The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XXXII

She drove from Miss Painter’s to her own apartment. The maid-servant who had it in charge had been apprised of her coming, and had opened one or two of the rooms, and prepared a fire in her bedroom. Anna shut herself in, refusing the woman’s ministrations. She felt cold and faint, and after she had taken off her hat and cloak she knelt down by the fire and stretched her hands to it.

In one respect, at least, it was clear to her that she would do well to follow Sophy Viner’s counsel. It had been an act of folly to follow Owen, and her first business was to get back to Givre before him. But the only train leaving that evening was a slow one, which did not reach Francheuil till midnight, and she knew that her taking it would excite Madame de Chantelle’s wonder and lead to interminable talk. She had come up to Paris on the pretext of finding a new governess for Effie, and the natural thing was to defer her return till the next morning. She knew Owen well enough to be sure that he would make another attempt to see Miss Viner, and failing that, would write again and await her answer: so that there was no likelihood of his reaching Givre till the following evening.

Her sense of relief at not having to start out at once showed her for the first time how tired she was. The bonne had suggested a cup of tea, but the dread of having any one about her had made Anna refuse, and she had eaten nothing since morning but a sandwich bought at a buffet. She was too tired to get up, but stretching out her arm she drew toward her the arm-chair which stood beside the hearth and rested her head against its cushions. Gradually the warmth of the fire stole into her veins and her heaviness of soul was replaced by a dreamy buoyancy. She seemed to be seated on the hearth in her sitting-room at Givre, and Darrow was beside her, in the chair against which she leaned. He put his arms about her shoulders and drawing her head back looked into her eyes. “Of all the ways you do your hair, that’s the way I like best,” he said . . .

A log dropped, and she sat up with a start. There was a warmth in her heart, and she was smiling. Then she looked about her, and saw where she was, and the glory fell. She hid her face and sobbed.

Presently she perceived that it was growing dark, and getting up stiffly she began to undo the things in her bag and spread them on the dressing-table. She shrank from lighting the lights, and groped her way about, trying to find what she needed. She seemed immeasurably far off from every one, and most of all from herself. It was as if her consciousness had been transmitted to some stranger whose thoughts and gestures were indifferent to her . . .

Suddenly she heard a shrill tinkle, and with a beating heart she stood still in the middle of the room. It was the telephone in her dressing-room — a call, no doubt, from Adelaide Painter. Or could Owen have learned she was in town? The thought alarmed her and she opened the door and stumbled across the unlit room to the instrument. She held it to her ear, and heard Darrow’s voice pronounce her name.

“Will you let me see you? I’ve come back — I had to come. Miss Painter told me you were here.”

She began to tremble, and feared that he would guess it from her voice. She did not know what she answered: she heard him say: “I can’t hear.” She called “Yes!” and laid the telephone down, and caught it up again — but he was gone. She wondered if her “Yes” had reached him.

She sat in her chair and listened. Why had she said that she would see him? What did she mean to say to him when he came? Now and then, as she sat there, the sense of his presence enveloped her as in her dream, and she shut her eyes and felt his arms about her. Then she woke to reality and shivered. A long time elapsed, and at length she said to herself: “He isn’t coming.”

The door-bell rang as she said it, and she stood up, cold and trembling. She thought: “Can he imagine there’s any use in coming?” and moved forward to bid the servant say she could not see him.

The door opened and she saw him standing in the drawing-room. The room was cold and fireless, and a hard glare fell from the wall-lights on the shrouded furniture and the white slips covering the curtains. He looked pale and stern, with a frown of fatigue between his eyes; and she remembered that in three days he had travelled from Givre to London and back. It seemed incredible that all that had befallen her should have been compressed within the space of three days!

“Thank you,” he said as she came in.

She answered: “It’s better, I suppose —— ”

He came toward her and took her in his arms. She struggled a little, afraid of yielding, but he pressed her to him, not bending to her but holding her fast, as though he had found her after a long search: she heard his hurried breathing. It seemed to come from her own breast, so close he held her; and it was she who, at last, lifted up her face and drew down his.

She freed herself and went and sat on a sofa at the other end of the room. A mirror between the shrouded window-curtains showed her crumpled travelling dress and the white face under her disordered hair.

She found her voice, and asked him how he had been able to leave London. He answered that he had managed — he’d arranged it; and she saw he hardly heard what she was saying.

“I had to see you,” he went on, and moved nearer, sitting down at her side.

“Yes; we must think of Owen —— ”

“Oh, Owen —!”

Her mind had flown back to Sophy Viner’s plea that she should let Darrow return to Givre in order that Owen might be persuaded of the folly of his suspicions. The suggestion was absurd, of course. She could not ask Darrow to lend himself to such a fraud, even had she had the inhuman courage to play her part in it. She was suddenly overwhelmed by the futility of every attempt to reconstruct her ruined world. No, it was useless; and since it was useless, every moment with Darrow was pure pain . . .

“I’ve come to talk of myself, not of Owen,” she heard him saying. “When you sent me away the other day I understood that it couldn’t be otherwise — then. But it’s not possible that you and I should part like that. If I’m to lose you, it must be for a better reason.”

“A better reason?”

“Yes: a deeper one. One that means a fundamental disaccord between us. This one doesn’t — in spite of everything it doesn’t. That’s what I want you to see, and have the courage to acknowledge.”

“If I saw it I should have the courage!”

“Yes: courage was the wrong word. You have that. That’s why I’m here.”

“But I don’t see it,” she continued sadly. “So it’s useless, isn’t it? — and so cruel . . . ” He was about to speak, but she went on: “I shall never understand it — never!”

He looked at her. “You will some day: you were made to feel everything”

“I should have thought this was a case of not feeling —— ”

“On my part, you mean?” He faced her resolutely. “Yes, it was: to my shame . . . What I meant was that when you’ve lived a little longer you’ll see what complex blunderers we all are: how we’re struck blind sometimes, and mad sometimes — and then, when our sight and our senses come back, how we have to set to work, and build up, little by little, bit by bit, the precious things we’d smashed to atoms without knowing it. Life’s just a perpetual piecing together of broken bits.”

She looked up quickly. “That’s what I feel: that you ought to —— ”

He stood up, interrupting her with a gesture. “Oh, don’t — don’t say what you’re going to! Men don’t give their lives away like that. If you won’t have mine, it’s at least my own, to do the best I can with.”

“The best you can — that’s what I mean! How can there be a ‘best’ for you that’s made of some one else’s worst?”

He sat down again with a groan. “I don’t know! It seemed such a slight thing — all on the surface — and I’ve gone aground on it because it was on the surface. I see the horror of it just as you do. But I see, a little more clearly, the extent, and the limits, of my wrong. It’s not as black as you imagine.”

She lowered her voice to say: “I suppose I shall never understand; but she seems to love you . . . ”

“There’s my shame! That I didn’t guess it, didn’t fly from it. You say you’ll never understand: but why shouldn’t you? Is it anything to be proud of, to know so little of the strings that pull us? If you knew a little more, I could tell you how such things happen without offending you; and perhaps you’d listen without condemning me.”

“I don’t condemn you.” She was dizzy with struggling impulses. She longed to cry out: “I DO understand! I’ve understood ever since you’ve been here!” For she was aware, in her own bosom, of sensations so separate from her romantic thoughts of him that she saw her body and soul divided against themselves. She recalled having read somewhere that in ancient Rome the slaves were not allowed to wear a distinctive dress lest they should recognize each other and learn their numbers and their power. So, in herself, she discerned for the first time instincts and desires, which, mute and unmarked, had gone to and fro in the dim passages of her mind, and now hailed each other with a cry of mutiny.

“Oh, I don’t know what to think!” she broke out. “You say you didn’t know she loved you. But you know it now. Doesn’t that show you how you can put the broken bits together?”

“Can you seriously think it would be doing so to marry one woman while I care for another?”

“Oh, I don’t know . . . I don’t know . . . ” The sense of her weakness made her try to harden herself against his arguments.

“You do know! We’ve often talked of such things: of the monstrousness of useless sacrifices. If I’m to expiate, it’s not in that way.” He added abruptly: “It’s in having to say this to you now . . . ”

She found no answer.

Through the silent apartment they heard the sudden peal of the door-bell, and she rose to her feet. “Owen!” she instantly exclaimed.

“Is Owen in Paris?”

She explained in a rapid undertone what she had learned from Sophy Viner.

“Shall I leave you?” Darrow asked.

“Yes . . . no . . . ” She moved to the dining-room door, with the half-formed purpose of making him pass out, and then turned back. “It may be Adelaide.”

They heard the outer door open, and a moment later Owen walked into the room. He was pale, with excited eyes: as they fell on Darrow, Anna saw his start of wonder. He made a slight sign of recognition, and then went up to his step-mother with an air of exaggerated gaiety.

“You furtive person! I ran across the omniscient Adelaide and heard from her that you’d rushed up suddenly and secretly.” He stood between Anna and Darrow, strained, questioning, dangerously on edge.

“I came up to meet Mr. Darrow,” Anna answered. “His leave’s been prolonged — he’s going back with me.”

The words seemed to have uttered themselves without her will, yet she felt a great sense of freedom as she spoke them.

The hard tension of Owen’s face changed to incredulous surprise. He looked at Darrow. “The merest luck . . . a colleague whose wife was ill . . . I came straight back,” she heard the latter tranquilly explaining. His self-command helped to steady her, and she smiled at Owen.

“We’ll all go back together tomorrow morning,” she said as she slipped her arm through his.

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