The Reef, by Edith Wharton

II

“Don’t you remember me now — at Mrs. Murrett’s?” She threw the question at Darrow across a table of the quiet coffee-room to which, after a vainly prolonged quest for her trunk, he had suggested taking her for a cup of tea.

In this musty retreat she had removed her dripping hat, hung it on the fender to dry, and stretched herself on tiptoe in front of the round eagle-crowned mirror, above the mantel vases of dyed immortelles, while she ran her fingers comb-wise through her hair. The gesture had acted on Darrow’s numb feelings as the glow of the fire acted on his circulation; and when he had asked: “Aren’t your feet wet, too?” and, after frank inspection of a stout-shod sole, she had answered cheerfully: “No — luckily I had on my new boots,” he began to feel that human intercourse would still be tolerable if it were always as free from formality.

The removal of his companion’s hat, besides provoking this reflection, gave him his first full sight of her face; and this was so favourable that the name she now pronounced fell on him with a quite disproportionate shock of dismay.

“Oh, Mrs. Murrett’s — was it THERE?”

He remembered her now, of course: remembered her as one of the shadowy sidling presences in the background of that awful house in Chelsea, one of the dumb appendages of the shrieking unescapable Mrs. Murrett, into whose talons he had fallen in the course of his head-long pursuit of Lady Ulrica Crispin. Oh, the taste of stale follies! How insipid it was, yet how it clung!

“I used to pass you on the stairs,” she reminded him.

Yes: he had seen her slip by — he recalled it now — as he dashed up to the drawing-room in quest of Lady Ulrica. The thought made him steal a longer look. How could such a face have been merged in the Murrett mob? Its fugitive slanting lines, that lent themselves to all manner of tender tilts and foreshortenings, had the freakish grace of some young head of the Italian comedy. The hair stood up from her forehead in a boyish elf-lock, and its colour matched her auburn eyes flecked with black, and the little brown spot on her cheek, between the ear that was meant to have a rose behind it and the chin that should have rested on a ruff. When she smiled, the left corner of her mouth went up a little higher than the right; and her smile began in her eyes and ran down to her lips in two lines of light. He had dashed past that to reach Lady Ulrica Crispin!

“But of course you wouldn’t remember me,” she was saying. “My name is Viner — Sophy Viner.”

Not remember her? But of course he DID! He was genuinely sure of it now. “You’re Mrs. Murrett’s niece,” he declared.

She shook her head. “No; not even that. Only her reader.”

“Her reader? Do you mean to say she ever reads?”

Miss Viner enjoyed his wonder. “Dear, no! But I wrote notes, and made up the visiting-book, and walked the dogs, and saw bores for her.”

Darrow groaned. “That must have been rather bad!”

“Yes; but nothing like as bad as being her niece.”

“That I can well believe. I’m glad to hear,” he added, “that you put it all in the past tense.”

She seemed to droop a little at the allusion; then she lifted her chin with a jerk of defiance. “Yes. All is at an end between us. We’ve just parted in tears — but not in silence!”

“Just parted? Do you mean to say you’ve been there all this time?”

“Ever since you used to come there to see Lady Ulrica? Does it seem to you so awfully long ago?”

The unexpectedness of the thrust — as well as its doubtful taste — chilled his growing enjoyment of her chatter. He had really been getting to like her — had recovered, under the candid approval of her eye, his usual sense of being a personable young man, with all the privileges pertaining to the state, instead of the anonymous rag of humanity he had felt himself in the crowd on the pier. It annoyed him, at that particular moment, to be reminded that naturalness is not always consonant with taste.

She seemed to guess his thought. “You don’t like my saying that you came for Lady Ulrica?” she asked, leaning over the table to pour herself a second cup of tea.

He liked her quickness, at any rate. “It’s better,” he laughed, “than your thinking I came for Mrs. Murrett!”

“Oh, we never thought anybody came for Mrs. Murrett! It was always for something else: the music, or the cook — when there was a good one — or the other people; generally ONE of the other people.”

“I see.”

She was amusing, and that, in his present mood, was more to his purpose than the exact shade of her taste. It was odd, too, to discover suddenly that the blurred tapestry of Mrs. Murrett’s background had all the while been alive and full of eyes. Now, with a pair of them looking into his, he was conscious of a queer reversal of perspective.

“Who were the ‘we’? Were you a cloud of witnesses?”

“There were a good many of us.” She smiled. “Let me see — who was there in your time? Mrs. Bolt — and Mademoiselle — and Professor Didymus and the Polish Countess. Don’t you remember the Polish Countess? She crystal-gazed, and played accompaniments, and Mrs. Murrett chucked her because Mrs. Didymus accused her of hypnotizing the Professor. But of course you don’t remember. We were all invisible to you; but we could see. And we all used to wonder about you —— ”

Again Darrow felt a redness in the temples. “What about me?”

“Well — whether it was you or she who . . . ”

He winced, but hid his disapproval. It made the time pass to listen to her.

“And what, if one may ask, was your conclusion?”

“Well, Mrs. Bolt and Mademoiselle and the Countess naturally thought it was SHE; but Professor Didymus and Jimmy Brance — especially Jimmy —— ”

“Just a moment: who on earth is Jimmy Brance?”

She exclaimed in wonder: “You WERE absorbed — not to remember Jimmy Brance! He must have been right about you, after all.” She let her amused scrutiny dwell on him. “But how could you? She was false from head to foot!”

“False ——?” In spite of time and satiety, the male instinct of ownership rose up and repudiated the charge.

Miss Viner caught his look and laughed. “Oh, I only meant externally! You see, she often used to come to my room after tennis, or to touch up in the evenings, when they were going on; and I assure you she took apart like a puzzle. In fact I used to say to Jimmy — just to make him wild —:‘I’ll bet you anything you like there’s nothing wrong, because I know she’d never dare un — ’” She broke the word in two, and her quick blush made her face like a shallow-petalled rose shading to the deeper pink of the centre.

The situation was saved, for Darrow, by an abrupt rush of memories, and he gave way to a mirth which she as frankly echoed. “Of course,” she gasped through her laughter, “I only said it to tease Jimmy —— ”

Her amusement obscurely annoyed him. “Oh, you’re all alike!” he exclaimed, moved by an unaccountable sense of disappointment.

She caught him up in a flash — she didn’t miss things! “You say that because you think I’m spiteful and envious? Yes — I was envious of Lady Ulrica . . . Oh, not on account of you or Jimmy Brance! Simply because she had almost all the things I’ve always wanted: clothes and fun and motors, and admiration and yachting and Paris — why, Paris alone would be enough! — And how do you suppose a girl can see that sort of thing about her day after day, and never wonder why some women, who don’t seem to have any more right to it, have it all tumbled into their laps, while others are writing dinner invitations, and straightening out accounts, and copying visiting lists, and finishing golf-stockings, and matching ribbons, and seeing that the dogs get their sulphur? One looks in one’s glass, after all!”

She launched the closing words at him on a cry that lifted them above the petulance of vanity; but his sense of her words was lost in the surprise of her face. Under the flying clouds of her excitement it was no longer a shallow flower-cup but a darkening gleaming mirror that might give back strange depths of feeling. The girl had stuff in her — he saw it; and she seemed to catch the perception in his eyes.

“That’s the kind of education I got at Mrs. Murrett’s — and I never had any other,” she said with a shrug.

“Good Lord — were you there so long?”

“Five years. I stuck it out longer than any of the others.” She spoke as though it were something to be proud of.

“Well, thank God you’re out of it now!”

Again a just perceptible shadow crossed her face. “Yes — I’m out of it now fast enough.”

“And what — if I may ask — are you doing next?”

She brooded a moment behind drooped lids; then, with a touch of hauteur: “I’m going to Paris: to study for the stage.”

“The stage?” Darrow stared at her, dismayed. All his confused contradictory impressions assumed a new aspect at this announcement; and to hide his surprise he added lightly: “Ah — then you will have Paris, after all!”

“Hardly Lady Ulrica’s Paris. It s not likely to be roses, roses all the way.”

“It’s not, indeed.” Real compassion prompted him to continue: “Have you any — any influence you can count on?”

She gave a somewhat flippant little laugh. “None but my own. I’ve never had any other to count on.”

He passed over the obvious reply. “But have you any idea how the profession is over-crowded? I know I’m trite —— ”

“I’ve a very clear idea. But I couldn’t go on as I was.”

“Of course not. But since, as you say, you’d stuck it out longer than any of the others, couldn’t you at least have held on till you were sure of some kind of an opening?”

She made no reply for a moment; then she turned a listless glance to the rain-beaten window. “Oughtn’t we be starting?” she asked, with a lofty assumption of indifference that might have been Lady Ulrica’s.

Darrow, surprised by the change, but accepting her rebuff as a phase of what he guessed to be a confused and tormented mood, rose from his seat and lifted her jacket from the chair-back on which she had hung it to dry. As he held it toward her she looked up at him quickly.

“The truth is, we quarrelled,” she broke out, “and I left last night without my dinner — and without my salary.”

“Ah — ” he groaned, with a sharp perception of all the sordid dangers that might attend such a break with Mrs. Murrett.

“And without a character!” she added, as she slipped her arms into the jacket. “And without a trunk, as it appears — but didn’t you say that, before going, there’d be time for another look at the station?”

There was time for another look at the station; but the look again resulted in disappointment, since her trunk was nowhere to be found in the huge heap disgorged by the newly-arrived London express. The fact caused Miss Viner a moment’s perturbation; but she promptly adjusted herself to the necessity of proceeding on her journey, and her decision confirmed Darrow’s vague resolve to go to Paris instead of retracing his way to London.

Miss Viner seemed cheered at the prospect of his company, and sustained by his offer to telegraph to Charing Cross for the missing trunk; and he left her to wait in the fly while he hastened back to the telegraph office. The enquiry despatched, he was turning away from the desk when another thought struck him and he went back and indited a message to his servant in London: “If any letters with French post-mark received since departure forward immediately to Terminus Hotel Gare du Nord Paris.”

Then he rejoined Miss Viner, and they drove off through the rain to the pier.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/reef/chapter2.html

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