The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

XLI

Halo Tarrant sat on the verandah at Eaglewood, pencil and note~block in hand. She murmured over: “Six enamelled pails, eight ditto hot-water jugs, a set of aluminium saucepans, ten coal~scuttles . . . I suppose some day I may be able to afford central heating . . . Oh, Frenny, if you knew how those coal-scuttles bore me!”

She dropped the note-block to the floor, and leaned back, her eyes fixed on the great sweep of the river shining far below through the woodlands. “If I hadn’t had cousin Emily’s linen-closet I should never have the courage to begin. . .” The words sounded slightly plaintive, but a smile interrupted them. “Isn’t it providential, Frenny, that the poor lady’s disappointed love affair should have provided me with those dozens and dozens of unused napery? I’m sure napery was what she called it, aren’t you?”

Frenside, who had come up to Eaglewood to be with Halo for the week~end, gave an ironic grunt, and murmured: “Your sentiments are as inhuman as they are natural. But how do you know she had a love affair?”

Halo lifted her eyebrows in surprise. “Why, Vance” — she began, and then broke off, not because she was reluctant to pronounce his name, but because she realized that in her thoughts the romance he had woven about Emily Lorburn had gradually substituted itself for the reality. “Vance always said she had,” she declared, still smiling. She had made it a rule from the first to speak of him, simply and naturally, when the occasion required; at first it had cost her an effort, but now she could name him without pain, almost with a melancholy pleasure — as if he were dead, she sometimes mused. In truth there was a sense in which all her past had died, leaving in her the seed of a new vitality — the life of her child. During the long slow months since she had parted from Vance in Paris this detachment and reassurance had grown in her with the child’s growth; a kind of calm animal beatitude of which she was at first ashamed and then glad, as she understood that this was the season allotted to her by nature for rest and renewal.

Her inward tranquillity had not come to her suddenly. The first weeks after Vance had gone to America had been a dark blur of pain. She had played her part valiantly, affected to accept their separation as natural, and perhaps only temporary, yet rejected any definite suggestion of a future reunion. The future was to take care of itself; for the moment they both needed a change . . . She got through the parting on this note; and then blackness closed in on her.

After her visit to Tarrant her existence for a time had no distinguishable features. She thought the dead in their graves must be as she was. But out of that annihilation slowly a new life had emerged, her own interwoven with her child’s. The numbness gradually became quietude, the quietude a kind of sober joy, till she could now look back on that first phase of anguish as mystics do on the dark passages of their spiritual initiation. When she decided to return to America and establish herself at the Willows she had reached a degree of composure which made it almost easy to speak of the past, and even to let her mind dwell on it.

The decision to live at the Willows had been her final step toward recovery. The thought of the old place drew her back with a thousand threads of association; and the mere fact that the house was her own, the only place on earth that she could dispose of as she chose, made her wish that her child should be born there. But for a long time after her return she had postponed her decision. At first she wondered whether she could face life alone in that mournful old house; then whether her presence there might not be an actual embarrassment to her parents. She had been prepared for her family’s opposition to the plan, but hardly for their dismay at her return to America. To be reunited to their darling after such a long separation was a joy indeed; but it was really incredible that Halo should not have understood how much simpler it would have been to . . . to get through the unfortunate business that lay ahead of her before returning to New York . . . Her mother would of course have gone to Europe to join her. . .

“But I want my child to be born at the Willows,” Halo quietly interposed.

“But at the Willows you can’t keep it a secret, you can’t possibly keep people from talking — ”

She gave a little laugh, and bent to kiss Mrs. Spear’s anguished forehead. “But I WANT people to talk about my baby; the people I’m fond of, I mean. And what do I care for the others? He’s going to be the most wonderful baby in the world — you don’t suppose I’m going to make a mystery of him, do you?”

Slowly her parents understood that nothing could alter her attitude, and they accepted the situation, Mrs. Spear secretly excited at the idea that the defiance she had always longed to fling at society was actually being flung by her own daughter, Mr. Spear incurably depressed, but silenced by the fact that here at last was a grievance he could not ventilate in the newspapers. Gradually Halo’s quiet ascendancy asserted itself over both, and before she had been at home for many weeks they had fitted into their lives the new fact that she meant to follow her own way, neither defiantly nor apologetically, but as if it were of more concern to herself than it could possibly be to others. Still, she understood that her parents would be happier if she went to Eaglewood as soon as possible, and after staying with them for a short time in New York she had opened the house and settled herself there with two servants; and with the approach of summer the desire to be installed at the Willows before her child was born overcame her hesitation, and she began to confer with painters and contractors, and to draw up her housekeeping lists. The renewed contact with practical questions seemed to dispel her last uncertainties, to make her feel that she had a plan of life again, and was in the salutary hold of habit; and the days which had dragged by so heavily began to move at a more normal pace. It was curious, she thought, how far pots and pans could go toward filling an empty heart; and she remembered how she had vaguely resented Vance’s faculty for escaping from anxiety and unhappiness by plunging into his work. House-making and housekeeping were her escape, she supposed: she must build up a home for her son. . .

Two or three times her mother had come to spend a day with her, and now and then Frenside turned up for a week-end; but at other times she remained by herself, increasingly busy with her child’s affairs and her own, letting her mind wander among the crowding memories of her own childhood, and watching the slow changes of the familiar landscape from spring to summer. There were moments when she wondered if, after her baby was born, she would lapse from her state of ruminating calm, and become again the passionate anxious Halo of old; but it was idle to think of that now, and she put the question quietly from her.

Frenside had not immediately taken up her allusion to Vance; she noticed that it still embarrassed him to speak to her on the subject. But after a moment he said: “I’ve been wanting for some time to tell you — ”

Her heart gave a start at the preamble. “Yes?”

“Speaking of Weston — I don’t believe I ever mentioned that I ran across him in New York three or four months ago, did I?”

It was the first time that any one had spoken to her of having seen Vance since he and she had said goodbye in Paris, and the careful structure of her composure trembled on its base and gave way. “No; you didn’t.” . . . Her voice failed her.

“Well, there wasn’t much point in it — I mean in telling you. He wanted to know how you were; he said he might ask me to take you a message — but he never has. So I waited.”

Halo’s heart dilated and then sank back to its usual frozen quiet. “He never has.” She wondered why Frenside had told her, then?

“Only,” Frenside pursued, “I’ve been wondering, now that your divorce proceedings are well under way, and everything’s clear on that score, whether I oughtn’t — ”

Halo reflected for a moment. “Do you know where he is?”

“Not a notion; I’ve never laid eyes on him since; but I suppose a letter to his publisher would be forwarded.”

She made no answer to this, and he went on: “The fact is, I said nothing at the time because the rumour was that he was in pursuit of that meteoric young woman — what’s her name? The girl who was married the other day to the Duke of Spartivento. People seemed to think Weston meant to marry her.”

“Yes; I know.” She drew a deep breath. “And now that she’s married, you think —?”

“I think Weston ought to know how things stand with you.”

There was another silence; Halo could not bring any order into her agitation. But at last she said slowly: “What does it matter? I’ve thought all that out. If it’s not Floss Delaney it will be some other woman. . .”

“Dichterliebe, eh? Well, you’re probably right. Most artists are incurably polygamous. When they’re not it’s because they die young — and their books generally do too. But I don’t know that their loving so lavishly matters as much in itself as in what it makes of them; what sort of stuff they turn it into. I don’t pretend to know yet what Weston’s going to turn into. After all, you can’t squeeze the whole of any human being into an epigram. But Weston went to see Tarrant, and said some things to him that came out of his very soul; and it’s not easy to say things that come out of the soul to Tarrant.”

The blood rose to Halo’s face, and she bent to pick up her papers and pencil. She had disciplined herself to hear Vance blamed and disparaged, but to hear him spoken of with sympathy and understanding sent a sudden anguish through her. She tried to answer but could not, and sat fluttering her list between her fingers, and murmuring over to herself: “A set of aluminium saucepans — ten coal-scuttles — ”

Frenside stood up from his chair; the sun had veered round, leaving the verandah in shade, and the evening air was chilly. “My dear, you’re very young to cut your life in two like this. Won’t you let me try to see him?”

She shook her head. “Don’t think I’m ungrateful. But don’t ask me again, please; it’s useless.”

Frenside shrugged, and turned away. “Let’s go in, then; it’s getting cold.”

She made no answer, and he left her sitting there and walked into the drawing-room, where a wood-fire was smouldering. She meant to follow him in a moment, but first she must let the troubled waves subside. It was too soon, after all, to talk of Vance even with so old a friend. . .

Presently she felt quieter, and got up to follow Frenside. But first she opened the French window into the hall, in order to hang her cloak on its usual peg under the stairs. As she crossed the hall she noticed that the front door was open. She went forward to shut it; but when she approached she saw that a man was standing on the steps, his back to the door. He must have heard her footfall on the oak floor, for he turned abruptly, and in the failing light she recognized Vance. She gave a little cry, and they stood and looked at each other. “Halo — ” he began in a dazed voice.

“Oh, Van! Where did you come from? How tired you look! But you’ve been ill — you must have been very ill! What’s been the matter?” She swept forward on a great rush of pity, but he drew back, passing a slow bewildered hand over his forehead. “No — I’m all right . . . I’m all right again. . .”

The change in his appearance frightened her, almost made her feel as if she were speaking to a stranger. He had grown so thin that he seemed taller, and his face was changed too. All its boyishness was gone; it was drawn and stern, like that of a man who has been through some inward ordeal which makes everything else remote. She felt that she was a part of that remoteness, and the feeling made her speak to him almost shyly. “Van — why do you stand there? Don’t you mean to come in?”

“Yes; I’ll come in.” His voice was low and automatic; he spoke as if he were reciting a lesson. “I didn’t intend to come here now,” he added, as if it were an afterthought.

“Not now?”

He shook his head, and took a few steps into the hall. “No. I really came back just to look at the Willows. And then they told me down at the station that you were here.”

“At the Willows? You’ve been there now?”

“Yes. I had to . . . They said you’d sold it, and the contractors were going to begin work; I came just in time. I suppose some instinct told me.”

“Sold it? I’m going to live there myself!” she exclaimed, her voice trembling with the announcement.

He looked at her with a kind of slow surprise. “You — at the Willows? I hadn’t thought of that. . .”

“We used to think of it — don’t you remember?”

He gave an uneasy laugh. “I can’t always separate what we’ve talked of from what I’ve imagined.”

“That’s because you’ve been ill, Van — ”

“Yes; I’ve been ill.” He stood looking about the hall with timid unfamilar eyes. “Is there any place where I can talk to you alone?”

Halo opened the door of her father’s study, and led him in, closing the door after her. Vance still looked about him with that odd estranged look which frightened her more than his thinness and his pallour. She felt almost as if he did not see her. But after a moment his eyes turned back to hers. “You see, I wanted to tell you why I’m not coming back — ”

Her heart gave a frightened plunge. “Not — you’re not coming back?”

He shook his head. “No; not now. Not for a long time, perhaps. You see, it’s this way; I swore to myself when I was up in the woods that I must pull myself together first, make something out of myself, be worth something . . . You understand, don’t you?”

Halo stood looking at him with troubled eyes. “Up in the woods, dear? Where were you?”

“Oh, up at Belair. It’s in Wisconsin. I went there after my grandmother died. She died last winter — you didn’t know? After that there were things I had to fight out alone. I was getting hold of myself, I really was — and then I was knocked out, and had pneumonia, or something. . .”

“Vance, I knew you’d been terribly ill!”

“I’m all right now — I’m as right as ever. Only I’ve got no will and no purpose. That’s what I wanted you to understand. I wanted to come back some day, though I didn’t know whether you’d ever have me. But I didn’t mean to come till afterward, not till I was fit to know my own mind, and stick to my purpose, and be of some use to you. And all that’s gone . . . blown away like ashes . . . I’m burnt out; I’m just cinders. . .”

As he spoke, Halo’s scruples were borne down by a fresh wave of solicitude. To see him so powerless and broken made her feel strong, confident, sure of herself. Whatever might come later, for the moment the way was clear. “But the very time to come back, dear, was when you needed me. We can let afterward take care on itself.”

Vance shook his head, his anxious eyes still fixed on her. “No. It’s not the time; I’ve got to make good first. Maybe it’s my pride — I don’t know. Anyway, I wanted to explain to you and then go off again. You understand?”

Her hopes sank under a return of perplexity. Did she understand — would she ever? She returned his look with a faint smile. “Did you really come all the way to Paul’s Landing just to tell me that you were going away again?”

He flushed feverishly under his drawn pallour. “No; I came because I couldn’t help myself. I’ve been down in hell, and I wanted to see the stars again. That’s all.”

“All?” She tried to keep the smile on her twitching lips. “One glimpse is enough, you mean?”

“No; it’s not enough. But it’s more than I’ve got a right to.” He straightened his shoulders abruptly. “Till I’m sure of myself, anyhow.”

Halo hesitated. The unseen barrier between them seemed as impenetrable as ever; she felt that she might wound her hands, and waste her strength against it, in vain. There might be subterfuges, tricks — appeals to his emotion by the display of hers. But that had never been her way; her pride met his with an equal shock. If that was his view of their relation, he had a right to it. But she was resolved first to make sure that the reason he gave was the true one.

“Van,” she said, “when you say you’re not sure of yourself, are you thinking of Floss Delaney? I’ve got a right to ask you that, you know.”

A painful contraction passed over his face, and she wondered if she had not committed a folly in touching on the wound. But she was not good at subterfuges, and it seemed more loyal to repay his frankness by her own. “Floss Delaney . . .?” He repeated the name slowly and half-wonderingly, as if asking himself what it signified to him at that moment.

“If there’d been any likelihood of your marrying her,” Halo hurried on, “I should have been the first to stand aside — you know it was on that account that I suggested our parting . . . But now that she’s married. . .”

She saw Vance turn pale, and stretch out his hand to the back of the armchair against which he was leaning. “Ah, she’s married —? Up in the woods I hardly ever saw the papers . . . I didn’t know. . .” He stood looking down at the floor for a moment or two; then he raised his head with a nervous laugh. “She’s put through that deal too, has she? Spartivento, I suppose . . . Well, it’s nothing to me . . . I’d said goodbye to her long before.”

A great weight was lifted from Halo’s heart; but in another moment it descended on her again, this time with a more intolerable oppression. She looked into his face, and said to herself that there are farewells which are powerless to separate. “A real goodbye, Vance? Are you sure?”

“God, yes. All that’s ashes . . . Only, you see, she took something with her; my belief in things, my old reasons for living and working. It’s as if my mainspring was broken. I’ve got to get it mended first.” Suddenly he moved toward her with a gesture of passionate entreaty. “Don’t you see, Halo — CAN’T you see? I can’t come back to you just because I’m at the end of everything. To any other woman — not to you. But I wasn’t strong enough to go away without telling you; the only strength left to me is the strength not to pretend, or to invent lying reasons. And that’s not much.”

She continued to look at him with something of his own timidity. “It might be enough — ” she began, as if a voice within her had spoken without her will.

He shook his head, but she hurried on: “If you say no, it must be because I’m less to you than any other woman, and not more.”

He said slowly: “It’s not being more or less; you’re different. I read something up there in the woods about God . . . or experience . . . it’s the same thing . . . being the food of the full-grown. That seemed to explain a lot to me. I’m not fit for you yet, Halo; I’m only just learning how to walk. . .”

She leaned against the mantelpiece, fighting down the old tremors in her breast; at length she gave a little laugh. “But then I shall have two children to take care of instead of one!”

He raised his eyes to her, and she moved across the room and stood before him. With a kind of tranquil gravity she lifted up her arms in the ancient attitude of prayer.

For a moment his brow kept its deep furrows of bewilderment; then he gave a start and went up to her with illuminated eyes.

“You see we belong to each other after all,” she said; but as her arms sank about his neck he bent his head and put his lips to a fold of her loose dress.

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