The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XXIX

Her first thought was: “He’s going too in a few hours — I needn’t see him again before he leaves . . . ” At that moment the possibility of having to look in Darrow’s face and hear him speak seemed to her more unendurable than anything else she could imagine. Then, on the next wave of feeling, came the desire to confront him at once and wring from him she knew not what: avowal, denial, justification, anything that should open some channel of escape to the flood of her pent-up anguish.

She had told Owen she was tired, and this seemed a sufficient reason for remaining upstairs when the motor came to the door and Miss Painter and Sophy Viner were borne off in it; sufficient also for sending word to Madame de Chantelle that she would not come down till after luncheon. Having despatched her maid with this message, she lay down on her sofa and stared before her into darkness . . .

She had been unhappy before, and the vision of old miseries flocked like hungry ghosts about her fresh pain: she recalled her youthful disappointment, the failure of her marriage, the wasted years that followed; but those were negative sorrows, denials and postponements of life. She seemed in no way related to their shadowy victim, she who was stretched on this fiery rack of the irreparable. She had suffered before — yes, but lucidly, reflectively, elegiacally: now she was suffering as a hurt animal must, blindly, furiously, with the single fierce animal longing that the awful pain should stop . . .

She heard her maid knock, and she hid her face and made no answer. The knocking continued, and the discipline of habit at length made her lift her head, compose her face and hold out her hand to the note the woman brought her. It was a word from Darrow — “May I see you?” — and she said at once, in a voice that sounded thin and empty: “Ask Mr. Darrow to come up.”

The maid enquired if she wished to have her hair smoothed first, and she answered that it didn’t matter; but when the door had closed, the instinct of pride drew her to her feet and she looked at herself in the glass above the mantelpiece and passed her hands over her hair. Her eyes were burning and her face looked tired and thinner; otherwise she could see no change in her appearance, and she wondered that at such a moment her body should seem as unrelated to the self that writhed within her as if it had been a statue or a picture.

The maid reopened the door to show in Darrow, and he paused a moment on the threshold, as if waiting for Anna to speak. He was extremely pale, but he looked neither ashamed nor uncertain, and she said to herself, with a perverse thrill of appreciation: “He’s as proud as I am.”

Aloud she asked: “You wanted to see me?”

“Naturally,” he replied in a grave voice.

“Don’t! It’s useless. I know everything. Nothing you can say will help.”

At the direct affirmation he turned even paler, and his eyes, which he kept resolutely fixed on her, confessed his misery.

“You allow me no voice in deciding that?”

“Deciding what?”

“That there’s nothing more to be said?” He waited for her to answer, and then went on: “I don’t even know what you mean by ‘everything’.”

“Oh, I don’t know what more there is! I know enough. I implored her to deny it, and she couldn’t . . . What can you and I have to say to each other?” Her voice broke into a sob. The animal anguish was upon her again — just a blind cry against her pain!

Darrow kept his head high and his eyes steady. “It must be as you wish; and yet it’s not like you to be afraid.”

“Afraid?”

“To talk things out — to face them.”

“It’s for YOU to face this — not me!”

“All I ask is to face it — but with you.” Once more he paused. “Won’t you tell me what Miss Viner told you?”

“Oh, she’s generous — to the utmost!” The pain caught her like a physical throe. It suddenly came to her how the girl must have loved him to be so generous — what memories there must be between them!

“Oh, go, please go. It’s too horrible. Why should I have to see you?” she stammered, lifting her hands to her eyes.

With her face hidden she waited to hear him move away, to hear the door open and close again, as, a few hours earlier, it had opened and closed on Sophy Viner. But Darrow made no sound or movement: he too was waiting. Anna felt a thrill of resentment: his presence was an outrage on her sorrow, a humiliation to her pride. It was strange that he should wait for her to tell him so!

“You want me to leave Givre?” he asked at length. She made no answer, and he went on: “Of course I’ll do as you wish; but if I go now am I not to see you again?”

His voice was firm: his pride was answering her pride!

She faltered: “You must see it’s useless —— ”

“I might remind you that you’re dismissing me without a hearing —— ”

“Without a hearing? I’ve heard you both!”

—— “but I won’t,” he continued, “remind you of that, or of anything or any one but Owen.”

“Owen?”

“Yes; if we could somehow spare him —— ”

She had dropped her hands and turned her startled eyes on him. It seemed to her an age since she had thought of Owen!

“You see, don’t you,” Darrow continued, “that if you send me away now —— ”

She interrupted: “Yes, I see —— ” and there was a long silence between them. At length she said, very low: “I don’t want any one else to suffer as I’m suffering . . . ”

“Owen knows I meant to leave tomorrow,” Darrow went on. “Any sudden change of plan may make him think . . . ”

Oh, she saw his inevitable logic: the horror of it was on every side of her! It had seemed possible to control her grief and face Darrow calmly while she was upheld by the belief that this was their last hour together, that after he had passed out of the room there would be no fear of seeing him again, no fear that his nearness, his look, his voice, and all the unseen influences that flowed from him, would dissolve her soul to weakness. But her courage failed at the idea of having to conspire with him to shield Owen, of keeping up with him, for Owen’s sake, a feint of union and felicity. To live at Darrow’s side in seeming intimacy and harmony for another twenty-four hours seemed harder than to live without him for all the rest of her days. Her strength failed her, and she threw herself down and buried her sobs in the cushions where she had so often hidden a face aglow with happiness.

“Anna —— ” His voice was close to her. “Let me talk to you quietly. It’s not worthy of either of us to be afraid.”

Words of endearment would have offended her; but her heart rose at the call to her courage.

“I’ve no defense to make,” he went on. “The facts are miserable enough; but at least I want you to see them as they are. Above all, I want you to know the truth about Miss Viner —— ”

The name sent the blood to Anna’s forehead. She raised her head and faced him. “Why should I know more of her than what she’s told me? I never wish to hear her name again!”

“It’s because you feel about her in that way that I ask you — in the name of common charity — to let me give you the facts as they are, and not as you’ve probably imagined them.”

“I’ve told you I don’t think uncharitably of her. I don’t want to think of her at all!”

“That’s why I tell you you’re afraid.”

“Afraid?”

“Yes. You’ve always said you wanted, above all, to look at life, at the human problem, as it is, without fear and without hypocrisy; and it’s not always a pleasant thing to look at.” He broke off, and then began again: “Don’t think this a plea for myself! I don’t want to say a word to lessen my offense. I don’t want to talk of myself at all. Even if I did, I probably couldn’t make you understand — I don’t, myself, as I look back. Be just to me — it’s your right; all I ask you is to be generous to Miss Viner . . . ”

She stood up trembling. “You’re free to be as generous to her as you please!”

“Yes: you’ve made it clear to me that I’m free. But there’s nothing I can do for her that will help her half as much as your understanding her would.”

“Nothing you can do for her? You can marry her!”

His face hardened. “You certainly couldn’t wish her a worse fate!”

“It must have been what she expected . . . relied on . . . ” He was silent, and she broke out: “Or what is she? What are you? It’s too horrible! On your way here . . . to ME . . . ” She felt the tears in her throat and stopped.

“That was it,” he said bluntly. She stared at him.

“I was on my way to you — after repeated delays and postponements of your own making. At the very last you turned me back with a mere word — and without explanation. I waited for a letter; and none came. I’m not saying this to justify myself. I’m simply trying to make you understand. I felt hurt and bitter and bewildered. I thought you meant to give me up. And suddenly, in my way, I found some one to be sorry for, to be of use to. That, I swear to you, was the way it began. The rest was a moment’s folly . . . a flash of madness . . . as such things are. We’ve never seen each other since . . . ”

Anna was looking at him coldly. “You sufficiently describe her in saying that!”

“Yes, if you measure her by conventional standards — which is what you always declare you never do.”

“Conventional standards? A girl who —— ” She was checked by a sudden rush of almost physical repugnance. Suddenly she broke out: “I always thought her an adventuress!”

“Always?”

“I don’t mean always . . . but after you came . . . ”

“She’s not an adventuress.”

“You mean that she professes to act on the new theories? The stuff that awful women rave about on platforms?”

“Oh, I don’t think she pretended to have a theory —— ”

“She hadn’t even that excuse?”

“She had the excuse of her loneliness, her unhappiness — of miseries and humiliations that a woman like you can’t even guess. She had nothing to look back to but indifference or unkindness — nothing to look forward to but anxiety. She saw I was sorry for her and it touched her. She made too much of it — she exaggerated it. I ought to have seen the danger, but I didn’t. There’s no possible excuse for what I did.”

Anna listened to him in speechless misery. Every word he spoke threw back a disintegrating light on their own past. He had come to her with an open face and a clear conscience — come to her from this! If his security was the security of falsehood it was horrible; if it meant that he had forgotten, it was worse. She would have liked to stop her ears, to close her eyes, to shut out every sight and sound and suggestion of a world in which such things could be; and at the same time she was tormented by the desire to know more, to understand better, to feel herself less ignorant and inexpert in matters which made so much of the stuff of human experience. What did he mean by “a moment’s folly, a flash of madness”? How did people enter on such adventures, how pass out of them without more visible traces of their havoc? Her imagination recoiled from the vision of a sudden debasing familiarity: it seemed to her that her thoughts would never again be pure . . .

“I swear to you,” she heard Darrow saying, “it was simply that, and nothing more.”

She wondered at his composure, his competence, at his knowing so exactly what to say. No doubt men often had to make such explanations: they had the formulas by heart . . . A leaden lassitude descended on her. She passed from flame and torment into a colourless cold world where everything surrounding her seemed equally indifferent and remote. For a moment she simply ceased to feel.

She became aware that Darrow was waiting for her to speak, and she made an effort to represent to herself the meaning of what he had just said; but her mind was as blank as a blurred mirror. Finally she brought out: “I don’t think I understand what you’ve told me.”

“No; you don’t understand,” he returned with sudden bitterness; and on his lips the charge of incomprehension seemed an offense to her.

“I don’t want to — about such things!”

He answered almost harshly: “Don’t be afraid . . . you never will . . . ” and for an instant they faced each other like enemies. Then the tears swelled in her throat at his reproach.

“You mean I don’t feel things — I’m too hard?”

“No: you’re too high . . . too fine . . . such things are too far from you.”

He paused, as if conscious of the futility of going on with whatever he had meant to say, and again, for a short space, they confronted each other, no longer as enemies — so it seemed to her — but as beings of different language who had forgotten the few words they had learned of each other’s speech.

Darrow broke the silence. “It’s best, on all accounts, that I should stay till tomorrow; but I needn’t intrude on you; we needn’t meet again alone. I only want to be sure I know your wishes.” He spoke the short sentences in a level voice, as though he were summing up the results of a business conference.

Anna looked at him vaguely. “My wishes?”

“As to Owen —— ”

At that she started. “They must never meet again!”

“It’s not likely they will. What I meant was, that it depends on you to spare him . . . ”

She answered steadily: “He shall never know,” and after another interval Darrow said: “This is good-bye, then.”

At the word she seemed to understand for the first time whither the flying moments had been leading them. Resentment and indignation died down, and all her consciousness resolved itself into the mere visual sense that he was there before her, near enough for her to lift her hand and touch him, and that in another instant the place where he stood would be empty.

She felt a mortal weakness, a craven impulse to cry out to him to stay, a longing to throw herself into his arms, and take refuge there from the unendurable anguish he had caused her. Then the vision called up another thought: “I shall never know what that girl has known . . . ” and the recoil of pride flung her back on the sharp edges of her anguish.

“Good-bye,” she said, in dread lest he should read her face; and she stood motionless, her head high, while he walked to the door and went out.

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