Happily Archer was of the family, and therefore, irregular though his arrival was, entitled to be informed that the Countess Olenska was out, having driven to afternoon service with Mrs. van der Luyden exactly three quarters of an hour earlier.
“Mr. van der Luyden,” the butler continued, “is in, sir; but my impression is that he is either finishing his nap or else reading yesterday’s Evening Post. I heard him say, sir, on his return from church this morning, that he intended to look through the Evening Post after luncheon; if you like, sir, I might go to the library door and listen—”
But Archer, thanking him, said that he would go and meet the ladies; and the butler, obviously relieved, closed the door on him majestically.
A groom took the cutter to the stables, and Archer struck through the park to the high-road. The village of Skuytercliff was only a mile and a half away, but he knew that Mrs. van der Luyden never walked, and that he must keep to the road to meet the carriage. Presently, however, coming down a foot-path that crossed the highway, he caught sight of a slight figure in a red cloak, with a big dog running ahead. He hurried forward, and Madame Olenska stopped short with a smile of welcome.
“Ah, you’ve come!” she said, and drew her hand from her muff.
The red cloak made her look gay and vivid, like the Ellen Mingott of old days; and he laughed as he took her hand, and answered: “I came to see what you were running away from.”
Her face clouded over, but she answered: “Ah, well— you will see, presently.”
The answer puzzled him. “Why—do you mean that you’ve been overtaken?”
She shrugged her shoulders, with a little movement like Nastasia’s, and rejoined in a lighter tone: “Shall we walk on? I’m so cold after the sermon. And what does it matter, now you’re here to protect me?”
The blood rose to his temples and he caught a fold of her cloak. “Ellen—what is it? You must tell me.”
“Oh, presently—let’s run a race first: my feet are freezing to the ground,” she cried; and gathering up the cloak she fled away across the snow, the dog leaping about her with challenging barks. For a moment Archer stood watching, his gaze delighted by the flash of the red meteor against the snow; then he started after her, and they met, panting and laughing, at a wicket that led into the park.
She looked up at him and smiled. “I knew you’d come!”
“That shows you wanted me to,” he returned, with a disproportionate joy in their nonsense. The white glitter of the trees filled the air with its own mysterious brightness, and as they walked on over the snow the ground seemed to sing under their feet.
“Where did you come from?” Madame Olenska asked.
He told her, and added: “It was because I got your note.”
After a pause she said, with a just perceptible chill in her voice: “May asked you to take care of me.”