The Reef, by Edith Wharton

IV

As their motor-cab, on the way from the Gare du Nord, turned into the central glitter of the Boulevard, Darrow had bent over to point out an incandescent threshold.

“There!”

Above the doorway, an arch of flame flashed out the name of a great actress, whose closing performances in a play of unusual originality had been the theme of long articles in the Paris papers which Darrow had tossed into their compartment at Calais.

“That’s what you must see before you’re twenty-four hours older!”

The girl followed his gesture eagerly. She was all awake and alive now, as if the heady rumours of the streets, with their long effervescences of light, had passed into her veins like wine.

“Cerdine? Is that where she acts?” She put her head out of the window, straining back for a glimpse of the sacred threshold. As they flew past it she sank into her seat with a satisfied sigh.

“It’s delicious enough just to KNOW she’s there! I’ve never seen her, you know. When I was here with Mamie Hoke we never went anywhere but to the music halls, because she couldn’t understand any French; and when I came back afterward to the Farlows’ I was dead broke, and couldn’t afford the play, and neither could they; so the only chance we had was when friends of theirs invited us — and once it was to see a tragedy by a Roumanian lady, and the other time it was for ‘L’Ami Fritz’ at the Francais.”

Darrow laughed. “You must do better than that now. ‘Le Vertige’ is a fine thing, and Cerdine gets some wonderful effects out of it. You must come with me tomorrow evening to see it — with your friends, of course. — That is,” he added, “if there’s any sort of chance of getting seats.”

The flash of a street lamp lit up her radiant face. “Oh, will you really take us? What fun to think that it’s tomorrow already!”

It was wonderfully pleasant to be able to give such pleasure. Darrow was not rich, but it was almost impossible for him to picture the state of persons with tastes and perceptions like his own, to whom an evening at the theatre was an unattainable indulgence. There floated through his mind an answer of Mrs. Leath’s to his enquiry whether she had seen the play in question. “No. I meant to, of course, but one is so overwhelmed with things in Paris. And then I’m rather sick of Cerdine — one is always being dragged to see her.”

That, among the people he frequented, was the usual attitude toward such opportunities. There were too many, they were a nuisance, one had to defend one’s self! He even remembered wondering, at the moment, whether to a really fine taste the exceptional thing could ever become indifferent through habit; whether the appetite for beauty was so soon dulled that it could be kept alive only by privation. Here, at any rate, was a fine chance to experiment with such a hunger: he almost wished he might stay on in Paris long enough to take the measure of Miss Viner’s receptivity.

She was still dwelling on his promise, “It’s too beautiful of you! Oh, don’t you THINK you’ll be able to get seats?” And then, after a pause of brimming appreciation: “I wonder if you’ll think me horrid? — but it may be my only chance; and if you can’t get places for us all, wouldn’t you perhaps just take ME? After all, the Farlows may have seen it!”

He had not, of course, thought her horrid, but only the more engaging, for being so natural, and so unashamed of showing the frank greed of her famished youth. “Oh, you shall go somehow!” he had gaily promised her; and she had dropped back with a sigh of pleasure as their cab passed into the dimly-lit streets of the Farlows’ quarter beyond the Seine . . .

This little passage came back to him the next morning, as he opened his hotel window on the early roar of the Northern Terminus.

The girl was there, in the room next to him. That had been the first point in his waking consciousness. The second was a sense of relief at the obligation imposed on him by this unexpected turn of everts. To wake to the necessity of action, to postpone perforce the fruitless contemplation of his private grievance, was cause enough for gratitude, even if the small adventure in which he found himself involved had not, on its own merits, roused an instinctive curiosity to see it through.

When he and his companion, the night before, had reached the Farlows’ door in the rue de la Chaise, it was only to find, after repeated assaults on its panels, that the Farlows were no longer there. They had moved away the week before, not only from their apartment but from Paris; and Miss Viner’s breach with Mrs. Murrett had been too sudden to permit her letter and telegram to overtake them. Both communications, no doubt, still reposed in a pigeon-hole of the loge; but its custodian, when drawn from his lair, sulkily declined to let Miss Viner verify the fact, and only flung out, in return for Darrow’s bribe, the statement that the Americans had gone to Joigny.

To pursue them there at that hour was manifestly impossible, and Miss Viner, disturbed but not disconcerted by this new obstacle, had quite simply acceded to Darrow’s suggestion that she should return for what remained of the night to the hotel where he had sent his luggage.

The drive back through the dark hush before dawn, with the nocturnal blaze of the Boulevard fading around them like the false lights of a magician’s palace, had so played on her impressionability that she seemed to give no farther thought to her own predicament. Darrow noticed that she did not feel the beauty and mystery of the spectacle as much as its pressure of human significance, all its hidden implications of emotion and adventure. As they passed the shadowy colonnade of the Francais, remote and temple-like in the paling lights, he felt a clutch on his arm, and heard the cry: “There are things THERE that I want so desperately to see!” and all the way back to the hotel she continued to question him, with shrewd precision and an artless thirst for detail, about the theatrical life of Paris. He was struck afresh, as he listened, by the way in which her naturalness eased the situation of constraint, leaving to it only a pleasant savour of good fellowship. It was the kind of episode that one might, in advance, have characterized as “awkward”, yet that was proving, in the event, as much outside such definitions as a sunrise stroll with a dryad in a dew-drenched forest; and Darrow reflected that mankind would never have needed to invent tact if it had not first invented social complications.

It had been understood, with his good-night to Miss Viner, that the next morning he was to look up the Joigny trains, and see her safely to the station; but, while he breakfasted and waited for a time-table, he recalled again her cry of joy at the prospect of seeing Cerdine. It was certainly a pity, since that most elusive and incalculable of artists was leaving the next week for South America, to miss what might be a last sight of her in her greatest part; and Darrow, having dressed and made the requisite excerpts from the time-table, decided to carry the result of his deliberations to his neighbour’s door.

It instantly opened at his knock, and she came forth looking as if she had been plunged into some sparkling element which had curled up all her drooping tendrils and wrapped her in a shimmer of fresh leaves.

“Well, what do you think of me?” she cried; and with a hand at her waist she spun about as if to show off some miracle of Parisian dress-making.

“I think the missing trunk has come — and that it was worth waiting for!”

“You DO like my dress?”

“I adore it! I always adore new dresses — why, you don’t mean to say it’s NOT a new one?”

She laughed out her triumph.

“No, no, no! My trunk hasn’t come, and this is only my old rag of yesterday — but I never knew the trick to fail!” And, as he stared: “You see,” she joyously explained, “I’ve always had to dress in all kinds of dreary left-overs, and sometimes, when everybody else was smart and new, it used to make me awfully miserable. So one day, when Mrs. Murrett dragged me down unexpectedly to fill a place at dinner, I suddenly thought I’d try spinning around like that, and say to every one: ‘WELL, WHAT DO YOU THINK OF ME?’ And, do you know, they were all taken in, including Mrs. Murrett, who didn’t recognize my old turned and dyed rags, and told me afterward it was awfully bad form to dress as if I were somebody that people would expect to know! And ever since, whenever I’ve particularly wanted to look nice, I’ve just asked people what they thought of my new frock; and they’re always, always taken in!”

She dramatized her explanation so vividly that Darrow felt as if his point were gained.

“Ah, but this confirms your vocation — of course,” he cried, “you must see Cerdine!” and, seeing her face fall at this reminder of the change in her prospects, he hastened to set forth his plan. As he did so, he saw how easy it was to explain things to her. She would either accept his suggestion, or she would not: but at least she would waste no time in protestations and objections, or any vain sacrifice to the idols of conformity. The conviction that one could, on any given point, almost predicate this of her, gave him the sense of having advanced far enough in her intimacy to urge his arguments against a hasty pursuit of her friends.

Yes, it would certainly be foolish — she at once agreed — in the case of such dear indefinite angels as the Farlows, to dash off after them without more positive proof that they were established at Joigny, and so established that they could take her in. She owned it was but too probable that they had gone there to “cut down”, and might be doing so in quarters too contracted to receive her; and it would be unfair, on that chance, to impose herself on them unannounced. The simplest way of getting farther light on the question would be to go back to the rue de la Chaise, where, at that more conversable hour, the concierge might be less chary of detail; and she could decide on her next step in the light of such facts as he imparted.

Point by point, she fell in with the suggestion, recognizing, in the light of their unexplained flight, that the Farlows might indeed be in a situation on which one could not too rashly intrude. Her concern for her friends seemed to have effaced all thought of herself, and this little indication of character gave Darrow a quite disproportionate pleasure. She agreed that it would be well to go at once to the rue de la Chaise, but met his proposal that they should drive by the declaration that it was a “waste” not to walk in Paris; so they set off on foot through the cheerful tumult of the streets.

The walk was long enough for him to learn many things about her. The storm of the previous night had cleared the air, and Paris shone in morning beauty under a sky that was all broad wet washes of white and blue; but Darrow again noticed that her visual sensitiveness was less keen than her feeling for what he was sure the good Farlows — whom he already seemed to know — would have called “the human interest.” She seemed hardly conscious of sensations of form and colour, or of any imaginative suggestion, and the spectacle before them — always, in its scenic splendour, so moving to her companion — broke up, under her scrutiny, into a thousand minor points: the things in the shops, the types of character and manner of occupation shown in the passing faces, the street signs, the names of the hotels they passed, the motley brightness of the flower-carts, the identity of the churches and public buildings that caught her eye. But what she liked best, he divined, was the mere fact of being free to walk abroad in the bright air, her tongue rattling on as it pleased, while her feet kept time to the mighty orchestration of the city’s sounds. Her delight in the fresh air, in the freedom, light and sparkle of the morning, gave him a sudden insight into her stifled past; nor was it indifferent to him to perceive how much his presence evidently added to her enjoyment. If only as a sympathetic ear, he guessed what he must be worth to her. The girl had been dying for some one to talk to, some one before whom she could unfold and shake out to the light her poor little shut-away emotions. Years of repression were revealed in her sudden burst of confidence; and the pity she inspired made Darrow long to fill her few free hours to the brim.

She had the gift of rapid definition, and his questions as to the life she had led with the Farlows, during the interregnum between the Hoke and Murrett eras, called up before him a queer little corner of Parisian existence. The Farlows themselves — he a painter, she a “magazine writer” — rose before him in all their incorruptible simplicity: an elderly New England couple, with vague yearnings for enfranchisement, who lived in Paris as if it were a Massachusetts suburb, and dwelt hopefully on the “higher side” of the Gallic nature. With equal vividness she set before him the component figures of the circle from which Mrs. Farlow drew the “Inner Glimpses of French Life” appearing over her name in a leading New England journal: the Roumanian lady who had sent them tickets for her tragedy, an elderly French gentleman who, on the strength of a week’s stay at Folkestone, translated English fiction for the provincial press, a lady from Wichita, Kansas, who advocated free love and the abolition of the corset, a clergyman’s widow from Torquay who had written an “English Ladies’ Guide to Foreign Galleries” and a Russian sculptor who lived on nuts and was “almost certainly” an anarchist. It was this nucleus, and its outer ring of musical, architectural and other American students, which posed successively to Mrs. Farlow’s versatile fancy as a centre of “University Life”, a “Salon of the Faubourg St. Germain”, a group of Parisian “Intellectuals” or a “Cross-section of Montmartre”; but even her faculty for extracting from it the most varied literary effects had not sufficed to create a permanent demand for the “Inner Glimpses”, and there were days when — Mr. Farlow’s landscapes being equally unmarketable — a temporary withdrawal to the country (subsequently utilized as “Peeps into Chateau Life”) became necessary to the courageous couple.

Five years of Mrs. Murrett’s world, while increasing Sophy’s tenderness for the Farlows, had left her with few illusions as to their power of advancing her fortunes; and she did not conceal from Darrow that her theatrical projects were of the vaguest. They hung mainly on the problematical good-will of an ancient comedienne, with whom Mrs. Farlow had a slight acquaintance (extensively utilized in “Stars of the French Footlights” and “Behind the Scenes at the Francais”), and who had once, with signs of approval, heard Miss Viner recite the Nuit de Mai.

“But of course I know how much that’s worth,” the girl broke off, with one of her flashes of shrewdness. “And besides, it isn’t likely that a poor old fossil like Mme. Dolle could get anybody to listen to her now, even if she really thought I had talent. But she might introduce me to people; or at least give me a few tips. If I could manage to earn enough to pay for lessons I’d go straight to some of the big people and work with them. I’m rather hoping the Farlows may find me a chance of that kind — an engagement with some American family in Paris who would want to be ‘gone round’ with like the Hokes, and who’d leave me time enough to study.”

In the rue de la Chaise they learned little except the exact address of the Farlows, and the fact that they had sub-let their flat before leaving. This information obtained, Darrow proposed to Miss Viner that they should stroll along the quays to a little restaurant looking out on the Seine, and there, over the plat du jour, consider the next step to be taken. The long walk had given her cheeks a glow indicative of wholesome hunger, and she made no difficulty about satisfying it in Darrow’s company. Regaining the river they walked on in the direction of Notre Dame, delayed now and again by the young man’s irresistible tendency to linger over the bookstalls, and by his ever-fresh response to the shifting beauties of the scene. For two years his eyes had been subdued to the atmospheric effects of London, to the mysterious fusion of darkly-piled city and low-lying bituminous sky; and the transparency of the French air, which left the green gardens and silvery stones so classically clear yet so softly harmonized, struck him as having a kind of conscious intelligence. Every line of the architecture, every arch of the bridges, the very sweep of the strong bright river between them, while contributing to this effect, sent forth each a separate appeal to some sensitive memory; so that, for Darrow, a walk through the Paris streets was always like the unrolling of a vast tapestry from which countless stored fragrances were shaken out.

It was a proof of the richness and multiplicity of the spectacle that it served, without incongruity, for so different a purpose as the background of Miss Viner’s enjoyment. As a mere drop-scene for her personal adventure it was just as much in its place as in the evocation of great perspectives of feeling. For her, as he again perceived when they were seated at their table in a low window above the Seine, Paris was “Paris” by virtue of all its entertaining details, its endless ingenuities of pleasantness. Where else, for instance, could one find the dear little dishes of hors d’oeuvre, the symmetrically-laid anchovies and radishes, the thin golden shells of butter, or the wood strawberries and brown jars of cream that gave to their repast the last refinement of rusticity? Hadn’t he noticed, she asked, that cooking always expressed the national character, and that French food was clever and amusing just because the people were? And in private houses, everywhere, how the dishes always resembled the talk — how the very same platitudes seemed to go into people’s mouths and come out of them? Couldn’t he see just what kind of menu it would make, if a fairy waved a wand and suddenly turned the conversation at a London dinner into joints and puddings? She always thought it a good sign when people liked Irish stew; it meant that they enjoyed changes and surprises, and taking life as it came; and such a beautiful Parisian version of the dish as the navarin that was just being set before them was like the very best kind of talk — the kind when one could never tell before-hand just what was going to be said!

Darrow, as he watched her enjoyment of their innocent feast, wondered if her vividness and vivacity were signs of her calling. She was the kind of girl in whom certain people would instantly have recognized the histrionic gift. But experience had led him to think that, except at the creative moment, the divine flame burns low in its possessors. The one or two really intelligent actresses he had known had struck him, in conversation, as either bovine or primitively “jolly”. He had a notion that, save in the mind of genius, the creative process absorbs too much of the whole stuff of being to leave much surplus for personal expression; and the girl before him, with her changing face and flexible fancies, seemed destined to work in life itself rather than in any of its counterfeits.

The coffee and liqueurs were already on the table when her mind suddenly sprang back to the Farlows. She jumped up with one of her subversive movements and declared that she must telegraph at once. Darrow called for writing materials and room was made at her elbow for the parched ink-bottle and saturated blotter of the Parisian restaurant; but the mere sight of these jaded implements seemed to paralyze Miss Viner’s faculties. She hung over the telegraph-form with anxiously-drawn brow, the tip of the pen-handle pressed against her lip; and at length she raised her troubled eyes to Darrow’s.

“I simply can’t think how to say it.”

“What — that you’re staying over to see Cerdine?”

“But AM I— am I, really?” The joy of it flamed over her face.

Darrow looked at his watch. “You could hardly get an answer to your telegram in time to take a train to Joigny this afternoon, even if you found your friends could have you.”

She mused for a moment, tapping her lip with the pen. “But I must let them know I’m here. I must find out as soon as possible if they CAN, have me.” She laid the pen down despairingly. “I never COULD write a telegram!” she sighed.

“Try a letter, then and tell them you’ll arrive tomorrow.”

This suggestion produced immediate relief, and she gave an energetic dab at the ink-bottle; but after another interval of uncertain scratching she paused again. “Oh, it’s fearful! I don’t know what on earth to say. I wouldn’t for the world have them know how beastly Mrs. Murrett’s been.”

Darrow did not think it necessary to answer. It was no business of his, after all. He lit a cigar and leaned back in his seat, letting his eyes take their fill of indolent pleasure. In the throes of invention she had pushed back her hat, loosening the stray lock which had invited his touch the night before. After looking at it for a while he stood up and wandered to the window.

Behind him he heard her pen scrape on.

“I don’t want to worry them — I’m so certain they’ve got bothers of their own.” The faltering scratches ceased again. “I wish I weren’t such an idiot about writing: all the words get frightened and scurry away when I try to catch them.” He glanced back at her with a smile as she bent above her task like a school-girl struggling with a “composition.” Her flushed cheek and frowning brow showed that her difficulty was genuine and not an artless device to draw him to her side. She was really powerless to put her thoughts in writing, and the inability seemed characteristic of her quick impressionable mind, and of the incessant come-and-go of her sensations. He thought of Anna Leath’s letters, or rather of the few he had received, years ago, from the girl who had been Anna Summers. He saw the slender firm strokes of the pen, recalled the clear structure of the phrases, and, by an abrupt association of ideas, remembered that, at that very hour, just such a document might be awaiting him at the hotel.

What if it were there, indeed, and had brought him a complete explanation of her telegram? The revulsion of feeling produced by this thought made him look at the girl with sudden impatience. She struck him as positively stupid, and he wondered how he could have wasted half his day with her, when all the while Mrs. Leath’s letter might be lying on his table. At that moment, if he could have chosen, he would have left his companion on the spot; but he had her on his hands, and must accept the consequences.

Some odd intuition seemed to make her conscious of his change of mood, for she sprang from her seat, crumpling the letter in her hand.

“I’m too stupid; but I won’t keep you any longer. I’ll go back to the hotel and write there.”

Her colour deepened, and for the first time, as their eyes met, he noticed a faint embarrassment in hers. Could it be that his nearness was, after all, the cause of her confusion? The thought turned his vague impatience with her into a definite resentment toward himself. There was really no excuse for his having blundered into such an adventure. Why had he not shipped the girl off to Joigny by the evening train, instead of urging her to delay, and using Cerdine as a pretext? Paris was full of people he knew, and his annoyance was increased by the thought that some friend of Mrs. Leath’s might see him at the play, and report his presence there with a suspiciously good-looking companion. The idea was distinctly disagreeable: he did not want the woman he adored to think he could forget her for a moment. And by this time he had fully persuaded himself that a letter from her was awaiting him, and had even gone so far as to imagine that its contents might annul the writer’s telegraphed injunction, and call him to her side at once . . .

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