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Chapter 43

She watched him go in a kind of stupour, knowing that when they next met
he would be as courteous and self-possessed as if nothing had happened,
but that everything would nevertheless go on in the same way--in HIS
way--and that there was no more hope of shaking his resolve or altering
his point of view than there would have been of transporting the
deep-rooted masonry of Saint Desert by means of the wheeled supports on
which Apex architecture performed its easy transits.

One of her childish rages possessed her, sweeping away every feeling
save the primitive impulse to hurt and destroy; but search as she would
she could not find a crack in the strong armour of her husband's habits
and prejudices. For a long time she continued to sit where he had left
her, staring at the portraits on the walls as though they had joined
hands to imprison her. Hitherto she had almost always felt herself a
match for circumstances, but now the very dead were leagued to defeat
her: people she had never seen and whose names she couldn't even
remember seemed to be plotting and contriving against her under the
escutcheoned grave-stones of Saint Desert.

Her eyes turned to the old warm-toned furniture beneath the pictures,
and to her own idle image in the mirror above the mantelpiece. Even in
that one small room there were enough things of price to buy a release
from her most pressing cares; and the great house, in which the room was
a mere cell, and the other greater house in Burgundy, held treasures to
deplete even such a purse as Moffatt's. She liked to see such things
about her--without any real sense of their meaning she felt them to be
the appropriate setting of a pretty woman, to embody something of the
rareness and distinction she had always considered she possessed; and
she reflected that if she had still been Moffatt's wife he would have
given her just such a setting, and the power to live in it as became
her.

The thought sent her memory flying back to things she had turned it from
for years. For the first time since their far-off weeks together she let
herself relive the brief adventure. She had been drawn to Elmer Moffatt
from the first--from the day when Ben Frusk, Indiana's brother, had
brought him to a church picnic at Mulvey's Grove, and he had taken
instant possession of Undine, sitting in the big "stage" beside her on
the "ride" to the grove, supplanting Millard Binch (to whom she was
still, though intermittently and incompletely, engaged), swinging her
between the trees, rowing her on the lake, catching and kissing her
in "forfeits," awarding her the first prize in the Beauty Show he
hilariously organized and gallantly carried out, and finally (no one
knew how) contriving to borrow a buggy and a fast colt from old Mulvey,
and driving off with her at a two-forty gait while Millard and the
others took their dust in the crawling stage.

No one in Apex knew where young Moffatt had come from, and he offered
no information on the subject. He simply appeared one day behind the
counter in Luckaback's Dollar Shoe-store, drifted thence to the office
of Semple and Binch, the coal-merchants, reappeared as the stenographer
of the Police Court, and finally edged his way into the power-house of
the Apex Water-Works. He boarded with old Mrs. Flynn, down in North
Fifth Street, on the edge of the red-light slum, he never went to church
or attended lectures, or showed any desire to improve or refine himself;
but he managed to get himself invited to all the picnics and lodge
sociables, and at a supper of the Phi Upsilon Society, to which he had
contrived to affiliate himself, he made the best speech that had been
heard there since young Jim Rolliver's first flights. The brothers of
Undine's friends all pronounced him "great," though he had fits of
uncouthness that made the young women slower in admitting him to favour.
But at the Mulvey's Grove picnic he suddenly seemed to dominate them
all, and Undine, as she drove away with him, tasted the public triumph
which was necessary to her personal enjoyment.

After that he became a leading figure in the youthful world of Apex, and
no one was surprised when the Sons of Jonadab, (the local Temperance
Society) invited him to deliver their Fourth of July oration. The
ceremony took place, as usual, in the Baptist church, and Undine, all
in white, with a red rose in her breast, sat just beneath the platform,
with Indiana jealously glaring at her from a less privileged seat, and
poor Millard's long neck craning over the row of prominent citizens
behind the orator.

Elmer Moffatt had been magnificent, rolling out his alternating effects
of humour and pathos, stirring his audience by moving references to the
Blue and the Gray, convulsing them by a new version of Washington and
the Cherry Tree (in which the infant patriot was depicted as having
cut down the tree to check the deleterious spread of cherry bounce),
dazzling them by his erudite allusions and apt quotations (he confessed
to Undine that he had sat up half the night over Bartlett), and winding
up with a peroration that drew tears from the Grand Army pensioners in
the front row and caused the minister's wife to say that many a sermon
from that platform had been less uplifting.

An ice-cream supper always followed the "exercises," and as repairs were
being made in the church basement, which was the usual scene of the
festivity, the minister had offered the use of his house. The long table
ran through the doorway between parlour and study, and another was set
in the passage outside, with one end under the stairs. The stair-rail
was wreathed in fire-weed and early golden-rod, and Temperance texts in
smilax decked the walls. When the first course had been despatched the
young ladies, gallantly seconded by the younger of the "Sons," helped to
ladle out and carry in the ice-cream, which stood in great pails on the
larder floor, and to replenish the jugs of lemonade and coffee. Elmer
Moffatt was indefatigable in performing these services, and when the
minister's wife pressed him to sit down and take a mouthful himself he
modestly declined the place reserved for him among the dignitaries of
the evening, and withdrew with a few chosen spirits to the dim table-end
beneath the stairs. Explosions of hilarity came from this corner with
increasing frequency, and now and then tumultuous rappings and howls of
"Song! Song!" followed by adjurations to "Cough it up" and "Let her go,"
drowned the conversational efforts at the other table.

At length the noise subsided, and the group was ceasing to attract
attention when, toward the end of the evening, the upper table, drooping
under the lengthy elucubrations of the minister and the President of the
Temperance Society, called on the orator of the day for a few remarks.
There was an interval of scuffling and laughter beneath the stairs, and
then the minister's lifted hand enjoined silence and Elmer Moffatt got
to his feet.

"Step out where the ladies can hear you better, Mr. Moffatt!" the
minister called. Moffatt did so, steadying himself against the table and
twisting his head about as if his collar had grown too tight. But if his
bearing was vacillating his smile was unabashed, and there was no lack
of confidence in the glance he threw at Undine Spragg as he began:
"Ladies and Gentlemen, if there's one thing I like better than another
about getting drunk--and I like most everything about it except the next
morning--it's the opportunity you've given me of doing it right here, in
the presence of this Society, which, as I gather from its literature,
knows more about the subject than anybody else. Ladies and
Gentlemen"--he straightened himself, and the table-cloth slid toward
him--"ever since you honoured me with an invitation to address you from
the temperance platform I've been assiduously studying that literature;
and I've gathered from your own evidence--what I'd strongly suspected
before--that all your converted drunkards had a hell of a good time
before you got at 'em, and that... and that a good many of 'em have gone
on having it since..."

At this point he broke off, swept the audience with his confident smile,
and then, collapsing, tried to sit down on a chair that didn't happen to
be there, and disappeared among his agitated supporters.

There was a night-mare moment during which Undine, through the doorway,
saw Ben Frusk and the others close about the fallen orator to the crash
of crockery and tumbling chairs; then some one jumped up and shut the
parlour door, and a long-necked Sunday school teacher, who had been
nervously waiting his chance, and had almost given it up, rose from his
feet and recited High Tide at Gettysburg amid hysterical applause.

The scandal was considerable, but Moffatt, though he vanished from the
social horizon, managed to keep his place in the power-house till he
went off for a week and turned up again without being able to give a
satisfactory reason for his absence. After that he drifted from one job
to another, now extolled for his "smartness" and business capacity, now
dismissed in disgrace as an irresponsible loafer. His head was always
full of immense nebulous schemes for the enlargement and development of
any business he happened to be employed in. Sometimes his suggestions
interested his employers, but proved unpractical and inapplicable;
sometimes he wore out their patience or was thought to be a dangerous
dreamer. Whenever he found there was no hope of his ideas being adopted
he lost interest in his work, came late and left early, or disappeared
for two or three days at a time without troubling himself to account for
his absences. At last even those who had been cynical enough to smile
over his disgrace at the temperance supper began to speak of him as a
hopeless failure, and he lost the support of the feminine community when
one Sunday morning, just as the Baptist and Methodist churches were
releasing their congregations, he walked up Eubaw Avenue with a young
woman less known to those sacred edifices than to the saloons of North
Fifth Street.

Undine's estimate of people had always been based on their apparent
power of getting what they wanted--provided it came under the category
of things she understood wanting. Success was beauty and romance to her;
yet it was at the moment when Elmer Moffatt's failure was most complete
and flagrant that she suddenly felt the extent of his power. After the
Eubaw Avenue scandal he had been asked not to return to the surveyor's
office to which Ben Frusk had managed to get him admitted; and on the
day of his dismissal he met Undine in Main Street, at the shopping hour,
and, sauntering up cheerfully, invited her to take a walk with him. She
was about to refuse when she saw Millard Binch's mother looking at her
disapprovingly from the opposite street-corner.

"Oh, well, I will--" she said; and they walked the length of Main Street
and out to the immature park in which it ended. She was in a mood of
aimless discontent and unrest, tired of her engagement to Millard Binch,
disappointed with Moffatt, half-ashamed of being seen with him, and yet
not sorry to have it known that she was independent enough to choose her
companions without regard to the Apex verdict.

"Well, I suppose you know I'm down and out," he began; and she responded
virtuously: "You must have wanted to be, or you wouldn't have behaved
the way you did last Sunday."

"Oh, shucks!" he sneered. "What do I care, in a one-horse place like
this? If it hadn't been for you I'd have got a move on long ago."

She did not remember afterward what else he said: she recalled only the
expression of a great sweeping scorn of Apex, into which her own disdain
of it was absorbed like a drop in the sea, and the affirmation of a
soaring self-confidence that seemed to lift her on wings. All her own
attempts to get what she wanted had come to nothing; but she had always
attributed her lack of success to the fact that she had had no one to
second her. It was strange that Elmer Moffatt, a shiftless out-cast from
even the small world she despised, should give her, in the very moment
of his downfall, the sense of being able to succeed where she had
failed. It was a feeling she never had in his absence, but that his
nearness always instantly revived; and he seemed nearer to her now than
he had ever been. They wandered on to the edge of the vague park, and
sat down on a bench behind the empty band-stand.

"I went with that girl on purpose, and you know it," he broke out
abruptly. "It makes me too damned sick to see Millard Binch going round
looking as if he'd patented you."

"You've got no right--" she interrupted; and suddenly she was in his
arms, and feeling that no one had ever kissed her before....

The week that followed was a big bright blur--the wildest vividest
moment of her life. And it was only eight days later that they were in
the train together, Apex and all her plans and promises behind them, and
a bigger and brighter blur ahead, into which they were plunging as the
"Limited" plunged into the sunset....

Undine stood up, looking about her with vague eyes, as if she had come
back from a long distance. Elmer Moffatt was still in Paris--he was in
reach, within telephone-call. She stood hesitating a moment; then
she went into her dressing-room, and turning over the pages of the
telephone book, looked out the number of the Nouveau Luxe....

Edith Wharton