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The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
more on the boat, and in the presence of others, Archer felt a
tranquillity of spirit that surprised as much as it sustained him.
day, according to any current valuation, had been a rather ridiculous
failure; he had not so much as touched Madame Olenska's hand with his
lips, or extracted one word from her that gave promise of farther
for a man sick with unsatisfied love, and parting for an indefinite period
from the object of his passion, he felt himself almost humiliatingly calm
and comforted. It was the
perfect balance she had held between their loyalty to others and their
honesty to themselves that had so stirred and yet tranquillized him; a
balance not artfully calculated, as her tears and her falterings showed,
but resulting naturally from her unabashed sincerity.
It filled him with a tender awe, now the danger was over, and made
him thank the fates that no personal vanity, no sense of playing a part
before sophisticated witnesses, had tempted him to tempt her.
Even after they had clasped hands for good-bye at the Fall River
station, and he had turned away alone, the conviction remained with him of
having saved out of their meeting much more than he had sacrificed.
wandered back to the club, and went and sat alone in the deserted library,
turning and turning over in his thoughts every separate second of their
hours together. It was clear
to him, and it grew more clear under closer scrutiny, that if she should
finally decide on returning to Europe--returning to her husband--it would
not be because her old life tempted her, even on the new terms offered. No: she would go only if she felt herself becoming a
temptation to Archer, a temptation to fall away from the standard they had
both set up. Her choice would
be to stay near him as long as he did not ask her to come nearer; and it
depended on himself to keep her just there, safe but secluded.
the train these thoughts were still with him.
They enclosed him in a kind of golden haze, through which the faces
about him looked remote and indistinct: he had a feeling that if he spoke to
his fellow-travellers they would not understand what he was saying.
In this state of abstraction he found himself, the following morning,
waking to the reality of a stifling September day in New York.
The heat-withered faces in the long train streamed past him, and he
continued to stare at them through the same golden blur; but suddenly, as he
left the station, one of the faces detached itself, came closer and forced
itself upon his consciousness. It
was, as he instantly recalled, the face of the young man he had seen, the
day before, passing out of the Parker House, and had noted as not conforming
to type, as not having an American hotel face.
same thing struck him now; and again he became aware of a dim stir of former
associations. The young man
stood looking about him with the dazed air of the foreigner flung upon the
harsh mercies of American travel; then he advanced toward Archer, lifted his
hat, and said in English: "Surely,
Monsieur, we met in London?"
to be sure: in London!" Archer
grasped his hand with curiosity and sympathy.
"So you DID get here, after all?" he exclaimed, casting a
wondering eye on the astute and haggard little countenance of young Carfry's
I got here--yes," M. Riviere smiled with drawn lips.
"But not for long; I return the day after tomorrow." He
stood grasping his light valise in one neatly gloved hand, and gazing
anxiously, perplexedly, almost appealingly, into Archer's face.
wonder, Monsieur, since I've had the good luck to run across you, if I
was just going to suggest it: come to luncheon, won't you?
Down town, I mean: if you'll look me up in my office I'll take you to
a very decent restaurant in that quarter."
Riviere was visibly touched and surprised.
"You're too kind. But
I was only going to ask if you would tell me how to reach some sort of
conveyance. There are no
porters, and no one here seems to listen--"
know: our American stations must surprise you. When you ask for a porter
they give you chewing-gum. But if you'll come along I'll extricate you; and
you must really lunch with me, you know."
young man, after a just perceptible hesitation, replied, with profuse
thanks, and in a tone that did not carry complete conviction, that he was
already engaged; but when they had reached the comparative reassurance of
the street he asked if he might call that afternoon.
at ease in the midsummer leisure of the office, fixed an hour and scribbled
his address, which the Frenchman pocketed with reiterated thanks and a wide
flourish of his hat. A
horse-car received him, and Archer walked away.
at the hour M. Riviere appeared, shaved, smoothed-out, but still
unmistakably drawn and serious. Archer was alone in his office, and the
young man, before accepting the seat he proffered, began abruptly: "I
believe I saw you, sir, yesterday in Boston."
statement was insignificant enough, and Archer was about to frame an assent
when his words were checked by something mysterious yet illuminating in his
visitor's insistent gaze.
is extraordinary, very extraordinary," M. Riviere continued, "that
we should have met in the circumstances in which I find myself."
circumstances?" Archer asked, wondering a little crudely if he needed
Riviere continued to study him with tentative eyes. "I have come, not to look for employment, as I spoke of
doing when we last met, but on a special mission--"
Archer exclaimed. In a flash
the two meetings had connected themselves in his mind.
He paused to take in the situation thus suddenly lighted up for him,
and M. Riviere also remained silent, as if aware that what he had said was
special mission," Archer at length repeated.
young Frenchman, opening his palms, raised them slightly, and the two men
continued to look at each other across the office-desk till Archer roused
himself to say: "Do sit
down"; whereupon M. Riviere bowed, took a distant chair, and again
was about this mission that you wanted to consult me?" Archer finally
Riviere bent his head. "Not
in my own behalf: on that score I--I have fully dealt with myself.
I should like--if I may--to speak to you about the Countess Olenska."
had known for the last few minutes that the words were coming; but when they
came they sent the blood rushing to his temples as if he had been caught by
a bent-back branch in a thicket.
on whose behalf," he said, "do you wish to do this?"
Riviere met the question sturdily. "Well--I
might say HERS, if it did not sound like a liberty.
Shall I say instead: on behalf of abstract justice?"
considered him ironically. "In
other words: you are Count Olenski's messenger?"
saw his blush more darkly reflected in M. Riviere's sallow countenance.
"Not to YOU, Monsieur. If
I come to you, it is on quite other grounds."
right have you, in the circumstances, to BE on any other ground?"
Archer retorted. "If
you're an emissary you're an emissary."
young man considered. "My
mission is over: as far as the Countess Olenska goes, it has failed."
can't help that," Archer rejoined on the same note of irony.
but you can help--" M.
Riviere paused, turned his hat about in his still carefully gloved hands,
looked into its lining and then back at Archer's face.
"You can help, Monsieur, I am convinced, to make it equally a
failure with her family."
pushed back his chair and stood up. "Well--
and by God I will!" he exclaimed.
He stood with his hands in his pockets, staring down wrathfully at
the little Frenchman, whose face, though he too had risen, was still an inch
or two below the line of Archer's eyes.
Riviere paled to his normal hue: paler than that his complexion could hardly
the devil," Archer explosively continued, "should you have
thought--since I suppose you're appealing to me on the ground of my
relationship to Madame Olenska--that I should take a view contrary to the
rest of her family?"
change of expression in M. Riviere's face was for a time his only answer.
His look passed from timidity to absolute distress: for a young man
of his usually resourceful mien it would have been difficult to appear more
disarmed and defenceless. "Oh, Monsieur--"
can't imagine," Archer continued, "why you should have come to me
when there are others so much nearer to the Countess; still less why you
thought I should be more accessible to the arguments I suppose you were sent
Riviere took this onslaught with a disconcerting humility.
"The arguments I want to present to you, Monsieur, are my own
and not those I was sent over with."
I see still less reason for listening to them."
Riviere again looked into his hat, as if considering whether these last
words were not a sufficiently broad hint to put it on and be gone.
Then he spoke with sudden decision.
"Monsieur--will you tell me one thing?
Is it my right to be here that you question?
Or do you perhaps believe the whole matter to be already
quiet insistence made Archer feel the clumsiness of his own bluster.
M. Riviere had succeeded in imposing himself:
Archer, reddening slightly, dropped into his chair again, and signed
to the young man to be seated.
beg your pardon: but why isn't the matter closed?"
Riviere gazed back at him with anguish.
"You do, then, agree with the rest of the family that, in face
of the new proposals I have brought, it is hardly possible for Madame
Olenska not to return to her husband?"
God!" Archer exclaimed; and his visitor gave out a low murmur of
seeing her, I saw--at Count Olenski's request--Mr. Lovell Mingott, with whom
I had several talks before going to Boston.
I understand that he represents his mother's view; and that Mrs.
Manson Mingott's influence is great throughout her family."
sat silent, with the sense of clinging to the edge of a sliding precipice.
The discovery that he had been excluded from a share in these
negotiations, and even from the knowledge that they were on foot, caused him
a surprise hardly dulled by the acuter wonder of what he was learning.
He saw in a flash that if the family had ceased to consult him it was
because some deep tribal instinct warned them that he was no longer on their
side; and he recalled, with a start of comprehension, a remark of May's
during their drive home from Mrs. Manson Mingott's on the day of the Archery
Meeting: "Perhaps, after
all, Ellen would be happier with her husband."
in the tumult of new discoveries Archer remembered his indignant
exclamation, and the fact that since then his wife had never named Madame
Olenska to him. Her careless
allusion had no doubt been the straw held up to see which way the wind blew;
the result had been reported to the family, and thereafter Archer had been
tacitly omitted from their counsels. He
admired the tribal discipline which made May bow to this decision. She would
not have done so, he knew, had her conscience protested; but she probably
shared the family view that Madame Olenska would be better off as an unhappy
wife than as a separated one, and that there was no use in discussing the
case with Newland, who had an awkward way of suddenly not seeming to take
the most fundamental things for granted.
looked up and met his visitor's anxious gaze. "Don't you know,
Monsieur--is it possible you don't know--that the family begin to doubt if
they have the right to advise the Countess to refuse her husband's last
proposals you brought?"
proposals I brought."
was on Archer's lips to exclaim that whatever he knew or did not know was no
concern of M. Riviere's; but something in the humble and yet courageous
tenacity of M. Riviere's gaze made him reject this conclusion, and he met
the young man's question with another. "What is your object in speaking
to me of this?"
had not to wait a moment for the answer.
"To beg you, Monsieur--to beg you with all the force I'm capable
of--not to let her go back.--Oh, don't let her!" M. Riviere exclaimed.
looked at him with increasing astonishment. There was no mistaking the
sincerity of his distress or the strength of his determination: he had
evidently resolved to let everything go by the board but the supreme need of
thus putting himself on record. Archer
I ask," he said at length, "if this is the line you took with the
Riviere reddened, but his eyes did not falter. "No, Monsieur: I
accepted my mission in good faith. I
really believed--for reasons I need not trouble you with--that it would be
better for Madame Olenska to recover her situation, her fortune, the social
consideration that her husband's standing gives her."
I supposed: you could hardly have accepted such a mission otherwise."
should not have accepted it."
then--?" Archer paused
again, and their eyes met in another protracted scrutiny.
Monsieur, after I had seen her, after I had listened to her, I knew she was
better off here." "You
I discharged my mission faithfully: I put the Count's arguments, I stated
his offers, without adding any comment of my own.
The Countess was good enough to listen patiently; she carried her
goodness so far as to see me twice; she considered impartially all I had
come to say. And it was in the
course of these two talks that I changed my mind, that I came to see things
I ask what led to this change?"
seeing the change in HER," M. Riviere replied.
change in her? Then you knew
young man's colour again rose. "I
used to see her in her husband's house.
I have known Count Olenski for many years. You can imagine that he would not have sent a stranger on
such a mission."
gaze, wandering away to the blank walls of the office, rested on a hanging
calendar surmounted by the rugged features of the President of the United
States. That such a conversation should be going on anywhere within the
millions of square miles subject to his rule seemed as strange as anything
that the imagination could invent.
change--what sort of a change?"
Monsieur, if I could tell you!" M.
Riviere paused. "Tenez--the discovery, I suppose, of what I'd never
thought of before: that she's an American.
And that if you're an American of HER kind--of your kind--things that
are accepted in certain other societies, or at least put up with as part of
a general convenient give-and- take--become unthinkable, simply unthinkable.
If Madame Olenska's relations understood what these things were,
their opposition to her returning would no doubt be as unconditional as her
own; but they seem to regard her husband's wish to have her back as proof of
an irresistible longing for domestic life."
M. Riviere paused, and then added:
"Whereas it's far from being as simple as that."
looked back to the President of the United States, and then down at his desk
and at the papers scattered on it. For
a second or two he could not trust himself to speak. During this interval he heard M. Riviere's chair pushed back,
and was aware that the young man had risen.
When he glanced up again he saw that his visitor was as moved as
you," Archer said simply.
nothing to thank me for, Monsieur: it is I, rather--"
M. Riviere broke off, as if speech for him too were difficult.
"I should like, though," he continued in a firmer voice,
"to add one thing. You
asked me if I was in Count Olenski's employ.
I am at this moment: I returned to him, a few months ago, for reasons
of private necessity such as may happen to any one who has persons, ill and
older persons, dependent on him. But
from the moment that I have taken the step of coming here to say these
things to you I consider myself discharged, and I shall tell him so on my
return, and give him the reasons. That's
Riviere bowed and drew back a step.
you," Archer said again, as their hands met.
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