The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XX

For a second, as she approached him, the quick tremor of her glance showed her all intent on the same thought as himself. He transmitted his instructions with mechanical precision, and she answered in the same tone, repeating his words with the intensity of attention of a child not quite sure of understanding. Then she disappeared up the stairs.

Darrow lingered on in the hall, not knowing if she meant to return, yet inwardly sure she would. At length he saw her coming down in her hat and jacket. The rain still streaked the window panes, and, in order to say something, he said: “You’re not going to the lodge yourself?”

“I’ve sent one of the men ahead with the things; but I thought Mrs. Leath might need me.”

“She didn’t ask for you,” he returned, wondering how he could detain her; but she answered decidedly: “I’d better go.”

He held open the door, picked up his umbrella and followed her out. As they went down the steps she glanced back at him. “You’ve forgotten your mackintosh.”

“I sha’n’t need it.”

She had no umbrella, and he opened his and held it out to her. She rejected it with a murmur of thanks and walked on through the thin drizzle, and he kept the umbrella over his own head, without offering to shelter her.

Rapidly and in silence they crossed the court and began to walk down the avenue. They had traversed a third of its length before Darrow said abruptly: “Wouldn’t it have been fairer, when we talked together yesterday, to tell me what I’ve just heard from Mrs. Leath?”

“Fairer ——?” She stopped short with a startled look.

“If I’d known that your future was already settled I should have spared you my gratuitous suggestions.”

She walked on, more slowly, for a yard or two. “I couldn’t speak yesterday. I meant to have told you today.”

“Oh, I’m not reproaching you for your lack of confidence. Only, if you HAD told me, I should have been more sure of your really meaning what you said to me yesterday.”

She did not ask him to what he referred, and he saw that her parting words to him lived as vividly in her memory as in his.

“Is it so important that you should be sure?” she finally questioned.

“Not to you, naturally,” he returned with involuntary asperity. It was incredible, yet it was a fact, that for the moment his immediate purpose in seeking to speak to her was lost under a rush of resentment at counting for so little in her fate. Of what stuff, then, was his feeling for her made? A few hours earlier she had touched his thoughts as little as his senses; but now he felt old sleeping instincts stir in him . . . A rush of rain dashed against his face, and, catching Sophy’s hat, strained it back from her loosened hair. She put her hands to her head with a familiar gesture . . . He came closer and held his umbrella over her . . .

At the lodge he waited while she went in. The rain continued to stream down on him and he shivered in the dampness and stamped his feet on the flags. It seemed to him that a long time elapsed before the door opened and she reappeared. He glanced into the house for a glimpse of Anna, but obtained none; yet the mere sense of her nearness had completely altered his mood.

The child, Sophy told him, was doing well; but Mrs. Leath had decided to wait till the surgeon came. Darrow, as they turned away, looked through the gates, and saw the doctor’s old-fashioned carriage by the roadside.

“Let me tell the doctor’s boy to drive you back,” he suggested; but Sophy answered: “No; I’ll walk,” and he moved on toward the house at her side. She expressed no surprise at his not remaining at the lodge, and again they walked on in silence through the rain. She had accepted the shelter of his umbrella, but she kept herself at such a carefully measured distance that even the slight swaying movements produced by their quick pace did not once bring her arm in touch with his; and, noticing this, he perceived that every drop of her blood must be alive to his nearness.

“What I meant just now,” he began, “was that you ought to have been sure of my good wishes.”

She seemed to weigh the words. “Sure enough for what?”

“To trust me a little farther than you did.”

“I’ve told you that yesterday I wasn’t free to speak.”

“Well, since you are now, may I say a word to you?”

She paused perceptibly, and when she spoke it was in so low a tone that he had to bend his head to catch her answer. “I can’t think what you can have to say.”

“It’s not easy to say here, at any rate. And indoors I sha’n’t know where to say it.” He glanced about him in the rain. “Let’s walk over to the spring-house for a minute.”

To the right of the drive, under a clump of trees, a little stucco pavilion crowned by a balustrade rose on arches of mouldering brick over a flight of steps that led down to a spring. Other steps curved up to a door above. Darrow mounted these, and opening the door entered a small circular room hung with loosened strips of painted paper whereon spectrally faded Mandarins executed elongated gestures. Some black and gold chairs with straw seats and an unsteady table of cracked lacquer stood on the floor of red-glazed tile.

Sophy had followed him without comment. He closed the door after her, and she stood motionless, as though waiting for him to speak.

“Now we can talk quietly,” he said, looking at her with a smile into which he tried to put an intention of the frankest friendliness.

She merely repeated: “I can’t think what you can have to say.”

Her voice had lost the note of half-wistful confidence on which their talk of the previous day had closed, and she looked at him with a kind of pale hostility. Her tone made it evident that his task would be difficult, but it did not shake his resolve to go on. He sat down, and mechanically she followed his example. The table was between them and she rested her arms on its cracked edge and her chin on her interlocked hands. He looked at her and she gave him back his look.

“Have you nothing to say to ME?” he asked at length.

A faint smile lifted, in the remembered way, the left corner of her narrowed lips.

“About my marriage?”

“About your marriage.”

She continued to consider him between half-drawn lids. “What can I say that Mrs. Leath has not already told you?”

“Mrs. Leath has told me nothing whatever but the fact — and her pleasure in it.”

“Well; aren’t those the two essential points?”

“The essential points to YOU? I should have thought —— ”

“Oh, to YOU, I meant,” she put in keenly.

He flushed at the retort, but steadied himself and rejoined: “The essential point to me is, of course, that you should be doing what’s really best for you.”

She sat silent, with lowered lashes. At length she stretched out her arm and took up from the table a little threadbare Chinese hand-screen. She turned its ebony stem once or twice between her fingers, and as she did so Darrow was whimsically struck by the way in which their evanescent slight romance was symbolized by the fading lines on the frail silk.

“Do you think my engagement to Mr. Leath not really best for me?” she asked at length.

Darrow, before answering, waited long enough to get his words into the tersest shape — not without a sense, as he did so, of his likeness to the surgeon deliberately poising his lancet for a clean incision. “I’m not sure,” he replied, “of its being the best thing for either of you.”

She took the stroke steadily, but a faint red swept her face like the reflection of a blush. She continued to keep her lowered eyes on the screen.

“From whose point of view do you speak?”

“Naturally, that of the persons most concerned.”

“From Owen’s, then, of course? You don’t think me a good match for him?”

“From yours, first of all. I don’t think him a good match for you.”

He brought the answer out abruptly, his eyes on her face. It had grown extremely pale, but as the meaning of his words shaped itself in her mind he saw a curious inner light dawn through her set look. She lifted her lids just far enough for a veiled glance at him, and a smile slipped through them to her trembling lips. For a moment the change merely bewildered him; then it pulled him up with a sharp jerk of apprehension.

“I don’t think him a good match for you,” he stammered, groping for the lost thread of his words.

She threw a vague look about the chilly rain-dimmed room. “And you’ve brought me here to tell me why?”

The question roused him to the sense that their minutes were numbered, and that if he did not immediately get to his point there might be no other chance of making it.

“My chief reason is that I believe he’s too young and inexperienced to give you the kind of support you need.”

At his words her face changed again, freezing to a tragic coldness. She stared straight ahead of her, perceptibly struggling with the tremor of her muscles; and when she had controlled it she flung out a pale-lipped pleasantry. “But you see I’ve always had to support myself!”

“He’s a boy,” Darrow pushed on, “a charming, wonderful boy; but with no more notion than a boy how to deal with the inevitable daily problems . . . the trivial stupid unimportant things that life is chiefly made up of.” “I’ll deal with them for him,” she rejoined.

“They’ll be more than ordinarily difficult.”

She shot a challenging glance at him. “You must have some special reason for saying so.”

“Only my clear perception of the facts.”

“What facts do you mean?”

Darrow hesitated. “You must know better than I,” he returned at length, “that the way won’t be made easy to you.”

“Mrs. Leath, at any rate, has made it so.”

“Madame de Chantelle will not.”

“How do YOU know that?” she flung back.

He paused again, not sure how far it was prudent to reveal himself in the confidence of the household. Then, to avoid involving Anna, he answered: “Madame de Chantelle sent for me yesterday.”

“Sent for you — to talk to you about me?” The colour rose to her forehead and her eyes burned black under lowered brows. “By what right, I should like to know? What have you to do with me, or with anything in the world that concerns me?”

Darrow instantly perceived what dread suspicion again possessed her, and the sense that it was not wholly unjustified caused him a passing pang of shame. But it did not turn him from his purpose.

“I’m an old friend of Mrs. Leath’s. It’s not unnatural that Madame de Chantelle should talk to me.”

She dropped the screen on the table and stood up, turning on him the same small mask of wrath and scorn which had glared at him, in Paris, when he had confessed to his suppression of her letter. She walked away a step or two and then came back.

“May I ask what Madame de Chantelle said to you?”

“She made it clear that she should not encourage the marriage.”

“And what was her object in making that clear to YOU?”

Darrow hesitated. “I suppose she thought —— ”

“That she could persuade you to turn Mrs. Leath against me?”

He was silent, and she pressed him: “Was that it?” “That was it.”

“But if you don’t — if you keep your promise —— ”

“My promise?”

“To say nothing . . . nothing whatever . . . ” Her strained look threw a haggard light along the pause.

As she spoke, the whole odiousness of the scene rushed over him. “Of course I shall say nothing . . . you know that . . . ” He leaned to her and laid his hand on hers. “You know I wouldn’t for the world . . . ”

She drew back and hid her face with a sob. Then she sank again into her seat, stretched her arms across the table and laid her face upon them. He sat still, overwhelmed with compunction. After a long interval, in which he had painfully measured the seconds by her hard-drawn breathing, she looked up at him with a face washed clear of bitterness.

“Don’t suppose I don’t know what you must have thought of me!”

The cry struck him down to a lower depth of self-abasement. “My poor child,” he felt like answering, “the shame of it is that I’ve never thought of you at all!” But he could only uselessly repeat: “I’ll do anything I can to help you.”

She sat silent, drumming the table with her hand. He saw that her doubt of him was allayed, and the perception made him more ashamed, as if her trust had first revealed to him how near he had come to not deserving it. Suddenly she began to speak.

“You think, then, I’ve no right to marry him?”

“No right? God forbid! I only meant —— ”

“That you’d rather I didn’t marry any friend of yours.” She brought it out deliberately, not as a question, but as a mere dispassionate statement of fact.

Darrow in turn stood up and wandered away helplessly to the window. He stood staring out through its small discoloured panes at the dim brown distances; then he moved back to the table.

“I’ll tell you exactly what I meant. You’ll be wretched if you marry a man you’re not in love with.”

He knew the risk of misapprehension that he ran, but he estimated his chances of success as precisely in proportion to his peril. If certain signs meant what he thought they did, he might yet — at what cost he would not stop to think — make his past pay for his future.

The girl, at his words, had lifted her head with a movement of surprise. Her eyes slowly reached his face and rested there in a gaze of deep interrogation. He held the look for a moment; then his own eyes dropped and he waited.

At length she began to speak. “You’re mistaken — you’re quite mistaken.”

He waited a moment longer. “Mistaken ——?”

“In thinking what you think. I’m as happy as if I deserved it!” she suddenly proclaimed with a laugh.

She stood up and moved toward the door. “NOW are you satisfied?” she asked, turning her vividest face to him from the threshold.

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