The Reef/Chapter XIX

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The Reef by Edith Wharton
Chapter XIX

Chapter XIX[edit]

He left her at the door of Madame de Chantelle's sitting- room, and plunged out alone into the rain.

The wind flung about the stripped tree-tops of the avenue and dashed the stinging streams into his face. He walked to the gate and then turned into the high-road and strode along in the open, buffeted by slanting gusts. The evenly ridged fields were a blurred waste of mud, and the russet coverts which he and Owen had shot through the day before shivered desolately against a driving sky.

Darrow walked on and on, indifferent to the direction he was taking. His thoughts were tossing like the tree-tops. Anna's announcement had not come to him as a complete surprise: that morning, as he strolled back to the house with Owen Leath and Miss Viner, he had had a momentary intuition of the truth. But it had been no more than an intuition, the merest faint cloud-puff of surmise; and now it was an attested fact, darkening over the whole sky.

In respect of his own attitude, he saw at once that the discovery made no appreciable change. If he had been bound to silence before, he was no less bound to it now; the only difference lay in the fact that what he had just learned had rendered his bondage more intolerable. Hitherto he had felt for Sophy Viner's defenseless state a sympathy profoundly tinged with compunction. But now he was half-conscious of an obscure indignation against her. Superior as he had fancied himself to ready-made judgments, he was aware of cherishing the common doubt as to the disinterestedness of the woman who tries to rise above her past. No wonder she had been sick with fear on meeting him! It was in his power to do her more harm than he had dreamed...

Assuredly he did not want to harm her; but he did desperately want to prevent her marrying Owen Leath. He tried to get away from the feeling, to isolate and exteriorize it sufficiently to see what motives it was made of; but it remained a mere blind motion of his blood, the instinctive recoil from the thing that no amount of arguing can make "straight." His tramp, prolonged as it was, carried him no nearer to enlightenment; and after trudging through two or three sallow mud-stained villages he turned about and wearily made his way back to Givre. As he walked up the black avenue, making for the lights that twinkled through its pitching branches, he had a sudden realisation of his utter helplessness. He might think and combine as he would; but there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that he could do...

He dropped his wet coat in the vestibule and began to mount the stairs to his room. But on the landing he was overtaken by a sober-faced maid who, in tones discreetly lowered, begged him to be so kind as to step, for a moment, into the Marquise's sitting-room. Somewhat disconcerted by the summons, he followed its bearer to the door at which, a couple of hours earlier, he had taken leave of Mrs. Leath. It opened to admit him to a large lamp-lit room which he immediately perceived to be empty; and the fact gave him time to note, even through his disturbance of mind, the interesting degree to which Madame de Chantelle's apartment "dated" and completed her. Its looped and corded curtains, its purple satin upholstery, the Sevres jardinieres, the rosewood fire-screen, the little velvet tables edged with lace and crowded with silver knick-knacks and simpering miniatures, reconstituted an almost perfect setting for the blonde beauty of the 'sixties. Darrow wondered that Fraser Leath's filial respect should have prevailed over his aesthetic scruples to the extent of permitting such an anachronism among the eighteenth century graces of Givre; but a moment's reflection made it clear that, to its late owner, the attitude would have seemed exactly in the traditions of the place.

Madame de Chantelle's emergence from an inner room snatched Darrow from these irrelevant musings. She was already beaded and bugled for the evening, and, save for a slight pinkness of the eye-lids, her elaborate appearance revealed no mark of agitation; but Darrow noticed that, in recognition of the solemnity of the occasion, she pinched a lace handkerchief between her thumb and forefinger.

She plunged at once into the centre of the difficulty, appealing to him, in the name of all the Everards, to descend there with her to the rescue of her darling. She wasn't, she was sure, addressing herself in vain to one whose person, whose "tone," whose traditions so brilliantly declared his indebtedness to the principles she besought him to defend. Her own reception of Darrow, the confidence she had at once accorded him, must have shown him that she had instinctively felt their unanimity of sentiment on these fundamental questions. She had in fact recognized in him the one person whom, without pain to her maternal piety, she could welcome as her son's successor; and it was almost as to Owen's father that she now appealed to Darrow to aid in rescuing the wretched boy.

"Don't think, please, that I'm casting the least reflection on Anna, or showing any want of sympathy for her, when I say that I consider her partly responsible for what's happened. Anna is 'modern'--I believe that's what it's called when you read unsettling books and admire hideous pictures. Indeed," Madame de Chantelle continued, leaning confidentially forward, "I myself have always more or less lived in that atmosphere: my son, you know, was very revolutionary. Only he didn't, of course, apply his ideas: they were purely intellectual. That's what dear Anna has always failed to understand. And I'm afraid she's created the same kind of confusion in Owen's mind--led him to mix up things you read about with things you do...You know, of course, that she sides with him in this wretched business?"

Developing at length upon this theme, she finally narrowed down to the point of Darrow's intervention. "My grandson, Mr. Darrow, calls me illogical and uncharitable because my feelings toward Miss Viner have changed since I've heard this news. Well! You've known her, it appears, for some years: Anna tells me you used to see her when she was a companion, or secretary or something, to a dreadfully vulgar Mrs. Murrett. And I ask you as a friend, I ask you as one of US, to tell me if you think a girl who has had to knock about the world in that kind of position, and at the orders of all kinds of people, is fitted to be Owen's wife I'm not implying anything against her! I LIKED the girl, Mr. Darrow...But what's that got to do with it? I don't want her to marry my grandson. If I'd been looking for a wife for Owen, I shouldn't have applied to the Farlows to find me one. That's what Anna won't understand; and what you must help me to make her see."

Darrow, to this appeal, could oppose only the repeated assurance of his inability to interfere. He tried to make Madame de Chantelle see that the very position he hoped to take in the household made his intervention the more hazardous. He brought up the usual arguments, and sounded the expected note of sympathy; but Madame de Chantelle's alarm had dispelled her habitual imprecision, and, though she had not many reasons to advance, her argument clung to its point like a frightened sharp-clawed animal.

"Well, then," she summed up, in response to his repeated assertions that he saw no way of helping her, "you can, at least, even if you won't say a word to the others, tell me frankly and fairly--and quite between ourselves--your personal opinion of Miss Viner, since you've known her so much longer than we have."

He protested that, if he had known her longer, he had known her much less well, and that he had already, on this point, convinced Anna of his inability to pronounce an opinion.

Madame de Chantelle drew a deep sigh of intelligence. "Your opinion of Mrs. Murrett is enough! I don't suppose you pretend to conceal THAT? And heaven knows what other unspeakable people she's been mixed up with. The only friends she can produce are called Hoke...Don't try to reason with me, Mr. Darrow. There are feelings that go deeper than facts...And I KNOW she thought of studying for the stage..." Madame de Chantelle raised the corner of her lace handkerchief to her eyes. "I'm old-fashioned--like my furniture," she murmured. "And I thought I could count on you, Mr. Darrow..."


When Darrow, that night, regained his room, he reflected with a flash of irony that each time he entered it he brought a fresh troop of perplexities to trouble its serene seclusion. Since the day after his arrival, only forty- eight hours before, when he had set his window open to the night, and his hopes had seemed as many as its stars, each evening had brought its new problem and its renewed distress. But nothing, as yet, had approached the blank misery of mind with which he now set himself to face the fresh questions confronting him.

Sophy Viner had not shown herself at dinner, so that he had had no glimpse of her in her new character, and no means of divining the real nature of the tie between herself and Owen Leath. One thing, however, was clear: whatever her real feelings were, and however much or little she had at stake, if she had made up her mind to marry Owen she had more than enough skill and tenacity to defeat any arts that poor Madame de Chantelle could oppose to her.

Darrow himself was in fact the only person who might possibly turn her from her purpose: Madame de Chantelle, at haphazard, had hit on the surest means of saving Owen--if to prevent his marriage were to save him! Darrow, on this point, did not pretend to any fixed opinion; one feeling alone was clear and insistent in him: he did not mean, if he could help it, to let the marriage take place.

How he was to prevent it he did not know: to his tormented imagination every issue seemed closed. For a fantastic instant he was moved to follow Madame de Chantelle's suggestion and urge Anna to withdraw her approval. If his reticence, his efforts to avoid the subject, had not escaped her, she had doubtless set them down to the fact of his knowing more, and thinking less, of Sophy Viner than he had been willing to admit; and he might take advantage of this to turn her mind gradually from the project. Yet how do so without betraying his insincerity? If he had had nothing to hide he could easily have said: "It's one thing to know nothing against the girl, it's another to pretend that I think her a good match for Owen." But could he say even so much without betraying more? It was not Anna's questions, or his answers to them, that he feared, but what might cry aloud in the intervals between them. He understood now that ever since Sophy Viner's arrival at Givre he had felt in Anna the lurking sense of something unexpressed, and perhaps inexpressible, between the girl and himself...When at last he fell asleep he had fatalistically committed his next step to the chances of the morrow.

The first that offered itself was an encounter with Mrs. Leath as he descended the stairs the next morning. She had come down already hatted and shod for a dash to the park lodge, where one of the gatekeeper's children had had an accident. In her compact dark dress she looked more than usually straight and slim, and her face wore the pale glow it took on at any call on her energy: a kind of warrior brightness that made her small head, with its strong chin and close-bound hair, like that of an amazon in a frieze.

It was their first moment alone since she had left him, the afternoon before, at her mother-in-law's door; and after a few words about the injured child their talk inevitably reverted to Owen.

Anna spoke with a smile of her "scene" with Madame de Chantelle, who belonged, poor dear, to a generation when "scenes" (in the ladylike and lachrymal sense of the term) were the tribute which sensibility was expected to pay to the unusual. Their conversation had been, in every detail, so exactly what Anna had foreseen that it had clearly not made much impression on her; but she was eager to know the result of Darrow's encounter with her mother-in-law.

"She told me she'd sent for you: she always 'sends for' people in emergencies. That again, I suppose, is de l'epoque. And failing Adelaide Painter, who can't get here till this afternoon, there was no one but poor you to turn to."

She put it all lightly, with a lightness that seemed to his tight-strung nerves slightly, undefinably over-done. But he was so aware of his own tension that he wondered, the next moment, whether anything would ever again seem to him quite usual and insignificant and in the common order of things.

As they hastened on through the drizzle in which the storm of the night was weeping itself out, Anna drew close under his umbrella, and at the pressure of her arm against his he recalled his walk up the Dover pier with Sophy Viner. The memory gave him a startled vision of the inevitable occasions of contact, confidence, familiarity, which his future relationship to the girl would entail, and the countless chances of betrayal that every one of them involved.

"Do tell me just what you said," he heard Anna pleading; and with sudden resolution he affirmed: "I quite understand your mother-in-law's feeling as she does."

The words, when uttered, seemed a good deal less significant than they had sounded to his inner ear; and Anna replied without surprise: "Of course. It's inevitable that she should. But we shall bring her round in time." Under the dripping dome she raised her face to his. "Don't you remember what you said the day before yesterday? 'Together we can't fail to pull it off for him!' I've told Owen that, so you're pledged and there's no going back."

The day before yesterday! Was it possible that, no longer ago, life had seemed a sufficiently simple business for a sane man to hazard such assurances?

"Anna," he questioned her abruptly, "why are you so anxious for this marriage?"

She stopped short to face him. "Why? But surely I've explained to you--or rather I've hardly had to, you seemed so in sympathy with my reasons!"

"I didn't know, then, who it was that Owen wanted to marry."

The words were out with a spring and he felt a clearer air in his brain. But her logic hemmed him in.

"You knew yesterday; and you assured me then that you hadn't a word to say----"

"Against Miss Viner?" The name, once uttered, sounded on and on in his ears. "Of course not. But that doesn't necessarily imply that I think her a good match for Owen."

Anna made no immediate answer. When she spoke it was to question: "Why don't you think her a good match for Owen?"

"Well--Madame de Chantelle's reasons seem to me not quite as negligible as you think."

"You mean the fact that she's been Mrs. Murrett's secretary, and that the people who employed her before were called Hoke? For, as far as Owen and I can make out, these are the gravest charges against her."

"Still, one can understand that the match is not what Madame de Chantelle had dreamed of."

"Oh, perfectly--if that's all you mean." The lodge was in sight, and she hastened her step. He strode on beside her in silence, but at the gate she checked him with the question: "Is it really all you mean?"

"Of course," he heard himself declare.

"Oh, then I think I shall convince you--even if I can't, like Madame de Chantelle, summon all the Everards to my aid!" She lifted to him the look of happy laughter that sometimes brushed her with a gleam of spring.

Darrow watched her hasten along the path between the dripping chrysanthemums and enter the lodge. After she had gone in he paced up and down outside in the drizzle, waiting to learn if she had any message to send back to the house; and after the lapse of a few minutes she came out again.

The child, she said, was badly, though not dangerously, hurt, and the village doctor, who was already on hand, had asked that the surgeon, already summoned from Francheuil, should be told to bring with him certain needful appliances. Owen had started by motor to fetch the surgeon, but there was still time to communicate with the latter by telephone. The doctor furthermore begged for an immediate provision of such bandages and disinfectants as Givre itself could furnish, and Anna bade Darrow address himself to Miss Viner, who would know where to find the necessary things, and would direct one of the servants to bicycle with them to the lodge.

Darrow, as he hurried off on this errand, had at once perceived the opportunity it offered of a word with Sophy Viner. What that word was to be he did not know; but now, if ever, was the moment to make it urgent and conclusive. It was unlikely that he would again have such a chance of unobserved talk with her.

He had supposed he should find her with her pupil in the school-room; but he learned from a servant that Effie had gone to Francheuil with her step-brother, and that Miss Viner was still in her room. Darrow sent her word that he was the bearer of a message from the lodge, and a moment later he heard her coming down the stairs.