The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XXVIII

Lady Guy Plunder said that if you wanted to hear Octavius talk you went to Charlie’s; but if you wanted to talk yourself you came, sooner or later, to her.

There was a good deal of truth in it. Her little house in Mayfair — even smaller than Charlie’s, and mouse-coloured instead of dove — was packed to the doorstep for her cocktail suppers. Lady Guy (one of the rich Blessoms of Birmingham) had started her married career in a big house with tessellated floors and caryatid mantelpieces; but when taxes and overproduction had contracted the Blessom millions she had moved light-heartedly into the compactest habitation to be found, and Lord Guy had abandoned lawn-tennis championships for a job in the city.

Lady Guy, Vance had learned, headed one of the numerous groups within groups that made London such a labyrinthine adventure. Lady Pevensey commanded the big omnivorous throng of the rich, the idle and nomadic. Her name was known round the world to the echoes of palace-hotels, and was a sure key to sensational first-nights, theatrical or pugilistic. She was the woman who could always get you a seat for a coronation, a prizefight, a murder trial or a show proscribed by the censorship; who juggled with movie-stars, millionaires and musicians, and to whom all were interchangeable values in the social market. Lady Guy said that Imp had a social ticker, and could quote prices in celebrities at any hour. That she could float them and boost them there was no denying; but could she also manufacture them? No; it took Charlie and Lady Guy to do that, and at times the rivalry was hot between them. Lady Guy, a small woman with quick eyes and a tranquil manner, had, it was true, failed to capture Octavius, who was admittedly the biggest haul of post-war London. Charlie said it was because her atmosphere was too restless; she retorted that she wasn’t going to be stagnant to oblige anybody. But the two remained on fairly good terms, Charlie because he needed Lady Guy’s finds to entertain Octavius, and Lady Guy because she did not despair of luring Octavius away from him.

It was at Charlie’s that she had discovered Vance, and immediately she had guessed his value. To the people in Imp Pevensey’s set he was merely the clever new American novelist who had written “The Puritan in Spain”, which was modern enough to make one feel in the movement, yet full of lovely scenery and rather sticky love-making. But that would not do for Lady Guy. She found out about “Colossus” from Derek Fane, and instantly, whenever Vance was mentioned, the Plunder set said: “Oh, ‘The Puritan in Spain’? Y-yes — that belongs to his pretty-pretty period. But of course you know about ‘Colossus’? Hasn’t Gwen Plunder asked you for next Friday? He’s promised to read us some fragments . . .” and Vance was immediately known as the author of “Colossus”, that unfinished masterpiece of which the elect were already cognizant, and which was perhaps to surpass Octavius’s gigantic creation, and probably to appear before it.

That this was clever of Gwen even her detractors had to admit. If she should succeed in deflating Octavius he might have to become one of her habitués, if only in order to be reinflated. And meanwhile there was Vance at her disposal, young, good-looking, fresh, a novelty to the London palate — while Octavius was already a staple diet. Instantly Vance became the most sought-after figure in literary and artistic London, and certain disdainful personages who had affected indifference to Lady Guy’s previous celebrities now overwhelmed her with attentions and invitations, all of which she smilingly accepted without committing herself with regard to the Friday reading.

Lady Pevensey used her artists and writers as bait for millionaires, and her millionaires (and especially their females) as baits for Bohemia. If a budding society novelist wanted to know what sort of gowns and jewels were being worn at small dinners that year, or what young Lord Easterbridge and the Duke of Branksome really talked about when they were with their own little crowd, Lady Pevensey instantly arranged a meeting between best-sellers and best-dressers. For her parties women put on their emeralds, and the budding novelist had to come in a white tie. Lady Guy’s policy was the reverse. The first inducement she offered you was that you needn’t dress; in fact she besought you not to. There were few idlers at her parties, and people were urged to drop in “just as they were”. The men could wear city clothes, or sweaters and plus~fours, the women come straight from their studios, old-furniture shops, manicuring establishments, dress-makers’ salons or typists’ desks. She had thus captured some of Bloomsbury’s wildest birds, and maddened the wearers of tiaras with the unappeased longing to be invited.

Vance, as he took off his overcoat, and straightened the dark brown tie which had been carefully chosen to set off his gray striped flannel, examined his reflection curiously in the glass at the foot of Lady Guy’s stairs. His selves, as he had long since discovered, were innumerable, and there were times when each in turn had something interesting to say to him. But at the moment only two were audible: the ironic spectator who stood aside and chuckled, and the hero of the evening, whose breast was bursting with triumph. Lady Guy had run over, carelessly, the names of some of the people who had asked to be asked; among them were a few for whose approbation and understanding Vance would have given every facile success he had ever enjoyed. And they were awaiting him now, they wanted to hear what he had to tell them, they believed in him and in his future. The ironic spectator shrank into the background as the laughing hero, besieged by smiles and invitations, sprang upstairs to greet his hostess.

With the unfolding of the manuscript both these light puppets were brushed aside, and Vance was the instrument to which the goddess laid her lips. He forgot where he was, who was listening, what judgment this or that oracle was preparing to pronounce on him, and remembered only that each syllable he spoke had been fed with his life, and was a part of him. At first he was aware of reading too fast, of slurring his words in the way that Halo reproved; then his voice freed itself and spread wings, and he seemed to hang above his creation, and to see that it was good.

For the most part he was listened to in silence, but he thought he felt a subtle current of understanding flowing between him and his audience, and now and then it escaped in a murmur of approbation that was like wind in his sails. Thus urged, he sped on. The pages seemed to take life, his figures arose and walked, and he felt that dizzy sense of power which eternally divides the creator from the rest of mankind.

As he laid his manuscript down Lady Guy’s guests gathered around him. Every one had something to say, and at once he divined that for all of them the important thing was not what he had written but the epithets they had found to apply to it. The disenchantment was immediate. “It’s the same everywhere,” he thought, recalling the literary evenings at the Tarrants’, where the flower of New York culture had praised him for the wrong reasons. He had learned then how short a way into an artist’s motives the discernment of the cleverest ever penetrated. How his visions had dwindled under their touch — how he had hated them for admiring him for the wrong reasons, and despised himself for imagining that their admiration was worth having!

Now it was just the same. These brilliant sophisticated people, who had seemed so stimulating and discriminating when they talked of other people’s books — how wide of the mark they went in dealing with his! He felt ashamed of his dissatisfaction, which resembled a voracious appetite for praise, though it was only a timid craving for such flashes of insight as Frenside and Tolby had once and again shed on his work. One or two men — not more; and not one woman. Not even Halo, he thought ungratefully. . .

Awkwardly he gathered up his pages. The cessation of the reading restored him to self-consciousness, and he wished he could have escaped at once, like an actor slipping behind the wings. But his audience was clustering about him, showering compliments, putting foolish questions, increasing his longing to be back among the inarticulate and the unself-conscious. And suddenly, as he stood there, accepting invitations and stammering thanks, the door opened and Floss Delaney came in.

He had met her only once since their chance encounter at Charlie Tarlton’s. She had urged him, then, to come and see her, and had named the day and hour; but when he presented himself at the hotel where she and her father were staying he found her absent-minded and indifferent, distracted by telephone-calls, by notes to be answered, and dress-makers to be interviewed, and abandoning him to the society of her father and Alders. He swore then that it should be the end, and assured himself that he was thankful to have had his lesson. But when Floss appeared in Lady Guy’s drawing-room he felt a difference in her before which all his resolutions crumbled; for he knew at once that she had come for him, and him only.

She glanced about her in the cool critical way which always made it seem as if any entertainment at which she appeared had been planned in her honour; and to Lady Guy’s expression of regret that she should have missed the reading, she replied lightly: “Oh, I’m glad it’s over. I never was much on books.”

Her hostess gave a slightly acid laugh. “That’s why I hadn’t meant to invite you, my dear.”

“Oh, I know; but it’s the reason why I wanted to come. I mean, your not wanting me,” said Miss Delaney, with her grave explicitness. “I always like to see what’s going on. Besides,” she added, “I’ve known Vance a good while longer than any of you people, and it would have been no use pretending to him that I understood a word of what he was reading.” She went toward him, and held out her hand. “You’ll have to make the best of it, Vanny. I came to see you and not your book.”

It was as if the crowded room had been magically emptied, and she and Vance were alone. He looked at her with enchanted eyes. Who else in the world would have known exactly what he longed to have said to him at that particular moment? Ah, this was what women were for — to feel the way to one’s heart just when the Preacher’s vanity weighed on it most heavily!

Lady Guy’s guests were pouring down the stairs to the dining-room; as Floss turned to follow she threw a smile at Vance and caught his hand. “We’ll go down together. I’m ravenous, aren’t you? Get me something to eat as quick as you can, darling.”

Vance had never seen her so radiant, so sure of herself. Her very quietness testified to her added sense of power. Her dark hair, parted in a new fashion, clasped her low forehead in dense folds which a thread of diamonds held in place, and she wore something light and shining, that seemed an accident of her own effulgence. In the crowded little dining-room the mere force of that inner shining — he didn’t know how else to describe it — drew the men from the other women, who were so much quicker and cleverer, and knew so much what to say. Vance found himself speedily separated from her by eager competitors; but he had no feeling of unrest. For this one evening he knew she belonged to him, she was not going to forget him or desert him.

And when the party broke up he found himself again at her side, found that, as a matter of course, he had her cloak on his arm, and was following her out into the thin summer night. He got into the motor beside her, and the chauffeur looked back for orders.

“Oh, how hot it was in there! I’m suffocating, aren’t you?” She lowered the front window. “We’ll drive straight down to Brambles,” she commanded, and the chauffeur nodded, apparently unsurprised. They sped away.

“Brambles? Where’s that?” Vance asked, not in the least caring to know, but merely wanting to fit the new name into his dream.

“It’s a little place father’s hired for week-ends; somewhere under Hindhead, I think they call it. You go over the top of everything. Don’t you think it would be lovely to see the sunrise from the top of a big hill? I believe we can make it; there’s not much traffic at this hour. I’m dead sick of crowds, aren’t you?” Her head sank back against the cushioned seat. “I wasn’t going to have all those people think you and I’d never done anything together but talk high~brow!” she exclaimed, with her low unexpected laugh. She turned and kissed him, and then shook him off to light a cigarette. “Don’t bother me — I just want to doze and dream.”

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