The day, according to any current valuation, hadbeen a rather ridiculous failure; he had not so much astouched Madame Olenska's hand with his lips, orextracted one word from her that gave promise of fartheropportunities. Nevertheless, for a man sick withunsatisfied love, and parting for an indefinite period fromthe object of his passion, he felt himself almosthumiliatingly calm and comforted. It was the perfect balanceshe had held between their loyalty to others and theirhonesty to themselves that had so stirred and yettranquillized him; a balance not artfully calculated, as hertears and her falterings showed, but resulting naturallyfrom her unabashed sincerity. It filled him with a tenderawe, now the danger was over, and made himthank the fates that no personal vanity, no sense ofplaying a part before sophisticated witnesses, hadtempted him to tempt her. Even after they had claspedhands for good-bye at the Fall River station, and hehad turned away alone, the conviction remained withhim of having saved out of their meeting much morethan he had sacrificed.
He wandered back to the club, and went and satalone in the deserted library, turning and turning overin his thoughts every separate second of their hourstogether. It was clear to him, and it grew more clearunder closer scrutiny, that if she should finally decideon returning to Europe--returning to her husband--itwould not be because her old life tempted her, even onthe new terms offered. No: she would go only if shefelt herself becoming a temptation to Archer, atemptation to fall away from the standard they had both setup. Her choice would be to stay near him as long as hedid not ask her to come nearer; and it depended onhimself to keep her just there, safe but secluded.
In the train these thoughts were still with him. Theyenclosed him in a kind of golden haze, through whichthe faces about him looked remote and indistinct: hehad a feeling that if he spoke to his fellow-travellersthey would not understand what he was saying. In thisstate of abstraction he found himself, the followingmorning, waking to the reality of a stifling Septemberday in New York. The heat-withered faces in the longtrain streamed past him, and he continued to stare atthem through the same golden blur; but suddenly, ashe left the station, one of the faces detached itself, camecloser and forced itself upon his consciousness. It was,as he instantly recalled, the face of the young man hehad seen, the day before, passing out of the ParkerHouse, and had noted as not conforming to type, asnot having an American hotel face.
The same thing struck him now; and again he becameaware of a dim stir of former associations. Theyoung man stood looking about him with the dazed airof the foreigner flung upon the harsh mercies of Americantravel; then he advanced toward Archer, lifted hishat, and said in English: "Surely, Monsieur, we met inLondon?"
"Ah, to be sure: in London!" Archer grasped hishand with curiosity and sympathy. "So you DID gethere, after all?" he exclaimed, casting a wondering eyeon the astute and haggard little countenance of youngCarfry's French tutor.
"Oh, I got here--yes," M. Riviere smiled with drawnlips. "But not for long; I return the day after tomorrow."He stood grasping his light valise in one neatlygloved hand, and gazing anxiously, perplexedly, almostappealingly, into Archer's face.
"I wonder, Monsieur, since I've had the good luck torun across you, if I might--"
"I was just going to suggest it: come to luncheon,won't you? Down town, I mean: if you'll look me up inmy office I'll take you to a very decent restaurant inthat quarter."
Riviere was visibly touched and surprised. "You're too kind. But I was only going to ask if you would tell me how to reach some sort of conveyance. There are no porters, and no one here seems to listen--"
"I know: our American stations must surprise you.When you ask for a porter they give you chewing-gum.But if you'll come along I'll extricate you; and youmust really lunch with me, you know."
The young man, after a just perceptible hesitation,replied, with profuse thanks, and in a tone that did notcarry complete conviction, that he was already engaged;but when they had reached the comparativereassurance of the street he asked if he might call thatafternoon.
Archer, at ease in the midsummer leisure of theoffice, fixed an hour and scribbled his address, which theFrenchman pocketed with reiterated thanks and a wideflourish of his hat. A horse-car received him, and Archerwalked away.
Punctually at the hour M. Riviere appeared, shaved,smoothed-out, but still unmistakably drawn and serious.Archer was alone in his office, and the young man,before accepting the seat he proffered, began abruptly:"I believe I saw you, sir, yesterday in Boston."
The statement was insignificant enough, and Archerwas about to frame an assent when his words werechecked by something mysterious yet illuminating inhis visitor's insistent gaze.
"It is extraordinary, very extraordinary," M. Rivierecontinued, "that we should have met in the circumstancesin which I find myself."
"What circumstances?" Archer asked, wondering alittle crudely if he needed money.
Riviere continued to study him with tentative eyes. "I have come, not to look for employment, as I spoke of doing when we last met, but on a special mission--"
"Ah--!" Archer exclaimed. In a flash the twomeetings had connected themselves in his mind. He pausedto take in the situation thus suddenly lighted up forhim, and M. Riviere also remained silent, as if awarethat what he had said was enough.
"A special mission," Archer at length repeated.
The young Frenchman, opening his palms, raisedthem slightly, and the two men continued to look ateach other across the office-desk till Archer rousedhimself to say: "Do sit down"; whereupon M. Rivierebowed, took a distant chair, and again waited.
"It was about this mission that you wanted toconsult me?" Archer finally asked.
Riviere bent his head. "Not in my own behalf: on that score I--I have fully dealt with myself. I should like--if I may--to speak to you about the Countess Olenska."
Archer had known for the last few minutes that thewords were coming; but when they came they sent theblood rushing to his temples as if he had been caughtby a bent-back branch in a thicket.
"And on whose behalf," he said, "do you wish to dothis?"
Riviere met the question sturdily. "Well--I might say HERS, if it did not sound like a liberty. Shall I say instead: on behalf of abstract justice?"
Archer considered him ironically. "In other words:you are Count Olenski's messenger?"
He saw his blush more darkly reflected in M. Riviere'ssallow countenance. "Not to YOU, Monsieur. If I cometo you, it is on quite other grounds."
"What right have you, in the circumstances, to BE onany other ground?" Archer retorted. "If you're anemissary you're an emissary."
The young man considered. "My mission is over: asfar as the Countess Olenska goes, it has failed."
"I can't help that," Archer rejoined on the same noteof irony.
"No: but you can help--" M. Riviere paused, turnedhis hat about in his still carefully gloved hands, lookedinto its lining and then back at Archer's face. "You canhelp, Monsieur, I am convinced, to make it equally afailure with her family."
Archer pushed back his chair and stood up. "Well--and by God I will!" he exclaimed. He stood with hishands in his pockets, staring down wrathfully at thelittle Frenchman, whose face, though he too had risen,was still an inch or two below the line of Archer's eyes.
Riviere paled to his normal hue: paler than that his complexion could hardly turn.
"Why the devil," Archer explosively continued,"should you have thought--since I suppose you'reappealing to me on the ground of my relationship toMadame Olenska--that I should take a view contraryto the rest of her family?"
The change of expression in M. Riviere's face wasfor a time his only answer. His look passed from timidityto absolute distress: for a young man of his usuallyresourceful mien it would have been difficult to appearmore disarmed and defenceless. "Oh, Monsieur--"
"I can't imagine," Archer continued, "why you shouldhave come to me when there are others so much nearerto the Countess; still less why you thought I should bemore accessible to the arguments I suppose you weresent over with."
Riviere took this onslaught with a disconcerting humility. "The arguments I want to present to you, Monsieur, are my own and not those I was sent over with."
"Then I see still less reason for listening to them."
Riviere again looked into his hat, as if considering whether these last words were not a sufficiently broad hint to put it on and be gone. Then he spoke with sudden decision. "Monsieur--will you tell me one thing? Is it my right to be here that you question? Or do you perhaps believe the whole matter to be already closed?"
His quiet insistence made Archer feel the clumsinessof his own bluster. M. Riviere had succeeded in imposinghimself: Archer, reddening slightly, dropped intohis chair again, and signed to the young man to beseated.
"I beg your pardon: but why isn't the matter closed?"
Riviere gazed back at him with anguish. "You do, then, agree with the rest of the family that, in face of the new proposals I have brought, it is hardly possible for Madame Olenska not to return to her husband?"
"Good God!" Archer exclaimed; and his visitor gaveout a low murmur of confirmation.
"Before seeing her, I saw--at Count Olenski'srequest--Mr. Lovell Mingott, with whom I had severaltalks before going to Boston. I understand that herepresents his mother's view; and that Mrs. MansonMingott's influence is great throughout her family."
Archer sat silent, with the sense of clinging to theedge of a sliding precipice. The discovery that he hadbeen excluded from a share in these negotiations, andeven from the knowledge that they were on foot, causedhim a surprise hardly dulled by the acuter wonder ofwhat he was learning. He saw in a flash that if thefamily had ceased to consult him it was because somedeep tribal instinct warned them that he was no longeron their side; and he recalled, with a start of comprehension,a remark of May's during their drive homefrom Mrs. Manson Mingott's on the day of the ArcheryMeeting: "Perhaps, after all, Ellen would be happierwith her husband."
Even in the tumult of new discoveries Archer rememberedhis indignant exclamation, and the fact that sincethen his wife had never named Madame Olenska tohim. Her careless allusion had no doubt been the strawheld up to see which way the wind blew; the result hadbeen reported to the family, and thereafter Archer hadbeen tacitly omitted from their counsels. He admiredthe tribal discipline which made May bow to this decision.She would not have done so, he knew, had herconscience protested; but she probably shared the familyview that Madame Olenska would be better off asan unhappy wife than as a separated one, and thatthere was no use in discussing the case with Newland,who had an awkward way of suddenly not seeming totake the most fundamental things for granted.
Archer looked up and met his visitor's anxious gaze."Don't you know, Monsieur--is it possible you don'tknow--that the family begin to doubt if they have theright to advise the Countess to refuse her husband'slast proposals?"
"The proposals you brought?"
"The proposals I brought."
It was on Archer's lips to exclaim that whatever heknew or did not know was no concern of M. Riviere's;but something in the humble and yet courageous tenacityof M. Riviere's gaze made him reject this conclusion,and he met the young man's question with another."What is your object in speaking to me of this?"
He had not to wait a moment for the answer. "Tobeg you, Monsieur--to beg you with all the force I'mcapable of--not to let her go back.--Oh, don't lether!" M. Riviere exclaimed.
Archer looked at him with increasing astonishment.There was no mistaking the sincerity of his distress orthe strength of his determination: he had evidentlyresolved to let everything go by the board but thesupreme need of thus putting himself on record. Archerconsidered.
"May I ask," he said at length, "if this is the line youtook with the Countess Olenska?"
Riviere reddened, but his eyes did not falter. "No, Monsieur: I accepted my mission in good faith. I really believed--for reasons I need not trouble you with--that it would be better for Madame Olenska to recover her situation, her fortune, the social consideration that her husband's standing gives her."
"So I supposed: you could hardly have accepted sucha mission otherwise."
"I should not have accepted it."
"Well, then--?" Archer paused again, and their eyesmet in another protracted scrutiny.
"Ah, Monsieur, after I had seen her, after I hadlistened to her, I knew she was better off here."
"Monsieur, I discharged my mission faithfully: I putthe Count's arguments, I stated his offers, without addingany comment of my own. The Countess was goodenough to listen patiently; she carried her goodness sofar as to see me twice; she considered impartially all Ihad come to say. And it was in the course of these twotalks that I changed my mind, that I came to see thingsdifferently."
"May I ask what led to this change?"
"Simply seeing the change in HER," M. Riviere replied.
"The change in her? Then you knew her before?"
The young man's colour again rose. "I used to seeher in her husband's house. I have known Count Olenskifor many years. You can imagine that he would nothave sent a stranger on such a mission."
Archer's gaze, wandering away to the blank walls ofthe office, rested on a hanging calendar surmounted bythe rugged features of the President of the United States.That such a conversation should be going on anywherewithin the millions of square miles subject to his ruleseemed as strange as anything that the imaginationcould invent.
"The change--what sort of a change?"
"Ah, Monsieur, if I could tell you!" M. Riviere paused."Tenez--the discovery, I suppose, of what I'd neverthought of before: that she's an American. And that ifyou're an American of HER kind--of your kind--thingsthat are accepted in certain other societies, or at leastput up with as part of a general convenient give-and-take--become unthinkable, simply unthinkable. IfMadame Olenska's relations understood what these thingswere, their opposition to her returning would no doubtbe as unconditional as her own; but they seem toregard her husband's wish to have her back as proof ofan irresistible longing for domestic life." M. Rivierepaused, and then added: "Whereas it's far from beingas simple as that."
Archer looked back to the President of the UnitedStates, and then down at his desk and at the papersscattered on it. For a second or two he could not trusthimself to speak. During this interval he heard M.Riviere's chair pushed back, and was aware that theyoung man had risen. When he glanced up again hesaw that his visitor was as moved as himself.
"Thank you," Archer said simply.
"There's nothing to thank me for, Monsieur: it is I,rather--" M. Riviere broke off, as if speech for himtoo were difficult. "I should like, though," he continuedin a firmer voice, "to add one thing. You asked meif I was in Count Olenski's employ. I am at this moment:I returned to him, a few months ago, for reasonsof private necessity such as may happen to any onewho has persons, ill and older persons, dependent onhim. But from the moment that I have taken the step ofcoming here to say these things to you I consider myselfdischarged, and I shall tell him so on my return,and give him the reasons. That's all, Monsieur."
Riviere bowed and drew back a step.
"Thank you," Archer said again, as their hands met.