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|Part II||Edith Wharton|
|Page 2 of 5||
"It was horrible ... seeing them both there together, laid out in that hideous Pugin chapel at Altringham ... the poor boy especially. I suppose that's really what's cutting me up now," he murmured, almost apologetically.
"Oh, it's more than that--more than you know," she insisted; but he jerked back: "Now, my dear, don't be edifying, please," and fumbled for a cigarette in the pocket which was already beginning to bulge with his miscellaneous properties.
"And now about you--for that's what I came for," he continued, turning to her with one of his sudden movements. "I couldn't make head or tail of your letter."
She paused a moment to steady her voice. "Couldn't you? I suppose you'd forgotten my bargain with Nick. He hadn't-and he's asked me to fulfil it."
Strefford stared. "What--that nonsense about your setting each other free if either of you had the chance to make a good match?"
She signed "Yes."
"And he's actually asked you--?"
"Well: practically. He's gone off with the Hickses. Before going he wrote me that we'd better both consider ourselves free. And Coral sent me a postcard to say that she would take the best of care of him."
Strefford mused, his eyes upon his cigarette. "But what the deuce led up to all this? It can't have happened like that, out of a clear sky."
Susy flushed, hesitated, looked away. She had meant to tell Strefford the whole story; it had been one of her chief reasons for wishing to see him again, and half-unconsciously, perhaps, she had hoped, in his laxer atmosphere, to recover something of her shattered self-esteem. But now she suddenly felt the impossibility of confessing to anyone the depths to which Nick's wife had stooped. She fancied that her companion guessed the nature of her hesitation.
"Don't tell me anything you don't want to, you know, my dear."
"No; I do want to; only it's difficult. You see--we had so very little money ...."
"And Nick--who was thinking of his book, and of all sorts of big things, fine things--didn't realise ... left it all to me ... to manage ...."
She stumbled over the word, remembering how Nick had always winced at it. But Strefford did not seem to notice her, and she hurried on, unfolding in short awkward sentences the avowal of their pecuniary difficulties, and of Nick's inability to understand that, to keep on with the kind of life they were leading, one had to put up with things ... accept favours ....
"Borrow money, you mean?"
"Well--yes; and all the rest." No--decidedly she could not reveal to Strefford the episode of Ellie's letters. "Nick suddenly felt, I suppose, that he couldn't stand it," she continued; "and instead of asking me to try--to try to live differently, go off somewhere with him and live, like work-people, in two rooms, without a servant, as I was ready to do; well, instead he wrote me that it had all been a mistake from the beginning, that we couldn't keep it up, and had better recognize the fact; and he went off on the Hickses' yacht. The last evening that you were in Venice--the day he didn't come back to dinner--he had gone off to Genoa to meet them. I suppose he intends to marry Coral."
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