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    Chapter 31

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    Chapter 31
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    XXXI.

    Archer had been stunned by old Catherine's news.
    It was only natural that Madame Olenska should
    have hastened from Washington in response to her
    grandmother's summons; but that she should have decided
    to remain under her roof--especially now that
    Mrs. Mingott had almost regained her health--was less
    easy to explain.

    Archer was sure that Madame Olenska's decision
    had not been influenced by the change in her financial
    situation. He knew the exact figure of the small income
    which her husband had allowed her at their separation.
    Without the addition of her grandmother's allowance it
    was hardly enough to live on, in any sense known to
    the Mingott vocabulary; and now that Medora Manson,
    who shared her life, had been ruined, such a
    pittance would barely keep the two women clothed and
    fed. Yet Archer was convinced that Madame Olenska
    had not accepted her grandmother's offer from interested
    motives.

    She had the heedless generosity and the spasmodic
    extravagance of persons used to large fortunes, and
    indifferent to money; but she could go without many
    things which her relations considered indispensable,
    and Mrs. Lovell Mingott and Mrs. Welland had often
    been heard to deplore that any one who had enjoyed
    the cosmopolitan luxuries of Count Olenski's establishments
    should care so little about "how things were
    done." Moreover, as Archer knew, several months had
    passed since her allowance had been cut off; yet in the
    interval she had made no effort to regain her grand-
    mother's favour. Therefore if she had changed 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 had told him that he and she
    must remain apart; but she had said it with her head
    on his breast. He knew that there was no calculated
    coquetry in her words; she was fighting her fate as he
    had fought his, and clinging desperately to her resolve
    that they should not break faith with the people who
    trusted them. But during the ten days which had elapsed
    since her return to New York she had perhaps guessed
    from his silence, and from the fact of his making no
    attempt to see her, that he was meditating a decisive
    step, a step from which there was no turning back. At
    the thought, a sudden fear of her own weakness might
    have seized her, and she might have felt that, after all,
    it was better to accept the compromise usual in such
    cases, and follow the line of least resistance.

    An hour earlier, when he had rung Mrs. Mingott's
    bell, Archer had fancied that his path was clear before
    him. He had meant to have a word alone with Madame
    Olenska, and failing that, to learn from her
    grandmother on what day, and by which train, she was
    returning to Washington. In that train he intended to
    join her, and travel with her to Washington, or as
    much farther as she was willing to go. His own fancy
    inclined to Japan. At any rate she would understand at
    once that, wherever she went, he was going. He meant
    to leave a note 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 had been
    one of relief. Now, however, as he walked home from
    Mrs. Mingott's, he was conscious of a growing distaste
    for what lay before him. There was nothing unknown
    or unfamiliar in the path he was presumably to tread;
    but when he had trodden it before it was as a free man,
    who was accountable to no one for his actions, and
    could lend himself with an amused detachment to the
    game of precautions and prevarications, concealments
    and compliances, that the part required. This procedure
    was called "protecting a woman's honour"; and
    the best fiction, combined with the after-dinner talk of
    his elders, had long since initiated him into every detail
    of its code.

    Now he saw the matter in a new light, and his part
    in it seemed singularly diminished. It was, in fact, that
    which, with a secret fatuity, he had watched Mrs.
    Thorley Rushworth play toward a fond and unperceiving
    husband: a smiling, bantering, humouring, watchful
    and incessant lie. A lie by day, a lie by night, a lie in
    every touch and every look; a lie in every caress and
    every quarrel; 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 part toward her husband. A woman's
    standard of truthfulness was tacitly held to be
    lower: 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 too strictly to
    account; and even in the most strait-laced societies the
    laugh was always against the husband.

    But in Archer's little world no one laughed at a wife
    deceived, and a certain measure of contempt was
    attached to men who continued their philandering after
    marriage. In the rotation of crops there was a recognised
    season for wild oats; but they were not to be sown
    more than once.

    Archer had always shared this view: in his heart he
    thought Lefferts despicable. 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
    argument of the individual case. Ellen Olenska was like
    no other woman, he was like no other man: their
    situation, therefore, resembled no one else's, and they
    were answerable to no tribunal but that of their own
    judgment.

    Yes, but in ten minutes more he would be mounting
    his own doorstep; and there were May, and habit, and
    honour, and all the old decencies that he and his people
    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 near he thought how often he had
    seen it blazing with lights, its steps awninged and carpeted,
    and carriages waiting in double line to draw up
    at the curbstone. It was in the conservatory that stretched
    its dead-black bulk down the side street that he had
    taken his first kiss from May; it was under the myriad
    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 the basement, and a light in one
    upstairs room where the blind had not been lowered.
    As Archer reached the corner he saw that the carriage
    standing at the door was Mrs. Manson Mingott's. What
    an opportunity for Sillerton Jackson, if he should chance
    to pass! Archer had been greatly moved by old Catherine's
    account of Madame Olenska's attitude toward
    Mrs. Beaufort; it made the righteous 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 would put on Ellen Olenska's visits to
    her cousin.

    He paused and looked up at the lighted window. No
    doubt the two women were sitting together in that
    room: Beaufort had probably sought consolation elsewhere.
    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. At that hour most people were
    indoors, dressing for dinner; and he was secretly glad
    that Ellen's exit was likely to be unobserved. As the
    thought passed through his mind the door opened, and
    she came out. Behind her was a faint light, 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 down the 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 of fashionable cut approaching. There
    was a familiar air about their overcoats and the way
    their smart silk mufflers were folded over their white
    ties; and he 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 doors above, were taking a large party that evening
    to see Adelaide Neilson in Romeo and Juliet, and guessed
    that the two were of the number. They passed under a
    lamp, and he recognised Lawrence Lefferts and a young
    Chivers.

    A mean desire not to have Madame Olenska seen at
    the Beauforts' door vanished as he felt the penetrating
    warmth of her hand.

    "I shall see you now--we shall be together," he
    broke out, hardly knowing what he said.

    "Ah," she answered, "Granny has told you?"

    While he watched her he was aware that Lefferts and
    Chivers, on reaching the farther side of the street corner,
    had discreetly struck away across Fifth Avenue. It
    was the kind of masculine solidarity that he himself
    often practised; now he sickened at their connivance.
    Did she really imagine that he and 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 voice that 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 if conscious 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. "At half-past two. I shall be at
    the door . . ."

    She turned away without answering and got quickly
    into the carriage. As it drove off she leaned forward,
    and he thought she waved her hand in the obscurity.
    He stared after her in a turmoil of contradictory feelings.
    It seemed to him that he had been speaking not to
    the woman he loved but to another, a woman he was
    indebted to for pleasures already wearied of: it was
    hateful 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 one of the main galleries of the queer
    wilderness of cast-iron and encaustic tiles known as the
    Metropolitan Museum, they had wandered down a
    passage to the room where the "Cesnola antiquities"
    mouldered in unvisited loneliness.

    They had this melancholy retreat to themselves, and
    seated on the divan enclosing the central steam-radiator,
    they were staring silently at the glass cabinets mounted
    in ebonised wood which contained the recovered fragments
    of Ilium.

    "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, watched the light movements of her
    figure, so girlish even under its heavy furs, the cleverly
    planted heron wing in her fur cap, and the way a dark
    curl lay like a flattened vine spiral on each cheek above
    the ear. His mind, as always when they first met, was
    wholly absorbed in the delicious details that made her
    herself and no other. Presently he rose and approached
    the case before which she stood. Its glass shelves were
    crowded with small broken objects--hardly recognisable
    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 more than these little things, that used
    to be necessary and important to forgotten people, 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 small round muff, her veil drawn
    down like a transparent mask to the tip of her nose,
    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 colour should 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 down beside her and waited; but
    suddenly he heard a step echoing far off down the
    empty rooms, and felt the pressure of the minutes.

    "What is it you wanted to tell me?" she asked, as if
    she had received the same warning.

    "What I wanted to tell you?" he rejoined. "Why,
    that I believe you came to New York 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 questioning sigh.

    "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 this way, on the sly? It's the
    very reverse of what I want. I told you the other day
    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 truth is 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, in God'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 listlessly through
    the room like a ghost stalking through a necropolis.
    They fixed their eyes simultaneously on the case opposite
    them, and when the official figure had 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 because it 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 in a mesh of her veil.

    "Safer from doing irreparable harm. Don't let us be
    like all the others!" she protested.

    "What others? I don't profess to be different from
    my kind. I'm consumed by the same wants and the
    same longings."

    She glanced at him with a kind of terror, and he saw
    a faint colour steal into her cheeks.

    "Shall I--once come to you; and then go home?" she
    suddenly hazarded in a low clear voice.

    The blood rushed to the young man's forehead.
    "Dearest!" he said, without moving. It seemed as if he
    held his heart in his hands, like a full cup that the least
    motion might overbrim.

    Then her last phrase struck his ear and his face
    clouded. "Go home? What do you 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 here and 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 inarticulate despair. It would have been easy to
    say: "Yes, come; come once." He knew the power she
    would put in his hands if she consented; there would
    be no difficulty then in persuading her not to go back
    to her husband.

    But something silenced the word on his lips. A sort
    of passionate honesty in her made it inconceivable that
    he should try to draw her into that familiar trap. "If I
    were to let her come," he said to himself, "I should
    have to let her 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 use attempting 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 to face our case, and see it as it
    really is--unless you think the sacrifice is not 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 her bosom.

    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 losing her; 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 each other's eyes, and he saw that
    her face, which had grown very pale, was flooded with
    a deep inner radiance. His heart beat with awe: he felt
    that he had never before beheld love visible.

    "Oh, I shall be late--good-bye. No, don't come any
    farther than this," she cried, walking hurriedly away
    down the long room, as if the reflected radiance in his
    eyes had frightened her. When she reached the door she
    turned for a moment to wave a quick farewell.

    Archer walked home alone. Darkness was falling when
    he let himself into his house, and he looked about at
    the familiar objects in the hall as if he viewed them
    from the other side of the grave.

    The parlour-maid, hearing his step, ran up the stairs
    to light the gas on the upper landing.

    "Is Mrs. Archer in?"

    "No, sir; Mrs. Archer went out in the carriage after
    luncheon, and hasn't come back."

    With a sense of relief he entered the library and flung
    himself down in his armchair. The parlour-maid followed,
    bringing the student lamp and shaking some
    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 the red 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 quicken it.
    "This was what had to be, then . . . this was what had
    to be," he kept repeating to himself, as if he hung in
    the clutch of doom. What he had dreamed of 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 her hand 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 her hat pins tossed her velvet
    hat on the sofa. She looked paler than usual, but sparkling
    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 real talk. . . ."
    She had dropped into her usual armchair, facing his,
    and was running her 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 an unnatural vividness. "She was so
    dear--just like the old Ellen. I'm afraid I haven't been
    fair to her lately. I've sometimes thought--"

    Archer stood up and leaned against the mantelpiece,
    out of the radius of the lamp.

    "Yes, you've thought--?" he echoed as she paused.

    "Well, perhaps I haven't judged her fairly. She's so
    different--at least on the surface. She takes up such
    odd people--she seems to like to make herself conspicuous.
    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 her unfairly."

    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 her face in the Mission Garden
    at St. Augustine. He became aware of the same
    obscure effort in her, the same reaching out toward
    something beyond the usual range of her vision.

    "She hates Ellen," he thought, "and she's trying to
    overcome the feeling, and to get me to help her to
    overcome it."

    The thought moved him, and for a moment he was
    on the point of breaking the silence between them, and
    throwing himself on her mercy.

    "You understand, don't you," she went on, "why
    the family have sometimes been annoyed? We all did
    what we could for her at first; but she never seemed to
    understand. And now this idea of going to see Mrs.
    Beaufort, of going there in Granny'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 between them again.

    "It's time to dress; we're dining out, aren't we?" he
    asked, moving from the fire.

    She rose also, but lingered near the hearth. As he
    walked past her she moved forward impulsively, as
    though to detain him: their eyes met, and he saw that
    hers were of the same swimming blue as when he had
    left her to drive to Jersey City.

    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 tremble in his arms.
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