He and May were dining alone, all the familyengagements having been postponed since Mrs. MansonMingott's illness; and as May was the more punctualof the two he was surprised that she had not precededhim. He knew that she was at home, for while hedressed he had heard her moving about in her room;and he wondered what had delayed her.
He had fallen into the way of dwelling on suchconjectures as a means of tying his thoughts fast toreality. Sometimes he felt as if he had found the clue tohis father-in-law's absorption in trifles; perhaps evenMr. Welland, long ago, had had escapes and visions,and had conjured up all the hosts of domesticity todefend himself against them.
When May appeared he thought she looked tired.She had put on the low-necked and tightly-laced dinner-dress which the Mingott ceremonial exacted on themost informal occasions, and had built her fair hairinto its usual accumulated coils; and her face, incontrast, was wan and almost faded. But she shone on himwith her usual tenderness, and her eyes had kept theblue dazzle of the day before.
"What became of you, dear?" she asked. "I waswaiting at Granny's, and Ellen came alone, and saidshe had dropped you on the way because you had torush off on business. There's nothing wrong?"
"Only some letters I'd forgotten, and wanted to getoff before dinner."
"Ah--" she said; and a moment afterward: "I'msorry you didn't come to Granny's--unless the letterswere urgent."
"They were," he rejoined, surprised at her insistence."Besides, I don't see why I should have gone to yourgrandmother's. I didn't know you were there."
She turned and moved to the looking-glass above themantel-piece. As she stood there, lifting her long arm tofasten a puff that had slipped from its place in herintricate hair, Archer was struck by something languidand inelastic in her attitude, and wondered if the deadlymonotony of their lives had laid its weight on her also.Then he remembered that, as he had left the house thatmorning, she had called over the stairs that she wouldmeet him at her grandmother's so that they might drivehome together. He had called back a cheery "Yes!"and then, absorbed in other visions, had forgotten hispromise. Now he was smitten with compunction, yetirritated that so trifling an omission should be storedup against him after nearly two years of marriage. Hewas weary of living in a perpetual tepid honeymoon,without the temperature of passion yet with all itsexactions. If May had spoken out her grievances (hesuspected her of many) he might have laughed themaway; but she was trained to conceal imaginary woundsunder a Spartan smile.
To disguise his own annoyance he asked how hergrandmother was, and she answered that Mrs. Mingottwas still improving, but had been rather disturbed bythe last news about the Beauforts.
"It seems they're going to stay in New York. I believehe's going into an insurance business, or something.They're looking about for a small house."
The preposterousness of the case was beyond discussion,and they went in to dinner. During dinner theirtalk moved in its usual limited circle; but Archernoticed that his wife made no allusion to Madame Olenska,nor to old Catherine's reception of her. He was thankfulfor the fact, yet felt it to be vaguely ominous.
They went up to the library for coffee, and Archerlit a cigar and took down a volume of Michelet. Hehad taken to history in the evenings since May hadshown a tendency to ask him to read aloud whenevershe saw him with a volume of poetry: not that hedisliked the sound of his own voice, but because hecould always foresee her comments on what he read. Inthe days of their engagement she had simply (as he nowperceived) echoed what he told her; but since he hadceased to provide her with opinions she had begun tohazard her own, with results destructive to his enjoymentof the works commented on.
Seeing that he had chosen history she fetched herworkbasket, drew up an arm-chair to the green-shadedstudent lamp, and uncovered a cushion she wasembroidering for his sofa. She was not a clever needle-woman; her large capable hands were made for riding,rowing and open-air activities; but since other wivesembroidered cushions for their husbands she did notwish to omit this last link in her devotion.
She was so placed that Archer, by merely raising hiseyes, could see her bent above her work-frame, herruffled elbow-sleeves slipping back from her firm roundarms, the betrothal sapphire shining on her left handabove her broad gold wedding-ring, and the right handslowly and laboriously stabbing the canvas. As she satthus, the lamplight full on her clear brow, he said tohimself with a secret dismay that he would alwaysknow the thoughts behind it, that never, in all the yearsto come, would she surprise him by an unexpectedmood, by a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or anemotion. She had spent her poetry and romance ontheir short courting: the function was exhaustedbecause the need was past. Now she was simply ripeninginto a copy of her mother, and mysteriously, by thevery process, trying to turn him into a Mr. Welland.He laid down his book and stood up impatiently; andat once she raised her head.
"What's the matter?"
"The room is stifling: I want a little air."
He had insisted that the library curtains should drawbackward and forward on a rod, so that they might beclosed in the evening, instead of remaining nailed to agilt cornice, and immovably looped up over layers oflace, as in the drawing-room; and he pulled them backand pushed up the sash, leaning out into the icy night.The mere fact of not looking at May, seated beside histable, under his lamp, the fact of seeing other houses,roofs, chimneys, of getting the sense of other livesoutside his own, other cities beyond New York, and awhole world beyond his world, cleared his brain andmade it easier to breathe.
After he had leaned out into the darkness for a fewminutes he heard her say: "Newland! Do shut thewindow. You'll catch your death."
He pulled the sash down and turned back. "Catchmy death!" he echoed; and he felt like adding: "ButI've caught it already. I AM dead--I've been dead formonths and months."
And suddenly the play of the word flashed up a wildsuggestion. What if it were SHE who was dead! If shewere going to die--to die soon--and leave him free!The sensation of standing there, in that warm familiarroom, and looking at her, and wishing her dead, wasso strange, so fascinating and overmastering, that itsenormity did not immediately strike him. He simplyfelt that chance had given him a new possibility towhich his sick soul might cling. Yes, May might die--people did: young people, healthy people like herself:she might die, and set him suddenly free.
She glanced up, and he saw by her widening eyesthat there must be something strange in his own.
"Newland! Are you ill?"
He shook his head and turned toward his arm-chair.She bent over her work-frame, and as he passed he laidhis hand on her hair. "Poor May!" he said.
"Poor? Why poor?" she echoed with a strained laugh.
"Because I shall never be able to open a windowwithout worrying you," he rejoined, laughing also.
For a moment she was silent; then she said very low,her head bowed over her work: "I shall never worry ifyou're happy."
"Ah, my dear; and I shall never be happy unless Ican open the windows!"
"In THIS weather?" she remonstrated; and with a sighhe buried his head in his book.
Six or seven days passed. Archer heard nothing fromMadame Olenska, and became aware that her namewould not be mentioned in his presence by any memberof the family. He did not try to see her; to do sowhile she was at old Catherine's guarded bedside wouldhave been almost impossible. In the uncertainty of thesituation he let himself drift, conscious, somewherebelow the surface of his thoughts, of a resolve whichhad come to him when he had leaned out from hislibrary window into the icy night. The strength of thatresolve made it easy to wait and make no sign.
Then one day May told him that Mrs. MansonMingott had asked to see him. There was nothingsurprising in the request, for the old lady was steadilyrecovering, and she had always openly declared thatshe preferred Archer to any of her other grandsons-in-law. May gave the message with evident pleasure: shewas proud of old Catherine's appreciation of herhusband.
There was a moment's pause, and then Archer felt itincumbent on him to say: "All right. Shall we gotogether this afternoon?"
His wife's face brightened, but she instantly answered:"Oh, you'd much better go alone. It bores Granny tosee the same people too often."
Archer's heart was beating violently when he rangold Mrs. Mingott's bell. He had wanted above allthings to go alone, for he felt sure the visit would givehim the chance of saying a word in private to theCountess Olenska. He had determined to wait till thechance presented itself naturally; and here it was, andhere he was on the doorstep. Behind the door, behindthe curtains of the yellow damask room next to thehall, she was surely awaiting him; in another momenthe should see her, and be able to speak to her beforeshe led him to the sick-room.
He wanted only to put one question: after that hiscourse would be clear. What he wished to ask wassimply the date of her return to Washington; and thatquestion she could hardly refuse to answer.
But in the yellow sitting-room it was the mulattomaid who waited. Her white teeth shining like akeyboard, she pushed back the sliding doors and usheredhim into old Catherine's presence.
The old woman sat in a vast throne-like arm-chairnear her bed. Beside her was a mahogany stand bearinga cast bronze lamp with an engraved globe, over whicha green paper shade had been balanced. There was nota book or a newspaper in reach, nor any evidence offeminine employment: conversation had always beenMrs. Mingott's sole pursuit, and she would have scornedto feign an interest in fancywork.
Archer saw no trace of the slight distortion left byher stroke. She merely looked paler, with darker shadowsin the folds and recesses of her obesity; and, in thefluted mob-cap tied by a starched bow between herfirst two chins, and the muslin kerchief crossed overher billowing purple dressing-gown, she seemed likesome shrewd and kindly ancestress of her own whomight have yielded too freely to the pleasures of thetable.
She held out one of the little hands that nestled in ahollow of her huge lap like pet animals, and called tothe maid: "Don't let in any one else. If my daughterscall, say I'm asleep."
The maid disappeared, and the old lady turned toher grandson.
"My dear, am I perfectly hideous?" she asked gaily,launching out one hand in search of the folds of muslinon her inaccessible bosom. "My daughters tell me itdoesn't matter at my age--as if hideousness didn't matterall the more the harder it gets to conceal!"
"My dear, you're handsomer than ever!" Archerrejoined in the same tone; and she threw back her headand laughed.
"Ah, but not as handsome as Ellen!" she jerked out,twinkling at him maliciously; and before he could answershe added: "Was she so awfully handsome theday you drove her up from the ferry?"
He laughed, and she continued: "Was it because youtold her so that she had to put you out on the way? Inmy youth young men didn't desert pretty women unlessthey were made to!" She gave another chuckle, andinterrupted it to say almost querulously: "It's a pity shedidn't marry you; I always told her so. It would havespared me all this worry. But who ever thought ofsparing their grandmother worry?"
Archer wondered if her illness had blurred her faculties;but suddenly she broke out: "Well, it's settled,anyhow: she's going to stay with me, whatever the restof the family say! She hadn't been here five minutesbefore I'd have gone down on my knees to keep her--ifonly, for the last twenty years, I'd been able to seewhere the floor was!"
Archer listened in silence, and she went on: "They'dtalked me over, as no doubt you know: persuaded me,Lovell, and Letterblair, and Augusta Welland, and allthe rest of them, that I must hold out and cut off herallowance, till she was made to see that it was her dutyto go back to Olenski. They thought they'd convincedme when the secretary, or whatever he was, came outwith the last proposals: handsome proposals I confessthey were. After all, marriage is marriage, and money'smoney--both useful things in their way . . . and I didn'tknow what to answer--" She broke off and drew along breath, as if speaking had become an effort. "Butthe minute I laid eyes on her, I said: `You sweet bird,you! Shut you up in that cage again? Never!' And nowit's settled that she's to stay here and nurse her Grannyas long as there's a Granny to nurse. It's not a gayprospect, but she doesn't mind; and of course I've toldLetterblair that she's to be given her proper allowance."
The young man heard her with veins aglow; but inhis confusion of mind he hardly knew whether hernews brought joy or pain. He had so definitely decidedon the course he meant to pursue that for the momenthe could not readjust his thoughts. But gradually therestole over him the delicious sense of difficultiesdeferred and opportunities miraculously provided. IfEllen had consented to come and live with her grandmotherit must surely be because she had recognised theimpossibility of giving him up. This was her answer to hisfinal appeal of the other day: if she would not take theextreme step he had urged, she had at last yielded tohalf-measures. He sank back into the thought with theinvoluntary relief of a man who has been ready to riskeverything, and suddenly tastes the dangerous sweetnessof security.
"She couldn't have gone back--it was impossible!"he exclaimed.
"Ah, my dear, I always knew you were on her side;and that's why I sent for you today, and why I said toyour pretty wife, when she proposed to come with you:`No, my dear, I'm pining to see Newland, and I don'twant anybody to share our transports.' For you see, mydear--" she drew her head back as far as its tetheringchins permitted, and looked him full in the eyes--"yousee, we shall have a fight yet. The family don't wanther here, and they'll say it's because I've been ill,because I'm a weak old woman, that she's persuaded me.I'm not well enough yet to fight them one by one, andyou've got to do it for me."
"I?" he stammered.
"You. Why not?" she jerked back at him, her roundeyes suddenly as sharp as pen-knives. Her hand flutteredfrom its chair-arm and lit on his with a clutch oflittle pale nails like bird-claws. "Why not?" shesearchingly repeated.
Archer, under the exposure of her gaze, had recoveredhis self-possession.
"Oh, I don't count--I'm too insignificant."
"Well, you're Letterblair's partner, ain't you? You'vegot to get at them through Letterblair. Unless you'vegot a reason," she insisted.
"Oh, my dear, I back you to hold your own againstthem all without my help; but you shall have it if youneed it," he reassured her.
"Then we're safe!" she sighed; and smiling on himwith all her ancient cunning she added, as she settledher head among the cushions: "I always knew you'dback us up, because they never quote you when theytalk about its being her duty to go home."
He winced a little at her terrifying perspicacity, andlonged to ask: "And May--do they quote her?" But hejudged it safer to turn the question.
"And Madame Olenska? When am I to see her?" hesaid.
The old lady chuckled, crumpled her lids, and wentthrough the pantomime of archness. "Not today. Oneat a time, please. Madame Olenska's gone out."
He flushed with disappointment, and she went on:"She's gone out, my child: gone in my carriage to seeRegina Beaufort."
She paused for this announcement to produce itseffect. "That's what she's reduced me to already. Theday after she got here she put on her best bonnet, andtold me, as cool as a cucumber, that she was going tocall on Regina Beaufort. `I don't know her; who isshe?' says I. `She's your grand-niece, and a mostunhappy woman,' she says. `She's the wife of a scoundrel,'I answered. `Well,' she says, `and so am I, and yetall my family want me to go back to him.' Well, thatfloored me, and I let her go; and finally one day shesaid it was raining too hard to go out on foot, and shewanted me to lend her my carriage. `What for?' I askedher; and she said: `To go and see cousin Regina--COUSIN!Now, my dear, I looked out of the window, and saw itwasn't raining a drop; but I understood her, and I lether have the carriage. . . . After all, Regina's a bravewoman, and so is she; and I've always liked courageabove everything."
她停了一会儿，等待这一消息产生效果。“她已经把我征服到这种地步了。她到这儿第二天，就戴上最好的帽子，十分冷静地对我说要去看里吉纳·博福特。 ‘我不认识她，她是什么人？’我说。‘她是你的侄孙女，一位很不幸的女人，’她说。‘她是坏蛋的妻子，’我说。‘噢，’她说，‘那我也是，可我的家人都想让我回到他身边去。’咳，这下把我击败了，于是我让她去了。终于有一天，她说雨下得很大，没法步行出门，要我借给她马车。我问她干什么去，她说，去看里吉纳堂姐 ——还堂姐呢！哎，亲爱的，我朝窗外望了望，一滴雨都没下；不过我理解她，让她用了马车……毕竟，里吉纳得算个勇敢的女人，她也是。而我一贯最最喜欢勇气。”
Archer bent down and pressed his lips on the littlehand that still lay on his.
"Eh--eh--eh! Whose hand did you think you werekissing, young man--your wife's, I hope?" the old ladysnapped out with her mocking cackle; and as he rose togo she called out after him: "Give her her Granny'slove; but you'd better not say anything about our talk."