It was all very well to tell yourself in advance thatMrs. van der Luyden was always silent, and that, thoughnon-committal by nature and training, she was verykind to the people she really liked. Even personalexperience of these facts was not always a protection fromthe chill that descended on one in the high-ceilingedwhite-walled Madison Avenue drawing-room, with thepale brocaded armchairs so obviously uncovered forthe occasion, and the gauze still veiling the ormolumantel ornaments and the beautiful old carved frameof Gainsborough's "Lady Angelica du Lac."
Mrs. van der Luyden's portrait by Huntington (inblack velvet and Venetian point) faced that of herlovely ancestress. It was generally considered "as fineas a Cabanel," and, though twenty years had elapsedsince its execution, was still "a perfect likeness."Indeed the Mrs. van der Luyden who sat beneath itlistening to Mrs. Archer might have been the twin-sisterof the fair and still youngish woman drooping against agilt armchair before a green rep curtain. Mrs. van derLuyden still wore black velvet and Venetian point whenshe went into society--or rather (since she never dinedout) when she threw open her own doors to receive it.Her fair hair, which had faded without turning grey,was still parted in flat overlapping points on her forehead,and the straight nose that divided her pale blueeyes was only a little more pinched about the nostrilsthan when the portrait had been painted. She always,indeed, struck Newland Archer as having been rathergruesomely preserved in the airless atmosphere of aperfectly irreproachable existence, as bodies caught inglaciers keep for years a rosy life-in-death.
Like all his family, he esteemed and admired Mrs.van der Luyden; but he found her gentle bending sweetnessless approachable than the grimness of some of hismother's old aunts, fierce spinsters who said "No" onprinciple before they knew what they were going to beasked.
Mrs. van der Luyden's attitude said neither yes norno, but always appeared to incline to clemency till herthin lips, wavering into the shadow of a smile, madethe almost invariable reply: "I shall first have to talkthis over with my husband."
She and Mr. van der Luyden were so exactly alikethat Archer often wondered how, after forty years ofthe closest conjugality, two such merged identities everseparated themselves enough for anything as controversialas a talking-over. But as neither had ever reached adecision without prefacing it by this mysteriousconclave, Mrs. Archer and her son, having set forth theircase, waited resignedly for the familiar phrase.
Mrs. van der Luyden, however, who had seldomsurprised any one, now surprised them by reaching herlong hand toward the bell-rope.
"I think," she said, "I should like Henry to hearwhat you have told me."
A footman appeared, to whom she gravely added:"If Mr. van der Luyden has finished reading thenewspaper, please ask him to be kind enough to come."
She said "reading the newspaper" in the tone inwhich a Minister's wife might have said: "Presiding ata Cabinet meeting"--not from any arrogance of mind,but because the habit of a life-time, and the attitude ofher friends and relations, had led her to consider Mr.van der Luyden's least gesture as having an almostsacerdotal importance.
Her promptness of action showed that she consideredthe case as pressing as Mrs. Archer; but, lest sheshould be thought to have committed herself in advance,she added, with the sweetest look: "Henry alwaysenjoys seeing you, dear Adeline; and he will wishto congratulate Newland."
The double doors had solemnly reopened and betweenthem appeared Mr. Henry van der Luyden, tall,spare and frock-coated, with faded fair hair, a straightnose like his wife's and the same look of frozen gentlenessin eyes that were merely pale grey instead of paleblue.
Mr. van der Luyden greeted Mrs. Archer with cousinlyaffability, proffered to Newland low-voicedcongratulations couched in the same language as his wife's,and seated himself in one of the brocade armchairswith the simplicity of a reigning sovereign.
"I had just finished reading the Times," he said,laying his long finger-tips together. "In town my morningsare so much occupied that I find it more convenientto read the newspapers after luncheon."
"Ah, there's a great deal to be said for that plan--indeed I think my uncle Egmont used to say he found itless agitating not to read the morning papers till afterdinner," said Mrs. Archer responsively.
"Yes: my good father abhorred hurry. But now welive in a constant rush," said Mr. van der Luyden inmeasured tones, looking with pleasant deliberation aboutthe large shrouded room which to Archer was so completean image of its owners.
"But I hope you HAD finished your reading, Henry?"his wife interposed.
"Quite--quite," he reassured her.
"Then I should like Adeline to tell you--"
"Oh, it's really Newland's story," said his mothersmiling; and proceeded to rehearse once more the monstroustale of the affront inflicted on Mrs. Lovell Mingott.
"Of course," she ended, "Augusta Welland and MaryMingott both felt that, especially in view of Newland'sengagement, you and Henry OUGHT TO KNOW."
"Ah--" said Mr. van der Luyden, drawing a deepbreath.
There was a silence during which the tick of themonumental ormolu clock on the white marble mantelpiecegrew as loud as the boom of a minute-gun. Archercontemplated with awe the two slender faded figures,seated side by side in a kind of viceregal rigidity,mouthpieces of some remote ancestral authority which fatecompelled them to wield, when they would so muchrather have lived in simplicity and seclusion, digginginvisible weeds out of the perfect lawns of Skuytercliff,and playing Patience together in the evenings.
Mr. van der Luyden was the first to speak.
"You really think this is due to some--someintentional interference of Lawrence Lefferts's?" he enquired,turning to Archer.
"I'm certain of it, sir. Larry has been going it ratherharder than usual lately--if cousin Louisa won't mindmy mentioning it--having rather a stiff affair with thepostmaster's wife in their village, or some one of thatsort; and whenever poor Gertrude Lefferts begins tosuspect anything, and he's afraid of trouble, he gets upa fuss of this kind, to show how awfully moral he is,and talks at the top of his voice about the impertinenceof inviting his wife to meet people he doesn't wish herto know. He's simply using Madame Olenska as alightning-rod; I've seen him try the same thing oftenbefore."
"The LEFFERTSES!--" said Mrs. van der Luyden.
"The LEFFERTSES!--" echoed Mrs. Archer. "What woulduncle Egmont have said of Lawrence Lefferts'spronouncing on anybody's social position? It shows whatSociety has come to."
"We'll hope it has not quite come to that," said Mr.van der Luyden firmly.
"Ah, if only you and Louisa went out more!" sighedMrs. Archer.
But instantly she became aware of her mistake. Thevan der Luydens were morbidly sensitive to any criticismof their secluded existence. They were the arbitersof fashion, the Court of last Appeal, and they knew it,and bowed to their fate. But being shy and retiringpersons, with no natural inclination for their part, theylived as much as possible in the sylvan solitude ofSkuytercliff, and when they came to town, declined allinvitations on the plea of Mrs. van der Luyden's health.
Newland Archer came to his mother's rescue."Everybody in New York knows what you and cousinLouisa represent. That's why Mrs. Mingott felt sheought not to allow this slight on Countess Olenska topass without consulting you."
Mrs. van der Luyden glanced at her husband, whoglanced back at her.
"It is the principle that I dislike," said Mr. van derLuyden. "As long as a member of a well-known familyis backed up by that family it should be considered--final."
"It seems so to me," said his wife, as if she wereproducing a new thought.
"I had no idea," Mr. van der Luyden continued,"that things had come to such a pass." He paused, andlooked at his wife again. "It occurs to me, my dear,that the Countess Olenska is already a sort of relation--through Medora Manson's first husband. At any rate,she will be when Newland marries." He turned towardthe young man. "Have you read this morning's Times,Newland?"
"Why, yes, sir," said Archer, who usually tossed offhalf a dozen papers with his morning coffee.
Husband and wife looked at each other again. Theirpale eyes clung together in prolonged and seriousconsultation; then a faint smile fluttered over Mrs. van derLuyden's face. She had evidently guessed and approved.
Mr. van der Luyden turned to Mrs. Archer. "If Louisa'shealth allowed her to dine out--I wish you wouldsay to Mrs. Lovell Mingott--she and I would havebeen happy to--er--fill the places of the LawrenceLeffertses at her dinner." He paused to let the irony ofthis sink in. "As you know, this is impossible." Mrs.Archer sounded a sympathetic assent. "But Newlandtells me he has read this morning's Times; therefore hehas probably seen that Louisa's relative, the Duke ofSt. Austrey, arrives next week on the Russia. He iscoming to enter his new sloop, the Guinevere, in nextsummer's International Cup Race; and also to have alittle canvasback shooting at Trevenna." Mr. van derLuyden paused again, and continued with increasingbenevolence: "Before taking him down to Marylandwe are inviting a few friends to meet him here--only alittle dinner--with a reception afterward. I am sureLouisa will be as glad as I am if Countess Olenska willlet us include her among our guests." He got up, benthis long body with a stiff friendliness toward his cousin,and added: "I think I have Louisa's authority for sayingthat she will herself leave the invitation to dinewhen she drives out presently: with our cards--of coursewith our cards."
Mrs. Archer, who knew this to be a hint that theseventeen-hand chestnuts which were never kept waitingwere at the door, rose with a hurried murmur ofthanks. Mrs. van der Luyden beamed on her with thesmile of Esther interceding with Ahasuerus; but herhusband raised a protesting hand.
"There is nothing to thank me for, dear Adeline;nothing whatever. This kind of thing must not happenin New York; it shall not, as long as I can help it," hepronounced with sovereign gentleness as he steered hiscousins to the door.
Two hours later, every one knew that the greatC-spring barouche in which Mrs. van der Luydentook the air at all seasons had been seen at oldMrs. Mingott's door, where a large square envelopewas handed in; and that evening at the Opera Mr.Sillerton Jackson was able to state that the envelopecontained a card inviting the Countess Olenskato the dinner which the van der Luydens were givingthe following week for their cousin, the Dukeof St. Austrey.
Some of the younger men in the club box exchangeda smile at this announcement, and glanced sideways atLawrence Lefferts, who sat carelessly in the front of thebox, pulling his long fair moustache, and who remarkedwith authority, as the soprano paused: "No one but Patti ought to attempt the Sonnambula."