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|Book I||Edith Wharton|
|Page 5 of 7||
"Now we're coming to hard facts," he thought, conscious in himself of the same instinctive recoil that he had so often criticised in his mother and her contemporaries. How little practice he had had in dealing with unusual situations! Their very vocabulary was unfamiliar to him, and seemed to belong to fiction and the stage. In face of what was coming he felt as awkward and embarrassed as a boy.
After a pause Madame Olenska broke out with unexpected vehemence: "I want to be free; I want to wipe out all the past."
"I understand that."
Her face warmed. "Then you'll help me?"
"First--" he hesitated--"perhaps I ought to know a little more."
She seemed surprised. "You know about my husband-- my life with him?"
He made a sign of assent.
"Well--then--what more is there? In this country are such things tolerated? I'm a Protestant--our church does not forbid divorce in such cases."
They were both silent again, and Archer felt the spectre of Count Olenski's letter grimacing hideously between them. The letter filled only half a page, and was just what he had described it to be in speaking of it to Mr. Letterblair: the vague charge of an angry blackguard. But how much truth was behind it? Only Count Olenski's wife could tell.
"I've looked through the papers you gave to Mr. Letterblair," he said at length.
"Well--can there be anything more abominable?"
She changed her position slightly, screening her eyes with her lifted hand.
"Of course you know," Archer continued, "that if your husband chooses to fight the case--as he threatens to--"
"He can say things--things that might be unpl--might be disagreeable to you: say them publicly, so that they would get about, and harm you even if--"
"I mean: no matter how unfounded they were."
She paused for a long interval; so long that, not wishing to keep his eyes on her shaded face, he had time to imprint on his mind the exact shape of her other hand, the one on her knee, and every detail of the three rings on her fourth and fifth fingers; among which, he noticed, a wedding ring did not appear.
"What harm could such accusations, even if he made them publicly, do me here?"
It was on his lips to exclaim: "My poor child--far more harm than anywhere else!" Instead, he answered, in a voice that sounded in his ears like Mr. Letterblair's: "New York society is a very small world compared with the one you've lived in. And it's ruled, in spite of appearances, by a few people with--well, rather old-fashioned ideas."
She said nothing, and he continued: "Our ideas about marriage and divorce are particularly old-fashioned. Our legislation favours divorce--our social customs don't."
"Well--not if the woman, however injured, however irreproachable, has appearances in the least degree against her, has exposed herself by any unconventional action to--to offensive insinuations--"
She drooped her head a little lower, and he waited again, intensely hoping for a flash of indignation, or at least a brief cry of denial. None came.
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|The Age of Innocence
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