The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XXXVI

When he got back to the house, his brain reeling with joy, Mae pounced out at him with a large silver-gray envelope crested with gold.

“There! You say you won’t fill the Auditorium! And I told you myself that Mrs. Dayton Alsop was dead against you on account of — well, the things we talked about the other night. And here’s what it is to be a celebrity! She’s invited you to a supper-party after the reading — she’s invited us all. Mother says she won’t go; she’s got no clothes, to begin with. And I guess father won’t, if she don’t. But I’ve got my black lace with paillettes. You won’t be ashamed to be seen with me in that, will you, Van? I never thought I’d see the inside of the Alsop house — did you?” Her sallow worried face was rejuvenated by excitement and coquetry.

Vance stood gloomily examining the envelope. “Supper — tonight?” He thrust the invitation back into her hand. “Sorry — I can’t go. I’ve got another engagement. You’ll have to coax father to take you.”

Mae grew haggard again. “Vance! Another engagement — tonight? You can’t have! Why, the supper’s given for you; don’t you understand? Mrs. Dayton Alsop — ”

“Oh, damn Mrs. Dayton Alsop!”

His sister’s eyes filled. “I think you’re crazy, perfectly crazy . . . the supper’s GIVEN FOR YOU,” she repeated plaintively.

“I’ve told you I’m sorry. I was never told anything about this supper . . . I’ve got another engagement.”

Mae looked at him with searching insistence. “You can’t have an engagement with anybody that matters as much as Mrs. Dayton Alsop. Everybody’ll say — ”

He burst into an irritated laugh. “Let ’em say what they like! My engagement happens to matter to me more than a thousand Mrs. Alsops.”

“You say that just to show how you despise us all!” his sister reproached him.

“Put it on any ground you please. The plain fact is that an engagement’s an engagement. Write and tell her so, will you? Tell her I’m awfully sorry, but her invitation came too late.”

“But she explains that in her letter. She got the party up at the last minute because she wasn’t sure if she could get the right band. She wanted to make sure of the Dakin Blackbirds. She always wants the best of everything at her parties . . . You’ll have to write to her yourself, Vance.”

“Oh, very well.” He flung away and went up to his room. He knew that to refuse this invitation would be not only a discourtesy to Euphoria’s ruling hostess but a bitter blow to the family pride. How could he account to them for his mysterious midnight engagement? An evasion which would have passed unnoticed in a big city would be set all Euphoria buzzing. Everybody in the place would know that no other party was being given that evening; it would be assumed at once that he was going off on a drinking bout with some low associates, and the slight to his hostess and his family would be all the greater. But at that moment he could not conceive of any inducement or obligation that could have kept him from meeting Floss after the reading, and going back to the hotel with her. It was not only his irresistible longing for her that impelled him. He wanted something decisive, final, to come out of this encounter. He had reached a point in his bewildered course when the need to take a definite step, to see his future shape itself before him in whatever sense, was almost as strong as his craving for her nearness. A phrase of his grandmother’s: “Nothing counts but marriage” returned unexpectedly to his mind, and he thought: “It ought to have been Halo — but that’s not to be. And anyhow I’m not fit for her.” With Floss Delaney it would be different. Certain obscure fibres in both their natures seemed inextricably entangled. There was a dumb subterranean power in her that corresponded with his own sense of the forces by which his inventive faculty was fed. He did not think this out clearly; he merely felt that something final, irrevocable, must come out of their meeting that night. He took up his pen, and began: “My dear Mrs. Alsop — ”

Three days later, in the New York train, Vance sat trying to piece together the fragments of his adventure. Everything about it was still so confused and out of focus that he could only put his recollections together in broken bits, brooding over each, and waiting for the missing ones to fit themselves in little by little, and make a picture.

The theatre: gigantic, opening before him light and glaring as the Mouth of Hell in a mediæval fresco he and Halo had seen in a church somewhere . . . Rows and rows of faces, all suddenly individual and familiar, centered on him in their intense avidity, as if his name were written in huge letters over each of them . . . Then, as he settled his papers on the little table in front of him — in the hush following the endless rounds of applause which pulled his head forward at rhythmic intervals, like an invisible wire jerking a marionette — the sudden stir in a stage box, Mrs. Alsop’s box (that heavy over-blown figure was hers, he supposed, and at her side, slim and amber-warm, Floss standing up, looking calmly about the house while her dusky furs slipped from her. . .)

Yes, it was God’s own luck, he saw it now, that before he could get that cursed letter to Mrs. Alsop written Floss had summoned him to the telephone (ah, Mae’s face as she brought the message!) to announce peremptorily that she couldn’t meet him in the lobby after the theatre because Mrs. Alsop had invited her to the party, and she was to go to the theatre in Mrs. Alsop’s box, and young Honoré Shunts was going with them . . . and oh, PLEASE, Vance wasn’t to make a fuss, and the party wouldn’t last all night, would it, and afterward what was to prevent —? And wouldn’t he be very very sweet, and give her just one look — the very last — before he began his lecture? . . . Well, no, the party wouldn’t last all night, he supposed. . .

And now he was speaking: “Ladies and gentlemen, if anybody had told me in the old days — ” God! What a flat beginning! He didn’t pretend to be a professional speaker . . . But at last the preliminaries were over, and he found himself in the middle of “Colossus.” First he read them the fragment about the buried torso in the desert — the episode which symbolized all that was to follow . . . How attentive they were, how hushed! As usual, the wings of his imagination lifted him above mortal contingencies, and his voice soared over the outspread silence. But gradually he began to be conscious of the dense nonconductive quality of that silence, of the fact that not a word he said traversed its impenetrable medium. The men were fidgeting in their seats like children in church; the women were openly consulting their pocket-mirrors. A programme dropped from the gallery, and every head was turned to see it fall. Vance could hear his voice flagging and groping as he hurried on from fragment to fragment . . . Which was it now? Ah: the descent to the Mothers, the crux, the centre of the book. He had put the whole of himself into that scene — and his self had come out of Euphoria, been conceived and fashioned there, made of the summer heat on endless wheat-fields, the frozen winter skies, the bell of the Roman Catholic church ringing through the stillness, on nights when he couldn’t sleep, after the last trolley-rattle had died out; the plants budding along the ditches on the way to Crampton, the fiery shade of the elm-grove down by the river . . . he had been made out of all this, had come out of all this, and there, in rows before him, sat his native protoplasm, and wriggled in its seats, and twitched at its collar-buttons, and didn’t understand him . . . And at last it was over, and the theatre rang and rang with the grateful applause of the released. . .

And at Mrs. Alsop’s, with champagne sparkling and the right band banging, and flowers and pretty women and white shirt-fronts, how quickly the boredom was forgotten, the flagging ardour rekindled, how proud they all were of their home-made genius, how they admired him and were going to swagger about him — how the President of the College hinted playfully at an Honorary Degree, and the pretty women palpitated, and the members of the Culture Club joked about the bewilderment of the Philistines: “You’ve given them something to take home and think about this time!” And after that everything melted again into a golden blur of heat and wine and crowding, out of which Floss Delaney detached herself, firm and vivid, and while Mrs. Alsop’s guests scattered in a sudden snow-fall, and the Dakin Blackbirds scuttled away with raised coat-collars under the leafless elms, Vance had found himself in a motor at her side, twisting down the new road from the heights, crossing the bridge, gliding through the snow-white streets to the hotel, and descending there at a mysterious side-door. (“I gave the reception clerk my ticket for the lecture — and here’s his private key,” she said with a little laugh.)

He had meant to stay at Euphoria for a week or two longer. He knew the bitter disappointment that his hurried departure was causing his family, and especially his grandmother and Mae, one of whom had dreamed of further ovations for the genius, the other of opportunities to be invited to the new houses on the heights. But he could not put off seeing Floss again, could not leave the tormenting ecstasy of their last hours together without a sequel. Everything drew him on to a dark future shot with wild lightnings of hope.

Floss had not realized till then what a public figure he was. The way people had crowded around him at Mrs. Alsop’s seemed to have struck her even more than his popularity in London. She admitted it herself. “It does feel funny, don’t it, Van — you and I being in the spotlight out here at Euphoria? In Europe it’s different — don’t you suppose I know that not one of the big people over there care a hoot where we come from as long as we amuse them? If we’d served a term they wouldn’t care . . . But out here in Euphoria, where they know us inside out, and yet have got to kotow to us, and get up parties for us, and everybody fighting to be introduced, and people who’ve only been here since the boom pretending they played with us when we were children . . . Yes, I guess that ‘dough~face’, as you call him, who was following me round everywhere, WAS young Shunts. Looks as if I’d got him running, don’t it? But he’s not half as crazy about me as the President of the College — did you notice? Oh, Van, I’d love to make them all feel that way in New York, wouldn’t you? And I guess it would be a lot easier than at Euphoria.”

Yes; New York was what she wanted now. And she was sure of it if only she could pull off her deal, and force the Shuntses to buy her out at a big figure. If she could get round that young Shunts, who knew what might happen? At daylight, when they parted, she made Vance promise with her last kiss to come to New York as soon as he could. She said she didn’t dare try her luck there without an old friend to back her up; and in a flash of joy and irony he understood that she was already calculating on the social value of his young celebrity, on the fact that he could probably “place” her in New York, get her more quickly into the inaccessible houses that were the only ones she cared about. “You will, darling, darling?” . . . And now he was on his way to keep his promise.

He remembered thinking, before the reading, that when he met Floss again that night, something final, irrevocable, must come of it. He meant to make her understand that this was no mere lovers’ tryst without a morrow, but a turning-point in his life, a meeting on which his whole future depended. It was as if he could justify his break with Halo only by creating for himself a new tie, more binding, more unescapable. He would have felt ashamed to admit that anything but the need to stabilize his life, to be in harmony again with himself and his work, could have forced him to such a step. Halo had seen that, he was sure; she had understood it. If he was to follow his calling he must be protected from the sterile agitation of these last years. Marriage and a home; normal conditions; that was what he craved and needed. And Floss Delaney seemed to personify the strong emotional stimulant on which his intellectual life must feed. Intellectual comradeship between lovers was unattainable; that was not the service women could render to men. But the old mysterious bond of blood which seemed to exist between certain human beings, which youth sought for blindly, and maturity continued restlessly to crave — that must be the secret soil in which alone the artist’s faculty could ripen. He saw it all now, looked on it with the wide-open eyes of passion and disillusionment. A few years ago he would have plunged into the adventure blindly, craving only the repetition of its dark raptures. But now it seemed to him that while his senses flamed his intelligence remained cool. He knew that Floss would always be what she was — he could no more influence or shape her than he could bend or shape a marble statue. But he needed her, and perhaps she needed him, though for reasons so different; and out of that double need there might come a union so deep-rooted and instinctive that neither, having once known it, could do without it. Perhaps that was what his grandmother had in mind when she said marriage made people sacred to each other. If, after a life-time with Grandpa Scrimser, she could still believe in the sanctifying influence of wedlock, then the real unbreakable tie between bodies and soul must have its origin in depths of which the average man and woman were hardly conscious, but which the poet groped for and fed on with all his hungry tentacles.

All this he had meant to make Floss understand — not in the poet’s speech, which would mean nothing to her, but in the plain words of his passion. He must make her see that they belonged to each other, that they were necessary to each other, that their future meetings could not be left to depend on chance or whim. He meant to plead with her, reason with her, dominate her with the full strength of his will . . . And all that had come of it was that, as her arms slipped from his shoulders, and her last kiss from his lips, he had promised to follow her to New York.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/gods_arrive/chapter36.html

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