Last week, I wrote my first post about Edith Wharton’s most controversial heroine, Undine Spragg. To briefly recap, I began as follows…. “For a century, the deeper meaning of the heroine’s strange name “Undine Spragg” has intrigued readers of Edith Wharton’s 1913 late masterpiece The Custom of the Country…That curiosity was surely first sparked by the following salient and suggestive passage early (in Chapter 6) in Custom, in which Undine’s mother explains the origin of her daughter’s odd name: “…after [Mrs. Spragg] had lengthily deplored the untoward accident of Undine's absence, and her visitor, with a smile, and echoes of divers et ondoyant in his brain, had repeated her daughter's name after her, saying: "It's a wonderful find—how could you tell it would be such a fit?"-it came to her quite easily to answer: "Why, we called her after a hair-waver father put on the market the week she was born—" and then to explain, as he remained struck and silent: "It's from UNdoolay, you know, the French for crimping; father always thought the name made it take. He was quite a scholar, and had the greatest knack for finding names. I remember the time he invented his Goliath Glue he sat up all night over the Bible to get the name…“
…and, after running through my evidence, I concluded that post as follows: “I claim Wharton started from the folk name “Undine”, so as to tag her novel to Touque’s novella, and then Wharton precisely constructed the surname “Spragg” letter-by-letter so as to be a perfect anagram of “gasping under”, so as to bring in that concept of fatal suffocation as the hard price of unfaithfulness…I’ll return with a detailed textual unpacking of the many ways in which Wharton subliminally echoed the motif of suffocation from Fouque’s novella, and brilliantly grafted the simple folk tale onto a complex feminist critique of Wharton’s sexist world, which (as predicted by Mary Wollstonecraft) turned women into Undine Spraggs, who would leave men gasping under water in their wake, because their society suffocated their aspirations, and gave them no honorable path toward self-realization.”
It has taken me several days to finalize the rest of my argument, as I continued my research. As you’ll see, below, I can now show that “gasping under” as anagram for “Undine Spragg” was actually only one half of Edith Wharton’s revealing wordplay – the other half, directly linked to Wharton’s anagram, is the novel’s title itself, The Custom of the Country!
But before I get to my new material, I want to first bolster my claim that Wharton was the kind of author who would have chosen her heroine’s name to work as an anagram. It turns out that Edith Wharton was a serial anagrammer. In “Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts”, Emily J. Orlando noted that one of Wharton’s short story “Mr. Jones”, “makes several noticeable allusions to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, [including that] the name Edward STRAMER invokes Edward Rochester, the last name an ANAGRAM for ‘MASTER’, by which Rochester is known to Jane…”; and Barbara Ann White in her 1991 Edith Wharton: A Study of the short fiction, points out “that events in [Wharton’s tale] “The Other Two” are filtered nicely through Waythorn, it is clear that he comes to adopt and express some of Wharton's own opinions (WAYTHORN is an anagram of WHARTON-Y), ...” So, Wharton, like Mary Crawford in Austen’s Mansfield Park, showed herself to be worthy of being suspected of clever, salient wordplay.
Next, my followup research has demonstrated to me that Wharton followed through on naming her heroine after the folk water sprite who suffocates her male lover, by weaving subliminal imagery into the entirety of The Custom of the Country. At the end of this post, you will find an Appendix, containing my sampling of a dozen or more passages from Wharton’s novel, all suffused with watery, suffocating imagery, all of which illustrates how significant that allusion was, and how appropriate the anagram “gasping under” fits with it. And the 2000 article ”Flushing Away Sentiment: Water Politics” by Hollis Robbins, describing (believe it or not) the extensive 20th century water purification subtext in Custom of the Country, shows just how far Wharton went in this regard.
But that’s only half the story of Wharton’s extraordinary game of wordplay hididen in plain sight. If there’s a name that is even more salient in Wharton’s novel than that of her extraordinary heroine, it is the title of the novel itself—The Custom of the Country. Wharton scholars have wondered about an apparently incongruous 17th century inspiration for it, as you can now read a sampling:
In her 2015 essay “The Custom of the Country: Edith Wharton’s Conversation with the Atlantic Monthly”, Susan Goodman wrote: “Wharton’s novel is about dialogue and the collaborative making of reality. Fittingly it begins by illustrating how dialogues become embedded in cultures. Hers opens with the 17th-century playwrights John Fletcher and Philip Massinger, FROM WHOM SHE LIFTED HER TITLE. The 1619 play The Custom of the Country (hereinafter “TCOTC”) has a little of everything and all of it is bawdy. One hero is sold to a witch for his sexual services, and another flees with his wife to escape ‘droit du seigneur’ (the custom of the country Wharton might have renamed ‘droit du dame’). All’s well that ends well, however, for Fletcher and Massinger somehow manage to end their titillating romp (and avoid censorship) with an endorsement of chastity and marriage. Wharton concludes similarly, though more cynically, with the remarriage of the Moffatts. Ironically, each has been trained through their avariciousness to a different standard. Wharton hints at the day when Moffatt, having evolved aesthetically and ethically through his acts of collecting, will realize the bad bargain he made for Undine….”
“The Fall of the House of Marvell: Wharton's Poesque Romantic in TCOTC” American Literary Realism, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Winter, 2008), pp. 137-153, Beverly Hume wrote: “A slave to the marital customs of his country, Ralph seeks the same solution to his problems that many of Poe's disturbed narrators do: a self-murder, a half-conscious suicide. His earliest visions of a beatific and virginal Undine make him feel potent and heroic. That he has erred becomes clear on his honeymoon, though it takes many more years of a static, decaying marriage, a disrupted fatherhood, and finally economic ruin and death to bring him to his final self-destructive awareness of his folly. Ralph is the most maritally enslaved victim in a novel of dysfunctional marriages, while his disastrous union seems most directly linked to WHARTON’S CHOICE OF A TITLE. As Cynthia Griffin Wolff observes, Wharton's novel, like Fletcher and Massinger 's 17th-century Jacobean play, TCOTC, offers a dramatic action which becomes "a lurid chaos of shifting identities and unsavory behavior--a world whose moral center has been lost---a world where everything is for sale.” However, this play is, as Carolyn Prager observes, centrally a "portrayal of chattel bondage," as the play's "diction exhausts the notional and actual slaveries of character by playing off the language of physical servitude against that of love and sexuality." If Wharton's title does allude to this Jacobean play, it implicitly refers not only to the amoral chaos and economic depravity of Undine's world but also its "notional" marital slaveries-- -including not only those that bind characters ranging from Undine to Clare Van Degan but most emphatically Ralph Marvell, the only character in this novel who dies, still bleeding, both literally and metaphorically, from the lash of his delusional marital notion….”
And finally I give you the following analysis of Wharton’s apparent allusion to Fletcher’s play in Apart from Modernism: Edith Wharton, Politics, and Fiction Before World War I by Robin Peel:
“Wharton’s title also alludes to a play of the same name by Fletcher and Massinger (1619) in which the duke of the country has the right to sleep with virgins on their wedding night, a custom no less rooted in patriarchal privilege and gender distortion than the American custom of excluding women from the business of the world. It is a bawdy play, derived from…Cervantes, and the action takes place in Italy, Portugal, and in a brothel. The sustained misogyny, in which nearly all the women are represented as capricious, materialistic, lustful, and dishonest finds echoes in the charge that Wharton’s novel is the one in which she reveals most forthrightly her hatred of women. In Wharton’s case, the charge seems to miss the point that Wharton’s subject in the novel is the construction of women, not any generalizations about essentialist behavior.
Fletcher & Massinger’s TCOTC MAY HAVE PROVIDED ONLY A USEFUL TITLE. The play itself does not really explore its initial theme, that the corrosive effect of a dishonorable custom corrupts all marriages and all society, beyond the opening scenes. Lisbon, to which Arnoldo and Zenocia are taken, has its own decadence as represented by the wealthy temptress Hippolyta and the women who visit Sulpitia’s brothel and exhaust the men with their sexual demands. Arnoldo and Zenocia remain pure throughout, and a number of corrupt characters experience startling reformations at the end. It could be argued that Count Clodio's decision to discontinue the "custom" shows that good triumphs, but the quickness of change throughout suggests a superficiality of belief that could easily be reversed. If Undine has an equivalent in this play, it can only be Hippolyta, who is wealthy and beautiful, who is determined to get what she wants, and who is used to exercising her control over men. In the end, perhaps the title is enough: it refers to the exercise of power through sex and in Wharton’s world of New York society, although it can never be shown to operate in the bawdy way that was possible in a 17th century play, the only things that women are allowed to trade in are their bodies. As Cynthia Griffin Wolff argues, in a world where everything, including women, is reduced to goods, marriage and divorce become matters of buying and bartering. Prostitution is the practice of the marketplace in the sphere of sexual relations, and both play and novel ask questions about the similarity between marriage and prostitution.”
As I stepped back yesterday and reflected on (1) Wharton’s carefully crafting her heroine’s name to work as a veiled anagram on “gasping under” pointing to her elaborate subtext on underwater suffocation of woman by man, & (2) the veiled allusion to Fletcher’s raunchy play, with its theme of sexual exploitation to the point of exhaustion, I wondered ---might there be a passage in Fletcher’s play which also focused on that image of male suffocation in relation to drowning, water pollution, plague, and the like? I.e., might (1) and (2) not be independent authorial choices by Wharton, but ones which were directly connected?
Enough of my hunches have struck sleuthing gold, that I immediately searched the online text of Fletcher’s play for the word “breath” – and you won’t believe what I found! First, as quick background, read this Wikipedia synopsis of Fletcher’s play, and pay particular attention to the end, regarding the subplot:
“Count Clodio is an Italian governor who claims the traditional right of droit du seigneur . He is also the suitor of Zenocia. Against her father Charino's advice, Zenocia prefers Arnoldo, a young man travelling with his older brother Rutilio. Arnoldo and Zenocia marry, and resist Clodio's attempt to claim his "right" with Zenocia; they escape with Clodio in hot pursuit. Reaching the seacoast, the three young people are waylaid by Leopold, the captain of a Portuguese vessel. The two young men escape by swimming to shore, but Zenocia falls into Leopold's clutches. Leopold takes Zenocia to Lisbon, and places her in the service of Hippolyta, with the understanding that Zenocia will advance his suit to Hippolyta. Hippolyta, however, has fallen in love with a young man just arrived in town...who is Arnoldo, chasing after his lost wife. When Arnoldo resists Hippolyta, she has him arrested under a false accusation of theft; but she relents, and intervenes to save him from the death sentence he receives. But when Hippolyta realises that Arnoldo loves Zenocia, she tries to have the girl strangled. The murder attempt is interrupted by the arrival of Manuel the Lisbon governor, with Clodio in tow; Zenocia is released. The frustrated Hippolyta has recourse to witchcraft: the witch Sulpitia causes Zenocia to sicken by melting a wax image of her. Arnoldo, however, sickens in sympathy with his wife, and Hippolyta, still in love with him, is forced to relent. Clodio too gives up on his quest for Zenocia, and also renounces his commitment to droit du seigneur.”
Now here comes the relevant part: “The related subplot concerns the adventures of Rutilio, who fights a duel with Manuel's arrogant young nephew Duarte and apparently kills him. Rutilio is unknowingly sheltered by his opponent's mother Guidomar, the arrested by the watch, then ransomed by Sulpitia for her sexual service. Rutilio is redeemed from this servitude by a recovered and repentant Duarte, and eventually marries Guidomar.”
Now, with that set-up, here’s the passage in Act 4, Scene 1 of Fletcher’s TCOTC, which validates my hunch so strongly that I almost can’t believe it’s real—but it is. It occurs right after Governor Clodio renounces his droit du seigneur vis a vis Zenocia, and Hippolyta bitterly grumbles about losing her witchy hold on Arnoldo. At this point, Sulpitia, the cynical bawd who runs the local brothel, engages in a tete a tete with Jacques, her servant, about Sulpitia’s over-employment of Rutilio, Arnoldo’s brother, as a male prostitute in high demand with Sulpitia’s high-born female clientele.
Apropos the folklore water nymph Undine who suffocated her lover, in effect leaving him “gasping under” for breath, count how many times Jacques implores Sulpitia to give Rutilio “breath”, by allowing him some respite in between tricks!:
SULPITIA This [i.e., Rutilio] is the rarest and the lustiest fellow, And so bestirs himself--
JAQUES Give him BREATH Mistress, You'll melt him else.
SULPITIA He does perform such wonders-- The women are mad on him.
JAQUES Give him BREATH I say; The man is but a man, he must have BREATH.
SULPITIA How many had he yesterday? And they paid bravely too.
JAQUES About fourteen, But still I cry give BREATH, spare him and have him.
SULPITIA Five Dames to day; this was a small stage, He may endure five more.
JAQUES BREATH, BREATH I cry still; Body o' me give BREATH, the man's a lost man else.
Feed him and give him BREATH.
Enter 2 Gentlewomen. [i.e., customers for a male prostitute!]
SULPITIA Welcome Gentlewomen, Y'are very welcome.
1 GENTLEWOMAN We hear you have a lusty and well complexion'd fellow That does rare tricks; my Sister and my self here, Would trifle out an hour or two, so please you.
SULPITIA Jaques, conduct 'em in.
BOTH There's for your courtesie.
[Ex. Jaques and Gentlewoman]
SULPITIA Good pay still, good round pay, this happy fellow Will set me up again; he brings in gold
Faster than I have leisure to receive it. O that his body were not flesh and fading; But I'll so pap him up--nothing too dear for him; What a sweet scent he has?--Now what news Jaques?
JAQUES He cannot last, I pity the poor man, I suffer for him; two Coaches of young City dames,
And they drive as the Devil were in the wheels, Are ready now to enter: and behind these An old dead-palsied Lady in a Litter, And she makes all the haste she can: the man's lost, You may gather up his dry bones to make Nine-pins, But for his flesh.
SULPITIA These are but easie labours Yet, for I know he must have rest.
JAQUES He must--you'll beat him off his legs else presently.
SULPITIA Go in, and bid him please himself, I am pleas'd too: To morrow's a new day; but if he can
I would have him take pity o' the old Lady. Alas 'tis charity.
JAQUES I'll tell him all this, And if he be not too fool-hardy.
Jacques uses the word “breath” eight times, only to move on to the other corporeal deterioration the rutting Rutilio is suffering from turning too many tricks per day!
So, now I believe you know exactly why Edith Wharton chose to name her novel after Fletcher’s play written 3 centuries earlier, and also why she gave her heroine a name with an anagram “gasping under” that fits perfectly with the gasping that Jaques has in mind when he begs his boss to give Rutilio breath eight times, and also with the folkloric water nymph Undine!
In particular, please now go back and reread Vick’s scholarly analysis, above, of thematic connections between Fletcher’s play and Wharton’s novel, and realize that this was not clever pointless wordplay on Wharton’s part, but was (clearly, based on the above) Wharton’s alerting her knowing readers how to make sense of the disturbing character of her great suffocator of men, Undine Spragg!
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APPENDIX: Passages in Wharton’s The Custom of the Country evoking Undine as a suffocating underwater spirit:
5: When the curtain fell on the first act she began to be aware of a subtle change in the house. In all the boxes CROSS-CURRENTS of movement had set in: groups were COALESCING AND BREAKING UP, fans WAVING and heads TWINKLING, black coats emerging among white shoulders, late comers dropping their furs and laces in the red penumbra of the background. Undine, for the moment unconscious of herself, SWEPT the house with her opera-glass, searching for familiar faces.
…Mabel looked about unabashed. "Perhaps they've all found each other. Shall I send Harry over to tell him?" she shouted above the blare of the wind instruments.
"NO!" GASPED UNDINE as the curtain rose.
She was no longer capable of following the action on the stage. Two presences possessed her imagination: that of Ralph Marvell, small, unattainable, remote, and that of Mabel Lipscomb, near-by, immense and irrepressible.
6:….It was incredible that she too should be destined to swell the ranks of the cheaply fashionable; yet were not her very freshness, her malleability, the mark of her fate? She was still at the age when the flexible soul offers itself to the first GRASP. That the GRASP should chance to be Van Degen's—that was what made Ralph's temples buzz, and SWEPT AWAY all his plans for his own future like a beaver's dam in a SPRING FLOOD. To save her from Van Degen and Van Degenism: was that really to be his mission—the "call" for which his life had obscurely waited? It was not in the least what he had meant to do with the fugitive flash of consciousness he called self; but all that he had purposed for that transitory being SANK into insignificance under the pressure of Undine's claims.
Ralph Marvell's notion of women had been formed on the experiences common to good-looking young men of his kind. Women were drawn to him as much by his winning appealing quality, by the sense of a youthful warmth behind his light ironic exterior, as by his charms of face and mind. Except during Clare Dagonet's brief reign THE DEPTHS IN HIM HAD NOT BEEN STIRRED; but in taking what each sentimental episode had to give he had preserved, through all his minor adventures, his faith in the great adventure to come. It was this faith that made him so easy a victim when love had at last appeared clad in the attributes of romance: the imaginative man's indestructible dream of a rounded passion.
The clearness with which he judged the girl and himself seemed the surest proof that his feeling was MORE THAN A SURFACE thrill. He was not blind to her crudity and her limitations, but they were a part of her grace and her persuasion. DIVERSE ET ONDOYANTE—so he had seen her from the first. But was not that merely the sign of a quicker response to the world's manifold appeal? There was Harriet Ray, SEALED UP TIGHT IN THE VACUUM of inherited opinion, where NOT A BREATH of fresh sensation could get at her: there could be no call to rescue young ladies so secured from the perils of reality! Undine had no such traditional safeguards—Ralph guessed Mrs. Spragg's opinions to be AS FLUID as her daughter's—and the girl's very sensitiveness to new impressions, combined with her obvious lack of any sense of relative values, would make her an easy prey to the powers of folly. He seemed to see her—as he sat there, pressing his fists into his temples—he seemed to see her like a lovely ROCK-BOUND ANDROMEDA, with the devouring monster Society careering up to make a mouthful of her; and himself whirling down on his winged horse—just Pegasus turned Rosinante for the nonce—to cut her bonds, snatch her up, and WHIRL HER BACK INTO THE BLUE…
11: Ralph loved the heavy Italian summer, as he had loved the light spring days leading up to it: the long line of dancing days that had drawn them on and on ever since they had left their ship at Naples four months earlier. Four months of beauty, changeful, inexhaustible, weaving itself about him in shapes of softness and strength; and beside him, hand in hand with him, embodying THAT SPIRIT OF SHIFTING MAGIC, the radiant creature through whose eyes he saw it. This was what their hastened marriage had blessed them with, giving them leisure, before summer came, to penetrate to remote folds of the southern mountains, to linger in the shade of Sicilian orange-groves, and finally, travelling by slow stages to the Adriatic, to reach the central hill-country where even in July they might HOPE FOR A BREATHABLE AIR.
To Ralph the Sienese air was NOT ONLY BREATHABLE but intoxicating. The sun, treading the earth like a vintager, drew from it heady fragrances, crushed out of it new colours. All the values of the temperate landscape were reversed: the noon high-lights were whiter but the shadows had unimagined colour. On the blackness of cork and ilex and cypress lay the green and purple lustres, the coppery iridescences, of old bronze; and night after night the skies were wine-blue and BUBBLING with stars. Ralph said to himself that no one who had not seen Italy thus prostrate beneath the sun knew what secret treasures she could yield. As he lay there, fragments of past states of emotion, fugitive felicities of thought and sensation, ROSE AND FLOATED ON THE SURFACE of his thoughts. It was one of those moments when the accumulated impressions of life converge on heart and brain, elucidating, enlacing each other, in a mysterious confusion of beauty. He had had glimpses of such a state before, of such mergings of the personal with the general life that one felt one's self A MERE WAVE ON THE WILD STREAM OF BEING, yet thrilled with a sharper sense of individuality than can be known within the mere bounds of the actual. But now he knew the sensation in its fulness, and with it came the releasing power of language. Words were flashing like brilliant birds through the boughs overhead; he had but to WAVE his magic wand to have them flutter down to him. Only they were so beautiful up there, weaving their fantastic flights against the blue, that it was pleasanter, for the moment, to watch them and let the wand lie. He stared up at the pattern they made till his eyes ached with excess of light; then he changed his position and looked at his wife.
Undine, near by, leaned against a gnarled tree with the slightly constrained air of a person unused to sylvan abandonments. Her beautiful back could not adapt itself to the irregularities of the tree-trunk, and she moved a little now and then in the effort to find an easier position. But her expression was serene, and Ralph, looking up at her through drowsy lids, thought her face had never been more exquisite.
"You look as COOL AS A WAVE," he said, reaching out for the hand on her knee….
…..[Marvell] would have stayed on, heedless of time, to trace the ramifications of his idea in the complex beauty of the scene, but for the longing to share his mood with Undine. For the last few months every thought and sensation had been instantly transmuted into such emotional impulses and, though the CURRENTS of communication between himself and Undine were neither deep nor numerous, each FRESH RUSH of feeling seemed strong enough to clear a way to her heart. He hurried back, almost BREATHLESSLY, to the inn; but even as he knocked at her door the SUBTLE EMANATION of other influences seemed to ARREST AND CHILL HIM. She had put out the lamp, and sat by the window in the moonlight, her head propped on a listless hand. As Marvell entered she turned; then, without speaking, she looked away again. He was used to this mute reception, and had learned that it had no personal motive, but was the result of an extremely simplified social code. Mr. and Mrs. Spragg seldom spoke to each other when they met, and words of greeting seemed almost unknown to their domestic vocabulary. Marvell, at first, had fancied that his own warmth would call forth a response from his wife, who had been so quick to learn the forms of worldly intercourse; but he soon saw that she regarded intimacy as a pretext for escaping from such forms into a total absence of expression.
To-night, however, he felt another meaning in her silence, and perceived that she intended him to feel it. He met it by silence, but of a different kind; letting his nearness speak for him as he knelt beside her and laid his cheek against hers. She seemed hardly aware of the gesture; but to that he was also used. She had never shown any repugnance to his tenderness, but such response as it evoked was remote and ARIEL-LIKE, suggesting, from the first, not so much of the recoil of ignorance as THE COOLNESS OF THE ELEMENT FROM WHICH SHE TOOK HER NAME.
As he pressed her to him she seemed to grow less impassive and he felt her resign herself like a tired child. HE HELD HIS BREATH, NOT DARING TO BREAK THE SPELL.
At length he whispered: "I've just seen such a wonderful thing—I wish you'd been with me!"
"What sort of a thing?" She turned her head with a faint show of interest.
"A—I don't know—a vision…. It came to me out there just now with the moonrise."
"A VISION?" Her interest flagged. "I never cared much about SPIRITS. Mother used to try to drag me to seances—but they always made me sleepy."
Ralph laughed. "I don't mean A DEAD SPIRIT but a living one! I saw the vision of a book I mean to do. It came to me suddenly, magnificently, swooped down on me as that big white moon swooped down on the black landscape, tore at me like a great white eagle-like the bird of Jove! After all, imagination was the eagle that devoured Prometheus!"
She drew away abruptly, and the bright moonlight showed him the apprehension in her face. "You're not going to write a book here?"
…A sense of compunction checked Marvell's laughter. "Don't cry, dear—don't! I see, I understand. You're lonely and the heat has tired you out. It IS dull here; awfully dull; I've been stupid not to feel it. But we'll start at once—we'll get out of it."
She brightened instantly. "We'll go up to Switzerland?"
"We'll go up to Switzerland." He had a fleeting glimpse of THE QUIET PLACE WITH THE GREEN WATER-FALL, where he might have made tryst with his vision; then he turned his mind from it and said: "We'll go just where you want. How soon can you be ready to start?"
"Oh, to-morrow—the first thing to-morrow! I'll make Celeste get out of bed now and pack. Can we go right through to St. Moritz? I'd rather sleep in the train than in another of these awful places."
She was on her feet in a flash, her face alight, her hair WAVING and FLOATING about her as though IT ROSE on her happy heart-beats.
"Oh, Ralph, it's sweet of you, and I love you!" she cried out, letting him take her to his breast.
16: The turnings of life seldom show a sign-post; or rather, though the sign is always there, it is usually placed some distance back, like the notices that give warning of a bad hill or a level railway-crossing.
Ralph Marvell, pondering upon this, reflected that for him the sign had been set, more than three years earlier, in an Italian ilex-grove. That day his life had brimmed over—so he had put it at the time. He saw now that it had BRIMMED OVER indeed: BRIMMED to the extent of leaving the cup empty, or at least of uncovering the dregs beneath the nectar. He knew now that he should never hereafter look at his wife's hand without remembering something he had read in it that day. Its surface-language had been sweet enough, but under the rosy lines he had seen the warning letters.
Since then he had been walking with a ghost: the miserable ghost of his illusion. Only he had somehow vivified, coloured, substantiated it, by the force of his own great need—as a man might BREATHE A SEMBLANCE OF LIFE INTO A DEAR DROWNED BODY that he cannot give up for dead. All this came to him with aching distinctness the morning after his talk with his wife on the stairs. He had accused himself, in midnight retrospect, of having failed to press home his conclusion because he dared not face the truth. But he knew this was not the case. It was not the truth he feared, it was another lie. If he had foreseen a chance of her saying: "Yes, I was with Peter Van Degen, and for the reason you think," he would have put it to the touch, stood up to the blow like a man; but he knew she would never say that. She would go on eluding and doubling, watching him as he watched her; and at that game she was sure to beat him in the end.
18: …when Ralph rejoined her in the drawing-room she continued to keep her eyes on the fire and twirl her fan listlessly.
"That's an amazing chap," Ralph repeated, looking down at her. "Where was it you ran across him—out at Apex?"
As he leaned against the chimney-piece, lighting his cigarette, it struck Undine that HE LOOKED LESS FAGGED AND LIFELESS than usual, and she felt more and more sure that something important had happened during the moment of isolation she had contrived.
23: In the Adirondacks Ralph Marvell sat day after day on the balcony of his little house above the lake, staring at the great white cloud-reflections in the WATER and at the dark line of trees that closed them in. Now and then he got into the canoe and paddled himself through a winding chain of PONDS to some lonely clearing in the forest; and there he lay on his back in the pine-needles and watched the great clouds form and dissolve themselves above his head. All his past life seemed to be symbolized by the building-up and breaking-down of those FLUCTUATING SHAPES, which incalculable wind-CURRENTS perpetually shifted and remodelled or swept from the zenith like a pinch of dust.
…At first he had chafed under the taciturnity surrounding him: had passionately longed to cry out his humiliation, his rebellion, his despair. Then he began to feel the tonic effect of silence; and the next stage was reached when it became clear to him that there was nothing to say. There were thoughts and thoughts: they BUBBLED UP PERPETUALLY from the BLACK SPRINGS of his hidden misery, they stole on him in the darkness of night, they blotted out the light of day…It was IMPOSSIBLE TO GO ON LIVING with her photographs about him;
30: He turned back and began to walk at her side in the direction of the Champs Elysees.
"Say—this is all right!" he exclaimed; and she saw that his glance had left her and was ranging across the wide silvery square ahead of them to the congregated domes and spires beyond the river.
"Do you like Paris?" she asked, wondering what theatres he had been to.
"It beats everything." He seemed to be BREATHING IN DEEPLY THE IMPRESSION OF FOUNTAINS, sculpture, leafy' avenues and long-drawn architectural distances fading into the afternoon haze.
31: Nearly two years had passed since Ralph Marvell, WAKING FROM HIS LONG SLEEP in the hot summer light of Washington Square, had found that the face of life was changed for him. In the interval he had gradually adapted himself to the new order of things…Meanwhile he was beginning to show a presentable face to the world, and to be once more treated like a man in whose case no one is particularly interested. His men friends ceased to say: "Hallo, old chap, I never saw you looking fitter!" and elderly ladies no longer told him they were sure he kept too much to himself, and urged him to drop in any afternoon for a quiet talk. People left him to his sorrow as a man is left to an incurable habit, an unfortunate tie: they ignored it, or looked over its head if they happened to catch a glimpse of it at his elbow. These glimpses were given to them more and more rarely. THE SMOTHERED SPRINGS OF LIFE WERE BUBBLING UP IN RALPH, and there were days when he was glad to wake and see the sun in his window, and when he began to plan his book, and to fancy that the planning really interested him.
…she achieved the feat of not answering him, or turning her steady eyes from THE DANCING MID-SUMMER WATER at the foot of Laura's lawn. Ralph leaned a little nearer, and for an instant his hand imagined the flutter of hers.
…"Next summer you'll have to charter a yacht, and take us all off to the Aegean. We can't have Charles condescending to us about the out-of-the-way places he's been seeing."
Was it really he who was speaking, and his cousin who was sending him back her dusky smile? Well—why not, again? The seasons renewed themselves, and he too was putting out a new growth. "My book—my book—my book," kept repeating itself UNDER ALL HIS THOUGHTS, AS UNDINE’S NAME HAD ONCE PERPETUALLY MURMURED THERE. That night as he went up to bed he said to himself that he was actually ceasing to think about his wife…
…His cousin's glance flew down the column, and he saw the tremor of her lashes as she read. Then she lifted her head. "But you'll be free!" Her face was as vivid as a flower.
"Free? I'm free now, as far as that goes!"
"Oh, but it will go so much farther WHEN SHE HAS ANOTHER NAME—when she's a different person altogether! Then you'll really have Paul to yourself."
"Paul?" Laura intervened with a nervous laugh. "But there's never been the least doubt about his having Paul!"
They heard the boy's laughter on the lawn, and she went out to join him.
Ralph was still looking at his cousin.
Ralph was still looking at his cousin.
"You're glad, then?" came from him involuntarily; and she startled him by bursting into tears. He bent over and kissed her on the cheek.
38: In a window of the long gallery of the chateau de Saint Desert the new Marquise de Chelles stood looking down the poplar avenue into the November RAIN. It had been RAINING HEAVILY and persistently for a longer time than she could remember. Day after day the hills beyond the park had been curtained by motionless clouds, the gutters of the long steep roofs had GURGLED with a PERPETUAL OVERFLOW, the opaque surface of the moat been peppered by a continuous pelting of BIG DROPS. The WATER lay in glassy stretches UNDER the trees and along the SODDEN edges of the garden-paths, it ROSE IN A WHITE MIST from the fields beyond, it exuded in a CHILL MOISTURE from the brick flooring of the passages and from the walls of the rooms on the lower floor. Everything in the great empty house smelt of DAMPNESS: the stuffing of the chairs, the threadbare folds of the faded curtains, the splendid tapestries, that were fading too, on the walls of the room in which Undine stood, and the wide bands of crape which her husband had insisted on her keeping on her black dresses till the last hour of her mourning for the old Marquis. The summer had been more than usually inclement, and since her first coming to the country Undine had lived through many periods of RAINY weather; but none which had gone before had so completely epitomized, so summed up in one vast monotonous blur, the image of her long months at Saint Desert….
46 [final chapter]: …. His mother, alarmed by an insidious gain in weight, had brought the masseuse back from New York with her, and Mrs. Heeny, with her old black bag and WATERPROOF, was established in one of the grand bedrooms lined with mirrors.
…"Oh, well," Mrs. Heeny had said, discerning the reluctance UNDER his civil greeting, "I guess you're as strange here as I am, and we're both pretty strange to each other. You just go and look round, and see what a lovely home your Ma's got to live in; and when you get tired of that, come up here to me and I'll give you a look at my clippings."
The word woke a train of DORMANT associations, and Paul saw himself seated on a dingy carpet, between two familiar taciturn old presences, while he rummaged IN THE DEPTHS of a bag stuffed with strips of newspaper.
…"Never went to America? Your Pa never—? Why, land alive!" Mrs. Heeny GASPED, A BLUSH EMPURPLING HER LARGE WARM FACE. "Why, Paul Marvell, don't you remember your own father, you that bear his name?" she exclaimed.
…But the price of the Grey Boy did not interest Paul, and he said a little impatiently: "I'd rather hear about my mother."
"To be sure you would! You wait now." Mrs. Heeny MADE ANOTHER DIVE, and again began to spread her clippings on her lap like cards on a big black table.
"Here's one about her last portrait—no, here's a better one about her PEARL necklace, the one Mr. Moffatt gave her last Christmas. 'The necklace, which was formerly the property of an Austrian Archduchess, is composed of five hundred perfectly matched pearls that took thirty years to collect. It is estimated among dealers in precious stones that since Mr. Moffatt began to buy the price of pearls has gone up over fifty per cent.'"
Even this did not fix Paul's attention. He wanted to hear about his mother and Mr. Moffatt, and not about their things; and he didn't quite know how to frame his question. But Mrs. Heeny looked kindly at him and he tried. "Why is mother married to Mr. Moffatt now?"
"Why, you must know that much, Paul." Mrs. Heeny again looked warm and worried. "She's married to him because she got a divorce—that's why." And suddenly she had another inspiration. "Didn't she ever send you over any of those splendid clippings that came out the time they were married? Why, I declare, that's a shame; but I must have some of 'em right here."
She DIVED AGAIN, shuffled, sorted, and pulled out a long discoloured strip….MRS. HEENY DREW A LONG BREATH, folded the paper and took off her spectacles. "There," she said, with a benignant smile and a tap on Paul's cheek, "now you see how it all happened…."
Paul was not sure he did; but he made no answer. His mind was too full of troubled thoughts. In the dazzling description of his mother's latest nuptials one fact alone stood out for him—that she had said things that weren't true of his French father. Something he had half-guessed in her, and averted his frightened thoughts from, TOOK HIS LITTLE HEART IN AN IRON GRASP. She said things that weren't true…. That was what he had always feared to find out…. She had got up and said before a lot of people things that were awfully false about his dear French father….
The sound of a motor turning in at the gates made Mrs. Heeny exclaim "Here they are!" and a moment later Paul heard his mother calling to him. He got up reluctantly, and stood WAVERING till he felt Mrs. Heeny's astonished eye upon him. Then he heard Mr. Moffatt's jovial shout of "Paul Marvell, ahoy there!" and roused himself to run downstairs.
As he reached the landing he saw that the ballroom doors were open and all the lustres lit. His mother and Mr. Moffatt stood in the middle of the shining floor, looking up at the walls; and Paul's heart gave a wondering bound, for there, set in great gilt panels, were the tapestries that had always hung in the gallery at Saint Desert.
"Well, Senator, it feels good to shake your fist again!" his step-father said, taking him in a friendly GRASP; and his mother, who looked handsomer and taller and more splendidly dressed than ever, exclaimed: "Mercy! how they've cut his hair!" before she bent to kiss him.
"Oh, mother, mother!" he burst out, feeling, between his mother's face and the others, hardly less familiar, on the walls, that he was really at home again, and not in a strange house.
"Gracious, how you squeeze!" she protested, loosening his arms. "But you look splendidly—and how you've grown!" She turned away from him and began to inspect the tapestries critically. "Somehow they look smaller here," she said with a tinge of disappointment.
Mr. Moffatt gave a slight laugh and walked slowly down the room, as if to study its effect. As he turned back his wife said: "I didn't think you'd ever get them." He laughed again, more complacently. "Well, I don't know as I ever should have, if General Arlington hadn't happened to bust up."
They both smiled, and Paul, seeing his mother's softened face, stole his hand in hers and began: "Mother, I took a prize in composition—"
"Did you? You must tell me about it to-morrow. No, I really must rush off now and dress—I haven't even placed the dinner-cards." She freed her hand, and as she turned to go Paul heard Mr. Moffatt say: "Can't you ever give him a minute's time, Undine?"
She made no answer, but sailed through the door with her head high, as she did when anything annoyed her; and Paul and his step-father stood alone in the illuminated ball-room. Mr. Moffatt smiled good-naturedly at the little boy and then turned back to the contemplation of the hangings.
"I guess you know where those come from, don't you?" he asked in a tone of satisfaction.
"Oh, yes," Paul answered eagerly, with a hope he dared not utter that, since the tapestries were there, his French father might be coming too.
"You're a smart boy to remember them. I don't suppose you ever thought you'd see them here?"
"I don't know," said Paul, embarrassed.
"Well, I guess you wouldn't have if their owner hadn't been in a pretty tight place. It was like drawing teeth for him to let them go."
Paul flushed up, and AGAIN THE IRON GRASP WAS ON HIS HEART. …