The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XVIII

Anna Leath, from the terrace, watched the return of the little group.

She looked down on them, as they advanced across the garden, from the serene height of her unassailable happiness. There they were, coming toward her in the mild morning light, her child, her step-son, her promised husband: the three beings who filled her life. She smiled a little at the happy picture they presented, Effie’s gambols encircling it in a moving frame within which the two men came slowly forward in the silence of friendly understanding. It seemed part of the deep intimacy of the scene that they should not be talking to each other, and it did not till afterward strike her as odd that neither of them apparently felt it necessary to address a word to Sophy Viner.

Anna herself, at the moment, was floating in the mid-current of felicity, on a tide so bright and buoyant that she seemed to be one with its warm waves. The first rush of bliss had stunned and dazzled her; but now that, each morning, she woke to the calm certainty of its recurrence, she was growing used to the sense of security it gave.

“I feel as if I could trust my happiness to carry me; as if it had grown out of me like wings.” So she phrased it to Darrow, as, later in the morning, they paced the garden-paths together. His answering look gave her the same assurance of safety. The evening before he had seemed preoccupied, and the shadow of his mood had faintly encroached on the great golden orb of their blessedness; but now it was uneclipsed again, and hung above them high and bright as the sun at noon.

Upstairs in her sitting-room, that afternoon, she was thinking of these things. The morning mists had turned to rain, compelling the postponement of an excursion in which the whole party were to have joined. Effie, with her governess, had been despatched in the motor to do some shopping at Francheuil; and Anna had promised Darrow to join him, later in the afternoon, for a quick walk in the rain.

He had gone to his room after luncheon to get some belated letters off his conscience; and when he had left her she had continued to sit in the same place, her hands crossed on her knees, her head slightly bent, in an attitude of brooding retrospection. As she looked back at her past life, it seemed to her to have consisted of one ceaseless effort to pack into each hour enough to fill out its slack folds; but now each moment was like a miser’s bag stretched to bursting with pure gold.

She was roused by the sound of Owen’s step in the gallery outside her room. It paused at her door and in answer to his knock she called out “Come in!”

As the door closed behind him she was struck by his look of pale excitement, and an impulse of compunction made her say: “You’ve come to ask me why I haven’t spoken to your grandmother!” He sent about him a glance vaguely reminding her of the strange look with which Sophy Viner had swept the room the night before; then his brilliant eyes came back to her.

“I’ve spoken to her myself,” he said.

Anna started up, incredulous.

“You’ve spoken to her? When?”

“Just now. I left her to come here.”

Anna’s first feeling was one of annoyance. There was really something comically incongruous in this boyish surrender to impulse on the part of a young man so eager to assume the responsibilities of life. She looked at him with a faintly veiled amusement.

“You asked me to help you and I promised you I would. It was hardly worth while to work out such an elaborate plan of action if you intended to take the matter out of my hands without telling me.”

“Oh, don’t take that tone with me!” he broke out, almost angrily.

“That tone? What tone?” She stared at his quivering face. “I might,” she pursued, still half-laughing, “more properly make that request of YOU!”

Owen reddened and his vehemence suddenly subsided.

“I meant that I HAD to speak — that’s all. You don’t give me a chance to explain . . . ”

She looked at him gently, wondering a little at her own impatience.

“Owen! Don’t I always want to give you every chance? It’s because I DO that I wanted to talk to your grandmother first — that I was waiting and watching for the right moment . . . ”

“The right moment? So was I. That’s why I’ve spoken.” His voice rose again and took the sharp edge it had in moments of high pressure.

His step-mother turned away and seated herself in her sofa-corner. “Oh, my dear, it’s not a privilege to quarrel over! You’ve taken a load off my shoulders. Sit down and tell me all about it.”

He stood before her, irresolute. “I can’t sit down,” he said.

“Walk about, then. Only tell me: I’m impatient.”

His immediate response was to throw himself into the armchair at her side, where he lounged for a moment without speaking, his legs stretched out, his arms locked behind his thrown-back head. Anna, her eyes on his face, waited quietly for him to speak.

“Well — of course it was just what one expected.”

“She takes it so badly, you mean?”

“All the heavy batteries were brought up: my father, Givre, Monsieur de Chantelle, the throne and the altar. Even my poor mother was dragged out of oblivion and armed with imaginary protests.”

Anna sighed out her sympathy. “Well — you were prepared for all that?”

“I thought I was, till I began to hear her say it. Then it sounded so incredibly silly that I told her so.”

“Oh, Owen — Owen!”

“Yes: I know. I was a fool; but I couldn’t help it.”

“And you’ve mortally offended her, I suppose? That’s exactly what I wanted to prevent.” She laid a hand on his shoulder. “You tiresome boy, not to wait and let me speak for you!”

He moved slightly away, so that her hand slipped from its place. “You don’t understand,” he said, frowning.

“I don’t see how I can, till you explain. If you thought the time had come to tell your grandmother, why not have asked me to do it? I had my reasons for waiting; but if you’d told me to speak I should have done so, naturally.”

He evaded her appeal by a sudden turn. “What WERE your reasons for waiting?”

Anna did not immediately answer. Her step-son’s eyes were on her face, and under his gaze she felt a faint disquietude.

“I was feeling my way . . . I wanted to be absolutely sure . . . ”

“Absolutely sure of what?”

She delayed again for a just perceptible instant. “Why, simply of OUR side of the case.”

“But you told me you were, the other day, when we talked it over before they came back from Ouchy.”

“Oh, my dear — if you think that, in such a complicated matter, every day, every hour, doesn’t more or less modify one’s surest sureness!”

“That’s just what I’m driving at. I want to know what has modified yours.”

She made a slight gesture of impatience. “What does it matter, now the thing’s done? I don’t know that I could give any clear reason . . . ”

He got to his feet and stood looking down on her with a tormented brow. “But it’s absolutely necessary that you should.”

At his tone her impatience flared up. “It’s not necessary that I should give you any explanation whatever, since you’ve taken the matter out of my hands. All I can say is that I was trying to help you: that no other thought ever entered my mind.” She paused a moment and then added: “If you doubted it, you were right to do what you’ve done.”

“Oh, I never doubted YOU!” he retorted, with a fugitive stress on the pronoun. His face had cleared to its old look of trust. “Don’t be offended if I’ve seemed to,” he went on. “I can’t quite explain myself, either . . . it’s all a kind of tangle, isn’t it? That’s why I thought I’d better speak at once; or rather why I didn’t think at all, but just suddenly blurted the thing out —— ”

Anna gave him back his look of conciliation. “Well, the how and why don’t much matter now. The point is how to deal with your grandmother. You’ve not told me what she means to do.”

“Oh, she means to send for Adelaide Painter.”

The name drew a faint note of mirth from him and relaxed both their faces to a smile.

“Perhaps,” Anna added, “it’s really the best thing for us all.”

Owen shrugged his shoulders. “It’s too preposterous and humiliating. Dragging that woman into our secrets ——!”

“This could hardly be a secret much longer.”

He had moved to the hearth, where he stood pushing about the small ornaments on the mantel-shelf; but at her answer he turned back to her.

“You haven’t, of course, spoken of it to any one?”

“No; but I intend to now.”

She paused for his reply, and as it did not come she continued: “If Adelaide Painter’s to be told there’s no possible reason why I shouldn’t tell Mr. Darrow.” Owen abruptly set down the little statuette between his fingers. “None whatever: I want every one to know.”

She smiled a little at his over-emphasis, and was about to meet it with a word of banter when he continued, facing her: “You haven’t, as yet, said a word to him?”

“I’ve told him nothing, except what the discussion of our own plans — his and mine — obliged me to: that you were thinking of marrying, and that I wasn’t willing to leave France till I’d done what I could to see you through.”

At her first words the colour had rushed to his forehead; but as she continued she saw his face compose itself and his blood subside.

“You’re a brick, my dear!” he exclaimed.

“You had my word, you know.”

“Yes; yes — I know.” His face had clouded again. “And that’s all — positively all — you’ve ever said to him?”

“Positively all. But why do you ask?”

He had a moment’s embarrassed hesitation. “It was understood, wasn’t it, that my grandmother was to be the first to know?”

“Well — and so she has been, hasn’t she, since you’ve told her?”

He turned back to his restless shifting of the knick-knacks.

“And you’re sure that nothing you’ve said to Darrow could possibly have given him a hint ——?”

“Nothing I’ve said to him — certainly.”

He swung about on her. “Why do you put it in that way?”

“In what way?”

“Why — as if you thought some one else might have spoken . . . ”

“Some one else? Who else?” She rose to her feet. “What on earth, my dear boy, can you be driving at?”

“I’m trying to find out whether you think he knows anything definite.”

“Why should I think so? Do YOU?”

“I don’t know. I want to find out.”

She laughed at his obstinate insistence. “To test my veracity, I suppose?” At the sound of a step in the gallery she added: “Here he is — you can ask him yourself.”

She met Darrow’s knock with an invitation to enter, and he came into the room and paused between herself and Owen. She was struck, as he stood there, by the contrast between his happy careless good-looks and her step-son’s frowning agitation.

Darrow met her eyes with a smile. “Am I too soon? Or is our walk given up?”

“No; I was just going to get ready.” She continued to linger between the two, looking slowly from one to the other. “But there’s something we want to tell you first: Owen is engaged to Miss Viner.”

The sense of an indefinable interrogation in Owen’s mind made her, as she spoke, fix her eyes steadily on Darrow.

He had paused just opposite the window, so that, even in the rainy afternoon light, his face was clearly open to her scrutiny. For a second, immense surprise was alone visible on it: so visible that she half turned to her step-son, with a faint smile for his refuted suspicions. Why, she wondered, should Owen have thought that Darrow had already guessed his secret, and what, after all, could be so disturbing to him in this not improbable contingency? At any rate, his doubt must have been dispelled: there was nothing feigned about Darrow’s astonishment. When her eyes turned back to him he was already crossing to Owen with outstretched hand, and she had, through an unaccountable faint flutter of misgiving, a mere confused sense of their exchanging the customary phrases. Her next perception was of Owen’s tranquillized look, and of his smiling return of Darrow’s congratulatory grasp. She had the eerie feeling of having been overswept by a shadow which there had been no cloud to cast . . .

A moment later Owen had left the room and she and Darrow were alone. He had turned away to the window and stood staring out into the down-pour.

“You’re surprised at Owen’s news?” she asked.

“Yes: I am surprised,” he answered.

“You hadn’t thought of its being Miss Viner?”

“Why should I have thought of Miss Viner?”

“You see now why I wanted so much to find out what you knew about her.” He made no comment, and she pursued: “Now that you DO know it’s she, if there’s anything —— ”

He moved back into the room and went up to her. His face was serious, with a slight shade of annoyance. “What on earth should there be? As I told you, I’ve never in my life heard any one say two words about Miss Viner.”

Anna made no answer and they continued to face each other without moving. For the moment she had ceased to think about Sophy Viner and Owen: the only thought in her mind was that Darrow was alone with her, close to her, and that, for the first time, their hands and lips had not met.

He glanced back doubtfully at the window. “It’s pouring. Perhaps you’d rather not go out?”

She hesitated, as if waiting for him to urge her. “I suppose I’d better not. I ought to go at once to my mother-in-law — Owen’s just been telling her,” she said.

“Ah.” Darrow hazarded a smile. “That accounts for my having, on my way up, heard some one telephoning for Miss Painter!”

At the allusion they laughed together, vaguely, and Anna moved toward the door. He held it open for her and followed her out.

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