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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 windswept 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 inwhich' 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 Rung 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 dining-room, 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 s mother, left a widow in his youth, had been remarried 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 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.
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?
Posted August 15, 2011
Edith Wharton's The Reef is a story of chances-those missed, stolen, and recaptured, you could say. At the center of the story are George Darrow, who works for the American Embassy in London, and Anna Leath, the woman he has, dare I say it, adored from afar for so very long now. Already Wharton sets the tone of the novel, likely expecting the reader to sympathize with the suffering of the "aging" lovers. Darrow missed his chance with Anna long ago when she instead married Leath, to whom she subsequently bore a daughter and became stepmother to Leath's son, Owen.
However, Leath has passed on, and Darrow now feels his chance has returned at last to be with the woman he loves. And so off he goes, preparing for the journey to Paris, France, only to receive a letter from Anna telling him not to come, to delay his journey a couple more weeks. You would think after waiting all this time, Darrow might have gotten used to it, but no, he is outraged by this new delay and his imagination conjures all kinds of sinister motives for being put off yet again, particularly as Anna has utterly neglected to explain in the message to him why it is she wishes him to wait.
It is now, on the outset of his halted journey that Darrow meets-rather rediscovers-young Sophy Viner, also heading for Paris on the heels of a family she hopes will help her along. Sophy has not had the best of luck. Her aspirations for the stage have gotten her nowhere and her recent employment, serving a rather harsh woman, has ended brittlely. She has no resources of her own and has lost the trail of her friends, and is attractive and eager-just to make things more interesting. Embittered and gradually enchanted, Darrow takes Sophy under his wing and shows her around Paris, allowing their brief relationship to go perhaps a bit further than he had intended. But then again, he has no idea what is going on with Anna, does he?
Wharton certainly knows how to create characters, how to draw scenery, how to manipulate feelings. Yet in The Reef, I couldn't help but feel that there was just not enough of a story to keep me engaged. Will Anna finally let George into her life? Will she discover what he has been up to in Paris? Will George be able to move on from Sophy and enjoy his love with Anna? Will Sophy ever make it on the stage? And what of Owen? ... After a while, I just couldn't care enough anymore. Not a bad book, certainly. Well crafted, to give credit where credit is due, but just not powerful enough for me.
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Posted January 15, 2010
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