It was generally agreed in New York that the Countess Olenska had "lost he_ooks."
She had appeared there first, in Newland Archer's boyhood, as a brilliantl_retty little girl of nine or ten, of whom people said that she "ought to b_ainted." Her parents had been continental wanderers, and after a roamin_abyhood she had lost them both, and been taken in charge by her aunt, Medor_anson, also a wanderer, who was herself returning to New York to "settl_own."
Poor Medora, repeatedly widowed, was always coming home to settle down (eac_ime in a less expensive house), and bringing with her a new husband or a_dopted child; but after a few months she invariably parted from her husban_r quarrelled with her ward, and, having got rid of her house at a loss, se_ut again on her wanderings. As her mother had been a Rushworth, and her las_nhappy marriage had linked her to one of the crazy Chiverses, New York looke_ndulgently on her eccentricities; but when she returned with her littl_rphaned niece, whose parents had been popular in spite of their regrettabl_aste for travel, people thought it a pity that the pretty child should be i_uch hands.
Every one was disposed to be kind to little Ellen Mingott, though her dusk_ed cheeks and tight curls gave her an air of gaiety that seemed unsuitable i_ child who should still have been in black for her parents. It was one of th_isguided Medora's many peculiarities to flout the unalterable rules tha_egulated American mourning, and when she stepped from the steamer her famil_ere scandalised to see that the crape veil she wore for her own brother wa_even inches shorter than those of her sisters-in-law, while little Ellen wa_n crimson merino and amber beads, like a gipsy foundling.
But New York had so long resigned itself to Medora that only a few old ladie_hook their heads over Ellen's gaudy clothes, while her other relations fel_nder the charm of her high colour and high spirits. She was a fearless an_amiliar little thing, who asked disconcerting questions, made precociou_omments, and possessed outlandish arts, such as dancing a Spanish shawl danc_nd 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 Papa_itle, had resumed her first husband's patronymic, and called herself th_archioness Manson, because in Italy she could turn it into Manzoni) th_ittle girl received an expensive but incoherent education, which included
"drawing from the model," a thing never dreamed of before, and playing th_iano in quintets with professional musicians.
Of course no good could come of this; and when, a few years later, poo_hivers 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 bon_irl with conspicuous eyes. For some time no more was heard of them; then new_ame of Ellen's marriage to an immensely rich Polish nobleman of legendar_ame, whom she had met at a ball at the Tuileries, and who was said to hav_rincely establishments in Paris, Nice and Florence, a yacht at Cowes, an_any square miles of shooting in Transylvania. She disappeared in a kind o_ulphurous apotheosis, and when a few years later Medora again came back t_ew York, subdued, impoverished, mourning a third husband, and in quest of _till smaller house, people wondered that her rich niece had not been able t_o something for her. Then came the news that Ellen's own marriage had ende_n disaster, and that she was herself returning home to seek rest and oblivio_mong her kinsfolk.
These things passed through Newland Archer's mind a week later as he watche_he Countess Olenska enter the van der Luyden drawing-room on the evening o_he momentous dinner. The occasion was a solemn one, and he wondered a littl_ervously how she would carry it off. She came rather late, one hand stil_ngloved, and fastening a bracelet about her wrist; yet she entered withou_ny appearance of haste or embarrassment the drawing-room in which New York'_ost chosen company was somewhat awfully assembled.
In the middle of the room she paused, looking about her with a grave mouth an_miling eyes; and in that instant Newland Archer rejected the general verdic_n her looks. It was true that her early radiance was gone. The red cheeks ha_aled; she was thin, worn, a little older-looking than her age, which mus_ave been nearly thirty. But there was about her the mysterious authority o_eauty, 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 an_ull of a conscious power. At the same time she was simpler in manner tha_ost of the ladies present, and many people (as he heard afterward from Janey)
were disappointed that her appearance was not more "stylish" —for stylishnes_as what New York most valued. It was, perhaps, Archer reflected, because he_arly vivacity had disappeared; because she was so quiet—quiet in he_ovements, her voice, and the tones of her low- pitched voice. New York ha_xpected something a good deal more reasonant in a young woman with such _istory.
The dinner was a somewhat formidable business. Dining with the van der Luyden_as at best no light matter, and dining there with a Duke who was their cousi_as almost a religious solemnity. It pleased Archer to think that only an ol_ew Yorker could perceive the shade of difference (to New York) between bein_erely a Duke and being the van der Luydens' Duke. New York took stra_oblemen calmly, and even (except in the Struthers set) with a certai_istrustful hauteur; but when they presented such credentials as these the_ere received with an old-fashioned cordiality that they would have bee_reatly mistaken in ascribing solely to their standing in Debrett. It was fo_ust such distinctions that the young man cherished his old New York eve_hile he smiled at it.
The van der Luydens had done their best to emphasise the importance of th_ccasion. The du Lac Sevres and the Trevenna George II plate were out; so wa_he van der Luyden "Lowestoft" (East India Company) and the Dagonet Crow_erby. 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 a_sabey miniature. All the ladies had on their handsomest jewels, but it wa_haracteristic of the house and the occasion that these were mostly in rathe_eavy old-fashioned settings; and old Miss Lanning, who had been persuaded t_ome, actually wore her mother's cameos and a Spanish blonde shawl.
The Countess Olenska was the only young woman at the dinner; yet, as Arche_canned the smooth plump elderly faces between their diamond necklaces an_owering ostrich feathers, they struck him as curiously immature compared wit_ers. It frightened him to think what must have gone to the making of he_yes.
The Duke of St. Austrey, who sat at his hostess's right, was naturally th_hief figure of the evening. But if the Countess Olenska was less conspicuou_han had been hoped, the Duke was almost invisible. Being a well-bred man h_ad 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 the_ith such an air of their being homespun, that (with his stooping way o_itting, and the vast beard spreading over his shirt-front) he hardly gave th_ppearance of being in dinner attire. He was short, round-shouldered,
sunburnt, with a thick nose, small eyes and a sociable smile; but he seldo_poke, and when he did it was in such low tones that, despite the frequen_ilences of expectation about the table, his remarks were lost to all but hi_eighbours.
When the men joined the ladies after dinner the Duke went straight up to th_ountess Olenska, and they sat down in a corner and plunged into animate_alk. Neither seemed aware that the Duke should first have paid his respect_o Mrs. Lovell Mingott and Mrs. Headly Chivers, and the Countess hav_onversed with that amiable hypochondriac, Mr. Urban Dagonet of Washingto_quare, who, in order to have the pleasure of meeting her, had broken throug_is fixed rule of not dining out between January and April. The two chatte_ogether for nearly twenty minutes; then the Countess rose and, walking alon_cross 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 wal_way from one gentleman in order to seek the company of another. Etiquett_equired that she should wait, immovable as an idol, while the men who wishe_o converse with her succeeded each other at her side. But the Countess wa_pparently unaware of having broken any rule; she sat at perfect ease in _orner 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 o_ambling—he used to come to the house a great deal." She said it in th_implest manner, as if she had said: "He's fond of wild-flowers"; and after _oment 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 he_revious remark had caused him. It was undeniably exciting to meet a lady wh_ound the van der Luydens' Duke dull, and dared to utter the opinion. H_onged to question her, to hear more about the life of which her careles_ords had given him so illuminating a glimpse; but he feared to touch o_istressing memories, and before he could think of anything to say she ha_trayed back to her original subject.
"May is a darling; I've seen no young girl in New York so handsome and s_ntelligent. 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 o_eaning 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 th_east arranged for you?"
Archer looked at her incredulously. "Have you forgotten," he asked with _mile, "that in our country we don't allow our marriages to be arranged fo_s?"
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 mak_hese mistakes. I don't always remember that everything here is good tha_as—that was bad where I've come from." She looked down at her Viennese fan o_agle feathers, and he saw that her lips trembled.
"I'm so sorry," he said impulsively; "but you ARE among friends here, yo_now."
"Yes—I know. Wherever I go I have that feeling. That's why I came home. I wan_o forget everything else, to become a complete American again, like th_ingotts and Wellands, and you and your delightful mother, and all the othe_ood people here tonight. Ah, here's May arriving, and you will want to hurr_way to her," she added, but without moving; and her eyes turned back from th_oor to rest on the young man's face.
The drawing-rooms were beginning to fill up with after-dinner guests, an_ollowing Madame Olenska's glance Archer saw May Welland entering with he_other. In her dress of white and silver, with a wreath of silver blossoms i_er 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, jus_ouching his knee with her plumed fan. It was the lightest touch, but i_hrilled 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'_dmonitory 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 turne_ack to make room for Mr. Dagonet.
"Tomorrow—" Archer heard himself repeating, though there had been n_ngagement, and during their talk she had given him no hint that she wished t_ee him again.
As he moved away he saw Lawrence Lefferts, tall and resplendent, leading hi_ife up to be introduced; and heard Gertrude Lefferts say, as she beamed o_he Countess with her large unperceiving smile: "But I think we used to go t_ancing-school together when we were children—." Behind her, waiting thei_urn to name themselves to the Countess, Archer noticed a number of th_ecalcitrant couples who had declined to meet her at Mrs. Lovell Mingott's. A_rs. Archer remarked: when the van der Luydens chose, they knew how to give _esson. The wonder was that they chose so seldom.
The young man felt a touch on his arm and saw Mrs. van der Luyden looking dow_n him from the pure eminence of black velvet and the family diamonds. "It wa_ood of you, dear Newland, to devote yourself so unselfishly to Madam_lenska. 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 t_is natural shyness: "I've never seen May looking lovelier. The Duke think_er the handsomest girl in the room."