The Gods Arrive, by Edith Wharton

VI

Their rooms were not easy to warm, and the October winds began to rattle the windows; but Halo and Vance were loth to leave, and they always managed to find a warm corner in the courts of the Alhambra, or sheltered by the ilexes of the Generalife, where Vance could “lizard” in the sun, and turn over his dreams like bright-coloured shells and pebbles. He had begun again to discuss his literary plans with Halo; but he only toyed with them as distant possibilities. He still seemed to regard his genius as a beautiful capricious animal, to be fed and exercised when it chose, and by him alone; and she forbore to remind him of the days when her nearness had seemed necessary to inspire his work, and her advice to shape it. She told herself that in becoming his mistress she had chosen another field of influence, that to be loved by him, to feel his passionate need of her, was a rapture above the joys of comradeship; but in her heart she had dreamed of uniting the two. She was learning now that the ways of nature were slower and more devious than her sentimental logic had foreseen; and she tried to lose herself in the rich reality of her love.

Now and then they spoke of leaving Granada; but the talk did not reach any practical conclusion. Their plans offered to Vance as many alluring alternatives as his literary future, and what he liked best was to lie stretched out on the warm red wall of the Alhambra and dream of being elsewhere.

Alders, by his own account, had many friends in Granada — he talked especially of an old Marquesa who lived in a palace behind the cathedral, with a statue of a captive Moor over the door. The old Marquesa, Alders said, was an authentic descendant of Bobadilla’s, a wonderful woman in whose veins flowed the purest blood of Castilian and Moorish chivalry. One met at her house the oddest and most interesting specimens of the old Andalusian aristocracy. Regular palæoliths, they were; it would be a wonderful chance for Weston to document himself in such a prehistoric milieu, especially as he was thinking of laying the scene of his next novel in Spain . . . “Oh, are you?” Halo interrupted, glancing eagerly at Vance, who said, well, he’d had an idea lately that something amusing might be done with a young American in the wine business, sent to study the trade at a Spanish port in the eighteen thirties, say. . .

Alders declared that the possibilities of such a subject were immense, and he proposed that he and Vance should go to the Marquesa’s that very evening; the lady, it appeared, still kept up the picturesque custom of the nightly tertulia, an informal reception at which people came and went as they pleased till daylight. Alders explained this to Halo in his shy halting way, and though she doubted the antiquity of the Marquesa’s lineage, and even its authenticity, she assumed that Alders naïvely believed in them, and wondered how, without offending him, she could decline to be of the party. But he continued, more and more hesitatingly: “You don’t mind, do you, Mrs. Weston, if I carry off Weston this once? It’s all in the interest of his work . . . an exceptional opportunity. . .” Halo disliked being asked by a man like Alders if she “minded” anything that Vance chose to do; and her laugh perhaps betrayed her irritation. “I’m sure it will amuse you — you’d better go,” she said to Vance, as if it were he who had made the suggestion. There were times when she could not help treating Alders as if she had not noticed that he was there.

The next morning she gathered from Vance that the Marquesa was in fact a rather splendid figure, in a vast mouldy palace with “huge things hanging on the walls — you know — ” and a lot of people coming and going, men and women, eating ices and talking a great deal. His vague description gave Halo the impression that he had been among people of the world, and she was annoyed, in spite of herself, that Vance should have figured as the hanger-on of Alders.

“I’m glad you’ve had a glimpse of Spanish society; but it’s rather odd that your friend didn’t think of asking me to go with you.” The words really reflected her dislike of Alders rather than any resentment at not being included in the party; but when they were spoken she felt how petty they sounded. “Of course,” she added quickly, “I didn’t want to go — that sort of thing bores me to tears; I merely meant that if Alders had known a little more about the ordinary social rules he would have felt he ought at least . . .” She stopped, silenced by the colour that rose to Vance’s forehead.

“Vance — ” she exclaimed, in sudden anger, “do you mean it was because . . . Does Alders know that we’re not married?”

Vance looked at her in surprise. “Why, of course he knows. I told him the very first thing how splendid you’d been . . . coming to me straight off, like that . . . he thought it was great of you. . .”

“Oh, don’t please! I mean, I don’t need Alders’s approval — .” She could hardly tell why she was so indignant; had she been asked point-blank if she were Vance Weston’s wife she would certainly have denied it, and have said that she called herself so only for the convenience of travel. But this concerned only herself and Vance, and the discovery that he had been talking her over with a stranger picked up at a café was intolerable to her. Alders, of course, had cross-questioned Vance to satisfy his insatiable craving for gossip; but how could Vance have fallen into such a trap?

“Why, you don’t mind, do you? I thought you’d have despised me for pretending,” Vance began; but without heeding him she interrupted: “That was the reason, then! He proposed to you to go with him alone because he knew you were travelling with your mistress, and he couldn’t have asked his Marquesa to receive me? Was that it?”

Vance reddened again. “He said how funny and fossilized that kind of people were . . . but I never thought you’d care; you always seem to hate seeing new people.”

“Of course I don’t care; and of course I hate seeing people I don’t know anything about. . .”

“Well, then that’s all right,” said Vance.

“I don’t know what you call all right. Most men would resent such a slight — ”

“What slight?”

She saw that his perplexity was genuine, but that made it none the less irritating. There were moments when Vance’s moral simplicity was more trying than the conventionalities she had fled from.

“Can’t you see —?” she began; and then broke off. “I sometimes think you keep all your psychology for your books!” she exclaimed impatiently.

“You mean there are times when you think I don’t understand you?”

“You certainly don’t at this moment. I won’t speak of the good taste of discussing our private affairs with a stranger — but that you shouldn’t see that any slight to a woman in my situation. . .”

“What about your situation?” he interrupted. “I thought you chose it — freely.”

“When I did, I imagined you would know how to spare me its disadvantages!”

He stood silent, looking down at the rough tiles of their bedroom floor. Halo was trembling with the echo of her own words. The consciousness that their meaning was not the same to him made her feel angry and helpless. An impenetrable wall seemed to have risen between them.

“You mean that you hate our not being married?” he brought out, as if the idea were new to him.

“Certainly I do, when you put me in a position that makes it hateful.”

“Like that old woman last night not wanting to receive you? It never occurred to me you’d want her to.”

“Or that you ought not to have gone yourself, if she didn’t want me?” His eyes were again full of surprise. Halo laughed nervously.

“I don’t understand,” he went on. “I thought you didn’t care a straw about that sort of thing.”

“I shouldn’t if I felt you knew how to protect me.”

She saw from his expression that her meaning was still unintelligible to him, and that he was struggling to piece her words together.

“What is there to protect you from?”

“Vance — if you can’t understand!” She paused, her heart in a tumult. “How does your mother feel about the way we’re living together?” she broke out abruptly.

A shade of embarrassment stole over his face. “How on earth do I know?”

“Of course you know! She hates it — and me, probably. I daresay she wouldn’t receive me if I went to Euphoria with you. And my mother hates it quite as much. My going away with you like this made her terribly unhappy. And yet you say you don’t understand —!”

“Oh, see here, Halo — if that’s what you mean! Of course I know how my mother feels about marriage in general. It’s all nonsense about her not receiving you; but I daresay she’s unhappy about our being together in this way. The marriage ceremony is a kind of fetish to her. And I suppose your mother feels the same. But I never thought you would. I thought that for you our being together like this — so close and yet so free — was more than any marriage. I never dreamed you didn’t look at it as I do. I thought you’d always felt differently from the people around you about the big things of life.”

Halo was silent. She was bewildered by his incomprehension, yet moved by his evident sincerity. “You’re terribly logical — and I suppose life isn’t,” she said at length, forcing a smile.

Vance stood before her, his gaze again bent on the floor. She saw that he felt the distance between them, and was wondering how to bridge it over. “I guess you worry about a lot of things that I haven’t yet learned to take into account. What do you think we ought to do?” he asked abruptly.

The blood seemed to stop in her veins. She looked at him helplessly. “To do — to do?”

“I suppose,” he interrupted, “the real trouble is that you don’t like Alders.”

This flash of insight startled her. She was beginning to see that though the conventional rules of life still perplexed him, and perhaps always would, he was disconcertingly close to its realities.

“If you don’t want me to go around with Alders, I won’t, of course. He said the other day he thought maybe you didn’t want me to.”

The mention of Alders renewed her irritation.

“How can you think I want to interfere with you in any way? What I can’t understand is your lowering yourself to talk me over with a stranger.”

There was another silence, and she began to tremble inwardly. To discuss things with him was like arguing with some one who did not use the same speech.

“I guess I’m the stranger here, Halo. I can’t understand your supposing that I’d speak of you to anybody in a way that could lower either you or me. I don’t yet know what’s made you angry.”

“Angry? I’m not angry! I can’t bear to have you speak of me as if I were a silly woman with a grievance.”

“I suppose everything I say is bound to sound to you like that, as long as I don’t understand what the grievance is.”

“When a man says he doesn’t understand a woman it’s because he won’t take the trouble.”

“Or feels it’s useless.”

“Is that what you feel?”

“Well — maybe I will, soon.”

“No. Don’t be afraid! I shan’t be here then — ”

She heard the echo of her own words, and broke off dismayed. A longing overcame her to be taken into his arms and soothed like a foolish child. Of course that would come in a moment. She felt her whole body drawing her to him; but though she waited he did not move or speak. He seemed remote, out of hearing, behind the barrier that divided them. She thought: “He’s been through scenes like this with Laura Lou, and he’s sick of them . . . He thought that with me everything was going to be different. . .”

At length Vance said slowly: “You must do whatever you want.” She did not speak, and he added: “I guess I’ll go out for a walk.” His voice sounded cold, almost indifferent. How could she have imagined he was waiting to snatch her to his breast? He was simply counting the minutes till their senseless discussion was over, and he could make his escape. His inflexible honesty was deadly — she felt herself powerless against it, and could think of nothing to say. He took up his hat and went out, carrying her happiness with him.

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