The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XIII

From the moment of entering Lorry Spear’s studio Mrs. Glaisher dominated it. Vance was not the only guest conscious of her prepotency. She was one of the powerful social engines he had caught a glimpse of in the brief months of his literary success in New York, three years earlier; but at that moment his life had been so packed with anxieties and emotions that he could hardly take separate note of the figures whirling past him.

The only woman he had known who vied in wealth and worldly importance with Mrs. Glaisher was the lady who had invited him to her huge museum-like house, shown him her pictures and tapestries, and failed, at the last moment, to give him the short-story prize on which all his hopes depended. But Mrs. Pulsifer was a shadowy figure compared with Mrs. Glaisher, a mere bundle of uncertainties and inhibitions. Mrs. Glaisher was of more robust material. She was as massive as her furniture and as inexhaustible as her bank~account. Mrs. Pulsifer’s scruples and contradictions would have been unintelligible to a woman who, for forty years, had hewed her way toward a goal she had never even faintly made out.

After a long life devoted to the standardized entertaining of the wealthy, Mrs. Glaisher had suddenly discovered that Grand Opera, pâté de foie gras, terrapin and Rolls–Royces were no longer the crowning attributes of her class; and undismayed and unperplexed she had begun to buy Picassos and Modiglianis, to invite her friends to hear Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud, to patronize exotic dancers, and labour privately (it was the hardest part of her task) over the pages of “Ulysses”.

As Vance watched her arrival he guessed in how many strange places that unblenching satin slipper had been set, and read, in the fixity of her smile, and the steady gaze of her small inquisitive eyes, her resolve to meet without wavering any shock that might await her. He thought of Halo’s suggestion for his next novel, and was amused at the idea of depicting this determined woman who, during an indefatigable life-time, had seen almost everything and understood nothing.

Lorry’s studio had been hastily tidied up, as Jane Meggs and her friend understood the job; but Vance saw Mrs. Glaisher’s recoil from the dusty floor and blotched walls, and the intensity of her resolve to behave as if Mimi Pinson’s garret were her normal dwelling. Electric lamps dangling in uncertain garlands lit up a dinner-table contrived out of drawing-boards and trestles, and the end of the room was masked by a tall clothes’-horse hung with a Cubist rug, from behind which peeped the competent face of the restaurateur charged with the material side of the entertainment; for Lorry had seen to it that, whatever else lacked, wine and food should be up to the Park Avenue standard.

With Mrs. Glaisher was a small sharp-elbowed lady, whose lavishly exposed anatomy showed the most expensive Lido glaze. Her quick movements and perpetual sidelong observance of her friend reminded Vance of a very intelligent little dog watching, without interfering with, the advance of a determined blind man. “Oh, don’t you know? That’s Lady Pevensey — the one they all call ‘Imp’,” Jane Meggs explained to Vance as Lorry led him toward Mrs. Glaisher. The others all seemed to know Lady Pevensey, and she distributed handshakes, “darlings”, and “I haven’t seen you in several ages”, with such impartial intimateness that Vance was surprised when Savignac, to whom she had just cried out: “Tiens, mon vieux, comme tu es en beauté ce soir!” enquired in a whisper who she was.

The party consisted of Lorry’s trump cards — the new composer, Andros Nevsky, who, as soon as he could be persuaded to buckle down to writing the music of “Factories”, was to reduce Stravinsky and “The Six” to back numbers; the poet, Yves Tourment, who, after an adolescence of over twenty years, still hung on the verge of success; Sady Lenz, the Berlin ballerina, who was to create the chief part in Lorry’s spectacle; Hedstrom, the new Norse novelist, and Brank Heff, the coming American sculptor, whom the knowing were selling their Mestrovics to collect; and, to put a little fluency and sparkle into this knot of international celebrities, such easy comrades and good talkers as Tolby, Savignac, and others of their group.

Vance was so much amused and interested that he had forgotten his own part in the show, and was surprised when Lorry called him up to be introduced to Mrs. Glaisher, and he heard that lady declare: “I told Mr. Spear I wouldn’t dine with him unless he invited you, not even to meet all the other celebrities in Paris.”

“Ah, no: Nosie’s so headstrong we couldn’t do anything with her,” Lady Pevensey intervened, startling Vance by putting her arm through his, and almost as much by revealing that Mrs. Glaisher was known to her intimates as “Nosie”. “Nosie’s been simply screaming to everybody: ‘I MUST have the man who wrote “The Puritan”’, and when Lorry found you’d disappeared without leaving an address Nosie couldn’t be pacified till she heard that you’d turned up. Lorry, darling, you’ve put Vance next to her at table, haven’t you? Oh, Jane, love, tell him he MUST! I know she idolizes Nevsky, and she’s been dying for years to meet darling Yves — but she won’t be able to speak a word of French to them, much less Norwegian to Hedstrom,” (this in a tragic whisper to Lorry) “so for God’s sake pacify the Polar Lions somehow, and let Nosie have her Puritan.”

But with foreigners as his guests Lorry protested that he could hardly seat his young compatriot next to the chief guest of the evening, and Vance was put opposite to Mrs. Glaisher, who sat between Lorry and the silent and bewildered Norse novelist. Vance was amused to see that Lorry had chosen the most inarticulate man in the room as Mrs. Glaisher’s neighbour. In this way he kept her to himself, while Lady Pevensey, on his right, was fully engaged between Yves Tourment and Savignac’s sallies from across the table.

Lorry had done his job well. The food was excellent, the champagne irreproachable; he had dressed up in the gay rags of Bohemia an entertainment based on the most solid gastronomic traditions, and Mrs. Glaisher, eating truffled poularde and langouste à l’Américaine, was convinced that she was sharing the daily fare of a band of impecunious artists.

Down the table, Nevsky, in fluent Russian French, was expounding to Jane Meggs his theory of the effect of the new music on glandular secretions in both sexes, and Brank Heff, the American sculptor, stimulated by numerous preliminary cocktails, broke his usual heavy silence to discuss with Fräulein Sady Lenz her merits as a possible subject for his chisel. “What I want is a woman with big biceps and limp breasts. I guess you’d do first rate . . . How about your calves, though? They as ugly as your arms? I guess you haven’t danced enough yet to develop the particular deformity I’m after. . .”

When the conversation flagged Jane Meggs started it up again with a bilingual scream; and above the polyglot confusion rose Lorry’s masterful voice, proclaiming to Mrs. Glaisher: “What we want is to break the old moulds, to demolish the old landmarks . . . When Clémenceau pulled down the Colonne Vendôme the fools thought he was doing it for political reasons . . . the Commune, or some such drivel. Pure rot, of course! He was merely obeying the old human instinct of destruction . . . the artist’s instinct: destroying to renew. Why, didn’t Christ Himself say: ‘I will make all things new’? Quite so — and so would I, if I could afford to buy an axe. Just picture to yourself the lack of imagination there is in putting up with the old things — things made to please somebody else, long before we were born, to please people who would have bored us to death if we’d known them. Who ever consulted you and me when the Pyramids were built — or Versailles? Why should we be saddled with all that old dead masonry? Ruins are what we want — more ruins! Look what an asset ruins are to the steamship companies and the tourist agencies. The more ruins we provide them with the bigger their dividends will be. And so with the other arts — isn’t every antiquary simply running a Cook’s tour through the dead débris of the past? The more old houses and furniture and pictures we scrap, the more valuable what’s left will be, and the happier we’ll make the collectors . . . If only the lucky people who have the means to pull down and build up again had the imagination to do it. . .”

“Ah, that’s it: we MUST have imagination,” Mrs. Glaisher announced in the same decisive tone in which, thirty years ago, she might have declared: “We MUST have central heating.”

“If you say so, dear lady, we shall have it — we shall have it already!” cried Lorry in an inspired tone, lifting his champagne glass to Mrs. Glaisher’s; while Yves Tourment shrilled in his piercing falsetto: “Vive Saint Hérode, roi des iconoclastes!”

Mrs. Glaisher, who had paled a little at her host’s Scriptural allusion, recovered when she saw that the words were not meant to deride but to justify; and at Yves Tourment’s apostrophe she exclaimed, with beaming incomprehension: “Who’s that whose health they’re drinking? I don’t want to be left out of anything.”

Presently the improvised dinner-table was cleared and demolished, and the guests scattered about the studio, at the farther end of which a stage had been prepared for Fräulein Lenz. Mrs. Glaisher, slightly flushed by her libations to the iconoclasts, and emboldened by her evident success with the lights of Montparnasse, stood smilingly expectant while Lorry and Lady Pevensey brought up the notabilities of the party; but linguistic obstacles on both sides restricted the exchange of remarks, and Vance, who had stood watching, and wishing Halo were there to share his amusement, soon found it his turn to be summoned.

“You’re the person she’s really come for, you know; do tell her everything you can think of,” Lady Pevensey prompted him: “about how you write, I mean, and what the publishers pay you — she’s particularly keen about that — and whether you’re having an exciting love-affair with anybody; she adores a dash of heart-interest,” she added, as she pushed Vance toward the divan on which Mrs. Glaisher throned.

Vance remembered a far-off party at the Tarrants’, the first he had ever been to, and how Halo had dragged him from the book-shelf where he had run to earth his newly-discovered Russian novelists, and carried him off to be introduced to Mrs. Pulsifer. That evening had been a mere bright blur, to which he was astonished to find himself contributing part of the dazzle; whereas now he looked on without bewilderment or undue elation. But he did think it a pity that Halo, on the pretext of a headache (though really, she owned, because such occasions bored her) had obstinately refused to accompany him.

Mrs. Glaisher’s greeting betrayed not only her satisfaction at capturing a rising novelist but the relief of being able to talk English, and of knowing his name and the title of one of his books. She began at once to tell him that on the whole her favourite among his novels was “Instead”, because of its beautiful idealism. She owned, however, that “The Puritan in Spain” was a more powerful work, though there were some rather unpleasant passages in it; but she supposed that couldn’t be avoided if the author wanted to describe life as it really was. She understood that novelists always had to experience personally the . . . the sensations they described, and she wanted to know if his heroine was somebody he’d really known, and if he’d been through all those love scenes with her. It was ever so much more exciting to know that the characters in a novel were taken from real people, and that the things described had actually happened; even, Mrs. Glaisher added, wrinkling up her innocent eyes, if they were such naughty things as Mr. Weston wrote about.

Vance’s friends had accustomed him to subtler praise, and he only stared and laughed; but seeing Mrs. Glaisher’s bewilderment he said: “Well, I suppose we do mix up experience and imagination without always knowing which is which.”

Mrs. Glaisher gave him a coy glance. “You won’t tell me, then? You mean to leave us all guessing? What’s the use of making a mystery, as long as you’re a free man? I know all about you; do you suppose I’d be half as interested in your books if I didn’t? I know the kind of life you young men lead; and your ideas about love, and the rest of it. We society women are not quite such simpletons as you think. We go around and see — that’s what makes it so exciting to meet you. I know all about your adventures in Spain . . . or at least just enough to make me want to hear more. . .”

Vance reddened uncomfortably. What did she know, what was she trying to insinuate? Her stupidity was so prodigious that it struck him that it might be feigned . . . but a second glance at her candid countenance reassured him. “I’ve had plenty of castles in Spain, but no adventures there,” he said.

Mrs. Glaisher shook her head incredulously. “When anybody’s as much in the lime-light as you it’s no use thinking you can fool people . . . But I see the dancing’s beginning . . . I’m coming!” she signalled to her host, advancing to the armchair he had pushed forward for her. Half-way she turned back to Vance. “I do delight in these Bohemian parties, don’t you? Won’t you give me one some day? Not a big affair, like this; but Imp and I would love it if you’d let us pop in to tea alone, and see how a famous novelist lives when he’s at home.”

Vance hesitated. Halo always gave him to understand that she was weary of the world she had grown up in, and particularly of the New York in which she had figured as Mrs. Lewis Tarrant; but he had promised her to help out Lorry’s party, and he knew the success of “Factories” might depend on Mrs. Glaisher’s enjoyment of her evening. No doubt Halo would be willing to offer a cup of tea in such a case; she might even reproach Vance if he made her miss the chance of doing her brother a good turn.

“I’m sure Mrs. Weston will be very glad . . . she’ll send you a note,” he stammered, embarrassed by the memory of his former blunders, and of the pain they had caused her.

Mrs. Glaisher swept his face with an astonished eyeglass. “Mrs. Weston? Really —? I’d no idea . . . I supposed you were living alone. . .”

“No,” said Vance curtly.

“Do excuse me. I’m too sorry. I was told you were a widower . . . But perhaps you’ve remarried lately?”

What was the answer to that, Vance wondered, tingling with the memory of Halo’s reproaches. “I supposed of course Spear must have told you . . . I’m to be married to his sister . . . She and I . . .” he stopped, his ideas forsaking him under Mrs. Glaisher’s frigid gaze.

“His sister? But he has only one, and she’s married already. Her name is Mrs. Lewis Tarrant. Her husband is in Paris. He’s an old friend of mine; he came to see me only yesterday. Poor fellow — in spite of all he’s been through I understand he has a horror of divorce . . . and I don’t suppose,” Mrs. Glaisher concluded, rising from the divan with a pinched smile, “that even in your set a woman can be engaged to one man while she’s still married to another . . . But please forget my suggestion . . . SUCH a pity, young man, with your talent,” Mrs. Glaisher sighed, as she turned to enthrone herself in the armchair facing the stage.

Jane Meggs, Lady Pevensey and Kate Brennan grouped themselves about her, and the rest of the guests crouched on cushions or squatted cross-legged on the floor. Nevsky, at the piano, preluded with a flourish of discords, and Sady Lenz suddenly leapt from behind parted curtains in apparel scant enough to enlighten the American sculptor as to her plastic possibilities. Vance heard Mrs. Glaisher give a little gasp; then he turned and slipped toward the door. As he reached it Lorry Spear’s hand fell on his shoulder.

“Vance. Not going? What’s up? This dancing’s rather worth while; and Mrs. Glaisher wanted me to arrange a little party with you somewhere next week — I could lend you this place, if you like.”

“Thank you. Mrs. Glaisher has already invited herself to our quarters; but she backed out when she found she might meet Halo.”

Lorry’s brows darkened; then he gave a careless laugh. “Oh, well, what of that? You know the kind of fool she is. The sort that runs after déclassée women in foreign countries, and are scared blue when they meet somebody from home who doesn’t fit into the conventions. Why did you tell her about Halo?”

Vance stood with his hands in his pockets, staring down at the dusty studio floor. He raised his head and looked into Lorry’s handsome restless eyes. “You asked Halo to send me here tonight, didn’t you — to help you to amuse Mrs. Glaisher?”

“Of course I did. You don’t seem to realize that you’re one of our biggest cards. I’m awfully grateful to you — ”

“And you told Halo you’d rather she didn’t come?”

“Lord, no; I didn’t have to. Halo knows how women like Mrs. Glaisher behave. I’d have been sorry to expose her to it. Not that she cares — she wouldn’t have chucked everything for you if she had. But see here, Vance, you can’t go back on me like this. For the Lord’s sake see me through. Halo promised you would. And Imp Pevensey wants to talk to you about going to London next spring and getting launched among the highbrows. You need a London boom for your books, my dear boy. Damn — what’s wrong with the lights? That fool Heff swore to me he knew how to manage them. . .”

Lorry dashed back toward the stage, where Fräulein Lenz’s posturing had been swallowed up in darkness. Vance continued to stand motionless, his mind a turmoil. At length the lights blazed up, and under cover of the applause at Fräulein Lenz’s re-embodiment he made his way out.

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