The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XXVIII

When he had gone out of the room Anna stood where he had left her. “I must believe him! I must believe him!” she said.

A moment before, at the moment when she had lifted her arms to his neck, she had been wrapped in a sense of complete security. All the spirits of doubt had been exorcised, and her love was once more the clear habitation in which every thought and feeling could move in blissful freedom. And then, as she raised her face to Darrow’s and met his eyes, she had seemed to look into the very ruins of his soul. That was the only way she could express it. It was as though he and she had been looking at two sides of the same thing, and the side she had seen had been all light and life, and his a place of graves . . .

She didn’t now recall who had spoken first, or even, very clearly, what had been said. It seemed to her only a moment later that she had found herself standing at the other end of the room — the room which had suddenly grown so small that, even with its length between them, she felt as if he touched her — crying out to him “It IS because of you she’s going!” and reading the avowal in his face.

That was his secret, then, THEIR secret: he had met the girl in Paris and helped her in her straits — lent her money, Anna vaguely conjectured — and she had fallen in love with him, and on meeting him again had been suddenly overmastered by her passion. Anna, dropping back into her sofa-corner, sat staring these facts in the face.

The girl had been in a desperate plight — frightened, penniless, outraged by what had happened, and not knowing (with a woman like Mrs. Murrett) what fresh injury might impend; and Darrow, meeting her in this distracted hour, had pitied, counselled, been kind to her, with the fatal, the inevitable result. There were the facts as Anna made them out: that, at least, was their external aspect, was as much of them as she had been suffered to see; and into the secret intricacies they might cover she dared not yet project her thoughts.

“I must believe him . . . I must believe him . . . ” She kept on repeating the words like a talisman. It was natural, after all, that he should have behaved as he had: defended the girl’s piteous secret to the last. She too began to feel the contagion of his pity — the stir, in her breast, of feelings deeper and more native to her than the pains of jealousy. From the security of her blessedness she longed to lean over with compassionate hands . . . But Owen? What was Owen’s part to be? She owed herself first to him — she was bound to protect him not only from all knowledge of the secret she had surprised, but also — and chiefly! — from its consequences. Yes: the girl must go — there could be no doubt of it — Darrow himself had seen it from the first; and at the thought she had a wild revulsion of relief, as though she had been trying to create in her heart the delusion of a generosity she could not feel . . .

The one fact on which she could stay her mind was that Sophy was leaving immediately; would be out of the house within an hour. Once she was gone, it would be easier to bring Owen to the point of understanding that the break was final; if necessary, to work upon the girl to make him see it. But that, Anna was sure, would not be necessary. It was clear that Sophy Viner was leaving Givre with no thought of ever seeing it again . . .

Suddenly, as she tried to put some order in her thoughts, she heard Owen’s call at the door: “Mother! —— ” a name he seldom gave her. There was a new note in his voice: the note of a joyous impatience. It made her turn hastily to the glass to see what face she was about to show him; but before she had had time to compose it he was in the room and she was caught in a school-boy hug.

“It’s all right! It’s all right! And it’s all your doing! I want to do the worst kind of penance — bell and candle and the rest. I’ve been through it with HER, and now she hands me on to you, and you’re to call me any names you please.” He freed her with his happy laugh. “I’m to be stood in the corner till next week, and then I’m to go up to see her. And she says I owe it all to you!”

“To me?” It was the first phrase she found to clutch at as she tried to steady herself in the eddies of his joy.

“Yes: you were so patient, and so dear to her; and you saw at once what a damned ass I’d been!” She tried a smile, and it seemed to pass muster with him, for he sent it back in a broad beam. “That’s not so difficult to see? No, I admit it doesn’t take a microscope. But you were so wise and wonderful — you always are. I’ve been mad these last days, simply mad — you and she might well have washed your hands of me! And instead, it’s all right — all right!”

She drew back a little, trying to keep the smile on her lips and not let him get the least glimpse of what it hid. Now if ever, indeed, it behoved her to be wise and wonderful!

“I’m so glad, dear; so glad. If only you’ll always feel like that about me . . . ” She stopped, hardly knowing what she said, and aghast at the idea that her own hands should have retied the knot she imagined to be broken. But she saw he had something more to say; something hard to get out, but absolutely necessary to express. He caught her hands, pulled her close, and, with his forehead drawn into its whimsical smiling wrinkles, “Look here,” he cried, “if Darrow wants to call me a damned ass too you’re not to stop him!”

It brought her back to a sharper sense of her central peril: of the secret to be kept from him at whatever cost to her racked nerves.

“Oh, you know, he doesn’t always wait for orders!” On the whole it sounded better than she’d feared.

“You mean he’s called me one already?” He accepted the fact with his gayest laugh. “Well, that saves a lot of trouble; now we can pass to the order of the day —— ” he broke off and glanced at the clock — “which is, you know, dear, that she’s starting in about an hour; she and Adelaide must already be snatching a hasty sandwich. You’ll come down to bid them good-bye?”

“Yes — of course.”

There had, in fact, grown upon her while he spoke the urgency of seeing Sophy Viner again before she left. The thought was deeply distasteful: Anna shrank from encountering the girl till she had cleared a way through her own perplexities. But it was obvious that since they had separated, barely an hour earlier, the situation had taken a new shape. Sophy Viner had apparently reconsidered her decision to break amicably but definitely with Owen, and stood again in their path, a menace and a mystery; and confused impulses of resistance stirred in Anna’s mind. She felt Owen’s touch on her arm. “Are you coming?”

“Yes . . . yes . . . presently.”

“What’s the matter? You look so strange.”

“What do you mean by strange?”

“I don’t know: startled — surprised.” She read what her look must be by its sudden reflection in his face.

“Do I? No wonder! You’ve given us all an exciting morning.”

He held to his point. “You’re more excited now that there’s no cause for it. What on earth has happened since I saw you?”

He looked about the room, as if seeking the clue to her agitation, and in her dread of what he might guess she answered: “What has happened is simply that I’m rather tired. Will you ask Sophy to come up and see me here?”

While she waited she tried to think what she should say when the girl appeared; but she had never been more conscious of her inability to deal with the oblique and the tortuous. She had lacked the hard teachings of experience, and an instinctive disdain for whatever was less clear and open than her own conscience had kept her from learning anything of the intricacies and contradictions of other hearts. She said to herself: “I must find out —— ” yet everything in her recoiled from the means by which she felt it must be done . . .

Sophy Viner appeared almost immediately, dressed for departure, her little bag on her arm. She was still pale to the point of haggardness, but with a light upon her that struck Anna with surprise. Or was it, perhaps, that she was looking at the girl with new eyes: seeing her, for the first time, not as Effie’s governess, not as Owen’s bride, but as the embodiment of that unknown peril lurking in the background of every woman’s thoughts about her lover? Anna, at any rate, with a sudden sense of estrangement, noted in her graces and snares never before perceived. It was only the flash of a primitive instinct, but it lasted long enough to make her ashamed of the darknesses it lit up in her heart . . .

She signed to Sophy to sit down on the sofa beside her. “I asked you to come up to me because I wanted to say good-bye quietly,” she explained, feeling her lips tremble, but trying to speak in a tone of friendly naturalness.

The girl’s only answer was a faint smile of acquiescence, and Anna, disconcerted by her silence, went on: “You’ve decided, then, not to break your engagement?”

Sophy Viner raised her head with a look of surprise. Evidently the question, thus abruptly put, must have sounded strangely on the lips of so ardent a partisan as Mrs. Leath! “I thought that was what you wished,” she said.

“What I wished?” Anna’s heart shook against her side. “I wish, of course, whatever seems best for Owen . . . It’s natural, you must understand, that that consideration should come first with me . . . ”

Sophy was looking at her steadily. “I supposed it was the only one that counted with you.”

The curtness of retort roused Anna’s latent antagonism. “It is,” she said, in a hard voice that startled her as she heard it. Had she ever spoken so to any one before? She felt frightened, as though her very nature had changed without her knowing it . . . Feeling the girl’s astonished gaze still on her, she continued: “The suddenness of the change has naturally surprised me. When I left you it was understood that you were to reserve your decision —— ”

“Yes.”

“And now ——?” Anna waited for a reply that did not come. She did not understand the girl’s attitude, the edge of irony in her short syllables, the plainly premeditated determination to lay the burden of proof on her interlocutor. Anna felt the sudden need to lift their intercourse above this mean level of defiance and distrust. She looked appealingly at Sophy.

“Isn’t it best that we should speak quite frankly? It’s this change on your part that perplexes me. You can hardly be surprised at that. It’s true, I asked you not to break with Owen too abruptly — and I asked it, believe me, as much for your sake as for his: I wanted you to take time to think over the difficulty that seems to have arisen between you. The fact that you felt it required thinking over seemed to show you wouldn’t take the final step lightly — wouldn’t, I mean, accept of Owen more than you could give him. But your change of mind obliges me to ask the question I thought you would have asked yourself. Is there any reason why you shouldn’t marry Owen?”

She stopped a little breathlessly, her eyes on Sophy Viner’s burning face. “Any reason ——? What do you mean by a reason?”

Anna continued to look at her gravely. “Do you love some one else?” she asked.

Sophy’s first look was one of wonder and a faint relief; then she gave back the other’s scrutiny in a glance of indescribable reproach. “Ah, you might have waited!” she exclaimed.

“Waited?”

“Till I’d gone: till I was out of the house. You might have known . . . you might have guessed . . . ” She turned her eyes again on Anna. “I only meant to let him hope a little longer, so that he shouldn’t suspect anything; of course I can’t marry him,” she said.

Anna stood motionless, silenced by the shock of the avowal. She too was trembling, less with anger than with a confused compassion. But the feeling was so blent with others, less generous and more obscure, that she found no words to express it, and the two women faced each other without speaking.

“I’d better go,” Sophy murmured at length with lowered head.

The words roused in Anna a latent impulse of compunction. The girl looked so young, so exposed and desolate! And what thoughts must she be hiding in her heart! It was impossible that they should part in such a spirit.

“I want you to know that no one said anything . . . It was I who . . . ”

Sophy looked at her. “You mean that Mr. Darrow didn’t tell you? Of course not: do you suppose I thought he did? You found it out, that’s all — I knew you would. In your place I should have guessed it sooner.”

The words were spoken simply, without irony or emphasis; but they went through Anna like a sword. Yes, the girl would have had divinations, promptings that she had not had! She felt half envious of such a sad precocity of wisdom.

“I’m so sorry . . . so sorry . . . ” she murmured.

“Things happen that way. Now I’d better go. I’d like to say good-bye to Effie.”

“Oh —— ” it broke in a cry from Effie’s mother. “Not like this — you mustn’t! I feel — you make me feel too horribly: as if I were driving you away . . . ” The words had rushed up from the depths of her bewildered pity.

“No one is driving me away: I had to go,” she heard the girl reply.

There was another silence, during which passionate impulses of magnanimity warred in Anna with her doubts and dreads. At length, her eyes on Sophy’s face: “Yes, you must go now,” she began; “but later on . . . after a while, when all this is over . . . if there’s no reason why you shouldn’t marry Owen —— ” she paused a moment on the words — “I shouldn’t want you to think I stood between you . . . ”

“You?” Sophy flushed again, and then grew pale. She seemed to try to speak, but no words came. “Yes! It was not true when I said just now that I was thinking only of Owen. I’m sorry — oh, so sorry! — for you too. Your life — I know how hard it’s been; and mine . . . mine’s so full . . . Happy women understand best!” Anna drew near and touched the girl’s hand; then she began again, pouring all her soul into the broken phrases: “It’s terrible now . . . you see no future; but if, by and bye . . . you know best . . . but you’re so young . . . and at your age things DO pass. If there’s no reason, no real reason, why you shouldn’t marry Owen, I WANT him to hope, I’ll help him to hope . . . if you say so . . . ”

With the urgency of her pleading her clasp tightened on Sophy’s hand, but it warmed to no responsive tremor: the girl seemed numb, and Anna was frightened by the stony silence of her look. “I suppose I’m not more than half a woman,” she mused, “for I don’t want my happiness to hurt her;” and aloud she repeated: “If only you’ll tell me there’s no reason —— ”

The girl did not speak; but suddenly, like a snapped branch, she bent, stooped down to the hand that clasped her, and laid her lips upon it in a stream of weeping. She cried silently, continuously, abundantly, as though Anna’s touch had released the waters of some deep spring of pain; then, as Anna, moved and half afraid, leaned over her with a sound of pity, she stood up and turned away.

“You’re going, then — for good — like this?” Anna moved toward her and stopped. Sophy stopped too, with eyes that shrank from her.

“Oh —— ” Anna cried, and hid her face.

The girl walked across the room and paused again in the doorway. From there she flung back: “I wanted it — I chose it. He was good to me — no one ever was so good!”

The door-handle turned, and Anna heard her go.

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