She sat silent, without a movement or a tremor of her lashes. She was still extremely pale, but her face had a curious tranquillity of expression that seemed drawn from some secret inner source.
Archer checked the conventional phrases of self-accusal that were crowding to his lips. He was determined to put the case baldly, without vain recrimination or excuse.
“Madame Olenska—” he said; but at the name his wife raised her hand as if to silence him. As she did so the gaslight struck on the gold of her wedding-ring.
“Oh, why should we talk about Ellen tonight?” she asked, with a slight pout of impatience.
“Because I ought to have spoken before.”
Her face remained calm. “Is it really worth while, dear? I know I’ve been unfair to her at times—perhaps we all have. You’ve understood her, no doubt, better than we did: you’ve always been kind to her. But what does it matter, now it’s all over?”
Archer looked at her blankly. Could it be possible that the sense of unreality in which he felt himself imprisoned had communicated itself to his wife?
“All over—what do you mean?” he asked in an indistinct stammer.
May still looked at him with transparent eyes. “Why— since she’s going back to Europe so soon; since Granny approves and understands, and has arranged to make her independent of her husband—”
She broke off, and Archer, grasping the corner of the mantelpiece in one convulsed hand, and steadying himself against it, made a vain effort to extend the same control to his reeling thoughts.
“I supposed,” he heard his wife’s even voice go on, “that you had been kept at the office this evening about the business arrangements. It was settled this morning, I believe.” She lowered her eyes under his unseeing stare, and another fugitive flush passed over her face.
He understood that his own eyes must be unbearable, and turning away, rested his elbows on the mantel-shelf and covered his face. Something drummed and clanged furiously in his ears; he could not tell if it were the blood in his veins, or the tick of the clock on the mantel.
May sat without moving or speaking while the clock slowly measured out five minutes. A lump of coal fell forward in the grate, and hearing her rise to push it back, Archer at length turned and faced her.
“It’s impossible,” he exclaimed.
“How do you know—what you’ve just told me?”
“I saw Ellen yesterday—I told you I’d seen her at Granny’s.”
“It wasn’t then that she told you?”
“No; I had a note from her this afternoon.—Do you want to see it?”
He could not find his voice, and she went out of the room, and came back almost immediately.
“I thought you knew,” she said simply.
She laid a sheet of paper on the table, and Archer put out his hand and took it up. The letter contained only a few lines.