The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XXII

When Vance came down the next morning none of Mrs. Glaisher’s other guests were visible. Even Alders, no doubt engrossed in secretarial business, did not show himself; but the night before, when Vance had questioned him about Chris Churley, he had said instantly: “Ah, you know Chris? So much the better. I was going to ask if you wouldn’t give him an interview — for an article in the ‘Windmill’, you know.”

Vance laughed. “Yes, I do know; and I gave him the interview a good many weeks ago.”

Alders wrinkled his brows deprecatingly. “Ah — there it is! No results, I suppose? A genius — certainly a touch of genius, eh? But can’t be pinned down. He begged me to get him a chance to see Gratz Blemer, and though Blemer’s shy of publicity at present (or SHE is, rather) I did persuade them that ‘The Rush Hour’ ought to be written about in the ‘Windmill’, and Chris spent an afternoon on the yacht — enjoying it immensely, by the way; but as for the article, nothing came of it. Blemer keeps on asking me when he’s to see the copy; and what can I answer, when I can’t even get hold of Churley?”

“Ah — you can’t get hold of him?”

“Vanished — like an absconding cashier. Some fellow saw him playing in the baccarat room at Monte Carlo; but I’ve looked in two or three times without finding him. And of course I don’t know his address. I daresay, though, he’ll bob up when he hears you’re here.”

Vance had good reasons for not thinking so; but there seemed nothing to do but to prosecute his search at Monte Carlo, since it was there that Chris had last been seen. A confidential enquiry at the police-station might possibly give some result; but in a big city like Nice the boy would be harder to trace.

Vance was still dizzy with the translation from Oubli-sur-Mer to the Villa Mirifique. Floss Delaney, unreal as the setting in which he had found her, seemed the crowning improbability of the adventure. But the villa, at any rate, was substantial. The morning sun, robbing it of its magic, merely turned it into an expensive-looking house from which splendour and poetry had fled. As he paced the terrace above the over-ornamented gardens Vance asked himself if he should have the same disillusionment when he saw Miss Delaney again. On the very spot where he now paused to light his cigarette he had stood beside her the night before while the moon turned her bare arms to amber. He had promised to meet her, with the rest of the party, that evening at Monte Carlo; they were to dine, he didn’t remember where, with the fat pale man he had taken for the Duke of Spartivento, and who turned out to be somebody infinitely more important, an oil or railway king, Alders explained.

Vance had had only a short exchange of words with Alders when the party broke up, for the secretary had to hurry away to arrange for the morrow. Alders had undergone a curious transformation. In spite of all that the best tailoring could do he was as mothlike and furtive as ever; but under his apologetic manner Vance felt a new assurance, perhaps founded on financial security. Alders’s literary earnings, he explained to Vance (who wondered by what they were produced), had become too precarious; in these uncertain times his publishers would give him no promise regarding the big book he had long been planning (Vance would remember?) on Ignatius Loyola . . . no, on El Greco; and his own small income having unfortunately diminished, he had accepted the post of secretary to Mrs. Glaisher rather than become a burden on his friends. He added that his wide range of acquaintances enabled him to be of some service to his employer, who, like the illustrious women of the Renaissance (“there’s something of the Sforzas about her, I always think,”) wanted to know every one eminent in rank or talent, and had shown herself very appreciative of his guidance. “Of course,” Alders explained, in the same tone of timid fastidiousness in which Vance had heard him dilate on the Valencian primitives, or the capitals of Santo Domingo de Silos — “of course it’s easy, even for women of Mrs. Glaisher’s discernment, to be taken in by the flashy adventurers who are always trying to force their way into rich people’s houses; and I do my best to protect her. As you see, the set she has about her would be distinguished anywhere . . . Sir Felix Oster (the stout pale man on her left at dinner; a Napoleonic head, I often say) — Sir Felix very seldom troubles himself to go to other people’s houses. We’re all dining with him tonight, at the new restaurant up at La Turbie; and as for my old friend, the Duke of Spartivento — he was tremendously excited at meeting you, my dear Weston — told me he’d heard all about your books; well, in the Duke’s case,” Alders summed up with his faint sketch of a smile, “I begin to think that in introducing him here I may have done him an even bigger service than I have his hostess.” Alders laid his hands together with the devotional gesture Vance had seen him make in the presence of works of art. “An Italian Duke and a grandee of Spain . . . all I can say is, the prize is worthy of the effort.”

At Alders’s words a pang shot through Vance. What was the prize, and whose was to be the effort? Instantly he imagined that he had seen Alders’s Duke watching Floss Delaney between his narrowed lids. And what was it that Lady Pevensey had said about the Duke’s carrying Floss off for a cruise with the Gratz Blemers? A wave of jealousy buzzed in Vance’s ears. Jealousy could outlive love, then, cling to it like a beast of prey to a carcase for which it no longer hungered? He had never loved Floss, in the sense in which he now understood loving; and he imagined that his fugitive passion had long since turned to loathing. Yet that night, while he tossed between the scented sheets of Mrs. Glaisher’s guest-room, he could not shake off the torment. Floss Delaney — she was less than nothing to him! But the idea that other men coveted her made his flesh burn though his heart was cold . . . Why subject himself to further misery? What had he and she to do with each other? If he had not pledged himself to find Chris Churley he would have jumped into the first train for Oubli. Instead, when he had taken leave of Floss he had agreed to dine the next night with Alders’s railway king in order to have another chance of meeting her. In the morning light, after coffee, and a stroll on Mrs. Glaisher’s terrace, the situation seemed less lurid. He decided that if he spent the day hunting for Chris he had the right to an amusing evening, and that there was no reason why Floss’s presence should prevent his taking it. She was only one pretty woman among the many at Mrs. Glaisher’s; it was long since he had been among the flower-maidens, and now that the chance had come why should he fly from them?

He took the first train to Nice and went to the Préfecture de Police. Chris’s name was unknown there, but Vance’s description was noted down, and the sergeant said that they might have some information the next day. Vance continued his journey to Monte Carlo, where he made the same enquiries; then he decided that, the lunch hour being at hand, his best chance of finding Chris was to look for him in the fashionable restaurants. If he had carried away any winnings he was pretty sure to be spending them where caviar and new asparagus were to be had; if not, to be enjoying these delicacies at the expense of others. Vance went first to the restaurant which Floss had pointed out as the most sought after.

It was so full that the guests, overflowing onto the terrace, sat wedged under bright awnings and umbrellas; but Vance scanned the crowd in vain for a dark face with a mop of orange-coloured hair. He was about to seek out a more modest ordinary for himself when an elderly gentleman in smartly-cut homespun and a carefully assorted tie began to wave the carte du jour in his direction.

This gentleman, before whom head-waiter and sommelier were obsequiously drawn up, had a sallow complexion, weak handsome features and tremulous lids above eyes of the same gray as his thinnish hair and moustache. He might have been a long-since~retired American diplomatist, or the gentlemanly man in a bank who explains to flustered ladies why they mustn’t draw a cheque when there’s nothing to draw against. He looked either part to perfection, and Vance was wavering between the two when he heard himself hailed in a slow southern drawl. “Why, for the Lord’s sake, if it isn’t young Weston! Come right over here, my son, and let’s open a bottle of wine to celebrate our escape from Crampton!”

It was Harrison Delaney, looking up at him with the same slow ironic twinkle that was like the reflection of his voice. Vance saw him lounging in the dreary room of the little house at Crampton, between his whisky-bottle, his dog-eared copy of Pope, and the ledger which lack of use had kept immaculate. As a real~estate agent Delaney had been Euphoria’s most famous failure. Lorin Weston used to say that if there hadn’t been any other way for him to lose his money he’d have dug a hole in the ground and buried it — that is, if he’d ever had the guts to dig. By the time Vance was meeting Floss down the lane her father had long since abandoned the struggle, and Euphoria remembered him only when there was a distinguished stranger to be received or an oration to be delivered. Then, shaved, pomaded and tall-hatted for the occasion, Delaney was drawn from his obscurity by a community dimly conscious that, freely as it applied the title, he was in reality its only gentleman. After all, a man who quoted Pope and Horace the way Lorin Weston quoted prices on the Stock Exchange did give his home town a sort of proprietary satisfaction; and when a fortune suddenly fell into Delaney’s lap the people who were not envious of him said: “Well, he’ll know how to spend it anyhow.”

Apparently he did; at any rate in a way to impress some of the most eminent head-waiters in Europe. In the act of discussing the relative merits of oeufs aux truffes blanches and demoiselles de Caen he paused and waved Vance to the seat facing him. “Here, waiter — where’s that wine card? You choose for yourself, young fellow. My palate’s too burnt out by whisky to be much good in selecting Bordeaux or Burgundies. But champagne, now — what, no champagne? Well, this fellow here recommends a white Musigny — what’d you say the year was, waiter?”

These details being settled in a leisurely and emphatic style, Mr. Delaney leaned back and scrutinized Vance thoughtfully over his cocktail. The impression Vance received was of a man who had merely transposed the terms of his inactivity. He had leaned back in just the same way in his rocking-chair at Crampton, or among his cronies at the Elkington House or Mandel’s grocery, the thumb of one long distinguished-looking hand thrust into the armhole of his waistcoat, and a cigar meditatively twirled in the other. The only difference was that the hands were now carefully manicured, that the waistcoat was cut by a master, the cigar heavily belted with gold. Mr. Delaney looked out on the world with the same ironic and disenchanted eye. He told Vance he was having a good time, but not as good a time as he’d expected. Now that they had plenty of money Floss would insist on dragging him around from one country to another, though he guessed she found all the places they’d been to were pretty much the same when you got there; he was sure he did. He guessed nowadays you could see all there was to see in the world if you just took a season ticket at the nearest movie-show. The only difference he could make out between all the places he’d seen was the way the barman mixed the cocktails — and the way some of ’em did it made you think they’d never tasted anything stronger than their mother’s milk.

Florence (Mr. Delaney continued) seemed to think you ought to go round and see the real places. When she got to them he didn’t believe she got much of a kick out of it; not unless there were a lot of fellows for her to dance with; but after the bad time she’d had when she was growing up he felt he owed it to her to let her have her way. As for him, when their tour was over he was going home to buy back one of the old Delaney farms near Richmond, and settle down there. The kind of life he wanted to lead was just what his father and grandfather had led before him: breed a few trotting-horses, and have a little shooting behind a couple of good dogs. He guessed that was as far as he’d ever got in the way of ambition. . .

Vance listened curiously. This man, who had been so familiar a part of his early memories, now detached himself as an alien being, never really identified with Euphoria, and nursing an indolent contempt for place and people even when these most righteously looked down on him. “Funny — I never could get any kick out of all that moral urge,” he said with a reminiscent smile.

Vance laughed, and Delaney, his tongue loosened by the Burgundy he affected not to appreciate, went on more confidentially: “Fact is, I see now that I enjoy money as much as any of your model citizens; the only difference is that I never thought it worth sweating for. Floss, now — well, she wouldn’t agree. She says money’s her god, and I guess it is . . . She says it’s the only thing that’ll get her what she wants; and what she wants is the earth, or pretty near. Anything that stands out, that sticks up so that you can see it from way off — brains or titles or celebrity. I guess there’s nothing on God’s earth as undemocratic as a good-looking American girl.” Mr. Delaney paused to go through the agreeable operation of cutting and lighting a fresh Corona. “Sometimes I feel like saying to all these grandees she’s got round her: You think she’s all impulse, do you? Got to get things the very minute she wants ’em? Well . . . you wait and see her stow away those impulses if they interfere with any of her plans. Sometimes, you know, Weston, I think the inside of my daughter is a combination of a ticker and a refrigerator. Of course I don’t say this for her old friends . . . but when I see these Counts and Marquises getting worked up about her, well, I have to lean back and laugh.”

He did lean back and laugh, fixing his watery eyes on Vance. Floss, it appeared, the very day he’d made his unexpected turn~over, had taken command of it — and of him. Why, Vance wouldn’t believe it maybe, but she’d invested and re-invested that money so that the capital had already doubled. And when she brought him the result of the first year’s earnings she made him buy an annuity for himself, and draw up a deed turning over all the rest to her. Well, perhaps he’d been a little rash . . . but, as Vance knew, a quiet life was all he’d ever asked for. And Floss was a good daughter — a devoted daughter — if only you let her have her way. She’d try to break him of his bad habits — whisky and poker — and when she found she couldn’t she just read the riot act, and before he knew it he’d signed the papers, and now they were on the best of terms, and she was glad enough to have him around with her. “Says it looks better — besides, you know, damn it, the child’s fond of me,” Mr. Delaney concluded emotionally.

Vance listened under a painful fascination. He could not reconcile Mr. Delaney’s picture — or, rather, perhaps, he did not want to — with the capricious girl, cynical yet passionate, who had set him aflame in a past already so remote. But he reflected that Delaney’s was probably a one-sided version. Floss, aware of her father’s failings, had naturally wanted to put their suddenly acquired wealth out of his reach, and Delaney, for all his affected indifference, doubtless resented her domination. But Vance could not talk of her with her father. Too many memories stirred in him; and when he had finished his coffee he got up and took his leave. His host seemed surprised and disappointed. “Off already? Why, what’s your hurry?” he said plaintively. “I never know how to get through these blamed everlasting days. Nothing doing in the baccarat rooms before five.” But happily two middle-aged gentlemen with expensive clothes and red innocent-looking faces came up and hailed him, and Mr. Delaney, explaining that they were two fellows from Buffalo that he’d made friends with in Egypt, moved on with them contentedly to the nearest bar.

Vance had promised Floss to be at her hotel at eight. She had told him she would stop there to pick him up on her way from Cannes to Sir Felix Oster’s dinner at La Turbie. “Unless,” she mocked, “you’d rather go with Mrs. Glaisher?”

“Well, I would, unless you’ll promise to have nobody else with you.” As he spoke, the blood rushed to his temples, and he thought: “You fool — what did you say that for?” But she returned, in her cool unsmiling way: “Come and see,” and at the challenge his blood hummed. After all, if she didn’t turn up, or if she had some of the other men with her, he would just turn on his heel and go off and dine by himself. This decision made him feel extraordinarily resolute and self-confident.

His self-confidence waned during the unavailing search for Chris. He had decided, in any case, to return to Oubli the next morning, leaving the quest to the police; and to fortify his resolve had telegraphed the hour of his arrival to Halo. But meanwhile the sense of depending on Floss Delaney’s whim made the time weigh on him as heavily as it did on her father, and long before eight he was in the lounge of her hotel.

The hour came and passed; but twenty minutes later her motor drove up, and Vance saw that she was alone. He was astonished at his own excitement as he plunged down the steps to meet her. He saw her lean forward to wave to him, the porter opened the door, he was at her side, and they were driving away. “It won’t last ten minutes,” the pulses in his temples kept dinning into his brain. He had found out where La Turbie was, had looked up at the new restaurant from the Casino square. On its towering cliff it glittered close above them like a giant light-house — a few turns of the wheels, and the motor would be there. And the next morning he would be on his way back to Oubli — what a trifle to have made all this fuss about!

“Well — am I a good girl?” his companion said, touching his arm as the motor began to work its way through the crowd about the Casino.

“When you asked me to go with you I didn’t know the place we’re going to was just up that hill,” he growled. “We’ll be there before we can turn round.”

“Well, I can’t help that, can I?”

“If there’d been a longer way to go you’d have taken one of the other fellows . . . Why didn’t you wait last night, and drive me to Mrs. Glaisher’s, as you said you would?”

“Why, I wanted to — honest I did. But Spartivento said I’d promised to try out his new Bugatti racer with him.”

“Promising don’t cost you much — never did. You’d promised me.”

“I’ll promise now to go off with you tomorrow for the whole afternoon — just you and me: we’ll go wherever you like. Will that satisfy you?”

He laughed impatiently. “It won’t make any difference one way or the other. I’ve got to go home tomorrow morning.”

“Oh, — HOME,” she mimicked, with an undefinable accent in which irony seemed blent with a just perceptible resentment.

“Yes; home,” he repeated with insistence.

She gave a low laugh. “Why, Van, your voice sounds just the way it did the days I was late, when we used to meet down by the river. But I guess you’re so celebrated now you don’t remember.”

“So celebrated —!” He felt a lump in his throat. She ought not to have reminded him of those meetings — she ought not to. . .

“Well, you are celebrated, aren’t you? Everybody’s talking about you. I don’t know why you should remember me; but I want you to.” She leaned nearer, her hand on his. “Van, don’t be cross. I was the first, wasn’t I? Say you remember.”

“I remember well enough the day I saw you down there with — somebody else,” he said in a choking voice.

“Oh, Van — ” She swung suddenly round on him. “All I remember is the days I was there with you. Those first days . . . how hot it was that summer . . . and there was a weed or grass that smelt so good . . . Van, say you remember!” Her bare arms were about him, her lips on his. The old glory flooded him, and everything was full of bells chiming, and stars dancing through wind-swayed trees. “Tomorrow,” she said against his lips.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/gods_arrive/chapter22.html

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