Edith Wharton (1862–1937). The Age of Innocence. 1920.Book I
He had caught sight, across the house, of Winsett’s shabby round-shouldered back, and had once noticed his eyes turned toward the Beaufort box. The two men shook hands, and Winsett proposed a bock at a little German restaurant around the corner. Archer, who was not in the mood for the kind of talk they were likely to get there, declined on the plea that he had work to do at home; and Winsett said: “Oh, well so have I for that matter, and I’ll be the Industrious Apprentice too.”
They strolled along together, and presently Winsett said: “Look here, what I’m really after is the name of the dark lady in that swell box of yours—with the Beauforts, wasn’t she? The one your friend Lefferts seems so smitten by.”
Archer, he could not have said why, was slightly annoyed. What the devil did Ned Winsett want with Ellen Olenska’s name? And above all, why did he couple it with Lefferts’s? It was unlike Winsett to manifest such curiosity; but after all, Archer remembered, he was a journalist.
“It’s not for an interview, I hope?” he laughed.
“Well—not for the press; just for myself,” Winsett rejoined. “The fact is she’s a neighbour of mine—queer quarter for such a beauty to settle in—and she’s been awfully kind to my little boy, who fell down her area chasing his kitten, and gave himself a nasty cut. She rushed in bareheaded, carrying him in her arms, with his knee all beautifully bandaged, and was so sympathetic and beautiful that my wife was too dazzled to ask her name.”
A pleasant glow dilated Archer’s heart. There was nothing extraordinary in the tale: any woman would have done as much for a neighbour’s child. But it was just like Ellen, he felt, to have rushed in bareheaded, carrying the boy in her arms, and to have dazzled poor Mrs. Winsett into forgetting to ask who she was.
“That is the Countess Olenska—a granddaughter of old Mrs. Mingott’s.”
“Whew—a Countess!” whistled Ned Winsett. “Well, I didn’t know Countesses were so neighbourly. Mingotts ain’t.”
“They would be, if you’d let them.”
“Ah, well—” It was their old interminable argument as to the obstinate unwillingness of the “clever people” to frequent the fashionable, and both men knew that there was no use in prolonging it.
“I wonder,” Winsett broke off, “how a Countess happens to live in our slum?”
“Because she doesn’t care a hang about where she lives—or about any of our little social sign-posts,” said Archer, with a secret pride in his own picture of her.
“H’m—been in bigger places, I suppose,” the other commented. “Well, here’s my corner.”
He slouched off across Broadway, and Archer stood looking after him and musing on his last words.
Ned Winsett had those flashes of penetration; they were the most interesting thing about him, and always made Archer wonder why they had allowed him to accept failure so stolidly at an age when most men are still struggling.
Archer had known that Winsett had a wife and child, but he had never seen them. The two men always met at the Century, or at some haunt of journalists and theatrical people, such as the restaurant where Winsett had proposed to go for a bock. He had given Archer to understand that his wife was an invalid; which might be true of the poor lady, or might merely mean that she was lacking in social gifts or in evening clothes, or in both. Winsett himself had a savage abhorrence of social observances: Archer, who dressed in the evening because he thought it cleaner and more comfortable to do so, and who had never stopped to consider that cleanliness and comfort are two of the costliest items in a modest budget, regarded Winsett’s attitude as part of the boring “Bohemian” pose that always made fashionable people, who changed their clothes without talking about it, and were not forever harping on the number of servants one kept, seem so much simpler and less self-conscious than the others. Nevertheless, he was always stimulated by Winsett, and whenever he caught sight of the journalist’s lean bearded face and melancholy eyes he would rout him out of his corner and carry him off for a long talk.
Winsett was not a journalist by choice. He was a pure man of letters, untimely born in a world that had no need of letters; but after publishing one volume of brief and exquisite literary appreciations, of which one hundred and twenty copies were sold, thirty given away, and the balance eventually destroyed by the publishers (as per contract) to make room for more marketable material, he had abandoned his real calling, and taken a sub-editorial job on a women’s weekly, where fashion-plates and paper patterns alternated with New England love-stories and advertisements of temperance drinks.
On the subject of “Hearth-fires” (as the paper was called) he was inexhaustibly entertaining; but beneath his fun lurked the sterile bitterness of the still young man who has tried and given up. His conversation always made Archer take the measure of his own life, and feel how little it contained; but Winsett’s, after all, contained still less, and though their common fund of intellectual interests and curiosities made their talks exhilarating, their exchange of views usually remained within the limits of a pensive dilettantism.
“The fact is, life isn’t much a fit for either of us,” Winsett had once said. “I’m down and out; nothing to be done about it. I’ve got only one ware to produce, and there’s no market for it here, and won’t be in my time. But you’re free and you’re well-off. Why don’t you get into touch? There’s only one way to do it: to go into politics.”
Archer threw his head back and laughed. There one saw at a flash the unbridgeable difference between men like Winsett and the others—Archer’s kind. Every one in polite circles knew that, in America, “a gentleman couldn’t go into politics.” But, since he could hardly put it in that way to Winsett, he answered evasively: “Look at the career of the honest man in American politics! They don’t want us.”
“Who’s ‘they’? Why don’t you all get together and be ‘they’ yourselves?”
Archer’s laugh lingered on his lips in a slightly condescending smile. It was useless to prolong the discussion: everybody knew the melancholy fate of the few gentlemen who had risked their clean linen in municipal or state politics in New York. The day was past when that sort of thing was possible: the country was in possession of the bosses and the emigrant, and decent people had to fall back on sport or culture.
“Culture! Yes—if we had it! But there are just a few little local patches, dying out here and there for lack of—well, hoeing and cross-fertilising: the last remnants of the old European tradition that your forebears brought with them. But you’re in a pitiful little minority: you’ve got no centre, no competition, no audience. You’re like the pictures on the walls of a deserted house: ‘The Portrait of a Gentleman.’ You’ll never amount to anything, any of you, till you roll up your sleeves and get right down into the muck. That, or emigrate … God! If I could emigrate.…”
Archer mentally shrugged his shoulders and turned the conversation back to books, where Winsett, if uncertain, was always interesting. Emigrate! As if a gentleman could abandon his own country! One could no more do that than one could roll up one’s sleeves and go down into the muck. A gentleman simply stayed at home and abstained. But you couldn’t make a man like Winsett see that; and that was why the New York of literary clubs and exotic restaurants, though a first shake made it seem more of a kaleidoscope, turned out, in the end, to be a smaller box, with a more monotonous pattern, than the assembled atoms of Fifth Avenue.
The next morning Archer scoured the town in vain for more yellow roses. In consequence of this search he arrived late at the office, perceived that his doing so made no difference whatever to any one, and was filled with sudden exasperation at the elaborate futility of his life. Why should he not be, at that moment, on the sands of St. Augustine with May Welland? No one was deceived by his pretense of professional activity. In old-fashioned legal firms like that of which Mr. Letterblair was the head, and which were mainly engaged in the management of large estates and “conservative” investments, there were always two or three young men, fairly well-off, and without professional ambition, who, for a certain number of hours of each day, sat at their desks accomplishing trivial tasks, or simply reading the newspapers. Though it was supposed to be proper for them to have an occupation, the crude fact of money-making was still regarded as derogatory, and the law, being a profession, was accounted a more gentlemanly pursuit than business. But none of these young men had much hope of really advancing in his profession, or any earnest desire to do so; and over many of them the green mould of the perfunctory was already perceptibly spreading.
It made Archer shiver to think that it might be spreading over him too. He had, to be sure, other tastes and interests; he spent his vacations in European travel, cultivated the “clever people” May spoke of, and generally tried to “keep up,” as he had somewhat wistfully put it to Madame Olenska. But once he was married, what would become of this narrow margin of life in which his real experiences were lived? He had seen enough of other young men who had dreamed his dream, though perhaps less ardently, and who had gradually sunk into the placid and luxurious routine of their elders.
From the office he sent a note by messenger to Madame Olenska, asking if he might call that afternoon, and begging her to let him find a reply at his club; but at the club he found nothing, nor did he receive any letter the following day. This unexpected silence mortified him beyond reason, and though the next morning he saw a glorious cluster of yellow roses behind a florist’s window-pane, he left it there. It was only on the third morning that he received a line by post from the Countess Olenska. To his surprise it was dated from Skuytercliff, whither the van der Luydens had promptly retreated after putting the Duke on board his steamer.
“I ran away,” the writer began abruptly (without the usual preliminaries), “the day after I saw you at the play, and these kind friends have taken me in. I wanted to be quiet, and think things over. You were right in telling me how kind they were; I feel myself so safe here. I wish that you were with us.” She ended with a conventional “Yours sincerely,” and without any allusion to the date of her return.
The tone of the note surprised the young man. What was Madame Olenska running away from, and why did she feel the need to be safe? His first thought was of some dark menace from abroad; then he reflected that he did not know her epistolary style, and that it might run to picturesque exaggeration. Women always exaggerated; and moreover she was not wholly at her ease in English, which she often spoke as if she were translating from the French. “Je me suis évadée—” put in that way, the opening sentence immediately suggested that she might merely have wanted to escape from a boring round of engagements; which was very likely true, for he judged her to be capricious, and easily wearied of the pleasure of the moment.
It amused him to think of the van der Luydens’ having carried her off to Skuytercliff on a second visit, and this time for an indefinite period. The doors of Skuytercliff were rarely and grudgingly opened to visitors, and a chilly week-end was the most ever offered to the few thus privileged. But Archer had seen, on his last visit to Paris, the delicious play of Labiche, Le Voyage de M. Perrichon, and he remembered M. Perrichon’s dogged and undiscouraged attachment to the young man whom he had pulled out of the glacier. The van der Luydens had rescued Madame Olenska from a doom almost as icy; and though there were many other reasons for being attracted to her, Archer knew that beneath them all lay the gentle and obstinate determination to go on rescuing her.
He felt a distinct disappointment on learning that she was away; and almost immediately remembered that, only the day before, he had refused an invitation to spend the following Sunday with the Reggie Chiverses at their house on the Hudson, a few miles below Skuytercliff.
He had had his fill long ago of the noisy friendly parties at Highbank, with coasting, ice-boating, sleighing, long tramps in the snow, and a general flavour of mild flirting and milder practical jokes. He had just received a box of new books from his London book-seller, and had preferred the prospect of a quiet Sunday at home with his spoils. But he now went into the club writing-room, wrote a hurried telegram, and told the servant to send it immediately. He knew that Mrs. Reggie didn’t object to her visitors’ suddenly changing their minds, and that there was always a room to spare in her elastic house.