In the morning he had a spin in the ice-boat with hishostess and a few of the hardier guests; in the afternoonhe "went over the farm" with Reggie, and listened,in the elaborately appointed stables, to long andimpressive disquisitions on the horse; after tea he talkedin a corner of the firelit hall with a young lady whohad professed herself broken-hearted when his engagementwas announced, but was now eager to tell him ofher own matrimonial hopes; and finally, about midnight,he assisted in putting a gold-fish in one visitor'sbed, dressed up a burglar in the bath-room of a nervousaunt, and saw in the small hours by joining in apillow-fight that ranged from the nurseries to thebasement. But on Sunday after luncheon he borrowed acutter, and drove over to Skuytercliff.
People had always been told that the house atSkuytercliff was an Italian villa. Those who had neverbeen to Italy believed it; so did some who had. Thehouse had been built by Mr. van der Luyden in hisyouth, on his return from the "grand tour," and inanticipation of his approaching marriage with MissLouisa Dagonet. It was a large square wooden structure,with tongued and grooved walls painted palegreen and white, a Corinthian portico, and flutedpilasters between the windows. From the high ground onwhich it stood a series of terraces bordered by balustradesand urns descended in the steel-engraving styleto a small irregular lake with an asphalt edge overhungby rare weeping conifers. To the right and left, thefamous weedless lawns studded with "specimen" trees(each of a different variety) rolled away to long rangesof grass crested with elaborate cast-iron ornaments;and below, in a hollow, lay the four-roomed stonehouse which the first Patroon had built on the landgranted him in 1612.
Against the uniform sheet of snow and the greyishwinter sky the Italian villa loomed up rather grimly;even in summer it kept its distance, and the boldestcoleus bed had never ventured nearer than thirty feetfrom its awful front. Now, as Archer rang the bell, thelong tinkle seemed to echo through a mausoleum; andthe surprise of the butler who at length responded tothe call was as great as though he had been summonedfrom his final sleep.
Happily Archer was of the family, and therefore,irregular though his arrival was, entitled to be informedthat the Countess Olenska was out, having driven toafternoon service with Mrs. van der Luyden exactlythree quarters of an hour earlier.
"Mr. van der Luyden," the butler continued, "isin, sir; but my impression is that he is either finishinghis nap or else reading yesterday's Evening Post. Iheard him say, sir, on his return from church thismorning, that he intended to look through the EveningPost after luncheon; if you like, sir, I might go to thelibrary door and listen--"
But Archer, thanking him, said that he would go andmeet the ladies; and the butler, obviously relieved, closedthe door on him majestically.
A groom took the cutter to the stables, and Archerstruck through the park to the high-road. The village ofSkuytercliff was only a mile and a half away, but heknew that Mrs. van der Luyden never walked, and thathe must keep to the road to meet the carriage. Presently,however, coming down a foot-path that crossedthe highway, he caught sight of a slight figure in a redcloak, with a big dog running ahead. He hurried forward,and Madame Olenska stopped short with a smileof welcome.
"Ah, you've come!" she said, and drew her handfrom her muff.
The red cloak made her look gay and vivid, like theEllen Mingott of old days; and he laughed as he tookher hand, and answered: "I came to see what you wererunning away from."
Her face clouded over, but she answered: "Ah, well--you will see, presently."
The answer puzzled him. "Why--do you mean thatyou've been overtaken?"
She shrugged her shoulders, with a little movementlike Nastasia's, and rejoined in a lighter tone: "Shallwe walk on? I'm so cold after the sermon. And whatdoes it matter, now you're here to protect me?"
The blood rose to his temples and he caught a fold ofher cloak. "Ellen--what is it? You must tell me."
"Oh, presently--let's run a race first: my feet arefreezing to the ground," she cried; and gathering up thecloak she fled away across the snow, the dog leapingabout her with challenging barks. For a moment Archerstood watching, his gaze delighted by the flash of thered meteor against the snow; then he started after her,and they met, panting and laughing, at a wicket thatled into the park.
She looked up at him and smiled. "I knew you'dcome!"
"That shows you wanted me to," he returned, with adisproportionate joy in their nonsense. The white glitterof the trees filled the air with its own mysteriousbrightness, and as they walked on over the snow theground seemed to sing under their feet.
"Where did you come from?" Madame Olenska asked.
He told her, and added: "It was because I got yournote."
After a pause she said, with a just perceptible chill inher voice: "May asked you to take care of me."
"I didn't need any asking."
"You mean--I'm so evidently helpless and defenceless?What a poor thing you must all think me! But womenhere seem not--seem never to feel the need: any morethan the blessed in heaven."
He lowered his voice to ask: "What sort of a need?"
"Ah, don't ask me! I don't speak your language,"she retorted petulantly.
The answer smote him like a blow, and he stood stillin the path, looking down at her.
"What did I come for, if I don't speak yours?"
"Oh, my friend--!" She laid her hand lightly on hisarm, and he pleaded earnestly: "Ellen--why won't youtell me what's happened?"
She shrugged again. "Does anything ever happen inheaven?"
He was silent, and they walked on a few yardswithout exchanging a word. Finally she said: "I willtell you--but where, where, where? One can't be alonefor a minute in that great seminary of a house, with allthe doors wide open, and always a servant bringingtea, or a log for the fire, or the newspaper! Is therenowhere in an American house where one may be byone's self? You're so shy, and yet you're so public. Ialways feel as if I were in the convent again--or on thestage, before a dreadfully polite audience that neverapplauds."
"Ah, you don't like us!" Archer exclaimed.
They were walking past the house of the oldPatroon, with its squat walls and small square windowscompactly grouped about a central chimney. The shuttersstood wide, and through one of the newly-washedwindows Archer caught the light of a fire.
"Why--the house is open!" he said.
She stood still. "No; only for today, at least. I wantedto see it, and Mr. van der Luyden had the fire lit andthe windows opened, so that we might stop there onthe way back from church this morning." She ran upthe steps and tried the door. "It's still unlocked--whatluck! Come in and we can have a quiet talk. Mrs. vander Luyden has driven over to see her old aunts atRhinebeck and we shan't be missed at the house foranother hour."
He followed her into the narrow passage. His spirits,which had dropped at her last words, rose with anirrational leap. The homely little house stood there, itspanels and brasses shining in the firelight, as if magicallycreated to receive them. A big bed of embers stillgleamed in the kitchen chimney, under an iron pothung from an ancient crane. Rush-bottomed arm-chairsfaced each other across the tiled hearth, and rows ofDelft plates stood on shelves against the walls. Archerstooped over and threw a log upon the embers.
Madame Olenska, dropping her cloak, sat down inone of the chairs. Archer leaned against the chimneyand looked at her.
"You're laughing now; but when you wrote me youwere unhappy," he said.
"Yes." She paused. "But I can't feel unhappy whenyou're here."
"I sha'n't be here long," he rejoined, his lips stiffeningwith the effort to say just so much and no more.
"No; I know. But I'm improvident: I live in themoment when I'm happy."
The words stole through him like a temptation, andto close his senses to it he moved away from the hearthand stood gazing out at the black tree-boles against thesnow. But it was as if she too had shifted her place, andhe still saw her, between himself and the trees, droopingover the fire with her indolent smile. Archer's heartwas beating insubordinately. What if it were from himthat she had been running away, and if she had waitedto tell him so till they were here alone together in thissecret room?
"Ellen, if I'm really a help to you--if you reallywanted me to come--tell me what's wrong, tell mewhat it is you're running away from," he insisted.
He spoke without shifting his position, without eventurning to look at her: if the thing was to happen, itwas to happen in this way, with the whole width of theroom between them, and his eyes still fixed on theouter snow.
For a long moment she was silent; and in that momentArcher imagined her, almost heard her, stealingup behind him to throw her light arms about his neck.While he waited, soul and body throbbing with themiracle to come, his eyes mechanically received theimage of a heavily-coated man with his fur collar turnedup who was advancing along the path to the house.The man was Julius Beaufort.
"Ah--!" Archer cried, bursting into a laugh.
Madame Olenska had sprung up and moved to hisside, slipping her hand into his; but after a glancethrough the window her face paled and she shrankback.
"So that was it?" Archer said derisively.
"I didn't know he was here," Madame Olenskamurmured. Her hand still clung to Archer's; but he drewaway from her, and walking out into the passage threwopen the door of the house.
"Hallo, Beaufort--this way! Madame Olenska wasexpecting you," he said.
During his journey back to New York the next morning,Archer relived with a fatiguing vividness his lastmoments at Skuytercliff.
Beaufort, though clearly annoyed at finding him withMadame Olenska, had, as usual, carried off the situationhigh-handedly. His way of ignoring people whosepresence inconvenienced him actually gave them, if theywere sensitive to it, a feeling of invisibility, ofnonexistence. Archer, as the three strolled back throughthe park, was aware of this odd sense of disembodiment;and humbling as it was to his vanity it gave him theghostly advantage of observing unobserved.
Beaufort had entered the little house with his usualeasy assurance; but he could not smile away the verticalline between his eyes. It was fairly clear that MadameOlenska had not known that he was coming,though her words to Archer had hinted at the possibility;at any rate, she had evidently not told him whereshe was going when she left New York, and her unexplaineddeparture had exasperated him. The ostensiblereason of his appearance was the discovery, the verynight before, of a "perfect little house," not in themarket, which was really just the thing for her, butwould be snapped up instantly if she didn't take it; andhe was loud in mock-reproaches for the dance she hadled him in running away just as he had found it.
"If only this new dodge for talking along a wire hadbeen a little bit nearer perfection I might have told youall this from town, and been toasting my toes beforethe club fire at this minute, instead of tramping afteryou through the snow," he grumbled, disguising a realirritation under the pretence of it; and at this openingMadame Olenska twisted the talk away to the fantasticpossibility that they might one day actually conversewith each other from street to street, or even--incredible dream!--from one town to another. This struckfrom all three allusions to Edgar Poe and Jules Verne,and such platitudes as naturally rise to the lips of themost intelligent when they are talking against time, anddealing with a new invention in which it would seemingenuous to believe too soon; and the question of thetelephone carried them safely back to the big house.
Mrs. van der Luyden had not yet returned; andArcher took his leave and walked off to fetch thecutter, while Beaufort followed the Countess Olenskaindoors. It was probable that, little as the van derLuydens encouraged unannounced visits, he could counton being asked to dine, and sent back to the station tocatch the nine o'clock train; but more than that hewould certainly not get, for it would be inconceivableto his hosts that a gentleman travelling without luggageshould wish to spend the night, and distasteful to themto propose it to a person with whom they were onterms of such limited cordiality as Beaufort.
Beaufort knew all this, and must have foreseen it;and his taking the long journey for so small a rewardgave the measure of his impatience. He was undeniablyin pursuit of the Countess Olenska; and Beaufort hadonly one object in view in his pursuit of pretty women.His dull and childless home had long since palled onhim; and in addition to more permanent consolationshe was always in quest of amorous adventures in hisown set. This was the man from whom Madame Olenskawas avowedly flying: the question was whether she hadfled because his importunities displeased her, orbecause she did not wholly trust herself to resist them;unless, indeed, all her talk of flight had been a blind,and her departure no more than a manoeuvre.
Archer did not really believe this. Little as he hadactually seen of Madame Olenska, he was beginning tothink that he could read her face, and if not her face,her voice; and both had betrayed annoyance, and evendismay, at Beaufort's sudden appearance. But, after all,if this were the case, was it not worse than if she hadleft New York for the express purpose of meeting him?If she had done that, she ceased to be an object ofinterest, she threw in her lot with the vulgarest ofdissemblers: a woman engaged in a love affair withBeaufort "classed" herself irretrievably.
No, it was worse a thousand times if, judgingBeaufort, and probably despising him, she was yet drawn tohim by all that gave him an advantage over the othermen about her: his habit of two continents and twosocieties, his familiar association with artists and actorsand people generally in the world's eye, and his carelesscontempt for local prejudices. Beaufort was vulgar, hewas uneducated, he was purse-proud; but the circumstancesof his life, and a certain native shrewdness,made him better worth talking to than many men,morally and socially his betters, whose horizon wasbounded by the Battery and the Central Park. Howshould any one coming from a wider world not feel thedifference and be attracted by it?
Madame Olenska, in a burst of irritation, had said toArcher that he and she did not talk the same language;and the young man knew that in some respects this wastrue. But Beaufort understood every turn of her dialect,and spoke it fluently: his view of life, his tone, hisattitude, were merely a coarser reflection of thoserevealed in Count Olenski's letter. This might seem to beto his disadvantage with Count Olenski's wife; butArcher was too intelligent to think that a young womanlike Ellen Olenska would necessarily recoil from everythingthat reminded her of her past. She might believeherself wholly in revolt against it; but what had charmedher in it would still charm her, even though it wereagainst her will.
Thus, with a painful impartiality, did the young manmake out the case for Beaufort, and for Beaufort'svictim. A longing to enlighten her was strong in him;and there were moments when he imagined that all sheasked was to be enlightened.
That evening he unpacked his books from London.The box was full of things he had been waiting forimpatiently; a new volume of Herbert Spencer, anothercollection of the prolific Alphonse Daudet's brillianttales, and a novel called "Middlemarch," as to whichthere had lately been interesting things said in thereviews. He had declined three dinner invitations infavour of this feast; but though he turned the pages withthe sensuous joy of the book-lover, he did not knowwhat he was reading, and one book after anotherdropped from his hand. Suddenly, among them, he liton a small volume of verse which he had orderedbecause the name had attracted him: "The House ofLife." He took it up, and found himself plunged in anatmosphere unlike any he had ever breathed in books;so warm, so rich, and yet so ineffably tender, that itgave a new and haunting beauty to the most elementaryof human passions. All through the night he pursuedthrough those enchanted pages the vision of awoman who had the face of Ellen Olenska; but whenhe woke the next morning, and looked out at thebrownstone houses across the street, and thought of hisdesk in Mr. Letterblair's office, and the family pew inGrace Church, his hour in the park of Skuytercliffbecame as far outside the pale of probability as thevisions of the night.
"Mercy, how pale you look, Newland!" Janeycommented over the coffee-cups at breakfast; and his motheradded: "Newland, dear, I've noticed lately that you'vebeen coughing; I do hope you're not letting yourself beoverworked?" For it was the conviction of both ladiesthat, under the iron despotism of his senior partners,the young man's life was spent in the most exhaustingprofessional labours--and he had never thought itnecessary to undeceive them.
The next two or three days dragged by heavily. Thetaste of the usual was like cinders in his mouth, andthere were moments when he felt as if he were beingburied alive under his future. He heard nothing of theCountess Olenska, or of the perfect little house, andthough he met Beaufort at the club they merely noddedat each other across the whist-tables. It was not till thefourth evening that he found a note awaiting him onhis return home. "Come late tomorrow: I must explainto you. Ellen." These were the only words it contained.
The young man, who was dining out, thrust the noteinto his pocket, smiling a little at the Frenchness of the"to you." After dinner he went to a play; and it wasnot until his return home, after midnight, that he drewMadame Olenska's missive out again and re-read itslowly a number of times. There were several ways ofanswering it, and he gave considerable thought to eachone during the watches of an agitated night. That onwhich, when morning came, he finally decided was topitch some clothes into a portmanteau and jump onboard a boat that was leaving that very afternoon forSt. Augustine.