The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XX

Halo had been so moved by the sight of the ailing woman and the angry ineffectual old man, left alone in that dismal house to heap each other with recriminations, that she communicated her emotion to Vance; and when he proposed going to look for Chris she welcomed the suggestion. “The boy haunts me. To do anything so dishonest he must be in a bad way; and I feel as if we ought to do what we can.”

“Oh, he never meant to be dishonest. When he got to Toulon he probably saw a train starting for Nice, and was tempted by the idea of a night’s fun.”

“A night’s fun! But it’s a month since he went away, and it was only a day or two ago that Mrs. Churley’s friend saw him.”

“Well, it’s pretty smart of him to have made the money last as long as that,” Vance rejoined with a laugh; but in reality he too felt a vague pang at the thought of the irresponsible boy caught in that sordid whirlpool.

In the train his reflexions grew less emotional. It was obviously none of his business to find and reclaim Chris, even supposing the latter had deliberately deceived them, and used Vance’s money to offer himself a few weeks’ amusement; but there was something so droll in this act of defiance that Vance, in spite of his pity for the parents, was amused at the idea of being confronted with the son.

He was also acutely interested in the prospect of seeing for the first time the pleasure-seeking end of the Riviera. The contrast between Oubli-sur-Mer and the succession of white cities reflected in azure waters emphasized the narrowness and monotony of the life he had been leading. Slipping past towering palace hotels, and villas girt with lawns and pergolas, he recalled the mouldy blistered fronts of the pink house and the Pension Britannique; when, at the stations, flower-girls thrust up great sheaves of freesias and carnations, he saw the handful of wizened anemones bargained for by Miss Plummet at the market, and brought home to her invalid sister; and the motors pouring along wide dustless roads to inviting distances evoked the lurching omnibus crowded with garlicky peasants which, through clouds of suffocating dust, carried Oubli-sur-Mer to Toulon or Marseilles. A few hours earlier the quiet of Oubli had seemed a spiritual necessity; but already the new scenes were working their old spell.

These alternations of mood, which he had once ascribed to instability of aim, no longer troubled him. He knew now that they were only the play of the world of images on his creative faculty, and that his fundamental self remained unchanged under such shifting impulses. By the time the train reached Nice he was so lost in the visionary architecture of his inner world that the other had become invisible. He gazed at the big station packed with gaily dressed people and busy flower-sellers without remembering that it was there he should have got out; and now the guard was crying “Monte Carlo”, and above the station glittered the minarets and palms of the Casino.

“Well — why not?” Vance thought. Chris was as likely to be at Monte Carlo as at Nice; it was not probable that he would restrict his pleasure-seeking to one spot. Vance picked up his suit-case and jumped out. . .

Past sloping turf, palms imprisoned in bright blue or glaring magenta cinerarias, borders of hyacinths and banks of glossy shrubs, he climbed gaily to the polychrome confusion of the Casino. Stretching up from it to a stern mountain-background were villas and restaurants, and café-terraces where brightly dressed people sipped cocktails under orange-and-white umbrellas. Nearer by were tall hotels with awninged and flowered balconies; rows of taxis and private motors between the lawns and flower-beds before the Casino; young men in tennis flannels and young women in brilliant sports~suits, and strollers lounging along the balustraded walks. Among half-tropical trees a band played a gipsy tune of de Falla’s, and children with lovely flying hair raced ahead of nurses in long blue veils, who gossiped on the benches or languidly pursued their charges.

Halo would have called it a super-railway poster. She always spoke scornfully of the place, resenting such profanation of the gray mountain giants above it. In certain moods Vance might have agreed; but today the novelty and brightness struck his fancy, and the trimness of lawns, flowers, houses, satisfied his need of order and harmony. Everything wore the fairy glitter of a travelling circus to a small child in a country town, and the people who passed him looked as unreal, as privileged and condescending, as the spangled athletes of his infancy. He sat down on a bench and watched them.

The passing faces were not all young or beautiful; the greater number were elderly, many ugly, some painful or even repulsive; but almost all wore the same hard glaze of prosperity. Vance tried to conjecture what the inner lives of such people could be; he pictured them ordering rare delicacies in restaurants, buying costly cigars and jewels in glittering shops, stepping in and out of deeply-cushioned motors, ogling young women or painted youths, as sex and inclination prompted. “Chris’s ideal,” he murmured. He decided to take a look at the gambling-rooms; but it was luncheon~time, and people were coming out of the Casino, descending the steps to their motors or the near-by restaurants. As he stood there he suddenly caught sight of Lorry Spear; and at the same instant Lorry recognized him.

“Hullo, Vance — you? Halo here? I suppose she’s a peg above all this. Sent you off on your own, has she? Very white of her. Not staying here, though? Of course not; nobody does. I’m over from Cannes with a party, to lunch on the Gratz Blemers’ yacht — the biggest of her kind, I believe. You knew Blemer had carried off Jet Pulsifer under Tarrant’s very nose? Sharp fellow, Blemer . . . they were secretly married two or three months ago. That accounts for Tarrant’s turning down the divorce, I suppose,” Lorry rattled on, his handsome uncertain eyes rambling from Vance’s face to search the passing throng. “I say, though — why not come off to the yacht with us? When I say ‘us,’ I mean Mrs. Glaisher and Imp Pevensey, with whom I’m staying at Cannes. Mrs. Glaisher has taken a villa there, and we’re working over the final arrangements for ‘Factories’; at least I hope we are,” Lorry added with a dubious grin. “With the super-rich you never can tell; at the last minute they’re so darned scared of being done. But if Imp Pevensey can get Mrs. Blemer to take an interest she’s sure that’ll excite Mrs. Glaisher, and make her take the final step. Almost all their philanthropy’s based on rivalry . . . Well, so much the better for us . . . See here, my boy, come along; they’ll jump at the chance of seeing you . . . Ah, there’s the very young woman I’m on the look out for!” he exclaimed, darting toward a motor which had stopped before an hotel facing the Casino.

It was wonderful how Lorry fitted into the scene. In Montparnasse he had been keen, restless, careless in dress and manner; here he wore the same glossy veneer as all the rest. The very cut of his hair and his clothes had been adapted to his setting, and as he slipped through the crowd about the hotel Vance was struck by his resemblance to the other young men strolling in and out of its portals.

He had been amused by Lorry’s invitation. He had no intention of joining Mrs. Glaisher’s party, but that Lorry should propose it after what had passed between them was too characteristic to surprise him. Lorry had obviously forgotten the Glaisher episode, though it had occurred under his own roof; on seeing Vance he had remembered only that the latter was a good fellow whose passing celebrity had once been useful to him, and might be again. As Vance waited on the curb he thought how jolly it would be to go and lunch at one of those little terrace-restaurants over the sea that he had marked down from the train. After that he would return to Nice, and devise a way of running down Chris.

“Look here, Vance; you will come?” Lorry, rejoining him, grasped his arm with a persuasive hand. “No? It’s a pity — the yacht’s a wonder. Not to speak of Blemer and Jet! As a novelist you oughtn’t to miss them . . . Well, so long . . . Oh, by the way; won’t you dine at Cannes tonight instead? At Mrs. Glaisher’s — Villa Mirifique. I’ve just been arranging with that young woman over there to meet us here on our way back from the yacht. She’s coming over to spend a day or two with Mrs. Glaisher, and I’m sure she’d be delighted to drive you to Cannes. Come along and I’ll introduce you.” Lorry, as he spoke, swept Vance across to the hotel door, where a young lady who stood with her back to them was giving an order to her chauffeur. The motor drove off, and she turned and faced them.

“Floss,” Lorry cried, “here’s a friend of mine, a celebrated novelist, who wants a lift to Mrs. Glaisher’s this evening. Of course you’ve heard of Vance Weston — and read ‘The Puritan in Spain’?”

The girl, who had been looking at Lorry, turned interrogatively to Vance. Her movements had a cool deliberateness which seemed to single her out from the empty agitation around her. She lifted her dusky eyelids, and for a few seconds she and Vance looked at each other without speaking; then: “Why, old Van!” she said, in a warm voice flattened by the Middle Western drawl.

Vance stood staring. As through a mist of wine he saw this woman, become a stranger to his eyes yet so familiar to his blood. She was very dark; yes, he remembered; a warm dusky pallor, like the sound of her voice; glints of red under her skin, and in the gloom of her hair. She rarely smiled — he remembered that too — when she did it was like a fruit opening to the sun. His veins kept the feeling of that sultriness. . .

“Hullo! Old friends, are you? First-rate! Monte Carlo’s the place where nobody ever comes any more, yet where you meet everybody you know. All right — coming!” Lorry cried, gesticulating to a group on the other side of the square. “So long — Villa Mirifique; bring him along, Floss.”

“Oh, I’ll bring him,” said the girl in her indifferent drawl; and Lorry vanished.

Vance continued to look at Floss Delaney. It was not till afterward that he noticed the quiet elegance of her dress, or remembered that he had seen her getting out of a private motor and giving an order to the chauffeur. He knew that late in life the shiftless Harrison Delaney of Euphoria had stumbled into wealth as accidentally, almost, as, years before, he had sunk into poverty. When Vance had gone home after Laura Lou’s death Euphoria was still ringing with the adventure; Vance remembered the bitterness with which his father, the shrewd indefatigable little man who had failed to secure the fortune so often in his grasp, spoke of the idle Delaney’s rise. “A loafer like that — it’s enough to cure a man of ever wanting to do an honest day’s work,” Lorin Weston had growled. It all came back to Vance afterward; at the moment he was half-dazed by the encounter with this girl who had been the vehicle of his sharpest ecstasy and his blackest anguish. A vehicle; that was what she’d been; all she’d ever been. “The archway to the infinite” — who was it who had called woman that? It was true of a boy’s first love. In the days when Floss Delaney had so enraptured and tortured him she had never had any real identity to his untaught heart and senses; she had been simply undifferentiated woman; now for the first time he saw her as an individual, and perceived her peculiar loveliness. He gave a little laugh.

“What are you laughing at?” she asked.

“I was thinking I’d nearly shot myself on your account once. Funny, isn’t it?”

“Oh, ‘nearly’ — that’s not much! If you do it again you must aim better,” she said coolly; but he caught the glitter of pleasure in her eyes. “Old Van — only to think of coming across you here!” She slipped her hand through his arm, and they walked across the square and sat down on a bench under overhanging shrubs. “So you’re a celebrity,” she said, her full upper lip lifting in a smile.

“Well, so are you, aren’t you?”

“Because father’s made all that money?” She looked at him doubtfully. “It’s very pleasant,” she said, with a defiant tilt of her chin.

“And what are you going to do with it all?”

“I don’t know. Just go round, I suppose.”

“Where’s your father? Is he here with you?”

Yes, she told him; she was travelling with her father; they were staying at the hotel to which Vance had just seen her driving up. They had been going around Europe for over a year now: Rome, Paris, Egypt, St. Moritz — all the places they thought might amuse them. But her father wasn’t easy to amuse. He was as lazy as ever; he didn’t so much mind travelling, provided they went to places where he could have a game of cards; but he didn’t care to go round with new people. She would have preferred to be at Cannes, where most of her friends were, and everything was ever so much smarter; but her father had found at Monte Carlo some old cronies whom he had met the winter before at Luxor, and he liked to be with them, or else to play baccarat at the Casino. That day he had gone over to Nice with some of his crowd; she didn’t believe they’d be back till morning. He’d be so surprised to see Vance when he got back. “He’s read your books,” she added, almost ingratiatingly.

“That means you haven’t?”

“Well — I will now.” She glanced about her, and then down at the little jewelled watch on her wrist. “I’m on my own today. Can’t you take me off somewhere to lunch?”

Vance sprang up joyfully. He felt ravenous for food, and as happy as a schoolboy on a holiday. He thought of the terrace-restaurants he had seen from the train, and wondered if they would be grand enough for her. “Let’s go somewhere right over the sea,” he suggested, trying to describe the kind of place he meant. “Not swell, you know — not a crowd. Just a little terrace with a few tables.” Yes, that was exactly what she wanted; away from the noise, and those awful bands — she knew the very place. It wasn’t far off; a little way down the road toward Cap Martin; but she was too hungry to walk. They took a taxi.

The scene suited her indolent beauty. She was made for the sunlit luxury to which she affected such indifference. At Oubli she would have been a false note; here she seemed to justify the general futility by the way it became her. As he looked at her, the memory of the Floss Delaney of his boyhood came back to him, struggling through the ripened and polished exterior of the girl at his side. After all her face had not changed; it had the same midsummer afternoon look, as though her penthouse hair were the shade of a forest, her eyes its secret pools. A still windless face, suggesting the note of stock-doves, the hum of summer insects. Vance had always remembered it so. She hardly ever smiled; and when she laughed, her laugh was a faint throat note that did not affect the repose of her features. But her body had grown slenderer yet rounder. Before it had been slightly heavy, its movements slow and awkward; now it was as light as a feather. Halo had fine lines, but was too thin, the bones in her neck were too visible; this girl, who must have been about the same age, and had the same Diana-like curve from shoulder to hip, was more rounded, and her hands were smaller and plumper than Halo’s, though not so subtle and expressive.

Vance was glad that he could take note of all this, could even calmly compare Floss Delaney’s appearance with that of the woman he loved; it proved his emotional detachment, and made him feel safe and at his ease.

They sat under a gay awning, before a red-and-white table-cloth, and ate Provençal dishes, and drank a fresh native wine. Floss, wrinkling her brows against the sun, stole curious glances at him. “You’ve changed a lot; you’ve grown handsome,” she said suddenly.

He laughed, and flushed to the roots of his hair; but she went on: “I heard you were married; are you?”

He wished she had not put the question; yet a moment later he was glad she had. It was best that everything should be clear between them.

“No; I’m not married — yet. But I expect to be. To Lorry Spear’s sister.”

“Oh,” she murmured, with ironic eye-brows. “She’s heard about Halo and me,” he thought; and cursed Mrs. Glaisher.

“Well, I suppose I’ll be married too some day,” she went on, her attention wandering back to herself, as it always did after a moment; and he felt an abrupt shock of jealousy.

“I suppose you’ve got lots of fellows after you.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Anyhow, I’m not going to make up my mind yet; I like my freedom.” She stressed the word voluptuously, bending her lips to her glass of pale yellow wine, and as he watched her he broke out, from some unconscious depth of himself: “God — how you made me suffer!”

She looked at him with a sort of amused curiosity. “You’re thinking of Euphoria?” He nodded.

“Yes; I was a bad girl, I know — but you were a bad boy; and silly.” Her eyes lingered on him. “I used to love to kiss you. Didn’t you love it? But you didn’t understand — ”

“What?”

“A girl like me had to look out for herself. There was nobody to do it for me. But let’s talk about what we are NOW; what’s the use of going back? This is ever so much more fun. Don’t you like being famous?” She leaned across and laid her brown hand on his. He looked at the polished red nails, and remembered her blunt dirty finger-tips, the day he had picked her up in the road after her bicycle accident. Even then, he thought, she used to spend every cent she could get on paint and perfume. He smiled at himself and her.

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