“I want to get away from it all,” she insisted.
He waited a moment and cleared his throat. “I know. Mr. Letterblair has told me.”
“That’s the reason I’ve come. He asked me to—you see I’m in the firm.”
She looked slightly surprised, and then her eyes brightened. “You mean you can manage it for me? I can talk to you instead of Mr. Letterblair? Oh, that will be so much easier!”
Her tone touched him, and his confidence grew with his self-satisfaction. He perceived that she had spoken of business to Beaufort simply to get rid of him; and to have routed Beaufort was something of a triumph.
“I am here to talk about it,” he repeated.
She sat silent, her head still propped by the arm that rested on the back of the sofa. Her face looked pale and extinguished, as if dimmed by the rich red of her dress. She struck Archer, of a sudden, as a pathetic and even pitiful figure.
“Now we’re coming to hard facts,” he thought, conscious in himself of the same instinctive recoil that he had so often criticised in his mother and her contemporaries. How little practice he had had in dealing with unusual situations! Their very vocabulary was unfamiliar to him, and seemed to belong to fiction and the stage. In face of what was coming he felt as awkward and embarrassed as a boy.
After a pause Madame Olenska broke out with unexpected vehemence: “I want to be free; I want to wipe out all the past.”
“I understand that.”
Her face warmed. “Then you’ll help me?”
“First—” he hesitated—“perhaps I ought to know a little more.”
She seemed surprised. “You know about my husband— my life with him?”
He made a sign of assent.
“Well—then—what more is there? In this country are such things tolerated? I’m a Protestant—our church does not forbid divorce in such cases.”
They were both silent again, and Archer felt the spectre of Count Olenski’s letter grimacing hideously between them. The letter filled only half a page, and was just what he had described it to be in speaking of it to Mr. Letterblair: the vague charge of an angry blackguard. But how much truth was behind it? Only Count Olenski’s wife could tell.
“I’ve looked through the papers you gave to Mr. Letterblair,” he said at length.
“Well—can there be anything more abominable?”
She changed her position slightly, screening her eyes with her lifted hand.
“Of course you know,” Archer continued, “that if your husband chooses to fight the case—as he threatens to—”
“He can say things—things that might be unpl—might be disagreeable to you: say them publicly, so that they would get about, and harm you even if—”
“I mean: no matter how unfounded they were.”