Archer had been stunned by old Catherine's news. It was only natural tha_adame Olenska should have hastened from Washington in response to he_randmother's summons; but that she should have decided to remain under he_oof—especially now that Mrs. Mingott had almost regained her health—was les_asy to explain.
Archer was sure that Madame Olenska's decision had not been influenced by th_hange in her financial situation. He knew the exact figure of the smal_ncome which her husband had allowed her at their separation. Without th_ddition of her grandmother's allowance it was hardly enough to live on, i_ny sense known to the Mingott vocabulary; and now that Medora Manson, wh_hared her life, had been ruined, such a pittance would barely keep the tw_omen clothed and fed. Yet Archer was convinced that Madame Olenska had no_ccepted her grandmother's offer from interested motives.
She had the heedless generosity and the spasmodic extravagance of persons use_o large fortunes, and indifferent to money; but she could go without man_hings which her relations considered indispensable, and Mrs. Lovell Mingot_nd Mrs. Welland had often been heard to deplore that any one who had enjoye_he cosmopolitan luxuries of Count Olenski's establishments should care s_ittle about "how things were done." Moreover, as Archer knew, several month_ad passed since her allowance had been cut off; yet in the interval she ha_ade no effort to regain her grand- mother's favour. Therefore if she ha_hanged her course it must be for a different reason.
He did not have far to seek for that reason. On the way from the ferry she ha_old him that he and she must remain apart; but she had said it with her hea_n his breast. He knew that there was no calculated coquetry in her words; sh_as fighting her fate as he had fought his, and clinging desperately to he_esolve that they should not break faith with the people who trusted them. Bu_uring the ten days which had elapsed since her return to New York she ha_erhaps guessed from his silence, and from the fact of his making no attemp_o see her, that he was meditating a decisive step, a step from which ther_as no turning back. At the thought, a sudden fear of her own weakness migh_ave seized her, and she might have felt that, after all, it was better t_ccept the compromise usual in such cases, and follow the line of leas_esistance.
An hour earlier, when he had rung Mrs. Mingott's bell, Archer had fancied tha_is path was clear before him. He had meant to have a word alone with Madam_lenska, and failing that, to learn from her grandmother on what day, and b_hich train, she was returning to Washington. In that train he intended t_oin her, and travel with her to Washington, or as much farther as she wa_illing to go. His own fancy inclined to Japan. At any rate she woul_nderstand at once that, wherever she went, he was going. He meant to leave _ote for May that should cut off any other alternative.
He had fancied himself not only nerved for this plunge but eager to take it; yet his first feeling on hearing that the course of events was changed ha_een one of relief. Now, however, as he walked home from Mrs. Mingott's, h_as conscious of a growing distaste for what lay before him. There was nothin_nknown or unfamiliar in the path he was presumably to tread; but when he ha_rodden it before it was as a free man, who was accountable to no one for hi_ctions, and could lend himself with an amused detachment to the game o_recautions and prevarications, concealments and compliances, that the par_equired. This procedure was called "protecting a woman's honour"; and th_est fiction, combined with the after-dinner talk of his elders, had lon_ince initiated him into every detail of its code.
Now he saw the matter in a new light, and his part in it seemed singularl_iminished. It was, in fact, that which, with a secret fatuity, he had watche_rs. Thorley Rushworth play toward a fond and unperceiving husband: a smiling, bantering, humouring, watchful and incessant lie. A lie by day, a lie b_ight, a lie in every touch and every look; a lie in every caress and ever_uarrel; a lie in every word and in every silence.
It was easier, and less dastardly on the whole, for a wife to play such a par_oward her husband. A woman's standard of truthfulness was tacitly held to b_ower: she was the subject creature, and versed in the arts of the enslaved.
Then she could always plead moods and nerves, and the right not to be held to_trictly to account; and even in the most strait-laced societies the laugh wa_lways against the husband.
But in Archer's little world no one laughed at a wife deceived, and a certai_easure of contempt was attached to men who continued their philandering afte_arriage. In the rotation of crops there was a recognised season for wil_ats; but they were not to be sown more than once.
Archer had always shared this view: in his heart he thought Leffert_espicable. But to love Ellen Olenska was not to become a man like Lefferts: for the first time Archer found himself face to face with the dread argumen_f the individual case. Ellen Olenska was like no other woman, he was like n_ther man: their situation, therefore, resembled no one else's, and they wer_nswerable to no tribunal but that of their own judgment.
Yes, but in ten minutes more he would be mounting his own doorstep; and ther_ere May, and habit, and honour, and all the old decencies that he and hi_eople had always believed in …
At his corner he hesitated, and then walked on down Fifth Avenue.
Ahead of him, in the winter night, loomed a big unlit house. As he drew nea_e thought how often he had seen it blazing with lights, its steps awninge_nd carpeted, and carriages waiting in double line to draw up at th_urbstone. It was in the conservatory that stretched its dead-black bulk dow_he side street that he had taken his first kiss from May; it was under th_yriad candles of the ball-room that he had seen her appear, tall and silver- shining as a young Diana.
Now the house was as dark as the grave, except for a faint flare of gas in th_asement, and a light in one upstairs room where the blind had not bee_owered. As Archer reached the corner he saw that the carriage standing at th_oor was Mrs. Manson Mingott's. What an opportunity for Sillerton Jackson, i_e should chance to pass! Archer had been greatly moved by old Catherine'_ccount of Madame Olenska's attitude toward Mrs. Beaufort; it made th_ighteous reprobation of New York seem like a passing by on the other side.
But he knew well enough what construction the clubs and drawing-rooms woul_ut on Ellen Olenska's visits to her cousin.
He paused and looked up at the lighted window. No doubt the two women wer_itting together in that room: Beaufort had probably sought consolatio_lsewhere. There were even rumours that he had left New York with Fanny Ring; but Mrs. Beaufort's attitude made the report seem improbable.
Archer had the nocturnal perspective of Fifth Avenue almost to himself. A_hat hour most people were indoors, dressing for dinner; and he was secretl_lad that Ellen's exit was likely to be unobserved. As the thought passe_hrough his mind the door opened, and she came out. Behind her was a fain_ight, such as might have been carried down the stairs to show her the way.
She turned to say a word to some one; then the door closed, and she came dow_he steps.
"Ellen," he said in a low voice, as she reached the pavement.
She stopped with a slight start, and just then he saw two young men o_ashionable cut approaching. There was a familiar air about their overcoat_nd the way their smart silk mufflers were folded over their white ties; an_e wondered how youths of their quality happened to be dining out so early.
Then he remembered that the Reggie Chiverses, whose house was a few door_bove, were taking a large party that evening to see Adelaide Neilson in Rome_nd Juliet, and guessed that the two were of the number. They passed under _amp, and he recognised Lawrence Lefferts and a young Chivers.
A mean desire not to have Madame Olenska seen at the Beauforts' door vanishe_s he felt the penetrating warmth of her hand.
"I shall see you now—we shall be together," he broke out, hardly knowing wha_e said.
"Ah," she answered, "Granny has told you?"
While he watched her he was aware that Lefferts and Chivers, on reaching th_arther side of the street corner, had discreetly struck away across Fift_venue. It was the kind of masculine solidarity that he himself ofte_ractised; now he sickened at their connivance. Did she really imagine that h_nd she could live like this? And if not, what else did she imagine?
"Tomorrow I must see you—somewhere where we can be alone," he said, in a voic_hat sounded almost angry to his own ears.
She wavered, and moved toward the carriage.
"But I shall be at Granny's—for the present that is," she added, as i_onscious that her change of plans required some explanation.
"Somewhere where we can be alone," he insisted.
She gave a faint laugh that grated on him.
"In New York? But there are no churches … no monuments."
"There's the Art Museum—in the Park," he explained, as she looked puzzled. "A_alf-past two. I shall be at the door … "
She turned away without answering and got quickly into the carriage. As i_rove off she leaned forward, and he thought she waved her hand in th_bscurity. He stared after her in a turmoil of contradictory feelings. I_eemed to him that he had been speaking not to the woman he loved but t_nother, a woman he was indebted to for pleasures already wearied of: it wa_ateful to find himself the prisoner of this hackneyed vocabulary.
"She'll come!" he said to himself, almost contemptuously.
Avoiding the popular "Wolfe collection," whose anecdotic canvases filled on_f the main galleries of the queer wilderness of cast-iron and encaustic tile_nown as the Metropolitan Museum, they had wandered down a passage to the roo_here the "Cesnola antiquities" mouldered in unvisited loneliness.
They had this melancholy retreat to themselves, and seated on the diva_nclosing the central steam-radiator, they were staring silently at the glas_abinets mounted in ebonised wood which contained the recovered fragments o_lium.
"It's odd," Madame Olenska said, "I never came here before."
"Ah, well—. Some day, I suppose, it will be a great Museum."
"Yes," she assented absently.
She stood up and wandered across the room. Archer, remaining seated, watche_he light movements of her figure, so girlish even under its heavy furs, th_leverly planted heron wing in her fur cap, and the way a dark curl lay like _lattened vine spiral on each cheek above the ear. His mind, as always whe_hey first met, was wholly absorbed in the delicious details that made he_erself and no other. Presently he rose and approached the case before whic_he stood. Its glass shelves were crowded with small broken objects—hardl_ecognisable domestic utensils, ornaments and personal trifles—made of glass, of clay, of discoloured bronze and other time- blurred substances.
"It seems cruel," she said, "that after a while nothing matters … any mor_han these little things, that used to be necessary and important to forgotte_eople, and now have to be guessed at under a magnifying glass and labelled: `Use unknown.'"
"Yes; but meanwhile—"
As she stood there, in her long sealskin coat, her hands thrust in a smal_ound muff, her veil drawn down like a transparent mask to the tip of he_ose, and the bunch of violets he had brought her stirring with her quickly- taken breath, it seemed incredible that this pure harmony of line and colou_hould ever suffer the stupid law of change.
"Meanwhile everything matters—that concerns you," he said.
She looked at him thoughtfully, and turned back to the divan. He sat dow_eside her and waited; but suddenly he heard a step echoing far off down th_mpty rooms, and felt the pressure of the minutes.
"What is it you wanted to tell me?" she asked, as if she had received the sam_arning.
"What I wanted to tell you?" he rejoined. "Why, that I believe you came to Ne_ork because you were afraid."
"Of my coming to Washington."
She looked down at her muff, and he saw her hands stir in it uneasily.
"Well—yes," she said.
"You WERE afraid? You knew—?"
"Yes: I knew … "
"Well, then?" he insisted.
"Well, then: this is better, isn't it?" she returned with a long questionin_igh.
"We shall hurt others less. Isn't it, after all, what you always wanted?"
"To have you here, you mean—in reach and yet out of reach? To meet you in thi_ay, on the sly? It's the very reverse of what I want. I told you the othe_ay what I wanted."
She hesitated. "And you still think this—worse?"
"A thousand times!" He paused. "It would be easy to lie to you; but the trut_s I think it detestable."
"Oh, so do I!" she cried with a deep breath of relief.
He sprang up impatiently. "Well, then—it's my turn to ask: what is it, i_od's name, that you think better?"
She hung her head and continued to clasp and unclasp her hands in her muff.
The step drew nearer, and a guardian in a braided cap walked listlessl_hrough the room like a ghost stalking through a necropolis. They fixed thei_yes simultaneously on the case opposite them, and when the official figur_ad vanished down a vista of mummies and sarcophagi Archer spoke again.
"What do you think better?"
Instead of answering she murmured: "I promised Granny to stay with her becaus_t seemed to me that here I should be safer."
She bent her head slightly, without looking at him.
"Safer from loving me?"
Her profile did not stir, but he saw a tear overflow on her lashes and hang i_ mesh of her veil.
"Safer from doing irreparable harm. Don't let us be like all the others!" sh_rotested.
"What others? I don't profess to be different from my kind. I'm consumed b_he same wants and the same longings."
She glanced at him with a kind of terror, and he saw a faint colour steal int_er cheeks.
"Shall I—once come to you; and then go home?" she suddenly hazarded in a lo_lear voice.
The blood rushed to the young man's forehead. "Dearest!" he said, withou_oving. It seemed as if he held his heart in his hands, like a full cup tha_he least motion might overbrim.
Then her last phrase struck his ear and his face clouded. "Go home? What d_ou mean by going home?"
"Home to my husband."
"And you expect me to say yes to that?"
She raised her troubled eyes to his. "What else is there? I can't stay her_nd lie to the people who've been good to me."
"But that's the very reason why I ask you to come away!"
"And destroy their lives, when they've helped me to remake mine?"
Archer sprang to his feet and stood looking down on her in inarticulat_espair. It would have been easy to say: "Yes, come; come once." He knew th_ower she would put in his hands if she consented; there would be n_ifficulty then in persuading her not to go back to her husband.
But something silenced the word on his lips. A sort of passionate honesty i_er made it inconceivable that he should try to draw her into that familia_rap. "If I were to let her come," he said to himself, "I should have to le_er go again." And that was not to be imagined.
But he saw the shadow of the lashes on her wet cheek, and wavered.
"After all," he began again, "we have lives of our own… . There's no us_ttempting the impossible. You're so unprejudiced about some things, so used, as you say, to looking at the Gorgon, that I don't know why you're afraid t_ace our case, and see it as it really is—unless you think the sacrifice i_ot worth making."
She stood up also, her lips tightening under a rapid frown.
"Call it that, then—I must go," she said, drawing her little watch from he_osom.
She turned away, and he followed and caught her by the wrist. "Well, then: come to me once," he said, his head turning suddenly at the thought of losin_er; and for a second or two they looked at each other almost like enemies.
"When?" he insisted. "Tomorrow?"
She hesitated. "The day after."
"Dearest—!" he said again.
She had disengaged her wrist; but for a moment they continued to hold eac_ther's eyes, and he saw that her face, which had grown very pale, was floode_ith a deep inner radiance. His heart beat with awe: he felt that he had neve_efore beheld love visible.
"Oh, I shall be late—good-bye. No, don't come any farther than this," sh_ried, walking hurriedly away down the long room, as if the reflected radianc_n his eyes had frightened her. When she reached the door she turned for _oment to wave a quick farewell.
Archer walked home alone. Darkness was falling when he let himself into hi_ouse, and he looked about at the familiar objects in the hall as if he viewe_hem from the other side of the grave.
The parlour-maid, hearing his step, ran up the stairs to light the gas on th_pper landing.
"Is Mrs. Archer in?"
"No, sir; Mrs. Archer went out in the carriage after luncheon, and hasn't com_ack."
With a sense of relief he entered the library and flung himself down in hi_rmchair. The parlour-maid followed, bringing the student lamp and shakin_ome coals onto the dying fire. When she left he continued to sit motionless, his elbows on his knees, his chin on his clasped hands, his eyes fixed on th_ed grate.
He sat there without conscious thoughts, without sense of the lapse of time, in a deep and grave amazement that seemed to suspend life rather than quicke_t. "This was what had to be, then … this was what had to be," he kep_epeating to himself, as if he hung in the clutch of doom. What he had dreame_f had been so different that there was a mortal chill in his rapture.
The door opened and May came in.
"I'm dreadfully late—you weren't worried, were you?" she asked, laying he_and on his shoulder with one of her rare caresses.
He looked up astonished. "Is it late?"
"After seven. I believe you've been asleep!" She laughed, and drawing out he_at pins tossed her velvet hat on the sofa. She looked paler than usual, bu_parkling with an unwonted animation.
"I went to see Granny, and just as I was going away Ellen came in from a walk; so I stayed and had a long talk with her. It was ages since we'd had a rea_alk… ." She had dropped into her usual armchair, facing his, and was runnin_er fingers through her rumpled hair. He fancied she expected him to speak.
"A really good talk," she went on, smiling with what seemed to Archer a_nnatural vividness. "She was so dear—just like the old Ellen. I'm afraid _aven't been fair to her lately. I've sometimes thought—"
Archer stood up and leaned against the mantelpiece, out of the radius of th_amp.
"Yes, you've thought—?" he echoed as she paused.
"Well, perhaps I haven't judged her fairly. She's so different—at least on th_urface. She takes up such odd people—she seems to like to make hersel_onspicuous. I suppose it's the life she's led in that fast European society; no doubt we seem dreadfully dull to her. But I don't want to judge he_nfairly."
She paused again, a little breathless with the unwonted length of her speech, and sat with her lips slightly parted and a deep blush on her cheeks.
Archer, as he looked at her, was reminded of the glow which had suffused he_ace in the Mission Garden at St. Augustine. He became aware of the sam_bscure effort in her, the same reaching out toward something beyond the usua_ange of her vision.
"She hates Ellen," he thought, "and she's trying to overcome the feeling, an_o get me to help her to overcome it."
The thought moved him, and for a moment he was on the point of breaking th_ilence between them, and throwing himself on her mercy.
"You understand, don't you," she went on, "why the family have sometimes bee_nnoyed? We all did what we could for her at first; but she never seemed t_nderstand. And now this idea of going to see Mrs. Beaufort, of going there i_ranny's carriage! I'm afraid she's quite alienated the van der Luydens … "
"Ah," said Archer with an impatient laugh. The open door had closed betwee_hem again.
"It's time to dress; we're dining out, aren't we?" he asked, moving from th_ire.
She rose also, but lingered near the hearth. As he walked past her she move_orward impulsively, as though to detain him: their eyes met, and he saw tha_ers were of the same swimming blue as when he had left her to drive to Jerse_ity.
She flung her arms about his neck and pressed her cheek to his.
"You haven't kissed me today," she said in a whisper; and he felt her trembl_n his arms.