She paused for a long interval; so long that, not wishing to keep his eyes on her shaded face, he had time to imprint on his mind the exact shape of her other hand, the one on her knee, and every detail of the three rings on her fourth and fifth fingers; among which, he noticed, a wedding ring did not appear.
“What harm could such accusations, even if he made them publicly, do me here?”
It was on his lips to exclaim: “My poor child—far more harm than anywhere else!” Instead, he answered, in a voice that sounded in his ears like Mr. Letterblair’s: “New York society is a very small world compared with the one you’ve lived in. And it’s ruled, in spite of appearances, by a few people with—well, rather old-fashioned ideas.”
She said nothing, and he continued: “Our ideas about marriage and divorce are particularly old-fashioned. Our legislation favours divorce—our social customs don’t.”
“Well—not if the woman, however injured, however irreproachable, has appearances in the least degree against her, has exposed herself by any unconventional action to—to offensive insinuations—”
She drooped her head a little lower, and he waited again, intensely hoping for a flash of indignation, or at least a brief cry of denial. None came.
A little travelling clock ticked purringly at her elbow, and a log broke in two and sent up a shower of sparks. The whole hushed and brooding room seemed to be waiting silently with Archer.
“Yes,” she murmured at length, “that’s what my family tell me.”
He winced a little. “It’s not unnatural—”
“Our family,” she corrected herself; and Archer coloured. “For you’ll be my cousin soon,” she continued gently.
“I hope so.”
“And you take their view?”
He stood up at this, wandered across the room, stared with void eyes at one of the pictures against the old red damask, and came back irresolutely to her side. How could he say: “Yes, if what your husband hints is true, or if you’ve no way of disproving it?”
“Sincerely—” she interjected, as he was about to speak.
He looked down into the fire. “Sincerely, then—what should you gain that would compensate for the possibility— the certainty—of a lot of beastly talk?”
“But my freedom—is that nothing?”
It flashed across him at that instant that the charge in the letter was true, and that she hoped to marry the partner of her guilt. How was he to tell her that, if she really cherished such a plan, the laws of the State were inexorably opposed to it? The mere suspicion that the thought was in her mind made him feel harshly and impatiently toward her. “But aren’t you as free as air as it is?” he returned. “Who can touch you? Mr. Letterblair tells me the financial question has been settled—”
“Oh, yes,” she said indifferently.