The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XIX

The next day it rained. Vance, who had given himself a week’s idleness, sat down before “Colossus”, and Halo with equal heroism descended to the verandah to clean the oil lamps. She was deep in her task when Mrs. Dorman came up the path, sheltering her bedraggled straw hat under a dripping umbrella.

It was long since any one from the Pension Britannique had called at the pink house; Halo concluded that the chaplain’s wife had come to ask for a contribution to the church bazaar, or a subscription to renew the matting in the porch, and hurriedly calculated what could be spared from their month’s income, already somewhat depleted by the gift to Chris Churley.

Mrs. Dorman, when she had disposed of her umbrella, and been led indoors, did not immediately disclose the object of her visit. She hoped they were not in for a rainy spring, she said; but she had warned the new arrivals at Madame Fleuret’s that, after the fine weather they’d had all winter, they must expect a change. “I saw dear Madame Fleuret making signs to me to stop,” Mrs. Dorman continued complacently, “but Major Masterman, who was thinking of hiring a motor-cycle by the month, said he was thankful I’d warned him, and very likely if the bad weather continued he and Mrs. Masterman would dash over to the Balearics instead of staying on at the pension; and they telegraphed to some friends for whom they’d asked Madame Fleuret to reserve rooms that they’d better go elsewhere. So it was really a kindness to tell them, wasn’t it? . . . But, dear Mrs. Weston, what I’ve come for is to bring you a message . . . a private message. . .” Mrs. Dorman continued, her cheeks filling out and growing pink, as they did when she had anything painful to impart. “It’s just this: you were kind enough, some weeks since, to offer to call on Mrs. Churley. At the time she couldn’t see any one; but she’s asked me to say that she’d be so glad if you’d come up this afternoon . . . at once, if you could, as the Colonel is rather opposed to her receiving visits, and she’d like to be sure of his not getting back from his walk while you’re there. And she begs you, please, not to mention that I’ve asked you. . .”

Mrs. Dorman’s lowered voice and roseate flush gave her words an ominous air; and Halo at once thought: “Chris!” Her first impulse was to ask the reason of the summons; but respect for Mrs. Churley’s reserve, whatever it might conceal, made her answer: “Very well; I’ll wash the oil off and come.”

As she and Mrs. Dorman climbed the hill, Mrs. Dorman remarked that the mason had told her the roof of Les Mimosas was certain to fall in the next time there were heavy rains, and that when she had notified Colonel Churley he had said those fellows were always after a job; but thereafter she relapsed into silence, as though the first glimpse of that barricaded house-front had checked even her loquacity.

In the vestibule the heavy smell of an unaired house met the two women. A crumpled dishcloth trailed on the stairs, and in a corner stood a broken-handled basket full of rusty garden tools festooned with cobwebs. It must have been years since they had been used, Halo reflected, remembering the untended garden. Mrs. Dorman, who had tiptoed up ahead, leaned over and signed to her to follow. A door opened, letting out a sickly waft of ether, and Halo found herself pushed into a darkened room, and heard Mrs. Dorman whisper: “There she is. Mind the footstool. I’ll slip down and mount guard in case he should come back.”

Halo paused, trying to make her way among the uncertain shapes of the furniture; then a shawled figure raised itself from a lounge, and a woman’s voice exclaimed: “Mrs. Weston, what do you know of my son?”

Halo’s eyes were growing used to the dimness and she saw a small muffled-up body, and a hollow-cheeked face with tossed white hair and burning eyes like Chris’s. “She must have been very beautiful — oh, poor thing!” Halo thought; and the thin plaintive voice went on: “Do sit down. There’s a chair there, isn’t there? Please clear off anything that’s on it. I’m nearly blind — and so unused to visitors. And the only thing I can think of is my boy.”

“I’m so sorry. We’ve been wondering why there’s no news of him,” said Halo, taking the chair.

“Then you’ve heard nothing either?” Mrs. Churley, propped up among her cushions, gazed with a sort of spectral timidity at her visitor; as though, Halo thought, she were a ghost who feared to look at the living.

“No; nothing since he left for London.”

“For London?” Mrs. Churley echoed, stressing the word. “Ah, he told you London too?”

Halo, surprised, said yes; and Mrs. Churley went on: “My poor boy . . . it was the only way to get his father to let him go.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “He told us he’d been offered a permanent position on a well-known review — the ‘Windmill’, I think they call it — and that the editor wanted him at once, and had sent him an advance of five pounds. It was a great opportunity — and of course his father had to let him go.”

“Of course — ” Halo murmured.

“And so I said nothing,” the mother continued in her distressful whisper, “though I was sure editors don’t often send advances to beginners; for I suspected that your husband had been generous enough . . . to . . . you understand. . .”

“Yes . . .”

“And I was so grateful, and so happy at my boy’s having a job, because I hoped — my husband and I hoped — that it would make him settle down. You DO think he has talent?”

“I think he’s full of talent; we both do. Though as it happens we’ve never actually seen anything he’s written. . .”

“Ah — ” Mrs. Churley interjected in a stricken murmur, sinking back against the cushions.

“Only now, I’m sure — with such an opening, and the discipline of an editorial office . . . You’ll see . . .” Halo went on reassuringly.

“Yes; that’s what we thought. We felt so hopeful; I’ve never before seen my husband hopeful.”

“Well, you must go on hoping. You’ll hear from Chris as soon as he’s settled.”

Mrs. Churley again raised herself on her elbow, her face twisted with pain by the effort. “Mrs. Weston,” she brought out, “my son hasn’t gone to London.” She paused, watching Halo with startled dilated eyes. “I’ve just heard, from a friend who saw him the other day, that he’s at Nice!” The words fell into the silence of the muffled room as if every one rang out the knell of a hope. “At Nice, Mrs. Weston — NICE!”

It was an anti-climax, certainly; and Halo, after a first start of surprise, could not repress a smile.

“But are you sure? Was your friend sure, I mean? Did he actually speak to your son?”

“He didn’t speak to him; but he saw him going into a night-club with a party of dreadfully fast-looking people.” Mrs. Churley clasped her emaciated hands. “Mrs. Weston, I’m speaking in the deepest confidence. My husband would be very angry if he knew. He’s convinced that Chris is in London, and if he were to find out that we’ve been deceived again I dread to think what would happen. My husband has never understood that people may be unable to resist temptation — he says: why should they let themselves be tempted? The artist’s nature is incomprehensible to him. . .” She leaned forward, and caught Halo’s wrist. “It was from me that my poor boy inherited that curse. I used to write poetry — but my husband thought it unsuitable in an officer’s wife . . . Oh, if you knew how we’d struggled and fought to keep Chris out of temptation . . . When my husband was retired we came to Oubli, in the hope that here our boy would be safe. He has a real love of literature; he’s always wanted to write. But something invariably seems to prevent him . . . the least little thing puts him off. We hoped he would choose a steadier profession; but when we saw that was useless we decided to come here, where there are so few distractions. . .”

“But don’t you think that may be the reason?” Halo interposed. “Young men need distractions — they’re part of the artist’s training.”

“Part of his training? Oh, Mrs. Weston! Forgive my asking: are those your husband’s ideas?”

Halo smiled. “His idea is that the sooner Chris settles down to work the better.”

“Ah, just so — just so! You’re sure Mr. Weston didn’t intend him to use the money to go to Nice?”

In spite of her pity for the unhappy mother Halo felt a growing impatience. “If you wish to know the truth, we did give your son a — a small sum, but on the understanding that he was going to London to secure the job he had been promised.”

“Oh, my poor Chris — my poor Chris! And now what is to become of him? For years I’ve been dreading lest he should get money and escape from us again. It happened once before.” Mrs. Churley hid her face in her hands, and broke into stifled sobbing.

Halo knelt down by the lounge. “Mrs. Churley, please don’t be so distressed. After all, we must all follow our bent . . . artists especially . . . It may be best in the end for Chris to work out his own salvation. . .”

“Salvation? Among those dreadful people? And weak as he is — and with no health? When I think it was I who laid on him the curse of the artist’s nature! Oh, promise me that Mr. Weston will help to find him, and bring him back before his father knows.”

“What is it his father’s not to know?” came a tremulous bass voice, and Colonel Churley stepped into the room, with Mrs. Dorman wailing in the rear: “But, dear Colonel Churley, do wait! I assure you it may not be as bad as we fear!”

Halo discerned in the Colonel’s frowning countenance the same quiver of distress as in his voice. “He minds it even more than she does,” she thought, looking from the threatening jut of his white eyebrows to the troubled blue of his eyes. “This is an unexpected honour — my wife is able to see so few people.” The Colonel bowed stiffly to Halo with a questioning side-glance at Mrs. Churley, whose eyes were anxiously fixed on him. “Mrs. Weston has been so kind. I wanted to thank her. . .” Her voice faded into silence.

“And knowing that visitors are too fatiguing for you, you took advantage of my absence to do so,” the Colonel interposed, lifting his lean brown forefinger in an attempt at playfulness.

“Oh, Colonel Churley, really . . . there’s been no bad news as yet,” Mrs. Dorman protested.

The Colonel turned with a frightened frown; his purplish lips trembled. “No bad news? Has there been any news? Has Mrs. Weston brought us news of my son?”

“No, no . . . it was only my idea that dear Mrs. Churley should ask her if she and Mr. Weston hadn’t heard anything,” Mrs. Dorman faltered, her round face red with fright.

The Colonel again bowed. “Most kind — most thoughtful. I’m extremely obliged to all our friends for their interest. Mrs. Weston may not know that Chris has gone to London to take up an editorial position; in the rush of his new duties he has delayed to write.” He addressed himself to Halo with an apologetic smile. “My wife is an invalid; I’m afraid the time sometimes hangs heavily on her, in spite of the kindness you ladies show her — especially so when her son’s away. She doesn’t realize that young men are often bad correspondents; and knowing that you and Mr. Weston were kind enough to receive Chris, she fancied you might have heard from him.”

“No,” said Halo, “we’ve heard nothing.”

“There, my dear,” pursued the Colonel, “you see we’ve not been less favoured than others. The boy will write when he has time.” Mrs. Churley’s weeping had subsided into a little clucking murmur. The Colonel turned to Halo.

“I’m sorry you should have come when my wife is more than usually unequal to receiving company.” He stood looking almost plaintively at Halo, who thought:

“What he hates most of all is my seeing this untidy neglected house, and that poor creature in her misery.” She understood, and wishing Mrs. Churley goodbye turned toward the door. Colonel Churley opened it with a shaking hand, and Halo and Mrs. Dorman went from the room and down the stairs. Following them as they descended came the low clucking sound of Mrs. Churley’s weeping.

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