The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

II

Halo had said: “Now you’ll have your fill of the sea — ” and Vance Weston had smiled at the idea that ten days could be enough of infinitude. Hitherto his horizon had been bounded by the prairies of the Middle West or walled in between the cliffs of the Hudson or the skyscrapers of New York. Twice only had he drunk of that magic, in two brief glimpses which had seemed to pour the ocean through his veins. If a lover can separate the joys of love from its setting, he felt a separate delight in knowing that his first days and nights with Halo were to be spent at sea.

When his wife’s death, and Halo Tarrant’s decision to leave her husband, had brought the two together a few months previously, Vance had seen no reason for not seizing at once on their predestined happiness. But Halo felt differently. When she went to him with the news of her freedom she supposed him to be separated from his wife, and thought that he and she might resume their fraternal intimacy without offense to Laura Lou. Then, when she had run him to earth in a shabby outskirt of New York, she had discovered that he also was free, freed not by the law but by the fact that his young wife had just died in the tumble-down bungalow where Halo had found him. There she learned that there had been no lasting quarrel between Vance and Laura Lou, and that they had never separated. Expecting to find a deserted husband she had encountered a mourning widower, and had been paralyzed by the thought of declaring her love under the roof where Vance’s vigil by his wife’s death-bed was barely ended. Vance had hardly perceived the barrier that she felt between them. He lived in a simpler moral atmosphere, and was quicker at distinguishing the transient from the fundamental in human relations; but he would have felt less tenderly toward Halo if she had not been aware of that silent presence.

“But she’s there, dearest — can’t you feel it? Don’t you see her little face, so pleading and puzzled . . . as it was that day when she was angry with me for going to see her, and turned me out of her room — do you remember? Oh, Vance, it was all for love of you — don’t I KNOW? I understood it even then; I loved her for it. I used to envy her for having somebody to worship. And now I see her, I feel her near us, and I know we must give her time, time to understand, time to consent, to learn not to hate me, as she would hate me at this minute if you and I were to forget her.”

Vance had never before thought of the past in that way; but as he listened Halo’s way became his, and her evocation of Laura Lou, instead of paining or irritating him, seemed like saying a prayer on a lonely grave. Such feelings, instinctive in Halo, were familiar to Vance through the pity for failure, pity for incomprehension, which glowed in his grandmother’s warm blood. New York and Euphoria called things by different names, and feelings which in the older society had become conventionalized seemed to require formulating and ticketing in the younger; but the same fibres stirred to the same touch.

Vance and Halo, that spring evening, had parted after a long talk. Halo had gone to join her parents at Eaglewood, their country place above Paul’s Landing; Vance had returned to his family at Euphoria, with the idea of settling down there for a year of writing, away from all the disturbances, material and moral, which had so long hampered his work. By the end of the year Halo would have obtained her divorce, his book (he was sure) would be finished, and a new life could begin for both. Vance meant to go on with the unfinished novel, “Magic,” which had been so strangely stimulated by his wife’s illness, so violently interrupted by her death. That sad fragment of his life was over, his heart was free to feed on its new hopes, and he felt that it would be easy, after a few weeks of rest, to return to his work.

They had all been very kind at Euphoria. His father’s business was recovering, though his spirits were not. A younger and more unscrupulous school of realtors had robbed Mr. Weston of his former prominence. Though he retained its faint reflection among his contemporaries he was a back number to the younger men, and he knew it, and brooded over the thought that if things had gone differently Vance might have been one of his successful supplanters. Lorin Weston would have liked to be outwitted in business by his own son. “I used to think you’d be a smarter fellow than I ever was,” he said wistfully. “And anyway, if you’d come back and taken that job they offered you on the ‘Free Speaker’ you could have given me enough backing to prevent the Crampton deal going through without me. I was a pioneer of Crampton, and everybody in Euphoria knows it. But those fellows squared the ‘Free Speaker’ and so their deal with the Shunts motor people went through without me. And it’s not much more’n three years ago that I sold that house your grandmother used to live in for less than what Harrison Delaney got the year after by the square yard for that rookery of his down the lane — you remember?” Vance remembered.

“Oh, well,” interrupted Mrs. Weston, in the nervous tone of one who knows what is coming, and has heard it too often, “there’s no use your going over that old Delaney deal again. I guess everybody has a chance once in their lives — and anyhow, Harrison Delaney’s waited long enough for his.”

“Well, he DID wait, and I couldn’t afford to. He smelt out somehow that Shunts Amalgamated were buying up everything they could lay their hands on down Crampton way; and he pocketed his million — yes, sir, one million — and sent for that girl of his, who was on some job over at Dakin, and the story is they’ve gone over to Europe to blow it in — gay Paree!” Mr. Weston jeered a little mournfully. “Well, son, I always kinder hoped when you’d worked the literature out of your system you’d come back and carry on the old job with me; and if you had I guess we’d be running Crampton today instead of the Shuntses.”

However, the Euphoria boom was not confined to Crampton, and Mr. Weston’s improved situation enabled him to pay Vance’s debts (though the total startled him), and even to promise his son a small allowance till the latter could get on his feet and produce that surest evidence of achievement, a best-seller. “And he will too, Vanny will; just you folks reserve your seats and wait,” his grandmother Scrimser exulted, her old blue eyes sparkling like flowers through her tears.

“Well, I guess father’ll be prouder of that than what he would of a real-estate deal,” Mae, the cultured daughter, remarked sententiously.

“I will, the day he gets up to Harrison Delaney’s figure,” Mr. Weston grumbled; but he circulated Mrs. Scrimser’s prophecy among his cronies, and Vance’s fame spread about through Euphoria. The women of the family (his grandmother not excepted) took even more pride in the prospect of his marrying into one of the “regular Fifth Avenue families.” “Well, if they wouldn’t listen to me I guess they’ll all be listening to YOU some day soon,” Mrs. Scrimser said, humorously alluding to an unsuccessful attempt she had once made to evangelize fashionable New York. They all gloated over a snap-shot of Halo which Vance had brought with him, and his mother longed to give it to the “Free Speaker” for publication, and to see Vance, on both literary and social grounds, interviewed, head-lined and banqueted. But they were impressed, if disappointed, by his resolve to defend his privacy. He had come back home to work, they explained for him; one of the big New York publishers was waiting for his new book, and showing signs of impatience; and the house in Mapledale Avenue was converted into a sanctuary where the family seer might vaticinate undisturbed.

Never before in Vance’s troubled life had he worked with an easy mind. He had written the first chapters of “Magic” in an agony of anxiety. Fears for his wife’s health, despair of his own future, regrets for his past mistakes, had made his mind a battle-ground during the months before Laura Lou’s death. Yet through that choking anguish the fount of inspiration had forced its way; and now that he sat secure under the Mapledale Avenue roof, heart and mind at peace, the past at rest, the future radiant, the fount was dry. Before he had been at home a week he was starving for Halo, and stifling in the unchanged atmosphere of Euphoria. He saw now that the stimulus he needed was not rest but happiness. He had meant to send Halo what he wrote, chapter by chapter; but he could not write. What he needed was not her critical aid but her nearness. His apprentice days were over; he knew what he was trying to do better than any one could tell him, even Halo; what he craved was the one medium in which his imagination could expand, and that was Halo herself.

For two or three months he struggled on without result; then, after a last night spent in desperate contemplation of the blank sheets on his desk, he threw his manuscript into his suit-case and went down to announce his departure to the family. He travelled from Euphoria to Paul’s Landing as quickly as changes of train permitted; and two days later rang the door-bell of Eaglewood, and said to the Spears’ old chauffeur, Jacob, who appeared at the door in the guise of the family butler: “Hullo, Jake; remember me — Vance Weston? Yes; I’ve just arrived from out west; and I’ve got to see Mrs. Tarrant right off . . .”

That had happened in August; now, barely three weeks later, Halo sat at his side in a corner of the liner’s deck, and the night-sea encircled them, boundless and inscrutable as their vision of the future. There was no moon, but the diffused starlight gave a faint uniform lustre to the moving obscurity. The sea, throbbing and hissing in phosphorescent whirls about the steamer’s keel, subsided to vast ebony undulations as it stretched away to the sky. The breeze blew against the lovers’ faces purified of all earthly scents, as if it had circled forever over that dematerialized waste. Vance sat with his arm about Halo, brooding over the mystery of the waters and his own curious inability to feel their vastness as he had once felt it from a lonely beach on Long Island. It was as if the sea shrank when no land was visible — as if the absence of the familiar shore made it too remote, too abstract, to reach his imagination. He had a feeling that perhaps he would never be able to assimilate perfection or completeness.

“It’s funny,” he said; and when Halo wanted to know what was, he rejoined: “Well, when people tell me a story, and say: ‘Here’s something you ought to make a good thing out of, if what they tell me is too perfect, too finished — if they don’t break off before the end — I can’t do anything with it. Snatches, glimpses — the seeds of things — that’s what story-tellers want. I suppose that’s why the Atlantic’s too big for me. A creek’s got more of the sea in it, for people who want to turn it into poetry.”

She pressed closer to him. “That’s exactly the theme of ‘Magic’, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” he assented; and sat silent. “Do you know, there’s another thing that’s funny — ”

“What else is?”

“Well, I used to think your eyes were gray.”

“Aren’t they?”

“They’re all mixed with brown, like autumn leaves on a gray stream.”

“Vance, wouldn’t it be awful if you found out that everything about me was different from what you used to think?”

“Well, everything is — I mean, there are all sorts of lights and shades and contradictions and complications.”

“Perhaps I shall be like your subjects. If you get to know me too well you won’t be able to do anything with me. I suppose that’s why artists often feel they oughtn’t to marry.”

“What they generally feel is that they oughtn’t to stay married,” he corrected.

“Well — it’s not too late!” she challenged him.

“Oh, but they’ve got to marry first; artists have. Or some sort of equivalent.”

“You acknowledge that you’re all carnivora?”

He turned and drew her head to his cheek in the dimness. “I said perfection was what I hadn’t any use for.” Their laughter mixed with their long kiss; then she loosed herself from his arms and stood up.

“Come, Vance, let’s go and look at the past for a minute.”

“What’s the past?”

She drew him along the deck, from which the last of the passengers were descending to the light and sociability below; they retraced the ship’s length till they reached a point at the stern from which they could see the receding miles of star-strown ocean. “Look how we’re leaving it behind and how it’s racing after us,” Halo said. “I suppose there’s a symbol in that. All the things we’ve done and thought and struggled for, or tried to escape from, leagued together and tearing after us. Doesn’t it make you feel a little breathless? I wonder what we should do if they caught up with us.”

Vance leaned on the rail, his arm through hers. The immensity of the night was rushing after them. On those pursuing waves he saw the outstretched arms of his youth, his parents, his grandmother, Floss Delaney, Mrs. Pulsifer, the girls who had flitted across his path, and the little white vision of Laura Lou springing like spray from wave to wave. He pictured a man suddenly falling over the ship’s side, and seized and torn to pieces by the pack of his memories — then he felt the current of Halo’s blood beating in his, and thought: “For a little while longer we shall outrace them.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/gods_arrive/chapter2.html

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