The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XIII

Darrow, late that evening, threw himself into an armchair before his fire and mused.

The room was propitious to meditation. The red-veiled lamp, the corners of shadow, the splashes of firelight on the curves of old full-bodied wardrobes and cabinets, gave it an air of intimacy increased by its faded hangings, its slightly frayed and threadbare rugs. Everything in it was harmoniously shabby, with a subtle sought-for shabbiness in which Darrow fancied he discerned the touch of Fraser Leath. But Fraser Leath had grown so unimportant a factor in the scheme of things that these marks of his presence caused the young man no emotion beyond that of a faint retrospective amusement.

The afternoon and evening had been perfect.

After a moment of concern over her step-son’s departure, Anna had surrendered herself to her happiness with an impetuosity that Darrow had never suspected in her. Early in the afternoon they had gone out in the motor, traversing miles of sober-tinted landscape in which, here and there, a scarlet vineyard flamed, clattering through the streets of stony villages, coming out on low slopes above the river, or winding through the pale gold of narrow wood-roads with the blue of clear-cut hills at their end. Over everything lay a faint sunshine that seemed dissolved in the still air, and the smell of wet roots and decaying leaves was merged in the pungent scent of burning underbrush. Once, at the turn of a wall, they stopped the motor before a ruined gateway and, stumbling along a road full of ruts, stood before a little old deserted house, fantastically carved and chimneyed, which lay in a moat under the shade of ancient trees. They paced the paths between the trees, found a mouldy Temple of Love on an islet among reeds and plantains, and, sitting on a bench in the stable-yard, watched the pigeons circling against the sunset over their cot of patterned brick. Then the motor flew on into the dusk . . .

When they came in they sat beside the fire in the oak drawing-room, and Darrow noticed how delicately her head stood out against the sombre panelling, and mused on the enjoyment there would always be in the mere fact of watching her hands as they moved about among the tea-things . . .

They dined late, and facing her across the table, with its low lights and flowers, he felt an extraordinary pleasure in seeing her again in evening dress, and in letting his eyes dwell on the proud shy set of her head, the way her dark hair clasped it, and the girlish thinness of her neck above the slight swell of the breast. His imagination was struck by the quality of reticence in her beauty. She suggested a fine portrait kept down to a few tones, or a Greek vase on which the play of light is the only pattern.

After dinner they went out on the terrace for a look at the moon-misted park. Through the crepuscular whiteness the trees hung in blotted masses. Below the terrace, the garden drew its dark diagrams between statues that stood like muffled conspirators on the edge of the shadow. Farther off, the meadows unrolled a silver-shot tissue to the mantling of mist above the river; and the autumn stars trembled overhead like their own reflections seen in dim water.

He lit his cigar, and they walked slowly up and down the flags in the languid air, till he put an arm about her, saying: “You mustn’t stay till you’re chilled”; then they went back into the room and drew up their chairs to the fire.

It seemed only a moment later that she said: “It must be after eleven,” and stood up and looked down on him, smiling faintly. He sat still, absorbing the look, and thinking: “There’ll be evenings and evenings” — till she came nearer, bent over him, and with a hand on his shoulder said: “Good night.”

He got to his feet and put his arms about her.

“Good night,” he answered, and held her fast; and they gave each other a long kiss of promise and communion.

The memory of it glowed in him still as he sat over his crumbling fire; but beneath his physical exultation he felt a certain gravity of mood. His happiness was in some sort the rallying-point of many scattered purposes. He summed it up vaguely by saying to himself that to be loved by a woman like that made “all the difference” . . . He was a little tired of experimenting on life; he wanted to “take a line”, to follow things up, to centralize and concentrate, and produce results. Two or three more years of diplomacy — with her beside him! — and then their real life would begin: study, travel and book-making for him, and for her — well, the joy, at any rate, of getting out of an atmosphere of bric-a-brac and card-leaving into the open air of competing activities.

The desire for change had for some time been latent in him, and his meeting with Mrs. Leath the previous spring had given it a definite direction. With such a comrade to focus and stimulate his energies he felt modestly but agreeably sure of “doing something”. And under this assurance was the lurking sense that he was somehow worthy of his opportunity. His life, on the whole, had been a creditable affair. Out of modest chances and middling talents he had built himself a fairly marked personality, known some exceptional people, done a number of interesting and a few rather difficult things, and found himself, at thirty-seven, possessed of an intellectual ambition sufficient to occupy the passage to a robust and energetic old age. As for the private and personal side of his life, it had come up to the current standards, and if it had dropped, now and then, below a more ideal measure, even these declines had been brief, parenthetic, incidental. In the recognized essentials he had always remained strictly within the limit of his scruples.

From this reassuring survey of his case he came back to the contemplation of its crowning felicity. His mind turned again to his first meeting with Anna Summers and took up one by one the threads of their faintly sketched romance. He dwelt with pardonable pride on the fact that fate had so early marked him for the high privilege of possessing her: it seemed to mean that they had really, in the truest sense of the ill-used phrase, been made for each other.

Deeper still than all these satisfactions was the mere elemental sense of well-being in her presence. That, after all, was what proved her to be the woman for him: the pleasure he took in the set of her head, the way her hair grew on her forehead and at the nape, her steady gaze when he spoke, the grave freedom of her gait and gestures. He recalled every detail of her face, the fine veinings of the temples, the bluish-brown shadows in her upper lids, and the way the reflections of two stars seemed to form and break up in her eyes when he held her close to him . . .

If he had had any doubt as to the nature of her feeling for him those dissolving stars would have allayed it. She was reserved, she was shy even, was what the shallow and effusive would call “cold”. She was like a picture so hung that it can be seen only at a certain angle: an angle known to no one but its possessor. The thought flattered his sense of possessorship . . . He felt that the smile on his lips would have been fatuous had it had a witness. He was thinking of her look when she had questioned him about his meeting with Owen at the theatre: less of her words than of her look, and of the effort the question cost her: the reddening of her cheek, the deepening of the strained line between her brows, the way her eyes sought shelter and then turned and drew on him. Pride and passion were in the conflict — magnificent qualities in a wife! The sight almost made up for his momentary embarrassment at the rousing of a memory which had no place in his present picture of himself.

Yes! It was worth a good deal to watch that fight between her instinct and her intelligence, and know one’s self the object of the struggle . . .

Mingled with these sensations were considerations of another order. He reflected with satisfaction that she was the kind of woman with whom one would like to be seen in public. It would be distinctly agreeable to follow her into drawing-rooms, to walk after her down the aisle of a theatre, to get in and out of trains with her, to say “my wife” of her to all sorts of people. He draped these details in the handsome phrase “She’s a woman to be proud of”, and felt that this fact somehow justified and ennobled his instinctive boyish satisfaction in loving her.

He stood up, rambled across the room and leaned out for a while into the starry night. Then he dropped again into his armchair with a sigh of deep content.

“Oh, hang it,” he suddenly exclaimed, “it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me, anyhow!”

The next day was even better. He felt, and knew she felt, that they had reached a clearer understanding of each other. It was as if, after a swim through bright opposing waves, with a dazzle of sun in their eyes, they had gained an inlet in the shades of a cliff, where they could float on the still surface and gaze far down into the depths.

Now and then, as they walked and talked, he felt a thrill of youthful wonder at the coincidence of their views and their experiences, at the way their minds leapt to the same point in the same instant.

“The old delusion, I suppose,” he smiled to himself. “Will Nature never tire of the trick?”

But he knew it was more than that. There were moments in their talk when he felt, distinctly and unmistakably, the solid ground of friendship underneath the whirling dance of his sensations. “How I should like her if I didn’t love her!” he summed it up, wondering at the miracle of such a union.

In the course of the morning a telegram had come from Owen Leath, announcing that he, his grandmother and Effie would arrive from Dijon that afternoon at four. The station of the main line was eight or ten miles from Givre, and Anna, soon after three, left in the motor to meet the travellers.

When she had gone Darrow started for a walk, planning to get back late, in order that the reunited family might have the end of the afternoon to themselves. He roamed the country-side till long after dark, and the stable-clock of Givre was striking seven as he walked up the avenue to the court.

In the hall, coming down the stairs, he encountered Anna. Her face was serene, and his first glance showed him that Owen had kept his word and that none of her forebodings had been fulfilled.

She had just come down from the school-room, where Effie and the governess were having supper; the little girl, she told him, looked immensely better for her Swiss holiday, but was dropping with sleep after the journey, and too tired to make her habitual appearance in the drawing-room before being put to bed. Madame de Chantelle was resting, but would be down for dinner; and as for Owen, Anna supposed he was off somewhere in the park — he had a passion for prowling about the park at nightfall . . .

Darrow followed her into the brown room, where the tea-table had been left for him. He declined her offer of tea, but she lingered a moment to tell him that Owen had in fact kept his word, and that Madame de Chantelle had come back in the best of humours, and unsuspicious of the blow about to fall.

“She has enjoyed her month at Ouchy, and it has given her a lot to talk about — her symptoms, and the rival doctors, and the people at the hotel. It seems she met your Ambassadress there, and Lady Wantley, and some other London friends of yours, and she’s heard what she calls ‘delightful things’ about you: she told me to tell you so. She attaches great importance to the fact that your grandmother was an Everard of Albany. She’s prepared to open her arms to you. I don’t know whether it won’t make it harder for poor Owen . . . the contrast, I mean . . . There are no Ambassadresses or Everards to vouch for HIS choice! But you’ll help me, won’t you? You’ll help me to help him? To-morrow I’ll tell you the rest. Now I must rush up and tuck in Effie . . . ”

“Oh, you’ll see, we’ll pull it off for him!” he assured her; “together, we can’t fail to pull it off.”

He stood and watched her with a smile as she fled down the half-lit vista to the hall.

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