The Reef, by Edith Wharton


Owen Leath did not go back with his step-mother to Givre. In reply to her suggestion he announced his intention of staying on a day or two longer in Paris.

Anna left alone by the first train the next morning. Darrow was to follow in the afternoon. When Owen had left them the evening before, Darrow waited a moment for her to speak; then, as she said nothing, he asked her if she really wished him to return to Givre. She made a mute sign of assent, and he added: “For you know that, much as I’m ready to do for Owen, I can’t do that for him — I can’t go back to be sent away again.”

“No — no!”

He came nearer, and looked at her, and she went to him. All her fears seemed to fall from her as he held her. It was a different feeling from any she had known before: confused and turbid, as if secret shames and rancours stirred in it, yet richer, deeper, more enslaving. She leaned her head back and shut her eyes beneath his kisses. She knew now that she could never give him up.

Nevertheless she asked him, the next morning, to let her go back alone to Givre. She wanted time to think. She was convinced that what had happened was inevitable, that she and Darrow belonged to each other, and that he was right in saying no past folly could ever put them asunder. If there was a shade of difference in her feeling for him it was that of an added intensity. She felt restless, insecure out of his sight: she had a sense of incompleteness, of passionate dependence, that was somehow at variance with her own conception of her character.

It was partly the consciousness of this change in herself that made her want to be alone. The solitude of her inner life had given her the habit of these hours of self-examination, and she needed them as she needed her morning plunge into cold water.

During the journey she tried to review what had happened in the light of her new decision and of her sudden relief from pain. She seemed to herself to have passed through some fiery initiation from which she had emerged seared and quivering, but clutching to her breast a magic talisman. Sophy Viner had cried out to her: “Some day you’ll know!” and Darrow had used the same words. They meant, she supposed, that when she had explored the intricacies and darknesses of her own heart her judgment of others would be less absolute. Well, she knew now — knew weaknesses and strengths she had not dreamed of, and the deep discord and still deeper complicities between what thought in her and what blindly wanted . . .

Her mind turned anxiously to Owen. At least the blow that was to fall on him would not seem to have been inflicted by her hand. He would be left with the impression that his breach with Sophy Viner was due to one of the ordinary causes of such disruptions: though he must lose her, his memory of her would not be poisoned. Anna never for a moment permitted herself the delusion that she had renewed her promise to Darrow in order to spare her step-son this last refinement of misery. She knew she had been prompted by the irresistible impulse to hold fast to what was most precious to her, and that Owen’s arrival on the scene had been the pretext for her decision, and not its cause; yet she felt herself fortified by the thought of what she had spared him. It was as though a star she had been used to follow had shed its familiar ray on ways unknown to her.

All through these meditations ran the undercurrent of an absolute trust in Sophy Viner. She thought of the girl with a mingling of antipathy and confidence. It was humiliating to her pride to recognize kindred impulses in a character which she would have liked to feel completely alien to her. But what indeed was the girl really like? She seemed to have no scruples and a thousand delicacies. She had given herself to Darrow, and concealed the episode from Owen Leath, with no more apparent sense of debasement than the vulgarest of adventuresses; yet she had instantly obeyed the voice of her heart when it bade her part from the one and serve the other.

Anna tried to picture what the girl’s life must have been: what experiences, what initiations, had formed her. But her own training had been too different: there were veils she could not lift. She looked back at her married life, and its colourless uniformity took on an air of high restraint and order. Was it because she had been so incurious that it had worn that look to her? It struck her with amazement that she had never given a thought to her husband’s past, or wondered what he did and where he went when he was away from her. If she had been asked what she supposed he thought about when they were apart, she would instantly have answered: his snuff-boxes. It had never occurred to her that he might have passions, interests, preoccupations of which she was absolutely ignorant. Yet he went up to Paris rather regularly: ostensibly to attend sales and exhibitions, or to confer with dealers and collectors. She tried to picture him, straight, trim, beautifully brushed and varnished, walking furtively down a quiet street, and looking about him before he slipped into a doorway. She understood now that she had been cold to him: what more likely than that he had sought compensations? All men were like that, she supposed — no doubt her simplicity had amused him.

In the act of transposing Fraser Leath into a Don Juan she was pulled up by the ironic perception that she was simply trying to justify Darrow. She wanted to think that all men were “like that” because Darrow was “like that”: she wanted to justify her acceptance of the fact by persuading herself that only through such concessions could women like herself hope to keep what they could not give up. And suddenly she was filled with anger at her blindness, and then at her disastrous attempt to see. Why had she forced the truth out of Darrow? If only she had held her tongue nothing need ever have been known. Sophy Viner would have broken her engagement, Owen would have been sent around the world, and her own dream would have been unshattered. But she had probed, insisted, cross-examined, not rested till she had dragged the secret to the light. She was one of the luckless women who always have the wrong audacities, and who always know it . . .

Was it she, Anna Leath, who was picturing herself to herself in that way? She recoiled from her thoughts as if with a sense of demoniac possession, and there flashed through her the longing to return to her old state of fearless ignorance. If at that moment she could have kept Darrow from following her to Givre she would have done so . . .

But he came; and with the sight of him the turmoil fell and she felt herself reassured, rehabilitated. He arrived toward dusk, and she motored to Francheuil to meet him. She wanted to see him as soon as possible, for she had divined, through the new insight that was in her, that only his presence could restore her to a normal view of things. In the motor, as they left the town and turned into the high-road, he lifted her hand and kissed it, and she leaned against him, and felt the currents flow between them. She was grateful to him for not saying anything, and for not expecting her to speak. She said to herself: “He never makes a mistake — he always knows what to do”; and then she thought with a start that it was doubtless because he had so often been in such situations. The idea that his tact was a kind of professional expertness filled her with repugnance, and insensibly she drew away from him. He made no motion to bring her nearer, and she instantly thought that that was calculated too. She sat beside him in frozen misery, wondering whether, henceforth, she would measure in this way his every look and gesture. Neither of them spoke again till the motor turned under the dark arch of the avenue, and they saw the lights of Givre twinkling at its end. Then Darrow laid his hand on hers and said: “I know, dear — ” and the hardness in her melted. “He’s suffering as I am,” she thought; and for a moment the baleful fact between them seemed to draw them closer instead of walling them up in their separate wretchedness.

It was wonderful to be once more re-entering the doors of Givre with him, and as the old house received them into its mellow silence she had again the sense of passing out of a dreadful dream into the reassurance of kindly and familiar things. It did not seem possible that these quiet rooms, so full of the slowly-distilled accumulations of a fastidious taste, should have been the scene of tragic dissensions. The memory of them seemed to be shut out into the night with the closing and barring of its doors.

At the tea-table in the oak-room they found Madame de Chantelle and Effie. The little girl, catching sight of Darrow, raced down the drawing-rooms to meet him, and returned in triumph on his shoulder. Anna looked at them with a smile. Effie, for all her graces, was chary of such favours, and her mother knew that in according them to Darrow she had admitted him to the circle where Owen had hitherto ruled.

Over the tea-table Darrow gave Madame de Chantelle the explanation of his sudden return from England. On reaching London, he told her, he had found that the secretary he was to have replaced was detained there by the illness of his wife. The Ambassador, knowing Darrow’s urgent reasons for wishing to be in France, had immediately proposed his going back, and awaiting at Givre the summons to relieve his colleague; and he had jumped into the first train, without even waiting to telegraph the news of his release. He spoke naturally, easily, in his usual quiet voice, taking his tea from Effie, helping himself to the toast she handed, and stooping now and then to stroke the dozing terrier. And suddenly, as Anna listened to his explanation, she asked herself if it were true.

The question, of course, was absurd. There was no possible reason why he should invent a false account of his return, and every probability that the version he gave was the real one. But he had looked and spoken in the same way when he had answered her probing questions about Sophy Viner, and she reflected with a chill of fear that she would never again know if he were speaking the truth or not. She was sure he loved her, and she did not fear his insincerity as much as her own distrust of him. For a moment it seemed to her that this must corrupt the very source of love; then she said to herself: “By and bye, when I am altogether his, we shall be so near each other that there will be no room for any doubts between us.” But the doubts were there now, one moment lulled to quiescence, the next more torturingly alert. When the nurse appeared to summon Effie, the little girl, after kissing her grandmother, entrenched herself on Darrow’s knee with the imperious demand to be carried up to bed; and Anna, while she laughingly protested, said to herself with a pang: “Can I give her a father about whom I think such things?”

The thought of Effie, and of what she owed to Effie, had been the fundamental reason for her delays and hesitations when she and Darrow had come together again in England. Her own feeling was so clear that but for that scruple she would have put her hand in his at once. But till she had seen him again she had never considered the possibility of re-marriage, and when it suddenly confronted her it seemed, for the moment, to disorganize the life she had planned for herself and her child. She had not spoken of this to Darrow because it appeared to her a subject to be debated within her own conscience. The question, then, was not as to his fitness to become the guide and guardian of her child; nor did she fear that her love for him would deprive Effie of the least fraction of her tenderness, since she did not think of love as something measured and exhaustible but as a treasure perpetually renewed. What she questioned was her right to introduce into her life any interests and duties which might rob Effie of a part of her time, or lessen the closeness of their daily intercourse.

She had decided this question as it was inevitable that she should; but now another was before her. Assuredly, at her age, there was no possible reason why she should cloister herself to bring up her daughter; but there was every reason for not marrying a man in whom her own faith was not complete . . .

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