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Chapter XXVII

Wall Street, the next day, had more reassuring
reports of Beaufort's situation. They were not
definite, but they were hopeful. It was generally understood
that he could call on powerful influences in case
of emergency, and that he had done so with success;
and that evening, when Mrs. Beaufort appeared at the
Opera wearing her old smile and a new emerald necklace,
society drew a breath of relief.

New York was inexorable in its condemnation of
business irregularities. So far there had been no exception
to its tacit rule that those who broke the law of
probity must pay; and every one was aware that even
Beaufort and Beaufort's wife would be offered up
unflinchingly to this principle. But to be obliged to offer
them up would be not only painful but inconvenient.
The disappearance of the Beauforts would leave a
considerable void in their compact little circle; and those
who were too ignorant or too careless to shudder at the
moral catastrophe bewailed in advance the loss of the
best ball-room in New York.

Archer had definitely made up his mind to go to
Washington. He was waiting only for the opening of
the law-suit of which he had spoken to May, so that its
date might coincide with that of his visit; but on the
following Tuesday he learned from Mr. Letterblair that
the case might be postponed for several weeks. Nevertheless,
he went home that afternoon determined in any
event to leave the next evening. The chances were that
May, who knew nothing of his professional life, and
had never shown any interest in it, would not learn of
the postponement, should it take place, nor remember
the names of the litigants if they were mentioned before
her; and at any rate he could no longer put off seeing
Madame Olenska. There were too many things that he
must say to her.

On the Wednesday morning, when he reached his
office, Mr. Letterblair met him with a troubled face.
Beaufort, after all, had not managed to "tide over";
but by setting afloat the rumour that he had done so he
had reassured his depositors, and heavy payments had
poured into the bank till the previous evening, when
disturbing reports again began to predominate. In
consequence, a run on the bank had begun, and its doors
were likely to close before the day was over. The ugliest
things were being said of Beaufort's dastardly
manoeuvre, and his failure promised to be one of the
most discreditable in the history of Wall Street.

The extent of the calamity left Mr. Letterblair white
and incapacitated. "I've seen bad things in my time;
but nothing as bad as this. Everybody we know will be
hit, one way or another. And what will be done about
Mrs. Beaufort? What CAN be done about her? I pity
Mrs. Manson Mingott as much as anybody: coming at
her age, there's no knowing what effect this affair may
have on her. She always believed in Beaufort--she made
a friend of him! And there's the whole Dallas connection:
poor Mrs. Beaufort is related to every one of you.
Her only chance would be to leave her husband--yet
how can any one tell her so? Her duty is at his side;
and luckily she seems always to have been blind to his
private weaknesses."

There was a knock, and Mr. Letterblair turned his
head sharply. "What is it? I can't be disturbed."

A clerk brought in a letter for Archer and withdrew.
Recognising his wife's hand, the young man opened
the envelope and read: "Won't you please come up
town as early as you can? Granny had a slight stroke
last night. In some mysterious way she found out before
any one else this awful news about the bank.
Uncle Lovell is away shooting, and the idea of the
disgrace has made poor Papa so nervous that he has a
temperature and can't leave his room. Mamma needs
you dreadfully, and I do hope you can get away at once
and go straight to Granny's."

Archer handed the note to his senior partner, and a
few minutes later was crawling northward in a crowded
horse-car, which he exchanged at Fourteenth Street for
one of the high staggering omnibuses of the Fifth Avenue
line. It was after twelve o'clock when this laborious
vehicle dropped him at old Catherine's. The
sitting-room window on the ground floor, where she
usually throned, was tenanted by the inadequate figure
of her daughter, Mrs. Welland, who signed a haggard
welcome as she caught sight of Archer; and at the door
he was met by May. The hall wore the unnatural
appearance peculiar to well-kept houses suddenly
invaded by illness: wraps and furs lay in heaps on the
chairs, a doctor's bag and overcoat were on the table,
and beside them letters and cards had already piled up
unheeded.

May looked pale but smiling: Dr. Bencomb, who
had just come for the second time, took a more hopeful
view, and Mrs. Mingott's dauntless determination to
live and get well was already having an effect on her
family. May led Archer into the old lady's sitting-room,
where the sliding doors opening into the bedroom had
been drawn shut, and the heavy yellow damask portieres
dropped over them; and here Mrs. Welland communicated
to him in horrified undertones the details of
the catastrophe. It appeared that the evening before
something dreadful and mysterious had happened. At
about eight o'clock, just after Mrs. Mingott had finished
the game of solitaire that she always played after
dinner, the door-bell had rung, and a lady so thickly
veiled that the servants did not immediately recognise
her had asked to be received.

The butler, hearing a familiar voice, had thrown
open the sitting-room door, announcing: "Mrs. Julius
Beaufort"--and had then closed it again on the two
ladies. They must have been together, he thought, about
an hour. When Mrs. Mingott's bell rang Mrs. Beaufort
had already slipped away unseen, and the old lady,
white and vast and terrible, sat alone in her great chair,
and signed to the butler to help her into her room. She
seemed, at that time, though obviously distressed, in
complete control of her body and brain. The mulatto
maid put her to bed, brought her a cup of tea as usual,
laid everything straight in the room, and went away;
but at three in the morning the bell rang again, and the
two servants, hastening in at this unwonted summons
(for old Catherine usually slept like a baby), had found
their mistress sitting up against her pillows with a
crooked smile on her face and one little hand hanging
limp from its huge arm.

The stroke had clearly been a slight one, for she was
able to articulate and to make her wishes known; and
soon after the doctor's first visit she had begun to
regain control of her facial muscles. But the alarm had
been great; and proportionately great was the indignation
when it was gathered from Mrs. Mingott's fragmentary
phrases that Regina Beaufort had come to ask
her--incredible effrontery!--to back up her husband,
see them through--not to "desert" them, as she called
it--in fact to induce the whole family to cover and
condone their monstrous dishonour.

"I said to her: "Honour's always been honour, and
honesty honesty, in Manson Mingott's house, and will
be till I'm carried out of it feet first,'" the old woman
had stammered into her daughter's ear, in the thick
voice of the partly paralysed. "And when she said: `But
my name, Auntie--my name's Regina Dallas,' I said: `It
was Beaufort when he covered you with jewels, and it's
got to stay Beaufort now that he's covered you with
shame.'"

So much, with tears and gasps of horror, Mrs. Welland
imparted, blanched and demolished by the unwonted
obligation of having at last to fix her eyes on
the unpleasant and the discreditable. "If only I could
keep it from your father-in-law: he always says:
`Augusta, for pity's sake, don't destroy my last illusions'
--and how am I to prevent his knowing these horrors?"
the poor lady wailed.

"After all, Mamma, he won't have SEEN them," her
daughter suggested; and Mrs. Welland sighed: "Ah,
no; thank heaven he's safe in bed. And Dr. Bencomb
has promised to keep him there till poor Mamma is
better, and Regina has been got away somewhere."

Archer had seated himself near the window and was
gazing out blankly at the deserted thoroughfare. It was
evident that he had been summoned rather for the
moral support of the stricken ladies than because of
any specific aid that he could render. Mr. Lovell Mingott
had been telegraphed for, and messages were being
despatched by hand to the members of the family living
in New York; and meanwhile there was nothing to do
but to discuss in hushed tones the consequences of
Beaufort's dishonour and of his wife's unjustifiable
action.

Mrs. Lovell Mingott, who had been in another room
writing notes, presently reappeared, and added her voice
to the discussion. In THEIR day, the elder ladies agreed,
the wife of a man who had done anything disgraceful
in business had only one idea: to efface herself, to
disappear with him. "There was the case of poor Grandmamma
Spicer; your great-grandmother, May. Of
course," Mrs. Welland hastened to add, "your great-
grandfather's money difficulties were private--losses
at cards, or signing a note for somebody--I never quite
knew, because Mamma would never speak of it. But
she was brought up in the country because her mother
had to leave New York after the disgrace, whatever it
was: they lived up the Hudson alone, winter and summer,
till Mamma was sixteen. It would never have
occurred to Grandmamma Spicer to ask the family to
`countenance' her, as I understand Regina calls it; though
a private disgrace is nothing compared to the scandal
of ruining hundreds of innocent people."

"Yes, it would be more becoming in Regina to hide
her own countenance than to talk about other people's,"
Mrs. Lovell Mingott agreed. "I understand that
the emerald necklace she wore at the Opera last Friday
had been sent on approval from Ball and Black's in the
afternoon. I wonder if they'll ever get it back?"

Archer listened unmoved to the relentless chorus.
The idea of absolute financial probity as the first law of
a gentleman's code was too deeply ingrained in him for
sentimental considerations to weaken it. An adventurer
like Lemuel Struthers might build up the millions of his
Shoe Polish on any number of shady dealings; but
unblemished honesty was the noblesse oblige of old
financial New York. Nor did Mrs. Beaufort's fate greatly
move Archer. He felt, no doubt, more sorry for her
than her indignant relatives; but it seemed to him that
the tie between husband and wife, even if breakable in
prosperity, should be indissoluble in misfortune. As
Mr. Letterblair had said, a wife's place was at her
husband's side when he was in trouble; but society's
place was not at his side, and Mrs. Beaufort's cool
assumption that it was seemed almost to make her his
accomplice. The mere idea of a woman's appealing to
her family to screen her husband's business dishonour
was inadmissible, since it was the one thing that the
Family, as an institution, could not do.

The mulatto maid called Mrs. Lovell Mingott into
the hall, and the latter came back in a moment with a
frowning brow.

"She wants me to telegraph for Ellen Olenska. I had
written to Ellen, of course, and to Medora; but now it
seems that's not enough. I'm to telegraph to her
immediately, and to tell her that she's to come alone."

The announcement was received in silence. Mrs.
Welland sighed resignedly, and May rose from her seat and
went to gather up some newspapers that had been
scattered on the floor.

"I suppose it must be done," Mrs. Lovell Mingott
continued, as if hoping to be contradicted; and May
turned back toward the middle of the room.

"Of course it must be done," she said. "Granny
knows what she wants, and we must carry out all her
wishes. Shall I write the telegram for you, Auntie? If it
goes at once Ellen can probably catch tomorrow morning's
train." She pronounced the syllables of the name
with a peculiar clearness, as if she had tapped on two
silver bells.

"Well, it can't go at once. Jasper and the pantry-boy
are both out with notes and telegrams."

May turned to her husband with a smile. "But here's
Newland, ready to do anything. Will you take the
telegram, Newland? There'll be just time before luncheon."

Archer rose with a murmur of readiness, and she
seated herself at old Catherine's rosewood "Bonheur
du Jour," and wrote out the message in her large
immature hand. When it was written she blotted it
neatly and handed it to Archer.

"What a pity," she said, "that you and Ellen will
cross each other on the way!--Newland," she added,
turning to her mother and aunt, "is obliged to go to
Washington about a patent law-suit that is coming up
before the Supreme Court. I suppose Uncle Lovell will
be back by tomorrow night, and with Granny improving
so much it doesn't seem right to ask Newland to
give up an important engagement for the firm--does
it?"

She paused, as if for an answer, and Mrs. Welland
hastily declared: "Oh, of course not, darling. Your
Granny would be the last person to wish it." As Archer
left the room with the telegram, he heard his mother-in-
law add, presumably to Mrs. Lovell Mingott: "But
why on earth she should make you telegraph for Ellen
Olenska--" and May's clear voice rejoin: "Perhaps it's
to urge on her again that after all her duty is with her
husband."

The outer door closed on Archer and he walked
hastily away toward the telegraph office.





The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Category:
General Fiction
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