It was certainly a strange quarter to have settled in.Small dress-makers, bird-stuffers and "people whowrote" were her nearest neighbours; and further downthe dishevelled street Archer recognised a dilapidatedwooden house, at the end of a paved path, in which awriter and journalist called Winsett, whom he used tocome across now and then, had mentioned that helived. Winsett did not invite people to his house; but hehad once pointed it out to Archer in the course of anocturnal stroll, and the latter had asked himself, witha little shiver, if the humanities were so meanly housedin other capitals.
Madame Olenska's own dwelling was redeemed fromthe same appearance only by a little more paint aboutthe window-frames; and as Archer mustered its modestfront he said to himself that the Polish Count musthave robbed her of her fortune as well as of her illusions.
The young man had spent an unsatisfactory day. Hehad lunched with the Wellands, hoping afterward tocarry off May for a walk in the Park. He wanted tohave her to himself, to tell her how enchanting she hadlooked the night before, and how proud he was of her,and to press her to hasten their marriage. But Mrs.Welland had firmly reminded him that the round offamily visits was not half over, and, when he hinted atadvancing the date of the wedding, had raised reproachfuleye-brows and sighed out: "Twelve dozen ofeverything--hand-embroidered--"
Packed in the family landau they rolled from onetribal doorstep to another, and Archer, when the afternoon'sround was over, parted from his betrothed withthe feeling that he had been shown off like a wildanimal cunningly trapped. He supposed that his readingsin anthropology caused him to take such a coarseview of what was after all a simple and naturaldemonstration of family feeling; but when he rememberedthat the Wellands did not expect the wedding to takeplace till the following autumn, and pictured what hislife would be till then, a dampness fell upon his spirit.
"Tomorrow," Mrs. Welland called after him, "we'lldo the Chiverses and the Dallases"; and he perceivedthat she was going through their two families alphabetically,and that they were only in the first quarter of thealphabet.
He had meant to tell May of the Countess Olenska'srequest--her command, rather--that he should call onher that afternoon; but in the brief moments when theywere alone he had had more pressing things to say.Besides, it struck him as a little absurd to allude to thematter. He knew that May most particularly wantedhim to be kind to her cousin; was it not that wishwhich had hastened the announcement of their engagement?It gave him an odd sensation to reflect that, butfor the Countess's arrival, he might have been, if notstill a free man, at least a man less irrevocably pledged.But May had willed it so, and he felt himself somehowrelieved of further responsibility--and therefore at liberty,if he chose, to call on her cousin without tellingher.
As he stood on Madame Olenska's threshold curiositywas his uppermost feeling. He was puzzled by thetone in which she had summoned him; he concludedthat she was less simple than she seemed.
The door was opened by a swarthy foreign-lookingmaid, with a prominent bosom under a gay neckerchief,whom he vaguely fancied to be Sicilian. Shewelcomed him with all her white teeth, and answeringhis enquiries by a head-shake of incomprehension ledhim through the narrow hall into a low firelit drawing-room. The room was empty, and she left him, for anappreciable time, to wonder whether she had gone tofind her mistress, or whether she had not understoodwhat he was there for, and thought it might be to windthe clock--of which he perceived that the only visiblespecimen had stopped. He knew that the southern racescommunicated with each other in the language ofpantomime, and was mortified to find her shrugs andsmiles so unintelligible. At length she returned with alamp; and Archer, having meanwhile put together aphrase out of Dante and Petrarch, evoked the answer:"La signora e fuori; ma verra subito"; which he tookto mean: "She's out--but you'll soon see."
What he saw, meanwhile, with the help of the lamp,was the faded shadowy charm of a room unlike anyroom he had known. He knew that the Countess Olenskahad brought some of her possessions with her--bits ofwreckage, she called them--and these, he supposed,were represented by some small slender tables of darkwood, a delicate little Greek bronze on the chimney-piece, and a stretch of red damask nailed on thediscoloured wallpaper behind a couple of Italian-lookingpictures in old frames.
Newland Archer prided himself on his knowledge ofItalian art. His boyhood had been saturated withRuskin, and he had read all the latest books: John AddingtonSymonds, Vernon Lee's "Euphorion," the essays of P.
Hamerton, and a wonderful new volume called "The Renaissance" by Walter Pater. He talked easily of Botticelli, and spoke of Fra Angelico with a faint condescension. But these pictures bewildered him, for they were like nothing that he was accustomed to look at (and therefore able to see) when he travelled in Italy; and perhaps, also, his powers of observation were impaired by the oddness of finding himself in this strange empty house, where apparently no one expected him. He was sorry that he had not told May Welland of Countess Olenska's request, and a little disturbed by the thought that his betrothed might come in to see her cousin. What would she think if she found him sitting there with the air of intimacy implied by waiting alone in the dusk at a lady's fireside?
But since he had come he meant to wait; and he sankinto a chair and stretched his feet to the logs.
It was odd to have summoned him in that way, andthen forgotten him; but Archer felt more curious thanmortified. The atmosphere of the room was so differentfrom any he had ever breathed that self-consciousnessvanished in the sense of adventure. He had been beforein drawing-rooms hung with red damask, with pictures"of the Italian school"; what struck him was the wayin which Medora Manson's shabby hired house, withits blighted background of pampas grass and Rogersstatuettes, had, by a turn of the hand, and the skilfuluse of a few properties, been transformed into somethingintimate, "foreign," subtly suggestive of oldromantic scenes and sentiments. He tried to analyse thetrick, to find a clue to it in the way the chairs andtables were grouped, in the fact that only two Jacqueminotroses (of which nobody ever bought less than adozen) had been placed in the slender vase at his elbow,and in the vague pervading perfume that was notwhat one put on handkerchiefs, but rather like thescent of some far-off bazaar, a smell made up of Turkishcoffee and ambergris and dried roses.
His mind wandered away to the question of whatMay's drawing-room would look like. He knew thatMr. Welland, who was behaving "very handsomely,"already had his eye on a newly built house in EastThirty-ninth Street. The neighbourhood was thoughtremote, and the house was built in a ghastly greenish-yellow stone that the younger architects were beginningto employ as a protest against the brownstone of whichthe uniform hue coated New York like a cold chocolatesauce; but the plumbing was perfect. Archer wouldhave liked to travel, to put off the housing question;but, though the Wellands approved of an extendedEuropean honeymoon (perhaps even a winter in Egypt),they were firm as to the need of a house for thereturning couple. The young man felt that his fate wassealed: for the rest of his life he would go up everyevening between the cast-iron railings of that greenish-yellow doorstep, and pass through a Pompeian vestibuleinto a hall with a wainscoting of varnished yellowwood. But beyond that his imagination could not travel.He knew the drawing-room above had a bay window,but he could not fancy how May would deal with it.She submitted cheerfully to the purple satin and yellowtuftings of the Welland drawing-room, to its sham Buhltables and gilt vitrines full of modern Saxe. He saw noreason to suppose that she would want anything differentin her own house; and his only comfort was toreflect that she would probably let him arrange hislibrary as he pleased--which would be, of course, with"sincere" Eastlake furniture, and the plain new bookcaseswithout glass doors.
The round-bosomed maid came in, drew thecurtains, pushed back a log, and said consolingly:"Verra--verra." When she had gone Archer stood upand began to wander about. Should he wait any longer?His position was becoming rather foolish. Perhaps hehad misunderstood Madame Olenska--perhaps she hadnot invited him after all.
Down the cobblestones of the quiet street came thering of a stepper's hoofs; they stopped before the house,and he caught the opening of a carriage door. Partingthe curtains he looked out into the early dusk. A street-lamp faced him, and in its light he saw Julius Beaufort'scompact English brougham, drawn by a big roan,and the banker descending from it, and helping outMadame Olenska.
Beaufort stood, hat in hand, saying something whichhis companion seemed to negative; then they shookhands, and he jumped into his carriage while shemounted the steps.
When she entered the room she showed no surpriseat seeing Archer there; surprise seemed the emotionthat she was least addicted to.
"How do you like my funny house?" she asked. "Tome it's like heaven."
As she spoke she untied her little velvet bonnet andtossing it away with her long cloak stood looking athim with meditative eyes.
"You've arranged it delightfully," he rejoined, aliveto the flatness of the words, but imprisoned in theconventional by his consuming desire to be simple andstriking.
"Oh, it's a poor little place. My relations despise it.But at any rate it's less gloomy than the van derLuydens'."
The words gave him an electric shock, for few werethe rebellious spirits who would have dared to call thestately home of the van der Luydens gloomy. Thoseprivileged to enter it shivered there, and spoke of it as"handsome." But suddenly he was glad that she hadgiven voice to the general shiver.
"It's delicious--what you've done here," he repeated.
"I like the little house," she admitted; "but I supposewhat I like is the blessedness of its being here, in myown country and my own town; and then, of beingalone in it." She spoke so low that he hardly heard thelast phrase; but in his awkwardness he took it up.
"You like so much to be alone?"
"Yes; as long as my friends keep me from feelinglonely." She sat down near the fire, said: "Nastasia willbring the tea presently," and signed to him to return tohis armchair, adding: "I see you've already chosen yourcorner."
Leaning back, she folded her arms behind her head,and looked at the fire under drooping lids.
"This is the hour I like best--don't you?"
A proper sense of his dignity caused him to answer:"I was afraid you'd forgotten the hour. Beaufort musthave been very engrossing."
She looked amused. "Why--have you waited long?Mr. Beaufort took me to see a number of houses--since it seems I'm not to be allowed to stay in thisone." She appeared to dismiss both Beaufort and himselffrom her mind, and went on: "I've never been in acity where there seems to be such a feeling againstliving in des quartiers excentriques. What does itmatter where one lives? I'm told this street is respectable."
"It's not fashionable."
"Fashionable! Do you all think so much of that?Why not make one's own fashions? But I suppose I'velived too independently; at any rate, I want to do whatyou all do--I want to feel cared for and safe."
He was touched, as he had been the evening beforewhen she spoke of her need of guidance.
"That's what your friends want you to feel. NewYork's an awfully safe place," he added with a flash ofsarcasm.
"Yes, isn't it? One feels that," she cried, missing themockery. "Being here is like--like--being taken on aholiday when one has been a good little girl and doneall one's lessons."
The analogy was well meant, but did not altogetherplease him. He did not mind being flippant about NewYork, but disliked to hear any one else take the sametone. He wondered if she did not begin to see what apowerful engine it was, and how nearly it had crushedher. The Lovell Mingotts' dinner, patched up in extremisout of all sorts of social odds and ends, ought to havetaught her the narrowness of her escape; but either shehad been all along unaware of having skirted disaster,or else she had lost sight of it in the triumph of the vander Luyden evening. Archer inclined to the former theory;he fancied that her New York was still completelyundifferentiated, and the conjecture nettled him.
"Last night," he said, "New York laid itself out foryou. The van der Luydens do nothing by halves."
"No: how kind they are! It was such a nice party.Every one seems to have such an esteem for them."
The terms were hardly adequate; she might havespoken in that way of a tea-party at the dear old MissLannings'.
"The van der Luydens," said Archer, feeling himselfpompous as he spoke, "are the most powerful influencein New York society. Unfortunately--owing to herhealth--they receive very seldom."
She unclasped her hands from behind her head, andlooked at him meditatively.
"Isn't that perhaps the reason?"
"For their great influence; that they make themselvesso rare."
He coloured a little, stared at her--and suddenly feltthe penetration of the remark. At a stroke she hadpricked the van der Luydens and they collapsed. Helaughed, and sacrificed them.
Nastasia brought the tea, with handleless Japanesecups and little covered dishes, placing the tray on a lowtable.
"But you'll explain these things to me--you'll tell meall I ought to know," Madame Olenska continued,leaning forward to hand him his cup.
"It's you who are telling me; opening my eyes tothings I'd looked at so long that I'd ceased to seethem."
She detached a small gold cigarette-case from one ofher bracelets, held it out to him, and took a cigaretteherself. On the chimney were long spills for lightingthem.
"Ah, then we can both help each other. But I wanthelp so much more. You must tell me just what to do."
It was on the tip of his tongue to reply: "Don't beseen driving about the streets with Beaufort--" but hewas being too deeply drawn into the atmosphere of theroom, which was her atmosphere, and to give advice ofthat sort would have been like telling some one whowas bargaining for attar-of-roses in Samarkand that oneshould always be provided with arctics for a New Yorkwinter. New York seemed much farther off thanSamarkand, and if they were indeed to help each othershe was rendering what might prove the first of theirmutual services by making him look at his native cityobjectively. Viewed thus, as through the wrong end ofa telescope, it looked disconcertingly small and distant;but then from Samarkand it would.
A flame darted from the logs and she bent over thefire, stretching her thin hands so close to it that a fainthalo shone about the oval nails. The light touched torusset the rings of dark hair escaping from her braids,and made her pale face paler.
"There are plenty of people to tell you what to do,"Archer rejoined, obscurely envious of them.
"Oh--all my aunts? And my dear old Granny?" Sheconsidered the idea impartially. "They're all a littlevexed with me for setting up for myself--poor Grannyespecially. She wanted to keep me with her; but I hadto be free--" He was impressed by this light way ofspeaking of the formidable Catherine, and moved bythe thought of what must have given Madame Olenskathis thirst for even the loneliest kind of freedom. Butthe idea of Beaufort gnawed him.
"I think I understand how you feel," he said. "Still,your family can advise you; explain differences; showyou the way."
She lifted her thin black eyebrows. "Is New Yorksuch a labyrinth? I thought it so straight up and down--like Fifth Avenue. And with all the cross streetsnumbered!" She seemed to guess his faint disapproval ofthis, and added, with the rare smile that enchanted herwhole face: "If you knew how I like it for just THAT--the straight-up-and-downness, and the big honest labels on everything!"
He saw his chance. "Everything may be labelled--but everybody is not."
"Perhaps. I may simplify too much--but you'll warnme if I do." She turned from the fire to look at him."There are only two people here who make me feel asif they understood what I mean and could explainthings to me: you and Mr. Beaufort."
Archer winced at the joining of the names, and then,with a quick readjustment, understood, sympathisedand pitied. So close to the powers of evil she must havelived that she still breathed more freely in their air. Butsince she felt that he understood her also, his businesswould be to make her see Beaufort as he really was,with all he represented--and abhor it.
He answered gently: "I understand. But just at firstdon't let go of your old friends' hands: I mean theolder women, your Granny Mingott, Mrs. Welland,Mrs. van der Luyden. They like and admire you--theywant to help you."
She shook her head and sighed. "Oh, I know--Iknow! But on condition that they don't hear anythingunpleasant. Aunt Welland put it in those very wordswhen I tried. . . . Does no one want to know the truthhere, Mr. Archer? The real loneliness is living amongall these kind people who only ask one to pretend!"She lifted her hands to her face, and he saw her thinshoulders shaken by a sob.
"Madame Olenska!--Oh, don't, Ellen," he cried, startingup and bending over her. He drew down one of herhands, clasping and chafing it like a child's while hemurmured reassuring words; but in a moment she freedherself, and looked up at him with wet lashes.
"Does no one cry here, either? I suppose there's noneed to, in heaven," she said, straightening her loosenedbraids with a laugh, and bending over the tea-kettle. It was burnt into his consciousness that he hadcalled her "Ellen"--called her so twice; and that shehad not noticed it. Far down the inverted telescope hesaw the faint white figure of May Welland--in NewYork.
Suddenly Nastasia put her head in to say somethingin her rich Italian.
Madame Olenska, again with a hand at her hair,uttered an exclamation of assent--a flashing "Gia--gia"--and the Duke of St. Austrey entered, pilotinga tremendous blackwigged and red-plumed lady in overflowing furs.
"My dear Countess, I've brought an old friend ofmine to see you--Mrs. Struthers. She wasn't asked tothe party last night, and she wants to know you."
The Duke beamed on the group, and Madame Olenskaadvanced with a murmur of welcome toward the queercouple. She seemed to have no idea how oddly matchedthey were, nor what a liberty the Duke had taken inbringing his companion--and to do him justice, asArcher perceived, the Duke seemed as unaware of ithimself.
"Of course I want to know you, my dear," criedMrs. Struthers in a round rolling voice that matchedher bold feathers and her brazen wig. "I want to knoweverybody who's young and interesting and charming.And the Duke tells me you like music--didn't you,Duke? You're a pianist yourself, I believe? Well, doyou want to hear Sarasate play tomorrow evening atmy house? You know I've something going on everySunday evening--it's the day when New York doesn'tknow what to do with itself, and so I say to it: `Comeand be amused.' And the Duke thought you'd be temptedby Sarasate. You'll find a number of your friends."
Madame Olenska's face grew brilliant with pleasure."How kind! How good of the Duke to think of me!"She pushed a chair up to the tea-table and Mrs. Strutherssank into it delectably. "Of course I shall be toohappy to come."
"That's all right, my dear. And bring your younggentleman with you." Mrs. Struthers extended a hail-fellow hand to Archer. "I can't put a name to you--butI'm sure I've met you--I've met everybody, here, or inParis or London. Aren't you in diplomacy? All thediplomatists come to me. You like music too? Duke,you must be sure to bring him."
The Duke said "Rather" from the depths of hisbeard, and Archer withdrew with a stiffly circular bowthat made him feel as full of spine as a self-consciousschool-boy among careless and unnoticing elders.
He was not sorry for the denouement of his visit:he only wished it had come sooner, and spared him acertain waste of emotion. As he went out into thewintry night, New York again became vast and imminent,and May Welland the loveliest woman in it. Heturned into his florist's to send her the daily box oflilies-of-the-valley which, to his confusion, he found hehad forgotten that morning.
As he wrote a word on his card and waited for anenvelope he glanced about the embowered shop, andhis eye lit on a cluster of yellow roses. He had neverseen any as sun-golden before, and his first impulsewas to send them to May instead of the lilies. But theydid not look like her--there was something too rich,too strong, in their fiery beauty. In a sudden revulsionof mood, and almost without knowing what he did, hesigned to the florist to lay the roses in another longbox, and slipped his card into a second envelope, onwhich he wrote the name of the Countess Olenska;then, just as he was turning away, he drew the card outagain, and left the empty envelope on the box.
"They'll go at once?" he enquired, pointing to theroses.
The florist assured him that they would.