The Custom of the Country

by Edith Wharton

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Chapter IX

Undine, late the next day, waited alone under the leafless trellising of a wistaria arbour on the west side of the Central Park. She had put on her plainest dress, and wound a closely, patterned veil over her least vivid hat; but even thus toned down to the situation she was conscious of blazing out from it inconveniently.

The habit of meeting young men in sequestered spots was not unknown to her: the novelty was in feeling any embarrassment about it. Even now she--was disturbed not so much by the unlikely chance of an accidental encounter with Ralph Marvell as by the remembrance of similar meetings, far from accidental, with the romantic Aaronson. Could it be that the hand now adorned with Ralph's engagement ring had once, in this very spot, surrendered itself to the riding-master's pressure? At the thought a wave of physical disgust passed over her, blotting out another memory as distasteful but more remote.

It was revived by the appearance of a ruddy middle-sized young man, his stoutish figure tightly buttoned into a square-shouldered over-coat, who presently approached along the path that led to the arbour. Silhouetted against the slope of the asphalt, the newcomer revealed an outline thick yet compact, with a round head set on a neck in which, at the first chance, prosperity would be likely to develop a red crease. His face, with its rounded surfaces, and the sanguine innocence of a complexion belied by prematurely astute black eyes, had a look of jovial cunning which Undine had formerly thought "smart" but which now struck her as merely vulgar. She felt that in the Marvell set Elmer Moffatt would have been stamped as "not a gentleman." Nevertheless something in his look seemed to promise the capacity to develop into any character he might care to assume; though it did not seem probable that, for the present, that of a gentleman would be among them. He had always had a brisk swaggering step, and the faintly impudent tilt of the head that she had once thought "dashing"; but whereas this look had formerly denoted a somewhat desperate defiance of the world and its judgments it now suggested an almost assured relation to these powers; and Undine's heart sank at the thought of what the change implied.

As he drew nearer, the young man's air of assurance was replaced by an expression of mildly humorous surprise.

"Well--this is white of you. Undine!" he said, taking her lifeless fingers into his dapperly gloved hand.

Through her veil she formed the words: "I said I'd come."

He laughed. "That's so. And you see I believed you. Though I might not have--"

"I don't see the use of beginning like this," she interrupted nervously.

"That's so too. Suppose we walk along a little ways? It's rather chilly standing round."

He turned down the path that descended toward the Ramble and the girl moved on beside him with her long flowing steps.

When they had reached the comparative shelter of the interlacing trees Moffatt paused again to say: "If we're going to talk I'd like to see you. Undine;" and after a first moment of reluctance she submissively threw back her veil.

He let his eyes rest on her in silence; then he said judicially: "You've filled out some; but you're paler." After another appreciative scrutiny he added: "There's mighty few women as well worth looking at, and I'm obliged to you for letting me have the chance again."

Undine's brows drew together, but she softened her frown to a quivering smile.

"I'm glad to see you too, Elmer--I am, REALLY!"

He returned her smile while his glance continued to study her humorously. "You didn't betray the fact last night. Miss Spragg."

"I was so taken aback. I thought you were out in Alaska somewhere."

The young man shaped his lips into the mute whistle by which he habitually vented his surprise. "You DID? Didn't Abner E. Spragg tell you he'd seen me down town?"

Undine gave him a startled glance. "Father? Why, have you seen him? He never said a word about it!"

Her companion's whistle became audible. "He's running yet!" he said gaily. "I wish I could scare some people as easy as I can your father."

The girl hesitated. "I never felt toward you the way father did," she hazarded at length; and he gave her another long look in return.

"Well, if they'd left you alone I don't believe you'd ever have acted mean to me," was the conclusion he drew from it.

"I didn't mean to, Elmer ... I give you my word--but I was so young ... I didn't know anything...."

His eyes had a twinkle of reminiscent pleasantry. "No--I don't suppose it WOULD teach a girl much to be engaged two years to a stiff like Millard Binch; and that was about all that had happened to you before I came along."

Undine flushed to the forehead. "Oh, Elmer--I was only a child when I was engaged to Millard--"

"That's a fact. And you went on being one a good while afterward. The Apex Eagle always head-lined you 'The child-bride'--"

"I can't see what's the use--now--."

"That ruled out of court too? See here. Undine--what CAN we talk about? I understood that was what we were here for."

"Of course." She made an effort at recovery. "I only meant to say--what's the use of raking up things that are over?"

"Rake up? That's the idea, is it? Was that why you tried to cut me last night?"

"I--oh, Elmer! I didn't mean to; only, you see, I'm engaged."

"Oh, I saw that fast enough. I'd have seen it even if I didn't read the papers." He gave a short laugh. "He was feeling pretty good, sitting there alongside of you, wasn't he? I don't wonder he was. I remember. But I don't see that that was a reason for cold-shouldering me. I'm a respectable member of society now--I'm one of Harmon B. Driscoll's private secretaries." He brought out the fact with mock solemnity.

But to Undine, though undoubtedly impressive, the statement did not immediately present itself as a subject for pleasantry.

"Elmer Moffatt--you ARE?"

He laughed again. "Guess you'd have remembered me last night if you'd known it."

She was following her own train of thought with a look of pale intensity. "You're LIVING in New York, then--you're going to live here right along?"

"Well, it looks that way; as long as I can hang on to this job. Great men always gravitate to the metropolis. And I gravitated here just as Uncle Harmon B. was looking round for somebody who could give him an inside tip on the Eubaw mine deal--you know the Driscolls are pretty deep in Eubaw. I happened to go out there after our little unpleasantness at Apex, and it was just the time the deal went through. So in one way your folks did me a good turn when they made Apex too hot for me: funny to think of, ain't it?"

Undine, recovering herself, held out her hand impulsively.

"I'm real glad of it--I mean I'm real glad you've had such a stroke of luck!"

"Much obliged," he returned. "By the way, you might mention the fact to Abner E. Spragg next time you run across him."

"Father'll be real glad too, Elmer." She hesitated, and then went on: "You must see now that it was natural father and mother should have felt the way they did--"

"Oh, the only thing that struck me as unnatural was their making you feel so too. But I'm free to admit I wasn't a promising case in those days." His glance played over her for a moment. "Say, Undine--it was good while it lasted, though, wasn't it?"

She shrank back with a burning face and eyes of misery.

"Why, what's the matter? That ruled out too? Oh, all right. Look at here, Undine, suppose you let me know what you ARE here to talk about, anyhow."

She cast a helpless glance down the windings of the wooded glen in which they had halted.

"Just to ask you--to beg you--not to say anything of this kind again--EVER--"

"Anything about you and me?"

She nodded mutely.

"Why, what's wrong? Anybody been saying anything against me?"

"Oh, no. It's not that!"

"What on earth is it, then--except that you're ashamed of me, one way or another?" She made no answer, and he stood digging the tip of his walking-stick into a fissure of the asphalt. At length he went on in a tone that showed a first faint trace of irritation: "I don't want to break into your gilt-edged crowd, if it's that you're scared of."

His tone seemed to increase her distress. "No, no--you don't understand. All I want is that nothing shall be known."

"Yes; but WHY? It was all straight enough, if you come to that."

"It doesn't matter ... whether it was straight ... or ... not ..." He interpolated a whistle which made her add: "What I mean is that out here in the East they don't even like it if a girl's been ENGAGED before."

This last strain on his credulity wrung a laugh from Moffatt. "Gee! How'd they expect her fair young life to pass? Playing 'Holy City' on the melodeon, and knitting tidies for church fairs?"

"Girls are looked after here. It's all different. Their mothers go round with them."

This increased her companion's hilarity and he glanced about him with a pretense of compunction. "Excuse ME! I ought to have remembered. Where's your chaperon, Miss Spragg?" He crooked his arm with mock ceremony. "Allow me to escort you to the bew-fay. You see I'm onto the New York style myself."

A sigh of discouragement escaped her. "Elmer--if you really believe I never wanted to act mean to you, don't you act mean to me now!"

"Act mean?" He grew serious again and moved nearer to her. "What is it you want, Undine? Why can't you say it right out?"

"What I told you. I don't want Ralph Marvell--or any of them--to know anything. If any of his folks found out, they'd never let him marry me--never! And he wouldn't want to: he'd be so horrified. And it would KILL me, Elmer--it would just kill me!"

She pressed close to him, forgetful of her new reserves and repugnances, and impelled by the passionate absorbing desire to wring from him some definite pledge of safety.

"Oh, Elmer, if you ever liked me, help me now, and I'll help you if I get the chance!"

He had recovered his coolness as hers forsook her, and stood his ground steadily, though her entreating hands, her glowing face, were near enough to have shaken less sturdy nerves.

"That so, Puss? You just ask me to pass the sponge over Elmer Moffatt of Apex City? Cut the gentleman when we meet? That the size of it?"

"Oh, Elmer, it's my first chance--I can't lose it!" she broke out, sobbing.

"Nonsense, child! Of course you shan't. Here, look up. Undine--why, I never saw you cry before. Don't you be afraid of me--I ain't going to interrupt the wedding march." He began to whistle a bar of Lohengrin. "I only just want one little promise in return."

She threw a startled look at him and he added reassuringly: "Oh, don't mistake me. I don't want to butt into your set--not for social purposes, anyhow; but if ever it should come handy to know any of 'em in a business way, would you fix it up for me--AFTER YOU'RE MARRIED?'"

Their eyes met, and she remained silent for a tremulous moment or two; then she held out her hand. "Afterward--yes. I promise. And YOU promise, Elmer?"

"Oh, to have and to hold!" he sang out, swinging about to follow her as she hurriedly began to retrace her steps.

The March twilight had fallen, and the Stentorian facade was all aglow, when Undine regained its monumental threshold. She slipped through the marble vestibule and soared skyward in the mirror-lined lift, hardly conscious of the direction she was taking. What she wanted was solitude, and the time to put some order into her thoughts; and she hoped to steal into her room without meeting her mother. Through her thick veil the clusters of lights in the Spragg drawing-room dilated and flowed together in a yellow blur, from which, as she entered, a figure detached itself; and with a start of annoyance she saw Ralph Marvell rise from the perusal of the "fiction number" of a magazine which had replaced "The Hound of the Baskervilles" on the onyx table.

"Yes; you told me not to come--and here I am." He lifted her hand to his lips as his eyes tried to find hers through the veil.

She drew back with a nervous gesture. "I told you I'd be awfully late."

"I know--trying on! And you're horribly tired, and wishing with all your might I wasn't here."

"I'm not so sure I'm not!" she rejoined, trying to hide her vexation in a smile.

"What a tragic little voice! You really are done up. I couldn't help dropping in for a minute; but of course if you say so I'll be off." She was removing her long gloves and he took her hands and drew her close. "Only take off your veil, and let me see you."

A quiver of resistance ran through her: he felt it and dropped her hands.

"Please don't tease. I never could bear it," she stammered, drawing away.

"Till to-morrow, then; that is, if the dress-makers permit."

She forced a laugh. "If I showed myself now you might not come back to-morrow. I look perfectly hideous--it was so hot and they kept me so long."

"All to make yourself more beautiful for a man who's blind with your beauty already?"

The words made her smile, and moving nearer she bent her head and stood still while he undid her veil. As he put it back their lips met, and his look of passionate tenderness was incense to her.

But the next moment his expression passed from worship to concern. "Dear! Why, what's the matter? You've been crying!"

She put both hands to her hat in the instinctive effort to hide her face. His persistence was as irritating as her mother's.

"I told you it was frightfully hot--and all my things were horrid; and it made me so cross and nervous!" She turned to the looking-glass with a feint of smoothing her hair.

Marvell laid his hand on her arm, "I can't bear to see you so done up. Why can't we be married to-morrow, and escape all these ridiculous preparations? I shall hate your fine clothes if they're going to make you so miserable."

She dropped her hands, and swept about on him, her face lit up by a new idea. He was extraordinarily handsome and appealing, and her heart began to beat faster.

"I hate it all too! I wish we COULD be married right away!"

Marvell caught her to him joyously. "Dearest--dearest! Don't, if you don't mean it! The thought's too glorious!"

Undine lingered in his arms, not with any intent of tenderness, but as if too deeply lost in a new train of thought to be conscious of his hold.

"I suppose most of the things COULD be got ready sooner--if I said they MUST," she brooded, with a fixed gaze that travelled past him. "And the rest--why shouldn't the rest be sent over to Europe after us? I want to go straight off with you, away from everything--ever so far away, where there'll be nobody but you and me alone!" She had a flash of illumination which made her turn her lips to his.

"Oh, my darling--my darling!" Marvell whispered.

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