She had appeared there first, in Newland Archer'sboyhood, as a brilliantly pretty little girl of nine or ten,of whom people said that she "ought to be painted."Her parents had been continental wanderers, and aftera roaming babyhood she had lost them both, and beentaken in charge by her aunt, Medora Manson, also awanderer, who was herself returning to New York to"settle down."
Poor Medora, repeatedly widowed, was always cominghome to settle down (each time in a less expensivehouse), and bringing with her a new husband or anadopted child; but after a few months she invariablyparted from her husband or quarrelled with her ward,and, having got rid of her house at a loss, set out againon her wanderings. As her mother had been a Rushworth,and her last unhappy marriage had linked herto one of the crazy Chiverses, New York looked indulgentlyon her eccentricities; but when she returned withher little orphaned niece, whose parents had been popularin spite of their regrettable taste for travel, people thoughtit a pity that the pretty child should be in such hands.
Every one was disposed to be kind to little EllenMingott, though her dusky red cheeks and tight curlsgave her an air of gaiety that seemed unsuitable in achild who should still have been in black for herparents. It was one of the misguided Medora's manypeculiarities to flout the unalterable rules that regulatedAmerican mourning, and when she stepped from thesteamer her family were scandalised to see that thecrape veil she wore for her own brother was seveninches shorter than those of her sisters-in-law, whilelittle Ellen was in crimson merino and amber beads,like a gipsy foundling.
But New York had so long resigned itself to Medorathat only a few old ladies shook their heads over Ellen'sgaudy clothes, while her other relations fell underthe charm of her high colour and high spirits. She wasa fearless and familiar little thing, who asked disconcertingquestions, made precocious comments, and possessedoutlandish arts, such as dancing a Spanish shawldance and singing Neapolitan love-songs to a guitar.Under the direction of her aunt (whose real name wasMrs. Thorley Chivers, but who, having received a Papaltitle, had resumed her first husband's patronymic,and called herself the Marchioness Manson, because inItaly she could turn it into Manzoni) the little girlreceived an expensive but incoherent education, whichincluded "drawing from the model," a thing neverdreamed of before, and playing the piano in quintetswith professional musicians.
Of course no good could come of this; and when, afew years later, poor Chivers finally died in a mad-house, his widow (draped in strange weeds) again pulledup stakes and departed with Ellen, who had grown intoa tall bony girl with conspicuous eyes. For some timeno more was heard of them; then news came of Ellen'smarriage to an immensely rich Polish nobleman oflegendary fame, whom she had met at a ball at theTuileries, and who was said to have princely establishmentsin Paris, Nice and Florence, a yacht at Cowes,and many square miles of shooting in Transylvania.She disappeared in a kind of sulphurous apotheosis,and when a few years later Medora again came back toNew York, subdued, impoverished, mourning a thirdhusband, and in quest of a still smaller house, peoplewondered that her rich niece had not been able to dosomething for her. Then came the news that Ellen'sown marriage had ended in disaster, and that she washerself returning home to seek rest and oblivion amongher kinsfolk.
These things passed through Newland Archer's minda week later as he watched the Countess Olenska enterthe van der Luyden drawing-room on the evening ofthe momentous dinner. The occasion was a solemnone, and he wondered a little nervously how she wouldcarry it off. She came rather late, one hand still ungloved,and fastening a bracelet about her wrist; yet she enteredwithout any appearance of haste or embarrassmentthe drawing-room in which New York's mostchosen company was somewhat awfully assembled.
In the middle of the room she paused, looking abouther with a grave mouth and smiling eyes; and in thatinstant Newland Archer rejected the general verdict onher looks. It was true that her early radiance was gone.The red cheeks had paled; she was thin, worn, a littleolder-looking than her age, which must have been nearlythirty. But there was about her the mysterious authorityof beauty, a sureness in the carriage of the head, themovement of the eyes, which, without being in the leasttheatrical, struck his as highly trained and full of aconscious power. At the same time she was simpler inmanner than most of the ladies present, and manypeople (as he heard afterward from Janey) were disappointedthat her appearance was not more "stylish"--for stylishness was what New York most valued. Itwas, perhaps, Archer reflected, because her early vivacityhad disappeared; because she was so quiet--quiet inher movements, her voice, and the tones of her low-pitched voice. New York had expected something agood deal more reasonant in a young woman with sucha history.
The dinner was a somewhat formidable business.Dining with the van der Luydens was at best no lightmatter, and dining there with a Duke who was theircousin was almost a religious solemnity. It pleasedArcher to think that only an old New Yorker couldperceive the shade of difference (to New York) betweenbeing merely a Duke and being the van der Luydens'Duke. New York took stray noblemen calmly, andeven (except in the Struthers set) with a certain distrustfulhauteur; but when they presented such credentialsas these they were received with an old-fashionedcordiality that they would have been greatly mistaken inascribing solely to their standing in Debrett. It was forjust such distinctions that the young man cherished hisold New York even while he smiled at it.
The van der Luydens had done their best to emphasisethe importance of the occasion. The du Lac Sevresand the Trevenna George II plate were out; so was thevan der Luyden "Lowestoft" (East India Company)and the Dagonet Crown Derby. Mrs. van der Luydenlooked more than ever like a Cabanel, and Mrs. Archer,in her grandmother's seed-pearls and emeralds, remindedher son of an Isabey miniature. All the ladies had ontheir handsomest jewels, but it was characteristic of thehouse and the occasion that these were mostly in ratherheavy old-fashioned settings; and old Miss Lanning,who had been persuaded to come, actually wore hermother's cameos and a Spanish blonde shawl.
The Countess Olenska was the only young woman atthe dinner; yet, as Archer scanned the smooth plumpelderly faces between their diamond necklaces andtowering ostrich feathers, they struck him as curiouslyimmature compared with hers. It frightened him tothink what must have gone to the making of her eyes.
The Duke of St. Austrey, who sat at his hostess'sright, was naturally the chief figure of the evening. Butif the Countess Olenska was less conspicuous than hadbeen hoped, the Duke was almost invisible. Being awell-bred man he had not (like another recent ducalvisitor) come to the dinner in a shooting-jacket; but hisevening clothes were so shabby and baggy, and hewore them with such an air of their being homespun,that (with his stooping way of sitting, and the vastbeard spreading over his shirt-front) he hardly gave theappearance of being in dinner attire. He was short,round-shouldered, sunburnt, with a thick nose, smalleyes and a sociable smile; but he seldom spoke, andwhen he did it was in such low tones that, despite thefrequent silences of expectation about the table, hisremarks were lost to all but his neighbours.
When the men joined the ladies after dinner theDuke went straight up to the Countess Olenska, andthey sat down in a corner and plunged into animatedtalk. Neither seemed aware that the Duke should firsthave paid his respects to Mrs. Lovell Mingott and Mrs. HeadlyChivers, and the Countess have conversed withthat amiable hypochondriac, Mr. Urban Dagonet ofWashington Square, who, in order to have the pleasureof meeting her, had broken through his fixed rule ofnot dining out between January and April. The twochatted together for nearly twenty minutes; then theCountess rose and, walking alone across the widedrawing-room, sat down at Newland Archer's side.
It was not the custom in New York drawing-roomsfor a lady to get up and walk away from one gentlemanin order to seek the company of another. Etiquetterequired that she should wait, immovable as an idol,while the men who wished to converse with her succeededeach other at her side. But the Countess wasapparently unaware of having broken any rule; she satat perfect ease in a corner of the sofa beside Archer,and looked at him with the kindest eyes.
"I want you to talk to me about May," she said.
Instead of answering her he asked: "You knew theDuke before?"
"Oh, yes--we used to see him every winter at Nice.He's very fond of gambling--he used to come to thehouse a great deal." She said it in the simplest manner,as if she had said: "He's fond of wild-flowers"; andafter a moment she added candidly: "I think he's thedullest man I ever met."
This pleased her companion so much that he forgotthe slight shock her previous remark had caused him. Itwas undeniably exciting to meet a lady who found thevan der Luydens' Duke dull, and dared to utter theopinion. He longed to question her, to hear more aboutthe life of which her careless words had given him soilluminating a glimpse; but he feared to touch ondistressing memories, and before he could think ofanything to say she had strayed back to her original subject.
"May is a darling; I've seen no young girl in NewYork so handsome and so intelligent. Are you verymuch in love with her?"
Newland Archer reddened and laughed. "As much asa man can be."
She continued to consider him thoughtfully, as if notto miss any shade of meaning in what he said, "Do youthink, then, there is a limit?"
"To being in love? If there is, I haven't found it!"
She glowed with sympathy. "Ah--it's really and trulya romance?"
"The most romantic of romances!"
"How delightful! And you found it all out foryourselves--it was not in the least arranged for you?"
Archer looked at her incredulously. "Have youforgotten," he asked with a smile, "that in our country wedon't allow our marriages to be arranged for us?"
A dusky blush rose to her cheek, and he instantlyregretted his words.
"Yes," she answered, "I'd forgotten. You mustforgive me if I sometimes make these mistakes. I don'talways remember that everything here is good thatwas--that was bad where I've come from." She lookeddown at her Viennese fan of eagle feathers, and he sawthat her lips trembled.
"I'm so sorry," he said impulsively; "but you AREamong friends here, you know."
"Yes--I know. Wherever I go I have that feeling.That's why I came home. I want to forget everythingelse, to become a complete American again, like theMingotts and Wellands, and you and your delightfulmother, and all the other good people here tonight. Ah,here's May arriving, and you will want to hurry awayto her," she added, but without moving; and her eyesturned back from the door to rest on the young man'sface.
The drawing-rooms were beginning to fill up withafter-dinner guests, and following Madame Olenska'sglance Archer saw May Welland entering with hermother. In her dress of white and silver, with a wreathof silver blossoms in her hair, the tall girl looked like aDiana just alight from the chase.
"Oh," said Archer, "I have so many rivals; you seeshe's already surrounded. There's the Duke beingintroduced."
"Then stay with me a little longer," Madame Olenskasaid in a low tone, just touching his knee with herplumed fan. It was the lightest touch, but it thrilled himlike a caress.
"Yes, let me stay," he answered in the same tone,hardly knowing what he said; but just then Mr. vander Luyden came up, followed by old Mr. UrbanDagonet. The Countess greeted them with her gravesmile, and Archer, feeling his host's admonitory glanceon him, rose and surrendered his seat.
Madame Olenska held out her hand as if to bid himgoodbye.
"Tomorrow, then, after five--I shall expect you,"she said; and then turned back to make room for Mr.Dagonet.
"Tomorrow--" Archer heard himself repeating,though there had been no engagement, and during theirtalk she had given him no hint that she wished to seehim again.
As he moved away he saw Lawrence Lefferts, talland resplendent, leading his wife up to be introduced;and heard Gertrude Lefferts say, as she beamed on theCountess with her large unperceiving smile: "But Ithink we used to go to dancing-school together whenwe were children--." Behind her, waiting their turn toname themselves to the Countess, Archer noticed anumber of the recalcitrant couples who had declined tomeet her at Mrs. Lovell Mingott's. As Mrs. Archerremarked: when the van der Luydens chose, they knewhow to give a lesson. The wonder was that they choseso seldom.
The young man felt a touch on his arm and saw Mrs.van der Luyden looking down on him from the pureeminence of black velvet and the family diamonds. "Itwas good of you, dear Newland, to devote yourself sounselfishly to Madame Olenska. I told your cousinHenry he must really come to the rescue."
He was aware of smiling at her vaguely, and sheadded, as if condescending to his natural shyness: "I'venever seen May looking lovelier. The Duke thinks herthe handsomest girl in the room."