The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XXVII

To any one not chained by association to the old low-fronted London there was magic in looking down from Lady Pevensey’s sky-terrace over the lawns of the Green Park and the distant architectural masses discerned through shadowy foliage. In the transparent summer night Vance leaned there, lost in the unreal beauty, and recalling another night-piece, under a white moon-washed sky, when the Mediterranean lay at his feet, and Floss Delaney’s bare arm burned into his.

The momentary disappointment over, he had been glad that Floss was not among Lady Pevensey’s guests. At first, among those white shoulders and small luminous heads, he had imagined he felt her presence; but he was mistaken. Tonight he was in another of Lady Pevensey’s many sets, and apparently it had not occurred to his hostess that she might have given him pleasure by inviting Floss. Did she even remember that the two had met at Cannes? Vance was beginning to learn that in this rushing oblivious world one must jump onto the train in motion, and look about at the passengers afterward. As soon as he entered Lady Pevensey’s drawing-room he found himself surrounded, as in old days at the Tarrants’, by charming people who made much of him. Then he had imagined that they were throwing open the door of their lives to him; now he knew they were simply adding a new name to their lists. They marked him down as the entomologist does a rare butterfly, and he found the process not unpleasant, for he was experienced enough to enjoy watching them while they were observing him, and he liked the atmosphere of soft-voiced cordiality and disarming simplicity in which the chase went on. He recalled with a smile the days when he had supposed that people in society wanted to hear the answer to their questions, or to listen to the end of a sentence. He had learned that they were really indifferent to every one and everything outside of their own circle; but he did not care. They were a part of the new picture he was studying, and he wanted them to be as characteristic and self-sufficing as his conception of them, just as they wanted him to be the young genius with rumpled hair who says unexpected things and forgets to note down his engagements.

“But of course you know Octavius, don’t you, Vance?” It was Lady Pevensey’s voice, rousing him from his nocturnal vision to introduce a small quiet man with a bulging brow, who looked at him, through the bow-windows of immense horn-rimmed spectacles, with the expression of an anxious child.

Vance, lost in the tangle of Christian names which were the only sign-posts of Lady Pevensey’s London, tried to make his smile speak for him. “By name at least — ” Lady Pevensey added, throwing him a lifebelt as she drifted off to other rescues.

“It’s the only way of knowing each other that we have time for nowadays — knowing each other’s Christian names,” said the little man rather sadly, aligning his elbows next to Vance’s on the parapet. “I know you write books, though,” he added benevolently. “Novels, are they — or popular expositions of the Atom? It’s no use telling me, for I shouldn’t remember. There’s no time for that either — for remembering what other people write. Much less for reading their books. And if one does, it isn’t always easy to tell if they’re novels or biochemistry. So I stick to my own — my own writing. I’m buried in that up to the chin; buried alive, I trust. But even that one can’t be sure of. It may be that already I’m just a rosy corpse preserved in a glacier.” He glanced tentatively at Vance, as if hoping for a protest, but Vance was silenced by the impossibility of recalling any one named Octavius who had written a book. He hedged.

“Why should you call your books a glacier?” he said politely.

The other winced. “Not my BOOKS; my Book. One’s enough, in all conscience. Even with the irreproachable life I lead, and only one slice of grilled meat three times a week — all the rest vegetarian — one is always at the mercy of accidents, culinary or other; and I need a clear stretch of twenty years ahead of me.” Again he fixed Vance solemnly. “The day I’m assured of that I’ll sit down and finish my book. Meanwhile I hope we shall meet again. Tell Imp to bring you to Charlie’s — I’m nearly always there after midnight.” He nodded and was lost in the throng.

A young lady with a small enamelled face and restless eyes came up to Vance. “Was Octavius WONDERFUL? We’re longing to know,” she said breathlessly, indicating a group of young men and damsels in her wake. One of the latter interrupted: “He’s never as good anywhere as he is at Charlie’s,” but the young lady said curtly: “Not to YOU perhaps, darling; but he’s sure to have been wonderful to Mr. Weston — ” at which her young followers looked properly awed.

Vance turned on them with a burst of candour. “How can I tell if he was wonderful, when I don’t know who he is? It all depends on that, doesn’t it?” The others looked their astonishment and incredulity, and the leading lady exclaimed indignantly: “But didn’t that idiot tell you you were talking to Octavius?”

To confess that this meant nothing to him, Vance perceived, would lower him irretrievably in the estimation of these ardent young people; and he was struggling for a subterfuge when the group was joined by a tall bronzed young man whose face was disturbingly familiar.

“Remember me, Mr. Weston? Spartivento. Yes: with Rosenzweig and Blemp. We met, I think, at Mrs. Glaisher’s.” The Duke turned his Theocritan eyes on the young lady who had challenged Vance. “See here, I guess you folks don’t know that in the U.S. people call each other by all the names they’ve got. I presume Mr. Weston’s heard of Octavius Alistair Brant — isn’t it?” He shone softly on his interlocutor, and then turned back to Vance. “Mrs. Glaisher is demanding to see you; she asked me to remind you that she is one of your most admirative readers. She has taken Lanchester House for the season. You will call up, and give her the pleasure to dine? So long, — happy to meet you; I am going-gon with Lady Cynthia,” said the Duke with his perfect smile, eclipsing himself before Vance could detain him.

The encounter woke such echoes that for the moment the identity of Octavius Alistair Brant became a minor matter, and it was not till the next day that Vance, reporting on the party to Tolby, found himself obliged to confess that he still failed to associate Mr. Brant’s name with any achievement known to fame.

Tolby seemed amused. “Yes. How village-pump we all are, after all! Brant’s a little god; but his reign is circumscribed. It extends from Bloomsbury to Chelsea. He’s writing a big book about some thing or other — I can’t remember what. But everybody agrees it’s going to be cataclysmic — there’ll be nothing left standing but Octavius. You know his Prime Minister, Charlie Tarlton? Oh, well, he’s worth while — they both are. Get Lady Pevensey to take you to one of Charlie’s evenings.”

Vance was only half listening. Mrs. Glaisher had a house in London! She wanted him to call her up! If only he had had the courage to ask the Duke if Floss Delaney were with her. But he had not been able to bring himself to put the question. And even now, as he sat looking at Tolby’s telephone, he could not make the decisive gesture. “If she’s here we’re sure to meet,” he thought; and he got up and went back to his work. But it was one thing to seat himself at his desk, and another to battle against the stream of associations pouring in on him. Write? What did he care about writing? The sound of any name connected with Floss Delaney’s set all his wires humming. He got up again uneasily and strolled back into the studio, where Tolby sat at his canvas, in happy unconsciousness of all else. Vance stood and watched him.

“How do you manage to shut out life when you want to work?” he questioned.

Tolby glanced up at him, “Life — work? Where’s the antithesis?” He touched his canvas with the brush. “This IS Life; the rest’s simply hygienics,” he said carelessly. Vance returned to his desk and continued to stare at the blank page. What a cursed tangle of impulses he was! Would he ever achieve the true artist’s faculty of self-isolation? “Not until I learn to care less about everything,” he thought despondently.

The next night, at the Honourable Charles Tarlton’s little dove~gray house in Westminster, where everybody sat on the floor, and people came and went in a casual yet intimate way, without giving their large rosy host any particular attention, or receiving any from him, Vance had to acknowledge how good Octavius was.

His predominance over the rest of the company made itself felt in the quietest yet most unmistakeable way. He was the only person who did not sit on the floor. His legs were too short, he explained; when he got up it was mortifying to see that people expected him to go ever so much farther. He was provided with a horrible sculptured armchair, which had been known to his host’s grandparents as “the Abbotsford”, and from this throne Octavius poured out his wisdom on the disciples at his feet. Vance thought with a pang of Chris Churley. His talk, as it matured, would probably have been almost as good. And so, perhaps, would his unwritten book. The chief difference was that Octavius had known how to come to an agreement with life; also that he philosophized on barley-water, and had the minimum of material needs. Thus he had been able to adjust himself comfortably to failure, and make himself a warm nest in it, like a mouse in a cupboard.

But it was not as a failure that his disciples thought of him; nor even, in the first instance, as a brilliant talker. As Tolby had said, talk was not a career in England, and Octavius Brant had to be something besides, and preferably an author. The big book was his pretext and his justification, and the excuse of his audience for hanging on his words. Nobody seemed quite clear as to what it was to be, and Vance discovered that while there were those who resented being asked if it were a novel, others, perhaps the more sophisticated, retorted to his question: “Why, yes, a novel, of course! It’s the only formula that’s still malleable — ” in which he recognized a dictum of Octavius’s. In fact, according to Charlie Tarlton, if the book didn’t at first seem like a novel, that would simply mean that Octavius had renewed the formula; that in future what HE chose to call a novel would BE a novel, whether you liked it or not. Charlie Tarlton did not speak often; in Octavius’s presence he was just rosily silent, dispensing cocktails and cigarettes; but when the great man was late in arriving — and his hours were incalculable — Charlie, to keep the disciples in a good humour, would sometimes drop an oracle on the subject of his work.

“You’ve read it, then?” Vance one evening blundered into asking; and the elect looked grieved, and Mr. Tarlton slightly irritated. “Read it? Read it? What exactly does reading a book consist in? Reading the original manuscript — Octavius writes out every word with his own hand — or the typescript copy, or the proofs, or the published book? Every one of these versions is a different thing, has its own impact, produces its specific set of reactions. But what I’ve read is better than any of them — the author’s brain. There’s where you get the quintessential stuff. As Octavius says, it’s the butterfly before the colours are brushed off.” Mr. Tarlton leaned back satisfied, resting comfortable elbows on his cushiony knees.

“Well — exactly!” murmured a devout disciple, with a glance of reproof at Vance.

“Exactly what?” questioned Octavius, entering in his hat and overcoat, and removing his scarf with a leisurely hand. Charlie’s rosy face became tomato-coloured and he scrambled uneasily to his feet.

“He was saying that the quintessence of your book is in your brain,” exclaimed another imprudent devotee. Octavius’s small face withered, and he looked more than ever like an anxious child. His glance swept over Charlie, searing him like flame. “Is that by way of apology for the book’s not being finished?” he exclaimed, his voice rising to a high falsetto. “If so, I can only say that I prefer to do my own apologizing — when I find it necessary.”

A pall of silence fell on the fervent group; Charlie stammered: “I didn’t mean anything of the sort,” and Vance, squatting on a cushion at the great man’s feet, ventured boldly: “You know you haven’t yet told me exactly what it’s about.”

Octavius’s countenance softened. There was nothing he liked better than toying with his theme before a newcomer. “Ah, rash youth,” he murmured, dropping into his armchair, and leaning his little head back among the knobby heraldic ornaments. “Rash — rash!” His eyes glittered behind their sheltering panes, and his short-fingered hands caressed each other softly, as if his hearer’s hand lay between them. But suddenly he shook his head. “No — no; I won’t yield to the temptation. The lovely creature is there, swimming to and fro in the deepest deeps of my consciousness, shimmering like a chamaeleon, unfolding like a flower. How can you expect me to drag it up brutally into the air, to throw it at your feet, limp and discoloured, and say: ‘This is my book!’ when it wouldn’t be, when I should be the first to disown it? My dear fellow — ” he leaned forward, and laid his little hand on Vance’s shoulder. “My dear fellow, WAIT. It’s worth it.”

Vance looked up at him with renewed interest. “In a way,” he thought, “he’s right. His book is written and I daresay it’s as good as he thinks. It’s the agony of exteriorizing that he dodges away from. And meanwhile his creation lives on inside of him, and is nourished by him and grows more and more beautiful.” At the thought he felt the stealing temptation to dream his own books instead of writing them. What a row of masterpieces they would be! They die in the process of being written, he mused. And he thought what his life might have been if he could have drifted from one fancy to another, letting each scatter its dolphin-colours unseen as another replaced it. “If I’d called up Mrs. Glaisher the other day, for instance — ” and suddenly he was seized with a terrible fear. Supposing Floss Delaney had already left England? Supposing she had been there, within reach of him, the night he had seen the Duke of Spartivento at Lady Pevensey’s, and had now vanished again, heaven knew whither? But surely if she had been in London she would have heard of his being there, would have telephoned him, or written. His world turned ashen at the thought. What was he doing in this atmosphere of literary humbug, among the satellites of a poor fatuous dreamer? Life, real life, was a million miles away from these ephemeral word-spinners . . . The scene crumbled as if a sorcerer’s wand had touched it. And then, just as he was getting to his feet, there was a stir on the landing outside, and the sound of a small high voice saying ingratiatingly to a parlour-maid who seemed doubtful of the speaker’s credentials: “Mr. Alders — if you’ll please simply say it’s MR. ALDERS— ”

“Oh, Alders,” murmured Charlie Tarlton, with an explanatory hand~wave to his guests. “Who was it he’d promised to bring, Octavius?” The question was answered by the parlour-maid’s throwing open the door. On the threshold stood Alders, more dust-coloured and negative than ever, and behind him, like a beacon in the night, Floss Delaney. She moved forward with her light unhurried step and looked about her composedly, as if never doubting that it was she whom Mr. Tarlton’s guests had assembled to behold.

“This is Floss Delaney,” some one said, leading her up to Octavius. For a moment the little man’s face took on the drowned look of the superseded; then pleasure lit it up, and holding out his hand he murmured: “Flos florum — I don’t know how to say it in this week’s American slang.”

Miss Delaney scrutinized him with the cautious friendliness of a visitor at the Zoo caressing an unknown animal. She laid her hand on his arm, as if he and she were facing an expectant camera, and looked about at the assembled company. “Isn’t he GOR-geous?” she said in her deep drawl.

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