He saw his chance. “Everything may be labelled— but everybody is not.”
“Perhaps. I may simplify too much—but you’ll warn me if I do.” She turned from the fire to look at him. “There are only two people here who make me feel as if they understood what I mean and could explain things to me: you and Mr. Beaufort.”
Archer winced at the joining of the names, and then, with a quick readjustment, understood, sympathised and pitied. So close to the powers of evil she must have lived that she still breathed more freely in their air. But since she felt that he understood her also, his business would be to make her see Beaufort as he really was, with all he represented—and abhor it.
He answered gently: “I understand. But just at first don’t let go of your old friends’ hands: I mean the older women, your Granny Mingott, Mrs. Welland, Mrs. van der Luyden. They like and admire you—they want to help you.”
She shook her head and sighed. “Oh, I know—I know! But on condition that they don’t hear anything unpleasant. Aunt Welland put it in those very words when I tried. . . . Does no one want to know the truth here, Mr. Archer? The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!” She lifted her hands to her face, and he saw her thin shoulders shaken by a sob.
“Madame Olenska!—Oh, don’t, Ellen,” he cried, starting up and bending over her. He drew down one of her hands, clasping and chafing it like a child’s while he murmured reassuring words; but in a moment she freed herself, and looked up at him with wet lashes.
“Does no one cry here, either? I suppose there’s no need to, in heaven,” she said, straightening her loosened braids with a laugh, and bending over the tea-kettle. It was burnt into his consciousness that he had called her “Ellen”—called her so twice; and that she had not noticed it. Far down the inverted telescope he saw the faint white figure of May Welland—in New York.
Suddenly Nastasia put her head in to say something in her rich Italian.
Madame Olenska, again with a hand at her hair, uttered an exclamation of assent—a flashing “Gia— gia”—and the Duke of St. Austrey entered, piloting a tremendous blackwigged and red-plumed lady in overflowing furs.
“My dear Countess, I’ve brought an old friend of mine to see you—Mrs. Struthers. She wasn’t asked to the party last night, and she wants to know you.”
The Duke beamed on the group, and Madame Olenska advanced with a murmur of welcome toward the queer couple. She seemed to have no idea how oddly matched they were, nor what a liberty the Duke had taken in bringing his companion—and to do him justice, as Archer perceived, the Duke seemed as unaware of it himself.