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Chapter 24


XXIV.

They 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.

She 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.

"But Dr. Carver--aren't you afraid of Dr. Carver?  I
hear he's been staying with you at the Blenkers'."

She 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."

"A convert to what?"

"To 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?"

Archer changed colour.  "And Beaufort--do you say
these things to Beaufort?" he asked abruptly.

"I haven't seen him for a long time.  But I used to;
and he understands."

"Ah, 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 back?"

Her 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.

At length she said:  "I believe it's because of you."

It 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.

"At 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
be paid."

"Exquisite pleasures--it's something to have had
them!" he felt like retorting; but the appeal in her eyes
kept him silent.

"I 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--"

Archer sat staring beneath frowning brows.  He
interrupted her with a laugh.  "And what do you make out
that you've made of me?"

She paled a little.  "Of you?"

"Yes: 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 to."

Her paleness turned to a fugitive flush.  "I thought--
you promised--you were not to say such things today."

"Ah--how like a woman!  None of you will ever see
a bad business through!"

She lowered her voice.  "IS it a bad business--for
May?"

He 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.

"For that's the thing we've always got to think of--
haven't we--by your own showing?" she insisted.

"My own showing?" he echoed, his blank eyes still
on the sea.

"Or 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--"

He 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.

Her eyes were clinging to him desperately.  "Oh, IS
there no reason?"

"Not 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
enduring--that's all."

"Oh, don't say that; when I'm enduring it!" she
burst out, her eyes filling.

Her 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.

"You too--oh, all this time, you too?"

For answer, she let the tears on her lids overflow and
run slowly downward.

Half 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.

But 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 apart.

"What's 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.

She sat motionless, with lowered lids.  "Oh--I shan't
go yet!"

"Not yet?  Some time, then?  Some time that you
already foresee?"

At 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."

He 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 sacred submission.

"What a life for you!--" he groaned.

"Oh--as long as it's a part of yours."

"And mine a part of yours?"

She nodded.

"And that's to be all--for either of us?"

"Well; it IS all, isn't it?"

At 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.

They 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.

"Don't--don't 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.

"I won't go back," she said; and turning away she
opened the door and led the way into the public
dining-room.

The 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.


Edith Wharton