The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XXXIII

One day he said to her: “Well, the book’s finished.” He spoke in a low apprehensive voice, as if he had been putting off the announcement as long as possible, and now that it was made, did not know what to say next.

Since the night, weeks before, when Halo had ventured her criticism he had never again proposed to show her what he was doing, never even asked her to take his dictation or to copy out his manuscript; he had definitely excluded the subject of “Colossus” from their talks. The intellectual divorce between them was increasingly bitter to Halo. That the veil of passion must wear through was life’s unescapable lesson; but if no deeper understanding underlay it, what was left? Had not Frenside’s advice been the only answer? In the joy of Vance’s return, and the peaceful communion of their first days, when the mere fact of being together seemed to settle every doubt and lay every ghost, it had been easy to smile at her old friend’s suggestion, and to reflect how little any one could know of lovers’ hearts except the lovers. But now she understood on what unstable ground she had rebuilt her happiness, and trembled.

Vance stood in the window looking out over the bay. The palms were wrestling in dishevelled fury with the first autumn gale; rain striped the panes, and beyond the headlands a welter of green waters stretched away to the low pall of clouds. Halo saw him give a discouraged shrug. “Good Lord — Miss Plummet!”

The Pension Britannique had reopened its shutters the previous week, and after a prelude of carpet-shaking and tile-scrubbing Madame Fleuret’s lodgers were taking possession of their old quarters. The Anglican chapel was to resume its offices on the following Sunday; already Halo had encountered Mrs. Dorman, cordial though embarrassed, and eager to tell her that after the first rains a bad leak had shown itself in Lady Dayes–Dawes’s room, and that the mason was afraid they would have to rebuild the chimney of the lounge.

Halo stood by Vance watching Miss Plummet swept homeward by the south-easterly blast, her umbrella bellying like a black sail. After she had passed there was an interval during which the promenade remained empty, like a stage-setting before the leading actor’s entrance; then, punctually as of old, Colonel Churley stalked into view, his mackintosh flapping, his stick dragging in the mud, his head thrust out angrily to meet the gale. Vance followed his struggling figure with fascinated eyes. “I suppose they all think they’re alive!” he groaned.

Halo laid her arm on his shoulder. She knew what thoughts the sight of Colonel Churley had stirred in him. “Why should we stay here any longer?” she said.

Vance drummed on the pane without answering. His eyes still followed the bent figure lessening between the palm-trunks.

“Now that your book’s finished — ”

“Oh, my book! I don’t believe it is a book — just a big dump of words. And not mine, anyhow; you’ve made that clear enough!” He gave an irritated laugh.

“I have? But you only let me hear a few chapters.”

“Exactly. And on those you gave me your judgment of the finished book. Without a moment’s hesitation. Look here, child,” he added abruptly, “don’t think I was surprised, or that I minded. Not in the least. It’s the sign of the amateur critic that he must always conclude, never leave an opinion in solution.”

Halo’s arm dropped from his shoulder. “Then it can’t much matter to the author what the conclusion is.”

Vance stood uneasily shifting from one foot to the other, his eyes bent to the ground. “If only it didn’t matter! The devil of it is that when a book’s growing the merest stupidest hint may deflect its growth, deform it . . . The artist loses confidence, ceases to visualize . . . Oh, what’s the use of trying to explain?”

“Don’t try, dear. You’re too tired, for one thing.”

“Tired — tired? When a man’s at the end of his tether a woman always thinks he’s tired. Why don’t you suggest a bottle of tonic?”

“If you’re at the end of your tether it would be more to the point to suggest new pastures. Why shouldn’t we try some other place?”

He moved away and began his restless pacing; then he came back and paused before her. “It’s the landscape of the soul I’m fed up with,” he broke out.

She stood silent. The landscape of the soul! But that must mean his nearest surroundings — must mean herself, she supposed. She tried to steady the smile on her trembling lips. “I wish you’d let me help you as I used to,” she began. “But if I’m of no use to you in your work, and only in the way at other times, perhaps . . .” She felt a blur in her eyes, and hurried on. “Perhaps the real change you need — ” and now she achieved a little laugh — “is not a new place but a new woman.”

The words dropped into a profound silence. Was he never going to speak, to deny, to protest at the monstrousness of her suggestion? He stood in the window, looking out into the rain, for a time that seemed to her interminable; and when he turned back his face was expressionless, closed. She felt as if a door had been shut against her. She essayed her little laugh again. “Is that it? Don’t be afraid to tell me!”

“That?” He looked at her vaguely. “Oh — another woman?” He stopped, and then began, in a hard embarrassed voice: “I suppose you put that newspaper cutting on my desk on purpose the night I came back? You wanted me to understand that you knew?”

She returned his look in genuine bewilderment. The weeks since his return had been crowded with so many emotions and agitations that for the moment she had forgotten the paragraph in which Floss Delaney figured. Suddenly the memory rushed back on her, and she stood speechless. It was that, then — her first instinct had been right, had led her straight to his secret! She stiffened herself, trying to thrust back the intolerable truth. “What cutting? You mean — about that girl?”

“Yes; that girl.”

“Oh, Vance . . . you don’t . . . you don’t mean that it’s for her . . .?” There was another silence. “You mean that when you left London it was to go away with her?”

He gave an angry laugh. “It was to go away FROM her — as far as I could go! Now do you understand?”

Halo’s eyes clung to his labouring face. Did she understand — dared she? She spoke very low. “To get away from her . . . because you realized . . .? Because it was all over — like a bad dream? Is that it?”

“A bad dream, yes; but not over. I’d rather you knew everything now . . . I didn’t run away from her. . .”

“Then —?”

“She kicked me out. Can’t you see? Do I have to put everything in words of one syllable?”

Halo looked away from him. “No; you don’t have to.” Suddenly her contracted heart seemed to expand a very little. “Then those weeks after you left London — when Tolby said he didn’t know what had become of you — she wasn’t with you all that time?”

“Merciful heaven — she? No!”

“Then where were you, Vance?”

“Somewhere in hell. I believe they call it Belgium.”

“All alone there, all that time?” she cried pityingly. He mistook her intonation.

“Do you suppose that as fast as one woman throws me over I hook on to another — like a sort of limpet?”

“I wasn’t thinking of another woman. I hoped you’d had one of your friends with you.”

“A man’s got no friends when he’s going through a thing like that . . .” He stopped, and then a rush of words broke from him. “You don’t know — how should you? She threw me out; and I trailed back after her to London; and she threw me out again. That time I had my lesson.”

He dropped into his armchair and leaned back, looking up at the ceiling. She thought how young his face looked in spite of its drawn misery, and said to herself: “He’ll get over it and I shan’t. He’ll use it up in a story, and it will go on living in me and feeding on me.” Aloud she said: “I’m very sorry for you, Vance. I shouldn’t have thought — ”

“No! I understand. You’d have thought it would be any other woman — only not that one. Well, it’s the other way round. I’m pitiably constant.” He continued to lean back, his arms crossed behind his head. He no longer looked at her, seemed hardly to know she was there; yet every word he spoke cut like a blade sharpened to wound her. She leaned against the desk, her arms stretched behind her for support. She felt a kind of inner rigidity that almost seemed like strength. While it lasted, she thought, she must speak. “If you feel like that you must marry her. You’re free, dear — you know that.”

He started up with a choking sound in his throat. “Marry her? She’s going to marry somebody else.” He buried his face in his hands and sat a long while without speaking. He was not weeping; his shoulders did not stir; he just sat there in dark communion with his grief. Halo did not move either till she felt a stiffness in the muscles of her arms; then she turned from the desk and stood looking out of the window at the storm-darkened world. As she stood there Colonel Churley went by, driven back by the storm from his solitary tramp. How she had pitied him last winter, when she and Vance, from the safe shelter of their love, had looked out on his lonely figure!

Night was falling; soon the lamp-lighter would come along and the gas-lamps along the promenade flicker into life. They said the streets would be lit by electricity next year. Their landlord had even spoken of putting in an electric cooker . . . That reminded Halo that if they meant to leave Oubli she ought to write at once and give notice. You sent your landlord a registered letter, and then he couldn’t say that he hadn’t been notified, because there was his signature.

She turned back into the room, which was already dark, groped for matches, and lit the two candles in the brass candlesticks on the chimney. The fibres of her heart were wound about every object in that homely friendly room. How many evenings she and Vance had sat there, between fire and candles, joking and planning! One flesh — they had been one flesh. And now they were to be divided. She felt like some one facing a surgical operation: the kind of which the surgeons say to the family: “There HAVE been cases in which it has proved successful; and if it’s not done we refuse to answer for the consequences.”

She tried to picture what her future would be — what she herself would be — if the operation were to be successful. Perhaps in the end she would marry somebody else, have children, live on as a totally different being, preoccupied about ordering another man’s dinner and bringing up his family, though the same face continued to look back at her from her mirror. How odd if in years to come she should meet Vance somewhere — in the street, in a train — and they should not recognize each other, and some one, perhaps her husband, should say afterward: “You didn’t know? Why, that’s the man who wrote ‘Colossus’. I thought you used to know him. That handsome common-looking woman was his wife.”

Vance stood up, shook himself and passed his hand over his forehead. “I think I’ll go out.”

Halo moved toward him. She must make use of her factitious energy before it flickered out. “Vance — just a minute. I want to tell you . . .”

He stopped unwillingly. “Yes?”

“You’re free as air. You understand that, don’t you?”

He lifted his eyes and looked at her heavily. “You mean — you want to make an end?”

Her voice was hardly audible, even to her own ears. “Hadn’t we better?”

He still looked at her in a wounded suffering way. “All right, then; I understand.”

“Vance — it’s better, isn’t it?”

“It’s all I’m worth.”

She went closer to him. “Oh, not that — don’t say that! I only want you to feel that if there’s any hope . . . any happiness for you . . . elsewhere . . . I want you . . .” Her voice grew suddenly louder, and then broke into a sob. The tide of her tears rushed over her. She dropped down on the divan and wept as if she were weeping away all the accumulated agony of the last weeks. How brief a way her strength had carried her! She fought back her tears, straightened herself, and lifted her face to his. “This is nothing — just nervousness. I suppose I’ve been alone too long . . .”

He knelt down at her side, and she felt his arms about her. Their treacherous warmth melted her resistance away. “Oh, Van . . . my Van . . .” while he held her thus, could any other woman come between them?

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