The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XXI

Over the coffee he proposed their going back to the Casino to gamble; but she refused. “Father gambles; that’s enough for one family. I mean to keep what I’ve got,” she said; and in her hardening eyes and narrowed lips he detected the reflection of the lean years at Crampton, and at Dakin, where she had gone (so his family had told him) as saleswoman in a dry-goods’ shop. Those days had once been a tormenting mystery; but now he only pitied her for the background of dark memories overshadowing her brilliant present.

He had told her he would not go with her to Mrs. Glaisher’s, and had been secretly gratified by her pout of disappointment. “I think you might.”

“No; I don’t like those people. And anyway, I’ve got to stop off at Nice tonight.”

Her eyes grew curious. “I wonder what you’ve got to do at Nice?”

Half-laughing, he confessed his reason, telling her what he could of Chris Churley’s story without betraying the secret of the boy’s escapade. “His family are worried; they don’t know where he is. The other day some friend of theirs said he’d seen him at Nice, in a nightclub; so they asked me if I’d hunt him up.”

“Well, that’s funny — ”

“I know; but they’re poor, and sick — at least his mother’s sick — and he’s all they’ve got.”

“I don’t see how you can find him, rummaging round Nice without an address.”

“Neither do I; but I’ll have to try.”

She sat with lowered lids, meditating. “Tell me again what his name is.”

“Chris Churley.”

“That’s it. I heard Alders talking about him yesterday.”

“Alders?”

“Mrs. Glaisher’s secretary. He always knows about everybody.”

“A little man who looks like a freckle?”

“Well — I guess so,” she said hesitatingly, as if analogies were unfamiliar to her.

“Come to think of it, Alders is sure to be Mrs. Glaisher’s secretary. It’s absolutely predestined. You’re certain you heard him mention Chris Churley?”

She still hesitated, and he recalled that she had never had a good memory for anything that did not directly concern herself, or hold out some possible advantage. “Well, it was something like Churley. But I hear so many names. Is he a newspaper man? There was some fellow I heard Alders talking about, who wanted to get introduced to Gratz Blemer, and write about him; Alders was going to fix it up.” Vance laughed, and she added: “Do you think that’s it?”

“Sounds like it,” he said, picturing to himself the bewilderment of Blemer, who was used to “straight” interviewing, under the cross~fire of Chris’s literary confidences.

They strolled back toward Monte Carlo. The distance was not great, and Miss Delaney had declared that she would like to walk; but she hailed the first taxi. “I guess I’m through with walking — as long as there’s money enough left to go on wheels,” she said; and Vance thought of her struggling four times a day on her bicycle through the frozen ruts or the bottomless mud between Euphoria and Crampton. He understood why the aspirations of the newly rich were so often what Halo would have called vulgar.

He was still resolved not to go to Mrs. Glaisher’s, but he finally agreed to join Miss Delaney at her hotel, and motor with her as far as Nice; and she promised to telephone him if Alders knew where Chris Churley was to be found.

Vance went to the gambling rooms, risked a small sum, and carried away enough to pay for his outing. He was too much engrossed in the thought of Floss Delaney to lose his head over the game; but before leaving he made the round of the rooms, and assured himself that, for the moment, Chris was not in them.

When he came out he remembered that on arriving he had left his suit-case at the station. Oh, well, he thought, Floss was sure not to be on time; he could easily run down the hill and be back before she was ready to start. But when he returned to the hotel the hall porter, after an inspection of the lounge, and a consultation with the concierge, announced that Miss Delaney had gone.

Vance felt a moment of vexation. It was only half-past seven. Had she left no message? Not as far as the porter knew. Vance repeated the enquiry at the desk. He thought he detected a faint smile on the face of the gold-braided functionaries. How many times a day must that question be put to them! “Oh, well — .” He was relieved to find that after all he didn’t much care, though a twinge of vanity shot through his affected indifference.

On the threshold he was detained by a page-boy with a visiting~card. “The concierge thinks perhaps this is for you.”

On the back of the card, in an untidily pencilled scrawl, Vance read: “Tell him to come after us.” He guessed this cryptic scribble to be Floss’s way of ordering the concierge to send him in pursuit of her; but, as he had declined to go, the message had no particular point. He laughed, and absently turned the card over. On the back was engraved: Duca di Spartivento.

“Is it meant for you, sir?” the page asked; and Vance, with a shrug, pocketed the card and went out.

The Duke of Spartivento! What faint memory-waves did those sonorous syllables set rippling? Granada — Alders? But of course! This trumpet of a name was that of the young Italian cousin — or nephew? — of the old Marquesa to whose tertulia Vance had gone with Alders. He remembered that the latter, the day he had come to bid Halo and Vance goodbye, had spoken with his deprecating smirk of being about to join his Spanish friends for a shooting party in their cousin’s honour, at the Marquesa’s castle in Estremadura . . . it was then that the splendid name had shot before him up like a rocket. “Or like a line from the ‘Song to David’,” he remembered thinking.

Floss’s having written her message on the back of that particular card seemed part of the fairy-tale enveloping him. Since his meeting with her, and their hour in the little restaurant, nothing that could happen seemed impossible, or even unlikely. Amusement conquered his vexation . . . it was all part of the fairy-tale. In the darkness already sparkling with lights, he stood wondering whether he should take the next train to Nice, or treat himself to a taxi out of his winnings. He decided on the taxi.

He was about to hail one when he felt another touch on his arm, and saw at his side a chauffeur in dark livery. “Are you the gentleman —?” Vance stared, and the chauffeur continued in fluent English: “Going to Cannes with Miss Delaney, sir? That’s right. Here’s her car. She’s gone on with the others; but she told me to wait and bring you.” He had his hand on the shining panel of the motor from which Vance had seen Floss descend that morning; and Vance obediently got in. Let the fairy-tale go on as long as it would. When he got to Nice he’d tell the fellow to drop him at some quiet hotel. . .

He had no notion which way they were going. From the train he had seen the road only in uncertain glimpses, climbing between garden walls or dropping to the sea; and now darkness made the scene strange. They ascended between illuminated houses; then the streets ceased, and he found himself high up, flashing past dark wooded heights and looking across a sea of verdure to the other sea below, its shore thrust forth in black headlands or ravelled into long sinuous inlets. The moon had not risen, but the evening star hung in the sky like a lesser moon, and the early constellations pushed upward, deepening the night. But only for a moment; almost at once they paled and vanished in the spreading of artificial lights that festooned the coast, crested the headlands, flowed in golden streamers across bays and harbours, and flashed and revolved from unseen lighthouses, binding the prone landscape in a net of fire.

Overhead rose a continuous cliff, wooded and sombre; below a continuous city sparkled and twisted. Vance hung over the scene entranced. He had no thought of places or distances; as the motor climbed, descended and rose again, he felt like a bird floating above the earth, like an errant Perseus swooping down to free this dark Andromeda from her jewelled chains. Visions and images pressed on him. They mingled with the actual scene, so that what his eyes saw, and what his fancy made of it, flowed into one miracle of night and fire. And now the motor had dropped to the shore again, and the sea, dim and unbound, swayed away into blackness. Vance longed to jump out and dash over the sands into that moving obscurity; but he felt that the incessant shifting of the scene was the very source of its magic, and leaned back satisfied.

Suddenly he was aware that the motor was manoeuvring at a sharp turn. They were out in the country again, or in a leafy suburb, with gate-ways and house-fronts seen through foliage. “See here — what about Nice?” he called to the chauffeur.

“Nice?” the latter echoed, busy with his backing; “this is the way up to Mrs. Glaisher’s. Damned bad corner — ”

“Oh, but it’s all a mistake. I meant to get out at Nice. Can’t you take me back there?”

“Back to Nice? You never said anything about Nice, sir.” The chauffeur turned his head reproachfully. “What time do you suppose it is? Nearly half-past nine; and I haven’t had no dinner yet. Have YOU?” His tone was respectful but aggrieved. “It’s here Miss Delaney said I was to bring you. . .” The motor rolled between illuminated gate-posts and along a drive to a white-pillared portico. “This way,” said a footman, who seemed to have been waiting for Vance from the beginning of time; and Vance followed his suit-case up a broad flight of marble steps. It was true — he had forgotten to tell the chauffeur that he wanted to get out at Nice.

In a hall paved with coloured marbles he saw, redoubled in tall mirrors, a tired parched-looking self in faded flannel suit and shabby hat. Other footmen appeared, eyeing him expectantly yet uncertainly; had it depended on them, their look implied, he would never have been included in the party. Then a familiar falsetto exclaimed: “Here he is! D’you remember Alders? My dear fellow, how are you? Mrs. Glaisher’s in the loggia with the others. Never mind about not being dressed. . .” It was the same old Alders, more brushed-up and sleek in his new evening clothes, but still timid yet familiar, putting Vance at his ease, gently steering him in the way he should go. Vance smilingly submitted.

The loggia was a sort of open-air dining-room. Arcaded bays of plate-glass looked out over a dim garden. In the diffused candle~glow Vance saw, at a long table, Mrs. Glaisher, Lady Pevensey, Lorry, and a dozen others: young women with shining shoulder-blades in soft-coloured dresses, men in evening clothes with bald or glossily-brushed heads. He recalled the evening parties to which the Tarrants used to take him, when he was planning a novel called “Loot”, and absorbed in the faces and fashions of successful worldlings. But here the background supplied the element of poetry for lack of which the theme had ceased to interest him. The same trivial, over-dressed and over-fed people acquired a sort of Titianesque value from the sheer loveliness of their setting; grouped about the table with its fruit and flowers, framed in the pink marble shafts of the loggia, above gardens sloping away to the illuminated curve of the shore, they became as pictorial as their background, and Vance’s first thought was: “If they only knew enough not to speak!”

But a plaintive lady in pearls was just declaring: “What I always say is: If you’re going to buy a Rolls–Royce, buy TWO . . . it pays in the end”; and a flushed bald gentleman across the table affirmed emphatically: “We’ve run down a little place AT LAST where you can really count on the caviar. . .”

Mrs. Glaisher, from the head of the table, shed an untroubled welcome on Vance. She too had clearly forgotten that anything had clouded their previous meeting. “Mr. Weston! This is too delightful.” She held out a fat hand corseted with rings. “No, no, of course you mustn’t dress . . . Sit down just as you are — this is pot-luck with a friend or two . . . Imp, where’s Mr. Weston to sit? Floss, darling, can you make room for him?”

He sat down beside her, dizzy and excited. “I didn’t know you when I first came in,” he said. He had never before seen her in evening dress. For a moment she had been merged in the soft glitter of the other young women; but now they were all shadowy beside her, she alone seemed like some warm living substance in a swaying dream. “I never meant to come,” he mumbled, half-laughing. His throat was dry with excitement; he emptied the glass of champagne beside his plate. “It was all your chauffeur’s mistake.”

“I’m sorry you think it was a mistake,” she said, with a little lift of her chin; and he laughed back: “Oh, but I didn’t say it was MINE!”

Alders beamed over at them in his oblique and furtive way. Vance felt that Alders regarded him as his property, and the idea added to the humour of the situation. But in Floss Delaney’s nearness nothing else seemed real or important, and while he ate and drank, and now and then touched her hand, or drew into his eyes the curve of her round throat as she tilted back her head, the chatter about them grew vague as the buzz of insects — as though the other guests had been great heavy bees gathering to loot the piled-up fruit and flowers.

Now and then a fragment of talk detached itself; Lorry haranguing about the future of the ballet, or Lady Pevensey shrilling out: “Duke, we won’t let you carry off Miss Delaney on the Blemers’ yacht unless you’ll promise to land her in London next June. We’ve got to show her London, you know.”

Vance did not know who the Duke was. The dark lean young man on Mrs. Glaisher’s right (of whom Vance was just becoming faintly aware) gave a dry chuckle, and a large pale man opposite said, rather self-consciously: “What London wants is to be shown Miss Delaney.” Vance concluded that this gentleman was the Duke, and wished he had looked more like one of the family portraits at the Marquesa’s.

Miss Delaney seemed to think a faint laugh a sufficient answer to these comments. Her inarticulateness, which used to make her seem sullen, had acquired an aesthetic grace. It suited her small imperial head, the low brow, the heavily-modelled lids and mouth; and her silence suggested not lack of ease but such self-confidence that effort was unnecessary.

“It’s funny — you’re just the way you used to be, yet being so makes you so different,” he said, with small hope of her understanding; but she replied with a murmur of amusement: “I don’t believe anybody really changes.”

“You might have waited for me this evening.”

“You said nothing would induce you to come.”

He laughed: “I guess you had me abducted, didn’t you?” and she rejoined serenely: “No; I knew I didn’t have to.”

“Oh, look — ” he exclaimed, laying his hand on her warm brown arm.

Slowly the full moon was lifting her silver round above the trees. With her rising a subtle alteration transformed the landscape. The lights along the shore waned and grew blurred, and the indistinct foreground of the garden began to detach itself in sculptural masses: wide-branching trees built up like heavy marble candelabra, alabaster turf edged with silver balustrades, a jewelled setting of precious metals that framed the moving silver of the sea.

The talk about the table was struck silent as Mrs. Glaisher’s guests stared at the miracle; but presently some one broke out: “By Jove, but tonight’s the Fête of the Fireworks at the Casino; who’s going down to see it?”

There was stir among the company, like the replete diner’s uneasy effort not to miss the culminating dish; then Lorry Spear broke in with a laugh: “Going down to the Casino to see fireworks? I should have thought this terrace was the best proscenium we could find.”

The others joined in the laugh, and the diners, when wraps had been brought, wandered out onto the terrace. The night was mild and windless; the younger women, rejecting the suggestion of fur cloaks, stood about in luminous groups of mother-of-pearl. Vance had followed Floss Delaney, but two or three other men joined her, and he drew back, content to watch her as she leaned on the balustrade of the terrace, a gauze scarf silvering her shoulders, her arms shining through it like pale amber. The beauty of the night purged his mind of the troubled thoughts his meeting with her had stirred, and he felt her presence only as part of the general harmony.

A long “Oh-h” broke from the watchers. Far below the villa sea and horizon became suddenly incandescent; then a dawn-like radiance effaced the fires, and when that vanished every corner of the night was arched with streamers and rainbows of flashing colour. Through them, as they shot up and crossed each other in celestial trellisings, the moon looked down in wonder. Now she seemed a silver fish caught in a golden net, now a great orange on a tree full of blossoms, or a bird of Paradise in a cage of sapphires and rubies — yet so aloof, so serenely remote, that she seemed to smile down goddess-like at the tangle of earthly lights, as though she were saying: “Are those multi-coloured sparks really what the people on that little planet think the stars are like? Funny earth~children, amusing themselves down there with a toy-sky while up here we gods of the night are fulfilling our round unnoticed.” Yet while she mused, he saw that she too changed colour with the change of lights, turning now blush-red, now gold, now pearl, like a goddess who reddens and pales because Actaeon has looked at her . . . Somehow that wondering moon, going her cool way alone, yet blushing and faltering in the tangle of earth-lights, suddenly reminded him of Halo.

“It’s getting as cold as Greenland out here,” one of the women exclaimed. “What’s the matter with indoors and bridge?”

The guests trailed back, chattering and laughing, and through the windows Vance saw the footmen opening the card-tables and laying out the cards. He was about to follow when the thin dark young man who had sat at Mrs. Glaisher’s right strolled up, holding out a cigar-case in a lean family-portrait-like hand. “Have one?” Vance’s acceptance called to the other’s narrow vertical face a smile lit up by perfect teeth: one would have supposed that in taking a cigar Vance had done him a quite exceptional favour. The smile persisted. “You make a good deal of money out of your books, I presume?” the young man continued, speaking English with a foreign accent to which a marked nasal twang was oddly super-added. The question jolted Vance out of his dream, and before he could answer the other continued earnestly: “Pardon ME if I ask. Of course I know of your celebrity; your sales must be colossal — not? But very often you successful brilliant artists don’t know how to invest your earnings. If that is your case I should be most happy to offer you expert advice. There are a number of opportunities on the market today for any one who’s got the nerve to get in on the ground floor. . .”

“Duke — Duke! We’re waiting for you to make up Mrs. Glaisher’s table,” Imp Pevensey’s voice shrilled out across the terrace.

“Oh, hell — ” remarked the dark young man, in an untroubled voice; adding, as he drew a card from his pocket: “If you require advice I guess we can fix you up as good as anybody. What my firm is after is to cater to the élite, social and artistic. So long!” He pressed the card in Vance’s hand, and the latter read on it, wondering:

DUCA DI SPARTIVENTO

With

ROSENZWEIG AND BLEMP

Members New York Stock Exchange
New York and Paris

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/gods_arrive/chapter21.html

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