Edith Wharton (1862–1937). The Age of Innocence. 1920.Book II
By the first of November this household ritual was over, and society had begun to look about and take stock of itself. By the fifteenth the season was in full blast, Opera and theatres were putting forth their new attractions, dinner-engagements were accumulating, and dates for dances being fixed. And punctually at about this time Mrs. Archer always said that New York was very much changed.
Observing it from the lofty stand-point of a non-participant, she was able, with the help of Mr. Sillerton Jackson and Miss Sophy, to trace each new crack in its surface, and all the strange weeds pushing up between the ordered rows of social vegetables. It had been one of the amusements of Archer’s youth to wait for this annual pronouncement of his mother’s, and to hear her enumerate the minute signs of disintegration that his careless gaze had overlooked. For New York, to Mrs. Archer’s mind, never changed without changing for the worse; and in this view Miss Sophy Jackson heartily concurred.
Mr. Sillerton Jackson, as became a man of the world, suspended his judgment and listened with an amused impartiality to the lamentations of the ladies. But even he never denied that New York had changed; and Newland Archer, in the winter of the second year of his marriage, was himself obliged to admit that if it had not actually changed it was certainly changing.
These points had been raised, as usual, at Mrs. Archer’s Thanksgiving dinner. At the date when she was officially enjoined to give thanks for the blessings of the year it was her habit to take a mournful though not embittered stock of her world, and wonder what there was to be thankful for. At any rate, not the state of society; society, if it could be said to exist, was rather a spectacle on which to call down Biblical imprecations—and in fact, everyone knew what the Reverend Dr. Ashmore meant when he chose a text from Jeremiah (chap. ii., verse 25) for his Thanksgiving sermon. Dr. Ashmore, the new Rector of St. Matthew’s, had been chosen because he was very “advanced”: his sermons were considered bold in thought and novel in language. When he fulminated against fashionable society he always spoke of its “trend”; and to Mrs. Archer it was terrifying and yet fascinating to feel herself part of a community that was trending.
“There’s no doubt that Dr. Ashmore is right: there IS a marked trend,” she said, as if it were something visible and measurable, like a crack in a house.
“It was odd, though, to preach about it on Thanksgiving,” Miss Jackson opined; and her hostess drily rejoined: “Oh, he means us to give thanks for what’s left.”
Archer had been wont to smile at these annual vaticinations of his mother’s; but this year even he was obliged to acknowledge, as he listened to an enumeration of the changes, that the “trend” was visible.
“The extravagance in dress—” Miss Jackson began. “Sillerton took me to the first night of the Opera, and I can only tell you that Jane Merry’s dress was the only one I recognised from last year; and even that had had the front panel changed. Yet I know she got it out from Worth only two years ago, because my seamstress always goes in to make over her Paris dresses before she wears them.”
“Ah, Jane Merry is one of us,” said Mrs. Archer sighing, as if it were not such an enviable thing to be in an age when ladies were beginning to flaunt abroad their Paris dresses as soon as they were out of the Custom House, instead of letting them mellow under lock and key, in the manner of Mrs. Archer’s contemporaries.
“Yes; she’s one of the few. In my youth,” Miss Jackson rejoined, “it was considered vulgar to dress in the newest fashions; and Amy Sillerton has always told me that in Boston the rule was to put away one’s Paris dresses for two years. Old Mrs. Baxter Pennilow, who did everything handsomely, used to import twelve a year, two velvet, two satin, two silk, and the other six of poplin and the finest cashmere. It was a standing order, and as she was ill for two years before she died they found forty-eight Worth dresses that had never been taken out of tissue paper; and when the girls left off their mourning they were able to wear the first lot at the Symphony concerts without looking in advance of the fashion.”
“Ah, well, Boston is more conservative than New York; but I always think it’s a safe rule for a lady to lay aside her French dresses for one season,” Mrs. Archer conceded.
“It was Beaufort who started the new fashion by making his wife clap her new clothes on her back as soon as they arrived: I must say at times it takes all Regina’s distinction not to look like … like …” Miss Jackson glanced around the table, caught Janey’s bulging gaze, and took refuge in an unintelligible murmur.
“Like her rivals,” said Mr. Sillerton Jackson, with the air of producing an epigram.
“Oh,—” the ladies murmured; and Mrs. Archer added, partly to distract her daughter’s attention from forbidden topics: “Poor Regina! Her Thanksgiving hasn’t been a very cheerful one, I’m afraid. Have you heard the rumours about Beaufort’s speculations, Sillerton?”
Mr. Jackson nodded carelessly. Every one had heard the rumours in question, and he scorned to confirm a tale that was already common property.
A gloomy silence fell upon the party. No one really liked Beaufort, and it was not wholly unpleasant to think the worst of his private life; but the idea of his having brought financial dishonour on his wife’s family was too shocking to be enjoyed even by his enemies. Archer’s New York tolerated hypocrisy in private relations; but in business matters it exacted a limpid and impeccable honesty. It was a long time since any well-known banker had failed discreditably; but everyone remembered the social extinction visited on the heads of the firm when the last event of the kind had happened. It would be the same with the Beauforts, in spite of his power and her popularity; not all the leagued strength of the Dallas connection would save poor Regina if there were any truth in the reports of her husband’s unlawful speculations.
The talk took refuge in less ominous topics; but everything they touched on seemed to confirm Mrs. Archer’s sense of an accelerated trend.
“Of course, Newland, I know you let dear May go to Mrs. Struthers’s Sunday evenings—” she began; and May interposed gaily: “Oh, you know, everybody goes to Mrs. Struthers’s now; and she was invited to Granny’s last reception.”
It was thus, Archer reflected, that New York managed its transitions: conspiring to ignore them till they were well over, and then, in all good faith, imagining that they had taken place in a preceding age. There was always a traitor in the citadel; and after he (or generally she) had surrendered the keys, what was the use of pretending that it was impregnable? Once people had tasted of Mrs. Struthers’s easy Sunday hospitality they were not likely to sit at home remembering that her champagne was transmuted Shoe-Polish.
“I know, dear, I know,” Mrs. Archer sighed. “Such things have to be, I suppose, as long as amusement is what people go out for; but I’ve never quite forgiven your cousin Madame Olenska for being the first person to countenance Mrs. Struthers.”
A sudden blush rose to young Mrs. Archer’s face; it surprised her husband as much as the other guests about the table. “Oh, Ellen—” she murmured, much in the same accusing and yet deprecating tone in which her parents might have said: “Oh, the Blenkers—.”
It was the note which the family had taken to sounding on the mention of the Countess Olenska’s name, since she had surprised and inconvenienced them by remaining obdurate to her husband’s advances; but on May’s lips it gave food for thought, and Archer looked at her with the sense of strangeness that sometimes came over him when she was most in the tone of her environment.
His mother, with less than her usual sensitiveness to atmosphere, still insisted: “I’ve always thought that people like the Countess Olenska, who have lived in aristocratic societies, ought to help us to keep up our social distinctions, instead of ignoring them.”
May’s blush remained permanently vivid: it seemed to have a significance beyond that implied by the recognition of Madame Olenska’s social bad faith.
“I’ve no doubt we all seem alike to foreigners,” said Miss Jackson tartly.
“I don’t think Ellen cares for society; but nobody knows exactly what she does care for,” May continued, as if she had been groping for something noncommittal.
“Ah, well—” Mrs. Archer sighed again.
Everybody knew that the Countess Olenska was no longer in the good graces of her family. Even her devoted champion, old Mrs. Manson Mingott, had been unable to defend her refusal to return to her husband. The Mingotts had not proclaimed their disapproval aloud: their sense of solidarity was too strong. They had simply, as Mrs. Welland said, “let poor Ellen find her own level”—and that, mortifyingly and incomprehensibly, was in the dim depths where the Blenkers prevailed, and “people who wrote” celebrated their untidy rites. It was incredible, but it was a fact, that Ellen, in spite of all her opportunities and her privileges, had become simply “Bohemian.” The fact enforced the contention that she had made a fatal mistake in not returning to Count Olenski. After all, a young woman’s place was under her husband’s roof, especially when she had left it in circumstances that … well … if one had cared to look into them.…
“Madame Olenska is a great favourite with the gentlemen,” said Miss Sophy, with her air of wishing to put forth something conciliatory when she knew that she was planting a dart.
“Ah, that’s the danger that a young woman like Madame Olenska is always exposed to,” Mrs. Archer mournfully agreed; and the ladies, on this conclusion, gathered up their trains to seek the carcel globes of the drawing-room, while Archer and Mr. Sillerton Jackson withdrew to the Gothic library.
Once established before the grate, and consoling himself for the inadequacy of the dinner by the perfection of his cigar, Mr. Jackson became portentous and communicable.
“If the Beaufort smash comes,” he announced, “there are going to be disclosures.”
Archer raised his head quickly: he could never hear the name without the sharp vision of Beaufort’s heavy figure, opulently furred and shod, advancing through the snow at Skuytercliff.
“There’s bound to be,” Mr. Jackson continued, “the nastiest kind of a cleaning up. He hasn’t spent all his money on Regina.”
“Oh, well—that’s discounted, isn’t it? My belief is he’ll pull out yet,” said the young man, wanting to change the subject.
“Perhaps—perhaps. I know he was to see some of the influential people today. Of course,” Mr. Jackson reluctantly conceded, “it’s to be hoped they can tide him over—this time anyhow. I shouldn’t like to think of poor Regina’s spending the rest of her life in some shabby foreign watering-place for bankrupts.”
Archer said nothing. It seemed to him so natural—however tragic—that money ill-gotten should be cruelly expiated, that his mind, hardly lingering over Mrs. Beaufort’s doom, wandered back to closer questions. What was the meaning of May’s blush when the Countess Olenska had been mentioned?
Four months had passed since the midsummer day that he and Madame Olenska had spent together; and since then he had not seen her. He knew that she had returned to Washington, to the little house which she and Medora Manson had taken there: he had written to her once—a few words, asking when they were to meet again—and she had even more briefly replied: “Not yet.”
Since then there had been no farther communication between them, and he had built up within himself a kind of sanctuary in which she throned among his secret thoughts and longings. Little by little it became the scene of his real life, of his only rational activities; thither he brought the books he read, the ideas and feelings which nourished him, his judgments and his visions. Outside it, in the scene of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absent-minded man goes on bumping into the furniture of his own room. Absent—that was what he was: so absent from everything most densely real and near to those about him that it sometimes startled him to find they still imagined he was there.
He became aware that Mr. Jackson was clearing his throat preparatory to farther revelations.
“I don’t know, of course, how far your wife’s family are aware of what people say about—well, about Madame Olenska’s refusal to accept her husband’s latest offer.”
Archer was silent, and Mr. Jackson obliquely continued: “It’s a pity—it’s certainly a pity—that she refused it.”
“A pity? In God’s name, why?”
Mr. Jackson looked down his leg to the unwrinkled sock that joined it to a glossy pump.
“Well—to put it on the lowest ground—what’s she going to live on now?”
Archer sprang up, his fist banging down on the black walnut-edge of the writing-table. The wells of the brass double-inkstand danced in their sockets.
“What the devil do you mean, sir?”
Mr. Jackson, shifting himself slightly in his chair, turned a tranquil gaze on the young man’s burning face.
“Well—I have it on pretty good authority—in fact, on old Catherine’s herself—that the family reduced Countess Olenska’s allowance considerably when she definitely refused to go back to her husband; and as, by this refusal, she also forfeits the money settled on her when she married—which Olenski was ready to make over to her if she returned—why, what the devil do you mean, my dear boy, by asking me what I mean?” Mr. Jackson good-humouredly retorted.
Archer moved toward the mantelpiece and bent over to knock his ashes into the grate.
“I don’t know anything of Madame Olenska’s private affairs; but I don’t need to, to be certain that what you insinuate—”
“Oh, I don’t: it’s Lefferts, for one,” Mr. Jackson interposed.
“Lefferts—who made love to her and got snubbed for it!” Archer broke out contemptuously.
“Ah—did he?” snapped the other, as if this were exactly the fact he had been laying a trap for. He still sat sideways from the fire, so that his hard old gaze held Archer’s face as if in a spring of steel.
“Well, well: it’s a pity she didn’t go back before Beaufort’s cropper,” he repeated. “If she goes now, and if he fails, it will only confirm the general impression: which isn’t by any means peculiar to Lefferts, by the way.”
“Oh, she won’t go back now: less than ever!” Archer had no sooner said it than he had once more the feeling that it was exactly what Mr. Jackson had been waiting for.
The old gentleman considered him attentively. “That’s your opinion, eh? Well, no doubt you know. But everybody will tell you that the few pennies Medora Manson has left are all in Beaufort’s hands; and how the two women are to keep their heads above water unless he does, I can’t imagine. Of course, Madame Olenska may still soften old Catherine, who’s been the most inexorably opposed to her staying; and old Catherine could make her any allowance she chooses. But we all know that she hates parting with good money; and the rest of the family have no particular interest in keeping Madame Olenska here.”
Archer was burning with unavailing wrath: he was exactly in the state when a man is sure to do something stupid, knowing all the while that he is doing it.
He saw that Mr. Jackson had been instantly struck by the fact that Madame Olenska’s differences with her grandmother and her other relations were not known to him, and that the old gentleman had drawn his own conclusions as to the reasons for Archer’s exclusion from the family councils. This fact warned Archer to go warily; but the insinuations about Beaufort made him reckless. He was mindful, however, if not of his own danger, at least of the fact that Mr. Jackson was under his mother’s roof, and consequently his guest. Old New York scrupulously observed the etiquette of hospitality, and no discussion with a guest was ever allowed to degenerate into a disagreement.
“Shall we go up and join my mother?” he suggested curtly, as Mr. Jackson’s last cone of ashes dropped into the brass ashtray at his elbow.
On the drive homeward May remained oddly silent; through the darkness, he still felt her enveloped in her menacing blush. What its menace meant he could not guess: but he was sufficiently warned by the fact that Madame Olenska’s name had evoked it.
They went upstairs, and he turned into the library. She usually followed him; but he heard her passing down the passage to her bedroom.
“May!” he called out impatiently; and she came back, with a slight glance of surprise at his tone.
“This lamp is smoking again; I should think the servants might see that it’s kept properly trimmed,” he grumbled nervously.
“I’m so sorry: it shan’t happen again,” she answered, in the firm bright tone she had learned from her mother; and it exasperated Archer to feel that she was already beginning to humour him like a younger Mr. Welland. She bent over to lower the wick, and as the light struck up on her white shoulders and the clear curves of her face he thought: “How young she is! For what endless years this life will have to go on!”
He felt, with a kind of horror, his own strong youth and the bounding blood in his veins. “Look here,” he said suddenly, “I may have to go to Washington for a few days—soon; next week perhaps.”
Her hand remained on the key of the lamp as she turned to him slowly. The heat from its flame had brought back a glow to her face, but it paled as she looked up.
“On business?” she asked, in a tone which implied that there could be no other conceivable reason, and that she had put the question automatically, as if merely to finish his own sentence.
“On business, naturally. There’s a patent case coming up before the Supreme Court—” He gave the name of the inventor, and went on furnishing details with all Lawrence Lefferts’s practised glibness, while she listened attentively, saying at intervals: “Yes, I see.”
“The change will do you good,” she said simply, when he had finished; “and you must be sure to go and see Ellen,” she added, looking him straight in the eyes with her cloudless smile, and speaking in the tone she might have employed in urging him not to neglect some irksome family duty.
It was the only word that passed between them on the subject; but in the code in which they had both been trained it meant: “Of course you understand that I know all that people have been saying about Ellen, and heartily sympathise with my family in their effort to get her to return to her husband. I also know that, for some reason you have not chosen to tell me, you have advised her against this course, which all the older men of the family, as well as our grandmother, agree in approving; and that it is owing to your encouragement that Ellen defies us all, and exposes herself to the kind of criticism of which Mr. Sillerton Jackson probably gave you, this evening, the hint that has made you so irritable.… Hints have indeed not been wanting; but since you appear unwilling to take them from others, I offer you this one myself, in the only form in which well-bred people of our kind can communicate unpleasant things to each other: by letting you understand that I know you mean to see Ellen when you are in Washington, and are perhaps going there expressly for that purpose; and that, since you are sure to see her, I wish you to do so with my full and explicit approval—and to take the opportunity of letting her know what the course of conduct you have encouraged her in is likely to lead to.”
Her hand was still on the key of the lamp when the last word of this mute message reached him. She turned the wick down, lifted off the globe, and breathed on the sulky flame.
“They smell less if one blows them out,” she explained, with her bright housekeeping air. On the threshold she turned and paused for his kiss.