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|Book I||Edith Wharton|
|Page 5 of 7||
"The van der Luydens," said Archer, feeling himself pompous as he spoke, "are the most powerful influence in New York society. Unfortunately--owing to her health--they receive very seldom."
She unclasped her hands from behind her head, and looked at him meditatively.
"Isn't that perhaps the reason?"
"For their great influence; that they make themselves so rare."
He coloured a little, stared at her--and suddenly felt the penetration of the remark. At a stroke she had pricked the van der Luydens and they collapsed. He laughed, and sacrificed them.
Nastasia brought the tea, with handleless Japanese cups and little covered dishes, placing the tray on a low table.
"But you'll explain these things to me--you'll tell me all I ought to know," Madame Olenska continued, leaning forward to hand him his cup.
"It's you who are telling me; opening my eyes to things I'd looked at so long that I'd ceased to see them."
She detached a small gold cigarette-case from one of her bracelets, held it out to him, and took a cigarette herself. On the chimney were long spills for lighting them.
"Ah, then we can both help each other. But I want help so much more. You must tell me just what to do."
It was on the tip of his tongue to reply: "Don't be seen driving about the streets with Beaufort--" but he was being too deeply drawn into the atmosphere of the room, which was her atmosphere, and to give advice of that sort would have been like telling some one who was bargaining for attar-of-roses in Samarkand that one should always be provided with arctics for a New York winter. New York seemed much farther off than Samarkand, and if they were indeed to help each other she was rendering what might prove the first of their mutual services by making him look at his native city objectively. Viewed thus, as through the wrong end of a telescope, it looked disconcertingly small and distant; but then from Samarkand it would.
A flame darted from the logs and she bent over the fire, stretching her thin hands so close to it that a faint halo shone about the oval nails. The light touched to russet the rings of dark hair escaping from her braids, and made her pale face paler.
"There are plenty of people to tell you what to do," Archer rejoined, obscurely envious of them.
"Oh--all my aunts? And my dear old Granny?" She considered the idea impartially. "They're all a little vexed with me for setting up for myself--poor Granny especially. She wanted to keep me with her; but I had to be free--" He was impressed by this light way of speaking of the formidable Catherine, and moved by the thought of what must have given Madame Olenska this thirst for even the loneliest kind of freedom. But the idea of Beaufort gnawed him.
"I think I understand how you feel," he said. "Still, your family can advise you; explain differences; show you the way."
She lifted her thin black eyebrows. "Is New York such a labyrinth? I thought it so straight up and down-- like Fifth Avenue. And with all the cross streets numbered!" She seemed to guess his faint disapproval of this, and added, with the rare smile that enchanted her whole face: "If you knew how I like it for just THAT-- the straight-up-and-downness, and the big honest labels on everything!"
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