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|Book II||Edith Wharton|
|Page 4 of 7||
They had this melancholy retreat to themselves, and seated on the divan enclosing the central steam-radiator, they were staring silently at the glass cabinets mounted in ebonised wood which contained the recovered fragments of Ilium.
"It's odd," Madame Olenska said, "I never came here before."
"Ah, well--. Some day, I suppose, it will be a great Museum."
"Yes," she assented absently.
She stood up and wandered across the room. Archer, remaining seated, watched the light movements of her figure, so girlish even under its heavy furs, the cleverly planted heron wing in her fur cap, and the way a dark curl lay like a flattened vine spiral on each cheek above the ear. His mind, as always when they first met, was wholly absorbed in the delicious details that made her herself and no other. Presently he rose and approached the case before which she stood. Its glass shelves were crowded with small broken objects--hardly recognisable domestic utensils, ornaments and personal trifles--made of glass, of clay, of discoloured bronze and other time-blurred substances.
"It seems cruel," she said, "that after a while nothing matters . . . any more than these little things, that used to be necessary and important to forgotten people, and now have to be guessed at under a magnifying glass and labelled: `Use unknown.'"
"Yes; but meanwhile--"
As she stood there, in her long sealskin coat, her hands thrust in a small round muff, her veil drawn down like a transparent mask to the tip of her nose, and the bunch of violets he had brought her stirring with her quickly-taken breath, it seemed incredible that this pure harmony of line and colour should ever suffer the stupid law of change.
"Meanwhile everything matters--that concerns you," he said.
She looked at him thoughtfully, and turned back to the divan. He sat down beside her and waited; but suddenly he heard a step echoing far off down the empty rooms, and felt the pressure of the minutes.
"What is it you wanted to tell me?" she asked, as if she had received the same warning.
"What I wanted to tell you?" he rejoined. "Why, that I believe you came to New York because you were afraid."
"Of my coming to Washington."
She looked down at her muff, and he saw her hands stir in it uneasily.
"Well--yes," she said.
"You WERE afraid? You knew--?"
"Yes: I knew . . ."
"Well, then?" he insisted.
"Well, then: this is better, isn't it?" she returned with a long questioning sigh.
"We shall hurt others less. Isn't it, after all, what you always wanted?"
"To have you here, you mean--in reach and yet out of reach? To meet you in this way, on the sly? It's the very reverse of what I want. I told you the other day what I wanted."
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