hand to the plough. He was not, indeed,
inhuman enough to condemn his wife to perpetual exile. He meant, he
assured her, that she should have her annual spring visit to Paris--but
he stared in dismay at her suggestion that they should take possession
of the coveted premier of the Hotel de Chelles. He was gallant enough to
express the wish that it were in his power to house her on such a scale;
but he could not conceal his surprise that she had ever seriously
expected it. She was beginning to see that he felt her constitutional
inability to understand anything about money as the deepest difference
between them. It was a proficiency no one had ever expected her to
acquire, and the lack of which she had even been encouraged to regard as
a grace and to use as a pretext. During the interval between her divorce
and her remarriage she had learned what things cost, but not how to do
without them; and money still seemed to her like some mysterious and
uncertain stream which occasionally vanished underground but was sure
to bubble up again at one's feet. Now, however, she found herself in a
world where it represented not the means of individual gratification but
the substance binding together whole groups of interests, and where the
uses to which it might be put in twenty years were considered before the
reasons for spending it on the spot. At first she was sure she could
laugh Raymond out of his prudence or coax him round to her point of
view. She did not understand how a man so romantically in love could be
so unpersuadable on certain points. Hitherto she had had to contend
with personal moods, now she was arguing against a policy; and she was
gradually to learn that it was as natural to Raymond de Chelles to adore
her and resist her as it had been to Ralph Marvell to adore her and let
her have her way. At first, indeed, he appealed to her good sense, using
arguments evidently drawn from accumulations of hereditary experience.
But his economic plea was as unintelligible to her as the silly problems
about pen-knives and apples in the "Mental Arithmetic" of her infancy;
and when he struck a tenderer note and spoke of the duty of providing
for the son he hoped for, she put her arms about him to whisper: "But
then I oughtn't to be worried..."

After that, she noticed, though he was as charming as ever, he behaved
as if the case were closed. He had apparently decided that his arguments
were unintelligible to her, and under all his ardour she felt the
difference made by the discovery. It did not make him less kind, but it
evidently made her less important; and she had the half-frightened sense
that the day she ceased to please him she would cease to exist for him.
That day was a long way off, of course, but the chill of it had brushed
her face; and she was no longer heedless of such signs. She resolved to
cultivate all the arts of patience and compliance, and habit might have
helped them to take root if they had not been nipped by a new cataclysm.

It was barely a week ago that her husband had been called to Paris to
straighten out a fresh tangle in the affairs of the troublesome brother
whose difficulties were apparently a part of the family tradition.
Raymond's letters had been hurried, his telegrams brief and
contradictory, and now, as Undine stood watching for the brougham that
was to bring him from the station, she had the sense that with his
arrival all her vague fears would be confirmed. There would be more
money to pay out, of course--since the funds that could not be found for
her just needs were apparently always forthcoming to settle Hubert's
scandalous prodigalities--and that meant a longer perspective of
solitude at Saint Desert, and a fresh pretext for postponing the
hospitalities that were to follow on their period of mourning. The
brougham--a vehicle as massive and lumbering as the pair that drew it--
presently rolled into the court, and Raymond's sable figure (she had
never before seen a man travel in such black clothes) sprang up the
steps to the door. Whenever Undine saw him after an absence she had
a curious sense of his coming back from unknown distances and not
belonging to her or to any state of things she understood. Then habit
reasserted itself, and she began to think of him again with a querulous
familiarity. But she had learned to hide her feelings, and as he came in
she put up her face for a kiss.

"Yes--everything's settled--" his embrace expressed the satisfaction of
the man returning from an accomplished task to the joys of his fireside.

"Settled?" Her face kindled. "Without your having to pay?"

He looked at her with a shrug. "Of course I've had to pay. Did you
suppose Hubert's creditors would be put off with vanilla eclairs?"

"Oh, if THAT'S what you mean--if Hubert has only to wire you at any time
to be sure of his affairs being settled--!"

She saw his lips narrow and a line come out between his eyes. "Wouldn't
it be a happy thought to tell them to bring tea?" he suggested.

"In the library, then. It's so cold here--and the tapestries smell so of
rain."

He paused a moment to scrutinize the long walls, on which the fabulous
blues and pinks of the great Boucher series looked as livid as withered
roses. "I suppose they ought to be taken down and aired," he said.

She thought: "In THIS air--much good it would do them!" But she had
already repented her outbreak about Hubert, and she followed her husband
into the library with the resolve not to let him see her annoyance.
Compared with the long grey gallery the library, with its brown walls
of books, looked warm and home-like, and Raymond seemed to feel the
influence of the softer atmosphere. He turned to his wife and put his
arm about her.

"I know it's been a trial to you, dearest; but this is the last time I
shall have to pull the poor boy out."

In spite of herself she laughed incredulously: Hubert's "last times"
were a household word.

But when tea had been brought, and they were alone over the fire,
Raymond unfolded the amazing sequel. Hubert had found an heiress, Hubert
was to be married, and henceforth the business of paying his debts
(which might be counted on to recur as inevitably as the changes of the
seasons) would devolve on his American bride--the charming Miss Looty
Arlington, whom Raymond had remained over in Paris to meet.

"An American? He's marrying an American?" Undine wavered between wrath
and satisfaction. She felt a flash of resentment at any other intruder's
venturing upon her territory--("Looty Arlington? Who is she? What a
name!")--but it was quickly superseded by the relief of knowing that
henceforth, as Raymond said, Hubert's debts would be some one else's
business. Then a third consideration prevailed. "But if he's engaged to
a rich girl, why on earth do WE have to pull him out?"

Her husband explained that no other course was possible. Though General
Arlington was immensely wealthy, ("her father's a general--a General
Manager, whatever that may be,") he had exacted what he called "a clean
slate" from his future son-in-law, and Hubert's creditors (the boy was
such a donkey!) had in their possession certain papers that made it
possible for them to press for immediate payment.

"Your compatriots' views on such matters are so rigid--and it's all to
their credit--that the marriage would have fallen through at once if the
least hint of Hubert's mess had got out--and then we should have had him
on our hands for life."

Yes--from that point of view it was doubtless best to pay up; but Undine
obscurely wished that their doing so had not incidentally helped an
unknown compatriot to what the American papers were no doubt already
announcing as "another brilliant foreign alliance."

"Where on earth did your brother pick up anybody respectable? Do you
know where her people come from? I suppose she's perfectly awful," she
broke out with a sudden escape of irritation.

"I believe Hubert made her acquaintance at a skating rink. They come
from some new state--the general apologized for its not yet being on the
map, but seemed surprised I hadn't heard of it. He said it was already
known as one of 'the divorce states,' and the principal city had, in
consequence, a very agreeable society. La petite n'est vraiment pas trop
mal."

"I daresay not! We're all good-looking. But she must be horribly
common."

Raymond seemed sincerely unable to formulate a judgment. "My dear, you
have your own customs..."

"Oh, I know we're all alike to you!" It was one of her grievances that
he never attempted to discriminate between Americans. "You see no
difference between me and a girl one gets engaged to at a skating rink!"

He evaded the challenge by rejoining: "Miss Arlington's burning to know
you. She says she's heard a great deal about you, and Hubert wants to
bring her down next week. I think we'd better do what we can."

"Of course." But Undine was still absorbed in the economic aspect of the
case. "If they're as rich as you say, I suppose Hubert means to pay you
back by and bye?"

"Naturally. It's all arranged. He's given me a paper." He drew her hands
into his. "You see we've every reason to be kind to Miss Arlington."

"Oh, I'll be as kind as you like!" She brightened at the prospect of
repayment. Yes, they would ask the girl down... She leaned a little
nearer to her husband. "But then after a while we shall be a good deal
better off--especially, as you say, with no more of Hubert's debts to
worry us." And leaning back far enough to give her upward smile, she
renewed her plea for the premier in the Hotel de Chelles: "Because,
really, you know, as the head of the house you ought to--"

"Ah, my dear, as the head of the house I've so many obligations; and one
of them is not to miss a good stroke of business when it comes my way."

Her hands slipped from his shoulders and she drew back. "What do you
mean by a good stroke of business?

"Why, an incredible piece of luck--it's what kept me on so long in
Paris. Miss Arlington's father was looking for an apartment for the
young couple, and I've let him the premier for twelve years on the
understanding that he puts electric light and heating into the whole
hotel. It's a wonderful chance, for of course we all benefit by it as
much as Hubert."

"A wonderful chance... benefit by it as much as Hubert!" He seemed to be
speaking a strange language in which familiar-sounding syllables meant
something totally unknown. Did he really think she was going to coop
herself up again in their cramped quarters while Hubert and his
skating-rink bride luxuriated overhead in the coveted premier? All the
resentments that had been accumulating in her during the long baffled
months since her marriage broke into speech. "It's extraordinary of you
to do such a thing without consulting me!"

"Without consulting you? But, my dear child, you've always professed the
most complete indifference to business matters--you've frequently begged
me not to bore you with them. You may be sure I've acted on the best
advice; and my mother, whose head is as good as a man's, thinks I've
made a remarkably good arrangement."

"I daresay--but I'm not always thinking about money, as you are."

As she spoke she had an ominous sense of impending peril; but she was
too angry to avoid even the risks she saw. To her surprise Raymond put
his arm about her with a smile. "There are many reasons why I have to
think about money. One is that YOU don't; and another is that I must
look out for the future of our son."

Undine flushed to the forehead. She had grown accustomed to such
allusions and the thought of having a child no longer filled her with
the resentful terror she had felt before Paul's birth. She had been
insensibly influenced by a different point of view, perhaps also by a
difference in her own feeling; and the vision of herself as the mother
of the future Marquis de Chelles was softened to happiness by the
thought of giving Raymond a son. But all these lightly-rooted sentiments
went down in the rush of her resentment, and she freed herself with a
petulant movement. "Oh, my dear, you'd better leave it to your brother
to perpetuate the race. There'll be more room for nurseries in their
apartment!"

She waited a moment, quivering with the expectation of her husband's
answer; then, as none came except the silent darkening of his face, she
walked to the door and turned round to fling back: "Of course you can do
what you like with your own house, and make any arrangements that suit
your family, without consulting me; but you needn't think I'm ever
going back to live in that stuffy little hole, with Hubert and his wife
splurging round on top of our heads!"

"Ah--" said Raymond de Chelles in a low voice.

Edith Wharton