"Olenska--O-len-ska," he repeated, drawing backthe message in order to print out the foreign syllablesabove May's rambling script.
"It's an unlikely name for a New York telegraphoffice; at least in this quarter," an unexpected voiceobserved; and turning around Archer saw LawrenceLefferts at his elbow, pulling an imperturbable moustacheand affecting not to glance at the message.
"Hallo, Newland: thought I'd catch you here. I'vejust heard of old Mrs. Mingott's stroke; and as I wason my way to the house I saw you turning down thisstreet and nipped after you. I suppose you've comefrom there?"
Archer nodded, and pushed his telegram under thelattice.
"Very bad, eh?" Lefferts continued. "Wiring to thefamily, I suppose. I gather it IS bad, if you're includingCountess Olenska."
Archer's lips stiffened; he felt a savage impulse todash his fist into the long vain handsome face at his side.
"Why?" he questioned.
Lefferts, who was known to shrink from discussion,raised his eye-brows with an ironic grimace that warnedthe other of the watching damsel behind the lattice.Nothing could be worse "form" the look remindedArcher, than any display of temper in a public place.
Archer had never been more indifferent to therequirements of form; but his impulse to do LawrenceLefferts a physical injury was only momentary. Theidea of bandying Ellen Olenska's name with him atsuch a time, and on whatsoever provocation, wasunthinkable. He paid for his telegram, and the two youngmen went out together into the street. There Archer,having regained his self-control, went on: "Mrs. Mingottis much better: the doctor feels no anxiety whatever";and Lefferts, with profuse expressions of relief,asked him if he had heard that there were beastly badrumours again about Beaufort. . . .
That afternoon the announcement of the Beaufort failurewas in all the papers. It overshadowed the report ofMrs. Manson Mingott's stroke, and only the few whohad heard of the mysterious connection between thetwo events thought of ascribing old Catherine's illnessto anything but the accumulation of flesh and years.
The whole of New York was darkened by the tale ofBeaufort's dishonour. There had never, as Mr. Letterblairsaid, been a worse case in his memory, nor, for thatmatter, in the memory of the far-off Letterblair whohad given his name to the firm. The bank had continuedto take in money for a whole day after its failurewas inevitable; and as many of its clients belonged toone or another of the ruling clans, Beaufort's duplicityseemed doubly cynical. If Mrs. Beaufort had not takenthe tone that such misfortunes (the word was her own)were "the test of friendship," compassion for her mighthave tempered the general indignation against her husband.As it was--and especially after the object of hernocturnal visit to Mrs. Manson Mingott had becomeknown--her cynicism was held to exceed his; and shehad not the excuse--nor her detractors the satisfaction--of pleading that she was "a foreigner." It was somecomfort (to those whose securities were not in jeopardy)to be able to remind themselves that BeaufortWAS; but, after all, if a Dallas of South Carolina tookhis view of the case, and glibly talked of his soon being"on his feet again," the argument lost its edge, andthere was nothing to do but to accept this awful evidenceof the indissolubility of marriage. Society mustmanage to get on without the Beauforts, and there wasan end of it--except indeed for such hapless victims ofthe disaster as Medora Manson, the poor old MissLannings, and certain other misguided ladies of goodfamily who, if only they had listened to Mr. Henry vander Luyden . . .
"The best thing the Beauforts can do," said Mrs.Archer, summing it up as if she were pronouncing adiagnosis and prescribing a course of treatment, "is togo and live at Regina's little place in North Carolina.Beaufort has always kept a racing stable, and he hadbetter breed trotting horses. I should say he had all thequalities of a successful horsedealer." Every one agreedwith her, but no one condescended to enquire what theBeauforts really meant to do.
The next day Mrs. Manson Mingott was much better:she recovered her voice sufficiently to give ordersthat no one should mention the Beauforts to her again,and asked--when Dr. Bencomb appeared--what in theworld her family meant by making such a fuss abouther health.
"If people of my age WILL eat chicken-salad in theevening what are they to expect?" she enquired; and,the doctor having opportunely modified her dietary,the stroke was transformed into an attack of indigestion.But in spite of her firm tone old Catherine did notwholly recover her former attitude toward life. Thegrowing remoteness of old age, though it had notdiminished her curiosity about her neighbours, had bluntedher never very lively compassion for their troubles; andshe seemed to have no difficulty in putting the Beaufortdisaster out of her mind. But for the first time shebecame absorbed in her own symptoms, and began totake a sentimental interest in certain members of herfamily to whom she had hitherto been contemptuouslyindifferent.
Mr. Welland, in particular, had the privilege ofattracting her notice. Of her sons-in-law he was the oneshe had most consistently ignored; and all his wife'sefforts to represent him as a man of forceful characterand marked intellectual ability (if he had only "chosen")had been met with a derisive chuckle. But hiseminence as a valetudinarian now made him an objectof engrossing interest, and Mrs. Mingott issued animperial summons to him to come and compare dietsas soon as his temperature permitted; for old Catherinewas now the first to recognise that one could not betoo careful about temperatures.
Twenty-four hours after Madame Olenska's summonsa telegram announced that she would arrive from Washingtonon the evening of the following day. At theWellands', where the Newland Archers chanced to belunching, the question as to who should meet her atJersey City was immediately raised; and the materialdifficulties amid which the Welland household struggledas if it had been a frontier outpost, lent animationto the debate. It was agreed that Mrs. Welland couldnot possibly go to Jersey City because she was toaccompany her husband to old Catherine's that afternoon,and the brougham could not be spared, since, ifMr. Welland were "upset" by seeing his mother-in-lawfor the first time after her attack, he might have to betaken home at a moment's notice. The Welland sonswould of course be "down town," Mr. Lovell Mingottwould be just hurrying back from his shooting, and theMingott carriage engaged in meeting him; and onecould not ask May, at the close of a winter afternoon,to go alone across the ferry to Jersey City, even in herown carriage. Nevertheless, it might appear inhospitable--and contrary to old Catherine's express wishes--ifMadame Olenska were allowed to arrive without anyof the family being at the station to receive her. It wasjust like Ellen, Mrs. Welland's tired voice implied, toplace the family in such a dilemma. "It's always onething after another," the poor lady grieved, in one ofher rare revolts against fate; "the only thing that makesme think Mamma must be less well than Dr. Bencombwill admit is this morbid desire to have Ellen come atonce, however inconvenient it is to meet her."
The words had been thoughtless, as the utterances ofimpatience often are; and Mr. Welland was upon themwith a pounce.
"Augusta," he said, turning pale and laying down hisfork, "have you any other reason for thinking thatBencomb is less to be relied on than he was? Have younoticed that he has been less conscientious than usualin following up my case or your mother's?"
It was Mrs. Welland's turn to grow pale as theendless consequences of her blunder unrolled themselvesbefore her; but she managed to laugh, and take asecond helping of scalloped oysters, before she said,struggling back into her old armour of cheerfulness:"My dear, how could you imagine such a thing? I onlymeant that, after the decided stand Mamma took aboutits being Ellen's duty to go back to her husband, itseems strange that she should be seized with this suddenwhim to see her, when there are half a dozen othergrandchildren that she might have asked for. But wemust never forget that Mamma, in spite of her wonderfulvitality, is a very old woman."
Mr. Welland's brow remained clouded, and it wasevident that his perturbed imagination had fastened atonce on this last remark. "Yes: your mother's a veryold woman; and for all we know Bencomb may not beas successful with very old people. As you say, mydear, it's always one thing after another; and inanother ten or fifteen years I suppose I shall have thepleasing duty of looking about for a new doctor. It'salways better to make such a change before it's absolutelynecessary." And having arrived at this Spartandecision Mr. Welland firmly took up his fork.
"But all the while," Mrs. Welland began again, asshe rose from the luncheon-table, and led the way intothe wilderness of purple satin and malachite known asthe back drawing-room, "I don't see how Ellen's to begot here tomorrow evening; and I do like to havethings settled for at least twenty-four hours ahead."
Archer turned from the fascinated contemplation ofa small painting representing two Cardinals carousing,in an octagonal ebony frame set with medallions of onyx.
"Shall I fetch her?" he proposed. "I can easily getaway from the office in time to meet the brougham atthe ferry, if May will send it there." His heart wasbeating excitedly as he spoke.
Mrs. Welland heaved a sigh of gratitude, and May, whohad moved away to the window, turned to shed on hima beam of approval. "So you see, Mamma, everythingWILL be settled twenty-four hours in advance," she said,stooping over to kiss her mother's troubled forehead.
May's brougham awaited her at the door, and she wasto drive Archer to Union Square, where he could pickup a Broadway car to carry him to the office. As shesettled herself in her corner she said: "I didn't want toworry Mamma by raising fresh obstacles; but how canyou meet Ellen tomorrow, and bring her back to NewYork, when you're going to Washington?"
"Oh, I'm not going," Archer answered.
"Not going? Why, what's happened?" Her voice wasas clear as a bell, and full of wifely solicitude.
"The case is off--postponed."
"Postponed? How odd! I saw a note this morningfrom Mr. Letterblair to Mamma saying that he wasgoing to Washington tomorrow for the big patent casethat he was to argue before the Supreme Court. Yousaid it was a patent case, didn't you?"
"Well--that's it: the whole office can't go. Letterblairdecided to go this morning."
"Then it's NOT postponed?" she continued, with aninsistence so unlike her that he felt the blood rising tohis face, as if he were blushing for her unwonted lapsefrom all the traditional delicacies.
"No: but my going is," he answered, cursing theunnecessary explanations that he had given when hehad announced his intention of going to Washington,and wondering where he had read that clever liars givedetails, but that the cleverest do not. It did not hurthim half as much to tell May an untruth as to see hertrying to pretend that she had not detected him.
"I'm not going till later on: luckily for theconvenience of your family," he continued, taking baserefuge in sarcasm. As he spoke he felt that she was lookingat him, and he turned his eyes to hers in order not toappear to be avoiding them. Their glances met for asecond, and perhaps let them into each other's meaningsmore deeply than either cared to go.
"Yes; it IS awfully convenient," May brightly agreed,"that you should be able to meet Ellen after all; yousaw how much Mamma appreciated your offering todo it."
"Oh, I'm delighted to do it." The carriage stopped,and as he jumped out she leaned to him and laid herhand on his. "Good-bye, dearest," she said, her eyes soblue that he wondered afterward if they had shone onhim through tears.
He turned away and hurried across Union Square,repeating to himself, in a sort of inward chant: "It's allof two hours from Jersey City to old Catherine's. It'sall of two hours--and it may be more."