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The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
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.
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.
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."
turned back to the door, opened it, and called out: "Nastasia!"
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!"
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!"
for Mr. Archer to say, darling; he has waited patiently while you were
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?"
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.
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."
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?"
paused a moment; then he answered with sudden resolution:
"It makes me understand what your aunt has been saying about
knew she'd been talking about me. Well?"
said you were used to all kinds of things-- splendours and amusements and
excitements--that we could never hope to give you here."
Olenska smiled faintly into the circle of smoke about her lips.
is incorrigibly romantic. It
has made up to her for so many things!"
hesitated again, and again took his risk.
"Is your aunt's romanticism always consistent with
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
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
says--she pretends that Count Olenski has asked her to persuade you to go
back to him."
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.
knew, then?" he broke out.
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!
it at your husband's request that she has arrived here suddenly?"
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."
you do believe she has a letter from your husband?"
Madame Olenska brooded silently; then she said: "After all, it was to be expected."
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.
know that your aunt believes you will go back?"
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.
cruel things have been believed of me," she said.
Ellen--forgive me; I'm a fool and a brute!"
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
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.
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."
May adores you--and yet you couldn't convince her? I thought her too intelligent to be the slave of such absurd
IS too intelligent--she's not their slave."
Olenska looked at him. "Well,
then--I don't understand."
reddened, and hurried on with a rush. "We
had a frank talk--almost the first. She thinks my impatience a bad sign."
heavens--a bad sign?"
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."
Olenska examined this curiously. "But
if she thinks that--why isn't she in a hurry too?"
she's not like that: she's so much nobler. She insists all the more on the
long engagement, to give me time--"
to give her up for the other woman?"
I want to."
Olenska leaned toward the fire and gazed into it with fixed eyes.
Down the quiet street Archer heard the approaching trot of her
IS noble," she said, with a slight break in her voice.
But it's ridiculous."
Because you don't care for any one else?"
I don't mean to marry any one else."
There was another long interval.
At length she looked up at him and asked:
"This other woman-- does she love you?"
there's no other woman; I mean, the person that May was thinking of is--was
why, after all, are you in such haste?"
"There's your carriage," said Archer.
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.
I suppose I must be going."
going to Mrs. Struthers's?"
She smiled and added: "I
must go where I am invited, or I should be too lonely.
Why not come with me?"
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.
guessed the truth," he said. "There
is another woman--but not the one she thinks."
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.
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.
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."
for either of us?" She
looked at him with unfeigned astonishment.
"And you say that--when it's you who've made it
stared at her, groping in a blackness through which a single arrow of light
tore its blinding way.
made it impossible--?"
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!"
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.
God," he groaned. "When
don't ask me what I thought!"
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.
do ask you."
then: there were things in that letter you asked me to read--"
had nothing to fear from that letter: absolutely nothing!
All I feared was to bring notoriety, scandal, on the family--on you
God," he groaned again, bowing his face in his hands.
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.
least I loved you--" he brought out.
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.
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.
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.
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.
alters the whole of life for me."
no--it mustn't, it can't. You're
engaged to May Welland; and I'm married."
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
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.
don't see you," she said at length, "putting that question to May.
gave a reckless shrug. "It's
too late to do anything else."
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."
I don't understand you!"
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
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--"
that he broke into a laugh.
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
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.
bent over him, laying her hands on his shoulders, and looking at him with
eyes so deep that he remained motionless under her gaze.
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."
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.
Beaufort? Is he to replace
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.
waiting for you now at Mrs. Struthers's; why don't you go to him?"
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.
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
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."
tone and her look still enveloped her in a soft inaccessibility, and Archer
groaned out again: "I
don't understand you!"
you understand May!"
reddened under the retort, but kept his eyes on her. "May is ready to give me up."
Three days after you've entreated her on your knees to hasten your
refused; that gives me the right--"
you've taught me what an ugly word that is," she said.
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.
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.
we do this now it will be worse afterward--worse for every one--"
she almost screamed, as if he frightened her.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.)
took no notice of her question. "Look
here-- what day is Easter this year?"
looked shocked at such unchristian ignorance. "Easter?
Newland! Why, of course,
the first week in April. Why?"
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.
mercy's sake what's the matter?"
the matter, except that I'm going to be married in a month."
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
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