The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XXIII

The illuminated room, the many faces, whirled about Vance. Ahead of him Floss Delaney’s brown shoulders flashed like the dryad’s in the Fontainebleau woods; he heard familiar voices, saw Mrs. Glaisher armoured in diamonds, Lady Pevensey’s dry sparkle (“She looks like a cocktail,” the novelist in him noted), and the dull enigma of Sir Felix Oster’s full-moon countenance.

“We thought you two were lost,” Mrs. Glaisher simpered; and Alders, fluttering up, whispered: “He’s here, you know . . . such luck! I do hope you’ll persuade him to do that Blemer article before they leave. . .”

And there was Chris.

Clearly he had not expected to meet Vance. He turned pale under his sallowness, then flushed to the roots of his orange-tawny hair. But his disturbance was only skin-deep; his eye remained cool, his smile undaunted. This was a new Chris, the man-of-the-world twin of the unhappy changeling of Oubli: evening clothes, sleeked hair, the lustre of his linen, transformed him into the ornamental frequenter of fashionable entertainments. “We always try to secure an author or two: Mr. Churley’s one of the new literary critics, isn’t he — on the ‘Owl’, or the ‘Windmill’, or something?” Lady Pevensey threw off, catching Vance’s signal to Chris.

“Well — so you’re here?” said Vance, laughing; and the other responded glibly: “Such luck! When I heard you were coming tonight I chucked another engagement. . .” (“Liar!” thought Vance, more amused than indignant). “Fact is, you’re the very man I want to get hold of,” Chris continued on a tidal rush of assurance. “You know Blemer, I suppose? Just as I was starting for London the ‘Windmill’ wired me that he was at Cannes, and told me to try to pick up an interview before I left the Riviera. Lucky job, getting the wire just as I was shaking the dust of Oubli from my feet,” he grinned complacently. “But now that I’ve seen Blemer I— well, frankly, you might just as well ask a fellow to write an article about a fountain-pen. That’s all Blemer appears to be: his own fountain-pen. Where’s the man behind it? Haven’t an idea! Have you? Alders says you know him, and it’s a God-send my running across you, for I was just going to chuck the whole thing and start for London. If you’ll let me go home with you tonight we might talk Blemer over, and I could get an inkling of what to say about him.”

Vance was tempted to retort: “Have you got an inkling from Blemer of what to say about me?” — but the party was moving toward the lamp~hung loggia where the tables were set. “All right — come in tonight.” He turned to follow his host, and Churley was absorbed in the group about another table.

Vance was with Lady Pevensey, and a pretty young woman on his right was soon deluging him with literary raptures. He had to listen again to all the old questions: were his novels inspired by things that had really happened, or did they just “come to him”? And his characters — would he mind telling her who the people really were? Of course she knew novelists always pretended they invented their characters — but wouldn’t he be a darling, and just whisper to her some of the real names of the people in his books? And the love~scenes — she did so long to know how far the novelist had to LIVE his love-scenes; in “The Puritan in Spain”, for instance, there was that marvellous chapter in Valencia — oh, yes, she knew some people called it morbid, but she just adored it — where, after being with the dancer all night, the hero comes out into the street at daylight, just as the funeral of the woman who’d really loved him is passing . . . Had anything as tremendous as that actually happened in his own life? Because she’d heard people say that a novelist couldn’t describe such things unless . . .

Across the lights and flowers Vance caught sight of Floss. She was at Sir Felix’s table with Mrs. Glaisher. Next to her sat the Duke of Spartivento; her lids were lowered as he spoke to her. She wore a dress of some thin silver tissue, against which her arms and shoulders looked like sun-warmed marble. There was a bowl of silver-white gardenias in the middle of the table, and her neighbour reached over to it and drew out a cluster which she fastened on her breast. At another table Chris, flushed and handsome, was discoursing to Alders about the art of interviewing. As Sir Felix’s Pommery circulated the spirits of the guests bubbled up with it, and talk and laughter drowned the pulsations of the harp and violin in the balcony. Outside, modelled by the rising moon, the couchant landscape stretched its Sphinx-like paws upon the sea.

Vance was seized by the longing to be alone with Floss — chatter silenced, lights extinguished, only he and she lifted above the world on a moon-washed height. But the dinner went on: more truffles, more champagne, more noise; and when it was over, and the party trailed out onto the terrace, as they had the night before at Mrs. Glaisher’s, some one exclaimed: “Oh, but there are no fireworks tonight, are there? Don’t let’s stay out here in the cold for nothing. . .”

Floss was one of the first to re-enter the illuminated room. Bridge-tables were being set out where the party had feasted, and part of the floor had been cleared for dancing. Two cabaret professionals were already weaving their arabesques in the centre of the spectators, and others awaited their turn in the background. Vance went up to Floss, who stood watching the dancers.

“Don’t you hate this? Aren’t you fed up with it? Why won’t you come away with me now?”

She turned with slightly-lifted brows. “Why, aren’t we all going away presently? There’s a cabaret down at Monte, something fearfully exciting, with the new Bali dancers. You must come along, of course. . .”

“That’s not what I mean. Come off with me now, up here on the mountain. It’s heaven out there with the moon — ” Sir Felix was advancing toward them with a dapper gentleman wearing a single eye~glass. “Miss Delaney, may I introduce the Marquis d’Apremont?” “Well, give me one of those gardenias then,” Vance persisted boyishly as she turned with a smile to the newcomer. She shrugged her brown shoulders, and he walked away and wandered out alone onto the terrace. What was he doing in that rubbishy crowd, and why didn’t he dash down the mountain and take the first train to Oubli? What a fool he had been to imagine that Floss would leave in the middle of a party to go out with him alone into the wilderness! The night air was sharp at that height, and he re-entered the restaurant, determined to leave as soon as he had had a final word with Chris. But Chris was dancing with the pretty woman who was interested in novelists, and Mrs. Glaisher executing a slow fox~trot under the accomplished guidance of the Duke of Spartivento. Vance leaned in the doorway and watched the revolving couples. Floss was not dancing; she sat in a corner, a group of men about her; from where Vance stood he noticed that she spoke little, smiled even more rarely, but sat there, composed, almost indifferent, while the faces about her shone with curiosity and admiration. And he had been fatuous enough to think that she would exchange that homage for a moonlight ramble with an obscure scribbler!

When the party began to break up he roused himself to look for Chris. “You’ll come down to my hotel now?” he suggested; but Chris gave a deprecating gesture. “Straight away? Awfully sorry; but Mrs. Glaisher’s taking us on to the cabaret. You’re not coming? I say, that’s too bad. What’s your hotel? Do you mind if I drop in on you tonight rather latish? If you’re turned in I won’t disturb you — ”

“I shan’t have turned in; come up, no matter how late it is,” Vance insisted; and the other rejoined with his bright plausibility: “Thanks a lot! It’ll be the greatest help; somehow or other I’ve got to grind out that article . . . There’s Mrs. Glaisher wig~wagging at us. Who’s driving you down? Miss Delaney?”

But Vance, plunging out through the swinging doors, strode away alone. At the stream of motors flowed by in the moonlight he recognized Floss Delaney’s, and for a mad moment thought she had seen him and was signing to her chauffeur to stop; but she was only lifting her little mirror with one hand while with the other she retouched her lips. In the shadow he caught the gleam of a shirt~front, the outline of a man’s head; then the motor swept on.

Vance waited in vain for Chris Churley. He left his door unlocked, and sat in the darkness smoking and listening; but Chris’s was not among the footsteps passing down the hotel corridor in the small hours, and toward daylight Vance undressed and fell asleep.

He woke late and gloomily. The sun, pouring in at his unshuttered window, roused him to a violent contact with reality. What had he hoped and imagined the night before? A feverish escapade with this girl who had sent through him the same shock as when he had first known her? Only a few hours ago her lips had been on his, her arms about him, her whole body breathing promises; an hour or two later she had turned from him with a shrug, without even an allusion to her own proposal that they should spend the next afternoon together. She would never think of that promise again; she had not even told him where they were to meet, had seen him go without a word of reminder. Once she was back at the Villa Mirifique, and caught up in the old round of pleasure, he would pass out of her life as he had before.

But while reason argued thus, the thought that his real self was pursuing was simply: “Who was the man she drove back with her from La Turbie?” At one moment that question was gnawing him, at another he was saying to himself: “Well, what of it, and what business is it of mine? There’s no novelty in finding out again what she is — I knew it well enough before. And supposing I’d been the man she went off with, should I have felt any differently about her?” The residue of it all was a sick disgust, a revolt from life such as he had felt when he had seen her down by the river with his grandfather. She seemed to distil a poison such as no other woman secreted; his veins were so heavy with it that he felt like a man recovering from a long illness. “Oh, well, I must get up and get home,” he thought, and dragged himself unwillingly out of bed.

It was not till then that he remembered Chris — Chris, who had not come the night before, whose address, like a fool, he had forgotten to take, and who had doubtless given him the slip again. He dressed in a cold rage against himself, against the world and against Chris — and was just turning to leave his room when the culprit entered.

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