Mr. Welland laid down his knife and fork andlooked anxiously and incredulously across the luncheon-table at his wife, who, adjusting her gold eye-glasses,read aloud, in the tone of high comedy: "Professor andMrs. Emerson Sillerton request the pleasure of Mr. andMrs. Welland's company at the meeting of the WednesdayAfternoon Club on August 25th at 3 o'clockpunctually. To meet Mrs. and the Misses Blenker."Red Gables, Catherine Street. R. S. V. P."
"Good gracious--" Mr. Welland gasped, as if a secondreading had been necessary to bring the monstrousabsurdity of the thing home to him.
"Poor Amy Sillerton--you never can tell what herhusband will do next," Mrs. Welland sighed. "I supposehe's just discovered the Blenkers."
Professor Emerson Sillerton was a thorn in the sideof Newport society; and a thorn that could not beplucked out, for it grew on a venerable and veneratedfamily tree. He was, as people said, a man who hadhad "every advantage." His father was Sillerton Jackson'suncle, his mother a Pennilow of Boston; on eachside there was wealth and position, and mutualsuitability. Nothing--as Mrs. Welland had often remarked--nothing on earth obliged Emerson Sillerton to be anarchaeologist, or indeed a Professor of any sort, or tolive in Newport in winter, or do any of the otherrevolutionary things that he did. But at least, if he wasgoing to break with tradition and flout society in theface, he need not have married poor Amy Dagonet,who had a right to expect "something different," andmoney enough to keep her own carriage.
No one in the Mingott set could understand whyAmy Sillerton had submitted so tamely to the eccentricitiesof a husband who filled the house with long-haired men and short-haired women, and, when hetravelled, took her to explore tombs in Yucatan insteadof going to Paris or Italy. But there they were, set intheir ways, and apparently unaware that they weredifferent from other people; and when they gave one oftheir dreary annual garden-parties every family on theCliffs, because of the Sillerton-Pennilow-Dagonetconnection, had to draw lots and send an unwillingrepresentative.
"It's a wonder," Mrs. Welland remarked, "that theydidn't choose the Cup Race day! Do you remember,two years ago, their giving a party for a black man onthe day of Julia Mingott's the dansant? Luckily thistime there's nothing else going on that I know of--forof course some of us will have to go."
Mr. Welland sighed nervously. "`Some of us,' mydear--more than one? Three o'clock is such a veryawkward hour. I have to be here at half-past three totake my drops: it's really no use trying to followBencomb's new treatment if I don't do it systematically;and if I join you later, of course I shall miss mydrive." At the thought he laid down his knife and forkagain, and a flush of anxiety rose to his finely-wrinkledcheek.
"There's no reason why you should go at all, mydear," his wife answered with a cheerfulness that hadbecome automatic. "I have some cards to leave at theother end of Bellevue Avenue, and I'll drop in at abouthalf-past three and stay long enough to make poorAmy feel that she hasn't been slighted." She glancedhesitatingly at her daughter. "And if Newland's afternoonis provided for perhaps May can drive you outwith the ponies, and try their new russet harness."
It was a principle in the Welland family that people'sdays and hours should be what Mrs. Welland called"provided for." The melancholy possibility of havingto "kill time" (especially for those who did not care forwhist or solitaire) was a vision that haunted her as thespectre of the unemployed haunts the philanthropist.Another of her principles was that parents should never(at least visibly) interfere with the plans of theirmarried children; and the difficulty of adjusting this respectfor May's independence with the exigency of Mr. Welland'sclaims could be overcome only by the exercise ofan ingenuity which left not a second of Mrs. Welland'sown time unprovided for.
"Of course I'll drive with Papa--I'm sure Newlandwill find something to do," May said, in a tone thatgently reminded her husband of his lack of response. Itwas a cause of constant distress to Mrs. Welland thather son-in-law showed so little foresight in planning hisdays. Often already, during the fortnight that he hadpassed under her roof, when she enquired how hemeant to spend his afternoon, he had answeredparadoxically: "Oh, I think for a change I'll just save itinstead of spending it--" and once, when she and Mayhad had to go on a long-postponed round of afternooncalls, he had confessed to having lain all the afternoonunder a rock on the beach below the house.
"Newland never seems to look ahead," Mrs. Wellandonce ventured to complain to her daughter; andMay answered serenely: "No; but you see it doesn'tmatter, because when there's nothing particular to dohe reads a book."
"Ah, yes--like his father!" Mrs. Welland agreed, asif allowing for an inherited oddity; and after that thequestion of Newland's unemployment was tacitlydropped.
Nevertheless, as the day for the Sillerton receptionapproached, May began to show a natural solicitudefor his welfare, and to suggest a tennis match at theChiverses', or a sail on Julius Beaufort's cutter, as ameans of atoning for her temporary desertion. "I shallbe back by six, you know, dear: Papa never drives laterthan that--" and she was not reassured till Archer saidthat he thought of hiring a run-about and driving upthe island to a stud-farm to look at a second horse forher brougham. They had been looking for this horsefor some time, and the suggestion was so acceptablethat May glanced at her mother as if to say: "You seehe knows how to plan out his time as well as any ofus."
The idea of the stud-farm and the brougham horsehad germinated in Archer's mind on the very day whenthe Emerson Sillerton invitation had first beenmentioned; but he had kept it to himself as if there weresomething clandestine in the plan, and discovery mightprevent its execution. He had, however, taken theprecaution to engage in advance a runabout with a pair ofold livery-stable trotters that could still do theireighteen miles on level roads; and at two o'clock, hastilydeserting the luncheon-table, he sprang into the lightcarriage and drove off.
The day was perfect. A breeze from the north drovelittle puffs of white cloud across an ultramarine sky,with a bright sea running under it. Bellevue Avenuewas empty at that hour, and after dropping the stable-lad at the corner of Mill Street Archer turned downthe Old Beach Road and drove across Eastman's Beach.
He had the feeling of unexplained excitement withwhich, on half-holidays at school, he used to start offinto the unknown. Taking his pair at an easy gait, hecounted on reaching the stud-farm, which was not farbeyond Paradise Rocks, before three o'clock; so that,after looking over the horse (and trying him if heseemed promising) he would still have four goldenhours to dispose of.
As soon as he heard of the Sillerton's party he hadsaid to himself that the Marchioness Manson wouldcertainly come to Newport with the Blenkers, and thatMadame Olenska might again take the opportunity ofspending the day with her grandmother. At any rate,the Blenker habitation would probably be deserted,and he would be able, without indiscretion, to satisfy avague curiosity concerning it. He was not sure that hewanted to see the Countess Olenska again; but eversince he had looked at her from the path above the bayhe had wanted, irrationally and indescribably, to seethe place she was living in, and to follow the movementsof her imagined figure as he had watched thereal one in the summer-house. The longing was withhim day and night, an incessant undefinable craving,like the sudden whim of a sick man for food or drinkonce tasted and long since forgotten. He could not seebeyond the craving, or picture what it might lead to,for he was not conscious of any wish to speak toMadame Olenska or to hear her voice. He simply feltthat if he could carry away the vision of the spot ofearth she walked on, and the way the sky and seaenclosed it, the rest of the world might seem less empty.
When he reached the stud-farm a glance showed himthat the horse was not what he wanted; nevertheless hetook a turn behind it in order to prove to himself thathe was not in a hurry. But at three o'clock he shookout the reins over the trotters and turned into theby-roads leading to Portsmouth. The wind had droppedand a faint haze on the horizon showed that a fog waswaiting to steal up the Saconnet on the turn of the tide;but all about him fields and woods were steeped ingolden light.
He drove past grey-shingled farm-houses in orchards,past hay-fields and groves of oak, past villages withwhite steeples rising sharply into the fading sky; and atlast, after stopping to ask the way of some men atwork in a field, he turned down a lane between highbanks of goldenrod and brambles. At the end of thelane was the blue glimmer of the river; to the left,standing in front of a clump of oaks and maples, hesaw a long tumble-down house with white paint peelingfrom its clapboards.
On the road-side facing the gateway stood one of theopen sheds in which the New Englander shelters hisfarming implements and visitors "hitch" their "teams."Archer, jumping down, led his pair into the shed, andafter tying them to a post turned toward the house.The patch of lawn before it had relapsed into a hay-field; but to the left an overgrown box-garden full ofdahlias and rusty rose-bushes encircled a ghostly summer-house of trellis-work that had once been white,surmounted by a wooden Cupid who had lost his bowand arrow but continued to take ineffectual aim.
Archer leaned for a while against the gate. No onewas in sight, and not a sound came from the openwindows of the house: a grizzled Newfoundland dozingbefore the door seemed as ineffectual a guardian asthe arrowless Cupid. It was strange to think that thisplace of silence and decay was the home of the turbulentBlenkers; yet Archer was sure that he was notmistaken.
For a long time he stood there, content to take in thescene, and gradually falling under its drowsy spell; butat length he roused himself to the sense of the passingtime. Should he look his fill and then drive away? Hestood irresolute, wishing suddenly to see the inside ofthe house, so that he might picture the room thatMadame Olenska sat in. There was nothing to preventhis walking up to the door and ringing the bell; if, ashe supposed, she was away with the rest of the party,he could easily give his name, and ask permission to gointo the sitting-room to write a message.
But instead, he crossed the lawn and turned towardthe box-garden. As he entered it he caught sight ofsomething bright-coloured in the summer-house, andpresently made it out to be a pink parasol. The parasoldrew him like a magnet: he was sure it was hers. Hewent into the summer-house, and sitting down on therickety seat picked up the silken thing and looked at itscarved handle, which was made of some rare woodthat gave out an aromatic scent. Archer lifted the handleto his lips.
He heard a rustle of skirts against the box, and satmotionless, leaning on the parasol handle with claspedhands, and letting the rustle come nearer without liftinghis eyes. He had always known that this musthappen . . .
"Oh, Mr. Archer!" exclaimed a loud young voice;and looking up he saw before him the youngest andlargest of the Blenker girls, blonde and blowsy, inbedraggled muslin. A red blotch on one of her cheeksseemed to show that it had recently been pressed againsta pillow, and her half-awakened eyes stared at himhospitably but confusedly.
"Gracious--where did you drop from? I must havebeen sound asleep in the hammock. Everybody else hasgone to Newport. Did you ring?" she incoherentlyenquired.
Archer's confusion was greater than hers. "I--no--that is, I was just going to. I had to come up the islandto see about a horse, and I drove over on a chance offinding Mrs. Blenker and your visitors. But the houseseemed empty--so I sat down to wait."
Miss Blenker, shaking off the fumes of sleep, lookedat him with increasing interest. "The house IS empty.Mother's not here, or the Marchioness--or anybodybut me." Her glance became faintly reproachful. "Didn'tyou know that Professor and Mrs. Sillerton are giving agarden-party for mother and all of us this afternoon? Itwas too unlucky that I couldn't go; but I've had a sorethroat, and mother was afraid of the drive home thisevening. Did you ever know anything so disappointing?Of course," she added gaily, "I shouldn't have mindedhalf as much if I'd known you were coming."
Symptoms of a lumbering coquetry became visible inher, and Archer found the strength to break in: "ButMadame Olenska--has she gone to Newport too?"
Miss Blenker looked at him with surprise. "MadameOlenska--didn't you know she'd been called away?"
"Oh, my best parasol! I lent it to that goose of aKatie, because it matched her ribbons, and the carelessthing must have dropped it here. We Blenkers are alllike that . . . real Bohemians!" Recovering thesunshade with a powerful hand she unfurled it andsuspended its rosy dome above her head. "Yes, Ellen wascalled away yesterday: she lets us call her Ellen, youknow. A telegram came from Boston: she said shemight be gone for two days. I do LOVE the way she doesher hair, don't you?" Miss Blenker rambled on.
Archer continued to stare through her as though shehad been transparent. All he saw was the trumperyparasol that arched its pinkness above her gigglinghead.
After a moment he ventured: "You don't happen toknow why Madame Olenska went to Boston? I hope itwas not on account of bad news?"
Miss Blenker took this with a cheerful incredulity."Oh, I don't believe so. She didn't tell us what was inthe telegram. I think she didn't want the Marchionessto know. She's so romantic-looking, isn't she? Doesn'tshe remind you of Mrs. Scott-Siddons when she reads`Lady Geraldine's Courtship'? Did you never hear her?"
Archer was dealing hurriedly with crowding thoughts.His whole future seemed suddenly to be unrolledbefore him; and passing down its endless emptiness hesaw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothingwas ever to happen. He glanced about him at theunpruned garden, the tumble-down house, and the oak-grove under which the dusk was gathering. It hadseemed so exactly the place in which he ought to havefound Madame Olenska; and she was far away, andeven the pink sunshade was not hers . . .
He frowned and hesitated. "You don't know, Isuppose-- I shall be in Boston tomorrow. If I couldmanage to see her--"
He felt that Miss Blenker was losing interest in him,though her smile persisted. "Oh, of course; how lovelyof you! She's staying at the Parker House; it must behorrible there in this weather."
After that Archer was but intermittently aware of theremarks they exchanged. He could only remember stoutlyresisting her entreaty that he should await the returningfamily and have high tea with them before he drovehome. At length, with his hostess still at his side, hepassed out of range of the wooden Cupid, unfastened hishorses and drove off. At the turn of the lane he saw MissBlenker standing at the gate and waving the pink parasol.