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The Reef by Edith Wharton

Part 7 out of 7

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where you went, why you left her...I can't go on in this
darkness any longer!"

She did not know what had prompted her passionate outburst,
but already she felt lighter, freer, as if at last the evil
spell were broken. "I want to know everything," she
repeated. "It's the only way to make me forget."

After she had ceased speaking Darrow remained where he was,
his arms folded, his eyes lowered, immovable. She waited,
her gaze on his face.

"Aren't you going to tell me?"

The blood rushed to her temples. "You won't? Why not?"

"If I did, do you suppose you'd forget THAT?"

"Oh--" she moaned, and turned away from him.

"You see it's impossible," he went on. "I've done a thing I
loathe, and to atone for it you ask me to do another. What
sort of satisfaction would that give you? It would put
something irremediable between us."

She leaned her elbow against the mantel-shelf and hid her
face in her hands. She had the sense that she was vainly
throwing away her last hope of happiness, yet she could do
nothing, think of nothing, to save it. The conjecture
flashed through her: "Should I be at peace if I gave him
up?" and she remembered the desolation of the days after she
had sent him away, and understood that that hope was vain.
The tears welled through her lids and ran slowly down
between her fingers.

"Good-bye," she heard him say, and his footsteps turned to
the door.

She tried to raise her head, but the weight of her despair
bowed it down. She said to herself: "This is the end...he
won't try to appeal to me again..." and she remained in a
sort of tranced rigidity, perceiving without feeling the
fateful lapse of the seconds. Then the cords that bound her
seemed to snap, and she lifted her head and saw him going.

"Why, he's mine--he's mine! He's no one else's!" His face
was turned to her and the look in his eyes swept away all
her terrors. She no longer understood what had prompted her
senseless outcry; and the mortal sweetness of loving him
became again the one real fact in the world.


Anna, the next day, woke to a humiliated memory of the
previous evening.

Darrow had been right in saying that their sacrifice would
benefit no one; yet she seemed dimly to discern that there
were obligations not to be tested by that standard. She
owed it, at any rate, as much to his pride as to hers to
abstain from the repetition of such scenes; and she had
learned that it was beyond her power to do so while they
were together. Yet when he had given her the chance to free
herself, everything had vanished from her mind but the blind
fear of losing him; and she saw that he and she were as
profoundly and inextricably bound together as two trees with
interwoven roots.
For a long time she brooded on her plight, vaguely conscious
that the only escape from it must come from some external
chance. And slowly the occasion shaped itself in her mind.
It was Sophy Viner only who could save her--Sophy Viner only
who could give her back her lost serenity. She would seek
the girl out and tell her that she had given Darrow up; and
that step once taken there would be no retracing it, and she
would perforce have to go forward alone.

Any pretext for action was a kind of anodyne, and she
despatched her maid to the Farlows' with a note asking if
Miss Viner would receive her. There was a long delay before
the maid returned, and when at last she appeared it was with
a slip of paper on which an address was written, and a
verbal message to the effect that Miss Viner had left some
days previously, and was staying with her sister in a hotel
near the Place de l'Etoile. The maid added that Mrs.
Farlow, on the plea that Miss Viner's plans were uncertain,
had at first made some difficulty about giving this
information; and Anna guessed that the girl had left her
friends' roof, and instructed them to withhold her address,
with the object of avoiding Owen. "She's kept faith with
herself and I haven't," Anna mused; and the thought was a
fresh incentive to action.

Darrow had announced his intention of coming soon after
luncheon, and the morning was already so far advanced that
Anna, still mistrustful of her strength, decided to drive
immediately to the address Mrs. Farlow had given. On the
way there she tried to recall what she had heard of Sophy
Viner's sister, but beyond the girl's enthusiastic report of
the absent Laura's loveliness she could remember only
certain vague allusions of Mrs. Farlow's to her artistic
endowments and matrimonial vicissitudes. Darrow had
mentioned her but once, and in the briefest terms, as having
apparently very little concern for Sophy's welfare, and
being, at any rate, too geographically remote to give her
any practical support; and Anna wondered what chance had
brought her to her sister's side at this conjunction. Mrs.
Farlow had spoken of her as a celebrity (in what line Anna
failed to recall); but Mrs. Farlow's celebrities were
legion, and the name on the slip of paper--Mrs. McTarvie-
Birch--did not seem to have any definite association with

While Anna waited in the dingy vestibule of the Hotel
Chicago she had so distinct a vision of what she meant to
say to Sophy Viner that the girl seemed already to be before
her; and her heart dropped from all the height of its
courage when the porter, after a long delay, returned with
the announcement that Miss Viner was no longer in the hotel.
Anna, doubtful if she understood, asked if he merely meant
that the young lady was out at the moment; but he replied
that she had gone away the day before. Beyond this he had
no information to impart, and after a moment's hesitation
Anna sent him back to enquire if Mrs. McTarvie-Birch would
receive her. She reflected that Sophy had probably pledged
her sister to the same secrecy as Mrs. Farlow, and that a
personal appeal to Mrs. Birch might lead to less negative

There was another long interval of suspense before the
porter reappeared with an affirmative answer; and a third
while an exiguous and hesitating lift bore her up past a
succession of shabby landings.

When the last was reached, and her guide had directed her
down a winding passage that smelt of sea-going luggage, she
found herself before a door through which a strong odour of
tobacco reached her simultaneously with the sounds of a
suppressed altercation. Her knock was followed by a
silence, and after a minute or two the door was opened by a
handsome young man whose ruffled hair and general air of
creased disorder led her to conclude that he had just risen
from a long-limbed sprawl on a sofa strewn with tumbled
cushions. This sofa, and a grand piano bearing a basket of
faded roses, a biscuit-tin and a devastated breakfast tray,
almost filled the narrow sitting-room, in the remaining
corner of which another man, short, swarthy and humble, sat
examining the lining of his hat.

Anna paused in doubt; but on her naming Mrs. Birch the young
man politely invited her to enter, at the same time casting
an impatient glance at the mute spectator in the background.

The latter, raising his eyes, which were round and bulging,
fixed them, not on the young man but on Anna, whom, for a
moment, he scrutinized as searchingly as the interior of his
hat. Under his gaze she had the sense of being minutely
catalogued and valued; and the impression, when he finally
rose and moved toward the door, of having been accepted as a
better guarantee than he had had any reason to hope for. On
the threshold his glance crossed that of the young man in an
exchange of intelligence as full as it was rapid; and this
brief scene left Anna so oddly enlightened that she felt no
surprise when her companion, pushing an arm-chair forward,
sociably asked her if she wouldn't have a cigarette. Her
polite refusal provoked the remark that he would, if she'd
no objection; and while he groped for matches in his loose
pockets, and behind the photographs and letters crowding the
narrow mantel-shelf, she ventured another enquiry for Mrs.

"Just a minute," he smiled; "I think the masseur's with
her." He spoke in a smooth denationalized English, which,
like the look in his long-lashed eyes and the promptness of
his charming smile, suggested a long training in all the
arts of expediency. Having finally discovered a match-box
on the floor beside the sofa, he lit his cigarette and
dropped back among the cushions; and on Anna's remarking
that she was sorry to disturb Mrs. Birch he replied that
that was all right, and that she always kept everybody

After this, through the haze of his perpetually renewed
cigarettes, they continued to chat for some time of
indifferent topics; but when at last Anna again suggested
the possibility of her seeing Mrs. Birch he rose from his
corner with a slight shrug, and murmuring: "She's perfectly
hopeless," lounged off through an inner door.

Anna was still wondering when and in what conjunction of
circumstances the much-married Laura had acquired a partner
so conspicuous for his personal charms, when the young man
returned to announce: "She says it's all right, if you don't
mind seeing her in bed."

He drew aside to let Anna pass, and she found herself in a
dim untidy scented room, with a pink curtain pinned across
its single window, and a lady with a great deal of fair hair
and uncovered neck smiling at her from a pink bed on which
an immense powder-puff trailed.

"You don't mind, do you? He costs such a frightful lot that
I can't afford to send him off," Mrs. Birch explained,
extending a thickly-ringed hand to Anna, and leaving her in
doubt as to whether the person alluded to were her
masseur or her husband. Before a reply was possible there
was a convulsive stir beneath the pink expanse, and
something that resembled another powder-puff hurled itself
at Anna with a volley of sounds like the popping of
Lilliputian champagne corks. Mrs. Birch, flinging herself
forward, gasped out: "If you'd just give him a
caramel...there, in that box on the dressing-table...it's
the only earthly thing to stop him..." and when Anna had
proffered this sop to her assailant, and he had withdrawn
with it beneath the bedspread, his mistress sank back with a

"Isn't he a beauty? The Prince gave him to me down at Nice
the other day--but he's perfectly awful," she confessed,
beaming intimately on her visitor. In the roseate penumbra
of the bed-curtains she presented to Anna's startled gaze an
odd chromo-like resemblance to Sophy Viner, or a suggestion,
rather, of what Sophy Viner might, with the years and in
spite of the powder-puff, become. Larger, blonder, heavier-
featured, she yet had glances and movements that
disturbingly suggested what was freshest and most engaging
in the girl; and as she stretched her bare plump arm across
the bed she seemed to be pulling back the veil from dingy
distances of family history.

"Do sit down, if there's a place to sit on," she cordially
advised; adding, as Anna took the edge of a chair hung with
miscellaneous raiment: "My singing takes so much time that I
don't get a chance to walk the fat off--that's the worst of
being an artist."

Anna murmured an assent. "I hope it hasn't inconvenienced
you to see me; I told Mr. Birch--"

"Mr. WHO?" the recumbent beauty asked; and then: "Oh,
JIMMY!" she faintly laughed, as if more for her own
enlightenment than Anna's.

The latter continued eagerly: "I understand from Mrs. Farlow
that your sister was with you, and I ventured to come up
because I wanted to ask you when I should have a chance of
finding her."

Mrs. McTarvie-Birch threw back her head with a long stare.
"Do you mean to say the idiot at the door didn't tell you?
Sophy went away last night."

"Last night?" Anna echoed. A sudden terror had possessed
her. Could it be that the girl had tricked them all and
gone with Owen? The idea was incredible, yet it took such
hold of her that she could hardly steady her lips to say:
"The porter did tell me, but I thought perhaps he was
mistaken. Mrs. Farlow seemed to think that I should find
her here."

"It was all so sudden that I don't suppose she had time to
let the Farlows know. She didn't get Mrs. Murrett's wire
till yesterday, and she just pitched her things into a trunk
and rushed----"

"Mrs. Murrett?"

"Why, yes. Sophy's gone to India with Mrs. Murrett; they're
to meet at Brindisi," Sophy's sister said with a calm smile.

Anna sat motionless, gazing at the disordered room, the pink
bed, the trivial face among the pillows.

Mrs. McTarvie-Birch pursued: "They had a fearful kick-up
last spring--I daresay you knew about it--but I told Sophy
she'd better lump it, as long as the old woman was willing
to...As an artist, of course, it's perfectly impossible for
me to have her with me..."

"Of course," Anna mechanically assented.

Through the confused pain of her thoughts she was hardly
aware that Mrs. Birch's explanations were still continuing.
"Naturally I didn't altogether approve of her going back to
that beast of a woman. I said all I could...I told her she
was a fool to chuck up such a place as yours. But Sophy's
restless--always was--and she's taken it into her head she'd
rather travel..."

Anna rose from her seat, groping for some formula of leave-
taking. The pushing back of her chair roused the white
dog's smouldering animosity, and he drowned his mistress's
further confidences in another outburst of hysterics.
Through the tumult Anna signed an inaudible farewell, and
Mrs. Birch, having momentarily succeeded in suppressing her
pet under a pillow, called out: "Do come again! I'd love to
sing to you."

Anna murmured a word of thanks and turned to the door. As
she opened it she heard her hostess crying after her:
"Jimmy! Do you hear me? Jimmy BRANCE!" and then, there
being no response from the person summoned: "DO tell him
he must go and call the lift for you!"

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