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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Reef - BOOK II - Chapter XV
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The Reef - BOOK II - Chapter XV Post by :katetaylor Category :Long Stories Author :Edith Wharton Date :July 2011 Read :1405

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The Reef - BOOK II - Chapter XV

BOOK II: CHAPTER XV

Madame de Chantelle and Anna had planned, for the afternoon,
a visit to a remotely situated acquaintance whom the
introduction of the motor had transformed into a neighbour.
Effie was to pay for her morning's holiday by an hour or two
in the school-room, and Owen suggested that he and Darrow
should betake themselves to a distant covert in the
desultory quest for pheasants.

Darrow was not an ardent sportsman, but any pretext for
physical activity would have been acceptable at the moment;
and he was glad both to get away from the house and not to
be left to himself.

When he came downstairs the motor was at the door, and Anna
stood before the hall mirror, swathing her hat in veils.
She turned at the sound of his step and smiled at him for a
long full moment.

"I'd no idea you knew Miss Viner," she said, as he helped
her into her long coat.

"It came back to me, luckily, that I'd seen her two or three
times in London, several years ago. She was secretary, or
something of the sort, in the background of a house where I
used to dine."

He loathed the slighting indifference of the phrase, but he
had uttered it deliberately, had been secretly practising it
all through the interminable hour at the luncheon-table.
Now that it was spoken, he shivered at its note of
condescension. In such cases one was almost sure to
overdo...But Anna seemed to notice nothing unusual.

"Was she really? You must tell me all about it--tell me
exactly how she struck you. I'm so glad it turns out that
you know her."

"'Know' is rather exaggerated: we used to pass each other on
the stairs."

Madame de Chantelle and Owen appeared together as he spoke,
and Anna, gathering up her wraps, said: "You'll tell me
about that, then. Try and remember everything you can."

As he tramped through the woods at his young host's side,
Darrow felt the partial relief from thought produced by
exercise and the obligation to talk. Little as he cared for
shooting, he had the habit of concentration which makes it
natural for a man to throw himself wholly into whatever
business he has in hand, and there were moments of the
afternoon when a sudden whirr in the undergrowth, a vivider
gleam against the hazy browns and greys of the woods, was
enough to fill the foreground of his attention. But all the
while, behind these voluntarily emphasized sensations, his
secret consciousness continued to revolve on a loud wheel of
thought. For a time it seemed to be sweeping him through
deep gulfs of darkness. His sensations were too swift and
swarming to be disentangled. He had an almost physical
sense of struggling for air, of battling helplessly with
material obstructions, as though the russet covert through
which he trudged were the heart of a maleficent jungle...

Snatches of his companion's talk drifted to him
intermittently through the confusion of his thoughts. He
caught eager self-revealing phrases, and understood that
Owen was saying things about himself, perhaps hinting
indirectly at the hopes for which Darrow had been prepared
by Anna's confidences. He had already become aware that the
lad liked him, and had meant to take the first opportunity
of showing that he reciprocated the feeling. But the effort
of fixing his attention on Owen's words was so great that it
left no power for more than the briefest and most
inexpressive replies.

Young Leath, it appeared, felt that he had reached a
turning-point in his career, a height from which he could
impartially survey his past progress and projected
endeavour. At one time he had had musical and literary
yearnings, visions of desultory artistic indulgence; but
these had of late been superseded by the resolute
determination to plunge into practical life.

"I don't want, you see," Darrow heard him explaining, "to
drift into what my grandmother, poor dear, is trying to make
of me: an adjunct of Givre. I don't want--hang it all!--to
slip into collecting sensations as my father collected
snuff-boxes. I want Effie to have Givre--it's my
grandmother's, you know, to do as she likes with; and I've
understood lately that if it belonged to me it would
gradually gobble me up. I want to get out of it, into a
life that's big and ugly and struggling. If I can extract
beauty out of THAT, so much the better: that'll prove my
vocation. But I want to MAKE beauty, not be drowned in
the ready-made, like a bee in a pot of honey."

Darrow knew that he was being appealed to for corroboration
of these views and for encouragement in the course to which
they pointed. To his own ears his answers sounded now curt,
now irrelevant: at one moment he seemed chillingly
indifferent, at another he heard himself launching out on a
flood of hazy discursiveness. He dared not look at Owen,
for fear of detecting the lad's surprise at these senseless
transitions. And through the confusion of his inward
struggles and outward loquacity he heard the ceaseless trip-
hammer beat of the question: "What in God's name shall I
do?"...

To get back to the house before Anna's return seemed his
most pressing necessity. He did not clearly know why: he
simply felt that he ought to be there. At one moment it
occurred to him that Miss Viner might want to speak to him
alone--and again, in the same flash, that it would probably
be the last thing she would want...At any rate, he felt he
ought to try to speak to HER; or at least be prepared to
do so, if the chance should occur...

Finally, toward four, he told his companion that he had some
letters on his mind and must get back to the house and
despatch them before the ladies returned. He left Owen with
the beater and walked on to the edge of the covert. At the
park gates he struck obliquely through the trees, following
a grass avenue at the end of which he had caught a glimpse
of the roof of the chapel. A grey haze had blotted out the
sun and the still air clung about him tepidly. At length
the house-front raised before him its expanse of damp-
silvered brick, and he was struck afresh by the high decorum
of its calm lines and soberly massed surfaces. It made him
feel, in the turbid coil of his fears and passions, like a
muddy tramp forcing his way into some pure sequestered
shrine...

By and bye, he knew, he should have to think the complex
horror out, slowly, systematically, bit by bit; but for the
moment it was whirling him about so fast that he could just
clutch at its sharp spikes and be tossed off again. Only
one definite immediate fact stuck in his quivering grasp.
He must give the girl every chance--must hold himself
passive till she had taken them...

In the court Effie ran up to him with her leaping terrier.

"I was coming out to meet you--you and Owen. Miss Viner was
coming, too, and then she couldn't because she's got such a
headache. I'm afraid I gave it to her because I did my
division so disgracefully. It's too bad, isn't it? But
won't you walk back with me? Nurse won't mind the least bit;
she'd so much rather go in to tea."

Darrow excused himself laughingly, on the plea that he had
letters to write, which was much worse than having a
headache, and not infrequently resulted in one.

"Oh, then you can go and write them in Owen's study. That's
where gentlemen always write their letters."

She flew on with her dog and Darrow pursued his way to the
house. Effie's suggestion struck him as useful. He had
pictured himself as vaguely drifting about the drawing-
rooms, and had perceived the difficulty of Miss Viner's
having to seek him there; but the study, a small room on the
right of the hall, was in easy sight from the staircase, and
so situated that there would be nothing marked in his being
found there in talk with her.

He went in, leaving the door open, and sat down at the
writing-table. The room was a friendly heterogeneous place,
the one repository, in the well-ordered and amply-servanted
house, of all its unclassified odds and ends: Effie's
croquet-box and fishing rods, Owen's guns and golf-sticks
and racquets, his step-mother's flower-baskets and gardening
implements, even Madame de Chantelle's embroidery frame, and
the back numbers of the Catholic Weekly. The early twilight
had begun to fall, and presently a slanting ray across the
desk showed Darrow that a servant was coming across the hall
with a lamp. He pulled out a sheet of note-paper and began
to write at random, while the man, entering, put the lamp at
his elbow and vaguely "straightened" the heap of newspapers
tossed on the divan. Then his steps died away and Darrow
sat leaning his head on his locked hands.

Presently another step sounded on the stairs, wavered a
moment and then moved past the threshold of the study.
Darrow got up and walked into the hall, which was still
unlighted. In the dimness he saw Sophy Viner standing by
the hall door in her hat and jacket. She stopped at sight
of him, her hand on the door-bolt, and they stood for a
second without speaking.

"Have you seen Effie?" she suddenly asked. "She went out to
meet you."

"She DID meet me, just now, in the court. She's gone on
to join her brother."

Darrow spoke as naturally as he could, but his voice sounded
to his own ears like an amateur actor's in a "light" part.

Miss Viner, without answering, drew back the bolt. He
watched her in silence as the door swung open; then he said:
"She has her
nurse with her. She won't be long."

She stood irresolute, and he added: "I was writing in there
--won't you come and have a little talk? Every one's out."

The last words struck him as not well-chosen, but there was
no time to choose. She paused a second longer and then
crossed the threshold of the study. At luncheon she had sat
with her back to the window, and beyond noting that she had
grown a little thinner, and had less colour and vivacity, he
had seen no change in her; but now, as the lamplight fell on
her face, its whiteness startled him.

"Poor thing...poor thing...what in heaven's name can she
suppose?" he wondered.

"Do sit down--I want to talk to you," he said and pushed a
chair toward her.

She did not seem to see it, or, if she did, she deliberately
chose another seat. He came back to his own chair and
leaned his elbows on the blotter. She faced him from the
farther side of the table.

"You promised to let me hear from you now and then," he
began awkwardly, and with a sharp sense of his awkwardness.

A faint smile made her face more tragic. "Did I? There was
nothing to tell. I've had no history--like the happy
countries..."

He waited a moment before asking: "You ARE happy here?"

"I WAS," she said with a faint emphasis.

"Why do you say 'was'? You're surely not thinking of going?
There can't be kinder people anywhere." Darrow hardly knew
what he was saying; but her answer came to him with deadly
definiteness.

"I suppose it depends on you whether I go or stay."

"On me?" He stared at her across Owen's scattered papers.
"Good God! What can you think of me, to say that?"

The mockery of the question flashed back at him from her
wretched face. She stood up, wandered away, and leaned an
instant in the darkening window-frame. From there she
turned to fling back at him: "Don't imagine I'm the least
bit sorry for anything!"

He steadied his elbows on the table and hid his face in his
hands. It was harder, oh, damnably harder, than he had
expected! Arguments, expedients, palliations, evasions, all
seemed to be slipping away from him: he was left face to
face with the mere graceless fact of his inferiority. He
lifted his head to ask at random: "You've been here, then,
ever since?"

"Since June; yes. It turned out that the Farlows were
hunting for me--all the while--for this."

She stood facing him, her back to the window, evidently
impatient to be gone, yet with something still to say, or
that she expected to hear him say. The sense of her
expectancy benumbed him. What in heaven's name could he say
to her that was not an offense or a mockery?

"Your idea of the theatre--you gave that up at once, then?"

"Oh, the theatre!" She gave a little laugh. "I couldn't
wait for the theatre. I had to take the first thing that
offered; I took this."

He pushed on haltingly: "I'm glad--extremely glad--you're
happy here...I'd counted on your letting me know if there
was anything I could do...The theatre, now--if you still
regret it--if you're not contented here...I know people in
that line in London--I'm certain I can manage it for you
when I get back----"

She moved up to the table and leaned over it to ask, in a
voice that was hardly above a whisper: "Then you DO want
me to leave? Is that it?"

He dropped his arms with a groan. "Good heavens! How can
you think such things? At the time, you know, I begged you
to let me do what I could, but you wouldn't hear of it...and
ever since I've been wanting to be of use--to do something,
anything, to help you..."

She heard him through, motionless, without a quiver of the
clasped hands she rested on the edge of the table.

"If you want to help me, then--you can help me to stay
here," she brought out with low-toned intensity.

Through the stillness of the pause which followed, the bray
of a motor-horn sounded far down the drive. Instantly she
turned, with a last white look at him, and fled from the
room and up the stairs. He stood motionless, benumbed by
the shock of her last words. She was afraid, then--afraid
of him--sick with fear of him! The discovery beat him down
to a lower depth...

The motor-horn sounded again, close at hand, and he turned
and went up to his room. His letter-writing was a
sufficient pretext for not immediately joining the party
about the tea-table, and he wanted to be alone and try to
put a little order into his tumultuous thinking.

Upstairs, the room held out the intimate welcome of its lamp
and fire. Everything in it exhaled the same sense of peace
and stability which, two evenings before, had lulled him to
complacent meditation. His armchair again invited him from
the hearth, but he was too agitated to sit still, and with
sunk head and hands clasped behind his back he began to
wander up and down the room.

His five minutes with Sophy Viner had flashed strange lights
into the shadowy corners of his consciousness. The girl's
absolute candour, her hard ardent honesty, was for the
moment the vividest point in his thoughts. He wondered anew,
as he had wondered before, at the way in which the harsh
discipline of life had stripped her of false sentiment
without laying the least touch on her pride. When they had
parted, five months before, she had quietly but decidedly
rejected all his offers of help, even to the suggestion of
his trying to further her theatrical aims: she had made it
clear that she wished their brief alliance to leave no trace
on their lives save that of its own smiling memory. But now
that they were unexpectedly confronted in a situation which
seemed, to her terrified fancy, to put her at his mercy, her
first impulse was to defend her right to the place she had
won, and to learn as quickly as possible if he meant to
dispute it. While he had pictured her as shrinking away
from him in a tremor of self-effacement she had watched his
movements, made sure of her opportunity, and come straight
down to "have it out" with him. He was so struck by the
frankness and energy of the proceeding that for a moment he
lost sight of the view of his own character implied in it.

"Poor thing...poor thing!" he could only go on saying; and
with the repetition of the words the picture of himself as
she must see him pitiably took shape again.

He understood then, for the first time, how vague, in
comparison with hers, had been his own vision of the part he
had played in the brief episode of their relation. The
incident had left in him a sense of exasperation and self-
contempt, but that, as he now perceived, was chiefly, if not
altogether, as it bore on his preconceived ideal of his
attitude toward another woman. He had fallen below his own
standard of sentimental loyalty, and if he thought of Sophy
Viner it was mainly as the chance instrument of his lapse.
These considerations were not agreeable to his pride, but
they were forced on him by the example of her valiant
common-sense. If he had cut a sorry figure in the business,
he owed it to her not to close his eyes to the fact any
longer...

But when he opened them, what did he see? The situation,
detestable at best, would yet have been relatively simple if
protecting Sophy Viner had been the only duty involved in
it. The fact that that duty was paramount did not do away
with the contingent obligations. It was Darrow's instinct,
in difficult moments, to go straight to the bottom of the
difficulty; but he had never before had to take so dark a
dive as this, and for the minute he shivered on the
brink...Well, his first duty, at any rate, was to the girl:
he must let her see that he meant to fulfill it to the last
jot, and then try to find out how to square the fulfillment
with the other problems already in his path...

Content of BOOK II: CHAPTER XV (Edith Wharton's novel: The Reef)

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The Reef - BOOK II - Chapter XVI
BOOK II: CHAPTER XVIIn the oak room he found Mrs. Leath, her mother-in-law andEffie. The group, as he came toward it down the longdrawing-rooms, composed itself prettily about the tea-table.The lamps and the fire crossed their gleams on silver andporcelain, on the bright haze of Effie's hair and on thewhiteness of Anna's forehead, as she leaned back in herchair behind the tea-urn.She did not move at Darrow's approach, but lifted to him adeep gaze of peace and confidence. The look seemed to throwabout him the spell of a divine security: he felt the joy ofa convalescent suddenly waking to
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The Reef - BOOK II - Chapter XIV
BOOK II: CHAPTER XIVIf Darrow, on entering the drawing-room before dinner,examined its new occupant with unusual interest, it was moreon Owen Leath's account than his own.Anna's hints had roused his interest in the lad's loveaffair, and he wondered what manner of girl the heroine ofthe coming conflict might be. He had guessed that Owen'srebellion symbolized for his step-mother her own longstruggle against the Leath conventions, and he understoodthat if Anna so passionately abetted him it was partlybecause, as she owned, she wanted his liberation to coincidewith hers.The lady who was to represent, in the impending struggle,the forces of order and
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