The young man, after a just perceptible hesitation, replied, with profuse thanks, and in a tone that did not carry complete conviction, that he was already engaged; but when they had reached the comparative reassurance of the street he asked if he might call that afternoon.
Archer, at ease in the midsummer leisure of the office, fixed an hour and scribbled his address, which the Frenchman pocketed with reiterated thanks and a wide flourish of his hat. A horse-car received him, and Archer walked away.
Punctually at the hour M. Riviere appeared, shaved, smoothed-out, but still unmistakably drawn and serious. Archer was alone in his office, and the young man, before accepting the seat he proffered, began abruptly: “I believe I saw you, sir, yesterday in Boston.”
The statement was insignificant enough, and Archer was about to frame an assent when his words were checked by something mysterious yet illuminating in his visitor’s insistent gaze.
“It is extraordinary, very extraordinary,” M. Riviere continued, “that we should have met in the circumstances in which I find myself.”
“What circumstances?” Archer asked, wondering a little crudely if he needed money.
M. Riviere continued to study him with tentative eyes. “I have come, not to look for employment, as I spoke of doing when we last met, but on a special mission—”
“Ah—!” Archer exclaimed. In a flash the two meetings had connected themselves in his mind. He paused to take in the situation thus suddenly lighted up for him, and M. Riviere also remained silent, as if aware that what he had said was enough.
“A special mission,” Archer at length repeated.
The young Frenchman, opening his palms, raised them slightly, and the two men continued to look at each other across the office-desk till Archer roused himself to say: “Do sit down”; whereupon M. Riviere bowed, took a distant chair, and again waited.
“It was about this mission that you wanted to consult me?” Archer finally asked.
M. Riviere bent his head. “Not in my own behalf: on that score I—I have fully dealt with myself. I should like—if I may—to speak to you about the Countess Olenska.”
Archer had known for the last few minutes that the words were coming; but when they came they sent the blood rushing to his temples as if he had been caught by a bent-back branch in a thicket.
“And on whose behalf,” he said, “do you wish to do this?”
M. Riviere met the question sturdily. “Well—I might say hers, if it did not sound like a liberty. Shall I say instead: on behalf of abstract justice?”
Archer considered him ironically. “In other words: you are Count Olenski’s messenger?”
He saw his blush more darkly reflected in M. Riviere’s sallow countenance. “Not to you, Monsieur. If I come to you, it is on quite other grounds.”