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Chapter XXX

That evening when Archer came down before dinner
he found the drawing-room empty.

He and May were dining alone, all the family
engagements having been postponed since Mrs. Manson
Mingott's illness; and as May was the more punctual
of the two he was surprised that she had not preceded
him. He knew that she was at home, for while he
dressed he had heard her moving about in her room;
and he wondered what had delayed her.

He had fallen into the way of dwelling on such
conjectures as a means of tying his thoughts fast to
reality. Sometimes he felt as if he had found the clue to
his father-in-law's absorption in trifles; perhaps even
Mr. Welland, long ago, had had escapes and visions,
and had conjured up all the hosts of domesticity to
defend himself against them.

When May appeared he thought she looked tired.
She had put on the low-necked and tightly-laced dinner-
dress which the Mingott ceremonial exacted on the
most informal occasions, and had built her fair hair
into its usual accumulated coils; and her face, in
contrast, was wan and almost faded. But she shone on him
with her usual tenderness, and her eyes had kept the
blue dazzle of the day before.

"What became of you, dear?" she asked. "I was
waiting at Granny's, and Ellen came alone, and said
she had dropped you on the way because you had to
rush off on business. There's nothing wrong?"

"Only some letters I'd forgotten, and wanted to get
off before dinner."

"Ah--" she said; and a moment afterward: "I'm
sorry you didn't come to Granny's--unless the letters
were urgent."

"They were," he rejoined, surprised at her insistence.
"Besides, I don't see why I should have gone to your
grandmother's. I didn't know you were there."

She turned and moved to the looking-glass above the
mantel-piece. As she stood there, lifting her long arm to
fasten a puff that had slipped from its place in her
intricate hair, Archer was struck by something languid
and inelastic in her attitude, and wondered if the deadly
monotony of their lives had laid its weight on her also.
Then he remembered that, as he had left the house that
morning, she had called over the stairs that she would
meet him at her grandmother's so that they might drive
home together. He had called back a cheery "Yes!"
and then, absorbed in other visions, had forgotten his
promise. Now he was smitten with compunction, yet
irritated that so trifling an omission should be stored
up against him after nearly two years of marriage. He
was weary of living in a perpetual tepid honeymoon,
without the temperature of passion yet with all its
exactions. If May had spoken out her grievances (he
suspected her of many) he might have laughed them
away; but she was trained to conceal imaginary wounds
under a Spartan smile.

To disguise his own annoyance he asked how her
grandmother was, and she answered that Mrs. Mingott
was still improving, but had been rather disturbed by
the last news about the Beauforts.

"What news?"

"It seems they're going to stay in New York. I believe
he's going into an insurance business, or something.
They're looking about for a small house."

The preposterousness of the case was beyond discussion,
and they went in to dinner. During dinner their
talk moved in its usual limited circle; but Archer
noticed that his wife made no allusion to Madame Olenska,
nor to old Catherine's reception of her. He was thankful
for the fact, yet felt it to be vaguely ominous.

They went up to the library for coffee, and Archer
lit a cigar and took down a volume of Michelet. He
had taken to history in the evenings since May had
shown a tendency to ask him to read aloud whenever
she saw him with a volume of poetry: not that he
disliked the sound of his own voice, but because he
could always foresee her comments on what he read. In
the days of their engagement she had simply (as he now
perceived) echoed what he told her; but since he had
ceased to provide her with opinions she had begun to
hazard her own, with results destructive to his enjoyment
of the works commented on.

Seeing that he had chosen history she fetched her
workbasket, drew up an arm-chair to the green-shaded
student lamp, and uncovered a cushion she was
embroidering for his sofa. She was not a clever needle-
woman; her large capable hands were made for riding,
rowing and open-air activities; but since other wives
embroidered cushions for their husbands she did not
wish to omit this last link in her devotion.

She was so placed that Archer, by merely raising his
eyes, could see her bent above her work-frame, her
ruffled elbow-sleeves slipping back from her firm round
arms, the betrothal sapphire shining on her left hand
above her broad gold wedding-ring, and the right hand
slowly and laboriously stabbing the canvas. As she sat
thus, the lamplight full on her clear brow, he said to
himself with a secret dismay that he would always
know the thoughts behind it, that never, in all the years
to come, would she surprise him by an unexpected
mood, by a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or an
emotion. She had spent her poetry and romance on
their short courting: the function was exhausted
because the need was past. Now she was simply ripening
into a copy of her mother, and mysteriously, by the
very process, trying to turn him into a Mr. Welland.
He laid down his book and stood up impatiently; and
at once she raised her head.

"What's the matter?"

"The room is stifling: I want a little air."

He had insisted that the library curtains should draw
backward and forward on a rod, so that they might be
closed in the evening, instead of remaining nailed to a
gilt cornice, and immovably looped up over layers of
lace, as in the drawing-room; and he pulled them back
and pushed up the sash, leaning out into the icy night.
The mere fact of not looking at May, seated beside his
table, under his lamp, the fact of seeing other houses,
roofs, chimneys, of getting the sense of other lives
outside his own, other cities beyond New York, and a
whole world beyond his world, cleared his brain and
made it easier to breathe.

After he had leaned out into the darkness for a few
minutes he heard her say: "Newland! Do shut the
window. You'll catch your death."

He pulled the sash down and turned back. "Catch
my death!" he echoed; and he felt like adding: "But
I've caught it already. I AM dead--I've been dead for
months and months."

And suddenly the play of the word flashed up a wild
suggestion. What if it were SHE who was dead! If she
were going to die--to die soon--and leave him free!
The sensation of standing there, in that warm familiar
room, and looking at her, and wishing her dead, was
so strange, so fascinating and overmastering, that its
enormity did not immediately strike him. He simply
felt that chance had given him a new possibility to
which his sick soul might cling. Yes, May might die--
people did: young people, healthy people like herself:
she might die, and set him suddenly free.

She glanced up, and he saw by her widening eyes
that there must be something strange in his own.

"Newland! Are you ill?"

He shook his head and turned toward his arm-chair.
She bent over her work-frame, and as he passed he laid
his hand on her hair. "Poor May!" he said.

"Poor? Why poor?" she echoed with a strained laugh.

"Because I shall never be able to open a window
without worrying you," he rejoined, laughing also.

For a moment she was silent; then she said very low,
her head bowed over her work: "I shall never worry if
you're happy."

"Ah, my dear; and I shall never be happy unless I
can open the windows!"

"In THIS weather?" she remonstrated; and with a sigh
he buried his head in his book.

Six or seven days passed. Archer heard nothing from
Madame Olenska, and became aware that her name
would not be mentioned in his presence by any member
of the family. He did not try to see her; to do so
while she was at old Catherine's guarded bedside would
have been almost impossible. In the uncertainty of the
situation he let himself drift, conscious, somewhere
below the surface of his thoughts, of a resolve which
had come to him when he had leaned out from his
library window into the icy night. The strength of that
resolve made it easy to wait and make no sign.

Then one day May told him that Mrs. Manson
Mingott had asked to see him. There was nothing
surprising in the request, for the old lady was steadily
recovering, and she had always openly declared that
she preferred Archer to any of her other grandsons-in-
law. May gave the message with evident pleasure: she
was proud of old Catherine's appreciation of her

There was a moment's pause, and then Archer felt it
incumbent on him to say: "All right. Shall we go
together this afternoon?"

His wife's face brightened, but she instantly answered:
"Oh, you'd much better go alone. It bores Granny to
see the same people too often."

Archer's heart was beating violently when he rang
old Mrs. Mingott's bell. He had wanted above all
things to go alone, for he felt sure the visit would give
him the chance of saying a word in private to the
Countess Olenska. He had determined to wait till the
chance presented itself naturally; and here it was, and
here he was on the doorstep. Behind the door, behind
the curtains of the yellow damask room next to the
hall, she was surely awaiting him; in another moment
he should see her, and be able to speak to her before
she led him to the sick-room.

He wanted only to put one question: after that his
course would be clear. What he wished to ask was
simply the date of her return to Washington; and that
question she could hardly refuse to answer.

But in the yellow sitting-room it was the mulatto
maid who waited. Her white teeth shining like a
keyboard, she pushed back the sliding doors and ushered
him into old Catherine's presence.

The old woman sat in a vast throne-like arm-chair
near her bed. Beside her was a mahogany stand bearing
a cast bronze lamp with an engraved globe, over which
a green paper shade had been balanced. There was not
a book or a newspaper in reach, nor any evidence of
feminine employment: conversation had always been
Mrs. Mingott's sole pursuit, and she would have scorned
to feign an interest in fancywork.

Archer saw no trace of the slight distortion left by
her stroke. She merely looked paler, with darker shadows
in the folds and recesses of her obesity; and, in the
fluted mob-cap tied by a starched bow between her
first two chins, and the muslin kerchief crossed over
her billowing purple dressing-gown, she seemed like
some shrewd and kindly ancestress of her own who
might have yielded too freely to the pleasures of the

She held out one of the little hands that nestled in a
hollow of her huge lap like pet animals, and called to
the maid: "Don't let in any one else. If my daughters
call, say I'm asleep."

The maid disappeared, and the old lady turned to
her grandson.

"My dear, am I perfectly hideous?" she asked gaily,
launching out one hand in search of the folds of muslin
on her inaccessible bosom. "My daughters tell me it
doesn't matter at my age--as if hideousness didn't matter
all the more the harder it gets to conceal!"

"My dear, you're handsomer than ever!" Archer
rejoined in the same tone; and she threw back her head
and laughed.

"Ah, but not as handsome as Ellen!" she jerked out,
twinkling at him maliciously; and before he could answer
she added: "Was she so awfully handsome the
day you drove her up from the ferry?"

He laughed, and she continued: "Was it because you
told her so that she had to put you out on the way? In
my youth young men didn't desert pretty women unless
they were made to!" She gave another chuckle, and
interrupted it to say almost querulously: "It's a pity she
didn't marry you; I always told her so. It would have
spared me all this worry. But who ever thought of
sparing their grandmother worry?"

Archer wondered if her illness had blurred her faculties;
but suddenly she broke out: "Well, it's settled,
anyhow: she's going to stay with me, whatever the rest
of the family say! She hadn't been here five minutes
before I'd have gone down on my knees to keep her--if
only, for the last twenty years, I'd been able to see
where the floor was!"

Archer listened in silence, and she went on: "They'd
talked me over, as no doubt you know: persuaded me,
Lovell, and Letterblair, and Augusta Welland, and all
the rest of them, that I must hold out and cut off her
allowance, till she was made to see that it was her duty
to go back to Olenski. They thought they'd convinced
me when the secretary, or whatever he was, came out
with the last proposals: handsome proposals I confess
they were. After all, marriage is marriage, and money's
money--both useful things in their way . . . and I didn't
know what to answer--" She broke off and drew a
long breath, as if speaking had become an effort. "But
the minute I laid eyes on her, I said: `You sweet bird,
you! Shut you up in that cage again? Never!' And now
it's settled that she's to stay here and nurse her Granny
as long as there's a Granny to nurse. It's not a gay
prospect, but she doesn't mind; and of course I've told
Letterblair that she's to be given her proper allowance."

The young man heard her with veins aglow; but in
his confusion of mind he hardly knew whether her
news brought joy or pain. He had so definitely decided
on the course he meant to pursue that for the moment
he could not readjust his thoughts. But gradually there
stole over him the delicious sense of difficulties
deferred and opportunities miraculously provided. If
Ellen had consented to come and live with her grandmother
it must surely be because she had recognised the
impossibility of giving him up. This was her answer to his
final appeal of the other day: if she would not take the
extreme step he had urged, she had at last yielded to
half-measures. He sank back into the thought with the
involuntary relief of a man who has been ready to risk
everything, and suddenly tastes the dangerous sweetness
of security.

"She couldn't have gone back--it was impossible!"
he exclaimed.

"Ah, my dear, I always knew you were on her side;
and that's why I sent for you today, and why I said to
your pretty wife, when she proposed to come with you:
`No, my dear, I'm pining to see Newland, and I don't
want anybody to share our transports.' For you see, my
dear--" she drew her head back as far as its tethering
chins permitted, and looked him full in the eyes--"you
see, we shall have a fight yet. The family don't want
her here, and they'll say it's because I've been ill,
because I'm a weak old woman, that she's persuaded me.
I'm not well enough yet to fight them one by one, and
you've got to do it for me."

"I?" he stammered.

"You. Why not?" she jerked back at him, her round
eyes suddenly as sharp as pen-knives. Her hand fluttered
from its chair-arm and lit on his with a clutch of
little pale nails like bird-claws. "Why not?" she
searchingly repeated.

Archer, under the exposure of her gaze, had recovered
his self-possession.

"Oh, I don't count--I'm too insignificant."

"Well, you're Letterblair's partner, ain't you? You've
got to get at them through Letterblair. Unless you've
got a reason," she insisted.

"Oh, my dear, I back you to hold your own against
them all without my help; but you shall have it if you
need it," he reassured her.

"Then we're safe!" she sighed; and smiling on him
with all her ancient cunning she added, as she settled
her head among the cushions: "I always knew you'd
back us up, because they never quote you when they
talk about its being her duty to go home."

He winced a little at her terrifying perspicacity, and
longed to ask: "And May--do they quote her?" But he
judged it safer to turn the question.

"And Madame Olenska? When am I to see her?" he

The old lady chuckled, crumpled her lids, and went
through the pantomime of archness. "Not today. One
at a time, please. Madame Olenska's gone out."

He flushed with disappointment, and she went on:
"She's gone out, my child: gone in my carriage to see
Regina Beaufort."

She paused for this announcement to produce its
effect. "That's what she's reduced me to already. The
day after she got here she put on her best bonnet, and
told me, as cool as a cucumber, that she was going to
call on Regina Beaufort. `I don't know her; who is
she?' says I. `She's your grand-niece, and a most
unhappy woman,' she says. `She's the wife of a scoundrel,'
I answered. `Well,' she says, `and so am I, and yet
all my family want me to go back to him.' Well, that
floored me, and I let her go; and finally one day she
said it was raining too hard to go out on foot, and she
wanted me to lend her my carriage. `What for?' I asked
her; and she said: `To go and see cousin Regina--COUSIN!
Now, my dear, I looked out of the window, and saw it
wasn't raining a drop; but I understood her, and I let
her have the carriage. . . . After all, Regina's a brave
woman, and so is she; and I've always liked courage
above everything."

Archer bent down and pressed his lips on the little
hand that still lay on his.

"Eh--eh--eh! Whose hand did you think you were
kissing, young man--your wife's, I hope?" the old lady
snapped out with her mocking cackle; and as he rose to
go she called out after him: "Give her her Granny's
love; but you'd better not say anything about our talk."

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
General Fiction
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