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Chapter 14


XIV.

As he came out into the lobby Archer ran across his
friend Ned Winsett, the only one among what
Janey called his "clever people" with whom he cared to
probe into things a little deeper than the average level
of club and chop-house banter.

He had caught sight, across the house, of Winsett's
shabby round-shouldered back, and had once noticed
his eyes turned toward the Beaufort box.  The two men
shook hands, and Winsett proposed a bock at a little
German restaurant around the corner.  Archer, who
was not in the mood for the kind of talk they were
likely to get there, declined on the plea that he had
work to do at home; and Winsett said:  "Oh, well so
have I for that matter, and I'll be the Industrious
Apprentice too."

They strolled along together, and presently Winsett
said:  "Look here, what I'm really after is the name of
the dark lady in that swell box of yours--with the
Beauforts, wasn't she?  The one your friend Lefferts
seems so smitten by."

Archer, he could not have said why, was slightly
annoyed.  What the devil did Ned Winsett want with
Ellen Olenska's name?  And above all, why did he couple
it with Lefferts's?  It was unlike Winsett to manifest
such curiosity; but after all, Archer remembered, he
was a journalist.

"It's not for an interview, I hope?" he laughed.

"Well--not for the press; just for myself," Winsett
rejoined.  "The fact is she's a neighbour of mine--queer
quarter for such a beauty to settle in--and she's been
awfully kind to my little boy, who fell down her area
chasing his kitten, and gave himself a nasty cut.  She
rushed in bareheaded, carrying him in her arms, with
his knee all beautifully bandaged, and was so sympathetic
and beautiful that my wife was too dazzled to
ask her name."

A pleasant glow dilated Archer's heart.  There was
nothing extraordinary in the tale: any woman would
have done as much for a neighbour's child.  But it was
just like Ellen, he felt, to have rushed in bareheaded,
carrying the boy in her arms, and to have dazzled poor
Mrs. Winsett into forgetting to ask who she was.

"That is the Countess Olenska--a granddaughter of
old Mrs. Mingott's."

"Whew--a Countess!" whistled Ned Winsett.  "Well,
I didn't know Countesses were so neighbourly.  Mingotts
ain't."

"They would be, if you'd let them."

"Ah, well--"  It was their old interminable argument
as to the obstinate unwillingness of the "clever people"
to frequent the fashionable, and both men knew that
there was no use in prolonging it.

"I wonder," Winsett broke off, "how a Countess
happens to live in our slum?"

"Because she doesn't care a hang about where she
lives--or about any of our little social sign-posts," said
Archer, with a secret pride in his own picture of her.

"H'm--been in bigger places, I suppose," the other
commented.  "Well, here's my corner."

He slouched off across Broadway, and Archer stood
looking after him and musing on his last words.

Ned Winsett had those flashes of penetration; they
were the most interesting thing about him, and always
made Archer wonder why they had allowed him to
accept failure so stolidly at an age when most men are
still struggling.

Archer had known that Winsett had a wife and
child, but he had never seen them.  The two men always
met at the Century, or at some haunt of journalists and
theatrical people, such as the restaurant where Winsett
had proposed to go for a bock.  He had given Archer to
understand that his wife was an invalid; which might
be true of the poor lady, or might merely mean that she
was lacking in social gifts or in evening clothes, or in
both.  Winsett himself had a savage abhorrence of social
observances: Archer, who dressed in the evening
because he thought it cleaner and more comfortable to
do so, and who had never stopped to consider that
cleanliness and comfort are two of the costliest items in
a modest budget, regarded Winsett's attitude as part of
the boring "Bohemian" pose that always made fashionable
people, who changed their clothes without talking
about it, and were not forever harping on the number
of servants one kept, seem so much simpler and less
self-conscious than the others.  Nevertheless, he was
always stimulated by Winsett, and whenever he caught
sight of the journalist's lean bearded face and melancholy
eyes he would rout him out of his corner and
carry him off for a long talk.

Winsett was not a journalist by choice.  He was a
pure man of letters, untimely born in a world that had
no need of letters; but after publishing one volume of
brief and exquisite literary appreciations, of which one
hundred and twenty copies were sold, thirty given away,
and the balance eventually destroyed by the publishers
(as per contract) to make room for more marketable
material, he had abandoned his real calling, and taken
a sub-editorial job on a women's weekly, where fashion-
plates and paper patterns alternated with New England
love-stories and advertisements of temperance drinks.

On the subject of "Hearth-fires" (as the paper was
called) he was inexhaustibly entertaining; but beneath
his fun lurked the sterile bitterness of the still young
man who has tried and given up.  His conversation
always made Archer take the measure of his own life,
and feel how little it contained; but Winsett's, after all,
contained still less, and though their common fund of
intellectual interests and curiosities made their talks
exhilarating, their exchange of views usually remained
within the limits of a pensive dilettantism.

"The fact is, life isn't much a fit for either of us,"
Winsett had once said.  "I'm down and out; nothing to
be done about it.  I've got only one ware to produce,
and there's no market for it here, and won't be in my
time.  But you're free and you're well-off.  Why don't
you get into touch?  There's only one way to do it: to
go into politics."

Archer threw his head back and laughed.  There one
saw at a flash the unbridgeable difference between men
like Winsett and the others--Archer's kind.  Every one
in polite circles knew that, in America, "a gentleman
couldn't go into politics."  But, since he could hardly
put it in that way to Winsett, he answered evasively:
"Look at the career of the honest man in American
politics!  They don't want us."

"Who's `they'?  Why don't you all get together and
be `they' yourselves?"

Archer's laugh lingered on his lips in a slightly
condescending smile.  It was useless to prolong the
discussion: everybody knew the melancholy fate of the
few gentlemen who had risked their clean linen in
municipal or state politics in New York.  The day was
past when that sort of thing was possible: the country
was in possession of the bosses and the emigrant, and
decent people had to fall back on sport or culture.

"Culture!  Yes--if we had it!  But there are just a few
little local patches, dying out here and there for lack
of--well, hoeing and cross-fertilising: the last remnants
of the old European tradition that your forebears brought
with them.  But you're in a pitiful little minority: you've
got no centre, no competition, no audience.  You're like
the pictures on the walls of a deserted house:  `The
Portrait of a Gentleman.'  You'll never amount to anything,
any of you, till you roll up your sleeves and get
right down into the muck.  That, or emigrate . . . God!
If I could emigrate . . ."

Archer mentally shrugged his shoulders and turned
the conversation back to books, where Winsett, if
uncertain, was always interesting.  Emigrate!  As if a
gentleman could abandon his own country!  One could no
more do that than one could roll up one's sleeves and
go down into the muck.  A gentleman simply stayed at
home and abstained.  But you couldn't make a man like
Winsett see that; and that was why the New York of
literary clubs and exotic restaurants, though a first
shake made it seem more of a kaleidoscope, turned out,
in the end, to be a smaller box, with a more monotonous
pattern, than the assembled atoms of Fifth Avenue.


The next morning Archer scoured the town in vain for
more yellow roses.  In consequence of this search he
arrived late at the office, perceived that his doing so
made no difference whatever to any one, and was filled
with sudden exasperation at the elaborate futility of his
life.  Why should he not be, at that moment, on the
sands of St. Augustine with May Welland?  No one was
deceived by his pretense of professional activity.  In
old-fashioned legal firms like that of which Mr. Letterblair
was the head, and which were mainly engaged in
the management of large estates and "conservative"
investments, there were always two or three young
men, fairly well-off, and without professional ambition,
who, for a certain number of hours of each day, sat at
their desks accomplishing trivial tasks, or simply reading
the newspapers.  Though it was supposed to be
proper for them to have an occupation, the crude fact
of money-making was still regarded as derogatory, and
the law, being a profession, was accounted a more
gentlemanly pursuit than business.  But none of these
young men had much hope of really advancing in his
profession, or any earnest desire to do so; and over
many of them the green mould of the perfunctory was
already perceptibly spreading.

It made Archer shiver to think that it might be spreading
over him too.  He had, to be sure, other tastes and
interests; he spent his vacations in European travel,
cultivated the "clever people" May spoke of, and
generally tried to "keep up," as he had somewhat wistfully
put it to Madame Olenska.  But once he was married,
what would become of this narrow margin of life in
which his real experiences were lived?  He had seen
enough of other young men who had dreamed his
dream, though perhaps less ardently, and who had
gradually sunk into the placid and luxurious routine of
their elders.

From the office he sent a note by messenger to Madame
Olenska, asking if he might call that afternoon,
and begging her to let him find a reply at his club; but
at the club he found nothing, nor did he receive any
letter the following day.  This unexpected silence mortified
him beyond reason, and though the next morning
he saw a glorious cluster of yellow roses behind a
florist's window-pane, he left it there.  It was only on
the third morning that he received a line by post from
the Countess Olenska.  To his surprise it was dated
from Skuytercliff, whither the van der Luydens had
promptly retreated after putting the Duke on board his
steamer.

"I ran away," the writer began abruptly (without the
usual preliminaries), "the day after I saw you at the
play, and these kind friends have taken me in.  I wanted
to be quiet, and think things over.  You were right in
telling me how kind they were; I feel myself so safe
here.  I wish that you were with us."  She ended with a
conventional "Yours sincerely," and without any allusion
to the date of her return.

The tone of the note surprised the young man.  What
was Madame Olenska running away from, and why
did she feel the need to be safe?  His first thought was
of some dark menace from abroad; then he reflected
that he did not know her epistolary style, and that it
might run to picturesque exaggeration.  Women always
exaggerated; and moreover she was not wholly at her
ease in English, which she often spoke as if she were
translating from the French.  "Je me suis evadee--" put
in that way, the opening sentence immediately suggested
that she might merely have wanted to escape
from a boring round of engagements; which was very
likely true, for he judged her to be capricious, and
easily wearied of the pleasure of the moment.

It amused him to think of the van der Luydens'
having carried her off to Skuytercliff on a second visit,
and this time for an indefinite period.  The doors of
Skuytercliff were rarely and grudgingly opened to visitors,
and a chilly week-end was the most ever offered
to the few thus privileged.  But Archer had seen, on his
last visit to Paris, the delicious play of Labiche, "Le
Voyage de M. Perrichon," and he remembered M.
Perrichon's dogged and undiscouraged attachment to
the young man whom he had pulled out of the glacier.
The van der Luydens had rescued Madame Olenska
from a doom almost as icy; and though there were
many other reasons for being attracted to her, Archer
knew that beneath them all lay the gentle and obstinate
determination to go on rescuing her.

He felt a distinct disappointment on learning that she
was away; and almost immediately remembered that,
only the day before, he had refused an invitation to
spend the following Sunday with the Reggie Chiverses
at their house on the Hudson, a few miles below
Skuytercliff.

He had had his fill long ago of the noisy friendly
parties at Highbank, with coasting, ice-boating, sleighing,
long tramps in the snow, and a general flavour of
mild flirting and milder practical jokes.  He had just
received a box of new books from his London book-
seller, and had preferred the prospect of a quiet Sunday
at home with his spoils.  But he now went into the club
writing-room, wrote a hurried telegram, and told the
servant to send it immediately.  He knew that Mrs.
Reggie didn't object to her visitors' suddenly changing
their minds, and that there was always a room to spare
in her elastic house.


Edith Wharton