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    Chapter 30

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    Chapter 30
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    XXX.

    That evening when Archer came down before dinner
    he found the drawing-room empty.

    He and May were dining alone, all the family
    engagements having been postponed since Mrs. Manson
    Mingott's illness; and as May was the more punctual
    of the two he was surprised that she had not preceded
    him. He knew that she was at home, for while he
    dressed he had heard her moving about in her room;
    and he wondered what had delayed her.

    He had fallen into the way of dwelling on such
    conjectures as a means of tying his thoughts fast to
    reality. Sometimes he felt as if he had found the clue to
    his father-in-law's absorption in trifles; perhaps even
    Mr. Welland, long ago, had had escapes and visions,
    and had conjured up all the hosts of domesticity to
    defend himself against them.

    When May appeared he thought she looked tired.
    She had put on the low-necked and tightly-laced dinner-
    dress which the Mingott ceremonial exacted on the
    most informal occasions, and had built her fair hair
    into its usual accumulated coils; and her face, in
    contrast, was wan and almost faded. But she shone on him
    with her usual tenderness, and her eyes had kept the
    blue dazzle of the day before.

    "What became of you, dear?" she asked. "I was
    waiting at Granny's, and Ellen came alone, and said
    she had dropped you on the way because you had to
    rush off on business. There's nothing wrong?"

    "Only some letters I'd forgotten, and wanted to get
    off before dinner."

    "Ah--" she said; and a moment afterward: "I'm
    sorry you didn't come to Granny's--unless the letters
    were urgent."

    "They were," he rejoined, surprised at her insistence.
    "Besides, I don't see why I should have gone to your
    grandmother's. I didn't know you were there."

    She turned and moved to the looking-glass above the
    mantel-piece. As she stood there, lifting her long arm to
    fasten a puff that had slipped from its place in her
    intricate hair, Archer was struck by something languid
    and inelastic in her attitude, and wondered if the deadly
    monotony of their lives had laid its weight on her also.
    Then he remembered that, as he had left the house that
    morning, she had called over the stairs that she would
    meet him at her grandmother's so that they might drive
    home together. He had called back a cheery "Yes!"
    and then, absorbed in other visions, had forgotten his
    promise. Now he was smitten with compunction, yet
    irritated that so trifling an omission should be stored
    up against him after nearly two years of marriage. He
    was weary of living in a perpetual tepid honeymoon,
    without the temperature of passion yet with all its
    exactions. If May had spoken out her grievances (he
    suspected her of many) he might have laughed them
    away; but she was trained to conceal imaginary wounds
    under a Spartan smile.

    To disguise his own annoyance he asked how her
    grandmother was, and she answered that Mrs. Mingott
    was still improving, but had been rather disturbed by
    the last news about the Beauforts.

    "What news?"

    "It seems they're going to stay in New York. I believe
    he's going into an insurance business, or something.
    They're looking about for a small house."

    The preposterousness of the case was beyond discussion,
    and they went in to dinner. During dinner their
    talk moved in its usual limited circle; but Archer
    noticed that his wife made no allusion to Madame Olenska,
    nor to old Catherine's reception of her. He was thankful
    for the fact, yet felt it to be vaguely ominous.

    They went up to the library for coffee, and Archer
    lit a cigar and took down a volume of Michelet. He
    had taken to history in the evenings since May had
    shown a tendency to ask him to read aloud whenever
    she saw him with a volume of poetry: not that he
    disliked the sound of his own voice, but because he
    could always foresee her comments on what he read. In
    the days of their engagement she had simply (as he now
    perceived) echoed what he told her; but since he had
    ceased to provide her with opinions she had begun to
    hazard her own, with results destructive to his enjoyment
    of the works commented on.

    Seeing that he had chosen history she fetched her
    workbasket, drew up an arm-chair to the green-shaded
    student lamp, and uncovered a cushion she was
    embroidering for his sofa. She was not a clever needle-
    woman; her large capable hands were made for riding,
    rowing and open-air activities; but since other wives
    embroidered cushions for their husbands she did not
    wish to omit this last link in her devotion.

    She was so placed that Archer, by merely raising his
    eyes, could see her bent above her work-frame, her
    ruffled elbow-sleeves slipping back from her firm round
    arms, the betrothal sapphire shining on her left hand
    above her broad gold wedding-ring, and the right hand
    slowly and laboriously stabbing the canvas. As she sat
    thus, the lamplight full on her clear brow, he said to
    himself with a secret dismay that he would always
    know the thoughts behind it, that never, in all the years
    to come, would she surprise him by an unexpected
    mood, by a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or an
    emotion. She had spent her poetry and romance on
    their short courting: the function was exhausted
    because the need was past. Now she was simply ripening
    into a copy of her mother, and mysteriously, by the
    very process, trying to turn him into a Mr. Welland.
    He laid down his book and stood up impatiently; and
    at once she raised her head.

    "What's the matter?"

    "The room is stifling: I want a little air."

    He had insisted that the library curtains should draw
    backward and forward on a rod, so that they might be
    closed in the evening, instead of remaining nailed to a
    gilt cornice, and immovably looped up over layers of
    lace, as in the drawing-room; and he pulled them back
    and pushed up the sash, leaning out into the icy night.
    The mere fact of not looking at May, seated beside his
    table, under his lamp, the fact of seeing other houses,
    roofs, chimneys, of getting the sense of other lives
    outside his own, other cities beyond New York, and a
    whole world beyond his world, cleared his brain and
    made it easier to breathe.

    After he had leaned out into the darkness for a few
    minutes he heard her say: "Newland! Do shut the
    window. You'll catch your death."

    He pulled the sash down and turned back. "Catch
    my death!" he echoed; and he felt like adding: "But
    I've caught it already. I AM dead--I've been dead for
    months and months."

    And suddenly the play of the word flashed up a wild
    suggestion. What if it were SHE who was dead! If she
    were going to die--to die soon--and leave him free!
    The sensation of standing there, in that warm familiar
    room, and looking at her, and wishing her dead, was
    so strange, so fascinating and overmastering, that its
    enormity did not immediately strike him. He simply
    felt that chance had given him a new possibility to
    which his sick soul might cling. Yes, May might die--
    people did: young people, healthy people like herself:
    she might die, and set him suddenly free.

    She glanced up, and he saw by her widening eyes
    that there must be something strange in his own.

    "Newland! Are you ill?"

    He shook his head and turned toward his arm-chair.
    She bent over her work-frame, and as he passed he laid
    his hand on her hair. "Poor May!" he said.

    "Poor? Why poor?" she echoed with a strained laugh.

    "Because I shall never be able to open a window
    without worrying you," he rejoined, laughing also.

    For a moment she was silent; then she said very low,
    her head bowed over her work: "I shall never worry if
    you're happy."

    "Ah, my dear; and I shall never be happy unless I
    can open the windows!"

    "In THIS weather?" she remonstrated; and with a sigh
    he buried his head in his book.

    Six or seven days passed. Archer heard nothing from
    Madame Olenska, and became aware that her name
    would not be mentioned in his presence by any member
    of the family. He did not try to see her; to do so
    while she was at old Catherine's guarded bedside would
    have been almost impossible. In the uncertainty of the
    situation he let himself drift, conscious, somewhere
    below the surface of his thoughts, of a resolve which
    had come to him when he had leaned out from his
    library window into the icy night. The strength of that
    resolve made it easy to wait and make no sign.

    Then one day May told him that Mrs. Manson
    Mingott had asked to see him. There was nothing
    surprising in the request, for the old lady was steadily
    recovering, and she had always openly declared that
    she preferred Archer to any of her other grandsons-in-
    law. May gave the message with evident pleasure: she
    was proud of old Catherine's appreciation of her
    husband.

    There was a moment's pause, and then Archer felt it
    incumbent on him to say: "All right. Shall we go
    together this afternoon?"

    His wife's face brightened, but she instantly answered:
    "Oh, you'd much better go alone. It bores Granny to
    see the same people too often."

    Archer's heart was beating violently when he rang
    old Mrs. Mingott's bell. He had wanted above all
    things to go alone, for he felt sure the visit would give
    him the chance of saying a word in private to the
    Countess Olenska. He had determined to wait till the
    chance presented itself naturally; and here it was, and
    here he was on the doorstep. Behind the door, behind
    the curtains of the yellow damask room next to the
    hall, she was surely awaiting him; in another moment
    he should see her, and be able to speak to her before
    she led him to the sick-room.

    He wanted only to put one question: after that his
    course would be clear. What he wished to ask was
    simply the date of her return to Washington; and that
    question she could hardly refuse to answer.

    But in the yellow sitting-room it was the mulatto
    maid who waited. Her white teeth shining like a
    keyboard, she pushed back the sliding doors and ushered
    him into old Catherine's presence.

    The old woman sat in a vast throne-like arm-chair
    near her bed. Beside her was a mahogany stand bearing
    a cast bronze lamp with an engraved globe, over which
    a green paper shade had been balanced. There was not
    a book or a newspaper in reach, nor any evidence of
    feminine employment: conversation had always been
    Mrs. Mingott's sole pursuit, and she would have scorned
    to feign an interest in fancywork.

    Archer saw no trace of the slight distortion left by
    her stroke. She merely looked paler, with darker shadows
    in the folds and recesses of her obesity; and, in the
    fluted mob-cap tied by a starched bow between her
    first two chins, and the muslin kerchief crossed over
    her billowing purple dressing-gown, she seemed like
    some shrewd and kindly ancestress of her own who
    might have yielded too freely to the pleasures of the
    table.

    She held out one of the little hands that nestled in a
    hollow of her huge lap like pet animals, and called to
    the maid: "Don't let in any one else. If my daughters
    call, say I'm asleep."

    The maid disappeared, and the old lady turned to
    her grandson.

    "My dear, am I perfectly hideous?" she asked gaily,
    launching out one hand in search of the folds of muslin
    on her inaccessible bosom. "My daughters tell me it
    doesn't matter at my age--as if hideousness didn't matter
    all the more the harder it gets to conceal!"

    "My dear, you're handsomer than ever!" Archer
    rejoined in the same tone; and she threw back her head
    and laughed.

    "Ah, but not as handsome as Ellen!" she jerked out,
    twinkling at him maliciously; and before he could answer
    she added: "Was she so awfully handsome the
    day you drove her up from the ferry?"

    He laughed, and she continued: "Was it because you
    told her so that she had to put you out on the way? In
    my youth young men didn't desert pretty women unless
    they were made to!" She gave another chuckle, and
    interrupted it to say almost querulously: "It's a pity she
    didn't marry you; I always told her so. It would have
    spared me all this worry. But who ever thought of
    sparing their grandmother worry?"

    Archer wondered if her illness had blurred her faculties;
    but suddenly she broke out: "Well, it's settled,
    anyhow: she's going to stay with me, whatever the rest
    of the family say! She hadn't been here five minutes
    before I'd have gone down on my knees to keep her--if
    only, for the last twenty years, I'd been able to see
    where the floor was!"

    Archer listened in silence, and she went on: "They'd
    talked me over, as no doubt you know: persuaded me,
    Lovell, and Letterblair, and Augusta Welland, and all
    the rest of them, that I must hold out and cut off her
    allowance, till she was made to see that it was her duty
    to go back to Olenski. They thought they'd convinced
    me when the secretary, or whatever he was, came out
    with the last proposals: handsome proposals I confess
    they were. After all, marriage is marriage, and money's
    money--both useful things in their way . . . and I didn't
    know what to answer--" She broke off and drew a
    long breath, as if speaking had become an effort. "But
    the minute I laid eyes on her, I said: 'You sweet bird,
    you! Shut you up in that cage again? Never!' And now
    it's settled that she's to stay here and nurse her Granny
    as long as there's a Granny to nurse. It's not a gay
    prospect, but she doesn't mind; and of course I've told
    Letterblair that she's to be given her proper allowance."

    The young man heard her with veins aglow; but in
    his confusion of mind he hardly knew whether her
    news brought joy or pain. He had so definitely decided
    on the course he meant to pursue that for the moment
    he could not readjust his thoughts. But gradually there
    stole over him the delicious sense of difficulties
    deferred and opportunities miraculously provided. If
    Ellen had consented to come and live with her grandmother
    it must surely be because she had recognised the
    impossibility of giving him up. This was her answer to his
    final appeal of the other day: if she would not take the
    extreme step he had urged, she had at last yielded to
    half-measures. He sank back into the thought with the
    involuntary relief of a man who has been ready to risk
    everything, and suddenly tastes the dangerous sweetness
    of security.

    "She couldn't have gone back--it was impossible!"
    he exclaimed.

    "Ah, my dear, I always knew you were on her side;
    and that's why I sent for you today, and why I said to
    your pretty wife, when she proposed to come with you:
    'No, my dear, I'm pining to see Newland, and I don't
    want anybody to share our transports.' For you see, my
    dear--" she drew her head back as far as its tethering
    chins permitted, and looked him full in the eyes--"you
    see, we shall have a fight yet. The family don't want
    her here, and they'll say it's because I've been ill,
    because I'm a weak old woman, that she's persuaded me.
    I'm not well enough yet to fight them one by one, and
    you've got to do it for me."

    "I?" he stammered.

    "You. Why not?" she jerked back at him, her round
    eyes suddenly as sharp as pen-knives. Her hand fluttered
    from its chair-arm and lit on his with a clutch of
    little pale nails like bird-claws. "Why not?" she
    searchingly repeated.

    Archer, under the exposure of her gaze, had recovered
    his self-possession.

    "Oh, I don't count--I'm too insignificant."

    "Well, you're Letterblair's partner, ain't you? You've
    got to get at them through Letterblair. Unless you've
    got a reason," she insisted.

    "Oh, my dear, I back you to hold your own against
    them all without my help; but you shall have it if you
    need it," he reassured her.

    "Then we're safe!" she sighed; and smiling on him
    with all her ancient cunning she added, as she settled
    her head among the cushions: "I always knew you'd
    back us up, because they never quote you when they
    talk about its being her duty to go home."

    He winced a little at her terrifying perspicacity, and
    longed to ask: "And May--do they quote her?" But he
    judged it safer to turn the question.

    "And Madame Olenska? When am I to see her?" he
    said.

    The old lady chuckled, crumpled her lids, and went
    through the pantomime of archness. "Not today. One
    at a time, please. Madame Olenska's gone out."

    He flushed with disappointment, and she went on:
    "She's gone out, my child: gone in my carriage to see
    Regina Beaufort."

    She paused for this announcement to produce its
    effect. "That's what she's reduced me to already. The
    day after she got here she put on her best bonnet, and
    told me, as cool as a cucumber, that she was going to
    call on Regina Beaufort. 'I don't know her; who is
    she?' says I. 'She's your grand-niece, and a most
    unhappy woman,' she says. 'She's the wife of a scoundrel,'
    I answered. 'Well,' she says, 'and so am I, and yet
    all my family want me to go back to him.' Well, that
    floored me, and I let her go; and finally one day she
    said it was raining too hard to go out on foot, and she
    wanted me to lend her my carriage. 'What for?' I asked
    her; and she said: 'To go and see cousin Regina--COUSIN!
    Now, my dear, I looked out of the window, and saw it
    wasn't raining a drop; but I understood her, and I let
    her have the carriage. . . . After all, Regina's a brave
    woman, and so is she; and I've always liked courage
    above everything."

    Archer bent down and pressed his lips on the little
    hand that still lay on his.

    "Eh--eh--eh! Whose hand did you think you were
    kissing, young man--your wife's, I hope?" the old lady
    snapped out with her mocking cackle; and as he rose to
    go she called out after him: "Give her her Granny's
    love; but you'd better not say anything about our talk."
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