“I didn’t need any asking.”
“You mean—I’m so evidently helpless and defenceless? What a poor thing you must all think me! But women here seem not—seem never to feel the need: any more than the blessed in heaven.”
He lowered his voice to ask: “What sort of a need?”
“Ah, don’t ask me! I don’t speak your language,” she retorted petulantly.
The answer smote him like a blow, and he stood still in the path, looking down at her.
“What did I come for, if I don’t speak yours?”
“Oh, my friend—!” She laid her hand lightly on his arm, and he pleaded earnestly: “Ellen—why won’t you tell me what’s happened?”
She shrugged again. “Does anything ever happen in heaven?”
He was silent, and they walked on a few yards without exchanging a word. Finally she said: “I will tell you—but where, where, where? One can’t be alone for a minute in that great seminary of a house, with all the doors wide open, and always a servant bringing tea, or a log for the fire, or the newspaper! Is there nowhere in an American house where one may be by one’s self? You’re so shy, and yet you’re so public. I always feel as if I were in the convent again—or on the stage, before a dreadfully polite audience that never applauds.”
“Ah, you don’t like us!” Archer exclaimed.
They were walking past the house of the old Patroon, with its squat walls and small square windows compactly grouped about a central chimney. The shutters stood wide, and through one of the newly-washed windows Archer caught the light of a fire.
“Why—the house is open!” he said.
She stood still. “No; only for today, at least. I wanted to see it, and Mr. van der Luyden had the fire lit and the windows opened, so that we might stop there on the way back from church this morning.” She ran up the steps and tried the door. “It’s still unlocked—what luck! Come in and we can have a quiet talk. Mrs. van der Luyden has driven over to see her old aunts at Rhinebeck and we shan’t be missed at the house for another hour.”
He followed her into the narrow passage. His spirits, which had dropped at her last words, rose with an irrational leap. The homely little house stood there, its panels and brasses shining in the firelight, as if magically created to receive them. A big bed of embers still gleamed in the kitchen chimney, under an iron pot hung from an ancient crane. Rush-bottomed arm-chairs faced each other across the tiled hearth, and rows of Delft plates stood on shelves against the walls. Archer stooped over and threw a log upon the embers.
Madame Olenska, dropping her cloak, sat down in one of the chairs. Archer leaned against the chimney and looked at her.
“You’re laughing now; but when you wrote me you were unhappy,” he said.
“Yes.” She paused. “But I can’t feel unhappy when you’re here.”