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Chapter XXXII

At the court of the Tuileries," said Mr. Sillerton
Jackson with his reminiscent smile, "such things
were pretty openly tolerated."

The scene was the van der Luydens' black walnut
dining-room in Madison Avenue, and the time the evening
after Newland Archer's visit to the Museum of
Art. Mr. and Mrs. van der Luyden had come to town
for a few days from Skuytercliff, whither they had
precipitately fled at the announcement of Beaufort's
failure. It had been represented to them that the disarray
into which society had been thrown by this deplorable
affair made their presence in town more necessary
than ever. It was one of the occasions when, as Mrs.
Archer put it, they "owed it to society" to show themselves
at the Opera, and even to open their own doors.

"It will never do, my dear Louisa, to let people like
Mrs. Lemuel Struthers think they can step into Regina's
shoes. It is just at such times that new people push
in and get a footing. It was owing to the epidemic of
chicken-pox in New York the winter Mrs. Struthers
first appeared that the married men slipped away to
her house while their wives were in the nursery. You
and dear Henry, Louisa, must stand in the breach as
you always have."

Mr. and Mrs. van der Luyden could not remain deaf
to such a call, and reluctantly but heroically they had
come to town, unmuffled the house, and sent out
invitations for two dinners and an evening reception.

On this particular evening they had invited Sillerton
Jackson, Mrs. Archer and Newland and his wife to go
with them to the Opera, where Faust was being sung
for the first time that winter. Nothing was done without
ceremony under the van der Luyden roof, and
though there were but four guests the repast had begun
at seven punctually, so that the proper sequence of
courses might be served without haste before the gentlemen
settled down to their cigars.

Archer had not seen his wife since the evening
before. He had left early for the office, where he had
plunged into an accumulation of unimportant business.
In the afternoon one of the senior partners had made
an unexpected call on his time; and he had reached
home so late that May had preceded him to the van der
Luydens', and sent back the carriage.

Now, across the Skuytercliff carnations and the massive
plate, she struck him as pale and languid; but her
eyes shone, and she talked with exaggerated animation.

The subject which had called forth Mr. Sillerton
Jackson's favourite allusion had been brought up (Archer
fancied not without intention) by their hostess. The
Beaufort failure, or rather the Beaufort attitude since
the failure, was still a fruitful theme for the drawing-
room moralist; and after it had been thoroughly examined
and condemned Mrs. van der Luyden had turned
her scrupulous eyes on May Archer.

"Is it possible, dear, that what I hear is true? I was
told your grandmother Mingott's carriage was seen
standing at Mrs. Beaufort's door." It was noticeable
that she no longer called the offending lady by her
Christian name.

May's colour rose, and Mrs. Archer put in hastily:
"If it was, I'm convinced it was there without Mrs.
Mingott's knowledge."

"Ah, you think--?" Mrs. van der Luyden paused,
sighed, and glanced at her husband.

"I'm afraid," Mr. van der Luyden said, "that Madame
Olenska's kind heart may have led her into the
imprudence of calling on Mrs. Beaufort."

"Or her taste for peculiar people," put in Mrs. Archer
in a dry tone, while her eyes dwelt innocently on her

"I'm sorry to think it of Madame Olenska," said
Mrs. van der Luyden; and Mrs. Archer murmured:
"Ah, my dear--and after you'd had her twice at

It was at this point that Mr. Jackson seized the
chance to place his favourite allusion.

"At the Tuileries," he repeated, seeing the eyes of the
company expectantly turned on him, "the standard
was excessively lax in some respects; and if you'd asked
where Morny's money came from--! Or who paid the
debts of some of the Court beauties . . ."

"I hope, dear Sillerton," said Mrs. Archer, "you are
not suggesting that we should adopt such standards?"

"I never suggest," returned Mr. Jackson imperturbably.
"But Madame Olenska's foreign bringing-up may
make her less particular--"

"Ah," the two elder ladies sighed.

"Still, to have kept her grandmother's carriage at a
defaulter's door!" Mr. van der Luyden protested; and
Archer guessed that he was remembering, and resenting,
the hampers of carnations he had sent to the little
house in Twenty-third Street.

"Of course I've always said that she looks at things
quite differently," Mrs. Archer summed up.

A flush rose to May's forehead. She looked across
the table at her husband, and said precipitately: "I'm
sure Ellen meant it kindly."

"Imprudent people are often kind," said Mrs. Archer,
as if the fact were scarcely an extenuation; and Mrs.
van der Luyden murmured: "If only she had consulted
some one--"

"Ah, that she never did!" Mrs. Archer rejoined.

At this point Mr. van der Luyden glanced at his wife,
who bent her head slightly in the direction of Mrs.
Archer; and the glimmering trains of the three ladies
swept out of the door while the gentlemen settled down
to their cigars. Mr. van der Luyden supplied short ones
on Opera nights; but they were so good that they made
his guests deplore his inexorable punctuality.

Archer, after the first act, had detached himself from
the party and made his way to the back of the club
box. From there he watched, over various Chivers,
Mingott and Rushworth shoulders, the same scene that
he had looked at, two years previously, on the night of
his first meeting with Ellen Olenska. He had half-
expected her to appear again in old Mrs. Mingott's
box, but it remained empty; and he sat motionless, his
eyes fastened on it, till suddenly Madame Nilsson's
pure soprano broke out into "M'ama, non m'ama . . . "

Archer turned to the stage, where, in the familiar
setting of giant roses and pen-wiper pansies, the same
large blonde victim was succumbing to the same small
brown seducer.

From the stage his eyes wandered to the point of the
horseshoe where May sat between two older ladies,
just as, on that former evening, she had sat between
Mrs. Lovell Mingott and her newly-arrived "foreign"
cousin. As on that evening, she was all in white; and
Archer, who had not noticed what she wore, recognised
the blue-white satin and old lace of her wedding dress.

It was the custom, in old New York, for brides to
appear in this costly garment during the first year or
two of marriage: his mother, he knew, kept hers in
tissue paper in the hope that Janey might some day
wear it, though poor Janey was reaching the age when
pearl grey poplin and no bridesmaids would be thought
more "appropriate."

It struck Archer that May, since their return from
Europe, had seldom worn her bridal satin, and the
surprise of seeing her in it made him compare her
appearance with that of the young girl he had watched
with such blissful anticipations two years earlier.

Though May's outline was slightly heavier, as her
goddesslike build had foretold, her athletic erectness of
carriage, and the girlish transparency of her expression,
remained unchanged: but for the slight languor that
Archer had lately noticed in her she would have been
the exact image of the girl playing with the bouquet of
lilies-of-the-valley on her betrothal evening. The fact
seemed an additional appeal to his pity: such innocence
was as moving as the trustful clasp of a child. Then he
remembered the passionate generosity latent under that
incurious calm. He recalled her glance of understanding
when he had urged that their engagement should be
announced at the Beaufort ball; he heard the voice in
which she had said, in the Mission garden: "I couldn't
have my happiness made out of a wrong--a wrong to
some one else;" and an uncontrollable longing seized
him to tell her the truth, to throw himself on her
generosity, and ask for the freedom he had once refused.

Newland Archer was a quiet and self-controlled young
man. Conformity to the discipline of a small society
had become almost his second nature. It was deeply
distasteful to him to do anything melodramatic and
conspicuous, anything Mr. van der Luyden would have
deprecated and the club box condemned as bad form.
But he had become suddenly unconscious of the club
box, of Mr. van der Luyden, of all that had so long
enclosed him in the warm shelter of habit. He walked
along the semi-circular passage at the back of the house,
and opened the door of Mrs. van der Luyden's box as
if it had been a gate into the unknown.

"M'ama!" thrilled out the triumphant Marguerite;
and the occupants of the box looked up in surprise at
Archer's entrance. He had already broken one of the
rules of his world, which forbade the entering of a box
during a solo.

Slipping between Mr. van der Luyden and Sillerton
Jackson, he leaned over his wife.

"I've got a beastly headache; don't tell any one, but
come home, won't you?" he whispered.

May gave him a glance of comprehension, and he
saw her whisper to his mother, who nodded sympathetically;
then she murmured an excuse to Mrs. van
der Luyden, and rose from her seat just as Marguerite
fell into Faust's arms. Archer, while he helped her on
with her Opera cloak, noticed the exchange of a significant
smile between the older ladies.

As they drove away May laid her hand shyly on
his. "I'm so sorry you don't feel well. I'm afraid they've
been overworking you again at the office."

"No--it's not that: do you mind if I open the
window?" he returned confusedly, letting down the pane
on his side. He sat staring out into the street, feeling his
wife beside him as a silent watchful interrogation, and
keeping his eyes steadily fixed on the passing houses.
At their door she caught her skirt in the step of the
carriage, and fell against him.

"Did you hurt yourself?" he asked, steadying her
with his arm.

"No; but my poor dress--see how I've torn it!" she
exclaimed. She bent to gather up a mud-stained breadth,
and followed him up the steps into the hall. The servants
had not expected them so early, and there was
only a glimmer of gas on the upper landing.

Archer mounted the stairs, turned up the light, and
put a match to the brackets on each side of the library
mantelpiece. The curtains were drawn, and the warm
friendly aspect of the room smote him like that of a
familiar face met during an unavowable errand.

He noticed that his wife was very pale, and asked if
he should get her some brandy.

"Oh, no," she exclaimed with a momentary flush, as
she took off her cloak. "But hadn't you better go to
bed at once?" she added, as he opened a silver box on
the table and took out a cigarette.

Archer threw down the cigarette and walked to his
usual place by the fire.

"No; my head is not as bad as that." He paused.
"And there's something I want to say; something
important--that I must tell you at once."

She had dropped into an armchair, and raised her
head as he spoke. "Yes, dear?" she rejoined, so gently
that he wondered at the lack of wonder with which she
received this preamble.

"May--" he began, standing a few feet from her
chair, and looking over at her as if the slight distance
between them were an unbridgeable abyss. The sound
of his voice echoed uncannily through the homelike
hush, and he repeated: "There is something I've got to
tell you . . . about myself . . ."

She sat silent, without a movement or a tremor of
her lashes. She was still extremely pale, but her face
had a curious tranquillity of expression that seemed
drawn from some secret inner source.

Archer checked the conventional phrases of self-accusal
that were crowding to his lips. He was determined to
put the case baldly, without vain recrimination or excuse.

"Madame Olenska--" he said; but at the name his
wife raised her hand as if to silence him. As she did so
the gaslight struck on the gold of her wedding-ring,

"Oh, why should we talk about Ellen tonight?" she
asked, with a slight pout of impatience.

"Because I ought to have spoken before."

Her face remained calm. "Is it really worth while,
dear? I know I've been unfair to her at times--perhaps
we all have. You've understood her, no doubt, better
than we did: you've always been kind to her. But what
does it matter, now it's all over?"

Archer looked at her blankly. Could it be possible
that the sense of unreality in which he felt himself
imprisoned had communicated itself to his wife?

"All over--what do you mean?" he asked in an
indistinct stammer.

May still looked at him with transparent eyes. "Why--
since she's going back to Europe so soon; since Granny
approves and understands, and has arranged to make
her independent of her husband--"

She broke off, and Archer, grasping the corner of the
mantelpiece in one convulsed hand, and steadying himself
against it, made a vain effort to extend the same
control to his reeling thoughts.

"I supposed," he heard his wife's even voice go on,
"that you had been kept at the office this evening
about the business arrangements. It was settled this
morning, I believe." She lowered her eyes under his
unseeing stare, and another fugitive flush passed over
her face.

He understood that his own eyes must be unbearable,
and turning away, rested his elbows on the mantel-
shelf and covered his face. Something drummed and
clanged furiously in his ears; he could not tell if it were
the blood in his veins, or the tick of the clock on the

May sat without moving or speaking while the clock
slowly measured out five minutes. A lump of coal fell
forward in the grate, and hearing her rise to push it
back, Archer at length turned and faced her.

"It's impossible," he exclaimed.


"How do you know--what you've just told me?"

"I saw Ellen yesterday--I told you I'd seen her at

"It wasn't then that she told you?"

"No; I had a note from her this afternoon.--Do you
want to see it?"

He could not find his voice, and she went out of the
room, and came back almost immediately.

"I thought you knew," she said simply.

She laid a sheet of paper on the table, and Archer put
out his hand and took it up. The letter contained only a
few lines.

"May dear, I have at last made Granny understand
that my visit to her could be no more than a visit; and
she has been as kind and generous as ever. She sees
now that if I return to Europe I must live by myself, or
rather with poor Aunt Medora, who is coming with
me. I am hurrying back to Washington to pack up, and
we sail next week. You must be very good to Granny
when I'm gone--as good as you've always been to me.

"If any of my friends wish to urge me to change my
mind, please tell them it would be utterly useless."

Archer read the letter over two or three times; then
he flung it down and burst out laughing.

The sound of his laugh startled him. It recalled Janey's
midnight fright when she had caught him rocking with
incomprehensible mirth over May's telegram announcing
that the date of their marriage had been advanced.

"Why did she write this?" he asked, checking his
laugh with a supreme effort.

May met the question with her unshaken candour. "I
suppose because we talked things over yesterday--"

"What things?"

"I told her I was afraid I hadn't been fair to her--
hadn't always understood how hard it must have been
for her here, alone among so many people who were
relations and yet strangers; who felt the right to criticise,
and yet didn't always know the circumstances."
She paused. "I knew you'd been the one friend she
could always count on; and I wanted her to know that
you and I were the same--in all our feelings."

She hesitated, as if waiting for him to speak, and
then added slowly: "She understood my wishing to tell
her this. I think she understands everything."

She went up to Archer, and taking one of his cold
hands pressed it quickly against her cheek.

"My head aches too; good-night, dear," she said,
and turned to the door, her torn and muddy wedding-
dress dragging after her across the room.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
General Fiction
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