The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XXXII

Vance stood in the little study and looked about him. He had been gone only a few weeks, yet he felt like a grown man revisiting the house he has lived in as a child, and finding that the rooms he thought he had remembered so vividly are unfamiliar, and different from his recollection. He looked at Halo, and she too seemed strange. Had she always been so pale, with such shadows in the hollows of her lids? At the corners of her mouth there were little lines he had never before noticed.

“You haven’t been ill, have you?” he asked with sudden anxiety.

“Ill? No. Do I look so? I suppose the heat’s been rather wearing . . . But I loved it,” she added, as though to quiet his fears.

“But Sidonie said you’d been lying down all day, and that you don’t eat anything.”

“What nonsense! She’s bored because you haven’t been here to devour her bouillabaisse and sea-urchins.”

Vance continued to scrutinize her. “I oughtn’t to have left you so long alone,” he said, as if he were speaking to himself.

“Why, Van, how absurd! You needed the change — and I wanted to stay. Now tell me all about ‘Colossus’.”

It was curious, how strange their voices sounded; his own no less then hers. He seemed to be moving in a mist of strangeness, through which he barely discerned her, remote and ghostly, though his arm was about her and her shoulder against his. “This closeness,” he thought desperately, “I suppose it’s the only real distance. . .”

She drew him toward the stairs. “Come, darling, let’s go down. Sidonie has put the table outside, under the old mulberry.”

“Under the mulberry?” At the word he was again in the garden at Brambles, assailed by the rush of images against which he had been battling for three desperate weeks. He felt tired, bruised, inarticulate. Would he ever again learn to fit into this forgotten life?

“Yes, come; it’ll be terribly jolly,” he agreed, his arm in hers.

She leaned close, her face lifted, wrinkling her eyes in the way he liked. “Oh, Van, you ARE glad to be back?”

“Glad? You old darling!” They went down into the garden together.

During his miserable wanderings since he had left England he had imagined that the healing springs would flow as soon as he got back to the pink house. There were days when the longing to be there, when the blind animal craving for Halo’s nearness, was so strong that only a vague sense of shame and unworthiness kept him away. He had wanted, in some dim way, to suffer more before he brought his sufferings to be comforted. And now he and she were sitting together under the mulberry in the moonlight, the lights of the little house blinking out at them, the old whisper of the sea in their ears, and he was not really there, and the woman opposite to him was as strange and far away as the scene.

The mere fact that she was so patient with him, didn’t nag, didn’t question, didn’t taunt, somehow added to the sense of her remoteness. Did that curious tolerance make her less woman, less warm to the touch? He had been bracing himself for a struggle, holding himself on the defensive, dreaming of reproaches that should end in tears and kisses; and her quiet unquestioning tenderness was like a barrier. “I shall be better when I get back to work,” he thought.

After dinner they sat on in the garden, under the great warm moon, and fragments of talk floated between them on a dividing sea of silence. At length she asked him if he wasn’t tired, and he said he was, and got up to help her carry the table in under the glazed porch. Sidonie had gone to bed, and Halo stayed below to clear away the dishes while Vance went up to the study. When he reentered it alone the room seemed more familiar, the sense of constraint and strangeness fell away. How orderly and welcoming it all looked — the flowers in the brown jar, the quiet circle of lamplight on the letters and papers neatly sorted for his inspection, his old armchair, and the divan where Chris Churley used to sprawl. . .

Vance began to turn over his correspondence. He was not in the mood for letters, but his glance lingered on a bunch of newspaper~cuttings held together by a clip. Evidently Halo had sorted them, and kept those that she thought might interest him. This proof of her care gave him a soothing sense of warmth and ease. He didn’t give a fig for newspaper cuttings, but he liked the thought that she had prepared them for him.

He detached the clip and his eyes ran over the articles. He was still looking at them when she came upstairs, and bent above his shoulder. He looked up at her. “You picked these out for me?”

“Yes. I know you don’t care for them as a rule, but I thought these few might amuse you.”

He continued to look at her. “They were about the only news you had of me, weren’t they? I ought to have written oftener — I meant to.”

“What does it matter, now you’re back?”

“Yes. That’s the great thing, isn’t it?” He laughed, and pressed her hand against his cheek.

“Don’t sit up too late, Van. You look awfully tired.”

“No. I’ll just go through the rest.” Her hand slipped from his shoulder, and he heard her cross the floor and go into her own room. The sound of her moving about there, as she prepared for the night, was pleasant to him, like the purr of a fire on the hearth, the blink of a light through a familiar window. He turned back to the articles, and read on, unwilling to admit that they interested him more than he had suspected. Formerly, when life and his work were in harmony, he had been indifferent to this kind of publicity, contemptuous of it; but now it helped to restore his shaken self~confidence. After all, when people talk about a fellow as these papers did he’s not exactly a nonentity, is he?

He read on to the last cutting. It was the account of his evening at Lady Guy Plunder’s. The report was cleverly done, and it amused and excited him to reconstitute the scene. Halo had read the notice too, he reflected, and no doubt her pride in him had been flattered. He glowed secretly with the reflection of that pride. And then he came to the last paragraph, that which recounted his departure for Brambles. Who could have given that information, he wondered? Why, Alders, of course — it was Alders who had telephoned to Floss.

The blood rushed to Vance’s temples. He concluded instantly that Halo must have read this article, must have seen his name coupled with that of the girl of whom he had spoken with such scorn and self-loathing . . . He felt mortified at what her judgment of him must be, and resentful, almost, that she should have exposed him to divining it. Had she put that particular cutting there on purpose? No doubt it was to attract his notice that she had filed it under the others, let them lead him up to it unsuspectingly. He felt a rush of anger at the idea that she knew his weaknesses and was concealing her real thoughts about him. He wasn’t going to be pitied by anybody, least of all by her. . .

Hitherto he had never found either consolation or excitement in drink. He had seen too much drunkenness all his life to be shocked, or even actively disgusted, by the sight of it in others; but he felt a cold contempt for the fools who could blur their minds and besot their bodies when life was so short, and every minute of it so packed with marvels. The sheer waste of drunkenness was what revolted him. But now he felt a sudden longing to blot out at a stroke all the tormenting memories of the last weeks, and the exasperating sense of his own weakness. “It’s all a failure — everything I touch is a failure,” he thought. He went to the cupboard in which Halo kept the bottles of spirits, and cocktail ingredients, and poured himself out a stiff measure of gin~and-soda. He drank it down, and felt better. He filled another glass, and drank that too; then he threw himself onto the divan, heavy with fatigue and sleep. But in another moment he was sitting up again, his brain tingling with excitement. Halo had ceased to move about in her room; the house had become intensely silent, and the silence frightened him. He felt the same awful loneliness as when, after Laura Lou’s death, he had sat in the tumbledown bungalow while she lay on the other side of the closed door. He began to tremble at the memory. If Halo were dead! If he were to open that door and go in, and find her on the bed white and waxen, like Laura Lou. He started up, and went to her door and opened it. She was in bed; over the chair beside her hung her old red silk dressing-gown, the one she had thrown over her when she had met him on the night of his return from Fontainebleau. The hair lay loose on her forehead, as it had then, and she sat propped against her pillows, a candle faintly lighting her pale face.

“Not asleep?” he said in a sheepish voice, sitting down by her and furtively stroking the folds of the dressing gown.

“No; it’s too hot.” She looked at him. “Aren’t you going to bed?”

He got up restlessly, and wandered to the window. “This light’ll bring in mosquitoes.”

She blew out the candle and he came back and knelt down beside her. “Halo, I’m a damned fool — a damned worthless fool.” He hid his face against the sheet, and felt her hand in his hair. He melted at the reassurance of her touch, the feeling that it was drawing him out of himself and back into the old warm shelter of habit.

“I’d have come back sooner — only I wasn’t fit to,” he muttered.

“Silly Van!”

“But now I want to get back; take up our old life. It’s not too late, is it? Some time I’ll tell you — don’t ask me to now, will you? Just say if it’s possible still — if you’re not done with me . . . If you are, tell me that too — straight out. I can’t sleep till I know if it’s really you here, or only a ghost of you, who’s sorry for me. I don’t want that either . . . I’d rather get out now, and go on. . .” He hardly knew what he was saying; the words tumbled out as they could.

He felt her lean over and lay her arm on his neck. She did not attempt to draw him to her; her arm trembled a little as it touched him. “I’m here,” she said, so low that he hardly heard. He buried his head against her, and was still.

The days that followed passed quietly. Halo was nervously conscious of every word and look of Vance’s, yet determined that he should not see she was watching him. After his outburst of remorse and tenderness on the night of his return he seemed to have slipped back into his usual attitude toward her, except that she was aware of something shy and dependent in him, something that besought her compassion yet would have resented her showing it. The thing to do, she told herself again and again, was just to be natural, to behave as if nothing were changed; and gradually she felt that he was becoming used to her, and to the life out of which some mysterious influence had abruptly wrenched him.

She refrained from questioning him about his weeks in England, and he never spoke of them except, now and then, to allude to an encounter with some critic or writer whom she knew he had wished to meet. To the social side of the adventure he never referred; nor did he mention the interval which had elapsed between his taking leave of Tolby and his reappearance at Oubli.

Tolby thought he had left England — or said so. But did he know? Perhaps Vance had simply vanished from Tolby’s ken without revealing his plans. Why should he have been so secretive about them unless he had wished to conceal his whereabouts, and what motive for concealment could he have had except that he had gone away with some woman? The riddle continued to revolve in Halo’s brain, but she tried to ignore it; and as the days slipped by, and she saw Vance gradually settling down into his old habits of work, the whole matter seemed less important. Whatever had happened, it was probably over; he had passed through a phase, and come back to her — and that was all that mattered.

The summer was coming to an end; the tumultuous sun-bathers were vanishing from bungalows and restaurants, scattering with their wireless sets and shrieking motors to all the points of the compass, and leaving Oubli to the quietness of autumn. Already the great arched avenues of planes had turned into golden tunnels, the kindled vineyards were flushing to flame and embers, the figs purpling through their fanlike foliage. The pink house was almost the only one that had not barred its shutters for the dead interval between the seasons. When Halo and Vance went down to bathe they had the bay almost to themselves; in their rambles through the olive terraces and among the pine-woods they met no more “hikers”, and the cry of Ford and Citroën grew remoter through the sylvan hush.

Vance was more silent than of old; but though he had no explosions of enthusiasm he seemed as sensitive as ever to the beauty about him. To Halo he was like some one recovering from a long illness, and yielding gradually to the returning spell of life; there were moments when she could hardly help lowering her voice and treading as if in a sick-room — yet she knew nothing would irritate him more than any sign of exaggerated sympathy. “Be natural, be natural,” she kept repeating to herself, wondering if there were any lesson in the world as hard to learn.

Sooner than she could have hoped he returned to his work; there were days when he threw himself into it with such sombre ardour that she feared for his health and urged him not to write for too many hours at a stretch. But he received the suggestion irritably, and she saw that she must adapt herself to these days and nights of furious labour, which alternated with others of heavy lassitude. After a while she noticed that he had begun to drink to make up for the exhaustion following on his long bouts of writing. The discovery was a shock, and half-jokingly she tried to hint her surprise. In former times, she knew, Vance would have been humiliated by any allusion to such a weakness; but he received her hints with a sort of bantering indifference. “I know — you women think God created the universe on lemonade and lettuce sandwiches. Well, maybe He did; but I can’t. Don’t be frightened — you haven’t acquired an habitual drunkard. But I’ve got to get this book off my chest somehow, and I can’t do it without being bucked up now and then. I wish you’d tell Sidonie to make me a good thermos-ful of black coffee every night, will you? She can leave it on my desk when she goes to bed.”

Hitherto he had not spoken of the progress of his book; but Halo was used to that now. Since the old days at the Willows he had never really taken her into his confidence while his work was in hand. Even when he was writing “The Puritan in Spain”, in the solitude of their long tête-à-tête at Cadiz, he had used her as an ear to listen, not as an intelligence to criticize. And since he had been in England he had taken to doing his own typing, so that even her services on the Remington were no longer required, and his book was a secret garden into which he shut himself away from her as he might have done into a clandestine love-affair. But one afternoon, as they lay under the olives on the hillside, he turned to her with a half-shy half-whimsical smile. “See here; I’m beginning to wonder whether you’re going to take to ‘Colossus’.”

She smiled back at him. “So am I!”

“Well, I suppose it’s about time we tried it out. I want to know how it strikes you.”

She tried to repress her eagerness, to look friendly yet not too flattered. “I want to know too, dear — whenever you feel like it.” As they scrambled down the hill through the golden twilight she seemed to be carried on wings. “He’s come back to me — he’s come back to me!” she exulted, as if this need of her intellectual help were a surer token of his return to her than any revival of passion.

The book had advanced much farther than she had expected. In spite of the social distractions of London, Vance had got on with his writing more rapidly there than during the quiet months at Oubli, and as Halo looked at the heaped-up pages she asked herself whether a change of scene — figurative as well as actual — might not be increasingly necessary to him, and at more frequent intervals. On the night of his return he had confessed to her that he had been a fool, that he would have come back sooner if he had not been ashamed of his folly; but perhaps the experience he had in mind, whatever it was, had roused his intellectual activity and fed the creative fires. It was all mysterious and unintelligible to Halo, whose own happiness was so dependent on stability and understanding; but her intelligence could divine what perplexed her heart. At any rate, she thought with secret triumph, he hasn’t found any one to replace me as a listener.

That very evening he began to read the book aloud. They had meant to take the chapters in instalments; Halo had stipulated for time to reflect, and to get the work into its proper perspective. But when Vance was in the mood for reading aloud the excitement of getting a new view of what he had written always swept him on from page to page, and the joy of listening, and the sense that for the first time since the writing of “Instead” he needed her not only as audience but as critic, kept Halo from interrupting him. By the time he had finished they were both exhausted, Vance almost voiceless, and Halo in a state of nervous agitation that made it difficult for her to speak, though she knew he was impatient for what she had to say. He waited a moment; then he gave an uneasy laugh. “Well —?”

“Van — ” she began; but she broke off, embarrassed.

He was gathering the pages together with affected indifference. “No reaction — that about it?”

“No; oh, no! Only — you remember that time I took you to Chartres?” She smiled, but there was no answering light in his face. He was looking down sullenly at the manuscript.

“I remember I was as dead as a mummy. Couldn’t see or feel anything. I suppose you’re in the same state now?” he suggested ironically.

“Nonsense; you weren’t dead, you were stunned, bewildered. And so am I— just at first. I want more time — I want to re-read it quietly.”

“Oh, the critic who asks for a reprieve has already formed his opinion.” He laughed again. “Come — out with it! What’s wrong with the book? I don’t know why you take me for such a thin~skinned idiot that I can’t bear to be told.”

She saw that his lips were twitching, and suddenly suspected that he himself was not wholly satisfied with what he had written, and had feared in advance that she might share his dissatisfaction.

“I wish you’d let me sleep over it,” she urged good-humouredly. “I really don’t know yet what I think.”

“You mean you don’t know how to sugar-coat it,” he interrupted. “Well, don’t try! Just say straight out how the book strikes you. Remember that an artist is never much affected by amateur judgments, anyway.”

She flushed up at the sneer. “In that case, mine can surely wait.”

“Oh, it doesn’t have to! I know already what you think. You don’t understand what I’m after, and so you assume that I’ve muddled it. That’s about it, isn’t it?”

The taunt was too great a strain on her patience. If he had to be praised at all costs she felt that he was lost; he must be shaken out of this lethargy of self-appreciation. “Isn’t it rather too easy to conclude that if your critics are not altogether pleased it’s because they’re incapable of understanding you?”

He swung round with an ironic smile. “Which simply means that you’re not al-to-gether pleased yourself?” he mimicked her.

“No; I’m not. But I don’t think the reason you suggest is the right one.”

“Naturally!” He caught himself up, and went on more quietly: “Well, then, what IS the reason?”

Halo’s heart was beating apprehensively. Why was she thus deliberately risking their newly-recovered understanding? Was it worth while to put his literary achievement above her private happiness — and perhaps his? She was not sure; but she had to speak as her mind moved her. “I’ll tell you as well as I can. I’m a little bewildered still; but I have an idea you haven’t found yourself — expressed your real self, I mean — in this book as you did in the others. You’re not . . . not quite as free from other influences . . . echoes . . .” As the words formed themselves she knew they were the most fatal to the artist’s self-love, the hardest for wounded vanity to recover from. But if she spoke at all she must speak as truth dictated; she could not tamper with her intellectual integrity, or with his.

Vance had dropped back into his chair. “Echoes!” he said with a curt laugh. “That’s all you see — all you hear, rather? What sort of echoes?”

“Of books you’ve been reading, I suppose; or the ideas of the people you’ve been talking to. I can’t speak more definitely, because I’ve been with you so little lately, and it’s so long since you’ve talked to me of your work. But I feel that you may have let yourself be too much guided, directed — drawn away from your own immediate vision.”

“In other words, if I’d submitted the book to you page by page I should have been more likely to preserve what you call my immediate vision? Is that it?”

The outbreak was so childish that it restored her balance, and she smiled. “I can’t tell about that, of course; but if you think such a consideration would really affect my opinion, I wonder at your ever caring to hear it.”

Vance gave a shrug. “My dear child — shall I give you the cold truth, as you’ve given it to me? It’s simply this: that the artist asks other people’s opinions to please THEM and not to help himself. There’s only one critic who can help us — that’s life! As for the rest, it’s all bunk . . .” He pushed the pages into their folder, and got up, stretching his arms above his head. “You’re right, anyhow, about our both being too dog-tired to keep up the discussion now. It was brutal of me to put you through the third degree at two in the morning. . .”

Halo’s heart sank. She did not resent his tone; she knew he was overwrought, and was talking with his nerves and not with his intelligence; but again she was frightened by the idea that her over-scrupulous sincerity might check his impulse to turn to her for advice and sympathy. “And after all,” she reflected, “it’s only sympathy that matters. He’s right, in a sense, when he says it’s about the only thing an artist requires of his friends. As for the work itself, self-criticism is all that counts.” She looked at him gaily.

“It’s not two in the morning yet; but I AM tired, and so are you. I wish you hadn’t made me feel that I can’t help you. If only by listening, by giving you my whole mind, I believe I can; but you’ll be able to tell better tomorrow. At any rate, you must give me the chance to explain a little more clearly what I feel.”

He looked embarrassed, and half-ashamed of his outburst. “Of course, child. We’ll talk it all over when our heads are a little clearer. Now I believe I’ll go to bed.” He went up to the cupboard and poured himself out a glass of whisky. As he emptied it he turned to her with a laugh and a toss of his head above the tilted glass. “Here’s to my next book — a best-seller, to be written under your guidance.” He tapped her on the shoulder and turned her face toward his for a kiss.

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