The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XXIX

They flew on through empty streets, through lamplit suburbs and dark bosky lanes. They sped under park walls overhung with heavy midsummer foliage, past gates with guardian lodges just glimmering into sight, through villages asleep about their duck-ponds, their shaded commons and sturdy church-towers. The road wound and wound, then rose and breasted a wide stretch of open heath, soaring, soaring. Vance’s heart rose with it, swinging upward to the light. He sat still, clasping her to him. She had fallen asleep, and her little head lay on his shoulder. As they reached the summit of the ridge the chauffeur lowered his speed, but without stopping, and slowly they glided along above shadowy sweeping distances, vales studded with scattered trees, villages and towns with a spire or tower starting up into the light from the gray crouching roofs.

“Oh, look, look!” Vance cried out, as far away to the east the day woke in fire through trails of Channel mist.

Floss opened her eyes reluctantly. “I’m cold.” She shivered and drew her cloak about her. “We must be nearly there,” she said contentedly, and her head fell back on Vance’s shoulder. She had seen nothing, felt nothing, of the beauty and mystery of the dawn. There flashed through him the memory of another sunrise, seen from Thundertop at Halo’s side, when he and she were girl and youth, and their hearts held the same ecstasy. All that was over — such ecstasies are seldom shared, and he had grown used to tasting his sunrises and his poetry alone. But he felt the beat of life in his arms, and told himself that thus only can a man reach out of his solitude and be warm.

And now they were winding down again into the blue night of the lanes. The motor turned in at a gate and drew up before a low house among dewy flowerbeds. There was a scent of old-fashioned roses; a lily-pool slept under a gray wall. Everything had the gliding smoothness and unreality of a dream.

“I wonder if there’ll be anybody up to let us in? I telephoned; at least I think I did; but I don’t believe they expected us before daylight. Oh, boy, aren’t the roses just too heavenly? And what’s that blue stuff that smells so sweet?” Floss, suddenly awake, sprang out of the motor and darted across the wet grass to a long pool edged with lavender. She knelt and plunged her bare arms among the sleeping water-lilies. “I want to wash off London, don’t you? But I guess a hot bath would do it better.” She jumped up again and caught him by the hand. “Come along; we’ll come out again by and by, and pick millions and millions of roses. . .”

A rumpled but respectful housemaid stood at the door. Another was hurriedly lighting a fire in the chimney of the low-raftered hall; and Floss stood on the hearth, laughing and drying her wet arms.

“We didn’t expect you, Miss, not till luncheon,” the housemaid said; and Floss retorted gaily: “Oh, you’ll have to get used to that. My watch never keeps the same time as other people’s. I suppose we can have some coffee or something? And then I want to go to bed and sleep for hours — ” She stretched her arms above her head with a happy yawn.

Coffee and toast, bacon and jam, invited them to a table near the fire, and they feasted there in the early sunshine streaming through low windows hung with roses.

Floss, it appeared, had meant to come off alone for two days. She was exhausted by London hours and the London rush, she wanted to get away by herself and think; she was like that sometimes, she explained. And then, seeing Vance again at Lady Guy’s, she had said to herself how much jollier it would be to have him come with her — “and just for once pretend it’s old times. Shall we, Vanny?” She leaned to him with one of her swift caressing touches, and he sprang up and bent over her, covering her neck and shoulders with impatient kisses. But she pushed him back. “Darling — I’m fagged out and simply dead with sleep. I’m going up to my room to bathe and go to bed. They’ll give you a bed somewhere; and I daresay they can find some things of father’s for you. Come down at one and we’ll have lunch; and then there’ll be the whole heavenly afternoon . . . the English afternoons are as long as whole days, aren’t they?” She slipped through his arms, and ran singing up the stairs. The appearance of the housemaid on the upper landing prevented pursuit, and Vance, heavy with well-being, eager yet content, stood waiting before the fire. As she said, the English afternoons were as long as days — and it was hardly an hour after sunrise. He followed the housemaid sleepily to the room assigned to him.

Yes, that afternoon of late July was as long as a whole day; but to Vance it passed in a flash. She trailed down late for lunch, in a pale yellow cotton, a sun-hat on her arm, the heels of her red sandals clicking on the smooth oak stairs. They lunched in a thatched porch, its oak posts hung with clematis; and after coffee and cigarettes wandered out to explore the garden. It was full of bright midsummer flowers against dark hedges, of clumps and cones of shining holly. From an upper slope overhung by ancient Scotch firs they caught, between hills, a glimpse of the wide dappled country stretching southward. Then they came down again, and strolled along a lane to the village, with its low houses hunched about a duck-pond, and its square-towered church of slaty stone. The gardens before the houses were brimming with flowers, farm~horses waded in the pond, geese waddled in a regimental line across the common. All else slept in the peace of afternoon.

They came back and sat on a bench under an old mulberry tree, the long lily-pool before them. The air was full of the noise of midsummer insects. “Summer afternoon — summer afternoon,” Vance murmured, the words humming in his ears like insect-music.

“Darling, you mustn’t — they can see us perfectly from the windows,” Floss exclaimed, slipping from his embrace.

“Let’s go where they can’t, then,” he muttered, trying to draw her to her feet.

“No; not yet. It’s so lovely here. Tonight — ” she laid her hand on his arm. “By and by we’ll go in and have tea in the porch. They have such lovely things for tea in England.”

He looked at her without knowing what she said; now she wavered in the summer light like an apparition, now her nearness burned into his flesh.

She talked on ramblingly, in her level drawl, always about herself, telling him of her London experiences, her future plans, the difficulty she had in managing her father. “He’s getting fidgety — he wants to go home. He says he’s fed up with swell society. I guess he’s told you about that old family place down south he wants to buy back. Sounds nice from here, don’t it — an old family place! You’d think it was Windsor Castle. But I know what it would mean when he got there. A tumble-down house, and trotting-horses, and cards and racing, and everybody borrowing from him and swindling him, and the boys dropping in at all hours for drinks. And this is no time to sell out stocks, anyway . . . I’d have to go back and look after him.”

She leaned her head against her crossed arms, and Vance’s eyes followed the smooth amber of the underarms detaching themselves in an amphora-curve from her light sleeveless dress. “I’d rather get married at once than do that,” she grumbled.

But when he asked her, with a forced laugh, whom she thought of marrying, she said she hadn’t made up her mind yet which of the royal princes she’d settle on; but she’d be sure to let Vance know in time for him to choose a handsome wedding-present. “For you’re certain to make a fortune out of your books after your London success, aren’t you, Vanny? How much do you expect to make out of this new book? Forty thousand? They say Kipling gets fifty. Who looks after your money for you, darling?”

Tea was brought out to them under the mulberry, and she fell into ecstasies over the thick yellow cream, the buttered scones, the pyramid of late raspberries with a purple bloom on them. “Didn’t I tell you it would be wicked to miss anything so heavenly?” She held one of the raspberries against her neck. “Wouldn’t they make a lovely necklace — like dark coral?” She laughed at the crimson stain on her skin. But as Vance was bending over to kiss it away the parlour-maid advanced, a black-coated figure halting discreetly in her wake.

“The Vicar, please, Miss.”

“The Vicar? Mercy, what’s a Vicar?” Floss whispered hastily. “Oh, the minister of that church in the village, I suppose.” She rose with sudden cordiality. “How lovely of you to call! Yes — I’m Miss Delaney. My father’s taken this place for the summer. This is my cousin, Vance Weston — the famous American novelist. I guess you know him by name, anyhow. They’re wild about his books in London.” As she called Vance her cousin she slid a glance at him under her lashes.

The Vicar, an elderly man with a long purplish face and shy eyes, melted under her affability, and sat down on the edge of a garden chair. He looked timidly at Vance, and then away from him, as if famous novelists were too far out of his range to be communicated with. Then he remarked to Miss Delaney that the day was warm. She replied that he wouldn’t think that if he’d been reared in Euphoria; and as this statement visibly deepened his perplexity she explained that it was the name of the town where she and her cousin had been brought up. She liked the English climate better, she added, because when you did get a hot day it stood right out from the others, and you felt it must have cost a lot of money to make.

The conversation rambled on slumberously till the Vicar, with some circumlocution, put in a modest plea for his parochial organizations. Would Miss Delaney perhaps take an interest in them? The tenants of Brambles had usually allowed him to hold the annual parish festival in the gardens. To Vance’s surprise Floss listened with edifying attention, sitting in one of her quiet sculptural attitudes while the parochial plans were haltingly and laboriously set forth. It almost seemed to Vance that she was prolonging the conversation with the malicious intent of defrauding him of what was left of the day, and he got up and walked away, hoping the Vicar might take the hint and follow. But from the farther end of the orchard the intruder could be seen settling himself with deliberation before a dish of fresh scones, and another towering pile of raspberries, and Vance, exasperated, wandered out of the gate and down the lane.

When he returned the garden was empty, and he went into the low~ceilinged hall, where the light was beginning to fade, though the day was still so bright outside. From the armchair in which she lolled Floss stretched out her hand.

“Darling, why did you run away? Didn’t you think the Vicar was lovely? He told me all about School Treats and Mothers’ Meetings.” She drew Vance down and wound her arms around his neck. “I guess the girls are at supper now, and you can kiss me,” she whispered, laughing.

He knelt beside her, pressing her fast, and throbbing with her heart-beats. With other women — even with his poor little wife — golden strands of emotion had veined the sombre glow; but to hold Floss Delaney was to plunge into a dark night, a hurrying river. It was as if her blood and his were the tide sweeping them away. Everything else was drowned in that wild current.

She freed herself and leaned back. “Why, Vanny, what a baby you are! It’s like old times. Do you remember, down by the river? Do you like me better than any of those girls you’ve been going with up in London?”

“She’s mine — I must keep her!” was his only thought. But suddenly the telephone shrilled through their absorption, and Floss started to her feet. Vance tightened his hold. “Don’t go . . . don’t go . . . What does it matter? Let the thing be damned, can’t you?”

She shook him off. “No, don’t stop me. I must see what it is.” In an instant everything about her was changed: she looked alert and hard, her lips narrowed to a thin line. “I’m expecting a message,” she threw back, hurrying across the hall to the passage where the telephone hung.

Vance sank into the chair she had left; his head felt the warmth where hers had rested. He smiled at her veering moods. At that moment nothing that she said or did could break the spell; and they still had the end of the long afternoon, and then the night, before them.

Through the door into the passage he caught snatches of question and ejaculation. “Yes — yes: Floss Delaney. Yes; I’m listening. . . . Oh . . . why, yes. . . . She did? She IS? . . . Oh, gracious! . . . You’re SURE? . . . Yes . . . Yes. . . . I hear . . .” The door swung shut, and only the indistinct ups and downs of her voice came to him. He was not trying to listen; what she was saying did not interest him. His ears were full of their own music. “In a minute,” he thought, “she’ll be back . . .” His eyes closed on the vision.

“Well!” she exclaimed, suddenly standing before him. “Vance, are you asleep? Well, what on earth do you think —?” She dropped down on a stool before the hearth, and burst into a queer exultant laugh. Her eyes shone in the twilight like jewels. “Well, I know somebody who’s down and out — and serve him right too!” Her laughter continued, in short irregular bursts, as if it were an exercise she was not used to. “Spartivento! Our darling Duke’s got left! Why, yes . . . didn’t you know he thought he was going to marry Mrs. Glaisher? I supposed Alders had told you. I thought everybody knew. He made a big enough fool of himself — going round asking everybody about her investments. I warned him she’d be sure to hear about it, but he only said: ‘Well, what if she did?’ Those Italians, even if they’re the biggest swells in their own country, don’t understand our ideas of delicacy . . . Well, and what do you suppose? Alders telephones that she’s announced her engagement to the Grand Duke Basil! I had a bet with Spartivento — I told him I knew he wouldn’t pull it off. I guess I’m a hundred dollars to the good on this; or would be, if he had the money to pay me — poor old Spart!”

She threw back her head, and in a leap of firelight Vance saw the laugh issuing from her throat like stamens from a ruby flower. He felt revolted and fascinated. She was like some one starting up out of a lethargy; he had never seen her so vivid, so passionate. What could this sordid story of Mrs. Glaisher and Spartivento matter to her? He sprang up and pulled her to her feet. “What do I care about those rubbishy people? Are you trying to tell me you’re in love with the man yourself, and that you thought you’d lost him?” he burst out, pressing her wrists angrily. He knew his anger was ridiculous, yet he could not master it.

“Vance — let me go, Vance! You hurt — let me go!” She twisted furiously in his hold. “Me in love with Sparti? Well, you think of good ones! Much obliged!” He dropped her hands, and instantly she came up and laid her head on his breast. “You’re a nice boy, you are, when a girl’s carried you off with her like this, to accuse her of being in love with another fellow. Have I acted as if I was?” She lifted her heavy lids and gave him a long look. He put his arms about her, trembling with joy. “Then, darling — come.”

“Yes — yes.” She leaned on him a moment; then she drew back softly. “We can’t behave exactly as if there was nobody but us in the house, can we? They’ll be bringing in dinner soon, and I want to go to my room first, and have a rest. I’m beginning to feel that we started our elopement somewhere about three A.M. — aren’t you?” She rested her warm sleepy gaze on his. “He was cross with me, was he, because he thought I wanted mother Glaisher’s leavings? Looks that way, don’t it? Why, I guess I could have bought her Grand Duke for myself easily enough if I’d wanted to! What I DO want, the worst way, is a hot bath, and a good sleep before dinner.” She slipped out of his arms, and paused half way up the stairs to wave back at him. “So long, darling!”

Well — if she chose to play her old game, let her. Vance smiled with the security of the happy lover. Even her childish excitement over the Glaisher–Spartivento episode amused him. It was a mind in which everything was exactly on the same level of importance. Hadn’t he discovered that long ago? One didn’t ask for intelligence or sensibility in women of her sort. He felt light, detached, pleased with his own objectivity. What danger was there in wasting a few hours over her when his judgment remained so unaffected?

He strolled out into the garden. The lengthening shadows seemed to have brought out new scents in the still air. He looked back and saw a curtain sway out from an upper window — hers no doubt. His heart stirred; the warmth of her beauty seemed to envelop him.

He went out of the gate, and roamed through a network of hushed lanes. The softness of the air entered into his veins. He met a farm-wagon driving homeward with its load; the hot flanks of the big slow-footed horses brushed him as they passed. Farther on, he heard the soft padding of a flock of sheep, and scrambled up in the bracken to let them pass. Mounting upward he reached a stretch of open moor, where the clear daylight hung as if perpetually suspended, and threw himself down in the rough heather.

As he lay there his mind wandered back over the day. From that height it seemed to lie spread out before him, clear yet distant, as if its incidents had befallen some one else. Queer that the girl’s power over him could co-exist with such lucidity! An hour or two ago everything had been blurred in his brain; now each fantastic episode detached itself, standing out in beauty or absurdity. The absurdity, of course, was provided by Floss’s excitement at the report of Mrs. Glaisher’s betrothal. Humiliating as the admission was, Vance had to own that the news had instantly put him out of her mind. And why, unless, as he had jokingly suggested, it gave her the hope of capturing Spartivento? He had joked at the moment; but as the scene came back to him he winced. Yet why was he suddenly measuring poor Floss by standards he had never before thought of applying to her? He had always known that money, flattery and excitement were all she cared for; to make her forget them for a moment was probably the most he could hope. Luckily, he reflected, he was still clear-sighted enough not to sentimentalize the situation.

He sprang up with a laugh. “Well, it’s up to me now. If I can’t get her away from the other fellow I’m no good!” He began to scramble down the hillside in the gathering darkness as if he had been racing his rival back to Floss’s feet.

When he got down into the shade of the lanes, he was bewildered by the sign-posts with names of unknown villages, and taking a wrong turning, wasted half an hour in getting back to the point he had missed. Under the thick branches the velvet dusk was beginning to gather, altering the look of things; but as soon as he was on the right trail again he began to run, and before long he saw the first roofs of the village, and beyond them the trees of Brambles. He pushed open the white gate. The low windows still stood open; their welcome streamed out across the lawn. Vance ran toward them like a breathless schoolboy. She might belong to Spartivento tomorrow, but tonight she was his. He gave a happy laugh.

At the door he met the parlour-maid who had received them that morning. With her black dress and afternoon cap she seemed to have regained her professional superiority, and he fancied she looked at him coldly.

“Oh, it’s you, sir?” She seemed surprised. “Miss Delaney thought you’d taken the train back.”

Vance returned her look blankly. “The train —?”

“But she said, if not,” the parlour-maid continued with manifest disapproval, “we was to serve dinner for you just as if she’d been here.”

Vance continued to stare at her. At first her words conveyed no meaning to him; then his heart gave a dizzy drop. “What’s the matter? Isn’t she coming down? Is she — I suppose she’s too tired?”

The parlour-maid stared in her turn. She did so with an icy respectfulness. “Down to dinner, sir? Miss Delaney left for London an hour ago.”

Vance stood motionless. The dizziness seemed to have got into his throat: it was so dry that he could hardly speak. He repeated: “London?”

The parlour-maid pursed up her lips and drew aside to let him enter. “You’ll dine here, then, sir?”

“Left — but why did she leave? What’s happened?”

“I couldn’t say, sir. I was to give you this if you came back.” She took a note from the table, and Vance carried it to the light and tore it open.

“Don’t be cross, Vanny. I’ve had a hurry call back to London and couldn’t wait for you to come in. Didn’t we have a lovely day? The girl will tell you about the trains. Love and goodbye. Floss.

“P.S. No use trying to see me. I’m not going to be in town for some days.”

He read the note over slowly. Then he crumpled it up and stood looking straight ahead of him. He thought: “Well, I must go and pack up my things”; then he remembered that he had come down only that morning, and had brought nothing with him. That gave him a fugitive sense of relief.

“Which way is the station?”

The maid explained that it was about a mile beyond the village, and that you took the first turn to the left. “But there’s no train now till eleven.”

He had already turned away and was walking down the drive. He swung along, the gravel crunching under his feet in the silence. Now he had passed the pool, then skirted the deep shadows of the holly-garden; now the gate glimmered white before him. He went out of it and turned toward the village. It was nearly a mile away, and the dusky lane that led to it was deserted. A little owl called wistfully in the twilight. He walked on to the village, across the common, past the duck-pond and out onto the road that led to the station. That road too was deserted.

Vance walked along at a good pace until he reached the last turn before the station; then he sat down under the hedgerow and began to cry.

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