The Reef, by Edith Wharton

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Two brown blurs emerging from the farther end of the wood-vista gradually defined themselves as her step-son and an attendant game-keeper. They grew slowly upon the bluish background, with occasional delays and re-effacements, and she sat still, waiting till they should reach the gate at the end of the drive, where the keeper would turn off to his cottage and Owen continue on to the house.

She watched his approach with a smile. From the first days of her marriage she had been drawn to the boy, but it was not until after Effie’s birth that she had really begun to know him. The eager observation of her own child had shown her how much she had still to learn about the slight fair boy whom the holidays periodically restored to Givre. Owen, even then, both physically and morally, furnished her with the oddest of commentaries on his father’s mien and mind. He would never, the family sighingly recognized, be nearly as handsome as Mr. Leath; but his rather charmingly unbalanced face, with its brooding forehead and petulant boyish smile, suggested to Anna what his father’s countenance might have been could one have pictured its neat features disordered by a rattling breeze. She even pushed the analogy farther, and descried in her step-son’s mind a quaintly-twisted reflection of her husband’s. With his bursts of door-slamming activity, his fits of bookish indolence, his crude revolutionary dogmatizing and his flashes of precocious irony, the boy was not unlike a boisterous embodiment of his father’s theories. It was as though Fraser Leath’s ideas, accustomed to hang like marionettes on their pegs, should suddenly come down and walk. There were moments, indeed, when Owen’s humours must have suggested to his progenitor the gambols of an infant Frankenstein; but to Anna they were the voice of her secret rebellions, and her tenderness to her step-son was partly based on her severity toward herself. As he had the courage she had lacked, so she meant him to have the chances she had missed; and every effort she made for him helped to keep her own hopes alive.

Her interest in Owen led her to think more often of his mother, and sometimes she would slip away and stand alone before her predecessor’s portrait. Since her arrival at Givre the picture — a “full-length” by a once fashionable artist — had undergone the successive displacements of an exiled consort removed farther and farther from the throne; and Anna could not help noting that these stages coincided with the gradual decline of the artist’s fame. She had a fancy that if his credit had been in the ascendant the first Mrs. Leath might have continued to throne over the drawing-room mantel-piece, even to the exclusion of her successor’s effigy. Instead of this, her peregrinations had finally landed her in the shrouded solitude of the billiard-room, an apartment which no one ever entered, but where it was understood that “the light was better,” or might have been if the shutters had not been always closed.

Here the poor lady, elegantly dressed, and seated in the middle of a large lonely canvas, in the blank contemplation of a gilt console, had always seemed to Anna to be waiting for visitors who never came.

“Of course they never came, you poor thing! I wonder how long it took you to find out that they never would?” Anna had more than once apostrophized her, with a derision addressed rather to herself than to the dead; but it was only after Effie’s birth that it occurred to her to study more closely the face in the picture, and speculate on the kind of visitors that Owen’s mother might have hoped for.

“She certainly doesn’t look as if they would have been the same kind as mine: but there’s no telling, from a portrait that was so obviously done ‘to please the family’, and that leaves Owen so unaccounted for. Well, they never came, the visitors; they never came; and she died of it. She died of it long before they buried her: I’m certain of that. Those are stone-dead eyes in the picture . . . The loneliness must have been awful, if even Owen couldn’t keep her from dying of it. And to feel it so she must have HAD feelings — real live ones, the kind that twitch and tug. And all she had to look at all her life was a gilt console — yes, that’s it, a gilt console screwed to the wall! That’s exactly and absolutely what he is!”

She did not mean, if she could help it, that either Effie or Owen should know that loneliness, or let her know it again. They were three, now, to keep each other warm, and she embraced both children in the same passion of motherhood, as though one were not enough to shield her from her predecessor’s fate.

Sometimes she fancied that Owen Leath’s response was warmer than that of her own child. But then Effie was still hardly more than a baby, and Owen, from the first, had been almost “old enough to understand”: certainly DID understand now, in a tacit way that yet perpetually spoke to her. This sense of his understanding was the deepest element in their feeling for each other. There were so many things between them that were never spoken of, or even indirectly alluded to, yet that, even in their occasional discussions and differences, formed the unadduced arguments making for final agreement . . .

Musing on this, she continued to watch his approach; and her heart began to beat a little faster at the thought of what she had to say to him. But when he reached the gate she saw him pause, and after a moment he turned aside as if to gain a cross-road through the park.

She started up and waved her sunshade, but he did not see her. No doubt he meant to go back with the gamekeeper, perhaps to the kennels, to see a retriever who had hurt his leg. Suddenly she was seized by the whim to overtake him. She threw down the parasol, thrust her letter into her bodice, and catching up her skirts began to run.

She was slight and light, with a natural ease and quickness of gait, but she could not recall having run a yard since she had romped with Owen in his school-days; nor did she know what impulse moved her now. She only knew that run she must, that no other motion, short of flight, would have been buoyant enough for her humour. She seemed to be keeping pace with some inward rhythm, seeking to give bodily expression to the lyric rush of her thoughts. The earth always felt elastic under her, and she had a conscious joy in treading it; but never had it been as soft and springy as today. It seemed actually to rise and meet her as she went, so that she had the feeling, which sometimes came to her in dreams, of skimming miraculously over short bright waves. The air, too, seemed to break in waves against her, sweeping by on its current all the slanted lights and moist sharp perfumes of the failing day. She panted to herself: “This is nonsense!” her blood hummed back: “But it’s glorious!” and she sped on till she saw that Owen had caught sight of her and was striding back in her direction.

Then she stopped and waited, flushed and laughing, her hands clasped against the letter in her breast.

“No, I’m not mad,” she called out; “but there’s something in the air today — don’t you feel it? — And I wanted to have a little talk with you,” she added as he came up to her, smiling at him and linking her arm in his.

He smiled back, but above the smile she saw the shade of anxiety which, for the last two months, had kept its fixed line between his handsome eyes.

“Owen, don’t look like that! I don’t want you to!” she said imperiously.

He laughed. “You said that exactly like Effie. What do you want me to do? To race with you as I do Effie? But I shouldn’t have a show!” he protested, still with the little frown between his eyes.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“To the kennels. But there’s not the least need. The vet has seen Garry and he’s all right. If there’s anything you wanted to tell me —— ”

“Did I say there was? I just came out to meet you — I wanted to know if you’d had good sport.”

The shadow dropped on him again. “None at all. The fact is I didn’t try. Jean and I have just been knocking about in the woods. I wasn’t in a sanguinary mood.”

They walked on with the same light gait, so nearly of a height that keeping step came as naturally to them as breathing. Anna stole another look at the young face on a level with her own.

“You DID say there was something you wanted to tell me,” her step-son began after a pause.

“Well, there is.” She slackened her pace involuntarily, and they came to a pause and stood facing each other under the limes.

“Is Darrow coming?” he asked.

She seldom blushed, but at the question a sudden heat suffused her. She held her head high.

“Yes: he’s coming. I’ve just heard. He arrives to-morrow. But that’s not —— ” She saw her blunder and tried to rectify it. “Or rather, yes, in a way it is my reason for wanting to speak to you —— ”

“Because he’s coming?”

“Because he’s not yet here.”

“It’s about him, then?”

He looked at her kindly, half-humourously, an almost fraternal wisdom in his smile.

“About ——? No, no: I meant that I wanted to speak today because it’s our last day alone together.”

“Oh, I see.” He had slipped his hands into the pockets of his tweed shooting jacket and lounged along at her side, his eyes bent on the moist ruts of the drive, as though the matter had lost all interest for him.

“Owen —— ”

He stopped again and faced her. “Look here, my dear, it’s no sort of use.”

“What’s no use?”

“Anything on earth you can any of you say.”

She challenged him: “Am I one of ‘any of you’?”

He did not yield. “Well, then — anything on earth that even YOU can say.” “You don’t in the least know what I can say — or what I mean to.”

“Don’t I, generally?”

She gave him this point, but only to make another. “Yes; but this is particularly. I want to say . . . Owen, you’ve been admirable all through.”

He broke into a laugh in which the odd elder-brotherly note was once more perceptible.

“Admirable,” she emphasized. “And so has SHE.”

“Oh, and so have you to HER!” His voice broke down to boyishness. “I’ve never lost sight of that for a minute. It’s been altogether easier for her, though,” he threw off presently.

“On the whole, I suppose it has. Well —— ” she summed up with a laugh, “aren’t you all the better pleased to be told you’ve behaved as well as she?”

“Oh, you know, I’ve not done it for you,” he tossed back at her, without the least note of hostility in the affected lightness of his tone.

“Haven’t you, though, perhaps — the least bit? Because, after all, you knew I understood?”

“You’ve been awfully kind about pretending to.”

She laughed. “You don’t believe me? You must remember I had your grandmother to consider.”

“Yes: and my father — and Effie, I suppose — and the outraged shades of Givre!” He paused, as if to lay more stress on the boyish sneer: “Do you likewise include the late Monsieur de Chantelle?”

His step-mother did not appear to resent the thrust. She went on, in the same tone of affectionate persuasion: “Yes: I must have seemed to you too subject to Givre. Perhaps I have been. But you know that was not my real object in asking you to wait, to say nothing to your grandmother before her return.”

He considered. “Your real object, of course, was to gain time.”

“Yes — but for whom? Why not for YOU?”

“For me?” He flushed up quickly. “You don’t mean ——?”

She laid her hand on his arm and looked gravely into his handsome eyes.

“I mean that when your grandmother gets back from Ouchy I shall speak to her —— ” “You’ll speak to her . . .?”

“Yes; if only you’ll promise to give me time —— ”

“Time for her to send for Adelaide Painter?”

“Oh, she’ll undoubtedly send for Adelaide Painter!”

The allusion touched a spring of mirth in both their minds, and they exchanged a laughing look.

“Only you must promise not to rush things. You must give me time to prepare Adelaide too,” Mrs. Leath went on.

“Prepare her too?” He drew away for a better look at her. “Prepare her for what?”

“Why, to prepare your grandmother! For your marriage. Yes, that’s what I mean. I’m going to see you through, you know —— ”

His feint of indifference broke down and he caught her hand. “Oh, you dear divine thing! I didn’t dream —— ”

“I know you didn’t.” She dropped her gaze and began to walk on slowly. “I can’t say you’ve convinced me of the wisdom of the step. Only I seem to see that other things matter more — and that not missing things matters most. Perhaps I’ve changed — or YOUR not changing has convinced me. I’m certain now that you won’t budge. And that was really all I ever cared about.”

“Oh, as to not budging — I told you so months ago: you might have been sure of that! And how can you be any surer today than yesterday?”

“I don’t know. I suppose one learns something every day —— ”

“Not at Givre!” he laughed, and shot a half-ironic look at her. “But you haven’t really BEEN at Givre lately — not for months! Don’t you suppose I’ve noticed that, my dear?”

She echoed his laugh to merge it in an undenying sigh. “Poor Givre . . . ”

“Poor empty Givre! With so many rooms full and yet not a soul in it — except of course my grandmother, who is its soul!”

They had reached the gateway of the court and stood looking with a common accord at the long soft-hued facade on which the autumn light was dying. “It looks so made to be happy in —— ” she murmured.

“Yes — today, today!” He pressed her arm a little. “Oh, you darling — to have given it that look for me!” He paused, and then went on in a lower voice: “Don’t you feel we owe it to the poor old place to do what we can to give it that look? You, too, I mean? Come, let’s make it grin from wing to wing! I’ve such a mad desire to say outrageous things to it — haven’t you? After all, in old times there must have been living people here!”

Loosening her arm from his she continued to gaze up at the house-front, which seemed, in the plaintive decline of light, to send her back the mute appeal of something doomed.

“It IS beautiful,” she said.

“A beautiful memory! Quite perfect to take out and turn over when I’m grinding at the law in New York, and you’re —— ” He broke off and looked at her with a questioning smile. “Come! Tell me. You and I don’t have to say things to talk to each other. When you turn suddenly absentminded and mysterious I always feel like saying: ‘Come back. All is discovered’.”

She returned his smile. “You know as much as I know. I promise you that.”

He wavered, as if for the first time uncertain how far he might go. “I don’t know Darrow as much as you know him,” he presently risked.

She frowned a little. “You said just now we didn’t need to say things”

“Was I speaking? I thought it was your eyes —— ” He caught her by both elbows and spun her halfway round, so that the late sun shed a betraying gleam on her face. “They’re such awfully conversational eyes! Don’t you suppose they told me long ago why it’s just today you’ve made up your mind that people have got to live their own lives — even at Givre?”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30