The Reef, by Edith Wharton

XXXIX

Anna, the next day, woke to a humiliated memory of the previous evening.

Darrow had been right in saying that their sacrifice would benefit no one; yet she seemed dimly to discern that there were obligations not to be tested by that standard. She owed it, at any rate, as much to his pride as to hers to abstain from the repetition of such scenes; and she had learned that it was beyond her power to do so while they were together. Yet when he had given her the chance to free herself, everything had vanished from her mind but the blind fear of losing him; and she saw that he and she were as profoundly and inextricably bound together as two trees with interwoven roots. For a long time she brooded on her plight, vaguely conscious that the only escape from it must come from some external chance. And slowly the occasion shaped itself in her mind. It was Sophy Viner only who could save her — Sophy Viner only who could give her back her lost serenity. She would seek the girl out and tell her that she had given Darrow up; and that step once taken there would be no retracing it, and she would perforce have to go forward alone.

Any pretext for action was a kind of anodyne, and she despatched her maid to the Farlows’ with a note asking if Miss Viner would receive her. There was a long delay before the maid returned, and when at last she appeared it was with a slip of paper on which an address was written, and a verbal message to the effect that Miss Viner had left some days previously, and was staying with her sister in a hotel near the Place de l’Etoile. The maid added that Mrs. Farlow, on the plea that Miss Viner’s plans were uncertain, had at first made some difficulty about giving this information; and Anna guessed that the girl had left her friends’ roof, and instructed them to withhold her address, with the object of avoiding Owen. “She’s kept faith with herself and I haven’t,” Anna mused; and the thought was a fresh incentive to action.

Darrow had announced his intention of coming soon after luncheon, and the morning was already so far advanced that Anna, still mistrustful of her strength, decided to drive immediately to the address Mrs. Farlow had given. On the way there she tried to recall what she had heard of Sophy Viner’s sister, but beyond the girl’s enthusiastic report of the absent Laura’s loveliness she could remember only certain vague allusions of Mrs. Farlow’s to her artistic endowments and matrimonial vicissitudes. Darrow had mentioned her but once, and in the briefest terms, as having apparently very little concern for Sophy’s welfare, and being, at any rate, too geographically remote to give her any practical support; and Anna wondered what chance had brought her to her sister’s side at this conjunction. Mrs. Farlow had spoken of her as a celebrity (in what line Anna failed to recall); but Mrs. Farlow’s celebrities were legion, and the name on the slip of paper — Mrs. McTarvie–Birch — did not seem to have any definite association with fame.

While Anna waited in the dingy vestibule of the Hotel Chicago she had so distinct a vision of what she meant to say to Sophy Viner that the girl seemed already to be before her; and her heart dropped from all the height of its courage when the porter, after a long delay, returned with the announcement that Miss Viner was no longer in the hotel. Anna, doubtful if she understood, asked if he merely meant that the young lady was out at the moment; but he replied that she had gone away the day before. Beyond this he had no information to impart, and after a moment’s hesitation Anna sent him back to enquire if Mrs. McTarvie–Birch would receive her. She reflected that Sophy had probably pledged her sister to the same secrecy as Mrs. Farlow, and that a personal appeal to Mrs. Birch might lead to less negative results.

There was another long interval of suspense before the porter reappeared with an affirmative answer; and a third while an exiguous and hesitating lift bore her up past a succession of shabby landings.

When the last was reached, and her guide had directed her down a winding passage that smelt of sea-going luggage, she found herself before a door through which a strong odour of tobacco reached her simultaneously with the sounds of a suppressed altercation. Her knock was followed by a silence, and after a minute or two the door was opened by a handsome young man whose ruffled hair and general air of creased disorder led her to conclude that he had just risen from a long-limbed sprawl on a sofa strewn with tumbled cushions. This sofa, and a grand piano bearing a basket of faded roses, a biscuit-tin and a devastated breakfast tray, almost filled the narrow sitting-room, in the remaining corner of which another man, short, swarthy and humble, sat examining the lining of his hat.

Anna paused in doubt; but on her naming Mrs. Birch the young man politely invited her to enter, at the same time casting an impatient glance at the mute spectator in the background.

The latter, raising his eyes, which were round and bulging, fixed them, not on the young man but on Anna, whom, for a moment, he scrutinized as searchingly as the interior of his hat. Under his gaze she had the sense of being minutely catalogued and valued; and the impression, when he finally rose and moved toward the door, of having been accepted as a better guarantee than he had had any reason to hope for. On the threshold his glance crossed that of the young man in an exchange of intelligence as full as it was rapid; and this brief scene left Anna so oddly enlightened that she felt no surprise when her companion, pushing an arm-chair forward, sociably asked her if she wouldn’t have a cigarette. Her polite refusal provoked the remark that he would, if she’d no objection; and while he groped for matches in his loose pockets, and behind the photographs and letters crowding the narrow mantel-shelf, she ventured another enquiry for Mrs. Birch.

“Just a minute,” he smiled; “I think the masseur’s with her.” He spoke in a smooth denationalized English, which, like the look in his long-lashed eyes and the promptness of his charming smile, suggested a long training in all the arts of expediency. Having finally discovered a match-box on the floor beside the sofa, he lit his cigarette and dropped back among the cushions; and on Anna’s remarking that she was sorry to disturb Mrs. Birch he replied that that was all right, and that she always kept everybody waiting.

After this, through the haze of his perpetually renewed cigarettes, they continued to chat for some time of indifferent topics; but when at last Anna again suggested the possibility of her seeing Mrs. Birch he rose from his corner with a slight shrug, and murmuring: “She’s perfectly hopeless,” lounged off through an inner door.

Anna was still wondering when and in what conjunction of circumstances the much-married Laura had acquired a partner so conspicuous for his personal charms, when the young man returned to announce: “She says it’s all right, if you don’t mind seeing her in bed.”

He drew aside to let Anna pass, and she found herself in a dim untidy scented room, with a pink curtain pinned across its single window, and a lady with a great deal of fair hair and uncovered neck smiling at her from a pink bed on which an immense powder-puff trailed.

“You don’t mind, do you? He costs such a frightful lot that I can’t afford to send him off,” Mrs. Birch explained, extending a thickly-ringed hand to Anna, and leaving her in doubt as to whether the person alluded to were her masseur or her husband. Before a reply was possible there was a convulsive stir beneath the pink expanse, and something that resembled another powder-puff hurled itself at Anna with a volley of sounds like the popping of Lilliputian champagne corks. Mrs. Birch, flinging herself forward, gasped out: “If you’d just give him a caramel . . . there, in that box on the dressing-table . . . it’s the only earthly thing to stop him . . . ” and when Anna had proffered this sop to her assailant, and he had withdrawn with it beneath the bedspread, his mistress sank back with a laugh.

“Isn’t he a beauty? The Prince gave him to me down at Nice the other day — but he’s perfectly awful,” she confessed, beaming intimately on her visitor. In the roseate penumbra of the bed-curtains she presented to Anna’s startled gaze an odd chromo-like resemblance to Sophy Viner, or a suggestion, rather, of what Sophy Viner might, with the years and in spite of the powder-puff, become. Larger, blonder, heavier-featured, she yet had glances and movements that disturbingly suggested what was freshest and most engaging in the girl; and as she stretched her bare plump arm across the bed she seemed to be pulling back the veil from dingy distances of family history.

“Do sit down, if there’s a place to sit on,” she cordially advised; adding, as Anna took the edge of a chair hung with miscellaneous raiment: “My singing takes so much time that I don’t get a chance to walk the fat off — that’s the worst of being an artist.”

Anna murmured an assent. “I hope it hasn’t inconvenienced you to see me; I told Mr. Birch — ”

“Mr. WHO?” the recumbent beauty asked; and then: “Oh, JIMMY!” she faintly laughed, as if more for her own enlightenment than Anna’s.

The latter continued eagerly: “I understand from Mrs. Farlow that your sister was with you, and I ventured to come up because I wanted to ask you when I should have a chance of finding her.”

Mrs. McTarvie–Birch threw back her head with a long stare. “Do you mean to say the idiot at the door didn’t tell you? Sophy went away last night.”

“Last night?” Anna echoed. A sudden terror had possessed her. Could it be that the girl had tricked them all and gone with Owen? The idea was incredible, yet it took such hold of her that she could hardly steady her lips to say: “The porter did tell me, but I thought perhaps he was mistaken. Mrs. Farlow seemed to think that I should find her here.”

“It was all so sudden that I don’t suppose she had time to let the Farlows know. She didn’t get Mrs. Murrett’s wire till yesterday, and she just pitched her things into a trunk and rushed —— ”

“Mrs. Murrett?”

“Why, yes. Sophy’s gone to India with Mrs. Murrett; they’re to meet at Brindisi,” Sophy’s sister said with a calm smile.

Anna sat motionless, gazing at the disordered room, the pink bed, the trivial face among the pillows.

Mrs. McTarvie–Birch pursued: “They had a fearful kick-up last spring — I daresay you knew about it — but I told Sophy she’d better lump it, as long as the old woman was willing to . . . As an artist, of course, it’s perfectly impossible for me to have her with me . . . ”

“Of course,” Anna mechanically assented.

Through the confused pain of her thoughts she was hardly aware that Mrs. Birch’s explanations were still continuing. “Naturally I didn’t altogether approve of her going back to that beast of a woman. I said all I could . . . I told her she was a fool to chuck up such a place as yours. But Sophy’s restless — always was — and she’s taken it into her head she’d rather travel . . . ”

Anna rose from her seat, groping for some formula of leave-taking. The pushing back of her chair roused the white dog’s smouldering animosity, and he drowned his mistress’s further confidences in another outburst of hysterics. Through the tumult Anna signed an inaudible farewell, and Mrs. Birch, having momentarily succeeded in suppressing her pet under a pillow, called out: “Do come again! I’d love to sing to you.”

Anna murmured a word of thanks and turned to the door. As she opened it she heard her hostess crying after her: “Jimmy! Do you hear me? Jimmy BRANCE!” and then, there being no response from the person summoned: “DO tell him he must go and call the lift for you!”

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