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Chapter IX

The Countess Olenska had said "after five"; and at
half after the hour Newland Archer rang the bell
of the peeling stucco house with a giant wisteria throttling
its feeble cast-iron balcony, which she had hired,
far down West Twenty-third Street, from the vagabond
Medora.

It was certainly a strange quarter to have settled in.
Small dress-makers, bird-stuffers and "people who
wrote" were her nearest neighbours; and further down
the dishevelled street Archer recognised a dilapidated
wooden house, at the end of a paved path, in which a
writer and journalist called Winsett, whom he used to
come across now and then, had mentioned that he
lived. Winsett did not invite people to his house; but he
had once pointed it out to Archer in the course of a
nocturnal stroll, and the latter had asked himself, with
a little shiver, if the humanities were so meanly housed
in other capitals.

Madame Olenska's own dwelling was redeemed from
the same appearance only by a little more paint about
the window-frames; and as Archer mustered its modest
front he said to himself that the Polish Count must
have robbed her of her fortune as well as of her illusions.

The young man had spent an unsatisfactory day. He
had lunched with the Wellands, hoping afterward to
carry off May for a walk in the Park. He wanted to
have her to himself, to tell her how enchanting she had
looked the night before, and how proud he was of her,
and to press her to hasten their marriage. But Mrs.
Welland had firmly reminded him that the round of
family visits was not half over, and, when he hinted at
advancing the date of the wedding, had raised reproachful
eye-brows and sighed out: "Twelve dozen of
everything--hand-embroidered--"

Packed in the family landau they rolled from one
tribal doorstep to another, and Archer, when the afternoon's
round was over, parted from his betrothed with
the feeling that he had been shown off like a wild
animal cunningly trapped. He supposed that his readings
in anthropology caused him to take such a coarse
view of what was after all a simple and natural
demonstration of family feeling; but when he remembered
that the Wellands did not expect the wedding to take
place till the following autumn, and pictured what his
life would be till then, a dampness fell upon his spirit.

"Tomorrow," Mrs. Welland called after him, "we'll
do the Chiverses and the Dallases"; and he perceived
that she was going through their two families alphabetically,
and that they were only in the first quarter of the
alphabet.

He had meant to tell May of the Countess Olenska's
request--her command, rather--that he should call on
her that afternoon; but in the brief moments when they
were alone he had had more pressing things to say.
Besides, it struck him as a little absurd to allude to the
matter. He knew that May most particularly wanted
him to be kind to her cousin; was it not that wish
which had hastened the announcement of their engagement?
It gave him an odd sensation to reflect that, but
for the Countess's arrival, he might have been, if not
still a free man, at least a man less irrevocably pledged.
But May had willed it so, and he felt himself somehow
relieved of further responsibility--and therefore at liberty,
if he chose, to call on her cousin without telling
her.

As he stood on Madame Olenska's threshold curiosity
was his uppermost feeling. He was puzzled by the
tone in which she had summoned him; he concluded
that she was less simple than she seemed.

The door was opened by a swarthy foreign-looking
maid, with a prominent bosom under a gay neckerchief,
whom he vaguely fancied to be Sicilian. She
welcomed him with all her white teeth, and answering
his enquiries by a head-shake of incomprehension led
him through the narrow hall into a low firelit drawing-
room. The room was empty, and she left him, for an
appreciable time, to wonder whether she had gone to
find her mistress, or whether she had not understood
what he was there for, and thought it might be to wind
the clock--of which he perceived that the only visible
specimen had stopped. He knew that the southern races
communicated with each other in the language of
pantomime, and was mortified to find her shrugs and
smiles so unintelligible. At length she returned with a
lamp; and Archer, having meanwhile put together a
phrase out of Dante and Petrarch, evoked the answer:
"La signora e fuori; ma verra subito"; which he took
to mean: "She's out--but you'll soon see."

What he saw, meanwhile, with the help of the lamp,
was the faded shadowy charm of a room unlike any
room he had known. He knew that the Countess Olenska
had brought some of her possessions with her--bits of
wreckage, she called them--and these, he supposed,
were represented by some small slender tables of dark
wood, a delicate little Greek bronze on the chimney-
piece, and a stretch of red damask nailed on the
discoloured wallpaper behind a couple of Italian-looking
pictures in old frames.

Newland Archer prided himself on his knowledge of
Italian art. His boyhood had been saturated with
Ruskin, and he had read all the latest books: John Addington
Symonds, Vernon Lee's "Euphorion," the essays of P.
G. Hamerton, and a wonderful new volume called
"The Renaissance" by Walter Pater. He talked easily of
Botticelli, and spoke of Fra Angelico with a faint
condescension. But these pictures bewildered him, for they
were like nothing that he was accustomed to look at
(and therefore able to see) when he travelled in Italy;
and perhaps, also, his powers of observation were
impaired by the oddness of finding himself in this strange
empty house, where apparently no one expected him.
He was sorry that he had not told May Welland of
Countess Olenska's request, and a little disturbed by
the thought that his betrothed might come in to see her
cousin. What would she think if she found him sitting
there with the air of intimacy implied by waiting alone
in the dusk at a lady's fireside?

But since he had come he meant to wait; and he sank
into a chair and stretched his feet to the logs.

It was odd to have summoned him in that way, and
then forgotten him; but Archer felt more curious than
mortified. The atmosphere of the room was so different
from any he had ever breathed that self-consciousness
vanished in the sense of adventure. He had been before
in drawing-rooms hung with red damask, with pictures
"of the Italian school"; what struck him was the way
in which Medora Manson's shabby hired house, with
its blighted background of pampas grass and Rogers
statuettes, had, by a turn of the hand, and the skilful
use of a few properties, been transformed into something
intimate, "foreign," subtly suggestive of old
romantic scenes and sentiments. He tried to analyse the
trick, to find a clue to it in the way the chairs and
tables were grouped, in the fact that only two Jacqueminot
roses (of which nobody ever bought less than a
dozen) had been placed in the slender vase at his elbow,
and in the vague pervading perfume that was not
what one put on handkerchiefs, but rather like the
scent of some far-off bazaar, a smell made up of Turkish
coffee and ambergris and dried roses.

His mind wandered away to the question of what
May's drawing-room would look like. He knew that
Mr. Welland, who was behaving "very handsomely,"
already had his eye on a newly built house in East
Thirty-ninth Street. The neighbourhood was thought
remote, and the house was built in a ghastly greenish-
yellow stone that the younger architects were beginning
to employ as a protest against the brownstone of which
the uniform hue coated New York like a cold chocolate
sauce; but the plumbing was perfect. Archer would
have liked to travel, to put off the housing question;
but, though the Wellands approved of an extended
European honeymoon (perhaps even a winter in Egypt),
they were firm as to the need of a house for the
returning couple. The young man felt that his fate was
sealed: for the rest of his life he would go up every
evening between the cast-iron railings of that greenish-
yellow doorstep, and pass through a Pompeian vestibule
into a hall with a wainscoting of varnished yellow
wood. But beyond that his imagination could not travel.
He knew the drawing-room above had a bay window,
but he could not fancy how May would deal with it.
She submitted cheerfully to the purple satin and yellow
tuftings of the Welland drawing-room, to its sham Buhl
tables and gilt vitrines full of modern Saxe. He saw no
reason to suppose that she would want anything different
in her own house; and his only comfort was to
reflect that she would probably let him arrange his
library as he pleased--which would be, of course, with
"sincere" Eastlake furniture, and the plain new bookcases
without glass doors.

The round-bosomed maid came in, drew the
curtains, pushed back a log, and said consolingly:
"Verra--verra." When she had gone Archer stood up
and began to wander about. Should he wait any longer?
His position was becoming rather foolish. Perhaps he
had misunderstood Madame Olenska--perhaps she had
not invited him after all.

Down the cobblestones of the quiet street came the
ring of a stepper's hoofs; they stopped before the house,
and he caught the opening of a carriage door. Parting
the curtains he looked out into the early dusk. A street-
lamp faced him, and in its light he saw Julius Beaufort's
compact English brougham, drawn by a big roan,
and the banker descending from it, and helping out
Madame Olenska.

Beaufort stood, hat in hand, saying something which
his companion seemed to negative; then they shook
hands, and he jumped into his carriage while she
mounted the steps.

When she entered the room she showed no surprise
at seeing Archer there; surprise seemed the emotion
that she was least addicted to.

"How do you like my funny house?" she asked. "To
me it's like heaven."

As she spoke she untied her little velvet bonnet and
tossing it away with her long cloak stood looking at
him with meditative eyes.

"You've arranged it delightfully," he rejoined, alive
to the flatness of the words, but imprisoned in the
conventional by his consuming desire to be simple and
striking.

"Oh, it's a poor little place. My relations despise it.
But at any rate it's less gloomy than the van der
Luydens'."

The words gave him an electric shock, for few were
the rebellious spirits who would have dared to call the
stately home of the van der Luydens gloomy. Those
privileged to enter it shivered there, and spoke of it as
"handsome." But suddenly he was glad that she had
given voice to the general shiver.

"It's delicious--what you've done here," he repeated.

"I like the little house," she admitted; "but I suppose
what I like is the blessedness of its being here, in my
own country and my own town; and then, of being
alone in it." She spoke so low that he hardly heard the
last phrase; but in his awkwardness he took it up.

"You like so much to be alone?"

"Yes; as long as my friends keep me from feeling
lonely." She sat down near the fire, said: "Nastasia will
bring the tea presently," and signed to him to return to
his armchair, adding: "I see you've already chosen your
corner."

Leaning back, she folded her arms behind her head,
and looked at the fire under drooping lids.

"This is the hour I like best--don't you?"

A proper sense of his dignity caused him to answer:
"I was afraid you'd forgotten the hour. Beaufort must
have been very engrossing."

She looked amused. "Why--have you waited long?
Mr. Beaufort took me to see a number of houses--
since it seems I'm not to be allowed to stay in this
one." She appeared to dismiss both Beaufort and himself
from her mind, and went on: "I've never been in a
city where there seems to be such a feeling against
living in des quartiers excentriques. What does it
matter where one lives? I'm told this street is respectable."

"It's not fashionable."

"Fashionable! Do you all think so much of that?
Why not make one's own fashions? But I suppose I've
lived too independently; at any rate, I want to do what
you all do--I want to feel cared for and safe."

He was touched, as he had been the evening before
when she spoke of her need of guidance.

"That's what your friends want you to feel. New
York's an awfully safe place," he added with a flash of
sarcasm.

"Yes, isn't it? One feels that," she cried, missing the
mockery. "Being here is like--like--being taken on a
holiday when one has been a good little girl and done
all one's lessons."

The analogy was well meant, but did not altogether
please him. He did not mind being flippant about New
York, but disliked to hear any one else take the same
tone. He wondered if she did not begin to see what a
powerful engine it was, and how nearly it had crushed
her. The Lovell Mingotts' dinner, patched up in extremis
out of all sorts of social odds and ends, ought to have
taught her the narrowness of her escape; but either she
had been all along unaware of having skirted disaster,
or else she had lost sight of it in the triumph of the van
der Luyden evening. Archer inclined to the former theory;
he fancied that her New York was still completely
undifferentiated, and the conjecture nettled him.

"Last night," he said, "New York laid itself out for
you. The van der Luydens do nothing by halves."

"No: how kind they are! It was such a nice party.
Every one seems to have such an esteem for them."

The terms were hardly adequate; she might have
spoken in that way of a tea-party at the dear old Miss
Lannings'.

"The van der Luydens," said Archer, feeling himself
pompous as he spoke, "are the most powerful influence
in New York society. Unfortunately--owing to her
health--they receive very seldom."

She unclasped her hands from behind her head, and
looked at him meditatively.

"Isn't that perhaps the reason?"

"The reason--?"

"For their great influence; that they make themselves
so rare."

He coloured a little, stared at her--and suddenly felt
the penetration of the remark. At a stroke she had
pricked the van der Luydens and they collapsed. He
laughed, and sacrificed them.

Nastasia brought the tea, with handleless Japanese
cups and little covered dishes, placing the tray on a low
table.

"But you'll explain these things to me--you'll tell me
all I ought to know," Madame Olenska continued,
leaning forward to hand him his cup.

"It's you who are telling me; opening my eyes to
things I'd looked at so long that I'd ceased to see
them."

She detached a small gold cigarette-case from one of
her bracelets, held it out to him, and took a cigarette
herself. On the chimney were long spills for lighting
them.

"Ah, then we can both help each other. But I want
help so much more. You must tell me just what to do."

It was on the tip of his tongue to reply: "Don't be
seen driving about the streets with Beaufort--" but he
was being too deeply drawn into the atmosphere of the
room, which was her atmosphere, and to give advice of
that sort would have been like telling some one who
was bargaining for attar-of-roses in Samarkand that one
should always be provided with arctics for a New York
winter. New York seemed much farther off than
Samarkand, and if they were indeed to help each other
she was rendering what might prove the first of their
mutual services by making him look at his native city
objectively. Viewed thus, as through the wrong end of
a telescope, it looked disconcertingly small and distant;
but then from Samarkand it would.

A flame darted from the logs and she bent over the
fire, stretching her thin hands so close to it that a faint
halo shone about the oval nails. The light touched to
russet the rings of dark hair escaping from her braids,
and made her pale face paler.

"There are plenty of people to tell you what to do,"
Archer rejoined, obscurely envious of them.

"Oh--all my aunts? And my dear old Granny?" She
considered the idea impartially. "They're all a little
vexed with me for setting up for myself--poor Granny
especially. She wanted to keep me with her; but I had
to be free--" He was impressed by this light way of
speaking of the formidable Catherine, and moved by
the thought of what must have given Madame Olenska
this thirst for even the loneliest kind of freedom. But
the idea of Beaufort gnawed him.

"I think I understand how you feel," he said. "Still,
your family can advise you; explain differences; show
you the way."

She lifted her thin black eyebrows. "Is New York
such a labyrinth? I thought it so straight up and down--
like Fifth Avenue. And with all the cross streets
numbered!" She seemed to guess his faint disapproval of
this, and added, with the rare smile that enchanted her
whole face: "If you knew how I like it for just THAT--
the straight-up-and-downness, and the big honest labels on everything!"

He saw his chance. "Everything may be labelled--
but everybody is not."

"Perhaps. I may simplify too much--but you'll warn
me if I do." She turned from the fire to look at him.
"There are only two people here who make me feel as
if they understood what I mean and could explain
things to me: you and Mr. Beaufort."

Archer winced at the joining of the names, and then,
with a quick readjustment, understood, sympathised
and pitied. So close to the powers of evil she must have
lived that she still breathed more freely in their air. But
since she felt that he understood her also, his business
would be to make her see Beaufort as he really was,
with all he represented--and abhor it.

He answered gently: "I understand. But just at first
don't let go of your old friends' hands: I mean the
older women, your Granny Mingott, Mrs. Welland,
Mrs. van der Luyden. They like and admire you--they
want to help you."

She shook her head and sighed. "Oh, I know--I
know! But on condition that they don't hear anything
unpleasant. Aunt Welland put it in those very words
when I tried. . . . Does no one want to know the truth
here, Mr. Archer? The real loneliness is living among
all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!"
She lifted her hands to her face, and he saw her thin
shoulders shaken by a sob.

"Madame Olenska!--Oh, don't, Ellen," he cried, starting
up and bending over her. He drew down one of her
hands, clasping and chafing it like a child's while he
murmured reassuring words; but in a moment she freed
herself, and looked up at him with wet lashes.

"Does no one cry here, either? I suppose there's no
need to, in heaven," she said, straightening her loosened
braids with a laugh, and bending over the tea-
kettle. It was burnt into his consciousness that he had
called her "Ellen"--called her so twice; and that she
had not noticed it. Far down the inverted telescope he
saw the faint white figure of May Welland--in New
York.

Suddenly Nastasia put her head in to say something
in her rich Italian.

Madame Olenska, again with a hand at her hair,
uttered an exclamation of assent--a flashing "Gia--
gia"--and the Duke of St. Austrey entered, piloting
a tremendous blackwigged and red-plumed lady in overflowing furs.

"My dear Countess, I've brought an old friend of
mine to see you--Mrs. Struthers. She wasn't asked to
the party last night, and she wants to know you."

The Duke beamed on the group, and Madame Olenska
advanced with a murmur of welcome toward the queer
couple. She seemed to have no idea how oddly matched
they were, nor what a liberty the Duke had taken in
bringing his companion--and to do him justice, as
Archer perceived, the Duke seemed as unaware of it
himself.

"Of course I want to know you, my dear," cried
Mrs. Struthers in a round rolling voice that matched
her bold feathers and her brazen wig. "I want to know
everybody who's young and interesting and charming.
And the Duke tells me you like music--didn't you,
Duke? You're a pianist yourself, I believe? Well, do
you want to hear Sarasate play tomorrow evening at
my house? You know I've something going on every
Sunday evening--it's the day when New York doesn't
know what to do with itself, and so I say to it: `Come
and be amused.' And the Duke thought you'd be tempted
by Sarasate. You'll find a number of your friends."

Madame Olenska's face grew brilliant with pleasure.
"How kind! How good of the Duke to think of me!"
She pushed a chair up to the tea-table and Mrs. Struthers
sank into it delectably. "Of course I shall be too
happy to come."

"That's all right, my dear. And bring your young
gentleman with you." Mrs. Struthers extended a hail-
fellow hand to Archer. "I can't put a name to you--but
I'm sure I've met you--I've met everybody, here, or in
Paris or London. Aren't you in diplomacy? All the
diplomatists come to me. You like music too? Duke,
you must be sure to bring him."

The Duke said "Rather" from the depths of his
beard, and Archer withdrew with a stiffly circular bow
that made him feel as full of spine as a self-conscious
school-boy among careless and unnoticing elders.

He was not sorry for the denouement of his visit:
he only wished it had come sooner, and spared him a
certain waste of emotion. As he went out into the
wintry night, New York again became vast and imminent,
and May Welland the loveliest woman in it. He
turned into his florist's to send her the daily box of
lilies-of-the-valley which, to his confusion, he found he
had forgotten that morning.

As he wrote a word on his card and waited for an
envelope he glanced about the embowered shop, and
his eye lit on a cluster of yellow roses. He had never
seen any as sun-golden before, and his first impulse
was to send them to May instead of the lilies. But they
did not look like her--there was something too rich,
too strong, in their fiery beauty. In a sudden revulsion
of mood, and almost without knowing what he did, he
signed to the florist to lay the roses in another long
box, and slipped his card into a second envelope, on
which he wrote the name of the Countess Olenska;
then, just as he was turning away, he drew the card out
again, and left the empty envelope on the box.

"They'll go at once?" he enquired, pointing to the
roses.

The florist assured him that they would.





The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Category:
General Fiction
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