The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XXIV

He was not the brilliant Chris of the previous night, but a down~cast being whose pale face and heavy eyes seemed to reflect Vance’s own distress. He held out his hand in silence, and Vance asked if he had breakfasted.

Chris grimaced a refusal. “But a brandy-and-soda? Thanks. Shall I telephone the order?”

He did so without waiting for the answer; then he threw himself into the one armchair in the room, lit a cigarette, and looked absently about him, as though hardly conscious of Vance’s presence. “Not a bad place you’ve got here.” He puffed at his cigarette, and added suddenly: “Funny chap, that Duke of Spartivento. Who do you suppose he’s out to marry?”

“I don’t know — nor much care,” Vance replied, with a quick twinge of apprehension.

“Well — Mrs. Glaisher! Didn’t you see him dancing with her last night? I suppose he noticed I was rather chummy with Alders, and might be likely to know something about the lady’s affairs; so he got me off into a corner to ask about her investments — of course on the pretext that he represents a stock-broking firm. Up-to-date fellow, the Duke. Naturally I told him I knew all about it; you ought to have seen his eyes as I piled up the millions! I wouldn’t have missed it for a good deal.” Chris’s own eyes brightened with the appearance of the brandy-and-soda, and he reached out to pour himself a stiff draught.

Vance watched him impatiently. At the moment the boy inspired him only with contempt. “Well, suppose we get down to business now,” he suggested, as Chris leaned back in silent enjoyment of his drink.

The word seemed to strike a tender nerve. The blood flooded up under Chris’s sallow skin, as it had the night before when he caught sight of Vance. “Business —?”

“Didn’t you tell me you wanted me to help you with your article on Blemer?”

“Oh — THAT?” Vance caught his look of relief. “Why, yes, of course . . . Blemer. . .” With pleasurable deliberation Chris helped himself to another brandy-and-soda. “I haven’t written the first line of that article on Blemer.”

“No?”

“Nor of the article on you — ”

“No?”

“No — no — no! Damn it, Weston, I suppose you knew from the beginning that I never would.” Chris jumped up and began to move uneasily about the room. He halted before Vance. “And it was all a yarn, you know, what I told you last night about the ‘Windmill’ having wired me to come here and interview Blemer. The purest kind of a lie. Much the ‘Windmill’ cares! They washed their hands of me long ago. I daresay you guessed that too. You knew I’d taken the money you lent me to go to London with, and come here to blow it in — didn’t you?”

Vance was silent, and Chris rushed on with twitching lips: “I daresay you heard of my being here from Alders or somebody, and came to look me up and see how I’d invested your loan, eh?” He gave a laugh. “Well, the last penny of it went up the spout last night.”

“It wasn’t a loan,” said Vance.

Chris broke off with a stare. “It wasn’t —?”

“I hate loans — to myself or others. The day after you told me you wanted to go to London I looked you up to tell you so. You’d already gone, and I didn’t know where to write; but the money was a present, so there’s an end of it. It’s your own look-out how you spent it; you don’t even owe me an explanation.”

Chris received this in silence. He had grown very pale, and his lower lip trembled. “I say, Weston — .” He turned away and throwing himself down sideways in the armchair buried his face in his crossed arms. “Oh, God, oh, God!” It was such an explosion of misery as had burst from him when he had confessed to Vance his desperate desire to get away from Oubli. Vance’s contempt gave way to pity; but he hardly knew how to put it into words without touching on a live nerve. Chris looked up again. “Well, I don’t suppose you’re much surprised, are you? I daresay you knew from the first that I wasn’t serious about the ‘Windmill’.”

“No; I didn’t. And I still believe you meant to go to London.”

“You do?” The mockery in Chris’s eyes vanished in a look of boyish compunction. “Well, you’re right; I did. But just as I was getting my ticket there was a fellow next to me taking his for Nice. And the sun was shining . . . and I hate fog and cold . . . they shrivel me up . . . Oh, Weston, what am I to do? I can’t write — I CAN’T. I can only dream of it. I knew I’d never earn enough in London to pay back your twenty pounds, and that with any kind of luck I might give myself a month’s holiday here and settle my debt besides. So I came . . . and I did make money enough, or nearly; only like a fool I blew in part of it the day before yesterday. And last night I went back to try and recoup, and come to you with the cash in my pocket; and I struck my first run of bad luck, and got cleaned out.” He gave another of his shrill laughs, stood up and limped across to the mirror over the mantel. “Pretty sight I am . . . I look like an old print of ‘The Gamester’. By God, I wish I was an old print — I might sell myself for a pound or two!” He turned toward Vance. “The fact is, I was meant to be a moment’s ornament, and you all insist on my being a permanent institution,” he said with a whimsical grin.

“Well, you’ve ornamented several moments by this time,” said Vance. “The best thing you can do now is to pack up and come back with me.”

“Back — to Oubli?”

“Of course. All that rot about not writing — why, nobody can write who doesn’t set his teeth and dig himself in. Your mistake was ever imagining it was fun. Come along; you’ll write fast enough when you have to.”

Chris stood twirling a cigarette between his fingers. His hands shook like an old man’s. “I say, Weston — you’ve been awfully decent. And I wonder if you won’t understand — if you won’t help me out this once . . . Not a big loan; just a few pounds. It’ll be the last time . . . After that I’ll go back.”

“You’ll come back now. Your mother’s out of her senses worrying about you; it’s not fair to keep her in suspense.”

Chris dropped down into the chair again, limp and expressionless as a marionette with broken wires. “Look here,” Vance began — but the other interrupted him. He knew all that Vance was going to say, he declared; hadn’t he said it to himself a thousand times? But he was sick of pretending that he ought to buckle down to work, that he oughtn’t to borrow money, that he ought to be kind to his parents, and not worry them out of their senses. What was the good of it all, when he didn’t happen to be made that way? Talk of ineffectual angels — there were ineffectual devils too, and he was one of them. Didn’t Vance suppose he knew what he was made for — to talk well, and make people laugh, and get asked out where there was jazz and fun and cards? Some millionaire’s hanger-on — that was what he was meant to be; and yet he wasn’t either, because he couldn’t stand being ordered about, or pretend to be amused by stupid people, or dazzled by vulgar asses, or any of the things you were expected to do in return for your keep. In his heart of hearts he’d rather slave in an editor’s office than nigger for rich morons as poor Alders did — an educated fellow, not half stupid, but who didn’t know how else to earn his living. For his part, he’d rather give himself a hypo and be done with it. . .

“You might try slaving in an editor’s office before you plump for the hypo,” Vance answered. His compassion was cooling off. The perpetual spring of energy bubbling up in him made such weakness and self-pity almost incomprehensible. He could understand the rich morons getting themselves privately electrocuted, he said; after a day or two in their company he always wondered why they didn’t. But to a man like Chris, with eyes and a brain, the mere everyday spectacle of life ought to. . .

“The wind on the heath?” Chris interpolated drily.

“Well, yes, damn it — the wind. . .” But the argument died on Vance’s lips. Life wasn’t like that to Chris’s decomposing intelligence. His eyes and his brain seemed to drain the beauty out of daily things; there was the bitter core of the enigma.

Vance laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Listen, old man; your people are awfully unhappy. Come home; we’ll see what can be done afterward.”

Chris looked up with heavy eyes. “Now — today?”

“By the next train. I can’t think why you’re not fed up with this sort of thing. I am.”

Chris sat staring down at his idle trembling hands. “You’re a brick, Weston — ”

“Oh, stow all that. Where’s your hotel? Go along and pack up, and I’ll call for you in half an hour.” But suddenly Vance reflected: “If I let him go, ten to one I’ll never find him again. — Look here,” he said, “just wait till I pitch my things into my bag and we’ll go together. It won’t take me ten minutes.”

Chris sank more deeply into the armchair. A look of utter weariness stole over him. “Oh, all right — what’s the odds?” His eyes followed Vance listlessly till the lids closed and he leaned back in a sort of doze. Vance, moving about noiselessly, collected his belongings and jammed them into his suit-case. He was consumed with the longing to get away — as much on his own account as on Chris’s. The glare of the sun, the sparkle of flowers and foliage outside his window, the strains of Puccini coming up from the Casino Gardens, all the expensiveness and artificiality of the place, made him think longingly of Oubli, of the fishermen mending their nets on the beach, the shabby houses, the peasants ploughing and pruning. “Real people in a real place,” he mused; and his heart warmed as he thought of Halo waiting at the station at Toulon, and their all jogging home in the old omnibus over the rough dusty roads. . .

As the porter came in to take the things down Chris roused himself. “Look here, Weston — I know what a worm I am. But I’m afraid there’s something owing at my hotel. If you’d lend me enough to go on with, and I could stay another day, I might come out ahead after all.”

“Come along. I’ll settle with the hotel,” Vance retorted, nervously wondering if his own funds would hold out. He slipped his arm through Chris’s, and the latter let himself be led to the lift, and out of the hotel. As they emerged into the street a hotel porter came up to Vance with a letter. “Mr. Weston?”

Vance recognized the untidy scrawl in which Floss Delaney had written her message on the back of the Duke of Spartivento’s card. “Wait a minute,” he said unsteadily. He turned back into the hotel and opened the envelope. There was nothing inside but a bruised discoloured gardenia. He stared at the livid flower; then he pushed it into his pocket, and went out to rejoin Chris. It meant goodbye, no doubt. . .

He paid Chris’s bill, which was more moderate than he had expected, helped the youth with his packing, and led him firmly to a waiting taxi. “The station!” he ordered.

Chris sat passive. Vance tried to think of something to say, but his own brain was in a whirl . . . That flower — why the devil had she sent it? It must mean something, convey some kind of message. She was always lazy about writing; hardly capable of turning more than a bald phrase or two . . . shaky about her spelling too, probably. But, after all, why should she have written? She had made an engagement — a positive engagement — with him for that afternoon: it had been made at her own suggestion, she had sealed it with a kiss. What perversity of self-torture made him suppose that she would forget it? She had even remembered his asking her for the flower she was wearing — and here it was, to remind him of her promise. The flower didn’t mean “goodbye” — if it meant anything it meant “remember”. . .

But how could he keep the engagement? And did he even want to now? The vision of Halo at the Toulon station had quickened other impulses — at least until the faded gardenia stifled them. Something within him whispered, half hypocritically, half cynically: “I must see this thing through first.”

At the station Chris again hung back. “Look here, Weston . . . just till tomorrow. . .”

“Tomorrow and tomorrow! Come, get out, old man. . .” In dragging Chris along the platform he seemed to be dragging himself too. The train rolled into the station. They followed the porter.

The train was crowded. Vance pushed Chris and his bag into a compartment; but there was no other vacant seat. “Never mind — I’ll run along and jump in wherever I can.” But as he spoke he felt another resolution forming in him. “If I can’t find a place,” he called out, his hand on Chris’s door, “I’ll take a later train. Let Halo know, will you? I’ll taxi over from Toulon.” He waved his hand and feigned a dash down the platform. But the train was moving; he was left behind. After all, he had done his duty in shipping Chris off.

He left his suit-case at the station and went back to the hotel where Floss had been staying with her father. From her having sent him the gardenia he inferred that her visit to Mrs. Glaisher was over and that she had returned to Monte Carlo and was awaiting an answer to her message.

The concierge told him she was expected back, but had not yet arrived. Vance’s spirits rose. He wrote her name on an envelope, scribbled on a sheet of paper: “Where — and when?” and added the address of his own hotel. Then he went back there to lunch. But he was too much excited to eat, and leaving the restaurant he paced up and down the narrow lounge, smoking and watching the door. An answer was sure to come soon; she had not sent that flower for nothing. . .

The minutes and the half-hours passed. It was three o’clock now; then in a flash it was half-past. The hours of his precious afternoon were being blown by him like the petals of a flower dropping before it can be gathered. Unable to endure the suspense he hurried out and walked back to Floss’s hotel. He saw her motor at the door. The interior was piled up with bags, and at first he thought she must have just arrived from Cannes; then he saw a man in shirt-sleeves lifting a motor-trunk into the trunk-carrier. He went up to the chauffeur. “Is Miss Delaney here?”

The chauffeur said he supposed so. She hadn’t come down yet; but they were starting in a minute for the harbour.

“The harbour?”

“Yes, sir; for the yacht. I believe Miss Delaney’s going on a cruise.”

Vance did not wait to hear the end. He pushed past the porters, and as he re-entered the hotel the door of the lift opened and Floss stepped out. She carried a little bag of scarlet morocco with polished steel mountings and had a fur-collared coat hung over her arm. Behind her was a young woman carrying more wraps. Vance went toward the lift and Floss stopped and looked at him with lifted brows and a faint smile. “Why, Van — ”

“Am I late?” he began quickly.

She continued to gaze at him, not embarrassed but merely in gentle surprise. “Late — for what?”

“For our engagement. I came before, but you weren’t here. Are you coming with me now?”

Her lovely eyebrows still questioned him. “But, Van, I don’t — ”

He broke in with a bitter laugh. “Are you trying to tell me you’ve forgotten?”

“What I HAD forgotten was that this is the day I start for a cruise with the Blemers. I can never remember the day of the week. We’re going to Sicily,” she explained gently.

“No!” he burst out.

“NO?”

“I say no. Last night you swore to me — ”

She turned and threw her cloak over the maid’s arm. “Put that into the car. And my bag.” The girl disappeared, and Floss laid her hand on Vance’s arm. “Come.” He followed her into the empty writing-room behind the lounge. Between two of the little mahogany writing-desks with green-shaded lamps she paused and stood smiling up at him. “Darling — it’s such a stupid mistake.”

“What’s a mistake?”

“About the date. I’m sorry. I thought the Blemers weren’t starting till tomorrow. Honestly I did.”

“Well — can’t you follow them tomorrow, if you’re so bent on going with them? You owe me this one day.”

She laughed. “Charter a yacht and give chase? That’s an idea! But I’m afraid I couldn’t find anything fast enough to catch up with them.”

“Why need you go with them at all? You swore to me — ”

Her lids drooped, and her lips also, dangerously. “Yes; I know. But please don’t be a bore, Vance.”

“A bore —?” He felt his heart stand still. Her face was as smooth as marble. “Why did you send me that flower, then?”

“That flower? Why — for goodbye. . .” She held out her hand with a smile. “Not for long, though . . . You’ll be in London next summer? Father and I are going there in June. — Yes; COMING!” she called out in a gay voice, signalling to some one in the door behind him.

Fierce impulses raged in him; he wanted to pinion her by the arms, to hold her fast. He caught at her wrist; but she laughed and shook herself free. “So long, dear. — Com-ING!” she cried in the same gay voice as she swept past him into the hall.

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