The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XXXVI

Darrow continued to stand by the door after it had closed. Anna felt that he was looking at her, and sat still, disdaining to seek refuge in any evasive word or movement. For the last time she wanted to let him take from her the fulness of what the sight of her could give.

He crossed over and sat down on the sofa. For a moment neither of them spoke; then he said: “To-night, dearest, I must have my answer.”

She straightened herself under the shock of his seeming to take the very words from her lips.

“To-night?” was all that she could falter.

“I must be off by the early train. There won’t be more than a moment in the morning.”

He had taken her hand, and she said to herself that she must free it before she could go on with what she had to say. Then she rejected this concession to a weakness she was resolved to defy. To the end she would leave her hand in his hand, her eyes in his eyes: she would not, in their final hour together, be afraid of any part of her love for him.

“You’ll tell me to-night, dear,” he insisted gently; and his insistence gave her the strength to speak.

“There’s something I must ask you,” she broke out, perceiving, as she heard her words, that they were not in the least what she had meant to say.

He sat still, waiting, and she pressed on: “Do such things happen to men often?”

The quiet room seemed to resound with the long reverberations of her question. She looked away from him, and he released her and stood up.

“I don’t know what happens to other men. Such a thing never happened to me . . . ”

She turned her eyes back to his face. She felt like a traveller on a giddy path between a cliff and a precipice: there was nothing for it now but to go on.

“Had it . . . had it begun . . . before you met her in Paris?”

“No; a thousand times no! I’ve told you the facts as they were.”

“All the facts?”

He turned abruptly. “What do you mean?”

Her throat was dry and the loud pulses drummed in her temples.

“I mean — about her . . . Perhaps you knew . . . knew things about her . . . beforehand.”

She stopped. The room had grown profoundly still. A log dropped to the hearth and broke there in a hissing shower.

Darrow spoke in a clear voice. “I knew nothing, absolutely nothing,” he said.

She had the answer to her inmost doubt — to her last shameful unavowed hope. She sat powerless under her woe.

He walked to the fireplace and pushed back the broken log with his foot. A flame shot out of it, and in the upward glare she saw his pale face, stern with misery.

“Is that all?” he asked.

She made a slight sign with her head and he came slowly back to her. “Then is this to be good-bye?”

Again she signed a faint assent, and he made no effort to touch her or draw nearer. “You understand that I sha’n’t come back?”

He was looking at her, and she tried to return his look, but her eyes were blind with tears, and in dread of his seeing them she got up and walked away. He did not follow her, and she stood with her back to him, staring at a bowl of carnations on a little table strewn with books. Her tears magnified everything she looked at, and the streaked petals of the carnations, their fringed edges and frail curled stamens, pressed upon her, huge and vivid. She noticed among the books a volume of verse he had sent her from England, and tried to remember whether it was before or after . . .

She felt that he was waiting for her to speak, and at last she turned to him. “I shall see you to-morrow before you go . . . ”

He made no answer.

She moved toward the door and he held it open for her. She saw his hand on the door, and his seal ring in its setting of twisted silver; and the sense of the end of all things came to her.

They walked down the drawing-rooms, between the shadowy reflections of screens and cabinets, and mounted the stairs side by side. At the end of the gallery, a lamp brought out turbid gleams in the smoky battle-piece above it.

On the landing Darrow stopped; his room was the nearest to the stairs. “Good night,” he said, holding out his hand.

As Anna gave him hers the springs of grief broke loose in her. She struggled with her sobs, and subdued them; but her breath came unevenly, and to hide her agitation she leaned on him and pressed her face against his arm.

“Don’t — don’t,” he whispered, soothing her.

Her troubled breathing sounded loudly in the silence of the sleeping house. She pressed her lips tight, but could not stop the nervous pulsations in her throat, and he put an arm about her and, opening his door, drew her across the threshold of his room. The door shut behind her and she sat down on the lounge at the foot of the bed. The pulsations in her throat had ceased, but she knew they would begin again if she tried to speak.

Darrow walked away and leaned against the mantelpiece. The red-veiled lamp shone on his books and papers, on the arm-chair by the fire, and the scattered objects on his dressing-table. A log glimmered on the hearth, and the room was warm and faintly smoke-scented. It was the first time she had ever been in a room he lived in, among his personal possessions and the traces of his daily usage. Every object about her seemed to contain a particle of himself: the whole air breathed of him, steeping her in the sense of his intimate presence.

Suddenly she thought: “This is what Sophy Viner knew” . . . and with a torturing precision she pictured them alone in such a scene . . . Had he taken the girl to an hotel . . . where did people go in such cases? Wherever they were, the silence of night had been around them, and the things he used had been strewn about the room . . . Anna, ashamed of dwelling on the detested vision, stood up with a confused impulse of flight; then a wave of contrary feeling arrested her and she paused with lowered head.

Darrow had come forward as she rose, and she perceived that he was waiting for her to bid him good night. It was clear that no other possibility had even brushed his mind; and the fact, for some dim reason, humiliated her. “Why not . . . why not?” something whispered in her, as though his forbearance, his tacit recognition of her pride, were a slight on other qualities she wanted him to feel in her.

“In the morning, then?” she heard him say.

“Yes, in the morning,” she repeated.

She continued to stand in the same place, looking vaguely about the room. For once before they parted — since part they must — she longed to be to him all that Sophy Viner had been; but she remained rooted to the floor, unable to find a word or imagine a gesture that should express her meaning. Exasperated by her helplessness, she thought: “Don’t I feel things as other women do?”

Her eye fell on a note-case she had given him. It was worn at the corners with the friction of his pocket and distended with thickly packed papers. She wondered if he carried her letters in it, and she put her hand out and touched it.

All that he and she had ever felt or seen, their close encounters of word and look, and the closer contact of their silences, trembled through her at the touch. She remembered things he had said that had been like new skies above her head: ways he had that seemed a part of the air she breathed. The faint warmth of her girlish love came back to her, gathering heat as it passed through her thoughts; and her heart rocked like a boat on the surge of its long long memories. “It’s because I love him in too many ways,” she thought; and slowly she turned to the door.

She was aware that Darrow was still silently watching her, but he neither stirred nor spoke till she had reached the threshold. Then he met her there and caught her in his arms.

“Not to-night — don’t tell me to-night!” he whispered; and she leaned away from him, closing her eyes for an instant, and then slowly opening them to the flood of light in his.

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