The Reef/Chapter XXVI

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The Reef by Edith Wharton
Chapter XXVI

Chapter XXVI[edit]

Darrow waited alone in the sitting-room.

No place could have been more distasteful as the scene of the talk that lay before him; but he had acceded to Anna's suggestion that it would seem more natural for her to summon Sophy Viner than for him to go in search of her. As his troubled pacings carried him back and forth a relentless hand seemed to be tearing away all the tender fibres of association that bound him to the peaceful room. Here, in this very place, he had drunk his deepest draughts of happiness, had had his lips at the fountain-head of its overflowing rivers; but now that source was poisoned and he would taste no more of an untainted cup.

For a moment he felt an actual physical anguish; then his nerves hardened for the coming struggle. He had no notion of what awaited him; but after the first instinctive recoil he had seen in a flash the urgent need of another word with Sophy Viner. He had been insincere in letting Anna think that he had consented to speak because she asked it. In reality he had been feverishly casting about for the pretext she had given him; and for some reason this trivial hypocrisy weighed on him more than all his heavy burden of deceit.

At length he heard a step behind him and Sophy Viner entered. When she saw him she paused on the threshold and half drew back.

"I was told that Mrs. Leath had sent for me."

"Mrs. Leath DID send for you. She'll be here presently; but I asked her to let me see you first."

He spoke very gently, and there was no insincerity in his gentleness. He was profoundly moved by the change in the girl's appearance. At sight of him she had forced a smile; but it lit up her wretchedness like a candle-flame held to a dead face.

She made no reply, and Darrow went on: "You must understand my wanting to speak to you, after what I was told just now."

She interposed, with a gesture of protest: "I'm not responsible for Owen's ravings!"

"Of course----". He broke off and they stood facing each other. She lifted a hand and pushed back her loose lock with the gesture that was burnt into his memory; then she looked about her and dropped into the nearest chair.

"Well, you've got what you wanted," she said.

"What do you mean by what I wanted?"

"My engagement's broken--you heard me say so."

"Why do you say that's what I wanted? All I wished, from the beginning, was to advise you, to help you as best I could-- --"

"That's what you've done," she rejoined. "You've convinced me that it's best I shouldn't marry him."

Darrow broke into a despairing laugh. "At the very moment when you'd convinced me to the contrary!"

"Had I?" Her smile flickered up. "Well, I really believed it till you showed me...warned me..."

"Warned you?"

"That I'd be miserable if I married a man I didn't love."

"Don't you love him?"

She made no answer, and Darrow started up and walked away to the other end of the room. He stopped before the writing- table, where his photograph, well-dressed, handsome, self- sufficient--the portrait of a man of the world, confident of his ability to deal adequately with the most delicate situations--offered its huge fatuity to his gaze. He turned back to her. "It's rather hard on Owen, isn't it, that you should have waited until now to tell him?"

She reflected a moment before answering. "I told him as soon as I knew."

"Knew that you couldn't marry him?"

"Knew that I could never live here with him." She looked about the room, as though the very walls must speak for her.

For a moment Darrow continued to search her face perplexedly; then their eyes met in a long disastrous gaze.

"Yes----" she said, and stood up.

Below the window they heard Effie whistling for her dogs, and then, from the terrace, her mother calling her.

"There--THAT for instance," Sophy Viner said.

Darrow broke out: "It's I who ought to go!"

She kept her small pale smile. "What good would that do any of us--now?"

He covered his face with his hands. "Good God!" he groaned. "How could I tell?"

"You couldn't tell. We neither of us could." She seemed to turn the problem over critically. "After all, it might have been YOU instead of me!"

He took another distracted turn about the room and coming back to her sat down in a chair at her side. A mocking hand seemed to dash the words from his lips. There was nothing on earth that he could say to her that wasn't foolish or cruel or contemptible...

"My dear," he began at last, "oughtn't you, at any rate, to try?"

Her gaze grew grave. "Try to forget you?"

He flushed to the forehead. "I meant, try to give Owen more time; to give him a chance. He's madly in love with you; all the good that's in him is in your hands. His step-mother felt that from the first. And she thought--she believed---- "

"She thought I could make him happy. Would she think so now?"

"Now...? I don't say now. But later? Time modifies...rubs out...more quickly than you think...Go away, but let him hope...I'm going too--WE'RE going--" he stumbled on the plural--"in a very few weeks: going for a long time, probably. What you're thinking of now may never happen. We may not all be here together again for years."

She heard him out in silence, her hands clasped on her knee, her eyes bent on them. "For me," she said, "you'll always be here."

"Don't say that--oh, don't! Things change...people change...You'll see!"

"You don't understand. I don't want anything to change. I don't want to forget--to rub out. At first I imagined I did; but that was a foolish mistake. As soon as I saw you again I knew it...It's not being here with you that I'm afraid of--in the sense you think. It's being here, or anywhere, with Owen." She stood up and bent her tragic smile on him. "I want to keep you all to myself."

The only words that came to him were futile denunciations of his folly; but the sense of their futility checked them on his lips. "Poor child--you poor child!" he heard himself vainly repeating.

Suddenly he felt the strong reaction of reality and its impetus brought him to his feet. "Whatever happens, I intend to go--to go for good," he exclaimed. "I want you to understand that. Oh, don't be afraid--I'll find a reason. But it's perfectly clear that I must go."

She uttered a protesting cry. "Go away? You? Don't you see that that would tell everything--drag everybody into the horror?"

He found no answer, and her voice dropped back to its calmer note. "What good would your going do? Do you suppose it would change anything for me?" She looked at him with a musing wistfulness. "I wonder what your feeling for me was? It seems queer that I've never really known--I suppose we DON'T know much about that kind of feeling. Is it like taking a drink when you're thirsty?...I used to feel as if all of me was in the palm of your hand..."

He bowed his humbled head, but she went on almost exultantly: "Don't for a minute think I'm sorry! It was worth every penny it cost. My mistake was in being ashamed, just at first, of its having cost such a lot. I tried to carry it off as a joke--to talk of it to myself as an 'adventure'. I'd always wanted adventures, and you'd given me one, and I tried to take your attitude about it, to 'play the game' and convince myself that I hadn't risked any more on it than you. Then, when I met you again, I suddenly saw that I HAD risked more, but that I'd won more, too--such worlds! I'd been trying all the while to put everything I could between us; now I want to sweep everything away. I'd been trying to forget how you looked; now I want to remember you always. I'd been trying not to hear your voice; now I never want to hear any other. I've made my choice--that's all: I've had you and I mean to keep you." Her face was shining like her eyes. "To keep you hidden away here," she ended, and put her hand upon her breast.

After she had left him, Darrow continued to sit motionless, staring back into their past. Hitherto it had lingered on the edge of his mind in a vague pink blur, like one of the little rose-leaf clouds that a setting sun drops from its disk. Now it was a huge looming darkness, through which his eyes vainly strained. The whole episode was still obscure to him, save where here and there, as they talked, some phrase or gesture or intonation of the girl's had lit up a little spot in the night.

She had said: "I wonder what your feeling for me was?" and he found himself wondering too...He remembered distinctly enough that he had not meant the perilous passion--even in its most transient form--to play a part in their relation. In that respect his attitude had been above reproach. She was an unusually original and attractive creature, to whom he had wanted to give a few days of harmless pleasuring, and who was alert and expert enough to understand his intention and spare him the boredom of hesitations and misinterpretations. That had been his first impression, and her subsequent demeanour had justified it. She had been, from the outset, just the frank and easy comrade he had expected to find her. Was it he, then, who, in the sequel, had grown impatient of the bounds he had set himself? Was it his wounded vanity that, seeking balm for its hurt, yearned to dip deeper into the healing pool of her compassion? In his confused memory of the situation he seemed not to have been guiltless of such yearnings...Yet for the first few days the experiment had been perfectly successful. Her enjoyment had been unclouded and his pleasure in it undisturbed. It was very gradually--he seemed to see--that a shade of lassitude had crept over their intercourse. Perhaps it was because, when her light chatter about people failed, he found she had no other fund to draw on, or perhaps simply because of the sweetness of her laugh, or of the charm of the gesture with which, one day in the woods of Marly, she had tossed off her hat and tilted back her head at the call of a cuckoo; or because, whenever he looked at her unexpectedly, he found that she was looking at him and did not want him to know it; or perhaps, in varying degrees, because of all these things, that there had come a moment when no word seemed to fly high enough or dive deep enough to utter the sense of well-being each gave to the other, and the natural substitute for speech had been a kiss.

The kiss, at all events, had come at the precise moment to save their venture from disaster. They had reached the point when her amazing reminiscences had begun to flag, when her future had been exhaustively discussed, her theatrical prospects minutely studied, her quarrel with Mrs. Murrett retold with the last amplification of detail, and when, perhaps conscious of her exhausted resources and his dwindling interest, she had committed the fatal error of saying that she could see he was unhappy, and entreating him to tell her why...

From the brink of estranging confidences, and from the risk of unfavourable comparisons, his gesture had snatched her back to safety; and as soon as he had kissed her he felt that she would never bore him again. She was one of the elemental creatures whose emotion is all in their pulses, and who become inexpressive or sentimental when they try to turn sensation into speech. His caress had restored her to her natural place in the scheme of things, and Darrow felt as if he had clasped a tree and a nymph had bloomed from it...

The mere fact of not having to listen to her any longer added immensely to her charm. She continued, of course, to talk to him, but it didn't matter, because he no longer made any effort to follow her words, but let her voice run on as a musical undercurrent to his thoughts.

She hadn't a drop of poetry in her, but she had some of the qualities that create it in others; and in moments of heat the imagination does not always feel the difference...

Lying beside her in the shade, Darrow felt her presence as a part of the charmed stillness of the summer woods, as the element of vague well-being that suffused his senses and lulled to sleep the ache of wounded pride. All he asked of her, as yet, was a touch on the hand or on the lips--and that she should let him go on lying there through the long warm hours, while a black-bird's song throbbed like a fountain, and the summer wind stirred in the trees, and close by, between the nearest branches and the brim of his tilted hat, a slight white figure gathered up all the floating threads of joy...

He recalled, too, having noticed, as he lay staring at a break in the tree-tops, a stream of mares'-tails coming up the sky. He had said to himself: "It will rain to-morrow," and the thought had made the air seem warmer and the sun more vivid on her hair...Perhaps if the mares'-tails had not come up the sky their adventure might have had no sequel. But the cloud brought rain, and next morning he looked out of his window into a cold grey blur. They had planned an all-day excursion down the Seine, to the two Andelys and Rouen, and now, with the long hours on their hands, they were both a little at a loss...There was the Louvre, of course, and the Luxembourg; but he had tried looking at pictures with her, she had first so persistently admired the worst things, and then so frankly lapsed into indifference, that he had no wish to repeat the experiment. So they went out, aimlessly, and took a cold wet walk, turning at length into the deserted arcades of the Palais Royal, and finally drifting into one of its equally deserted restaurants, where they lunched alone and somewhat dolefully, served by a wan old waiter with the look of a castaway who has given up watching for a sail...It was odd how the waiter's face came back to him...

Perhaps but for the rain it might never have happened; but what was the use of thinking of that now? He tried to turn his thoughts to more urgent issues; but, by a strange perversity of association, every detail of the day was forcing itself on his mind with an insistence from which there was no escape. Reluctantly he relived the long wet walk back to the hotel, after a tedious hour at a cinematograph show on the Boulevard. It was still raining when they withdrew from this stale spectacle, but she had obstinately refused to take a cab, had even, on the way, insisted on loitering under the dripping awnings of shop- windows and poking into draughty passages, and finally, when they had nearly reached their destination, had gone so far as to suggest that they should turn back to hunt up some show she had heard of in a theatre at the Batignolles. But at that he had somewhat irritably protested: he remembered that, for the first time, they were both rather irritable, and vaguely disposed to resist one another's suggestions. His feet were wet, and he was tired of walking, and sick of the smell of stuffy unaired theatres, and he had said he must really get back to write some letters--and so they had kept on to the hotel...