It was a sombre snowy afternoon, and the gas-lampswere lit in the big reverberating station. As he pacedthe platform, waiting for the Washington express, heremembered that there were people who thought therewould one day be a tunnel under the Hudson throughwhich the trains of the Pennsylvania railway would runstraight into New York. They were of the brotherhoodof visionaries who likewise predicted the building ofships that would cross the Atlantic in five days, theinvention of a flying machine, lighting by electricity,telephonic communication without wires, and otherArabian Night marvels.
"I don't care which of their visions comes true,"Archer mused, "as long as the tunnel isn't built yet." Inhis senseless school-boy happiness he pictured MadameOlenska's descent from the train, his discovery of her along way off, among the throngs of meaningless faces,her clinging to his arm as he guided her to the carriage,their slow approach to the wharf among slipping horses,laden carts, vociferating teamsters, and then the startlingquiet of the ferry-boat, where they would sit sideby side under the snow, in the motionless carriage,while the earth seemed to glide away under them,rolling to the other side of the sun. It was incredible,the number of things he had to say to her, and in whateloquent order they were forming themselves on hislips . . .
The clanging and groaning of the train came nearer,and it staggered slowly into the station like a prey-laden monster into its lair. Archer pushed forward,elbowing through the crowd, and staring blindly intowindow after window of the high-hung carriages. Andthen, suddenly, he saw Madame Olenska's pale andsurprised face close at hand, and had again the mortifiedsensation of having forgotten what she looked like.
They reached each other, their hands met, and hedrew her arm through his. "This way--I have thecarriage," he said.
After that it all happened as he had dreamed. Hehelped her into the brougham with her bags, and hadafterward the vague recollection of having properlyreassured her about her grandmother and given her asummary of the Beaufort situation (he was struck bythe softness of her: "Poor Regina!"). Meanwhile thecarriage had worked its way out of the coil about thestation, and they were crawling down the slipperyincline to the wharf, menaced by swaying coal-carts,bewildered horses, dishevelled express-wagons, and anempty hearse--ah, that hearse! She shut her eyes as itpassed, and clutched at Archer's hand.
"If only it doesn't mean--poor Granny!"
"Oh, no, no--she's much better--she's all right, really.There--we've passed it!" he exclaimed, as if thatmade all the difference. Her hand remained in his, andas the carriage lurched across the gang-plank onto theferry he bent over, unbuttoned her tight brown glove,and kissed her palm as if he had kissed a relic. Shedisengaged herself with a faint smile, and he said:"You didn't expect me today?"
"I meant to go to Washington to see you. I'd madeall my arrangements--I very nearly crossed you in thetrain."
"Oh--" she exclaimed, as if terrified by the narrownessof their escape.
"Do you know--I hardly remembered you?"
"Hardly remembered me?"
"I mean: how shall I explain? I--it's always so. EACHTIME YOU HAPPEN TO ME ALL OVER AGAIN."
"Oh, yes: I know! I know!"
"Does it--do I too: to you?" he insisted.
She nodded, looking out of the window.
She made no answer, and he sat in silence, watchingher profile grow indistinct against the snow-streakeddusk beyond the window. What had she been doing inall those four long months, he wondered? How littlethey knew of each other, after all! The precious momentswere slipping away, but he had forgotten everythingthat he had meant to say to her and could onlyhelplessly brood on the mystery of their remotenessand their proximity, which seemed to be symbolised bythe fact of their sitting so close to each other, and yetbeing unable to see each other's faces.
"What a pretty carriage! Is it May's?" she asked,suddenly turning her face from the window.
"It was May who sent you to fetch me, then? Howkind of her!"
He made no answer for a moment; then he saidexplosively: "Your husband's secretary came to see methe day after we met in Boston."
In his brief letter to her he had made no allusion to
Riviere's visit, and his intention had been to bury the incident in his bosom. But her reminder that they were in his wife's carriage provoked him to an impulse of retaliation. He would see if she liked his reference to Riviere any better than he liked hers to May! As on certain other occasions when he had expected to shake her out of her usual composure, she betrayed no sign of surprise: and at once he concluded: "He writes to her, then."
"M. Riviere went to see you?"
"Yes: didn't you know?"
"No," she answered simply.
"And you're not surprised?"
She hesitated. "Why should I be? He told me inBoston that he knew you; that he'd met you in EnglandI think."
"Ellen--I must ask you one thing."
"I wanted to ask it after I saw him, but I couldn'tput it in a letter. It was Riviere who helped you toget away--when you left your husband?"
His heart was beating suffocatingly. Would she meetthis question with the same composure?
"Yes: I owe him a great debt," she answered, withoutthe least tremor in her quiet voice.
Her tone was so natural, so almost indifferent, thatArcher's turmoil subsided. Once more she had managed,by her sheer simplicity, to make him feel stupidlyconventional just when he thought he was flingingconvention to the winds.
"I think you're the most honest woman I ever met!"he exclaimed.
"Oh, no--but probably one of the least fussy," sheanswered, a smile in her voice.
"Call it what you like: you look at things as theyare."
"Ah--I've had to. I've had to look at the Gorgon."
"Well--it hasn't blinded you! You've seen that she'sjust an old bogey like all the others."
"She doesn't blind one; but she dries up one's tears."
The answer checked the pleading on Archer's lips: itseemed to come from depths of experience beyond hisreach. The slow advance of the ferry-boat had ceased,and her bows bumped against the piles of the slip witha violence that made the brougham stagger, and flungArcher and Madame Olenska against each other. Theyoung man, trembling, felt the pressure of her shoulder,and passed his arm about her.
"If you're not blind, then, you must see that thiscan't last."
"Our being together--and not together."
"No. You ought not to have come today," she saidin an altered voice; and suddenly she turned, flung herarms about him and pressed her lips to his. At the samemoment the carriage began to move, and a gas-lamp atthe head of the slip flashed its light into the window.She drew away, and they sat silent and motionlesswhile the brougham struggled through the congestionof carriages about the ferry-landing. As they gained thestreet Archer began to speak hurriedly.
"Don't be afraid of me: you needn't squeeze yourselfback into your corner like that. A stolen kiss isn't whatI want. Look: I'm not even trying to touch the sleeve ofyour jacket. Don't suppose that I don't understandyour reasons for not wanting to let this feeling betweenus dwindle into an ordinary hole-and-corner love-affair.I couldn't have spoken like this yesterday, because whenwe've been apart, and I'm looking forward to seeingyou, every thought is burnt up in a great flame. Butthen you come; and you're so much more than Iremembered, and what I want of you is so much morethan an hour or two every now and then, with wastesof thirsty waiting between, that I can sit perfectly stillbeside you, like this, with that other vision in my mind,just quietly trusting to it to come true."
For a moment she made no reply; then she asked,hardly above a whisper: "What do you mean by trustingto it to come true?"
"Why--you know it will, don't you?"
"Your vision of you and me together?" She burstinto a sudden hard laugh. "You choose your place wellto put it to me!"
"Do you mean because we're in my wife's brougham?Shall we get out and walk, then? I don't suppose youmind a little snow?"
She laughed again, more gently. "No; I shan't getout and walk, because my business is to get to Granny'sas quickly as I can. And you'll sit beside me, andwe'll look, not at visions, but at realities."
"I don't know what you mean by realities. The onlyreality to me is this."
She met the words with a long silence, during whichthe carriage rolled down an obscure side-street andthen turned into the searching illumination of FifthAvenue.
"Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you asyour mistress--since I can't be your wife?" she asked.
The crudeness of the question startled him: the wordwas one that women of his class fought shy of, evenwhen their talk flitted closest about the topic. Henoticed that Madame Olenska pronounced it as if it had arecognised place in her vocabulary, and he wondered ifit had been used familiarly in her presence in the horriblelife she had fled from. Her question pulled him upwith a jerk, and he floundered.
"I want--I want somehow to get away with you intoa world where words like that--categories like that--won't exist. Where we shall be simply two humanbeings who love each other, who are the whole of lifeto each other; and nothing else on earth will matter."
She drew a deep sigh that ended in another laugh."Oh, my dear--where is that country? Have you everbeen there?" she asked; and as he remained sullenlydumb she went on: "I know so many who've tried tofind it; and, believe me, they all got out by mistake atwayside stations: at places like Boulogne, or Pisa, orMonte Carlo--and it wasn't at all different from theold world they'd left, but only rather smaller and dingierand more promiscuous."
He had never heard her speak in such a tone, and heremembered the phrase she had used a little whilebefore.
"Yes, the Gorgon HAS dried your tears," he said.
"Well, she opened my eyes too; it's a delusion to saythat she blinds people. What she does is just thecontrary--she fastens their eyelids open, so that they'renever again in the blessed darkness. Isn't there a Chinesetorture like that? There ought to be. Ah, believeme, it's a miserable little country!"
The carriage had crossed Forty-second Street: May'ssturdy brougham-horse was carrying them northwardas if he had been a Kentucky trotter. Archer chokedwith the sense of wasted minutes and vain words.
"Then what, exactly, is your plan for us?" he asked.
"For US? But there's no US in that sense! We're neareach other only if we stay far from each other. Then wecan be ourselves. Otherwise we're only Newland Archer,the husband of Ellen Olenska's cousin, and EllenOlenska, the cousin of Newland Archer's wife, tryingto be happy behind the backs of the people who trustthem."
"Ah, I'm beyond that," he groaned.
"No, you're not! You've never been beyond. And Ihave," she said, in a strange voice, "and I know what itlooks like there."
He sat silent, dazed with inarticulate pain. Then hegroped in the darkness of the carriage for the little bellthat signalled orders to the coachman. He rememberedthat May rang twice when she wished to stop. Hepressed the bell, and the carriage drew up beside thecurbstone.
"Why are we stopping? This is not Granny's," MadameOlenska exclaimed.
"No: I shall get out here," he stammered, openingthe door and jumping to the pavement. By the light ofa street-lamp he saw her startled face, and the instinctivemotion she made to detain him. He closed thedoor, and leaned for a moment in the window.
"You're right: I ought not to have come today," hesaid, lowering his voice so that the coachman shouldnot hear. She bent forward, and seemed about to speak;but he had already called out the order to drive on, andthe carriage rolled away while he stood on the corner.The snow was over, and a tingling wind had sprungup, that lashed his face as he stood gazing. Suddenly hefelt something stiff and cold on his lashes, and perceivedthat he had been crying, and that the wind hadfrozen his tears.
He thrust his hands in his pockets, and walked at asharp pace down Fifth Avenue to his own house.