The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

X

As she unlocked her door Halo heard animated talk in the studio. The voices were Savignac’s and Tolby’s; they were speaking with great vivacity, as if the subject under discussion provoked curiosity and amusement. Still humming to herself: “I’ve been cut by Mrs. Glaisher — Mrs. Glaisher — ” Halo thought: “How I shall make Vance laugh over it!” and she tried to catch his voice among the others. But if he were there he was doubtless listening in silence, stretched out on the brown Bokhara of the divan, his arms folded under his head, and watching between half-shut lids his cigarette smoke spiral upward. “Shall I tell him before the others?” she thought, with an impulse of bravado.

“Well —!” she cried out gaily from the threshold. Only Tolby and Savignac were there; as she turned the door-handle they ceased talking and her “Well!” rang out in the silence. Savignac rose, and Tolby, who was bending over the fire, continued to poke it. “They were talking of me!” she thought, and Lorry’s phrase flashed through her mind: “The fellows are saying to themselves: ‘His sister? Oh, anybody can have her the day her novelist chucks her’.”

That was what these young men, whom she liked, and who were sitting over her fire waiting for her to come in, were probably saying. If not, why should they stop talking so suddenly, and lift such embarrassed faces? It had been very comic to be cut by Mrs. Glaisher; it seemed to put things in their right perspective, and rid Halo of her last scruples. But the idea that her lover’s friends had fallen silent on her entrance because they had been caught discussing her situation did not strike her as comic, and she felt a sudden childish ache to be back in the accustomed frame~work of her life.

She came in and shook hands with the young men. “What have you done with Vance?” she asked lightly.

Tolby gave a laugh. “Why, we were talking about him — if that’s what you mean.”

“Oh — about VANCE?” In her relief she could not help stressing the name. “Is that why you both look so guilty?”

Tolby laughed again, and Savignac rejoined: “Yes, it is. But for my part I’m going to confess. I don’t like his book — at least not as much as I want to.”

“Oh, I know you don’t. And Tolby doesn’t either. But he had the courage to tell me so.” Inwardly Halo was thinking: “What an idiot I am! As if these young fellows cared whether Vance and I are married or not! They know we love each other, and for them that’s all that counts. These are the kind of people I want to live among.” She sat down by the fire, and said: “One of you might find the cocktail shaker. I’m too lazy.”

Tolby made the necessary effort, and while they sipped, and lit their cigarettes, Halo continued gaily: “But, you know, Vance doesn’t really care for the Spanish novel himself. Has he shown you ‘Magic’, the one he began two years ago?”

“No,” Tolby rejoined. “He said it was no use showing it because it was definitely discarded; but last night at Savignac’s he read us an outline of this big new thing he’s planning. Derek Fane, of the ‘Amplifier’, was there, and Weston wanted his opinion. That’s the book we were talking about.”

“Oh — ” Halo murmured. There was a big new book, then; and Vance hadn’t yet seen fit to speak to her about it, much less to read her the outline with which the young English critic had been favoured. Why did he no longer talk to her about his work? The idea that it must be her fault made her spirits droop again; but she thought: “I mustn’t let them see that I haven’t heard of it.” She leaned back and puffed at her cigarette. “Well — how does it strike you?”

Tolby gave a shrug. “Not my job — I’m no critic.”

Halo laughed. “Savignac can’t get out of it on that pretext.”

“No,” Savignac admitted. “But I can say that I’m a critic only within certain limits.”

“Is this out of your limits?”

“It’s out of my scale. Too big — ”

“For human nature’s daily food,” Tolby interpolated. “That’s my trouble. I think the proper measure of mankind is man.”

“Well —?”

“Well — did you ever read Maeterlinck on the Bee — or, rather, I should say, on THE BEE? Rather before your day, but — you have? Well, then you’ll understand. When I began to read that book I had imagined the bee was a small animal — insect, in fact; something to be spoken of in a whisper, written of in airy monosyllables — an idea justified by the dimensions of the hives in which, I’m assured by competent authorities, a whole swarm can be comfortably lodged, and carry on their complicated civic and domestic affairs . . . Well, as I read Maeterlinck, the bee grew and grew — like Alice after eating the cake. With each adjective — and they rained like hailstones — that bee grew bigger. Maeterlinck, in his admiration for the creature’s mental capacity, had endowed it with a giant’s physical proportions. The least epithet he applied to it would have fitted a Roman emperor — or an elephant. That’s what the creature became: a winged elephant. That bee was afflicted with giantism, as they say in French. You didn’t know that giantism was a glandular disease? Certainly! And Maeterlinck didn’t give his thyroid piqûres in time — he let the creature swell and swell till it turned into an earth-shaking megatherium among whose legs rogue elephants could have romped. . .” Tolby laughed, refilled his pipe, and stretched his contented ankles to the fire. “That’s what I told Weston, in my untutored language.”

Halo echoed his laugh; then she said tentatively: “But I don’t quite see how I’m to apply your analogy.” She was trying to conceal from them that Vance had never breathed a word to her of the new book.

Tolby raised himself on an elbow. “Savignac’s the man to give you the reasons; it’s his trade. But he won’t; he’s too polite. I’m just a blundering brute of a painter, who can’t explain himself in anything but pigments. And I don’t know why I don’t like Goliaths, except that they’ve always proved so much less paintable than the Davids.”

“But is it the subject you think too big? Or the characters?”

Savignac plunged in. “It’s the scale of the pattern. It’s all part of a pattern, subject and characters. It’s to be an attempt to deal microscopically, with the infinitely little of human experience, incalculably magnified, like those horrid close-ups of fever microbes, when you don’t know whether you’re looking at a streptococcus or the villain of a Chinese drama. Till I can find a reason why the meanest physical reflexes should have an æsthetic value equal to the windows of Chartres, or the final scenes of Faust, I shall refuse to believe that they may be legitimately treated as if they had.”

“I should refuse even if I found the reason — but then I’m a mere empirical Briton,” Tolby rejoined.

Halo sat silent, trying to piece together these comments. She began to guess why Vance had not talked to her of the book. He had evidently caught the literary infection of Jane Meggs’s back shop, and was trying to do a masterpiece according to the new recipe; and he had guessed that Halo would warn him against the danger of sacrificing his individuality to a fashion or a school. Vance was curiously wary about guarding the secrets of his work from premature exposure; but hitherto he had seemed to feel that with her they ran no risk. Now, instinctively, he had anticipated her disapproval; and in a certain way it proved her power over him.

For a while she reflected; then she said: “But if Vance’s elephants are winged, like Maeterlinck’s, and use their wings, won’t that justify his subject and his scale?”

Savignac nodded. “Perfectly.”

“Then I suppose all we can do is to wait and see.”

“Manifestly. And in the meantime all we can do is to wait for Vance,” Tolby interrupted. “He told us to be here by six — we were to hear the first chapters. And it’s nearly eight now. Have you any idea where he is?”

“Not the least.” Halo got up, lit a lamp, drew the heavy linen curtains. The studio, as she shut out the dusk, grew smaller and more intimate. Tolby threw another log on the hearth, and the rising flame reminded her of the New York winter evenings when she and Vance had sat over the library fire, wandering from book to book, from vision to vision. “We were nearer to each other then,” she thought.

Half-past eight struck, and the two young men said they would go off to dine, and drop in afterward to see if Vance had turned up. They tried to persuade Halo to accompany them to the restaurant which the group frequented; but she said she would wait, and join them later with Vance. She drew a breath of relief when they left; she wanted to sit down quietly and think over what they had said of this new book.

The first chapters were finished, apparently, since Vance had convoked his friends to hear them read. She knew where he kept his papers when he was working; it would have been easy to open a drawer in the old cabinet against the wall and rummage for the manuscript. She longed to see it, to assure herself that Vance’s treatment of his subject would justify itself — that she would discover in it a promise which Savignac and Tolby had missed. Their literary judgment, to which she had attached so much importance, suddenly seemed open to question. After all, they were both very young, they belonged to a little clan like the others, a number of indirect causes might unconsciously affect their opinion. “Perhaps he’s doing something that’s beyond their measure,” she thought, fastening on the idea with immediate conviction. But much as she desired to confirm it by reading the manuscript she could not bring herself to open the drawer where she was sure it lay. It was the first time that Vance had not taken her into his confidence; and whatever his reasons were, she meant to respect them. If there had been a letter from a woman in that drawer, she reflected, it would have been almost easier to resist looking at it. The relation between herself and Vance had hitherto been so complete that her imagination was lazy about picturing its disturbance. She could not think of him as desiring another woman; but she suffered acutely from the fact that, for the first time, he had not sought her intellectual collaboration.

It was the maid’s evening out, and there was no food in the house; but Halo did not feel hungry. She thought: “When he turns up, we’ll go out and have supper, as we did that first night at Cordova, when he couldn’t eat for the beauty of it.” That was only a few months ago; but she was beginning to discover the arbitrariness of time-measures in the sentimental world. The memory seemed to come out of another life.

She stretched herself on the divan, and took up a book to which she gave only the surface of her thoughts. Nine struck, then half~past; almost immediately afterward, it was ten o’clock. She was beginning to think of street accidents and other disquieting possibilities when, toward eleven, the bell rang, and she jumped to her feet. Vance always carried his latchkey; but he might have mislaid or lost it. She ran to the door and opened it on a messenger with a telegram. She fumbled for a franc, and tore open the message under the faint gaslight of the landing. It was dated Paris, and ran: “Off for a day or two to think over book all right love Vance.”

Nothing more; no explanation; no excuses; no specifying of place or date. The baldest and vaguest statement of fact — and no more. . .

Familiar voices rose from below, and she caught sight of Tolby’s faded Homburg hat at the turn of the stair. “No,” she called down to it, “he’s not here, he’s not come back; but it’s all right. I’ve just had a wire. He had to dash off to see somebody . . . a publisher, yes, a publisher — in London . . . Oh, no, thanks; really not; I’m too sleepy for supper. When I’m alone I don’t keep Montmartre hours . . . Thank you, my dears, thank you . . . No — don’t come up!”

Halo carried the telegram back into the studio and sat down to reread it. The words stared at her with secretive faces that yielded no hint of the truth. But why had she so spontaneously fibbed about the message to those young men? In the easy world of Montparnasse everybody came and went without making excuses or giving reasons; only the old instinct of order and propriety, reasserting itself in her, had made her invent that silly story about a London publisher. Lorry was right; she evidently was not cut out to be a poet’s love! She smiled defiantly, whispered to herself: “We’ll see — ” and immediately felt it incumbent, in her new character, to develop a healthy hunger and thirst. In the pantry she found cheese and stale biscuits, which she consumed with the help of a cocktail; then she said: “Now I’ll go to bed, like a sensible woman — ” and, instead, lit a cigarette and threw herself again on the divan.

The room had grown very still. The friendly fire burned itself out, and she was too lazy to get up and light it. Suddenly it occurred to her that everything she had done for the last year — from choosing her hats and dresses to replenishing the fire, getting the right lamp shades, the right menu for dinner, the right flowers for the brown jar on Vance’s table — everything had been done not for herself but for Vance. She had no longer cared to make her life comely for its own sake; she thought of it only in relation to her love for Vance. She understood how a young woman full of the pride of self-adornment might turn into a slattern if her lover left her . . . She must suggest that to Vance for a story. . .

But now she saw what must have happened. Alders, she was sure, had turned up again and persuaded Vance to go on a trip with him. Poor Alders knew well enough that he bored her, that she secretly disliked him; he would prefer to pour his second-rate eloquence into Vance’s uncritical ear. No doubt he and Vance had gone to stay with some of Alders’s pseudo-fashionable friends; and Vance, aware of the faint smile with which Halo would greet such a project, had preferred to go without telling her . . . Well, probably she deserved it; she had always been too critical, had made her likes and dislikes too evident. As if they mattered, or anything did, except that she should go on serving and inspiring this child of genius with whom a whim of the gods had entrusted her. . .

Yet was it likely that Vance would have gone off on a trip with Alders? The friends he had made in Paris, the comrades of these last stimulating months, had relegated Alders to an obscure corner of the background. Vance hardly ever spoke of Alders nowadays — the only time Halo could remember his mentioning the name, he had said: “Poor old Alders,” with a shrug of comprehension. “I wonder what’s become of Alders’s duke — you remember, the one with the name like the clanging of shields?” No; it was not likely that he had gone away with Alders.

If Tolby and Savignac had not been spending that very evening with her at Vance’s invitation, and in the expectation of hearing the first pages of his new novel, Halo would have concluded that the three friends had improvised another trip together. Tolby and Savignac were Vance’s closest friends nowadays; their companionship had become such an intellectual necessity to him that Halo would have been neither surprised nor resentful if he had gone with them without including her in the party. But Vance had invited his friends to his house, and had obviously meant to be there to receive them; it was after he had made the arrangement that something had occurred, something mysterious, inexplicable, which had caused him to change his plans too hurriedly to give Halo any clearer explanation than this cryptic telegram. It was not Alders who had worked that change.

Halo started up in sudden alarm. Supposing it were not Vance who had sent the telegram? Memories of mysterious abductions, of forged messages from victims already dead, rushed through her agitated mind. There was no telephone in the flat, or even in the concierge’s lodge below; the old-fashioned building, like most of its kind, was without such conveniences. She would have to go to the nearest police-station, and say — say what? That her husband had not come home for dinner, but that she had had a telegram from him telling her that he was all right, and would be back in two or three days. No — that was scarcely worth carrying to the police. She decided to wait.

Her glance, wandering about the studio, fell again on the old walnut cabinet in which she was sure that Vance had put the manuscript; and suddenly she decided to get it out and read it. She felt that she had the right to do so. If he had withdrawn his confidence from her she must find out about him in other ways . . . She took up the lamp and carried it across to the cabinet. She noticed that her hand was trembling. “One would think I was a jealous woman expecting to find a love-letter,” she smiled to herself — and felt the smile harden on her lips.

What a fool she had been! Why shouldn’t there be love-letters in that drawer? How was it that never, till that moment, the most probable reason for Vance’s gradual detachment had occurred to her? Intellectual companionship? Spiritual union? Rubbish! A young man with a fiery imagination wanted a new woman — a succession of new women — for his flame to feed on. The lives of the poets and artists all proved it — showed how the flame devoured one lovely victim after another, how many had to be heaped on the pyre of genius! If Vance had ceased to talk to her about his work it was because he was talking about it to some other woman. Since the beginning of the world there had been no other clue to the withdrawal of one lover from another. All Halo’s intellectual subtleties shrivelled up in the glare of this truth.

She set the lamp down and stood studying the carved doors behind which the answer to the riddle perhaps lay. She no longer thought of the novel — what she saw, through those worm-eaten panels, was a packet of letters in a woman’s writing. Was the writing known or unknown to her? Even that she could not guess. Her imagination, racing backward over the last weeks and months, scrutinized one after another the feminine faces in their group, trying to recall some significant glance or word of Vance’s. But though these young women obviously interested and amused him, he seemed to treat them all with an odd detachment, and she could not remember his having shown a preference for one above the others. But how did she know that in the course of his Parisian wanderings he had not come across some one she had never seen or even heard of? The chance propinquity of a café or a cinema might have sufficed to undo her life, and put this burning anguish in her heart — this pain so new that she pressed her hands to her breast and whispered: “Oh, God, dear God — only not THAT! Oh, God, don’t let it be that!”

It seemed too cruel for endurance that all the treasures of her love for Vance, and the passionate year which had been its flowering, should be at the mercy of some unknown woman’s laugh, of the way her eyelashes grew, or her shoulder sloped as the dress drooped from it. . .

“But how do I know it’s an unknown woman?” She remembered how long she and Vance had loved each other without its being suspected; she recalled all the devices and prevarications that had shielded their growing passion, and had seemed so natural and necessary. He might have been carrying on an intrigue for weeks with some woman they were meeting constantly at cafés, at dances, at Lorry’s . . . She broke off, as if her brother’s name had brought enlightenment. At Lorry’s — but of course! What else was the meaning of Lorry’s unaccountable diatribe against the women who came to his studio? He had told Halo they were not fit to associate with her; and she had laughed, and wondered what could be the cause of this new prudery. Now she saw how the bits of the puzzle fitted into each other, and smiled at her own dulness. What he had obviously been trying to do was to warn her of Vance’s peril. Perhaps he was jealous of Vance; perhaps Jane Meggs had been too kind to him. The power of such women was so insidious that though Lorry despised Jane, and laughed at her, he could not do without her, and he had probably meant Halo to take the warning and pass it on to Vance.

Then again — what was it that Tolby and Savignac had hinted about the new book? Why, that it belonged to the type of literature in which Jane Meggs specialized. Not the kind she kept in her back shop; they could hardly have meant that; but that Vance had been too much influenced by the stream-of-consciousness school which Jane’s group proclaimed to a bewildered public to be the one model for modern fiction.

Jane Meggs! How a woman of that sort would know how to flatter Vance, astonish his inexperience, amuse him by her literary jargon, fascinate him by her moral perversity. Even the ugliness which Jane flaunted as though it were HER kind of beauty, the kind she wanted and had deliberately chosen, might have a coarse fascination for him. Perhaps at this very minute he was with her, in the little flat to which she boasted that even Lorry had never been admitted. . .

Halo turned from the cabinet. She no longer wanted to open its hidden drawers. How should she bear the sight of the truth, when the imaging of it was so intolerable?

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