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Chapter XX

Of course we must dine with Mrs. Carfry, dearest,"
Archer said; and his wife looked at him with an
anxious frown across the monumental Britannia ware of
their lodging house breakfast-table.

In all the rainy desert of autumnal London there
were only two people whom the Newland Archers
knew; and these two they had sedulously avoided, in
conformity with the old New York tradition that it was
not "dignified" to force one's self on the notice of one's
acquaintances in foreign countries.

Mrs. Archer and Janey, in the course of their visits to
Europe, had so unflinchingly lived up to this principle,
and met the friendly advances of their fellow-travellers
with an air of such impenetrable reserve, that they had
almost achieved the record of never having exchanged
a word with a "foreigner" other than those employed
in hotels and railway-stations. Their own compatriots--
save those previously known or properly accredited--
they treated with an even more pronounced disdain; so
that, unless they ran across a Chivers, a Dagonet or a
Mingott, their months abroad were spent in an unbroken
tete-a-tete. But the utmost precautions are sometimes
unavailing; and one night at Botzen one of the
two English ladies in the room across the passage (whose
names, dress and social situation were already intimately
known to Janey) had knocked on the door and
asked if Mrs. Archer had a bottle of liniment. The
other lady--the intruder's sister, Mrs. Carfry--had been
seized with a sudden attack of bronchitis; and Mrs.
Archer, who never travelled without a complete family
pharmacy, was fortunately able to produce the required
remedy.

Mrs. Carfry was very ill, and as she and her sister
Miss Harle were travelling alone they were profoundly
grateful to the Archer ladies, who supplied them with
ingenious comforts and whose efficient maid helped to
nurse the invalid back to health.

When the Archers left Botzen they had no idea of
ever seeing Mrs. Carfry and Miss Harle again. Nothing,
to Mrs. Archer's mind, would have been more
"undignified" than to force one's self on the notice of a
"foreigner" to whom one had happened to render an
accidental service. But Mrs. Carfry and her sister, to
whom this point of view was unknown, and who would
have found it utterly incomprehensible, felt themselves
linked by an eternal gratitude to the "delightful Americans"
who had been so kind at Botzen. With touching
fidelity they seized every chance of meeting Mrs. Archer
and Janey in the course of their continental travels, and
displayed a supernatural acuteness in finding out when
they were to pass through London on their way to or
from the States. The intimacy became indissoluble, and
Mrs. Archer and Janey, whenever they alighted at
Brown's Hotel, found themselves awaited by two affectionate
friends who, like themselves, cultivated ferns in
Wardian cases, made macrame lace, read the memoirs
of the Baroness Bunsen and had views about the
occupants of the leading London pulpits. As Mrs. Archer
said, it made "another thing of London" to know Mrs.
Carfry and Miss Harle; and by the time that Newland
became engaged the tie between the families was so
firmly established that it was thought "only right" to
send a wedding invitation to the two English ladies,
who sent, in return, a pretty bouquet of pressed Alpine
flowers under glass. And on the dock, when Newland
and his wife sailed for England, Mrs. Archer's last
word had been: "You must take May to see Mrs.
Carfry."

Newland and his wife had had no idea of obeying
this injunction; but Mrs. Carfry, with her usual acuteness,
had run them down and sent them an invitation
to dine; and it was over this invitation that May Archer
was wrinkling her brows across the tea and muffins.

"It's all very well for you, Newland; you KNOW them.
But I shall feel so shy among a lot of people I've never
met. And what shall I wear?"

Newland leaned back in his chair and smiled at her.
She looked handsomer and more Diana-like than ever.
The moist English air seemed to have deepened the
bloom of her cheeks and softened the slight hardness of
her virginal features; or else it was simply the inner
glow of happiness, shining through like a light under
ice.

"Wear, dearest? I thought a trunkful of things had
come from Paris last week."

"Yes, of course. I meant to say that I shan't know
WHICH to wear." She pouted a little. "I've never dined
out in London; and I don't want to be ridiculous."

He tried to enter into her perplexity. "But don't
Englishwomen dress just like everybody else in the
evening?"

"Newland! How can you ask such funny questions?
When they go to the theatre in old ball-dresses and
bare heads."

"Well, perhaps they wear new ball-dresses at home;
but at any rate Mrs. Carfry and Miss Harle won't.
They'll wear caps like my mother's--and shawls; very
soft shawls."

"Yes; but how will the other women be dressed?"

"Not as well as you, dear," he rejoined, wondering
what had suddenly developed in her Janey's morbid
interest in clothes.

She pushed back her chair with a sigh. "That's dear
of you, Newland; but it doesn't help me much."

He had an inspiration. "Why not wear your wedding-
dress? That can't be wrong, can it?"

"Oh, dearest! If I only had it here! But it's gone to
Paris to be made over for next winter, and Worth
hasn't sent it back."

"Oh, well--" said Archer, getting up. "Look here--
the fog's lifting. If we made a dash for the National
Gallery we might manage to catch a glimpse of the
pictures."


The Newland Archers were on their way home, after
a three months' wedding-tour which May, in writing to
her girl friends, vaguely summarised as "blissful."

They had not gone to the Italian Lakes: on reflection,
Archer had not been able to picture his wife in
that particular setting. Her own inclination (after a
month with the Paris dressmakers) was for mountaineering
in July and swimming in August. This plan they
punctually fulfilled, spending July at Interlaken and
Grindelwald, and August at a little place called Etretat,
on the Normandy coast, which some one had recommended
as quaint and quiet. Once or twice, in the
mountains, Archer had pointed southward and said:
"There's Italy"; and May, her feet in a gentian-bed,
had smiled cheerfully, and replied: "It would be lovely
to go there next winter, if only you didn't have to be in
New York."

But in reality travelling interested her even less than
he had expected. She regarded it (once her clothes were
ordered) as merely an enlarged opportunity for walking,
riding, swimming, and trying her hand at the fascinating
new game of lawn tennis; and when they finally
got back to London (where they were to spend a fortnight
while he ordered HIS clothes) she no longer concealed
the eagerness with which she looked forward to
sailing.

In London nothing interested her but the theatres
and the shops; and she found the theatres less exciting
than the Paris cafes chantants where, under the blossoming
horse-chestnuts of the Champs Elysees, she had
had the novel experience of looking down from the
restaurant terrace on an audience of "cocottes," and
having her husband interpret to her as much of the
songs as he thought suitable for bridal ears.

Archer had reverted to all his old inherited ideas
about marriage. It was less trouble to conform with the
tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated
their wives than to try to put into practice the theories
with which his untrammelled bachelorhood had dallied.
There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife
who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free;
and he had long since discovered that May's only use
of the liberty she supposed herself to possess would be
to lay it on the altar of her wifely adoration. Her innate
dignity would always keep her from making the gift
abjectly; and a day might even come (as it once had)
when she would find strength to take it altogether back
if she thought she were doing it for his own good. But
with a conception of marriage so uncomplicated and
incurious as hers such a crisis could be brought about
only by something visibly outrageous in his own conduct;
and the fineness of her feeling for him made that
unthinkable. Whatever happened, he knew, she would
always be loyal, gallant and unresentful; and that pledged
him to the practice of the same virtues.

All this tended to draw him back into his old habits
of mind. If her simplicity had been the simplicity of
pettiness he would have chafed and rebelled; but since
the lines of her character, though so few, were on the
same fine mould as her face, she became the tutelary
divinity of all his old traditions and reverences.

Such qualities were scarcely of the kind to enliven
foreign travel, though they made her so easy and pleasant
a companion; but he saw at once how they would
fall into place in their proper setting. He had no fear of
being oppressed by them, for his artistic and intellectual
life would go on, as it always had, outside the
domestic circle; and within it there would be nothing
small and stifling--coming back to his wife would never
be like entering a stuffy room after a tramp in the
open. And when they had children the vacant corners
in both their lives would be filled.

All these things went through his mind during their
long slow drive from Mayfair to South Kensington,
where Mrs. Carfry and her sister lived. Archer too
would have preferred to escape their friends' hospitality:
in conformity with the family tradition he had
always travelled as a sight-seer and looker-on, affecting
a haughty unconsciousness of the presence of his fellow-
beings. Once only, just after Harvard, he had spent a
few gay weeks at Florence with a band of queer
Europeanised Americans, dancing all night with titled
ladies in palaces, and gambling half the day with the
rakes and dandies of the fashionable club; but it had all
seemed to him, though the greatest fun in the world, as
unreal as a carnival. These queer cosmopolitan women,
deep in complicated love-affairs which they appeared to
feel the need of retailing to every one they met, and the
magnificent young officers and elderly dyed wits who
were the subjects or the recipients of their confidences,
were too different from the people Archer had grown
up among, too much like expensive and rather malodorous
hot-house exotics, to detain his imagination
long. To introduce his wife into such a society was out
of the question; and in the course of his travels no
other had shown any marked eagerness for his company.

Not long after their arrival in London he had run
across the Duke of St. Austrey, and the Duke, instantly
and cordially recognising him, had said: "Look me up,
won't you?"--but no proper-spirited American would
have considered that a suggestion to be acted on, and
the meeting was without a sequel. They had even managed
to avoid May's English aunt, the banker's wife,
who was still in Yorkshire; in fact, they had purposely
postponed going to London till the autumn in order
that their arrival during the season might not appear
pushing and snobbish to these unknown relatives.

"Probably there'll be nobody at Mrs. Carfry's--London's
a desert at this season, and you've made yourself
much too beautiful," Archer said to May, who sat at
his side in the hansom so spotlessly splendid in her
sky-blue cloak edged with swansdown that it seemed
wicked to expose her to the London grime.

"I don't want them to think that we dress like
savages," she replied, with a scorn that Pocahontas might
have resented; and he was struck again by the religious
reverence of even the most unworldly American women
for the social advantages of dress.

"It's their armour," he thought, "their defence against
the unknown, and their defiance of it." And he understood
for the first time the earnestness with which
May, who was incapable of tying a ribbon in her hair
to charm him, had gone through the solemn rite of
selecting and ordering her extensive wardrobe.

He had been right in expecting the party at Mrs.
Carfry's to be a small one. Besides their hostess and her
sister, they found, in the long chilly drawing-room,
only another shawled lady, a genial Vicar who was her
husband, a silent lad whom Mrs. Carfry named as her
nephew, and a small dark gentleman with lively eyes
whom she introduced as his tutor, pronouncing a French
name as she did so.

Into this dimly-lit and dim-featured group May Archer
floated like a swan with the sunset on her: she seemed
larger, fairer, more voluminously rustling than her
husband had ever seen her; and he perceived that the
rosiness and rustlingness were the tokens of an extreme
and infantile shyness.

"What on earth will they expect me to talk about?"
her helpless eyes implored him, at the very moment
that her dazzling apparition was calling forth the same
anxiety in their own bosoms. But beauty, even when
distrustful of itself, awakens confidence in the manly
heart; and the Vicar and the French-named tutor were
soon manifesting to May their desire to put her at her
ease.

In spite of their best efforts, however, the dinner was
a languishing affair. Archer noticed that his wife's way
of showing herself at her ease with foreigners was to
become more uncompromisingly local in her references,
so that, though her loveliness was an encouragement to
admiration, her conversation was a chill to repartee.
The Vicar soon abandoned the struggle; but the tutor,
who spoke the most fluent and accomplished English,
gallantly continued to pour it out to her until the
ladies, to the manifest relief of all concerned, went up
to the drawing-room.

The Vicar, after a glass of port, was obliged to hurry
away to a meeting, and the shy nephew, who appeared
to be an invalid, was packed off to bed. But Archer and
the tutor continued to sit over their wine, and suddenly
Archer found himself talking as he had not done since
his last symposium with Ned Winsett. The Carfry
nephew, it turned out, had been threatened with
consumption, and had had to leave Harrow for Switzerland,
where he had spent two years in the milder air of
Lake Leman. Being a bookish youth, he had been
entrusted to M. Riviere, who had brought him back to
England, and was to remain with him till he went up to
Oxford the following spring; and M. Riviere added
with simplicity that he should then have to look out for
another job.

It seemed impossible, Archer thought, that he should
be long without one, so varied were his interests and so
many his gifts. He was a man of about thirty, with a
thin ugly face (May would certainly have called him
common-looking) to which the play of his ideas gave
an intense expressiveness; but there was nothing frivolous
or cheap in his animation.

His father, who had died young, had filled a small
diplomatic post, and it had been intended that the son
should follow the same career; but an insatiable taste
for letters had thrown the young man into journalism,
then into authorship (apparently unsuccessful), and at
length--after other experiments and vicissitudes which
he spared his listener--into tutoring English youths in
Switzerland. Before that, however, he had lived much
in Paris, frequented the Goncourt grenier, been advised
by Maupassant not to attempt to write (even that seemed
to Archer a dazzling honour!), and had often talked
with Merimee in his mother's house. He had obviously
always been desperately poor and anxious (having a
mother and an unmarried sister to provide for), and it
was apparent that his literary ambitions had failed. His
situation, in fact, seemed, materially speaking, no more
brilliant than Ned Winsett's; but he had lived in a
world in which, as he said, no one who loved ideas
need hunger mentally. As it was precisely of that love
that poor Winsett was starving to death, Archer looked
with a sort of vicarious envy at this eager impecunious
young man who had fared so richly in his poverty.

"You see, Monsieur, it's worth everything, isn't it, to
keep one's intellectual liberty, not to enslave one's powers
of appreciation, one's critical independence? It was
because of that that I abandoned journalism, and took
to so much duller work: tutoring and private secretaryship.
There is a good deal of drudgery, of course; but
one preserves one's moral freedom, what we call in
French one's quant a soi. And when one hears good
talk one can join in it without compromising any opinions
but one's own; or one can listen, and answer it
inwardly. Ah, good conversation--there's nothing like
it, is there? The air of ideas is the only air worth
breathing. And so I have never regretted giving up
either diplomacy or journalism--two different forms of
the same self-abdication." He fixed his vivid eyes on
Archer as he lit another cigarette. "Voyez-vous,
Monsieur, to be able to look life in the face: that's worth
living in a garret for, isn't it? But, after all, one must
earn enough to pay for the garret; and I confess that to
grow old as a private tutor--or a `private' anything--is
almost as chilling to the imagination as a second
secretaryship at Bucharest. Sometimes I feel I must make a
plunge: an immense plunge. Do you suppose, for instance,
there would be any opening for me in America--
in New York?"

Archer looked at him with startled eyes. New York,
for a young man who had frequented the Goncourts
and Flaubert, and who thought the life of ideas the
only one worth living! He continued to stare at M.
Riviere perplexedly, wondering how to tell him that
his very superiorities and advantages would be the
surest hindrance to success.

"New York--New York--but must it be especially
New York?" he stammered, utterly unable to imagine
what lucrative opening his native city could offer to a
young man to whom good conversation appeared to be
the only necessity.

A sudden flush rose under M. Riviere's sallow skin.
"I--I thought it your metropolis: is not the intellectual
life more active there?" he rejoined; then, as if fearing
to give his hearer the impression of having asked a
favour, he went on hastily: "One throws out random
suggestions--more to one's self than to others. In reality,
I see no immediate prospect--" and rising from his
seat he added, without a trace of constraint: "But
Mrs. Carfry will think that I ought to be taking you
upstairs."

During the homeward drive Archer pondered deeply
on this episode. His hour with M. Riviere had put
new air into his lungs, and his first impulse had been to
invite him to dine the next day; but he was beginning
to understand why married men did not always immediately
yield to their first impulses.

"That young tutor is an interesting fellow: we had
some awfully good talk after dinner about books and
things," he threw out tentatively in the hansom.

May roused herself from one of the dreamy silences
into which he had read so many meanings before six
months of marriage had given him the key to them.

"The little Frenchman? Wasn't he dreadfully
common?" she questioned coldly; and he guessed that she
nursed a secret disappointment at having been invited
out in London to meet a clergyman and a French tutor.
The disappointment was not occasioned by the sentiment
ordinarily defined as snobbishness, but by old
New York's sense of what was due to it when it risked
its dignity in foreign lands. If May's parents had
entertained the Carfrys in Fifth Avenue they would have
offered them something more substantial than a parson
and a schoolmaster.

But Archer was on edge, and took her up.

"Common--common WHERE?" he queried; and she
returned with unusual readiness: "Why, I should say
anywhere but in his school-room. Those people are
always awkward in society. But then," she added
disarmingly, "I suppose I shouldn't have known if he was
clever."

Archer disliked her use of the word "clever" almost
as much as her use of the word "common"; but he was
beginning to fear his tendency to dwell on the things he
disliked in her. After all, her point of view had always
been the same. It was that of all the people he had
grown up among, and he had always regarded it as
necessary but negligible. Until a few months ago he had
never known a "nice" woman who looked at life
differently; and if a man married it must necessarily be
among the nice.

"Ah--then I won't ask him to dine!" he concluded
with a laugh; and May echoed, bewildered: "Goodness--
ask the Carfrys' tutor?"

"Well, not on the same day with the Carfrys, if you
prefer I shouldn't. But I did rather want another talk
with him. He's looking for a job in New York."

Her surprise increased with her indifference: he
almost fancied that she suspected him of being tainted
with "foreignness."

"A job in New York? What sort of a job? People
don't have French tutors: what does he want to do?"

"Chiefly to enjoy good conversation, I understand,"
her husband retorted perversely; and she broke into an
appreciative laugh. "Oh, Newland, how funny! Isn't
that FRENCH?"

On the whole, he was glad to have the matter settled
for him by her refusing to take seriously his wish to
invite M. Riviere. Another after-dinner talk would have
made it difficult to avoid the question of New York;
and the more Archer considered it the less he was able
to fit M. Riviere into any conceivable picture of New
York as he knew it.

He perceived with a flash of chilling insight that in
future many problems would be thus negatively solved
for him; but as he paid the hansom and followed his
wife's long train into the house he took refuge in the
comforting platitude that the first six months were
always the most difficult in marriage. "After that I
suppose we shall have pretty nearly finished rubbing
off each other's angles," he reflected; but the worst of
it was that May's pressure was already bearing on the
very angles whose sharpness he most wanted to keep.





The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Category:
General Fiction
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