A gloomy silence fell upon the party. No one really liked Beaufort, and it was not wholly unpleasant to think the worst of his private life; but the idea of his having brought financial dishonour on his wife’s family was too shocking to be enjoyed even by his enemies. Archer’s New York tolerated hypocrisy in private relations; but in business matters it exacted a limpid and impeccable honesty. It was a long time since any well-known banker had failed discreditably; but every one remembered the social extinction visited on the heads of the firm when the last event of the kind had happened. It would be the same with the Beauforts, in spite of his power and her popularity; not all the leagued strength of the Dallas connection would save poor Regina if there were any truth in the reports of her husband’s unlawful speculations.
The talk took refuge in less ominous topics; but everything they touched on seemed to confirm Mrs. Archer’s sense of an accelerated trend.
“Of course, Newland, I know you let dear May go to Mrs. Struthers’s Sunday evenings—” she began; and May interposed gaily: “Oh, you know, everybody goes to Mrs. Struthers’s now; and she was invited to Granny’s last reception.”
It was thus, Archer reflected, that New York managed its transitions: conspiring to ignore them till they were well over, and then, in all good faith, imagining that they had taken place in a preceding age. There was always a traitor in the citadel; and after he (or generally she) had surrendered the keys, what was the use of pretending that it was impregnable? Once people had tasted of Mrs. Struthers’s easy Sunday hospitality they were not likely to sit at home remembering that her champagne was transmuted Shoe-Polish.
“I know, dear, I know,” Mrs. Archer sighed. “Such things have to be, I suppose, as long as amusement is what people go out for; but I’ve never quite forgiven your cousin Madame Olenska for being the first person to countenance Mrs. Struthers.”
A sudden blush rose to young Mrs. Archer’s face; it surprised her husband as much as the other guests about the table. “Oh, Ellen—” she murmured, much in the same accusing and yet deprecating tone in which her parents might have said: “Oh, the Blenkers—.”
It was the note which the family had taken to sounding on the mention of the Countess Olenska’s name, since she had surprised and inconvenienced them by remaining obdurate to her husband’s advances; but on May’s lips it gave food for thought, and Archer looked at her with the sense of strangeness that sometimes came over him when she was most in the tone of her environment.
His mother, with less than her usual sensitiveness to atmosphere, still insisted: “I’ve always thought that people like the Countess Olenska, who have lived in aristocratic societies, ought to help us to keep up our social distinctions, instead of ignoring them.”