The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XL

When the train left him at Paul’s Landing Vance knew that what had taken him there was not the wish to see the cottage where he had lived with Laura Lou. That past was buried under the dead leaves of too many seasons. What he craved for, with a sort of tremulous convalescent hunger, was a sight of the Willows, the old house where his real life had begun.

It was less than three years since he had come to Paul’s Landing to implore Halo Tarrant to go away with him, instead of waiting to obtain her divorce; but on that feverish day he had not given the Willows a thought, and his last sight of the fantastic old house and the abandoned garden, though not remote in years, seemed to belong to his embryonic stage.

The day was soft, the air full of spring scents and the shimmer of sun through wrinkled leaves. Vance got into the tram which passed by the lane leading to the Willows. The mean outskirts of the town were meaner than ever; new cottages had been built, but the old ones had not been repainted. The suburb, evidently uncertain of its future, awaited in slatternly unconcern the coming of the land~speculator or of the municipal park-designer. But in the lane that climbed to the Willows Vance felt his boy’s heart wake in him. From the ruts underfoot to the elm boughs overhead, nothing around him was changed; and when he reached the gate and gazed across the lawn to the house, its inconsequent turrets and gables showed uncertainly through the same veil of weeping willows.

So completely was he drawn back into the past that he felt in his pocket for the key he used to take from his mother-in-law’s drawer when he stole up the lane to meet Halo Spear — and later to meet Halo Tarrant. The key was not there, but as he leaned on the gate in the attitude of the sentimental wanderer he felt it yield to his pressure, and walked in.

Every fibre of his past was interwoven with that scene. Long before he had flown there to his first meetings with Halo, he and Laura Lou and her brother had ranged through the decaying garden and waked the echoes of Miss Emily Lorburn’s strange old dwelling. In the arbour at the back of the house Vance had put a first kiss on Laura Lou’s fluttering eyelids; on the doorstep he had sat and waited through a long afternoon for Halo Spear, who had promised to meet him and forgotten her promise; among the musty book-shelves of the library, and under the sad painted gaze of Miss Emily Lorburn, he had first travelled in the realms of gold, with Halo guiding him.

In that setting she came suddenly back to him, poised for flight as he had first known her; then, after her marriage, under a shadow of disquietude torn by laughter and irony, but never dispelled till he took her in his arms on the night of their flight. Thus detached from the uncertainties and irritations of their life together, her renovated image leaned to him from that enchanted world where they had first met. The memory caught him about the heart, and if she had come to him across the lawn at that moment all his scruples and resolves might have been swept away in a flood of tenderness. But he was determined not to abandon himself to such dreams. His future, wherever it led, was to be ruled by realities, not illusions. He had thought he loved her, and he had failed her; she had accepted the fact, and faced it with her usual ironic courage; and the one service his unstable heart could do her now was to leave her in peace and go his way.

He stood for a long time on the lawn, remembering how, when he had first come there, fresh from the mediocrity and uniformity of Euphoria, the house had seemed as vast as a Roman villa and as venerable as a feudal castle. Through its modest doorway he had entered into a legendary past; its shingled tower was Sister Anne’s outlook, its bracketed balconies overhung the perilous foam on which his imagination had voyaged ever since. The old house had been his fairy godmother, and it was only now, as he looked at it again, that he understood.

He went up to the door, studying the shuttered windows, looking for signs of change, catching at each stray tendril of association. Of change he saw little; the family had always kept the house in decent repair, and its be-gabled front and bracketed balconies looked hardly more blistered and weather-streaked than when he had first seen them. Last year’s dead geraniums still dangled from the fluted iron vases flanking the door; and from the fretwork of the porch a honeysuckle hung.

On the other side of the house, where the library looked out over a sloping lawn, the verandah was still clutched and enveloped in the huge twining arms of the ancient wistaria. It was already heavy with budding clusters, and Vance closed his eyes and called up the June day when from roof to cellar it had poured in a cataract of silvery lilac. He noticed that the library windows were open, as they used to be on cleaning days; and his heart beat fast as he mounted the verandah steps and looked in. But the room was empty, the books stood undisturbed. He remarked only one change: a sheet had been hung over Miss Lorburn’s portrait, and her sad eyes no longer looked down on him. The covering of the picture suggested that there might be cleaners or painters at work; but all the other windows were barred, and he heard no sounds within, and saw no one about.

He turned and looked across the lawn at the broken-down arbour where he and Laura Lou had sat. His thoughts went out to it in an act of piety, as though its broken trellis were arched above her grave. But he no longer recognized himself in the boy who had sat there on that June morning and caressed her frightened eyelids. His real life had long been elsewhere, and the thought of her stirred only a shadowy tenderness. He went a little way down the lawn and then turned back.

The house, at that distance, looked more than ever like the steel engraving in the old book on landscape-gardening which he and Halo had once laughed over — but oddly shrunken and small, as though from a full-page picture it had dwindled to the ornamental tailpiece of a chapter. And that, after all, was what it was, he mused; though he was still in the twenties the picture of the Willows seemed to close the chapter of his youth . . . He walked back to the gate, and went out.

In the lane a man was repairing the palings. He looked at Vance, and the latter asked him if any one was living at the Willows. The man said there was generally a caretaker there, but he believed the place had just been sold, and the new people were moving in. A pang went through Vance; he remembered how often he and Halo, in their European wanderings, had talked of coming back some day to live at the Willows. An idle fancy then; but now it had the poignancy of an unfulfilled dream. Where were the people from? he asked. The man said he was new to the place, and didn’t know; but he’d heard they were from New York, and the carpenter who employed him had been told to start work that week. He guessed the old place needed a good deal done to it to make folks comfortable there.

Vance walked slowly back to the town. He had meant to take an afternoon train to New York; but he felt weak and tired, and the idea of big cities frightened him — perhaps also the possibility that in that particular one he might run across Floss Delaney. When he left Belair he had felt equipped to meet not only old memories but the people who embodied them; now a singular lassitude possessed him, and he thought enviously of Brail’s figure retreating alone into the depths of the hemlock forest. He left his luggage at the dingy hotel opposite the station, and went out again.

He wandered through the town in the direction of the road that led up to Eaglewood, the old house above the Hudson where Halo Spear had lived before her marriage. A myriad arms seemed to draw him along that steep ascent; but half way up he turned, and began to walk resolutely back to the town. It came over him that he was seeking the solace of these old memories as a frightened child runs to hide its face in its nurse’s lap; and in a rush of self-contempt he strode down the hill to the station. What he wanted was to regain his strength and then face life afresh, not to go whining back to a past from which he had cut himself off by his own choice.

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