The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

Book I

I

One of the stewards of the big Atlantic liner pushed his way among the passengers to a young lady who was leaning alone against the taffrail. “Mrs. Vance Weston?”

The lady had been lost in the effort to absorb, with drawn-up unseeing eyes, a final pyramidal vision of the New York she was leaving — a place already so unreal to her that her short-sighted gaze was unable to register even vaguely its towering signals of farewell. She turned back.

“Mrs. Vance Weston?”

“No — ” she began; then, correcting herself with a half-embarrassed smile: “Yes.”

Stupid — incredibly! But it was the first time the name had been given to her. And it was not true; she was not yet Mrs. Vance Weston, but Halo Tarrant, the still undivorced wife of Lewis Tarrant. She did not know when she would be free, and some absurd old leaven of Lorburn Puritanism (on her mother’s side she was a Lorburn of Paul’s Landing) made her dislike to masquerade under a name to which she had no right. Yet before her own conscience and her lover’s she was already irrevocably what she called herself: his wife; supposing one could apply the term irrevocable to any tie in modern life without provoking Olympian laughter. She herself would once have been the first to share in that laughter; but she had to think of her own situation as binding her irrevocably, or else to assume that life, in its deepest essence, was as brittle as the glass globe which the monkeys shatter in the bitter scene of Faust’s visit to the witch. If she were not Vance Weston’s for always the future was already a handful of splinters.

The steward, handing her a telegram, and a letter inscribed “urgent,” had hurried away on his distribution of correspondence. On the envelope of the letter she read the name of her lawyer; and as he was not given to superfluous writing, and as telegrams were too frequent to be of consequence, she opened the letter first. “Dear Mrs. Tarrant,” she read, “I am sending this by hand to the steamer in the hope of reaching you in time to persuade you not to sail. I have just heard, from a safe source, that your husband knows of your plans, and is not disposed to consent to your divorcing him if you persist in leaving the country in the circumstances of which you have advised me.” (She smiled at this draping of the facts.) “Indeed, I suspect he may refuse to take divorce proceedings himself, simply in order to prevent your remarrying. I should have tried to see you at once if I were not leaving for Albany on professional business; but I earnestly beg you, if my messenger reaches you before you are actually off . . .”

Halo Tarrant lifted her eyes from the letter. No; she was not actually off. The decks were still in the final confusion of goodbyes; friends and relatives were lingering among the passengers till the landing gong should hurry them ashore. There was time to dash down to her cabin, collect her possessions, and descend the gangplank with the other visitors, leaving a note of explanation for the companion she was abandoning. For his sake as well as her own, ought she not to do it? What she knew of her husband made her ready enough to believe that a headlong impulse of reprisals might make him sacrifice his fixed purpose, his hope of happiness, a future deliberately willed and designed by himself, to the satisfaction of hurting and humiliating her. He was almost capable of wishing that she WOULD go away with Vance Weston; the mere pleasure of thwarting her would be keen enough to repay him. He was a man who grew fat on resentment as others did on happiness . . . For an instant her old life rose before her. This was the man she had lived with for ten years; he had always been what he was now, and she had always known it. The thought frightened her even now — she had to admit that he could still frighten her. But the admission stiffened her will. Did he really imagine that any threat of his could still affect her? That she would give up a year, perhaps two years, of happiness, of life — life at last! — and sit in conventual solitude till the divorce, conducted with old~fashioned discretion and deliberation, permitted him to posture before his little world as the husband who has chivalrously “allowed” an unworthy but unblamed wife to gain her liberty? How quaint and out-of-date it all sounded! What did she care if she divorced him or he divorced her — what, even, if he chose to wreak his malice on her by preventing any recourse to divorce? Her life had struck root in the soul-depths, while his uneasily fluttered on the surface; and that put her beyond all reach of malice. She read the letter twice over, slowly; then with a smiling deliberation she tore it up, and sent the fragments over the taffrail.

As she did so, she felt a faint vibration through the immense bulk to which her fate was committed. It was too late now — really too late. The gong had sounded; the steamer was moving. For better or worse, she had chosen; and she was glad she had done so deliberately.

“We’re off!” she heard at her side, in a voice of passionate excitement. She turned and laid her hand on Vance Weston’s; their eyes met, laughing. “Now at last you’ll have your fill of the sea,” she said.

He shook his head. “Only a week . . .”

“Ten days to Gibraltar.”

“What’s that you’ve got?”

With a little start she looked down at her hand. “Oh, only a telegram. The steward brought it. I forgot . . .”

“Forgot what?”

“Everything that has to do with that dead world.” She made a gesture of dismissal toward the dwindling cliffs of masonry. “The steward called me Mrs. Vance Weston,” she added, smiling.

He responded to her smile. “Well, you’ll have to get used to that.”

They both laughed again, for the mere joy of sipping their laughter out of the one cup; then she said: “I suppose I ought to open it . . .”

“Oh, why? Now we’re off, why not drop it into the sea as a tribute to old Liberty over there? We owe her a tribute, don’t we?” he said; and she thought, with a little thrill of feminine submission: “How strong and decided he seems! He tells me what to do — he takes everything for granted. I’m the weak inexperienced one, after all.” She ran her finger carelessly under the flap of the telegram.

Now that they were off, as he said, it did not much matter whether she opened her telegrams or threw them to the waves. What possibility was there in her adventure that she had not already foreseen, agonized over and finally put out of mind as inevitable or irrelevant? With that last letter she had tossed her past overboard. Smiling, brooding, still thinking only of himself and her, enclosed in the impenetrable world of their love, she opened the telegram under their joint gaze.

They read: “Happiness is a work of art. Handle with care.” The message was unsigned, but no signature was necessary. “Poor old Frenny!” Her first impulse was to smile at the idea that any one, and most of all an embittered old bachelor like her friend George Frenside, should think it possible to advise her as to the nature or management of happiness. Her eyes met Vance’s, and she saw that they were grave.

“I suppose he remembered something in his own life,” Vance said.

“I suppose so.” It made her shiver a little to think that some day she too might be remembering — THIS. At the moment, happiness seemed to have nothing to do with memory, to be an isolating medium dividing her from the past as completely, as arbitrarily, as this huge ship had detached her little world of passengers from the shores of earth. Suddenly Halo recalled having said to Frenside, in the course of one of their endless speculative talks: “Being contented is so jolly that I sometimes think I couldn’t have stood being happy”; and his grim answer: “It’s a destructive experience.”

Poor Frenside! Poor herself! For she had not known then what happiness was, any more (she supposed) than he did. Destructive? When the mounting flood of life was rumouring in her ears like the sea? As well call spring destructive, or birth, or any of the processes of renewal that forever mantle the ancient earth with promise.

“I wonder what it feels like to remember,” she said obscurely. Vance’s smile met hers. “How extraordinary!” she thought. “Nothing that I say to him will need explaining . . .” It gave her a miraculous winged sense, as though she were free of the bonds of gravitation. “Oh, Vance, this — it’s like flying!” He nodded, and they stood silent, watching the silvery agitation of the waters as the flank of the steamer divided them. Up and down the deck people were scattering, disappearing. Rows of empty deck-chairs stood behind the lovers. The passengers had gone to look up their cabins, hunt for missing luggage, claim letters, parcels, seats in the dining-saloon. Vance Weston and Halo Tarrant seemed to have the ship to themselves.

It was a day of early September. Wind-clouds, shifting about in the upper sky, tinged the unsteady glittering water with tones of silver, lead and rust-colour, hollowed to depths of sullen green as the steamer pressed forward to the open. The lovers were no longer gazing back on the fading pinnacles of New York; hand clasped over hand, they looked out to where the sea spread before them in limitless freedom.

They had chosen a slow steamer, on an unfashionable line, partly from economy, partly because of Halo’s wish to avoid acquaintances; and their choice had been rewarded. They knew no one on board. Halo Tarrant, in the disturbed and crowded days before her departure, had looked forward with impatience to the quiet of a long sea-voyage. Her life, of late, had been so full of unprofitable agitation that she yearned to set her soul’s house in order. Before entering on a new existence she wanted to find herself again, to situate herself in the new environment into which she had been so strangely flung. A few months ago she had been living under the roof of Lewis Tarrant, bound to him by ties the more unbreakable because they did not concern her private feelings. She had regarded it as her fate to be a good wife and a devoted companion to her husband for the rest of their joint lives; it had never occurred to her that he would wish a change. But she had left out of account the uneasy vanity which exacted more, always more, which would not be put off with anything less than her whole self, her complete belief, the uncritical surrender of her will and judgment. When her husband found she was not giving him this (or only feigning to give it) he sought satisfaction elsewhere. If his wife did not believe in him, his attitude implied, other women did — women whom this act of faith endued with all the qualities he had hoped to find in Halo. To be “understood”, for Lewis Tarrant, was an active, a perpetually functioning state. The persons nearest him must devote all their days and nights, thoughts, impulses, inclinations, to the arduous business of understanding him. Halo began to see that as her powers of self-dedication decreased her importance to her husband decreased with them. She became first less necessary, then (in consequence) less interesting, finally almost an incumbrance. The discovery surprised her. She had once thought that Tarrant, even if he ceased to love her, would continue to need her. She saw now that this belief was inspired by the resolve to make the best of their association, to keep it going at all costs. When she found she had been replaced by more ardent incense-burners the discovery frightened her. She felt a great emptiness about her, saw herself freezing into old age unsustained by self-imposed duties. For she could not leave her husband — she regarded herself as bound by the old debt on which their marriage had been based. Tarrant had rescued her parents from bankruptcy, had secured their improvident old age against material cares. That deed once done would never be undone; she knew he would go on supporting them; his very vanity compelled him to persist in being generous when he had once decreed that he ought to be. He never gave up an attitude once adopted as a part of his picture of himself.

But then — what of her? She tried not to think of her loneliness; but there it was, perpetually confronting her. She was unwanted, yet she could not go. She had to patch together the fragments of the wrecked situation, and try to use them as a shelter.

And then, what would have seemed likely enough had it not been the key to her difficulty, had after all come to pass. An infirm old cousin died, and her will made Halo Tarrant a free woman. At first she did not measure the extent of her freedom. She thought only: “Now I can provide for my people; they need not depend on Lewis — ” but it had not yet dawned on her that her liberation might come too. She still believed that Tarrant’s determination to keep whatever had once belonged to him would be stronger than any other feeling. “He’ll take the other woman — but he’ll want to keep me,” she reasoned; and began to wonder how she could avoid making her plea for freedom seem to coincide with her material release. To appear to think that her debt could be thus cancelled was to turn their whole past into a matter of business — and it had begun by being something else. She could not have married anybody who happened to have paid her parents’ debts; that Tarrant had done so seemed at the time merely an added cause for admiration, a justification of her faith in him. She knew now that from the beginning her faith had needed such support . . . And then, before she could ask for her freedom, he had anticipated her by asking for his; and, so abruptly that she was still bewildered by the suddenness of the change, she found herself a new woman in a new world . . .

All this she had meant to think over, setting her past in order before she put it away from her and took up the threads of the future. But suddenly she found herself confronted by a new fact which reduced past and future to shadows. For the first time in her life she was living in the present. Hitherto, as she now saw, her real existence, her whole inner life, had been either plunged in the wonders that art, poetry, history, had built into her dreams, or else reaching forward to a future she longed for yet dreaded. She had thought she could perhaps not bear to be happy; and now she was happy, and all the rest was nothing. She was like someone stepping into hot sunlight from a darkened room; she blinked, and saw no details. And to look at the future was like staring into the sun. She was blinded, and her eyes turned to the steady golden noon about her. Ah, perhaps it was true — perhaps she did not know how to bear happiness. It took her by the inmost fibres, burned through her like a fever, was going to give her no rest, no peace, no time to steady and tame it in her dancing soul.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/gods_arrive/chapter1.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30