She was dressed as if for a ball. Everything about hershimmered and glimmered softly, as if her dress hadbeen woven out of candle-beams; and she carried herhead high, like a pretty woman challenging a roomfulof rivals.
"We were saying, my dear, that here was somethingbeautiful to surprise you with," Mrs. Manson rejoined,rising to her feet and pointing archly to the flowers.
Madame Olenska stopped short and looked at thebouquet. Her colour did not change, but a sort ofwhite radiance of anger ran over her like summer lightning."Ah," she exclaimed, in a shrill voice that theyoung man had never heard, "who is ridiculous enoughto send me a bouquet? Why a bouquet? And whytonight of all nights? I am not going to a ball; I am nota girl engaged to be married. But some people arealways ridiculous."
She turned back to the door, opened it, and calledout: "Nastasia!"
The ubiquitous handmaiden promptly appeared, andArcher heard Madame Olenska say, in an Italian thatshe seemed to pronounce with intentional deliberatenessin order that he might follow it: "Here--throwthis into the dustbin!" and then, as Nastasia staredprotestingly: "But no--it's not the fault of the poorflowers. Tell the boy to carry them to the house threedoors away, the house of Mr. Winsett, the dark gentlemanwho dined here. His wife is ill--they may give herpleasure . . . The boy is out, you say? Then, my dearone, run yourself; here, put my cloak over you and fly.I want the thing out of the house immediately! And, asyou live, don't say they come from me!"
She flung her velvet opera cloak over the maid'sshoulders and turned back into the drawing-room, shuttingthe door sharply. Her bosom was rising high underits lace, and for a moment Archer thought she wasabout to cry; but she burst into a laugh instead, andlooking from the Marchioness to Archer, asked abruptly:"And you two--have you made friends!"
"It's for Mr. Archer to say, darling; he has waitedpatiently while you were dressing."
"Yes--I gave you time enough: my hair wouldn'tgo," Madame Olenska said, raising her hand to theheaped-up curls of her chignon. "But that reminds me:I see Dr. Carver is gone, and you'll be late at theBlenkers'. Mr. Archer, will you put my aunt in thecarriage?"
She followed the Marchioness into the hall, saw herfitted into a miscellaneous heap of overshoes, shawlsand tippets, and called from the doorstep: "Mind, thecarriage is to be back for me at ten!" Then she returnedto the drawing-room, where Archer, on re-entering it,found her standing by the mantelpiece, examining herselfin the mirror. It was not usual, in New Yorksociety, for a lady to address her parlour-maid as "mydear one," and send her out on an errand wrapped inher own opera-cloak; and Archer, through all his deeperfeelings, tasted the pleasurable excitement of being in aworld where action followed on emotion with suchOlympian speed.
Madame Olenska did not move when he came upbehind her, and for a second their eyes met in themirror; then she turned, threw herself into her sofa-corner, and sighed out: "There's time for a cigarette."
He handed her the box and lit a spill for her; and asthe flame flashed up into her face she glanced at himwith laughing eyes and said: "What do you think of mein a temper?"
Archer paused a moment; then he answered withsudden resolution: "It makes me understand what youraunt has been saying about you."
"I knew she'd been talking about me. Well?"
"She said you were used to all kinds of things--splendours and amusements and excitements--that wecould never hope to give you here."
Madame Olenska smiled faintly into the circle ofsmoke about her lips.
"Medora is incorrigibly romantic. It has made up toher for so many things!"
Archer hesitated again, and again took his risk. "Is youraunt's romanticism always consistent with accuracy?"
"You mean: does she speak the truth?" Her niececonsidered. "Well, I'll tell you: in almost everything shesays, there's something true and something untrue. Butwhy do you ask? What has she been telling you?"
He looked away into the fire, and then back at hershining presence. His heart tightened with the thoughtthat this was their last evening by that fireside, and thatin a moment the carriage would come to carry her away.
"She says--she pretends that Count Olenski has askedher to persuade you to go back to him."
Madame Olenska made no answer. She sat motionless,holding her cigarette in her half-lifted hand. Theexpression of her face had not changed; and Archerremembered that he had before noticed her apparentincapacity for surprise.
"You knew, then?" he broke out.
She was silent for so long that the ash dropped fromher cigarette. She brushed it to the floor. "She hashinted about a letter: poor darling! Medora's hints--"
"Is it at your husband's request that she has arrivedhere suddenly?"
Madame Olenska seemed to consider this questionalso. "There again: one can't tell. She told me she hadhad a `spiritual summons,' whatever that is, from Dr.Carver. I'm afraid she's going to marry Dr. Carver . . .poor Medora, there's always some one she wants tomarry. But perhaps the people in Cuba just got tired ofher! I think she was with them as a sort of paidcompanion. Really, I don't know why she came."
"But you do believe she has a letter from yourhusband?"
Again Madame Olenska brooded silently; then shesaid: "After all, it was to be expected."
The young man rose and went to lean against thefireplace. A sudden restlessness possessed him, and hewas tongue-tied by the sense that their minutes werenumbered, and that at any moment he might hear thewheels of the returning carriage.
"You know that your aunt believes you will go back?"
Madame Olenska raised her head quickly. A deepblush rose to her face and spread over her neck andshoulders. She blushed seldom and painfully, as if ithurt her like a burn.
"Many cruel things have been believed of me," shesaid.
"Oh, Ellen--forgive me; I'm a fool and a brute!"
She smiled a little. "You are horribly nervous; youhave your own troubles. I know you think the Wellandsare unreasonable about your marriage, and ofcourse I agree with you. In Europe people don't understandour long American engagements; I suppose theyare not as calm as we are." She pronounced the "we"with a faint emphasis that gave it an ironic sound.
Archer felt the irony but did not dare to take it up.After all, she had perhaps purposely deflected theconversation from her own affairs, and after the pain hislast words had evidently caused her he felt that all hecould do was to follow her lead. But the sense of thewaning hour made him desperate: he could not bearthe thought that a barrier of words should dropbetween them again.
"Yes," he said abruptly; "I went south to ask Mayto marry me after Easter. There's no reason why weshouldn't be married then."
"And May adores you--and yet you couldn't convinceher? I thought her too intelligent to be the slaveof such absurd superstitions."
"She IS too intelligent--she's not their slave."
Madame Olenska looked at him. "Well, then--I don'tunderstand."
Archer reddened, and hurried on with a rush. "Wehad a frank talk--almost the first. She thinks myimpatience a bad sign."
"Merciful heavens--a bad sign?"
"She thinks it means that I can't trust myself to goon caring for her. She thinks, in short, I want to marryher at once to get away from some one that I--care formore."
Madame Olenska examined this curiously. "But ifshe thinks that--why isn't she in a hurry too?"
"Because she's not like that: she's so much nobler.She insists all the more on the long engagement, to giveme time--"
"Time to give her up for the other woman?"
"If I want to."
Madame Olenska leaned toward the fire and gazedinto it with fixed eyes. Down the quiet street Archerheard the approaching trot of her horses.
"That IS noble," she said, with a slight break in hervoice.
"Yes. But it's ridiculous."
"Ridiculous? Because you don't care for any oneelse?"
"Because I don't mean to marry any one else."
"Ah." There was another long interval. At length shelooked up at him and asked: "This other woman--does she love you?"
"Oh, there's no other woman; I mean, the personthat May was thinking of is--was never--"
"Then, why, after all, are you in such haste?"
"There's your carriage," said Archer.
She half-rose and looked about her with absent eyes.Her fan and gloves lay on the sofa beside her and shepicked them up mechanically.
"Yes; I suppose I must be going."
"You're going to Mrs. Struthers's?"
"Yes." She smiled and added: "I must go where I aminvited, or I should be too lonely. Why not come withme?"
Archer felt that at any cost he must keep her besidehim, must make her give him the rest of her evening.Ignoring her question, he continued to lean against thechimney-piece, his eyes fixed on the hand in which sheheld her gloves and fan, as if watching to see if he hadthe power to make her drop them.
"May guessed the truth," he said. "There is anotherwoman--but not the one she thinks."
Ellen Olenska made no answer, and did not move.After a moment he sat down beside her, and, takingher hand, softly unclasped it, so that the gloves and fanfell on the sofa between them.
She started up, and freeing herself from him movedaway to the other side of the hearth. "Ah, don't makelove to me! Too many people have done that," shesaid, frowning.
Archer, changing colour, stood up also: it was thebitterest rebuke she could have given him. "I havenever made love to you," he said, "and I never shall.But you are the woman I would have married if it hadbeen possible for either of us."
"Possible for either of us?" She looked at him withunfeigned astonishment. "And you say that--when it'syou who've made it impossible?"
He stared at her, groping in a blackness throughwhich a single arrow of light tore its blinding way.
"I'VE made it impossible--?"
"You, you, YOU!" she cried, her lip trembling like achild's on the verge of tears. "Isn't it you who made megive up divorcing--give it up because you showed mehow selfish and wicked it was, how one must sacrificeone's self to preserve the dignity of marriage . . . and tospare one's family the publicity, the scandal? Andbecause my family was going to be your family--forMay's sake and for yours--I did what you told me,what you proved to me that I ought to do. Ah," shebroke out with a sudden laugh, "I've made no secret ofhaving done it for you!"
She sank down on the sofa again, crouching amongthe festive ripples of her dress like a stricken masquerader;and the young man stood by the fireplace andcontinued to gaze at her without moving.
"Good God," he groaned. "When I thought--"
"Ah, don't ask me what I thought!"
Still looking at her, he saw the same burning flushcreep up her neck to her face. She sat upright, facinghim with a rigid dignity.
"I do ask you."
"Well, then: there were things in that letter youasked me to read--"
"My husband's letter?"
"I had nothing to fear from that letter: absolutelynothing! All I feared was to bring notoriety, scandal,on the family--on you and May."
"Good God," he groaned again, bowing his face inhis hands.
The silence that followed lay on them with the weightof things final and irrevocable. It seemed to Archer tobe crushing him down like his own grave-stone; in allthe wide future he saw nothing that would ever lift thatload from his heart. He did not move from his place, orraise his head from his hands; his hidden eyeballs wenton staring into utter darkness.
"At least I loved you--" he brought out.
On the other side of the hearth, from the sofa-cornerwhere he supposed that she still crouched, he heard afaint stifled crying like a child's. He started up andcame to her side.
"Ellen! What madness! Why are you crying? Nothing'sdone that can't be undone. I'm still free, andyou're going to be." He had her in his arms, her facelike a wet flower at his lips, and all their vain terrorsshrivelling up like ghosts at sunrise. The one thing thatastonished him now was that he should have stood forfive minutes arguing with her across the width of theroom, when just touching her made everything so simple.
She gave him back all his kiss, but after a moment hefelt her stiffening in his arms, and she put him asideand stood up.
"Ah, my poor Newland--I suppose this had to be.But it doesn't in the least alter things," she said, lookingdown at him in her turn from the hearth.
"It alters the whole of life for me."
"No, no--it mustn't, it can't. You're engaged toMay Welland; and I'm married."
He stood up too, flushed and resolute. "Nonsense!It's too late for that sort of thing. We've no right to lieto other people or to ourselves. We won't talk of yourmarriage; but do you see me marrying May after this?"
She stood silent, resting her thin elbows on the mantelpiece,her profile reflected in the glass behind her. Oneof the locks of her chignon had become loosened andhung on her neck; she looked haggard and almost old.
"I don't see you," she said at length, "putting thatquestion to May. Do you?"
He gave a reckless shrug. "It's too late to doanything else."
"You say that because it's the easiest thing to say atthis moment--not because it's true. In reality it's toolate to do anything but what we'd both decided on."
"Ah, I don't understand you!"
She forced a pitiful smile that pinched her faceinstead of smoothing it. "You don't understand becauseyou haven't yet guessed how you've changed things forme: oh, from the first--long before I knew all you'ddone."
"All I'd done?"
"Yes. I was perfectly unconscious at first that peoplehere were shy of me--that they thought I was a dreadfulsort of person. It seems they had even refused tomeet me at dinner. I found that out afterward; andhow you'd made your mother go with you to the vander Luydens'; and how you'd insisted on announcingyour engagement at the Beaufort ball, so that I mighthave two families to stand by me instead of one--"
At that he broke into a laugh.
"Just imagine," she said, "how stupid and unobservantI was! I knew nothing of all this till Grannyblurted it out one day. New York simply meant peaceand freedom to me: it was coming home. And I was sohappy at being among my own people that every one Imet seemed kind and good, and glad to see me. Butfrom the very beginning," she continued, "I felt therewas no one as kind as you; no one who gave mereasons that I understood for doing what at first seemedso hard and--unnecessary. The very good people didn'tconvince me; I felt they'd never been tempted. But youknew; you understood; you had felt the world outsidetugging at one with all its golden hands--and yet youhated the things it asks of one; you hated happinessbought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference. Thatwas what I'd never known before--and it's better thananything I've known."
She spoke in a low even voice, without tears orvisible agitation; and each word, as it dropped fromher, fell into his breast like burning lead. He sat bowedover, his head between his hands, staring at the hearthrug,and at the tip of the satin shoe that showed underher dress. Suddenly he knelt down and kissed the shoe.
She bent over him, laying her hands on his shoulders,and looking at him with eyes so deep that he remainedmotionless under her gaze.
"Ah, don't let us undo what you've done!" she cried."I can't go back now to that other way of thinking. Ican't love you unless I give you up."
His arms were yearning up to her; but she drewaway, and they remained facing each other, divided bythe distance that her words had created. Then, abruptly,his anger overflowed.
"And Beaufort? Is he to replace me?"
As the words sprang out he was prepared for ananswering flare of anger; and he would have welcomedit as fuel for his own. But Madame Olenska only grewa shade paler, and stood with her arms hanging downbefore her, and her head slightly bent, as her way waswhen she pondered a question.
"He's waiting for you now at Mrs. Struthers's; whydon't you go to him?" Archer sneered.
She turned to ring the bell. "I shall not go out thisevening; tell the carriage to go and fetch the SignoraMarchesa," she said when the maid came.
After the door had closed again Archer continued tolook at her with bitter eyes. "Why this sacrifice? Sinceyou tell me that you're lonely I've no right to keep youfrom your friends."
She smiled a little under her wet lashes. "I shan't belonely now. I WAS lonely; I WAS afraid. But the emptinessand the darkness are gone; when I turn back intomyself now I'm like a child going at night into a roomwhere there's always a light."
Her tone and her look still enveloped her in a softinaccessibility, and Archer groaned out again: "I don'tunderstand you!"
"Yet you understand May!"
He reddened under the retort, but kept his eyes onher. "May is ready to give me up."
"What! Three days after you've entreated her onyour knees to hasten your marriage?"
"She's refused; that gives me the right--"
"Ah, you've taught me what an ugly word that is,"she said.
He turned away with a sense of utter weariness. Hefelt as though he had been struggling for hours up theface of a steep precipice, and now, just as he hadfought his way to the top, his hold had given way andhe was pitching down headlong into darkness.
If he could have got her in his arms again he mighthave swept away her arguments; but she still held himat a distance by something inscrutably aloof in her lookand attitude, and by his own awed sense of her sincerity.At length he began to plead again.
"If we do this now it will be worse afterward--worsefor every one--"
"No--no--no!" she almost screamed, as if he frightened her.
At that moment the bell sent a long tinkle throughthe house. They had heard no carriage stopping at thedoor, and they stood motionless, looking at each otherwith startled eyes.
Outside, Nastasia's step crossed the hall, the outerdoor opened, and a moment later she came in carryinga telegram which she handed to the Countess Olenska.
"The lady was very happy at the flowers," Nastasiasaid, smoothing her apron. "She thought it was hersignor marito who had sent them, and she cried a littleand said it was a folly."
Her mistress smiled and took the yellow envelope.She tore it open and carried it to the lamp; then, whenthe door had closed again, she handed the telegram toArcher.
It was dated from St. Augustine, and addressed tothe Countess Olenska. In it he read: "Granny's telegramsuccessful. Papa and Mamma agree marriage afterEaster. Am telegraphing Newland. Am too happyfor words and love you dearly. Your grateful May."
Half an hour later, when Archer unlocked his ownfront-door, he found a similar envelope on the hall-tableon top of his pile of notes and letters. The messageinside the envelope was also from May Welland, andran as follows: "Parents consent wedding Tuesday afterEaster at twelve Grace Church eight bridesmaidsplease see Rector so happy love May."
Archer crumpled up the yellow sheet as if the gesturecould annihilate the news it contained. Then he pulledout a small pocket-diary and turned over the pageswith trembling fingers; but he did not find what hewanted, and cramming the telegram into his pocket hemounted the stairs.
A light was shining through the door of the littlehall-room which served Janey as a dressing-room andboudoir, and her brother rapped impatiently on thepanel. The door opened, and his sister stood beforehim in her immemorial purple flannel dressing-gown,with her hair "on pins." Her face looked pale andapprehensive.
"Newland! I hope there's no bad news in thattelegram? I waited on purpose, in case--" (No item of hiscorrespondence was safe from Janey.)
He took no notice of her question. "Look here--what day is Easter this year?"
She looked shocked at such unchristian ignorance."Easter? Newland! Why, of course, the first week inApril. Why?"
"The first week?" He turned again to the pages ofhis diary, calculating rapidly under his breath. "Thefirst week, did you say?" He threw back his head witha long laugh.
"For mercy's sake what's the matter?"
"Nothing's the matter, except that I'm going to bemarried in a month."
Janey fell upon his neck and pressed him to herpurple flannel breast. "Oh Newland, how wonderful!I'm so glad! But, dearest, why do you keep on laughing?Do hush, or you'll wake Mamma."