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Chapter XXIII

The next morning, when Archer got out of the Fall
River train, he emerged upon a steaming midsummer
Boston. The streets near the station were full of the
smell of beer and coffee and decaying fruit and a shirt-
sleeved populace moved through them with the intimate
abandon of boarders going down the passage to
the bathroom.

Archer found a cab and drove to the Somerset Club
for breakfast. Even the fashionable quarters had the air
of untidy domesticity to which no excess of heat ever
degrades the European cities. Care-takers in calico
lounged on the door-steps of the wealthy, and the
Common looked like a pleasure-ground on the morrow
of a Masonic picnic. If Archer had tried to imagine
Ellen Olenska in improbable scenes he could not have
called up any into which it was more difficult to fit her
than this heat-prostrated and deserted Boston.

He breakfasted with appetite and method, beginning
with a slice of melon, and studying a morning paper
while he waited for his toast and scrambled eggs. A
new sense of energy and activity had possessed him
ever since he had announced to May the night before
that he had business in Boston, and should take the
Fall River boat that night and go on to New York the
following evening. It had always been understood that
he would return to town early in the week, and when
he got back from his expedition to Portsmouth a letter
from the office, which fate had conspicuously placed
on a corner of the hall table, sufficed to justify his
sudden change of plan. He was even ashamed of the
ease with which the whole thing had been done: it
reminded him, for an uncomfortable moment, of Lawrence
Lefferts's masterly contrivances for securing his
freedom. But this did not long trouble him, for he was
not in an analytic mood.

After breakfast he smoked a cigarette and glanced
over the Commercial Advertiser. While he was thus
engaged two or three men he knew came in, and the
usual greetings were exchanged: it was the same world
after all, though he had such a queer sense of having
slipped through the meshes of time and space.

He looked at his watch, and finding that it was
half-past nine got up and went into the writing-room.
There he wrote a few lines, and ordered a messenger to
take a cab to the Parker House and wait for the
answer. He then sat down behind another newspaper and
tried to calculate how long it would take a cab to get to
the Parker House.

"The lady was out, sir," he suddenly heard a waiter's
voice at his elbow; and he stammered: "Out?--" as if
it were a word in a strange language.

He got up and went into the hall. It must be a
mistake: she could not be out at that hour. He flushed
with anger at his own stupidity: why had he not sent
the note as soon as he arrived?

He found his hat and stick and went forth into the
street. The city had suddenly become as strange and
vast and empty as if he were a traveller from distant
lands. For a moment he stood on the door-step hesitating;
then he decided to go to the Parker House. What if
the messenger had been misinformed, and she were still
there?

He started to walk across the Common; and on the
first bench, under a tree, he saw her sitting. She had a
grey silk sunshade over her head--how could he ever
have imagined her with a pink one? As he approached
he was struck by her listless attitude: she sat there as if
she had nothing else to do. He saw her drooping profile,
and the knot of hair fastened low in the neck
under her dark hat, and the long wrinkled glove on the
hand that held the sunshade. He came a step or two
nearer, and she turned and looked at him.

"Oh"--she said; and for the first time he noticed a
startled look on her face; but in another moment it
gave way to a slow smile of wonder and contentment.

"Oh"--she murmured again, on a different note, as
he stood looking down at her; and without rising she
made a place for him on the bench.

"I'm here on business--just got here," Archer
explained; and, without knowing why, he suddenly began
to feign astonishment at seeing her. "But what on earth
are you doing in this wilderness?" He had really no
idea what he was saying: he felt as if he were shouting
at her across endless distances, and she might vanish
again before he could overtake her.

"I? Oh, I'm here on business too," she answered,
turning her head toward him so that they were face to
face. The words hardly reached him: he was aware
only of her voice, and of the startling fact that not an
echo of it had remained in his memory. He had not
even remembered that it was low-pitched, with a faint
roughness on the consonants.

"You do your hair differently," he said, his heart
beating as if he had uttered something irrevocable.

"Differently? No--it's only that I do it as best I can
when I'm without Nastasia."

"Nastasia; but isn't she with you?"

"No; I'm alone. For two days it was not worth while
to bring her."

"You're alone--at the Parker House?"

She looked at him with a flash of her old malice.
"Does it strike you as dangerous?"

"No; not dangerous--"

"But unconventional? I see; I suppose it is." She
considered a moment. "I hadn't thought of it, because
I've just done something so much more unconventional."
The faint tinge of irony lingered in her eyes. "I've just
refused to take back a sum of money--that belonged to
me."

Archer sprang up and moved a step or two away.
She had furled her parasol and sat absently drawing
patterns on the gravel. Presently he came back and
stood before her.

"Some one--has come here to meet you?"

"Yes."

"With this offer?"

She nodded.

"And you refused--because of the conditions?"

"I refused," she said after a moment.

He sat down by her again. "What were the conditions?"

"Oh, they were not onerous: just to sit at the head of
his table now and then."

There was another interval of silence. Archer's heart
had slammed itself shut in the queer way it had, and he
sat vainly groping for a word.

"He wants you back--at any price?"

"Well--a considerable price. At least the sum is
considerable for me."

He paused again, beating about the question he felt
he must put.

"It was to meet him here that you came?"

She stared, and then burst into a laugh. "Meet
him--my husband? HERE? At this season he's always at
Cowes or Baden."

"He sent some one?"

"Yes."

"With a letter?"

She shook her head. "No; just a message. He never
writes. I don't think I've had more than one letter from
him." The allusion brought the colour to her cheek,
and it reflected itself in Archer's vivid blush.

"Why does he never write?"

"Why should he? What does one have secretaries
for?"

The young man's blush deepened. She had pronounced
the word as if it had no more significance than any
other in her vocabulary. For a moment it was on the
tip of his tongue to ask: "Did he send his secretary,
then?" But the remembrance of Count Olenski's only
letter to his wife was too present to him. He paused
again, and then took another plunge.

"And the person?"--

"The emissary? The emissary," Madame Olenska
rejoined, still smiling, "might, for all I care, have left
already; but he has insisted on waiting till this evening
. . . in case . . . on the chance . . ."

"And you came out here to think the chance over?"

"I came out to get a breath of air. The hotel's too
stifling. I'm taking the afternoon train back to Portsmouth."

They sat silent, not looking at each other, but straight
ahead at the people passing along the path. Finally she
turned her eyes again to his face and said: "You're not
changed."

He felt like answering: "I was, till I saw you again;"
but instead he stood up abruptly and glanced about
him at the untidy sweltering park.

"This is horrible. Why shouldn't we go out a little on
the bay? There's a breeze, and it will be cooler. We
might take the steamboat down to Point Arley." She
glanced up at him hesitatingly and he went on: "On a
Monday morning there won't be anybody on the boat.
My train doesn't leave till evening: I'm going back to
New York. Why shouldn't we?" he insisted, looking
down at her; and suddenly he broke out: "Haven't we
done all we could?"

"Oh"--she murmured again. She stood up and
reopened her sunshade, glancing about her as if to take
counsel of the scene, and assure herself of the impossibility
of remaining in it. Then her eyes returned to his
face. "You mustn't say things like that to me," she
said.

"I'll say anything you like; or nothing. I won't open
my mouth unless you tell me to. What harm can it do
to anybody? All I want is to listen to you," he
stammered.

She drew out a little gold-faced watch on an
enamelled chain. "Oh, don't calculate," he broke out; "give
me the day! I want to get you away from that man. At
what time was he coming?"

Her colour rose again. "At eleven."

"Then you must come at once."

"You needn't be afraid--if I don't come."

"Nor you either--if you do. I swear I only want to
hear about you, to know what you've been doing. It's a
hundred years since we've met--it may be another
hundred before we meet again."

She still wavered, her anxious eyes on his face. "Why
didn't you come down to the beach to fetch me, the
day I was at Granny's?" she asked.

"Because you didn't look round--because you didn't
know I was there. I swore I wouldn't unless you looked
round." He laughed as the childishness of the confession
struck him.

"But I didn't look round on purpose."

"On purpose?"

"I knew you were there; when you drove in I
recognised the ponies. So I went down to the beach."

"To get away from me as far as you could?"

She repeated in a low voice: "To get away from you
as far as I could."

He laughed out again, this time in boyish satisfaction.
"Well, you see it's no use. I may as well tell you,"
he added, "that the business I came here for was just to
find you. But, look here, we must start or we shall miss
our boat."

"Our boat?" She frowned perplexedly, and then
smiled. "Oh, but I must go back to the hotel first: I
must leave a note--"

"As many notes as you please. You can write here."
He drew out a note-case and one of the new stylographic
pens. "I've even got an envelope--you see how
everything's predestined! There--steady the thing on
your knee, and I'll get the pen going in a second. They
have to be humoured; wait--" He banged the hand
that held the pen against the back of the bench. "It's
like jerking down the mercury in a thermometer: just a
trick. Now try--"

She laughed, and bending over the sheet of paper
which he had laid on his note-case, began to write.
Archer walked away a few steps, staring with radiant
unseeing eyes at the passersby, who, in their turn,
paused to stare at the unwonted sight of a fashionably-
dressed lady writing a note on her knee on a bench in
the Common.

Madame Olenska slipped the sheet into the envelope,
wrote a name on it, and put it into her pocket. Then
she too stood up.

They walked back toward Beacon Street, and near
the club Archer caught sight of the plush-lined "herdic"
which had carried his note to the Parker House,
and whose driver was reposing from this effort by
bathing his brow at the corner hydrant.

"I told you everything was predestined! Here's a cab
for us. You see!" They laughed, astonished at the miracle
of picking up a public conveyance at that hour, and
in that unlikely spot, in a city where cab-stands were
still a "foreign" novelty.

Archer, looking at his watch, saw that there was
time to drive to the Parker House before going to the
steamboat landing. They rattled through the hot streets
and drew up at the door of the hotel.

Archer held out his hand for the letter. "Shall I take
it in?" he asked; but Madame Olenska, shaking her
head, sprang out and disappeared through the glazed
doors. It was barely half-past ten; but what if the
emissary, impatient for her reply, and not knowing how
else to employ his time, were already seated among the
travellers with cooling drinks at their elbows of whom
Archer had caught a glimpse as she went in?

He waited, pacing up and down before the herdic. A
Sicilian youth with eyes like Nastasia's offered to shine
his boots, and an Irish matron to sell him peaches; and
every few moments the doors opened to let out hot
men with straw hats tilted far back, who glanced at
him as they went by. He marvelled that the door should
open so often, and that all the people it let out should
look so like each other, and so like all the other hot
men who, at that hour, through the length and breadth
of the land, were passing continuously in and out of
the swinging doors of hotels.

And then, suddenly, came a face that he could not
relate to the other faces. He caught but a flash of it, for
his pacings had carried him to the farthest point of his
beat, and it was in turning back to the hotel that he
saw, in a group of typical countenances--the lank and
weary, the round and surprised, the lantern-jawed and
mild--this other face that was so many more things at
once, and things so different. It was that of a young
man, pale too, and half-extinguished by the heat, or
worry, or both, but somehow, quicker, vivider, more
conscious; or perhaps seeming so because he was so
different. Archer hung a moment on a thin thread of
memory, but it snapped and floated off with the disappearing
face--apparently that of some foreign business
man, looking doubly foreign in such a setting. He
vanished in the stream of passersby, and Archer
resumed his patrol.

He did not care to be seen watch in hand within
view of the hotel, and his unaided reckoning of the
lapse of time led him to conclude that, if Madame
Olenska was so long in reappearing, it could only be
because she had met the emissary and been waylaid by
him. At the thought Archer's apprehension rose to
anguish.

"If she doesn't come soon I'll go in and find her," he
said.

The doors swung open again and she was at his side.
They got into the herdic, and as it drove off he took
out his watch and saw that she had been absent just
three minutes. In the clatter of loose windows that
made talk impossible they bumped over the disjointed
cobblestones to the wharf.


Seated side by side on a bench of the half-empty boat
they found that they had hardly anything to say to each
other, or rather that what they had to say communicated
itself best in the blessed silence of their release
and their isolation.

As the paddle-wheels began to turn, and wharves
and shipping to recede through the veil of heat, it
seemed to Archer that everything in the old familiar
world of habit was receding also. He longed to ask
Madame Olenska if she did not have the same feeling:
the feeling that they were starting on some long voyage
from which they might never return. But he was afraid
to say it, or anything else that might disturb the delicate
balance of her trust in him. In reality he had no
wish to betray that trust. There had been days and
nights when the memory of their kiss had burned and
burned on his lips; the day before even, on the drive to
Portsmouth, the thought of her had run through him
like fire; but now that she was beside him, and they
were drifting forth into this unknown world, they seemed
to have reached the kind of deeper nearness that a
touch may sunder.

As the boat left the harbour and turned seaward a
breeze stirred about them and the bay broke up into
long oily undulations, then into ripples tipped with
spray. The fog of sultriness still hung over the city, but
ahead lay a fresh world of ruffled waters, and distant
promontories with light-houses in the sun. Madame
Olenska, leaning back against the boat-rail, drank in
the coolness between parted lips. She had wound a
long veil about her hat, but it left her face uncovered,
and Archer was struck by the tranquil gaiety of her
expression. She seemed to take their adventure as a
matter of course, and to be neither in fear of unexpected
encounters, nor (what was worse) unduly elated
by their possibility.

In the bare dining-room of the inn, which he had
hoped they would have to themselves, they found a
strident party of innocent-looking young men and
women--school-teachers on a holiday, the landlord told
them--and Archer's heart sank at the idea of having to
talk through their noise.

"This is hopeless--I'll ask for a private room," he
said; and Madame Olenska, without offering any objection,
waited while he went in search of it. The room
opened on a long wooden verandah, with the sea coming
in at the windows. It was bare and cool, with a
table covered with a coarse checkered cloth and adorned
by a bottle of pickles and a blueberry pie under a cage.
No more guileless-looking cabinet particulier ever
offered its shelter to a clandestine couple: Archer fancied
he saw the sense of its reassurance in the faintly amused
smile with which Madame Olenska sat down opposite
to him. A woman who had run away from her husband--
and reputedly with another man--was likely to have
mastered the art of taking things for granted; but
something in the quality of her composure took the edge
from his irony. By being so quiet, so unsurprised and
so simple she had managed to brush away the conventions
and make him feel that to seek to be alone was
the natural thing for two old friends who had so much
to say to each other. . . .





The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Category:
General Fiction
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