The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XXXI

When Frenside had left her Halo tried to collect her thoughts; but his visit had shaken her too deeply. He had roused her out of her self-imposed torpor into a state of hyper-acute sensibility, and detaching her from the plight in which she was entangled had compelled her to view it objectively. What was her present relation to Vance — what was their future together likely to be? They had never quarrelled since the day at Granada when she had reproached him for having gone to the party from which the old Marquesa had excluded her. A mere honeymoon flurry; and since then there had been unbroken outward harmony between them. Yet how far they were from each other — much farther than the couples who quarrelled and kissed again once a week, and to whom quarrelling and kissing were all in the day’s work. It was her fault, no doubt. She had wanted the absolute — and life had handed her one of its usual shabby compromises, and she had not known what to do with it.

She shivered at the recollection of Frenside’s advice. Perhaps, as he said, true magnanimity would consist in leaving Vance; but she had not strength for it, and the only alternative was the patching~up business, as he called it. The patching-up would have to begin all over again, and this time with little faith, on her part, in the durability of the repairs. Was it not unfair to Vance, and deteriorating to herself, to cling to a relation that had grown less real than the emptiest marriage? Ah, marriage — she understood now! The maddest of us need a frame-work; perhaps the maddest most of all . . . Well, what of it? Vance would marry her as soon as she was free; and an hour ago she had received Tarrant’s offer to release her!

At the thought all her doubts and scruples seemed like so much morbid hair-splitting. Why should she and Vance not marry and take their chance with other ordinary people? They might have a child, and then there would be something about which to build the frame~work. They would become a nucleus, their contradictory cravings would meet in a common purpose, their being together and belonging to each other would acquire a natural meaning. Her heart swelled with the emotion she had suppressed during her talk with Frenside — the healing tears ran over.

She sat down and wrote out a telegram to Vance. Then she tore it up, and wrote another: this time to Tolby. Vance had not answered any of her previous letters and telegrams, he might not answer this one; it was safer to apply to his friend. “Fear have lost a letter from Vance. If no longer with you please send me his present address.” She winced at the pretense of the lost letter; but what did it matter? Her one object was to have news.

She carried her telegram to the post office, and as she walked along the glaring sea-front, past the sun-bathers sprawling on the sand, and the light boats skimming before the breeze that always sprang up toward sunset, the familiar scene grew suddenly gay and inviting. How natural that these young people should be enjoying it all! She felt young again herself, her heart beat in tune with theirs. As long as one was alert and sound, and could show a fresh face to one’s glass, the world was a holiday place after all. Tomorrow she was sure to hear from Vance. . .

The morrow, however, brought only a note from Frenside, despatched from the station at Marseilles. Apparently, during his visit, he had told her all his plans, though she had remembered nothing of the first part of their talk except that he had given her good news of her parents, and had said something about a trip to Corsica or Sicily — she didn’t know which. What an unnatural monster she must have become, to have ears and memory only for her own concerns! She had been brooding over them too long alone.

Frenside gave an address at Palermo, and added that he would be returning in a month to Paris, where, if she wished to write, she could do so in care of his bankers. She hastily noted both addresses, and wondered sadly if she would ever see him again. Suddenly it occurred to her that he was probably travelling with Tarrant, and that the latter might have been at Marseilles awaiting her answer, or even — who knows? — at the hotel at Oubli. She flushed up at the thought; but it was soon crowded out by anxious speculations as to Tolby’s reply. That evening seemed the longest and loneliest she had spent since Vance had gone. . .

The next morning Tolby’s telegram came. It read: “Vance left England a fortnight ago. Gave me no address. Sorry.” She sat and puzzled over it till her eyes ached, as if it had been a cipher of which she had forgotten the key. “Left England — left England: no address.” He had vanished into space again, and this time for how long? Had it never occurred to him that in his absence something might happen to her: that she might fall ill, or be suddenly called home by illness in her family, or, for one reason or another, need his presence — or at least require to communicate with him?

Idle questions! The truth was that he had simply forgotten her. But it is almost unbearable to be forgotten. The victim invents a thousand pretexts rather than admit that one fact. Halo smiled at her own credulity. The night Vance had gone off to Fontainebleau without telling her that he was leaving she had imagined that he might have had an accident, had thought of applying to the police to have him traced. Luckily common-sense had prevailed on that occasion, and she meant that it should on this. She would simply wait and see. But meanwhile Frenside’s counsel returned to her. This man whom she could no longer make happy, who needed her so little that he could disappear for weeks without giving her a sign — how much longer was she going to burden him with her unwanted devotion? Had they not reached the hour for a magnanimous farewell?

She turned the problem over and over, too agitated to examine it, too possessed by it to think of anything else. She tried to rehearse the farewell scene (or the farewell letter — since there was no knowing when he would come back); she tried to visualize her solitary return to America, her meeting with her parents, the painful effort of adapting herself to the new lonely life before her: a woman without a lover, without a husband, without a child. But her imagination shrank from the picture, and she lay all day on the divan in Vance’s study, her mind a formless darkness.

Toward evening came the postman’s ring, and she dashed out before the bonne could extricate herself from her saucepans. Letters? Yes, there were letters. Several for Vance, as usual: from publishers, from news agencies, from his tailor, his dentist. But none for her from Vance. She took the letters up to the study and added them to the pile already awaiting him. He had asked her to forward only his personal correspondence and that was small: most of the letters were obviously concerned with his work, and these lay in orderly stacks on his desk. Many of the envelopes bore the names of newspaper-cutting agencies. Vance subscribed to none, but for that very reason they bombarded him with appeals and tempted him with specimen paragraphs. She could never bear to be long idle, and it occurred to her to go through these envelopes, and select any cuttings that might interest him, though she knew he would probably pitch them all in the scrap-basket without a glance.

She went through them one by one, and gradually they built up a picture of his London life: a much more worldly one than she had imagined. While she had thought of him as chained to “Colossus” he had been ranging from Mayfair to Bloomsbury, spending his week-ends at fashionable country-houses, and even condescending to let himself be interviewed. She smiled at the change in him. The Vance she thought she knew would have loathed such publicity. . .

She was more familiar than he with the intricate pattern of social London, and it began to amuse her to trace his ascent from the small chafing-dish parties with Tolby’s painters and art-critics to Lady Pevensey’s gilded promiscuities, the gathering of the elect at Charlie Tarlton’s, and the final apotheosis of the reading at Lady Guy Plunder’s. Halo knew all about Lady Guy Plunder and her rivalry with Charlie Tarlton. She thought how happy Vance’s publishers would be at the battle the two were waging over the new celebrity. How funny to think of Vance as a fashionable novelist! He had read fragments of “Colossus” at Lady Guy’s; the party had apparently been given for that purpose. Halo found an account of it in one of the “society” papers, ran over the list of names, all well-known, many distinguished, and lit on the closing paragraph: “Among Mr. Weston’s most enthusiastic hearers on this very exclusive and privileged occasion was his lovely compatriot Miss Floss Delaney, whose father, Colonel Harrison Delaney of Virginia, has lately bought back the old Delaney estate, ‘Court Pride’, on the James River. Miss Delaney, who was a childhood friend of the brilliant novelist’s, had the luck to carry him off after the party to Brambles, the enchanting little place in Surrey which Colonel Delaney, who is said to lavish millions on his only child, has hired for her for the summer. Many were the rival hostesses who envied her for capturing the author of ‘Colossus’ for a week-end.”

She laid the paper down. Suddenly, among the other names, familiar but indifferent, this one glared out at her. Floss Delaney —? Halo blinked and tried to see the syllables more clearly. Her mind ran back over the rambling distances of Vance’s early recollections. He had poured them out so profusely during the first days of their friendship in New York, when talking with her was his one refuge from loneliness, that she did not immediately connect any definite association with this particular name. Then, abruptly, a memory woke. Floss Delaney: it was the name of the girl he had been infatuated with as a boy, the girl he had surprised one day with his disreputable old grandfather, at the spot where his own trysts with her had been held. This girl . . . this vile creature who had given him his first bitter insight into life . . . How his voice had choked as he stammered out the shabby tale! Yes; it must be the same. It was difficult to account for her sudden transformation into a fashionable London figure; but Halo remembered that the girl’s father was said to have come of a good southern family, and she also recalled that Vance, returning from Euphoria just before he and she had left for Europe, had brought back the fairy-tale of the Delaneys’ sudden rise to wealth. Halo had been too much absorbed in her own happiness to pay much heed at the time; but gradually the story came back to her, even to Lorin Weston’s resentful comment on it: “And now the Delaneys have gone to Europe to blow it all in Gay Paree!”

Yes; it all fitted into the pattern. Floss Delaney — Vance’s “childhood friend”! The idea was revolting. While Halo was wearing out her soul for him he was spending his days in such company! She felt as if she were puzzling over the actions of a stranger. The Vance she loved would have recoiled with disgust from such an encounter. It was bitter to think that these were the companions he had chosen, the people who had been sharing his pleasures, listening to his talk, perhaps receiving his confidences and laughing at his inflammable enthusiasms, while she, who had given him her life, sat alone, forgotten, as utterly cut off from him as if she had never had any share in his existence.

The crowning pretense! Yes: Frenside was right; it was time to make it. She got up, and went into her own room. She would pack her things and go — it was so easy: perhaps easier than she had imagined. Why not begin at once? She would wind up everything decently: pay off the servant, put the house in order, leave the key with the agent — the old instinct of order reasserted itself even at such a moment — and then pile her bags into a taxi, and drive to the station. It was all perfectly easy. . .

She stood looking about, wondering how to begin. Her mind was too tired — she couldn’t think. After all it might be simpler to write. She would certainly have to leave a letter; she would not appear to retaliate by walking off without a word. And it might be less difficult to take the final step after she had put her reasons on paper. . .

She went back to Vance’s desk and sat with her pen suspended over a sheet of paper. Tell Vance that she was leaving him? It was unthinkable! It would be easier to go away than to explain her going. She would pack, and take the train to Paris, and just before sailing she would leave a letter at his bank. She must get away before her courage failed her . . . She crossed the room to the bookshelves where Vance’s few works were ranged, and drew out the volume of short stories containing the tale he had written after the discovery of Floss Delaney’s betrayal. “One Day” — Halo remembered the evening when Tarrant had brought it home, and she had read it in a rush, her heart beating at the thought that Lewis had discovered a new genius. Now the crudeness and awkwardness of the story struck her; but she was mastered again by the power of the presentation. Yes — it must have happened exactly in that way. And how he must have suffered! There were phrases like the cries of a trapped animal . . . She shut her eyes, unable to read on. He had suffered thus agonizingly — as she was suffering now — but by pouring his suffering into a story he had been able to cleanse his soul of it. Ah, happy artists! No wonder they were careless of other people’s wounds, when they were born with the power to heal their own so easily. . .

She must have fallen asleep. The room was dark when she awoke, roused by a sound in the still house. The book fell to the floor and she sat upright, brushing back the hair from her forehead.

A ray of light was advancing up the stairway; behind it she heard the bonne clumping up, lamp in hand.

“Monsieur wants to know if Madame will have dinner out-of-doors — there’s a moon. . .”

“Monsieur?” Halo stared confusedly at the woman, whose coarse good~natured features were grotesquely foreshortened by the upward slant of the light. To Halo the goblin figure seemed a part of her dream. What was it saying to her? Monsieur —?

“Monsieur got back an hour ago. When I told him that Madame seemed very tired and had fallen asleep he said not to disturb her, and he’d go first for a swim. But he’ll be back now, hungry for his dinner, so I had to wake Madame . . . There’s not much in the house, but I think I can manage a soufflé. Shall I carry the table out into the garden — yes?”

She put the lamp on the desk and clumped down again to her kitchen. Halo continued to sit on the edge of the divan, only half wakened out of her exhausting sleep. She got to her feet at last, looking about her vaguely. Then she lifted the lamp and carried it into her bedroom. She put it down on a corner of her dressing-table, and peered at her reflection in the glass. Her face was almost as grotesquely illuminated as the servant’s; her eyes looked swollen with sleep, her cheeks drawn and sallow. “I’m an old woman,” she thought. “How can he ever care for me again?”

She heard a familiar call from the garden. “Halo — Ha-LO!” and jumped up, quivering, one happy heart-beat from head to foot.

“Oh, Vanny! Coming!”

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