Mrs. Archer was a shy woman and shrank fromsociety; but she liked to be well-informed as to itsdoings. Her old friend Mr. Sillerton Jackson applied tothe investigation of his friends' affairs the patience of acollector and the science of a naturalist; and his sister,Miss Sophy Jackson, who lived with him, and wasentertained by all the people who could not secure hermuch-sought-after brother, brought home bits of minorgossip that filled out usefully the gaps in his picture.
Therefore, whenever anything happened that Mrs.Archer wanted to know about, she asked Mr. Jacksonto dine; and as she honoured few people with herinvitations, and as she and her daughter Janey were anexcellent audience, Mr. Jackson usually came himselfinstead of sending his sister. If he could have dictatedall the conditions, he would have chosen the eveningswhen Newland was out; not because the young manwas uncongenial to him (the two got on capitally attheir club) but because the old anecdotist sometimesfelt, on Newland's part, a tendency to weigh hisevidence that the ladies of the family never showed.
Mr. Jackson, if perfection had been attainable onearth, would also have asked that Mrs. Archer's foodshould be a little better. But then New York, as farback as the mind of man could travel, had been dividedinto the two great fundamental groups of the Mingottsand Mansons and all their clan, who cared about eatingand clothes and money, and the Archer-Newland-van-der-Luyden tribe, who were devoted to travel,horticulture and the best fiction, and looked down onthe grosser forms of pleasure.
You couldn't have everything, after all. If you dinedwith the Lovell Mingotts you got canvas-back andterrapin and vintage wines; at Adeline Archer's youcould talk about Alpine scenery and "The Marble Faun";and luckily the Archer Madeira had gone round theCape. Therefore when a friendly summons came fromMrs. Archer, Mr. Jackson, who was a true eclectic,would usually say to his sister: "I've been a little goutysince my last dinner at the Lovell Mingotts'--it will dome good to diet at Adeline's."
Mrs. Archer, who had long been a widow, lived withher son and daughter in West Twenty-eighth Street. Anupper floor was dedicated to Newland, and the twowomen squeezed themselves into narrower quartersbelow. In an unclouded harmony of tastes and intereststhey cultivated ferns in Wardian cases, made macramelace and wool embroidery on linen, collected Americanrevolutionary glazed ware, subscribed to "Good Words,"and read Ouida's novels for the sake of the Italianatmosphere. (They preferred those about peasant life,because of the descriptions of scenery and the pleasantersentiments, though in general they liked novels aboutpeople in society, whose motives and habits were morecomprehensible, spoke severely of Dickens, who "hadnever drawn a gentleman," and considered Thackerayless at home in the great world than Bulwer--who,however, was beginning to be thought old-fashioned.)Mrs. and Miss Archer were both great lovers ofscenery. It was what they principally sought and admiredon their occasional travels abroad; consideringarchitecture and painting as subjects for men, and chieflyfor learned persons who read Ruskin. Mrs. Archer hadbeen born a Newland, and mother and daughter, whowere as like as sisters, were both, as people said, "trueNewlands"; tall, pale, and slightly round-shouldered,with long noses, sweet smiles and a kind of droopingdistinction like that in certain faded Reynolds portraits.Their physical resemblance would have been completeif an elderly embonpoint had not stretched Mrs. Archer'sblack brocade, while Miss Archer's brown andpurple poplins hung, as the years went on, more andmore slackly on her virgin frame.
Mentally, the likeness between them, as Newlandwas aware, was less complete than their identicalmannerisms often made it appear. The long habit of livingtogether in mutually dependent intimacy had given themthe same vocabulary, and the same habit of beginningtheir phrases "Mother thinks" or "Janey thinks,"according as one or the other wished to advance anopinion of her own; but in reality, while Mrs. Archer'sserene unimaginativeness rested easily in the acceptedand familiar, Janey was subject to starts and aberrationsof fancy welling up from springs of suppressedromance.
Mother and daughter adored each other and reveredtheir son and brother; and Archer loved them with atenderness made compunctious and uncritical by thesense of their exaggerated admiration, and by his secretsatisfaction in it. After all, he thought it a good thingfor a man to have his authority respected in his ownhouse, even if his sense of humour sometimes madehim question the force of his mandate.
On this occasion the young man was very sure thatMr. Jackson would rather have had him dine out; buthe had his own reasons for not doing so.
Of course old Jackson wanted to talk about EllenOlenska, and of course Mrs. Archer and Janey wantedto hear what he had to tell. All three would be slightlyembarrassed by Newland's presence, now that hisprospective relation to the Mingott clan had been madeknown; and the young man waited with an amusedcuriosity to see how they would turn the difficulty.
They began, obliquely, by talking about Mrs. LemuelStruthers.
"It's a pity the Beauforts asked her," Mrs. Archersaid gently. "But then Regina always does what he tellsher; and BEAUFORT--"
"Certain nuances escape Beaufort," said Mr. Jackson,cautiously inspecting the broiled shad, and wonderingfor the thousandth time why Mrs. Archer's cookalways burnt the roe to a cinder. (Newland, who hadlong shared his wonder, could always detect it in theolder man's expression of melancholy disapproval.)
"Oh, necessarily; Beaufort is a vulgar man," saidMrs. Archer. "My grandfather Newland always usedto say to my mother: `Whatever you do, don't let thatfellow Beaufort be introduced to the girls.' But at leasthe's had the advantage of associating with gentlemen;in England too, they say. It's all very mysterious--"She glanced at Janey and paused. She and Janey knewevery fold of the Beaufort mystery, but in public Mrs.Archer continued to assume that the subject was notone for the unmarried.
"But this Mrs. Struthers," Mrs. Archer continued;"what did you say SHE was, Sillerton?"
"Out of a mine: or rather out of the saloon at thehead of the pit. Then with Living Wax-Works, touringNew England. After the police broke THAT up, they sayshe lived--" Mr. Jackson in his turn glanced at Janey,whose eyes began to bulge from under her prominentlids. There were still hiatuses for her in Mrs. Struthers'spast.
"Then," Mr. Jackson continued (and Archer saw hewas wondering why no one had told the butler never toslice cucumbers with a steel knife), "then Lemuel Strutherscame along. They say his advertiser used the girl'shead for the shoe-polish posters; her hair's intenselyblack, you know--the Egyptian style. Anyhow, he--eventually--married her." There were volumes ofinnuendo in the way the "eventually" was spaced, andeach syllable given its due stress.
"Oh, well--at the pass we've come to nowadays, itdoesn't matter," said Mrs. Archer indifferently. Theladies were not really interested in Mrs. Struthersjust then; the subject of Ellen Olenska was too freshand too absorbing to them. Indeed, Mrs. Struthers'sname had been introduced by Mrs. Archer only thatshe might presently be able to say: "And Newland'snew cousin--Countess Olenska? Was SHE at the ball too?"
There was a faint touch of sarcasm in the referenceto her son, and Archer knew it and had expected it.Even Mrs. Archer, who was seldom unduly pleasedwith human events, had been altogether glad of herson's engagement. ("Especially after that silly businesswith Mrs. Rushworth," as she had remarked to Janey,alluding to what had once seemed to Newland a tragedyof which his soul would always bear the scar.)
There was no better match in New York than MayWelland, look at the question from whatever point youchose. Of course such a marriage was only whatNewland was entitled to; but young men are so foolishand incalculable--and some women so ensnaring andunscrupulous--that it was nothing short of a miracle tosee one's only son safe past the Siren Isle and in thehaven of a blameless domesticity.
All this Mrs. Archer felt, and her son knew she felt;but he knew also that she had been perturbed by thepremature announcement of his engagement, or ratherby its cause; and it was for that reason--because on thewhole he was a tender and indulgent master--that hehad stayed at home that evening. "It's not that I don'tapprove of the Mingotts' esprit de corps; but whyNewland's engagement should be mixed up with thatOlenska woman's comings and goings I don't see,"Mrs. Archer grumbled to Janey, the only witness of herslight lapses from perfect sweetness.
She had behaved beautifully--and in beautifulbehaviour she was unsurpassed--during the call on Mrs.Welland; but Newland knew (and his betrothed doubtlessguessed) that all through the visit she and Janeywere nervously on the watch for Madame Olenska'spossible intrusion; and when they left the housetogether she had permitted herself to say to her son: "I'mthankful that Augusta Welland received us alone."
These indications of inward disturbance moved Archerthe more that he too felt that the Mingotts had gone alittle too far. But, as it was against all the rules of theircode that the mother and son should ever allude towhat was uppermost in their thoughts, he simply replied:"Oh, well, there's always a phase of family partiesto be gone through when one gets engaged, and thesooner it's over the better." At which his mother merelypursed her lips under the lace veil that hung down fromher grey velvet bonnet trimmed with frosted grapes.
Her revenge, he felt--her lawful revenge--would beto "draw" Mr. Jackson that evening on the CountessOlenska; and, having publicly done his duty as a futuremember of the Mingott clan, the young man had noobjection to hearing the lady discussed in private--exceptthat the subject was already beginning to bore him.
Mr. Jackson had helped himself to a slice of the tepidfilet which the mournful butler had handed him with alook as sceptical as his own, and had rejected themushroom sauce after a scarcely perceptible sniff. Helooked baffled and hungry, and Archer reflected thathe would probably finish his meal on Ellen Olenska.
Mr. Jackson leaned back in his chair, and glanced upat the candlelit Archers, Newlands and van der Luydenshanging in dark frames on the dark walls.
"Ah, how your grandfather Archer loved a gooddinner, my dear Newland!" he said, his eyes on theportrait of a plump full-chested young man in a stockand a blue coat, with a view of a white-columnedcountry-house behind him. "Well--well--well . . . Iwonder what he would have said to all these foreignmarriages!"
Mrs. Archer ignored the allusion to the ancestralcuisine and Mr. Jackson continued with deliberation:"No, she was NOT at the ball."
"Ah--" Mrs. Archer murmured, in a tone thatimplied: "She had that decency."
"Perhaps the Beauforts don't know her," Janeysuggested, with her artless malice.
Mr. Jackson gave a faint sip, as if he had beentasting invisible Madeira. "Mrs. Beaufort may not--butBeaufort certainly does, for she was seen walking upFifth Avenue this afternoon with him by the whole ofNew York."
"Mercy--" moaned Mrs. Archer, evidently perceivingthe uselessness of trying to ascribe the actions offoreigners to a sense of delicacy.
"I wonder if she wears a round hat or a bonnet inthe afternoon," Janey speculated. "At the Opera I knowshe had on dark blue velvet, perfectly plain and flat--like a night-gown."
"Janey!" said her mother; and Miss Archer blushedand tried to look audacious.
"It was, at any rate, in better taste not to go to theball," Mrs. Archer continued.
A spirit of perversity moved her son to rejoin: "Idon't think it was a question of taste with her. Maysaid she meant to go, and then decided that the dress inquestion wasn't smart enough."
Mrs. Archer smiled at this confirmation of herinference. "Poor Ellen," she simply remarked; addingcompassionately: "We must always bear in mind what aneccentric bringing-up Medora Manson gave her. Whatcan you expect of a girl who was allowed to wearblack satin at her coming-out ball?"
"Ah--don't I remember her in it!" said Mr. Jackson;adding: "Poor girl!" in the tone of one who, whileenjoying the memory, had fully understood at the timewhat the sight portended.
"It's odd," Janey remarked, "that she should havekept such an ugly name as Ellen. I should have changedit to Elaine." She glanced about the table to see theeffect of this.
Her brother laughed. "Why Elaine?"
"I don't know; it sounds more--more Polish," saidJaney, blushing.
"It sounds more conspicuous; and that can hardly bewhat she wishes," said Mrs. Archer distantly.
"Why not?" broke in her son, growing suddenlyargumentative. "Why shouldn't she be conspicuous ifshe chooses? Why should she slink about as if it wereshe who had disgraced herself? She's `poor Ellen'certainly, because she had the bad luck to make a wretchedmarriage; but I don't see that that's a reason for hidingher head as if she were the culprit."
"That, I suppose," said Mr. Jackson, speculatively,"is the line the Mingotts mean to take."
The young man reddened. "I didn't have to wait fortheir cue, if that's what you mean, sir. Madame Olenskahas had an unhappy life: that doesn't make her anoutcast."
"There are rumours," began Mr. Jackson, glancingat Janey.
"Oh, I know: the secretary," the young man tookhim up. "Nonsense, mother; Janey's grown-up. Theysay, don't they," he went on, "that the secretary helpedher to get away from her brute of a husband, who kepther practically a prisoner? Well, what if he did? I hopethere isn't a man among us who wouldn't have donethe same in such a case."
Mr. Jackson glanced over his shoulder to say to thesad butler: "Perhaps . . . that sauce . . . just a little,after all--"; then, having helped himself, he remarked:"I'm told she's looking for a house. She means to livehere."
"I hear she means to get a divorce," said Janeyboldly.
"I hope she will!" Archer exclaimed.
The word had fallen like a bombshell in the pure andtranquil atmosphere of the Archer dining-room. Mrs.Archer raised her delicate eye-brows in the particularcurve that signified: "The butler--" and the youngman, himself mindful of the bad taste of discussingsuch intimate matters in public, hastily branched offinto an account of his visit to old Mrs. Mingott.
After dinner, according to immemorial custom, Mrs.Archer and Janey trailed their long silk draperies up tothe drawing-room, where, while the gentlemen smokedbelow stairs, they sat beside a Carcel lamp with anengraved globe, facing each other across a rosewoodwork-table with a green silk bag under it, and stitchedat the two ends of a tapestry band of field-flowersdestined to adorn an "occasional" chair in the drawing-room of young Mrs. Newland Archer.
While this rite was in progress in the drawing-room,Archer settled Mr. Jackson in an armchair near the firein the Gothic library and handed him a cigar. Mr.Jackson sank into the armchair with satisfaction, lit hiscigar with perfect confidence (it was Newland whobought them), and stretching his thin old ankles to thecoals, said: "You say the secretary merely helped her toget away, my dear fellow? Well, he was still helping hera year later, then; for somebody met 'em living atLausanne together."
Newland reddened. "Living together? Well, why not?Who had the right to make her life over if she hadn't?I'm sick of the hypocrisy that would bury alive a womanof her age if her husband prefers to live with harlots."
He stopped and turned away angrily to light hiscigar. "Women ought to be free--as free as we are," hedeclared, making a discovery of which he was tooirritated to measure the terrific consequences.
Mr. Sillerton Jackson stretched his ankles nearer thecoals and emitted a sardonic whistle.
"Well," he said after a pause, "apparently CountOlenski takes your view; for I never heard of his havinglifted a finger to get his wife back."