She bent over him, laying her hands on his shoulders, and looking at him with eyes so deep that he remained motionless under her gaze.
“Ah, don’t let us undo what you’ve done!” she cried. “I can’t go back now to that other way of thinking. I can’t love you unless I give you up.”
His arms were yearning up to her; but she drew away, and they remained facing each other, divided by the distance that her words had created. Then, abruptly, his anger overflowed.
“And Beaufort? Is he to replace me?”
As the words sprang out he was prepared for an answering flare of anger; and he would have welcomed it as fuel for his own. But Madame Olenska only grew a shade paler, and stood with her arms hanging down before her, and her head slightly bent, as her way was when she pondered a question.
“He’s waiting for you now at Mrs. Struthers’s; why don’t you go to him?” Archer sneered.
She turned to ring the bell. “I shall not go out this evening; tell the carriage to go and fetch the Signora Marchesa,” she said when the maid came.
After the door had closed again Archer continued to look at her with bitter eyes. “Why this sacrifice? Since you tell me that you’re lonely I’ve no right to keep you from your friends.”
She smiled a little under her wet lashes. “I shan’t be lonely now. I was lonely; I was afraid. But the emptiness and the darkness are gone; when I turn back into myself now I’m like a child going at night into a room where there’s always a light.”
Her tone and her look still enveloped her in a soft inaccessibility, and Archer groaned out again: “I don’t understand you!”
“Yet you understand May!”
He reddened under the retort, but kept his eyes on her. “May is ready to give me up.”
“What! Three days after you’ve entreated her on your knees to hasten your marriage?”
“She’s refused; that gives me the right—”
“Ah, you’ve taught me what an ugly word that is,” she said.
He turned away with a sense of utter weariness. He felt as though he had been struggling for hours up the face of a steep precipice, and now, just as he had fought his way to the top, his hold had given way and he was pitching down headlong into darkness.
If he could have got her in his arms again he might have swept away her arguments; but she still held him at a distance by something inscrutably aloof in her look and attitude, and by his own awed sense of her sincerity. At length he began to plead again.
“If we do this now it will be worse afterward—worse for every one—”
“No—no—no!” she almost screamed, as if he frightened her.
At that moment the bell sent a long tinkle through the house. They had heard no carriage stopping at the door, and they stood motionless, looking at each other with startled eyes.
Outside, Nastasia’s step crossed the hall, the outer door opened, and a moment later she came in carrying a telegram which she handed to the Countess Olenska.