The day was delectable. The bare vaulting of treesalong the Mall was ceiled with lapis lazuli, and archedabove snow that shone like splintered crystals. It wasthe weather to call out May's radiance, and she burnedlike a young maple in the frost. Archer was proud ofthe glances turned on her, and the simple joy ofpossessorship cleared away his underlying perplexities.
"It's so delicious--waking every morning to smelllilies-of-the-valley in one's room!" she said.
"Yesterday they came late. I hadn't time in themorning--"
"But your remembering each day to send them makesme love them so much more than if you'd given astanding order, and they came every morning on theminute, like one's music-teacher--as I know GertrudeLefferts's did, for instance, when she and Lawrencewere engaged."
"Ah--they would!" laughed Archer, amused at herkeenness. He looked sideways at her fruit-like cheekand felt rich and secure enough to add: "When I sentyour lilies yesterday afternoon I saw some rathergorgeous yellow roses and packed them off to MadameOlenska. Was that right?"
"How dear of you! Anything of that kind delightsher. It's odd she didn't mention it: she lunched with ustoday, and spoke of Mr. Beaufort's having sent herwonderful orchids, and cousin Henry van der Luyden awhole hamper of carnations from Skuytercliff. She seemsso surprised to receive flowers. Don't people send themin Europe? She thinks it such a pretty custom."
"Oh, well, no wonder mine were overshadowed byBeaufort's," said Archer irritably. Then he rememberedthat he had not put a card with the roses, andwas vexed at having spoken of them. He wanted tosay: "I called on your cousin yesterday," but hesitated.If Madame Olenska had not spoken of his visit it mightseem awkward that he should. Yet not to do so gavethe affair an air of mystery that he disliked. To shakeoff the question he began to talk of their own plans,their future, and Mrs. Welland's insistence on a longengagement.
"If you call it long! Isabel Chivers and Reggie wereengaged for two years: Grace and Thorley for nearly ayear and a half. Why aren't we very well off as weare?"
It was the traditional maidenly interrogation, and hefelt ashamed of himself for finding it singularly childish.No doubt she simply echoed what was said for her;but she was nearing her twenty-second birthday, andhe wondered at what age "nice" women began tospeak for themselves.
"Never, if we won't let them, I suppose," he mused,and recalled his mad outburst to Mr. Sillerton Jackson:"Women ought to be as free as we are--"
It would presently be his task to take the bandagefrom this young woman's eyes, and bid her look forthon the world. But how many generations of the womenwho had gone to her making had descended bandagedto the family vault? He shivered a little, rememberingsome of the new ideas in his scientific books, and themuch-cited instance of the Kentucky cave-fish, whichhad ceased to develop eyes because they had no use forthem. What if, when he had bidden May Welland toopen hers, they could only look out blankly at blankness?
"We might be much better off. We might bealtogether together--we might travel."
Her face lit up. "That would be lovely," she owned:she would love to travel. But her mother would notunderstand their wanting to do things so differently.
"As if the mere `differently' didn't account for it!"the wooer insisted.
"Newland! You're so original!" she exulted.
His heart sank, for he saw that he was saying all thethings that young men in the same situation wereexpected to say, and that she was making the answersthat instinct and tradition taught her to make--even tothe point of calling him original.
"Original! We're all as like each other as those dollscut out of the same folded paper. We're like patternsstencilled on a wall. Can't you and I strike out forourselves, May?"
He had stopped and faced her in the excitement oftheir discussion, and her eyes rested on him with abright unclouded admiration.
"Mercy--shall we elope?" she laughed.
"If you would--"
"You DO love me, Newland! I'm so happy."
"But then--why not be happier?"
"We can't behave like people in novels, though, canwe?"
"Why not--why not--why not?"
She looked a little bored by his insistence. She knewvery well that they couldn't, but it was troublesome tohave to produce a reason. "I'm not clever enough toargue with you. But that kind of thing is rather--vulgar,isn't it?" she suggested, relieved to have hit on a wordthat would assuredly extinguish the whole subject.
"Are you so much afraid, then, of being vulgar?"
She was evidently staggered by this. "Of course Ishould hate it--so would you," she rejoined, a trifleirritably.
He stood silent, beating his stick nervously againsthis boot-top; and feeling that she had indeed found theright way of closing the discussion, she went on light-heartedly: "Oh, did I tell you that I showed Ellen myring? She thinks it the most beautiful setting she eversaw. There's nothing like it in the rue de la Paix, shesaid. I do love you, Newland, for being so artistic!"
The next afternoon, as Archer, before dinner, satsmoking sullenly in his study, Janey wandered in onhim. He had failed to stop at his club on the way upfrom the office where he exercised the profession of thelaw in the leisurely manner common to well-to-do NewYorkers of his class. He was out of spirits and slightlyout of temper, and a haunting horror of doing the samething every day at the same hour besieged his brain.
"Sameness--sameness!" he muttered, the wordrunning through his head like a persecuting tune as he sawthe familiar tall-hatted figures lounging behind the plate-glass; and because he usually dropped in at the club atthat hour he had gone home instead. He knew not onlywhat they were likely to be talking about, but the parteach one would take in the discussion. The Duke ofcourse would be their principal theme; though theappearance in Fifth Avenue of a golden-haired lady in asmall canary-coloured brougham with a pair of blackcobs (for which Beaufort was generally thoughtresponsible) would also doubtless be thoroughly goneinto. Such "women" (as they were called) were few inNew York, those driving their own carriages still fewer,and the appearance of Miss Fanny Ring in Fifth Avenueat the fashionable hour had profoundly agitatedsociety. Only the day before, her carriage had passedMrs. Lovell Mingott's, and the latter had instantly rungthe little bell at her elbow and ordered the coachman todrive her home. "What if it had happened to Mrs. vander Luyden?" people asked each other with a shudder.Archer could hear Lawrence Lefferts, at that very hour,holding forth on the disintegration of society.
He raised his head irritably when his sister Janeyentered, and then quickly bent over his book (Swinburne's"Chastelard"--just out) as if he had not seenher. She glanced at the writing-table heaped with books,opened a volume of the "Contes Drolatiques," madea wry face over the archaic French, and sighed: "Whatlearned things you read!"
"Well--?" he asked, as she hovered Cassandra-likebefore him.
"Mother's very angry."
"Angry? With whom? About what?"
"Miss Sophy Jackson has just been here. She broughtword that her brother would come in after dinner: shecouldn't say very much, because he forbade her to: hewishes to give all the details himself. He's with cousinLouisa van der Luyden now."
"For heaven's sake, my dear girl, try a fresh start. Itwould take an omniscient Deity to know what you'retalking about."
"It's not a time to be profane, Newland. . . . Motherfeels badly enough about your not going to church . . ."
With a groan he plunged back into his book.
"NEWLAND! Do listen. Your friend Madame Olenskawas at Mrs. Lemuel Struthers's party last night: shewent there with the Duke and Mr. Beaufort."
At the last clause of this announcement a senselessanger swelled the young man's breast. To smother it helaughed. "Well, what of it? I knew she meant to."
Janey paled and her eyes began to project. "Youknew she meant to--and you didn't try to stop her? Towarn her?"
"Stop her? Warn her?" He laughed again. "I'm notengaged to be married to the Countess Olenska!" Thewords had a fantastic sound in his own ears.
"You're marrying into her family."
"Oh, family--family!" he jeered.
"Newland--don't you care about Family?"
"Not a brass farthing."
"Nor about what cousin Louisa van der Luyden willthink?"
"Not the half of one--if she thinks such old maid'srubbish."
"Mother is not an old maid," said his virgin sisterwith pinched lips.
He felt like shouting back: "Yes, she is, and so arethe van der Luydens, and so we all are, when it comesto being so much as brushed by the wing-tip of Reality."But he saw her long gentle face puckering intotears, and felt ashamed of the useless pain he wasinflicting.
"Hang Countess Olenska! Don't be a goose, Janey--I'm not her keeper."
"No; but you DID ask the Wellands to announceyour engagement sooner so that we might all back herup; and if it hadn't been for that cousin Louisa wouldnever have invited her to the dinner for the Duke."
"Well--what harm was there in inviting her? Shewas the best-looking woman in the room; she made thedinner a little less funereal than the usual van derLuyden banquet."
"You know cousin Henry asked her to please you:he persuaded cousin Louisa. And now they're so upsetthat they're going back to Skuytercliff tomorrow. Ithink, Newland, you'd better come down. You don'tseem to understand how mother feels."
In the drawing-room Newland found his mother. Sheraised a troubled brow from her needlework to ask:"Has Janey told you?"
"Yes." He tried to keep his tone as measured as herown. "But I can't take it very seriously."
"Not the fact of having offended cousin Louisa andcousin Henry?"
"The fact that they can be offended by such a trifleas Countess Olenska's going to the house of a womanthey consider common."
"Well, who is; but who has good music, and amusespeople on Sunday evenings, when the whole of NewYork is dying of inanition."
"Good music? All I know is, there was a womanwho got up on a table and sang the things they sing atthe places you go to in Paris. There was smoking andchampagne."
"Well--that kind of thing happens in other places,and the world still goes on."
"I don't suppose, dear, you're really defending theFrench Sunday?"
"I've heard you often enough, mother, grumble atthe English Sunday when we've been in London."
"New York is neither Paris nor London."
"Oh, no, it's not!" her son groaned.
"You mean, I suppose, that society here is not asbrilliant? You're right, I daresay; but we belong here,and people should respect our ways when they comeamong us. Ellen Olenska especially: she came back toget away from the kind of life people lead in brilliantsocieties."
Newland made no answer, and after a moment hismother ventured: "I was going to put on my bonnetand ask you to take me to see cousin Louisa for amoment before dinner." He frowned, and she continued:"I thought you might explain to her what you'vejust said: that society abroad is different . . . that peopleare not as particular, and that Madame Olenskamay not have realised how we feel about such things. Itwould be, you know, dear," she added with an innocentadroitness, "in Madame Olenska's interest if youdid."
"Dearest mother, I really don't see how we'reconcerned in the matter. The Duke took Madame Olenskato Mrs. Struthers's--in fact he brought Mrs. Struthersto call on her. I was there when they came. If the vander Luydens want to quarrel with anybody, the realculprit is under their own roof."
"Quarrel? Newland, did you ever know of cousinHenry's quarrelling? Besides, the Duke's his guest; anda stranger too. Strangers don't discriminate: how shouldthey? Countess Olenska is a New Yorker, and shouldhave respected the feelings of New York."
"Well, then, if they must have a victim, you have myleave to throw Madame Olenska to them," cried herson, exasperated. "I don't see myself--or you either--offering ourselves up to expiate her crimes."
"Oh, of course you see only the Mingott side," hismother answered, in the sensitive tone that was hernearest approach to anger.
The sad butler drew back the drawing-roomportieres and announced: "Mr. Henry van der Luyden."
Mrs. Archer dropped her needle and pushed herchair back with an agitated hand.
"Another lamp," she cried to the retreating servant,while Janey bent over to straighten her mother's cap.
Mr. van der Luyden's figure loomed on the threshold,and Newland Archer went forward to greet hiscousin.
"We were just talking about you, sir," he said.
Mr. van der Luyden seemed overwhelmed by theannouncement. He drew off his glove to shake handswith the ladies, and smoothed his tall hat shyly, whileJaney pushed an arm-chair forward, and Archercontinued: "And the Countess Olenska."
Mrs. Archer paled.
"Ah--a charming woman. I have just been to seeher," said Mr. van der Luyden, complacency restoredto his brow. He sank into the chair, laid his hat andgloves on the floor beside him in the old-fashionedway, and went on: "She has a real gift for arrangingflowers. I had sent her a few carnations from Skuytercliff,and I was astonished. Instead of massing them in bigbunches as our head-gardener does, she had scatteredthem about loosely, here and there . . . I can't say how.The Duke had told me: he said: `Go and see howcleverly she's arranged her drawing-room.' And shehas. I should really like to take Louisa to see her, if theneighbourhood were not so--unpleasant."
A dead silence greeted this unusual flow of wordsfrom Mr. van der Luyden. Mrs. Archer drew herembroidery out of the basket into which she hadnervously tumbled it, and Newland, leaning against thechimney-place and twisting a humming-bird-featherscreen in his hand, saw Janey's gaping countenance litup by the coming of the second lamp.
"The fact is," Mr. van der Luyden continued, strokinghis long grey leg with a bloodless hand weigheddown by the Patroon's great signet-ring, "the fact is, Idropped in to thank her for the very pretty note shewrote me about my flowers; and also--but this isbetween ourselves, of course--to give her a friendly warningabout allowing the Duke to carry her off to partieswith him. I don't know if you've heard--"
Mrs. Archer produced an indulgent smile. "Has theDuke been carrying her off to parties?"
"You know what these English grandees are. They'reall alike. Louisa and I are very fond of our cousin--butit's hopeless to expect people who are accustomed tothe European courts to trouble themselves about ourlittle republican distinctions. The Duke goes where he'samused." Mr. van der Luyden paused, but no onespoke. "Yes--it seems he took her with him last nightto Mrs. Lemuel Struthers's. Sillerton Jackson has justbeen to us with the foolish story, and Louisa wasrather troubled. So I thought the shortest way was togo straight to Countess Olenska and explain--by themerest hint, you know--how we feel in New Yorkabout certain things. I felt I might, without indelicacy,because the evening she dined with us she rathersuggested . . . rather let me see that she would be gratefulfor guidance. And she WAS."
Mr. van der Luyden looked about the room withwhat would have been self-satisfaction on features lesspurged of the vulgar passions. On his face it became amild benevolence which Mrs. Archer's countenancedutifully reflected.
"How kind you both are, dear Henry--always!Newland will particularly appreciate what you havedone because of dear May and his new relations."
She shot an admonitory glance at her son, who said:"Immensely, sir. But I was sure you'd like MadameOlenska."
Mr. van der Luyden looked at him with extremegentleness. "I never ask to my house, my dear Newland,"he said, "any one whom I do not like. And so I havejust told Sillerton Jackson." With a glance at the clockhe rose and added: "But Louisa will be waiting. We aredining early, to take the Duke to the Opera."
After the portieres had solemnly closed behind theirvisitor a silence fell upon the Archer family.
"Gracious--how romantic!" at last broke explosivelyfrom Janey. No one knew exactly what inspired herelliptic comments, and her relations had long sincegiven up trying to interpret them.
Mrs. Archer shook her head with a sigh. "Provided itall turns out for the best," she said, in the tone of onewho knows how surely it will not. "Newland, youmust stay and see Sillerton Jackson when he comes thisevening: I really shan't know what to say to him."
"Poor mother! But he won't come--" her son laughed,stooping to kiss away her frown.