Archer was sure that Madame Olenska's decisionhad not been influenced by the change in her financialsituation. He knew the exact figure of the small incomewhich her husband had allowed her at their separation.Without the addition of her grandmother's allowance itwas hardly enough to live on, in any sense known tothe Mingott vocabulary; and now that Medora Manson,who shared her life, had been ruined, such apittance would barely keep the two women clothed andfed. Yet Archer was convinced that Madame Olenskahad not accepted her grandmother's offer from interestedmotives.
She had the heedless generosity and the spasmodicextravagance of persons used to large fortunes, andindifferent to money; but she could go without manythings which her relations considered indispensable,and Mrs. Lovell Mingott and Mrs. Welland had oftenbeen heard to deplore that any one who had enjoyedthe cosmopolitan luxuries of Count Olenski's establishmentsshould care so little about "how things weredone." Moreover, as Archer knew, several months hadpassed since her allowance had been cut off; yet in theinterval she had made no effort to regain her grand-mother's favour. Therefore if she had changed her courseit must be for a different reason.
He did not have far to seek for that reason. On theway from the ferry she had told him that he and shemust remain apart; but she had said it with her headon his breast. He knew that there was no calculatedcoquetry in her words; she was fighting her fate as hehad fought his, and clinging desperately to her resolvethat they should not break faith with the people whotrusted them. But during the ten days which had elapsedsince her return to New York she had perhaps guessedfrom his silence, and from the fact of his making noattempt to see her, that he was meditating a decisivestep, a step from which there was no turning back. Atthe thought, a sudden fear of her own weakness mighthave seized her, and she might have felt that, after all,it was better to accept the compromise usual in suchcases, and follow the line of least resistance.
An hour earlier, when he had rung Mrs. Mingott'sbell, Archer had fancied that his path was clear beforehim. He had meant to have a word alone with MadameOlenska, and failing that, to learn from hergrandmother on what day, and by which train, she wasreturning to Washington. In that train he intended tojoin her, and travel with her to Washington, or asmuch farther as she was willing to go. His own fancyinclined to Japan. At any rate she would understand atonce that, wherever she went, he was going. He meantto leave a note for May that should cut off any otheralternative.
He had fancied himself not only nerved for thisplunge but eager to take it; yet his first feeling onhearing that the course of events was changed had beenone of relief. Now, however, as he walked home fromMrs. Mingott's, he was conscious of a growing distastefor what lay before him. There was nothing unknownor 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, andcould lend himself with an amused detachment to thegame of precautions and prevarications, concealmentsand compliances, that the part required. This procedurewas called "protecting a woman's honour"; andthe best fiction, combined with the after-dinner talk ofhis elders, had long since initiated him into every detailof its code.
Now he saw the matter in a new light, and his partin it seemed singularly diminished. It was, in fact, thatwhich, with a secret fatuity, he had watched Mrs.Thorley Rushworth play toward a fond and unperceivinghusband: a smiling, bantering, humouring, watchfuland incessant lie. A lie by day, a lie by night, a lie inevery touch and every look; a lie in every caress andevery quarrel; a lie in every word and in every silence.
It was easier, and less dastardly on the whole, for awife to play such a part toward her husband. A woman'sstandard of truthfulness was tacitly held to belower: she was the subject creature, and versed in thearts of the enslaved. Then she could always plead moodsand nerves, and the right not to be held too strictly toaccount; and even in the most strait-laced societies thelaugh was always against the husband.
But in Archer's little world no one laughed at a wifedeceived, and a certain measure of contempt wasattached to men who continued their philandering aftermarriage. In the rotation of crops there was a recognisedseason for wild oats; but they were not to be sownmore than once.
Archer had always shared this view: in his heart hethought Lefferts despicable. But to love Ellen Olenskawas not to become a man like Lefferts: for the firsttime Archer found himself face to face with the dreadargument of the individual case. Ellen Olenska was likeno other woman, he was like no other man: theirsituation, therefore, resembled no one else's, and theywere answerable to no tribunal but that of their ownjudgment.
Yes, but in ten minutes more he would be mountinghis own doorstep; and there were May, and habit, andhonour, and all the old decencies that he and his peoplehad always believed in . . .
At his corner he hesitated, and then walked on downFifth Avenue.
Ahead of him, in the winter night, loomed a big unlithouse. As he drew near he thought how often he hadseen it blazing with lights, its steps awninged and carpeted,and carriages waiting in double line to draw upat the curbstone. It was in the conservatory that stretchedits dead-black bulk down the side street that he hadtaken his first kiss from May; it was under the myriadcandles 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 afaint flare of gas in the basement, and a light in oneupstairs room where the blind had not been lowered.As Archer reached the corner he saw that the carriagestanding at the door was Mrs. Manson Mingott's. Whatan opportunity for Sillerton Jackson, if he should chanceto pass! Archer had been greatly moved by old Catherine'saccount of Madame Olenska's attitude towardMrs. Beaufort; it made the righteous reprobation ofNew York seem like a passing by on the other side. Buthe knew well enough what construction the clubs anddrawing-rooms would put on Ellen Olenska's visits toher cousin.
He paused and looked up at the lighted window. Nodoubt the two women were sitting together in thatroom: Beaufort had probably sought consolation elsewhere.There were even rumours that he had left NewYork with Fanny Ring; but Mrs. Beaufort's attitudemade the report seem improbable.
Archer had the nocturnal perspective of Fifth Avenuealmost to himself. At that hour most people wereindoors, dressing for dinner; and he was secretly gladthat Ellen's exit was likely to be unobserved. As thethought passed through his mind the door opened, andshe came out. Behind her was a faint light, such asmight have been carried down the stairs to show herthe way. She turned to say a word to some one; thenthe door closed, and she came down the steps.
"Ellen," he said in a low voice, as she reached thepavement.
She stopped with a slight start, and just then he sawtwo young men of fashionable cut approaching. Therewas a familiar air about their overcoats and the waytheir smart silk mufflers were folded over their whiteties; and he wondered how youths of their qualityhappened to be dining out so early. Then he rememberedthat the Reggie Chiverses, whose house was afew doors above, were taking a large party that eveningto see Adelaide Neilson in Romeo and Juliet, and guessedthat the two were of the number. They passed under alamp, and he recognised Lawrence Lefferts and a youngChivers.
A mean desire not to have Madame Olenska seen atthe Beauforts' door vanished as he felt the penetratingwarmth of her hand.
"I shall see you now--we shall be together," hebroke out, hardly knowing what he said.
"Ah," she answered, "Granny has told you?"
While he watched her he was aware that Lefferts andChivers, on reaching the farther side of the street corner,had discreetly struck away across Fifth Avenue. Itwas the kind of masculine solidarity that he himselfoften practised; now he sickened at their connivance.Did she really imagine that he and she could live likethis? And if not, what else did she imagine?
"Tomorrow I must see you--somewhere where wecan be alone," he said, in a voice that sounded almostangry 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 plansrequired 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 . . . nomonuments."
"There's the Art Museum--in the Park," he explained,as she looked puzzled. "At half-past two. I shall be atthe door . . ."
She turned away without answering and got quicklyinto 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 tothe woman he loved but to another, a woman he wasindebted to for pleasures already wearied of: it washateful to find himself the prisoner of this hackneyedvocabulary.
"She'll come!" he said to himself, almost contemptuously.
Avoiding the popular "Wolfe collection," whose anecdoticcanvases filled one of the main galleries of the queerwilderness of cast-iron and encaustic tiles known as theMetropolitan Museum, they had wandered down apassage to the room where the "Cesnola antiquities"mouldered in unvisited loneliness.
They had this melancholy retreat to themselves, andseated on the divan enclosing the central steam-radiator,they were staring silently at the glass cabinets mountedin ebonised wood which contained the recovered fragmentsof Ilium.
"It's odd," Madame Olenska said, "I never camehere before."
"Ah, well--. Some day, I suppose, it will be a greatMuseum."
"Yes," she assented absently.
She stood up and wandered across the room. Archer,remaining seated, watched the light movements of herfigure, so girlish even under its heavy furs, the cleverlyplanted heron wing in her fur cap, and the way a darkcurl lay like a flattened vine spiral on each cheek abovethe ear. His mind, as always when they first met, waswholly absorbed in the delicious details that made herherself and no other. Presently he rose and approachedthe case before which she stood. Its glass shelves werecrowded with small broken objects--hardly recognisabledomestic utensils, ornaments and personal trifles--madeof glass, of clay, of discoloured bronze and other time-blurred substances.
"It seems cruel," she said, "that after a while nothingmatters . . . any more than these little things, that usedto be necessary and important to forgotten people, andnow have to be guessed at under a magnifying glassand labelled: `Use unknown.'"
"Yes; but meanwhile--"
As she stood there, in her long sealskin coat, herhands thrust in a small round muff, her veil drawndown like a transparent mask to the tip of her nose,and the bunch of violets he had brought her stirringwith her quickly-taken breath, it seemed incredible thatthis pure harmony of line and colour should ever sufferthe stupid law of change.
"Meanwhile everything matters--that concerns you,"he said.
She looked at him thoughtfully, and turned back tothe divan. He sat down beside her and waited; butsuddenly he heard a step echoing far off down theempty rooms, and felt the pressure of the minutes.
"What is it you wanted to tell me?" she asked, as ifshe had received the same warning.
"What I wanted to tell you?" he rejoined. "Why,that I believe you came to New York because you wereafraid."
"Of my coming to Washington."
She looked down at her muff, and he saw her handsstir in it uneasily.
"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 witha long questioning sigh.
"We shall hurt others less. Isn't it, after all, what youalways wanted?"
"To have you here, you mean--in reach and yet outof reach? To meet you in this way, on the sly? It's thevery reverse of what I want. I told you the other daywhat I wanted."
She hesitated. "And you still think this--worse?"
"A thousand times!" He paused. "It would be easyto 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 turnto ask: what is it, in God's name, that you thinkbetter?"
She hung her head and continued to clasp and unclaspher hands in her muff. The step drew nearer, anda guardian in a braided cap walked listlessly throughthe room like a ghost stalking through a necropolis.They fixed their eyes simultaneously on the case oppositethem, and when the official figure had vanisheddown a vista of mummies and sarcophagi Archer spokeagain.
"What do you think better?"
Instead of answering she murmured: "I promisedGranny to stay with her because it seemed to me thathere I should be safer."
She bent her head slightly, without looking at him.
"Safer from loving me?"
Her profile did not stir, but he saw a tear overflowon her lashes and hang in a mesh of her veil.
"Safer from doing irreparable harm. Don't let us belike all the others!" she protested.
"What others? I don't profess to be different frommy kind. I'm consumed by the same wants and thesame longings."
She glanced at him with a kind of terror, and he sawa faint colour steal into her cheeks.
"Shall I--once come to you; and then go home?" shesuddenly hazarded in a low clear voice.
The blood rushed to the young man's forehead."Dearest!" he said, without moving. It seemed as if heheld his heart in his hands, like a full cup that the leastmotion might overbrim.
Then her last phrase struck his ear and his faceclouded. "Go home? What do you mean by goinghome?"
"Home to my husband."
"And you expect me to say yes to that?"
She raised her troubled eyes to his. "What else isthere? I can't stay here and lie to the people who'vebeen good to me."
"But that's the very reason why I ask you to comeaway!"
"And destroy their lives, when they've helped me toremake mine?"
Archer sprang to his feet and stood looking down onher in inarticulate despair. It would have been easy tosay: "Yes, come; come once." He knew the power shewould put in his hands if she consented; there wouldbe no difficulty then in persuading her not to go backto her husband.
But something silenced the word on his lips. A sortof passionate honesty in her made it inconceivable thathe should try to draw her into that familiar trap. "If Iwere to let her come," he said to himself, "I shouldhave to let her go again." And that was not to beimagined.
But he saw the shadow of the lashes on her wetcheek, and wavered.
"After all," he began again, "we have lives of ourown. . . . There's no use attempting the impossible.You're so unprejudiced about some things, so used, asyou say, to looking at the Gorgon, that I don't knowwhy you're afraid to face our case, and see it as itreally is--unless you think the sacrifice is not worthmaking."
She stood up also, her lips tightening under a rapidfrown.
"Call it that, then--I must go," she said, drawing herlittle watch from her bosom.
She turned away, and he followed and caught her bythe wrist. "Well, then: come to me once," he said, hishead turning suddenly at the thought of losing her; andfor a second or two they looked at each other almostlike enemies.
"When?" he insisted. "Tomorrow?"
She hesitated. "The day after."
"Dearest--!" he said again.
She had disengaged her wrist; but for a moment theycontinued to hold each other's eyes, and he saw thather face, which had grown very pale, was flooded witha deep inner radiance. His heart beat with awe: he feltthat he had never before beheld love visible.
"Oh, I shall be late--good-bye. No, don't come anyfarther than this," she cried, walking hurriedly awaydown the long room, as if the reflected radiance in hiseyes had frightened her. When she reached the door sheturned for a moment to wave a quick farewell.
Archer walked home alone. Darkness was falling whenhe let himself into his house, and he looked about atthe familiar objects in the hall as if he viewed themfrom the other side of the grave.
The parlour-maid, hearing his step, ran up the stairsto light the gas on the upper landing.
"Is Mrs. Archer in?"
"No, sir; Mrs. Archer went out in the carriage afterluncheon, and hasn't come back."
With a sense of relief he entered the library and flunghimself down in his armchair. The parlour-maid followed,bringing the student lamp and shaking somecoals onto the dying fire. When she left he continued tosit motionless, his elbows on his knees, his chin on hisclasped hands, his eyes fixed on the red grate.
He sat there without conscious thoughts, withoutsense of the lapse of time, in a deep and grave amazementthat seemed to suspend life rather than quicken it."This was what had to be, then . . . this was what hadto be," he kept repeating to himself, as if he hung inthe clutch of doom. What he had dreamed of had beenso 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 ofher rare caresses.
He looked up astonished. "Is it late?"
"After seven. I believe you've been asleep!" Shelaughed, and drawing out her hat pins tossed her velvethat on the sofa. She looked paler than usual, but sparklingwith an unwonted animation.
"I went to see Granny, and just as I was going awayEllen came in from a walk; so I stayed and had a longtalk 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 whatseemed to Archer an unnatural vividness. "She was sodear--just like the old Ellen. I'm afraid I haven't beenfair 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 sodifferent--at least on the surface. She takes up suchodd people--she seems to like to make herself conspicuous.I suppose it's the life she's led in that fast Europeansociety; no doubt we seem dreadfully dull to her.But I don't want to judge her unfairly."
She paused again, a little breathless with theunwonted length of her speech, and sat with her lipsslightly parted and a deep blush on her cheeks.
Archer, as he looked at her, was reminded of theglow which had suffused her face in the Mission Gardenat St. Augustine. He became aware of the sameobscure effort in her, the same reaching out towardsomething beyond the usual range of her vision.
"She hates Ellen," he thought, "and she's trying toovercome the feeling, and to get me to help her toovercome it."
The thought moved him, and for a moment he wason the point of breaking the silence between them, andthrowing himself on her mercy.
"You understand, don't you," she went on, "whythe family have sometimes been annoyed? We all didwhat we could for her at first; but she never seemed tounderstand. And now this idea of going to see Mrs.Beaufort, of going there in Granny's carriage! I'm afraidshe's quite alienated the van der Luydens . . ."
"Ah," said Archer with an impatient laugh. Theopen door had closed between them again.
"It's time to dress; we're dining out, aren't we?" heasked, moving from the fire.
She rose also, but lingered near the hearth. As hewalked past her she moved forward impulsively, asthough to detain him: their eyes met, and he saw thathers were of the same swimming blue as when he hadleft her to drive to Jersey City.
She flung her arms about his neck and pressed hercheek to his.
"You haven't kissed me today," she said in a whisper;and he felt her tremble in his arms.