The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

XXII.

“A party for the Blenkers — the Blenkers?”

Mr. Welland laid down his knife and fork and looked anxiously and incredulously across the luncheon-table at his wife, who, adjusting her gold eye-glasses, read aloud, in the tone of high comedy:

“Professor and Mrs. Emerson Sillerton request the pleasure of Mr. and Mrs. Welland’s company at the meeting of the Wednesday Afternoon Club on August 25th at 3 o’clock punctually. To meet Mrs. and the Misses Blenker.

“Red Gables, Catherine Street. R. S. V. P.”

“Good gracious —” Mr. Welland gasped, as if a second reading had been necessary to bring the monstrous absurdity of the thing home to him.

“Poor Amy Sillerton — you never can tell what her husband will do next,” Mrs. Welland sighed. “I suppose he’s just discovered the Blenkers.”

Professor Emerson Sillerton was a thorn in the side of Newport society; and a thorn that could not be plucked out, for it grew on a venerable and venerated family tree. He was, as people said, a man who had had “every advantage.” His father was Sillerton Jackson’s uncle, his mother a Pennilow of Boston; on each side there was wealth and position, and mutual suitability. Nothing — as Mrs. Welland had often remarked — nothing on earth obliged Emerson Sillerton to be an archaeologist, or indeed a Professor of any sort, or to live in Newport in winter, or do any of the other revolutionary things that he did. But at least, if he was going to break with tradition and flout society in the face, he need not have married poor Amy Dagonet, who had a right to expect “something different,” and money enough to keep her own carriage.

No one in the Mingott set could understand why Amy Sillerton had submitted so tamely to the eccentricities of a husband who filled the house with long-haired men and short-haired women, and, when he travelled, took her to explore tombs in Yucatan instead of going to Paris or Italy. But there they were, set in their ways, and apparently unaware that they were different from other people; and when they gave one of their dreary annual garden-parties every family on the Cliffs, because of the Sillerton–Pennilow-Dagonet connection, had to draw lots and send an unwilling representative.

“It’s a wonder,” Mrs. Welland remarked, “that they didn’t choose the Cup Race day! Do you remember, two years ago, their giving a party for a black man on the day of Julia Mingott’s the dansant? Luckily this time there’s nothing else going on that I know of — for of course some of us will have to go.”

Mr. Welland sighed nervously. “‘Some of us,’ my dear — more than one? Three o’clock is such a very awkward hour. I have to be here at half-past three to take my drops: it’s really no use trying to follow Bencomb’s new treatment if I don’t do it systematically; and if I join you later, of course I shall miss my drive.” At the thought he laid down his knife and fork again, and a flush of anxiety rose to his finely-wrinkled cheek.

“There’s no reason why you should go at all, my dear,” his wife answered with a cheerfulness that had become automatic. “I have some cards to leave at the other end of Bellevue Avenue, and I’ll drop in at about half-past three and stay long enough to make poor Amy feel that she hasn’t been slighted.” She glanced hesitatingly at her daughter. “And if Newland’s afternoon is provided for perhaps May can drive you out with the ponies, and try their new russet harness.”

It was a principle in the Welland family that people’s days and hours should be what Mrs. Welland called “provided for.” The melancholy possibility of having to “kill time” (especially for those who did not care for whist or solitaire) was a vision that haunted her as the spectre of the unemployed haunts the philanthropist. Another of her principles was that parents should never (at least visibly) interfere with the plans of their married children; and the difficulty of adjusting this respect for May’s independence with the exigency of Mr. Welland’s claims could be overcome only by the exercise of an ingenuity which left not a second of Mrs. Welland’s own time unprovided for.

“Of course I’ll drive with Papa — I’m sure Newland will find something to do,” May said, in a tone that gently reminded her husband of his lack of response. It was a cause of constant distress to Mrs. Welland that her son-in-law showed so little foresight in planning his days. Often already, during the fortnight that he had passed under her roof, when she enquired how he meant to spend his afternoon, he had answered paradoxically: “Oh, I think for a change I’ll just save it instead of spending it —” and once, when she and May had had to go on a long-postponed round of afternoon calls, he had confessed to having lain all the afternoon under a rock on the beach below the house.

“Newland never seems to look ahead,” Mrs. Welland once ventured to complain to her daughter; and May answered serenely: “No; but you see it doesn’t matter, because when there’s nothing particular to do he reads a book.”

“Ah, yes — like his father!” Mrs. Welland agreed, as if allowing for an inherited oddity; and after that the question of Newland’s unemployment was tacitly dropped.

Nevertheless, as the day for the Sillerton reception approached, May began to show a natural solicitude for his welfare, and to suggest a tennis match at the Chiverses’, or a sail on Julius Beaufort’s cutter, as a means of atoning for her temporary desertion. “I shall be back by six, you know, dear: Papa never drives later than that —” and she was not reassured till Archer said that he thought of hiring a run-about and driving up the island to a stud-farm to look at a second horse for her brougham. They had been looking for this horse for some time, and the suggestion was so acceptable that May glanced at her mother as if to say: “You see he knows how to plan out his time as well as any of us.”

The idea of the stud-farm and the brougham horse had germinated in Archer’s mind on the very day when the Emerson Sillerton invitation had first been mentioned; but he had kept it to himself as if there were something clandestine in the plan, and discovery might prevent its execution. He had, however, taken the precaution to engage in advance a runabout with a pair of old livery-stable trotters that could still do their eighteen miles on level roads; and at two o’clock, hastily deserting the luncheon-table, he sprang into the light carriage and drove off.

The day was perfect. A breeze from the north drove little puffs of white cloud across an ultramarine sky, with a bright sea running under it. Bellevue Avenue was empty at that hour, and after dropping the stable-lad at the corner of Mill Street Archer turned down the Old Beach Road and drove across Eastman’s Beach.

He had the feeling of unexplained excitement with which, on half-holidays at school, he used to start off into the unknown. Taking his pair at an easy gait, he counted on reaching the stud-farm, which was not far beyond Paradise Rocks, before three o’clock; so that, after looking over the horse (and trying him if he seemed promising) he would still have four golden hours to dispose of.

As soon as he heard of the Sillerton’s party he had said to himself that the Marchioness Manson would certainly come to Newport with the Blenkers, and that Madame Olenska might again take the opportunity of spending the day with her grandmother. At any rate, the Blenker habitation would probably be deserted, and he would be able, without indiscretion, to satisfy a vague curiosity concerning it. He was not sure that he wanted to see the Countess Olenska again; but ever since he had looked at her from the path above the bay he had wanted, irrationally and indescribably, to see the place she was living in, and to follow the movements of her imagined figure as he had watched the real one in the summer-house. The longing was with him day and night, an incessant undefinable craving, like the sudden whim of a sick man for food or drink once tasted and long since forgotten. He could not see beyond the craving, or picture what it might lead to, for he was not conscious of any wish to speak to Madame Olenska or to hear her voice. He simply felt that if he could carry away the vision of the spot of earth she walked on, and the way the sky and sea enclosed it, the rest of the world might seem less empty.

When he reached the stud-farm a glance showed him that the horse was not what he wanted; nevertheless he took a turn behind it in order to prove to himself that he was not in a hurry. But at three o’clock he shook out the reins over the trotters and turned into the by-roads leading to Portsmouth. The wind had dropped and a faint haze on the horizon showed that a fog was waiting to steal up the Saconnet on the turn of the tide; but all about him fields and woods were steeped in golden light.

He drove past grey-shingled farm-houses in orchards, past hay-fields and groves of oak, past villages with white steeples rising sharply into the fading sky; and at last, after stopping to ask the way of some men at work in a field, he turned down a lane between high banks of goldenrod and brambles. At the end of the lane was the blue glimmer of the river; to the left, standing in front of a clump of oaks and maples, he saw a long tumble-down house with white paint peeling from its clapboards.

On the road-side facing the gateway stood one of the open sheds in which the New Englander shelters his farming implements and visitors “hitch” their “teams.” Archer, jumping down, led his pair into the shed, and after tying them to a post turned toward the house. The patch of lawn before it had relapsed into a hay-field; but to the left an overgrown box-garden full of dahlias and rusty rose-bushes encircled a ghostly summer-house of trellis-work that had once been white, surmounted by a wooden Cupid who had lost his bow and arrow but continued to take ineffectual aim.

Archer leaned for a while against the gate. No one was in sight, and not a sound came from the open windows of the house: a grizzled Newfoundland dozing before the door seemed as ineffectual a guardian as the arrowless Cupid. It was strange to think that this place of silence and decay was the home of the turbulent Blenkers; yet Archer was sure that he was not mistaken.

For a long time he stood there, content to take in the scene, and gradually falling under its drowsy spell; but at length he roused himself to the sense of the passing time. Should he look his fill and then drive away? He stood irresolute, wishing suddenly to see the inside of the house, so that he might picture the room that Madame Olenska sat in. There was nothing to prevent his walking up to the door and ringing the bell; if, as he supposed, she was away with the rest of the party, he could easily give his name, and ask permission to go into the sitting-room to write a message.

But instead, he crossed the lawn and turned toward the box-garden. As he entered it he caught sight of something bright-coloured in the summer-house, and presently made it out to be a pink parasol. The parasol drew him like a magnet: he was sure it was hers. He went into the summer-house, and sitting down on the rickety seat picked up the silken thing and looked at its carved handle, which was made of some rare wood that gave out an aromatic scent. Archer lifted the handle to his lips.

He heard a rustle of skirts against the box, and sat motionless, leaning on the parasol handle with clasped hands, and letting the rustle come nearer without lifting his eyes. He had always known that this must happen . . .

“Oh, Mr. Archer!” exclaimed a loud young voice; and looking up he saw before him the youngest and largest of the Blenker girls, blonde and blowsy, in bedraggled muslin. A red blotch on one of her cheeks seemed to show that it had recently been pressed against a pillow, and her half-awakened eyes stared at him hospitably but confusedly.

“Gracious — where did you drop from? I must have been sound asleep in the hammock. Everybody else has gone to Newport. Did you ring?” she incoherently enquired.

Archer’s confusion was greater than hers. “I— no — that is, I was just going to. I had to come up the island to see about a horse, and I drove over on a chance of finding Mrs. Blenker and your visitors. But the house seemed empty — so I sat down to wait.”

Miss Blenker, shaking off the fumes of sleep, looked at him with increasing interest. “The house IS empty. Mother’s not here, or the Marchioness — or anybody but me.” Her glance became faintly reproachful. “Didn’t you know that Professor and Mrs. Sillerton are giving a garden-party for mother and all of us this afternoon? It was too unlucky that I couldn’t go; but I’ve had a sore throat, and mother was afraid of the drive home this evening. Did you ever know anything so disappointing? Of course,” she added gaily, “I shouldn’t have minded half as much if I’d known you were coming.”

Symptoms of a lumbering coquetry became visible in her, and Archer found the strength to break in: “But Madame Olenska — has she gone to Newport too?”

Miss Blenker looked at him with surprise. “Madame Olenska — didn’t you know she’d been called away?”

“Called away? —”

“Oh, my best parasol! I lent it to that goose of a Katie, because it matched her ribbons, and the careless thing must have dropped it here. We Blenkers are all like that . . . real Bohemians!” Recovering the sunshade with a powerful hand she unfurled it and suspended its rosy dome above her head. “Yes, Ellen was called away yesterday: she lets us call her Ellen, you know. A telegram came from Boston: she said she might be gone for two days. I do LOVE the way she does her hair, don’t you?” Miss Blenker rambled on.

Archer continued to stare through her as though she had been transparent. All he saw was the trumpery parasol that arched its pinkness above her giggling head.

After a moment he ventured: “You don’t happen to know why Madame Olenska went to Boston? I hope it was not on account of bad news?”

Miss Blenker took this with a cheerful incredulity. “Oh, I don’t believe so. She didn’t tell us what was in the telegram. I think she didn’t want the Marchioness to know. She’s so romantic-looking, isn’t she? Doesn’t she remind you of Mrs. Scott–Siddons when she reads ‘Lady Geraldine’s Courtship’? Did you never hear her?”

Archer was dealing hurriedly with crowding thoughts. His whole future seemed suddenly to be unrolled before him; and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever to happen. He glanced about him at the unpruned garden, the tumble-down house, and the oak-grove under which the dusk was gathering. It had seemed so exactly the place in which he ought to have found Madame Olenska; and she was far away, and even the pink sunshade was not hers . . .

He frowned and hesitated. “You don’t know, I suppose — I shall be in Boston tomorrow. If I could manage to see her —”

He felt that Miss Blenker was losing interest in him, though her smile persisted. “Oh, of course; how lovely of you! She’s staying at the Parker House; it must be horrible there in this weather.”

After that Archer was but intermittently aware of the remarks they exchanged. He could only remember stoutly resisting her entreaty that he should await the returning family and have high tea with them before he drove home. At length, with his hostess still at his side, he passed out of range of the wooden Cupid, unfastened his horses and drove off. At the turn of the lane he saw Miss Blenker standing at the gate and waving the pink parasol.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30