The Reef, by Edith Wharton

VI

At the Theatre Francais, the next afternoon, Darrow yawned and fidgeted in his seat.

The day was warm, the theatre crowded and airless, and the performance, it seemed to him, intolerably bad. He stole a glance at his companion, wondering if she shared his feelings. Her rapt profile betrayed no unrest, but politeness might have caused her to feign an interest that she did not feel. He leaned back impatiently, stifling another yawn, and trying to fix his attention on the stage. Great things were going forward there, and he was not insensible to the stern beauties of the ancient drama. But the interpretation of the play seemed to him as airless and lifeless as the atmosphere of the theatre. The players were the same whom he had often applauded in those very parts, and perhaps that fact added to the impression of staleness and conventionality produced by their performance. Surely it was time to infuse new blood into the veins of the moribund art. He had the impression that the ghosts of actors were giving a spectral performance on the shores of Styx.

Certainly it was not the most profitable way for a young man with a pretty companion to pass the golden hours of a spring afternoon. The freshness of the face at his side, reflecting the freshness of the season, suggested dapplings of sunlight through new leaves, the sound of a brook in the grass, the ripple of tree-shadows over breezy meadows . . .

When at length the fateful march of the cothurns was stayed by the single pause in the play, and Darrow had led Miss Viner out on the balcony overhanging the square before the theatre, he turned to see if she shared his feelings. But the rapturous look she gave him checked the depreciation on his lips.

“Oh, why did you bring me out here? One ought to creep away and sit in the dark till it begins again!”

“Is THAT the way they made you feel?”

“Didn’t they YOU? . . . As if the gods were there all the while, just behind them, pulling the strings?” Her hands were pressed against the railing, her face shining and darkening under the wing-beats of successive impressions.

Darrow smiled in enjoyment of her pleasure. After all, he had felt all that, long ago; perhaps it was his own fault, rather than that of the actors, that the poetry of the play seemed to have evaporated . . . But no, he had been right in judging the performance to be dull and stale: it was simply his companion’s inexperience, her lack of occasions to compare and estimate, that made her think it brilliant.

“I was afraid you were bored and wanted to come away.”

“BORED?” She made a little aggrieved grimace. “You mean you thought me too ignorant and stupid to appreciate it?”

“No; not that.” The hand nearest him still lay on the railing of the balcony, and he covered it for a moment with his. As he did so he saw the colour rise and tremble in her cheek.

“Tell me just what you think,” he said, bending his head a little, and only half-aware of his words.

She did not turn her face to his, but began to talk rapidly, trying to convey something of what she felt. But she was evidently unused to analyzing her aesthetic emotions, and the tumultuous rush of the drama seemed to have left her in a state of panting wonder, as though it had been a storm or some other natural cataclysm. She had no literary or historic associations to which to attach her impressions: her education had evidently not comprised a course in Greek literature. But she felt what would probably have been unperceived by many a young lady who had taken a first in classics: the ineluctable fatality of the tale, the dread sway in it of the same mysterious “luck” which pulled the threads of her own small destiny. It was not literature to her, it was fact: as actual, as near by, as what was happening to her at the moment and what the next hour held in store. Seen in this light, the play regained for Darrow its supreme and poignant reality. He pierced to the heart of its significance through all the artificial accretions with which his theories of art and the conventions of the stage had clothed it, and saw it as he had never seen it: as life.

After this there could be no question of flight, and he took her back to the theatre, content to receive his own sensations through the medium of hers. But with the continuation of the play, and the oppression of the heavy air, his attention again began to wander, straying back over the incidents of the morning.

He had been with Sophy Viner all day, and he was surprised to find how quickly the time had gone. She had hardly attempted, as the hours passed, to conceal her satisfaction on finding that no telegram came from the Farlows. “They’ll have written,” she had simply said; and her mind had at once flown on to the golden prospect of an afternoon at the theatre. The intervening hours had been disposed of in a stroll through the lively streets, and a repast, luxuriously lingered over, under the chestnut-boughs of a restaurant in the Champs Elysees. Everything entertained and interested her, and Darrow remarked, with an amused detachment, that she was not insensible to the impression her charms produced. Yet there was no hard edge of vanity in her sense of her prettiness: she seemed simply to be aware of it as a note in the general harmony, and to enjoy sounding the note as a singer enjoys singing.

After luncheon, as they sat over their coffee, she had again asked an immense number of questions and delivered herself of a remarkable variety of opinions. Her questions testified to a wholesome and comprehensive human curiosity, and her comments showed, like her face and her whole attitude, an odd mingling of precocious wisdom and disarming ignorance. When she talked to him about “life” — the word was often on her lips — she seemed to him like a child playing with a tiger’s cub; and he said to himself that some day the child would grow up — and so would the tiger. Meanwhile, such expertness qualified by such candour made it impossible to guess the extent of her personal experience, or to estimate its effect on her character. She might be any one of a dozen definable types, or she might — more disconcertingly to her companion and more perilously to herself — be a shifting and uncrystallized mixture of them all.

Her talk, as usual, had promptly reverted to the stage. She was eager to learn about every form of dramatic expression which the metropolis of things theatrical had to offer, and her curiosity ranged from the official temples of the art to its less hallowed haunts. Her searching enquiries about a play whose production, on one of the latter scenes, had provoked a considerable amount of scandal, led Darrow to throw out laughingly: “To see THAT you’ll have to wait till you’re married!” and his answer had sent her off at a tangent.

“Oh, I never mean to marry,” she had rejoined in a tone of youthful finality.

“I seem to have heard that before!”

“Yes; from girls who’ve only got to choose!” Her eyes had grown suddenly almost old. “I’d like you to see the only men who’ve ever wanted to marry me! One was the doctor on the steamer, when I came abroad with the Hokes: he’d been cashiered from the navy for drunkenness. The other was a deaf widower with three grown-up daughters, who kept a clock-shop in Bayswater! — Besides,” she rambled on, “I’m not so sure that I believe in marriage. You see I’m all for self-development and the chance to live one’s life. I’m awfully modern, you know.”

It was just when she proclaimed herself most awfully modern that she struck him as most helplessly backward; yet the moment after, without any bravado, or apparent desire to assume an attitude, she would propound some social axiom which could have been gathered only in the bitter soil of experience.

All these things came back to him as he sat beside her in the theatre and watched her ingenuous absorption. It was on “the story” that her mind was fixed, and in life also, he suspected, it would always be “the story”, rather than its remoter imaginative issues, that would hold her. He did not believe there were ever any echoes in her soul . . .

There was no question, however, that what she felt was felt with intensity: to the actual, the immediate, she spread vibrating strings. When the play was over, and they came out once more into the sunlight, Darrow looked down at her with a smile.

“Well?” he asked.

She made no answer. Her dark gaze seemed to rest on him without seeing him. Her cheeks and lips were pale, and the loose hair under her hat-brim clung to her forehead in damp rings. She looked like a young priestess still dazed by the fumes of the cavern.

“You poor child — it’s been almost too much for you!”

She shook her head with a vague smile.

“Come,” he went on, putting his hand on her arm, “let’s jump into a taxi and get some air and sunshine. Look, there are hours of daylight left; and see what a night it’s going to be!”

He pointed over their heads, to where a white moon hung in the misty blue above the roofs of the rue de Rivoli.

She made no answer, and he signed to a motor-cab, calling out to the driver: “To the Bois!”

As the carriage turned toward the Tuileries she roused herself. “I must go first to the hotel. There may be a message — at any rate I must decide on something.”

Darrow saw that the reality of the situation had suddenly forced itself upon her. “I MUST decide on something,” she repeated.

He would have liked to postpone the return, to persuade her to drive directly to the Bois for dinner. It would have been easy enough to remind her that she could not start for Joigny that evening, and that therefore it was of no moment whether she received the Farlows’ answer then or a few hours later; but for some reason he hesitated to use this argument, which had come so naturally to him the day before. After all, he knew she would find nothing at the hotel — so what did it matter if they went there?

The porter, interrogated, was not sure. He himself had received nothing for the lady, but in his absence his subordinate might have sent a letter upstairs.

Darrow and Sophy mounted together in the lift, and the young man, while she went into her room, unlocked his own door and glanced at the empty table. For him at least no message had come; and on her threshold, a moment later, she met him with the expected: “No — there’s nothing!”

He feigned an unregretful surprise. “So much the better! And now, shall we drive out somewhere? Or would you rather take a boat to Bellevue? Have you ever dined there, on the terrace, by moonlight? It’s not at all bad. And there’s no earthly use in sitting here waiting.”

She stood before him in perplexity.

“But when I wrote yesterday I asked them to telegraph. I suppose they’re horribly hard up, the poor dears, and they thought a letter would do as well as a telegram.” The colour had risen to her face. “That’s why I wrote instead of telegraphing; I haven’t a penny to spare myself!”

Nothing she could have said could have filled her listener with a deeper contrition. He felt the red in his own face as he recalled the motive with which he had credited her in his midnight musings. But that motive, after all, had simply been trumped up to justify his own disloyalty: he had never really believed in it. The reflection deepened his confusion, and he would have liked to take her hand in his and confess the injustice he had done her.

She may have interpreted his change of colour as an involuntary protest at being initiated into such shabby details, for she went on with a laugh: “I suppose you can hardly understand what it means to have to stop and think whether one can afford a telegram? But I’ve always had to consider such things. And I mustn’t stay here any longer now — I must try to get a night train for Joigny. Even if the Farlows can’t take me in, I can go to the hotel: it will cost less than staying here.” She paused again and then exclaimed: “I ought to have thought of that sooner; I ought to have telegraphed yesterday! But I was sure I should hear from them today; and I wanted — oh, I DID so awfully want to stay!” She threw a troubled look at Darrow. “Do you happen to remember,” she asked, “what time it was when you posted my letter?”

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