The play was "The Shaughraun," with DionBoucicault in the title role and Harry Montague andAda Dyas as the lovers. The popularity of the admirableEnglish company was at its height, and the Shaughraunalways packed the house. In the galleries the enthusiasmwas unreserved; in the stalls and boxes, peoplesmiled a little at the hackneyed sentiments and clap-trap situations, and enjoyed the play as much as thegalleries did.
There was one episode, in particular, that held thehouse from floor to ceiling. It was that in which HarryMontague, after a sad, almost monosyllabic scene ofparting with Miss Dyas, bade her good-bye, and turnedto go. The actress, who was standing near the mantelpieceand looking down into the fire, wore a graycashmere dress without fashionable loopings or trimmings,moulded to her tall figure and flowing in longlines about her feet. Around her neck was a narrowblack velvet ribbon with the ends falling down herback.
When her wooer turned from her she rested her armsagainst the mantel-shelf and bowed her face in herhands. On the threshold he paused to look at her; thenhe stole back, lifted one of the ends of velvet ribbon,kissed it, and left the room without her hearing him orchanging her attitude. And on this silent parting thecurtain fell.
It was always for the sake of that particular scenethat Newland Archer went to see "The Shaughraun."He thought the adieux of Montague and Ada Dyas asfine as anything he had ever seen Croisette and Bressantdo in Paris, or Madge Robertson and Kendal in London;in its reticence, its dumb sorrow, it moved himmore than the most famous histrionic outpourings.
On the evening in question the little scene acquiredan added poignancy by reminding him--he could nothave said why--of his leave-taking from MadameOlenska after their confidential talk a week or ten daysearlier.
It would have been as difficult to discover anyresemblance between the two situations as between theappearance of the persons concerned. Newland Archercould not pretend to anything approaching the youngEnglish actor's romantic good looks, and Miss Dyaswas a tall red-haired woman of monumental buildwhose pale and pleasantly ugly face was utterly unlikeEllen Olenska's vivid countenance. Nor were Archerand Madame Olenska two lovers parting in heart-brokensilence; they were client and lawyer separatingafter a talk which had given the lawyer the worstpossible impression of the client's case. Wherein, then,lay the resemblance that made the young man's heartbeat with a kind of retrospective excitement? It seemedto be in Madame Olenska's mysterious faculty ofsuggesting tragic and moving possibilities outside the dailyrun of experience. She had hardly ever said a word tohim to produce this impression, but it was a part ofher, either a projection of her mysterious and outlandishbackground or of something inherently dramatic,passionate and unusual in herself. Archer had alwaysbeen inclined to think that chance and circumstanceplayed a small part in shaping people's lots comparedwith their innate tendency to have things happen tothem. This tendency he had felt from the first inMadame Olenska. The quiet, almost passive young womanstruck him as exactly the kind of person to whomthings were bound to happen, no matter how much sheshrank from them and went out of her way to avoidthem. The exciting fact was her having lived in anatmosphere so thick with drama that her own tendencyto provoke it had apparently passed unperceived. Itwas precisely the odd absence of surprise in her thatgave him the sense of her having been plucked out of avery maelstrom: the things she took for granted gavethe measure of those she had rebelled against.
Archer had left her with the conviction that CountOlenski's accusation was not unfounded. The mysteriousperson who figured in his wife's past as "the secretary"had probably not been unrewarded for his sharein her escape. The conditions from which she had fledwere intolerable, past speaking of, past believing: shewas young, she was frightened, she was desperate--what more natural than that she should be grateful toher rescuer? The pity was that her gratitude put her, inthe law's eyes and the world's, on a par with herabominable husband. Archer had made her understandthis, as he was bound to do; he had also made herunderstand that simplehearted kindly New York, onwhose larger charity she had apparently counted, wasprecisely the place where she could least hope forindulgence.
To have to make this fact plain to her--and towitness her resigned acceptance of it--had been intolerablypainful to him. He felt himself drawn to her byobscure feelings of jealousy and pity, as if her dumbly-confessed error had put her at his mercy, humbling yetendearing her. He was glad it was to him she hadrevealed her secret, rather than to the cold scrutiny ofMr. Letterblair, or the embarrassed gaze of her family.He immediately took it upon himself to assure themboth that she had given up her idea of seeking adivorce, basing her decision on the fact that she hadunderstood the uselessness of the proceeding; and withinfinite relief they had all turned their eyes from the"unpleasantness" she had spared them.
"I was sure Newland would manage it," Mrs. Wellandhad said proudly of her future son-in-law; and oldMrs. Mingott, who had summoned him for a confidentialinterview, had congratulated him on his cleverness,and added impatiently: "Silly goose! I told her myselfwhat nonsense it was. Wanting to pass herself off asEllen Mingott and an old maid, when she has the luckto be a married woman and a Countess!"
These incidents had made the memory of his last talkwith Madame Olenska so vivid to the young man thatas the curtain fell on the parting of the two actors hiseyes filled with tears, and he stood up to leave thetheatre.
In doing so, he turned to the side of the house behindhim, and saw the lady of whom he was thinking seatedin a box with the Beauforts, Lawrence Lefferts and oneor two other men. He had not spoken with her alonesince their evening together, and had tried to avoidbeing with her in company; but now their eyes met,and as Mrs. Beaufort recognised him at the same time,and made her languid little gesture of invitation, it wasimpossible not to go into the box.
Beaufort and Lefferts made way for him, and after afew words with Mrs. Beaufort, who always preferredto look beautiful and not have to talk, Archer seatedhimself behind Madame Olenska. There was no oneelse in the box but Mr. Sillerton Jackson, who wastelling Mrs. Beaufort in a confidential undertone aboutMrs. Lemuel Struthers's last Sunday reception (wheresome people reported that there had been dancing).Under cover of this circumstantial narrative, to whichMrs. Beaufort listened with her perfect smile, and herhead at just the right angle to be seen in profile fromthe stalls, Madame Olenska turned and spoke in a lowvoice.
"Do you think," she asked, glancing toward thestage, "he will send her a bunch of yellow roses tomorrowmorning?"
Archer reddened, and his heart gave a leap ofsurprise. He had called only twice on Madame Olenska,and each time he had sent her a box of yellow roses,and each time without a card. She had never beforemade any allusion to the flowers, and he supposed shehad never thought of him as the sender. Now hersudden recognition of the gift, and her associating itwith the tender leave-taking on the stage, filled himwith an agitated pleasure.
"I was thinking of that too--I was going to leave thetheatre in order to take the picture away with me," hesaid.
To his surprise her colour rose, reluctantly and duskily.She looked down at the mother-of-pearl opera-glassin her smoothly gloved hands, and said, after a pause:"What do you do while May is away?"
"I stick to my work," he answered, faintly annoyedby the question.
In obedience to a long-established habit, the Wellandshad left the previous week for St. Augustine,where, out of regard for the supposed susceptibility ofMr. Welland's bronchial tubes, they always spent thelatter part of the winter. Mr. Welland was a mild andsilent man, with no opinions but with many habits.With these habits none might interfere; and one ofthem demanded that his wife and daughter should alwaysgo with him on his annual journey to the south.To preserve an unbroken domesticity was essential tohis peace of mind; he would not have known where hishair-brushes were, or how to provide stamps for hisletters, if Mrs. Welland had not been there to tell him.
As all the members of the family adored each other,and as Mr. Welland was the central object of theiridolatry, it never occurred to his wife and May to lethim go to St. Augustine alone; and his sons, who wereboth in the law, and could not leave New York duringthe winter, always joined him for Easter and travelledback with him.
It was impossible for Archer to discuss the necessityof May's accompanying her father. The reputation ofthe Mingotts' family physician was largely based on theattack of pneumonia which Mr. Welland had neverhad; and his insistence on St. Augustine was thereforeinflexible. Originally, it had been intended that May'sengagement should not be announced till her returnfrom Florida, and the fact that it had been made knownsooner could not be expected to alter Mr. Welland'splans. Archer would have liked to join the travellersand have a few weeks of sunshine and boating with hisbetrothed; but he too was bound by custom andconventions. Little arduous as his professional duties were,he would have been convicted of frivolity by the wholeMingott clan if he had suggested asking for a holidayin mid-winter; and he accepted May's departure withthe resignation which he perceived would have to beone of the principal constituents of married life.
He was conscious that Madame Olenska was lookingat him under lowered lids. "I have done what youwished--what you advised," she said abruptly.
"Ah--I'm glad," he returned, embarrassed by herbroaching the subject at such a moment.
"I understand--that you were right," she went on alittle breathlessly; "but sometimes life is difficult . . .perplexing. . ."
"And I wanted to tell you that I DO feel you wereright; and that I'm grateful to you," she ended, liftingher opera-glass quickly to her eyes as the door of thebox opened and Beaufort's resonant voice broke in onthem.
Archer stood up, and left the box and the theatre.
Only the day before he had received a letter fromMay Welland in which, with characteristic candour,she had asked him to "be kind to Ellen" in theirabsence. "She likes you and admires you so much--andyou know, though she doesn't show it, she's still verylonely and unhappy. I don't think Granny understandsher, or uncle Lovell Mingott either; they really thinkshe's much worldlier and fonder of society than she is.And I can quite see that New York must seem dull toher, though the family won't admit it. I think she'sbeen used to lots of things we haven't got; wonderfulmusic, and picture shows, and celebrities--artists andauthors and all the clever people you admire. Grannycan't understand her wanting anything but lots of dinnersand clothes--but I can see that you're almost theonly person in New York who can talk to her aboutwhat she really cares for."
His wise May--how he had loved her for that letter!But he had not meant to act on it; he was too busy, tobegin with, and he did not care, as an engaged man, toplay too conspicuously the part of Madame Olenska'schampion. He had an idea that she knew how to takecare of herself a good deal better than the ingenuousMay imagined. She had Beaufort at her feet, Mr. vander Luyden hovering above her like a protecting deity,and any number of candidates (Lawrence Lefferts amongthem) waiting their opportunity in the middle distance.Yet he never saw her, or exchanged a word with her,without feeling that, after all, May's ingenuousnessalmost amounted to a gift of divination. Ellen Olenskawas lonely and she was unhappy.