By the first of November this household ritual wasover, and society had begun to look about and takestock of itself. By the fifteenth the season was in fullblast, Opera and theatres were putting forth their newattractions, dinner-engagements were accumulating, anddates for dances being fixed. And punctually at aboutthis time Mrs. Archer always said that New York wasvery much changed.
Observing it from the lofty stand-point of a non-participant, she was able, with the help of Mr. SillertonJackson and Miss Sophy, to trace each new crack in itssurface, and all the strange weeds pushing up betweenthe ordered rows of social vegetables. It had been oneof the amusements of Archer's youth to wait for thisannual pronouncement of his mother's, and to hear herenumerate the minute signs of disintegration that hiscareless gaze had overlooked. For New York, to Mrs.Archer's mind, never changed without changing for theworse; and in this view Miss Sophy Jackson heartilyconcurred.
Mr. Sillerton Jackson, as became a man of the world,suspended his judgment and listened with an amusedimpartiality to the lamentations of the ladies. But evenhe never denied that New York had changed; andNewland Archer, in the winter of the second year of hismarriage, was himself obliged to admit that if it hadnot actually changed it was certainly changing.
These points had been raised, as usual, at Mrs.Archer's Thanksgiving dinner. At the date when she wasofficially enjoined to give thanks for the blessings ofthe year it was her habit to take a mournful though notembittered stock of her world, and wonder what therewas to be thankful for. At any rate, not the state ofsociety; society, if it could be said to exist, was rather aspectacle on which to call down Biblical imprecations--and in fact, every one knew what the Reverend Dr.Ashmore meant when he chose a text from Jeremiah(chap. ii., verse 25) for his Thanksgiving sermon.Dr. Ashmore, the new Rector of St. Matthew's, hadbeen chosen because he was very "advanced": hissermons were considered bold in thought and novel inlanguage. When he fulminated against fashionable societyhe always spoke of its "trend"; and to Mrs. Archerit was terrifying and yet fascinating to feel herself partof a community that was trending.
"There's no doubt that Dr. Ashmore is right: there ISa marked trend," she said, as if it were somethingvisible and measurable, like a crack in a house.
"It was odd, though, to preach about it on Thanksgiving,"Miss Jackson opined; and her hostess drilyrejoined: "Oh, he means us to give thanks for what'sleft."
Archer had been wont to smile at these annualvaticinations of his mother's; but this year even he wasobliged to acknowledge, as he listened to an enumerationof the changes, that the "trend" was visible.
"The extravagance in dress--" Miss Jackson began."Sillerton took me to the first night of the Opera, and Ican only tell you that Jane Merry's dress was the onlyone I recognised from last year; and even that had hadthe front panel changed. Yet I know she got it out fromWorth only two years ago, because my seamstress alwaysgoes in to make over her Paris dresses before shewears them."
"Ah, Jane Merry is one of US," said Mrs. Archersighing, as if it were not such an enviable thing to be inan age when ladies were beginning to flaunt abroadtheir Paris dresses as soon as they were out of theCustom House, instead of letting them mellow underlock and key, in the manner of Mrs. Archer's contemporaries.
"Yes; she's one of the few. In my youth," MissJackson rejoined, "it was considered vulgar to dress inthe newest fashions; and Amy Sillerton has always toldme that in Boston the rule was to put away one's Parisdresses for two years. Old Mrs. Baxter Pennilow, whodid everything handsomely, used to import twelve ayear, two velvet, two satin, two silk, and the other sixof poplin and the finest cashmere. It was a standingorder, and as she was ill for two years before she diedthey found forty-eight Worth dresses that had neverbeen taken out of tissue paper; and when the girls leftoff their mourning they were able to wear the first lotat the Symphony concerts without looking in advanceof the fashion."
"Ah, well, Boston is more conservative than NewYork; but I always think it's a safe rule for a lady tolay aside her French dresses for one season," Mrs.Archer conceded.
"It was Beaufort who started the new fashion bymaking his wife clap her new clothes on her back assoon as they arrived: I must say at times it takes allRegina's distinction not to look like . . . like . . ." MissJackson glanced around the table, caught Janey's bulginggaze, and took refuge in an unintelligible murmur.
"Like her rivals," said Mr. Sillerton Jackson, withthe air of producing an epigram.
"Oh,--" the ladies murmured; and Mrs. Archer added,partly to distract her daughter's attention from forbiddentopics: "Poor Regina! Her Thanksgiving hasn'tbeen a very cheerful one, I'm afraid. Have you heardthe rumours about Beaufort's speculations, Sillerton?"
Mr. Jackson nodded carelessly. Every one had heardthe rumours in question, and he scorned to confirm atale that was already common property.
A gloomy silence fell upon the party. No one reallyliked Beaufort, and it was not wholly unpleasant tothink the worst of his private life; but the idea of hishaving brought financial dishonour on his wife's familywas too shocking to be enjoyed even by his enemies.Archer's New York tolerated hypocrisy in private relations;but in business matters it exacted a limpid andimpeccable honesty. It was a long time since any well-known banker had failed discreditably; but every oneremembered the social extinction visited on the headsof the firm when the last event of the kind hadhappened. It would be the same with the Beauforts, in spiteof his power and her popularity; not all the leaguedstrength of the Dallas connection would save poorRegina if there were any truth in the reports of herhusband's unlawful speculations.
The talk took refuge in less ominous topics; buteverything they touched on seemed to confirm Mrs.Archer's sense of an accelerated trend.
"Of course, Newland, I know you let dear May goto Mrs. Struthers's Sunday evenings--" she began; andMay interposed gaily: "Oh, you know, everybody goesto Mrs. Struthers's now; and she was invited to Granny'slast reception."
It was thus, Archer reflected, that New Yorkmanaged its transitions: conspiring to ignore them till theywere well over, and then, in all good faith, imaginingthat they had taken place in a preceding age. There wasalways a traitor in the citadel; and after he (or generallyshe) had surrendered the keys, what was the use ofpretending that it was impregnable? Once people hadtasted of Mrs. Struthers's easy Sunday hospitality theywere not likely to sit at home remembering that herchampagne was transmuted Shoe-Polish.
"I know, dear, I know," Mrs. Archer sighed. "Suchthings have to be, I suppose, as long as AMUSEMENT iswhat people go out for; but I've never quite forgivenyour cousin Madame Olenska for being the first personto countenance Mrs. Struthers."
A sudden blush rose to young Mrs. Archer's face; itsurprised her husband as much as the other guestsabout the table. "Oh, ELLEN--" she murmured, much inthe same accusing and yet deprecating tone in whichher parents might have said: "Oh, THE BLENKERS--."
It was the note which the family had taken to soundingon the mention of the Countess Olenska's name,since she had surprised and inconvenienced them byremaining obdurate to her husband's advances; but onMay's lips it gave food for thought, and Archer lookedat her with the sense of strangeness that sometimescame over him when she was most in the tone of herenvironment.
His mother, with less than her usual sensitiveness toatmosphere, still insisted: "I've always thought thatpeople like the Countess Olenska, who have lived inaristocratic societies, ought to help us to keep up oursocial distinctions, instead of ignoring them."
May's blush remained permanently vivid: it seemedto have a significance beyond that implied by therecognition of Madame Olenska's social bad faith.
"I've no doubt we all seem alike to foreigners," saidMiss Jackson tartly.
"I don't think Ellen cares for society; but nobodyknows exactly what she does care for," May continued,as if she had been groping for something noncommittal.
"Ah, well--" Mrs. Archer sighed again.
Everybody knew that the Countess Olenska was nolonger in the good graces of her family. Even herdevoted champion, old Mrs. Manson Mingott, had beenunable to defend her refusal to return to her husband.The Mingotts had not proclaimed their disapprovalaloud: their sense of solidarity was too strong. Theyhad simply, as Mrs. Welland said, "let poor Ellen findher own level"--and that, mortifyingly andincomprehensibly, was in the dim depths where the Blenkersprevailed, and "people who wrote" celebrated theiruntidy rites. It was incredible, but it was a fact, thatEllen, in spite of all her opportunities and her privileges,had become simply "Bohemian." The fact enforcedthe contention that she had made a fatal mistakein not returning to Count Olenski. After all, a youngwoman's place was under her husband's roof, especiallywhen she had left it in circumstances that . . .well . . . if one had cared to look into them . . .
"Madame Olenska is a great favourite with thegentlemen," said Miss Sophy, with her air of wishing toput forth something conciliatory when she knew thatshe was planting a dart.
"Ah, that's the danger that a young woman likeMadame Olenska is always exposed to," Mrs. Archermournfully agreed; and the ladies, on this conclusion,gathered up their trains to seek the carcel globes of thedrawing-room, while Archer and Mr. Sillerton Jacksonwithdrew to the Gothic library.
Once established before the grate, and consolinghimself for the inadequacy of the dinner by the perfectionof his cigar, Mr. Jackson became portentous andcommunicable.
"If the Beaufort smash comes," he announced, "thereare going to be disclosures."
Archer raised his head quickly: he could never hearthe name without the sharp vision of Beaufort's heavyfigure, opulently furred and shod, advancing throughthe snow at Skuytercliff.
"There's bound to be," Mr. Jackson continued, "thenastiest kind of a cleaning up. He hasn't spent all hismoney on Regina."
"Oh, well--that's discounted, isn't it? My belief ishe'll pull out yet," said the young man, wanting tochange the subject.
"Perhaps--perhaps. I know he was to see some ofthe influential people today. Of course," Mr. Jacksonreluctantly conceded, "it's to be hoped they can tidehim over--this time anyhow. I shouldn't like to thinkof poor Regina's spending the rest of her life in someshabby foreign watering-place for bankrupts."
Archer said nothing. It seemed to him so natural--however tragic--that money ill-gotten should be cruellyexpiated, that his mind, hardly lingering over Mrs.Beaufort's doom, wandered back to closer questions.What was the meaning of May's blush when the CountessOlenska had been mentioned?
Four months had passed since the midsummer daythat he and Madame Olenska had spent together; andsince then he had not seen her. He knew that she hadreturned to Washington, to the little house which sheand Medora Manson had taken there: he had writtento her once--a few words, asking when they were tomeet again--and she had even more briefly replied:"Not yet."
Since then there had been no farther communicationbetween them, and he had built up within himself akind of sanctuary in which she throned among hissecret thoughts and longings. Little by little it becamethe scene of his real life, of his only rational activities;thither he brought the books he read, the ideas andfeelings which nourished him, his judgments and hisvisions. Outside it, in the scene of his actual life, hemoved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency,blundering against familiar prejudices and traditionalpoints of view as an absent-minded man goeson bumping into the furniture of his own room.Absent--that was what he was: so absent from everythingmost densely real and near to those about himthat it sometimes startled him to find they stillimagined he was there.
He became aware that Mr. Jackson was clearing histhroat preparatory to farther revelations.
"I don't know, of course, how far your wife's familyare aware of what people say about--well, about MadameOlenska's refusal to accept her husband's latestoffer."
Archer was silent, and Mr. Jackson obliquely continued:"It's a pity--it's certainly a pity--that she refusedit."
"A pity? In God's name, why?"
Mr. Jackson looked down his leg to the unwrinkledsock that joined it to a glossy pump.
"Well--to put it on the lowest ground--what's shegoing to live on now?"
Archer sprang up, his fist banging down on the blackwalnut-edge of the writing-table. The wells of the brassdouble-inkstand danced in their sockets.
"What the devil do you mean, sir?"
Mr. Jackson, shifting himself slightly in his chair,turned a tranquil gaze on the young man's burningface.
"Well--I have it on pretty good authority--in fact,on old Catherine's herself--that the family reducedCountess Olenska's allowance considerably when shedefinitely refused to go back to her husband; and as, bythis refusal, she also forfeits the money settled on herwhen she married--which Olenski was ready to makeover to her if she returned--why, what the devil do YOUmean, my dear boy, by asking me what I mean?" Mr.Jackson good-humouredly retorted.
Archer moved toward the mantelpiece and bent overto knock his ashes into the grate.
"I don't know anything of Madame Olenska's privateaffairs; but I don't need to, to be certain that whatyou insinuate--"
"Oh, I don't: it's Lefferts, for one," Mr. Jacksoninterposed.
"Lefferts--who made love to her and got snubbedfor it!" Archer broke out contemptuously.
"Ah--DID he?" snapped the other, as if this wereexactly the fact he had been laying a trap for. He stillsat sideways from the fire, so that his hard old gazeheld Archer's face as if in a spring of steel.
"Well, well: it's a pity she didn't go back beforeBeaufort's cropper," he repeated. "If she goes NOW, andif he fails, it will only confirm the general impression:which isn't by any means peculiar to Lefferts, by theway.
"Oh, she won't go back now: less than ever!" Archerhad no sooner said it than he had once more the feelingthat it was exactly what Mr. Jackson had been waitingfor.
The old gentleman considered him attentively. "That'syour opinion, eh? Well, no doubt you know. But everybodywill tell you that the few pennies Medora Mansonhas left are all in Beaufort's hands; and how thetwo women are to keep their heads above water unlesshe does, I can't imagine. Of course, Madame Olenskamay still soften old Catherine, who's been the mostinexorably opposed to her staying; and old Catherinecould make her any allowance she chooses. But we allknow that she hates parting with good money; and therest of the family have no particular interest in keepingMadame Olenska here."
Archer was burning with unavailing wrath: he wasexactly in the state when a man is sure to do somethingstupid, knowing all the while that he is doing it.
He saw that Mr. Jackson had been instantly struckby the fact that Madame Olenska's differences with hergrandmother and her other relations were not knownto him, and that the old gentleman had drawn his ownconclusions as to the reasons for Archer's exclusionfrom the family councils. This fact warned Archer togo warily; but the insinuations about Beaufort madehim reckless. He was mindful, however, if not of hisown danger, at least of the fact that Mr. Jackson wasunder his mother's roof, and consequently his guest.Old New York scrupulously observed the etiquette ofhospitality, and no discussion with a guest was everallowed to degenerate into a disagreement.
"Shall we go up and join my mother?" he suggestedcurtly, as Mr. Jackson's last cone of ashes dropped intothe brass ashtray at his elbow.
On the drive homeward May remained oddly silent;through the darkness, he still felt her enveloped in hermenacing blush. What its menace meant he could notguess: but he was sufficiently warned by the fact thatMadame Olenska's name had evoked it.
They went upstairs, and he turned into the library.She usually followed him; but he heard her passingdown the passage to her bedroom.
"May!" he called out impatiently; and she cameback, with a slight glance of surprise at his tone.
"This lamp is smoking again; I should think theservants might see that it's kept properly trimmed," hegrumbled nervously.
"I'm so sorry: it shan't happen again," she answered,in the firm bright tone she had learned from her mother;and it exasperated Archer to feel that she was alreadybeginning to humour him like a younger Mr. Welland.She bent over to lower the wick, and as the light struckup on her white shoulders and the clear curves of herface he thought: "How young she is! For what endlessyears this life will have to go on!"
He felt, with a kind of horror, his own strong youthand the bounding blood in his veins. "Look here," hesaid suddenly, "I may have to go to Washington for afew days--soon; next week perhaps."
Her hand remained on the key of the lamp as sheturned to him slowly. The heat from its flame hadbrought back a glow to her face, but it paled as shelooked up.
"On business?" she asked, in a tone which impliedthat there could be no other conceivable reason, andthat she had put the question automatically, as if merelyto finish his own sentence.
"On business, naturally. There's a patent case comingup before the Supreme Court--" He gave the nameof the inventor, and went on furnishing details with allLawrence Lefferts's practised glibness, while she listenedattentively, saying at intervals: "Yes, I see."
"The change will do you good," she said simply,when he had finished; "and you must be sure to go andsee Ellen," she added, looking him straight in the eyeswith her cloudless smile, and speaking in the tone shemight have employed in urging him not to neglect someirksome family duty.
It was the only word that passed between them onthe subject; but in the code in which they had bothbeen trained it meant: "Of course you understand thatI know all that people have been saying about Ellen,and heartily sympathise with my family in their effortto get her to return to her husband. I also know that,for some reason you have not chosen to tell me, youhave advised her against this course, which all the oldermen of the family, as well as our grandmother, agree inapproving; and that it is owing to your encouragementthat Ellen defies us all, and exposes herself to the kindof criticism of which Mr. Sillerton Jackson probablygave you, this evening, the hint that has made you soirritable. . . . Hints have indeed not been wanting; butsince you appear unwilling to take them from others, Ioffer you this one myself, in the only form in whichwell-bred people of our kind can communicateunpleasant things to each other: by letting you understandthat I know you mean to see Ellen when you are inWashington, and are perhaps going there expressly forthat purpose; and that, since you are sure to see her, Iwish you to do so with my full and explicit approval--and to take the opportunity of letting her know whatthe course of conduct you have encouraged her in islikely to lead to."
Her hand was still on the key of the lamp when thelast word of this mute message reached him. She turnedthe wick down, lifted off the globe, and breathed onthe sulky flame.
"They smell less if one blows them out," she explained,with her bright housekeeping air. On the thresholdshe turned and paused for his kiss.