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|Part I||Edith Wharton|
|Page 4 of 4||
"Why, indeed: but do we?"
Susy glanced back at the group around the piano. "About Ellie, I mean--and Nelson."
"Lord! Ellie and Nelson? You call that a mystery? I should as soon apply the term to one of the million candle-power advertisements that adorn your native thoroughfares."
"Well, yes. But--" She stopped again. Had she not tacitly promised Ellie not to speak?
"My Susan, what's wrong?" Strefford asked.
"I don't know...."
"Well, I do, then: you're afraid that, if Ellie and Nelson meet here, she'll blurt out something--injudicious."
"Oh, she won't!" Susy cried with conviction.
"Well, then--who will! I trust that superhuman child not to. And you and I and Nick--"
"Oh," she gasped, interrupting him, "that's just it. Nick doesn't know ... doesn't even suspect. And if he did...."
Strefford flung away his cigar and turned to scrutinize her. "I don't see--hanged if I do. What business is it of any of us, after all?"
That, of course, was the old view that cloaked connivance in an air of decency. But to Susy it no longer carried conviction, and she hesitated.
"If Nick should find out that I know...."
"Good Lord--doesn't he know that you know? After all, I suppose it's not the first time--"
She remained silent.
"The first time you've received confidences--from married friends. Does Nick suppose you've lived even to your tender age without ... Hang it, what's come over you, child?"
What had, indeed, that she could make clear to him? And yet more than ever she felt the need of having him securely on her side. Once his word was pledged, he was safe: otherwise there was no limit to his capacity for wilful harmfulness.
"Look here, Streff, you and I know that Ellie hasn't been away for a cure; and that if poor Clarissa was sworn to secrecy it was not because it 'worries father' to think that mother needs to take care of her health." She paused, hating herself for the ironic note she had tried to sound.
"Well--?" he questioned, from the depths of the chair into which he had sunk.
"Well, Nick doesn't ... doesn't dream of it. If he knew that we owed our summer here to ... to my knowing...."
Strefford sat silent: she felt his astonished stare through the darkness. "Jove!" he said at last, with a low whistle Susy bent over the balustrade, her heart thumping against the stone rail.
"What was left of soul, I wonder--?" the young composer's voice shrilled through the open windows.
Strefford sank into another silence, from which he roused himself only as Susy turned back toward the lighted threshold.
"Well, my dear, we'll see it through between us; you and I-and Clarissa," he said with his rasping laugh, rising to follow her. He caught her hand and gave it a short pressure as they reentered the drawing-room, where Ellie was saying plaintively to Fred Gillow: "I can never hear that thing sung without wanting to cry like a baby."
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