The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XVII

On the threshold of the low-ceilinged study, with its rough yellow~washed walls, Chris Churley stopped to glance curiously about at the books and papers; the blossoming almond-branch in a big jar, the old brown Bokhara with the help of which Halo had contrived a divan piled with brown cushions. “I say — this is jolly!”

“Not much luxury,” Vance grinned, always gratified at the admiration provoked by Halo’s upholstery.

The other shrugged. “I wish you could see Les Mimosas — no, I don’t,” he corrected himself hastily; and immediately drew from his pocket a letter which he handed to Vance. It was in a girl’s hand, dated from London, under the letter-head: “Zélide Spring, Literary Agent and Adviser.” It ran: “Darling Chris, the ‘Windmill’ people have just rung up to say they hear Vance Weston, who wrote ‘The Puritan in Spain,’ is at Oubli, and they’d like an article about him if you can get it done in time for the next number. Some one has failed them, and they want to shove this in at once. Of course that means doing it in a rush. Now, Chris, please, you simply MUST, or I’ll never speak to you again — ” and then: “P.S. You must see him, of course, and get him to talk to you about his books. How frightfully exciting for you! Get me an autograph, darling.”

Vance laughed as he returned the letter. “This means, I suppose, that you don’t like doing things in a rush.”

“Do YOU?” said young Churley, looking enviously at the divan. “The very word makes me want to go and stretch out over there.”

“Well, do,” said Vance, tossing a fresh packet of cigarettes in the direction of the divan.

“Honestly? You don’t mind? Sprawling here while you’re sitting in a chair makes me feel like a vamp in a talkie. But then that’s the way I really like to feel — luxurious and vicious,” Churley confessed, shaking up the cushions before he plunged his glowing head into them. “Match? Oh, thanks! Now, then — I suppose I ought to begin by asking you about ‘The Puritan in Spain’.”

“No, don’t,” said Vance, lighting a cigarette, and dropping into the chair by his writing-table. He was beginning to be interested and stirred by this vivid youth, who set his ideas tumbling about excitedly, as Savignac had in the early days in Paris. Sometimes he felt that he needed a sort of padded cell of isolation to work in, and then again, when a beam of understanding flashed through his shuttered solitude, a million sparks of stimulation rushed in with it.

“Oh, but I’ve got to! You said I might,” Churley protested.

“I didn’t say I’d answer. Not about ‘The Puritan’, anyhow.”

Young Churley, with a glance of curiosity, raised himself on his elbow. “No? Why?”

“Because I hate it,” said Vance carelessly.

“Oh, good! I mean — well, hang it, now I’ve seen you, I begin to wonder . . .”

“Why I did it? Yes . . . If I only knew —! What’s that thing in Tennyson, about ‘little flower in the crannied wall’, if I knew what put you there, I’d know all there is to know; or something of that sort. Well, I was in Spain, and the subject caught me. What I call one of the siren-subjects . . . I never stir now without cotton in my ears.”

Churley laughed. “Righto! Glad I don’t have to ask you solemn questions about the book. I’m in rather a difficulty about you American novelists. Your opportunity’s so immense, and . . . well, you always seem to write either about princesses in Tuscan villas, or about gaunt young men with a ten-word vocabulary who spend their lives sweating and hauling wood. Haven’t you got any subject between the two? There’s really nothing as limited as the primitive passions — except perhaps those of the princesses. I believe the novelist’s richest stuff is in the middle class, because it lies where its name says, exactly in the middle, and reaches out so excitingly and unexpectedly in both directions. But I suppose you haven’t a middle class in America, though you do sometimes have princesses — ”

“I rather think we’ve got a middle class too. But no one wants to admit belonging to it, because we all do. It’s not so picturesque — ”

“Just so! There’s its immense plastic advantage. Absolute safety from picturesqueness — you don’t even have to be on your guard against it. Why don’t you write a novel about the middle class, and call it ‘Meridian’?” cried young Churley, with an inspired wave of his hand, which closed on the packet of cigarettes.

“Because I’m writing one about all mankind called: ‘Colossus’.”

“You’re not? I say . . . where have those matches gone? Thanks. But that IS a subject! Does it bore you to talk about your things while they’re on the stocks?”

“N— no,” said Vance, hesitatingly. All at once he felt the liberating thrill of the question. Of course it wouldn’t bore him to talk about “Colossus” to anybody with those eager eyes and that lightning up-take. Here was a fellow with whom you could argue and theorize by the hour, and so develop the muscles of your ideas. It was queer he should ever have imagined he could grind out a big book in a smiling desert like Oubli-sur-Mer. But the desert animated by one responsive intelligence became exactly what his mood required. And he began to talk. . .

Churley listened avidly, his head thrown back, his eyes fixed, through the curl of incessant cigarettes, on the luminous glitter beyond the windows. As Vance talked on he was aware, in his listener, of a curious mental immaturity combined with flashes of precocious insight. Compared with his friend Savignac, in whose disciplined intelligence there were so few gaps and irregularities, this youth’s impatient brain was as uncertain as the sea; but it had the sea’s bright sallies and sudden irresistible onslaughts. Arguing with him about “Colossus” reminded Vance of the hour he had spent in the unknown church during a thunderstorm, when the obscurity was torn by flashes that never lasted long enough for him to do more than guess at what they lit up.

Chris Churley was probably not more than three or four years younger than himself; yet a world seemed to divide them. Churley still lived on the popular catchwords of which Vance had already wearied; yet he appeared to have discarded many of the ideas which were the very substance of Vance’s mind.

They talked on and on, till the radiance faded into dusk and Halo came with a lamp and the suggestion of tea or cocktails. Churley, in her presence, was as easy and natural as with Vance. “I’ve come to make an article out of Mr. Weston for the ‘Windmill’,” he explained, smiling; “it’s a tremendous chance for me,” and Vance saw that Halo felt, as he had, the happy simplicity of the youth’s manner. In the last few months he had grown more observant of Halo’s changes of expression, and quicker in divining her response to the persons they were thrown with. She was going to like Chris Churley, Vance thought, listening to her friendly questions, and to their easy interchange of talk. The mere fact that the newcomer was going to write an article about Vance in a review of such standing as the “Windmill” was a sufficient recommendation to Halo; but, apart from that, Vance saw that she and Churley talked the same language, and would always be at ease with each other.

“I was wondering whether you were going to take to that chap or not,” he said, when Churley, roused to the lateness of the hour, had sprung up exclaiming that he must hurry home and get to work. “I’ll bring the article in a couple of days if I may,” he called back from the threshold. “It’s my chance, you know; if this thing suits them I hope they’ll take me on regularly; and it’s just conceivable that in time that might mean: London!” He pronounced the word with a mystical stress that lit up his whole face.

“Of course I take to him,” Halo responded to Vance’s question. “Poor boy! What life at Les Mimosas must be! I could see how he shied away from questions, about his family . . . I suppose they’re miserably poor, and gloomy and ill. We must have him here as much as possible; you must do all you can to help him with the article.”

Young Churley reappeared punctually in two days; but he did not bring the article. It had taken, he explained, more thinking over than he had foreseen. And, if Weston didn’t mind, there were just a few more questions he’d like to put.

This was the prelude to another long and exhilarating talk. The actual questions were not, as far as Vance could recall, ever put, either then or later; but the big psychological panorama which he was attempting in “Colossus” was the point of departure for an absorbing discussion of the novelist’s opportunities and limitations. Young Churley seemed to have read everything, and thought about most things, without ever reaching any intellectual conclusions; the elasticity of his judgments was as startling to Vance as his uncanny quickness of apprehension. Good talk was doubtless a rare luxury to him, and he was evidently determined to make the most of his opportunity. Day after day he returned to the pink villa, at first apologetically, soon as a matter of course; and while he lolled on the brown divan, or lay outstretched on the sand of one of the rocky coves along the bay, every allusion that Vance made, every point on which he touched, started a new hare for young Churley’s joyful pursuit. At one moment he seemed full of interest in Vance’s idea of celebrating the splendour and misery of the average man, and produced a great Pascalian aphorism for his title-page; but the next he was declaring that the only two things in the world he really loathed were Oubli-sur-Mer and the Categorical Imperative, and urging Vance to write a novel about a wealthy, healthy and perfectly happy young man who murders his best friend simply to show he is above middle-class prejudices.

Halo, as her way was with Vance’s friends, came and went about her daily occupations, sometimes joining the two on their picnics, sometimes finding a pretext for remaining at home. Young Churley continued to amuse and stimulate her, and she often urged him to come to dine, and sat late with the young men over the fire of olive-wood; but Vance noticed that she seemed increasingly anxious, as the months passed, to make him feel that he was free to come and go without consulting her, or seeking her company. Even where his work was concerned she had relaxed her jealous vigilance. She no longer asked how the book was getting on, or playfully clamoured for fresh copy; she waited till he brought her his manuscript, betraying neither impatience nor disappointment if the intervals of waiting were protracted. At times her exquisite detachment almost made it seem as if she were quietly preparing for a friendly parting; once or twice, with a start of fear, he wondered if, as he had once imagined, her husband were not trying to persuade her to come back; but whenever she and Vance were alone together she was so entirely her old self, so simply and naturally the friend and lover of always, that the possibility became inconceivable.

Meanwhile the days passed, and no more was said of Churley’s article. Vance himself, in the rapid growth of his new friendship, had already lost sight of its first occasion; it was Halo who, a fortnight or so after the youth’s first appearance, said one night, as he took leave: “Aren’t we to be allowed to see the article, after all?”

“The article — the article?” Churley’s brilliant eyes met hers in genuine perplexity. “Oh, that ‘Windmill’ thing? Glad you reminded me! It ought to have been done long ago, oughtn’t it?” he added, in a tone of disarming confidence.

“Well, you told us it might be a chance — an opening; that if you could secure a regular job with the ‘Windmill’ you might be able to get away.”

“Oh — if I could! If I only could! You’re perfectly right; I DID say so. I was all on fire to do the article. . .” He hesitated, wrinkling his brows, his eyes still wistfully on hers. “But the fact is — I wonder if you’ll understand? — I’m in a frightful dilemma. I can’t write here; and I can’t make enough money to get away unless I do write. Can you suggest a way out, I wonder?”

Halo laughed. “The only one, I should say, is that you should want to get away badly enough to force yourself to write, whether you want to or not.”

His eyes widened. “Oh, you really think one can force one’s self to write? That’s interesting. Do you think so too, Weston?” he asked, turning toward Vance a smile of elfin malice.

Vance reddened. Halo’s answer seemed to him inconceivably stupid. If only outsiders wouldn’t give advice to fellows who were trying to do things! But probably you could never cure a woman of that. All his sympathy, at the moment, was with Churley. . .

“That remark of Halo’s was meant for me,” he said, laughing. “But I suppose if you were to shut yourself up and set your teeth . . . that is, if you still feel you want to do the article,” he added, remembering that Churley might affect inertia as a pretext for dropping a subject he was tired of. The other seemed to guess his idea.

“Want to do it? I’ve got it all blazing away in my head at this very minute! I never wanted to do a thing more. But when I look out at this empty grimacing sea . . . or think of Miss Pamela Plummet reading ‘Ships That Pass In The Night’ for the hundredth time, or Mrs. Dorman picking up knitting stitches for Lady Dayes~Dawes — for heaven’s sake, Weston, how can a fellow do anything in this place but lie on his back and curse his God?” He looked from one to the other with a comic plaintiveness. “But there; you think me a poor thing, both of you. And so I am — pitiable. Only, hang it all, even the worm can turn — can turn out an article! And so can I. You’ll see. Now that I think of it, I had a desperate wire from Zélide this morning. The ‘Windmill’ people say they MUST have something about you, and they offer to give me till the end of this week if I’ll produce it. When IS the end of this week? I had an idea today was already the beginning of next . . . but that’s just a dastardly pretext for not doing the article . . . By Jove, I’ll go home and start tonight — and finish it too! Or at least, I’ll do it this morning, because it’s already morning. I say, Weston, can I drop in with it tomorrow after dinner?”

Churley did not drop in that evening, nor for the two days following. “He’s really buckled down to it,” Halo hopefully prophesied; but on the third day he reappeared, and said he had started writing the article and then torn up the beastly thing because it read so precisely like what every other literary critic had already said about every other novelist. “If only there was a new language perhaps we’d have new thoughts; if there was a new alphabet, even! When I try to harness together those poor broken~winded spavined twenty-six letters, and think of the millions and millions of ways they’ve already been combined into platitudes, my courage fails me, and I haven’t the heart to thrash them onto their shaky old legs again. Why on earth don’t you inventive fellows begin by inventing a new language?”

Vance shrugged. “I guess there’d be people turning out platitudes in it the very first week.”

“Oh, I know what comes next. You’re going to tell me that all the big geniuses have managed to express themselves in new ways with the old material. But, after all, history does show that every now and then culture has reached a dead level of stagnation, and then . . .”

“Well, go home now, and write that down!” Vance laughingly proposed; but Churley laughed too, and said he wasn’t in the mood for writing, and if they were going on a picnic, as Mrs. Weston had suggested, was there any objection to his going with them?

Late that night Vance, as he often did at that hour, sat on his balcony looking out over the darkening waters. He liked these southern nights without a moon, when the winter constellations ruled in a dark blue heaven and rained their strong radiance on the sea. His inspiration, which had begun to flag before Chris Churley’s appearance, now flowed with a strong regular beat. The poor boy’s talk had done for Vance what Vance’s society had failed to do for him. Vance knew that his creative faculty had grown strong enough to draw stimulus from contradiction instead of being disturbed by it. To the purely analytical intelligence such questions as their talks had raised might be unsettling and sterilizing; but, as always in the full tide of invention, he felt himself possessed by a brooding spirit of understanding, some mystic reassurance which sea and sky and the life of men transmitted from sources deeper than the reason. He had never been able to formulate it, but he had caught, in the pages of all the great creative writers, hints of that mysterious subjection and communion, impossible to define, but clear to the initiated as the sign exchanged between members of some secret brotherhood. Ah, they were the happy people — the only happy people, perhaps — these through whom the human turmoil swept not to ravage but to fertilize. He leaned on the balcony, looking out at the sea, and pondered on his task, and blessed it.

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