The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XXXIV

When she woke the next morning she felt a great lightness of heart. She recalled her last awakening at Givre, three days before, when it had seemed as though all her life had gone down in darkness. Now Darrow was once more under the same roof with her, and once more his nearness sufficed to make the looming horror drop away. She could almost have smiled at her scruples of the night before: as she looked back on them they seemed to belong to the old ignorant timorous time when she had feared to look life in the face, and had been blind to the mysteries and contradictions of the human heart because her own had not been revealed to her. Darrow had said: “You were made to feel everything”; and to feel was surely better than to judge.

When she came downstairs he was already in the oak-room with Effie and Madame de Chantelle, and the sense of reassurance which his presence gave her was merged in the relief of not being able to speak of what was between them. But there it was, inevitably, and whenever they looked at each other they saw it. In her dread of giving it a more tangible shape she tried to devise means of keeping the little girl with her, and, when the latter had been called away by the nurse, found an excuse for following Madame de Chantelle upstairs to the purple sitting-room. But a confidential talk with Madame de Chantelle implied the detailed discussion of plans of which Anna could hardly yet bear to consider the vaguest outline: the date of her marriage, the relative advantages of sailing from London or Lisbon, the possibility of hiring a habitable house at their new post; and, when these problems were exhausted, the application of the same method to the subject of Owen’s future.

His grandmother, having no suspicion of the real reason of Sophy Viner’s departure, had thought it “extremely suitable” of the young girl to withdraw to the shelter of her old friends’ roof in the hour of bridal preparation. This maidenly retreat had in fact impressed Madame de Chantelle so favourably that she was disposed for the first time to talk over Owen’s projects; and as every human event translated itself for her into terms of social and domestic detail, Anna had perforce to travel the same round again. She felt a momentary relief when Darrow presently joined them; but his coming served only to draw the conversation back to the question of their own future, and Anna felt a new pang as she heard him calmly and lucidly discussing it. Did such self-possession imply indifference or insincerity? In that problem her mind perpetually revolved; and she dreaded the one answer as much as the other.

She was resolved to keep on her course as though nothing had happened: to marry Darrow and never let the consciousness of the past intrude itself between them; but she was beginning to feel that the only way of attaining to this state of detachment from the irreparable was once for all to turn back with him to its contemplation. As soon as this desire had germinated it became so strong in her that she regretted having promised Effie to take her out for the afternoon. But she could think of no pretext for disappointing the little girl, and soon after luncheon the three set forth in the motor to show Darrow a chateau famous in the annals of the region. During their excursion Anna found it impossible to guess from his demeanour if Effie’s presence between them was as much of a strain to his composure as to hers. He remained imperturbably good-humoured and appreciative while they went the round of the monument, and she remarked only that when he thought himself unnoticed his face grew grave and his answers came less promptly.

On the way back, two or three miles from Givre, she suddenly proposed that they should walk home through the forest which skirted that side of the park. Darrow acquiesced, and they got out and sent Effie on in the motor. Their way led through a bit of sober French woodland, flat as a faded tapestry, but with gleams of live emerald lingering here and there among its browns and ochres. The luminous grey air gave vividness to its dying colours, and veiled the distant glimpses of the landscape in soft uncertainty. In such a solitude Anna had fancied it would be easier to speak; but as she walked beside Darrow over the deep soundless flooring of brown moss the words on her lips took flight again. It seemed impossible to break the spell of quiet joy which his presence laid on her, and when he began to talk of the place they had just visited she answered his questions and then waited for what he should say next . . . No, decidedly she could not speak; she no longer even knew what she had meant to say . . .

The same experience repeated itself several times that day and the next. When she and Darrow were apart she exhausted herself in appeal and interrogation, she formulated with a fervent lucidity every point in her imaginary argument. But as soon as she was alone with him something deeper than reason and subtler than shyness laid its benumbing touch upon her, and the desire to speak became merely a dim disquietude, through which his looks, his words, his touch, reached her as through a mist of bodily pain. Yet this inertia was torn by wild flashes of resistance, and when they were apart she began to prepare again what she meant to say to him.

She knew he could not be with her without being aware of this inner turmoil, and she hoped he would break the spell by some releasing word. But she presently understood that he recognized the futility of words, and was resolutely bent on holding her to her own purpose of behaving as if nothing had happened. Once more she inwardly accused him of insensibility, and her imagination was beset by tormenting visions of his past . . . Had such things happened to him before? If the episode had been an isolated accident — “a moment of folly and madness”, as he had called it — she could understand, or at least begin to understand (for at a certain point her imagination always turned back); but if it were a mere link in a chain of similar experiments, the thought of it dishonoured her whole past . . .

Effie, in the interregnum between governesses, had been given leave to dine downstairs; and Anna, on the evening of Darrow’s return, kept the little girl with her till long after the nurse had signalled from the drawing-room door. When at length she had been carried off, Anna proposed a game of cards, and after this diversion had drawn to its languid close she said good-night to Darrow and followed Madame de Chantelle upstairs. But Madame de Chantelle never sat up late, and the second evening, with the amiably implied intention of leaving Anna and Darrow to themselves, she took an earlier leave of them than usual.

Anna sat silent, listening to her small stiff steps as they minced down the hall and died out in the distance. Madame de Chantelle had broken her wooden embroidery frame, and Darrow, having offered to repair it, had drawn his chair up to a table that held a lamp. Anna watched him as he sat with bent head and knitted brows, trying to fit together the disjoined pieces. The sight of him, so tranquilly absorbed in this trifling business, seemed to give to the quiet room a perfume of intimacy, to fill it with a sense of sweet familiar habit; and it came over her again that she knew nothing of the inner thoughts of this man who was sitting by her as a husband might. The lamplight fell on his white forehead, on the healthy brown of his cheek, the backs of his thin sunburnt hands. As she watched the hands her sense of them became as vivid as a touch, and she said to herself: “That other woman has sat and watched him as I am doing. She has known him as I have never known him . . . Perhaps he is thinking of that now. Or perhaps he has forgotten it all as completely as I have forgotten everything that happened to me before he came . . . ”

He looked young, active, stored with strength and energy; not the man for vain repinings or long memories. She wondered what she had to hold or satisfy him. He loved her now; she had no doubt of that; but how could she hope to keep him? They were so nearly of an age that already she felt herself his senior. As yet the difference was not visible; outwardly at least they were matched; but ill-health or unhappiness would soon do away with this equality. She thought with a pang of bitterness: “He won’t grow any older because he doesn’t feel things; and because he doesn’t, I SHALL . . . ”

And when she ceased to please him, what then? Had he the tradition of faith to the spoken vow, or the deeper piety of the unspoken dedication? What was his theory, what his inner conviction in such matters? But what did she care for his convictions or his theories? No doubt he loved her now, and believed he would always go on loving her, and was persuaded that, if he ceased to, his loyalty would be proof against the change. What she wanted to know was not what he thought about it in advance, but what would impel or restrain him at the crucial hour. She put no faith in her own arts: she was too sure of having none! And if some beneficent enchanter had bestowed them on her, she knew now that she would have rejected the gift. She could hardly conceive of wanting the kind of love that was a state one could be cozened into . . .

Darrow, putting away the frame, walked across the room and sat down beside her; and she felt he had something special to say.

“They’re sure to send for me in a day or two now,” he began.

She made no answer, and he continued: “You’ll tell me before I go what day I’m to come back and get you?”

It was the first time since his return to Givre that he had made any direct allusion to the date of their marriage; and instead of answering him she broke out: “There’s something I’ve been wanting you to know. The other day in Paris I saw Miss Viner.”

She saw him flush with the intensity of his surprise.

“You sent for her?”

“No; she heard from Adelaide that I was in Paris and she came. She came because she wanted to urge me to marry you. I thought you ought to know what she had done.”

Darrow stood up. “I’m glad you’ve told me.” He spoke with a visible effort at composure. Her eyes followed him as he moved away.

“Is that all?” he asked after an interval.

“It seems to me a great deal.”

“It’s what she’d already asked me.” His voice showed her how deeply he was moved, and a throb of jealousy shot through her.

“Oh, it was for your sake, I know!” He made no answer, and she added: “She’s been exceedingly generous . . . Why shouldn’t we speak of it?”

She had lowered her head, but through her dropped lids she seemed to be watching the crowded scene of his face.

“I’ve not shrunk from speaking of it.”

“Speaking of her, then, I mean. It seems to me that if I could talk to you about her I should know better —— ”

She broke off, confused, and he questioned: “What is it you want to know better?”

The colour rose to her forehead. How could she tell him what she scarcely dared own to herself? There was nothing she did not want to know, no fold or cranny of his secret that her awakened imagination did not strain to penetrate; but she could not expose Sophy Viner to the base fingerings of a retrospective jealousy, nor Darrow to the temptation of belittling her in the effort to better his own case. The girl had been magnificent, and the only worthy return that Anna could make was to take Darrow from her without a question if she took him at all . . .

She lifted her eyes to his face. “I think I only wanted to speak her name. It’s not right that we should seem so afraid of it. If I were really afraid of it I should have to give you up,” she said.

He bent over her and caught her to him. “Ah, you can’t give me up now!” he exclaimed.

She suffered him to hold her fast without speaking; but the old dread was between them again, and it was on her lips to cry out: “How can I help it, when I AM so afraid?”

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