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|Book II||Edith Wharton|
|Page 3 of 5||
Archer had known for the last few minutes that the words were coming; but when they came they sent the blood rushing to his temples as if he had been caught by a bent-back branch in a thicket.
"And on whose behalf," he said, "do you wish to do this?"
M. Riviere met the question sturdily. "Well--I might say HERS, if it did not sound like a liberty. Shall I say instead: on behalf of abstract justice?"
Archer considered him ironically. "In other words: you are Count Olenski's messenger?"
He saw his blush more darkly reflected in M. Riviere's sallow countenance. "Not to YOU, Monsieur. If I come to you, it is on quite other grounds."
"What right have you, in the circumstances, to BE on any other ground?" Archer retorted. "If you're an emissary you're an emissary."
The young man considered. "My mission is over: as far as the Countess Olenska goes, it has failed."
"I can't help that," Archer rejoined on the same note of irony.
"No: but you can help--" M. Riviere paused, turned his hat about in his still carefully gloved hands, looked into its lining and then back at Archer's face. "You can help, Monsieur, I am convinced, to make it equally a failure with her family."
Archer pushed back his chair and stood up. "Well-- and by God I will!" he exclaimed. He stood with his hands in his pockets, staring down wrathfully at the little Frenchman, whose face, though he too had risen, was still an inch or two below the line of Archer's eyes.
M. Riviere paled to his normal hue: paler than that his complexion could hardly turn.
"Why the devil," Archer explosively continued, "should you have thought--since I suppose you're appealing to me on the ground of my relationship to Madame Olenska--that I should take a view contrary to the rest of her family?"
The change of expression in M. Riviere's face was for a time his only answer. His look passed from timidity to absolute distress: for a young man of his usually resourceful mien it would have been difficult to appear more disarmed and defenceless. "Oh, Monsieur--"
"I can't imagine," Archer continued, "why you should have come to me when there are others so much nearer to the Countess; still less why you thought I should be more accessible to the arguments I suppose you were sent over with."
M. Riviere took this onslaught with a disconcerting humility. "The arguments I want to present to you, Monsieur, are my own and not those I was sent over with."
"Then I see still less reason for listening to them."
M. Riviere again looked into his hat, as if considering whether these last words were not a sufficiently broad hint to put it on and be gone. Then he spoke with sudden decision. "Monsieur--will you tell me one thing? Is it my right to be here that you question? Or do you perhaps believe the whole matter to be already closed?"
His quiet insistence made Archer feel the clumsiness of his own bluster. M. Riviere had succeeded in imposing himself: Archer, reddening slightly, dropped into his chair again, and signed to the young man to be seated.
"I beg your pardon: but why isn't the matter closed?"
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