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Chapter XII

Old-fashioned New York dined at seven, and the
habit of after-dinner calls, though derided in Archer's
set, still generally prevailed. As the young man
strolled up Fifth Avenue from Waverley Place, the long
thoroughfare was deserted but for a group of carriages
standing before the Reggie Chiverses' (where there was
a dinner for the Duke), and the occasional figure of an
elderly gentleman in heavy overcoat and muffler
ascending a brownstone doorstep and disappearing into a
gas-lit hall. Thus, as Archer crossed Washington Square,
he remarked that old Mr. du Lac was calling on his
cousins the Dagonets, and turning down the corner of
West Tenth Street he saw Mr. Skipworth, of his own
firm, obviously bound on a visit to the Miss Lannings.
A little farther up Fifth Avenue, Beaufort appeared on
his doorstep, darkly projected against a blaze of light,
descended to his private brougham, and rolled away to
a mysterious and probably unmentionable destination.
It was not an Opera night, and no one was giving a
party, so that Beaufort's outing was undoubtedly of a
clandestine nature. Archer connected it in his mind
with a little house beyond Lexington Avenue in which
beribboned window curtains and flower-boxes had
recently appeared, and before whose newly painted door
the canary-coloured brougham of Miss Fanny Ring
was frequently seen to wait.

Beyond the small and slippery pyramid which
composed Mrs. Archer's world lay the almost unmapped
quarter inhabited by artists, musicians and "people
who wrote." These scattered fragments of humanity
had never shown any desire to be amalgamated with
the social structure. In spite of odd ways they were said
to be, for the most part, quite respectable; but they
preferred to keep to themselves. Medora Manson, in
her prosperous days, had inaugurated a "literary
salon"; but it had soon died out owing to the reluctance
of the literary to frequent it.

Others had made the same attempt, and there was a
household of Blenkers--an intense and voluble mother,
and three blowsy daughters who imitated her--where
one met Edwin Booth and Patti and William Winter,
and the new Shakespearian actor George Rignold, and
some of the magazine editors and musical and literary

Mrs. Archer and her group felt a certain timidity
concerning these persons. They were odd, they were
uncertain, they had things one didn't know about in
the background of their lives and minds. Literature and
art were deeply respected in the Archer set, and Mrs.
Archer was always at pains to tell her children how
much more agreeable and cultivated society had been
when it included such figures as Washington Irving,
Fitz-Greene Halleck and the poet of "The Culprit Fay."
The most celebrated authors of that generation had
been "gentlemen"; perhaps the unknown persons who
succeeded them had gentlemanly sentiments, but their
origin, their appearance, their hair, their intimacy with
the stage and the Opera, made any old New York
criterion inapplicable to them.

"When I was a girl," Mrs. Archer used to say, "we
knew everybody between the Battery and Canal Street;
and only the people one knew had carriages. It was
perfectly easy to place any one then; now one can't tell,
and I prefer not to try."

Only old Catherine Mingott, with her absence of
moral prejudices and almost parvenu indifference to
the subtler distinctions, might have bridged the abyss;
but she had never opened a book or looked at a
picture, and cared for music only because it reminded her
of gala nights at the Italiens, in the days of her triumph
at the Tuileries. Possibly Beaufort, who was her match
in daring, would have succeeded in bringing about a
fusion; but his grand house and silk-stockinged footmen
were an obstacle to informal sociability. Moreover,
he was as illiterate as old Mrs. Mingott, and
considered "fellows who wrote" as the mere paid
purveyors of rich men's pleasures; and no one rich enough
to influence his opinion had ever questioned it.

Newland Archer had been aware of these things ever
since he could remember, and had accepted them as
part of the structure of his universe. He knew that
there were societies where painters and poets and
novelists and men of science, and even great actors, were
as sought after as Dukes; he had often pictured to
himself what it would have been to live in the intimacy
of drawing-rooms dominated by the talk of Merimee
(whose "Lettres a une Inconnue" was one of his
inseparables), of Thackeray, Browning or William Morris.
But such things were inconceivable in New York, and
unsettling to think of. Archer knew most of the
"fellows who wrote," the musicians and the painters: he
met them at the Century, or at the little musical and
theatrical clubs that were beginning to come into
existence. He enjoyed them there, and was bored with
them at the Blenkers', where they were mingled with
fervid and dowdy women who passed them about like
captured curiosities; and even after his most exciting
talks with Ned Winsett he always came away with the
feeling that if his world was small, so was theirs, and
that the only way to enlarge either was to reach a stage
of manners where they would naturally merge.

He was reminded of this by trying to picture the
society in which the Countess Olenska had lived and
suffered, and also--perhaps--tasted mysterious joys.
He remembered with what amusement she had told
him that her grandmother Mingott and the Wellands
objected to her living in a "Bohemian" quarter given
over to "people who wrote." It was not the peril but
the poverty that her family disliked; but that shade
escaped her, and she supposed they considered
literature compromising.

She herself had no fears of it, and the books
scattered about her drawing-room (a part of the house in
which books were usually supposed to be "out of place"),
though chiefly works of fiction, had whetted Archer's
interest with such new names as those of Paul Bourget,
Huysmans, and the Goncourt brothers. Ruminating on
these things as he approached her door, he was once
more conscious of the curious way in which she
reversed his values, and of the need of thinking himself
into conditions incredibly different from any that he
knew if he were to be of use in her present difficulty.

Nastasia opened the door, smiling mysteriously. On
the bench in the hall lay a sable-lined overcoat, a
folded opera hat of dull silk with a gold J. B. on the
lining, and a white silk muffler: there was no mistaking
the fact that these costly articles were the property of
Julius Beaufort.

Archer was angry: so angry that he came near scribbling
a word on his card and going away; then he
remembered that in writing to Madame Olenska he
had been kept by excess of discretion from saying that
he wished to see her privately. He had therefore no one
but himself to blame if she had opened her doors to
other visitors; and he entered the drawing-room with
the dogged determination to make Beaufort feel himself
in the way, and to outstay him.

The banker stood leaning against the mantelshelf,
which was draped with an old embroidery held in place
by brass candelabra containing church candies of
yellowish wax. He had thrust his chest out, supporting his
shoulders against the mantel and resting his weight on
one large patent-leather foot. As Archer entered he was
smiling and looking down on his hostess, who sat on a
sofa placed at right angles to the chimney. A table
banked with flowers formed a screen behind it, and
against the orchids and azaleas which the young man
recognised as tributes from the Beaufort hot-houses,
Madame Olenska sat half-reclined, her head propped
on a hand and her wide sleeve leaving the arm bare to
the elbow.

It was usual for ladies who received in the evenings
to wear what were called "simple dinner dresses": a
close-fitting armour of whale-boned silk, slightly open
in the neck, with lace ruffles filling in the crack, and
tight sleeves with a flounce uncovering just enough
wrist to show an Etruscan gold bracelet or a velvet
band. But Madame Olenska, heedless of tradition, was
attired in a long robe of red velvet bordered about the
chin and down the front with glossy black fur. Archer
remembered, on his last visit to Paris, seeing a portrait
by the new painter, Carolus Duran, whose pictures
were the sensation of the Salon, in which the lady wore
one of these bold sheath-like robes with her chin nestling
in fur. There was something perverse and provocative
in the notion of fur worn in the evening in a heated
drawing-room, and in the combination of a muffled
throat and bare arms; but the effect was undeniably

"Lord love us--three whole days at Skuytercliff!"
Beaufort was saying in his loud sneering voice as Archer
entered. "You'd better take all your furs, and a

"Why? Is the house so cold?" she asked, holding out
her left hand to Archer in a way mysteriously suggesting
that she expected him to kiss it.

"No; but the missus is," said Beaufort, nodding
carelessly to the young man.

"But I thought her so kind. She came herself to invite
me. Granny says I must certainly go."

"Granny would, of course. And I say it's a shame
you're going to miss the little oyster supper I'd planned
for you at Delmonico's next Sunday, with Campanini
and Scalchi and a lot of jolly people."

She looked doubtfully from the banker to Archer.

"Ah--that does tempt me! Except the other evening
at Mrs. Struthers's I've not met a single artist since I've
been here."

"What kind of artists? I know one or two painters,
very good fellows, that I could bring to see you if you'd
allow me," said Archer boldly.

"Painters? Are there painters in New York?" asked
Beaufort, in a tone implying that there could be none
since he did not buy their pictures; and Madame Olenska
said to Archer, with her grave smile: "That would be
charming. But I was really thinking of dramatic artists,
singers, actors, musicians. My husband's house was
always full of them."

She said the words "my husband" as if no sinister
associations were connected with them, and in a tone
that seemed almost to sigh over the lost delights of her
married life. Archer looked at her perplexedly, wondering
if it were lightness or dissimulation that enabled her
to touch so easily on the past at the very moment when
she was risking her reputation in order to break with it.

"I do think," she went on, addressing both men,
that the imprevu adds to one's enjoyment. It's perhaps
a mistake to see the same people every day."

"It's confoundedly dull, anyhow; New York is dying
of dullness," Beaufort grumbled. "And when I try to
liven it up for you, you go back on me. Come--think
better of it! Sunday is your last chance, for Campanini
leaves next week for Baltimore and Philadelphia; and
I've a private room, and a Steinway, and they'll sing all
night for me."

"How delicious! May I think it over, and write to
you tomorrow morning?"

She spoke amiably, yet with the least hint of
dismissal in her voice. Beaufort evidently felt it, and being
unused to dismissals, stood staring at her with an obstinate
line between his eyes.

"Why not now?"

"It's too serious a question to decide at this late

"Do you call it late?"

She returned his glance coolly. "Yes; because I have
still to talk business with Mr. Archer for a little while."

"Ah," Beaufort snapped. There was no appeal from
her tone, and with a slight shrug he recovered his
composure, took her hand, which he kissed with a
practised air, and calling out from the threshold: "I
say, Newland, if you can persuade the Countess to stop
in town of course you're included in the supper," left
the room with his heavy important step.

For a moment Archer fancied that Mr. Letterblair
must have told her of his coming; but the irrelevance of
her next remark made him change his mind.

"You know painters, then? You live in their milieu?"
she asked, her eyes full of interest.

"Oh, not exactly. I don't know that the arts have a
milieu here, any of them; they're more like a very
thinly settled outskirt."

"But you care for such things?"

"Immensely. When I'm in Paris or London I never
miss an exhibition. I try to keep up."

She looked down at the tip of the little satin boot
that peeped from her long draperies.

"I used to care immensely too: my life was full of
such things. But now I want to try not to."

"You want to try not to?"

"Yes: I want to cast off all my old life, to become
just like everybody else here."

Archer reddened. "You'll never be like everybody
else," he said.

She raised her straight eyebrows a little. "Ah, don't
say that. If you knew how I hate to be different!"

Her face had grown as sombre as a tragic mask. She
leaned forward, clasping her knee in her thin hands,
and looking away from him into remote dark distances.

"I want to get away from it all," she insisted.

He waited a moment and cleared his throat. "I know.
Mr. Letterblair has told me."


"That's the reason I've come. He asked me to--you
see I'm in the firm."

She looked slightly surprised, and then her eyes brightened.
"You mean you can manage it for me? I can talk
to you instead of Mr. Letterblair? Oh, that will be so
much easier!"

Her tone touched him, and his confidence grew with
his self-satisfaction. He perceived that she had spoken
of business to Beaufort simply to get rid of him; and to
have routed Beaufort was something of a triumph.

"I am here to talk about it," he repeated.

She sat silent, her head still propped by the arm that
rested on the back of the sofa. Her face looked pale
and extinguished, as if dimmed by the rich red of her
dress. She struck Archer, of a sudden, as a pathetic and
even pitiful figure.

"Now we're coming to hard facts," he thought,
conscious in himself of the same instinctive recoil that he
had so often criticised in his mother and her contemporaries.
How little practice he had had in dealing with
unusual situations! Their very vocabulary was unfamiliar
to him, and seemed to belong to fiction and the
stage. In face of what was coming he felt as awkward
and embarrassed as a boy.

After a pause Madame Olenska broke out with
unexpected vehemence: "I want to be free; I want to wipe
out all the past."

"I understand that."

Her face warmed. "Then you'll help me?"

"First--" he hesitated--"perhaps I ought to know a
little more."

She seemed surprised. "You know about my husband--
my life with him?"

He made a sign of assent.

"Well--then--what more is there? In this country
are such things tolerated? I'm a Protestant--our church
does not forbid divorce in such cases."

"Certainly not."

They were both silent again, and Archer felt the
spectre of Count Olenski's letter grimacing hideously
between them. The letter filled only half a page, and
was just what he had described it to be in speaking of it
to Mr. Letterblair: the vague charge of an angry
blackguard. But how much truth was behind it? Only Count
Olenski's wife could tell.

"I've looked through the papers you gave to Mr.
Letterblair," he said at length.

"Well--can there be anything more abominable?"


She changed her position slightly, screening her eyes
with her lifted hand.

"Of course you know," Archer continued, "that if
your husband chooses to fight the case--as he threatens to--"


"He can say things--things that might be unpl--might
be disagreeable to you: say them publicly, so that they
would get about, and harm you even if--"


"I mean: no matter how unfounded they were."

She paused for a long interval; so long that, not
wishing to keep his eyes on her shaded face, he had
time to imprint on his mind the exact shape of her
other hand, the one on her knee, and every detail of the
three rings on her fourth and fifth fingers; among which,
he noticed, a wedding ring did not appear.

"What harm could such accusations, even if he made
them publicly, do me here?"

It was on his lips to exclaim: "My poor child--far
more harm than anywhere else!" Instead, he answered,
in a voice that sounded in his ears like Mr. Letterblair's:
"New York society is a very small world compared
with the one you've lived in. And it's ruled, in spite of
appearances, by a few people with--well, rather old-
fashioned ideas."

She said nothing, and he continued: "Our ideas about
marriage and divorce are particularly old-fashioned.
Our legislation favours divorce--our social customs


"Well--not if the woman, however injured, however
irreproachable, has appearances in the least degree
against her, has exposed herself by any unconventional
action to--to offensive insinuations--"

She drooped her head a little lower, and he waited
again, intensely hoping for a flash of indignation, or at
least a brief cry of denial. None came.

A little travelling clock ticked purringly at her elbow,
and a log broke in two and sent up a shower of sparks.
The whole hushed and brooding room seemed to be
waiting silently with Archer.

"Yes," she murmured at length, "that's what my
family tell me."

He winced a little. "It's not unnatural--"

"OUR family," she corrected herself; and Archer
coloured. "For you'll be my cousin soon," she continued

"I hope so."

"And you take their view?"

He stood up at this, wandered across the room,
stared with void eyes at one of the pictures against the
old red damask, and came back irresolutely to her side.
How could he say: "Yes, if what your husband hints is
true, or if you've no way of disproving it?"

"Sincerely--" she interjected, as he was about to

He looked down into the fire. "Sincerely, then--what
should you gain that would compensate for the possibility--
the certainty--of a lot of beastly talk?"

"But my freedom--is that nothing?"

It flashed across him at that instant that the charge
in the letter was true, and that she hoped to marry the
partner of her guilt. How was he to tell her that, if she
really cherished such a plan, the laws of the State were
inexorably opposed to it? The mere suspicion that the
thought was in her mind made him feel harshly and
impatiently toward her. "But aren't you as free as air
as it is?" he returned. "Who can touch you? Mr.
Letterblair tells me the financial question has been

"Oh, yes," she said indifferently.

"Well, then: is it worth while to risk what may be
infinitely disagreeable and painful? Think of the
newspapers--their vileness! It's all stupid and narrow and
unjust--but one can't make over society."

"No," she acquiesced; and her tone was so faint and
desolate that he felt a sudden remorse for his own hard

"The individual, in such cases, is nearly always
sacrificed to what is supposed to be the collective interest:
people cling to any convention that keeps the family
together--protects the children, if there are any," he
rambled on, pouring out all the stock phrases that rose
to his lips in his intense desire to cover over the ugly
reality which her silence seemed to have laid bare.
Since she would not or could not say the one word that
would have cleared the air, his wish was not to let her
feel that he was trying to probe into her secret. Better
keep on the surface, in the prudent old New York way,
than risk uncovering a wound he could not heal.

"It's my business, you know," he went on, "to help
you to see these things as the people who are fondest of
you see them. The Mingotts, the Wellands, the van der
Luydens, all your friends and relations: if I didn't show
you honestly how they judge such questions, it wouldn't
be fair of me, would it?" He spoke insistently, almost
pleading with her in his eagerness to cover up that
yawning silence.

She said slowly: "No; it wouldn't be fair."

The fire had crumbled down to greyness, and one of
the lamps made a gurgling appeal for attention. Madame
Olenska rose, wound it up and returned to the
fire, but without resuming her seat.

Her remaining on her feet seemed to signify that
there was nothing more for either of them to say, and
Archer stood up also.

"Very well; I will do what you wish," she said
abruptly. The blood rushed to his forehead; and, taken
aback by the suddenness of her surrender, he caught
her two hands awkwardly in his.

"I--I do want to help you," he said.

"You do help me. Good night, my cousin."

He bent and laid his lips on her hands, which were
cold and lifeless. She drew them away, and he turned
to the door, found his coat and hat under the faint
gas-light of the hall, and plunged out into the winter
night bursting with the belated eloquence of the inarticulate.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
General Fiction
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