The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XXXV

The next morning the dread was still there, and she understood that she must snatch herself out of the torpor of the will into which she had been gradually sinking, and tell Darrow that she could not be his wife.

The knowledge came to her in the watches of a sleepless night, when, through the tears of disenchanted passion, she stared back upon her past. There it lay before her, her sole romance, in all its paltry poverty, the cheapest of cheap adventures, the most pitiful of sentimental blunders. She looked about her room, the room where, for so many years, if her heart had been quiescent her thoughts had been alive, and pictured herself henceforth cowering before a throng of mean suspicions, of unavowed compromises and concessions. In that moment of self-searching she saw that Sophy Viner had chosen the better part, and that certain renunciations might enrich where possession would have left a desert.

Passionate reactions of instinct fought against these efforts of her will. Why should past or future coerce her, when the present was so securely hers? Why insanely surrender what the other would after all never have? Her sense of irony whispered that if she sent away Darrow it would not be to Sophy Viner, but to the first woman who crossed his path — as, in a similar hour, Sophy Viner herself had crossed it . . . But the mere fact that she could think such things of him sent her shuddering back to the opposite pole. She pictured herself gradually subdued to such a conception of life and love, she pictured Effie growing up under the influence of the woman she saw herself becoming — and she hid her eyes from the humiliation of the picture . . .

They were at luncheon when the summons that Darrow expected was brought to him. He handed the telegram to Anna, and she learned that his Ambassador, on the way to a German cure, was to be in Paris the next evening and wished to confer with him there before he went back to London. The idea that the decisive moment was at hand was so agitating to her that when luncheon was over she slipped away to the terrace and thence went down alone to the garden. The day was grey but mild, with the heaviness of decay in the air. She rambled on aimlessly, following under the denuded boughs the path she and Darrow had taken on their first walk to the river. She was sure he would not try to overtake her: sure he would guess why she wished to be alone. There were moments when it seemed to double her loneliness to be so certain of his reading her heart while she was so desperately ignorant of his . . .

She wandered on for more than an hour, and when she returned to the house she saw, as she entered the hall, that Darrow was seated at the desk in Owen’s study. He heard her step, and looking up turned in his chair without rising. Their eyes met, and she saw that his were clear and smiling. He had a heap of papers at his elbow and was evidently engaged in some official correspondence. She wondered that he could address himself so composedly to his task, and then ironically reflected that such detachment was a sign of his superiority. She crossed the threshold and went toward him; but as she advanced she had a sudden vision of Owen, standing outside in the cold autumn dusk and watching Darrow and Sophy Viner as they faced each other across the lamplit desk . . . The evocation was so vivid that it caught her breath like a blow, and she sank down helplessly on the divan among the piled-up books. Distinctly, at the moment, she understood that the end had come. “When he speaks to me I will tell him!” she thought . . .

Darrow, laying aside his pen, looked at her for a moment in silence; then he stood up and shut the door.

“I must go to-morrow early,” he said, sitting down beside her. His voice was grave, with a slight tinge of sadness. She said to herself: “He knows what I am feeling . . . ” and now the thought made her feel less alone. The expression of his face was stern and yet tender: for the first time she understood what he had suffered.

She had no doubt as to the necessity of giving him up, but it was impossible to tell him so then. She stood up and said: “I’ll leave you to your letters.” He made no protest, but merely answered: “You’ll come down presently for a walk?” and it occurred to her at once that she would walk down to the river with him, and give herself for the last time the tragic luxury of sitting at his side in the little pavilion. “Perhaps,” she thought, “it will be easier to tell him there.”

It did not, on the way home from their walk, become any easier to tell him; but her secret decision to do so before he left gave her a kind of factitious calm and laid a melancholy ecstasy upon the hour. Still skirting the subject that fanned their very faces with its flame, they clung persistently to other topics, and it seemed to Anna that their minds had never been nearer together than in this hour when their hearts were so separate. In the glow of interchanged love she had grown less conscious of that other glow of interchanged thought which had once illumined her mind. She had forgotten how Darrow had widened her world and lengthened out all her perspectives, and with a pang of double destitution she saw herself alone among her shrunken thoughts.

For the first time, then, she had a clear vision of what her life would be without him. She imagined herself trying to take up the daily round, and all that had lightened and animated it seemed equally lifeless and vain. She tried to think of herself as wholly absorbed in her daughter’s development, like other mothers she had seen; but she supposed those mothers must have had stored memories of happiness to nourish them. She had had nothing, and all her starved youth still claimed its due.

When she went up to dress for dinner she said to herself: “I’ll have my last evening with him, and then, before we say good night, I’ll tell him.”

This postponement did not seem unjustified. Darrow had shown her how he dreaded vain words, how resolved he was to avoid all fruitless discussion. He must have been intensely aware of what had been going on in her mind since his return, yet when she had attempted to reveal it to him he had turned from the revelation. She was therefore merely following the line he had traced in behaving, till the final moment came, as though there were nothing more to say . . .

That moment seemed at last to be at hand when, at her usual hour after dinner, Madame de Chantelle rose to go upstairs. She lingered a little to bid good-bye to Darrow, whom she was not likely to see in the morning; and her affable allusions to his prompt return sounded in Anna’s ear like the note of destiny.

A cold rain had fallen all day, and for greater warmth and intimacy they had gone after dinner to the oak-room, shutting out the chilly vista of the farther drawing-rooms. The autumn wind, coming up from the river, cried about the house with a voice of loss and separation; and Anna and Darrow sat silent, as if they feared to break the hush that shut them in. The solitude, the fire-light, the harmony of soft hangings and old dim pictures, wove about them a spell of security through which Anna felt, far down in her heart, the muffled beat of an inextinguishable bliss. How could she have thought that this last moment would be the moment to speak to him, when it seemed to have gathered up into its flight all the scattered splendours of her dream?

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