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|Book I||Edith Wharton|
|Page 5 of 7||
On the other side of the hearth, from the sofa-corner where he supposed that she still crouched, he heard a faint stifled crying like a child's. He started up and came to her side.
"Ellen! What madness! Why are you crying? Nothing's done that can't be undone. I'm still free, and you're going to be." He had her in his arms, her face like a wet flower at his lips, and all their vain terrors shrivelling up like ghosts at sunrise. The one thing that astonished him now was that he should have stood for five minutes arguing with her across the width of the room, when just touching her made everything so simple.
She gave him back all his kiss, but after a moment he felt her stiffening in his arms, and she put him aside and stood up.
"Ah, my poor Newland--I suppose this had to be. But it doesn't in the least alter things," she said, looking down at him in her turn from the hearth.
"It alters the whole of life for me."
"No, no--it mustn't, it can't. You're engaged to May Welland; and I'm married."
He stood up too, flushed and resolute. "Nonsense! It's too late for that sort of thing. We've no right to lie to other people or to ourselves. We won't talk of your marriage; but do you see me marrying May after this?"
She stood silent, resting her thin elbows on the mantelpiece, her profile reflected in the glass behind her. One of the locks of her chignon had become loosened and hung on her neck; she looked haggard and almost old.
"I don't see you," she said at length, "putting that question to May. Do you?"
He gave a reckless shrug. "It's too late to do anything else."
"You say that because it's the easiest thing to say at this moment--not because it's true. In reality it's too late to do anything but what we'd both decided on."
"Ah, I don't understand you!"
She forced a pitiful smile that pinched her face instead of smoothing it. "You don't understand because you haven't yet guessed how you've changed things for me: oh, from the first--long before I knew all you'd done."
"All I'd done?"
"Yes. I was perfectly unconscious at first that people here were shy of me--that they thought I was a dreadful sort of person. It seems they had even refused to meet me at dinner. I found that out afterward; and how you'd made your mother go with you to the van der Luydens'; and how you'd insisted on announcing your engagement at the Beaufort ball, so that I might have two families to stand by me instead of one--"
At that he broke into a laugh.
"Just imagine," she said, "how stupid and unobservant I was! I knew nothing of all this till Granny blurted it out one day. New York simply meant peace and freedom to me: it was coming home. And I was so happy at being among my own people that every one I met seemed kind and good, and glad to see me. But from the very beginning," she continued, "I felt there was no one as kind as you; no one who gave me reasons that I understood for doing what at first seemed so hard and--unnecessary. The very good people didn't convince me; I felt they'd never been tempted. But you knew; you understood; you had felt the world outside tugging at one with all its golden hands--and yet you hated the things it asks of one; you hated happiness bought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference. That was what I'd never known before--and it's better than anything I've known."
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