“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.”
“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.”