Chapter 3 Summary
Undine is disappointed with the dinner at Mrs. Fairford’s house. First of all, the house itself is far from elegant. It is small and, to Undine’s eye, even shabby. The walls are decorated with floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with books rather than fanciful, gilded wallpaper. There is an old-fashioned fireplace that uses real wood; it is in constant need of rearranging, and Mrs. Fairford actually attends to it personally. Even the meal is less than astonishing. Undine had expected “pretty-coloured entrees” wrapped in fancy papers and an exotic bouquet of flowers. Instead, a common fern is used as a centerpiece, and Undine is served ordinary foods that she can easily identify.
Of the eight people sitting around the table, only a few are notable. There are the Fairfords, Ralph Marvell, and Mrs. Peter Van Degen, about whom Undine had read in the society pages. Mr. Fairfield, who is bald and has a gray mustache, holds no interest at all for Undine. However, she does like Mrs. Fairford, a small woman whose frequent smiles reveal her good teeth. Mrs. Fairford is not stylish but has a comfortable manner that reminds Undine of her father when he is in his most relaxed state. Although Mrs. Fairford uses a very small vocabulary, Undine appreciates the way she keeps the conversation going at the table. She does not monopolize the discourse; rather, she orchestrates it as if she were conducting a choir. Mrs. Fairford makes sure everyone has a chance to add something to the discussion.
Undine takes an interest in the table talk when the conversation turns to briefly discuss Mr. Popple, the artist. Undine had hoped he would be at the dinner party. Mrs. Peter Van Degen comments that Mr. Popple is painting her portrait. Mrs. Van Degen adds that Mr. Popple is “doing” everyone that year. Someone else adds that Mr. Popple paints just as he speaks—which is to say that Mr. Popple’s paintings are a statement of how much a gentleman he thinks he is. His works reflect his goal of wanting to make an impression on people. Mrs. Fairford comments that Mr. Popple makes her feel like he is the only gentleman she has ever met. At least, that is what he often tells her. During this discourse, Undine feels most relaxed. She senses that she is being included in the sharing of societal secrets.
As for Ralph Marvell, Undine finds him very quiet and reserved. He might even be shy. Throughout the evening, he barely talks to her. When it is time to leave, though, she sees that Ralph Marvell has put on his hat and coat, as if he were planning to escort her home. She takes his arm as they traverse the icy steps outside. However, after placing her in a waiting carriage, Ralph closes the door and merely bids Undine goodnight.