The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XXI

Down the avenue there came to them, with the opening of the door, the voice of Owen’s motor. It was the signal which had interrupted their first talk, and again, instinctively, they drew apart at the sound. Without a word Darrow turned back into the room, while Sophy Viner went down the steps and walked back alone toward the court.

At luncheon the presence of the surgeon, and the non-appearance of Madame de Chantelle — who had excused herself on the plea of a headache — combined to shift the conversational centre of gravity; and Darrow, under shelter of the necessarily impersonal talk, had time to adjust his disguise and to perceive that the others were engaged in the same re-arrangement. It was the first time that he had seen young Leath and Sophy Viner together since he had learned of their engagement; but neither revealed more emotion than befitted the occasion. It was evident that Owen was deeply under the girl’s charm, and that at the least sign from her his bliss would have broken bounds; but her reticence was justified by the tacitly recognized fact of Madame de Chantelle’s disapproval. This also visibly weighed on Anna’s mind, making her manner to Sophy, if no less kind, yet a trifle more constrained than if the moment of final understanding had been reached. So Darrow interpreted the tension perceptible under the fluent exchange of commonplaces in which he was diligently sharing. But he was more and more aware of his inability to test the moral atmosphere about him: he was like a man in fever testing another’s temperature by the touch.

After luncheon Anna, who was to motor the surgeon home, suggested to Darrow that he should accompany them. Effie was also of the party; and Darrow inferred that Anna wished to give her step-son a chance to be alone with his betrothed. On the way back, after the surgeon had been left at his door, the little girl sat between her mother and Darrow, and her presence kept their talk from taking a personal turn. Darrow knew that Mrs. Leath had not yet told Effie of the relation in which he was to stand to her. The premature divulging of Owen’s plans had thrown their own into the background, and by common consent they continued, in the little girl’s presence, on terms of an informal friendliness.

The sky had cleared after luncheon, and to prolong their excursion they returned by way of the ivy-mantled ruin which was to have been the scene of the projected picnic. This circuit brought them back to the park gates not long before sunset, and as Anna wished to stop at the lodge for news of the injured child Darrow left her there with Effie and walked on alone to the house. He had the impression that she was slightly surprised at his not waiting for her; but his inner restlessness vented itself in an intense desire for bodily movement. He would have liked to walk himself into a state of torpor; to tramp on for hours through the moist winds and the healing darkness and come back staggering with fatigue and sleep. But he had no pretext for such a flight, and he feared that, at such a moment, his prolonged absence might seem singular to Anna.

As he approached the house, the thought of her nearness produced a swift reaction of mood. It was as if an intenser vision of her had scattered his perplexities like morning mists. At this moment, wherever she was, he knew he was safely shut away in her thoughts, and the knowledge made every other fact dwindle away to a shadow. He and she loved each other, and their love arched over them open and ample as the day: in all its sunlit spaces there was no cranny for a fear to lurk. In a few minutes he would be in her presence and would read his reassurance in her eyes. And presently, before dinner, she would contrive that they should have an hour by themselves in her sitting-room, and he would sit by the hearth and watch her quiet movements, and the way the bluish lustre on her hair purpled a little as she bent above the fire.

A carriage drove out of the court as he entered it, and in the hall his vision was dispelled by the exceedingly substantial presence of a lady in a waterproof and a tweed hat, who stood firmly planted in the centre of a pile of luggage, as to which she was giving involved but lucid directions to the footman who had just admitted her. She went on with these directions regardless of Darrow’s entrance, merely fixing her small pale eyes on him while she proceeded, in a deep contralto voice, and a fluent French pronounced with the purest Boston accent, to specify the destination of her bags; and this enabled Darrow to give her back a gaze protracted enough to take in all the details of her plain thick-set person, from the square sallow face beneath bands of grey hair to the blunt boot-toes protruding under her wide walking skirt.

She submitted to this scrutiny with no more evidence of surprise than a monument examined by a tourist; but when the fate of her luggage had been settled she turned suddenly to Darrow and, dropping her eyes from his face to his feet, asked in trenchant accents: “What sort of boots have you got on?”

Before he could summon his wits to the consideration of this question she continued in a tone of suppressed indignation: “Until Americans get used to the fact that France is under water for half the year they’re perpetually risking their lives by not being properly protected. I suppose you’ve been tramping through all this nasty clammy mud as if you’d been taking a stroll on Boston Common.”

Darrow, with a laugh, affirmed his previous experience of French dampness, and the degree to which he was on his guard against it; but the lady, with a contemptuous snort, rejoined: “You young men are all alike —— ”; to which she appended, after another hard look at him: “I suppose you’re George Darrow? I used to know one of your mother’s cousins, who married a Tunstall of Mount Vernon Street. My name is Adelaide Painter. Have you been in Boston lately? No? I’m sorry for that. I hear there have been several new houses built at the lower end of Commonwealth Avenue and I hoped you could tell me about them. I haven’t been there for thirty years myself.”

Miss Painter’s arrival at Givre produced the same effect as the wind’s hauling around to the north after days of languid weather. When Darrow joined the group about the tea-table she had already given a tingle to the air. Madame de Chantelle still remained invisible above stairs; but Darrow had the impression that even through her drawn curtains and bolted doors a stimulating whiff must have entered.

Anna was in her usual seat behind the tea-tray, and Sophy Viner presently led in her pupil. Owen was also there, seated, as usual, a little apart from the others, and following Miss Painter’s massive movements and equally substantial utterances with a smile of secret intelligence which gave Darrow the idea of his having been in clandestine parley with the enemy. Darrow further took note that the girl and her suitor perceptibly avoided each other; but this might be a natural result of the tension Miss Painter had been summoned to relieve.

Sophy Viner would evidently permit no recognition of the situation save that which it lay with Madame de Chantelle to accord; but meanwhile Miss Painter had proclaimed her tacit sense of it by summoning the girl to a seat at her side.

Darrow, as he continued to observe the newcomer, who was perched on her arm-chair like a granite image on the edge of a cliff, was aware that, in a more detached frame of mind, he would have found an extreme interest in studying and classifying Miss Painter. It was not that she said anything remarkable, or betrayed any of those unspoken perceptions which give significance to the most commonplace utterances. She talked of the lateness of her train, of an impending crisis in international politics, of the difficulty of buying English tea in Paris and of the enormities of which French servants were capable; and her views on these subjects were enunciated with a uniformity of emphasis implying complete unconsciousness of any difference in their interest and importance. She always applied to the French race the distant epithet of “those people”, but she betrayed an intimate acquaintance with many of its members, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the domestic habits, financial difficulties and private complications of various persons of social importance. Yet, as she evidently felt no incongruity in her attitude, so she revealed no desire to parade her familiarity with the fashionable, or indeed any sense of it as a fact to be paraded. It was evident that the titled ladies whom she spoke of as Mimi or Simone or Odette were as much “those people” to her as the bonne who tampered with her tea and steamed the stamps off her letters (“when, by a miracle, I don’t put them in the box myself.”) Her whole attitude was of a vast grim tolerance of things-as-they-came, as though she had been some wonderful automatic machine which recorded facts but had not yet been perfected to the point of sorting or labelling them.

All this, as Darrow was aware, still fell short of accounting for the influence she obviously exerted on the persons in contact with her. It brought a slight relief to his state of tension to go on wondering, while he watched and listened, just where the mystery lurked. Perhaps, after all, it was in the fact of her blank insensibility, an insensibility so devoid of egotism that it had no hardness and no grimaces, but rather the freshness of a simpler mental state. After living, as he had, as they all had, for the last few days, in an atmosphere perpetually tremulous with echoes and implications, it was restful and fortifying merely to walk into the big blank area of Miss Painter’s mind, so vacuous for all its accumulated items, so echoless for all its vacuity.

His hope of a word with Anna before dinner was dispelled by her rising to take Miss Painter up to Madame de Chantelle; and he wandered away to his own room, leaving Owen and Miss Viner engaged in working out a picture-puzzle for Effie.

Madame de Chantelle — possibly as the result of her friend’s ministrations — was able to appear at the dinner-table, rather pale and pink-nosed, and casting tenderly reproachful glances at her grandson, who faced them with impervious serenity; and the situation was relieved by the fact that Miss Viner, as usual, had remained in the school-room with her pupil.

Darrow conjectured that the real clash of arms would not take place till the morrow; and wishing to leave the field open to the contestants he set out early on a solitary walk. It was nearly luncheon-time when he returned from it and came upon Anna just emerging from the house. She had on her hat and jacket and was apparently coming forth to seek him, for she said at once: “Madame de Chantelle wants you to go up to her.”

“To go up to her? Now?”

“That’s the message she sent. She appears to rely on you to do something.” She added with a smile: “Whatever it is, let’s have it over!”

Darrow, through his rising sense of apprehension, wondered why, instead of merely going for a walk, he had not jumped into the first train and got out of the way till Owen’s affairs were finally settled.

“But what in the name of goodness can I do?” he protested, following Anna back into the hall.

“I don’t know. But Owen seems so to rely on you, too —— ”

“Owen! Is HE to be there?”

“No. But you know I told him he could count on you.”

“But I’ve said to your mother-in-law all I could.”

“Well, then you can only repeat it.”

This did not seem to Darrow to simplify his case as much as she appeared to think; and once more he had a movement of recoil. “There’s no possible reason for my being mixed up in this affair!”

Anna gave him a reproachful glance. “Not the fact that I am?” she reminded him; but even this only stiffened his resistance.

“Why should you be, either — to this extent?”

The question made her pause. She glanced about the hall, as if to be sure they had it to themselves; and then, in a lowered voice: “I don’t know,” she suddenly confessed; “but, somehow, if THEY’RE not happy I feel as if we shouldn’t be.”

“Oh, well — ” Darrow acquiesced, in the tone of the man who perforce yields to so lovely an unreasonableness. Escape was, after all, impossible, and he could only resign himself to being led to Madame de Chantelle’s door.

Within, among the bric-a-brac and furbelows, he found Miss Painter seated in a redundant purple armchair with the incongruous air of a horseman bestriding a heavy mount. Madame de Chantelle sat opposite, still a little wan and disordered under her elaborate hair, and clasping the handkerchief whose visibility symbolized her distress. On the young man’s entrance she sighed out a plaintive welcome, to which she immediately appended: “Mr. Darrow, I can’t help feeling that at heart you’re with me!”

The directness of the challenge made it easier for Darrow to protest, and he reiterated his inability to give an opinion on either side.

“But Anna declares you have — on hers!”

He could not restrain a smile at this faint flaw in an impartiality so scrupulous. Every evidence of feminine inconsequence in Anna seemed to attest her deeper subjection to the most inconsequent of passions. He had certainly promised her his help — but before he knew what he was promising.

He met Madame de Chantelle’s appeal by replying: “If there were anything I could possibly say I should want it to be in Miss Viner’s favour.”

“You’d want it to be — yes! But could you make it so?”

“As far as facts go, I don’t see how I can make it either for or against her. I’ve already said that I know nothing of her except that she’s charming.”

“As if that weren’t enough — weren’t all there OUGHT to be!” Miss Painter put in impatiently. She seemed to address herself to Darrow, though her small eyes were fixed on her friend.

“Madame de Chantelle seems to imagine,” she pursued, “that a young American girl ought to have a dossier — a police-record, or whatever you call it: what those awful women in the streets have here. In our country it’s enough to know that a young girl’s pure and lovely: people don’t immediately ask her to show her bank-account and her visiting-list.”

Madame de Chantelle looked plaintively at her sturdy monitress. “You don’t expect me not to ask if she’s got a family?”

“No; nor to think the worse of her if she hasn’t. The fact that she’s an orphan ought, with your ideas, to be a merit. You won’t have to invite her father and mother to Givre!”

“Adelaide — Adelaide!” the mistress of Givre lamented.

“Lucretia Mary,” the other returned — and Darrow spared an instant’s amusement to the quaint incongruity of the name — “you know you sent for Mr. Darrow to refute me; and how can he, till he knows what I think?”

“You think it’s perfectly simple to let Owen marry a girl we know nothing about?”

“No; but I don’t think it’s perfectly simple to prevent him.”

The shrewdness of the answer increased Darrow’s interest in Miss Painter. She had not hitherto struck him as being a person of much penetration, but he now felt sure that her gimlet gaze might bore to the heart of any practical problem.

Madame de Chantelle sighed out her recognition of the difficulty.

“I haven’t a word to say against Miss Viner; but she’s knocked about so, as it’s called, that she must have been mixed up with some rather dreadful people. If only Owen could be made to see that — if one could get at a few facts, I mean. She says, for instance, that she has a sister; but it seems she doesn’t even know her address!”

“If she does, she may not want to give it to you. I daresay the sister’s one of the dreadful people. I’ve no doubt that with a little time you could rake up dozens of them: have her ‘traced’, as they call it in detective stories. I don’t think you’d frighten Owen, but you might: it’s natural enough he should have been corrupted by those foreign ideas. You might even manage to part him from the girl; but you couldn’t keep him from being in love with her. I saw that when I looked them over last evening. I said to myself: ‘It’s a real old-fashioned American case, as sweet and sound as home-made bread.’ Well, if you take his loaf away from him, what are you going to feed him with instead? Which of your nasty Paris poisons do you think he’ll turn to? Supposing you succeed in keeping him out of a really bad mess — and, knowing the young man as I do, I rather think that, at this crisis, the only way to do it would be to marry him slap off to somebody else — well, then, who, may I ask, would you pick out? One of your sweet French ingenues, I suppose? With as much mind as a minnow and as much snap as a soft-boiled egg. You might hustle him into that kind of marriage; I daresay you could — but if I know Owen, the natural thing would happen before the first baby was weaned.”

“I don’t know why you insinuate such odious things against Owen!”

“Do you think it would be odious of him to return to his real love when he’d been forcibly parted from her? At any rate, it’s what your French friends do, every one of them! Only they don’t generally have the grace to go back to an old love; and I believe, upon my word, Owen would!”

Madame de Chantelle looked at her with a mixture of awe and exultation. “Of course you realize, Adelaide, that in suggesting this you’re insinuating the most shocking things against Miss Viner?”

“When I say that if you part two young things who are dying to be happy in the lawful way it’s ten to one they’ll come together in an unlawful one? I’m insinuating shocking things against YOU, Lucretia Mary, in suggesting for a moment that you’ll care to assume such a responsibility before your Maker. And you wouldn’t, if you talked things straight out with him, instead of merely sending him messages through a miserable sinner like yourself!”

Darrow expected this assault on her adopted creed to provoke in Madame de Chantelle an explosion of pious indignation; but to his surprise she merely murmured: “I don’t know what Mr. Darrow’ll think of you!”

“Mr. Darrow probably knows his Bible as well as I do,” Miss Painter calmly rejoined; adding a moment later, without the least perceptible change of voice or expression: “I suppose you’ve heard that Gisele de Folembray’s husband accuses her of being mixed up with the Duc d’Arcachon in that business of trying to sell a lot of imitation pearls to Mrs. Homer Pond, the Chicago woman the Duke’s engaged to? It seems the jeweller says Gisele brought Mrs. Pond there, and got twenty-five per cent — which of course she passed on to d’Arcachon. The poor old Duchess is in a fearful state — so afraid her son’ll lose Mrs. Pond! When I think that Gisele is old Bradford Wagstaff’s grand-daughter, I’m thankful he’s safe in Mount Auburn!”

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