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The Reef - BOOK IV - Chapter XXVI Post by :eddydesigns Category :Long Stories Author :Edith Wharton Date :July 2011 Read :899

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The Reef - BOOK IV - Chapter XXVI

BOOK IV: CHAPTER XXVI

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...

Content of BOOK IV: CHAPTER XXVI (Edith Wharton's novel: The Reef)

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BOOK IV: CHAPTER XXVIIDarrow had no idea how long he had sat there when he heardAnna's hand on the door. The effort of rising, and ofcomposing his face to meet her, gave him a factitious senseof self-control. He said to himself: "I must decide onsomething----" and that lifted him a hair's breadth abovethe whirling waters.She came in with a lighter step, and he instantly perceivedthat something unforeseen and reassuring had happened."She's been with me. She came and found me on the terrace.We've had a long talk and she's explained everything. Ifeel as if I'd never known her
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BOOK IV: CHAPTER XXVAnna stood in the middle of the room, her eyes on the door.Darrow's questioning gaze was still on her, and she said toherself with a quick-drawn breath: "If only he doesn't comenear me!"It seemed to her that she had been suddenly endowed with thefatal gift of reading the secret sense of every seeminglyspontaneous look and movement, and that in his least gestureof affection she would detect a cold design.For a moment longer he continued to look at her enquiringly;then he turned away and took up his habitual stand by themantel-piece. She drew a deep breath of relief
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