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Chapter XXII

A party for the Blenkers--the Blenkers?"

Mr. Welland laid down his knife and fork and
looked anxiously and incredulously across the luncheon-
table at his wife, who, adjusting her gold eye-glasses,
read aloud, in the tone of high comedy: "Professor and
Mrs. Emerson Sillerton request the pleasure of Mr. and
Mrs. Welland's company at the meeting of the Wednesday
Afternoon Club on August 25th at 3 o'clock
punctually. To meet Mrs. and the Misses Blenker.
"Red Gables, Catherine Street. R. S. V. P."

"Good gracious--" Mr. Welland gasped, as if a second
reading had been necessary to bring the monstrous
absurdity of the thing home to him.

"Poor Amy Sillerton--you never can tell what her
husband will do next," Mrs. Welland sighed. "I suppose
he's just discovered the Blenkers."

Professor Emerson Sillerton was a thorn in the side
of Newport society; and a thorn that could not be
plucked out, for it grew on a venerable and venerated
family tree. He was, as people said, a man who had
had "every advantage." His father was Sillerton Jackson's
uncle, his mother a Pennilow of Boston; on each
side there was wealth and position, and mutual
suitability. Nothing--as Mrs. Welland had often remarked--
nothing on earth obliged Emerson Sillerton to be an
archaeologist, or indeed a Professor of any sort, or to
live in Newport in winter, or do any of the other
revolutionary things that he did. But at least, if he was
going to break with tradition and flout society in the
face, he need not have married poor Amy Dagonet,
who had a right to expect "something different," and
money enough to keep her own carriage.

No one in the Mingott set could understand why
Amy Sillerton had submitted so tamely to the eccentricities
of a husband who filled the house with long-
haired men and short-haired women, and, when he
travelled, took her to explore tombs in Yucatan instead
of going to Paris or Italy. But there they were, set in
their ways, and apparently unaware that they were
different from other people; and when they gave one of
their dreary annual garden-parties every family on the
Cliffs, because of the Sillerton-Pennilow-Dagonet
connection, had to draw lots and send an unwilling
representative.

"It's a wonder," Mrs. Welland remarked, "that they
didn't choose the Cup Race day! Do you remember,
two years ago, their giving a party for a black man on
the day of Julia Mingott's the dansant? Luckily this
time there's nothing else going on that I know of--for
of course some of us will have to go."

Mr. Welland sighed nervously. "`Some of us,' my
dear--more than one? Three o'clock is such a very
awkward hour. I have to be here at half-past three to
take my drops: it's really no use trying to follow
Bencomb's new treatment if I don't do it systematically;
and if I join you later, of course I shall miss my
drive." At the thought he laid down his knife and fork
again, and a flush of anxiety rose to his finely-wrinkled
cheek.

"There's no reason why you should go at all, my
dear," his wife answered with a cheerfulness that had
become automatic. "I have some cards to leave at the
other end of Bellevue Avenue, and I'll drop in at about
half-past three and stay long enough to make poor
Amy feel that she hasn't been slighted." She glanced
hesitatingly at her daughter. "And if Newland's afternoon
is provided for perhaps May can drive you out
with the ponies, and try their new russet harness."

It was a principle in the Welland family that people's
days and hours should be what Mrs. Welland called
"provided for." The melancholy possibility of having
to "kill time" (especially for those who did not care for
whist or solitaire) was a vision that haunted her as the
spectre of the unemployed haunts the philanthropist.
Another of her principles was that parents should never
(at least visibly) interfere with the plans of their
married children; and the difficulty of adjusting this respect
for May's independence with the exigency of Mr. Welland's
claims could be overcome only by the exercise of
an ingenuity which left not a second of Mrs. Welland's
own time unprovided for.

"Of course I'll drive with Papa--I'm sure Newland
will find something to do," May said, in a tone that
gently reminded her husband of his lack of response. It
was a cause of constant distress to Mrs. Welland that
her son-in-law showed so little foresight in planning his
days. Often already, during the fortnight that he had
passed under her roof, when she enquired how he
meant to spend his afternoon, he had answered
paradoxically: "Oh, I think for a change I'll just save it
instead of spending it--" and once, when she and May
had had to go on a long-postponed round of afternoon
calls, he had confessed to having lain all the afternoon
under a rock on the beach below the house.

"Newland never seems to look ahead," Mrs. Welland
once ventured to complain to her daughter; and
May answered serenely: "No; but you see it doesn't
matter, because when there's nothing particular to do
he reads a book."

"Ah, yes--like his father!" Mrs. Welland agreed, as
if allowing for an inherited oddity; and after that the
question of Newland's unemployment was tacitly
dropped.

Nevertheless, as the day for the Sillerton reception
approached, May began to show a natural solicitude
for his welfare, and to suggest a tennis match at the
Chiverses', or a sail on Julius Beaufort's cutter, as a
means of atoning for her temporary desertion. "I shall
be back by six, you know, dear: Papa never drives later
than that--" and she was not reassured till Archer said
that he thought of hiring a run-about and driving up
the island to a stud-farm to look at a second horse for
her brougham. They had been looking for this horse
for some time, and the suggestion was so acceptable
that May glanced at her mother as if to say: "You see
he knows how to plan out his time as well as any of
us."

The idea of the stud-farm and the brougham horse
had germinated in Archer's mind on the very day when
the Emerson Sillerton invitation had first been
mentioned; but he had kept it to himself as if there were
something clandestine in the plan, and discovery might
prevent its execution. He had, however, taken the
precaution to engage in advance a runabout with a pair of
old livery-stable trotters that could still do their
eighteen miles on level roads; and at two o'clock, hastily
deserting the luncheon-table, he sprang into the light
carriage and drove off.

The day was perfect. A breeze from the north drove
little puffs of white cloud across an ultramarine sky,
with a bright sea running under it. Bellevue Avenue
was empty at that hour, and after dropping the stable-
lad at the corner of Mill Street Archer turned down
the Old Beach Road and drove across Eastman's Beach.

He had the feeling of unexplained excitement with
which, on half-holidays at school, he used to start off
into the unknown. Taking his pair at an easy gait, he
counted on reaching the stud-farm, which was not far
beyond Paradise Rocks, before three o'clock; so that,
after looking over the horse (and trying him if he
seemed promising) he would still have four golden
hours to dispose of.

As soon as he heard of the Sillerton's party he had
said to himself that the Marchioness Manson would
certainly come to Newport with the Blenkers, and that
Madame Olenska might again take the opportunity of
spending the day with her grandmother. At any rate,
the Blenker habitation would probably be deserted,
and he would be able, without indiscretion, to satisfy a
vague curiosity concerning it. He was not sure that he
wanted to see the Countess Olenska again; but ever
since he had looked at her from the path above the bay
he had wanted, irrationally and indescribably, to see
the place she was living in, and to follow the movements
of her imagined figure as he had watched the
real one in the summer-house. The longing was with
him day and night, an incessant undefinable craving,
like the sudden whim of a sick man for food or drink
once tasted and long since forgotten. He could not see
beyond the craving, or picture what it might lead to,
for he was not conscious of any wish to speak to
Madame Olenska or to hear her voice. He simply felt
that if he could carry away the vision of the spot of
earth she walked on, and the way the sky and sea
enclosed it, the rest of the world might seem less empty.

When he reached the stud-farm a glance showed him
that the horse was not what he wanted; nevertheless he
took a turn behind it in order to prove to himself that
he was not in a hurry. But at three o'clock he shook
out the reins over the trotters and turned into the
by-roads leading to Portsmouth. The wind had dropped
and a faint haze on the horizon showed that a fog was
waiting to steal up the Saconnet on the turn of the tide;
but all about him fields and woods were steeped in
golden light.

He drove past grey-shingled farm-houses in orchards,
past hay-fields and groves of oak, past villages with
white steeples rising sharply into the fading sky; and at
last, after stopping to ask the way of some men at
work in a field, he turned down a lane between high
banks of goldenrod and brambles. At the end of the
lane was the blue glimmer of the river; to the left,
standing in front of a clump of oaks and maples, he
saw a long tumble-down house with white paint peeling
from its clapboards.

On the road-side facing the gateway stood one of the
open sheds in which the New Englander shelters his
farming implements and visitors "hitch" their "teams."
Archer, jumping down, led his pair into the shed, and
after tying them to a post turned toward the house.
The patch of lawn before it had relapsed into a hay-
field; but to the left an overgrown box-garden full of
dahlias and rusty rose-bushes encircled a ghostly summer-
house of trellis-work that had once been white,
surmounted by a wooden Cupid who had lost his bow
and arrow but continued to take ineffectual aim.

Archer leaned for a while against the gate. No one
was in sight, and not a sound came from the open
windows of the house: a grizzled Newfoundland dozing
before the door seemed as ineffectual a guardian as
the arrowless Cupid. It was strange to think that this
place of silence and decay was the home of the turbulent
Blenkers; yet Archer was sure that he was not
mistaken.

For a long time he stood there, content to take in the
scene, and gradually falling under its drowsy spell; but
at length he roused himself to the sense of the passing
time. Should he look his fill and then drive away? He
stood irresolute, wishing suddenly to see the inside of
the house, so that he might picture the room that
Madame Olenska sat in. There was nothing to prevent
his walking up to the door and ringing the bell; if, as
he supposed, she was away with the rest of the party,
he could easily give his name, and ask permission to go
into the sitting-room to write a message.

But instead, he crossed the lawn and turned toward
the box-garden. As he entered it he caught sight of
something bright-coloured in the summer-house, and
presently made it out to be a pink parasol. The parasol
drew him like a magnet: he was sure it was hers. He
went into the summer-house, and sitting down on the
rickety seat picked up the silken thing and looked at its
carved handle, which was made of some rare wood
that gave out an aromatic scent. Archer lifted the handle
to his lips.

He heard a rustle of skirts against the box, and sat
motionless, leaning on the parasol handle with clasped
hands, and letting the rustle come nearer without lifting
his eyes. He had always known that this must
happen . . .

"Oh, Mr. Archer!" exclaimed a loud young voice;
and looking up he saw before him the youngest and
largest of the Blenker girls, blonde and blowsy, in
bedraggled muslin. A red blotch on one of her cheeks
seemed to show that it had recently been pressed against
a pillow, and her half-awakened eyes stared at him
hospitably but confusedly.

"Gracious--where did you drop from? I must have
been sound asleep in the hammock. Everybody else has
gone to Newport. Did you ring?" she incoherently
enquired.

Archer's confusion was greater than hers. "I--no--
that is, I was just going to. I had to come up the island
to see about a horse, and I drove over on a chance of
finding Mrs. Blenker and your visitors. But the house
seemed empty--so I sat down to wait."

Miss Blenker, shaking off the fumes of sleep, looked
at him with increasing interest. "The house IS empty.
Mother's not here, or the Marchioness--or anybody
but me." Her glance became faintly reproachful. "Didn't
you know that Professor and Mrs. Sillerton are giving a
garden-party for mother and all of us this afternoon? It
was too unlucky that I couldn't go; but I've had a sore
throat, and mother was afraid of the drive home this
evening. Did you ever know anything so disappointing?
Of course," she added gaily, "I shouldn't have minded
half as much if I'd known you were coming."

Symptoms of a lumbering coquetry became visible in
her, and Archer found the strength to break in: "But
Madame Olenska--has she gone to Newport too?"

Miss Blenker looked at him with surprise. "Madame
Olenska--didn't you know she'd been called away?"

"Called away?--"

"Oh, my best parasol! I lent it to that goose of a
Katie, because it matched her ribbons, and the careless
thing must have dropped it here. We Blenkers are all
like that . . . real Bohemians!" Recovering the
sunshade with a powerful hand she unfurled it and
suspended its rosy dome above her head. "Yes, Ellen was
called away yesterday: she lets us call her Ellen, you
know. A telegram came from Boston: she said she
might be gone for two days. I do LOVE the way she does
her hair, don't you?" Miss Blenker rambled on.

Archer continued to stare through her as though she
had been transparent. All he saw was the trumpery
parasol that arched its pinkness above her giggling
head.

After a moment he ventured: "You don't happen to
know why Madame Olenska went to Boston? I hope it
was not on account of bad news?"

Miss Blenker took this with a cheerful incredulity.
"Oh, I don't believe so. She didn't tell us what was in
the telegram. I think she didn't want the Marchioness
to know. She's so romantic-looking, isn't she? Doesn't
she remind you of Mrs. Scott-Siddons when she reads
`Lady Geraldine's Courtship'? Did you never hear her?"

Archer was dealing hurriedly with crowding thoughts.
His whole future seemed suddenly to be unrolled
before him; and passing down its endless emptiness he
saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing
was ever to happen. He glanced about him at the
unpruned garden, the tumble-down house, and the oak-
grove under which the dusk was gathering. It had
seemed so exactly the place in which he ought to have
found Madame Olenska; and she was far away, and
even the pink sunshade was not hers . . .

He frowned and hesitated. "You don't know, I
suppose-- I shall be in Boston tomorrow. If I could
manage to see her--"

He felt that Miss Blenker was losing interest in him,
though her smile persisted. "Oh, of course; how lovely
of you! She's staying at the Parker House; it must be
horrible there in this weather."

After that Archer was but intermittently aware of the
remarks they exchanged. He could only remember stoutly
resisting her entreaty that he should await the returning
family and have high tea with them before he drove
home. At length, with his hostess still at his side, he
passed out of range of the wooden Cupid, unfastened his
horses and drove off. At the turn of the lane he saw Miss
Blenker standing at the gate and waving the pink parasol.





The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Category:
General Fiction
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