Meet us on:
Entire Site
    Try our fun game

    Dueling book covers…may the best design win!

    Random Quote
    "You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don't know what was in the newspapers that morning... a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be."

    Subscribe to Our Newsletter

    Follow us on Twitter

    Never miss a good book again! Follow Read Print on Twitter

    Chapter 21

    • Rate it:
    • 1 Favorite on Read Print
    Launch Reading Mode Next Chapter
    Chapter 21
    Previous Chapter

    The small bright lawn stretched away smoothly to
    the big bright sea.

    The turf was hemmed with an edge of scarlet geranium
    and coleus, and cast-iron vases painted in chocolate
    colour, standing at intervals along the winding
    path that led to the sea, looped their garlands of
    petunia and ivy geranium above the neatly raked gravel.

    Half way between the edge of the cliff and the square
    wooden house (which was also chocolate-coloured, but
    with the tin roof of the verandah striped in yellow and
    brown to represent an awning) two large targets had
    been placed against a background of shrubbery. On the
    other side of the lawn, facing the targets, was pitched a
    real tent, with benches and garden-seats about it. A
    number of ladies in summer dresses and gentlemen in
    grey frock-coats and tall hats stood on the lawn or sat
    upon the benches; and every now and then a slender
    girl in starched muslin would step from the tent,
    bow in hand, and speed her shaft at one of the targets,
    while the spectators interrupted their talk to watch
    the result.

    Newland Archer, standing on the verandah of the
    house, looked curiously down upon this scene. On each
    side of the shiny painted steps was a large blue china
    flower-pot on a bright yellow china stand. A spiky
    green plant filled each pot, and below the verandah ran
    a wide border of blue hydrangeas edged with more red
    geraniums. Behind him, the French windows of the
    drawing-rooms through which he had passed gave
    glimpses, between swaying lace curtains, of glassy parquet
    floors islanded with chintz poufs, dwarf armchairs,
    and velvet tables covered with trifles in silver.

    The Newport Archery Club always held its August
    meeting at the Beauforts'. The sport, which had hitherto
    known no rival but croquet, was beginning to be
    discarded in favour of lawn-tennis; but the latter game
    was still considered too rough and inelegant for social
    occasions, and as an opportunity to show off pretty
    dresses and graceful attitudes the bow and arrow held
    their own.

    Archer looked down with wonder at the familiar
    spectacle. It surprised him that life should be going on
    in the old way when his own reactions to it had so
    completely changed. It was Newport that had first
    brought home to him the extent of the change. In New
    York, during the previous winter, after he and May
    had settled down in the new greenish-yellow house
    with the bow-window and the Pompeian vestibule, he
    had dropped back with relief into the old routine of the
    office, and the renewal of this daily activity had served
    as a link with his former self. Then there had been the
    pleasurable excitement of choosing a showy grey stepper
    for May's brougham (the Wellands had given the
    carriage), and the abiding occupation and interest of
    arranging his new library, which, in spite of family
    doubts and disapprovals, had been carried out as he
    had dreamed, with a dark embossed paper, Eastlake
    book-cases and "sincere" arm-chairs and tables. At the
    Century he had found Winsett again, and at the Knickerbocker
    the fashionable young men of his own set;
    and what with the hours dedicated to the law and
    those given to dining out or entertaining friends at
    home, with an occasional evening at the Opera or the
    play, the life he was living had still seemed a fairly real
    and inevitable sort of business.

    But Newport represented the escape from duty into
    an atmosphere of unmitigated holiday-making. Archer
    had tried to persuade May to spend the summer on a
    remote island off the coast of Maine (called, appropriately
    enough, Mount Desert), where a few hardy Bostonians
    and Philadelphians were camping in "native"
    cottages, and whence came reports of enchanting
    scenery and a wild, almost trapper-like existence amid
    woods and waters.

    But the Wellands always went to Newport, where
    they owned one of the square boxes on the cliffs, and
    their son-in-law could adduce no good reason why he
    and May should not join them there. As Mrs. Welland
    rather tartly pointed out, it was hardly worth while for
    May to have worn herself out trying on summer clothes
    in Paris if she was not to be allowed to wear them; and
    this argument was of a kind to which Archer had as yet
    found no answer.

    May herself could not understand his obscure
    reluctance to fall in with so reasonable and pleasant a way
    of spending the summer. She reminded him that he had
    always liked Newport in his bachelor days, and as this
    was indisputable he could only profess that he was sure
    he was going to like it better than ever now that they
    were to be there together. But as he stood on the
    Beaufort verandah and looked out on the brightly peopled
    lawn it came home to him with a shiver that he
    was not going to like it at all.

    It was not May's fault, poor dear. If, now and then,
    during their travels, they had fallen slightly out of step,
    harmony had been restored by their return to the
    conditions she was used to. He had always foreseen that
    she would not disappoint him; and he had been right.
    He had married (as most young men did) because he
    had met a perfectly charming girl at the moment when
    a series of rather aimless sentimental adventures were
    ending in premature disgust; and she had represented
    peace, stability, comradeship, and the steadying sense
    of an unescapable duty.

    He could not say that he had been mistaken in his
    choice, for she had fulfilled all that he had expected. It
    was undoubtedly gratifying to be the husband of one of
    the handsomest and most popular young married women
    in New York, especially when she was also one of the
    sweetest-tempered and most reasonable of wives; and
    Archer had never been insensible to such advantages.
    As for the momentary madness which had fallen upon
    him on the eve of his marriage, he had trained himself
    to regard it as the last of his discarded experiments.
    The idea that he could ever, in his senses, have dreamed
    of marrying the Countess Olenska had become almost
    unthinkable, and she remained in his memory simply as
    the most plaintive and poignant of a line of ghosts.

    But all these abstractions and eliminations made
    of his mind a rather empty and echoing place, and he
    supposed that was one of the reasons why the busy
    animated people on the Beaufort lawn shocked him as
    if they had been children playing in a grave-yard.

    He heard a murmur of skirts beside him, and the
    Marchioness Manson fluttered out of the drawing-room
    window. As usual, she was extraordinarily festooned
    and bedizened, with a limp Leghorn hat anchored to
    her head by many windings of faded gauze, and a little
    black velvet parasol on a carved ivory handle absurdly
    balanced over her much larger hatbrim.

    "My dear Newland, I had no idea that you and May
    had arrived! You yourself came only yesterday, you
    say? Ah, business--business--professional duties . . . I
    understand. Many husbands, I know, find it impossible
    to join their wives here except for the week-end." She
    cocked her head on one side and languished at him
    through screwed-up eyes. "But marriage is one long
    sacrifice, as I used often to remind my Ellen--"

    Archer's heart stopped with the queer jerk which it
    had given once before, and which seemed suddenly to
    slam a door between himself and the outer world; but
    this break of continuity must have been of the briefest,
    for he presently heard Medora answering a question he
    had apparently found voice to put.

    "No, I am not staying here, but with the Blenkers, in
    their delicious solitude at Portsmouth. Beaufort was
    kind enough to send his famous trotters for me this
    morning, so that I might have at least a glimpse of one
    of Regina's garden-parties; but this evening I go back
    to rural life. The Blenkers, dear original beings, have
    hired a primitive old farm-house at Portsmouth where
    they gather about them representative people . . ." She
    drooped slightly beneath her protecting brim, and added
    with a faint blush: "This week Dr. Agathon Carver is
    holding a series of Inner Thought meetings there. A
    contrast indeed to this gay scene of worldly pleasure--
    but then I have always lived on contrasts! To me the
    only death is monotony. I always say to Ellen: Beware
    of monotony; it's the mother of all the deadly sins. But
    my poor child is going through a phase of exaltation,
    of abhorrence of the world. You know, I suppose, that
    she has declined all invitations to stay at Newport,
    even with her grandmother Mingott? I could hardly
    persuade her to come with me to the Blenkers', if you
    will believe it! The life she leads is morbid, unnatural.
    Ah, if she had only listened to me when it was still
    possible . . . When the door was still open . . . But
    shall we go down and watch this absorbing match? I
    hear your May is one of the competitors."

    Strolling toward them from the tent Beaufort
    advanced over the lawn, tall, heavy, too tightly buttoned
    into a London frock-coat, with one of his own orchids
    in its buttonhole. Archer, who had not seen him for
    two or three months, was struck by the change in his
    appearance. In the hot summer light his floridness seemed
    heavy and bloated, and but for his erect square-
    shouldered walk he would have looked like an over-fed
    and over-dressed old man.

    There were all sorts of rumours afloat about
    Beaufort. In the spring he had gone off on a long cruise to
    the West Indies in his new steam-yacht, and it was
    reported that, at various points where he had touched,
    a lady resembling Miss Fanny Ring had been seen in
    his company. The steam-yacht, built in the Clyde, and
    fitted with tiled bath-rooms and other unheard-of luxuries,
    was said to have cost him half a million; and the
    pearl necklace which he had presented to his wife on
    his return was as magnificent as such expiatory offerings
    are apt to be. Beaufort's fortune was substantial
    enough to stand the strain; and yet the disquieting
    rumours persisted, not only in Fifth Avenue but in Wall
    Street. Some people said he had speculated unfortunately
    in railways, others that he was being bled by one
    of the most insatiable members of her profession; and
    to every report of threatened insolvency Beaufort
    replied by a fresh extravagance: the building of a new
    row of orchid-houses, the purchase of a new string of
    race-horses, or the addition of a new Meissonnier or
    Cabanel to his picture-gallery.

    He advanced toward the Marchioness and Newland
    with his usual half-sneering smile. "Hullo, Medora!
    Did the trotters do their business? Forty minutes, eh?
    . . . Well, that's not so bad, considering your nerves
    had to be spared." He shook hands with Archer, and
    then, turning back with them, placed himself on Mrs.
    Manson's other side, and said, in a low voice, a few
    words which their companion did not catch.

    The Marchioness replied by one of her queer foreign
    jerks, and a "Que voulez-vous?" which deepened Beaufort's
    frown; but he produced a good semblance of a
    congratulatory smile as he glanced at Archer to say:
    "You know May's going to carry off the first prize."

    "Ah, then it remains in the family," Medora rippled;
    and at that moment they reached the tent and Mrs.
    Beaufort met them in a girlish cloud of mauve muslin
    and floating veils.

    May Welland was just coming out of the tent. In her
    white dress, with a pale green ribbon about the waist
    and a wreath of ivy on her hat, she had the same
    Diana-like aloofness as when she had entered the Beaufort
    ball-room on the night of her engagement. In the
    interval not a thought seemed to have passed behind
    her eyes or a feeling through her heart; and though her
    husband knew that she had the capacity for both he
    marvelled afresh at the way in which experience dropped
    away from her.

    She had her bow and arrow in her hand, and placing
    herself on the chalk-mark traced on the turf she lifted
    the bow to her shoulder and took aim. The attitude
    was so full of a classic grace that a murmur of appreciation
    followed her appearance, and Archer felt the
    glow of proprietorship that so often cheated him into
    momentary well-being. Her rivals--Mrs. Reggie Chivers,
    the Merry girls, and divers rosy Thorleys, Dagonets
    and Mingotts, stood behind her in a lovely anxious
    group, brown heads and golden bent above the scores,
    and pale muslins and flower-wreathed hats mingled in
    a tender rainbow. All were young and pretty, and
    bathed in summer bloom; but not one had the nymph-
    like ease of his wife, when, with tense muscles and
    happy frown, she bent her soul upon some feat of

    "Gad," Archer heard Lawrence Lefferts say, "not
    one of the lot holds the bow as she does"; and Beaufort
    retorted: "Yes; but that's the only kind of target she'll
    ever hit."

    Archer felt irrationally angry. His host's contemptuous
    tribute to May's "niceness" was just what a husband
    should have wished to hear said of his wife. The
    fact that a coarseminded man found her lacking in
    attraction was simply another proof of her quality; yet
    the words sent a faint shiver through his heart. What if
    "niceness" carried to that supreme degree were only a
    negation, the curtain dropped before an emptiness? As
    he looked at May, returning flushed and calm from her
    final bull's-eye, he had the feeling that he had never yet
    lifted that curtain.

    She took the congratulations of her rivals and of the
    rest of the company with the simplicity that was her
    crowning grace. No one could ever be jealous of her
    triumphs because she managed to give the feeling that
    she would have been just as serene if she had missed
    them. But when her eyes met her husband's her face
    glowed with the pleasure she saw in his.

    Mrs. Welland's basket-work pony-carriage was waiting
    for them, and they drove off among the dispersing
    carriages, May handling the reins and Archer sitting at
    her side.

    The afternoon sunlight still lingered upon the bright
    lawns and shrubberies, and up and down Bellevue Avenue
    rolled a double line of victorias, dog-carts, landaus
    and "vis-a-vis," carrying well-dressed ladies and
    gentlemen away from the Beaufort garden-party, or homeward
    from their daily afternoon turn along the Ocean

    "Shall we go to see Granny?" May suddenly
    proposed. "I should like to tell her myself that I've won
    the prize. There's lots of time before dinner."

    Archer acquiesced, and she turned the ponies down
    Narragansett Avenue, crossed Spring Street and drove
    out toward the rocky moorland beyond. In this unfashionable
    region Catherine the Great, always indifferent
    to precedent and thrifty of purse, had built herself in
    her youth a many-peaked and cross-beamed cottage-
    orne on a bit of cheap land overlooking the bay. Here,
    in a thicket of stunted oaks, her verandahs spread
    themselves above the island-dotted waters. A winding
    drive led up between iron stags and blue glass balls
    embedded in mounds of geraniums to a front door of
    highly-varnished walnut under a striped verandah-roof;
    and behind it ran a narrow hall with a black and
    yellow star-patterned parquet floor, upon which opened
    four small square rooms with heavy flock-papers under
    ceilings on which an Italian house-painter had lavished
    all the divinities of Olympus. One of these rooms had
    been turned into a bedroom by Mrs. Mingott when the
    burden of flesh descended on her, and in the adjoining
    one she spent her days, enthroned in a large armchair
    between the open door and window, and perpetually
    waving a palm-leaf fan which the prodigious projection
    of her bosom kept so far from the rest of her person
    that the air it set in motion stirred only the fringe of the
    anti-macassars on the chair-arms.

    Since she had been the means of hastening his marriage
    old Catherine had shown to Archer the cordiality
    which a service rendered excites toward the person
    served. She was persuaded that irrepressible passion
    was the cause of his impatience; and being an ardent
    admirer of impulsiveness (when it did not lead to the
    spending of money) she always received him with a
    genial twinkle of complicity and a play of allusion to
    which May seemed fortunately impervious.

    She examined and appraised with much interest the
    diamond-tipped arrow which had been pinned on May's
    bosom at the conclusion of the match, remarking that
    in her day a filigree brooch would have been thought
    enough, but that there was no denying that Beaufort
    did things handsomely.

    "Quite an heirloom, in fact, my dear," the old lady
    chuckled. "You must leave it in fee to your eldest girl."
    She pinched May's white arm and watched the colour
    flood her face. "Well, well, what have I said to make
    you shake out the red flag? Ain't there going to be any
    daughters--only boys, eh? Good gracious, look at her
    blushing again all over her blushes! What--can't I say
    that either? Mercy me--when my children beg me to
    have all those gods and goddesses painted out overhead
    I always say I'm too thankful to have somebody about
    me that NOTHING can shock!"

    Archer burst into a laugh, and May echoed it, crimson
    to the eyes.

    "Well, now tell me all about the party, please, my
    dears, for I shall never get a straight word about it out
    of that silly Medora," the ancestress continued; and, as
    May exclaimed: "Cousin Medora? But I thought she
    was going back to Portsmouth?" she answered placidly:
    "So she is--but she's got to come here first to pick
    up Ellen. Ah--you didn't know Ellen had come to
    spend the day with me? Such fol-de-rol, her not coming
    for the summer; but I gave up arguing with young
    people about fifty years ago. Ellen--ELLEN!" she cried in
    her shrill old voice, trying to bend forward far enough
    to catch a glimpse of the lawn beyond the verandah.

    There was no answer, and Mrs. Mingott rapped
    impatiently with her stick on the shiny floor. A mulatto
    maid-servant in a bright turban, replying to the summons,
    informed her mistress that she had seen "Miss
    Ellen" going down the path to the shore; and Mrs.
    Mingott turned to Archer.

    "Run down and fetch her, like a good grandson; this
    pretty lady will describe the party to me," she said; and
    Archer stood up as if in a dream.

    He had heard the Countess Olenska's name pronounced
    often enough during the year and a half since
    they had last met, and was even familiar with the main
    incidents of her life in the interval. He knew that she
    had spent the previous summer at Newport, where she
    appeared to have gone a great deal into society, but
    that in the autumn she had suddenly sub-let the "perfect
    house" which Beaufort had been at such pains to
    find for her, and decided to establish herself in
    Washington. There, during the winter, he had heard of her
    (as one always heard of pretty women in Washington)
    as shining in the "brilliant diplomatic society" that was
    supposed to make up for the social short-comings of
    the Administration. He had listened to these accounts,
    and to various contradictory reports on her appearance,
    her conversation, her point of view and her choice
    of friends, with the detachment with which one listens
    to reminiscences of some one long since dead; not till
    Medora suddenly spoke her name at the archery match
    had Ellen Olenska become a living presence to him
    again. The Marchioness's foolish lisp had called up a
    vision of the little fire-lit drawing-room and the sound
    of the carriage-wheels returning down the deserted street.
    He thought of a story he had read, of some peasant
    children in Tuscany lighting a bunch of straw in a
    wayside cavern, and revealing old silent images in their
    painted tomb . . .

    The way to the shore descended from the bank on
    which the house was perched to a walk above the
    water planted with weeping willows. Through their veil
    Archer caught the glint of the Lime Rock, with its
    white-washed turret and the tiny house in which the
    heroic light-house keeper, Ida Lewis, was living her last
    venerable years. Beyond it lay the flat reaches and ugly
    government chimneys of Goat Island, the bay spreading
    northward in a shimmer of gold to Prudence Island
    with its low growth of oaks, and the shores of Conanicut
    faint in the sunset haze.

    From the willow walk projected a slight wooden pier
    ending in a sort of pagoda-like summer-house; and in
    the pagoda a lady stood, leaning against the rail, her
    back to the shore. Archer stopped at the sight as if he
    had waked from sleep. That vision of the past was a
    dream, and the reality was what awaited him in the
    house on the bank overhead: was Mrs. Welland's pony-
    carriage circling around and around the oval at the
    door, was May sitting under the shameless Olympians
    and glowing with secret hopes, was the Welland villa at
    the far end of Bellevue Avenue, and Mr. Welland,
    already dressed for dinner, and pacing the drawing-
    room floor, watch in hand, with dyspeptic impatience--
    for it was one of the houses in which one always knew
    exactly what is happening at a given hour.

    "What am I? A son-in-law--" Archer thought.

    The figure at the end of the pier had not moved. For
    a long moment the young man stood half way down
    the bank, gazing at the bay furrowed with the coming
    and going of sailboats, yacht-launches, fishing-craft and
    the trailing black coal-barges hauled by noisy tugs. The
    lady in the summer-house seemed to be held by the
    same sight. Beyond the grey bastions of Fort Adams a
    long-drawn sunset was splintering up into a thousand
    fires, and the radiance caught the sail of a catboat as it
    beat out through the channel between the Lime Rock
    and the shore. Archer, as he watched, remembered the
    scene in the Shaughraun, and Montague lifting Ada
    Dyas's ribbon to his lips without her knowing that he
    was in the room.

    "She doesn't know--she hasn't guessed. Shouldn't I
    know if she came up behind me, I wonder?" he mused;
    and suddenly he said to himself: "If she doesn't turn
    before that sail crosses the Lime Rock light I'll go

    The boat was gliding out on the receding tide. It slid
    before the Lime Rock, blotted out Ida Lewis's little
    house, and passed across the turret in which the light
    was hung. Archer waited till a wide space of water
    sparkled between the last reef of the island and the
    stern of the boat; but still the figure in the summer-
    house did not move.

    He turned and walked up the hill.

    "I'm sorry you didn't find Ellen--I should have liked
    to see her again," May said as they drove home through
    the dusk. "But perhaps she wouldn't have cared--she
    seems so changed."

    "Changed?" echoed her husband in a colourless voice,
    his eyes fixed on the ponies' twitching ears.

    "So indifferent to her friends, I mean; giving up New
    York and her house, and spending her time with such
    queer people. Fancy how hideously uncomfortable she
    must be at the Blenkers'! She says she does it to keep
    cousin Medora out of mischief: to prevent her marrying
    dreadful people. But I sometimes think we've always
    bored her."

    Archer made no answer, and she continued, with a
    tinge of hardness that he had never before noticed in
    her frank fresh voice: "After all, I wonder if she wouldn't
    be happier with her husband."

    He burst into a laugh. "Sancta simplicitas!" he
    exclaimed; and as she turned a puzzled frown on him he
    added: "I don't think I ever heard you say a cruel thing


    "Well--watching the contortions of the damned is
    supposed to be a favourite sport of the angels; but I
    believe even they don't think people happier in hell."

    "It's a pity she ever married abroad then," said May,
    in the placid tone with which her mother met Mr.
    Welland's vagaries; and Archer felt himself gently relegated
    to the category of unreasonable husbands.

    They drove down Bellevue Avenue and turned in
    between the chamfered wooden gate-posts surmounted
    by cast-iron lamps which marked the approach to the
    Welland villa. Lights were already shining through its
    windows, and Archer, as the carriage stopped, caught a
    glimpse of his father-in-law, exactly as he had pictured
    him, pacing the drawing-room, watch in hand and
    wearing the pained expression that he had long since
    found to be much more efficacious than anger.

    The young man, as he followed his wife into the hall,
    was conscious of a curious reversal of mood. There
    was something about the luxury of the Welland house
    and the density of the Welland atmosphere, so charged
    with minute observances and exactions, that always
    stole into his system like a narcotic. The heavy carpets,
    the watchful servants, the perpetually reminding tick of
    disciplined clocks, the perpetually renewed stack of
    cards and invitations on the hall table, the whole chain
    of tyrannical trifles binding one hour to the next, and
    each member of the household to all the others, made
    any less systematised and affluent existence seem unreal
    and precarious. But now it was the Welland house,
    and the life he was expected to lead in it, that had
    become unreal and irrelevant, and the brief scene on
    the shore, when he had stood irresolute, halfway down
    the bank, was as close to him as the blood in his veins.

    All night he lay awake in the big chintz bedroom at
    May's side, watching the moonlight slant along the
    carpet, and thinking of Ellen Olenska driving home
    across the gleaming beaches behind Beaufort's trotters.
    Next Chapter
    Chapter 21
    Previous Chapter
    If you're writing a Edith Wharton essay and need some advice, post your Edith Wharton essay question on our Facebook page where fellow bookworms are always glad to help!

    Top 5 Authors

    Top 5 Books

    Book Status
    Want to read

    Are you sure you want to leave this group?