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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Reef - BOOK II - Chapter XIV
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The Reef - BOOK II - Chapter XIV Post by :outboxin Category :Long Stories Author :Edith Wharton Date :July 2011 Read :879

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The Reef - BOOK II - Chapter XIV

BOOK II: CHAPTER XIV

If Darrow, on entering the drawing-room before dinner,
examined its new occupant with unusual interest, it was more
on Owen Leath's account than his own.

Anna's hints had roused his interest in the lad's love
affair, and he wondered what manner of girl the heroine of
the coming conflict might be. He had guessed that Owen's
rebellion symbolized for his step-mother her own long
struggle against the Leath conventions, and he understood
that if Anna so passionately abetted him it was partly
because, as she owned, she wanted his liberation to coincide
with hers.

The lady who was to represent, in the impending struggle,
the forces of order and tradition was seated by the fire
when Darrow entered. Among the flowers and old furniture of
the large pale-panelled room, Madame de Chantelle had the
inanimate elegance of a figure introduced into a "still-
life" to give the scale. And this, Darrow reflected, was
exactly what she doubtless regarded as her chief obligation:
he was sure she thought a great deal of "measure", and
approved of most things only up to a certain point.
She was a woman of sixty, with a figure at once young and
old-fashioned. Her fair faded tints, her quaint corseting,
the passementerie on her tight-waisted dress, the velvet
band on her tapering arm, made her resemble a "carte de
visite" photograph of the middle sixties. One saw her,
younger but no less invincibly lady-like, leaning on a chair
with a fringed back, a curl in her neck, a locket on her
tuckered bosom, toward the end of an embossed morocco album
beginning with The Beauties of the Second Empire.

She received her daughter-in-law's suitor with an affability
which implied her knowledge and approval of his suit.
Darrow had already guessed her to be a person who would
instinctively oppose any suggested changes, and then, after
one had exhausted one's main arguments, unexpectedly yield
to some small incidental reason, and adhere doggedly to her
new position. She boasted of her old-fashioned prejudices,
talked a good deal of being a grandmother, and made a show
of reaching up to tap Owen's shoulder, though his height was
little more than hers.

She was full of a small pale prattle about the people she
had seen at Ouchy, as to whom she had the minute statistical
information of a gazetteer, without any apparent sense of
personal differences. She said to Darrow: "They tell me
things are very much changed in America...Of course in my
youth there WAS a Society"...She had no desire to return
there she was sure the standards must be so different.
"There are charming people everywhere...and one must always
look on the best side...but when one has lived among
Traditions it's difficult to adapt one's self to the new
ideas...These dreadful views of marriage...it's so hard to
explain them to my French relations...I'm thankful to say I
don't pretend to understand them myself! But YOU'RE an
Everard--I told Anna last spring in London that one sees
that instantly"...

She wandered off to the cooking and the service of the hotel
at Ouchy. She attached great importance to gastronomic
details and to the manners of hotel servants. There, too,
there was a falling off, she said. "I don t know, of
course; but people say it's owing to the Americans.
Certainly my waiter had a way of slapping down the
dishes...they tell me that many of them are
Anarchists...belong to Unions, you know." She appealed to
Darrow's reported knowledge of economic conditions to
confirm this ominous rumour.

After dinner Owen Leath wandered into the next room, where
the piano stood, and began to play among the shadows. His
step-mother presently joined him, and Darrow sat alone with
Madame de Chantelle.

She took up the thread of her mild chat and carried it on at
the same pace as her knitting. Her conversation resembled
the large loose-stranded web between her fingers: now and
then she dropped a stitch, and went on regardless of the gap
in the pattern.

Darrow listened with a lazy sense of well-being. In the
mental lull of the after-dinner hour, with harmonious
memories murmuring through his mind, and the soft tints and
shadowy spaces of the fine old room charming his eyes to
indolence, Madame de Chantelle's discourse seemed not out of
place. He could understand that, in the long run, the
atmosphere of Givre might be suffocating; but in his present
mood its very limitations had a grace.

Presently he found the chance to say a word in his own
behalf; and thereupon measured the advantage, never before
particularly apparent to him, of being related to the
Everards of Albany. Madame de Chantelle's conception of her
native country--to which she had not returned since her
twentieth year--reminded him of an ancient geographer's map
of the Hyperborean regions. It was all a foggy blank, from
which only one or two fixed outlines emerged; and one of
these belonged to the Everards of Albany.

The fact that they offered such firm footing--formed, so to
speak, a friendly territory on which the opposing powers
could meet and treat--helped him through the task of
explaining and justifying himself as the successor of Fraser
Leath. Madame de Chantelle could not resist such
incontestable claims. She seemed to feel her son's hovering
and discriminating presence, and she gave Darrow the sense
that he was being tested and approved as a last addition to
the Leath Collection.

She also made him aware of the immense advantage he
possessed in belonging to the diplomatic profession. She
spoke of this humdrum calling as a Career, and gave Darrow
to understand that she supposed him to have been seducing
Duchesses when he was not negotiating Treaties. He heard
again quaint phrases which romantic old ladies had used in
his youth: "Brilliant diplomatic society...social
advantages...the entree everywhere...nothing else
FORMS a young man in the same way..." and she sighingly
added that she could have wished her grandson had chosen the
same path to glory.

Darrow prudently suppressed his own view of the profession,
as well as the fact that he had adopted it provisionally,
and for reasons less social than sociological; and the talk
presently passed on to the subject of his future plans.

Here again, Madame de Chantelle's awe of the Career made her
admit the necessity of Anna's consenting to an early
marriage. The fact that Darrow was "ordered" to South
America seemed to put him in the romantic light of a young
soldier charged to lead a forlorn hope: she sighed and said:
"At such moments a wife's duty is at her husband's side."

The problem of Effie's future might have disturbed her, she
added; but since Anna, for a time, consented to leave the
little girl with her, that problem was at any rate deferred.
She spoke plaintively of the responsibility of looking after
her granddaughter, but Darrow divined that she enjoyed the
flavour of the word more than she felt the weight of the
fact.

"Effie's a perfect child. She's more like my son, perhaps,
than dear Owen. She'll never intentionally give me the
least trouble. But of course the responsibility will be
great...I'm not sure I should dare to undertake it if it
were not for her having such a treasure of a governess. Has
Anna told you about our little governess? After all the
worry we had last year, with one impossible creature after
another, it seems providential, just now, to have found her.
At first we were afraid she was too young; but now we've the
greatest confidence in her. So clever and amusing--and
SUCH a lady! I don't say her education's all it might
be...no drawing or singing...but one can't have everything;
and she speaks Italian..."

Madame de Chantelle's fond insistence on the likeness
between Effie Leath and her father, if not particularly
gratifying to Darrow, had at least increased his desire to
see the little girl. It gave him an odd feeling of
discomfort to think that she should have any of the
characteristics of the late Fraser Leath: he had, somehow,
fantastically pictured her as the mystical offspring of the
early tenderness between himself and Anna Summers.

His encounter with Effie took place the next morning, on the
lawn below the terrace, where he found her, in the early
sunshine, knocking about golf balls with her brother.
Almost at once, and with infinite relief, he saw that the
resemblance of which Madame de Chantelle boasted was mainly
external. Even that discovery was slightly distasteful,
though Darrow was forced to own that Fraser Leath's
straight-featured fairness had lent itself to the production
of a peculiarly finished image of childish purity. But it
was evident that other elements had also gone to the making
of Effie, and that another spirit sat in her eyes. Her
serious handshake, her "pretty" greeting, were worthy of the
Leath tradition, and he guessed her to be more malleable
than Owen, more subject to the influences of Givre; but the
shout with which she returned to her romp had in it the note
of her mother's emancipation.

He had begged a holiday for her, and when Mrs. Leath
appeared he and she and the little girl went off for a
ramble. Anna wished her daughter to have time to make
friends with Darrow before learning in what relation he was
to stand to her; and the three roamed the woods and fields
till the distant chime of the stable-clock made them turn
back for luncheon.

Effie, who was attended by a shaggy terrier, had picked up
two or three subordinate dogs at the stable; and as she
trotted on ahead with her yapping escort, Anna hung back to
throw a look at Darrow.

"Yes," he answered it, "she's exquisite...Oh, I see what I'm
asking of you! But she'll be quite happy here, won't she?
And you must remember it won't be for long..."

Anna sighed her acquiescence. "Oh, she'll be happy here.
It's her nature to be happy. She'll apply herself to it,
conscientiously, as she does to her lessons, and to what she
calls 'being good'...In a way, you see, that's just what
worries me. Her idea of 'being good' is to please the
person she's with--she puts her whole dear little mind on
it! And so, if ever she's with the wrong person----"

"But surely there's no danger of that just now? Madame de
Chantelle tells me that you've at last put your hand on a
perfect governess----"

Anna, without answering, glanced away from him toward her
daughter.

"It's lucky, at any rate," Darrow continued, "that Madame de
Chantelle thinks her so."

"Oh, I think very highly of her too."

"Highly enough to feel quite satisfied to leave her with
Effie?"

"Yes. She's just the person for Effie. Only, of course,
one never knows...She's young, and she might take it into
her head to leave us..." After a pause she added: "I'm
naturally anxious to know what you think of her."

When they entered the house the hands of the hall clock
stood within a few minutes of the luncheon hour. Anna led
Effie off to have her hair smoothed and Darrow wandered into
the oak sitting-room, which he found untenanted. The sun
lay pleasantly on its brown walls, on the scattered books
and the flowers in old porcelain vases. In his eyes
lingered the vision of the dark-haired mother mounting the
stairs with her little fair daughter. The contrast between
them seemed a last touch of grace in the complex harmony of
things. He stood in the window, looking out at the park,
and brooding inwardly upon his happiness...

He was roused by Effie's voice and the scamper of her feet
down the long floors behind him.

"Here he is! Here he is!" she cried, flying over the
threshold.

He turned and stooped to her with a smile, and as she caught
his hand he perceived that she was trying to draw him toward
some one who had paused behind her in the doorway, and whom
he supposed to be her mother.

"HERE he is!" Effie repeated, with her sweet impatience.

The figure in the doorway came forward and Darrow, looking
up, found himself face to face with Sophy Viner. They stood
still, a yard or two apart, and looked at each other without
speaking.

As they paused there, a shadow fell across one of the
terrace windows, and Owen Leath stepped whistling into the
room. In his rough shooting clothes, with the glow of
exercise under his fair skin, he looked extraordinarily
light-hearted and happy. Darrow, with a quick side-glance,
noticed this, and perceived also that the glow on the
youth's cheek had deepened suddenly to red. He too stopped
short, and the three stood there motionless for a barely
perceptible beat of time. During its lapse, Darrow's eyes
had turned back from Owen's face to that of the girl between
them. He had the sense that, whatever was done, it was he
who must do it, and that it must be done immediately. He
went forward and held out his hand.

"How do you do, Miss Viner?"

She answered: "How do you do?" in a voice that sounded clear
and natural; and the next moment he again became aware of
steps behind him, and knew that Mrs. Leath was in the room.

To his strained senses there seemed to be another just
measurable pause before Anna said, looking gaily about the
little group: "Has Owen introduced you? This is Effie's
friend, Miss Viner."

Effie, still hanging on her governess's arm, pressed herself
closer with a little gesture of appropriation; and Miss
Viner laid her hand on her pupil's hair.

Darrow felt that Anna's eyes had turned to him.

"I think Miss Viner and I have met already--several years
ago in London."

"I remember," said Sophy Viner, in the same clear voice.

"How charming! Then we're all friends. But luncheon must be
ready," said Mrs. Leath.

She turned back to the door, and the little procession moved
down the two long drawing-rooms, with Effie waltzing on
ahead.

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

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BOOK II: CHAPTER XVMadame de Chantelle and Anna had planned, for the afternoon,a visit to a remotely situated acquaintance whom theintroduction of the motor had transformed into a neighbour.Effie was to pay for her morning's holiday by an hour or twoin the school-room, and Owen suggested that he and Darrowshould betake themselves to a distant covert in thedesultory quest for pheasants.Darrow was not an ardent sportsman, but any pretext forphysical activity would have been acceptable at the moment;and he was glad both to get away from the house and not tobe left to himself.When he came downstairs the motor was at
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BOOK II: CHAPTER XIIIDarrow, late that evening, threw himself into an armchairbefore his fire and mused.The room was propitious to meditation. The red-veiled lamp,the corners of shadow, the splashes of firelight on thecurves of old full-bodied wardrobes and cabinets, gave it anair of intimacy increased by its faded hangings, itsslightly frayed and threadbare rugs. Everything in it washarmoniously shabby, with a subtle sought-for shabbiness inwhich Darrow fancied he discerned the touch of Fraser Leath.But Fraser Leath had grown so unimportant a factor in thescheme of things that these marks of his presence caused theyoung man no emotion beyond that
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