The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

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.

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