The Reef, by Edith Wharton

Book IV

XXIII

The next day was Darrow’s last at Givre and, foreseeing that the afternoon and evening would have to be given to the family, he had asked Anna to devote an early hour to the final consideration of their plans. He was to meet her in the brown sitting-room at ten, and they were to walk down to the river and talk over their future in the little pavilion abutting on the wall of the park.

It was just a week since his arrival at Givre, and Anna wished, before he left, to return to the place where they had sat on their first afternoon together. Her sensitiveness to the appeal of inanimate things, to the colour and texture of whatever wove itself into the substance of her emotion, made her want to hear Darrow’s voice, and to feel his eyes on her, in the spot where bliss had first flowed into her heart.

That bliss, in the interval, had wound itself into every fold of her being. Passing, in the first days, from a high shy tenderness to the rush of a secret surrender, it had gradually widened and deepened, to flow on in redoubled beauty. She thought she now knew exactly how and why she loved Darrow, and she could see her whole sky reflected in the deep and tranquil current of her love.

Early the next day, in her sitting-room, she was glancing through the letters which it was Effie’s morning privilege to carry up to her. Effie meanwhile circled inquisitively about the room, where there was always something new to engage her infant fancy; and Anna, looking up, saw her suddenly arrested before a photograph of Darrow which, the day before, had taken its place on the writing-table.

Anna held out her arms with a faint blush. “You do like him, don’t you, dear?”

“Oh, most awfully, dearest,” Effie, against her breast, leaned back to assure her with a limpid look. “And so do Granny and Owen — and I DO think Sophy does too,” she added, after a moment’s earnest pondering.

“I hope so,” Anna laughed. She checked the impulse to continue: “Has she talked to you about him, that you’re so sure?” She did not know what had made the question spring to her lips, but she was glad she had closed them before pronouncing it. Nothing could have been more distasteful to her than to clear up such obscurities by turning on them the tiny flame of her daughter’s observation. And what, after all, now that Owen’s happiness was secured, did it matter if there were certain reserves in Darrow’s approval of his marriage?

A knock on the door made Anna glance at the clock. “There’s Nurse to carry you off.”

“It’s Sophy’s knock,” the little girl answered, jumping down to open the door; and Miss Viner in fact stood on the threshold.

“Come in,” Anna said with a smile, instantly remarking how pale she looked.

“May Effie go out for a turn with Nurse?” the girl asked. “I should like to speak to you a moment.”

“Of course. This ought to be YOUR holiday, as yesterday was Effie’s. Run off, dear,” she added, stooping to kiss the little girl.

When the door had closed she turned back to Sophy Viner with a look that sought her confidence. “I’m so glad you came, my dear. We’ve got so many things to talk about, just you and I together.”

The confused intercourse of the last days had, in fact, left little time for any speech with Sophy but such as related to her marriage and the means of overcoming Madame de Chantelle’s opposition to it. Anna had exacted of Owen that no one, not even Sophy Viner, should be given a hint of her own projects till all contingent questions had been disposed of. She had felt, from the outset, a secret reluctance to intrude her securer happiness on the doubts and fears of the young pair.

From the sofa-corner to which she had dropped back she pointed to Darrow’s chair. “Come and sit by me, dear. I wanted to see you alone. There’s so much to say that I hardly know where to begin.”

She leaned forward, her hands clasped on the arms of the sofa, her eyes bent smilingly on Sophy’s. As she did so, she noticed that the girl’s unusual pallour was partly due to the slight veil of powder on her face. The discovery was distinctly disagreeable. Anna had never before noticed, on Sophy’s part, any recourse to cosmetics, and, much as she wished to think herself exempt from old-fashioned prejudices, she suddenly became aware that she did not like her daughter’s governess to have a powdered face. Then she reflected that the girl who sat opposite her was no longer Effie’s governess, but her own future daughter-in-law; and she wondered whether Miss Viner had chosen this odd way of celebrating her independence, and whether, as Mrs. Owen Leath, she would present to the world a bedizened countenance. This idea was scarcely less distasteful than the other, and for a moment Anna continued to consider her without speaking. Then, in a flash, the truth came to her: Miss Viner had powdered her face because Miss Viner had been crying.

Anna leaned forward impulsively. “My dear child, what’s the matter?” She saw the girl’s blood rush up under the white mask, and hastened on: “Please don’t be afraid to tell me. I do so want you to feel that you can trust me as Owen does. And you know you mustn’t mind if, just at first, Madame de Chantelle occasionally relapses.”

She spoke eagerly, persuasively, almost on a note of pleading. She had, in truth, so many reasons for wanting Sophy to like her: her love for Owen, her solicitude for Effie, and her own sense of the girl’s fine mettle. She had always felt a romantic and almost humble admiration for those members of her sex who, from force of will, or the constraint of circumstances, had plunged into the conflict from which fate had so persistently excluded her. There were even moments when she fancied herself vaguely to blame for her immunity, and felt that she ought somehow to have affronted the perils and hardships which refused to come to her. And now, as she sat looking at Sophy Viner, so small, so slight, so visibly defenceless and undone, she still felt, through all the superiority of her worldly advantages and her seeming maturity, the same odd sense of ignorance and inexperience. She could not have said what there was in the girl’s manner and expression to give her this feeling, but she was reminded, as she looked at Sophy Viner, of the other girls she had known in her youth, the girls who seemed possessed of a secret she had missed. Yes, Sophy Viner had their look — almost the obscurely menacing look of Kitty Mayne . . . Anna, with an inward smile, brushed aside the image of this forgotten rival. But she had felt, deep down, a twinge of the old pain, and she was sorry that, even for the flash of a thought, Owen’s betrothed should have reminded her of so different a woman . . .

She laid her hand on the girl’s. “When his grandmother sees how happy Owen is she’ll be quite happy herself. If it’s only that, don’t be distressed. Just trust to Owen — and the future.”

Sophy Viner, with an almost imperceptible recoil of her whole slight person, had drawn her hand from under the palm enclosing it.

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about — the future.”

“Of course! We’ve all so many plans to make — and to fit into each other’s. Please let’s begin with yours.”

The girl paused a moment, her hands clasped on the arms of her chair, her lids dropped under Anna’s gaze; then she said: “I should like to make no plans at all . . . just yet . . . ”

“No plans?”

“No — I should like to go away . . . my friends the Farlows would let me go to them . . . ” Her voice grew firmer and she lifted her eyes to add: “I should like to leave today, if you don’t mind.”

Anna listened with a rising wonder.

“You want to leave Givre at once?” She gave the idea a moment’s swift consideration. “You prefer to be with your friends till your marriage? I understand that — but surely you needn’t rush off today? There are so many details to discuss; and before long, you know, I shall be going away too.”

“Yes, I know.” The girl was evidently trying to steady her voice. “But I should like to wait a few days — to have a little more time to myself.”

Anna continued to consider her kindly. It was evident that she did not care to say why she wished to leave Givre so suddenly, but her disturbed face and shaken voice betrayed a more pressing motive than the natural desire to spend the weeks before her marriage under her old friends’ roof. Since she had made no response to the allusion to Madame de Chantelle, Anna could but conjecture that she had had a passing disagreement with Owen; and if this were so, random interference might do more harm than good.

“My dear child, if you really want to go at once I sha’n’t, of course, urge you to stay. I suppose you have spoken to Owen?”

“No. Not yet . . . ”

Anna threw an astonished glance at her. “You mean to say you haven’t told him?”

“I wanted to tell you first. I thought I ought to, on account of Effie.” Her look cleared as she put forth this reason.

“Oh, Effie! — ” Anna’s smile brushed away the scruple. “Owen has a right to ask that you should consider him before you think of his sister . . . Of course you shall do just as you wish,” she went on, after another thoughtful interval.

“Oh, thank you,” Sophy Viner murmured and rose to her feet.

Anna rose also, vaguely seeking for some word that should break down the girl’s resistance. “You’ll tell Owen at once?” she finally asked.

Miss Viner, instead of replying, stood before her in manifest uncertainty, and as she did so there was a light tap on the door, and Owen Leath walked into the room.

Anna’s first glance told her that his face was unclouded. He met her greeting with his happiest smile and turned to lift Sophy’s hand to his lips. The perception that he was utterly unconscious of any cause for Miss Viner’s agitation came to his step-mother with a sharp thrill of surprise.

“Darrow’s looking for you,” he said to her. “He asked me to remind you that you’d promised to go for a walk with him.”

Anna glanced at the clock. “I’ll go down presently.” She waited and looked again at Sophy Viner, whose troubled eyes seemed to commit their message to her. “You’d better tell Owen, my dear.”

Owen’s look also turned on the girl. “Tell me what? Why, what’s happened?”

Anna summoned a laugh to ease the vague tension of the moment. “Don’t look so startled! Nothing, except that Sophy proposes to desert us for a while for the Farlows.”

Owen’s brow cleared. “I was afraid she’d run off before long.” He glanced at Anna. “Do please keep her here as long as you can!”

Sophy intervened: “Mrs. Leath’s already given me leave to go.”

“Already? To go when?”

“Today,” said Sophy in a low tone, her eyes on Anna’s.

“Today? Why on earth should you go today?” Owen dropped back a step or two, flushing and paling under his bewildered frown. His eyes seemed to search the girl more closely. “Something’s happened.” He too looked at his step-mother. “I suppose she must have told you what it is?”

Anna was struck by the suddenness and vehemence of his appeal. It was as though some smouldering apprehension had lain close under the surface of his security.

“She’s told me nothing except that she wishes to be with her friends. It’s quite natural that she should want to go to them.”

Owen visibly controlled himself. “Of course — quite natural.” He spoke to Sophy. “But why didn’t you tell me so? Why did you come first to my step-mother?”

Anna intervened with her calm smile. “That seems to me quite natural, too. Sophy was considerate enough to tell me first because of Effie.”

He weighed it. “Very well, then: that’s quite natural, as you say. And of course she must do exactly as she pleases.” He still kept his eyes on the girl. “Tomorrow,” he abruptly announced, “I shall go up to Paris to see you.”

“Oh, no — no!” she protested.

Owen turned back to Anna. “NOW do you say that nothing’s happened?”

Under the influence of his agitation Anna felt a vague tightening of the heart. She seemed to herself like some one in a dark room about whom unseen presences are groping.

“If it’s anything that Sophy wishes to tell you, no doubt she’ll do so. I’m going down now, and I’ll leave you here to talk it over by yourselves.”

As she moved to the door the girl caught up with her. “But there’s nothing to tell: why should there be? I’ve explained that I simply want to be quiet.” Her look seemed to detain Mrs. Leath.

Owen broke in: “Is that why I mayn’t go up tomorrow?”

“Not tomorrow!”

“Then when may I?”

“Later . . . in a little while . . . a few days . . . ”

“In how many days?” “Owen!” his step-mother interposed; but he seemed no longer aware of her. “If you go away today, the day that our engagement’s made known, it’s only fair,” he persisted, “that you should tell me when I am to see you.”

Sophy’s eyes wavered between the two and dropped down wearily. “It’s you who are not fair — when I’ve said I wanted to be quiet.”

“But why should my coming disturb you? I’m not asking now to come tomorrow. I only ask you not to leave without telling me when I’m to see you.”

“Owen, I don’t understand you!” his step-mother exclaimed.

“You don’t understand my asking for some explanation, some assurance, when I’m left in this way, without a word, without a sign? All I ask her to tell me is when she’ll see me.”

Anna turned back to Sophy Viner, who stood straight and tremulous between the two.

“After all, my dear, he’s not unreasonable!”

“I’ll write — I’ll write,” the girl repeated.

“WHAT will you write?” he pressed her vehemently.

“Owen,” Anna exclaimed, “you are unreasonable!”

He turned from Sophy to his step-mother. “I only want her to say what she means: that she’s going to write to break off our engagement. Isn’t that what you’re going away for?”

Anna felt the contagion of his excitement. She looked at Sophy, who stood motionless, her lips set, her whole face drawn to a silent fixity of resistance.

“You ought to speak, my dear — you ought to answer him.”

“I only ask him to wait —— ”

“Yes,” Owen, broke in, “and you won’t say how long!”

Both instinctively addressed themselves to Anna, who stood, nearly as shaken as themselves, between the double shock of their struggle. She looked again from Sophy’s inscrutable eyes to Owen’s stormy features; then she said: “What can I do, when there’s clearly something between you that I don’t know about?”

“Oh, if it WERE between us! Can’t you see it’s outside of us — outside of her, dragging at her, dragging her away from me?” Owen wheeled round again upon his step-mother.

Anna turned from him to the girl. “Is it true that you want to break your engagement? If you do, you ought to tell him now.”

Owen burst into a laugh. “She doesn’t dare to — she’s afraid I’ll guess the reason!”

A faint sound escaped from Sophy’s lips, but she kept them close on whatever answer she had ready.

“If she doesn’t wish to marry you, why should she be afraid to have you know the reason?”

“She’s afraid to have YOU know it — not me!”

“To have ME know it?”

He laughed again, and Anna, at his laugh, felt a sudden rush of indignation.

“Owen, you must explain what you mean!”

He looked at her hard before answering; then: “Ask Darrow!” he said.

“Owen — Owen!” Sophy Viner murmured.

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