The Reef, by Edith Wharton

Book III

XVII

At dinner that evening Madame de Chantelle’s slender monologue was thrown out over gulfs of silence. Owen was still in the same state of moody abstraction as when Darrow had left him at the piano; and even Anna’s face, to her friend’s vigilant eye, revealed not, perhaps, a personal preoccupation, but a vague sense of impending disturbance.

She smiled, she bore a part in the talk, her eyes dwelt on Darrow’s with their usual deep reliance; but beneath the surface of her serenity his tense perceptions detected a hidden stir.

He was sufficiently self-possessed to tell himself that it was doubtless due to causes with which he was not directly concerned. He knew the question of Owen’s marriage was soon to be raised, and the abrupt alteration in the young man’s mood made it seem probable that he was himself the centre of the atmospheric disturbance, For a moment it occurred to Darrow that Anna might have employed her afternoon in preparing Madame de Chantelle for her grandson’s impending announcement; but a glance at the elder lady’s unclouded brow showed that he must seek elsewhere the clue to Owen’s taciturnity and his step-mother’s concern. Possibly Anna had found reason to change her own attitude in the matter, and had made the change known to Owen. But this, again, was negatived by the fact that, during the afternoon’s shooting, young Leath had been in a mood of almost extravagant expansiveness, and that, from the moment of his late return to the house till just before dinner, there had been, to Darrow’s certain knowledge, no possibility of a private talk between himself and his step-mother.

This obscured, if it narrowed, the field of conjecture; and Darrow’s gropings threw him back on the conclusion that he was probably reading too much significance into the moods of a lad he hardly knew, and who had been described to him as subject to sudden changes of humour. As to Anna’s fancied perturbation, it might simply be due to the fact that she had decided to plead Owen’s cause the next day, and had perhaps already had a glimpse of the difficulties awaiting her. But Darrow knew that he was too deep in his own perplexities to judge the mental state of those about him. It might be, after all, that the variations he felt in the currents of communication were caused by his own inward tremor.

Such, at any rate, was the conclusion he had reached when, shortly after the two ladies left the drawing-room, he bade Owen good-night and went up to his room. Ever since the rapid self-colloquy which had followed on his first sight of Sophy Viner, he had known there were other questions to be faced behind the one immediately confronting him. On the score of that one, at least, his mind, if not easy, was relieved. He had done what was possible to reassure the girl, and she had apparently recognized the sincerity of his intention. He had patched up as decent a conclusion as he could to an incident that should obviously have had no sequel; but he had known all along that with the securing of Miss Viner’s peace of mind only a part of his obligation was discharged, and that with that part his remaining duty was in conflict. It had been his first business to convince the girl that their secret was safe with him; but it was far from easy to square this with the equally urgent obligation of safe-guarding Anna’s responsibility toward her child. Darrow was not much afraid of accidental disclosures. Both he and Sophy Viner had too much at stake not to be on their guard. The fear that beset him was of another kind, and had a profounder source. He wanted to do all he could for the girl, but the fact of having had to urge Anna to confide Effie to her was peculiarly repugnant to him. His own ideas about Sophy Viner were too mixed and indeterminate for him not to feel the risk of such an experiment; yet he found himself in the intolerable position of appearing to press it on the woman he desired above all others to protect . . .

Till late in the night his thoughts revolved in a turmoil of indecision. His pride was humbled by the discrepancy between what Sophy Viner had been to him and what he had thought of her. This discrepancy, which at the time had seemed to simplify the incident, now turned out to be its most galling complication. The bare truth, indeed, was that he had hardly thought of her at all, either at the time or since, and that he was ashamed to base his judgement of her on his meagre memory of their adventure.

The essential cheapness of the whole affair — as far as his share in it was concerned — came home to him with humiliating distinctness. He would have liked to be able to feel that, at the time at least, he had staked something more on it, and had somehow, in the sequel, had a more palpable loss to show. But the plain fact was that he hadn’t spent a penny on it; which was no doubt the reason of the prodigious score it had since been rolling up. At any rate, beat about the case as he would, it was clear that he owed it to Anna — and incidentally to his own peace of mind — to find some way of securing Sophy Viner’s future without leaving her installed at Givre when he and his wife should depart for their new post.

The night brought no aid to the solving of this problem; but it gave him, at any rate, the clear conviction that no time was to be lost. His first step must be to obtain from Miss Viner the chance of another and calmer talk; and he resolved to seek it at the earliest hour.

He had gathered that Effie’s lessons were preceded by an early scamper in the park, and conjecturing that her governess might be with her he betook himself the next morning to the terrace, whence he wandered on to the gardens and the walks beyond.

The atmosphere was still and pale. The muffled sunlight gleamed like gold tissue through grey gauze, and the beech alleys tapered away to a blue haze blent of sky and forest. It was one of those elusive days when the familiar forms of things seem about to dissolve in a prismatic shimmer.

The stillness was presently broken by joyful barks, and Darrow, tracking the sound, overtook Effie flying down one of the long alleys at the head of her pack. Beyond her he saw Miss Viner seated near the stone-rimmed basin beside which he and Anna had paused on their first walk to the river.

The girl, coming forward at his approach, returned his greeting almost gaily. His first glance showed him that she had regained her composure, and the change in her appearance gave him the measure of her fears. For the first time he saw in her again the sidelong grace that had charmed his eyes in Paris; but he saw it now as in a painted picture.

“Shall we sit down a minute?” he asked, as Effie trotted off.

The girl looked away from him. “I’m afraid there’s not much time; we must be back at lessons at half-past nine.”

“But it’s barely ten minutes past. Let’s at least walk a little way toward the river.”

She glanced down the long walk ahead of them and then back in the direction of the house. “If you like,” she said in a low voice, with one of her quick fluctuations of colour; but instead of taking the way he proposed she turned toward a narrow path which branched off obliquely through the trees.

Darrow was struck, and vaguely troubled, by the change in her look and tone. There was in them an undefinable appeal, whether for help or forbearance he could not tell. Then it occurred to him that there might have been something misleading in his so pointedly seeking her, and he felt a momentary constraint. To ease it he made an abrupt dash at the truth.

“I came out to look for you because our talk of yesterday was so unsatisfactory. I want to hear more about you — about your plans and prospects. I’ve been wondering ever since why you’ve so completely given up the theatre.”

Her face instantly sharpened to distrust. “I had to live,” she said in an off-hand tone.

“I understand perfectly that you should like it here — for a time.” His glance strayed down the gold-roofed windings ahead of them. “It’s delightful: you couldn’t be better placed. Only I wonder a little at your having so completely given up any idea of a different future.”

She waited for a moment before answering: “I suppose I’m less restless than I used to be.”

“It’s certainly natural that you should be less restless here than at Mrs. Murrett’s; yet somehow I don’t seem to see you permanently given up to forming the young.”

“What — exactly — DO you seem to see me permanently given up to? You know you warned me rather emphatically against the theatre.” She threw off the statement without impatience, as though they were discussing together the fate of a third person in whom both were benevolently interested. Darrow considered his reply. “If I did, it was because you so emphatically refused to let me help you to a start.”

She stopped short and faced him “And you think I may let you now?”

Darrow felt the blood in his cheek. He could not understand her attitude — if indeed she had consciously taken one, and her changes of tone did not merely reflect the involuntary alternations of her mood. It humbled him to perceive once more how little he had to guide him in his judgment of her. He said to himself: “If I’d ever cared a straw for her I should know how to avoid hurting her now” — and his insensibility struck him as no better than a vulgar obtuseness. But he had a fixed purpose ahead and could only push on to it.

“I hope, at any rate, you’ll listen to my reasons. There’s been time, on both sides, to think them over since —— ” He caught himself back and hung helpless on the “since”: whatever words he chose, he seemed to stumble among reminders of their past.

She walked on beside him, her eyes on the ground. “Then I’m to understand — definitely — that you DO renew your offer?” she asked

“With all my heart! If you’ll only let me —— ”

She raised a hand, as though to check him. “It’s extremely friendly of you — I DO believe you mean it as a friend — but I don’t quite understand why, finding me, as you say, so well placed here, you should show more anxiety about my future than at a time when I was actually, and rather desperately, adrift.”

“Oh, no, not more!”

“If you show any at all, it must, at any rate, be for different reasons. — In fact, it can only be,” she went on, with one of her disconcerting flashes of astuteness, “for one of two reasons; either because you feel you ought to help me, or because, for some reason, you think you owe it to Mrs. Leath to let her know what you know of me.”

Darrow stood still in the path. Behind him he heard Effie’s call, and at the child’s voice he saw Sophy turn her head with the alertness of one who is obscurely on the watch. The look was so fugitive that he could not have said wherein it differed from her normal professional air of having her pupil on her mind.

Effie sprang past them, and Darrow took up the girl’s challenge.

“What you suggest about Mrs. Leath is hardly worth answering. As to my reasons for wanting to help you, a good deal depends on the words one uses to define rather indefinite things. It’s true enough that I want to help you; but the wish isn’t due to . . . to any past kindness on your part, but simply to my own interest in you. Why not put it that our friendship gives me the right to intervene for what I believe to be your benefit?”

She took a few hesitating steps and then paused again. Darrow noticed that she had grown pale and that there were rings of shade about her eyes.

“You’ve known Mrs. Leath a long time?” she asked him suddenly.

He paused with a sense of approaching peril. “A long time — yes.”

“She told me you were friends — great friends”

“Yes,” he admitted, “we’re great friends.”

“Then you might naturally feel yourself justified in telling her that you don’t think I’m the right person for Effie.” He uttered a sound of protest, but she disregarded it. “I don’t say you’d LIKE to do it. You wouldn’t: you’d hate it. And the natural alternative would be to try to persuade me that I’d be better off somewhere else than here. But supposing that failed, and you saw I was determined to stay? THEN you might think it your duty to tell Mrs. Leath.”

She laid the case before him with a cold lucidity. “I should, in your place, I believe,” she ended with a little laugh.

“I shouldn’t feel justified in telling her, behind your back, if I thought you unsuited for the place; but I should certainly feel justified,” he rejoined after a pause, “in telling YOU if I thought the place unsuited to you.”

“And that’s what you’re trying to tell me now?”

“Yes; but not for the reasons you imagine.”

“What, then, are your reasons, if you please?”

“I’ve already implied them in advising you not to give up all idea of the theatre. You’re too various, too gifted, too personal, to tie yourself down, at your age, to the dismal drudgery of teaching.”

“And is THAT what you’ve told Mrs. Leath?”

She rushed the question out at him as if she expected to trip him up over it. He was moved by the simplicity of the stratagem.

“I’ve told her exactly nothing,” he replied.

“And what — exactly — do you mean by ‘nothing’? You and she were talking about me when I came into her sitting-room yesterday.”

Darrow felt his blood rise at the thrust.

“I’ve told her, simply, that I’d seen you once or twice at Mrs. Murrett’s.”

“And not that you’ve ever seen me since?”

“And not that I’ve ever seen you since . . . ”

“And she believes you — she completely believes you?”

He uttered a protesting exclamation, and his flush reflected itself in the girl’s cheek.

“Oh, I beg your pardon! I didn’t mean to ask you that.” She halted, and again cast a rapid glance behind and ahead of her. Then she held out her hand. “Well, then, thank you — and let me relieve your fears. I sha’n’t be Effie’s governess much longer.”

At the announcement, Darrow tried to merge his look of relief into the expression of friendly interest with which he grasped her hand. “You really do agree with me, then? And you’ll give me a chance to talk things over with you?”

She shook her head with a faint smile. “I’m not thinking of the stage. I’ve had another offer: that’s all.”

The relief was hardly less great. After all, his personal responsibility ceased with her departure from Givre.

“You’ll tell me about that, then — won’t you?”

Her smile flickered up. “Oh, you’ll hear about it soon . . . I must catch Effie now and drag her back to the blackboard.”

She walked on for a few yards, and then paused again and confronted him. “I’ve been odious to you — and not quite honest,” she broke out suddenly.

“Not quite honest?” he repeated, caught in a fresh wave of wonder.

“I mean, in seeming not to trust you. It’s come over me again as we talked that, at heart, I’ve always KNOWN I could . . . ”

Her colour rose in a bright wave, and her eyes clung to his for a swift instant of reminder and appeal. For the same space of time the past surged up in him confusedly; then a veil dropped between them.

“Here’s Effie now!” she exclaimed.

He turned and saw the little girl trotting back to them, her hand in Owen Leath’s. Even through the stir of his subsiding excitement Darrow was at once aware of the change effected by the young man’s approach. For a moment Sophy Viner’s cheeks burned redder; then they faded to the paleness of white petals. She lost, however, nothing of the bright bravery which it was her way to turn on the unexpected. Perhaps no one less familiar with her face than Darrow would have discerned the tension of the smile she transferred from himself to Owen Leath, or have remarked that her eyes had hardened from misty grey to a shining darkness. But her observer was less struck by this than by the corresponding change in Owen Leath. The latter, when he came in sight, had been laughing and talking unconcernedly with Effie; but as his eye fell on Miss Viner his expression altered as suddenly as hers.

The change, for Darrow, was less definable; but, perhaps for that reason, it struck him as more sharply significant. Only — just what did it signify? Owen, like Sophy Viner, had the kind of face which seems less the stage on which emotions move than the very stuff they work in. In moments of excitement his odd irregular features seemed to grow fluid, to unmake and remake themselves like the shadows of clouds on a stream. Darrow, through the rapid flight of the shadows, could not seize on any specific indication of feeling: he merely perceived that the young man was unaccountably surprised at finding him with Miss Viner, and that the extent of his surprise might cover all manner of implications.

Darrow’s first idea was that Owen, if he suspected that the conversation was not the result of an accidental encounter, might wonder at his step-mother’s suitor being engaged, at such an hour, in private talk with her little girl’s governess. The thought was so disturbing that, as the three turned back to the house, he was on the point of saying to Owen: “I came out to look for your mother.” But, in the contingency he feared, even so simple a phrase might seem like an awkward attempt at explanation; and he walked on in silence at Miss Viner’s side. Presently he was struck by the fact that Owen Leath and the girl were silent also; and this gave a new turn to his thoughts. Silence may be as variously shaded as speech; and that which enfolded Darrow and his two companions seemed to his watchful perceptions to be quivering with cross-threads of communication. At first he was aware only of those that centred in his own troubled consciousness; then it occurred to him that an equal activity of intercourse was going on outside of it. Something was in fact passing mutely and rapidly between young Leath and Sophy Viner; but what it was, and whither it tended, Darrow, when they reached the house, was but just beginning to divine . . .

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