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    Chapter 11

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    Chapter 11
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    XI.

    Some two weeks later, Newland Archer, sitting in
    abstracted idleness in his private compartment of
    the office of Letterblair, Lamson and Low, attorneys at
    law, was summoned by the head of the firm.

    Old Mr. Letterblair, the accredited legal adviser of
    three generations of New York gentility, throned behind
    his mahogany desk in evident perplexity. As he
    stroked his closeclipped white whiskers and ran his
    hand through the rumpled grey locks above his jutting
    brows, his disrespectful junior partner thought how
    much he looked like the Family Physician annoyed
    with a patient whose symptoms refuse to be classified.

    "My dear sir--" he always addressed Archer as
    "sir"--"I have sent for you to go into a little matter; a
    matter which, for the moment, I prefer not to mention
    either to Mr. Skipworth or Mr. Redwood." The gentlemen
    he spoke of were the other senior partners of the
    firm; for, as was always the case with legal associations
    of old standing in New York, all the partners named
    on the office letter-head were long since dead; and Mr.
    Letterblair, for example, was, professionally speaking,
    his own grandson.

    He leaned back in his chair with a furrowed brow.
    "For family reasons--" he continued.

    Archer looked up.

    "The Mingott family," said Mr. Letterblair with an
    explanatory smile and bow. "Mrs. Manson Mingott
    sent for me yesterday. Her grand-daughter the Countess
    Olenska wishes to sue her husband for divorce.
    Certain papers have been placed in my hands." He
    paused and drummed on his desk. "In view of your
    prospective alliance with the family I should like to
    consult you--to consider the case with you--before
    taking any farther steps."

    Archer felt the blood in his temples. He had seen the
    Countess Olenska only once since his visit to her, and
    then at the Opera, in the Mingott box. During this
    interval she had become a less vivid and importunate
    image, receding from his foreground as May Welland
    resumed her rightful place in it. He had not heard her
    divorce spoken of since Janey's first random allusion to
    it, and had dismissed the tale as unfounded gossip.
    Theoretically, the idea of divorce was almost as
    distasteful to him as to his mother; and he was annoyed
    that Mr. Letterblair (no doubt prompted by old Catherine
    Mingott) should be so evidently planning to draw
    him into the affair. After all, there were plenty of
    Mingott men for such jobs, and as yet he was not even
    a Mingott by marriage.

    He waited for the senior partner to continue. Mr.
    Letterblair unlocked a drawer and drew out a packet.
    "If you will run your eye over these papers--"

    Archer frowned. "I beg your pardon, sir; but just
    because of the prospective relationship, I should prefer
    your consulting Mr. Skipworth or Mr. Redwood."

    Mr. Letterblair looked surprised and slightly offended.
    It was unusual for a junior to reject such an opening.

    He bowed. "I respect your scruple, sir; but in this
    case I believe true delicacy requires you to do as I ask.
    Indeed, the suggestion is not mine but Mrs. Manson
    Mingott's and her son's. I have seen Lovell Mingott;
    and also Mr. Welland. They all named you."

    Archer felt his temper rising. He had been somewhat
    languidly drifting with events for the last fortnight, and
    letting May's fair looks and radiant nature obliterate
    the rather importunate pressure of the Mingott claims.
    But this behest of old Mrs. Mingott's roused him to a
    sense of what the clan thought they had the right to
    exact from a prospective son-in-law; and he chafed at
    the role.

    "Her uncles ought to deal with this," he said.

    "They have. The matter has been gone into by the
    family. They are opposed to the Countess's idea; but
    she is firm, and insists on a legal opinion."

    The young man was silent: he had not opened the
    packet in his hand.

    "Does she want to marry again?"

    "I believe it is suggested; but she denies it."

    "Then--"

    "Will you oblige me, Mr. Archer, by first looking
    through these papers? Afterward, when we have talked
    the case over, I will give you my opinion."

    Archer withdrew reluctantly with the unwelcome
    documents. Since their last meeting he had half-unconsciously
    collaborated with events in ridding himself of the burden
    of Madame Olenska. His hour alone with her by
    the firelight had drawn them into a momentary intimacy
    on which the Duke of St. Austrey's intrusion with
    Mrs. Lemuel Struthers, and the Countess's joyous greeting
    of them, had rather providentially broken. Two
    days later Archer had assisted at the comedy of her
    reinstatement in the van der Luydens' favour, and had
    said to himself, with a touch of tartness, that a lady
    who knew how to thank all-powerful elderly gentlemen
    to such good purpose for a bunch of flowers did not
    need either the private consolations or the public
    championship of a young man of his small compass. To look
    at the matter in this light simplified his own case and
    surprisingly furbished up all the dim domestic virtues.
    He could not picture May Welland, in whatever
    conceivable emergency, hawking about her private difficulties
    and lavishing her confidences on strange men; and
    she had never seemed to him finer or fairer than in the
    week that followed. He had even yielded to her wish
    for a long engagement, since she had found the one
    disarming answer to his plea for haste.

    "You know, when it comes to the point, your parents
    have always let you have your way ever since you
    were a little girl," he argued; and she had answered,
    with her clearest look: "Yes; and that's what makes it
    so hard to refuse the very last thing they'll ever ask of
    me as a little girl."

    That was the old New York note; that was the kind
    of answer he would like always to be sure of his wife's
    making. If one had habitually breathed the New York
    air there were times when anything less crystalline seemed
    stifling.

    The papers he had retired to read did not tell him much
    in fact; but they plunged him into an atmosphere in
    which he choked and spluttered. They consisted mainly
    of an exchange of letters between Count Olenski's
    solicitors and a French legal firm to whom the Countess
    had applied for the settlement of her financial
    situation. There was also a short letter from the Count to
    his wife: after reading it, Newland Archer rose, jammed
    the papers back into their envelope, and reentered Mr.
    Letterblair's office.

    "Here are the letters, sir. If you wish, I'll see
    Madame Olenska," he said in a constrained voice.

    "Thank you--thank you, Mr. Archer. Come and
    dine with me tonight if you're free, and we'll go into
    the matter afterward: in case you wish to call on our
    client tomorrow."

    Newland Archer walked straight home again that
    afternoon. It was a winter evening of transparent clearness,
    with an innocent young moon above the house-
    tops; and he wanted to fill his soul's lungs with the
    pure radiance, and not exchange a word with any one
    till he and Mr. Letterblair were closeted together after
    dinner. It was impossible to decide otherwise than he
    had done: he must see Madame Olenska himself rather
    than let her secrets be bared to other eyes. A great
    wave of compassion had swept away his indifference
    and impatience: she stood before him as an exposed
    and pitiful figure, to be saved at all costs from farther
    wounding herself in her mad plunges against fate.

    He remembered what she had told him of Mrs.
    Welland's request to be spared whatever was "unpleasant"
    in her history, and winced at the thought that it was
    perhaps this attitude of mind which kept the New York
    air so pure. "Are we only Pharisees after all?" he
    wondered, puzzled by the effort to reconcile his instinctive
    disgust at human vileness with his equally instinctive
    pity for human frailty.

    For the first time he perceived how elementary his
    own principles had always been. He passed for a young
    man who had not been afraid of risks, and he knew
    that his secret love-affair with poor silly Mrs. Thorley
    Rushworth had not been too secret to invest him with
    a becoming air of adventure. But Mrs. Rushworth was
    "that kind of woman"; foolish, vain, clandestine by
    nature, and far more attracted by the secrecy and peril
    of the affair than by such charms and qualities as he
    possessed. When the fact dawned on him it nearly
    broke his heart, but now it seemed the redeeming feature
    of the case. The affair, in short, had been of the
    kind that most of the young men of his age had been
    through, and emerged from with calm consciences and
    an undisturbed belief in the abysmal distinction between
    the women one loved and respected and those
    one enjoyed--and pitied. In this view they were
    sedulously abetted by their mothers, aunts and other elderly
    female relatives, who all shared Mrs. Archer's belief
    that when "such things happened" it was undoubtedly
    foolish of the man, but somehow always criminal of
    the woman. All the elderly ladies whom Archer knew
    regarded any woman who loved imprudently as necessarily
    unscrupulous and designing, and mere simple-
    minded man as powerless in her clutches. The only
    thing to do was to persuade him, as early as possible, to
    marry a nice girl, and then trust to her to look after him.

    In the complicated old European communities, Archer
    began to guess, love-problems might be less simple and
    less easily classified. Rich and idle and ornamental
    societies must produce many more such situations; and
    there might even be one in which a woman naturally
    sensitive and aloof would yet, from the force of
    circumstances, from sheer defencelessness and loneliness, be
    drawn into a tie inexcusable by conventional standards.

    On reaching home he wrote a line to the Countess
    Olenska, asking at what hour of the next day she could
    receive him, and despatched it by a messenger-boy,
    who returned presently with a word to the effect that
    she was going to Skuytercliff the next morning to stay
    over Sunday with the van der Luydens, but that he
    would find her alone that evening after dinner. The
    note was written on a rather untidy half-sheet, without
    date or address, but her hand was firm and free. He
    was amused at the idea of her week-ending in the
    stately solitude of Skuytercliff, but immediately afterward
    felt that there, of all places, she would most feel
    the chill of minds rigorously averted from the "unpleasant."

    He was at Mr. Letterblair's punctually at seven, glad
    of the pretext for excusing himself soon after dinner.
    He had formed his own opinion from the papers entrusted
    to him, and did not especially want to go into
    the matter with his senior partner. Mr. Letterblair was
    a widower, and they dined alone, copiously and slowly,
    in a dark shabby room hung with yellowing prints of
    "The Death of Chatham" and "The Coronation of
    Napoleon." On the sideboard, between fluted Sheraton
    knife-cases, stood a decanter of Haut Brion, and another
    of the old Lanning port (the gift of a client),
    which the wastrel Tom Lanning had sold off a year or
    two before his mysterious and discreditable death in
    San Francisco--an incident less publicly humiliating to
    the family than the sale of the cellar.

    After a velvety oyster soup came shad and cucumbers,
    then a young broiled turkey with corn fritters,
    followed by a canvas-back with currant jelly and a
    celery mayonnaise. Mr. Letterblair, who lunched on a
    sandwich and tea, dined deliberately and deeply, and
    insisted on his guest's doing the same. Finally, when
    the closing rites had been accomplished, the cloth was
    removed, cigars were lit, and Mr. Letterblair, leaning
    back in his chair and pushing the port westward, said,
    spreading his back agreeably to the coal fire behind
    him: "The whole family are against a divorce. And I
    think rightly."

    Archer instantly felt himself on the other side of the
    argument. "But why, sir? If there ever was a case--"

    "Well--what's the use? SHE'S here--he's there; the
    Atlantic's between them. She'll never get back a dollar
    more of her money than what he's voluntarily returned
    to her: their damned heathen marriage settlements take
    precious good care of that. As things go over there,
    Olenski's acted generously: he might have turned her
    out without a penny."

    The young man knew this and was silent.

    "I understand, though," Mr. Letterblair continued,
    "that she attaches no importance to the money. Therefore,
    as the family say, why not let well enough alone?"

    Archer had gone to the house an hour earlier in full
    agreement with Mr. Letterblair's view; but put into
    words by this selfish, well-fed and supremely indifferent
    old man it suddenly became the Pharisaic voice of a
    society wholly absorbed in barricading itself against the
    unpleasant.

    "I think that's for her to decide."

    "H'm--have you considered the consequences if she
    decides for divorce?"

    "You mean the threat in her husband's letter? What
    weight would that carry? It's no more than the vague
    charge of an angry blackguard."

    "Yes; but it might make some unpleasant talk if he
    really defends the suit."

    "Unpleasant--!" said Archer explosively.

    Mr. Letterblair looked at him from under enquiring
    eyebrows, and the young man, aware of the uselessness
    of trying to explain what was in his mind, bowed
    acquiescently while his senior continued: "Divorce is
    always unpleasant."

    "You agree with me?" Mr. Letterblair resumed, after
    a waiting silence.

    "Naturally," said Archer.

    "Well, then, I may count on you; the Mingotts may
    count on you; to use your influence against the idea?"

    Archer hesitated. "I can't pledge myself till I've seen
    the Countess Olenska," he said at length.

    "Mr. Archer, I don't understand you. Do you want
    to marry into a family with a scandalous divorce-suit
    hanging over it?"

    "I don't think that has anything to do with the
    case."

    Mr. Letterblair put down his glass of port and fixed
    on his young partner a cautious and apprehensive gaze.

    Archer understood that he ran the risk of having his
    mandate withdrawn, and for some obscure reason he
    disliked the prospect. Now that the job had been thrust
    on him he did not propose to relinquish it; and, to
    guard against the possibility, he saw that he must reassure
    the unimaginative old man who was the legal
    conscience of the Mingotts.

    "You may be sure, sir, that I shan't commit myself
    till I've reported to you; what I meant was that I'd
    rather not give an opinion till I've heard what Madame
    Olenska has to say."

    Mr. Letterblair nodded approvingly at an excess of
    caution worthy of the best New York tradition, and
    the young man, glancing at his watch, pleaded an
    engagement and took leave.
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    Chapter 11
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