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Chapter 14

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.

 

阿切尔来到门厅,遇见了他的朋友内德·温塞特。在詹尼所说的“聪明人”当中,此人是他惟一乐于与之深入探讨问题的人,他们之间的交谈比俱乐部的一般水平及餐馆里的调侃略深一层。

他刚才在剧院的另一端曾瞥见温塞特弯腰曲背的寒酸背影,并注意到他曾把目光转向博福特的包厢。两个人握了握手,温塞特提议到拐角处喝一杯。阿切尔此时对他们可能在那儿进行的交谈没有情绪,便借口回家有工作要做而婉言谢绝。温塞特说:“噢。我也一样,我也要做勤奋的学徒。”

他们一起溜达着向前走。过了一会儿,温塞特说:“听我说,我真正关心的是你们高级包厢里那位忧郁的夫人的名字——她跟博福特夫妇在一起,对吧?你的朋友莱弗茨看样子深深迷上的那一位。”

阿切尔不知为什么有点恼火。内德·温塞特干吗想知道埃伦·奥兰斯卡的名字呢?尤其是,他干吗要把它与莱弗茨的名字相提并论?流露这种好奇心,可不像温塞特的为人。不过,阿切尔想起,他毕竟是位记者。

“我想,你不是为了采访吧?”他笑着说。

“唔——不是为报社,而是为我自己,”温塞特回答说。“实际上,她是我的一位邻居——这样一位美人住在那种地方可真奇怪——她对我的小男孩特别好,他在追他的猫咪时在她那边摔倒了,划伤很厉害。她没戴帽子就跑上去,把他抱在怀里,并把他的膝盖包扎得好好的。她那么有同情心,又那么漂亮,让我妻子惊讶得昏头昏脑,竟没有问她的姓名。”

一阵喜悦洋溢在阿切尔的心头。这段故事并没有什么非凡之处:任何一个女人都会这样对待邻居的孩子。不过他觉得这正体现了埃伦的为人:没戴帽子就跑出去,把孩子抱在怀里,并且让可怜的温塞特太太惊讶得忘了问她是谁。

“她是奥兰斯卡伯爵夫人——老明戈特太太的一位孙女。”

“哎哟——还是位伯爵夫人!”内德·温塞特吹了个口哨说,“我没听说过伯爵夫人还这么友善,明戈特家的人就不。”

“他们会的,假如你给他们机会。”

“哎,可是——”关于“聪明人”不愿与上流社会交往的顽固性,是他俩一直争论不休的老问题了,两个人都明白,再谈下去也是无益。

温塞特突然改变话题说:“不知一位伯爵夫人怎么会住在我们贫民窟里?”

“因为她根本不在乎住在哪里——或者说不关心我们小小的社会标志,”阿切尔说,暗中为自己心目中的她感到自豪。

“唔——我想她是在大地方呆过吧,”另一个评论说。“哎,我该转弯了。”

他没精打采地穿过百老汇大街走了,阿切尔站在那儿望着他的背影,品味着他最后的几句话。

内德·温塞特有敏锐的洞察力,这是他身上最有趣的东西,它常常使阿切尔感到纳闷:在大多数男人都还在奋斗的年纪,他的洞察力怎么会容许他无动于衷地接受了失败呢?

阿切尔早就知道温塞特有妻子和孩子,但从未见过他们。他们两人一向在“世纪”见面,或者在一个记者与戏剧界人士常到的地方,像温塞特刚才提议去喝啤酒的那个餐馆。他给阿切尔的印象是他妻子有病,那位可怜的夫人也许真的有病,但这也许仅仅表示她缺乏社交才能或夜礼服,或者两者都缺。温塞特本人对社交礼仪深恶痛绝,阿切尔穿夜礼服是因为觉得这样更干净更舒服,而且他从没有停下来想一想,干净和舒服在不宽裕的生活开销中是两项昂贵的开支。他认为温塞特的态度属于那种“放荡不羁的文化人” 的装腔作势,他们这种态度总使得那些上流社会的人——他们换衣服不声不响,并且不老是把仆人的数目挂在嘴上——显得特别纯朴自然。尽管如此,温塞特却总能够让阿切尔受到振奋,每当见到这位记者那张瘦削的长满胡须的脸和那双忧郁的眼睛,他便把他从角落里拉出来,带他到别处进行长谈。

温塞特做记者并非出于自己的选择。他是个纯文学家,却生不逢时,来到一个不需要文学的世界上;他出版了一卷短小优美的文学鉴赏集之后——此书卖出120 本,赠送了30本,其余被出版商(按合同)销毁,以便为更适销的东西让位——便放弃了自己的初衷,担任了一份妇女周报的助理编辑,该报交替发表时装样片。裁剪纸样与新英格兰爱情故事和不含酒精的饮料的广告。

关于“炉火”(报纸的名称)这个话题,他有着无穷无尽的妙论。然而在他调侃的背后却隐含着那种努力过并放弃了的年轻人无奈的苦涩。他的谈话总会让阿切尔去估量自己的生活,并感到它包含的内容是多么贫乏,不过温塞特的生活毕竟包含得更少。虽然知识爱好的共同基础使他们的交谈引人入胜,但他们之间思想观点的交流通常却局限于浅尝辄止的可怜范围内。

“事实上,我们两人生活都不太惬意,”温塞特有一次说。“我是彻底完了,没有办法补救了。我只会生产一种商品,这里却没有它的市场,我有生之年也不会有了。而你却自由并且富有,你干吗不去发挥你的才能呢?惟一一条路是参与政治。”

阿切尔把头向后一甩,哈哈大笑。在这一瞬之间,人们看清了温塞特这种人与别人——阿切尔那种人之间不可弥合的差别。上流社会圈子里人人都知道,在美国, “绅士是不从政”的。但是,因为他很难照直向温塞特说明,所以便含糊其辞地回答说:“看看美国政界正派人的遭遇吧!他们不需要我们。”

“‘他们’是指谁?你们干吗不团结起来,也加入‘他们’当中呢?”

阿切尔的笑声到了嘴边又变成略显屈尊的微笑。再讨论下去是白费时间:人人都了解那几位拿自己的家庭清白到纽约市或纽约州政界冒险的绅士的伤心命运。时代不同了,国家掌握在老板和移民手中,正派人只得退居体育运动和文化活动——那种情况再也不可能了。

“文化!不错——我们要是有文化就好了!这里只有几片分散的小片田地,由于缺乏——唔,缺乏耕耘与异花受精而凋零、死亡:这就是你们的先辈带来的欧洲古老传统的残余。但你们处于可怜的少数:没有中心,没有竞争,没有观众。你们就像荒宅里墙壁上的画像——‘绅士的画像’。你们永远成不了气候,任何人都不能,除非挽起袖子,到泥水里摸爬滚打,只有这样,不然就出国做移民……上帝啊!假如我能移民……”

阿切尔暗自耸了耸肩膀,把话题转回到读书上。这方面,如果说温塞特也让人捉摸不透,但他的见解却总是很有趣。移民!好像绅士们还会抛弃自己的家园!谁也不会那样做,就像不可能挽起袖子到泥水里摸爬滚打。绅士们索性就呆在家中自暴自弃。可你无法让温塞特这样的人明白这一点,所以说,拥有文学俱乐部和异国风味餐馆的纽约社会,虽然初次振动一下可以使它变得像个万花筒,但到头来,它不过只是个小匣子,其图案比第五大街各种成分汇合在一起更显单调。

第二天早晨,阿切尔跑遍市区,却没有买到更多的黄玫瑰。搜索的结果使他到事务所迟到了。他发觉这样做对任何人都没有丝毫影响。有感于自己生命的毫无意义,心中顿然充满了烦恼。这个时候他为何不与梅·韦兰一起在圣奥古斯丁的沙滩上呢?他那职业热情的借口谁也骗不了。像莱特布赖先生领导的这种法律事务所,主要从事大宗财产与“稳健”投资的管理,在这类老式的事务所里面总有那么两三个年轻人,他们家境富足,事业上没有抱负,每天花几小时坐在办公桌后面处理些琐事,或者干脆读报纸。虽然人人都认为自己应该有个职业,但赤裸裸地挣钱依然被看作有伤体面,而法律作为一种职业,被视为比经商更有身份的工作。然而这些年轻人没有一个有望在职业上有所成就,而且他们谁也没有这种迫切的欲望。在他们许多人身上,一种新型的敷衍塞责的习气已经相当明显地蔓延起来。

阿切尔想到这种习气也会蔓延到自己身上,心中不禁不寒而栗。当然,他还有其他的趣味与爱好。他经常到欧洲度假旅行,结识了梅所说的“聪明人”,并且正像他怀着思念之情对奥兰斯卡夫人所说的,他尽力在总体上“跟上形势”。然而,一旦结了婚,他实际经历的这种狭小生活范围会有什么变化呢?他已经见过好多跟他怀有同样梦想的年轻人——虽然他们热情可能不如他高——逐渐陷进了他们长辈们那种平静舒适的生活常规。

他让信差从事务所给奥兰斯卡夫人送去一封便函,询问可否在下午前去拜访,并请求她将回信送到他的俱乐部。但到了俱乐部,他什么也没见到,第二天也没接到回信。这一意外的沉默使他羞愧难当。翌日上午虽然他在一家花商的橱窗里见到一束灿烂的黄玫瑰,也未去问津。直到第三日上午,他才收到奥兰斯卡伯爵夫人邮来的一封短信,令他惊讶的是,信是从斯库特克利夫寄来的,范德卢顿夫妇把公爵送上船后立即返回那儿去了。

“在剧院见到你的第二天,我逃跑了,”写信者突兀地开头道(没有通常的开场白),“是这些好心的朋友收留了我。我需要安静下来,好好想一想。你曾说他们对我有多好,你说得很对。我觉得自己在这里很安全。我多盼望你能跟我们在一起呀。”她在结尾用了惯常的“谨启”二字,没有提及她回来的日期。

信中的口气让年轻人颇感惊讶。奥兰斯卡夫人要逃避什么呢?她为什么需要安全感?他首先想到的是来自国外的某种阴险的威胁,接着又琢磨,自己并不了解她写信的风格,也许这属于生动的夸张。女人总是爱夸张的,而且,她对英语还不能完全运用自如,讲的话时常像是刚从法语翻译过来似的。从法语的角度看,第一句话让人直接想到她可能仅仅想躲避一次讨厌的约会,事情很可能就是这样,因为他认为她很任性,很容易对一时的快乐发生厌倦。

想到范德卢顿夫妇把她带到斯库特克利夫进行二次拜访,且这一次没有期限,阿切尔觉得很有趣。斯库特克利夫别墅的大门是难得对客人开放的,获此殊荣的少数人所得到的也往往是令人寒心的周末。不过阿切尔上次去巴黎时曾看过拉比什美妙的喜剧《贝利松先生的旅程》,他还记得贝利松先生对他从冰河中拉出来的那个年轻人那种百折不挠的依恋。范德卢顿夫妇从犹如冰川的厄运中救出了奥兰斯卡夫人,尽管对她的好感还有许多其他原因,但阿切尔明白,在那些原因背后是继续挽救她的高尚而顽强的决心。

得知她走了的消息,他明显地感到很失望,并且几乎立即就想起,前一天他刚拒绝了里吉·奇弗斯夫妇邀请的事。他们请他到他们哈德逊的住宅度过下个周日,那地方就在斯库特克利夫以南几英里处。

很久以前他已尽情享受过海班克那种喧闹友好的聚会,还有沿岸旅行、划冰船、坐雪橇。雪中长途步行等等,并饱尝了适度调情与更适度的恶作剧的大致滋味。他刚刚收到伦敦书商寄来的一箱新书,憧憬着与他的宝物度过一个安静的周日。而现在他却走进了俱乐部的写字间,匆忙写了一封电报,命令仆人立即发出。他知道,里吉太太并不反对她的客人们突然改变主意,而且,在她那富有弹性的住宅里永远能腾出一个房间。



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