The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XXXVII

During the two months since Vance’s return to New York “Colossus” had taken the high seas of publicity, and was now off full sail on its adventurous voyage. Where would the great craft land? It had been reviewed from one end of the continent to the other, and from across the seas other reviews were pouring in. The first notices, as usual in such cases, were made largely out of left-over impressions of “The Puritan in Spain”; but a few, in the literary supplements of the big papers, and in the high-brow reviews, were serious though somewhat bewildered attempts to analyze the new book and relate it to the author’s previous work, and in two or three of these articles Vance caught a hint of the doubt which had so wounded him on Halo’s lips. Was this novel, the critics asked — in spite of the many striking and admirable qualities they recognized in it — really as original, as personal as, in their smaller way, its two predecessors had been? “Instead” and “The Puritan in Spain”, those delicate studies of a vanished society, had an individual note that the more ambitious “Colossus” lacked . . . And the author’s two striking short stories — “One Day” and “Unclaimed” — showed that his touch could be vigorous as well as tender, that his rendering of the present was as acute and realistic as his evocations of the past were suffused with poetry . . . Of this rare combination of qualities what use had he made in “Colossus”? On this query the critics hung their reserves and their regrets. The author’s notable beginnings had led them to hope that at last a born novelist had arisen among the self-conscious little essayists who were trying to substitute the cold processes of the laboratory for the lightning art of creation. (The turn of this made Vance wonder if Frenside had not come back to fiction reviewing.)

It was a pity, they said, that so original a writer had been influenced by the fashion of the hour (had he then, he wondered, flushing?) at the very moment when the public, not only the big uncritical public but the acute and cultivated minority, were rebelling against these laborious substitutes for the art of fiction, and turning with recovered appetite to the exquisite freshness and spontaneity of such books as David Dorr’s “Heavenly Archer”, the undoubted triumph of the year. (David Dorr? A new name to Vance. He sent out instantly for “Heavenly Archer”, rushed through it, and flung it from him with a groan.)

Some books fail slowly, imperceptibly, as though an insidious disease had undermined them; others plunge from the heights with a crash, and thus it was with “Colossus “. Halo had been right — slowly he was beginning to see it. “Colossus” was not his own book, brain of his brain, flesh of his flesh, as it had seemed while he was at work on it, but a kind of hybrid monster made out of the crossing of his own imaginings with those imposed on him by the literary fashions and influences of the day. He could have borne the bitterness of this discovery, borne the adverse criticisms and the uncomfortable evidence of sales steadily diminishing, as the book, instead of gathering momentum, flagged and wallowed in the general incomprehension. All that would have meant nothing but for two facts; first that in his secret self he had to admit the justice of the more enlightened strictures, to recognize that his masterpiece, in the making, had turned into a heavy lifeless production, had literally died on his hands; and secondly that its failure must inevitably affect his relations with Floss Delaney. He had always known that she would measure his achievement only by the material and social advantages it brought her, and that she wanted only the successful about her. And he was discovering how soon the green mould of failure spreads over the bright surface of popularity, how eagerly the public turns from an idol to which it has to look up to one exactly on its level. (”‘Heavenly Archer’ — oh, God!” he groaned, and kicked the pitiful thing across the floor.)

Had he gone back to his old New York world — to Rebecca Stram’s studio and the cheap restaurants where the young and rebellious gathered — he might have had a different idea of the impression produced by his book. These young men, though they had enjoyed his early ardours and curiosities, had received his first novels with a shrug; but “Colossus” appealed to them by its very defects. Like most artistic coteries they preferred a poor work executed according to their own formula to a good one achieved without it; and they would probably have championed Vance and his book against the world if he had shown himself among them. But there was no hope of meeting Floss Delaney at Rebecca Stram’s or the Cocoanut Tree, and Vance cared only to be where she was, and among the people she frequented. His return to the New York he had known when he was on “The Hour” was less of a personal triumph than he had hoped. In certain houses where he knew that Floss particularly wanted to be invited he was less known as the brilliant author of “The Puritan in Spain” than as the obscure young man with whom Halo Tarrant had run away, to the scandal of her set; and in groups of more recent growth, where scandals counted little, celebrity was a shifting attribute, and his sceptre had already passed to David Dorr.

David Dorr was a charming young man with smooth fair hair and gentle manners. He told Vance with becoming modesty what an inspiration the latter’s lovely story “Instead” had been to him, and asked if he mightn’t say that he hoped Vance would some day return to that earlier vein; and none of the strictures on “Colossus” made Vance half as miserable as this condescending tribute. “If any of my books are the kind of stuff that fellow admires — ” he groaned inwardly, while he watched Dorr surrounded by enraptured ladies, and imagined him saying in his offensively gentle voice: “Oh, but you know you’re not fair to Weston — really not. That first book of his — what was it called? — really did have something in it. . .”

But there were moments when the mere fact of being in the same room with Floss, of watching her enjoyment and the admiration she excited, was enough to satisfy him. Mrs. Glaisher had reappeared in New York as a Russian Grand Duchess, with Spartivento and the assiduous Alders in her train, and Floss, under the grandducal wing, was beginning to climb the glittering heights of the New York world, though certain old-fashioned doors were still closed to her. “I told you it’d be harder to get on here than in London. They always begin by wanting to know who you are,” she complained one day to Vance. “I guess I’m as good as any of them; but the only way to make them believe it is to have something, or to be somebody, that they’ve got a use for. And I mean to pull that off too; but it takes time.” She had these flashes of dry philosophy, which reminded Vance of her father’s definition of her character. Mr. Delaney was not in New York with his daughter. He had been prudently shipped off to Virginia to negotiate for the re-purchase of one of the Delaney farms. “It’ll keep him busy,” Floss explained — “and out of the way,” her tone implied, though she did not say it. But she added reflectively: “I’ve told him I’ll buy the place for him if he can get it for a reasonable price. He’ll want somewhere to go when I’m married.”

Vance forced a laugh. “When are we going to be married?” he wanted to ask; but he had just enough sense left to know that the moment for putting that question had not come. “Have you decided on the man?” he asked, his heart giving a thump.

She frowned, and shook her head. “Business first. Do you suppose I’m going to risk having to hang round some day and whine for alimony? Not me. I’ve told you already I’ll never marry till I’m independent of everybody. Then I’ll begin to think about it.” She looked at him meditatively. “I wish your new novel wasn’t so dreadfully long,” she began. “I’ve tried to read it but I can’t. The Grand Duchess told me people thought it was such a pity you hadn’t done something more like your first books — why didn’t you? As long as you’d found out what people wanted, what was the use of switching off on something different? You needn’t think it’s only because I’m not literary . . . Gratz Blemer said the other night he couldn’t think what had struck you. He says you could have been a best-seller as easy as not if you’d only kept on doing things like ‘The Puritan in Spain’. He doesn’t think that Dorr boy’s book is in it with your earlier things.”

“Oh, doesn’t he? That’s something to be thankful for,” Vance retorted mockingly.

The renewal of his acquaintance with Gratz Blemer had also been a disappointment. Vance had always respected Blemer’s robust and patient realism, and his gift of animating and differentiating the characters of his densely populated works; Vance recalled the shock he had received when he had first met the novelist at the Tarrants’, and heard him speak of his books as if they were mere business enterprises. Now, Vance thought, his greater literary experience might enable him to learn more from the older man, and to make allowances for his frank materialism. No one could do work of that quality without some secret standard of excellence; perhaps Blemer was so sick of undiscriminating gush that he talked as he did to protect himself from silly women and sillier disciples, and it would be interesting to break through his banter and get a glimpse of his real convictions.

Vance had seen Blemer one night at the Opera, at the back of his wife’s box, and had been struck by the change in his appearance. He had always been thick-set, but now he was fat and almost flabby; he hated music (Vance remembered), and sat with his head against the wall of the box, his eyes closed, his heavy mouth half open. They met a few nights afterward in a house where the host was old~fashioned enough to take the men into a smoking-room after dinner; and here Blemer, of his own accord, came and sat down by Vance. “Well,” he said heavily, “so you’ve got a book out.”

Vance reddened. “I’m afraid it’s no good,” he began nervously.

“Why — isn’t it selling?” Blemer asked. Without waiting for an answer he continued in a querulous tone: “I wish to God I’d brought my own cigars. I ought to have remembered the kind of thing they give you in this house.” He waved a fat contemptuous hand toward the gold-belted rows in their shining inlaid cabinet. “The main thing is to get square with the reviewers first,” he continued wearily. “And generally by the time a fellow’s enough authority to do that, he doesn’t give a damn what they say.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever cared,” Vance flashed out.

Blemer drew his thick lids together. “You don’t think they affect sales, one way or the other? Well, that’s one view — ”

“I didn’t mean that. I only care for what I myself think of my work.” As he spoke, Vance believed this to be true. But Blemer’s attention had already wandered back to himself. “I wish I could get away somewhere. I hate this New York business — dinners and dinners — a season that lasts five months! I’d like to go up the Nile — clear away to Abyssinia. Or winter sports — ever tried ’em? Of course the Engadine’s the only place . . . Write better there?” he interrupted himself, replying to a question of Vance’s. He gave a little grumbling laugh. “Why, I can’t write anywhere any more. Not a page or a line. That’s the trouble with me.” He laughed again. “Not that it matters much, as far as the shekels go. I guess my old age is provided for . . . Only — God, the days are long! Well, I suppose they’re waiting for us to begin bridge.” He got up with a nod to Vance. “I wish I was young enough to read your book — but I hear it’s eight hundred pages,” he said as he lumbered back to the drawing-room.

As the weeks passed Vance became aware that he was no nearer the object for which he had come to New York. He continued to meet Floss Delaney frequently, and in public she seemed as glad as ever to see him. But on the rare occasions when he contrived to be alone with her she was often absent-minded, and sometimes impatient of his attempts at tenderness. After all, she explained, he was the only old friend she had in New York, and it did seem hard if she couldn’t be natural with him, and not bother about how she looked or what she said. This gave him a momentary sense of advantage, and made him try to be calm and reasonable; but he knew he was only one in the throng of young men about her, and not even among the most favoured. At first she had made great play of the fact that he and she came from the same place, and had romped together as children (a vision of their early intimacy that he was himself beginning to believe); but she presumably found this boast less effective than she had hoped, for though she continued to treat him with sisterly freedom he saw that she was on the verge of being bored by his importunities, and in his dread of a rebuff he joined in her laugh against himself.

For a time she talked incessantly about the Euphoria deal, and boasted of her determination to outwit the Shuntses and make them buy her out at her own price. Though Vance had grown up in an atmosphere of real-estate deals the terminology of business was always confusing to him, but he saw that she was trying to gain her end by captivating young Shunts; they were even reported to be engaged, though the fact was kept secret owing to the opposition of the young man’s family. But Vance bore with this too, knowing that, even if the rumour were true, she was not likely to regard a secret engagement as binding, and trying to believe that in the long run he was sure to cut out so poor a creature as young Shunts. Of late she had ceased to speak about Euphoria, and had even (judging from the youth’s lovelorn countenance) lost interest in Shunts; and this strengthened Vance’s hope. She had said she would never marry till she had secured her independence; but once that was done, why should she not marry him sooner than one of the other men who were hanging about her?

He had always instinctively avoided the street in which the Tarrants used to live. He did not know if Tarrant still occupied the same flat, or even if he were in New York. He seemed to have vanished from the worldly circles which Vance frequented, and the latter had not even heard his name mentioned. “The Hour”, he knew, had changed hands, and under a more efficient management had kept just a touch of “highbrow”, skilfully combined with a popular appeal to cinema and sartorial interests. All this part of Vance’s life had fallen in ruins, and he wished he had not been so haunted by the fear of stumbling upon them; but his visual associations were so acute that he had to go out of his way to avoid the sight of that tall façade with the swinging glass doors and panelled stone vestibule that used to be the way to bliss. One night, however, returning from a dinner where Floss had promised to meet him, and had failed to come, he was driven along on such a tide of resentment and bitterness that, without knowing where he was, he turned a corner and found himself before the Tarrant door. He was on the farther side of the street, and looking up he saw a light in the high window of the library. It gave him a sharp twist, and he was standing motionless, without strength to turn away, when the doors swung open and George Frenside’s short clumsy figure issued from between the plate-glass valves. Frenside paused, as if looking for a taxi; then he crossed to Vance’s side of the street, and the two men suddenly faced each other under a lamp. Vance noticed Frenside’s start of surprise, and the backward jerk of his lame body; but a moment later he held out his hand. “Ah, Weston — I heard you were in New York.”

Vance looked at him hesitatingly. “I’m going home soon — to my own home, at Euphoria,” he explained. “I’ve got to be alone and write,” he added, without knowing why.

He saw the ironic lift of Frenside’s shaggy brows. “Already? You’ve brought out a magnum opus just lately, haven’t you?”

“Yes. But it’s not what I wanted it to be.”

“No,” said Frenside bluntly. “I didn’t suppose it was.”

“So he’s read it!” Vance thought, with a sudden flush of excitement; but Frenside’s tone did not encourage further discussion. Both men stood silent, as if oppressed by each other’s presence; but just as Frenside was turning away with a gesture of farewell, Vance brought out precipitately: “I suppose you see Halo’s people. Can you tell me how she is?”

Frenside’s face seemed to grow harsher and more guarded. “Quite well, I believe.”

“She . . . I haven’t heard lately . . . She’s not here . . . is she?”

“In New York? Not that I’m aware of.” Frenside hesitated and then said hurriedly: “If there’s any message — ”

Vance felt the blood rush to his forehead and then ebb. His heart shook against his breast. “Thank you . . . yes . . . I’ll ask you. . .”

The two men nodded to each other and separated.

Vance walked away with his thoughts in a turmoil. The meeting with Frenside had stirred up deep layers of sleeping associations. It was only three months since he had said goodbye to Halo in Paris, but the violent emotional life he had plunged into after their parting made those days seem infinitely distant. Gradually, almost unconsciously, his memories of Halo had taken on the mournful serenity of death; they lay in the depths of his consciousness, with closed lips and folded hands, as though to say that they would never trouble him again. But his few words with Frenside, and the mere speaking of Halo’s name to some one who had perhaps been with her or heard from her lately, disturbed the calm of these memories, and brought Halo back to him as a living suffering creature. Yes — suffering, he knew; and by his fault. For months he had been trying to shut his eyes and ears to that fact, as sometimes, in camp as a boy, when he heard a trapped animal crying at night far off in the woods, he would bury his head under the blankets and try to think the wail had ceased because he had closed his ears against it . . . Ah, well, no use going back to all that now. It was over and done, and he must hide his head again, and try to make himself believe the sound had ceased because he did not want to hear it. . .

Why had Floss not come to the dinner? His hostess, visibly annoyed, said she had called up at the last moment, excusing herself on the plea of a cold; but Vance suspected her of having found something more amusing to do — where, and with whom? The serpent-doubts reared their heads again, hissing in his ears; even if he had tried to listen for that other faint cry they would have drowned it. A cold? He didn’t believe it for a minute . . . But it would be a pretext for calling at her hotel to ask. The hour was not late, and he would go straight to her sitting-room, without sending his name up first. Very likely she would not be there; almost certainly not. But he would leave a note for her and then go away . . . It seemed to him that even if she were out (as he was certain she would be) it would quiet him to sit in her room for a little while, among the things that belonged to her and had her scent.

The lift shot him up, and in answer to his knock he was surprised to hear her voice call out: “Come in.” She lay curled up on a lounge, in a soft velvet wrapper, her hair tossed back, her feet, in gossamer stockings and heelless sandals, peeping out under a Spanish shawl. The room looked untidy yet unlived in: her fur cloak, a withered cluster of orchids pinned to it, had been flung across the piano beside an unwatered and half-dead azalea from which the donor’s card still dangled; and on a gilt table stood an open box of biscuits, some dried-up sandwiches and an empty cup. Perhaps it was the fact that he had been thinking of Halo that made the scene seem so squalid in its luxury. Floss had none of Halo Tarrant’s gift for making a room seem a part of herself — unless indeed this cold disorder did reflect something akin to itself in her own character.

She smiled up at Vance through rings of smoke; but she seemed too lost in her musings to be either surprised, or otherwise affected, by his appearance. “Hullo, Van,” she greeted him in a happy purr.

“All that smoke’s not the best thing for your throat, is it?” he said, bending over her; and she answered: “Throat? What’s the matter with my throat?”

“Mrs. Stratton said you’d telephoned you couldn’t dine with her because you had a cold — ”

“Oh, to be sure — it was the Stratton dinner tonight.” She gave a little laugh. “How was it? Who was there? Did I miss anything?”

“What were you doing instead?” he retorted; and she pointed toward an armchair at her elbow. “Oh, boy — sit down and I’ll tell you.” She tossed away her cigarette, and crossing her arms behind her, sank her head into the nest they made, and lay brooding, a faint tremor on lips and eyelids. Vance looked at her as if he were looking for the first time; there was a veiled radiance in her face which he had seen in it only once or twice, in moments of passionate surrender. “Van,” she said slowly, as though the words were so sweet that she could hardly part with them, “Van, I’ve pulled it off. The cheque’s locked up in my bank. The Shuntses have bought me out at my own price — I knew they would. I didn’t knock off a single dollar.” She laughed again and waited, as if for the approval which was her due.

Vance stood looking at her, his heart in a tumult. If she were free, if she were independent, as she called it, perhaps his moment had come! He moved forward to snatch her to him, to entreat, reason, smother her replies against his heart — but something checked him, warned him it was not yet the moment. She wanted to go on talking about herself and her triumph, and if he thwarted her with his clumsy declaration his last chance might be lost.

He dropped back into the armchair. “Tell me all about it.”

The smile lingered softly on her lips. “Oh, darling, what a fight it’s been! I’m half dead with it. That poor boy’s only just left. I did feel sorry for him — I couldn’t help it.”

“What poor boy?” Van echoed, his tongue feeling dry in his throat. But he knew the answer before she made it.

“Why, Honoré Shunts, of course. That’s why I had to throw over the Stratton dinner. I had to go out and dine with him — and then he came back here. He wouldn’t listen to reason; but he had to. I never saw anybody cry so. I told him I couldn’t stand it — it was unmanly of him, don’t you think it was? And I couldn’t keep his letters, could I, when the family were so set on getting them away from me? I thought I’d never make him understand . . . But now I guess I can take a holiday.” She sank more deeply into her cushions, her lids drooping, her lips slightly parted, as though with the first breathings of sleep. “I’m dead tired, dead. . .”

Vance sat with his eyes fixed on her. Every word she spoke burned itself slowly into his consciousness. He wanted to cry out, to question her — to fling his indignation and horror into her face. It was all as clear as day. She had held the socially ambitious Shuntses through the boy’s letters; she had forced them to buy up her land at her own price through their dread lest the heir to their millions should marry her. By this simple expedient she had attained fortune and liberty at a stroke — there had been nothing difficult about it but the boy’s crying. She had thought that unmanly; an obvious warning to Vance not to repeat the same mistake. Floss always liked the people about her to be cheerful; he knew that. And after all perhaps she was right. Was a poor half-wit like young Shunts worth wasting a pang over? Yes; but the boy had cried — that was the worst of it. Vance seemed to feel those tears in his own throat; it was so thick with them that he could hardly bring out his next question. “Didn’t you hate the job — seeing that poor devil all broken up, I mean?”

“Of course I hated it. I’ve told you I did. It was horrid of him, not being willing to see how I was placed. But he’s just a spoilt baby, and I told him so.”

“Ah — you told him so.” He stood looking down on her, remarking for the first time that her cheek-bones were a little too high, that they gave her a drawn and grimacing look he had never before noticed. He thought: “This is the way she talked about me to the fellow who kept her at Dakin.” For he no longer believed in the legend of her having gone to Dakin to get a job in a dry-goods store. He felt his strength go from him, and Honoré Shunts’s tears under his lids. She was not really like that — he couldn’t endure the thought that she was like that. She must instantly say something, do something to disprove it, to drag him up out of the black nightmare of his contempt for her.

He flung himself down beside the lounge. “Floss, you’re joking, aren’t you, about those letters?”

“What do you call joking? As long as the family wanted them back, what was I to do with them?”

“Oh, God — not that. Not that! You must see . . . I suppose I haven’t understood . . . You can’t mean you’ve used his letters that way . . . not that?”

She lay looking up at him, half-amused, half-ironic; but as she saw the change in his face her own grew suddenly blank and cold. “I don’t know what you mean by using them. It wasn’t my fault if he wrote them; you wouldn’t have had me keep them, would you, when his people wanted them so badly? I did my duty, that’s all. It isn’t always a pleasant job — and you men don’t generally make it easier for us.”

He hardly distinguished the words; her voice poured over him like an icy flood. It seemed as if he and she were drowning in it together. “Dearest, you’re not like that, you’re not like that, say you’re not like that,” he besought her blindly.

She gave a slight laugh and drew back from his imploring arms. “I’m dead tired; I’ve told you so before. I like people who can take a hint; don’t you, darling?” She sat up and stretched out her hand for a cigarette. “Look here — you needn’t look so cross,” she said. “I’m not throwing you out for good. You can come back tomorrow, if you’ll try to treat me a little more politely. But I’m rather fed up with scenes just now, and I’m going to tumble straight into bed. So long, dear.”

She reached for her cigarette-lighter and he heard its dry snap as he got to his feet and turned away from her.

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