The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

XXIII.

The next morning, when Archer got out of the Fall River train, he emerged upon a steaming midsummer Boston. The streets near the station were full of the smell of beer and coffee and decaying fruit and a shirt-sleeved populace moved through them with the intimate abandon of boarders going down the passage to the bathroom.

Archer found a cab and drove to the Somerset Club for breakfast. Even the fashionable quarters had the air of untidy domesticity to which no excess of heat ever degrades the European cities. Care-takers in calico lounged on the door-steps of the wealthy, and the Common looked like a pleasure-ground on the morrow of a Masonic picnic. If Archer had tried to imagine Ellen Olenska in improbable scenes he could not have called up any into which it was more difficult to fit her than this heat-prostrated and deserted Boston.

He breakfasted with appetite and method, beginning with a slice of melon, and studying a morning paper while he waited for his toast and scrambled eggs. A new sense of energy and activity had possessed him ever since he had announced to May the night before that he had business in Boston, and should take the Fall River boat that night and go on to New York the following evening. It had always been understood that he would return to town early in the week, and when he got back from his expedition to Portsmouth a letter from the office, which fate had conspicuously placed on a corner of the hall table, sufficed to justify his sudden change of plan. He was even ashamed of the ease with which the whole thing had been done: it reminded him, for an uncomfortable moment, of Lawrence Lefferts’s masterly contrivances for securing his freedom. But this did not long trouble him, for he was not in an analytic mood.

After breakfast he smoked a cigarette and glanced over the Commercial Advertiser. While he was thus engaged two or three men he knew came in, and the usual greetings were exchanged: it was the same world after all, though he had such a queer sense of having slipped through the meshes of time and space.

He looked at his watch, and finding that it was half-past nine got up and went into the writing-room. There he wrote a few lines, and ordered a messenger to take a cab to the Parker House and wait for the answer. He then sat down behind another newspaper and tried to calculate how long it would take a cab to get to the Parker House.

“The lady was out, sir,” he suddenly heard a waiter’s voice at his elbow; and he stammered: “Out? —” as if it were a word in a strange language.

He got up and went into the hall. It must be a mistake: she could not be out at that hour. He flushed with anger at his own stupidity: why had he not sent the note as soon as he arrived?

He found his hat and stick and went forth into the street. The city had suddenly become as strange and vast and empty as if he were a traveller from distant lands. For a moment he stood on the door-step hesitating; then he decided to go to the Parker House. What if the messenger had been misinformed, and she were still there?

He started to walk across the Common; and on the first bench, under a tree, he saw her sitting. She had a grey silk sunshade over her head — how could he ever have imagined her with a pink one? As he approached he was struck by her listless attitude: she sat there as if she had nothing else to do. He saw her drooping profile, and the knot of hair fastened low in the neck under her dark hat, and the long wrinkled glove on the hand that held the sunshade. He came a step or two nearer, and she turned and looked at him.

“Oh”— she said; and for the first time he noticed a startled look on her face; but in another moment it gave way to a slow smile of wonder and contentment.

“Oh”— she murmured again, on a different note, as he stood looking down at her; and without rising she made a place for him on the bench.

“I’m here on business — just got here,” Archer explained; and, without knowing why, he suddenly began to feign astonishment at seeing her. “But what on earth are you doing in this wilderness?” He had really no idea what he was saying: he felt as if he were shouting at her across endless distances, and she might vanish again before he could overtake her.

“I? Oh, I’m here on business too,” she answered, turning her head toward him so that they were face to face. The words hardly reached him: he was aware only of her voice, and of the startling fact that not an echo of it had remained in his memory. He had not even remembered that it was low-pitched, with a faint roughness on the consonants.

“You do your hair differently,” he said, his heart beating as if he had uttered something irrevocable.

“Differently? No — it’s only that I do it as best I can when I’m without Nastasia.”

“Nastasia; but isn’t she with you?”

“No; I’m alone. For two days it was not worth while to bring her.”

“You’re alone — at the Parker House?”

She looked at him with a flash of her old malice. “Does it strike you as dangerous?”

“No; not dangerous —”

“But unconventional? I see; I suppose it is.” She considered a moment. “I hadn’t thought of it, because I’ve just done something so much more unconventional.” The faint tinge of irony lingered in her eyes. “I’ve just refused to take back a sum of money — that belonged to me.”

Archer sprang up and moved a step or two away. She had furled her parasol and sat absently drawing patterns on the gravel. Presently he came back and stood before her.

“Some one — has come here to meet you?”

“Yes.”

“With this offer?”

She nodded.

“And you refused — because of the conditions?”

“I refused,” she said after a moment.

He sat down by her again. “What were the conditions?”

“Oh, they were not onerous: just to sit at the head of his table now and then.”

There was another interval of silence. Archer’s heart had slammed itself shut in the queer way it had, and he sat vainly groping for a word.

“He wants you back — at any price?”

“Well — a considerable price. At least the sum is considerable for me.”

He paused again, beating about the question he felt he must put.

“It was to meet him here that you came?”

She stared, and then burst into a laugh. “Meet him — my husband? HERE? At this season he’s always at Cowes or Baden.”

“He sent some one?”

“Yes.”

“With a letter?”

She shook her head. “No; just a message. He never writes. I don’t think I’ve had more than one letter from him.” The allusion brought the colour to her cheek, and it reflected itself in Archer’s vivid blush.

“Why does he never write?”

“Why should he? What does one have secretaries for?”

The young man’s blush deepened. She had pronounced the word as if it had no more significance than any other in her vocabulary. For a moment it was on the tip of his tongue to ask: “Did he send his secretary, then?” But the remembrance of Count Olenski’s only letter to his wife was too present to him. He paused again, and then took another plunge.

“And the person?”—

“The emissary? The emissary,” Madame Olenska rejoined, still smiling, “might, for all I care, have left already; but he has insisted on waiting till this evening . . . in case . . . on the chance . . . ”

“And you came out here to think the chance over?”

“I came out to get a breath of air. The hotel’s too stifling. I’m taking the afternoon train back to Portsmouth.”

They sat silent, not looking at each other, but straight ahead at the people passing along the path. Finally she turned her eyes again to his face and said: “You’re not changed.”

He felt like answering: “I was, till I saw you again;” but instead he stood up abruptly and glanced about him at the untidy sweltering park.

“This is horrible. Why shouldn’t we go out a little on the bay? There’s a breeze, and it will be cooler. We might take the steamboat down to Point Arley.” She glanced up at him hesitatingly and he went on: “On a Monday morning there won’t be anybody on the boat. My train doesn’t leave till evening: I’m going back to New York. Why shouldn’t we?” he insisted, looking down at her; and suddenly he broke out: “Haven’t we done all we could?”

“Oh”— she murmured again. She stood up and reopened her sunshade, glancing about her as if to take counsel of the scene, and assure herself of the impossibility of remaining in it. Then her eyes returned to his face. “You mustn’t say things like that to me,” she said.

“I’ll say anything you like; or nothing. I won’t open my mouth unless you tell me to. What harm can it do to anybody? All I want is to listen to you,” he stammered.

She drew out a little gold-faced watch on an enamelled chain. “Oh, don’t calculate,” he broke out; “give me the day! I want to get you away from that man. At what time was he coming?”

Her colour rose again. “At eleven.”

“Then you must come at once.”

“You needn’t be afraid — if I don’t come.”

“Nor you either — if you do. I swear I only want to hear about you, to know what you’ve been doing. It’s a hundred years since we’ve met — it may be another hundred before we meet again.”

She still wavered, her anxious eyes on his face. “Why didn’t you come down to the beach to fetch me, the day I was at Granny’s?” she asked.

“Because you didn’t look round — because you didn’t know I was there. I swore I wouldn’t unless you looked round.” He laughed as the childishness of the confession struck him.

“But I didn’t look round on purpose.”

“On purpose?”

“I knew you were there; when you drove in I recognised the ponies. So I went down to the beach.”

“To get away from me as far as you could?”

She repeated in a low voice: “To get away from you as far as I could.”

He laughed out again, this time in boyish satisfaction. “Well, you see it’s no use. I may as well tell you,” he added, “that the business I came here for was just to find you. But, look here, we must start or we shall miss our boat.”

“Our boat?” She frowned perplexedly, and then smiled. “Oh, but I must go back to the hotel first: I must leave a note —”

“As many notes as you please. You can write here.” He drew out a note-case and one of the new stylographic pens. “I’ve even got an envelope — you see how everything’s predestined! There — steady the thing on your knee, and I’ll get the pen going in a second. They have to be humoured; wait —” He banged the hand that held the pen against the back of the bench. “It’s like jerking down the mercury in a thermometer: just a trick. Now try —”

She laughed, and bending over the sheet of paper which he had laid on his note-case, began to write. Archer walked away a few steps, staring with radiant unseeing eyes at the passersby, who, in their turn, paused to stare at the unwonted sight of a fashionably-dressed lady writing a note on her knee on a bench in the Common.

Madame Olenska slipped the sheet into the envelope, wrote a name on it, and put it into her pocket. Then she too stood up.

They walked back toward Beacon Street, and near the club Archer caught sight of the plush-lined “herdic” which had carried his note to the Parker House, and whose driver was reposing from this effort by bathing his brow at the corner hydrant.

“I told you everything was predestined! Here’s a cab for us. You see!” They laughed, astonished at the miracle of picking up a public conveyance at that hour, and in that unlikely spot, in a city where cab-stands were still a “foreign” novelty.

Archer, looking at his watch, saw that there was time to drive to the Parker House before going to the steamboat landing. They rattled through the hot streets and drew up at the door of the hotel.

Archer held out his hand for the letter. “Shall I take it in?” he asked; but Madame Olenska, shaking her head, sprang out and disappeared through the glazed doors. It was barely half-past ten; but what if the emissary, impatient for her reply, and not knowing how else to employ his time, were already seated among the travellers with cooling drinks at their elbows of whom Archer had caught a glimpse as she went in?

He waited, pacing up and down before the herdic. A Sicilian youth with eyes like Nastasia’s offered to shine his boots, and an Irish matron to sell him peaches; and every few moments the doors opened to let out hot men with straw hats tilted far back, who glanced at him as they went by. He marvelled that the door should open so often, and that all the people it let out should look so like each other, and so like all the other hot men who, at that hour, through the length and breadth of the land, were passing continuously in and out of the swinging doors of hotels.

And then, suddenly, came a face that he could not relate to the other faces. He caught but a flash of it, for his pacings had carried him to the farthest point of his beat, and it was in turning back to the hotel that he saw, in a group of typical countenances — the lank and weary, the round and surprised, the lantern-jawed and mild — this other face that was so many more things at once, and things so different. It was that of a young man, pale too, and half-extinguished by the heat, or worry, or both, but somehow, quicker, vivider, more conscious; or perhaps seeming so because he was so different. Archer hung a moment on a thin thread of memory, but it snapped and floated off with the disappearing face — apparently that of some foreign business man, looking doubly foreign in such a setting. He vanished in the stream of passersby, and Archer resumed his patrol.

He did not care to be seen watch in hand within view of the hotel, and his unaided reckoning of the lapse of time led him to conclude that, if Madame Olenska was so long in reappearing, it could only be because she had met the emissary and been waylaid by him. At the thought Archer’s apprehension rose to anguish.

“If she doesn’t come soon I’ll go in and find her,” he said.

The doors swung open again and she was at his side. They got into the herdic, and as it drove off he took out his watch and saw that she had been absent just three minutes. In the clatter of loose windows that made talk impossible they bumped over the disjointed cobblestones to the wharf.

Seated side by side on a bench of the half-empty boat they found that they had hardly anything to say to each other, or rather that what they had to say communicated itself best in the blessed silence of their release and their isolation.

As the paddle-wheels began to turn, and wharves and shipping to recede through the veil of heat, it seemed to Archer that everything in the old familiar world of habit was receding also. He longed to ask Madame Olenska if she did not have the same feeling: the feeling that they were starting on some long voyage from which they might never return. But he was afraid to say it, or anything else that might disturb the delicate balance of her trust in him. In reality he had no wish to betray that trust. There had been days and nights when the memory of their kiss had burned and burned on his lips; the day before even, on the drive to Portsmouth, the thought of her had run through him like fire; but now that she was beside him, and they were drifting forth into this unknown world, they seemed to have reached the kind of deeper nearness that a touch may sunder.

As the boat left the harbour and turned seaward a breeze stirred about them and the bay broke up into long oily undulations, then into ripples tipped with spray. The fog of sultriness still hung over the city, but ahead lay a fresh world of ruffled waters, and distant promontories with light-houses in the sun. Madame Olenska, leaning back against the boat-rail, drank in the coolness between parted lips. She had wound a long veil about her hat, but it left her face uncovered, and Archer was struck by the tranquil gaiety of her expression. She seemed to take their adventure as a matter of course, and to be neither in fear of unexpected encounters, nor (what was worse) unduly elated by their possibility.

In the bare dining-room of the inn, which he had hoped they would have to themselves, they found a strident party of innocent-looking young men and women — school-teachers on a holiday, the landlord told them — and Archer’s heart sank at the idea of having to talk through their noise.

“This is hopeless — I’ll ask for a private room,” he said; and Madame Olenska, without offering any objection, waited while he went in search of it. The room opened on a long wooden verandah, with the sea coming in at the windows. It was bare and cool, with a table covered with a coarse checkered cloth and adorned by a bottle of pickles and a blueberry pie under a cage. No more guileless-looking cabinet particulier ever offered its shelter to a clandestine couple: Archer fancied he saw the sense of its reassurance in the faintly amused smile with which Madame Olenska sat down opposite to him. A woman who had run away from her husband — and reputedly with another man — was likely to have mastered the art of taking things for granted; but something in the quality of her composure took the edge from his irony. By being so quiet, so unsurprised and so simple she had managed to brush away the conventions and make him feel that to seek to be alone was the natural thing for two old friends who had so much to say to each other. . . .

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30