New York was inexorable in its condemnation ofbusiness irregularities. So far there had been no exceptionto its tacit rule that those who broke the law ofprobity must pay; and every one was aware that evenBeaufort and Beaufort's wife would be offered upunflinchingly to this principle. But to be obliged to offerthem up would be not only painful but inconvenient.The disappearance of the Beauforts would leave aconsiderable void in their compact little circle; and thosewho were too ignorant or too careless to shudder at themoral catastrophe bewailed in advance the loss of thebest ball-room in New York.
Archer had definitely made up his mind to go toWashington. He was waiting only for the opening ofthe law-suit of which he had spoken to May, so that itsdate might coincide with that of his visit; but on thefollowing Tuesday he learned from Mr. Letterblair thatthe case might be postponed for several weeks. Nevertheless,he went home that afternoon determined in anyevent to leave the next evening. The chances were thatMay, who knew nothing of his professional life, andhad never shown any interest in it, would not learn ofthe postponement, should it take place, nor rememberthe names of the litigants if they were mentioned beforeher; and at any rate he could no longer put off seeingMadame Olenska. There were too many things that hemust say to her.
On the Wednesday morning, when he reached hisoffice, Mr. Letterblair met him with a troubled face.Beaufort, after all, had not managed to "tide over";but by setting afloat the rumour that he had done so hehad reassured his depositors, and heavy payments hadpoured into the bank till the previous evening, whendisturbing reports again began to predominate. Inconsequence, a run on the bank had begun, and its doorswere likely to close before the day was over. The ugliestthings were being said of Beaufort's dastardlymanoeuvre, and his failure promised to be one of themost discreditable in the history of Wall Street.
The extent of the calamity left Mr. Letterblair whiteand incapacitated. "I've seen bad things in my time;but nothing as bad as this. Everybody we know will behit, one way or another. And what will be done aboutMrs. Beaufort? What CAN be done about her? I pityMrs. Manson Mingott as much as anybody: coming ather age, there's no knowing what effect this affair mayhave on her. She always believed in Beaufort--she madea friend of him! And there's the whole Dallas connection:poor Mrs. Beaufort is related to every one of you.Her only chance would be to leave her husband--yethow can any one tell her so? Her duty is at his side;and luckily she seems always to have been blind to hisprivate weaknesses."
There was a knock, and Mr. Letterblair turned hishead sharply. "What is it? I can't be disturbed."
A clerk brought in a letter for Archer and withdrew.Recognising his wife's hand, the young man openedthe envelope and read: "Won't you please come uptown as early as you can? Granny had a slight strokelast night. In some mysterious way she found out beforeany one else this awful news about the bank.Uncle Lovell is away shooting, and the idea of thedisgrace has made poor Papa so nervous that he has atemperature and can't leave his room. Mamma needsyou dreadfully, and I do hope you can get away at onceand go straight to Granny's."
Archer handed the note to his senior partner, and afew minutes later was crawling northward in a crowdedhorse-car, which he exchanged at Fourteenth Street forone of the high staggering omnibuses of the Fifth Avenueline. It was after twelve o'clock when this laboriousvehicle dropped him at old Catherine's. Thesitting-room window on the ground floor, where sheusually throned, was tenanted by the inadequate figureof her daughter, Mrs. Welland, who signed a haggardwelcome as she caught sight of Archer; and at the doorhe was met by May. The hall wore the unnaturalappearance peculiar to well-kept houses suddenlyinvaded by illness: wraps and furs lay in heaps on thechairs, a doctor's bag and overcoat were on the table,and beside them letters and cards had already piled upunheeded.
May looked pale but smiling: Dr. Bencomb, whohad just come for the second time, took a more hopefulview, and Mrs. Mingott's dauntless determination tolive and get well was already having an effect on herfamily. May led Archer into the old lady's sitting-room,where the sliding doors opening into the bedroom hadbeen drawn shut, and the heavy yellow damask portieresdropped over them; and here Mrs. Welland communicatedto him in horrified undertones the details ofthe catastrophe. It appeared that the evening beforesomething dreadful and mysterious had happened. Atabout eight o'clock, just after Mrs. Mingott had finishedthe game of solitaire that she always played afterdinner, the door-bell had rung, and a lady so thicklyveiled that the servants did not immediately recogniseher had asked to be received.
The butler, hearing a familiar voice, had thrownopen the sitting-room door, announcing: "Mrs. JuliusBeaufort"--and had then closed it again on the twoladies. They must have been together, he thought, aboutan hour. When Mrs. Mingott's bell rang Mrs. Beauforthad already slipped away unseen, and the old lady,white and vast and terrible, sat alone in her great chair,and signed to the butler to help her into her room. Sheseemed, at that time, though obviously distressed, incomplete control of her body and brain. The mulattomaid put her to bed, brought her a cup of tea as usual,laid everything straight in the room, and went away;but at three in the morning the bell rang again, and thetwo servants, hastening in at this unwonted summons(for old Catherine usually slept like a baby), had foundtheir mistress sitting up against her pillows with acrooked smile on her face and one little hand hanginglimp from its huge arm.
The stroke had clearly been a slight one, for she wasable to articulate and to make her wishes known; andsoon after the doctor's first visit she had begun toregain control of her facial muscles. But the alarm hadbeen great; and proportionately great was the indignationwhen it was gathered from Mrs. Mingott's fragmentaryphrases that Regina Beaufort had come to askher--incredible effrontery!--to back up her husband,see them through--not to "desert" them, as she calledit--in fact to induce the whole family to cover andcondone their monstrous dishonour.
"I said to her: "Honour's always been honour, andhonesty honesty, in Manson Mingott's house, and willbe till I'm carried out of it feet first,'" the old womanhad stammered into her daughter's ear, in the thickvoice of the partly paralysed. "And when she said: `Butmy name, Auntie--my name's Regina Dallas,' I said: `Itwas Beaufort when he covered you with jewels, and it'sgot to stay Beaufort now that he's covered you withshame.'"
So much, with tears and gasps of horror, Mrs. Wellandimparted, blanched and demolished by the unwontedobligation of having at last to fix her eyes onthe unpleasant and the discreditable. "If only I couldkeep it from your father-in-law: he always says:`Augusta, for pity's sake, don't destroy my last illusions'--and how am I to prevent his knowing these horrors?"the poor lady wailed.
"After all, Mamma, he won't have SEEN them," herdaughter suggested; and Mrs. Welland sighed: "Ah,no; thank heaven he's safe in bed. And Dr. Bencombhas promised to keep him there till poor Mamma isbetter, and Regina has been got away somewhere."
Archer had seated himself near the window and wasgazing out blankly at the deserted thoroughfare. It wasevident that he had been summoned rather for themoral support of the stricken ladies than because ofany specific aid that he could render. Mr. Lovell Mingotthad been telegraphed for, and messages were beingdespatched by hand to the members of the family livingin New York; and meanwhile there was nothing to dobut to discuss in hushed tones the consequences ofBeaufort's dishonour and of his wife's unjustifiableaction.
Mrs. Lovell Mingott, who had been in another roomwriting notes, presently reappeared, and added her voiceto the discussion. In THEIR day, the elder ladies agreed,the wife of a man who had done anything disgracefulin business had only one idea: to efface herself, todisappear with him. "There was the case of poor GrandmammaSpicer; your great-grandmother, May. Ofcourse," Mrs. Welland hastened to add, "your great-grandfather's money difficulties were private--lossesat cards, or signing a note for somebody--I never quiteknew, because Mamma would never speak of it. Butshe was brought up in the country because her motherhad to leave New York after the disgrace, whatever itwas: they lived up the Hudson alone, winter and sum-met, till Mamma was sixteen. It would never haveoccurred to Grandmamma Spicer to ask the family to`countenance' her, as I understand Regina calls it; thougha private disgrace is nothing compared to the scandalof ruining hundreds of innocent people."
"Yes, it would be more becoming in Regina to hideher own countenance than to talk about other people's,"Mrs. Lovell Mingott agreed. "I understand thatthe emerald necklace she wore at the Opera last Fridayhad been sent on approval from Ball and Black's in theafternoon. I wonder if they'll ever get it back?"
Archer listened unmoved to the relentless chorus.The idea of absolute financial probity as the first law ofa gentleman's code was too deeply ingrained in him forsentimental considerations to weaken it. An adventurerlike Lemuel Struthers might build up the millions of hisShoe Polish on any number of shady dealings; butunblemished honesty was the noblesse oblige of oldfinancial New York. Nor did Mrs. Beaufort's fate greatlymove Archer. He felt, no doubt, more sorry for herthan her indignant relatives; but it seemed to him thatthe tie between husband and wife, even if breakable inprosperity, should be indissoluble in misfortune. AsMr. Letterblair had said, a wife's place was at herhusband's side when he was in trouble; but society'splace was not at his side, and Mrs. Beaufort's coolassumption that it was seemed almost to make her hisaccomplice. The mere idea of a woman's appealing toher family to screen her husband's business dishonourwas inadmissible, since it was the one thing that theFamily, as an institution, could not do.
The mulatto maid called Mrs. Lovell Mingott intothe hall, and the latter came back in a moment with afrowning brow.
"She wants me to telegraph for Ellen Olenska. I hadwritten to Ellen, of course, and to Medora; but now itseems that's not enough. I'm to telegraph to herimmediately, and to tell her that she's to come alone."
The announcement was received in silence. Mrs.Welland sighed resignedly, and May rose from her seat andwent to gather up some newspapers that had beenscattered on the floor.
"I suppose it must be done," Mrs. Lovell Mingottcontinued, as if hoping to be contradicted; and Mayturned back toward the middle of the room.
"Of course it must be done," she said. "Grannyknows what she wants, and we must carry out all herwishes. Shall I write the telegram for you, Auntie? If itgoes at once Ellen can probably catch tomorrow morning'strain." She pronounced the syllables of the namewith a peculiar clearness, as if she had tapped on twosilver bells.
"Well, it can't go at once. Jasper and the pantry-boyare both out with notes and telegrams."
May turned to her husband with a smile. "But here'sNewland, ready to do anything. Will you take thetelegram, Newland? There'll be just time before luncheon."
Archer rose with a murmur of readiness, and sheseated herself at old Catherine's rosewood "Bonheurdu Jour," and wrote out the message in her largeimmature hand. When it was written she blotted itneatly and handed it to Archer.
"What a pity," she said, "that you and Ellen willcross each other on the way!--Newland," she added,turning to her mother and aunt, "is obliged to go toWashington about a patent law-suit that is coming upbefore the Supreme Court. I suppose Uncle Lovell willbe back by tomorrow night, and with Granny improvingso much it doesn't seem right to ask Newland togive up an important engagement for the firm--doesit?"
She paused, as if for an answer, and Mrs. Wellandhastily declared: "Oh, of course not, darling. YourGranny would be the last person to wish it." As Archerleft the room with the telegram, he heard his mother-in-law add, presumably to Mrs. Lovell Mingott: "Butwhy on earth she should make you telegraph for EllenOlenska--" and May's clear voice rejoin: "Perhaps it'sto urge on her again that after all her duty is with herhusband."
The outer door closed on Archer and he walkedhastily away toward the telegraph office.