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Chapter XXVIII

Ol-ol--howjer spell it, anyhow?" asked the tart
young lady to whom Archer had pushed his wife's
telegram across the brass ledge of the Western Union

"Olenska--O-len-ska," he repeated, drawing back
the message in order to print out the foreign syllables
above May's rambling script.

"It's an unlikely name for a New York telegraph
office; at least in this quarter," an unexpected voice
observed; and turning around Archer saw Lawrence
Lefferts at his elbow, pulling an imperturbable moustache
and affecting not to glance at the message.

"Hallo, Newland: thought I'd catch you here. I've
just heard of old Mrs. Mingott's stroke; and as I was
on my way to the house I saw you turning down this
street and nipped after you. I suppose you've come
from there?"

Archer nodded, and pushed his telegram under the

"Very bad, eh?" Lefferts continued. "Wiring to the
family, I suppose. I gather it IS bad, if you're including
Countess Olenska."

Archer's lips stiffened; he felt a savage impulse to
dash his fist into the long vain handsome face at his side.

"Why?" he questioned.

Lefferts, who was known to shrink from discussion,
raised his eye-brows with an ironic grimace that warned
the other of the watching damsel behind the lattice.
Nothing could be worse "form" the look reminded
Archer, than any display of temper in a public place.

Archer had never been more indifferent to the
requirements of form; but his impulse to do Lawrence
Lefferts a physical injury was only momentary. The
idea of bandying Ellen Olenska's name with him at
such a time, and on whatsoever provocation, was
unthinkable. He paid for his telegram, and the two young
men went out together into the street. There Archer,
having regained his self-control, went on: "Mrs. Mingott
is much better: the doctor feels no anxiety whatever";
and Lefferts, with profuse expressions of relief,
asked him if he had heard that there were beastly bad
rumours again about Beaufort. . . .

That afternoon the announcement of the Beaufort failure
was in all the papers. It overshadowed the report of
Mrs. Manson Mingott's stroke, and only the few who
had heard of the mysterious connection between the
two events thought of ascribing old Catherine's illness
to anything but the accumulation of flesh and years.

The whole of New York was darkened by the tale of
Beaufort's dishonour. There had never, as Mr. Letterblair
said, been a worse case in his memory, nor, for that
matter, in the memory of the far-off Letterblair who
had given his name to the firm. The bank had continued
to take in money for a whole day after its failure
was inevitable; and as many of its clients belonged to
one or another of the ruling clans, Beaufort's duplicity
seemed doubly cynical. If Mrs. Beaufort had not taken
the tone that such misfortunes (the word was her own)
were "the test of friendship," compassion for her might
have tempered the general indignation against her husband.
As it was--and especially after the object of her
nocturnal visit to Mrs. Manson Mingott had become
known--her cynicism was held to exceed his; and she
had not the excuse--nor her detractors the satisfaction--
of pleading that she was "a foreigner." It was some
comfort (to those whose securities were not in jeopardy)
to be able to remind themselves that Beaufort
WAS; but, after all, if a Dallas of South Carolina took
his view of the case, and glibly talked of his soon being
"on his feet again," the argument lost its edge, and
there was nothing to do but to accept this awful evidence
of the indissolubility of marriage. Society must
manage to get on without the Beauforts, and there was
an end of it--except indeed for such hapless victims of
the disaster as Medora Manson, the poor old Miss
Lannings, and certain other misguided ladies of good
family who, if only they had listened to Mr. Henry van
der Luyden . . .

"The best thing the Beauforts can do," said Mrs.
Archer, summing it up as if she were pronouncing a
diagnosis and prescribing a course of treatment, "is to
go and live at Regina's little place in North Carolina.
Beaufort has always kept a racing stable, and he had
better breed trotting horses. I should say he had all the
qualities of a successful horsedealer." Every one agreed
with her, but no one condescended to enquire what the
Beauforts really meant to do.

The next day Mrs. Manson Mingott was much better:
she recovered her voice sufficiently to give orders
that no one should mention the Beauforts to her again,
and asked--when Dr. Bencomb appeared--what in the
world her family meant by making such a fuss about
her health.

"If people of my age WILL eat chicken-salad in the
evening what are they to expect?" she enquired; and,
the doctor having opportunely modified her dietary,
the stroke was transformed into an attack of indigestion.
But in spite of her firm tone old Catherine did not
wholly recover her former attitude toward life. The
growing remoteness of old age, though it had not
diminished her curiosity about her neighbours, had blunted
her never very lively compassion for their troubles; and
she seemed to have no difficulty in putting the Beaufort
disaster out of her mind. But for the first time she
became absorbed in her own symptoms, and began to
take a sentimental interest in certain members of her
family to whom she had hitherto been contemptuously

Mr. Welland, in particular, had the privilege of
attracting her notice. Of her sons-in-law he was the one
she had most consistently ignored; and all his wife's
efforts to represent him as a man of forceful character
and marked intellectual ability (if he had only "chosen")
had been met with a derisive chuckle. But his
eminence as a valetudinarian now made him an object
of engrossing interest, and Mrs. Mingott issued an
imperial summons to him to come and compare diets
as soon as his temperature permitted; for old Catherine
was now the first to recognise that one could not be
too careful about temperatures.

Twenty-four hours after Madame Olenska's summons
a telegram announced that she would arrive from Washington
on the evening of the following day. At the
Wellands', where the Newland Archers chanced to be
lunching, the question as to who should meet her at
Jersey City was immediately raised; and the material
difficulties amid which the Welland household struggled
as if it had been a frontier outpost, lent animation
to the debate. It was agreed that Mrs. Welland could
not possibly go to Jersey City because she was to
accompany her husband to old Catherine's that afternoon,
and the brougham could not be spared, since, if
Mr. Welland were "upset" by seeing his mother-in-law
for the first time after her attack, he might have to be
taken home at a moment's notice. The Welland sons
would of course be "down town," Mr. Lovell Mingott
would be just hurrying back from his shooting, and the
Mingott carriage engaged in meeting him; and one
could not ask May, at the close of a winter afternoon,
to go alone across the ferry to Jersey City, even in her
own carriage. Nevertheless, it might appear inhospitable
--and contrary to old Catherine's express wishes--if
Madame Olenska were allowed to arrive without any
of the family being at the station to receive her. It was
just like Ellen, Mrs. Welland's tired voice implied, to
place the family in such a dilemma. "It's always one
thing after another," the poor lady grieved, in one of
her rare revolts against fate; "the only thing that makes
me think Mamma must be less well than Dr. Bencomb
will admit is this morbid desire to have Ellen come at
once, however inconvenient it is to meet her."

The words had been thoughtless, as the utterances of
impatience often are; and Mr. Welland was upon them
with a pounce.

"Augusta," he said, turning pale and laying down his
fork, "have you any other reason for thinking that
Bencomb is less to be relied on than he was? Have you
noticed that he has been less conscientious than usual
in following up my case or your mother's?"

It was Mrs. Welland's turn to grow pale as the
endless consequences of her blunder unrolled themselves
before her; but she managed to laugh, and take a
second helping of scalloped oysters, before she said,
struggling back into her old armour of cheerfulness:
"My dear, how could you imagine such a thing? I only
meant that, after the decided stand Mamma took about
its being Ellen's duty to go back to her husband, it
seems strange that she should be seized with this sudden
whim to see her, when there are half a dozen other
grandchildren that she might have asked for. But we
must never forget that Mamma, in spite of her wonderful
vitality, is a very old woman."

Mr. Welland's brow remained clouded, and it was
evident that his perturbed imagination had fastened at
once on this last remark. "Yes: your mother's a very
old woman; and for all we know Bencomb may not be
as successful with very old people. As you say, my
dear, it's always one thing after another; and in
another ten or fifteen years I suppose I shall have the
pleasing duty of looking about for a new doctor. It's
always better to make such a change before it's absolutely
necessary." And having arrived at this Spartan
decision Mr. Welland firmly took up his fork.

"But all the while," Mrs. Welland began again, as
she rose from the luncheon-table, and led the way into
the wilderness of purple satin and malachite known as
the back drawing-room, "I don't see how Ellen's to be
got here tomorrow evening; and I do like to have
things settled for at least twenty-four hours ahead."

Archer turned from the fascinated contemplation of
a small painting representing two Cardinals carousing,
in an octagonal ebony frame set with medallions of onyx.

"Shall I fetch her?" he proposed. "I can easily get
away from the office in time to meet the brougham at
the ferry, if May will send it there." His heart was
beating excitedly as he spoke.

Mrs. Welland heaved a sigh of gratitude, and May, who
had moved away to the window, turned to shed on him
a beam of approval. "So you see, Mamma, everything
WILL be settled twenty-four hours in advance," she said,
stooping over to kiss her mother's troubled forehead.

May's brougham awaited her at the door, and she was
to drive Archer to Union Square, where he could pick
up a Broadway car to carry him to the office. As she
settled herself in her corner she said: "I didn't want to
worry Mamma by raising fresh obstacles; but how can
you meet Ellen tomorrow, and bring her back to New
York, when you're going to Washington?"

"Oh, I'm not going," Archer answered.

"Not going? Why, what's happened?" Her voice was
as clear as a bell, and full of wifely solicitude.

"The case is off--postponed."

"Postponed? How odd! I saw a note this morning
from Mr. Letterblair to Mamma saying that he was
going to Washington tomorrow for the big patent case
that he was to argue before the Supreme Court. You
said it was a patent case, didn't you?"

"Well--that's it: the whole office can't go. Letterblair
decided to go this morning."

"Then it's NOT postponed?" she continued, with an
insistence so unlike her that he felt the blood rising to
his face, as if he were blushing for her unwonted lapse
from all the traditional delicacies.

"No: but my going is," he answered, cursing the
unnecessary explanations that he had given when he
had announced his intention of going to Washington,
and wondering where he had read that clever liars give
details, but that the cleverest do not. It did not hurt
him half as much to tell May an untruth as to see her
trying to pretend that she had not detected him.

"I'm not going till later on: luckily for the
convenience of your family," he continued, taking base
refuge in sarcasm. As he spoke he felt that she was looking
at him, and he turned his eyes to hers in order not to
appear to be avoiding them. Their glances met for a
second, and perhaps let them into each other's meanings
more deeply than either cared to go.

"Yes; it IS awfully convenient," May brightly agreed,
"that you should be able to meet Ellen after all; you
saw how much Mamma appreciated your offering to
do it."

"Oh, I'm delighted to do it." The carriage stopped,
and as he jumped out she leaned to him and laid her
hand on his. "Good-bye, dearest," she said, her eyes so
blue that he wondered afterward if they had shone on
him through tears.

He turned away and hurried across Union Square,
repeating to himself, in a sort of inward chant: "It's all
of two hours from Jersey City to old Catherine's. It's
all of two hours--and it may be more."

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
General Fiction
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