Edith Wharton.

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T TNEXPECTED obstacle. Please don t come till
|_j 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 dis
charge of musketry, letting them, one by one, drip slowly
and coldly into his brain, or shaking, tossing, transpos
ing 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.

She had put him off at the very last moment, and for
the second time: put him off with all her sweet reason
ableness, and for one of her usual "good" reasons he

\/. : :-*:THE REEF

in" that thi^* 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 recog
nized 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, se
cluded 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 re
member"; almost, indeed, as though her memory had
aided his, her glance flung back on their recaptured mo
ment its morning brightness. Certainly, when their dis
tracted 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 dining-room, Darrow had felt a slight pressure of the
arm on his, a pressure faintly but unmistakably empha-



sizing 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 im
mediately 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 Eraser 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 lit
tle girl Effie, who was now nine years old, and, in a strain
hardly less tender, of Owen Leath, the charming clever
young step-son 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.

"Crossing, sir?"

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 fur
tively, 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 distinc
tion 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 com
munion 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 hus
band 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 in
creased 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 frank
ness 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 pic
tures, in the soft landscape of southern England. The
presence of a large party, with all its aimless and agi
tated 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 be-



fore; 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 hasten
ing her step she had smiled -atldsigned to him to wait;
and charmed by the lights and shacft^js^iStt: played upon
her as she moved, and by the pleasure^! watching, her^
slow advance toward him, he had obeye^fc| and stooa
still. And so she seemed now to be wajking- to him
down the years, the light and shade of old memories and
new hopes playing variously on her, and each step giv
ing 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 Eng
land 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 disappoint
ment 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 at-



mosphere 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

The Marquise de Chantelle, as Dar,row 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 step
son, 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
-vith 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, Dar-
row 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 accom
modations generally foreign to the freedom of widow
hood even so, he could net but think that the very
ingenuity bred of such conditions might have helped her
to find a way out of them. No, her "reason", what
ever 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 con
sidered 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 1 asked her to marry me, she d have refused in
the same language. But thank heaven I haven t!" he

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 Lon
don 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 tele
graphing 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 be
came, as he jammed his way through the crowd, the
rriain point of his grievance against her and of his de
rision 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, par
rying 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 human
ity, 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 umbrel
las 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 plat
form. As he reached it, a descending umbrella caught
him in the collar-bone; and the next moment, bent side
ways 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 ob
viously 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 yes
terday 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 catas
trophes 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 shel
tered corner, bade her wait till he could find his porter.

When, a few minutes later, he came back with his re
covered 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

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
2 [II]


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

He picked up his companion s bundles, and offered
her an arm which enabled her to press her slight per
son 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 Ameri
can 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 associa
tions 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. Mur-
rett 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 ges
ture 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 in
spection of a stout-shod sole, she had answered cheer
fully : "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 pro
nounced 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 back
ground 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 Ul
rica. 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 man
ner 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

"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 Ul
rica? Does it seem to you so awfully long ago?"

The unexpectedness of the thrust as well as its doubt
ful 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 per
taining 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, lean
ing 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. Mur
rett ! 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."

"I see."

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

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Online LibraryEdith WhartonThe reef, a novel → online text (page 1 of 23)