The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XXXI

The sound of Miss Painter’s latch-key made her start. She was still a bundle of quivering fears to whom each coming moment seemed a menace.

There was a slight interval, and a sound of voices in the hall; then Miss Painter’s vigorous hand was on the door.

Anna stood up as she came in. “You’ve found him?”

“I’ve found Sophy.”

“And Owen? — has she seen him? Is he here?”

“SHE’S here: in the hall. She wants to speak to you.”

“Here — NOW?” Anna found no voice for more.

“She drove back with me,” Miss Painter continued in the tone of impartial narrative. “The cabman was impertinent. I’ve got his number.” She fumbled in a stout black reticule.

“Oh, I can’t — ” broke from Anna; but she collected herself, remembering that to betray her unwillingness to see the girl was to risk revealing much more.

“She thought you might be too tired to see her: she wouldn’t come in till I’d found out.”

Anna drew a quick breath. An instant’s thought had told her that Sophy Viner would hardly have taken such a step unless something more important had happened. “Ask her to come, please,” she said.

Miss Painter, from the threshold, turned back to announce her intention of going immediately to the police station to report the cabman’s delinquency; then she passed out, and Sophy Viner entered.

The look in the girl’s face showed that she had indeed come unwillingly; yet she seemed animated by an eager resoluteness that made Anna ashamed of her tremors. For a moment they looked at each other in silence, as if the thoughts between them were packed too thick for speech; then Anna said, in a voice from which she strove to take the edge of hardness: “You know where Owen is, Miss Painter tells me.”

“Yes; that was my reason for asking you to see me.” Sophy spoke simply, without constraint or hesitation.

“I thought he’d promised you — ” Anna interposed.

“He did; but he broke his promise. That’s what I thought I ought to tell you.”

“Thank you.” Anna went on tentatively: “He left Givre this morning without a word. I followed him because I was afraid . . . ”

She broke off again and the girl took up her phrase. “You were afraid he’d guessed? He HAS . . . ”

“What do you mean — guessed what?”

“That you know something he doesn’t . . . something that made you glad to have me go.”

“Oh — ” Anna moaned. If she had wanted more pain she had it now. “He’s told you this?” she faltered.

“He hasn’t told me, because I haven’t seen him. I kept him off — I made Mrs. Farlow get rid of him. But he’s written me what he came to say; and that was it.”

“Oh, poor Owen!” broke from Anna. Through all the intricacies of her suffering she felt the separate pang of his.

“And I want to ask you,” the girl continued, “to let me see him; for of course,” she added in the same strange voice of energy, “I wouldn’t unless you consented.”

“To see him?” Anna tried to gather together her startled thoughts. “What use would it be? What could you tell him?”

“I want to tell him the truth,” said Sophy Viner.

The two women looked at each other, and a burning blush rose to Anna’s forehead. “I don’t understand,” she faltered.

Sophy waited a moment; then she lowered her voice to say: “I don’t want him to think worse of me than he need . . . ”

“Worse?”

“Yes — to think such things as you’re thinking now . . . I want him to know exactly what happened . . . then I want to bid him good-bye.”

Anna tried to clear a way through her own wonder and confusion. She felt herself obscurely moved.

“Wouldn’t it be worse for him?”

“To hear the truth? It would be better, at any rate, for you and Mr. Darrow.”

At the sound of the name Anna lifted her head quickly. “I’ve only my step-son to consider!”

The girl threw a startled look at her. “You don’t mean — you’re not going to give him up?”

Anna felt her lips harden. “I don’t think it’s of any use to talk of that.”

“Oh, I know! It’s my fault for not knowing how to say what I want you to hear. Your words are different; you know how to choose them. Mine offend you . . . and the dread of it makes me blunder. That’s why, the other day, I couldn’t say anything . . . couldn’t make things clear to you. But now MUST, even if you hate it!” She drew a step nearer, her slender figure swayed forward in a passion of entreaty. “Do listen to me! What you’ve said is dreadful. How can you speak of him in that voice? Don’t you see that I went away so that he shouldn’t have to lose you?”

Anna looked at her coldly. “Are you speaking of Mr. Darrow? I don’t know why you think your going or staying can in any way affect our relations.”

“You mean that you HAVE given him up — because of me? Oh, how could you? You can’t really love him! — And yet,” the girl suddenly added, “you must, or you’d be more sorry for me!”

“I’m very sorry for you,” Anna said, feeling as if the iron band about her heart pressed on it a little less inexorably.

“Then why won’t you hear me? Why won’t you try to understand? It’s all so different from what you imagine!”

“I’ve never judged you.”

“I’m not thinking of myself. He loves you!”

“I thought you’d come to speak of Owen.”

Sophy Viner seemed not to hear her. “He’s never loved any one else. Even those few days . . . I knew it all the while . . . he never cared for me.”

“Please don’t say any more!” Anna said.

“I know it must seem strange to you that I should say so much. I shock you, I offend you: you think me a creature without shame. So I am — but not in the sense you think! I’m not ashamed of having loved him; no; and I’m not ashamed of telling you so. It’s that that justifies me — and him too . . . Oh, let me tell you how it happened! He was sorry for me: he saw I cared. I KNEW that was all he ever felt. I could see he was thinking of some one else. I knew it was only for a week . . . He never said a word to mislead me . . . I wanted to be happy just once — and I didn’t dream of the harm I might be doing him!”

Anna could not speak. She hardly knew, as yet, what the girl’s words conveyed to her, save the sense of their tragic fervour; but she was conscious of being in the presence of an intenser passion than she had ever felt.

“I am sorry for you.” She paused. “But why do you say this to me?” After another interval she exclaimed: “You’d no right to let Owen love you.”

“No; that was wrong. At least what’s happened since has made it so. If things had been different I think I could have made Owen happy. You were all so good to me — I wanted so to stay with you! I suppose you’ll say that makes it worse: my daring to dream I had the right . . . But all that doesn’t matter now. I won’t see Owen unless you’re willing. I should have liked to tell him what I’ve tried to tell you; but you must know better; you feel things in a finer way. Only you’ll have to help him if I can’t. He cares a great deal . . . it’s going to hurt him . . . ”

Anna trembled. “Oh, I know! What can I do?”

“You can go straight back to Givre — now, at once! So that Owen shall never know you’ve followed him.” Sophy’s clasped hands reached out urgently. “And you can send for Mr. Darrow — bring him back. Owen must be convinced that he’s mistaken, and nothing else will convince him. Afterward I’ll find a pretext — oh, I promise you! But first he must see for himself that nothing’s changed for you.”

Anna stood motionless, subdued and dominated. The girl’s ardour swept her like a wind.

“Oh, can’t I move you? Some day you’ll know!” Sophy pleaded, her eyes full of tears.

Anna saw them, and felt a fullness in her throat. Again the band about her heart seemed loosened. She wanted to find a word, but could not: all within her was too dark and violent. She gave the girl a speechless look.

“I do believe you,” she said suddenly; then she turned and walked out of the room.

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