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Chapter VIII

It was generally agreed in New York that the Countess
Olenska had "lost her looks."

She had appeared there first, in Newland Archer's
boyhood, as a brilliantly pretty little girl of nine or ten,
of whom people said that she "ought to be painted."
Her parents had been continental wanderers, and after
a roaming babyhood she had lost them both, and been
taken in charge by her aunt, Medora Manson, also a
wanderer, who was herself returning to New York to
"settle down."

Poor Medora, repeatedly widowed, was always coming
home to settle down (each time in a less expensive
house), and bringing with her a new husband or an
adopted child; but after a few months she invariably
parted from her husband or quarrelled with her ward,
and, having got rid of her house at a loss, set out again
on her wanderings. As her mother had been a Rushworth,
and her last unhappy marriage had linked her
to one of the crazy Chiverses, New York looked indulgently
on her eccentricities; but when she returned with
her little orphaned niece, whose parents had been popular
in spite of their regrettable taste for travel, people thought
it a pity that the pretty child should be in such hands.

Every one was disposed to be kind to little Ellen
Mingott, though her dusky red cheeks and tight curls
gave her an air of gaiety that seemed unsuitable in a
child who should still have been in black for her
parents. It was one of the misguided Medora's many
peculiarities to flout the unalterable rules that regulated
American mourning, and when she stepped from the
steamer her family were scandalised to see that the
crape veil she wore for her own brother was seven
inches shorter than those of her sisters-in-law, while
little Ellen was in crimson merino and amber beads,
like a gipsy foundling.

But New York had so long resigned itself to Medora
that only a few old ladies shook their heads over Ellen's
gaudy clothes, while her other relations fell under
the charm of her high colour and high spirits. She was
a fearless and familiar little thing, who asked disconcerting
questions, made precocious comments, and possessed
outlandish arts, such as dancing a Spanish shawl
dance and singing Neapolitan love-songs to a guitar.
Under the direction of her aunt (whose real name was
Mrs. Thorley Chivers, but who, having received a Papal
title, had resumed her first husband's patronymic,
and called herself the Marchioness Manson, because in
Italy she could turn it into Manzoni) the little girl
received an expensive but incoherent education, which
included "drawing from the model," a thing never
dreamed of before, and playing the piano in quintets
with professional musicians.

Of course no good could come of this; and when, a
few years later, poor Chivers finally died in a mad-
house, his widow (draped in strange weeds) again pulled
up stakes and departed with Ellen, who had grown into
a tall bony girl with conspicuous eyes. For some time
no more was heard of them; then news came of Ellen's
marriage to an immensely rich Polish nobleman of
legendary fame, whom she had met at a ball at the
Tuileries, and who was said to have princely establishments
in Paris, Nice and Florence, a yacht at Cowes,
and many square miles of shooting in Transylvania.
She disappeared in a kind of sulphurous apotheosis,
and when a few years later Medora again came back to
New York, subdued, impoverished, mourning a third
husband, and in quest of a still smaller house, people
wondered that her rich niece had not been able to do
something for her. Then came the news that Ellen's
own marriage had ended in disaster, and that she was
herself returning home to seek rest and oblivion among
her kinsfolk.

These things passed through Newland Archer's mind
a week later as he watched the Countess Olenska enter
the van der Luyden drawing-room on the evening of
the momentous dinner. The occasion was a solemn
one, and he wondered a little nervously how she would
carry it off. She came rather late, one hand still ungloved,
and fastening a bracelet about her wrist; yet she entered
without any appearance of haste or embarrassment
the drawing-room in which New York's most
chosen company was somewhat awfully assembled.

In the middle of the room she paused, looking about
her with a grave mouth and smiling eyes; and in that
instant Newland Archer rejected the general verdict on
her looks. It was true that her early radiance was gone.
The red cheeks had paled; she was thin, worn, a little
older-looking than her age, which must have been nearly
thirty. But there was about her the mysterious authority
of beauty, a sureness in the carriage of the head, the
movement of the eyes, which, without being in the least
theatrical, struck his as highly trained and full of a
conscious power. At the same time she was simpler in
manner than most of the ladies present, and many
people (as he heard afterward from Janey) were disappointed
that her appearance was not more "stylish"
--for stylishness was what New York most valued. It
was, perhaps, Archer reflected, because her early vivacity
had disappeared; because she was so quiet--quiet in
her movements, her voice, and the tones of her low-
pitched voice. New York had expected something a
good deal more reasonant in a young woman with such
a history.

The dinner was a somewhat formidable business.
Dining with the van der Luydens was at best no light
matter, and dining there with a Duke who was their
cousin was almost a religious solemnity. It pleased
Archer to think that only an old New Yorker could
perceive the shade of difference (to New York) between
being merely a Duke and being the van der Luydens'
Duke. New York took stray noblemen calmly, and
even (except in the Struthers set) with a certain distrustful
hauteur; but when they presented such credentials
as these they were received with an old-fashioned
cordiality that they would have been greatly mistaken in
ascribing solely to their standing in Debrett. It was for
just such distinctions that the young man cherished his
old New York even while he smiled at it.

The van der Luydens had done their best to emphasise
the importance of the occasion. The du Lac Sevres
and the Trevenna George II plate were out; so was the
van der Luyden "Lowestoft" (East India Company)
and the Dagonet Crown Derby. Mrs. van der Luyden
looked more than ever like a Cabanel, and Mrs. Archer,
in her grandmother's seed-pearls and emeralds, reminded
her son of an Isabey miniature. All the ladies had on
their handsomest jewels, but it was characteristic of the
house and the occasion that these were mostly in rather
heavy old-fashioned settings; and old Miss Lanning,
who had been persuaded to come, actually wore her
mother's cameos and a Spanish blonde shawl.

The Countess Olenska was the only young woman at
the dinner; yet, as Archer scanned the smooth plump
elderly faces between their diamond necklaces and
towering ostrich feathers, they struck him as curiously
immature compared with hers. It frightened him to
think what must have gone to the making of her eyes.

The Duke of St. Austrey, who sat at his hostess's
right, was naturally the chief figure of the evening. But
if the Countess Olenska was less conspicuous than had
been hoped, the Duke was almost invisible. Being a
well-bred man he had not (like another recent ducal
visitor) come to the dinner in a shooting-jacket; but his
evening clothes were so shabby and baggy, and he
wore them with such an air of their being homespun,
that (with his stooping way of sitting, and the vast
beard spreading over his shirt-front) he hardly gave the
appearance of being in dinner attire. He was short,
round-shouldered, sunburnt, with a thick nose, small
eyes and a sociable smile; but he seldom spoke, and
when he did it was in such low tones that, despite the
frequent silences of expectation about the table, his
remarks were lost to all but his neighbours.

When the men joined the ladies after dinner the
Duke went straight up to the Countess Olenska, and
they sat down in a corner and plunged into animated
talk. Neither seemed aware that the Duke should first
have paid his respects to Mrs. Lovell Mingott and Mrs. Headly
Chivers, and the Countess have conversed with
that amiable hypochondriac, Mr. Urban Dagonet of
Washington Square, who, in order to have the pleasure
of meeting her, had broken through his fixed rule of
not dining out between January and April. The two
chatted together for nearly twenty minutes; then the
Countess rose and, walking alone across the wide
drawing-room, sat down at Newland Archer's side.

It was not the custom in New York drawing-rooms
for a lady to get up and walk away from one gentleman
in order to seek the company of another. Etiquette
required that she should wait, immovable as an idol,
while the men who wished to converse with her succeeded
each other at her side. But the Countess was
apparently unaware of having broken any rule; she sat
at perfect ease in a corner of the sofa beside Archer,
and looked at him with the kindest eyes.

"I want you to talk to me about May," she said.

Instead of answering her he asked: "You knew the
Duke before?"

"Oh, yes--we used to see him every winter at Nice.
He's very fond of gambling--he used to come to the
house a great deal." She said it in the simplest manner,
as if she had said: "He's fond of wild-flowers"; and
after a moment she added candidly: "I think he's the
dullest man I ever met."

This pleased her companion so much that he forgot
the slight shock her previous remark had caused him. It
was undeniably exciting to meet a lady who found the
van der Luydens' Duke dull, and dared to utter the
opinion. He longed to question her, to hear more about
the life of which her careless words had given him so
illuminating a glimpse; but he feared to touch on
distressing memories, and before he could think of
anything to say she had strayed back to her original subject.

"May is a darling; I've seen no young girl in New
York so handsome and so intelligent. Are you very
much in love with her?"

Newland Archer reddened and laughed. "As much as
a man can be."

She continued to consider him thoughtfully, as if not
to miss any shade of meaning in what he said, "Do you
think, then, there is a limit?"

"To being in love? If there is, I haven't found it!"

She glowed with sympathy. "Ah--it's really and truly
a romance?"

"The most romantic of romances!"

"How delightful! And you found it all out for
yourselves--it was not in the least arranged for you?"

Archer looked at her incredulously. "Have you
forgotten," he asked with a smile, "that in our country we
don't allow our marriages to be arranged for us?"

A dusky blush rose to her cheek, and he instantly
regretted his words.

"Yes," she answered, "I'd forgotten. You must
forgive me if I sometimes make these mistakes. I don't
always remember that everything here is good that
was--that was bad where I've come from." She looked
down at her Viennese fan of eagle feathers, and he saw
that her lips trembled.

"I'm so sorry," he said impulsively; "but you ARE
among friends here, you know."

"Yes--I know. Wherever I go I have that feeling.
That's why I came home. I want to forget everything
else, to become a complete American again, like the
Mingotts and Wellands, and you and your delightful
mother, and all the other good people here tonight. Ah,
here's May arriving, and you will want to hurry away
to her," she added, but without moving; and her eyes
turned back from the door to rest on the young man's
face.

The drawing-rooms were beginning to fill up with
after-dinner guests, and following Madame Olenska's
glance Archer saw May Welland entering with her
mother. In her dress of white and silver, with a wreath
of silver blossoms in her hair, the tall girl looked like a
Diana just alight from the chase.

"Oh," said Archer, "I have so many rivals; you see
she's already surrounded. There's the Duke being
introduced."

"Then stay with me a little longer," Madame Olenska
said in a low tone, just touching his knee with her
plumed fan. It was the lightest touch, but it thrilled him
like a caress.

"Yes, let me stay," he answered in the same tone,
hardly knowing what he said; but just then Mr. van
der Luyden came up, followed by old Mr. Urban
Dagonet. The Countess greeted them with her grave
smile, and Archer, feeling his host's admonitory glance
on him, rose and surrendered his seat.

Madame Olenska held out her hand as if to bid him
goodbye.

"Tomorrow, then, after five--I shall expect you,"
she said; and then turned back to make room for Mr.
Dagonet.

"Tomorrow--" Archer heard himself repeating,
though there had been no engagement, and during their
talk she had given him no hint that she wished to see
him again.

As he moved away he saw Lawrence Lefferts, tall
and resplendent, leading his wife up to be introduced;
and heard Gertrude Lefferts say, as she beamed on the
Countess with her large unperceiving smile: "But I
think we used to go to dancing-school together when
we were children--." Behind her, waiting their turn to
name themselves to the Countess, Archer noticed a
number of the recalcitrant couples who had declined to
meet her at Mrs. Lovell Mingott's. As Mrs. Archer
remarked: when the van der Luydens chose, they knew
how to give a lesson. The wonder was that they chose
so seldom.

The young man felt a touch on his arm and saw Mrs.
van der Luyden looking down on him from the pure
eminence of black velvet and the family diamonds. "It
was good of you, dear Newland, to devote yourself so
unselfishly to Madame Olenska. I told your cousin
Henry he must really come to the rescue."

He was aware of smiling at her vaguely, and she
added, as if condescending to his natural shyness: "I've
never seen May looking lovelier. The Duke thinks her
the handsomest girl in the room."





The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Category:
General Fiction
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