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Chapter XXXIII

It was, as Mrs. Archer smilingly said to Mrs. Welland,
a great event for a young couple to give their first
big dinner.

The Newland Archers, since they had set up their
household, had received a good deal of company in an
informal way. Archer was fond of having three or four
friends to dine, and May welcomed them with the
beaming readiness of which her mother had set her the
example in conjugal affairs. Her husband questioned
whether, if left to herself, she would ever have asked
any one to the house; but he had long given up trying
to disengage her real self from the shape into which
tradition and training had moulded her. It was
expected that well-off young couples in New York should
do a good deal of informal entertaining, and a Welland
married to an Archer was doubly pledged to the
tradition.

But a big dinner, with a hired chef and two
borrowed footmen, with Roman punch, roses from
Henderson's, and menus on gilt-edged cards, was a different
affair, and not to be lightly undertaken. As Mrs. Archer
remarked, the Roman punch made all the difference;
not in itself but by its manifold implications--since it
signified either canvas-backs or terrapin, two soups, a
hot and a cold sweet, full decolletage with short sleeves,
and guests of a proportionate importance.

It was always an interesting occasion when a young
pair launched their first invitations in the third person,
and their summons was seldom refused even by the
seasoned and sought-after. Still, it was admittedly a
triumph that the van der Luydens, at May's request,
should have stayed over in order to be present at her
farewell dinner for the Countess Olenska.

The two mothers-in-law sat in May's drawing-room
on the afternoon of the great day, Mrs. Archer writing
out the menus on Tiffany's thickest gilt-edged bristol,
while Mrs. Welland superintended the placing of the
palms and standard lamps.

Archer, arriving late from his office, found them still
there. Mrs. Archer had turned her attention to the
name-cards for the table, and Mrs. Welland was
considering the effect of bringing forward the large gilt
sofa, so that another "corner" might be created
between the piano and the window.

May, they told him, was in the dining-room inspecting
the mound of Jacqueminot roses and maidenhair in
the centre of the long table, and the placing of the
Maillard bonbons in openwork silver baskets between
the candelabra. On the piano stood a large basket of
orchids which Mr. van der Luyden had had sent from
Skuytercliff. Everything was, in short, as it should be
on the approach of so considerable an event.

Mrs. Archer ran thoughtfully over the list, checking
off each name with her sharp gold pen.

"Henry van der Luyden--Louisa--the Lovell Mingotts
--the Reggie Chiverses--Lawrence Lefferts and
Gertrude--(yes, I suppose May was right to have
them)--the Selfridge Merrys, Sillerton Jackson, Van
Newland and his wife. (How time passes! It seems only
yesterday that he was your best man, Newland)--and
Countess Olenska--yes, I think that's all. . . ."

Mrs. Welland surveyed her son-in-law affectionately.
"No one can say, Newland, that you and May are not
giving Ellen a handsome send-off."

"Ah, well," said Mrs. Archer, "I understand May's
wanting her cousin to tell people abroad that we're not
quite barbarians."

"I'm sure Ellen will appreciate it. She was to arrive
this morning, I believe. It will make a most charming
last impression. The evening before sailing is usually so
dreary," Mrs. Welland cheerfully continued.

Archer turned toward the door, and his mother-in-
law called to him: "Do go in and have a peep at the
table. And don't let May tire herself too much." But he
affected not to hear, and sprang up the stairs to his
library. The room looked at him like an alien countenance
composed into a polite grimace; and he perceived
that it had been ruthlessly "tidied," and prepared,
by a judicious distribution of ash-trays and cedar-wood
boxes, for the gentlemen to smoke in.

"Ah, well," he thought, "it's not for long--" and he
went on to his dressing-room.

Ten days had passed since Madame Olenska's departure
from New York. During those ten days Archer
had had no sign from her but that conveyed by the
return of a key wrapped in tissue paper, and sent to his
office in a sealed envelope addressed in her hand. This
retort to his last appeal might have been interpreted as
a classic move in a familiar game; but the young man
chose to give it a different meaning. She was still fighting
against her fate; but she was going to Europe, and
she was not returning to her husband. Nothing, therefore,
was to prevent his following her; and once he had
taken the irrevocable step, and had proved to her that
it was irrevocable, he believed she would not send him
away.

This confidence in the future had steadied him to
play his part in the present. It had kept him from
writing to her, or betraying, by any sign or act, his
misery and mortification. It seemed to him that in the
deadly silent game between them the trumps were still
in his hands; and he waited.

There had been, nevertheless, moments sufficiently
difficult to pass; as when Mr. Letterblair, the day after
Madame Olenska's departure, had sent for him to go
over the details of the trust which Mrs. Manson Mingott
wished to create for her granddaughter. For a couple of
hours Archer had examined the terms of the deed with
his senior, all the while obscurely feeling that if he had
been consulted it was for some reason other than the
obvious one of his cousinship; and that the close of the
conference would reveal it.

"Well, the lady can't deny that it's a handsome
arrangement," Mr. Letterblair had summed up, after
mumbling over a summary of the settlement. "In fact
I'm bound to say she's been treated pretty handsomely
all round."

"All round?" Archer echoed with a touch of
derision. "Do you refer to her husband's proposal to give
her back her own money?"

Mr. Letterblair's bushy eyebrows went up a fraction
of an inch. "My dear sir, the law's the law; and your
wife's cousin was married under the French law. It's to
be presumed she knew what that meant."

"Even if she did, what happened subsequently--."
But Archer paused. Mr. Letterblair had laid his pen-
handle against his big corrugated nose, and was looking
down it with the expression assumed by virtuous
elderly gentlemen when they wish their youngers to
understand that virtue is not synonymous with ignorance.

"My dear sir, I've no wish to extenuate the Count's
transgressions; but--but on the other side . . . I wouldn't
put my hand in the fire . . . well, that there hadn't been
tit for tat . . . with the young champion. . . ." Mr.
Letterblair unlocked a drawer and pushed a folded
paper toward Archer. "This report, the result of discreet
enquiries . . ." And then, as Archer made no
effort to glance at the paper or to repudiate the suggestion,
the lawyer somewhat flatly continued: "I don't
say it's conclusive, you observe; far from it. But straws
show . . . and on the whole it's eminently satisfactory
for all parties that this dignified solution has been
reached."

"Oh, eminently," Archer assented, pushing back the
paper.

A day or two later, on responding to a summons
from Mrs. Manson Mingott, his soul had been more
deeply tried.

He had found the old lady depressed and querulous.

"You know she's deserted me?" she began at once;
and without waiting for his reply: "Oh, don't ask me
why! She gave so many reasons that I've forgotten
them all. My private belief is that she couldn't face the
boredom. At any rate that's what Augusta and my
daughters-in-law think. And I don't know that I
altogether blame her. Olenski's a finished scoundrel; but
life with him must have been a good deal gayer than it
is in Fifth Avenue. Not that the family would admit
that: they think Fifth Avenue is Heaven with the rue de
la Paix thrown in. And poor Ellen, of course, has no
idea of going back to her husband. She held out as
firmly as ever against that. So she's to settle down in
Paris with that fool Medora. . . . Well, Paris is Paris;
and you can keep a carriage there on next to nothing.
But she was as gay as a bird, and I shall miss her."
Two tears, the parched tears of the old, rolled down
her puffy cheeks and vanished in the abysses of her
bosom.

"All I ask is," she concluded, "that they shouldn't
bother me any more. I must really be allowed to digest
my gruel. . . ." And she twinkled a little wistfully at
Archer.

It was that evening, on his return home, that May
announced her intention of giving a farewell dinner to
her cousin. Madame Olenska's name had not been
pronounced between them since the night of her flight
to Washington; and Archer looked at his wife with
surprise.

"A dinner--why?" he interrogated.

Her colour rose. "But you like Ellen--I thought you'd
be pleased."

"It's awfully nice--your putting it in that way. But I
really don't see--"

"I mean to do it, Newland," she said, quietly rising
and going to her desk. "Here are the invitations all
written. Mother helped me--she agrees that we ought
to." She paused, embarrassed and yet smiling, and
Archer suddenly saw before him the embodied image
of the Family.

"Oh, all right," he said, staring with unseeing eyes at
the list of guests that she had put in his hand.

When he entered the drawing-room before dinner May
was stooping over the fire and trying to coax the logs
to burn in their unaccustomed setting of immaculate
tiles.

The tall lamps were all lit, and Mr. van der Luyden's
orchids had been conspicuously disposed in various
receptacles of modern porcelain and knobby silver. Mrs.
Newland Archer's drawing-room was generally thought
a great success. A gilt bamboo jardiniere, in which
the primulas and cinerarias were punctually renewed,
blocked the access to the bay window (where the old-
fashioned would have preferred a bronze reduction of
the Venus of Milo); the sofas and arm-chairs of pale
brocade were cleverly grouped about little plush tables
densely covered with silver toys, porcelain animals and
efflorescent photograph frames; and tall rosy-shaded
lamps shot up like tropical flowers among the palms.

"I don't think Ellen has ever seen this room lighted
up," said May, rising flushed from her struggle, and
sending about her a glance of pardonable pride. The
brass tongs which she had propped against the side of
the chimney fell with a crash that drowned her husband's
answer; and before he could restore them Mr.
and Mrs. van der Luyden were announced.

The other guests quickly followed, for it was known
that the van der Luydens liked to dine punctually. The
room was nearly full, and Archer was engaged in showing
to Mrs. Selfridge Merry a small highly-varnished
Verbeckhoven "Study of Sheep," which Mr. Welland
had given May for Christmas, when he found Madame
Olenska at his side.

She was excessively pale, and her pallor made her
dark hair seem denser and heavier than ever. Perhaps
that, or the fact that she had wound several rows of
amber beads about her neck, reminded him suddenly of
the little Ellen Mingott he had danced with at children's
parties, when Medora Manson had first brought
her to New York.

The amber beads were trying to her complexion, or
her dress was perhaps unbecoming: her face looked
lustreless and almost ugly, and he had never loved it as
he did at that minute. Their hands met, and he thought
he heard her say: "Yes, we're sailing tomorrow in the
Russia--"; then there was an unmeaning noise of opening
doors, and after an interval May's voice: "Newland!
Dinner's been announced. Won't you please take Ellen
in?"

Madame Olenska put her hand on his arm, and he
noticed that the hand was ungloved, and remembered
how he had kept his eyes fixed on it the evening that he
had sat with her in the little Twenty-third Street drawing-
room. All the beauty that had forsaken her face seemed
to have taken refuge in the long pale fingers and faintly
dimpled knuckles on his sleeve, and he said to himself:
"If it were only to see her hand again I should have to
follow her--."

It was only at an entertainment ostensibly offered to
a "foreign visitor" that Mrs. van der Luyden could
suffer the diminution of being placed on her host's left.
The fact of Madame Olenska's "foreignness" could
hardly have been more adroitly emphasised than by
this farewell tribute; and Mrs. van der Luyden accepted
her displacement with an affability which left no doubt
as to her approval. There were certain things that had
to be done, and if done at all, done handsomely and
thoroughly; and one of these, in the old New York
code, was the tribal rally around a kinswoman about
to be eliminated from the tribe. There was nothing on
earth that the Wellands and Mingotts would not have
done to proclaim their unalterable affection for the
Countess Olenska now that her passage for Europe
was engaged; and Archer, at the head of his table, sat
marvelling at the silent untiring activity with which her
popularity had been retrieved, grievances against her
silenced, her past countenanced, and her present irradiated
by the family approval. Mrs. van der Luyden
shone on her with the dim benevolence which was her
nearest approach to cordiality, and Mr. van der Luyden,
from his seat at May's right, cast down the table glances
plainly intended to justify all the carnations he had sent
from Skuytercliff.

Archer, who seemed to be assisting at the scene in a
state of odd imponderability, as if he floated somewhere
between chandelier and ceiling, wondered at
nothing so much as his own share in the proceedings.
As his glance travelled from one placid well-fed face to
another he saw all the harmless-looking people engaged
upon May's canvas-backs as a band of dumb conspirators,
and himself and the pale woman on his right as
the centre of their conspiracy. And then it came over
him, in a vast flash made up of many broken gleams,
that to all of them he and Madame Olenska were
lovers, lovers in the extreme sense peculiar to "foreign"
vocabularies. He guessed himself to have been, for
months, the centre of countless silently observing eyes
and patiently listening ears, he understood that, by
means as yet unknown to him, the separation between
himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved,
and that now the whole tribe had rallied about his wife
on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything, or
had ever imagined anything, and that the occasion of
the entertainment was simply May Archer's natural
desire to take an affectionate leave of her friend and
cousin.

It was the old New York way of taking life "without
effusion of blood": the way of people who dreaded
scandal more than disease, who placed decency above
courage, and who considered that nothing was more
ill-bred than "scenes," except the behaviour of those
who gave rise to them.

As these thoughts succeeded each other in his mind
Archer felt like a prisoner in the centre of an armed
camp. He looked about the table, and guessed at the
inexorableness of his captors from the tone in which,
over the asparagus from Florida, they were dealing
with Beaufort and his wife. "It's to show me," he
thought, "what would happen to ME--" and a deathly
sense of the superiority of implication and analogy over
direct action, and of silence over rash words, closed in
on him like the doors of the family vault.

He laughed, and met Mrs. van der Luyden's startled
eyes.

"You think it laughable?" she said with a pinched
smile. "Of course poor Regina's idea of remaining in
New York has its ridiculous side, I suppose;" and
Archer muttered: "Of course."

At this point, he became conscious that Madame
Olenska's other neighbour had been engaged for some
time with the lady on his right. At the same moment he
saw that May, serenely enthroned between Mr. van der
Luyden and Mr. Selfridge Merry, had cast a quick
glance down the table. It was evident that the host and
the lady on his right could not sit through the whole
meal in silence. He turned to Madame Olenska, and
her pale smile met him. "Oh, do let's see it through," it
seemed to say.

"Did you find the journey tiring?" he asked in a
voice that surprised him by its naturalness; and she
answered that, on the contrary, she had seldom travelled
with fewer discomforts.

"Except, you know, the dreadful heat in the train,"
she added; and he remarked that she would not suffer
from that particular hardship in the country she was
going to.

"I never," he declared with intensity, "was more
nearly frozen than once, in April, in the train between
Calais and Paris."

She said she did not wonder, but remarked that,
after all, one could always carry an extra rug, and that
every form of travel had its hardships; to which he
abruptly returned that he thought them all of no account
compared with the blessedness of getting away.
She changed colour, and he added, his voice suddenly
rising in pitch: "I mean to do a lot of travelling myself
before long." A tremor crossed her face, and leaning
over to Reggie Chivers, he cried out: "I say, Reggie,
what do you say to a trip round the world: now, next
month, I mean? I'm game if you are--" at which Mrs.
Reggie piped up that she could not think of letting
Reggie go till after the Martha Washington Ball she
was getting up for the Blind Asylum in Easter week;
and her husband placidly observed that by that time he
would have to be practising for the International Polo
match.

But Mr. Selfridge Merry had caught the phrase "round
the world," and having once circled the globe in his
steam-yacht, he seized the opportunity to send down
the table several striking items concerning the shallowness
of the Mediterranean ports. Though, after all, he
added, it didn't matter; for when you'd seen Athens
and Smyrna and Constantinople, what else was there?
And Mrs. Merry said she could never be too grateful to
Dr. Bencomb for having made them promise not to go
to Naples on account of the fever.

"But you must have three weeks to do India properly,"
her husband conceded, anxious to have it understood
that he was no frivolous globe-trotter.

And at this point the ladies went up to the drawing-
room.

In the library, in spite of weightier presences, Lawrence
Lefferts predominated.

The talk, as usual, had veered around to the Beauforts,
and even Mr. van der Luyden and Mr. Selfridge
Merry, installed in the honorary arm-chairs tacitly
reserved for them, paused to listen to the younger man's
philippic.

Never had Lefferts so abounded in the sentiments
that adorn Christian manhood and exalt the sanctity of
the home. Indignation lent him a scathing eloquence,
and it was clear that if others had followed his example,
and acted as he talked, society would never have
been weak enough to receive a foreign upstart like
Beaufort--no, sir, not even if he'd married a van der
Luyden or a Lanning instead of a Dallas. And what
chance would there have been, Lefferts wrathfully
questioned, of his marrying into such a family as the Dallases,
if he had not already wormed his way into certain
houses, as people like Mrs. Lemuel Struthers had managed
to worm theirs in his wake? If society chose to
open its doors to vulgar women the harm was not
great, though the gain was doubtful; but once it got in
the way of tolerating men of obscure origin and tainted
wealth the end was total disintegration--and at no
distant date.

"If things go on at this pace," Lefferts thundered,
looking like a young prophet dressed by Poole, and
who had not yet been stoned, "we shall see our children
fighting for invitations to swindlers' houses, and
marrying Beaufort's bastards."

"Oh, I say--draw it mild!" Reggie Chivers and young
Newland protested, while Mr. Selfridge Merry looked
genuinely alarmed, and an expression of pain and disgust
settled on Mr. van der Luyden's sensitive face.

"Has he got any?" cried Mr. Sillerton Jackson,
pricking up his ears; and while Lefferts tried to turn the
question with a laugh, the old gentleman twittered into
Archer's ear: "Queer, those fellows who are always
wanting to set things right. The people who have the
worst cooks are always telling you they're poisoned
when they dine out. But I hear there are pressing reasons
for our friend Lawrence's diatribe:--typewriter
this time, I understand. . . ."

The talk swept past Archer like some senseless river
running and running because it did not know enough
to stop. He saw, on the faces about him, expressions of
interest, amusement and even mirth. He listened to the
younger men's laughter, and to the praise of the Archer
Madeira, which Mr. van der Luyden and Mr. Merry
were thoughtfully celebrating. Through it all he was
dimly aware of a general attitude of friendliness toward
himself, as if the guard of the prisoner he felt himself to
be were trying to soften his captivity; and the perception
increased his passionate determination to be free.

In the drawing-room, where they presently joined the
ladies, he met May's triumphant eyes, and read in them
the conviction that everything had "gone off" beautifully.
She rose from Madame Olenska's side, and immediately
Mrs. van der Luyden beckoned the latter to a
seat on the gilt sofa where she throned. Mrs. Selfridge
Merry bore across the room to join them, and it became
clear to Archer that here also a conspiracy of
rehabilitation and obliteration was going on. The silent
organisation which held his little world together was
determined to put itself on record as never for a moment
having questioned the propriety of Madame Olenska's
conduct, or the completeness of Archer's domestic
felicity. All these amiable and inexorable persons were
resolutely engaged in pretending to each other that they
had never heard of, suspected, or even conceived possible,
the least hint to the contrary; and from this tissue
of elaborate mutual dissimulation Archer once more
disengaged the fact that New York believed him to be
Madame Olenska's lover. He caught the glitter of victory
in his wife's eyes, and for the first time understood
that she shared the belief. The discovery roused a laughter
of inner devils that reverberated through all his
efforts to discuss the Martha Washington ball with
Mrs. Reggie Chivers and little Mrs. Newland; and so
the evening swept on, running and running like a senseless
river that did not know how to stop.

At length he saw that Madame Olenska had risen
and was saying good-bye. He understood that in a
moment she would be gone, and tried to remember
what he had said to her at dinner; but he could not
recall a single word they had exchanged.

She went up to May, the rest of the company making
a circle about her as she advanced. The two young
women clasped hands; then May bent forward and
kissed her cousin.

"Certainly our hostess is much the handsomer of the
two," Archer heard Reggie Chivers say in an undertone
to young Mrs. Newland; and he remembered Beaufort's
coarse sneer at May's ineffectual beauty.

A moment later he was in the hall, putting Madame
Olenska's cloak about her shoulders.

Through all his confusion of mind he had held fast
to the resolve to say nothing that might startle or
disturb her. Convinced that no power could now turn
him from his purpose he had found strength to let
events shape themselves as they would. But as he
followed Madame Olenska into the hall he thought with a
sudden hunger of being for a moment alone with her at
the door of her carriage.

"Is your carriage here?" he asked; and at that
moment Mrs. van der Luyden, who was being majestically
inserted into her sables, said gently: "We are driving
dear Ellen home."

Archer's heart gave a jerk, and Madame Olenska,
clasping her cloak and fan with one hand, held out the
other to him. "Good-bye," she said.

"Good-bye--but I shall see you soon in Paris," he
answered aloud--it seemed to him that he had shouted
it.

"Oh," she murmured, "if you and May could
come--!"

Mr. van der Luyden advanced to give her his arm,
and Archer turned to Mrs. van der Luyden. For a
moment, in the billowy darkness inside the big landau,
he caught the dim oval of a face, eyes shining steadily--
and she was gone.

As he went up the steps he crossed Lawrence Lefferts
coming down with his wife. Lefferts caught his host by
the sleeve, drawing back to let Gertrude pass.

"I say, old chap: do you mind just letting it be
understood that I'm dining with you at the club tomorrow
night? Thanks so much, you old brick! Good-night."

"It DID go off beautifully, didn't it?" May questioned
from the threshold of the library.

Archer roused himself with a start. As soon as the
last carriage had driven away, he had come up to the
library and shut himself in, with the hope that his wife,
who still lingered below, would go straight to her room.
But there she stood, pale and drawn, yet radiating the
factitious energy of one who has passed beyond fatigue.

"May I come and talk it over?" she asked.

"Of course, if you like. But you must be awfully
sleepy--"

"No, I'm not sleepy. I should like to sit with you a
little."

"Very well," he said, pushing her chair near the fire.

She sat down and he resumed his seat; but neither
spoke for a long time. At length Archer began abruptly:
"Since you're not tired, and want to talk, there's something
I must tell you. I tried to the other night--."

She looked at him quickly. "Yes, dear. Something
about yourself?"

"About myself. You say you're not tired: well, I am.
Horribly tired . . ."

In an instant she was all tender anxiety. "Oh, I've
seen it coming on, Newland! You've been so wickedly
overworked--"

"Perhaps it's that. Anyhow, I want to make a break--"

"A break? To give up the law?"

"To go away, at any rate--at once. On a long trip,
ever so far off--away from everything--"

He paused, conscious that he had failed in his attempt
to speak with the indifference of a man who
longs for a change, and is yet too weary to welcome it.
Do what he would, the chord of eagerness vibrated.
"Away from everything--" he repeated.

"Ever so far? Where, for instance?" she asked.

"Oh, I don't know. India--or Japan."

She stood up, and as he sat with bent head, his chin
propped on his hands, he felt her warmly and fragrantly
hovering over him.

"As far as that? But I'm afraid you can't, dear . . ."
she said in an unsteady voice. "Not unless you'll take
me with you." And then, as he was silent, she went on,
in tones so clear and evenly-pitched that each separate
syllable tapped like a little hammer on his brain: "That
is, if the doctors will let me go . . . but I'm afraid they
won't. For you see, Newland, I've been sure since this
morning of something I've been so longing and hoping
for--"

He looked up at her with a sick stare, and she sank
down, all dew and roses, and hid her face against his
knee.

"Oh, my dear," he said, holding her to him while his
cold hand stroked her hair.

There was a long pause, which the inner devils filled
with strident laughter; then May freed herself from his
arms and stood up.

"You didn't guess--?"

"Yes--I; no. That is, of course I hoped--"

They looked at each other for an instant and again
fell silent; then, turning his eyes from hers, he asked
abruptly: "Have you told any one else?"

"Only Mamma and your mother." She paused, and
then added hurriedly, the blood flushing up to her
forehead: "That is--and Ellen. You know I told you
we'd had a long talk one afternoon--and how dear she
was to me."

"Ah--" said Archer, his heart stopping.

He felt that his wife was watching him intently. "Did
you MIND my telling her first, Newland?"

"Mind? Why should I?" He made a last effort to
collect himself. "But that was a fortnight ago, wasn't
it? I thought you said you weren't sure till today."

Her colour burned deeper, but she held his gaze.
"No; I wasn't sure then--but I told her I was. And you
see I was right!" she exclaimed, her blue eyes wet with
victory.





The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Category:
General Fiction
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