The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XXIV

Anna stood looking from one to the other. It had become apparent to her in a flash that Owen’s retort, though it startled Sophy, did not take her by surprise; and the discovery shot its light along dark distances of fear.

The immediate inference was that Owen had guessed the reason of Darrow’s disapproval of his marriage, or that, at least, he suspected Sophy Viner of knowing and dreading it. This confirmation of her own obscure doubt sent a tremor of alarm through Anna. For a moment she felt like exclaiming: “All this is really no business of mine, and I refuse to have you mix me up in it — ” but her secret fear held her fast.

Sophy Viner was the first to speak.

“I should like to go now,” she said in a low voice, taking a few steps toward the door.

Her tone woke Anna to the sense of her own share in the situation. “I quite agree with you, my dear, that it’s useless to carry on this discussion. But since Mr. Darrow’s name has been brought into it, for reasons which I fail to guess, I want to tell you that you’re both mistaken if you think he’s not in sympathy with your marriage. If that’s what Owen means to imply, the idea’s a complete delusion.”

She spoke the words deliberately and incisively, as if hoping that the sound of their utterance would stifle the whisper in her bosom.

Sophy’s only answer was a vague murmur, and a movement that brought her nearer to the door; but before she could reach it Owen had placed himself in her way.

“I don’t mean to imply what you think,” he said, addressing his step-mother but keeping his eyes on the girl. “I don’t say Darrow doesn’t like our marriage; I say it’s Sophy who’s hated it since Darrow’s been here!”

He brought out the charge in a tone of forced composure, but his lips were white and he grasped the doorknob to hide the tremor of his hand.

Anna’s anger surged up with her fears. “You’re absurd, Owen! I don’t know why I listen to you. Why should Sophy dislike Mr. Darrow, and if she does, why should that have anything to do with her wishing to break her engagement?”

“I don’t say she dislikes him! I don’t say she likes him; I don’t know what it is they say to each other when they’re shut up together alone.”

“Shut up together alone?” Anna stared. Owen seemed like a man in delirium; such an exhibition was degrading to them all. But he pushed on without seeing her look.

“Yes — the first evening she came, in the study; the next morning, early, in the park; yesterday, again, in the spring-house, when you were at the lodge with the doctor . . . I don’t know what they say to each other, but they’ve taken every chance they could to say it . . . and to say it when they thought that no one saw them.”

Anna longed to silence him, but no words came to her. It was as though all her confused apprehensions had suddenly taken definite shape. There was “something” — yes, there was “something” . . . Darrow’s reticences and evasions had been more than a figment of her doubts.

The next instant brought a recoil of pride. She turned indignantly on her step-son.

“I don’t half understand what you’ve been saying; but what you seem to hint is so preposterous, and so insulting both to Sophy and to me, that I see no reason why we should listen to you any longer.”

Though her tone steadied Owen, she perceived at once that it would not deflect him from his purpose. He spoke less vehemently, but with all the more precision.

“How can it be preposterous, since it’s true? Or insulting, since I don’t know, any more than YOU, the meaning of what I’ve been seeing? If you’ll be patient with me I’ll try to put it quietly. What I mean is that Sophy has completely changed since she met Darrow here, and that, having noticed the change, I’m hardly to blame for having tried to find out its cause.”

Anna made an effort to answer him with the same composure. “You’re to blame, at any rate, for so recklessly assuming that you HAVE found it out. You seem to forget that, till they met here, Sophy and Mr. Darrow hardly knew each other.”

“If so, it’s all the stranger that they’ve been so often closeted together!”

“Owen, Owen — ” the girl sighed out.

He turned his haggard face to her. “Can I help it, if I’ve seen and known what I wasn’t meant to? For God’s sake give me a reason — any reason I can decently make out with! Is it my fault if, the day after you arrived, when I came back late through the garden, the curtains of the study hadn’t been drawn, and I saw you there alone with Darrow?”

Anna laughed impatiently. “Really, Owen, if you make it a grievance that two people who are staying in the same house should be seen talking together ——!”

“They were not talking. That’s the point —— ”

“Not talking? How do you know? You could hardly hear them from the garden!”

“No; but I could see. HE was sitting at my desk, with his face in his hands. SHE was standing in the window, looking away from him . . . ”

He waited, as if for Sophy Viner’s answer; but still she neither stirred nor spoke.

“That was the first time,” he went on; “and the second was the next morning in the park. It was natural enough, their meeting there. Sophy had gone out with Effie, and Effie ran back to look for me. She told me she’d left Sophy and Darrow in the path that leads to the river, and presently we saw them ahead of us. They didn’t see us at first, because they were standing looking at each other; and this time they were not speaking either. We came up close before they heard us, and all that time they never spoke, or stopped looking at each other. After that I began to wonder; and so I watched them.”

“Oh, Owen!” “Oh, I only had to wait. Yesterday, when I motored you and the doctor back from the lodge, I saw Sophy coming out of the spring-house. I supposed she’d taken shelter from the rain, and when you got out of the motor I strolled back down the avenue to meet her. But she’d disappeared — she must have taken a short cut and come into the house by the side door. I don’t know why I went on to the spring-house; I suppose it was what you’d call spying. I went up the steps and found the room empty; but two chairs had been moved out from the wall and were standing near the table; and one of the Chinese screens that lie on it had dropped to the floor.”

Anna sounded a faint note of irony. “Really? Sophy’d gone there for shelter, and she dropped a screen and moved a chair?”

“I said two chairs —— ”

“Two? What damning evidence — of I don’t know what!”

“Simply of the fact that Darrow’d been there with her. As I looked out of the window I saw him close by, walking away. He must have turned the corner of the spring-house just as I got to the door.”

There was another silence, during which Anna paused, not only to collect her own words but to wait for Sophy Viner’s; then, as the girl made no sign, she turned to her.

“I’ve absolutely nothing to say to all this; but perhaps you’d like me to wait and hear your answer?”

Sophy raised her head with a quick flash of colour. “I’ve no answer either — except that Owen must be mad.”

In the interval since she had last spoken she seemed to have regained her self-control, and her voice rang clear, with a cold edge of anger.

Anna looked at her step-son. He had grown extremely pale, and his hand fell from the door with a discouraged gesture. “That’s all then? You won’t give me any reason?”

“I didn’t suppose it was necessary to give you or any one else a reason for talking with a friend of Mrs. Leath’s under Mrs. Leath’s own roof.”

Owen hardly seemed to feel the retort: he kept his dogged stare on her face.

“I won’t ask for one, then. I’ll only ask you to give me your assurance that your talks with Darrow have had nothing to do with your suddenly deciding to leave Givre.”

She hesitated, not so much with the air of weighing her answer as of questioning his right to exact any. “I give you my assurance; and now I should like to go,” she said.

As she turned away, Anna intervened. “My dear, I think you ought to speak.”

The girl drew herself up with a faint laugh. “To him — or to YOU?”

“To him.”

She stiffened. “I’ve said all there is to say.”

Anna drew back, her eyes on her step-son. He had left the threshold and was advancing toward Sophy Viner with a motion of desperate appeal; but as he did so there was a knock on the door. A moment’s silence fell on the three; then Anna said: “Come in!”

Darrow came into the room. Seeing the three together, he looked rapidly from one to the other; then he turned to Anna with a smile.

“I came up to see if you were ready; but please send me off if I’m not wanted.”

His look, his voice, the simple sense of his presence, restored Anna’s shaken balance. By Owen’s side he looked so strong, so urbane, so experienced, that the lad’s passionate charges dwindled to mere boyish vapourings. A moment ago she had dreaded Darrow’s coming; now she was glad that he was there.

She turned to him with sudden decision. “Come in, please; I want you to hear what Owen has been saying.”

She caught a murmur from Sophy Viner, but disregarded it. An illuminating impulse urged her on. She, habitually so aware of her own lack of penetration, her small skill in reading hidden motives and detecting secret signals, now felt herself mysteriously inspired. She addressed herself to Sophy Viner. “It’s much better for you both that this absurd question should be cleared up now.” Then, turning to Darrow, she continued: “For some reason that I don’t pretend to guess, Owen has taken it into his head that you’ve influenced Miss Viner to break her engagement.”

She spoke slowly and deliberately, because she wished to give time and to gain it; time for Darrow and Sophy to receive the full impact of what she was saying, and time to observe its full effect on them. She had said to herself: “If there’s nothing between them, they’ll look at each other; if there IS something, they won’t;” and as she ceased to speak she felt as if all her life were in her eyes.

Sophy, after a start of protest, remained motionless, her gaze on the ground. Darrow, his face grown grave, glanced slowly from Owen Leath to Anna. With his eyes on the latter he asked: “Has Miss Viner broken her engagement?”

A moment’s silence followed his question; then the girl looked up and said: “Yes!”

Owen, as she spoke, uttered a smothered exclamation and walked out of the room. She continued to stand in the same place, without appearing to notice his departure, and without vouchsafing an additional word of explanation; then, before Anna could find a cry to detain her, she too turned and went out.

“For God’s sake, what’s happened?” Darrow asked; but Anna, with a drop of the heart, was saying to herself that he and Sophy Viner had not looked at each other.

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