The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XXXIX

The ex-schoolmaster, Aaron Brail, a thin slow man of halting speech, seemed neither surprised nor unduly interested by Vance’s coming. He explained that he sometimes took a boarder in winter to replenish his scanty funds, and said he hoped Vance wouldn’t be dissatisfied with the food, which was supplied by the wife of one of the lumbermen from the near-by camp. Vance was given a small bare room with a window looking out on vastnesses of snow and hemlock forest, and Brail and he seldom met except at meals, and when they smoked their pipes after supper about the living-room stove. There was a rough book-shelf against the wall, with a row of third-rate books on various subjects, chiefly religion and natural history. Brail was a half-educated naturalist, and spent his evenings making laborious excerpts from the books he was reading. He was too shortsighted to be a good field-observer, and his memory was so uncertain that when he was not mislaying the notes he had made the night before he was hunting for the spectacles without which he could not re-read them. But though he was not interesting the solitude of his life in that austere setting of hills and forests had given him a kind of primitive dignity, and his company was not uncongenial.

Every morning early Vance started off on a tramp of exploration with one of the lumbermen, but he soon dispensed with his guide, and spent the white-and-gold hours in long lonely rambles. Sometimes he would pick up a meal in a lumberman’s house, but oftener he carried his provisions with him and ate them on a warm ledge in the sun. The hours flowed by with the steady beat of the sea — there were days when he almost imagined himself lying again on the winter sands and watching the shoreward march of the waves, as he had done during his honeymoon with Laura Lou. His mind travelled back to his first adventures and discoveries, which already seemed so remote; he felt like a very old man whose memory, blurring the intervening years, illuminates the smallest incidents of youth. Sometimes he came home so drunk with sunlight and cold that sleep struck him down in the doorway, and he would throw himself on his hard bed and not wake till Brail called him to supper.

At first he paid for these bouts of sleep by lying awake all night, his brain whirling and buzzing like a gigantic loom. It was as though he were watching some obscure creative process, the whirl and buzz of the cosmic wheels. The fatigue was maddening, and when sleep finally came there was no rest in his brief unconsciousness. Two women peopled these agitated vigils; the one that his soul rejected and his body yearned for, the other who had once seemed the answer to all he asked of life, but had now faded to a reproach and a torment. The whole question of woman was the agelong obstacle to peace of spirit and fruitfulness of mind; to get altogether away from it, contrive a sane and productive life without it, became the obsession of his sleepless midnights. All he wanted was to be himself, solely and totally himself, not tangled up in the old deadly nets of passion and emotion.

But solitude and hard exercise gradually worked their spell. His phases of excited insomnia gave place to a quiet wakefulness, and he would lie and watch the night skies wheel past his unshuttered window, and recover again his old sense of the rhythmic beat of the universe. The feeling brought a kind of wintry quietude, a laying on of heavenly hands, and he would fall asleep like a child who knows that his nurse is near.

On stormy days he lingered in the lumbermen’s huts, talking with them and their families, and he felt refreshed by the contact with their simple monotonous lives. But they lived unconsciously in those cosmic hands in which he felt himself cradled, and as vigour of mind and body returned he began to crave for a conscious intelligence, an intelligence not complicated or sophisticated but moulded on the large quiet lines of the landscape. He tried to think that Brail might satisfy this need; but Brail was not so much uncommunicative as lacking in anything to communicate. He was not hostile to Vance, he seemed even, as the weeks passed, to find a mild pleasure in their evening talks. But he had a small slack mind, to which his rudimentary studies as a naturalist had given no precision; and Vance suspected that his flight to the woods had been not toward something but away from something. It was the same with Vance himself: but as his nerves grew steadier he understood that he would never be able to rest long in evasion or refusal, that something precise and productive must come out of each step in his life. He began to think of himself less as a small unsatisfied individual than as an instrument in some mighty hand; and one day he was seized by the desire to put this rush of returning energy into words. On starting for the woods he had snatched up a few old books left at Euphoria since his college days — an Odyssey and a Greek grammar among them — and during his sleepless nights he had laboured over the grammar and refreshed his spirit with glimpses of the sunlit Homeric world, which was spacious and simple like the scenes about him. But with the revival of the desire to write his studies slackened, and the books lay untouched, with two others which Mae had taken from the shelf by his grandmother’s bed, and handed to him as he was leaving. These he had not even looked into — the mood for books had passed. He must write, write, write. But to his dismay he found he had brought no paper with him. This would have been a small misfortune at a season when the general store was open and the mails came regularly; but a succession of snowstorms had interrupted the postal service from the nearest point on the railway, and nobody at the camp had any paper. Even Brail could produce only a few sheets of letter-paper, and this absurd obstacle aggravated Vance’s fury to begin. At length he coaxed some torn sheets of packing paper from one of the lumbermen’s wives, and set himself to work. The fact of having only these coarse crumpled pages at his disposal seemed to stimulate his imagination, and in those first days he felt nearer than ever before to the hidden sources of inspiration.

The return to work steadied his nerves, and his tramps over the frozen hills carried him back into that world of ecstasy from which he had been so long shut out. He had written “Colossus” in a fever, but his new book was shaping itself in a mood of deep spiritual ardour such as his restless intelligence had never before attained, and these weeks outside of time gave him his first understanding of the magic power of continuity.

Now that his energies were all engaged he could let his thoughts return to his grandmother’s death. At first that misery, so meaningless in its suddenness, had been unendurable; but now he could think about her calmly, recognizing that her course was run and that she would not have wished to outlive herself. In her way she had been happy, in spite of ups and downs of fortune, in spite of Grandpa Scrimser, and of blows (not infrequent, he suspected) to her pride as an orator and evangelist. She was too intelligent not to be aware of her own ignorance, too impulsive to remember it for long; but he felt that all these contradictions were somehow merged in a deep central peace. Vance had always ascribed this to the optimism he found so irritating in her; but her last word had been a warning against optimism. “Maybe we haven’t made enough of pain — ” that had been her final discovery, and it completed his image of her.

One evening, as he brooded over these memories, feeling the warmth of her soul in his, he remembered the two books that Mae had brought him as he was leaving Euphoria. They stood on his table with the others, and he took them up and glanced at them. One was a thumbed anthology of “Daily Pearls”, collected by the editor of “Zion’s Spotlight”; the kind of book from which pressed pansies and scraps of pious verse drop in a shower when they are opened. The other volume had obviously been less often consulted. Vance opened it and slowly turned the pages. In a few minutes they had possession of him, and he read on deep into the night, read till his oil-lamp had sputtered out and his candle followed it; and when sunrise came he was sitting up in bed in his old leather coat, still reading. “The Confessions of Saint Augustine” — though the title was familiar the book had never come his way, and he had only a vague idea of its date and origin. But before he had read a dozen pages he saw that it was one of the timeless books with which chronology is unconcerned. Who was this man who reached out across the centuries to speak to him as never man had spoken before? He felt his whole life summed up in each of these piercing phrases. “Come, Lord, and work: arouse us and incite; kindle us, sweep us onward; teach us to love and to run. . .

“I said: ‘Give me chastity and self-control — BUT NOT JUST YET. . .’ I was shaken with a gust of indignation because I could not enter into Thy Will, yet all my bones were crying out that this was the way, and no ship is needed for that way, nor chariot, no, nor feet; for it is not as far from me as from the house to the spot where we are seated. . .

“And Thou didst beat back my weak sight, dazzling me with Thy splendour, and I perceived that I was far from Thee, in the land of unlikeness, and I heard Thy voice crying to me: ‘I am the Food of the full-grown. Become a man and thou shalt feed on Me’.”

The food of the full-grown — of the full-grown! That was the key to his grandmother’s last words. “Become a man and thou shalt feed on Me” was the message of experience to the soul; and what was youth but the Land of Unlikeness?

Night after night he returned to those inexhaustible pages, again and again after that first passionate encounter he re-read them slowly, broodingly, weighing them phrase by phrase in the light of his brief experience, feeling his soul expand to receive them, and carrying away each day some fragment of concentrated spiritual food to nourish him in his lonely rambles.

The thaw came early, with rainy winds and intervals of frost; and on one of his excursions Vance was caught in a storm of sleet, lost his way when night fell, and got back to camp exhausted and shivering. That night he flamed in fever and shook with coughing, and the doctor who came over from the nearest town muttered in a corner with Brail, who looked frightened and bewildered. Vance was aware that he must be seriously ill, and that Brail would have liked him to be taken away; but it was evidently thought unadvisable to move him, and he felt weakly thankful when he understood that he was to be left where he was. Brail and the lumberman’s wife nursed him to the best of their ability, but the woman was ignorant and clumsy, and Brail in a state of chronic bewilderment, always mislaying his spectacles, and totally unable to remember any instructions the doctor had neglected to write down. In spite of all this Vance gradually worked his way back to health, and the weeks wore on slowly but not unhappily till a day came when he got to his feet again and shambled a little way along the wet path in the mild spring sun.

After that the time passed pleasantly enough. The subdued ecstasy of convalescence was in his veins, and he looked out with eyes cleansed by solitude on a new world in which everything was beautiful and important, and seemed to have been created for his special use. His physical suffering and helplessness seemed to have matured his mind, and detached it from the things of the past like a ripe fruit from the tree. Saint Augustine’s words came back to him: “Become a man and thou shalt feed on Me”; and he felt that at last he was ready to taste of the food of the full-grown, however bitter to the lips it might be.

He had thought vaguely of staying on at Belair till the Camp of Hope reopened, and then of hiring a bungalow higher up in the hills and settling down to his new book. He had not yet worked out any plan beyond that, though a plan there must be if he were to regain a hold on himself. He wanted first to secure a few months of quiet for his book, and to watch the advance of spring, and the sudden blazing up of summer, in that powerful untamed landscape; but he saw that to recover his bodily strength he must get away to better care and more food. It was queer how even a touch of pneumonia did you in — his legs still rambled away from him like a baby’s when he attempted his daily walk. . .

His family did not know of his illness; he had sworn Brail to secrecy on the first day, and the timid creature had obeyed, no doubt privately relieved at not having to provide for other visitors. Vance had been touched by Brail’s awkward devotion during his illness. He had found out that Brail had tramped twenty miles through the snow to get the doctor, and that his reluctance to keep Vance at the camp was due merely to the fear of not being able to give him proper care. The men had grown to feel more at ease with each other, and one day Brail, in a burst of confidence, confessed to Vance that his great desire had been to enter the ministry, but that he had been discouraged by the difficulties of theological study. He had been unable, after repeated attempts, to pass his examination, and his failure had been a lasting mortification. “I never could seem to take to any other profession, not even zoology,” he said mournfully, wiping the mist from his spectacles.

“Was that what made you decide to stay up here?” Vance questioned idly; and to his surprise he saw the blood rise under the other’s sallow skin.

“Oh, no,” said Brail hastily, turning away to fumble for his spectacle-case.

Vance lay back in his chair and looked up at the low smoke~blackened ceiling. There was a long silence, and his mind had wandered away to other matters when he became aware that Brail was still standing before him, his hands in his pockets, his narrow forehead anxiously wrinkled, “I’ve been wanting to tell you for some time,” said Brail, through a cough of embarrassment.

“Tell me what?”

Brail bowed his head and spoke low. “It was a woman,” he said. “I met her when I was observing animals at a circus. She was a lion~tamer,” he added with another cough.

Vance stared up at him, convulsed with sudden laughter; but he saw the other’s tortured face, and mastered his muscles in time. “Well — isn’t that what they all are?” he said.

Brail stared back, blinking down through his spectacles. “Er — lion~tamers? Ah, yes — I see!” he exclaimed, his cautious wrinkled smile suddenly responding to the pleasantry. “But I meant it literally,” he jerked out, and turned in haste from the room. Vance, lying back, saw him pass in front of the window and walk away with mournful strides through the mud. “The food of the full-grown,” he murmured to himself as Brail disappeared among the hemlocks.

Yes, it was time to eat of that food; time to grow up; time to fly from his shielded solitude and go down again among the lion-tamers. He was glad that his possessions were already packed, and that he was to leave the next morning; but when the cutter stood at the door, and his bags were stowed under the seat, he turned to Brail with a final pang of reluctance. “Well, goodbye. You may see me back yet.”

Brail blinked and shook his head. “You’ll think so, maybe; but you won’t come,” he answered, and stood watching Vance drive away.

The first night in Chicago nearly made Brail’s prophecy come true. Vance had gone there straight from the camp. Now that his grandmother was dead he could not face the idea of returning to Euphoria; and he meant to stay a few days in Chicago and try to think out some plan for the next months. But the sudden transition from the winter silence of the hills to the tumult of the streets was more than his shaken nerves could bear. These millions of little people rushing about their business and pleasure in an endless uproar of their own making were like strange insects driven by unintelligible instincts; and he was too tired to be interested in observing them. Ah, how tired he was — how unutterably tired! All the factitious energy accumulated during his last days at Belair had been lost in the descent to the heavy atmosphere of the city. He felt will-less and adrift, and the food of the full-grown seemed too strong a fare for him.

The next morning he got as far as the telegraph office in the lobby of the hotel. He inscribed Brail’s name on a telegraph blank, and was about to write under it: “Can I come back?” when he was checked by a vision of the poor man shambling off alone down the muddy path to the camp, spectrally followed by the limping figure of Chris Churley. There went the two deniers, the two fugitives — poor Chris, poor Brail! No — that was not the solution to Vance’s difficulty; it lay somewhere ahead of him, in the crowd and the struggle. At present he couldn’t see just where; but a weak longing overcame him to be again among familiar faces and in scenes associated with his past. It occurred to him that he might have gone back to Laura Lou’s mother if she had still lived at Paul’s Landing, in the tumble-down house above the Hudson where he had been so happy and so miserable; but doubtless she was still in California with her son, who had gone out there to work as a nurseryman. Vance went up to his room and lay down on the bed. He felt too weary to think, or to want anything, or to make any fresh resolves, since he knew they would be broken . . . The next morning he took a ticket for Paul’s Landing.

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