The scene was the van der Luydens' black walnutdining-room in Madison Avenue, and the time the eveningafter Newland Archer's visit to the Museum ofArt. Mr. and Mrs. van der Luyden had come to townfor a few days from Skuytercliff, whither they hadprecipitately fled at the announcement of Beaufort'sfailure. It had been represented to them that the disarrayinto which society had been thrown by this deplorableaffair made their presence in town more necessarythan ever. It was one of the occasions when, as Mrs.Archer put it, they "owed it to society" to show themselvesat the Opera, and even to open their own doors.
"It will never do, my dear Louisa, to let people likeMrs. Lemuel Struthers think they can step into Regina'sshoes. It is just at such times that new people pushin and get a footing. It was owing to the epidemic ofchicken-pox in New York the winter Mrs. Struthersfirst appeared that the married men slipped away toher house while their wives were in the nursery. Youand dear Henry, Louisa, must stand in the breach asyou always have."
Mr. and Mrs. van der Luyden could not remain deafto such a call, and reluctantly but heroically they hadcome to town, unmuffled the house, and sent outinvitations for two dinners and an evening reception.
On this particular evening they had invited SillertonJackson, Mrs. Archer and Newland and his wife to gowith them to the Opera, where Faust was being sungfor the first time that winter. Nothing was done withoutceremony under the van der Luyden roof, andthough there were but four guests the repast had begunat seven punctually, so that the proper sequence ofcourses might be served without haste before the gentlemensettled down to their cigars.
Archer had not seen his wife since the eveningbefore. He had left early for the office, where he hadplunged into an accumulation of unimportant business.In the afternoon one of the senior partners had madean unexpected call on his time; and he had reachedhome so late that May had preceded him to the van derLuydens', and sent back the carriage.
Now, across the Skuytercliff carnations and the massiveplate, she struck him as pale and languid; but hereyes shone, and she talked with exaggerated animation.
The subject which had called forth Mr. SillertonJackson's favourite allusion had been brought up (Archerfancied not without intention) by their hostess. TheBeaufort failure, or rather the Beaufort attitude sincethe failure, was still a fruitful theme for the drawing-room moralist; and after it had been thoroughly examinedand condemned Mrs. van der Luyden had turnedher scrupulous eyes on May Archer.
"Is it possible, dear, that what I hear is true? I wastold your grandmother Mingott's carriage was seenstanding at Mrs. Beaufort's door." It was noticeablethat she no longer called the offending lady by herChristian name.
May's colour rose, and Mrs. Archer put in hastily:"If it was, I'm convinced it was there without Mrs.Mingott's knowledge."
"Ah, you think--?" Mrs. van der Luyden paused,sighed, and glanced at her husband.
"I'm afraid," Mr. van der Luyden said, "that MadameOlenska's kind heart may have led her into theimprudence of calling on Mrs. Beaufort."
"Or her taste for peculiar people," put in Mrs. Archerin a dry tone, while her eyes dwelt innocently on herson's.
"I'm sorry to think it of Madame Olenska," saidMrs. van der Luyden; and Mrs. Archer murmured:"Ah, my dear--and after you'd had her twice atSkuytercliff!"
It was at this point that Mr. Jackson seized thechance to place his favourite allusion.
"At the Tuileries," he repeated, seeing the eyes of thecompany expectantly turned on him, "the standardwas excessively lax in some respects; and if you'd askedwhere Morny's money came from--! Or who paid thedebts of some of the Court beauties . . ."
"I hope, dear Sillerton," said Mrs. Archer, "you arenot suggesting that we should adopt such standards?"
"I never suggest," returned Mr. Jackson imperturbably."But Madame Olenska's foreign bringing-up maymake her less particular--"
"Ah," the two elder ladies sighed.
"Still, to have kept her grandmother's carriage at adefaulter's door!" Mr. van der Luyden protested; andArcher guessed that he was remembering, and resenting,the hampers of carnations he had sent to the littlehouse in Twenty-third Street.
"Of course I've always said that she looks at thingsquite differently," Mrs. Archer summed up.
A flush rose to May's forehead. She looked acrossthe table at her husband, and said precipitately: "I'msure Ellen meant it kindly."
"Imprudent people are often kind," said Mrs. Archer,as if the fact were scarcely an extenuation; and Mrs.van der Luyden murmured: "If only she had consultedsome one--"
"Ah, that she never did!" Mrs. Archer rejoined.
At this point Mr. van der Luyden glanced at his wife,who bent her head slightly in the direction of Mrs.Archer; and the glimmering trains of the three ladiesswept out of the door while the gentlemen settled downto their cigars. Mr. van der Luyden supplied short oneson Opera nights; but they were so good that they madehis guests deplore his inexorable punctuality.
Archer, after the first act, had detached himself fromthe party and made his way to the back of the clubbox. From there he watched, over various Chivers,Mingott and Rushworth shoulders, the same scene thathe had looked at, two years previously, on the night ofhis first meeting with Ellen Olenska. He had half-expected her to appear again in old Mrs. Mingott'sbox, but it remained empty; and he sat motionless, hiseyes fastened on it, till suddenly Madame Nilsson'spure soprano broke out into "M'ama, non m'ama . . . "
Archer turned to the stage, where, in the familiarsetting of giant roses and pen-wiper pansies, the samelarge blonde victim was succumbing to the same smallbrown seducer.
From the stage his eyes wandered to the point of thehorseshoe where May sat between two older ladies,just as, on that former evening, she had sat betweenMrs. Lovell Mingott and her newly-arrived "foreign"cousin. As on that evening, she was all in white; andArcher, who had not noticed what she wore, recognisedthe blue-white satin and old lace of her wedding dress.
It was the custom, in old New York, for brides toappear in this costly garment during the first year ortwo of marriage: his mother, he knew, kept hers intissue paper in the hope that Janey might some daywear it, though poor Janey was reaching the age whenpearl grey poplin and no bridesmaids would be thoughtmore "appropriate."
It struck Archer that May, since their return fromEurope, had seldom worn her bridal satin, and thesurprise of seeing her in it made him compare herappearance with that of the young girl he had watchedwith such blissful anticipations two years earlier.
Though May's outline was slightly heavier, as hergoddesslike build had foretold, her athletic erectness ofcarriage, and the girlish transparency of her expression,remained unchanged: but for the slight languor thatArcher had lately noticed in her she would have beenthe exact image of the girl playing with the bouquet oflilies-of-the-valley on her betrothal evening. The factseemed an additional appeal to his pity: such innocencewas as moving as the trustful clasp of a child. Then heremembered the passionate generosity latent under thatincurious calm. He recalled her glance of understandingwhen he had urged that their engagement should beannounced at the Beaufort ball; he heard the voice inwhich she had said, in the Mission garden: "I couldn'thave my happiness made out of a wrong--a wrong tosome one else;" and an uncontrollable longing seizedhim to tell her the truth, to throw himself on hergenerosity, and ask for the freedom he had once refused.
Newland Archer was a quiet and self-controlled youngman. Conformity to the discipline of a small societyhad become almost his second nature. It was deeplydistasteful to him to do anything melodramatic andconspicuous, anything Mr. van der Luyden would havedeprecated and the club box condemned as bad form.But he had become suddenly unconscious of the clubbox, of Mr. van der Luyden, of all that had so longenclosed him in the warm shelter of habit. He walkedalong the semi-circular passage at the back of the house,and opened the door of Mrs. van der Luyden's box asif it had been a gate into the unknown.
"M'ama!" thrilled out the triumphant Marguerite;and the occupants of the box looked up in surprise atArcher's entrance. He had already broken one of therules of his world, which forbade the entering of a boxduring a solo.
Slipping between Mr. van der Luyden and SillertonJackson, he leaned over his wife.
"I've got a beastly headache; don't tell any one, butcome home, won't you?" he whispered.
May gave him a glance of comprehension, and hesaw her whisper to his mother, who nodded sympathetically;then she murmured an excuse to Mrs. vander Luyden, and rose from her seat just as Margueritefell into Faust's arms. Archer, while he helped her onwith her Opera cloak, noticed the exchange of a significantsmile between the older ladies.
As they drove away May laid her hand shyly onhis. "I'm so sorry you don't feel well. I'm afraid they'vebeen overworking you again at the office."
"No--it's not that: do you mind if I open thewindow?" he returned confusedly, letting down the paneon his side. He sat staring out into the street, feeling hiswife beside him as a silent watchful interrogation, andkeeping his eyes steadily fixed on the passing houses.At their door she caught her skirt in the step of thecarriage, and fell against him.
"Did you hurt yourself?" he asked, steadying herwith his arm.
"No; but my poor dress--see how I've torn it!" sheexclaimed. She bent to gather up a mud-stained breadth,and followed him up the steps into the hall. The servantshad not expected them so early, and there wasonly a glimmer of gas on the upper landing.
Archer mounted the stairs, turned up the light, andput a match to the brackets on each side of the librarymantelpiece. The curtains were drawn, and the warmfriendly aspect of the room smote him like that of afamiliar face met during an unavowable errand.
He noticed that his wife was very pale, and asked ifhe should get her some brandy.
"Oh, no," she exclaimed with a momentary flush, asshe took off her cloak. "But hadn't you better go tobed at once?" she added, as he opened a silver box onthe table and took out a cigarette.
Archer threw down the cigarette and walked to hisusual place by the fire.
"No; my head is not as bad as that." He paused."And there's something I want to say; somethingimportant--that I must tell you at once."
She had dropped into an armchair, and raised herhead as he spoke. "Yes, dear?" she rejoined, so gentlythat he wondered at the lack of wonder with which shereceived this preamble.
"May--" he began, standing a few feet from herchair, and looking over at her as if the slight distancebetween them were an unbridgeable abyss. The soundof his voice echoed uncannily through the homelikehush, and he repeated: "There is something I've got totell you . . . about myself . . ."
She sat silent, without a movement or a tremor ofher lashes. She was still extremely pale, but her facehad a curious tranquillity of expression that seemeddrawn from some secret inner source.
Archer checked the conventional phrases of self-accusalthat were crowding to his lips. He was determined toput the case baldly, without vain recrimination or excuse.
"Madame Olenska--" he said; but at the name hiswife raised her hand as if to silence him. As she did sothe gaslight struck on the gold of her wedding-ring,
"Oh, why should we talk about Ellen tonight?" sheasked, with a slight pout of impatience.
"Because I ought to have spoken before."
Her face remained calm. "Is it really worth while,dear? I know I've been unfair to her at times--perhapswe all have. You've understood her, no doubt, betterthan we did: you've always been kind to her. But whatdoes it matter, now it's all over?"
Archer looked at her blankly. Could it be possiblethat the sense of unreality in which he felt himselfimprisoned had communicated itself to his wife?
"All over--what do you mean?" he asked in anindistinct stammer.
May still looked at him with transparent eyes. "Why--since she's going back to Europe so soon; since Grannyapproves and understands, and has arranged to makeher independent of her husband--"
She broke off, and Archer, grasping the corner of themantelpiece in one convulsed hand, and steadying himselfagainst it, made a vain effort to extend the samecontrol to his reeling thoughts.
"I supposed," he heard his wife's even voice go on,"that you had been kept at the office this eveningabout the business arrangements. It was settled thismorning, I believe." She lowered her eyes under hisunseeing stare, and another fugitive flush passed overher face.
He understood that his own eyes must be unbearable,and turning away, rested his elbows on the mantel-shelf and covered his face. Something drummed andclanged furiously in his ears; he could not tell if it werethe blood in his veins, or the tick of the clock on themantel.
May sat without moving or speaking while the clockslowly measured out five minutes. A lump of coal fellforward in the grate, and hearing her rise to push itback, Archer at length turned and faced her.
"It's impossible," he exclaimed.
"How do you know--what you've just told me?"
"I saw Ellen yesterday--I told you I'd seen her atGranny's."
"It wasn't then that she told you?"
"No; I had a note from her this afternoon.--Do youwant to see it?"
He could not find his voice, and she went out of theroom, and came back almost immediately.
"I thought you knew," she said simply.
She laid a sheet of paper on the table, and Archer putout his hand and took it up. The letter contained only afew lines.
"May dear, I have at last made Granny understandthat my visit to her could be no more than a visit; andshe has been as kind and generous as ever. She seesnow that if I return to Europe I must live by myself, orrather with poor Aunt Medora, who is coming withme. I am hurrying back to Washington to pack up, andwe sail next week. You must be very good to Grannywhen I'm gone--as good as you've always been to me.Ellen.
"If any of my friends wish to urge me to change mymind, please tell them it would be utterly useless."
Archer read the letter over two or three times; thenhe flung it down and burst out laughing.
The sound of his laugh startled him. It recalled Janey'smidnight fright when she had caught him rocking withincomprehensible mirth over May's telegram announcingthat the date of their marriage had been advanced.
"Why did she write this?" he asked, checking hislaugh with a supreme effort.
May met the question with her unshaken candour. "Isuppose because we talked things over yesterday--"
"I told her I was afraid I hadn't been fair to her--hadn't always understood how hard it must have beenfor her here, alone among so many people who wererelations and yet strangers; who felt the right to criticise,and yet didn't always know the circumstances."She paused. "I knew you'd been the one friend shecould always count on; and I wanted her to know thatyou and I were the same--in all our feelings."
She hesitated, as if waiting for him to speak, andthen added slowly: "She understood my wishing to tellher this. I think she understands everything."
She went up to Archer, and taking one of his coldhands pressed it quickly against her cheek.
"My head aches too; good-night, dear," she said,and turned to the door, her torn and muddy wedding-dress dragging after her across the room.