The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XVIII

A few days later, after one of the unproductive mornings which often followed on his stretches of feverish work, Vance said to Halo: “When you said that the other day to Churley about a man’s forcing himself to write, I suppose you were thinking of me, and the endless time I’m taking to do this book.”

There had been a day when Halo would have protested, and he would have been sorry that he had spoken; but a new Halo, with steadier nerves and smoother temper, had replaced the pleasing anxious spirit of last year, and she only rejoined, with a glance of good~natured surprise: “Why, Vance, how absurd! With a book on the scale of this one you’re bound to take a long time to get to the top of the hill.”

That was sensible enough; but Vance was in the mood to feel that a sensible answer could only be a transparent attempt to humour him. “Oh, well — climbing’s not bad exercise. But what you said has frightened away poor Churley. . .”

“Frightened him — why?”

“Writers don’t much care to be told by outsiders to buckle down to their work. They generally get enough of that sort of advice in their own families.”

“Oh, poor boy! I’m sorry! But how could he have minded? He’s always joking about his own laziness.”

“That’s different,” Vance retorted; and Halo, without appearing to notice his tone, suggested that he should go and hunt up his young friend. “Perhaps he may have stayed away because he’s ill; he looks spectral at times. I’m sure it would please him if you looked him up.”

Churley had never suggested his friend’s coming to see him, and Vance thought he might interpret an unsought visit as an attempt to remind him of the article he perhaps no longer wished to write. To a youth so acutely self-conscious it would seem natural that an author should attach great importance to being reviewed by him. But the possibility that he might be lying ill in that dreary house made Vance decide to follow Halo’s advice. As he mounted the hill, the house, rising above him in its neglected garden with windows shuttered against the sun, seemed to take the warmth out of the air, and he felt half inclined to turn back. While he stood there the blistered front door was jerked open and Colonel Churley came out. The Colonel looked at him with astonishment, and said: “Oh — ” in a voice as sombre as his countenance, but somehow less forbidding; and on Vance’s asking for his son, replied unexpectedly: “Ah — you’re a friend of his, are you?”

Vance hesitated. “Well, a literary friend . . . yes . . . We both write, sir. . .”

The Colonel considered him thoughtfully. “Ah — you write? Indeed? I wish you’d persuade my son to do as much. But I’ve no idea where he is at present; none whatever. I seldom have any idea where he is,” the Colonel concluded, in a voice more sorrowful than angered; and he lifted his hat with a gesture which implied that he expected Vance to precede him to the gate. If Chris were within his father evidently did not mean the visitor to know it. He did not even ask Vance’s name. At the gate he turned with another bow, and strode away through the olives.

That evening Chris Churley reappeared. He looked drawn and colourless, and flinging himself down on the divan plunged his hand into Vance’s box of cigarettes. For a while they talked of a new book that Vance had lent him (and which he had promised to return, and hadn’t); then, when Halo left the room for a moment, he said abruptly: “I suppose it was you who looked me up this afternoon.”

“Yes. I met your father at the door. He said he didn’t know where you were.”

“And you told him you were a literary pal?” Churley laughed. “He didn’t for a minute believe that. He thought you were one of my waster friends come to carry me off on a spree. My father and mother always think that, when anybody they don’t know comes to see me.”

“Wasters? I shouldn’t think there were many in this place,” said Vance, smiling.

“THEY do. They think they’re everywhere where I am. My mother’s convinced there’s a private gambling hell in one of the houses on the quay. I daresay there is — and a filthy hole it must be. What my family can’t understand is that riotous living, unless it’s on the grand scale, appeals to me no more than getting drunk on cheap wine at a bistro. What I want to make me go astray is marble halls and millions; and Oubli is fairly safe from both.” He sat up and clutched his tossed red hair in his brown hands. “Oh, God, Weston, if I could get away! If only I could get away!”

Vance was moved at the cry. Well, why couldn’t he get away? And where would he go, and what would he do, if he could?

“Go? Straight to London, by God!” Churley swung around on the divan, his eyes dark with excitement under his flaming hair. “London, of course. If I could have a month there, with nobody to nag me, or ask me when I was going to get to work again (I know what my father told you — I know); if I could have a fortnight, even, I could write that article about you, and a couple of others that have occurred to me during our talks; and with those articles I’d go to the ‘Windmill’, and from what Zélide says I’m practically certain they’d take me on permanently. But what am I to do, without a penny in my pocket? That’s what my people can’t be got to see. You must have found, haven’t you, that there are places where a man can work, and places where he can’t, though nobody but an artist can understand, and other people imagine you can say to a writer: ‘Well, how is it you haven’t turned out your thousand words this morning?’ as they’d say to a child in the nursery: ‘Now, then, down with that cod-liver oil, or I’ll know why’.”

The appeal reminded Vance of his own ineffectual efforts, the hours of agonizing inability to express what was in him, and the intervals when even the craving for expression failed because there was only emptiness within. Remembering his good fortune, the difficulties surmounted, the distinction achieved, the tenderness and understanding that had silently fostered his talent, he felt ashamed of the contrast between his fate and Churley’s.

“Oh, see here; things may not be as bad as you think; we’ll see what can be done . . .” he began, laying his hand on the other’s shoulder; and at the terrible light in Churley’s eyes Vance understood that he was already pledged to help the flight to London.

He had been rather afraid of Halo’s disapproval when she learned what he had done. His earnings from “The Puritan in Spain” had not been large, for the book had been more fashionable than popular; and Halo’s means were cramped by the necessity of helping her parents. Mr. and Mrs. Spear had always been a costly luxury, and Vance suspected that Lorry had taken advantage of his sister’s being in Paris to extract from her a share of the spoils. But Halo was full of sympathy for poor Churley. “Of course you couldn’t do anything else. I daresay he’s right in saying he can do you better when he gets you in some sort of perspective.” (This had been Churley’s explanation to Halo, when she had returned to the study and found the two young men discussing Chris’s departure.) “A ‘close-up’ must be horribly difficult, unless you’re a Boswell; and I don’t believe poor Chris will ever be anybody’s Boswell but his own. Anyhow, I can see that his only chance is to get into another atmosphere. It’s just like you, dear, to understand. . .”

The loan, they agreed, could not be less than twenty pounds; with the trip to London deducted that would barely leave him a carefree month. After he had gone Vance said to Halo: “I wish I’d told him straight off that I wanted to give him that money. There are times when it paralyzes a man to know that the money he’s sweating to earn has got to be passed straight over to somebody else.” He was thinking of his own early struggles, and of what it would have meant, at the moment of Laura Lou’s illness, to have a friend guess his distress and help him out. Churley had already started — he had caught the first train the morning after his appeal to Vance; but Vance and Halo decided that as soon as he sent them his London address Vance should write that he wished the money to be regarded as a gift.

It was a surprise that the days passed without further news. After Chris’s jubilant farewells Halo had expected a post-card from Toulon or Marseilles; but Vance, better acquainted with young men’s ways, pointed out that Chris’s chief difficulty seemed to be an inability to use his pen. “He’ll send his address in time; but he may not even do that till he’s finished the article. I think he felt rather uncomfortable at having talked so much about it, and then not having put a line on paper. Poor devil — I owe him more than he does me, for our talks seem to have given me a fresh start.”

And so it proved. Churley had stirred up many ideas in the course of their long debates, and Vance’s acceleration of energy rushed at once into the channels of his work. The weeks passed rapidly between ardent hours of writing and long loiterings on hill and shore. When Vance’s brain was in full activity his hours of idleness acquired a new quality. It was as though he looked at everything through the powerful lens of his creative energy, so that the least detail of the landscape, the faintest fugitive play of cloud and sun, sufficed to enrich his dream.

With the end of January the southern spring began; clouds of translucent almond-bloom on rough red terraces, blue patches of borage in stony fields, the celandine shining in wet leafy hollows, blackthorn and tamarisk along the lanes; and a few weeks later, among the hills and above the sea, under the olives and through the vines, the miraculous snowfall of the daffodils.

Vance and Halo went off daily, staff in hand, prolonging their wanderings more and more, exploring secret valleys, mounting to granite mountain-crests or wading and scrambling along miles of red rock and amber sand, with a peacock sea glittering through the pine~trunks when they climbed or, when they dropped down to it, lapping their feet with silver. Sometimes, when they had planned a long excursion, Vance was up before sunrise, and got in two or three hours of writing before they started; and when they came back, at sunset or under a cool wintry moon, it was good to lie on the divan, fagged and happy, and dream of tomorrow’s work.

The day came when Vance, looking back, understood that at that moment the Furies had slept, and life given him all it could. Even at the time he felt a singular peace and plenitude. His work was going well; his heart was quiet, and the sameness of his days seemed their most exquisite quality. One evening in particular when, looking up, he had seen Halo bending over to stir the fire, her dark head outlined against the flame, he had felt in his breast a new emotion, clear as that flame, as if out of their loving and quarrelling, the uneasy blazing and smouldering of their passion, something winged and immortal had sprung, and brooded over them.

He gave a chuckle of contentment, and Halo’s smile questioned him. “What is it, dear?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps the peace that passeth understanding . . . Poor Churley,” he added, “I was just thinking of the way he has of using up things after one look at them. As if beauty weren’t eternally different every morning.”

“Perhaps it is to him, in London,” Halo mused; then their talk, veering from Churley, wandered back to the day’s excursion, and to their plans for the morrow.

Since they had left Paris neither Halo nor Vance had reverted to the subject of the latter’s talk with Lewis Tarrant. Vance shrank from touching again on the question of the divorce, and if Halo had any news to impart she seemed reluctant to communicate it. The quiet weeks at Oubli had been a sort of truce of God, a magic interval of peace which neither ventured to disturb. But one day, not long after their happy evening by the fire, Halo, who sat going over the letters they had found on their return from a long tramp, uttered an exclamation of surprise.

“What’s up?” Vance questioned; and she went over to his desk and laid before him a cutting from a New York paper. Vance read: “Prize-giving Millionairess Announces Marriage to Gratz Blemer. Mrs. Pulsifer Privately Weds Novelist Who Won Her Ten Thousand Dollar Best–Novel Prize”; and beneath this headline: “Society and literary circles were electrified last night by the announcement that Mrs. Pulsifer, the wealthy New York fashion-leader and giver of numerous literary prizes, was privately married two months ago at Pinehurst, N.C., to Gratz Blemer, the novelist, famous as the author of ‘This Globe’, and whose last novel, ‘The Rush Hour’, was awarded a few months ago the new Pulsifer Best–Novel prize, recently founded by the bride. Mr. and Mrs. Blemer are spending their honeymoon on the bride’s steam-yacht in the Mediterranean.”

Halo and Vance looked at each other in silence; then Halo said with a faint smile: “That accounts for a great deal.”

Vance nodded. He tried to smile too; but the brief paragraph had called up a vision of his midnight talk with Tarrant. He felt as if the world with its treacheries, shocks and torments had once again broken into the charmed circle of their lives; and looking up at Halo he saw the same distress in her eyes. “Well, we needn’t bother; it’s all outside of us, anyhow,” he said defiantly; and she bent over to lay a kiss on his forehead.

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