Edith Wharton (1862–1937). The Age of Innocence. 1920.Book II
It was a sombre snowy afternoon, and the gas-lamps were lit in the big reverberating station. As he paced the platform, waiting for the Washington express, he remembered that there were people who thought there would one day be a tunnel under the Hudson through which the trains of the Pennsylvania railway would run straight into New York. They were of the brotherhood of visionaries who likewise predicted the building of ships that would cross the Atlantic in five days, the invention of a flying machine, lighting by electricity, telephonic communication without wires, and other Arabian Night marvels.
“I don’t care which of their visions comes true,” Archer mused, “as long as the tunnel isn’t built yet.” In his senseless school-boy happiness he pictured Madame Olenska’s descent from the train, his discovery of her a long way off, among the throngs of meaningless faces, her clinging to his arm as he guided her to the carriage, their slow approach to the wharf among slipping horses, laden carts, vociferating teamsters, and then the startling quiet of the ferry-boat, where they would sit side by side under the snow, in the motionless carriage, while the earth seemed to glide away under them, rolling to the other side of the sun. It was incredible, the number of things he had to say to her, and in what eloquent order they were forming themselves on his lips.…
The clanging and groaning of the train came nearer, and it staggered slowly into the station like a prey-laden monster into its lair. Archer pushed forward, elbowing through the crowd, and staring blindly into window after window of the high-hung carriages. And then, suddenly, he saw Madame Olenska’s pale and surprised face close at hand, and had again the mortified sensation of having forgotten what she looked like.
They reached each other, their hands met, and he drew her arm through his. “This way—I have the carriage,” he said.
After that it all happened as he had dreamed. He helped her into the brougham with her bags, and had afterward the vague recollection of having properly reassured her about her grandmother and given her a summary of the Beaufort situation (he was struck by the softness of her: “Poor Regina!”). Meanwhile the carriage had worked its way out of the coil about the station, and they were crawling down the slippery incline to the wharf, menaced by swaying coal-carts, bewildered horses, dishevelled express-wagons, and an empty hearse—ah, that hearse! She shut her eyes as it passed, and clutched at Archer’s hand.
“If only it doesn’t mean—poor Granny!”
“Oh, no, no—she’s much better—she’s all right, really. There—we’ve passed it!” he exclaimed, as if that made all the difference. Her hand remained in his, and as the carriage lurched across the gang-plank onto the ferry he bent over, unbuttoned her tight brown glove, and kissed her palm as if he had kissed a relic. She disengaged herself with a faint smile, and he said: “You didn’t expect me today?”
“I meant to go to Washington to see you. I’d made all my arrangements—I very nearly crossed you in the train.”
“Oh—” she exclaimed, as if terrified by the narrowness of their escape.
“Do you know—I hardly remembered you?”
“Hardly remembered me?”
“I mean: how shall I explain? I—it’s always so. Each time you happen to me all over again.”
“Oh, yes: I know! I know!”
“Does it—do I too: to you?” he insisted.
She nodded, looking out of the window.
She made no answer, and he sat in silence, watching her profile grow indistinct against the snow-streaked dusk beyond the window. What had she been doing in all those four long months, he wondered? How little they knew of each other, after all! The precious moments were slipping away, but he had forgotten everything that he had meant to say to her and could only helplessly brood on the mystery of their remoteness and their proximity, which seemed to be symbolised by the fact of their sitting so close to each other, and yet being unable to see each other’s faces.
“What a pretty carriage! Is it May’s?” she asked, suddenly turning her face from the window.
“It was May who sent you to fetch me, then? How kind of her!”
He made no answer for a moment; then he said explosively: “Your husband’s secretary came to see me the day after we met in Boston.”
In his brief letter to her he had made no allusion to M. Rivière’s visit, and his intention had been to bury the incident in his bosom. But her reminder that they were in his wife’s carriage provoked him to an impulse of retaliation. He would see if she liked his reference to Rivière any better than he liked hers to May! As on certain other occasions when he had expected to shake her out of her usual composure, she betrayed no sign of surprise: and at once he concluded: “He writes to her, then.”
“M. Rivière went to see you?”
“Yes: didn’t you know?”
“No,” she answered simply.
“And you’re not surprised?”
She hesitated. “Why should I be? He told me in Boston that he knew you; that he’d met you in England I think.”
“Ellen—I must ask you one thing.”
“I wanted to ask it after I saw him, but I couldn’t put it in a letter. It was Rivière who helped you to get away—when you left your husband?”
His heart was beating suffocatingly. Would she meet this question with the same composure?
“Yes: I owe him a great debt,” she answered, without the least tremor in her quiet voice.
Her tone was so natural, so almost indifferent, that Archer’s turmoil subsided. Once more she had managed, by her sheer simplicity, to make him feel stupidly conventional just when he thought he was flinging convention to the winds.
“I think you’re the most honest woman I ever met!” he exclaimed.
“Oh, no—but probably one of the least fussy,” she answered, a smile in her voice.
“Call it what you like: you look at things as they are.”
“Ah—I’ve had to. I’ve had to look at the Gorgon.”
“Well—it hasn’t blinded you! You’ve seen that she’s just an old bogey like all the others.”
“She doesn’t blind one; but she dries up one’s tears.”
The answer checked the pleading on Archer’s lips: it seemed to come from depths of experience beyond his reach. The slow advance of the ferry-boat had ceased, and her bows bumped against the piles of the slip with a violence that made the brougham stagger, and flung Archer and Madame Olenska against each other. The young man, trembling, felt the pressure of her shoulder, and passed his arm about her.
“If you’re not blind, then, you must see that this can’t last.”
“Our being together—and not together.”
“No. You ought not to have come today,” she said in an altered voice; and suddenly she turned, flung her arms about him and pressed her lips to his. At the same moment the carriage began to move, and a gas-lamp at the head of the slip flashed its light into the window. She drew away, and they sat silent and motionless while the brougham struggled through the congestion of carriages about the ferry-landing. As they gained the street Archer began to speak hurriedly.
“Don’t be afraid of me: you needn’t squeeze yourself back into your corner like that. A stolen kiss isn’t what I want. Look: I’m not even trying to touch the sleeve of your jacket. Don’t suppose that I don’t understand your reasons for not wanting to let this feeling between us dwindle into an ordinary hole-and-corner love affair. I couldn’t have spoken like this yesterday, because when we’ve been apart, and I’m looking forward to seeing you, every thought is burnt up in a great flame. But then you come; and you’re so much more than I remembered, and what I want of you is so much more than an hour or two every now and then, with wastes of thirsty waiting between, that I can sit perfectly still beside you, like this, with that other vision in my mind, just quietly trusting to it to come true.”
For a moment she made no reply; then she asked, hardly above a whisper: “What do you mean by trusting to it to come true?”
“Why—you know it will, don’t you?”
“Your vision of you and me together?” She burst into a sudden hard laugh. “You choose your place well to put it to me!”
“Do you mean because we’re in my wife’s brougham? Shall we get out and walk, then? I don’t suppose you mind a little snow?”
She laughed again, more gently. “No; I shan’t get out and walk, because my business is to get to Granny’s as quickly as I can. And you’ll sit beside me, and we’ll look, not at visions, but at realities.”
“I don’t know what you mean by realities. The only reality to me is this.”
She met the words with a long silence, during which the carriage rolled down an obscure side-street and then turned into the searching illumination of Fifth Avenue.
“Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as your mistress—since I can’t be your wife?” she asked.
The crudeness of the question startled him: the word was one that women of his class fought shy of, even when their talk flitted closest about the topic. He noticed that Madame Olenska pronounced it as if it had a recognised place in her vocabulary, and he wondered if it had been used familiarly in her presence in the horrible life she had fled from. Her question pulled him up with a jerk, and he floundered.
“I want—I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that—categories like that—won’t exist. Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter.”
She drew a deep sigh that ended in another laugh. “Oh, my dear—where is that country? Have you ever been there?” she asked; and as he remained sullenly dumb she went on: “I know so many who’ve tried to find it; and, believe me, they all got out by mistake at wayside stations: at places like Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo—and it wasn’t at all different from the old world they’d left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous.”
He had never heard her speak in such a tone, and he remembered the phrase she had used a little while before.
“Yes, the Gorgon has dried your tears,” he said.
“Well, she opened my eyes too; it’s a delusion to say that she blinds people. What she does is just the contrary—she fastens their eyelids open, so that they’re never again in the blessed darkness. Isn’t there a Chinese torture like that? There ought to be. Ah, believe me, it’s a miserable little country!”
The carriage had crossed Forty-second Street: May’s sturdy brougham-horse was carrying them northward as if he had been a Kentucky trotter. Archer choked with the sense of wasted minutes and vain words.
“Then what, exactly, is your plan for us?” he asked.
“For us? But there’s no us in that sense! We’re near each other only if we stay far from each other. Then we can be ourselves. Otherwise we’re only Newland Archer, the husband of Ellen Olenska’s cousin, and Ellen Olenska, the cousin of Newland Archer’s wife, trying to be happy behind the backs of the people who trust them.”
“Ah, I’m beyond that,” he groaned.
“No, you’re not! You’ve never been beyond. And I have,” she said, in a strange voice, “and I know what it looks like there.”
He sat silent, dazed with inarticulate pain. Then he groped in the darkness of the carriage for the little bell that signalled orders to the coachman. He remembered that May rang twice when she wished to stop. He pressed the bell, and the carriage drew up beside the curbstone.
“Why are we stopping? This is not Granny’s,” Madame Olenska exclaimed.
“No: I shall get out here,” he stammered, opening the door and jumping to the pavement. By the light of a street-lamp he saw her startled face, and the instinctive motion she made to detain him. He closed the door, and leaned for a moment in the window.
“You’re right: I ought not to have come today,” he said, lowering his voice so that the coachman should not hear. She bent forward, and seemed about to speak; but he had already called out the order to drive on, and the carriage rolled away while he stood on the corner. The snow was over, and a tingling wind had sprung up, that lashed his face as he stood gazing. Suddenly he felt something stiff and cold on his lashes, and perceived that he had been crying, and that the wind had frozen his tears.
He thrust his hands in his pockets, and walked at a sharp pace down Fifth Avenue to his own house.