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The Weight of Words Irrevocable

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A year had passed since Newland Archer’s last visit to Newport; the intervening time had seen his life so irrevocably altered that he was almost surprised to find the place so unchanged; that is, if, after the tumult of the past year, he had not lost his capacity for surprise altogether.

After all, the collapse of Julius Beaufort’s bank over the winter had seen creditors seize the Beauforts’ palatial summer home, and its rolling green expanse of lawn, on which the Newport Archery Club’s yearly competition had always taken place, had been unceremoniously converted by its new Philadelphia owners to lawn-tennis courts.

But New York society stalwarts, refusing to believe that life should not go on in the old way, had insisted that the club’s traditions continue regardless, and this year’s competition had been re-located to the remote moorland stronghold of Catherine the Great, who had in her youth built a many-peaked Gothic cottage-orné on an expanse of cheap land overlooking the bay. This venue, situated beyond the furthest reaches of Ocean Drive, was less than fashionable, but beggars couldn’t be choosers, and old New York agreed they would just have to make do.

On the afternoon of the competition, old Catherine was in her element, presiding over the celebrations from her bath-chair on the verandah; in pride of place was her grand-daughter May, wearing the glow of healthy, expectant motherhood like a queenly robe. The Wellands always summered in Newport, where they owned one of the square boxes at the far end of Bellevue Avenue, and May’s pregnancy had been such an easy one that no one, not even their son-in-law, could offer a good reason why he and May should not join them there as they had the year before.

Now May walked between the animated revelers on the Mingott lawn, a wreath of ivy on her hat, bearing her fuller figure as naturally as she carried all her feats of athleticism: a Demeter, now, rather than a Diana. The diamond-tipped arrow brooch, the first prize in last year’s archery competition, was pinned to her white bosom.

Newland himself, superfluous to the afternoon’s festivities, had resorted to wandering aimlessly across the perimeter of the lawn, darkly amused by the spectacle of this familiar competition held in these unfamiliar surroundings, and the idea that the world should carry on in this simulacrum of its old self.

As the afternoon wore on, with no end to the merriment in sight, Newland found himself changing course in his restless perambulations, and instead turning to follow the well-worn path to the shore.

The weeping willows that bordered the path along the waterline seemed to have grown thicker and more profuse in the past year. Where Archer could once see through their veil the glint of the Lime Rock and its famous white-washed light-house, now he could discern nothing but a thick and impenetrable opacity.

Finally he passed beyond the dark curtain into the bright afternoon sun. There Lime Rock stood, in all its guiding glory: home to the light-house keeper, Ida Lewis, who had been celebrated across America for her heroic rescues of sailors from the inclement winter seas around Newport Harbor. Beyond the light-house lay the flats of Goat Island and the woody outcroppings of Prudence Island, and even more distantly, the faint outline of Conanicut’s shores were visible under the clear sky.

A slight wooden pier jutted from the end of the path to a summer-house, overlooking the bay. On this afternoon, the summer-house was empty; no one stood there admiring the sight of the sailboats and fishing-craft to-ing and fro-ing across the shimmering water.

Archer stopped in his tracks. For a moment, he had been transported back in time to that midsummer evening a year ago; he could almost see the slender figure of a lady standing there with her back toward the shore, the sunset casting its fiery radiance across the wide expanse of channel and above her bright head.

The Countess Olenska had left their shores for Paris in January; since then, he had neither seen nor heard from her. He knew that she had not returned to her husband, but together with Medora Manson had taken up a little house near the Place des Invalides, in a quiet quarter, and had kept to herself. He had withheld from writing to her, and he knew it was for fear of what she might say in her reply.

Yet, now, in the privacy of his own thoughts, he felt able to set down the words he had been holding back; to address them to his memory of the lady in the summer-house, so palpable in this moment that it was as if she stood here in the flesh.


My dearest Ellen

Forgive me for the lateness of this correspondence. I did not seek to write earlier because, as you had said in your letter to May, your decision had been made to return to Europe; that your visit to New York could never be more than just a visit; that it would be utterly useless to urge you to change your mind, and, you see, I took you at your word.

What you did not write is that I should not try to follow you. Nothing, therefore, to prevent my doing so, I confess I considered doing just that. Considered making a break from everything, and leaving a farewell note for May, and booking a seat on board the Russia and traveling with you to Paris, and as much farther as you would be willing to go.

You had said that others had tried to find it, before: that country where two lovers could be simply two human beings who were the whole of life to each other and nothing else on earth would matter, but had gotten out by mistake at places like Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo. I had thought we might go further than that: to Mumbai, or to Tokyo, and even further, and not stop until we found our way to that country at last.

At any rate, I knew you didn’t plan to return to your husband; I thought you were fighting against your fate. I had hoped, once I had taken the irrevocable step to leave New York, and had proved to you that it was irrevocable, you might not have seen fit to send me away, and would permit me to travel at your side, for all of life.

You know why, in the end, I did not take that step.

May’s and my child — the first grandchild of this generation of Archers and Wellands — is scheduled to born in September, before the season when Fifth Avenue opens its shutters and unrolls its carpets and tells the world it is at home to visitors once more. It seems I’m not so different from everyone else, after all.

I find myself in Newport this summer, waiting for our son to be born. The same faces as before, the same surroundings: everything is as it was last year, except for Beaufort, whom everyone now pretends doesn’t exist. And of course, except for you.

I can see you now in the summer-house at the end of the pier as clearly as if it were last August. I told you I didn’t come to fetch you that day because I swore I wouldn't unless you looked round — and you didn’t. I was fighting against my fate, too, but not hard enough.

If I had gone to you that day, without waiting for you to turn around, everything might have been different. I might have been different.

Or perhaps everything would still have ended this way: with my life continuing as it always has, and my reality with you now out of reach.


As the last words of this silent message winged over the span of the pier and through the eddies of time and space, the afternoon sun began to wane over the bay. It caught against the tilting sail of a yacht-launch as it tacked against the tide, and angled a bright spar of light back onto the shore.

Newland Archer blinked away the sight as if he had awakened from slumber. That vision of the past was a dream, as was that longed-for future with Madame Olenska, and the reality was what awaited him in the house on the bank overhead: the well-meaning, well-fed members of his society, but also his wife, who loved him, and the child they were soon to bring into the world.

He turned slowly, and walked up the hill alone.

 

*

 

May Welland Archer sat at her craft-table in her library in East Thirty-ninth Street.

She had set aside the embroidery she had been working on since Christmas. She knew she was not a clever needle-woman; her large hands were made for riding, archery, and the exciting new sport of lawn-tennis. But other wives embroidered, and other mothers embroidered garments for their newborns, and she did not wish to omit this last aspect in either wifely or maternal devotions.

Now, though, she was embarking on an even more taxing task of devotion: that of writing notes of thanks to relatives and friends who had sent gifts and good wishes to commemorate the birth of her son, Dallas Archer. She knew that her penmanship, like her needlework, left something to be desired: her letters large, clumsy, almost childlike, but, like the embroidery, it was essential to make the attempt.

She knew she had been leaving her response to Madame Olenska almost to the last, but it simply would not do to put it off any longer. Ellen was her cousin, and familial ties as well as essential courtesy dictated that a response was needful, no matter how she felt about writing it, or about Ellen herself.

Resolutely, she took up her pen.


Dearest Cousin:

How are you? It seems like only yesterday that you left New York, although it has been almost a year since our farewell dinner the night before you set sail.

Everyone here is well, especially Granny. Thank you so much for the lovely old lace you sent to us for Dallas’s christening. It was simply exquisite; I’m sure there’s nothing like it along all of Fifth Avenue.

As for you, I hope you are settling in well in Paris. You must be meeting so many clever people and visiting splendid old houses and seeing such wonderful clothes and jewels that would eclipse everything here in our own small town. You were always so patient and kind with us, even though New York must not have been very exciting for you. We were so fortunate to have the time that we had together.


Here May paused, for the urge to write of the matter that she had harbored for so long was welling up within her. Although her pen halted, her thoughts raced ahead of themselves, scrawling themselves into the parchment of her mind.


I know how unfair it was of me to feel the awful things I felt about you. Newland is such a good man, so much better than me, and I know you couldn’t help loving him. I might have met him first, but you’re the one that deserves him. I told him, once, that I couldn’t bear to have my happiness made on a wrong to someone else. You and I know how that was a lie.

You loved him more than I did; you loved him enough to give him up. I can never thank you enough for that.


She swallowed hard, and looked down at the page, where a large drop of falling water had made an ungraceful splotch in the ink. Blotting it carefully, she took up her pen again, and made herself finish the letter.


We are both too happy for words and love you dearly. Your grateful cousin May.


She sealed the envelope, together with the words she did not write, and only then did she dry her eyes.

 

*

 

In a fifth-floor apartment along one of the avenues branching out from the Place des Invalides, in a modern, many-windowed building, a pale, dark-haired lady gazed out into an open balcony covered by awnings that overlooked the quiet square below. It was spring, and the horse-chestnut trees lining the square were in early bud.

The lady, an émigré from the New World, and a Countess, sat in her living room with the balcony doors open, as she often sat when the weather permitted. At this time before the commencement of the polite social visiting hour in Paris, she was alone. On other occasions, she might pick up a book, or light a cigarette from one of the long spills at the fireplace, or engage in correspondence: indeed, just that morning, two letters had arrived from America.

But on this afternoon, Ellen Olenska took up no such occupation, and merely sat gazing out at a bench half-hidden by the trees, as if she could see, in the distant future, a man sitting there looking up at her window.

Her expression revealed nothing of the words she might be contemplating in her response. Dear Newland, she might have written; May dearest, or even My dear cousins, but in the end, one might expect her to reply to either or both of them in the same way: which was the only way she could.

At length, evening shadows began to gather across the square, and the footfall of her first visitor could be heard on the stairs. With a sigh, she gave the signal to her man-servant to draw up the awnings, and close the shutters, and shut out the past.