The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

IV

The next morning Vance announced that he meant to spend at least a month at Cordova. He said “I mean,” as naturally as if the decision concerned only himself, and he would not for the world have restricted his companion’s liberty. But this was not a surprise to Halo. She knew the irresistible force which drove him in pursuit of the food his imagination required. It was not that he was forgetful of her, but that, now they were together, his heart was satisfied, while the hunger of his mind was perpetual and insatiable.

In spite of herself she was slightly disconcerted by his taking their plan of travel into his own hands. She, who had worked it out so carefully, considering the season, the probable weather, the number of days to be given to each place, saw that all this meant nothing to him and reflected with a pang that she had outgrown the age of impulse. It was seldom nowadays that she remembered this difference between them. At first she had been continually conscious that he was the younger, and this had kept her from acknowledging to herself that she was in love with him. Even afterward there were times when he had seemed a boy to her; but now that they were lovers she felt in him a man’s authority. But in practical matters she was conscious of her greater experience, and half-vexed at his not perceiving it.

“But, darling, you haven’t seen Seville yet — or Murcia or Granada. And we ought to go up to Ronda before the weather turns cold. You’ve no conception of the wonders . . .”

He looked at her with a whimsical smile. “That’s why . . .”

“Why?”

“It takes me such a darned long time to deal with wonders. I’m slow, I suppose. I don’t care for more than one course at a meal.”

She shrugged a little impatiently. “Oh, don’t use your gastronomic preferences as an argument, dearest!”

“You mean they’re too crude?”

“No; but they contradict your other theory. The theory that artists need only a mouthful of each dish.”

“Oh, damn artists! I just want to please Vance Weston,” he rejoined imperturbably, his arm about her shoulder. She laughed, and kissed him; but inwardly she thought: “I must just adapt myself; I must learn to keep step.”

After all, wasn’t it what she had wanted to marry him for? The absorbing interest of seeing his gift unfold under her care had been so interwoven with her love that she could not separate them. But she liked to think that she loved him because she believed in his genius, not that (as a simpler woman might) she believed in his genius because she loved him. Yet here she was, on the point of letting her petty habits of routine and order interfere with his inspiration! What did it matter if they spent the rest of the autumn at Cordova — or the rest of the year? “You feel as if you could write here?” she suggested, remembering how once before his art had flowered under her influence; and he smiled back at her: “Just at this minute I feel as if I couldn’t write anywhere else.” But they agreed that work would be impossible in their one noisy room at the hotel, and Halo set out to find quieter and roomier quarters. In her young days, before her marriage to Tarrant had immersed the family in luxury, Mr. and Mrs. Spear had taught their children that to combine picturesqueness with economy was one of the pleasures of travel. Scornful of the tourist who rated plumbing above local colour, and had to content himself with what could be asked for in English, the Spears, polylingual and ingratiating, gloried in the art of securing “amusing” lodgings at famine prices. The gifts developed in those nomad years came to Halo’s aid, and before night she had driven a masterly bargain with the owner of the very quarters she wanted. The rooms were bare but clean, and so high above the town that they commanded the jumble of roofs and towers descending to the bridge, and a glimpse of the brown hills beyond. Vance was enchanted, and the unpacking and settling down turned the lovers into happy children. Though Vance lacked Halo’s skill in driving nails and mending broken furniture he shared her love of order, and his good will and stronger muscles lightened her task. Before long his room was ready, and at a carefully consolidated table on which Halo had laid a fresh sheet of blotting paper and a stack of “author’s pads” of a blue that was supposed to be good for the eyes, he sat down to his novel.

“Nobody ever fixed me up like this before,” he said with a contented laugh. She remembered the comfortless house in which she had found him after Laura Lou’s death, and wondered what happiness could equal that of a woman permitted to serve the genius while she adored the man.

“Do you think it’s going to be as good a place for work as the Willows?” She coloured at her allusion to the old house on the Hudson, where she had spent so many hours with Vance while he was writing “Instead” — the novel the critics had acclaimed, and his publishers had resented his not consenting to repeat. All through one fervid summer the two had met there, unknown to Vance’s wife and to Halo’s husband. At that time she had imagined that she and Vance were only friends; yet, though she had ceased to meet him when his sudden outburst of passion broke down the feint, she could not recall their stolen hours without compunction. But there was none in Vance’s eyes.

“I’m going to work a thousand per cent better here, because at the Willows I was always in a fever for you, and you kept getting in between me and my book.”

“What a nuisance I must have been!” she murmured hypocritically; and added, half laughing, half in earnest: “And now — I suppose you already take me for granted?”

Their eyes met, and she saw in his the inward look which sometimes made him appear so much older than his age. “Oh, my soul — mayn’t I?” he said; and: “Vance,” she cried out, “what I want is just to be like the air you breathe . . .”

He lit a cigarette, and leaned back, comfortably surveying the blue pages. “That’s only the beginning of all the things you’re going to be,” he declared. He held out the bundle of cigarettes, and she bent to light one from his, and stole to the door, pausing to say: “Now I’m going to leave you to your work.”

She went to her own room to finish her unpacking; then she sat down in the window, and let the waves of bliss flow over her. More than once since she had left New York she had tried to look into the future and picture her probable destiny; but while her life held this burning core of passion she could fix her thoughts on nothing else. She had been too starved and cold before; now she could only steep herself in the glow.

No one would understand, she knew; least of all her own family. Mr. and Mrs. Spear had always regarded themselves as free spirits, and were certainly burdened with fewer social prejudices than most of their friends and relations. Mrs. Spear had specialized in receiving “odd” people at a time when New York was still shy of them. She had welcomed at her house foreign celebrities travelling with ladies unprovided with a marriage certificate, and had been equally hospitable to certain compatriots who had broken their marriage tie when such breaks were a cause of scandal. But though she sympathized with “self-expression”, and the mystical duty to “live one’s life”, and had championed the first adventurers in the new morality, she had never expected any one belonging to her to join that band of heroes. She was a Lorburn of Paul’s Landing, and people of pre-Revolutionary stock, however emancipated their sympathies, conformed to tradition in their conduct. Mrs. Spear had herself conformed. Her marriage had been a defiance, since she had married out of her own set, or her own class, as her family would have put it; but it was a defiance sanctioned by church and law, and she had never dreamed of her daughter’s taking liberties with those institutions. Grieved as she was at Halo’s leaving her husband, Mrs. Spear had accepted it as inevitable, and had bowed, after another struggle, to the further inevitability of her daughter’s re-marriage; but she had been genuinely shocked, and deeply hurt, by Halo’s decision to go away with her lover before her divorce. Mrs. Spear had not been violent and denunciatory, like her husband, whose resentment was doubled by the fact that he could not air it in the newspapers. Mrs. Spear knew that the day was past when parents, especially parents who have coquetted with Bohemia, can call down curses on a dishonoured daughter. But she did feel that Halo was dishonouring herself, and that every influence should be used to save her. If the break with Tarrant was unavoidable, why could not her daughter wait until he had taken the necessary steps? “Lewis is always a gentleman. You must admit that. You can count on his assuming all the blame,” Mrs. Spear had pleaded, her beautiful eyes full of persuasion and perplexity.

“But, mother, supposing I’d rather share the blame — why shouldn’t I take the necessary steps for THAT?” Halo rejoined, trying to evade her mother’s entreaties. Mrs. Spear merely replied: “Don’t talk like your brother, please” — for Lorry Spear was noted for his habit of dealing with serious questions flippantly; and Halo, conscious of the ineffectualness of any argument, could only repeat: “Mother, I must go with him — I must. He needs me” — though she knew that to her mother such a plea was worse than flippancy.

“If he really needs you, dear, he’ll have the strength of character to wait for you for a year. If he hasn’t — ” Mrs. Spear left the ominous conclusion unspoken.

“Oh, but, mother darling, it’s not that . . . I suppose you’re thinking of other women . . .” Halo felt herself burning inwardly at the suggestion.

“It’s not an unusual weakness — with artists especially,” Mrs. Spear drily interposed.

“No,” Halo conceded; “I suppose we shouldn’t have much art without it . . . But what I mean is so different . . . He needs me for his work . . . I can help him, I know I can . . .”

“Of course he’ll make you think so — oh, it’s all so unlike you, darling!” cried poor Mrs. Spear, feeling herself as short of arguments as her daughter.

“No, it’s like me,” Halo exclaimed passionately, “only I’ve never really been myself before. Don’t grudge me the chance.” She bent over, trying to kiss away her mother’s tears; and on this unsatisfactory conclusion they had parted.

At first Halo’s view had differed little from Mrs. Spear’s. To wait till she was divorced, and go to Vance Weston as his wife, had seemed the natural, the obvious arrangement. But when Vance came back from Euphoria, ill-looking, unsettled, unable to work, and pleading not to have his happiness postponed, she had given way at once. She herself hardly knew whether passion or pity had prevailed; but she felt, as she had said to her mother, that this was her first chance to be her real self, and that no argument, no appeal to social expediency or to loftier motives, should deprive her of it. Words like dignity and self-respect seemed to belong to an obsolete language. Her dignity, her self-respect! What had become of them when she had endured to live with a husband she despised? Yet she had remained with him for reasons much less potent than those which called her to her lover. Was she really the same woman who, on the steamer a few weeks earlier, had hesitated over her lawyer’s warning letter, and asked herself whether she ought not to turn back? Now it was her past that she was ashamed of, not her present; there were lyric moments when her flight with Vance seemed like an expiation.

These phases of the struggle were over; she regarded them as indifferently as if they had belonged to some other woman’s story. It was sweet to her now to know that she had gone to Vance without hesitating. “In such a heaven as ours there’s no marrying or giving in marriage,” she thought, as she sat there nursing her happiness; and awed by the perfectness of her well-being she hid her face in her hands.

“What quiet there is in deep happiness,” she mused. “How little I ever imagined this lull in the middle of the whirlpool!” But the stars still danced about her, and when she tried to disentangle her mind from their golden whirl she felt a lassitude, a reluctance she could not explain. “All that matters is that he’s sitting there next door, tranquil, happy, at work again — and that it’s my doing,” she thought. She longed to open his door and steal in, as she used to at the Willows, when he would break off every now and then to read aloud what he had written. But she remembered what he had said of her “getting in between him and his book,” and she went back to her seat, reflecting that their moments together were no longer numbered, and that her present task was to defend his privacy, not to invade it.

The room was very still. The afternoon light, slowly veering, left in shadow first one group of roofs and towers, then another; the cloud-masses faded into twilight. At length Halo got up. Their lodging was without electric light, and she was sure Vance would not know how to light the oil-lamp she had put on his table. She was glad of the excuse for joining him . . .

“Vance,” she said, opening the door. No one answered, and she saw that the room was empty. The door which led to the landing was ajar — he had evidently gone out. Probably he had felt tired after his hours of writing, and had wandered away without thinking of telling her. She lit the lamp and looked about her. Cigarette ends strewed the floor, and the blue writing pad on the desk, immaculate, untouched, looked up at her ironically. He had not written a line . . .

She stood struggling with a sense of disappointment. He had seemed so sure that he wanted to go on with his work — that this was the very place where it would come to him without an effort! Well, what of that? Did she still imagine that an artist, a creator, could always know in advance exactly in what conditions and at what hour the sacred impulse would come?

She went back for her hat and coat, and descended the dark narrow stairs. Slowly she sauntered through the streets that led to the cathedral, peering with shortsighted eyes to right and left in the hope of meeting him. Lamps had begun to twinkle in the houses. Before long the sacristan would pass on his rounds and close the cathedral doors. Halo thought: “He’s surely in there; I must find him before the place is locked up.” She pushed back the leather curtain and went in.

At first the darkness confused her. Each figure straying among the shadows seemed to have Vance’s outline; but as she drew nearer she found herself mistaken. From aisle to aisle, from Christian altar to Moorish mihrab, she explored the baffling distances; but Vance was not there. She returned to the outer world, and began to walk back through the modern quarter; and suddenly, in front of a glittering café, she found him installed at a table. He greeted her with a smile, and said: “What will you have? I had to take a vermouth because it was all I knew how to ask for.”

“I’ve been hunting all over for you — ” she began; then broke off, annoyed by the maternal note in her voice. “I thought you might want a Spanish drink, and an interpreter to order it,” she added laughing.

“No. I got on all right. I’ve been all up and down the place; then I sat down here to watch the crowd.” He waited while she ordered a cup of coffee, and went on: “I couldn’t write a line after all.”

“What you need is to take a good holiday first, and not bother about your book.”

His remote and happy smile enveloped her. “I’m not bothering about anything on God’s earth.” He was looking at her curiously. “Do you know, you’ve got just the shape of the head of one of those statues of the Virgin they carry in the processions — you remember: the one they showed us yesterday in that chapel? A little face, long, and narrowing down softly to the chin — like a fruit or a violin; the way yours does . . . God, I wish I could draw! I believe I might have . . .” He leaned across and twisted his fingers through hers. “What’s the use of sight-seeing, anyhow, when I’ve got you to look at?”

The blood rose to Halo’s face. She felt a sudden shyness when he looked at her with those eyes full of secret visions. How long would it be before he had gone her round, and needed new food for his dream? She thought: “Shall I have to content myself with being a peg to hang a book on?” and found an anxious joy in the idea.

When she had finished her coffee Vance pushed back the table. “Come — let’s go down to the bridge and listen to the river in the dark . . . I don’t believe I’ll ever write a line again; not in this place anyway,” he declared serenely.

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