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The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
lunched slowly and meditatively, with mute intervals between rushes of
talk; for, the spell once broken, they had much to say, and yet moments
when saying became the mere accompaniment to long duologues of silence.
Archer kept the talk from his own affairs, not with conscious
intention but because he did not want to miss a word of her history; and
leaning on the table, her chin resting on her clasped hands, she talked to
him of the year and a half since they had met.
had grown tired of what people called "society"; New York was
kind, it was almost oppressively hospitable; she should never forget the
way in which it had welcomed her back; but after the first flush of
novelty she had found herself, as she phrased it, too
"different" to care for the things it cared about--and so she
had decided to try Washington, where one was supposed to meet more
varieties of people and of opinion. And on the whole she should probably settle down in
Washington, and make a home there for poor Medora, who had worn out the
patience of all her other relations just at the time when she most needed
looking after and protecting from matrimonial perils.
Dr. Carver--aren't you afraid of Dr. Carver?
I hear he's been staying with you at the Blenkers'."
smiled. "Oh, the Carver
danger is over. Dr. Carver is
a very clever man. He wants a
rich wife to finance his plans, and Medora is simply a good advertisement
as a convert."
convert to what?"
all sorts of new and crazy social schemes.
But, do you know, they interest me more than the blind conformity
to tradition--somebody else's tradition--that I see among our own friends.
It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a
copy of another country." She smiled across the table.
"Do you suppose Christopher Columbus would have taken all that
trouble just to go to the Opera with the Selfridge Merrys?"
changed colour. "And
Beaufort--do you say these things to Beaufort?" he asked abruptly.
haven't seen him for a long time. But
I used to; and he understands."
it's what I've always told you; you don't like us. And you like Beaufort
because he's so unlike us." He looked about the bare room and out at
the bare beach and the row of stark white village houses strung along the
shore. "We're damnably
dull. We've no character, no
colour, no variety.--I wonder," he broke out, "why you don't go
eyes darkened, and he expected an indignant rejoinder.
But she sat silent, as if thinking over what he had said, and he grew
frightened lest she should answer that she wondered too.
length she said: "I
believe it's because of you."
was impossible to make the confession more dispassionately, or in a tone
less encouraging to the vanity of the person addressed. Archer reddened to the temples, but dared not move or speak:
it was as if her words had been some rare butterfly that the least motion
might drive off on startled wings, but that might gather a flock about it if
it were left undisturbed.
least," she continued, "it was you who made me understand that
under the dullness there are things so fine and sensitive and delicate that
even those I most cared for in my other life look cheap in comparison.
I don't know how to explain myself"--she drew together her
troubled brows-- "but it seems as if I'd never before understood with
how much that is hard and shabby and base the most exquisite pleasures may
pleasures--it's something to have had them!" he felt like retorting;
but the appeal in her eyes kept him silent.
want," she went on, "to be perfectly honest with you--and with
myself. For a long time I've
hoped this chance would come: that I might tell you how you've helped me,
what you've made of me--"
sat staring beneath frowning brows. He
interrupted her with a laugh. "And
what do you make out that you've made of me?"
paled a little. "Of
for I'm of your making much more than you ever were of mine.
I'm the man who married one woman because another one told him
paleness turned to a fugitive flush. "I
thought-- you promised--you were not to say such things today."
like a woman! None of you will
ever see a bad business through!"
lowered her voice. "IS it
a bad business--for May?"
stood in the window, drumming against the raised sash, and feeling in every
fibre the wistful tenderness with which she had spoken her cousin's name.
that's the thing we've always got to think of-- haven't we--by your own
showing?" she insisted.
own showing?" he echoed, his blank eyes still on the sea.
if not," she continued, pursuing her own thought with a painful
application, "if it's not worth while to have given up, to have missed
things, so that others may be saved from disillusionment and misery--then
everything I came home for, everything that made my other life seem by
contrast so bare and so poor because no one there took account of them--all
these things are a sham or a dream--"
turned around without moving from his place. "And in that case there's
no reason on earth why you shouldn't go back?" he concluded for her.
eyes were clinging to him desperately.
"Oh, IS there no reason?"
if you staked your all on the success of my marriage. My marriage," he said savagely, "isn't going to be
a sight to keep you here." She
made no answer, and he went on: "What's
the use? You gave me my first
glimpse of a real life, and at the same moment you asked me to go on with a
sham one. It's beyond human
don't say that; when I'm enduring it!" she burst out, her eyes filling.
arms had dropped along the table, and she sat with her face abandoned to his
gaze as if in the recklessness of a desperate peril. The face exposed her as much as if it had been her whole
person, with the soul behind it: Archer stood dumb, overwhelmed by what it
suddenly told him.
too--oh, all this time, you too?"
answer, she let the tears on her lids overflow and run slowly downward.
the width of the room was still between them, and neither made any show of
moving. Archer was conscious of
a curious indifference to her bodily presence: he would hardly have been
aware of it if one of the hands she had flung out on the table had not drawn
his gaze as on the occasion when, in the little Twenty- third Street house,
he had kept his eye on it in order not to look at her face.
Now his imagination spun about the hand as about the edge of a
vortex; but still he made no effort to draw nearer.
He had known the love that is fed on caresses and feeds them; but
this passion that was closer than his bones was not to be superficially
satisfied. His one terror was
to do anything which might efface the sound and impression of her words; his
one thought, that he should never again feel quite alone.
after a moment the sense of waste and ruin overcame him.
There they were, close together and safe and shut in; yet so chained
to their separate destinies that they might as well have been half the world
the use--when you will go back?" he broke out, a great hopeless HOW ON
EARTH CAN I KEEP YOU? crying out to her beneath his words.
sat motionless, with lowered lids. "Oh--I
shan't go yet!"
yet? Some time, then?
Some time that you already foresee?"
that she raised her clearest eyes. "I
promise you: not as long as you hold out.
Not as long as we can look straight at each other like this."
dropped into his chair. What
her answer really said was: "If
you lift a finger you'll drive me back: back to all the abominations you
know of, and all the temptations you half guess."
He understood it as clearly as if she had uttered the words, and the
thought kept him anchored to his side of the table in a kind of moved and
a life for you!--" he groaned.
long as it's a part of yours."
mine a part of yours?"
that's to be all--for either of us?"
it IS all, isn't it?"
that he sprang up, forgetting everything but the sweetness of her face.
She rose too, not as if to meet him or to flee from him, but quietly,
as though the worst of the task were done and she had only to wait; so
quietly that, as he came close, her outstretched hands acted not as a check
but as a guide to him. They
fell into his, while her arms, extended but not rigid, kept him far enough
off to let her surrendered face say the rest.
may have stood in that way for a long time, or only for a few moments; but
it was long enough for her silence to communicate all she had to say, and
for him to feel that only one thing mattered.
He must do nothing to make this meeting their last; he must leave
their future in her care, asking only that she should keep fast hold of it.
be unhappy," she said, with a break in her voice, as she drew her hands
away; and he answered: "You
won't go back--you won't go back?" as if it were the one possibility he
could not bear.
won't go back," she said; and turning away she opened the door and led
the way into the public dining-room.
strident school-teachers were gathering up their possessions preparatory to
a straggling flight to the wharf; across the beach lay the white steam-boat
at the pier; and over the sunlit waters Boston loomed in a line of haze.
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