The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XIV

In the courtyard he stood and looked about him. A cold drizzle was falling, but he hardly noticed it. His resentment had dropped. It was no use being angry with Lorry, who took his advantage where he found it, and thought no harm. What was really wrong was the situation between Vance and Halo — the ambiguity of a tie which, apparently, he could neither deny nor affirm without offending her. What else, for instance, could he have said to Mrs. Glaisher? How could he have pretended that he was living alone without seeming to deny his relation with Halo? Yet, by not doing so, he had subjected her — and himself — to a worse humiliation.

Such questions would not have arisen if she had obtained her divorce at once, as they had expected when they left America. But the months had passed, and Vance (as he now became aware) had hardly given the matter another thought, had in fact been reminded of it only at the moment of the scene provoked by his going alone to the old Marquesa’s. He had asked Halo then if they could not marry soon; she had turned the question with a laugh, and he had carelessly dismissed it from his mind.

Since then he could not remember having thought of it again till the night before, in his midnight musings at Fontainebleau. He had always considered himself as much pledged to Halo as if the law had bound them, and would have had a short answer for any one who hinted the contrary; and the question of marriage or non-marriage had seemed subsidiary. In Lorry Spear’s group, and that of the writers and artists who came to Vance’s studio, such questions were seldom raised, since the social rules they implied hardly affected the lives of these young people. But now Vance saw, as he had for a brief instant at Granada, and again at Fontainebleau, that Halo would never really think and feel as these people did. She had sacrificed with a light heart her standing among her own kind; but something deeper than her prejudices or her convictions, something she could sacrifice to no one because it was closer to her than reason or passion, made it impossible for her to feel at ease in the new life she had chosen. Only yesterday Vance had imagined that jealousy might be the cause of her disquietude; now he saw it was something far harder to dispel. Whatever he might do to persuade her of his devotion, to convince her that no other woman had come between them, her loneliness would subsist; in their happiest and most confiding moments it would be there, she would be conscious, between herself and him, of a void the wider because she knew he could not measure it.

A word of Mrs. Glaisher’s had enlightened him. She had said that Tarrant (whom she evidently knew well) had a horror of divorce; and she had doubtless heard this from him recently, since she had mentioned that he was in Paris, and had been with her the day before. Tarrant unwilling to divorce — this, then, must be one of the sources of Halo’s preoccupation! Vance wondered why she had kept it from him; perhaps, poor child, because she had feared he might feel himself less bound to her if he knew there was no prospect of their marrying. But that was not like Halo. More probably she had kept her secret because she was resolved to let nothing cloud their happiness. It would be like her to want him to know only the joys of her love, without its burdens.

Vance had been astonished to hear from Mrs. Glaisher that Tarrant was in Paris. The situation was full of perplexity. Halo had often told him that she would never have asked her husband to set her free, that it was he who had begged her to divorce him, presumably that he might marry Mrs. Pulsifer. She had never alluded to any alteration in Tarrant’s view; she had never once referred to the question. No doubt she knew of the change; her lawyers must surely have advised her of it; and if she had concealed the fact from Vance it was probably because she knew its cause, and was herself in some way connected with it. At the idea the blood rushed to Vance’s forehead. Was it not likely that this man, who was still Halo’s husband, had come to Paris purposely to see her, to try to persuade her to go back to him? Moody and unstable as he was, he might well have wearied of the idea of marrying another woman, and begun to pine for Halo, once he knew he had lost her.

For a moment Vance’s heart sank; then he reflected that Mrs. Glaisher’s statement might have been based on the merest hearsay. Why should Tarrant have confided his views to her? The delay in the divorce might have been caused by a mere legal technicality, some point in dispute between opposing lawyers. And to attach any particular significance to Tarrant’s arrival in Paris was absurd. He belonged to the type of Europeanized American who is equally at home on both sides of the Atlantic and accustomed to come and go continually, for pleasure, for business, or simply from the force of habit.

Vance wandered down Lorry’s street and turned into the Boulevard Raspail. The more he considered the question the less probable he thought it that Tarrant’s presence in Paris had to do with his divorce. Tarrant never intervened personally when he could get any one to replace him; whatever his purpose was, he would probably not wish to meet Halo. . . . But what had he come for? Vance was seized with a sudden determination to find out. The time had come when Halo’s situation and his own must be settled, and Tarrant held the key to it.

He walked on through the rain, musing on these problems, and wishing he could meet Tarrant at once — this very night, before going home and seeing Halo. If only he had asked Mrs. Glaisher where Tarrant was staying! It would be easy enough to find out the next day; but Vance’s blood was beating too violently for delay. He wanted to bring Halo some definite word as to her divorce; and he determined to try to run Tarrant down at once and plead with him to release her, if it were really true that he was no longer disposed to.

As he walked on, wondering where he was likely to come across Tarrant, Vance recalled Halo’s pointing out the hotel where she and her husband had always stayed in Paris. It was one of the quiet but discreetly fashionable houses patronized by people who hate the promiscuity of “Palaces” but cannot do without their comforts. The hotel, Vance remembered, was not far from the Boulevard Raspail, and he decided to go there and enquire. He knew Tarrant’s tendency to slip into a rut and shrink from new contacts, and thought it likely that the hotel people might know of his whereabouts even if he were not under their roof.

The drizzle had turned to a heavy rain, and when he reached the street he was in search of the façade of the hotel was reflected from afar in the wet pavement. But within a few yards of the door Vance paused. Even if Tarrant were staying there, and were actually there at the moment (it was long past midnight), he would most probably refuse to receive a visitor. And should Vance leave a note asking for an appointment, if answered at all, it would certainly be answered by a refusal. He had worked long enough under Tarrant in the office of the “New Hour” to be familiar with his chiefs tactics. It was Tarrant’s instinct to retreat from the unknown, the unexpected, to place the first available buffer between himself and any incident likely to unsettle his nerves or alter his plans; and if Vance should ask to be received, the obvious buffer would be his lawyers.

Vance stood irresolute. How on earth was he to get at the man? If he waited till chance brought them together he knew the other’s adroitness would find a way out. He would cut the scene short and turn on his heel. . . . The uselessness of any attempt to reach him seemed so obvious that Vance turned and walked back toward the Boulevard. He had almost reached it when a taxi passed, approaching from the opposite direction. As it came abreast of him a lamp flashed into it, and he saw Tarrant inside. Vance turned and raced back toward the hotel. The taxi stopped at the door and Tarrant got out and opened his umbrella before he began to hunt for his fare. He was in evening dress, and as perfectly appointed as usual, but in the rainy light he looked paler and older. Vance hung back till the carefully counted fare was in the chauffeur’s hand; then he went toward the door.

“Tarrant!” he said, “I— I want to speak to you . . . I must.”

Tarrant turned under his umbrella, and surveyed him with astonishment. “I don’t — ” he began; then Vance saw the colour rush to his pale face. “YOU?” he said. “I’ve nothing to say to you.” He started to enter the hotel.

Vance stepped in front of him. “You must let me see you — now, at once. Do you suppose I’d ask it if it wasn’t necessary? Please listen to me, Tarrant — ”

Tarrant paused a moment. Under the umbrella Vance could hardly see his face, but he caught a repressed tremor in his voice. “You can write. You can write to my lawyers,” he said.

“No! Not to you, and not to your lawyers. You’d turn me down every time. I’ve only two words to say, but I’m going to say them now. I’ll say them out here in the street if you don’t want me to come in.”

The rain by this time was falling heavily. Vance had no umbrella, and his thin overcoat was already drenched. Tarrant looked down nervously at his own glossy evening shoes. “It’s impossible,” he said.

“What’s impossible? You can’t refuse me — ”

He saw Tarrant glance toward the illuminated doors of the hotel, and meet the eyes of the night porter, whose dingy face peered out at them with furtive curiosity.

“I don’t know why you come here at this hour to make a scene in the street . . .” Tarrant grumbled over his shoulder.

“I won’t make it in the street if you’ll let me come in. I don’t want to make a scene anyhow. I only want a few minutes’ talk with you; I’ve got to have it, so we may as well get it over.”

Tarrant looked again at his feet, which were splashed with mud. “I can’t stay out here in this deluge,” he began. “If you insist, you’d better come in; but your forcing yourself on me is useless . . . and intolerable. . .”

He walked up the steps, and Vance followed. The revolving doors swung open and the two men entered the warm brightly lit lounge. A few people, evidently just back from the theatre, sat at little tables, absorbing drinks from tall glasses. Tarrant turned to the porter. “Is there anybody in the reading-room?” The porter glanced in, and came back to say that there was a gentleman there writing letters.

Tarrant seemed to hesitate; then he turned and walked toward the lift. Vance followed. Tarrant did not look back at him or speak to him. They entered the lift and stood side by side in silence while it slowly ascended; when it stopped they got out, and, still in silence, walked down the dim corridor to a door which Tarrant unlocked. He turned an electric switch and lit up a small sitting~room with pale walls and brocaded curtains. Vance entered after him and shut the door.

Tarrant put down his umbrella. He stood for a moment with his back to Vance, staring down at the empty hearth. Then he turned and said: “Well?”

His thin high-nosed face with the sharply cut nostrils was drawn with distress, and the furrows in his forehead had deepened; but his gray eyes were now quiet and unwavering. Vance knew that he had gone through the inevitable struggle with his impulse of evasion and flight, and that, finding escape impossible, he had mastered his nerves, and was prepared to play his part fittingly. Vance felt a secret admiration for the man whose worldly training had given him this discipline; he knew what mental and physical distress Tarrant underwent after such an effort of the will. “Poor devil,” he thought . . . “we’re all poor devils. . .”

“Well?” Tarrant repeated.

“Well — I want to speak to you about Halo. I want you to tell me what you intend to do.”

Tarrant’s face darkened; but in a moment he recovered his expression of rather disdainful indifference. He took off his hat and overcoat, and laid them carefully on a table in the corner of the room; then he turned toward the fireplace and threw himself down in an armchair. “You’d better sit down,” he said, glancing coldly toward the chair facing him.

Vance paid no heed; not that he resented the invitation, but because, in his state of acute inner tension, he was hardly aware that it was addressed to him. Tarrant waited for a moment; then, as his visitor did not move: “I supposed,” he said, “it was for something of this sort that you’d come, and I can only say again that it’s no use. I should have thought you’d have understood that what you have to say had better be said to my lawyers.”

Vance flushed. “I suppose you think you’re bound to answer in this way; but what use is that either? I’ve got nothing to say to your lawyers — or to hear from them. I’m not here to make a row or a scene. I only want to put you a straight question. I’ve heard you’ve changed your mind about letting Halo divorce you, and I want to know if it’s true. Is it?”

Tarrant sat with his long, delicately-jointed fingers twisted about the arms of his chair. After a moment he turned slightly, reached out toward a table near by, and took up a packet of cigarettes. He drew out a gold-mounted lighter, lit a cigarette, puffed at it once or twice, and rested his head thoughtfully against the back of the chair. Vance stood leaning against the wall, watching every movement of Tarrant’s with a sort of fascinated admiration. He knew that each of those quiet and seemingly careless gestures was the mask of an inner agitation, and envied the schooling which had put Tarrant in command of such a perfectly disciplined set of motions.

At length Tarrant spoke. “When my wife left my house to join you she must have known that her doing so would make me change my mind about letting her divorce me.”

Vance gave an impatient shrug. It was the tone he had heard so often at the office, when Tarrant was trying to shake off an importunate visitor. But he reflected that it was only a protective disguise assumed to hide the moral disarray of the real man — as his lighting a cigarette had been done to occupy his hands, lest Vance should notice their nervous twining about the chair~arms. And again Vance was filled with a queer pity for his antagonist.

“You mean to say that, as she’s put herself in what’s called the wrong, you’re going to refuse to let her get a divorce against you? Well, it’s your technical right, of course. But there’s nothing to prevent your getting a divorce against HER; there’ll be no difficulty — ” Vance broke off, but Tarrant made no answer. He sat in the same attitude of resigned attention, his gaze engrossed with the cigarette-smoke curling up from his lips. “That’s what I came here to ask you; do you mean to divorce her?” Vance continued.

Tarrant bent forward to shake the ashes of his cigarette onto the hearth. “Is this — ” he began, and then broke off. “Are you here at — at her request?”

“No. She had no idea I was coming.”

“But you think she wished you to?”

“On the contrary — she would probably have done all she could to stop me. That’s why I didn’t tell her.”

During this interrogatory Tarrant’s profile was turned toward Vance, and the latter noticed that the edge of his thinly cut nostril was white and drawn up, like that of a man in pain. “After all, I suppose he did love her once,” Vance thought.

Tarrant straightened himself, and moved about so that he faced Vance. “You might have spared me this intrusion. I can’t see what good you thought it would do. My wife knows I’ve given up all idea of divorcing her.”

“Or letting her divorce you?”

Tarrant gave a barely audible laugh.

Vance stood silent, still leaning against the wall. The wetness of his overcoat began to penetrate to his skin, and he shivered slightly, and pulled the overcoat off. As he did so he saw Tarrant’s colour rise.

“I really don’t see,” Tarrant said, as though answering Vance’s unconscious gesture in removing his coat, “what can be gained by any more talk. I’ve told you what you wanted to know.”

Vance shook his head. “No; it’s not enough. You say you don’t want to get a divorce. But I don’t suppose you’ve forgotten that not much more than a year ago it was you who asked your wife to set you free? It was then that she left you; not till then.”

Tarrant stood up, and took a few steps across the room and back. His eyes fell on Vance’s wet overcoat, and on the shoulder-blades to which his dress-coat damply clung. “You’re wet through,” he remarked.

“Never mind that. I want to talk this thing out with you. You admit that when Halo left you it was because you asked her to; because you wanted to be free. And now you turn round and say you don’t want to be free any longer, and therefore won’t let her be either. Isn’t that it?”

Tarrant went to a small upright cabinet between the windows. He took from it a bottle of brandy and a glass, and pouring water into the glass added some brandy and drank it down. “I’m subject to chills; my feet are very wet.” He turned to Vance with a cold smile. “I’m not as young as you are. . .” The restless colour rose to his face again and he added, with a hesitating gesture toward the bottle: “Will you —?”

Vance made a sign of refusal, and Tarrant, as though regretting his suggestion, drew his lips together, and stood upright, his hands thrust into his pockets.

“And now you say you don’t want to be free, and won’t let her be,” Vance persisted. “Is that so, or isn’t it?”

Tarrant cleared his throat. “It is so — as far as the external facts go. As to my private motives . . . you’ll excuse my keeping them to myself. . .”

Vance uttered a despairing sigh. Again and again in his short life he had come upon this curious human inability, in moments of the deepest stress, to shake off the conventional attitude and the accepted phrase. The man opposite him, whose distress he recognized and could not help pitying, seemed to be struggling in vain to express his real self, in its helpless vanity, humiliation and self-deception. The studied attitude of composure which gave him a superficial advantage over an untutored antagonist was really only another bondage. When a man had disciplined himself out of all impulsiveness he stood powerless on the brink of the deeper feelings. If only, Vance thought, he could help Tarrant to break through those bonds! There must be a word that would work this miracle, if he could find it. Above all, he reminded himself, he must try not to be angry or impatient.

“I suppose,” he began, “you feel you’ve got a right to talk like that. From the point of view of society, or civilized behavior, or whatever you call it, you may be right. But what’s the use of it? I’m not trying to offend you, or to butt in where I don’t belong. Your wife has left you; she’s under my care; how can you blame me for wanting to make things easier for her? When she came to me she thought you wanted to marry another woman . . . .”

“If I did,” Tarrant broke in, “it may have been because she had made my home . . . no longer what it should have been. . .”

Vance felt a new wave of discouragement. There they were, back again in the old verbal entanglements. “I wonder how many people — husbands or wives either — make their homes what they should have been? It doesn’t seem as if they often pulled it off. But I don’t pretend it’s my business to come here and talk to you about your wife. . .”

“Ah, you admit that?” Tarrant sneered.

“Certainly. I’m here to talk to you about the woman I want to take for a wife myself. There’s a big gap between the two. Whoever made the gap, or whatever made it, what does it matter now?” He paused a moment to control his voice, and then added: “See here, Tarrant, it’s hell to see a woman suffering because you can’t give her the place in your life that she ought to have . . . That’s what I came here to tell you. . .”

Tarrant walked away again, and then came back to the hearth. He raised his elbow against the mantelpiece.

“In my opinion she ought to suffer,” he said.

“Why — because you do?” Tarrant was silent, and Vance pressed on: “There’s such a lot of suffering everywhere; what’s the use of adding to it? For God’s sake, can’t we both put aside the personal question and tackle this as if it was just any ordinary human predicament? The happiest people, somehow, aren’t any too happy . . . and I can’t see that making them more miserable ever made things pleasanter for the other party . . . at least not beyond the minute when he’s doing it.”

Tarrant’s face had whitened. He did not immediately reply; but at last he said, in a tone of elaborate politeness: “I suppose I ought to be very much obliged to you for your advice — though I didn’t ask for it.”

“Oh, all right. You can turn what I say into a sermon, and try to laugh me out of it, if you choose. Only I don’t see the use of that either.”

“Exactly,” said Tarrant. “Neither do I see the use of your forcing yourself in on me.”

“But, my God, all the use in the world — if only I can make you understand! Can’t you see the misery it is not to be able to give Halo the standing and the name she’s got a right to? That woman tonight — that Mrs. Glaisher — insulted her. How can I stand by and see her treated as if she wasn’t fit to be touched by the very people who used to grovel to get asked to her house?”

“MY house,” Tarrant interrupted ironically.

Vance’s hopes sank. Up to that moment it had seemed to him that he might yet find a crack in the surface of the other’s icy pride; now he had exhausted his last argument and knew that he had made no impression. “That’s all you’ve got to say to me?”

Tarrant remained silent; Vance saw his lips twitch with the effort to control his temper. “I’ve never had anything to say to you,” he replied.

Vance continued to lean against the door-jamb. The growing distress in Tarrant’s face seemed to belie the bravado of his words. He knew all the accepted formulas; but as he recited them Vance saw that they no longer corresponded with what he was feeling — with the agony of envy, jealousy and resentment battling together in his soul. And Vance, who knew exactly what he himself wanted to say, did not know how to say it because he was ignorant of the language in which men of Tarrant’s world have been schooled to disguise their thoughts. Here they stood, he reflected, two poor devils caught in the coil of human incomprehension; but the fact that he felt the pity of it, and that Tarrant did not, gave him an advantage over the other. From the moment when Vance understood this he became sure of himself, and unperturbed. “God,” he thought, “when I go away and leave him how cold he’ll feel inside of himself!”

He moved impulsively toward Tarrant. “See here, I daresay I don’t know how to put things the right way . . . the way you’re used to . . . But don’t let that count against me. Don’t think of you and me; think only of Halo. If there’s anything I can do to persuade you to give her her freedom, tell me, and I’ll try to do it. I suppose I haven’t got what people in your crowd call pride; anyhow, the kind I have got don’t count at a time like this. If there’s anything I can say or do — short of giving her up — that would make you change your feelings about her, I’ll do it now, this very minute. God, Tarrant — don’t let me go away feeling I’ve done no good! Why should people go on hating each other because once in their lives their wants and wishes may have crossed? If you send me away now it isn’t me you’ll hate afterward — it’s yourself.”

Tarrant had moved to the farther end of the hearth. As if to give a motive to his withdrawal he took the packet of cigarettes from the mantel and lit another. “I really haven’t anything more to say,” he repeated.

“Except that you won’t divorce.”

“Certainly I won’t divorce.”

“Not on any condition?”

“Not on any condition.”

Vance stood in the middle of the room and looked at him. “I can remember when I used to think he was a great fellow,” he thought.

He turned away and picked up his drenched overcoat. It had left a dark pool of moisture on the light damask of the chair he had thrown it on, and the velvet pile of the carpet beneath. Tarrant looked gray and ghastly, standing alone between the illuminated wall-brackets of that frivolous room.

“Ah — you poor man,” Vance thought, as he turned and left him.

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