"How do you like my funny house?" she asked. "To me it's like heaven."
As she spoke she untied her little velvet bonnet and tossing it away with her long cloak stood looking at him with meditative eyes.
"You've arranged it delightfully," he rejoined, alive to the flatness of the words, but imprisoned in the conventional by his consuming desire to be simple and striking.
"Oh, it's a poor little place. My relations despise it. But at any rate it's less gloomy than the van der Luydens'."
The words gave him an electric shock, for few were the rebellious spirits who would have dared to call the stately home of the van der Luydens gloomy. Those privileged to enter it shivered there, and spoke of it as "handsome." But suddenly he was glad that she had given voice to the general shiver.
"It's delicious — what you've done here," he repeated.
"I like the little house," she admitted; "but I suppose what I like is the blessedness of its being here, in my own country and my own town; and then, of being alone in it." She spoke so low that he hardly heard the last phrase; but in his awkwardness he took it up.
"You like so much to be alone?"
"Yes; as long as my friends keep me from feeling lonely." She sat down near the fire, said: "Nastasia will bring the tea presently," and signed to him to return to his armchair, adding: "I see you've already chosen your corner."
Leaning back, she folded her arms behind her head, and looked at the fire under drooping lids.
"This is the hour I like best — don't you?"
A proper sense of his dignity caused him to answer: "I was afraid you'd forgotten the hour. Beaufort must have been very engrossing."
She looked amused. "Why — have you waited long? Mr. Beaufort took me to see a number of houses — since it seems I'm not to be allowed to stay in this one." She appeared to dismiss both Beaufort and himself from her mind, and went on: "I've never been in a city where there seems to be such a feeling against living in des quartiers excentriques. What does it matter where one lives? I'm told this street is respectable."
"It's not fashionable."
"Fashionable! Do you all think so much of that? Why not make one's own fashions? But I suppose I've lived too independently; at any rate, I want to do what you all do — I want to feel cared for and safe."
He was touched, as he had been the evening before when she spoke of her need of guidance.
"That's what your friends want you to feel. New York's an awfully safe place," he added with a flash of sarcasm.
"Yes, isn't it? One feels that," she cried, missing the mockery. "Being here is like — like — being taken on a holiday when one has been a good little girl and done all one's lessons."
The analogy was well meant, but did not altogether please him. He did not mind being flippant about New York, but disliked to hear any one else take the same tone. He wondered if she did not begin to see what a powerful engine it was, and how nearly it had crushed her. The Lovell Mingotts' dinner, patched up in extremis out of all sorts of social odds and ends, ought to have taught her the narrowness of her escape; but either she had been all along unaware of having skirted disaster, or else she had lost sight of it in the triumph of the van der Luyden evening. Archer inclined to the former theory; he fancied that her New York was still completely undifferentiated, and the conjecture nettled him.
"Last night," he said, "New York laid itself out for you. The van der Luydens do nothing by halves."
"No: how kind they are! It was such a nice party. Every one seems to have such an esteem for them."
The terms were hardly adequate; she might have spoken in that way of a tea-party at the dear old Miss Lannings'.
"The van der Luydens," said Archer, feeling himself pompous as he spoke, "are the most powerful influence in New York society. Unfortunately — owing to her health — they receive very seldom."
She unclasped her hands from behind her head, and looked at him meditatively.
"Isn't that perhaps the reason?"
"The reason — ?"
"For their great influence; that they make themselves so rare."
He coloured a little, stared at her — and suddenly felt the penetration of the remark. At a stroke she had pricked the van der Luydens and they collapsed. He laughed, and sacrificed them.
Nastasia brought the tea, with handleless Japanese cups and little covered dishes, placing the tray on a low table.
"But you'll explain these things to me — you'll tell me all I ought to know," Madame Olenska continued, leaning forward to hand him his cup.
"It's you who are telling me; opening my eyes to things I'd looked at so long that I'd ceased to see them."
She detached a small gold cigarette-case from one of her bracelets, held it out to him, and took a cigarette herself. On the chimney were long spills for lighting them.
"Ah, then we can both help each other. But I want help so much more. You must tell me just what to do."
It was on the tip of his tongue to reply: "Don't be seen driving about the streets with Beaufort — " but he was being too deeply drawn into the atmosphere of the room, which was her atmosphere, and to give advice of that sort would have been like telling some one who was bargaining for attar-of-roses in Samarkand that one should always be provided with arctics for a New York winter. New York seemed much farther off than Samarkand, and if they were indeed to help each other she was rendering what might prove the first of their mutual services by making him look at his native city objectively. Viewed thus, as through the wrong end of a telescope, it looked disconcertingly small and distant; but then from Samarkand it would.
A flame darted from the logs and she bent over the fire, stretching her thin hands so close to it that a faint halo shone about the oval nails. The light touched to russet the rings of dark hair escaping from her braids, and made her pale face paler.
"There are plenty of people to tell you what to do," Archer rejoined, obscurely envious of them.
"Oh — all my aunts? And my dear old Granny?" She considered the idea impartially. "They're all a little vexed with me for setting up for myself — poor Granny especially. She wanted to keep me with her; but I had to be free — " He was impressed by this light way of speaking of the formidable Catherine, and moved by the thought of what must have given Madame Olenska this thirst for even the loneliest kind of freedom. But the idea of Beaufort gnawed him.
"I think I understand how you feel," he said. "Still, your family can advise you; explain differences; show you the way."
She lifted her thin black eyebrows. "Is New York such a labyrinth? I thought it so straight up and down — like Fifth Avenue. And with all the cross streets numbered!" She seemed to guess his faint disapproval of this, and added, with the rare smile that enchanted her whole face: "If you knew how I like it for just THAT — the straight-up-and-downness, and the big honest labels on everything!"
He saw his chance. "Everything may be labelled — but everybody is not."
"Perhaps. I may simplify too much — but you'll warn me if I do." She turned from the fire to look at him. "There are only two people here who make me feel as if they understood what I mean and could explain things to me: you and Mr. Beaufort."
Archer winced at the joining of the names, and then, with a quick readjustment, understood, sympathised and pitied. So close to the powers of evil she must have lived that she still breathed more freely in their air. But since she felt that he understood her also, his business would be to make her see Beaufort as he really was, with all he represented — and abhor it.
He answered gently: "I understand. But just at first don't let go of your old friends' hands: I mean the older women, your Granny Mingott, Mrs. Welland, Mrs. van der Luyden. They like and admire you — they want to help you."
She shook her head and sighed. "Oh, I know — I know! But on condition that they don't hear anything unpleasant. Aunt Welland put it in those very words when I tried . . . . Does no one want to know the truth here, Mr. Archer? The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!" She lifted her hands to her face, and he saw her thin shoulders shaken by a sob.