Edith Wharton (1862–1937). The Age of Innocence. 1920.Book I
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 close-clipped 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 rôle.
“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.”
“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.