The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XXII

It was not until late that afternoon that Darrow could claim his postponed hour with Anna. When at last he found her alone in her sitting-room it was with a sense of liberation so great that he sought no logical justification of it. He simply felt that all their destinies were in Miss Painter’s grasp, and that, resistance being useless, he could only enjoy the sweets of surrender.

Anna herself seemed as happy, and for more explicable reasons. She had assisted, after luncheon, at another debate between Madame de Chantelle and her confidant, and had surmised, when she withdrew from it, that victory was permanently perched on Miss Painter’s banners.

“I don’t know how she does it, unless it’s by the dead weight of her convictions. She detests the French so that she’d back up Owen even if she knew nothing — or knew too much — of Miss Viner. She somehow regards the match as a protest against the corruption of European morals. I told Owen that was his great chance, and he’s made the most of it.”

“What a tactician you are! You make me feel that I hardly know the rudiments of diplomacy,” Darrow smiled at her, abandoning himself to a perilous sense of well-being.

She gave him back his smile. “I’m afraid I think nothing short of my own happiness is worth wasting any diplomacy on!”

“That’s why I mean to resign from the service of my country,” he rejoined with a laugh of deep content.

The feeling that both resistance and apprehension were vain was working like wine in his veins. He had done what he could to deflect the course of events: now he could only stand aside and take his chance of safety. Underneath this fatalistic feeling was the deep sense of relief that he had, after all, said and done nothing that could in the least degree affect the welfare of Sophy Viner. That fact took a millstone off his neck.

Meanwhile he gave himself up once more to the joy of Anna’s presence. They had not been alone together for two long days, and he had the lover’s sense that he had forgotten, or at least underestimated, the strength of the spell she cast. Once more her eyes and her smile seemed to bound his world. He felt that their light would always move with him as the sunset moves before a ship at sea.

The next day his sense of security was increased by a decisive incident. It became known to the expectant household that Madame de Chantelle had yielded to the tremendous impact of Miss Painter’s determination and that Sophy Viner had been “sent for” to the purple satin sitting-room.

At luncheon, Owen’s radiant countenance proclaimed the happy sequel, and Darrow, when the party had moved back to the oak-room for coffee, deemed it discreet to wander out alone to the terrace with his cigar. The conclusion of Owen’s romance brought his own plans once more to the front. Anna had promised that she would consider dates and settle details as soon as Madame de Chantelle and her grandson had been reconciled, and Darrow was eager to go into the question at once, since it was necessary that the preparations for his marriage should go forward as rapidly as possible. Anna, he knew, would not seek any farther pretext for delay; and he strolled up and down contentedly in the sunshine, certain that she would come out and reassure him as soon as the reunited family had claimed its due share of her attention.

But when she finally joined him her first word was for the younger lovers.

“I want to thank you for what you’ve done for Owen,” she began, with her happiest smile.

“Who — I?” he laughed. “Are you confusing me with Miss Painter?”

“Perhaps I ought to say for ME,” she corrected herself. “You’ve been even more of a help to us than Adelaide.”

“My dear child! What on earth have I done?”

“You’ve managed to hide from Madame de Chantelle that you don’t really like poor Sophy.”

Darrow felt the pallour in his cheek. “Not like her? What put such an idea into your head?”

“Oh, it’s more than an idea — it’s a feeling. But what difference does it make, after all? You saw her in such a different setting that it’s natural you should be a little doubtful. But when you know her better I’m sure you’ll feel about her as I do.”

“It’s going to be hard for me not to feel about everything as you do.”

“Well, then — please begin with my daughter-in-law!”

He gave her back in the same tone of banter: “Agreed: if you ll agree to feel as I do about the pressing necessity of our getting married.”

“I want to talk to you about that too. You don’t know what a weight is off my mind! With Sophy here for good, I shall feel so differently about leaving Effie. I’ve seen much more accomplished governesses — to my cost! — but I’ve never seen a young thing more gay and kind and human. You must have noticed, though you’ve seen them so little together, how Effie expands when she’s with her. And that, you know, is what I want. Madame de Chantelle will provide the necessary restraint.” She clasped her hands on his arm. “Yes, I’m ready to go with you now. But first of all — this very moment! — you must come with me to Effie. She knows, of course, nothing of what’s been happening; and I want her to be told first about YOU.”

Effie, sought throughout the house, was presently traced to the school-room, and thither Darrow mounted with Anna. He had never seen her so alight with happiness, and he had caught her buoyancy of mood. He kept repeating to himself: “It’s over — it’s over,” as if some monstrous midnight hallucination had been routed by the return of day.

As they approached the school-room door the terrier’s barks came to them through laughing remonstrances.

“She’s giving him his dinner,” Anna whispered, her hand in Darrow’s.

“Don’t forget the gold-fish!” they heard another voice call out.

Darrow halted on the threshold. “Oh — not now!”

“Not now?”

“I mean — she’d rather have you tell her first. I’ll wait for you both downstairs.”

He was aware that she glanced at him intently. “As you please. I’ll bring her down at once.”

She opened the door, and as she went in he heard her say: “No, Sophy, don’t go! I want you both.”

The rest of Darrow’s day was a succession of empty and agitating scenes. On his way down to Givre, before he had seen Effie Leath, he had pictured somewhat sentimentally the joy of the moment when he should take her in his arms and receive her first filial kiss. Everything in him that egotistically craved for rest, stability, a comfortably organized middle-age, all the home-building instincts of the man who has sufficiently wooed and wandered, combined to throw a charm about the figure of the child who might — who should — have been his. Effie came to him trailing the cloud of glory of his first romance, giving him back the magic hour he had missed and mourned. And how different the realization of his dream had been! The child’s radiant welcome, her unquestioning acceptance of, this new figure in the family group, had been all that he had hoped and fancied. If Mother was so awfully happy about it, and Owen and Granny, too, how nice and cosy and comfortable it was going to be for all of them, her beaming look seemed to say; and then, suddenly, the small pink fingers he had been kissing were laid on the one flaw in the circle, on the one point which must be settled before Effie could, with complete unqualified assurance, admit the new-comer to full equality with the other gods of her Olympus.

“And is Sophy awfully happy about it too?” she had asked, loosening her hold on Darrow’s neck to tilt back her head and include her mother in her questioning look.

“Why, dearest, didn’t you see she was?” Anna had exclaimed, leaning to the group with radiant eyes.

“I think I should like to ask her,” the child rejoined, after a minute’s shy consideration; and as Darrow set her down her mother laughed: “Do, darling, do! Run off at once, and tell her we expect her to be awfully happy too.”

The scene had been succeeded by others less poignant but almost as trying. Darrow cursed his luck in having, at such a moment, to run the gauntlet of a houseful of interested observers. The state of being “engaged”, in itself an absurd enough predicament, even to a man only intermittently exposed, became intolerable under the continuous scrutiny of a small circle quivering with participation. Darrow was furthermore aware that, though the case of the other couple ought to have made his own less conspicuous, it was rather they who found a refuge in the shadow of his prominence. Madame de Chantelle, though she had consented to Owen’s engagement and formally welcomed his betrothed, was nevertheless not sorry to show, by her reception of Darrow, of what finely-shaded degrees of cordiality she was capable. Miss Painter, having won the day for Owen, was also free to turn her attention to the newer candidate for her sympathy; and Darrow and Anna found themselves immersed in a warm bath of sentimental curiosity.

It was a relief to Darrow that he was under a positive obligation to end his visit within the next forty-eight hours. When he left London, his Ambassador had accorded him a ten days’ leave. His fate being definitely settled and openly published he had no reason for asking to have the time prolonged, and when it was over he was to return to his post till the time fixed for taking up his new duties. Anna and he had therefore decided to be married, in Paris, a day or two before the departure of the steamer which was to take them to South America; and Anna, shortly after his return to England, was to go up to Paris and begin her own preparations.

In honour of the double betrothal Effie and Miss Viner were to appear that evening at dinner; and Darrow, on leaving his room, met the little girl springing down the stairs, her white ruffles and coral-coloured bows making her look like a daisy with her yellow hair for its centre. Sophy Viner was behind her pupil, and as she came into the light Darrow noticed a change in her appearance and wondered vaguely why she looked suddenly younger, more vivid, more like the little luminous ghost of his Paris memories. Then it occurred to him that it was the first time she had appeared at dinner since his arrival at Givre, and the first time, consequently, that he had seen her in evening dress. She was still at the age when the least adornment embellishes; and no doubt the mere uncovering of her young throat and neck had given her back her former brightness. But a second glance showed a more precise reason for his impression. Vaguely though he retained such details, he felt sure she was wearing the dress he had seen her in every evening in Paris. It was a simple enough dress, black, and transparent on the arms and shoulders, and he would probably not have recognized it if she had not called his attention to it in Paris by confessing that she hadn’t any other. “The same dress? That proves that she’s forgotten!” was his first half-ironic thought; but the next moment, with a pang of compunction, he said to himself that she had probably put it on for the same reason as before: simply because she hadn’t any other.

He looked at her in silence, and for an instant, above Effie’s bobbing head, she gave him back his look in a full bright gaze.

“Oh, there’s Owen!” Effie cried, and whirled away down the gallery to the door from which her step-brother was emerging. As Owen bent to catch her, Sophy Viner turned abruptly back to Darrow.

“You, too?” she said with a quick laugh. “I didn’t know —— ” And as Owen came up to them she added, in a tone that might have been meant to reach his ear: “I wish you all the luck that we can spare!”

About the dinner-table, which Effie, with Miss Viner’s aid, had lavishly garlanded, the little party had an air of somewhat self-conscious festivity. In spite of flowers, champagne and a unanimous attempt at ease, there were frequent lapses in the talk, and moments of nervous groping for new subjects. Miss Painter alone seemed not only unaffected by the general perturbation but as tightly sealed up in her unconsciousness of it as a diver in his bell. To Darrow’s strained attention even Owen’s gusts of gaiety seemed to betray an inward sense of insecurity. After dinner, however, at the piano, he broke into a mood of extravagant hilarity and flooded the room with the splash and ripple of his music.

Darrow, sunk in a sofa corner in the lee of Miss Painter’s granite bulk, smoked and listened in silence, his eyes moving from one figure to another. Madame de Chantelle, in her armchair near the fire, clasped her little granddaughter to her with the gesture of a drawing-room Niobe, and Anna, seated near them, had fallen into one of the attitudes of vivid calm which seemed to Darrow to express her inmost quality. Sophy Viner, after moving uncertainly about the room, had placed herself beyond Mrs. Leath, in a chair near the piano, where she sat with head thrown back and eyes attached to the musician, in the same rapt fixity of attention with which she had followed the players at the Francais. The accident of her having fallen into the same attitude, and of her wearing the same dress, gave Darrow, as he watched her, a strange sense of double consciousness. To escape from it, his glance turned back to Anna; but from the point at which he was placed his eyes could not take in the one face without the other, and that renewed the disturbing duality of the impression. Suddenly Owen broke off with a crash of chords and jumped to his feet.

“What’s the use of this, with such a moon to say it for us?”

Behind the uncurtained window a low golden orb hung like a ripe fruit against the glass.

“Yes — let’s go out and listen,” Anna answered. Owen threw open the window, and with his gesture a fold of the heavy star-sprinkled sky seemed to droop into the room like a drawn-in curtain. The air that entered with it had a frosty edge, and Anna bade Effie run to the hall for wraps.

Darrow said: “You must have one too,” and started toward the door; but Sophy, following her pupil, cried back: “We’ll bring things for everybody.”

Owen had followed her, and in a moment the three reappeared, and the party went out on the terrace. The deep blue purity of the night was unveiled by mist, and the moonlight rimmed the edges of the trees with a silver blur and blanched to unnatural whiteness the statues against their walls of shade.

Darrow and Anna, with Effie between them, strolled to the farther corner of the terrace. Below them, between the fringes of the park, the lawn sloped dimly to the fields above the river. For a few minutes they stood silently side by side, touched to peace beneath the trembling beauty of the sky. When they turned back, Darrow saw that Owen and Sophy Viner, who had gone down the steps to the garden, were also walking in the direction of the house. As they advanced, Sophy paused in a patch of moonlight, between the sharp shadows of the yews, and Darrow noticed that she had thrown over her shoulders a long cloak of some light colour, which suddenly evoked her image as she had entered the restaurant at his side on the night of their first dinner in Paris. A moment later they were all together again on the terrace, and when they re-entered the drawing-room the older ladies were on their way to bed.

Effie, emboldened by the privileges of the evening, was for coaxing Owen to round it off with a game of forfeits or some such reckless climax; but Sophy, resuming her professional role, sounded the summons to bed. In her pupil’s wake she made her round of good-nights; but when she proffered her hand to Anna, the latter ignoring the gesture held out both arms.

“Good-night, dear child,” she said impulsively, and drew the girl to her kiss.

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