The Newland Archers, since they had set up theirhousehold, had received a good deal of company in aninformal way. Archer was fond of having three or fourfriends to dine, and May welcomed them with thebeaming readiness of which her mother had set her theexample in conjugal affairs. Her husband questionedwhether, if left to herself, she would ever have askedany one to the house; but he had long given up tryingto disengage her real self from the shape into whichtradition and training had moulded her. It wasexpected that well-off young couples in New York shoulddo a good deal of informal entertaining, and a Wellandmarried to an Archer was doubly pledged to thetradition.
But a big dinner, with a hired chef and twoborrowed footmen, with Roman punch, roses fromHenderson's, and menus on gilt-edged cards, was a differentaffair, and not to be lightly undertaken. As Mrs. Archerremarked, the Roman punch made all the difference;not in itself but by its manifold implications--since itsignified either canvas-backs or terrapin, two soups, ahot and a cold sweet, full decolletage with short sleeves,and guests of a proportionate importance.
It was always an interesting occasion when a youngpair launched their first invitations in the third person,and their summons was seldom refused even by theseasoned and sought-after. Still, it was admittedly atriumph that the van der Luydens, at May's request,should have stayed over in order to be present at herfarewell dinner for the Countess Olenska.
The two mothers-in-law sat in May's drawing-roomon the afternoon of the great day, Mrs. Archer writingout the menus on Tiffany's thickest gilt-edged bristol,while Mrs. Welland superintended the placing of thepalms and standard lamps.
Archer, arriving late from his office, found them stillthere. Mrs. Archer had turned her attention to thename-cards for the table, and Mrs. Welland wasconsidering the effect of bringing forward the large giltsofa, so that another "corner" might be createdbetween the piano and the window.
May, they told him, was in the dining-room inspectingthe mound of Jacqueminot roses and maidenhair inthe centre of the long table, and the placing of theMaillard bonbons in openwork silver baskets betweenthe candelabra. On the piano stood a large basket oforchids which Mr. van der Luyden had had sent fromSkuytercliff. Everything was, in short, as it should beon the approach of so considerable an event.
Mrs. Archer ran thoughtfully over the list, checkingoff each name with her sharp gold pen.
"Henry van der Luyden--Louisa--the Lovell Mingotts--the Reggie Chiverses--Lawrence Lefferts andGertrude--(yes, I suppose May was right to havethem)--the Selfridge Merrys, Sillerton Jackson, VanNewland and his wife. (How time passes! It seems onlyyesterday that he was your best man, Newland)--andCountess Olenska--yes, I think that's all. . . ."
Mrs. Welland surveyed her son-in-law affectionately."No one can say, Newland, that you and May are notgiving Ellen a handsome send-off."
"Ah, well," said Mrs. Archer, "I understand May'swanting her cousin to tell people abroad that we're notquite barbarians."
"I'm sure Ellen will appreciate it. She was to arrivethis morning, I believe. It will make a most charminglast impression. The evening before sailing is usually sodreary," Mrs. Welland cheerfully continued.
Archer turned toward the door, and his mother-in-law called to him: "Do go in and have a peep at thetable. And don't let May tire herself too much." But heaffected not to hear, and sprang up the stairs to hislibrary. The room looked at him like an alien countenancecomposed into a polite grimace; and he perceivedthat it had been ruthlessly "tidied," and prepared,by a judicious distribution of ash-trays and cedar-woodboxes, for the gentlemen to smoke in.
"Ah, well," he thought, "it's not for long--" and hewent on to his dressing-room.
Ten days had passed since Madame Olenska's departurefrom New York. During those ten days Archerhad had no sign from her but that conveyed by thereturn of a key wrapped in tissue paper, and sent to hisoffice in a sealed envelope addressed in her hand. Thisretort to his last appeal might have been interpreted asa classic move in a familiar game; but the young manchose to give it a different meaning. She was still fightingagainst her fate; but she was going to Europe, andshe was not returning to her husband. Nothing, therefore,was to prevent his following her; and once he hadtaken the irrevocable step, and had proved to her thatit was irrevocable, he believed she would not send himaway.
This confidence in the future had steadied him toplay his part in the present. It had kept him fromwriting to her, or betraying, by any sign or act, hismisery and mortification. It seemed to him that in thedeadly silent game between them the trumps were stillin his hands; and he waited.
There had been, nevertheless, moments sufficientlydifficult to pass; as when Mr. Letterblair, the day afterMadame Olenska's departure, had sent for him to goover the details of the trust which Mrs. Manson Mingottwished to create for her granddaughter. For a couple ofhours Archer had examined the terms of the deed withhis senior, all the while obscurely feeling that if he hadbeen consulted it was for some reason other than theobvious one of his cousinship; and that the close of theconference would reveal it.
"Well, the lady can't deny that it's a handsomearrangement," Mr. Letterblair had summed up, aftermumbling over a summary of the settlement. "In factI'm bound to say she's been treated pretty handsomelyall round."
"All round?" Archer echoed with a touch ofderision. "Do you refer to her husband's proposal to giveher back her own money?"
Mr. Letterblair's bushy eyebrows went up a fractionof an inch. "My dear sir, the law's the law; and yourwife's cousin was married under the French law. It's tobe presumed she knew what that meant."
"Even if she did, what happened subsequently--."But Archer paused. Mr. Letterblair had laid his pen-handle against his big corrugated nose, and was lookingdown it with the expression assumed by virtuouselderly gentlemen when they wish their youngers tounderstand that virtue is not synonymous with ignorance.
"My dear sir, I've no wish to extenuate the Count'stransgressions; but--but on the other side . . . I wouldn'tput my hand in the fire . . . well, that there hadn't beentit for tat . . . with the young champion. . . ." Mr.Letterblair unlocked a drawer and pushed a foldedpaper toward Archer. "This report, the result of discreetenquiries . . ." And then, as Archer made noeffort to glance at the paper or to repudiate the suggestion,the lawyer somewhat flatly continued: "I don'tsay it's conclusive, you observe; far from it. But strawsshow . . . and on the whole it's eminently satisfactoryfor all parties that this dignified solution has beenreached."
"Oh, eminently," Archer assented, pushing back thepaper.
A day or two later, on responding to a summonsfrom Mrs. Manson Mingott, his soul had been moredeeply tried.
He had found the old lady depressed and querulous.
"You know she's deserted me?" she began at once;and without waiting for his reply: "Oh, don't ask mewhy! She gave so many reasons that I've forgottenthem all. My private belief is that she couldn't face theboredom. At any rate that's what Augusta and mydaughters-in-law think. And I don't know that Ialtogether blame her. Olenski's a finished scoundrel; butlife with him must have been a good deal gayer than itis in Fifth Avenue. Not that the family would admitthat: they think Fifth Avenue is Heaven with the rue dela Paix thrown in. And poor Ellen, of course, has noidea of going back to her husband. She held out asfirmly as ever against that. So she's to settle down inParis with that fool Medora. . . . Well, Paris is Paris;and you can keep a carriage there on next to nothing.But she was as gay as a bird, and I shall miss her."Two tears, the parched tears of the old, rolled downher puffy cheeks and vanished in the abysses of herbosom.
"All I ask is," she concluded, "that they shouldn'tbother me any more. I must really be allowed to digestmy gruel. . . ." And she twinkled a little wistfully atArcher.
It was that evening, on his return home, that Mayannounced her intention of giving a farewell dinner toher cousin. Madame Olenska's name had not beenpronounced between them since the night of her flightto Washington; and Archer looked at his wife withsurprise.
"A dinner--why?" he interrogated.
Her colour rose. "But you like Ellen--I thought you'dbe pleased."
"It's awfully nice--your putting it in that way. But Ireally don't see--"
"I mean to do it, Newland," she said, quietly risingand going to her desk. "Here are the invitations allwritten. Mother helped me--she agrees that we oughtto." She paused, embarrassed and yet smiling, andArcher suddenly saw before him the embodied imageof the Family.
"Oh, all right," he said, staring with unseeing eyes atthe list of guests that she had put in his hand.
When he entered the drawing-room before dinner Maywas stooping over the fire and trying to coax the logsto burn in their unaccustomed setting of immaculatetiles.
The tall lamps were all lit, and Mr. van der Luyden'sorchids had been conspicuously disposed in variousreceptacles of modern porcelain and knobby silver. Mrs.Newland Archer's drawing-room was generally thoughta great success. A gilt bamboo jardiniere, in whichthe primulas and cinerarias were punctually renewed,blocked the access to the bay window (where the old-fashioned would have preferred a bronze reduction ofthe Venus of Milo); the sofas and arm-chairs of palebrocade were cleverly grouped about little plush tablesdensely covered with silver toys, porcelain animals andefflorescent photograph frames; and tall rosy-shadedlamps shot up like tropical flowers among the palms.
"I don't think Ellen has ever seen this room lightedup," said May, rising flushed from her struggle, andsending about her a glance of pardonable pride. Thebrass tongs which she had propped against the side ofthe chimney fell with a crash that drowned her husband'sanswer; and before he could restore them Mr.and Mrs. van der Luyden were announced.
The other guests quickly followed, for it was knownthat the van der Luydens liked to dine punctually. Theroom was nearly full, and Archer was engaged in showingto Mrs. Selfridge Merry a small highly-varnishedVerbeckhoven "Study of Sheep," which Mr. Wellandhad given May for Christmas, when he found MadameOlenska at his side.
She was excessively pale, and her pallor made herdark hair seem denser and heavier than ever. Perhapsthat, or the fact that she had wound several rows ofamber beads about her neck, reminded him suddenly ofthe little Ellen Mingott he had danced with at children'sparties, when Medora Manson had first broughther to New York.
The amber beads were trying to her complexion, orher dress was perhaps unbecoming: her face lookedlustreless and almost ugly, and he had never loved it ashe did at that minute. Their hands met, and he thoughthe heard her say: "Yes, we're sailing tomorrow in theRussia--"; then there was an unmeaning noise of openingdoors, and after an interval May's voice: "Newland!Dinner's been announced. Won't you please take Ellenin?"
Madame Olenska put her hand on his arm, and henoticed that the hand was ungloved, and rememberedhow he had kept his eyes fixed on it the evening that hehad sat with her in the little Twenty-third Street drawing-room. All the beauty that had forsaken her face seemedto have taken refuge in the long pale fingers and faintlydimpled knuckles on his sleeve, and he said to himself:"If it were only to see her hand again I should have tofollow her--."
It was only at an entertainment ostensibly offered toa "foreign visitor" that Mrs. van der Luyden couldsuffer the diminution of being placed on her host's left.The fact of Madame Olenska's "foreignness" couldhardly have been more adroitly emphasised than bythis farewell tribute; and Mrs. van der Luyden acceptedher displacement with an affability which left no doubtas to her approval. There were certain things that hadto be done, and if done at all, done handsomely andthoroughly; and one of these, in the old New Yorkcode, was the tribal rally around a kinswoman aboutto be eliminated from the tribe. There was nothing onearth that the Wellands and Mingotts would not havedone to proclaim their unalterable affection for theCountess Olenska now that her passage for Europewas engaged; and Archer, at the head of his table, satmarvelling at the silent untiring activity with which herpopularity had been retrieved, grievances against hersilenced, her past countenanced, and her present irradiatedby the family approval. Mrs. van der Luydenshone on her with the dim benevolence which was hernearest approach to cordiality, and Mr. van der Luyden,from his seat at May's right, cast down the table glancesplainly intended to justify all the carnations he had sentfrom Skuytercliff.
Archer, who seemed to be assisting at the scene in astate of odd imponderability, as if he floated somewherebetween chandelier and ceiling, wondered atnothing so much as his own share in the proceedings.As his glance travelled from one placid well-fed face toanother he saw all the harmless-looking people engagedupon May's canvas-backs as a band of dumb conspirators,and himself and the pale woman on his right asthe centre of their conspiracy. And then it came overhim, in a vast flash made up of many broken gleams,that to all of them he and Madame Olenska werelovers, lovers in the extreme sense peculiar to "foreign"vocabularies. He guessed himself to have been, formonths, the centre of countless silently observing eyesand patiently listening ears, he understood that, bymeans as yet unknown to him, the separation betweenhimself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved,and that now the whole tribe had rallied about his wifeon the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything, orhad ever imagined anything, and that the occasion ofthe entertainment was simply May Archer's naturaldesire to take an affectionate leave of her friend andcousin.
It was the old New York way of taking life "withouteffusion of blood": the way of people who dreadedscandal more than disease, who placed decency abovecourage, and who considered that nothing was moreill-bred than "scenes," except the behaviour of thosewho gave rise to them.
As these thoughts succeeded each other in his mindArcher felt like a prisoner in the centre of an armedcamp. He looked about the table, and guessed at theinexorableness of his captors from the tone in which,over the asparagus from Florida, they were dealingwith Beaufort and his wife. "It's to show me," hethought, "what would happen to ME--" and a deathlysense of the superiority of implication and analogy overdirect action, and of silence over rash words, closed inon him like the doors of the family vault.
He laughed, and met Mrs. van der Luyden's startledeyes.
"You think it laughable?" she said with a pinchedsmile. "Of course poor Regina's idea of remaining inNew York has its ridiculous side, I suppose;" andArcher muttered: "Of course."
At this point, he became conscious that MadameOlenska's other neighbour had been engaged for sometime with the lady on his right. At the same moment hesaw that May, serenely enthroned between Mr. van derLuyden and Mr. Selfridge Merry, had cast a quickglance down the table. It was evident that the host andthe lady on his right could not sit through the wholemeal in silence. He turned to Madame Olenska, andher pale smile met him. "Oh, do let's see it through," itseemed to say.
"Did you find the journey tiring?" he asked in avoice that surprised him by its naturalness; and sheanswered that, on the contrary, she had seldom travelledwith fewer discomforts.
"Except, you know, the dreadful heat in the train,"she added; and he remarked that she would not sufferfrom that particular hardship in the country she wasgoing to.
"I never," he declared with intensity, "was morenearly frozen than once, in April, in the train betweenCalais and Paris."
She said she did not wonder, but remarked that,after all, one could always carry an extra rug, and thatevery form of travel had its hardships; to which heabruptly returned that he thought them all of no accountcompared with the blessedness of getting away.She changed colour, and he added, his voice suddenlyrising in pitch: "I mean to do a lot of travelling myselfbefore long." A tremor crossed her face, and leaningover to Reggie Chivers, he cried out: "I say, Reggie,what do you say to a trip round the world: now, nextmonth, I mean? I'm game if you are--" at which Mrs.Reggie piped up that she could not think of lettingReggie go till after the Martha Washington Ball shewas getting up for the Blind Asylum in Easter week;and her husband placidly observed that by that time hewould have to be practising for the International Polomatch.
But Mr. Selfridge Merry had caught the phrase "roundthe world," and having once circled the globe in hissteam-yacht, he seized the opportunity to send downthe table several striking items concerning the shallownessof the Mediterranean ports. Though, after all, headded, it didn't matter; for when you'd seen Athensand Smyrna and Constantinople, what else was there?And Mrs. Merry said she could never be too grateful toDr. Bencomb for having made them promise not to goto Naples on account of the fever.
"But you must have three weeks to do India properly,"her husband conceded, anxious to have it understoodthat he was no frivolous globe-trotter.
And at this point the ladies went up to the drawing-room.
In the library, in spite of weightier presences, LawrenceLefferts predominated.
The talk, as usual, had veered around to the Beauforts,and even Mr. van der Luyden and Mr. SelfridgeMerry, installed in the honorary arm-chairs tacitlyreserved for them, paused to listen to the younger man'sphilippic.
Never had Lefferts so abounded in the sentimentsthat adorn Christian manhood and exalt the sanctity ofthe home. Indignation lent him a scathing eloquence,and it was clear that if others had followed his example,and acted as he talked, society would never havebeen weak enough to receive a foreign upstart likeBeaufort--no, sir, not even if he'd married a van derLuyden or a Lanning instead of a Dallas. And whatchance would there have been, Lefferts wrathfullyquestioned, of his marrying into such a family as the Dallases,if he had not already wormed his way into certainhouses, as people like Mrs. Lemuel Struthers had managedto worm theirs in his wake? If society chose toopen its doors to vulgar women the harm was notgreat, though the gain was doubtful; but once it got inthe way of tolerating men of obscure origin and taintedwealth the end was total disintegration--and at nodistant date.
"If things go on at this pace," Lefferts thundered,looking like a young prophet dressed by Poole, andwho had not yet been stoned, "we shall see our childrenfighting for invitations to swindlers' houses, andmarrying Beaufort's bastards."
"Oh, I say--draw it mild!" Reggie Chivers and youngNewland protested, while Mr. Selfridge Merry lookedgenuinely alarmed, and an expression of pain and disgustsettled on Mr. van der Luyden's sensitive face.
"Has he got any?" cried Mr. Sillerton Jackson,pricking up his ears; and while Lefferts tried to turn thequestion with a laugh, the old gentleman twittered intoArcher's ear: "Queer, those fellows who are alwayswanting to set things right. The people who have theworst cooks are always telling you they're poisonedwhen they dine out. But I hear there are pressing reasonsfor our friend Lawrence's diatribe:--typewriterthis time, I understand. . . ."
The talk swept past Archer like some senseless riverrunning and running because it did not know enoughto stop. He saw, on the faces about him, expressions ofinterest, amusement and even mirth. He listened to theyounger men's laughter, and to the praise of the ArcherMadeira, which Mr. van der Luyden and Mr. Merrywere thoughtfully celebrating. Through it all he wasdimly aware of a general attitude of friendliness towardhimself, as if the guard of the prisoner he felt himself tobe were trying to soften his captivity; and the perceptionincreased his passionate determination to be free.
In the drawing-room, where they presently joined theladies, he met May's triumphant eyes, and read in themthe conviction that everything had "gone off" beautifully.She rose from Madame Olenska's side, and immediatelyMrs. van der Luyden beckoned the latter to aseat on the gilt sofa where she throned. Mrs. SelfridgeMerry bore across the room to join them, and it becameclear to Archer that here also a conspiracy ofrehabilitation and obliteration was going on. The silentorganisation which held his little world together wasdetermined to put itself on record as never for a momenthaving questioned the propriety of Madame Olenska'sconduct, or the completeness of Archer's domesticfelicity. All these amiable and inexorable persons wereresolutely engaged in pretending to each other that theyhad never heard of, suspected, or even conceived possible,the least hint to the contrary; and from this tissueof elaborate mutual dissimulation Archer once moredisengaged the fact that New York believed him to beMadame Olenska's lover. He caught the glitter of victoryin his wife's eyes, and for the first time understoodthat she shared the belief. The discovery roused a laughterof inner devils that reverberated through all hisefforts to discuss the Martha Washington ball withMrs. Reggie Chivers and little Mrs. Newland; and sothe evening swept on, running and running like a senselessriver that did not know how to stop.
At length he saw that Madame Olenska had risenand was saying good-bye. He understood that in amoment she would be gone, and tried to rememberwhat he had said to her at dinner; but he could notrecall a single word they had exchanged.
She went up to May, the rest of the company makinga circle about her as she advanced. The two youngwomen clasped hands; then May bent forward andkissed her cousin.
"Certainly our hostess is much the handsomer of thetwo," Archer heard Reggie Chivers say in an undertoneto young Mrs. Newland; and he remembered Beaufort'scoarse sneer at May's ineffectual beauty.
A moment later he was in the hall, putting MadameOlenska's cloak about her shoulders.
Through all his confusion of mind he had held fastto the resolve to say nothing that might startle ordisturb her. Convinced that no power could now turnhim from his purpose he had found strength to letevents shape themselves as they would. But as hefollowed Madame Olenska into the hall he thought with asudden hunger of being for a moment alone with her atthe door of her carriage.
"Is your carriage here?" he asked; and at thatmoment Mrs. van der Luyden, who was being majesticallyinserted into her sables, said gently: "We are drivingdear Ellen home."
Archer's heart gave a jerk, and Madame Olenska,clasping her cloak and fan with one hand, held out theother to him. "Good-bye," she said.
"Good-bye--but I shall see you soon in Paris," heanswered aloud--it seemed to him that he had shoutedit.
"Oh," she murmured, "if you and May couldcome--!"
Mr. van der Luyden advanced to give her his arm,and Archer turned to Mrs. van der Luyden. For amoment, in the billowy darkness inside the big landau,he caught the dim oval of a face, eyes shining steadily--and she was gone.
As he went up the steps he crossed Lawrence Leffertscoming down with his wife. Lefferts caught his host bythe sleeve, drawing back to let Gertrude pass.
"I say, old chap: do you mind just letting it beunderstood that I'm dining with you at the club tomorrownight? Thanks so much, you old brick! Good-night."
"It DID go off beautifully, didn't it?" May questionedfrom the threshold of the library.
Archer roused himself with a start. As soon as thelast carriage had driven away, he had come up to thelibrary and shut himself in, with the hope that his wife,who still lingered below, would go straight to her room.But there she stood, pale and drawn, yet radiating thefactitious energy of one who has passed beyond fatigue.
"May I come and talk it over?" she asked.
"Of course, if you like. But you must be awfullysleepy--"
"No, I'm not sleepy. I should like to sit with you alittle."
"Very well," he said, pushing her chair near the fire.
She sat down and he resumed his seat; but neitherspoke for a long time. At length Archer began abruptly:"Since you're not tired, and want to talk, there's somethingI must tell you. I tried to the other night--."
She looked at him quickly. "Yes, dear. Somethingabout yourself?"
"About myself. You say you're not tired: well, I am.Horribly tired . . ."
In an instant she was all tender anxiety. "Oh, I'veseen it coming on, Newland! You've been so wickedlyoverworked--"
"Perhaps it's that. Anyhow, I want to make a break--"
"A break? To give up the law?"
"To go away, at any rate--at once. On a long trip,ever so far off--away from everything--"
He paused, conscious that he had failed in his attemptto speak with the indifference of a man wholongs for a change, and is yet too weary to welcome it.Do what he would, the chord of eagerness vibrated."Away from everything--" he repeated.
"Ever so far? Where, for instance?" she asked.
"Oh, I don't know. India--or Japan."
She stood up, and as he sat with bent head, his chinpropped on his hands, he felt her warmly and fragrantlyhovering over him.
"As far as that? But I'm afraid you can't, dear . . ."she said in an unsteady voice. "Not unless you'll takeme with you." And then, as he was silent, she went on,in tones so clear and evenly-pitched that each separatesyllable tapped like a little hammer on his brain: "Thatis, if the doctors will let me go . . . but I'm afraid theywon't. For you see, Newland, I've been sure since thismorning of something I've been so longing and hopingfor--"
He looked up at her with a sick stare, and she sankdown, all dew and roses, and hid her face against hisknee.
"Oh, my dear," he said, holding her to him while hiscold hand stroked her hair.
There was a long pause, which the inner devils filledwith strident laughter; then May freed herself from hisarms and stood up.
"You didn't guess--?"
"Yes--I; no. That is, of course I hoped--"
They looked at each other for an instant and againfell silent; then, turning his eyes from hers, he askedabruptly: "Have you told any one else?"
"Only Mamma and your mother." She paused, andthen added hurriedly, the blood flushing up to herforehead: "That is--and Ellen. You know I told youwe'd had a long talk one afternoon--and how dear shewas to me."
"Ah--" said Archer, his heart stopping.
He felt that his wife was watching him intently. "Didyou MIND my telling her first, Newland?"
"Mind? Why should I?" He made a last effort tocollect himself. "But that was a fortnight ago, wasn'tit? I thought you said you weren't sure till today."
Her colour burned deeper, but she held his gaze."No; I wasn't sure then--but I told her I was. And yousee I was right!" she exclaimed, her blue eyes wet withvictory.