The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XVI

In the oak room he found Mrs. Leath, her mother-in-law and Effie. The group, as he came toward it down the long drawing-rooms, composed itself prettily about the tea-table. The lamps and the fire crossed their gleams on silver and porcelain, on the bright haze of Effie’s hair and on the whiteness of Anna’s forehead, as she leaned back in her chair behind the tea-urn.

She did not move at Darrow’s approach, but lifted to him a deep gaze of peace and confidence. The look seemed to throw about him the spell of a divine security: he felt the joy of a convalescent suddenly waking to find the sunlight on his face.

Madame de Chantelle, across her knitting, discoursed of their afternoon’s excursion, with occasional pauses induced by the hypnotic effect of the fresh air; and Effie, kneeling, on the hearth, softly but insistently sought to implant in her terrier’s mind some notion of the relation between a vertical attitude and sugar.

Darrow took a chair behind the little girl, so that he might look across at her mother. It was almost a necessity for him, at the moment, to let his eyes rest on Anna’s face, and to meet, now and then, the proud shyness of her gaze.

Madame de Chantelle presently enquired what had become of Owen, and a moment later the window behind her opened, and her grandson, gun in hand, came in from the terrace. As he stood there in the lamp-light, with dead leaves and bits of bramble clinging to his mud-spattered clothes, the scent of the night about him and its chill on his pale bright face, he really had the look of a young faun strayed in from the forest.

Effie abandoned the terrier to fly to him. “Oh, Owen, where in the world have you been? I walked miles and miles with Nurse and couldn’t find you, and we met Jean and he said he didn’t know where you’d gone.”

“Nobody knows where I go, or what I see when I get there — that’s the beauty of it!” he laughed back at her. “But if you’re good,” he added, “I’ll tell you about it one of these days.”

“Oh, now, Owen, now! I don’t really believe I’ll ever be much better than I am now.”

“Let Owen have his tea first,” her mother suggested; but the young man, declining the offer, propped his gun against the wall, and, lighting a cigarette, began to pace up and down the room in a way that reminded Darrow of his own caged wanderings. Effie pursued him with her blandishments, and for a while he poured out to her a low-voiced stream of nonsense; then he sat down beside his step-mother and leaned over to help himself to tea.

“Where’s Miss Viner?” he asked, as Effie climbed up on him. “Why isn’t she here to chain up this ungovernable infant?”

“Poor Miss Viner has a headache. Effie says she went to her room as soon as lessons were over, and sent word that she wouldn’t be down for tea.”

“Ah,” said Owen, abruptly setting down his cup. He stood up, lit another cigarette, and wandered away to the piano in the room beyond.

From the twilight where he sat a lonely music, borne on fantastic chords, floated to the group about the tea-table. Under its influence Madame de Chantelle’s meditative pauses increased in length and frequency, and Effie stretched herself on the hearth, her drowsy head against the dog. Presently her nurse appeared, and Anna rose at the same time. “Stop a minute in my sitting-room on your way up,” she paused to say to Darrow as she went.

A few hours earlier, her request would have brought him instantly to his feet. She had given him, on the day of his arrival, an inviting glimpse of the spacious book-lined room above stairs in which she had gathered together all the tokens of her personal tastes: the retreat in which, as one might fancy, Anna Leath had hidden the restless ghost of Anna Summers; and the thought of a talk with her there had been in his mind ever since. But now he sat motionless, as if spell-bound by the play of Madame de Chantelle’s needles and the pulsations of Owen’s fitful music.

“She will want to ask me about the girl,” he repeated to himself, with a fresh sense of the insidious taint that embittered all his thoughts; the hand of the slender-columned clock on the mantel-piece had spanned a half-hour before shame at his own indecision finally drew him to his feet.

From her writing-table, where she sat over a pile of letters, Anna lifted her happy smile. The impulse to press his lips to it made him come close and draw her upward. She threw her head back, as if surprised at the abruptness of the gesture; then her face leaned to his with the slow droop of a flower. He felt again the sweep of the secret tides, and all his fears went down in them.

She sat down in the sofa-corner by the fire and he drew an armchair close to her. His gaze roamed peacefully about the quiet room.

“It’s just like you — it is you,” he said, as his eyes came back to her.

“It’s a good place to be alone in — I don’t think I’ve ever before cared to talk with any one here.”

“Let’s be quiet, then: it’s the best way of talking.”

“Yes; but we must save it up till later. There are things I want to say to you now.”

He leaned back in his chair. “Say them, then, and I’ll listen.”

“Oh, no. I want you to tell me about Miss Viner.”

“About Miss Viner?” He summoned up a look of faint interrogation.

He thought she seemed surprised at his surprise. “It’s important, naturally,” she explained, “that I should find out all I can about her before I leave.”

“Important on Effie’s account?”

“On Effie’s account — of course.”

“Of course . . . But you’ve every reason to be satisfied, haven’t you?”

“Every apparent reason. We all like her. Effie’s very fond of her, and she seems to have a delightful influence on the child. But we know so little, after all — about her antecedents, I mean, and her past history. That’s why I want you to try and recall everything you heard about her when you used to see her in London.”

“Oh, on that score I’m afraid I sha’n’t be of much use. As I told you, she was a mere shadow in the background of the house I saw her in — and that was four or five years ago . . . ”

“When she was with a Mrs. Murrett?”

“Yes; an appalling woman who runs a roaring dinner-factory that used now and then to catch me in its wheels. I escaped from them long ago; but in my time there used to be half a dozen fagged ‘hands’ to tend the machine, and Miss Viner was one of them. I’m glad she’s out of it, poor girl!” “Then you never really saw anything of her there?”

“I never had the chance. Mrs. Murrett discouraged any competition on the part of her subordinates.”

“Especially such pretty ones, I suppose?” Darrow made no comment, and she continued: “And Mrs. Murrett’s own opinion — if she’d offered you one — probably wouldn’t have been of much value?”

“Only in so far as her disapproval would, on general principles, have been a good mark for Miss Viner. But surely,” he went on after a pause, “you could have found out about her from the people through whom you first heard of her?”

Anna smiled. “Oh, we heard of her through Adelaide Painter —;” and in reply to his glance of interrogation she explained that the lady in question was a spinster of South Braintree, Massachusetts, who, having come to Paris some thirty years earlier, to nurse a brother through an illness, had ever since protestingly and provisionally camped there in a state of contemptuous protestation oddly manifested by her never taking the slip-covers off her drawing-room chairs. Her long residence on Gallic soil had not mitigated her hostility toward the creed and customs of the race, but though she always referred to the Catholic Church as the Scarlet Woman and took the darkest views of French private life, Madame de Chantelle placed great reliance on her judgment and experience, and in every domestic crisis the irreducible Adelaide was immediately summoned to Givre.

“It’s all the odder because my mother-in-law, since her second marriage, has lived so much in the country that she’s practically lost sight of all her other American friends. Besides which, you can see how completely she has identified herself with Monsieur de Chantelle’s nationality and adopted French habits and prejudices. Yet when anything goes wrong she always sends for Adelaide Painter, who’s more American than the Stars and Stripes, and might have left South Braintree yesterday, if she hadn’t, rather, brought it over with her in her trunk.”

Darrow laughed. “Well, then, if South Braintree vouches for Miss Viner —— ”

“Oh, but only indirectly. When we had that odious adventure with Mademoiselle Grumeau, who’d been so highly recommended by Monsieur de Chantelle’s aunt, the Chanoinesse, Adelaide was of course sent for, and she said at once: ‘I’m not the least bit surprised. I’ve always told you that what you wanted for Effie was a sweet American girl, and not one of these nasty foreigners.’ Unluckily she couldn’t, at the moment, put her hand on a sweet American; but she presently heard of Miss Viner through the Farlows, an excellent couple who live in the Quartier Latin and write about French life for the American papers. I was only too thankful to find anyone who was vouched for by decent people; and so far I’ve had no cause to regret my choice. But I know, after all, very little about Miss Viner; and there are all kinds of reasons why I want, as soon as possible, to find out more — to find out all I can.”

“Since you’ve got to leave Effie I understand your feeling in that way. But is there, in such a case, any recommendation worth half as much as your own direct experience?”

“No; and it’s been so favourable that I was ready to accept it as conclusive. Only, naturally, when I found you’d known her in London I was in hopes you’d give me some more specific reasons for liking her as much as I do.”

“I’m afraid I can give you nothing more specific than my general vague impression that she seems very plucky and extremely nice.”

“You don’t, at any rate, know anything specific to the contrary?”

“To the contrary? How should I? I’m not conscious of ever having heard any one say two words about her. I only infer that she must have pluck and character to have stuck it out so long at Mrs. Murrett’s.”

“Yes, poor thing! She has pluck, certainly; and pride, too; which must have made it all the harder.” Anna rose to her feet. “You don’t know how glad I am that your impression’s on the whole so good. I particularly wanted you to like her.”

He drew her to him with a smile. “On that condition I’m prepared to love even Adelaide Painter.”

“I almost hope you wont have the chance to — poor Adelaide! Her appearance here always coincides with a catastrophe.”

“Oh, then I must manage to meet her elsewhere.” He held Anna closer, saying to himself, as he smoothed back the hair from her forehead: “What does anything matter but just THIS? — Must I go now?” he added aloud.

She answered absently: “It must be time to dress”; then she drew back a little and laid her hands on his shoulders. “My love — oh, my dear love!” she said.

It came to him that they were the first words of endearment he had heard her speak, and their rareness gave them a magic quality of reassurance, as though no danger could strike through such a shield.

A knock on the door made them draw apart. Anna lifted her hand to her hair and Darrow stooped to examine a photograph of Effie on the writing-table.

“Come in!” Anna said.

The door opened and Sophy Viner entered. Seeing Darrow, she drew back.

“Do come in, Miss Viner,” Anna repeated, looking at her kindly.

The girl, a quick red in her cheeks, still hesitated on the threshold.

“I’m so sorry; but Effie has mislaid her Latin grammar, and I thought she might have left it here. I need it to prepare for tomorrow’s lesson.”

“Is this it?” Darrow asked, picking up a book from the table.

“Oh, thank you!”

He held it out to her and she took it and moved to the door.

“Wait a minute, please, Miss Viner,” Anna said; and as the girl turned back, she went on with her quiet smile: “Effie told us you’d gone to your room with a headache. You mustn’t sit up over tomorrow’s lessons if you don’t feel well.”

Sophy’s blush deepened. “But you see I have to. Latin’s one of my weak points, and there’s generally only one page of this book between me and Effie.” She threw the words off with a half-ironic smile. “Do excuse my disturbing you,” she added.

“You didn’t disturb me,” Anna answered. Darrow perceived that she was looking intently at the girl, as though struck by something tense and tremulous in her face, her voice, her whole mien and attitude. “You DO look tired. You’d much better go straight to bed. Effie won’t be sorry to skip her Latin.”

“Thank you — but I’m really all right,” murmured Sophy Viner. Her glance, making a swift circuit of the room, dwelt for an appreciable instant on the intimate propinquity of arm-chair and sofa-corner; then she turned back to the door.

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