The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

Book IV

XXV

It had been raining steadily for the three days since Vance’s return to Oubli. A soft regular rain; it came down on the roof of the Anglican chapel with a rapping like the rattle of palm-fronds in an African oasis. Why had that occurred to him? He had never been to Africa, never seen an oasis; but he had heard some one say: “In the dry season the rattle of palms in the wind sounds just like rain. God, it gets up a fellow’s thirst!” Like drift on a swollen river, all sorts of unrelated thoughts and images jostled each other in his brain. He could not clear his mind of them, or fix it, for more than a moment or two, on the sombre words that Mr. Dorman, distant and surpliced, was speaking from the chancel.

“Thou makest his beauty to consume away, like as it were a moth fretting a garment. . .

“As soon as Thou scatterest them they are even as sheep . . . For when Thou art angry all our days are gone . . . O spare me a little that I may recover my strength, before I go hence and be no more seen. . .”

Ah, cruel implacable God of Israel, Who, among all the generations of men, sufferest so few to recover their strength before they go! What mockery to apply to this poor broken boy the stupendous words that shake the bones of the saints!

There he lay, under the pall and the wreaths, “turned to destruction”, as Mr. Dorman told them — voluntarily turned to it, as Vance secretly believed. The shabby wreath of anemones and stocks was, of course, Miss Plummet’s. Lady Dayes–Dawes had sent arums. There was a hideous cushion of white immortelles with “Chris” on it in yellow — how he would have laughed at it! Halo had managed to find violets, heaps and heaps of them, though they were nearly over — with a spray of cherry-blossom, the first of the year. Ah, implacable God of Israel! But now — listen:

“It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption; it is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory. . .” What martial music the Prayer-book made out of the old cry of human mourning! This sorrow sown in dishonour, was it indeed to be raised in glory? A sob from one of the black-muffled figures in front seemed to ask the same question. Then silence again; the rattle of rain; and “Lead, Kindly Light” from the volunteer choir, with Miss Plummet, in tears, at the harmonium.

When they came out the rain had stopped. The coffin was lifted into the old weak-springed hearse, with its moth-eaten tufts of black feathers all bent one way. (How he would have laughed at the feathers too!) The procession straggled off. Oubli could not provide enough mourning coaches, and its two wheezy Fords closed the line, noisily resisting their drivers’ attempts to keep them in step with the heavy black horses. In the English corner of the hard bare cemetery cypresses and laurestinus had been planted, green things trained over the graves. But to get there the mourners had to walk two by two (Mrs. Churley’s weak swollen feet setting the uncertain pace) through arid rows of French graves with wreaths of wire and painted tin-foil, and china saints under glass bells. Vance remembered Chris’s saying that French funeral wreaths always reminded him of the once-for-all thoughts that the living think of the dead: rigid indestructible opinions that there is never any need to renew.

“Inasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God to take out of this world the soul of our deceased brother — ” Mr. Dorman was saying across the yawning grave.

“Out of the world”; with all its laughing and crying and vain tumult . . . “The wind on the heath, brother — ” How Chris had shrugged away Vance’s facile admonitions! Wind on the heath, wind in the palms, all the multiple murmurs of life — Chris Churley’s ears were forever closed to them.

Yes; he had been Vance’s brother; and how had Vance dealt with him? “What hast thou done with this thy brother?” Why, deserted him at the last moment, shoved him into the train and left him alone with his self-derision, his bitter consciousness of futility and failure. Vance knew well enough what it felt like to be alone in such a mood, without friends, without hope, without future; he had been through it all in the early days in New York. Yet he had not given it a thought when he shoved Chris into the train and dashed away on his own crazy errand. What had he done with his brother?

“Ashes to ashes — dust to dust — ” As Chris was today, so would he be in his turn, nailed up with his withered dreams. . .

The earth fell on the coffin; somebody piled the wreaths on the mound. The sun came out, as if curious to see what this little group of bowed-down people were about; and in the dazzle of the indifferent day they crawled back to the carriages.

In the taxi Halo burst into tears. Vance put his arm about her. She seldom wept, and her grief moved him, and made him feel ashamed of his own dry eyes. But though his soul was heavy he could get no relief. Halo wiped away her tears and looked up at him. “You still think it wasn’t an accident?”

“I’m sure it wasn’t.”

“But they said he didn’t see the other train coming when he got out. The people in the other train said so.”

“Yes.”

“All the same, you think —?”

“Oh, what does it matter?” Vance groaned.

“I’m glad Mr. Dorman was convinced it was an accident. Otherwise there couldn’t have been a proper funeral. . .”

“I know. . .”

“It would have killed Mrs. Churley if he’d refused.”

“Sorrow don’t kill people. It seems to give them a sort of kick. Look how she walked all the way to the grave and back.”

Silence again; she pressed his hand tight. “Promise me, dearest, you won’t go on thinking yourself to blame.”

Vance laughed drearily. “People have got to think what they can. I ought to have come back with him. . .”

“What folly! You put him in the train.”

“I ought to have come back,” Vance repeated, as if to himself. The taxi stopped before the pink house and they got out.

At first Mrs. Churley had refused to see Vance; but two or three days after the funeral she deputed Mrs. Dorman to ask him to come up to the villa. Halo wanted to go instead; she seemed to dread the meeting between Vance and the Churleys. Vance, she argued, was still suffering from the shock of the dreadful news; he had told her what little there was to tell. Why not let Mrs. Dorman explain this to the Churleys, and suggest that Halo should go to them instead?

Mrs. Dorman pursed up her lips, and her cheeks reddened, as they did when she saw a chance of imparting unpleasant news. “It was Mr. Weston that Mrs. Churley asked for.”

“Of course I’ll go,” Vance roused himself to answer.

When he came back from the Churleys’ he went upstairs to the study and threw himself down on the old divan where Chris had so often sprawled during the long evenings full of laughter and discussion. Vance, on his way back from Monte Carlo, had thought longingly of that room; his old life seemed to hold out healing arms to him. Then, on his threshold, he had heard the stupefying news of Chris Churley’s death — the accident which had flung him under the wheels of an incoming express as he was getting out of his own train at Toulon; and from that moment Oubli and everything about it had become as hateful to Vance as the scenes from which he had just fled.

He lay with his eyes shut, reliving the hours since his return, and feeling as if he too had been flung out of the security and peace of his life and crushed under the sudden wheels of disaster. In the next room Halo was moving about. She would not come in and torment him with questions, as another woman might; she would merely let him know by an occasional sound or movement — the pushing back of a chair, the click of the Remington — that she wanted him to be aware of her nearness, and of the silent participation it implied.

The Remington . . . If only he could have got back to work! In the first horror of seeing Floss Delaney down by the river with his grandfather his anguish, he remembered, had crystallized itself in words; the shock had forced his first story out of him. And all through the dark weeks before Laura Lou’s death he had known the same mysterious heightening of creative power: as if his talent were an ogre, and lived on human suffering. But now he felt only an inner deadness; he seemed faced by a blank wall against which he might dash his brains out. Everything was stale and withered, without and within; he could almost taste the corruption — the same, no doubt, that Chris had tasted. . .

He got up and wandered into Halo’s room. She turned as he entered, feigning surprise. “Back already? — Well?”

Vance stood beside her, drumming on the lid of the typewriter. “She knows — ”

“Mrs. Churley? Knows what?”

“That it wasn’t an accident.”

“Vance! Did she tell you —?”

“No. He was there. But she didn’t have to — ”

Halo put out her hand and imprisoned his restless fingers. “Dear, aren’t you just imagining —?”

“God! I don’t have to imagine — ”

“Tell me just what she said.”

“She said she couldn’t bear to have me there. It didn’t last five minutes.”

“Poor, poor woman!”

“I could see she hated the very sight of me. She thinks I killed him.”

“But what folly — when it was you who gave him his best chance!”

“Did I? Perhaps they’re right and we were wrong. Anyhow I ought to have come back with him.”

“But surely you told them you couldn’t find a place in the train?”

“Yes — I told them.”

“Well, dear?” She lifted her grave eyes to his, and he thought: “If I told her the truth, would it make any difference?” For he knew well enough that what he was suffering from was not so much the shock of poor Chris’s suicide as the dark turmoil in his own heart. It was his vanity that was aching, and his pride; in a sudden craving for self-abasement he longed to cry out his miserable secret.

“I wish you could get back to work,” Halo said.

He made a derisive gesture. “Get back to work — that was what I used to tell Chris. I see now there wasn’t much point in it.” He turned away and threw himself again on the divan. What was the use of making some one else unhappy? His misery was his own; he had no right to ask any one to share it — least of all this woman who loved him.

The days dragged by. Vance, in spite of his curt retort to Halo, did try to take up his writing; but he could not. His imagination was dormant, his fingers seemed almost literally benumbed. The weather remained unsettled; day after day raw gales swept the sullen skies and rain burst from them with fitful violence. Every spring, the peasants told him, it stormed at Oubli in cherry~blossom time; and if the rain persisted it destroyed the fruit crop, and if it ceased the drought spoilt the early peas.

Vance resumed his long daily tramps. Halo had caught cold at the funeral, and in spite of her disregard for wind and weather he would not let her go with him. In truth he was glad to be alone. Some spring in him was broken; he felt like a man driving a motor with a disabled steering-gear. When he was with Halo he lived in dread of not being able to keep himself from some foolish burst of self-betrayal. When she said: “You mustn’t let Chris’s death make you so unhappy,” he had to fight his impulse to burst out: “It’s not Chris who’s torturing me.” He hardly knew the exact source of his pain. Since he had returned to Oubli, and slipped back into the old familiar life with Halo, everything about the interlude of Cannes and Monte Carlo had become as unreal as the scenery of a stage-setting. He seemed to have been moving in a world of flippant spectres; only Floss Delaney kept her mordant reality. And the strange thing was that, from the very moment of their meeting, she had produced no illusions in him, excited no surprise. She had appeared, in that opulent environment, neither rarer nor lovelier than when, as a raw boy, he had worshipped and loathed her in the maple-grove at Crampton. It was true that she had not changed; perhaps, as she had said, no one DOES change; and for that very reason the common unimaginative girl who had captivated the untried boy exercised the same spell over the young man from whom a world of experience divided her. That was the dangerpoint. No alteration of setting or of ideas — not even the profound shock of Chris Churley’s suicide — could shake him out of his unwilling subjection. It was because he saw her as she was, and was still drawn to her, that his plight was hopeless. Whenever he shut his eyes there was her bare arm, like amber in the moonlight; the touch of it burned in him. It was useless to tell himself that now that he knew the world he could place her without difficulty, could class her as the trivial beauty whom any intelligent man would weary of in a week. Intelligence had nothing to do with it. You might as well say that an intelligent man would weary in a week of the scent of a certain flower, when there are flower-scents that all through life work the same magic. Vance knew there were selves under selves in him, and that one of the undermost belonged to Floss Delaney.

Again and again he was tempted to confess himself to Halo; to do so might break the spell and tranquillize him. And perhaps it would not be so difficult. When his story, “One Day”, had been discovered and published by Lewis Tarrant, and Vance, in an hour of expansion, had told Halo that he had written it to rid himself of his first sorrow, he had described Floss to her, and she had shuddered and sympathized. He would only have to say: “You remember that girl at Euphoria that I told you about?” to have her sympathy spring up. Ah — but would it? That other tale, when he had told it, already belonged to a distant past; neither he nor Halo could have dreamed that Floss Delaney would ever reappear in their lives. Now it was different. Intelligent though Halo was, could he hope to make her understand that a man may love one woman with all his soul while he is perishing for the nearness of another? Some day he might put that story in a novel; fitfully, even now, the idea came to him, he felt its richness and complexity — but only for a moment. The next he was back in the dark coil of his misery; and he knew that the impulse to confess himself was due not to any belief that confession would break the spell, but only to his monstrous craving to talk of Floss to any one, to every one, even to the woman he might wound to the heart in naming her. He thought: “I’ve hurt her so often without meaning to. At least I can keep myself from doing it with my eyes open.”

Since Vance’s visit no sign had come from the Churleys. He suspected that Halo resented their silence, resented the poor mother’s harsh dismissal of Vance after she had sent for him. It was cruel, certainly, for they knew that Vance had tried to befriend Chris, that Vance’s comradeship had been the one brightness in the boy’s last months. But perhaps that was what they resented, though Halo refused to admit it. “They can’t be so wickedly unjust — .” But that was precisely what great sorrow made of people — didn’t Vance know? Perhaps it even comforted them, the poor creatures, to have some one against whom they could cherish a bitter resentment. Well, let them —!

One day, coming in from a solitary ramble, he found a letter awaiting him. He broke the seal and read: “Dear Mr. Weston, I have only just learned that my son’s visit to Monte Carlo was brought about by your having lent him twenty pounds. Pray excuse my involuntary delay in sending you the enclosed cheque, which I beg you to accept with my thanks. Yours very truly, Augustine Churley.”

Vance uttered an angry exclamation. Halo, who was sorting the papers on his desk, looked up. “Oh, Vance — it’s Colonel Churley?” He tossed the letter over to her.

“It wasn’t a loan — and Chris knew it!” Vance fumed. It seemed as though these people had divined how he hated himself for having left Chris, and were seizing on every pretext to increase his misery.

“But how did they know the amount? Chris must have told them — or have left a letter.”

“Well, I won’t take it,” said Vance nervously. “They’ll end by poisoning my memory of him. I daresay they think my giving him that money was the cause of his death.”

Halo reflected. “No; you can’t take it. Give it to me; I’ll go and see Mrs. Churley.”

“She won’t see you.”

“I think she will. Mrs. Dorman will arrange for me to go when her husband’s out. She couldn’t talk to you the other day because he was there. But you’ll see — ”

Vance drew a breath of relief. He was so used to Halo’s smoothing out the asperities of life that he felt almost as certain as she did of her ability to cope with Mrs. Churley. And at least the question of the money would be effaced from his mind.

The next day he did not get back till late from his walk. As he mounted the stairs he caught Halo’s voice: she was speaking excitedly, in a tone of irritation unusual to her. The study door was ajar, and he heard Mrs. Dorman replying, in the conciliatory voice in which she communicated anything likely to give pain: “I’m so sorry, Mrs. — Mrs. — . You must really tell me, you know, what I ought to call you,” she interrupted herself with a faint cough.

Vance strode in. Halo was standing, her head high, her face pale; Mrs. Dorman confronted her with excited spots of red on her round innocent-looking cheeks. “You mustn’t really take it so hard,” she was protesting.

Halo turned to Vance. Her lips were as pale as her face, and her arm trembled slightly as she rested it on the desk; but her voice was quiet. “Mrs. Dorman tells me that Mrs. Churley would rather not see me.”

Vance guessed instantly what had happened. Ireful words sprang to his lips; but Halo’s glance checked him. How right she was — always! It would have been a pity to gratify Mrs. Dorman by any sign of discomfiture. “Since Mrs. Churley doesn’t want to receive either of us,” he rejoined, in a voice as quiet as Halo’s, “I don’t see that there’s anything more to be said.”

Mrs. Dorman looked undefinably disappointed. “But I didn’t mean that, Mrs. Weston. On the contrary. Mrs. Churley’s very sorry she was so overcome when you came the other day; she’d be glad to see you again. The message I brought was for Mrs . . . Mrs. . .”

“My name’s Weston,” Vance interrupted.

“Exactly.” Mrs. Dorman’s face grew rounder and rosier. “And at first we all supposed . . . naturally. . .”

“Mrs. Dorman,” Halo intervened, “has just told me that Mrs. Churley’s reason for not wishing to see me is that she’s heard we were not married.”

“I told her I’d always understood that in the States you attach comparatively little importance to being married . . . that perhaps we oughtn’t to judge you by our standards. But naturally that’s not the general feeling in England; at least not among Church people — and Mrs. Churley was dreadfully upset. You know she always dreaded any . . . any demoralizing influence on that poor boy; and I’m afraid she’s taken it into her head that his friendship with Mrs. — Mrs. — ”

The red rushed to Vance’s forehead. “This lady’s name is Mrs. Tarrant; but it will be Weston soon. Please say to Mrs. Churley — ”

Halo laid her hand on his arm. “No, dear; there’s nothing more to say. Except that we both loved Chris, and that we feel for his mother with all our hearts.”

Mrs. Dorman stared with the bewildered look of one who has lost her cue. “But you will come to see her, Mr. Weston?”

“There’d be no object in it. Mrs. Tarrant has told you all we have to say.”

Mrs. Dorman uttered a baffled sigh. “It’s so very sad,” she murmured. She gathered up her boa, and Vance opened the door and silently saw her down the stairs.

“It all falls on you — always!” he broke out indignantly as he returned to Halo.

She surprised him by a gesture of appeal. “That poor mother — oh, Vance, don’t be angry with her! If only there was anything we could do! I feel as if you and I were the real debtors — everybody’s debtors; as if, to be as happy as we are, we must have stolen too many other people’s happiness. Darling, do you suppose we have?” she burst out, her arms stretched to him.

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