The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XXXV

The Euphoria “Free Speaker” had expended its biggest head-lines on the illustrious novelist’s return, and Vance, the morning after his arrival, woke to find himself besieged by reporters, autograph~collectors, photographers, prominent citizens and organizers of lecture-tours.

He had forgotten how blinding and deafening America’s greeting to the successful can be, and his first impulse was to fly or to lie concealed; but he saw that his parents not only took the besieging of the house for granted, but would have felt there was something lacking in their son’s achievement had it not called forth this tribute. Even Grandma Scrimser — now rooted to her armchair by some paralyzing form of rheumatism — shone on him tenderly and murmured “The college’ll have to give him an honorary degree now,” as he jumped up to receive the fiftieth interviewer, or to answer the hundredth telephone call.

“You remember, darling, that summer way back, when we sat one day on the porch at Crampton, and you told me you’d had a revelation of God — a God of your own was the way you put it? A sort of something in you that stretched out and out, and upward and upward, and took in all time and all space? I remember it so well, although my words are not as beautiful as yours. At the time I was sure it meant you had a call to the ministry. But now, sitting here and reading in the papers what all the big folks say about your books, I’ve begun to wonder if it wasn’t your Genius speaking in you, and maybe spreading its wings to carry you up by another way to the One God — who is Jesus?” Her great blue eyes, paler but still so beautiful, filled with the easy tears of the old as she drew Vance down to her. And after that she advised him earnestly not to refuse to address his fellow-citizens from the platform of the new Auditorium Theatre. “They’ve got a right to see you and hear you, Vanny; they expect it. It’s something you privileged people owe to the rest of the world. And besides, it’s good business; nothing’ll make your books sell better than folks being able to see what you look like, and go home and say: ‘Vance Weston? Why, sure I know him. I heard him lecture the other day out at Euphoria. Of course I’m going to buy his new book’. It’s the human touch you see, darling.”

The human touch, artfully combined with a regard for the main chance, still ruled in Mrs. Scrimser’s world, and her fading blue eyes shone with the same blend of other-worldliness and business astuteness as when she had started on her own successful career as preacher and reformer. All the family had been brought up in the same school, without even suspecting that there might be another; and they ascribed Vance’s reluctance to be made a show of to ill~health and private anxieties.

“It’s all that woman’s doing. He’s worn to a bone, and I can hardly get him to touch his food,” Mrs. Weston grumbled to her mother; and Vance, chancing to overhear her, knew that the woman in question was Halo. He understood that his life with Halo was something to be accounted for and explained away, and that the pride the family had felt in his prospective marriage (“a Park Avenue affair”, as Mrs. Weston had boasted) increased the mortification of having to own that it had not taken place. “Some fuss about a divorce — don’t they HAVE divorce in the Eastern States, anyhow?” she enquired sardonically, as if no lack of initiative would surprise her in the original Thirteen. The explanation was certainly unsatisfactory; and sooner than have it supposed that Vance might have been thrown over, she let slip that he and the young woman were living together — “society queen and all the rest of it. Of course she won’t let him go. . .” That had not been quite satisfactory either. It had arrayed against him the weightiest section of Mapledale Avenue, and excited in the other, and more youthful, half, an unwholesome curiosity as to his private affairs, stimulated by the conviction that the family were “keeping back” something discreditable, and perhaps unmentionable; since it was obvious that two people who wanted to live together had only to legalize their caprice by a trip to Reno.

All this Vance had learned from his sister Mae during a midnight talk the day after his arrival. His eldest sister, Pearl, who was small and plain, and had inherited her mother’s sturdy common~sense, had married well and gone to live at Dakin; but Mae, who was half-pretty and half-artistic and half-educated, and had thought herself half engaged to two or three young men who had not shared her view, had remained at home and grown disillusioned and censorious. She did not understand Vance any better than the rest of the family, and he knew it; but the spirit of opposition caused her to admire in him whatever the others disapproved of, and for want of an intelligent ear he had to turn to a merely sympathetic one.

“The Auditorium’s sold out already for your reading; and I know they’re crazy to invite you to the Saturday night dinner-dance at the new Country Club. But some of the old cats want to know what this is about your living abroad with a married woman — that Mrs. Dayton Alsop, who was divorced twice before she caught old Alsop, is one of the worst ones, I guess.” Vance laughed, and said he didn’t give a damn for dinner-dances at the Country Club, and Mae, with sudden bitterness, rejoined: “I suppose there’s nothing out here you do give a damn for, as far as society goes. But of course if you don’t go they’ll say it’s because they wouldn’t ask you. . .”

The next day his grandmother seized the opportunity of Mrs. Weston’s morning marketing to ask Vance to come to her room for a talk; and after the exchange of reminiscences, always so dear to the old, she put a gentle question about his marriage. He told her that he didn’t believe he was going to get married, and seeing the pain in those eyes he could never look at with indifference, he added: “It’s all my fault; but you mustn’t let it fret you, because Halo, who’s awfully generous, understands perfectly, and agrees that the experiment has probably lasted long enough. So that’s all there is to it.”

“All?” She returned his look anxiously. “It seems to me just a beginning. A bad beginning, if you like; but so many are. That don’t mean much. I understood the trouble was she couldn’t get her divorce — the husband wouldn’t let her. Is that so?”

“Yes. But I suppose she’d have ended by going out to Reno, though the crowd she was brought up in hate that kind of thing worse than poison.”

“Hate it — why?” Mrs. Scrimser looked surprised. “Isn’t it better than going against God’s commandments?”

“Well, maybe. But they think out there in New York — Halo’s kind do — that when one of the parties has put himself or herself in the wrong, they’ve got no right to lie about it in court, and Halo would have loathed getting a divorce on the pretext that her husband had deserted her, when the truth was she’d left him because she wanted to come and live with me.”

This visibly increased Mrs. Scrimser’s perplexity, but Vance saw that her native sense of fairness made her wish to understand his side of the case.

“Well, I always say it’s a pity the young people don’t bear with each other a little longer. I don’t think they ought to rush out and get a divorce the way you’d buy a package of salts of lemon. It ain’t such a universal cure either . . . But as long as you and she had decided you couldn’t get along without each other — ”

“But now we see we can, so it don’t matter,” Vance interrupted. His grandmother gave an incredulous laugh.

“Nonsense, child — how can you tell, when you haven’t been married? All the rest’s child-play, jokes; the only test is getting married. It’s the daily wear and tear, and the knowing-it’s-got-to-be-made~to-do, that keeps people together; not making eyes at each other by the moonlight. And when there’s a child to be worried over, and looked after, and sat up nights with, and money put by for it — oh, then. . .” Mrs. Scrimser leaned back with closed eyes and a reminiscent smile. “I’d almost say it’s the worries that make married folks sacred to each other — and what do you two know of all that?”

Vance’s eyes filled. He had a vision of the day when Laura Lou’s mother had entreated him to set her daughter free, when release had shone before him like a sunrise, and he had turned from it — why? Perhaps because, as Mrs. Scrimser said, worries made married folks sacred to each other. He hadn’t known then — he didn’t now. He merely felt that, in Laura Lou’s case, the irritating friction of familiarity had made separation unthinkable, while in regard to himself and Halo, their perpetual mutual insistence on not being a burden to each other, on scrupulously respecting each other’s freedom, had somehow worn the tie thin instead of strengthening it. This was certainly the case as far as he was concerned, and Halo appeared to share his view. Splendid and generous as she had been when he had come to her with his unhappy confession, their last weeks at Oubli seemed to have made it as clear to her as to him that their experiment had reached its term. It was she who had insisted on his going to America to see his family and his publishers; she who had expressly stipulated that they should separate as old friends, but without any project of reunion. But it was useless to try to explain this to his grandmother, whose experience had been drawn from conditions so much more primitive that Halo’s fine shades of sentiment would have been unintelligible to her.

Suddenly Mrs. Scrimser laid her hand on his. “Honour bright, Van — is it another woman?”

He flushed under her gaze. “It’s a whole complex of things — it’s me as the Lord made me, I suppose: a bunch of ill-assorted odds and ends. I couldn’t make any woman happy — so what’s the use of worrying about it?”

Mrs. Scrimser put her old withered hands on his shoulders and pushed him back far enough to scrutinize his face. “You young fool, you — as if being happy was the whole story! It’s only the preface: any woman worth her salt’ll tell you that.”

He bent over and kissed her. “The trouble is, Gran, I’m not worth any woman’s salt.”

She shook her head impatiently. “Don’t you go running yourself down, either. It’s the quickest shortcut to losing your self~respect. And all your fine writing won’t help you if you haven’t got that.” She stretched out her hand for her spectacles, and took up the last number of “Zion’s Spotlight”. “I guess there’ll be an article about you in here next week. They’re sure to send somebody over to hear your talk at the Auditorium,” she called after him proudly as he left the room.

Vance walked slowly down Mapledale Avenue, and through the centre of the town to the Elkington House. The aspect of Euphoria had changed almost as much as his father’s boasts has led him to expect. The fabulous development of the Shunts motor industry, and the consequent growth of the manufacturing suburb at Crampton, had revived real estate speculation, and the creation of the new Country Club on the heights across the river was rapidly turning the surrounding district into a millionaire suburb. The fashionable, headed by the Shuntses, were already selling their Mapledale Avenue houses to buy land on the heights; and a corresponding spread of luxury showed itself in the development of the shopping district, the erection of the new Auditorium Theatre, and the cosmopolitan look of cinemas, garages, and florists’ and jewellers’ windows. Even the mouldy old Elkington House had responded by turning part of its ground floor into a plate-glass~fronted lobby with theatre agency, tobacconist and newspaper stall. Vance paused to study the renovated façade of the hotel; then he walked up the steps and passed through the revolving doors. On the threshold a sudden recoil checked him. Memory had evoked the night when, hurriedly summoned from the office of the “Free Speaker”, he had found Grandpa Scrimser collapsed under the glaring electrolier of the old bar, his legs dangling like a marionette’s, his conquering curls flat on his damp forehead. Vance heard the rattle of the ambulance down the street, and saw the men carrying Grandpa’s limp body across the lobby to the door — and it was hateful to him that, at this moment, the scene should return with such cruel precision. It was as if, all those years, Grandpa had kept that shaft up his ghostly sleeve.

Vance turned to the reception clerk. “Miss Delaney?” he asked, his voice sounding thick in his throat.

The clerk took the proper time to consider. He was showy but callow, and a newcomer since Vance’s last visit to Euphoria. “I guess you’re Mr. Weston, the novelist?” he queried, his excitement overcoming his professional dignity. “Why, yes, Miss Delaney said she was expecting you. Will you step right into the reception room? You won’t be disturbed there. But perhaps first you’ll do me a great favour —? Fact is, I’m a member of the Mapledale Avenue Autograph Club, and your signature in this little book. . .”

Vance’s hand shook so that he could hardly form the letters of his name. He followed the grateful clerk, who insisted on conducting him in person to a heavily-gilded reception room with three layers of window curtains and a sultry smell of hot radiators. “Why, this is where the old bar was!” Vance exclaimed involuntarily. The reception clerk raised his eyebrows in surprise. “That must have been a good while ago,” he said disdainfully, as if the new Elkington did not care to be reminded of the old; and Vance echoed: “Yes — a good while.”

He stood absently contemplating the richly-bound volumes of hotel and railway advertisements on the alabaster centre-table, the blood so loud in his ears that he did not hear a step behind him. “Why, Van!” Floss Delaney’s voice sounded, and he turned with a start. “Is it really you?” he stammered, looking at her like a man in a trance.

“Of course it’s me. Do I look like somebody else?”

“No . . . I only meant . . . I didn’t ever expect to see you again.” He paused, and she stood listening with her faint smile while his eyes felt their way slowly over her face.

“But didn’t you get my note?” she asked.

“Yes. I got it. I only landed last week. I meant to stay in New York and see about my new book — the one that’s just out. And then I saw in the New York papers that you were out here; and so I came.”

She took this halting avowal as if it were her due, but remained silent, not averted or inattentive but simply waiting, as her way was, to see what he would say next. He paused too, finding no words to utter what was struggling in him. “The paper I saw said you’d come out on business.”

Her face took on the eager look it had worn at Brambles when Alders had called her to the telephone. “Yes, I have. There’s a big deal going on in that new Country Club district; I guess you’ve heard about it from your father. I got wind of it last summer — just after that time you were down in the country with me, it must have been — and I cabled right home, and bought up all the land I could. And now I’ve had two or three big offers, and I thought I’d better come and look over the ground myself. I’ve got the Shunts interests against me; they’re trying to buy all the land that’s left, and I stand to make a good thing out of it if I keep my nerve,” she ended, a lovely smile animating her tranquil lips.

Vance looked at her perplexedly. When he had lit on that paragraph the day after landing, the idea of seeing her again swept away every other consideration, and he had thrown over his New York engagements and hurried out to Euphoria lest he should get there too late to find her. But on his arrival a note reassured him; she had gone to Dakin for two or three days with her lawyer, on some real-estate business, but would soon be back at the Elkington, where she asked him to call. And there she stood in her calm beauty, actually smiling about that day at Brambles, as if to her it were a mere happy midsummer memory, and she assumed it to be no more to him! Probably the assumption was genuine; she had forgotten the end of that day, forgotten his desperate attempts to see her and plead with her in London — as she had no doubt forgotten the remoter and crueller memories roused by seeing her again at Euphoria. It was perhaps the contrast between her statue-like calm and his own inward turmoil that drew him back to her. There was something exasperating and yet mysteriously stimulating in the thought that she recalled the day when she had deserted him at Brambles only because it was that on which she had first heard of a promising real-estate deal.

“Do you know what this room is?” he exclaimed with sudden bitterness. “It’s the old bar of the hotel.”

She lifted her delicately curved eyebrows. “Oh, is it —? What of it?” her look seemed to add.

“Yes; and the last time I was here it was in the middle of the night, when they rang me up at the ‘Free Speaker’ to say that my grandfather’d had a stroke. There’s where the sofa stood where I saw him lying.” He pointed to a divan of stamped velvet under an ornate wall-clock.

Her glance followed his. “I don’t believe it’s the same sofa — they seem to have done the whole place up,” she said indifferently; and Vance saw from her cloudy brow that she was annoyed with him for bringing up such memories. “I hate to hear about people dying,” she confessed with a slight laugh; “let’s talk about you, shall we?” But he knew it was herself and her own affairs that she wanted to discourse upon; and merely to hear her voice again, and watch the faint curve of her lips as she spoke, was so necessary to him that he stammered: “No — tell me first what you’ve been doing. That’s what I want to know.”

She gave a little murmur of pleasure and dropped down on the divan under the clock. Probably she had already forgotten that it was there that Vance had seen his grandfather lying, as she had also forgotten, long since, that for her anything painful was associated with the old man’s name. A soft glow of excitement suffused her. “Well, I have got heaps to tell you — oceans! Why do you stand off there? Here; come and sit by me . . . So much seems to have happened lately, don’t it? So you’ve got a new book coming out?” She made way for him on the divan, and shrinking a little at his own thoughts he sat down at her side, her arm brushing his. “And if I can get ahead of the Shuntses, and pull this off . . . See here, Van,” she interrupted herself, with a glance at the jewelled dial at her wrist, “I’m afraid I can’t let you stay much longer now; young Honoré Shunts, the son of the one who’s trying to buy up the heights, has asked me to run out with him to the Country Club presently, and of course it’s very important for me to be on good terms with that crowd just now. You see that, don’t you?”

The dizzy drop of his disappointment left Vance silent. “Now, at once? You’re sacking me already?”

“Only for a little while, dear. Everything depends on this deal. If I can get young Shunts so I can do what I want with him. . .” She smiled down mystically on her folded hands.

“Get him to think you’re going to marry him, you mean? I thought you were engaged to Spartivento when I saw you in London?”

She gathered her brows in the effort to explore those remote recesses of the past. “Was I, darling? Being engaged don’t count much, anyhow — does it? What I’ve got to do first is to get this deal through. Then we’ll see. But I’m not going to think about marrying anybody till then.” She looked at her watch again. “There’s somebody coming round from the bank too, with some papers for me to sign . . . But couldn’t we dine together somewhere, darling? Isn’t there some place where there’s a cabaret, and we could have a good long talk afterward? I’m off to New York tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? And of course every minute’s filled up with business till then — ” he interrupted bitterly.

“Well, business is what I came for. Anyhow, why can’t we dine together tonight?”

“Because it’s just the one night I can’t. I’m engaged to give a lecture at the Auditorium, with readings from my book.” Black gloom filled him as he spoke; but her eyes brightened with interest. “You are? Why, Van, how splendid! Why didn’t you tell me so before? I’ve never been inside the Auditorium, have you? They say it seats two thousand people. Do you think you’ll be able to fill it? But of course you will! Look at the way the smart set rushed after you in London. And they told me over there that this new book was going to be a bigger seller than anything you’ve done yet. Oh, Van, don’t it feel GREAT to come back here and have everybody crowding round because you’re so famous? Do you suppose there’s a seat left — do you think you can get one for me, darling? Let’s go out and ask the ticket-agent right off — ” She was on her feet, alive and radiant as when they had driven up to Brambles and she had sprung out to plunge her arms into the lily-pool.

“Oh, I can get you a ticket all right. I’ll get you a box if you like. But you hate readings — why on earth should you want to come? Besides, what does all that matter? If you’re going away tomorrow, how can I see you again — and when?”

He remembered her talent for eluding her engagements, and was fiercely resolved to hold her fast to this one. He had something to say to her — something that he now felt must be said at any cost, and without delay. After that — . “You must tell me now, before I go, how I can see you,” he insisted.

She drooped her lids a little, and smiled up under them. “Why, I guess we can manage somehow. Can’t you bring me back after the reading? That would be lovely . . . I’ll wait for you in the lobby at the Auditorium. I’ve got my own sitting-room here, and I think I can fix it up with the reception clerk to have some supper sent up. He was fearfully excited when I told him who you were.” She looked at him gaily, putting her hands on his shoulders. “I guess I owe you that after Brambles — don’t I, Van?”

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