The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XXXVIII

Anna drove to the chemist’s for Owen’s remedy. On the way she stopped her cab at a book-shop, and emerged from it laden with literature. She knew what would interest Owen, and what he was likely to have read, and she had made her choice among the newest publications with the promptness of a discriminating reader. But on the way back to the hotel she was overcome by the irony of adding this mental panacea to the other. There was something grotesque and almost mocking in the idea of offering a judicious selection of literature to a man setting out on such a journey. “He knows . . . he knows . . . ” she kept on repeating; and giving the porter the parcel from the chemist’s she drove away without leaving the books. She went to her apartment, whither her maid had preceded her. There was a fire in the drawing-room and the tea-table stood ready by the hearth. The stormy rain beat against the uncurtained windows, and she thought of Owen, who would soon be driving through it to the station, alone with his bitter thoughts. She had been proud of the fact that he had always sought her help in difficult hours; and now, in the most difficult of all, she was the one being to whom he could not turn. Between them, henceforth, there would always be the wall of an insurmountable silence . . . She strained her aching thoughts to guess how the truth had come to him. Had he seen the girl, and had she told him? Instinctively, Anna rejected this conjecture. But what need was there of assuming an explicit statement, when every breath they had drawn for the last weeks had been charged with the immanent secret? As she looked back over the days since Darrow’s first arrival at Givre she perceived that at no time had any one deliberately spoken, or anything been accidentally disclosed. The truth had come to light by the force of its irresistible pressure; and the perception gave her a startled sense of hidden powers, of a chaos of attractions and repulsions far beneath the ordered surfaces of intercourse. She looked back with melancholy derision on her old conception of life, as a kind of well-lit and well policed suburb to dark places one need never know about. Here they were, these dark places, in her own bosom, and henceforth she would always have to traverse them to reach the beings she loved best!

She was still sitting beside the untouched tea-table when she heard Darrow’s voice in the hall. She started up, saying to herself: “I must tell him that Owen knows . . . ” but when the door opened and she saw his face, still lit by the same smile of boyish triumph, she felt anew the uselessness of speaking . . . Had he ever supposed that Owen would not know? Probably, from the height of his greater experience, he had seen long since that all that happened was inevitable; and the thought of it, at any rate, was clearly not weighing on him now.

He was already dressed for the evening, and as he came toward her he said: “The Ambassador’s booked for an official dinner and I’m free after all. Where shall we dine?”

Anna had pictured herself sitting alone all the evening with her wretched thoughts, and the fact of having to put them out of her mind for the next few hours gave her an immediate sensation of relief. Already her pulses were dancing to the tune of Darrow’s, and as they smiled at each other she thought: “Nothing can ever change the fact that I belong to him.”

“Where shall we dine?” he repeated gaily, and she named a well-known restaurant for which she had once heard him express a preference. But as she did so she fancied she saw a shadow on his face, and instantly she said to herself: “It was THERE he went with her!”

“Oh, no, not there, after all!” she interrupted herself; and now she was sure his colour deepened.

“Where shall it be, then?”

She noticed that he did not ask the reason of her change, and this convinced her that she had guessed the truth, and that he knew she had guessed it. “He will always know what I am thinking, and he will never dare to ask me,” she thought; and she saw between them the same insurmountable wall of silence as between herself and Owen, a wall of glass through which they could watch each other’s faintest motions but which no sound could ever traverse . . .

They drove to a restaurant on the Boulevard, and there, in their intimate corner of the serried scene, the sense of what was unspoken between them gradually ceased to oppress her. He looked so light-hearted and handsome, so ingenuously proud of her, so openly happy at being with her, that no other fact could seem real in his presence. He had learned that the Ambassador was to spend two days in Paris, and he had reason to hope that in consequence his own departure for London would be deferred. He was exhilarated by the prospect of being with Anna for a few hours longer, and she did not ask herself if his exhilaration were a sign of insensibility, for she was too conscious of his power of swaying her moods not to be secretly proud of affecting his.

They lingered for some time over the fruit and coffee, and when they rose to go Darrow suggested that, if she felt disposed for the play, they were not too late for the second part of the programme at one of the smaller theatres.

His mention of the hour recalled Owen to her thoughts. She saw his train rushing southward through the storm, and, in a corner of the swaying compartment, his face, white and indistinct as it had loomed on her in the rainy twilight. It was horrible to be thus perpetually paying for her happiness!

Darrow had called for a theatrical journal, and he presently looked up from it to say: “I hear the second play at the Athenee is amusing.”

It was on Anna’s lips to acquiesce; but as she was about to speak she wondered if it were not at the Athenee that Owen had seen Darrow with Sophy Viner. She was not sure he had even mentioned the theatre, but the mere possibility was enough to darken her sky. It was hateful to her to think of accompanying Darrow to places where the girl had been with him. She tried to reason away this scruple, she even reminded herself with a bitter irony that whenever she was in Darrow’s arms she was where the girl had been before her — but she could not shake off her superstitious dread of being with him in any of the scenes of the Parisian episode. She replied that she was too tired for the play, and they drove back to her apartment. At the foot of the stairs she half-turned to wish him good night, but he appeared not to notice her gesture and followed her up to her door.

“This is ever so much better than the theatre,” he said as they entered the drawing-room.

She had crossed the room and was bending over the hearth to light the fire. She knew he was approaching her, and that in a moment he would have drawn the cloak from her shoulders and laid his lips on her neck, just below the gathered-up hair. These privileges were his and, however deferently and tenderly he claimed them, the joyous ease of his manner marked a difference and proclaimed a right.

“After the theatre they came home like this,” she thought; and at the same instant she felt his hands on her shoulders and shrank back.

“Don’t — oh, don’t!” she cried, drawing her cloak about her. She saw from his astonished stare that her face must be quivering with pain.

“Anna! What on earth is the matter?”

“Owen knows!” she broke out, with a confused desire to justify herself.

Darrow’s countenance changed. “Did he tell you so? What did he say?”

“Nothing! I knew it from the things he didn’t say.”

“You had a talk with him this afternoon?”

“Yes: for a few minutes. I could see he didn’t want me to stay.”

She had dropped into a chair, and sat there huddled, still holding her cloak about her shoulders.

Darrow did not dispute her assumption, and she noticed that he expressed no surprise. He sat down at a little distance from her, turning about in his fingers the cigar-case he had drawn out as they came in. At length he said: “Had he seen Miss Viner?”

She shrank from the sound of the name. “No . . . I don’t think so . . . I’m sure he hadn’t . . . ”

They remained silent, looking away from one another. Finally Darrow stood up and took a few steps across the room. He came back and paused before her, his eyes on her face.

“I think you ought to tell me what you mean to do.” She raised her head and gave him back his look. “Nothing I do can help Owen!”

“No; but things can’t go on like this.” He paused, as if to measure his words. “I fill you with aversion,” he exclaimed.

She started up, half-sobbing. “No — oh, no!”

“Poor child — you can’t see your face!”

She lifted her hands as if to hide it, and turning away from him bowed her head upon the mantel-shelf. She felt that he was standing a little way behind her, but he made no attempt to touch her or come nearer.

“I know you’ve felt as I’ve felt,” he said in a low voice — “that we belong to each other and that nothing can alter that. But other thoughts come, and you can’t banish them. Whenever you see me you remember . . . you associate me with things you abhor . . . You’ve been generous — immeasurably. You’ve given me all the chances a woman could; but if it’s only made you suffer, what’s the use?”

She turned to him with a tear-stained face. “It hasn’t only done that.”

“Oh, no! I know . . . There’ve been moments . . . ” He took her hand and raised it to his lips. “They’ll be with me as long as I live. But I can’t see you paying such a price for them. I’m not worth what I’m costing you.”

She continued to gaze at him through tear-dilated eyes; and suddenly she flung out the question: “Wasn’t it the Athenee you took her to that evening?”

“Anna — Anna!”

“Yes; I want to know now: to know everything. Perhaps that will make me forget. I ought to have made you tell me before. Wherever we go, I imagine you’ve been there with her . . . I see you together. I want to know how it began, where you went, why you left her . . . I can’t go on in this darkness any longer!”

She did not know what had prompted her passionate outburst, but already she felt lighter, freer, as if at last the evil spell were broken. “I want to know everything,” she repeated. “It’s the only way to make me forget.”

After she had ceased speaking Darrow remained where he was, his arms folded, his eyes lowered, immovable. She waited, her gaze on his face.

“Aren’t you going to tell me?”

“No.” The blood rushed to her temples. “You won’t? Why not?”

“If I did, do you suppose you’d forget THAT?”

“Oh — ” she moaned, and turned away from him.

“You see it’s impossible,” he went on. “I’ve done a thing I loathe, and to atone for it you ask me to do another. What sort of satisfaction would that give you? It would put something irremediable between us.”

She leaned her elbow against the mantel-shelf and hid her face in her hands. She had the sense that she was vainly throwing away her last hope of happiness, yet she could do nothing, think of nothing, to save it. The conjecture flashed through her: “Should I be at peace if I gave him up?” and she remembered the desolation of the days after she had sent him away, and understood that that hope was vain. The tears welled through her lids and ran slowly down between her fingers.

“Good-bye,” she heard him say, and his footsteps turned to the door.

She tried to raise her head, but the weight of her despair bowed it down. She said to herself: “This is the end . . . he won’t try to appeal to me again . . . ” and she remained in a sort of tranced rigidity, perceiving without feeling the fateful lapse of the seconds. Then the cords that bound her seemed to snap, and she lifted her head and saw him going.

“Why, he’s mine — he’s mine! He’s no one else’s!” His face was turned to her and the look in his eyes swept away all her terrors. She no longer understood what had prompted her senseless outcry; and the mortal sweetness of loving him became again the one real fact in the world.

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