Part 4 - The Age of Innocence Audiobook by Edith Wharton (Chs 23-30)


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Transcript:
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton CHAPTER XXIII.
The next morning, when Archer got out of the Fall River train, he emerged upon a
steaming midsummer Boston.
The streets near the station were full of the smell of beer and coffee and decaying
fruit and a shirt-sleeved populace moved through them with the intimate abandon of
boarders going down the passage to the bathroom.
Archer found a cab and drove to the Somerset Club for breakfast.
Even the fashionable quarters had the air of untidy domesticity to which no excess of
heat ever degrades the European cities.
Care-takers in calico lounged on the door- steps of the wealthy, and the Common looked
like a pleasure-ground on the morrow of a Masonic picnic.
If Archer had tried to imagine Ellen Olenska in improbable scenes he could not
have called up any into which it was more difficult to fit her than this heat-
prostrated and deserted Boston.
He breakfasted with appetite and method, beginning with a slice of melon, and
studying a morning paper while he waited for his toast and scrambled eggs.
A new sense of energy and activity had possessed him ever since he had announced
to May the night before that he had business in Boston, and should take the
Fall River boat that night and go on to New York the following evening.
It had always been understood that he would return to town early in the week, and when
he got back from his expedition to Portsmouth a letter from the office, which
fate had conspicuously placed on a corner
of the hall table, sufficed to justify his sudden change of plan.
He was even ashamed of the ease with which the whole thing had been done: it reminded
him, for an uncomfortable moment, of Lawrence Lefferts's masterly contrivances
for securing his freedom.
But this did not long trouble him, for he was not in an analytic mood.
After breakfast he smoked a cigarette and glanced over the Commercial Advertiser.
While he was thus engaged two or three men he knew came in, and the usual greetings
were exchanged: it was the same world after all, though he had such a queer sense of
having slipped through the meshes of time and space.
He looked at his watch, and finding that it was half-past nine got up and went into the
writing-room.
There he wrote a few lines, and ordered a messenger to take a cab to the Parker House
and wait for the answer.
He then sat down behind another newspaper and tried to calculate how long it would
take a cab to get to the Parker House.
"The lady was out, sir," he suddenly heard a waiter's voice at his elbow; and he
stammered: "Out?--" as if it were a word in a strange language.
He got up and went into the hall.
It must be a mistake: she could not be out at that hour.
He flushed with anger at his own stupidity: why had he not sent the note as soon as he
arrived?
He found his hat and stick and went forth into the street.
The city had suddenly become as strange and vast and empty as if he were a traveller
from distant lands.
For a moment he stood on the door-step hesitating; then he decided to go to the
Parker House. What if the messenger had been misinformed,
and she were still there?
He started to walk across the Common; and on the first bench, under a tree, he saw
her sitting.
She had a grey silk sunshade over her head- -how could he ever have imagined her with a
pink one?
As he approached he was struck by her listless attitude: she sat there as if she
had nothing else to do.
He saw her drooping profile, and the knot of hair fastened low in the neck under her
dark hat, and the long wrinkled glove on the hand that held the sunshade.
He came a step or two nearer, and she turned and looked at him.
"Oh"--she said; and for the first time he noticed a startled look on her face; but in
another moment it gave way to a slow smile of wonder and contentment.
"Oh"--she murmured again, on a different note, as he stood looking down at her; and
without rising she made a place for him on the bench.
"I'm here on business--just got here," Archer explained; and, without knowing why,
he suddenly began to feign astonishment at seeing her.
"But what on earth are you doing in this wilderness?"
He had really no idea what he was saying: he felt as if he were shouting at her
across endless distances, and she might vanish again before he could overtake her.
"I?
Oh, I'm here on business too," she answered, turning her head toward him so
that they were face to face.
The words hardly reached him: he was aware only of her voice, and of the startling
fact that not an echo of it had remained in his memory.
He had not even remembered that it was low- pitched, with a faint roughness on the
consonants.
"You do your hair differently," he said, his heart beating as if he had uttered
something irrevocable. "Differently?
No--it's only that I do it as best I can when I'm without Nastasia."
"Nastasia; but isn't she with you?" "No; I'm alone.
For two days it was not worth while to bring her."
"You're alone--at the Parker House?" She looked at him with a flash of her old
malice.
"Does it strike you as dangerous?" "No; not dangerous--"
"But unconventional? I see; I suppose it is."
She considered a moment.
"I hadn't thought of it, because I've just done something so much more
unconventional." The faint tinge of irony lingered in her
eyes.
"I've just refused to take back a sum of money--that belonged to me."
Archer sprang up and moved a step or two away.
She had furled her parasol and sat absently drawing patterns on the gravel.
Presently he came back and stood before her.
"Some one--has come here to meet you?"
"Yes." "With this offer?"
She nodded. "And you refused--because of the
conditions?"
"I refused," she said after a moment. He sat down by her again.
"What were the conditions?" "Oh, they were not onerous: just to sit at
the head of his table now and then."
There was another interval of silence. Archer's heart had slammed itself shut in
the queer way it had, and he sat vainly groping for a word.
"He wants you back--at any price?"
"Well--a considerable price. At least the sum is considerable for me."
He paused again, beating about the question he felt he must put.
"It was to meet him here that you came?"
She stared, and then burst into a laugh. "Meet him--my husband?
HERE? At this season he's always at Cowes or
Baden."
"He sent some one?" "Yes."
"With a letter?" She shook her head.
"No; just a message.
He never writes. I don't think I've had more than one letter
from him."
The allusion brought the colour to her cheek, and it reflected itself in Archer's
vivid blush. "Why does he never write?"
"Why should he?
What does one have secretaries for?" The young man's blush deepened.
She had pronounced the word as if it had no more significance than any other in her
vocabulary.
For a moment it was on the tip of his tongue to ask: "Did he send his secretary,
then?" But the remembrance of Count Olenski's only
letter to his wife was too present to him.
He paused again, and then took another plunge.
"And the person?"-- "The emissary?
The emissary," Madame Olenska rejoined, still smiling, "might, for all I care, have
left already; but he has insisted on waiting till this evening...in case...on
the chance..."
"And you came out here to think the chance over?"
"I came out to get a breath of air. The hotel's too stifling.
I'm taking the afternoon train back to Portsmouth."
They sat silent, not looking at each other, but straight ahead at the people passing
along the path.
Finally she turned her eyes again to his face and said: "You're not changed."
He felt like answering: "I was, till I saw you again;" but instead he stood up
abruptly and glanced about him at the untidy sweltering park.
"This is horrible.
Why shouldn't we go out a little on the bay?
There's a breeze, and it will be cooler. We might take the steamboat down to Point
Arley."
She glanced up at him hesitatingly and he went on: "On a Monday morning there won't
be anybody on the boat. My train doesn't leave till evening: I'm
going back to New York.
Why shouldn't we?" he insisted, looking down at her; and suddenly he broke out:
"Haven't we done all we could?" "Oh"--she murmured again.
She stood up and reopened her sunshade, glancing about her as if to take counsel of
the scene, and assure herself of the impossibility of remaining in it.
Then her eyes returned to his face.
"You mustn't say things like that to me," she said.
"I'll say anything you like; or nothing. I won't open my mouth unless you tell me
to.
What harm can it do to anybody? All I want is to listen to you," he
stammered. She drew out a little gold-faced watch on
an enamelled chain.
"Oh, don't calculate," he broke out; "give me the day!
I want to get you away from that man. At what time was he coming?"
Her colour rose again.
"At eleven." "Then you must come at once."
"You needn't be afraid--if I don't come." "Nor you either--if you do.
I swear I only want to hear about you, to know what you've been doing.
It's a hundred years since we've met--it may be another hundred before we meet
again."
She still wavered, her anxious eyes on his face.
"Why didn't you come down to the beach to fetch me, the day I was at Granny's?" she
asked.
"Because you didn't look round--because you didn't know I was there.
I swore I wouldn't unless you looked round."
He laughed as the childishness of the confession struck him.
"But I didn't look round on purpose." "On purpose?"
"I knew you were there; when you drove in I recognised the ponies.
So I went down to the beach." "To get away from me as far as you could?"
She repeated in a low voice: "To get away from you as far as I could."
He laughed out again, this time in boyish satisfaction.
"Well, you see it's no use.
I may as well tell you," he added, "that the business I came here for was just to
find you. But, look here, we must start or we shall
miss our boat."
"Our boat?" She frowned perplexedly, and then smiled.
"Oh, but I must go back to the hotel first: I must leave a note--"
"As many notes as you please.
You can write here." He drew out a note-case and one of the new
stylographic pens. "I've even got an envelope--you see how
everything's predestined!
There--steady the thing on your knee, and I'll get the pen going in a second.
They have to be humoured; wait--" He banged the hand that held the pen against
the back of the bench.
"It's like jerking down the mercury in a thermometer: just a trick.
Now try--"
She laughed, and bending over the sheet of paper which he had laid on his note-case,
began to write.
Archer walked away a few steps, staring with radiant unseeing eyes at the
passersby, who, in their turn, paused to stare at the unwonted sight of a
fashionably-dressed lady writing a note on her knee on a bench in the Common.
Madame Olenska slipped the sheet into the envelope, wrote a name on it, and put it
into her pocket.
Then she too stood up.
They walked back toward Beacon Street, and near the club Archer caught sight of the
plush-lined "herdic" which had carried his note to the Parker House, and whose driver
was reposing from this effort by bathing his brow at the corner hydrant.
"I told you everything was predestined! Here's a cab for us.
You see!"
They laughed, astonished at the miracle of picking up a public conveyance at that
hour, and in that unlikely spot, in a city where cab-stands were still a "foreign"
novelty.
Archer, looking at his watch, saw that there was time to drive to the Parker House
before going to the steamboat landing. They rattled through the hot streets and
drew up at the door of the hotel.
Archer held out his hand for the letter. "Shall I take it in?" he asked; but Madame
Olenska, shaking her head, sprang out and disappeared through the glazed doors.
It was barely half-past ten; but what if the emissary, impatient for her reply, and
not knowing how else to employ his time, were already seated among the travellers
with cooling drinks at their elbows of whom Archer had caught a glimpse as she went in?
He waited, pacing up and down before the herdic.
A Sicilian youth with eyes like Nastasia's offered to shine his boots, and an Irish
matron to sell him peaches; and every few moments the doors opened to let out hot men
with straw hats tilted far back, who glanced at him as they went by.
He marvelled that the door should open so often, and that all the people it let out
should look so like each other, and so like all the other hot men who, at that hour,
through the length and breadth of the land,
were passing continuously in and out of the swinging doors of hotels.
And then, suddenly, came a face that he could not relate to the other faces.
He caught but a flash of it, for his pacings had carried him to the farthest
point of his beat, and it was in turning back to the hotel that he saw, in a group
of typical countenances--the lank and
weary, the round and surprised, the lantern-jawed and mild--this other face
that was so many more things at once, and things so different.
It was that of a young man, pale too, and half-extinguished by the heat, or worry, or
both, but somehow, quicker, vivider, more conscious; or perhaps seeming so because he
was so different.
Archer hung a moment on a thin thread of memory, but it snapped and floated off with
the disappearing face--apparently that of some foreign business man, looking doubly
foreign in such a setting.
He vanished in the stream of passersby, and Archer resumed his patrol.
He did not care to be seen watch in hand within view of the hotel, and his unaided
reckoning of the lapse of time led him to conclude that, if Madame Olenska was so
long in reappearing, it could only be
because she had met the emissary and been waylaid by him.
At the thought Archer's apprehension rose to anguish.
"If she doesn't come soon I'll go in and find her," he said.
The doors swung open again and she was at his side.
They got into the herdic, and as it drove off he took out his watch and saw that she
had been absent just three minutes.
In the clatter of loose windows that made talk impossible they bumped over the
disjointed cobblestones to the wharf.
Seated side by side on a bench of the half- empty boat they found that they had hardly
anything to say to each other, or rather that what they had to say communicated
itself best in the blessed silence of their release and their isolation.
As the paddle-wheels began to turn, and wharves and shipping to recede through the
veil of heat, it seemed to Archer that everything in the old familiar world of
habit was receding also.
He longed to ask Madame Olenska if she did not have the same feeling: the feeling that
they were starting on some long voyage from which they might never return.
But he was afraid to say it, or anything else that might disturb the delicate
balance of her trust in him. In reality he had no wish to betray that
trust.
There had been days and nights when the memory of their kiss had burned and burned
on his lips; the day before even, on the drive to Portsmouth, the thought of her had
run through him like fire; but now that she
was beside him, and they were drifting forth into this unknown world, they seemed
to have reached the kind of deeper nearness that a touch may sunder.
As the boat left the harbour and turned seaward a breeze stirred about them and the
bay broke up into long oily undulations, then into ripples tipped with spray.
The fog of sultriness still hung over the city, but ahead lay a fresh world of
ruffled waters, and distant promontories with light-houses in the sun.
Madame Olenska, leaning back against the boat-rail, drank in the coolness between
parted lips.
She had wound a long veil about her hat, but it left her face uncovered, and Archer
was struck by the tranquil gaiety of her expression.
She seemed to take their adventure as a matter of course, and to be neither in fear
of unexpected encounters, nor (what was worse) unduly elated by their possibility.
In the bare dining-room of the inn, which he had hoped they would have to themselves,
they found a strident party of innocent- looking young men and women--school-
teachers on a holiday, the landlord told
them--and Archer's heart sank at the idea of having to talk through their noise.
"This is hopeless--I'll ask for a private room," he said; and Madame Olenska, without
offering any objection, waited while he went in search of it.
The room opened on a long wooden verandah, with the sea coming in at the windows.
It was bare and cool, with a table covered with a coarse checkered cloth and adorned
by a bottle of pickles and a blueberry pie under a cage.
No more guileless-looking cabinet particulier ever offered its shelter to a
clandestine couple: Archer fancied he saw the sense of its reassurance in the faintly
amused smile with which Madame Olenska sat down opposite to him.
A woman who had run away from her husband-- and reputedly with another man--was likely
to have mastered the art of taking things for granted; but something in the quality
of her composure took the edge from his irony.
By being so quiet, so unsurprised and so simple she had managed to brush away the
conventions and make him feel that to seek to be alone was the natural thing for two
old friends who had so much to say to each other....
>
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton CHAPTER XXIV.
They lunched slowly and meditatively, with mute intervals between rushes of talk; for,
the spell once broken, they had much to say, and yet moments when saying became the
mere accompaniment to long duologues of silence.
Archer kept the talk from his own affairs, not with conscious intention but because he
did not want to miss a word of her history; and leaning on the table, her chin resting
on her clasped hands, she talked to him of the year and a half since they had met.
She had grown tired of what people called "society"; New York was kind, it was almost
oppressively hospitable; she should never forget the way in which it had welcomed her
back; but after the first flush of novelty
she had found herself, as she phrased it, too "different" to care for the things it
cared about--and so she had decided to try Washington, where one was supposed to meet
more varieties of people and of opinion.
And on the whole she should probably settle down in Washington, and make a home there
for poor Medora, who had worn out the patience of all her other relations just at
the time when she most needed looking after and protecting from matrimonial perils.
"But Dr. Carver--aren't you afraid of Dr. Carver?
I hear he's been staying with you at the Blenkers'."
She smiled. "Oh, the Carver danger is over.
Dr. Carver is a very clever man.
He wants a rich wife to finance his plans, and Medora is simply a good advertisement
as a convert." "A convert to what?"
"To all sorts of new and crazy social schemes.
But, do you know, they interest me more than the blind conformity to tradition--
somebody else's tradition--that I see among our own friends.
It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another
country." She smiled across the table.
"Do you suppose Christopher Columbus would have taken all that trouble just to go to
the Opera with the Selfridge Merrys?" Archer changed colour.
"And Beaufort--do you say these things to Beaufort?" he asked abruptly.
"I haven't seen him for a long time. But I used to; and he understands."
"Ah, it's what I've always told you; you don't like us.
And you like Beaufort because he's so unlike us."
He looked about the bare room and out at the bare beach and the row of stark white
village houses strung along the shore. "We're damnably dull.
We've no character, no colour, no variety.- -I wonder," he broke out, "why you don't go
back?" Her eyes darkened, and he expected an
indignant rejoinder.
But she sat silent, as if thinking over what he had said, and he grew frightened
lest she should answer that she wondered too.
At length she said: "I believe it's because of you."
It was impossible to make the confession more dispassionately, or in a tone less
encouraging to the vanity of the person addressed.
Archer reddened to the temples, but dared not move or speak: it was as if her words
had been some rare butterfly that the least motion might drive off on startled wings,
but that might gather a flock about it if it were left undisturbed.
"At least," she continued, "it was you who made me understand that under the dullness
there are things so fine and sensitive and delicate that even those I most cared for
in my other life look cheap in comparison.
I don't know how to explain myself"--she drew together her troubled brows--"but it
seems as if I'd never before understood with how much that is hard and shabby and
base the most exquisite pleasures may be paid."
"Exquisite pleasures--it's something to have had them!" he felt like retorting; but
the appeal in her eyes kept him silent.
"I want," she went on, "to be perfectly honest with you--and with myself.
For a long time I've hoped this chance would come: that I might tell you how
you've helped me, what you've made of me--"
Archer sat staring beneath frowning brows. He interrupted her with a laugh.
"And what do you make out that you've made of me?"
She paled a little.
"Of you?" "Yes: for I'm of your making much more than
you ever were of mine. I'm the man who married one woman because
another one told him to."
Her paleness turned to a fugitive flush. "I thought--you promised--you were not to
say such things today." "Ah--how like a woman!
None of you will ever see a bad business through!"
She lowered her voice. "IS it a bad business--for May?"
He stood in the window, drumming against the raised sash, and feeling in every fibre
the wistful tenderness with which she had spoken her cousin's name.
"For that's the thing we've always got to think of--haven't we--by your own showing?"
she insisted. "My own showing?" he echoed, his blank eyes
still on the sea.
"Or if not," she continued, pursuing her own thought with a painful application, "if
it's not worth while to have given up, to have missed things, so that others may be
saved from disillusionment and misery--then
everything I came home for, everything that made my other life seem by contrast so bare
and so poor because no one there took account of them--all these things are a
sham or a dream--"
He turned around without moving from his place.
"And in that case there's no reason on earth why you shouldn't go back?" he
concluded for her.
Her eyes were clinging to him desperately. "Oh, IS there no reason?"
"Not if you staked your all on the success of my marriage.
My marriage," he said savagely, "isn't going to be a sight to keep you here."
She made no answer, and he went on: "What's the use?
You gave me my first glimpse of a real life, and at the same moment you asked me
to go on with a sham one. It's beyond human enduring--that's all."
"Oh, don't say that; when I'm enduring it!" she burst out, her eyes filling.
Her arms had dropped along the table, and she sat with her face abandoned to his gaze
as if in the recklessness of a desperate peril.
The face exposed her as much as if it had been her whole person, with the soul behind
it: Archer stood dumb, overwhelmed by what it suddenly told him.
"You too--oh, all this time, you too?"
For answer, she let the tears on her lids overflow and run slowly downward.
Half the width of the room was still between them, and neither made any show of
moving.
Archer was conscious of a curious indifference to her bodily presence: he
would hardly have been aware of it if one of the hands she had flung out on the table
had not drawn his gaze as on the occasion
when, in the little Twenty-third Street house, he had kept his eye on it in order
not to look at her face.
Now his imagination spun about the hand as about the edge of a vortex; but still he
made no effort to draw nearer.
He had known the love that is fed on caresses and feeds them; but this passion
that was closer than his bones was not to be superficially satisfied.
His one terror was to do anything which might efface the sound and impression of
her words; his one thought, that he should never again feel quite alone.
But after a moment the sense of waste and ruin overcame him.
There they were, close together and safe and shut in; yet so chained to their
separate destinies that they might as well have been half the world apart.
"What's the use--when you will go back?" he broke out, a great hopeless HOW ON EARTH
CAN I KEEP YOU? crying out to her beneath his words.
She sat motionless, with lowered lids.
"Oh--I shan't go yet!" "Not yet?
Some time, then? Some time that you already foresee?"
At that she raised her clearest eyes.
"I promise you: not as long as you hold out.
Not as long as we can look straight at each other like this."
He dropped into his chair.
What her answer really said was: "If you lift a finger you'll drive me back: back to
all the abominations you know of, and all the temptations you half guess."
He understood it as clearly as if she had uttered the words, and the thought kept him
anchored to his side of the table in a kind of moved and sacred submission.
"What a life for you!--" he groaned.
"Oh--as long as it's a part of yours." "And mine a part of yours?"
She nodded. "And that's to be all--for either of us?"
"Well; it IS all, isn't it?"
At that he sprang up, forgetting everything but the sweetness of her face.
She rose too, not as if to meet him or to flee from him, but quietly, as though the
worst of the task were done and she had only to wait; so quietly that, as he came
close, her outstretched hands acted not as a check but as a guide to him.
They fell into his, while her arms, extended but not rigid, kept him far enough
off to let her surrendered face say the rest.
They may have stood in that way for a long time, or only for a few moments; but it was
long enough for her silence to communicate all she had to say, and for him to feel
that only one thing mattered.
He must do nothing to make this meeting their last; he must leave their future in
her care, asking only that she should keep fast hold of it.
"Don't--don't be unhappy," she said, with a break in her voice, as she drew her hands
away; and he answered: "You won't go back- -you won't go back?" as if it were the one
possibility he could not bear.
"I won't go back," she said; and turning away she opened the door and led the way
into the public dining-room.
The strident school-teachers were gathering up their possessions preparatory to a
straggling flight to the wharf; across the beach lay the white steam-boat at the pier;
and over the sunlit waters Boston loomed in a line of haze.
>
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton CHAPTER XXV.
Once more on the boat, and in the presence of others, Archer felt a tranquillity of
spirit that surprised as much as it sustained him.
The day, according to any current valuation, had been a rather ridiculous
failure; he had not so much as touched Madame Olenska's hand with his lips, or
extracted one word from her that gave promise of farther opportunities.
Nevertheless, for a man sick with unsatisfied love, and parting for an
indefinite period from the object of his passion, he felt himself almost
humiliatingly calm and comforted.
It was the perfect balance she had held between their loyalty to others and their
honesty to themselves that had so stirred and yet tranquillized him; a balance not
artfully calculated, as her tears and her
falterings showed, but resulting naturally from her unabashed sincerity.
It filled him with a tender awe, now the danger was over, and made him thank the
fates that no personal vanity, no sense of playing a part before sophisticated
witnesses, had tempted him to tempt her.
Even after they had clasped hands for good- bye at the Fall River station, and he had
turned away alone, the conviction remained with him of having saved out of their
meeting much more than he had sacrificed.
He wandered back to the club, and went and sat alone in the deserted library, turning
and turning over in his thoughts every separate second of their hours together.
It was clear to him, and it grew more clear under closer scrutiny, that if she should
finally decide on returning to Europe-- returning to her husband--it would not be
because her old life tempted her, even on the new terms offered.
No: she would go only if she felt herself becoming a temptation to Archer, a
temptation to fall away from the standard they had both set up.
Her choice would be to stay near him as long as he did not ask her to come nearer;
and it depended on himself to keep her just there, safe but secluded.
In the train these thoughts were still with him.
They enclosed him in a kind of golden haze, through which the faces about him looked
remote and indistinct: he had a feeling that if he spoke to his fellow-travellers
they would not understand what he was saying.
In this state of abstraction he found himself, the following morning, waking to
the reality of a stifling September day in New York.
The heat-withered faces in the long train streamed past him, and he continued to
stare at them through the same golden blur; but suddenly, as he left the station, one
of the faces detached itself, came closer and forced itself upon his consciousness.
It was, as he instantly recalled, the face of the young man he had seen, the day
before, passing out of the Parker House, and had noted as not conforming to type, as
not having an American hotel face.
The same thing struck him now; and again he became aware of a dim stir of former
associations.
The young man stood looking about him with the dazed air of the foreigner flung upon
the harsh mercies of American travel; then he advanced toward Archer, lifted his hat,
and said in English: "Surely, Monsieur, we met in London?"
"Ah, to be sure: in London!" Archer grasped his hand with curiosity and
sympathy.
"So you DID get here, after all?" he exclaimed, casting a wondering eye on the
astute and haggard little countenance of young Carfry's French tutor.
"Oh, I got here--yes," M. Riviere smiled with drawn lips.
"But not for long; I return the day after tomorrow."
He stood grasping his light valise in one neatly gloved hand, and gazing anxiously,
perplexedly, almost appealingly, into Archer's face.
"I wonder, Monsieur, since I've had the good luck to run across you, if I might--"
"I was just going to suggest it: come to luncheon, won't you?
Down town, I mean: if you'll look me up in my office I'll take you to a very decent
restaurant in that quarter." M. Riviere was visibly touched and
surprised.
"You're too kind. But I was only going to ask if you would
tell me how to reach some sort of conveyance.
There are no porters, and no one here seems to listen--"
"I know: our American stations must surprise you.
When you ask for a porter they give you chewing-gum.
But if you'll come along I'll extricate you; and you must really lunch with me, you
know."
The young man, after a just perceptible hesitation, replied, with profuse thanks,
and in a tone that did not carry complete conviction, that he was already engaged;
but when they had reached the comparative
reassurance of the street he asked if he might call that afternoon.
Archer, at ease in the midsummer leisure of the office, fixed an hour and scribbled his
address, which the Frenchman pocketed with reiterated thanks and a wide flourish of
his hat.
A horse-car received him, and Archer walked away.
Punctually at the hour M. Riviere appeared, shaved, smoothed-out, but still
unmistakably drawn and serious.
Archer was alone in his office, and the young man, before accepting the seat he
proffered, began abruptly: "I believe I saw you, sir, yesterday in Boston."
The statement was insignificant enough, and Archer was about to frame an assent when
his words were checked by something mysterious yet illuminating in his
visitor's insistent gaze.
"It is extraordinary, very extraordinary," M. Riviere continued, "that we should have
met in the circumstances in which I find myself."
"What circumstances?"
Archer asked, wondering a little crudely if he needed money.
M. Riviere continued to study him with tentative eyes.
"I have come, not to look for employment, as I spoke of doing when we last met, but
on a special mission--" "Ah--!"
Archer exclaimed.
In a flash the two meetings had connected themselves in his mind.
He paused to take in the situation thus suddenly lighted up for him, and M. Riviere
also remained silent, as if aware that what he had said was enough.
"A special mission," Archer at length repeated.
The young Frenchman, opening his palms, raised them slightly, and the two men
continued to look at each other across the office-desk till Archer roused himself to
say: "Do sit down"; whereupon M. Riviere
bowed, took a distant chair, and again waited.
"It was about this mission that you wanted to consult me?"
Archer finally asked.
M. Riviere bent his head. "Not in my own behalf: on that score I--I
have fully dealt with myself. I should like--if I may--to speak to you
about the Countess Olenska."
Archer had known for the last few minutes that the words were coming; but when they
came they sent the blood rushing to his temples as if he had been caught by a bent-
back branch in a thicket.
"And on whose behalf," he said, "do you wish to do this?"
M. Riviere met the question sturdily. "Well--I might say HERS, if it did not
sound like a liberty.
Shall I say instead: on behalf of abstract justice?"
Archer considered him ironically. "In other words: you are Count Olenski's
messenger?"
He saw his blush more darkly reflected in M. Riviere's sallow countenance.
"Not to YOU, Monsieur. If I come to you, it is on quite other
grounds."
"What right have you, in the circumstances, to BE on any other ground?"
Archer retorted. "If you're an emissary you're an emissary."
The young man considered.
"My mission is over: as far as the Countess Olenska goes, it has failed."
"I can't help that," Archer rejoined on the same note of irony.
"No: but you can help--" M. Riviere paused, turned his hat about in his still
carefully gloved hands, looked into its lining and then back at Archer's face.
"You can help, Monsieur, I am convinced, to make it equally a failure with her family."
Archer pushed back his chair and stood up. "Well--and by God I will!" he exclaimed.
He stood with his hands in his pockets, staring down wrathfully at the little
Frenchman, whose face, though he too had risen, was still an inch or two below the
line of Archer's eyes.
M. Riviere paled to his normal hue: paler than that his complexion could hardly turn.
"Why the devil," Archer explosively continued, "should you have thought--since
I suppose you're appealing to me on the ground of my relationship to Madame
Olenska--that I should take a view contrary to the rest of her family?"
The change of expression in M. Riviere's face was for a time his only answer.
His look passed from timidity to absolute distress: for a young man of his usually
resourceful mien it would have been difficult to appear more disarmed and
defenceless.
"Oh, Monsieur--"
"I can't imagine," Archer continued, "why you should have come to me when there are
others so much nearer to the Countess; still less why you thought I should be more
accessible to the arguments I suppose you were sent over with."
M. Riviere took this onslaught with a disconcerting humility.
"The arguments I want to present to you, Monsieur, are my own and not those I was
sent over with." "Then I see still less reason for listening
to them."
M. Riviere again looked into his hat, as if considering whether these last words were
not a sufficiently broad hint to put it on and be gone.
Then he spoke with sudden decision.
"Monsieur--will you tell me one thing? Is it my right to be here that you
question? Or do you perhaps believe the whole matter
to be already closed?"
His quiet insistence made Archer feel the clumsiness of his own bluster.
M. Riviere had succeeded in imposing himself: Archer, reddening slightly,
dropped into his chair again, and signed to the young man to be seated.
"I beg your pardon: but why isn't the matter closed?"
M. Riviere gazed back at him with anguish.
"You do, then, agree with the rest of the family that, in face of the new proposals I
have brought, it is hardly possible for Madame Olenska not to return to her
husband?"
"Good God!" Archer exclaimed; and his visitor gave out
a low murmur of confirmation.
"Before seeing her, I saw--at Count Olenski's request--Mr. Lovell Mingott, with
whom I had several talks before going to Boston.
I understand that he represents his mother's view; and that Mrs. Manson
Mingott's influence is great throughout her family."
Archer sat silent, with the sense of clinging to the edge of a sliding
precipice.
The discovery that he had been excluded from a share in these negotiations, and
even from the knowledge that they were on foot, caused him a surprise hardly dulled
by the acuter wonder of what he was learning.
He saw in a flash that if the family had ceased to consult him it was because some
deep tribal instinct warned them that he was no longer on their side; and he
recalled, with a start of comprehension, a
remark of May's during their drive home from Mrs. Manson Mingott's on the day of
the Archery Meeting: "Perhaps, after all, Ellen would be happier with her husband."
Even in the tumult of new discoveries Archer remembered his indignant
exclamation, and the fact that since then his wife had never named Madame Olenska to
him.
Her careless allusion had no doubt been the straw held up to see which way the wind
blew; the result had been reported to the family, and thereafter Archer had been
tacitly omitted from their counsels.
He admired the tribal discipline which made May bow to this decision.
She would not have done so, he knew, had her conscience protested; but she probably
shared the family view that Madame Olenska would be better off as an unhappy wife than
as a separated one, and that there was no
use in discussing the case with Newland, who had an awkward way of suddenly not
seeming to take the most fundamental things for granted.
Archer looked up and met his visitor's anxious gaze.
"Don't you know, Monsieur--is it possible you don't know--that the family begin to
doubt if they have the right to advise the Countess to refuse her husband's last
proposals?"
"The proposals you brought?" "The proposals I brought."
It was on Archer's lips to exclaim that whatever he knew or did not know was no
concern of M. Riviere's; but something in the humble and yet courageous tenacity of
M. Riviere's gaze made him reject this
conclusion, and he met the young man's question with another.
"What is your object in speaking to me of this?"
He had not to wait a moment for the answer.
"To beg you, Monsieur--to beg you with all the force I'm capable of--not to let her go
back.--Oh, don't let her!" M. Riviere exclaimed.
Archer looked at him with increasing astonishment.
There was no mistaking the sincerity of his distress or the strength of his
determination: he had evidently resolved to let everything go by the board but the
supreme need of thus putting himself on record.
Archer considered.
"May I ask," he said at length, "if this is the line you took with the Countess
Olenska?" M. Riviere reddened, but his eyes did not
falter.
"No, Monsieur: I accepted my mission in good faith.
I really believed--for reasons I need not trouble you with--that it would be better
for Madame Olenska to recover her situation, her fortune, the social
consideration that her husband's standing gives her."
"So I supposed: you could hardly have accepted such a mission otherwise."
"I should not have accepted it."
"Well, then--?" Archer paused again, and their eyes met in
another protracted scrutiny.
"Ah, Monsieur, after I had seen her, after I had listened to her, I knew she was
better off here." "You knew--?"
"Monsieur, I discharged my mission faithfully: I put the Count's arguments, I
stated his offers, without adding any comment of my own.
The Countess was good enough to listen patiently; she carried her goodness so far
as to see me twice; she considered impartially all I had come to say.
And it was in the course of these two talks that I changed my mind, that I came to see
things differently." "May I ask what led to this change?"
"Simply seeing the change in HER," M. Riviere replied.
"The change in her? Then you knew her before?"
The young man's colour again rose.
"I used to see her in her husband's house. I have known Count Olenski for many years.
You can imagine that he would not have sent a stranger on such a mission."
Archer's gaze, wandering away to the blank walls of the office, rested on a hanging
calendar surmounted by the rugged features of the President of the United States.
That such a conversation should be going on anywhere within the millions of square
miles subject to his rule seemed as strange as anything that the imagination could
invent.
"The change--what sort of a change?" "Ah, Monsieur, if I could tell you!"
M. Riviere paused.
"Tenez--the discovery, I suppose, of what I'd never thought of before: that she's an
American.
And that if you're an American of HER kind- -of your kind--things that are accepted in
certain other societies, or at least put up with as part of a general convenient give-
and-take--become unthinkable, simply unthinkable.
If Madame Olenska's relations understood what these things were, their opposition to
her returning would no doubt be as unconditional as her own; but they seem to
regard her husband's wish to have her back
as proof of an irresistible longing for domestic life."
M. Riviere paused, and then added: "Whereas it's far from being as simple as
that."
Archer looked back to the President of the United States, and then down at his desk
and at the papers scattered on it. For a second or two he could not trust
himself to speak.
During this interval he heard M. Riviere's chair pushed back, and was aware that the
young man had risen. When he glanced up again he saw that his
visitor was as moved as himself.
"Thank you," Archer said simply. "There's nothing to thank me for, Monsieur:
it is I, rather--" M. Riviere broke off, as if speech for him too were difficult.
"I should like, though," he continued in a firmer voice, "to add one thing.
You asked me if I was in Count Olenski's employ.
I am at this moment: I returned to him, a few months ago, for reasons of private
necessity such as may happen to any one who has persons, ill and older persons,
dependent on him.
But from the moment that I have taken the step of coming here to say these things to
you I consider myself discharged, and I shall tell him so on my return, and give
him the reasons.
That's all, Monsieur." M. Riviere bowed and drew back a step.
"Thank you," Archer said again, as their hands met.
>
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton CHAPTER XXVI.
Every year on the fifteenth of October Fifth Avenue opened its shutters, unrolled
its carpets and hung up its triple layer of window-curtains.
By the first of November this household ritual was over, and society had begun to
look about and take stock of itself.
By the fifteenth the season was in full blast, Opera and theatres were putting
forth their new attractions, dinner- engagements were accumulating, and dates
for dances being fixed.
And punctually at about this time Mrs. Archer always said that New York was very
much changed.
Observing it from the lofty stand-point of a non-participant, she was able, with the
help of Mr. Sillerton Jackson and Miss Sophy, to trace each new crack in its
surface, and all the strange weeds pushing
up between the ordered rows of social vegetables.
It had been one of the amusements of Archer's youth to wait for this annual
pronouncement of his mother's, and to hear her enumerate the minute signs of
disintegration that his careless gaze had overlooked.
For New York, to Mrs. Archer's mind, never changed without changing for the worse; and
in this view Miss Sophy Jackson heartily concurred.
Mr. Sillerton Jackson, as became a man of the world, suspended his judgment and
listened with an amused impartiality to the lamentations of the ladies.
But even he never denied that New York had changed; and Newland Archer, in the winter
of the second year of his marriage, was himself obliged to admit that if it had not
actually changed it was certainly changing.
These points had been raised, as usual, at Mrs. Archer's Thanksgiving dinner.
At the date when she was officially enjoined to give thanks for the blessings
of the year it was her habit to take a mournful though not embittered stock of her
world, and wonder what there was to be thankful for.
At any rate, not the state of society; society, if it could be said to exist, was
rather a spectacle on which to call down Biblical imprecations--and in fact, every
one knew what the Reverend Dr. Ashmore
meant when he chose a text from Jeremiah (chap. ii., verse 25) for his Thanksgiving
sermon.
Dr. Ashmore, the new Rector of St. Matthew's, had been chosen because he was
very "advanced": his sermons were considered bold in thought and novel in
language.
When he fulminated against fashionable society he always spoke of its "trend"; and
to Mrs. Archer it was terrifying and yet fascinating to feel herself part of a
community that was trending.
"There's no doubt that Dr. Ashmore is right: there IS a marked trend," she said,
as if it were something visible and measurable, like a crack in a house.
"It was odd, though, to preach about it on Thanksgiving," Miss Jackson opined; and her
hostess drily rejoined: "Oh, he means us to give thanks for what's left."
Archer had been wont to smile at these annual vaticinations of his mother's; but
this year even he was obliged to acknowledge, as he listened to an
enumeration of the changes, that the "trend" was visible.
"The extravagance in dress--" Miss Jackson began.
"Sillerton took me to the first night of the Opera, and I can only tell you that
Jane Merry's dress was the only one I recognised from last year; and even that
had had the front panel changed.
Yet I know she got it out from Worth only two years ago, because my seamstress always
goes in to make over her Paris dresses before she wears them."
"Ah, Jane Merry is one of US," said Mrs. Archer sighing, as if it were not such an
enviable thing to be in an age when ladies were beginning to flaunt abroad their Paris
dresses as soon as they were out of the
Custom House, instead of letting them mellow under lock and key, in the manner of
Mrs. Archer's contemporaries. "Yes; she's one of the few.
In my youth," Miss Jackson rejoined, "it was considered vulgar to dress in the
newest fashions; and Amy Sillerton has always told me that in Boston the rule was
to put away one's Paris dresses for two years.
Old Mrs. Baxter Pennilow, who did everything handsomely, used to import
twelve a year, two velvet, two satin, two silk, and the other six of poplin and the
finest cashmere.
It was a standing order, and as she was ill for two years before she died they found
forty-eight Worth dresses that had never been taken out of tissue paper; and when
the girls left off their mourning they were
able to wear the first lot at the Symphony concerts without looking in advance of the
fashion."
"Ah, well, Boston is more conservative than New York; but I always think it's a safe
rule for a lady to lay aside her French dresses for one season," Mrs. Archer
conceded.
"It was Beaufort who started the new fashion by making his wife clap her new
clothes on her back as soon as they arrived: I must say at times it takes all
Regina's distinction not to look like...like..."
Miss Jackson glanced around the table, caught Janey's bulging gaze, and took
refuge in an unintelligible murmur.
"Like her rivals," said Mr. Sillerton Jackson, with the air of producing an
epigram.
"Oh,--" the ladies murmured; and Mrs. Archer added, partly to distract her
daughter's attention from forbidden topics: "Poor Regina!
Her Thanksgiving hasn't been a very cheerful one, I'm afraid.
Have you heard the rumours about Beaufort's speculations, Sillerton?"
Mr. Jackson nodded carelessly.
Every one had heard the rumours in question, and he scorned to confirm a tale
that was already common property. A gloomy silence fell upon the party.
No one really liked Beaufort, and it was not wholly unpleasant to think the worst of
his private life; but the idea of his having brought financial dishonour on his
wife's family was too shocking to be enjoyed even by his enemies.
Archer's New York tolerated hypocrisy in private relations; but in business matters
it exacted a limpid and impeccable honesty.
It was a long time since any well-known banker had failed discreditably; but every
one remembered the social extinction visited on the heads of the firm when the
last event of the kind had happened.
It would be the same with the Beauforts, in spite of his power and her popularity; not
all the leagued strength of the Dallas connection would save poor Regina if there
were any truth in the reports of her husband's unlawful speculations.
The talk took refuge in less ominous topics; but everything they touched on
seemed to confirm Mrs. Archer's sense of an accelerated trend.
"Of course, Newland, I know you let dear May go to Mrs. Struthers's Sunday evenings-
-" she began; and May interposed gaily: "Oh, you know, everybody goes to Mrs.
Struthers's now; and she was invited to Granny's last reception."
It was thus, Archer reflected, that New York managed its transitions: conspiring to
ignore them till they were well over, and then, in all good faith, imagining that
they had taken place in a preceding age.
There was always a traitor in the citadel; and after he (or generally she) had
surrendered the keys, what was the use of pretending that it was impregnable?
Once people had tasted of Mrs. Struthers's easy Sunday hospitality they were not
likely to sit at home remembering that her champagne was transmuted Shoe-Polish.
"I know, dear, I know," Mrs. Archer sighed.
"Such things have to be, I suppose, as long as AMUSEMENT is what people go out for; but
I've never quite forgiven your cousin Madame Olenska for being the first person
to countenance Mrs. Struthers."
A sudden blush rose to young Mrs. Archer's face; it surprised her husband as much as
the other guests about the table.
"Oh, ELLEN--" she murmured, much in the same accusing and yet deprecating tone in
which her parents might have said: "Oh, THE BLENKERS--."
It was the note which the family had taken to sounding on the mention of the Countess
Olenska's name, since she had surprised and inconvenienced them by remaining obdurate
to her husband's advances; but on May's
lips it gave food for thought, and Archer looked at her with the sense of strangeness
that sometimes came over him when she was most in the tone of her environment.
His mother, with less than her usual sensitiveness to atmosphere, still
insisted: "I've always thought that people like the Countess Olenska, who have lived
in aristocratic societies, ought to help us
to keep up our social distinctions, instead of ignoring them."
May's blush remained permanently vivid: it seemed to have a significance beyond that
implied by the recognition of Madame Olenska's social bad faith.
"I've no doubt we all seem alike to foreigners," said Miss Jackson tartly.
"I don't think Ellen cares for society; but nobody knows exactly what she does care
for," May continued, as if she had been groping for something noncommittal.
"Ah, well--" Mrs. Archer sighed again.
Everybody knew that the Countess Olenska was no longer in the good graces of her
family.
Even her devoted champion, old Mrs. Manson Mingott, had been unable to defend her
refusal to return to her husband.
The Mingotts had not proclaimed their disapproval aloud: their sense of
solidarity was too strong.
They had simply, as Mrs. Welland said, "let poor Ellen find her own level"--and that,
mortifyingly and incomprehensibly, was in the dim depths where the Blenkers
prevailed, and "people who wrote" celebrated their untidy rites.
It was incredible, but it was a fact, that Ellen, in spite of all her opportunities
and her privileges, had become simply "Bohemian."
The fact enforced the contention that she had made a fatal mistake in not returning
to Count Olenski.
After all, a young woman's place was under her husband's roof, especially when she had
left it in circumstances that...well...if one had cared to look into them...
"Madame Olenska is a great favourite with the gentlemen," said Miss Sophy, with her
air of wishing to put forth something conciliatory when she knew that she was
planting a dart.
"Ah, that's the danger that a young woman like Madame Olenska is always exposed to,"
Mrs. Archer mournfully agreed; and the ladies, on this conclusion, gathered up
their trains to seek the carcel globes of
the drawing-room, while Archer and Mr. Sillerton Jackson withdrew to the Gothic
library.
Once established before the grate, and consoling himself for the inadequacy of the
dinner by the perfection of his cigar, Mr. Jackson became portentous and communicable.
"If the Beaufort smash comes," he announced, "there are going to be
disclosures."
Archer raised his head quickly: he could never hear the name without the sharp
vision of Beaufort's heavy figure, opulently furred and shod, advancing
through the snow at Skuytercliff.
"There's bound to be," Mr. Jackson continued, "the nastiest kind of a cleaning
up. He hasn't spent all his money on Regina."
"Oh, well--that's discounted, isn't it?
My belief is he'll pull out yet," said the young man, wanting to change the subject.
"Perhaps--perhaps. I know he was to see some of the
influential people today.
Of course," Mr. Jackson reluctantly conceded, "it's to be hoped they can tide
him over--this time anyhow.
I shouldn't like to think of poor Regina's spending the rest of her life in some
shabby foreign watering-place for bankrupts."
Archer said nothing.
It seemed to him so natural--however tragic--that money ill-gotten should be
cruelly expiated, that his mind, hardly lingering over Mrs. Beaufort's doom,
wandered back to closer questions.
What was the meaning of May's blush when the Countess Olenska had been mentioned?
Four months had passed since the midsummer day that he and Madame Olenska had spent
together; and since then he had not seen her.
He knew that she had returned to Washington, to the little house which she
and Medora Manson had taken there: he had written to her once--a few words, asking
when they were to meet again--and she had even more briefly replied: "Not yet."
Since then there had been no farther communication between them, and he had
built up within himself a kind of sanctuary in which she throned among his secret
thoughts and longings.
Little by little it became the scene of his real life, of his only rational activities;
thither he brought the books he read, the ideas and feelings which nourished him, his
judgments and his visions.
Outside it, in the scene of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of
unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional
points of view as an absent-minded man goes
on bumping into the furniture of his own room.
Absent--that was what he was: so absent from everything most densely real and near
to those about him that it sometimes startled him to find they still imagined he
was there.
He became aware that Mr. Jackson was clearing his throat preparatory to farther
revelations.
"I don't know, of course, how far your wife's family are aware of what people say
about--well, about Madame Olenska's refusal to accept her husband's latest offer."
Archer was silent, and Mr. Jackson obliquely continued: "It's a pity--it's
certainly a pity--that she refused it." "A pity?
In God's name, why?"
Mr. Jackson looked down his leg to the unwrinkled sock that joined it to a glossy
pump. "Well--to put it on the lowest ground--
what's she going to live on now?"
"Now--?" "If Beaufort--"
Archer sprang up, his fist banging down on the black walnut-edge of the writing-table.
The wells of the brass double-inkstand danced in their sockets.
"What the devil do you mean, sir?"
Mr. Jackson, shifting himself slightly in his chair, turned a tranquil gaze on the
young man's burning face.
"Well--I have it on pretty good authority-- in fact, on old Catherine's herself--that
the family reduced Countess Olenska's allowance considerably when she definitely
refused to go back to her husband; and as,
by this refusal, she also forfeits the money settled on her when she married--
which Olenski was ready to make over to her if she returned--why, what the devil do YOU
mean, my dear boy, by asking me what I mean?"
Mr. Jackson good-humouredly retorted.
Archer moved toward the mantelpiece and bent over to knock his ashes into the
grate.
"I don't know anything of Madame Olenska's private affairs; but I don't need to, to be
certain that what you insinuate--" "Oh, I don't: it's Lefferts, for one," Mr.
Jackson interposed.
"Lefferts--who made love to her and got snubbed for it!"
Archer broke out contemptuously.
"Ah--DID he?" snapped the other, as if this were exactly the fact he had been laying a
trap for.
He still sat sideways from the fire, so that his hard old gaze held Archer's face
as if in a spring of steel. "Well, well: it's a pity she didn't go back
before Beaufort's cropper," he repeated.
"If she goes NOW, and if he fails, it will only confirm the general impression: which
isn't by any means peculiar to Lefferts, by the way."
"Oh, she won't go back now: less than ever!"
Archer had no sooner said it than he had once more the feeling that it was exactly
what Mr. Jackson had been waiting for.
The old gentleman considered him attentively.
"That's your opinion, eh? Well, no doubt you know.
But everybody will tell you that the few pennies Medora Manson has left are all in
Beaufort's hands; and how the two women are to keep their heads above water unless he
does, I can't imagine.
Of course, Madame Olenska may still soften old Catherine, who's been the most
inexorably opposed to her staying; and old Catherine could make her any allowance she
chooses.
But we all know that she hates parting with good money; and the rest of the family have
no particular interest in keeping Madame Olenska here."
Archer was burning with unavailing wrath: he was exactly in the state when a man is
sure to do something stupid, knowing all the while that he is doing it.
He saw that Mr. Jackson had been instantly struck by the fact that Madame Olenska's
differences with her grandmother and her other relations were not known to him, and
that the old gentleman had drawn his own
conclusions as to the reasons for Archer's exclusion from the family councils.
This fact warned Archer to go warily; but the insinuations about Beaufort made him
reckless.
He was mindful, however, if not of his own danger, at least of the fact that Mr.
Jackson was under his mother's roof, and consequently his guest.
Old New York scrupulously observed the etiquette of hospitality, and no discussion
with a guest was ever allowed to degenerate into a disagreement.
"Shall we go up and join my mother?" he suggested curtly, as Mr. Jackson's last
cone of ashes dropped into the brass ashtray at his elbow.
On the drive homeward May remained oddly silent; through the darkness, he still felt
her enveloped in her menacing blush.
What its menace meant he could not guess: but he was sufficiently warned by the fact
that Madame Olenska's name had evoked it. They went upstairs, and he turned into the
library.
She usually followed him; but he heard her passing down the passage to her bedroom.
"May!" he called out impatiently; and she came back, with a slight glance of surprise
at his tone.
"This lamp is smoking again; I should think the servants might see that it's kept
properly trimmed," he grumbled nervously.
"I'm so sorry: it shan't happen again," she answered, in the firm bright tone she had
learned from her mother; and it exasperated Archer to feel that she was already
beginning to humour him like a younger Mr. Welland.
She bent over to lower the wick, and as the light struck up on her white shoulders and
the clear curves of her face he thought: "How young she is!
For what endless years this life will have to go on!"
He felt, with a kind of horror, his own strong youth and the bounding blood in his
veins.
"Look here," he said suddenly, "I may have to go to Washington for a few days--soon;
next week perhaps." Her hand remained on the key of the lamp as
she turned to him slowly.
The heat from its flame had brought back a glow to her face, but it paled as she
looked up.
"On business?" she asked, in a tone which implied that there could be no other
conceivable reason, and that she had put the question automatically, as if merely to
finish his own sentence.
"On business, naturally.
There's a patent case coming up before the Supreme Court--" He gave the name of the
inventor, and went on furnishing details with all Lawrence Lefferts's practised
glibness, while she listened attentively, saying at intervals: "Yes, I see."
"The change will do you good," she said simply, when he had finished; "and you must
be sure to go and see Ellen," she added, looking him straight in the eyes with her
cloudless smile, and speaking in the tone
she might have employed in urging him not to neglect some irksome family duty.
It was the only word that passed between them on the subject; but in the code in
which they had both been trained it meant: "Of course you understand that I know all
that people have been saying about Ellen,
and heartily sympathise with my family in their effort to get her to return to her
husband.
I also know that, for some reason you have not chosen to tell me, you have advised her
against this course, which all the older men of the family, as well as our
grandmother, agree in approving; and that
it is owing to your encouragement that Ellen defies us all, and exposes herself to
the kind of criticism of which Mr. Sillerton Jackson probably gave you, this
evening, the hint that has made you so irritable....
Hints have indeed not been wanting; but since you appear unwilling to take them
from others, I offer you this one myself, in the only form in which well-bred people
of our kind can communicate unpleasant
things to each other: by letting you understand that I know you mean to see
Ellen when you are in Washington, and are perhaps going there expressly for that
purpose; and that, since you are sure to
see her, I wish you to do so with my full and explicit approval--and to take the
opportunity of letting her know what the course of conduct you have encouraged her
in is likely to lead to."
Her hand was still on the key of the lamp when the last word of this mute message
reached him. She turned the wick down, lifted off the
globe, and breathed on the sulky flame.
"They smell less if one blows them out," she explained, with her bright housekeeping
air. On the threshold she turned and paused for
his kiss.
>
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton CHAPTER XXVII.
Wall Street, the next day, had more reassuring reports of Beaufort's situation.
They were not definite, but they were hopeful.
It was generally understood that he could call on powerful influences in case of
emergency, and that he had done so with success; and that evening, when Mrs.
Beaufort appeared at the Opera wearing her
old smile and a new emerald necklace, society drew a breath of relief.
New York was inexorable in its condemnation of business irregularities.
So far there had been no exception to its tacit rule that those who broke the law of
probity must pay; and every one was aware that even Beaufort and Beaufort's wife
would be offered up unflinchingly to this principle.
But to be obliged to offer them up would be not only painful but inconvenient.
The disappearance of the Beauforts would leave a considerable void in their compact
little circle; and those who were too ignorant or too careless to shudder at the
moral catastrophe bewailed in advance the loss of the best ball-room in New York.
Archer had definitely made up his mind to go to Washington.
He was waiting only for the opening of the law-suit of which he had spoken to May, so
that its date might coincide with that of his visit; but on the following Tuesday he
learned from Mr. Letterblair that the case might be postponed for several weeks.
Nevertheless, he went home that afternoon determined in any event to leave the next
evening.
The chances were that May, who knew nothing of his professional life, and had never
shown any interest in it, would not learn of the postponement, should it take place,
nor remember the names of the litigants if
they were mentioned before her; and at any rate he could no longer put off seeing
Madame Olenska. There were too many things that he must say
to her.
On the Wednesday morning, when he reached his office, Mr. Letterblair met him with a
troubled face.
Beaufort, after all, had not managed to "tide over"; but by setting afloat the
rumour that he had done so he had reassured his depositors, and heavy payments had
poured into the bank till the previous
evening, when disturbing reports again began to predominate.
In consequence, a run on the bank had begun, and its doors were likely to close
before the day was over.
The ugliest things were being said of Beaufort's dastardly manoeuvre, and his
failure promised to be one of the most discreditable in the history of Wall
Street.
The extent of the calamity left Mr. Letterblair white and incapacitated.
"I've seen bad things in my time; but nothing as bad as this.
Everybody we know will be hit, one way or another.
And what will be done about Mrs. Beaufort? What CAN be done about her?
I pity Mrs. Manson Mingott as much as anybody: coming at her age, there's no
knowing what effect this affair may have on her.
She always believed in Beaufort--she made a friend of him!
And there's the whole Dallas connection: poor Mrs. Beaufort is related to every one
of you.
Her only chance would be to leave her husband--yet how can any one tell her so?
Her duty is at his side; and luckily she seems always to have been blind to his
private weaknesses."
There was a knock, and Mr. Letterblair turned his head sharply.
"What is it? I can't be disturbed."
A clerk brought in a letter for Archer and withdrew.
Recognising his wife's hand, the young man opened the envelope and read: "Won't you
please come up town as early as you can?
Granny had a slight stroke last night. In some mysterious way she found out before
any one else this awful news about the bank.
Uncle Lovell is away shooting, and the idea of the disgrace has made poor Papa so
nervous that he has a temperature and can't leave his room.
Mamma needs you dreadfully, and I do hope you can get away at once and go straight to
Granny's."
Archer handed the note to his senior partner, and a few minutes later was
crawling northward in a crowded horse-car, which he exchanged at Fourteenth Street for
one of the high staggering omnibuses of the Fifth Avenue line.
It was after twelve o'clock when this laborious vehicle dropped him at old
Catherine's.
The sitting-room window on the ground floor, where she usually throned, was
tenanted by the inadequate figure of her daughter, Mrs. Welland, who signed a
haggard welcome as she caught sight of Archer; and at the door he was met by May.
The hall wore the unnatural appearance peculiar to well-kept houses suddenly
invaded by illness: wraps and furs lay in heaps on the chairs, a doctor's bag and
overcoat were on the table, and beside them
letters and cards had already piled up unheeded.
May looked pale but smiling: Dr. Bencomb, who had just come for the second time, took
a more hopeful view, and Mrs. Mingott's dauntless determination to live and get
well was already having an effect on her family.
May led Archer into the old lady's sitting- room, where the sliding doors opening into
the bedroom had been drawn shut, and the heavy yellow damask portieres dropped over
them; and here Mrs. Welland communicated to
him in horrified undertones the details of the catastrophe.
It appeared that the evening before something dreadful and mysterious had
happened.
At about eight o'clock, just after Mrs. Mingott had finished the game of solitaire
that she always played after dinner, the door-bell had rung, and a lady so thickly
veiled that the servants did not
immediately recognise her had asked to be received.
The butler, hearing a familiar voice, had thrown open the sitting-room door,
announcing: "Mrs. Julius Beaufort"--and had then closed it again on the two ladies.
They must have been together, he thought, about an hour.
When Mrs. Mingott's bell rang Mrs. Beaufort had already slipped away unseen, and the
old lady, white and vast and terrible, sat alone in her great chair, and signed to the
butler to help her into her room.
She seemed, at that time, though obviously distressed, in complete control of her body
and brain.
The mulatto maid put her to bed, brought her a cup of tea as usual, laid everything
straight in the room, and went away; but at three in the morning the bell rang again,
and the two servants, hastening in at this
unwonted summons (for old Catherine usually slept like a baby), had found their
mistress sitting up against her pillows with a crooked smile on her face and one
little hand hanging limp from its huge arm.
The stroke had clearly been a slight one, for she was able to articulate and to make
her wishes known; and soon after the doctor's first visit she had begun to
regain control of her facial muscles.
But the alarm had been great; and proportionately great was the indignation
when it was gathered from Mrs. Mingott's fragmentary phrases that Regina Beaufort
had come to ask her--incredible
effrontery!--to back up her husband, see them through--not to "desert" them, as she
called it--in fact to induce the whole family to cover and condone their monstrous
dishonour.
"I said to her: 'Honour's always been honour, and honesty honesty, in Manson
Mingott's house, and will be till I'm carried out of it feet first,'" the old
woman had stammered into her daughter's
ear, in the thick voice of the partly paralysed.
"And when she said: 'But my name, Auntie-- my name's Regina Dallas,' I said: 'It was
Beaufort when he covered you with jewels, and it's got to stay Beaufort now that he's
covered you with shame.'"
So much, with tears and gasps of horror, Mrs. Welland imparted, blanched and
demolished by the unwonted obligation of having at last to fix her eyes on the
unpleasant and the discreditable.
"If only I could keep it from your father- in-law: he always says: 'Augusta, for
pity's sake, don't destroy my last illusions'--and how am I to prevent his
knowing these horrors?" the poor lady wailed.
"After all, Mamma, he won't have SEEN them," her daughter suggested; and Mrs.
Welland sighed: "Ah, no; thank heaven he's safe in bed.
And Dr. Bencomb has promised to keep him there till poor Mamma is better, and Regina
has been got away somewhere."
Archer had seated himself near the window and was gazing out blankly at the deserted
thoroughfare.
It was evident that he had been summoned rather for the moral support of the
stricken ladies than because of any specific aid that he could render.
Mr. Lovell Mingott had been telegraphed for, and messages were being despatched by
hand to the members of the family living in New York; and meanwhile there was nothing
to do but to discuss in hushed tones the
consequences of Beaufort's dishonour and of his wife's unjustifiable action.
Mrs. Lovell Mingott, who had been in another room writing notes, presently
reappeared, and added her voice to the discussion.
In THEIR day, the elder ladies agreed, the wife of a man who had done anything
disgraceful in business had only one idea: to efface herself, to disappear with him.
"There was the case of poor Grandmamma Spicer; your great-grandmother, May.
Of course," Mrs. Welland hastened to add, "your great-grandfather's money
difficulties were private--losses at cards, or signing a note for somebody--I never
quite knew, because Mamma would never speak of it.
But she was brought up in the country because her mother had to leave New York
after the disgrace, whatever it was: they lived up the Hudson alone, winter and
summer, till Mamma was sixteen.
It would never have occurred to Grandmamma Spicer to ask the family to 'countenance'
her, as I understand Regina calls it; though a private disgrace is nothing
compared to the scandal of ruining hundreds of innocent people."
"Yes, it would be more becoming in Regina to hide her own countenance than to talk
about other people's," Mrs. Lovell Mingott agreed.
"I understand that the emerald necklace she wore at the Opera last Friday had been sent
on approval from Ball and Black's in the afternoon.
I wonder if they'll ever get it back?"
Archer listened unmoved to the relentless chorus.
The idea of absolute financial probity as the first law of a gentleman's code was too
deeply ingrained in him for sentimental considerations to weaken it.
An adventurer like Lemuel Struthers might build up the millions of his Shoe Polish on
any number of shady dealings; but unblemished honesty was the noblesse oblige
of old financial New York.
Nor did Mrs. Beaufort's fate greatly move Archer.
He felt, no doubt, more sorry for her than her indignant relatives; but it seemed to
him that the tie between husband and wife, even if breakable in prosperity, should be
indissoluble in misfortune.
As Mr. Letterblair had said, a wife's place was at her husband's side when he was in
trouble; but society's place was not at his side, and Mrs. Beaufort's cool assumption
that it was seemed almost to make her his accomplice.
The mere idea of a woman's appealing to her family to screen her husband's business
dishonour was inadmissible, since it was the one thing that the Family, as an
institution, could not do.
The mulatto maid called Mrs. Lovell Mingott into the hall, and the latter came back in
a moment with a frowning brow. "She wants me to telegraph for Ellen
Olenska.
I had written to Ellen, of course, and to Medora; but now it seems that's not enough.
I'm to telegraph to her immediately, and to tell her that she's to come alone."
The announcement was received in silence.
Mrs. Welland sighed resignedly, and May rose from her seat and went to gather up
some newspapers that had been scattered on the floor.
"I suppose it must be done," Mrs. Lovell Mingott continued, as if hoping to be
contradicted; and May turned back toward the middle of the room.
"Of course it must be done," she said.
"Granny knows what she wants, and we must carry out all her wishes.
Shall I write the telegram for you, Auntie? If it goes at once Ellen can probably catch
tomorrow morning's train."
She pronounced the syllables of the name with a peculiar clearness, as if she had
tapped on two silver bells. "Well, it can't go at once.
Jasper and the pantry-boy are both out with notes and telegrams."
May turned to her husband with a smile. "But here's Newland, ready to do anything.
Will you take the telegram, Newland?
There'll be just time before luncheon." Archer rose with a murmur of readiness, and
she seated herself at old Catherine's rosewood "Bonheur du Jour," and wrote out
the message in her large immature hand.
When it was written she blotted it neatly and handed it to Archer.
"What a pity," she said, "that you and Ellen will cross each other on the way!--
Newland," she added, turning to her mother and aunt, "is obliged to go to Washington
about a patent law-suit that is coming up before the Supreme Court.
I suppose Uncle Lovell will be back by tomorrow night, and with Granny improving
so much it doesn't seem right to ask Newland to give up an important engagement
for the firm--does it?"
She paused, as if for an answer, and Mrs. Welland hastily declared: "Oh, of course
not, darling. Your Granny would be the last person to
wish it."
As Archer left the room with the telegram, he heard his mother-in-law add, presumably
to Mrs. Lovell Mingott: "But why on earth she should make you telegraph for Ellen
Olenska--" and May's clear voice rejoin:
"Perhaps it's to urge on her again that after all her duty is with her husband."
The outer door closed on Archer and he walked hastily away toward the telegraph
office.
>
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton CHAPTER XXVIII.
"Ol-ol--howjer spell it, anyhow?" asked the tart young lady to whom Archer had pushed
his wife's telegram across the brass ledge of the Western Union office.
"Olenska--O-len-ska," he repeated, drawing back the message in order to print out the
foreign syllables above May's rambling script.
"It's an unlikely name for a New York telegraph office; at least in this
quarter," an unexpected voice observed; and turning around Archer saw Lawrence Lefferts
at his elbow, pulling an imperturbable
moustache and affecting not to glance at the message.
"Hallo, Newland: thought I'd catch you here.
I've just heard of old Mrs. Mingott's stroke; and as I was on my way to the house
I saw you turning down this street and nipped after you.
I suppose you've come from there?"
Archer nodded, and pushed his telegram under the lattice.
"Very bad, eh?" Lefferts continued.
"Wiring to the family, I suppose.
I gather it IS bad, if you're including Countess Olenska."
Archer's lips stiffened; he felt a savage impulse to dash his fist into the long vain
handsome face at his side.
"Why?" he questioned. Lefferts, who was known to shrink from
discussion, raised his eye-brows with an ironic grimace that warned the other of the
watching damsel behind the lattice.
Nothing could be worse "form" the look reminded Archer, than any display of temper
in a public place.
Archer had never been more indifferent to the requirements of form; but his impulse
to do Lawrence Lefferts a physical injury was only momentary.
The idea of bandying Ellen Olenska's name with him at such a time, and on whatsoever
provocation, was unthinkable. He paid for his telegram, and the two young
men went out together into the street.
There Archer, having regained his self- control, went on: "Mrs. Mingott is much
better: the doctor feels no anxiety whatever"; and Lefferts, with profuse
expressions of relief, asked him if he had
heard that there were beastly bad rumours again about Beaufort....
That afternoon the announcement of the Beaufort failure was in all the papers.
It overshadowed the report of Mrs. Manson Mingott's stroke, and only the few who had
heard of the mysterious connection between the two events thought of ascribing old
Catherine's illness to anything but the accumulation of flesh and years.
The whole of New York was darkened by the tale of Beaufort's dishonour.
There had never, as Mr. Letterblair said, been a worse case in his memory, nor, for
that matter, in the memory of the far-off Letterblair who had given his name to the
firm.
The bank had continued to take in money for a whole day after its failure was
inevitable; and as many of its clients belonged to one or another of the ruling
clans, Beaufort's duplicity seemed doubly cynical.
If Mrs. Beaufort had not taken the tone that such misfortunes (the word was her
own) were "the test of friendship," compassion for her might have tempered the
general indignation against her husband.
As it was--and especially after the object of her nocturnal visit to Mrs. Manson
Mingott had become known--her cynicism was held to exceed his; and she had not the
excuse--nor her detractors the
satisfaction--of pleading that she was "a foreigner."
It was some comfort (to those whose securities were not in jeopardy) to be able
to remind themselves that Beaufort WAS; but, after all, if a Dallas of South
Carolina took his view of the case, and
glibly talked of his soon being "on his feet again," the argument lost its edge,
and there was nothing to do but to accept this awful evidence of the indissolubility
of marriage.
Society must manage to get on without the Beauforts, and there was an end of it--
except indeed for such hapless victims of the disaster as Medora Manson, the poor old
Miss Lannings, and certain other misguided
ladies of good family who, if only they had listened to Mr. Henry van der Luyden...
"The best thing the Beauforts can do," said Mrs. Archer, summing it up as if she were
pronouncing a diagnosis and prescribing a course of treatment, "is to go and live at
Regina's little place in North Carolina.
Beaufort has always kept a racing stable, and he had better breed trotting horses.
I should say he had all the qualities of a successful horsedealer."
Every one agreed with her, but no one condescended to enquire what the Beauforts
really meant to do.
The next day Mrs. Manson Mingott was much better: she recovered her voice
sufficiently to give orders that no one should mention the Beauforts to her again,
and asked--when Dr. Bencomb appeared--what
in the world her family meant by making such a fuss about her health.
"If people of my age WILL eat chicken-salad in the evening what are they to expect?"
she enquired; and, the doctor having opportunely modified her dietary, the
stroke was transformed into an attack of indigestion.
But in spite of her firm tone old Catherine did not wholly recover her former attitude
toward life.
The growing remoteness of old age, though it had not diminished her curiosity about
her neighbours, had blunted her never very lively compassion for their troubles; and
she seemed to have no difficulty in putting the Beaufort disaster out of her mind.
But for the first time she became absorbed in her own symptoms, and began to take a
sentimental interest in certain members of her family to whom she had hitherto been
contemptuously indifferent.
Mr. Welland, in particular, had the privilege of attracting her notice.
Of her sons-in-law he was the one she had most consistently ignored; and all his
wife's efforts to represent him as a man of forceful character and marked intellectual
ability (if he had only "chosen") had been met with a derisive chuckle.
But his eminence as a valetudinarian now made him an object of engrossing interest,
and Mrs. Mingott issued an imperial summons to him to come and compare diets as soon as
his temperature permitted; for old
Catherine was now the first to recognise that one could not be too careful about
temperatures.
Twenty-four hours after Madame Olenska's summons a telegram announced that she would
arrive from Washington on the evening of the following day.
At the Wellands', where the Newland Archers chanced to be lunching, the question as to
who should meet her at Jersey City was immediately raised; and the material
difficulties amid which the Welland
household struggled as if it had been a frontier outpost, lent animation to the
debate.
It was agreed that Mrs. Welland could not possibly go to Jersey City because she was
to accompany her husband to old Catherine's that afternoon, and the brougham could not
be spared, since, if Mr. Welland were
"upset" by seeing his mother-in-law for the first time after her attack, he might have
to be taken home at a moment's notice.
The Welland sons would of course be "down town," Mr. Lovell Mingott would be just
hurrying back from his shooting, and the Mingott carriage engaged in meeting him;
and one could not ask May, at the close of
a winter afternoon, to go alone across the ferry to Jersey City, even in her own
carriage.
Nevertheless, it might appear inhospitable- -and contrary to old Catherine's express
wishes--if Madame Olenska were allowed to arrive without any of the family being at
the station to receive her.
It was just like Ellen, Mrs. Welland's tired voice implied, to place the family in
such a dilemma.
"It's always one thing after another," the poor lady grieved, in one of her rare
revolts against fate; "the only thing that makes me think Mamma must be less well than
Dr. Bencomb will admit is this morbid
desire to have Ellen come at once, however inconvenient it is to meet her."
The words had been thoughtless, as the utterances of impatience often are; and Mr.
Welland was upon them with a pounce.
"Augusta," he said, turning pale and laying down his fork, "have you any other reason
for thinking that Bencomb is less to be relied on than he was?
Have you noticed that he has been less conscientious than usual in following up my
case or your mother's?"
It was Mrs. Welland's turn to grow pale as the endless consequences of her blunder
unrolled themselves before her; but she managed to laugh, and take a second helping
of scalloped oysters, before she said,
struggling back into her old armour of cheerfulness: "My dear, how could you
imagine such a thing?
I only meant that, after the decided stand Mamma took about its being Ellen's duty to
go back to her husband, it seems strange that she should be seized with this sudden
whim to see her, when there are half a
dozen other grandchildren that she might have asked for.
But we must never forget that Mamma, in spite of her wonderful vitality, is a very
old woman."
Mr. Welland's brow remained clouded, and it was evident that his perturbed imagination
had fastened at once on this last remark.
"Yes: your mother's a very old woman; and for all we know Bencomb may not be as
successful with very old people.
As you say, my dear, it's always one thing after another; and in another ten or
fifteen years I suppose I shall have the pleasing duty of looking about for a new
doctor.
It's always better to make such a change before it's absolutely necessary."
And having arrived at this Spartan decision Mr. Welland firmly took up his fork.
"But all the while," Mrs. Welland began again, as she rose from the luncheon-table,
and led the way into the wilderness of purple satin and malachite known as the
back drawing-room, "I don't see how Ellen's
to be got here tomorrow evening; and I do like to have things settled for at least
twenty-four hours ahead."
Archer turned from the fascinated contemplation of a small painting
representing two Cardinals carousing, in an octagonal ebony frame set with medallions
of onyx.
"Shall I fetch her?" he proposed. "I can easily get away from the office in
time to meet the brougham at the ferry, if May will send it there."
His heart was beating excitedly as he spoke.
Mrs. Welland heaved a sigh of gratitude, and May, who had moved away to the window,
turned to shed on him a beam of approval.
"So you see, Mamma, everything WILL be settled twenty-four hours in advance," she
said, stooping over to kiss her mother's troubled forehead.
May's brougham awaited her at the door, and she was to drive Archer to Union Square,
where he could pick up a Broadway car to carry him to the office.
As she settled herself in her corner she said: "I didn't want to worry Mamma by
raising fresh obstacles; but how can you meet Ellen tomorrow, and bring her back to
New York, when you're going to Washington?"
"Oh, I'm not going," Archer answered. "Not going?
Why, what's happened?" Her voice was as clear as a bell, and full
of wifely solicitude.
"The case is off--postponed." "Postponed?
How odd!
I saw a note this morning from Mr. Letterblair to Mamma saying that he was
going to Washington tomorrow for the big patent case that he was to argue before the
Supreme Court.
You said it was a patent case, didn't you?" "Well--that's it: the whole office can't
go. Letterblair decided to go this morning."
"Then it's NOT postponed?" she continued, with an insistence so unlike her that he
felt the blood rising to his face, as if he were blushing for her unwonted lapse from
all the traditional delicacies.
"No: but my going is," he answered, cursing the unnecessary explanations that he had
given when he had announced his intention of going to Washington, and wondering where
he had read that clever liars give details, but that the cleverest do not.
It did not hurt him half as much to tell May an untruth as to see her trying to
pretend that she had not detected him.
"I'm not going till later on: luckily for the convenience of your family," he
continued, taking base refuge in sarcasm.
As he spoke he felt that she was looking at him, and he turned his eyes to hers in
order not to appear to be avoiding them.
Their glances met for a second, and perhaps let them into each other's meanings more
deeply than either cared to go.
"Yes; it IS awfully convenient," May brightly agreed, "that you should be able
to meet Ellen after all; you saw how much Mamma appreciated your offering to do it."
"Oh, I'm delighted to do it."
The carriage stopped, and as he jumped out she leaned to him and laid her hand on his.
"Good-bye, dearest," she said, her eyes so blue that he wondered afterward if they had
shone on him through tears.
He turned away and hurried across Union Square, repeating to himself, in a sort of
inward chant: "It's all of two hours from Jersey City to old Catherine's.
It's all of two hours--and it may be more."
>
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton CHAPTER XXIX.
His wife's dark blue brougham (with the wedding varnish still on it) met Archer at
the ferry, and conveyed him luxuriously to the Pennsylvania terminus in Jersey City.
It was a sombre snowy afternoon, and the gas-lamps were lit in the big reverberating
station.
As he paced the platform, waiting for the Washington express, he remembered that
there were people who thought there would one day be a tunnel under the Hudson
through which the trains of the
Pennsylvania railway would run straight into New York.
They were of the brotherhood of visionaries who likewise predicted the building of
ships that would cross the Atlantic in five days, the invention of a flying machine,
lighting by electricity, telephonic
communication without wires, and other Arabian Night marvels.
"I don't care which of their visions comes true," Archer mused, "as long as the tunnel
isn't built yet."
In his senseless school-boy happiness he pictured Madame Olenska's descent from the
train, his discovery of her a long way off, among the throngs of meaningless faces, her
clinging to his arm as he guided her to the
carriage, their slow approach to the wharf among slipping horses, laden carts,
vociferating teamsters, and then the startling quiet of the ferry-boat, where
they would sit side by side under the snow,
in the motionless carriage, while the earth seemed to glide away under them, rolling to
the other side of the sun.
It was incredible, the number of things he had to say to her, and in what eloquent
order they were forming themselves on his lips...
The clanging and groaning of the train came nearer, and it staggered slowly into the
station like a prey-laden monster into its lair.
Archer pushed forward, elbowing through the crowd, and staring blindly into window
after window of the high-hung carriages.
And then, suddenly, he saw Madame Olenska's pale and surprised face close at hand, and
had again the mortified sensation of having forgotten what she looked like.
They reached each other, their hands met, and he drew her arm through his.
"This way--I have the carriage," he said. After that it all happened as he had
dreamed.
He helped her into the brougham with her bags, and had afterward the vague
recollection of having properly reassured her about her grandmother and given her a
summary of the Beaufort situation (he was
struck by the softness of her: "Poor Regina!").
Meanwhile the carriage had worked its way out of the coil about the station, and they
were crawling down the slippery incline to the wharf, menaced by swaying coal-carts,
bewildered horses, dishevelled express-
wagons, and an empty hearse--ah, that hearse!
She shut her eyes as it passed, and clutched at Archer's hand.
"If only it doesn't mean--poor Granny!" "Oh, no, no--she's much better--she's all
right, really. There--we've passed it!" he exclaimed, as
if that made all the difference.
Her hand remained in his, and as the carriage lurched across the gang-plank onto
the ferry he bent over, unbuttoned her tight brown glove, and kissed her palm as
if he had kissed a relic.
She disengaged herself with a faint smile, and he said: "You didn't expect me today?"
"Oh, no." "I meant to go to Washington to see you.
I'd made all my arrangements--I very nearly crossed you in the train."
"Oh--" she exclaimed, as if terrified by the narrowness of their escape.
"Do you know--I hardly remembered you?"
"Hardly remembered me?" "I mean: how shall I explain?
I--it's always so. EACH TIME YOU HAPPEN TO ME ALL OVER AGAIN."
"Oh, yes: I know!
I know!" "Does it--do I too: to you?" he insisted.
She nodded, looking out of the window. "Ellen--Ellen--Ellen!"
She made no answer, and he sat in silence, watching her profile grow indistinct
against the snow-streaked dusk beyond the window.
What had she been doing in all those four long months, he wondered?
How little they knew of each other, after all!
The precious moments were slipping away, but he had forgotten everything that he had
meant to say to her and could only helplessly brood on the mystery of their
remoteness and their proximity, which
seemed to be symbolised by the fact of their sitting so close to each other, and
yet being unable to see each other's faces. "What a pretty carriage!
Is it May's?" she asked, suddenly turning her face from the window.
"Yes." "It was May who sent you to fetch me, then?
How kind of her!"
He made no answer for a moment; then he said explosively: "Your husband's
secretary came to see me the day after we met in Boston."
In his brief letter to her he had made no allusion to M. Riviere's visit, and his
intention had been to bury the incident in his bosom.
But her reminder that they were in his wife's carriage provoked him to an impulse
of retaliation.
He would see if she liked his reference to Riviere any better than he liked hers to
May!
As on certain other occasions when he had expected to shake her out of her usual
composure, she betrayed no sign of surprise: and at once he concluded: "He
writes to her, then."
"M. Riviere went to see you?" "Yes: didn't you know?"
"No," she answered simply. "And you're not surprised?"
She hesitated.
"Why should I be? He told me in Boston that he knew you; that
he'd met you in England I think." "Ellen--I must ask you one thing."
"Yes."
"I wanted to ask it after I saw him, but I couldn't put it in a letter.
It was Riviere who helped you to get away-- when you left your husband?"
His heart was beating suffocatingly.
Would she meet this question with the same composure?
"Yes: I owe him a great debt," she answered, without the least tremor in her
quiet voice.
Her tone was so natural, so almost indifferent, that Archer's turmoil
subsided.
Once more she had managed, by her sheer simplicity, to make him feel stupidly
conventional just when he thought he was flinging convention to the winds.
"I think you're the most honest woman I ever met!" he exclaimed.
"Oh, no--but probably one of the least fussy," she answered, a smile in her voice.
"Call it what you like: you look at things as they are."
"Ah--I've had to. I've had to look at the Gorgon."
"Well--it hasn't blinded you!
You've seen that she's just an old bogey like all the others."
"She doesn't blind one; but she dries up one's tears."
The answer checked the pleading on Archer's lips: it seemed to come from depths of
experience beyond his reach.
The slow advance of the ferry-boat had ceased, and her bows bumped against the
piles of the slip with a violence that made the brougham stagger, and flung Archer and
Madame Olenska against each other.
The young man, trembling, felt the pressure of her shoulder, and passed his arm about
her. "If you're not blind, then, you must see
that this can't last."
"What can't?" "Our being together--and not together."
"No. You ought not to have come today," she said in an altered voice; and suddenly she
turned, flung her arms about him and pressed her lips to his.
At the same moment the carriage began to move, and a gas-lamp at the head of the
slip flashed its light into the window.
She drew away, and they sat silent and motionless while the brougham struggled
through the congestion of carriages about the ferry-landing.
As they gained the street Archer began to speak hurriedly.
"Don't be afraid of me: you needn't squeeze yourself back into your corner like that.
A stolen kiss isn't what I want.
Look: I'm not even trying to touch the sleeve of your jacket.
Don't suppose that I don't understand your reasons for not wanting to let this feeling
between us dwindle into an ordinary hole- and-corner love-affair.
I couldn't have spoken like this yesterday, because when we've been apart, and I'm
looking forward to seeing you, every thought is burnt up in a great flame.
But then you come; and you're so much more than I remembered, and what I want of you
is so much more than an hour or two every now and then, with wastes of thirsty
waiting between, that I can sit perfectly
still beside you, like this, with that other vision in my mind, just quietly
trusting to it to come true."
For a moment she made no reply; then she asked, hardly above a whisper: "What do you
mean by trusting to it to come true?" "Why--you know it will, don't you?"
"Your vision of you and me together?"
She burst into a sudden hard laugh. "You choose your place well to put it to
me!" "Do you mean because we're in my wife's
brougham?
Shall we get out and walk, then? I don't suppose you mind a little snow?"
She laughed again, more gently.
"No; I shan't get out and walk, because my business is to get to Granny's as quickly
as I can. And you'll sit beside me, and we'll look,
not at visions, but at realities."
"I don't know what you mean by realities. The only reality to me is this."
She met the words with a long silence, during which the carriage rolled down an
obscure side-street and then turned into the searching illumination of Fifth Avenue.
"Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as your mistress--since I can't be
your wife?" she asked.
The crudeness of the question startled him: the word was one that women of his class
fought shy of, even when their talk flitted closest about the topic.
He noticed that Madame Olenska pronounced it as if it had a recognised place in her
vocabulary, and he wondered if it had been used familiarly in her presence in the
horrible life she had fled from.
Her question pulled him up with a jerk, and he floundered.
"I want--I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that--
categories like that--won't exist.
Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of
life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter."
She drew a deep sigh that ended in another laugh.
"Oh, my dear--where is that country?
Have you ever been there?" she asked; and as he remained sullenly dumb she went on:
"I know so many who've tried to find it; and, believe me, they all got out by
mistake at wayside stations: at places like
Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo--and it wasn't at all different from the old world
they'd left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous."
He had never heard her speak in such a tone, and he remembered the phrase she had
used a little while before. "Yes, the Gorgon HAS dried your tears," he
said.
"Well, she opened my eyes too; it's a delusion to say that she blinds people.
What she does is just the contrary--she fastens their eyelids open, so that they're
never again in the blessed darkness.
Isn't there a Chinese torture like that? There ought to be.
Ah, believe me, it's a miserable little country!"
The carriage had crossed Forty-second Street: May's sturdy brougham-horse was
carrying them northward as if he had been a Kentucky trotter.
Archer choked with the sense of wasted minutes and vain words.
"Then what, exactly, is your plan for us?" he asked.
"For US?
But there's no US in that sense! We're near each other only if we stay far
from each other. Then we can be ourselves.
Otherwise we're only Newland Archer, the husband of Ellen Olenska's cousin, and
Ellen Olenska, the cousin of Newland Archer's wife, trying to be happy behind
the backs of the people who trust them."
"Ah, I'm beyond that," he groaned. "No, you're not!
You've never been beyond. And I have," she said, in a strange voice,
"and I know what it looks like there."
He sat silent, dazed with inarticulate pain.
Then he groped in the darkness of the carriage for the little bell that signalled
orders to the coachman.
He remembered that May rang twice when she wished to stop.
He pressed the bell, and the carriage drew up beside the curbstone.
"Why are we stopping?
This is not Granny's," Madame Olenska exclaimed.
"No: I shall get out here," he stammered, opening the door and jumping to the
pavement.
By the light of a street-lamp he saw her startled face, and the instinctive motion
she made to detain him. He closed the door, and leaned for a moment
in the window.
"You're right: I ought not to have come today," he said, lowering his voice so that
the coachman should not hear.
She bent forward, and seemed about to speak; but he had already called out the
order to drive on, and the carriage rolled away while he stood on the corner.
The snow was over, and a tingling wind had sprung up, that lashed his face as he stood
gazing.
Suddenly he felt something stiff and cold on his lashes, and perceived that he had
been crying, and that the wind had frozen his tears.
He thrust his hands in his pockets, and walked at a sharp pace down Fifth Avenue to
his own house.
>
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton CHAPTER XXX.
That evening when Archer came down before dinner he found the drawing-room empty.
He and May were dining alone, all the family engagements having been postponed
since Mrs. Manson Mingott's illness; and as May was the more punctual of the two he was
surprised that she had not preceded him.
He knew that she was at home, for while he dressed he had heard her moving about in
her room; and he wondered what had delayed her.
He had fallen into the way of dwelling on such conjectures as a means of tying his
thoughts fast to reality.
Sometimes he felt as if he had found the clue to his father-in-law's absorption in
trifles; perhaps even Mr. Welland, long ago, had had escapes and visions, and had
conjured up all the hosts of domesticity to defend himself against them.
When May appeared he thought she looked tired.
She had put on the low-necked and tightly- laced dinner-dress which the Mingott
ceremonial exacted on the most informal occasions, and had built her fair hair into
its usual accumulated coils; and her face, in contrast, was wan and almost faded.
But she shone on him with her usual tenderness, and her eyes had kept the blue
dazzle of the day before.
"What became of you, dear?" she asked. "I was waiting at Granny's, and Ellen came
alone, and said she had dropped you on the way because you had to rush off on
business.
There's nothing wrong?" "Only some letters I'd forgotten, and
wanted to get off before dinner."
"Ah--" she said; and a moment afterward: "I'm sorry you didn't come to Granny's--
unless the letters were urgent." "They were," he rejoined, surprised at her
insistence.
"Besides, I don't see why I should have gone to your grandmother's.
I didn't know you were there." She turned and moved to the looking-glass
above the mantel-piece.
As she stood there, lifting her long arm to fasten a puff that had slipped from its
place in her intricate hair, Archer was struck by something languid and inelastic
in her attitude, and wondered if the deadly
monotony of their lives had laid its weight on her also.
Then he remembered that, as he had left the house that morning, she had called over the
stairs that she would meet him at her grandmother's so that they might drive home
together.
He had called back a cheery "Yes!" and then, absorbed in other visions, had
forgotten his promise.
Now he was smitten with compunction, yet irritated that so trifling an omission
should be stored up against him after nearly two years of marriage.
He was weary of living in a perpetual tepid honeymoon, without the temperature of
passion yet with all its exactions.
If May had spoken out her grievances (he suspected her of many) he might have
laughed them away; but she was trained to conceal imaginary wounds under a Spartan
smile.
To disguise his own annoyance he asked how her grandmother was, and she answered that
Mrs. Mingott was still improving, but had been rather disturbed by the last news
about the Beauforts.
"What news?" "It seems they're going to stay in New
York. I believe he's going into an insurance
business, or something.
They're looking about for a small house." The preposterousness of the case was beyond
discussion, and they went in to dinner.
During dinner their talk moved in its usual limited circle; but Archer noticed that his
wife made no allusion to Madame Olenska, nor to old Catherine's reception of her.
He was thankful for the fact, yet felt it to be vaguely ominous.
They went up to the library for coffee, and Archer lit a cigar and took down a volume
of Michelet.
He had taken to history in the evenings since May had shown a tendency to ask him
to read aloud whenever she saw him with a volume of poetry: not that he disliked the
sound of his own voice, but because he
could always foresee her comments on what he read.
In the days of their engagement she had simply (as he now perceived) echoed what he
told her; but since he had ceased to provide her with opinions she had begun to
hazard her own, with results destructive to his enjoyment of the works commented on.
Seeing that he had chosen history she fetched her workbasket, drew up an arm-
chair to the green-shaded student lamp, and uncovered a cushion she was embroidering
for his sofa.
She was not a clever needle-woman; her large capable hands were made for riding,
rowing and open-air activities; but since other wives embroidered cushions for their
husbands she did not wish to omit this last link in her devotion.
She was so placed that Archer, by merely raising his eyes, could see her bent above
her work-frame, her ruffled elbow-sleeves slipping back from her firm round arms, the
betrothal sapphire shining on her left hand
above her broad gold wedding-ring, and the right hand slowly and laboriously stabbing
the canvas.
As she sat thus, the lamplight full on her clear brow, he said to himself with a
secret dismay that he would always know the thoughts behind it, that never, in all the
years to come, would she surprise him by an
unexpected mood, by a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or an emotion.
She had spent her poetry and romance on their short courting: the function was
exhausted because the need was past.
Now she was simply ripening into a copy of her mother, and mysteriously, by the very
process, trying to turn him into a Mr. Welland.
He laid down his book and stood up impatiently; and at once she raised her
head. "What's the matter?"
"The room is stifling: I want a little air."
He had insisted that the library curtains should draw backward and forward on a rod,
so that they might be closed in the evening, instead of remaining nailed to a
gilt cornice, and immovably looped up over
layers of lace, as in the drawing-room; and he pulled them back and pushed up the sash,
leaning out into the icy night.
The mere fact of not looking at May, seated beside his table, under his lamp, the fact
of seeing other houses, roofs, chimneys, of getting the sense of other lives outside
his own, other cities beyond New York, and
a whole world beyond his world, cleared his brain and made it easier to breathe.
After he had leaned out into the darkness for a few minutes he heard her say:
"Newland!
Do shut the window. You'll catch your death."
He pulled the sash down and turned back. "Catch my death!" he echoed; and he felt
like adding: "But I've caught it already.
I AM dead--I've been dead for months and months."
And suddenly the play of the word flashed up a wild suggestion.
What if it were SHE who was dead!
If she were going to die--to die soon--and leave him free!
The sensation of standing there, in that warm familiar room, and looking at her, and
wishing her dead, was so strange, so fascinating and overmastering, that its
enormity did not immediately strike him.
He simply felt that chance had given him a new possibility to which his sick soul
might cling.
Yes, May might die--people did: young people, healthy people like herself: she
might die, and set him suddenly free.
She glanced up, and he saw by her widening eyes that there must be something strange
in his own. "Newland!
Are you ill?"
He shook his head and turned toward his arm-chair.
She bent over her work-frame, and as he passed he laid his hand on her hair.
"Poor May!" he said.
"Poor? Why poor?" she echoed with a strained
laugh.
"Because I shall never be able to open a window without worrying you," he rejoined,
laughing also.
For a moment she was silent; then she said very low, her head bowed over her work: "I
shall never worry if you're happy." "Ah, my dear; and I shall never be happy
unless I can open the windows!"
"In THIS weather?" she remonstrated; and with a sigh he buried his head in his book.
Six or seven days passed.
Archer heard nothing from Madame Olenska, and became aware that her name would not be
mentioned in his presence by any member of the family.
He did not try to see her; to do so while she was at old Catherine's guarded bedside
would have been almost impossible.
In the uncertainty of the situation he let himself drift, conscious, somewhere below
the surface of his thoughts, of a resolve which had come to him when he had leaned
out from his library window into the icy night.
The strength of that resolve made it easy to wait and make no sign.
Then one day May told him that Mrs. Manson Mingott had asked to see him.
There was nothing surprising in the request, for the old lady was steadily
recovering, and she had always openly declared that she preferred Archer to any
of her other grandsons-in-law.
May gave the message with evident pleasure: she was proud of old Catherine's
appreciation of her husband.
There was a moment's pause, and then Archer felt it incumbent on him to say: "All
right. Shall we go together this afternoon?"
His wife's face brightened, but she instantly answered: "Oh, you'd much better
go alone. It bores Granny to see the same people too
often."
Archer's heart was beating violently when he rang old Mrs. Mingott's bell.
He had wanted above all things to go alone, for he felt sure the visit would give him
the chance of saying a word in private to the Countess Olenska.
He had determined to wait till the chance presented itself naturally; and here it
was, and here he was on the doorstep.
Behind the door, behind the curtains of the yellow damask room next to the hall, she
was surely awaiting him; in another moment he should see her, and be able to speak to
her before she led him to the sick-room.
He wanted only to put one question: after that his course would be clear.
What he wished to ask was simply the date of her return to Washington; and that
question she could hardly refuse to answer.
But in the yellow sitting-room it was the mulatto maid who waited.
Her white teeth shining like a keyboard, she pushed back the sliding doors and
ushered him into old Catherine's presence.
The old woman sat in a vast throne-like arm-chair near her bed.
Beside her was a mahogany stand bearing a cast bronze lamp with an engraved globe,
over which a green paper shade had been balanced.
There was not a book or a newspaper in reach, nor any evidence of feminine
employment: conversation had always been Mrs. Mingott's sole pursuit, and she would
have scorned to feign an interest in fancywork.
Archer saw no trace of the slight distortion left by her stroke.
She merely looked paler, with darker shadows in the folds and recesses of her
obesity; and, in the fluted mob-cap tied by a starched bow between her first two chins,
and the muslin kerchief crossed over her
billowing purple dressing-gown, she seemed like some shrewd and kindly ancestress of
her own who might have yielded too freely to the pleasures of the table.
She held out one of the little hands that nestled in a hollow of her huge lap like
pet animals, and called to the maid: "Don't let in any one else.
If my daughters call, say I'm asleep."
The maid disappeared, and the old lady turned to her grandson.
"My dear, am I perfectly hideous?" she asked gaily, launching out one hand in
search of the folds of muslin on her inaccessible bosom.
"My daughters tell me it doesn't matter at my age--as if hideousness didn't matter all
the more the harder it gets to conceal!" "My dear, you're handsomer than ever!"
Archer rejoined in the same tone; and she threw back her head and laughed.
"Ah, but not as handsome as Ellen!" she jerked out, twinkling at him maliciously;
and before he could answer she added: "Was she so awfully handsome the day you drove
her up from the ferry?"
He laughed, and she continued: "Was it because you told her so that she had to put
you out on the way? In my youth young men didn't desert pretty
women unless they were made to!"
She gave another chuckle, and interrupted it to say almost querulously: "It's a pity
she didn't marry you; I always told her so. It would have spared me all this worry.
But who ever thought of sparing their grandmother worry?"
Archer wondered if her illness had blurred her faculties; but suddenly she broke out:
"Well, it's settled, anyhow: she's going to stay with me, whatever the rest of the
family say!
She hadn't been here five minutes before I'd have gone down on my knees to keep her-
-if only, for the last twenty years, I'd been able to see where the floor was!"
Archer listened in silence, and she went on: "They'd talked me over, as no doubt
you know: persuaded me, Lovell, and Letterblair, and Augusta Welland, and all
the rest of them, that I must hold out and
cut off her allowance, till she was made to see that it was her duty to go back to
Olenski.
They thought they'd convinced me when the secretary, or whatever he was, came out
with the last proposals: handsome proposals I confess they were.
After all, marriage is marriage, and money's money--both useful things in their
way...and I didn't know what to answer--" She broke off and drew a long breath, as if
speaking had become an effort.
"But the minute I laid eyes on her, I said: 'You sweet bird, you!
Shut you up in that cage again? Never!'
And now it's settled that she's to stay here and nurse her Granny as long as
there's a Granny to nurse.
It's not a gay prospect, but she doesn't mind; and of course I've told Letterblair
that she's to be given her proper allowance."
The young man heard her with veins aglow; but in his confusion of mind he hardly knew
whether her news brought joy or pain.
He had so definitely decided on the course he meant to pursue that for the moment he
could not readjust his thoughts.
But gradually there stole over him the delicious sense of difficulties deferred
and opportunities miraculously provided.
If Ellen had consented to come and live with her grandmother it must surely be
because she had recognised the impossibility of giving him up.
This was her answer to his final appeal of the other day: if she would not take the
extreme step he had urged, she had at last yielded to half-measures.
He sank back into the thought with the involuntary relief of a man who has been
ready to risk everything, and suddenly tastes the dangerous sweetness of security.
"She couldn't have gone back--it was impossible!" he exclaimed.
"Ah, my dear, I always knew you were on her side; and that's why I sent for you today,
and why I said to your pretty wife, when she proposed to come with you: 'No, my
dear, I'm pining to see Newland, and I
don't want anybody to share our transports.'
For you see, my dear--" she drew her head back as far as its tethering chins
permitted, and looked him full in the eyes- -"you see, we shall have a fight yet.
The family don't want her here, and they'll say it's because I've been ill, because I'm
a weak old woman, that she's persuaded me. I'm not well enough yet to fight them one
by one, and you've got to do it for me."
"I?" he stammered. "You. Why not?" she jerked back at him, her
round eyes suddenly as sharp as pen-knives.
Her hand fluttered from its chair-arm and lit on his with a clutch of little pale
nails like bird-claws. "Why not?" she searchingly repeated.
Archer, under the exposure of her gaze, had recovered his self-possession.
"Oh, I don't count--I'm too insignificant." "Well, you're Letterblair's partner, ain't
you?
You've got to get at them through Letterblair.
Unless you've got a reason," she insisted.
"Oh, my dear, I back you to hold your own against them all without my help; but you
shall have it if you need it," he reassured her.
"Then we're safe!" she sighed; and smiling on him with all her ancient cunning she
added, as she settled her head among the cushions: "I always knew you'd back us up,
because they never quote you when they talk about its being her duty to go home."
He winced a little at her terrifying perspicacity, and longed to ask: "And May--
do they quote her?"
But he judged it safer to turn the question.
"And Madame Olenska? When am I to see her?" he said.
The old lady chuckled, crumpled her lids, and went through the pantomime of archness.
"Not today. One at a time, please.
Madame Olenska's gone out."
He flushed with disappointment, and she went on: "She's gone out, my child: gone in
my carriage to see Regina Beaufort." She paused for this announcement to produce
its effect.
"That's what she's reduced me to already. The day after she got here she put on her
best bonnet, and told me, as cool as a cucumber, that she was going to call on
Regina Beaufort.
'I don't know her; who is she?' says I. 'She's your grand-niece, and a most unhappy
woman,' she says. 'She's the wife of a scoundrel,' I
answered.
'Well,' she says, 'and so am I, and yet all my family want me to go back to him.'
Well, that floored me, and I let her go; and finally one day she said it was raining
too hard to go out on foot, and she wanted me to lend her my carriage.
'What for?'
I asked her; and she said: 'To go and see cousin Regina'--COUSIN!
Now, my dear, I looked out of the window, and saw it wasn't raining a drop; but I
understood her, and I let her have the carriage....
After all, Regina's a brave woman, and so is she; and I've always liked courage above
everything." Archer bent down and pressed his lips on
the little hand that still lay on his.
"Eh--eh--eh!
Whose hand did you think you were kissing, young man--your wife's, I hope?" the old
lady snapped out with her mocking cackle; and as he rose to go she called out after
him: "Give her her Granny's love; but
you'd better not say anything about our talk."
>