Edith Wharton (18621937). The Age of Innocence. 1920.
WALL STREET, the next day, had more reassuring reports of Beauforts situation. They were not definite, but they were hopeful. It was generally understood that he could call on powerful influences in case of emergency, and that he had done so with success; and that evening, when Mrs. Beaufort appeared at the Opera wearing her old smile and a new emerald necklace, society drew a breath of relief.
New York was inexorable in its condemnation of business irregularities. So far there had been no exception to its tacit rule that those who broke the law of probity must pay; and everyone was aware that even Beaufort and Beauforts wife would be offered up unflinchingly to this principle. But to be obliged to offer them up would be not only painful but inconvenient. The disappearance of the Beauforts would leave a considerable void in their compact little circle; and those who were too ignorant or too careless to shudder at the moral catastrophe bewailed in advance the loss of the best ball-room in New York.
Archer had definitely made up his mind to go to Washington. He was waiting only for the opening of the law-suit of which he had spoken to May, so that its date might coincide with that of his visit; but on the following Tuesday he learned from Mr. Letterblair that the case might be postponed for several weeks. Nevertheless, he went home that afternoon determined in any event to leave the next evening. The chances were that May, who knew nothing of his professional life, and had never shown any interest in it, would not learn of the postponement, should it take place, nor remember the names of the litigants if they were mentioned before her; and at any rate he could no longer put off seeing Madame Olenska. There were too many things that he must say to her.
On the Wednesday morning, when he reached his office, Mr. Letterblair met him with a troubled face. Beaufort, after all, had not managed to tide over; but by setting afloat the rumour that he had done so he had reassured his depositors, and heavy payments had poured into the bank till the previous evening, when disturbing reports again began to predominate. In consequence, a run on the bank had begun, and its doors were likely to close before the day was over. The ugliest things were being said of Beauforts dastardly manoeuvre, and his failure promised to be one of the most discreditable in the history of Wall Street.
The extent of the calamity left Mr. Letterblair white and incapacitated. Ive seen bad things in my time; but nothing as bad as this. Everybody we know will be hit, one way or another. And what will be done about Mrs. Beaufort? What can be done about her? I pity Mrs. Manson Mingott as much as anybody: coming at her age, theres no knowing what effect this affair may have on her. She always believed in Beaufortshe made a friend of him! And theres the whole Dallas connection: poor Mrs. Beaufort is related to everyone of you. Her only chance would be to leave her husbandyet how can any one tell her so? Her duty is at his side; and luckily she seems always to have been blind to his private weaknesses.
A clerk brought in a letter for Archer and withdrew. Recognising his wifes hand, the young man opened the envelope and read: Wont you please come up town as early as you can? Granny had a slight stroke last night. In some mysterious way she found out before any one else this awful news about the bank. Uncle Lovell is away shooting, and the idea of the disgrace has made poor Papa so nervous that he has a temperature and cant leave his room. Mamma needs you dreadfully, and I do hope you can get away at once and go straight to Grannys.
Archer handed the note to his senior partner, and a few minutes later was crawling northward in a crowded horse-car, which he exchanged at Fourteenth Street for one of the high staggering omnibuses of the Fifth Avenue line. It was after twelve oclock when this laborious vehicle dropped him at old Catherines. The sitting-room window on the ground floor, where she usually throned, was tenanted by the inadequate figure of her daughter, Mrs. Welland, who signed a haggard welcome as she caught sight of Archer; and at the door he was met by May. The hall wore the unnatural appearance peculiar to well-kept houses suddenly invaded by illness: wraps and furs lay in heaps on the chairs, a doctors bag and overcoat were on the table, and beside them letters and cards had already piled up unheeded.
May looked pale but smiling: Dr. Bencomb, who had just come for the second time, took a more hopeful view, and Mrs. Mingotts dauntless determination to live and get well was already having an effect on her family. May led Archer into the old ladys sitting-room, where the sliding doors opening into the bedroom had been drawn shut, and the heavy yellow damask portières dropped over them; and here Mrs. Welland communicated to him in horrified undertones the details of the catastrophe. It appeared that the evening before something dreadful and mysterious had happened. At about eight oclock, just after Mrs. Mingott had finished the game of solitaire that she always played after dinner, the door-bell had rung, and a lady so thickly veiled that the servants did not immediately recognise her had asked to be received.
The butler, hearing a familiar voice, had thrown open the sitting-room door, announcing: Mrs. Julius Beaufortand had then closed it again on the two ladies. They must have been together, he thought, about an hour. When Mrs. Mingotts bell rang Mrs. Beaufort had already slipped away unseen, and the old lady, white and vast and terrible, sat alone in her great chair, and signed to the butler to help her into her room. She seemed, at that time, though obviously distressed, in complete control of her body and brain. The mulatto maid put her to bed, brought her a cup of tea as usual, laid everything straight in the room, and went away; but at three in the morning the bell rang again, and the two servants, hastening in at this unwonted summons (for old Catherine usually slept like a baby), had found their mistress sitting up against her pillows with a crooked smile on her face and one little hand hanging limp from its huge arm.
The stroke had clearly been a slight one, for she was able to articulate and to make her wishes known; and soon after the doctors first visit she had begun to regain control of her facial muscles. But the alarm had been great; and proportionately great was the indignation when it was gathered from Mrs. Mingotts fragmentary phrases that Regina Beaufort had come to ask herincredible effrontery!to back up her husband, see them throughnot to desert them, as she called itin fact to induce the whole family to cover and condone their monstrous dishonour.
I said to her: Honours always been honour, and honesty honesty, in Manson Mingotts house, and will be till Im carried out of it feet first, the old woman had stammered into her daughters ear, in the thick voice of the partly paralysed. And when she said: But my name, Auntiemy names Regina Dallas, I said: It was Beaufort when he covered you with jewels, and its got to stay Beaufort now that hes covered you with shame.
So much, with tears and gasps of horror, Mrs. Welland imparted, blanched and demolished by the unwonted obligation of having at last to fix her eyes on the unpleasant and the discreditable. If only I could keep it from your father-in-law: he always says: Augusta, for pitys sake, dont destroy my last illusions and how am I to prevent his knowing these horrors? the poor lady wailed.
After all, Mamma, he wont have seen them, her daughter suggested; and Mrs. Welland sighed: Ah, no; thank heaven hes safe in bed. And Dr. Bencomb has promised to keep him there till poor Mamma is better, and Regina has been got away somewhere.
Archer had seated himself near the window and was gazing out blankly at the deserted thoroughfare. It was evident that he had been summoned rather for the moral support of the stricken ladies than because of any specific aid that he could render. Mr. Lovell Mingott had been telegraphed for, and messages were being despatched by hand to the members of the family living in New York; and meanwhile there was nothing to do but to discuss in hushed tones the consequences of Beauforts dishonour and of his wifes unjustifiable action.
Mrs. Lovell Mingott, who had been in another room writing notes, presently reappeared, and added her voice to the discussion. In their day, the elder ladies agreed, the wife of a man who had done anything disgraceful in business had only one idea: to efface herself, to disappear with him. There was the case of poor Grandmamma Spicer; your great-grandmother, May. Of course, Mrs. Welland hastened to add, your great-grandfathers money difficulties were privatelosses at cards, or signing a note for somebodyI never quite knew, because Mamma would never speak of it. But she was brought up in the country because her mother had to leave New York after the disgrace, whatever it was: they lived up the Hudson alone, winter and summer, till Mamma was sixteen. It would never have occurred to Grandmamma Spicer to ask the family to countenance her, as I understand Regina calls it; though a private disgrace is nothing compared to the scandal of ruining hundreds of innocent people.
Yes, it would be more becoming in Regina to hide her own countenance than to talk about other peoples, Mrs. Lovell Mingott agreed. I understand that the emerald necklace she wore at the Opera last Friday had been sent on approval from Ball and Blacks in the afternoon. I wonder if theyll ever get it back?
Archer listened unmoved to the relentless chorus. The idea of absolute financial probity as the first law of a gentlemans code was too deeply ingrained in him for sentimental considerations to weaken it. An adventurer like Lemuel Struthers might build up the millions of his Shoe Polish on any number of shady dealings; but unblemished honesty was the noblesse oblige of old financial New York. Nor did Mrs. Beauforts fate greatly move Archer. He felt, no doubt, more sorry for her than her indignant relatives; but it seemed to him that the tie between husband and wife, even if breakable in prosperity, should be indissoluble in misfortune. As Mr. Letterblair had said, a wifes place was at her husbands side when he was in trouble; but societys place was not at his side, and Mrs. Beauforts cool assumption that it was seemed almost to make her his accomplice. The mere idea of a womans appealing to her family to screen her husbands business dishonour was inadmissible, since it was the one thing that the Family, as an institution, could not do.
She wants me to telegraph for Ellen Olenska. I had written to Ellen, of course, and to Medora; but now it seems thats not enough. Im to telegraph to her immediately, and to tell her that shes to come alone.
Of course it must be done, she said. Granny knows what she wants, and we must carry out all her wishes. Shall I write the telegram for you, Auntie? If it goes at once Ellen can probably catch tomorrow mornings train. She pronounced the syllables of the name with a peculiar clearness, as if she had tapped on two silver bells.
Archer rose with a murmur of readiness, and she seated herself at old Catherines rosewood bonheur du jour, and wrote out the message in her large immature hand. When it was written she blotted it neatly and handed it to Archer.
What a pity, she said, that you and Ellen will cross each other on the way!Newland, she added, turning to her mother and aunt, is obliged to go to Washington about a patent law-suit that is coming up before the Supreme Court. I suppose Uncle Lovell will be back by tomorrow night, and with Granny improving so much it doesnt seem right to ask Newland to give up an important engagement for the firmdoes it?
She paused, as if for an answer, and Mrs. Welland hastily declared: Oh, of course not, darling. Your Granny would be the last person to wish it. As Archer left the room with the telegram, he heard his mother-in-law add, presumably to Mrs. Lovell Mingott: But why on earth she should make you telegraph for Ellen Olenska and Mays clear voice rejoin: Perhaps its to urge on her again that after all her duty is with her husband.