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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Reef - BOOK III - Chapter XVII
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The Reef - BOOK III - Chapter XVII Post by :gmarsh Category :Long Stories Author :Edith Wharton Date :July 2011 Read :1158

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The Reef - BOOK III - Chapter XVII

BOOK III: CHAPTER XVII

At dinner that evening Madame de Chantelle's slender
monologue was thrown out over gulfs of silence. Owen was
still in the same state of moody abstraction as when Darrow
had left him at the piano; and even Anna's face, to her
friend's vigilant eye, revealed not, perhaps, a personal
preoccupation, but a vague sense of impending disturbance.

She smiled, she bore a part in the talk, her eyes dwelt on
Darrow's with their usual deep reliance; but beneath the
surface of her serenity his tense perceptions detected a
hidden stir.

He was sufficiently self-possessed to tell himself that it
was doubtless due to causes with which he was not directly
concerned. He knew the question of Owen's marriage was soon
to be raised, and the abrupt alteration in the young man's
mood made it seem probable that he was himself the centre of
the atmospheric disturbance, For a moment it occurred to
Darrow that Anna might have employed her afternoon in
preparing Madame de Chantelle for her grandson's impending
announcement; but a glance at the elder lady's unclouded
brow showed that he must seek elsewhere the clue to Owen's
taciturnity and his step-mother's concern. Possibly Anna
had found reason to change her own attitude in the matter,
and had made the change known to Owen. But this, again, was
negatived by the fact that, during the afternoon's shooting,
young Leath had been in a mood of almost extravagant
expansiveness, and that, from the moment of his late return
to the house till just before dinner, there had been, to
Darrow's certain knowledge, no possibility of a private talk
between himself and his step-mother.

This obscured, if it narrowed, the field of conjecture; and
Darrow's gropings threw him back on the conclusion that he
was probably reading too much significance into the moods of
a lad he hardly knew, and who had been described to him as
subject to sudden changes of humour. As to Anna's fancied
perturbation, it might simply be due to the fact that she
had decided to plead Owen's cause the next day, and had
perhaps already had a glimpse of the difficulties awaiting
her. But Darrow knew that he was too deep in his own
perplexities to judge the mental state of those about him.
It might be, after all, that the variations he felt in the
currents of communication were caused by his own inward
tremor.

Such, at any rate, was the conclusion he had reached when,
shortly after the two ladies left the drawing-room, he bade
Owen good-night and went up to his room. Ever since the
rapid self-colloquy which had followed on his first sight of
Sophy Viner, he had known there were other questions to be
faced behind the one immediately confronting him. On the
score of that one, at least, his mind, if not easy, was
relieved. He had done what was possible to reassure the
girl, and she had apparently recognized the sincerity of his
intention. He had patched up as decent a conclusion as he
could to an incident that should obviously have had no
sequel; but he had known all along that with the securing of
Miss Viner's peace of mind only a part of his obligation was
discharged, and that with that part his remaining duty was
in conflict. It had been his first business to convince the
girl that their secret was safe with him; but it was far
from easy to square this with the equally urgent obligation
of safe-guarding Anna's responsibility toward her child.
Darrow was not much afraid of accidental disclosures. Both
he and Sophy Viner had too much at stake not to be on their
guard. The fear that beset him was of another kind, and had
a profounder source. He wanted to do all he could for the
girl, but the fact of having had to urge Anna to confide
Effie to her was peculiarly repugnant to him. His own ideas
about Sophy Viner were too mixed and indeterminate for him
not to feel the risk of such an experiment; yet he found
himself in the intolerable position of appearing to press it
on the woman he desired above all others to protect...

Till late in the night his thoughts revolved in a turmoil of
indecision. His pride was humbled by the discrepancy
between what Sophy Viner had been to him and what he had
thought of her. This discrepancy, which at the time had
seemed to simplify the incident, now turned out to be its
most galling complication. The bare truth, indeed, was that
he had hardly thought of her at all, either at the time or
since, and that he was ashamed to base his judgement of her
on his meagre memory of their adventure.

The essential cheapness of the whole affair--as far as his
share in it was concerned--came home to him with humiliating
distinctness. He would have liked to be able to feel that,
at the time at least, he had staked something more on it,
and had somehow, in the sequel, had a more palpable loss to
show. But the plain fact was that he hadn't spent a penny
on it; which was no doubt the reason of the prodigious score
it had since been rolling up. At any rate, beat about the
case as he would, it was clear that he owed it to Anna--and
incidentally to his own peace of mind--to find some way of
securing Sophy Viner's future without leaving her installed
at Givre when he and his wife should depart for their new
post.

The night brought no aid to the solving of this problem; but
it gave him, at any rate, the clear conviction that no time
was to be lost. His first step must be to obtain from Miss
Viner the chance of another and calmer talk; and he resolved
to seek it at the earliest hour.

He had gathered that Effie's lessons were preceded by an
early scamper in the park, and conjecturing that her
governess might be with her he betook himself the next
morning to the terrace, whence he wandered on to the gardens
and the walks beyond.

The atmosphere was still and pale. The muffled sunlight
gleamed like gold tissue through grey gauze, and the beech
alleys tapered away to a blue haze blent of sky and forest.
It was one of those elusive days when the familiar forms of
things seem about to dissolve in a prismatic shimmer.

The stillness was presently broken by joyful barks, and
Darrow, tracking the sound, overtook Effie flying down one
of the long alleys at the head of her pack. Beyond her he
saw Miss Viner seated near the stone-rimmed basin beside
which he and Anna had paused on their first walk to the
river.

The girl, coming forward at his approach, returned his
greeting almost gaily. His first glance showed him that she
had regained her composure, and the change in her appearance
gave him the measure of her fears. For the first time he
saw in her again the sidelong grace that had charmed his
eyes in Paris; but he saw it now as in a painted picture.

"Shall we sit down a minute?" he asked, as Effie trotted
off.

The girl looked away from him. "I'm afraid there's not much
time; we must be back at lessons at half-past nine."

"But it's barely ten minutes past. Let's at least walk a
little way toward the river."

She glanced down the long walk ahead of them and then back
in the direction of the house. "If you like," she said in a
low voice, with one of her quick fluctuations of colour; but
instead of taking the way he proposed she turned toward a
narrow path which branched off obliquely through the trees.

Darrow was struck, and vaguely troubled, by the change in
her look and tone. There was in them an undefinable appeal,
whether for help or forbearance he could not tell. Then it
occurred to him that there might have been something
misleading in his so pointedly seeking her, and he felt a
momentary constraint. To ease it he made an abrupt dash at
the truth.

"I came out to look for you because our talk of yesterday
was so unsatisfactory. I want to hear more about you--about
your plans and prospects. I've been wondering ever since
why you've so completely given up the theatre."

Her face instantly sharpened to distrust. "I had to live,"
she said in an off-hand tone.

"I understand perfectly that you should like it here--for a
time." His glance strayed down the gold-roofed windings
ahead of them. "It's delightful: you couldn't be better
placed. Only I wonder a little at your having so completely
given up any idea of a different future."

She waited for a moment before answering: "I suppose I'm
less restless than I used to be."

"It's certainly natural that you should be less restless
here than at Mrs. Murrett's; yet somehow I don't seem to see
you permanently given up to forming the young."

"What--exactly--DO you seem to see me permanently given
up to? You know you warned me rather emphatically against
the theatre." She threw off the statement without
impatience, as though they were discussing together the fate
of a third person in whom both were benevolently interested.
Darrow considered his reply. "If I did, it was because you
so emphatically refused to let me help you to a start."

She stopped short and faced him "And you think I may let you
now?"

Darrow felt the blood in his cheek. He could not understand
her attitude--if indeed she had consciously taken one, and
her changes of tone did not merely reflect the involuntary
alternations of her mood. It humbled him to perceive once
more how little he had to guide him in his judgment of her.
He said to himself: "If I'd ever cared a straw for her I
should know how to avoid hurting her now"--and his
insensibility struck him as no better than a vulgar
obtuseness. But he had a fixed purpose ahead and could only
push on to it.

"I hope, at any rate, you'll listen to my reasons. There's
been time, on both sides, to think them over since----" He
caught himself back and hung helpless on the "since":
whatever words he chose, he seemed to stumble among
reminders of their past.

She walked on beside him, her eyes on the ground. "Then I'm
to understand--definitely--that you DO renew your
offer?" she asked

"With all my heart! If you'll only let me----"

She raised a hand, as though to check him. "It's extremely
friendly of you--I DO believe you mean it as a friend--
but I don't quite understand why, finding me, as you say, so
well placed here, you should show more anxiety about my
future than at a time when I was actually, and rather
desperately, adrift."

"Oh, no, not more!"

"If you show any at all, it must, at any rate, be for
different reasons.--In fact, it can only be," she went on,
with one of her disconcerting flashes of astuteness, "for
one of two reasons; either because you feel you ought to
help me, or because, for some reason, you think you owe it
to Mrs. Leath to let her know what you know of me."

Darrow stood still in the path. Behind him he heard Effie's
call, and at the child's voice he saw Sophy turn her head
with the alertness of one who is obscurely on the watch.
The look was so fugitive that he could not have said wherein
it differed from her normal professional air of having her
pupil on her mind.

Effie sprang past them, and Darrow took up the girl's
challenge.

"What you suggest about Mrs. Leath is hardly worth
answering. As to my reasons for wanting to help you, a good
deal depends on the words one uses to define rather
indefinite things. It's true enough that I want to help
you; but the wish isn't due to...to any past kindness on
your part, but simply to my own interest in you. Why not
put it that our friendship gives me the right to intervene
for what I believe to be your benefit?"

She took a few hesitating steps and then paused again.
Darrow noticed that she had grown pale and that there were
rings of shade about her eyes.

"You've known Mrs. Leath a long time?" she asked him
suddenly.

He paused with a sense of approaching peril. "A long time--
yes."

"She told me you were friends--great friends"

"Yes," he admitted, "we're great friends."

"Then you might naturally feel yourself justified in telling
her that you don't think I'm the right person for Effie."
He uttered a sound of protest, but she disregarded it. "I
don't say you'd LIKE to do it. You wouldn't: you'd hate
it. And the natural alternative would be to try to persuade
me that I'd be better off somewhere else than here. But
supposing that failed, and you saw I was determined to stay?
THEN you might think it your duty to tell Mrs. Leath."

She laid the case before him with a cold lucidity. "I
should, in your place, I believe," she ended with a little
laugh.

"I shouldn't feel justified in telling her, behind your
back, if I thought you unsuited for the place; but I should
certainly feel justified," he rejoined after a pause, "in
telling YOU if I thought the place unsuited to you."

"And that's what you're trying to tell me now?"

"Yes; but not for the reasons you imagine."

"What, then, are your reasons, if you please?"

"I've already implied them in advising you not to give up
all idea of the theatre. You're too various, too gifted,
too personal, to tie yourself down, at your age, to the
dismal drudgery of teaching."

"And is THAT what you've told Mrs. Leath?"

She rushed the question out at him as if she expected to
trip him up over it. He was moved by the simplicity of the
stratagem.

"I've told her exactly nothing," he replied.

"And what--exactly--do you mean by 'nothing'? You and she
were talking about me when I came into her sitting-room
yesterday."

Darrow felt his blood rise at the thrust.

"I've told her, simply, that I'd seen you once or twice at
Mrs. Murrett's."

"And not that you've ever seen me since?"

"And not that I've ever seen you since..."

"And she believes you--she completely believes you?"

He uttered a protesting exclamation, and his flush reflected
itself in the girl's cheek.

"Oh, I beg your pardon! I didn't mean to ask you that." She
halted, and again cast a rapid glance behind and ahead of
her. Then she held out her hand. "Well, then, thank you--
and let me relieve your fears. I sha'n't be Effie's
governess much longer."

At the announcement, Darrow tried to merge his look of
relief into the expression of friendly interest with which
he grasped her hand. "You really do agree with me, then?
And you'll give me a chance to talk things over with you?"

She shook her head with a faint smile. "I'm not thinking of
the stage. I've had another offer: that's all."

The relief was hardly less great. After all, his personal
responsibility ceased with her departure from Givre.

"You'll tell me about that, then--won't you?"

Her smile flickered up. "Oh, you'll hear about it soon...I
must catch Effie now and drag her back to the blackboard."

She walked on for a few yards, and then paused again and
confronted him. "I've been odious to you--and not quite
honest," she broke out suddenly.

"Not quite honest?" he repeated, caught in a fresh wave of
wonder.

"I mean, in seeming not to trust you. It's come over me
again as we talked that, at heart, I've always KNOWN I
could..."

Her colour rose in a bright wave, and her eyes clung to his
for a swift instant of reminder and appeal. For the same
space of time the past surged up in him confusedly; then a
veil dropped between them.

"Here's Effie now!" she exclaimed.

He turned and saw the little girl trotting back to them, her
hand in Owen Leath's.
Even through the stir of his subsiding excitement Darrow was
at once aware of the change effected by the young man's
approach. For a moment Sophy Viner's cheeks burned redder;
then they faded to the paleness of white petals. She lost,
however, nothing of the bright bravery which it was her way
to turn on the unexpected. Perhaps no one less familiar
with her face than Darrow would have discerned the tension
of the smile she transferred from himself to Owen Leath, or
have remarked that her eyes had hardened from misty grey to
a shining darkness. But her observer was less struck by
this than by the corresponding change in Owen Leath. The
latter, when he came in sight, had been laughing and talking
unconcernedly with Effie; but as his eye fell on Miss Viner
his expression altered as suddenly as hers.

The change, for Darrow, was less definable; but, perhaps for
that reason, it struck him as more sharply significant.
Only--just what did it signify? Owen, like Sophy Viner, had
the kind of face which seems less the stage on which
emotions move than the very stuff they work in. In moments
of excitement his odd irregular features seemed to grow
fluid, to unmake and remake themselves like the shadows of
clouds on a stream. Darrow, through the rapid flight of the
shadows, could not seize on any specific indication of
feeling: he merely perceived that the young man was
unaccountably surprised at finding him with Miss Viner, and
that the extent of his surprise might cover all manner of
implications.

Darrow's first idea was that Owen, if he suspected that the
conversation was not the result of an accidental encounter,
might wonder at his step-mother's suitor being engaged, at
such an hour, in private talk with her little girl's
governess. The thought was so disturbing that, as the three
turned back to the house, he was on the point of saying to
Owen: "I came out to look for your mother." But, in the
contingency he feared, even so simple a phrase might seem
like an awkward attempt at explanation; and he walked on in
silence at Miss Viner's side. Presently he was struck by
the fact that Owen Leath and the girl were silent also; and
this gave a new turn to his thoughts. Silence may be as
variously shaded as speech; and that which enfolded Darrow
and his two companions seemed to his watchful perceptions to
be quivering with cross-threads of communication. At first
he was aware only of those that centred in his own troubled
consciousness; then it occurred to him that an equal
activity of intercourse was going on outside of it.
Something was in fact passing mutely and rapidly between
young Leath and Sophy Viner; but what it was, and whither it
tended, Darrow, when they reached the house, was but just
beginning to divine...

Content of BOOK III: CHAPTER XVII (Edith Wharton's novel: The Reef)

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BOOK III: CHAPTER XVIIIAnna Leath, from the terrace, watched the return of the little group.She looked down on them, as they advanced across the garden,from the serene height of her unassailable happiness. Therethey were, coming toward her in the mild morning light, herchild, her step-son, her promised husband: the three beingswho filled her life. She smiled a little at the happypicture they presented, Effie's gambols encircling it in amoving frame within which the two men came slowly forward inthe silence of friendly understanding. It seemed part ofthe deep intimacy of the scene that they should not betalking to
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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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