The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XXXVIII

On the table in his room, when he re-entered it that night, he saw a telegram; but he left it lying. Whoever it was from, whatever it contained, could hardly matter at that moment. He dropped into a chair and sat staring ahead of him down a long tunnel of darkness. Nothing mattered — nothing would ever again matter. He felt like a man who has tried to hang himself because life was too hideous to be faced, and has been cut down by benevolent hands — and left to face it. He thought of the day when he had staggered into his parents’ room at Euphoria to find his father’s revolver and make an end — and the revolver had not been there, and he had been thrown back on life as he was thrown back on it now. He felt again the weakness of his legs, the blur in his sick brain, as he staggered down the passage from one room to the other, groped about among the familiar furniture like a thief in a strange house, found the drawer empty, and crawled back again to his own room. It was dreadful, the way old memories of pain fed their parasitic growth on new ones, and dead agonies woke and grew rosy when the Furies called. . .

The winter daylight came in at the window before he thought of the telegram again. Then something struck him about the way it lay there, alone, insistent, in the smoky dawn, and he reached out and tore it open. The message was from his sister Mae and read: “Grandma has pneumonia wants you badly come as soon as you can.”

In the train that was hurrying him homeward it occurred to him for the first time that the telegram might have been from Halo. He wondered why that possibility had never presented itself to his mind before; but in the moral wreckage of the last hours he had not seen her struggling and sinking. She seemed to be hidden away in some safe shelter, like the Homeric people when a cloud hides them from mortal peril. But now the thought of her stole back, he felt her presence in his distracted soul. He seemed to lie watching her between closed lids, as a man on a sick bed watches the gliding movements of his nurse, and weaves them into the play of light on the ceiling. . .

At the door of the Mapledale Avenue house, where Mae and his father met him, some one said: “She’s conscious . . . she’ll know you . . .” and some one added: “You’d better come into the dining~room and have some coffee first — or did you get it on the train?”

On the landing upstairs he met his mother. Mrs. Weston was a desiccated frightened figure. They were not used to death at the Westons’, it did not seem to belong to the general plan of life at Euphoria, it had no language, no ritual, no softening conventions to envelop it. Mrs. Weston’s grief was dry and stammering. “The minister’s been with her, but he’s gone away. She says she won’t see anybody now but you,” she whispered.

Mrs. Scrimser’s room was full of crisp winter sunlight and its brightness lay across her bed. She sat up against her smooth pillows, small but sublime. All her great billowing expanse of flesh seemed to have contracted and solidified, as though everything about her that had roamed and reached out was gathered close for the narrow passage. She was probably the only person in the house who knew anything about death, and Vance felt that she had already come to an understanding with it. He knelt down and pressed his face against the bed. “Van,” she said, “my little boy. . .” Her fingers wandered feebly through his hair. He remembered that only two nights before he had been kneeling in the same way, his arms stretched out to snatch at another life that was slipping from him, not into death but into something darker and more final; and that other scene lost its tragic significance, became merely pitiful and trivial. He put away the memory, pressing his lips to the wise old hands, trying to exclude from his mind everything but what his grandmother had been, and still was to him. For a long time they held each other in silence; then she spoke softly. “I’ve been with you so often lately. At Crampton, on the porch. . .”

Yes; to him too those hours were still living. In some ways she had been nearer to him than any one else, though he knew it only as their souls met for goodbye. He buried his face in those tender searching hands, feeling the warm current of old memories pass from her body to his, as if it were she who, in some mystical blood~transfusion, was calling him back to life. A door opened, and some one looked in and stole away. The clock ticked quietly. She lay still. “Van,” she said after a while, in a weaker voice. He lifted his head. “There’s something I wanted to say to you. Stoop over, darling.” He stood up and bent down so that his ear was close to her lips. “Maybe we haven’t made enough of pain — been too afraid of it. Don’t be afraid of it,” she whispered.

Apparently it was her final message, for after that she lay back, quiet and smiling, and though he knew she was conscious of his presence the only sign she gave him was, now and then, the hardly audible murmur of his name. Gradually he became aware that even he was growing remote to her. She began to move in the bed uneasily, with the automatic agitation of the dying, and he rose to call his mother. He noticed then that his aunt Sadie Toler had crept in, and was sitting, a dishevelled stricken figure, in a corner waiting. She came to her mother.

When Vance returned to his grandmother’s room, twilight had fallen and the room was quieter than ever. But now a short convulsive breathing seemed struggling to keep time with the tick of the clock. Some one whispered: “Oxygen”; some one else stole out and came back with a heavy bag. The doctor came, and Vance wandered out of the room again. He joined his father, and the two men sat, aimless and vacant-minded, in Mrs. Weston’s bedroom across the passage. Mr. Weston said with a nervous laugh: “That was a big turnover those Delaneys made the other day — ” but Vance was silent. His father drummed on the table, stealthily drew a cigar from his pocket, fixed on it a look of longing, and put it back. “You’d better go and lie down on the bed and try and have a nap,” he suggested to his son. To cut short the talk Vance obeyed, and almost immediately fell into a black pit of sleep. He seemed to have lain plunged in it for hours when he was roused by steps in the room and the flash of electric light in his eyes. Mae stood before him. “Do you want to see her?”

“See her? Has she asked for me —?” But before the phrase was ended he understood, and as he stumbled to his feet he remembered the agony it had been to go into Laura Lou’s room after she was dead, and look down on the smooth empty shell which some clever craftsman seemed to have made and put there in her place. “No, no!” he cried, and threw himself back on the bed.

Vance sat in the Mapledale Avenue dining-room the day after his grandmother’s funeral. For a while he had been separated from her by the long-drawn horror of the burial service, with its throng of mourners gathered from every field of her beneficence, the white~haired orators pressing on the vox humana, the bright eye-glassed women stressing uplift and service, and the wrong it would do their leader’s memory to think of her as dead and not passed over, the readings from Isaiah and James Whitcomb Riley, intermingled by a practised hand.

Now the house was silent and deserted, and she could come to him again. The strange people who assemble at the call of death had vanished, the neighbours had called and gone away, the women were upstairs, busy with their mourning, and Lorin Weston had gone back to the office. He had wanted Vance to go with him, had suggested their running over in the Ford to see the land the Shuntses had just bought from Floss Delaney; he had evidently been a little hurt at his son’s declining to accompany him.

After Mr. Weston had left the house Vance sat alone and stared into his future. He could not stay another day at Euphoria; too many memories, bitter or sorrowful, started up from every corner of that featureless place. But where should he go, how deal with the days to come? All thought of returning to New York had vanished. Those hours in his grandmother’s room seemed to have washed his soul of its evil accretions. He felt no heroic inspiration to take up life again, but only a boundless need to deal with himself, cut a way through the jungle of his conflicting purposes, work out some sort of plan from the dark muddle of things. “Pain — perhaps we haven’t made enough of it.” Those last words of his grandmother’s might turn out to be the clue to his labyrinth. He didn’t want to expiate — didn’t as yet much believe in the possibility or the usefulness of it; he wanted first of all to measure himself with his pain, to wrestle alone with the dark angel and see how he came out of that conflict.

It was Mae who came to his rescue. He told her he wanted to get away from everything and everybody, and try to do some work — though at the moment he didn’t believe he would ever write another line. Mae was impressed, as he intended she should be, by the urgent call of his genius, and immediately exclaimed: “That Camp of Hope up at Lake Belair always has somebody to look after it in winter. I guess they’d take you in up there.”

The solitude of the northern woods in winter! A wild longing to be there at once possessed him. But he wanted to make sure that there were no hotels near by, no winter sports, nothing but stark woods and frozen waters. Mae knew the man who lived there, and could reassure him. He was a poor fellow who, having developed tuberculosis, had had to give up his career as a school-teacher and accept this care-taker’s job for the sake of the air and the out~door life. He had been cured, and might have gone back to his work; but he had turned into a sort of hermit, and would only take a summer class in natural history at the camp, returning to his frozen solitude in winter. Mae proposed to telegraph to find out if he would receive Vance as a boarder, or make some other arrangement for him, and Vance accepted.

Two days later he was on his way to Lake Belair. After a day’s journey the train left him at dusk at a wayside station, and as he got out the icy air caught him by the throat and then suddenly swung him up on wings. He heard sleigh-bells approaching in the dark, and a few minutes later the cutter was gliding off with him into the unknown.

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