The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

V

Halo wondered at her own folly in imagining that Vance, with a whole new world pressing on his imagination, would be able to take up the thread of his work with the composure of a seasoned writer. Life with him was teaching her more about the creative processes. She saw that Vance himself had not yet taken his own measure, or calculated the pressure of new sensations and emotions on his inventive faculty. His impulse was either to try to incorporate every fresh suggestion, visual or imaginative, into the fabric of his work, or to build a new story with it; but when the impressions were too abundant and powerful they benumbed him.

For the moment he appeared to have lost even the desire to store up his sensations. What he wanted was to study Spanish history and art, to learn the language, to let the fiery panorama roll past his idle imagination. If he had known how to paint, he told Halo, that might have been an outlet. It was a pity, he thought, he hadn’t gone in for painting instead of writing — painting, or perhaps sculpture. Some palpable flesh-and-blood rendering of life, rather than the gray disintegration of words. He recalled the hours he had spent in New York, on the broken-hinged divan in the studio of the young woman sculptor, Rebecca Stram, watching her mauling her clay . . . “I tell you what it is: words are the last refuge of the impotent. Writing is inexcusable in anybody who isn’t blind or paralyzed. It’s an infirmity, a palsy — that’s what it is. The fellows who ‘grab’ life, as Goethe called it, are the conquerors who turn it into form and colour . . . Damn words; they’re just the pots and pans of life, the pails and scrubbing-brushes. I wish I didn’t have to think in words . . . I sometimes feel as if I had them in my veins instead of blood. Sometimes I even wish I didn’t have you to talk to, so that I could get away from words forever . . . Why don’t you tell me just to hold my tongue, and live?”

This was one mood; but in others he declared that in yielding to it he had blasphemed against the Holy Ghost. “The tongue of fire descends on a man in one form or another, no knowing which; all a fellow can do is to catch the flame and nurse it, whatever it happens to produce . . . The other day I was haranguing you about the difference between plastic expression and interpreting things in words. Utter rubbish, of course. Why the deuce didn’t you tell me so? The difference is in the mind, not in the material or the tool. If words are a man’s tools he’s got to paint or model with THEM . . . or compose symphonies with THEM . . . that’s all. Look here, Halo — any idea what I’ve done with vol. three of Prescott? No —? I had it with me yesterday when we went out to Medina Zahara, didn’t I? And my Spanish grammar too! Lord, did I go and leave them both out there, do you suppose?”

Halo sighed, and thought that as for the Prescott it didn’t really matter. She had brought with her all the latest and most erudite works on Christians and Moors in the peninsula; but after a glance at Dozy, and a little half-hearted plodding in Hume, he had disappointed her by rejecting all her authors for Prescott and Washington Irving. “But, Vance, dear, they were so undocumented. Prescott was wonderful for his day, of course; but so much that we know now was not available then. And as for Washington Irving . . .” Vance laughed, and turned over on his face in the grass where he and Halo were sitting, on the sunburnt downs above Cordova. “Well, they just roll over me like waves,” he said, leaning his chin on his locked hands and gazing down at the ancient city. He lay there in silence, his brows wrinkled against the glare, with now and then a faint tremor of the nostrils, like the twitching of a sensitive animal’s. Once he stretched out a hand, stroking the short grass and plucking at a clump of dwarf herbs that he crushed against his face. “Smells like sun and incense — as if it was the breath of the old place.” He held out the tuft to Halo. It was hot and aromatic, full of the flame of a parched earth and the vibration of bees. “It’s like my happiness,” she thought. She lay there in an idle ecstasy. Overhead a great bird of prey circled against the blue; and Halo remembered how she had once thought of happiness as something bright-winged, untameable, with radiant alien eyes. Now the wings were folded and the strange guest lay asleep in her heart. She was no more afraid of it than a young mother is of her child; only perpetually conscious of it, watching it with wakeful eyes, as the mother watches while her child sleeps. And she thought: “If I could get quite used to it perhaps it would get used to me too, and never stir. If only I could learn to stop watching it.”

Vance raised himself on his elbow. “See here,” he broke out, “what I really want is to write poetry. From the very first I’ve always felt inside of myself that for me it was that or nothing. All the rest is just pot-boiling. Using words to tell stories with is like paving the kitchen-floor with diamonds. God! Words are too beautiful to be walked over in that way, with muddy feet, like the hall oil-cloth. Supposing Keats had used HIS words to write best~sellers with? Don’t it strike you like turning a Knights of Pythias picnic loose down there in the cathedral? Words ought to be received at the door of the mind with lighted torches and incense and things — like one of the big church ceremonies you described to me. See here, Halo — when did you say they danced before the altar of the cathedral at Seville? I wish I could get that into poetry. . .”

The bright confusion of his mind sometimes charmed and sometimes frightened her. She was so much afraid of laying clumsy hands on his capricious impulses that she felt herself sinking into the character of the blindly admiring wife. Yet that had not been her dream, or his. She remembered how her frank criticism had guided and stimulated him while he was writing “Instead”, and she did not quite know why she had become so uncertain and shy in talking with him of his literary plans, so fearful of discouraging or misdirecting him. Sometimes she asked herself if it would not have been better if they had stayed in America, in some out-of-the-way place where this tremendous vision of a new world would not have thrust itself between him and his work. Yet she felt it must be a weak talent that could not bear the shock of wonder and the hardening processes of experience. Presently the mass of new impressions would be sorted out and dominated by his indefatigable mind, and become a part of its material — and meanwhile, what mattered but that he and she were together, with these waves of beauty breaking over them? All she had to do was to hold her breath and wait. She slipped her hand in his. “Do you remember when you read me your first poetry, that morning up on Thundertop?”

A few days later Vance came in from one of his dreaming rambles about Cordova, and said, with illuminated eyes: “I’ve met a man who says we’re fools not to go straight off to Granada.”

Halo could not repress a feint movement of impatience. It was a little exasperating to have this information imparted as a novelty. Vance seemed to have no recollection of her having told him repeatedly that they ought to get to Granada before the rainy weather began.

“A man? What sort of a man?”

“He said his name was Alders,” said Vance, as if that settled everything.

Halo made a hasty mental calculation of the probable cost of cancelling the lease of their lodgings, which they had had to take for the rest of the season. The landlady would certainly be nasty; but Halo had fought such battles before, and instantly began sharpening her mental weapons. “Well, all right. Do you want me to get ready?”

“He says we ought to,” Vance repeated serenely.

For the next two or three days he vanished frequently to rejoin his new friend. Halo gathered that Alders was a wandering American who wrote — at least he was planning a book on Saint Theresa. “For the present he’s just letting Spain soak into him,” Vance explained. He did not offer to produce Alders for Halo’s inspection, and she did not suggest that he should. She was beginning to realize that in throwing in her lot with Vance’s she had entered into an unknown country — as unknown to her as Spain was to him, and with far fewer landmarks to guide her. When Lewis Tarrant made a new acquaintance, and imparted the fact to his wife, his words at once situated the person in question, socially and intellectually. But Vance could not situate anybody. He could only say that he liked a fellow, or didn’t like him. He seemed to think that in some mysterious way the impressions he could not sum up in words would be telepathically communicated to Halo; but this was impossible, for they had no common ground of reference. Halo tried to bridge the gulf by declaring cheerfully: “Well, I’m sure I’ll like him if you do,” but Vance answered, with a sort of school-boy vagueness: “Oh, I dunno that I like him as much as all that,” making no allusion to Halo’s possible opinion of Alders. He seemed to regard Alders as exclusively his own, as a child might a new toy.

A few more days passed; then Vance suddenly announced that he thought it would be fun to go over to Granada in the touring car that was starting the next morning. Could Halo be ready, did she think? After another mental readjustment she said, yes, of course, if he’d be home in the afternoon in time to pack his things; to which he cheerfully agreed.

At the tourist agency Vance surprised her by engaging three seats. Alders, he said, was going to Granada too, and had asked to have his ticket taken for him. An exclamation of annoyance was on Halo’s tongue; but she repressed it, and bought the ticket.

The next morning, when they arrived at the square from which the car started, Vance said: “Here’s Alders,” and a nondescript young man in a shabby gray suit came forward. He greeted Halo with an awkward bow, and started to climb to Vance’s side; but at the last moment he bent over to say something to the conductor, as the result of which he was transferred to a seat several rows behind them, and a girl with large horn spectacles and a portable gramophone was pushed into his place. Vance laughed. “You scared him — he’s as shy as a hawk.” He seemed content to know that his new friend was making the journey with them, and bound for the same destination.

At Granada they went for a night to an hotel in the town, and the next morning Vance proposed that they should look for rooms in one of the English pensions on the Alhambra hill. Alders, who knew the place well, had given him several addresses; and though Halo was beginning to resent Alders’s occult participation in their affairs, she agreed to the suggestion. But half way up the hill Vance deserted her, captivated by the carolling of fountains under the elms, and the shadowy invitation of the great Moorish archway. “See here, Halo — this beats everything. Do you mind if I wait for you here while you look for rooms? I shouldn’t be any good anyway,” he said persuasively; and Halo, admitting the fact, went on alone.

On the hillside below the hotels she wandered about, consulting Alders’s list, till a dusty stony lane ended unexpectedly at a gate inscribed: “English Pension. View. Afternoon Tea”; and in a tumble-down house among oranges and pomegranates she was shown two rooms high up on a roof-terrace. The rooms were comfortless, and not too clean; but the terrace overhung the fairest landscape on earth. Halo concluded her bargain and hurried back rejoicing to the Alhambra. She was impatient to lead Vance up to this magical proscenium, and hear his cry at first sight of the snow peaks and green plain. She found him curled up in a coign of the wall above the city. He seemed to have forgotten the errand on which she had left him, and protested at being obliged to leave his warm corner. “What’s the use of finding such a place if you come and root me out of it?” “I’ve found something even better — come and see!” she exulted; and reluctantly he let her lead him out of the Alhambra and up the hill. But when she introduced him to the terrace he cried out: “Say, are we really going to live here? Why the devil did you let me waste all that time at Cordova? Alders TOLD ME— ”

Halo laughed ironically. “I told you long before Alders. Only you’re so used to the sound of my voice that I don’t believe you hear it any longer.”

He was looking at her with beauty-drunk eyes. “Maybe I don’t,” he agreed contentedly, turning back to lean over the parapet. Halo could not help being a little vexed that they should owe the discovery of this vantage-ground to Alders. She might easily have found it herself — but it was in pursuance of his indications that she had turned down that uninviting lane. She wished she were able to feel more grateful.

Alders came up to see if they were satisfied. He himself lodged, mysteriously, somewhere below in the town; but he was always on the Alhambra hill. That first day they asked him to tea, in one of the little tearooms near the Alhambra, and afterward he walked up with them to the Generalife. His shyness in Halo’s presence persisted — or at any rate, his reserve. For she was never, then or afterward, sure if he were shy or merely indifferent, any more than she could decide if he were young or old. She could barely remember, when he was out of sight, what he looked like. There was something shadowy and indefinite about his whole person. His dullish sandy hair merged into the colour of his skin, his thin lips were of the same tint as his small unkempt moustache. She had seen straw-coloured and sand-coloured people, but never any whom protective mimicry had provided with so complete a neutrality. His manner was neutral too, if anything could be called a manner which seemed rather a resigned endurance of human intercourse. Judging from Mr. Alders’s attitude one would have supposed that his one aim was to avoid his fellow beings; but Halo presently discovered that this shrinking exterior concealed a ravenous sociability.

She recognized in him the roving American with a thin glaze of culture over an unlettered origin, and a taste for developing in conversation theories picked up in random reading, or evolved from an imperfect understanding of art and history. He told them that among his friends (he implied that they were few but illustrious) he was known as “The Scholar Gypsy” — adding that the name (taken, he smilingly explained, from a poem by Matthew Arnold) had been conferred on him because of his nomadic habits; perhaps also, he concluded, of his scholarly tastes. He made these boasts with such disarming modesty that Halo could not resent them, though she failed to understand the impression they produced on Vance. But gradually she discovered that under his literary veneer Alders possessed a miscellaneous accumulation of facts and anecdotes about places and people. His mind was like the inside of one of the humble curiosity-shops on the way up to the Alhambra, where nothing was worth more than a few pesetas; but these odds and ends of cosmopolitan experience amused Vance, and excited his imagination, though Halo noticed that he was less impressed by them than by Alders’s views on Croce or Spengler, or the origin of religious mysticism in Western Europe. Vance’s ravenous desire to learn more and more — to learn, all at once, everything that could be known on every subject — was stimulated by his new friend’s allusions and references, and Halo saw that he ascribed her own lukewarm share in their talks to feminine inferiority. “Of course general ideas always bore women to death,” he said in a tone of apology, as they climbed to their pension after a long afternoon with Alders at the Alcobazar. “But you see I was pretty well starved for talk out at Euphoria — and in New York too. God! When I think of the raw lumps of ignorance those fellows used to feed me, at the Cocoanut Tree and at Rebecca Stram’s . . . I tell you what, Halo, going round with a man like Alders, who’s got art and philosophy at his fingers’ ends — ”

She was on the point of interrupting: “Yes, but only there — ” but she saw Vance’s glowing face, and understood that he was getting from his new friend something which a scholar like George Frenside might not have been able to give him. There was excitement in the very confusion of Alders’s references, and reassurance in their audacity. Vance seemed to feel that he too might become a scholar after a few more talks with Alders, and that the wisdom of the ages might emerge from a breathless perusal of Samuel Butler and Havelock Ellis.

It was hard on Halo to have it thought that such flights were beyond her; but she told herself again that at this stage her business was to hold her breath and watch. Though she resented Alders’s incursion into their lives she was relieved that Vance did not expect her to share in his confabulations with his new friend; and she came to see how natural it was that to a youth who had lacked all artistic and intellectual training the other’s shallow culture should seem so deep. The clever young writers he had known in New York had read only each other and “Ulysses”; here was a man full of the curious lore of the past, who could at any rate put the Cocoanut Tree clan in their true perspective.

This hunger and thirst of Vance’s was all the more touching to Halo because she knew that his eagerness to learn everything at once was due not to superficiality but to the sense of time lost and of precious secrets kept from him. “If only I’d had Alders’s advantages!” he burst out one evening, in passionate retrospection; and she could not help answering: “It was funny, though, his thinking you’d never heard of Matthew Arnold.”

“Well, I don’t believe those Cocoanut Tree fellows have; or if they have, they’ve thrown him overboard without reading him. They haven’t got time to embalm dead bodies, they say — leave that to the morticians. And there they sit and talk endlessly all day long about nothing! Look here, Halo — I sometimes think I was meant to be a student and not a writer; a ‘grammarian’, like the fellow in the Browning poem. Alders was telling me last night how many years the Jesuit novitiate lasts — he thought at one time of being a Jesuit. Well, I tell you what, it gave me a big idea of those old fellows who weren’t afraid of being left behind . . . weren’t always trying to catch up . . . catch up with WHAT? Why; just with other fellows who were trying to catch up. Did you ever think of the beauty of not giving a damn if you were left behind?”

Yes; in those ways Alders was good for him. His talk was a blurred window; but through it the boy caught glimpses of the summits. Halo could have given him a clearer sight of them; but she recognized that the distance was yet too great between her traditional culture and Vance’s untutored curiosities. This dawdling Autolycus, with his bag of bright-coloured scraps, might serve as a guide where she was useless.

Luckily there were days when Alders was off on his own mysterious affairs, and Halo had her lover to herself. Then life burned with beauty, and every hour was full of magic. Vance’s successive declarations that he meant to write poetry, to take up painting, to immure himself in a scholar’s cell, no longer frightened her. It was enchanting to watch the tumult of his mind, sun-flecked, storm~shadowed, subsiding in moonlit calm or leaping sky-ward in sun and gale. This journey was a time of preparation from which his imagination would come forth richer and more vigorous. Occasionally she wished his idleness were not so total, for she was afraid the lost habit of work might be hard to recover; but when she hinted this, he rejoined that she didn’t understand the way the creative mind was made. “There’s Alders, now — I suppose you might think he was loafing . . . Well, he’s AMASSING. A very different thing. He told me he might very likely lie fallow another year before he wrote the first line of his book about the influence of Byzantine art on El Greco.”

“On WHAT? I thought he was collecting material for a life of St. Theresa.”

Vance frowned impatiently. “Yes; he was. But he’s put that aside, because he felt he ought to go into sixteenth century art in Spain before he tackles mysticism. He says you can approach spiritual phenomena only from the outside; the way they manifest themselves in art and architecture and the whole social structure . . . If you don’t get that into your system first . . .”

Halo made no answer, and Vance continued, still in a slightly irritated tone: “I don’t suppose you want me to be like those fellows that are sent to Europe for a year on a college scholarship, and are expected by the Faculty to come back with a masterpiece? I’ve heard you on the subject of those masterpieces. And a novel isn’t a thesis anyhow — it’s a live thing that’s got to be carried inside of you before it can be born. I suppose I’m a trial to you sometimes,” he concluded.

“Only when you imagine that I don’t understand.” But he protested that he never did; and side by side on their high-hung terrace they watched the full moon push up above the Sierra.

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