She said the words "my husband" as if no sinister associations were connected with them, and in a tone that seemed almost to sigh over the lost delights of her married life. Archer looked at her perplexedly, wondering if it were lightness or dissimulation that enabled her to touch so easily on the past at the very moment when she was risking her reputation in order to break with it.
"I do think," she went on, addressing both men, "that the imprevu adds to one's enjoyment. It's perhaps a mistake to see the same people every day."
"It's confoundedly dull, anyhow; New York is dying of dullness," Beaufort grumbled. "And when I try to liven it up for you, you go back on me. Come — think better of it! Sunday is your last chance, for Campanini leaves next week for Baltimore and Philadelphia; and I've a private room, and a Steinway, and they'll sing all night for me."
"How delicious! May I think it over, and write to you tomorrow morning?"
She spoke amiably, yet with the least hint of dismissal in her voice. Beaufort evidently felt it, and being unused to dismissals, stood staring at her with an obstinate line between his eyes.
"Why not now?"
"It's too serious a question to decide at this late hour."
"Do you call it late?"
She returned his glance coolly. "Yes; because I have still to talk business with Mr. Archer for a little while."
"Ah," Beaufort snapped. There was no appeal from her tone, and with a slight shrug he recovered his composure, took her hand, which he kissed with a practised air, and calling out from the threshold: "I say, Newland, if you can persuade the Countess to stop in town of course you're included in the supper," left the room with his heavy important step.
For a moment Archer fancied that Mr. Letterblair must have told her of his coming; but the irrelevance of her next remark made him change his mind.
"You know painters, then? You live in their milieu?" she asked, her eyes full of interest.
"Oh, not exactly. I don't know that the arts have a milieu here, any of them; they're more like a very thinly settled outskirt."
"But you care for such things?"
"Immensely. When I'm in Paris or London I never miss an exhibition. I try to keep up."
She looked down at the tip of the little satin boot that peeped from her long draperies.
"I used to care immensely too: my life was full of such things. But now I want to try not to."
"You want to try not to?"
"Yes: I want to cast off all my old life, to become just like everybody else here."
Archer reddened. "You'll never be like everybody else," he said.
She raised her straight eyebrows a little. "Ah, don't say that. If you knew how I hate to be different!"
Her face had grown as sombre as a tragic mask. She leaned forward, clasping her knee in her thin hands, and looking away from him into remote dark distances.
"I want to get away from it all," she insisted.
He waited a moment and cleared his throat. "I know. Mr. Letterblair has told me."
"That's the reason I've come. He asked me to — you see I'm in the firm."
She looked slightly surprised, and then her eyes brightened. "You mean you can manage it for me? I can talk to you instead of Mr. Letterblair? Oh, that will be so much easier!"
Her tone touched him, and his confidence grew with his self-satisfaction. He perceived that she had spoken of business to Beaufort simply to get rid of him; and to have routed Beaufort was something of a triumph.
"I am here to talk about it," he repeated.
She sat silent, her head still propped by the arm that rested on the back of the sofa. Her face looked pale and extinguished, as if dimmed by the rich red of her dress. She struck Archer, of a sudden, as a pathetic and even pitiful figure.
"Now we're coming to hard facts," he thought, conscious in himself of the same instinctive recoil that he had so often criticised in his mother and her contemporaries. How little practice he had had in dealing with unusual situations! Their very vocabulary was unfamiliar to him, and seemed to belong to fiction and the stage. In face of what was coming he felt as awkward and embarrassed as a boy.
After a pause Madame Olenska broke out with unexpected vehemence: "I want to be free; I want to wipe out all the past."
"I understand that."
Her face warmed. "Then you'll help me?"
"First — " he hesitated — "perhaps I ought to know a little more."
She seemed surprised. "You know about my husband — my life with him?"
He made a sign of assent.
"Well — then — what more is there? In this country are such things tolerated? I'm a Protestant — our church does not forbid divorce in such cases."
They were both silent again, and Archer felt the spectre of Count Olenski's letter grimacing hideously between them. The letter filled only half a page, and was just what he had described it to be in speaking of it to Mr. Letterblair: the vague charge of an angry blackguard. But how much truth was behind it? Only Count Olenski's wife could tell.
"I've looked through the papers you gave to Mr. Letterblair," he said at length.
"Well — can there be anything more abominable?"
She changed her position slightly, screening her eyes with her lifted hand.
"Of course you know," Archer continued, "that if your husband chooses to fight the case — as he threatens to — "
"Yes — ?"
"He can say things — things that might be unpl — might be disagreeable to you: say them publicly, so that they would get about, and harm you even if — "
"If — ?"
"I mean: no matter how unfounded they were."
She paused for a long interval; so long that, not wishing to keep his eyes on her shaded face, he had time to imprint on his mind the exact shape of her other hand, the one on her knee, and every detail of the three rings on her fourth and fifth fingers; among which, he noticed, a wedding ring did not appear.
"What harm could such accusations, even if he made them publicly, do me here?"
It was on his lips to exclaim: "My poor child — far more harm than anywhere else!" Instead, he answered, in a voice that sounded in his ears like Mr. Letterblair's: "New York society is a very small world compared with the one you've lived in. And it's ruled, in spite of appearances, by a few people with — well, rather old-fashioned ideas."
She said nothing, and he continued: "Our ideas about marriage and divorce are particularly old-fashioned. Our legislation favours divorce — our social customs don't."
"Well — not if the woman, however injured, however irreproachable, has appearances in the least degree against her, has exposed herself by any unconventional action to — to offensive insinuations — "
She drooped her head a little lower, and he waited again, intensely hoping for a flash of indignation, or at least a brief cry of denial. None came.