When Archer walked down the sandy main street of St. Augustine to the house which had been pointed out to him as Mr. Welland's, and saw May Welland standing under a magnolia with the sun in her hair, he wondered why he had waited so long to come.
Here was the truth, here was reality, here was the life that belonged to him; and he, who fancied himself so scornful of arbitrary restraints, had been afraid to break away from his desk because of what people might think of his stealing a holiday!
Her first exclamation was: "Newland--has anything happened?" and it occurred to him that it would have been more "feminine" if she had instantly read in his eyes why he had come. But when he answered: "Yes--I found I had to see you," her happy blushes took the chill from her surprise, and he saw how easily he would be forgiven, and how soon even Mr. Letterblair's mild disapproval would be smiled away by a tolerant family.
Early as it was, the main street was no place for any but formal greetings, and Archer longed to be alone with May, and to pour out all his tenderness and his impatience. It still lacked an hour to the late Welland breakfast-time, and instead of asking him to come in she proposed that they should walk out to an old orange-garden beyond the town. She had just been for a row on the river, and the sun that netted the little waves with gold seemed to have caught her in its meshes. Across the warm brown of her cheek her blown hair glittered like silver wire; and her eyes too looked lighter, almost pale in their youthful limpidity. As she walked beside Archer with her long swinging gait her face wore the vacant serenity of a young marble athlete.
To Archer's strained nerves the vision was as soothing as the sight of the blue sky and the lazy river. They sat down on a bench under the orange-trees and he put his arm about her and kissed her. It was like drinking at a cold spring with the sun on it; but his pressure may have been more vehement than he had intended, for the blood rose to her face and she drew back as if he had startled her.
"What is it?" he asked, smiling; and she looked at him with surprise, and answered: "Nothing."
A slight embarrassment fell on them, and her hand slipped out of his. It was the only time that he had kissed her on the lips except for their fugitive embrace in the Beaufort conservatory, and he saw that she was disturbed, and shaken out of her cool boyish composure.
"Tell me what you do all day," he said, crossing his arms under his tilted-back head, and pushing his hat forward to screen the sun-dazzle. To let her talk about familiar and simple things was the easiest way of carrying on his own independent train of thought; and he sat listening to her simple chronicle of swimming, sailing and riding, varied by an occasional dance at the primitive inn when a man-of-war came in. A few pleasant people from Philadelphia and Baltimore were picknicking at the inn, and the Selfridge Merrys had come down for three weeks because Kate Merry had had bronchitis. They were planning to lay out a lawn tennis court on the sands; but no one but Kate and May had racquets, and most of the people had not even heard of the game.
All this kept her very busy, and she had not had time to do more than look at the little vellum book that Archer had sent her the week before (the "Sonnets from the Portuguese"); but she was learning by heart "How they brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix," because it was one of the first things he had ever read to her; and it amused her to be able to tell him that Kate Merry had never even heard of a poet called Robert Browning.
Presently she started up, exclaiming that they would be late for breakfast; and they hurried back to the tumble-down house with its pointless porch and unpruned hedge of plumbago and pink geraniums where the Wellands were installed for the winter. Mr. Welland's sensitive domesticity shrank from the discomforts of the slovenly southern hotel, and at immense expense, and in face of almost insuperable difficulties, Mrs. Welland was obliged, year after year, to improvise an establishment partly made up of discontented New York servants and partly drawn from the local African supply.
"The doctors want my husband to feel that he is in his own home; otherwise he would be so wretched that the climate would not do him any good," she explained, winter after winter, to the sympathising Philadelphians and Baltimoreans; and Mr. Welland, beaming across a breakfast table miraculously supplied with the most varied delicacies, was presently saying to Archer: "You see, my dear fellow, we camp--we literally camp. I tell my wife and May that I want to teach them how to rough it."
Mr. and Mrs. Welland had been as much surprised as their daughter by the young man's sudden arrival; but it had occurred to him to explain that he had felt himself on the verge of a nasty cold, and this seemed to Mr. Welland an all-sufficient reason for abandoning any duty.
"You can't be too careful, especially toward spring," he said, heaping his plate with straw-coloured griddle- cakes and drowning them in golden syrup. "If I'd only been as prudent at your age May would have been dancing at the Assemblies now, instead of spending her winters in a wilderness with an old invalid."
"Oh, but I love it here, Papa; you know I do. If only Newland could stay I should like it a thousand times better than New York."
"Newland must stay till he has quite thrown off his cold," said Mrs. Welland indulgently; and the young man laughed, and said he supposed there was such a thing as one's profession.
He managed, however, after an exchange of telegrams with the firm, to make his cold last a week; and it shed an ironic light on the situation to know that Mr. Letterblair's indulgence was partly due to the satisfactory way in which his brilliant young junior partner had settled the troublesome matter of the Olenski divorce. Mr. Letterblair had let Mrs. Welland know that Mr. Archer had "rendered an invaluable service" to the whole family, and that old Mrs. Manson Mingott had been particularly pleased; and one day when May had gone for a drive with her father in the only vehicle the place produced Mrs. Welland took occasion to touch on a topic which she always avoided in her daughter's presence.
"I'm afraid Ellen's ideas are not at all like ours. She was barely eighteen when Medora Manson took her back to Europe--you remember the excitement when she appeared in black at her coming-out ball? Another of Medora's fads--really this time it was almost prophetic! That must have been at least twelve years ago; and since then Ellen has never been to America. No wonder she is completely Europeanised."
"But European society is not given to divorce: Countess Olenska thought she would be conforming to American ideas in asking for her freedom." It was the first time that the young man had pronounced her name since he had left Skuytercliff, and he felt the colour rise to his cheek.
Mrs. Welland smiled compassionately. "That is just like the extraordinary things that foreigners invent about us. They think we dine at two o'clock and countenance divorce! That is why it seems to me so foolish to entertain them when they come to New York. They accept our hospitality, and then they go home and repeat the same stupid stories."
Archer made no comment on this, and Mrs. Welland continued: "But we do most thoroughly appreciate your persuading Ellen to give up the idea. Her grandmother and her uncle Lovell could do nothing with her; both of them have written that her changing her mind was entirely due to your influence--in fact she said so to her grandmother. She has an unbounded admiration for you. Poor Ellen--she was always a wayward child. I wonder what her fate will be?"
"What we've all contrived to make it," he felt like answering. "If you'd all of you rather she should be Beaufort's mistress than some decent fellow's wife you've certainly gone the right way about it."
He wondered what Mrs. Welland would have said if he had uttered the words instead of merely thinking them. He could picture the sudden decomposure of her firm placid features, to which a lifelong mastery over trifles had given an air of factitious authority. Traces still lingered on them of a fresh beauty like her daughter's; and he asked himself if May's face was doomed to thicken into the same middle-aged image of invincible innocence.
Ah, no, he did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!
"I verily believe," Mrs. Welland continued, "that if the horrible business had come out in the newspapers it would have been my husband's death-blow. I don't know any of the details; I only ask not to, as I told poor Ellen when she tried to talk to me about it. Having an invalid to care for, I have to keep my mind bright and happy. But Mr. Welland was terribly upset; he had a slight temperature every morning while we were waiting to hear what had been decided. It was the horror of his girl's learning that such things were possible--but of course, dear Newland, you felt that too. We all knew that you were thinking of May."
"I'm always thinking of May," the young man rejoined, rising to cut short the conversation.
He had meant to seize the opportunity of his private talk with Mrs. Welland to urge her to advance the date of his marriage. But he could think of no arguments that would move her, and with a sense of relief he saw Mr. Welland and May driving up to the door.
His only hope was to plead again with May, and on the day before his departure he walked with her to the ruinous garden of the Spanish Mission. The background lent itself to allusions to European scenes; and May, who was looking her loveliest under a wide-brimmed hat that cast a shadow of mystery over her too-clear eyes, kindled into eagerness as he spoke of Granada and the Alhambra.
"We might be seeing it all this spring--even the Easter ceremonies at Seville," he urged, exaggerating his demands in the hope of a larger concession.
"Easter in Seville? And it will be Lent next week!" she laughed.
"Why shouldn't we be married in Lent?" he rejoined; but she looked so shocked that he saw his mistake.
"Of course I didn't mean that, dearest; but soon after Easter--so that we could sail at the end of April. I know I could arrange it at the office."
She smiled dreamily upon the possibility; but he perceived that to dream of it sufficed her. It was like hearing him read aloud out of his poetry books the beautiful things that could not possibly happen in real life.
"Oh, do go on, Newland; I do love your descriptions."
"But why should they be only descriptions? Why shouldn't we make them real?"
"We shall, dearest, of course; next year." Her voice lingered over it.
"Don't you want them to be real sooner? Can't I persuade you to break away now?"
She bowed her head, vanishing from him under her conniving hat-brim.
"Why should we dream away another year? Look at me, dear! Don't you understand how I want you for my wife?"
For a moment she remained motionless; then she raised on him eyes of such despairing dearness that he half-released her waist from his hold. But suddenly her look changed and deepened inscrutably. "I'm not sure if I DO understand," she said. "Is it--is it because you're not certain of continuing to care for me?"
Archer sprang up from his seat. "My God--perhaps--I don't know," he broke out angrily.
May Welland rose also; as they faced each other she seemed to grow in womanly stature and dignity. Both were silent for a moment, as if dismayed by the unforeseen trend of their words: then she said in a low voice: "If that is it--is there some one else?"
"Some one else--between you and me?" He echoed her words slowly, as though they were only half- intelligible and he wanted time to repeat the question to himself. She seemed to catch the uncertainty of his voice, for she went on in a deepening tone: "Let us talk frankly, Newland. Sometimes I've felt a difference in you; especially since our engagement has been announced."
"Dear--what madness!" he recovered himself to exclaim.
She met his protest with a faint smile. "If it is, it won't hurt us to talk about it." She paused, and added, lifting her head with one of her noble movements: "Or even if it's true: why shouldn't we speak of it? You might so easily have made a mistake."
He lowered his head, staring at the black leaf-pattern on the sunny path at their feet. "Mistakes are always easy to make; but if I had made one of the kind you suggest, is it likely that I should be imploring you to hasten our marriage?"
She looked downward too, disturbing the pattern with the point of her sunshade while she struggled for expression. "Yes," she said at length. "You might want-- once for all--to settle the question: it's one way."
Her quiet lucidity startled him, but did not mislead him into thinking her insensible. Under her hat-brim he saw the pallor of her profile, and a slight tremor of the nostril above her resolutely steadied lips.
"Well--?" he questioned, sitting down on the bench, and looking up at her with a frown that he tried to make playful.
She dropped back into her seat and went on: "You mustn't think that a girl knows as little as her parents imagine. One hears and one notices--one has one's feelings and ideas. And of course, long before you told me that you cared for me, I'd known that there was some one else you were interested in; every one was talking about it two years ago at Newport. And once I saw you sitting together on the verandah at a dance-- and when she came back into the house her face was sad, and I felt sorry for her; I remembered it afterward, when we were engaged."
Her voice had sunk almost to a whisper, and she sat clasping and unclasping her hands about the handle of her sunshade. The young man laid his upon them with a gentle pressure; his heart dilated with an inexpressible relief.
"My dear child--was THAT it? If you only knew the truth!"
She raised her head quickly. "Then there is a truth I don't know?"
He kept his hand over hers. "I meant, the truth about the old story you speak of."
"But that's what I want to know, Newland--what I ought to know. I couldn't have my happiness made out of a wrong--an unfairness--to somebody else. And I want to believe that it would be the same with you. What sort of a life could we build on such foundations?"
Her face had taken on a look of such tragic courage that he felt like bowing himself down at her feet. "I've wanted to say this for a long time," she went on. "I've wanted to tell you that, when two people really love each other, I understand that there may be situations which make it right that they should--should go against public opinion. And if you feel yourself in any way pledged . . . pledged to the person we've spoken of . . . and if there is any way . . . any way in which you can fulfill your pledge . . . even by her getting a divorce . . . Newland, don't give her up because of me!"
His surprise at discovering that her fears had fastened upon an episode so remote and so completely of the past as his love-affair with Mrs. Thorley Rushworth gave way to wonder at the generosity of her view. There was something superhuman in an attitude so recklessly unorthodox, and if other problems had not pressed on him he would have been lost in wonder at the prodigy of the Wellands' daughter urging him to marry his former mistress. But he was still dizzy with the glimpse of the precipice they had skirted, and full of a new awe at the mystery of young-girlhood.
For a moment he could not speak; then he said: "There is no pledge--no obligation whatever--of the kind you think. Such cases don't always--present themselves quite as simply as . . . But that's no matter . . . I love your generosity, because I feel as you do about those things . . . I feel that each case must be judged individually, on its own merits . . . irrespective of stupid conventionalities . . . I mean, each woman's right to her liberty--" He pulled himself up, startled by the turn his thoughts had taken, and went on, looking at her with a smile: "Since you understand so many things, dearest, can't you go a little farther, and understand the uselessness of our submitting to another form of the same foolish conventionalities? If there's no one and nothing between us, isn't that an argument for marrying quickly, rather than for more delay?"
She flushed with joy and lifted her face to his; as he bent to it he saw that her eyes were full of happy tears. But in another moment she seemed to have descended from her womanly eminence to helpless and timorous girlhood; and he understood that her courage and initiative were all for others, and that she had none for herself. It was evident that the effort of speaking had been much greater than her studied composure betrayed, and that at his first word of reassurance she had dropped back into the usual, as a too-adventurous child takes refuge in its mother's arms.
Archer had no heart to go on pleading with her; he was too much disappointed at the vanishing of the new being who had cast that one deep look at him from her transparent eyes. May seemed to be aware of his disappointment, but without knowing how to alleviate it; and they stood up and walked silently home.
"Your cousin the Countess called on mother while you were away," Janey Archer announced to her brother on the evening of his return.
The young man, who was dining alone with his mother and sister, glanced up in surprise and saw Mrs. Archer's gaze demurely bent on her plate. Mrs. Archer did not regard her seclusion from the world as a reason for being forgotten by it; and Newland guessed that she was slightly annoyed that he should be surprised by Madame Olenska's visit.
"She had on a black velvet polonaise with jet buttons, and a tiny green monkey muff; I never saw her so stylishly dressed," Janey continued. "She came alone, early on Sunday afternoon; luckily the fire was lit in the drawing-room. She had one of those new card- cases. She said she wanted to know us because you'd been so good to her."
Newland laughed. "Madame Olenska always takes that tone about her friends. She's very happy at being among her own people again."
"Yes, so she told us," said Mrs. Archer. "I must say she seems thankful to be here."
"I hope you liked her, mother."
Mrs. Archer drew her lips together. "She certainly lays herself out to please, even when she is calling on an old lady."
"Mother doesn't think her simple," Janey interjected, her eyes screwed upon her brother's face.
"It's just my old-fashioned feeling; dear May is my ideal," said Mrs. Archer.
"Ah," said her son, "they're not alike."
Archer had left St. Augustine charged with many messages for old Mrs. Mingott; and a day or two after his return to town he called on her.
The old lady received him with unusual warmth; she was grateful to him for persuading the Countess Olenska to give up the idea of a divorce; and when he told her that he had deserted the office without leave, and rushed down to St. Augustine simply because he wanted to see May, she gave an adipose chuckle and patted his knee with her puff-ball hand.
"Ah, ah--so you kicked over the traces, did you? And I suppose Augusta and Welland pulled long faces, and behaved as if the end of the world had come? But little May--she knew better, I'll be bound?"
"I hoped she did; but after all she wouldn't agree to what I'd gone down to ask for."
"Wouldn't she indeed? And what was that?"
"I wanted to get her to promise that we should be married in April. What's the use of our wasting another year?"
Mrs. Manson Mingott screwed up her little mouth into a grimace of mimic prudery and twinkled at him through malicious lids. "`Ask Mamma,' I suppose-- the usual story. Ah, these Mingotts--all alike! Born in a rut, and you can't root 'em out of it. When I built this house you'd have thought I was moving to California! Nobody ever HAD built above Fortieth Street--no, says I, nor above the Battery either, before Christopher Columbus discovered America. No, no; not one of them wants to be different; they're as scared of it as the small-pox. Ah, my dear Mr. Archer, I thank my stars I'm nothing but a vulgar Spicer; but there's not one of my own children that takes after me but my little Ellen." She broke off, still twinkling at him, and asked, with the casual irrelevance of old age: "Now, why in the world didn't you marry my little Ellen?"
Archer laughed. "For one thing, she wasn't there to be married."
"No--to be sure; more's the pity. And now it's too late; her life is finished." She spoke with the cold- blooded complacency of the aged throwing earth into the grave of young hopes. The young man's heart grew chill, and he said hurriedly: "Can't I persuade you to use your influence with the Wellands, Mrs. Mingott? I wasn't made for long engagements."
Old Catherine beamed on him approvingly. "No; I can see that. You've got a quick eye. When you were a little boy I've no doubt you liked to be helped first." She threw back her head with a laugh that made her chins ripple like little waves. "Ah, here's my Ellen now!" she exclaimed, as the portieres parted behind her.
Madame Olenska came forward with a smile. Her face looked vivid and happy, and she held out her hand gaily to Archer while she stooped to her grandmother's kiss.
"I was just saying to him, my dear: `Now, why didn't you marry my little Ellen?'"
Madame Olenska looked at Archer, still smiling. "And what did he answer?"
"Oh, my darling, I leave you to find that out! He's been down to Florida to see his sweetheart."
"Yes, I know." She still looked at him. "I went to see your mother, to ask where you'd gone. I sent a note that you never answered, and I was afraid you were ill."
He muttered something about leaving unexpectedly, in a great hurry, and having intended to write to her from St. Augustine.
"And of course once you were there you never thought of me again!" She continued to beam on him with a gaiety that might have been a studied assumption of indifference.
"If she still needs me, she's determined not to let me see it," he thought, stung by her manner. He wanted to thank her for having been to see his mother, but under the ancestress's malicious eye he felt himself tongue- tied and constrained.
"Look at him--in such hot haste to get married that he took French leave and rushed down to implore the silly girl on his knees! That's something like a lover-- that's the way handsome Bob Spicer carried off my poor mother; and then got tired of her before I was weaned--though they only had to wait eight months for me! But there--you're not a Spicer, young man; luckily for you and for May. It's only my poor Ellen that has kept any of their wicked blood; the rest of them are all model Mingotts," cried the old lady scornfully.
Archer was aware that Madame Olenska, who had seated herself at her grandmother's side, was still thoughtfully scrutinising him. The gaiety had faded from her eyes, and she said with great gentleness: "Surely, Granny, we can persuade them between us to do as he wishes."
Archer rose to go, and as his hand met Madame Olenska's he felt that she was waiting for him to make some allusion to her unanswered letter.
"When can I see you?" he asked, as she walked with him to the door of the room.
"Whenever you like; but it must be soon if you want to see the little house again. I am moving next week."
A pang shot through him at the memory of his lamplit hours in the low-studded drawing-room. Few as they had been, they were thick with memories.
She nodded. "Tomorrow; yes; but early. I'm going out."
The next day was a Sunday, and if she were "going out" on a Sunday evening it could, of course, be only to Mrs. Lemuel Struthers's. He felt a slight movement of annoyance, not so much at her going there (for he rather liked her going where she pleased in spite of the van der Luydens), but because it was the kind of house at which she was sure to meet Beaufort, where she must have known beforehand that she would meet him--and where she was probably going for that purpose.
"Very well; tomorrow evening," he repeated, inwardly resolved that he would not go early, and that by reaching her door late he would either prevent her from going to Mrs. Struthers's, or else arrive after she had started--which, all things considered, would no doubt be the simplest solution.
It was only half-past eight, after all, when he rang the bell under the wisteria; not as late as he had intended by half an hour--but a singular restlessness had driven him to her door. He reflected, however, that Mrs. Struthers's Sunday evenings were not like a ball, and that her guests, as if to minimise their delinquency, usually went early.
The one thing he had not counted on, in entering Madame Olenska's hall, was to find hats and overcoats there. Why had she bidden him to come early if she was having people to dine? On a closer inspection of the garments besides which Nastasia was laying his own, his resentment gave way to curiosity. The overcoats were in fact the very strangest he had ever seen under a polite roof; and it took but a glance to assure himself that neither of them belonged to Julius Beaufort. One was a shaggy yellow ulster of "reach-me- down" cut, the other a very old and rusty cloak with a cape--something like what the French called a "Macfarlane." This garment, which appeared to be made for a person of prodigious size, had evidently seen long and hard wear, and its greenish-black folds gave out a moist sawdusty smell suggestive of prolonged sessions against bar-room walls. On it lay a ragged grey scarf and an odd felt hat of semiclerical shape.
Archer raised his eyebrows enquiringly at Nastasia, who raised hers in return with a fatalistic "Gia!" as she threw open the drawing-room door.
The young man saw at once that his hostess was not in the room; then, with surprise, he discovered another lady standing by the fire. This lady, who was long, lean and loosely put together, was clad in raiment intricately looped and fringed, with plaids and stripes and bands of plain colour disposed in a design to which the clue seemed missing. Her hair, which had tried to turn white and only succeeded in fading, was surmounted by a Spanish comb and black lace scarf, and silk mittens, visibly darned, covered her rheumatic hands.
Beside her, in a cloud of cigar-smoke, stood the owners of the two overcoats, both in morning clothes that they had evidently not taken off since morning. In one of the two, Archer, to his surprise, recognised Ned Winsett; the other and older, who was unknown to him, and whose gigantic frame declared him to be the wearer of the "Macfarlane," had a feebly leonine head with crumpled grey hair, and moved his arms with large pawing gestures, as though he were distributing lay blessings to a kneeling multitude.
These three persons stood together on the hearth- rug, their eyes fixed on an extraordinarily large bouquet of crimson roses, with a knot of purple pansies at their base, that lay on the sofa where Madame Olenska usually sat.
"What they must have cost at this season--though of course it's the sentiment one cares about!" the lady was saying in a sighing staccato as Archer came in.
The three turned with surprise at his appearance, and the lady, advancing, held out her hand.
"Dear Mr. Archer--almost my cousin Newland!" she said. "I am the Marchioness Manson."
Archer bowed, and she continued: "My Ellen has taken me in for a few days. I came from Cuba, where I have been spending the winter with Spanish friends-- such delightful distinguished people: the highest nobility of old Castile--how I wish you could know them! But I was called away by our dear great friend here, Dr. Carver. You don't know Dr. Agathon Carver, founder of the Valley of Love Community?"
Dr. Carver inclined his leonine head, and the Marchioness continued: "Ah, New York--New York--how little the life of the spirit has reached it! But I see you do know Mr. Winsett."
"Oh, yes--I reached him some time ago; but not by that route," Winsett said with his dry smile.
The Marchioness shook her head reprovingly. "How do you know, Mr. Winsett? The spirit bloweth where it listeth."
"List--oh, list!" interjected Dr. Carver in a stentorian murmur.
"But do sit down, Mr. Archer. We four have been having a delightful little dinner together, and my child has gone up to dress. She expects you; she will be down in a moment. We were just admiring these marvellous flowers, which will surprise her when she reappears."
Winsett remained on his feet. "I'm afraid I must be off. Please tell Madame Olenska that we shall all feel lost when she abandons our street. This house has been an oasis."
"Ah, but she won't abandon YOU. Poetry and art are the breath of life to her. It IS poetry you write, Mr. Winsett?"
"Well, no; but I sometimes read it," said Winsett, including the group in a general nod and slipping out of the room.
"A caustic spirit--un peu sauvage. But so witty; Dr. Carver, you DO think him witty?"
"I never think of wit," said Dr. Carver severely.
"Ah--ah--you never think of wit! How merciless he is to us weak mortals, Mr. Archer! But he lives only in the life of the spirit; and tonight he is mentally preparing the lecture he is to deliver presently at Mrs. Blenker's. Dr. Carver, would there be time, before you start for the Blenkers' to explain to Mr. Archer your illuminating discovery of the Direct Contact? But no; I see it is nearly nine o'clock, and we have no right to detain you while so many are waiting for your message."
Dr. Carver looked slightly disappointed at this conclusion, but, having compared his ponderous gold time- piece with Madame Olenska's little travelling-clock, he reluctantly gathered up his mighty limbs for departure.
"I shall see you later, dear friend?" he suggested to the Marchioness, who replied with a smile: "As soon as Ellen's carriage comes I will join you; I do hope the lecture won't have begun."
Dr. Carver looked thoughtfully at Archer. "Perhaps, if this young gentleman is interested in my experiences, Mrs. Blenker might allow you to bring him with you?"
"Oh, dear friend, if it were possible--I am sure she would be too happy. But I fear my Ellen counts on Mr. Archer herself."
"That," said Dr. Carver, "is unfortunate--but here is my card." He handed it to Archer, who read on it, in Gothic characters:
|---------------------------| | Agathon Carver | | The Valley of Love | | Kittasquattamy, N. Y. | |---------------------------|
Dr. Carver bowed himself out, and Mrs. Manson, with a sigh that might have been either of regret or relief, again waved Archer to a seat.
"Ellen will be down in a moment; and before she comes, I am so glad of this quiet moment with you."
Archer murmured his pleasure at their meeting, and the Marchioness continued, in her low sighing accents: "I know everything, dear Mr. Archer--my child has told me all you have done for her. Your wise advice: your courageous firmness--thank heaven it was not too late!"
The young man listened with considerable embarrassment. Was there any one, he wondered, to whom Madame Olenska had not proclaimed his intervention in her private affairs?
"Madame Olenska exaggerates; I simply gave her a legal opinion, as she asked me to."
"Ah, but in doing it--in doing it you were the unconscious instrument of--of--what word have we moderns for Providence, Mr. Archer?" cried the lady, tilting her head on one side and drooping her lids mysteriously. "Little did you know that at that very moment I was being appealed to: being approached, in fact--from the other side of the Atlantic!"
She glanced over her shoulder, as though fearful of being overheard, and then, drawing her chair nearer, and raising a tiny ivory fan to her lips, breathed behind it: "By the Count himself--my poor, mad, foolish Olenski; who asks only to take her back on her own terms."
"Good God!" Archer exclaimed, springing up.
"You are horrified? Yes, of course; I understand. I don't defend poor Stanislas, though he has always called me his best friend. He does not defend himself--he casts himself at her feet: in my person." She tapped her emaciated bosom. "I have his letter here."
"A letter?--Has Madame Olenska seen it?" Archer stammered, his brain whirling with the shock of the announcement.
The Marchioness Manson shook her head softly. "Time--time; I must have time. I know my Ellen-- haughty, intractable; shall I say, just a shade unforgiving?"
"But, good heavens, to forgive is one thing; to go back into that hell--"
"Ah, yes," the Marchioness acquiesced. "So she describes it--my sensitive child! But on the material side, Mr. Archer, if one may stoop to consider such things; do you know what she is giving up? Those roses there on the sofa--acres like them, under glass and in the open, in his matchless terraced gardens at Nice! Jewels-- historic pearls: the Sobieski emeralds--sables,--but she cares nothing for all these! Art and beauty, those she does care for, she lives for, as I always have; and those also surrounded her. Pictures, priceless furniture, music, brilliant conversation--ah, that, my dear young man, if you'll excuse me, is what you've no conception of here! And she had it all; and the homage of the greatest. She tells me she is not thought handsome in New York--good heavens! Her portrait has been painted nine times; the greatest artists in Europe have begged for the privilege. Are these things nothing? And the remorse of an adoring husband?"
As the Marchioness Manson rose to her climax her face assumed an expression of ecstatic retrospection which would have moved Archer's mirth had he not been numb with amazement.
He would have laughed if any one had foretold to him that his first sight of poor Medora Manson would have been in the guise of a messenger of Satan; but he was in no mood for laughing now, and she seemed to him to come straight out of the hell from which Ellen Olenska had just escaped.
"She knows nothing yet--of all this?" he asked abruptly.
Mrs. Manson laid a purple finger on her lips. "Nothing directly--but does she suspect? Who can tell? The truth is, Mr. Archer, I have been waiting to see you. From the moment I heard of the firm stand you had taken, and of your influence over her, I hoped it might be possible to count on your support--to convince you . . ."
"That she ought to go back? I would rather see her dead!" cried the young man violently.
"Ah," the Marchioness murmured, without visible resentment. For a while she sat in her arm-chair, opening and shutting the absurd ivory fan between her mittened fingers; but suddenly she lifted her head and listened.
"Here she comes," she said in a rapid whisper; and then, pointing to the bouquet on the sofa: "Am I to understand that you prefer THAT, Mr. Archer? After all, marriage is marriage . . . and my niece is still a wife. . ."
"What are you two plotting together, aunt Medora?" Madame Olenska cried as she came into the room.
She was dressed as if for a ball. Everything about her shimmered and glimmered softly, as if her dress had been woven out of candle-beams; and she carried her head high, like a pretty woman challenging a roomful of rivals.
"We were saying, my dear, that here was something beautiful to surprise you with," Mrs. Manson rejoined, rising to her feet and pointing archly to the flowers.
Madame Olenska stopped short and looked at the bouquet. Her colour did not change, but a sort of white radiance of anger ran over her like summer lightning. "Ah," she exclaimed, in a shrill voice that the young man had never heard, "who is ridiculous enough to send me a bouquet? Why a bouquet? And why tonight of all nights? I am not going to a ball; I am not a girl engaged to be married. But some people are always ridiculous."
She turned back to the door, opened it, and called out: "Nastasia!"
The ubiquitous handmaiden promptly appeared, and Archer heard Madame Olenska say, in an Italian that she seemed to pronounce with intentional deliberateness in order that he might follow it: "Here--throw this into the dustbin!" and then, as Nastasia stared protestingly: "But no--it's not the fault of the poor flowers. Tell the boy to carry them to the house three doors away, the house of Mr. Winsett, the dark gentleman who dined here. His wife is ill--they may give her pleasure . . . The boy is out, you say? Then, my dear one, run yourself; here, put my cloak over you and fly. I want the thing out of the house immediately! And, as you live, don't say they come from me!"
She flung her velvet opera cloak over the maid's shoulders and turned back into the drawing-room, shutting the door sharply. Her bosom was rising high under its lace, and for a moment Archer thought she was about to cry; but she burst into a laugh instead, and looking from the Marchioness to Archer, asked abruptly: "And you two--have you made friends!"
"It's for Mr. Archer to say, darling; he has waited patiently while you were dressing."
"Yes--I gave you time enough: my hair wouldn't go," Madame Olenska said, raising her hand to the heaped-up curls of her chignon. "But that reminds me: I see Dr. Carver is gone, and you'll be late at the Blenkers'. Mr. Archer, will you put my aunt in the carriage?"
She followed the Marchioness into the hall, saw her fitted into a miscellaneous heap of overshoes, shawls and tippets, and called from the doorstep: "Mind, the carriage is to be back for me at ten!" Then she returned to the drawing-room, where Archer, on re-entering it, found her standing by the mantelpiece, examining herself in the mirror. It was not usual, in New York society, for a lady to address her parlour-maid as "my dear one," and send her out on an errand wrapped in her own opera-cloak; and Archer, through all his deeper feelings, tasted the pleasurable excitement of being in a world where action followed on emotion with such Olympian speed.
Madame Olenska did not move when he came up behind her, and for a second their eyes met in the mirror; then she turned, threw herself into her sofa- corner, and sighed out: "There's time for a cigarette."
He handed her the box and lit a spill for her; and as the flame flashed up into her face she glanced at him with laughing eyes and said: "What do you think of me in a temper?"
Archer paused a moment; then he answered with sudden resolution: "It makes me understand what your aunt has been saying about you."
"I knew she'd been talking about me. Well?"
"She said you were used to all kinds of things-- splendours and amusements and excitements--that we could never hope to give you here."
Madame Olenska smiled faintly into the circle of smoke about her lips.
"Medora is incorrigibly romantic. It has made up to her for so many things!"
Archer hesitated again, and again took his risk. "Is your aunt's romanticism always consistent with accuracy?"
"You mean: does she speak the truth?" Her niece considered. "Well, I'll tell you: in almost everything she says, there's something true and something untrue. But why do you ask? What has she been telling you?"
He looked away into the fire, and then back at her shining presence. His heart tightened with the thought that this was their last evening by that fireside, and that in a moment the carriage would come to carry her away.
"She says--she pretends that Count Olenski has asked her to persuade you to go back to him."
Madame Olenska made no answer. She sat motionless, holding her cigarette in her half-lifted hand. The expression of her face had not changed; and Archer remembered that he had before noticed her apparent incapacity for surprise.
"You knew, then?" he broke out.
She was silent for so long that the ash dropped from her cigarette. She brushed it to the floor. "She has hinted about a letter: poor darling! Medora's hints--"
"Is it at your husband's request that she has arrived here suddenly?"
Madame Olenska seemed to consider this question also. "There again: one can't tell. She told me she had had a `spiritual summons,' whatever that is, from Dr. Carver. I'm afraid she's going to marry Dr. Carver . . . poor Medora, there's always some one she wants to marry. But perhaps the people in Cuba just got tired of her! I think she was with them as a sort of paid companion. Really, I don't know why she came."
"But you do believe she has a letter from your husband?"
Again Madame Olenska brooded silently; then she said: "After all, it was to be expected."
The young man rose and went to lean against the fireplace. A sudden restlessness possessed him, and he was tongue-tied by the sense that their minutes were numbered, and that at any moment he might hear the wheels of the returning carriage.
"You know that your aunt believes you will go back?"
Madame Olenska raised her head quickly. A deep blush rose to her face and spread over her neck and shoulders. She blushed seldom and painfully, as if it hurt her like a burn.
"Many cruel things have been believed of me," she said.
"Oh, Ellen--forgive me; I'm a fool and a brute!"
She smiled a little. "You are horribly nervous; you have your own troubles. I know you think the Wellands are unreasonable about your marriage, and of course I agree with you. In Europe people don't understand our long American engagements; I suppose they are not as calm as we are." She pronounced the "we" with a faint emphasis that gave it an ironic sound.
Archer felt the irony but did not dare to take it up. After all, she had perhaps purposely deflected the conversation from her own affairs, and after the pain his last words had evidently caused her he felt that all he could do was to follow her lead. But the sense of the waning hour made him desperate: he could not bear the thought that a barrier of words should drop between them again.
"Yes," he said abruptly; "I went south to ask May to marry me after Easter. There's no reason why we shouldn't be married then."
"And May adores you--and yet you couldn't convince her? I thought her too intelligent to be the slave of such absurd superstitions."
"She IS too intelligent--she's not their slave."
Madame Olenska looked at him. "Well, then--I don't understand."
Archer reddened, and hurried on with a rush. "We had a frank talk--almost the first. She thinks my impatience a bad sign."
"Merciful heavens--a bad sign?"
"She thinks it means that I can't trust myself to go on caring for her. She thinks, in short, I want to marry her at once to get away from some one that I--care for more."
Madame Olenska examined this curiously. "But if she thinks that--why isn't she in a hurry too?"
"Because she's not like that: she's so much nobler. She insists all the more on the long engagement, to give me time--"
"Time to give her up for the other woman?"
"If I want to."
Madame Olenska leaned toward the fire and gazed into it with fixed eyes. Down the quiet street Archer heard the approaching trot of her horses.
"That IS noble," she said, with a slight break in her voice.
"Yes. But it's ridiculous."
"Ridiculous? Because you don't care for any one else?"
"Because I don't mean to marry any one else."
"Ah." There was another long interval. At length she looked up at him and asked: "This other woman-- does she love you?"
"Oh, there's no other woman; I mean, the person that May was thinking of is--was never--"
"Then, why, after all, are you in such haste?"
"There's your carriage," said Archer.
She half-rose and looked about her with absent eyes. Her fan and gloves lay on the sofa beside her and she picked them up mechanically.
"Yes; I suppose I must be going."
"You're going to Mrs. Struthers's?"
"Yes." She smiled and added: "I must go where I am invited, or I should be too lonely. Why not come with me?"
Archer felt that at any cost he must keep her beside him, must make her give him the rest of her evening. Ignoring her question, he continued to lean against the chimney-piece, his eyes fixed on the hand in which she held her gloves and fan, as if watching to see if he had the power to make her drop them.
"May guessed the truth," he said. "There is another woman--but not the one she thinks."
Ellen Olenska made no answer, and did not move. After a moment he sat down beside her, and, taking her hand, softly unclasped it, so that the gloves and fan fell on the sofa between them.
She started up, and freeing herself from him moved away to the other side of the hearth. "Ah, don't make love to me! Too many people have done that," she said, frowning.
Archer, changing colour, stood up also: it was the bitterest rebuke she could have given him. "I have never made love to you," he said, "and I never shall. But you are the woman I would have married if it had been possible for either of us."
"Possible for either of us?" She looked at him with unfeigned astonishment. "And you say that--when it's you who've made it impossible?"
He stared at her, groping in a blackness through which a single arrow of light tore its blinding way.
"I'VE made it impossible--?"
"You, you, YOU!" she cried, her lip trembling like a child's on the verge of tears. "Isn't it you who made me give up divorcing--give it up because you showed me how selfish and wicked it was, how one must sacrifice one's self to preserve the dignity of marriage . . . and to spare one's family the publicity, the scandal? And because my family was going to be your family--for May's sake and for yours--I did what you told me, what you proved to me that I ought to do. Ah," she broke out with a sudden laugh, "I've made no secret of having done it for you!"
She sank down on the sofa again, crouching among the festive ripples of her dress like a stricken masquerader; and the young man stood by the fireplace and continued to gaze at her without moving.
"Good God," he groaned. "When I thought--"
"Ah, don't ask me what I thought!"
Still looking at her, he saw the same burning flush creep up her neck to her face. She sat upright, facing him with a rigid dignity.
"I do ask you."
"Well, then: there were things in that letter you asked me to read--"
"My husband's letter?"
"I had nothing to fear from that letter: absolutely nothing! All I feared was to bring notoriety, scandal, on the family--on you and May."
"Good God," he groaned again, bowing his face in his hands.
The silence that followed lay on them with the weight of things final and irrevocable. It seemed to Archer to be crushing him down like his own grave-stone; in all the wide future he saw nothing that would ever lift that load from his heart. He did not move from his place, or raise his head from his hands; his hidden eyeballs went on staring into utter darkness.
"At least I loved you--" he brought out.
On the other side of the hearth, from the sofa-corner where he supposed that she still crouched, he heard a faint stifled crying like a child's. He started up and came to her side.
"Ellen! What madness! Why are you crying? Nothing's done that can't be undone. I'm still free, and you're going to be." He had her in his arms, her face like a wet flower at his lips, and all their vain terrors shrivelling up like ghosts at sunrise. The one thing that astonished him now was that he should have stood for five minutes arguing with her across the width of the room, when just touching her made everything so simple.
She gave him back all his kiss, but after a moment he felt her stiffening in his arms, and she put him aside and stood up.
"Ah, my poor Newland--I suppose this had to be. But it doesn't in the least alter things," she said, looking down at him in her turn from the hearth.
"It alters the whole of life for me."
"No, no--it mustn't, it can't. You're engaged to May Welland; and I'm married."
He stood up too, flushed and resolute. "Nonsense! It's too late for that sort of thing. We've no right to lie to other people or to ourselves. We won't talk of your marriage; but do you see me marrying May after this?"
She stood silent, resting her thin elbows on the mantelpiece, her profile reflected in the glass behind her. One of the locks of her chignon had become loosened and hung on her neck; she looked haggard and almost old.
"I don't see you," she said at length, "putting that question to May. Do you?"
He gave a reckless shrug. "It's too late to do anything else."
"You say that because it's the easiest thing to say at this moment--not because it's true. In reality it's too late to do anything but what we'd both decided on."
"Ah, I don't understand you!"
She forced a pitiful smile that pinched her face instead of smoothing it. "You don't understand because you haven't yet guessed how you've changed things for me: oh, from the first--long before I knew all you'd done."
"All I'd done?"
"Yes. I was perfectly unconscious at first that people here were shy of me--that they thought I was a dreadful sort of person. It seems they had even refused to meet me at dinner. I found that out afterward; and how you'd made your mother go with you to the van der Luydens'; and how you'd insisted on announcing your engagement at the Beaufort ball, so that I might have two families to stand by me instead of one--"
At that he broke into a laugh.
"Just imagine," she said, "how stupid and unobservant I was! I knew nothing of all this till Granny blurted it out one day. New York simply meant peace and freedom to me: it was coming home. And I was so happy at being among my own people that every one I met seemed kind and good, and glad to see me. But from the very beginning," she continued, "I felt there was no one as kind as you; no one who gave me reasons that I understood for doing what at first seemed so hard and--unnecessary. The very good people didn't convince me; I felt they'd never been tempted. But you knew; you understood; you had felt the world outside tugging at one with all its golden hands--and yet you hated the things it asks of one; you hated happiness bought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference. That was what I'd never known before--and it's better than anything I've known."
She spoke in a low even voice, without tears or visible agitation; and each word, as it dropped from her, fell into his breast like burning lead. He sat bowed over, his head between his hands, staring at the hearthrug, and at the tip of the satin shoe that showed under her dress. Suddenly he knelt down and kissed the shoe.
She bent over him, laying her hands on his shoulders, and looking at him with eyes so deep that he remained motionless under her gaze.
"Ah, don't let us undo what you've done!" she cried. "I can't go back now to that other way of thinking. I can't love you unless I give you up."
His arms were yearning up to her; but she drew away, and they remained facing each other, divided by the distance that her words had created. Then, abruptly, his anger overflowed.
"And Beaufort? Is he to replace me?"
As the words sprang out he was prepared for an answering flare of anger; and he would have welcomed it as fuel for his own. But Madame Olenska only grew a shade paler, and stood with her arms hanging down before her, and her head slightly bent, as her way was when she pondered a question.
"He's waiting for you now at Mrs. Struthers's; why don't you go to him?" Archer sneered.
She turned to ring the bell. "I shall not go out this evening; tell the carriage to go and fetch the Signora Marchesa," she said when the maid came.
After the door had closed again Archer continued to look at her with bitter eyes. "Why this sacrifice? Since you tell me that you're lonely I've no right to keep you from your friends."
She smiled a little under her wet lashes. "I shan't be lonely now. I WAS lonely; I WAS afraid. But the emptiness and the darkness are gone; when I turn back into myself now I'm like a child going at night into a room where there's always a light."
Her tone and her look still enveloped her in a soft inaccessibility, and Archer groaned out again: "I don't understand you!"
"Yet you understand May!"
He reddened under the retort, but kept his eyes on her. "May is ready to give me up."
"What! Three days after you've entreated her on your knees to hasten your marriage?"
"She's refused; that gives me the right--"
"Ah, you've taught me what an ugly word that is," she said.
He turned away with a sense of utter weariness. He felt as though he had been struggling for hours up the face of a steep precipice, and now, just as he had fought his way to the top, his hold had given way and he was pitching down headlong into darkness.
If he could have got her in his arms again he might have swept away her arguments; but she still held him at a distance by something inscrutably aloof in her look and attitude, and by his own awed sense of her sincerity. At length he began to plead again.
"If we do this now it will be worse afterward--worse for every one--"
"No--no--no!" she almost screamed, as if he frightened her.
At that moment the bell sent a long tinkle through the house. They had heard no carriage stopping at the door, and they stood motionless, looking at each other with startled eyes.
Outside, Nastasia's step crossed the hall, the outer door opened, and a moment later she came in carrying a telegram which she handed to the Countess Olenska.
"The lady was very happy at the flowers," Nastasia said, smoothing her apron. "She thought it was her signor marito who had sent them, and she cried a little and said it was a folly."
Her mistress smiled and took the yellow envelope. She tore it open and carried it to the lamp; then, when the door had closed again, she handed the telegram to Archer.
It was dated from St. Augustine, and addressed to the Countess Olenska. In it he read: "Granny's telegram successful. Papa and Mamma agree marriage after Easter. Am telegraphing Newland. Am too happy for words and love you dearly. Your grateful May."
Half an hour later, when Archer unlocked his own front-door, he found a similar envelope on the hall-table on top of his pile of notes and letters. The message inside the envelope was also from May Welland, and ran as follows: "Parents consent wedding Tuesday after Easter at twelve Grace Church eight bridesmaids please see Rector so happy love May."
Archer crumpled up the yellow sheet as if the gesture could annihilate the news it contained. Then he pulled out a small pocket-diary and turned over the pages with trembling fingers; but he did not find what he wanted, and cramming the telegram into his pocket he mounted the stairs.
A light was shining through the door of the little hall-room which served Janey as a dressing-room and boudoir, and her brother rapped impatiently on the panel. The door opened, and his sister stood before him in her immemorial purple flannel dressing-gown, with her hair "on pins." Her face looked pale and apprehensive.
"Newland! I hope there's no bad news in that telegram? I waited on purpose, in case--" (No item of his correspondence was safe from Janey.)
He took no notice of her question. "Look here-- what day is Easter this year?"
She looked shocked at such unchristian ignorance. "Easter? Newland! Why, of course, the first week in April. Why?"
"The first week?" He turned again to the pages of his diary, calculating rapidly under his breath. "The first week, did you say?" He threw back his head with a long laugh.
"For mercy's sake what's the matter?"
"Nothing's the matter, except that I'm going to be married in a month."
Janey fell upon his neck and pressed him to her purple flannel breast. "Oh Newland, how wonderful! I'm so glad! But, dearest, why do you keep on laughing? Do hush, or you'll wake Mamma."