"At the court of the Tuileries," said Mr. Sillerton Jackson with hi_eminiscent 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 bee_hrown by this deplorable affair made their presence in town more necessar_han ever. It was one of the occasions when, as Mrs. Archer put it, they "owe_t to society" to show themselves at the Opera, and even to open their ow_oors.
"It will never do, my dear Louisa, to let people like Mrs. Lemuel Struther_hink they can step into Regina's shoes. It is just at such times that ne_eople push in and get a footing. It was owing to the epidemic of chicken-po_n New York the winter Mrs. Struthers first appeared that the married me_lipped away to her house while their wives were in the nursery. You and dea_enry, Louisa, must stand in the breach as you always have."
Mr. and Mrs. van der Luyden could not remain deaf to such a call, an_eluctantly but heroically they had come to town, unmuffled the house, an_ent out invitations for two dinners and an evening reception.
On this particular evening they had invited Sillerton Jackson, Mrs. Archer an_ewland and his wife to go with them to the Opera, where Faust was being sun_or the first time that winter. Nothing was done without ceremony under th_an der Luyden roof, and though there were but four guests the repast ha_egun at seven punctually, so that the proper sequence of courses might b_erved without haste before the gentlemen settled down to their cigars.
Archer had not seen his wife since the evening before. He had left early fo_he 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 hi_ime; and he had reached home so late that May had preceded him to the van de_uydens', and sent back the carriage.
Now, across the Skuytercliff carnations and the massive plate, she struck hi_s pale and languid; but her eyes shone, and she talked with exaggerate_nimation.
The subject which had called forth Mr. Sillerton Jackson's favourite allusio_ad been brought up (Archer fancied not without intention) by their hostess.
The Beaufort failure, or rather the Beaufort attitude since the failure, wa_till a fruitful theme for the drawing- room moralist; and after it had bee_horoughly examined and condemned Mrs. van der Luyden had turned he_crupulous eyes on May Archer.
"Is it possible, dear, that what I hear is true? I was told your grandmothe_ingott's carriage was seen standing at Mrs. Beaufort's door." It wa_oticeable 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 convince_t was there without Mrs. Mingott's knowledge."
"Ah, you think—?" Mrs. van der Luyden paused, sighed, and glanced at he_usband.
"I'm afraid," Mr. van der Luyden said, "that Madame Olenska's kind heart ma_ave led her into the imprudence of calling on Mrs. Beaufort."
"Or her taste for peculiar people," put in Mrs. Archer in a dry tone, whil_er eyes dwelt innocently on her son's.
"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 Skuytercliff!"
It was at this point that Mr. Jackson seized the chance to place his favourit_llusion.
"At the Tuileries," he repeated, seeing the eyes of the company expectantl_urned on him, "the standard was excessively lax in some respects; and i_ou'd asked where Morny's money came from—! Or who paid the debts of some o_he Court beauties … "
"I hope, dear Sillerton," said Mrs. Archer, "you are not suggesting that w_hould adopt such standards?"
"I never suggest," returned Mr. Jackson imperturbably. "But Madame Olenska'_oreign 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, an_esenting, the hampers of carnations he had sent to the little house i_wenty-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 wer_carcely an extenuation; and Mrs. van der Luyden murmured: "If only she ha_onsulted some one—"
"Ah, that she never did!" Mrs. Archer rejoined.
At this point Mr. van der Luyden glanced at his wife, who bent her hea_lightly in the direction of Mrs. Archer; and the glimmering trains of th_hree ladies swept out of the door while the gentlemen settled down to thei_igars. Mr. van der Luyden supplied short ones on Opera nights; but they wer_o good that they made his guests deplore his inexorable punctuality.
Archer, after the first act, had detached himself from the party and made hi_ay 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, tw_ears previously, on the night of his first meeting with Ellen Olenska. He ha_alf- expected her to appear again in old Mrs. Mingott's box, but it remaine_mpty; and he sat motionless, his eyes fastened on it, till suddenly Madam_ilsson's pure soprano broke out into "M'ama, non m'ama … "
Archer turned to the stage, where, in the familiar setting of giant roses an_en-wiper pansies, the same large blonde victim was succumbing to the sam_mall brown seducer.
From the stage his eyes wandered to the point of the horseshoe where May sa_etween two older ladies, just as, on that former evening, she had sat betwee_rs. Lovell Mingott and her newly-arrived "foreign" cousin. As on tha_vening, 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 costl_arment during the first year or two of marriage: his mother, he knew, kep_ers in tissue paper in the hope that Janey might some day wear it, thoug_oor Janey was reaching the age when pearl grey poplin and no bridesmaid_ould be thought more "appropriate."
It struck Archer that May, since their return from Europe, had seldom worn he_ridal satin, and the surprise of seeing her in it made him compare he_ppearance with that of the young girl he had watched with such blissfu_nticipations two years earlier.
Though May's outline was slightly heavier, as her goddesslike build ha_oretold, her athletic erectness of carriage, and the girlish transparency o_er expression, remained unchanged: but for the slight languor that Archer ha_ately noticed in her she would have been the exact image of the girl playin_ith the bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley on her betrothal evening. The fac_eemed an additional appeal to his pity: such innocence was as moving as th_rustful clasp of a child. Then he remembered the passionate generosity laten_nder that incurious calm. He recalled her glance of understanding when he ha_rged that their engagement should be announced at the Beaufort ball; he hear_he voice in which she had said, in the Mission garden: "I couldn't have m_appiness made out of a wrong—a wrong to some one else;" and an uncontrollabl_onging 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 th_iscipline of a small society had become almost his second nature. It wa_eeply distasteful to him to do anything melodramatic and conspicuous, anything Mr. van der Luyden would have deprecated and the club box condemne_s 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 o_abit. He walked along the semi-circular passage at the back of the house, an_pened the door of Mrs. van der Luyden's box as if it had been a gate into th_nknown.
"M'ama!" thrilled out the triumphant Marguerite; and the occupants of the bo_ooked up in surprise at Archer's entrance. He had already broken one of th_ules 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 hi_ife.
"I've got a beastly headache; don't tell any one, but come home, won't you?"
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 de_uyden, 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 _ignificant smile between the older ladies.
As they drove away May laid her hand shyly on his. "I'm so sorry you don'_eel 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, feelin_is wife beside him as a silent watchful interrogation, and keeping his eye_teadily fixed on the passing houses. At their door she caught her skirt i_he 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 t_ather 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 o_as on the upper landing.
Archer mounted the stairs, turned up the light, and put a match to th_rackets on each side of the library mantelpiece. The curtains were drawn, an_he warm friendly aspect of the room smote him like that of a familiar fac_et during an unavowable errand.
He noticed that his wife was very pale, and asked if he should get her som_randy.
"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 silve_ox 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 wan_o 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 wit_hich she received this preamble.
"May—" he began, standing a few feet from her chair, and looking over at he_s if the slight distance between them were an unbridgeable abyss. The soun_f 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 stil_xtremely pale, but her face had a curious tranquillity of expression tha_eemed drawn from some secret inner source.
Archer checked the conventional phrases of self-accusal that were crowding t_is lips. He was determined to put the case baldly, without vain recriminatio_r excuse.
"Madame Olenska—" he said; but at the name his wife raised her hand as if t_ilence 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 o_mpatience.
"Because I ought to have spoken before."
Her face remained calm. "Is it really worth while, dear? I know I've bee_nfair 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 unrealit_n 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 t_urope so soon; since Granny approves and understands, and has arranged t_ake her independent of her husband—"
She broke off, and Archer, grasping the corner of the mantelpiece in on_onvulsed hand, and steadying himself against it, made a vain effort to exten_he same control to his reeling thoughts.
"I supposed," he heard his wife's even voice go on, "that you had been kept a_he office this evening about the business arrangements. It was settled thi_orning, I believe." She lowered her eyes under his unseeing stare, an_nother fugitive flush passed over her face.
He understood that his own eyes must be unbearable, and turning away, reste_is elbows on the mantel- shelf and covered his face. Something drummed an_langed furiously in his ears; he could not tell if it were the blood in hi_eins, or the tick of the clock on the mantel.
May sat without moving or speaking while the clock slowly measured out fiv_inutes. A lump of coal fell forward in the grate, and hearing her rise t_ush 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 Granny's."
"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 bac_lmost immediately.
"I thought you knew," she said simply.
She laid a sheet of paper on the table, and Archer put out his hand and too_t up. The letter contained only a few lines.
"May dear, I have at last made Granny understand that my visit to her could b_o more than a visit; and she has been as kind and generous as ever. She see_ow that if I return to Europe I must live by myself, or rather with poor Aun_edora, 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 goo_s you've always been to me. Ellen.
"If any of my friends wish to urge me to change my mind, please tell them i_ould be utterly useless."
Archer read the letter over two or three times; then he flung it down an_urst out laughing.
The sound of his laugh startled him. It recalled Janey's midnight fright whe_he had caught him rocking with incomprehensible mirth over May's telegra_nnouncing 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 talke_hings over yesterday—"
"I told her I was afraid I hadn't been fair to her— hadn't always understoo_ow hard it must have been for her here, alone among so many people who wer_elations and yet strangers; who felt the right to criticise, and yet didn'_lways know the circumstances." She paused. "I knew you'd been the one frien_he could always count on; and I wanted her to know that you and I were th_ame—in all our feelings."
She hesitated, as if waiting for him to speak, and then added slowly: "Sh_nderstood 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 quickl_gainst her cheek.
"My head aches too; good-night, dear," she said, and turned to the door, he_orn and muddy wedding- dress dragging after her across the room.