The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XII

It was in the natural order of things that, on the way back to the house, their talk should have turned to the future.

Anna was not eager to define it. She had an extraordinary sensitiveness to the impalpable elements of happiness, and as she walked at Darrow’s side her imagination flew back and forth, spinning luminous webs of feeling between herself and the scene about her. Every heightening of emotion produced for her a new effusion of beauty in visible things, and with it the sense that such moments should be lingered over and absorbed like some unrenewable miracle. She understood Darrow’s impatience to see their plans take shape. She knew it must be so, she would not have had it otherwise; but to reach a point where she could fix her mind on his appeal for dates and decisions was like trying to break her way through the silver tangle of an April wood.

Darrow wished to use his diplomatic opportunities as a means of studying certain economic and social problems with which he presently hoped to deal in print; and with this in view he had asked for, and obtained, a South American appointment. Anna was ready to follow where he led, and not reluctant to put new sights as well as new thoughts between herself and her past. She had, in a direct way, only Effie and Effie’s education to consider; and there seemed, after due reflection, no reason why the most anxious regard for these should not be conciliated with the demands of Darrow’s career. Effie, it was evident, could be left to Madame de Chantelle’s care till the couple should have organized their life; and she might even, as long as her future step-father’s work retained him in distant posts, continue to divide her year between Givre and the antipodes.

As for Owen, who had reached his legal majority two years before, and was soon to attain the age fixed for the taking over of his paternal inheritance, the arrival of this date would reduce his step-mother’s responsibility to a friendly concern for his welfare. This made for the prompt realization of Darrow’s wishes, and there seemed no reason why the marriage should not take place within the six weeks that remained of his leave.

They passed out of the wood-walk into the open brightness of the garden. The noon sunlight sheeted with gold the bronze flanks of the polygonal yews. Chrysanthemums, russet, saffron and orange, glowed like the efflorescence of an enchanted forest; belts of red begonia purpling to wine-colour ran like smouldering flame among the borders; and above this outspread tapestry the house extended its harmonious length, the soberness of its lines softened to grace in the luminous misty air.

Darrow stood still, and Anna felt that his glance was travelling from her to the scene about them and then back to her face.

“You’re sure you’re prepared to give up Givre? You look so made for each other!”

“Oh, Givre —— ” She broke off suddenly, feeling as if her too careless tone had delivered all her past into his hands; and with one of her instinctive movements of recoil she added: “When Owen marries I shall have to give it up.”

“When Owen marries? That’s looking some distance ahead! I want to be told that meanwhile you’ll have no regrets.”

She hesitated. Why did he press her to uncover to him her poor starved past? A vague feeling of loyalty, a desire to spare what could no longer harm her, made her answer evasively: “There will probably be no ‘meanwhile.’ Owen may marry before long.”

She had not meant to touch on the subject, for her step-son had sworn her to provisional secrecy; but since the shortness of Darrow’s leave necessitated a prompt adjustment of their own plans, it was, after all, inevitable that she should give him at least a hint of Owen’s.

“Owen marry? Why, he always seems like a faun in flannels! I hope he’s found a dryad. There might easily be one left in these blue-and-gold woods.”

“I can’t tell you yet where he found his dryad, but she IS one, I believe: at any rate she’ll become the Givre woods better than I do. Only there may be difficulties —— ”

“Well! At that age they’re not always to be wished away.”

She hesitated. “Owen, at any rate, has made up his mind to overcome them; and I’ve promised to see him through.”

She went on, after a moment’s consideration, to explain that her step-son’s choice was, for various reasons, not likely to commend itself to his grandmother. “She must be prepared for it, and I’ve promised to do the preparing. You know I always HAVE seen him through things, and he rather counts on me now.”

She fancied that Darrow’s exclamation had in it a faint note of annoyance, and wondered if he again suspected her of seeking a pretext for postponement.

“But once Owen’s future is settled, you won’t, surely, for the sake of what you call seeing him through, ask that I should go away again without you?” He drew her closer as they walked. “Owen will understand, if you don’t. Since he’s in the same case himself I’ll throw myself on his mercy. He’ll see that I have the first claim on you; he won’t even want you not to see it.”

“Owen sees everything: I’m not afraid of that. But his future isn’t settled. He’s very young to marry — too young, his grandmother is sure to think — and the marriage he wants to make is not likely to convince her to the contrary.”

“You don’t mean that it’s like his first choice?”

“Oh, no! But it’s not what Madame de Chantelle would call a good match; it’s not even what I call a wise one.”

“Yet you’re backing him up?”

“Yet I’m backing him up.” She paused. “I wonder if you’ll understand? What I’ve most wanted for him, and shall want for Effie, is that they shall always feel free to make their own mistakes, and never, if possible, be persuaded to make other people’s. Even if Owen’s marriage is a mistake, and has to be paid for, I believe he’ll learn and grow in the paying. Of course I can’t make Madame de Chantelle see this; but I can remind her that, with his character — his big rushes of impulse, his odd intervals of ebb and apathy — she may drive him into some worse blunder if she thwarts him now.”

“And you mean to break the news to her as soon as she comes back from Ouchy?”

“As soon as I see my way to it. She knows the girl and likes her: that’s our hope. And yet it may, in the end, prove our danger, make it harder for us all, when she learns the truth, than if Owen had chosen a stranger. I can’t tell you more till I’ve told her: I’ve promised Owen not to tell any one. All I ask you is to give me time, to give me a few days at any rate She’s been wonderfully ‘nice,’ as she would call it, about you, and about the fact of my having soon to leave Givre; but that, again, may make it harder for Owen. At any rate, you can see, can’t you, how it makes me want to stand by him? You see, I couldn’t bear it if the least fraction of my happiness seemed to be stolen from his — as if it were a little scrap of happiness that had to be pieced out with other people’s!” She clasped her hands on Darrow’s arm. “I want our life to be like a house with all the windows lit: I’d like to string lanterns from the roof and chimneys!”

She ended with an inward tremor. All through her exposition and her appeal she had told herself that the moment could hardly have been less well chosen. In Darrow’s place she would have felt, as he doubtless did, that her carefully developed argument was only the disguise of an habitual indecision. It was the hour of all others when she would have liked to affirm herself by brushing aside every obstacle to his wishes; yet it was only by opposing them that she could show the strength of character she wanted him to feel in her.

But as she talked she began to see that Darrow’s face gave back no reflection of her words, that he continued to wear the abstracted look of a man who is not listening to what is said to him. It caused her a slight pang to discover that his thoughts could wander at such a moment; then, with a flush of joy she perceived the reason.

In some undefinable way she had become aware, without turning her head, that he was steeped in the sense of her nearness, absorbed in contemplating the details of her face and dress; and the discovery made the words throng to her lips. She felt herself speak with ease, authority, conviction. She said to herself: “He doesn’t care what I say — it’s enough that I say it — even if it’s stupid he’ll like me better for it . . . ” She knew that every inflexion of her voice, every gesture, every characteristic of her person — its very defects, the fact that her forehead was too high, that her eyes were not large enough, that her hands, though slender, were not small, and that the fingers did not taper — she knew that these deficiencies were so many channels through which her influence streamed to him; that she pleased him in spite of them, perhaps because of them; that he wanted her as she was, and not as she would have liked to be; and for the first time she felt in her veins the security and lightness of happy love.

They reached the court and walked under the limes toward the house. The hall door stood wide, and through the windows opening on the terrace the sun slanted across the black and white floor, the faded tapestry chairs, and Darrow’s travelling coat and cap, which lay among the cloaks and rugs piled on a bench against the wall.

The sight of these garments, lying among her own wraps, gave her a sense of homely intimacy. It was as if her happiness came down from the skies and took on the plain dress of daily things. At last she seemed to hold it in her hand.

As they entered the hall her eye lit on an unstamped note conspicuously placed on the table.

“From Owen! He must have rushed off somewhere in the motor.”

She felt a secret stir of pleasure at the immediate inference that she and Darrow would probably lunch alone. Then she opened the note and stared at it in wonder.

“Dear,” Owen wrote, “after what you said yesterday I can’t wait another hour, and I’m off to Francheuil, to catch the Dijon express and travel back with them. Don’t be frightened; I won’t speak unless it’s safe to. Trust me for that — but I had to go.”

She looked up slowly.

“He’s gone to Dijon to meet his grandmother. Oh, I hope I haven’t made a mistake!”

“You? Why, what have you to do with his going to Dijon?”

She hesitated. “The day before yesterday I told him, for the first time, that I meant to see him through, no matter what happened. And I’m afraid he’s lost his head, and will be imprudent and spoil things. You see, I hadn’t meant to say a word to him till I’d had time to prepare Madame de Chantelle.”

She felt that Darrow was looking at her and reading her thoughts, and the colour flew to her face. “Yes: it was when I heard you were coming that I told him. I wanted him to feel as I felt . . . it seemed too unkind to make him wait!” Her hand was in his, and his arm rested for a moment on her shoulder.

“It WOULD have been too unkind to make him wait.”

They moved side by side toward the stairs. Through the haze of bliss enveloping her, Owen’s affairs seemed curiously unimportant and remote. Nothing really mattered but this torrent of light in her veins. She put her foot on the lowest step, saying: “It’s nearly luncheon time — I must take off my hat . . . ” and as she started up the stairs Darrow stood below in the hall and watched her. But the distance between them did not make him seem less near: it was as if his thoughts moved with her and touched her like endearing hands.

In her bedroom she shut the door and stood still, looking about her in a fit of dreamy wonder. Her feelings were unlike any she had ever known: richer, deeper, more complete. For the first time everything in her, from head to foot, seemed to be feeding the same full current of sensation.

She took off her hat and went to the dressing-table to smooth her hair. The pressure of the hat had flattened the dark strands on her forehead; her face was paler than usual, with shadows about the eyes. She felt a pang of regret for the wasted years. “If I look like this today,” she said to herself, “what will he think of me when I’m ill or worried?” She began to run her fingers through her hair, rejoicing in its thickness; then she desisted and sat still, resting her chin on her hands.

“I want him to see me as I am,” she thought.

Deeper than the deepest fibre of her vanity was the triumphant sense that AS SHE WAS, with her flattened hair, her tired pallor, her thin sleeves a little tumbled by the weight of her jacket, he would like her even better, feel her nearer, dearer, more desirable, than in all the splendours she might put on for him. In the light of this discovery she studied her face with a new intentness, seeing its defects as she had never seen them, yet seeing them through a kind of radiance, as though love were a luminous medium into which she had been bodily plunged.

She was glad now that she had confessed her doubts and her jealousy. She divined that a man in love may be flattered by such involuntary betrayals, that there are moments when respect for his liberty appeals to him less than the inability to respect it: moments so propitious that a woman’s very mistakes and indiscretions may help to establish her dominion. The sense of power she had been aware of in talking to Darrow came back with ten-fold force. She felt like testing him by the most fantastic exactions, and at the same moment she longed to humble herself before him, to make herself the shadow and echo of his mood. She wanted to linger with him in a world of fancy and yet to walk at his side in the world of fact. She wanted him to feel her power and yet to love her for her ignorance and humility. She felt like a slave, and a goddess, and a girl in her teens . . .

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