Edith Wharton (1862–1937). The Age of Innocence. 1920.Book II
The scene was the van der Luydens’ black walnut dining-room in Madison Avenue, and the time the evening after Newland Archer’s visit to the Museum of Art. Mr. and Mrs. van der Luyden had come to town for a few days from Skuytercliff, whither they had precipitately fled at the announcement of Beaufort’s failure. It had been represented to them that the disarray into which society had been thrown by this deplorable affair made their presence in town more necessary than ever. It was one of the occasions when, as Mrs. Archer put it, they “owed it to society” to show themselves at the Opera, and even to open their own doors.
“It will never do, my dear Louisa, to let people like Mrs. Lemuel Struthers think they can step into Regina’s shoes. It is just at such times that new people push in and get a footing. It was owing to the epidemic of chicken-pox in New York the winter Mrs. Struthers first appeared that the married men slipped away to her house while their wives were in the nursery. You and dear Henry, Louisa, must stand in the breach as you always have.”
Mr. and Mrs. van der Luyden could not remain deaf to such a call, and reluctantly but heroically they had come to town, unmuffled the house, and sent out invitations for two dinners and an evening reception.
On this particular evening they had invited Sillerton Jackson, Mrs. Archer and Newland and his wife to go with them to the Opera, where Faust was being sung for the first time that winter. Nothing was done without ceremony under the van der Luyden roof, and though there were but four guests the repast had begun at seven punctually, so that the proper sequence of courses might be served without haste before the gentlemen settled down to their cigars.
Archer had not seen his wife since the evening before. He had left early for the office, where he had plunged into an accumulation of unimportant business. In the afternoon one of the senior partners had made an unexpected call on his time; and he had reached home so late that May had preceded him to the van der Luydens’, and sent back the carriage.
Now, across the Skuytercliff carnations and the massive plate, she struck him as pale and languid; but her eyes shone, and she talked with exaggerated animation.
The subject which had called forth Mr. Sillerton Jackson’s favourite allusion had been brought up (Archer fancied not without intention) by their hostess. The Beaufort failure, or rather the Beaufort attitude since the failure, was still a fruitful theme for the drawing-room moralist; and after it had been thoroughly examined and condemned Mrs. van der Luyden had turned her scrupulous eyes on May Archer.
“Is it possible, dear, that what I hear is true? I was told your grandmother Mingott’s carriage was seen standing at Mrs. Beaufort’s door.” It was noticeable that she no longer called the offending lady by her Christian name.
May’s colour rose, and Mrs. Archer put in hastily: “If it was, I’m convinced it was there without Mrs. Mingott’s knowledge.”
“Ah, you think—?” Mrs. van der Luyden paused, sighed, and glanced at her husband.
“I’m afraid,” Mr. van der Luyden said, “that Madame Olenska’s kind heart may have led her into the imprudence of calling on Mrs. Beaufort.”
“Or her taste for peculiar people,” put in Mrs. Archer in a dry tone, while her eyes dwelt innocently on her son’s.
“I’m sorry to think it of Madame Olenska,” said Mrs. van der Luyden; and Mrs. Archer murmured: “Ah, my dear—and after you’d had her twice at Skuytercliff!”
It was at this point that Mr. Jackson seized the chance to place his favourite allusion.
“At the Tuileries,” he repeated, seeing the eyes of the company expectantly turned on him, “the standard was excessively lax in some respects; and if you’d asked where Morny’s money came from—! Or who paid the debts of some of the Court beauties.…”
“I hope, dear Sillerton,” said Mrs. Archer, “you are not suggesting that we should adopt such standards?”
“I never suggest,” returned Mr. Jackson imperturbably. “But Madame Olenska’s foreign bringing-up may make her less particular—”
“Ah,” the two elder ladies sighed.
“Still, to have kept her grandmother’s carriage at a defaulter’s door!” Mr. van der Luyden protested; and Archer guessed that he was remembering, and resenting, the hampers of carnations he had sent to the little house in Twenty-third Street.
“Of course I’ve always said that she looks at things quite differently,” Mrs. Archer summed up.
A flush rose to May’s forehead. She looked across the table at her husband, and said precipitately: “I’m sure Ellen meant it kindly.”
“Imprudent people are often kind,” said Mrs. Archer, as if the fact were scarcely an extenuation; and Mrs. van der Luyden murmured: “If only she had consulted someone—”
“Ah, that she never did!” Mrs. Archer rejoined.
At this point Mr. van der Luyden glanced at his wife, who bent her head slightly in the direction of Mrs. Archer; and the glimmering trains of the three ladies swept out of the door while the gentlemen settled down to their cigars. Mr. van der Luyden supplied short ones on Opera nights; but they were so good that they made his guests deplore his inexorable punctuality.
Archer, after the first act, had detached himself from the party and made his way to the back of the club box. From there he watched, over various Chivers, Mingott and Rushworth shoulders, the same scene that he had looked at, two years previously, on the night of his first meeting with Ellen Olenska. He had half-expected her to appear again in old Mrs. Mingott’s box, but it remained empty; and he sat motionless, his eyes fastened on it, till suddenly Madame Nilsson’s pure soprano broke out into “M’ama, non m’ama.…”
Archer turned to the stage, where, in the familiar setting of giant roses and pen-wiper pansies, the same large blonde victim was succumbing to the same small brown seducer.
From the stage his eyes wandered to the point of the horseshoe where May sat between two older ladies, just as, on that former evening, she had sat between Mrs. Lovell Mingott and her newly-arrived “foreign” cousin. As on that evening, she was all in white; and Archer, who had not noticed what she wore, recognised the blue-white satin and old lace of her wedding dress.
It was the custom, in old New York, for brides to appear in this costly garment during the first year or two of marriage: his mother, he knew, kept hers in tissue paper in the hope that Janey might some day wear it, though poor Janey was reaching the age when pearl grey poplin and no bridesmaids would be thought more “appropriate.”
It struck Archer that May, since their return from Europe, had seldom worn her bridal satin, and the surprise of seeing her in it made him compare her appearance with that of the young girl he had watched with such blissful anticipations two years earlier.
Though May’s outline was slightly heavier, as her goddesslike build had foretold, her athletic erectness of carriage, and the girlish transparency of her expression, remained unchanged: but for the slight languor that Archer had lately noticed in her she would have been the exact image of the girl playing with the bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley on her betrothal evening. The fact seemed an additional appeal to his pity: such innocence was as moving as the trustful clasp of a child. Then he remembered the passionate generosity latent under that incurious calm. He recalled her glance of understanding when he had urged that their engagement should be announced at the Beaufort ball; he heard the voice in which she had said, in the Mission garden: “I couldn’t have my happiness made out of a wrong—a wrong to someone else;” and an uncontrollable longing seized him to tell her the truth, to throw himself on her generosity, and ask for the freedom he had once refused.
Newland Archer was a quiet and self-controlled young man. Conformity to the discipline of a small society had become almost his second nature. It was deeply distasteful to him to do anything melodramatic and conspicuous, anything Mr. van der Luyden would have deprecated and the club box condemned as bad form. But he had become suddenly unconscious of the club box, of Mr. van der Luyden, of all that had so long enclosed him in the warm shelter of habit. He walked along the semi-circular passage at the back of the house, and opened the door of Mrs. van der Luyden’s box as if it had been a gate into the unknown.
“M’ama!” thrilled out the triumphant Marguerite; and the occupants of the box looked up in surprise at Archer’s entrance. He had already broken one of the rules of his world, which forbade the entering of a box during a solo.
Slipping between Mr. van der Luyden and Sillerton Jackson, he leaned over his wife.
“I’ve got a beastly headache; don’t tell any one, but come home, won’t you?” he whispered.
May gave him a glance of comprehension, and he saw her whisper to his mother, who nodded sympathetically; then she murmured an excuse to Mrs. van der Luyden, and rose from her seat just as Marguerite fell into Faust’s arms. Archer, while he helped her on with her Opera cloak, noticed the exchange of a significant smile between the older ladies.
As they drove away May laid her hand shyly on his. “I’m so sorry you don’t feel well. I’m afraid they’ve been overworking you again at the office.”
“No—it’s not that: do you mind if I open the window?” he returned confusedly, letting down the pane on his side. He sat staring out into the street, feeling his wife beside him as a silent watchful interrogation, and keeping his eyes steadily fixed on the passing houses. At their door she caught her skirt in the step of the carriage, and fell against him.
“Did you hurt yourself?” he asked, steadying her with his arm.
“No; but my poor dress—see how I’ve torn it!” she exclaimed. She bent to gather up a mud-stained breadth, and followed him up the steps into the hall. The servants had not expected them so early, and there was only a glimmer of gas on the upper landing.
Archer mounted the stairs, turned up the light, and put a match to the brackets on each side of the library mantelpiece. The curtains were drawn, and the warm friendly aspect of the room smote him like that of a familiar face met during an unavowable errand.
He noticed that his wife was very pale, and asked if he should get her some brandy.
“Oh, no,” she exclaimed with a momentary flush, as she took off her cloak. “But hadn’t you better go to bed at once?” she added, as he opened a silver box on the table and took out a cigarette.
Archer threw down the cigarette and walked to his usual place by the fire.
“No; my head is not as bad as that.” He paused. “And there’s something I want to say; something important—that I must tell you at once.”
She had dropped into an armchair, and raised her head as he spoke. “Yes, dear?” she rejoined, so gently that he wondered at the lack of wonder with which she received this preamble.
“May—” he began, standing a few feet from her chair, and looking over at her as if the slight distance between them were an unbridgeable abyss. The sound of his voice echoed uncannily through the homelike hush, and he repeated: “There is something I’ve got to tell you … about myself.…”
She sat silent, without a movement or a tremor of her lashes. She was still extremely pale, but her face had a curious tranquillity of expression that seemed drawn from some secret inner source.
Archer checked the conventional phrases of self-accusal that were crowding to his lips. He was determined to put the case baldly, without vain recrimination or excuse.
“Madame Olenska—” he said; but at the name his wife raised her hand as if to silence him. As she did so the gaslight struck on the gold of her wedding-ring,
“Oh, why should we talk about Ellen tonight?” she asked, with a slight pout of impatience.
“Because I ought to have spoken before.”
Her face remained calm. “Is it really worth while, dear? I know I’ve been unfair to her at times—perhaps we all have. You’ve understood her, no doubt, better than we did: you’ve always been kind to her. But what does it matter, now it’s all over?”
Archer looked at her blankly. Could it be possible that the sense of unreality in which he felt himself imprisoned had communicated itself to his wife?
“All over—what do you mean?” he asked in an indistinct stammer.
May still looked at him with transparent eyes. “Why—since she’s going back to Europe so soon; since Granny approves and understands, and has arranged to make her independent of her husband—”
She broke off, and Archer, grasping the corner of the mantelpiece in one convulsed hand, and steadying himself against it, made a vain effort to extend the same control to his reeling thoughts.
“I supposed,” he heard his wife’s even voice go on, “that you had been kept at the office this evening about the business arrangements. It was settled this morning, I believe.” She lowered her eyes under his unseeing stare, and another fugitive flush passed over her face.
He understood that his own eyes must be unbearable, and turning away, rested his elbows on the mantel-shelf and covered his face. Something drummed and clanged furiously in his ears; he could not tell if it were the blood in his veins, or the tick of the clock on the mantel.
May sat without moving or speaking while the clock slowly measured out five minutes. A lump of coal fell forward in the grate, and hearing her rise to push it back, Archer at length turned and faced her.
“It’s impossible,” he exclaimed.
“How do you know—what you’ve just told me?”
“I saw Ellen yesterday—I told you I’d seen her at Granny’s.”
“It wasn’t then that she told you?”
“No; I had a note from her this afternoon.—Do you want to see it?”
He could not find his voice, and she went out of the room, and came back almost immediately.
“I thought you knew,” she said simply.
She laid a sheet of paper on the table, and Archer put out his hand and took it up. The letter contained only a few lines.
“May dear, I have at last made Granny understand that my visit to her could be no more than a visit; and she has been as kind and generous as ever. She sees now that if I return to Europe I must live by myself, or rather with poor Aunt Medora, who is coming with me. I am hurrying back to Washington to pack up, and we sail next week. You must be very good to Granny when I’m gone—as good as you’ve always been to me. Ellen.
“If any of my friends wish to urge me to change my mind, please tell them it would be utterly useless.”
Archer read the letter over two or three times; then he flung it down and burst out laughing.
The sound of his laugh startled him. It recalled Janey’s midnight fright when she had caught him rocking with incomprehensible mirth over May’s telegram announcing that the date of their marriage had been advanced.
“Why did she write this?” he asked, checking his laugh with a supreme effort.
May met the question with her unshaken candour. “I suppose because we talked things over yesterday—”
“I told her I was afraid I hadn’t been fair to her—hadn’t always understood how hard it must have been for her here, alone among so many people who were relations and yet strangers; who felt the right to criticise, and yet didn’t always know the circumstances.” She paused. “I knew you’d been the one friend she could always count on; and I wanted her to know that you and I were the same—in all our feelings.”
She hesitated, as if waiting for him to speak, and then added slowly: “She understood my wishing to tell her this. I think she understands everything.”
She went up to Archer, and taking one of his cold hands pressed it quickly against her cheek.
“My head aches too; good-night, dear,” she said, and turned to the door, her torn and muddy wedding-dress dragging after her across the room.