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Part II Edith Wharton

Chapter XXIII

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AS she fled on toward the lights of the streets a breath of freedom seemed to blow into her face.

Like a weary load the accumulated hypocrisies of the last months had dropped from her: she was herself again, Nick's Susy, and no one else's. She sped on, staring with bright bewildered eyes at the stately facades of the La Muette quarter, the perspectives of bare trees, the awakening glitter of shop-windows holding out to her all the things she would never again be able to buy ....

In an avenue of shops she paused before a milliner's window, and said to herself: "Why shouldn't I earn my living by trimming hats?" She met work-girls streaming out under a doorway, and scattering to catch trams and omnibuses; and she looked with newly-wakened interest at their tired independent faces. "Why shouldn't I earn my living as well as they do?" she thought. A little farther on she passed a Sister of Charity with softly trotting feet, a calm anonymous glance, and hands hidden in her capacious sleeves. Susy looked at her and thought: "Why shouldn't I be a Sister, and have no money to worry about, and trot about under a white coif helping poor people?"

All these strangers on whom she smiled in passing, and glanced back at enviously, were free from the necessities that enslaved her, and would not have known what she meant if she had told them that she must have so much money for her dresses, so much for her cigarettes, so much for bridge and cabs and tips, and all kinds of extras, and that at that moment she ought to be hurrying back to a dinner at the British Embassy, where her permanent right to such luxuries was to be solemnly recognized and ratified.

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The artificiality and unreality of her life overcame her as with stifling fumes. She stopped at a street-corner, drawing long panting breaths as if she had been running a race. Then, slowly and aimlessly, she began to saunter along a street of small private houses in damp gardens that led to the Avenue du Bois. She sat down on a bench. Not far off, the Arc de Triomphe raised its august bulk, and beyond it a river of lights streamed down toward Paris, and the stir of the city's heart-beats troubled the quiet in her bosom. But not for long. She seemed to be looking at it all from the other side of the grave; and as she got up and wandered down the Champs Elysees, half empty in the evening lull between dusk and dinner, she felt as if the glittering avenue were really changed into the Field of Shadows from which it takes its name, and as if she were a ghost among ghosts.

Halfway home, a weakness of loneliness overcame her, and she seated herself under the trees near the Rond Point. Lines of motors and carriages were beginning to animate the converging thoroughfares, streaming abreast, crossing, winding in and out of each other in a tangle of hurried pleasure-seeking. She caught the light on jewels and shirt-fronts and hard bored eyes emerging from dim billows of fur and velvet. She seemed to hear what the couples were saying to each other, she pictured the drawing-rooms, restaurants, dance-halls they were hastening to, the breathless routine that was hurrying them along, as Time, the old vacuum-cleaner, swept them away with the dust of their carriage-wheels. And again the loneliness vanished in a sense of release ....

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The Glimpses of the Moon
Edith Wharton

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