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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Reef - BOOK III - Chapter XXI
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The Reef - BOOK III - Chapter XXI Post by :zamrony Category :Long Stories Author :Edith Wharton Date :July 2011 Read :1783

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The Reef - BOOK III - Chapter XXI

BOOK III: CHAPTER XXI

Down the avenue there came to them, with the opening of the
door, the voice of Owen's motor. It was the signal which
had interrupted their first talk, and again, instinctively,
they drew apart at the sound. Without a word Darrow turned
back into the room, while Sophy Viner went down the steps
and walked back alone toward the court.

At luncheon the presence of the surgeon, and the non-
appearance of Madame de Chantelle--who had excused herself
on the plea of a headache--combined to shift the
conversational centre of gravity; and Darrow, under shelter
of the necessarily impersonal talk, had time to adjust his
disguise and to perceive that the others were engaged in the
same re-arrangement. It was the first time that he had seen
young Leath and Sophy Viner together since he had learned of
their engagement; but neither revealed more emotion than
befitted the occasion. It was evident that Owen was deeply
under the girl's charm, and that at the least sign from her
his bliss would have broken bounds; but her reticence was
justified by the tacitly recognized fact of Madame de
Chantelle's disapproval. This also visibly weighed on
Anna's mind, making her manner to Sophy, if no less kind,
yet a trifle more constrained than if the moment of final
understanding had been reached. So Darrow interpreted the
tension perceptible under the fluent exchange of
commonplaces in which he was diligently sharing. But he was
more and more aware of his inability to test the moral
atmosphere about him: he was like a man in fever testing
another's temperature by the touch.

After luncheon Anna, who was to motor the surgeon home,
suggested to Darrow that he should accompany them. Effie was
also of the party; and Darrow inferred that Anna wished to
give her step-son a chance to be alone with his betrothed.
On the way back, after the surgeon had been left at his
door, the little girl sat between her mother and Darrow, and
her presence kept their talk from taking a personal turn.
Darrow knew that Mrs. Leath had not yet told Effie of the
relation in which he was to stand to her. The premature
divulging of Owen's plans had thrown their own into the
background, and by common consent they continued, in the
little girl's presence, on terms of an informal
friendliness.

The sky had cleared after luncheon, and to prolong their
excursion they returned by way of the ivy-mantled ruin which
was to have been the scene of the projected picnic. This
circuit brought them back to the park gates not long before
sunset, and as Anna wished to stop at the lodge for news of
the injured child Darrow left her there with Effie and
walked on alone to the house. He had the impression that
she was slightly surprised at his not waiting for her; but
his inner restlessness vented itself in an intense desire
for bodily movement. He would have liked to walk himself
into a state of torpor; to tramp on for hours through the
moist winds and the healing darkness and come back
staggering with fatigue and sleep. But he had no pretext
for such a flight, and he feared that, at such a moment, his
prolonged absence might seem singular to Anna.

As he approached the house, the thought of her nearness
produced a swift reaction of mood. It was as if an intenser
vision of her had scattered his perplexities like morning
mists. At this moment, wherever she was, he knew he was
safely shut away in her thoughts, and the knowledge made
every other fact dwindle away to a shadow. He and she loved
each other, and their love arched over them open and ample
as the day: in all its sunlit spaces there was no cranny for
a fear to lurk. In a few minutes he would be in her presence
and would read his reassurance in her eyes. And presently,
before dinner, she would contrive that they should have an
hour by themselves in her sitting-room, and he would sit by
the hearth and watch her quiet movements, and the way the
bluish lustre on her hair purpled a little as she bent above
the fire.

A carriage drove out of the court as he entered it, and in
the hall his vision was dispelled by the exceedingly
substantial presence of a lady in a waterproof and a tweed
hat, who stood firmly planted in the centre of a pile of
luggage, as to which she was giving involved but lucid
directions to the footman who had just admitted her. She
went on with these directions regardless of Darrow's
entrance, merely fixing her small pale eyes on him while she
proceeded, in a deep contralto voice, and a fluent French
pronounced with the purest Boston accent, to specify the
destination of her bags; and this enabled Darrow to give her
back a gaze protracted enough to take in all the details of
her plain thick-set person, from the square sallow face
beneath bands of grey hair to the blunt boot-toes protruding
under her wide walking skirt.

She submitted to this scrutiny with no more evidence of
surprise than a monument examined by a tourist; but when the
fate of her luggage had been settled she turned suddenly to
Darrow and, dropping her eyes from his face to his feet,
asked in trenchant accents: "What sort of boots have you got
on?"

Before he could summon his wits to the consideration of this
question she continued in a tone of suppressed indignation:
"Until Americans get used to the fact that France is under
water for half the year they're perpetually risking their
lives by not being properly protected. I suppose you've
been tramping through all this nasty clammy mud as if you'd
been taking a stroll on Boston Common."

Darrow, with a laugh, affirmed his previous experience of
French dampness, and the degree to which he was on his guard
against it; but the lady, with a contemptuous snort,
rejoined: "You young men are all alike----"; to which she
appended, after another hard look at him: "I suppose you're
George Darrow? I used to know one of your mother's cousins,
who married a Tunstall of Mount Vernon Street. My name is
Adelaide Painter. Have you been in Boston lately? No? I'm
sorry for that. I hear there have been several new houses
built at the lower end of Commonwealth Avenue and I hoped
you could tell me about them. I haven't been there for
thirty years myself."

Miss Painter's arrival at Givre produced the same effect as
the wind's hauling around to the north after days of languid
weather. When Darrow joined the group about the tea-table
she had already given a tingle to the air. Madame de
Chantelle still remained invisible above stairs; but Darrow
had the impression that even through her drawn curtains and
bolted doors a stimulating whiff must have entered.

Anna was in her usual seat behind the tea-tray, and Sophy
Viner presently led in her pupil. Owen was also there,
seated, as usual, a little apart from the others, and
following Miss Painter's massive movements and equally
substantial utterances with a smile of secret intelligence
which gave Darrow the idea of his having been in clandestine
parley with the enemy. Darrow further took note that the
girl and her suitor perceptibly avoided each other; but this
might be a natural result of the tension Miss Painter had
been summoned to relieve.

Sophy Viner would evidently permit no recognition of the
situation save that which it lay with Madame de Chantelle to
accord; but meanwhile Miss Painter had proclaimed her tacit
sense of it by summoning the girl to a seat at her side.

Darrow, as he continued to observe the newcomer, who was
perched on her arm-chair like a granite image on the edge of
a cliff, was aware that, in a more detached frame of mind,
he would have found an extreme interest in studying and
classifying Miss Painter. It was not that she said anything
remarkable, or betrayed any of those unspoken perceptions
which give significance to the most commonplace utterances.
She talked of the lateness of her train, of an impending
crisis in international politics, of the difficulty of
buying English tea in Paris and of the enormities of which
French servants were capable; and her views on these
subjects were enunciated with a uniformity of emphasis
implying complete unconsciousness of any difference in their
interest and importance. She always applied to the French
race the distant epithet of "those people", but she betrayed
an intimate acquaintance with many of its members, and an
encyclopaedic knowledge of the domestic habits, financial
difficulties and private complications of various persons of
social importance. Yet, as she evidently felt no
incongruity in her attitude, so she revealed no desire to
parade her familiarity with the fashionable, or indeed any
sense of it as a fact to be paraded. It was evident that
the titled ladies whom she spoke of as Mimi or Simone or
Odette were as much "those people" to her as the bonne
who tampered with her tea and steamed the stamps off her
letters ("when, by a miracle, I don't put them in the box
myself.") Her whole attitude was of a vast grim tolerance
of things-as-they-came, as though she had been some
wonderful automatic machine which recorded facts but had not
yet been perfected to the point of sorting or labelling
them.

All this, as Darrow was aware, still fell short of
accounting for the influence she obviously exerted on the
persons in contact with her. It brought a slight relief to
his state of tension to go on wondering, while he watched
and listened, just where the mystery lurked. Perhaps, after
all, it was in the fact of her blank insensibility, an
insensibility so devoid of egotism that it had no hardness
and no grimaces, but rather the freshness of a simpler
mental state. After living, as he had, as they all had, for
the last few days, in an atmosphere perpetually tremulous
with echoes and implications, it was restful and fortifying
merely to walk into the big blank area of Miss Painter's
mind, so vacuous for all its accumulated items, so echoless
for all its vacuity.

His hope of a word with Anna before dinner was dispelled by
her rising to take Miss Painter up to Madame de Chantelle;
and he wandered away to his own room, leaving Owen and Miss
Viner engaged in working out a picture-puzzle for Effie.

Madame de Chantelle--possibly as the result of her friend's
ministrations--was able to appear at the dinner-table,
rather pale and pink-nosed, and casting tenderly reproachful
glances at her grandson, who faced them with impervious
serenity; and the situation was relieved by the fact that
Miss Viner, as usual, had remained in the school-room with
her pupil.

Darrow conjectured that the real clash of arms would not
take place till the morrow; and wishing to leave the field
open to the contestants he set out early on a solitary walk.
It was nearly luncheon-time when he returned from it and
came upon Anna just emerging from the house. She had on her
hat and jacket and was apparently coming forth to seek him,
for she said at once: "Madame de Chantelle wants you to go
up to her."

"To go up to her? Now?"

"That's the message she sent. She appears to rely on you to
do something." She added with a smile: "Whatever it is,
let's have it over!"

Darrow, through his rising sense of apprehension, wondered
why, instead of merely going for a walk, he had not jumped
into the first train and got out of the way till Owen's
affairs were finally settled.

"But what in the name of goodness can I do?" he protested,
following Anna back into the hall.

"I don't know. But Owen seems so to rely on you, too----"

"Owen! Is HE to be there?"

"No. But you know I told him he could count on you."

"But I've said to your mother-in-law all I could."

"Well, then you can only repeat it."

This did not seem to Darrow to simplify his case as much as
she appeared to think; and once more he had a movement of
recoil. "There's no possible reason for my being mixed up
in this affair!"

Anna gave him a reproachful glance. "Not the fact that
I am?" she reminded him; but even this only stiffened his
resistance.

"Why should you be, either--to this extent?"

The question made her pause. She glanced about the hall, as
if to be sure they had it to themselves; and then, in a
lowered voice: "I don't know," she suddenly confessed; "but,
somehow, if THEY'RE not happy I feel as if we shouldn't
be."

"Oh, well--" Darrow acquiesced, in the tone of the man who
perforce yields to so lovely an unreasonableness. Escape
was, after all, impossible, and he could only resign himself
to being led to Madame de Chantelle's door.

Within, among the bric-a-brac and furbelows, he found Miss
Painter seated in a redundant purple armchair with the
incongruous air of a horseman bestriding a heavy mount.
Madame de Chantelle sat opposite, still a little wan and
disordered under her elaborate hair, and clasping the
handkerchief whose visibility symbolized her distress. On
the young man's entrance she sighed out a plaintive welcome,
to which she immediately appended: "Mr. Darrow, I can't help
feeling that at heart you're with me!"

The directness of the challenge made it easier for Darrow to
protest, and he reiterated his inability to give an opinion
on either side.

"But Anna declares you have--on hers!"

He could not restrain a smile at this faint flaw in an
impartiality so scrupulous. Every evidence of feminine
inconsequence in Anna seemed to attest her deeper subjection
to the most inconsequent of passions. He had certainly
promised her his help--but before he knew what he was
promising.

He met Madame de Chantelle's appeal by replying: "If there
were anything I could possibly say I should want it to be in
Miss Viner's favour."

"You'd want it to be--yes! But could you make it so?"

"As far as facts go, I don't see how I can make it either
for or against her. I've already said that I know nothing
of her except that she's charming."

"As if that weren't enough--weren't all there OUGHT to
be!" Miss Painter put in impatiently. She seemed to address
herself to Darrow, though her small eyes were fixed on her
friend.

"Madame de Chantelle seems to imagine," she pursued, "that a
young American girl ought to have a dossier--a police-
record, or whatever you call it: what those awful women in
the streets have here. In our country it's enough to know
that a young girl's pure and lovely: people don't
immediately ask her to show her bank-account and her
visiting-list."

Madame de Chantelle looked plaintively at her sturdy
monitress. "You don't expect me not to ask if she's got a
family?"

"No; nor to think the worse of her if she hasn't. The fact
that she's an orphan ought, with your ideas, to be a merit.
You won't have to invite her father and mother to Givre!"

"Adelaide--Adelaide!" the mistress of Givre lamented.

"Lucretia Mary," the other returned--and Darrow spared an
instant's amusement to the quaint incongruity of the name--
"you know you sent for Mr. Darrow to refute me; and how can
he, till he knows what I think?"

"You think it's perfectly simple to let Owen marry a girl we
know nothing about?"

"No; but I don't think it's perfectly simple to prevent
him."

The shrewdness of the answer increased Darrow's interest in
Miss Painter. She had not hitherto struck him as being a
person of much penetration, but he now felt sure that her
gimlet gaze might bore to the heart of any practical
problem.

Madame de Chantelle sighed out her recognition of the
difficulty.

"I haven't a word to say against Miss Viner; but she's
knocked about so, as it's called, that she must have been
mixed up with some rather dreadful people. If only Owen
could be made to see that--if one could get at a few facts,
I mean. She says, for instance, that she has a sister; but
it seems she doesn't even know her address!"

"If she does, she may not want to give it to you. I daresay
the sister's one of the dreadful people. I've no doubt that
with a little time you could rake up dozens of them: have
her 'traced', as they call it in detective stories. I don't
think you'd frighten Owen, but you might: it's natural
enough he should have been corrupted by those foreign ideas.
You might even manage to part him from the girl; but you
couldn't keep him from being in love with her. I saw that
when I looked them over last evening. I said to myself:
'It's a real old-fashioned American case, as sweet and sound
as home-made bread.' Well, if you take his loaf away from
him, what are you going to feed him with instead? Which of
your nasty Paris poisons do you think he'll turn to?
Supposing you succeed in keeping him out of a really bad
mess--and, knowing the young man as I do, I rather think
that, at this crisis, the only way to do it would be to
marry him slap off to somebody else--well, then, who, may I
ask, would you pick out? One of your sweet French
ingenues, I suppose? With as much mind as a minnow and as
much snap as a soft-boiled egg. You might hustle him into
that kind of marriage; I daresay you could--but if I know
Owen, the natural thing would happen before the first baby
was weaned."

"I don't know why you insinuate such odious things against
Owen!"

"Do you think it would be odious of him to return to his
real love when he'd been forcibly parted from her? At any
rate, it's what your French friends do, every one of them!
Only they don't generally have the grace to go back to an
old love; and I believe, upon my word, Owen would!"

Madame de Chantelle looked at her with a mixture of awe and
exultation. "Of course you realize, Adelaide, that in
suggesting this you're insinuating the most shocking things
against Miss Viner?"

"When I say that if you part two young things who are dying
to be happy in the lawful way it's ten to one they'll come
together in an unlawful one? I'm insinuating shocking things
against YOU, Lucretia Mary, in suggesting for a moment
that you'll care to assume such a responsibility before your
Maker. And you wouldn't, if you talked things straight out
with him, instead of merely sending him messages through a
miserable sinner like yourself!"

Darrow expected this assault on her adopted creed to provoke
in Madame de Chantelle an explosion of pious indignation;
but to his surprise she merely murmured: "I don't know what
Mr. Darrow'll think of you!"

"Mr. Darrow probably knows his Bible as well as I do," Miss
Painter calmly rejoined; adding a moment later, without the
least perceptible change of voice or expression: "I suppose
you've heard that Gisele de Folembray's husband accuses her
of being mixed up with the Duc d'Arcachon in that business
of trying to sell a lot of imitation pearls to Mrs. Homer
Pond, the Chicago woman the Duke's engaged to? It seems the
jeweller says Gisele brought Mrs. Pond there, and got
twenty-five per cent--which of course she passed on to
d'Arcachon. The poor old Duchess is in a fearful state--so
afraid her son'll lose Mrs. Pond! When I think that Gisele
is old Bradford Wagstaff's grand-daughter, I'm thankful he's
safe in Mount Auburn!"

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

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The Reef - BOOK III - Chapter XXII
BOOK III: CHAPTER XXIIIt was not until late that afternoon that Darrow could claimhis postponed hour with Anna. When at last he found heralone in her sitting-room it was with a sense of liberationso great that he sought no logical justification of it. Hesimply felt that all their destinies were in Miss Painter'sgrasp, and that, resistance being useless, he could onlyenjoy the sweets of surrender.Anna herself seemed as happy, and for more explicablereasons. She had assisted, after luncheon, at anotherdebate between Madame de Chantelle and her confidant, andhad surmised, when she withdrew from it, that victory waspermanently perched
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The Reef - BOOK III - Chapter XX
BOOK III: CHAPTER XXFor a second, as she approached him, the quick tremor of herglance showed her all intent on the same thought as himself.He transmitted his instructions with mechanical precision,and she answered in the same tone, repeating his words withthe intensity of attention of a child not quite sure ofunderstanding. Then she disappeared up the stairs.Darrow lingered on in the hall, not knowing if she meant toreturn, yet inwardly sure she would. At length he saw hercoming down in her hat and jacket. The rain still streakedthe window panes, and, in order to say something, he said:"You're not going
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