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Chapter 13

  • 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—"
  • "Ah, 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."
  • "Afraid?"
  • "Of my coming to Washington."
  • She looked down at her muff, and he saw her hands stir in it uneasily.
  • "Well—?"
  • "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.
  • "Better—?"
  • "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."
  • "From me?"
  • 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.