Archer raised his eyebrows enquiringly at Nastasia, who raised hers in return with a fatalistic "Gia!" as she threw open the drawing-room door.
The young man saw at once that his hostess was not in the room; then, with surprise, he discovered another lady standing by the fire. This lady, who was long, lean and loosely put together, was clad in raiment intricately looped and fringed, with plaids and stripes and bands of plain colour disposed in a design to which the clue seemed missing. Her hair, which had tried to turn white and only succeeded in fading, was surmounted by a Spanish comb and black lace scarf, and silk mittens, visibly darned, covered her rheumatic hands.
Beside her, in a cloud of cigar-smoke, stood the owners of the two overcoats, both in morning clothes that they had evidently not taken off since morning. In one of the two, Archer, to his surprise, recognised Ned Winsett; the other and older, who was unknown to him, and whose gigantic frame declared him to be the wearer of the "Macfarlane," had a feebly leonine head with crumpled grey hair, and moved his arms with large pawing gestures, as though he were distributing lay blessings to a kneeling multitude.
These three persons stood together on the hearth-rug, their eyes fixed on an extraordinarily large bouquet of crimson roses, with a knot of purple pansies at their base, that lay on the sofa where Madame Olenska usually sat.
"What they must have cost at this season — though of course it's the sentiment one cares about!" the lady was saying in a sighing staccato as Archer came in.
The three turned with surprise at his appearance, and the lady, advancing, held out her hand.
"Dear Mr. Archer — almost my cousin Newland!" she said. "I am the Marchioness Manson."
Archer bowed, and she continued: "My Ellen has taken me in for a few days. I came from Cuba, where I have been spending the winter with Spanish friends — such delightful distinguished people: the highest nobility of old Castile — how I wish you could know them! But I was called away by our dear great friend here, Dr. Carver. You don't know Dr. Agathon Carver, founder of the Valley of Love Community?"
Dr. Carver inclined his leonine head, and the Marchioness continued: "Ah, New York — New York — how little the life of the spirit has reached it! But I see you do know Mr. Winsett."
"Oh, yes — I reached him some time ago; but not by that route," Winsett said with his dry smile.
The Marchioness shook her head reprovingly. "How do you know, Mr. Winsett? The spirit bloweth where it listeth."
"List — oh, list!" interjected Dr. Carver in a stentorian murmur.
"But do sit down, Mr. Archer. We four have been having a delightful little dinner together, and my child has gone up to dress. She expects you; she will be down in a moment. We were just admiring these marvellous flowers, which will surprise her when she reappears."
Winsett remained on his feet. "I'm afraid I must be off. Please tell Madame Olenska that we shall all feel lost when she abandons our street. This house has been an oasis."
"Ah, but she won't abandon YOU. Poetry and art are the breath of life to her. It IS poetry you write, Mr. Winsett?"
"Well, no; but I sometimes read it," said Winsett, including the group in a general nod and slipping out of the room.
"A caustic spirit — un peu sauvage. But so witty; Dr. Carver, you DO think him witty?"
"I never think of wit," said Dr. Carver severely.
"Ah — ah — you never think of wit! How merciless he is to us weak mortals, Mr. Archer! But he lives only in the life of the spirit; and tonight he is mentally preparing the lecture he is to deliver presently at Mrs. Blenker's. Dr. Carver, would there be time, before you start for the Blenkers' to explain to Mr. Archer your illuminating discovery of the Direct Contact? But no; I see it is nearly nine o'clock, and we have no right to detain you while so many are waiting for your message."
Dr. Carver looked slightly disappointed at this conclusion, but, having compared his ponderous gold time-piece with Madame Olenska's little travelling-clock, he reluctantly gathered up his mighty limbs for departure.
"I shall see you later, dear friend?" he suggested to the Marchioness, who replied with a smile: "As soon as Ellen's carriage comes I will join you; I do hope the lecture won't have begun."
Dr. Carver looked thoughtfully at Archer. "Perhaps, if this young gentleman is interested in my experiences, Mrs. Blenker might allow you to bring him with you?"
"Oh, dear friend, if it were possible — I am sure she would be too happy. But I fear my Ellen counts on Mr. Archer herself."
"That," said Dr. Carver, "is unfortunate — but here is my card." He handed it to Archer, who read on it, in Gothic characters:
+ — — — — — — — — — — — — — -+ | Agathon Carver | | The Valley of Love | | Kittasquattamy, N. Y. | + — — — — — — — — — — — — — -+
Dr. Carver bowed himself out, and Mrs. Manson, with a sigh that might have been either of regret or relief, again waved Archer to a seat.
"Ellen will be down in a moment; and before she comes, I am so glad of this quiet moment with you."
Archer murmured his pleasure at their meeting, and the Marchioness continued, in her low sighing accents: "I know everything, dear Mr. Archer — my child has told me all you have done for her. Your wise advice: your courageous firmness — thank heaven it was not too late!"
The young man listened with considerable embarrassment. Was there any one, he wondered, to whom Madame Olenska had not proclaimed his intervention in her private affairs?
"Madame Olenska exaggerates; I simply gave her a legal opinion, as she asked me to."
"Ah, but in doing it — in doing it you were the unconscious instrument of — of — what word have we moderns for Providence, Mr. Archer?" cried the lady, tilting her head on one side and drooping her lids mysteriously. "Little did you know that at that very moment I was being appealed to: being approached, in fact — from the other side of the Atlantic!"
She glanced over her shoulder, as though fearful of being overheard, and then, drawing her chair nearer, and raising a tiny ivory fan to her lips, breathed behind it: "By the Count himself — my poor, mad, foolish Olenski; who asks only to take her back on her own terms."
"Good God!" Archer exclaimed, springing up.
"You are horrified? Yes, of course; I understand. I don't defend poor Stanislas, though he has always called me his best friend. He does not defend himself — he casts himself at her feet: in my person." She tapped her emaciated bosom. "I have his letter here."
"A letter? — Has Madame Olenska seen it?" Archer stammered, his brain whirling with the shock of the announcement.
The Marchioness Manson shook her head softly. "Time — time; I must have time. I know my Ellen — haughty, intractable; shall I say, just a shade unforgiving?"
"But, good heavens, to forgive is one thing; to go back into that hell — "
"Ah, yes," the Marchioness acquiesced. "So she describes it — my sensitive child! But on the material side, Mr. Archer, if one may stoop to consider such things; do you know what she is giving up? Those roses there on the sofa — acres like them, under glass and in the open, in his matchless terraced gardens at Nice! Jewels — historic pearls: the Sobieski emeralds — sables, — but she cares nothing for all these! Art and beauty, those she does care for, she lives for, as I always have; and those also surrounded her. Pictures, priceless furniture, music, brilliant conversation — ah, that, my dear young man, if you'll excuse me, is what you've no conception of here! And she had it all; and the homage of the greatest. She tells me she is not thought handsome in New York — good heavens! Her portrait has been painted nine times; the greatest artists in Europe have begged for the privilege. Are these things nothing? And the remorse of an adoring husband?"
As the Marchioness Manson rose to her climax her face assumed an expression of ecstatic retrospection which would have moved Archer's mirth had he not been numb with amazement.
He would have laughed if any one had foretold to him that his first sight of poor Medora Manson would have been in the guise of a messenger of Satan; but he was in no mood for laughing now, and she seemed to him to come straight out of the hell from which Ellen Olenska had just escaped.
"She knows nothing yet — of all this?" he asked abruptly.
Mrs. Manson laid a purple finger on her lips. "Nothing directly — but does she suspect? Who can tell? The truth is, Mr. Archer, I have been waiting to see you. From the moment I heard of the firm stand you had taken, and of your influence over her, I hoped it might be possible to count on your support — to convince you . . . "
"That she ought to go back? I would rather see her dead!" cried the young man violently.
"Ah," the Marchioness murmured, without visible resentment. For a while she sat in her arm-chair, opening and shutting the absurd ivory fan between her mittened fingers; but suddenly she lifted her head and listened.
"Here she comes," she said in a rapid whisper; and then, pointing to the bouquet on the sofa: "Am I to understand that you prefer THAT, Mr. Archer? After all, marriage is marriage . . . and my niece is still a wife . . . "