They lunched slowly and meditatively, with mute intervals between rushes of talk; for, the spell once broken, they had much to say, and yet moments when saying became the mere accompaniment to long duologues of silence. Archer kept the talk from his own affairs, not with conscious intention but because he did not want to miss a word of her history; and leaning on the table, her chin resting on her clasped hands, she talked to him of the year and a half since they had met.
She had grown tired of what people called "society"; New York was kind, it was almost oppressively hospitable; she should never forget the way in which it had welcomed her back; but after the first flush of novelty she had found herself, as she phrased it, too "different" to care for the things it cared about--and so she had decided to try Washington, where one was supposed to meet more varieties of people and of opinion. And on the whole she should probably settle down in Washington, and make a home there for poor Medora, who had worn out the patience of all her other relations just at the time when she most needed looking after and protecting from matrimonial perils.
"But Dr. Carver--aren't you afraid of Dr. Carver? I hear he's been staying with you at the Blenkers'."
She smiled. "Oh, the Carver danger is over. Dr. Carver is a very clever man. He wants a rich wife to finance his plans, and Medora is simply a good advertisement as a convert."
"A convert to what?"
"To all sorts of new and crazy social schemes. But, do you know, they interest me more than the blind conformity to tradition--somebody else's tradition--that I see among our own friends. It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country." She smiled across the table. "Do you suppose Christopher Columbus would have taken all that trouble just to go to the Opera with the Selfridge Merrys?"
Archer changed colour. "And Beaufort--do you say these things to Beaufort?" he asked abruptly.
"I haven't seen him for a long time. But I used to; and he understands."
"Ah, it's what I've always told you; you don't like us. And you like Beaufort because he's so unlike us." He looked about the bare room and out at the bare beach and the row of stark white village houses strung along the shore. "We're damnably dull. We've no character, no colour, no variety.--I wonder," he broke out, "why you don't go back?"
Her eyes darkened, and he expected an indignant rejoinder. But she sat silent, as if thinking over what he had said, and he grew frightened lest she should answer that she wondered too.
At length she said: "I believe it's because of you."
It was impossible to make the confession more dispassionately, or in a tone less encouraging to the vanity of the person addressed. Archer reddened to the temples, but dared not move or speak: it was as if her words had been some rare butterfly that the least motion might drive off on startled wings, but that might gather a flock about it if it were left undisturbed.
"At least," she continued, "it was you who made me understand that under the dullness there are things so fine and sensitive and delicate that even those I most cared for in my other life look cheap in comparison. I don't know how to explain myself"--she drew together her troubled brows-- "but it seems as if I'd never before understood with how much that is hard and shabby and base the most exquisite pleasures may be paid."
"Exquisite pleasures--it's something to have had them!" he felt like retorting; but the appeal in her eyes kept him silent.
"I want," she went on, "to be perfectly honest with you--and with myself. For a long time I've hoped this chance would come: that I might tell you how you've helped me, what you've made of me--"
Archer sat staring beneath frowning brows. He interrupted her with a laugh. "And what do you make out that you've made of me?"
She paled a little. "Of you?"
"Yes: for I'm of your making much more than you ever were of mine. I'm the man who married one woman because another one told him to."
Her paleness turned to a fugitive flush. "I thought-- you promised--you were not to say such things today."
"Ah--how like a woman! None of you will ever see a bad business through!"
She lowered her voice. "IS it a bad business--for May?"
He stood in the window, drumming against the raised sash, and feeling in every fibre the wistful tenderness with which she had spoken her cousin's name.
"For that's the thing we've always got to think of-- haven't we--by your own showing?" she insisted.
"My own showing?" he echoed, his blank eyes still on the sea.
"Or if not," she continued, pursuing her own thought with a painful application, "if it's not worth while to have given up, to have missed things, so that others may be saved from disillusionment and misery--then everything I came home for, everything that made my other life seem by contrast so bare and so poor because no one there took account of them--all these things are a sham or a dream--"
The Age of Innocence -by- Edith Wharton