Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 25


XXV.

Once more on the boat, and in the presence of others,
Archer felt a tranquillity of spirit that surprised as
much as it sustained him.

The 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
opportunities.  Nevertheless, 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.

He 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.

In 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.

The 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?"

"Ah, 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 French tutor.

"Oh, 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.

"I wonder, Monsieur, since I've had the good luck to
run across you, if I might--"

"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."

M. 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--"

"I 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."

The 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.

Archer, 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.

Punctually 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."

The 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.

"It is extraordinary, very extraordinary," M. Riviere
continued, "that we should have met in the circumstances
in which I find myself."

"What circumstances?" Archer asked, wondering a
little crudely if he needed money.

M. 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--"

"Ah--!" 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 enough.

"A special mission," Archer at length repeated.

The 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 waited.

"It was about this mission that you wanted to
consult me?" Archer finally asked.

M. 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."

Archer 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.

"And on whose behalf," he said, "do you wish to do
this?"

M. 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?"

Archer considered him ironically.  "In other words:
you are Count Olenski's messenger?"

He 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."

"What right have you, in the circumstances, to BE on
any other ground?" Archer retorted.  "If you're an
emissary you're an emissary."

The young man considered.  "My mission is over: as
far as the Countess Olenska goes, it has failed."

"I can't help that," Archer rejoined on the same note
of irony.

"No: 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."

Archer 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.

M. Riviere paled to his normal hue: paler than that
his complexion could hardly turn.

"Why 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?"

The 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--"

"I 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 over with."

M. 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."

"Then I see still less reason for listening to them."

M. 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
closed?"

His 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.

"I beg your pardon: but why isn't the matter closed?"

M. 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?"

"Good God!" Archer exclaimed; and his visitor gave
out a low murmur of confirmation.

"Before 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."

Archer 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."

Even 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.

Archer 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?"

"The proposals you brought?"

"The proposals I brought."

It 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?"

He 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.

Archer 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
considered.

"May I ask," he said at length, "if this is the line you
took with the Countess Olenska?"

M. 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."

"So I supposed: you could hardly have accepted such
a mission otherwise."

"I should not have accepted it."

"Well, then--?"  Archer paused again, and their eyes
met in another protracted scrutiny.

"Ah, Monsieur, after I had seen her, after I had
listened to her, I knew she was better off here."

"You knew--?"

"Monsieur, 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
differently."

"May I ask what led to this change?"

"Simply seeing the change in HER," M. Riviere replied.

"The change in her?  Then you knew her before?"

The 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."

Archer's 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.

"The change--what sort of a change?"

"Ah, 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."

Archer 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 himself.

"Thank you," Archer said simply.

"There's 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 all, Monsieur."

M. Riviere bowed and drew back a step.

"Thank you," Archer said again, as their hands met.


Edith Wharton