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Chapter XXVI

Every year on the fifteenth of October Fifth Avenue
opened its shutters, unrolled its carpets and hung
up its triple layer of window-curtains.

By the first of November this household ritual was
over, and society had begun to look about and take
stock of itself. By the fifteenth the season was in full
blast, Opera and theatres were putting forth their new
attractions, dinner-engagements were accumulating, and
dates for dances being fixed. And punctually at about
this time Mrs. Archer always said that New York was
very much changed.

Observing it from the lofty stand-point of a non-
participant, she was able, with the help of Mr. Sillerton
Jackson and Miss Sophy, to trace each new crack in its
surface, and all the strange weeds pushing up between
the ordered rows of social vegetables. It had been one
of the amusements of Archer's youth to wait for this
annual pronouncement of his mother's, and to hear her
enumerate the minute signs of disintegration that his
careless gaze had overlooked. For New York, to Mrs.
Archer's mind, never changed without changing for the
worse; and in this view Miss Sophy Jackson heartily

Mr. Sillerton Jackson, as became a man of the world,
suspended his judgment and listened with an amused
impartiality to the lamentations of the ladies. But even
he never denied that New York had changed; and
Newland Archer, in the winter of the second year of his
marriage, was himself obliged to admit that if it had
not actually changed it was certainly changing.

These points had been raised, as usual, at Mrs.
Archer's Thanksgiving dinner. At the date when she was
officially enjoined to give thanks for the blessings of
the year it was her habit to take a mournful though not
embittered stock of her world, and wonder what there
was to be thankful for. At any rate, not the state of
society; society, if it could be said to exist, was rather a
spectacle on which to call down Biblical imprecations--
and in fact, every one knew what the Reverend Dr.
Ashmore meant when he chose a text from Jeremiah
(chap. ii., verse 25) for his Thanksgiving sermon.
Dr. Ashmore, the new Rector of St. Matthew's, had
been chosen because he was very "advanced": his
sermons were considered bold in thought and novel in
language. When he fulminated against fashionable society
he always spoke of its "trend"; and to Mrs. Archer
it was terrifying and yet fascinating to feel herself part
of a community that was trending.

"There's no doubt that Dr. Ashmore is right: there IS
a marked trend," she said, as if it were something
visible and measurable, like a crack in a house.

"It was odd, though, to preach about it on Thanksgiving,"
Miss Jackson opined; and her hostess drily
rejoined: "Oh, he means us to give thanks for what's

Archer had been wont to smile at these annual
vaticinations of his mother's; but this year even he was
obliged to acknowledge, as he listened to an enumeration
of the changes, that the "trend" was visible.

"The extravagance in dress--" Miss Jackson began.
"Sillerton took me to the first night of the Opera, and I
can only tell you that Jane Merry's dress was the only
one I recognised from last year; and even that had had
the front panel changed. Yet I know she got it out from
Worth only two years ago, because my seamstress always
goes in to make over her Paris dresses before she
wears them."

"Ah, Jane Merry is one of US," said Mrs. Archer
sighing, as if it were not such an enviable thing to be in
an age when ladies were beginning to flaunt abroad
their Paris dresses as soon as they were out of the
Custom House, instead of letting them mellow under
lock and key, in the manner of Mrs. Archer's contemporaries.

"Yes; she's one of the few. In my youth," Miss
Jackson rejoined, "it was considered vulgar to dress in
the newest fashions; and Amy Sillerton has always told
me that in Boston the rule was to put away one's Paris
dresses for two years. Old Mrs. Baxter Pennilow, who
did everything handsomely, used to import twelve a
year, two velvet, two satin, two silk, and the other six
of poplin and the finest cashmere. It was a standing
order, and as she was ill for two years before she died
they found forty-eight Worth dresses that had never
been taken out of tissue paper; and when the girls left
off their mourning they were able to wear the first lot
at the Symphony concerts without looking in advance
of the fashion."

"Ah, well, Boston is more conservative than New
York; but I always think it's a safe rule for a lady to
lay aside her French dresses for one season," Mrs.
Archer conceded.

"It was Beaufort who started the new fashion by
making his wife clap her new clothes on her back as
soon as they arrived: I must say at times it takes all
Regina's distinction not to look like . . . like . . ." Miss
Jackson glanced around the table, caught Janey's bulging
gaze, and took refuge in an unintelligible murmur.

"Like her rivals," said Mr. Sillerton Jackson, with
the air of producing an epigram.

"Oh,--" the ladies murmured; and Mrs. Archer added,
partly to distract her daughter's attention from forbidden
topics: "Poor Regina! Her Thanksgiving hasn't
been a very cheerful one, I'm afraid. Have you heard
the rumours about Beaufort's speculations, Sillerton?"

Mr. Jackson nodded carelessly. Every one had heard
the rumours in question, and he scorned to confirm a
tale that was already common property.

A gloomy silence fell upon the party. No one really
liked Beaufort, and it was not wholly unpleasant to
think the worst of his private life; but the idea of his
having brought financial dishonour on his wife's family
was too shocking to be enjoyed even by his enemies.
Archer's New York tolerated hypocrisy in private relations;
but in business matters it exacted a limpid and
impeccable honesty. It was a long time since any well-
known banker had failed discreditably; but every one
remembered the social extinction visited on the heads
of the firm when the last event of the kind had
happened. It would be the same with the Beauforts, in spite
of his power and her popularity; not all the leagued
strength of the Dallas connection would save poor
Regina if there were any truth in the reports of her
husband's unlawful speculations.

The talk took refuge in less ominous topics; but
everything they touched on seemed to confirm Mrs.
Archer's sense of an accelerated trend.

"Of course, Newland, I know you let dear May go
to Mrs. Struthers's Sunday evenings--" she began; and
May interposed gaily: "Oh, you know, everybody goes
to Mrs. Struthers's now; and she was invited to Granny's
last reception."

It was thus, Archer reflected, that New York
managed its transitions: conspiring to ignore them till they
were well over, and then, in all good faith, imagining
that they had taken place in a preceding age. There was
always a traitor in the citadel; and after he (or generally
she) had surrendered the keys, what was the use of
pretending that it was impregnable? Once people had
tasted of Mrs. Struthers's easy Sunday hospitality they
were not likely to sit at home remembering that her
champagne was transmuted Shoe-Polish.

"I know, dear, I know," Mrs. Archer sighed. "Such
things have to be, I suppose, as long as AMUSEMENT is
what people go out for; but I've never quite forgiven
your cousin Madame Olenska for being the first person
to countenance Mrs. Struthers."

A sudden blush rose to young Mrs. Archer's face; it
surprised her husband as much as the other guests
about the table. "Oh, ELLEN--" she murmured, much in
the same accusing and yet deprecating tone in which
her parents might have said: "Oh, THE BLENKERS--."

It was the note which the family had taken to sounding
on the mention of the Countess Olenska's name,
since she had surprised and inconvenienced them by
remaining obdurate to her husband's advances; but on
May's lips it gave food for thought, and Archer looked
at her with the sense of strangeness that sometimes
came over him when she was most in the tone of her

His mother, with less than her usual sensitiveness to
atmosphere, still insisted: "I've always thought that
people like the Countess Olenska, who have lived in
aristocratic societies, ought to help us to keep up our
social distinctions, instead of ignoring them."

May's blush remained permanently vivid: it seemed
to have a significance beyond that implied by the
recognition of Madame Olenska's social bad faith.

"I've no doubt we all seem alike to foreigners," said
Miss Jackson tartly.

"I don't think Ellen cares for society; but nobody
knows exactly what she does care for," May continued,
as if she had been groping for something noncommittal.

"Ah, well--" Mrs. Archer sighed again.

Everybody knew that the Countess Olenska was no
longer in the good graces of her family. Even her
devoted champion, old Mrs. Manson Mingott, had been
unable to defend her refusal to return to her husband.
The Mingotts had not proclaimed their disapproval
aloud: their sense of solidarity was too strong. They
had simply, as Mrs. Welland said, "let poor Ellen find
her own level"--and that, mortifyingly and
incomprehensibly, was in the dim depths where the Blenkers
prevailed, and "people who wrote" celebrated their
untidy rites. It was incredible, but it was a fact, that
Ellen, in spite of all her opportunities and her privileges,
had become simply "Bohemian." The fact enforced
the contention that she had made a fatal mistake
in not returning to Count Olenski. After all, a young
woman's place was under her husband's roof, especially
when she had left it in circumstances that . . .
well . . . if one had cared to look into them . . .

"Madame Olenska is a great favourite with the
gentlemen," said Miss Sophy, with her air of wishing to
put forth something conciliatory when she knew that
she was planting a dart.

"Ah, that's the danger that a young woman like
Madame Olenska is always exposed to," Mrs. Archer
mournfully agreed; and the ladies, on this conclusion,
gathered up their trains to seek the carcel globes of the
drawing-room, while Archer and Mr. Sillerton Jackson
withdrew to the Gothic library.

Once established before the grate, and consoling
himself for the inadequacy of the dinner by the perfection
of his cigar, Mr. Jackson became portentous and

"If the Beaufort smash comes," he announced, "there
are going to be disclosures."

Archer raised his head quickly: he could never hear
the name without the sharp vision of Beaufort's heavy
figure, opulently furred and shod, advancing through
the snow at Skuytercliff.

"There's bound to be," Mr. Jackson continued, "the
nastiest kind of a cleaning up. He hasn't spent all his
money on Regina."

"Oh, well--that's discounted, isn't it? My belief is
he'll pull out yet," said the young man, wanting to
change the subject.

"Perhaps--perhaps. I know he was to see some of
the influential people today. Of course," Mr. Jackson
reluctantly conceded, "it's to be hoped they can tide
him over--this time anyhow. I shouldn't like to think
of poor Regina's spending the rest of her life in some
shabby foreign watering-place for bankrupts."

Archer said nothing. It seemed to him so natural--
however tragic--that money ill-gotten should be cruelly
expiated, that his mind, hardly lingering over Mrs.
Beaufort's doom, wandered back to closer questions.
What was the meaning of May's blush when the Countess
Olenska had been mentioned?

Four months had passed since the midsummer day
that he and Madame Olenska had spent together; and
since then he had not seen her. He knew that she had
returned to Washington, to the little house which she
and Medora Manson had taken there: he had written
to her once--a few words, asking when they were to
meet again--and she had even more briefly replied:
"Not yet."

Since then there had been no farther communication
between them, and he had built up within himself a
kind of sanctuary in which she throned among his
secret thoughts and longings. Little by little it became
the scene of his real life, of his only rational activities;
thither he brought the books he read, the ideas and
feelings which nourished him, his judgments and his
visions. Outside it, in the scene of his actual life, he
moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency,
blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional
points of view as an absent-minded man goes
on bumping into the furniture of his own room.
Absent--that was what he was: so absent from everything
most densely real and near to those about him
that it sometimes startled him to find they still
imagined he was there.

He became aware that Mr. Jackson was clearing his
throat preparatory to farther revelations.

"I don't know, of course, how far your wife's family
are aware of what people say about--well, about Madame
Olenska's refusal to accept her husband's latest

Archer was silent, and Mr. Jackson obliquely continued:
"It's a pity--it's certainly a pity--that she refused

"A pity? In God's name, why?"

Mr. Jackson looked down his leg to the unwrinkled
sock that joined it to a glossy pump.

"Well--to put it on the lowest ground--what's she
going to live on now?"


"If Beaufort--"

Archer sprang up, his fist banging down on the black
walnut-edge of the writing-table. The wells of the brass
double-inkstand danced in their sockets.

"What the devil do you mean, sir?"

Mr. Jackson, shifting himself slightly in his chair,
turned a tranquil gaze on the young man's burning

"Well--I have it on pretty good authority--in fact,
on old Catherine's herself--that the family reduced
Countess Olenska's allowance considerably when she
definitely refused to go back to her husband; and as, by
this refusal, she also forfeits the money settled on her
when she married--which Olenski was ready to make
over to her if she returned--why, what the devil do YOU
mean, my dear boy, by asking me what I mean?" Mr.
Jackson good-humouredly retorted.

Archer moved toward the mantelpiece and bent over
to knock his ashes into the grate.

"I don't know anything of Madame Olenska's private
affairs; but I don't need to, to be certain that what
you insinuate--"

"Oh, I don't: it's Lefferts, for one," Mr. Jackson

"Lefferts--who made love to her and got snubbed
for it!" Archer broke out contemptuously.

"Ah--DID he?" snapped the other, as if this were
exactly the fact he had been laying a trap for. He still
sat sideways from the fire, so that his hard old gaze
held Archer's face as if in a spring of steel.

"Well, well: it's a pity she didn't go back before
Beaufort's cropper," he repeated. "If she goes NOW, and
if he fails, it will only confirm the general impression:
which isn't by any means peculiar to Lefferts, by the

"Oh, she won't go back now: less than ever!" Archer
had no sooner said it than he had once more the feeling
that it was exactly what Mr. Jackson had been waiting

The old gentleman considered him attentively. "That's
your opinion, eh? Well, no doubt you know. But everybody
will tell you that the few pennies Medora Manson
has left are all in Beaufort's hands; and how the
two women are to keep their heads above water unless
he does, I can't imagine. Of course, Madame Olenska
may still soften old Catherine, who's been the most
inexorably opposed to her staying; and old Catherine
could make her any allowance she chooses. But we all
know that she hates parting with good money; and the
rest of the family have no particular interest in keeping
Madame Olenska here."

Archer was burning with unavailing wrath: he was
exactly in the state when a man is sure to do something
stupid, knowing all the while that he is doing it.

He saw that Mr. Jackson had been instantly struck
by the fact that Madame Olenska's differences with her
grandmother and her other relations were not known
to him, and that the old gentleman had drawn his own
conclusions as to the reasons for Archer's exclusion
from the family councils. This fact warned Archer to
go warily; but the insinuations about Beaufort made
him reckless. He was mindful, however, if not of his
own danger, at least of the fact that Mr. Jackson was
under his mother's roof, and consequently his guest.
Old New York scrupulously observed the etiquette of
hospitality, and no discussion with a guest was ever
allowed to degenerate into a disagreement.

"Shall we go up and join my mother?" he suggested
curtly, as Mr. Jackson's last cone of ashes dropped into
the brass ashtray at his elbow.

On the drive homeward May remained oddly silent;
through the darkness, he still felt her enveloped in her
menacing blush. What its menace meant he could not
guess: but he was sufficiently warned by the fact that
Madame Olenska's name had evoked it.

They went upstairs, and he turned into the library.
She usually followed him; but he heard her passing
down the passage to her bedroom.

"May!" he called out impatiently; and she came
back, with a slight glance of surprise at his tone.

"This lamp is smoking again; I should think the
servants might see that it's kept properly trimmed," he
grumbled nervously.

"I'm so sorry: it shan't happen again," she answered,
in the firm bright tone she had learned from her mother;
and it exasperated Archer to feel that she was already
beginning to humour him like a younger Mr. Welland.
She bent over to lower the wick, and as the light struck
up on her white shoulders and the clear curves of her
face he thought: "How young she is! For what endless
years this life will have to go on!"

He felt, with a kind of horror, his own strong youth
and the bounding blood in his veins. "Look here," he
said suddenly, "I may have to go to Washington for a
few days--soon; next week perhaps."

Her hand remained on the key of the lamp as she
turned to him slowly. The heat from its flame had
brought back a glow to her face, but it paled as she
looked up.

"On business?" she asked, in a tone which implied
that there could be no other conceivable reason, and
that she had put the question automatically, as if merely
to finish his own sentence.

"On business, naturally. There's a patent case coming
up before the Supreme Court--" He gave the name
of the inventor, and went on furnishing details with all
Lawrence Lefferts's practised glibness, while she listened
attentively, saying at intervals: "Yes, I see."

"The change will do you good," she said simply,
when he had finished; "and you must be sure to go and
see Ellen," she added, looking him straight in the eyes
with her cloudless smile, and speaking in the tone she
might have employed in urging him not to neglect some
irksome family duty.

It was the only word that passed between them on
the subject; but in the code in which they had both
been trained it meant: "Of course you understand that
I know all that people have been saying about Ellen,
and heartily sympathise with my family in their effort
to get her to return to her husband. I also know that,
for some reason you have not chosen to tell me, you
have advised her against this course, which all the older
men of the family, as well as our grandmother, agree in
approving; and that it is owing to your encouragement
that Ellen defies us all, and exposes herself to the kind
of criticism of which Mr. Sillerton Jackson probably
gave you, this evening, the hint that has made you so
irritable. . . . Hints have indeed not been wanting; but
since you appear unwilling to take them from others, I
offer you this one myself, in the only form in which
well-bred people of our kind can communicate
unpleasant things to each other: by letting you understand
that I know you mean to see Ellen when you are in
Washington, and are perhaps going there expressly for
that purpose; and that, since you are sure to see her, I
wish you to do so with my full and explicit approval--
and to take the opportunity of letting her know what
the course of conduct you have encouraged her in is
likely to lead to."

Her hand was still on the key of the lamp when the
last word of this mute message reached him. She turned
the wick down, lifted off the globe, and breathed on
the sulky flame.

"They smell less if one blows them out," she explained,
with her bright housekeeping air. On the threshold
she turned and paused for his kiss.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
General Fiction
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