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Chapter 44

Undine had been right in supposing that her husband would expect
their life to go on as before. There was no appreciable change in the
situation save that he was more often absent-finding abundant reasons,
agricultural and political, for frequent trips to Saint Desert--and
that, when in Paris, he no longer showed any curiosity concerning her
occupations and engagements. They lived as much apart is if their
cramped domicile had been a palace; and when Undine--as she now
frequently did--joined the Shallums or Rollivers for a dinner at the
Nouveau Luxe, or a party at a petit theatre, she was not put to the
trouble of prevaricating.

Her first impulse, after her scene with Raymond, had been to ring up
Indiana Rolliver and invite herself to dine. It chanced that Indiana
(who was now in full social progress, and had "run over" for a few weeks
to get her dresses for Newport) had organized for the same evening a
showy cosmopolitan banquet in which she was enchanted to include the
Marquise de Chelles; and Undine, as she had hoped, found Elmer Moffatt
of the party. When she drove up to the Nouveau Luxe she had not fixed
on any plan of action; but once she had crossed its magic threshold her
energies revived like plants in water. At last she was in her native air
again, among associations she shared and conventions she understood; and
all her self-confidence returned as the familiar accents uttered the
accustomed things.

Save for an occasional perfunctory call, she had hitherto made no effort
to see her compatriots, and she noticed that Mrs. Jim Driscoll and
Bertha Shallum received her with a touch of constraint; but it vanished
when they remarked the cordiality of Moffatt's greeting. Her seat was
at his side, and her old sense of triumph returned as she perceived the
importance his notice conferred, not only in the eyes of her own party
but of the other diners. Moffatt was evidently a notable figure in all
the worlds represented about the crowded tables, and Undine saw that
many people who seemed personally unacquainted with him were recognizing
and pointing him out. She was conscious of receiving a large share of
the attention he attracted, and, bathed again in the bright air of
publicity, she remembered the evening when Raymond de Chelles' first
admiring glance had given her the same sense of triumph.

This inopportune memory did not trouble her: she was almost grateful to
Raymond for giving her the touch of superiority her compatriots clearly
felt in her. It was not merely her title and her "situation," but the
experiences she had gained through them, that gave her this advantage
over the loud vague company. She had learned things they did not guess:
shades of conduct, turns of speech, tricks of attitude--and easy and
free and enviable as she thought them, she would not for the world have
been back among them at the cost of knowing no more than they.

Moffatt made no allusion to his visit to Saint Desert; but when the
party had re-grouped itself about coffee and liqueurs on the terrace, he
bent over to ask confidentially: "What about my tapestries?"

She replied in the same tone: "You oughtn't to have let Fleischhauer
write that letter. My husband's furious."

He seemed honestly surprised. "Why? Didn't I offer him enough?"

"He's furious that any one should offer anything. I thought when he
found out what they were worth he might be tempted; but he'd rather see
me starve than part with one of his grand-father's snuff-boxes."

"Well, he knows now what the tapestries are worth. I offered more than
Fleischhauer advised."

"Yes; but you were in too much of a hurry."

"I've got to be; I'm going back next week."

She felt her eyes cloud with disappointment. "Oh, why do you? I hoped
you might stay on."

They looked at each other uncertainly a moment; then he dropped his
voice to say: "Even if I did, I probably shouldn't see anything of you."

"Why not? Why won't you come and see me? I've always wanted to be
friends."

He came the next day and found in her drawing-room two ladies whom she
introduced as her sisters-in-law. The ladies lingered on for a long
time, sipping their tea stiffly and exchanging low-voiced remarks while
Undine talked with Moffatt; and when they left, with small sidelong bows
in his direction.

Undine exclaimed: "Now you see how they all watch me!"

She began to go into the details of her married life, drawing on the
experiences of the first months for instances that scarcely applied to
her present liberated state. She could thus, without great exaggeration,
picture herself as entrapped into a bondage hardly conceivable to
Moffatt, and she saw him redden with excitement as he listened. "I call
it darned low--darned low--" he broke in at intervals.

"Of course I go round more now," she concluded. "I mean to see my
friends--I don't care what he says."

"What CAN he say?"

"Oh, he despises Americans--they all do."

"Well, I guess we can still sit up and take nourishment."

They laughed and slipped back to talking of earlier things. She urged
him to put off his sailing--there were so many things they might do
together: sight-seeing and excursions--and she could perhaps show him
some of the private collections he hadn't seen, the ones it was hard to
get admitted to. This instantly roused his attention, and after naming
one or two collections he had already seen she hit on one he had found
inaccessible and was particularly anxious to visit. "There's an Ingres
there that's one of the things I came over to have a look at; but I was
told there was no use trying."

"Oh, I can easily manage it: the Duke's Raymond's uncle." It gave her a
peculiar satisfaction to say it: she felt as though she were taking a
surreptitious revenge on her husband. "But he's down in the country this
week," she continued, "and no one--not even the family--is allowed to
see the pictures when he's away. Of course his Ingres are the finest in
France."

She ran it off glibly, though a year ago she had never heard of the
painter, and did not, even now, remember whether he was an Old Master or
one of the very new ones whose names one hadn't had time to learn.

Moffatt put off sailing, saw the Duke's Ingres under her guidance, and
accompanied her to various other private galleries inaccessible
to strangers. She had lived in almost total ignorance of such
opportunities, but now that she could use them to advantage she showed a
surprising quickness in picking up "tips," ferreting out rare things and
getting a sight of hidden treasures. She even acquired as much of the
jargon as a pretty woman needs to produce the impression of being
well-informed; and Moffatt's sailing was more than once postponed.

They saw each other almost daily, for she continued to come and go as
she pleased, and Raymond showed neither surprise nor disapproval. When
they were asked to family dinners she usually excused herself at the
last moment on the plea of a headache and, calling up Indiana or Bertha
Shallum, improvised a little party at the Nouveau Luxe; and on other
occasions she accepted such invitations as she chose, without mentioning
to her husband where she was going.

In this world of lavish pleasures she lost what little prudence the
discipline of Saint Desert had inculcated. She could never be with
people who had all the things she envied without being hypnotized into
the belief that she had only to put her hand out to obtain them, and all
the unassuaged rancours and hungers of her early days in West End Avenue
came back with increased acuity. She knew her wants so much better now,
and was so much more worthy of the things she wanted!

She had given up hoping that her father might make another hit in Wall
Street. Mrs. Spragg's letters gave the impression that the days of big
strokes were over for her husband, that he had gone down in the conflict
with forces beyond his measure. If he had remained in Apex the tide of
its new prosperity might have carried him to wealth; but New York's huge
waves of success had submerged instead of floating him, and Rolliver's
enmity was a hand perpetually stretched out to strike him lower. At
most, Mr. Spragg's tenacity would keep him at the level he now held, and
though he and his wife had still further simplified their way of
living Undine understood that their self-denial would not increase
her opportunities. She felt no compunction in continuing to accept an
undiminished allowance: it was the hereditary habit of the parent animal
to despoil himself for his progeny. But this conviction did not seem
incompatible with a sentimental pity for her parents. Aside from all
interested motives, she wished for their own sakes that they were better
off. Their personal requirements were pathetically limited, but renewed
prosperity would at least have procured them the happiness of giving her
what she wanted.

Moffatt lingered on; but he began to speak more definitely of sailing,
and Undine foresaw the day when, strong as her attraction was, stronger
influences would snap it like a thread. She knew she interested and
amused him, and that it flattered his vanity to be seen with her, and to
hear that rumour coupled their names; but he gave her, more than any
one she had ever known, the sense of being detached from his life, in
control of it, and able, without weakness or uncertainty, to choose
which of its calls he should obey. If the call were that of business--of
any of the great perilous affairs he handled like a snake-charmer
spinning the deadly reptiles about his head--she knew she would drop
from his life like a loosened leaf.

These anxieties sharpened the intensity of her enjoyment, and made the
contrast keener between her crowded sparkling hours and the vacant
months at Saint Desert. Little as she understood of the qualities that
made Moffatt what he was, the results were of the kind most palpable to
her. He used life exactly as she would have used it in his place. Some
of his enjoyments were beyond her range, but even these appealed to her
because of the money that was required to gratify them. When she took
him to see some inaccessible picture, or went with him to inspect the
treasures of a famous dealer, she saw that the things he looked at moved
him in a way she could not understand, and that the actual touching of
rare textures--bronze or marble, or velvets flushed with the bloom of
age--gave him sensations like those her own beauty had once roused in
him. But the next moment he was laughing over some commonplace joke, or
absorbed in a long cipher cable handed to him as they re-entered the
Nouveau Luxe for tea, and his aesthetic emotions had been thrust back
into their own compartment of the great steel strong-box of his mind.

Her new life went on without comment or interference from her husband,
and she saw that he had accepted their altered relation, and intended
merely to keep up an external semblance of harmony. To that semblance
she knew he attached intense importance: it was an article of his
complicated social creed that a man of his class should appear to live
on good terms with his wife. For different reasons it was scarcely
less important to Undine: she had no wish to affront again the social
reprobation that had so nearly wrecked her. But she could not keep up
the life she was leading without more money, a great deal more money;
and the thought of contracting her expenditure was no longer tolerable.

One afternoon, several weeks later, she came in to find a tradesman's
representative waiting with a bill. There was a noisy scene in the
anteroom before the man threateningly withdrew--a scene witnessed by the
servants, and overheard by her mother-in-law, whom she found seated in
the drawing-room when she entered. The old Marquise's visits to her
daughter-in-law were made at long intervals but with ritual regularity;
she called every other Friday at five, and Undine had forgotten that she
was due that day. This did not make for greater cordiality between them,
and the altercation in the anteroom had been too loud for concealment.
The Marquise was on her feet when her daughter-in-law came in, and
instantly said with lowered eyes: "It would perhaps be best for me to
go."

"Oh, I don't care. You're welcome to tell Raymond you've heard me
insulted because I'm too poor to pay my bills--he knows it well enough
already!" The words broke from Undine unguardedly, but once spoken they
nourished her defiance.

"I'm sure my son has frequently recommended greater prudence--" the
Marquise murmured.

"Yes! It's a pity he didn't recommend it to your other son instead! All
the money I was entitled to has gone to pay Hubert's debts."

"Raymond has told me that there are certain things you fail to
understand--I have no wish whatever to discuss them." The Marquise had
gone toward the door; with her hand on it she paused to add: "I shall
say nothing whatever of what has happened."

Her icy magnanimity added the last touch to Undine's wrath. They knew
her extremity, one and all, and it did not move them. At most, they
would join in concealing it like a blot on their honour. And the menace
grew and mounted, and not a hand was stretched to help her....

Hardly a half-hour earlier Moffatt, with whom she had been visiting a
"private view," had sent her home in his motor with the excuse that he
must hurry back to the Nouveau Luxe to meet his stenographer and sign a
batch of letters for the New York mail. It was therefore probable that
he was still at home--that she should find him if she hastened there
at once. An overwhelming desire to cry out her wrath and wretchedness
brought her to her feet and sent her down to hail a passing cab. As it
whirled her through the bright streets powdered with amber sunlight her
brain throbbed with confused intentions. She did not think of Moffatt
as a power she could use, but simply as some one who knew her and
understood her grievance. It was essential to her at that moment to be
told that she was right and that every one opposed to her was wrong.

At the hotel she asked his number and was carried up in the lift. On the
landing she paused a moment, disconcerted--it had occurred to her that
he might not be alone. But she walked on quickly, found the number and
knocked.... Moffatt opened the door, and she glanced beyond him and saw
that the big bright sitting-room was empty.

"Hullo!" he exclaimed, surprised; and as he stood aside to let her enter
she saw him draw out his watch and glance at it surreptitiously. He was
expecting someone, or he had an engagement elsewhere--something claimed
him from which she was excluded. The thought flushed her with sudden
resolution. She knew now what she had come for--to keep him from every
one else, to keep him for herself alone.

"Don't send me away!" she said, and laid her hand on his beseechingly.

Edith Wharton