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Chapter XV

Newland Archer arrived at the Chiverses' on Friday
evening, and on Saturday went conscientiously
through all the rites appertaining to a week-end at
Highbank.

In the morning he had a spin in the ice-boat with his
hostess and a few of the hardier guests; in the afternoon
he "went over the farm" with Reggie, and listened,
in the elaborately appointed stables, to long and
impressive disquisitions on the horse; after tea he talked
in a corner of the firelit hall with a young lady who
had professed herself broken-hearted when his engagement
was announced, but was now eager to tell him of
her own matrimonial hopes; and finally, about midnight,
he assisted in putting a gold-fish in one visitor's
bed, dressed up a burglar in the bath-room of a nervous
aunt, and saw in the small hours by joining in a
pillow-fight that ranged from the nurseries to the
basement. But on Sunday after luncheon he borrowed a
cutter, and drove over to Skuytercliff.

People had always been told that the house at
Skuytercliff was an Italian villa. Those who had never
been to Italy believed it; so did some who had. The
house had been built by Mr. van der Luyden in his
youth, on his return from the "grand tour," and in
anticipation of his approaching marriage with Miss
Louisa Dagonet. It was a large square wooden structure,
with tongued and grooved walls painted pale
green and white, a Corinthian portico, and fluted
pilasters between the windows. From the high ground on
which it stood a series of terraces bordered by balustrades
and urns descended in the steel-engraving style
to a small irregular lake with an asphalt edge overhung
by rare weeping conifers. To the right and left, the
famous weedless lawns studded with "specimen" trees
(each of a different variety) rolled away to long ranges
of grass crested with elaborate cast-iron ornaments;
and below, in a hollow, lay the four-roomed stone
house which the first Patroon had built on the land
granted him in 1612.

Against the uniform sheet of snow and the greyish
winter sky the Italian villa loomed up rather grimly;
even in summer it kept its distance, and the boldest
coleus bed had never ventured nearer than thirty feet
from its awful front. Now, as Archer rang the bell, the
long tinkle seemed to echo through a mausoleum; and
the surprise of the butler who at length responded to
the call was as great as though he had been summoned
from his final sleep.

Happily Archer was of the family, and therefore,
irregular though his arrival was, entitled to be informed
that the Countess Olenska was out, having driven to
afternoon service with Mrs. van der Luyden exactly
three quarters of an hour earlier.

"Mr. van der Luyden," the butler continued, "is
in, sir; but my impression is that he is either finishing
his nap or else reading yesterday's Evening Post. I
heard him say, sir, on his return from church this
morning, that he intended to look through the Evening
Post after luncheon; if you like, sir, I might go to the
library door and listen--"

But Archer, thanking him, said that he would go and
meet the ladies; and the butler, obviously relieved, closed
the door on him majestically.

A groom took the cutter to the stables, and Archer
struck through the park to the high-road. The village of
Skuytercliff was only a mile and a half away, but he
knew that Mrs. van der Luyden never walked, and that
he must keep to the road to meet the carriage. Presently,
however, coming down a foot-path that crossed
the highway, he caught sight of a slight figure in a red
cloak, with a big dog running ahead. He hurried forward,
and Madame Olenska stopped short with a smile
of welcome.

"Ah, you've come!" she said, and drew her hand
from her muff.

The red cloak made her look gay and vivid, like the
Ellen Mingott of old days; and he laughed as he took
her hand, and answered: "I came to see what you were
running away from."

Her face clouded over, but she answered: "Ah, well--
you will see, presently."

The answer puzzled him. "Why--do you mean that
you've been overtaken?"

She shrugged her shoulders, with a little movement
like Nastasia's, and rejoined in a lighter tone: "Shall
we walk on? I'm so cold after the sermon. And what
does it matter, now you're here to protect me?"

The blood rose to his temples and he caught a fold of
her cloak. "Ellen--what is it? You must tell me."

"Oh, presently--let's run a race first: my feet are
freezing to the ground," she cried; and gathering up the
cloak she fled away across the snow, the dog leaping
about her with challenging barks. For a moment Archer
stood watching, his gaze delighted by the flash of the
red meteor against the snow; then he started after her,
and they met, panting and laughing, at a wicket that
led into the park.

She looked up at him and smiled. "I knew you'd
come!"

"That shows you wanted me to," he returned, with a
disproportionate joy in their nonsense. The white glitter
of the trees filled the air with its own mysterious
brightness, and as they walked on over the snow the
ground seemed to sing under their feet.

"Where did you come from?" Madame Olenska asked.

He told her, and added: "It was because I got your
note."

After a pause she said, with a just perceptible chill in
her voice: "May asked you to take care of me."

"I didn't need any asking."

"You mean--I'm so evidently helpless and defenceless?
What a poor thing you must all think me! But women
here seem not--seem never to feel the need: any more
than the blessed in heaven."

He lowered his voice to ask: "What sort of a need?"

"Ah, don't ask me! I don't speak your language,"
she retorted petulantly.

The answer smote him like a blow, and he stood still
in the path, looking down at her.

"What did I come for, if I don't speak yours?"

"Oh, my friend--!" She laid her hand lightly on his
arm, and he pleaded earnestly: "Ellen--why won't you
tell me what's happened?"

She shrugged again. "Does anything ever happen in
heaven?"

He was silent, and they walked on a few yards
without exchanging a word. Finally she said: "I will
tell you--but where, where, where? One can't be alone
for a minute in that great seminary of a house, with all
the doors wide open, and always a servant bringing
tea, or a log for the fire, or the newspaper! Is there
nowhere in an American house where one may be by
one's self? You're so shy, and yet you're so public. I
always feel as if I were in the convent again--or on the
stage, before a dreadfully polite audience that never
applauds."

"Ah, you don't like us!" Archer exclaimed.

They were walking past the house of the old
Patroon, with its squat walls and small square windows
compactly grouped about a central chimney. The shutters
stood wide, and through one of the newly-washed
windows Archer caught the light of a fire.

"Why--the house is open!" he said.

She stood still. "No; only for today, at least. I wanted
to see it, and Mr. van der Luyden had the fire lit and
the windows opened, so that we might stop there on
the way back from church this morning." She ran up
the steps and tried the door. "It's still unlocked--what
luck! Come in and we can have a quiet talk. Mrs. van
der Luyden has driven over to see her old aunts at
Rhinebeck and we shan't be missed at the house for
another hour."

He followed her into the narrow passage. His spirits,
which had dropped at her last words, rose with an
irrational leap. The homely little house stood there, its
panels and brasses shining in the firelight, as if magically
created to receive them. A big bed of embers still
gleamed in the kitchen chimney, under an iron pot
hung from an ancient crane. Rush-bottomed arm-chairs
faced each other across the tiled hearth, and rows of
Delft plates stood on shelves against the walls. Archer
stooped over and threw a log upon the embers.

Madame Olenska, dropping her cloak, sat down in
one of the chairs. Archer leaned against the chimney
and looked at her.

"You're laughing now; but when you wrote me you
were unhappy," he said.

"Yes." She paused. "But I can't feel unhappy when
you're here."

"I sha'n't be here long," he rejoined, his lips stiffening
with the effort to say just so much and no more.

"No; I know. But I'm improvident: I live in the
moment when I'm happy."

The words stole through him like a temptation, and
to close his senses to it he moved away from the hearth
and stood gazing out at the black tree-boles against the
snow. But it was as if she too had shifted her place, and
he still saw her, between himself and the trees, drooping
over the fire with her indolent smile. Archer's heart
was beating insubordinately. What if it were from him
that she had been running away, and if she had waited
to tell him so till they were here alone together in this
secret room?

"Ellen, if I'm really a help to you--if you really
wanted me to come--tell me what's wrong, tell me
what it is you're running away from," he insisted.

He spoke without shifting his position, without even
turning to look at her: if the thing was to happen, it
was to happen in this way, with the whole width of the
room between them, and his eyes still fixed on the
outer snow.

For a long moment she was silent; and in that moment
Archer imagined her, almost heard her, stealing
up behind him to throw her light arms about his neck.
While he waited, soul and body throbbing with the
miracle to come, his eyes mechanically received the
image of a heavily-coated man with his fur collar turned
up who was advancing along the path to the house.
The man was Julius Beaufort.

"Ah--!" Archer cried, bursting into a laugh.

Madame Olenska had sprung up and moved to his
side, slipping her hand into his; but after a glance
through the window her face paled and she shrank
back.

"So that was it?" Archer said derisively.

"I didn't know he was here," Madame Olenska
murmured. Her hand still clung to Archer's; but he drew
away from her, and walking out into the passage threw
open the door of the house.

"Hallo, Beaufort--this way! Madame Olenska was
expecting you," he said.


During his journey back to New York the next morning,
Archer relived with a fatiguing vividness his last
moments at Skuytercliff.

Beaufort, though clearly annoyed at finding him with
Madame Olenska, had, as usual, carried off the situation
high-handedly. His way of ignoring people whose
presence inconvenienced him actually gave them, if they
were sensitive to it, a feeling of invisibility, of
nonexistence. Archer, as the three strolled back through
the park, was aware of this odd sense of disembodiment;
and humbling as it was to his vanity it gave him the
ghostly advantage of observing unobserved.

Beaufort had entered the little house with his usual
easy assurance; but he could not smile away the vertical
line between his eyes. It was fairly clear that Madame
Olenska had not known that he was coming,
though her words to Archer had hinted at the possibility;
at any rate, she had evidently not told him where
she was going when she left New York, and her unexplained
departure had exasperated him. The ostensible
reason of his appearance was the discovery, the very
night before, of a "perfect little house," not in the
market, which was really just the thing for her, but
would be snapped up instantly if she didn't take it; and
he was loud in mock-reproaches for the dance she had
led him in running away just as he had found it.

"If only this new dodge for talking along a wire had
been a little bit nearer perfection I might have told you
all this from town, and been toasting my toes before
the club fire at this minute, instead of tramping after
you through the snow," he grumbled, disguising a real
irritation under the pretence of it; and at this opening
Madame Olenska twisted the talk away to the fantastic
possibility that they might one day actually converse
with each other from street to street, or even--
incredible dream!--from one town to another. This struck
from all three allusions to Edgar Poe and Jules Verne,
and such platitudes as naturally rise to the lips of the
most intelligent when they are talking against time, and
dealing with a new invention in which it would seem
ingenuous to believe too soon; and the question of the
telephone carried them safely back to the big house.

Mrs. van der Luyden had not yet returned; and
Archer took his leave and walked off to fetch the
cutter, while Beaufort followed the Countess Olenska
indoors. It was probable that, little as the van der
Luydens encouraged unannounced visits, he could count
on being asked to dine, and sent back to the station to
catch the nine o'clock train; but more than that he
would certainly not get, for it would be inconceivable
to his hosts that a gentleman travelling without luggage
should wish to spend the night, and distasteful to them
to propose it to a person with whom they were on
terms of such limited cordiality as Beaufort.

Beaufort knew all this, and must have foreseen it;
and his taking the long journey for so small a reward
gave the measure of his impatience. He was undeniably
in pursuit of the Countess Olenska; and Beaufort had
only one object in view in his pursuit of pretty women.
His dull and childless home had long since palled on
him; and in addition to more permanent consolations
he was always in quest of amorous adventures in his
own set. This was the man from whom Madame Olenska
was avowedly flying: the question was whether she had
fled because his importunities displeased her, or
because she did not wholly trust herself to resist them;
unless, indeed, all her talk of flight had been a blind,
and her departure no more than a manoeuvre.

Archer did not really believe this. Little as he had
actually seen of Madame Olenska, he was beginning to
think that he could read her face, and if not her face,
her voice; and both had betrayed annoyance, and even
dismay, at Beaufort's sudden appearance. But, after all,
if this were the case, was it not worse than if she had
left New York for the express purpose of meeting him?
If she had done that, she ceased to be an object of
interest, she threw in her lot with the vulgarest of
dissemblers: a woman engaged in a love affair with
Beaufort "classed" herself irretrievably.

No, it was worse a thousand times if, judging
Beaufort, and probably despising him, she was yet drawn to
him by all that gave him an advantage over the other
men about her: his habit of two continents and two
societies, his familiar association with artists and actors
and people generally in the world's eye, and his careless
contempt for local prejudices. Beaufort was vulgar, he
was uneducated, he was purse-proud; but the circumstances
of his life, and a certain native shrewdness,
made him better worth talking to than many men,
morally and socially his betters, whose horizon was
bounded by the Battery and the Central Park. How
should any one coming from a wider world not feel the
difference and be attracted by it?

Madame Olenska, in a burst of irritation, had said to
Archer that he and she did not talk the same language;
and the young man knew that in some respects this was
true. But Beaufort understood every turn of her dialect,
and spoke it fluently: his view of life, his tone, his
attitude, were merely a coarser reflection of those
revealed in Count Olenski's letter. This might seem to be
to his disadvantage with Count Olenski's wife; but
Archer was too intelligent to think that a young woman
like Ellen Olenska would necessarily recoil from everything
that reminded her of her past. She might believe
herself wholly in revolt against it; but what had charmed
her in it would still charm her, even though it were
against her will.

Thus, with a painful impartiality, did the young man
make out the case for Beaufort, and for Beaufort's
victim. A longing to enlighten her was strong in him;
and there were moments when he imagined that all she
asked was to be enlightened.

That evening he unpacked his books from London.
The box was full of things he had been waiting for
impatiently; a new volume of Herbert Spencer, another
collection of the prolific Alphonse Daudet's brilliant
tales, and a novel called "Middlemarch," as to which
there had lately been interesting things said in the
reviews. He had declined three dinner invitations in
favour of this feast; but though he turned the pages with
the sensuous joy of the book-lover, he did not know
what he was reading, and one book after another
dropped from his hand. Suddenly, among them, he lit
on a small volume of verse which he had ordered
because the name had attracted him: "The House of
Life." He took it up, and found himself plunged in an
atmosphere unlike any he had ever breathed in books;
so warm, so rich, and yet so ineffably tender, that it
gave a new and haunting beauty to the most elementary
of human passions. All through the night he pursued
through those enchanted pages the vision of a
woman who had the face of Ellen Olenska; but when
he woke the next morning, and looked out at the
brownstone houses across the street, and thought of his
desk in Mr. Letterblair's office, and the family pew in
Grace Church, his hour in the park of Skuytercliff
became as far outside the pale of probability as the
visions of the night.

"Mercy, how pale you look, Newland!" Janey
commented over the coffee-cups at breakfast; and his mother
added: "Newland, dear, I've noticed lately that you've
been coughing; I do hope you're not letting yourself be
overworked?" For it was the conviction of both ladies
that, under the iron despotism of his senior partners,
the young man's life was spent in the most exhausting
professional labours--and he had never thought it
necessary to undeceive them.

The next two or three days dragged by heavily. The
taste of the usual was like cinders in his mouth, and
there were moments when he felt as if he were being
buried alive under his future. He heard nothing of the
Countess Olenska, or of the perfect little house, and
though he met Beaufort at the club they merely nodded
at each other across the whist-tables. It was not till the
fourth evening that he found a note awaiting him on
his return home. "Come late tomorrow: I must explain
to you. Ellen." These were the only words it contained.

The young man, who was dining out, thrust the note
into his pocket, smiling a little at the Frenchness of the
"to you." After dinner he went to a play; and it was
not until his return home, after midnight, that he drew
Madame Olenska's missive out again and re-read it
slowly a number of times. There were several ways of
answering it, and he gave considerable thought to each
one during the watches of an agitated night. That on
which, when morning came, he finally decided was to
pitch some clothes into a portmanteau and jump on
board a boat that was leaving that very afternoon for
St. Augustine.





The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Category:
General Fiction
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