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|Book II||Edith Wharton|
|Page 2 of 3||
"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--"
He turned around without moving from his place. "And in that case there's no reason on earth why you shouldn't go back?" he concluded for her.
Her eyes were clinging to him desperately. "Oh, IS there no reason?"
"Not if you staked your all on the success of my marriage. My marriage," he said savagely, "isn't going to be a sight to keep you here." She made no answer, and he went on: "What's the use? You gave me my first glimpse of a real life, and at the same moment you asked me to go on with a sham one. It's beyond human enduring--that's all."
"Oh, don't say that; when I'm enduring it!" she burst out, her eyes filling.
Her arms had dropped along the table, and she sat with her face abandoned to his gaze as if in the recklessness of a desperate peril. The face exposed her as much as if it had been her whole person, with the soul behind it: Archer stood dumb, overwhelmed by what it suddenly told him.
"You too--oh, all this time, you too?"
For answer, she let the tears on her lids overflow and run slowly downward.
Half the width of the room was still between them, and neither made any show of moving. Archer was conscious of a curious indifference to her bodily presence: he would hardly have been aware of it if one of the hands she had flung out on the table had not drawn his gaze as on the occasion when, in the little Twenty-third Street house, he had kept his eye on it in order not to look at her face. Now his imagination spun about the hand as about the edge of a vortex; but still he made no effort to draw nearer. He had known the love that is fed on caresses and feeds them; but this passion that was closer than his bones was not to be superficially satisfied. His one terror was to do anything which might efface the sound and impression of her words; his one thought, that he should never again feel quite alone.
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