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|Book I||Edith Wharton|
|Page 4 of 7||
"May guessed the truth," he said. "There is another woman--but not the one she thinks."
Ellen Olenska made no answer, and did not move. After a moment he sat down beside her, and, taking her hand, softly unclasped it, so that the gloves and fan fell on the sofa between them.
She started up, and freeing herself from him moved away to the other side of the hearth. "Ah, don't make love to me! Too many people have done that," she said, frowning.
Archer, changing colour, stood up also: it was the bitterest rebuke she could have given him. "I have never made love to you," he said, "and I never shall. But you are the woman I would have married if it had been possible for either of us."
"Possible for either of us?" She looked at him with unfeigned astonishment. "And you say that--when it's you who've made it impossible?"
He stared at her, groping in a blackness through which a single arrow of light tore its blinding way.
"I'VE made it impossible--?"
"You, you, YOU!" she cried, her lip trembling like a child's on the verge of tears. "Isn't it you who made me give up divorcing--give it up because you showed me how selfish and wicked it was, how one must sacrifice one's self to preserve the dignity of marriage . . . and to spare one's family the publicity, the scandal? And because my family was going to be your family--for May's sake and for yours--I did what you told me, what you proved to me that I ought to do. Ah," she broke out with a sudden laugh, "I've made no secret of having done it for you!"
She sank down on the sofa again, crouching among the festive ripples of her dress like a stricken masquerader; and the young man stood by the fireplace and continued to gaze at her without moving.
"Good God," he groaned. "When I thought--"
"Ah, don't ask me what I thought!"
Still looking at her, he saw the same burning flush creep up her neck to her face. She sat upright, facing him with a rigid dignity.
"I do ask you."
"Well, then: there were things in that letter you asked me to read--"
"My husband's letter?"
"I had nothing to fear from that letter: absolutely nothing! All I feared was to bring notoriety, scandal, on the family--on you and May."
"Good God," he groaned again, bowing his face in his hands.
The silence that followed lay on them with the weight of things final and irrevocable. It seemed to Archer to be crushing him down like his own grave-stone; in all the wide future he saw nothing that would ever lift that load from his heart. He did not move from his place, or raise his head from his hands; his hidden eyeballs went on staring into utter darkness.
"At least I loved you--" he brought out.
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