The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XV

Madame de Chantelle and Anna had planned, for the afternoon, a visit to a remotely situated acquaintance whom the introduction of the motor had transformed into a neighbour. Effie was to pay for her morning’s holiday by an hour or two in the school-room, and Owen suggested that he and Darrow should betake themselves to a distant covert in the desultory quest for pheasants.

Darrow was not an ardent sportsman, but any pretext for physical activity would have been acceptable at the moment; and he was glad both to get away from the house and not to be left to himself.

When he came downstairs the motor was at the door, and Anna stood before the hall mirror, swathing her hat in veils. She turned at the sound of his step and smiled at him for a long full moment.

“I’d no idea you knew Miss Viner,” she said, as he helped her into her long coat.

“It came back to me, luckily, that I’d seen her two or three times in London, several years ago. She was secretary, or something of the sort, in the background of a house where I used to dine.”

He loathed the slighting indifference of the phrase, but he had uttered it deliberately, had been secretly practising it all through the interminable hour at the luncheon-table. Now that it was spoken, he shivered at its note of condescension. In such cases one was almost sure to overdo . . . But Anna seemed to notice nothing unusual.

“Was she really? You must tell me all about it — tell me exactly how she struck you. I’m so glad it turns out that you know her.”

“‘Know’ is rather exaggerated: we used to pass each other on the stairs.”

Madame de Chantelle and Owen appeared together as he spoke, and Anna, gathering up her wraps, said: “You’ll tell me about that, then. Try and remember everything you can.”

As he tramped through the woods at his young host’s side, Darrow felt the partial relief from thought produced by exercise and the obligation to talk. Little as he cared for shooting, he had the habit of concentration which makes it natural for a man to throw himself wholly into whatever business he has in hand, and there were moments of the afternoon when a sudden whirr in the undergrowth, a vivider gleam against the hazy browns and greys of the woods, was enough to fill the foreground of his attention. But all the while, behind these voluntarily emphasized sensations, his secret consciousness continued to revolve on a loud wheel of thought. For a time it seemed to be sweeping him through deep gulfs of darkness. His sensations were too swift and swarming to be disentangled. He had an almost physical sense of struggling for air, of battling helplessly with material obstructions, as though the russet covert through which he trudged were the heart of a maleficent jungle . . .

Snatches of his companion’s talk drifted to him intermittently through the confusion of his thoughts. He caught eager self-revealing phrases, and understood that Owen was saying things about himself, perhaps hinting indirectly at the hopes for which Darrow had been prepared by Anna’s confidences. He had already become aware that the lad liked him, and had meant to take the first opportunity of showing that he reciprocated the feeling. But the effort of fixing his attention on Owen’s words was so great that it left no power for more than the briefest and most inexpressive replies.

Young Leath, it appeared, felt that he had reached a turning-point in his career, a height from which he could impartially survey his past progress and projected endeavour. At one time he had had musical and literary yearnings, visions of desultory artistic indulgence; but these had of late been superseded by the resolute determination to plunge into practical life.

“I don’t want, you see,” Darrow heard him explaining, “to drift into what my grandmother, poor dear, is trying to make of me: an adjunct of Givre. I don’t want — hang it all! — to slip into collecting sensations as my father collected snuff-boxes. I want Effie to have Givre — it’s my grandmother’s, you know, to do as she likes with; and I’ve understood lately that if it belonged to me it would gradually gobble me up. I want to get out of it, into a life that’s big and ugly and struggling. If I can extract beauty out of THAT, so much the better: that’ll prove my vocation. But I want to MAKE beauty, not be drowned in the ready-made, like a bee in a pot of honey.”

Darrow knew that he was being appealed to for corroboration of these views and for encouragement in the course to which they pointed. To his own ears his answers sounded now curt, now irrelevant: at one moment he seemed chillingly indifferent, at another he heard himself launching out on a flood of hazy discursiveness. He dared not look at Owen, for fear of detecting the lad’s surprise at these senseless transitions. And through the confusion of his inward struggles and outward loquacity he heard the ceaseless trip-hammer beat of the question: “What in God’s name shall I do?” . . .

To get back to the house before Anna’s return seemed his most pressing necessity. He did not clearly know why: he simply felt that he ought to be there. At one moment it occurred to him that Miss Viner might want to speak to him alone — and again, in the same flash, that it would probably be the last thing she would want . . . At any rate, he felt he ought to try to speak to HER; or at least be prepared to do so, if the chance should occur . . .

Finally, toward four, he told his companion that he had some letters on his mind and must get back to the house and despatch them before the ladies returned. He left Owen with the beater and walked on to the edge of the covert. At the park gates he struck obliquely through the trees, following a grass avenue at the end of which he had caught a glimpse of the roof of the chapel. A grey haze had blotted out the sun and the still air clung about him tepidly. At length the house-front raised before him its expanse of damp-silvered brick, and he was struck afresh by the high decorum of its calm lines and soberly massed surfaces. It made him feel, in the turbid coil of his fears and passions, like a muddy tramp forcing his way into some pure sequestered shrine . . .

By and bye, he knew, he should have to think the complex horror out, slowly, systematically, bit by bit; but for the moment it was whirling him about so fast that he could just clutch at its sharp spikes and be tossed off again. Only one definite immediate fact stuck in his quivering grasp. He must give the girl every chance — must hold himself passive till she had taken them . . .

In the court Effie ran up to him with her leaping terrier.

“I was coming out to meet you — you and Owen. Miss Viner was coming, too, and then she couldn’t because she’s got such a headache. I’m afraid I gave it to her because I did my division so disgracefully. It’s too bad, isn’t it? But won’t you walk back with me? Nurse won’t mind the least bit; she’d so much rather go in to tea.”

Darrow excused himself laughingly, on the plea that he had letters to write, which was much worse than having a headache, and not infrequently resulted in one.

“Oh, then you can go and write them in Owen’s study. That’s where gentlemen always write their letters.”

She flew on with her dog and Darrow pursued his way to the house. Effie’s suggestion struck him as useful. He had pictured himself as vaguely drifting about the drawing-rooms, and had perceived the difficulty of Miss Viner’s having to seek him there; but the study, a small room on the right of the hall, was in easy sight from the staircase, and so situated that there would be nothing marked in his being found there in talk with her.

He went in, leaving the door open, and sat down at the writing-table. The room was a friendly heterogeneous place, the one repository, in the well-ordered and amply-servanted house, of all its unclassified odds and ends: Effie’s croquet-box and fishing rods, Owen’s guns and golf-sticks and racquets, his step-mother’s flower-baskets and gardening implements, even Madame de Chantelle’s embroidery frame, and the back numbers of the Catholic Weekly. The early twilight had begun to fall, and presently a slanting ray across the desk showed Darrow that a servant was coming across the hall with a lamp. He pulled out a sheet of note-paper and began to write at random, while the man, entering, put the lamp at his elbow and vaguely “straightened” the heap of newspapers tossed on the divan. Then his steps died away and Darrow sat leaning his head on his locked hands.

Presently another step sounded on the stairs, wavered a moment and then moved past the threshold of the study. Darrow got up and walked into the hall, which was still unlighted. In the dimness he saw Sophy Viner standing by the hall door in her hat and jacket. She stopped at sight of him, her hand on the door-bolt, and they stood for a second without speaking.

“Have you seen Effie?” she suddenly asked. “She went out to meet you.”

“She DID meet me, just now, in the court. She’s gone on to join her brother.”

Darrow spoke as naturally as he could, but his voice sounded to his own ears like an amateur actor’s in a “light” part.

Miss Viner, without answering, drew back the bolt. He watched her in silence as the door swung open; then he said: “She has her nurse with her. She won’t be long.”

She stood irresolute, and he added: “I was writing in there — won’t you come and have a little talk? Every one’s out.”

The last words struck him as not well-chosen, but there was no time to choose. She paused a second longer and then crossed the threshold of the study. At luncheon she had sat with her back to the window, and beyond noting that she had grown a little thinner, and had less colour and vivacity, he had seen no change in her; but now, as the lamplight fell on her face, its whiteness startled him.

“Poor thing . . . poor thing . . . what in heaven’s name can she suppose?” he wondered.

“Do sit down — I want to talk to you,” he said and pushed a chair toward her.

She did not seem to see it, or, if she did, she deliberately chose another seat. He came back to his own chair and leaned his elbows on the blotter. She faced him from the farther side of the table.

“You promised to let me hear from you now and then,” he began awkwardly, and with a sharp sense of his awkwardness.

A faint smile made her face more tragic. “Did I? There was nothing to tell. I’ve had no history — like the happy countries . . . ”

He waited a moment before asking: “You ARE happy here?”

“I WAS,” she said with a faint emphasis.

“Why do you say ‘was’? You’re surely not thinking of going? There can’t be kinder people anywhere.” Darrow hardly knew what he was saying; but her answer came to him with deadly definiteness.

“I suppose it depends on you whether I go or stay.”

“On me?” He stared at her across Owen’s scattered papers. “Good God! What can you think of me, to say that?”

The mockery of the question flashed back at him from her wretched face. She stood up, wandered away, and leaned an instant in the darkening window-frame. From there she turned to fling back at him: “Don’t imagine I’m the least bit sorry for anything!”

He steadied his elbows on the table and hid his face in his hands. It was harder, oh, damnably harder, than he had expected! Arguments, expedients, palliations, evasions, all seemed to be slipping away from him: he was left face to face with the mere graceless fact of his inferiority. He lifted his head to ask at random: “You’ve been here, then, ever since?”

“Since June; yes. It turned out that the Farlows were hunting for me — all the while — for this.”

She stood facing him, her back to the window, evidently impatient to be gone, yet with something still to say, or that she expected to hear him say. The sense of her expectancy benumbed him. What in heaven’s name could he say to her that was not an offense or a mockery?

“Your idea of the theatre — you gave that up at once, then?”

“Oh, the theatre!” She gave a little laugh. “I couldn’t wait for the theatre. I had to take the first thing that offered; I took this.”

He pushed on haltingly: “I’m glad — extremely glad — you’re happy here . . . I’d counted on your letting me know if there was anything I could do . . . The theatre, now — if you still regret it — if you’re not contented here . . . I know people in that line in London — I’m certain I can manage it for you when I get back —— ”

She moved up to the table and leaned over it to ask, in a voice that was hardly above a whisper: “Then you DO want me to leave? Is that it?”

He dropped his arms with a groan. “Good heavens! How can you think such things? At the time, you know, I begged you to let me do what I could, but you wouldn’t hear of it . . . and ever since I’ve been wanting to be of use — to do something, anything, to help you . . . ”

She heard him through, motionless, without a quiver of the clasped hands she rested on the edge of the table.

“If you want to help me, then — you can help me to stay here,” she brought out with low-toned intensity.

Through the stillness of the pause which followed, the bray of a motor-horn sounded far down the drive. Instantly she turned, with a last white look at him, and fled from the room and up the stairs. He stood motionless, benumbed by the shock of her last words. She was afraid, then — afraid of him — sick with fear of him! The discovery beat him down to a lower depth . . .

The motor-horn sounded again, close at hand, and he turned and went up to his room. His letter-writing was a sufficient pretext for not immediately joining the party about the tea-table, and he wanted to be alone and try to put a little order into his tumultuous thinking.

Upstairs, the room held out the intimate welcome of its lamp and fire. Everything in it exhaled the same sense of peace and stability which, two evenings before, had lulled him to complacent meditation. His armchair again invited him from the hearth, but he was too agitated to sit still, and with sunk head and hands clasped behind his back he began to wander up and down the room.

His five minutes with Sophy Viner had flashed strange lights into the shadowy corners of his consciousness. The girl’s absolute candour, her hard ardent honesty, was for the moment the vividest point in his thoughts. He wondered anew, as he had wondered before, at the way in which the harsh discipline of life had stripped her of false sentiment without laying the least touch on her pride. When they had parted, five months before, she had quietly but decidedly rejected all his offers of help, even to the suggestion of his trying to further her theatrical aims: she had made it clear that she wished their brief alliance to leave no trace on their lives save that of its own smiling memory. But now that they were unexpectedly confronted in a situation which seemed, to her terrified fancy, to put her at his mercy, her first impulse was to defend her right to the place she had won, and to learn as quickly as possible if he meant to dispute it. While he had pictured her as shrinking away from him in a tremor of self-effacement she had watched his movements, made sure of her opportunity, and come straight down to “have it out” with him. He was so struck by the frankness and energy of the proceeding that for a moment he lost sight of the view of his own character implied in it.

“Poor thing . . . poor thing!” he could only go on saying; and with the repetition of the words the picture of himself as she must see him pitiably took shape again.

He understood then, for the first time, how vague, in comparison with hers, had been his own vision of the part he had played in the brief episode of their relation. The incident had left in him a sense of exasperation and self-contempt, but that, as he now perceived, was chiefly, if not altogether, as it bore on his preconceived ideal of his attitude toward another woman. He had fallen below his own standard of sentimental loyalty, and if he thought of Sophy Viner it was mainly as the chance instrument of his lapse. These considerations were not agreeable to his pride, but they were forced on him by the example of her valiant common-sense. If he had cut a sorry figure in the business, he owed it to her not to close his eyes to the fact any longer . . .

But when he opened them, what did he see? The situation, detestable at best, would yet have been relatively simple if protecting Sophy Viner had been the only duty involved in it. The fact that that duty was paramount did not do away with the contingent obligations. It was Darrow’s instinct, in difficult moments, to go straight to the bottom of the difficulty; but he had never before had to take so dark a dive as this, and for the minute he shivered on the brink . . . Well, his first duty, at any rate, was to the girl: he must let her see that he meant to fulfill it to the last jot, and then try to find out how to square the fulfillment with the other problems already in his path . . .

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