It was, as Mrs. Archer smilingly said to Mrs. Welland, a great event for _oung couple to give their first big dinner.
The Newland Archers, since they had set up their household, had received _ood deal of company in an informal way. Archer was fond of having three o_our friends to dine, and May welcomed them with the beaming readiness o_hich her mother had set her the example in conjugal affairs. Her husban_uestioned whether, if left to herself, she would ever have asked any one t_he house; but he had long given up trying to disengage her real self from th_hape into which tradition and training had moulded her. It was expected tha_ell-off young couples in New York should do a good deal of informa_ntertaining, and a Welland married to an Archer was doubly pledged to th_radition.
But a big dinner, with a hired chef and two borrowed footmen, with Roma_unch, roses from Henderson's, and menus on gilt-edged cards, was a differen_ffair, and not to be lightly undertaken. As Mrs. Archer remarked, the Roma_unch made all the difference; not in itself but by its manifol_mplications—since it signified either canvas-backs or terrapin, two soups, _ot and a cold sweet, full decolletage with short sleeves, and guests of _roportionate importance.
It was always an interesting occasion when a young pair launched their firs_nvitations in the third person, and their summons was seldom refused even b_he seasoned and sought-after. Still, it was admittedly a triumph that the va_er Luydens, at May's request, should have stayed over in order to be presen_t her farewell dinner for the Countess Olenska.
The two mothers-in-law sat in May's drawing-room on the afternoon of the grea_ay, Mrs. Archer writing out the menus on Tiffany's thickest gilt-edge_ristol, while Mrs. Welland superintended the placing of the palms an_tandard lamps.
Archer, arriving late from his office, found them still there. Mrs. Archer ha_urned her attention to the name-cards for the table, and Mrs. Welland wa_onsidering the effect of bringing forward the large gilt sofa, so tha_nother "corner" might be created between the piano and the window.
May, they told him, was in the dining-room inspecting the mound of Jacquemino_oses and maidenhair in the centre of the long table, and the placing of th_aillard bonbons in openwork silver baskets between the candelabra. On th_iano stood a large basket of orchids which Mr. van der Luyden had had sen_rom Skuytercliff. Everything was, in short, as it should be on the approac_f so considerable an event.
Mrs. Archer ran thoughtfully over the list, checking off each name with he_harp gold pen.
"Henry van der Luyden—Louisa—the Lovell Mingotts —the Reggi_hiverses—Lawrence Lefferts and Gertrude—(yes, I suppose May was right to hav_hem)—the Selfridge Merrys, Sillerton Jackson, Van Newland and his wife. (Ho_ime passes! It seems only yesterday that he was your best man, Newland)—an_ountess 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 tel_eople 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 i_sually so dreary," Mrs. Welland cheerfully continued.
Archer turned toward the door, and his mother-in- law called to him: "Do go i_nd have a peep at the table. And don't let May tire herself too much." But h_ffected not to hear, and sprang up the stairs to his library. The room looke_t him like an alien countenance composed into a polite grimace; and h_erceived that it had been ruthlessly "tidied," and prepared, by a judiciou_istribution 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. Durin_hose ten days Archer had had no sign from her but that conveyed by the retur_f a key wrapped in tissue paper, and sent to his office in a sealed envelop_ddressed in her hand. This retort to his last appeal might have bee_nterpreted as a classic move in a familiar game; but the young man chose t_ive it a different meaning. She was still fighting against her fate; but sh_as going to Europe, and she was not returning to her husband. Nothing, therefore, was to prevent his following her; and once he had taken th_rrevocable step, and had proved to her that it was irrevocable, he believe_he would not send him away.
This confidence in the future had steadied him to play his part in th_resent. It had kept him from writing to her, or betraying, by any sign o_ct, his misery and mortification. It seemed to him that in the deadly silen_ame between them the trumps were still in his hands; and he waited.
There had been, nevertheless, moments sufficiently difficult to pass; as whe_r. Letterblair, the day after Madame Olenska's departure, had sent for him t_o over the details of the trust which Mrs. Manson Mingott wished to creat_or her granddaughter. For a couple of hours Archer had examined the terms o_he deed with his senior, all the while obscurely feeling that if he had bee_onsulted 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. Letterblai_ad summed up, after mumbling over a summary of the settlement. "In fact I'_ound to say she's been treated pretty handsomely all round."
"All round?" Archer echoed with a touch of derision. "Do you refer to he_usband'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 wa_ooking down it with the expression assumed by virtuous elderly gentlemen whe_hey wish their youngers to understand that virtue is not synonymous wit_gnorance.
"My dear sir, I've no wish to extenuate the Count's transgressions; but—but o_he other side … I wouldn't put my hand in the fire … well, that there hadn'_een tit for tat … with the young champion… ." Mr. Letterblair unlocked _rawer and pushed a folded paper toward Archer. "This report, the result o_iscreet enquiries … " And then, as Archer made no effort to glance at th_aper or to repudiate the suggestion, the lawyer somewhat flatly continued: "_on't say it's conclusive, you observe; far from it. But straws show … and o_he whole it's eminently satisfactory for all parties that this dignifie_olution 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, hi_oul 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 hi_eply: "Oh, don't ask me why! She gave so many reasons that I've forgotte_hem all. My private belief is that she couldn't face the boredom. At any rat_hat's what Augusta and my daughters-in-law think. And I don't know that _ltogether blame her. Olenski's a finished scoundrel; but life with him mus_ave been a good deal gayer than it is in Fifth Avenue. Not that the famil_ould admit that: they think Fifth Avenue is Heaven with the rue de la Pai_hrown in. And poor Ellen, of course, has no idea of going back to he_usband. She held out as firmly as ever against that. So she's to settle dow_n Paris with that fool Medora… . Well, Paris is Paris; and you can keep _arriage there on next to nothing. But she was as gay as a bird, and I shal_iss her." Two tears, the parched tears of the old, rolled down her puff_heeks and vanished in the abysses of her bosom.
"All I ask is," she concluded, "that they shouldn't bother me any more. I mus_eally be allowed to digest my gruel… ." And she twinkled a little wistfull_t Archer.
It was that evening, on his return home, that May announced her intention o_iving a farewell dinner to her cousin. Madame Olenska's name had not bee_ronounced between them since the night of her flight to Washington; an_rcher 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 w_ught to." She paused, embarrassed and yet smiling, and Archer suddenly sa_efore him the embodied image of the Family.
"Oh, all right," he said, staring with unseeing eyes at the list of guest_hat she had put in his hand.
When he entered the drawing-room before dinner May was stooping over the fir_nd trying to coax the logs to burn in their unaccustomed setting o_mmaculate tiles.
The tall lamps were all lit, and Mr. van der Luyden's orchids had bee_onspicuously disposed in various receptacles of modern porcelain and knobb_ilver. Mrs. Newland Archer's drawing-room was generally thought a grea_uccess. A gilt bamboo jardiniere, in which the primulas and cinerarias wer_unctually renewed, blocked the access to the bay window (where the old- fashioned would have preferred a bronze reduction of the Venus of Milo); th_ofas and arm-chairs of pale brocade were cleverly grouped about little plus_ables densely covered with silver toys, porcelain animals and efflorescen_hotograph frames; and tall rosy-shaded lamps shot up like tropical flower_mong the palms.
"I don't think Ellen has ever seen this room lighted up," said May, risin_lushed 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 fel_ith a crash that drowned her husband's answer; and before he could restor_hem Mr. and Mrs. van der Luyden were announced.
The other guests quickly followed, for it was known that the van der Luyden_iked to dine punctually. The room was nearly full, and Archer was engaged i_howing to Mrs. Selfridge Merry a small highly-varnished Verbeckhoven "Stud_f Sheep," which Mr. Welland had given May for Christmas, when he found Madam_lenska at his side.
She was excessively pale, and her pallor made her dark hair seem denser an_eavier than ever. Perhaps that, or the fact that she had wound several row_f amber beads about her neck, reminded him suddenly of the little Elle_ingott he had danced with at children's parties, when Medora Manson had firs_rought her to New York.
The amber beads were trying to her complexion, or her dress was perhap_nbecoming: her face looked lustreless and almost ugly, and he had never love_t 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 unmeanin_oise of opening doors, and after an interval May's voice: "Newland! Dinner'_een announced. Won't you please take Ellen in?"
Madame Olenska put her hand on his arm, and he noticed that the hand wa_ngloved, and remembered how he had kept his eyes fixed on it the evening tha_e had sat with her in the little Twenty-third Street drawing- room. All th_eauty that had forsaken her face seemed to have taken refuge in the long pal_ingers 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" tha_rs. van der Luyden could suffer the diminution of being placed on her host'_eft. The fact of Madame Olenska's "foreignness" could hardly have been mor_droitly emphasised than by this farewell tribute; and Mrs. van der Luyde_ccepted her displacement with an affability which left no doubt as to he_pproval. 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 don_o proclaim their unalterable affection for the Countess Olenska now that he_assage for Europe was engaged; and Archer, at the head of his table, sa_arvelling at the silent untiring activity with which her popularity had bee_etrieved, grievances against her silenced, her past countenanced, and he_resent irradiated by the family approval. Mrs. van der Luyden shone on he_ith 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 glance_lainly intended to justify all the carnations he had sent from Skuytercliff.
Archer, who seemed to be assisting at the scene in a state of od_mponderability, as if he floated somewhere between chandelier and ceiling, wondered at nothing so much as his own share in the proceedings. As his glanc_ravelled 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, tha_o all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers, lovers in the extreme sens_eculiar to "foreign" vocabularies. He guessed himself to have been, fo_onths, the centre of countless silently observing eyes and patientl_istening ears; he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, th_eparation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, an_hat now the whole tribe had rallied about his wife on the tacit assumptio_hat nobody knew anything, or had ever imagined anything, and that th_ccasion of the entertainment was simply May Archer's natural desire to tak_n affectionate leave of her friend and cousin.
It was the old New York way of taking life "without effusion of blood": th_ay of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency abov_ourage, 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 prisone_n the centre of an armed camp. He looked about the table, and guessed at th_nexorableness of his captors from the tone in which, over the asparagus fro_lorida, they were dealing with Beaufort and his wife. "It's to show me," h_hought, "what would happen to ME—" and a deathly sense of the superiority o_mplication 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 poo_egina'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 ha_een engaged for some time with the lady on his right. At the same moment h_aw that May, serenely enthroned between Mr. van der Luyden and Mr. Selfridg_erry, had cast a quick glance down the table. It was evident that the hos_nd the lady on his right could not sit through the whole meal in silence. H_urned to Madame Olenska, and her pale smile met him. "Oh, do let's see i_hrough," it seemed to say.
"Did you find the journey tiring?" he asked in a voice that surprised him b_ts naturalness; and she answered that, on the contrary, she had seldo_ravelled with fewer discomforts.
"Except, you know, the dreadful heat in the train," she added; and he remarke_hat she would not suffer from that particular hardship in the country she wa_oing to.
"I never," he declared with intensity, "was more nearly frozen than once, i_pril, in the train between Calais and Paris."
She said she did not wonder, but remarked that, after all, one could alway_arry an extra rug, and that every form of travel had its hardships; to whic_e abruptly returned that he thought them all of no account compared with th_lessedness of getting away. She changed colour, and he added, his voic_uddenly rising in pitch: "I mean to do a lot of travelling myself befor_ong." A tremor crossed her face, and leaning over to Reggie Chivers, he crie_ut: "I say, Reggie, what do you say to a trip round the world: now, nex_onth, I mean? I'm game if you are—" at which Mrs. Reggie piped up that sh_ould not think of letting Reggie go till after the Martha Washington Ball sh_as getting up for the Blind Asylum in Easter week; and her husband placidl_bserved that by that time he would have to be practising for th_nternational Polo match.
But Mr. Selfridge Merry had caught the phrase "round the world," and havin_nce circled the globe in his steam-yacht, he seized the opportunity to sen_own the table several striking items concerning the shallowness of th_editerranean ports. Though, after all, he added, it didn't matter; for whe_ou'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 the_romise 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 Leffert_redominated.
The talk, as usual, had veered around to the Beauforts, and even Mr. van de_uyden and Mr. Selfridge Merry, installed in the honorary arm-chairs tacitl_eserved for them, paused to listen to the younger man's philippic.
Never had Lefferts so abounded in the sentiments that adorn Christian manhoo_nd 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 h_alked, society would never have been weak enough to receive a foreign upstar_ike Beaufort—no, sir, not even if he'd married a van der Luyden or a Lannin_nstead of a Dallas. And what chance would there have been, Leffert_rathfully questioned, of his marrying into such a family as the Dallases, i_e 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 t_pen its doors to vulgar women the harm was not great, though the gain wa_oubtful; but once it got in the way of tolerating men of obscure origin an_ainted wealth the end was total disintegration—and at no distant date.
"If things go on at this pace," Lefferts thundered, looking like a youn_rophet dressed by Poole, and who had not yet been stoned, "we shall see ou_hildren fighting for invitations to swindlers' houses, and marryin_eaufort's bastards."
"Oh, I say—draw it mild!" Reggie Chivers and young Newland protested, whil_r. Selfridge Merry looked genuinely alarmed, and an expression of pain an_isgust settled on Mr. van der Luyden's sensitive face.
"Has he got any?" cried Mr. Sillerton Jackson, pricking up his ears; and whil_efferts tried to turn the question with a laugh, the old gentleman twittere_nto Archer's ear: "Queer, those fellows who are always wanting to set thing_ight. The people who have the worst cooks are always telling you they'r_oisoned when they dine out. But I hear there are pressing reasons for ou_riend Lawrence's diatribe:—typewriter this time, I understand… ."
The talk swept past Archer like some senseless river running and runnin_ecause 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 younge_en's laughter, and to the praise of the Archer Madeira, which Mr. van de_uyden and Mr. Merry were thoughtfully celebrating. Through it all he wa_imly aware of a general attitude of friendliness toward himself, as if th_uard of the prisoner he felt himself to be were trying to soften hi_aptivity; and the perception increased his passionate determination to b_ree.
In the drawing-room, where they presently joined the ladies, he met May'_riumphant eyes, and read in them the conviction that everything had "gon_ff" 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 sh_hroned. Mrs. Selfridge Merry bore across the room to join them, and it becam_lear to Archer that here also a conspiracy of rehabilitation and obliteratio_as going on. The silent organisation which held his little world together wa_etermined to put itself on record as never for a moment having questioned th_ropriety of Madame Olenska's conduct, or the completeness of Archer'_omestic felicity. All these amiable and inexorable persons were resolutel_ngaged in pretending to each other that they had never heard of, suspected, or even conceived possible, the least hint to the contrary; and from thi_issue of elaborate mutual dissimulation Archer once more disengaged the fac_hat New York believed him to be Madame Olenska's lover. He caught the glitte_f victory in his wife's eyes, and for the first time understood that sh_hared the belief. The discovery roused a laughter of inner devils tha_everberated through all his efforts to discuss the Martha Washington bal_ith 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. H_nderstood that in a moment she would be gone, and tried to remember what h_ad said to her at dinner; but he could not recall a single word they ha_xchanged.
She went up to May, the rest of the company making a circle about her as sh_dvanced. The two young women clasped hands; then May bent forward and kisse_er cousin.
"Certainly our hostess is much the handsomer of the two," Archer heard Reggi_hivers say in an undertone to young Mrs. Newland; and he remembere_eaufort's coarse sneer at May's ineffectual beauty.
A moment later he was in the hall, putting Madame Olenska's cloak about he_houlders.
Through all his confusion of mind he had held fast to the resolve to sa_othing that might startle or disturb her. Convinced that no power could no_urn him from his purpose he had found strength to let events shape themselve_s they would. But as he followed Madame Olenska into the hall he thought wit_ sudden hunger of being for a moment alone with her at the door of he_arriage.
"Is your carriage here?" he asked; and at that moment Mrs. van der Luyden, wh_as being majestically inserted into her sables, said gently: "We are drivin_ear Ellen home."
Archer's heart gave a jerk, and Madame Olenska, clasping her cloak and fa_ith 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 t_im 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. va_er Luyden. For a moment, in the billowy darkness inside the big landau, h_aught 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 hi_ife. Lefferts caught his host by the sleeve, drawing back to let Gertrud_ass.
"I say, old chap: do you mind just letting it be understood that I'm dinin_ith 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 o_he library.
Archer roused himself with a start. As soon as the last carriage had drive_way, he had come up to the library and shut himself in, with the hope tha_is wife, who still lingered below, would go straight to her room. But ther_he stood, pale and drawn, yet radiating the factitious energy of one who ha_assed 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. A_ength 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 fro_verything—"
He paused, conscious that he had failed in his attempt to speak with th_ndifference of a man who longs for a change, and is yet too weary to welcom_t. Do what he would, the chord of eagerness vibrated. "Away from everything—"
"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, h_elt her warmly and fragrantly hovering over him.
"As far as that? But I'm afraid you can't, dear … " she said in an unstead_oice. "Not unless you'll take me with you." And then, as he was silent, sh_ent on, in tones so clear and evenly-pitched that each separate syllabl_apped like a little hammer on his brain: "That is, if the doctors will let m_o … but I'm afraid they won't. For you see, Newland, I've been sure sinc_his 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 he_air.
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, turnin_is eyes from hers, he asked abruptly: "Have you told any one else?"
"Only Mamma and your mother." She paused, and then added hurriedly, the bloo_lushing up to her forehead: "That is—and Ellen. You know I told you we'd ha_ 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 he_irst, Newland?"
"Mind? Why should I?" He made a last effort to collect himself. "But that wa_ 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 _old her I was. And you see I was right!" she exclaimed, her blue eyes we_ith victory.