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Chapter VII

Mrs. Henry van der Luyden listened in silence to
her cousin Mrs. Archer's narrative.

It was all very well to tell yourself in advance that
Mrs. van der Luyden was always silent, and that, though
non-committal by nature and training, she was very
kind to the people she really liked. Even personal
experience of these facts was not always a protection from
the chill that descended on one in the high-ceilinged
white-walled Madison Avenue drawing-room, with the
pale brocaded armchairs so obviously uncovered for
the occasion, and the gauze still veiling the ormolu
mantel ornaments and the beautiful old carved frame
of Gainsborough's "Lady Angelica du Lac."

Mrs. van der Luyden's portrait by Huntington (in
black velvet and Venetian point) faced that of her
lovely ancestress. It was generally considered "as fine
as a Cabanel," and, though twenty years had elapsed
since its execution, was still "a perfect likeness."
Indeed the Mrs. van der Luyden who sat beneath it
listening to Mrs. Archer might have been the twin-sister
of the fair and still youngish woman drooping against a
gilt armchair before a green rep curtain. Mrs. van der
Luyden still wore black velvet and Venetian point when
she went into society--or rather (since she never dined
out) when she threw open her own doors to receive it.
Her fair hair, which had faded without turning grey,
was still parted in flat overlapping points on her forehead,
and the straight nose that divided her pale blue
eyes was only a little more pinched about the nostrils
than when the portrait had been painted. She always,
indeed, struck Newland Archer as having been rather
gruesomely preserved in the airless atmosphere of a
perfectly irreproachable existence, as bodies caught in
glaciers keep for years a rosy life-in-death.

Like all his family, he esteemed and admired Mrs.
van der Luyden; but he found her gentle bending sweetness
less approachable than the grimness of some of his
mother's old aunts, fierce spinsters who said "No" on
principle before they knew what they were going to be
asked.

Mrs. van der Luyden's attitude said neither yes nor
no, but always appeared to incline to clemency till her
thin lips, wavering into the shadow of a smile, made
the almost invariable reply: "I shall first have to talk
this over with my husband."

She and Mr. van der Luyden were so exactly alike
that Archer often wondered how, after forty years of
the closest conjugality, two such merged identities ever
separated themselves enough for anything as controversial
as a talking-over. But as neither had ever reached a
decision without prefacing it by this mysterious
conclave, Mrs. Archer and her son, having set forth their
case, waited resignedly for the familiar phrase.

Mrs. van der Luyden, however, who had seldom
surprised any one, now surprised them by reaching her
long hand toward the bell-rope.

"I think," she said, "I should like Henry to hear
what you have told me."

A footman appeared, to whom she gravely added:
"If Mr. van der Luyden has finished reading the
newspaper, please ask him to be kind enough to come."

She said "reading the newspaper" in the tone in
which a Minister's wife might have said: "Presiding at
a Cabinet meeting"--not from any arrogance of mind,
but because the habit of a life-time, and the attitude of
her friends and relations, had led her to consider Mr.
van der Luyden's least gesture as having an almost
sacerdotal importance.

Her promptness of action showed that she considered
the case as pressing as Mrs. Archer; but, lest she
should be thought to have committed herself in advance,
she added, with the sweetest look: "Henry always
enjoys seeing you, dear Adeline; and he will wish
to congratulate Newland."

The double doors had solemnly reopened and between
them appeared Mr. Henry van der Luyden, tall,
spare and frock-coated, with faded fair hair, a straight
nose like his wife's and the same look of frozen gentleness
in eyes that were merely pale grey instead of pale
blue.

Mr. van der Luyden greeted Mrs. Archer with cousinly
affability, proffered to Newland low-voiced
congratulations couched in the same language as his wife's,
and seated himself in one of the brocade armchairs
with the simplicity of a reigning sovereign.

"I had just finished reading the Times," he said,
laying his long finger-tips together. "In town my mornings
are so much occupied that I find it more convenient
to read the newspapers after luncheon."

"Ah, there's a great deal to be said for that plan--
indeed I think my uncle Egmont used to say he found it
less agitating not to read the morning papers till after
dinner," said Mrs. Archer responsively.

"Yes: my good father abhorred hurry. But now we
live in a constant rush," said Mr. van der Luyden in
measured tones, looking with pleasant deliberation about
the large shrouded room which to Archer was so complete
an image of its owners.

"But I hope you HAD finished your reading, Henry?"
his wife interposed.

"Quite--quite," he reassured her.

"Then I should like Adeline to tell you--"

"Oh, it's really Newland's story," said his mother
smiling; and proceeded to rehearse once more the monstrous
tale of the affront inflicted on Mrs. Lovell Mingott.

"Of course," she ended, "Augusta Welland and Mary
Mingott both felt that, especially in view of Newland's
engagement, you and Henry OUGHT TO KNOW."

"Ah--" said Mr. van der Luyden, drawing a deep
breath.

There was a silence during which the tick of the
monumental ormolu clock on the white marble mantelpiece
grew as loud as the boom of a minute-gun. Archer
contemplated with awe the two slender faded figures,
seated side by side in a kind of viceregal rigidity,
mouthpieces of some remote ancestral authority which fate
compelled them to wield, when they would so much
rather have lived in simplicity and seclusion, digging
invisible weeds out of the perfect lawns of Skuytercliff,
and playing Patience together in the evenings.

Mr. van der Luyden was the first to speak.

"You really think this is due to some--some
intentional interference of Lawrence Lefferts's?" he enquired,
turning to Archer.

"I'm certain of it, sir. Larry has been going it rather
harder than usual lately--if cousin Louisa won't mind
my mentioning it--having rather a stiff affair with the
postmaster's wife in their village, or some one of that
sort; and whenever poor Gertrude Lefferts begins to
suspect anything, and he's afraid of trouble, he gets up
a fuss of this kind, to show how awfully moral he is,
and talks at the top of his voice about the impertinence
of inviting his wife to meet people he doesn't wish her
to know. He's simply using Madame Olenska as a
lightning-rod; I've seen him try the same thing often
before."

"The LEFFERTSES!--" said Mrs. van der Luyden.

"The LEFFERTSES!--" echoed Mrs. Archer. "What would
uncle Egmont have said of Lawrence Lefferts's
pronouncing on anybody's social position? It shows what
Society has come to."

"We'll hope it has not quite come to that," said Mr.
van der Luyden firmly.

"Ah, if only you and Louisa went out more!" sighed
Mrs. Archer.

But instantly she became aware of her mistake. The
van der Luydens were morbidly sensitive to any criticism
of their secluded existence. They were the arbiters
of fashion, the Court of last Appeal, and they knew it,
and bowed to their fate. But being shy and retiring
persons, with no natural inclination for their part, they
lived as much as possible in the sylvan solitude of
Skuytercliff, and when they came to town, declined all
invitations on the plea of Mrs. van der Luyden's health.

Newland Archer came to his mother's rescue.
"Everybody in New York knows what you and cousin
Louisa represent. That's why Mrs. Mingott felt she
ought not to allow this slight on Countess Olenska to
pass without consulting you."

Mrs. van der Luyden glanced at her husband, who
glanced back at her.

"It is the principle that I dislike," said Mr. van der
Luyden. "As long as a member of a well-known family
is backed up by that family it should be considered--
final."

"It seems so to me," said his wife, as if she were
producing a new thought.

"I had no idea," Mr. van der Luyden continued,
"that things had come to such a pass." He paused, and
looked at his wife again. "It occurs to me, my dear,
that the Countess Olenska is already a sort of relation--
through Medora Manson's first husband. At any rate,
she will be when Newland marries." He turned toward
the young man. "Have you read this morning's Times,
Newland?"

"Why, yes, sir," said Archer, who usually tossed off
half a dozen papers with his morning coffee.

Husband and wife looked at each other again. Their
pale eyes clung together in prolonged and serious
consultation; then a faint smile fluttered over Mrs. van der
Luyden's face. She had evidently guessed and approved.

Mr. van der Luyden turned to Mrs. Archer. "If Louisa's
health allowed her to dine out--I wish you would
say to Mrs. Lovell Mingott--she and I would have
been happy to--er--fill the places of the Lawrence
Leffertses at her dinner." He paused to let the irony of
this sink in. "As you know, this is impossible." Mrs.
Archer sounded a sympathetic assent. "But Newland
tells me he has read this morning's Times; therefore he
has probably seen that Louisa's relative, the Duke of
St. Austrey, arrives next week on the Russia. He is
coming to enter his new sloop, the Guinevere, in next
summer's International Cup Race; and also to have a
little canvasback shooting at Trevenna." Mr. van der
Luyden paused again, and continued with increasing
benevolence: "Before taking him down to Maryland
we are inviting a few friends to meet him here--only a
little dinner--with a reception afterward. I am sure
Louisa will be as glad as I am if Countess Olenska will
let us include her among our guests." He got up, bent
his long body with a stiff friendliness toward his cousin,
and added: "I think I have Louisa's authority for saying
that she will herself leave the invitation to dine
when she drives out presently: with our cards--of course
with our cards."

Mrs. Archer, who knew this to be a hint that the
seventeen-hand chestnuts which were never kept waiting
were at the door, rose with a hurried murmur of
thanks. Mrs. van der Luyden beamed on her with the
smile of Esther interceding with Ahasuerus; but her
husband raised a protesting hand.

"There is nothing to thank me for, dear Adeline;
nothing whatever. This kind of thing must not happen
in New York; it shall not, as long as I can help it," he
pronounced with sovereign gentleness as he steered his
cousins to the door.

Two hours later, every one knew that the great
C-spring barouche in which Mrs. van der Luyden
took the air at all seasons had been seen at old
Mrs. Mingott's door, where a large square envelope
was handed in; and that evening at the Opera Mr.
Sillerton Jackson was able to state that the envelope
contained a card inviting the Countess Olenska
to the dinner which the van der Luydens were giving
the following week for their cousin, the Duke
of St. Austrey.

Some of the younger men in the club box exchanged
a smile at this announcement, and glanced sideways at
Lawrence Lefferts, who sat carelessly in the front of the
box, pulling his long fair moustache, and who remarked
with authority, as the soprano paused: "No one but
Patti ought to attempt the Sonnambula."





The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Category:
General Fiction
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