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    Chapter 12

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    Chapter 12
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    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    "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."

    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.

    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 Merimee
    (whose "Lettres a 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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    "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."

    "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.

    "No; but the missus is," said Beaufort, nodding
    carelessly to the young man.

    "But I thought her so kind. She came herself to invite
    me. Granny says I must certainly go."

    "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."

    She looked doubtfully from the banker to Archer.

    "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."

    "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.

    "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."

    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.

    "I do think," she went on, addressing both men,
    that the imprevu adds to one's enjoyment. It's perhaps
    a mistake to see the same people every day."

    "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."

    "How delicious! May I think it over, and write to
    you tomorrow morning?"

    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.

    "Why not now?"

    "It's too serious a question to decide at this late
    hour."

    "Do you call it late?"

    She returned his glance coolly. "Yes; because I have
    still to talk business with Mr. Archer for a little while."

    "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.

    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.

    "You know painters, then? You live in their milieu?"
    she asked, her eyes full of interest.

    "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."

    "But you care for such things?"

    "Immensely. When I'm in Paris or London I never
    miss an exhibition. I try to keep up."

    She looked down at the tip of the little satin boot
    that peeped from her long draperies.

    "I used to care immensely too: my life was full of
    such things. But now I want to try not to."

    "You want to try not to?"

    "Yes: I want to cast off all my old life, to become
    just like everybody else here."

    Archer reddened. "You'll never be like everybody
    else," he said.

    She raised her straight eyebrows a little. "Ah, don't
    say that. If you knew how I hate to be different!"

    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.

    "I want to get away from it all," she insisted.

    He waited a moment and cleared his throat. "I know.
    Mr. Letterblair has told me."

    "Ah?"

    "That's the reason I've come. He asked me to--you
    see I'm in the firm."

    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!"

    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.

    "I am here to talk about it," he repeated.

    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.

    "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.

    After a pause Madame Olenska broke out with
    unexpected vehemence: "I want to be free; I want to wipe
    out all the past."

    "I understand that."

    Her face warmed. "Then you'll help me?"

    "First--" he hesitated--"perhaps I ought to know a
    little more."

    She seemed surprised. "You know about my husband--
    my life with him?"

    He made a sign of assent.

    "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."

    "Certainly not."

    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.

    "I've looked through the papers you gave to Mr.
    Letterblair," he said at length.

    "Well--can there be anything more abominable?"

    "No."

    She changed her position slightly, screening her eyes
    with her lifted hand.

    "Of course you know," Archer continued, "that if
    your husband chooses to fight the case--as he threatens to--"

    "Yes--?"

    "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--"

    "If--?"

    "I mean: no matter how unfounded they were."

    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.

    "What harm could such accusations, even if he made
    them publicly, do me here?"

    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."

    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."

    "Never?"

    "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--"

    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.

    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.

    "Yes," she murmured at length, "that's what my
    family tell me."

    He winced a little. "It's not unnatural--"

    "OUR family," she corrected herself; and Archer
    coloured. "For you'll be my cousin soon," she continued
    gently.

    "I hope so."

    "And you take their view?"

    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?"

    "Sincerely--" she interjected, as he was about to
    speak.

    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?"

    "But my freedom--is that nothing?"

    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--"

    "Oh, yes," she said indifferently.

    "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."

    "No," she acquiesced; and her tone was so faint and
    desolate that he felt a sudden remorse for his own hard
    thoughts.

    "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.

    "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.

    She said slowly: "No; it wouldn't be fair."

    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.

    Her remaining on her feet seemed to signify that
    there was nothing more for either of them to say, and
    Archer stood up also.

    "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.

    "I--I do want to help you," he said.

    "You do help me. Good night, my cousin."

    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.
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