The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XXXVII

Anna and Darrow, the next day, sat alone in a compartment of the Paris train.

Anna, when they entered it, had put herself in the farthest corner and placed her bag on the adjoining seat. She had decided suddenly to accompany Darrow to Paris, had even persuaded him to wait for a later train in order that they might travel together. She had an intense longing to be with him, an almost morbid terror of losing sight of him for a moment: when he jumped out of the train and ran back along the platform to buy a newspaper for her she felt as though she should never see him again, and shivered with the cold misery of her last journey to Paris, when she had thought herself parted from him forever. Yet she wanted to keep him at a distance, on the other side of the compartment, and as the train moved out of the station she drew from her bag the letters she had thrust in it as she left the house, and began to glance over them so that her lowered lids should hide her eyes from him.

She was his now, his for life: there could never again be any question of sacrificing herself to Effie’s welfare, or to any other abstract conception of duty. Effie of course would not suffer; Anna would pay for her bliss as a wife by redoubled devotion as a mother. Her scruples were not overcome; but for the time their voices were drowned in the tumultuous rumour of her happiness.

As she opened her letters she was conscious that Darrow’s gaze was fixed on her, and gradually it drew her eyes upward, and she drank deep of the passionate tenderness in his. Then the blood rose to her face and she felt again the desire to shield herself. She turned back to her letters and her glance lit on an envelope inscribed in Owen’s hand.

Her heart began to beat oppressively: she was in a mood when the simplest things seemed ominous. What could Owen have to say to her? Only the first page was covered, and it contained simply the announcement that, in the company of a young compatriot who was studying at the Beaux Arts, he had planned to leave for Spain the following evening.

“He hasn’t seen her, then!” was Anna’s instant thought; and her feeling was a strange compound of humiliation and relief. The girl had kept her word, lived up to the line of conduct she had set herself; and Anna had failed in the same attempt. She did not reproach herself with her failure; but she would have been happier if there had been less discrepancy between her words to Sophy Viner and the act which had followed them. It irritated her obscurely that the girl should have been so much surer of her power to carry out her purpose . . .

Anna looked up and saw that Darrow’s eyes were on the newspaper. He seemed calm and secure, almost indifferent to her presence. “Will it become a matter of course to him so soon?” she wondered with a twinge of jealousy. She sat motionless, her eyes fixed on him, trying to make him feel the attraction of her gaze as she felt his. It surprised and shamed her to detect a new element in her love for him: a sort of suspicious tyrannical tenderness that seemed to deprive it of all serenity. Finally he looked up, his smile enveloped her, and she felt herself his in every fibre, his so completely and inseparably that she saw the vanity of imagining any other fate for herself.

To give herself a countenance she held out Owen’s letter. He took it and glanced down the page, his face grown grave. She waited nervously till he looked up.

“That’s a good plan; the best thing that could happen,” he said, a just perceptible shade of constraint in his tone.

“Oh, yes,” she hastily assented. She was aware of a faint current of relief silently circulating between them. They were both glad that Owen was going, that for a while he would be out of their way; and it seemed to her horrible that so much of the stuff of their happiness should be made of such unavowed feelings . . .

“I shall see him this evening,” she said, wishing Darrow to feel that she was not afraid of meeting her step-son.

“Yes, of course; perhaps he might dine with you.”

The words struck her as strangely obtuse. Darrow was to meet his Ambassador at the station on the latter’s arrival, and would in all probability have to spend the evening with him, and Anna knew he had been concerned at the thought of having to leave her alone. But how could he speak in that careless tone of her dining with Owen? She lowered her voice to say: “I’m afraid he’s desperately unhappy.”

He answered, with a tinge of impatience: “It’s much the best thing that he should travel.”

“Yes — but don’t you feel . . . ” She broke off. She knew how he disliked these idle returns on the irrevocable, and her fear of doing or saying what he disliked was tinged by a new instinct of subserviency against which her pride revolted. She thought to herself: “He will see the change, and grow indifferent to me as he did to HER . . . ” and for a moment it seemed to her that she was reliving the experience of Sophy Viner.

Darrow made no attempt to learn the end of her unfinished sentence. He handed back Owen’s letter and returned to his newspaper; and when he looked up from it a few minutes later it was with a clear brow and a smile that irresistibly drew her back to happier thoughts.

The train was just entering a station, and a moment later their compartment was invaded by a commonplace couple preoccupied with the bestowal of bulging packages. Anna, at their approach, felt the possessive pride of the woman in love when strangers are between herself and the man she loves. She asked Darrow to open the window, to place her bag in the net, to roll her rug into a cushion for her feet; and while he was thus busied with her she was conscious of a new devotion in his tone, in his way of bending over her and meeting her eyes. He went back to his seat, and they looked at each other like lovers smiling at a happy secret.

Anna, before going back to Givre, had suggested Owen’s moving into her apartment, but he had preferred to remain at the hotel to which he had sent his luggage, and on arriving in Paris she decided to drive there at once. She was impatient to have the meeting over, and glad that Darrow was obliged to leave her at the station in order to look up a colleague at the Embassy. She dreaded his seeing Owen again, and yet dared not tell him so, and to ensure his remaining away she mentioned an urgent engagement with her dress-maker and a long list of commissions to be executed for Madame de Chantelle.

“I shall see you to-morrow morning,” she said; but he replied with a smile that he would certainly find time to come to her for a moment on his way back from meeting the Ambassador; and when he had put her in a cab he leaned through the window to press his lips to hers.

She blushed like a girl, thinking, half vexed, half happy: “Yesterday he would not have done it . . . ” and a dozen scarcely definable differences in his look and manner seemed all at once to be summed up in the boyish act. “After all, I’m engaged to him,” she reflected, and then smiled at the absurdity of the word. The next instant, with a pang of self-reproach, she remembered Sophy Viner’s cry: “I knew all the while he didn’t care . . . ” “Poor thing, oh poor thing!” Anna murmured . . .

At Owen’s hotel she waited in a tremor while the porter went in search of him. Word was presently brought back that he was in his room and begged her to come up, and as she crossed the hall she caught sight of his portmanteaux lying on the floor, already labelled for departure.

Owen sat at a table writing, his back to the door; and when he stood up the window was behind him, so that, in the rainy afternoon light, his features were barely discernible.

“Dearest — so you’re really off?” she said, hesitating a moment on the threshold.

He pushed a chair forward, and they sat down, each waiting for the other to speak. Finally she put some random question about his travelling-companion, a slow shy meditative youth whom he had once or twice brought down to Givre. She reflected that it was natural he should have given this uncommunicative comrade the preference over his livelier acquaintances, and aloud she said: “I’m so glad Fred Rempson can go with you.”

Owen answered in the same tone, and for a few minutes their talk dragged itself on over a dry waste of common-places. Anna noticed that, though ready enough to impart his own plans, Owen studiously abstained from putting any questions about hers. It was evident from his allusions that he meant to be away for some time, and he presently asked her if she would give instructions about packing and sending after him some winter clothes he had left at Givre. This gave her the opportunity to say that she expected to go back within a day or two and would attend to the matter as soon as she returned. She added: “I came up this morning with George, who is going on to London to-morrow,” intending, by the use of Darrow’s Christian name, to give Owen the chance to speak of her marriage. But he made no comment, and she continued to hear the name sounding on unfamiliarly between them.

The room was almost dark, and she finally stood up and glanced about for the light-switch, saying: “I can’t see you, dear.”

“Oh, don’t — I hate the light!” Owen exclaimed, catching her by the wrist and pushing her back into her seat. He gave a nervous laugh and added: “I’m half-blind with neuralgia. I suppose it’s this beastly rain.”

“Yes; it will do you good to get down to Spain.”

She asked if he had the remedies the doctor had given him for a previous attack, and on his replying that he didn’t know what he’d done with the stuff, she sprang up, offering to go to the chemist’s. It was a relief to have something to do for him, and she knew from his “Oh, thanks — would you?” that it was a relief to him to have a pretext for not detaining her. His natural impulse would have been to declare that he didn’t want any drugs, and would be all right in no time; and his acquiescence showed her how profoundly he felt the uselessness of their trying to prolong their talk. His face was now no more than a white blur in the dusk, but she felt its indistinctness as a veil drawn over aching intensities of expression. “He knows . . . he knows . . . ” she said to herself, and wondered whether the truth had been revealed to him by some corroborative fact or by the sheer force of divination.

He had risen also, and was clearly waiting for her to go, and she turned to the door, saying: “I’ll be back in a moment.”

“Oh, don’t come up again, please!” He paused, embarrassed. “I mean — I may not be here. I’ve got to go and pick up Rempson, and see about some final things with him.” She stopped on the threshold with a sinking heart. He meant this to be their leave-taking, then — and he had not even asked her when she was to be married, or spoken of seeing her again before she set out for the other side of the world.

“Owen!” she cried, and turned back.

He stood mutely before her in the dimness.

“You haven’t told me how long you’re to be gone.”

“How long? Oh, you see . . . that’s rather vague . . . I hate definite dates, you know . . . ”

He paused and she saw he did not mean to help her out. She tried to say: “You’ll be here for my wedding?” but could not bring the words to her lips. Instead she murmured: “In six weeks I shall be going too . . . ” and he rejoined, as if he had expected the announcement and prepared his answer: “Oh, by that time, very likely . . . ”

“At any rate, I won’t say good-bye,” she stammered, feeling the tears beneath her veil.

“No, no; rather not!” he declared; but he made no movement, and she went up and threw her arms about him. “You’ll write me, won’t you?”

“Of course, of course —— ”

Her hands slipped down into his, and for a minute they held each other dumbly in the darkness; then he gave a vague laugh and said: “It’s really time to light up.” He pressed the electric button with one hand while with the other he opened the door; and she passed out without daring to turn back, lest the light on his face should show her what she feared to see.

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