The Reef, by Edith Wharton

III

Almost as soon as the train left Calais her head had dropped back into the corner, and she had fallen asleep.

Sitting opposite, in the compartment from which he had contrived to have other travellers excluded, Darrow looked at her curiously. He had never seen a face that changed so quickly. A moment since it had danced like a field of daisies in a summer breeze; now, under the pallid oscillating light of the lamp overhead, it wore the hard stamp of experience, as of a soft thing chilled into shape before its curves had rounded: and it moved him to see that care already stole upon her when she slept.

The story she had imparted to him in the wheezing shaking cabin, and at the Calais buffet — where he had insisted on offering her the dinner she had missed at Mrs. Murrett’s — had given a distincter outline to her figure. From the moment of entering the New York boarding-school to which a preoccupied guardian had hastily consigned her after the death of her parents, she had found herself alone in a busy and indifferent world. Her youthful history might, in fact, have been summed up in the statement that everybody had been too busy to look after her. Her guardian, a drudge in a big banking house, was absorbed by “the office”; the guardian’s wife, by her health and her religion; and an elder sister, Laura, married, unmarried, remarried, and pursuing, through all these alternating phases, some vaguely “artistic” ideal on which the guardian and his wife looked askance, had (as Darrow conjectured) taken their disapproval as a pretext for not troubling herself about poor Sophy, to whom — perhaps for this reason — she had remained the incarnation of remote romantic possibilities.

In the course of time a sudden “stroke” of the guardian’s had thrown his personal affairs into a state of confusion from which — after his widely lamented death — it became evident that it would not be possible to extricate his ward’s inheritance. No one deplored this more sincerely than his widow, who saw in it one more proof of her husband’s life having been sacrificed to the innumerable duties imposed on him, and who could hardly — but for the counsels of religion — have brought herself to pardon the young girl for her indirect share in hastening his end. Sophy did not resent this point of view. She was really much sorrier for her guardian’s death than for the loss of her insignificant fortune. The latter had represented only the means of holding her in bondage, and its disappearance was the occasion of her immediate plunge into the wide bright sea of life surrounding the island-of her captivity. She had first landed — thanks to the intervention of the ladies who had directed her education — in a Fifth Avenue school-room where, for a few months, she acted as a buffer between three autocratic infants and their bodyguard of nurses and teachers. The too-pressing attentions of their father’s valet had caused her to fly this sheltered spot, against the express advice of her educational superiors, who implied that, in their own case, refinement and self-respect had always sufficed to keep the most ungovernable passions at bay. The experience of the guardian’s widow having been precisely similar, and the deplorable precedent of Laura’s career being present to all their minds, none of these ladies felt any obligation to intervene farther in Sophy’s affairs; and she was accordingly left to her own resources.

A schoolmate from the Rocky Mountains, who was taking her father and mother to Europe, had suggested Sophy’s accompanying them, and “going round” with her while her progenitors, in the care of the courier, nursed their ailments at a fashionable bath. Darrow gathered that the “going round” with Mamie Hoke was a varied and diverting process; but this relatively brilliant phase of Sophy’s career was cut short by the elopement of the inconsiderate Mamie with a “matinee idol” who had followed her from New York, and by the precipitate return of her parents to negotiate for the repurchase of their child.

It was then — after an interval of repose with compassionate but impecunious American friends in Paris — that Miss Viner had been drawn into the turbid current of Mrs. Murrett’s career. The impecunious compatriots had found Mrs. Murrett for her, and it was partly on their account (because they were such dears, and so unconscious, poor confiding things, of what they were letting her in for) that Sophy had stuck it out so long in the dreadful house in Chelsea. The Farlows, she explained to Darrow, were the best friends she had ever had (and the only ones who had ever “been decent” about Laura, whom they had seen once, and intensely admired); but even after twenty years of Paris they were the most incorrigibly inexperienced angels, and quite persuaded that Mrs. Murrett was a woman of great intellectual eminence, and the house at Chelsea “the last of the salons” — Darrow knew what she meant? And she hadn’t liked to undeceive them, knowing that to do so would be virtually to throw herself back on their hands, and feeling, moreover, after her previous experiences, the urgent need of gaining, at any cost, a name for stability; besides which — she threw it off with a slight laugh — no other chance, in all these years, had happened to come to her.

She had brushed in this outline of her career with light rapid strokes, and in a tone of fatalism oddly untinged by bitterness. Darrow perceived that she classified people according to their greater or less “luck” in life, but she appeared to harbour no resentment against the undefined power which dispensed the gift in such unequal measure. Things came one’s way or they didn’t; and meanwhile one could only look on, and make the most of small compensations, such as watching “the show” at Mrs. Murrett’s, and talking over the Lady Ulricas and other footlight figures. And at any moment, of course, a turn of the kaleidoscope might suddenly toss a bright spangle into the grey pattern of one’s days.

This light-hearted philosophy was not without charm to a young man accustomed to more traditional views. George Darrow had had a fairly varied experience of feminine types, but the women he had frequented had either been pronouncedly “ladies” or they had not. Grateful to both for ministering to the more complex masculine nature, and disposed to assume that they had been evolved, if not designed, to that end, he had instinctively kept the two groups apart in his mind, avoiding that intermediate society which attempts to conciliate both theories of life. “Bohemianism” seemed to him a cheaper convention than the other two, and he liked, above all, people who went as far as they could in their own line — liked his “ladies” and their rivals to be equally unashamed of showing for exactly what they were. He had not indeed — the fact of Lady Ulrica was there to remind him — been without his experience of a third type; but that experience had left him with a contemptuous distaste for the woman who uses the privileges of one class to shelter the customs of another.

As to young girls, he had never thought much about them since his early love for the girl who had become Mrs. Leath. That episode seemed, as he looked back on it, to bear no more relation to reality than a pale decorative design to the confused richness of a summer landscape. He no longer understood the violent impulses and dreamy pauses of his own young heart, or the inscrutable abandonments and reluctances of hers. He had known a moment of anguish at losing her — the mad plunge of youthful instincts against the barrier of fate; but the first wave of stronger sensation had swept away all but the outline of their story, and the memory of Anna Summers had made the image of the young girl sacred, but the class uninteresting.

Such generalisations belonged, however, to an earlier stage of his experience. The more he saw of life the more incalculable he found it; and he had learned to yield to his impressions without feeling the youthful need of relating them to others. It was the girl in the opposite seat who had roused in him the dormant habit of comparison. She was distinguished from the daughters of wealth by her avowed acquaintance with the real business of living, a familiarity as different as possible from their theoretical proficiency; yet it seemed to Darrow that her experience had made her free without hardness and self-assured without assertiveness.

The rush into Amiens, and the flash of the station lights into their compartment, broke Miss Viner’s sleep, and without changing her position she lifted her lids and looked at Darrow. There was neither surprise nor bewilderment in the look. She seemed instantly conscious, not so much of where she was, as of the fact that she was with him; and that fact seemed enough to reassure her. She did not even turn her head to look out; her eyes continued to rest on him with a vague smile which appeared to light her face from within, while her lips kept their sleepy droop.

Shouts and the hurried tread of travellers came to them through the confusing cross-lights of the platform. A head appeared at the window, and Darrow threw himself forward to defend their solitude; but the intruder was only a train hand going his round of inspection. He passed on, and the lights and cries of the station dropped away, merged in a wider haze and a hollower resonance, as the train gathered itself up with a long shake and rolled out again into the darkness.

Miss Viner’s head sank back against the cushion, pushing out a dusky wave of hair above her forehead. The swaying of the train loosened a lock over her ear, and she shook it back with a movement like a boy’s, while her gaze still rested on her companion.

“You’re not too tired?”

She shook her head with a smile.

“We shall be in before midnight. We’re very nearly on time.” He verified the statement by holding up his watch to the lamp.

She nodded dreamily. “It’s all right. I telegraphed Mrs. Farlow that they mustn’t think of coming to the station; but they’ll have told the concierge to look out for me.”

“You’ll let me drive you there?”

She nodded again, and her eyes closed. It was very pleasant to Darrow that she made no effort to talk or to dissemble her sleepiness. He sat watching her till the upper lashes met and mingled with the lower, and their blent shadow lay on her cheek; then he stood up and drew the curtain over the lamp, drowning the compartment in a bluish twilight.

As he sank back into his seat he thought how differently Anna Summers — or even Anna Leath — would have behaved. She would not have talked too much; she would not have been either restless or embarrassed; but her adaptability, her appropriateness, would not have been nature but “tact.” The oddness of the situation would have made sleep impossible, or, if weariness had overcome her for a moment, she would have waked with a start, wondering where she was, and how she had come there, and if her hair were tidy; and nothing short of hairpins and a glass would have restored her self-possession . . .

The reflection set him wondering whether the “sheltered” girl’s bringing-up might not unfit her for all subsequent contact with life. How much nearer to it had Mrs. Leath been brought by marriage and motherhood, and the passage of fourteen years? What were all her reticences and evasions but the result of the deadening process of forming a “lady”? The freshness he had marvelled at was like the unnatural whiteness of flowers forced in the dark.

As he looked back at their few days together he saw that their intercourse had been marked, on her part, by the same hesitations and reserves which had chilled their earlier intimacy. Once more they had had their hour together and she had wasted it. As in her girlhood, her eyes had made promises which her lips were afraid to keep. She was still afraid of life, of its ruthlessness, its danger and mystery. She was still the petted little girl who cannot be left alone in the dark . . . His memory flew back to their youthful story, and long-forgotten details took shape before him. How frail and faint the picture was! They seemed, he and she, like the ghostly lovers of the Grecian Urn, forever pursuing without ever clasping each other. To this day he did not quite know what had parted them: the break had been as fortuitous as the fluttering apart of two seed-vessels on a wave of summer air . . .

The very slightness, vagueness, of the memory gave it an added poignancy. He felt the mystic pang of the parent for a child which has just breathed and died. Why had it happened thus, when the least shifting of influences might have made it all so different? If she had been given to him then he would have put warmth in her veins and light in her eyes: would have made her a woman through and through. Musing thus, he had the sense of waste that is the bitterest harvest of experience. A love like his might have given her the divine gift of self-renewal; and now he saw her fated to wane into old age repeating the same gestures, echoing the words she had always heard, and perhaps never guessing that, just outside her glazed and curtained consciousness, life rolled away, a vast blackness starred with lights, like the night landscape beyond the windows of the train.

The engine lowered its speed for the passage through a sleeping station. In the light of the platform lamp Darrow looked across at his companion. Her head had dropped toward one shoulder, and her lips were just far enough apart for the reflection of the upper one to deepen the colour of the other. The jolting of the train had again shaken loose the lock above her ear. It danced on her cheek like the flit of a brown wing over flowers, and Darrow felt an intense desire to lean forward and put it back behind her ear.

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