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    Chapter 15

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    Chapter 15
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    XV.

    Newland Archer arrived at the Chiverses' on Friday
    evening, and on Saturday went conscientiously
    through all the rites appertaining to a week-end at
    Highbank.

    In the morning he had a spin in the ice-boat with his
    hostess and a few of the hardier guests; in the afternoon
    he "went over the farm" with Reggie, and listened,
    in the elaborately appointed stables, to long and
    impressive disquisitions on the horse; after tea he talked
    in a corner of the firelit hall with a young lady who
    had professed herself broken-hearted when his engagement
    was announced, but was now eager to tell him of
    her own matrimonial hopes; and finally, about midnight,
    he assisted in putting a gold-fish in one visitor's
    bed, dressed up a burglar in the bath-room of a nervous
    aunt, and saw in the small hours by joining in a
    pillow-fight that ranged from the nurseries to the
    basement. But on Sunday after luncheon he borrowed a
    cutter, and drove over to Skuytercliff.

    People had always been told that the house at
    Skuytercliff was an Italian villa. Those who had never
    been to Italy believed it; so did some who had. The
    house had been built by Mr. van der Luyden in his
    youth, on his return from the "grand tour," and in
    anticipation of his approaching marriage with Miss
    Louisa Dagonet. It was a large square wooden structure,
    with tongued and grooved walls painted pale
    green and white, a Corinthian portico, and fluted
    pilasters between the windows. From the high ground on
    which it stood a series of terraces bordered by balustrades
    and urns descended in the steel-engraving style
    to a small irregular lake with an asphalt edge overhung
    by rare weeping conifers. To the right and left, the
    famous weedless lawns studded with "specimen" trees
    (each of a different variety) rolled away to long ranges
    of grass crested with elaborate cast-iron ornaments;
    and below, in a hollow, lay the four-roomed stone
    house which the first Patroon had built on the land
    granted him in 1612.

    Against the uniform sheet of snow and the greyish
    winter sky the Italian villa loomed up rather grimly;
    even in summer it kept its distance, and the boldest
    coleus bed had never ventured nearer than thirty feet
    from its awful front. Now, as Archer rang the bell, the
    long tinkle seemed to echo through a mausoleum; and
    the surprise of the butler who at length responded to
    the call was as great as though he had been summoned
    from his final sleep.

    Happily Archer was of the family, and therefore,
    irregular though his arrival was, entitled to be informed
    that the Countess Olenska was out, having driven to
    afternoon service with Mrs. van der Luyden exactly
    three quarters of an hour earlier.

    "Mr. van der Luyden," the butler continued, "is
    in, sir; but my impression is that he is either finishing
    his nap or else reading yesterday's Evening Post. I
    heard him say, sir, on his return from church this
    morning, that he intended to look through the Evening
    Post after luncheon; if you like, sir, I might go to the
    library door and listen--"

    But Archer, thanking him, said that he would go and
    meet the ladies; and the butler, obviously relieved, closed
    the door on him majestically.

    A groom took the cutter to the stables, and Archer
    struck through the park to the high-road. The village of
    Skuytercliff was only a mile and a half away, but he
    knew that Mrs. van der Luyden never walked, and that
    he must keep to the road to meet the carriage. Presently,
    however, coming down a foot-path that crossed
    the highway, he caught sight of a slight figure in a red
    cloak, with a big dog running ahead. He hurried forward,
    and Madame Olenska stopped short with a smile
    of welcome.

    "Ah, you've come!" she said, and drew her hand
    from her muff.

    The red cloak made her look gay and vivid, like the
    Ellen Mingott of old days; and he laughed as he took
    her hand, and answered: "I came to see what you were
    running away from."

    Her face clouded over, but she answered: "Ah, well--
    you will see, presently."

    The answer puzzled him. "Why--do you mean that
    you've been overtaken?"

    She shrugged her shoulders, with a little movement
    like Nastasia's, and rejoined in a lighter tone: "Shall
    we walk on? I'm so cold after the sermon. And what
    does it matter, now you're here to protect me?"

    The blood rose to his temples and he caught a fold of
    her cloak. "Ellen--what is it? You must tell me."

    "Oh, presently--let's run a race first: my feet are
    freezing to the ground," she cried; and gathering up the
    cloak she fled away across the snow, the dog leaping
    about her with challenging barks. For a moment Archer
    stood watching, his gaze delighted by the flash of the
    red meteor against the snow; then he started after her,
    and they met, panting and laughing, at a wicket that
    led into the park.

    She looked up at him and smiled. "I knew you'd
    come!"

    "That shows you wanted me to," he returned, with a
    disproportionate joy in their nonsense. The white glitter
    of the trees filled the air with its own mysterious
    brightness, and as they walked on over the snow the
    ground seemed to sing under their feet.

    "Where did you come from?" Madame Olenska asked.

    He told her, and added: "It was because I got your
    note."

    After a pause she said, with a just perceptible chill in
    her voice: "May asked you to take care of me."

    "I didn't need any asking."

    "You mean--I'm so evidently helpless and defenceless?
    What a poor thing you must all think me! But women
    here seem not--seem never to feel the need: any more
    than the blessed in heaven."

    He lowered his voice to ask: "What sort of a need?"

    "Ah, don't ask me! I don't speak your language,"
    she retorted petulantly.

    The answer smote him like a blow, and he stood still
    in the path, looking down at her.

    "What did I come for, if I don't speak yours?"

    "Oh, my friend--!" She laid her hand lightly on his
    arm, and he pleaded earnestly: "Ellen--why won't you
    tell me what's happened?"

    She shrugged again. "Does anything ever happen in
    heaven?"

    He was silent, and they walked on a few yards
    without exchanging a word. Finally she said: "I will
    tell you--but where, where, where? One can't be alone
    for a minute in that great seminary of a house, with all
    the doors wide open, and always a servant bringing
    tea, or a log for the fire, or the newspaper! Is there
    nowhere in an American house where one may be by
    one's self? You're so shy, and yet you're so public. I
    always feel as if I were in the convent again--or on the
    stage, before a dreadfully polite audience that never
    applauds."

    "Ah, you don't like us!" Archer exclaimed.

    They were walking past the house of the old
    Patroon, with its squat walls and small square windows
    compactly grouped about a central chimney. The shutters
    stood wide, and through one of the newly-washed
    windows Archer caught the light of a fire.

    "Why--the house is open!" he said.

    She stood still. "No; only for today, at least. I wanted
    to see it, and Mr. van der Luyden had the fire lit and
    the windows opened, so that we might stop there on
    the way back from church this morning." She ran up
    the steps and tried the door. "It's still unlocked--what
    luck! Come in and we can have a quiet talk. Mrs. van
    der Luyden has driven over to see her old aunts at
    Rhinebeck and we shan't be missed at the house for
    another hour."

    He followed her into the narrow passage. His spirits,
    which had dropped at her last words, rose with an
    irrational leap. The homely little house stood there, its
    panels and brasses shining in the firelight, as if magically
    created to receive them. A big bed of embers still
    gleamed in the kitchen chimney, under an iron pot
    hung from an ancient crane. Rush-bottomed arm-chairs
    faced each other across the tiled hearth, and rows of
    Delft plates stood on shelves against the walls. Archer
    stooped over and threw a log upon the embers.

    Madame Olenska, dropping her cloak, sat down in
    one of the chairs. Archer leaned against the chimney
    and looked at her.

    "You're laughing now; but when you wrote me you
    were unhappy," he said.

    "Yes." She paused. "But I can't feel unhappy when
    you're here."

    "I sha'n't be here long," he rejoined, his lips stiffening
    with the effort to say just so much and no more.

    "No; I know. But I'm improvident: I live in the
    moment when I'm happy."

    The words stole through him like a temptation, and
    to close his senses to it he moved away from the hearth
    and stood gazing out at the black tree-boles against the
    snow. But it was as if she too had shifted her place, and
    he still saw her, between himself and the trees, drooping
    over the fire with her indolent smile. Archer's heart
    was beating insubordinately. What if it were from him
    that she had been running away, and if she had waited
    to tell him so till they were here alone together in this
    secret room?

    "Ellen, if I'm really a help to you--if you really
    wanted me to come--tell me what's wrong, tell me
    what it is you're running away from," he insisted.

    He spoke without shifting his position, without even
    turning to look at her: if the thing was to happen, it
    was to happen in this way, with the whole width of the
    room between them, and his eyes still fixed on the
    outer snow.

    For a long moment she was silent; and in that moment
    Archer imagined her, almost heard her, stealing
    up behind him to throw her light arms about his neck.
    While he waited, soul and body throbbing with the
    miracle to come, his eyes mechanically received the
    image of a heavily-coated man with his fur collar turned
    up who was advancing along the path to the house.
    The man was Julius Beaufort.

    "Ah--!" Archer cried, bursting into a laugh.

    Madame Olenska had sprung up and moved to his
    side, slipping her hand into his; but after a glance
    through the window her face paled and she shrank
    back.

    "So that was it?" Archer said derisively.

    "I didn't know he was here," Madame Olenska
    murmured. Her hand still clung to Archer's; but he drew
    away from her, and walking out into the passage threw
    open the door of the house.

    "Hallo, Beaufort--this way! Madame Olenska was
    expecting you," he said.

    During his journey back to New York the next morning,
    Archer relived with a fatiguing vividness his last
    moments at Skuytercliff.

    Beaufort, though clearly annoyed at finding him with
    Madame Olenska, had, as usual, carried off the situation
    high-handedly. His way of ignoring people whose
    presence inconvenienced him actually gave them, if they
    were sensitive to it, a feeling of invisibility, of
    nonexistence. Archer, as the three strolled back through
    the park, was aware of this odd sense of disembodiment;
    and humbling as it was to his vanity it gave him the
    ghostly advantage of observing unobserved.

    Beaufort had entered the little house with his usual
    easy assurance; but he could not smile away the vertical
    line between his eyes. It was fairly clear that Madame
    Olenska had not known that he was coming,
    though her words to Archer had hinted at the possibility;
    at any rate, she had evidently not told him where
    she was going when she left New York, and her unexplained
    departure had exasperated him. The ostensible
    reason of his appearance was the discovery, the very
    night before, of a "perfect little house," not in the
    market, which was really just the thing for her, but
    would be snapped up instantly if she didn't take it; and
    he was loud in mock-reproaches for the dance she had
    led him in running away just as he had found it.

    "If only this new dodge for talking along a wire had
    been a little bit nearer perfection I might have told you
    all this from town, and been toasting my toes before
    the club fire at this minute, instead of tramping after
    you through the snow," he grumbled, disguising a real
    irritation under the pretence of it; and at this opening
    Madame Olenska twisted the talk away to the fantastic
    possibility that they might one day actually converse
    with each other from street to street, or even--
    incredible dream!--from one town to another. This struck
    from all three allusions to Edgar Poe and Jules Verne,
    and such platitudes as naturally rise to the lips of the
    most intelligent when they are talking against time, and
    dealing with a new invention in which it would seem
    ingenuous to believe too soon; and the question of the
    telephone carried them safely back to the big house.

    Mrs. van der Luyden had not yet returned; and
    Archer took his leave and walked off to fetch the
    cutter, while Beaufort followed the Countess Olenska
    indoors. It was probable that, little as the van der
    Luydens encouraged unannounced visits, he could count
    on being asked to dine, and sent back to the station to
    catch the nine o'clock train; but more than that he
    would certainly not get, for it would be inconceivable
    to his hosts that a gentleman travelling without luggage
    should wish to spend the night, and distasteful to them
    to propose it to a person with whom they were on
    terms of such limited cordiality as Beaufort.

    Beaufort knew all this, and must have foreseen it;
    and his taking the long journey for so small a reward
    gave the measure of his impatience. He was undeniably
    in pursuit of the Countess Olenska; and Beaufort had
    only one object in view in his pursuit of pretty women.
    His dull and childless home had long since palled on
    him; and in addition to more permanent consolations
    he was always in quest of amorous adventures in his
    own set. This was the man from whom Madame Olenska
    was avowedly flying: the question was whether she had
    fled because his importunities displeased her, or
    because she did not wholly trust herself to resist them;
    unless, indeed, all her talk of flight had been a blind,
    and her departure no more than a manoeuvre.

    Archer did not really believe this. Little as he had
    actually seen of Madame Olenska, he was beginning to
    think that he could read her face, and if not her face,
    her voice; and both had betrayed annoyance, and even
    dismay, at Beaufort's sudden appearance. But, after all,
    if this were the case, was it not worse than if she had
    left New York for the express purpose of meeting him?
    If she had done that, she ceased to be an object of
    interest, she threw in her lot with the vulgarest of
    dissemblers: a woman engaged in a love affair with
    Beaufort "classed" herself irretrievably.

    No, it was worse a thousand times if, judging
    Beaufort, and probably despising him, she was yet drawn to
    him by all that gave him an advantage over the other
    men about her: his habit of two continents and two
    societies, his familiar association with artists and actors
    and people generally in the world's eye, and his careless
    contempt for local prejudices. Beaufort was vulgar, he
    was uneducated, he was purse-proud; but the circumstances
    of his life, and a certain native shrewdness,
    made him better worth talking to than many men,
    morally and socially his betters, whose horizon was
    bounded by the Battery and the Central Park. How
    should any one coming from a wider world not feel the
    difference and be attracted by it?

    Madame Olenska, in a burst of irritation, had said to
    Archer that he and she did not talk the same language;
    and the young man knew that in some respects this was
    true. But Beaufort understood every turn of her dialect,
    and spoke it fluently: his view of life, his tone, his
    attitude, were merely a coarser reflection of those
    revealed in Count Olenski's letter. This might seem to be
    to his disadvantage with Count Olenski's wife; but
    Archer was too intelligent to think that a young woman
    like Ellen Olenska would necessarily recoil from everything
    that reminded her of her past. She might believe
    herself wholly in revolt against it; but what had charmed
    her in it would still charm her, even though it were
    against her will.

    Thus, with a painful impartiality, did the young man
    make out the case for Beaufort, and for Beaufort's
    victim. A longing to enlighten her was strong in him;
    and there were moments when he imagined that all she
    asked was to be enlightened.

    That evening he unpacked his books from London.
    The box was full of things he had been waiting for
    impatiently; a new volume of Herbert Spencer, another
    collection of the prolific Alphonse Daudet's brilliant
    tales, and a novel called "Middlemarch," as to which
    there had lately been interesting things said in the
    reviews. He had declined three dinner invitations in
    favour of this feast; but though he turned the pages with
    the sensuous joy of the book-lover, he did not know
    what he was reading, and one book after another
    dropped from his hand. Suddenly, among them, he lit
    on a small volume of verse which he had ordered
    because the name had attracted him: "The House of
    Life." He took it up, and found himself plunged in an
    atmosphere unlike any he had ever breathed in books;
    so warm, so rich, and yet so ineffably tender, that it
    gave a new and haunting beauty to the most elementary
    of human passions. All through the night he pursued
    through those enchanted pages the vision of a
    woman who had the face of Ellen Olenska; but when
    he woke the next morning, and looked out at the
    brownstone houses across the street, and thought of his
    desk in Mr. Letterblair's office, and the family pew in
    Grace Church, his hour in the park of Skuytercliff
    became as far outside the pale of probability as the
    visions of the night.

    "Mercy, how pale you look, Newland!" Janey
    commented over the coffee-cups at breakfast; and his mother
    added: "Newland, dear, I've noticed lately that you've
    been coughing; I do hope you're not letting yourself be
    overworked?" For it was the conviction of both ladies
    that, under the iron despotism of his senior partners,
    the young man's life was spent in the most exhausting
    professional labours--and he had never thought it
    necessary to undeceive them.

    The next two or three days dragged by heavily. The
    taste of the usual was like cinders in his mouth, and
    there were moments when he felt as if he were being
    buried alive under his future. He heard nothing of the
    Countess Olenska, or of the perfect little house, and
    though he met Beaufort at the club they merely nodded
    at each other across the whist-tables. It was not till the
    fourth evening that he found a note awaiting him on
    his return home. "Come late tomorrow: I must explain
    to you. Ellen." These were the only words it contained.

    The young man, who was dining out, thrust the note
    into his pocket, smiling a little at the Frenchness of the
    "to you." After dinner he went to a play; and it was
    not until his return home, after midnight, that he drew
    Madame Olenska's missive out again and re-read it
    slowly a number of times. There were several ways of
    answering it, and he gave considerable thought to each
    one during the watches of an agitated night. That on
    which, when morning came, he finally decided was to
    pitch some clothes into a portmanteau and jump on
    board a boat that was leaving that very afternoon for
    St. Augustine.
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