The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

Book V

XXXIV

From the window of every English bookshop in Paris “Colossus” stared at Halo. The book had appeared a few weeks after its last pages were written, the chapters having been set up as they were finished, in order to hasten publication. Otherwise the winter sales would be missed, and “Colossus” was obviously not a work for the summer holidays. Halo suspected that the publishers, while proud to associate their name with it, were not sanguine as to pecuniary results. “Colossus” had most of the faults disquieting to the book-seller; it was much too long, nothing particular happened in it, and few people even pretended to know what it was about.

No reviews had as yet appeared when Halo saw the first copies in the rue de Rivoli windows, where they must have flowered over night. She stood hesitatingly outside the shop; there had come to be something slow and hesitating in her slightest decisions, in her movements even. She found it more and more difficult to make up her mind even about trifles — more so about trifles than about the big decisive acts. The spring of enthusiasm that used to give a momentary importance to the least event seemed to have run dry in her.

She went in and asked for a magazine. While it was being brought she glanced at the copies of “Colossus” conspicuously aligned on the New Book counter, and asked the clerk how it was going.

“We’ve sold a good many already. Anything by the author of ‘The Puritan in Spain’, you understand . . . Can I do up a copy for you?”

It was the answer she had expected. The book would benefit for a while by its predecessor’s popularity; but when that flagged — what? She paid for the magazine she had asked for, and went out.

It was a cold day of early winter, and Paris, once like home to her, seemed empty and unfriendly. She had seen no one since her arrival. Lorry, she had learned at his studio, was away. Both Mrs. Glaisher and Mrs. Blemer had failed in the end to regard “Factories” as a profitable venture, and he was negotiating for its production with a Berlin impresario. Halo had not the heart to look up Savignac — again her stealing inertia held her back; and Tolby, whom she would have been glad to see, was still in London. Paris had been a feverish desert to her before; now it was a freezing one.

She walked back through the Tuileries gardens, and across the Seine to the quiet hotel on the left bank where she was staying. She had lingered on alone in Paris for a week or ten days — ever since she had come there to see Vance off, when he had hurriedly sailed for New York — and she had a queer feeling that there was no use in trying to make any further plans, that any change, any new decision, must be imposed on her from the outside. It was as though her central spring were broken . . . yet, in a way, she knew that her future had already been settled for her.

At her hotel she asked the porter if there were any letters. She was sure he would say no; of course there would be none; and when, after a hunt through the pigeon-holes behind his desk, he handed her an envelope, she felt suddenly dizzy, and had to sit down on the nearest chair and leave the letter unopened. How strange, how incredible, to see herself addressed as “Mrs. Tarrant” in her husband’s writing! It reminded her that in spite of all that had happened she was still Mrs. Tarrant, still his wife — and it was by his own choice that it was so. That was the strangest part of it, the part she could not yet understand.

She had learned of Tarrant’s presence in Paris by seeing his name among the hotel arrivals in a daily paper. That was two days ago; and after twenty-four hours of incoherent thinking she had abruptly decided to move to another hotel, and register there under her real name — her husband’s. That night she had written to him. That night; and here, the very next morning, was his answer! One might almost have supposed that he had been waiting for some sign from her . . . She sat with her cold hands folded over the letter till her strength returned; when she could trust herself to her feet she rose and went up to her room.

The variableness of Tarrant’s moods had made her fear that he might reply harshly, or perhaps not at all. Even now she thought it likely that, if he should agree to see her, he would propose their meeting at his lawyer’s; and that would paralyze her, deprive her of all power to plead her cause. Over three months had passed since he had sent Frenside to her on that unsuccessful mission; and as she looked back on her own attitude at the time it seemed hard and ungrateful. In her self-absorption she had forgotten to send Tarrant a word of thanks, a conciliatory message; and she knew the importance he attached to such observances. For her sake he had humbled his pride, and she had seemed unaware of it. With his sensitiveness to rebuffs, and the uncertainty of his impulses, what chance was there of finding him in the same frame of mind as when he had made his advance and she had rejected it? He had a horror of reopening any discussion which he regarded as closed; might he not justly say that the message she had sent through Frenside had been final? She looked at the unopened envelope and wondered at her courage — or her folly — in writing to him.

At length she opened the letter, and read the few words within. In the extremity of her relief she felt weak again, and had to sit down and cover her face. There was no mention of lawyers; there was nothing curt or vindictive in the tone of the letter. Tarrant simply said that he would be glad to see her that afternoon at his hotel. The sheet trembled in her hand, and she found herself suddenly weeping.

The porter said that Mr. Tarrant was expecting her, and the lift carried her up to a velvet-carpeted corridor. It was the hotel where he and she had stayed whenever they were in Paris together; the narrow white-panelled corridor was exactly like the one leading to the rooms they usually had. At its end she was shown into a stiffly furnished white and gray sitting-room, and Tarrant stood up from the table at which he had been pretending to write. He was extremely pale, and catching her own reflection in the mirror behind him, she thought: “We look like two ghosts meeting . . .”

She said: “Lewis,” and held her hand out shyly. He touched it with his cold fingers, and stammered: “You’ll have tea?” as though he had meant to say something more suitable, and had forgotten what it was.

She shook her head, and he pushed an armchair forward. “Sit down.” She sat down, and for a few moments he stood irresolutely before her; then he pulled up a chair for himself and reached out for the cigarettes on the table. “You don’t mind?” She shook her head again.

Suddenly it came over her that this was perhaps the very room in which, on that unhappy night, Vance had so imprudently pleaded for her release; and the thought deepened her discouragement. But she must conquer these tremors and find herself again.

“Thank you for letting me come,” she said at length. “I ought to have thanked you before.”

He raised his eyebrows with the ironic movement habitual to him when he wanted to ward off emotional appeals. “Oh, why —?”

“Because you sent Frenny to me with that offer. And I didn’t thank you properly.”

The blood rose under his sensitive skin. “Oh, that, really . . . I understood that you . . . that at the time you were undecided about your own future. . .”

“Yes; I was. But I want to tell you that I was very grateful, though I may not have seemed so; and that now — now I accept.”

Tarrant was silent. He had regained control of his features, but Halo could measure the intensity of the effort, and the inward perturbation it denoted. After all, he and she had the same emotional reactions, though his range was so much more limited; in moments of stress she could read his mind and his heart as she had never been able to read Vance’s. The thought cast back a derisive light on her youthful illusions.

After the first months of burning intimacy with Vance, and the harrowing extremes of their subsequent life, Tarrant had become a mere shadow to her, and she had not foreseen that his presence would rouse such searching memories. But she was one of the women on whom successive experiences stamp themselves without effacing each other; and suddenly, in all her veins and nerves, she felt that this cold embarrassed man, having once been a part of her life, could never quite cease to be so. No wonder she had never been able to adapt herself to the amorous code of Lorry’s group! She sat waiting, her heart weighed down with memories, while Tarrant considered her last words.

“You accept —?” he repeated at length.

“I— yes. The divorce, I mean . . . I understand that you . . .”

“You’ve decided that you want a divorce?” She nodded.

He sat with bent head, his unlit cigarette between his fingers. “You’re quite certain . . . now . . . that this is really what you wish?”

“I— oh, yes, yes,” she stammered.

Tarrant continued in contemplation of her words, and she began to fear that, after all, he might have let her come only for the bitter pleasure of refusing what she asked. She had nearly cried out, appealed to him to shorten her suspense; but she controlled herself and waited. He got up, and stood before her.

“I ask the question because — if Frenside gave me a correct account of your talk — you took the opposite view at that time: you didn’t want to take proceedings because you thought that if you did so Weston might feel obliged to marry you.” He brought out the words with difficulty; she felt sorry for the effort it was costing him to get through this scene, which she might have spared him if she had accepted Frenside’s intervention. “Are you positively sure now?” he insisted.

“Yes.”

“You wish to divorce me in order to marry your lover?”

“Lewis —!”

He smiled faintly. “You object to the word?”

“No; but it seems so useless to go into all this again.”

He took no notice, but pursued, in the same level voice: “You and Weston have come together again, and wish to marry? Is that it?”

She lowered her eyes, and paused a moment before answering. “I am not sure — that we shall ever marry. I want my freedom.”

“Freedom? Freedom to live without a name, or any one to look after you? What sort of a life do you propose to lead if you don’t marry him? Have you thought of that?”

She hesitated again. She might have resented his questioning; but his tone, though cold, was not unkind. And she knew him so well that she could detect the latent sympathy behind those measured phrases.

“I haven’t thought of the future yet. I only know it seems best that I should take back my own name.”

“If you’re not to take his — is that what you mean?”

“I’m not sure . . . about anything. But I want to be free.”

He went and leaned against the mantelshelf, looking down on her with dubious eyes. “The situation, then, is much the same as when you saw Frenside; it’s only your own attitude that has changed?”

“Well . . . yes . . . I suppose so. . .”

There was a silence which she measured by the nervous knocking of her heart. At that moment her knowledge of her husband seemed of no avail. She could not guess what his secret motive was; but she felt dimly that something deep within him had been renewed and transformed, and that it was an unknown Tarrant who confronted her. He twisted the cigarette incessantly between his fingers. “I heard you’d been unhappy — ” he began abruptly.

She flushed and lifted her head. “No!”

He smiled again. “You wouldn’t admit it, I suppose. At any rate, you’re alone — at present. Don’t you think that — in the circumstances — my name is at least a sort of protection?”

The question surprised her so much that she could find no words to reply; and he hurried on, as if anxious to take advantage of her silence: “I’ve no doubt my attitude, all along, has been misrepresented to you. Perhaps it was partly my own fault. I’m not good at explaining — especially things that touch me closely. But for a long time now I’ve felt that some day you might be glad to have kept my name . . . It was my chief reason for not agreeing to a divorce. . .” He spoke in the low indifferent tone which always concealed his moments of deepest perturbation. “You never thought of that, I suppose?” he ended, as if reproachfully.

“No — I hadn’t.”

“H’m,” he muttered with a dry laugh. “Well, it doesn’t matter. My pride sometimes gets in my way . . . particularly when I think I haven’t been fairly treated. But that’s all over. I want to help you. . .”

“Oh, Lewis, thank you.”

“No matter about that. The thing is — look here, can’t we talk together openly?”

She felt her colour rise again; and again her knowledge of him gave her no clue to what might be coming. “Certainly — it will be much better.”

“Well, then — .” He broke off, as if the attempt were more difficult than he had foreseen. Suddenly he resumed: “If you and Weston have parted, as I understand you have . . .” In the interval that followed she felt that he was waiting for her to confirm or deny the assertion.

“He went to America ten days ago — to his own people. He felt that he ought to go and see them. Beyond that we’ve made no plans. . .”

“You mean that there’s no understanding between you as to his coming back — or as to your future relations?”

“I don’t wish that there should be! He’s free — perfectly free. That’s our only understanding,” she exclaimed hastily.

“Well — that’s what I wanted to be sure of. If it’s that way, I’m ready to wipe out the past . . . let it be as if nothing had happened. It’s nobody’s business but yours and mine, anyhow . . . You understand? I’m ready to take you back.”

She sat looking up at him without finding any words; but the weight in her breast lifted a little — she felt less lonely. “Thank you, Lewis . . . thank you . . .” she managed to say.

His lips narrowed; evidently it was not the response he had expected. But he went on: “Of course, at first . . . I can understand . . . You might feel that you couldn’t come back at once, take up our life where it broke off — at any rate not in the old surroundings. I’ve thought of that; I shouldn’t ask it. I should be ready to travel, if you preferred. For a year — for longer even. The world’s pretty big. We could go to India . . . or to East Africa. As far as you like. Explore things . . . I don’t care what. By the time we got back people would have forgotten.” He straightened himself, as though the last words had slipped out of a furtive fold of his thoughts. “Not that that matters. If I choose, nobody else has a word to say. And nobody will! I— I’ve missed you, Halo. I ask you to come back.”

She stood silent, oppressed. On Tarrant’s lips, she knew, such an appeal meant complete surrender. If he owned that he had missed her — HOW he must have missed her! Under all her cares and perplexities she felt a little quiver of feminine triumph, and it trembled in her voice as she answered. “Thank you, Lewis . . . for saying that . . . I wish things could have been different. Please believe that I do.”

She caught the gleam of hope in his eyes. “Well, then — let it be as if they had been different. Won’t you?”

The talk had led them so far from the real object of her visit that she began to fear for the result. If Tarrant, in refusing to divorce her, had really had in mind the hope of her return, what chance was there now of his yielding? It had never been in his nature to give without taking. She felt bewildered and at a loss.

“Can things ever be as if they’d never been? Life would be too easy!” she said timidly.

His face darkened and the nervous frown gathered between his eyes. “Is that your answer?”

“I suppose it must be.”

“Must be? Not unless you still expect to marry Weston. Is that it? You owe the truth to me.”

She saw instantly that if she said yes her doing so might provoke a refusal to divorce her; and that if she said no he would go on insisting, and her final rejection of his offer would be all the more mortifying to him. She reflected wearily that the Tarrant she knew was already coming to the surface.

“I’ve told you the truth; I don’t know any more than you do what my future will be. I’m bound to no one . . . But if I agreed to what you suggest, how could we avoid unhappiness? You would always remember . . . and the differences in our characters probably haven’t grown less. . .” She went toward him with outstretched hands. “Lewis — please! Let me have my freedom, and let us say goodbye as friends.”

Without noticing her gesture he continued to look at her somberly. “How easily you settle my future for me! Your character at any rate hasn’t changed. Here I’ve waited for you — waited and waited for this hour; for I was sure from the first that your crazy experiment wouldn’t last. And now you tell me it’s over, and that your future’s not pledged to anybody else — which means that you’re alone in the world, a woman deserted by her lover (you know as well as I do that that’s what people will say). And yet you continue to let your pride stand between us . . . or if it isn’t pride, what is it? Some idea that things can’t be as they were before? Well, perhaps they can’t — entirely. Perhaps we can neither of us forget . . . But if I assure you of my friendship . . . my devotion . . . God, Halo, what I’m proposing shows how I feel . . . there’s no use talking . . .”

She caught the cry under his pondered syllables, and saw that he was struggling with emotions deeper than he had ever known. The sight woke her pity, and she thought: “Am I worth anything better than this? Shall I ever be wanted in this way again?”

“Lewis, if you knew how sorry I am! I AM grateful — I do feel your generosity. It’s true that I’m alone, and that the future’s rather blank. But all that can’t be helped; nothing can change it now. You must give me my freedom.”

“What I feel is nothing to you, then?”

“No. It’s a great deal.” She looked at him gravely. “It’s because I might end by being tempted that I mustn’t listen to you; that you must let me go.”

“Let you go — when you’ve confessed that you’re tempted? Listen, Halo. You see now how right I was to refuse to divorce you; to wait; to believe that you’d come back. Now that you’re here, how can you ask me to give you up?”

She stood motionless, her heart trembling with the weight of his pleading. His words piled themselves up on her like lead. “How can you, Halo?” he repeated.

“Because I’m going to have a child,” she said.

“Oh — ” he exclaimed. He drew back, and lifted his hands to his face. Then he turned from her and walked up to the mantelpiece. He must have caught sight of his own disordered features in the mirror, for he moved away, and stood in the middle of the room, livid and silent.

Halo could think of nothing to say. He forced a little laugh. “I see. And you want a divorce at once, because now you think he’ll have to marry you?”

“I have never thought anything of the sort. I don’t want him to marry me — I don’t want him to know what I’ve told you . . . I want to be free and to shift for myself . . . that’s all.”

He looked down with knotted brows. “Then this divorce business — what’s your object? If what you tell me is true, I don’t see what you want — or why you should care about a divorce, one way or the other.”

She flushed. “I’ve no right to give your name to another man’s child. Isn’t that reason enough? Can’t you understand that a woman should want to be free, and alone with her child?” she burst out passionately.

She saw the reflection of her flush in his face. When the blood rose under his fair skin it burned him to the temples, and then ebbed at once, leaving him ash-coloured. He moved about the room vaguely, and then came back to her.

“I had no idea — ”

“No; of course. But now you must see . . .”

He lifted his eyes to hers. “There are women who wouldn’t have been so honest — ”

“Are there? I don’t know. Please think of what I’ve asked you, Lewis.”

She saw that he was no longer listening to what she said. All his faculties were manifestly concentrated on some sudden purpose that was struggling to impose itself on his will. He spoke again. “Some women, if only for their child’s sake — ”

“Would lie? Is that what you mean?”

“Well — isn’t it perhaps your duty? I mean, to think first of your child’s future? Consider what I’ve said from that point of view if you can . . .”

She returned his gaze with a frightened stare. What was he hinting at, trying to offer her? Her heart shrank from the possibility, and then suddenly melted. Lewis — poor Lewis! What were these depths she had never guessed in him? Had she after all known him so little? Her eyes filled, and she stood silent.

“Halo — you see, don’t you? I . . . I want you to realize . . . to think of it in that way. You’ll need help more than ever now. Halo, why don’t you answer? I’d be good to the child,” he said brokenly.

She went up to him and took his hand. It was cold and shook in her touch. “Thank you for that — most of all. It can’t be as you wish; but I’ll never forget. Words are stupid — I don’t know what to say.”

“To say — to say? There’s nothing to say. The child . . . the child would be mine, you understand.”

She shook her head. “I understand. And I shall always feel that you’re my best friend. But I can’t go back to you and be your wife. You’d be the first to regret it if I did. Don’t think me hard or ungrateful. Only let me go my way.”

He turned and rested his elbows on the mantelpiece, and his head on his clasped hands. She saw that he was struggling to recover his composure before he spoke again. “Ah, your pride — your pride!” he broke out bitterly. She was silent, and he turned back to her with a burst of vehemence. “I suppose, though you won’t acknowledge it even to yourself, you really hope Weston will come back and marry you when he hears of this?”

“If he hears of it he will certainly offer to marry me. But for that very reason I don’t want him to know — not at present. I don’t want him to feel under any sort of obligation. . .”

“Has he made you as unhappy as that?”

“Don’t we all make each other unhappy, sooner or later — often without knowing it? I sometimes think I’ve got beyond happiness or unhappiness — I don’t feel as if I were made for them any more. I have nothing to complain of — or to regret. But I want to be alone; to go my own way, without depending on anybody. I want to be Halo Spear again — that’s all.”

Tarrant listened with bent head. She saw that he was bewildered at the depth of his own failure. He had been prepared — perhaps — to regret his offer; but not to have it refused. It had never occurred to him that such an extreme of magnanimity could defeat itself. “Is that really all — all you’ve got to say?”

“Since I can’t say what you wish, Lewis — what else is there?”

His white lips twitched. “No; you’re right. I suppose there’s nothing.” He had grown guarded and noncommittal again; she saw that to press her point at that moment was impossible. She held out her hand.

“It’s goodbye, then. But as friends — as true friends, Lewis?”

“Oh, as friends,” he echoed rigidly.

He did not seem to notice her extended hand. She saw that he hardly knew where he was, or what he was doing; but some old instinct of conformity made him precede her to the door, open it for her, walk silently at her side down the passage to the lift.

“I’d rather walk downstairs,” she said; but he insisted gravely: “It’s four flights. You’d better wait. In a moment; it will be here in a moment.”

They stood by each other in silence, miles of distance already between them, while they waited for the preliminary rattle and rumble from below; then the mirror-lined box shot up, opened its door, and took her in.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/gods_arrive/chapter34.html

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