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Chapter 45

She advanced into the room and slowly looked about her. The big vulgar
writing-table wreathed in bronze was heaped with letters and papers.
Among them stood a lapis bowl in a Renaissance mounting of enamel and
a vase of Phenician glass that was like a bit of rainbow caught in
cobwebs. On a table against the window a little Greek marble lifted its
pure lines. On every side some rare and sensitive object seemed to be
shrinking back from the false colours and crude contours of the hotel
furniture. There were no books in the room, but the florid console under
the mirror was stacked with old numbers of Town Talk and the New York
Radiator. Undine recalled the dingy hall-room that Moffatt had lodged in
at Mrs. Flynn's, over Hober's livery stable, and her heart beat at the
signs of his altered state. When her eyes came back to him their lids
were moist.

"Don't send me away," she repeated. He looked at her and smiled. "What
is it? What's the matter?"

"I don't know--but I had to come. To-day, when you spoke again of
sailing, I felt as if I couldn't stand it." She lifted her eyes and
looked in his profoundly.

He reddened a little under her gaze, but she could detect no softening
or confusion in the shrewd steady glance he gave her back.

"Things going wrong again--is that the trouble?" he merely asked with a
comforting inflexion.

"They always are wrong; it's all been an awful mistake. But I shouldn't
care if you were here and I could see you sometimes. You're so STRONG:
that's what I feel about you, Elmer. I was the only one to feel it that
time they all turned against you out at Apex.... Do you remember the
afternoon I met you down on Main Street, and we walked out together to
the Park? I knew then that you were stronger than any of them...."

She had never spoken more sincerely. For the moment all thought of
self-interest was in abeyance, and she felt again, as she had felt
that day, the instinctive yearning of her nature to be one with his.
Something in her voice must have attested it, for she saw a change in
his face.

"You're not the beauty you were," he said irrelevantly; "but you're a
lot more fetching."

The oddly qualified praise made her laugh with mingled pleasure and
annoyance.

"I suppose I must be dreadfully changed--"

"You're all right!--But I've got to go back home," he broke off
abruptly. "I've put it off too long."

She paled and looked away, helpless in her sudden disappointment. "I
knew you'd say that.... And I shall just be left here...." She sat down
on the sofa near which they had been standing, and two tears formed on
her lashes and fell.

Moffatt sat down beside her, and both were silent. She had never seen
him at a loss before. She made no attempt to draw nearer, or to use any
of the arts of cajolery; but presently she said, without rising: "I
saw you look at your watch when I came in. I suppose somebody else is
waiting for you."

"It don't matter."

"Some other woman?"

"It don't matter."

"I've wondered so often--but of course I've got no right to ask." She
stood up slowly, understanding that he meant to let her go.

"Just tell me one thing--did you never miss me?"

"Oh, damnably!" he brought out with sudden bitterness.

She came nearer, sinking her voice to a low whisper. "It's the only time
I ever really cared--all through!"

He had risen too, and they stood intensely gazing at each other.
Moffatt's face was fixed and grave, as she had seen it in hours she now
found herself rapidly reliving.

"I believe you DID," he said.

"Oh, Elmer--if I'd known--if I'd only known!"

He made no answer, and she turned away, touching with an unconscious
hand the edge of the lapis bowl among his papers.

"Elmer, if you're going away it can't do any harm to tell me--is there
any one else?"

He gave a laugh that seemed to shake him free. "In that kind of way?
Lord, no! Too busy!"

She came close again and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Then why not--why
shouldn't we--?" She leaned her head back so that her gaze slanted up
through her wet lashes. "I can do as I please--my husband does. They
think so differently about marriage over here: it's just a business
contract. As long as a woman doesn't make a show of herself no one
cares." She put her other hand up, so that she held him facing her.
"I've always felt, all through everything, that I belonged to you."

Moffatt left her hands on his shoulders, but did not lift his own to
clasp them. For a moment she thought she had mistaken him, and a leaden
sense of shame descended on her. Then he asked: "You say your husband
goes with other women?"

Lili Estradina's taunt flashed through her and she seized on it. "People
have told me so--his own relations have. I've never stooped to spy on
him...."

"And the women in your set--I suppose it's taken for granted they all do
the same?"

She laughed.

"Everything fixed up for them, same as it is for the husbands, eh?
Nobody meddles or makes trouble if you know the ropes?"

"No, nobody ... it's all quite easy...." She stopped, her faint
smile checked, as his backward movement made her hands drop from his
shoulders.

"And that's what you're proposing to me? That you and I should do like
the rest of 'em?" His face had lost its comic roundness and grown harsh
and dark, as it had when her father had taken her away from him at
Opake. He turned on his heel, walked the length of the room and halted
with his back to her in the embrasure of the window. There he paused
a full minute, his hands in his pockets, staring out at the perpetual
interweaving of motors in the luminous setting of the square. Then he
turned and spoke from where he stood.

"Look here. Undine, if I'm to have you again I don't want to have you
that way. That time out in Apex, when everybody in the place was against
me, and I was down and out, you stood up to them and stuck by me.
Remember that walk down Main Street? Don't I!--and the way the people
glared and hurried by; and how you kept on alongside of me, talking and
laughing, and looking your Sunday best. When Abner Spragg came out to
Opake after us and pulled you back I was pretty sore at your deserting;
but I came to see it was natural enough. You were only a spoilt girl,
used to having everything you wanted; and I couldn't give you a thing
then, and the folks you'd been taught to believe in all told you I never
would. Well, I did look like a back number, and no blame to you for
thinking so. I used to say it to myself over and over again, laying
awake nights and totting up my mistakes ... and then there were days
when the wind set another way, and I knew I'd pull it off yet, and
I thought you might have held on...." He stopped, his head a little
lowered, his concentrated gaze on her flushed face. "Well, anyhow," he
broke out, "you were my wife once, and you were my wife first--and if
you want to come back you've got to come that way: not slink through the
back way when there's no one watching, but walk in by the front door,
with your head up, and your Main Street look."

Since the days when he had poured out to her his great fortune-building
projects she had never heard him make so long a speech; and her heart,
as she listened, beat with a new joy and terror. It seemed to her that
the great moment of her life had come at last--the moment all her minor
failures and successes had been building up with blind indefatigable
hands.

"Elmer--Elmer--" she sobbed out.

She expected to find herself in his arms, shut in and shielded from all
her troubles; but he stood his ground across the room, immovable.

"Is it yes?"

She faltered the word after him: "Yes--?"

"Are you going to marry me?"

She stared, bewildered. "Why, Elmer--marry you? You forget!"

"Forget what? That you don't want to give up what you've got?"

"How can I? Such things are not done out here. Why, I'm a Catholic; and
the Catholic Church--" She broke off, reading the end in his face. "But
later, perhaps ... things might change. Oh, Elmer, if only you'd stay
over here and let me see you sometimes!"

"Yes--the way your friends see each other. We're differently made out in
Apex. When I want that sort of thing I go down to North Fifth Street for
it."

She paled under the retort, but her heart beat high with it. What he
asked was impossible--and she gloried in his asking it. Feeling her
power, she tried to temporize. "At least if you stayed we could be
friends--I shouldn't feel so terribly alone."

He laughed impatiently. "Don't talk magazine stuff to me, Undine Spragg.
I guess we want each other the same way. Only our ideas are different.
You've got all muddled, living out here among a lot of loafers who call
it a career to run round after every petticoat. I've got my job out at
home, and I belong where my job is."

"Are you going to be tied to business all your life?" Her smile was
faintly depreciatory.

"I guess business is tied to ME: Wall Street acts as if it couldn't get
along without me." He gave his shoulders a shake and moved a few steps
nearer. "See here, Undine--you're the one that don't understand. If I
was to sell out to-morrow, and spend the rest of my life reading art
magazines in a pink villa, I wouldn't do what you're asking me. And
I've about as much idea of dropping business as you have of taking to
district nursing. There are things a man doesn't do. I understand
why your husband won't sell those tapestries--till he's got to. His
ancestors are HIS business: Wall Street's mine."

He paused, and they silently faced each other. Undine made no attempt
to approach him: she understood that if he yielded it would be only to
recover his advantage and deepen her feeling of defeat. She put out her
hand and took up the sunshade she had dropped on entering. "I suppose
it's good-bye then," she said.

"You haven't got the nerve?"

"The nerve for what?"

"To come where you belong: with me."

She laughed a little and then sighed. She wished he would come nearer,
or look at her differently: she felt, under his cool eye, no more
compelling than a woman of wax in a show-case.

"How could I get a divorce? With my religion--"

"Why, you were born a Baptist, weren't you? That's where you used to
attend church when I waited round the corner, Sunday mornings, with one
of old Hober's buggies." They both laughed, and he went on: "If you'll
come along home with me I'll see you get your divorce all right. Who
cares what they do over here? You're an American, ain't you? What you
want is the home-made article."

She listened, discouraged yet fascinated by his sturdy inaccessibility
to all her arguments and objections. He knew what he wanted, saw his
road before him, and acknowledged no obstacles. Her defense was drawn
from reasons he did not understand, or based on difficulties that did
not exist for him; and gradually she felt herself yielding to the steady
pressure of his will. Yet the reasons he brushed away came back with
redoubled tenacity whenever he paused long enough for her to picture the
consequences of what he exacted.

"You don't know--you don't understand--" she kept repeating; but she
knew that his ignorance was part of his terrible power, and that it was
hopeless to try to make him feel the value of what he was asking her to
give up.

"See here, Undine," he said slowly, as if he measured her resistance
though he couldn't fathom it, "I guess it had better be yes or no right
here. It ain't going to do either of us any good to drag this thing out.
If you want to come back to me, come--if you don't, we'll shake hands on
it now. I'm due in Apex for a directors' meeting on the twentieth, and
as it is I'll have to cable for a special to get me out there. No, no,
don't cry--it ain't that kind of a story ... but I'll have a deck suite
for you on the Semantic if you'll sail with me the day after to-morrow."

Edith Wharton