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|Part II||Edith Wharton|
|Page 5 of 6||
"It's late, dear; and I've got to see someone on business first," Strefford reminded her patiently.
"Oh, Streff--I can't, I can't!" The words broke from her without her knowing what she was saying. "I can't go with you--I can't go to the Embassy. I can't go on any longer like this ...." She lifted her eyes to his in desperate appeal. "Oh, understand-do please understand!" she wailed, knowing, while she spoke, the utter impossibility of what she asked.
Strefford's face had gradually paled and hardened. From sallow it turned to a dusky white, and lines of obstinacy deepened between the ironic eyebrows and about the weak amused mouth.
"Understand? What do you want me to understand," He laughed. "That you're trying to chuck me already?"
She shrank at the sneer of the "already," but instantly remembered that it was the only thing he could be expected to say, since it was just because he couldn't understand that she was flying from him.
"Oh, Streff--if I knew how to tell you!"
"It doesn't so much matter about the how. Is that what you're trying to say?"
Her head drooped, and she saw the dead leaves whirling across the path at her feet, lifted on a sudden wintry gust.
"The reason," he continued, clearing his throat with a stiff smile, "is not quite as important to me as the fact."
She stood speechless, agonized by his pain. But still, she thought, he had remembered the dinner at the Embassy. The thought gave her courage to go on.
"It wouldn't do, Streff. I'm not a bit the kind of person to make you happy."
"Oh, leave that to me, please, won't you?"
"No, I can't. Because I should be unhappy too."
He clicked at the leaves as they whirled past. "You've taken a rather long time to find it out." She saw that his new-born sense of his own consequence was making him suffer even more than his wounded affection; and that again gave her courage.
"If I've taken long it's all the more reason why I shouldn't take longer. If I've made a mistake it's you who would have suffered from it ...."
"Thanks," he said, "for your extreme solicitude."
She looked at him helplessly, penetrated by the despairing sense of their inaccessibility to each other. Then she remembered that Nick, during their last talk together, had seemed as inaccessible, and wondered if, when human souls try to get too near each other, they do not inevitably become mere blurs to each other's vision. She would have liked to say this to Streff-but he would not have understood it either. The sense of loneliness once more enveloped her, and she groped in vain for a word that should reach him.
"Let me go home alone, won't you?" she appealed to him.
She nodded. "To-morrow--to-morrow ...."
He tried, rather valiantly, to smile. "Hang tomorrow! Whatever is wrong, it needn't prevent my seeing you home." He glanced toward the taxi that awaited them at the end of the deserted drive.
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