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Chapter 16


XVI.

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.


Edith Wharton