May’s carriage meets Archer at the ferry and brings him to the train station in Jersey City. It’s a snowy afternoon, and he paces the platform, thinking of the people who think there will someday be a tunnel under the Hudson, along with flying machines, electric lights, and telephones without wires. He’s only thankful there’s no tunnel yet. He imagines seeing Ellen far away on the platform and walking with her to the ferry, sitting with her in the carriage. He has so much to say to her. As the train comes slowly into the station, he pushes forward, looking in every window until he sees her face and realizes he’d forgotten what she looked like.
The snow in this scene brings to mind the snow at Skuytercliff when Archer first pursued Ellen. Archer’s ponderings about modern technology, most of which existed by the time Wharton wrote this book, would remind her readers of all the changes that had occurred since Archer’s time. In many ways, the 1870s would seem like a simpler time to her readers, no matter how complicated they seem to these innocent characters.
Everything happens the way Archer imagined. He guides Ellen to the carriage and tells her about the situation with Mrs. Mingott and the Beauforts. As the carriage makes its way to the wharf, they pass a hearse, and Ellen clutches at Archer’s hand, worrying that it’s a sign about Mrs. Mingott. He reassures her, then unbuttons her glove and kisses her palm. He tells her that he was planning to come to Washington to see her, and he admits that he hardly remembered her. She doesn’t understand, and he says that she happens to him again every time. She says she feels the same way.
Reality doesn’t usually measure up to Archer’s fantasies about his meetings with Ellen, but this time it does, at least for a while. Though Archer cares only about Ellen and her presence in New York, Ellen actually cares deeply about her grandmother, and her loyalty to her family upstages her love for Archer. However, their meetings inevitably threaten their resolve not to act on their desires, as they fall in love all over again.
Archer watches Ellen, wondering what she’s been doing since he saw her. He’s forgotten everything he wanted to say to her, and can only think about how simultaneously close and far they are from each other. Ellen asks whether the carriage is May’s, and whether May sent him. He says it is, and she did. Then he tells her that M. Rivière came to see him, hoping to retaliate against her mention of May. Ellen doesn’t seem surprised, which he takes to mean that M. Rivière writes to her, but she says she didn’t know. Archer asks tensely whether he was the one who helped her get away from her husband. She replies very calmly that he was.
Ellen’s continuing sense of guilt is evident in her awareness of May’s influence on their lives; it seems particularly cruel for Archer to be unfaithful to May in her own carriage. Archer believes that Ellen had an affair with M. Rivière, and his insecurity in his relationship with her makes M. Rivière just another person to be jealous of. However, Ellen never gets ruffled when talking about her tumultuous former life, reinforcing the sense of her worldly experience.
Archer feels stupidly conventional and says that Ellen is the most honest woman he’s ever met; she looks at things realistically. She says she’s had to look at the Gorgon, and it hasn’t blinded her, but has dried her tears. She seems far more experienced than Archer. The movement of the boat flings them against each other. Archer says that she must see that they can’t last this way, being together yet not together. She says he shouldn’t have come to meet her, but then she kisses him. The carriage moves off the ferry.
Archer is struck by Ellen’s seasoned perspective on life, which is so different from that of the Wellands. Ellen references the Gorgon, a monster in Greek mythology who turns everyone who looks at her to stone. Ellen means that experiencing awful things has made her strong enough to face them. Ellen is torn, both wanting Archer and wanting to do what’s best for others.
Archer says Ellen shouldn’t be afraid of him, because he doesn’t want to touch her. He understands why she doesn’t want them to have an ordinary affair. When he’s with her, he wants so much more than stolen hours that he can sit quietly with her and trust that his vision will come true. She doesn’t understand, and he says that she must know it will come true. She says this is a bad place to say it, as they’re in May’s carriage. He suggests they walk, but she says she has to get to Mrs. Mingott’s. She insists he stay and look at reality with her. He says this is the only reality.
Neither Ellen nor Archer wants to have the kind of affair that others have, in which they regularly meet in secret to have sex. Archer feels he has to have Ellen to himself all the time; they have to find a way to be together for real. However, Ellen knows that this would require him to leave May, and she won’t stand for the injury that would do her cousin. Archer has abandoned the reality that May represented, and now lives in the one that Ellen represents for him.
Ellen asks whether Archer wants her to live with him as his mistress. He’s startled by her use of this crude word. He says he wants to go somewhere where such categories don’t exist, and they can simply love each other. She says she knows many people who have tried to find that place, and have only ever found more promiscuous places. He remarks that the Gorgon really has dried her tears. She says the Gorgon has also fastened her eyes open so she can never not see, which is like torture.
Archer is becoming less realistic about society’s possibilities, and more idealistic about what the world should look like instead. Even though Archer was in love with a married woman before, Ellen’s experience of transgressions is far beyond his, and she knows that they’re not about to find a harmless solution to their love when no one has yet been able to do so.
The carriage is moving quickly. Archer asks what Ellen’s plan is for them. She says they can only be near each other if they stay away from each other, or else they’re just two people related to May trying to be happy by betraying people. Archer says he’s beyond that, but Ellen insists that he’s not, and she has been beyond, and knows what it looks like. Archer sits there in pain until he presses the bell that signals to the coachman. The carriage stops and he gets out, though Ellen tries to stop him. He says through the window that he shouldn’t have come to meet her. He tells the coachman to drive on. He realizes that he’s been crying, and the wind has frozen his tears. He heads home.
Ellen is concerned, first and foremost, with preserving their integrity. She knows that if they betray May in order to be together, it will taint their love and they won’t be any more satisfied than they are now. Archer thinks that he has overcome society’s conventions enough to be happy even if he betrays May, but Ellen’s experience of the world means she can understand that some social conventions exist for a reason. Her perspective tempers Wharton’s criticism of society. In effect, there’s no good solution for their affair.