The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XXVII

Darrow had no idea how long he had sat there when he heard Anna’s hand on the door. The effort of rising, and of composing his face to meet her, gave him a factitious sense of self-control. He said to himself: “I must decide on something —— ” and that lifted him a hair’s breadth above the whirling waters.

She came in with a lighter step, and he instantly perceived that something unforeseen and reassuring had happened.

“She’s been with me. She came and found me on the terrace. We’ve had a long talk and she’s explained everything. I feel as if I’d never known her before!”

Her voice was so moved and tender that it checked his start of apprehension.

“She’s explained ——?”

“It’s natural, isn’t it, that she should have felt a little sore at the kind of inspection she’s been subjected to? Oh, not from you — I don’t mean that! But Madame de Chantelle’s opposition — and her sending for Adelaide Painter! She told me frankly she didn’t care to owe her husband to Adelaide Painter . . . She thinks now that her annoyance at feeling herself so talked over and scrutinized may have shown itself in her manner to Owen, and set him imagining the insane things he did . . . I understand all she must have felt, and I agree with her that it’s best she should go away for a while. She’s made me,” Anna summed up, “feel as if I’d been dreadfully thick-skinned and obtuse!”

“YOU?”

“Yes. As if I’d treated her like the bric-a-brac that used to be sent down here ‘on approval,’ to see if it would look well with the other pieces.” She added, with a sudden flush of enthusiasm: “I’m glad she’s got it in her to make one feel like that!”

She seemed to wait for Darrow to agree with her, or to put some other question, and he finally found voice to ask: “Then you think it’s not a final break?”

“I hope not — I’ve never hoped it more! I had a word with Owen, too, after I left her, and I think he understands that he must let her go without insisting on any positive promise. She’s excited . . . he must let her calm down . . . ”

Again she waited, and Darrow said: “Surely you can make him see that.”

“She’ll help me to — she’s to see him, of course, before she goes. She starts immediately, by the way, with Adelaide Painter, who is motoring over to Francheuil to catch the one o’clock express — and who, of course, knows nothing of all this, and is simply to be told that Sophy has been sent for by the Farlows.”

Darrow mutely signed his comprehension, and she went on: “Owen is particularly anxious that neither Adelaide nor his grandmother should have the least inkling of what’s happened. The need of shielding Sophy will help him to control himself. He’s coming to his senses, poor boy; he’s ashamed of his wild talk already. He asked me to tell you so; no doubt he’ll tell you so himself.”

Darrow made a movement of protest. “Oh, as to that — the thing’s not worth another word.”

“Or another thought, either?” She brightened. “Promise me you won’t even think of it — promise me you won’t be hard on him!”

He was finding it easier to smile back at her. “Why should you think it necessary to ask my indulgence for Owen?”

She hesitated a moment, her eyes wandering from him. Then they came back with a smile. “Perhaps because I need it for myself.”

“For yourself?”

“I mean, because I understand better how one can torture one’s self over unrealities.”

As Darrow listened, the tension of his nerves began to relax. Her gaze, so grave and yet so sweet, was like a deep pool into which he could plunge and hide himself from the hard glare of his misery. As this ecstatic sense enveloped him he found it more and more difficult to follow her words and to frame an answer; but what did anything matter, except that her voice should go on, and the syllables fall like soft touches on his tortured brain?

“Don’t you know,” she continued, “the bliss of waking from a bad dream in one’s own quiet room, and going slowly over all the horror without being afraid of it any more? That’s what I’m doing now. And that’s why I understand Owen . . . ” She broke off, and he felt her touch on his arm. “BECAUSE I’D DREAMED THE HORROR TOO!”

He understood her then, and stammered: “You?”

“Forgive me! And let me tell you! . . . It will help you to understand Owen . . . There WERE little things . . . little signs . . . once I had begun to watch for them: your reluctance to speak about her . . . her reserve with you . . . a sort of constraint we’d never seen in her before . . . ”

She laughed up at him, and with her hands in his he contrived to say: “NOW you understand why?”

“Oh, I understand; of course I understand; and I want you to laugh at me — with me! Because there were other things too . . . crazier things still . . . There was even — last night on the terrace — her pink cloak . . . ”

“Her pink cloak?” Now he honestly wondered, and as she saw it she blushed.

“You’ve forgotten about the cloak? The pink cloak that Owen saw you with at the play in Paris? Yes . . . yes . . . I was mad enough for that! . . . It does me good to laugh about it now! But you ought to know that I’m going to be a jealous woman . . . a ridiculously jealous woman . . . you ought to be warned of it in time . . . ”

He had dropped her hands, and she leaned close and lifted her arms to his neck with one of her rare gestures of surrender.

“I don’t know why it is; but it makes me happier now to have been so foolish!”

Her lips were parted in a noiseless laugh and the tremor of her lashes made their shadow move on her cheek. He looked at her through a mist of pain and saw all her offered beauty held up like a cup to his lips; but as he stooped to it a darkness seemed to fall between them, her arms slipped from his shoulders and she drew away from him abruptly.

“But she WAS with you, then?” she exclaimed; and then, as he stared at her: “Oh, don’t say no! Only go and look at your eyes!”

He stood speechless, and she pressed on: “Don’t deny it — oh, don’t deny it! What will be left for me to imagine if you do? Don’t you see how every single thing cries it out? Owen sees it — he saw it again just now! When I told him she’d relented, and would see him, he said: ‘Is that Darrow’s doing too?’”

Darrow took the onslaught in silence. He might have spoken, have summoned up the usual phrases of banter and denial; he was not even certain that they might not, for the moment, have served their purpose if he could have uttered them without being seen. But he was as conscious of what had happened to his face as if he had obeyed Anna’s bidding and looked at himself in the glass. He knew he could no more hide from her what was written there than he could efface from his soul the fiery record of what he had just lived through. There before him, staring him in the eyes, and reflecting itself in all his lineaments, was the overwhelming fact of Sophy Viner’s passion and of the act by which she had attested it.

Anna was talking again, hurriedly, feverishly, and his soul was wrung by the anguish in her voice. “Do speak at last — you must speak! I don’t want to ask you to harm the girl; but you must see that your silence is doing her more harm than your answering my questions could. You’re leaving me only the worst things to think of her . . . she’d see that herself if she were here. What worse injury can you do her than to make me hate her — to make me feel she’s plotted with you to deceive us?”

“Oh, not that!” Darrow heard his own voice before he was aware that he meant to speak. “Yes; I did see her in Paris,” he went on after a pause; “but I was bound to respect her reason for not wanting it known.”

Anna paled. “It was she at the theatre that night?”

“I was with her at the theatre one night.”

“Why should she have asked you not to say so?”

“She didn’t wish it known that I’d met her.”

“Why shouldn’t she have wished it known?”

“She had quarrelled with Mrs. Murrett and come over suddenly to Paris, and she didn’t want the Farlows to hear of it. I came across her by accident, and she asked me not to speak of having seen her.”

“Because of her quarrel? Because she was ashamed of her part in it?”

“Oh, no. There was nothing for her to be ashamed of. But the Farlows had found the place for her, and she didn’t want them to know how suddenly she’d had to leave, and how badly Mrs. Murrett had behaved. She was in a terrible plight — the woman had even kept back her month’s salary. She knew the Farlows would be awfully upset, and she wanted more time to prepare them.”

Darrow heard himself speak as though the words had proceeded from other lips. His explanation sounded plausible enough, and he half-fancied Anna’s look grew lighter. She waited a moment, as though to be sure he had no more to add; then she said: “But the Farlows DID know; they told me all about it when they sent her to me.”

He flushed as if she had laid a deliberate trap for him. “They may know NOW; they didn’t then —— ”

“That’s no reason for her continuing now to make a mystery of having met you.”

“It’s the only reason I can give you.”

“Then I’ll go and ask her for one myself.” She turned and took a few steps toward the door.

“Anna!” He started to follow her, and then checked himself. “Don’t do that!”

“Why not?”

“It’s not like you . . . not generous . . . ”

She stood before him straight and pale, but under her rigid face he saw the tumult of her doubt and misery.

“I don’t want to be ungenerous; I don’t want to pry into her secrets. But things can’t be left like this. Wouldn’t it be better for me to go to her? Surely she’ll understand — she’ll explain . . . It may be some mere trifle she’s concealing: something that would horrify the Farlows, but that I shouldn’t see any harm in . . . ” She paused, her eyes searching his face. “A love affair, I suppose . . . that’s it? You met her with some man at the theatre — and she was frightened and begged you to fib about it? Those poor young things that have to go about among us like machines — oh, if you knew how I pity them!”

“If you pity her, why not let her go?”

She stared. “Let her go — go for good, you mean? Is that the best you can say for her?”

“Let things take their course. After all, it’s between herself and Owen.”

“And you and me — and Effie, if Owen marries her, and I leave my child with them! Don’t you see the impossibility of what you’re asking? We’re all bound together in this coil.”

Darrow turned away with a groan. “Oh, let her go — let her go.”

“Then there IS something — something really bad? She WAS with some one when you met her? Some one with whom she was —— ” She broke off, and he saw her struggling with new thoughts. “If it’s THAT, of course . . . Oh, don’t you see,” she desperately appealed to him, “that I must find out, and that it’s too late now for you not to speak? Don’t be afraid that I’ll betray you . . . I’ll never, never let a soul suspect. But I must know the truth, and surely it’s best for her that I should find it out from you.”

Darrow waited a moment; then he said slowly: “What you imagine’s mere madness. She was at the theatre with me.”

“With you?” He saw a tremor pass through her, but she controlled it instantly and faced him straight and motionless as a wounded creature in the moment before it feels its wound. “Why should you both have made a mystery of that?”

“I’ve told you the idea was not mine.” He cast about. “She may have been afraid that Owen —— ”

“But that was not a reason for her asking you to tell me that you hardly knew her — that you hadn’t even seen her for years.” She broke off and the blood rose to her face and forehead. “Even if SHE had other reasons, there could be only one reason for your obeying her —— ” Silence fell between them, a silence in which the room seemed to become suddenly resonant with voices. Darrow’s gaze wandered to the window and he noticed that the gale of two days before had nearly stripped the tops of the lime-trees in the court. Anna had moved away and was resting her elbows against the mantel-piece, her head in her hands. As she stood there he took in with a new intensity of vision little details of her appearance that his eyes had often cherished: the branching blue veins in the backs of her hands, the warm shadow that her hair cast on her ear, and the colour of the hair itself, dull black with a tawny under-surface, like the wings of certain birds. He felt it to be useless to speak.

After a while she lifted her head and said: “I shall not see her again before she goes.”

He made no answer, and turning to him she added: “That is why she’s going, I suppose? Because she loves you and won’t give you up?”

Darrow waited. The paltriness of conventional denial was so apparent to him that even if it could have delayed discovery he could no longer have resorted to it. Under all his other fears was the dread of dishonouring the hour.

“She HAS given me up,” he said at last.

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