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Chapter XXXI

Archer had been stunned by old Catherine's news.
It was only natural that Madame Olenska should
have hastened from Washington in response to her
grandmother's summons; but that she should have decided
to remain under her roof--especially now that
Mrs. Mingott had almost regained her health--was less
easy to explain.

Archer was sure that Madame Olenska's decision
had not been influenced by the change in her financial
situation. He knew the exact figure of the small income
which her husband had allowed her at their separation.
Without the addition of her grandmother's allowance it
was hardly enough to live on, in any sense known to
the Mingott vocabulary; and now that Medora Manson,
who shared her life, had been ruined, such a
pittance would barely keep the two women clothed and
fed. Yet Archer was convinced that Madame Olenska
had not accepted her grandmother's offer from interested

She had the heedless generosity and the spasmodic
extravagance of persons used to large fortunes, and
indifferent to money; but she could go without many
things which her relations considered indispensable,
and Mrs. Lovell Mingott and Mrs. Welland had often
been heard to deplore that any one who had enjoyed
the cosmopolitan luxuries of Count Olenski's establishments
should care so little about "how things were
done." Moreover, as Archer knew, several months had
passed since her allowance had been cut off; yet in the
interval she had made no effort to regain her grand-
mother's favour. Therefore if she had changed her course
it must be for a different reason.

He did not have far to seek for that reason. On the
way from the ferry she had told him that he and she
must remain apart; but she had said it with her head
on his breast. He knew that there was no calculated
coquetry in her words; she was fighting her fate as he
had fought his, and clinging desperately to her resolve
that they should not break faith with the people who
trusted them. But during the ten days which had elapsed
since her return to New York she had perhaps guessed
from his silence, and from the fact of his making no
attempt to see her, that he was meditating a decisive
step, a step from which there was no turning back. At
the thought, a sudden fear of her own weakness might
have seized her, and she might have felt that, after all,
it was better to accept the compromise usual in such
cases, and follow the line of least resistance.

An hour earlier, when he had rung Mrs. Mingott's
bell, Archer had fancied that his path was clear before
him. He had meant to have a word alone with Madame
Olenska, and failing that, to learn from her
grandmother on what day, and by which train, she was
returning to Washington. In that train he intended to
join her, and travel with her to Washington, or as
much farther as she was willing to go. His own fancy
inclined to Japan. At any rate she would understand at
once that, wherever she went, he was going. He meant
to leave a note for May that should cut off any other

He had fancied himself not only nerved for this
plunge but eager to take it; yet his first feeling on
hearing that the course of events was changed had been
one of relief. Now, however, as he walked home from
Mrs. Mingott's, he was conscious of a growing distaste
for what lay before him. There was nothing unknown
or 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, and
could lend himself with an amused detachment to the
game of precautions and prevarications, concealments
and compliances, that the part required. This procedure
was called "protecting a woman's honour"; and
the best fiction, combined with the after-dinner talk of
his elders, had long since initiated him into every detail
of its code.

Now he saw the matter in a new light, and his part
in it seemed singularly diminished. It was, in fact, that
which, with a secret fatuity, he had watched Mrs.
Thorley Rushworth play toward a fond and unperceiving
husband: a smiling, bantering, humouring, watchful
and incessant lie. A lie by day, a lie by night, a lie in
every touch and every look; a lie in every caress and
every quarrel; a lie in every word and in every silence.

It was easier, and less dastardly on the whole, for a
wife to play such a part toward her husband. A woman's
standard of truthfulness was tacitly held to be
lower: she was the subject creature, and versed in the
arts of the enslaved. Then she could always plead moods
and nerves, and the right not to be held too strictly to
account; and even in the most strait-laced societies the
laugh was always against the husband.

But in Archer's little world no one laughed at a wife
deceived, and a certain measure of contempt was
attached to men who continued their philandering after
marriage. In the rotation of crops there was a recognised
season for wild oats; but they were not to be sown
more than once.

Archer had always shared this view: in his heart he
thought Lefferts despicable. But to love Ellen Olenska
was not to become a man like Lefferts: for the first
time Archer found himself face to face with the dread
argument of the individual case. Ellen Olenska was like
no other woman, he was like no other man: their
situation, therefore, resembled no one else's, and they
were answerable to no tribunal but that of their own

Yes, but in ten minutes more he would be mounting
his own doorstep; and there were May, and habit, and
honour, and all the old decencies that he and his people
had always believed in . . .

At his corner he hesitated, and then walked on down
Fifth Avenue.

Ahead of him, in the winter night, loomed a big unlit
house. As he drew near he thought how often he had
seen it blazing with lights, its steps awninged and carpeted,
and carriages waiting in double line to draw up
at the curbstone. It was in the conservatory that stretched
its dead-black bulk down the side street that he had
taken his first kiss from May; it was under the myriad
candles 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 a
faint flare of gas in the basement, and a light in one
upstairs room where the blind had not been lowered.
As Archer reached the corner he saw that the carriage
standing at the door was Mrs. Manson Mingott's. What
an opportunity for Sillerton Jackson, if he should chance
to pass! Archer had been greatly moved by old Catherine's
account of Madame Olenska's attitude toward
Mrs. Beaufort; it made the righteous reprobation of
New York seem like a passing by on the other side. But
he knew well enough what construction the clubs and
drawing-rooms would put on Ellen Olenska's visits to
her cousin.

He paused and looked up at the lighted window. No
doubt the two women were sitting together in that
room: Beaufort had probably sought consolation elsewhere.
There were even rumours that he had left New
York with Fanny Ring; but Mrs. Beaufort's attitude
made the report seem improbable.

Archer had the nocturnal perspective of Fifth Avenue
almost to himself. At that hour most people were
indoors, dressing for dinner; and he was secretly glad
that Ellen's exit was likely to be unobserved. As the
thought passed through his mind the door opened, and
she came out. Behind her was a faint light, such as
might have been carried down the stairs to show her
the way. She turned to say a word to some one; then
the door closed, and she came down the steps.

"Ellen," he said in a low voice, as she reached the

She stopped with a slight start, and just then he saw
two young men of fashionable cut approaching. There
was a familiar air about their overcoats and the way
their smart silk mufflers were folded over their white
ties; and he wondered how youths of their quality
happened to be dining out so early. Then he remembered
that the Reggie Chiverses, whose house was a
few doors above, were taking a large party that evening
to see Adelaide Neilson in Romeo and Juliet, and guessed
that the two were of the number. They passed under a
lamp, and he recognised Lawrence Lefferts and a young

A mean desire not to have Madame Olenska seen at
the Beauforts' door vanished as he felt the penetrating
warmth of her hand.

"I shall see you now--we shall be together," he
broke out, hardly knowing what he said.

"Ah," she answered, "Granny has told you?"

While he watched her he was aware that Lefferts and
Chivers, on reaching the farther side of the street corner,
had discreetly struck away across Fifth Avenue. It
was the kind of masculine solidarity that he himself
often practised; now he sickened at their connivance.
Did she really imagine that he and she could live like
this? And if not, what else did she imagine?

"Tomorrow I must see you--somewhere where we
can be alone," he said, in a voice that sounded almost
angry 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 plans
required 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 . . . no

"There's the Art Museum--in the Park," he explained,
as she looked puzzled. "At half-past two. I shall be at
the door . . ."

She turned away without answering and got quickly
into 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 to
the woman he loved but to another, a woman he was
indebted to for pleasures already wearied of: it was
hateful to find himself the prisoner of this hackneyed

"She'll come!" he said to himself, almost contemptuously.

Avoiding the popular "Wolfe collection," whose anecdotic
canvases filled one of the main galleries of the queer
wilderness of cast-iron and encaustic tiles known as the
Metropolitan Museum, they had wandered down a
passage to the room where the "Cesnola antiquities"
mouldered in unvisited loneliness.

They had this melancholy retreat to themselves, and
seated on the divan enclosing the central steam-radiator,
they were staring silently at the glass cabinets mounted
in ebonised wood which contained the recovered fragments
of Ilium.

"It's odd," Madame Olenska said, "I never came
here before."

"Ah, well--. Some day, I suppose, it will be a great

"Yes," she assented absently.

She stood up and wandered across the room. Archer,
remaining seated, watched the light movements of her
figure, so girlish even under its heavy furs, the cleverly
planted heron wing in her fur cap, and the way a dark
curl lay like a flattened vine spiral on each cheek above
the ear. His mind, as always when they first met, was
wholly absorbed in the delicious details that made her
herself and no other. Presently he rose and approached
the case before which she stood. Its glass shelves were
crowded with small broken objects--hardly recognisable
domestic utensils, ornaments and personal trifles--made
of glass, of clay, of discoloured bronze and other time-
blurred substances.

"It seems cruel," she said, "that after a while nothing
matters . . . any more than these little things, that used
to be necessary and important to forgotten people, and
now have to be guessed at under a magnifying glass
and labelled: `Use unknown.'"

"Yes; but meanwhile--"

"Ah, meanwhile--"

As she stood there, in her long sealskin coat, her
hands thrust in a small round muff, her veil drawn
down like a transparent mask to the tip of her nose,
and the bunch of violets he had brought her stirring
with her quickly-taken breath, it seemed incredible that
this pure harmony of line and colour should ever suffer
the stupid law of change.

"Meanwhile everything matters--that concerns you,"
he said.

She looked at him thoughtfully, and turned back to
the divan. He sat down beside her and waited; but
suddenly he heard a step echoing far off down the
empty rooms, and felt the pressure of the minutes.

"What is it you wanted to tell me?" she asked, as if
she had received the same warning.

"What I wanted to tell you?" he rejoined. "Why,
that I believe you came to New York because you were


"Of my coming to Washington."

She looked down at her muff, and he saw her hands
stir 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 with
a long questioning sigh.


"We shall hurt others less. Isn't it, after all, what you
always wanted?"

"To have you here, you mean--in reach and yet out
of reach? To meet you in this way, on the sly? It's the
very reverse of what I want. I told you the other day
what I wanted."

She hesitated. "And you still think this--worse?"

"A thousand times!" He paused. "It would be easy
to 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 turn
to ask: what is it, in God's name, that you think

She hung her head and continued to clasp and unclasp
her hands in her muff. The step drew nearer, and
a guardian in a braided cap walked listlessly through
the room like a ghost stalking through a necropolis.
They fixed their eyes simultaneously on the case opposite
them, and when the official figure had vanished
down a vista of mummies and sarcophagi Archer spoke

"What do you think better?"

Instead of answering she murmured: "I promised
Granny to stay with her because it seemed to me that
here I should be safer."

"From me?"

She bent her head slightly, without looking at him.

"Safer from loving me?"

Her profile did not stir, but he saw a tear overflow
on her lashes and hang in a mesh of her veil.

"Safer from doing irreparable harm. Don't let us be
like all the others!" she protested.

"What others? I don't profess to be different from
my kind. I'm consumed by the same wants and the
same longings."

She glanced at him with a kind of terror, and he saw
a faint colour steal into her cheeks.

"Shall I--once come to you; and then go home?" she
suddenly hazarded in a low clear voice.

The blood rushed to the young man's forehead.
"Dearest!" he said, without moving. It seemed as if he
held his heart in his hands, like a full cup that the least
motion might overbrim.

Then her last phrase struck his ear and his face
clouded. "Go home? What do you mean by going

"Home to my husband."

"And you expect me to say yes to that?"

She raised her troubled eyes to his. "What else is
there? I can't stay here and lie to the people who've
been good to me."

"But that's the very reason why I ask you to come

"And destroy their lives, when they've helped me to
remake mine?"

Archer sprang to his feet and stood looking down on
her in inarticulate despair. It would have been easy to
say: "Yes, come; come once." He knew the power she
would put in his hands if she consented; there would
be no difficulty then in persuading her not to go back
to her husband.

But something silenced the word on his lips. A sort
of passionate honesty in her made it inconceivable that
he should try to draw her into that familiar trap. "If I
were to let her come," he said to himself, "I should
have to let her go again." And that was not to be

But he saw the shadow of the lashes on her wet
cheek, and wavered.

"After all," he began again, "we have lives of our
own. . . . There's no use attempting the impossible.
You're so unprejudiced about some things, so used, as
you say, to looking at the Gorgon, that I don't know
why you're afraid to face our case, and see it as it
really is--unless you think the sacrifice is not worth

She stood up also, her lips tightening under a rapid

"Call it that, then--I must go," she said, drawing her
little watch from her bosom.

She turned away, and he followed and caught her by
the wrist. "Well, then: come to me once," he said, his
head turning suddenly at the thought of losing her; and
for a second or two they looked at each other almost
like enemies.

"When?" he insisted. "Tomorrow?"

She hesitated. "The day after."

"Dearest--!" he said again.

She had disengaged her wrist; but for a moment they
continued to hold each other's eyes, and he saw that
her face, which had grown very pale, was flooded with
a deep inner radiance. His heart beat with awe: he felt
that he had never before beheld love visible.

"Oh, I shall be late--good-bye. No, don't come any
farther than this," she cried, walking hurriedly away
down the long room, as if the reflected radiance in his
eyes had frightened her. When she reached the door she
turned for a moment to wave a quick farewell.

Archer walked home alone. Darkness was falling when
he let himself into his house, and he looked about at
the familiar objects in the hall as if he viewed them
from the other side of the grave.

The parlour-maid, hearing his step, ran up the stairs
to light the gas on the upper landing.

"Is Mrs. Archer in?"

"No, sir; Mrs. Archer went out in the carriage after
luncheon, and hasn't come back."

With a sense of relief he entered the library and flung
himself down in his armchair. The parlour-maid followed,
bringing the student lamp and shaking some
coals onto the dying fire. When she left he continued to
sit motionless, his elbows on his knees, his chin on his
clasped hands, his eyes fixed on the red grate.

He sat there without conscious thoughts, without
sense of the lapse of time, in a deep and grave amazement
that seemed to suspend life rather than quicken it.
"This was what had to be, then . . . this was what had
to be," he kept repeating to himself, as if he hung in
the clutch of doom. What he had dreamed of had been
so 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 of
her rare caresses.

He looked up astonished. "Is it late?"

"After seven. I believe you've been asleep!" She
laughed, and drawing out her hat pins tossed her velvet
hat on the sofa. She looked paler than usual, but sparkling
with an unwonted animation.

"I went to see Granny, and just as I was going away
Ellen came in from a walk; so I stayed and had a long
talk 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 what
seemed to Archer an unnatural vividness. "She was so
dear--just like the old Ellen. I'm afraid I haven't been
fair 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 so
different--at least on the surface. She takes up such
odd people--she seems to like to make herself conspicuous.
I suppose it's the life she's led in that fast European
society; no doubt we seem dreadfully dull to her.
But I don't want to judge her unfairly."

She paused again, a little breathless with the
unwonted length of her speech, and sat with her lips
slightly parted and a deep blush on her cheeks.

Archer, as he looked at her, was reminded of the
glow which had suffused her face in the Mission Garden
at St. Augustine. He became aware of the same
obscure effort in her, the same reaching out toward
something beyond the usual range of her vision.

"She hates Ellen," he thought, "and she's trying to
overcome the feeling, and to get me to help her to
overcome it."

The thought moved him, and for a moment he was
on the point of breaking the silence between them, and
throwing himself on her mercy.

"You understand, don't you," she went on, "why
the family have sometimes been annoyed? We all did
what we could for her at first; but she never seemed to
understand. And now this idea of going to see Mrs.
Beaufort, of going there in Granny's carriage! I'm afraid
she's quite alienated the van der Luydens . . ."

"Ah," said Archer with an impatient laugh. The
open door had closed between them again.

"It's time to dress; we're dining out, aren't we?" he
asked, moving from the fire.

She rose also, but lingered near the hearth. As he
walked past her she moved forward impulsively, as
though to detain him: their eyes met, and he saw that
hers were of the same swimming blue as when he had
left her to drive to Jersey City.

She flung her arms about his neck and pressed her
cheek to his.

"You haven't kissed me today," she said in a whisper;
and he felt her tremble in his arms.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
General Fiction
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