Beyond the small and slippery pyramid whichcomposed Mrs. Archer's world lay the almost unmappedquarter inhabited by artists, musicians and "peoplewho wrote." These scattered fragments of humanityhad never shown any desire to be amalgamated withthe social structure. In spite of odd ways they were saidto be, for the most part, quite respectable; but theypreferred to keep to themselves. Medora Manson, inher prosperous days, had inaugurated a "literarysalon"; but it had soon died out owing to the reluctanceof the literary to frequent it.
Others had made the same attempt, and there was ahousehold of Blenkers--an intense and voluble mother,and three blowsy daughters who imitated her--whereone met Edwin Booth and Patti and William Winter,and the new Shakespearian actor George Rignold, andsome of the magazine editors and musical and literarycritics.
Mrs. Archer and her group felt a certain timidityconcerning these persons. They were odd, they wereuncertain, they had things one didn't know about inthe background of their lives and minds. Literature andart were deeply respected in the Archer set, and Mrs.Archer was always at pains to tell her children howmuch more agreeable and cultivated society had beenwhen it included such figures as Washington Irving,Fitz-Greene Halleck and the poet of "The Culprit Fay."The most celebrated authors of that generation hadbeen "gentlemen"; perhaps the unknown persons whosucceeded them had gentlemanly sentiments, but theirorigin, their appearance, their hair, their intimacy withthe stage and the Opera, made any old New Yorkcriterion inapplicable to them.
"When I was a girl," Mrs. Archer used to say, "weknew everybody between the Battery and Canal Street;and only the people one knew had carriages. It wasperfectly easy to place any one then; now one can't tell,and I prefer not to try."
Only old Catherine Mingott, with her absence ofmoral prejudices and almost parvenu indifference tothe subtler distinctions, might have bridged the abyss;but she had never opened a book or looked at apicture, and cared for music only because it reminded herof gala nights at the Italiens, in the days of her triumphat the Tuileries. Possibly Beaufort, who was her matchin daring, would have succeeded in bringing about afusion; but his grand house and silk-stockinged footmenwere an obstacle to informal sociability. Moreover,he was as illiterate as old Mrs. Mingott, andconsidered "fellows who wrote" as the mere paidpurveyors of rich men's pleasures; and no one rich enoughto influence his opinion had ever questioned it.
Newland Archer had been aware of these things eversince he could remember, and had accepted them aspart of the structure of his universe. He knew thatthere were societies where painters and poets andnovelists and men of science, and even great actors, wereas sought after as Dukes; he had often pictured tohimself what it would have been to live in the intimacyof drawing-rooms dominated by the talk of Merimee(whose "Lettres a une Inconnue" was one of hisinseparables), of Thackeray, Browning or William Morris.But such things were inconceivable in New York, andunsettling to think of. Archer knew most of the"fellows who wrote," the musicians and the painters: hemet them at the Century, or at the little musical andtheatrical clubs that were beginning to come intoexistence. He enjoyed them there, and was bored withthem at the Blenkers', where they were mingled withfervid and dowdy women who passed them about likecaptured curiosities; and even after his most excitingtalks with Ned Winsett he always came away with thefeeling that if his world was small, so was theirs, andthat the only way to enlarge either was to reach a stageof manners where they would naturally merge.
He was reminded of this by trying to picture thesociety in which the Countess Olenska had lived andsuffered, and also--perhaps--tasted mysterious joys.He remembered with what amusement she had toldhim that her grandmother Mingott and the Wellandsobjected to her living in a "Bohemian" quarter givenover to "people who wrote." It was not the peril butthe poverty that her family disliked; but that shadeescaped her, and she supposed they consideredliterature compromising.
She herself had no fears of it, and the booksscattered about her drawing-room (a part of the house inwhich books were usually supposed to be "out of place"),though chiefly works of fiction, had whetted Archer'sinterest with such new names as those of Paul Bourget,Huysmans, and the Goncourt brothers. Ruminating onthese things as he approached her door, he was oncemore conscious of the curious way in which shereversed his values, and of the need of thinking himselfinto conditions incredibly different from any that heknew if he were to be of use in her present difficulty.
Nastasia opened the door, smiling mysteriously. Onthe bench in the hall lay a sable-lined overcoat, afolded opera hat of dull silk with a gold J. B. on thelining, and a white silk muffler: there was no mistakingthe fact that these costly articles were the property ofJulius Beaufort.
Archer was angry: so angry that he came near scribblinga word on his card and going away; then heremembered that in writing to Madame Olenska hehad been kept by excess of discretion from saying thathe wished to see her privately. He had therefore no onebut himself to blame if she had opened her doors toother visitors; and he entered the drawing-room withthe dogged determination to make Beaufort feel himselfin the way, and to outstay him.
The banker stood leaning against the mantelshelf,which was draped with an old embroidery held in placeby brass candelabra containing church candies ofyellowish wax. He had thrust his chest out, supporting hisshoulders against the mantel and resting his weight onone large patent-leather foot. As Archer entered he wassmiling and looking down on his hostess, who sat on asofa placed at right angles to the chimney. A tablebanked with flowers formed a screen behind it, andagainst the orchids and azaleas which the young manrecognised as tributes from the Beaufort hot-houses,Madame Olenska sat half-reclined, her head proppedon a hand and her wide sleeve leaving the arm bare tothe elbow.
It was usual for ladies who received in the eveningsto wear what were called "simple dinner dresses": aclose-fitting armour of whale-boned silk, slightly openin the neck, with lace ruffles filling in the crack, andtight sleeves with a flounce uncovering just enoughwrist to show an Etruscan gold bracelet or a velvetband. But Madame Olenska, heedless of tradition, wasattired in a long robe of red velvet bordered about thechin and down the front with glossy black fur. Archerremembered, on his last visit to Paris, seeing a portraitby the new painter, Carolus Duran, whose pictureswere the sensation of the Salon, in which the lady woreone of these bold sheath-like robes with her chin nestlingin fur. There was something perverse and provocativein the notion of fur worn in the evening in a heateddrawing-room, and in the combination of a muffledthroat and bare arms; but the effect was undeniablypleasing.
"Lord love us--three whole days at Skuytercliff!"Beaufort was saying in his loud sneering voice as Archerentered. "You'd better take all your furs, and ahot-water-bottle."
"Why? Is the house so cold?" she asked, holding outher left hand to Archer in a way mysteriously suggestingthat she expected him to kiss it.
"No; but the missus is," said Beaufort, noddingcarelessly to the young man.
"But I thought her so kind. She came herself to inviteme. Granny says I must certainly go."
"Granny would, of course. And I say it's a shameyou're going to miss the little oyster supper I'd plannedfor you at Delmonico's next Sunday, with Campaniniand Scalchi and a lot of jolly people."
She looked doubtfully from the banker to Archer.
"Ah--that does tempt me! Except the other eveningat Mrs. Struthers's I've not met a single artist since I'vebeen here."
"What kind of artists? I know one or two painters,very good fellows, that I could bring to see you if you'dallow me," said Archer boldly.
"Painters? Are there painters in New York?" askedBeaufort, in a tone implying that there could be nonesince he did not buy their pictures; and Madame Olenskasaid to Archer, with her grave smile: "That would becharming. But I was really thinking of dramatic artists,singers, actors, musicians. My husband's house wasalways full of them."
She said the words "my husband" as if no sinisterassociations were connected with them, and in a tonethat seemed almost to sigh over the lost delights of hermarried life. Archer looked at her perplexedly, wonderingif it were lightness or dissimulation that enabled herto touch so easily on the past at the very moment whenshe was risking her reputation in order to break with it.
"I do think," she went on, addressing both men,that the imprevu adds to one's enjoyment. It's perhapsa mistake to see the same people every day."
"It's confoundedly dull, anyhow; New York is dyingof dullness," Beaufort grumbled. "And when I try toliven it up for you, you go back on me. Come--thinkbetter of it! Sunday is your last chance, for Campaninileaves next week for Baltimore and Philadelphia; andI've a private room, and a Steinway, and they'll sing allnight for me."
"How delicious! May I think it over, and write toyou tomorrow morning?"
She spoke amiably, yet with the least hint ofdismissal in her voice. Beaufort evidently felt it, and beingunused to dismissals, stood staring at her with an obstinateline between his eyes.
"Why not now?"
"It's too serious a question to decide at this latehour."
"Do you call it late?"
She returned his glance coolly. "Yes; because I havestill to talk business with Mr. Archer for a little while."
"Ah," Beaufort snapped. There was no appeal fromher tone, and with a slight shrug he recovered hiscomposure, took her hand, which he kissed with apractised air, and calling out from the threshold: "Isay, Newland, if you can persuade the Countess to stopin town of course you're included in the supper," leftthe room with his heavy important step.
For a moment Archer fancied that Mr. Letterblairmust have told her of his coming; but the irrelevance ofher next remark made him change his mind.
"You know painters, then? You live in their milieu?"she asked, her eyes full of interest.
"Oh, not exactly. I don't know that the arts have amilieu here, any of them; they're more like a verythinly settled outskirt."
"But you care for such things?"
"Immensely. When I'm in Paris or London I nevermiss an exhibition. I try to keep up."
She looked down at the tip of the little satin bootthat peeped from her long draperies.
"I used to care immensely too: my life was full ofsuch things. But now I want to try not to."
"You want to try not to?"
"Yes: I want to cast off all my old life, to becomejust like everybody else here."
Archer reddened. "You'll never be like everybodyelse," he said.
She raised her straight eyebrows a little. "Ah, don'tsay that. If you knew how I hate to be different!"
Her face had grown as sombre as a tragic mask. Sheleaned forward, clasping her knee in her thin hands,and looking away from him into remote dark distances.
"I want to get away from it all," she insisted.
He waited a moment and cleared his throat. "I know.Mr. Letterblair has told me."
"That's the reason I've come. He asked me to--yousee I'm in the firm."
She looked slightly surprised, and then her eyes brightened."You mean you can manage it for me? I can talkto you instead of Mr. Letterblair? Oh, that will be somuch easier!"
Her tone touched him, and his confidence grew withhis self-satisfaction. He perceived that she had spokenof business to Beaufort simply to get rid of him; and tohave routed Beaufort was something of a triumph.
"I am here to talk about it," he repeated.
She sat silent, her head still propped by the arm thatrested on the back of the sofa. Her face looked paleand extinguished, as if dimmed by the rich red of herdress. She struck Archer, of a sudden, as a pathetic andeven pitiful figure.
"Now we're coming to hard facts," he thought,conscious in himself of the same instinctive recoil that hehad so often criticised in his mother and her contemporaries.How little practice he had had in dealing withunusual situations! Their very vocabulary was unfamiliarto him, and seemed to belong to fiction and thestage. In face of what was coming he felt as awkwardand embarrassed as a boy.
After a pause Madame Olenska broke out withunexpected vehemence: "I want to be free; I want to wipeout all the past."
"I understand that."
Her face warmed. "Then you'll help me?"
"First--" he hesitated--"perhaps I ought to know alittle more."
She seemed surprised. "You know about my husband--my life with him?"
He made a sign of assent.
"Well--then--what more is there? In this countryare such things tolerated? I'm a Protestant--our churchdoes not forbid divorce in such cases."
They were both silent again, and Archer felt thespectre of Count Olenski's letter grimacing hideouslybetween them. The letter filled only half a page, andwas just what he had described it to be in speaking of itto Mr. Letterblair: the vague charge of an angryblackguard. But how much truth was behind it? Only CountOlenski's wife could tell.
"I've looked through the papers you gave to Mr.Letterblair," he said at length.
"Well--can there be anything more abominable?"
She changed her position slightly, screening her eyeswith her lifted hand.
"Of course you know," Archer continued, "that ifyour husband chooses to fight the case--as he threatens to--"
"He can say things--things that might be unpl--mightbe disagreeable to you: say them publicly, so that theywould get about, and harm you even if--"
"I mean: no matter how unfounded they were."
She paused for a long interval; so long that, notwishing to keep his eyes on her shaded face, he hadtime to imprint on his mind the exact shape of herother hand, the one on her knee, and every detail of thethree rings on her fourth and fifth fingers; among which,he noticed, a wedding ring did not appear.
"What harm could such accusations, even if he madethem publicly, do me here?"
It was on his lips to exclaim: "My poor child--farmore harm than anywhere else!" Instead, he answered,in a voice that sounded in his ears like Mr. Letterblair's:"New York society is a very small world comparedwith the one you've lived in. And it's ruled, in spite ofappearances, by a few people with--well, rather old-fashioned ideas."
She said nothing, and he continued: "Our ideas aboutmarriage and divorce are particularly old-fashioned.Our legislation favours divorce--our social customsdon't."
"Well--not if the woman, however injured, howeverirreproachable, has appearances in the least degreeagainst her, has exposed herself by any unconventionalaction to--to offensive insinuations--"
She drooped her head a little lower, and he waitedagain, intensely hoping for a flash of indignation, or atleast a brief cry of denial. None came.
A little travelling clock ticked purringly at her elbow,and a log broke in two and sent up a shower of sparks.The whole hushed and brooding room seemed to bewaiting silently with Archer.
"Yes," she murmured at length, "that's what myfamily tell me."
He winced a little. "It's not unnatural--"
"OUR family," she corrected herself; and Archercoloured. "For you'll be my cousin soon," she continuedgently.
"I hope so."
"And you take their view?"
He stood up at this, wandered across the room,stared with void eyes at one of the pictures against theold red damask, and came back irresolutely to her side.How could he say: "Yes, if what your husband hints istrue, or if you've no way of disproving it?"
"Sincerely--" she interjected, as he was about tospeak.
He looked down into the fire. "Sincerely, then--whatshould you gain that would compensate for the possibility--the certainty--of a lot of beastly talk?"
"But my freedom--is that nothing?"
It flashed across him at that instant that the chargein the letter was true, and that she hoped to marry thepartner of her guilt. How was he to tell her that, if shereally cherished such a plan, the laws of the State wereinexorably opposed to it? The mere suspicion that thethought was in her mind made him feel harshly andimpatiently toward her. "But aren't you as free as airas it is?" he returned. "Who can touch you? Mr.Letterblair tells me the financial question has beensettled--"
"Oh, yes," she said indifferently.
"Well, then: is it worth while to risk what may beinfinitely disagreeable and painful? Think of thenewspapers--their vileness! It's all stupid and narrow andunjust--but one can't make over society."
"No," she acquiesced; and her tone was so faint anddesolate that he felt a sudden remorse for his own hardthoughts.
"The individual, in such cases, is nearly alwayssacrificed to what is supposed to be the collective interest:people cling to any convention that keeps the familytogether--protects the children, if there are any," herambled on, pouring out all the stock phrases that roseto his lips in his intense desire to cover over the uglyreality which her silence seemed to have laid bare.Since she would not or could not say the one word thatwould have cleared the air, his wish was not to let herfeel that he was trying to probe into her secret. Betterkeep on the surface, in the prudent old New York way,than risk uncovering a wound he could not heal.
"It's my business, you know," he went on, "to helpyou to see these things as the people who are fondest ofyou see them. The Mingotts, the Wellands, the van derLuydens, all your friends and relations: if I didn't showyou honestly how they judge such questions, it wouldn'tbe fair of me, would it?" He spoke insistently, almostpleading with her in his eagerness to cover up thatyawning silence.
She said slowly: "No; it wouldn't be fair."
The fire had crumbled down to greyness, and one ofthe lamps made a gurgling appeal for attention. MadameOlenska rose, wound it up and returned to thefire, but without resuming her seat.
Her remaining on her feet seemed to signify thatthere was nothing more for either of them to say, andArcher stood up also.
"Very well; I will do what you wish," she saidabruptly. The blood rushed to his forehead; and, takenaback by the suddenness of her surrender, he caughther two hands awkwardly in his.
"I--I do want to help you," he said.
"You do help me. Good night, my cousin."
He bent and laid his lips on her hands, which werecold and lifeless. She drew them away, and he turnedto the door, found his coat and hat under the faintgas-light of the hall, and plunged out into the winternight bursting with the belated eloquence of the inarticulate.