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Though best remembered for her novels The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton's 1912 novel The Reef ranks among her most critically acclaimed works. The book offers a piercingly insightful look into a complicated family dynamic that stems from the intertwined relationships of several generations of star-crossed lovers.
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"Unexpected obstacle. Please don't come till thirtieth. Anna."
All the way from Charing Cross to Dover the train had hammered the words of the telegram into George Darrow's ears, ringing every change of irony on its commonplace syllables: rattling them out like a discharge of musketry, letting them, one by one, drip slowly and coldly into his brain, or shaking, tossing, transposing them like the dice in some game of the gods of malice; and now, as he emerged from his compartment at the pier, and stood facing the wind- swept platform and the angry sea beyond, they leapt out at him as if from the crest of the waves, stung and blinded him with a fresh fury of derision.
"Unexpected obstacle. Please don't come till thirtieth. Anna."
She had put him off at the very last moment, and for the second time: put him off with all her sweet reasonableness, and for one of her usual "good" reasons--he was certain that this reason, like the other, (the visit of her husband's uncle's widow) would be "good"! But it was that very certainty which chilled him. The fact of her dealing so reasonably with their case shed an ironic light on the idea that there had been any exceptional warmth in the greeting she had given him after their twelve years apart.
They had found each other again, in London, some three months previously, at a dinner at the American Embassy, and when she had caught sight of him her smile had been like a red rose pinned on her widow's mourning. He still felt the throb of surprise with which, among the stereotyped faces of the season's diners, he had come upon her unexpected face, with the dark hair banded above grave eyes; eyes in which he had recognized every little curve and shadow as he would have recognized, after half a life-time, the details of a room he had played in as a child. And as, in the plumed starred crowd, she had stood out for him, slender, secluded and different, so he had felt, the instant their glances met, that he as sharply detached himself for her. All that and more her smile had said; had said not merely "I remember," but "I remember just what you remember"; almost, indeed, as though her memory had aided his, her glance flung back on their recaptured moment its morning brightness. Certainly, when their distracted Ambassadress--with the cry: "Oh, you know Mrs. Leath? That's perfect, for General Farnham has failed me"--had waved them together for the march to the diningroom, Darrow had felt a slight pressure of the arm on his, a pressure faintly but unmistakably emphasizing the exclamation: "Isn't it wonderful?--In London--in the season--in a mob?"
Little enough, on the part of most women; but it was a sign of Mrs. Leath's quality that every movement, every syllable, told with her. Even in the old days, as an intent grave- eyed girl, she had seldom misplaced her light strokes; and Darrow, on meeting her again, had immediately felt how much finer and surer an instrument of expression she had become.
Their evening together had been a long confirmation of this feeling. She had talked to him, shyly yet frankly, of what had happened to her during the years when they had so strangely failed to meet. She had told him of her marriage to Fraser Leath, and of her subsequent life in France, where her husband's mother, left a widow in his youth, had been re-married to the Marquis de Chantelle, and where, partly in consequence of this second union, the son had permanently settled himself. She had spoken also, with an intense eagerness of affection, of her little girl Effie, who was now nine years old, and, in a strain hardly less tender, of Owen Leath, the charming clever young stepson whom her husband's death had left to her care...
A porter, stumbling against Darrow's bags, roused him to the fact that he still obstructed the platform, inert and encumbering as his luggage.
Was he crossing? He really didn't know; but for lack of any more compelling impulse he followed the porter to the luggage van, singled out his property, and turned to march behind it down the gang-way. As the fierce wind shouldered him, building up a crystal wall against his efforts, he felt anew the derision of his case.
"Nasty weather to cross, sir," the porter threw back at him as they beat their way down the narrow walk to the pier. Nasty weather, indeed; but luckily, as it had turned out, there was no earthly reason why Darrow should cross.
While he pushed on in the wake of his luggage his thoughts slipped back into the old groove. He had once or twice run across the man whom Anna Summers had preferred to him, and since he had met her again he had been exercising his imagination on the picture of what her married life must have been. Her husband had struck him as a characteristic specimen of the kind of American as to whom one is not quite clear whether he lives in Europe in order to cultivate an art, or cultivates an art as a pretext for living in Europe. Mr. Leath's art was water-colour painting, but he practised it furtively, almost clandestinely, with the disdain of a man of the world for anything bordering on the professional, while he devoted himself more openly, and with religious seriousness, to the collection of enamelled snuff-boxes. He was blond and well-dressed, with the physical distinction that comes from having a straight figure, a thin nose, and the habit of looking slightly disgusted--as who should not, in a world where authentic snuff-boxes were growing daily harder to find, and the market was flooded with flagrant forgeries?
Darrow had often wondered what possibilities of communion there could have been between Mr. Leath and his wife. Now he concluded that there had probably been none. Mrs. Leath's words gave no hint of her husband's having failed to justify her choice; but her very reticence betrayed her. She spoke of him with a kind of impersonal seriousness, as if he had been a character in a novel or a figure in history; and what she said sounded as though it had been learned by heart and slightly dulled by repetition. This fact immensely increased Darrow's impression that his meeting with her had annihilated the intervening years. She, who was always so elusive and inaccessible, had grown suddenly communicative and kind: had opened the doors of her past, and tacitly left him to draw his own conclusions. As a result, he had taken leave of her with the sense that he was a being singled out and privileged, to whom she had entrusted something precious to keep. It was her happiness in their meeting that she had given him, had frankly left him to do with as he willed; and the frankness of the gesture doubled the beauty of the gift.
Their next meeting had prolonged and deepened the impression. They had found each other again, a few days later, in an old country house full of books and pictures, in the soft landscape of southern England. The presence of a large party, with all its aimless and agitated displacements, had served only to isolate the pair and give them (at least to the young man's fancy) a deeper feeling of communion, and their days there had been like some musical prelude, where the instruments, breathing low, seem to hold back the waves of sound that press against them.
Mrs. Leath, on this occasion, was no less kind than before; but she contrived to make him understand that what was so inevitably coming was not to come too soon. It was not that she showed any hesitation as to the issue, but rather that she seemed to wish not to miss any stage in the gradual reflowering of their intimacy.
Darrow, for his part, was content to wait if she wished it. He remembered that once, in America, when she was a girl, and he had gone to stay with her family in the country, she had been out when he arrived, and her mother had told him to look for her in the garden. She was not in the garden, but beyond it he had seen her approaching down a long shady path. Without hastening her step she had smiled and signed to him to wait; and charmed by the lights and shadows that played upon her as she moved, and by the pleasure of watching her slow advance toward him, he had obeyed her and stood still. And so she seemed now to be walking to him down the years, the light and shade of old memories and new hopes playing variously on her, and each step giving him the vision of a different grace. She did not waver or turn aside; he knew she would come straight to where he stood; but something in her eyes said "Wait", and again he obeyed and waited.
On the fourth day an unexpected event threw out his calculations. Summoned to town by the arrival in England of her husband's mother, she left without giving Darrow the chance he had counted on, and he cursed himself for a dilatory blunderer. Still, his disappointment was tempered by the certainty of being with her again before she left for France; and they did in fact see each other in London. There, however, the atmosphere had changed with the conditions. He could not say that she avoided him, or even that she was a shade less glad to see him; but she was beset by family duties and, as he thought, a little too readily resigned to them.
The Marquise de Chantelle, as Darrow soon perceived, had the same mild formidableness as the late Mr. Leath: a sort of insistent self-effacement before which every one about her gave way. It was perhaps the shadow of this lady's presence--pervasive even during her actual brief eclipses-- that subdued and silenced Mrs. Leath. The latter was, moreover, preoccupied about her stepson, who, soon after receiving his degree at Harvard, had been rescued from a stormy love-affair, and finally, after some months of troubled drifting, had yielded to his step-mother's counsel and gone up to Oxford for a year of supplementary study. Thither Mrs. Leath went once or twice to visit him, and her remaining days were packed with family obligations: getting, as she phrased it, "frocks and governesses" for her little girl, who had been left in France, and having to devote the remaining hours to long shopping expeditions with her mother-in-law. Nevertheless, during her brief escapes from duty, Darrow had had time to feel her safe in the custody of his devotion, set apart for some inevitable hour; and the last evening, at the theatre, between the overshadowing Marquise and the unsuspicious Owen, they had had an almost decisive exchange of words.
Now, in the rattle of the wind about his ears, Darrow continued to hear the mocking echo of her message: "Unexpected obstacle." In such an existence as Mrs. Leath's, at once so ordered and so exposed, he knew how small a complication might assume the magnitude of an "obstacle;" yet, even allowing as impartially as his state of mind permitted for the fact that, with her mother-in-law always, and her stepson intermittently, under her roof, her lot involved a hundred small accommodations generally foreign to the freedom of widowhood--even so, he could not but think that the very ingenuity bred of such conditions might have helped her to find a way out of them. No, her "reason", whatever it was, could, in this case, be nothing but a pretext; unless he leaned to the less flattering alternative that any reason seemed good enough for postponing him! Certainly, if her welcome had meant what he imagined, she could not, for the second time within a few weeks, have submitted so tamely to the disarrangement of their plans; a disarrangement which--his official duties considered--might, for all she knew, result in his not being able to go to her for months.
"Please don't come till thirtieth." The thirtieth--and it was now the fifteenth! She flung back the fortnight on his hands as if he had been an idler indifferent to dates, instead of an active young diplomatist who, to respond to her call, had had to hew his way through a very jungle of engagements! "Please don't come till thirtieth." That was all. Not the shadow of an excuse or a regret; not even the perfunctory "have written" with which it is usual to soften such blows. She didn't want him, and had taken the shortest way to tell him so. Even in his first moment of exasperation it struck him as characteristic that she should not have padded her postponement with a fib. Certainly her moral angles were not draped!
"If I asked her to marry me, she'd have refused in the same language. But thank heaven I haven't!" he reflected.
These considerations, which had been with him every yard of the way from London, reached a climax of irony as he was drawn into the crowd on the pier. It did not soften his feelings to remember that, but for her lack of forethought, he might, at this harsh end of the stormy May day, have been sitting before his club fire in London instead of shivering in the damp human herd on the pier. Admitting the sex's traditional right to change, she might at least have advised him of hers by telegraphing directly to his rooms. But in spite of their exchange of letters she had apparently failed to note his address, and a breathless emissary had rushed from the Embassy to pitch her telegram into his compartment as the train was moving from the station.
Yes, he had given her chance enough to learn where he lived; and this minor proof of her indifference became, as he jammed his way through the crowd, the main point of his grievance against her and of his derision of himself. Half way down the pier the prod of an umbrella increased his exasperation by rousing him to the fact that it was raining. Instantly the narrow ledge became a battle-ground of thrusting, slanting, parrying domes. The wind rose with the rain, and the harried wretches exposed to this double assault wreaked on their neighbours the vengeance they could not take on the elements.
Darrow, whose healthy enjoyment of life made him in general a good traveller, tolerant of agglutinated humanity, felt himself obscurely outraged by these promiscuous contacts. It was as though all the people about him had taken his measure and known his plight; as though they were contemptuously bumping and shoving him like the inconsiderable thing he had become. "She doesn't want you, doesn't want you, doesn't want you," their umbrellas and their elbows seemed to say.
He had rashly vowed, when the telegram was flung into his window: "At any rate I won't turn back"--as though it might cause the sender a malicious joy to have him retrace his steps rather than keep on to Paris! Now he perceived the absurdity of the vow, and thanked his stars that he need not plunge, to no purpose, into the fury of waves outside the harbour.
With this thought in his mind he turned back to look for his porter; but the contiguity of dripping umbrellas made signalling impossible and, perceiving that he had lost sight of the man, he scrambled up again to the platform. As he reached it, a descending umbrella caught him in the collar- bone; and the next moment, bent sideways by the wind, it turned inside out and soared up, kite-wise, at the end of a helpless female arm.
Darrow caught the umbrella, lowered its inverted ribs, and looked up at the face it exposed to him.
"Wait a minute," he said; "you can't stay here."
As he spoke, a surge of the crowd drove the owner of the umbrella abruptly down on him. Darrow steadied her with extended arms, and regaining her footing she cried out: "Oh, dear, oh, dear! It's in ribbons!"
Her lifted face, fresh and flushed in the driving rain, woke in him a memory of having seen it at a distant time and in a vaguely unsympathetic setting; but it was no moment to follow up such clues, and the face was obviously one to make its way on its own merits.
Its possessor had dropped her bag and bundles to clutch at the tattered umbrella. "I bought it only yesterday at the Stores; and--yes--it's utterly done for!" she lamented.
Darrow smiled at the intensity of her distress. It was food for the moralist that, side by side with such catastrophes as his, human nature was still agitating itself over its microscopic woes!
"Here's mine if you want it!" he shouted back at her through the shouting of the gale.
The offer caused the young lady to look at him more intently. "Why, it's Mr. Darrow!" she exclaimed; and then, all radiant recognition: "Oh, thank you! We'll share it, if you will."
She knew him, then; and he knew her; but how and where had they met? He put aside the problem for subsequent solution, and drawing her into a more sheltered corner, bade her wait till he could find his porter.
When, a few minutes later, he came back with his recovered property, and the news that the boat would not leave till the tide had turned, she showed no concern.
"Not for two hours? How lucky--then I can find my trunk!"
Ordinarily Darrow would have felt little disposed to involve himself in the adventure of a young female who had lost her trunk; but at the moment he was glad of any pretext for activity. Even should he decide to take the next up train from Dover he still had a yawning hour to fill; and the obvious remedy was to devote it to the loveliness in distress under his umbrella.
"You've lost a trunk? Let me see if I can find it."
It pleased him that she did not return the conventional "Oh, WOULD you?" Instead, she corrected him with a laugh--Not a trunk, but my trunk; I've no other--" and then added briskly: "You'd better first see to getting your own things on the boat."
This made him answer, as if to give substance to his plans by discussing them: "I don't actually know that I'm going over."
"Not going over?"
"Well...perhaps not by this boat." Again he felt a stealing indecision. "I may probably have to go back to London. I'm--I'm waiting...expecting a letter...(She'll think me a defaulter," he reflected.) "But meanwhile there's plenty of time to find your trunk."
He picked up his companion's bundles, and offered her an arm which enabled her to press her slight person more closely under his umbrella; and as, thus linked, they beat their way back to the platform, pulled together and apart like marionettes on the wires of the wind, he continued to wonder where he could have seen her. He had immediately classed her as a compatriot; her small nose, her clear tints, a kind of sketchy delicacy in her face, as though she had been brightly but lightly washed in with water-colour, all confirmed the evidence of her high sweet voice and of her quick incessant gestures.She was clearly an American, but with the loose native quality strained through a closer woof of manners: the composite product of an enquiring and adaptable race. All this, however, did not help him to fit a name to her, for just such instances were perpetually pouring through the London Embassy, and the etched and angular American was becoming rarer than the fluid type.
More puzzling than the fact of his being unable to identify her was the persistent sense connecting her with something uncomfortable and distasteful. So pleasant a vision as that gleaming up at him between wet brown hair and wet brown boa should have evoked only associations as pleasing; but each effort to fit her image into his past resulted in the same memories of boredom and a vague discomfort...
Don't you remember me now--at Mrs. Murrett's?" She threw the question at Darrow across a table of the quiet coffee-room to which, after a vainly prolonged quest for her trunk, he had suggested taking her for a cup of tea.
In this musty retreat she had removed her dripping hat, hung it on the fender to dry, and stretched herself on tiptoe in front of the round eagle-crowned mirror, above the mantel vases of dyed immortelles, while she ran her fingers comb- wise through her hair. The gesture had acted on Darrow's numb feelings as the glow of the fire acted on his circulation; and when he had asked: "Aren't your feet wet, too?" and, after frank inspection of a stout-shod sole, she had answered cheerfully: "No--luckily I had on my new boots," he began to feel that human intercourse would still be tolerable if it were always as free from formality.
The removal of his companion's hat, besides provoking this reflection, gave him his first full sight of her face; and this was so favourable that the name she now pronounced fell on him with a quite disproportionate shock of dismay.
"Oh, Mrs. Murrett's--was it THERE?"
He remembered her now, of course: remembered her as one of the shadowy sidling presences in the background of that awful house in Chelsea, one of the dumb appendages of the shrieking unescapable Mrs. Murrett, into whose talons he had fallen in the course of his head-long pursuit of Lady Ulrica Crispin. Oh, the taste of stale follies! How insipid it was, yet how it clung!
"I used to pass you on the stairs," she reminded him.
Yes: he had seen her slip by--he recalled it now--as he dashed up to the drawing-room in quest of Lady Ulrica. The thought made him steal a longer look. How could such a face have been merged in the Murrett mob? Its fugitive slanting lines, that lent themselves to all manner of tender tilts and foreshortenings, had the freakish grace of some young head of the Italian comedy. The hair stood up from her forehead in a boyish elf-lock, and its colour matched her auburn eyes flecked with black, and the little brown spot on her cheek, between the ear that was meant to have a rose behind it and the chin that should have rested on a ruff. When she smiled, the left corner of her mouth went up a little higher than the right; and her smile began in her eyes and ran down to her lips in two lines of light. He had dashed past that to reach Lady Ulrica Crispin!
"But of course you wouldn't remember me," she was saying. "My name is Viner--Sophy Viner."
Not remember her? But of course he DID! He was genuinely sure of it now. "You're Mrs. Murrett's niece," he declared.
She shook her head. "No; not even that. Only her reader."
"Her reader? Do you mean to say she ever reads?"
Miss Viner enjoyed his wonder. "Dear, no! But I wrote notes, and made up the visiting-book, and walked the dogs, and saw bores for her."
Darrow groaned. "That must have been rather bad!"
"Yes; but nothing like as bad as being her niece."
"That I can well believe. I'm glad to hear," he added, "that you put it all in the past tense."
She seemed to droop a little at the allusion; then she lifted her chin with a jerk of defiance. "Yes. All is at an end between us. We've just parted in tears--but not in silence!"
"Just parted? Do you mean to say you've been there all this time?"
"Ever since you used to come there to see Lady Ulrica? Does it seem to you so awfully long ago?"
The unexpectedness of the thrust--as well as its doubtful taste--chilled his growing enjoyment of her chatter. He had really been getting to like her--had recovered, under the candid approval of her eye, his usual sense of being a personable young man, with all the privileges pertaining to the state, instead of the anonymous rag of humanity he had felt himself in the crowd on the pier. It annoyed him, at that particular moment, to be reminded that naturalness is not always consonant with taste.
She seemed to guess his thought. "You don't like my saying that you came for Lady Ulrica?" she asked, leaning over the table to pour herself a second cup of tea.
He liked her quickness, at any rate. "It's better," he laughed, "than your thinking I came for Mrs. Murrett!"
"Oh, we never thought anybody came for Mrs. Murrett! It was always for something else: the music, or the cook--when there was a good one--or the other people; generally ONE of the other people."
She was amusing, and that, in his present mood, was more to his purpose than the exact shade of her taste. It was odd, too, to discover suddenly that the blurred tapestry of Mrs. Murrett's background had all the while been alive and full of eyes. Now, with a pair of them looking into his, he was conscious of a queer reversal of perspective.
"Who were the 'we'? Were you a cloud of witnesses?"
"There were a good many of us." She smiled. "Let me see-- who was there in your time? Mrs. Bolt--and Mademoiselle--and Professor Didymus and the Polish Countess. Don't you remember the Polish Countess? She crystal-gazed, and played accompaniments, and Mrs. Murrett chucked her because Mrs. Didymus accused her of hypnotizing the Professor. But of course you don't remember. We were all invisible to you; but we could see. And we all used to wonder about you----"
Again Darrow felt a redness in the temples. "What about me?"
"Well--whether it was you or she who..."
He winced, but hid his disapproval. It made the time pass to listen to her.
"And what, if one may ask, was your conclusion?"
"Well, Mrs. Bolt and Mademoiselle and the Countess naturally thought it was SHE; but Professor Didymus and Jimmy Brance--especially Jimmy----"
"Just a moment: who on earth is Jimmy Brance?"
She exclaimed in wonder: "You WERE absorbed--not to remember Jimmy Brance! He must have been right about you, after all." She let her amused scrutiny dwell on him. "But how could you? She was false from head to foot!"
"False----?" In spite of time and satiety, the male instinct of ownership rose up and repudiated the charge.
Miss Viner caught his look and laughed. "Oh, I only meant externally! You see, she often used to come to my room after tennis, or to touch up in the evenings, when they were going on; and I assure you she took apart like a puzzle. In fact I used to say to Jimmy--just to make him wild--:'I'll bet you anything you like there's nothing wrong, because I know she'd never dare un--'" She broke the word in two, and her quick blush made her face like a shallow-petalled rose shading to the deeper pink of the centre.
The situation was saved, for Darrow, by an abrupt rush of memories, and he gave way to a mirth which she as frankly echoed. "Of course," she gasped through her laughter, "I only said it to tease Jimmy----"
Her amusement obscurely annoyed him. "Oh, you're all alike!" he exclaimed, moved by an unaccountable sense of disappointment.
She caught him up in a flash--she didn't miss things! "You say that because you think I'm spiteful and envious? Yes--I was envious of Lady Ulrica...Oh, not on account of you or Jimmy Brance! Simply because she had almost all the things I've always wanted: clothes and fun and motors, and admiration and yachting and Paris--why, Paris alone would be enough!--And how do you suppose a girl can see that sort of thing about her day after day, and never wonder why some women, who don't seem to have any more right to it, have it all tumbled into their laps, while others are writing dinner invitations, and straightening out accounts, and copying visiting lists, and finishing golf-stockings, and matching ribbons, and seeing that the dogs get their sulphur? One looks in one's glass, after all!"
She launched the closing words at him on a cry that lifted them above the petulance of vanity; but his sense of her words was lost in the surprise of her face. Under the flying clouds of her excitement it was no longer a shallow flower-cup but a darkening gleaming mirror that might give back strange depths of feeling. The girl had stuff in her-- he saw it; and she seemed to catch the perception in his eyes.
"That's the kind of education I got at Mrs. Murrett's--and I never had any other," she said with a shrug.
"Good Lord--were you there so long?"
"Five years. I stuck it out longer than any of the others." She spoke as though it were something to be proud of.
"Well, thank God you're out of it now!"
Again a just perceptible shadow crossed her face. "Yes--I'm out of it now fast enough."
"And what--if I may ask--are you doing next?"
She brooded a moment behind drooped lids; then, with a touch of hauteur: "I'm going to Paris: to study for the stage."
"The stage?" Darrow stared at her, dismayed. All his confused contradictory impressions assumed a new aspect at this announcement; and to hide his surprise he added lightly: "Ah--then you will have Paris, after all!"
"Hardly Lady Ulrica's Paris. It s not likely to be roses, roses all the way."
"It's not, indeed." Real compassion prompted him to continue: "Have you any--any influence you can count on?"
She gave a somewhat flippant little laugh. "None but my own. I've never had any other to count on."
He passed over the obvious reply. "But have you any idea how the profession is over-crowded? I know I'm trite----"
"I've a very clear idea. But I couldn't go on as I was."
"Of course not. But since, as you say, you'd stuck it out longer than any of the others, couldn't you at least have held on till you were sure of some kind of an opening?"
She made no reply for a moment; then she turned a listless glance to the rain-beaten window. "Oughtn't we be starting?" she asked, with a lofty assumption of indifference that might have been Lady Ulrica's.
Darrow, surprised by the change, but accepting her rebuff as a phase of what he guessed to be a confused and tormented mood, rose from his seat and lifted her jacket from the chair-back on which she had hung it to dry. As he held it toward her she looked up at him quickly.
"The truth is, we quarrelled," she broke out, "and I left last night without my dinner--and without my salary."
"Ah--" he groaned, with a sharp perception of all the sordid dangers that might attend such a break with Mrs. Murrett.
"And without a character!" she added, as she slipped her arms into the jacket. "And without a trunk, as it appears-- but didn't you say that, before going, there'd be time for another look at the station?"
There was time for another look at the station; but the look again resulted in disappointment, since her trunk was nowhere to be found in the huge heap disgorged by the newly- arrived London express. The fact caused Miss Viner a moment's perturbation; but she promptly adjusted herself to the necessity of proceeding on her journey, and her decision confirmed Darrow's vague resolve to go to Paris instead of retracing his way to London.
Miss Viner seemed cheered at the prospect of his company, and sustained by his offer to telegraph to Charing Cross for the missing trunk; and he left her to wait in the fly while he hastened back to the telegraph office. The enquiry despatched, he was turning away from the desk when another thought struck him and he went back and indited a message to his servant in London: "If any letters with French post-mark received since departure forward immediately to Terminus Hotel Gare du Nord Paris."
Then he rejoined Miss Viner, and they drove off through the rain to the pier.
Almost as soon as the train left Calais her head had dropped back into the corner, and she had fallen asleep.
Sitting opposite, in the compartment from which he had contrived to have other travellers excluded, Darrow looked at her curiously. He had never seen a face that changed so quickly. A moment since it had danced like a field of daisies in a summer breeze; now, under the pallid oscillating light of the lamp overhead, it wore the hard stamp of experience, as of a soft thing chilled into shape before its curves had rounded: and it moved him to see that care already stole upon her when she slept.
The story she had imparted to him in the wheezing shaking cabin, and at the Calais buffet--where he had insisted on offering her the dinner she had missed at Mrs. Murrett's-- had given a distincter outline to her figure. From the moment of entering the New York boarding-school to which a preoccupied guardian had hastily consigned her after the death of her parents, she had found herself alone in a busy and indifferent world. Her youthful history might, in fact, have been summed up in the statement that everybody had been too busy to look after her. Her guardian, a drudge in a big banking house, was absorbed by "the office"; the guardian's wife, by her health and her religion; and an elder sister, Laura, married, unmarried, remarried, and pursuing, through all these alternating phases, some vaguely "artistic" ideal on which the guardian and his wife looked askance, had (as Darrow conjectured) taken their disapproval as a pretext for not troubling herself about poor Sophy, to whom--perhaps for this reason--she had remained the incarnation of remote romantic possibilities.
In the course of time a sudden "stroke" of the guardian's had thrown his personal affairs into a state of confusion from which--after his widely lamented death--it became evident that it would not be possible to extricate his ward's inheritance. No one deplored this more sincerely than his widow, who saw in it one more proof of her husband's life having been sacrificed to the innumerable duties imposed on him, and who could hardly--but for the counsels of religion--have brought herself to pardon the young girl for her indirect share in hastening his end. Sophy did not resent this point of view. She was really much sorrier for her guardian's death than for the loss of her insignificant fortune. The latter had represented only the means of holding her in bondage, and its disappearance was the occasion of her immediate plunge into the wide bright sea of life surrounding the island-of her captivity. She had first landed--thanks to the intervention of the ladies who had directed her education--in a Fifth Avenue school-room where, for a few months, she acted as a buffer between three autocratic infants and their bodyguard of nurses and teachers. The too-pressing attentions of their father's valet had caused her to fly this sheltered spot, against the express advice of her educational superiors, who implied that, in their own case, refinement and self-respect had always sufficed to keep the most ungovernable passions at bay. The experience of the guardian's widow having been precisely similar, and the deplorable precedent of Laura's career being present to all their minds, none of these ladies felt any obligation to intervene farther in Sophy's affairs; and she was accordingly left to her own resources.
A schoolmate from the Rocky Mountains, who was taking her father and mother to Europe, had suggested Sophy's accompanying them, and "going round" with her while her progenitors, in the care of the courier, nursed their ailments at a fashionable bath. Darrow gathered that the "going round" with Mamie Hoke was a varied and diverting process; but this relatively brilliant phase of Sophy's career was cut short by the elopement of the inconsiderate Mamie with a "matinee idol" who had followed her from New York, and by the precipitate return of her parents to negotiate for the repurchase of their child.
It was then--after an interval of repose with compassionate but impecunious American friends in Paris--that Miss Viner had been drawn into the turbid current of Mrs. Murrett's career. The impecunious compatriots had found Mrs. Murrett for her, and it was partly on their account (because they were such dears, and so unconscious, poor confiding things, of what they were letting her in for) that Sophy had stuck it out so long in the dreadful house in Chelsea. The Farlows, she explained to Darrow, were the best friends she had ever had (and the only ones who had ever "been decent" about Laura, whom they had seen once, and intensely admired); but even after twenty years of Paris they were the most incorrigibly inexperienced angels, and quite persuaded that Mrs. Murrett was a woman of great intellectual eminence, and the house at Chelsea "the last of the salons" --Darrow knew what she meant? And she hadn't liked to undeceive them, knowing that to do so would be virtually to throw herself back on their hands, and feeling, moreover, after her previous experiences, the urgent need of gaining, at any cost, a name for stability; besides which--she threw it off with a slight laugh--no other chance, in all these years, had happened to come to her.
She had brushed in this outline of her career with light rapid strokes, and in a tone of fatalism oddly untinged by bitterness. Darrow perceived that she classified people according to their greater or less "luck" in life, but she appeared to harbour no resentment against the undefined power which dispensed the gift in such unequal measure. Things came one's way or they didn't; and meanwhile one could only look on, and make the most of small compensations, such as watching "the show" at Mrs. Murrett's, and talking over the Lady Ulricas and other footlight figures. And at any moment, of course, a turn of the kaleidoscope might suddenly toss a bright spangle into the grey pattern of one's days.
This light-hearted philosophy was not without charm to a young man accustomed to more traditional views. George Darrow had had a fairly varied experience of feminine types, but the women he had frequented had either been pronouncedly "ladies" or they had not. Grateful to both for ministering to the more complex masculine nature, and disposed to assume that they had been evolved, if not designed, to that end, he had instinctively kept the two groups apart in his mind, avoiding that intermediate society which attempts to conciliate both theories of life. "Bohemianism" seemed to him a cheaper convention than the other two, and he liked, above all, people who went as far as they could in their own line--liked his "ladies" and their rivals to be equally unashamed of showing for exactly what they were. He had not indeed--the fact of Lady Ulrica was there to remind him-- been without his experience of a third type; but that experience had left him with a contemptuous distaste for the woman who uses the privileges of one class to shelter the customs of another.
As to young girls, he had never thought much about them since his early love for the girl who had become Mrs. Leath. That episode seemed, as he looked back on it, to bear no more relation to reality than a pale decorative design to the confused richness of a summer landscape. He no longer understood the violent impulses and dreamy pauses of his own young heart, or the inscrutable abandonments and reluctances of hers. He had known a moment of anguish at losing her--the mad plunge of youthful instincts against the barrier of fate; but the first wave of stronger sensation had swept away all but the outline of their story, and the memory of Anna Summers had made the image of the young girl sacred, but the class uninteresting.
Such generalisations belonged, however, to an earlier stage of his experience. The more he saw of life the more incalculable he found it; and he had learned to yield to his impressions without feeling the youthful need of relating them to others. It was the girl in the opposite seat who had roused in him the dormant habit of comparison. She was distinguished from the daughters of wealth by her avowed acquaintance with the real business of living, a familiarity as different as possible from their theoretical proficiency; yet it seemed to Darrow that her experience had made her free without hardness and self-assured without assertiveness.
The rush into Amiens, and the flash of the station lights into their compartment, broke Miss Viner's sleep, and without changing her position she lifted her lids and looked at Darrow. There was neither surprise nor bewilderment in the look. She seemed instantly conscious, not so much of where she was, as of the fact that she was with him; and that fact seemed enough to reassure her. She did not even turn her head to look out; her eyes continued to rest on him with a vague smile which appeared to light her face from within, while her lips kept their sleepy droop.
Shouts and the hurried tread of travellers came to them through the confusing cross-lights of the platform. A head appeared at the window, and Darrow threw himself forward to defend their solitude; but the intruder was only a train hand going his round of inspection. He passed on, and the lights and cries of the station dropped away, merged in a wider haze and a hollower resonance, as the train gathered itself up with a long shake and rolled out again into the darkness.
Miss Viner's head sank back against the cushion, pushing out a dusky wave of hair above her forehead. The swaying of the train loosened a lock over her ear, and she shook it back with a movement like a boy's, while her gaze still rested on her companion.
"You're not too tired?"
She shook her head with a smile.
"We shall be in before midnight. We're very nearly on time." He verified the statement by holding up his watch to the lamp.
She nodded dreamily. "It's all right. I telegraphed Mrs. Farlow that they mustn't think of coming to the station; but they'll have told the concierge to look out for me."
"You'll let me drive you there?"
She nodded again, and her eyes closed. It was very pleasant to Darrow that she made no effort to talk or to dissemble her sleepiness. He sat watching her till the upper lashes met and mingled with the lower, and their blent shadow lay on her cheek; then he stood up and drew the curtain over the lamp, drowning the compartment in a bluish twilight.
As he sank back into his seat he thought how differently Anna Summers--or even Anna Leath--would have behaved. She would not have talked too much; she would not have been either restless or embarrassed; but her adaptability, her appropriateness, would not have been nature but "tact." The oddness of the situation would have made sleep impossible, or, if weariness had overcome her for a moment, she would have waked with a start, wondering where she was, and how she had come there, and if her hair were tidy; and nothing short of hairpins and a glass would have restored her self- possession...
The reflection set him wondering whether the "sheltered" girl's bringing-up might not unfit her for all subsequent contact with life. How much nearer to it had Mrs. Leath been brought by marriage and motherhood, and the passage of fourteen years? What were all her reticences and evasions but the result of the deadening process of forming a "lady"? The freshness he had marvelled at was like the unnatural whiteness of flowers forced in the dark.
As he looked back at their few days together he saw that their intercourse had been marked, on her part, by the same hesitations and reserves which had chilled their earlier intimacy. Once more they had had their hour together and she had wasted it. As in her girlhood, her eyes had made promises which her lips were afraid to keep. She was still afraid of life, of its ruthlessness, its danger and mystery. She was still the petted little girl who cannot be left alone in the dark...His memory flew back to their youthful story, and long-forgotten details took shape before him. How frail and faint the picture was! They seemed, he and she, like the ghostly lovers of the Grecian Urn, forever pursuing without ever clasping each other. To this day he did not quite know what had parted them: the break had been as fortuitous as the fluttering apart of two seed-vessels on a wave of summer air...
The very slightness, vagueness, of the memory gave it an added poignancy. He felt the mystic pang of the parent for a child which has just breathed and died. Why had it happened thus, when the least shifting of influences might have made it all so different? If she had been given to him then he would have put warmth in her veins and light in her eyes: would have made her a woman through and through. Musing thus, he had the sense of waste that is the bitterest harvest of experience. A love like his might have given her the divine gift of self-renewal; and now he saw her fated to wane into old age repeating the same gestures, echoing the words she had always heard, and perhaps never guessing that, just outside her glazed and curtained consciousness, life rolled away, a vast blackness starred with lights, like the night landscape beyond the windows of the train.
The engine lowered its speed for the passage through a sleeping station. In the light of the platform lamp Darrow looked across at his companion. Her head had dropped toward one shoulder, and her lips were just far enough apart for the reflection of the upper one to deepen the colour of the other. The jolting of the train had again shaken loose the lock above her ear. It danced on her cheek like the flit of a brown wing over flowers, and Darrow felt an intense desire to lean forward and put it back behind her ear.
As their motor-cab, on the way from the Gare du Nord, turned into the central glitter of the Boulevard, Darrow had bent over to point out an incandescent threshold.
Above the doorway, an arch of flame flashed out the name of a great actress, whose closing performances in a play of unusual originality had been the theme of long articles in the Paris papers which Darrow had tossed into their compartment at Calais.
"That's what you must see before you're twenty-four hours older!"
The girl followed his gesture eagerly. She was all awake and alive now, as if the heady rumours of the streets, with their long effervescences of light, had passed into her veins like wine.
"Cerdine? Is that where she acts?" She put her head out of the window, straining back for a glimpse of the sacred threshold. As they flew past it she sank into her seat with a satisfied sigh.
"It's delicious enough just to KNOW she's there! I've never seen her, you know. When I was here with Mamie Hoke we never went anywhere but to the music halls, because she couldn't understand any French; and when I came back afterward to the Farlows' I was dead broke, and couldn't afford the play, and neither could they; so the only chance we had was when friends of theirs invited us--and once it was to see a tragedy by a Roumanian lady, and the other time it was for 'L'Ami Fritz' at the Francais."
Darrow laughed. "You must do better than that now. 'Le Vertige' is a fine thing, and Cerdine gets some wonderful effects out of it. You must come with me tomorrow evening to see it--with your friends, of course.--That is," he added, "if there's any sort of chance of getting seats."
The flash of a street lamp lit up her radiant face. "Oh, will you really take us? What fun to think that it's tomorrow already!"
It was wonderfully pleasant to be able to give such pleasure. Darrow was not rich, but it was almost impossible for him to picture the state of persons with tastes and perceptions like his own, to whom an evening at the theatre was an unattainable indulgence. There floated through his mind an answer of Mrs. Leath's to his enquiry whether she had seen the play in question. "No. I meant to, of course, but one is so overwhelmed with things in Paris. And then I'm rather sick of Cerdine--one is always being dragged to see her."
That, among the people he frequented, was the usual attitude toward such opportunities. There were too many, they were a nuisance, one had to defend one's self! He even remembered wondering, at the moment, whether to a really fine taste the exceptional thing could ever become indifferent through habit; whether the appetite for beauty was so soon dulled that it could be kept alive only by privation. Here, at any rate, was a fine chance to experiment with such a hunger: he almost wished he might stay on in Paris long enough to take the measure of Miss Viner's receptivity.
She was still dwelling on his promise, "It's too beautiful of you! Oh, don't you THINK you'll be able to get seats?" And then, after a pause of brimming appreciation: "I wonder if you'll think me horrid?--but it may be my only chance; and if you can't get places for us all, wouldn't you perhaps just take ME? After all, the Farlows may have seen it!"
He had not, of course, thought her horrid, but only the more engaging, for being so natural, and so unashamed of showing the frank greed of her famished youth. "Oh, you shall go somehow!" he had gaily promised her; and she had dropped back with a sigh of pleasure as their cab passed into the dimly-lit streets of the Farlows' quarter beyond the Seine...
This little passage came back to him the next morning, as he opened his hotel window on the early roar of the Northern Terminus.
The girl was there, in the room next to him. That had been the first point in his waking consciousness. The second was a sense of relief at the obligation imposed on him by this unexpected turn of everts. To wake to the necessity of action, to postpone perforce the fruitless contemplation of his private grievance, was cause enough for gratitude, even if the small adventure in which he found himself involved had not, on its own merits, roused an instinctive curiosity to see it through.
When he and his companion, the night before, had reached the Farlows' door in the rue de la Chaise, it was only to find, after repeated assaults on its panels, that the Farlows were no longer there. They had moved away the week before, not only from their apartment but from Paris; and Miss Viner's breach with Mrs. Murrett had been too sudden to permit her letter and telegram to overtake them. Both communications, no doubt, still reposed in a pigeon-hole of the loge; but its custodian, when drawn from his lair, sulkily declined to let Miss Viner verify the fact, and only flung out, in return for Darrow's bribe, the statement that the Americans had gone to Joigny.
To pursue them there at that hour was manifestly impossible, and Miss Viner, disturbed but not disconcerted by this new obstacle, had quite simply acceded to Darrow's suggestion that she should return for what remained of the night to the hotel where he had sent his luggage.
The drive back through the dark hush before dawn, with the nocturnal blaze of the Boulevard fading around them like the false lights of a magician's palace, had so played on her impressionability that she seemed to give no farther thought to her own predicament. Darrow noticed that she did not feel the beauty and mystery of the spectacle as much as its pressure of human significance, all its hidden implications of emotion and adventure. As they passed the shadowy colonnade of the Francais, remote and temple-like in the paling lights, he felt a clutch on his arm, and heard the cry: "There are things THERE that I want so desperately to see!" and all the way back to the hotel she continued to question him, with shrewd precision and an artless thirst for detail, about the theatrical life of Paris. He was struck afresh, as he listened, by the way in which her naturalness eased the situation of constraint, leaving to it only a pleasant savour of good fellowship. It was the kind of episode that one might, in advance, have characterized as "awkward", yet that was proving, in the event, as much outside such definitions as a sunrise stroll with a dryad in a dew-drenched forest; and Darrow reflected that mankind would never have needed to invent tact if it had not first invented social complications.
It had been understood, with his good-night to Miss Viner, that the next morning he was to look up the Joigny trains, and see her safely to the station; but, while he breakfasted and waited for a time-table, he recalled again her cry of joy at the prospect of seeing Cerdine. It was certainly a pity, since that most elusive and incalculable of artists was leaving the next week for South America, to miss what might be a last sight of her in her greatest part; and Darrow, having dressed and made the requisite excerpts from the time-table, decided to carry the result of his deliberations to his neighbour's door.
It instantly opened at his knock, and she came forth looking as if she had been plunged into some sparkling element which had curled up all her drooping tendrils and wrapped her in a shimmer of fresh leaves.
"Well, what do you think of me?" she cried; and with a hand at her waist she spun about as if to show off some miracle of Parisian dress-making.
"I think the missing trunk has come--and that it was worth waiting for!"
"You DO like my dress?"
"I adore it! I always adore new dresses--why, you don't mean to say it's NOT a new one?"
She laughed out her triumph.
"No, no, no! My trunk hasn't come, and this is only my old rag of yesterday--but I never knew the trick to fail!" And, as he stared: "You see," she joyously explained, "I've always had to dress in all kinds of dreary left-overs, and sometimes, when everybody else was smart and new, it used to make me awfully miserable. So one day, when Mrs. Murrett dragged me down unexpectedly to fill a place at dinner, I suddenly thought I'd try spinning around like that, and say to every one: 'WELL, WHAT DO YOU THINK OF ME?' And, do you know, they were all taken in, including Mrs. Murrett, who didn't recognize my old turned and dyed rags, and told me afterward it was awfully bad form to dress as if I were somebody that people would expect to know! And ever since, whenever I've particularly wanted to look nice, I've just asked people what they thought of my new frock; and they're always, always taken in!"
She dramatized her explanation so vividly that Darrow felt as if his point were gained.
"Ah, but this confirms your vocation--of course," he cried, "you must see Cerdine!" and, seeing her face fall at this reminder of the change in her prospects, he hastened to set forth his plan. As he did so, he saw how easy it was to explain things to her. She would either accept his suggestion, or she would not: but at least she would waste no time in protestations and objections, or any vain sacrifice to the idols of conformity. The conviction that one could, on any given point, almost predicate this of her, gave him the sense of having advanced far enough in her intimacy to urge his arguments against a hasty pursuit of her friends.
Yes, it would certainly be foolish--she at once agreed--in the case of such dear indefinite angels as the Farlows, to dash off after them without more positive proof that they were established at Joigny, and so established that they could take her in. She owned it was but too probable that they had gone there to "cut down", and might be doing so in quarters too contracted to receive her; and it would be unfair, on that chance, to impose herself on them unannounced. The simplest way of getting farther light on the question would be to go back to the rue de la Chaise, where, at that more conversable hour, the concierge might be less chary of detail; and she could decide on her next step in the light of such facts as he imparted.
Point by point, she fell in with the suggestion, recognizing, in the light of their unexplained flight, that the Farlows might indeed be in a situation on which one could not too rashly intrude. Her concern for her friends seemed to have effaced all thought of herself, and this little indication of character gave Darrow a quite disproportionate pleasure. She agreed that it would be well to go at once to the rue de la Chaise, but met his proposal that they should drive by the declaration that it was a "waste" not to walk in Paris; so they set off on foot through the cheerful tumult of the streets.
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