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Chapter XXIX

His wife's dark blue brougham (with the wedding
varnish still on it) met Archer at the ferry, and
conveyed him luxuriously to the Pennsylvania terminus
in Jersey City.

It was a sombre snowy afternoon, and the gas-lamps
were lit in the big reverberating station. As he paced
the platform, waiting for the Washington express, he
remembered that there were people who thought there
would one day be a tunnel under the Hudson through
which the trains of the Pennsylvania railway would run
straight into New York. They were of the brotherhood
of visionaries who likewise predicted the building of
ships that would cross the Atlantic in five days, the
invention of a flying machine, lighting by electricity,
telephonic communication without wires, and other
Arabian Night marvels.

"I don't care which of their visions comes true,"
Archer mused, "as long as the tunnel isn't built yet." In
his senseless school-boy happiness he pictured Madame
Olenska's descent from the train, his discovery of her a
long 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 startling
quiet of the ferry-boat, where they would sit side
by 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 what
eloquent order they were forming themselves on his
lips . . .

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 into
window after window of the high-hung carriages. And
then, suddenly, he saw Madame Olenska's pale and
surprised face close at hand, and had again the mortified
sensation of having forgotten what she looked like.

They reached each other, their hands met, and he
drew her arm through his. "This way--I have the
carriage," he said.

After that it all happened as he had dreamed. He
helped her into the brougham with her bags, and had
afterward the vague recollection of having properly
reassured her about her grandmother and given her a
summary of the Beaufort situation (he was struck by
the softness of her: "Poor Regina!"). Meanwhile the
carriage had worked its way out of the coil about the
station, and they were crawling down the slippery
incline to the wharf, menaced by swaying coal-carts,
bewildered horses, dishevelled express-wagons, and an
empty hearse--ah, that hearse! She shut her eyes as it
passed, 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 that
made all the difference. Her hand remained in his, and
as the carriage lurched across the gang-plank onto the
ferry he bent over, unbuttoned her tight brown glove,
and kissed her palm as if he had kissed a relic. She
disengaged herself with a faint smile, and he said:
"You didn't expect me today?"

"Oh, no."

"I meant to go to Washington to see you. I'd made
all my arrangements--I very nearly crossed you in the
train."

"Oh--" she exclaimed, as if terrified by the narrowness
of their escape.

"Do you know--I hardly remembered you?"

"Hardly remembered me?"

"I mean: how shall I explain? I--it's always so. EACH
TIME 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.

"Ellen--Ellen--Ellen!"

She made no answer, and he sat in silence, watching
her profile grow indistinct against the snow-streaked
dusk beyond the window. What had she been doing in
all those four long months, he wondered? How little
they knew of each other, after all! The precious moments
were slipping away, but he had forgotten everything
that he had meant to say to her and could only
helplessly brood on the mystery of their remoteness
and their proximity, which seemed to be symbolised by
the fact of their sitting so close to each other, and yet
being unable to see each other's faces.

"What a pretty carriage! Is it May's?" she asked,
suddenly turning her face from the window.

"Yes."

"It was May who sent you to fetch me, then? How
kind of her!"

He made no answer for a moment; then he said
explosively: "Your husband's secretary came to see me
the day after we met in Boston."

In his brief letter to her he had made no allusion to
M. 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 in
Boston that he knew you; that he'd met you in England
I think."

"Ellen--I must ask you one thing."

"Yes."

"I wanted to ask it after I saw him, but I couldn't
put it in a letter. It was Riviere who helped you to
get away--when you left your husband?"

His heart was beating suffocatingly. Would she meet
this question with the same composure?

"Yes: I owe him a great debt," she answered, without
the least tremor in her quiet voice.

Her tone was so natural, so almost indifferent, that
Archer's turmoil subsided. Once more she had managed,
by her sheer simplicity, to make him feel stupidly
conventional just when he thought he was flinging
convention 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," she
answered, a smile in her voice.

"Call it what you like: you look at things as they
are."

"Ah--I've had to. I've had to look at the Gorgon."

"Well--it hasn't blinded you! You've seen that she's
just 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: it
seemed to come from depths of experience beyond his
reach. The slow advance of the ferry-boat had ceased,
and her bows bumped against the piles of the slip with
a violence that made the brougham stagger, and flung
Archer and Madame Olenska against each other. The
young man, trembling, felt the pressure of her shoulder,
and passed his arm about her.

"If you're not blind, then, you must see that this
can't last."

"What can't?"

"Our being together--and not together."

"No. You ought not to have come today," she said
in an altered voice; and suddenly she turned, flung her
arms about him and pressed her lips to his. At the same
moment the carriage began to move, and a gas-lamp at
the head of the slip flashed its light into the window.
She drew away, and they sat silent and motionless
while the brougham struggled through the congestion
of carriages about the ferry-landing. As they gained the
street Archer began to speak hurriedly.

"Don't be afraid of me: you needn't squeeze yourself
back into your corner like that. A stolen kiss isn't what
I want. Look: I'm not even trying to touch the sleeve of
your jacket. Don't suppose that I don't understand
your reasons for not wanting to let this feeling between
us dwindle into an ordinary hole-and-corner love-affair.
I couldn't have spoken like this yesterday, because when
we've been apart, and I'm looking forward to seeing
you, every thought is burnt up in a great flame. But
then you come; and you're so much more than I
remembered, and what I want of you is so much more
than an hour or two every now and then, with wastes
of thirsty waiting between, that I can sit perfectly still
beside 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 trusting
to it to come true?"

"Why--you know it will, don't you?"

"Your vision of you and me together?" She burst
into a sudden hard laugh. "You choose your place well
to 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 you
mind a little snow?"

She laughed again, more gently. "No; I shan't get
out and walk, because my business is to get to Granny's
as quickly as I can. And you'll sit beside me, and
we'll look, not at visions, but at realities."

"I don't know what you mean by realities. The only
reality to me is this."

She met the words with a long silence, during which
the carriage rolled down an obscure side-street and
then turned into the searching illumination of Fifth
Avenue.

"Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as
your mistress--since I can't be your wife?" she asked.

The crudeness of the question startled him: the word
was one that women of his class fought shy of, even
when their talk flitted closest about the topic. He
noticed that Madame Olenska pronounced it as if it had a
recognised place in her vocabulary, and he wondered if
it had been used familiarly in her presence in the horrible
life she had fled from. Her question pulled him up
with a jerk, and he floundered.

"I want--I want somehow to get away with you into
a world where words like that--categories like that--
won't exist. Where we shall be simply two human
beings who love each other, who are the whole of life
to 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 ever
been there?" she asked; and as he remained sullenly
dumb she went on: "I know so many who've tried to
find it; and, believe me, they all got out by mistake at
wayside stations: at places like Boulogne, or Pisa, or
Monte Carlo--and it wasn't at all different from the
old world they'd left, but only rather smaller and dingier
and more promiscuous."

He had never heard her speak in such a tone, and he
remembered the phrase she had used a little while
before.

"Yes, the Gorgon HAS dried your tears," he said.

"Well, she opened my eyes too; it's a delusion to say
that she blinds people. What she does is just the
contrary--she fastens their eyelids open, so that they're
never again in the blessed darkness. Isn't there a Chinese
torture like that? There ought to be. Ah, believe
me, it's a miserable little country!"

The carriage had crossed Forty-second Street: May's
sturdy brougham-horse was carrying them northward
as if he had been a Kentucky trotter. Archer choked
with 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 near
each other only if we stay far from each other. Then we
can be ourselves. Otherwise we're only Newland Archer,
the husband of Ellen Olenska's cousin, and Ellen
Olenska, the cousin of Newland Archer's wife, trying
to be happy behind the backs of the people who trust
them."

"Ah, I'm beyond that," he groaned.

"No, you're not! You've never been beyond. And I
have," she said, in a strange voice, "and I know what it
looks like there."

He sat silent, dazed with inarticulate pain. Then he
groped in the darkness of the carriage for the little bell
that signalled orders to the coachman. He remembered
that May rang twice when she wished to stop. He
pressed the bell, and the carriage drew up beside the
curbstone.

"Why are we stopping? This is not Granny's," Madame
Olenska exclaimed.

"No: I shall get out here," he stammered, opening
the door and jumping to the pavement. By the light of
a street-lamp he saw her startled face, and the instinctive
motion she made to detain him. He closed the
door, and leaned for a moment in the window.

"You're right: I ought not to have come today," he
said, lowering his voice so that the coachman should
not hear. She bent forward, and seemed about to speak;
but he had already called out the order to drive on, and
the carriage rolled away while he stood on the corner.
The snow was over, and a tingling wind had sprung
up, that lashed his face as he stood gazing. Suddenly he
felt something stiff and cold on his lashes, and perceived
that he had been crying, and that the wind had
frozen his tears.

He thrust his hands in his pockets, and walked at a
sharp pace down Fifth Avenue to his own house.





The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Category:
General Fiction
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