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Chapter XVII

Your cousin the Countess called on mother while
you were away," Janey Archer announced to her
brother on the evening of his return.

The young man, who was dining alone with his
mother and sister, glanced up in surprise and saw Mrs.
Archer's gaze demurely bent on her plate. Mrs. Archer
did not regard her seclusion from the world as a reason
for being forgotten by it; and Newland guessed that
she was slightly annoyed that he should be surprised by
Madame Olenska's visit.

"She had on a black velvet polonaise with jet
buttons, and a tiny green monkey muff; I never saw her so
stylishly dressed," Janey continued. "She came alone,
early on Sunday afternoon; luckily the fire was lit in
the drawing-room. She had one of those new card-
cases. She said she wanted to know us because you'd
been so good to her."

Newland laughed. "Madame Olenska always takes
that tone about her friends. She's very happy at being
among her own people again."

"Yes, so she told us," said Mrs. Archer. "I must say
she seems thankful to be here."

"I hope you liked her, mother."

Mrs. Archer drew her lips together. "She certainly
lays herself out to please, even when she is calling on
an old lady."

"Mother doesn't think her simple," Janey interjected,
her eyes screwed upon her brother's face.

"It's just my old-fashioned feeling; dear May is my
ideal," said Mrs. Archer.

"Ah," said her son, "they're not alike."


Archer had left St. Augustine charged with many
messages for old Mrs. Mingott; and a day or two after his
return to town he called on her.

The old lady received him with unusual warmth; she
was grateful to him for persuading the Countess Olenska
to give up the idea of a divorce; and when he told her
that he had deserted the office without leave, and rushed
down to St. Augustine simply because he wanted to see
May, she gave an adipose chuckle and patted his knee
with her puff-ball hand.

"Ah, ah--so you kicked over the traces, did you?
And I suppose Augusta and Welland pulled long faces,
and behaved as if the end of the world had come? But
little May--she knew better, I'll be bound?"

"I hoped she did; but after all she wouldn't agree to
what I'd gone down to ask for."

"Wouldn't she indeed? And what was that?"

"I wanted to get her to promise that we should be
married in April. What's the use of our wasting another year?"

Mrs. Manson Mingott screwed up her little mouth
into a grimace of mimic prudery and twinkled at him
through malicious lids. "`Ask Mamma,' I suppose--
the usual story. Ah, these Mingotts--all alike! Born in
a rut, and you can't root 'em out of it. When I built
this house you'd have thought I was moving to California!
Nobody ever HAD built above Fortieth Street--no,
says I, nor above the Battery either, before Christopher
Columbus discovered America. No, no; not one of
them wants to be different; they're as scared of it as the
small-pox. Ah, my dear Mr. Archer, I thank my stars
I'm nothing but a vulgar Spicer; but there's not one of
my own children that takes after me but my little
Ellen." She broke off, still twinkling at him, and asked,
with the casual irrelevance of old age: "Now, why in
the world didn't you marry my little Ellen?"

Archer laughed. "For one thing, she wasn't there to
be married."

"No--to be sure; more's the pity. And now it's too
late; her life is finished." She spoke with the cold-
blooded complacency of the aged throwing earth into
the grave of young hopes. The young man's heart grew
chill, and he said hurriedly: "Can't I persuade you to
use your influence with the Wellands, Mrs. Mingott? I
wasn't made for long engagements."

Old Catherine beamed on him approvingly. "No; I
can see that. You've got a quick eye. When you were a
little boy I've no doubt you liked to be helped first."
She threw back her head with a laugh that made her
chins ripple like little waves. "Ah, here's my Ellen
now!" she exclaimed, as the portieres parted behind
her.

Madame Olenska came forward with a smile. Her
face looked vivid and happy, and she held out her hand
gaily to Archer while she stooped to her grandmother's
kiss.

"I was just saying to him, my dear: `Now, why
didn't you marry my little Ellen?'"

Madame Olenska looked at Archer, still smiling. "And
what did he answer?"

"Oh, my darling, I leave you to find that out! He's
been down to Florida to see his sweetheart."

"Yes, I know." She still looked at him. "I went to see
your mother, to ask where you'd gone. I sent a note
that you never answered, and I was afraid you were
ill."

He muttered something about leaving unexpectedly,
in a great hurry, and having intended to write to her
from St. Augustine.

"And of course once you were there you never thought
of me again!" She continued to beam on him with a
gaiety that might have been a studied assumption of
indifference.

"If she still needs me, she's determined not to let me
see it," he thought, stung by her manner. He wanted to
thank her for having been to see his mother, but under
the ancestress's malicious eye he felt himself tongue-
tied and constrained.

"Look at him--in such hot haste to get married that
he took French leave and rushed down to implore the
silly girl on his knees! That's something like a lover--
that's the way handsome Bob Spicer carried off my
poor mother; and then got tired of her before I was
weaned--though they only had to wait eight months
for me! But there--you're not a Spicer, young man;
luckily for you and for May. It's only my poor Ellen
that has kept any of their wicked blood; the rest of
them are all model Mingotts," cried the old lady
scornfully.

Archer was aware that Madame Olenska, who had
seated herself at her grandmother's side, was still
thoughtfully scrutinising him. The gaiety had faded
from her eyes, and she said with great gentleness: "Surely,
Granny, we can persuade them between us to do as he
wishes."

Archer rose to go, and as his hand met Madame
Olenska's he felt that she was waiting for him to make
some allusion to her unanswered letter.

"When can I see you?" he asked, as she walked with
him to the door of the room.

"Whenever you like; but it must be soon if you want
to see the little house again. I am moving next week."

A pang shot through him at the memory of his
lamplit hours in the low-studded drawing-room. Few
as they had been, they were thick with memories.

"Tomorrow evening?"

She nodded. "Tomorrow; yes; but early. I'm going
out."

The next day was a Sunday, and if she were "going
out" on a Sunday evening it could, of course, be only
to Mrs. Lemuel Struthers's. He felt a slight movement
of annoyance, not so much at her going there (for he
rather liked her going where she pleased in spite of the
van der Luydens), but because it was the kind of house
at which she was sure to meet Beaufort, where she
must have known beforehand that she would meet
him--and where she was probably going for that
purpose.

"Very well; tomorrow evening," he repeated, inwardly
resolved that he would not go early, and that by reaching
her door late he would either prevent her from
going to Mrs. Struthers's, or else arrive after she had
started--which, all things considered, would no doubt
be the simplest solution.


It was only half-past eight, after all, when he rang the
bell under the wisteria; not as late as he had intended
by half an hour--but a singular restlessness had driven
him to her door. He reflected, however, that Mrs.
Struthers's Sunday evenings were not like a ball, and
that her guests, as if to minimise their delinquency,
usually went early.

The one thing he had not counted on, in entering
Madame Olenska's hall, was to find hats and overcoats
there. Why had she bidden him to come early if she
was having people to dine? On a closer inspection of
the garments besides which Nastasia was laying his
own, his resentment gave way to curiosity. The overcoats
were in fact the very strangest he had ever seen
under a polite roof; and it took but a glance to assure
himself that neither of them belonged to Julius Beaufort.
One was a shaggy yellow ulster of "reach-me-
down" cut, the other a very old and rusty cloak with a
cape--something like what the French called a "Macfarlane."
This garment, which appeared to be made for
a person of prodigious size, had evidently seen long
and hard wear, and its greenish-black folds gave out a
moist sawdusty smell suggestive of prolonged sessions
against bar-room walls. On it lay a ragged grey scarf
and an odd felt hat of semiclerical shape.

Archer raised his eyebrows enquiringly at Nastasia,
who raised hers in return with a fatalistic "Gia!" as
she threw open the drawing-room door.

The young man saw at once that his hostess was not
in the room; then, with surprise, he discovered another
lady standing by the fire. This lady, who was long, lean
and loosely put together, was clad in raiment intricately
looped and fringed, with plaids and stripes and
bands of plain colour disposed in a design to which the
clue seemed missing. Her hair, which had tried to turn
white and only succeeded in fading, was surmounted
by a Spanish comb and black lace scarf, and silk mittens,
visibly darned, covered her rheumatic hands.

Beside her, in a cloud of cigar-smoke, stood the
owners of the two overcoats, both in morning clothes
that they had evidently not taken off since morning. In
one of the two, Archer, to his surprise, recognised Ned
Winsett; the other and older, who was unknown to
him, and whose gigantic frame declared him to be the
wearer of the "Macfarlane," had a feebly leonine head
with crumpled grey hair, and moved his arms with
large pawing gestures, as though he were distributing
lay blessings to a kneeling multitude.

These three persons stood together on the hearth-
rug, their eyes fixed on an extraordinarily large bouquet
of crimson roses, with a knot of purple pansies at
their base, that lay on the sofa where Madame Olenska
usually sat.

"What they must have cost at this season--though of
course it's the sentiment one cares about!" the lady was
saying in a sighing staccato as Archer came in.

The three turned with surprise at his appearance,
and the lady, advancing, held out her hand.

"Dear Mr. Archer--almost my cousin Newland!"
she said. "I am the Marchioness Manson."

Archer bowed, and she continued: "My Ellen has
taken me in for a few days. I came from Cuba, where I
have been spending the winter with Spanish friends--
such delightful distinguished people: the highest nobility
of old Castile--how I wish you could know them!
But I was called away by our dear great friend here,
Dr. Carver. You don't know Dr. Agathon Carver,
founder of the Valley of Love Community?"

Dr. Carver inclined his leonine head, and the
Marchioness continued: "Ah, New York--New York--how
little the life of the spirit has reached it! But I see you
do know Mr. Winsett."

"Oh, yes--I reached him some time ago; but not by
that route," Winsett said with his dry smile.

The Marchioness shook her head reprovingly. "How
do you know, Mr. Winsett? The spirit bloweth where it
listeth."

"List--oh, list!" interjected Dr. Carver in a stentorian
murmur.

"But do sit down, Mr. Archer. We four have been
having a delightful little dinner together, and my child
has gone up to dress. She expects you; she will be
down in a moment. We were just admiring these marvellous
flowers, which will surprise her when she
reappears."

Winsett remained on his feet. "I'm afraid I must be
off. Please tell Madame Olenska that we shall all feel
lost when she abandons our street. This house has been
an oasis."

"Ah, but she won't abandon YOU. Poetry and art are
the breath of life to her. It IS poetry you write, Mr.
Winsett?"

"Well, no; but I sometimes read it," said Winsett,
including the group in a general nod and slipping out
of the room.

"A caustic spirit--un peu sauvage. But so witty; Dr.
Carver, you DO think him witty?"

"I never think of wit," said Dr. Carver severely.

"Ah--ah--you never think of wit! How merciless he
is to us weak mortals, Mr. Archer! But he lives only in
the life of the spirit; and tonight he is mentally preparing
the lecture he is to deliver presently at Mrs. Blenker's.
Dr. Carver, would there be time, before you start for
the Blenkers' to explain to Mr. Archer your illuminating
discovery of the Direct Contact? But no; I see it is
nearly nine o'clock, and we have no right to detain you
while so many are waiting for your message."

Dr. Carver looked slightly disappointed at this
conclusion, but, having compared his ponderous gold time-
piece with Madame Olenska's little travelling-clock, he
reluctantly gathered up his mighty limbs for departure.

"I shall see you later, dear friend?" he suggested to
the Marchioness, who replied with a smile: "As soon
as Ellen's carriage comes I will join you; I do hope the
lecture won't have begun."

Dr. Carver looked thoughtfully at Archer. "Perhaps,
if this young gentleman is interested in my experiences,
Mrs. Blenker might allow you to bring him with you?"

"Oh, dear friend, if it were possible--I am sure she
would be too happy. But I fear my Ellen counts on Mr.
Archer herself."

"That," said Dr. Carver, "is unfortunate--but here
is my card." He handed it to Archer, who read on it, in
Gothic characters:


|---------------------------|
| Agathon Carter |
| The Valley of Love |
| Kittasquattamy, N. Y. |
|---------------------------|


Dr. Carver bowed himself out, and Mrs. Manson,
with a sigh that might have been either of regret or
relief, again waved Archer to a seat.

"Ellen will be down in a moment; and before she
comes, I am so glad of this quiet moment with you."

Archer murmured his pleasure at their meeting, and
the Marchioness continued, in her low sighing accents:
"I know everything, dear Mr. Archer--my child has
told me all you have done for her. Your wise advice:
your courageous firmness--thank heaven it was not
too late!"

The young man listened with considerable
embarrassment. Was there any one, he wondered, to whom
Madame Olenska had not proclaimed his intervention
in her private affairs?

"Madame Olenska exaggerates; I simply gave her a
legal opinion, as she asked me to."

"Ah, but in doing it--in doing it you were the
unconscious instrument of--of--what word have we moderns
for Providence, Mr. Archer?" cried the lady, tilting
her head on one side and drooping her lids mysteriously.
"Little did you know that at that very moment I
was being appealed to: being approached, in fact--from
the other side of the Atlantic!"

She glanced over her shoulder, as though fearful of
being overheard, and then, drawing her chair nearer,
and raising a tiny ivory fan to her lips, breathed behind
it: "By the Count himself--my poor, mad, foolish
Olenski; who asks only to take her back on her own
terms."

"Good God!" Archer exclaimed, springing up.

"You are horrified? Yes, of course; I understand. I
don't defend poor Stanislas, though he has always called
me his best friend. He does not defend himself--he
casts himself at her feet: in my person." She tapped her
emaciated bosom. "I have his letter here."

"A letter?--Has Madame Olenska seen it?" Archer
stammered, his brain whirling with the shock of the
announcement.

The Marchioness Manson shook her head softly.
"Time--time; I must have time. I know my Ellen--
haughty, intractable; shall I say, just a shade
unforgiving?"

"But, good heavens, to forgive is one thing; to go
back into that hell--"

"Ah, yes," the Marchioness acquiesced. "So she
describes it--my sensitive child! But on the material side,
Mr. Archer, if one may stoop to consider such things;
do you know what she is giving up? Those roses there
on the sofa--acres like them, under glass and in the
open, in his matchless terraced gardens at Nice! Jewels--
historic pearls: the Sobieski emeralds--sables,--but she
cares nothing for all these! Art and beauty, those she
does care for, she lives for, as I always have; and those
also surrounded her. Pictures, priceless furniture, music,
brilliant conversation--ah, that, my dear young
man, if you'll excuse me, is what you've no conception
of here! And she had it all; and the homage of the
greatest. She tells me she is not thought handsome in
New York--good heavens! Her portrait has been painted
nine times; the greatest artists in Europe have begged
for the privilege. Are these things nothing? And the
remorse of an adoring husband?"

As the Marchioness Manson rose to her climax her
face assumed an expression of ecstatic retrospection
which would have moved Archer's mirth had he not
been numb with amazement.

He would have laughed if any one had foretold to
him that his first sight of poor Medora Manson would
have been in the guise of a messenger of Satan; but he
was in no mood for laughing now, and she seemed to
him to come straight out of the hell from which Ellen
Olenska had just escaped.

"She knows nothing yet--of all this?" he asked
abruptly.

Mrs. Manson laid a purple finger on her lips.
"Nothing directly--but does she suspect? Who can tell? The
truth is, Mr. Archer, I have been waiting to see you.
From the moment I heard of the firm stand you had
taken, and of your influence over her, I hoped it might
be possible to count on your support--to convince
you . . ."

"That she ought to go back? I would rather see her
dead!" cried the young man violently.

"Ah," the Marchioness murmured, without visible
resentment. For a while she sat in her arm-chair, opening
and shutting the absurd ivory fan between her
mittened fingers; but suddenly she lifted her head and
listened.

"Here she comes," she said in a rapid whisper; and
then, pointing to the bouquet on the sofa: "Am I to
understand that you prefer THAT, Mr. Archer? After all,
marriage is marriage . . . and my niece is still a wife. . .





The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Category:
General Fiction
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