The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XI

“This is the south terrace,” Anna said. “Should you like to walk down to the river?”

She seemed to listen to herself speaking from a far-off airy height, and yet to be wholly gathered into the circle of consciousness which drew its glowing ring about herself and Darrow. To the aerial listener her words sounded flat and colourless, but to the self within the ring each one beat with a separate heart.

It was the day after Darrow’s arrival, and he had come down early, drawn by the sweetness of the light on the lawns and gardens below his window. Anna had heard the echo of his step on the stairs, his pause in the stone-flagged hall, his voice as he asked a servant where to find her. She was at the end of the house, in the brown-panelled sitting-room which she frequented at that season because it caught the sunlight first and kept it longest. She stood near the window, in the pale band of brightness, arranging some salmon-pink geraniums in a shallow porcelain bowl. Every sensation of touch and sight was thrice-alive in her. The grey-green fur of the geranium leaves caressed her fingers and the sunlight wavering across the irregular surface of the old parquet floor made it seem as bright and shifting as the brown bed of a stream.

Darrow stood framed in the door-way of the farthest drawing-room, a light-grey figure against the black and white flagging of the hall; then he began to move toward her down the empty pale-panelled vista, crossing one after another the long reflections which a projecting cabinet or screen cast here and there upon the shining floors.

As he drew nearer, his figure was suddenly displaced by that of her husband, whom, from the same point, she had so often seen advancing down the same perspective. Straight, spare, erect, looking to right and left with quick precise turns of the head, and stopping now and then to straighten a chair or alter the position of a vase, Fraser Leath used to march toward her through the double file of furniture like a general reviewing a regiment drawn up for his inspection. At a certain point, midway across the second room, he always stopped before the mantel-piece of pinkish-yellow marble and looked at himself in the tall garlanded glass that surmounted it. She could not remember that he had ever found anything to straighten or alter in his own studied attire, but she had never known him to omit the inspection when he passed that particular mirror.

When it was over he continued more briskly on his way, and the resulting expression of satisfaction was still on his face when he entered the oak sitting-room to greet his wife . . .

The spectral projection of this little daily scene hung but for a moment before Anna, but in that moment she had time to fling a wondering glance across the distance between her past and present. Then the footsteps of the present came close, and she had to drop the geraniums to give her hand to Darrow . . .

“Yes, let us walk down to the river.”

They had neither of them, as yet, found much to say to each other. Darrow had arrived late on the previous afternoon, and during the evening they had had between them Owen Leath and their own thoughts. Now they were alone for the first time and the fact was enough in itself. Yet Anna was intensely aware that as soon as they began to talk more intimately they would feel that they knew each other less well.

They passed out onto the terrace and down the steps to the gravel walk below. The delicate frosting of dew gave the grass a bluish shimmer, and the sunlight, sliding in emerald streaks along the tree-boles, gathered itself into great luminous blurs at the end of the wood-walks, and hung above the fields a watery glory like the ring about an autumn moon.

“It’s good to be here,” Darrow said.

They took a turn to the left and stopped for a moment to look back at the long pink house-front, plainer, friendlier, less adorned than on the side toward the court. So prolonged yet delicate had been the friction of time upon its bricks that certain expanses had the bloom and texture of old red velvet, and the patches of gold lichen spreading over them looked like the last traces of a dim embroidery. The dome of the chapel, with its gilded cross, rose above one wing, and the other ended in a conical pigeon-house, above which the birds were flying, lustrous and slatey, their breasts merged in the blue of the roof when they dropped down on it.

“And this is where you’ve been all these years.”

They turned away and began to walk down a long tunnel of yellowing trees. Benches with mossy feet stood against the mossy edges of the path, and at its farther end it widened into a circle about a basin rimmed with stone, in which the opaque water strewn with leaves looked like a slab of gold-flecked agate. The path, growing narrower, wound on circuitously through the woods, between slender serried trunks twined with ivy. Patches of blue appeared above them through the dwindling leaves, and presently the trees drew back and showed the open fields along the river.

They walked on across the fields to the tow-path. In a curve of the wall some steps led up to a crumbling pavilion with openings choked with ivy. Anna and Darrow seated themselves on the bench projecting from the inner wall of the pavilion and looked across the river at the slopes divided into blocks of green and fawn-colour, and at the chalk-tinted village lifting its squat church-tower and grey roofs against the precisely drawn lines of the landscape. Anna sat silent, so intensely aware of Darrow’s nearness that there was no surprise in the touch he laid on her hand. They looked at each other, and he smiled and said: “There are to be no more obstacles now.”

“Obstacles?” The word startled her. “What obstacles?”

“Don’t you remember the wording of the telegram that turned me back last May? ‘Unforeseen obstacle’: that was it. What was the earth-shaking problem, by the way? Finding a governess for Effie, wasn’t it?”

“But I gave you my reason: the reason why it was an obstacle. I wrote you fully about it.”

“Yes, I know you did.” He lifted her hand and kissed it. “How far off it all seems, and how little it all matters today!”

She looked at him quickly. “Do you feel that? I suppose I’m different. I want to draw all those wasted months into today — to make them a part of it.”

“But they are, to me. You reach back and take everything — back to the first days of all.”

She frowned a little, as if struggling with an inarticulate perplexity. “It’s curious how, in those first days, too, something that I didn’t understand came between us.”

“Oh, in those days we neither of us understood, did we? It’s part of what’s called the bliss of being young.”

“Yes, I thought that, too: thought it, I mean, in looking back. But it couldn’t, even then, have been as true of you as of me; and now —— ”

“Now,” he said, “the only thing that matters is that we’re sitting here together.”

He dismissed the rest with a lightness that might have seemed conclusive evidence of her power over him. But she took no pride in such triumphs. It seemed to her that she wanted his allegiance and his adoration not so much for herself as for their mutual love, and that in treating lightly any past phase of their relation he took something from its present beauty. The colour rose to her face.

“Between you and me everything matters.”

“Of course!” She felt the unperceiving sweetness of his smile. “That’s why,” he went on, “‘everything,’ for me, is here and now: on this bench, between you and me.”

She caught at the phrase. “That’s what I meant: it’s here and now; we can’t get away from it.”

“Get away from it? Do you want to? AGAIN?”

Her heart was beating unsteadily. Something in her, fitfully and with reluctance, struggled to free itself, but the warmth of his nearness penetrated every sense as the sunlight steeped the landscape. Then, suddenly, she felt that she wanted no less than the whole of her happiness.

“‘Again’? But wasn’t it YOU, the last time ——?”

She paused, the tremor in her of Psyche holding up the lamp. But in the interrogative light of her pause her companion’s features underwent no change.

“The last time? Last spring? But it was you who — for the best of reasons, as you’ve told me — turned me back from your very door last spring!”

She saw that he was good-humouredly ready to “thresh out,” for her sentimental satisfaction, a question which, for his own, Time had so conclusively dealt with; and the sense of his readiness reassured her.

“I wrote as soon as I could,” she rejoined. “I explained the delay and asked you to come. And you never even answered my letter.”

“It was impossible to come then. I had to go back to my post.”

“And impossible to write and tell me so?”

“Your letter was a long time coming. I had waited a week — ten days. I had some excuse for thinking, when it came, that you were in no great hurry for an answer.”

“You thought that — really — after reading it?”

“I thought it.”

Her heart leaped up to her throat. “Then why are you here today?”

He turned on her with a quick look of wonder. “God knows — if you can ask me that!”

“You see I was right to say I didn’t understand.”

He stood up abruptly and stood facing her, blocking the view over the river and the checkered slopes. “Perhaps I might say so too.”

“No, no: we must neither of us have any reason for saying it again.” She looked at him gravely. “Surely you and I needn’t arrange the lights before we show ourselves to each other. I want you to see me just as I am, with all my irrational doubts and scruples; the old ones and the new ones too.”

He came back to his seat beside her. “Never mind the old ones. They were justified — I’m willing to admit it. With the governess having suddenly to be packed off, and Effie on your hands, and your mother-in-law ill, I see the impossibility of your letting me come. I even see that, at the moment, it was difficult to write and explain. But what does all that matter now? The new scruples are the ones I want to tackle.”

Again her heart trembled. She felt her happiness so near, so sure, that to strain it closer might be like a child’s crushing a pet bird in its caress. But her very security urged her on. For so long her doubts had been knife-edged: now they had turned into bright harmless toys that she could toss and catch without peril!

“You didn’t come, and you didn’t answer my letter; and after waiting four months I wrote another.” “And I answered that one; and I’m here.”

“Yes.” She held his eyes. “But in my last letter I repeated exactly what I’d said in the first — the one I wrote you last June. I told you then that I was ready to give you the answer to what you’d asked me in London; and in telling you that, I told you what the answer was.”

“My dearest! My dearest!” Darrow murmured.

“You ignored that letter. All summer you made no sign. And all I ask now is, that you should frankly tell me why.”

“I can only repeat what I’ve just said. I was hurt and unhappy and I doubted you. I suppose if I’d cared less I should have been more confident. I cared so much that I couldn’t risk another failure. For you’d made me feel that I’d miserably failed. So I shut my eyes and set my teeth and turned my back. There’s the whole pusillanimous truth of it!”

“Oh, if it’s the WHOLE truth! —— ” She let him clasp her. “There’s my torment, you see. I thought that was what your silence meant till I made you break it. Now I want to be sure that I was right.”

“What can I tell you to make you sure?”

“You can let me tell YOU everything first.” She drew away, but without taking her hands from him. “Owen saw you in Paris,” she began.

She looked at him and he faced her steadily. The light was full on his pleasantly-browned face, his grey eyes, his frank white forehead. She noticed for the first time a seal-ring in a setting of twisted silver on the hand he had kept on hers.

“In Paris? Oh, yes . . . So he did.”

“He came back and told me. I think you talked to him a moment in a theatre. I asked if you’d spoken of my having put you off — or if you’d sent me any message. He didn’t remember that you had.”

“In a crush — in a Paris foyer? My dear!”

“It was absurd of me! But Owen and I have always been on odd kind of brother-and-sister terms. I think he guessed about us when he saw you with me in London. So he teased me a little and tried to make me curious about you; and when he saw he’d succeeded he told me he hadn’t had time to say much to you because you were in such a hurry to get back to the lady you were with.”

He still held her hands, but she felt no tremor in his, and the blood did not stir in his brown cheek. He seemed to be honestly turning over his memories. “Yes: and what else did he tell you?”

“Oh, not much, except that she was awfully pretty. When I asked him to describe her he said you had her tucked away in a baignoire and he hadn’t actually seen her; but he saw the tail of her cloak, and somehow knew from that that she was pretty. One DOES, you know . . . I think he said the cloak was pink.”

Darrow broke into a laugh. “Of course it was — they always are! So that was at the bottom of your doubts?”

“Not at first. I only laughed. But afterward, when I wrote you and you didn’t answer —— Oh, you DO see?” she appealed to him.

He was looking at her gently. “Yes: I see.”

“It’s not as if this were a light thing between us. I want you to know me as I am. If I thought that at that moment . . . when you were on your way here, almost —— ”

He dropped her hand and stood up. “Yes, yes — I understand.”

“But do you?” Her look followed him. “I’m not a goose of a girl. I know . . . of course I KNOW . . . but there are things a woman feels . . . when what she knows doesn’t make any difference. It’s not that I want you to explain — I mean about that particular evening. It’s only that I want you to have the whole of my feeling. I didn’t know what it was till I saw you again. I never dreamed I should say such things to you!”

“I never dreamed I should be here to hear you say them!” He turned back and lifting a floating end of her scarf put his lips to it. “But now that you have, I know — I know,” he smiled down at her.

“You know?”

“That this is no light thing between us. Now you may ask me anything you please! That was all I wanted to ask YOU.”

For a long moment they looked at each other without speaking. She saw the dancing spirit in his eyes turn grave and darken to a passionate sternness. He stooped and kissed her, and she sat as if folded in wings.

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