The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

III

The monumental Spanish sky was full of cloud-architecture. Long azure perspectives between colonnades and towers stretched away majestically above an empty earth. The real Spain seemed to be overhead, heavy with history; as if all the pictures, statues, ecclesiastical splendours that Vance and Halo had come to see were stored in the air-palaces along those radiant avenues. The clouds peopled even the earth with their shadow-masses, creating here a spectral lake in the dry landscape, there a flock of cattle, or a hamlet on a hill which paled and vanished as the travellers approached. All that Vance had ever read about mirages and desert semblances rose in his mind as the motor-coach rolled and swayed across the barren land.

The names of the few villages that they passed meant nothing to him. The famous towns and cities of Spain already sang in his imagination; but there were none on this road, and the clusters of humble houses on bare slopes could not distract his attention from that celestial architecture. At first he had been oppressed by the emptiness of the landscape, its lack of any relation to the labours and joys of men. Stretching away on all sides to the horizon, the tierras despobladas seemed to lie under a mysterious blight. But gradually he ceased to feel their gloom. Under a sky so packed with prodigies it began to seem natural that people should turn their minds and their interests away from the earth. On the steamer he had read a little about the Spanish mystics, in one of the books that Halo had brought; and now he thought: “No wonder everything on earth seemed irrelevant, with all those New Jerusalems building and re-building themselves overhead.”

As the sun declined, cloud ramparts and towers grew more massive, nearer the earth, till their lowest degrees rested like marble stairways on the hills. “Those are the ladders that Jacob’s angels went up and down,” Vance mused; then the gold paled to ashes, and the sky-palaces were absorbed into the dusk. The motor-coach crossed a bridge and drove into a brown city, through narrow streets already full of lights. At a corner Halo asked the conductor to stop, and entrusted their bags to him. “Come,” she said; and Vance followed her across a wide court where daylight still lingered faintly under old twisted trees. She pushed open a door in a cliff-like wall, and they entered into what seemed total darkness to eyes still blinking with Spanish sunshine. Vance stood still, waiting for his sight to return. It came little by little, helped by the twinkle of two or three specks of flame, immeasurably far off, like ships’ lights in mid-ocean; till gradually he discerned through the obscurity forms of columns and arches linked with one another in long radiating perspectives. “The place is as big as that sky out there,” he murmured.

He and Halo moved forward. First one colonnade, low-vaulted and endless, drew them on; then another. They were caught in a dim network of architectural forms, perpetually repeated abstractions of the relation between arch and shaft. The similarity of what surrounded them was so confusing that they could not be sure if they had passed from one colonnade to another, or if the whole system were revolving with them around some planetary centre still invisible. Vance felt as if he had dropped over the brim of things into the mysterious world where straight lines loop themselves into curves. He thought: “It’s like the feel of poetry, just as it’s beginning to be born in you” — that fugitive moment before words restrict the vision. But he gave up the struggle for definitions.

The obscure central bulk about which those perpetual aisles revolved gradually took shape as sculptured walls rising high overhead. In the walls were arched openings; lights reflected in polished marble glimmered through the foliation of wrought-iron gates. Vance was as excited and exhausted as if he had raced for miles over the uneven flagging. Suddenly he felt the desire to lift his arms and push back the overwhelming spectacle till he had the strength to receive it. He caught Halo’s arm. “Come away,” he said hoarsely. Through the dimness he saw her look of surprise and disappointment. She was used to these things, could bear them. He couldn’t — and he didn’t know how to tell her. He slipped his arm through hers, pulling her after him.

“But wait, dearest, do wait. This is the choir, the high-altar, the Christian cathedral built inside . . . It’s so beautiful at this hour . . . Don’t you want . . .?”

He repeated irritably: “Come away. I’m tired,” knowing all the while how he was disappointing her. He felt her arm nervously pressed against his.

“Of course, dear. But what could have tired you? The hot sun, perhaps . . . Oh, where’s the door?” She took a few uncertain steps. “There’s only one left open. The sacristan saw us come in, and is waiting outside. All the doors are locked at sunset; but he’s watching for us at the one we came in by. The thing is to find it.”

They began to walk down one of the aisles. Farther and farther away in the heart of the shadows they left the great choir and altar; yet they seemed to get no nearer to the door. Halo stood still again. “No — this way,” she said, with the abruptness of doubt. “We’re going in the wrong direction.” Vance remembered a passage in the Second Faust which had always haunted him: the scene where Faust descends to the Mothers. “He must have wound round and round like this,” he thought. They had turned and were walking down another low-vaulted vista toward a glow-worm light at its end. This led them to a door bolted and barred on the inner side, and evidently long unopened. “It’s not that.” They turned again and walked in the deepening darkness down another colonnade. Vance thought of the Cretan labyrinth, of Odysseus evoking the mighty dead, of all the subterranean mysteries on whose outer crust man loves and fights and dies. The blood was beating in his ears. He began to wish that they might never find the right door, but go on turning about forever at the dark heart of things. They walked and walked. After a while Halo asked: “Are you really tired?” like Eurydice timidly guiding Orpheus back to daylight.

“No; I’m not tired any longer.”

“We’ll soon be out,” she cheered him; and he thought: “How funny that she doesn’t know what I’m feeling!” He longed to sit down at the foot of one of the glimmering shafts and let the immensity and the mystery sweep over him like the sea. “If only she doesn’t tell me any more about it,” he thought, dreading architectural and historical explanations. But she slipped her hand in his, and the touch melted into his mood.

At last they found the right door, and a key ground in response to Halo’s knock. Vance felt like a disembodied spirit coming back to earth. “I’d like to go and haunt somebody,” he murmured. It was night outside, but a transparent southern night, not like the thick darkness in the cathedral. The court with the old twisted orange~trees was dim; but in the streets beyond there were lights and shrill human noises, the smell of frying food and the scent of jasmine. When they got back to the hotel and were shown to their room, Vance said abruptly: “You go down to dinner alone. I don’t want anything to eat. I’d rather stay here . . .”

“You don’t feel ill?” she asked; but he reassured her. “I’m only overfed with the day . . .” She tidied her hair and dress, and went down. It was exquisite to be with a woman who didn’t persist and nag. He flung himself on the bed, his nerves tranquillized, and watched the stars come out through a tree under the window. Those branches recalled others, crooked and half-bare, outside of the window of the suburban bungalow where he had nursed his wife in her last illness. They were apple-branches; and he remembered how one day — a day of moral misery but acute spiritual excitement — he had seen the subject of his new book hanging on that tree like fruit. “Magic” — the story he had meant to write as soon as he was free. And he had been free for nearly a year, and had not added a line to it. But now everything would be different. With Halo at his side, and the world opening about him like the multiple vistas of that strange cathedral, his imagination would have room to range in. He shut his eyes and fell asleep.

The opening of the door made him start up, and he tumbled off the bed as Halo entered. “It took forever to get anything to eat. Did you wonder what had become of me?”

“No. I must have been asleep. But I’m as hungry as a cannibal. Can’t we go out somewhere and get supper?” He felt happy, renewed, and as famished as a boy who has been sent to bed dinnerless.

The streets hummed with nocturnal chatter. Gusts of scent blew over secret garden-walls; and in the narrower thoroughfares of the old town they caught, through open arch-ways, glimpses of white courts with hanging lanterns, and plants about fountains, and gossiping people grouped in willow armchairs. Halo’s Spanish was fluent enough to make her at ease in the scene, and she found a little restaurant smelling of olive-oil and garlic, where diners still lingered, and a saffron mound of rice and fish was set before Vance. He revelled in the high-seasoned diet, the thick sunny wine, the familiarity and noise of the friendly place, the contrast between the solitude of the cathedral and the crowded common life at its doors. He longed to wander from street to street, listening to the overlapping gramophones, the snatches of hoarse song, excited talk from door-step to door-step, the wail of muleteers driving their beasts to the stable, the whine of beggars on the steps of churches. It was strange and delicious to be sitting there at ease with this young woman who knew what everybody was saying, could talk to them, laugh with them, ask the way, bandy jokes, and give him the sense of being at home in it all.

After a while they got up and walked on. “Do you want to see some dancing? I daresay we could find a place,” Halo suggested, as they caught a rattle of castanets from a packed café. But Vance wanted to stay in the streets. He liked to wander under the night-blue sky, and to speculate on what was going on behind the white walls of the houses, and the gates that were beginning to be shut on the darkened patios. They strayed down one street after another, through little squares shadowed with trees, to the market quarter around the cathedral, where, at the base of those mute walls, the shrieking of gramophones contended with the smell of fish and garlic. Then they turned the flank of the cathedral, and followed an unfrequented lane descending between convent-like buildings to the river. All was hushed and dim. They went out to the middle of the fortified bridge, and leaning on the parapet looked from the sluggish waters below to the mountain-like mass of the great church.

Vance gave a chuckle of satiety. “I don’t believe I could bear it if there was a moon!”

Halo had not spoken for a long while. “That’s what I used to feel about happiness,” she said.

“That you couldn’t bear it?”

“Yes.”

“Well — and now?”

“Oh, now . . . you’ll have to teach me . . .”

“Me? I never knew what it was, either . . . not this kind . . .”

“Is there any other?”

He pressed her close. “If there is, I’ve got no use for it.”

They stood listening to the sound of the lazy river. The darkness drooped over them, low and burning as the curtains of an Olympian couch; and Vance, holding his love, thought how little meaning the scene would have had without her. He had seen it all before, after all — in inklings, in scattered visions; at the movies, at the opera, in the histories and travels he’d read; in “Gil Blas” and Gautier and “The Bible in Spain”; in sham Spanish cafés and cabarets; who was going to tell him anything new about Spain? The newness, the marvel, was in his arms, under his lips — this girl who was his other brain, his soul and his flesh. He longed to tell her so, in words such as no other woman had heard; but the poverty of all words came over him. “See here, let’s go home to bed.” They linked arms, and went back up the hill to the hotel. It was so late that even a Spanish porter was hard to rouse — but at length they climbed the stairs and stole into their room. Through the window the smell of frying oil and jasmine flowers blew in on them; and Vance wondered if in all his life any other smell would be so mingled for him with the taste of Halo’s lips and eyelids.

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