The Reef, by Edith Wharton

VII

Darrow was still standing on her threshold. As she put the question he entered the room and closed the door behind him.

His heart was beating a little faster than usual and he had no clear idea of what he was about to do or say, beyond the definite conviction that, whatever passing impulse of expiation moved him, he would not be fool enough to tell her that he had not sent her letter. He knew that most wrongdoing works, on the whole, less mischief than its useless confession; and this was clearly a case where a passing folly might be turned, by avowal, into a serious offense.

“I’m so sorry — so sorry; but you must let me help you . . . You will let me help you?” he said.

He took her hands and pressed them together between his, counting on a friendly touch to help out the insufficiency of words. He felt her yield slightly to his clasp, and hurried on without giving her time to answer.

“Isn’t it a pity to spoil our good time together by regretting anything you might have done to prevent our having it?”

She drew back, freeing her hands. Her face, losing its look of appealing confidence, was suddenly sharpened by distrust.

“You didn’t forget to post my letter?”

Darrow stood before her, constrained and ashamed, and ever more keenly aware that the betrayal of his distress must be a greater offense than its concealment.

“What an insinuation!” he cried, throwing out his hands with a laugh.

Her face instantly melted to laughter. “Well, then — I WON’T be sorry; I won’t regret anything except that our good time is over!”

The words were so unexpected that they routed all his resolves. If she had gone on doubting him he could probably have gone on deceiving her; but her unhesitating acceptance of his word made him hate the part he was playing. At the same moment a doubt shot up its serpent-head in his own bosom. Was it not he rather than she who was childishly trustful? Was she not almost too ready to take his word, and dismiss once for all the tiresome question of the letter? Considering what her experiences must have been, such trustfulness seemed open to suspicion. But the moment his eyes fell on her he was ashamed of the thought, and knew it for what it really was: another pretext to lessen his own delinquency.

“Why should our good time be over?” he asked. “Why shouldn’t it last a little longer?”

She looked up, her lips parted in surprise; but before she could speak he went on: “I want you to stay with me — I want you, just for a few days, to have all the things you’ve never had. It’s not always May and Paris — why not make the most of them now? You know me — we’re not strangers — why shouldn’t you treat me like a friend?”

While he spoke she had drawn away a little, but her hand still lay in his. She was pale, and her eyes were fixed on him in a gaze in which there was neither distrust or resentment, but only an ingenuous wonder. He was extraordinarily touched by her expression.

“Oh, do! You must. Listen: to prove that I’m sincere I’ll tell you . . . I’ll tell you I didn’t post your letter . . . I didn’t post it because I wanted so much to give you a few good hours . . . and because I couldn’t bear to have you go.”

He had the feeling that the words were being uttered in spite of him by some malicious witness of the scene, and yet that he was not sorry to have them spoken.

The girl had listened to him in silence. She remained motionless for a moment after he had ceased to speak; then she snatched away her hand.

“You didn’t post my letter? You kept it back on purpose? And you tell me so NOW, to prove to me that I’d better put myself under your protection?” She burst into a laugh that had in it all the piercing echoes of her Murrett past, and her face, at the same moment, underwent the same change, shrinking into a small malevolent white mask in which the eyes burned black. “Thank you — thank you most awfully for telling me! And for all your other kind intentions! The plan’s delightful — really quite delightful, and I’m extremely flattered and obliged.”

She dropped into a seat beside her dressing-table, resting her chin on her lifted hands, and laughing out at him under the elf-lock which had shaken itself down over her eyes.

Her outburst did not offend the young man; its immediate effect was that of allaying his agitation. The theatrical touch in her manner made his offense seem more venial than he had thought it a moment before.

He drew up a chair and sat down beside her. “After all,” he said, in a tone of good-humoured protest, “I needn’t have told you I’d kept back your letter; and my telling you seems rather strong proof that I hadn’t any very nefarious designs on you.”

She met this with a shrug, but he did not give her time to answer. “My designs,” he continued with a smile, “were not nefarious. I saw you’d been through a bad time with Mrs. Murrett, and that there didn’t seem to be much fun ahead for you; and I didn’t see — and I don’t yet see — the harm of trying to give you a few hours of amusement between a depressing past and a not particularly cheerful future.” He paused again, and then went on, in the same tone of friendly reasonableness: “The mistake I made was not to tell you this at once — not to ask you straight out to give me a day or two, and let me try to make you forget all the things that are troubling you. I was a fool not to see that if I’d put it to you in that way you’d have accepted or refused, as you chose; but that at least you wouldn’t have mistaken my intentions. — Intentions!” He stood up, walked the length of the room, and turned back to where she still sat motionless, her elbows propped on the dressing-table, her chin on her hands. “What rubbish we talk about intentions! The truth is I hadn’t any: I just liked being with you. Perhaps you don’t know how extraordinarily one can like being with you . . . I was depressed and adrift myself; and you made me forget my bothers; and when I found you were going — and going back to dreariness, as I was — I didn’t see why we shouldn’t have a few hours together first; so I left your letter in my pocket.”

He saw her face melt as she listened, and suddenly she unclasped her hands and leaned to him.

“But are YOU unhappy too? Oh, I never understood — I never dreamed it! I thought you’d always had everything in the world you wanted!”

Darrow broke into a laugh at this ingenuous picture of his state. He was ashamed of trying to better his case by an appeal to her pity, and annoyed with himself for alluding to a subject he would rather have kept out of his thoughts. But her look of sympathy had disarmed him; his heart was bitter and distracted; she was near him, her eyes were shining with compassion — he bent over her and kissed her hand.

“Forgive me — do forgive me,” he said.

She stood up with a smiling head-shake. “Oh, it’s not so often that people try to give me any pleasure — much less two whole days of it! I sha’n’t forget how kind you’ve been. I shall have plenty of time to remember. But this IS good-bye, you know. I must telegraph at once to say I’m coming.”

“To say you’re coming? Then I’m not forgiven?”

“Oh, you’re forgiven — if that’s any comfort.”

“It’s not, the very least, if your way of proving it is to go away!”

She hung her head in meditation. “But I can’t stay. — How CAN I stay?” she broke out, as if arguing with some unseen monitor.

“Why can’t you? No one knows you’re here . . . No one need ever know.”

She looked up, and their eyes exchanged meanings for a rapid minute. Her gaze was as clear as a boy’s. “Oh, it’s not THAT,” she exclaimed, almost impatiently; “it’s not people I’m afraid of! They’ve never put themselves out for me — why on earth should I care about them?”

He liked her directness as he had never liked it before. “Well, then, what is it? Not ME, I hope?”

“No, not you: I like you. It’s the money! With me that’s always the root of the matter. I could never yet afford a treat in my life!”

“Is THAT all?” He laughed, relieved by her naturalness. “Look here; since we re talking as man to man — can’t you trust me about that too?”

“Trust you? How do you mean? You’d better not trust ME!” she laughed back sharply. “I might never be able to pay up!”

His gesture brushed aside the allusion. “Money may be the root of the matter; it can’t be the whole of it, between friends. Don’t you think one friend may accept a small service from another without looking too far ahead or weighing too many chances? The question turns entirely on what you think of me. If you like me well enough to be willing to take a few days’ holiday with me, just for the pleasure of the thing, and the pleasure you’ll be giving me, let’s shake hands on it. If you don’t like me well enough we’ll shake hands too; only I shall be sorry,” he ended.

“Oh, but I shall be sorry too!” Her face, as she lifted it to his, looked so small and young that Darrow felt a fugitive twinge of compunction, instantly effaced by the excitement of pursuit.

“Well, then?” He stood looking down on her, his eyes persuading her. He was now intensely aware that his nearness was having an effect which made it less and less necessary for him to choose his words, and he went on, more mindful of the inflections of his voice than of what he was actually saying: “Why on earth should we say good-bye if we’re both sorry to? Won’t you tell me your reason? It’s not a bit like you to let anything stand in the way of your saying just what you feel. You mustn’t mind offending me, you know!”

She hung before him like a leaf on the meeting of cross-currents, that the next ripple may sweep forward or whirl back. Then she flung up her head with the odd boyish movement habitual to her in moments of excitement. “What I feel? Do you want to know what I feel? That you’re giving me the only chance I’ve ever had!”

She turned about on her heel and, dropping into the nearest chair, sank forward, her face hidden against the dressing-table.

Under the folds of her thin summer dress the modelling of her back and of her lifted arms, and the slight hollow between her shoulder-blades, recalled the faint curves of a terra-cotta statuette, some young image of grace hardly more than sketched in the clay. Darrow, as he stood looking at her, reflected that her character, for all its seeming firmness, its flashing edges of “opinion”, was probably no less immature. He had not expected her to yield so suddenly to his suggestion, or to confess her yielding in that way. At first he was slightly disconcerted; then he saw how her attitude simplified his own. Her behaviour had all the indecision and awkwardness of inexperience. It showed that she was a child after all; and all he could do — all he had ever meant to do — was to give her a child’s holiday to look back to.

For a moment he fancied she was crying; but the next she was on her feet and had swept round on him a face she must have turned away only to hide the first rush of her pleasure.

For a while they shone on each other without speaking; then she sprang to him and held out both hands.

“Is it true? Is it really true? Is it really going to happen to ME?”

He felt like answering: “You’re the very creature to whom it was bound to happen”; but the words had a double sense that made him wince, and instead he caught her proffered hands and stood looking at her across the length of her arms, without attempting to bend them or to draw her closer. He wanted her to know how her words had moved him; but his thoughts were blurred by the rush of the same emotion that possessed her, and his own words came with an effort.

He ended by giving her back a laugh as frank as her own, and declaring, as he dropped her hands: “All that and more too — you’ll see!”

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