The Reef, by Edith Wharton

V

At the porter’s desk a brief “Pas de lettres” fell destructively on the fabric of these hopes. Mrs. Leath had not written — she had not taken the trouble to explain her telegram. Darrow turned away with a sharp pang of humiliation. Her frugal silence mocked his prodigality of hopes and fears. He had put his question to the porter once before, on returning to the hotel after luncheon; and now, coming back again in the late afternoon, he was met by the same denial. The second post was in, and had brought him nothing.

A glance at his watch showed that he had barely time to dress before taking Miss Viner out to dine; but as he turned to the lift a new thought struck him, and hurrying back into the hall he dashed off another telegram to his servant: “Have you forwarded any letter with French postmark today? Telegraph answer Terminus.”

Some kind of reply would be certain to reach him on his return from the theatre, and he would then know definitely whether Mrs. Leath meant to write or not. He hastened up to his room and dressed with a lighter heart.

Miss Viner’s vagrant trunk had finally found its way to its owner; and, clad in such modest splendour as it furnished, she shone at Darrow across their restaurant table. In the reaction of his wounded vanity he found her prettier and more interesting than before. Her dress, sloping away from the throat, showed the graceful set of her head on its slender neck, and the wide brim of her hat arched above her hair like a dusky halo. Pleasure danced in her eyes and on her lips, and as she shone on him between the candle-shades Darrow felt that he should not be at all sorry to be seen with her in public. He even sent a careless glance about him in the vague hope that it might fall on an acquaintance.

At the theatre her vivacity sank into a breathless hush, and she sat intent in her corner of their baignoire, with the gaze of a neophyte about to be initiated into the sacred mysteries. Darrow placed himself behind her, that he might catch her profile between himself and the stage. He was touched by the youthful seriousness of her expression. In spite of the experiences she must have had, and of the twenty-four years to which she owned, she struck him as intrinsically young; and he wondered how so evanescent a quality could have been preserved in the desiccating Murrett air. As the play progressed he noticed that her immobility was traversed by swift flashes of perception. She was not missing anything, and her intensity of attention when Cerdine was on the stage drew an anxious line between her brows.

After the first act she remained for a few minutes rapt and motionless; then she turned to her companion with a quick patter of questions. He gathered from them that she had been less interested in following the general drift of the play than in observing the details of its interpretation. Every gesture and inflection of the great actress’s had been marked and analyzed; and Darrow felt a secret gratification in being appealed to as an authority on the histrionic art. His interest in it had hitherto been merely that of the cultivated young man curious of all forms of artistic expression; but in reply to her questions he found things to say about it which evidently struck his listener as impressive and original, and with which he himself was not, on the whole, dissatisfied. Miss Viner was much more concerned to hear his views than to express her own, and the deference with which she received his comments called from him more ideas about the theatre than he had ever supposed himself to possess.

With the second act she began to give more attention to the development of the play, though her interest was excited rather by what she called “the story” than by the conflict of character producing it. Oddly combined with her sharp apprehension of things theatrical, her knowledge of technical “dodges” and green-room precedents, her glibness about “lines” and “curtains”, was the primitive simplicity of her attitude toward the tale itself, as toward something that was “really happening” and at which one assisted as at a street-accident or a quarrel overheard in the next room. She wanted to know if Darrow thought the lovers “really would” be involved in the catastrophe that threatened them, and when he reminded her that his predictions were disqualified by his having already seen the play, she exclaimed: “Oh, then, please don’t tell me what’s going to happen!” and the next moment was questioning him about Cerdine’s theatrical situation and her private history. On the latter point some of her enquiries were of a kind that it is not in the habit of young girls to make, or even to know how to make; but her apparent unconsciousness of the fact seemed rather to reflect on her past associates than on herself.

When the second act was over, Darrow suggested their taking a turn in the foyer; and seated on one of its cramped red velvet sofas they watched the crowd surge up and down in a glare of lights and gilding. Then, as she complained of the heat, he led her through the press to the congested cafe at the foot of the stairs, where orangeades were thrust at them between the shoulders of packed consommateurs and Darrow, lighting a cigarette while she sucked her straw, knew the primitive complacency of the man at whose companion other men stare.

On a corner of their table lay a smeared copy of a theatrical journal. It caught Sophy’s eye and after poring over the page she looked up with an excited exclamation.

“They’re giving Oedipe tomorrow afternoon at the Francais! I suppose you’ve seen it heaps and heaps of times?”

He smiled back at her. “You must see it too. We’ll go tomorrow.”

She sighed at his suggestion, but without discarding it. “How can I? The last train for Joigny leaves at four.”

“But you don’t know yet that your friends will want you.”

“I shall know tomorrow early. I asked Mrs. Farlow to telegraph as soon as she got my letter.” A twinge of compunction shot through Darrow. Her words recalled to him that on their return to the hotel after luncheon she had given him her letter to post, and that he had never thought of it again. No doubt it was still in the pocket of the coat he had taken off when he dressed for dinner. In his perturbation he pushed back his chair, and the movement made her look up at him.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing. Only — you know I don’t fancy that letter can have caught this afternoon’s post.”

“Not caught it? Why not?”

“Why, I’m afraid it will have been too late.” He bent his head to light another cigarette.

She struck her hands together with a gesture which, to his amusement, he noticed she had caught from Cerdine.

“Oh, dear, I hadn’t thought of that! But surely it will reach them in the morning?”

“Some time in the morning, I suppose. You know the French provincial post is never in a hurry. I don’t believe your letter would have been delivered this evening in any case.” As this idea occurred to him he felt himself almost absolved.

“Perhaps, then, I ought to have telegraphed?”

“I’ll telegraph for you in the morning if you say so.”

The bell announcing the close of the entr’-acte shrilled through the cafe, and she sprang to her feet.

“Oh, come, come! We mustn’t miss it!”

Instantly forgetful of the Farlows, she slipped her arm through his and turned to push her way back to the theatre.

As soon as the curtain went up she as promptly forgot her companion. Watching her from the corner to which he had returned, Darrow saw that great waves of sensation were beating deliciously against her brain. It was as though every starved sensibility were throwing out feelers to the mounting tide; as though everything she was seeing, hearing, imagining, rushed in to fill the void of all she had always been denied.

Darrow, as he observed her, again felt a detached enjoyment in her pleasure. She was an extraordinary conductor of sensation: she seemed to transmit it physically, in emanations that set the blood dancing in his veins. He had not often had the opportunity of studying the effects of a perfectly fresh impression on so responsive a temperament, and he felt a fleeting desire to make its chords vibrate for his own amusement.

At the end of the next act she discovered with dismay that in their transit to the cafe she had lost the beautiful pictured programme he had bought for her. She wanted to go back and hunt for it, but Darrow assured her that he would have no trouble in getting her another. When he went out in quest of it she followed him protestingly to the door of the box, and he saw that she was distressed at the thought of his having to spend an additional franc for her. This frugality smote Darrow by its contrast to her natural bright profusion; and again he felt the desire to right so clumsy an injustice.

When he returned to the box she was still standing in the doorway, and he noticed that his were not the only eyes attracted to her. Then another impression sharply diverted his attention. Above the fagged faces of the Parisian crowd he had caught the fresh fair countenance of Owen Leath signalling a joyful recognition. The young man, slim and eager, had detached himself from two companions of his own type, and was seeking to push through the press to his step-mother’s friend. The encounter, to Darrow, could hardly have been more inopportune; it woke in him a confusion of feelings of which only the uppermost was allayed by seeing Sophy Viner, as if instinctively warned, melt back into the shadow of their box.

A minute later Owen Leath was at his side. “I was sure it was you! Such luck to run across you! Won’t you come off with us to supper after it’s over? Montmartre, or wherever else you please. Those two chaps over there are friends of mine, at the Beaux Arts; both of them rather good fellows — and we’d be so glad —— ”

For half a second Darrow read in his hospitable eye the termination “if you’d bring the lady too”; then it deflected into: “We’d all be so glad if you’d come.”

Darrow, excusing himself with thanks, lingered on for a few minutes’ chat, in which every word, and every tone of his companion’s voice, was like a sharp light flashed into aching eyes. He was glad when the bell called the audience to their seats, and young Leath left him with the friendly question: “We’ll see you at Givre later on?”

When he rejoined Miss Viner, Darrow’s first care was to find out, by a rapid inspection of the house, whether Owen Leath’s seat had given him a view of their box. But the young man was not visible from it, and Darrow concluded that he had been recognized in the corridor and not at his companion’s side. He scarcely knew why it seemed to him so important that this point should be settled; certainly his sense of reassurance was less due to regard for Miss Viner than to the persistent vision of grave offended eyes . . .

During the drive back to the hotel this vision was persistently kept before him by the thought that the evening post might have brought a letter from Mrs. Leath. Even if no letter had yet come, his servant might have telegraphed to say that one was on its way; and at the thought his interest in the girl at his side again cooled to the fraternal, the almost fatherly. She was no more to him, after all, than an appealing young creature to whom it was mildly agreeable to have offered an evening’s diversion; and when, as they rolled into the illuminated court of the hotel, she turned with a quick movement which brought her happy face close to his, he leaned away, affecting to be absorbed in opening the door of the cab.

At the desk the night porter, after a vain search through the pigeon-holes, was disposed to think that a letter or telegram had in fact been sent up for the gentleman; and Darrow, at the announcement, could hardly wait to ascend to his room. Upstairs, he and his companion had the long dimly-lit corridor to themselves, and Sophy paused on her threshold, gathering up in one hand the pale folds of her cloak, while she held the other out to Darrow.

“If the telegram comes early I shall be off by the first train; so I suppose this is good-bye,” she said, her eyes dimmed by a little shadow of regret.

Darrow, with a renewed start of contrition, perceived that he had again forgotten her letter; and as their hands met he vowed to himself that the moment she had left him he would dash down stairs to post it.

“Oh, I’ll see you in the morning, of course!”

A tremor of pleasure crossed her face as he stood before her, smiling a little uncertainly.

“At any rate,” she said, “I want to thank you now for my good day.”

He felt in her hand the same tremor he had seen in her face. “But it’s YOU, on the contrary — ” he began, lifting the hand to his lips.

As he dropped it, and their eyes met, something passed through hers that was like a light carried rapidly behind a curtained window.

“Good night; you must be awfully tired,” he said with a friendly abruptness, turning away without even waiting to see her pass into her room. He unlocked his door, and stumbling over the threshold groped in the darkness for the electric button. The light showed him a telegram on the table, and he forgot everything else as he caught it up.

“No letter from France,” the message read.

It fell from Darrow’s hand to the floor, and he dropped into a chair by the table and sat gazing at the dingy drab and olive pattern of the carpet. She had not written, then; she had not written, and it was manifest now that she did not mean to write. If she had had any intention of explaining her telegram she would certainly, within twenty-four hours, have followed it up by a letter. But she evidently did not intend to explain it, and her silence could mean only that she had no explanation to give, or else that she was too indifferent to be aware that one was needed.

Darrow, face to face with these alternatives, felt a recrudescence of boyish misery. It was no longer his hurt vanity that cried out. He told himself that he could have borne an equal amount of pain, if only it had left Mrs. Leath’s image untouched; but he could not bear to think of her as trivial or insincere. The thought was so intolerable that he felt a blind desire to punish some one else for the pain it caused him.

As he sat moodily staring at the carpet its silly intricacies melted into a blur from which the eyes of Mrs. Leath again looked out at him. He saw the fine sweep of her brows, and the deep look beneath them as she had turned from him on their last evening in London. “This will be good-bye, then,” she had said; and it occurred to him that her parting phrase had been the same as Sophy Viner’s.

At the thought he jumped to his feet and took down from its hook the coat in which he had left Miss Viner’s letter. The clock marked the third quarter after midnight, and he knew it would make no difference if he went down to the post-box now or early the next morning; but he wanted to clear his conscience, and having found the letter he went to the door.

A sound in the next room made him pause. He had become conscious again that, a few feet off, on the other side of a thin partition, a small keen flame of life was quivering and agitating the air. Sophy’s face came hack to him insistently. It was as vivid now as Mrs. Leath’s had been a moment earlier. He recalled with a faint smile of retrospective pleasure the girl’s enjoyment of her evening, and the innumerable fine feelers of sensation she had thrown out to its impressions.

It gave him a curiously close sense of her presence to think that at that moment she was living over her enjoyment as intensely as he was living over his unhappiness. His own case was irremediable, but it was easy enough to give her a few more hours of pleasure. And did she not perhaps secretly expect it of him? After all, if she had been very anxious to join her friends she would have telegraphed them on reaching Paris, instead of writing. He wondered now that he had not been struck at the moment by so artless a device to gain more time. The fact of her having practised it did not make him think less well of her; it merely strengthened the impulse to use his opportunity. She was starving, poor child, for a little amusement, a little personal life — why not give her the chance of another day in Paris? If he did so, should he not be merely falling in with her own hopes?

At the thought his sympathy for her revived. She became of absorbing interest to him as an escape from himself and an object about which his thwarted activities could cluster. He felt less drearily alone because of her being there, on the other side of the door, and in his gratitude to her for giving him this relief he began, with indolent amusement, to plan new ways of detaining her. He dropped back into his chair, lit a cigar, and smiled a little at the image of her smiling face. He tried to imagine what incident of the day she was likely to be recalling at that particular moment, and what part he probably played in it. That it was not a small part he was certain, and the knowledge was undeniably pleasant.

Now and then a sound from her room brought before him more vividly the reality of the situation and the strangeness of the vast swarming solitude in which he and she were momentarily isolated, amid long lines of rooms each holding its separate secret. The nearness of all these other mysteries enclosing theirs gave Darrow a more intimate sense of the girl’s presence, and through the fumes of his cigar his imagination continued to follow her to and fro, traced the curve of her slim young arms as she raised them to undo her hair, pictured the sliding down of her dress to the waist and then to the knees, and the whiteness of her feet as she slipped across the floor to bed . . .

He stood up and shook himself with a yawn, throwing away the end of his cigar. His glance, in following it, lit on the telegram which had dropped to the floor. The sounds in the next room had ceased, and once more he felt alone and unhappy.

Opening the window, he folded his arms on the sill and looked out on the vast light-spangled mass of the city, and then up at the dark sky, in which the morning planet stood.

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