Archer, under the exposure of her gaze, had recovered his self-possession.
“Oh, I don’t count—I’m too insignificant.”
“Well, you’re Letterblair’s partner, ain’t you? You’ve got to get at them through Letterblair. Unless you’ve got a reason,” she insisted.
“Oh, my dear, I back you to hold your own against them all without my help; but you shall have it if you need it,” he reassured her.
“Then we’re safe!” she sighed; and smiling on him with all her ancient cunning she added, as she settled her head among the cushions: “I always knew you’d back us up, because they never quote you when they talk about its being her duty to go home.”
He winced a little at her terrifying perspicacity, and longed to ask: “And May—do they quote her?” But he judged it safer to turn the question.
“And Madame Olenska? When am I to see her?” he said.
The old lady chuckled, crumpled her lids, and went through the pantomime of archness. “Not today. One at a time, please. Madame Olenska’s gone out.”
He flushed with disappointment, and she went on: “She’s gone out, my child: gone in my carriage to see Regina Beaufort.”
She paused for this announcement to produce its effect. “That’s what she’s reduced me to already. The day after she got here she put on her best bonnet, and told me, as cool as a cucumber, that she was going to call on Regina Beaufort. `I don’t know her; who is she?’ says I. `She’s your grand-niece, and a most unhappy woman,’ she says. `She’s the wife of a scoundrel,’ I answered. `Well,’ she says, `and so am I, and yet all my family want me to go back to him.’ Well, that floored me, and I let her go; and finally one day she said it was raining too hard to go out on foot, and she wanted me to lend her my carriage. `What for?’ I asked her; and she said: `To go and see cousin Regina’—cousin! Now, my dear, I looked out of the window, and saw it wasn’t raining a drop; but I understood her, and I let her have the carriage. . . . After all, Regina’s a brave woman, and so is she; and I’ve always liked courage above everything.”
Archer bent down and pressed his lips on the little hand that still lay on his.
“Eh—eh—eh! Whose hand did you think you were kissing, young man—your wife’s, I hope?” the old lady snapped out with her mocking cackle; and as he rose to go she called out after him: “Give her her Granny’s love; but you’d better not say anything about our talk.”
Archer had been stunned by old Catherine’s news. It was only natural that Madame Olenska should have hastened from Washington in response to her grandmother’s summons; but that she should have decided to remain under her roof—especially now that Mrs. Mingott had almost regained her health—was less easy to explain.