Every year on the fifteenth of October Fifth Avenue opened its shutters, unrolled its carpets and hung up its triple layer of window-curtains.
By the first of November this household ritual was over, and society had begu_o look about and take stock of itself. By the fifteenth the season was i_ull blast, Opera and theatres were putting forth their new attractions, dinner-engagements were accumulating, and dates for dances being fixed. An_unctually at about this time Mrs. Archer always said that New York was ver_uch changed.
Observing it from the lofty stand-point of a non- participant, she was able, with the help of Mr. Sillerton Jackson and Miss Sophy, to trace each new crac_n its surface, and all the strange weeds pushing up between the ordered row_f social vegetables. It had been one of the amusements of Archer's youth t_ait for this annual pronouncement of his mother's, and to hear her enumerat_he minute signs of disintegration that his careless gaze had overlooked. Fo_ew York, to Mrs. Archer's mind, never changed without changing for the worse; and in this view Miss Sophy Jackson heartily concurred.
Mr. Sillerton Jackson, as became a man of the world, suspended his judgmen_nd listened with an amused impartiality to the lamentations of the ladies.
But even he never denied that New York had changed; and Newland Archer, in th_inter of the second year of his marriage, was himself obliged to admit tha_f it had not actually changed it was certainly changing.
These points had been raised, as usual, at Mrs. Archer's Thanksgiving dinner.
At the date when she was officially enjoined to give thanks for the blessing_f the year it was her habit to take a mournful though not embittered stock o_er world, and wonder what there was to be thankful for. At any rate, not th_tate of society; society, if it could be said to exist, was rather _pectacle on which to call down Biblical imprecations— and in fact, every on_new what the Reverend Dr. Ashmore meant when he chose a text from Jeremiah (chap. ii., verse 25) for his Thanksgiving sermon. Dr. Ashmore, the new Recto_f St. Matthew's, had been chosen because he was very "advanced": his sermon_ere considered bold in thought and novel in language. When he fulminate_gainst fashionable society he always spoke of its "trend"; and to Mrs. Arche_t was terrifying and yet fascinating to feel herself part of a community tha_as trending.
"There's no doubt that Dr. Ashmore is right: there IS a marked trend," sh_aid, as if it were something visible and measurable, like a crack in a house.
"It was odd, though, to preach about it on Thanksgiving," Miss Jackson opined; and her hostess drily rejoined: "Oh, he means us to give thanks for what'_eft."
Archer had been wont to smile at these annual vaticinations of his mother's; but this year even he was obliged to acknowledge, as he listened to a_numeration of the changes, that the "trend" was visible.
"The extravagance in dress—" Miss Jackson began. "Sillerton took me to th_irst night of the Opera, and I can only tell you that Jane Merry's dress wa_he only one I recognised from last year; and even that had had the fron_anel changed. Yet I know she got it out from Worth only two years ago, because my seamstress always goes in to make over her Paris dresses before sh_ears them."
"Ah, Jane Merry is one of US," said Mrs. Archer sighing, as if it were no_uch an enviable thing to be in an age when ladies were beginning to flaun_broad their Paris dresses as soon as they were out of the Custom House, instead of letting them mellow under lock and key, in the manner of Mrs.
"Yes; she's one of the few. In my youth," Miss Jackson rejoined, "it wa_onsidered vulgar to dress in the newest fashions; and Amy Sillerton ha_lways told me that in Boston the rule was to put away one's Paris dresses fo_wo years. Old Mrs. Baxter Pennilow, who did everything handsomely, used t_mport twelve a year, two velvet, two satin, two silk, and the other six o_oplin and the finest cashmere. It was a standing order, and as she was il_or two years before she died they found forty-eight Worth dresses that ha_ever been taken out of tissue paper; and when the girls left off thei_ourning they were able to wear the first lot at the Symphony concerts withou_ooking in advance of the fashion."
"Ah, well, Boston is more conservative than New York; but I always think it'_ safe rule for a lady to lay aside her French dresses for one season," Mrs.
"It was Beaufort who started the new fashion by making his wife clap her ne_lothes on her back as soon as they arrived: I must say at times it takes al_egina's distinction not to look like … like … " Miss Jackson glanced aroun_he table, caught Janey's bulging gaze, and took refuge in an unintelligibl_urmur.
"Like her rivals," said Mr. Sillerton Jackson, with the air of producing a_pigram.
"Oh,—" the ladies murmured; and Mrs. Archer added, partly to distract he_aughter's attention from forbidden topics: "Poor Regina! Her Thanksgivin_asn't been a very cheerful one, I'm afraid. Have you heard the rumours abou_eaufort's speculations, Sillerton?"
Mr. Jackson nodded carelessly. Every one had heard the rumours in question, and he scorned to confirm a tale that was already common property.
A gloomy silence fell upon the party. No one really liked Beaufort, and it wa_ot wholly unpleasant to think the worst of his private life; but the idea o_is having brought financial dishonour on his wife's family was too shockin_o be enjoyed even by his enemies. Archer's New York tolerated hypocrisy i_rivate relations; but in business matters it exacted a limpid and impeccabl_onesty. It was a long time since any well- known banker had faile_iscreditably; but every one remembered the social extinction visited on th_eads of the firm when the last event of the kind had happened. It would b_he same with the Beauforts, in spite of his power and her popularity; not al_he leagued strength of the Dallas connection would save poor Regina if ther_ere any truth in the reports of her husband's unlawful speculations.
The talk took refuge in less ominous topics; but everything they touched o_eemed to confirm Mrs. Archer's sense of an accelerated trend.
"Of course, Newland, I know you let dear May go to Mrs. Struthers's Sunda_venings—" she began; and May interposed gaily: "Oh, you know, everybody goe_o Mrs. Struthers's now; and she was invited to Granny's last reception."
It was thus, Archer reflected, that New York managed its transitions: conspiring to ignore them till they were well over, and then, in all goo_aith, imagining that they had taken place in a preceding age. There wa_lways a traitor in the citadel; and after he (or generally she) ha_urrendered the keys, what was the use of pretending that it was impregnable?
Once people had tasted of Mrs. Struthers's easy Sunday hospitality they wer_ot likely to sit at home remembering that her champagne was transmuted Shoe- Polish.
"I know, dear, I know," Mrs. Archer sighed. "Such things have to be, _uppose, as long as AMUSEMENT is what people go out for; but I've never quit_orgiven your cousin Madame Olenska for being the first person to countenanc_rs. Struthers."
A sudden blush rose to young Mrs. Archer's face; it surprised her husband a_uch as the other guests about the table. "Oh, ELLEN—" she murmured, much i_he same accusing and yet deprecating tone in which her parents might hav_aid: "Oh, THE BLENKERS—."
It was the note which the family had taken to sounding on the mention of th_ountess Olenska's name, since she had surprised and inconvenienced them b_emaining obdurate to her husband's advances; but on May's lips it gave foo_or thought, and Archer looked at her with the sense of strangeness tha_ometimes came over him when she was most in the tone of her environment.
His mother, with less than her usual sensitiveness to atmosphere, stil_nsisted: "I've always thought that people like the Countess Olenska, who hav_ived in aristocratic societies, ought to help us to keep up our socia_istinctions, instead of ignoring them."
May's blush remained permanently vivid: it seemed to have a significanc_eyond that implied by the recognition of Madame Olenska's social bad faith.
"I've no doubt we all seem alike to foreigners," said Miss Jackson tartly.
"I don't think Ellen cares for society; but nobody knows exactly what she doe_are for," May continued, as if she had been groping for somethin_oncommittal.
"Ah, well—" Mrs. Archer sighed again.
Everybody knew that the Countess Olenska was no longer in the good graces o_er family. Even her devoted champion, old Mrs. Manson Mingott, had bee_nable to defend her refusal to return to her husband. The Mingotts had no_roclaimed their disapproval aloud: their sense of solidarity was too strong.
They had simply, as Mrs. Welland said, "let poor Ellen find her own level"—an_hat, mortifyingly and incomprehensibly, was in the dim depths where th_lenkers prevailed, and "people who wrote" celebrated their untidy rites. I_as incredible, but it was a fact, that Ellen, in spite of all he_pportunities and her privileges, had become simply "Bohemian." The fac_nforced the contention that she had made a fatal mistake in not returning t_ount Olenski. After all, a young woman's place was under her husband's roof, especially when she had left it in circumstances that … well … if one ha_ared to look into them …
"Madame Olenska is a great favourite with the gentlemen," said Miss Sophy, with her air of wishing to put forth something conciliatory when she knew tha_he was planting a dart.
"Ah, that's the danger that a young woman like Madame Olenska is alway_xposed to," Mrs. Archer mournfully agreed; and the ladies, on thi_onclusion, gathered up their trains to seek the carcel globes of the drawing- room, while Archer and Mr. Sillerton Jackson withdrew to the Gothic library.
Once established before the grate, and consoling himself for the inadequacy o_he dinner by the perfection of his cigar, Mr. Jackson became portentous an_ommunicable.
"If the Beaufort smash comes," he announced, "there are going to b_isclosures."
Archer raised his head quickly: he could never hear the name without the shar_ision of Beaufort's heavy figure, opulently furred and shod, advancin_hrough the snow at Skuytercliff.
"There's bound to be," Mr. Jackson continued, "the nastiest kind of a cleanin_p. He hasn't spent all his money on Regina."
"Oh, well—that's discounted, isn't it? My belief is he'll pull out yet," sai_he young man, wanting to change the subject.
"Perhaps—perhaps. I know he was to see some of the influential people today.
Of course," Mr. Jackson reluctantly conceded, "it's to be hoped they can tid_im over—this time anyhow. I shouldn't like to think of poor Regina's spendin_he rest of her life in some shabby foreign watering-place for bankrupts."
Archer said nothing. It seemed to him so natural— however tragic—that mone_ll-gotten should be cruelly expiated, that his mind, hardly lingering ove_rs. Beaufort's doom, wandered back to closer questions. What was the meanin_f May's blush when the Countess Olenska had been mentioned?
Four months had passed since the midsummer day that he and Madame Olenska ha_pent together; and since then he had not seen her. He knew that she ha_eturned to Washington, to the little house which she and Medora Manson ha_aken there: he had written to her once—a few words, asking when they were t_eet again—and she had even more briefly replied: "Not yet."
Since then there had been no farther communication between them, and he ha_uilt up within himself a kind of sanctuary in which she throned among hi_ecret thoughts and longings. Little by little it became the scene of his rea_ife, of his only rational activities; thither he brought the books he read, the ideas and feelings which nourished him, his judgments and his visions.
Outside it, in the scene of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense o_nreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices an_raditional points of view as an absent-minded man goes on bumping into th_urniture of his own room. Absent—that was what he was: so absent fro_verything most densely real and near to those about him that it sometime_tartled him to find they still imagined he was there.
He became aware that Mr. Jackson was clearing his throat preparatory t_arther revelations.
"I don't know, of course, how far your wife's family are aware of what peopl_ay about—well, about Madame Olenska's refusal to accept her husband's lates_ffer."
Archer was silent, and Mr. Jackson obliquely continued: "It's a pity—it'_ertainly a pity—that she refused it."
"A pity? In God's name, why?"
Mr. Jackson looked down his leg to the unwrinkled sock that joined it to _lossy pump.
"Well—to put it on the lowest ground—what's she going to live on now?"
Archer sprang up, his fist banging down on the black walnut-edge of th_riting-table. The wells of the brass double-inkstand danced in their sockets.
"What the devil do you mean, sir?"
Mr. Jackson, shifting himself slightly in his chair, turned a tranquil gaze o_he young man's burning face.
"Well—I have it on pretty good authority—in fact, on old Catherine'_erself—that the family reduced Countess Olenska's allowance considerably whe_he definitely refused to go back to her husband; and as, by this refusal, sh_lso forfeits the money settled on her when she married—which Olenski wa_eady to make over to her if she returned—why, what the devil do YOU mean, m_ear boy, by asking me what I mean?" Mr. Jackson good-humouredly retorted.
Archer moved toward the mantelpiece and bent over to knock his ashes into th_rate.
"I don't know anything of Madame Olenska's private affairs; but I don't nee_o, to be certain that what you insinuate—"
"Oh, I don't: it's Lefferts, for one," Mr. Jackson interposed.
"Lefferts—who made love to her and got snubbed for it!" Archer broke ou_ontemptuously.
"Ah—DID he?" snapped the other, as if this were exactly the fact he had bee_aying a trap for. He still sat sideways from the fire, so that his hard ol_aze held Archer's face as if in a spring of steel.
"Well, well: it's a pity she didn't go back before Beaufort's cropper," h_epeated. "If she goes NOW, and if he fails, it will only confirm the genera_mpression: which isn't by any means peculiar to Lefferts, by the way."
"Oh, she won't go back now: less than ever!" Archer had no sooner said it tha_e had once more the feeling that it was exactly what Mr. Jackson had bee_aiting for.
The old gentleman considered him attentively. "That's your opinion, eh? Well, no doubt you know. But everybody will tell you that the few pennies Medor_anson has left are all in Beaufort's hands; and how the two women are to kee_heir heads above water unless he does, I can't imagine. Of course, Madam_lenska may still soften old Catherine, who's been the most inexorably oppose_o her staying; and old Catherine could make her any allowance she chooses.
But we all know that she hates parting with good money; and the rest of th_amily have no particular interest in keeping Madame Olenska here."
Archer was burning with unavailing wrath: he was exactly in the state when _an is sure to do something stupid, knowing all the while that he is doing it.
He saw that Mr. Jackson had been instantly struck by the fact that Madam_lenska's differences with her grandmother and her other relations were no_nown to him, and that the old gentleman had drawn his own conclusions as t_he reasons for Archer's exclusion from the family councils. This fact warne_rcher to go warily; but the insinuations about Beaufort made him reckless. H_as mindful, however, if not of his own danger, at least of the fact that Mr.
Jackson was under his mother's roof, and consequently his guest. Old New Yor_crupulously observed the etiquette of hospitality, and no discussion with _uest was ever allowed to degenerate into a disagreement.
"Shall we go up and join my mother?" he suggested curtly, as Mr. Jackson'_ast cone of ashes dropped into the brass ashtray at his elbow.
On the drive homeward May remained oddly silent; through the darkness, h_till felt her enveloped in her menacing blush. What its menace meant he coul_ot guess: but he was sufficiently warned by the fact that Madame Olenska'_ame had evoked it.
They went upstairs, and he turned into the library. She usually followed him; but he heard her passing down the passage to her bedroom.
"May!" he called out impatiently; and she came back, with a slight glance o_urprise at his tone.
"This lamp is smoking again; I should think the servants might see that it'_ept properly trimmed," he grumbled nervously.
"I'm so sorry: it shan't happen again," she answered, in the firm bright ton_he had learned from her mother; and it exasperated Archer to feel that sh_as already beginning to humour him like a younger Mr. Welland. She bent ove_o lower the wick, and as the light struck up on her white shoulders and th_lear curves of her face he thought: "How young she is! For what endless year_his life will have to go on!"
He felt, with a kind of horror, his own strong youth and the bounding blood i_is veins. "Look here," he said suddenly, "I may have to go to Washington fo_ few days—soon; next week perhaps."
Her hand remained on the key of the lamp as she turned to him slowly. The hea_rom its flame had brought back a glow to her face, but it paled as she looke_p.
"On business?" she asked, in a tone which implied that there could be no othe_onceivable reason, and that she had put the question automatically, as i_erely to finish his own sentence.
"On business, naturally. There's a patent case coming up before the Suprem_ourt—" He gave the name of the inventor, and went on furnishing details wit_ll Lawrence Lefferts's practised glibness, while she listened attentively, saying at intervals: "Yes, I see."
"The change will do you good," she said simply, when he had finished; "and yo_ust be sure to go and see Ellen," she added, looking him straight in the eye_ith her cloudless smile, and speaking in the tone she might have employed i_rging him not to neglect some irksome family duty.
It was the only word that passed between them on the subject; but in the cod_n which they had both been trained it meant: "Of course you understand that _now all that people have been saying about Ellen, and heartily sympathis_ith my family in their effort to get her to return to her husband. I als_now that, for some reason you have not chosen to tell me, you have advise_er against this course, which all the older men of the family, as well as ou_randmother, agree in approving; and that it is owing to your encouragemen_hat Ellen defies us all, and exposes herself to the kind of criticism o_hich Mr. Sillerton Jackson probably gave you, this evening, the hint that ha_ade you so irritable… . Hints have indeed not been wanting; but since yo_ppear unwilling to take them from others, I offer you this one myself, in th_nly form in which well-bred people of our kind can communicate unpleasan_hings to each other: by letting you understand that I know you mean to se_llen when you are in Washington, and are perhaps going there expressly fo_hat purpose; and that, since you are sure to see her, I wish you to do s_ith my full and explicit approval— and to take the opportunity of letting he_now what the course of conduct you have encouraged her in is likely to lea_o."
Her hand was still on the key of the lamp when the last word of this mut_essage reached him. She turned the wick down, lifted off the globe, an_reathed on the sulky flame.
"They smell less if one blows them out," she explained, with her brigh_ousekeeping air. On the threshold she turned and paused for his kiss.