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Chapter 42

Undine had gained her point, and the entresol of the Hotel de Chelles
reopened its doors for the season.

Hubert and his wife, in expectation of the birth of an heir, had
withdrawn to the sumptuous chateau which General Arlington had hired for
them near Compiegne, and Undine was at least spared the sight of their
bright windows and animated stairway. But she had to take her share of
the felicitations which the whole far-reaching circle of friends and
relations distributed to every member of Hubert's family on the approach
of the happy event. Nor was this the hardest of her trials. Raymond had
done what she asked--he had stood out against his mother's protests, set
aside considerations of prudence, and consented to go up to Paris for
two months; but he had done so on the understanding that during their
stay they should exercise the most unremitting economy. As dinner-giving
put the heaviest strain on their budget, all hospitality was suspended;
and when Undine attempted to invite a few friends informally she was
warned that she could not do so without causing the gravest offense to
the many others genealogically entitled to the same attention.

Raymond's insistence on this rule was simply part of an elaborate and
inveterate system of "relations" (the whole of French social life seemed
to depend on the exact interpretation of that word), and Undine felt
the uselessness of struggling against such mysterious inhibitions. He
reminded her, however, that their inability to receive would give them
all the more opportunity for going out, and he showed himself more
socially disposed than in the past. But his concession did not result as
she had hoped. They were asked out as much as ever, but they were asked
to big dinners, to impersonal crushes, to the kind of entertainment it
is a slight to be omitted from but no compliment to be included in.
Nothing could have been more galling to Undine, and she frankly bewailed
the fact to Madame de Trezac.

"Of course it's what was sure to come of being mewed up for months and
months in the country. We're out of everything, and the people who are
having a good time are simply too busy to remember us. We're only asked
to the things that are made up from visiting-lists."

Madame de Trezac listened sympathetically, but did not suppress a candid
answer.

"It's not altogether that, my dear; Raymond's not a man his friends
forget. It's rather more, if you'll excuse my saying so, the fact of
your being--you personally--in the wrong set."

"The wrong set? Why, I'm in HIS set--the one that thinks itself too good
for all the others. That's what you've always told me when I've said it
bored me."

"Well, that's what I mean--" Madame de Trezac took the plunge. "It's not
a question of your being bored."

Undine coloured; but she could take the hardest thrusts where her
personal interest was involved. "You mean that I'M the bore, then?"

"Well, you don't work hard enough--you don't keep up. It's not that they
don't admire you--your looks, I mean; they think you beautiful; they're
delighted to bring you out at their big dinners, with the Sevres and the
plate. But a woman has got to be something more than good-looking to
have a chance to be intimate with them: she's got to know what's being
said about things. I watched you the other night at the Duchess's, and
half the time you hadn't an idea what they were talking about. I haven't
always, either; but then I have to put up with the big dinners."

Undine winced under the criticism; but she had never lacked insight into
the cause of her own failures, and she had already had premonitions of
what Madame de Trezac so bluntly phrased. When Raymond ceased to be
interested in her conversation she had concluded it was the way of
husbands; but since then it had been slowly dawning on her that she
produced the same effect on others. Her entrances were always triumphs;
but they had no sequel. As soon as people began to talk they ceased to
see her. Any sense of insufficiency exasperated her, and she had vague
thoughts of cultivating herself, and went so far as to spend a
morning in the Louvre and go to one or two lectures by a fashionable
philosopher. But though she returned from these expeditions charged with
opinions, their expression did not excite the interest she had hoped.
Her views, if abundant, were confused, and the more she said the more
nebulous they seemed to grow. She was disconcerted, moreover, by finding
that everybody appeared to know about the things she thought she had
discovered, and her comments clearly produced more bewilderment than
interest.

Remembering the attention she had attracted on her first appearance in
Raymond's world she concluded that she had "gone off" or grown dowdy,
and instead of wasting more time in museums and lecture-halls she
prolonged her hours at the dress-maker's and gave up the rest of the day
to the scientific cultivation of her beauty.

"I suppose I've turned into a perfect frump down there in that
wilderness," she lamented to Madame de Trezac, who replied inexorably:
"Oh, no, you're as handsome as ever; but people here don't go on looking
at each other forever as they do in London."

Meanwhile financial cares became more pressing. A dunning letter from
one of her tradesmen fell into Raymond's hands, and the talk it led to
ended in his making it clear to her that she must settle her personal
debts without his aid. All the "scenes" about money which had disturbed
her past had ended in some mysterious solution of her difficulty.
Disagreeable as they were, she had always, vulgarly speaking, found they
paid; but now it was she who was expected to pay. Raymond took his
stand without ill-temper or apology: he simply argued from inveterate
precedent. But it was impossible for Undine to understand a social
organization which did not regard the indulging of woman as its first
purpose, or to believe that any one taking another view was not moved by
avarice or malice; and the discussion ended in mutual acrimony.

The morning afterward, Raymond came into her room with a letter in his
hand.

"Is this your doing?" he asked. His look and voice expressed something
she had never known before: the disciplined anger of a man trained to
keep his emotions in fixed channels, but knowing how to fill them to the
brim.

The letter was from Mr. Fleischhauer, who begged to transmit to the
Marquis de Chelles an offer for his Boucher tapestries from a client
prepared to pay the large sum named on condition that it was accepted
before his approaching departure for America.

"What does it mean?" Raymond continued, as she did not speak.

"How should I know? It's a lot of money," she stammered, shaken out of
her self-possession. She had not expected so prompt a sequel to the
dealer's visit, and she was vexed with him for writing to Raymond
without consulting her. But she recognized Moffatt's high-handed way,
and her fears faded in the great blaze of the sum he offered.

Her husband was still looking at her. "It was Fleischhauer who brought a
man down to see the tapestries one day when I was away at Beaune?"

He had known, then--everything was known at Saint Desert!

She wavered a moment and then gave him back his look.

"Yes--it was Fleischhauer; and I sent for him."

"You sent for him?"

He spoke in a voice so veiled and repressed that he seemed to be
consciously saving it for some premeditated outbreak. Undine felt its
menace, but the thought of Moffatt sent a flame through her, and the
words he would have spoken seemed to fly to her lips.

"Why shouldn't I? Something had to be done. We can't go on as we are.
I've tried my best to economize--I've scraped and scrimped, and gone
without heaps of things I've always had. I've moped for months and
months at Saint Desert, and given up sending Paul to school because it
was too expensive, and asking my friends to dine because we couldn't
afford it. And you expect me to go on living like this for the rest of
my life, when all you've got to do is to hold out your hand and have two
million francs drop into it!"

Her husband stood looking at her coldly and curiously, as though she
were some alien apparition his eyes had never before beheld.

"Ah, that's your answer--that's all you feel when you lay hands on
things that are sacred to us!" He stopped a moment, and then let his
voice break out with the volume she had felt it to be gathering. "And
you're all alike," he exclaimed, "every one of you. You come among us
from a country we don't know, and can't imagine, a country you care for
so little that before you've been a day in ours you've forgotten the
very house you were born in--if it wasn't torn down before you knew it!
You come among us speaking our language and not knowing what we mean;
wanting the things we want, and not knowing why we want them; aping our
weaknesses, exaggerating our follies, ignoring or ridiculing all we care
about--you come from hotels as big as towns, and from towns as flimsy as
paper, where the streets haven't had time to be named, and the buildings
are demolished before they're dry, and the people are as proud of
changing as we are of holding to what we have--and we're fools enough
to imagine that because you copy our ways and pick up our slang
you understand anything about the things that make life decent and
honourable for us!"

He stopped again, his white face and drawn nostrils giving him so much
the look of an extremely distinguished actor in a fine part that, in
spite of the vehemence of his emotion, his silence might have been the
deliberate pause for a replique. Undine kept him waiting long enough to
give the effect of having lost her cue--then she brought out, with a
little soft stare of incredulity: "Do you mean to say you're going to
refuse such an offer?"

"Ah--!" He turned back from the door, and picking up the letter that lay
on the table between them, tore it in pieces and tossed the pieces on
the floor. "That's how I refuse it!"

The violence of his tone and gesture made her feel as though the
fluttering strips were so many lashes laid across her face, and a rage
that was half fear possessed her.

"How dare you speak to me like that? Nobody's ever dared to before. Is
talking to a woman in that way one of the things you call decent and
honourable? Now that I know what you feel about me I don't want to stay
in your house another day. And I don't mean to--I mean to walk out of it
this very hour!"

For a moment they stood face to face, the depths of their mutual
incomprehension at last bared to each other's angry eyes; then Raymond,
his glance travelling past her, pointed to the fragments of paper on the
floor.

"If you're capable of that you're capable of anything!" he said as he
went out of the room.

Edith Wharton