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|Book I||Edith Wharton|
|Page 3 of 7||
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.
"Yes," he said abruptly; "I went south to ask May to marry me after Easter. There's no reason why we shouldn't be married then."
"And May adores you--and yet you couldn't convince her? I thought her too intelligent to be the slave of such absurd superstitions."
"She IS too intelligent--she's not their slave."
Madame Olenska looked at him. "Well, then--I don't understand."
Archer reddened, and hurried on with a rush. "We had a frank talk--almost the first. She thinks my impatience a bad sign."
"Merciful heavens--a bad sign?"
"She thinks it means that I can't trust myself to go on caring for her. She thinks, in short, I want to marry her at once to get away from some one that I--care for more."
Madame Olenska examined this curiously. "But if she thinks that--why isn't she in a hurry too?"
"Because she's not like that: she's so much nobler. She insists all the more on the long engagement, to give me time--"
"Time to give her up for the other woman?"
"If I want to."
Madame Olenska leaned toward the fire and gazed into it with fixed eyes. Down the quiet street Archer heard the approaching trot of her horses.
"That IS noble," she said, with a slight break in her voice.
"Yes. But it's ridiculous."
"Ridiculous? Because you don't care for any one else?"
"Because I don't mean to marry any one else."
"Ah." There was another long interval. At length she looked up at him and asked: "This other woman-- does she love you?"
"Oh, there's no other woman; I mean, the person that May was thinking of is--was never--"
"Then, why, after all, are you in such haste?"
"There's your carriage," said Archer.
She half-rose and looked about her with absent eyes. Her fan and gloves lay on the sofa beside her and she picked them up mechanically.
"Yes; I suppose I must be going."
"You're going to Mrs. Struthers's?"
"Yes." She smiled and added: "I must go where I am invited, or I should be too lonely. Why not come with me?"
Archer felt that at any cost he must keep her beside him, must make her give him the rest of her evening. Ignoring her question, he continued to lean against the chimney-piece, his eyes fixed on the hand in which she held her gloves and fan, as if watching to see if he had the power to make her drop them.
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