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|Part II||Edith Wharton|
|Page 4 of 5||
Suddenly she said, without turning toward him: "You've had no letters since you've been on board."
He looked at her, surprised. "No--thank the Lord!" he laughed.
"And you haven't written one either," she continued in her hard statistical tone.
"No," he again agreed, with the same laugh.
"That means that you really are free--"
He saw the cheek nearest him redden. "Really off on a holiday, I mean; not tied down." After a pause he rejoined: "No, I'm not particularly tied down."
"And your book?"
"Oh, my book--" He stopped and considered. He had thrust The Pageant of Alexander into his handbag on the night of his Bight from Venice; but since then he had never looked at it. Too many memories and illusions were pressed between its pages; and he knew just at what page he had felt Ellie Vanderlyn bending over him from behind, caught a whiff of her scent, and heard her breathless "I had to thank you!"
"My book's hung up," he said impatiently, annoyed with Miss Hicks's lack of tact. There was a girl who never put out feelers ....
"Yes; I thought it was," she went on quietly, and he gave her a startled glance. What the devil else did she think, he wondered? He had never supposed her capable of getting far enough out of her own thick carapace of self-sufficiency to penetrate into any one else's feelings.
"The truth is," he continued, embarrassed, "I suppose I dug away at it rather too continuously; that's probably why I felt the need of a change. You see I'm only a beginner."
She still continued her relentless questioning. "But later-- you'll go on with it, of course?"
"Oh, I don't know." He paused, glanced down the glittering deck, and then out across the glittering water. "I've been dreaming dreams, you see. I rather think I shall have to drop the book altogether, and try to look out for a job that will pay. To indulge in my kind of literature one must first have an assured income."
He was instantly annoyed with himself for having spoken. Hitherto in his relations with the Hickses he had carefully avoided the least allusion that might make him feel the heavy hand of their beneficence. But the idle procrastinating weeks had weakened him and he had yielded to the need of putting into words his vague intentions. To do so would perhaps help to make them more definite.
To his relief Miss Hicks made no immediate reply; and when she spoke it was in a softer voice and with an unwonted hesitation.
"It seems a shame that with gifts like yours you shouldn't find some kind of employment that would leave you leisure enough to do your real work ...."
He shrugged ironically. "Yes--there are a goodish number of us hunting for that particular kind of employment."
Her tone became more business-like. "I know it's hard to find--almost impossible. But would you take it, I wonder, if it were offered to you--?"
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