M. Riviere took this onslaught with a disconcerting humility. "The arguments I want to present to you, Monsieur, are my own and not those I was sent over with."
"Then I see still less reason for listening to them."
M. Riviere again looked into his hat, as if considering whether these last words were not a sufficiently broad hint to put it on and be gone. Then he spoke with sudden decision. "Monsieur — will you tell me one thing? Is it my right to be here that you question? Or do you perhaps believe the whole matter to be already closed?"
His quiet insistence made Archer feel the clumsiness of his own bluster. M. Riviere had succeeded in imposing himself: Archer, reddening slightly, dropped into his chair again, and signed to the young man to be seated.
"I beg your pardon: but why isn't the matter closed?"
M. Riviere gazed back at him with anguish. "You do, then, agree with the rest of the family that, in face of the new proposals I have brought, it is hardly possible for Madame Olenska not to return to her husband?"
"Good God!" Archer exclaimed; and his visitor gave out a low murmur of confirmation.
"Before seeing her, I saw — at Count Olenski's request — Mr. Lovell Mingott, with whom I had several talks before going to Boston. I understand that he represents his mother's view; and that Mrs. Manson Mingott's influence is great throughout her family."
Archer sat silent, with the sense of clinging to the edge of a sliding precipice. The discovery that he had been excluded from a share in these negotiations, and even from the knowledge that they were on foot, caused him a surprise hardly dulled by the acuter wonder of what he was learning. He saw in a flash that if the family had ceased to consult him it was because some deep tribal instinct warned them that he was no longer on their side; and he recalled, with a start of comprehension, a remark of May's during their drive home from Mrs. Manson Mingott's on the day of the Archery Meeting: "Perhaps, after all, Ellen would be happier with her husband."
Even in the tumult of new discoveries Archer remembered his indignant exclamation, and the fact that since then his wife had never named Madame Olenska to him. Her careless allusion had no doubt been the straw held up to see which way the wind blew; the result had been reported to the family, and thereafter Archer had been tacitly omitted from their counsels. He admired the tribal discipline which made May bow to this decision. She would not have done so, he knew, had her conscience protested; but she probably shared the family view that Madame Olenska would be better off as an unhappy wife than as a separated one, and that there was no use in discussing the case with Newland, who had an awkward way of suddenly not seeming to take the most fundamental things for granted.
Archer looked up and met his visitor's anxious gaze. "Don't you know, Monsieur — is it possible you don't know — that the family begin to doubt if they have the right to advise the Countess to refuse her husband's last proposals?"
"The proposals you brought?"
"The proposals I brought."
It was on Archer's lips to exclaim that whatever he knew or did not know was no concern of M. Riviere's; but something in the humble and yet courageous tenacity of M. Riviere's gaze made him reject this conclusion, and he met the young man's question with another. "What is your object in speaking to me of this?"
He had not to wait a moment for the answer. "To beg you, Monsieur — to beg you with all the force I'm capable of — not to let her go back. — Oh, don't let her!" M. Riviere exclaimed.
Archer looked at him with increasing astonishment. There was no mistaking the sincerity of his distress or the strength of his determination: he had evidently resolved to let everything go by the board but the supreme need of thus putting himself on record. Archer considered.
"May I ask," he said at length, "if this is the line you took with the Countess Olenska?"
M. Riviere reddened, but his eyes did not falter. "No, Monsieur: I accepted my mission in good faith. I really believed — for reasons I need not trouble you with — that it would be better for Madame Olenska to recover her situation, her fortune, the social consideration that her husband's standing gives her."
"So I supposed: you could hardly have accepted such a mission otherwise."
"I should not have accepted it."
"Well, then — ?" Archer paused again, and their eyes met in another protracted scrutiny.
"Ah, Monsieur, after I had seen her, after I had listened to her, I knew she was better off here."
"You knew — ?"
"Monsieur, I discharged my mission faithfully: I put the Count's arguments, I stated his offers, without adding any comment of my own. The Countess was good enough to listen patiently; she carried her goodness so far as to see me twice; she considered impartially all I had come to say. And it was in the course of these two talks that I changed my mind, that I came to see things differently."
"May I ask what led to this change?"
"Simply seeing the change in HER," M. Riviere replied.
"The change in her? Then you knew her before?"
The young man's colour again rose. "I used to see her in her husband's house. I have known Count Olenski for many years. You can imagine that he would not have sent a stranger on such a mission."
Archer's gaze, wandering away to the blank walls of the office, rested on a hanging calendar surmounted by the rugged features of the President of the United States. That such a conversation should be going on anywhere within the millions of square miles subject to his rule seemed as strange as anything that the imagination could invent.
"The change — what sort of a change?"
"Ah, Monsieur, if I could tell you!" M. Riviere paused. "Tenez — the discovery, I suppose, of what I'd never thought of before: that she's an American. And that if you're an American of HER kind — of your kind — things that are accepted in certain other societies, or at least put up with as part of a general convenient give-and-take — become unthinkable, simply unthinkable. If Madame Olenska's relations understood what these things were, their opposition to her returning would no doubt be as unconditional as her own; but they seem to regard her husband's wish to have her back as proof of an irresistible longing for domestic life." M. Riviere paused, and then added: "Whereas it's far from being as simple as that."
Archer looked back to the President of the United States, and then down at his desk and at the papers scattered on it. For a second or two he could not trust himself to speak. During this interval he heard M. Riviere's chair pushed back, and was aware that the young man had risen. When he glanced up again he saw that his visitor was as moved as himself.
"Thank you," Archer said simply.
"There's nothing to thank me for, Monsieur: it is I, rather — " M. Riviere broke off, as if speech for him too were difficult. "I should like, though," he continued in a firmer voice, "to add one thing. You asked me if I was in Count Olenski's employ. I am at this moment: I returned to him, a few months ago, for reasons of private necessity such as may happen to any one who has persons, ill and older persons, dependent on him. But from the moment that I have taken the step of coming here to say these things to you I consider myself discharged, and I shall tell him so on my return, and give him the reasons. That's all, Monsieur."
M. Riviere bowed and drew back a step.
"Thank you," Archer said again, as their hands met.