The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XXX

Halo Tarrant was at work in the garden of the pink house. The seeds she had sown in the spring — phlox, zinnia, larkspur, poppy — contended in a bonfire of bloom. As she knelt over it, weeding, snipping and staking, her shoulder-blades ached and the afternoon sun burnt through her broad hat-brim and lay like burning lead on the nape of her neck.

She liked the muscular fatigue and the slight dizziness caused by the sun; liked, at the end of each long silent day, to stagger back into the empty house so stupefied by heat and labour that she hardly knew where she was, and sleep came down on her like a fit of drunkenness. In that way the days and the weeks passed, and the calendar had almost ceased to exist — except when she started up at the postman’s ring. She supposed she would never be able to cure herself of that start, or of knowing instinctively when letters were due, though she was so careful to leave her wrist-watch in her drawer upstairs.

She had heard from Vance only twice since he had left — a telegram on arriving (“Everything fine quartered with Tolby”), and about a week later a short word, in which he apologized for haste and brevity, explaining that his head was surging with new ideas, that he had settled down at Tolby’s to a long spell of work, and that she mustn’t mind if he didn’t write often. She didn’t mind at all — at first. She was too thankful to know that he had got back into the creative mood; there could be no better proof that he was rid of morbid memories of Chris Churley. But gradually, as the days passed, and the silence closed in on her, she felt herself too cruelly shut out from his adventures and experiences. Not a word of how the work was going, no acknowledgement of her letters and telegrams (all so studiously cheerful and comrade-like), no hint of regret at her not being with him, no briefest allusion to Oubli — or to herself! He had shed all that, had entered on another phase. Was it just the intoxication of the return to creative activity, of contact with new people, tapping fresh sources of admiration (there were times when he liked that more than he was willing to acknowledge), or was it — was it a new woman?

She remembered her agony of jealousy in Paris, when he had vanished so unaccountably for three or four days, and had then reappeared with a stack of manuscript. She was not going to let herself suffer such torture again. It had been unwarranted then, and would probably prove to be so now. From time to time he needed a change of place and people to set the creative engine going: was she still narrow-minded enough to grudge it him?

No; only the days were so long, and in his place she would have found it so easy to write a short letter now and then . . . Well, men were different. She couldn’t help jumping each time she heard the postman’s step; but she had forced herself not to count the days since the one letter had come, and really, thanks to hard work and stupefying sun, she now no longer remembered whether it was days or weeks since she had heard from him.

She paused in her work, and looked attentively at one of the flowers. How exquisitely imagined, how subtly wrought! What patient and elaborate artifice had gone to the inventing of its transient loveliness! Not so long ago she had scattered seed in little boxes, and later, dibble in hand, had moved each tiny plant to its own place. Other seeds she had sown in the beds, in even furrows, and watched the plants sprout through the light soil. Between them now, under their spreading foliage, the brown leaves of the spring bulbs were decaying and turning into mould. Season followed season in blossom and decline; the fresh leaf drooped and fell, the young face of the flower withered and grew old, the endless function unrolled its cruel symbolism unheeded by those it might have warned.

“If only it wasn’t for the caterpillars!” Halo groaned, lifting a riddled leaf against the light. She knew well enough what the caterpillars symbolized too: the mean cares, the gnawing anxieties, that crawl over the fair face of life. She stood up and stamped vindictively on a writhing green body. And then there were the seeds that failed — and the young shoots the slugs devoured . . . To the general rhythm of rise and fall the heart might have adapted itself; but the accidental ravages, snail-tracks, caterpillar slime, the disenchantment and failure . . . “I suppose I’ve been too long alone,” she mused, suddenly sick of her work and her thoughts.

Her solitude was self-imposed; for though the Pension Britannique and the little cluster of villas belonging to the pre-war colony were, as usual, closed for the summer, life was active on the farther side of the town, where the long sand beach, once so lonely, had begun to be fringed with tin-roofed “dancings”, cheap restaurants and mushroom bungalows. Halo could once have found plenty of entertainment among the literary and artistic Bohemians who were already populating this new settlement. If Vance had been there it would have amused her to swim and drink cocktails, to sun~bathe and discuss life and the arts with these boisterous friendly people who flashed by her in rattling Citroëns or strowed the sands with naked silhouettes. But by herself it was different. Paris had cured her of artistic Bohemia, and as soon as she was alone she felt how deeply rooted in her were the old instincts of order and continuity. In Vance too they existed — had they not first drawn him to her out of the sordid confusion of his life with Laura Lou? But he was young (she had long since discarded the epithet in thinking of herself), he was impressionable and inexperienced, above all he had the artist’s inexhaustible appetite for “material”. What more natural than that he should still crave what for her had lost its savour? “If you wanted to do the same thing every day at the same hour for the rest of your life,” she told herself, “you ought to have married a teller in a bank, or a statistician who had to live within a five minutes’ walk of the British Museum, and not a live-wire novelist.” But the argument, from frequent reiteration, had lost its force. “We are what we are,” she thought, “and that’s the end of it. At least I suppose this time it’s the end. . .”

She heard a step in the path, and her heart gave a jump. It was not the postman’s hour; she needed no watch to tell her that. But it might be a telegram, or a registered letter — if he had something extra-important to tell her — or it might even . . .

She turned quickly, and the garden-scissors dropped from her hand. It was over two years since she had seen that short thick figure, always in a dark “business suit” of the same citified cut, and the blunt Socratic face with its shrewd sceptical eyes guarded by old~fashioned American pince-nez. Over two years? A life-time! George Frenside came to her out of a dead world.

“Frenny — oh, Frenny!” She ran to him with outstretched arms. The sense of her loneliness rushed over her; the words choked in her throat. Her work-roughened hands sank into her friend’s, and they stood and looked at each other.

“Well, it looks to me like the same old Halo,” said Frenside with his short laugh; and she slipped her hand through his arm and drew him up the path to the house.

She was too surprised and excited to ask him whence or how he had come. It was only afterward that she remembered, vaguely, his alluding to an unexpected holiday in Europe, and to his having been unable to notify her in advance because his plans depended on those of a friend with whom he was making a dash to the Mediterranean. “So I just jumped over from Marseilles on the chance of finding you,” she remembered his ending. She did not ask his friend’s name; her mind could not fix itself on what he was telling her. She felt only the comforting warmth of his nearness, the nearness of an old friend whose memories were so interwoven with hers that his voice and smile and turns of phrase started up countless fragments of experience, scenes of her nursery days, of her girlhood with its fervours and impatiences, and the cold gray years of marriage. Through all those phases his shrewd eyes had followed her; he was the one being who had understood her revolts and her submissions, her vain sacrifices and her final clutch at happiness. To see him sitting there in the half-darkened room, his head slanted back against the shabby armchair, his short legs stretched out before him, his everlasting cigar between his lips, was to become again the Halo of Eaglewood and New York, and to measure the distance between that eager ghost and her new self. “I wonder which is the ghostliest,” she thought, as she bent over to mix a lemon-squash for her friend.

He was waiting for her to speak, to give an account of herself; but how could she? She had not put her spiritual house in order, she hardly knew what she was feeling or whither she was drifting. Solitude had woven its magic passes about her, pouring a blessed numbness into her veins. And now, at this sudden contact with the past, every nerve awoke.

“So you’ve liked it pretty well down here?” Frenside asked, looking up at her as he took the glass.

She rallied her scattered wits. “Oh, immensely. You see, I was here in old times with father and mother, and always wanted to come back. And we had the luck to find this darling little house — don’t you think it’s a darling? Did you notice the big mulberry at the door, and the flagging around it? That was the old threshing~floor. They used to make oil here too. Wouldn’t you like to come down and see the old oil-press in the cellar?” She chattered on, smothering him in trivialities, yet knowing all the while that he would presently emerge from them as alert as ever, and as determined to have her tell him whatever he wanted to know.

“Thanks. But I’m too well off here. I don’t think I’ll go down and see the oil-press. I really came to see you.”

“Oh, ME?” She laughed. “There’s not much novelty about me.”

“I didn’t come to see a new Halo. I came to find out if the old one survived.”

“Survived what?” she said captiously.

“Why, the storm and stress.”

She gave a little laugh. “Dear Frenny, you’re incorrigibly romantic! Being happy is much simpler than people think.”

“Well, most of us have to take it on hearsay, so it’s excusable if we’re misinformed. You might give a poor devil some lights on the subject.”

She laughed again, but found no answer. Under the banter she felt his thoughts searching hers, and she was frightened, and for the first time in her life wanted to shut him out, and could not. To break the silence she said: “But at least you’ll stay till tomorrow, won’t you? I can make you very comfortable in Vance’s room.”

“I wish I could, my dear; but I’ve got to get back to Marseilles. We’re off tomorrow.”

There was another silence. Then he went on: “You said: ‘Vance’s room’. He’s away, then?”

Suddenly she became fluent. “Oh, yes; I forgot to tell you; he’s in London. I packed him off to see his publishers and talk to people about his new book. He’s got a big thing under way; you’ll like it better than ‘The Puritan in Spain’. I know without asking that you didn’t care much about that. It had a good deal of success . . . but that’s no reason . . . This new book is going to be — well, rather immense in its way: a sort of primitive torso. A fragment of experience dug up out of the sub-conscious. . .” She felt that she was talking into the void, and stopped. “But it’s no use telling you, when you have to take it all on faith.”

“But you believe in it yourself?”

“Of course I do!” she cried with angry fervour.

Frenside seemed not to notice the energy of her reply. The worst thing about talking with him was that he never did notice the screens you hung up in front of things.

“Has he been away long?”

“Oh, no; only a few weeks. I can’t remember just how long . . . It’s too hot here to remember dates . . . He’ll be so sorry when he hears he’s missed you.”

“And you haven’t felt lonely down here all by yourself?”

She paused a moment; then she said quietly: “I stopped being lonely two years ago.”

“I see.” It was the first time he had taken any notice of her answers. For a while he was silent, busy with the relighting of his cigar. After a while he said: “Why didn’t you go to London with him? You could have helped him to find his way about.”

“He doesn’t need to have any one find his way about for him. And I hate that sort of life.”

“Seeing intelligent people, and breathing in ideas? You didn’t use to.” He threw his cigar impatiently onto the hearth. He was visibly embarrassed and irresolute. “Look here, child; you and I used to say things straight out, no matter how unpalatable they were, and this fencing’s a waste of time. I wish to God you and Weston were married; that’s what I came to tell you.”

The blood rushed to her forehead; she hoped that in the shaded light he would not notice it. “It’s so dear of you, Frenny. But you know as well as anybody why we’re not.”

“I know Tarrant has blundered. Weston went to see him; and I’m afraid that didn’t help.”

She lifted her head quickly. “It ought to have!”

“Certainly, in an ideal world. It was a fine gesture. But you must take into account men’s passions and weaknesses.”

She was silent for a moment; then she said wearily: “If you knew how little it all seems to matter now.”

“It ought to matter, child. At least if I understand the case. You ought to be Weston’s wife.”

“Oh, Frenny, don’t go on!” She started to her feet, the need of avowal overmastering her. The frozen depths were broken up; she must lay her troubled heart in a friend’s hands. “You see — it’s not as simple as I said. Being happy, I mean. That was bluff.” She gave a faint laugh. “I used to think marrying him would be the solution. I used to think: if only Lewis would set me free! But now I don’t know — I don’t seem to care. I suppose it’s too late; or perhaps it never would have made any difference. Perhaps I wasn’t meant for storm and stress, though I was so sure they were my element!” She sat down on the arm of his chair and hid her face, while her old friend’s arm embraced her.

“I’ll tell you the only thing that’s too late in this business,” Frenside began abruptly. “It’s your marriage. We most of us need a frame-work, a support — the maddest lovers do. Marriage may be too tight a fit — may dislocate and deform. But it shapes life too; prevents growing lopsided, or drifting. I know you’ve both felt that, I know it’s not your fault if you’re still at loose ends. I’ve done my best — ”

She bent down and pressed her lips on his frowning forehead. “Frenny, my darling friend — don’t go on.”

“How can I help it? I know it hurts; but let’s have the bandage off — do!”

She sprang up. “If you mean talking of ways and means, planning to coax Lewis — I forbid you! I forbid you to say a word to any one!”

Frenside took off his glasses, rubbed them, put them on again, and examined her anxiously. “Take care, Halo! Don’t defy opportunity. She’s a resentful jade.”

“What opportunity?”

“The fact of Tarrant’s realizing he’s been in the wrong, and wanting to make amends — as soon as possible.”

Halo gave a short laugh. This was so like life that she somehow felt she had always been expecting it. “I suppose you’re his ambassador?”

“Well, I suppose so — with the proviso of being disavowed if I don’t succeed.”

She threw back her head and closed her eyes as the possibilities he suggested went rushing through her.

Then she looked at him through eyes screwed up with amusement. “How you must have hated the job!”

“Not for you.”

“Good old Frenny! Isn’t it enough that I’m endlessly grateful?”

“No, it’s not.”

“Well, then — ” She paused. “Fren, you remember that old story we used to like, of Firdusi and the gifts from the Sultan? They were magnificent when they finally came; but he was dead.”

Frenside nodded. He took off his glasses, and wiped them again. “Yes; but it’s not really a good allegory, because we never DO know when we’re dead. I thought I was, years ago; and here I am aching all over again with your aches.”

“Oh, my aches are not bad enough for that. Only, it’s no use your pleading my cause with Lewis now.”

“I’m not here for that. I’m here to plead Tarrant’s cause with you. He regrets his attitude; he’s honestly sorry to have created such a situation for you. That’s what I’m here to say.”

She threw herself down on the divan, and sat for a while with her face hidden. She no longer wanted to conceal anything from Frenside, but she did not quite know how to put her feeling into words. “Even if he were to give me my freedom tomorrow I shouldn’t tell Vance,” she murmured.

“Not tell him — for God’s sake, why?”

“Because the only thing I care for is HIS freedom. I want him to feel as free as air.”

“H’m — free as air. The untrammelled artist. Well, I don’t believe it’s the ideal state for the artist, any more than it is for the retail grocer. We all of us seem to need chains — and wings.”

She laughed. “All right — only in Vance’s case I’d rather be the wing-giver.”

“How do you know you’re not chaining him up all the tighter? The defenceless woman, and all that. If you were his wife, you and he’d be on a level.”

“The defenceless woman? Bless you, he never thinks of me as that! He thinks only of his work — and his genius.”

“Well, you wanted him to, didn’t you?”

“Of course I did. And I want it still — with all my soul!”

“Then settle your own situation first. Let me tell Tarrant you’ll bring proceedings at once. I can almost promise he won’t make any difficulty.”

She mused again, something deep down in her still resisting this belated charity from either husband or lover. “It would be such a mockery. . .”

“What would be?”

“The whole business. If I had my divorce my people would expect me to marry Vance. And I can’t — I can’t. If there were a divorce I couldn’t prevent his hearing of it, and if he did he’d feel he ought to marry me — and that might ruin his life, and ruin mine too.” She forced a faint smile. “If being happy is simple, being happy with an artist isn’t. It’s been a beautiful adventure, but, to adopt your bold metaphor, I want it to end before the wings turn into chains.”

She stood up, and Frenside also got to his feet. They stood and looked at each other like people signalling out of hearing across a hurrying river. At length Frenside spoke. “There’s one thing more. You say Weston doesn’t worry about your situation — doesn’t think of it at all. Yet he did his best to get Tarrant to yield about the divorce.”

She returned to the present with a start. Was it possible, she thought, that Vance had done that? It sent a flush of triumph through her — yet how far away and improbable it all seemed!

“Oh, yes. He did it because some one had spoken to him rudely about me. But he forgot all about it when I pretended I didn’t care.”

“Ah — you pretended?”

She shrugged. “What’s loving but pretending?”

Frenside stood looking at her with angry compassionate eyes. “My poor girl — if it’s come to that, why not crown the affair by the biggest pretense of all? Let Weston think you want to be free. He won’t make any difficulty, will he?”

Halo stood silent, her head sunk, her eyes fixed on the ground. This cruel surgeon of a Frenside — how straight he had probed to the central pain!

“Let him think I want to leave him?”

“It’s the logical conclusion, isn’t it? The one towering generosity that will justify the rest?”

She stood before him motionless. He was speaking to her with her own inward voice, but she could not bear the words when another spoke them. “He may be back now — any day,” she brought out.

“And then you’ll begin the patching-up business all over again?”

“I suppose so.”

Frenside was silent. The travelling-clock on Vance’s desk ticked with sudden sonority, and she thought: “For how many weeks now have I wound it up for him every Saturday?”

Frenside seemed to hear it also. He pulled out his watch. “By Jove, I’ve got to be off. My taxi’s waiting down by the hotel. I’ve just got time to make my train.”

She stood rooted to the ground, feeling that with the least word or movement her great loneliness would break in tears. He held out his hand. “I hate to leave you here, child.”

“Thank you, Fren. But I’ve got to stay.”

He turned away, and she listened to his short steps rapping their way down the stairs and along the path to the gate.

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