The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XXV

Anna stood in the middle of the room, her eyes on the door. Darrow’s questioning gaze was still on her, and she said to herself with a quick-drawn breath: “If only he doesn’t come near me!”

It seemed to her that she had been suddenly endowed with the fatal gift of reading the secret sense of every seemingly spontaneous look and movement, and that in his least gesture of affection she would detect a cold design.

For a moment longer he continued to look at her enquiringly; then he turned away and took up his habitual stand by the mantel-piece. She drew a deep breath of relief.

“Won’t you please explain?” he said.

“I can’t explain: I don’t know. I didn’t even know — till she told you — that she really meant to break her engagement. All I know is that she came to me just now and said she wished to leave Givre today; and that Owen, when he heard of it — for she hadn’t told him — at once accused her of going away with the secret intention of throwing him over.”

“And you think it’s a definite break?” She perceived, as she spoke, that his brow had cleared.

“How should I know? Perhaps you can tell me.”

“I?” She fancied his face clouded again, but he did not move from his tranquil attitude.

“As I told you,” she went on, “Owen has worked himself up to imagining that for some mysterious reason you’ve influenced Sophy against him.”

Darrow still visibly wondered. “It must indeed be a mysterious reason! He knows how slightly I know Miss Viner. Why should he imagine anything so wildly improbable?”

“I don’t know that either.”

“But he must have hinted at some reason.”

“No: he admits he doesn’t know your reason. He simply says that Sophy’s manner to him has changed since she came back to Givre and that he’s seen you together several times — in the park, the spring-house, I don’t know where — talking alone in a way that seemed confidential — almost secret; and he draws the preposterous conclusion that you’ve used your influence to turn her against him.”

“My influence? What kind of influence?”

“He doesn’t say.”

Darrow again seemed to turn over the facts she gave him. His face remained grave, but without the least trace of discomposure. “And what does Miss Viner say?”

“She says it’s perfectly natural that she should occasionally talk to my friends when she’s under my roof — and refuses to give him any other explanation.”

“That at least is perfectly natural!”

Anna felt her cheeks flush as she answered: “Yes — but there is something —— ”

“Something ——?”

“Some reason for her sudden decision to break her engagement. I can understand Owen’s feeling, sorry as I am for his way of showing it. The girl owes him some sort of explanation, and as long as she refuses to give it his imagination is sure to run wild.”

“She would have given it, no doubt, if he’d asked it in a different tone.”

“I don’t defend Owen’s tone — but she knew what it was before she accepted him. She knows he’s excitable and undisciplined.”

“Well, she’s been disciplining him a little — probably the best thing that could happen. Why not let the matter rest there?”

“Leave Owen with the idea that you HAVE been the cause of the break?”

He met the question with his easy smile. “Oh, as to that — leave him with any idea of me he chooses! But leave him, at any rate, free.”

“Free?” she echoed in surprise.

“Simply let things be. You’ve surely done all you could for him and Miss Viner. If they don’t hit it off it’s their own affair. What possible motive can you have for trying to interfere now?”

Her gaze widened to a deeper wonder. “Why — naturally, what he says of you!”

“I don’t care a straw what he says of me! In such a situation a boy in love will snatch at the most far-fetched reason rather than face the mortifying fact that the lady may simply be tired of him.”

“You don t quite understand Owen. Things go deep with him, and last long. It took him a long time to recover from his other unlucky love affair. He’s romantic and extravagant: he can’t live on the interest of his feelings. He worships Sophy and she seemed to be fond of him. If she’s changed it’s been very sudden. And if they part like this, angrily and inarticulately, it will hurt him horribly — hurt his very soul. But that, as you say, is between the two. What concerns me is his associating you with their quarrel. Owen’s like my own son — if you’d seen him when I first came here you’d know why. We were like two prisoners who talk to each other by tapping on the wall. He’s never forgotten it, nor I. Whether he breaks with Sophy, or whether they make it up, I can’t let him think you had anything to do with it.”

She raised her eyes entreatingly to Darrow’s, and read in them the forbearance of the man resigned to the discussion of non-existent problems.

“I’ll do whatever you want me to,” he said; “but I don’t yet know what it is.”

His smile seemed to charge her with inconsequence, and the prick to her pride made her continue: “After all, it’s not so unnatural that Owen, knowing you and Sophy to be almost strangers, should wonder what you were saying to each other when he saw you talking together.”

She felt a warning tremor as she spoke, as though some instinct deeper than reason surged up in defense of its treasure. But Darrow’s face was unstirred save by the flit of his half-amused smile.

“Well, my dear — and couldn’t you have told him?” “I?” she faltered out through her blush.

“You seem to forget, one and all of you, the position you put me in when I came down here: your appeal to me to see Owen through, your assurance to him that I would, Madame de Chantelle’s attempt to win me over; and most of all, my own sense of the fact you’ve just recalled to me: the importance, for both of us, that Owen should like me. It seemed to me that the first thing to do was to get as much light as I could on the whole situation; and the obvious way of doing it was to try to know Miss Viner better. Of course I’ve talked with her alone — I’ve talked with her as often as I could. I’ve tried my best to find out if you were right in encouraging Owen to marry her.”

She listened with a growing sense of reassurance, struggling to separate the abstract sense of his words from the persuasion in which his eyes and voice enveloped them.

“I see — I do see,” she murmured.

“You must see, also, that I could hardly say this to Owen without offending him still more, and perhaps increasing the breach between Miss Viner and himself. What sort of figure should I cut if I told him I’d been trying to find out if he’d made a proper choice? In any case, it’s none of my business to offer an explanation of what she justly says doesn’t need one. If she declines to speak, it’s obviously on the ground that Owen’s insinuations are absurd; and that surely pledges me to silence.”

“Yes, yes! I see,” Anna repeated. “But I don’t want you to explain anything to Owen.”

“You haven’t yet told me what you do want.”

She hesitated, conscious of the difficulty of justifying her request; then: “I want you to speak to Sophy,” she said.

Darrow broke into an incredulous laugh. “Considering what my previous attempts have resulted in ——!”

She raised her eyes quickly. “They haven’t, at least, resulted in your liking her less, in your thinking less well of her than you’ve told me?”

She fancied he frowned a little. “I wonder why you go back to that?”

“I want to be sure — I owe it to Owen. Won’t you tell me the exact impression she’s produced on you?”

“I have told you — I like Miss Viner.”

“Do you still believe she’s in love with Owen?”

“There was nothing in our short talks to throw any particular light on that.”

“You still believe, though, that there’s no reason why he shouldn’t marry her?”

Again he betrayed a restrained impatience. “How can I answer that without knowing her reasons for breaking with him?”

“That’s just what I want you to find out from her.”

“And why in the world should she tell me?”

“Because, whatever grievance she has against Owen, she can certainly have none against me. She can’t want to have Owen connect me in his mind with this wretched quarrel; and she must see that he will until he’s convinced you’ve had no share in it.”

Darrow’s elbow dropped from the mantel-piece and he took a restless step or two across the room. Then he halted before her.

“Why can’t you tell her this yourself?”

“Don’t you see?”

He eyed her intently, and she pressed on: “You must have guessed that Owen’s jealous of you.”

“Jealous of me?” The blood flew up under his brown skin.

“Blind with it — what else would drive him to this folly? And I can’t have her think me jealous too! I’ve said all I could, short of making her think so; and she’s refused a word more to either of us. Our only chance now is that she should listen to you — that you should make her see the harm her silence may do.”

Darrow uttered a protesting exclamation. “It’s all too preposterous — what you suggest! I can’t, at any rate, appeal to her on such a ground as that!”

Anna laid her hand on his arm. “Appeal to her on the ground that I’m almost Owen’s mother, and that any estrangement between you and him would kill me. She knows what he is — she’ll understand. Tell her to say anything, do anything, she wishes; but not to go away without speaking, not to leave THAT between us when she goes!”

She drew back a step and lifted her face to his, trying to look into his eyes more deeply than she had ever looked; but before she could discern what they expressed he had taken hold of her hands and bent his head to kiss them.

“You’ll see her? You’ll see her?” she entreated; and he answered: “I’ll do anything in the world you want me to.”

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