The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XIV

If Darrow, on entering the drawing-room before dinner, examined its new occupant with unusual interest, it was more on Owen Leath’s account than his own.

Anna’s hints had roused his interest in the lad’s love affair, and he wondered what manner of girl the heroine of the coming conflict might be. He had guessed that Owen’s rebellion symbolized for his step-mother her own long struggle against the Leath conventions, and he understood that if Anna so passionately abetted him it was partly because, as she owned, she wanted his liberation to coincide with hers.

The lady who was to represent, in the impending struggle, the forces of order and tradition was seated by the fire when Darrow entered. Among the flowers and old furniture of the large pale-panelled room, Madame de Chantelle had the inanimate elegance of a figure introduced into a “still-life” to give the scale. And this, Darrow reflected, was exactly what she doubtless regarded as her chief obligation: he was sure she thought a great deal of “measure”, and approved of most things only up to a certain point. She was a woman of sixty, with a figure at once young and old-fashioned. Her fair faded tints, her quaint corseting, the passementerie on her tight-waisted dress, the velvet band on her tapering arm, made her resemble a “carte de visite” photograph of the middle sixties. One saw her, younger but no less invincibly lady-like, leaning on a chair with a fringed back, a curl in her neck, a locket on her tuckered bosom, toward the end of an embossed morocco album beginning with The Beauties of the Second Empire.

She received her daughter-in-law’s suitor with an affability which implied her knowledge and approval of his suit. Darrow had already guessed her to be a person who would instinctively oppose any suggested changes, and then, after one had exhausted one’s main arguments, unexpectedly yield to some small incidental reason, and adhere doggedly to her new position. She boasted of her old-fashioned prejudices, talked a good deal of being a grandmother, and made a show of reaching up to tap Owen’s shoulder, though his height was little more than hers.

She was full of a small pale prattle about the people she had seen at Ouchy, as to whom she had the minute statistical information of a gazetteer, without any apparent sense of personal differences. She said to Darrow: “They tell me things are very much changed in America . . . Of course in my youth there WAS a Society” . . . She had no desire to return there she was sure the standards must be so different. “There are charming people everywhere . . . and one must always look on the best side . . . but when one has lived among Traditions it’s difficult to adapt one’s self to the new ideas . . . These dreadful views of marriage . . . it’s so hard to explain them to my French relations . . . I’m thankful to say I don’t pretend to understand them myself! But YOU’RE an Everard — I told Anna last spring in London that one sees that instantly” . . .

She wandered off to the cooking and the service of the hotel at Ouchy. She attached great importance to gastronomic details and to the manners of hotel servants. There, too, there was a falling off, she said. “I don t know, of course; but people say it’s owing to the Americans. Certainly my waiter had a way of slapping down the dishes . . . they tell me that many of them are Anarchists . . . belong to Unions, you know.” She appealed to Darrow’s reported knowledge of economic conditions to confirm this ominous rumour.

After dinner Owen Leath wandered into the next room, where the piano stood, and began to play among the shadows. His step-mother presently joined him, and Darrow sat alone with Madame de Chantelle.

She took up the thread of her mild chat and carried it on at the same pace as her knitting. Her conversation resembled the large loose-stranded web between her fingers: now and then she dropped a stitch, and went on regardless of the gap in the pattern.

Darrow listened with a lazy sense of well-being. In the mental lull of the after-dinner hour, with harmonious memories murmuring through his mind, and the soft tints and shadowy spaces of the fine old room charming his eyes to indolence, Madame de Chantelle’s discourse seemed not out of place. He could understand that, in the long run, the atmosphere of Givre might be suffocating; but in his present mood its very limitations had a grace.

Presently he found the chance to say a word in his own behalf; and thereupon measured the advantage, never before particularly apparent to him, of being related to the Everards of Albany. Madame de Chantelle’s conception of her native country — to which she had not returned since her twentieth year — reminded him of an ancient geographer’s map of the Hyperborean regions. It was all a foggy blank, from which only one or two fixed outlines emerged; and one of these belonged to the Everards of Albany.

The fact that they offered such firm footing — formed, so to speak, a friendly territory on which the opposing powers could meet and treat — helped him through the task of explaining and justifying himself as the successor of Fraser Leath. Madame de Chantelle could not resist such incontestable claims. She seemed to feel her son’s hovering and discriminating presence, and she gave Darrow the sense that he was being tested and approved as a last addition to the Leath Collection.

She also made him aware of the immense advantage he possessed in belonging to the diplomatic profession. She spoke of this humdrum calling as a Career, and gave Darrow to understand that she supposed him to have been seducing Duchesses when he was not negotiating Treaties. He heard again quaint phrases which romantic old ladies had used in his youth: “Brilliant diplomatic society . . . social advantages . . . the entree everywhere . . . nothing else FORMS a young man in the same way . . . ” and she sighingly added that she could have wished her grandson had chosen the same path to glory.

Darrow prudently suppressed his own view of the profession, as well as the fact that he had adopted it provisionally, and for reasons less social than sociological; and the talk presently passed on to the subject of his future plans.

Here again, Madame de Chantelle’s awe of the Career made her admit the necessity of Anna’s consenting to an early marriage. The fact that Darrow was “ordered” to South America seemed to put him in the romantic light of a young soldier charged to lead a forlorn hope: she sighed and said: “At such moments a wife’s duty is at her husband’s side.”

The problem of Effie’s future might have disturbed her, she added; but since Anna, for a time, consented to leave the little girl with her, that problem was at any rate deferred. She spoke plaintively of the responsibility of looking after her granddaughter, but Darrow divined that she enjoyed the flavour of the word more than she felt the weight of the fact.

“Effie’s a perfect child. She’s more like my son, perhaps, than dear Owen. She’ll never intentionally give me the least trouble. But of course the responsibility will be great . . . I’m not sure I should dare to undertake it if it were not for her having such a treasure of a governess. Has Anna told you about our little governess? After all the worry we had last year, with one impossible creature after another, it seems providential, just now, to have found her. At first we were afraid she was too young; but now we’ve the greatest confidence in her. So clever and amusing — and SUCH a lady! I don’t say her education’s all it might be . . . no drawing or singing . . . but one can’t have everything; and she speaks Italian . . . ”

Madame de Chantelle’s fond insistence on the likeness between Effie Leath and her father, if not particularly gratifying to Darrow, had at least increased his desire to see the little girl. It gave him an odd feeling of discomfort to think that she should have any of the characteristics of the late Fraser Leath: he had, somehow, fantastically pictured her as the mystical offspring of the early tenderness between himself and Anna Summers.

His encounter with Effie took place the next morning, on the lawn below the terrace, where he found her, in the early sunshine, knocking about golf balls with her brother. Almost at once, and with infinite relief, he saw that the resemblance of which Madame de Chantelle boasted was mainly external. Even that discovery was slightly distasteful, though Darrow was forced to own that Fraser Leath’s straight-featured fairness had lent itself to the production of a peculiarly finished image of childish purity. But it was evident that other elements had also gone to the making of Effie, and that another spirit sat in her eyes. Her serious handshake, her “pretty” greeting, were worthy of the Leath tradition, and he guessed her to be more malleable than Owen, more subject to the influences of Givre; but the shout with which she returned to her romp had in it the note of her mother’s emancipation.

He had begged a holiday for her, and when Mrs. Leath appeared he and she and the little girl went off for a ramble. Anna wished her daughter to have time to make friends with Darrow before learning in what relation he was to stand to her; and the three roamed the woods and fields till the distant chime of the stable-clock made them turn back for luncheon.

Effie, who was attended by a shaggy terrier, had picked up two or three subordinate dogs at the stable; and as she trotted on ahead with her yapping escort, Anna hung back to throw a look at Darrow.

“Yes,” he answered it, “she’s exquisite . . . Oh, I see what I’m asking of you! But she’ll be quite happy here, won’t she? And you must remember it won’t be for long . . . ”

Anna sighed her acquiescence. “Oh, she’ll be happy here. It’s her nature to be happy. She’ll apply herself to it, conscientiously, as she does to her lessons, and to what she calls ‘being good’ . . . In a way, you see, that’s just what worries me. Her idea of ‘being good’ is to please the person she’s with — she puts her whole dear little mind on it! And so, if ever she’s with the wrong person —— ”

“But surely there’s no danger of that just now? Madame de Chantelle tells me that you’ve at last put your hand on a perfect governess —— ”

Anna, without answering, glanced away from him toward her daughter.

“It’s lucky, at any rate,” Darrow continued, “that Madame de Chantelle thinks her so.”

“Oh, I think very highly of her too.”

“Highly enough to feel quite satisfied to leave her with Effie?”

“Yes. She’s just the person for Effie. Only, of course, one never knows . . . She’s young, and she might take it into her head to leave us . . . ” After a pause she added: “I’m naturally anxious to know what you think of her.”

When they entered the house the hands of the hall clock stood within a few minutes of the luncheon hour. Anna led Effie off to have her hair smoothed and Darrow wandered into the oak sitting-room, which he found untenanted. The sun lay pleasantly on its brown walls, on the scattered books and the flowers in old porcelain vases. In his eyes lingered the vision of the dark-haired mother mounting the stairs with her little fair daughter. The contrast between them seemed a last touch of grace in the complex harmony of things. He stood in the window, looking out at the park, and brooding inwardly upon his happiness . . .

He was roused by Effie’s voice and the scamper of her feet down the long floors behind him.

“Here he is! Here he is!” she cried, flying over the threshold.

He turned and stooped to her with a smile, and as she caught his hand he perceived that she was trying to draw him toward some one who had paused behind her in the doorway, and whom he supposed to be her mother.

“HERE he is!” Effie repeated, with her sweet impatience.

The figure in the doorway came forward and Darrow, looking up, found himself face to face with Sophy Viner. They stood still, a yard or two apart, and looked at each other without speaking.

As they paused there, a shadow fell across one of the terrace windows, and Owen Leath stepped whistling into the room. In his rough shooting clothes, with the glow of exercise under his fair skin, he looked extraordinarily light-hearted and happy. Darrow, with a quick side-glance, noticed this, and perceived also that the glow on the youth’s cheek had deepened suddenly to red. He too stopped short, and the three stood there motionless for a barely perceptible beat of time. During its lapse, Darrow’s eyes had turned back from Owen’s face to that of the girl between them. He had the sense that, whatever was done, it was he who must do it, and that it must be done immediately. He went forward and held out his hand.

“How do you do, Miss Viner?”

She answered: “How do you do?” in a voice that sounded clear and natural; and the next moment he again became aware of steps behind him, and knew that Mrs. Leath was in the room.

To his strained senses there seemed to be another just measurable pause before Anna said, looking gaily about the little group: “Has Owen introduced you? This is Effie’s friend, Miss Viner.”

Effie, still hanging on her governess’s arm, pressed herself closer with a little gesture of appropriation; and Miss Viner laid her hand on her pupil’s hair.

Darrow felt that Anna’s eyes had turned to him.

“I think Miss Viner and I have met already — several years ago in London.”

“I remember,” said Sophy Viner, in the same clear voice.

“How charming! Then we’re all friends. But luncheon must be ready,” said Mrs. Leath.

She turned back to the door, and the little procession moved down the two long drawing-rooms, with Effie waltzing on ahead.

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