Archer had left St. Augustine charged with many messages for old Mrs. Mingott; and a day or two after his return to town he called on her.
The old lady received him with unusual warmth; she was grateful to him for persuading the Countess Olenska to give up the idea of a divorce; and when he told her that he had deserted the office without leave, and rushed down to St. Augustine simply because he wanted to see May, she gave an adipose chuckle and patted his knee with her puff-ball hand.
“Ah, ah—so you kicked over the traces, did you? And I suppose Augusta and Welland pulled long faces, and behaved as if the end of the world had come? But little May—she knew better, I’ll be bound?”
“I hoped she did; but after all she wouldn’t agree to what I’d gone down to ask for.”
“Wouldn’t she indeed? And what was that?”
“I wanted to get her to promise that we should be married in April. What’s the use of our wasting another year?”
Mrs. Manson Mingott screwed up her little mouth into a grimace of mimic prudery and twinkled at him through malicious lids. “`Ask Mamma,’ I suppose— the usual story. Ah, these Mingotts—all alike! Born in a rut, and you can’t root ’em out of it. When I built this house you’d have thought I was moving to California! Nobody ever had built above Fortieth Street—no, says I, nor above the Battery either, before Christopher Columbus discovered America. No, no; not one of them wants to be different; they’re as scared of it as the small-pox. Ah, my dear Mr. Archer, I thank my stars I’m nothing but a vulgar Spicer; but there’s not one of my own children that takes after me but my little Ellen.” She broke off, still twinkling at him, and asked, with the casual irrelevance of old age: “Now, why in the world didn’t you marry my little Ellen?”
Archer laughed. “For one thing, she wasn’t there to be married.”
“No—to be sure; more’s the pity. And now it’s too late; her life is finished.” She spoke with the cold-blooded complacency of the aged throwing earth into the grave of young hopes. The young man’s heart grew chill, and he said hurriedly: “Can’t I persuade you to use your influence with the Wellands, Mrs. Mingott? I wasn’t made for long engagements.”
Old Catherine beamed on him approvingly. “No; I can see that. You’ve got a quick eye. When you were a little boy I’ve no doubt you liked to be helped first.” She threw back her head with a laugh that made her chins ripple like little waves. “Ah, here’s my Ellen now!” she exclaimed, as the portieres parted behind her.
Madame Olenska came forward with a smile. Her face looked vivid and happy, and she held out her hand gaily to Archer while she stooped to her grandmother’s kiss.
“I was just saying to him, my dear: `Now, why didn’t you marry my little Ellen?’”
Madame Olenska looked at Archer, still smiling. “And what did he answer?”