Some two weeks later, Newland Archer, sitting in
abstracted idleness in his private compartment of
the office of Letterblair, Lamson and Low, attorneys at
law, was summoned by the head of the firm.
Old Mr. Letterblair, the accredited legal adviser of
three generations of New York gentility, throned behind
his mahogany desk in evident perplexity. As he
stroked his closeclipped white whiskers and ran his
hand through the rumpled grey locks above his jutting
brows, his disrespectful junior partner thought how
much he looked like the Family Physician annoyed
with a patient whose symptoms refuse to be classified.
"My dear sir--" he always addressed Archer as
"sir"--"I have sent for you to go into a little matter; a
matter which, for the moment, I prefer not to mention
either to Mr. Skipworth or Mr. Redwood." The gentlemen
he spoke of were the other senior partners of the
firm; for, as was always the case with legal associations
of old standing in New York, all the partners named
on the office letter-head were long since dead; and Mr.
Letterblair, for example, was, professionally speaking,
his own grandson.
He leaned back in his chair with a furrowed brow.
"For family reasons--" he continued.
Archer looked up.
"The Mingott family," said Mr. Letterblair with an
explanatory smile and bow. "Mrs. Manson Mingott
sent for me yesterday. Her grand-daughter the Countess
Olenska wishes to sue her husband for divorce.
Certain papers have been placed in my hands." He
paused and drummed on his desk. "In view of your
prospective alliance with the family I should like to
consult you--to consider the case with you--before
taking any farther steps."
Archer felt the blood in his temples. He had seen the
Countess Olenska only once since his visit to her, and
then at the Opera, in the Mingott box. During this
interval she had become a less vivid and importunate
image, receding from his foreground as May Welland
resumed her rightful place in it. He had not heard her
divorce spoken of since Janey's first random allusion to
it, and had dismissed the tale as unfounded gossip.
Theoretically, the idea of divorce was almost as
distasteful to him as to his mother; and he was annoyed
that Mr. Letterblair (no doubt prompted by old Catherine
Mingott) should be so evidently planning to draw
him into the affair. After all, there were plenty of
Mingott men for such jobs, and as yet he was not even
a Mingott by marriage.
He waited for the senior partner to continue. Mr.
Letterblair unlocked a drawer and drew out a packet.
"If you will run your eye over these papers--"
Archer frowned. "I beg your pardon, sir; but just
because of the prospective relationship, I should prefer
your consulting Mr. Skipworth or Mr. Redwood."
Mr. Letterblair looked surprised and slightly offended.
It was unusual for a junior to reject such an opening.
He bowed. "I respect your scruple, sir; but in this
case I believe true delicacy requires you to do as I ask.
Indeed, the suggestion is not mine but Mrs. Manson
Mingott's and her son's. I have seen Lovell Mingott;
and also Mr. Welland. They all named you."
Archer felt his temper rising. He had been somewhat
languidly drifting with events for the last fortnight, and
letting May's fair looks and radiant nature obliterate
the rather importunate pressure of the Mingott claims.
But this behest of old Mrs. Mingott's roused him to a
sense of what the clan thought they had the right to
exact from a prospective son-in-law; and he chafed at
"Her uncles ought to deal with this," he said.
"They have. The matter has been gone into by the
family. They are opposed to the Countess's idea; but
she is firm, and insists on a legal opinion."
The young man was silent: he had not opened the
packet in his hand.
"Does she want to marry again?"
"I believe it is suggested; but she denies it."
"Will you oblige me, Mr. Archer, by first looking
through these papers? Afterward, when we have talked
the case over, I will give you my opinion."
Archer withdrew reluctantly with the unwelcome
documents. Since their last meeting he had half-unconsciously
collaborated with events in ridding himself of the burden
of Madame Olenska. His hour alone with her by
the firelight had drawn them into a momentary intimacy
on which the Duke of St. Austrey's intrusion with
Mrs. Lemuel Struthers, and the Countess's joyous greeting
of them, had rather providentially broken. Two
days later Archer had assisted at the comedy of her
reinstatement in the van der Luydens' favour, and had
said to himself, with a touch of tartness, that a lady
who knew how to thank all-powerful elderly gentlemen
to such good purpose for a bunch of flowers did not
need either the private consolations or the public
championship of a young man of his small compass. To look
at the matter in this light simplified his own case and
surprisingly furbished up all the dim domestic virtues.
He could not picture May Welland, in whatever
conceivable emergency, hawking about her private difficulties
and lavishing her confidences on strange men; and
she had never seemed to him finer or fairer than in the
week that followed. He had even yielded to her wish
for a long engagement, since she had found the one
disarming answer to his plea for haste.
"You know, when it comes to the point, your parents
have always let you have your way ever since you
were a little girl," he argued; and she had answered,
with her clearest look: "Yes; and that's what makes it
so hard to refuse the very last thing they'll ever ask of
me as a little girl."
That was the old New York note; that was the kind
of answer he would like always to be sure of his wife's
making. If one had habitually breathed the New York
air there were times when anything less crystalline seemed
The papers he had retired to read did not tell him much
in fact; but they plunged him into an atmosphere in
which he choked and spluttered. They consisted mainly
of an exchange of letters between Count Olenski's
solicitors and a French legal firm to whom the Countess
had applied for the settlement of her financial
situation. There was also a short letter from the Count to
his wife: after reading it, Newland Archer rose, jammed
the papers back into their envelope, and reentered Mr.
"Here are the letters, sir. If you wish, I'll see
Madame Olenska," he said in a constrained voice.
"Thank you--thank you, Mr. Archer. Come and
dine with me tonight if you're free, and we'll go into
the matter afterward: in case you wish to call on our
Newland Archer walked straight home again that
afternoon. It was a winter evening of transparent clearness,
with an innocent young moon above the house-
tops; and he wanted to fill his soul's lungs with the
pure radiance, and not exchange a word with any one
till he and Mr. Letterblair were closeted together after
dinner. It was impossible to decide otherwise than he
had done: he must see Madame Olenska himself rather
than let her secrets be bared to other eyes. A great
wave of compassion had swept away his indifference
and impatience: she stood before him as an exposed
and pitiful figure, to be saved at all costs from farther
wounding herself in her mad plunges against fate.
He remembered what she had told him of Mrs.
Welland's request to be spared whatever was "unpleasant"
in her history, and winced at the thought that it was
perhaps this attitude of mind which kept the New York
air so pure. "Are we only Pharisees after all?" he
wondered, puzzled by the effort to reconcile his instinctive
disgust at human vileness with his equally instinctive
pity for human frailty.
For the first time he perceived how elementary his
own principles had always been. He passed for a young
man who had not been afraid of risks, and he knew
that his secret love-affair with poor silly Mrs. Thorley
Rushworth had not been too secret to invest him with
a becoming air of adventure. But Mrs. Rushworth was
"that kind of woman"; foolish, vain, clandestine by
nature, and far more attracted by the secrecy and peril
of the affair than by such charms and qualities as he
possessed. When the fact dawned on him it nearly
broke his heart, but now it seemed the redeeming feature
of the case. The affair, in short, had been of the
kind that most of the young men of his age had been
through, and emerged from with calm consciences and
an undisturbed belief in the abysmal distinction between
the women one loved and respected and those
one enjoyed--and pitied. In this view they were
sedulously abetted by their mothers, aunts and other elderly
female relatives, who all shared Mrs. Archer's belief
that when "such things happened" it was undoubtedly
foolish of the man, but somehow always criminal of
the woman. All the elderly ladies whom Archer knew
regarded any woman who loved imprudently as necessarily
unscrupulous and designing, and mere simple-
minded man as powerless in her clutches. The only
thing to do was to persuade him, as early as possible, to
marry a nice girl, and then trust to her to look after him.
In the complicated old European communities, Archer
began to guess, love-problems might be less simple and
less easily classified. Rich and idle and ornamental
societies must produce many more such situations; and
there might even be one in which a woman naturally
sensitive and aloof would yet, from the force of
circumstances, from sheer defencelessness and loneliness, be
drawn into a tie inexcusable by conventional standards.
On reaching home he wrote a line to the Countess
Olenska, asking at what hour of the next day she could
receive him, and despatched it by a messenger-boy,
who returned presently with a word to the effect that
she was going to Skuytercliff the next morning to stay
over Sunday with the van der Luydens, but that he
would find her alone that evening after dinner. The
note was written on a rather untidy half-sheet, without
date or address, but her hand was firm and free. He
was amused at the idea of her week-ending in the
stately solitude of Skuytercliff, but immediately afterward
felt that there, of all places, she would most feel
the chill of minds rigorously averted from the "unpleasant."
He was at Mr. Letterblair's punctually at seven, glad
of the pretext for excusing himself soon after dinner.
He had formed his own opinion from the papers entrusted
to him, and did not especially want to go into
the matter with his senior partner. Mr. Letterblair was
a widower, and they dined alone, copiously and slowly,
in a dark shabby room hung with yellowing prints of
"The Death of Chatham" and "The Coronation of
Napoleon." On the sideboard, between fluted Sheraton
knife-cases, stood a decanter of Haut Brion, and another
of the old Lanning port (the gift of a client),
which the wastrel Tom Lanning had sold off a year or
two before his mysterious and discreditable death in
San Francisco--an incident less publicly humiliating to
the family than the sale of the cellar.
After a velvety oyster soup came shad and cucumbers,
then a young broiled turkey with corn fritters,
followed by a canvas-back with currant jelly and a
celery mayonnaise. Mr. Letterblair, who lunched on a
sandwich and tea, dined deliberately and deeply, and
insisted on his guest's doing the same. Finally, when
the closing rites had been accomplished, the cloth was
removed, cigars were lit, and Mr. Letterblair, leaning
back in his chair and pushing the port westward, said,
spreading his back agreeably to the coal fire behind
him: "The whole family are against a divorce. And I
Archer instantly felt himself on the other side of the
argument. "But why, sir? If there ever was a case--"
"Well--what's the use? SHE'S here--he's there; the
Atlantic's between them. She'll never get back a dollar
more of her money than what he's voluntarily returned
to her: their damned heathen marriage settlements take
precious good care of that. As things go over there,
Olenski's acted generously: he might have turned her
out without a penny."
The young man knew this and was silent.
"I understand, though," Mr. Letterblair continued,
"that she attaches no importance to the money. Therefore,
as the family say, why not let well enough alone?"
Archer had gone to the house an hour earlier in full
agreement with Mr. Letterblair's view; but put into
words by this selfish, well-fed and supremely indifferent
old man it suddenly became the Pharisaic voice of a
society wholly absorbed in barricading itself against the
"I think that's for her to decide."
"H'm--have you considered the consequences if she
decides for divorce?"
"You mean the threat in her husband's letter? What
weight would that carry? It's no more than the vague
charge of an angry blackguard."
"Yes; but it might make some unpleasant talk if he
really defends the suit."
"Unpleasant--!" said Archer explosively.
Mr. Letterblair looked at him from under enquiring
eyebrows, and the young man, aware of the uselessness
of trying to explain what was in his mind, bowed
acquiescently while his senior continued: "Divorce is
"You agree with me?" Mr. Letterblair resumed, after
a waiting silence.
"Naturally," said Archer.
"Well, then, I may count on you; the Mingotts may
count on you; to use your influence against the idea?"
Archer hesitated. "I can't pledge myself till I've seen
the Countess Olenska," he said at length.
"Mr. Archer, I don't understand you. Do you want
to marry into a family with a scandalous divorce-suit
hanging over it?"
"I don't think that has anything to do with the
Mr. Letterblair put down his glass of port and fixed
on his young partner a cautious and apprehensive gaze.
Archer understood that he ran the risk of having his
mandate withdrawn, and for some obscure reason he
disliked the prospect. Now that the job had been thrust
on him he did not propose to relinquish it; and, to
guard against the possibility, he saw that he must reassure
the unimaginative old man who was the legal
conscience of the Mingotts.
"You may be sure, sir, that I shan't commit myself
till I've reported to you; what I meant was that I'd
rather not give an opinion till I've heard what Madame
Olenska has to say."
Mr. Letterblair nodded approvingly at an excess of
caution worthy of the best New York tradition, and
the young man, glancing at his watch, pleaded an
engagement and took leave.