Edith Wharton > The Age of Innocence > Book I. XII.
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Edith Wharton (1862–1937).  The Age of Innocence.  1920.

Book I

XII
 
OLD-FASHIONED New York dined at seven, and the habit of after-dinner calls, though derided in Archer’s set, still generally prevailed. As the young man strolled up Fifth Avenue from Waverley Place, the long thoroughfare was deserted but for a group of carriages standing before the Reggie Chiverses’ (where there was a dinner for the Duke), and the occasional figure of an elderly gentleman in heavy overcoat and muffler ascending a brownstone doorstep and disappearing into a gas-lit hall. Thus, as Archer crossed Washington Square, he remarked that old Mr. du Lac was calling on his cousins the Dagonets, and turning down the corner of West Tenth Street he saw Mr. Skipworth, of his own firm, obviously bound on a visit to the Miss Lannings. A little farther up Fifth Avenue, Beaufort appeared on his doorstep, darkly projected against a blaze of light, descended to his private brougham, and rolled away to a mysterious and probably unmentionable destination. It was not an Opera night, and no one was giving a party, so that Beaufort’s outing was undoubtedly of a clandestine nature. Archer connected it in his mind with a little house beyond Lexington Avenue in which beribboned window curtains and flower-boxes had recently appeared, and before whose newly painted door the canary-coloured brougham of Miss Fanny Ring was frequently seen to wait.   1
  Beyond the small and slippery pyramid which composed Mrs. Archer’s world lay the almost unmapped quarter inhabited by artists, musicians and “people who wrote.” These scattered fragments of humanity had never shown any desire to be amalgamated with the social structure. In spite of odd ways they were said to be, for the most part, quite respectable; but they preferred to keep to themselves. Medora Manson, in her prosperous days, had inaugurated a “literary salon”; but it had soon died out owing to the reluctance of the literary to frequent it.   2
  Others had made the same attempt, and there was a household of Blenkers—an intense and voluble mother, and three blowsy daughters who imitated her—where one met Edwin Booth and Patti and William Winter, and the new Shakespearian actor George Rignold, and some of the magazine editors and musical and literary critics.   3
  Mrs. Archer and her group felt a certain timidity concerning these persons. They were odd, they were uncertain, they had things one didn’t know about in the background of their lives and minds. Literature and art were deeply respected in the Archer set, and Mrs. Archer was always at pains to tell her children how much more agreeable and cultivated society had been when it included such figures as Washington Irving, Fitz-Greene Halleck and the poet of “The Culprit Fay.” The most celebrated authors of that generation had been “gentlemen”; perhaps the unknown persons who succeeded them had gentlemanly sentiments, but their origin, their appearance, their hair, their intimacy with the stage and the Opera, made any old New York criterion inapplicable to them.   4
  “When I was a girl,” Mrs. Archer used to say, “we knew everybody between the Battery and Canal Street; and only the people one knew had carriages. It was perfectly easy to place any one then; now one can’t tell, and I prefer not to try.”   5
  Only old Catherine Mingott, with her absence of moral prejudices and almost parvenu indifference to the subtler distinctions, might have bridged the abyss; but she had never opened a book or looked at a picture, and cared for music only because it reminded her of gala nights at the Italiens, in the days of her triumph at the Tuileries. Possibly Beaufort, who was her match in daring, would have succeeded in bringing about a fusion; but his grand house and silk-stockinged footmen were an obstacle to informal sociability. Moreover, he was as illiterate as old Mrs. Mingott, and considered “fellows who wrote” as the mere paid purveyors of rich men’s pleasures; and no one rich enough to influence his opinion had ever questioned it.   6
  Newland Archer had been aware of these things ever since he could remember, and had accepted them as part of the structure of his universe. He knew that there were societies where painters and poets and novelists and men of science, and even great actors, were as sought after as Dukes; he had often pictured to himself what it would have been to live in the intimacy of drawing-rooms dominated by the talk of Mérimée (whose Lettres à une Inconnue was one of his inseparables), of Thackeray, Browning or William Morris. But such things were inconceivable in New York, and unsettling to think of. Archer knew most of the “fellows who wrote,” the musicians and the painters: he met them at the Century, or at the little musical and theatrical clubs that were beginning to come into existence. He enjoyed them there, and was bored with them at the Blenkers’, where they were mingled with fervid and dowdy women who passed them about like captured curiosities; and even after his most exciting talks with Ned Winsett he always came away with the feeling that if his world was small, so was theirs, and that the only way to enlarge either was to reach a stage of manners where they would naturally merge.   7
  He was reminded of this by trying to picture the society in which the Countess Olenska had lived and suffered, and also—perhaps—tasted mysterious joys. He remembered with what amusement she had told him that her grandmother Mingott and the Wellands objected to her living in a “Bohemian” quarter given over to “people who wrote.” It was not the peril but the poverty that her family disliked; but that shade escaped her, and she supposed they considered literature compromising.   8
  She herself had no fears of it, and the books scattered about her drawing-room (a part of the house in which books were usually supposed to be “out of place”), though chiefly works of fiction, had whetted Archer’s interest with such new names as those of Paul Bourget, Huysmans, and the Goncourt brothers. Ruminating on these things as he approached her door, he was once more conscious of the curious way in which she reversed his values, and of the need of thinking himself into conditions incredibly different from any that he knew if he were to be of use in her present difficulty.   9
  Nastasia opened the door, smiling mysteriously. On the bench in the hall lay a sable-lined overcoat, a folded opera hat of dull silk with a gold J. B. on the lining, and a white silk muffler: there was no mistaking the fact that these costly articles were the property of Julius Beaufort.  10
  Archer was angry: so angry that he came near scribbling a word on his card and going away; then he remembered that in writing to Madame Olenska he had been kept by excess of discretion from saying that he wished to see her privately. He had therefore no one but himself to blame if she had opened her doors to other visitors; and he entered the drawing-room with the dogged determination to make Beaufort feel himself in the way, and to outstay him.  11
  The banker stood leaning against the mantelshelf, which was draped with an old embroidery held in place by brass candelabra containing church candies of yellowish wax. He had thrust his chest out, supporting his shoulders against the mantel and resting his weight on one large patent-leather foot. As Archer entered he was smiling and looking down on his hostess, who sat on a sofa placed at right angles to the chimney. A table banked with flowers formed a screen behind it, and against the orchids and azaleas which the young man recognised as tributes from the Beaufort hot-houses, Madame Olenska sat half-reclined, her head propped on a hand and her wide sleeve leaving the arm bare to the elbow.  12
  It was usual for ladies who received in the evenings to wear what were called “simple dinner dresses”: a close-fitting armour of whale-boned silk, slightly open in the neck, with lace ruffles filling in the crack, and tight sleeves with a flounce uncovering just enough wrist to show an Etruscan gold bracelet or a velvet band. But Madame Olenska, heedless of tradition, was attired in a long robe of red velvet bordered about the chin and down the front with glossy black fur. Archer remembered, on his last visit to Paris, seeing a portrait by the new painter, Carolus Duran, whose pictures were the sensation of the Salon, in which the lady wore one of these bold sheath-like robes with her chin nestling in fur. There was something perverse and provocative in the notion of fur worn in the evening in a heated drawing-room, and in the combination of a muffled throat and bare arms; but the effect was undeniably pleasing.  13
  “Lord love us—three whole days at Skuytercliff!” Beaufort was saying in his loud sneering voice as Archer entered. “You’d better take all your furs, and a hot water-bottle.”  14
  “Why? Is the house so cold?” she asked, holding out her left hand to Archer in a way mysteriously suggesting that she expected him to kiss it.  15
  “No; but the missus is,” said Beaufort, nodding carelessly to the young man.  16
  “But I thought her so kind. She came herself to invite me. Granny says I must certainly go.”  17
  “Granny would, of course. And I say it’s a shame you’re going to miss the little oyster supper I’d planned for you at Delmonico’s next Sunday, with Campanini and Scalchi and a lot of jolly people.”  18
  She looked doubtfully from the banker to Archer.  19
  “Ah—that does tempt me! Except the other evening at Mrs. Struthers’s I’ve not met a single artist since I’ve been here.”  20
  “What kind of artists? I know one or two painters, very good fellows, that I could bring to see you if you’d allow me,” said Archer boldly.  21
  “Painters? Are there painters in New York?” asked Beaufort, in a tone implying that there could be none since he did not buy their pictures; and Madame Olenska said to Archer, with her grave smile: “That would be charming. But I was really thinking of dramatic artists, singers, actors, musicians. My husband’s house was always full of them.”  22
  She said the words “my husband” as if no sinister associations were connected with them, and in a tone that seemed almost to sigh over the lost delights of her married life. Archer looked at her perplexedly, wondering if it were lightness or dissimulation that enabled her to touch so easily on the past at the very moment when she was risking her reputation in order to break with it.  23
  “I do think,” she went on, addressing both men, that the imprévu adds to one’s enjoyment. It’s perhaps a mistake to see the same people every day.”  24
  “It’s confoundedly dull, anyhow; New York is dying of dullness,” Beaufort grumbled. “And when I try to liven it up for you, you go back on me. Come—think better of it! Sunday is your last chance, for Campanini leaves next week for Baltimore and Philadelphia; and I’ve a private room, and a Steinway, and they’ll sing all night for me.”  25
  “How delicious! May I think it over, and write to you tomorrow morning?”  26
  She spoke amiably, yet with the least hint of dismissal in her voice. Beaufort evidently felt it, and being unused to dismissals, stood staring at her with an obstinate line between his eyes.  27
  “Why not now?”  28
  “It’s too serious a question to decide at this late hour.”  29
  “Do you call it late?”  30
  She returned his glance coolly. “Yes; because I have still to talk business with Mr. Archer for a little while.”  31
  “Ah,” Beaufort snapped. There was no appeal from her tone, and with a slight shrug he recovered his composure, took her hand, which he kissed with a practised air, and calling out from the threshold: “I say, Newland, if you can persuade the Countess to stop in town of course you’re included in the supper,” left the room with his heavy important step.  32
  For a moment Archer fancied that Mr. Letterblair must have told her of his coming; but the irrelevance of her next remark made him change his mind.  33
  “You know painters, then? You live in their milieu?” she asked, her eyes full of interest.  34
  “Oh, not exactly. I don’t know that the arts have a milieu here, any of them; they’re more like a very thinly settled outskirt.”  35
  “But you care for such things?”  36
  “Immensely. When I’m in Paris or London I never miss an exhibition. I try to keep up.”  37
  She looked down at the tip of the little satin boot that peeped from her long draperies.  38
  “I used to care immensely too: my life was full of such things. But now I want to try not to.”  39
  “You want to try not to?”  40
  “Yes: I want to cast off all my old life, to become just like everybody else here.”  41
  Archer reddened. “You’ll never be like everybody else,” he said.  42
  She raised her straight eyebrows a little. “Ah, don’t say that. If you knew how I hate to be different!”  43
  Her face had grown as sombre as a tragic mask. She leaned forward, clasping her knee in her thin hands, and looking away from him into remote dark distances.  44
  “I want to get away from it all,” she insisted.  45
  He waited a moment and cleared his throat. “I know. Mr. Letterblair has told me.”  46
  “Ah?”  47
  “That’s the reason I’ve come. He asked me to—you see I’m in the firm.”  48
  She looked slightly surprised, and then her eyes brightened. “You mean you can manage it for me? I can talk to you instead of Mr. Letterblair? Oh, that will be so much easier!”  49
  Her tone touched him, and his confidence grew with his self-satisfaction. He perceived that she had spoken of business to Beaufort simply to get rid of him; and to have routed Beaufort was something of a triumph.  50
  “I am here to talk about it,” he repeated.  51
  She sat silent, her head still propped by the arm that rested on the back of the sofa. Her face looked pale and extinguished, as if dimmed by the rich red of her dress. She struck Archer, of a sudden, as a pathetic and even pitiful figure.  52
  “Now we’re coming to hard facts,” he thought, conscious in himself of the same instinctive recoil that he had so often criticised in his mother and her contemporaries. How little practice he had had in dealing with unusual situations! Their very vocabulary was unfamiliar to him, and seemed to belong to fiction and the stage. In face of what was coming he felt as awkward and embarrassed as a boy.  53
  After a pause Madame Olenska broke out with unexpected vehemence: “I want to be free; I want to wipe out all the past.”  54
  “I understand that.”  55
  Her face warmed. “Then you’ll help me?”  56
  “First—” he hesitated—“perhaps I ought to know a little more.”  57
  She seemed surprised. “You know about my husband—my life with him?”  58
  He made a sign of assent.  59
  “Well—then—what more is there? In this country are such things tolerated? I’m a Protestant—our church does not forbid divorce in such cases.”  60
  “Certainly not.”  61
  They were both silent again, and Archer felt the spectre of Count Olenski’s letter grimacing hideously between them. The letter filled only half a page, and was just what he had described it to be in speaking of it to Mr. Letterblair: the vague charge of an angry blackguard. But how much truth was behind it? Only Count Olenski’s wife could tell.  62
  “I’ve looked through the papers you gave to Mr. Letterblair,” he said at length.  63
  “Well—can there be anything more abominable?”  64
  “No.”  65
  She changed her position slightly, screening her eyes with her lifted hand.  66
  “Of course you know,” Archer continued, “that if your husband chooses to fight the case—as he threatens to—”  67
  “Yes—?”  68
  “He can say things—things that might be unpl—might be disagreeable to you: say them publicly, so that they would get about, and harm you even if—”  69
  “If—?”  70
  “I mean: no matter how unfounded they were.”  71
  She paused for a long interval; so long that, not wishing to keep his eyes on her shaded face, he had time to imprint on his mind the exact shape of her other hand, the one on her knee, and every detail of the three rings on her fourth and fifth fingers; among which, he noticed, a wedding ring did not appear.  72
  “What harm could such accusations, even if he made them publicly, do me here?”  73
  It was on his lips to exclaim: “My poor child—far more harm than anywhere else!” Instead, he answered, in a voice that sounded in his ears like Mr. Letterblair’s: “New York society is a very small world compared with the one you’ve lived in. And it’s ruled, in spite of appearances, by a few people with—well, rather old-fashioned ideas.”  74
  She said nothing, and he continued: “Our ideas about marriage and divorce are particularly old-fashioned. Our legislation favours divorce—our social customs don’t.”  75
  “Never?”  76
  “Well—not if the woman, however injured, however irreproachable, has appearances in the least degree against her, has exposed herself by any unconventional action to—to offensive insinuations—”  77
  She drooped her head a little lower, and he waited again, intensely hoping for a flash of indignation, or at least a brief cry of denial. None came.  78
  A little travelling clock ticked purringly at her elbow, and a log broke in two and sent up a shower of sparks. The whole hushed and brooding room seemed to be waiting silently with Archer.  79
  “Yes,” she murmured at length, “that’s what my family tell me.”  80
  He winced a little. “It’s not unnatural—”  81
  “Our family,” she corrected herself; and Archer coloured. “For you’ll be my cousin soon,” she continued gently.  82
  “I hope so.”  83
  “And you take their view?”  84
  He stood up at this, wandered across the room, stared with void eyes at one of the pictures against the old red damask, and came back irresolutely to her side. How could he say: “Yes, if what your husband hints is true, or if you’ve no way of disproving it?”  85
  “Sincerely—” she interjected, as he was about to speak.  86
  He looked down into the fire. “Sincerely, then—what should you gain that would compensate for the possibility—the certainty—of a lot of beastly talk?”  87
  “But my freedom—is that nothing?”  88
  It flashed across him at that instant that the charge in the letter was true, and that she hoped to marry the partner of her guilt. How was he to tell her that, if she really cherished such a plan, the laws of the State were inexorably opposed to it? The mere suspicion that the thought was in her mind made him feel harshly and impatiently toward her. “But aren’t you as free as air as it is?” he returned. “Who can touch you? Mr. Letterblair tells me the financial question has been settled—”  89
  “Oh, yes,” she said indifferently.  90
  “Well, then: is it worth while to risk what may be infinitely disagreeable and painful? Think of the newspapers—their vileness! It’s all stupid and narrow and unjust—but one can’t make over society.”  91
  “No,” she acquiesced; and her tone was so faint and desolate that he felt a sudden remorse for his own hard thoughts.  92
  “The individual, in such cases, is nearly always sacrificed to what is supposed to be the collective interest: people cling to any convention that keeps the family together—protects the children, if there are any,” he rambled on, pouring out all the stock phrases that rose to his lips in his intense desire to cover over the ugly reality which her silence seemed to have laid bare. Since she would not or could not say the one word that would have cleared the air, his wish was not to let her feel that he was trying to probe into her secret. Better keep on the surface, in the prudent old New York way, than risk uncovering a wound he could not heal.  93
  “It’s my business, you know,” he went on, “to help you to see these things as the people who are fondest of you see them. The Mingotts, the Wellands, the van der Luydens, all your friends and relations: if I didn’t show you honestly how they judge such questions, it wouldn’t be fair of me, would it?” He spoke insistently, almost pleading with her in his eagerness to cover up that yawning silence.  94
  She said slowly: “No; it wouldn’t be fair.”  95
  The fire had crumbled down to greyness, and one of the lamps made a gurgling appeal for attention. Madame Olenska rose, wound it up and returned to the fire, but without resuming her seat.  96
  Her remaining on her feet seemed to signify that there was nothing more for either of them to say, and Archer stood up also.  97
  “Very well; I will do what you wish,” she said abruptly. The blood rushed to his forehead; and, taken aback by the suddenness of her surrender, he caught her two hands awkwardly in his.  98
  “I—I do want to help you,” he said.  99
  “You do help me. Good night, my cousin.” 100
  He bent and laid his lips on her hands, which were cold and lifeless. She drew them away, and he turned to the door, found his coat and hat under the faint gas-light of the hall, and plunged out into the winter night bursting with the belated eloquence of the inarticulate. 101
 
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