“Medora is incorrigibly romantic. It has made up to her for so many things!”
Archer hesitated again, and again took his risk. “Is your aunt’s romanticism always consistent with accuracy?”
“You mean: does she speak the truth?” Her niece considered. “Well, I’ll tell you: in almost everything she says, there’s something true and something untrue. But why do you ask? What has she been telling you?”
He looked away into the fire, and then back at her shining presence. His heart tightened with the thought that this was their last evening by that fireside, and that in a moment the carriage would come to carry her away.
“She says—she pretends that Count Olenski has asked her to persuade you to go back to him.”
Madame Olenska made no answer. She sat motionless, holding her cigarette in her half-lifted hand. The expression of her face had not changed; and Archer remembered that he had before noticed her apparent incapacity for surprise.
“You knew, then?” he broke out.
She was silent for so long that the ash dropped from her cigarette. She brushed it to the floor. “She has hinted about a letter: poor darling! Medora’s hints—”
“Is it at your husband’s request that she has arrived here suddenly?”
Madame Olenska seemed to consider this question also. “There again: one can’t tell. She told me she had had a `spiritual summons,’ whatever that is, from Dr. Carver. I’m afraid she’s going to marry Dr. Carver . . . poor Medora, there’s always some one she wants to marry. But perhaps the people in Cuba just got tired of her! I think she was with them as a sort of paid companion. Really, I don’t know why she came.”
“But you do believe she has a letter from your husband?”
Again Madame Olenska brooded silently; then she said: “After all, it was to be expected.”
The young man rose and went to lean against the fireplace. A sudden restlessness possessed him, and he was tongue-tied by the sense that their minutes were numbered, and that at any moment he might hear the wheels of the returning carriage.
“You know that your aunt believes you will go back?”
Madame Olenska raised her head quickly. A deep blush rose to her face and spread over her neck and shoulders. She blushed seldom and painfully, as if it hurt her like a burn.
“Many cruel things have been believed of me,” she said.
“Oh, Ellen—forgive me; I’m a fool and a brute!”
She smiled a little. “You are horribly nervous; you have your own troubles. I know you think the Wellands are unreasonable about your marriage, and of course I agree with you. In Europe people don’t understand our long American engagements; I suppose they are not as calm as we are.” She pronounced the “we” with a faint emphasis that gave it an ironic sound.
Archer felt the irony but did not dare to take it up. After all, she had perhaps purposely deflected the conversation from her own affairs, and after the pain his last words had evidently caused her he felt that all he could do was to follow her lead. But the sense of the waning hour made him desperate: he could not bear the thought that a barrier of words should drop between them again.